First Special Forces Operations

“And finally power is something in oneself, something that controls one’s acts and yet obeys one’s commands.”

– Carlos Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan

BUT MY DREAM to become part of Small Teams was not to be fulfilled – at least not yet. For my first deployment I had to join 53 Commando, one of the offensive combat subunits of 5 Recce. I had barely arrived at the unit early in August 1984 when we boarded a C-130 heading directly for Nkongo, an operational base in the far east of Ovamboland. At the time, SWAPO’s Eastern Front had declared it a “liberated area”, as the cadres roamed the bush around the villages freely, visiting the kraals and getting food from the local population at night. The locals supported the guerrillas, providing shelter, food and water, while warning them of any security forces in the area.

The vegetation was dense, with widespread thickets of haak-en-steek (thorn acacia). The sand was thick and soft. While this made tracking relatively easy, it also ensured that we left a clear trail, slogging with our heavy packs through the difficult terrain. Since SWAPO mingled with the population, they had the advantage of walking about in civilian clothes, often barefoot. They also had the cattle herders – young boys who wandered in the bush around the kraals with their cattle – as a regular source of information about SADF activity in the area, and they often used them to cover up signs of SWAPO presence by chasing the cattle over their spoor.

I stepped off the C-130 at Nkongo not knowing what to expect. I was assigned to the team of Sergeant Coen van Staden, a very experienced team leader. At the time it was quite acceptable for a young officer to be part of a team commanded by a senior NCO. I was fresh from selection and the Special Forces training cycle, and had a lot to learn – at least from the perspective of the Special Forces fraternity. I made a point of never mentioning my years at 31 Battalion or my experience in reconnaissance operations. The area we now entered, the “liberated” Nkongo region, had been my hunting ground three years before, and I knew the terrain like the back of my hand. But it felt good to be back in the bush, and this time it was different; as Special Forces we had all the equipment and support we needed.

My bush kit was exactly how I had drawn it from the stores the day before: large white plastic water bottles, shiny mess tins, unpainted backpack and webbing. My personal webbing was not tried and tested. It was new and noisy and too clumsy for me. The experienced operators in the commando checked me out like I was some kind of alien. I had to scrounge around frantically to get some first-aid plasters, paint and rope to make my equipment presentable, camouflaging the shiny surfaces, tying the loose straps and webbing, and reducing the noise by tightening everything up.

The afternoon before the teams were deployed, the whole commando gathered in a corner of the base and was addressed by Sarel Visser, 5 Recce’s bearded and much-respected chaplain. As a minister’s son, I have listened to many sermons in my life, but Sarel’s message that day, at a forgotten base in a SWAPO liberated area in Ovamboland, is the one I most vividly remember – almost word for word.

Sarel read from Psalm 125:2: “As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people now and forever.” He explained how God protects His servants no matter where they are, as He remained with them just as the mountains surround Jerusalem. Everyone watched as our minister got down on all fours and started building mountains and valleys in the Ovamboland sand, drawing his congregation of battle-hardened soldiers – black and white, some believers and a few agnostics – into a vivid and beautiful picture of God’s love and protection. This was a language all the men understood – the language of sand models, since that was how operational orders were given. And so the operators were glued to his words as he conveyed the powerful message in the simplest of terms, down on his knees in the white sand.

My relationship with Sarel would grow steadily over the years to come, as he would always conduct a “last supper” – a communion held with only the team and the Tac HQ commander – prior to a Small Team deployment. He became my spiritual mentor.

Our mission at Nkongo was to dominate the area by sheer aggression and try to regain full control. It soon dawned on me that we would patrol the bush in teams of twelve to sixteen, like regular infantry. There would be little of the anti-tracking, deception techniques, stealthy movement and other tactics we had developed so meticulously during my years at 31 Battalion.

Our stick sergeant, an Angolan Portuguese, was a master- snorer because he suffered from a minor medical condition. At night his snores used to cut through the cold still air and send shivers down my spine. As a standard arrangement each night the sentry had to take position next to him and wake him every time he started snoring. The poor bugger didn’t sleep at all, as he started snoring the moment he fell asleep. We eventually requested that he be evacuated, as the situation started affecting the whole team.

Team leader Coen and I agreed that we would try some techniques to deceive the enemy, or at least not let them know our position. We started by avoiding the kraals and staying away from pathways. We moved frequently, and spent as little time as possible in static positions. Then we would close in on one of the suspect kraals, observing and searching for signs of enemy presence. I would often choose one of the soldiers to go on a close recce of the kraals and pathways, but soon realised that the men were extremely reluctant to do this. The idea of two guys alone in the bush was not their cup of tea.

Eventually we split the patrol in two; while the bigger group would guard the rucksacks in a temporary base (TB), the other ambushed the pathways leading to the kraals. I was lying in one of these ambushes one afternoon when the PKM[10] gunner started spraying bullets all over the treetops. A small group of SWAPO cadres had strolled down the trail – straight into one end of our six-man ambush. Unfortunately, the machine-gunner was in Sunday-afternoon mode, and only realised there was trouble when he and the SWAPO point man came face to face. Frightened out of his wits, he started shooting with the PKM still on its bipod, pointing upwards. The cadres did an about-turn and seemed to disappear into the thicket almost casually.

Two nights later we approached the same kraal complex for a close checkout and to replenish our water supplies at one of the wells. We placed listening posts at two of the kraals while the rest formed an all-round defence at the well. I was still busy filling my water bottles when all hell broke loose. Apparently a SWAPO patrol had had the same idea as us, and was approaching the well from the opposite direction when they bumped into one of the listening posts. Coen and I simultaneously started running towards the contact, but I stepped in a hole and sprained my ankle. One of the cadres was killed, while the rest disappeared into the night.

The following morning we found the tracks of a large group that had moved south past the kraal, and had obviously sent out the small patrol to replenish water. A follow-up was immediately organised, but I had to be evacuated back to Nkongo base, as my foot was swollen thick and I could not put any weight on it.

Back at the base I was treated with much suspicion and had to endure a fair bit of abuse. My swollen ankle meant I was immobile for two weeks, but it was summarily concluded that I had concocted a reason to return to base and avoid being deployed. After a while, I had had enough of life at the base, and I was preparing to rejoin the team in the bush, regardless of my injury, when I was informed that I was to fly out to Ondangwa to join 51 Commando at Fort Rev. This next step in my relatively short Special Forces career had also been planned without any input from my side.

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