The Portuguese paratroopers were amongst the first to see action during the Portuguese Colonial War in 1961 and were amongst the last to pull out in 1975 (Spencer & Machado, 1992). They achieved an impressive 20:1 kill ratio, i.e. 20 insurgents killed for the loss of one paratrooper. Although it was more like 3:1 for casualties in general.
In 1992 David Spencer and Miguel Machado have wrote a great little article on the Portuguese Paratroopers during the Portuguese Colonial War. I’ve referred to the article in various places around the site but I thought I’d type up my notes on the operations the paras were involved in here.
Paratrooper Operational Units
The conditions in the three theatres of the war (Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique) differed so the Portuguese tactics also varied (Spencer & Machado, 1992). In particular the paratroopers operated in platoon sized units in Angola but in company sized units in the other two theatres. The is mainly because the Angolan insurgents were divided and hence weak, whereas the Portuguese faced a single enemy in both Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.
Between 1967 and 1970 the Portuguese Air Force used dogs to track guerrilla columns (Spencer & Machado, 1992). These produced good results however the dogs were few and poorly trained. Human trackers were used in Angola and Mozambique, sometimes in conjunction with dogs.
Operations 1961-62 in Angola
Mar 1961: Paratroopers arrive
UPA invaded northern Angola in Mar 1961 (Spencer & Machado, 1992). 1a CCP arrived in Angola in the same month. 2a and 3a CCP arrived in Apr 1961. The paratroopers were used to garrisoned vulnerable towns or relieve threatened outposts. Relief columns are often difficult as the insurgents destroyed bridges, laid obstacles on the roads, dug trenches and set ambushes on the approach routes. As more troops arrived the paratroopers were increasingly used as a strategic reserve.
May 1961: BCP 21 formed
BCP 21 was formed in May 1961 (Spencer & Machado, 1992).
11 Aug 1961: 1st Company BCP 21 jump at Quipedro
On 11 Aug 1961 BCP 21 jumped in support of a Portuguese attack on the insurgent headquarters at Nambuangongo (Spencer & Machado, 1992). Their mission was to seize Quipedro, a town to the north of Nambuangongo, and hold it until relieved by the armour of the 149th Cavalry Detachment. PV-2s strafed and bombed the drop zone (DZ) 600 m outside Quipedro. Then the pathfinder section of 1st Company jumped. The section made sure the DZ was clear then marked the DZ with orange signal panels formed in a “T” and smoke pots on the boundaries. The rest of 1st Company, including the company commander and supplies, then jumped. 1st company then assembled on the DZ and distributed their supplies. Finally 1st and 3rd platoons marched unopposed into Quipedro, took up defensive positions and waited for the cavalry.
25 Aug 1961: 2nd Company BCP 21 jump at Serra de Canda
On 25 Aug 1961 the 2nd Company BCP 21 jump at Serra de Canda (Spencer & Machado, 1992). They accomplished their mission: clear insurgents from a hill, linked up with the cavalry and build a small airstrip. the only casualty was as a paratrooper whose parachute failed to open.
5 Sep 1961: Paratrooper Platoon jump at Sacandica
The insurgents took Sacandica, a government post 25 km from the Congo border, early in the fighting (Spencer & Machado, 1992). On 5 Sep a platoon of paratroopers dropped at Sacandica with orders to hold it until relieved – expected to be at most 20 days. A large group of insurgents tried to retake the post but soon gave up and the paras were relieved after a few days.
17 Apr 1962: Paratrooper Company jump at Banza Quina
The insurgents had a command base at Banza Quina (Spencer & Machado, 1992). The Portuguese decided to raid the base. On 17 Apr 1962 a company of paratroopers jumped through low cloud over a landing zone (LZ) covered in tall grass. Portuguese aircraft strafed and bombed the surrounding area as the paratroopers assembled. The paratroopers then cleared the area. One group had a fire fight with an insurgent burial party and captured three. The paras subsequently found the insurgent camp with weapons and documents. But the bulk of the insurgents had fled.
By this stage the Portuguese high command had realised that paratrooper jumps were not achieving the real objectives – destroying insurgent forces (Spencer & Machado, 1992). They had adopted the jump process for fighting conventional opponents who held ground; but insurgents just fled if they were threatened and the jump process gave them lots of warning that something was up.
The Special Anti-Infiltration Corp (Corpo Especial de Contra Infiltracao or CECI) was formed in 1972 (Spencer & Machado, 1992). It was based at Toto in Angola. When the DGS got intelligence on a guerrilla column they would pass it to the CECI. An Air Force tracker unit would be dispatched to locate the insurgents. Combat groups were on standby in the helicopters and tactical air support could also be on standby. If the trackers found the infiltrators the combat groups were air lifted in to attack. BCP 21 provided combat groups but I’m not sure if they provided all of the combat groups.
By 1974 the name had changed to Tactical Anti-Infiltration Unit (Unidade Tactica Contra Infiltracao or UTCI).
After the 1974 coup most of the Portuguese army stopped fighting. But the UTCI and a few other units continued to do their duty. BCP 21 saw some of their heaviest fighting after the coup.
Jun 1974: Operation ‘Diana’
In Jun 1974 a large FNLA guerrilla column killed an elephant then stopped at a grove of trees to cook and eat it (Spencer & Machado, 1992). After a tip off for the intelligence services Air Force trackers found the grove. 3rd Company of BCP 21 closed in on the grove without being detected and opened fire. Many of the insurgents fled but the paras pursued. Over the next five days the 3rd and 2nd Companies of BCP 21 destroyed the column. They killed 180 insurgents and captured 12 more along with a mass of equipment (both Soviet and Western). Many of the prisoners only spoke French so were suspected of being Zairean soldiers.
Operations 1963-66 in Guinea-Bissau
Platoon 111 of the Paratroopers was sent to Guinea-Bissau when the fighting broke out in 1963 (Spencer & Machado, 1992). Over time the platoon was expanded into a company and then in Oct-Dec 1966 it became a battalion (BCP 12).
1966: Operation ‘Samurai’
PAIGC dominated Como Island and harassed the local army camp at Cachil at least twice a week (Spencer & Machado, 1992). In Operation ‘Samurai’ a company of paratroopers was used to relieve pressure on Cachil. Four days of strafing and bombing preceded the paratroopers jumped on Cufar airstrip.
The following day three combat groups of company were sent to take a variety of objectives around the island (Spencer & Machado, 1992). The paras were heli-lifted to their objectives and generally met little resistance. The exception was the 2nd Combat Group who encountered stiff resistance at Cassaca. Even here the paratroopers cleared the area when support arrived – in the form of T-6 trainer/bombers and the 3rd Combat Group. With all objectives secured the paratroopers marched to the post at Cachil then were heli-lifted back to the airstrip at Cufar.
28 Apr 1966: Operation ‘Grifo’
The Portuguese called the PAIGC a supply route from Conakry to southern Guinea-Bissau the “Guilege Corridor” (Spencer & Machado, 1992). Obviously the Portuguese had an interest in cutting this route.
Just after midnight on 28 Apr 1966 a platoon of paras left the Mejo base. Their mission was to interdict a PAIGC column. Captain Luis Tinoco de Faria accompanied the group as an observer.
0500 hours: The paras took up ambush positions on the Guilege Corridor. The position had good cover and fields of fire being along a tree line on a slight incline.
1000 hours: The paras heard periodic bursts of automatic fire from about 5 km away. This sounded like a large PAIGC column conducting reconnaissance by fire. The paras waited as the fire came closer.
Eventually 10 insurgents and a dog walked into the ambush zone. Behind them were another 60 insurgents. The dog detected the paras and began barking. Before the insurgents could react the paras shot down seven of the leading group. The three surviving insurgents in the lead group shot back and wounded Capt Tinoco de Faria before themselves being killed.
The main body of insurgents opened up on the paratroopers with machine gun and mortar fire then attempted to envelop the Portuguese. The paras decided to withdraw with the wounded Captain.
The insurgents realised the slow moving paras had wounded and tried to destroy the platoon. One group continued to pursue the Portuguese as another – with 20 men – set up an ambush at the Tenhege River. The ambushers opened up as the paras were crossing the river however suppressive fire by the MG42 gunner and 37mm rocker launcher operator (both killed two attackers) drove off the insurgents.
The paratroopers contacted a DO-27 reconnaissance plane and a helicopter was dispatched to collect the wounded captain. However the captain died whilst waiting for evacuation.
25 Feb 1968: Operation ‘Ciclone II’
Portuguese intelligence had identified a large group of insurgents and a large weapons cache at two locations called Cafine and Cafal (Spencer & Machado, 1992). Cafine was a patch of jungle surrounded by open ground.
Operation ‘Ciclone II’
- BCP 12 (Lt. Col. Costa Campos)
- 121st Company
- 122nd Company
- T-6 Trainer-bombers
- Allouette III Gun-ships with 20mm door cannon
- BCP 12 (Lt. Col. Costa Campos)
- 1 x Bi-group (at least 59 men)
1020 hours: Strafing and bombing by T-6 trainer-bombers prevented the insurgents in Cafine from leaving as helicopters delivered the 122nd Company of BCP 12 from Bissau to Cafal. The paras swept Cafal but found no weapons. They did, however, captured a guerrilla who told them that Cafine had been reinforced. The 122nd then marched eastward towards Cafine.
1100 hours: The T-6 trainer-bombers strafed and bombed Cafine again as gun-ships and helicopters carrying the 121st Company approached. The helicopters took up a holding pattern as Lt. Col. Campos assessed the situation fro a DO-27 reconnaissance plane. He spotted a trench and sent a group of paratroopers (reinforced platoon) to take it. The paras landed on uneven ground and charged the trench, killing four insurgents and capturing two.
One of the Portuguese gunships then spotted a trench and bunker complex. The other two groups of 121st Company were landed to the west of the complex and began to clear it with the support of the gun-ships. When 122nd arrived they began to work their way from the eastern end of the complex. Fierce fighting continued throughout the day and resulted in the destruction of an insurgent bi-group (40 men killed and 19 captured). The paras also found a large amount of equipment.
17-18 Nov 1969: Operation ‘Jove’
Operation ‘Jove’ was an interdiction mission involving two companies of BCP 12 (Spencer & Machado, 1992). The 122nd company was to set up ambush positions on the “Guilege Corridor” with 121st Company providing flank security.
Order of Battle during Operation ‘Jove’
- BCP 12
- 121st Company
- 122nd Company (Capt. Bessa)
Both companies were inserted by helicopter on 17 Nov 1969. The marched a short distance before camping for the night.
Early on 18 Nov the paras marched on. Several hundred metres short of the ambush location the 122nd Company stopped to allow a reconnaissance party led by the company commander (Capt. Bessa) to explore the ambush site. The recon party looked or the best ambush locations, buried 60mm mortar bombs converted into command-detonated mines, and set up a tape recorder to record movement and noises.
As the recon party were going about their business two insurgents walked into the ambush zone. One was a black man with an AK47. The other insurgent was more interesting being white with a pistol and cigar.
Captain Bessa immediate decided to abandon the plan to ambush the PAIGC column that was expected to arrive and try to kill or capture the white insurgent. Bessa ordered the MG42 gunner to fire. The black insurgent was killed instantly and the white guy wounded in the shoulder. The wounded insurgent then fled but collapsed through loss of blood. The paras followed the blood trail andcollected him. The paras then called in a helicopter came to pick up the wounded prisoner.
The captive turned out to be one Capt. Rodrigues Peralta. He provided irrefutable proof that the Cubans were involved with PAIGC.
Operations 1963-69 in Mozambique
In 1963 BCP 31 was formed from a detachment of paratroopers already stationed at Lourenco Marques in Mozambique (Spencer & Machado, 1992). This was before the fighting broke out in 1964. BCP 32 was created at Nacala in Jan 1967.
1969: Operation ‘Zeta’
Operation ‘Zeta’, conducted in 1969, was the first parachute operation in Mozambique (Spencer & Machado, 1992). It was also the largest parachute jump of the war involving nearly three companies of paratroopers – over 250 men. The target was a strong FRELIMO group based in the Malambuage swamp on the south bank of the Rouma River. The terrain was difficult and the drop zone (DZ) had grass over nine feet tall.
Paratroopers in Operation ‘Zeta’
- BCP 31
- 1a CCP
- BCP 32
- 1a CCP
- Only two platoons
- 2a CCP
- 1a CCP
The operation started on 7 Jun 1969 (Spencer & Machado, 1992). Portuguese aircraft strafed and bombed the DZ and a pathfinder platoon was inserted by helicopter. Then the entire paratrooper force dropped on the DZ in one pass; it took four Nordatlas and three C-47 Dakotas to deliver the paras. It took a while for the paras to assemble in the long grass but resistance was light.
On 8 Jun 1969 2a CCP of BCP 31 was transferred by helicopter to the east of the DZ (Spencer & Machado, 1992). From there they swept the area and uncovered the one of the largest weapon caches found during the war.
On 12 Aug 1969 some of the force was transferred to Nangade on the banks of the Rovuma River (Spencer & Machado, 1992). the Portuguese conducted air reconnaissance so no pathfinders were used in the jump. 1a CCP of BCP 31 jumped but 2a CCP was helicoptered in. This move only resulted in the capture of four rifles with little contact with the enemy.
22 – 29 Jul 1971: Operation ‘Osiris 3’
BCP 31, in Mozambique, was involved in Operation Osiris 3 (22-29 Jul 1971) (Spencer & Machado, 1992). Spencer and Machado includes an excerpt from the commander’s log. This was a typical company sized insertion. The outline was:
- 1045 hours: Boarded helicopters and delivered to landing zone next to Lake Nedu. 1st Group moved out at 140 degree azimuth (degrees clockwise from north) for 5 km and set up ambush positions.
- 1400 hours: 1st Group ambushed two guerrillas carrying Simonov carbines. The insurgents were escorting a man and two women. The para captured the lead guerrilla and shot the other as he attempted to flee. The prisoner admitted knowing the location of “Camp Vietnam”.
- 1630 hours: The entire company assembled and marched towards “Camp Vietnam”.
- 1730 hours: The company set up ambush positions for the night.
- 0430 hours: The company abandoned the ambush positions and continued the march towards “Camp Vietnam”.
- 0530 hours: The company took the recently abandoned “Camp Vietnam”. Amongst the 30 huts the paras found seven hand grenades and 100 rounds for small arms
- 0800 hours: The company set up ambush positions and began a search on a 285 degree azimuth.
- 1730 hours: The company set up ambush positions for the night.
- 0500 hours: The ambushes were brought in and the sweep continued.
- 0730 hours: The paras found the long abandoned field hospital of Vilanculos (20 huts). The search continued.
- 0830 hours: The paras discovered an insurgent granary of 200 kg of millet, seeds and rice. The grain was destroyed.
- 1045 hours: The company detected two guerrillas, one with a Simonov carbine and the other with a bazooka. The paras enveloped the guerrillas without being detected and attacked. The insurgent with the carbine was killed and the other wounded. Despite being wounded the second man managed to fire his bazooka (harmlessly) and escape in the confusion of the blast.
- 1530 hours: The company found and destroyed two camps, each with 10 huts.
- 0500 hours: The company marched to the recovery area. They detected and ambushed a guerrilla with seven local civilians. The guerrilla was killed and a woman and child were captured.
- 1200 hours: The company
Search and destroy missions were considered successful if they captured weapons or bases or destroyed food stores (Spencer & Machado, 1992). Encountering the enemy was not a necessary condition of success. So this mission was very much a success.
Spencer, D. E. and Machado, M. (1992). The Unknown War: Portuguese Paratroops in Africa, 1961-74 (I). Military Illustrated Past & Present, 47, 21-27. ADH Publishing.