Battle of Cassinga - South African Planning

South African Planning

By the beginning of 1978 SWAPO had improved its organization and gained strength in Owambo and the Eastern Caprivi, UNITA was under pressure from the MPLA, and it became increasingly difficult for the SADF to operate in Southern Angola. South Africa also feared the disruption of elections it planned to hold in South West Africa excluding SWAPO.

The attack on Cassinga grew out of the plan for Operation Bruilof, wherein the SADF envisaged attacking six SWAPO targets around the town of Chetequera. During the intelligence-gathering portion of the planning for Operation Bruilof, the SADF concluded that the small town of Cassinga was the principal medical centre for the guerrillas in the region, and one of SWAPO's two regional HQ's (the lother being further north at Lubango).

Aerial photo-reconnaissance, the primary role of 12 Squadron at AFB Waterkloof, Pretoria, equipped with Canberra B12s, earlier in Spring of 1978 suggested military infrastructure including bunkers, zigzag trenches and foxholes. PLAN combatants at Cassinga were aware of the overflights, and in a letter dated 10 April 1978, the camp's commander Hamaambo expressed concerns to his superiors about an "imminent invasion intention of our enemy of our camp in Southern Angola". In response to the reconnaissance flights, defenses were improved through the creation of a secondary camp north of the main camp, the addition of more trenches and the digging of hole for the protection of food provisions.

The SADF shelved the plan for Operation Bruilof and planning for a new operation, Operation Reindeer, began. Reindeer was composed of three main actions; the airborne assault on Cassinga, a mechanised assault on the Chetaquera complex at 17°07′43″S 14°53′38″E / 17.1287°S 14.8938°E / -17.1287; 14.8938 (Chetequera) - that also involved SAAF defence-suppression strikes - and an assault on the Dombondola complex at 17°19′59″S 14°50′00″E / 17.333°S 14.8334°E / -17.333; 14.8334 (Dombondola) by a light infantry force.

The planners for the operation were faced with a significant problem. While the Chetequera and Dombondola complexes were only around 35 km from the border with South-West Africa/Namibia (then under South African control), therefore making conventional assault possible, Cassinga was 260 km from the border and deep inside Angola. This meant that any conventional assault force would have to fight its way in and out, and would almost certainly have given advance warning to the PLAN (People's Liberation Army of Namibia - SWAPO's armed wing) soldiers in Cassinga, allowing them and leaders like Jerobeum 'Dimo' Amaambo (the PLAN commander-in-chief, then resident in Cassinga) and Greenwell Matongo to escape. Cassinga furthermore was located on a small hill, flanked by a river on its West side, and open fields in other directions, factors that combined to give any defenders the advantage.

However, South African Defence Force (SADF) intelligence reports had ascertained that SWAPO - and probably its advisers - was lulled into a false sense of security due to Cassinga’s distance from the border. Intelligence briefings before the event indicated no awareness of any supportive infantry or armoured units to support the base against a ground assault, and although SWAPO had a system of defensive trenches, they were not prepared for a joint-arms airborne attack. The SADF had not previously demonstrated any such capability, giving military analysts no reason to suspect that such was available to the SADF planners. The planners therefore believed that they had the possibility of conducting a surprise attack on the base using only an airborne assault, without ground support. Earlier in that year, SAAF 12 Squadron had commenced training for a low-level strike role, utilising area defence-suppression weapons like cluster bombs. Though a very risky plan it was decided that the element of surprise would outweigh the disadvantage of having no supporting armour.

The decision was therefore taken to mount a large airborne assault on Cassinga (by now code-named "Alpha"), supported by South African Air Force (SAAF) fighter-bombers and a fleet of 17 medium-transport helicopters. Using an exercise already underway called Exercise Kwiksilver as a smokescreen, the army initiated a call up of the Citizen Force (reserve units similar to the US National Guard) parachute units. The paratroopers were then secretly taken to the De Brug Training Range near Bloemfontein, where they embarked on an intensive refresher training course, coupled with rehearsals for the attack on Cassinga.

A top secret document prepated by General Magnus Malan for the then Minister of Defence, P.W. Botha, refers to Cassinga as "a large SWAPO base located 260km north of the border. It is the operational military headquarters of SWAPO from where all operations against SWA are planned and their execution co-ordinated. From this base all supplies and armaments are provided to the basis further forward. Here training also takes place. In short, it is probably the most important SWAPO base in Angola. The nearest Cuban base is 15km South of Alpha."

The South African cabinet was hesitant to authorise the operation, fearing an international backlash, but on 2 May 1978 the Prime Minister, John Vorster, finally gave the go-ahead for the operation to commence. The date of 4 May was specifically chosen as it was after the United Nations Security Council debate on South West Africa ended so as to "avoid making lives difficult for those countries favourable to South Africa".

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