The last battle of the Cold War

Operation „Hooper“ and „Packer“ 1987/88

Stephan Maninger


The offensive of the Marxist Angolan MPLA-Government (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola - Partido do Trabalho) against the Maoist UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola), which was supposed to bring about the military turning point in the long-lasting civil war in the south-east of the country in August 1987, bloodily collapsed during this year. The South-African Intervention with the Operation “Moduler” had decimated the deployed forces of the governmental army (FAPLA) and had repulsed them to their beachheads near the village of Cuito Cuanavale. From December 1987 onwards there was state of siege there, and the war parties found themselves to be in a deadlock situation. The following essay depicts the events of the year 1988, the two Operations of the South African Defence Force (SADF), „Hooper“ and „Packer“, until its withdrawal, as well as the resulting consequences. Both operations did not achieve their committed aims. The SADF had not provided the necessary personnel and logistic resources, because the planners had assumed that all operations in South-East-Angola would have been completed by the end of January 1988. Thus, the South-Africans lacked not only the intention and/or the political will for an invasion, as is often suggested, but also the necessary resources. Nevertheless, the statement that the SADF were “defeated” is more than suggestive. A view on the total losses of the opponents in the course of the conflict, which lasted for six months, shows the following balance:

- FAPLA and allies: 4.785 killed, 94 tanks, 192 armoured vehicles and cannons of all kinds, nine and/or 12 MiG and nine fighter helicopters. The exact number of destroyed vehicles is unknown, but one can deduce from the reports mentioned above and from the 389 destroyed in the fights between Lomba and Cuito Cuanavale, that these must have been very high, counted from the shelling of the road between Menongue and Cuito Cuanavale alone.

- SADF: 43 killed, three tanks, eleven armoured vehicles, two “Mirage”, one “Bostok” reconnaissance plane. Many vehicles were damaged, but as the SADF largely dominated the battlefield, they could be rescued and repaired. The maintenance crews worked 24 hours in a shift system, and the lack of spare parts represented a greater danger for the success of the operation than the impacts by the opponent.

- UNITA: There are no trustable data on the losses available.

As far as the military performance is concerned, one can say that the SADF was the dominant actor despite its inferiority in numbers and the distinctly more unfavourable operational general conditions. Training, morale and organisation, however, reflected those of a modern western - or, to be exact, that of the British - army. It passed its test in the last battle of the Cold War, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale