Way of War: Warfare during the Portuguese Colonial War

The title of this page is inspired by John Cann’s book Counterinsurgency in Africa: The Portuguese way of war 1961-1974. Cann (1997) argues that during the Portuguese Colonial War the Portuguese had a novel, and largely successful, approach to the challenges of counter-insurgency.

The Portuguese approach to the conflict was distinct in that it sought to combine the two-pronged national strategy of containing the cost of the war and of spreading the burden to the colonies, with the solution on the battlefield. Even today Portugal’s systematic and logical approach to its insurgency challenge holds valuable lessons for any nation forced to wage a small war on the cheap.

From Product description of Cann (1997)

I’ll briefly describe the Insurgent Way of War and Portuguese Way of War and approaches to Intelligence. See also Combat Missions in the Portuguese Colonial War.

Insurgent Way of War

Insurgents generally followed the guidelines set down by Mao Tse-tung in China and expanded by General Vo Nguyen Giap in Vietnam (Cann, 1997). The traditional view had five phases in an insurgency although the distinction between some phases is quite theoretical.

Traditional View Description
1. Preparatory phase Preparation for subversion
2. Agitation phase Creation of a subversive environment
3 Terrorism and guerrilla action phase Consolidation of the subversive organisation
4. Subversive state phase Corresponding to the creation of bases, a rebel government and pseudo-regular forces
5. Final phase General insurrection and regular war

Davidson (1981) outlines five stages in insurgent recruitment and organisation; he seems to have PAIGC in mind:

Phase of Insurgent Organisation Comments
1. formation and commitment of guerrilla bands, initially very small, for purely localised and small-scale operations. “Volunteers of the first hour”. Aims are: prove to the rural population that successful action against colonial power is possible; gain battle experience; create opportunities for political work. Colonial power likely to launch first counter-insurgency offensive.
2. development of combined operations between two or more neighbouring bands, but in elementary forms, and still for localised and small-scale use. ‘Doing more of the same, but doing it better’. Aims are: form zones free of the colonial power; and develop an organised defence of the population. Need to address command failures: of militarism, ‘commandism’, regionalism, and/or ‘tribalism’. New commanders appear. Expand scope of operations: from attacking isolated police posts to attacking small garrisons; from ambushing individual vehicles to ambushing convoys.
3. division of fighting forces into two types of organisation: (a) a full-time fighting force for mobile warfare under strong discipline, also initially small in numbers of fighting personnel;
(b) part-time militias for purely localised defence, chiefly of liberated zones;
The regulars still use guerrilla tactics but adopt more sophisticated weaponry such as small (60mm) and medium (82mm) calibre mortars. .
4. further development of mobile forces, with addition of units specialised in mortars, light artillery, etc; further development of militias Introduction of 75mm recoilless rifle. Usually have to review basic units.
5. large-scale offensives. Use conscription to supplement volunteers.

Although not fighting the Portuguese the SWAPO campaign instructions of 10 May 1966 illustrate the aims and tactics of insurgent groups (Morris, 1974). The instructions cover:

  • destruction of police stations, bridges, railway, roads
  • arson at shops and petrol-supply bases , radio and telephone facilities
  • sabotage of power stations
  • attacks on military bases
  • theft of money from banks and diamonds
  • liquidation of policemen, army commanders and “stooges” (e.g. unfriendly chiefs)
  • attacks on White farmers and White officials

Portuguese Way of War

Due to overlaps between the traditional phases of insurgency the Portuguese Armed Forces acknowledged only two, those being to preparation and overt action (Cann, 1997).

Traditional View Portuguese Armed Forces View Focus of counter-insurgency
1. Preparatory phase 1. Pre-insurrectional phase Prevention
2. Agitation phase
3 Terrorism and guerrilla action phase 2. Insurrectional phase Reclaiming the population and destroying the insurgent infrastructure
4. Subversive state phase
5. Final phase

At the end of 1972 General de Arriaga, the Commander-in-Chief in Mozambique, thought it was only a matter of time before Portugal won the war in Mozambique (Morris, 1974). His definition of “won” is indicative:

  • the immediate detection by Portuguese Forces of any infiltration from across the borders
  • the neutralisation or destruction of the infiltrated group within a matter of days or even hours

The Portuguese way of counterinsurgency warfare included these aspects (Cann, 1997):

  • Complete reorientation of the Portuguese armed forces to counterinsurgency
  • Move a substantial element of recruitment to the colonies
  • Shift to small unit tactics and associated training
  • Raise the standard of living of Portuguese African through a social and economic development programme
  • Rationalise the Portuguese presence in Africa through extensive psychological operations

Minter (1972) identified four factors in Portuguese counterinsurgency:

  • Aerial superiority
  • Search and destroy tactics
  • Regroupment of the civilian population into strategic hamlets .
  • Persuading the Africans to accept the Portuguese mission and presence

The Portuguese had a threefold slogan to direct their operations: ‘Find, Fix, and Attack’ (Davidson, 1981). In other words track down the insurgents, hold them in place, then eliminate them.

But while the Portuguese were finding, fixing and attacking the insurgents they also had to protect the towns, settlements, bases, communications and logistical system (Morris,1974). This explains the imbalance of force during the war.

Venter (1974b) quotes a DGS inspector in 1973 as saying “The worst mistake you can make in a guerrilla war is to concentrate all your forces in one area, because the guerrillas simply switch to another. We made that mistake in Cabo Delgado, and now we’re paying for it in Tete”.


The Portuguese gathered intelligence from patrols (foot, mounted and naval), aerial reconnaissance, the local population, captured Guerrillas, captured documents, captured equipment, agents and informers (Cann, 1997). The information from a prisoner was perishable so the they were immediately interrogated and the information verified as far as possible while in the field. The prisoner would be interrogated again at battalion or sector headquarters. Insurgent documents were usually in Portuguese as that was their only common language and only written language. Captured equipment indicated the type and amount of foreign support reaching the insurgents.


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

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

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

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

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

2 thoughts on “Way of War: Warfare during the Portuguese Colonial War”

  1. For the first time I see a very good “blog” about this so unknown war!

    You should try to tell the stories of some heroes of this war. Just one, for example, Marcelino da Mata, a Guine native, that start the war as a soldier an ended it as a 2º Lt in the famous black Comandos Battalion in Guine. Among is decorations are 5 “Cruzes de Guerra”, American equivalent would be the Silver Star, and “Torre e Espada” Portuguese highest decoration for valour.

    Great Work!!

    • António, thanks for the feedback. I’d be happy to “tell the stories of some heroes of this war”. Unfortunately I don’t read Portuguese so all of my material is in English and that rather limits what I can get hold of. Of course if you or anybody else can provide me with details then I’d be happy to publish the material here.


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