Robert Sid Ahmed,
INTERVIEW WITH INTERVIEW WITH DAVE TOMKINS
INTERVIEWER: Dave, can you tell me, why did you go to Angola in the first place?
DAVE TOMKINS: Initially money, albeit that in... I didn't actually consider that at the time. I was broke; the offer was put to me, and I took it.
INT: So what did you expect? Did you know where you were going?
DT: No. The short answer to that is "no", albeit that it was in the newspapers at that time and I did have a quick read-up, but it meant absolutely nothing.
(Request for complete answers)
INT: So did you know where you were going?
DT: Well, yes, obviously I knew where... the country that I was going, but not really very much about it, apart from the fact that it was obviously having a civil war - I mean, that was headlines at the time.
INT: So what was your first impression when you arrived? What did you find there?
DT: Quite frankly, I was horrified. I mean, the first.. time we exited the aircraft was into a very battered old bus, through some very battered streets, to a very battered old colonial mansion, and given some very tatty old clothes and a very tatty weapon, and away we went.
INT: Could you be more concrete? You know, when you say that "we were given clothes and weapons", can you be more concrete - who gave you the weapons, and where did you arrive, to which town, and who did you meet and who gave you weapons and who gave you the clothes?
DT: Well, we arrived in Kinshasa...
(Interruption - start again)
DT: No, we landed in Kinshasa, and we were taken to the home of Holden Roberto, who was president of the FNLA at that time. The clothes we were given were in an old bunker at the end of the garden, and they were bales of camouflage clothes, boots without laces, no belts to hold one's trousers up; and he personally was helping dish them out and find the right sizes for us, and was extremely helpful; but a very motley collection of clothing to equip us with.
INT: And which kind of weapons did you have?
DT: At that particular time, we were given five Belgian FN rifles, and the rest of us were equipped with M-1 and M-2 carbines, ex-Korean War, and some 66-millimetre Laws rockets. That was exactly the equipment that we left Kinshasa with in a bus to go to Angola.
INT: So how was it when you came to Angola? What was the trip [like] from Kinshasa to Angola?
DT: We were very nervous. We eventually turned off of the road, wherever that was, some hours from Kinshasa, literally into the bush, on pot-hole roads, mostly mud, until we got to tarmac roads later on. We had an escort that took off in front of us and was inevitably out of range most times. It turned over one time, and when we arrived at it, everybody assumed it was an ambush, and we shot out of the trucks and adopted all the positions we assumed that we should at the time, until we were told it was OK. So, yes, it was... we didn't know what we were going into. People waved at us when we went through some small villages, calling "FENLA, FENLA," which was quite emotional, I suppose, at the time: we felt perhaps we were doing something right. And eventually we arrived at our base.
INT: So what did you do when you arrived? Did you know who were your enemies, did you know how many of them are against you?
DT: No, not exactly. We knew that at that time, that there were some... thousands of Cubans had arrived, and that we were aware of from the press before we left. We were joining what was the FNLA, and we assumed it had an army. That wasn't the case that we found. I mean, we had a... it may very well have been an army at some time, but we were linking up with the remnants of that, and our army consisted of perhaps no more than 50 or 60 guys.
INT: Can you describe then what their training was, which kind of weapon they had?
DT: They had a complete array of very old weapons. There was no standardization. The majority of them had not been in the army; they seemed to be conscripted from local villages, whether by coercion or that they chose to. Most had civilian clothes on underneath their camouflage, ready to adopt another role should it transpire they might need to. No, right from the beginning we realized we were in a bit of a shambles.
INT: And what was your task there - did you actually train those people, or did you fight alongside them? What was your contact with the Africans there?
DT: Well, we were given to understand that we would be fighting with them rather than training. The recruiters, or certainly one of the recruiters, who'd been out there some time, gave us a completely different story to what we found when we arrived: that we would be well-equipped, well-fed, the logistics were there to support fighting units; and we were the vanguard of a battalion, basically, because he'd come over to recruit a thousand guys. Inevitably, that thousand didn't arrive, so we swelled the ranks of the FNLA army by just a few.
INT: So how were the living conditions there?
DT: Atrocious. When we first arrived, we were billeted in what would be an old colonial-type mansion, I suppose; it was in several acres of walled gardens, an empty swimming pool, many rooms with beds, but no mattresses, no blankets. We had a water shortage - I think the water came on 30 minutes a day - a filthy cook called Pedro; no rations, not even the basics: we had no sleeping bags, blankets; knives and forks were at a premium. And, yes, right from the beginning we knew that we could be in serious trouble here, albeit that they were telling us that things would improve.
INT: How did you cope with that situation? What was the morale among the men?
DT: The morale deteriorated very quickly. I mean, in a lot of situations like that you'll get... well, I suppose the term would be "barrack-room lawyers": somebody saying, "Well, this is not right," and others saying, "Well, look, let's bear with it," and others would want to catch the bus and go home. But ... yes, it deteriorated very quickly - not to the point of insurrection at that particular time, but we were all very unhappy with the circumstances. We were tired, a) from the journey, and I don't... we never got any rest from that moment on. Food, which is a basic necessity of life, was very spartan: we'd have rice and some rancid meat to eat for most of the day, and that would be it; there was nothing like going to get a cup of tea or coffee - it just didn't exist. So, for the fist week that we were there, yes, we found it extremely difficult.
INT: And how was it in the battle - I mean, how did you get (Overlap) involved in the battles?
DT: (Overlap) The battle... Yes. There wasn't any real battles as such. There was no infrastructure. I mean, we had a CO, which we've all heard the name: Callan - Costas Georgiou. The ranking structure was very much down to himself. We had a captain, Mick Wainhouse. They were friends of Callan, and they had arrived in Angola prior to us by some months. And this was the ranking structure of our unit, which I think at that time consisted of the whole FNLA army in northern Angola. He chose by emotion rather than ability, if he happened to like somebody - this was Callan - and you'd suddenly be a sergeant major, perhaps, not necessarily based on ability. But there was no infrastructure. Whilst he had a lot of courage and wanted to achieve the objective, which was to win the war, he had little to do it with - almost nothing - and no real tactical ability or command structure to achieve it.
INT: So can you describe some of the battles that you participated in?
DT: No, because there wasn't any battles to describe in the context that you're talking about a battle. We raided many of our own towns to get equipment for our own purposes: small villages and towns nearby. When I say "raided", I mean we went in armed - we didn't shoot anybody if we didn't have to - literally to deprive them of weapons so that we might be better equipped, being as nothing was coming in in terms of supplies, so we literally pillaged our own area to give ourselves some standardization of weapons. We then, on the ordersof our CO, would confiscate all their weapons, which were a very motley bag...
INT: Sorry, I'm going to interrupt you. Are you speaking abFNLA?
INT: Maybe if you can be a bit more clear, because some of our viewers would not understand. Can you explain it to me from the beginning again?
DT: Right. Now we're in.. an area where there are no enemy at that time. They were at Damba ... not quite at that time, but they had arrived in a town called Damba, which was some hundred of miles, let's say, away from us. We were not surrounded, and they were... I mean, the roads were very limited at that particular point. We were in one town and they were in another. They.. had obviously got information that British troops were arriving, and had stopped their advance on the basis of waiting for further information, to find out what the enemy strength, our strength was. So when you say "a battle", at that particular time - and we're talking a very short period of time here - our first priority was to equip ourselves, to give ourselves some mobility. We had about 13 Land Rovers, of which three, I think, worked, several trucks, and a bus. We had two or three Panhard armored cars with 76-millimetre guns on, and two rounds of ammunition. That was the type of army that we're sort of looking around working out. I had... my task was demolitions. I asked to see the explosives store, of which I had been told prior to leaving the United Kingdom that was fully equipped with C-4 and all the possible amenities of modern warfare. I found several sticks of gelignite, that I immediately buried because it was leaking, some open boxes of TNT flake, and lots of Soviet mines, and that literally constituted my contribution to the war effort was going to be the use of that. That's what we had at that particular time. We then raided our own FNLA local towns, their armories, and stole whatever we decided we needed. Our CO then told us to confiscate everything else, so that in fact we left most of the population of that town unarmed anyway, and we destroyed the rest of their weapons, for whatever reason he had in his mind - I have no idea. We blew them up or cut them up or bent them, so they couldn't be used.