Flight Plan Africa – Portuguese Airpower in Counterinsurgency, 1961-1974

John Cann published “Flight Plan Africa” in 2015. If you are interested in Airpower in Counterinsurgency, particularly the Portuguese experiences in 1961-1974, then get this book. I’ve taken a few notes, mostly quotes of bits I found interesting. To liven it up a bit I’ve included photos from other sources.

The book is available from Amazon USA, UK, and Canada:

Cann, J. P. (2015). Flight Path Africa: Portuguese Airpower in Counterinsurgency, 1961-1974. Helion & Company Limited.


Aircraft

Not surprisingly the books dwells on the attributes of the aircraft flown by the Portuguese.

PV-2

The PV-2s were very useful with their five .50-caliber machinguns in the nose, eight 5-inch rockets beneath the wings, and a 4,000-pound bomb load in the internal bomb bay.

Nord Aviation Noratlas

When Portugal decided to augment its C-47 fleet with heavier, more capable aircraft, it was offered six of the N-2502As [the civil version] by UAT.

These six aircraft were deployed to Angola i November 1960 as part of Squadron 92 and began operations from Luanda.

In 1962, six more Noratlases were acquired from the Israeli Air Force and, after overhaul, where designated N-2502Fs. In the same year, the three N-2502Bs owned by Air Algerie were also added to the fleet. The primary drawback to the nine civil modesl was an absence of personnel doors in the rear of the fuselage for paratroop drops. This shsortcoming was corrected with their first major overhaul at Alverca.

Over the years 1965-1970,thirteen N-2501Ds were acrquired from the Luftwaffe, bringing the total acquisition to 28 Noratlases. On balance, the Noratlas delivered good service in the ultramar and was a tactical airlift mainstay. It it had a single weakness, it lay in its acquisition from four different sources and hence with four very different instrumentation and electronics suites. This caused significant difficulties for the aircrews and maintenance personnel in flyng and maintaining the aircraft.
(p. 134-135.)

Paratroopers loading onto Noratlas

Paratroopers loading onto Noratlas

T-6G Harvard

The first four T-6G Harvards arrived in Angola on 20 March. They were a gift from the French having been struck off the french inventory and with French markings removed. The pilots called them “F-110”.

The T-6G was a light attack aircraft known by its pilots as the “F-110,” because it took off at 110 knots, cruised at 110 knots, and landed at 110 knots. (p. 302)

T-6G Harvard, Cufar, Guine

T-6G Harvard, Cufar, Guine

The T-6G was used in the close air support of both naval patrols and ground forces. In the case of the navy, the T-6G would fly along the river route scouting ahead of the vessel to identify a potential ambush and destroy it. The Harvard was armed with two browning 7.7mm machineguns with 150 rounds each, one mounted beneath each wing. These had been taken from the Spitfires and Hurricanes that had been struck from the FAP inventory and adapted to the Harvard by the aircraft rework center at Alverca. Later when heavier firepower was needed, the T-6G carried pods of 37mm rockets with fragmentation warheads. It was able to deliver well-directed firepower in support of land forces and conduct armed reconnaissance against PAIGC bases and encampments. It was lighter and far less potent than the F-86F but very flexible and could remain aloft for upwards of three hours with careful fuel management. (p. 244-245)


Dornier DO-27

The [Dornier] DO-27 was a West German, single-engine, short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL), utility aircraft manufactured by Dornier GmBH. (p. 162)

[The Dornier DO-27] was extraordinarily well adapted to the rudimentary airfields of the ultramar and could perform reconnaissance, transport of troops, passengers, and cargo, and evacuation of the wounded (MEDEVAC). the Dornier also had an offensive capability with its two pods or “nests” of eighteen 37mm rockets each, although this type of mission tended to be fulfilled by the T-6G. The ability of the Dornier to operate at night enhanced all of its capabilities and almost immediately the Austers were overshadowed and flown only reluctantly. (p. 162)

For additional fire support there might be a Dornier with two nine-rocket canisters, one under each wing, loaded with versatile 37mm rockets developed by the French. They were used either for marking targets with smoke or making an attack on guerrilla sites. (p. 200)

[Photo p. 163] Arming a Dornier at BA 9 with rockets, either smoke marking or antipersonnel fragmentation.

Avions Max Holste MH-1521M Broussard (Bushman)

In the early 1950s, Avions Max Holste developed a military version of its commercially unsuccessful design for a light observation aircraft. This bush aircraft, the MH-1521M, was named Broussard (one who lives in the bush) and could be used for airborne command, observation, FAC, medical evacuation, and commando transport. With space for six seats or two litters, it proved an enormous success. (p. 105)

A Broussard acted as the airbourne forward command post (posto de comando avançado or PCA) to overcome the lack of an air-ground radio in the F-86F and coordinated air-ground operations. (p. 250)

F-84G Thunderjet

Resende’s earlier appeal for an aircraft capable of delivering heavy fire support was answered with the arrival by ship in Luanda of a dozen F-84G Thunderjets between April and June 1961. (p 178)

Portuguese F-84 being loaded with ordnance in the 1960s, at Luanda Air Base

Portuguese F-84 being loaded with ordnance in the 1960s, at Luanda Air Base

By 1961 the sturdy F-84G remained potentially valuable in certain roles, and the FAP was not yet ready to abandon it. Originally the aircraft was designed and built as a fighter-bomber and was still able to perform credibly in attacked missions, particularly in a permissive environment with no appreciable anti-air threat. (p. 180)

Key operations to retake the north began in April and ran into thee late summer of 1961, and as soon as the F-84Gs could be made flight-ready and their new Squadron 93, the Magnificoes (Magnificent Ones), stood up at BA 9, they would joint the fight. The first mission of Squadron 93 occurred on 17 August. Despite the late start, Squadron 93 completed 43 missions in August, of which 32 were solo attacks or, as the FAP pilots termed it, “localized destruction” (destruição localizada or DLOC). On 25 August a formation of Thunderjets provided closer air support for the paratroops retaking Canda, their baptism of fire. Again on 19 September, the Thunderjets attacked Scandica in preparation for the air drop of paratroops. Unfortunately the jets were armed with wholly inadequate 100-pound bombs, as that was all that was available. There was also a shortage of 350-liter napalm canisters, and these shortages for a time made the Thunderjet missions more psychological than dangerous to the enemy. The number and intensity of combat missions increased with the addition of each airframe, and there developed a proportionate increase in the need for munitions, particularly 500-pound general purpose (GP) and 350-liter incendiary bombs. (p. 180-181)

Typical of Thunderjet operations was Operation Onzo launched to recover the settlement of Beira Baixa in which the pilots made precision drops of napalm canisters less than 300 meters from anyr troops in waiting columns, as there was no 500-pound bombs or 2.75-inch rockets. (p. 181)

major Antonio Silva Cardoso, the command pilot in a harpoon, describes the events of a mission on 10 October with the Thunderjets against Serra da Cananga, an enormous elevated plateaux with the great escarpments completely covered in dense vegetation. The plateau extends northwest from Quitexe to Nova Caipemba, and the lengthy aerial reconnaissance had located the UPA “sanctuary” with its flag flying from a flagpole in a clearing. Accordingly an attack was planned in which a formation of four Thunderjets would deliver their ordnance from altitude in a steep angle of attack that would place the bombs with great precision. This would be followed by three Harpoons in sequence. together dropping a salvo of 18 200-pound bombs. As the Harpoons approached the target at 3,000 feet, the Thunderjets passed overhead and commenced their bombing runs, each delivering two 750-pound bombs. (p. 181)

F-86G Sabre

The F-86G Sabre, which began to enter service in Portugual in 1958 (p. 180)

Portugal decided in July 1961 to reinforce Guine with a flight of eight North American F-86F Sabre jet fights from the metropole. (p. 242)

The F-86F, as used initially in the “sovereignty flights,” soon transitioned into pretargeted raids on known enemy concentrations. Its use in close air support was limited at first, as its radios were incompatible with those carried by ground forces. At the time only the T-6G cold communicate with ground forces, which carried the ubiquitous PRC-10, a 10-tube UHF FM transceiver and the primary radio of an infantryman. Consequently, the F-86F could do only preplanned missions and had very limited flexibility after launching.

Nevertheless, the F-86F packed a big punch. Its normal armament configuration consisted of six .50-caliber machinguns, two bombs up to 1,000 pounds, and four 2.75-inch rockets. The machineguns might carry incendiary or fragmentation rounds. The bombs might be general purpose (GP) or napalm.
(p. 244)

A Broussard acted as the airbourne forward command post (posto de comando avançado or PCA) to overcome the lack of an air-ground radio in the F-86F and coordinated air-ground operations. (p. 250)

As 1964 advanced, F-86F operations began to wind down, and its final mission was flown on 20 October. The aircraft were subsequently dismantled and put aboard ships for transport to the metropole, the last one departing on 22 December. For the next 18 months the intrepid T-6G would be the primary fire support platform, until the Fiats arrived in May 1966. (p. 256)

Fiat G-91

Little happened [in Guine] until the end of March [1966], when enormous and heavy crates arrived by sea – the first of the Fiats. (p. 263)

Fiat

Fiat

The Fiats were armed with a combination of external fuel tanks on the wing root stations, eight 2.75-inch rockets on the outboard ones, and internal .50-caliber machinguns. In a full bomb load, the tanks were replaced with two 200-kilogram bombs and the rockets by four 50-kilogram ones. Napalm canisters could replace the 200-kilogram bombs on the wing root stations as an alternative. (p. 264)

Fiat G91 Gina

Fiat G91 Gina

The nine Fiats arrived [in Guine] in several shipments spread over April (4), May (4), and November (1), and were assigned to the newly established “Fiat Squadron,” Squadron 121, the “Tigers.” (p. 264)

Also because the availability of bombs was reduced during the last several months of 1967, attacks were made bomb by bomb against the munitions inside the holes where the [PAIGC] gunners and their arms hid. In most cases these opening were less than two meters in diameter, an dropping on “in the hole” was as much an art as a science. Such bombing runs required a pilot to take heightened risk, and all understood that this would eventually lead to the loss of the first Fiat. … The practice of single-bomb passes, which increased risk with each pass, was only changed at the beginning of 1968, when a significant supply of 200- and 50-kilogram bombs arrived in Bissau. From then on the Fiats used an “over-loaded” configuration of two 200-kilogram bombs on the interior racks next to the wing roots and four 50-kilogram ones on the exterior racks. This entire 600-kilogram (1,322-pound) load was dropped in salvo on a single high-seed pass. The arrival of the six bombs nearly simultaneously on the target was much more effective in terms of increasing the probability of a hit while reducing the risk considerably to the aircraft. (p. 276)

Sud-Aviation Alouette III Helicopter

The remaining six [Alouette II helicopters] were sent to Angola at the end of 1962 and later, with the acquisition of twelve Alouette III helicopters in the spring and summer of 1963, formed the basis for Squadron 94, the Moscas or “Flies”, at BA 9.

Alouette III, Zenza River, Angola, 1965

Alouette III, Zenza River, Angola, 1965

The Alouette III helicopters that distinguished the success of Operation Zeta arrived in Mozambique between July adn October 1966 and began their first operational flights in Aril of the following year. The initial six delivered were assigned in November 1966 to Squadron 503, the Indio (indians), at Nacala (AB 5).

In March 1967 an additional three [Alouette III helicopters] arrived [in Guine], raising the total inventory to nine. Two of these were equipped with the French Matra MG-151 machine cannon. These gunships helicopters were each known as the Lobo Mau or the “Wicked Wolf” (p. 267)

Initially the helicopter assault concept was built around the 20-man combat group. A flight of five helicopters would insert five 4-man sections on the ground quickly and judiciously to make the most of insurgent contact. If the flight was expected to encounter resistance and needed covering fire to protect it, then a helicopter gunship or heli-canhão with its 2mm cannon covered the insertion and recovery and provided support as required. The development of this gunship capability required several years and was done in consultations with Sud-Aviation.

Finding the solution to troop helicopter vulnerability during the landing and recovery phases took experimentation and time. Initially fire from the hand-held AR-10s (7.62mm caliber) carried by the troops was tried and found inadequate. A 12-gauge shotgun with buckshot loads was also tried with some success, but something more powerful was needed. Next, the MG-42 light machinegun (7.62mm) was tried, but it was difficult to handle and could not be held on target with the movement of the helicopter. Looking for more seriuos firepower that could hold the target or sweep across the LZ,the FAP borrowed from the Thunderjet its Browning M3 (from the (.50-caliber) machineguns that fired 1,200 rounds per minute and mounted them in a side-by-side configuration in the left door of the Alouette III. Only the Alouette III could carry the weight. This dual M3 mount was slaved to a targeting visor borrowed fro m the -6G, and the arrangement worked partially, providing more robust and controllable fire support. However, the weapon was bulky, and both its weight and that of the ammunition and other modifications made it cumbersome. it took about two years to find the desired solution in the French Matra MG-151, a 20mm cannon with little recoil and firing rate of 700 rounds per minutes. This proved ideal, particularly when used with high explosive incendiary munitions.

On the negative side, with the cannon mounted in the helicopter, its two boxes of ammunition aboard, the gunner in position, and 450 liters of jet fuel in the tank, the Alouette was heavy. The situation was further aggravated by the center of gravity now being shifted forward, making it a challenge to fly and requiring great concentration by the pilot. Experienced pilots worked best in the heli-canhão.

(p. 198-199)

I the quote above Cann talks about a flight of five helicopters carrying a combat group of 20 with each helicopter carrying four men. Below this changes to five men per chopper and a combat group of 25. The latter is the order of battle I’ve seen before.

The Alouette III carried five armed men, and a flight of five could put a combat group of 25 on the ground quickly. (p. 310)

Sud-Aviation SA-330 Puma Helicopter

In 1973 the [AM 72] squadron received three of the SA-330 Puma medium helicopters. This number would be expanded to five in 1974. The Puma carried eight armed men and made for a more efficient operation.
The Puma was an all-weather, medium-lift helicopter designed and built by Sud-Aviation for the French army (Armee de Terre)

Puma, Operation Canacassala, December 1972

Puma, Operation Canacassala, December 1972


Air Operations

I’ve included a few quotes on how the aircraft where used and/or how they interacted with the people on the ground.

Most outposts and villages had a P-19 transceiver radio with which to communication with the authorities, and from these came a deluge of requests for supply drops and fire support. Because these radio communications were not encrypted, there developed a simple, informal code in which each type of aircraft was designated an animal and each type of a mission, a dance. For instance, a village would ask for a lion to provide an urgent fox-trot – everything was urgent – meaning to send an attack aircraft for fire support. When the aircraft arrived at the village, ideally there would be a large log or white sheet pointing in the direction of the threat. (p. 162)

There is quite a lot of material on operations around Mucaba.

Mucaba is located about 60 miles north of Negage in a densely forested mountainous setting. Horacio Caio, a journalist, describes the area from the air, “There below, the forest, dense and dark green, offered no clearing. Ravines and small plateaus were equally shrouded by a mist that began a few meters below the ‘Nord Atlas’. ”

The principal mission of the air force was the support of ground forces and all that this entails.

The air force is to serve as a “multiplicator of land forces.”

In order to maintain pressure on the UPA, Operation Nema to retake Quipedro began promptly on 11 August following the reoccupation of Nambu. (p. 183)

The concept of operations was to have Cavalry Detachment 149 continue its advance through Nambu on the road to Quipedro. The detachment would link up with the 1st Company of Parachute Battalion 21, which would be dropped into a landing zone adjacent to the village. (p 183-184)

While the paratoops met no enemy, the cavalry detachment was not so fortunate. Rather than moving on foot, the detachment was mounted in vehicles and bound to the road bordered by high grass. As the column of vehicles proceeded, it encountered log barriers across the road that had to be cleared. When the column halted to remove the barriers, the detachment found itself in a classic ambush scenario and took intense fire from UPA gunmen hiding in the thick, tall grass 15 to 20 feet high growing right to the edge of the road. It was precisely as the men left the vehicles and were most vulnerable that the rebels attacked. This skilful setting of ambushes and the creation of killing zones were new refinements that clearly came from outside the UPA. Rebel ambushes increasingly made good use of the terrain, another newly imported skill. They also had abandoned their home-grown weapons of primitive shotguns and bush knives for modern automatic weapons, and during these attacks wore a quasi-uniform of blue trousers with white or red bands on them.

“Welcome to Meuda. Here we work, we fight and we die. A ‘nugget’ is worse than a terrorist”

The word checa was a local military term for a newcomer or “nugget” in equivalent U.S. military terminology. (p. 315)

The remainder of the terrain, particularly north of Mueda, consisted of shrub-like plants three to four meters in height that formed a dense, nearly impenetrable matted growth. It was a formidable barrier to ground forces attempting to manoeuver, as the aggressive vegetation contained nasty briars, prompting the troops to nickname it the “zone of whips” (Zona dos Paus). (p. 316)


Anti-aircraft Guns

The PAIGC went through several phases of antiaircraft defense. In the beginning there was only indiscriminate firing of individual small arms. Next the Soviet 7.62mm machinegun appeared on a wheeled mount, but this was only effective against aircraft flying at low altitudes. Cabral was soon open to new methods, particularly from the Chinese. By the close of 1963, his forces had received a more potent weapon of Soviet design and Chinese manufacture: the Degtyarev-Shpagin (DShK) 12.7mm heavy antiaircraft machinegun. This gun had the capability of producing major effect but was easily seen from the air, as it was habitually situated in the open. The DShK was quickly followed by the APU-1 14.5mm heavy machinegun. Both of these weapons were wheeled to enable mobility, and the transport mechanisms converted to stale support systems for use. The ZPU-1 could be broken down into several 80-kilogram sections for transport over rough ground, and it was soon followed by the less mobile but more powerful twin- and quad-barrel models, the ZPU-2 and ZPU-4 respectively. The latter weapons were ponderous and not particularly mobile. In fact they were only used in readily identifiable open emplacement rings with earthworks and sited in zones where the PAIGC considered itself impregnable, areas straddling the southern border. Conversely, the DShK and ZPU-1 were found at sites well into the interior because of their mobility. (p. 257)

When the pilots anxiously sought to avoid the antiaircraft fire and made their drops early to begin their exist. The result was a series of enormous holes around the gun emplacements, and indeed these pits became known jokingly as “the caves of Vasquez” after a nervous pilot, Jose Vasconcelos e Sa, who made persistently spectacular misses. (p. 265)

In January 1967, Abecasis was relieved as the ZACVG commander, and his replacement was Colonel Rui da Costa Cesario,who immediately initiative a rare event: an operation to capture intact one of the PAIGC antiaircraft guns. [It was a DSHK 12.7mm] (p. 271)

[Caption of a photo] ZPU-4 antiaircraft installation at Cassabeche in the border area of souther Guiné, as photographed from the forward oblique nose camera on Jose Nico’s Fiat during his bomb run on 7 March 1968. Earthern ramparts in the form of a espaliered snail protect the gun crew from near-miss bomb blasts. The aircraft is approaching from a northeast direction, as the gun is expectantly trained to the south (Source: Força Aérea Portuguesa).

Its sand earthworks were a brilliant white in the sunlight. (p. 279)

The post-flight analysis of Nico’s photography confirmed that there had been a single ZPU-4 in the new site surrounded by several sites with 12.7mm tripod-mounted machineguns. (p. 280-281)

In February [1973], the Jaguares were targeted unsuccessfully by antiaircraft fire, as they attacked Base Gungunhana, evidence that FRELIMO was still seeking an anti-air solution. It had not been able to protect its bases with the same effectiveness as had the PAIGC, because the circumstances were considerably different. Difficult, well policed terrain made moving heavy weapons nearly impossible and precluded such artillery as the dangerous 14.5mm quad-barreled ZPU appearing in Nucleus Central. By April, however, there was concern that FRELIMO could acquire the soviet SA-7 Strela surface-to-air missile (SAM)., which was hand-held, man-portable, heat-seeking antiaircraft missile. These had appeared in Guiné in March with devastating results. (p. 327)

The Fiats attacked the gun emplacements with their maximum load , the rising sun behind them, and the eyes of the FRELIMO gunners blinded. Some of the pilots with the typical ironic humour of aviators quickly named this tactic the “hot breakfast.”

In May, a Fiat flying from Mueda suffered three hits from a 14.5mm antiaircraft piece, a certain sign that FRELIMO air defenses were being strengthened.

A new and effective weapon appeared in the hands of insurgents around mid-1973 in the form of 122mm rockets.
(p. 328)

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References

Cann, J. P. (2015). Flight Path Africa: Portuguese Airpower in Counterinsurgency, 1961-1974. Helion & Company Limited.

Johnson, R. C. (1998). COIN: The Portuguese in Africa, 1959-1975. World at War.

A great resource on Portuguese airpower in the counterinsurgency.

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