The main force comprised 61 Mech with both its Regiment Molopo tank squadron and F Squadron, minus one troop detached to the flanking force. It thus had two tank squadrons less one troop, one mechanised infantry company, one 81 mm mortar group, two anti-tank groups, one assault pioneer platoon, one anti-aircraft group (20 mm and SA-7), and an engineer troop. It was to carry out the attack in close conjunction with 32 Battalion and Unita's 3rd, 4th and 5th Regular Battalions.
Servaas Letter's flanking force comprised an armoured car squadron and a mechanised infantry company, less one platoon, reinforced with a tank troop and an 81 mm mortar group.
4 SAI, less F Squadron, was held in reserve. Cassie Schoeman was out of the war; he was evacuated at 22h10 after a suspected heart attack. His second-in-command took over.
The approach march went without any hitches, and 61 Mech reached its hide north of the Cunzumbia source at 01h00 on 25 February, led by its VNS Ratel. There it settled down to wait for the attack by 32 Battalion to go in on the southeastern side of the Fapla positions.
The 32 Battalion elements, commanded by Major Thinus van Staden, reached their forming-up place by 03h42 and deployed in combat formation. When they began infiltrating the Fapla positions from 04h00, however, they found that there were no longer any Fapla troops on the objective. Tim Rudman later found a BTR-60 abandoned in these positions.
The main force had meanwhile begun to move up to its objectives, and Unita's 5th Regular Battalion joined up at 05h07. The Unita elements in the north reported at much the same time that they were ready to begin their probing attacks on the north-eastern edge of the Fapla positions at the Dala source.
The artillery entered the picture at 05h50, and began to shell the forward Command Post. The 120 mm mortars placed an illumination round over the south-eastern Fapla positions to assist 32 Battalion, but it only revealed some Fapla soldiers leaving the objective in a hurry.
The Fapla artillery began to reply just after 06h00. Their first target was the main force, which was inaccurately shelled at 06h04. An intercept at 06h32 revealed that the Fapla gunners were not having a good day - they had also shelled some of their own positions quite heavily. The Angolan Air Force had meanwhile also become active, flying top cover from about 06h00, in an attempt to stop the South African guns firing to any real effect.
The main force meanwhile moved up, keeping just inside the bush line east of Tumpo and the open ground of the Anhara Lipanda, to exploit this cover until the last moment.
61 Mech had enjoyed several moments of amusement at Mike Muller's expense during the morning. He had taken F Squadron's spare tank as command vehicle, since it had surrendered its gun to the tank that had lost its gun to a premature detonation. As they moved off, his driver misjudged and hit one of the Regiment Molopo tanks. Pulling off again, he hit a tree, which naturally fell on to the tank. After some Unita soldiers had helped them to get the tree off the tank, they moved off again. Now, at 07hl9, his tank hit a mine. Muller gave up and moved back to his command Ratel.
This mine not only stopped 61 Mech for three hours, it also warned Fapla of their approach and marked their position. Fapla reacted by moving their mobile tanks up to deploy just behind the infantry positions opposite the approaching South Africans. Some of the forward Fapla infantry also reacted decisively, if not quite in the way their commanders would have wished - they decamped in the direction of the bridge. Many crossed to the west with the PTSM ferry. By 07h50, sixty-two had crossed and many more were on their way to the crossing point.
Suspecting that he might have encountered more than a screening minefield, Muller decided to pull his force back out of it, only to find that they had already driven quite far into it. Two of Regiment Molopo's tanks hit mines as they reversed out. He moved the force back 20 and then 50 metres, but found that there were still mines around him. At 08h31 he ordered 61 Mech to move some 200 metres back in its tracks to get clear of the minefield.
At 08h36, meanwhile. Colonel McLoughlin ordered the tyres set on fire after shells had fallen in their vicinity. Fapla then quite happily shelled the burning tyres for a while.
Lieutenant Loubser. commanding 3 Troop of F Squadron in place of the wounded Lieutenant Coetzer, meanwhile reported ammunition boxes and then an unmanned missile launcher to his left. Unita engineers reported that the minefield extended quite far in both directions.
Fapla artillery, including M-46s and BM-21s, had begun shelling 61 Mech from about 09hl0. Several MiGs also appeared overhead. That brought the first.casualty. Bombardier Hendricks of the anti-aircraft troop, who was killed when fragments hit him in the neck while he was engaging a MiG with his SA-7. Another MiG raid came quite close at 09h20, but did not hit anything. Soon after that, a Withings was hit by a 130 mm round and destroyed. The crew, miraculously, were unhurt.
32 Battalion suffered some casualties to accurate BM-21 fire at 09h40. Fortunately for them, however, the fire soon shifted.
Muller had decided to breach the minefield, and to repair any damaged vehicles in place, in an attempt to maintain some momentum. These efforts were hampered by the Fapla shelling and a liberal scattering of anti-personnel mines among the anti-tank mines. Not only did these complicate the task of the engineers, they also made the work of the repair teams recovering the damaged tanks from the minefield very dangerous.
The engineers brought up a Plofadder and launched it across the minefield. Like most of those used earlier, however, it failed to detonate. An attempt to detonate it with fire from a Ratel-20 had no effect. Several engineers then went up to the Plofadder, using mine-detectors to feel their way and ignoring the shelling, and detonated it manually at 1 lh49. The explosion cleared a lane through the minefield and enabled the leading elements to resume the advance at 12hl5.
Fapla reacted with heavy artillery fire on these elements, their attention having been drawn by the smoke and dust thrown up by the Plofadder, while Angolan fighters pinned down the rest of the force and prevented it from passing through the lane. At 12h01 several MiGs attacked the main force from high altitude. Unita fired on them with some 23 mm guns, to no effect. The presence of the MiGs also restricted the South African efforts to carry out effective counter-battery shoots.
By 12h26 the two tank squadrons had succeeded in passing through the minefield, and the rest of the force began to follow. Once they were through, they formed up in combat formation for the move to join up with 32 Battalion. The 3rd Regular Battalion deployed ahead of the tanks to check for mines as the force advanced. This move went quite quickly, and the marrying-up of the two forces also went smoothly. The combined force then began to move towards the south-eastern Fapla positions. Indirect fire on 61 Mech had become very accurate by 13hl5, which suggested a Fapla observer nearby. The South African artillery fired overhead, and engaged nine observed Fapla artillery positions on the west bank, of which two were silenced by 13h49.
At 14h35 the 3rd Regular Battalion began to clear Fapla bunkers in front of 61 Mech but, like 32 Battalion, found that the Fapla infantry had gone.
MiGs brought all movement to a stop for a while, but 61 Mech was moving again by 14h43. It then came under very heavy mortar fire and at 14h48 a 130 mm shell hit a Ratel-90 and tore off the left door, severed the commander's legs and wounded two of his crew. Another air raid followed at 15h52, this time on the echelon. The driver of one of the Molopo tanks was killed by a 122 mm rocket. The crew had been outside repairing a track when the ripple came in. Everyone took cover; the driver inside the tank, but he could not shut his hatches properly. One rocket hit the glacis just in front of his hatches, and the blast entered the tank and killed him. 32 Battalion and Unita suffered several casualties to fragments and blast.
Jacques de Wet, now commanding the echelon elements of both tank squadrons, pulled his vehicles into cover as the force came up to the bush line. Knowing that the MiGs were using the old Portuguese road as a marker, he moved his vehicles well clear of it. Nevertheless, they soon began to receive accurate fire from a number of M-46s, D-30s and BM-21s. So accurate that De Wet was convinced that there must be a forward observer nearby.
According to signals intercepts, Cuban elements - probably 3 Tank Battalion - were preparing to launch a counter-attack from the west towards the main force. They appealed to Fapla to prevent their troops from deserting their positions during the counter-attack. 32 Battalion was ordered to withdraw from the area to avoid clashing with this tank-heavy force. Major Thinus van Staden had to report, however, that he could not withdraw until the flanking force had collected his wounded.
In the event the counter-attack did not materialise, because of Fapla's inability to keep their troops in the forward positions- The Cuban commander on the scene then asked for reinforcements if he was to offer resistance to the South African attack. He specifically asked for infantry and tanks to occupy the forward positions. The reply of the Forward Command Post must have been received with little joy: He was told that he could expect between twenty and thirty men next day!
The leading elements of 61 Mech were now in the bush line, facing across 4 000 metres of open ground to the Fapla depth positions in the opposite bush line. They had driven through the forward Fapla positions against minimal opposition, and rolled them up as they went.
The attack had, however, been so badly delayed by the minefields, fighters and artillery, that the setting sun was now in the gunners' eyes as they looked across towards Fapla. Given this problem, with the continual fighter presence overhead preventing proper manoeuvre and with the shelling beginning to inflict casualties, Mike Muller requested permission to break off the attack. Colonel McLoughlin consented, and told him to withdraw his force into cover, but stressed that he was not to move too far away. He also suggested that Muller should consider resuming the attack in a westerly direction, which Muller felt was impossible in the face of the heavy and accurate Fapla artillery fire. The Brigade staff meanwhile conferred with Unita officers in the hope of getting something done about the mines that still cluttered the area.
61 Mech, Unita's 3rd Regular Battalion, and 32 Battalion withdrew to seek cover against observation from the west bank. The 5th Regular Battalion was asked to occupy the abandoned Fapla positions if possible.
The SAAF launched a number of Mirages from Rundu at 16h15 to distract the MiGs and enable the G-5s to engage the Fapla artillery. The shelling continued, however, and the M-46s damaged two of the Ystervark 20 mm vehicles.
At 18h18 an M-46 round hit a Kwevoel loaded with 81 mm mortar bombs, and set the cargo on fire. Sergeant Koekemoer of 1 SAI climbed into the truck and began to drive it away from the rest of the vehicles. In doing so, however, he moved it nearer to Jacques de Wet, who did not appreciate this at all. Koekemoer had to give up when the 81 mm bombs began to explode by cases on the back of the truck. When the white phosphorus bombs also began to cook off, De Wet decided to move his diesel tankers farther from the area. Several MiGs meanwhile used the smoke as a marker, and flew cannon and rocket attacks, which, however, did not cause any damage or casualties.
The move brought De Wet's turn to provide amusement. He was standing up in the hatch of his Ratel to cut a hole in the camouflage netting, when the driver moved it deeper into cover. A wheel trapped the netting, which suddenly tightened over the hatch and slammed it down on De Wet, who finished up upside-down in the bottom of his Ratel. "Sergeant-Major, are you dead?" He was not, as the driver soon discovered.
At 18h33 Mike Muller requested permission to withdraw from the area altogether, as his force was suffering a steady trickle of casualties and damage from the shelling without being able to achieve anything. Colonel McLoughlin gave his permission. At much the same time, Unita's 5th Regular Battalion reported that it was not prepared to remain in occupation of the abandoned Fapla positions after the main force had withdrawn. While the South Africans were angry about this at the time, later consideration suggests that the battalion would not have been able to hold on to the positions by itself in any case, and would only have suffered needless casualties.
All the attacking forces now withdrew into their hides to replenish and repair vehicles and equipment. Recovery teams set out to bring in vehicles that had been unable to withdraw under their own power. At the Tactical Headquarters the staff and yet another posse of senior officers - including Generals Liebenberg, Hamman, Steyn and Meyer - set about planning a renewed attack.
The Fapla infantry had continued to vacate the forward positions, and many of them moved back to the river and crossed to the west bank. By 17hl3 the South African forward observers had already counted 779 men who had crossed over the damaged bridge. Despite the failure of the South African-Unita attack to break into the depth of the Fapla positions, the withdrawal continued through the night. Reconnaissance confirmed that Fapla had entirely abandoned their forward positions. They watched the positions during the night, but no attempt was made to reoccupy them.
Thus, while the attack had failed to penetrate to the bridge, it had reduced the Fapla foothold on the east bank to a tight bridgehead around the actual crossing point itself.
The confusion in the Fapla bridgehead during the evening offered what would appear to be an excellent opportunity for a night attack to seize at least the existing defences before Fapla could rally their troops sufficiently to reoccupy them. That would have left their 3rd Tank Battalion in an untenable position, and might have forced a complete withdrawal from the east bank. Various mechanical problems had, however, reduced the South African force so much that it could not generate another attack during the night. The decision to severely restrict the force level for the operations in support of Unita thus once again had its effect.
Intelligence later revealed that Fapla had lost 172 men killed, the Cubans ten. At least seven tanks had been destroyed.
Analysing the attack, the South Africans readily identified the main problem areas: The enemy's ability to keep fighters in the air continually - 59 sorties during this fighting - and thereby prevent concerted manoeuvre by the mechanised elements, effective artillery support and counter-bombardment;
very effective enemy artillery firing from behind high ground against registered, or observed targets; and the lack of a means to breach minefields quickly. It also seemed likely that Fapla patrols had found the marked approach routes, which enabled their engineers to place their minefields to such advantage. In any future attack, therefore, the marking of the routes would have to be done at the very last moment.