OPERATION DAISY was essentially an area operation aimed at neutralising SWAPO forces in the terrain between the Cunene and Cubango (Kavango) rivers in Cunene province. I remember Daisy as a series of contacts along the route as we pushed deeper into Angola. During his final briefing, Commandant Botes told subordinate commanders: “We follow this route past Evale and Mupa towards Cuvelai, and we give them a bloody nose as we go along…”
Operations Daisy and Protea
We joked about this, because we could not imagine that the SWAPO detachments would sit and wait for us to “give them a bloody nose”. To our surprise, it turned out exactly the way Botes had predicted. It transpired that the detachments north of Mupa were waiting for a resupply on the very day and on the same route that we approached from the south. We realised afterwards that they must have confused the noise of our vehicles with that of their own. Throughout that day we bumped into elements of SWAPO and engaged in running skirmishes. We even captured a Volvo staff car and the replenishment truck, a Russian GAZ 66 loaded with bags of maize and dried fish.
The route the battalion took followed a lush green dry riverbed from Mupa towards Cuvelai. The recce wing led the way in two Buffels, followed by one of the companies, the HQ and support vehicles and then the rest of the companies. Suddenly we heard shooting, followed by “Contact left!” over the radio.
We rushed towards the contact. By the time we arrived at the scene, at the side of the omuramba, the first recce team had already disembarked and was doing a hasty follow-up into the thick undergrowth. A single shot rang out, and I immediately thought one of our guys had been ambushed. As we closed in, we discovered a young SWAPO cadre who had shot himself in the head.
The dead cadre lay in the short grass, his clothes and kit in a sorry state. In his breast pocket was a Bible. For the first time – although I did not acknowledge it then – I was unsettled by the scene. He had clearly killed himself out of fear of what the South Africans would do to him had he been caught alive.
In those years it was still easy for me to distinguish between right and wrong. We were fighting on the side of the righteous; we were the God-fearing Gideon’s band defending our country from the threat of communism and the anti-Christ. SWAPO represented evil. They were the dark force that would bring communism and an immoral world order to South West Africa and, eventually, to South Africa. At least, this was the mould in which I had been brought up, and it was easy to believe that I was on the “right” side.
But finding a pocket Bible on a young SWAPO cadre, who had killed himself out of terror for what I, a God-fearing South African, would do to him, flipped a switch in my mind. Never again would I see the Border War, and my later operations with Special Forces, in simple black-and-white terms. From this point onwards I would also start to question the reason for many of our actions during the war.
For the next few days we steadily worked our way towards Cuvelai, sweeping wide for SWAPO deployments. Information about a large SWAPO camp that served as detachment headquarters and training base in an area about 20 km northeast of our location was confirmed and the combat group established a temporary base (TB) to prepare for an attack. The TB happened to be in the exact location of a long-abandoned SWAPO base.
During the afternoon before the day of the intended attack, one of the guys found a roughly drafted map in one of the bunkers. This depicted the layout of a minefield, with 98 antitank mines and a large number of antipersonnel mines apparently in close proximity. What made this discovery even more alarming was the fact that we found 98 dust covers for Russian TM-57 antitank mines; the dust cover has to be removed to insert the fuse into the fuse well. This meant the mines were armed.
But, for some reason, our commanding officer was not too disturbed by this information, and ordered the combat group to be ready to move out by 04:00 the following morning. We would reach the enemy base by first light and deploy for the attack as we engaged in combat – two companies in attack formation and the third in reserve. The recce wing would form the cut-off group to the side, while the HQ would remain behind the attack force, with the indirect fire support group, the 81-mm mortars, in close proximity. Four Alouette gunships would be dispatched as close air support from an HAG south of us once the attack commenced. This was not uncommon for the type of operations we were conducting, as there was no time for a pre-recce and we did not know the exact location and layout of the base.
So it happened that the two recce wing vehicles moved out at 04:00 the next morning, crossing the narrow omuramba that led out onto our route. C Company followed, with Lieutenant “Swazi” Naud?’s Buffel leading the way. Naud?, a dedicated young officer and second-in-command of C Company, had meticulously prepared his equipment for the day’s fighting.
Suddenly a loud explosion tore through the morning air, followed by a commotion among the C Company vehicles behind us. Then Swazi’s voice broke radio silence, which was supposed to be in force until the attack.
“Fokken landmine. I have just cleaned my rifle; now it’s all messed up again.”
Swazi’s Buffel had hit a landmine as it moved out on our tracks. The two recce wing vehicles must have missed it by millimetres as we passed a few minutes before. Although stunned and full of dust, Swazi and his fellow passengers had not been injured. They collected their kit and moved away from the vehicle to shelter nearby, while everyone else debussed and moved into all-round defence while the damage was assessed.
Since the vehicle had been moving into its position in the convoy at a walking pace, it had not been overturned by the powerful mine. The front left wheelbase had been ripped off, but other than that there was little damage. With a little time and innovation the “tiffies” (mechanics) could get it running again. By now everyone was thinking about the minefield on the map we had found the previous day. Captain Gunther voiced his concern over the radio, asking the OC whether he wasn’t worried about the possibility of more mines. But our combat group commander had his mind on the forthcoming attack and was adamant that we move on.
“Radio silence from now on!” he ordered over the VHF network. “No word until we hit contact. I don’t want the enemy to sit and wait for us.”
The damaged vehicle was left with a protection element until after the attack, so Swazi and his team of rattled and dusty men got onto the next C Company vehicle in the convoy.
It was daylight by the time we moved out again, the recce wing vehicles leading and Swazi trailing. I watched as Swazi and his team moved out across the omuramba, almost hesitantly, past the stricken Buffel. I was still looking when the next landmine went off. A massive dust cloud engulfed the Buffel, which was blasted onto its side this time. It all happened as if in slow motion. Fortunately everyone was ready and strapped in, and, once again, there were no injuries.
When the OC’s voice came over the radio, he made his announcement in a calm and collected voice: “Stop! All stations, stop. We are in the middle of a minefield…”
But by now Swazi was fuming. He refused to get out of the overturned vehicle until the engineers had cleared the whole area, and by the sound of it he could have killed an entire SWAPO detachment barehanded. Later, it transpired that while Swazi waited for the damage to the first vehicle to be assessed and a decision made regarding the attack, he sat under a tree and meticulously cleaned his rifle. By this time he didn’t need a radio to convey his disgust to everyone in the combat group – or any enemy who might have been listening in.
For the rest of that day everyone stayed either on his vehicle or in cover, waiting for the engineers to clear the area. By that afternoon they had lifted exactly 96 TM-57 landmines and 12 antipersonnel mines, the exact complement depicted on the map (minus the two that Swazi had detonated). The attack on the base had to be postponed for a full day while the tiffies fixed the two Buffels and the engineers ensured that we had a clear road back to the SWAPO logistics route in the main omuramba.
The attack on the detachment headquarters turned out to be a dud, as the area had been evacuated a day or two before. The combat group circled round to approach the base from the north, but as we advanced on the location, we realised that the enemy had already withdrawn. All the spoor were older than a day, and vehicle tracks indicated that their retreat might have been a hasty one.
Over the next few days the combat group was ordered to conduct area operations, and then to start sweeping south through the areas where we had engaged the enemy earlier on. It was considered too dangerous for our combat group to move any closer to the FAPLA and Cuban deployments in the area of Jamba and Techamutete, since we were essentially a guerrilla force armed only for combat against SWAPO in the bush. We had neither the arms nor the armour to engage tanks or armoured cars in conventional combat. At this point we were also well within range of the FAPLA MiGs operating from Menongue.
Strangely, on our way back to the border, we had a number of skirmishes with stray groups of SWAPO. This might have been because their command and logistics system had been disrupted by the earlier operation, or because the cadres did not know what was happening and had returned to the supply route for replenishment.
One day I was driving behind the HQ package, taking a breather from the stress of driving point and having to be vigilant all the time. The peace was short-lived. “Enemy right!” came the voice over the radio, followed by the sound of AK shots from the side of an omuramba.
I could see the HQ vehicles in front of us being bogged down by enemy fire. A voice cried over the radio, “They’re shooting at me, they’re shooting at me!” while the pressure switch was held down, preventing the rest of the force from communicating. But this didn’t deter us. Without hesitating, we swung into the direction of the incoming fire and charged head on, followed by B Company’s vehicles. In the absence of proper radio comms, the commander of A Company, which was in the rear, had the presence of mind to swing sharply to the right in an attempt to outflank the enemy and cut them off to the north.
The recce wing vehicles arrived simultaneously at the enemy positions, which by then had already been vacated. The ambush had been set up with well-prepared firing positions, good arcs of fire and good escape routes into the thick undergrowth beyond. Unfortunately for the ambushers, a group of about twenty, our combat group passed too far across the omuramba, thus rendering their fire ineffective.
We didn’t waste any time; I took twelve recces onto the tracks into the thick vegetation, leaving the rest to protect our vehicles. We knew from previous experience that the enemy would run for one or two kilometres, slow down to listen, and then try to anti-track or deceive their pursuers by splitting into smaller groups. After three kilometres, they would settle into a steady pace on a route until they reached relative safety. This trick was all too familiar to us, as we had all done it ourselves many times before.
We therefore ran at breakneck speed on the clear tracks left by the running SWAPO soldiers. Soon enough, we found the spot where they had slowed down. From that point on the tracks were not as clear, and soon we could see them dispersing. We continued our chase, knowing that they would expect to hear vehicles first. I spoke to the HQ on the run, requesting choppers as air support and to act as telstar (an aircraft that would be dispatched to establish comms in case of an emergency) once we ran out of comms with the main column.
Two SWAPO cadres were leaning leisurely against a tree and drinking from their water bottles when we ran straight into them. We opened fire before they could even put down their bottles. The first one didn’t have a chance and died in his tracks, the other hit the deck and tried to crawl out of the field of fire, but to no avail. By this time we were like a pack of hounds, hungry for prey. We didn’t stop, but just went on hunting once we had checked that the two cadres had passed on to greener pastures.
We knew that the shots would have alerted their comrades, who would be more vigilant, but we maintained a steady pace on the three or four tracks we were following. Suddenly the lead pilot of two Alouettes came on the air, calling for our position and ID. They had been on their way to our combat group when the call for assistance came through and were therefore instantly ready for action.
We gave them yellow smoke on the ground and I quickly briefed them over the radio. On the run I gave the choppers a compass bearing of the direction the enemy was heading. While one chopper circled overhead and maintained a close air support posture for our group, the other flew on the bearing and circled two to three kilometres further ahead in an effort to locate the fleeing enemy and also to keep their heads down. It wasn’t long before we found where the cadres had been ducking and hugging trees as the chopper swept over them, trying to hide from the prying eyes of the crew.
When the 20-mm machine gun of the lead chopper started stuttering its deadly song, we knew we were onto them. We spread out wide, sweeping vigilantly through the thick undergrowth. The helicopter in the close air support role engaged, kicking up plumes of sand barely 30 m ahead.
I heard someone shout: “He’s shooting… he’s shooting! Down!”
In that instant I saw a SWAPO soldier taking aim at one of my team buddies from behind a fallen log. Our man was virtually on top of him, but didn’t have time to train his weapon on the cadre at his feet. Instead, he just rushed at him like someone possessed, jumped the log and kicked the AK-47 from the wounded terr’s hands, all in one mad, wild move. The rest of the team then opened up, killing the cadre instantly.
By now we were all fairly wasted, having run about twelve kilometres at almost full speed. We quickly regrouped in all-round defence and I ordered the Bushmen to find the rest of the tracks. The lead pilot reported that they were low on fuel and had to return to the combat group, but promised that they would be back with water. Soon it became apparent that the remaining two or three insurgents had dispersed and were now running individually. There would be no sense in following one track at a time, especially since the cadres had been given the fright of their lives and were now probably doing some serious low flying through the bush.
We started our withdrawal, exhausted and thirsty, but happy with the day’s work, knowing that we had achieved the almost impossible: we had outrun fleeing SWAPO soldiers on their own turf. The choppers soon returned with our water, and the pilot was kind enough to talk us back to the vehicle column via an easy route.
During Operation Protea two mechanised combat groups had led the attack on Angolan forces at Ongiva. The town had been left in a shambles. All FAPLA elements had evacuated their positions, the town’s administration had been completely disrupted and the population were battling to survive. Command of the salvage operation in town, as well as the defensive positions around the perimeter, was given to 31 Battalion. The whole unit converged on Ongiva and established a TB some 20 km to the southwest, from where mopping-up actions would be conducted. The unit had the unenviable task of systematically working through the abandoned FAPLA defences to collect remaining weapons and documentation, as well as to destroy bunkers, infrastructure and any foreign ammunition not used during the battle.
Although I was not keen on the job and did not want the recce teams to be exposed to the relaxed atmosphere and relative ill-discipline of the regular troops, it did offer us a well-deserved break while still attuned to the war. In the end it was a great experience, as we got to know our brethren from the companies more intimately, and generally had a pleasant time at the HQ in the bush. To keep their hand in, the recce teams did security patrols around the TB, and often found the familiar chevron tracks, a spoor pattern commonly used by SWAPO cadres, in the vicinity of the camp – just to keep the hair on our necks standing up.
During the mopping-up operations, we regularly found civilians who had been injured in the attack on the town four weeks previously, and our medics diligently attended to them. One incident that will always stay with me was when we found a woman lying in a dark little hut with a massive wound to her upper right leg. Gangrene had set in and her leg had swollen to twice the size of her frail body. The stench in the hut from the advanced infection was almost unbearable, and the poor woman would not let anyone touch her, as the pain must have been excruciating.
She also had a little girl, no more than five years old, who wouldn’t leave her side. We explained to the husband – who had led us to her – that we were going to evacuate her with the girl. He protested strongly, but there was no alternative, as the little girl did not want to leave her mother’s side. Without proper medical attention the woman would have died a slow and painful death. He eventually accepted, after we promised him that both his wife and his daughter would be returned.
It was easier said than done, though. Firstly, we struggled to get her out of the narrow door of the hut once we had moved her onto a stretcher, and had to break down part of the wall. Secondly, it was nearly impossible to get her on top of the Buffel, as she screamed in pain at the slightest movement. The trip across the uneven terrain was pure agony for the wounded woman, and she wailed constantly as we bumped along.
Knowing that the helicopters would not enter the 20-km no-fly zone around Ongiva, we pressed on to find a suitable landing zone (LZ) before last light. In the meantime I pleaded with the OC to have the choppers dispatched, because I knew the evacuation of civilians was not a priority for the South African Air Force.
When the OC asked if we were out of the no-fly zone yet, I faked a grid reference and assured him that we were in a safe area. Finally we heard the Pumas and marked our position with yellow smoke.
“Kilo Sierra, this is Giant,” the lead pilot’s voice came on the air. “Is that your yellow smoke?”
“Giant, Kilo Sierra, that’s affirmative. I’m due northeast,” I said.
“You are still in the danger zone, man,” he responded. “You want me to come in?”
“That’s positive. The LZ is secured and safe. No problem,” I answered, and went on to describe the size of the LZ, wind direction and open quadrants.
Such was the nature and quality of our pilots that he didn’t query my decision or the safety of the area. He moved in swiftly and set the aircraft down, giving me a thumbs up through the canopy. They were flying off again in less than a minute. The last thing I saw before the doors closed was the wide-eyed little girl clinging to her mother’s dress, staring dumbfounded at the strange machine around her.
The story had a happy ending, as I learned some months later when I visited the Sector 10 operations room in Oshakati. The woman lost her leg, but was given a prosthesis to which she responded very well. The child was temporarily adopted by one of the nurses and was sent to school in Oshakati. Upon recovery, the mother was given a job at the sickbay – to assist and teach patients who had lost limbs and had to adapt to artificial ones. She was also allowed to go visit her family at Ongiva.