On 7th November 1975 on the eve of Angola’s independence from Portugal, Cuba launched a large-scale military intervention – Operation Carlota – in support of the MPLA. By the end of 1975 the Cuban military in Angola numbered more than 25,000 troops.
In 1975 Angola gained independence from Portugal. In the period from 1961 to 1974 a War for Independence waged between three factions: the Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi a former Maoist and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) led by Holden Roberto.
The Angolan War for Independence ended with a military coup d’état in Lisbon on 25th April 1974 that 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 Angolan War for Independence formally came to an end on 15th January 1975 when the Portuguese government, MPLA, FNLA and UNITA signed the Alvor Agreement which granted Angola independence from Portugal on 11th November 1975.
The coalition government established by the Alvor Agreement soon fell apart as the various nationalist factions, each distrustful of the other and unwilling to share power, attempted to take control of the country by force, marking the transition to the Angolan Civil War that grew into a Cold War competition that continued, with some interludes, until 2002.
The Soviet Union and Cuba supported the MPLA, while the United States, South Africa and China supported UNITA and the FNLA.
For Operation Carlota, Cuba pressed into service three ageing Bristol Britannia 318 turboprop aircraft belonging to Cubana de Aviación to form an air-bridge and ferry elite Cuban military troops to Angola. It was a fifty-hour round-trip, forty-three hours of which were spent in the air with refuelling stops at Seawell (Barbados), Bissalanca (Guinea-Bissau), Brazzaville (Congo) and then onto Luanda (Angola).
The initial Operation Carlota flights were undertaken in secrecy with PM Errol Barrow’s tacit permission that Seawell could be used as a refuelling stop prior to the long hop eastwards to Africa. Barbados had granted Cuba stop-over rights for the first direct regular “tourist” route from Cuba to Africa.
In all the Cubana de Aviación Britannia 318s performed 101 flights between Cuba and Angola during the first few months of Operation Carlota.
When the first Operation Carlota Cubana de Aviación Bristol Britannia landed at Seawell on 7th November 1975 there was no final destination or origin stated and no one was allowed on or off the plane while it was on the ground. On those early flights the Cuban elite troops were disguised as tourist, dressed in civilian clothes.
The only initial modification to the aircraft was a floor hatch that enabled the troop’s weapons to be removed via the passenger cabin in case of emergency. The cover was this was a new tourist route that was being opened up!
Then one day a someone at Seawell went on board and saw the the Cubana de Aviación aircraft full of troops with weapons. The cat was then out of the bag!
There were also stories about when the Cubana de Aviación aircraft was departing, that the Barbados Police would follow the aircraft down the taxi-way and wait until it took off. It was rumoured that at the west end of the runway the aircraft would stop and a few people would get on or off. In those days there was no secure fence around the runway. Maybe just rumours – who knows?
When Cuba’s armed presence in Angola became known to President Gerald Ford in late November 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger immediately announced America’s disapproval and put (financial?) pressure on Barbados to bar Cubana de Aviación from refuelling at Seawell for their Cuba to Africa “tourist” flights. On 17th December 1975 Barbados was forced to withdraw Cubana de Aviació’s landing rights for the flights to Africa.
The Cubans then adjusted the Operation Carlota flight plan and set-up transatlantic flights from Holguin, at the eastern end of Cuba, to the island of Sal, in Cape Verde.
An intermediate solution, of making a stop in Guyana, did not work out for two reasons:
- the runway was very short;
- Texaco, which held the fuel contract in Guyana, refused to sell Cubana de Aviación fuel. Cuba tried to resolve this by sending a shipload of avgas to Guyana, but through some “incomprehensible accident” the fuel was contaminated with water and dirt!
Later by adding four extra fuel tanks to the aircraft cabin it was then possible to fly non-stop from Holguin in Cuba to Brazzaville in the Congo then onto Luanda.
The Washington Post on 10th -12th January 1977 serialised Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez story on Cuba’s intervention in Angola which fills-in some of the detail about those early 50 hour flights from Cuba to Angola with a refuelling stop at Seawell.
Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, article is, in effect, the first Cuban authorised version of the Angola civil war. Yesterday the official Cuban news agency, Prensa Latina, distributed several large extracts of it in Spanish. The author has granted The Washington Post first publication rights in English.
In 1843, a female slave called Black Carlota had taken machete in hand to lead a slave uprising at the Triunvirato sugar mill, in the Matanzas region, and had been killed in the rebellion. In homage to her, the action of solidarity to Angola was named Operation Carlota.
It began with the sending of a reinforced battalion of special forces, made up of 650 men. They were flown over a span of 13 days from the military section of Jose Marti Airport in Havana to the airport at Luanda, still occupied by Portuguese troops.
Their mission was to hold back the offensive so the Angolan capital would not fall into enemy hands before the Portuguese left, and then to keep up the resistance until reinforcements could arrive by sea.
But the men on the first two flights were sure they were already too late, and the only hope they nourished was that they might be able to save Cabinda.
The first contingent left at 4 p.m. Nov. 7, on a special flight of Cubana de Aviación, on one of the legendary Bristol Britannia 318 turboprops that the English manufacturers had stopped making and the rest of the world had stopped using.
The passengers, who remember clearly that they numbered 82 because that was the same as the number of men on the Granma, the boat that carried Fidel Castro and his band to Cuba to launch a revolution, had the healthy look of tourist tanned by the Caribbean sun. They all wore summer clothes, with no military insignia, and carried briefcases and regular passports with their real names and identification.
The members of the special battalion, which is not under the Revolutionary Armed Forces but rather the Ministry of the Interior, are well-trained warriors, with a high level of political and ideological formation. Some hold college degrees, are voracious readers and occupy themselves with intellectual pursuits. So the fiction of Sunday civilians should not have seemed a novelty to them.
But in their brief cases they carried machine pistols, and in the cargo hold of the plane, instead of baggage, there was a substantial load of light artillery, small arms, three 75mm cannons and three 82mm mortars. The only change that had been made in the plane, which carried two regular stewards, was a door cut in the floor so the weapons could be reached from the passenger compartment in case of emergency.
The first stop to take on fuel was made in Barbados, in the middle of a tropical storm; the main purpose of the next (five hour) stop in Guinea-Bissau was to await nightfall before flying on secretly to Brazzaville. The Cubans made use of this time to sleep – the most terrible sleep they had ever had, since there were so many mosquitoes in the airport sheds that the bed-sheets were soaked with blood.
Brazzaville is illuminated by the glow of Kinshasa – the modern brightly lit capital of Zaire. The two cities are situated opposite each other on the river Congo, and their airports are so close that the first Cuban pilots had to take great care not to land on an enemy runway. They managed to do this without mishap, and, their lights extinguished to avoid observation from the other bank, remained in Brazzaville just long enough to listen to radio reports on the situation in Angola.
Angolan commander Xieto, who kept on good terms with the Portuguese commissioner, had obtained his permission for the Cubans to land at Luanda. And that is what they did, at l0pm on November 8 under a torrential downpour and with no guidance from the control tower. Fifteen minutes later, when the second plane arrived, three ships were just leaving Cuba loaded with an artillery regiment, a battalion of motorized troops, and a number of rocket-launcher crews; they began to unload in Angola on November 27.
The FNLA columns [backed by South Africa, the USA and China, and the rival to the MPLA backed by USSR, Cuba] were so close that only hours before they had shot and killed an old native woman who was trying to reach the headquarters at Gran Farni, where the Cuban forces were concentrated. So the men arriving on the two planes had no time to rest: they put on their olive-green uniforms, joined the ranks of the MPLA and went into battle.
During nine months, the mobilization of human and material resources was a drama of daring. The decrepit Bristol Britannia 318 aircraft, patched up with brakes from Soviet-made Ilyushin 18s, kept up a steady and almost unreal traffic.
Although their normal load is 185,000 pounds, they often flew with 194,000, which is off all the charts. The pilots, who normally fly 75 hours a month, sometimes flew more than 200. In general, each of the three Britannia in service carried two complete crews who took turns during the flight, but one pilot remembers staying in his seat 50 hours straight on a round trip, with 43 actual hours of flight. “There comes a time,” he said with no attempt at heroics, “that you’re so tired that you don’t tire any more.”
The route from Havana to Luanda is empty and unused. At the Britannia’ cruising altitudes – between 18,000 and 20,000 feet – there is no information about winds in this day of the jet.
The pilots set off without knowing the weather along their course, flying at unusual altitudes to save fuel, and without the slightest idea of landing conditions.
Between Brazzaville and Luanda, the most dangerous stretch, there was no alternative airport to fall back on. On top of everything else, the troops travelled with their weapons loaded and carried their explosives without their protective wrappings to cut down on weight.
The United States noted the Britannia’s weak point: their range.
When Washington got the Barbados to bar refuelling stops, the Cubans set-up a transatlantic flight from Holguin, at the eastern end of Cuba, to the island of Sal, in Cape Verde.
It was a high-wire act without a net, for on the way out the planes arrived with fuel for only two more hours of flight and on the way back, because of headwinds, with only one hour’s fuel left.
But even that circus route was changed, to avoid endangering defenceless Cape Verde.
Then the cabins of the planes were modified to take four supplementary gasoline tanks, which allowed non-stop flights but with 30 fewer passengers, from Holguin to Brazzaville.
An intermediate solution, of making a stop in Guyana, did not work out for two reasons:
First, the runway was very short; second; Texaco, which holds the fuel contract in Guyana, refused to sell the fuel. Cuba tried to resolve this by sending a shipload of gasoline to Guyana, but through some incomprehensible accident the fuel was contaminated with water and dirt.
Despite these bitter setbacks, the government of Guyana was firm in its solidarity toward the Cubans until the [American] ambassador threatened it with the bombardment and destruction of the airport at Georgetown.
Maintenance was done in less than half the usual time, and a pilot remembers flying without radar several times, although no one recalls any instrument failure. Under those inconceivable conditions, the Cubans made 101 flights until the end of the war . . .
It should be noted that since the early 1960s, Cuba had provided crucial support to movements throughout Africa seeking to free themselves from colonialism. In Guinea-Bissau, Cuba had provided military instructors and doctors, enabling the rebels to gain their independence from Portugal which was how it secured the right to use Bissalanca, Guinea-Bissau as a staging point for those first flights that commenced on 7th November 1975.
[These daring 101 Operation Carlota flights at roughly 22,800 km with a 100 hour round trip by Cubana de Aviación’s three Bristol Britannia 318 turboprop troop ferry flights from Cuba to Angola in 1975/76 were a precursor to Operation Black Buck seven years later conducted by the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the 1982 Falklands War using aging Vulcan bombers. The objective of their 5 missions was to attack Port Stanley Airport and its associated defences. The raids, at almost 12,200 km and 16 hours for the round trip, were the longest-ranged bombing raids in history at that time. The Operation Black Buck raids was staged from RAF Ascension Island, close to the Equator and required in-air refuelling from eleven Victor K2 tankers – with tankers needed to refuel tankers to get the range. Nothing like this was available to the Cubans.]
The sea route was no less dramatic. The only two passenger ships, of 4,000 tons each, wound up with dormitories in every open space, and latrines were set up in the lounge, the bars, the corridors.
The normal loading of 226 passengers was tripled on some voyages, and cargo ships designed to carry crews of 80 eventually were loaded with more than a thousand troops with armoured cars, weapons and explosives.
Field kitchens were put up in holds and staterooms, and to save water disposable plates were used and yoghurt containers served as glasses. The bilges were used for waste, and some 50 latrines were set up on deck.
The tired machinery of the older ships began to give out after six months of overuse, and this was the only complaint of the first troops to come back: Their long-awaited return was delayed for several days because of clogged filters on the (Cuban troopship) Viet Nam Heroico.
The other ships in the convoy had to wait for her, and some of the passengers then understood what Che Guevara meant when he said that the march of a guerrilla band is determined by the slowest man.
The problems were all the most annoying because ships were the target of all sorts of provocations by North American destroyers, which followed them for days on end, and by war planes that buzzed them and photographed them.
Despite the harsh conditions of those voyages of nearly 20 days, there was no serious health problem . . . To make up for that, a more difficult epidemic had to be dealt with, for the ships’ crews wanted at all costs to throw themselves into the war.
One of them, a reserve officer, managed to get an olive-green uniform, mingle with the troops and smuggle himself ashore. He was one of the intelligence officers who distinguished themselves in the war.
But the historical fact is that the war was at the point of being lost. In the first week of December the situation was so hopeless that some thought was given to the possibility of fortifying Cabinda and saving a beachhead near Luanda for an evacuation.
There were also other forces at action. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was infuriated by Fidel Castro’s decision in late 1975 to send troops to Angola to help the newly independent nation fend off attacks from insurgent groups that were supported covertly by the United States and South Africa. This was the start of a coordinated covert effort by the USA to pursue the Cubans! Soon afterwards mysterious bombings started happening.
On 22nd April 1976 – a bomb exploded in the Cuban Embassy in Lisbon Killing 2 Cubans.
On 9th July 1976 – a bomb exploded in a suitcase as it was about to be loaded on to a Cuban plane in Jamaica.
On 11 July 1976 – an incendiary device went off during the night at the BWIA office in Fairchild Street, Barbaodos. BWIA were the agents for Cubana de Aviación. Not much damage was done. The device shattered the glass showcase and did some damage to the exterior sign.
Cable dated Monday 12 July 1976 from Bureau of Inter-American Affairs in Barbados to the United States Department of State (often referred to as the State Department):
On 6th October 1976 Cubana de Aviación Flight 455, a DC-8, en route from Barbados to Jamaica was brought down by a terrorist bomb. [Tom Adams was now PM of Barbados having been elected on 8th September 1976.]
All 73 people on board the Douglas DC-8 aircraft were killed. Two time bombs were used. It’s widely believed the the CIA had an hand in the explosion, in a similar way that the avgas that Cuba transported to Guyana in November 1975 was contaminated!
No Bajans were involved in the downing of Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 and the location of the explosion was conveniently declared to be outside of Barbados Territorial waters so removing the Barbados Government from having to press charges and getting involved in a cold war stand-off.
William Burton remembers the day when Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 was brought down as he was on duty at Cable & Wireless – Wildey IMC and worked until late that evening in the pix room sending photographs (similar to the one below) to various press agencies around the world.
Bristol Britannia 318
Bristol Britannia 318 General characteristics:
- Crew: 4–7
- Capacity: 139 passengers (coach class)
- Length: 124 ft 3 in (37.88 m)
- Wingspan: 142 ft 3 in (43.36 m)
- Height: 37 ft 6 in (11.43 m)
- Wing area: 2,075 ft² (192.8 m²)
- Empty weight: 86,400 lb (38,500 kg)
- Max. take-off weight: 185,000 lb (84,000 kg)
- Power-plant: 4 × Bristol Proteus 765 turboprops, 4,450 ehp (3,320 kW) each
- Maximum speed: 397 mph (345 knots, 639 km/h)
- Cruise speed: 357 mph (310 kn, 575 km/h) at 22,000 ft (6,700 m)
- Range: 4,430 mi (3,852 nmi, 7,129 km)
- Service ceiling: 24,000 ft (7,300 m)
- EKCO E120 weather radar
Angolan War of Independence (1961–1974)
Angola had been a colony of Portugal in one form or the other from 1482 when Portuguese navigator Diogo Cão arrived in the Kingdom of Kongo. The integration of Angola was problematic.
The Angolan War of Independence began as an uprising against forced cotton cultivation, and it became a multi-faction struggle for the control of Angola among two nationalist movements and a separatist movement. The war ended in April 1974 with the military coup d’état that happened in Lisbon which promised independence for Angola and the other colonies.
At dawn on 25th April 1974 there was an almost bloodless military coup d’état in Lisbon, Portugal. The Armed Forces Movement (AFM) overthrew the authoritarian regime of the Estado Novo ending nearly 50 years of dictatorship.
This military coup d’état was a watershed moment for the former Portuguese colonies thereby ending Portuguese colonial rule in Africa. The AFM regime immediately stopped all military action in the African colonies and pushed through a rapid and hasty programme of de-colonisation. Over the next few years Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Cape Verde Islands, Sao Tome and Principe, and Angola all became independent.
The name “Carnation Revolution” comes from the fact that almost no shots were fired and that when the population took to the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship and war in the colonies, carnations were put into the muzzles of rifles and on the uniforms of the army men by Celeste Caeiro.
Reference Material on Angola and the Civil War from 1975 to 2002
Angola Time line:
Transcripts of Gabriel García Márquez’s article on Cuba’s intervention in Angola:
Other Angola background articles: Jacobin: A War of Solidarity by Jorge Tamames
Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 video clips. They include some harrowing on-the-ground clips:
Cubana de Aviación Flight 455 background:
Book: “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana” co-authored by American University professor William M LeoGrande and the director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, Peter Kornbluh.