Into the Unknown
IN NOVEMBER 1978 a C-130 military transport aircraft carried two groups of adventurous youngsters to the theatre of war. One group had volunteered for 32 Battalion, a unit of ex-FNLA soldiers founded by Colonel Jan Breytenbach and moulded into an all-black South African combat unit; and then there was my group, which was headed for 31 Battalion at the military town of Omega in the Caprivi.
Led by white officers and a mix of white and Bushman non-commissioned officers (NCOs), 31 Battalion had been formed by Colonel Delville Linford, one of those rare characters who did things in an utterly unorthodox style – and got away with it. Although I never met him, since he had already left the unit when I arrived, his photos were everywhere and his influence was still tangible.
We were a mixed group of candidate officers (COs) and lance corporals fresh from the Infantry School. Upon arrival at Rundu we boarded a Kw?vo?l (a 10-ton truck with a mine-protected cab) for the journey to Omega. It turned out to be an unforgettable experience. Everyone was somewhat scared of what lay ahead. We sat on top of our kit and watched the bush rushing past. Piled up against the cab were bags of maize. From the rush of air a fine maize dust constantly sifted down on us. Suddenly a thunderstorm broke – typical summer weather in the Caprivi, as we were soon to discover during operations in the bush. But it was not long before the sun broke through the clouds and our clothes started to dry on our bodies – with the maize still sticking to our clothes and faces. We were delivered to Omega as a Kw?vo?l-load of freshly baked bread – walking rather stiffly and smelling like a bakery!
Captain Frans “Gor-Gor” Gunther introduced us to 31 Battalion and put us through a brief initiation. He was an impressive character with an overpowering personality and an equally dominating moustache. Rumour had it that the sides of his moustache would droop if he was in a bad mood but stand out firmly if he was happy with your performance. I had the good fortune never to see the great moustache drooping. Over the next three years I would have the pleasure of deploying with my recce team along with Frans Gunther’s C Company.
After the weeklong introduction to the base, candidates for the reconnaissance wing were separated from those who would join the regular companies. While the latter attended an induction course to learn how to handle their Bushman platoons in counterinsurgency warfare, eighteen of us went on selection for the recce wing.
In the mid-1970s the need for a tactical reconnaissance capability led to the formation of reconnaissance platoons at the infantry units permanently based in the operational area of the Border War. At the time, 31 and 32 battalions were the first to deploy tactical recce teams into Zambia and Angola, with the aim of locating SWAPO bases situated across the border in what were believed by SWAPO to be “safe” areas.
Initially, the tactical recce wings were trained in minor tactics by instructors from the Reconnaissance Regiments, and conducted recce missions in the tactical sphere of operations, many of them prior to attacks or raids against enemy bases and infrastructure. Over a ten-year period, roughly from 1976 to 1986, the reconnaissance wings took a lot of weight off the Reconnaissance Commandos by conducting special operations for sectors 10, 20 and 70 in the operational area. This allowed Special Forces the freedom to operate in the strategic environment.
Although there was never a clear-cut distinction between tactical and strategic deployments, it was generally accepted that the tactical recce wings would operate in the direct areas of responsibility of the sectoral commands, at the time stretching as far as 60 km into Angola and Zambia. Yet there were numerous exceptions to this general rule. Many Special Forces missions were in fact conducted in what was considered the tactical sphere, as was the case with pseudo-guerrilla operations carried out by 51 Reconnaissance Commando on both sides of the South West Africa–Angola border.
Textbook definitions of the time described strategic reconnaissance as operations in which a team operated independently, with no direct support from air or land resources. The information gained from the mission would also not automatically lead to a follow-up action by own forces, but would have an effect on the strategic outcome of the war. Tactical reconnaissance missions were, however, seen to be conducted in the tactical sphere of operations, within range of air- or land-based support, while the outcome would always be an immediate action by own forces.
The modus operandi of the tactical reconnaissance platoons varied from unit to unit. A recce patrol leading the advance in front of a fighting force would often be armed and ready for combat, thus a sizable number of four or six operators would be the order of the day. For a recce on a SWAPO base, a patrol would consist of no more than four men. This number was reduced to two if penetration of the facility was required. Often, even in the early days, the sparse undergrowth and the nature of the terrain would preclude the use of bigger teams, so by the late 1970s the concept of small teams had already been tentatively applied by the tactical recce wings.
The selection for the recce wing turned out to be the toughest experience of my life so far. Selection started with a week’s PT course at the base, from 05:00 in the morning until late at night. The idea of the PT sessions was supposedly to get us fit and ready for the bush phase, but it just managed to make us dog-tired, as we were still adjusting to the hot and humid weather of the Caprivi. Then we were taken out into the bush for the real selection, which turned out to be a never-ending slog through the bush, naturally with full kit, from one rendezvous (RV) to the next. At each RV, the instructors would meet us with a new little surprise, either a stiff PT session in the sand or leopard-crawling for what felt like miles. Then we would be given a new compass bearing to the next RV some impossible distance away, where they would meet us the following day.
For the first leg of our adventure we were given a grid reference on the Angolan cutline – the border between the Caprivi and Angola – to be reached by the next morning. Carrying packs weighing in the order of 30 kg, we walked through the night and were in time for a PT session right there in the Caprivi sand on the Angolan border. At 09:00 we got our next RV – another grid reference approximately 30 km further east down the Caprivi Strip. We had to report there by the following morning at 08:00, which I thought was impossible, given the thick vegetation and the state we were in.
Once they had given us our orders, the instructors departed. We had no food, and only the water left in our packs. Just us and the endless savanna of the Caprivi. Fortunately the bush was lush and green after the splendid summer rains. There was water in abundance in the omurambas (open stretches of grass-covered plain, generally running parallel between the dunes). I decided that there was no better time to cover the next leg than now. The less we needed to walk during the night, the better.
Easier said than done, as there and then I was confronted with a situation I regard as my first real test of wills with another adult. A fellow candidate officer, a character I did not have much time for, took the role of leader upon himself and declared that we would rest over the heat of the day and start that afternoon at 15:00, giving us enough time, he reckoned, to cover the 30 km before 08:00 the next morning. We argued. Everyone was tired and he won the day.
I decided that they could rest; I was leaving. Quietly, I turned around, put my pack on, found my bearing on the compass and started moving out. Only one other guy realised the stupidity of the group’s decision to wait out the day while being on recce wing selection. He shouted, “CO, wait, I’m coming with you”, shouldered his pack and fell in behind me.
For the two of us the experience turned out to be an excellent introduction to the realities of the bush. We encountered lots of elephant and other game. We soon learned where to find water in the omurambas, and how to avoid the elephant herds by circling downwind, and also how to watch each other’s back.
Once, while filling our water bottles at a water hole, we had a seriously close shave with an elephant bull. My buddy was sitting opposite me at the water’s edge, watching my back from the other side of the water hole, when I suddenly saw an elephant emerging from the brush right behind him. I didn’t even have time to shout. But he saw my frightened face and jumped. At that point the elephant still hadn’t seen him. His startled shout and quick reaction probably saved his life, as the elephant got as much of a fright as he did and charged away into the bush.
In the end, we were well in time for the RV. The rest of the selection group was found a day later, after they had started discharging flares and generally making themselves noticed by firing into the air. They had run out of water on the first day and got lost, as they did not keep count of the minor cutlines they had to cross during the night. To give them a reasonable chance (as the instructors did not really know what had happened), they were put back on the course. They were moved by vehicle to an RV further along the route the selection course would cover, and in the process did a much shorter selection than us.
The selection continued for another week. I lost count of the days and of how many candidates were left. To this day I do not know what distance we covered during the course. I also did not care how many guys properly passed the selection, because, as it soon turned out, after our selection and the Minor Tactics course, the first operational deployment sorted out the ones that were not cut out for the job.
I learned two critically important things during that week. The first was something I had already started to understand the day I had to dig the grave in the cemetery outside Ariamsvlei: never even think of giving up, because then you will. The second was: do what you believe is right, without compromise, and never blindly follow the crowd. These truths became my guiding principles during my Special Forces operational career.
I did three selection courses in my life: the first at 31 Battalion, the second at the Parachute Battalion – the infamous PT (physical training) course – and finally the Special Forces selection course. Looking back, I can honestly say that the first one was the toughest, by far. I can also declare that never on one of them did I even consider quitting. And I also know that, in a certain sense, there was an element of fun to all of them.
After a week of fattening up at Omega, our training started in earnest. During our recuperation week, we were issued with “special ops” kit – old alpine rucksacks, SWAPO webbing and an assortment of foreign weapons – AK-47s, RPDs, RPGs and some Eastern Bloc pistols.
The Monday morning after the rest week, we reported to the recce wing HQ and loaded our kit on the Unimog trucks lined up on the road. We drove out to Fort Vreeslik (Fort Terrible), the recce wing’s training base hidden in the lush Caprivi bush some fourteen kilometres south of Omega. Three highly experienced and tough-looking instructors from the (then) Reconnaissance Commandos had arrived from Fort Doppies, the Special Forces training base on the banks of the Kwando River (Cuando in Angola), to present our Minor Tactics training.
The training turned out to be an experience in itself. I had always marvelled at the term “tactics”, unsure of what it really meant, and what people could actually teach me about tactics. The course leader and his two instructors finally enlightened me. For four weeks we were drilled in the finer techniques of patrolling, anti-tracking, approaching and penetrating a target, contact drills, ambushing, evasion and reconnaissance. Finally, a week before the course was supposed to end, we terminated it ourselves.
One morning at 02:00 I was rudely awakened by AK-47 shots and some fierce shouting and swearing. When I tried to get out of my self-built lean-to shelter, frightened out of my wits, I found it blocked by the instructors. The next moment a smoke grenade was lobbed into the confined space, and I had no option but to evacuate the shelter, taking a thatched wall and some of the instructor’s T-shirt with me. By this time the entire base seemed to have erupted in chaos. Apparently, the instructors were not happy with our performance and had decided to show us some real action. The “action” was of course induced by a healthy dose of Red Heart rum – at the time the standard Recce beverage. Earlier that night we had watched as the three instructors steadily downed two bottles between them.
Smoke from the grenades filled the air, an RPG launcher went off and the rocket exploded in the branches of a tree some distance from the base. Everyone was shooting everywhere. I decided to put our recently acquired evacuation drills to the test, and ran blindly into the bush. Most of the guys were already there, having fled the base and reorganised in an open area to the west. Since there was still a lot of random shooting, we withdrew into the thick bush and bedded down for the rest of the night. By early morning we had made up our minds; as some of the guys were still missing, we would walk back to Omega and just call it quits, as everyone had had enough of the real-action treatment.
The officer commanding (OC) of the unit was not entirely happy with the turn of events. The instructors were called in to base and requested to return to Fort Doppies. Before they left, the course leader, a battle-hardened young officer from 1 Recce approached me and said, “Stadler, I expected more from you. I am really disappointed.”
Unfortunately I was too young and inexperienced to challenge him. I turned away and left it at that. But at least I knew that I wouldn’t be deterred from joining the recce wing by a pack of drunkards chasing me around.
Our unit commander reported the incident to the OC 1 Recce, who did not take kindly to it. Sadly, it created a lot of animosity between 31 Battalion and Special Forces, and led to a mutual distrust that lasted as long as the Bushman unit existed.
However, the whole affair did have a positive outcome. All the students returned to Fort Vreeslik and did a second Minor Tactics course under the capable leadership of Lieutenant Frannie du Toit (who had recruited me for 31 Battalion) and his team of operators running the recce wing. This time we did the Minor Tactics course with the very same Bushmen who would deploy with us. We slept, ate and trained with them for another four weeks, absorbing everything they could teach us about bush warfare.
In Angola, many of these Bushman soldiers had been “Fletchas” while the majority of us were still at school. The Fletchas, or Flechas (arrows), were Portuguese Special Forces units created during the colonial war. They operated as platoon-sized subunits consisting of local tribesmen and rebel defectors who specialised in tracking, reconnaissance and pseudo-terrorist operations. Many of them joined the SADF after Angolan independence.
There was a wealth of information to be gained from them. Their extraordinary knowledge of the bush was especially helpful, as we soon discovered during the training and subsequently during operations. I used every opportunity to learn from the Bushmen. Our instructors’ considerable knowledge and dedication were also an inspiration. Frannie and his team were mature and professional, and guided us with great patience through the intricate paces of the course.
To this day I maintain that the minor tactics training I received during those few weeks in the remote areas of the Western Caprivi ranked among the highest-quality training ever presented in our defence force. I absorbed every single bit of information and made an effort to become one with the bush.
Frannie, in my eyes a military scholar of the first order, believed the bush provided you with everything you needed to gain the tactical advantage against an adversary – provided your eyes were open to the opportunities it offered. He encouraged me to read all the classic works of irregular warfare, including F Spencer Chapman’s The Jungle is Neutral, a book that would guide our thinking and in a certain sense become the recce wing’s doctrine for the years that I served at 31 Battalion.