Portugal’s counterinsurgency campaign in Angola was clearly the most successful of all its campaigns in the Colonial War

Portugal’s counterinsurgency campaign in Angola was clearly the most successful of all its campaigns in the Colonial War.

The Angolan War of Independence (1961–1974) began as an uprising against forced cotton cultivation, and it became a multi-faction struggle for the control of Portugal’s overseas province of Angola among three nationalist movements and a separatist movement. The war ended when a leftist military coup in Lisbon in April 1974 overthrew Portugal’s Estado Novo regime, and the new regime immediately stopped all military action in the African colonies, declaring its intention to grant them independence without delay.

The conflict is usually approached as a branch or a theater of the wider Portuguese Overseas War, which also included the independence wars of Guinea-Bissau and of Mozambique.

It was a guerrilla war in which the Portuguese armed and security forces waged a counter-insurgency campaign against armed groups mostly dispersed across sparsely populated areas of the vast Angolan countryside. Many atrocities were committed by all forces involved in the conflict. In the end, the Portuguese achieved overall military victory, and before the Carnation Revolution in Portugal most of Angola’s territory was under Portuguese control.

In Angola, after the Portuguese had stopped the war, an armed conflict broke out among the nationalist movements. This war formally came to an end in January 1975 when the Portuguese government, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) signed the Alvor Agreement


In Angola, the rebellion of the ZSN was taken up by the União das Populações de Angola (UPA), which changed its name to National Liberation Front of Angola (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA)) in 1962. On February 4, 1961, the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola took credit for the attack on the prison of Luanda, where seven policemen were killed.

On March 15, 1961, the UPA, in an attack, started the massacre of white populations and black workers. This region would be retaken by large military operations that, however, would not stop the spread of the guerrilla actions to other regions of Angola, such as Cabinda, the east, the southeast and the central plateaus.

By 1974, for a variety of reasons, it was clear that Portugal was winning the war in Angola.

Angola is a relatively large African nation, and the long distances from safe haven in neighboring countries supporting the rebel forces made it difficult for the latter to escape detection (the distance from the major Angolan urban centers to the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia) were so far that the east part of the country was called Terras do Fim do Mundo (“Lands of the End of the World”) by the Portuguese. Another factor was that the three nationalist groups FNLA, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angogla (MPLA]], and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), spent as much time fighting each other as they did fighting the Portuguese.


Ando a ler o site Guerra Colonial. Recentemente, entre amigos, ao som do FMI do José Mário Branco, iniciámos uma conversa acerca de armas. As armas que nos anos 70 e 80 abundavam nos lares.

Strategy also played a role; General Costa Gomes’s insistence that the war was to be fought not just by the military, but also involving civilian organizations led to a successful hearts and minds campaign against the influence of the various revolutionary movements. Finally, unlike other overseas departments, Portugal was able to receive support from South Africa in its Angolan campaign; Portuguese forces sometimes referred to their South African counter-insurgent counterparts as primos (cousins).

The campaign in Angola saw the development and initial deployment of several unique and successful counter-insurgency forces:

  • Batalhões de Caçadores Pára-quedistas (Paratrooper Hunter Battalions): Employed throughout the conflicts in Africa, were the first forces to arrive in Angola when the war began
  • Comandos (Commandos): Born out of the war in Angola, and later used in Guinea and Mozambique
  • Caçadores Especiais (Special Hunters): Were in Angola from the start of the conflict in 1961
  • Fiéis (Faithfuls): A force composed by Katanga exiles, black soldiers that opposed the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko
  • Leais (Loyals): A force composed by exiles from Zambia, black soldiers that were against Kenneth Kaunda
  • Grupos Especiais (Special Groups): Units of volunteer black soldiers that had commando training; also used in Mozambique
  • Tropas Especiais (Special Troops): The name of Special Forces Groups in Cabinda
  • Flechas (Arrows): A very successful unit, controlled by the Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado (PIDE), composed by Bushmen, that specialized in tracking, reconnaissance and pseudo-terrorist operations. They were the basis for the RhodesianSelous Scouts. The Flechas were also employed in Mozambique.
  • Grupo de Cavalaria Nº1 (1st Cavalry Group): A mounted cavalry unit, armed with the Heckler & Koch G3 rifle and Walther P-38 pistol, tasked with reconnaissance and patrolling. The 1st was also known as the “Angolan Dragoons” (Dragões de Angola). The Rhodesians would also later develop the concept of horse-mounted counter-insurgency forces, forming the Grey’s Scouts.
  • Batalhão de Cavalaria 1927 (1927 Cavalry Battalion): A tank unit equipped with the M5A1 tank. The battalion was used for supporting infantry forces and as a rapid reaction force. Again the Rhodesians would copy this concept forming the Rhodesian Armored Car Regiment.

The Portuguese Navy forces were under the command of the Naval Command of Angola. These forces included the Zaire Flotilla (with patrol boats and landing craft operating in the river Zaire), naval assets (including frigates and corvettes deployed to Angola in rotation), Marines companies and Special Marines detachments. While the Marines companies served as regular naval infantry with the role of protecting the Navy’s installations and vessels, the Special Marines were special forces, serving as mobile intervention units, specialized in amphibious assaults. The initial focus of the Navy was mainly the river Zaire, with the mission of interdicting the infiltration of guerrillas in Northern Angola from the bordering Republic of Zaire. Later, the Navy also operated in the rivers of Eastern Angola, despite it being a remote interior region at around 1000 km distance from the Ocean.

The Portuguese air assets in Angola were under the command of the 2nd Air Region of the Portuguese Air Force, with headquarters in Luanda. They included a central air base (the Air Base 9 at Luanda) and two sector air bases (the Base-Aerodrome 3 at Negage, Uíge and the Base-Aerodrome 4 at Henrique de Carvalho, Lunda). A fourth air base was being built (Base-Aerodrome 10 at Serpa Pinto, Cuando-Cubando), but it was not completed before the end of the conflict. These bases controlled a number of satellite air fields, including maneuver and alternate aerodromes. Besides these, the Air Force also could count with a number of additional airfields, including those of some of the Army garrisons, in some of which air detachments were permanently deployed. The Air Force also maintained in Angola, the Paratrooper Battalion 21, which served as a mobile intervention unit, with its forces initially being deployed by parachute, but later being mainly used in air assaults by helicopter. The Air Force was supported by the voluntary air formations, composed of civil pilots, mainly from local flying clubs, who operated light aircraft mainly in air logistics support missions.



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