The legendary T-34 tank of Soviet WWII fame saw some of it’s last combat use in Angola during the 1970s and 1980s.
Background of the region during the 1970s and 1980s
The country of Angola became independent from Portugal in 1975 under very chaotic circumstances. There were three main rebel groups in the country, which had all been fighting the Portuguese, but also on occasion one another. None had a secure lock on power and thus, the Portuguese turned Angola over not to a new free government, but rather to a coalition of the opposing groups which quickly collapsed.
Meanwhile what is today the country of Namibia was at the time, the Territory Of South-West Africa (SWA). An “accident of history”, this had been Imperial Germany’s Sudwest Afrika colony until 1918, when it was made a League of Nations mandate. After the League folded, control passed to South Africa. In 1966, the UN ordered apartheid-era South Africa to vacate the territory, which the South Africans ignored. On paper, SWA was not technically part of South Africa but a “territory”. In practice, it was all but incorporated into the country’s structure and most white South Africans thought it would be a permanent fixture.
Opposing military forces
FAPLA: The Portuguese acronym for “Armed Forces for the Total Liberation of Angola”, this was the name that the communist MPLA government in Angola gave to it’s fighting units. The MPLA was the strongest of the different groups, and FAPLA was effectively the national army. FAPLA was supported by Cuba, the USSR, and East Germany; and SWAPO internally. FAPLA’s main opponents were UNITA, South Africa, and FNLA.
FNLA: The weakest of the different groups, this force was supported by Zaire.
UNITA: The Portuguese acronym for “National Union for the Total Independence of Angola”, UNITA was the second-strongest of the differing groups. It was realistically the only one with any chance of defeating FAPLA. UNITA was supported by the USA and South Africa. It’s main opponents were FAPLA and the Cubans. It occasionally fought against FNLA, but sometimes briefly allied with them. It had no real quarrel with SWAPO but occasionally fought them too.
SWAPO: The South-West Africa People’s Organization was dedicated to ending South African rule in SWA. It was almost entirely foot soldiers, based in southern Angola and mounting cross-border raids. SWAPO was entirely dependent on FAPLA and the Cubans for it’s existence. It’s main enemy was, obviously, South Africa.
Cuba: Angola ended up being Cuba’s largest-ever overseas engagement. At it’s peak, there were 51,000 Cuban troops and “advisers” in the country including jet fighter squadrons, tank units, artillery formations, and the such. Cubans fought in their own units and interspersed into FAPLA units.
South Africa: South Africa’s primary interest was fighting SWAPO, which it viewed as a threat to it’s continued rule of SWA. It’s secondary interest was to see FAPLA defeated, as that would permanently end SWAPO, plus the apartheid-era government assumed that if UNITA was in charge of Angola, the country would be less hostile. South African strategy was not to occupy Angola but rather to mount deep raids as needed.
(The South African Ratel-90 armored car was the main foe of the communist T-34s. It was not intended to fight tanks, however it’s 90mm gun could knock out a T-34. The Ratel-90 had thinner armor than the T-34 and could not withstand a direct hit from it’s 85mm gun. However it was faster and more agile, and on anything but the worst mud the 4WD Ratel-90 had equal cross-country performance.)
The T-34 comes to Angola
The most common tank in the Angolan civil war was the 1950s-era Soviet T-54/55. However, especially early in the conflict, the WWII-vintage T-34 was also present.
All of the T-34s in Angola were of the four-man T-34-85 version, armed with a ZiS-S-53 85mm main gun and two 7.62mm DT machine guns. It weighed 32 tons. It was powered by a Kharkiv V-2-34 12-cylinder diesel and had a maximum speed of 33mph.
(All Angolan T-34s had 10RT-26 radios retrofitted. By the late 1970s these radios were themselves obsolete, but they were better than the WWII antiques which they replaced.)
The total number of T-34s which Angola received is not entirely certain. Sometimes, the Cubans and Soviets would count a replacement tank as a “spare part” for a destroyed tank; other times Cuban T-34s were double-counted after being transferred to FAPLA after Cuban use in Angola. By best estimate, between 125 to 200 T-34s were used during the conflict; not all at the same time.
Cuban T-34s arrived in 1975. Shortly thereafter, a batch of 30 T-34s was directly supplied to FAPLA. Some of these were postwar-built T-34s from Czechoslovakia that had seen very little use; others were Soviet-made and had in all likelihood been used hard, perhaps even in combat during WWII. The Cuban navy had no sealift capacity so nearly the entire Cuban merchant marine was tied up in shipping tanks, APCs, artillery, and aircraft to Angola (operation “Carlota”). This was still insufficient and in 1976 the Soviets began sending T-34s by ship direct from Europe. By 1977, the Soviets and Cubans had delivered 120 T-34s to Angola. Thereafter, only a few tiny batches were sent; the rest of the tanks being T-54/55s – and later still – some T-62s.
(To alleviate sealift capacity in the 1970s and 1980s, Cubana airlines flew troops and light supplies to Angola in aging Brittania airliners obtained before the 1959 Cuban revolution. These grueling flights to Africa were often four tons overweight.)
In FAPLA, T-34s were assigned to battalions attached to larger brigades. Each battalion had three “troops” (platoons) of three T-34s each, plus a T-34 with the battalion headquarters detachment. This was not always adhered to; as some units were understrength due to breakdowns while later, some units converting to T-54/55s retained “extra” T-34s for a while.
COMBAT INVOLVING T-34 TANKS IN ANGOLA
Luanda (July 1975)
The first use of the WWII-era T-34 in Angola came in July 1975. A platoon of Cuban T-34s supporting FAPLA troops engaged FNLA soldiers inside the capital of Luanda. The FNLA soldiers were routed and FAPLA never again lost control of Luanda. None of the Cuban T-34s were lost.
First T-34 contact with South Africans
On 7 October 1975, a South African reconnaissance team assisting UNITA in southern Angola was engaged by a detachment of Cuban T-34s near Matos. The battle was inconclusive.
The Cabinda campaign
Far from the fighting against UNITA and South Africa, Angola briefly had another insurgency to deal with. The disconnected northern exclave of Cabinda had it’s own rebel group, FLEC, which wanted the exclave to become independent of Angola proper. In January/February 1976 the Cuban army launched a major offensive, operation “Panuelo Blanco”, in Cabinda. The 5,000 Cuban troops were supported by T-34 tank platoons. The Cubans crushed FLEC and knocked them out of the civil war.
Operation “Savannah” (November 1975-March 1976)
This was the first major South African operation inside Angola. The towns of Perreira de Eca and Rocades were briefly occupied and the southwestern corner of Angola was placed under the control of UNITA. Meanwhile on the other side of the country, FAPLA forces were evicted from a small stretch of the border region. There was a Cuban T-34 unit near Kifangondo but it did not take any meaningful part in the operation.
Operation “Reindeer” (May 1978)
The objective of this South African operation was to destroy a SWAPO base near the town of Cassinga in Angola. South African radio intercepts indicated there was a small FAPLA/Cuban armor unit of T-34s near the town of Techamutete.
At dawn on 4 May 1978, the South African air force heavily bombed Cassinga. The raid was precisely timed with the base’s morning roll call, and many SWAPO troops were standing in the open with the facility’s AA guns unmanned. This was quickly followed by a parachute drop of commandos who were to destroy whatever remained of the base and any forces rushed to reinforce it.
In the afternoon, the “small” armor unit was discovered to actually be an entire Cuban mechanized battalion with T-34s supporting APCs and towed AA guns. A South African Buccaneer strike jet destroyed two T-34s with 68mm SNEB rockets, while a pair of Mirage-IIICZ fighters strafed another three T-34s, disabling them. The commandos planted anti-tank mines to delay the Cubans and a T-34 was destroyed by a mine. The commandos were extracted by helicopter, having destroyed the Cassinga base.
(Gun camera shot from a Mirage-IIICZ as it strafes T-34 tanks near Cassinga. The 30mm Aden guns on the Mirages could not penetrate the main armor of the T-34, but they could disable it by destroying it’s tracks or damaging the top of the engine. The pilot of one Mirage said that a T-34 hopelessly was firing at his plane with the tank’s main gun.)
(South Africa’s French-built supersonic Mirage fighters were a far cry from the Stukas the T-34 encountered on the Eastern Front of WWII.)
Before sunset, the South African air force returned and destroyed a further three T-34s. In all, the Cubans lost a half-dozen T-34s with another three heavily damaged. A FAPLA T-34 platoon was rushed to Cassinga to reinforce the shattered Cuban battalion in case the South Africans came back. They didn’t, but several of the FAPLA T-34s broke down en route.
Operation “Protea” (August-September 1981)
This operation consisted of six South African dynamic combat groups, opposed by two Angolan brigades plus some smaller independent Angolan and Cuban units. It was the largest operation of the South African military since WWII. The actual operation was a series of relatively fixed-position battles over three weeks, which saw some intensive combat. The most intense tank battles were near Xangongo.
The communists suffered massive losses during “Protea”. There were over 1,000 Angolan/Cuban troops KIA. The FAPLA 11th Brigade at Ongiva had a T-34 company committed to the fighting and was essentially destroyed.
Of the company’s T-34s, eight were captured intact by South Africa and at least two more were destroyed in combat by Ratel-90s. More serious was the material losses; the South Africans captured intact an astonishing 300 tons of ammunition, several tons of spare parts, and about 200 logistical trucks and trailers of various types. For certain, the ammunition and spare parts losses put a crimp in Angolan plans to use their tanks more effectively for the next year or so.
(Four of the eight T-34s captured intact during Operation “Protea” are seen in this photo, along with a BRDM-2 armored scout car and a whole assortment of Soviet-made military trucks. The “mushrooms” on the T-34 turret roofs are ventilators to extract gun fumes from the crew compartment.)
(T-34 85mm ammunition captured during Operation “Protea”. The round on the left is a UBR-365PK high-penetration AP shell. It was developed in the final months of WWII and could only be used against other armored vehicles. The round on the right is a common UO-365 HE round. It had less penetration than the UBR-365PK but could be used against fortified structures, infantry, etc. A T-34 could carry fifty-six 85mm rounds, however often FAPLA tanks went into battle without their full load.)
Operation “Daisy” (November 1981)
This was a quickly-planned follow-up to “Protea”. Along with the massive ammunition and tank captures, the South Africans captured documents during “Protea” detailing cooperation between Angola and SWAPO. “Daisy” was a thrust 249 miles into Angola, targeting SWAPO bases at Cherequera and Bambi (the latter being SWAPO’s rear-area GHQ). The operation took twenty days, of which sixteen were travel to and withdrawal from the targets. The Angolans were still in disarray from losses during “Protea” and could offer minimal help to their SWAPO allies with T-34s. Both bases were destroyed. Additionally a South African Mirage-IIICZ shot down an Angolan MiG-21 “Fishbed”.
Use of the T-34 by UNITA
Two T-34s (possibly handed over from South Africa from the captures during Operation “Protea”) are known to have been operated by UNITA forces for some time. Obviously, UNITA would have had an even harder time sourcing spare parts than the FAPLA communists themselves, and little is known about their operations or final fates.
Operation “Askari” (1983-1984)
“Askari” was a series of battles that involved four South African battalions and took about two months. On 3 January 1984, the South Africans engaged the entire FAPLA 11th Brigade and two smaller Cuban units. During these engagements, it became clear that the T-34 was on it’s way out with the communists, as all of the tanks encountered were T-54/55s. Five T-54/55s were disabled by Ratel-90s but the absence of the WWII-vintage T-34s made it clear to the South Africans that they were facing a more serious armor threat.
Cuito Canavale (1987-1988)
Actually a long series of battles, this was the largest mechanized battle ever in sub-Saharan Africa. It was launched by the Angolan communist government with the somewhat optimistic goal of completely destroying UNITA and ending the Angolan civil war. The Gorbachev regime in the USSR had strongly advised against this large of an operation, however the Angolans chose to listen to Castro in Cuba who gave it his blessing.
The first main thrust, code-named Operation “Saludando Octubre”, involved over 150 FAPLA tanks – mostly T-54/55s but with a few of the WWII-era T-34s still in service. The tank units were supported by Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopters and MiG-21 “Fishbed” and MiG-23 “Flogger” fighter jets. The tank units were also accompanied by very modern SA-8 “Gecko” mobile SAM vehicles (almost certainly manned by Cuban troops). The objective was to make a “clean sweep” from the town of Cuito Canavale to the border of the Caprivi Strip region of South-West Africa, completely eliminating UNITA’s main stronghold.
The South African response to “Saluando Octubre” was Operation “Moduler”. The high point of “Moduler” was on 3 October 1987, when a dozen South African Ratel-90s, supported by helicopter-inserted commandos and local UNITA forces, stopped the Angolan 47th Armor Brigade at the Lomba River. The FAPLA force suffered very heavy losses of T-54/55s, with sixty destroyed. One destroyed FAPLA T-34 was observed by the South Africans; it was uncertain if it had been hit at long distance by a Ratel-90 or had previously been hit by a RPG-7 from UNITA infantry. Compared to the T-54/55s, the old T-34s performed very poorly. One T-34 platoon got lost in a muddy wooded area and missed most of the combat. The entire 47th Armor Brigade was basically knocked out of the war, disintegrating into a full-speed rearwards retreat.
(A trio of FAPLA T-34s abandoned near Missombo, Angola. Not all of FAPLA’s T-34 losses were due to being hit. Sometimes if a tank ran out of fuel or ammunition, the FAPLA crew would just abandon it in panic. Other times, breakdowns were simply written off as both the Cubans and FAPLA were chronically short of heavy tow vehicles, and in any case many of the roads were mined. The T-34 in the front has both the WWII-style and later “starfish” style roadwheels, which was not uncommon by the 1980s as spare parts began to dwindle.)
In Cuba, Fidel Castro began an emergency rearmament program of FAPLA as he felt that if the South Africans and UNITA not only stopped the FAPLA attack but captured Cuito Canavale itself, it would possibly result in the end of the Angolan communist regime. Beginning in November 1987, an additional 15,000 Cuban troops were airlifted to Angola and sea shipments of T-54/55s resumed to replace the tanks lost.
On 2 January 1988, the South Africans began a counteroffensive called Operation “Hooper”. The airfield at Cuito Canavale was bombed, resulting in the departure of Cuban jets based there. Of interest, the South African air force destroyed the bridge over the Cuito River on 3 January 1988 with a Raptor-1 guided weapon; the first time any African country had used a “smart bomb” in combat. Operation “Hooper” involved large use of South Africa’s Oliphant Mk.I tanks against the communist T-54/55s; however no Oliphant ever engaged a T-34 as far as is known. The fighting resulted in the destruction of an additional ten T-54/55s. For the remaining T-34s, some were abandoned south of the river as they were now marooned from their fuel depot. The South Africans also captured intact a Cuban-manned SA-8 “Gecko” SAM vehicle. At the time, the Soviets categorized it as a secret system, and having a “Gecko” (complete with live rounds and training manuals) fall into western hands infuriated them.
(The Olifant Mk.I was the only true tank used by South Africa during the war. This example was captured intact by the communists during Operation “Moduler” in 1988. Cuban tank crews regarded the Olifant as either equal or slightly inferior to a T-54/55, and greatly superior to a T-34.)
Additional fighting near Cuito Canavale continued until April 1988, but no T-34s were involved. Overall, the whole adventure was a defeat for FAPLA, as it obviously failed to knock UNITA out of the civil war while sustaining massive losses. From a political perspective, it was ambiguous as the half-year of sustained operations was very expensive for South Africa, now heavily burdened by international sanctions, and most South Africans wanted to simply get the country out of Angola.
End of the T-34 in Angola
The December 1988 New York Accords ending foreign involvement in Angola took effect in 1990. At that time, South African intelligence listed FAPLA’s strength as eight brigades and two independent combat groups. None had T-34s listed in inventory, so most likely any T-34s which survived the war were being used for training or warehoused. When the Angolan civil war erupted again in the 1990s (this time without foreign involvement), some T-34s were said to have made appearances from time to time but if so, they made no real impact. For certain, by the turn of the millennium the T-34 was gone from Angola’s inventory.
While it was amazing for outside observers to see a WWII tank still fighting in the 1980s, there is little good to be said about the T-34’s performance in Angola. Time had clearly passed this WWII legend by, and it was outclassed by modern weapons the whole conflict.