Episode 89 – Mirages, MiGs, missiles & the Lomba River tango to the death
This was happening along a river where the approaches were a mix of tropical grasslands and riverine bush that was almost impenetrable.
Despite a raid by MiGs which bombarded the area shortly afterward the failed ground assault by the 21st Brigade, the SADF had managed to drive back FAPLAs attempt at reaching the south bank of the Lomba.
But a bigger challenge lay west, where FAPLAs 47th Brigade had managed to circumvent the river and the wetlands, and had turned to eastwards face Mavinga, and the SADF.
The date was September 11 1987.
South Africa’s artillery kept up constant fire towards the retreating 21st Brigade and FAPLAs commander could be heard on radio ordering a general withdrawal - along with phrases like annihilation when he referred to his condition of his men.
The SADF artillery had managed to hold up 47 Brigade after they’d wheeled east from their southwards march. FAPLA then sent a vanguard of PT-76 amphibious light tanks forward in a reconnaissance mission, while half a dozen T54/55s hung around between this advance recon party and their brigade headquarters further west.
This was learning on the job stuff - as the battle developed inside this dense bush, Ratels began to out turn the T54/55s. The tactic deployed was jaw dropping - the Ratel would turn past the tanks but too close for proper firing, then turn and attack them from the rear.
The T54/55s rear armour was 20mm thick, whereas it was more like 80mm at the front, that’s almost a meter of iron and the 90mm canon could not penetrate.
FAPLA also began to turn leading to a kind of heavy metal pirouette between these two major tools of war - the Ratel and the T54/55, a kind of terrible battle tango to the death.
Jan Breytenbach called this the dance of death.
The SAAF had conducted their first sortie at 05h45 - opening their air offensive with a combined air strike against 47 Brigade’s presumed position - dropping 100 mark 82 pre-fragmentation devices. These are a hefty 250kg each and were modified American Mark 82 bombs. The casing had been altered to allow larger-diameter ball-bearings to be squeezed in, and these balls could penetrate lightly armoured personnel carriers.
Commandant Johan Rankin led one of these attacks, and he was weary because by now reconnaissance and drone flights had picked out Russian SA6 and SA8 missiles in the area. Despite this, Rankin hurtled in for the vergooi, the far throw technique bomb run, low level, rise to release the ordinance, sink back to low level and the bomb arcs across the sky like deadly sine wave.
After the release, the Mirages would pull a 130 degree bank dropping down to low level to avoid missiles. Rankin duly released his bombs and rolled back towards ground, then heard on his radio that a number of the missiles were heading his way.
IT was only a few days before this operation that the SA Air force pilots were going to receive a clear indication that the Angolan Air Force had changed their modus operandi, they were both hunting each other.
A few days before this assault, SA AF Commandant Carlo Gagiano and Captain Anton van Rensburg had found themselves in a dogfight against two MiGs in their Mirages.