Angola is a place that conjurs up mixed emotions for different people, particularly South Africans who study the First World War in Southern Africa and lived through the 1980s when some South African servicemen saw action in Angola (I actually don’t know if any women were involved other than in nursing/administrative capacities).
During World War 1, South Africa never invaded Angola although rebel Manie Maritz escaped there and was arrested by the Portuguese. The invasion was left to the Germans under Franke and for years this little incursion has remained one of the ‘more forgotten’ aspects of World War 1 in Africa. South Africa’s incursion into Angola in the 1980s is more well known despite the South African government of the time’s attempts to keep it quiet. This is one of the reasons for my latent interest in the area: it’s about getting the minority story out. This period though is a far more challenging one to study, in my opinion at least, than that of WW1. I experienced this first hand a few years ago when I researched Britain’s response to SA in Angola (1975-1989) for a paper I presented in Lisbon. The challenge was trying to be objective whilst reconciling what I’d picked up as a young schoolgirl with what I was reading in the official documents and what veterans of the conflict had told me.
This latter aspect is something which David Mannall in his Battle on the Lomba 1987: The day a South African Armoured Battalion shattered Angola’s Last Mechanised Offensive – a crew commanders account picks up on and which he has to deal with from the other side – that of the soldier being in a war no-one back home really knows is happening.
I got to read David’s book having discovered him and it through a forum set up by Jennie Upton. My knowledge to that point had been mainly around Cuito Cuanavale and 32 Battalion and of course Maggie Thatcher’s reasons for supporting South Africa and so this offered an opportunity to discover a bit more about the campaign and have a welcome diversion from things WW1 (a change is as good as a holiday). Armed with a synopsis of the book from David’s book launch in London, I was sure this would not be a disappointing read.
At the time, David said he hoped the book would have an interest for a wide-range of reader. And he was not wrong. The book is written in an easily accessible fashion – but is not for the faint-hearted. It expressly conveys the language and thinking of the day in white South Africa and gives some idea of what it’s like to be caught up in the heat of battle with its accompanying loss of life. One of the things I’m tempted to do when I get a moment, is to count up all the different terms for women mentioned – most triggered trips down memory lane. David’s language is colourful and descriptive. It gets to the essence of what he’s trying to say and in a way that you just can’t take offense (unless you have a real aversion to reading foul language in context).
For those interested in the pure military aspects, these abound as the book is written by a soldier and about battle. However, social and cultural historians as well as those interested in personal relationships and life in the armed forces will find enough to quench their thirst on this emotional roller-coaster read. (see Having read books like An unpopular war, David’s account struck me as balanced and insightful – trying to understand the why behind actions and how these worked to create a close-knit fighting team. I’m a pretty hardened battle-account reader but there were occasions within the book that I found myself caught up in the moment: perhaps another consequence of studying a time linked intimately with my own? I had uncles and cousins who served – my brother was too young – but they never spoke about their time and still don’t – does having this close connection put a different light onto reading recent historical accounts? I don’t know… I then found this review by Robyn Hastie.
Another great interest in David’s account is the interplay and complexity of the armed forces. This is something that I’ve started investigating in the WW1 context and therefore struck a chord. It’s not just about the guys on the front-line but all those silent individuals in the background which make it happen. I’ll probably never get round to counting the number of terms used for women, but I’ll definitely be exploring the logistics involved in the well-armed military machine.
And what was touchingly unexpected was the thought for the men on the opposite side – especially those who lost their lives. Wars happen, killing and death are part of war, but it never fails to amaze me how the humanity of (wo)man continues to shine forth in so many different ways.
Finally, I cannot comment on the accuracy of detail in the account as it is a personal account and I haven’t read enough of the time and theatre to make such a judgement. However, speaking as an historian, this book will form a valuable contribution to historians of the future who come to piece together an incredibly complex time in South Africa’s history and which saw allegiences on both sides. This wasn’t a local war in the usual sense of the term, it was a global one with the US, USSR, UK and Cuba involved and a conscious attempt by one side to deny its existence. For all involved the conflict got lost in the ‘bigger’ events of the time – the collapse of communism, the independence of Namibia and the dawning of the ‘New’ South Africa. It is through the account of individuals that the true impact of the war in Angola will be understood and participants of all sides should be encouraged to record their memories of it.
Through one man’s story, so many are remembered – especially those who carry the hidden wounds of war!