Episode 94 – South African and Russian tanks go toe-to-toe at the Chambinga river in southern Angola

It’s early morning November 9th 1987 and the SADF was advancing towards FAPLAs 16th Brigade based at the source of the Chambinga River. The Angolan brigade had received orders to shift eastwards, and the units were about to move when the SADF launched their attack. The first sign of the impending assault was an artillery bombardment and SAAF bombing raid on the eve of the assault.

Commandant Deon Ferreira was OC of Task Force 10 as it was known although the main battle plans had been drawn up by Roland de Vries, his 2 IC. It was a plan that was based on the principles of fluid operations, with the South African mobility exploited to the full.

De Vries had also decided that one of the main aims was to destabilise the enemies logistics and communications, disrupting their plans and likely counter attack.

Robbie Hartslief’s Combat Group Bravo unleashed on 59th Brigade to the south, creating a diversion. But when his units overran the position, the south African commander was surprised to find the brigade’s positions were empty, it had already withdrawn north towards the 16th Brigade.

The Angolans counter attacked with tanks, and Bravo retreated, Hartslief’s actions had confused the enemy and he didn’t want to continue a needless fight against FAPLA which was using heavy weapons, including the T54 and 55s.

The Soviet advisors thought they had won a victory and began exchanging congratulations. Little did they know that the main SADF assault was going to take place further north close to the source of the Chambinga River. That’s where Commandant Deon MArais led Combat Group Charlie towards 16th Brigade, although the going was slow, hampered by the thick bush around the river.

By 06h57 on the morning of 9th November, Recces posted near the 16th Brigade radio to say that could hear FAPLAs tank engines start up - moments later a G-5 bombardment hit one of FAPLAs ammunition dumps, which exploded.

Marais’ Charlie Group approached in close formation, with 4 SAIs two mechanised infantry companies of Ratel 20s on both sides in the front, and an armoured car squadron of Ratel 90s as well as a platoon of 32 Battalion troops between them. Piet van Zyl’s company of 32 infantrymen were all black, led by four white officers.

“We moved 30 km west from the lagoon, riding on Ratels,” said van Zyl quoted by author Fred Bridgeland.
“We passed the tank squadron and its support Ratels under the command of major Andre Retief of 4SAI, That man really knew how to look after his troops…”

Retief had brought a refrigerated canteen truck all the way from South Africa, and van Zyl organised a raid on the truck when 4SAI was looking the other way - liberating two cases of ice cold beer.

“Man that was nectar from heaven” said van Zyl.

The Angolans still believed that the SADF was attacking 59 Brigade further south, but that all changed just after 7.30 when 16 Brigade comms reports that South African tanks appeared to be about to overrun their positions.
25 Feb 2023 English South Africa History · Documentary

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