Operation Hooper

Operational Years

Objective of the Operation

The aim of Operation Hooper was to inflict maximum casualties on the retreating FAPLA forces after they had been halted

Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group


Personal Impressions of the Commander

* Note - Commandant Mike Muller passed away in 2016 before his personal impressions about Op Hooper could be recorded. The extracts from War in Africa by Fred Bridgland here below is posted here courtesy of the publishers Jonathan Ball who will publish an updated version of this book in South Aftrica during June 2017


Operation Hooper began in rather less secrecy than Operation Moduler. Scarcely three weeks before Hooper’s launch day – Saturday 13 December 1987 – the United Nations Security Council unanimously demanded that South Africa withdraw all its military forces from Angola.

South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha reacted to the Security Council’s 25 November resolution by flatly rejecting the demand. “The South African government will decide for itself when South African troops will be withdrawn from the current battleground.” The furore had erupted at the UN before South African Defence Minister Magnus Malan finally admitted, in a statement released in Pretoria in mid-November 1987, that the SADF was indeed fighting in Angola and had “saved” Savimbi’s UNITA from annihilation. Malan spoke out partly at the urging of Britain’s MI-6 intelligence agency, which was deeply supportive of the South African adventure but appalled by the witless conduct of the accompanying public relations campaign.

Admitting for the first time that four South African soldiers had been killed in fighting against Fapla and the Cubans in southern Angola, a South African Army communiqué said their deaths were the result of “limited” support on 9 November to UNITA in operations against “Cuban and other Communist surrogate forces.”

While Malan was telling the world that the SADF had rescued Savimbi, the UNITA leader was claiming to journalists at his Jamba HQ that his movement had beaten off Fapla, the Cubans and the Soviets single-handed.  “There has not been South African intervention”, he told some 20 foreign correspondents who had been flown into Jamba from Pretoria aboard a 40-year old twin-prop Dakota of the South African Air Force. “We’ve had aid from South Africa but not men fighting at our side.  That is categorical…… There is no battle going on here that warrants the participation of the South Africans.”


Hepatitis claimed as new victims the Commandants of both 4 SAI and 61 Mech, Jan Malan and Koos Liebenberg. Commandant Cassie Schoeman took over from Malan, and Mike Muller returned early from leave to take over from Commandant Liebenberg.  Mike Muller arrived at the tactical HQ and received orders to prepare 61 Mech as a flank defensive and reserve force for the attack on 59 Brigade.  Cassie Schoeman would lead a thrust by 4 SAI on 59 Brigade’s main positions.

“Our base area was on the eastern side of the Chambinga High Ground, about 30 km from the nearest outposts of 59 Brigade,” recalled Mile Muller. “I trained there with my men, practising co-ordination between tanks, Ratels, infantry, artillery and UNITA battalions.  Our job was quite a big one.  We had to be ready to protect 4 SAI from attack by Fapla’s 25 Brigade, immediately to the south, and 21 Brigade, immediately to the north.  25 Brigade was the bigger danger, since UNITA was scheduled to make a feint attach on 21 Brigade.  We also had to cover against 16 Brigade and its tactical armoured group and Fapla’s Third Tank Battalion in the Tumpo Triangle.  Unknown to us at that stage was the entry of elements of Castro’s prized 50 Division to bolster Fapla. My first task was to lead my battalion between 21 and 59 Brigades, whose outer pickets were about five kilometres apart, and take up position in dense bush on the north-eastern edge of the Anhara Lipanda (an area of flat, featureless, sparsely vegetated land fanning out eastwards from the Cuito Bridge to the Chambinga High Ground).  Once we were in position we would be about 13 kilometre from the Cuito Bridge and would be able to scrutinize all the enemy brigades.

“We faced three big problems in getting into position.  The obvious one was that we had to sneak in without Fapla cottoning on to just how big was my force.  I had been assigned a tank squadron, two companies of mechanised infantry, two armoured car squadrons, a mortar platoon and an engineer troop.  The second hard nut to crack was Heartbreak Hill, which began at the crest of the Chambinga High Ground and fell sharply about 60m through thick bush to our delegated flank position just inside the bushline from the Anhara Lipanda.  What made it especially difficult was the looseness of the sand on the steep slope.  Our recces said it would be tricky to descent and even trickier to climb back up, especially towing vehicles that would be damaged or have engine failures.The third problem was that our delays had enabled Fapla to bring up a new heavy mobile bridge to Cuito Cuanavale to span the gap in the Cuito Bridge.  Fapla moved lots of heavy equipment across the river again, and they supplemented the bridge with a mobile flat-bottomed metal ferry.  So we knew we were in for a big fight.”

Mike Muller’s and Cassie Schoeman’s men prepared to attach 59 Brigade on the D-Day of 27 January 1988.  But the attack was postponed because inadequate supplies of diesel fuel had been brought in by convoy to sustain a prolonged battle.  This reduced the odds favouring 4 SAI and 61 Mech since it gave Fapla even more time to reinforce and improve its defences.  59 and 21 Brigades began busily laying minefields and 21 Brigade received tank reinforcements. D-Day was re-scheduled for Sunday 14 February 1988.  But McLoughlin was deeply anxious throughout the Saturday beforehand as Muller and Schoeman geared up their men for the attack.  With him in his heavily camouflaged bunker there was the reassuring presence of Ferreira, plus an intelligence officer, an operations officer, a national serviceman keeping records, a Medical Corps doctor, a padre and an Air Force liaison officer.

When news came through that Hartslief had made a successful attack against Menongue, McLoughlin ordered Muller and Schoeman to begin moving 61 Mech and 4 SAI from their base areas late at night over the Chambinga High Ground towards 59 Brigade’s positions.  The two SADF battalions, accompanied by UNITA’s 3rd Regular Battalion, which had won grudging respect from professional South African officers who applied exacting standards, were in the forward assembly areas by 2 am on 14 February. As light seeped in at the dawn, there was fog and a low layer of cloud.  The Migs would be out of action.  “We waited for the “go” command from Colonel McLoughlin at tactical HQ,” said Muller.  “At 8.45 he said “go” and our artillery immediately opened up.  At about the same time two UNITA semi-regular battalions attacked outposts of 21 Brigade from the north-east.  That was a successful feint, because for several hours the Fapla command HQ thought 21 Brigade was the main objective and 59 Brigade was ordered to move north to help 21 Brigade. 61 Mech led most of the way through the thick bush, with 4 SAI following in our tracks.  We moved in three columns so that we were not strung out too far.  By 11am the fog had lifted and the clouds had cleared.  The Migs were in the air in swarms.  That held us up further because we had to keep seeking cover in the densest bush.  It was not until after midday that we reached the crest of the Chambinga High Ground.  Recces there who had plotted routes for us guided me into 61 Mech’s position and Cassie Schoeman onto 4 SAI’s first target, the northernmost battalion of 59 Brigade.  (Three battalions, each of 400 men, made up 59 Brigade).  Now we split up.  61 Mech slithered down Heartbreak Hill, sneaking between 21 Brigade and 59 Brigade. We were in position on the edge of the Anhara Lipanda by 2 pm, and now it all depended on Cassie and 4 SAI who swung south about a quarter of an hour later three or four kilometres behind us to hit 59 Brigade,” Muller said.  Cassie Schoeman’s tank squadron and supporting Ratel-90s, Ratel-20s and Ratel-81s made their first contact just after 3 pm when an Olifant gunner by the splendid name of Spikkels Terblanche slammed a 105 mm shell into a 23 mm gun emplacement and silenced its sputtering.  Meanwhile, the UNITA battalions in the north continued to do a fine job and, despite taking heavy casualties, hit 21 Brigade’s main positions at the same time as 4 SAI’s attach began.

Cassie Schoeman moved his force forward in 100 m spurts, stopping to lay down concentrated fire and reorganise.  Soon after Spikkels Terblanche’s early success the Ratel-90 again proved its remarkable worth in African conditions when one of the armoured cars shot out a T-55 tank with its 90 mmgun. 4 SAI’s Olifants and Ratels were soon in the main enemy bunker area.  Many Fapla soldiers were mown down as they climbed out of their dug-in positions and tried to flee.  By 4:15 pm 4 SAI had destroyed another four T-55s and had reached 59 Brigade’s HQ only to find that it had been abandoned.  4 SAI’s main task was achieved:  59 Brigade was in full flight back to the Tumpo Triangle.

“When 59 Brigade realised it was in trouble, its commander asked Fapla’s 3rd Tank Battalion to move up and provide support,” said Muller. “The 3rd Tank Battalion first moved southeast to link up with elements of 25 Brigade and then northeastwards inside the treeline along the edge of the Anhara Lipanda to attach 4 SAI from the west. Our recces and EW teams alerted me to the manoeuvre and so I shifted my main force due south in fighting formation, leaving behind a flank force of one armoured car squadron and a company of mechanised infantry.  After we had gone about two kilometres we came to the edge of a longish shona which intruded from west to east into the treeline.  (see map).  It was slightly more than 1 000 metres wide.  We had no time to manoeuvre all the way round – it was well past 5:30 pm – so we had to expose ourselves by crossing it to get to the combined force of the 3rd Tank Battalion and 25 Brigade.” My headquarters troop consisted of three Ratels – a Ratel Command vehicle with radios and map tables inside, and mounted with one 12,7 mm machine-gun in the turret and three 7,6 mm machine guns; an EW Ratel; and a Ratel-20.  We moved about 20 to 30 metres behind the front line of tanks. We poked our noses out of the shona and stopped to do some observation.  We saw movement in the bush on the southern side, but we didn’t know at that point that it was Fapla’s 3rd Tank Battalion trying to get in position to attack 4 SAI on its western flank.  I ordered a fire belt drill (in which tanks fire one shot each, all at the same time).  Two enemy forward observers fell dead out of the trees and later on we discovered they were both Cubans.  We then detected that the force on the other side of the shona was beginning to retreat southwards.  I ordered my force to move fast across the open shoneain battle formation – tanks in front allowed by Ratel-mounted infantry with Ratel-90s on the flanks.

“We hit the southern bush line at high speed, and barely 50 m into the trees we confronted the first enemy tank with most of 61 Mech still strung out across the shona.  The tank was parked in an ambush position in deep bush at a right angle to our line of advance.  It had lurked there quietly and safely because I had ordered my eight 81 mm mortar crews to lob their bombs 1 000 m into the southern bushline where my intelligence team estimated 59 Brigade to be fleeing westwards.  Four smoke plumes showed mortar hits on 59 Brigade

“It was Captain Christo Terblanche (a 61 Mech infantry company commander) who first noticed the ambush tank.  That tank commander was a Cuban, and I think his plan was to take out my HQ group because he let our first line of tanks go past him when he could have knocked out one of them easily.  My intelligence officer told me that as we crossed the shona he had intercepted a message from the 3rd Tank Battalion to the Cuito Cuanavale HQ saying they had located 61 Mech, and HQ replied with instructions to kill the 61 Mech commander. My command group never saw that tank until we were just past him.  It had started moving towards us at speed, with its commander standing up with his head through the open hatch, when Christo Terblanche in a Ratel-20 on my right flank spotted him.  It was impossible in that bush to move the Ratel into reverse in time to intercept the tank, so Terblanche leapt down intending to take the tank out by dropping a hand grenade through the hatch.  But he couldn’t get near because all the 20 mm guns on the Ratels and other machine-guns were pouring fire at the tank.. Terblanche turned back and asked his gunner for his R-4 rifle, but by the time he began to go forward again one of the other gunners had shot the Cuban commander dead as he turned to the right to knock me out.As the commander fell dead during the turning manoeuvre he must have slumped on the controls because the gun barrel drooped and at the same time fired a 100 mm shell which shot out the rear axle of the Ratel next to me.  No one was injured, but the Ratel was completely out of the battle because lots of metal and other rubbish from the axle was forced up into its engine.I had two spare tanks behind me, so I brought one of them up to destroy the T-55.  It had been a close experience.  I think the Cuban was on a kamikaze mission to hit our HQ; he must have known he was going to die.  Maybe he was on dagga (marijuana).  I don’t know, but the Cuban and Fapla troops loved that stuff.  Sometimes they did crazy things which were difficult to believe.  We suspect they smoked dagga to give them guts before a fight.”  (Christo Terblanche was subsequently awarded the Southern Cross medal for outstanding bravery in the course of battle).

The fighting now swirled ferociously as the Olifants encountered more T-55s of Fapla’s 3rd Tank Battalion and 25 Brigade which were concealed in thick bush near the shona.  They fought valiantly to protect 59 Brigade as it fled westwards, some 1 000 m behind 25 Brigade towards the safety of the Tumpo Triangle. “It was a very close fight in the dense bush”, said Muller.  “We were destroying their tanks at only 10 to 30 m range while many infantrymen were being killed on the ground with machine-gun fire.  About 25 minutes into the battle we had advanced only 400 m into the bush but had shot out seven of their tanks; four were burning like hell and exploding all the time for an hour or two.  That made things very difficult for our infantrymen on the ground, so they were having to take cover or get back into the Ratels. 59 Brigade began to direct 23 mm fire on us from the southwest.  The ZU-23 is a hell of a good weapon.  You don’t hear the shots during battle because there is so much other noise from bombs falling and your own weapons firing.  You only see the 23 mm tracers coming at you at four shots a burst.  My HQ Ratel came under heavy fire at one time.  Luckily we were behind a row of tanks, and one tank at my right front acted as a shield.  It was a fantastic sight.  The 23 mm shells come at a hell of a speed and there was a kind of white heat with showers of sparks as they hit the tank.  But they can’t penetrate a tank’s armour and they just left a pattern of white dots.  One slug took off the radio aerial just above my head: six inches lower and I was dead.  After that I ordered all hatches closed.  Later there were “bruises” all over my Ratel where 23 mm shells had struck at too sharp an angle for penetration.

“The crew of one of my Ratels weren’t so lucky.  A burst of four 23 mm shells hit their vehicle directly: the holes were 20 cm apart.  All four men were killed instantly by flying metal and by the speed of the shells which cause a massive displacement of air.  They were badly wrecked up.  They weren’t human beings any more, just a hand here and a head there and a piece of rib there.”

“Further disaster followed.  The SADF had encountered Cubans  before in the War for Africa, but at the earlier battles on the Lomba, Mainei, Vimpulo, Hube and Chambinga Fidel Castro’s warriors had restricted themselves to advisory and planning roles and the operation of high technology equipment.  They had not got involved directly in ground combat.  Colonel Ferreira’s intelligence team had identified a pattern of seven Soviet and 30 Cuban advisers attached to each Fapla brigade.  The soviets were with the brigade commander’s HQ while the Cubans manned sophisticated anti-aircraft, radar and heavy artillery equipment; but whenever serious danger loomed both the Soviets and the Cubans were helicoptered to safety.  Now, in the 14 February battle, Cuban troops were fighting in the front line for the first time and they were dying for the first time.  The commanders and gunners of the 3rd Battalion’s T-55s were Cubans while the drivers and gun loaders were Angolans.  Some of the infantrymen and forward artillery observers also were Cubans. Once it was clear that men from Havanna were heavily involved, the order came from Pat McLoughlin to Muller and Schoeman:  “Get one of them – alive!”  A Cuban PoW was desperately needed for intelligence and propaganda purposes.  The media highlights of the Cuban-South African tussles since 1975 had not derived from the frontline fighting, in which foreign editors around the world showed little interest, but from the occasions on which either side could produce a captured Boer, Fidelista or Ruski at a well-attended press conference.“Having been ordered to get one, I could hardly believe my luck when a Cuban soldier without a weapon appeared right next to my Ratel at the height of the battle with his hands in the air,” said Mile Muller.  “But my delight immediately turned to dust when a small UNITA infantry unit attached to 61 Mech cut the Cuban boy to pieces with small arms fire. There wasn’t time to remonstrate.  You see the shellbursts, the flames, the contacts, the dying, but strangely you don’t hear the shooting although there’s hellish noise all around.  As commander keeping control of the tanks and armoured cars you have always to stay cool and calm and talk steadily on the radio as you work with the troops on the ground.  All the while I was watching out of my observation window (a tiny square of reinforced armour-glass) I had my headphones on listening to all the different radio nets.  I was concentrating so hard on all the talking that was going on that I didn’t even notice one tank shell which passed within feet and moved down a tree right next to us.  It was only when my crew pointed it out after the battle that I know about it, although I could see whole trees falling next to our people elsewhere.”

For the first time since the October 1987 fighting on the Lomba River the South Africans had achieved a reasonably unambiguous victory.  McLoughlin and Ferreira had defined limited but clear aims – the destruction of 59 Brigade and the driving of 21 and 25 Brigades back into the narrow confines of the Tumpo Triangle.  By the end of the day on 14 February the survivors from 59 Brigade were pouring into the Triangle. …On the other hand, Ferreira had bad news for niggardly politicians in Pretoria who while desiring victories on the battlefields also wanted them achieved with no casualties in order to protect themselves to their white electorates.  Besides 61 Mech’s four deaths, another three of the battalion’s young national servicemen had been seriously wounded.

After overrunning 59 Brigade, 4 SAI swung round to help 61 Mech in the encounter with 25 Brigade, the 3rd Tank Battalion and 59 Brigade’s retreating tail.  Schoeman moved his force parallel with Muller’s but about two kilometres further eastwards along the lower part of the slope of the Chambinga High Ground, shooting out another two enemy tanks.  “After the fog and cloud cover lifted in mid-morning the enemy aircraft were permanently in the air dropping thousands of tonnes of bombs all over the show,” said Muller.  “What we had always feared then happened.  With a lot of skill and several slices of luck we’d held out against the planes and lost no one in the course of hundreds of bomb attacks.  But late in the day a Mig dropped a bomb right among a group of 4 SAI national servicemen and four of them were killed. 

The deaths notwithstanding, Mike Muller, Cassie Schoeman and Demostenes Chilingutila ranked the 14 February defeat of 59 Brigade and the “burning” of 21 Brigade, 25 Brigade and the 3rd Tank Battalion at the edge of the Anhara Lipanda with the destruction of 47 Brigade on the Lomba. “It was a very good fight,” said Muller, a 35 year old who has served 18 years with the South African armour since leaving school and had taken part in every cross-border action into Angola, including the first operation, Operation Savannah, in 1975.


The battle of 14 February against Fapla’s 59 Brigade and the skirmish on High Point 1251 of 20 February had forced the Angolans and Cubansback into their last 30 sq km bastion on the east bank of the Cuito River, the Tumpo Triangle.

The SADF’s enemies had built strong defences, with two lines of intricate infantry trenches and sandbag bunkers running north-south between the sources of the Dala and Tumpo Rivers.  Breach one stout trench line and there was the dispiriting prospect of another one to go.  Fapla had also laid extensive anti-tank and anti-personnel minefields in front of the trenches.  For Fapla riflemen and artillerymen there was a clear field of fire out across the almost treeless flatland of the Anhara Lipanda, which varied in width from west to east from about four to six kilometres.

The SADF objective now as to drive the Fapla/Cuban forces from the Tumpo Triangle and let UNITA take over the abandoned positions.  This would deprive Fapla of the bridgehead it needed for any future offensive against UNITA’s Mavinga and Jamba strongholds.  On staff officers’ and politicians’ maps it all looked so very simple.  But the field officers knew they faced a formidable task.  Get through the minefields and the trenchlines and then you would become sitting ducks for the artillery.  At the same time the enemy warplanes would be overhead all the time, and your own Air Force would be unable to help out because, despite all the skills, ingenuity and courage of South Africa’s pilots, the Mirage obsolescence factor outweighed all the qualities the SAAF’s men could bring to bear in the Tumpo Triangle.  If the SAAF had tried to fly into the Triangle too often in close ground support its planes would have been swallowed up as though in some evil black hole. It would be left to the infantrymen and the tank and armoured car soldiers on the ground to assault the enemy stronghold.  Some men had begun to see similarities between their situation and that of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, but the charge would have to go ahead if the generals so ordered.

Commandant Mike Muller of 61 Mech drew the first short straw.

Muller’s battle plan was passed up through all the layers of command, including the Chief of the Army, General Kat Liebenberg, to Defence Minister Magnus Malan – another illustration of how every move the SADF attempted to make was subject to diplomatic and political factors outside the battlefield officers’ knowledge or control.  Muller’s combat group was formed around his own 61 Mech Battalion, which was to be the main attack force consisting of 20 Olifant tanks, a mechanised infantry company in Ratels, the troop of four anti-tank Ratel-ZT3s, a team of 120 mm mortars, a Parachute Regiment assault pioneer platoon, a group of anti-aircraft specialists with Sam-7 missiles and 20 mm guns, a strong party of engineers and UNITA’s 800-man 5th Regular Battalion.  For support Muller also had a flanking force made up of a Ratel squadron, a troop of three tanks, a mechanised infantry company and a 120 mm mortar group; three companies of more than 300 infantrymen from 32 Battalion; and UNITA’s 3rd and 4th Regular Battalions totalling some 1 400 men.

4 SAI, which had lost its commander, Cassie Schoeman, to yet another dose of hepatitis, was held in reserve.

Muller, a thin, wiry man with a dark moustache, had to take his force across the Chambinga High Ground to launch the attack.  There were only two viable routes across the hilly terrain.  The first was up the long gentle eastern slope and then down the short, steep Heartbreak Hill, from where the attack against 59 Brigade had been made on 14 February.  The second lay further south, where the western slope of the High Ground was somewhat longer and not so severe as at Heartbreak Hill.  The route led down to an area where the old Portugese “road” from Cuito Cuanavale to Mavinga stretched out across the Anhara Lipanda.

It was the second route that was chosen for the attack. Muller wanted to attack the first defence line, formed by Fapla’s 25 Brigade, from the south and work along it, destroying installations, and wiping out troops, before turning south again to attack the second defence line from the same direction.  The 32 Battalion companies, led by Major Tinus van Staden, would launch the opening assault from the south, leaving 61 Mech to press home the main attack.  UNITA’s 5th Regular Battalion would attempt to distract Fapla by pressing home an attack further north along the defence line and Savimbi’s 4th Regular Battalion would launch a feint attack to the west of 32 Battalion on the Tumpo River.

The whole combat group assembled to the east of the Cunzumbia River source, some 45 km from the first Fapla defence line, on the evening of 24 February ready to launch the attack on Saturday 25 February 1988.  Through the night, moving up the eastern slope of the Chambinga High Ground, Muller’s battle group was led by a navigation Ratel.  The 32 Battalion companies began infiltrating towards Fapla positions at the source of the Tumpo River from the southeast before the sun rose.  But when they reached the objective they found that all the Fapla soldiers of 25 Brigade were abandoning their positions and running away. “Then our G-5s and 120 mm mortars opened up and the enemy artillery replied,” said Muller.  “Their air force appeared shortly afterwards and subsequently there were Migs in the sky all day.  My command vehicle was an incongruous sight.  I was using the Olifant which had lost its gun barrel on 14 February.  If the enemy had ever seen it we might have won before lunch: they would have died from laughing at the exploded stump.  Recce commandos took us along a path they had marked through a minefield until we were just 1,5 km from the enemy’s first outlying positions which were being tackled by 32 Battalion.  At this stage I was keeping just inside the treeline for cover at the eastern edge of the open Anhara Lipanda manoeuvring slowly southwards and waiting for the right moment to attack. We opened into tactical formation, but after another 100 m we ran into another minefield laid just inside the treeline that our recces had not discovered.  I was about 20m behind the first line of Olifants, but my tank was the first to be hit.  I was one of the new Soviet M-57 anti-tank mines, much more potent than the M-58s or M-49s.  It took the track off my tank and damaged the suspension unit and shock absorbers.  I switched to a Ratel as my command vehicle for the rest of the battle”

The mine explosion gave away Muller’s position to the enemy.  “Soon we were engulfed by the biggest Fapla artillery barrage of the war,”said Muller.  “It was bloody hellish.  They put down M-46, D-30, BM-21 and ZU-23 fire on us.  They knew where their minefield was and they could see us in the edge of the forest.  Our G-5s had stopped firing because there was always two, three or sometimes four Migs in the air and our artillery could not afford to betray their position.  The UNITA Stingers should, in theory, have brought down as many as four Migs that day, but for reasons I’ve yet to understand the missiles weren’t available.” Soon three other tanks had lost tracks to mines and suffered damage to their suspension units as Muller tried to withdraw in 20 m leaps only to discover that the minefield was much more extensive than he had first realised. The combat group then took its first casualty.  “My anti-aircraft troop was deployed 1 500 m to my north,” said Muller.  “It fired at some Migs.  Enemy forward observers picked up the position and laid down M-46 fire, whose shrapnel killed one of my Sam-7 corporals, Hendricks, as he was trying to shoot down a Mig.  One of the Withings recovery vehicles trying to pull out the stricken tanks to the rear was struck directly by a 130 mm round from an M-46, it burned out completely.”

Muller’s force advanced across the Anhara Lipanda towards the outer positions at the source of the Tumpo held by a battalion of 25 Brigade which 32 Battalions had attacked and found deserted.  “The trenches were freshly dug,” said Muller.  “There was an intact BTR-60 (armoured car) standing there and knapsacks, webbing and water bottles abandoned and scattered all over the ground.  UNITA’s 3rd Regular Battalion moved up the trenchline ahead, but they sent back radio signals saying that they too, like 32 Battalion, found that the Fapla soldiers had gone.  Everything seemed to be going so smoothly that, instead of continuing the sweep along the first defensive line, I decided to push on to the second which began a little way further westwards where a tributary rand into the Tumpo.  An advance company of 32 Battalion put down yellow smoke to mark their position so that we could integrate.  That was a mistake because it drew heavy and accurate artillery fire.  By 3pm five of my Ratels had received direct hits.  One M-46 bomb explosion ripped off the door of a Ratel-90, the commander had both his legs sheared off and his gunner was wounded.  Five 32 Battalion blokes had also been wounded.  All our ambulances and recovery vehicles were busy taking the dead and wounded to medical posts in the rear.  Later, one of the tanks still stuck in the minefield with a damaged track came under heavy M-46 fire as the crew was trying to get it ready to be pulled out.  The crew dived back into the Olifant.  But the corporal driving the tank didn’t get his hatch closed in time.  A shell hit the sloping armour just in front of the hatch and he was killed outright.”

Muller’s force reached the southern end of the second defence line, more than one kilometre into the enemy objective, but the Fapla troops had fled from there as well.  “Since I couldn’t call in our artillery to counter theirs, I told Colonel Pat McLoughlin it would be difficult to press on with the attack.  We had cleared out the first line of their defences.  But we had taken losses and the delays meant the setting sun was now in my gunner’s eyes.” McLoughlin gave permission for Muller to pull his force back.  But as it crossed the Chambinga High Ground in darkness an M-46 scored a direct hit on a big mine-proof truck carrying mortar shells.  The whole truck and its ammunition burnt out in a series of spectacular explosions.  “The driver, Sergeant Koekemoer, started steering the truck away from the rest of the column after the shell hit it,” said Muller.  “Thanks to him, no one was hurt.  But when all the mortar shells began to cook off he had to drop out of his cabin into a deep foxhole and let the truck burn.”

Muller later discovered from a forward SADF observer, who had watched the whole action, that he had counted some 1 350 accurate Fapla artillery shots on Muller’s combat group in the course of the day.  Some 1 000 of these had come from the big M-46Ss.  The army definition of an accurate artillery shot is one that falls inside a military formation within 20 m of a vehicle or fixed position.  “They certainly hammered us that day,” said Muller.  “Seven of our vehicles were knocked out and two were burnt out completely.”


Colonel Pat McLoughlin decided that next time the way to overcome the problems encountered on 25 February would be to launch a night attack against the Tumpo Triangle.  McLoughlin again asked Mile Muller to lead the assault.  McLoughlin’s rationale was that the SADF’s greatly superior night fighting techniques and training would at last achieve the final SADF military goal of driving the last living Fapla soldier from the east bank of the Cuito River.  Night combat would enable the South African artillery to come into play and would neutralise Angolan Air Force superiority over the Tump battlefield.

Muller this time was to take the northern attack line, coming through from the laager area 40 km east of the Chambinga High Ground, up the gentle but thickly forested High Ground eastern slope, and then down Heartbreak Hill towards the Tumpo Triangle.  At this disposal Muller had two squadrons of Olifant tanks, a Ratel-90 squadron, a company of mechanised infantry in Ratels, two 32 Battalion infantry companies, an engineer section, a mortar platoon, an EW team, a medical unit and two battalions of UNITA infantry. 

4 SAI was again kept in reserve, except for four Ratel-90s and a platoon of 30 mechanised infantry who were to deploy southeast of the Tumpo Triangle as a deception tactic.

McLoughlin scheduled the attack for the night of Monday 29 February 1988, to continue into the Tuesday.  “We began moving out of the laager later than scheduled because the mine rollers (special flails attached to the front of a tank to detonate land mines) had not arrived,” said Muller.  “Eventually they found two of the rollers and by 9 pm we were on the Chambinga High Ground approaching the summit of Heartbreak Hill.  Soft rain was failing and it was very misty, with visibility only 20 to 30 m.  Five of my tank drivers reported faulty night periscopes, and when the rain fell harder I requested permission to delay the attack until first light.” McLoughlin reluctantly agreed to the delay.  Muller’s main force began moving again before first light and by 10.00 am had crossed the Anhara Lipanda and had pushed about 1 000 m along the southern bank of the Dala River from its source and entered an area of very thick bush inside the Tumpo Triangle.  “I was puzzled and uneasy about how quiet everything was,” said Muller, who had denied permission to his tank gunners to fire at identified Stalin Organ positions on the Cuito west bank for fear of giving away the position of his advancing force.  “The Fapla artillery was inactive except for a few Stalin Organ ripples which posed no threat to us.  I slowed our movement down, going forward in bounds of just 100 m at a time and, later, even less.  By late morning we were about four kilometres north-east of the Cuito bridge and were very nearly at the edge of the bushline bordering the Cuito floodplain.  It was then that our friend, the cloud cover, began to lift, and just before midday we were warned that the first wave of Mig-21s and Mig-23s was on its way.  Fortunately, they bombed their own positions and ZU-23 emplacements opened up to frighten off their own planes.  One of the Mig-23s was hit and crashed.  I thought it has been hit by one of Fapla’s 23 mm guns.  UNITA thought it had been hit by a Fapla ground-to-air missile.  Our SADF intelligence blokes were convinced it was taken out by a UNITA Stinger.”

As Muller continued to probe forward his lead tank, equipped with a mine roller, began to detonate mines in the bushline.  The noise drew very heavy ZU-23 and 120 mm mortar fire. “The M-46s were not involved because by then we were within their minimum range.  I ordered my tank and Ratel commanders to spread out for a fire belt action against the Fapla gun emplacements.  That lasted for fifty minutes with support from our G-5 artillery who picked off some of their gun positions.  We advanced to within about 3 000 m of the Cuito bridge.   Other weapons, including 82 mm B-10 recoilless anti-tank guns, AGS-17 fragmentation grenade launchers and Sagger anti-tank missiles, opened up against us until we had fire from some 20 gun positions coming at us from in front and on both flanks.  I can’t begin to describe to you how incredibly heavy the encounter was, but I was assured afterwards by senior officers that in terms of shell volume it was one of the biggest and toughest engagements fought by the SADF since World War II.  We fired many hundreds of rounds from the Olifants, the Ratles and our mortars, and gradually we began to pick of their gun positions.”

“The enemy’s 23 mm guns were again particularly daunting.  UNITA suffered very badly.  They were our main infantry, responsible for killing enemy infantry carrying RPG-7s on the ground within range of the Olifants while our tank and Ratel guns concentrated on the enemy tanks and artillery replacements.  Those 23mms were just wiping the UNITA blokes off the tanks.  If I close my eyes now I can still see it clearly.  The first 23mm fire we drew came from the west bank of the Cuito and it went over our heads.  Then a burst came between the Olifants and the Ratels.  You only see the 23 mm tracers.  There’s so much other noise that you don’t hear the shots.  In front of my command Ratel there was an Olifant with five UNITA infantrymen sitting on its engine plate.  When that 23 mm burst came they began leaping off to take cover.  As they jumped off one of them was hit in the face with a 23 mm shell.  His head just disintegrated.”

All through the fire belt action Muller’s force was standing in the middle of a heavy minefield.  It was a big headache for him, but plenty of other problems were developing.  He had set out on the Tumpo Two adventure with only 16 of the 22 Olifants in the two tank squadrons available because of maintenance problems and logistics incompetence.  Even before the force had drawn enemy fire five of the tanks had broken down and been removed to the assembly areas by ARVs.  “Their oil and fuel filters were clogging and the engines were overheating,” said Muller.  “They had fought for more than 800 hours through several battles without servicing, mainly because none of the heavy jack and lifting equipment had arrived, equipment the tiffies had been continually requesting from Pretoria.  No other tank in the world could have gone on for that long in those conditions and with all that dust without major servicing.  We were very proud of them, but it was unfortunate that they began going through their threshold of endurance during this battle.  The tiffies got no rest.  They worked all night fixing up the vehicles.  Then they fought all day with us in the ARVs ready to repair vehicles or pull them out.  They performed miracles, but some marvels were beyond their powers.  Our logistics were very stretched.  Some spares were too heavy to be brought in by aircraft or helicopter.  Our replacement power packs (engines, plus the attached automatic transmission) for the Olifants had to be brought in on transporters all the way from Rundu for hundreds of kilometres by night through the bush.  By the time they reached us most of the power pack units were badly damaged.  Sometimes the units had fallen through the floor of the transport because of the bad terrain and the poor driving.  The control was poor.  There were no senior officers with some of the convoys.  They young blokes just got in and drove like they were in stock cars.  It needed old heads to remind them all the time to slow down, and to jump on them if they took no notice.”

Muller decided to pull back for 700 m out of the minefield to regroup and try to find a route for bridging the obstacle with a minimum aim of destroying all the 23 mm gun positions.  During the withdrawal one Ratel detonated a mine, but the tiffies repaired the damage and had it back in action after 30 minutes.

By the time Muller had regrouped, his tank commanders were reporting to him that only five of the Olifants were now working as one after another they passed through the ‘serviceability’ threshold.  To add to Muller’s woes, the artillery commanders were reporting similar problems with the ailing G-5s. Muller withdrew a little further to consider his options.  Taking into account his intelligence briefing of the night before that there were at least 10 tanks inside the Tumpo Triangle to be dealt with, Muller decided to ask permission to break off the engagement.  The odds were too much in favour of the enemy.

On return to the laager, military intelligence gave Muller an updated report that sent his spirits plunging.  “They said they had discovered there were not ten enemy tanks but only two in the Triangle.  If I had known that we would have continued right through and settled the whole matter.”



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