Al J Venter on the Portuguese Colonial War

I’ve just got all the books by Al J. Venter I could find … at least those related the Portuguese Colonial War. Al Venter is unique – a journalist, with military experience himself, willing to go into the combat zone with the Portuguese security forces, who then wrote about his experiences. The result is a set of books with rich descriptions of real life conditions in the field in Africa during the 1960s and 1970s.

These books are not general histories. For an overview of the war you’ll have to look else where. They are first hand accounts of the war from the Portuguese stand point by an informed but independent observer.

I thought I’d type up my notes for all of Al’s books in one place.

The books I’ve got, and their focus, are:

  • The Terror Fighters: A profile of Guerrilla warfare in Southern Africa (Venter, 1969)
    • War in Angola
  • Portugal’s Guerrilla War: The Campaign for Africa (Venter, 1973)
    • War in Portuguese Guinea
  • Africa at War (Venter, 1974a)
    • War in Portuguese Guinea, Mozambique and Angola. He also covers non-Portuguese wars: Biafra, Chad, Rhodesia, Sudan, and Eritrea.
  • The Zambesi Salient: Conflict in Southern Africa (Venter, 1974b)
    • War in Mozambique and Rhodesia.
  • The Chopper Boys: Helicopter Warfare in Africa (Venter, 1994)
    • The focus is, as the by-line states, helicopter warfare. However he does cover the War in Portuguese Guinea, Mozambique and Angola. Venter also covers non-Portuguese wars and countries: Somalia, Algeria, Congo, East African Mutinies, Chad, Rhodesia, Egypt, Liberia, and Namibia.


4 Feb 1961

A small group of MPLA men attacked Luanda Prison (Venter, 1969).

The Portuguese had 8,000 men in Angola when the 1961 attacks occurred: 3,000 Portuguese and 5,000 African (Venter, 1969).

18 Mar 1967

18 insurgents attacked a coffee-farm late one night in the Dembos (Venter, 1969). Portuguese troops arrived quickly. Three insurgents were killed and several wounded. The Portuguese captured one of the wounded (Imbu) and he joined the Portuguese.

Dembos Mountains

Setting: Dembos Mountains Angola; 1969

The Dembos mountains were the focus of insurgent activity in northern Angola (Venter, 1969). The mountains start 70 km north of Luanda and are covered in heavy jungle broken by grey-blue granite peaks. The insurgents used the peaks as observation points.

Road convoys had a tough time (Venter, 1969). The roads were bad and the insurgents active. It could take 24 hours to cover 100 km by road, twice that in the rainy season. An outward convoy might be attacked four or five times but the return trip was worse as the insurgents would be more prepared having seen the trucks on the outward trip.

Sector A

Setting: Sector A, Northern Angola; 1969

Sector A was north of Sector D (and the Dembos Mountains) and stretched to the Congo and the coast (Venter, 1969). It was a wild and difficult area. Much of it was jungle swampland. Malaria and other tropical illnesses were rife. The sector was virtually uninhabited and the few Africans that remained avoided both the Portuguese and insurgents.

To reach Sector D in the Dembos any insurgents travelling from Congo-Brazzaville had to cross Sector A (Venter, 1969). It took the average insurgent six weeks to cover the 200 km long trail. They carried everything they needed on their backs – guns, ammunition, explosives, food, medical supplies, propaganda leaflets. They had also managed to bring in 500 lb aerial bombs on litters between four men (not that these make good mines as the Portuguese spotted them easily).

Sector D

Setting: Comsec D, Dembos Mountains, Angola; 1969

?? Was Sector D synonymous with the Dembos ??

Comsec D (or Sector D) was the centre of the Portuguese counter-insurgency campaign in northern Angola (Venter, 1969). Sector D was about the size of Cyprus. Santa Eulalia Camp was the headquarters. There were seven other Portuguese camps in the sector, including Zala camp to the north of the sector, Zemba to the south and Nambuangongo (‘Nambu’) in the centre. Quicabo Camp was in the Dembos but I’m not sure whether was in Sector D.

Sector F

Setting: Sector F, Dembos Mountains, Angola; 1969

Venter (1969) mentions Terreiro, “a small coffee-producing area in Sector F, just north of here [Santa Eulalia in Sector D]”. It was apparently mountainous so was probably in the Dembos.

Santa Eulalia Camp

Setting: Santa Eulalia Camp, Sector D, Dembos Mountains, Angola; 1969

Santa Eulalia Camp was the headquarters of Comsec D (or Sector D) (Venter, 1969). It was constructed soon after the attacks of 1961. The camp was on a group of low-lying hills and was built within a coffee platation. Around the camp was a patch work of thousands of rows of small coffee bushes. In between the coffee patches was open grassland and beyond the plantation the jungle started.

The camp had a garrison of 300 men (Venter, 1969). The commander in 1969 was Brigadier Martins Sorres. He had six staff officers to help conduct the counter-insurgency war in Sector D.

The layout of Santa Eulalia was apparently typical of Portuguese camps (Venter, 1969). The perimeter was a a 8′ barbed-wire double fence. Arc lights with protective wire coverings were spaced every 12 yards or so along the fence, but at night their light could only penetrate 50 yards beyond the fence line. There were also 6 or 7 machine gun turrets spread around the perimeter. The centre of the camp had a row of low prefabricated wooden bungalows. An “elaborate” bunker and tunnel system completed the defences. The tunnels meant it was possible to move between all of the buildings, and between the buildings and the forward positions, in complete safety.

Unlike other camps Santa Eulalia had a second section near the air strip for the air force personnel (Venter, 1969). The army provide security for this camp as well as the first.

The garrison was highly mobile and provided support and tactical roles for other Portuguese army units in the area (Venter, 1969). Their mobility came from the two dozen trucks and helicopters at the base.

Despite the presence of the camp the coffee estate was still commercially functioning (Venter, 1969).

Nambuangongo (‘Nambu’) Camp

Setting: Nambuangongo (‘Nambu’) Camp, Sector D, Dembos Mountains Angola; 1969

Nambuangongo (‘Nambu’) Camp was on a mountain top in Sector D (Venter, 1969). It was the insurgent headquarters in 1961. Fighting in the area had been “fierce and consistent” and Portuguese losses in the area were relatively high. Capturing the post would have been a “significant moral and military victory” so the insurgents occasionally attacked the camp.

Venter (1974b) has an aerial photo of mbuangongo Camp north of Luanda in Angola – between p. 212 and 213.

Quicabo Camp

Setting: Quicabo Camp, Dembos Mountains Angola; 1969

Quicabo was a Portuguese camp in the Dembos mountains of northern Angola (Venter, 1969). The camp had a garrison of 200 men.

Because of the difficulty of road transport Quicabo got most of its fresh supplies by air (Venter, 1969). The supply planes (Noratlas) normally flew at 500 feet but made the approach at just above tree level. Once at the camp the plan made three passes and dropped a total of seven crates (2, 2, 3). The first had the mail – considered the most important cargo. Other supplies were fresh provisions for two or three days plus medical supplies. The terrain was difficult enough but occasionally the insurgents also shot at the supply planes as they came in for a drop.

Zemba Camp

Setting: Zemba Camp, Sector D, Dembos Mountains Angola; 1969

Zemba was 20 km south-east of Santa Eulalia thus the closest (Venter, 1969). A large bald sugar loaf mountain overlooked the camp from the south. The insurgents used that hill or surrounding bush to shoot into the camp or at aircraft. The camp was under fire nearly every week since the start of operations. The only wall of the officer’s mess was on the windward side.

The garrison were infantry and patrolled the area on foot or in trucks (Venter, 1969). The camp had about 12 trucks. The men followed a patrol rota. The insurgents referred to the Portuguese patrols as Death Walkers. One group was in camp all the time to rest while the other men were on patrol. Being in the south of the Dembos there was more grassland than jungle, which makes insurgent ambushes less likely.

Portuguese aligned Civilians and Local Security in Sector D

Setting: Sector D, Dembos Mountains, Angola; 1969

By 1969 the local Africans of the Dembos generally worked their fields (or on the plantations) during the day and moved closer to the Portuguese camps for protection at night (Venter, 1969). The men were armed and organised into platoons under a section leader. The section leader reported to a Portuguese officer in case of attack.

Sector D had huge coffee plantations (Venter, 1969). The plantations were patch works of thousands of rows of small coffee bushes. In between the coffee patches was open grassland and beyond the plantation the jungle started. The farmers continually struggled to hold the jungle back. No soldiers were stationed on the plantations. All farm owners and workers, white and black, were responsible for their own security and went armed. Farmers could fight off small insurgent attacks without help but were also in radio contact with the nearest camp.

Insurgents in Sector D

Setting: Sector D, Dembos Mountains, Angola; 1969

In 1969 the Portuguese estimated there were 5 to 6,000 insurgents in Sector D (Venter, 1969). 90% of them had walked from Congo-Brazzaville. By 1969 they fought in small units of about 20 men or less. Most of the men were trained outside Angola – in Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville or further afield. Some had AK47s and Simonov carbines but others used a home-made blunderbuss firing nails, pieces of iron, and/or rock. The latter, although primitive, could cause terrible wounding damage.

The two main groups in Angola were the UPA and MPLA (Venter, 1969). There was no love lost between these groups. In 1969 MPLA was trying to establish itself in within Sector D and preferred to fight the UPA than the Portuguese. The included MPLA informers telling the Portuguese the location of UPA groups and letting the Portuguese dispatch their enemy.

The Portuguese saw a marked difference in ability between MPLA and UPA (Venter, 1969). The Portuguese viewed the MPLA as “resilient fighters”, “tough, wily and dangerous” (Venter, 1969, p. 31). The MPLA tried to win over the local population. MPLA men would ask villages for food and rarely touched the local women. None of which applied to the UPA.

Early in the war the Portuguese viewed the UPA as an effective force but by 1969 it was weakened by lack of discipline (Venter, 1969). UPA men took food from villagers without asking and alienated the villagers by attempting to seduce their women or outright raping them.

Insurgent aligned Civilians in Sector D

Setting: Sector D, Dembos Mountains, Angola; 1969

The insurgents were supported by 10 to 15,000 African civilians living in the mountainous jungles of Sector D (Venter, 1969). Civilians supported the insurgents because of genuine loyalty to the cause, tribal allegiance or just plain coercion. They would feed and host the insurgents, and occasionally hide them in their villages. The villages (sanzalas in the local language) were in jungle clearings as were their food crops. Some villages were large enough to house a field hospital. The staple crop was manioc or cassava root. The root could be planted and left to mature untended. It could be harvested in two months, either by the villagers or by insurgents. They also crew maize/corn and, if time allowed, beans. Meat was rare.

The location of villages The Portuguese occasionally spotted from the air but they left the villages alone (Venter, 1969).

Death Walkers: Portuguese Foot Patrols

Setting: Sector D, Dembos Mountains, Angola; Also Cambinda Enclave; 1969

The insurgents in the Dembos referred to the Portuguese jungle patrols as ‘The Death Walkers’ (Venter, 1969). Foot patrols had about 30 men under and officer and three sergeants. The patrols lasted 3-5 days but could be longer if the trail was “hot”. The men carried everything they needed, food for five days, and something extra (e.g. machine gun ammunition, mortar, bazooka, shells, stretcher, etc). Each group has three machine guns, and a mortar and a bazooka. The group walked in single file. Each man knew the duties of the two men immediately in front of him and the two immediately behind so he could take over if they were out of action. A machine gun was located at front, centre and rear of the file. The men were trained to know when to take cover because in the jungle under fire they wouldn’t be able to see the officers and probably not hear them. The patrols walked silently due to the Portuguese boots (canvas with rubber soles) and the rotting vegetation on the floor of the jungle. To maintain silence the troop used sign language. Even when stopping to eat in a clearing few soldiers talked. A third of the men would be on guard during these breaks. Black soldiers acted as trackers; they could follow a two day old trail through bush and jungle for another two days. A patrol could cover 100 km in heavily overgrown jungle in five days. More in the open area to the east of the Dembos. If the patrol was following an insurgent trail they preferred to follow alongside the trail to avoid booby traps but this was impossible in dense bush.

Herding Civilians

A UPA tactic was to move entire communities of 200 to 8,000 into the jungle; the groups were larger nearer the border with the Congo (Venter, 1969). This denied the Portuguese civilian labour but also gave the insurgents a ready source of food and recruits. The civilian men were encouraged to join the insurgent ranks and the women raised crops. This tactic was particularly effective in 1963-4 and Angola suffered a severe coffee shortage despite the fact there was a world glut.

The process of moving a community would start with a 24 hour ultimatum (Venter, 1969). Failure to comply would result in 10 or 12 people – men and women – being shot each morning until the community agreed to move. Of course that didn’t enamour the villagers and the insurgents would have to control the civilians with their guns.

Once on the move it took several weeks for a group to cross the border (Venter, 1969). Moving constantly the food soon ran short. A large group would have to resort to eating the grass around their campsites. Obviously people starved. In contrast the insurgent guards usually had enough to eat. And they tended to shoot stragglers.

The Portuguese could often tell the location of a convoy by the circling vultures (Venter, 1969). If they dropped commandoes ahead of the convoy the insurgents would melt into the bush to look for other civilians to herd.

Civilians were often moved into Congo-Kinshasa (Venter, 1969). Over half a million by 1965. Some stayed, despite the poor conditions in Congo-Kinshas, but others tried to return to Angola soon after they arrived. Self-appointed bands of armed youths (Jeunesse) patrolled the borders and shot anybody they found trying to return. None-the-less about 2/3 of those who moved to Congo-Kinshasa returned to Angola. Over time the Portuguese began to feed and house the returning refugees.

Chaplain Lieutenant Jorge

In one example before Jun 1968 about 400 UPA insurgents were herding over 5,000 civilians towards the Congolese border east of Matadi (Venter, 1969). Matadi, the main Congo port and often used point of entry. The guards wore no uniform making it difficult to distinguish them from the villagers. A Portuguese commando platoon, along with Chaplain Lieutenant Jorge, trailed the convoy for four days. The insurgents knew they were being followed and set a ruthless pace for the starving civilians. Many died. A small number of Bazombo tribesmen escaped the convoy and were captured by the Portuguese. Earlier in the year, in a similar position, the Portuguese had attacked but the guards just disappeared into the jungle. This time Lieutenant Jorge decided on a different approach, to avoid the insurgents disappearing and to avoid civilian casualties. Over four nights Jorge visited groups of civilians and persuaded the chiefs to return to Portuguese control. The next morning the civilians revolted against their guards. By the time the Portuguese attacked most of the insurgents were dead; only about 24 insurgents were captured. The Portuguese retained the “brighter” ones for interrogation but handed the majority back to the civilians to be tortured and killed. 1/2 of the original group of villagers had died in the trek.

Insurgent accuracy

The Portuguese considered the insurgent fire inaccurate; they rarely hit beyond 100 m (Venter, 1969). This applied to all areas and despite the level of training received.

Insurgents in the Dembos at least were expected to collect their spent cartridges (Venter, 1969). They were not issued new cartridges unless they presented them back at camp. Empty cartridges was seen as proof they’d been in combat rather than just thrown away their unused shells.

Insurgent attacks on Portuguese Camps

Setting: Sector D, Dembos Mountains, Angola; 1969

Most insurgent attacks on Portuguese camps in Sector D were at night (Venter, 1969). However, by 1969 the insurgents were conducting mock attacks during the day. These were intended to bring the Portuguese officers into the open where insurgent snipers would shoot them. But apparently the “deplorable” aim of the insurgents meant the tactic wasn’t too successful.

Nambuangongo (‘Nambu’) Camp in Sector D was seriously attacked several times because it had been the insurgent headquarters in 1961 so had particular significance (Venter, 1969).

Insurgent Ambush in Mountains

Setting: Dembos Mountains, Angola; 1969

Road convoys had a tough time in the Dembos Mountains (Venter, 1969). The roads were bad and the insurgents active. It could take 24 hours to cover 100 km by road, twice that in the rainy season. An outward convoy might be attacked four or five times but the return trip was worse as the insurgents would be more prepared having seen the trucks on the outward trip.

Venter (1969, p. 19) described a typical ambush by insurgents in the mountainous Dembos:

They would chose a stretch of road with clear visibility for some distance in both approach directions – in a valley or on a corner at the bottom of a dip in the road. If the area is overgrown they will attack from a position above the road, firing down on the convoy. This also gives a better opportunity of escape once the action is complete.

The Portuguese standard response was to brake hard, jump out of the vehicles and dash for any cover on the side of the road (elephant grass or shurbbery) whilst firing their rifles into the closest cover. Early in the war the insurgents had often positioned men with catanas near the road and the Portuguese wanted to clear the grass before they arrived.

Ambush on the Tereiro Road

Setting: Few km from Terreiro, Sector F, Dembos Mountains?, Angola; 1969

Source: Venter (1969, pp. 19-21); Map on p. 20.

Two Portuguese jeeps were ambushed travelling from their post at outlying village to Terreiro. The occupants were Captain de Campos and seven other men. The Captain drove the lead jeep.

A insurgent group of perhaps 20 to 25 had set up an ambush positions on a rise commanding a section of road that went around the foot of the hill through a dip. Their position was 30 m above the road. This gave the attackers excellent visibility in both directions. The area had patches of jungle with elephant grass between and along the road. There was also an 8′ deep gully (donga) between the road and the insurgent positions, hidden by the long grass. The insurgents also opened an escape path through the nearby jungle.

The road was good and the Portuguese driving fast to ensure they did the round trip before lunch.

Captain de Campos recounts (Venter, 1969, p. 19):

We came round one of the many bends in the road, fairly close to town. As we turned sharply and dropped into a dip in the road, the terrorists opened fire from a position above us to the left.

They let go with everything they had. It was a good spot for an ambush.

The Portuguese braked hard, jumped out of the jeeps and dashed for the elephant grass whilst firing their rifles into the nearby grass. This was a standard technique as early in the war the insurgents had often positioned men with catanas near the road.

Once in the cover of the elephant grass the Portuguese returned fire on the insurgents. Unfortunately all they could see was the grass and the road behind. One of the men in the second jeep was badly wounded and the Captain decided on decisive action. The seven remaining men each threw a grenade at half-second intervals while the other men concentrated fire on the hill above them, then they charged the enemy throwing their second grenades. They were slowed by the gully but once past this obstacle the insurgent began withdrew into the jungle. they left behind one dead – killed by one of the Portuguese grenades.

Ambush of a Commando Patrol

A commando captain was leading a patrol of 20 men in Mozambique (Venter, 1969). The captain walked onto an anti-personnel explosive improvised from a mortar bomb and lost both legs below the knee. Then an insurgent force opened up with bazookas, mortars, grenades and machine guns. Despite blood loss, and a couple of period of unconsciousness, the captain retained control of his men until the insurgents withdrew. The Portuguese suffered 13 casualties – five killed and eight wounded, two critically. The captain subsequently won the highest military honour in Lisbon.

Encountering a Sanzala in the Jungle

When a Portuguese patrol discovered a sanzala in the jungle they’d have to decide what to do (Venter, 1969). If the patrol thought insurgents were in the sanzala they would go through a few steps that pretty much assured success:

  1. Officer signs for the patrol to immediately freeze
  2. Three “scouts”, all experts in knives, are sent forward to eliminate any sentries1 and reconnoitre2. One scout goes around each side and the third takes the direct path. They assess how big the position is, how many people are present, the best approaches, possible dangers. They also identify sites for the machine guns to form a crossfire and the “death zone”, i.e. the line beyond which the Portuguese will not proceed because it is the target zone for the machine guns. The scouts then return to the main patrol.
  3. Synchronise watches.
  4. Two machine gun teams are given 5-10 minutes to set up a crossfire. A scout takes each machine gun team to the previously identified position on each side of the sanzala. A few other men spread out on each side.
  5. At the predetermined time the three sections would attack. The flanking sections providing a crossfire into the “death zone”. The third section attacked in the centre and advancing to the line of the “death zone”. The insurgents typically surrendered wafter a few minutes.

(1) The Portuguese thought the insurgent sentries were better than theirs, or at least better than the metropolitan soldiers. Africans born in the jungle, on either side of the conflict, knew the “early-warning system” of the jungle. The Africans could hear a whisper at 50 m and a cough at 800 m. The animals in the jungle could sense a larger animal like a human nearby and go quiet; this produced an eerie and unnatural silence so both sides would know something was up.
(2) The insurgents didn’t just camp out in the jungle so surrounding the sanzala was often difficult or impossible. The insurgents located their camps to exploit some natural advantage, e.g. impenetrable jungle on two sides, on a bend along a river or next to a steep hill.

If the patrol didn’t think insurgents were present then they might take a more casual approach (Venter, 1969). Venter cites an example where this casual approach invited an ambush. The patrol hadn’t seen any insurgents for days so thought the area was safe. They were wrong.

  1. Portuguese casually scouted the area.
  2. Portuguese Captain and small team entered the sanzala.
  3. Insurgents surrounded the lower side of the village, avoiding the Portuguese patrol.
  4. Portuguese Captain entered a hut in the sanzala to talk to four village elders.
  5. Insurgents began firing after a few moments.
  6. The men in the hut hit the dirt until the firing stopped.
  7. Insurgents fired for 3 or 4 minutes.
  8. The four villagers in the the hut with the Captain were killed.

“Rehabilitating Terrorists”

In the Dembos in Angola at least captured insurgents were given a simple choice: join the Portuguese or execution (Venter 1969). Joining the Portuguese meant the man was expected to tell his captors everything then lead a patrol through the jungle to the hide outs he had used. This last act commits him to the Portuguese effort as his betrayal will have been observed by his former colleagues and guarantee a fatal reunion should he attempt to rejoin the insurgents.

By 1969 there were about 1,000 of these former insurgents fighting for the Portuguese in Angola (Venter 1969). The Portuguese valued them because “they know the jungle; they know the enemy and, most important of all, they know every ruse of the native” (Captain Alcada cited p. 56)

Imbu is an example. He was captured by the Portuguese captured on 18 Mar 1967 when wounded in an attack on a coffee-farm. He chose to join the Portuguese and led them to his former camp where several of his comrades were killed. Imbu subsequently became a section leader. He was also nominated for decoration for his part in destroyed an insurgent supply column in which he killed two men himself.

Attack on Villa Teixeira de Sousa

Setting: Villa Teixeira de Sousa, Angola; 25 Dec

Insurgents attacked Villa Teixeira de Sousa on the railway line in the east of Angola at lunchtime on Christmas day (Venter, 1969). The entire population and garrison had sat down for an elaborate lunch when the attack started. The insurgents attacked the native quarter first giving the Portuguese time to get their guns. For the loss of only a few defenders (black and white) they killed more than 300 attackers.

Invasion of Republic of Guinea 22 Nov 1973

Setting: Conakry, Republic of Guinea; 22 Nov 1973

As described by Venter (1974b, p. 292-294)


  1. Destroy the PAIGC headquarters in Conakry
  2. Free Portuguese soldiers held captive by President Toure
  3. Take over Toure’s palace

Base: Portuguese Guinea

Assault Force:

  • Invasion force (Lt. Joao Januario Lopes – a PAIGC defector)
    • Dissidents from Guinea, i.e. opponents of President Toure
    • Portuguese army personnel (White officers and African other ranks)
      • 1 x Company of Portuguese commandos
      • 1 x Group of African Marines
    • 300 men in total
    • 2 x Alfange Landing craft (60m long and 500 ton capacity)
  • Escort
    • 4 x Argos patrol boats (40m long and 180 tons)

Lt. Lopes was a a PAIGC defector and redefected on landing. The invaders only managed to free the Portuguese prisoners.

Tete Convoy 1973

Tete Highway, 16-18 Feb 1973

On 16 Feb 1973 Al. J. Venter (1974b) joined a convoy of trucks on the Tete road. The convoy was under Portuguese military escort for the 134 km from Moatize to the Malawi border. There were two passenger buses, Venter’s Land Rover, a “medium-sized English car”, and about 35 commercial trucks, from companies such as Swifts, Watson’s Transport, United Transport, and Heins. Drivers were instructed to stay between 50 and 100 metres behind the next vehicle and drive within the tracks of the vehicles ahead. The civilians were also instructed to stay in their vehicles if the convoy was stopped by enemy action – to avoid any anti-personnel mines that may have been laid.

A white Portuguese sergeant led the escort of mixed black and white soldiers. The troops wore camouflage so were probably cazadores of the regular army. They had G3 rifles, grenades, mortars and bazookas.

The lead vehicle was a military Berliet truck – this had the bonnet removed and the cab sandbagged to protect the driver from mines. It also had a “gun platform”. Another Berliet followed the convoy. The escort also had two unimogs, one of which had a heavy machine gun on a fixed tripod.

They made only 18km on the first day. Twice they stopped to check for mines; four Picadores walked ahead to find mines with their probes. That night they camped in a clearing with the heavier trucks formed into a laager and the bus and passengers inside.

On the second day the convoy detected and blew up a mine within five minutes of leaving the camp site. The column would stop every few hundred metres to allow the soldiers to check ahead for mines. They found another mine and blew it up. But progress was slow.

When the convoy stopped for the third mine of the day they suffered a Flagelacao, i.e. a whipping burst of gunfire. The insurgents fired from a gully to the side of the convoy and from a position towards the rear. The heavy machine gun on the Unimog returned fire followed by the Portuguese mortars. Generally everybody stepped in tested ground to avoid mines but a squad of soldiers crossed the potentially lethal gravel at the side of the road to take up positions to protect the convoy. The convoy was halted for a considerable period to clear the mines ahead. After 10 minutes the civilians in the convoy began to move around despite earlier warnings. The insurgents continued to fire periodically but did not inflict any casualties. Each time the insurgents fired the convoy escort would reply with a volley. Eventually the soldiers cleared 14 mines from the road – two anti-vehicle and 12 anti-personnel.

After clearing the mines the convoy drove on and reached the Portuguese Army “para-commando” camp at Muxoxo. Alouette helicopters from the camp escorted the convoy for the last hour of their drive in. Muxoxo was an old farmhouse surrounded by tents. The commandoes were responsible for road security and security on the railway line from Moatize to Caldas Xavier. They had six Alouette helicopters.

The Portuguese mined the approaches to bridges. This was to discourage insurgents from sabotaging the bridges but it also made it difficult for civilians from passing convoys to fetch water from the rivers. Unlike the the insurgents, Portuguese minefields were signposted Zona Armadlihada (Minefield).

The on-coming convoy suffered casualties. One of the Picadores was killed by a mine. His three companions were wounded. Venter contrasts the Portuguese and American attitudes to wounds. Where Americans might have been evacuated and treated, Portuguese with the same wounds would continue with their duties.

On the assumption that the road ahead had been cleared by the on-coming convoy Venter’s convoy raced through the night for the border. In the heavy raid the drivers found it difficult to follow the tracks of the vehicle ahead the convoy lost two trucks to “ratchet mines” – these detonate after a pre-determined number of wheels have passed over them; sometimes 10 or 12, sometimes double that. The mines exploded under the rear wheels of the trucks and the drivers were unhurt. After each incident the convoy paused only 10 minutes before abandoning the damaged vehicle and moving on.

Col. Tony “Green Beret” Herbert

Col. Tony “Green Beret” Herbert commanded a battalion of the US 173rd Brigade in Vietnam (Venter, 1974b). Within the brigade Herbert’s battalion suffered among the lowest casualties but inflicted the most kills. Herbert explained his unit’s success by saying:

One of the best ways to take a lot of casualties in a helicopter assault is to land your choppers 300 or 400 metres from where the enemy is dug in and move across that ground to close with him. You have to go through his automatic-weapons fire, his mortars. You get tangled up with his mines and his booby traps. you lose some arms and legs and you become disorganized before you ever get close. You give up any advantage of surprise you might have had. You get discouraged. You give the enemy a chance to get out the back door after he’s through chewing you up.

I decided that this wasn’t the way to do it. I brought my choppers straight down on the enemy. I didn’t have to go through any damn minefields and have my men blown apart. And it gave the enemy two choices. He could fight and die or he could surrender. Some of them fight and die, but a lot of them surrendered. Hell, I saw a sergeant knock out a tank in the Dominican Republic with a Coca-Cola bottle. He ran up and threw a bottle of Coke at a rebel tank. The people in that tank thought the bottle was full of gasoline and they were going to be burned a live, so they got right out. You can be aggressive enough not to take casualties.

In my battalion, we used basic infantry tactics that have been good since the time of Philip of Macedonia. There’s a lot of nonsense talked about the new lessons of Vietnam and that sort of thing, but war is still war. The problem is still closing with the enemy and destroying him. But in Vietnam the Army figured we could win it with technology. So we bombed everything in sight, used artillery like there was no tomorrow, defoliated and all the rest. Somebody once said that in Vietnam we would use ammunition like a millionaire and use lives like a pauper. That sounds good; it has a nice ring; like something generals tack on walls behind their desks,. But what happened was we started killing a lot of the wrong people. You don’t know who you’re killing when you fire artillery all over the place or call in a B-52 strike. When you use fire power indiscriminately, everybody gets killed – including Americans. I’d guess that about 50 per cent of our casualties over there have been a result of our own weapons. We wanted to make it easier for the grunts, but visibility was so restricted in the bush that uncontrolled men firing just flat killed a lot of our own troops. The big reason for using so much fire-power, of course – apart from giving the Air Force and the artillery a job to do – was so we could increase our body count. Theirs, not ours. We decided to measure success on the battlefield in terms of bodies.

We tried to operate where the guerrillas were and to operate like them. We made sure we were killing the enemy, not just some farmer who happened to get in our way. Hardly any American units in Vietnam, for example, operated at night. But that’s when the V.C. go to work. That’s when they move, when they set up their assaults, when they make their mortar attacks. Obviously, if you want to stop them, you have to get out there at night, when they’re on the move; not go into a village in the daytime, hoping the V.C. are holed up there, and blow that village apart. So we started setting up night ambushes along the trails.

I had to retrain my men in fire discipline. With all the emphasis on fire-power, everybody was in the habit of going full automatic fire any time there was a fight, and all that does is guarantee you’re going to kill everybody in the area – enemy, innocent civilians and your own troops. I told my people we would use single shots, no bursts. And I made them go out and retrain with their weapons so they could hit what they were shooting at. Then I told the troops that when we heard automatic fire from any weapons, we would return that fire, because it would be considered enemy. Any man who switched to automatic had better watch his ass or he’d be dead.

I got everybody – including myself – out of the rear. You have to go over there to know just how important that is.

New York Times article quoted by Venter (1974b) p. 261-263

Herbert cut down on artillery and air strike support, stopped assaults on villages, ensured his men knew who they were shooting at, went to find the enemy, and ensured everybody spent time in the front lline.

Quality of Portuguese Troops

Venter (1974b) had a low opinion of the Portuguese military in Mozambique. The Portuguese professional soldiers (as opposed to conscripts) and specialist troops such as GE and GEP got on with the job.

However the majority of Portuguese forces in Mozambique had low morale and were apathetic (Venter, 1974b). In particular few Portuguese garrisons operated at night. For example, the 2,000 men protecting the railway from Beira to Moatize spent the night, from two hours before sunset, in their armed camps.

Venter (1974b) quotes Dennis Gordon, a Rand Daily mail correspondent, when talking about the Portuguese in Mozambique:

South African and Rhodesian military experts are disparaging about the way the Portuguese are fighting their war. They claim the troops are ‘camp oriented’, and that they wait to be attacked rather than going out as aggressors. They say the average Portuguese soldier is not very good at his job. That is not to doubt his courage; indeed, a man has to be brave merely to survive conditions in some of the northern sectors.

The crack units – marines, commandos and paratroopers who are all volunteers – are comparable with elite fighting corps anywhere. it is they who carry out the essential search-and-destroy missions.

But the average man in uniform is resolutely led, and often badly motivated. The conscripts from Portugal are not aware of the reasons for the war in this steamy, overseas possession, because of censorship.

The 36 000 Blacks who make up 60 per cent of the 60 000-man force are seldom used where they have tribal affiliations. They might as well be fighting in a foreign country. Military experts say that the frequent transfer of career officers from one war zone to another is a factor that affects the war effort. Often an officer has just mastered the difficulties of the campaign in a particular area when it is time for him to move on.

Dennis Gordon in Venter (1974b), p. 302-303

These criticisms did not apply to those Portuguese troops in Angola and Portuguese Guinea.

Insurgent Groups


MPLA received arms, ammunition and equipment was Soviet, Eastern European and Chinese (Vinter, 1969). Many brighter MPLA recruits were sent to Algeria, Cuba, Russian and China for training. However even in Africa it was Chinese, Cubans, Algerians and a few North Vietnamese that trained the MPLA men. The North Vietnamese also helped over come language challenges as they spoke French like many of the African recruits.

Zambians in Mozambique 1973

In early 1973 Portuguese troops encountered a five-man Zambian patrol 30 km within Mozambique (Venter, 1974b). The Portuguese captured two of the Zambians. The prisoners claimed to have crossed the border by accident, despite the fact their patrol was led by an experienced Sergeant, they had topographical maps and compasses, and they to get to to their final position they had had to cross are large tributary of the Zambezi which is well know to be within Mozambique. The Zambians were transferred to Gago Coutinho, within sight of the Zambian border, then Tete and further south.

A few nights later almost 250 insurgents attacked Gago Coutinho in an attempt to free the prisoners (Venter, 1974b). The attackers wore Czech camouflage uniforms or mufti. After a few hours of battle the insurgents retreated across the border into Zambia. The Portuguese lost no men had killed some of the insurgents. These were found to be FRELIMO men or Zambian Defence Force (they had identity cards).

Rhodesians in Mozambique 1973

In Apr 1973 the commander of Portuguese forces in Mozambique, General Kaulza de Arriago, revealed a ‘gentlemans agreement’ between the Portuguese and Rhodesians allowing troops to cross the common border in pursuit of Frelimo or ZANU insurgents (Venter, 1974b).

But the cooperation went further than cross border pursuits. In Jun 1973 Max Hastings, a British journalist, revealed in the London Evening Standard that Rhodesian and Portuguese forces were coordinating operations within Mozambique (Venter, 1974b). The Rhodesians were trying to seal the frontier and get at infiltration routes. The Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) and 400 men of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) were involved. They were inserted by helicopter to conduct search and destroy missions. They were in the field for two or three weeks with supplies brought in by helicopter every two or three days. The Rhodesians could cover 14 km or more per day and the put in surprise attacks on insurgent bases. The terrorists referred to the Rhodesians as ‘the ghosts’, in contrast to the noisy Portuguese. The Rhodesians said of the Portuguese that they “just crash along through the bush shouting and signing deliberately because they don’t want to make contact” (p. 139).


Venter, A. J. (1969). The Terror Fighters: A profile of Guerrilla warfare in Southern Africa. Cape Town: Purnell.

Venter, A. J. (1973). Portugal’s Guerrilla War: The Campaign for Africa. John Malherbe Pty Ltd.

Venter, A. J. (1974a). Africa at War. Connecticut, USA: Devin-Adair.

Venter, A. J. (1974b). The Zambesi Salient: Conflict in Southern Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins.

Venter, A. J. (1994). The Chopper Boys: Helicopter Warfare in Africa. London: Greenhill Books.

3 thoughts on “Al J Venter on the Portuguese Colonial War”

  1. Greetings Steven. I confess to being very impressed indeed at all the effort you have put into reportage on Portugal’s wars in Africa, mine included. I thank you.

    The biggest work of all, “Portugal’s Guerrilla Wars in Africa” has just been published in London by Helion. It is a “tome and a half” running to 550 pages – as well as hundreds of photos, maps, diagrams etc. The book is being released concurrently in the UK, America and South Africa.

    As things stand, it is already regarded by some cognoscenti as the most significant work on Portugal’s African struggles published yet, in part because Lisbon has tended these past 40 years to “brush under the carpet” the loss of her African colonies. That’s understandable to many: Portugal strode tall on that continent for five centuries and having to give over to Marxist revolutionaries in Angola, Mozambique and Portuguese Guinea was a terrible loss.

    You should also know that I dedicated my work to that grand old man of Iberian history Rene Pellissier as well as to another Lusitonian historian former US Naval Captain John Cann who has written several books of his own on the subject.

    Kind regards

    • Thanks for your thanks Al. It was a struggle for me to collect your books second hand. But well worth the trouble and expense given the richness of the material.

      I’ve already got your latest work “Portugal’s Guerrilla Wars in Africa”. It arrived last week. Looking forward to following you again through Africa.

      I’ve also got all of John Cann’s books. I’ve recently read the Brown Waters of Africa and the Fletchas.

      2013 has been a real bonanza for the Portuguese Colonial War. I hope that my website contributes to a wider interest in the period.

  2. Hi Al! It’s your buddy from the U.S. Army 1SFG. So you may not remember me but I’d love to see you again. Any chance you’ll be visiting us at Ft Lewis? Or your buddy Richard?


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