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Shortly after passing the infamously gruelling Special Forces selection course in the early 1980s, Koos Stadler joined the so-called Small Teams group at 5 Reconnaissance Regiment. This subunit was made up of two-man teams and was responsible for numerous secret and highly dangerous missions deep behind enemy lines. With only one team member, Stadler was sent to blow up railway lines and enemy fighter jets in the south of Angola. As he crawled in and out of enemy-infested territory, he stared death in the face many times.
A gripping, firsthand account that reveals the near superhuman physical and psychological powers these Special Forces operators have to display.
4 First Small Team Ventures
First Small Team Ventures
AT THIS TIME, although subconsciously, a new and more refined concept of tactical reconnaissance missions started taking shape in my mind. Conventional military doctrine dictating reconnaissance operations had proven itself flawed and ill-adapted for the kind of enemy, population and terrain that we encountered on a daily basis. Of course, there wasn’t a blueprint for recce missions. It was something that had to be learned and developed slowly through trial and error.
Operations by 31 Batallion recce wing
The one aspect of doctrine that had not been decided on conclusively was the size of the team. Conventional wisdom prescribed that a team doing a recce at a tactical distance in front of a fighting force had to be strong enough to fend for itself in a punch-up. Also, in order to cover a larger area, more feet on the ground were required. Thus, a recce team consisting of six or eight members was not uncommon. In fact, having such numbers was often a saving grace since recce teams invariably had to switch to fighting mode.
The downside of this modus operandi was that once you were on an independent mission without any immediate backup, you were fairly exposed as a big group. The more feet on the ground, the more footprints you’d leave and the more noise you’d make. In areas with soft sand and sparse undergrowth, it would be impossible to hide a team of eight. Once you were on the run from a large enemy force, control over eight team members would also become challenging.
This was illustrated clearly by an incident when Sector 20 at Rundu requested a team to do a recce of a FAPLA brigade HQ at Mpupa in southeastern Angola. It was to be a clandestine mission, and the aim was to locate the base and do a detailed close-in recce, with the eventual purpose of passing the information on to UNITA for a large-scale base attack. However, this information was never disclosed to us, probably because the planners thought we would be a security risk.
I picked an eight-man team, four whites and four Bushmen, to rehearse for the job, as I thought that such a large target would require more feet on the ground. The intention was to leave a two-man element outside the base, and let three two-man teams cover the three main target areas within the base. We were also told that, as the South Africans were not officially operating in the area and were supposedly not supporting UNITA at the time, the operation could not be compromised at any cost, hence the use of helicopters for insertion or extraction would not even be considered. All equipment needed to be non-traceable, and no sign whatsoever could be left to suggest that South Africans had been in the area.
This was the last point-target reconnaissance I would ever do with a recce team bigger than three. The operation almost turned into a major disaster, and was in many respects a turning point for me, mainly because of the lessons we learned from our mistakes.
We started rehearsing weeks ahead. We sat for hours in the ops room at Rundu studying aerial photographs of the base and surrounding areas. We spent many hours determining routes in and out, identifying hiding places and working out emergency procedures. The base, which consisted of an HQ and three large defensive systems occupied by two battalions, served as the main headquarters and forward airfield for FAPLA forces in the area. Guided by the intelligence officer from Chief of Staff Intelligence (CSI) dedicated to the deployment, we identified complex trench systems surrounding the base and worked out a tricky approach route through them.
As usual, we spent many hours on detailed rehearsals, practising every drill, every possible method of stealthy movement and various immediate-action drills in case things went wrong. By the time we deployed, we were confident that our plan would work. What we did not realise beforehand was that the vegetation surrounding the target was not dense enough to hide a team of eight, and the soft sand of the Angolan savanna would make effective anti-tracking almost impossible.
We infiltrated for five days, taking it slowly in order to leave no tracks and to ensure that we reached our target unobserved. A slight navigational error over a 40-km distance, with no landmarks to plot your position, could lead to disaster. At the time I had not fully mastered the art of multi-legged dead reckoning (DR) navigation, whereby the navigator, in the absence of recognisable terrain features, has to rely completely on maintaining his bearing and judging his distance. I realised too late that navigation should be planned in the same detail as the rest of the deployment.
On the night we finally had to penetrate, I came to the shocking realisation that we were about three kilometres south of the target, and were about to penetrate one of the forward early-warning posts, located in a deserted farmhouse. During the last three days of the infiltration we had rainy, overcast weather and absolutely no way of identifying a landmark to guide us.
We had to admit defeat and return to Rundu to work out a better route to the target. When we deployed again, we approached the target within four days. Using DR, I navigated to the last step, and found the target with relative ease. On the morning of the fourth day, the team was huddled together in a thicket that did not provide enough cover at all – and barely two kilometres from the target. To make matters worse, the hiding place was right next to a well-used pathway, frequented by both soldiers and civilians. We kept a low profile, sweating out the day.
By early evening we were up and about, relieved that we had not been seen and ready to penetrate the base. I established comms to brief the Tac HQ on our intentions, and then the team fell into formation and started the approach to the target area.
On the perimeter we left a two-man team with a radio, Tinus “Putty” van der Merwe and his buddy, to establish the crash RV (the point that would serve as rendezvous in case of emergency) and to guard the kit, while the three recce teams entered the dragon. The six of us stalked between two trench systems, where we could hear soldiers on both sides going about their business, and then made our way towards the centre of the target area. Once on the runway inside the base, we split up, one team going north, one south and my team, the indomitable Chimango Kanyeti and a somewhat self-assured me, moving eastward in the direction of the river.
For the first time in my operational career I had a peculiar experience that would often repeat itself later, but at the time was unique and quite inspiring. As we stalked towards our target, following the route I had painstakingly planned, experiencing the terrain and features as we had seen on the aerial photos, I had the distinct feeling that I had been there before. I experienced an eerie and very real sense of d?j? vu. Because we knew every centimetre of the terrain, and because Chimango and I had rehearsed in similar conditions, we both had the feeling that we had done this before, on this exact stretch of earth!
Then I made the dumbest mistake of all. As we moved east, we also approached against the low moon. It was 02:00 and the quarter moon was rising above the treetops, providing just enough light to restrict our vision and cast dark shadows under the cluster of trees we were approaching – the exact position where we expected the enemy to be.
There is no sound as ominous as the cocking of an unfriendly AK-47 in the middle of the night – especially if you are at the wrong end, exposed and not sure where it’s coming from. We were suddenly challenged from the shadows of the line of trees ahead of us. The first to gather his wits was Chimango. As the voice behind the AK-47 demanded to know who we were, Chimango answered in the local vernacular, which, fortunately, he understood. Pretending to be drunk, he mumbled something to the effect that we were on our way to our platoon. That gave us the split-second advantage we needed.
We did not wait for the man behind the voice to make up his mind as to whether we were friendly or not, but just gapped it out of there. This would not be the last time the cocking of an AK-47 in the dead of night would bring an operation to an abrupt end. And I can honestly say that I never grew to like that sound particularly.
Our next challenge was to get the teams together, because by that time we had run out of comms with them. At last we managed to raise the other two teams, one to the north and the other to the south, on the radio and call them back to the crash RV. By that time there was enough commotion around us to wake a sleeping dragon, so no one felt the need to hang around. We moved out along the same route by which we had entered, carefully avoiding the defensive positions where we could now hear the sounds of soldiers awakening and preparing for the day. On the outskirts of the base we met up with Putty, who was still manning the crash RV and guarding our kit.
There was barely an hour of darkness left, and we made good use of it. We ran west, away from the base, and then, in an attempt to deceive the enemy, turned north and started applying various anti-tracking techniques. Eventually we swung west, then turned south, thinning out, changing direction, walking backwards in our tracks and generally behaving frantically. By 09:00 we realised that the FAPLA guys had launched a massive follow-up. Behind us we could hear vehicles closing in, distinctly pushing over vegetation and revving up through the brush. Vehicles were also advancing on the road to our west, probably dropping off teams to cut in on our tracks. To the east, we were cut off by the Cuito River. To the south lay the Cubango (Kavango) River – still to be crossed once we got there.
It was up to me to make the call: we either had to compromise the mission by a helicopter pick-up or run the risk of a contact or one of our team members being caught. I opted for the easy ride home. The Puma picked us up about 15 km north of the border, literally grabbing us from under the noses of the follow-up force. It was quite a red-faced affair, as the South African forces were blamed for aggression against the MPLA and I was the one who had to answer for having caused an international incident. The South African government, of course, categorically and vehemently denied involvement and simply passed the blame to UNITA.
At least we didn’t leave any equipment, wounded soldiers or dead bodies behind. That definitely would have won me the gold medal. But one good thing did come of it; I vowed that I would never again do a close-in reconnaissance with a team of eight, or approach the lion’s den against the rising moon.
When the adrenaline started pumping, fear was a constant companion, and, like every young soldier, I had to learn to cope with it. My fellow soldiers used to handle their fears and uncertainties in different ways, often by excessive drinking. Since I didn’t drink, I had to find other ways of letting off steam. Apart from my faith in God, as well as a strong tie with my parents, I developed my own techniques for managing my fear.
I realised firstly that I had to be completely at peace with the bush. While being alone in the veld had long ago become second nature to me, the added dimension of danger required an altogether different mindset. Danger came in all sorts of forms, whether from the wild game that frequented most of our areas of operation, or from the ever-present threat of a real and dangerous enemy. Even the threat of being detected by a member of the local population while lying up in a position close to the enemy would get the adrenaline pumping. So we trained at every opportunity. Whenever I had the chance, I would sleep in the veld – alone. During holidays in South Africa, I used to go hiking or camping by myself. And I kept myself fit, going on long, tiring runs to clear my mind.
The second technique was to plan operations in the finest detail, making a plan of action for every possible scenario that could go wrong, and then rehearsing each in the same minute detail. Thirdly, since I had developed a love of classical music, especially opera, during my formative years, I used to listen to music as a means of easing the tension and relaxing the nerves.
While a smaller team could move with stealth and hide away easily, it was limited in firepower and would only really act defensively. Marius Hibbers was a big-framed and stouthearted product of rural South Africa who had joined the recce wing at about the same time as I had. Together we had forged a solid four-man team along with two of the newly trained Vasquela Bushmen. The four of us did a series of recce missions into southwestern Zambia.
One pitch-dark night we were approaching a target area close to Kalabolelwa along the Zambezi River. SWAPO detachments had allegedly sent elements further south to set up early-warning posts along the Zambezi River. Our task was to confirm the existence of these forward posts and locate their exact position – a similar job to the one I had done with Frannie du Toit in the same area the previous year.
At the time there were large herds of elephant roaming southwestern Zambia between the Kwando and Zambezi rivers. The bush was lush and green. The team had been doing good time during the infiltration and bedded down at about 22:00 that night to get a good night’s rest before closing in the following day. Although it was unwise to move closer to the river in daytime, as the shore was densely populated, we needed daylight to locate signs of enemy presence.
Around midnight I woke up with a start. Hibbers had one hand on my wrist, the other on my mouth. “Elephants,” he whispered, pointing in the darkness towards where I could hear the snapping of branches and the grumbling of their stomachs.
“It’s okay,” I said, “it’s only elephant,” stating the obvious. Then I realised that he was already out of his sleeping bag, sitting at the ready with his weapon. Even the two Bushmen, who would normally not be in the least bothered by the giants of the bush, were sitting up.
“They’re too close,” Hibbers said and pointed upwards. It was only then that I realised that one of the elephants was virtually looming over us. The black hole in the sky above me turned out to be the hulk of the animal’s body. It was clearly time for a withdrawal.
Without thinking, I did something that almost led to disaster. I had often heard that the rhythmic beating of a stick against a tree, or even tapping the magazine of a rifle, would scare the beasts away (it presumably resembled the pounding of drums – supposedly ingrained in an elephant’s mind as a sign of danger, since it indicated human presence). So I started hitting my magazine with a stick I managed to find in the dark.
But clearly this elephant had not read the manual on “rhythmic pounding of drums in the African bush”, since it gave a frightened snort… and charged.
Fortunately, by this time I was out of my sleeping bag and ready for a hasty retreat. Our saving grace was the trunk of the large tree under which we had bedded down. Both Hibbers and I slipped behind the trunk and ran for a mopane silhouetted in the dark. The two Bushmen charged off into the night, followed by the angry elephant. I went up the mopane, with Hibbers following suit.
Once order had returned to the night around us, we found ourselves clutching the branches of a sapling, barely five feet above the ground. The elephant could have picked us off like ripe fruit.
After I had gathered everyone – and some of my lost dignity – we packed up and moved out onto our bearing, since the new day had already started to dawn.
That afternoon, we reached our target area in the vicinity of Kalabolelwa. Information indicated that the SWAPO elements would be on the eastern side of the road leading down to Sesheke, in the populated area between the road and the Zambezi. As we approached the road, we realised that the bush was too open to lie up in during the day, so we waited for last light.
The exact location of the enemy post was unknown to us, and to try to locate it in the dark would have been suicidal. We decided to establish a listening post close to the road for the night, knowing that we would have to move away from the inhabited area along the river before first light.
At about 22:00 automatic gunfire erupted to our east, followed by the fierce trumpeting of elephants. It seemed that SWAPO were facing a similar ordeal to ours the night before and were now obviously trying to scare the animals away.
Before long, we heard vehicles approaching on the road from the north, followed by the noise of some equipment being loaded onto a vehicle, accompanied by much talking and laughter. It then dawned on us why the cadres were so blas? about their position: they had clearly been expecting the vehicles and were preparing to move out of there.
Hibbers suddenly stood up next to me, pack on his back and rifle at the ready.
“Let’s go!” he said.
“Go where?” I demanded.
“Attack them. They don’t know we’re here. Now’s our chance.”
The big man was serious, which presented me with a different kind of challenge, as he was adamant that we should launch an attack on the unsuspecting enemy. No matter how much I tried to explain this was not part of our mission and that we couldn’t blindly attack an unknown number of enemy in the pitch dark, particularly since we were only four, Hibbers remained fiercely convinced that this was a golden opportunity. He was actually at the point of leaving us behind and charging in there by himself.
After some time, however, we could hear the vehicles departing to the south, and the bush around us became quiet again.
We spent a short while at first light investigating where the enemy had their temporary base close to the road, and where they had embarked on the vehicles. There was no sign of any further presence, and we concluded that the SWAPO element had been moved closer to the border. Over the next three days we made good our exfiltration by patrolling back to the cutline, and were picked up at the border by our own Tac HQ elements.
My first two-man team deployment brought home some of the most valuable lessons I ever learned. Tinus van der Merwe and I were tasked to do a recce of the ZNDF installations around Sesheke to determine if there were any SWAPO elements among them. The targets were all on the northern side of the tar road stretching east–west along the Zambezi River, which at this point forms the border between Zambia and the Caprivi.
The two of us, being new to the game of small team reconnaissance, rehearsed our actions extensively. We crawled around Omega and the surrounding bases in the Caprivi in the small hours of the night. We practised our emergency procedures and RV drills over and over. When we were ready, we reported to the Sector HQ at Katima Mulilo and presented our plan. One dark night we were taken across the Zambezi by an engineer section, after carefully watching the opposite shore for two days.
For this deployment we thought it best to wear civilian clothing and Afro wigs that we had trimmed short to more or less resemble an African hairstyle. Putty bought a set of brand-new khaki longs, while I donned my soft grey flannels from school. As the khaki trousers only arrived at Omega on the day we deployed, we did not have time to rehearse with them. Mistake number one.
Putty’s new khakis made their presence known whenever he moved, because the chafing of the material between his legs created a sweesh-sweesh sound. I was walking in front and had to listen for enemy activity and did not particularly welcome this addition to the audible night life. But the more I told him to keep quiet, the more irritated he got. That whole night we were accompanied by the nagging sweesh-sweesh of Putty’s pants, which enticed every single dog in southern Zambia to join in the choir of barking dogs as we moved through the villages along the river’s edge. Eventually my buddy was walking with his legs spread apart, which must have been uncomfortable and tiring.
During the deployment we mostly walked barefoot to minimise the number of boot prints left behind. On the second morning, after we had walked with our boots tied to our packs for most of the night, we moved into our hide just before first light. Suddenly I realised one of my boots was missing. It must have come undone during the night and fallen from my pack. I had to rush back in almost full daylight and was relieved to find the boot at the point where we had our last break. I made it back to Putty just as the first children started using the path on their way to school.
On the last night of the deployment we still had one more target to do – a platoon guard post and weapon position at the end of the Sesheke airfield runway, just north of the tar road. Not knowing any better, Putty and I stashed our packs and AK-47s a few hundred metres from the target. Clever and eager as we were, we decided to penetrate the base area with pistols only. I crawled in front, Putty following some distance behind. Then, out of nowhere, a guard appeared and started shining a weak torch all over me.
I froze, not knowing whether he had recognised this foreign crawling object as a human being or not. I watched him fumbling around in the dark, apparently uncertain and hesitant to open fire on something he could not identify. The next moment he let go, and a fair-sized stone, presumably from a catapult, hit me on the upper leg – not on the bum, as my Special Forces comrades have alleged for years!
We ran, trying to keep direction in order to find the weapons and packs in the dark. Eventually we sat down to decide on a plan of action, as the packs were now in the wrong direction, too close to the enemy base. Before we could manage to find any sensible solution, we realised that we were being cut off from the tar road and the river. Vehicles were moving down in our direction from the base area, while people were talking excitedly all along our escape route to the south. We ran for it, shooting wildly into the bush with our pistols, and broke through the line of soldiers that were encircling us.
In the chaos, Putty and I were separated and each of us had to make it to the river on our own. Eventually, however, as a result of the many hours of rehearsals, we managed to locate each other again in the darkness by means of a special whistling signal that we had perfected exactly for emergencies like this.
The boat was ready for the pick-up and we made the RV safely and in time, much relieved that we were unhurt. On the banks of the Zambezi, waiting for the boat to come, Putty, who had not been particularly religious at the time, pulled me by the shirt and said: “Let’s say a prayer to thank the Boss…”
My second small team deployment followed not long after that. Kobus “Kloppies” Klopper and I moved to the area of my first deployment, the lush bush between the Zambezi and Kwando rivers. Our mission was to plant a mine on the road stretching north–south along the western bank of the Zambezi River. To avoid the mine detonating indiscriminately and injuring civilians, we had to master-detonate an explosive charge under a military vehicle, preferable one belonging to SWAPO.
We made our way across the border at night, and meticulously anti-tracked the roughly 30 km to the target area. Since it was winter and large areas of grassland had been burnt, the going was extremely slow. At the road, during the third night, Kloppies planted the mine while I kept a listening watch. To conceal his tracks and remove the soil from the hole he was digging, Kloppies used his sleeping bag, dragging it across the road surface as he moved along. Before first light I moved 100 m up the road to act as early warning for vehicles coming from the north, while he found a spot from where he could watch the road dipping through a valley to the south and wait for the right target.
Daylight found us dug in on the side of the road and covered with dry grass and leaves. I was lucky enough to have found an anteater’s hole, into which I crawled, having to cover only my head and shoulders and my AK with the dry leaves lying around. Then the long wait began.
Throughout the day we had to remain vigilant, as people were constantly using the road and we were lying barely three metres away. At one point I thought my cover was blown when a troop of baboons started mocking me from the bush behind me. A group of women walked past and started shouting and pointing straight over my head at the baboons. Had they seen me? Should I take action? I decided to remain dead still and eventually the women turned around and strolled off, still laughing at the agitated baboons. They had no idea I was lying right there under their noses. I have never been so happy to be flatly ignored!
Kloppies had to endure a similar ordeal, as the same group of women stopped to study the drag marks of his sleeping bag on the road. Miraculously, they did not notice him lying three metres away, under a thorn bush, covered with dry leaves.
At the time every action we took and every idea we implemented were done on a trial-and-error basis, as we did not have any “small team” manual to learn from or any other experience to tap into. Little did we even understand, during those deployments, that we were actually conducting small team operations, at a time when the concept was considered quite revolutionary in the Reconnaissance Commandos.
The technique Kloppies and I used to sustain ourselves and still remain undetected was to cache the backpacks about 200 m away from the road, at an easily identifiable position that also served as the crash RV. We would then move forward to our positions before first light, with only webbing and a small pack (a “SWAPO bag”, as we used to call it) containing a day’s food and water. Come daylight, we would both be dug in and as comfortable as possible in a position where the slightest movement could expose us.
Meals consisted of cold food, with packaging that would not make any noise when opened, and that would not smell once opened. We took water through a plastic tube from a water bottle in the SWAPO bag, which was well concealed with the rest of the webbing on our bodies. Relieving oneself would be out of the question, although I managed to let it out bit by bit into the hole that served as my hideaway, not entirely without messing up my trousers and boots.
At last light we would both withdraw to the RV, establish comms with the Tac HQ, have a quick meal, relieve ourselves and move into a hide for the night, just to be ready before first light to repeat the previous day’s routine.
The operation was a success, as Kloppies detonated the mine at exactly the right moment under the nose of a vehicle approaching from the south. The targeted vehicle turned out to be the Land Rover of a senior SWAPO official. During this trip I learned the importance of patience. And I discovered how easy it was to conceal your body with a bit of creative deception.
While operations such as these were conducted at a tactical level and were probably not central to the wider war effort, they provided invaluable learning opportunities. We slowly but surely amassed a wealth of experience and established a unique modus operandi for deployments to come.
In my mind, the two-man concept soon became synonymous with reconnaissance missions. Initially it took a massive mind-switch to leave the rest of the team, the bulk of the ammunition and the support weapons behind. Now it became second nature. Any team bigger than three became a potential giveaway. With only two in the team, stealthy movement and anti-tracking became easier, as each individual was now more alert and would automatically pay attention to every little detail.
By this time my colleagues in the recce wing had accepted the small team concept as the ideal for close-in recce missions. Fortunately, Commandant Opperman and Major Oelschig at Sector 70 (Katima Mulilo), because of their close involvement with the recce wing, allowed the team leaders a free hand in the composition of their teams for missions into Zambia.
However, as we started to deploy into southern Angola, in mid-1980, we discovered that the commanders of Sector 10 (Oshakati) and Sector 20 (Rundu) were not too eager to deploy teams smaller than eight. This was probably based on conventional thinking that any group smaller than an infantry section of ten soldiers would be too vulnerable.