On 29 February the South Africans were not really ready for the attack. Eleven of their tanks, four Ratel-90s, five G-5s and one of the rocket launchers were still unserviceable, awaiting spare parts. Colonel McLoughlin decided to go ahead with the attack despite that; the weather was favourable, and he still had seventeen tanks and twelve G-5s to fight with. He did, however, shift the H-hour for the move to the assembly area forward to 15h00.
Mike Muller now reported that a critical component of the mine rollers was missing, and that that might delay him. Colonel McLoughlin remained firm on his starting time, for he wanted to exploit the advantages of a night attack. The missing component was found on a logistics vehicle in time for the move. Muller had meanwhile requested that the attack be changed to one at first light, to simplify the task of engaging the Fapla tanks that were still mobile. McLoughlin again remained firm on his timings. Muller also suggested that 32 Battalion should take the place of the 3rd Regular Battalion, also without success.
61 Mech moved off on time and was in its forward assembly area by 17h37. The mine rollers had, however, fallen behind, apparently because one of them overheated. With the tanks reportedly still giving trouble, McLoughlin ordered Muller to let him have a technical evaluation of his tanks, so that he could form an opinion of the situation.
The mine rollers had still not joined up by 20hl7, and Muller now also reported that he was down to eleven effective tanks. Colonel McLoughlin asked him whether he felt the attack could go ahead if he were reinforced with a squadron of Ratel-90s, which he could deploy to cover his flank. Muller agreed that that would give him an adequate force. Just over an hour later, at 21h55, General Meyer came into the picture. He was also concerned about the dwindling number of serviceable tanks, and asked Muller if he was able to go ahead with the attack. Muller again confirmed that he was happy to proceed, if the Ratel-90s joined him.
At 23h20 61 Mech reported themselves ready to move off, but that they were waiting for yet another tank that had dropped out. The force was now down to ten tanks and seventeen Ratel-90s.
At 00h10 on 1 March, 61 Mech reported that they were moving out of their forward assembly area. Another problem had, however, cropped up with the tanks: five of them had unserviceable driver night periscopes, which greatly hindered movement. The approach nevertheless went ahead, and by 01h50 the force had reached the point where the reserve was to drop off. The mine rollers had still not caught up, and heavy rain now greatly reduced visibility.
At 02h22 Muller again asked for the attack to be delayed until first light. Visibility had by now deteriorated to some fifty metres. In view of the various problems that had arisen, the poor light in particular. Colonel McLoughlin now agreed to Muller's persistent request. Given the altered circumstances, he also ordered the 3rd Regular Battalion to advance with the tanks, with the 5th Regular Battalion to follow behind them. 32 Battalion was to be held in reserve. He also stipulated that the attack should only go in if there were cloud cover.
The main force began moving again at 05h45, and reached the Lupire road at 07h20 after briefly losing its way and moving in north of the Dala instead of south. Les Rudman was meanwhile once again busy with a distraction operation, simulating the approach of a mechanised force from the south-east. His team did so very successfully, drawing Fapla's attention - and heavy and sustained artillery fire - while Mike Muller approached unobserved. The first enemy artillery fire only began falling around Muller's force at 07h30. The 5th Regular Battalion was met at 08h27. They were not displaying the agreed recognition signs and were reluctant to join up, although this was completed by 08h45. Four BM-21 ripples had meanwhile gone in on '61 Koppie' at 08h40 to no effect, as the force was well clear of it. The gunners took an interest, however, and plotted the launchers for future reference.
Muller now regrouped his force and moved off south of the Dala. The abandoned Fapla first line defences were crossed at 09h00, and the force swung around to move due west from there. An air warning at 09h55 cost only a few moments' delay, the aircraft flying past to the Chambinga source area. BM-21s kept shooting at the advancing vehicles but did not place any rockets nearby. A request from some tank commanders to engage BM-21s that they could see on the west bank was denied, because it would have revealed their location to the Fapla observers.
The movement went smoothly to the bush line, the tanks moving at walking speed and the 5th Regular Battalion deployed in line with them. The cloud cover was 7/8ths and very low, which kept the danger of air interference to the minimum. Colonel McLoughlin now obtained General Meyer's consent that the force should not stop its movement on receiving air warnings as long as the cloud cover remained adequate. At 10h43 the force came across an abandoned outpost, where the 5th Regular Battalion dug in. Soon after, the force began to receive 120 mm mortar fire.
Mike Muller began to find the situation too quiet for his liking, for only the mortar fire gave any indication that Fapla was even aware of his force. He reported that Fapla must either have withdrawn or were waiting to launch a counter-attack. Dust and smoke on the west bank suggested to him that the Fapla artillery would soon be coming into action against him.
Distinctly unhappy about the immediate situation, Muller slowed down to advance by bounds of 100 metres, and later reduced it to only 20 metres at a time. Several MiGs attacked at 11h25, but bombed some Fapla positions in error and drew heavy 23 mm fire, which warned the South Africans that there were many of these dangerous guns about. Tim Rudman counted at least nine.
Muller remained stopped for a short while after the air attack, to give one of the tanks pushing mine rollers time to cool down. He was at that point directly northeast of the confluence of the Cuito and the Tumpo, and had a good view of the west bank of the Cuito, where he could see a large number of vehicles, a radar system, some BM-21s and some tanks, all of which he duly reported to the artillery.
The MiGs returned at 11h45, but Muller kept moving forward using what cover there was. The fighters attacked at 11h50 without any result except to draw fire from both Unita and Fapla. One MiG-23 was hit by a missile and crashed near Longa. According to Unita, this aircraft was hit by a SAM fired by 13 Brigade, although the South Africans on the scene were sure that it had been hit by a Stinger.
Fapla at last reacted at 12h00, when between eight and twelve 23 mm guns opened fire on the advancing force. Muller swung his force south towards the enemy positions, and the forward observer called for fire on the 23mm guns. The tanks and Ratel-90s delivered speculative fire as they advanced. At 12h20 the force began entering more open terrain, and stopped for a while to wait for the MiGs to leave the area.
Colonel McLoughlin now instructed Muller to move 32 Battalion up to the forward assembly area.
Muller began moving again at 12h50, while the artillery engaged targets on the west bank before switching its attention to the 23 mm guns at 13hl0.
At 13h15 the leading elements drew indirect fire and some direct fire from the left flank.
At 13h25 Muller's force came into an area that had been cleared by Fapla to give a good field of fire. Muller deployed his force into combat formation and prepared to cross this terrain by bounds, asking the artillery observers to guide him as he approached the objective. Tim Rudman liad seen a radar scanner above the trees and reported it to Theo Wilken who, back from leave, was the forward artillery co-ordinator. He passed it to Charles Fuchs, who engaged it with the G-5s. Fuchs also engaged two other radars seen by the forward elements, and a BM-21 spotted on the west bank.
At 13h55 the force was only some 3 000 metres from the bridge. A mineroller detonated several anti-personnel mines, and Fapla immediately opened fire with 23 mm guns and 120 mm mortars, D-30s and BM-21 s. Muller replied with 81 mm mortar fire and, by 14h02, Fapla resistance began to crumble.
Soon after this first contact, at 14h22, one of the tanks detonated an anti-tank mine, and Fapla opened fire with anti-tank weapons from the front and the left flank. The South Africans and Unita now found themselves stopped by a high-density minefield on ground slightly lower than the surrounding terrain on which the Fapla anti-tank weapons were deployed. Three other tanks soon detonated mines, although only one suffered immobilising damage to a track. Fapla was now firing from the front and both flanks with B-10s, AGS-17s and various other weapons, including at least three Sagger anti-tank missiles fired from the west bank.
Muller pulled his force back slightly, redeploying to engage to the front and both flanks, and initiated a fire belt action against the Fapla elements around them. A forty-five minute fire-fight followed, during which all but the 23 mm guns and 120 mm mortars were silenced. The direct fire of the Olifants, Ratel-90s and the infantry of Unita's 3rd Regular Battalion on the Fapla positions opposite them, was supplemented by the Ratel-81s. They engaged observed and suspected Fapla positions and put some 500 bombs on them in a short time. The artillery also began firing at various Fapla positions. Muller's Ratel was grazed across the nose by a 23 mm projectile. Another Ratel was hit in a back wheel by a 23 mm round and one of its antennae was shot off. Others were also hit, but none were penetrated. Tim Rudman was lucky when a 120 mm mortar bomb exploded in a tree just above his cupola. He had just shut his hatch and was unhurt. Some of the Unita infantry still sitting on the back of his tank were killed or wounded, and his machine-gun was blown off the turret roof.
The South Africans and Unita had hardly begun firing, when Fapla artillery began to place accurate fire on them. Eighteen Fapla gun positions were identified, and the artillery switched its attention to them. With only six guns then available, there were none left for close support, which left the troops in contact entirely dependent on their mortars. Their direct fire and the fire of the 81 mm mortars proved adequate to the situation, and the opposing Fapla positions were silenced one by one. The tanks and the Ratel-90s fired some twenty to thirty rounds each in this clash, and the Ratel-20s averaged 200 rounds of 20 mm. Once the bulk of the opposing direct-fire weapons had been silenced, Muller slowly pulled his force back some 2 000 metres to be clear of the killing ground. At 14h28 the force again drew fire from a flank, causing Muller to pull back farther. One 23 mm gun that was bothering them was silenced by a single G-5.
A signals intercept at 14h30 indicated that Fapla had suffered quite heavy casualties in this brief engagement.
At 14h35 a reconnaissance team reported that the Fapla tanks at New Samaria had started up and were preparing to move. Colonel McLoughlin ordered 32 Battalion to draw back and the rest of the force to wait. Muller was meanwhile having mechanical problems with some of his vehicles and was also still taking 23 mm fire. He decided to pull back still farther to regroup in a safer area. At 14h50 a 23 mm round hit one of the Ratels, but caused no casualties or serious damage.
At 15h22 Muller requested permission to pull back to where his reserve was, in order to carry out a quick re-appreciation. By 15h30 he was down to only five serviceable tanks and could no longer operate an effective armoured force. Colonel McLoughlin discussed the situation with Generals Liebenberg and Meyer, and then gave his permission.
Muller meanwhile went on pulling farther and farther back in an effort to get out of range of the 23 mm guns, which were still giving trouble. Try as they might, the forward observers seemed unable to locate the 23 mm positions to silence them with fire from the G-5s. At 16h20 a Ratel moving just off the 'rollered' trail detonated a mine. It suffered only slight damage, however, and was able to continue with the force.
Muller at last got out of range of the 23 mm guns. Although his force was still being engaged by M-46s and 120 mm mortars, they did not present a serious threat at that time.
At 15h50 Colonel McLoughlin and Muller discussed the possibility of a night attack together with 32 Battalion, but Muller felt that it would not be feasible given the small number of serviceable tanks. Some of his Ratels were now also beginning to give trouble, and he was also drawing increasingly heavy artillery fire.
At 17h00 McLoughlin decided to call off the attack and gave permission for Muller to withdraw to the forward assembly area. A covering force was to be deployed in the former 59 Brigade positions as before, to prevent any interference from Tumpo or any attempt to reoccupy these positions. This task fell to 4 SAI and a Unita battalion. 4 SAI deployed its armoured car squadron, a mechanised infantry company, an assault pioneer section and four anti-tank missile teams. Both 61 Mech and the main body of 4 SAI then moved back to their assembly areas.
Mike Muller summed up the outcome tersely: "The enemy is strong and clever." While Fapla did not have a strong force in the bridgehead, they did have very strong artillery elements that did most of the fighting, and they - or, rather, General Cintra Frias - certainly planned and executed their defence very cleverly indeed. It is an open question whether they would have been able to deal with a night attack as effectively. Their artillery, which relied on observers to some extent, would have been less effective. Their air force would have been out of the picture altogether.
One outstanding characteristic of the Fapla defence was their use of an antitank reserve, which could move quickly to deploy in support of that part of their positions threatened by imminent attack. The use of mines to 'announce' the attacking force before it could see the positions and to slow it down long enough to allow the mobile anti-tank reserve to deploy, worked as planned. The next stage would probably have been to bring up the tanks - although they were down to five mobile ones, the rest being dug in - either to beef up the defence, or to destroy the weakened attacking force. That that did not happen, was due to the superior fighting ability of the South Africans, who managed to subdue the Fapla elements in contact, and then to extricate themselves and Unita before the tanks could come up. The Fapla reaction to the main attack was also delayed by the confusion caused by Les Rudman and his deception team. For some time the Fapla commander thought that their sound-effects might be the actual attack, and he did not react to the warning by his outpost of the South African approach from the north.