Brothers in Arms
FOR A YOUNGSTER of twenty, those years at Omega in the Caprivi were pure bliss. As a second lieutenant leading a reconnaissance team of six, consisting of two whites and four Bushmen, I had just enough freedom to mostly do my own thing without having the responsibilities of a more senior rank. We lived for the day – and for the operations that followed in quick succession.
By this time I had signed up for “short service”, which involved an additional two-year contract to the compulsory two years of national service. It also meant a healthy salary package, considering that I was also earning “danger pay” during the three years I served on the border.
At the time, more than 4 000 Bushmen lived at Omega. Of this number about 800 were soldiers, and the rest consisted of their families. The soldiers were divided into four companies: A Company (composed of Baraquenas, an indigenous tribe from the Cuando-Cubango region), B and C companies (Vasquelas, Bushmen formerly scattered across the southern regions of Angola and northeastern South West Africa) and D Company (a mix of Baraquenas and Vasquelas). Each company had its own HQ in front of its living quarters.
Omega was like a fair-sized town and indeed had to be managed like one, as all the essential services had to be maintained. The school used to have in excess of 300 pupils, who were mostly taught by national servicemen. There were about 250 whites, the majority of whom were single men who lived in prefabricated wooden huts (called “kimbos”) at the centre of the base. Three or four of us used to share a hut. For the married officers, warrant officers and NCOs, there were about fifteen “married quarters”, either wooden houses or caravans.
Daily life at the base revolved around the officers’ bars and messes. We were a close-knit community, and an exceptionally healthy spirit reigned. On Sundays the OC would close the bars and the whole unit went to church, after which the bars would reopen and everyone, married couples included, came together for a magnificent brunch. Occasionally we held concerts, with virtually everyone participating, and performing artists also visited the unit.
The recce wing’s training base, Fort Vreeslik, was built in a secluded spot about 14 km south of Omega where few people ever visited. When not on operations, we spent most of our weekdays there. The base was situated in the pristine and unspoilt bush of the Western Caprivi. The huts were built of poles and thatch that we collected from the bush ourselves.
In the centre was a fairly large “lecture hut”, where classes were presented. Since we built the camp ourselves, there was a sense of ownership among the recce wing guys. Every time we visited Fort Vreeslik, we would add a new hut or do maintenance on the structures. It was our pride and joy, and we considered it a special place.
The Bushman soldiers I used to work with in the recce wing were extraordinarily well adapted to the environment. They knew the uses of each plant, recognised every track in the wild and understood the habits of each animal. They were invaluable when it came to making deductions from any disturbance in nature, and they could predict enemy actions from the most imperceptible signs left by an adversary. While the older men were admittedly more experienced in the ways of the bush, the younger ones were equally at home.
In my experience, the Bushmen were hunters rather than fighters. A Bushman soldier’s value, at least from the reconnaissance perspective, lay in his ability to track, stalk and outwit the enemy. Combined with his uncanny knowledge of the bush and his ability to survive, a Bushman made the best of partners in a reconnaissance team.
While there wasn’t much we could teach the Bushmen about the bush, their tactical skills were not well developed. Training therefore centred on tactics and weapon handling. A typical Minor Tactics course would include tactical movement in different patrol formations, ambush techniques, contact drills based on the fire-and-movement principle, and of course reconnaissance skills such as observation posts (OPs), listening posts (LPs) and stalking techniques.
Once we decided to play a trick on the Bushmen while I was presenting a lecture to them. A loudspeaker system was set up on the other side of the base, playing a recording of lions roaring and other game sounds. At some point during the lecture I heard the faint but distinct sound of young lions panting. A visible question mark formed on the faces in front of me and I could hear whispers of “lion, lion”. “No,” I pretended to put them at ease, “you know there are no lions here…”
But I hadn’t even finished speaking when a deafening roar suddenly sheared the afternoon air. They were up like one man, diving for their weapons, which had been left outside the lecture hut. Rifles cocked and ready, they lined up to face the lions, but no one dared go forward. Every time the lion roared, they jumped back into line. By this time I could barely keep a straight face. When an elephant trumpeting followed another round of roaring, they realised that they had been had. Some of them were so angry with us that they dropped their weapons and refused to continue with the day’s training.
Tango Naca was hand-picked for the recce wing long before my arrival at the unit, and he had numerous specialised missions to his credit. As he was highly respected by both Vasquela and Baraquena, the white leader group relied heavily on his wisdom not only in training and combat but also to help resolve domestic problems at the base. With Dumba Katombela he formed part of a formidable team, and during those first deployments I tried to absorb every little thing they could teach me.
Later on, after I had selected and trained the first group of Baraquenas from A Company, Xivatcha Shekamba and Chimango Kanyeti became my permanent team buddies. I soon realised that the Baraquenas were equally well adapted for reconnaissance work, having been exposed to the same hostile conditions as the Vasquelas in Angola. I deployed on a series of reconnaissance missions with them, and today I have to admit that I owe my survival to both of them.
A buddy pair typically consisted of one Bushman and one white operator, as the natural skills and instincts of the Bushmen were considered critical for our survival. However, most of the Bushmen soldiers were still illiterate, and their level of both English and Afrikaans left much to be desired. While they could set up a radio and convey elementary messages, they could not draft reports or encode and transmit messages. It was therefore essential to have a combination of Bushman and white buddy pairs in the team.
Back then, the size of a team was determined by practical considerations. We wanted the team to be as small as possible, as the conventional six-man team was considered cumbersome and left far too many tracks. The four-man team appeared to be the best size for tactical reconnaissance.
Buddy pairs could also act independently when required. For the final approach to a target, for example, one buddy pair could stay behind in a hide, set up the HF radio and act as both relay station and emergency rendezvous point (better known as a crash RV) for the recce team. The recce team, in turn, could leave their packs in the hide and do their final approach in light order. Very high-frequency (VHF) radio communications would be maintained between the two groups. If the recce team could not locate the target, they would return to the hide and the whole team would move further into the suspect area. This procedure, called “caterpillaring”, would be repeated until confirmation could be obtained that the enemy was either present or not.
Over the years that I served with 31 Battalion recce wing, I steadily built up my knowledge of guerrilla operations. The tactics and skills required for reconnaissance missions became second nature, and I would eventually develop my own philosophy and create a unique concept for these missions. This tactical foundation served me in good stead in my later career in Special Forces, and would eventually form the basis for doctrine we conveyed during training.
It remained a challenge to infiltrate undetected through hostile and often populated areas towards a target, and we constantly tested new ideas and developed techniques to try to outwit the enemy. Consequently, the means of infiltration towards a target area was subject to much deliberation. While parachute infiltration had always been considered, it had never actually been done, because the Bushmen had never been exposed to airborne operations and had not done the training.
That was why, at the end of 1979, I was sent to Bloemfontein to do the basic parachute course at 1 Parachute Battalion – with six Bushmen. We prepared ourselves well, and by the time the course started we were super-fit. The time in South Africa turned out to be an astonishing experience, as the men from the bush had never even seen a high-rise building, nor a lift or an escalator. For most of them, a tar road was a novelty, while the many shops and businesses were almost too much to comprehend. Whenever I took them to town, the seven of us had to hold hands to stay together, especially when crossing roads.
As it was the height of the apartheid era, I tried to prepare them beforehand for what was to come. But even I was shocked by the way African people were treated, whether by shopkeepers, train conductors or simply people on the street. More than once I had to intervene in a shop and tell a clerk that the Bushmen were with me and that I wanted to buy the items for them. It was embarrassing in the extreme, as racism was completely foreign at Omega, and I had difficulty in making them understand how a system like that could rule our society.
The parachute course did not go down well with the Bushmen. Although they were exceptionally fit, they could not pass the heavy lifting and power exercises of the PT course – the two-week physical training programme that served as selection for parabats. I was disappointed, as we had all trained together at Omega, and I found the PT course a breeze. I even had the time and energy to spend my evenings with the pretty girls of Bloemfontein!
Four of the Bushmen eventually went on to do the actual jumping phase, but again, to my disappointment, they could not master the landing drills. Only one of them qualified, though we often let the rest of the group jump once back in the Caprivi.
At the end of the course, we made our way back to Pretoria by train. At Germiston station we had to transfer to another train, and I warned them beforehand that the train, an urban commuter-type, would stop for only a few seconds. We had to get on as quickly as possible and there would be no time to waste with our luggage. When the train approached, we were standing at the ready on the platform. As the door opened, I threw in my luggage and some of the Bushmen’s and then stepped on board. Two of them followed me, but when the train suddenly started to pull away they decided to stick with their buddies on the platform and jumped off before the doors could close, leaving me with half the luggage on the train. As I looked out of the window, they were clutching each other in a pathetic huddle on the platform.
Since all of my luggage was on the train, I had no option but to stay. I was really worried, as I knew the Bushmen had no clue about where to go, and we hadn’t agreed on an emergency RV beforehand, as we always used to do. I only managed to get off about four stations later. I left the luggage with another soldier going to Pretoria and took the next train back to Germiston. But there was no sign of my comrades, and apparently no one had seen them.
In low spirits, I took the next train to Pretoria. But, lo and behold, as the train pulled in to the station that evening, there they were – standing by their luggage, smiling and waving at me. They even made fun of me for arriving so late.
Back at the unit, we soon settled into the normal routine of training, waiting for deployment orders for the next mission, and then preparing and rehearsing for the job. The road construction base at Chetto, about 60 km from Omega, was the ideal venue for many of our rehearsals, as it provided a real-life target in a thickly vegetated area.
During one such rehearsal at Chetto, with Xivatcha Shekamba, I got a nasty wake-up call and was taught a lesson I would not soon forget. After observing the “enemy” for some time, we infiltrated the base by crawling under the double fencing during the small hours of the night, leaving a trail as prominent as a bulldozer’s. We settled down under an upturned engineer’s boat right in the centre of the camp, from where we watched the base awakening and even had a giggle as we observed their morning parade from our snug little hide.
Our happy state was not to last for long, because soon after the parade the security section of the base discovered our entry point and followed our tracks. With shouts of “AWOL!” and “Lazy bastards!” the trackers challenged us to vacate our position. Soon the whole engineer community had gathered around us, and it was rather embarrassing to crawl out and face the daylight. The base commander pretended that he was not aware of the exercise. He alleged that he thought we were real enemy and consequently permitted a fair measure of “manhandling” by his troops. However, he ensured a happy ending to our misfortune by taking us for some refreshments in the camp bar, and then giving us a free ride back to Omega.
As a tactical reconnaissance capability, the 31 Battalion recces were in high demand for intelligence collection missions in the areas of responsibility of sectors 20 (Rundu) and 70 (Katima Mulilo). Our mission was to locate enemy bases and installations in the “near” areas, up to a distance of roughly 60 km across the border, while the Reconnaissance Commandos were supposed to perform strategic missions. However, this rule was only loosely applied, as the Reconnaissance Commandos operated wherever there was a demand.
I was once told outright by the OC that they preferred the 31 Battalion recce wing to the teams from Reconnaissance Commandos, as we were constantly exposed to tactical deployments and virtually lived in the bush. Intelligence reports from a reconnaissance by the 31 Battalion teams were detailed and to the point. We were prepared to deploy at any time and at short notice. No fuss was made about support and we never had outrageous demands about rations, resupply or assistance from other support services. If there was a job to be done, we’d simply get on and do it.
In the early days of the war, a typical deployment into Zambia would normally be conducted from Katima Mulilo, which was situated on the banks of the Zambezi River opposite the Zambian town of Sesheke. At that point, in early 1980, President Kenneth Kaunda still vehemently denied the presence of freedom fighter training camps in Zambia. Consequently, whenever South African forces ventured into Zambia the rest of the world was led to believe that we were targeting Zambian soldiers and civilians. Zambia was in a precarious position: as a member of the Commonwealth it had to manage its relationship with the West but it also wanted to remain faithful to the independence movements.
The recce wing therefore did not deploy overtly into Zambia. Since most deployments were of a clandestine nature, our modus operandi, including tactics and equipment, was adapted to ensure that deployments and equipment could not be linked directly to South Africa. We wore nondescript olive-green uniforms that could be confused with those of SWAPO, indistinct flat-soled boots that made anti-tracking easier, and we applied stealth tactics to avoid detection by enemy forces and the local population.
At about this time, Commandant (the rank was later changed to lieutenant colonel) Gert Opperman took over command of Sector 70. His nickname was “Rooi Gert” (Red Gert), presumably not only for his ginger hair but also for his fiery temperament. His second-in-command, Major Fred Oelschig, was a seasoned soldier and a brilliant tactician. Both men were extraordinary leaders. They understood the necessity for reconnaissance and the importance of having a small group of specialised and motivated men to do demanding jobs – particularly those behind enemy lines that could not be done by regular soldiers.
Upon receiving the warning order at Omega, a brief appreciation would be done to determine essentials, such as the size of the team, weapons and equipment to be taken along and the duration of the deployment. An HQ element would then be despatched to the Sector HQ at Katima Mulilo, Rundu or Oshakati – depending on which sector was involved – to set up the Tac HQ, initiate the necessary liaison with the HQ, the Air Force and other support elements, and start collecting information.
For deployments into Zambia, the teams settled at a secluded location, normally a fenced-in old building close to the runway at Mpacha Air Force Base, which was about 20 km from Katima. The team leaders would typically do their appreciation and planning at the Sector HQ in Katima, while the rest of the team, under the leadership of the senior NCO, would start preparing radios, rations, water and whatever specialised equipment was needed. The final briefing to the HQ was done by the senior team leader, always with the air liaison officer (ALO) and pilots in attendance.
Written orders and overlays with the emergency plan were handed in and the team then gathered at Mpacha for final preparations. Rucksacks were secretly loaded onto the helicopters by the support guys while the teams stayed out of sight. Our standard procedure was to wait, already blackened and kitted up and all nerves, at a small hut near the end of the runway. The choppers would taxi out, as if they were doing routine preflight checks, until they reached the exact spot where the teams would slip from the brush and jump on board.
On one such deployment, we were to fly out in two Alouette helicopters after following the same boarding procedure. The pilots were briefed that the team would consist of two whites and two Bushmen and that we would board each Alo as a black and white buddy pair. The other white guy in the second buddy team was a sturdy farm boy from Namibia. By the time we had to board, he had already covered his face with camouflage cream and wore an Afro wig to round off the picture. Once my buddy and I had boarded the first helicopter, the pilot took off. But the second Alo didn’t move. We circled back and the flight engineer eventually handed me a headset. The pilot in the Alo on the ground wanted to know where the second white team member was, as only two Bushmen had boarded his helicopter. I cleared it up when I told him to look a bit closer at the second “Bushman”.
Another one of these missions across the great Zambezi took us into an area east of Sesheke. The terrain was new to us and quite difficult to operate in. The Zambezi flood plain, which extends quite far north of the river, consists of open marshy areas interspersed with clusters of tropical forest barely 100 m wide. While under the cover of these clusters of bush, everything was fine – except for the squadrons of mosquitoes and battalions of ticks that pestered us. Once in the open, though, the team would be completely exposed. We also knew that should we be isolated inside one of these forest clusters, escape would be virtually impossible, as a mobile enemy force could easily encircle them.
The team once again comprised four members – two whites and the now trusted couple, Xivatcha and Chimango. We were in quite a predicament since we needed daylight to find signs of enemy presence, but moving in the day was risky. We therefore decided to move in the early morning and late afternoon to scan the area for tracks. We would adopt the typical casual style of patrolling that the SWAPO cadres used – single file and with weapons slung across our backs – in the hope that from a distance we would be mistaken for SWAPO should we be spotted. After dark, we took off our shoes and moved barefoot to find a hide far away from where we had been the previous day.
On the fourth afternoon we suddenly heard voices in front of us – in the same cluster of trees we had just entered. As we moved into cover we noticed boot tracks all around, and realised that we must have entered the lion’s den. The next moment we saw soldiers leaving the thicket on the opposite side, but did not know whether they had seen us or not.
I decided to inform the Tac HQ immediately, as the terrain didn’t allow too many manoeuvring options, and we had no idea of the enemy’s position and strength. I didn’t even encode a message, but hastily informed Major Oelschig what our position was and what we intended to do. I also told him that I would give them an update in thirty minutes. We took in a hide to make a map appreciation, and had just settled down when we heard vehicles coming our way. I prayed that they would pass the cluster of trees where we were hiding, but our luck had run out. Ural trucks came to a halt on the opposite side of the little forest, and we could distinctly hear shouted commands, doors banging and tailgates being flung open.
It was time for action. I kept Xivatcha close to me, as I had learned to rely on his instincts in situations like this. We went down and prepared for the worst, as a stealthy withdrawal was now out of the question.
There were four trucks, all loaded with soldiers who were now making a lot of noise and shouting obscenities in Kwanyama at us, their enemy, whom they suspected to be the “boers”. After debussing from the vehicles, the soldiers formed up for a search. But for some strange reason – probably because they confused the tracks of the smaller group that we had initially encountered with our own – they formed up facing away from us.
As we watched this spectacle unfold, we realised that the enemy had no idea where we were, and were shouting and making a commotion in order to scare us out of our hiding place. It was only a matter of time, and sooner or later they would realise that we hadn’t left the cover of the bush, so I decided that we had had enough excitement for one day. We picked up our kit and, with that very cluster of tropical bush to mask our retreat, bent down low and ran in the opposite direction.
After some time Xivatcha, who was running ahead of me, tilted his head and looked at me, his face lighting up: “Aeroplane…” he smiled. “Boer aeroplane.”
I quickly switched on the UHF radio, and straight away the reassuring voice of the pilot came across: “Kilo Sierra, this is Cheetah. Do you read me?”
“Cheetah, this is Kilo Sierra. Angels from heaven,” I managed to get out. “You come as if you were sent!”
“We have indeed been sent. Thought you were in trouble. Where’s the enemy?” the pilot asked.
The next moment two Impala jets thundered overhead, and we almost jumped with joy. I directed the pilots towards the area where the enemy had been, but either they had cleared out or were hiding their vehicles, because the Impalas could not pick up anything, and the pilots had to be content with delivering some speculative fire into the bush.
During the debriefing back at Katima, it transpired that Major Oelschig had dispatched the fighters directly after speaking to me on the radio, without waiting for my update thirty minutes later. He declared that he couldn’t afford to have South Africans killed on the opposite side of the river, as “South Africa was not at war with Zambia”. To the team it was reassuring to know that our ops commander was someone with vision and a gut feel.
On a practical level, I would learn many things during my years at Omega, not only about surviving in the bush but also about my brothers-in-arms. Our Bushman buddies were indispensable in most operations, but there was one thing you couldn’t ask of them: to do a tactical river crossing.
I discovered this during a mission when we had to cross the Cuando River to reach our target. The Cuando flows from the central highlands of Angola in a southerly direction, forming the border between Zambia and Angola and eventually cutting through the Caprivi (where it is called the Kwando) to its marshy end in the Linyanti Swamp in Botswana. A fighting patrol from the recce wing was tasked to harass a major SWAPO supply line – a road stretching along the eastern shore of the Kwando River to SWAPO bases along the Caprivi border.
To ensure that the team reached the road undetected, it was decided to cross the Luiana and Kwando rivers on foot, a task that soon proved to be nearly impossible. Firstly, it transpired that few of the Bushmen in the team could swim. Therefore we had to take inflatable mattresses and ensure that every non-swimmer was assisted by a guy who could swim. The situation was complicated by the fact that the Kwando River was no less than five kilometres wide at our point of crossing.
Fast-flowing streams rushed past marshes covered in thick reeds. The many small islands meant the team could take breaks, even though we had to battle swarms of mosquitoes that vigorously attacked us throughout the crossing. We made the rucksacks float by wrapping them in groundsheets, after which the webbing and weapons were tied on top.
Around a bend in a particularly broad stretch of river, I came across Joao Antonio, a Bushman who carried the team’s RPG-7. He looked at me with a guilt-ridden face that said it all: his equipment had capsized and the RPG launcher was at the bottom of the river, along with a set of three booster charges that formed part of the rocket. We dived after it and managed to retrieve the whole lot. After the crossing we let the boosters dry in the sun, hoping that they would do their job when we needed them.
The entire team finally made it across the river after 36 hours of painstaking work, and we reached the eastern shore exhausted but relieved. Approximately two kilometres from the intended ambush position we split the team in two; the team leader led the ambush party to the road and I stayed behind with a small reserve team, manning the radio.
Events at the ambush site turned out to be quite interesting, as I learned later. On the second day a SWAPO resupply truck came rushing down the road. Joao, the man with the previously submerged RPG-7 launcher, positioned himself squarely in the centre of the road, crouching down for a better shot. His first attempt was met by a disheartening “click” as the weapon failed to respond. No luck the second time either. The situation demanded desperate action. At this point Joao, fiercely aggressive and determined to stop the massive machine thundering down the narrow road, drew his alternative weapon, a 9 mm pistol, and started emptying it into the truck, which by this time was virtually on top of him.
Fortunately, the rest of the ambush party did not wait for Joao to bring the truck to a standstill and also opened up with every weapon they had. Joao cleared the road just in time before the truck crashed into the bush. Our team leader then made a sweep of the killing ground, took photos of the truck and the victims, and led his team back to our position. That same day, we were lifted by helicopter and flown back to Omega.