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Jonathan Ball

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“I injected myself in the muscle with morphine to cut off the pain” – an excerpt from Cuito Cuanavale

It is September 1987. The Angolan Army – with the support of Cuban troops and Soviet advisors – has built up a massive force on the Lomba River near Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola. Their goal? To capture Jamba, the headquarters of the rebel group Unita, supported by the South African Defence Force (SADF) in the so-called Border War.

In the battles that followed, and shortly thereafter centred around the small town of Cuito Cuanavale, 3 000 SADF soldiers and 8 000 Unita fighters were up against a much bigger Angolan and Cuban force of over 50 000 men.

Thousands of soldiers died in the vicious fighting that is described in vivid detail in this book. Bridgland pieced together this account through scores of interviews with SADF men who were on the front line. This dramatic retelling takes the reader to the heart of the action.

The final battles of the war in 1987 and 1988 had an impact far beyond the borders of Namibia and Angola. They not only spelled the end of the last great neo-colonial attempts at African conquest by Cuba and the former Soviet Union, but also made possible the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa.

Fred Bridgland is a veteran British foreign correspondent and author who covered the Angolan civil war and the Border War for Reuters as an Africa correspondent in the 1970s and then for the Sunday Telegraph and The Scotsman in the 1980s. In 1975 his discovery of South Africa’s secret US-engineered invasion of Angola uncovered the CIA’s involvement in the Angolan civil war, and was a world scoop. Bridgland has written a number of books and has just completed a biography of Winnie Mandela.

Read an excerpt from Cuito Cuanavale:

Sergeant Mac da Trinidada, the black Angolan recce group leader, had continued to enjoy an exciting life after the decisive 3 October battle with 47 Brigade on the Lomba.

‘My team was sent north after that to track Fapla’s 59 Brigade on the western side of the Cunzumbia River and 21 Brigade on the eastern side,’ said Da Trinidada. ‘We were there for something like three weeks with our artillery bombarding their positions, and their artillery bombarding the SADF positions. With other recce teams and small infantry groups we were hitting their logistics routes from behind with mines, hit-and-run guerrilla ambushes and automatic ambushes.

Commander of 20 SA Brigade. Colonel P. S. Fouché with two M-46 Russian artillery pieces taken by the SADF during the Operation Hooper attack on 21 Brigade.


‘We reconnoitred possible crossing points on the Cuito River, scouted for Commandant Hartslief on the Mianei, and then after a short leave back at Fort Buffalo we were assigned to Mike Muller’s Combat Group Bravo. On 11 November we led Commandant Muller’s 61 Mech units into positions south of the Vimpulo while Combat Group Charlie tried to stop 21 and 25 Brigades crossing the river. There were lots of enemy patrols in the area because 21/25 Brigades were retreating fast from the Mianei towards the Vimpulo.

South African 155-mm G-5 artillery on the outskirts of Cuito Cuanavale pounding Cuban and Angolan positions. The guns were carefully camouflaged against enemy air attacks.


I went out with Corporal Branco on 12 November to try to locate the enemy concentrations, but we couldn’t get to close quarters because of the heavy patrolling. The next day we got near and we brought in our Mirages to bomb them and then brought in G-5 fire.

Branco and I followed 21/25 Brigades as they retreated, trying to bring 61 Mech in on their tracks from behind to complement the big Combat Group Charlie ambush on the Vimpulo.

Captain John Mortimer in a Casspir attached to an SADF/UNITA liaison team; he stood in for Les Rudman’s team during their home leave.


‘On 14 November 21/25 Brigades began another sprint towards the Vimpulo at about 4 pm. Branco and I followed their tank tracks for about four kilometres before I radioed to 61 Mech that they should get ready to attack. What I hadn’t realised at first was that the 21 Brigade had left some of their tanks behind at their old position to the south. We moved towards it and they shot at us with 12.7 mm guns mounted on top of the tanks. We were only two guys, so we aren’t an easy target.

Bushmen of the SADF’s 201 Battalion played an important role in the war. Although they operated as machinegunners, drivers, signallers, medics and mortarmen, their most remarkable skill was tracking, following nigh-on invisible spoor at great speed.

‘We radioed Mike Muller to tell him not to come in after all, and then Branco and I started working our way eastwards with the eventual intention of moving northwards to link up with another recce team. We were wearing Fapla uniforms, and as we withdrew on the eastern side in the early hours (on 15 November) we ran into UNITA. Two hundred men were setting up an ambush there and we hadn’t been warned about it. They opened fire on us. I felt my AK-47 fall down from my right hand as I was on the radio to my people telling them I was pinned down in a UNITA ambush and somebody had better order them to stop shooting. Then there was heavy shooting again all around me. Branco and I “bombshelled” away from each other and started running. I had to drop my heavy kit, including my radio. I stopped after I’d run about two kilometres. It was only then that I became aware of the pain. A UNITA bullet had gone through my forearm and shattered one of the bones. There was a lot of blood and several nerves had been cut, although I didn’t know it at the time. I decided to treat myself from the medicine in the small emergency survival kit we carry in a special pocket in case you lose everything else. It ensures you can last for two days.

South African missile crew with French-designed Crotale missile battery. It is known as the Cactus missile in South Africa. One of the missiles had been fired at an attacking Mig-23 without success.

‘I injected myself in the muscle with morphine to cut off the pain. I bandaged it and then assessed my position. All I had was my big pocket knife, my survival food, a small compass and my maps. So I knew where I was, but without the radio I couldn’t communicate my situation to base. I ran south all day towards a 32 Battalion post 17 km from where I had had the contact with UNITA. All the way I was losing a lot of blood. I had to keep stopping to strip bark from chimwanje trees to use as rope to renew the tourniquet I had tied at the top of my arm. I wasn’t too worried at first about the wound, but I didn’t want to look at it. Later I began to get dizzy and I started thinking: when am I going to find people to help me?

Troops clamber over an Angolan Air Force, Russianbuilt Mi-8 assault helicopter shot down during the battles. This helicopter is codenamed Hip by NATO.


‘I reached the 32 Battalion post at about 5 pm. Captain Jako Potgieter (an artillery officer) was in command and I asked him for a cigarette. He had to hold it for me because I couldn’t keep it steady. At first, the captain thought I was shot in the body because there was blood everywhere and my trousers were soaked with it. Then there was an argument between the captain and the doctor. Potgieter wanted me to tell him what had happened, but the doctor wanted to start work on me. The captain said: “Let me have a quick word with him before you put him under the anaesthetic.” All I remember telling him was to change the radio codes because I’d lost my code booklet and that I’d left a flask of whisky in my kit. I always carried it to put it in my coffee when it was cold.

‘In fact, Potgieter already knew it was UNITA who had fired on us.  UNITA had reported they were involved in a contact with a whole battalion of Fapla, although it was only Branco and me. UNITA had  picked  up my kit, weapon and webbing and then realised we weren’t Fapla.

‘The doctor put me under at about 7 pm and I woke up just before 6 pm the next day [Monday 16 November] with my right arm and hand entirely encased in plaster. I was in the military hospital at Rundu. They had flown me there by helicopter at about three o’clock that morning.

The next day I was joined by the Lieutenant [de Villiers Vos] who had been wounded in his shoulder in the battle against 21/25 Brigades on the Hube. I was on a drip, but the Lieutenant sat talking to me.

He said Sergeant Mendes [of the 32 Battalion recces] had got my kit back from UNITA but had drunk all of the whisky in my flask.’

Cuito Canavale

Book details

Cuito Cuanavale is also available as an eBook.


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