Military Wiki

Operation Protea was a military operation during the South African Border War and Angolan Civil War in which South African Defence Forces (SADF) destroyed a number of SWAPO bases in Angola. During the operation, which took place from August 23 to September 4, 1981, up to 5,000 SADF soldiers occupied Cunene province, Angola.[1]

Operation Protea
Part of South African Border War
Operation Protea is located in Angola
Operation Protea (Angola)
Objective To destroy the SWAPO command and training center at Xangongo as well as to destroy its logistic bases at Xangongo and Ongiva
Casualties 10 dead, 37 wounded


Operation Protea was launched on 23 August 1981. Its objectives were to destroy the South-West Africa People's Organisations (SWAPO) command and training center at Xangongo as well as to destroy its logistic bases at Xangongo and Ongiva.

Xangongo, located at 16°44′57″S 14°58′28″E / 16.7491°S 14.9745°E / -16.7491; 14.9745 (Xangongo) was the headquarters of SWAPO's "north-western front" from where it directed SWAPO units operating primarily in the Kaokoland and in western and central Ovamboland. There were also other SWAPO bases, which were used as supply depots and training bases for SWAPO recruits, sited to the south and southeast of the town.

Ongiva, a town located less than fifty kilometers north of the Angola-South-West Africa border at 17°04′06″S 15°43′34″E / 17.0682°S 15.7262°E / -17.0682; 15.7262 (Ongiva), was an important SWAPO logistical and personnel centre which supported operations in central and eastern Ovamboland and in the Kavangoland.

Both Xangongo and Ongiva were key bases in supporting SWAPO's war effort in South-West Africa, because of their location close to its border. Their destruction would undermine SWAPO's ability to conduct operations in their “north-western front” and also have a psychological impact by reinforcing the message of Operation Reindeer to SWAPO that it no longer had the luxury of sanctuaries in southern Angola.

Order of Battle[2][3][4]

South African forces

Colonel Joop Joubert

Task Force Alpha

Battle Group 10 - Commandant Roland de Vries

Battle Group 20 - Commandant Johan Dippenaar

  • one Mechanised infantry company
  • two Motorised infantry companies
  • one Armoured Car squadron of two Ratel 90 troops and two Eland 90 troops
  • Medium artillery troop
  • 81mm mortar platoon
  • Field engineer troop
  • Assault pioneer platoon
  • two Protection platoons

Battle Group 30 - Commandant Chris Serfontein

  • three Motorised Infantry companies - National service units
  • Eland 90 armoured car squadron
  • 120m mortar battery - 43 Light Battery
  • 81mm mortar platoon
  • Field engineer troop
  • two Protection platoons

Battle Group 40 - Commandant Deon Ferreira

  • 32 Battalion – 3 companies
  • Eland 90 – 3 troops
  • 120mm Motor battery - 41 Light Battery
  • four Anti-Tank teams
  • two Protection Platoons

Mobile Reserve (Combat Team Mamba)

  • one 61 Mechanised company
  • Ratel 90 platoon
  • two Ratel 60 sections
  • 140mm G-2 artillery troop - 1 Medium Battery (4 Field Regiment)

Task Force Bravo

Battle Group 50 - Commandant Frans Botes

Battle Group 60 - Commandant James Hills

  • 32 Battalion - three companies
  • 81mm Mortar platoon

Mobile Reserve - Commandant Johnnie Coetzer

Battle Group 30

  • detached from TF Alpha

Battle Group 40

  • detached from TF Alpha

Angolan forces

11th Brigade

  • based at Ongiva and is the district headquarters

19th Brigade

  • based at Xangongo with elements at Humbe and Peu Peu

21st Brigade

  • based at Cahama

Soviet Military advisors

  • based at Xangongo and Ongiva

SWAPO forces

  • Xangongo - 500 SWAPO regulars and 500 semi-regulars
  • Between Cahama and Humbe - one SWAPO battalion
  • Ongiva - SWAPO headquarters



As a result of the lessons learned from Operation Reindeer, SWAPO had moved its bases closer to those of FAPLA (the Angolan governing party MPLA’s military wing) to discourage attacks by the South African forces. By the time of Operation Protea, this strategy was so far advanced that SWAPO’s logistical system had become entwined with that of FAPLA, especially in the area of Angola west of Ongiva. Although SWAPO's base strategy did not stop South African attacks, the South African forces went out of their way not to involve FAPLA in the fight.

A three-pronged mechanized force of Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicles, Buffel Armoured Personnel Carriers and Eland Armoured Cars advanced on Xangongo from Ruacana, Oshakati and Ondangwa. Part of their mission was to isolate the town to prevent possible Cuban and FAPLA reinforcements in Humbe and PeuPeu from coming to the aid of their compatriots in Xangongo. The rest of the force attacked the SWAPO complex in and around the town.

The mixed SWAPO-FAPLA force had applied some more lessons learned during Operation Reindeer, and had established well-prepared defensive systems consisting of trenches, bunkers and even dug-in tanks. These were spread out, with satellite bases and bunkers and trenches with defensive weapons geared for defensive fire, and were extensively camouflaged with no permanent buildings, parade grounds, clear perimeters or visible lines of fortified trenches. The focus was on concealment. Several fierce battles were fought between the South African and the integrated SWAPO/FAPLA force which, given the mechanised forces and well prepared defensive systems, more resembled a conventional war than a small-unit counter-insurgency operation.

The South African forces achieved considerable surprise in two aspects. Firstly, the SWAPO/FAPLA forces did not expect a South African attack in such a heavily defended region particularly as, in addition to the SWAPO and FAPLA units in Xangongo, there were an estimated 23,000 FAPLA and 7,500 Cuban soldiers in the city of Lubango capable of moving south to aid the defenders of Xangongo. Secondly, SWAPO estimated that any South African attack would come from the south and established their defences to face in that direction. However, the South Africans attacked from the flanks and rear while feinting a frontal assault, which enabled them to quickly overpower the SWAPO/FAPLA defenders of Xangongo. The South African assault was thus successful and the surviving SWAPO/FAPLA forces fled into the thick bush just outside the town. The victory was not without cost to the South Africans; in particular a helicopter which had been used to co-ordinate and direct the mechanised forces through the thick bush came within sight of a FAPLA 23-mm twin anti-aircraft gun and was shot down.

A propaganda and intelligence coup was scored by the South African forces when they found the personal possessions and official documents left behind by a group of thirty Russian advisors along with seven women and a number of children. Charts and maps, still on the wall, were found which detailed command structures and strategy for SWAPO, all written in Russian. This incontrovertibly confirmed the growing involvement of the USSR in this conflict.

After securing their first objective, the main body of the South African force then moved southeast towards their second target – the town of Ongiva.


After brushing aside an attempt by FAPLA to stop their advance at Mongua, the South African forces reached Ongiva on 26 August 1981 and attacked the combined SWAPO/FAPLA forces dug in around the town. While the South Africans did not again have the element of surprise due to their earlier attack on Xangongo, they nevertheless attacked this complex from the rear as well and after two days of fighting, Ongiva also fell to them.

First hand account from an SAI member: The first attack was to secure the airport just outside the town of Ongiva. However the SWAPO/FAPLA forces were entrenched in well situated defensive positions and, in addition to infantry fire, anti-aircraft weapons including SAM fire were directed against the SA infantry from the NE bunkers of the airport. SA Mirages were called in to support the SA infantry and bomb those positions. Thereafter three platoons of SAI riflemen were deployed to take the positions. The SA infantry entered the airport perimeter unchallenged from the east, then swung NW along the runway. However at the NE corner, they came under fire from approximately 300 FAPLA soldiers, many in dug-in positions, and including heavy automatic weapon fire. Two of the SAI platoons were pinned down in crossfire from the east and north, and two SAI riflemen were killed. The third SAI platoon was however relatively clear on the west side of the road that runs west of the runway and deployed as a "stopper" group. Ratels of the 61 Mechanised Infantry Battalion Group, with their mechanised infantry were called in, and the two SAI platoons disengaged under heavy fire from the SWAPO/FAPLA positions suffering casualties in the process. With the 20mm cannon and 7.62mm machine gun of the Ratels, and the mortar fire of the support groups, the mechanised infantry were able to suppress and then eliminate the fortified positions, and the SWAPO/FAPLA soldiers fled over the road towards the west and the 'free' SAI platoon. As the road was raised above the level of the surrounding ground those crossing made for clear targets. The 'free' SAI platoon provided enfilading fire with the SAI mechanised infantry pursuing, and many SWAPO/FAPLA were killed. The Ratels and the mechanised infantry then moved swiftly through the remaining SWAPO/FAPLA positions clearing out all opposition.

The Ratels and other mechanised forces then moved on from the airport to join the attack on the town of Ongiva. However there was open ground around the town and the combined SWAPO/FAPLA forces had well constructed bunkers, trenches and fortified positions in which they had deployed heavy automatic weapons including anti-aircraft guns (such as 23-mm twin ZU-23) as anti-armour weapons. There were also numerous RPGs distributed along the lines as anti-personnel and anti-armour weapons, and the risk of minefields. The attack of the SAI forces was brought to a standstill and the Ratels were forced to take up hull-down positions, and deploy mortar groups. The SAI forces probed along the SWAPO/FAPLA lines and there was intense fighting well into the night. The following day the SAI infantry, supported by the mechanised forces, attacked again only to find that overnight most of the SWAPO/FAPLA forces had abandoned their positions and fled. Ongiva was overrun with relatively little opposition.

There were a number of Russian military advisors present at Ongiva. However, unlike their compatriots at Xangongo, a number of Soviet officers were killed and Warrant Officer Second Class Nikolai Feodorovich Pestretsov was captured. Pestretsov was a Russian military advisor attached to FAPLA's 11th Brigade at Ongiva. Two of the Soviet officers who were killed were Lieutenant Colonel Joseph VAZHNIKA Illarionovich, Chief Political Adviser to the 11th Infantry Brigade of the MPLA, Lieutenant Colonel Eugene Kireev, Councillor artillery commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the MPLA,


Not only did Operation Protea provide proof of direct Soviet involvement with SWAPO, but it also enabled the South African forces to seize about 4,000 tons of military hardware valued at over USD 200 million. In addition to enormous quantities of small arms and ammunition, it also included such items as tanks, armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, trucks and other logistical vehicles. At least 1,000 members of SWAPO and FAPLA were killed during the operation. Thirty-eight prisoners were captured, including ten SWAPO members. In contrast, the South Africans lost only ten men and fifty eight wounded.[3]

The presence of tanks and armoured personnel carriers proved conclusively that SWAPO intended to progress from the guerrilla to the mobile warfare stage in its war in South-West Africa and South Africa thus felt that its operation was fully justified.

It is thought that SWAPO's military timetable was severely set back by Operation Protea and that it took the organisation at least a year to recover from it. In addition, the defeats had driven the organisation even further north away from the South-West African border.

Photographs of the huge captured cache of Soviet military weaponry can be obtained from Adriana Oosthuysen, widow of Sunday Times photographer Pierre Oosthuysen, who took a large number of pictures of these arms caches and also of the captured Soviet and Cuban military personnel.

However, the end of Operation Protea did not signal the end the South African activity against SWAPO in southern Angola as Operation Protea was quickly followed up by another attack, Operation Daisy.

See also


  1. Manning, Susan A. (1999). Modern Dance, Negro Dance: Race in Motion. p. 17. 
  2. Nortje, Piet (2004). 32 Battalion. The Inside Story of South Africa's Elite Fighting Unit. p. 169.
  3. 3.0 3.1 61 Mechanised Battalion Veterans Group
  4. Wilsworth, Clive (2010). First in, last out : the South African artillery in action 1975-1988. Chapter 7.

Further reading

  • Nortje, Piet (2004). 32 Battalion : the inside story of South Africa's elite fighting unit. Cape Town: Zebra Press. ISBN 1868729141. 
  • 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. 
  • 61 Mechanised Battalion Veterans Group

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
Preceded by
Operation Klipklop
Battles and operations of the South African Border War
August to September 1981
Succeeded by
Operation Daisy