The Realities of War:
Fighting Patrols into Angola
IN DECEMBER 1980 SWAPO was active in the area of Eenhana, a settlement and forward military base in central Ovamboland, close to the border. According to intercepts, SWAPO’s Eastern Front was positioned northeast of a cluster of Angolan villages called Mulemba. Their very capable commander, known only by his combat name, Mbulunganga, had deployed his forward detachments roughly 30 km from the border with South West Africa, a distance SWAPO considered far enough to be safe from South African retaliation. One of Mbulunganga’s most competent detachments was deployed at Chana Ohaipeto. This area served as a staging point for infiltrations into the farmlands of South West Africa during 1980 and 1981.
The SWAPO detachment was on high alert because 32 Battalion had been operating in this area throughout 1980. Moreover, the insurgents appeared to be exceptionally aggressive. Numerous contacts with the SADF were initiated by SWAPO – at times and places of their choosing.
During 1980, elements from 31 Battalion started deploying more frequently in the Sector 10 area of responsibility, including Ovamboland and areas immediately north of the border in Angola. The reason for this was twofold, firstly because cross-border operations into Zambia had been terminated after Zambia’s government gave SWAPO the boot, and secondly because the Bushmen had steadily been building up a sound track record and were now in high demand in other operational theatres.
Although reconnaissance was the recce wing’s bread and butter, fighting patrols offered a welcome break from the continuous pressure of small team operations. During one such deployment in the area of Chana Ohaipeto during December 1980, we decided that we would apply the same stealth and spoor discipline as during any recce mission.
We were a fighting patrol of three six-man teams with a small HQ element – myself, the radio man and the RPG gunner. Since there was a lot of enemy activity, we would establish a temporary base for one night only and move out before first light. We left no sign of our presence and applied anti-tracking techniques to deceive anyone who might find our spoor. During the day we would set up an ambush site along the edge of one of the chanas, the large open flood plains common in the area, and deploy an observation post to keep watch across the open plain and the kraals along its edges.
One day, while sitting in one of these ambush sites, three SWAPO cadres unexpectedly walked into our position. Two of the team leaders and I were crouched over a map in the middle of the all-round defensive position when somebody shouted, “SWAPO!” The three guerrillas had their rifles slung over their shoulders and couldn’t get them into action fast enough. As soon as they realised they were not among their own comrades, they just pelted out of there in all directions.
One of the team members grabbed the RPG-7 and, in the heat of the moment, applied it without considering his mates. The three of us who had been stooped over the map rushed to fall into attack formation but suddenly realised we were running straight into the backblast zone of the RPG. I heard a voice shout “RPG!” and had the presence of mind to go into diving mode.
The backblast of the weapon threw me backwards with the other two. Except for burnt eyebrows and damaged egos, no one was injured, and we collected ourselves once again to move into extended line, although by now there was nothing to attack. We packed up fast and moved out on the enemy spoor, knowing that the larger group had to be in the area.
The three SWAPO cadres had been in light order, with only their weapons and chest webbing, a clear indication that they had been on a security patrol around the edge of the chana. Twice we found positions where the detachment had made camp, complete with shallow trenches and good escape routes. Numerous fresh tracks dotted the area, but by nightfall we hadn’t found any more enemy and decided to move away from the chana to bed down for the night.
But there would be no rest for us that night.
By midnight SWAPO declared its presence by bombarding the position along the chana edge, where we had been searching for them earlier. Then, gradually, after there was no response from us, they moved their fire further into the bush in the direction of our hide.
Anyone who has been under mortar bombardment at night will know the sickening fear that comes with the uncertainty of not knowing where the next bomb will drop. There is nothing more unnerving than hearing the thump of an 82-mm mortar leaving the tube some distance into the night, and then waiting for the bomb to explode. In that instant the same question is on your own and the bomber’s mind: will the bomb find its target?
Yet I decided not to retaliate, since our 60-mm patrol mortar did not have the range of their 82s. Besides, we had only a limited number of bombs and I did not want to give our position away. We knew from experience that the tree branches overhead would trigger some airbursts, and we could only pray that the bombardment would not come closer. We were not dug in, since we would be on the move before first light (although once we heard the first mortar leave the tube we dug frantically into the soft sand).
In the end, the 82-mm bombs did not find their target, but it was still an unnerving experience. I had been in many contacts with the enemy, and had been at the receiving end of much more accurate mortar and artillery fire, and later even fighter aircraft attack, but the uncertainty of that night remains vivid in my mind.
Before first light we were on the move and soon found the enemy’s deserted positions – 60 well-prepared dugouts in an L-shaped ambush formation, complete with mortar pit at the junction of the lines. As we inspected the surprise SWAPO had prepared for us, we could only thank our lucky stars that we hadn’t charged in there blindly. The detachment had been ready for us, and, had we followed the tracks of the three SWAPO cadres further the night before, we would have walked straight into their ambush. That day we followed the tracks for ten kilometres north, but had to abandon the effort when we reached our boundary, as the spoor led into 32 Battalion’s area of responsibility.
When I reported this, the Tac HQ ordered us to move to a safe area and secure a landing zone for a resupply. I found it strange, since I had not requested a resupply, and we did not really want our position to be compromised. But we went ahead and secured an area. At 17:00 that afternoon a Puma from Eenhana dropped off, for each of us, a warm chicken wrapped in tin foil, an ice-cold Coke and a carton of long-life milk.
It was 26 December 1980, and that resupply was a wonderful Christmas gift. We had our feast in a last halt, well spread out, with buddies covering each other. At last light we shifted our position into a hide. Under a brilliant starlit sky, I thought of my family, who would be together and the night before would have shared gifts and rejoiced in the message of Christmas.
That night, despite the pent-up fear and the uncertainty about what the next day would bring, I developed a personal philosophy that would become a yardstick for as long as I did clandestine deployments into countries harbouring hostile forces. In my mind’s eye I would step out of my body, look down at myself lying under the stars in that foreign land and ask myself one question, “Where would you rather be at this moment?” If the honest answer was, “Nowhere. This is where I want to be”, I would find peace in spite of my fear and uncertainty, as I knew that everything was exactly as it was supposed to be. I had made the decision to be there, and I was prepared to take full responsibility for it.
This was often easier said than done, but this philosophy guided and remained true for me for as long as I did special operations. In later years with Special Forces I went through periods of constant and extreme pressure. During those times I would relive all the old fears – and even had flashbacks of close encounters during my time with 31 Battalion recce wing. But the essence of the philosophy has carried me through many challenging situations, not only during special operations but also in a later phase in my life when I participated in extreme adventure sports events, and ultimately during a 200-km solo hike through one of the most barren sand deserts on earth, the Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter, in Saudi Arabia.
That night I fell asleep with a full tummy and happy memories of my loved ones, knowing that I would face the challenges of the new day refreshed in body and spirit.
In 1981 SWAPO’s Western Front launched a number of infiltrations from its headquarters in the vicinity of Cahama across the border into the Kaokoland, the barren semidesert bordering the Namib. The recce wing of 31 Battalion was tasked with a series of operations into Angola along both sides of the Cunene River. The purpose was to find SWAPO forward deployments that would serve as staging points for the groups infiltrating deep into South West Africa.
These operations, staged from Ruacana, differed in many ways from my experience up to that point. For starters, the area was covered in mopane trees and the ground was hard, unlike the thick sand that covered the whole of Ovamboland to the east and the central parts of southern Angola. Undergrowth was relatively sparse, which meant that we rarely found a good hide, and would therefore never outstay our welcome. Another difference was the rugged mountainous terrain to the west of the Ruacana Falls. This was a world apart from the tree savanna of Ovamboland.
Not unlike the Tac HQ we used to establish at Katima Mulilo, we had a cosy little ops and radio room in a bunker that served as operational headquarters at Ruacana. Initially our deployments were tentative, as we had to get to know the area and, more importantly, convince the Sector 20 bosses at Oshakati that we were up to the job. Therefore our early deployments were all on the “safe” side of the Cunene River, mostly shallow incursions to determine if SWAPO had been bold enough to cross over to establish forward bases or penetrate deeper into South West Africa.
At that point the strategic position of the SADF was somewhat restricted, since Pretoria’s official position was that no South African troops were deployed in Angola. The capture of a South African soldier on the wrong side of the border would therefore have been a grand prize for the Angolans. At the same time, Pretoria was struggling to convince a sceptical world that ours was a just cause, and trying to obtain proof that the MPLA was supporting SWAPO. As always, politics prescribed the war effort.
To reduce the risk of South African troops being captured, South West Africa Territorial Command issued an order that South African regular forces were not allowed to deploy in any subunit smaller than a section, or ten men. This rule was also to be applied by all the units permanently based in the operational area, including 31 and 32 battalions.
I thought the order had to be a joke. A section of ten guys would be extremely exposed, especially if they were not trained in the finer arts of minor tactics. They would leave a track as clear as a highway, make unnecessary noise, and would still not have the firepower to fend off a large enemy force.
After discussing the issue with my superiors, both at Sector 10 and at 31 Battalion, we came up with a compromise: all reconnaissance missions would henceforth be done in ten-man sections, combining two five-man recce groups into a section-strong team – but each under its own team leader. Usually a ten-man section would be deployed under the command of one Tac HQ. However, we decided that the two five-man teams would operate separately and each in its own area of responsibility, but within so-called support distance of each other. This solution appeased everyone, and we managed to stretch the “support distance” somewhat.
During the time we were operating from Ruacana I was out of action for several weeks after I contracted malaria. One day, while doing PT with the ops personnel from the base, I suddenly started to feel very ill. Afterwards I had a vicious headache and started vomiting uncontrollably.
The malaria took me down. While lying in the cramped, hot sickbay at Hurricane, the airport and gunners’ base outside Ruacana, I lost consciousness as the fever took my mind to terrible places. I was overcome by strange hallucinations of hordes of SWAPO fighters falling from trees onto my secret hideout. The next moment I would be back in green pastures along the Orange River with my family. I remember how, at some point between these bouts of fever, my comrades came in to greet me, and I realised with a shock that they were saying their goodbyes. But slowly I emerged from this ordeal, and steadily regained my sanity over a three- or four-day period.
I was too weak to deploy, and, since there had been a number of reports of cerebral malaria in the operational area, I was admitted to Oshakati hospital for observation. Upon my discharge, I took two weeks’ leave, flew home and spent some precious time with my folks in Upington.
On numerous operations into both Angola and Zambia I had the privilege of having Xivatcha Shekambe by my side. To this day I consider him one of the best soldiers in the bush I ever came across. He had an amazing sense of awareness that often bordered on a foreboding, a sixth sense that made him able to understand and predict tactical situations.
Xivatcha’s tracking skills were almost superhuman. The story was told in the unit of how his previous platoon commander in A Company, a young lieutenant, was challenged by some of the white South African trackers while on a training course at Kamanjab. Our young lieutenant boasted that there was no track his Bushman trackers could not follow. The white trackers then appointed their best tracker to lay a spoor for a Bushman from 31 Battalion to follow. Xivatcha was appointed to do the tracking.
Unknown to him, the white trackers had decided to win the bet at all costs. The spoor was laid across some open ground, and then onto a large lawn in front of the mess building to lead Xivatcha astray. The white tracker stationed himself in the bar, from where he could watch the Bushman struggle to find his way. Xivatcha hesitated only slightly at the point where the track led onto the grass, and then headed straight for the bar, following the line across the lawn that the white tracker had used ten minutes earlier.
Xivatcha often saved an operation from disaster through his calm and decisive reactions. This was the case when we conducted a reconnaissance of a suspected SWAPO base in the area of a forward FAPLA detachment at a settlement called Chiunga, in southern Angola.
As part of a large offensive against SWAPO detachments, Sector 10 had established a forward helicopter base known as a helicopter administrative area (commonly referred to as an HAG, after its Afrikaans name, Helikopter Administratiewe Gebied) inside Angola. The purpose of the HAG was to provide a quick-reaction capability to 32 Battalion companies deployed to hunt down the enemy, while twelve-man paratrooper sticks were placed on immediate standby at the helicopters.
Our recce team from 31 Battalion, under the command of a newly trained lieutenant from the recce wing, was flown in from Ondangwa to the HAG and tasked to locate the SWAPO base. I was to act as the team’s second-in-command. From the HAG we had to cover 20 km on foot to the target during the night, find the base by first light and call in the reaction force for the attack the following morning.
Little did we realise that the reconnaissance was meant to provide a reason for the commander to initiate offensive actions against the FAPLA company at Chiunga, as they were suspected of harbouring SWAPO cadres. At that time FAPLA troops were not considered enemy, but the South Africans were frustrated by the fact that SWAPO shared facilities with FAPLA elements. Often it was impossible to distinguish between the two forces, as they used the same weapons and equipment.
By first light we hadn’t located the base, and we realised we were in trouble. Now we had to find the enemy base in broad daylight, a predicament compounded by the fact that our vision was restricted as we moved east towards the rising sun. By mid-morning we found evidence that we were close to the base, but we had not seen any enemy yet. Suddenly, across an open stretch of omuramba, we spotted a group of soldiers running away from our position. Two of us, the team leader and I, moved forward to establish an OP in a tree on the edge of the omuramba, leaving the rest of our patrol in the relative cover of the bush.
To have a better view across the omuramba, the team leader insisted on scaling one of the young mopane trees, an effort accompanied by much huffing, puffing and swearing. Above the commotion I suddenly noticed another sound, coming from the direction where we had left the rest of our team. It initially sounded like the far-off barking of dogs, but we quickly recognised it as the high-pitched yelling of people moving in on the hide. Then some shots were fired, and the two of us started sprinting back to the hide.
By the time we reached the team, the skirmish had developed into a full-blown contact. We automatically started to withdraw and fell into a well-rehearsed routine of “buddy-buddy” (or fire-and-movement, where one person in the buddy pair would move under cover of his buddy’s fire), eventually splitting into two groups to peel off to both flanks of the advancing enemy. Soon my team was out of the line of fire and we made good our escape by circling behind the enemy’s advance.
The team leader, Xivatcha and a third member of the team were not so lucky. By this time they had been caught against the open omuramba on their right flank, and as a result had to withdraw while squarely in the line of fire. The team leader, not knowing whether we were dead or still fighting, realised that he had to establish radio comms to call in the reaction force. However, they now found themselves in a desperate fight, pinned against the open omuramba and with no way of disengaging from the contact.
At some point during this extended battle, Xivatcha shouted at the lieutenant to stay down, insisting that they set up the radio and establish comms, even if it meant making a stand against the advancing and much superior enemy force. He then took it upon himself to defend the position while the other two got the radio into action.
As Xivatcha kept a constant volume of fire going, the other two established comms, with the result that the parabat reaction force could soon be trooped in by helicopter to engage the enemy from behind. Heavy fighting ensued and lasted for most of the day, but our two teams were soon reunited and evacuated to the HAG.
On another deployment, Xivatcha again saved the lives of his team members by correctly assessing the situation and responding appropriately. Under the code name Operation Carnation, the recce wings of 31 and 32 battalions had to do the route reconnaissance for some of the combat groups that would advance into southern Angola during Operation Protea in August 1981. Operation Protea was aimed at neutralising FAPLA bases at Xangongo, Ongiva and Peu-Peu through semi-conventional attacks by mechanised forces and to destroy SWAPO in the area between the Cunene and Cubango rivers.
My team did the reconnaissance for Combat Group 30 from Beacon 16 north of Ombalantu to the tar road leading from Ongiva to Xangongo in southern Angola. As part of the larger offensive, Combat Group 30 had to approach Xangongo from the east, then swing north in order to neutralise FAPLA forces at Peu-Peu, while three other combat groups would attack Xangongo. This time I was compelled to take a six-man team, so that we would be able to “make a stand” in an encounter with the enemy. Fortunately, the idea of a ten-man team for reconnaissance missions had by then been exposed as ridiculous.
At the time I did not argue the matter, as a route recce did not require the same levels of secrecy and stealth as a point-target recce. In fact, I decided to approach the job more aggressively and prepared the team as a fighting patrol. Everyone therefore kitted up with support weapons and loads of ammunition. The real reason for this was that we would most likely end up in contact situations alongside elements of the combat group, and I had nightmares about running out of ammunition and having to quit in front of our national servicemen.
Once again, Xivatcha was part of the team. During the recce we painstakingly worked out, logged and memorised a route we would be able to follow at night, leading the combat group in towards Xangongo in the pitch dark. To ensure that we would follow the correct route, I took rolls of toilet paper and wrapped it around trees and bushes all the way up to the tar road. We had quite a laugh trying to imagine what message a SWAPO patrol might have gleaned from the wrapped-up trees – anything from “the shit is coming your way” to “begin solank gat skoonmaak [start cleaning your arse, or get away while you can]”.
On the third day of the mission, instead of running out of ammunition, we ran out of battery power for the radio. With the last bit of battery life, I called in a resupply. This was done by Alouette, which didn’t need a large landing zone, so I left four guys in the hide among the trees and headed off with one Bushman to an open area a few hundred metres away. The resupply went smoothly and soon the noise from the two Alos died away as they disappeared to the south.
I was still speaking to the pilots on the VHF radio when two Bushmen suddenly dashed into the open from the direction of the hide, eyes wild and thumbs pointing down from their closed fists in the familiar sign for “enemy”. Xivatcha and his buddy were nowhere to be seen.
“SWAPO, baie, baie [many, many]…!”
“How many?” I demanded and they cried out, “Maar baie, baie, Luitenant. Miskien twintig of veertig [A lot, Lieutenant. Maybe twenty, or forty].”
I immediately called back the two retiring choppers, just managing to get a signal through by holding the radio above my head. The pilots, keen for some action, didn’t hesitate.
At that point I was expecting the worst, thinking that the other two members of our team had been overpowered by the enemy. We rushed back to the area of the hide in line-abreast formation, going low as we approached. They were still there, Xivatcha and his buddy, guarding our packs and watching the enemy moving past them to form up for an attack. Suddenly the choppers were there, circling overhead.
The six of us broke cover and advanced towards the positions where the bulk of the enemy was last seen. As we approached, we donned our bright orange Day-Glo panels so the pilots would recognise us – standard practice for troops in combat zones at the time. Then the contact erupted, with shots fired from every direction. A chaotic firefight ensued, and the thick bush made it impossible to determine the enemy’s direction of attack, as we were now right among the SWAPO fighters. Amid the shooting, the shouting and the two gunships circling and pumping 20-mm rounds into the bush, I desperately tried to hold the team as close together as was tactically safe.
The pilots, trying to distinguish friend from foe in the chaos below, requested that I show Day-Glo and keep my team together. The more I told them that we were already doing this and were keeping together in a sweepline formation, the more they countered that we were more than six and not exactly in line. It transpired that some of the SWAPO cadres, knowing that they had no chance of survival once they were isolated and spotted by the gunships, cleverly fell in with our formation, moving from cover to cover in the thick undergrowth on the flanks of the sweepline.
Applying fire-and-movement, or “buddy-buddy”, we advanced through the contact area, shouting battle commands and delivering a constant volume of speculative fire into the undergrowth. After a few hundred metres the bush opened up and we realised that there was no more opposing fire. Then bursts of AK-47 shots erupted from the contact area from where we had just emerged. The pilots called us back into the killing zone and circled the area as we advanced to contact once again. Soon we engaged at short range with SWAPO cadres who had been hiding and were probably as confused as we were, not knowing which direction we were attacking from. With the lead gunship circling overhead, we eventually swept through the contact area no fewer than four times while the other chopper covered probable escape routes further out.
I never got into the habit of counting heads, or “kills”, as subconsciously, and later deliberately, I could not bring myself to believe that three or four dead could influence the outcome of a war. But the Air Force claimed six kills, for what it was worth, and they loaded the bodies and stacks of AK-47s on board the Puma helicopters dispatched to the area after the contact – for the intelligence guys to analyse. The team received a resupply of ammunition and water, and continued with the route reconnaissance mission.
At our last halt that evening, I sat down with Xivatcha’s buddy and asked him why they had stayed at the hide earlier the day in the face of such an overwhelming enemy force.
“Xivatcha,” he said, “it was Xivatcha that insisted that we stay. When the Bushmen ran away, we didn’t know if you were aware of the terrs [SWAPO cadres], and that they were forming up for an attack. So he wanted us to guard the equipment and open fire when they came – so that you would be warned in time.”
After the reconnaissance, we withdrew to the border and met up with Combat Group 30 to prepare for Operation Protea. The recce team was divided between the two lead Ratels. At last light on 23 August 1981 Combat Group 30 crossed the border into Angola. Because there was no space left inside the Ratel, Xivatcha and I had to sit on top, clinging to weapons and handrails. It was bitterly cold; we were given blankets, but the cold penetrated to the bone. However, we led the battle group all the way up to the tar road leading to Xangongo, passing toilet-paper ghosts in the darkness on our route.
When the combat group eventually reached the tar road and turned west towards Xangongo, it was daylight. I felt frozen, but there was no time for self-pity, as these guys were heading for a fight and were quite serious about it. By now I was the only pumpkin sitting exposed on top of the lead Ratel, since Xivatcha was ordered to sit inside, but there was still no room for me. I lay down behind the turret as the machine gunners started delivering speculative fire into the bush left and right. Every time they let off a burst, I shrunk away even further.
Fortunately, the resistance was relatively weak, as the defenders had already withdrawn by the time we passed their positions, probably realising that they would be cut off once the main attack force had taken Xangongo.
Combat Group 30 did not participate in the fighting at Xangongo, as its job was to neutralise Peu-Peu and then act as cut-off during the attack on Xangongo. My recce team was eventually airlifted to join up with the rest of 31 Battalion, which formed the main component of Combat Group 50, under the command of Frans Botes, the OC 31 Battalion. Combat Group 50 would be involved in mobile area operations as part of Operation Daisy deep into SWAPO-held territory in the areas of Evale and Nehone.