Into the Fray

“Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.”

– Numbers 13:2, The Bible (English Standard Version)

THE DAY I FINALLY drove through the gates at 5 Recce, my heart was thumping in my chest. Over the course of six months I had nagged Colonel James Hills so much to let me join the newly formed 54 Commando that eventually he had to concede. The persistent prompting by Andr? “Diedies” Diedericks from 5 Recce also must have helped. I could hardly conceal my excitement, but at the same time I was anxious, mostly because I did not quite know what to expect.

1    Into the Fray

Diedies welcomed me like a long-lost brother and the Small Team operators made me feel at home from the outset. The first thing that impressed me at the Small Team office block – and in fact the whole of 5 Recce – was the friendly and apparently relaxed atmosphere. There were no cowboys, no unfriendly stares, no holier-than-thou attitudes. Instead, seasoned operators came round to introduce themselves, which immediately made me feel part of the 5 Recce family. From the outset I also noticed the competitive tension between Small Teams and the two offensive commandos, but this was evidently the result of a healthy rivalry, and probably because Small Teams lured some of the best away from the commandos.

I was introduced to my team buddy, Sergeant “CC” Victorino, an exceptionally strong operator originally from Angola. Vic and his wife Christobel lived with their two kids in a house in Hebron, the village especially built for the married men of the unit. Vic took me in like a son, and his house became a regular stopover for a lonely bachelor.

The second thing that struck me was that Small Teams was clearly no Sunday-school picnic. There was a predominant air of urgency. The normal weekly routine was like an intense military course. We’d start the day with PT at 06:00. At 07:30 there was a quick roll call and order group. Every morning there would be lectures or group discussions. Portuguese lessons were a standard fixture of our morning routine. Since Portuguese was widely spoken in our theatres of operations the white operators had to gain a working knowledge of the language. With the aid of a “Learn-Portuguese-in-three-months” pocket guide, one of the Portuguese-speaking operators would guide us through the intricacies of the language, covering mostly pronunciation, vocabulary and some common phrases. During rehearsals before deployments we would concentrate on learning specific phrases to give us the edge in crisis situations – an advantage that would more than once in my Small Team career save the day, if not my life.

At the time, the majority of 5 Recce operators were black, about half of them were Portuguese-speaking soldiers originally from Angola and Mozambique. Most of the Angolan operators came from 32 Battalion, the highly acclaimed fighting unit established by Colonel Jan Breytenbach and made up of former FNLA fighters. The operators from Mozambique were recruited from Renamo, the Mozambican resistance movement, and were secretly brought to South Africa to be trained in special operations techniques. Given their experience in their home countries, these Portuguese-speaking operators were exceptionally suited for reconnaissance missions into those countries, and a select few were accepted into Small Teams. The rest of the operators were former Special Air Service (SAS) and Selous Scouts from Zimbabwe and a few were South African.

Signals lessons by Dave Scales, at the time a staff sergeant and the most senior NCO with Small Teams, would follow. Subjects such as antenna theory, electronic counter-measures (ECM), electronic counter-counter-measures (ECCM) and Morse practice were drilled into us. Dave had made the move to Phala­borwa with Diedies and acted as both the commando warrant officer and Tac HQ signaller. Having served with C Squadron, SAS and the Selous Scouts’ “Recce Troop”, Dave had extensive experience in small team operations. Aside from being exceptionally dedicated and highly professional, he had a sharp wit.

But Dave’s real claim to fame was signals. His knowledge of the subject was second to none. He came from a line of experts in the field of electronics in combat: his grandfather had been a signaller in the British Army during the First World War and used Morse code based on HF radio communications; his dad had been a signaller and paratrooper in the British Army in the Second World War and parachuted (among other significant feats) into the Netherlands on 17 September 1944 during the biggest parachute drop in history.

The signals lessons would alternate with sessions on Soviet-bloc weapons, aircraft and vehicles. Since all our target countries were supplied by the Soviet Union, or in some cases China, we focused all our efforts on the recognition of their military hardware. Along with the recognition of arms and equipment, a lot of time was spent on the analysis of Soviet-bloc doctrine as applied in the so-called frontline states.

After lunch, during the proverbial “graveyard session”, teams had time for kit preparation. Endless hours were spent preparing, altering, camouflaging and fine-tuning packs and webbing. Once the fierce lowveld temperature had subsided slightly, teams would depart for practical work; buddies could sort out their patrol formations and tactics, invent new anti-tracking methods and rehearse their team drills and standard operating procedures (SOPs). A lot of this practical training was spent on radio work and comms procedures.

At least two nights a week were set aside for night work. All the teams would report to the headquarters at 19:00, and then one of us would lecture on the theory of night operations, covering aspects like stalking, rendezvous (RV) drills or radio procedures in low-light conditions. Thereafter the teams would disperse into the training area for an exercise. More often than not we would sleep out in a hide after the night’s exercise and report for PT at 06:00. I did it because I loved being out in the bush, Vic probably because he did not want to disturb his family after the exercise ended around 02:00.

As Vic and I worked on our team skills, a relationship of mutual trust was established and a close bond developed between us. Vic was a big man, perhaps 20 kg heavier than me, and as fit as a fiddle, so I really suffered when we did buddy-PT together. While he could pick me up like a feather and run as if my weight didn’t bother him at all, I used to stagger under his weight.

Diedies and I were the only two living-in officers in Small Teams and we clicked immediately. He lived up to everything I had heard about him. The eternal optimist, Diedies was unstoppable when a new challenge presented itself. Every minute of each day he was busy working out new schemes, thinking of ways to outwit the enemy, inventing new tricks and planning new operations. He also felt a great sense of responsibility towards his comrades and subordinates, and would not expect anything of them he wouldn’t do himself. His outstanding leadership qualities have always served as inspiration for me. But it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to deploy with him that I realised why he was such an outstanding soldier.

Commandant Boet Swart, 5 Recce’s second-in-command, also lived with us in the mess. Soon a close camaraderie developed, as the three of us shared the same interests. Every morning at 05:00 I was kicked out of bed by the old man. I then had to make coffee and serve him and Diedies in bed. “Oom Boet” as he was affectionately called, was a delightful individual, with a fine sense of humour and contagious enthusiasm. He was also a highly professional soldier, having served in various units in the then Rhodesia. Boet was also the best Tac HQ commander I ever came across.

Initially we were four two-man teams. Diedies and his long-time buddy from many previous deployments, Neves Thomas Matias, formed the first team. The others consisted of Lieutenant Jo-Jo Bruyns and Jos? da Costa, Paul Dobe (“Americo”) and Jos? dos Santos, and me and CC Victorino. While Da Costa, Dos Santos, Americo and Victorino were by then South African citizens, they all hailed from Angola, having served with the FNLA during the civil war. They later joined 32 Battalion in the Caprivi until they volunteered for Special Forces selection.

These guys – all experienced soldiers – formed the backbone of the Small Team capability at the time. They were all Portuguese-speaking, strong-willed, motivated and highly capable, and had joined Small Teams of their own free will. During my five years with Small Teams the group remained relatively small and contained. We never had more than six teams at a time.

This period saw a number of people coming and going again. Mike Mushayi, along with two other ex-Rhodesian soldiers, also joined Small Teams then. Not all operators were cut out for Small Teams, as they not only had to cope with the demands of a rigorous routine while on the base but also had to manage the stresses that came with deployment in small groups. The base routine was taxing, and the months away from home, either on rehearsals or actual deployments, would place great strain on the family life of a married operator.

Our first exposure to the joys of Small Team ops was a training exercise in the Mariepskop area, at the northernmost tip of the Drakensberg range. Diedies, Dave Scales and Corn? Vermaak, the intelligence officer dedicated to Small Teams, were to run the Tac HQ, while two teams deployed in the most rugged and thickly vegetated terrain imaginable – the steep mountains and deep valleys of the Blyde River Canyon.

The exercise was cleverly worked out around a scenario whereby ANC insurgents had infiltrated the area from Mozambique and established weapons caches in the secluded valleys, utilising donkey trains to transport their goods. The intelligence picture was indeed based on fact, although the teams never knew exactly how much was fact and how much fiction. We expected to encounter enemy at any time during the deployment.

At first I did not realise the significance of this first deployment, but it dawned on me much later that Diedies was already preparing us for deployments in the mountainous terrain around the town of Lubango in southwestern Angola – an area that would become the focus of Small Team deployments in years to come.

For some reason I didn’t fare well on that exercise, and felt like a complete failure afterwards. Vic was a strong man, and I had to work hard to keep up. Down in the valleys the vegetation was subtropical, virtually impenetrable. The first night we spent eight hours in the pitch darkness to cover 700 m, trying desperately to crawl through the undergrowth with our huge, heavy packs. It was literally a matter of one step forward, three steps back – as the frames of the packs got tangled in the vines and roots.

I struggled to master the new challenges of comms procedure, one-time letter pads and Morse code. Our comms with Dave were mostly poor – partly due to the deep ravines we were deployed in, but also because we were inexperienced and not well prepared. At some point Vic and I had a difference of opinion about the position of our observation post (OP), which we would use to watch a cave supposed to be one of the targets. Then we argued about the best route to take. Having studied the map, I insisted that we go up a dry waterfall during our exfiltration. But when I took a nasty fall while attempting to scale the almost vertical cliff, I realised my mistake. Luckily I fell directly backwards onto my pack. Mildly concussed, I tried to stand up. Vic quietly walked up to me, lifted my pack and pulled me to my feet. Then we followed the route he had suggested from the beginning.

As could be expected, the debrief at the Tac HQ on Mariepskop was not a positive or rewarding experience. Diedies pointed out our navigational errors, poor choices of OP sites and a number of tactical mistakes. Dave was not at all happy with the standard of our comms, particularly the fact that we were repeatedly late with scheduled or “scheds”, as well as the poor quality of our Morse.

Driving back with Diedies from Mariepskop to the unit at Phalaborwa I fell quiet. Eventually Diedies broke the silence:

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but I think I messed up.”

He was wise enough not to take the matter any further and simply said, “Sleep on it tonight and we’ll talk tomorrow.”

By the next morning I felt significantly better. I realised that, while the other guys had been with Small Teams much longer than I had, they hadn’t fared substantially better on the exercise. What I needed to do was to cover a few basics and master the technical challenges that were new to me.

So Vic and I got stuck into a serious learning routine. We spent hours sending and receiving Morse, as well as improving our radio work, incorporating field repairs, the use of various types of antennae and ECM/ECCM procedures. Knowledge of enemy weapons, aircraft and vehicles turned into a bit of a status symbol among the teams and we had daily slideshow competitions to test each other’s knowledge.

We also meticulously prepared our equipment and were fortunate to have at our disposal the services of Sergeant Major “Whalla-whalla” van Rensburg, the unit’s tailor. With his heavy-­duty sewing machines, Whalla-whalla could redesign any piece of webbing and turn it into a masterpiece. The result was chest-­webbing and kidney pouches designed to our own taste, with a special pouch for each item of survival kit, strobe light, cutting pliers, torch or whatever else the operator considered vital enough to keep on his chest. Whalla-whalla also made canvas and cloth bags for just about everything, from toilet paper to peanuts. The much-treasured “Whalla-whalla bag” soon became a hallmark of Small Teams.

In addition to the rigorous training, we used the time at base to brush up on our first-aid skills. We’d set aside a week for the unit doctor to guide us through the ABCs of resuscitation, the contents and application of the priority 1 and 2 medical packs, improvised techniques for applying slings and how to stop bleeding. A casualty scenario was built into each exercise, with the result that we ended up punching each other (and ourselves!) full of needle holes in an attempt to get a drip flowing. I became quite adept at administering a drip to myself, even with the sweat running and the adrenaline pumping.

Not all training exercises were as challenging as the one in the Mariepskop area. Once, Small Teams was commandeered to take part in a countrywide exercise run by the Air Force to sharpen their command and control systems and fine-tune the integration of different resources.

Operation Golden Eagle was a typical blue-on-red exercise, with red (“enemy”) bases spread along the eastern border with Mozambique and blue forces based in the interior. A request arrived from Pietersburg Air Force Base for the Recces to do a close-in reconnaissance of red bases at Punda Maria, on the edge of the Kruger National Park. The mission entailed the placement of command-detonated flares to guide bombers to their targets. One flare would be positioned 20 km away to guide the aircraft on their initial run-in, the second 100 m away and the third on the perimeter of the actual target. The jets would detonate the first flare while in the holding area, and the second and third on the approach to the target.

The flare had a separate radio receiver, which was to be connected to the detonator and then armed for action. Little did I know that I was actually testing a new system that would later be used in our reconnaissance missions.

A day before the deployment, Sakkie Sibanda, one of the intelligence NCOs, and I were picked up in a Puma helicopter and taken to Pietersburg. A team of technicians were waiting for us at the base. We went through a quick training session on the flares and tested the systems with the fighter pilots. Just before we departed, Sakkie and I each had a freshly baked pie and a Coke from the Air Force canteen.

The helicopters first took us to a point 20 km east of the target where the first flare would be set up to serve as the initiation point once the air strike came in. I was dropped on a rocky outcrop and had no difficulty in preparing the flare and connecting the receiver while the choppers circled. With the initiation point prepared, Sakkie and I were taken to our respective landing zones (LZs) for the final infiltration to the “enemy” bases, where the target markers would be planted. I was dropped first, just before last light, and started navigating my way through some scattered villages and fields towards the target.

Everything went smoothly. I found the target easily and planted the first flare 100 m out, and the second one at the perimeter fence. I decided to stay put to see how it functioned. Not realising how powerful the explosion would be, I fell asleep right next to the flare, and was rudely awakened by the blast. The “enemy” must have gotten an equal fright, as the huge flame leaped about two storeys into the air. Afterwards they claimed they had located and almost caught me, which was nonsense, as I quickly disappeared into the thick shrubs surrounding the base. The fighter planes came thundering directly over the target in a simulated attack, “bombing” the red base into the proverbial smithereens.

The next morning I exfiltrated and was picked up by the choppers at the prearranged LZ. Mission accomplished.

It was only then that I heard Sakkie didn’t have such a smooth ride to his LZ the day before. The flight engineer told me how, after dropping me, they suddenly got the smell of freshly baked pies. Looking forward past the co-pilot, he tried to locate the bakery.

“You know, Lieutenant,” he said, “I’d never realised you could actually smell a bakery in a chopper. I looked down to see if we could land somewhere to buy a fresh loaf of bread. But the next thing I see are these pieces of what I thought was bird flesh and stuff on the perspex. It was the first time I had seen a bird strike from inside the chopper. So I reached past the co-pilot to see what it was. Then I felt the back of my helmet and it was all wet and sticky – and smelling of fresh pie.”

It turned out that Sakkie had been sitting in the open door of the helicopter until he couldn’t keep his lunch in any longer. But then, as he puked into the rushing wind, everything whirled back inside and into the cockpit. The crew’s helmets were plastered with fresh pie, as was the cabin interior. Since the Air Force crew were not too impressed with the Recces’ performance, we had to buy the drinks during the “debriefing” in the bar that night.

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