Angolan Conflict 1986/89

This is how Johan Schoeman

Remembers the Final Battle Cuito of Cuanavale

23rd March 1988

I was deployed as an anchor observer (call sign 35A) with a 2nd Lt (Lt "Pikkie" Prinsloo) and a Lance-Bombardier acting as Technical Assistant, for the attack of 82nd Brigade on the Tumpo Triangle on 23 March 1988. My position on the Chambinga high ground directly east of Cuito Cuanavale gave me a panoramic view of the entire Tumpo Triangle as well as the Cuito and Cuanavale Rivers and the town of Cuito Cuanavale beyond. I also commanded a good view of the east slope of the  Cuito high ground to the west of the Cuito River and my primary task was counter-bombardment of Fapla artillery batteries and rocket launchers deployed there. I was unable to see any of the actual defences of the Tumpo Triangle itself and therefore engaged very few targets of opportunity there. Only when I saw the occasional vehicles dart out between the dense bush did I attempt engagements of targets in the triangle.

I could clearly see the high ground in the "Delta" north of the Cuito-Cuanavale confluence, where another anchor observer was deployed. He was protected by the UNITA 118th Semi-Regular Battalion. We, ourselves, had a section of UNITA soldiers protecting our every move - I can't remember from what battalion. A third OPO was deployed south of the Tumpo Triangle who had a direct sight on the Cuito Bridge and the Tumpo Triangle itself. This OP had the most opportunities for direct engagements of targets in the triangle.

Just after 5 am on the morning of 23 March, we were shelled by Fapla... a 130mm shell went right through the branches of our observation tree where "Pikkie" was perched, ready to engage the pesky BM-21s which responded every morning to our "wake-up" call - a ripple of rockets from the MRL troop deployed to the north-east of us. This was fast becoming a ritual. I was busy brewing some coffee in our make-shift kitchen the Unita soldiers had constructed for us, and feared the worst when I stormed out to the tree to see if Pikkie was alright. Shaken, but completely intact, he was climbing out of the tree... the shock was quickly treated with a cup of coffee and both of us were ready to respond in kind. We reported the shelling by DET (Data Encription Terminal) calmly as we did not intend to let Fapla know how close they came to hitting us. Clearly the training we had instilled a harsh discipline which prevented us from panicking and shouting on the radio, as many of our opponents often did when we struck at them!

When the third attack on Tumpo went in later that morning, we were in the amazing front row seat watching the biggest military showdown in Africa since World War 2. While I was engaged with registered targets of known artillery positions on the Cuito high ground and watching out for opportunities to take out a BM-21, which kept reappearing in different positions all the time, I was able to see the progress of the battle.

I will never forget the amount of dust and noise generated by the tanks and Ratels during their approach to the target in the morning, and was puzzled by the lack of initial response of Faple to the advance. Surely everybody within a ten kilometer radius would be aware of this approach??!!

But when the response did come at about 08h30, it came in the form over 60 guns opening up with indirect fire upon the advancing SA armour from all over the Cuito high ground and Tumpo Triangle itself. I was sure EVERY available gun was concentrating its fire on the approaching South African force! I did counter battery as best as I could with the three remaining G-5s but I really don't think I made a dent in the artillery assault Fapla directed at the oncoming force.... The thought flashed through my mind that I am glad I wasn't deployed as Forward Observer with the attacking force!

By 10am the attack was in full swing, and T-55s tanks joined in returning fire on the by then stuck South African force. The attack was stalling in the minefields. We brought G-5 fire down on the positions of the enemy and I think the southern OPO reported a tank knocked out with a direct hit... As I was unable to see the tanks directly, I could not tell whether it was as a result of our fire or his (not that it made a difference).

At one time during the morning, Captain Rendo Nel, the observer deployed at the Cuito-Caunavale confluence and the battalion of Unitas were driven from their positions when Fapla launched an attack on the "Delta" to clear it. Rendo attended a number of Artillery courses with me at the School of Artillery before and also studied with me at the Military Academy in Saldanha Bay, so I knew him well. It was unnerving to hear his panic when they had to start running, being evicted from his observation post by the attack. I could clearly hear the snap of the bullets on the radio as he maintained a steady report of their progress.

This fire was sustained on the South African force for a number of hours, increasing in intensity every time the force tried to force its way through the minefields. Eventually, by about 14h00, there was a backwards movement when the tanks started pulling back. By then, unknown to us, three Olifant tanks that were damaged in the minefields were left behind. Commandant Gerhard Louw, who had been my Course Leader when he was a Captain during my Formative Training as an officer in 1981 at the Military College in Pretoria, was in command of the two squadrons of tanks, and he tried to recover the immobilised tanks, unsuccessfully.

By 15h00 several MiGs were in the air, attacking the force, although very inaccurately. How it was possible to miss such an incredible target creating so much dust and noise I still do not know, but their bombs feel way off target!

It was clear that the attack was a failure. I was amazed to learn that we did not suffer any casualties in all those bombardments, which in its intensity and duration may have been something like El Alamein all over again, except that the bombardment was not delivered by us this time.... It would be interesting to know how much ammunition was expended during this attack.

I had no idea of the number of UNITA casualties that were suffered, as they were simply riding on the tanks and Ratels and must have taken the brunt of the force of the bombardments. We were never told of their losses.... only afterwards, when talking to some of the tank crews that were there, did I learn of the horrors of cleaning the tanks and tracks which were covered in blood, body parts and intestines from the dead and wounded... many having being killed while run over by the withdrawing tanks. An ex-family member that are still today unable to hold on to any job or relationship, was a tank driver at the battle, and told me of this many years later. He has never been sent for counseling for post traumatic stress - same as most of us that were there, but he was unable to recover from his nightmares and his life now resolves around his daily alcohol intake. In "War In Angola" Helmoed-Römer Heitman states that Unita had only lost thirteen killed and some wounded in this battle. I have later also heard that Unita lost over 1200 men in the three Tumpo battles... I cannot substantiate any of this, except the fact that there were NO South African casualties and that three Olifant tanks were lost.

I was unable to see the Olifant tanks directly, and reported as such when asked by the Brigade Headquarters. It was obviously of cardinal importance that the three tanks not fall in the hands of the Angolans, Cubans and Soviets, but there was nothing I could do about it.

However, the next day, in the calm and quiet of the aftermath of battle, Pikkie and I took the opportunity to explore the old 59 Brigade position just a few hundred metres north-east of the observation post. There were a number of T-55 tanks that were destroyed in their hull-down positions around the perimeter. We investigated the HEAT hits on the turret and clambered all over the tanks like a couple of school kids. The Unita section assigned for our protection were showing us around and even led us into the main bunker which housed the 59 Brigade Headquarters and the Soviet advisors. We were amazed at the trouble they went into to construct a bunker 4-5 metres deep and as big as two large rooms, covered with three or four layers of tree trunks each at least half a metre thick! It was most impressive! We were discussing whether a direct hit from a G-5 155mm shell (note not just a normal 155mm) with a delayed fuse would penetrate this formidable bunke. The general consensus were - YES, of course it would! The problem was that we were mostly using airburst which exploded the shell about 30 m in the air. This would be ineffective against a bunker complex.

There were remains of the rocket boosters of lots of rockets from our MRLs scattered around the area. We found a cache of intact Fapla uniforms and, while sizes too small for me, I was soon prancing around in full FAPLA "camo", with a Russian helmet on the head, and an AK-47 from a Unita in my hand. There is a photo of me floating around somewhere, me looking like a proper "Cuban" with my flaming red beard (from the sun... not naturally red), with the Russian helmet and AK-47.

Our fooling around was soon interrupted when the Technical Assistant, the Lance-Bombardier (I wish I could remember his name), came running down the high ground in a panic, calling us. Breathlessly he told us that there was an URGENT DET message for our action. We rushed back to the OP post and started processing the message.... and looked at each other in surprise. Without attempting to recreate the exact wording, the essence of the message read: "Vernietig dmv stelpunt eie Olifant tanks in vy gebied met Regt bestoking op Ruit 12345678" ("Destroy, by means of adjustment point, own Olifant tanks in enemy territory with a Regimental fire mission on grid 12345678"). The surprise quickly turned to shock....

The message was clear enough: We are to use every gun in the Regiment to concentrate fire on our own tanks that were left in the mine field... which we could not see! But there was a problem... I looked at Pikkie and asked him "Wat de donner is 'n stelpunt nou weer?" ("What the hell is an Adjusting Point again?"). He shook his head and lifted his shoulders....How should he know? I knew I was supposed to KNOW what the hell it is, but at that moment my mind was a blank. With no manuals to refer to and look up the exact procedure, neither of his had any idea of what to do... to our shame. I have not done a stelpunt shoot since I did my Gun Post Officer's (GPO) training in 1980.... maybe again once thereafter while training troops in 1981/82...

But this was real and action was called for... so I swallowed my pride and typed the message into the DET: "WAT IS N STELPUNT?" ("What is an adjustment point?"). It was followed by about 10 minutes of deadly silence.... no reply from the HQ... and then: "WAIT" - in my minds eye I saw how even they were scampering around to find a manual from which to explain this STELPUNT to me.... After 20 minutes a lengthy message was received through the DET. I think someone actually typed the entire description of the procedure using those horrible rubber keys of the DET, totally unnecessary, as I remembered exactly how it worked the minute I read the first paragraph and it all came back to me!

A "Stelpunt" works on the principle that you adjust fire on a known registered target that you can see to obtain the correction that has to be applied to the raw grid reference in order to hit the actual observable target. This correction is then applied on the grid reference that you CANNOT see and, in theory, if the new target is actually on that grid position, the first shots should be a hit, without any observed adjusting fire preceding the bombardment. In principle, quite easy enough!

The problem of course is that no one knew what the true grid reference of the tanks were. They were hastily plotted on the map by Cmdt Louw and given through as a grid reference to me. I, of course, had no idea of the accuracy of the plot, still not able to observe the tanks. I think the idea was to wait until the Recces observed movement of Cubans and maybe Russians close to the tanks before proceeding with the actual Regimental bombardment. So I was instructed to carry out the Stelpunt shoot on a visible target about 2 kms to the south, which I did and then had it registered as a Stelpunt which could be used for the actual bombardment. These corrections were calculated and converted in terms of the positions of all the batteries of the Regiment (the G-2 140mm battery, the G-5 155mm battery of 3 guns, the 120mm mortar battery, and at least one 127mm MRL troop), bringing them all on a "common grid" from which to concentrate fire on the given grid reference of the Olifant tanks.

Finally, when someone deemed it ready, (there is a time and distance limit to the application of a Stelpunt, 2 hours and 2 kms I seem to remember), I was given the go ahead for the fire mission. I cannot remember the number of rounds per gun/pipe, but it may have been at least 10. So over the next 2 minutes or so, a "kakhuis vol skote" ("shithouse of shots") must have fallen in the vicinity of the Olifant tanks. Being unobserved fire, I could not report back a result for the fire mission, but later heard it was rather ineffective and did not hit anywhere close to the target. Obviously, the grid refence was not too accurate (we had no GPS AND no Google Earth then!).

And that's how it turned out that I did the ONLY full Regimental fire mission of the operation.... ON OUR OWN TANKS!!!

Copyright Johan Schoeman 2009