In the spring of 1974, revolution erupted in Portugal. After four decades of authoritarian rule, the Portuguese people and military leaders ousted the regime of Estado Novo. The consequences of the Carnation Revolution (as it became known) had international effects on the colonial wars in Africa. Portugal had been bogged down by liberation movements in Angola, Portuguese Guinea and Mozambique. With the overthrow of the authoritarian regime, independence was granted to the African colonies. The South Africans, fighting their own insurgency in South-West Africa (modern day Namibia), launched secret offensive operations into Angola targeting communist fighters on 23 October. On 4 November 1975, Cuba launched Operation Carlota to support the communist insurgents. Fidel Castro later noted, “When the invasion of Angola by regular South African troops started on 23 October, we could not sit idle.” The war in Angola had taken a dangerous turn.
Unlike previous operations in Africa that involved clandestine support, Operation Carlota was an overt operation. After seizing the coastal towns of Benguela and Lobito on 6-7 November, the South Africans (Task Force Zulu) continued their advance along the coast. Cuban troops destroyed three bridges crossing the Queve River, halting the South African advance on 13 November. With the increase of Cuban troops to Angola, the South African’s were soon engaged by professional troops, and the tide began to turn in favor of the communists. In January 1976, the Cubans launched their first counter-offensive against South African troops in the Tongo and Medunda Hills region. Discouraged by the Cuban’s performance, and lacking support from the West, the South African leadership ordered the retreat of its troops from Angola.
The South African’s continued to launch offensive operations into Angola following their initial withdrawal in March 1976. On 14 August 1987, after a decade of engagement in Angola the South African’s launched Operation Moduler in southwest Angola to prevent a rout of their allied forces known as the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The two sides clashed near the town of Cuito Cuanavale. Each side deployed armor and aircraft. Tanks, troops, and aircraft clashed in the largest battle on African soil since World War II. After seven months of intense fighting (as well as three additional South African operations) the two sides agreed to participate in the US sponsored Tripartite Accord.
The peace talks led to the implementation of UN Resolution 435 (originally adopted in September 1978 but not agreed upon by the South Africans). Foreign forces were withdrawn from Angola and Namibia, and a United Nations peacekeeping force (UNTAG) was deployed to Namibia to monitor the peace process. Namibia would gain its independence on 21 March 1990. Despite the successful implementation of peace in Namibia, fighting still occurred in Angola between the different factions vying for control of the government. On 4 April 2002, over 26 years after the launch of Operation Carlota to support the communist insurgency peace was achieved and the Angolan Civil War ended.
Look for more information regarding the Angolan Civil War in the future Modern War issue #23 with the article “Border War: South Africans on the Angolan Frontier” and join the conversation on Facebook!