Military Wiki

Operation Packer was a military operation by the South African Defence Force (SADF) during the South African Border War and Angolan Civil War from March to April 1988. This operation forms part of what became known as the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. Operation Packer was a continuation of Operation Hooper, using fresh troops and equipment. The Cuban's objective was still to secure the town of Cuito Cuanavale to the west of the river from capture. The SADF objective was once again to eliminate the remaining Angolan forces on the east side of the river, so as to ensure that the Angolans were no longer a threat to UNITA in the south-east. Although at the conclusion some Angolan units remained in positions east of the river, the Angolan advance against UNITA was permanently halted, and UNITA lived to fight on. The SADF never attempted to cross the river or to capture the town. Both sides again claimed victory.

Operation Packer
Part of the South African Border War
Location Angola
Operation Packer is located in Angola
Cuito Cuanavale
Operation Packer (Angola)
Objective Drive the FAPLA/Cubans over to the west side of the Cuito River from their positions east of Cuito Cuanavale on the Chambinga Heights and destroy the bridge.
Date 12 March - 30 April 1988


On the 29 February 1988, the SADF and UNITA launched a fourth attack on the 25 Brigade in Tumpo triangle and the vital Cuito River Bridge. This attack would last until the evening of the 1 March.[1]:229 Due to problems both with the clearing of the minefields in front of 25 Brigades positions, Cuban artillery and the mechanical failure of a vast number of SADF Ratels and Olifant tanks, the SADF could not reach the forward positions. The Cuban defense plan had worked and the SADF withdrew.[1]:229 By the 3 March, the SADF 20 Brigade, began its planned demobilisation and so ended Operation Hooper. 82 Brigade replaced the previous force and consisted mainly of Citizen (reservists) and Permanent Force soldiers.[1]:230

The battle would take place on the 23 March with a diversionary attack from the south and the main attack of infantry, armour and UNITA from the north.[1]:232 The plan called for the destruction of the 25 Brigade and the demolition of the bridge over the Cuito River to the town of Cuito Cuanavale. UNITA would then occupy the old 25 Brigade positions and the SADF would then withdraw.

The Cubans and FAPLA strengthened the minefields in front of the 25 Brigade and positioned artillery on both side of the river banks to cover the potential attack routes the SADF might use for their eventual return.[1]:232 13 Brigade and Cuban soldiers were based on the western side of the Cuito River to guard the town of Cuito Cuanavale.

Order of Battle

South African and South West Africa Territorial Forces[2]:350[3]:Ch11

82 Brigade - Colonel Paul Fouche


  • 3rd Battalion
  • 4th Battalion
  • 5th Battalion
  • two semi-regular battalions

FAPLA/Cuban forces

  • 25th Brigade
  • 13th Brigade
  • 36th Brigade (one battalion)
  • 29 tanks and numerous artillery units


After the SADF completed the last attack of Operation Hooper on 1 March, FAPLA and Cuban forces began aggressive patrols around 5 March into the minefields and land in front of their positions in the Tumpo triangle. This brought them into contact with UNITA forces patrolling the disputed land.[1]:232 On 9 March, Cuban MiGs bombed SADF supply lines around Lomba River. This was the route the SADF used to move their supplies from Mavinga to their positions east of the Chambinga high ground.[1]:232 In preparation for the main attack on the 25 Brigade, UNITA forces attacked and chased the FAPLA elements of 36 Brigade from the high ground north of the Tumpo triangle, between the Cuito and Cuanavale rivers.[3]:Ch11 The positions on the high ground were taken over by 20 March, establishing forward observers for the SADF artillery.[1]:232 Members of 4 Recce infiltrated the west bank of Cuito with the aim of identify targets for the SADF artillery batteries.[3]:Ch11 The South African artillery engaged many targets before the main battle and the Cuban artillery countered but were not as successful at hitting targets.[3]:Ch11 On 18 March, two portable ferries used to cross the Cuito River were destroyed by the SADF artillery.[1]:338[3]:Ch11 From 21 to the 22 March, UNITA conduct numerous hit-and-run attacks on FAPLA/Cuban positions around Cuito Cuanavale to confuse and keep them occupied.[1]:232

SADF electronic warfare operations intercepted FAPLA communications on 22 March which indicated that FAPLA wanted to retake the Chambinga heights. These high grounds lay east in front of the Tumpo triangle and the SADF positions. SADF decided to go ahead with the operation planned for 23 March.[1]:232 On the night of 22 March, around 21h00, the SADF units began to line up and prepare for the attack, which would begin the next morning.[2]:353 As they moved forward during the night, the columns became temporarily lost and then had to continue their advance with only one tank de-miner when the other overturned. Around 04h00 on 23 March, SADF G-5 artillery began to bombard the forward positions of the 25 Brigade.[1]:232 By 06h00 the SADF attack column was within 10 km of the FAPLA positions but had soon stopped as they were delayed by bad terrain and one of the tanks had broken down.[2]:354 Once the repair was completed the attack resumed around 08h15.[1]:233 Not long after the attack column began moving again, a tank hit a mine and the de-miner tank sent forward to clear the minefield was itself permanently disabled by a mine, unable to be moved.[2]:354 The column halted and sappers were brought forward to clear a way through the minefield with their Ploffaders, an automated rocket-fired explosive de-miner.[2]:354 They failed to work and they had to be manually detonated, which delayed the operation by three hours. Clearing of the minefields also attracted the attention of the Cuban artillery, which fired on the SADF column but was ineffective in hitting targets but slowed any progress they wished to make.[2]:354 During this time, UNITA fought a battle with elements of 38 Brigade on the high ground they captured earlier during the month, but they and the SADF forward observers were chased off it.[1]:233

The SADF's main column resumed moving around 12h30 towards 25 Brigade's positions, but just over an hour later hit another minefield.[2]:354 This disabled three SADF tanks and again attracted the Cuban artillery. One of the tanks was able to be recovered while the other two remained stuck in the minefield.[2]:357 UNITA soldiers started to take casualties as they were being transported on the backs of the tanks and were exposed to this artillery fire.[1]:233 The South African commander moved his forces back out of the minefield as they attempted to retrieve the damaged tanks. By 14h30 a decision was made to withdraw altogether due to the minefields and heavy artillery attacks from both sides of the river.[2]:357 A request was made for the SADF artillery to destroy the three damaged Olifant tanks. This was rejected as it was believed that the tanks could be recovered.[2]:357 This did not happen; one was retrieved by the Cubans and taken to the town of Cuito Cunivale[1]:338 and the other two remain to this day in the Angolan bush.[4]


It was soon realized that the SADF and UNITA would not be able to push the FAPLA/Cuban forces out of their Tumpo positions without taking serious casualties.[1]:234 The South African government had also ruled out an attack on Cuito Cuanavale from the west.[1]:234 Operation Packer thus came to an end on the 30 April 1988.[5]:247 82 Brigade began to withdraw and was replaced with Battle Group 20.[1]:234 This battle group's objective was, with aid from UNITA, to build minefields between the Tumpo and Dala Rivers and mine other exits across the Cuito River,[1]:234 to prevent a further Angolan assault from Cuito Cuanavale towards Mavinga and to create the impression that the SADF were still entrenched in the area.[1]:234 This operation would take several months, and was part of Operation Displace. The Cubans saw the failure of the SADF and UNITA to drive the Angolans for their positions as a defeat but in reality both sides had fought themselves to a stalemate.[1]:235 The Cubans and FAPLA were effectively in control of the same territory when the offensive first started in 1985, three years earlier.[6]:Chpt5 However the FAPLA attack against UNITA had been permanently halted, and the SADF objectives had been accomplished.[2]:345–350

Direct action between the South Africans and Cubans would soon move to south-western Angola where a confrontation between the parties would result in Operation Excite/Hilti.


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 George, Edward (2005). The Cuban intervention in Angola : 1965-1991 : from Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale (1. publ. ed.). London [u.a.]: Frank Cass. ISBN 0415350158. 
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 Scholtz, Leopold (2013). The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989. Cape Town: Tafelberg. ISBN 978-0-624-05410-8. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Wilsworth, Clive (2010). First in, last out : the South African artillery in action 1975-1988. Johannesburg: 30 ̊South. ISBN 978-1920143404. 
  5. Nortje, Piet (2004). 32 Battalion : the inside story of South Africa's elite fighting unit. Cape Town: Zebra Press. ISBN 1868729141. 
  6. Hamann, Hilton (2007). Days Of The Generals: The Untold Story of South Africas Apartheid-era Military Generals. Struik Publishers. ISBN 1868723402. 

Further reading

  • Geldenhuys, saamgestel deur Jannie (2011). Ons was daar : wenners van die oorlog om Suider-Afrika (2de uitg. ed.). Pretoria: Kraal Uitgewers. ISBN 9780987025609. 
  • George, Edward (2005). The Cuban intervention in Angola : 1965-1991 : from Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale (1. publ. ed.). London [u.a.]: Frank Cass. ISBN 0415350158. 
  • Hamann, Hilton (2001). Days of the generals (1st ed. ed.). Cape Town: Zebra. ISBN 978-1868723409. 
  • Nortje, Piet (2004). 32 Battalion : the inside story of South Africa's elite fighting unit. Cape Town: Zebra Press. ISBN 1868729141. 
  • Scheepers, Marius (2012). Striking inside Angola with 32 Battalion. Johannesburg: 30 ̊South. ISBN 978-1907677779. 
  • Scholtz, Leopold (2013). The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989. Cape Town: Tafelberg. ISBN 978-0-624-05410-8. 
  • Steenkamp, Willem (1989). South Africa's border war, 1966-1989. Gibraltar: Ashanti Pub.. ISBN 0620139676. 
  • Wilsworth, Clive (2010). First in, last out : the South African artillery in action 1975-1988. Johannesburg: 30 ̊South. ISBN 978-1920143404. 

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).