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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.
OOM BOET SWART, warrior extraordinaire, was flown back to South Africa and survived the ordeal. After numerous operations and a long recuperation process, he took up his post as second-in-command of 5 Recce once again. Exactly one year after the night of the accident, he was awarded the “Chopper-Stopper” trophy by Gees Basson and the chopper boys from 19 Squadron – a mounted scale model of the yellow wheel blocks used to immobilise a stationary helicopter.
Having spent every possible moment of his time on Small Team operations and training over the years, Diedies was, in his own words, “a grossly under-qualified major by Infantry Corps standards” and had some serious catching up to do. Thus, for almost the whole of 1988 he was on a course at the Army College in Pretoria while I took command of 54 Commando.
The Border War was not over yet. During the latter part of 1987 and throughout 1988 South African forces were tied up in operations Moduler, Hooper and Packer at Cuito Cuanavale in eastern Angola. In the west of the country, Cuban and FAPLA forces advanced steadily towards Ruacana in a concerted effort to exert pressure on Pretoria. Special Forces reconnaissance teams were in great demand, but due to an unforeseen setback I would be out of action for the rest of the war.
In 1988 a number of new Small Team candidates were recruited from the Special Forces training cycle. In the past, an operator had to have at least two years’ experience with an operational commando before he could join Small Teams, but an exception was made to train newly qualified operators in an effort to bolster the strategic reconnaissance capability. We presented the reconnaissance course at 5 Recce, utilising the Small Team guys as instructors. One morning during PT I took the students up a rocky outcrop outside the base to give them an orientation of the terrain. When jumping from one cliff to the next, I lost my balance and fell. One of the students tried to catch me, but I took him down with me. Together we took a ten-metre fall down the cliff face.
Both the student and I sustained injuries that put us out of commission for months. Fortunately, there was a strong element of Small Team operators who could finish the training and take the newly qualified teams through their paces. After a few weeks in hospital and subsequent physiotherapy treatment, I joined the new teams on their first deployment. In June 1988 Dave Scales and I established a Tac HQ at Fort Rev, from where a number of deployments would be launched.
For me, this last Small Team deployment of the war turned out to be a most rewarding experience, since I had a “bird’s-eye view” from the Tac HQ and could watch a perfectly planned and expertly executed recce mission unfold. A large Cuban deployment, which would serve as a staging point for an expected advance on Calueque, had allegedly been established at Techipa, west of the Cunene River. A Small Team consisting of Menno Uys and Mike Mushayi was tasked with determining the position and strength of the base.
The team was inserted by helicopter, and over the next two weeks executed a classic recce mission of the Cuban forward deployment. In the Tac HQ I had the opportunity to see Dave Scales in action as he guided the team along, sometimes encouraging, sometimes coaching, always remaining calm and collected, always in complete control. After every sched I plotted information from the team’s message on the map, systematically piecing together the intelligence picture until we had a six-figure grid reference and details of vehicles and strengths. The team withdrew without the enemy becoming aware of their presence. The mission was a resounding success that embedded Small Team tactics, at least for me, as a tried-and-tested modus operandi.
At the end of 1988 Diedies left for 1 Recce in Durban. He was promoted to the rank of commandant and offered the position of OC 1.2 Commando, the Special Forces training unit on the Bluff. I was sad to see my friend and close colleague leave, but realised that times were changing and that one had to adapt. Although this move heralded the end of an era, it was not the end of our friendship, and over subsequent years we would still have great times together.
Andr? Diedericks left an immeasurable impression on my life. He departed on his final solo mission in 2005 when he died of cancer. Diedies left behind his wife, Rietjie, and two beautiful daughters, as well as a close circle of Small Team comrades who will never forget him. The little honour I bring him in this book will never do justice to the unique character of my team mate and friend.
Jos? da Costa remained with 5 Recce and played a major role in the selection and training of young operators, exerting extraordinary influence and shaping the lives of numerous Special Forces soldiers. In later years he was transferred to senior warrant officer positions outside Special Forces to gain broader experience, but was eventually brought back to the Special Forces School to apply his vast knowledge and experience there.
The Border War came to an end and so did the era of specialised deep penetrations behind enemy lines. But my own career in Special Forces was far from over. At the end of 1989 I was also transferred to the Special Forces School at 1 Recce in Durban, where I took command of the Special Techniques Branch. With a capable team of operators, I taught the skills I had accumulated over the years. We presented the reconnaissance course, sniper training, basic and advanced photography, and climbing techniques in both mountainous and urban environments.
As a runner-up prize for my excursions into all kinds of exotic places, I was awarded the Honoris Crux Bronze for bravery. Although I am not particularly boastful about this, as I have always known my fears and have never considered myself as an extraordinarily brave man, I treasure it because the citation was compiled and submitted by the man who to me was the personification of the ultimate warrior – my team buddy and mentor, Andr? Diedericks.
In 1991 I took over command of the Training Commando from Diedies, a job I thoroughly enjoyed. Boet Swart had in the meanwhile retired and moved to Pietermaritzburg with his new wife, Sophia, a military historian and former lecturer at the Military Academy at Saldanha. One evening, while visiting them at their home, I paged through a photo album lying on a coffee table and noticed a photo of a very beautiful blonde girl who used to be a student of Sophia’s.
I was intrigued, and inquired about her. Sophia told me her name was Karien and that she was still studying at the Military Academy. Even though she was a thousand kilometres away, I wasn’t deterred. I drafted a letter, which Sophia offered to deliver. Before long Karien came to visit, and within one week of our first meeting we decided to get married – and have been so ever since!
In 1994 I was transferred to the HQ in Pretoria to oversee all Special Forces training. In 1999 and 2000 I did a brief stint at 4 Recce in Langebaan as second-in-command, but soon had to move back north as I was appointed Senior Staff Officer (SSO) Operations back at Special Forces HQ.
In 2003, after the closure of 1 Special Forces Regiment in Durban, it was decided to establish the Special Forces School as an independent and fully fledged unit at Murray Hill, north of Pretoria. I took command of the newly founded unit and established it as a nationally recognised training provider, of course with the help of a highly capable team. During that period, the Special Forces Training Cycle was accredited as a formal qualification, one of the very first in the new outcomes-based dispensation in the military.
In 2007 I was posted to the South African embassy in Saudi Arabia as Defence Attach?, an opportunity I still consider the culmination of a wonderful career, and in a sense a reward for the odd bit of hardship I had to endure in my 26-year Special Forces career!
But my small team story would not be complete if I didn’t conclude with a “final mission”. In 2010, while still stationed in Saudi Arabia, I decided to do a 200-km solo hike through the Rub’ al-Khali, the “Empty Quarter” of the Arabian Peninsula – the largest sand desert and one of the most barren areas on earth. I wanted to retrace the steps of the great adventurers of yesteryear, the likes of Wilfred Thesiger and Harry St John Philby. This time, however, it would be done on foot with the old Small Team pack.
By this time I was married and the father of five-year-old twins, so I agreed, at Karien’s prompting, to build in safety measures to increase my survival stakes. One week before the trip we drove deep into the desert and established a water cache at the halfway mark – at a place where some dilapidated infrastructure indicated that people had once lived there. At the time there was a real threat of religious fundamentalists targeting Westerners, but I took the risk of venturing alone into the desert.
On the way back from a 4X4 tour in the desert, I was dropped off with a 60-kg pack and set out on a bearing in the direction of Riyadh. I was carrying 40 kg of water, as the searing heat made one consume more than eight litres a day. To save water, I only hiked at night and in the very early hours of the morning, covering 28 km a day. On the first day I barely rested, because I soon realised that once I had put the heavy pack down I couldn’t get up again. The terrain was flat, with no vegetation, and there was nothing I could use to pull myself up. So I just stayed on my feet and rested by bending over with the pack and leaning on my hiking stick.
Later on, once I hit dune country, it became easier to stand up by taking advantage of the slope of the dune. The disadvantage of the dunes was that I couldn’t get the heavy pack up the steep incline of the leeway, the side of the dune sheltered from the wind. This was a problem especially at night, as I could not see the lay of the land and invariable found myself at the bottom of a dune I could not get across. I would then have to move back along the base of the dune to where the incline allowed me to cross.
It was tough and challenging, but in a sense the most rewarding experience of my life, as I again felt the exhilaration of mastering my old fears and becoming one with the desert around me. During the hike I relived every Small Team deployment, recalling both the hardships and joys, and buried the last of my fears in the sands.