Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Brown Waters of Africa: Portuguese Riverine Warfare 1961-1974 - John P Cann

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Naval Review (Vol. 9, No. 3 (Fall 2013)). Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the Review. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor CNR (Ann.Griffiths@Dal.Ca). Website for the Review is:

Title: Brown Waters of Africa: Portuguese Riverine Warfare 1961-1974
Author: John P Cann
ISBN: 978-1-908916-56-3
Pages: 274
Illustrations: 33 B/W
Publisher: Helion Publishing

                Histories relating to ‘colonial style’ insurrection often focus on the land and air aspects of those operations. What makes the Portuguese experience so interesting is that, due to geography and sparse population, riverine operations played a critical role for both the insurgents and the Portuguese trying to contain them. Riverine doctrine and ops were in their infancy when Portugal decided to go against world convention and undertake efforts to retain its three colonies in Africa (Angola, Mozambique and Guinea). Thus the Portuguese military developed and executed their concepts over the course of 13 years of ongoing operations resulting in a comprehensive and effective response to the insurgents. 

                Cann’s book commences with a comprehensive overview of the development of the insurgency movement within Africa and the concurrent responses to it from the West and Soviets. He then addresses the challenges to the Portuguese government and senior military staff as it was pulled between opportunities and responsibilities to NATO (and its blue-water naval requirements) and the ‘ultramar’ (or colonies) and their brown-water focus. The Portuguese senior naval staff’s success, commencing in the mid-1950’s, in meeting both of these necessities, was remarkable both in terms of naval equipment purchase and design and doctrinal development (especially relating to operations within river, lake and littoral regions). While creating their own unique brown-water doctrine, the Portuguese drew heavily on the successes and failures of three main allies: the US, French and Great Britain.

                He then delves into the creation of specialized marine infantry, the Fuzileiros, to augment the engagement power of the riverine fleet. Having been disbanded as a force in 1890, these marines were reactivated with new operating procedures and tactics in 1959. Operating with new ‘Zodiac’ style small boats, these soldiers augmented the already versatile and formidable fleet of landing craft, patrol boats and frigates that were specifically created to meet the unique requirements of brown-water engagements.

                Once he had established the background and history of the Portuguese involvement and reaction to the colonial insurgencies, Cann focused his attention on operations and activities within each of the colonies themselves. Drawing upon extensive after-action reports and interviews, he sheds light upon the similarities and differences between the Portuguese navy’s responses to the unique requirements of each region. Faced with insurgents of varying capability and competence, the navy, through an ongoing and dynamic process of trial and error, developed extremely effective and responsive methods to interdict and disrupt insurgent logistical support by denying them freedom of movement within the regional waterways. Due to the challenging geography of the region joint operations with the army became the norm and while this was, from an overall perspective, effective, there were significant growing pains as the two traditionally independent elements struggled with command and control as well as operational primacy issues. Nevertheless, the navy’s ability to adapt both its equipment and tactics to meet the challenges of the insurgencies was indeed laudable.

                Cann’s book is excellent and sheds light upon a campaign that was largely overshadowed by the US experiences in Vietnam. That the Portuguese were able, by 1974, to realize military success in all three of their insurgent regions is in and of itself indicative of the critical success of their equipment and tactics. Cann provides an outstanding bibliography and footnote system thereby providing the reader with reams of material to follow up with. His extensive use of maps also ensures clear geographic context for the different theatres of operations. The font is a bit small but this is a minor inconvenience.
                Overall an excellent book and one that should be studied for those interested in expanding their knowledge of non-traditional uses of naval assets in an asymmetric environment. Highly recommended.

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