Portuguese Order of Battle during the Portuguese Colonial War

In 1961 the Portuguese had 79,000 in arms – 58,000 in the Army, 8,500 in the Navy and 12,500 in the Air force (Cann, 1997). These numbers grew quickly. By the end of the conflict in 1974 the total in the armed forces had risen to 217,000.

Prior to their own Colonial War the Portuguese military had studied French and British efforts in Indo-China, Algeria and Malaya (Cann, 1997). Base on their analysis of operations in those theatres and considering their own situation in Africa the Portuguese took the unusual decision to restructure their entire armed forces, from top to bottom, for counterinsurgency. This transformation did, however, take seven years to complete and only saw its final form in 1968.

See also Portuguese Equipment in the Colonial War.

Command Structure

In 1960 the Portuguese Army recognised five regions (Regiðes) (Cann, 1997). These were:

  • 1st (Northern Portugal)
  • 2nd (Southern Portugal)
  • 3rd (Angola and Sao Tome e Principe)
  • 4th (Mozambique)
  • 5th (Lisbon)

[Humbaraci & Muchnik (1972) say by May 1970 there were five Portuguese regions plus one each in Angola and Mozambique and eight Independent Territorial Commands.]

At the start of the war each military region was split into a structure with four levels of sub-division (this approach was called quadrillage) (Cann, 1997). The structure assumed full cooperation between military, police and civilian adminstration at all levels. The police dominated in the cities and the army in the country side. Following the initial events in Angola in 1961 some of the responsibilies of the Commander of the Military Region were given to a new post – the Commander in Chief. Intervention Zones were also introduced for areas where there was active combat. This structure was implemented in Guinea-Bissau in 1963 and Mozambique in 1964 as conflict sprang up in those colonies.

Original Areas and Roles Additional Areas and Roles Post reorganisation
Area Commander Comments Area Commander Comments
Military Region Commander of the Military Region Administrative and initially operational Military Region Commander-in-Chief Local Provincial governor and increasingly operational
Territory Territorial Commander Administrative. Post reorganisation restricted to low threat environments. Intervention Zone (zona de intervenção) * Intervention Zone Commander Operational commander in combat situation
Zone Zone Commander
Sector Sector Commander (comando de sector) – The senior battalion commander
Action Area (zona de acção) ** Battalion commander

* From 1971 in Mozambique these were called Operational Zones (zona operacional).

** Cann (1997) translates “zona de acção” as “Zone of operation” but I find this too close to Operational Zones (zona operacional). I think “Action Area” is probably a better translation and sufficiently distinct from the Mozambican use of Operational Zone. Note: (Port.=acção) act, deed, action; gesture; activity, operation, practice; stock, share (Babylon Translation).

For example, in Mozambique the Northern Territorial Command (CTN) included all districts north of the Zambezi River (Niassa, Cabo Delgado, Macambique, and Zambezia) (Cann, 1997). Following the outbreak of fighting In 1964 the CTN was redesignated the Northern Intervention Zone (ZIN) with three sectors (Niassa, Cabo Delgado, Macambique).

The intervention units (unidades de intervenção) in a Military Region reported directly to the Commander-in-Chief (Cann, 1997). This includes the commandos, marines, paratroopers, CE and CEP (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). All of these were mobile elite units tasked with taking the war to the enemy. They both counter-attacked guerrilla bands contacted by other units and conducted long range sweeps of the bush looking for insurgents.

Origins of the Forces

The troops were either Metropolitan or Colonial (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998).

Metropolitan Forces

Metropolitan units were those from mainland Portugal(Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Unlike other European nations Portugal had a history of sending metropolitan units to fight in the overseas territories. They were exclusively white.

Humbaraci and Muchnik (1972) call the metropolitan troops the Overseas Extraordinary Expeditionary Corps (Forças militares extraordinarias no ultramar).

Colonial Forces

The overseas provinces provided regular units comparable to those of the Metropolitan army (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Recruit training included mandatory primary school education and Portuguese language training.

Only the colonial units were multi-racial (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). In 1966 30% of the forces came from the ultramar (Cann, 1997). A 1967 estimate had the white to black ratio at 3:1 in Angola and 1:6 in Guinea-Bissau. In 1968 the overall proportion had risen to 32%; 31% in 1969; 32% in 1970; 40% in 1970; 40% in 1972; 42% in 1973. By 1974 black troopers outnumbered whites in Angola and Guinea-Bissau but not Mozambique. The rank and file were a mix of conscripts of all races and native (indigena) volunteers. Most posts above corporal were filled by whites. NCOs were recruited from local conscripts (milicianos). Senior NCOs and officers were regulars from the metropolitan army.

Pre-war Angola and Mozambique were each to have the following order of battle (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998):

Establishment in Pre-war Angola and Mozambique

  • 3 x infantry regiments
  • 1 x motorised cavalry group
  • 4 x artillery groups
  • 1 x engineer battalion

Guinea-Bissau was to have the following order of battle (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998):

Establishment in Pre-war Guinea-Bissau

  • 1 x infantry battalion
  • 1 x artillery battery

These units were maintained and expanded during the war in order to train recruits (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). They also began to form temporary field units in the same fashion as the metropolitan units. In Feb 1967 the field units were made permanent.


The army provided Light Infantry (Caçadores Especiais), Commandos (Commandos), Reconnaissance Units, Dragoons (Dragões), and Artillery.

From 1962 most units destined for Africa, despite their original branch of service and training, were retrained as Light Infantry (Caçadores Especiais) (Abbott & Rodrigues, Cann, 1997). That means the names of the units didn’t necessarily correspond to the duties. In particular most artillery and cavalry served as Light Infantry (Caçadores Especiais).


In May 1960 the first two battalions of Metropolitan infantry were sent to Africa (No. 89 and 92) (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Cann (1997) says the first Metropolitan units to arrive in Africa had little training in counterinsurgency and I assume this applies to these units.

Special Light Infantry Companies (Companhias de Caçadores Especiais or CCE)

The army began to train Special Light Infantry Companies (Companhias de Caçadores Especiais or CCE) for counterinsurgency in 1959 (Cann, 1997). Three such companies were deploy in Angola in Jun 1960 and a fourth came later (Cann, 1997). Other CCE were sent to Mozambique and Guinnea-Bissau. From 1962 all troops headed for Africa got counterinsurgency training and the Caçadores Especiais title was dropped.

Light Infantry (Caçadores)

Some of the Portuguese regiments are designated Light Infantry (Caçadores) as distinct from normal Infantry. Some may have served in ultramar in 1961 but I’m not sure.

In additional from 1962 all infantry, and many others, preparing for service in Africa were organised into Light Infantry (Caçadores) battalions (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). They were trained in counterinsurgency. These light infantry battalions were temporary units; they disbanded when the members were discharged from service or return to Portugal.

Although most light infantry were formed from the metropolitan infantry regiments some were formed from other branches of service (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). For example the BART (Artillery Battalion) 635 served as infantry despite being formed from the 1st Artillery Regiment.

The companies of most caçadores battalions were used independently to garrison major fortified posts (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998).

Original Light Infantry Order of Battle

The light infantry battalions started with the standard battalion organisation (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998).

Battalion Order of Battle (Original)

  • 1 x HQ Company
    • 1 x Signals Platoon
    • 1 x Sapper Platoon
    • 1 x Medical Platoon
  • 1 x Heavy Weapons Company
    • 1 x Machine Gun Platoon
      • 3 x MG Sections: 2 x Breda MGs
    • 1 x Mortar Platoon:
      • 3 x Mortar Sections: 2 x 81mm Mortars
    • 1 x Recoilless Rifle Platoon
      • 1 x RR Section: 2 x 75mm RRs
      • 1 x RR Section: 2 x 106mm RRs
  • 3 x Rifle Companies
    • 1 x Support Platoon
      • 1 x Mortar Section: 3 x 60mm Mortars
      • 1 x Light Machine Gun Section: 3 x MG42s
      • 1 x Recoilless Rifle Section : 3 x 57mm RRs
    • 3 x Rifle Platoons
      • 3 x Sections: 1 x Dreyse LMG; 4 x rifle grenadiers; etc

Final Light Infantry Order of Battle

The light infantry battalions were adapted for counter-insurgency activity (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Abbott and Rodrigues contradict themselves regarding the battalion structure so I, largely, follow their TO&E diagram. The biggest change was that three rifle companies were reorganised from three rifle platoons into four combat groups. Each combat group had three sections which were organised like the later Special Groups. The support company of the battalion and support platoons within each rifle company were disbanded with the men distributed to the rifle companies. I don’t know what heavy weapons were retained in the combat groups. One of the combat groups within a company may have had a staff / administrative function (Cann, 1997).

Cann (1997) describes the intelligence and reconnaissance elements of the battalion.

Battalion Order of Battle (Final / Counter-insurgency)

  • 1 x Command & Services Company
    • 1 x Operations and Intelligence Section (2a Secção)
      • 2 x Officers
      • 2 x Sergeants
      • 2 x Soldiers
    • 1 x Reconnaissance Platoon / Combat Group
      • 1 x Officer
      • 3 x Sergeants
      • 25 x Soldiers
      • Jeeps and Radios
    • 1 x Signals (Communications) Platoon / Combat Group
    • 1 x Sapper Platoon / Combat Group
    • 1 x Maintenance Platoon / Combat Group
  • 3 x Rifle Companies (120 men each)
    • 1 x Commander
    • 4 x Combat Groups (one of which had a staff / administrative function)
      • 1 x Officer
      • 3 x Sections
        • 3 x NCOs
        • 6-7 x Soldiers (probably including 1+ x LMG; 4 x rifle grenadiers)

The Rifle companies would usually operate with two combat groups ready for patrol, one in support and the fourth as a reserve (Cann, 1997). Combat groups / platoons from the command and services company would provide security and reserves for other infantry companies.

Initially the squad light machine gun was the m/938 7.92mm Dreyse (the Germans sold the Portuguese all their MG13s in 1938). But from 1962 these were phased out in favour of the m/962 7.92mm MG42-59. The company and battalion level machine guns were also replaced by the m/962 7.92mm MG42-59.

As mentioned above, for battalions heading to Africa, the support company of the battalion and support platoons within each rifle company were disbanded with the men distributed to the rifle companies (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). The heavy weapons from the support platoons were retained in the new company but with the weapons distributed between the combat groups. If so each company would include an additional:

  • 3 x m/952 60mm mortar (US M2)
  • 3 x m/944 7.92mm MG42 or m/962 7.92mm MG42-59
  • 3 x 57mm Recoilless Rifles (RR)

Similarly the heavy weapons from the original heavy weapons company were retained for base defence and major operations. That would include:

  • 6 x m/938 7.92mm Breda or m/962 7.92mm MG42-59
  • 6 x m/937 8cm mortar (French Brandt 81mm)
  • 2 x 75mm RRs
  • 2 x 106mm RRs

Clarke (2008) gives a radically different order of battle, putting the combat group in place of the company rather than the platoon. Other sources contradict this so I’ve only shown the convention structure.

Observations from the field

Nuno Pereira sent through some comments based on his father’s experience serving in the infantry in Angola 1961-65:

According to my father his Combat Group in Angola 1961-65 had about 40 elements. These included three support “fire teams” attached to the CG command: 1 Bazooka; 1 MMG; 1 60mm mortar.

The company’s drivers were also turned into riflemen and integrated in the three sections of the CG.

Each section operated as one but it could be divided in two teams for mutual support (one recons, the other gives protection. One advances, the other fires, etc). This was not per army regulations but CGs were flexible and adapted to circumstances and terrain. Hope this helps.

From what I’ve seen there was only one MMG per combat group/platoon. In the early months (1961-62) there were many Uzis and a few (unreliable) FBPs SMGs used by NCOs but the main weapon was either the FN or G3 (although I know of one Marines officer that used a M1 carbine).

The heavy weapons were used for base defence. I’ve seen a 57mm mounted on a Unimog for extra fire power during convoy escort duties. Many trucks were armed with the HMGs but the heavy stuff was left in the base. The heavy mortars and artillery could be used in the field during big operations (main camp, FSB, etc).

Personally I would be surprised if the sections didn’t have section support weapon. The pre-war TO&E had a m/938 7.92mm Dreyse in each section with an 3 x MG42 in the support platoon of the company. I believe Nuno’s MMG at the combat group level would be one of the MG42 from the support platoon. It is hard to imagine the sections would abandon their MG13 and associated fire power in the counter-insurgency mode. The MG13 at section (and MG42 at company and Breda at battalion level) was replaced by m/962 7.92mm MG42-59 from 1962. This “replacement” would be puzzling unless they were issued to the front line troops.

Combat Group (Pereira)

  • 1 x Combat Group Command
    • 1 x Bazooka Team
    • 1 x MMG Team
    • 1 x 60mm Mortar Team
  • 3 x Sections
    • 2 x Rifle Teams

Commandos (Comandos)

The first Commando training schools create in Angola in 1962 (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998), Guinea-Bissau in 1969, and Mozambique in 1970 (Cann, 1997). Small numbers began operations in 1963 and the first company (1.a Companhia de Comandos) began operations in Angola in 1964 . The commandos were formed from volunteers from both metropolitan and provincial units. Some units were mainly comprised of white metropolitan Portuguese, others were mixed provincial units, and at least one were predominantly black (Guinea-Bissau’s elite Commando Battalion). The Angolan units were mixed: both white and black, metropolitan and provincial. In Guinnea-Bissau locally recruited Commandos were called African Commandos (Comandos Africanos). At the end of the war there were five Commando companies in Angola, eight companies in the Mozambican Commando Battalion, and three African Commando companies in the Commando Battalion of Guinnea-Bissau.

Like the other intervention units (unidades de intervenção) the commandos were mobile elite units tasked with taking the war to the enemy (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). They both counter-attacked guerrilla bands contacted by other units and conducted long range sweeps of the bush looking for insurgents.

Cann (1997) says Commando companies were about 125 men and Abbott and Rodrigues (1998) say 100-150.

Cann (1997) says a Commando combat group contained 20 men in five sections reflecting the four man payload of the Alouette helicopter. So it took a flight of five helicopters to carry a 20 man combat group.

In Angola the Portuguese formed flights of five helicopter together capable of putting twenty men on the ground quickly and judiciously to take advantage of insurgent contact. The order of battle of the normal flight comprised five helicopters to accomodate the five sections of a combat group of Commandoes, although teh actual sized depended on the number of troops to be transported. If the flight was expected to encounter resistance, then a heli-canhão or helicopter gunship with a 20mm cannon covered the insertion and recovery and provided support as required.

Cann (1997), p. 131

That turns into the following order of battle:

Commando Air Assault Combat Group (Cann, 1997)

  • 1 x Commando Combat Group
    • 5 x Section
      • 4 x men

However Wikipedia: Aerospatiale Alouette III says the helicopter had a crew of two and a capacity of five passengers. According to Clarke (2008) and Wikipedia: Comandos the Portuguese took full advantage of this and payload for an Allouette helicopter in Portuguese service was 5 men whereas the Rhodesians put a 4 man stick in an Allouette. The commando order of battle reflected that with five teams of five men in five helicopters.

Original Commando Group (Clarke, 2008)

  • 1 x Commando Group
    • 1 x Command Team
      • 1 x Commander
      • 1 x Signaller
      • 1 x Medic
      • 2 x Riflemen
    • 3 x Manoeuvre Team
      • 5 x men
    • 1 x Back Up Team
      • 1 x NCO
      • 2 x men in RPG team (RPG man and RPG ammunition man)
      • 2 x Riflemen

Clarke (2008) and Wikipedia: Comandos say that the Commando companies were either “light” or “heavy”. The Heavy companies had a complement of 125 men in five combat groups. Clarke doesn’t mention an HQ.

Commando Heavy Company (Clarke, 2008)

  • 5 x “Heavy” Commando Group
    • 1 x Command Team
      • 1 x Commander
      • 1 x Signaller
      • 1 x Medic
      • 2 x Riflemen
    • 3 x Manoeuvre Team
      • 5 x men
    • 1 x Back Up Team
      • 1 x NCO
      • 2 x men in RPG team
      • 2 x Riflemen

The light companies had only 80 men in four smaller commando units (Clarke, 2008; Wikipedia: Comandos). The commando groups in the light company lack the back up team.

Commando Light Company (Clarke, 2008)

  • 4 x “Light” Commando Group
    • 1 x Command Team
      • 1 x Commander
      • 1 x Signaller
      • 1 x Medic
      • 2 x Riflemen
    • 3 x Manoeuvre Team
      • 5 x men

This split between light and heavy would neatly explain similar splits in other elite forces like the Fusiliers. The Special Marine Detachments (Destacamentos de Fuzileiros Especiais or DFE) also formed units of 80 men. Clarke (2008) mentions that the Paratroopers adopted the 25 man structure for helibourne operations.

Reconnaissance Units

The cavalry regiments formed independent reconnaissance squadrons and platoons for service in Africa (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). They had standard cavalry organisations. The reconnaissance units undertook convoy escort duties.

Reconnaissance Platoon

  • 1 x HQ Section
    • 1 x Scout Car
      1 x Small 4×4 vehicle
  • 3 x Reconnaissance Sections
    • 2 x Scout Cars
      2 x Small 4×4 vehicle

These platoons had 41 men and seven 60mm mortars (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). The scout cars were the Panhard AML or Daimler ‘Dingo’ scout cars. The Dingo often had a top-heavy octagonal turret added when used for escort duty.

Reconnaissance Squadron (Esquadráo de Reconhecimento) 1963-74

  • 1 x HQ Platoon
    • 1 x Armoured Car
    • 2 x APCs
    • 1 x Scout Car
    • 10 x Small 4×4 vehicle
    • 5 x Trucks
  • 3 x Reconnaissance Troop
    • 1 x CO Section: 1 x Scout Car; 1 x Small 4×4 vehicle
    • 1 x Jeep Section: 4 x Small 4×4 vehicle
    • 1 x Armoured Car Section: 2 x Armoured Car
    • 1 x Mechanised Section: 1 x APC
    • 1 x Mortar Section: 2 x Small 4×4 vehicle

The squadron had 181 men and was armed with nine 60mm and three 81mm mortars (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). I assume at least the 81mm Mortars were in the Mortar section.

The Small 4×4 vehicle were frequently unimogs but could be jeeps (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998).

The Armoured Cars were Panhard AML-90, EBR-75, ‘Fox’ Humber Mk IV or locally made ‘Chaimite’ (a version of the US ‘Commando’) (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998).

The APCs were either the EBR-VTT or the US M-3 Half-track (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998) or APC version of the Chaimite (Carlos Marighela on the Lead Adventure Forum: 28mm African Wars Portuguese).

Certain makes and models of armoured cars and APCs were used in combination. As far as I can figure out:

The scout cars were Daimler ‘Dingo’ scout cars (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). I’m not sure where Ferret Armoured Cars / Scout Cars fit into this order of battle. I suspect they count as scout cars as this is how the French used them in conjunction with Panhard AML-60 armoured cars.

Dragoons (Dragões)

The large open savanna plains in central Angola and the highlands of Mozambique posed a problem for the Portuguese (Cann, 1997). Both areas where expansive, covered in Elephant grass, had frequent rivers, and few roads. The Portuguese had too few helicopters to patrol these effectively and doing it by foot would take too long. With MPLA’s shift to eastern Angola a solution had to be found. These areas were cooler, tsetse-free and grassy so horses provided the answer.

The first mounted unit was a reconnaissance platoon raised around Silva Porto in Eastern Angola in 1966 (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). By 1968 this unit had been expanded into the three squadron Grupo de Cavalaria No. 1 – about 300 men in total. From 1971 the dragoons were raised in Mozambique. The dragoons (dragões) were a cavalry unit (they wore cavalry insignia) but operated as mounted infantry, i.e. they rode horses and fought on foot. Most of the men were locally recruited and most of the officers and sergeants were white.

Dragoons had several major advantages over other troop types (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997):

  • They could travel must faster than foot infantry; 8 – 13 kph and up to 50 km per day.
  • They could move in terrain that vehicles could not
  • Their patrols could last longer than foot patrols because they could carry more
  • They were less easy to ambush than foot sloggers or vehicles due to better visibility and aggressive counter-measures
  • They were less vulnerable to mines (at least the men were) than vehicles
  • They were more able to detect guerrillas in bush country than troops on foot or in helicopters.
  • They were quieter than vehicles so more likely to gain surprise
  • Horses were cheap compared to trucks (the cost of one Berliet truck would pay for 30 horses)
  • Horses are more durable than vehicles; even when sick they can still function which is less true for broken down vehicles
  • Due to the wide ranging ability they could maintain better contact with the population than foot sloggers or, particularly, guys in helicopters.

Abbott and Rodrigues (1998) and Cann (1997) give slightly different organisations for the dragoons but the two descriptions are reconcilable

Cavalry Group (Grupo de Cavalaria) c. 1970

  • 1 x HQ Squadron
  • 3 x Dragoon Squadron
    • 1 x Support Section
      • 1 x MG aimer
      • 3 x Rifle Grenadiers
      • 1 x orderly
      • 1 x bugler
      • 1 x farrier
    • 3 x Dragoon Platoons
      • 3 x Sections [each with 10-12 men total]
        • 2 x Squads (esquadras)
          • 2 x threes (trios)


Artillery didn’t really feature in the war. Some artillerymen were formed into Cazadore units for service in Africa. But maybe not all as there are plenty of photos of guns and crews – perhaps they were on permanent guard duty in the bases.

Conscripts (Milicianos)

The Metropolitan forces were largely staffed by conscripts (Milicianos). The armed forces recruited conscript junior officers from the universities (Cann, 1997). It was rivalry between the regulars and the conscript officers which triggered the coup in 1975.

Air Force

Paratroops (Pára-quedistas)

The paratroopers (pára-quedistas) were first established on 14 Aug 1955 (Cann,1997). The air force contributed Paratroop battalions and formed Light Infantry Paratroop battalions (batalhao de caçadores pára-quedistas or BCP) in Africa (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998).

Following the outbreak of hostilities in Angola in 1961 the paratroopers were the first to arrive as reinforcements (Spencer & Machado, 1992). Three companies were sent to Angola.

Initial Paratroop Order of Battle

  • 1a CCP (arrived Mar 1961)
  • 2a CCP (arrived Apr 1961)
  • 3a CCP (arrived Apr 1961)

By the end of hostilities in 1975 there were four paratroop battalions across the three theatres (Spencer & Machado, 1992). The battalion numbers of the African units were based on the aerial region where they were raised, where region 1 included Portugal and Guinea-Bissau, Angola was 2 and Mozambique was 3.

Final (1975) Light Infantry Paratroop Battalions
(Batalhao de Caçadores Pára-quedistas)

  • Portugal
    • BCP 11
    • 1 BI (Training Battalion)
  • Angola
    • BCP 21 (formed May 1961; equipped with AR-10; SNEB 37mm rocket launcher from 1965)
  • Guinea-Bissau
    • BCP 12 (formed Oct-Dec 1966; original basis was Platoon 111 in 1963; equipped with G3; Panama hat was popular)
  • Mozambique
    • BCP 31 (formed 1963; equipped with AR-10; SNEB 37mm rocket launcher from 1967)
    • BCP 32 (formed Jan 1967; equipped with G3; SNEB 37mm rocket launcher)

[Note: Abbott & Rodrigues (1998) give different mobilization dates. BCP 21 at least 1959 and about May 1960 for BCP 12 in Guinea-Bissau. I suspect these are the dates the original paratroopers arrived rather than when the final formation as created out of those early elements.]

In 1960 Portugal acquired several thousand AR-10 assault rifles – the predecessor of the M16 (Spencer & Machado, 1992). The first paratroopers to Angola and the first two battalions formed in Africa (BCP 21 and 31) were issued with the AR-10. It was a very popular weapon and the Portuguese kept their stock working, by manufacturing spares, until 1975. However there were insufficient of these weapons to give to the newer battalions (BCP 12 and 32); these units got the standard infantry rifle of the mid-1960s, the G3.

The paratroopers wore US M1943 combat harness and packs (Spencer & Machado, 1992). BCP 12, in Guinea-Bissau also had M1956 equipment. This ‘US Style’ equipment was either WW2 army surplus, otherwise sourced from the US, or manufactured in Portugal.

Helmets were only worn operationally in 1961-62. But they were worn for jumps. Most were the US M1C paratooper helmet but some French M1951 steel helmets were used.

The standard issue machine gun was the MG42/59 (Spencer & Machado, 1992). However some men used captured Degyanev light machine guns instead. And in the later 1960s the Paratroopers were issued H&K 21 light machine guns.

Some paratroopers carried commercial shotguns (Spencer & Machado, 1992). These were purchased with private funds. The Remington 1100 automatic was popular but other varieties including double barrelled weapons were also used.

The paratroopers were also issued with the US 3.5″ Bazooka – and hated it (Spencer & Machado, 1992). They considered both the weapon and its ammunition too cumbersome for use in Africa. BCP 21 found a radical alternative; in 1965 they began using a locally made rocket launcher that fired 37mm MATRA SNEB aircraft rockets. This was a much lighter alternative to the US option and became very popular. The paratroopers in Mozambique (BCP 31 and 32) began to adopt the SNEB launcher in 1967. BCP 12 in Guinea-Bissau also got them (Operational: Lança-Foguetes De 37mm Para Tropas Terrestres). BCP 12, and probably others, also used captured RPG2s and RPG7s.

Like the other intervention units (unidades de intervenção) the paratroopers were mobile elite units tasked with taking the war to the enemy (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). They both counter-attacked guerrilla bands contacted by other units and conducted long range sweeps of the bush looking for insurgents.

The paratroopers adopted the order of battle of the Commandoes to facilitate insertion by helicopter (Clarke, 2008).


In 1961 six female paranurses joined the paratroopers (Cann, 1997). Over the course of the war 48 paranurses were trained. they accompanied the paratroopers into combat.

Air Force Police (Polícia Aérea)

The Air Force Police (polícia aérea) were organised like the light infantry and were responsible for guarding air fields (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998).


In 1973 the Portuguese had a navy of 18,000 men including 3,000 marines (Venter, 1974b). Their focus was:

  • Lake Malawi (from their naval base at Augusto Cardoso)
  • the Congo river estuary
  • the rivers and offshore islands of Guinea-Bissau

Marines (Fuzileiros)

The navy provided marine infantry called fuzileiros (literally fusiliers) (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). The marines were first raised in 1618, originally called the Royal Naval Regiment of Portugual, making them the oldest Portuguese infantry units (Cann, 1997). Having said that they were disbanded 1890 – 1924 and 1926 – 1961 but recreated in Feb 1961. The British Royal Marines provided the initial training. The marines manned in the colonial coasts and water ways.

Marine Companies (Companhias de Fuzileiros or CF) had about 180 men and defended naval installations, provided coastal and river security (in patrol craft and small ships), and provided water borne support to Army operations (Cann, 1997). This support included protecting riverine lines of communication, transporting and inserting troops by water, and waterborne fire support.

Special Marine Detachments (Destacamentos de Fuzileiros Especiais or DFE) trained, like the Army Commandos, for special operations. They were comparable to the British Royal Marine Special Boat Units and U.S. Navy SEAL teams. Like the other intervention units (unidades de intervenção) the special marines were mobile elite units tasked with taking the war to the enemy (Cann, 1997). They both counter-attacked guerrilla bands contacted by other units and conducted long range sweeps of the bush looking for insurgents. They formed units of 80 men. A typical operation involved insertion by rubber boats and patrolling about 30 km (cross country to avoid mined roads) before pick up. Typically they cooperated with Army forces.

DFE 1 was deployed to Angola on 10 Nov 1961 (Cann, 1997).

The CF and DFE were largely recruited and trained in Portugal (Cann, 1997). Guinnea-Bissau had the only locally recruited marines; two companies the Special African Marine Detachments (Destacamentos de Fuzileiros Especiais Africanos)were formed in Feb 1970. These were DFE 21 and 22.

Para-military Forces (Forças Militarizadas)

Para-military forces (Forças Militarizadas; literally Militarised Forces) supplemented the Armed Forces (Forças Armados) (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998).

The police force included:

Armed civilians were organised into:

Dedicated Counter-Guerilla Forces (Forças de Contra-Guerilha) under civilian control included (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997):

In Mozambique only (Cann, 1997):

In Angola only (Cann, 1997):

Volunteers, OPVDCA, OPVDCM

2,000 armed white settlers were formed into a Volunteer Corps (Corpo de Voluntarios) in ‘Maria’s War’ (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). There was also a Rural Guard, Air Brigade and Railway Brigade.

In 1962 the various volunteer groups were combined into the Provincial Volunteer and Civil Defense Organisation (Organisaao Provincial de Voluntários e Defesa Civil) of Angola (OPVDCA) and Mozambique (OPVDCM) (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). The organisations were primarily to mobilise the white settler organisation however by 1968 blacks were widespread. They did guard duty and escorted convoys. In Angola they were originally to defend the rural areas in the north but later they also guarded road construction equipment in areas of guerrilla activity. In Angola in 1966 there were 10,000-20,000 OPVDCA.

Public Security Police (Polícia de Segurança Pública or PSP)

Public Security Police (Polícia de Segurana Pública or PSP) had black constables (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). In Angola in 1966 there were 10,000 PSP.

International Police of State Defense (Policia Internacional de Defesa do Estado or PIDE)

The International Police of State Defense (Policia Internacional de Defesa do Estado or PIDE) were a counter-intelligence agency, i.e. the secret police (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). They had powers and responsibilities roughly equivalent to the British MI-6, Special Operations Executive, and Scotland Yard’s Special Branch Officers, or the US FBI and CIA (Cann, 1997). Their small numbers – there are only 1,100 PIDE men in Angola in 1966 – were supplemented by a wide network of informers. They generally cooperated with the Army but on occasion withheld information or acted on it with their own Arrows.

PIDE was succeeded by the Directorate General of Security (Direcção Geral de Segurança or DGS) (Cann, 1997; Minter, 1972).

Militia (milicias)

In 1961 the militia (milicias) system was revived to mobilise the black population of ultramar (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). The formal name of the militia was the Second Line Military Corps (Corpo Militar de Segunda Linha). Typically militia infantry units garrisoned major fortified posts in particular the fortified hamlets (aldeamentos).

Each village had several platoons led by a section leader (Cann, 1997). The militia of a village reported to the headman except in northern Angola where an army officer commanded the village militia. This is because most of the villagers in northern Angola were refugees without headmen and the villages were located near army camps anyway. [In contrast Abbott and Rodrigues (1998) say the militia were organised into a platoons with a police sergeant and corporal in command. The sergeants were often white but the rest were black.]

Police NCOs wore their uniform (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Others wore the military work uniform, including either shorts or trousers, and an arm band in national colours (red over green with white badge). These were both khaki until replaced by olive green in 1966.

Typically the militia carried Mauser bolt-action rifles (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998) but also had light machine guns, AK47s, G3 rifles, or Uzis (Cann, 1997).

In Angola the militia was called the Traditional Local Jurisdiction Militia (Milicias Tradicionais de Regedoria) (Cann, 1997).

The militia in Guinea-Bissau was formed in 1964 (Cann, 1997). Over time they were divided into two groups: Normal Militia (Milicias Normais) and Special Militia (Milicia Especiais). The Normal Militia provided local defense for their communities whereas the Special Militia conducted offensive counterinsurgency operations and were similar to the GE or TE. In 1971 all the militias and second line troops were combined into a Militia Corps (Corpo de Milicias) within the regular arm. Militiamen received 3 months training. The Corps initially had 8,000 men in 40 companies although this grew to 45 companies of Normal Militia (about 9,000 men) and 23 groups of Special Militia (about 713 men). They were armed with G-3 assault rifles and bazookas. At the end of the war 50% of the guerrilla contact in Guinea-Bissau was by the Militia.

Arrows (Flechas)

The Arrows (Flechas) were ex-guerrillas recruited by PIDE to conduct long range penetration activities (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998); Venter (1974b) describes them as “long-range reconnaissance squads”. They formed small groups, carried Soviet weapons, and wore guerrilla clothing. Technically they were part of the Colonial rather than Military establishment.

In about 1967 PIDE recruited eight local auxiliaries for long range penetration activities around the city of Luso in eastern Angola (Cann, 1997). These men knew the local languages, people, and terrain. As a result they could blend into the local population and travel in the countryside for extended periods of time. However the first recruits, being unarmed, were prone to capture and torture so PIDE began to arm and train them. Following this initial success the numbers in Angola quickly rose to 600 and reached 1,000 by 1974. The best recruits, and best trackers, were the Bushmen of the Cuando-Cubango district in south eastern Angola who signed up partly because of a traditional animosity for the blacks. The Bushmen were too small to comfortably carry the G3 assault rifle so retained their traditional bows and poison tipped arrows. It was this practice that inspired the name Arrows (Fletchas). In time they adopted the AK-47 and in 1974 they standardised on the M-16. Training was run by the Commandos but modified for a local approach. The Arrows were organised into combat groups of at most 30 men. They conducted deep penetration patrols into suspected insurgent areas or guided Army troops. Later blacks were employed in this role in western Angola. In late 1968 the first ex-insurgents were recruited. Ultimately 200 ex-insurgents were included in the Arrows. Late in the war several hundred Arrows were organised in Mozambique.

Special Groups (Grupos Especiais or GE)

The Special Groups (Grupos Especiais or GE) were first raised in eastern Angola – the ZML – in 1968 (Cann, 1997). They were formed from captured insurgents or deserters from the insurgents. They were trained by the OPVDC and were 90% ethnically homogenous (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Some were controlled by the PIDE whilst others were under the military; a few had Commando officers. They all came under military operational control from 1970 and were incorporated into the military in 1972. By 1974 there were 99 GEs – 3,069 men – spread throughout Angola although they remained concentrated in the ZML. The Grup Especiais Trezento (Special Group Three hundred) comprised 25 former MPLA members and operated out of Casai in eastern Angola (Morris, 1974).

GEs were raised in Mozambique in 1970 (Cann, 1997). Initially there were 550 men but this grew to 7,700 men in 84 GEs (Venter, 1974b, says 10-12,000). Officers and sergeants started white but as the units gained experience the Europeans were replaced by blacks.

Venter (1974b) says of the GE:

These special groups are 90 per cent black. The GE’s are broken
down into ethically homogenous units and sent back to their homes after
training to operate as local irregular forces (Venter, 1974b, p. 108).

Based on that I suspect “ethically homogenous” means the men of a unit were from the same tribal and/or language grouping.

A Special Group was equivalent to a combat group of the light infantry (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998). Abbott & Rodrigues give them 28 men whereas Cann (1997) says 31. Clarke (2008) says 27 but then gives a breakdown with 29 men.

Special Group (Grupos Especiais or GE)

  • 1 x Officer
  • 1 x Sergeant
  • 3 x Sections
    • 3 x NCOs
    • 6-7 x Soldiers

Abbott and Rodrigues (1998) say the GE recruited from the militia but Cann (1997) says ex-insurgents. Abbott and Rodrigues also says they were intervention units (unidades de intervenção) but Cann has them protecting the resettlement villages.

Paratrooper Special Groups (Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas or GEP)

From 1971 the best of the Mozambican GE were formed into 12 elite Paratrooper Special Groups (Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas or GEP) (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998; Cann, 1997). Like the GE they were under military operational control and were incorporated into the military in 1972. They were attached to the Air force and were often deployed by helicopter. They were usually multi-ethnic. Each GEP had 70 men making 840 in total.

Special Paratrooper Groups (Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas or GEP)

  • 12 x Special Paratrooper Groups (Grupos Especiais Pára-quedistas or GEP)
    • 1 x Lieutenant (commander)
    • 1 x Sergeant (specialist in psychological operations)
    • 4 x Sub-groups
      • 1 x Sergeant (sub-group commander)
      • 4 x Corporal
      • 12 x Soldiers

Venter (1974b) says they were “formed into ethnically diverse units, to widen the areas in which they can operate” (p. 108-109).

Like the other intervention units (unidades de intervenção) the GEP were mobile elite units tasked with taking the war to the enemy (Abbott & Rodrigues, 1998. They both counter-attacked guerrilla bands contacted by other units and conducted long range sweeps of the bush looking for insurgents.

Combat Tracker Special Groups (Grupos Especiais de Pisteiros de Combate or GEPC)

A small number of GE were organised as Combat Trackers Special Groups (Grupos Especiais de Pisteiros de Combate or GEPC) (Cann, 1997).

Special Troops (Tropas Especiais or TE)

In 1965 Alexandre Taty, the Cabindan Minister of Agriculture in UPA/FNLA/GRAE, defected to the Portuguese (Cann, 1997; Morris, 1974, says May 1966). He brought 1,200 loyal troops with him. Morris calls Taty’s followers the Angolan Military Junta in Exile (Junta Militar Angolano no Exilo or JMAE).

The Special Troops (Tropas Especiais or TE) were formed from these men (Cann, 1997). Portugal kept this unit of ex-insurgents low profile to avoid criticism. The TE were entirely black, wore insurgent uniforms, carried Soviet weapons and equipment, and carried no Portuguese identity cards. They routinely conducted cross border operations. These were thoroughly planned on full scale model replicas of their targets. Despite the planning the Portuguese were never really convinced the missions were seen through. The TE operated from Cabinda and the districts of Zaire and Uige in northwest Angola and were instrumental in Portugal’s ability to control Cabinda and the adjacent northern border of Angola. In 1966 a battalion was sent to the ZML.

Initially the TE fought in combat groups of 31 men (leader and three sections of 10 (Cann, 1997). Following recruitment the TE got up to four battalions. By 1972 there were 2,000 men in the TE and they were incorporated into the regular forces.

Special Troops (Tropas Especiais or TE)

  • 4 x Battalions
    • 16 x Combat Groups
      • 1 x Leader
        3 x Sections of 10 men

Special Forces (Forças Especiais or FE)

Special Forces (Forças Especiais or FE)

Sonda Group (Grupo Sonda) in the ZML (Zona Militar Leste)

Sonda Group (Grupo Sonda) in the ZML (Zona Militar Leste)

Pseudo Terrorists (PT) in Nambuangongo

Pseudo Terrorists (PT) in Nambuangongo

Armed Militia of Malanje (Milicias Armardas de Malanje)

Armed Militia of Malanje (Milicias Armardas de Malanje)

Faithful Ones (Fiéis)

In 1960 Moise Tshombe raised a gendarmerie in his newly declared state of Katanga, recently part of Congo-Leopoldville (Cann, 1997). By Jan 1963 the UN had retuned Kantanga to control of the central government of Congo-Leopoldville and Tshombe subsequently became Prime Minister of the whole country. In 1965 General Mobutu overthrew Tshombe. In 1967 Mobutu suspended the constitution and at this point the Katanga gendarmerie, still loyal to Tshombe, crossed the board into eastern Angola and joined the Portuguese. 4,600 men, women and children crossed the border. The Portuguese chose 2,300 men and formed them 15 companies split between three battalions/camps (Chimbila, Camissombo, Gafaria). By 1974 there were about 3,000 in arms. They were black and retained their own officers and sergeants. The overall leader was Brigadier N’Bumba Nathaniel although operationally they were under the local military commander. They were good fighters but mainly protected the road building crews in eastern Angola.


The Portuguese needed translators to cope with the vast number of languages in use in ultramar (Cann, 1997). In Guinnea-Bissau, for example, each company had 20-23 translators attached.

Republican National Guard (Guarda Nacional Republicana or GNR)

Mentioned in Minter (1972) but I’m not sure of their role or even if they were deployed in Ultramar.


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.

Clarke, R. (2008). B’Maso! The winds of change wars in Africa. Two Fat Lardies.

Davidson, B. (1981). The People’s Cause: A history of Guerillas in Africa. Longman.

Humbaraci, A. and Muchnik, N. (1974). Portugal’s African Wars: Angola, Guinea Bissao, Mozambique. The Third Press.

Lança-Foguetes De 37mm Para Tropas Terrestres

Minter, W. (1972). Portuguese Africa and the West. NY: Monthly Review Press.

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

Wikipedia: Comandos

Wikipedia (Polish): Panhard EBR

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