Buffalo Soldiers in Angola: 32 Battalion Operations in the South African Border War

Buffalo Soldiers in Angola: 32 Battalion Operations in the South African Border War

Jack McCain

The South African Border War is one of the least studied, most poorly understood conflicts of the 20th century. The “Bush War”, as it is known in South Africa, spanned the spectrum of warfare from the lowest intensity fighting, to high technology tank and aerial combat. Both sides pitted the most advanced weaponry of the age against each other, all while under some of the harshest conditions on the planet. The war saw the engagement of South African, Namibian, Angolan, Cuban, Soviet, Chinese and even American forces in an array of operations and offensives.[1][2][3]

The Bush War conflagration began with the fall of the Portuguese government in Luanda. Portugal, after a recent coup de etat had decided to relinquish its African colonial possessions. There had been ongoing insurgencies in both Angola and Mozambique, but they had been kept from overrunning the nations through the efforts of the Portuguese military. However, after their rapid exit, wherein they appointed no governmental authority, both Angola and, by virtue of its proximity, the colonial possession of South Africa, South West Africa (SWA) or Namibia, became the target of the ongoing communist backed liberation insurgencies. These insurgencies directly threatened South Africa, and its possessions, and are described best in the seminal work on the subject, The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989.

This [the exit of the Portuguese] brought about at least three layers of the conflict. One was a civil rights struggle against the South African government’s policy of institutionalized race discrimination against black people, better known as apartheid. The second was the anticolonial liberation war for the independence of SWA against the South African occupation of the territory. And lastly, although the first two layers were generated by an indigenous dynamic, there was the global Cold War between the Communist bloc and the West (of which South Africa saw itself a part) superimposed on it.[4]

Suffice to say, this conflict was far from a simple problem for the South Africans, and the strategic picture was rapidly worsening for Pretoria, with the takeover of Zimbabwe, Zambia, and the impending fall of other neighboring nations. In order to confront these looming threats South Africa needed a multifaceted approach to strategy-making, lest they face annihilation from Communist encirclement.

The overall South African strategy centered on blocking a Communist takeover of Namibia.[5] The South African government could not afford an adversary state on its borders. Therefore, the South African’s main strategic effort was to maintain control of the Namibian population, by undermining physical and ideological support for insurgent groups (primarily in the form of the South West African People’s Organization, or SWAPO), labeling it their strategic center of gravity. To do this, many warfare approaches were undertaken simultaneously, some conventional and others unconventional. The focus of this paper is what became the most fearsome unit in the South African military, and its primary unconventional warfare unit, known colloquially as “The Terrible Ones”, 32 Battalion.

32 Battalion was the brainchild of Col Jan Breytenbach of the SADF. In his memoir The Buffalo Soldiers he described the operational concept of the unit: [6]

The [enemy] forces facing 32 Battalion were far too numerous and well equipped to be tackled head on. Guerrilla warfare provided the only way to wrest the initiative from them. We had to out guerrilla the SWAPO guerrillas. We had to get them off balance, and keep them on the wrong foot until they began to collapse psychologically and subsequently also militarily.[7]

To accomplish his mission Breytenbach took an entirely novel approach developed over some years, one without prior precedent in the South African Defense Force (SADF), which would eventually be approved at the highest levels of policymaking. Breytenbach used captured insurgents who had been given two options; food, medical care, pay, and training in return for fighting for the SADF, or life imprisonment for terrorism related crimes. His operational concept was to use these hardened fighters, led by white officers, to wreak utter havoc on SWAPO behind their lines, in the Angolan bush, with the hopes of destroying their will to fight.[8] 32 Battalion would use only captured enemy weapons or their analogues, wear only enemy uniforms and boots, and even consume only enemy rations while on operations. Breytenbach wanted the unit to be utterly untraceable, and irrationally feared by SWAPO. If possible, 32 Battalion, after an infiltration into enemy held territory, would capture or kill every insurgent, and clear the bodies and encampment, so it would seem like those missing fighters had completely vanished without a trace.

32 Battalion was, in terms of impact, the most effective unit in the SADF at the time. The troops were funded by the SADF paymasters, and were given medical equipment and treatment by staff medical technicians, but that was about the extent of their initial unconventional warfare support. As stated, they used captured enemy weaponry to maintain their fighting power, and drew personnel from the ranks of former enemy fighters, in essence making the unit almost self-sustaining. The timeline the unit was given was nearly unlimited, provided the political opinion inside South Africa did not shift away from the war. The fact that one of the main offensive forces, the one conducting the riskiest missions, did not draw troops from inside South Africa, also had the secondary effect of keeping causality numbers low, which helped maintain overall support for the war effort. The battle-space that 32 Battalion operated in the area between Namibia and Angola. Throughout the conflict control of the area was hotly contested, but the unconventional operations conducted by 32 Battalion gave the remainder of SADF units operating along the border time and space to maneuver, and kept the enemy under pressure, complicating their ability to seize the initiative. It finally took 30,000 Cuban troops and 150 T-55/62 tanks to take the initiative, after years of continued pressure by the Buffalo Battalion.

The cost-risk analysis done in regards to 32 Battalion took directly into account the overall strategic calculus of the South African political leadership. Public opinion was everything, and if too many South African men began returning home in body bags then that public opinion was liable to shift against the political leadership, and the war. This is why 32 Battalion was such a useful unit, and continued to be throughout the entire conflict, they were staffed by very few SADF officers, and when they took causalities, few were SADF regulars. Not only did this help alleviate the strategic political situation, but the expertise that former insurgents lent into the mindset, tactics, and overall disposition of SWAPO, gave 32 Battalion a significant tactical and operational advantage. However, 32 Battalion was not an end in itself, and its effectiveness was only as good as the overall strategy in the war.

Paradoxically, the Buffalo Battalion was both able, and unable to accomplish its mission. The tactical and operational level effects of the unit were astounding. They accomplished the mission as set forth by Col. Breytenbach, to collapse the enemy psychologically and eventually militarily. They seized the initiative in the contested border areas, and kept the pressure on the enemy in such a way as to make it almost impossible for them to operate. However, at the strategic level, 32 Battalion did not accomplish the overall victory desired by the South Africans. At best, the Border War could be called a draw. Namibia did not, in fact, become a communist dominated state, which was the chief strategic goal of the South Africans. But, the apartheid system of government was unsustainable against the assault of the war in Angola, the war at home, and rising public and international outcry. Apartheid collapsed as the war was ending, which can be considered an overall strategic loss for the South African government in power.

32 Battalion was one of the most feared and most prolifically deadly unconventional warfare units in the history of conflict in Africa. With a light logistical footprint, insider expertise into SWAPO, and sheer aggressive pursuit of the enemy, they live on in legend both in South Africa and abroad. They were feasible because of their structure, consisting of captured weapons and former insurgents. They were acceptable because of their low cost, low risk, and very high reward. And they were suitable, as an effective tactical and operational force multiplier, allowing other SADF units relative freedom to move and engage at their choosing. However, they were at the mercy of a nearly unsustainable political environment, an environment that they were powerless to change. The Buffalo soldiers were feared by their enemies, and were one of the most successful unconventional warfare units on the African continent, and most probably the world. They assuredly earned the title they wore “‎Proelio Procusi (Forged in Battle)”.[9]

Works Cited

Breytenbach, Jan. The Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of South Africa's 32-Battalion 1975-1993. Alberton: Galago, 2004. Print.

French, Howard W. "From Old Files, a New Story Of U.S. Role in Angolan War." The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2002. Web.

Polack, Peter. The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War: South Africa vs. Cuba in the Angolan Civil War. Havertown: Casemate, 2013. Print.

Scholtz, Leopold. The SADF in the Border War: 1966-1989. Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2013. Print.

End Notes

[1] Breytenbach, Jan. The Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of South Africa's 32-Battalion 1975-1993. Alberton, South Africa: Galago, 2004, 31.

[2] Polack, Peter. The Last Hot Battle of the Cold War: South Africa vs. Cuba in the Angolan Civil War. Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2013, 17.

[3] French, Howard W. "From Old Files, a New Story Of U.S. Role in Angolan War." The New York Times, 31 Mar. 2002. Web.

[4] Scholtz, Leopold. The SADF in the Border War: 1966-1989. Cape Town, South Africa: Tafelberg, 2013, 4.

[5] Author’s note: Communist is used synonymously here with Marxist-Leninist.

[6] For the purposes of this document, I will be focusing on 32 Battalion unconventional warfare operations on the border between Angola and Namibia. 32 Battalion was also used as a training element, training UNITA soldiers in Angola, and as a mechanized infantry unit during the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

[7] Breytenbach, Jan. The Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of South Africa's 32-Battalion 1975-1993. Alberton, South Africa: Galago, 2004, 178.

[8] Ibid.,179.

[9] Breytenbach, Jan. The Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of South Africa's 32-Battalion 1975-1993. Alberton, South Africa: Galago, 2004, Illustration 70.

 

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