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Shortly after passing the infamously gruelling Special Forces selection course in the early 1980s, Koos Stadler joined the so-called Small Teams group at 5 Reconnaissance Regiment. This subunit was made up of two-man teams and was responsible for numerous secret and highly dangerous missions deep behind enemy lines. With only one team member, Stadler was sent to blow up railway lines and enemy fighter jets in the south of Angola. As he crawled in and out of enemy-infested territory, he stared death in the face many times.
A gripping, firsthand account that reveals the near superhuman physical and psychological powers these Special Forces operators have to display.
8 Facing Fear
“In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is no time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.”
AFTER OUR failed operation at Menongue airfield, Diedies and I discussed the prospects for a similar penetration of the FAPLA airfield at Lubango, from where the bulk of FAA’s fighter aircraft operated. In addition to the fighter-bomber regiment HQ, the air base hosted a MiG-23 squadron, a MiG-21 squadron and a variety of helicopters, including the much-feared Mi-24 gunship. No fewer than 56 fighters were parked in areas at both ends of the runway, some in revetments and the majority on the apron.
A penetration of the airfield had not previously been considered feasible, since it was surrounded by enemy deployments. Soviet-supplied air defence systems, both radar and missiles, were positioned on the mountains to the west and southwest, while Cuban, FAPLA and SWAPO bases were spread around its perimeter.
However, before anything else I first had to deal with a personal crisis. It was at this point that my past experiences started to catch up with me. I had crawled around enemy bases in the dark one too many times. Too often I had been on the wrong side of an AK-47 being cocked in the clear, quiet night. Slowly but surely, my mind started telling me that the odds would turn against me.
A horrible dream started to haunt me: I would be stalking a dark and ominous house under the trees, alone, with a full moon completely blinding my vision. I knew the enemy was lying in wait, but had no choice but to crawl towards the house. Behind me I could hear movement, enemy moving in to cut off my escape, and I knew there was no way out; I just had to keep crawling towards my inevitable fate.
I told Diedies about my dream and how I repeatedly relived the tense moments during the final stalk into enemy bases. Diedies was very supportive and understood the predicament I was in, having been in that dark place before. We talked about it on numerous occasions, but in the end the dream would still be there, tangible and ever-present.
One day Diedies cut straight to the chase and asked whether I wanted to continue to operate or preferred to opt out, offering to let me stay on at Small Teams in a supporting role and act as Tac HQ commander for a while. But I had come too far in preparing myself for the ultimate in soldiering. There was no way I was giving it up because of a few bad dreams. I assured Diedies that I was set on my job, but that I needed time to work through this thing.
At the time, Johnny Koortzen, an old friend from school, was the psychologist at Special Forces HQ. I phoned him from Phalaborwa and asked whether we could meet for a chat. Johnny must have read between the lines; he immediately said he was keen to talk to me since he was doing a study on the impact of acute stress on Special Forces soldiers. I was due to take the military law course in Pretoria, which gave me an opportunity to see Johnny and, more importantly, to spend time with Zelda.
To this day I don’t know whether I was wise or stupid not to talk to Zelda about my fears, but I opted not to show what I saw as my weakness. I therefore also did not tell her the real reason for my visit to Pretoria. It didn’t even cross my mind that sharing my fears and uncertainties with her could have eased my burden. While I didn’t want to acknowledge it, our relationship was taking strain as a result of our hectic programme and uncertain schedule.
When I walked into Johnny’s office that first day, I swallowed my pride and told him about my growing sense that fate would catch up with me, and how the next time I bumped into enemy soldiers in some godforsaken guerrilla base in Africa would be my last. He listened patiently, occasionally prompting me with questions. Over several meetings, I told him about every incident since my days at 31 Battalion recce wing – every time we approached or infiltrated an enemy base, every time I had to run away to survive, every single time I had to evade an aggressive enemy on our tracks.
Just recalling all those incidents was a great relief, as the only people we ever talked to, once the debrief was done and the top-secret files had been stowed away, was the tiny inner circle of Small Teams. I had never even shared war stories with my colleagues from the commandos, as I thought it would breed animosity. And besides, talking about events from highly secret operations would have been considered a security breach.
For the first few days Johnny and I just talked about my experiences. He asked me to explain my fears and describe my recurring dream in the finest detail. Then we gradually started turning negative thoughts into positive ones, countering every weakness with a strength.
Did I believe in what I was doing?
Did I want to do it?
Yes, I was ready to do that and much more.
How did I manage to find enemy bases out there in the bush?
Because the Int was accurate and my navigation was tip-top.
How did I get to penetrate right into the enemy base?
Because I was good at it and we were well prepared.
How did I get out of the base once we were compromised?
Because the enemy did not expect us there and we knew exactly where to go.
How have I survived all the close shaves before?
Because I was prepared.
How did I get away from an enemy that was chasing us?
Because I was extremely fit and good at anti-tracking.
How did I not get tied up in encirclement?
Because we were well rehearsed and knew the terrain. The darkness was our friend and we were exceptionally good at night work.
In time, Johnny reinforced in me the solid foundation on which our deployments were based: good intelligence, capable operators, well-rehearsed operations, emergency plans, the best equipment money could buy, a strong support system, faith…
Together we started building a strategy to help me manage my fear. From the beginning he made it clear that we would not try to defeat the sense of fear, but rather develop a mechanism for me to accept that it was inevitable and learn how to cope with it. It reassured me when he told me that, regardless of their bravado, every operator feared death and every one had their own way of dealing with it. He also pointed out that few operators repeatedly penetrated enemy bases alone, or with only one buddy in support. Most people found solace in numbers and did not like being alone in the bush – let alone inside enemy-infested encampments!
Johnny then worked with the concept of fear itself, and after talking about it for hours I started realising that, as a Christian, my fear was not for the actual moment of dying, but rather the uncertainty of the moment; the fear of failure or of being captured was more significant.
To counter my fear of failure, we built a strategy based on the conviction that I was better at my job than any adversary I would encounter. Not marginally better, but exceptionally so. Steadily I started to realise that every training event, every night bent over the maps and stereoscopic photos, every rehearsal was not only a skill to be mastered but also something to be ingrained in my mind as an attitude. Johnny helped me to apply a simple but effective technique in which negative thoughts and attitudes were replaced by positive ones – by giving the bad thoughts a “dirty” colour and draining them from my mind, replacing them with the bright, colourful, positive ones.
The next part of our strategy involved a mind game that I eventually became very good at, a type of positive self-talk where I not only envisaged success but also started living the euphoria of completing the job successfully – a kind of visualising oneself as a James Bond (sadly without the martinis and the girls!) and thinking of the success as being the result of your efforts. At the risk of becoming an egotistical, over-confident prick, I started applying this technique in everyday life and found it most helpful in building self-confidence.
After the course in Pretoria, I took some time off and visited my folks for a few days. While at home in Upington I received a message to call Diedies urgently.
“The big one’s on,” Diedies said. “I need you here.”
He was, of course, talking about Lubango.
“How much time do I have?” I asked.
“Be at the HQ in a week,” he said. “I’ll meet you there. We’ll get an Int update first.”
My immediate response was to go on a three-day solo hike along the Orange River. I had to prepare myself mentally. Of course my mom couldn’t understand why I came home for a holiday only to disappear into the rough on a solitary adventure.
The operation was not going to be easy. At the time Lubango was considered the best-protected airfield in Angola. The Soviet-manned radar and anti-air systems would detect any aircraft approaching from as far away as 80 km, depending on its altitude. Just to get close to it would be a challenge in itself, never mind getting past the Cuban, FAPLA and SWAPO deployments surrounding it. The penetration would require meticulous planning and pinpoint navigation – and an exceptional level of skill and determination. The mission would also take no less than three to four weeks to complete.
I hitched a ride with friends who farmed on the South West African side of the Orange River – in the same rough and rocky terrain where, years before, the International got stuck on the mountainside and I had to walk to get help. I made my way down the deep ravines to the river, and then hiked along the beautiful Orange River gorge in an easterly direction towards Augrabies Falls. It was a harsh environment, but being alone in that wide-open and unspoilt world was exhilarating. That first night I slept under an overhanging rock with the dark and ominous water of the Great Gariep rushing by just a few metres from me. The rugged edges of the mountains towered above me on both sides of the river. It was a lonely and desolate stretch of earth.
On the third day I crossed the river to the South African side, where my dad picked me up. Two days later my car was packed and I was ready to join Andr? Diedericks for our excursion to Lubango. It would turn out to be the experience of a lifetime.
Diedies had chosen his most trusted team for the job. A three-man team was needed for the target and so Jos? da Costa had been pulled in as the third man. Boet Swart would be the mission commander in the Tac HQ at Ondangwa, Dave Scales in charge of signals, and Dave Drew was the intelligence officer. Even the helicopter crews from 19 Squadron were the cream of the crop: two stalwarts, Commandant John Church and Captain Gees Basson, would pilot the two Pumas.
We would infiltrate by helicopter to the mountains southwest of the target, then move on foot towards Lubango along a route straddling the highest ridges. Da Costa would remain on the high ground immediately southwest of the town to maintain comms or initiate emergency procedures, while Diedies and I would penetrate the airfield. Once on the apron where the aircraft were parked, we would split up and each work our way down the two lanes of MiGs.
The intelligence presented to us in Pretoria covered everything in the greatest detail. The positions of the FAPLA, Cuban and SWAPO deployments were meticulously plotted. With the assistance of the aerial photo interpreters, we “flew” every inch of the infiltration route, utilising the fancy stereoscopes. We plotted a primary LZ and some alternatives for rappelling from the helicopters. In the end I had mind-walked a hundred times the route I was to navigate. We even mapped out most of our lying-up places. We knew the layout of the target so intimately I could almost have done the operation blindfolded.
With the experts from EMLC, we did revision of the Tiller charges, once again going through the arming procedure and safety measures.
Soon we were off to Phalaborwa to prepare and rehearse. Diedies and I jacked up our knowledge of Portuguese phrases and again spent many hours rehearsing on the runway of Hoedspruit air base in the dark hours of the night. We became such masters at the art of stalking that I was actually looking forward to the exhilarating adrenaline rush on the night of the penetration. I had not entirely overcome my fear, but at least it was more contained and I now knew how to channel it.
The operational team did final touch-ups and spent the last three days in Pretoria, mostly fattening up and briefing HQ on the final plan. I used the time to work through my “fear-control” plan with Johnny Koortzen. He made me talk through the rehearsals and describe how we had mastered the stalking techniques. I had to explain how good our equipment was and how well prepared we were. After these sessions, and once I’d worked through the “self-talk” techniques, I could imagine nothing but success. Mentally, I was as prepared for the operation as I could ever be.
The sessions with Johnny had the added advantage that they would help Small Team operators in future. I noted down all the techniques and later captured them in a staff paper that would be incorporated in Small Team training manuals. In this way I compiled a series of lessons on so-called soft issues under headings such as “Self-motivation during small team operations”, “Control of fear and panic”, “Compiling a diet for long-term deployments” and a range of other aspects not covered in conventional training manuals.
While I was riding the crest of the wave in my professional life, the same could not be said about my personal life. Zelda wanted a bigger commitment, but I wasn’t ready for a more serious relationship. We loved spending time together, but life at 5 Recce was fast and frenetic and I wasn’t ready to settle down yet. She sensed my wavering, but never challenged me with an ultimatum.
The uncertain status of our relationship was disconcerting, especially since, at that time, I needed the reassurance that things were okay back home. However, the situation was entirely the result of my own immaturity. I simply didn’t have the skills to handle it.
For both of us, breaking up was an extremely emotional experience. We were at a resort outside Pretoria, enjoying each other’s company and whiling away the hours. I was intent on ending the relationship, as I was about to depart on my most dangerous mission thus far. I was afraid of not coming back to her, and didn’t want her to sit and wait for me. Without my knowing, Zelda had bought me a pullover as a gift – a sort of truce to initiate a new beginning in our relationship. However, she sensed what was about to happen and gave me the present before I could say anything.
There was a powerful emotional connection between us, and we felt a mutual attachment that, I had to admit, although it came too late to rebuild the relationship, may have been love. In the end, we parted that day without bringing the relationship to a decisive end, but both of us knew the coming mission would be a watershed. We wanted to be close to each other, but my decision not to commit made it impossible.
While I was trying to untangle myself from my relationship with Zelda, Diedies was by now a married man. Of course, I used the opportunity to give him a hard time for bending his own rules by getting married, especially without my consent. His wife, Rietjie, had been appointed communications officer at 5 Recce and lived in Phalaborwa. Although she did not have direct access to the latest intelligence or the team’s movements, she still worked closely enough with the intelligence section to have a fairly good idea of what was happening. This of course didn’t make things easier for Diedies.