Meanwhile, there was panic and mutual recrimination at the joint Angolan-Cuban-Soviet operations
centre in Luanda. "Many problems had to be solved."
In mid-December, word reached Havana that the joint command had agreed, allegedly with Ochoa’s
blessing but also in his absence, to what appeared to be a general retreat from Cuito Cuanavale and
Menongue – the next town up the road to Huambo – north to the Benguela Line.
On January 2, 1988, Ochoa advised Havana that "the South Africans had withdrawn, there was no
longer a crisis situation in Cuito and certain troop movements could be made."
Castro was not interested in regrouping to fight another day and flatly rejected this, signalling on
January 12 that "as long as SA’s intentions are not totally clarified" there must be no thought of moving
On January 13 the SADF and Unita launched an attack on the three Angolan brigades holding a
defensive line to the east of Cuito Cuanavale and separated from the town by the Cuito River.
The Cubans – who at that point "did not have a single man in Cuito" – promptly ordered a "tactical
group with a tank battalion, artillery and other weapons" to the front from Menongue.
Castro had made up his mind that the Angolans would make a stand at Cuito. By his own account, he
told the MPLA that Cuba was taking charge. Castro peppered his generals with almost daily orders to
pull back and shorten the defensive line – three Angolan brigades strung out over 15km, 18km east of
the Cuito River - so that it could be covered by artillery positioned to the west.
The Angolans were hopelessly slow in complying. Ochoa was briefly recalled to Havana and told in no
uncertain terms to "overcome any resistance from our Angolan allies in order to readjust the frontlines."
To no avail.
On February 14, the South Africans did exactly as Castro feared, crashing through the 5km gap between
the 21st and 59th brigades and encircling the latter. "A very difficult situation emerged. They could have
gone as far as (the only bridge back into Cuito) and cut off three entire brigades" – more than 3 500
The Cubans counter-attacked with armour, losing seven tanks and 14 dead, by Castro’s count. Far too
many in his view and mitigated only by the fact that "the enemy had to use more than 100 vehicles." It
gave the Angolan brigades time to retire towards the river. There they were effectively trapped, the
South Africans having destroyed the bridge with "unmanned aircraft."
In the days that followed, Castro became increasingly animated, demanding to know how many tanks he
had left on either side of the river and why the Angolans still failed to consolidate their lines.
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