Into Angola - Operation Protea

Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy

Chapter 14

By Morgan Norval

Copyright 1989 Published by: Selous Foundation Press, Washington DC

ISBN: 0-944273-03-3 Library of Congress Catalog info@namibweb.comd Number: 89-62602

NOTE Page numbers appear between [square brackets] at the start of the page. Footnotes appear in red, and appear at the end of the chapter, although in the original book they appear at the foot of the page in question.

[143]Operation PROTEA was launched on August 23, 1981. Its objectives were to destroy SWAPO's command and training center at Xangongo and to destroy SWAPO's logistic bases at Xangongo and Ongiva.

Xangongo was the headquarters of SWAPO's "northwestern front." The headquarters planned and directed SWAPO terrorist elements whose area of operations were primarily in the Kaokoland, and western and central Owamboland. There were other SWAPO bases located to the south and southeast of the town. These bases were supply depots and training bases for SWAPO recruits.

The destruction of this SWAPO complex would have a detrimental effect on SWAPO's operations in their so-called northwestern front.

Ongiva, under fifty kilometers from the Angolan-Namibian border, was an important SWAPO logistical and personnel center which supported operations in central and eastern Owamboland, and terrorist activities in the Kavangoland.

Both Xangongo and Ongiva, because of their proximity to the operational area in Namibia, were key base complexes in supporting SWAPO's revolutionary war effort in Namibia.

Their destruction would, at the minimum, delay the SWAPO infiltration timetable, inflict casualties on SWAPO personnel, and disrupt their logistical system and training cycle.

In addition, PROTEA would have a tremendous psychological impact on both the enemy and the people of Namibia. It would reinforce the message Operation REINDEER delivered to SWAPO that they no longer had the luxury of sanctuaries in southern Angola. As long as SWAPO continued its terrorist activities in Namibia it could expect to be on the receiving end of further security force operations in Angola.


PROTEA also showed the people of Namibia the security forces were serious about countering SWAPO's terror campaign in Namibia. By so doing, they gave added proof that they were serious in their efforts to provide a security blanket so the people of Namibia would have a comparatively peaceful situation in which to build their future.

SWAPO, as a result of REINDEER, had adopted a strategy of moving its bases closer to FAPLA bases in an effort to discourage attacks by the South Africans. By the time of PROTEA, the SWAPO logistical system had become entwined with that of FAPLA, especially in the area of Angola west of Ongiva. SWAPO's new base strategy of hugging FAPLA's did not stop South African attacks although the South Africans went out of their way not to involve FAPLA in the fight.

Prior to the attacks on Xangongo and Ongiva, the South African Air Force dropped pamphlets stating their quarrel was with SWAPO and SWAPO alone. But at the same time, they warned the inhabitants not to assist SWAPO. The leaflets, however, took away the element of surprise and gave the defenders the warning they were about to be attacked.

Orders were also issued to the security force personnel involved in the operation to avoid contact with the locals and the Angolan forces, as much as possible, but not to the point of endangering their own lives. If protecting their own lives meant fighting with the Angolan forces, then so be it.

A three-pronged mechanized force of Ratels, Buffels and Eland armored info@namibweb.coms advanced on Xangongo from Ruacana, Oshakati and Ondangwa. Part of their mission was to isolate the town to prevent possible Cuban and FAPLA reinforcements in Humbe and PeuPeu from coming to the aid of their soon to be beleaguered comrades in Xangongo.

The rest of the force attacked the SWAPO complex in and around the town.

The mixed SWAPO-FAPLA force was in well-prepared defensive systems consisting of trenches, bunkers and even dug-in tanks.

"We had to attack them in their bunkers and in their trenches with their defensive weapons geared for defensive fire," said the chief of the South African Army, Lt. Gen. Jannie Geldenhuys. Several fierce battles were fought out between integrated SWAPO and FAPLA forces, which at the time, rendered the action more like a conventional war rather than normal small-unit counterinsurgency operations.

The presence of trenches and bunkers and satellite bases characteristic of the SWAPO complex at Xangongo and Ongiva indicated the terrorists were trying to apply some lessons learned from their disastrous shellacking during REINDEER.


They had obviously changed their concept of base defense. Done away with were such things as permanent buildings, parade grounds, clear perimeters and visible lines of fortified trenches.

Instead, SWAPO bases were located, as much as possible in close proximity to a FAPLA unit, hoping to no avail, to come under the umbrella of their protection.

The physical layout of the bases had also changed. The bases expanded in size-at least in the area they covered. Large undefined patches of the Angolan bush now became the new lair of the terrorists. These were dug into the ground and were camouflaged to keep their presence hidden from the prying eyes of the South Africans. SWAPO went to great lengths to avoid such tell-tale signs of a military facility's presence as parade grounds, defensive works, perimeter trenches and barbed-wire entanglements.

Concealment was now the by-word in SWAPO base complexes. That, plus the nearby presence of FAPLA units, would render the new bases less vulnerable to South African attacks-at least that was what SWAPO hoped.

SWAPO's efforts, while not successful, did place more demands on the security forces. Intelligence became even more crucial to the success of future cross-border operations. It was imperative that it be precise and up to date and collected in such a manner that it didn't alert the enemy as to his becoming a future target.

The new base setup also affected the tactics of both sides. SWAPO figured the major threat to their base security would come from the South Africans attacking north from Namibia. Thus, they established their defensive strongholds to face that threat from the south.
An attacking force always risks severe losses or defeat when attacking straight into the strength of the enemy's defense. Thus an attack from the rear or a flank would lower both the risks and possible casualties, especially if the attacking forces achieved surprise. But in order successfully to info@namibweb.comry out such maneuvers, the attacking force had to be aware of the nature and extent of the defenders positions and forces-hence the requirement for accurate, up to date intelligence.

Fortunately for the South Africans, not only was their intelligence superb, but their superior discipline, tactical and operational abilities enabled them to info@namibweb.comry the day successfully against the heavily defended SWAPO targets.

Surprise was achieved at the Xangongo complex as neither the Soviets nor SWAPO ever dreamed the South Africans would attack such a heavily defended area. (In addition to the normal FAPLA elements in Xangongo, the [146] security forces estimated that there were 23,000 FAPLA and 7,500 Cuban soldiers at Lubango capable of moving south and come to the aid of the defenders at Xangongo.)

Attacking from the flanks and rear while feinting a frontal assault, the South Africans quickly rolled up the SWAPO/FAPLA defenders at Xangongo.

Ongiva was spared the surprise element due to the attack on the SWAPO complex at Xangongo. Nevertheless, even though SWAPO knew they might be attacked, they figured their defenses could stop them. However, the South Africans swept in from the rear and only the size of the complex made its capture take longer than Xangongo.

The South African assault on Xangongo was successful and the surviving communist forces beat a hasty retreat into the thick bush just outside the town.
Fleeing in haste with the SWAPO and FAPLA survivors were a group of thirty Soviet advisors-along with seven women and a number of children.

In their scramble to avoid the South Africans, the Russians left behind their personal possessions and a huge quantity of documents, which incontrovertibly confirmed the growing Soviet involvement with SWAPO's terrorist war in southern Africa.

At the Soviet headquarters in Xangongo, the assault forces found charts and maps still on the wall which detailed command structures and strategy for SWAPO, all written in Russian.

The married Soviet advisors lived in a huge house next to the headquarters, with their wives and children. They obviously never expected the South Africans to attack otherwise their families would have been left behind in Luanda or the Soviet Union.

They seemed to live a squalid existence. The residence was full of empty wine and vodka bottles which were scattered throughout the house. The kitchen table was covered with unwashed dishes, utensils and moldy, stale food. Apparently, hygiene was not a priority item with the Soviets in Angola.

The Soviets were clearly involved in the affairs of both SWAPO and the Angolan army The documents captured at Xangongo showed Soviet involvement down to the brigade and battalion level in FAPLA. Their duties were not restricted to providing military training. The Soviets were also responsible for the administrative and political life of the brigades or battalions to which they were attached.

The Soviets at Xangongo were attached to the FAPLA 19th Brigade and had been since April 1978 when the first parry of Soviet military advisors, [147] fourteen commissioned and non-commissioned officers, arrived in Xangongo.

After securing their first objective, with Xangongo cleared of SWAPO and FAPLA forces, the main body of the South African force moved southeast towards their second target Ongiva.

Brushing aside feeble FAPLA attempts to stop the South African advance at Mongua, they reached Ongiva on August 26,1981 and attacked the SWAPO/FAPLA force dug in around the town. After two days of fighting, Ongiva fell to the South Africans.

Soviet military advisors were also at Ongiva, but were not as lucky as their compatriots at Xangongo who had fled out of harm's way Several Soviet officers were killed and a warrant officer was captured. Warrant Officer Second Class Nikolai Feodorovich Pestretsov was one of the military advisors attached to FAPLA's 11th Brigade at Ongiva when he was captured.

Pestretsov was a mechanic whose job was to train his FAPLA counterparts in the proper maintenance of their Soviet-supplied vehicles.

In late 1979, he was working at a motor plant in Kaliningrad in the Soviet Union when he and four other plant workers were offered the opportunity to come to Angola. Pestretsov was the only one to accept the offer.

He and fifteen other Soviet personnel who had been chosen from all over the Soviet Union were given a briefing on their new duties in Angola by the Main Cadre Directorate in Moscow. He and his comrades then left for Angola in December 1979.

After his arrival in Luanda his passport and other documents were taken away. He was issued two certificates; one identifying him as a Soviet citizen and an advisor on vehicle repair; and the other serving as a drivers license.

His info@namibweb.comeer in Angola was varied. He stayed in Luanda for three months and worked on maintaining Angolan government civilian vehicles. He was then transferred to Lubango and was attached to the base repair battalion, where he functioned as an advisor, supervising FAPLA technical personnel.

After a month he was sent to Xangongo where he stayed six months, attached to the repair company of FAPLA's 19th Brigade.

He then went on a two-month vacation back to the Soviet Union and when he returned he brought his wife with him.

Pestretsov was transferred to Ongiva in December 1980 where he remained until his capture. He was attached to the repair company of FAPLA's 11th Brigade, supervising and training FAPLA technical personnel and was in charge of maintenance of the brigade's wheeled vehicles.

If any proof were needed of direct Soviet involvement with SWAPO, it [148] was obtained during PROTEA.

The South African Defense Minister, Magnus Malan, commenting on the Soviet presence during PROTEA, said it was without doubt proof that Russia not only supplies SWAPO with armament, but shows them how to use them.

"Apart from these incidents, an enormous amount of Russian propaganda material was found in the immediate vicinity of SWAPO HQ. This is a clear indication of Russia's plans for South Africa," said Malan in a press conference after PROTEA.1
Propaganda material wasn't the only stuff found in the SWAPO bases. The South Africans seized about 4,000 tons of military hardware, valued at over $200 million. This included, in addition to enormous quantities of small arms and ammunition, such major military items as tanks and armored vehicles, anti-aircraft guns and numerous trucks and other logistical vehicles.

The presence of tanks and armored personnel info@namibweb.comriers in the insurgent's arsenal proved conclusively that SWAPO intended to progress soon from the guerrilla to the mobile warfare stage in its war of national liberation in Namibia. Tanks and armored personnel info@namibweb.comriers are useless weapons for guerrillas fighting a guerrilla war in the African bush. South African concern over SWAPO's increasing capability to escalate its revolutionary war to the mobile warfare stage, which was the reason behind cross-border operations turned out to be fully justified. SWAPO's military hardware seized just north a of the Namibian border provided irrefutable proof of SWAPO's military plans and the correctness of the South African estimate and response.

As to be expected, South Africa was roundly condemned in the usual quarters-the international press, the UN, the OAU, and other diplomatic circles in Europe and the Third World, for its action in southern Angola during Operation PROTEA. Although, for once, an American Secretary of State showed some common sense concerning the situation. Secretary of State Alexander Haig pointed out that the South African operations should be seen against the background of repeated attacks by Soviet-backed guerrilla terrorists. Unfortunately, this slight breath of realism in American diplomacy toward events in southern Africa soon blew over, replaced by the usual anti-South African cliches that seem to characterize the State Department's everyday attitude on southern Africa.

Operation PROTEA was yet another stinging defeat to the Soviet clients in southern Africa. At least 1,000 members of SWAPO and FAPLA [149] were killed during the operation and almost a quarter of a billion dollars worth of Soviet-supplied war materiel were seized or destroyed by the South Africans.
Thirty-eight prisoners were captured, including ten SWAPO terrorists. One captured SWAPO terrorist admitted getting part of his military training in the Soviet Union. He also confirmed that SWAPO was also getting military training in Angola from Soviet military trainers.

Many people in southern Angola took advantage of the confusion caused by the South African attacks in southern Angola, to flee across the border to Namibia and freedom from Marxist Angola's reign of terror. The refugee's stories of horror and depredation under the dismal rule of MarxismLeninism in Angola, hopefully, will help inoculate Namibians who heard about the gruesome course of that fatal political disease. Here was living proof that, if given the chance, people will consistently vote with their feet and flee the type of system chat SWAPO wishes to impose on Namibia. The arrival of refugees from Angola was a psychological debacle for SWAPO's revolutionary cause.

SWAPO's timetable was severely set back by Operation PROTEA. The resounding defeats had driven the organization even further north away from its operational area in Namibia and with a heavy loss of life to its trained personnel. In contrast to the heavy losses suffered by SWAPO, the South Africans lost only ten men.

SWAPO's losses were not restricted to manpower alone, as they suffered a tremendous loss of material either destroyed or captured by the South Africans.

Several major SWAPO bases had also been destroyed. And, as Lt. Gen. Geldenhuys said, "Their command structure, for the time being, has been disrupted and their logistic system is damaged, and at the moment, ineffective."2 The general felt that it would take at least a year for SWAPO to recover from the crippling effects inflicted upon it by PROTEA. The operation had caused SWAPO terrorists to be scattered in confusion all over southern Angola. Their cross-border infiltration capability into Angola had been severely hampered and their morale had plummeted to a new low.
The end of PROTEA didn't end the South African activity against SWAPO in southern Angola. While the terrorists were still reeling from their beating during PROTEA, the South Africans struck again.

A SWAPO regional headquarters, in southeastern Angola at Chitequeta, was trying to regroup the scattered and demoralized terrorists. Located some [150] 240 kilometers north of the Angolan border, Chitequeta was to be the main objective of the new South African cross-border operation, code named DAISY This operation would put the finishing touches on the work of PROTEA.

On November 1, 1981, a South African mechanized force of Ratels and Buffels, attacked the SWAPO base complex killing seventy-one SWAPO terrorists. The immense size of the SWAPO complex, some thirty-five square kilometers, allowed the bulk of the 1,200 terrorists reported to be assembled there, to escape into the bush. Otherwise the casualties would have been far greater. Nevertheless, the South Africans had destroyed another SWAPO command and logistic base and captured a huge quantity of arms and ammunition. The SWAPO logistical system had suffered another big loss within three months of PROTEA. SWAPO terrorists were further demoralized, as they scattered into the bush and fled further north into Angola.

The South African forces attack on Chitequeta represented their deepest penetration into Angola since the civil war some six years before.

Operation PROTEA, and its appendage DAISY, were not isolated incidents in the South African counterinsurgency campaign. They were part and parcel of the strategic decision to info@namibweb.comry the war to SWAPO, be it in Namibia or southern Angola.


1. Sector 10, Op Protea, 1 Military Printing Unit, 1982, p.17.

2. ibid., p.22.

@ A Forgotten War
@ No more heroes
@ What happened to the boys on the border?
@ In conflict

@ Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy Chapter 6
@ Chapter 7
@ Chapter 12
@ Chapter 13
@ Chapter 15
@ Chapter 16
Chapter 18
@ Chapter 19
@ Chapter 20
@ Chapter 21

@ Civil supremacy of the military in Namibia


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