The Angola Conflict 1975/76

The George Washington University



INTERVIEWER: Dave, can you tell me, why did you go to Angola in the first place?

DAVE TOMKINS: Initially money, albeit that in... I didn't actually consider that at the time. I was broke; the offer was put to me, and I took it.

INT: So what did you expect? Did you know where you were going?

DT: No. The short answer to that is "no", albeit that it was in the newspapers at that time and I did have a quick read-up, but it meant absolutely nothing.

(Request for complete answers)

INT: So did you know where you were going?

DT: Well, yes, obviously I knew where... the country that I was going, but not really very much about it, apart from the fact that it was obviously having a civil war - I mean, that was headlines at the time.

INT: So what was your first impression when you arrived? What did you find there?

DT: Quite frankly, I was horrified. I mean, the first.. time we exited the aircraft was into a very battered old bus, through some very battered streets, to a very battered old colonial mansion, and given some very tatty old clothes and a very tatty weapon, and away we went.

INT: Could you be more concrete? You know, when you say that "we were given clothes and weapons", can you be more concrete - who gave you the weapons, and where did you arrive, to which town, and who did you meet and who gave you weapons and who gave you the clothes?

DT: Well, we arrived in Kinshasa...

(Interruption - start again)

DT: No, we landed in Kinshasa, and we were taken to the home of Holden Roberto, who was president of the FNLA at that time. The clothes we were given were in an old bunker at the end of the garden, and they were bales of camouflage clothes, boots without laces, no belts to hold one's trousers up; and he personally was helping dish them out and find the right sizes for us, and was extremely helpful; but a very motley collection of clothing to equip us with.

INT: And which kind of weapons did you have?

DT: At that particular time, we were given five Belgian FN rifles, and the rest of us were equipped with M-1 and M-2 carbines, ex-Korean War, and some 66-millimetre Laws rockets. That was exactly the equipment that we left Kinshasa with in a bus to go to Angola.

INT: So how was it when you came to Angola? What was the trip [like] from Kinshasa to Angola?

DT: We were very nervous. We eventually turned off of the road, wherever that was, some hours from Kinshasa, literally into the bush, on pot-hole roads, mostly mud, until we got to tarmac roads later on. We had an escort that took off in front of us and was inevitably out of range most times. It turned over one time, and when we arrived at it, everybody assumed it was an ambush, and we shot out of the trucks and adopted all the positions we assumed that we should at the time, until we were told it was OK. So, yes, it was... we didn't know what we were going into. People waved at us when we went through some small villages, calling "FENLA, FENLA," which was quite emotional, I suppose, at the time: we felt perhaps we were doing something right. And eventually we arrived at our base.

INT: So what did you do when you arrived? Did you know who were your enemies, did you know how many of them are against you?

DT: No, not exactly. We knew that at that time, that there were some... thousands of Cubans had arrived, and that we were aware of from the press before we left. We were joining what was the FNLA, and we assumed it had an army. That wasn't the case that we found. I mean, we had a... it may very well have been an army at some time, but we were linking up with the remnants of that, and our army consisted of perhaps no more than 50 or 60 guys.

INT: Can you describe then what their training was, which kind of weapon they had?

DT: They had a complete array of very old weapons. There was no standardization. The majority of them had not been in the army; they seemed to be conscripted from local villages, whether by coercion or that they chose to. Most had civilian clothes on underneath their camouflage, ready to adopt another role should it transpire they might need to. No, right from the beginning we realized we were in a bit of a shambles.

INT: And what was your task there - did you actually train those people, or did you fight alongside them? What was your contact with the Africans there?

DT: Well, we were given to understand that we would be fighting with them rather than training. The recruiters, or certainly one of the recruiters, who'd been out there some time, gave us a completely different story to what we found when we arrived: that we would be well-equipped, well-fed, the logistics were there to support fighting units; and we were the vanguard of a battalion, basically, because he'd come over to recruit a thousand guys. Inevitably, that thousand didn't arrive, so we swelled the ranks of the FNLA army by just a few.

INT: So how were the living conditions there?

DT: Atrocious. When we first arrived, we were billeted in what would be an old colonial-type mansion, I suppose; it was in several acres of walled gardens, an empty swimming pool, many rooms with beds, but no mattresses, no blankets. We had a water shortage - I think the water came on 30 minutes a day - a filthy cook called Pedro; no rations, not even the basics: we had no sleeping bags, blankets; knives and forks were at a premium. And, yes, right from the beginning we knew that we could be in serious trouble here, albeit that they were telling us that things would improve.

INT: How did you cope with that situation? What was the morale among the men?

DT: The morale deteriorated very quickly. I mean, in a lot of situations like that you'll get... well, I suppose the term would be "barrack-room lawyers": somebody saying, "Well, this is not right," and others saying, "Well, look, let's bear with it," and others would want to catch the bus and go home. But ... yes, it deteriorated very quickly - not to the point of insurrection at that particular time, but we were all very unhappy with the circumstances. We were tired, a) from the journey, and I don't... we never got any rest from that moment on. Food, which is a basic necessity of life, was very spartan: we'd have rice and some rancid meat to eat for most of the day, and that would be it; there was nothing like going to get a cup of tea or coffee - it just didn't exist. So, for the fist week that we were there, yes, we found it extremely difficult.

INT: And how was it in the battle - I mean, how did you get (Overlap) involved in the battles?

DT: (Overlap) The battle... Yes. There wasn't any real battles as such. There was no infrastructure. I mean, we had a CO, which we've all heard the name: Callan - Costas Georgiou. The ranking structure was very much down to himself. We had a captain, Mick Wainhouse. They were friends of Callan, and they had arrived in Angola prior to us by some months. And this was the ranking structure of our unit, which I think at that time consisted of the whole FNLA army in northern Angola. He chose by emotion rather than ability, if he happened to like somebody - this was Callan - and you'd suddenly be a sergeant major, perhaps, not necessarily based on ability. But there was no infrastructure. Whilst he had a lot of courage and wanted to achieve the objective, which was to win the war, he had little to do it with - almost nothing - and no real tactical ability or command structure to achieve it.

INT: So can you describe some of the battles that you participated in?

DT: No, because there wasn't any battles to describe in the context that you're talking about a battle. We raided many of our own towns to get equipment for our own purposes: small villages and towns nearby. When I say "raided", I mean we went in armed - we didn't shoot anybody if we didn't have to - literally to deprive them of weapons so that we might be better equipped, being as nothing was coming in in terms of supplies, so we literally pillaged our own area to give ourselves some standardization of weapons. We then, on the ordersof our CO, would confiscate all their weapons, which were a very motley bag...

INT: Sorry, I'm going to interrupt you. Are you speaking abFNLA?


INT: Maybe if you can be a bit more clear, because some of our viewers would not understand. Can you explain it to me from the beginning again?

DT: Right. Now we're in.. an area where there are no enemy at that time. They were at Damba ... not quite at that time, but they had arrived in a town called Damba, which was some hundred of miles, let's say, away from us. We were not surrounded, and they were... I mean, the roads were very limited at that particular point. We were in one town and they were in another. They.. had obviously got information that British troops were arriving, and had stopped their advance on the basis of waiting for further information, to find out what the enemy strength, our strength was. So when you say "a battle", at that particular time - and we're talking a very short period of time here - our first priority was to equip ourselves, to give ourselves some mobility. We had about 13 Land Rovers, of which three, I think, worked, several trucks, and a bus. We had two or three Panhard armored cars with 76-millimetre guns on, and two rounds of ammunition. That was the type of army that we're sort of looking around working out. I had... my task was demolitions. I asked to see the explosives store, of which I had been told prior to leaving the United Kingdom that was fully equipped with C-4 and all the possible amenities of modern warfare. I found several sticks of gelignite, that I immediately buried because it was leaking, some open boxes of TNT flake, and lots of Soviet mines, and that literally constituted my contribution to the war effort was going to be the use of that. That's what we had at that particular time. We then raided our own FNLA local towns, their armories, and stole whatever we decided we needed. Our CO then told us to confiscate everything else, so that in fact we left most of the population of that town unarmed anyway, and we destroyed the rest of their weapons, for whatever reason he had in his mind - I have no idea. We blew them up or cut them up or bent them, so they couldn't be used.

INT: So did you actually... I mean, even if you didn't participate in battles, you were in some ambushes. Did you meet Cubans, did you see Cubans?

DT: (Overlap) No, I personally did not see Cubans, no. At the time of the last... There was no confrontation - this is the strange thing. We're talking about only a matter of a few short weeks. Our CO, Callan, for whatever reason, decided to separate the first group, which... there were several strong characters in that group with a lot of military experience - one being Peter McAleese. I think he saw them as a threat to his position. He sent about six of those down to San Antonio do Zaire, which is near the coast, to protect that area - I mean, what half a dozen guys can do, I've no idea - with a few FNLA guys that were apparently there. So our numbers, which at that time were 21, were now denuded by another six or seven, so there was no threat to Callan in terms of military proficiency, if you like. And we carried on like that for... it was going on day by day. We were then told, that tanks had arrived in Damba, which was the nearest, town, I suppose one could call it, from us, which was some way away. And we organized ourselves to go and repel these tanks - I mean, this is the laughable aspect of it, I suppose - with our meager equipment. We cobbled together vehicles, robbing Peter to pay Paul, s-spares-wise, and.. set off for Damba. We had a base at a town called Maquela, where later the massacres took place. And the action - if there was any - was on that road, but it was very limited.

INT: So what happened there? Can you describe what happened?

(Coughing in b/g. A bit of non-i/v discussion.)

DT: Total poxy - I mean, there was no action. If any action... no organized action. I mean, whilst Callan - God bless his cotton socks - had all the right intentions and the motives were there, the opportunity didn't present itself like "The enemy's five miles away - let's send out a patrol." They were 100-plus miles away, over very bad terrain, that took days to get 50 miles. Most of the time, the conditions... the weather at that time was... you would fry in the heat up to lunchtime; from lunchtime till tea-time, it would tip with rain; and then at night you'd be freezing cold, and you slept where you were. We had no blankets, no sleeping bags, no food. We did get some legionnaire's rat packs, but I didn't see a decent meal in the weeks that I was there. We had no such thing as a cup. If you were trying to make a coffee or a drink from the legionnaire's ration packs, you would brew it from the tin of fish that you'd just eaten, and it would be floating around with oil, and you drunk out of that. There was no such thing as knives and forks - we didn't have any. We had, at that time, obviously commandeered bootlaces for our boots, swapped our string for belts, so somebody else had our string. Yes, we were very badly equipped. Getting back to your question again - sorry, what was it?

INT: What was the action on the road?

DT: Oh, the action on the road. As I say, from my own perso... There were really only two main incidents that mattered in the weeks we were there. One, which was in San Antonio do Zaire, which I was not part of, which was literally a defensive action while the chaps escaped, which... Brummie Barker, one of our guys was called, and that was a brief five minutes of shooting whilst they tried to get to a boat. Callan... when we were based at Damba, he had the intentions of destroying the tanks at Damba, which were based at Damba, the next town, which was some... I guess 60 miles - I would hazard a guess - over dusty roads. So we theoretically, I suppose, carved that... put a line across the middle of that and said, "Right, that's enemy territory; this is ours." They had sent aircraft out - I mean, spotter planes - looking for the FNLA army that had arrived from England. Of course, we didn't really exist. They couldn't find us because we were so few. They saw our patrols, the odd Land Rover bonking along; and we understood later - or I understood later - that they thought we were very clever in hiding ourselves, and they literally ceased their forward movement at that time until they could establish how many of us there were and what our tactical situation was. And they had assumed - and I got it from very good authority on their side - that a battalion of guys was sitting in wait for their move forward, so they did nothing; we did nothing, apart from probe their area. There was a particular moment in time when Callan decided to... well, he had instructions by telegram, sent by a hand messenger... to stop the tanks at Damba. But they had stopped themselves anyway. And he organized an attack on Damba, with all 13 of us, I think, (Laughs) plus a few of our own FNLA blacks. And we set out for it one day, but we never made it. We did query the tactical situation, and he said, "We drive straight through the town. You shoot everything in sight, except the women and children, and we make for the airport and destroy the tanks." And when we asked how many troops there were there, he said, "Oh, there's only several... a few thousand," which would give you an indication of his mentality, or lack of tactical ability, because I don't think we numbered 50 even with our drivers, and they were black, and I must... no disrespect to their color... they were not particularly good at anything.

INT: So what did you feel personally? I mean, did you agree, did you want (Overlap) to go...?

DT: (Overlap) It was very difficult to understand hour by hour what one was supposed to be doing. We lacked any of the normal military standard routines of the day, like a briefing, being told, "Right, you go out and you do this. Here's a map." We had no maps, we had no compasses. I mean, you went to war on a road. If you got off of thatroad, it was anybody's guess where you were. There was nothing, we literally had nothing. He might have had a map, but it was probably an old road map issued by Esso - there was nothing else. We were the most poorly equipped army you could... "army" ia joke, really... that you could possibly imagine, without any real aim. I mean, his aim was to win the war, and he would have killed everybody in Africa to achieve that, without the ability to do it. I mean, we had absolutely no chance whatsoever.

INT: So what happened when the Cubans pushed forward - did you withdraw or did you meet them...?

DT: We had several... they eventually got real-time intelligence that we were just but a handful, (Clears throat) or a few handfuls, and they started to make their advance from Damba, because at this particular stage I think even Callan's courage and common sense had told him that 50 people can't attack a town and come out the other side. So we waited for them. We.. started mining the areas that... we decided we'd lay ambushes for them - I mean, and they had to come down this particular road. They were clearing mines with the aid of a bulldozer with an extended blade on, by skimming the top of the road if ever they found any. My task was to get rid of the bulldozer, but eventually that didn't happen either. I mean, we went through the motions, but that bulldozer didn't arrive at my charges. And we spent our days with all the very best intentions of doing something if the opposition did this, which they never did anyway. And so basically, the two sides never actually met in any confrontational situation, apart from the last,... and perhaps... well, the only major incident at that particular time was when Callan took a raiding party, when the tank column and the infantry, the FAPLA columns were closing on what we could consider our territory, albeit that that was some 50 miles - we'd split it up, theoretically. And he decided to stop the convoy, and took an ambush party and did just that,... and he literally attacked a column of thousands head-on. He had guys inside the ambush put a rocket into ... it was at dusk when the ambush was sprung... into what he assumed was a tank, but it was a truck carrying munitions, which killed most of our guys when it went off, and God knows how many of the enemy, decapitated most of the ambush party, blew legs off, and it was a complete disaster. Some survived it. Callan was eventually captured after that incident, because he was also injured in it. And... there lays the tale of how not to do it.

INT: So, Callan and three others were executed later on by Angolans in the official trial. Why, if they actually never took part in real...?

DT: Well, that was obviously political...

(Interruption - noise. Cut.) 

INT: Can you answer the question about dirty war? I don't understand (unclear).

DT: Right. It's been put to us that it was a dirty war. And, yes, it was a dirty war. Certainly, our small part of it made it even dirtier. I mean, all war is dirty, but in our particular context of the FNLA in northern Angola, with Europeans or British soldiers working under Callan, it was particularly dirty, in so much as we - and I use the word "we" collectively - committed what would be crimes, and in that respect the Angolan Government got the wording right: "war crimes". We did kill when we had no particular reason to. We tortured to achieve information that they probably didn't have, and this was not captured enemy soldiers: these were probably just local civilians. And that atmosphere permeated its way through the whole unit, where there was an air of lawlessness there. We had some Portuguese mercenaries, if you like, and we collectively recognized that there was no real command structure, that we were just a loose band of bandits with a very dangerous leader and a few associates, and we just went along for the ride and hoped it would improve, which of course it didn't.

INT: Could you describe a bit more about the tortures, because that was one of the methods Callan was using?

DT: Yes. It seemed to suit certain parties there to question people with very brutal violence - I mean, and these would be ... somebody would maybe inform that somebody who is a local character is a spy. He would be arrested, for want of a better word, and he'd probably be the local greengrocer who knew absolutely nothing, and would be questioned as to his links with the MPLA, was he a radio operator? All nonsense questions. They were trying to achieve something, but really weren't going to do any good. The guy, probably as innocent as the day he was born, would answer in the negative, that he knew nothing. Questioning would then become more brutal, with physical beatings, escalating into use of knives or whatever it took to extract... until it was quite obvious that he knew nothing, and he would then be executed.

INT: Executed by whom?

DT: By whoever happened to be on duty at the time. They were taken to Kiendi Bridge and shot in the head and dumped - if, of course, Callan hadn't, or one of the others hadn't beaten them to death at that particular moment in time.

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