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About The War In Angola
The First Attack on Tumpo: 25 February 1988
The First Attack on Tumpo
The First Attack on Tumpo: Historical Account

Extract taken with the author's permission from: “War In Angola - The Final South African Phase“, by Helmoed-Römer Heitman (See Bibliography) For the Background and the Run-up to Intervention, get the book! *

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.

* Please note that this extract is copyrighted under the Berne Convention in terms of the Copyright Act (Act 98 of 1978). No part of this extract may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the publisher

Published by Ashanti Publishing Limited, Gibraltar, a division of Ashanti International Films Limited, Gibraltar.

Battle Roll of Honour (A Work In Progress - please send more information)
Post your Comments and Personal Experiences of this Battle here
Posted by

Lt Schoemies
on 15 July

First attack on Tumpo: 25 February 1988

Having been forced out of both their defence lines east of the Cuito River, Fapla were in a difficult situation. If they were to retain any capability of remounting their offensive in the south-east during 1988, it was essential to retain possesion of the Tumpo area as a bridgehead. In fact, the loss of Tumpo would also render Cuito Cuanavale and its air base untenable.

The situation around Tumpo heavily favoured Fapla. Not only was the terrain favourable to the defence. but they had had several months to dig in and prepare it. They had built strong positions strengthened with minefields, with fields of fire cleared where necessary by bulldozers. Infantry supported by tanks, antitank weapons and artillery were positioned to cover all approaches to the base, and mines also been laid on all likely approaches...

The plan for the South African's attack on Tumpo wqs approved on 22 February, and an order was issued...

If you were involved in any way in this attack of the South African ground forces and FAPLA on this day, please feel free to post your story and comments here.

Posted by

Gert Kotze
on 25 February

RE: First attack on Tumpo: 25 February 1988

The artillery fire from Fapla was unbelievable...Being part of the Regiment Molopo Tank Squadron I remember stopping when two of our Tanks detonated mines.Our tank was moving / vibrating whilst standing still the whole time due to all the ordinance falling around us. The guys got out of their tanks to repair the tracks..Close to us a Mortar Crew of 32 kept on firing with virtually no cover..I felt for the poor Unita soldiers on the Tanks who also had scant cover...
Posted by

Lt Schoemies
on 26 February

RE: First attack on Tumpo: 25 February 1988

Gert, I was OPO for the G5s during the Third attack on 23 March, done by Regiment President Steyn, and I saw exactly what you are referring to... there were about 60 guns that opened up with indirect fire on the tanks and the accompanying UNITA soldiers initially riding on the tanks and afterwards advancing next to them... They took the brunt of casualties that day as I am sure was also the case on 25 February!
Posted by

Lt Schoemies
on 26 February

RE: First attack on Tumpo: 25 February 1988


561. Die aanval op Tumpo het nie geslaag nie. Met uitsondering van 32 Bn se vroeëre aanval, is daar nie op enige stadium kontak met die vyand gemaak nie. Howel baie of die meeste van die FAPLA troepe oor die rivier gevlug het, was die vyand se verdediginsstellings nog soos dit voor die aanval was.

562. Retrospektief kan die vyand se taktiek vir die verdediging nie anders as uiters suksesvol beskryf word nie. Die lê van die mynveld binne die boslyn het eie magte verhoed om direkte vuur op die vyandelike stellings neer te bring. Daarenteen het dit aan die vyandelike artillerie die geleentheid gebied om met behulp van waargenome artillerievuur groot verliese in eie magte se geledere te veroorsaak en om die beweging van die hoofmag effektief te vetraag. Die feit dat die mynveld presies op die toegangsweg van die hoofmag gelê was, kon moontlik die resultaat gewees het van deeglike vyandige verkenning wat die uitwerk van die toegangsweg waargeneem het.

563. Die vyandige lugmag het altesaam 59 uitvlugte gedoen en sodoende feitlik ononderbroke in die lug gebly. Nie alleen het dit die beweging van die hoofmag bedreig em belemmer nie, maar ook aan die vyandige artillerie die geleentheid gebied om akkurate en vernietigende vuur op die hoofmag neer te bring sonder dat die RSA se artillerie effektief teenbombardement kon lewer.

564. Die feit dat die gesamentlike RSA/UNITA aanval afgeslaan is sonder dat die vyand se tenks of troepe in direkte kontak met hulle was beslis 'n inspuiting vir die lae moreel van die vyand. Die beplanners van die verdediging moes beslis baie tevrede gevoel het met hulleself.

565. Die aanval het ook beweys gelewer van die sterk moontlikheid dat doie RSA/UNITA magte in die laaste instansie teen so te sê suiwer Kubaanse magte te staan sou kom as dit by die finale geveg om die brughoof sou kom. FAPLA troepe het weereens, en waarskynlik to groot ergenis van die Kubane, getoon dat hulle nie bereid was om in hulle stellings te bly wanneer hulle deur 'n gemeganiseerde RSA mag aangeval word nie.

566. Van RSA/UNITA kant beskou, was die uitslag van die aanval teleurstellend. Nie alleen is die spesifieke opdrag vir die aanval nie uitgevoer nie, maar was die status quo in geen opsig verander nie. Die vyand was steeds veilig in beheer van die Tumpogebied as die sleutelgebied oos van Cuito Cuanavale.

567. Die ernstige behoefte aan effektiewe grond-tot-lug lugafweerwapens wat saam met die aanvalsmag optree, is opnuut beklemtoon. Gesien teen die totale lugoormag wat die vyand gehad het, kon die SA Lugmag ook nie noue lugsteun aan die grondmagte verleen nie. Dit het die RSA se artillery sodanig aan bande gelê dat teenbombardemente en die bestoking van geleentheidsteikens soos die kruising van die rivier nie gedoen kon word nie.

568. Die aanval op Tumpo was die eerste werklike terugslag vir die RSA magte. Die aanval het geskied teen 'n aantal faktore in wat groot beperkings op die RSA magte geplaas het, terwyl dieslfde faktore die vyand bevoordeel het en deur hulle behoorlik uitgebuit is. Beplanning vir toekomstige optrede sou aan hierdie faktore aandag moes verleen en maniere moes vind dit te neutraliseer of te benut indien enige sukses behaal wou word. In hierdie opsig was daar veral vier aspekte waarna deeglik gekyk moes word, naamlik :
  • a. Neutralisering van die vyandige artillerie.
  • b
Posted by

Lt Schoemies
on 26 February

RE: First attack on Tumpo: 25 February 1988


561. The attack on Tumpo was not successful. With the exception of 32 Bn's earlier attack, no contact was made with the enemy at any time. Although many, or most, of the FAPLA troops had fled across the river, the enemy's defences were still as they were before the attack.

562. Retrospectively, the enemy's tactics for defence cannot be described other than being extremely successful. The laying of the minefield within the forest line prevented our own forces from bringing down direct fire on the enemy positions. In fact, the opposite effect was experienced by the enemy as it provided the enemy artillery with the opportunity to inflict great losses on the ranks of our own forces with the help of observed artillery fire, and to effectively slow down the movement of the main force. The fact that the minefield was located exactly on the main access route could possibly have been the result of thorough enemy reconnaissance that had observed the nett effect of the access route.

563. The enemy air force made a total of 59 out-flights, thus remaining in the air virtually uninterrupted. Not only did this threaten the movement of the main force, but also gave the enemy artillery the opportunity to bring accurate and destructive fire to the main force without the RSA's artillery being able to effectively do counter-bombardment.

564. The fact that the combined RSA / UNITA attack was defeated without the enemy's tanks or troops making direct contact with them was certainly an injection for the low morale of the enemy. The planners of the defence must have felt very satisfied with themselves.

565. The attack also proved the strong possibility that the RSA / UNITA forces would eventually face virtually pure Cuban forces in the final battle for the bridgehead. FAPLA troops once again, and probably to the great annoyance of the Cubans, showed that they were unwilling to remain in their positions when attacked by a mechanized RSA force.

566. From RSA / UNITA's point of view, the outcome of the attack was disappointing. Not only was the specific instruction for the attack not achieved, but the status quo was not changed in any way. The enemy was still safe and sound and in control of the Tumpo area as the key area east of Cuito Cuanavale.

567. The serious need for effective ground-to-air air defence weapons acting with the attack force was re-emphasized. In view of the total air force the enemy had, the SA Air Force was also unable to provide close air support to the ground forces. This restricted the RSA's artillery in such a way that counter-bombardment and the engagement of targets of opportunity, such as the crossing of the river, could not be done.

568. The attack on Tumpo was the first real setback for the RSA forces. The attack took place against a number of factors which placed great restrictions on the RSA, while the same factors favoured and was properly exploited by the enemy. Planning for future action would have to address these factors and find ways to neutralize it, or use it for own benefit, if any success was to be achieved. In this regard, there were four aspects in particular that had to be carefully considered, namely:
  • a. Neutralization of the enemy artillery.
  • b. Neutralization of the enemy air threat and its effect on the use of our own ground forces, and its effect on both RS
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Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET

Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET

Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET