IN SEPTEMBER 1978 the United Nations (UN) Security Council approved Resolution 435, which provided for a cessation of hostilities on South West Africa’s borders with Angola and Zambia. The South African forces in the area had to be reduced to 1500 over a period of three months, and elections would be held, overseen by the United Nations Transition Assistance Group, or UNTAG. A demilitarised zone was to be introduced, but this never transpired because SWAPO continued its incursions into South West Africa.
As a young candidate officer fresh from Infantry School, I was oblivious to all of this. My focus was strictly on proving myself capable of leading a reconnaissance team into the bush.
An attack by SWAPO on Katima Mulilo on 23 August 1978 began a new phase in the conflict, this time between South Africa and Zambia. Katima Mulilo was the headquarters of Sector 70, which was in charge of operations in Eastern Caprivi. In a standoff bombardment using 122 mm rockets, ten South African soldiers were killed when a rocket penetrated a barrack room.
The South African forces reacted swiftly with cross-border raids by three combat teams. By the time the South Africans arrived at their targets, SWAPO had already vacated the guerrilla camps and no significant military successes could be claimed. But the message to Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda and SWAPO was clear and simple: don’t mess with us.
During 1979, a series of well-planned cross-border operations into southwestern Zambia proved more successful. The reconnaissance wing of 31 Battalion played a prominent role in locating enemy bases and leading forces in to their targets.
At the time, the National Party government considered Zambia as a communist ally in the so-called total onslaught against South Africa. While the country maintained reasonably good trade relations with South Africa, it was under pressure from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) to support the liberation movements, including SWAPO and the ANC.
South Africa put much pressure on Zambia, via the UN, not to support SWAPO or provide a safe haven for its cadres. Consequently, the frequency and intensity of SADF operations against SWAPO into Zambia increased. The Zambian National Defence Force (ZNDF) inadvertently became involved, since SWAPO utilised the ZNDF’s logistical supply lines and often established their bases close to ZNDF deployments. The result was that the Zambian government began to pressure SWAPO to stop its activities in the southwestern parts of the country, since the South African Defence Force was causing a lot of trouble for them. The Zambian government also increased its pressure on South Africa, via the UN, to conclude peace talks with SWAPO.
My first deployment with the 31 Battalion recce wing was meant to be a daring little venture into southwestern Zambia to try and capture a SWAPO official on the road between Sesheke and Luso along the Zambezi River. This was early in February 1979. At the time, SWAPO was very active between the Kwando and Zambezi rivers in this corner of Zambia, and the area served as a transition and staging point for cadres moving to the front in Angola. It was an excellent training area for a guerrilla force. The terrain was quite similar to that of the operational areas in southern Angola and northern Namibia (Ovamboland). Up to that point the southwestern corner of Zambia was considered safe by SWAPO, since regular South African forces had not been operating across the border into Zambia.
Our mission was to ambush a SWAPO vehicle along the road and bring back a senior cadre alive for questioning. The ultimate purpose would be to determine the position of SWAPO deployments in the Zambian theatre of operations. Three of us were to form one early-warning group further north along the road, while another group of three would deploy south of the ambush site. The main force, the ambush party, consisting of Frannie du Toit and eleven guys, Bushmen and white operators paired off, deployed at a tactically suitable position between the two early-warning groups. They would be ready to spring the ambush once either group reported the approach of the SWAPO vehicle.
One thing stands out from those few days: I have never been so wet and so miserable for such a long time. We were using mostly SWAPO equipment, because the deployment was meant to be non-traceable, and of course the SWAPO kit would provide a measure of deception if we were spotted by an adversary. We only had ponchos that barely covered our bodies. From day one I was soaking wet – and stayed like that for the rest of the time. We could not move an inch in the early-warning position and could only shiver to stay warm. Making coffee or warming up food wasn’t an option, as our hide was literally two metres from the road.
The operation was terminated because the ambush party was compromised by a member of the local population (or LP, as they were referred to) who stumbled onto their position and ran away before anyone could react. We had to rush back to a predetermined RV and anti-track to ensure that our tracks were not discovered and followed back to the border. It was quite a relief when the deployment was called off. I would certainly be better prepared next time!
Once the team had regrouped at the RV, Frannie called me and asked whether I could lead the team back to the exfiltration point. I was eager to prove myself in the bush and I didn’t hesitate a moment. Through the lush vegetation of the African bush and over a distance of 30 km, I managed to navigate to the exact point where we needed to cross the border to re-enter the Caprivi. Although this was a small feat, it gave me great confidence in my abilities, and it convinced Frannie that I was capable enough to be deployed with him.
Of the many valuable lessons learned during this operation, one was that the success of counterinsurgency operations had to be measured in relative terms. An operation could seldom be labelled an outright failure if the stated objective was not in fact reached (as it was in this case), because it very often led to additional operational benefits, such as intelligence gained. The mere presence of South African forces in an area where they had not been expected also had an impact, and often intelligence gained on a “failed” mission would lead to the successful execution of a future operation.
A second key lesson was this: the bigger the force, the greater the chances of being detected. Over the next three years I discovered this to be a fundamental truth.
In 31 Battalion recce wing the norm at the time was to deploy in six-man patrols on reconnaissance missions. Since these jobs were of a tactical nature (as opposed to strategic), and contact with the enemy therefore almost inevitable, the reasoning was that the team should be strong enough to handle itself in a punch-up. During many of those deployments the team used to have a company from 31 Battalion right behind it, not more than a few hundred metres away.
The whole purpose, I discovered, was in fact to find the enemy, get them tied up in a fight so that they wouldn’t run away, and then have the company move in for the kill. It never worked, as the SWAPO detachments always followed the classic Mao Zedong tactics of “running away today to fight another day”. They never got tied up in a firefight unless they had chosen the killing field. They knew the lay of the land and were highly flexible in the bush. Contrary to what we were led to believe – that the SWAPO cadres were scared of the South African forces and chose to run away during any encounter – I learned that they were shrewd tacticians and often fierce fighters, most probably because they were fighting for a cause they were willing to die for.
Incidentally, during my years at 31 Battalion, but especially later during small team operations with Special Forces, several nerve-racking experiences taught me that running away was a valid technique that should be part of your arsenal of tactics, and that it did not necessarily mean defeat. The guerrilla mantra became a way of living, and so we adopted guerrilla tactics for the same reason SWAPO did – to survive! Among the special operations fraternity at Katima Mulilo I became known as a “fast runner”, as in most of my operations hasty not-so-tactical withdrawals were required to save our skins.
After this initial deployment, a series of reconnaissance tasks came our way. Frannie du Toit was an expert and I was lucky to be picked for a number of jobs with him. With his forceful personality and uncanny knack for reconnaissance, he was considered a bit of a maverick. Since he had selected and trained the Bushmen in the early days of the recce wing, he had the choice of some of the best men.
Our first deployment after the initial ambush attempt was a reconnaissance mission to locate a SWAPO forward detachment in the area of Kalabolelwa, also situated along the Zambezi River. Tango Naca and Dumba Katombela, two seasoned members of the recce wing, who formed part of Frannie’s regular team, were picked for the task.
Tango was one of the old-style, fierce Bushman soldiers who seemed to possess a sixth sense that made him almost supernaturally good in the bush. He could read a track like a storybook. He knew the bush intimately, understood the habits of the birds and animals, and had a natural, inbuilt sense for danger. Never while operating with Tango would we encounter enemy or local population without us knowing about them first. On numerous occasions we would locate them before they could become aware of us, allowing us to take evasive action or merge with the undergrowth.
One week before the infiltration we were airlifted to Katima Mulilo for final preparations and briefings. We spent most of our time in the ops room at Katima, planning routes and emergency procedures, and preparing maps for the deployment. We deployed from Mpacha Air Force Base before last light one day late in February 1979.
The Super Frelon dropped us in an omuramba 30 km southwest of our target area. It was a strange feeling, just the four of us in the belly of the huge helicopter, flying into the unknown. The adrenaline was pumping, as I had no idea what to expect. After twenty minutes we reached the landing zone (LZ). As we ran down the ramp into the field of small mopane trees outside, I was half expecting the enemy to be waiting to mow us down, but nothing happened.
The bush was quiet. And hot. And as the sound of the helicopter faded in the distance, an utter loneliness engulfed me – as if I was left alone in a noiseless world.
But I had no time to ponder this feeling, at least not right there. It would become a familiar sensation that I would experience a thousand times over, often in situations much more threatening than this. We waited until after last light to ensure that there was no immediate reaction, and then started moving in the direction of the target.
The operation would last for two weeks, as we had quite a large area to cover. Frannie’s plan was to look immediately for signs of the enemy along the main road curving along the Zambezi River; he reasoned that any sizable force needed to be supplied, and would therefore require some form of logistics. The local population was spread along the Zambezi, while the only road negotiable by vehicle was the one running parallel to the river on its western bank. Once we had located signs of enemy presence, we would turn our focus on them to locate the base.
We circled the area from the north, first moving along the slopes of an omuramba leading east towards the river, then cutting in along the road moving south. After seven days, having covered a 30-km stretch along the river, we still hadn’t found any sign. Either the information was wrong or the base was further south. Frannie called for a pick-up, which was pointedly denied, as we were supposed to deploy for fourteen days.
An argument ensued, as the Tactical HQ (commonly referred to as Tac HQ) demanded to know whether we had actually covered the whole forest area away from the river. The more Frannie tried to explain that it wasn’t necessary, since we had covered all the possible entrances, the more they insisted that we patrol the actual bush.
To me it seemed ridiculous to stay for another seven days if we knew the base wasn’t there. It would make more sense to go back, reassess where the enemy could be and deploy again. Little did I know that this would be only the first of many similar situations. In fact, it was quite common for the bosses at headquarters to think they knew better than the guy on the ground risking his life.
During the two days we waited in the lush green bush for a decision on whether our job was done or not, I had another unique experience with the Bushmen. Tango Naca had kept a close eye on a little bird from the moment we moved into our hide. The bird twittered and darted around us, and then flew off, only to come back after a while and frantically flap its wings. At first I thought Tango was irritated by the little bugger, as it could give our position away.
But then he approached Frannie and whispered something to him, to which Frannie nodded his head and gave him a thumbs up. Tango indicated to me to follow him and Dumba as they set off after the excited bird. After about a kilometre the bird started going mad, circling us and constantly going back to a fallen tree we had passed. Tango’s face lit up and a huge smile spread across his wrinkled features as he formed the word, “Honey!”
The Bushmen had a fire going in no time, and then made a crude smoke generator with green leaves wrapped around a burning branch. While I kept a lookout, the two Bushmen went about with their hunting knives, cutting away at the branches and then digging into the tree trunk that concealed the golden combs of honey.
Finally they managed to pull some of the combs from the tree trunk, stacking them on a large piece of fresh bark that served as a tray. We carried the honey back to the hide, and soon feasted on the pure golden sweetness from the bush. The syrup and large chunks of honey that we could not finish were stored in water bottles and taken back to base the following day – once the Tac HQ had finally agreed to extract us.
My first real contact with an enemy force took place during a deployment just north of the Matabele Plains in southern Zambia. SWAPO had established a number of training bases and transit camps in the relatively safe area of Ngwezi Pools. Our deployment formed part of a much bigger operation conducted by Sector 70 from its headquarters at Katima Mulilo.
Operation Saffraan was launched on 7 March 1979, concurrent with Operation Rekstok into Angola. The operation was partially in retaliation for the SWAPO attack on Katima Mulilo the year before, as well as for the frequent incursions into the eastern parts of the Caprivi at the time. As one of the main actors taking part in the offensive, 31 Battalion was tasked to deploy its companies in a wide-sweeping area operation against SWAPO bases between the Kwando and Zambezi rivers, while the recce teams were to act as cut-off groups north of the Matabele Plains.
With three teams of six each, we formed a fighting patrol of eighteen guys geared up for serious fighting. We knew that there was an elite SWAPO unit called Typhoon rehearsing in that area. Typhoon specialised in deep infiltrations into the farmlands of South West Africa, where they would attack farmsteads and harass local communities.
Our mission was to find elements of this group and hunt them down. We infiltrated by helicopter and, over the following week, did a wide sweep of the bush from where the group allegedly operated. On the third day we started picking up signs of guerrilla activity. Tracks of SWAPO soldiers often led into and out of the local kraals, although we could never pinpoint the guerrillas.
Towards the end of the first week we decided to use our resupply as a ruse to make the enemy believe we had left the area. At a cluster of kraals, in broad daylight and in full view of the population, we started moving south. We left a clear track and made it quite obvious that we were leaving. That afternoon, about ten kilometres further south, we called in the helicopters for a resupply. Afterwards, we meticulously wiped out all signs of our presence. We split up into teams again and decided on an RV where we would meet the following day. Each team then applied anti-tracking techniques and circled back to the predetermined RV.
After stealthily joining up at the RV, we decided to keep a low profile and not make our presence known. We sent out small patrols to locate signs of enemy presence, and were soon rewarded when a team reported fresh tracks going into a kraal complex. We circled the kraal to the opposite side from which the enemy patrol had entered. Frannie then deliberately exposed two of the Bushmen, dressed up in SWAPO attire, to the inhabitants of the kraal, whereafter we pretended to withdraw, and then moved into a thicket not far from the kraal complex.
The SWAPO patrol, not knowing whom they were dealing with so far from the South West African border, took the bait – hook, line and sinker. They aggressively pursued us into the bush. And we were ready. The patrol approached us in line-abreast formation, so by the time Frannie initiated fire we had the nearest ones covered. The one I had in my sights was barely 20 m away. Along with four others he went down under the initial high volume of fire, while the rest started scrambling in all directions.
By now most of the guys in our formation had broken cover and were rushing forward in an uncoordinated fire-and-movement attempt. Halfway through the contact I recall Frannie running forward, shouting at the top of his voice to the Bushmen: “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot. That’s a bicycle!”
Afterwards we had a laugh when we heard what it was all about: The OC Sector 70 at Katima Mulilo had promised the Bushmen a bicycle as a reward for each SWAPO cadre brought back alive. While we didn’t get any bicycles, since none of the enemy was taken alive, we were nonetheless elated about the way the contact had turned out, especially because we had not lost anyone in the firefight.
We set up a temporary base (TB) with proper all-round defensive positions in case of a retaliatory attack. Once we had reported the contact to the Tac HQ, we started collecting evidence. Five SWAPO cadres had been killed, but it was clear from the blood spoor that at least three more were seriously wounded. Since the contact had been too far into enemy country, it was decided not to launch a follow-up due to the lack of dedicated air support.
The Tac HQ also informed us that the intelligence guys wanted all the bodies to be brought out, as they considered the collection of weapons, equipment and documentation, along with the actual faces, fingerprints and personal belongings of the cadres, as critically important. So we set about collecting weapons and kit, and started dragging the bodies to an area that we had prepared as an LZ for pick-up.
Two helicopters were dispatched to airlift the teams and the dead cadres to the operational HQ in the area of Ngwezi Pools. After we had been dropped off for debriefing, the bodies were taken to Katima Mulilo for intelligence processing. Our teams conducted two more recce missions to try to locate SWAPO deployments, but by that time all the enemy bases had been abandoned. Operation Saffraan was called off and the unit returned to Omega.
At the time I didn’t give the piled-up bodies at the LZ much thought. The rush of adrenaline and the physical exertion of collecting the bodies and equipment in the heat of the day didn’t allow much time for reflection. But later on I would often think of the people who died at our hands. How did they end up wasted, far from their loved ones, under the harsh African sun? And would their families ever know where they were and how they had died?