Van Der Waals: Portugual’s War in Angola 1961-1974

I grab English Language books on the Portuguese Colonial War any time I see them. Mostly they are second hand so imagine my surprise to find a book called “Portugal’s War in Angola 1961-1974” in Foyle’s, my favourite bookstore in the centre of London.

The author, W. S. Van der Waals, is interesting because he had personal experience of Angola during the Portuguese Colonial War. He is a South African combat officer who served as military liaison with the Portuguese authorities in Angola during the war. He also connected to Angola later, during the subsequent Angolan Civil War, when he trained UNITA forces in conventional warfare. And unlike many South Africans VAn der Waals learnt Portuguese. All of which gives him a unique insight into the Portuguese Colonial War.

I’ve taken a few notes from the book to incorporate into my wider material.

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

Van Der Waals, W. S. (2011). Portugal’s War in Angola 1961-1974. Pretoria: Protea Book House.

Van der Waals Portugals War in Angola


Angola is second largest African country south of the Sahara. At 1,246,700 square kilometres it is 14 times the size of Portugal. At 1,650 km it has the longest coastline in West Africa.

Angola is a tropical country. There are two seasons: May/June is cold and dry; other months are warm and wet. The most rain occurs in the Maiombe forest of Cabinda, in the northern plateau near Carmona, the eastern Luanda province, and on the central highland. Temperatures are higher nearer the coast. The south coast has a very low rainfall year-round due to the Benguela current.

The country is largely covered by tropical grassland and deciduous savannah vegetation. The heart of Angola is the central savannah region; Acacias dominate the higher parts of the savannah. The Maiombe forest of Cabinda is the only area of tropical forest. The Dembos region and the northeastern Lunda province have thick forest and savannah vegetation with dense shrub.

Wildlife includes elephants, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, buffalo, zebra, lion, leopard, and antelope.


The African population was divided into 90 distinct tribes in eight main ethnolinguistic groups. The 1950 census showed that 75% of the population were in the main three ethnolinguistic groups: Ovimbundu (1.5 million concentrated in the central highland and speaking Umbundu), Mbundu (1 million occupying the countryside east of Luanda and speaking Kimbundu), Bakongo (0.5 million in the north and speaking Kikongo).

Scramble for Africa

In the 30 years following the Berlin conference Portugal established control of the interior of Angola. The Portuguese called these campaigns the guerra preta (war between the blacks) because black soldiers fought black Angolans. Key campaigns were:

  • 1902 – Bailundu War – a revolt of the Bailundu (Ovimbundu) in the central highlands
  • 1904-1915 Subjugation of the Cuanhama. Started with the defeat of a Portuguese force of 300 men plus loyal black troops. Victory came when 7,000 soldiers were deployed.
  • 1907-1919 Subjugation of the Dembos.

Revolutionary or Subversive War

Portugal believes it faced a “subversive war” in its African territories, although also characterised by elements of “revolutionary war”.

“Subversive war” was defined as:

… a struggle in the interior of a defined territorium by a part of its inhabitants, supported or not from the exterior, against the lawful or de facto established government, in order to seize control of the said territorium, or at the minimum to paralyse government action …

Portugal (1963), p. 1, cited in Van der Waals (2011), p. 133

Subversive war became “revolutionary war” if waged according to Marxist-Leninist doctrine and supported or exploited by the communist bloc in order to install a communist or well-disposed regime.

These wars theoretically developed in five phases:

  1. Preparatory phase
  2. Agitation phase
  3. Terrorism and guerrilla action
  4. Creation of a subversive state
  5. Regular warfare or general insurrection

The Portuguese simplified these five phases into two period: pre-insurrection (phase 1 to 3) and insurrection (phase 4 and 5).

Portuguese counter-revolutionary approach

The Portuguese counter-revolutionary approach had three elements:

  1. Military action to ensure territorial integrity
  2. Diplomatic action to counter the international campaign against Portugal, strengthen ties with allies, and gain new allies
  3. Increased socio-economic development of the overseas provinces and greater participation of the indigenous population in the political and administrative process

Operational strategy involved a defensive network of static garrison or holding units backed by mobile reaction forces. Each static unit had a defined area of responsibility. They were were expected to study the local situation, establish contact with the locals, gather intelligence, provide protection and backup for the local politico-administrative effort, and generally provide a positive image. Although “static” they were expected to use maximum mobility and aggressive action to dominate the local terrain. Already in 1963 practice in the field was lagging theory. Many of the widely distributed garrisons were solely concerned with survival and logistical concerns. They did not engage in field operations. They were also criticised for inadequate training, lack of aggressiveness, poor motivation, and insufficient resources. The reaction units, e.g. paratroopers and marines, were used for offensive search-and-destroy operations. The government restriction pre-emptive, cross border attacks on insurgent centres in neighbouring states.

Until 1966 the insurgency was in essence a border war. Insurgents infiltrated from external bases to conduct hit-and-run attacks before heading back to their bases over the boarder. The Portuguese succeeded in ensure territorial integrity in Angola until 1966. The borders of northern Angola were protected and infiltrators intercepted. The controlled resettlement programme created a human desert in northern Angola and helped limit guerrilla activity.

The Portuguese resettlement programme was effective in terms of control but the implementation was haphazard, particularly at the start. There were two types of resettlement schemes:

  • reordenamento rural: orderly rural resettlement or grouping outside the combat zone and under civilian control. This approach was used in Bie from 1968-71 The primary purpose was social upliftment however it just created discontent amongst black land owners and increased levels of insurgent penetration.
  • aldeamentos: In guerrilla-infested areas and under military control. The primary purpose was control with social upliftment as secondary. They started early with 130 aldeamentos built between 1961 and 1964, each with a capacity of 2,000. Many, many more followed. By 1970 almost all civilians in eastern Angola were in aldeamentos. Most of these started by just collecting the civilians near a military or administrative post and leaving their security to a hastily recruited militia. In February 1973 a little under a million people within the Eastern Military Zone were living in aldeamentos. In 1974 there were 900 such settlements in northern Angola. From 1972 about 2,000 ex-Portuguese soldiers were settled in these schemes to aid self-defence.

Transport and infrastructure was higher priority than national development.

… the revolt starts where the road ends … counter-subversion depends far more on connecting roads than on direct confrontation with subversives

1968 saw the Portuguese implement a more effective command and control structure. Overall management of counter-revolutionary effort lay with a new General Council of Counter-subversion. The Executive Council was responsible for implementing the directives from the higher level council. Districts had a District Council for Counter-subversion. Districts were divided into municipalities, rural wards and administrative posts each with a Local Council for Counter-subversion. Luanda had a special council under the district governor, plus dedicated forces including the local parachute battalion. Separately the Portuguese set up a Council for the Guidance of Psychological Action and a similar council for intelligence coordination. The psychological action and intelligence councils had working groups down to the district level. All of these groups involved both military and civilian representatives. Military administration was applied in areas of intensive subversion, specifically the Eastern Zone from 1970.

Under the new organisation of 1968 counterinsurgency tasks were seen as:

  • the collection of intelligence
  • protection of the population against negative propaganda by means of public information and psychological action programmes
  • control over the movement of firearms
  • protection against illegal coercion, including violence and intimidation
  • the interception of logistic supplies for the enemy
  • limited military and related action of a preventative and retaliatory nature
  • the prevention of action by government forces which could promote subversion
  • the reoccupation of guerrilla-infested areas

The 1968 reorganisation reconfirmed the operational strategy of a static defensive network with by mobile reaction forces to attack enemy concentrations.

The proceedings of a Portuguese symposium on counter-insurgency (Nov 1968 to Mar 1969), secret but leaked, identified two phases of counter-insurgency activity:

  1. Through intelligence identify the areas given priority by the insurgency groups
  2. In the affected areas, deny the enemy popular support and regain the military initiative. In areas with little guerrilla activity, prevent the population joining the insurgency by limiting movement and improving the informant network. Once military initiative was regained the security forces would attack and destroy the guerrilla’s internal sanctuaries.

From 1970 the Portuguese adopted a more aggressive approach. They improved the command and control structure. Leadership become more dynamic. Garrison battalions were redeployed and some released for offensive action. A great emphasis was placed on Africanisation of the army with particular priority for improving the offensive capacity of special non-white troops. Helicopters were in more plentiful supply. Dry season offensives hit the MPLA’s extended supply route from Zambia. MPLA food sources were destroyed with defoliants. The local population were concentrated into aldeamentos to segregate them from the insurgents. Simultaneously the MPLA’s new strategy involving mobile warfare with larger units made them easier to detect and neutralise.

1972 brought a new concept of action. Angola was divided into geographic areas and categorised into three grades (1-3):

  1. Heavy subversion
  2. Sporadic subversion
  3. Latent subversion

Grade 1 was the boundary of the containment zone. The sparse population was resettled into aldeamentos and the security forces attempted to eliminate the guerrillas.

Grade 2 was the priority for political and military action. The authorities tried to consolidate and expand these areas.

In Grade 3 areas the Portuguese focus was to detect and destroy subversion early.

International support for Portugal

The Azores were strategically important during World War II. The US followed the British onto the islands. In exchange the Allies promised Portugal protection against German aggression. Portugal then joined NATO in 1949.

The USSR vetoed several early attempts by Portugal to join the UN however in 1955 Portugal did join.

The 1973 October War improved US-Portuguese relations as the Americans used the Azores base extensively. This would have resulted in military supplies for Portugal except the Coup intervened.

Insurgent Groups

Broadly speaking the MPLA was pro-Soviet, FNLA was pro-Western and UNITA in between.

Generally MPLA is linked to the USSR, UNITA to the PRC and FNLA to the USA. However FNLA connections to the USA is largely myth propagated by the USSR. Most support for the the FNLA came from Zaire. After Zaire the majority of the support came from Tunisia. Tunisia, Morocco provided armaments, the Ivory Coast finances, and Tunisia, Algeria and India military training facilities.

During the Portuguese Colonial War UNITA ideology was strongly anti-imperialist with a distinct black consciousness aspect (this all mellowed after the war). Maoist terminology, rhetoric and doctrine were routinely used – probably to attract Chinese support. Despite being linked with and seeking support from the People’s Republic of China, UNITA received little tangible aid from the PCR. 12 UNITA members including Savimbi were trained in the PCR. The PCR also sent limited armaments and finance. But, to all intents and purposes, UNITA was self-sufficient hence inadequate armed. In recognition of the (admittedly modest) financial support from American black consciousness groups UNITA named one of its combat units the “Black Panthers”. UNITA was militarily weak so concentrated on clandestine subversion. However occasionally they had bursts of military activity particularly against military and civilian convoys.

UNITA respected the existing tribal structures. MPLA and FNLA did not.

Only MPLA reached the phase of John McCuen’s four-phase conception of organisation, terrorism, guerrilla war and mobile war. 1971 saw MPLA fail in their attempt to move into mobile war with larger units. FNLA and UNITA were stuck in the terrorism phase.

Mao saw the phases of liberation as strategic defensive, equilibrium, strategic offensive. In Angola the insurgents achieved, at best, equilibrium.



In 1911 the law changed to allow black associations to form in Angola. These groups leaned towards Pan-Africanism and Pan-Negroism. Although initially loyal to the Republic they eventually came into conflict with the authorities. The two major black groups were banned in 1922.

Sometime 1960

The UPA subverted some black soldiers in the colonial forces. These men formed the basis of the UPA military wing.

June 1960

PIDE arrested 50 of the MPLA Leadership including Agostinho Neto and Father Joaquim Pinto de Andrade (brother of Mario de Andrade). The “fifty” were subsequently given long prison sentences.

Following Neto’s arrest the MPLA incited residents of his home town to gather at the Catete administrative centre and demand his release. A Portuguese army unit clashed with the crowd and opened fire. 30 demonstrators were killed and 200 wounded.

30 June 1960

The Belgium Congo declared independence.

End of 1960

In the Cassange area 30,000 cotton farmers went on strike and refused to pay taxes. A self styled prophet called Antonio Mariano triggered the uprising, exploiting genuine grievances about low prices. The strikers lacked arms, leaders and support from the neighbouring tribes. However they attacked shops, government buildings, a Roman Catholic mission stations and offices of the official cotton purchasing agency. The Portuguese sent in the army to restore order. They did so in a ruthless manner killing at least 100 people. Nationalists claim the death toll was 20,000. The unrested died down when the Portuguese arrested Mariano.

4 Feb 1961

The MPLA started its “national revolution”. A group of blacks from Luanda’s slums went on the rampage armed with clubs and knives. Estimates vary between 80 rioters and several hundred. They attacked a police patrol, the Sao Paulo prison, the military detention barracks, a police station and barracks, and the local radio station. The rioters killed seven policemen but failed to free any of the MPLA prisoners. They lost 40 dead, wounded or captured.

The same day, in response to the attacks, the authorities organised an armed, white militia to assist with security.

10 Feb 1961

MPLA men again attacked the prison in Luanda. They lost seven dead and 17 wounded.

The uprising was a tactical failure for the MPLA. The police, army and militia retaliated and it is estimated that up to 3,000 blacks were killed in the ensuing weeks. Some MPLA fugitives fled to the Demobos forests for sanctuary.

15 Mar 1961

The UN Security Council met to discuss Angola.

To coincide with the UN meeting the UPA launched an attack on Northern Angola. This has been described as:

A wild murderous ‘jacquerie’ — Davidson (1971), p. 41

an orgy of disorganzed destruction — Somerville (1986), p. 29

5,000 poorly armed UPA men attacked small settlements, administrative centres and coffee plantations. The focus was the international border with Zaire in the Sao Salvador area and the Dembos area. The UPA were armed with pangas (machetes), axes and homemade firearms. Many of them were Bakongo from outside Angola and had never heard of Holden Roberto.

The UPA had four objectives:

  • Drive the whites out of Angola as the Belgians had recently quit Congo
  • Coerce the indigenous population to participate in the struggle.
  • Incite racial hatred between whites and blacks
  • Attract international attention and as a result UN intervention

There was some pre-planning but largely amongst Bakongo outside Angola. The terrain in the target area provide good cover. The mobility of the Portuguese forces was severely limited by the terrain and the fact it was the end of the rainy season.

The greatest number of deaths were on 15 and 16 March. Whites, mestizos, and blacks were slaughtered indiscriminately. 200 to 300 whites died on the first day. Mestizos, assimilados and Ovimbundu contract labourers were also targeted. Any who resisted the UPA were killed or mutilated, including Bakongo and Mbundu villagers. Some people, both white and black, stayed to defend their homes. The Ovimbundu contract labourers were particularly noted for their loyalty to their employers. Others fled. Settlers who fled went to Luanda or flew out to Portugal. Blacks fleed to the capital but were more likely to cross the international border seeking safety. 200,000 refugees flooded into the former Belgian Congo.

Official Portuguese sources divided the UPA uprising of 1961 into three phases:

  1. From 15 March. Terror campaign by small gangs of poorly armed terrorists against farms and isolated settlements. Property was not damaged as it was promised to UPA supporters. Roads were blocked by felled trees and bridges damaged to limit Portuguese movement.
  2. Beginning 5 April. Mass attacks on larger settlements and military posts by slightly better armed groups of terrorists who were said to be under the influence of drugs and aided by witchdoctors. Destruction of the coffee crop was a key objective. Farms, buildings and machinery were destroyed.
  3. Followed Portuguese reoccupation. Small, mobile and well-armed groups conducted guerrilla warfare including hit-and-run assaults on military and other targets.

22 Mar 1961

A week into the UPA uprising several hundred whites had died and 6,000 loyal blacks.

April 1961

By April the UPA had killed over 1,000 Europeans, destroyed 100 administrative posts and towns, and got to 50 km of Luanda.

5 April

UPA began massed attacks on larger settlements. Some attacks were driven off but other succeeded and the defenders annihilated.

19 April

The Portuguese abandoned the municipality of Bembe, one of the oldest Portuguese settlements in the north.

May 1961

By May 1961 about 7,000 refuguees had fled Cabinda to Congo-Brazzaville as a result of UPA action against the Maiombe population.

1 May 1961

The lack of landing strips prevented Portuguese troops flying in. The first Portuguese reinforcements began arriving on 1 May.

By May Holden Roberto claimed he controlled 60,000 men and had liberated 300 by 350 km. This covered large parts of Luanda, Cuanza Norte, Uige and Malanje districts, the Bembe-Madimba-Buela-Congo infiltration corridor and much of the area east of Maquela and the Angolan bank of the Cuango River. UPA fighters began wearing uniforms and carrying automatic weapons. The arms were believed to have been supplied by Congolese soldiers and by a UN contingent in the Congo (from Ghana).

The city of Carmona (with 4,000 whites), ten urban complexes (concelhos) and eight administrative posts still resisted the UPA attacks. The UPA were threatening the harbour of Ambriz in the Luanda district and had besieged the town of Ucua in the south. UPA bands had penetrated to Catete and Maria Tereze immediately east of Luanda.

13 May to 7 Oct 1961: Portuguese Counter-offensive

The Portuguese military had only the four months of the winter dry season to reoccupy the north. They succeeded in reoccupying northern Angola in the period 13 May to 7 Oct 1961. 20,000 reinforcements arrived in July and August. On 7 Oct the governor general declared the military phase over and that the policing phase was about to begin.

13 May 1961

A Portuguese force left for the area under attack including two infantry battalions, an operational headquarters, and a large number of armed settlers. The column avoided the direct but dangerous “coffee road” and took the longer but safer route via Dondo, Salazar and Camabatela. It relieved Negage (1000 whites) and Damba and pre-empted attacks by large groups of UPA fighters.

Jun 1961

UPA created the Angolan National Liberation Army (Exercito de libertacao Nacional de Angola; ELNA). They also began to apply a scorched-earth policy, destroying coffee plantations and machinery.

13 Jun 1961

The Portuguese reoccupied Lucinga. Thereafter the Portuguese abandoned no further settlements.

19 Jun 1961

The Portuguese clashed with the largest group of UPA fighters encountered so far, said to be several thousand strong. UPA fighters armed with automatic weapons attacked the harbour town of Ambriz.

23 Jun 1961

The Portuguese retook Bembe.

24 Jun 1961

The Portuguese retook Cuimba.

Whilst the Portuguese reoccupied the northern area the UPA continued their attacks in the Dembos region. They focussed on the 1500 isolated plantations in the area. The military could not help the plantation owners and delegated this responsibility to the Volunteer Corps made up of plantation owners and their labourers, mostly Ovimbundu.

Mid Jul 1961

The Portuguese began preparing their attacks on the three main UPA strongholds:

  1. Nambuangongo
  2. Pedra Verde (the ‘Green Rock’)
  3. Serra da Canda

9 Aug 1961

The Portuguese captured the “People’s Soviet Socialist Republic of Nambuangongo” on 9 August after heavy fighting. Some UPA fighters escaped south to threaten the only safe road between Luanda and Carmona.

24 Aug 1961

Serra da Canda was a mountain ridge used by the UPA as a safe refuge and transit area. By 24 Aug 1961 the Portuguese had captured several centres on the approach to the stronghold. The Portuguese began mopping up the area. A large number of UPA fighters were killed. The UPA resorted to uncoordinated guerrilla attacks.

10-20 Sep 1961: the ‘Green Rock’

The last major battle of the UPA uprising was the Portuguese seizure of the “Green Rock” (Pedra Verde), a UPA redoubt in the Dembos region. An inhospitable and thickly wooded mountain complex. It was defended by thousands of well-armed UPA fighters, some of whom had fled from Nambuangongo. The Portuguese army captured the stronghold after 10 days of fierce fighting backed by airpower and artillery.

End of Sep 1961

The Portuguese had reoccupied all administrative posts and settlements in northern Angola. But the area was a “human desert”.

  • 200,000 to 600,000 refugees left the region
  • Just under 13,600 Portuguese left Angola, mainly women and children
  • 50,000 blacks died
  • 2,000 whites died
  • 134 Portuguese soldiers died (out of a force of 40,000)
  • According to Holden Roberto 4,000 UPA fighters died (although he also claimed 3,000 Portuguese soldiers died)

17 Dec 1961

30,000 Indian troops invaded Portuguese Goa. The 3,500 strong garrison surrendered.

Some time 1961

20 MPLA men entered Angola from the Congo with the intention of reinforcing the Dembos. UPA forces intercepted and wiped out this group.

27 Mar 1962

A UPA press release of early 1962 announced Joao Baptista had died in action. Baptista was the UPA commander in Angola and a Cuanhama. The UPA Chief of Staff, Kassanga (a Nganguela) announced that Holden Robert had had Baptista and 8,000 other Angolans murdered.

As a result of the threatened disintegration, on 27 Mar 1962, the UPA merged with the Angolan Democratic Party (PDA) to form the Frente Nacional de Libertacao de Angola (FNLA). A week later Roberto formed the Revolutionary Angolan Government-in-Exile (GRAE) with himself as President.

Aug 1962

The Adoula government gave the UPA the base at Kinkuzu.

Dec 1962

The agreement between Portugal and the USA on the Azores expired.

End of 1962

The military wing of the MPLA, the Angolan Liberation Army (EPLA), had 250-300 me. The majority of EPLA officers were of Mbundu or mestizo origin so few Bakongo refugees were willing to join.

20 Jan 1963

EPLA’s first action when it attacked the administrative post of Massabi in Cabinda. However 1963 was a “barren and frustrating year for the EPLA”

May 1963

Organisation of African Unity (OAU) formed.

June 1963

The Adoula government recognised GRAE as the government-in-exile. Adoula banned the MPLA from operating in or from the Congo and closed the organisation’s office in Leopoldville; Neto moved to Brzzaville. OAU followed suit and called upon their member states to do the same.

July 1963

The Portuguese Defence Minister declared only 2% of Angolan territory affected by UPA/FNLA activity. Down from 10% in 1961. ENLA avoided contact with the Portuguese military and restricted itself to small scale action – ambushes, sabotage and laying of mines.

July 1964

Savimbi formally cut ties with GRAE because of FNLA’s ethnic bias, inefficient administration, and lack of support for guerrillas in Angola. Most Ovimbundu leaders in GRAE followed Savimbi. Savimbi and his hand picked commanders went to China for training.

The Portuguese security forces confiscated 35mm films about the MPLA’s military doctrine. The doctrine followed the Maoist creed.

11 May 1965

The GRAE director of military training deserted to the anti-Roberto alliance called the Council of the Angolan People (CPA).

A month later (??) Alexandre Taty led a unsuccessful coup against Roberto. Taty fled to Cabinda where he began work for the Portuguese.


Oil discovered in Cabinda.

OAU began to support MPLA.

Jan 1966

The Portuguese estimate 35% of Angola was affected by guerrilla action.

Mar 1966

Savimbi, after two years in China, was ready to return to Angola. 300 km inside Angola, at Muangai, UNITA was formed by a conference of 67 tribal leaders and other representatives.

May 1966

A small MPLA group was intercepted and killed by the GRAE/FNLA/ELNA forces when trying to reach the Dembos.

The MPLA opened their Eastern front in an action against Portuguese forces in the Luso area. The MPLA’s 3rd Military REgion (3 MR) included the districts of Moxico and Cuando Cubango. This area had a low population density with only 380,000 people in 391,000 square kilometres. Supplies came via the “Agostinho Neto” route from the harbour of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania through Zambia and then westward into Angola. Ultimately it would extend 500 km into Angola and be 3,000 kilometres in total.

Mid 1966

The MPLA claimed to control 1/4 of Cabinda. They also claimed they had killed 1500 Portuguese soldiers the previous year.

Sep 1966

An MPLA group of 72 men succeeded in reaching their comrades in the Dembos. The reinforced MPLA groups then engaged in the local GRAE/FNLA/ELNA forces.

4 Dec 1966

UNITA, in their first military action, attacked the Portuguese military post at Cassamba.

25 Dec 1966

UNITA launched a disastrous attack on the border town of Teixeira da Sousa on the eastern most extension of the Benguela Railway (CFB). About 500 UNITA guerrillas conducted a frontal assault on the town. But the town was well defended and the 300 guerrillas were killed. Portugal closed the CFB to Zambian and Zairean copper exports for a week which in retaliation. UNITA subsequent avoided attacks on well defended centres.


Portuguese military strength reached 60,000, from 40,000 in 1962. In addition to the army there were 10,000 uniformed police, a volunteer corps of 8000, some black militia, and PIDE.

MPLA action ceased in Cabinda during 1967 but intermittent action began again in 1968.

The MPLA claimed, from 4 Feb to 3 Nov 1967, to have killed 1,160 Portuguese soldiers and wounded 1,500. Official Portuguese figures were 88 conscripts killed.

About April 1967, Savimbi promised Zambia that UNITA would not attack the Benguela Railway (CFB). However UNITA sabotaged the CFB twice – possibly because communications took many weeks to reach the guerrillas. On both occasions Portuguese temporarily closed the CFB. The attacks ceased but they also lost UNITA Zambian support.


First oil exported from Cabinda.

Portugal finally agreed to renegotiate US use of the Azores (agreement expired in Dec 1962).

OAU stopped funding the FNLA.

Portugal began to view the eastern Angola as important.

By 1968 the MPLA had formed a permanent base, Hanoi I, 11 km west of the Zambian border in the Gago Coutinho area. Hanoi II was sited further west but was destroyed by the Portuguese air force in 1968. The MPLA controlled 30,000 people in MR 3 in 1968.

The Portuguese destroyed the MPLA’s headquarters in 1 MR at Brno.

The MPLA Bomboko column failed to break through to the Dembos.

The MPLA claimed, for 1968, to have killed 2,760 Portuguese soldiers and wounded 2,160. Official Portuguese figures were 115 conscripts killed.

The FNLA opened an eastern front to compete with the MPLA. Raiders from bases in Zaire infiltrated along the Benguela Railway and reached Bie and Malanje. However the FNLA made no attempt to establish internal bases. There were frequent clashes with the MPLA but they avoided UNITA.

May 1968

Both MPLA and SWAPO leaders alleged South African helicopters were present in Angola.

July 1968

In July 1968 Savimbi returned to Angola making him the only leader of an insurgent group to lead from inside the country. UNITA began to expand its operations.


MPlA had 5,000 combatants including 3,000 who were well armed. The MPLA commander in eastern Angola, Daniel Chipenda, declared that the struggle in MR 3 had reached Phase 2 (phase 1 in other areas). The MPLA chose to broaden the struggle countrywide rather than consolidate their gains and establish liberated areas. Van der Waals describes this as a “strategic blunder born of overoptimism” (p. 161).

The South African’s thought MPLA had achieved adequate control of 3 MR, established 4 MR and were preparing for war in 5 MR. Intelligence suggested the MPlA had 1,075 guerrillas and 95 bases in Moxico plus 890 guerrillas and 68 bases in Cuando Cubango. Guerrilla action included ambushing Portuguese convoys, sabotage of bridges and roads, intensive mine laying, intimidation and kidnapping of the local population as a means of forced recruitment. Portuguese forces concentrated on protection of towns and outposts and the resettlement of the local population.

UNITA claimed 1,600 armed guerrillas out of a total man power pool of 4,000. Portuguese intelligence estimated UNITA had 300 men.

March 1969

150 UNITA men under their commander Mwanangola defected to the FNLA. Mwanangola was, apparently, frustrated by the lack of weaponry available to UNITA.

A UNITA group of 125 men successfully ambushed a Portuguese convoy in the Luando area of Malanje. They captured a large amount of arms and ammunition.

Van der Waals (2011) mentions “in the Cago Coutinho area poorly armed UNITA elements led by the Chinese-trained Sachilombo surrendered to the Portuguese security forces”. But he doesn’t give a date for this.


Secret Portuguese documents revealed that MPLA was responsible for 59% of the guerrilla incidents in Angola, FNLA 37% and UNITA 4%.

The MPLA formed an small executive committee known as the Politico-Military Coordinating Committee (CCPM).

MPLA was conducting a “slow, unspectacular, but paralysing guerrilla war”. In 3 MR MPLA fighters had advanced to the Cuanza River in the Bie district. The Cuanza was the gateway to the densely populated Angolan heartland. MPLA had also reached the Cubango River, the eastern border of the southern Huila and Cunene district.

In 1 MR MPLA had 300 poorly or unarmed men controlling 14,000 civilians. The MPLA’s Benedito column failed to break through to the Dembos. The FNLA / ELNA contained the MPLA / EPLA and drove them south of the Dange River.

The MPLA made no headway in 2 MR due to the heavy terrain, hostile Cabindan population and opposition by Alexander Taty’s troops.

By 1970 the MPLA had opened their 5th Military Region (MR 5) including Bie, Huambo, Benguela and Cuanza Sul. It was 500 kilometres from the Zambian border to Bie; this took six weeks on foot.

In 1970 the Portuguese high command rated the GRAE / FNLA / ELNA as a nuisance rather than a serious threat. None-the-less the majority of Portuguese army units were still deployed in the north to limit guerrilla operations in the Dembos. In early 1970 the Portuguese estimated FNLA numbers in eastern Angola at 300. The ELNA stepped up activity in the second half of 1970, in both the Cuango front in the Santa Cruz area and along the northern border of Lunda district. Large and well-armed groups appeared in both the Bie and Malnanje districts.

UNITA claimed to have an active guerrilla presence in Moxico, Bie Cuando Cubano, Huambo, Malanje and Lunda. UNITA concentrated on extensive political influence making it difficult for the Portuguese security forces to defeat them. However UNITA was militarily weak compared to MPLA and the Portuguese intelligence thought “where UNITA is today, MPLA is tomorrow.”

Pope Paul VI meet with Neto (MPLA), Cabral (PAIGC) and Mondlane (FRELIMO).

The international border between Angola and Zaire reopened heralding improved relationships.

Mid 1970

The Portuguese estimate 40% of Angola was affected by guerrilla action, up from 35% in Jan 1966. 10 of the 15 Angolan districts had been affected by MPLA action. It was the high point of MPLA achievement. The Portuguese estimated the MPLA to have 2,500 fighters.

November 1973

A Portuguese commando company attempted to raid PAIGC HQ in Guinea and free prisoners.

End 1970

The Portuguese recorded 1344 guerrilla incidents in the last six months of the year. 631 took place in northern Angola including Cabinda. 666 in eastern Angola. 47 in central Angola. The breakdown was: reaction against security forces (30.8%), mine incidents (25%), intimidation of the local population including attacks, kidnappings and maltreatment (23.7%), and attacks on security forces (8.5%)


OAU rescinded its formal recognition of GRAE.

The USSR and its satellites probably provided 70-80% of the MPLA external material and financial support. Despite traditionally backing the other revolutionary group, the People’s Republic of China (PCR) began to comment favourably on MPLA and provide aid.

August 1971

UNITA controlled large number of civilians in the Cuemba area of Bie. The UNITA approach was “subtle persuasion”. The Portuguese authorities viewed this as a major risk, mainly because the militarily stronger MPLA could then exploit UNITA’s work.

The Portuguese were aware that MPLA was planning to capture UNITA’s infiltration and base area along the Lungue-Bungo river.

Oct 1971

In an MPLA shake up of Oct 1971 3 MR was assigned two columns, one in the north and another in the south. A column was nominally 750 men however only four squadrons (each 150 men) were allocated to the north and six to the south. Generally the thrust was to be westward. Two of the northern squadrons were to absorb or destroy UNITA in the Lungue-Bungo River area. The southern squadrons were the secure the infiltration routes and activate 6 MR. Special mobile groups were to distract the Portuguese by attacking military bases and sabotaging the Cassigna iron-ore mines. The Portuguese thwarted these plans in 1972.

End of 1971

By the end of 1971 very little practical change had been realised by the increased GRAE / FNLA / ELNA activity in late 1970. Contributors to this failure were:

  • Intensive operations by the Portuguese security forces
  • Decrease in importance of the eastern zone
  • lack of fighting spirit
  • weak political and military leadership
  • insurgent depopulation of the operational area


Portuguese security forces prevented significant MPLA advances in 3 MR.

Oct 1972

The Portuguese military were very pleased with their efforts in 3 MR. In two years they had killed 2,000 MPLA guerrillas including 40% of the leadership. The MPLA force levels had been reduced to 50% of those in 1970.

Jan 1973

MPLA leadership was in conflict split between the northern (Neto) and eastern (Chipenda). Large numbers of demoralised MPLA fighters surrendered to the Portuguese. Neto transferred 800 loyal cadre from 3 MR to the Congo-Brazzville. Chipenda tried to continue the struggle in 3 MR with 1,500 of his followers. Chipenda’s force became known as the “Revolta do Leste” (eastern insurrection). They restricted their activity to the border with Zambia.

Portuguese sources referred to UNITA as “Portugal’s 5th battalion” because UNITA had had bloody clashes with both MPLA and FNLA.

18 Apr 1973

Manuel Muti, an MPLA squadron commander, surrendered to the Portuguese.

Second half of 1973

UNITA took advantage of the MPLA decline. UNITA clashed violently with Portuguese security forces in the Lutembo area. By the end of the year UNITA conducted attacks in the Luso, Munhango and Cangame areas of Moxico and on Sautar in the Malanje district.

July 1973

Controversial legislation was passed that allowed conscript officers that had completed a two-semester course could become career officers. Prior to that officers had to complete a four year course. This legislation created considerable discontent in amongst career officers and ultimately caused the coup in 1974.

August 1973

UNITA reorganised.

  • A sector had a people’s assembly and 16 village communities
  • UNITA’s Operational Zone (“liberated area”) had 12 zones
  • Each zone had an elected council reporting to the central council, a based camp with 50-100 guerrillas, and several subzones
  • The party HQ was at the central base camp in the Lungue-Bungo River area southwest of Luso

[I don’t know the relationship between “sectors” and “zones”]

Dec 1973

The OAU suspended all aid to the MPLA.

Towards the end of 1973 Portuguese intelligence reports were predicting a joint Zaire and GRAE / FNLA / ELNA attack on Cambinda. The reports were expecting 15,000 Zairean troops alone. The attack did not eventuate.


The USSR terminated its support of MPLA followed discord and the leadership struggle of 1972-73.

25 April 1974

Coup in Lisbon.

At the time of the coup in Lisbon the FNLa again had the largest military force of the revolutionary organisations. An observer may have had 2,000 guerrillas inside Angola and probably a further 4,000 in Zaire (one observer claimed up to 12,000).

15 May 1974

Spinola sworn in as president. Negotiations started with PAIGC and FRELIMO. FNLA began moving a large number of troops into northern Angola. UNITA abandoned its Maoist rhetoric and agreed a ceasefire with Portugal.

10 September 1974

Independence in Guinea.

12 October 1974

FNLA and Portugal agreed a ceasefire

21 October 1974

MPLA and Portugal agreed a ceasefire.

15 January 1975

Portugal, MPLA, FNLA and UNITA signed the Alvor agreement. The Portuguese Colonial War was over.

25 June 1975

Independence in Mozambique.

11 November 1975

Independence in Angola.

Order of Battle


The Portuguese had 40,000 men in Angola in 1962. 33,000 were under the Angolan Military Region (RMA). The RMA was divided into four operational zones (northern, central, southern, eastern), which contained a number of sectors. 25 of the 28 battalions were deployed in the northern region. The Dembos sector, initially known as Sector D and subsequently 1 Military Area (AM 1), was the most important area of guerrilla activity. The territorial organisation of the RMA lasted with minor changes through to 1974.

In 1962 the Portuguese Navy contributed 1-2,000 men, two frigates, two coastal patrol craft, one survey ship, ten river patrol craft and a company of marines. The marines were used for counter-insurgency action.

In 1964 the Portuguese air force had 3-4,000 men in Angola as the Second Air Region. The air force had six Noratlas transport aircraft, ten PV2 bombers, 17 F84 and 15 T6 attack aircraft, 11 DO27 reconnaissance plans, and a parachute unit. The latter evolved, over time, into a parachute battalion.

In 1966 when the MPLA’s eastern front opened the Portuguese had only four battalions in the area. There was only one helicopter for the entire area south of the CFB and there were no mine-resistant vehicles.

By 1967 13,000 of the 50,000 troops in Angola were black.

In 1967 the Portuguese military strength reached 60,000. In addition to the army there were 10,000 uniformed police, a volunteer corps of 8000, some black militia, and PIDE. 1967 marked the transition from a two year term of service to four years

In 1970 there were 142,000 military and paramilitary personnel in Angola. Most were army and of them 20% were black. There were only four battalions of intervention units compared to 34 battalions deployed as static garrisons. The paramilitary element included just over 7,000 police plus 38,000 volunteers (3,500 were armed), and between 3,500 and 6,000 Katangese gendarmes. The Second Air Region contributed 42 ground support fighters, nine medium bombers, 54 reconnaissance planes, 16 transports and 15 Alouette II helicopters.

In 1973 the army had 60,500 in Angola, 37,500 from Portugal and 23,00 from Angola. 2,000 Fletchas had joined the paramilitary element. 30-40% of the total were now black. 23 battalions were in the Northern zone and only five in the Eastern zone. The Second Air Region now had 35 Allouette III helicopters, six SA330 Puma helicopters and a full parachute battalion. The Navy contingent remained unchanged however of those five marine companies allocated to patrolling the river network of eastern Angola.

The Fletchas were valued b3ecause of their aggressiveness, their ability to cover large distances without resupply, and the confidence in which the local population held them, and their ability to conduct strikes on the insurgent’s long lines of communications.

The Portuguese forces in Angola consisted of tough conscripts led by conscript NCOs and subalterns, plus a small number of professional officers and NCOs. The morale of the conscript junior officers was dubious. The rank and file were considered “excellent” fighters however many were badly trained and led due to the reliance on conscript officers. None-the-less morale was high until the mid-1960s [I see a connection with the drop in morale and longer service.]

Portugal’s allies provided equipment:

  • The US provided F84 fighters, Harpoon bombers, Harvard trainers and C54 and C47 transport planes prior to 1961.
  • Great Britain provided two frigates, 150 Auster aircraft, 300 Austin jeeps.
  • West Germany provided 40 G91 fighter bombers (used in Guinea and Mozambique), 100 DO27 light aircraft, and a number of corvettes.
  • France provided Alouette II and II helicopters and Noratlas transport aircraft, four frigates and four Daphne class submarines.

France granted unrestricted use of the equipment. The US, Great Britain and West Germany demanded assurances from Portugal that the equipment would not be used in Africa. Portugal gave the assurances and then did what it wanted.

South Africa cooperated with the Portuguese. In May 1968 1 Air Component was established at Rundu to coordinate air support for the South African Police (SAP) and the Portuguese security forces. A joint air command post was established at Cuito Cuanavale however the SAAF was instructed not to get involved in skirmishes with MPLA and UNITA and restrict their contribution to communications and logistics. From August 1968 a South African Liaison officer (SENLO) was based in Serpa Pinto.


After 1961 the northern territory of Angola was divided into 40 sectors, each with a commander. The men were organised into mobile groups of 10-12 for guerrilla operations.

In 1970 the Portuguese estimate ELNA strength in northern Angola at 3,000. By 1972 an estimated 2,500 ELNA men controlled 44,000 civilians. At the time of the coup in Lisbon the FNLa again had the largest military force of the revolutionary organisations. An observer may have had 2,000 guerrillas inside Angola and probably a further 4,000 in Zaire (one observer claimed up to 12,000).

The northern front was controlled by an “Operational Command of Battalions in Angola” (COBA) in the Dembos area. Officially the order of battle was:

  • Operational Command of Battalions in Angola (COBA)
    • Battalions of 360 men
      • 3 x Company

In practice control and military action was limited.


In 1962 organised into squads, platoons, companies and battalions.

By 1968 at the latest the MPLA divided Angola into regions:

1 MR (Northern Angola)
2 MR (Cabinda)
3 MR (Moxico and Cuando Cubango)
4 MR (Lunda and Malanje)
5 MR (Bie, Huambo, Benguela and Cuanza Sul)
6 Mr (Huila and Cunene)

Each region was divided into zones, sectors and group areas. The village was the lowest level of the hierarchy. For security reasons villages were limited to 100 people. Each of these had a revolutionary action committee and a guerrilla unit. Every level in the hierarchy sent elected representatives to the next higher level. Neto claimed 150 revolutionary committees in 1970. The MPLA controlled 30,000 people in MR 3 in 1968. Savimbi claimed the MPLA killed a lot of chiefs to encourage revolution amongst the youth.

About 1970 the MPLA expanded its military organisation:

ENPA Order of Battle 1970

  • ENLA
    • Columns of 750 men 1
      • 5 Mobile Squadrons of 150 men
        • 5 Sections of 30 men
          • 3 x Group of 10 men

(1) In 1971 3 MR had two columns, one in the north and another in the south. However only four squadrons were allocated to the north and six to the south.

The larger formations were used to resist Portuguese dry season offensives and to attack static Portuguese garrisons, and to carry the insurgency westward. Van der Waals says the MPLA “resorted to desperate, often suicidal attempts to carry the struggle westwards by means of relatively large mobile units”. The large concentrations at fixed points were also vulnerable to Portuguese air power and reaction units.

Despite successes some MPLA units lost their resolve and waited for orders rather than acting independently.


Savimbi had a bodyguard of 400 men.

UNITA were largely self-sufficient so generally they were poorly armed. They had to rely on arms captured from the Portuguese and MPLA. For example, Savimbi’s bodyguard is reported to have had Belgian FN, Portuguese G3 and Soviet rifles. SWAPO later provided some RPG 7 rocket launchers and land mines.

In 1968 UNITA’s military wing (FALA) is reported to have had:

  • 1000 guerrillas in the Ninda area along the Zambian border under Samuel Chivali (FALA Commander)
  • 500 guerrillas in four groups along the CFB
  • 1500 recruits of whom only 60 could handle weapons

Two incidents in 1969 shed some light on the size of UNITA’s operational groups. One group of 150, under their commander Mwanangola, defected to the FNLA because of insufficient weaponry. Another group of 125 UNITA men successfully ambushed a Portuguese convoy.

UNITA reorganised in August 1973.

  • A sector had a people’s assembly and 16 village communities
  • UNITA’s Operational Zone (“liberated area”) had 12 zones
  • Each zone had an elected council reporting to the central council, a based camp with 50-100 guerrillas, and several subzones
  • The party HQ was at the central base camp in the Lungue-Bungo River area southwest of Luso

[I don’t know the relationship between “sectors” and “zones”]

In recognition of the (admittedly modest) financial support from American black consciousness groups UNITA named one of its combat units the “Black Panthers”.


In 1968 Spinola told Salazar that Portugal could not win in Guinea.

In 1973
– PAIGC acquired SA 7 ground-to-air missiles. Three Portuguese aircraft were shot down in a two month period and Portuguese air operations limited.
– The South African attache in Lisbon reported that no missions were flown in Guinea in the last two months of the war as the Portuguese pilots refused to fly.
– Two important Portuguese garrisons were practically wiped out in a long an intensive PAIGC bombardment.”


The 1970 dry season offensive used 10,000 Portuguese soldiers and took seven months. It surprised FRELIMO but did not destroy them. The Portuguese claimed 651 guerrillas killed and 1840 captured. They also claimed 61 FRELIMO bases and 165 camps demolished.

Spinola and Portugal e o Futuro

Spinola believes the military could not destroy the guerrilla forces for three reasons:

  • The military forces could not develop the potential for the task, as demonstrated by the USA in Vietnam
  • Insurgents could be effective with only small numbers of guerrillas widely spread, particularly with the ease of voluntary or forced recruitment
  • The porous international borders effectively gave the insurgents an inexhaustible course of recruits

Spinola believed that security forces were to create a stable security situation in which a political solution could be sought. “Security forces can always lose a subversive war, but can never win for the simple reason that peace cannot be brought about in their domain” (p. 267)

Disclaimer: Some of the links contained within this page have my referral ID (e.g., Amazon), which provides me with a small commission for each sale. Thank you for your support


Davidson, B. (Jan 1971). “Angola in the Tenth Year”. African Affairs

Portugal. (1963) O Exercito na Guerra Subversiva. Vol. I Generalidades. Ministerio do Exercito.

Somerville, K. (1986). Angola, Politics, Economics and Society. London: Francis Printer.

3 thoughts on “Van Der Waals: Portugual’s War in Angola 1961-1974”

  1. Hi Steve

    You may also like to search for an author, Al J Venter, a journalist who wrote one or two books on the Portugese in Southern Africa (Angola and Mocambique).

    I can also confirm the Portugese troops were formidable fighters with reasonable kit; especially their combat boots – highly prized!

    But, as always, young officers lacking combat experience and wisdom were always a problem; also later in the SA Army too.

    Lots of gaming potential in that era.



Leave a Reply