Special Forces Training Cycle
THE YEAR-LONG Special Forces training cycle was designed to produce a highly skilled soldier who would be prepared for the demands of specialised operations conducted outside the borders of the country. It was a year filled with fantastic new experiences. The wealth of knowledge I gained on the different courses, the extraordinary people I met, the new technology we were exposed to – all of it added up to a year of high adventure. I also met extraordinary leaders of men, made lifelong friends and visited the most beautiful parts of our country.
Special Forces HQ and deployments
Over the course of that year, we did the toughest training imaginable. Following selection, the next phase was the Special Forces Individual course, once again in the Dukuduku State Forest. After that followed Basic Parachuting, Small Boat Orientation and Know Your Enemy, and then Air Operations and Basic Demolitions. The training cycle was concluded with the bush phase, first a Bushcraft, Tracking and Survival course and finally Minor Tactics.
Special Forces Individual
Now that we had passed selection, we were considered part of the Special Forces family. Attitudes towards us changed overnight. There was to be no more shouting and swearing. Objectives were given in a calm and mature manner, and it was up to us to achieve them. On the course we were introduced to Special Forces equipment – radios, backpacks, boots and an array of gadgets I was not familiar with. The content of the course focused on the application of weapons and equipment used by Special Forces. We were therefore also exposed to a variety of foreign-made weapons, and had the opportunity to apply them, initially on the shooting range and later during actual exercises.
Our fitness level was maintained by two PT sessions per day. These were meant to build us up for the demands of the rest of the course, and I found them quite enjoyable. While we didn’t do any more route marches, the backpack was now a constant companion during exercises.
After Special Forces Individual we went back to 1 Recce to prepare for the next three courses: Basic Parachuting at 1 Parachute Battalion, Bloemfontein, Small Boat Orientation at 4 Recce, Langebaan, and finally Know Your Enemy at 5 Recce, Phalaborwa. The group was allocated two brand-new Toyota Land Cruisers, and we drove across the country to the different units where the courses were to be presented.
Since the eleven of us had passed the Recce selection, we did not have to do the Parachute selection, then known as PT course, but we still had to do the tough parabat entry tests – again, a series of physical tests to measure candidates’ potential. Four of us had done parachute training before, and therefore did not fall in with the actual training course, or hangar phase, as it was popularly referred to.
During the third and last week of the course, we joined the group for some progressive jumping. Those few weeks in Bloemfontein were quite carefree, and I used the time to maintain my fitness with long runs and hard physical exercise.
After the parachute course we drove through the Karoo to Langebaan, on the West Coast. The ocean was a new environment to me, and would certainly bring new challenges. Secretly I dreaded the thought of the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Small Boat Orientation
But 4 Recce turned out to be a breath of fresh air, literally, as Langebaan is renowned for its ever-present wind, and figuratively, since the unit was unique. The main base, with the headquarters, accommodation, logistics and administrative capacity, was the public face of the unit. Across the lagoon, on the northern tip of the Langebaan Peninsula, was the secretive operational base at Donkergat, an area naturally out of bounds to the public, from where operations were launched and where all training was conducted.
Donkergat used to be a whaling station, and the operational base was built over the remnants of the old structures. In fact, the main quay was formed by concreting the hull of one of the trawlers. It also had a quay specially designed for the docking of South African Navy strike craft and Daphne-class submarines, both used extensively for deploying the Recces during operations.
Because of its specialised role, 4 Recce was not an Army unit in the normal sense. Aside from the array of operational boats kept at the boat yard at Salamander, across the lagoon, it had its own little fleet of ferries and a well-equipped boat workshop on the waterfront at Langebaan.
The unit was a world apart. Not only was it set in beautiful surroundings but it also had a different heartbeat. The sense of purpose and professionalism of both operational and non-operational personnel I encountered there remained with me for as long as I soldiered with Special Forces. Years later, I experienced it again when I served as the second-in-command of the unit.
For the duration of the Small Boat course we stayed at Salamander in an old hotel converted into a training facility right on the tip of the Langebaan Peninsula. The course was no walk in the park: the Benguela current makes the coastal waters extremely cold, and we spent the best part of our days and nights either in or on the water. In those three weeks we swam and kayaked more than any sound-minded person would in a lifetime. We became adept at handling inflatables, the operational rubber boats, and were exposed to various infiltration techniques from sea to land, as well as through watercourses like rivers and estuaries.
Know Your Enemy
After completing the Small Boat course we drove from Langebaan to Phalaborwa, bordering the Kruger National Park, for a course then called Know Your Enemy, or Dark Phase. During this course we immersed ourselves in the doctrines, tactics and history of the armed wings of the freedom movements at the time considered enemies of the state. The idea was to recreate a guerrilla base so we would be exposed to a setting that resembled an enemy encampment. All activities would be based on the routine in a freedom fighter camp.
Black instructors from 5 Recce were our commanders and trainers, and would lead us in singing, marching, weapon handling and tactics. The unit contained many former guerrillas – from SWAPO, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and even ex-cadres from ZANLA and ZANU-PF in Rhodesia. We therefore got a good dose of Marxist indoctrination, and had to learn slogans from old masters like Mao Zedong and Che Guevara.
Aside from learning about the doctrine and tactics of the revolutionary forces, the course provided in-depth background on the origins and history of the freedom movements of southern Africa. From schooldays we had been taught that there was a communist-inspired onslaught against God-fearing white South Africa. I had been indoctrinated to fear die Rooi Gevaar (the Red Peril) and believed in the proverbial “communist behind every bush”. We were made to believe that the African National Congress (ANC) was quite literally the anti-Christ, and that we had to combat the organisation on all fronts – with mind, body and soul.
However, the Know your Enemy course gave me a completely new outlook on these so-called enemies of the state. In an ironic twist, right there in the heart of one of the best fighting units of the South African Defence Force, I started to understand that most of the freedom forces were fighting, at least from their perspective but also in the eyes of the world, for a noble cause. For the first time I learned about the origins and founding principles of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, as well as about the leaders of the early years of black resistance – Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. It brought a different perspective to life as I had known it.
During that course we were taught a striking song about Solomon Mahlangu, who was executed by the apartheid regime in April 1979 and became an ANC martyr. The song, which lauded Mahlangu as a hero of the struggle, became embedded in my mind. One dark night several years later, during a highly secretive small team mission deep inside Angola, I would be surprised to hear it again.
On the course we were also introduced to the kinds of heavy weapons used by enemy forces at the time. The course was too short to master the details of all the antiaircraft machine guns, recoilless guns, rocket launchers and anti-air missile systems, but we at least learned to recognise and apply safety measures to Eastern Bloc weapons like the ZPU-23 anti-aircraft system, the DShK 12.7-mm machine gun, the SA-7 and SA-9 missile systems and recoilless rifles like the SPG-9 and B-10. We also had the opportunity to fire the machine guns and some of the antitank weapons.
Both Small Boat Orientation and Know your Enemy provided ideal opportunities for would-be operators to be exposed to two other operational units, having already become acquainted with 1 Recce on the Bluff. The idea was for the candidates to experience the environment they would eventually operate in, be it in water or in the bush, and to make up their minds as to where they wanted to be. For me there was no choice. Even though I liked the no-nonsense and professional approach at 4 Recce, my only mission was to get to Small Teams as soon as possible after the training cycle. Besides, 5 Recce appealed to me immediately. It was an “African” unit, with troops hailing from all over South Africa and as far afield as Rhodesia, Angola and Mozambique, and I fell in love with the much more informal and laid-back style of the unit.
For the Air Operations course we had to drive back to Durban, as the first week covering the theory was presented on the Bluff. By now the bright lights of the coastal city didn’t appeal to me; I had visited the operational units and was eager to get back to the bush.
Air Ops was a cleverly structured course intended to expose us to all the intricacies of clandestine work with an array of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. The course leader, an experienced skydiver and head of the air operations branch at 1 Recce, put us through the paces of working with all kinds of aircraft.
The course covered a whole series of subjects related to cooperation with the SAAF. We learned to prepare landing zones (LZs) for various aircraft, to choose and prepare a drop zone (DZ) for para drops behind enemy lines, to call in aircraft for resupply or pick-up, and to control various aircraft during close air support in a combat situation. Although I had worked closely and extensively with the Air Force while at 31 Battalion, the exposure to the full range of SAAF aircraft was a new experience. I especially enjoyed collaborating with the fighter jets, as it introduced a completely new dimension – and little did I know how handy it would be during small team operations later in my career.
The course concluded with a practical phase, this time at the Hell’s Gate training area close to St Lucia, where we put into practice all the procedures we had learned.
Although I had done demolitions while at 31 Battalion, the Special Forces course had a specific focus. While the normal demolitions course presented by the School of Engineers was generally aimed at the destruction of large-scale infrastructure, the Special Forces course focused on sabotage – where a relatively small group of operators would infiltrate their target clandestinely and render it unserviceable, causing maximum damage with the minimum amount of explosives. To achieve this, we were taught techniques ranging from the use of shaped charges to the correct placement of explosives. Another part of the training included improvisation techniques, where the operator had to apply innovative ways of setting up charges with the minimum equipment at his disposal, or to use improvised techniques to set time switches and booby traps.
A further addition to the course was exposure to custom-made demolition charges designed and manufactured by EMLC, the highly specialised (and later controversial) engineering company that worked exclusively on devices and equipment used in special operations. The EMLC array of charges included various initiation devices, ranging from time switches to light-sensitive and anti-tilt mechanisms. We were also exposed to different forms of explosives, such as the highly effective PE4 and PE9, and to a liquid explosive called “Slurry”, which could be poured into confined spaces and turned solid when exposed to air. I would use many of these devices and explosives extensively during small team deployments later in my career.
Bushcraft, Tracking and Survival
The day finally arrived when we deployed to Fort Doppies, on the banks of the Kwando River in the Caprivi Strip, for the final phase of our training. The nine-month training cycle would be concluded with two courses – Survival and Minor Tactics. The nine remaining students, plus two guys who had joined us from previous selection courses, flew by C-130 from Waterkloof Air Force Base to Mpacha in the Eastern Caprivi.
Ray Godbeer, a seasoned operator from the erstwhile Rhodesian Selous Scouts, presented the Survival course. To our surprise, on the first day our clothes and equipment were taken away, leaving us with only PT shorts, T-shirt, a cap and a rifle to face the African bush and survive the chilly nights. We were dropped off about fifteen kilometres from the survival camp, and then our shoes were also taken away; we had to cover the distance back to the camp barefoot. I couldn’t comprehend the logic of this, but I realised later during the course that it was aimed at stripping us of all the comforts of civilised life to force us into survival mode from the outset.
Soon enough everyone started improvising by making rudimentary shoes from leaves, grass and strips of bark. Apart from providing protection against the burning hot sand, it taught us that makeshift feet covers could also serve as anti-tracking devices, since no clear footprint would be left. Wearing only PT clothes forced us to respect the bush, to move carefully around thorny shrubs and quietly through the undergrowth. In the long term the effect of those three weeks in PT kit under the African sun, at least for me, was that I would take great care to move cautiously through the bush, and to wear protective clothing during operations.
During the first week we established a base camp at the “Horse’s Shoe”, a peculiar-shaped bend in the Kwando River, where we were given lectures on the wide variety of fauna and flora, their uses in a survival situation, and what to avoid and what to exploit. Tracking formed an integral part of the course. After the initial lessons on spoor recognition, determining the age of a track, counting the number of tracks and, eventually, how to follow a spoor, we would always move out in two groups, the first laying a track and the second following. Soon it became second nature – to be aware of signs indicating human presence.
In the heat of the day and during the evenings we received further detailed lectures on the plant and animal life of the region. We would learn how to locate water in tree trunks or in the bends of dry riverbeds, and how to collect water using a “desert still”, or a simple method called a “tree still”, where we would wrap a plastic bag over the wet leaves of a branch and leave it overnight for the water to condensate.
Food was systematically reduced from one tin per day to nothing, as we learned to set snares and traps for birds and small game. The Kwando River also yielded freshwater mussels, while the small nuts from the dried-out fruit of the marula tree provided some relief from the persistent hunger. Also in abundance at that time of year was the raisin bush, which provided edible berries as a supplement to our meagre diet.
At the end of the first week we were taken by vehicle and dropped off individually in a remote area along the Botswana border. It was time for Exercise Egg – Ray Godbeer’s unique way of exposing his charges to Mother Nature. Each of us was given two eggs, one match, a small piece of flint and two rounds of ammunition (meant only for protection against lions, which were abundant in the area). The idea was that we had to get a fire going, cook the eggs and sleep out alone under the stars.
I have spent countless nights in the bush on my own, so for me the experience was a positive one and merely a test of my ability to be completely at ease alone in nature. But for someone from the city who had not been exposed to the thrills of night life in the African bush, this could turn out to be a somewhat scary experience, and in subsequent years I have heard hilarious stories about would-be operators’ hair-raising encounters during Exercise Egg.
After I had been dropped off, I went on a recce down a nearby omuramba and soon found water holes with some muddy water left from the rainy season. I was hoping to use some green leaves to make a crude wrapping for my two eggs, and then drench it with water, bury it under a few inches of sand and cook it up by covering it with coals from my fire. But at the water hole I found two rusted tins that I put to good use. I carried water in the tins to my “camp”, made a fire with my match and flint, and simply boiled my eggs.
As a child, while hunting with my father on farms in the Kalahari, I had been taught the art of making a “Kalahari bed” to survive the bitterly cold winter nights – a trick I applied again. I gathered enough wood before last light and stoked the fire, then dug a shallow trench long enough to lie in. Once I had a good supply of coals from the fire, I scraped them into the trench so that the entire bottom was covered. Taking care to cover all the coals, I then worked a layer of sand across the bottom.
Then I made a second fire on the other side of the “bed”, hoping that any hungry lion with the intention of having half-cooked human flesh as a midnight snack would be discouraged by the flames. I also piled up a sizeable heap of sand and a supply of firewood, knowing that I would need to restock my “blanket” before the early-morning chill set in. Finally I collected dried grass, which I used to cover myself once inside my cosy cradle.
By the time the instructors arrived in the morning, I was refreshed from a good night’s rest and presented them with my boiled egg (having eaten the other the previous night). A number of the other students had been unable to get a fire going and endured a cold and scary night out in the bush, while most of them lost their eggs trying to cook them in the fire. One colleague had discharged both his rounds at what he thought was a lion, and then climbed a tree where he spent the rest of the night trying to maintain his balance and get some sleep.
Back at base camp our routine involved tracking, checking our snares in the evening and receiving lectures on a range of subjects. But unfortunately I fell violently ill with diarrhoea, possibly caused by drinking contaminated water out of the rusted tins. Already weakened by a lack of proper nourishment, my body packed up. I was evacuated to Fort Doppies where I was put on a drip and nursed back to health over a couple of days.
We were halfway through the Survival course and my biggest fear was that I would not be allowed to continue with Minor Tactics, which meant that I would have to wait another year to complete the training cycle and qualify as Special Forces operator. Fortunately, Ray Godbeer stood up for me, and convinced the bosses that I had done all the theory and only needed to pass my exams to complete the course. While recovering from the diarrhoea at Fort Doppies, I asked for my notes to be sent from the survival camp and used the time to study.
After about five days in bed, I rejoined the course for the assessment phase. I passed the theory and recognition exams easily, and then went on to do the practical tracking evaluation. I was completely whacked from the diarrhoea, but managed to follow the track with relative ease and convince the instructors that I was actually a born tracker. Ray let me pass the course, albeit with a little bit of TLC, for which I am eternally indebted to him, and I was allowed to continue with Minor Tactics.
I consider the Survival course as a learning experience on a par with the training I had received from Frannie du Toit at 31 Battalion. Even after my three years with the Bushmen, I had to admit that I had never learned so much about the bush in such a short time.
This was one long route march from beginning to end. For the students it turned out to be a second selection. When not slogging through the Caprivi bush with a 35-kg pack, we were doing fire-and-movement, so the course became a long drawn-out battle with an “enemy” that was persistently following us through the bush, with the eleven of us trekking and fighting consecutive battles day after day. Since I had done the course previously under the capable Frannie, and in fact had developed my own approach to tactics and a specific style of patrolling in the bush, the course was particularly challenging, since I dared not oppose the conventional wisdom at that late stage of our training.
During the long fire-and-movement “battles”, which were all conducted with live ammunition and loads of mortar, RPG and machine gun support, all sorts of strange methods were applied to stoke the students’ aggression. One specially favoured technique was to walk behind the student and hit him with a stick, presumably to make him move faster, shoot straighter and take better cover. This was not only counterproductive but also bred resentment against those instructors who indulged in the practice. Unfortunately it remained a favourite method to induce aggression, one that I encountered repeatedly in subsequent years at Special Forces training.
There were other peculiar features of the course, such as the extended ambushes, where we had to lie in wait for hours on end in the bitter cold of night, or during the heat of day in the sun, for the “enemy” to appear. Having done this in real life more times than I could remember, I battled with the concept, since I believed it was a waste of time. To my mind the ability to wait out a real-life enemy could not be taught superficially; it demanded a certain mindset that every soldier who had passed the selection should naturally possess.
Another feature of the course was the harsh punishment for any transgression, whether committed on purpose or not. Any accidental discharge of a weapon or cheating during exercises would earn the punishment of a “spes ops”, where the candidate would be taken by vehicle to the Botswana cutline 20 km away, and dropped off with his weapon, backpack and a case of ammunition weighing 25 kg, which he then had to carry back to base. This was regularly done on a Saturday evening, so the transgressor had the whole night and the next day to think about his sins while transporting his uncomfortable load back to Fort Doppies.
I had the honour of doing a “spes ops” once, but since my transgression – an accidental discharge of the LMG on the firing range – was not considered life-threatening, I was dropped off only ten kilometres out and was back in time to catch a solid night’s sleep.
During the Minor Tactics course I met Captain Andr? “Diedies” Diedericks, the legendary Small Teams operator I had been told about years before during my time at 31 Battalion. With his long-time buddy, Neves Thomas Matias, Diedies had conducted several two-man deployments, over extended periods and extreme distances, into neighbouring countries. Diedies and his group had established a camp somewhere in the bush and were rehearsing for a deployment when I met him one Sunday during a break in our training at Fort Doppies. The guy had a very focused aura about him; in Diedies a sense of purpose combined with a delightful sense of humour. It immediately struck a chord with me. I was surprised to find that he had heard of me when I was still at 31 Battalion recce wing. He also seemed to be aware of my dream of joining Small Teams. From that first meeting I felt a close attachment to this man who had become a legend in his own lifetime.
Diedies informed me that Small Teams might soon be relocated from Pretoria to 5 Recce, based on his recommendation that the Small Teams elements of all the units should be united under one command. The three active Special Forces units – 1 Recce at Durban, 4 Recce at Langebaan and 5 Recce at Phalaborwa – each had its own field of specialisation: as the founding unit, 1 Recce harboured the Special Forces Training Commando and specialised in airborne and urban operations; 4 Recce specialised in seaborne operations; and 5 Recce focused on bush operations. Both 4 and 5 Recce also maintained an inherent airborne capability. Each of the regiments had a reconnaissance element that was meant to conduct strategic-level recce missions.
At the time Diedies and his Small Team grouping formed part of the secretive D-40, code-named Project Barnacle and based outside Pretoria (it was the forerunner to the Civil Cooperation Bureau, or CCB). But Barnacle’s undercover status would soon cause Small Teams to be relocated to one of the regiments, as the operators were constantly exposed to the overt structures of Special Forces. Diedies often had to visit Special Forces HQ for intelligence briefings and liaison, while the operators had to do their specialised military training at the Reconnaissance Regiments. For me, the planned relocation of Small Teams to Phalaborwa was good news, as I knew by then that I would be heading for 5 Recce soon after the training cycle.
From that first meeting with Diedies at Fort Doppies, a long and true friendship flowed. It continued in subsequent years when we operated together on a number of extremely demanding and dangerous Small Teams operations, and beyond that through periods of very trying times of a different nature.
I knew that I had to get to Small Teams as soon as possible, as this had been my sole purpose for joining Special Forces. I didn’t want to waste any more time. But I had to stick it out on the training cycle and get the Special Forces operator’s qualification before I could move on. Fortunately the final stages of the course went by quite quickly. There was a fantastic team spirit among the students, and we worked hard to support and motivate each other.
The last exercise – escape and evasion – flowed naturally from our perpetual fighting and moving of the previous days. We reorganised at a rendezvous way down the Western Caprivi, about 50 km southwest of Fort Doppies, where we took in a hide for the night and prepared for the next day’s “mission”. A company from 703 Battalion at Katima Mulilo was brought in to take up the chase, while local Bushmen from the Kwando would do the tracking.
The idea was that, as a Special Forces team that had been compromised deep inside enemy territory, we would evade the follow-up force while moving back to the safety of our base. The “enemy” would apply all sorts of techniques to catch us, following us back towards Fort Doppies. They had an assortment of vehicles, a helicopter and the advantage of knowing where we were heading.
Our hide was “attacked” by the instructors at 05:00 the next morning, which was the sign for us to start our evasion. The eleven students were given a thirty-minute head start, so we wasted no time in getting away. As soon as we were on the run, I split from the group, veered off to the right and started anti-tracking in a southerly direction, knowing that the follow-up would be directed at the main grouping heading northeast towards Fort Doppies. The follow-up force would certainly use the road to the left of the follow-up axis to leapfrog ahead and dispatch teams to cut us off. I also had no intention of being located by the helicopter, as that would mean certain capture.
I soon slipped off my boots and anti-tracked in my socks in a wide circle back in the direction of the starting point, and then moved a kilometre south before putting my boots back on. To the north I could hear the vehicles starting up and the troops yelling to boost their own morale, for they knew that an encounter with a trapped operator could become a messy affair. I heard the Alouette start up, and before long it moved out in the direction of Fort Doppies. It circled wide and overflew my position twice, but there was no chance of their spotting me, and I knew from the flying pattern that they didn’t have troops to call in to my location.
I used the rest of the day to jog on a bearing towards a spot on the Kwando River just south of Fort Doppies, not bothering to anti-track, as I knew that the main follow-up was now in front and some distance north of me.
Throughout the day I kept a steady pace and enjoyed the peaceful surroundings of the savanna terrain. Twice I encountered herds of elephant, but gave them a wide berth.
By late afternoon, when I finally hit the vehicle track running along the Kwando River, I turned north and headed towards camp. I knew for certain that the “enemy” would be deployed along the Chopper omuramba (named after the helicopter landing zone that was situated there) south of Fort Doppies, as that would be the point where all of us would need to cross into the base area.
I watched the area for a while from the southern edge of the omuramba, and soon realised that there was no way of crossing unseen, as the observation posts (OPs) were sited every 100 m to block us off. I also realised that there was no time to circle the area, as our cut-off time to reach the base was 18:00, which gave me barely two hours to finish.
The only chance to make it in time was to walk straight into one of the OPs, “eliminate” the guards and make a run for the base.
What I did not realise was that these guys had been on edge the whole day, and were now fairly trigger-happy, since they had had to face two or three other lunatics trying to crash through their defences. By the time I reached their position, they were all nerves, wide-eyed and ready to shoot.
I took a sporting bet on my chances, and started running as soon as I reached them. But the long day’s walking had taken its toll, and the thick undergrowth and loose sand made it difficult to break away from the well-rested and eager young men, and we soon agreed that I would stop acting like a madman and they would refrain from manhandling me. Besides, I was happy to be transported the last two kilometres to Fort Doppies in the back of a Land Rover, to arrive well before the exercise cut-off.
By that time I knew that I had passed the course. It was of no consequence that I hadn’t got past the final hurdle of troop positions around our destination, as I knew it was a superficial barrier. Besides, I was confident that, given the time and the advantage of darkness, I would have easily reached the base undetected, as this is what I was really good at.
Of the original eleven guys who had started the course, nine of us passed and qualified as Special Forces operators. One student had withdrawn early of his own accord and another was taken off by the final assessment board on the basis that he was a safety risk.
The course was a satisfying experience, mainly because of the camaraderie and the exhilaration of being in the unspoiled bush of the Caprivi, but I was glad to be leaving, because I was ready to start living my dream. Since I had met Diedies at Fort Doppies and discussed my aspirations with him, there was no stopping me from joining Small Teams.
It was July 1984. We flew back to Durban and I soon departed for Upington for a few weeks’ vacation with my folks. During those three weeks at home, quite to my mother’s disappointment, I went on a solo hiking trip in the barren hills along the Orange River way downriver from Augrabies Falls. In the loneliness out there I came to find peace with my decision to give up my studies and take the bold step to join Special Forces. I had a new sense of purpose and felt immensely proud, because now I knew that I could master anything I set my mind to.