Liner Notes: Paying for War in Angola

There’s  a common military aphorism that amateurs talk tactics but professionals talk logistics. Despite that famous statement, histories of logistics can be hard to find and among those histories of finance (beneath the strategic level) even harder. The obscurity extends beyond historians even to the militaries you would expect to know better. According to a short monograph recently published by Air University Press, the US Air Force went into both Gulf Wars without a financial management system capable of operating in a war zone.

One of the more innovative experiments in managing finance in the theater of operations comes from the Cuban intervention in Angola. It’s particularly interesting for me because it hinged on one of the more unusual instruments of postwar power, the cruise liner.

Between 1975 and 1991 more than 430,000 Cuban soldiers and civilians served in Angola. The troops, who were a mix of professionals, reservists, and conscripts, were all ostensibly volunteers. Though conscripts got the perk of reducing their service from three years to two, in general pay was poor. An ordinary soldier received seven Cuban pesos and 150 Angolan kwanzas per month, disbursed at the end of the soldier’s tour. The kwanzas could be used to buy discounted luxury goods in special subsidized shops in Luanda. The pesos were for home. To avoid having to funnel all returning troops through Havana or operate pay counters in every port of arrival, the Cubans hit on an unusual solution. For most of the 1980s they hired the Soviet cruise liner Leonid Sobinov to float off the Angolan coast as a “money ship.” Troops were shuttled out to the Sobinov to receive their back pay before the long transatlantic voyage home. Under close escorts because it carried so much money, the Sobinov usually stayed in Angolan waters for three days at a time. At least once it remained for a month.

The original designers of the Sobinov had probably never considered such as use for the ship. That said, they had probably also never considered that it would be owned by the Soviets. Like many of the Soviet Union’s larger passenger ships, it had been constructed outside the Soviet sphere entirely. Built for the Cunard Line in Britain as the RMS Saxonia in the mid-1950s, the Sobinov was sold to the Soviet Union and renamed in 1973. In addition to its unique duties as a “money ship,” it operated as an occasional troopship and cruise ship in the south Pacific and Mediterranean. It was laid up in the mid-1990s and scrapped in 1999.

Source: Edward George, The Cuban Intervention in Angola, 1965–1991: From Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale (Frank Cass, 2005)