Operation Cerberus

September 1985

BY 1985 – my first year as a Small Team operator – the Border War had escalated and SWAPO was aggressively pushing its political agenda while its detachments infiltrated deep into South West Africa. Some of the worst fighting of the war took place in central Ovamboland, while across the border the civil war between the MPLA and UNITA had reached a peak.

Operation Cerberus

2    Operation Cerberus    September 1985

The Joint Monitoring Commission (JMC), established in February 1984 under the terms of the Lusaka Accord, consisted of personnel from both the SADF and FAPLA. Its mandate was to monitor the systematic disengagement of the opposing forces in the conflict. After Operation Askari in December 1983, South Africa had indeed withdrawn its forces from Angola. However, SWAPO immediately deployed its fighters into the areas the SADF had evacuated, violating the terms of the disengagement agreement. Since the JMC could not fulfil its mandate, it soon became dysfunctional.

Then Wynand du Toit from 4 Recce was captured and two of his teammates, Louis van Breda and Rowland Liebenberg, were killed during a Special Forces raid on a Gulf Oil installation in the Cabinda enclave of Angola. Politically this was a disaster for South Africa, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pik Botha, had just proclaimed that all SADF troops had been withdrawn from Angola. The MPLA of course exploited the situation and accused the South African government of being liars who could not be trusted in any peace negotiations. Following the failure of the JMC, the SADF moved its forces back across the border into Angola, launching attacks on bases SWAPO had established.

It was against this backdrop of political turmoil and strategic manoeuvring that I was sent on my first mission with 5 Recce’s Small Teams. One evening in July, after we had gathered at the block for a night training session, Diedies called three teams into the intelligence briefing room. Dave Drew, by then the unit’s intelligence officer, was also there, along with Eric McNelly, a counterintelligence officer from Special Forces HQ in Pretoria. We knew immediately something was up.

First we got the usual counterintelligence brief from McNelly: that the enemy was out there listening and that we should keep our traps shut. We had heard this message often without fully comprehending the reality of the threat. The need for secrecy was only brought home a year later when Major Andr? Pienaar from Special Forces HQ was caught spying for “an African country”. He was arrested at Jan Smuts airport (today OR Tambo International) when he tried to travel to Zimbabwe with seven top-secret files from Military Intelligence. Pienaar had been working in none other than the counterintelligence section, which had to keep us in check, and as such was privy to all the information regarding Special Forces deployments. (Pienaar remained in custody and was only released in the early 1990s.)

Dave Drew first gave us an overview of air traffic between Lubango and Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola. Since the railway line running east from Lubango to Menongue had been rendered useless by UNITA, the MPLA was now relying heavily on air transport to get their logistics to the front. Daily flights of Soviet Antonov cargo planes transported huge amounts of logistics and troops to Menongue in support of the MPLA war effort. SWAPO’s Eastern Front also benefited substantially from this, as their logistics were ferried by truck from Menongue to their base southwest of the town – an area I would get to know intimately during later deployments.

By June 1985 the MPLA had initiated two large-scale offensives against UNITA, one in the Cazombo salient in the east and the second against Mavinga in the southeast, forcing Jonas Savimbi’s forces to fight on two fronts. Soviet and Cuban advisors guided the MPLA operations, and large numbers of SWAPO’s semi-conventional troops and ANC cadres, who were being trained in Angola, took part in the operations. The SADF viewed these offensives as part of the total onslaught and a direct threat to stability in South Africa.

After Dave’s overview, Diedies gave a brief outline of the mission, though not covering any details of timings and positions. We would deploy with UNITA to shoot down MPLA transport aircraft, utilising captured Russian SA-9 missile systems attached to the BRDM-2 armoured vehicle. Should we shoot down an aircraft, UNITA would claim the success. Although this was not a classic Small Team mission, I was grateful for the opportunity to learn. I had heard much about deployments with UNITA and was eager for first-hand experience.

Diedies and I drove to Pretoria for briefings and to marry up with the Air Force’s anti-aircraft specialists handling the missile systems. Back at Phalaborwa the operational teams started preparing their equipment under the guidance of Dave Scales. Dave maintained a modular Tac HQ that could be reduced or augmented depending on the requirement – whether on foot, in a vehicle or in established headquarters. He took care to pack equipment that could be transported by air and deployed at Rundu. The operators prepared their equipment, rations, water and a reserve for possible resupply. Then, under the pretext that they were going on a training exercise, the operational team went to Sawong,[12] a secluded training area on the banks of the Olifants River outside Phalaborwa, for a two-week rehearsal.

While I was in Pretoria I met up with a friend who told me he wanted to introduce me to a girl he thought I would get along with. “She’s a teacher, she’s fun and she’s also a fitness fanatic… runs road races and stuff,” he explained.

“Thanks,” I said, “but you know I’m a bit tied up and will be going away for a few months.”

At the back of my mind I was also thinking of our unspoken policy that, once a guy got involved in a serious relationship, or wanted to marry, he would quit Small Teams of his own accord. I didn’t want to get bogged down in a relationship when I had just started what I had so long aspired to do.

“Well, think about it… You can always just be friends,” my friend persisted.

So I agreed to meet Zelda the following day. And because she was beautiful, clever, fun-loving and a fitness fanatic, I was hooked right from the start. While my friend had obviously informed her that I was a Recce, I did not volunteer any further information. Zelda was smart enough to realise that she shouldn’t prompt me for more details, and accepted from the outset that I would often be away.

After a week of planning and briefings at Special Forces HQ, Diedies and I returned to Phalaborwa to join the rest of the teams for final preparations and rehearsals at Sawong. Once we were ready, we were picked up by C-130 from Hoedspruit Air Force Base and flown to Pretoria, where the SA-9 missile systems were loaded onto two C-130s under the cover of darkness. The Tac HQ and all our personal equipment went in with the vehicles.

The flight to the operational area was scheduled for the afternoon so that we would arrive at Rundu, the headquarters of Sector 20, after dark. The SAM-9s were offloaded and we moved our equipment to Fort Foot, where we would stay for a few days before the deployment. Fort Foot, 1 Recce’s operational base at Rundu, was situated inside the perimeter of the larger headquarters base. Adjacent to the fort was the Chief of Staff Intelligence (CSI) base, from where all liaison operations with UNITA in eastern Angola were coordinated.

The next morning Diedies and I went to meet our UNITA guide, a young captain only introduced to us as Mickey, at the CSI base. Mickey was an amiable guy with whom we would cooperate closely for years to come. He spoke English well and had an intimate knowledge of the situation in Angola. He knew the locations of the FAPLA deployments in our area of operations and, even better, knew personally all the UNITA commanders of the bases that we would travel through.

The SAM-9 crews used the opportunity to do a final rehearsal on the systems, locking on to just about every aircraft that came in to land at Rundu. This initially caused some consternation and a few near-crashes, as the pilots of the fighter jets had not been informed, and got some nasty missile scares. In the meantime Dave Scales had set up Tac HQ in Fort Foot and was testing and monitoring the frequencies we’d be using. As always, he had the most practical and well-coordinated system going, and had us rehearsing comms procedures endlessly.

Oom Boet Swart, the Ops commander, kept us in good spirits all the way. I loved the old man dearly, even more so because we shared a love of classical music. In those days, the SADF had a fifty-fifty language policy for formal communications, which required English and Afrikaans to be used in alternate months. As it was the English-speaking month, Boet, whose real name was Mathewis, insisted on being referred to as “Matthew Black”. He reckoned this pseudonym would enhance the clandestine nature of our mission, since no one would suspect he was a “regte Boer”.

The time for the deployment came and we crossed the Cubango (Kavango) River with a UNITA pontoon at night, taking the heavy BRDM-2 vehicles across one at a time. Most of the Small Team operators had made themselves comfortable on the camouflage netting next to the vehicle’s turret. We actually tied ourselves to the superstructure so as not to be wiped off by branches. And so began the long and tedious journey along a sandy vehicle track, from one UNITA base to the next, to our final destination along the Gimbe River.

During the afternoon of day three, there was a grinding of gears and the vehicle I was riding on suddenly packed up. Diedies, in consultation with Lappies Labuschagne, our vehicle technician, made the call to move on with one BRDM and a UNITA escort. I would stay behind with the disabled vehicle and a contingent of UNITA soldiers. As soon as a recovery vehicle could be organised, I would move on and meet up with the main force at a UNITA headquarters base 100 km further along our route. If the vehicle could not be recovered, Diedies would continue the operation with the one SAM-9 and a UNITA protection element.

During those few days on my own with UNITA, I realised how much could be done with almost nothing. I was astonished by the sheer genius, clever improvisation and perseverance of the UNITA soldiers. Since Captain Mickey had departed with the main group, I was left without an interpreter and in the company of the UNITA detachment commander whose English was about as limited as my Portuguese – which was nonexistent. Nevertheless, he told me not to worry, as they were just waiting for a vehicle and some shovels. I couldn’t figure out what purpose it could possibly serve, as the BRDM-2 weighed at least 8 tons. There was no way of towing it through the dense bush on the sandy vehicle track. I honestly couldn’t see a way out and was dismayed that I would probably miss out on a great experience.

Early the next morning I heard a Kw?vo?l arriving. A swarm of youngsters, each armed with a pick or a shovel and cackling excitedly, jumped off the back of the truck. The commander approached me with a big smile on his face. They clearly had a plan, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out. Then a heavily loaded Mercedes truck arrived and my enthusiastic colleague indicated to me that we should move all the equipment from the BRDM onto the Mercedes.

I was still baffled. I thought they were about to abandon the missile system and take all the equipment away. I started to protest and tried to explain to the commander that I needed to stay with the SAM-9.

But my worry was short-lived. The Kw?vo?l was driven to the front of the BRDM and parked about two vehicle lengths’ away. To my astonishment the shovel-bearing youngsters cleared a stretch of sand between the two vehicles and started digging. Throughout the rest of that day, they methodically sunk a pit in front of the BRDM, working rhythmically to a song they sang. Every now and again a fresh hand would jump in and grab a spade from one of the group. It was beautiful to watch – the harmony of the labour, the rhythm, the ease with which they accomplished a task that for most Westerners would have been impossible.

A trench sloped down from the Kw?vo?l towards the BRDM, levelling out a few metres in front of it. By that afternoon the pit was deep enough for the Kw?vo?l to reverse into, and for the BRDM to run forward onto the back of the Kw?vo?l. Now they were faced with the challenge of how to get the unserviceable armoured car onto the back of the Kw?vo?l. However, they also had this worked out. Two technical geeks started unwinding the winch from the BRDM’s front, looping the cable straight across the armoured hull of the Kw?vo?l to where the Mercedes truck was waiting some distance away. With the cable fully extended and hooked onto the Mercedes, this became a simple operation. The Mercedes inched forward, pulling the BRDM slowly but steadily onto the Kw?vo?l.

Once the BRDM was snugly on top, the next job was to get the Kw?vo?l out of the pit. But even that turned out to be a minor challenge, as they simply let the Mercedes, with the winch cable still attached to the BRDM, move forward slowly, assisting the Kw?vo?l with its massive load to get onto level ground.

We were ready to go, but as we started rolling I immediately saw that there was no way the huge combined structure of the two vehicles would pass under the tree canopy. But, again, I had underestimated the resolve and genius of these people of the bush. They simply placed two capable axe handlers on the Kw?­vo?l’s hardened roof. These guys patiently and methodically chopped away at any branch, whatever the size, that blocked the way. It took us two full days (and probably five times as many axe blades) to cover the distance to the base where the rest of the team was waiting. Disregarding the time and huge amount of effort it required, the UNITA soldiers literally cut a path out of the tree canopy for the BRDM to slide through.

But still our woes were not at an end. On the morning of the second day the Mercedes truck, my taxi, suddenly came to a halt with a flat rear tyre. We were stuck in the deep soft sand of the vehicle track. Then it transpired that there was no jack. With the vehicle fully loaded with bags of maize and all our equipment, and without proper tools to change the tyre, I assumed we were stuck for good.

Yet again I was proven wrong. Twenty young men jumped on the vehicle and offloaded every item, including all the bags of food. In the meantime, two of the axe-men started chopping down a Y-shaped tree with a trunk about a metre in diameter. Once the tree was down they cut off the two main branches, leaving a distinct and solid-looking Y-shaped part of the tree to serve as a base. While they took time cleaning away the smaller branches from one of the remaining poles, a few of the men dug a hole about two metres from the truck. In this they inserted the long end of the Y, burying it halfway so that the forked part was next to the vehicle.

Next came the tree trunk that had been stripped of branches. This was laid into the V-shaped base with the short end under the truck body. Bingo, we had a crude crowbar that proved to be amazingly effective. A group of UNITA soldiers got onto their comrades’ shoulders and, slowly and tentatively, started to hang on to the long end of the “crowbar”. Suddenly the Mercedes lifted, and with a loud shout everyone still standing around grabbed a piece of the tree trunk and held on as a few good men swiftly changed the wheel – in a matter of five minutes.

The whole tree-felling, jack-rigging and wheel-changing operation took no less than three hours. When we finally arrived at the UNITA main base, a team of Special Forces technicians had already been flown in by helicopter with a new gearbox for the BRDM. It took the tiffies a day and a night to lift the old gearbox out and fit the new one. Once they were done, the vehicle was as good as new.

Two days later we reached our target area, high ground overlooking the flood plain of the Gimbe River. That night Diedies deployed the two missile systems right in the open, about 40 m from the tree line. We cut branches from trees way into the bush line and camouflaged the two vehicles until they appeared to be clusters of loose-standing thickets. The Small Team guys and the missile operators dug in just inside the tree line, while Captain Mickey established his headquarters higher up on a dune sloping down to the river, close to our mini-HQ where the intelligence officer, the tiffies and the doctor were deployed. The UNITA company served as protection element and were deployed in a rough half-circle to our rear.

We hadn’t even properly set up our little camp when two “swing-wing” MiG-23s suddenly appeared from nowhere, flying almost at treetop level and generally just making a nuisance of themselves. I was frightened, lying dead still in my trench, expecting the pilots to see me at any moment. They kept on fooling around, one moment coming over slowly with the wings extended, then screaming down with wings pulled in and breaking the sound barrier. Later I heard that the UNITA soldiers wanted to open fire with their small arms, which would have given away our vulnerable position and ruined the operation. We were not armed for defence against fighter attack, and our mission was to shoot down a transport, not a fighter plane.

The very next day we heard the Antonovs flying over, sometimes directly over our positions. There were many flights, often as many as five or six a day. Over the next six weeks we recorded more than 140 flights. Unbelievably, over that whole period the missile operators were unable to get a single lock-on. The rainy season was approaching fast and the days were cloudy, making it impossible for the heat-seeking infrared systems to lock on to the engines of the aircraft.

I learned much from Neves Matias and CC Victorino during this operation. Right from the beginning they settled into a routine they diligently stuck to throughout the deployment. They took it upon themselves to organise the daily tasks of placing security details, collecting information from UNITA, camouflaging positions and sending patrols to fetch water from the Gimbe River. Every second day Victorino ensured that the missile systems were covered with fresh foliage and that the dry branches were removed and hidden under the tree canopy. He painstakingly effaced all the tracks that led to and from the missiles. I soon realised that these guys had been moulded by years of experience, and that the base routine was borne of a simple under­standing of its importance.

After six weeks, we were ordered to withdraw. We had many scares that FAPLA had located our position and were on their way to intercept us with a large force or that they had identified our camp and were about to launch an air attack. However, aside from occasional random bombing by the MiGs in the area, we were never targeted. Diedies requested an extension, stating that we had not been discovered and needed two more weeks.

And so it happened that one morning, during the extension period, Christie Smit, the medical doctor, was leading the morning dedication. He read from Ephesians 3:20: “Now to Him that, through His grace working in us is able to do so much more than we can think of, or even pray for, to Him be the glory.”

Then someone shouted, “Antonov!”, the usual warning for the missile operators to get into action. Most of the guys were gathered at Diedies’ trench. We looked up. The sky was clear, with not a cloud in sight. An AN-12 was heading straight towards us.

“This is it, manne!” Diedies shouted and ran to place himself between the two missile vehicles.

I fixed my binoculars on the approaching aircraft. The wings had to fit into 18 mm on the instrument’s reticule to be within striking range of the SAM-9s. As I started shouting, someone else also called out: “It’s within range!”

“Get it!” Diedies ordered the gunner.

The missile left the launcher in a cloud of smoke and dust, blasting most of the camouflage off the vehicle. Our eyes were fixed on the smoke trail of the missile, which seemed to bear way off track and then appeared to explode far behind the aircraft.

“It’s a hit!” the gunner shouted as he climbed out of his vehicle. “It’s a hit!”

“Okay,” Diedies ordered, “Get this vehicle camo’d up again and move to your positions. We’ll wait and see if there’s any reaction.”

All the while I tracked the aircraft through my binoculars. Suddenly it started to veer off course and a thin trail of smoke appeared.

“It’s hit!” the rest of us shouted simultaneously. “It’s going down!”

After ten or fifteen minutes the plane disappeared behind the tree line, having circled in a wide loop to the north. It was obviously in trouble. Then, as we watched in silence, a massive cloud of smoke appeared above the trees. The aircraft had crashed.

We kept a low profile for the rest of that very long day, waiting and watching as the MiG-23s did their meticulous searches. As soon as it was dark we packed and got the vehicles ready. We could not afford to stay in the same position any longer. That night we drove 20 km south and found a suitable spot, on the edge of a flood plain, where we redeployed the missiles. By first light the SAM-9s were ready and camouflaged and everyone was dug in.

Over the following days, while waiting for another target to present itself, I contemplated our success. I felt sorry for whoever had died in the crash. Killing an enemy in a fair fight was one thing. But this was different. The crew and passengers of the aircraft had no chance. In fact, we did not even know who’d been on board. I discussed these thoughts with Diedies and found some consolation in his reaction.

“I don’t even think of the people killed,” he said. “I just look at the bigger picture. There was a reason why we got this job. The task was executed successfully and the goal was obtained. That’s it. Get on with your life.”

Diedies was always the pragmatic one. By this time I had gotten to know him as a very sympathetic person, and I realised that he probably felt the same measure of guilt as I did. This reassured me and helped me to work through my own feelings.

A week later we exfiltrated along the same route we drove in on. Aside from the occasional MiG flying at high altitude, no more aircraft bothered us. After a full two-month deployment we finally reached the border. It was the longest I had been without a wash, and I desperately needed one. But my sense of accomplishment was great, not so much for the successful operation but because at last I felt I had settled in with the Small Teams group.

Diedies and I also formed a lifelong bond, and for years to come we would work closely together. Every single day of those two months he had me drafting and sending intelligence reports covering movement of ground forces as reported by UNITA, as well as the details of aircraft passing overhead. Little did we know at the time that these reports would greatly assist the intelligence community in compiling an accurate picture of the build-up of enemy forces at Menongue and Cuito Cuanavale.

It transpired that the Antonov had been carrying a Russian crew and eleven senior Russian advisors. Radio intercepts indicated that the Russian officers had been directing operations against UNITA on the Eastern Front and were heading back from Menongue to Lubango for a break. This was a serious setback for the Angolan-Soviet-Cuban war effort. To us it was clear proof of Soviet involvement in a war that, in our view, had nothing to do with them.

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