Combat Missions in the Portuguese Colonial War

Combat missions of the Portuguese Colonial War, both Portuguese and insurgent

Specific combat missions were:

Some missions are the logical opposites. For example most insurgent Ambushes were directed against Portuguese Convoys or Foot Patrols. Missions were also combined. The Portuguese, for example, would send out Patrols to find an insurgent group. Once found the Portuguese would either Ambush them, use an Air Assault to trap and crush them, or perhaps trail them and Attack the Camp. Similarly the insurgents might Sabotage a bridge or road and then Ambush the repair crew.

Portuguese and/or Insurgent Missions

Foot Patrol

The mundane infantry patrol was the most successful Portuguese tactic (Cann, 1997).

Portuguese patrols were sometimes used as small scale search and destroy operations and as such were generally much more effective than the larger sweeps. A patrol might lead to an ambush or attack on camp.

The Portuguese often sent out small patrols of well trained men to (Cann, 1997):

  • Make contact with the population (most important) to show military presence and gain intelligence
  • Retain initiative
  • Gather intelligence. Experienced troops were better at analysing the clues collected about enemy activity.
  • Capture a prisoner. Usually a secondary objective.
  • Kill guerrillas. A patrol might shadow an insurgent group for several days before attacking.
  • Disrupt food gathering
  • Disrupt courier traffic
  • Call down artillery or air strikes where appropriate

A patrol was usually from a light infantry combat group / platoon or the battalion’s reconnaissance platoon (Cann, 1997). The reconnaissance platoons had jeeps to facilitate rapid movement and were sometimes inserted by helicopter although this was rare. Depending on the theatre elite units would also conduct foot patrols, for example the African Commandoes in Guinea-Bissau.

A typical patrol (Cann, 1997):

  • Was formed by a combat group / platoon of 30 men and possibly a local tracker
  • Was transport to the patrol area by vehicle
  • Travelled by foot
  • Lasted 4-5 days (but could be twice as long)
  • Covered 50 – 100 km
  • Carried their combat rations

Coordination between the Portuguese military and para-military forces was not always ideal (Cann, 1997). This sometimes led to Army patrols unexpectedly encountering friendly para-military patrols.

Portuguese variations were mounted patrols and naval patrols.

The insurgents also patrolled. By necessity insurgent patrols were on foot. If the opportunity presented itself a patrol might turn into another mission, for example, an ambush of a Portuguese patrol or convoy, sabotage, exemplary exploit, killing collaborators, or attack on a camp.


Ambushes are the classic tactic of both insurgent and counter-insurgency forces.

It’s just a stretch of bumpy road
through Mozambique and Malawi,
but every bend could lead to a terrorist ambush,
a concealed landmine,
or sudden death from a bazooka shell fired at point-blank range
from the bush

Scope (1972) cited in Morris (1974, p. 91)

It’s not the angry stare of a crocodile
that can stop your canoe from crossing

Guinea-Bissau peasant saying

Insurgent strategy was generally to launch multiple pin prick attacks to stretch the Portuguese. Ambushes were common. The target of an ambush was normally a Patrol or Convoy. Portuguese Convoys were an easy source of arms for weapon starved insurgents so prone to ambush (Cann, 1997; Chaliand, 1967).

The PAIGC groups started with only a submachinegun and two pistols per group (Chaliand, 1967). Up until 1970 the MPLA in Angola were also severely limited in weapons (Davidson, 1981). As the insurgents gained more sophisticated weaponry their ambushes also developed.

Ambushing insurgents would first try to stop the convoy. They could use trenches, tree trunks or mines across the road (Davidson, 1981).

Most of the roads were dirt so mines were common (Cann, 1997). The insurgents placed anti-vehicular mines on the roads and anti-personnel mines were place around the anti-vehicle mines and/or on the sides of the road. This was because standard convoy procedure was for the vehicle occupants to abandon the vehicles and seek shelter at the sides of the road.

The mines might be backed up by groups of insurgents (Cann, 1997). If the vehicle occupants remained in their vehicles the insurgents might use quick bursts of gunfire known as a flagellation (flagelação). Full scale attacks were also possible. Normally the insurgents would be on only one side of the road, presumably to avoid friendly fire. If the road was higher than the surrounding terrain, hence could potentially offer the Portuguese some protection from fire, the insurgents would put a small force on the far side of the road to enfilade the Portuguese.

Davidson (1981) gives four examples of ambushes by insurgent groups, all by the MPLA in eastern Angola.

The insurgents also laid ambushes for Portuguese patrols. They were not terribly successful at ambushing Portuguese mounted patrols and this tactic declined over time.

Portuguese combat groups also laid ambushes. The Portuguese tended to patrol during the day and lay ambushes at night (Cann, 1997). They had to move ambush sites frequently to avoid locals telling the insurgents about the ambush. The target of Portuguese ambushes were Insurgent patrols and gun running groups.

Sit tight in Camp

Portuguese troops assigned to an Action Area (zona de acção) tended to abdicate the initiative and sit in their camp (Cann, 1997). This changed in 1968 with a greater emphasis on small unit operations.

The Portuguese moved many people in the colonies into fortified resettlement villages (aldeamentos or reordenamentos depending on locale and degree of danger) (Cann, 1997). This programme was introduced to different locations at different times depending on the level of conflict: 1961 in north Angola; 1966 in eastern Angola and Mozambique; and 1969 in Guinea-Bissau. The idea was to limit insurgent access to the population and to facilitate provision of food, employment, education, medical care, and protection to the locals. Some such settlements were formed by a Portuguese unit installing itself in an abandoned village and digging in (Morris, 1974); villagers would be attracted back to village by the security offered by the army. However, many of these villages relied solely on self-defence. The villagers were organised into a Militia for this purpose and, usually, were willing and able to fight to protect their homes. Militia on occasion saw off insurgent attacks although one observer of such a battle thought the most likely casualties were cattle straying into the crossfire. Each village was defended by a series of earthworks and trenches, a barrier of barbed wire, and cleared fields of fire for 200 metres. Beer bottles and tinsel served as a warning device on the barbed wire. Anti-personnel mines were also place in the cleared approach areas to prevent a concerted charge.

The insurgents also had camps, both in friendly nations and within the Portuguese colonies. By 1968 in Guinea-Bissau PAIGC camps were protected by sentries, mine fields, and booby-traps (Cann, 1997)

Attack Camp

Insurgents might harass, besiege or attempt to capture Portuguese fortified bases/camps/posts and fortified resettlement villages (Davidson, 1981). Initially the insurgents just harassed the posts. These actions might be only 10-15 minutes, but could be repeated. The purpose was to reduce morale and tie up troops. Insurgent ability to attack fortifications increased over time as heavier weapons became available (Cann, 1997). Mortar and rocket attacks were common although full on ground assaults also occurred.

The insurgents often claimed to capture Portuguese army base but the Portuguese did not record equivalent losses. In contrast at least one attack on a resettlement village (Nhacambo in Mozambique) was successful and resulted in a massacre (Morris, 1974).

The PAIGC restricted the 122 mm ‘Grad’ Rocket Launchers to firing at principal Portuguese fortified camps and airfields (Davidson, 1981). Daylight attacks were thought to have a greater effect. Grads might be used to reinforce/precede an attack by infantry with lighter weapons (mortars, recoilless rifles, heavy bazookas).

Davidson (1981) includes the PAIGC operational plan for Operation Fanta in 1967. The objective was to isolate and attack four Portuguese posts, two strongly fortified encampments and two smaller hamlets. The operation involved two bi-groups. The plan involved cutting the roads and destroying the bridge to the first major encampment, then launching an attack. They were then to repeat this with the second major post. The smaller posts were expected to fall after that.

Nazaombe Base

FRELIMO launched a major offensive in the north of Mozambique in early Jun 1973. Before dawn 400 insurgents attacked the 150 man Nazombe base about 20 km from Tanzania. Some insurgent breached the camp’s wire but the attack was driven off. The Portuguese killed 50 insurgents for the loss of 10 of their own.

Nhacambo Village

On 6 Feb 1974 a FRELIMO group attacked Nhacambo village in northwest Tete (Morris, 1974). The 60 insurgents under Fernando Napulula overwhelmed the village militia, destroyed 160 of the 186 huts, and massacred at least 17 of the inhabitants including women and children. The attackers had the support of heavy mortars and 122mm rockets.

Insurgent camps tended to be temporary bases in the wild. A few huts under some trees. The Portuguese would attack these camps but had to find them first – they tended to be hidden in the wild – and that took a successful patrol. Often it was the patrolling Portuguese unit that conducted the attack but not always. The Portugese patrol could call in support including the option of an air assault.

On at least one occasion, happened to be in Guinea-Bissau, the insurgents had a full bunker and trench complex (?? must find the reference ??). A Portuguese paratroop battalion attacked the complex, defeated the garrison and destroyed the camp.

The Portuguese sometimes used sweeps to find insurgent camps but these operations were slow and gave the occupants sufficient time to evacuate.

Portuguese Only Missions

Mounted Patrol

Like their colleagues on foot the Portuguese dragoons normally patrolled in platoon strength for 4 – 5 days and were often transported (truck or railcar) to the start of the patrol (Cann, 1997). But they could easily do longer patrols. An eight day patrol typically covered 250 km and patrols of 500 km were common. Patrols of 20 – 27 days required resupply by truck or helicopter every five days. A platoon patrol would advance on a frontage 200-500 m across. Depending on terrain and visibility they would form an inverted “V”, single echelon, or line abreast. Mounted men had better visibility than those on foot; they could see over vegetation and undergrowth so the insurgents found it hard to ambush the dragoons. “Shoot and scoot” was difficult when facing dragoons; if an ambush was attempted the platoon would immediately wheel towards the insurgents, surround them, then capture or destroy them. Despite seemingly reckless tactics the horses took surprisingly few casualties (only 1 every four months in Angola were there were 300 horses in action). It seems speed of response and the intimidation of a charging horse with a firing rider was enough to ensure few guerrillas would not stay put to shoot at the horsemen. As a testament to the effectiveness of this tactic insurgent attempts at ambushing dragoons became rare. However, if the guerrillas did manage to put down effective fire some horses could panic and throw their rider. Because dragoons were used away from roads they didn’t encounter mines too often; should a horse step on a mine the horse would die but the rider generally survived

Increased visibility was the main advantage of horsemen over the insurgents (Cann, 1997). This advantage disappeared in the dark – horses can see well in the dark and the men used visual signals to communicate – so dragoons avoided night time operations and instead bivouacked in secluded sites.

Sometimes, when the approach was over difficult terrain, dragoons rode their horses to their assigned area but then dismounted to execute the operation, i.e. Attack or Foot Patrol (Cann, 1997). One in six men was left to care for the horses. So, from a platoon of 30 men, five would be left to watch over the 30 horses. The resulting horse line was vulnerable to attack so the unit was not normally split for extended periods.

The insurgents did not use horses.

Naval Patrol

Portugal conducted naval patrols on all major waterways and along the coasts. They had, for example, at least six 50-ton patrol boasts plus landing craft on lake Malawi to prevent FRELIMO infiltration.

The insurgents didn’t patrol using boats.


In areas of insurgent Ambushes all Portuguese transport travelled in convoys (Cann, 1997). Civilian convoys had a military escort (Morris, 1974). Convoys travelled by day and formed a laager at night.

Note: Compulsory convoys with military escorts were introduced quite late. This arrangement became mandatory in Mozambique after several FRELIMO attacks on civilian trucks in late 1971 (Morris, 1974).

Convoy organisation and procedures reflected the fact that most of the roads were dirt so mines were common (Cann, 1997). Normally a Berliet mine crasher headed each convoy. In areas where mines were suspected 4 – 8 men (picadores although Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998, use the term pesquizadors for sappers using the pica) got out to look for mines with mine detecting rods (pica); all soldiers shared this task and each group did 20 minute shifts. This would severely limit progress; 18-20 km per day was considered normal. Electronic mine detectors were used but were considered less effective than picas. In an ambush situation standard convoy procedure was for the vehicle occupants to abandon the vehicles and seek shelter at the sides of the road, however, fear of anti-personnel mines might keep them in the vehicles.

The supply and civilian convoys were typically organised in this order (Cann, 1997):

  • 4 – 8 trailblazers (picadores) with a mine detecting rod (pica) in areas where mines were suspected
  • Berliet mine crasher
  • Unimog troop carrier 50 m behind
  • Supply trucks with troop carriers interspersed
  • Berliet

During the course of the war the Portuguese upgraded many roads to macadamsed roads, i.e. packed gravel. These were harder to lay mines on although it was possible.

The Portuguese divided roads into sections, each of which was the responsibility of a particular unit or units (Morris, 1974).

Morris (1974, p. 91-92) gives some news headlines related to the “Tete Road” which would make good titles for ambush scenarios:

  • Tete Road
  • Hell Run through Devil’s Corridor
  • We ran the Hell-run for fun
  • High Stakes of Cabora Bassa
  • Tete Road Drivers unsung Heroes of a ‘Hell Route’

The incident described in Morris (1974, p. 92) where a civilian vehicle carrying explosives overtook the lead escort vehicles – against orders – and was promptly blown up by a FRELIMO bazooka team, taking the escort vehicle with it, would make a good random event for a convoy ambush.

The insurgent version of a convoy is gun running.


The Portuguese occasionally forgot the benefits of small scale patrols and launched large sweeps by several hundred men. Essentially a large search and destroy operation.

The insurgents had insufficient troops to conduct sweeps.

Air Assault

“A one-minute flight in a helicopter equalled about one hour on foot in the jungle” (Cann, 1997, p. 130).

The Portuguese began to use their helicopters in combat in 1966 (Cann, 1997; Davidson, 1981, says 1967). The simplest and most obvious use of helicopters was to insert an elite intervention units (unidades de intervenção), often Commandos, behind an ambushing insurgent force to block their escape and catch them in a cross fire. The intervention unit would be on standby at a nearby airfield until contact was made. Upon contact the intervention unit would be briefed, embarked and launched. It took a flight of five helicopters to carry a Commando combat group of 20 men; a four men section to each helicopter. Occasionally two air assault teams were inserted, making 40 men on the ground. If opposition was expected a helicopter gunship (heli-canhão) with a 20mm cannon would provide cover for insertion, the operation, and/or recovery. Reconnaissance of the target was kept to a minimum to avoid scaring off the insurgents. Terrain was used to mask the approach. Once at the landing zone (LZ) the gun-ship, if any, would circle and provide suppressing fire whilst the assault force disembarked. The assault force would then immediately attack the insurgents. At the conclusion of the operation the helicopters would land nearby and load the assault team . The intervention unit might only spend 10 minutes on the ground. They would then prepare for another assault. They would stay in the field for the rest of the day, coordinating with the ground forces, and pursuing the insurgents. At night fall the intervention unit and helicopters would bivouac for the night with a preselected, specially equipped ground unit. The hosts had to have fuel, ammunition, and maintenance capability to be suitable. Helicopter assault operations were always executed away from populated areas to reduce civilian casualties. Air assault operations were slightly different in Guinea-Bissau (Cann, 1997). There were only 12 helicopters available so flights normally contained only 3 or 4 machines with the resultantly fewer ground troops. Surprise was harder to obtain and when the insurgent heard helicopters they melted into the jungle. Because of these factors were kept in reserve. On contact the ground troops had to determine the size, intentions and withdrawal routes of the enemy. Only when this was clear was the intervention force committed. As in other theatres they were inserted behind the insurgent force to block their escape.

The insurgents did not have air power.

Stop Herding

Once the Portuguese detected a herding operation they would trail the group and try to free the captives.

Insurgent Only Missions

Gun Running

The insurgents had to bring supplies, including guns and ammunition, across the international borders. Where the Portuguese had Convoys of trucks the insurgents used porters. Initially the PAIGC gun running operations involved a nine day march avoiding villages, the Portuguese, and the Senegalese troops (Chaliand, 1967). The PAIGC had troubles with the Senegalese but other factions had their own non-Portuguese enemies. Both FNLP and UNITA would happy attack MPLA troops in Angola.


On occasion the insurgents shifted entire black populations. Morris (1974) calls this “herding” and says “the purpose of the herding is to provide cannon fodder, bed fodder, and labour fodder” (p. 98). The insurgents claimed they were protecting the villagers from Portuguese incursions by transferring the people to new villages in the bush or across the border into other countries. Herding declined over time due to swift reaction by the Portuguese Security Forces. Unfortunately civilians were often caught in the crossfire when insurgent herders engaged the Security Forces. In addition the insurgent guards would gun down any civilians that attempted to escape during a skirmish with the Portuguese. In the mid to late 60s some of these groups were enormous; one at least involved 6,000 civilians and 400 FNLA guards. Even if no fighting occurred many civilians died due to the poor administrative arrangements of their captors.

The Portuguese also moved large numbers of civilians. Most commonly these were returning refugees, freed captives of a herding operation and the general civilian population into resettlement villages. As far as I’m aware these operations were not contested by the insurgents.


Sabotage operations in included blowing up rail or road bridges, cutting telegraph lines, obstructing the roads, destroying ferries, etc (Chaliand, 1967; Davidson, 1981; Morris, 1974).

I don’t believe the Portuguese had an equivalent mission.

Kidnap Children

In some African insurrections, although I’m not too sure about those against the Portuguese, the insurgents would kidnap children to swell their own ranks through indoctrination and training.

The Portuguese eventually imposed general conscription on the African population but did not resort to kidnapping children to find troops.

Kill Collaborators

A common insurgent tactic was to kill those that were even remotely related to the colonial authorities and any others who opposed the insurrection. This made the tribes less willing to aid the colonial power in future and move their allegiance, no matter how unwilling, to the insurgents.

I imagine the Portuguese security services applied similar tactics against pro-insurgent groups within the population.

Exemplary Exploit

Insurgents used exemplary exploits to raise the morale of their supporters and lower that of the enemy (Davidson, 1981). Essential these were an attack on positions the enemy thought well protected, for example firing bazookas or 60mm mortars into a major air field (the PAIGC did this at Bissau in Mar 1967).

The Portuguese did not have an equivalent mission.


Abbott, P. and Rodrigues, M. (1998). Modern African Wars 2: Angola and Mozambique 1961-74. Osprey.

Cann, J. P. (1997). Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese way of war 1961-1974. Hailer.

Chaliand, G. (1967). Armed Struggle in Africa: With the Guerrillas in “Portuguese” Guinea. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Morris, M. (1974). Armed Conflict in Southern Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: Jeremy Spence.

Scope (6 Oct 1972). Hell run Through Devil’s Corridor. Scope, 20-25.

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