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Operation Gordian Knot (Operação Nó Górdio) was the largest and most expensive Portuguese military campaign in the Portuguese overseas province of Mozambique, East Africa. Carried out from 1970 to 1971, during the Portuguese Colonial War (1961–1974). The objectives of the campaign were to prevent FRELIMO's infiltration routes across the Tanzanian border and to destroy permanent FRELIMO bases inside the liberated zones in Northern Mozambique. Gordian Knot was a seven-month long campaign ultimately employing thirty-five thousand men, and was almost successful since it destroyed most guerrilla camps located inside FRELIMO's liberated zones and captured large numbers of rebels and armaments, forcing FRELIMO to retreat from their bases and outposts in the provinces.[1][2][3][4][5] The operation ultimately failed when FRELIMO forces regrouped and thrusted further south in the province of Tete, opening a new front and overstretching the Portuguese Army. The failure of Gordian Knot helped fuel the discontent that led to the Carnation Revolution in April 1974.

Operation Gordian Knot
Part of Mozambican War of Independence
Msumbiji Cabo Delgado.PNG
Date6 July 1970-January 1971

Short-Term Portuguese Victory

  • Portuguese army seizes initiative in northern provinces.
  • FRELIMO re-organises and opens new southern front.
 Portugal Mozambique FRELIMO
Commanders and leaders
Portugal Kaúlza de Arriaga Mozambique Samora Machel
Mozambique Alberto Chipande
Units involved

Portugal Forças Armadas

Flag of FPLM.svg Forças Populares de Libertação de Moçambique
34,000-35,000 soldiers 9,000-11,000 guerillas
Casualties and losses
132 killed
82 wounded
15 vehicles destroyed/damaged
651 killed
1,840 captured
61 bases destroyed
165 camps and sanctuaries destroyed
4 civilians killed


Independentist guerrillaEdit

The communist-inspired independentist guerrilla (FRELIMO), soon realised the difficulties they would encounter in militarily defeating the NATO backed Portuguese forces on the open battlefield and for this reason FRELIMO took on an strategy that was relatively unique. With no real working class or Mozambican military to isolate from the Portuguese regime and ultimately from which to gain support as in the case of a typical Marxist-Leninist strategy, FRELIMO's military adopted a Maoist strategy. The Maoist insurgency is typically three-staged:

  • The First Stage was to create networks of guerrilla political/progaganda groups to win popular support and to train terrorist teams to intimidate sections of the population which may be hesitant to support the insurgency or which support the targeted government outright. The intent is to neutralize any area of the population which will not support the insurgency at the outset and to organize the areas of the population which will provide support.
  • The Second Stage (or open guerrilla warfare), began with armed resistance by small bands of guerrillas operating in rural areas where terrain is rugged and government control is weak. Initially, this stage is characterised by low level hit and run tactics designed to highlight the strength and organization of the insurgent movement and expose the weaknesses of the government. As more of the population is won over to the insurgency the magnitude of the armed resistance and guerrilla warfare is increased to include greater segments of the countryside and more lucrative targets. The rate of increase in the guerrilla effort is dictated solely by the response of the government. If the government responds in a forceful, well-organized fashion, the insurgency may remain in an early stage two mode of operation for a prolonged period of time or may even revert to stage one. The intent of stage two, however, is to continue to gather popular support and gain control of the countryside, isolating government forces in small areas, mainly urban, and making them pay a heavy price when they venture into guerrilla controlled areas.
  • The Third Stage of a Maoist insurgency is the evolution of the insurgency into an open civil war, where the guerrilla forces take on the appearance of a regular army and conventional warfare is more predominant. The intent here is to openly defeat and displace the existing government authority if it has not already come apart from within.

This was the strategy FRELIMO adopted from the outset with a notable exception. FRELIMO had not yet moved to the third stage of the Maoist strategy by 1970. The Portuguese had held relative military supremacy during the course of the liberation struggle but struggled to win support of the majority of the population outside of the major cities and towns, where settlers and colonial authorities had firmly established themselves.

Arrival of Brigadier General Kaúlza de ArriagaEdit

In March 1970, during the Portuguese Colonial War a new commander for Portuguese forces in the Portuguese Overseas Province of Mozambique was appointed. Brigadier General Kaúlza de Arriaga had studied the Mozambican theater from a position on the staff of the Institute of Higher Military Studies in Lisbon and had served as commander of ground forces in Mozambique for eight months prior to assignment as overall commander. He possessed definite ideas on the conduct of the war in Mozambique which were reinforced by a visit to the United States for consultations with General William Westmoreland concerning American tactics in Vietnam. Arriaga insisted on the deployment of aircraft to support ground operations, particularly helicopter gunships; and initiated large scale "search-and-destroy" missions. He also requested a further increase of troops and material. Bolstered with three thousand additional Portuguese soldiers, Arriaga launched the largest offensive campaign of the Portuguese Colonial War - Operation Gordian Knot (Operação Nó Górdio).

The operationEdit

Portuguese soldiers on patrol.

The objectives of the campaign were to seal off the infiltration routes across the Tanzanian border and to destroy permanent guerrilla bases. "Gordian Knot" was a seven-month campaign employing ultimately thirty-five thousand men, and was almost successful. The brunt of the effort was in the Cabo Delgado district, in the northernmost area of Mozambique, on the border with guerrilla sympathizer Tanzania. Tactics consisted of lightning quick airborne assaults on small camps. Continual artillery and aviation bombardment rained down on larger sites while bulldozer guided, motorized armies converged. These tactics were effective and Arriaga pursued the guerrillas relentlessly; however, the exertions of "Gordian Knot" could not be continued indefinitely.

The Portuguese had excellent coordination between light bombers, helicopters and reinforced ground patrols. They utilised the American tactics of quick airborne (helibourne) assaults supported by heavy aerial bombardments of FRELIMO camps by the Portuguese Air Force (Força Aérea Portuguesa or FAP) to surround and eliminate the guerrillas. These bombardments were accompanied by the use of heavy artillery. The Portuguese also used cavalry units to cover the flanks of patrols and where the terrain was too difficult to motor transport, and units of captured or deserted guerrillas to penetrate their former bases.

However, as the number of guerrilla killed and captured increased, so did the number of Portuguese casualties. The politicians in Lisbon—the metropole—although dissatisfied with the success of the counterinsurgency until Arriaga's assumption of command, had been content with the relatively low casualty figures. As casualty rates continued to climb during "Gordian Knot" their early pleasure with the improving tactical operations diminished. Political meddling in the conduct of the war appeared with increasing frequency.[6]

Though "Gordian Knot" had been the most successful campaign of the counterinsurgency it had not delivered the ultimate victory desired by Arriaga - for several reasons. The first, noted above, was political "queasiness" with the increased casualty rates and subsequent meddling in the operation itself. The second was the onset of the rainy season in November which proved to be longer than usual and subsequently gave the guerrillas more than enough time to partially recover. The third was the simple fact that Arriaga had to mass all of the Portuguese forces in Mozambique to pursue the campaign in the extreme northern provinces in hopes of a relatively quick but decisive victory. FRELIMO realized this and reacted continually dispersed into the jungle, prolonging the campaign and trying to consume Portuguese resources. Simultaneously, guerrillas increased operations in other provinces, sparsely guarded by Portuguese troops, however, with no success. A Portuguese communique issued in late January, 1971, acknowledged that in spite of the massive operation, not all military objectives had been realised.

The Portuguese eventually reported that 651 guerrillas has been killed and another 1,840 guerrillas had been captured, for the loss of 132 Portuguese troops. Arriaga claimed his troops to have destroyed 61 guerrilla bases and 165 guerrilla camps, while 40 tons of ammunition had been captured in the first two months of the operation.


Arriaga, whether disillusioned by "Gordian Knot" or restrained by Lisbon due to budgetary issues, shifted from extended conventional sweeps to small unit actions deploying black and white shock troops. By this time, half of the Portuguese troops on the field were conscripted black Africans from Mozambique. By 1972, the situation had deteriorated with the Portuguese forces operating out of traditional secluded strongholds inside FRELIMO liberated zones and controlled areas. The violence and brutality of Portuguese campaign actions against the population of the countryside were increasing along with various massacres against civilians. The Portuguese stepped up new defensive tactics, herding them into villages and trying to ensure the population was not reachable by FRELIMO. The Portuguese regime subsequently shifted tune from "destroying FRELIMO" to "bringing the situation under control."

Despite the initial Portuguese military success, the number of monthly casualties never reached zero. FRELIMO continued to cross the border to maintain links with the local population and opened a new front in the Province of Tete near the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric dam by rerouting their forces through Zambia. As the liberation struggle continued on the Portuguese regime continued to commit horrific atrocities. The most famous of which was the Massacre at Wiriyamu, a village which had been classified as collaborating with FRELIMO by the PIDE/DGS. The incident itself was not brought to the attention of the rest of the world until nearly a year later, in July 1973, by a Dominican priest who witnessed the massacre. It was at first denied, then contested, investigated and again denied by the Portuguese authorities of the Estado Novo. Though full details of the entire episode are still not known, a large amount of innocent civilians were slaughtered by a group of Portuguese soldiers during a planned operation (Operation Marosca) to attack an alleged guerrilla base. The PIDE/DGS agent who guided the soldiers told them explicitly that the orders were to "kill everyone", despite only civilians having been found in the village and there being no signs of FRELIMO activity. This agent, Chico Kavachi, was later murdered before he could be interviewed in an investigation ordered by the Portuguese government after the massacre became known in July 1973.[7] Some historians speculate that the DGS wanted to deliberately create an embarrassment to the government, so as to get rid of Kaúlza de Arriaga, whom they considered an incompetent general.

Long-term effectEdit

Later counter-claims, probably at the behest of the Portuguese government, have been made in a report of Archbishop of Dar es Salaam Laureaen Rugambwa that the killings were carried out by FRELIMO combatants, not Portuguese forces.[8] In addition, others claimed that the alleged massacres by Portuguese military forces were fabricated to tar the reputation of the Portuguese state abroad.[9] But the exposure of the Wiriyamu massacre brought with it the exposure of numerous other massacres on a smaller scale and increased worldwide (particularly third-world) condemnation of Portugal. During 1973 and early 1974, the situation continued to worsen for the Portuguese, FRELIMO continued to advance further into Portuguese controlled territory from fronts in Tete and Cabo Delgado. The civilian authorities in Lisbon, embarrassed by the atrocities and massacres exposed had lost a great amount of confidence in military solutions and were encouraging the expansion of operations by PIDE.[10] PIDE's paramilitary endeavours were viewed as excessively brutal and counterproductive by the leaders of the military, and disagreement on the proper role of the secret police in combating the insurgency widened the rift between the central government and the military leadership and helped fuel the discontent and disillusionment within the Armed Forces.

When the Movimento das Forças Armadas (MFA) seized control of the government in Lisbon on 25 April 1974, an event known as the Carnation Revolution, the Portuguese position in Mozambique all but collapsed.

General António de Spínola, head of the new government and former commander of counter independence forces in other Portuguese territory in Africa, Portuguese Guinea, manoeuvred to maintain some control over the destiny of the Mozambican people by calling for a cease-fire and Portuguese sponsored elections; but FRELIMO, sensing victory, refused to allow Spínola to impose a neocolonialist solution onto Mozambique.

FRELIMO announced the opening of a new front in Zambezia and poured guerrillas into the middle regions of the country, advancing further south. The Spinola government countered by ordering northern outposts abandoned and the concentration of troops in the southern regions, by handing out arms to rural settlers, and by ordering[11] an increase in bombing attacks on guerrilla controlled territories. These measures were intended to support the Portuguese position at the negotiating table. The Portuguese troops fighting in Mozambique realised that the coup in Lisbon, the change of regime and the opening of negotiations with FRELIMO were a prelude to withdrawal. Instead of engaging FRELIMO, many refused to continue risking their lives and enacted local ceasefires and surrenders. By mid-summer an undeclared truce prevailed since the bulk of the Portuguese army would not leave their barracks and refused to fight; on 8 September 1974, an accord was signed formalising the cease-fire. The agreement called for a transitional government with full independence for Mozambique to be granted on 25 June 1975 - the thirteenth anniversary of FRELIMO. The Portuguese Colonial War had ended, but the newly independent territories of Angola and Mozambique would enter a period of chaos and devastating civil wars (Angolan Civil War and Mozambican Civil War) which lasted several decades and claimed millions of lives and refugees.


  1. ^ (in Portuguese) (in English) Parte 2 - Operação "NÓ-GÓRDIO", RTPN (
  2. ^ (in Portuguese) (in English) Parte 3 - Operação "NÓ-GÓRDIO", RTPN (
  3. ^ (in Portuguese) (in English) Parte 4 - Operação "NÓ-GÓRDIO", RTPN (
  4. ^ (in Portuguese) (in English) Parte 5 - Operação "NÓ-GÓRDIO", RTPN (
  5. ^ (in Portuguese) (in English) Parte 6 - Operação "NÓ-GÓRDIO", RTPN (
  6. ^ Thomas H. Henriksen, Revolution and Counterrevolution, (London: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 49.
  7. ^ Gomes, Carlos de Matos, Afonso, Aniceto. Os anos da Guerra Colonial - Wiriyamu, De Moçambique para o mundo. Lisboa, 2010
  8. ^ Arslan Humbarachi & Nicole Muchnik, Portugal's African Wars, N.Y., 1974.
  9. ^ Adrian Hastings, The Daily Telegraph (June 26, 2001)
  10. ^ Adrian Hastings, Wiriyamu, (London: Search Press, 1974)
  11. ^ F. X. Maier, Revolution and Terrorism in Mozambique, (New York: American Affairs Association Inc., 1974), p. 24. & Thomas H. Henriksen, Revolution and Counterrevolution, (London: Greenwood Press, 1983), p. 57.


See alsoEdit