Operation Savannah (Angola)

Operation Savannah was the name given to the South African Defence Force's 19751976 covert intervention in the Angolan War of Independence.


After a conflict lasting 14 years and aided by a military coup that overthrew Portugal's dictatorship government, Angola's nationalist parties began to negotiate for independence in January 1975. Independence was achieved on 11 November 1975 and by 29 February 1976 all the Portuguese forces had withdrawn from the country.

Almost immediately after independence, civil war broke out between the three main factions—the MPLA, UNITA and the FNLA. Cuban forces had already begun moving into Angola during April 1975 on the invitation of the communist-oriented MPLA in order to support them in the fighting and South Africa thus faced the prospect of communist state bordering its de facto "fifth province" of (the then) South-West Africa (SWA). Consequently South Africa, with the covert assistance of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, began assisting UNITA and the FNLA in a bid to ensure that a pro-Western government prevailed.

Military Intervention

The initial pretext for direct South African military intervention in Angola came about when the security of the hydro-electric plant at Ruacana and the dam and pumping station at Calueque were threatened by both SWAPO and UNITA soldiers. The scheme was an important strategic asset for Ovamboland, which relied heavily on it for its water supply. The facility had been completed earlier in the year, and South Africa had invested heavily in it. On 9 August, the SADF therefore occupied Calueque and nearby Ruacana and to secure them, with the approval of the Portuguese government who also had a financial interest in them, but who was unable to intervenue due to political changes in that country after the Carnation Revolution.

At this point, South Africa made an alliance with the anti-communist UNITA movement, and together with the CIA, began supplying weapons and training. The SADF subsequently invaded Angola in force on the 2 October 1975 during Operation Savannah. South African forces covered 3,159 km in 33 days, temporarily capturing the ports of Namibe, Lobito and Ngunza.

Attempts were made to open the Benguela railway, but the SADF was forced to withdraw when covert Western support was withdrawn. Helicopters, light aircraft and transports were used, while jets flew photo reconnaissance missions. UNITA was supported to the extent of ensuring that SWAPO did not establish springboards in southern Angola.

Major Battles and Incidents

Battle of Quifangondo

On 10 November 1975, the day before Angolan independence, the FNLA attempted against advice to take Luanda from the MPLA. South African gunners and aircraft supported the offensive which went horribly wrong for the attackers when they were routed by a superior Cuban force that had recently arrived in the country in support of the of MPLA. The antiquated South African artillery was no match for the longer-ranged BM-21 rocket lauchers fielded by the Cubans, and therefore could not influence the outcome of the battle.

Battle of Bridge 14

This was a battle fought at a bridge on the Nhia River at in December 1975. The bridge had been blown by retreating enemy forces who were being pursued by the SADF.

South African sappers successfully rebuilt the bridge under heavy fire, allowing the amoured column to advance and route the enemy on the opposite bank.

Danny Roxo famously single-handedly killed twelve Cuban and MPLA soldiers during a reconnaissance of the bridge, an action for which he was awarded the Honoris Crux. Several other Honoris Crux medals were awarded for bravery during this battle, some posthumously.

In 1976, the SADF made a short propaganda film depicting the battle called 'Brug 14' (Afrikaans for 'Bridge 14') which was widely screened in South Africa when the first television station started broadcasting that year. The day Tommy lotze was killed,M.Goller ,lt Heyns,2 recces another troop went to the river to rescue the section trapped on the other side,marais was carried to safety,died later thet night.

Battle of Ebo

Six to seven Eland armoured cars destroyed and 100 UNITA killed at Ebo after being ambushed by Cuban/FAPLA forces. Two pilots and an air observer killed after their Cessna spotter aircraft was shot down over the town on 25 Nov 1975. SADF defeated.

Battle of Luso

Town of Luso captured by SADF.

Battles Involving Battlegroup Zulu in the West

Colonel Jan Breytenbach's battlegroup advanced 3000 km in 33 days, battling MPLA and Cuban forces along the way. This battlegroup later formed the basis of 32 Battalion.

Ambrizete Incident

The South African Navy was not planned to be involved in the hereunto land operation, but following the Battle of Quifangondo, nevertheless had to hastily extract a number of army personnel by sea from deep behind enemy lines in Angola. Ambrizete north of Luanda at was chosen as the pick-up point for the gunners involved in the action at Quifangondo. The frigates SAS President Kruger and SAS President Steyn went to the area, where the latter used inflatable boats and her Wasp helicopter to successfully evacuate 26 personnel from the beach on 28 November 1975..

According to General Constand Viljoen, who had grave concerns at the time about the safety of both his men and abandoned field guns:

I can honestly say that was the most difficult night ever in my operational career. The guns in Ambriz were towed to Zaire, then eventually picked up by the SAS Tafelberg and taken to Walvis Bay.

The success of this operation was exceptionally fortuitous, given that the South African Navy had been penetrated by the spy Dieter Gerhardt.


When the CIA withdrew its support, Operation Savannah effectively ended, leaving a power vacuum in the country that the MLPA was quick to fill

The MPLA subsequently declared itself to be the de facto government of the country and Agostinho Neto was sworn in as its first President. However, South Africa continued to support UNITA in an attempt to ensure that SWAPO did not establish any bases in southern Angola.

The 49 South African casualties during the conflict were never acknowledged by the SADF, who were operating covertly in the country. These soldiers were simply listing as 'missing' rather than 'killed in action', resulting in a number of Supreme Court cases afterwards to change their status.

External links


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