51 Reconnaissance Commando
“A man should totally be where he is.”
“A man should totally be where he is.”
THE SPECIAL FORCES command structure had called on newly qualified, single operator-officers to serve at Ondangwa, as 51 Commando was running short of leader group. The unit specialised in pseudo-guerrilla operations and most of its operators were ex-SWAPO cadres who had been captured and “turned” to work for the South African Defence Force. Although I was dying to join Small Teams, I did not have a say in the matter. The concept of pseudo-guerrilla operations was foreign to me, but I was ready to learn and explore the opportunities 51 Commando offered.
The successes of the Selous Scouts in then Rhodesia were well known in the Recces, and a number of its operators were now serving with us. When I arrived at Ondangwa, Staff Sergeant Jim Lafferty, a highly experienced operator from the Scouts, served with 51 Commando. I was fortunate to learn from a soldier of his calibre. Soon Jim would share his experiences with me and lead me into the intricacies of pseudo-operations.
In 1984 PW Botha became state president of South Africa. The national effort to counter the so-called total onslaught against South Africa, a perceived all-encompassing threat posed by communist-inspired forces both inside and outside the country’s borders, was steadily gaining ground. PW Botha was of course a strong exponent of the theory of the total onslaught, and established widespread countermeasures – of which the military effort formed but one – to combat the threat. Religion was used to instil a sense of patriotism among soldiers, who were told that South Africa was the last bastion of Christianity in southern Africa, since many of its neighbours were ruled by communist regimes after decolonisation. Soviet Russia, Cuba and East Germany also supported these governments and trained the guerrilla forces that were infiltrating both South West Africa and South Africa. By 1984 at least 6 000 insurgents were being trained and armed by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact member states in countries like Tanzania and Ethiopia. No fewer than 30 000 Cuban troops were positioned in Angola, though at this time still acting in a training and advisory role.
During February 1984 an agreement was reached at a high-level meeting of South African, Angolan and American observers in Lusaka. One of the provisions of the Lusaka Accord was the Mulungushi Minute, which determined, among other things, that the MPLA government would act to restrain SWAPO cadres from infiltrating South West Africa. The Mulungushi Minute also provided for the establishment of a Joint Monitoring Commission (JMC) to oversee the withdrawal of South African forces from Cunene province and ensure that SWAPO did not reoccupy territory vacated by the SADF. However, the JMC was slow to materialise, and it soon became clear that the Angolans could not afford to go through with a process that would help to install a non-SWAPO government in South West Africa, especially given their own precarious position vis-?-vis Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA.
So cadres from the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (or PLAN, the military wing of SWAPO) were still crossing the border into South West Africa, and it was 51 Commando’s exclusive job to infiltrate the guerrilla structures and become part of the detachments penetrating Ovamboland.
Fort Rev, a completely enclosed and highly secretive camp, was conveniently situated next to the runway within the larger Ondangwa Air Force Base area. It served as the commando’s headquarters and accommodation. Some of the ex-SWAPO insurgents were absolute masters in the bush: they knew the area intimately, spoke the language and blended in as easily as any SWAPO cadre. Once a cadre had been “turned”, he would be given a whole new identity and deployed to areas of Ovamboland where he was not known.
Absolute secrecy was required about the base, for two reasons. Firstly, the conduct of pseudo-guerrilla operations meant that operatives were literally smuggled in and out of base, usually under cover of darkness and hidden in the back of a vehicle or helicopter, sometimes in South African military uniform or in civilian dress. Secondly, the base contained detention facilities with custom-made interrogation rooms where the captured SWAPO cadres were interrogated and eventually turned.
During my years in Special Forces, I worked with some outstanding intelligence officers, and Captain Dave Drew at 51 Commando was one of them. With his huge frame and overpowering personality, his knowledge of enemy structures and modus operandi, as well as his sixth sense for the enemy’s intentions, Dave was the face of intelligence at Ondangwa. He was also responsible for turning the newly captured SWAPO insurgents and preparing them for their new role as pseudo-guerrillas.
I once saw Dave in action during an interrogation session and was dumbfounded by his shrewd combination of cunning, veiled threat and technique to draw information from his subject. By the time the captured cadres arrived at Fort Rev, there was no need for the old nail-pulling, thumb-twisting routine, since the idea was to win their confidence and to convince them that we were not as bad as they had been led to believe. Many of them arrived wounded and had to be treated, which the medics did with great care, as it was one sure way of instilling confidence in their captors.
Dave played carefully on the captives’ fears of their communist-inspired bosses, as we knew that, once it became known that they had been captured by the “Boere”, they would never be trusted or taken back into the SWAPO structures. Few of them opted not to work with us, especially when the incentive of a healthy salary and all sorts of extravagant benefits (for them!) were thrown in.
Once an insurgent agreed to deploy and to lead us back to his ex-comrades, preferably within two or three weeks of his capture, Dave would know that he had switched. He would then convince the guy that he was doing the right thing and that he would be in extreme danger if his former comrades were to find out that he had been caught. In the big man’s favour was the fact that he knew the names of every single SWAPO commander, at every level, and in most cases where they hailed from and who their families were. He could therefore easily convince the captive insurgent that he had special means of communicating with Commander So-and-So.
Upon arrival at 51 Commando I was given a team of eight ex-SWAPO soldiers and deployed almost immediately. It was, to say the least, a massive culture shock for me. We were dropped off by a Casspir in a sparsely populated area along the South West–Angolan border, and had to infiltrate to our area of operations in Ovamboland, acting as a new insurgent group that was moving into the area to establish itself.
The team acted as guerrillas and completely adopted the style and tactics of the SWAPO detachments. I was not prepared for this. There was no patrol formation, no communication signals, no semblance of tactical movement the way I had been taught. The team would stroll along in a single file, chatting away as they walked, weapons slung or just casually draped over the shoulder. When we passed a kraal, some would split off and pay the headman a visit. Sometimes they would spend hours in the kraal while the rest of us waited under the trees outside. Then they would come out with food for the patrol – goat meat or mahango, a type of maize porridge, which we would all eat with our hands from the same bowl.
Already on this first deployment I had to readjust my thinking – in fact, the very essence of my being as a soldier. For me it was quite literally a matter of adapt or die, since this kind of operation was completely alien to me and in sharp contrast with the disciplined and methodical way I had developed over the past years. My equipment, for instance, was still organised in typical Special Forces style. To switch to the rag-tag manner and appearance of the cadres required a major shift.
The objective of the operation was to collect information and to establish the group as a new SWAPO element in the area. While we made some useful contacts for future reference, I had no way of verifying the bits of information I was fed, since I could not understand the language and did not have a proper grasp of the political and tactical situation in the area.
The deployment went without incident and I was grateful for the “soft landing” when we returned to base after a week. Back at Fort Rev I had to make some modifications to my kit, as well as to my thinking.
During deployments we didn’t carry food – just one or two tins for an emergency. For food the team would rely entirely on the local population. While these guys were obviously used to this way of life, I never got accustomed to the erratic diet, and I became as thin as a rake. In an attempt to replenish my body’s dwindling resources, I bought huge amounts of Wilson’s toffees, which I would carry with me on deployments. In no time, they buggered up my teeth, as the toffee would stick to a tooth and cause it to pull out, root and all. I would end up in the middle of nowhere with a treasured tooth in the palm of my hand, and would have to carry it back to base for the dentist to fix.
My standard ops kit at this time was a small bag, resembling a rucksack, and the makeshift webbing worn by SWAPO cadres. On my head I generally sported an Afro wig, cut to size so as not to appear too conspicuous, and a large SWAPO hat that would cast a shadow over my Western features. A nicely groomed “Sam Nujoma” beard rounded off the picture. Instead of the good old “black is beautiful” camouflage cream, I used a brown cream similar to the stuff used by make-up artists. I applied it lavishly morning, noon and night, but the team would always keep me away from the local population or suspected SWAPO cadres. When we did encounter other people, they unobtrusively formed a shield and kept them occupied until I could disappear into the brush. Occasionally I came into direct contact with the local population, but we never detected any suspicion from their side.
However, I still slept with one eye open. I made a point of choosing a sleeping spot away from the rest of the group and always in a position where I would have some form of early warning, either in thick undergrowth or surrounded by a bed of dry leaves. Often I would change positions during the night. These were scary since I did not know the men and I had no idea who I could trust. We once deployed with a guy who had been on the other side scarcely one week before, and who, under Dave’s subtle guidance, had agreed to lead us to a specific point where two SWAPO detachment commanders would meet. He was not given a weapon, but, since there was no way of knowing if he could be trusted, I avoided him. I made sure that he didn’t know where I was bedding down, and I watched him closely as we approached the target area. The information turned out to be a lemon and I was quite relieved to return to base.
The lack of tactics and poor discipline – from my perspective, at least – inevitably led to a confrontation between me and some of the leading characters in the patrol. I became unable to tolerate the slack style and absence of discipline, as it appeared to be the norm even when we were back at base. The men would not listen to any advice or follow any form of tactics that I recommended. Basic drills, like moving from shadow to shadow when approaching a potential target area, were simply not observed, even after numerous rehearsal sessions. The excuse would always be, “but SWAPO wouldn’t do this”, or “SWAPO would do that”.
In between deployments a few of the men challenged my authority, often induced by a bit of courage from the bottle. One Sunday, it led to a physical confrontation. We were to deploy that night and two of the team members were late. They eventually arrived two hours after the set time, totally intoxicated, which drove me over the edge. Long, senseless arguments with the two drunkards led to a fistfight, something I regret to this day, as it only served to turn the whole group against me. We deployed the following night, after I had charged the culprits with misconduct and reduced the size of the patrol.
I did have the opportunity to deploy on some memorable missions from Ruacana into southwestern Angola, where I used to operate with 31 Battalion. Jim Lafferty manned the Tac HQ at Ruacana, while I deployed with twelve ex-guerrillas into an area just south of Xangongo along the Cunene River. This time around, the deployment was of a different nature than three years before. We were dropped off by helicopter in an unpopulated area across the Cunene and started infiltrating along a traditional SWAPO infiltration route towards Ovamboland. The local population bought our story that we were there to reinforce the ranks of some cadres already deployed inside Ovamboland and steadily guided us along the route. On the west bank of the Cunene we discovered a large cache of mortar bombs and RPG rockets, and then were shown where the detachment had hidden their rubber boat.
The team learned from the locals that a contact man on the eastern shore was ready to meet us once we crossed over, and would put us in contact with the political commissar in the area. That night we crossed the river with the rubber boat. It took two boatloads and lots of swearing in Kwanyama to finally deliver everyone to the eastern shore. But the crossing didn’t pass without incident. As the second boatload approached the shore, an RPG was discharged from inside the boat. My initial thought was that it was a contact, but the night remained quiet and I thought perhaps the guy shot at a crocodile. It transpired that the weapon had accidentally discharged, fortunately without injuring anyone or destroying the inflatable.
As we moved along during the following days, I started to think that the accidental discharge was perhaps not as accidental as they would like me to believe, since the contact man did not appear and the meeting with the political commissar did not materialise. But since I was constantly kept in the background and could not communicate with any of the local population, there was no way for me to determine the facts.
Eventually, after five or six days, we were set to meet the local commander. We established a hide in a thick patch of undergrowth and waited for the commander to pitch at a nearby kraal. As it got closer to the time, we moved to our meeting point close to the village. I was told to keep well back and make a break for it if things went sour. Two of the operators were assigned to stay with me.
I insisted on moving closer with the group, as my patience was wearing thin and my trust levels were falling. It went too smoothly: the team walked right in and chatted away with the “enemy”. The “commander” was there already, laughing and patting everyone on the back.
It turned out to be one of our own pseudo-teams, which had arranged to meet an important SWAPO commander (that would be the very honourable me!) moving in from Angola. In a sense I was relieved; I did not want to end up in a contact with this ill-disciplined bunch on my side – especially since I did not quite know who was enemy and who not – and I believed that we had not been compromised and would be able to continue working in the area, as the locals had no reason to believe that we were not two SWAPO elements meeting each other.
When I tried to figure out, during the debriefing afterwards, how it was possible that two teams could enter each other’s area, it was explained that the meeting place was on the border of the two so-called frozen areas, and that a lack of comms between the Tac HQs of the two teams had led to this potentially dangerous situation. I did not buy this, as it was obvious to me that the meeting had been prearranged – not by the local population, but by elements within our midst. I queried the explanation, but experienced operators explained to me that these kind of incidents happened in the shadowy world of pseudo-guerrilla operations.
The concept of frozen areas was a contentious issue during my time at 51 Commando. For a pseudo-team to deploy into an area, a warning had to be sent out a week in advance to the regular Army forces in the area, the Air Force and Koevoet, the controversial hunter unit of the police. The area would be declared “frozen”, which meant that no other elements but Special Forces could enter. Koevoet, however, often chose to ignore this and, as a result, hunted down 5 Recce teams on a number of occasions.
One good thing about the time I spent at 51 Commando was the exposure it gave me to a range of Reconnaissance Commandos. Every one of the three regiments, or elements of them, would pass through Fort Rev on operational deployments, and I had the opportunity to see all of them in action. It only made me more determined to get to Small Teams as soon as possible.
When the OC 5 Recce, Colonel James Hills, paid a visit to Fort Rev, I requested an interview and explained my situation: I was not interested in pseudo-operations, I was not cut out for that type of mission and I did not take kindly to the poor discipline of the ex-cadres. The colonel’s response was that I needed the experience and that Fort Rev needed me. I would stay at 51 Commando for a year, after which a decision would be made regarding a possible redeployment.
My stint at the commando was made bearable by the fact that I worked alongside a few highly skilled pseudo-operators, the likes of Captain Roes Terblanche, Sergeant Andr? Meyer and Staff Sergeant Jim Lafferty. While I learned a lot from them and realised the merits of pseudo-deployments, I never liked the idea of the white team leader being kept at a distance, and I never got used to the poor tactics and relaxed ways of the ex-SWAPO soldiers. I also doubted my own ability in the field as a white person, given that I did not speak the language and didn’t have any in-depth exposure to the Ovambo culture. I would never truly fit in with the pseudo-teams, and consequently I always felt exposed.
By late 1984 Andr? Diedericks was in the process of moving from Pretoria to Phalaborwa to establish Small Teams as a subunit of 5 Recce – soon to be named 54 Commando. Up until then Small Teams had operated under the auspices of the covert D-40, or Project Barnacle, which collected intelligence and launched disruptive actions against enemies of the state. Diedies realised that a Small Teams outfit could not function effectively in a covert environment, where any links with government or the military were denied.
All the while, I remained in contact with Diedies and continued writing letters to the OC, telling him what I was destined for and urging him to let me go, but with no luck! By now Diedies had started his own campaign to get me to 5 Recce. Since Small Teams resorted directly under the GOC Special Forces, as far as operational tasking was concerned, Diedies had a direct line to General Kat Liebenberg. At this time it also transpired that the Small Teams elements from 1 Recce were destined to move to 5 Recce, and so I knew my time was coming.
Sadly, although it was an interesting experience, I cannot claim any breathtaking operational successes during my time at 51 Commando. I never had the opportunity to do my own thing, to deploy on my own terms. I was always at the mercy of the SWAPO ex-cadres and somewhere in the background so the enemy would not recognise my white face.
My time at 51 Commando tested my personal mantra, developed so meticulously during my years at 31 Battalion, to breaking point. No longer could I say that this, and nowhere else, was where I wanted to be. But I endured because I believed it was a necessary stepping stone to get to Small Teams. I also knew that I was gaining invaluable information about the way SWAPO operated from men who had recently roamed the bush as PLAN cadres.
Another source of inspiration that made the time at Ondangwa worthwhile was the presence of Dave Drew, who was like a walking encyclopaedia and would share with me his intimate knowledge of SWAPO structures and tactics. Little did I know that Dave would soon be transferred back to 5 Recce and would serve as intelligence officer for the majority of Small Teams deployments I would be involved in over the next five years.