Thursday, April 19, 2012

Battle for Cassinga

As a pacifist forced via military conscription to devote a large part of my young life to the call of the SA Defence Force, I have belatedly taken an interest in just what went down, as the Yanks say, during the 1970s and 1980s. My review of BATTLE FOR CASSINGA, South Africa’s Controversial Cross-Border Raid, Angola 1978 (Africa@War Series, Volume 3. Published by 30* South Publishers) appeared in the Weekend Post, Port Elizabeth, on February 18, 2012. This is that review, uncut, and including several pictures from the book.

The cover of the book, Battle for Cassinga

IT is said that in war truth is often the first casualty. And it seems, more than three decades after the guns fell silent, what happened at the battle for Cassinga in Angola remains hotly disputed.

This book – part of a useful series on African conflicts during the Cold War – seeks to put the case for the SA Defence Force, or at least it provides a first-hand account, including numerous photographs, by one of the paratroopers involved.

The year was 1978 and the United Nations had just passed Resolution 435, paving the way for elections in South West Africa, which was ruled by South Africa under a UN mandate, and its eventual hand-over to majority-rule. But the apartheid government feared that SWA People’s Organisation (Swapo) guerillas based in Angola would attempt to pre-empt this process by launching a massive invasion.
In fact, independence only came a bloody 12 years later, in March 1990.

Wounded SADF paratroopers wait to be evacuated during the battle for Cassinga in Angola, 1978.

The author, Mike McWilliams, was born in 1951 and conscripted into the SA Defence Force. He volunteered to join 1 Parachute Battalion, qualifying as a rifleman paratrooper in 1970. He served in this capacity in the 1970s as the insurgency in northern Namibia escalated. The battle for Cassinga – codenamed Operation Reindeer  –  was his last operation.

I have found it very difficult over the years to read books of this nature, because unlike most of the 600 000 or so white males conscripted between the 1960s and 1990, I was an ardent opponent both of apartheid and of the use of force to maintain white domination in Namibia and South Africa. But there were those like McWilliams who believed their cause was just, and this book is written in the spirit of someone who was proud of what he did. Only history will tell whether the ends – keeping out Marxist governments in SWA and of course in South Africa itself – justified the means.

Indeed, there is a growing belief that the fact that South Africa held out until after the fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1990 ensured the survival of relatively free market economies both in Namibia and later in South Africa.

But the means of upholding the status quo were often brutal – and they were executed with ruthless efficiency, in this case under the bold leadership of Colonel Jan Breytenbach, ironically the brother of the anti-apartheid poet Breyten, who was jailed from 1975 till 1982 for high treason.

An ammunition dump is engulfed in flames during the Cassinga battle, while in the foreground an SADF demolition team moves to its next target.

In 1978 the SADF’s reconnaissance aircraft had established that there was a large Swapo military base 250km north of the SWA border in Angola. This book is McWilliams’s account of how an audacious, highly outnumbered force of paratroopers were dropped well behind enemy lines, how they fought and defeated a powerful, heavily armed force there, and then were airlifted out by helicopter in the nick of time, as tanks and armoured vehicles carrying Cuban and Angolan combatants, bore down on them.

There are some wonderful accounts of heroism under fire, including that of a pilot of a Buccaneer jet who, having used up all his rockets, continued to “buzz” Soviet T-34 tanks as they advanced on the South African forces scrambling to board their vulnerable helicopters.

A radio operator directs helicopters into a landing zone after the battle.

There are some lighter moments, too, including how the author found himself alongside a dust-covered, grey-haired soldier without rank, as they made hastily for the choppers. The man was none other than Lieutenant-General Constand Viljoen, chief of the South African Army, who had flown in after the fire fight, and was among those taken by surprise when the Cubans and Angolans counter-attacked. He had hidden his epaulets under some rocks.

One or two of McWilliams’s stories border on the ludicrous. For instance, after the initial parachute jump was somewhat off-course and he narrowly missed landing in a nearby river, he says a comrade landed nearby. Now this happened in broad daylight, with him having just written about how he even filmed the drop while under heavy enemy fire. So his mate asks him for a fag, which he duly lights for the guy – only for it to be “shot from his mouth”. They then decided it would be wise to take cover!

That aside, this is, I believe, a valuable independent account of a key moment in a protracted, often low-key war which for decades tied up the lives of most young white South African men, but which no one really wanted to talk about.

With half the attacking force already evacuated, the remaining paratroopers assemble to counter a Cuban/Angolan armoured column that closed in on Cassinga from a base at Techamutete.

The controversy arose after the attack, which Swapo claimed had been a massacre of civilian refugees. However, McWilliams provides evidence to suggest fairly convincingly that this was indeed a heavily fortified Swapo military headquarters. The civilians, some of whom were indeed killed in the cross fire, were both camp followers and some 200 civilians abducted  by Swapo in northern SWA a few months earlier and brought to Cassinga in a bid to convince UN aid agencies that they needed food and funding, which they duly received.

McWilliams also reveals that the Swapo combatants were largely from a group loyal to Andreas Shipanga, an opponent of Sam Nujoma, and that they had been deliberately sent there because Swapo knew the base was under threat of attack, having received vital intelligence to this effect from Soviet spy Dieter Gerhardt, who was based at the SA Defence Communications centre at Silvermine in the Cape.

For all those veterans of this and other conflicts during the African bush wars, as well as the public in general, this series provides useful and often quite readable accounts not only of the actual battles, but also of the people on both sides involved in the high-stakes political machinations behind the scenes. Each also contains a brief, well-researched history, from before the advent of colonisation through to the inevitable bloody anti-colonial battles which led finally to uhuru.

Other volumes in the series are: Operation Dingo – Rhodesian Raid on Chimoio and Tembue, 1977; Selous Scouts – Rhodesian Counter-Insurgency Specialists; and France in Centrafrique – From Bokassa and Operation Barracuda to the Days of EUFOR.


  1. Hi Kin, thanks for the fairly balanced crit of my book, The Battle for Cassinga. By the way, the incident of Pat O'Leary having a cigarette shot from his mouth is absolutely true. He is a journalist like yourself and you can contact him at Fleetwatch magazine which he publishes, to ask him yourself. Why on earth would I lie about something like that?
    Best regards
    Mike McWilliams

  2. Hi Kin

    Can you please supply me with your email address, i would like to ask permission to use one of the photo in your blog.