Episode 101 – The Valentines Day assault on 59 Brigade and a Cuban tank ambush

It’s the second week of January 1988 and FAPLAs 21st, 59th and 25th Brigades had taken up the front line in what was to be a three layered defenses ahead of the Tumpo Triangle, where two roads joined just north of the Tumpo River.

That was aeast of Cuito Cuanavale.

Behind these three Brigades, 16th and 66th hunkered down in expectation of an SADF follow up attack which had started ended on the 14th January. The third Angolan line of defence was just west of the Cuito River, manned by the 13th Brigade joined by a Cuban battalion. By now FAPLA was communicating by fixed telephone line, going back to an earlier technology which made it much more difficult for the South Africans to intercept their messages.

From the beginning of January 1988 to the end of March, the SADF was going to make six frontal attacks on these well-entrenched FAPLA positions and now the Generals in Pretoria were almost literally breathing down the necks of the tactical commanders.

61 Mech, 4SAI and UNITA had been repulsed after taking ground, the South African troops disgusted as they watched the land they’d fought to seize being retaken by Angolan units around the Chambinga High Ground.

The haphazard nature of the SADF’s attack - part of Operation Hooper - was caused by the territory and by a confused series of orders. I recently attended talks at Voortrekkehoogte by high ranking generals of this period, they defended their decisions and made some pointed comments about false information, but I’m afraid to say that the facts speak for themselves. Let’s go over a few of these and consider for yourself what was going on in these final days of South Africa’s Border War.

After the attack on 21 Brigade some of the Recce observation teams were moved to positions between the Cuito and Cuanavale Rivers, well behind enemy lines, north of Cuito Cuanavale. From here, the observers could see the airfield and the Cuito Bridge. The main danger for these specialists were the crocodiles, the Cuanavale River teemed with them, but after some scouring of the banks, one team led by Justin Vermaak spotted two Makoros, or canoes made from a hollowed tree trunk, and crossed over after dark.

They were prepping for the next major assault which SADF HQ had indicated was supposed to take place by end January, but ended up starting almost a month after their first assault on 21st Brigade. One of the strategic weaknesses plaguing the SADF now was the slow response and planning, logistics was a big problem here hundreds of kilometers away from their bases at Rundu and Oshikati.

Eventually Vermaak and his OP team found an excellent spot behind some of FAPLAs brigades, and watched 21 Brigade reorganised, digging their trenches in the same area that 4SAI had freed only a few days before.

The Recces were also in a good spot to warn their 20 Brigade HQ back in Rundu when they spotted MiGs, being behind enemy lines. That would buy the South Africans a couple of minutes. They were also being warned 200km further west, teams of Recces under Johnny de Gouveia and Buks van den Burg were watching Menongue airport spotting the MiGs and choppers taking off heading towards Cuito Cuanavale.
Pretoria was dithering. They eventually decided on January 25th that the rearming and new plans were ready and the nest target was not 21 Brigade, it was 59th.
61 Mech lieutenant Clive Holt explained how they all knew that 59 Brigade was the key to the FAPLA defences.
FAPLAs 3 Tank Battalion was waiting in support, so this was not going to be easy. Because 59th Brigade was FAPLAs strongest, the aim was to hit them until they collapsed, then 21 and 25 Brigades would fall back towards the town - hopefully without much fight left.
16 Apr English South Africa History · Documentary

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