Battle of Cassinga


Battle of Cassinga

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Cassinga


caption=SADF paratroopers leaving Cassinga
partof=the South African Border War; Angolan Civil War
date=4 May 1978
place=Cassinga, Angola
result=Decisive South African victory
combatant1=flag|South Africa|1928
combatant2=flagicon|Namibia SWAPO,
flag|Cuba
commander1=Ian Gleeson
commander2=flagicon|Namibia Dimo Amaambo
strength1=370
strength2=1400
casualties1=4
casualties2=150 Cuban 600 SWAPO
The Battle of Cassinga (4 May 1978) was a controversialcite news
title=Battle of Cassinga Still Rages
publisher=The Star
date=2007-05-19
url=http://www.thestar.co.za/general/print_article.php?fArticleId=3839326
accessdate=2007-09-06
] South African airborne attack on a South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) base (or refugee camp) [ [http://www.namibian.com.na/2007/April/columns/078C7F3837.html Let's Review Our National Holidays] in The Namibian, 27 April, 2007] located at coord|15|7|3.72|S|16|5|11.04|E|type:landmark|name=SWAPO Base at Cassinga|display=inline,title at the former town of Cassinga, Angola. Conducted as one of the three major actions of Operation Reindeer, it was the South African Army’s first major air assault.

Planning

The attack on Cassinga (codenamed "Moscow" by SWAPO) grew out of the plan for Operation Bruilof, which had envisaged attacking six SWAPO targets around the town of Chetequera. During the intelligence-gathering portion of the planning for Operation Bruilof, it became clear that the small, previously overlooked, one-time mining town of Cassinga was one of two SWAPO's HQ's in the region, the latter being further north at Lubango.cite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
date=July 2003
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] , and the principal medical centre for the guerrillas in the region.cite court
litigants=Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report
vol=2
author=Truth and Reconciliation Commission
publisher=Department of Justice, South Africa
format = PDF
date=29 October 1998
url=http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/report/finalreport/TRC%20VOLUME%202.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

Aerial photo-reconnaissance, the primary role of 12 Squadron at AFB Waterkloof, Pretoria, equipped with Canberra B12s, earlier in Spring of 1978 showed major military infrastructure including miles of zigzag trenches, concrete drive-in AFV emplacements covering road approaches and a star-shaped AA missile command-and-launch facility characteristic of Warsaw Pact SA-2 missile sites. It also - crucially - showed a school bus which had been hijacked from SA-controlled South West Africa (Namibia) about 10 days earlier, the local schoolchildren onboard kidnapped. In response to this, the plan for Operation Bruilof was shelved and planning for a new operation, Operation Reindeer, began. Reindeer was composed of three main actions; the airborne assault on Cassinga, a mechanised assault on the Chetaquera complex at coord|-17.1287|14.8938|type:landmark|name=Chetequera - which also involved SAAF defence-suppression strikes - and an assault on the Dombondola complex at coord|-17.333|14.8334|type:landmark|name=Dombondola by a light infantry force.

Among the considerations were clear indications that Cuban combat forces were building up their resources-in-theatre and that East German and Soviet 'military advisers' were actively involved, some of whom were subsequently captured at Cassinga. The South African Defence Force was also concerned over the strategic threat a SA-2 missile-guarded fortress would pose, because it could facilitate the support and development of the SWAPO guerrilla war into wide-spread armed insurgency and possibly military confrontation as per the standard Soviet military model of the time. ['Low Intensity Operations' by General Sir Frank Kitson, and similar.]

The planners for the operation were faced with a significant problem. While the Chetequera and Dombondola complexes were only around 35 km from the border with South-West Africa/Namibia (then under South African control), therefore making conventional assault possible, Cassinga was 260 km from the border and deep inside Angola. This meant that any conventional assault force would have to fight its way in and out, and would almost certainly have given advance warning to the PLAN (People's Liberation Army of Namibia - SWAPO's armed wing) soldiers in Cassinga, allowing them and leaders like Jerobeum 'Dimo' Amaambo (the PLAN commander-in-chief, then resident in Cassinga) and Greenwell Matongo to escape. Cassinga furthermore was located on a small hill, flanked by a river on its West side, and open fields in other directions, factors that combined to give any defenders the advantage.

However, South African Defence Force (SADF) intelligence reports had ascertained that SWAPO - and probably its advisers - was lulled into a false sense of security due to Cassinga’s distance from the border. Intelligence briefings before the event indicated no awareness of any supportive infantry or armoured units to support the base against a ground assault, and although SWAPO was creating a sophisticated and comprehensive defensive network around the base consisting of a system of miles of trenches, AFV concrete revetments, pill-boxes and AAA gun and missile emplacements, they were certainly not prepared for a joint-arms airborne attack. The SADF had not previously demonstrated any such capability, giving military analysts no reason to suspect that such was available to the SA Defence Staff planners. This then gave the SADF planners the possibility of conducting a surprise attack on the base using only an airborne assault, without ground support. Earlier in that year, 12 Squadron had commenced training for a low-level strike role, utilising area defence-suppression weapons. Though a very risky plan it was decided that the element of surprise would outweigh the disadvantage of having no supporting armour.

The decision was therefore taken to mount a large airborne assault on Cassinga (by now code-named "Alpha"), supported by South African Air Force (SAAF) fighter-bombers and a fleet of 17 medium-transport helicopters. Using an exercise already underway called "Exercise Kwiksilver" as a smokescreen, the army initiated a call up of the Citizen Force (reserve units similar to the US National Guard) parachute units. The paratroopers were then secretly taken to the De Brug Training Range near Bloemfontein, where they embarked on an intensive refresher training course, coupled with rehearsals for the attack on Cassinga.

The final hurdle was to be the politicians in the South African cabinet, who were hesitant about authorising such an operation in case it generated adverse international reactions. There were a number of delays because of this, but finally on 2 May 1978 the Prime Minister, John Vorster, gave his authority for the operation to commence on 4 May, with the date being specifically chosen as the day after the United Nations Security Council debate on South West Africa endedcite court
litigants=Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report
vol=2
author=Truth and Reconciliation Commission
publisher=Department of Justice, South Africa
format = PDF
date=29 October 1998
url=http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/report/finalreport/TRC%20VOLUME%202.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] .

Composition of Forces

outh Africa

Due to the secrecy involved in the operation, and the commitment of most of the permanent force conscripts of 1 Parachute Battalion in other operations, it was decided to use 2 and 3 Parachute Battalions, both Citizen Force, in the operation. However, the need for secrecy meant not enough Citizen Force soldiers could be called up to fill both Parachute Battalions. As a result, the three Battalions were temporarily merged into a single Composite Parachute Battalion, which was commanded by Colonel Jan Breytenbach. The final composition of ground forces for the attack on Cassinga was therefore the following:
The entire operation was run by Major General Ian Gleeson, who commanded the SWA Tactical HQ (set up specially for Operation Reindeer). Overall control of the airborne forces was given to Brigadier M.J. du Plessis, who commanded the Parachute Brigade HQ. The units under his command were the Composite Parachute Battalion under Colonel Jan Breytenbach which was composed of A, B, C and D companies (all under-strength), an independent rifle platoon, a mortar platoon and an anti-tank platoon; the Helicopter Administration Area (HAA) protection force under Major James Hills, consisting of two Hawk Groups (10 man sections of rapid-reaction paratroopers) from 1 Parachute Battalion; an Airborne Reserve under Captain Wesley de Beer, consisting of a company from 2 Parachute Battalion airborne in a C.160 to be used in the event of reinforcements being required, and the Mobile Air Operations Team (MAOT) under Commandant James Kriel, which consisted of five SAAF personnel to set up and run the HAA. cite paper
title=The Cassinga Raid (Appendix B to Chapter 6)
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
date=July 2003
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/08appendix6a6c6e.PDF
accessdate=2007-09-05
] All the paratroopers were equipped with the R1 7.62 mm assault rifle.

The South African Air Force contribution consisted of four C-130 Hercules and five C.160 Transall transport aircraft. The helicopter component of the operation consisted of 13 Pumas and six Super Frelons.
The air attack component provided by the SAAF consisted of four Canberra B-12 bombers, each carrying 300 Alpha anti-personnel bombs; five Buccaneers carrying eight convert|1000|lb|abbr=on bombs each, as well as a sixth carrying seventy-two 68 mm rockets, and lastly four Mirage III fighter aircraft, armed only with Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and their 30 mm cannons fitted with high-explosive fragmentation shells.

One crew from the Canberra squadron was tasked with acquiring further photo-reconnaissance imagerycite paper
title=The Cassinga Raid (Appendix A to Chapter 3)
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
date=July 2003
format = PDF
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/04appendix3a3b.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] , some to be used in the preparation of photo-strip maps for the Tactical Low Flying (TLF) legs that the various aircraft types would undertake - there being inadequate conventional mapping of much of the region - and additional imagery of the Cassinga environs for the Parabat drop zone and Buccaneer target planning purposes. It was during this phase that a serious error was made, with potentially disastrous consequences.

Air-photo interpreters put the wrong scale on the maps that were used in the planning, despite the altimeter readings being clearly visible in the original reconnaissance photographs. Consequently, the paratroop planners overestimated the size of the DZ, thinking it was long and wide enough drop the paratroopers, when in fact it wasn't. Compounding this error, the pilot of the lead aircraft was momentarily distracted by the effects of the bombing, and issued the 'jump' signal a few seconds late.cite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
pages=p126
date=July 2003
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] The net effect was that many paratroopers overshot their intended DZs.

Playing a supporting role was a single Cessna C-185, which flew in the target area and acted as an observation post as well as a radio relay aircraft. In addition there was a single DC-4 Strikemaster fitted out as an EW and ELINT aircraft flying over the SWA/Namibia border with Angola. The purpose of this latter aircraft was to both intercept all Angolan, Cuban and SWAPO radio transmissions, before jamming their communications networks at the appropriate time. The successful jamming of the SWAPO, Angolan and Cuban communications network is one of the reasons for the late reaction by either of the latter two in responding to the attack.cite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
pages=p176
date=July 2003
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

WAPO

PLAN, the armed wing of SWAPO, was a guerrilla army and therefore did not have a traditional command and control structure. As such, it is impossible to determine a composition of units inside Cassinga. All that can be ascertained is that Cassinga was a headquarters base for PLAN. The overall commander of PLAN, Commander Dimo Amaambo, was resident in the town, and used it to co-ordinate all PLAN actions in Southern Angola, including incursions into South West-Africa/Namibia. A headquarters such Cassinga was second in importance only to Lumbango, which was the overall SWAPO military headquarters in Angola. In Cassinga itself there were approximately 1400 civilian PLAN guerillas, both male and female, attired mostly in Cuban-style uniforms.
In addition to this, there were an undetermined number of SWAPO sympathisers and recruits undergoing training to become guerillas.
Post-operation debriefings suggested around 2,500 personnel, in varying degrees of effectiveness.Aside from the system of trenches and bunkers, defensive equipment included a few anti-aircraft guns, including two ZPU-4 14.5 mm guns, one ZU-23-2 23 mm gun, and around one or two ZSU 12.7 mm guns. These were capable of being used in a ground attack role.

Cuba

The nearest Cuban presence was 15 km south of Cassinga, at the village of Tetchamutete, located at coord|-15.2332|16.04|type:landmark|name=Tetchamutete. It consisted of a reinforced mechanised battalion of at least four T-34 tanks, 17 BTR-152 armoured personnel carriers, seven trucks and four anti-aircraft guns, accompanied by around 400 troops. This unit was known to SADF intelligence, who had intercepted their radio traffic, and were also aware of their anti-UNITA operations. Their strength was estimated at 144 in October 1977, and was a major contributing factor in the choice of air rather than a ground assault.cite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
pages=p84
date=July 2003
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

The SADF had been given explicit operational instructions to avoid conflict with the Cubanscite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
date=July 2003
pages = p145
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] , nevertheless the Cuban unit made an 'no-notice operational crash-out' deployment within an hour of the first bombs dropping - a capability of which many NATO units would have been proud. Consequently, despite planning to complete their operations before Cuban intervention, delays and the Cuban's rapid reaction made conflict inevitable.

The Attack

04h00 - 09h00

The first to move on the morning of the attack were the paratroopers of the Composite Parachute Battalion, who got up at 04h00 and began fitting their weapons, equipment and parachutes.

At 05h19, the four Buccaneers bombers took off from AFB Waterkloof, followed at 05h43 by the faster Canberra. The heavily-laden 'Bucs' could fly only at medium altitude, so their true airspeed (TAS) was considerably lower than that of the 'Cans', flying over convert|10000|ft|m higher. One of the Buccaneers went to an air force base nearer to the border in order to refuel and act as a Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft, while the fifth aircraft of the Buccaneer strike force was delayed due to a brake problem, leaving four Buccaneers available for the initial strike.

At 06h00 the eight transport aircraft carrying the paratroopers became airborne. Two of the Transall C-160s, carrying the reserve company of 116 paratroopers, peeled off and entered a holding pattern just south of the border so as to be available to drop reinforcements during the battle. The remaining six transports continued on towards a holding point some miles east of Cassinga.

At about 06h30, the ELINT/EW Douglas DC-4 became airborne and settled into a holding pattern just south of the border. At the same time, a flight of two Puma helicopters, under the command of Major John Church, took off from 'a jungle night-stop' to fly to a clearing 22 km east of Cassinga in order to set up a Helicopter Administration Area (HAA), where the helicopters used in the operation could refuel. On board the two helicopters were Commandant James Kriel, the commander of the South African Air Force's Mobile Air Operations Team (MAOT) and his signaller, as well as Major James Hills, commander of Bravo Company, 1 Parachute Battalion, along with one ten-man section from the two Hawk Groups he would be using to protect the HAA. Also in the two helicopters were six 200-litre drums of helicopter fuel, and, to the consternation of Hills, the Chief of the South African Army, Lieutenant-General Constand Viljoen.

The MAOT set up their radios and navigational beacons at the HAA, by now code-named Whisky-Three, and signalled the all-clear for the rest of the force, consisting of the rest of the Hawk Group protection element (31 paratroopers), six medical personnel, two more members of the MAOT and eighty-six 200-litre drums of helicopter fuel, all onboard a fleet of five Super Frelon and ten Puma helicopters. The HAA was then completed, and the 17 helicopters refuelled and waited for the call to extract the paratroopers after the completion of the attack.

Also at around 07h00 the solitary Cessna C-185 took off and began flying towards Cassinga. Its role in the operation was to be an airborne observation post, directing the bombers into the target and giving the all-clear for the paratrooper drop, as well as being a radio-relay aircraft (known as "Telstar duty" in the SAAF). It would later be forced to withdraw due to sustained anti-aircraft fire. At around 07h50 two Mirage III fighter aircraft took off, heading straight for Cassinga. There was initially no role for air superiority fighters in the plan, but Staff Officer (Fighters) was not to be denied.

The defence-suppression bombing attack by the Canberras was two minutes late, occurring at 08h02 instead of 08h00 as originally planned, due to the lead navigator failing to maintain effective timing-adjustment during the 200nm low-level approach phase. This made no difference to the intended effect. As the bombing had been timed to coincide with SWAPO's daily roll-call on the parade ground, most of the guerrillas in the camp were standing out in the open when the Canberras initiated their low-level fragmentation bomb attack from the north. Each of the four Canberras - flying in loose 'line abreast' at convert|500|ft|m and 300 knots (an airshow display profile) - dropped 300 "Alpha" anti-personnel bombs, which were small 10 kg finless fragmentation bombs like '10-Pin Bowling' balls, designed to bounce up to 10 m into the air before detonating. A zone of some 800 metres by 500 metres was carpeted, each aircraft having its own 'bomb line'. These weapons sowed havoc amongst the assembled guerrillas in the open, destroying vehicles, POL ("Petroleum Oil Lubricants", military acronym for flammable liquids) storage tanks and soft buildings.

Immediately after the Canberras came the Buccaneers, from the west, who flew their dive-bombing runs along a generally east-west axis. Photography from one 'Buc' cockpit, showing the graphic lines of the 'Alpha' bomb strikes, was released to the SA press the following day. Of the total of thirty-two 1000 lb (450 kg) bombs dropped by the four Buccaneers on the identified 'hard points', 24 scored direct hits, causing an immense amount of damage. Finally, the two Mirage IIIs conducted a strafing run on the base, using their 30 mm high explosive cannon rounds. All the aircraft except for the solitary Buccaneer on CAS duty then flew back to air bases in South West Africa (Namibia) to refuel and re-arm to cockpit readiness 'in case of need' - the Mirages to Ondangwa air force base, the Canberras, Buccaneers and C-130/C-160s to Grootfontein air force base, where their support teams and material had been ferried up from Pretoria during the morning. The Canberras and Buccaneers were used for a later strike on the Chetequera complex.

After the attack aircraft had finished their bombing runs the six transports, which had been holding in wait to the east, commenced their formation run towards Cassinga at an altitude of 200 feet (60 m). Shortly before reaching the base, the six aircraft climbed to convert|600|ft|m, the drop height, and lined up for the drop. However, required visual 'tracking and distance' co-ordination markers were obscured by smoke from the bombing run, the drop zone (DZ) box scaling and drop point distances were incorrect - due to the reconnaissance scaling errors - and the drop was a shambles with nearly all the paratroopers being dropped off-target, some on the West side of the river and some into tall maize where they had problems linking up. The resultant confusion caused numerous delays, ruining the schedule of the 'drop-to-contact' plan, and much of the advantage of surprise. The disastrous drop also meant that it would be nearly an hour before C-Company was able to move into position on the eastern side of the camp and seal off the escape routes and as a result a number of top PLAN commanders, including Dimo Amaambo and Greenwell Matongo (two principle targets of the attack) escaped (with Amaambo later becoming the first head of the Namibian Defence Force in 1990 cite paper
title=Promoting National Reconciliation and Regional Integration: The Namibian Defence Force from 1990–2005
author=Gwinyayi Dzinesa & Martin Rupiya
publisher=Institute for Security Studies
format = PDF
date=2005-10-20
pages = p209
url=http://www.iss.co.za/dynamic/administration/file_manager/file_links/EVOLUTCHAP8.PDF
accessdate=2007-09-06
] ).

The two independent rifle platoons, No.9 and No.11, were dropped quite accurately to the north. They immediately went into action, moving through a tented camp to the north-west of Cassinga, beyond the bombed areas. Resistance was fierce but short-lived, and a total of 54 bodies were counted by the platoons before they took up their position along the northern end of the base to seal off that escape route.

Of the four main paratrooper companies, D-Company had experienced the most accurate drop, though they were still 500 m from their intended drop zone. Regrouping quickly, they moved to attack structures which had been identified in the aerial reconnaissance photos as engineering buildings. However, during the assault on these buildings several of them exploded, perhaps due to ammunition stores within, injuring several paratroopers. There was also a brief blue-on-blue engagement as D-Company paratroopers were mistakenly fired upon by their fellow soldiers from B-Company, which by then had reached the base, but there were no casualties. After completing the assault of the engineer complex, D-Company moved south to set up a stop-line and prevent any guerrillas from escaping via that route. It also dispatched the anti-tank platoon to lay a tank ambush on the road to Techamutete.

09h00 - 12h00

By 09h00, A and B Companies had regrouped and were ready to commence the main assault on Cassinga. Instead of attacking eastwards as initially planned, the two companies attacked the base in a northerly direction. Initially, they encountered very little resistance, though this changed dramatically once the paratroopers neared the centre of the base. Heavy sniper fire was directed at the paratroopers from a number of trees inside the base, they were subjected to B-10 recoilless rifle fire, and some SWAPO guerrillas had regrouped, using houses as cover from which to fire at the paratroopers, critically wounding two paratroopers.

However, the paratroopers faced their greatest challenge when they were fired upon by a number of ZPU-4 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns used in the ground role. This brought both companies to a complete halt, as they were unable to move under the accurate, and close, fire of the guns, and the Buccaneer on CAS duty could not conduct a strike on the guns for fear of hitting the paratroopers close by.

In the end, Colonel Breytenbach ordered the commander of D-Company to take some men and work up towards the guns by attacking the trenches to the west of Cassinga. He also ordered the mortar platoon to begin attacking the guns.

Upon entering the trenches, the men from D-Company were surprised to find a number of civilians, being used as human shields by the guerrillas hiding inside. The guerrillas opened fire on the paratroopers, leading the paratroopers to enter what they described later as a mode of "kill or be killed", in which preventing the deaths of the civilians in the trenches was impossible. Though a number of civilians were killed in those trenches, as the paratroopers moved forward they began to encounter less and less civilians until nearer the guns all those in the trenches, male and female, were wearing SWAPO's Cuban-style uniforms. In the meantime, 9 Platoon had entered the trenches from the north, though were making slow progress as they came under the attention of the gunners.

It was during this period that the paratroopers gained a respect for the bravery of the SWAPO gunners that would last them a lifetime. Each time the crew of one of the guns was wiped out by mortar or machine-gun fire from the paratroopers, those in the nearby trenches would scramble up to replace them, continuously firing the anti-aircraft guns. Finally, after a combination of the attack through the trenches and the mortar fire, the guns were silenced. The toll was a terrible one; there were at least 95 SWAPO guerrillas dead inside the trenches and around the guns, and two paratroopers had been killed.

After the fall of the guns, all major resistance in Cassinga ended. The odd snipers and corners of hopeless resistance were all that remained, and the mopping up process was soon finished. The paratroopers immediately set up the battalion headquarters and Regimental Aid-Post (RAP) next to the SWAPO hospital, and began treating the worst of the injured. Overall, three paratroopers had been killed, and eleven wounded, two of them critically. In addition, a fourth paratrooper was found to be missing, presumed killed. It was later assumed that he had drowned after being dropped in the river during the parachute jump, or that his parachute had malfunctioned as he was seen exiting the aircraft. [cite book
title=Borderstrike! South Africa into Angola 1975 - 1980
first=Willem
last=Steenkamp
author=Major Willem Steenkamp
publisher=Just Done Productions
year=1983
isbn=1-920169-00-8
url=http://books.google.com/books?id=xJZkoEf_gh4C&pg=PA205&dq=cassinga&sig=MuEu-ujDyrLxdjUaeyCuHs6TbNo
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

By now the attack was two hours behind schedule, with the first helicopter extractions having been planned for 10h00.

12h00 - 15h00

Brigadier Du Plessis at this time informed Colonel Jan Breytenbach of a radio interception, indicating that the Cuban force at Techamutete was deploying. Brigadier Du Plessis insisted on extracting all the troops immediately, however Colonel Breytenbach wanted to secure the LZ first. A compromise was agreed whereby half the paratroopers would move to the LZ where 12 Puma helicopters would extract them, while the remainder would continue clearing operations, as well as to collect any and all documents of intelligence value.

At around 13h00, Colonel Jan Breytenbach was informed by one of the Buccaneers on CAS duty that the Cuban mechanised battalion was moving up the road from Techamutete to Cassinga.

The Buccaneer had spotted an advancing column of around 30 assorted AFVs, APCs and other vehicles advancing slowly up the road from Techamutete. It immediately opened fire on the column, destroying three BTR-152 armoured personnel carriers in the process, but then had to return to Grootfontein air force base to re-arm and refuel, leaving about 200 of the remaining paratroopers temporarily unprotected. All that stood between them and the advancing armoured column were the 22 men of the anti-tank platoon, armed only with 10 RPG-7 rocket launchers and five anti-tank mines which they had planted in the road.

At this time however, there was a serious breakdown in command and control, and a number of fundamental errors were made. The shuttle of helicopters to and from Whisky-Three, the HAA, as well as the order in which paratroopers were embarked, was improvised and initially uncoordinated and disorganised. It wasn't made initially clear to the commander of the helicopter extraction force quite what the problem - and the sudden urgency - was. Furthermore two engineers, whose role it was to destroy enemy equipment, departed in the first wave with all the demolition fuses before all the equipment had been disabled.

Meanwhile, apparently under the false impression from the helicopter departures that the paratroopers had all extracted, the Cuban column advanced directly into the ambush that the paratroopers had been sent for them. The lead T-34 tank was destroyed by one of the anti-tank mines, while the paratroopers destroyed four of the BTR-152s using their RPG-7s. They also killed approximately 40 of the Cuban troops before making their retreat back along the road towards the Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) east of Cassinga where Breytenbach was organising the remaining paratroopers for final extraction. In the face of the oncoming armoured column, Breytenbach ordered a thin defensive line, but realised the lightly-armed paratroopers stood little chance against the armoured vehicles and prepared to fall-back into the bush to an emergency LZ while calling urgently for air support.

The apparent success of the mission now looked like turning into a disaster for the SA troops, with the prospect of being over-run by armoured forces, Convert|150|mi|km into enemy territory. General Viljoen, who until this time had been wearing his rank and beret, removed and hid them.cite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
date=July 2003
pages = p146
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

At 14h20, when the Cuban AFVs were already in sight of the beleaguered paratroopers, a Buccaneer and two Mirage IIIs suddenly appeared ahead, eliciting a ragged cheer from the paratroopers. An experienced Forward Air Controller (FAC) amongst the paratroopers then began to direct the three aircraft in strikes against the advancing Cuban armour. The Mirage IIIs, with their 30 mm cannons, destroyed 10 BTR-152s before running low on fuel and returning to Ondangwa air force base. The Mirages' cannons were unable to destroy any tanks, but the sole Buccaneer destroyed at least two tanks, an anti-aircraft position and a number of other vehicles with its 68 mm SNEB air-to-ground rockets. The rockets had been omitted from the original Operation Order, but the Buccaneer Squadron Commander had fortuitously included them in the ordnance that was ferried to the Grootfontein forward air force base by C-130 Hercules, with his ground crews and maintenance spares. The Buccaneer pilot was being fired on continually by a towed 14.5 mm anti-aircraft gun, which he had to make two passes at before he was able to destroy it with rockets.

The Buccaneer ran out of ammunition at this point, but this coincided with the arrival of the 17 helicopters to extract the remaining paratroopers in the second wave. The helicopters' arrival betrayed the position of the LZ to the remaining Cuban forces, who began to advance on the area. While unable to see the armoured vehicles, the paratroopers could hear their engines and gunfire, and could see trees being flattened in their path barely 200 metres away. In a desperate attempt to prevent the Cuban tanks from firing at the vulnerable helicopters and the assembling SA troops waiting to be picked up, the Buccaneer pilot dived his aircraft dangerously low, nearly hitting trees as he flew close over the top of the tanks, disorienting the crews and forcing them to break off their developing attack on the parabats' positions.

Due to the disorganisation with the first wave of helicopters, there was nearly not enough space for all the remaining paratroopers and prisoners on the second wave. In the ensuing panic to scramble aboard the helicopters, 40 SWAPO prisoners, meant to have been taken back to South West Africa for interrogation, had to be set free and left behind. Some excess equipment and ammunition was also dumped from the overloaded helicopters. A final barrage of fire from the paratroopers stalled the closing Cuban amour just sufficiently long enough to complete the extraction of the assembled paratroops.

However ten minutes after taking off, two of the Puma helicopters were directed to return to Cassinga, as it was feared that some of the paratroopers might have been left behind. They spotted a group a people huddled together, but closer inspection revealed that they were the prisoners who had been left behind. The helicopters flew a total of four low passes looking for paratroopers, when one of the helicopter pilots spotted a Cuban tank appearing from the bushes. He warned the other Puma pilot, who was able to bank just in time so that the tank round missed the aircraft. No paratroopers were found and the two Pumas returned to the HAA. The dismantling of the HAA continued throughout the rest of the day.

15h00 - 18h00

At 15h00, one of the Mirage IIIs returned to Cassinga, and once again straffed the Cuban vehicles that were still on the road, setting at least one of them alight. It was replaced at 15h30 by another aircraft and a Buccaneer which proceeded to destroy more of the vehicles and a building. About a kilometer south of Cassinga, the Buccaneer attacked another column of vehicles, coming under heavy anti-aircraft fire in the process.

Another Buccaneer arriving at 16h45 surprised some Cubans moving through the ruins, destroying a T-34 tank and some anti-aircraft guns in the process, while further Mirage and Buccaneer strikes at 17h10 and 18h35 destroyed another tank and other equipment.

The result was that by nightfall nearly the entire Cuban battalion had been destroyed, killing around 150 Cuban soldiers, accounting for that country's single biggest casualty rate during its military involvement in Angolacite court
litigants=Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report
vol=2
author=Truth and Reconciliation Commission
publisher=Department of Justice, South Africa
format = PDF
date=29 October 1998
url=http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/report/finalreport/TRC%20VOLUME%202.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] .

A complete Angolan tank brigade relief force arriving at dusk, was too late to have any impact, and found only scenes of destruction at what had once been Cassinga.

Aftermath

In purely military terms, the attack on Cassinga was a complete success for the South African forces, even though disaster was so closely averted by the intervention of the SAAF. Despite not capturing Dimo Amaambo and other senior leaders, the destruction of the base and capture of so much significant documentation set SWAPO's insurgency back by several months. The death toll of around 600 guerrillas meant that 1/3 of SWAPO's southern-Angolan force had been wiped out, including a number of senior field commanders. On the SADF side, the casualties were low for such an attack, an important factor in South Africa where the public was intolerant of high casualty rates. The existing statistics of combat fatalities in airborne assaults - 'drops-to-contact' - suggested losses of 30% and upwards were to be expected.Fact|date=January 2008 Nor did previous experience offer much comfort to the Parabats' commander when he was advised that the SA Air Force would conduct defence suppression strikes in support of his troops. In the event, however, a considerable and unanticipated military professionalism was displayed - and it carried the day.

In terms of lessons learned, it was realised after the battle that an improved command and control structure was needed for the South African Army's airborne units. To this end, 1, 2 and 3 Parachute Battalions were placed under the command of the newly-created 44 Parachute Brigade, therefore centralising command and control and logistics for the Army's airborne forces. The South African Defence Force also revamped the way it dealt with the media, though it was never able to erase the advantage in the propaganda arena that SWAPO enjoyed with its Soviet support.

However, it is for the tactics used that the attack is admired most in military circles: The SA airborne troops fought well, and were ably and creatively supported by the Air Force strike squadrons, who were able to delay the unexpectedly fast Cuban response long enough to allow a safe extraction. It was noted by analystsWho|date=January 2008 that the techniques and standards employed by the Canberras and Buccaneers were largely those of RAFG, and well up to NATO bombing competition standards. It should also be noted that the destroyed Cuban armoured battalion also performed above expectations. That the victory was so comprehensive is another factor that is often noted, and veterans of the various South African parachute battalions still celebrate Cassinga Day in remembrance both of the extent of the victory and of those who died that day.

According to General Constand Viljoen, Cassinga set the strategy for the SADF for the next ten years, i.e. that of launching pre-emptive strikes at SWAPO inside Angola, even though subsequent actions would be armoured rather than air assaults.cite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
date=July 2003
pages=179
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

SWAPO launched a retaliatory bombardment from Zambia of Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip on 23 August 1978, during which 10 soldiers were killed and 10 injured as a result of a direct hit on their barracks by an 82 mm mortar bomb.cite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
date=July 2003
pages=179
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] 16 guerrillas were killed in a follow-up operation 250 km into Zambia.

Political Consequences

Politically, the operation was a disaster for South Africa. Although one of the parabats was specifically tasked to take photographscite paper | title=The Cassinga Raid
first=Edward
last=McGill Alexander
author=Edward McGill Alexander
publisher=UNISA
format = PDF
date=July 2003
pages=21
url=http://etd.unisa.ac.za/ETD-db/theses/available/etd-06022004-113815/unrestricted/00dissertation.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] and media releases were managed in order to counter hostile claims of killing innocent civilianscite court
litigants=Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report
vol=2
author=Truth and Reconciliation Commission
publisher=Department of Justice, South Africa
format = PDF
date=29 October 1998
url=http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/report/finalreport/TRC%20VOLUME%202.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
] , it was SWAPO that made the first announcements about the attack, as operations in the border areas were continuing. This caught the South Africans by surprise, as they were expecting SWAPO to downplay the raid. Instead SWAPO crafted an elaborate propaganda story, describing the base as a refugee camp and claiming the SADF had slaughtered 600 defenceless refugees.Fact|date=June 2008 Despite the huge volume of armaments found and photographed at Cassinga, and documents to the contrary, the International Red Cross stated that the camp was in fact both a refugee camp and a military base.Fact|date=June 2008 The bodies were buried in two mass graves at Cassinga, with gruesome pictures of them being used very effectively by SWAPO for propaganda purposes.

Due in part to South Africa's 'pariah' status and its incompetent press relations, the SWAPO version was the one preferred by much of the international media, allowing SWAPO to use the event for great political gain, despite the fact that it had been a huge blow militarily to the organisation. The United Nations, at the time very much pro-SWAPO, lost no time in issuing United Nations Security Council Resolution 428 on 6 May condemning South Africa for attacking a "refugee camp". The South Africans had won the battle of Cassinga, but lost the ensuing propaganda war.

After independence, the new government of Namibia declared 4 May as "Cassinga Day", a public holiday to commemorate the loss of life during the raid.cite web
title=Namibia Key Facts
publisher=Commonwealth Secretariat
year=2004
url=http://www.thecommonwealth.org/YearbookInternal/138840/society/
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

Subsequent investigation in 1998 by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that cquote|It is clear that from the SADF’s perspective, Kassinga was a military facility rather than essentially a refugee camp or refugee transit facility, as SWAPO has always claimed. The photographic evidence shown to the Commission at the SADF archives suggests a military dimension to the camp. This cannot, however, be taken as conclusive evidence that Kassinga was a military base. In the context of the ongoing war in Angola, some defensive fortification of any SWAPO facility, whether civilian or military, would have been standard practice".cite court
litigants=Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report
vol=2
author=Truth and Reconciliation Commission
publisher=Department of Justice, South Africa
format = PDF
date=29 October 1998
url=http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/report/finalreport/TRC%20VOLUME%202.pdf
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

The official celebration of this event by the SANDF ended in 1996, reflecting political pressure from the ANC government, and illustrating that the SWAPO version of events has now become generally accepted, despite the military achievements.cite news
title=SA to Say Sorry for Celebrating Defence Force Raid
publisher=The Star
date=1996-06-06
accessdate=2007-09-05
]

Further reading

*cite book|author=Jan Breytenbach|title=Forged in Battle|location=Cape Town|publisher=Saayman and Weber|year=1986|isbn=0797100253|url=http://books.google.com.au/books?id=tWAjAAAACAAJ
*cite book|url=http://books.google.com/books?id=_TYtAAAACAAJ|title=The Cassinga Event: An Investigation of the Records|year=1996|publisher=National Archives of Namibia|isbn=9991644091|author=Annemarie Heywood

*cite book|author=Col Jan Breytenbach|title=Eagle Strike|publisher=Manie Grove Publishing|year=2008|isbn=9780620406147|

ee also

* List of operations of the South African Border War
* Cassinga Day

References

External links

* [http://flecha.co.uk/CASSINGA%20II.html Cassinga, 4 May 1978] (Paratrooper accounts of the battle)


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