Operation Abduct 1

January-February 1987

“One of the greatest forces in the lives of warriors is fear, as it spurs them to learn.”

– Carlos Castaneda, The Wheel of Time

BY LATE 1986 the idea of destroying FAPLA MiG-21s and -23s on the runways of the air bases at Menongue and Lubango had been on the cards for months. Diedies was certain that he could convince the bosses to send a small team to do the job, as it was virtually impossible for a fighting patrol to infiltrate either of the targets. Both airfields were exceptionally well protected, had open cultivated lands for kilometres around them and had a spread of FAPLA, Cuban and SWAPO deployments in the vicinity.

Operation Abduct I

6 Operation Abduct 1 January-February 1987

At that point, the MiGs ensured that FAPLA had air superiority in southern Angola. They had the advantage of holding time, or time-over-target, as they had a mere 60 to 80 km to fly to the combat zones. The South African Mirage F1s and Buccaneers, however, had to fly from Grootfontein; by the time they reached their targets, they had only ten minutes of fuel left. Hence they seldom engaged in dogfights, as their window of opportunity was too limited. The Impala jets operating from Ondangwa and Rundu had neither the range nor the armament to engage the MiGs.

With Dave Drew’s assistance, Diedies had been studying the patterns at Menongue, in Cuando-Cubango province, trying to ascertain the number of fighters, where they were parked, how they were protected and how they could be approached.

While the rest of 5 Recce was deployed on Operation Colosseum, Diedies travelled to Pretoria to make presentations to the GOC Special Forces, Major General Joep Joubert. The idea was proposed to the Chief of the Defence Force, General Jannie Geldenhuys, who agreed to the plan in principle but had to clear it with the Minister of Defence.

The operation was approved, but we still had to present the final plan and get authority for air support. This required some powers of persuasion, as it would be considered an act of sabotage – and a breach of international conventions – if a South African soldier was caught placing explosives on FAPLA aircraft. Up to that point UNITA had claimed all the successes for downing enemy aircraft.

Menongue would be the first target, mainly because fighters were operating from there against the South African forces deployed at Cuito Cuanavale, but also because it was considered an “easier” target than Lubango.

It was business as usual as Diedies, Neves Matias, Jos? da Costa and I returned to Sawong to prepare for our next deployment. We forced ourselves to adapt to a switched routine – working at night and resting during the day. Every night we would practise navigation, patrol tactics and stalking a target.

We spent hours stooped over maps and aerial photos, working out routes, hiding places and a final approach. A photo interpreter from the Air Force, equipped with all the latest aerial photography, state-of-the-art stereoscopes and even a scale model of the target, was there to assist us.

We also used the daylight hours to study the dimensions and vulnerable points of MiG-21 and -23 jets. Using enlarged graphics of the aircraft, we determined exactly where to position the explosives for maximum effect, the idea being that the charge would cause a secondary explosion of the fuel tanks, which in turn would damage adjacent aircraft. Our reasoning was that if a charge could be placed on every second or third aircraft, we could effectively cripple the whole airfield.

We had also tested a range of blue and grey camouflage in varying light conditions. In the end we decided to use a single type of clothing for day and night. It appeared that dark blue and olive green had similar qualities in the pitch-dark conditions we were aiming for. In better-lit areas such as dam walls and power stations, a light blue or grey colour would be suitable, but, since our target area would be fairly dark, we decided on an olive drab as best suited to both day and night conditions.

For the final stalk Diedies initially wanted us to use tracksuits made of an elasticated nylon-type material, as he thought it would be better for crawling and climbing fences. However, we soon realised this was not practical, as thorns and dry grass tended to stick to the material and it got hooked on the bushes too easily.

For protection, as well as for silent movement during the stalk, we exchanged the normal anti-track covers for grey sheepskin covers over the feet, knees and elbows. At some point during the rehearsals – and actually during our first deployment – we had the woollen covers stitched to the actual clothing, covering the knees and elbows, but this proved to be a nuisance when walking. Finally Whalla-whalla van Rensburg, our unit tailor, came up with a solution: woollen covers with broad elastic bands that could be pulled over the knees and elbows, with the added benefit of pulling the sleeves tight to the body. For the approach to target we could therefore use the normal canvas anti-track covers, and don the sheepskin protection once we started the actual stalk.

For the Menongue target we decided that three of us, Diedies, Neves and I, would approach the outskirts of town, and that Neves would remain on the high ground east of the target to maintain radio comms with the Tac HQ while Diedies and I did the final penetration.

The charges were specially prepared by EMLC – moulded explosives, Torpex with an aluminium base as incendiary, and a time-delay trigger device code-named Tiller that would give us enough time to move out of the area before arming itself. Tiller also incorporated a light sensor as well as a potent anti-lifting device. To conclude the package, each device had a tube with two chemicals. When squeezed, the chemicals mixed and formed a quick-drying, potent epoxy glue – the so-called Vernon Joynt glue, after its inventor, the ingenious Dr Vernon Joynt.

To carry the explosives to the target, we designed a pack containing compartments for nine charges, each of which could be reached without having to take the pack off – except the one in the centre of the pack, which could not easily be reached by hand. This pouch we stacked with one day’s food and our E&E kit.

Water was another challenge. In order to be agile and flexible for the stalk, we preferred not to carry water bottles in kidney pouches on the sides of the body. Thus a full water bag was attached to the centre of the rucksack. The bag had the added advantage that the water would not make a noise, as it would in a half-filled bottle, while we were on the move.

Our preparations were put to the test when, during the last two weekends before our deployment to Rundu, we conducted full dress rehearsals at Hoedspruit. There we recreated the con­ditions we expected at the target – the distance to approach to the perimeter fence, a dark moon phase and the distance to cover on the hardstand to reach the aircraft.

The SAAF had been requested to provide us with all necessary support, and so one of the fortified hangars was left open, while four Mirages were parked outside. The base security squad­ron had been put on alert for the weekend. As far as they were concerned, the Recces would be doing an exercise against them and they would go all out to detect us.

The three-man team crossed the perimeter fence undetected. We lay up inside the base for a day, and then donned the sheepskin covers and infiltrated to the hardstand where the Mirages were parked. It was a pitch-dark night, and we found that we could stalk the “enemy” – our own Small Team colleagues and some counterintelligence personnel from HQ in Pretoria guarding the planes – to within a few metres before we were detected. We practised the stalk, fine-tuning the posture and adjusting the equipment until finally, in the early hours of the morning, both Diedies and I could stalk to within touching distance of the sentry.

The dress rehearsal at Hoedspruit gave rise to another ingenious invention: a harness we designed for the night-vision goggles. The normal neck strap was no good when you had to crawl or climb. The new harness consisted of a neck strap with the addition of an elastic band around the body, which would hold the goggles tight to the chest. In this way the operator could use both hands without having to worry about the night-vision goggles swinging loose. When he wanted to use the night vision he simply had to pull it away from the chest, while the elastic would tug it back into position once he let go. Also, to prevent the greenish glow from the night vision reflecting on the face, we had a piece of sheepskin moulded around each eyepiece.

I attended the final briefing in Pretoria with Diedies. Since approval for the mission had already been given, this briefing served to coordinate Air Force support, as well as contingencies in case of a capture or E&E situation. Diedies ran through the operational plan and then covered all the contingencies should anything go wrong. He listed the requirements for C-130 transport to Rundu, drop-off and pick-up by helicopter and procedures for telstar (comms relay). Close air support was not even mentioned, as the mission would be completely clandestine and non-­traceable. UNITA would claim any credit, and the South African government would deny involvement in the event of the mission being compromised.

For this operation a new element was introduced to the emergency plan. Each operator drafted a personal contingency plan, dubbed “Captured Info”, that contained all the actions he would execute in case he was captured and managed to survive. The content would be memorised and the document handed to the Tac HQ commander for safekeeping before the deployment. Each operator had a secret code – unobtrusive hand signals, facial expressions or blinking the eyes in a certain way – by which he would communicate should he be captured and exposed on TV.

Every possible means of communication with own forces would be considered and described in detail, while methods of receiving messages, through a Red Cross representative, a visiting family member or a lawyer, would be included. Coded messages could, for example, be hidden in the text of a magazine that the captured operator might receive through a visitor. The Captured Info plan became part of our emergency procedures; we rehearsed it before every deployment until the content was ingrained.

A few days after arriving at Rundu, mission commander Ormonde Power called us for an intelligence update from Dave Drew. While the rehearsals were reassuring, the final intelligence brief was not. According to information gleaned from UNITA, the MiGs were allegedly guarded by FAPLA troops who slept underneath them.

Just before deployment, Colonel Terence Murphy, the senior Ops officer at Special Forces HQ, flew to Rundu from Pretoria, accompanied by Eric McNelly, the counterintelligence guy, and Oom Sarel Visser, our chaplain. Colonel Murphy asked to see the team alone. When he faced the three of us – Diedies, Neves and me – behind closed doors he said, “We cannot afford to have you compromised – either killed or captured. The boss man said I must give you the option not to deploy. If they are indeed sleeping under the aircraft there is no way you can get in without being compromised.”

“You see, Colonel,” Diedies responded, unfazed, “if we don’t go, we’ll never know. Let’s rather go see for ourselves. If they are indeed sleeping under the aircraft, we can’t do the job. If they’re not, we’ll get the job done.”

And that was that. No further argument.

Still, these must have been trying times for Diedies. He had become engaged, and his fianc?e, Rietjie Wentzel, worked at the intelligence division of Special Forces HQ. Rietjie was close to the action in the sense that she was informed about all our missions. She would literally follow every step of the deployment and would know immediately when the team was in trouble.

Final kit inspection was done by Eric McNelly and Diedies. They went meticulously through every single piece of equipment, Eric checking for non-traceability and Diedies for functionality, camouflage and whether the item was properly secured to the webbing. Every torch, every night-vision device, every radio had to be switched on and tested. Magazines were emptied and reloaded; weapons were tested again.

Just before we deployed, Oom Sarel read from the Bible, gave a brief message and shared communion with the operators and the doctor.

Two Pumas transported us to a UNITA base approximately 80 km southeast of Menongue. Our old friend Mickey, now a UNITA major, flew with us and acted as our liaison. It was a well-established base, and we were allocated the “guesthouse”, complete with beds and mattresses made of cut branches and grass. We had to wait a while for our transport and for the right moon phase – between dark moon and first quarter – which would give us a slight moon in the early evening.

When our transport, a South African Kw?vo?l truck, finally arrived, it took a day’s slow driving to reach the drop-off point, as UNITA was weary of FAPLA aircraft and ground patrols. At the drop-off the UNITA soldiers established a temporary base where they would wait for our return. The doctor remained with them, while Diedies, Neves and I started the approach to the target.

Even though the Menongue airfield might have been easier to penetrate than Lubango, it was an exceptionally difficult target to reach due to the open fields surrounding the town. Furthermore, the Angolan militia, a uniformed citizen force equipped with rifles, had the nasty habit of patrolling from kraal to kraal, occasionally shooting, apparently at random and at no specific target. This was quite nerve-racking to a team hidden in the undergrowth.

Diedies and I left Neves on the high ground east of the target. He would establish comms and wait for our return. If we didn’t show up after two days, he would E&E back to the UNITA forward base, from where they would launch a search.

I navigated, as DR navigation had by now become my forte. During the planning and rehearsals, Diedies and I had agreed that I would navigate to the target, while he would lead the way once inside. The standard procedure by that time was that he would be in front without night-vision goggles, relying on his senses only, while I would bring up the rear with night vision. The reason for this was that the person with the night sights would be temporarily blinded every time he removed the instrument from the eyes. However, the goggles served the purpose of picking up the glow of fires, cigarettes and other light sources.

For the penetration, Diedies had his South African-made BXP (with silencer) at the ready, while I had my AMD-65 out. Should we bump into enemy soldiers we could eliminate them without making too much noise and move out before the alarm could be raised. On the actual target it might even give us the chance to finish the job. The AMD was meant for more serious business – if we had to engage in a firefight.

At first light we found ourselves on the edge of the cultivated lands. Hiding places were scarce, but we managed to crawl under a thicket, where Diedies covered me up with leaves and grass, then crawled in close for me to cover him. By then we had perfected a technique where we would lie close together on our backs, the one’s head by the other’s feet, weapons at the ready. This provided us with good all-round observation; as our heads were facing upwards we could detect noise and movement all around. It also gave us split-second reaction time in all directions, as one could either sit up or roll over. For drinking water, each had a tube leading from the water bag inside the kit. For nourishment we would snack on energy bars or nuts at the quietest time of day – when the sun was at its highest and sound and smell did not travel far.

The biggest challenge was waiting for the day to pass. Boredom can bring on all kinds of negative thoughts, and the fear of being compromised is an ever-present companion. That day proved to be a particularly demanding one. There was much shooting and yelling all around us, to such an extent that we thought our tracks had been discovered. By about 09:00 two youngsters made their appearance and climbed a tree overlooking our hide. The next moment they started chopping away at the higher branches and spent the whole day trimming the tree away to a stump. Most of the time one of the tree-choppers was almost directly above us.

Late that afternoon we heard considerable jet aircraft activity in the direction of our target, which made us wonder whether they had been scrambled for a mission.

It was not yet dark when we crawled out of our hiding place and started moving. Time was of the essence – we had to be on target by 01:00. We had set 02:00 as final cut-off to move out, because it would take three hours to get back to the tree line before first light. We had just started moving when we bumped into an old man returning from his fields. Diedies kept his cool and spoke to him in Portuguese, urging him to get back to his house as it was getting late. Luckily he didn’t put up an argument, hurriedly turned his back and started moving back to town.

By midnight we had reached the river just east of the runway. The aerial photography had not told us how deep and marshy it was, and it took more than two hours to cross. At some point during the crossing one of my feet got stuck in the mud and my anti-track cover got left behind. Diedies wasn’t too happy about this, but there was no time for tears. Fortunately, I still had my sheepskin bootees. We were already running late.

After crossing the river, we followed a road that led straight to the runway, and soon bumped into a checkpoint with some guards, complete with a boom gate and a dug-in tank in a defensive firing position. It took us an hour to skirt the position, moving extremely slowly as we did not know if there were any troops lying in trenches.

By 03:00 we reached the eastern end of the runway. It was already an hour past our cut-off time and we hadn’t even seen an aircraft. We decided there and then to get out before daylight. I led the way, and we were still inside the base when the first faint light of day appeared in the east. We covered the last two kilometres to the relative safety of the tree line in broad daylight, praying that we wouldn’t encounter security patrols that early in the morning.

By 06:00 we moved into dense bush and just kept going. Diedies was out of water and we had to share my half-litre. We had been going for thirty-six hours, and it was starting to take its toll. By 09:00 Diedies was severely dehydrated and I was in no position to assist him.

At last we were forced to sit down for a brief rest. As we looked back on our route, Diedies managed to say, through parched lips, “Kosie’tjie, hierdie is kak [This is a load of crap].” “Dit was laaste. Ek kruip nie weer in terr basisse rond nie. Nooit weer nie! [Never again. I’m not going to crawl around terrorist bases ever again].”

I couldn’t agree more, and I told him so. Then we each popped one of the performance-enhancing amphetamines we used to carry for such emergencies, and used the induced energy to cover distance. About four hours later, as the midday heat was at its most intense and the drugs started to wear off, Diedies suddenly stopped. Clearly at the end of his tether, he sat down and called me back.

Finding it almost impossible to speak, my colleague croaked, “I’ve given it some thought. What if we go back tomorrow night? We are now familiar with the target and with the shortest route to it. We know where to cross the river. We know where the guard post is. We can do it.”

I was flabbergasted. He was completely spent, and yet was already making plans to return to the target.

“Just think about it; they don’t know about us,” Diedies maintained. “We have all the advantage we need.”

Such was the nature of the man. Even in the most desperate of situations he could still see an outcome. In his most exhausted moments he would look at a situation with the clearest perspective and force his mind to look beyond his physical suffering.

“Okay,” I finally said, “I’ll think about it, but first let’s find the rest of the guys.”

We both had another amphetamine pill and kept moving. By the time we found the first UNITA guys that afternoon, Diedies was leaning on me for support, barely able to walk. Neves had already moved back, not knowing whether we’d been captured or not, and was happy to see us safe.

The doctor immediately put Diedies on a drip and suggested we each take a Valium to get some decent sleep. Over a hot meal we discussed the prospect of approaching the target again the following night. Neves had, in the meantime, made comms and given the Tac HQ a brief rundown of the situation. I prepared a message on Diedies’ instructions, motivating for a second penetration attempt and outlining the plan.

Before last light we again heard much aircraft activity in the direction of Menongue. It sounded like fighters taking off. I took my Valium and vaguely wondered where all the planes were going before falling into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Diedies and I were up before first light. The drip had clearly revived him, as he was in good spirits and joking: “Is jy bang, Kosie? [Are you scared, Kosie?]”

“I’m never scared,” I chirped, “just careful. After all, I don’t want to carry you out again…”

We decided to leave Neves at the temporary base, where he could maintain radio comms with the Tac HQ and, if necessary, orchestrate a search and rescue rather than sit out in the bush by himself. This time we took an HF radio with us. I discarded the improvised “bomb rucksack” and took a pack with an inner frame for the radio. The charges went in with the radio, along with extra water for both of us. We were off just after first light, and this time I wasted no time in navigating to the best position for us to penetrate.

We did much better on time, and by 20:00 that night we had skirted the marshy river area where we had wasted so much time two nights before.

Diedies took the lead after the river. As adept as I was at map and compass work, he had a knack for memorising a target and working it along the planned penetration route. This time we reached the runway by midnight. We briefly considered finding a hiding place inside the base should we not make it back to safety before first light, but both of us knew how dangerous that would be.

We kept going, maintaining a low profile on the runway. Suddenly I heard a sound behind us and pushed Diedies down firmly. It was the strangest noise, as if a light steel object was being rolled rapidly in our direction. The next moment a dog came trotting past us on the runway, not noticing us even though we were barely three metres away. The noise came from its claws hitting the tarred surface. It ran past us and disappeared, leaving two shaken but very relieved operators on the tarmac.

We reached the hardstand in front of the main terminal building. As there was some light coming from the buildings, I could see quite clearly with the night-vision goggles. But there were no jets. The only two aircraft I could see were a smallish prop job and an Mi-17 transport helicopter, nothing else.

“I see no MiGs,” I said in a whisper.

“What do you mean, no MiGs? We’re not looking in the right place…”

He brought his night vision to his face. No fighter planes. Then it hit us, right there in the dark, on the tarmac, deep in the Angolan war zone. They didn’t put troops under the MiGs to guard them; they actually flew the aircraft out to a safe place every night! That was the jet activity we had heard the two previous nights.

We were devastated to realise that all our efforts were in vain – our mission would be unsuccessful. We approached the transport on the tarmac and saw that it was unserviceable. When I quietly suggested to Diedies that we should plant devices on the two aircraft, he just waved his arms; it would have been futile to give the game away at that point. All that remained was to exfiltrate quietly and rethink the whole operation.

We moved out fast. By now we knew the route well and skirted the hot spots easily. Once out of the target area, I took over and navigated us directly back to the TB. While it was a great relief to be out of danger and to see the friendly faces of our comrades, I felt very down and disappointed.

The next day we drove back to the UNITA base and were picked up by a Puma soon after our arrival. At Rundu we were met on the runway by Ormonde Power and Colonel Murphy and were sneaked off to Fort Foot in an enclosed van. We had the customary welcoming dinner with champagne and all, but for Diedies and me the evening was overshadowed by the fact that we hadn’t succeeded. At the back of my mind I was already considering what we would do next.

Shortly afterwards, we received confirmation via the intelligence channel that FAPLA evacuated the fighters every afternoon from Menongue to Huambo, which was much further from the border and thus considered safer. This was excellent information, fresh and accurate, but unfortunately three weeks too late.

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