A Fool’s Errand
Stephen Rookes, The CIA and British Mercenaries in Angola, 1975-1976 (Helion, 2021)
The latest magazine style book from Helion’s Africa @ War series concerns western efforts to influence the Angolan Civil War. The plan was to impose a regime that favoured the United States of America through a massive injection of resources and money to two pro-western factions. But as Rookes demonstrates, plans are one thing, successful execution quite another.
Rookes begins his story with a very useful background introduction to Angola, one of the more complex nations in southern Africa. Portugal’s empire began to crumble in the wake of WWII under the pressure of nationalist movements that swept the European colonial world. In the 1960s, Angola became a hotbed of unrest, then civil war broke out as independence loomed in the wake of Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in 1974. The three major factions contesting Angola’s future would divide down ideological lines amidst the tensions of the Cold War; the Soviets and Cuba backing the MPLA: the US and South Africans supporting UNITA and the FNLA.
Enter the Americans. They became involved in Angola through the Truman Doctrine of blocking communism wherever it appeared. Rookes gets into the weeds on the background of American intervention leading to Operation IA/Feature; the supplying of equipment and arms to the FNLA and UNITA through Zaire with combat operations assistance from South Africa. Then came the mercenaries from Portugal, Britain, France, and the US. Many were recruited by the CIA, and they included the notorious ‘Colonel’ Callan. Though Rookes notes that the number of mercenaries numbered in the hundreds rather than the thousands, the Cubans in Angola vastly outnumbered them, and it was the mercenaries’ defeat that led to the closure of Operation IA/Feature; the end of the war soon followed. Rookes closes with the Luanda trial of thirteen mercenaries, four of whom, including Callan, were executed. Rookes concludes with the observation that the CIA had misplaced its confidence in interfering in Angola after its success in the Congo. A list of mercenaries and a solid bibliography complete Rookes’ book.
These Helion magazine style books never fail to pleasantly surprise. They look like there is nothing to them, but this one is a fine example of a text packed with information with enough room for colour plates of aircraft, vehicles, and uniforms. Rookes gets side-tracked at times, and he wrestles with some sketchy sources, as might be expected given the subject, but I still came away from his book much better informed than I was going in, and you can’t ask for much more than that. Any reader of modern military history, especially for Africa, will want to add this to their bookshelves.