Saturday, 30 June 2012

The Truimphant March of Socialism?

Mid November 1975. The FNLA offensive on Luanda in the north has been halted. The South African led forces  on the southern front have started to retreat towards Benguela. The MPLA's grip on Luanda becomes more secure as each day goes by. Soviet Anatov transport aircraft fly Cuban troops into Luanda round the clock. The Cubans are supplied with heavy equipment from freighters docked in Luanda's harbour. One of the freighters is 'The Carlotta', the same name that has been given by Fidel Castro to the operation that is sending thousands of Cubans to Africa. Carlotta was a the leader of a slave revolt. For Fidel and the Cuban leadership Angola represents their revolutionary destiny - more slaves came from this part of Africa than anywhere else, many of them were shipped to the Caribbean, now their descendants are coming home to liberate Angola from the Imperialists.

At least that's the official version. The Soviets have swallowed bile and are providing arms and transport to their 'tropical socialist' allies. The MPLA is now trying to secure the approaches to Luanda to the north and south using recently recruited Cuban led troops kitted out with Soviet supplied weapons and transport.

But where is the front? Comrade Farrusco, fighting near Lubango for the MPLA , told Ryszard Kapuscinki:

'In Europe they taught me that a front is trenches and barbed wire, which form a distinct and visible line...on a river, along a road, or from village to village. You can trace it on a map with a the front is everywhere and nowhere...there is too much land and too few people for a front to the front doesn't consist of a line but points, and moving points at that...Every unit is a front, and a potential front. If our unit runs into an enemy unit , those two poteial fronts turn into a real front. A battle occurs.'

'This is a war of ambushes. On any road, at any place, there can be a front.'

'You can travel the whole country and come back alive, or you can die a metre from where you're standing. There are no principles, no methods.'

'This war is a real mess. Nobody knows just where they stand.'

Jean Langarotti and Kurt Semmler know where they stand. They're holed up in a small township at a crossroads about 100 km east of Luanda. Since the defeat at Caxito and the death of their leader Carlo Shannon, the two mercenaries have been retreating into the interior. Their transport has all broken down or run out of gasoline. They have one Toyota pick up truck that is a runner, and mounts a 50 cal machine gun. The South African Jan Dupree and the Briton Gary Watson, together with two Portuguese, are the only other trained and experienced men they have. There are thirteen Angolans with them, all of them FNLA, poorly trained conscripts. Between them they have a couple each of PK LMGs and RPG 7s, half a dozen G3 rifles, and seven Kalashnikovs.

They know they have to move, and move soon. The trouble is there is a dust cloud on the horizon and that can only mean one thing. The MPLA have caught up with them.

Langorotti softly whistles 'Spanish Harlem' and makes is dispositions.

The battle that followed was fought using an adapted version of Cold War 83 rules by Wessex Games. Full AAR in a couple of days.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Another Day of Life

A busy couple of weeks, both at work and watching the European Football Championships, has meant little progress on our War in Angola project.

The one thing I I have managed to do in relation to 'War for Slow Readers' is some reading however. Specifically, I finished Ryszard Kapuscinski's 'Another Day of Life' whilst flying around the country working. It's a wonderful book, written by a Polish jounalist who was working for the Polish Press Agency in 1975 and was in Angola just before and after the transition from Portuguese colonial rule to the MPLA. That's right, Kapuscinski is an Eastern European reporter writing for a communist government controlled press agency at the exact time that our alternative timeline has been played out.

And what an inspirational read it is for someone developing scenarios for our project.Firstly, he captures the atmosphere of the time superbly. The tension of being in a city where the established authority has crumbled and no one really knows what's happening is brilliantly recreated. Reading the accounts of Luanda as independence approached reminded me of George Orwell's account of Barcelona during the street fighting between the communists and their opponents during the Spanish Civil War in 'Homage to Catalonia'. Clearly Kapuscinski's sympathies, not to mention his prospects of personal safety, are aligned with the MPLA. He does however, describe the human side of the events as they play out remarkably even handedly - he is no hack trotting out the party line at the expense of the bigger story.

His description of the thread by which the MPLA was hanging on to what power it had, the fear of an FNLA uprising, the fragility of the power and water supplies, the rumours of the South African advance from the south, and the approach of Holden Roberto's forces to the gates of Luanda are very evocative. The tension of not knowing if he'll go down to his hotel reception to try and file his report via telex and be arrested by the armed men who are always hanging around in the lobby; his instinct for self preservation as he notices little things that change day by day that might foretell what will happen next; the almost complete lack of reliable information about the political and military situation are told in a way that grips the reader. The revolution is memorably described as a 'confusion' and one that almost defies narrative, yet it is narrative that Kapuscinski does best.

We'll be revisting this book in weeks to come as we play out some of the events Kapuscinski describes. In the meantime, I encourage you to find a copy and read it - if you've enjoyed this blog you'll love this book.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Fourth Estate and the Merchants of Death

Progress here at 'War for Slow Readers' can best be described as 'incremental', a word that tends to be used instead of its plain English equivalent - 'slow' - by obfuscators.

Reading a book on the role of the SIS and the SAS in the Falklands conflict last week led me to a gem of a story that was reported in 'Der Speigel' in the mid 80s about an arms deal in which the South African secret service, BOSS, finessed a transaction through the son-in law of the Bulgarian President to supply UNITA with weapons and ammunition. An aircraft formerly owned by the New Zealand national airline was procured and modified to carry freight so the gear could be shipped via airstrips in SW Africa (as it was) and Zaire to  Angola. Of course, the Soviet bloc supplied hardware was destined to be used against Cuban soldiers...

So, here's the Merchant of Death and his henchmen.

I have a nice blue Mercedes saloon and an olive green ex-SADF Unimog for him to transport himself and his merchandise in. Now I just have to dream up some suitable scenarios. UNITA hasn't featured much in our alternative timeline yet but I suspect they may do soon - a spot of internecine fighting between the FNLA and UNITA in Task Force Orange's area of operations as the SADF extract themselves from Angola (for now...)?

The other aspect of the war I'd like to explore is the role of the media. I've just ordered 'Another Day of Life' by Polish journalist  Ryszard Kapuscinski which is apparently the definitive eye witness account of the collapse of Portuguese rule. So, perhaps it's time for the Fourth Estate to make their presence felt alongside the mercenaries, gun runners, whores, internationalists, aid workers, nuns and priests, freedom fighters, commissars and chancers in the war zone?

The other thought I've had stems from the review that was posted on a fellow blogger's website that commented on how 'focused' this blog is on the War in Angola. Of course, our 1975 alternative timeline is not restricted to Angola, but it's dead right to say that's where the tabletop action is. I have found myself developing storylines further afield though, and it's probably only a matter of time before this becomes an alternative timeline of the late seventies and the eighties, and not just in our chosen West African country. The British mercenaries that fought at Caxito could find employment in late seventies Britain, or that SAS raid on Soviet Bear aircraft operating out of Luanda during the Falklands War could trigger a much wider conflict...

What do you think?