In the early hours of October 22, 1963, the Aracelio Iglesias merchant ship arrived in Oran, Algeria’s second city, in the northwest of the country, where a column disembarked before being transported by rail in 42 open cars and 12 carriages some 80km to the fort built by the French Foreign Legion in Bedeau, near the town of Ras el Ma.
Upon entering the city, there was some tension as a row of French military vehicles appeared. There were no incidents, the French stopped and let the Cubans pass. The Évian Accords, which preceded Algeria’s liberation from France on March 18, 1962, provided for this French presence, which ceased upon expiry of the agreed period. Algeria’s independence was proclaimed on July 5, and Ahmed Ben Bella was elected President, with Colonel Houari Boumédiène as his vice, in the first elections held in the country on August 19, 1962.
Algerian Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Bouteflika arrived on the morning of October 9, 1963, at the residence of the Cuban Ambassador, Comandante Jorge Serguera. The current president of Algeria told Serguera that Moroccan troops were about to invade. The Algerian army lacked tanks and other means to confront a conventional war.
Serguera noted that Cuba could provide Algeria with tanks, artillery and personnel. He repeated what Fidel had told him: “For the Algerians, any assistance they may need…” Bouteflika informed Ben Bella and Boumédiène, who accepted without hesitation.
Serguera immediately informed Comandante Manuel Piñeiro, in Cuba. When the operator asked with whom he wished to speak and who he was, he replied in code: from Raúl Perozo to Eduardo Mesa (two guerrillas killed by Batista tanks in a memorable battle). Serguera requested 22 “nurses” of Pedro Miret, with their instruments, in order to face an epidemic. Piñeiro, an astute chief, understood the message. Miret was the chief of artillery. Within hours Piñeiro reported: “Alejandro agreed.” Serguera expressed Fidel’s approval to the Algerian leaders.
The Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), Comandante Raúl Castro, traveled by helicopter to the eastern provinces of Cuba to meet with Fidel at the El Jardín ranch, in the present province of Las Tunas, where Hurricane Flora was lashing the country. Raúl informed him of the invasion.
After a dynamic analysis, they focused efforts on creating Operation Dignity. A tactical combat group was formed, together with a first Special Instruction Group (GEI). Members of the General Staff traveled ahead by plane to Algiers, arriving on October 14, including Flavio Bravo, Aldo Santamaría, Ángel Martínez, (Francisco Ciutat), Roberto Viera, Ulises Rosales, Pedro Labrador and Mario Alvarello.
In a meeting on October 9, chaired by the Minister of the FAR at the Managuaco military camp in San José de las Lajas, close to Havana, Raúl asked those present whether they would like to volunteer for a difficult mission abroad. That very night some 120 soldiers and officials gathered at the port of Havana, leaving in the early hours of October 10.
Following the prompt departure of the first, the second group of recruits left Cuba aboard the Andrés González Lines ship a week later. A further reinforcement departed on October 22, aboard two planes. Comandante Efigenio Ameijeiras, who would assume command of the operation, traveled on one of these flights. Comandante Roberto Viera was appointed as second in command of the Tactical Combat Group; Captain Ulises Rosales as Chief of Staff and Lieutenant Pedro Labrador as drill instructor.
The weaponry was transported on two vessels: a tank battalion with 22 T-34s; 18 122 mm artillery shells; 18 120 mm mortars; an 18-piece 14.5 mm anti-aircraft artillery and a 57 mm anti-tank battery. The Cuban GEI personnel included 26 officers, 19 non-commissioned officers and 640 soldiers.
THE TANKS ARRIVE IN ORAN SOME TWELVE DAYS LATER
Before sunrise on October 22, the first ship arrived in Oran, some 12 days after Bouteflika had visited Serguera. The second arrived on October 29. Denouncing the concentration of the King Hassan II’s troops on the border, Ben Bella spoke about the delicate situation in Algeria. The Moroccan King was aware of the Algerian lack of arms and ordered his troops to cross the border on October 14. They took Hassi Beida, Figuig, Tindouf and Tindjoub, despite the heroic Algerian defense.
As a correspondent for Prensa Latina, I flew aboard an Air Algerie flight to Colomb-Béchar, 1,200 kilometers south of the capital, where Vice President and Minister of Defense, Boumédiène, had established his command post. On October 23, I interviewed him, and he reported that U.S. forces were behind the attack, as Hassan II was using their pilots.
The Colonel ensured that several journalists traveled to Tindjoub, where on October 24 we could report that Algeria had recovered Hassi Beida, after five days of fighting.
Dr. Julio Hernandez was one of 28 doctors, three dentists, 15 nurses and eight technicians who had been working in the Saharan sands for about four months, composing the first Cuban civil assistance mission sent by Fidel on May 23, 1963. Hernández and the other collaborators had traveled to the conflict zone to assist the injured, until the arrival of Dr. Pedro Rodríguez Fonseca, head of the military mission, together with his doctors, after which they returned to the hospitals they had been assigned to since May.
THE STRATEGIC OBJECTIVE WAS CASABLANCA
”We were close to the border and Tindouf. We prepared to strike in this northern part of the combat zone, where Hassan didn’t have major forces. We would enter in front of the Atlas Mountains to Casablanca. The idea was to cross the border, advance 60 to 70 kilometers, and for the African fighters who were training in Sidi Bel Abbès and Oran to enter there, with Algerian consent,” explains General Ulises Rosales, today head of the reserve division.
“The Operation was planned for a simultaneous attack in three directions: a main attack with the Cuban-Algerian group in the direction of Aricha-Berguenet; another in Tlemcen-Oudja about 78km from the first, with two Algerian infantry battalions and a company of 55 tanks from Egypt; and the third towards Figuit, also with two Algerian infantry battalions,” he added.
After a meeting between the Algerian and Cuban military leadership in Colomb-Béchar, Boumédiène’s position was approved: to take the borderlands of Morocco, so if negotiations were necessary, they could do so from a stronger position. Ameijeiras stated: “We will not stop until Casablanca.”
“We were already at the line of departure, ready to begin the Cuban-Algerian offensive on October 29,” Rosales adds, “when Ameijeiras informed us that we must wait. Serguera had gone to Algiers to inform Ben Bella and he would give the order. But the President had told him that we should wait; ‘Tomorrow (October 30) I will attend a conference in Mali to discuss the situation with the participation of Hassan II, President Modibo Keita and Emperor Haile Selassie’. Serguera ordered that we wait.”
Later Serguera reported the declaration of a ceasefire and suspension of hostilities. Viera returned to Cuba with half the contingent. The rest of Operation Dignity involved continuing to instruct the Algerians in combat technique and preparation, under the command of Ulises Rosales.
On January 2, 1964, on the occasion of the 5th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, a joint military parade with the presence of Ben Bella, Boumédiène and Serguera was held in Algiers. Algerian officers and soldiers provided an impressive display. The Algerian government confirmed that its popular army was ready to ensure its main task of defending the gains of the Revolution. Comandante Raúl Castro Ruz sent a beautiful letter of recognition to each of the Cubans.
On March 11, 1964, Comandante Flavio Bravo officially handed over all the weaponry, which was received by Boumédiène and Commander Slimane Hoffman. The Cuban contingent stayed until October, when the training ended and they returned to Cuba. Letters of congratulations from Ben Bella and Boumédiène attest to the satisfaction with Operation Dignity.
The border invasion lasted just 17 days and documents declassified over the past 50 years allow us to understand how the courageous Algerian resistance, and the Cuban decision to send this combat training group, were instrumental in the positive outcome. The talks lasted several months in different settings until February 1964, when the existing borders were restored, as established by the Organization of African Unity (OAU).
ARMIES OF WHITE COATS AND OLIVE GREEN UNIFORMS
Cuban collaboration with Africa began in 1961, when Algeria was already fighting colonialism. This assistance multiplied following the events of 1963. Soon after, the President of Congo-Brazzaville, Massamba-Débat, made an official visit to Algeria, where during a reception in his honor at the People’s Palace, President Ben Bella told him about the recent operation. Débat wished to meet with Serguera. The Congolese president expressed his need for weapons and military training. This soon materialized and was followed by a series of agreements for Cuban assistance, using Soviet military equipment, to support the independence movements in Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa, as well as the threatened governments of Zaire, Ethiopia and the People’s Republic of Angola. The latter saw the longest, bloodiest and most significant Cuban participation, which extended to almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, considering the civilian aid provided.
Travel to Algiers by President Raúl Castro and President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s trips to Havana, have strengthened over half a century of cooperation between the two peoples and governments. These emblematic examples of brotherhood, which began Cuba’s civil and military assistance to most of Africa, would lead Nelson Mandela to exclaim in July 1991, “What other country has a history of greater altruism than Cuba has shown in its relations with Africa?”