Dr Leopold Scholtz, Journal for Contemporary History, 2017 42(2):48-73 



The Battle of the Lomba, which was fought on 3 October 1987, was the final contest between the South African Defence Force (SADF) and Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola (FAPLA) during the first phase of Operation Moduler. In this battle, 61 Mechanised Battalion Group (61 Mech; with a Ratel 90 squadron as the battering ram) attacked the vastly superior Angolan 47 Brigade and all but wiped it out. The basic question in this article is why and how this happened? The answer lies in the tactical and operational handling of both forces on a command level. On the one side, from a professional viewpoint, the SADF leadership of 20 SA Brigade and 61 Mech did almost everything correctly, and even lay the foundation of the victory before a single shot was fired. The Angolan commanders did almost everything wrong. The tactical and operational lessons learnt from the battle may provide material for officers’ training, and these lessons are discussed as part of the conclusion.  



On 3 October 1987, a battalion-sized unit of the South African Defence Force (SADF) attacked a brigade of the Angolan army, the Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola (FAPLA), on the southern bank of the Lomba River in southeastern Angola. What followed, was the biggest mechanised battle on African soil since the demise of the German Afrika Korps in May 1943.  

Although it remains internationally relatively unknown, it was indeed one of the most complete military victories in military history. (This conclusion will be fleshed out in the last section of the article.) FAPLA’s 47 Brigade was obliterated and ceased to exist as an organised military formation. The South Africans came out almost unscathed.  

This battle also meant the end of FAPLA’s grand offensive to crush the Angolan rebel movement, the União Nacional Para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA). It was of prime importance in the late 20th century history of southern Africa. It was a building-block in the realisation on both sides that war was not the answer and that a political solution was needed through negotiation. This, in turn, became the prototype for the negotiations between the then South African Government and the African National Congress/South African Communist Party (ANC/SACP), resulting in the surrender of power in 1994.  

In addition, the battle is a prime example of one side – the SADF – doing almost everything (from a strict professional military perspective) correct, in stark contrast to the amateurish blundering on the Angolan side. As will be seen, the foundation for the victory was laid by the South African moves even before the first shot was fired. As such, from a tactical and operational viewpoint the Battle of the Lomba is worth studying in order to extract professional lessons for mechanised warfare in the African context. It is a study on how two SADF combat groups were tactically handled on a command level.  

It would be worthwhile to use the battle as a case study in officers’ training courses at military academies. This article is, therefore, meant as study material for that purpose. As such, lessons may be drawn from the battle. These – they will be discussed in more detail later on – include, amongst others, how important it is to manage a battle even before the first shot is fired; the necessity of training; the use of surprise; and the advantages of what is known as “directive control”, instead of “detailed control” on the battlefield. Obviously, these lessons have to be supplemented by studying other battles as well, but looking at the handling of the units at the Lomba may prove to be illuminating.  


The Battle of the Lomba is largely known through South African eyes. Helmoed-Römer Heitman based the account in his book on certain SADF documents made available to him,1 but since then, more archival sources have been declassified which throws new light on the battle. Fred Bridgland did not describe the battle as such, but quoted from three interviews with SADF officers.2 In recent years, translated accounts from Soviet advisors on FAPLA’s side illuminated what happened on the other side of the hill.3 A book with contributions from (amongst others) Russian, Cuban, and East German authors about the Border War as such4 could have shed light on the “other side’s” perspective, but has unfortunately fallen far short of expectations. Hopefully, this article will shed new light on the tactical and operational aspects of the battle.  

A word about the sources: This article reflects the view as seen at battalion and brigade level. Eyewitness accounts by participants on grassroots level contribute almost nothing to the bigger picture, as these reflect only what happened in their immediate vicinity. Therefore, a lot of emphasis is placed on information gleaned from archival documents in the SANDF Documentation Centre. At the same time, no Angolan sources could be utilised. The Angolan archives are firmly closed, and no eyewitness accounts from that side have been published. However, one gets a glimpse of the Angolan tactical decision-making process from the SADF intercepts. The Soviet archives are also closed. Some Russian accounts have, however, been published in translated form and these have been used extensively when relevant. It is, therefore, important to realise that the following analysis could have looked different if sources from the other side of the hill had been sufficiently available.  

Finally, this article is an offshoot from a book by the author with the title, Ratels on the Lomba: The story of Charlie Squadron. What the battle meant on grassroots level, is decribed there.  

A last introductory remark: The Battle of the Lomba refers only to the battlefield confrontation of 3 October 1987 and the events surrounding it. It was part of a broader campaign, generally known as the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.