Battle on the Lomba: The day a South African Armoured Battalion shattered Angola’s last mechanised offensive

Battle on the Lomba“We didn’t have it all our own way; casualties followed most contacts but the most devastating day for squad morale was the direct hit by two MIG 21’s on 8 October… This is my story.”

Those are the words of ‘Battle on the Lomba 1987’ author David Mannall MMM who tells us here about the day a South African Armoured Battalion shattered Angola’s last mechanised offensive.

‘Battle on the Lomba’ is written – primarily – from my own perspective as Troop Sergeant and Ratel 90 crew commander. Whilst there are significant contacts, skirmishes and some amusing anecdotes throughout our three-month tour in Angola, the story hinges on a single action; a momentous day-long battle that turned a 25,000 strong- Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola (FAPLA) offensive on its head, causing “the enemy to retreat in disarray”.

For me, National Service in 1986, aged 17 sparked a sequence of decisions, actions and events which – following my selection for Armoured Corps Officer training – transformed me from gentle soul to battlefield stalwart.

This journey, which I shared with a small band of South African teenagers and an even smaller band of career soldiers, leads inexorably to one of the most significant military actions of the Cold War period.

First-year training was tough and by no means smooth. I passed the requisite physical, academic, vehicle and weapons tests, then the coveted 90mm Crew Commander course before despatch to 61 Mechanised Battalion Group (61 Mech) for a 12-month tour on the ‘Border’ between South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola. This 2000km stretch of god-forsaken desert had become pivotal during the two-decade insurgent struggle against South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO).

61 Mech was a highly mobile rapid-response Mechanised Infantry unit; 350 servicemen combined to form a permanent fusion of Artillery, Anti-Aircraft and Anti-Tank capabilities. We were plugged in to an extensive intelligence network of Portuguese-speaking soldiers, behind-the-lines information gathering network (spies) and a highly professional airforce on speed-dial (albeit an ageing, sanctions-knobbled, fleet of French Mirage fighter jets).

On the ground, 61 Mech offered fearsome precision long-range artillery capabilities from a battery of 155mm (G5) cannons which, when combined with almost simultaneous deployment of Infantry or anti-tank forces at ground zero, was as if a living part of some great macabre battlefield orchestra (on good days, when things went as planned!)

Charlie squadron’s 12 Ratel 90’s were modified medium-skinned armoured Infantry fighting vehicles with hardened nose-plate and turret-mounted low-pressure 90mm naval cannon (not stabilised) which were not designed for tank warfare.

During the 1970s and early 80s Angolan rebels known as National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi were clandestinely supported by the USA; to a lesser extent UK and, increasingly, called on assistance from the South African government.

Billions of oil dollars later, by the time we join the fray in 1987, FAPLA was in final stage preparations after twoyears meticulous planning and training (by Russian/E. German/Cuban Specialists) for their largest most audacious offensive ever – spearheaded by the largest conventional mechanised force ever assembled on the sub-Continent.

By July ’87, twelve Brigades were mobilised and aimed directly for the UNITA strongholds of Mavinga and Jamba – the south-east corner of the country.

Despite politicians’ vehement and repeated denials of any cross-border incursion, 61 Mech received orders to cross the border under cover of darkness at the end of August; travel five days through increasingly harsh terrain and join 32 and 101 Battalion (light Infantry) to try halt the southward rushing tsunami of Russian military hardware, known by them as Operation ‘Greeting October’. They had the aircraft, anti-aircraft and mechanised hardware to dominate. We were massively outgunned, but we weren’t out-trained and out-disciplined – not by a long shot!

After a month on the front some 350km into Angola, 61 Mech endure an epic ‘David and Goliath’ encounter against a far stronger (by a factor of at least four), Tank battalion-hardened, 47th Armoured Brigade. By using targeted Artillery action to confine 47th Brigade against the Lomba river during the preceding day, Charlie’s 12 crew commanders – supported by a further eight Ratel 90’s on our exposed left flank – use their mine-hardened six-wheel leviathan’s relative agility to out-manoeuvre the more powerful but ageing T55’s throughout the course of a day-long engagement, pausing only briefly a couple of times to restock the 29-bomb turret.

By early afternoon on 3 October 1987, Battle on the Lomba had already become a humiliating hammer blow to FAPLA. Their plan to open a new front on the river’s south bank had been blown apart. A battalion of main battle tanks were either destroyed, captured or fled in disarray. The combination of precision artillery, discipline and corps de esprit on the part of a small band of teenage Ratel crewmen who faced a far stronger foe, held their lines and triumphed.

It was openly acknowledged by all sides that 61 Mech effectively destroyed 47th Brigade as a fighting force that day. On final count, over 180 vehicles including 18 main battle tanks were destroyed or captured. We lost one of our 12 crews. Unfortunately, hundreds of opposition fighters never made it back across the north bank of Lomba River on 3 October 1987. ‘Greeting October’ quickly became ‘Fleeting October’.

Russian Generals were so stunned by the magnitude of defeat they began the slow process of wholesale withdrawal of the three other Brigades near the Lomba River.

South African officials – so flushed with success – redrew operational plans and sent us chasing after the retreating FAPLA Brigades.

These were not conditions favourable for mechanised warfare and despite howls of protest from senior officers in the field, orders now included the chase and degrading of enemy capabilities before they reached the relative protection, some 120km north at Cuito Cuanevale.

To augment our capabilities in the field, a further battalion (4 South African Infantry) is ordered to join the fray, and for the first time since WW2 sends a squadron of Olifant main battle tanks into action on 9 November.

Soon thereafter my unit completes National Service; we gift our equipment to the following next intake right there in theatre, having been within striking distance of Cuito Cuanevale.

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