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Digital Archive International History Declassified

2008

IGOR ZHDARKIN, 'WE DID NOT SEE IT EVEN IN AFGHANISTAN: MEMOIRS OF A PARTICIPANT OF THE ANGOLAN WAR,1986–1988,' (EXCERPTS)

This document was made possible with support from the Leon Levy Foundation

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    Memoirs of a Soviet soldier fighting in Angola, depicting the scenes of warfare where South African artillery and air force attacked Soviet and MPLA positions, leading many MPLA fighters to flee.
    "Igor Zhdarkin, 'We Did Not See it Even in Afghanistan: Memoirs of a Participant of the Angolan War,1986–1988,' (excerpts)," 2008, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, (Moscow: Memories, 2008). Included in "Southern Africa in the Cold War, Post-1974," edited by Sue Onslow and Anna-Mart Van Wyk. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/118167
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    https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/118167

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October 10, 1987

It is already the second month during which I find myself in the 6th district and ten days of this period—in Cuito Cuanavale. Conditions here are very tense. On 20 August, a diversionary group from South Africa, consisting of eight people, blew up a bridge across the river Cuito. In September, [we] succeeded in neutralizing a group which had been bombarding Cuito Cuanavale itself with mortar fire. On October 1 , advisors of the 21st and 25th brigades returned from an operation on the river Lomba. There, on the Lomba, misfortune had befallen them. They had been «covered» with shells from the rapid firing guns of the South Africans. As a result, their interpreter, Oleg Snitko had his leg broken and his hand torn off. He died within a day and a half. The others also had bad luck. Four of them were wounded and shell shocked.

On October 8, they were flown off to a hospital in Luanda. Then on October 9, having replaced them, we departed on a military operation. There are six people in our group—our team leader, Anatoly] Mikhailovich Artiomenko; the advisor to the chief of the brigade artillery, Yuri Pavlovich Sushchenko; the technician, Sasha Fatyanov; two specialists from “Osa-AK” (the anti-aircraft missile system), Slava and Kostya, and myself.

The day before, we covered approximately 11 km and at 10:30 we reached the command post of the 25th brigade. We sat there the whole day, and waited uncertainly for something to turn up. We were in fact forced to spend the night there. At around seven o’clock in the evening, I turned on the radio receiver. A concert of Soviet popular songs was being transmitted. The songs were, on the whole, both old and long known, yet all of us at once grew silent and pensive. But today, on October 10, at five thirty in the morning, we hurriedly pushed off from our location and moved forward.

A military column, in general, moves very slowly. The point is that it is advisable not to travel on old, used roads, because they are constantly mined by UNITA. Therefore, our men cut a new road through the forest. The tanks move forward, and behind them, the entire column goes. For some five hours, we moved all in all only 8 km. During one of our usual stops, a group of UNITA soldiers bombarded us. It occurred at 11.10, nineteen miles from Cuito Cuanavale. Our column was bombarded by mortars and submachine guns. It was our first bombardment in this operation and it happened quite close to Cuito-Cuanavale.

Thus we moved forward: we moved at most 100 m before we had to stop and endure a tedious wait during which the tanks continued to push the road forward. At 14:30 , we achieved at last crossings over the river Shambinga. But before this, at 13:30, we had stumbled upon a mined field, set up by UNITA. We waited a long time until [our engineers] found a safe passage or detour.

At 16:10, we stopped in a little wood on the other bank of the Shambinga River. Here we will spend the night.The crossing of the Shambinga River is quite uncomfortable. Sufficient to say that it is completely open on both its banks and moreover swampy. The Angolans call such a surface area, “shana”, the same as “flood lands” in Russian. Only one single road, mined on each side, leads to the river through this “shana”, so that nowhere can one turn around. If the enemy is able successfully get this road within his gun sights, and then it can become one of the seven circles of biblical hell.

In fact, here on the September 25 of last year, the leader of our group, Anatoly Mikhailovich was seriously wounded. They had been until then, for all of five days, not able to get across. A [shell] fragment had hit him in the head. But we, this one time, were able to cross without mishap.

October 11, 1987

The day today was rich with events. At six in the morning, the column gathered in military formation for the day’s march. We stood for half an hour, waiting for news from the head of our column as to where they were to pave the way. By six thirty, UNITA began to fire its mortars. This time, the majority of mortars were being discharged to release incendiary bombs with the exclusive aim to set our cars on fire. Although the firing continued for thirty minutes, UNITA did not achieve its objectives. Thereupon, we pushed forward. During the course of the day, South African planes appeared twice. The first time was at 11:10 and then at 14:30. Our anti-aircraft missile system, “Osa-AK”, tracked them but the two aircrafts were actually shot down in the region of the 21st brigade.

At 15:35, our column was once more attacked by UNITA forces. A ferocious battle broke out and continued almost 40 minutes. The men covering the flanks of the column performed well by discovering the bandits in time. The attack was successfully repulsed. Five UNITA soldiers were killed, and much booty was taken. On that day, we had to have our dinner in the dark, inasmuch as we stopped at our night lodge quite late and it gets dark here around six in the evening.

October 12, 1987

Today, from 6:45 in the morning, our column once again ran into attacking UNITA forces. The shooting continued for twenty minutes. The column was again fired upon with incendiary mortar shells. But the return fire of our combat means (B-10 anti-tank recoilless guns; 120-mm mortars; BM-21 forty-barrel 122 mm caliber volley fire fired from “Ural” trucks; Grad-P portable guns delivering 122 mm caliber volley fire) did not permit the UNITA forces to aim their guns accurately at us. Only one single mortar shell ever landed on one of the cars in our column while the rest were released without any impact.

At 10:40, the South African air force again appeared, bombing the location of the 21st brigade. For the rest of the day, nothing of any particular importance happened except that now, on the R-123 radio station, we hear, quite clearly and precisely, South Africans discussing among themselves. Thank God that I still remember a little English. And today, they suddenly began talking Polish on the air. I could make out clearly a few phrases in Polish: “What do you want?” “Very good.” And then, “I am listening attentively.” “Thank you.” The answer of the second speaker was not audible. For a long time we speculated as to what this signified, until we realized that in fact maybe these were Polish émigrés in the South African army.

October 13, 1987

Today at 5:10, four South African planes appeared in the area of the 21st and 59th brigades. The brigades opened up furious fire from all types of weaponry. The entire sky looked like a rainbow or a salute. As a result, one plane was put out of action, while a second was hit on the nozzle by a “Strela-3” type rocket, and although hit, managed to escape. The rest dropped their bombs in disorder and made off. Our “Osa-AK” anti-aircraft missile system had begun work already at 04:30. On that day, there were three more South African air raids—at noon, at 15:00 and at 17:00, as if it was according to schedule.

This day, we stayed at the night lodging near the old UNITA base. There we could see the huts which were still intact, communication trenches and so forth? A real fortress I would say. I completely forgot that on this same day, at 14:30, we had discovered a large store house belonging to UNITA at the source of the Kunzumbia river. There, ammunition dumps of Chinese origin were found:

for 60-mm mortars—120 mortar shells;

for 81-mm mortars—111 mortar shells;

for a modified manual antitank grenade launcher (RPG-7V)—100 items;

cartridges for an updated Kalashnikov sub-machine gun (with a wooden butt), or “AKM” (1947 model) 1—15440 items.

October 14, 1987

Today, at 07:30 AM, we finally reached the Command Post of the 21st brigade and Operational Group. We met here advisors and specialists of the 47th brigade and of the “Osa-AK” anti-aircraft missile system (nine people in all). So many «horrors» they recounted to us. Much hope had been placed, during the offensive action, on the 2nd Tactical Group to which the 47th airborne-assault brigade belonged. The 47th brigade was reinforced with a tank battalion, artillery and with the “Osa-AK” anti-aircraft missile system.

The Group’s mission was to secure the right flank of the general offensive. It was commanded by Major Tobiash, Chief of Staff of the 6th Military District. But the Group was not up to task. According to what was said, the commanding officers drank too much during the operation. The offensive was conducted sluggishly, without enthusiasm, although there was practically no serious resistance in its path. In the end, to be sure, “there appeared to be a so-called clap of thunder in a clear sky”.

The offensive of other brigades was conducted more or less successfully, and UNITA suffered defeat after defeat. It appeared as if victory was already close. But, as it usually had happened many times before, the South Africans, seeing this process, did not permit UNITA to be completely destroyed. Skillfully exploiting the mistakes and miscalculations of FAPLA, they openly penetrated the territory of the People’s Republic of Angola. Now they publicly declared that the South African army was in Angola with the aim of preventing the complete destruction of UNITA.

This was the beginning of the operation’s downfall, the beginning of a tragedy. First of all, we received news of the wounding of Soviet advisors of the 21st brigade and then about the death of the interpreter, Oleg Snitko. Afterwards, when we encountered our comrades from the 47th brigade, we heard from them details about their brigade’s rout. The brigade suffered three attacks from the South African regular forces. The flight which began after the second attack, turned into panic with the launching of the third.

There were many reasons for this: the running out of ammunition, as well as the cowardliness of the officers, the absence of precise instructions to the troops engaged, their terror of facing the South Africans, and, finally, the fact that on the bank where the brigade stood, across the river Lomba, there was a passage (bridge for crossing). Everybody quickly found out about it, and, if it had not existed, perhaps no one would have tried to flee.

Many Soviet specialists serving here in the district combat brigades earlier had been in Afghanistan. According to their opinion, “in Afghanistan, we never experienced such horrors as Here”. One said that “when the South African artillery began to fire, I felt particularly terrified. However, then came the South African air force and we had very little room on the ground. But the most horrible was when the Angolans turned to flight and began to throw away their equipment…”

This was just what happened with the 47th brigade. As long as the brigade commander maintained radio contact with the commander of the tank battalion, everything to be sure remained relatively normal. But then the tank battalion commander was hit and being wounded, he moved to another tank which too was hit and from which he then could not crawl out. Meanwhile the tank platoon commander who was next to him fled. The tank battalion commander (his name is Silva) thereupon was taken prisoner by the South Africans.

At the time of its flight during the crossing of the river Lomba, the 47th brigade lost 18 tanks, 20 armored troop carriers, 4 D-30 (122 mm) guns, 3 BM-21s valley fire, 4 Osa-AK anti-aircraft [mobile] rocket launchers, 2 Osa-AKs transport cars, one P-19 radar station, heavy automobiles, radio stations, mortars, grenade throwers, approximately 200 pieces of small arms, etc., etc.

…only three Strela-10 anti-aircraft system, two armored troop carriers, two EE-25 vehicles and one Land Rover got across to the other side of the Lomba. Nothing more they were able to save. And if the South Africans had sent over only one company to the other bank and opened fire against the Angolans on the river bank, the entire 47th brigade would have landed at the bottom of the Lomba.

The Soviet “advisors” had to set on fire and abandon their armored troop carrier and then crawl, hugging the ground for 1.5 km along the “shana” to the other bank of the Lomba. They crawled under fire, throwing away everything except for their weapons, while the South Africans struck direct laying fire against them. Then the swamps began. Our men overcame this too and there remained only a short distance to the bank. Completely exhausted, they decided to pause for breath. The South Africans, estimating, by the length of time, that they had already gotten across, began to shoot along the shore. Shells were exploding 10 to 20 m from them while three fell into the swamp 5 m from them. What saved them was that the shells and mines fell into the swamp and on the “shana” (which was also sticky and swampy), sank and only then exploded. Only for this reason, no one was wounded, not taking small fragments into account.

The crushing defeat of the 47th brigade seriously affected the 16th, 21st, and 59th brigades as well as the military situation as a whole. Now the brigades were positioned on the line formed by the Cunzumbia River. Such was the state of affairs when we arrived.

October 15, 1987

Yesterday and today we settled down in our new positions, making the acquaintance with the Commander of our 21st brigade and Major Batista, the Group Commander, and, at brigade headquarters, we familiarized ourselves with the situation. The day passed quietly. South African planes flew by and from the direction of the 16th and 59th brigades, the rumble of cannon fire was heard. There was shelling there and our brigade gave them support with artillery fire.

October 16, 1987

In the morning, Major Batista drove off to the command post of the First Tactical Group, took leave of us, thanked us for everything, and asked us to provide help to the brigade commander.

The order came from the District Command: brigades must take defensive positions in those places where they already find themselves, and assume responsibility for each allotted zone where it is necessary constantly to provide thorough searches in order not to permit enemy infiltration and to hinder any enemy activities. This was so to speak a series of local operations which were conducted with the forces of up to two battalions led by brigade commanders.

This afternoon, we moved our mission to a new position, closer to the Brigade Command Post.

October 29, 1987

Last night, the enemy hit the 59th brigade with 148 shells. In the morning, we found out that as a result one officer, one sergeant and four soldiers from our brigade had been killed. There were many wounded and one officer and one soldier were missing.

At 6 o’clock, the enemy decided to bid us «good morning» and «good appetite». We were having breakfast when suddenly, not far off as usual, there was a shot. Through habit, we cocked our ears to hear in which direction the shot was flying. And then our Air Defense specialist Slava shouted, «Lie down!» Right after, a powerful explosion reverberated and I fell from my chair, hitting the ground. I immediately felt a sharp pain in my left shoulder, maybe I had either bruised or dislocated it. But then, in the next second, I leaped up under our armored troop car1rier. Everybody ran off in every direction too.

As it then turned out, the enemy had bombarded us from a 120-mm. mortar and one shell exploded 20 m from us during breakfast. My shoulder now hurts very much and I am unable to raise my arm.

But at 14:00, we received frightening news. At 13:10, the enemy had bombarded the 59th brigade, situated in our vicinity, with chemical weapons containing poison gas. As a result, many people had been poisoned. Four had lost consciousness and the brigade commander was coughing blood. The Soviet advisors in the brigade were also affected. The wind was blowing nearby and everyone was complaining of violent headaches and nausea. This news greatly disturbed us since, you see, we didn’t have any gas masks whatsoever. And so ended today’s events.

November 9, 1987

All night, we heard the rumble of engines and nearby explosions. It was the 59th brigade approaching us but the South Africans were «escorting» them with their artillery. In the morning, we went down to meet them. We saw our Soviet advisors. They felt that everything for them was under control. After the South Africans had attacked them with poison gas on the 29 of October, they had more or less regained consciousness. Their faces were happy—after all, they were returning «home», to Cuito.

They had been in the forest for almost 4 months. It is difficult to imagine such a life—one must have personally have lived through it. We, for example, have been in the forest exactly one month, today, yet I have the feeling that already half my life has slipped by, and that all the days have merged into one, that each day is one and the same. If it is suddenly quiet, then you begin to go crazy, they say, wondering why they do not shoot, and what they still have in mind to do there. When the shooting starts, you wait for when it will finally end. And so on and so forth every day.

Around 8 o’clock, we got information that the 16th brigade (which is located in the area of the Shambinga River, 20 km away from us) had been subject since 3 o’clock in the morning to heavy fire and attacks from the regular South African battalions. The Shambinga area lies right next to Cuito-Cuanavale, and already the South Africans had arrived there, but after all, they were anyway on the river Lomba not long ago.

During the afternoon, the advisors attached to the 25th brigade, located on our old positions, informed us that at around one in the morning, the enemy had attempted to penetrate their defense line. When that failed, he began to «throw» everything he had and then another several times tried to break through and has been continuing all this commotion up till now. The position of the 25th brigade is precarious. After all, it remains practically alone there, if we do not take our battalion staying with them into account.

November 10, 1987

Yesterday night passed more or less peacefully. However, the next morning, the Brigade Commander came and he said he had received a telegram from District Headquarters with the following order: stay on constant alert inasmuch as the enemy can always attack, employing the strategy of sudden surprise. And that was exactly what happened. At 7 o’clock, artillery and mortar fire suddenly broke out. At that moment I was exactly in radio contact with our Military District. For more than an hour and a half, South Africans keep on bombarding us from 106-mm guns and 120-mm mortars.

Shells fly past our heads. What saves us is that we are standing on a hill and therefore they either fell short of or else fly over us. And yet a number of pieces got within 50 m of us and immediately the fragments began to scream in a horrible way. The advisors of the 16th brigade now gave us their coordinates. We glanced at the map and sighed: saving themselves from yesterday’s South African attack, they had covered not less than 20 km and are now located 4–5 km from the ford across the river Shambinga (15 km from Cuito-Cuanavale).

They let us know that the number of their technique and equipment had dropped to less than half. During the afternoon, I intercepted a telegram stating that two tanks of the 16th brigade had reached by tugboat the area where the 66th brigade was located, together with 100 men from two battalions of the 16th brigade. Thereupon, they had set off for Cuito-Cuanavale. In such a way, the South Africans did «wear out» the 16th brigade…

November 11, 1987

This morning a prisoner was captured in the area of the 3rd battalion. He turned out to be an artillery reconnaissance scout from the artillery battery attached to UNITA’s 4th regular battalion. He himself was an African, named Eugene Kayumba, who had served UNITA for 3 years, born in the province of Huambo. In his battery they had 2 106.7-mm guns and 2 120 mm mortars set up on “Land Rovers.”… Their batteries are constantly changing firing positions, they are supplied with ammunition at night, and they move around on “Unimog” vehicles. A battery consists of 20 men…. According to him, the South Africans are constantly moving in the second echelon, while the UNITA troops are moving in front of them. If UNITA gets into a tight spot, the regular South African forces move there, open artillery fire and send out the air force. In important military sectors, the South Africans themselves enter the battle, as this in fact occurred with the 16th brigade on the 9th of November.

At the source of the river Lomba some bases are situated from where ammunition would be brought up. That place is settled by South Africans.