Thursday, 23 February 2012

Agony at Chibia

'It was a nightmare! I've lost six of my mates - 9 Platoon is gone...'

Yesterday the spearhead battalion of Task Force Zulu attempted to seize the vital road junction at Chibia 'on the bounce' i.e. by way off a hasty attack off the march. The plan was to capture Chibia by midday and then drive hard to reach Lubango some 40 km away by nightfall. Lubango is a strategically important town on the road to Benguela, which in turn is the key to opening up the coast road to Luanda. Lubango has a functioning airfield and this is vital to the FNLA-SADF advance in our version of Operation Savannah. Because Task Force Zulu is larger in our alternative history than it was in reality it requires greater logistical support. The South Africans have committed a greater proportion of their air force to supporting our alternative Operation Savannah than they did in real life, both in terms of combat aircraft flying reconnaissance and interdiction and military and commandeered civilian aircraft airlifting in troops and supplies. Once Lubango's airfield is secure the South Africans plan to fly in reinforcements and supplies to support the advance on Benguela.

First though, the spearhead battalion, codenamed 'Streetgang', had to take Chibia.

Streetgang consisted of two motorised infantry companies, one in Unimogs and another in Buffels, and a composite squadron of Elland armoured cars and landrovers mounted with heavy machine guns and recoiless rifles. Lieutenant Colonel van Beer, Streetgang's commander, was ordered to attack at dawn and use speed and aggression to seize the township and clear the road north west to Lubango.

A combination of communication problems, navigational errors and vehicle breakdowns meant both infantry companies were under strength as zero hour approached. Colonel van Beer took the decision to attack anyway and Bravo Company quickly entered the township. Ominously, there was no sign of the civilian population and and as the troopies began to clear the houses they came under fire from FAPLA soldiers who were dug in in the buildings near the centre of town. 

Alpha Company, mounted in APCs, drove hard towards an area of dense bush to the east of Chibia and dismounted to clear the way for a short right hook that would seal the northern exit roads of the township. Here they ran into the headquarters of the FAPLA forces in the area- a platoon of Cuban instructors and the HQ staff of the Cuban-FAPLA battalion that was responsible for this sector. Committed piecemeal, the South Africans did not expect the ferocity of the response they received from the Cubans who were largely crack special forces troops. The firefight was at short range in thick scrub and 9 platoon, leading the South African attack was decimated. Alpha Company fell back in disorder.

Meanwhile van Beer's most mobile unit, the armoured car and technical squadron, had executed a wider envelopment across the savannah to the east of Chibia. As they drove across the rear of the FAPLA position they successfully engaged and destroyed a number of FAPLA vehicles seen approaching from the west along the Lubango road. Unknown to them, these were Cubans who had driven their technicals towards the sound of the guns as the fighting in Chibia broke out.

The FAPLA-Cuban commander, Major Jose Sanchez, was feeling under immense pressure. He only had an understrength company of regulars defending Chibia itself, supported by an anti tank platoon of barely trained recruits armed with recoiless rifles. He was short of ammunition, particularly rockets for the shoulder fired RPGs that his infantry were equipped with. An urgent appeal for assistance had resulted in assurances that mobile reserves were on the way but the sound of South African 90mm guns and a radio net clogged with panicking comrades led him to think the battle was lost.

He was unaware that his anti-tank platoon, led by Sergeant Torres, one of his best instructors, had sprung a successful ambush from concealed positions in the township. Half a dozen landrovers were brewed up by FAPLA rockets and Captain Grobelaar, leading the SADF armoured car and technical squadron, was forced to break off the engagement with the FAPLA reinforcements and seek cover.

By midday the South African attack had ground to a halt. Eight men were dead, six of them from the hapless 9 Platoon, and another 25 were wounded. Six landrovers and three APCs were destroyed or disabled.

Sanchez for his part, was hanging on grimly. His company had suffered on light casualties, none of them fatal, although the mobile column that was supposed to reinforce him had lost half of the armed jeeps that were its fighting strength together with 15 killed and wounded.

For the South Africans it was a clear tactical defeat - they had the means to maintain and apply more pressure but that meant more casualties and their timetable was in tatters. For FAPLA, the only question was how to extricate themselves: the South Africans may have been halted but it was only a question of time before the FAPLA postion was overrrun.

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