Gordian Knot Operation

Gordian Knot Operation

The Gordian Knot Operation ("Operação Nó Górdio") was the largest and most expensive Portuguese military campaign in the Portuguese overseas province of Mozambique, East Africa. It was performed in 1970, during the Portuguese Colonial War (1961-1974). The objectives of the campaign were to seal off the independentist guerrilla's infiltration routes across the Tanzanian border and to destroy permanent guerrilla bases in Mozambique. Gordian Knot was a seven month campaign employing, ultimately thirty-five thousand men, and was almost successful.

Independentist guerrilla

The communist-inspired independentist guerrilla (FRELIMO), soon realized the difficulties they would encounter in militarily defeating the Portuguese forces on the battlefield and for this reason Frelimo's strategy took on an aspect that was relatively unique. With no real working class or Mozambican military to isolate from the Portuguese regime and ultimately from which to gain support as in the case of a typical Marxist-Leninist strategy, Frelimo leaders adopted a Maoist strategy. The Maoist insurgency is typically three-staged:

*The first or organizational stage is to create networks of guerrilla political/progaganda groups to win popular support and to train terrorist teams to intimidate sections of the population which may be hesitant to support the insurgency or which support the targeted government outright. The intent is to neutralize any area of the population which will not support the insurgency at the outset and to organize the areas of the population which will provide support.

*The second stage, or open guerrilla warfare, begins with armed resistance by small bands of guerrillas operating in rural areas where terrain is rugged and government control is weak. Initially, this stage is characterized by low level hit and run tactics designed to highlight the strength and organization of the insurgent movement and expose the weaknesses of the government. As more of the population is won over to the insurgency the magnitude of the armed resistance and guerrilla warfare is increased to include greater segments of the countryside and more lucrative targets. The rate of increase in the guerrilla effort is dictated solely by the response of the government. If the government responds in a forceful, well-organized fashion, the insurgency may remain in an early stage two mode of operation for a prolonged period of time or may even revert to stage one. The intent of stage two, however, is to continue to gather popular support and gain control of the countryside, isolating government forces in small areas, mainly urban, and making them pay a heavy price when they venture into guerrilla controlled areas.

*The third stage of a Maoist insurgency is an evolution into open civil war, where the guerrilla forces take on the appearance of a regular army and conventional warfare is more predominant. The intent here is to openly defeat and displace the existing government authority if it has not already come apart from within.

This was the strategy Frelimo adopted from the outset with a notable exception. Frelimo were never able to move to the third stage of the Maoist strategy. The Portuguese held military supremacy during the entire war, and even the majority of the native population, particularly those living in the urban centers and the littoral strip, were supportive of the centuries-long established ruling authority.

Brigadier General Kaúlza de Arriaga

In March 1970, during the Portuguese Colonial War a new commander for Portuguese forces in the Portuguese overseas province of Mozambique was appointed. Brigadier General Kaúlza de Arriaga had studied the Mozambican theater from a position on the staff of the Institute of Higher Military Studies in Lisbon and had served as commander of ground forces in Mozambique for eight months prior to assignment as overall commander. He possessed definite ideas on the conduct of the war in Mozambique which were reinforced by a visit to the United States for consultations with General William Westmoreland concerning American tactics in Vietnam. Arriaga insisted on the deployment of aircraft to support ground operations, particularly helicopter gunships; and initiated large scale "search-and-destroy" missions. He also requested a further increase of troops and material. Bolstered with three thousand additional Portuguese soldiers, Arriaga launched the largest offensive campaign of the Portuguese Colonial War -Gordion Knot Operation ("Operação Nó Górdio").

The operation

The objectives of the campaign were to seal off the infiltration routes across the Tanzanian border and to destroy permanent guerrilla bases. "Gordion Knot" was a seven month campaign employing, ultimately thirty-five thousand men, and was almost successful. The brunt of the effort was in the Cabo Delgado district, in the northermost area of Mozambique, on the border with guerrilla sympathizer Tanzania. Tactics consisted of lightning quick airborne assaults on small camps. Continual artillery and aviation bombardment rained down on larger sites while bulldozer guided, motorized armies converged. These tactics were effective and Arriaga pursued the guerrillas relentlessly; however, the exertions of "Gordion Knot" could not be continued indefinitely.

The Portuguese had excellent coordination between light bombers, helicopters and reinforced ground patrols. They utilised American tactics of quick airborne (helibourne) assaults supported by heavy aerial bombardments of FRELIMO camps by the Portuguese Air Force (Força Aérea Portuguesa or FAP) to surround and eliminate the guerrillas. These bombardments were accompanied by the use of heavy artillery. The Portuguese also used cavalry units to cover the flanks of patrols and where the terrain was too difficult to motor transport, and units of captured or deserted guerrillas to penetrate their former bases.

As the number of guerrilla killed and captured increased, so did the number of Portuguese casualties. The politicians in Lisbon - the metropole -, though dissatisfied with the success of the counterinsurgency until Arriaga's assumption of command, had been content with the relatively low casualty figures. As casualty rates continued to climb during "Gordion Knot" their early pleasure with the improving tactical operations diminished. Political meddling in the conduct of the war appeared with increasing frequency. [Thomas H. Henriksen, Revolution and Counterrevolution, (London: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 49.] Though "Gordion Knot" had been the most successful campaign of the counterinsurgency it had not delivered the ultimate victory desired by Arriaga - for several reasons. The first, noted above, was political "queasiness" with the increased casualty rates and subsequent meddling in the operation itself. The second was the onset of the rainy season in November which proved to be longer than usual and subsequently gave the guerrillas more than enough time to partially recover. The third was the simple fact that Arriaga had to mass all of the Portuguese forces in Mozambique to pursue the campaign in the extreme northern provinces in hopes of a relatively quick but decisive victory. Nationalist guerrilla Frelimo realized this and reacted continually dispersed into the jungle, prolonging the campaign and trying to consume Portuguese resources. Simultaneously, guerrillas increased operations in other provinces, sparsely guarded by Portuguese troops, however, with no success. A Portuguese communique issued in late January, 1971, acknowledged that in spite of the massive operation, not all military objectives had been realized.

The Portuguese eventually reported 651 guerrillas as killed and 1,840 captured, for the loss of 132 Portuguese military. Arriaga also claimed his troops to have destroyed 61 guerrilla bases and 165 camps, while 40 tons of ammunition had been captured in the first two months only.


Arriaga, whether disillusioned by "Gordian Knot" or restrained by Lisbon, shifted from extended conventional sweeps to small unit actions deploying black and white shock troops. By this time, half of the Portuguese troops on the field were black Africans from Mozambique. By 1972, the situation had deteriorated with the Portuguese forces operating out of traditional secluded strongholds in guerrilla dominated territory. The violence and brutality of guerrilla campaign actions against part of the native population of the coutryside were increasing. The Portuguese stepped up new defensive tactics, trying to make the natives not be afraid of Frelimo.

Although the Portuguese military success, the number of monthly casualities never reached zero. Guerrilla forces used to cross the border to perform terrorist actions against the military and the population. Frustration and suspicion mounted, and in this atmosphere some elements of the Portuguese army massacred the inhabitants of the tribal village of Wiriyamu who had collaborated with the guerrillas. The incident, itself, was not brought to the attention of the rest of the world until nearly a year later, in July 1973, by a Dominican priest. It was at first denied, then contested, then rationalized as a response in-kind by Portuguese authorities. Though details of the entire episode will never be known, a number of guerrilla-infiltraded natives were slaughtered by a group of Portuguese soldiers, black and white, in a spontaneous outburst of frustration during a small scale search and destroy mission. The exposure of Wiriyamu brought with it the exposure of numerous other incidents on a smaller scale and increased world-wide (particularly third-world) condemnation of Portugal. During 1973 and early 1974, the situation continued to worsen for the guerrillas. However, recovered Frelimo forces began advancing southward from Tanzania. The civilian authorities in Lisbon, embarrassed by the alleged atrocities exposed in July, 1973, had lost a great amount of confidence in military solutions and were encouraging the expansion of operations by PIDE. [Adrian Hastings, Wiriyamu, (London: Search Press, 1974)] PIDE's paramilitary endeavors were viewed as excessively brutal and counterproductive by the leaders of the military, and disagreement on the proper role of the secret police in combating the insurgency widened the rift between the central government and the military leadership.

When the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) seized control of the government in Lisbon on April 25, 1974, an event known as the Carnation Revolution, the Portuguese position in Mozambique all but collapsed.

General António de Spínola, head of the new government and former commander of counter independency forces in other Portuguese territory in Africa, Guinea-Bissau, maneuvered to maintain some control over the destiny of Mozambique by calling for a cease-fire and Portuguese sponsored elections; but Frelimo, sensing victory, would not comply.

Frelimo announced the opening of a new front in Zambezia and poured guerrillas into the middle regions of the country. The Spinola government countered by ordering northern outposts abandoned and the concentration of troops in the southern regions, by handing out arms to rural settlers, and by ordering [F. X. Maier, Revolution and Terrorism in Mozambique, (New York: American Affairs Association Inc., 1974), p. 24. & Thomas H. Henriksen, Revolution and Counterrevolution, (London: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 57.] an increase in bombing attacks on guerrilla controlled territories. These measures were intended to support the Portuguese position at the negotiating table. The Portuguese troops fighting in Mozambique realized that the coup in Lisbon, the change of regime and the opening of negotiations with Frelimo were a prelude to withdrawal. Instead of engaging the guerrillas, many refused to continue risking their lives. By mid-summer an undeclared truce prevailed since the bulk of the Portuguese army would not leave their barracks; and on September 8, 1974, an accord was signed formalizing the cease-fire. The agreement called for a transitional government with full independence for Mozambique to be granted on June 25, 1975 - the thirteenth anniversary of Frelimo. The Portuguese Colonial War had ended, but the newly-independent territories of Angola and Mozambique would enter a period of chaos and devastating civil wars (Angolan Civil War and Mozambican Civil War) which lasted several decades and claimed millions of lives and refugees.


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