Operation Sceptic

Operational Years

Objective of the Operation

61 Mech had to destroy the SWAPO command, control and logistic structures at QFL and Ionde complexes on 10 and 11 June 1980 respectively and thereafter conduct area operations east of the general line AFL, Dova and Muleme as well as north of the general line Dunafuao, Mulavi and Ionde for approximately 10 days.

Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group

Commander: Commandant Johann Dippenaar
2IC: Major JNR Botha
Adjudant: Captain Thys Rall
Combat Team 1: Alpha Company 1SAI – Major Paul Fouche
Combat Team 2: Bravo Company 1SAI – Captain Louis Harmse
Combat Team 3: Charlie Squadron 1SSB – Captain Jakes Jacobs
Combat Team 4: Charlie Company – 1 Parachute Battalion – Captain McGill Alexander
Combat Team 5: Delta Company – 1 Parachute Battalion – Captain Piet Nel
Combat Team 6: Major JAB Swart
Medium Artillery Battery: Major TJ Vermaak
Echelon Commander: WO1 M Barnard
Light Workshop Troop: Technical Services Corps – Major W Diffenthal

Personal Impressions of the Commander

Instruction to plan an attack on the SWAPO command post of Chifufua

During April 1980, under great secrecy, I received a broad instruction to commence with the planning for an attack on the SWAPO command post at Chifufua, also known as QFL. The information at my disposal was very vague, but we knew that this command post was 180km directly north of beacon 25 at the border between Angola and South Africa.

The target allocated to 61 Mech was named Smokeshell while the operation was named Sceptic.

After approval for this operation was received from Sector 10, the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Ockert Swanepoel and the Quartermaster, Lieutenant Neels Halgryn were briefed and tasked to, under extreme secrecy, prepare the detail information regarding the target and ensure that the equipment for this operation was adequate and ready.

The fighting soldiers had to be prepared for this battle with training to do specific drills and tactical moves.

Initial thoughts

The initial information that was available about the target was vague, and at first it was considered that the Air Force had to bombard the entire target which was spread over an area of 3 × 12 km with 61 Mech doing the mob up task.

Preparation for the battle

During May 1980 one of the mechanized infantry companies, an armoured car squadron and support weapons were trained while on 15 May an artillery troop arrived at the base. On 22 May the second mechanized military company, engineers, medical teams, anti-tank and other elements also arrived

The battle group engaged in Exercise Gallop, which was designed to train for the pre-emptive attacks, and in particular the Smokeshell objective. Since this was the first major physical combat actions for most of the soldiers the training concentrated on drills such as:

  • Movement in line and rapid deployment in combat formation.
  • Fire support (from the air) and fire and movement by all arms of the service (Artillery, Mortars, Armour, Infantry).
  • Fire fighting in close combat, including trench fighting.
  • Rapid change of direction by combat teams.
  • Command and control by all levels of command. Radio orders were repeated over and over and execution thereof tested.
  • The commanders had to present their plans and then reherse the drills by commands on models. The commanders became annoyed because of the many times this was repeated, but in the end it proved to be one of the success factors in combat.

The fiber, endurance and guts displayed by these soldiers can make a nation proud of its citizens and its Defence Force.

By the end of May more key personnel arrived at 61 Mech and command vehicles started to arrive. Major JNR Botha, a Mot infantry officer from 4 SAI without any previous mechanised infantry experience was appointed as the second in command of the battle group. Major Botha detailed his experiences and exposure to the Mech environment in full detail with the stories he sibmitted, and it makes very interesting and amusing reading.

On 6 June the Air Force command vehicle, other command vehicles and the TOTE for the vehicles arrived.

Structure of the target

There remained uncertainty about the nature of the target in the sense that one expectation was that it had dug-in slit trenches and another expectation was that the target consisted of open hides above the ground-level.

By the time that 61 Mech had to depart, the unit was prepared to deal with a few open trenches while most of the hides were expected to be above ground level.

Presence of the Inspector General

During the training phase for this operation the Inspector General, Major General CF Holtzhuasen, Colonel PP Roberts and the Warrant Officer of the Army, WO1 GA Erasmus joined the battle group and they took part in the operation as well.

Confirmation of battle preparedness

Once the movement plan and tactical plan were finalised, each sub unit commander had to present the details of his own plan on a sand model which was then rehearsed on a daily basis by all the commanders.

By 5 June I was satisfied that each commander and the junior leaders knew the exact detail of their roles in the operation, which was the result of regular rehearsals of the tactical details of the operation. This contributed to the confidence of the commander who in turn could act fearlessly, and all of this contributed to the success of the operation.

Composition of the attacking force

The Battle Group was grouped in six Combat Teams with commanders as follows:

Combat Team 1: Commander Major Paul Fouche, Alpha company with three Mech platoons and an Anti Tank Platoon.
Combat Team 2: Commander Captain Louis Harmse, Bravo Company with three Mechanised Infantry platoons, and an Anti Tank Platoon and a 81mm Mortar Platoon.
Combat Team 3: Commander Captain Jakes (DJF) Jacobs, three armoured car troops, four support troop sections and one engineer section.
Combat Team 4: Commander Captain Mack Alexander, A company from 1 Parachute company consisting of three stopper groups of 28 men each.
Combat Team 5: Commander Captain Piet Nel, A company from 1 Parachute company consisting of three stopper groups of 28 men each.
Combat Team: Commander Major JAB Swart, reserve element with one engineer troop and one assault pioneer troop.
Medium Artillery Battery: Commander Major Tobie Vermaak, 8x 140mm guns, 8×81mm Mortars and one Infantry Platoon for protection.
Battle Group A Echelon: Commander WO1 MC Barnard. There were support vehicles for all the Combat Teams as well as the Light Workshop with Commander Major W Diffenthal, a total of 43 vehicles.

Battle Group Head Quarters had the following key personnel.

Battle Group Commander: Commandant Dippies (JM) Dippenaar
Second in Command: Major JNR Botha
Adjudant: Captain Thys Rall
Intelligence Officer: Captain PJ Botes
Lieutenant: Ockert Swanepoel
Lieutenant General CL Viloen, Chief of the Army, traveled with the HQ for three days.

Broad plan for Operation Sceptic

Operation Sceptic was planned in terms of the following 6 phases:

Phase 1

Commandant Anton van Graan, commander of 54 Battalion, had to deploy from D-16 day to secure the area between beacons 24 and 26 across the Angolan border up to Mulemba, to enable safe movement for the combat forces through that area.

Phase 2

All forces taking part in Operation Sceptic had to train and exercise for the operation

Phase 3

54 Battalion carried on with area operations while Battle group 10 under command of Commandant Chris Serfontein deployed north of the Ondangwa and Oshigambo areas for deception purposes. 53 Battalion under command of Commandant Jorrie Jordaan deployed at Etale to conduct area operations, also for deception purposes. 61 Mech Battalion Group had to move from Omuthiya to the target.

Phase 4

At first light on D-day the paratroop soldiers had to be deployed as stopper groups to cut off the enemy escape route from Smokeshell. The bombardment of Smokeshell by the Air Force has to commence at 08h00 and 61 Mech had to move from Mulemba, Mulavi and Chitanbo to Smokeshell that the attack could start at 12h00. Battle Group 10 had to move from Chitanbo and Dovu to attach Mulola. 53 Battalion had to move behind Battle Group 10 to attack Chitumbo.

Phase 5

After capturing the different objectives, the forces had to conduct area operations for approximately 10 days.

Phase 6

All forces had to withdraw back to their bases in South West Africa.

Movement from Omuthiya to the Target

The attacking force had to move in line for more than 250 km from Omuthiya to the target, with half of this distance in enemy controlled area.

This posed a real challenge and the plan was for the Eland 90 armoured cars to lead the way so that they could clear the route of enemy resistance and make the travel for the other vehicles in the column easier because of the wheel space that was narrower than that of a Ratel.

The wide width of a Ratel’s wheels made it difficult for different vehicles to follow in its tracks.

The Eland 90 armoured cars also had slowest momentum and it was best to put these vehicles in front of the column of vehicles.

The 140 mm guns followed directly behind the Eland armoured cars to enable these guns to deploy quickly and be ready to give support fire as soon as possible. This marching order proved to be the correct decision.

Motivational card handed to the soldiers

The spiritual and phychological preparedness of the troops was a critical matter that was addressed during training and during the operation it was addressed in a very special manner.

When the battle group was halfway to the objective, a motivational card was handed to each soldier and commander/leader. This card was prepared beforehand and placed in each vehicle with the instruction to the vehicle commander to wait for the instruction by the Battlegroup Commander before it could be opened and distributed to all members of the battle group.

Plan of attack for the 13 complexes that made up the target

In terms of the information at our disposal, the target consisted of 13 active complexes that were spread over an area of 3 × 12 km, but we did not know the composition of the enemy at each complex.

These complexes had no physical features to assist with the navigation or to define the lines of attack of the combat teams. We therefore planned to attack from the east flank and capture each of the complexes one by one until the complexes were under our control, instead of approaching the complexes from the front.

Surprise regarding the enemy positions

We were also informed that the enemy was not dug in but above the ground and that they would scatter as soon as the attack on their positions started. This information was wrong, because combat team 2 under command of Captain Louis Harmse was caught by surprise when dug-in 23 mm anti-aircraft guns fired at the attacking Ratels from an unexpected direction from a short distance while being used in a ground role instead of an anti-aircraft role. It then also transpired that SWAPO had trenches and bunkers on the objective, which were well camouflaged and defected.

First casualties in battle for 61 Mech

This unexpected anti-aircraft fire sadly caused the first casualties for 61 Mech in battle, and the loss of these soldiers caused great sorrow and shock.

The casualties were as follows:

  • Ratel Call sign 20:
    • 74391806 PE Lieutenant Hannes du Toit
  • Ratel Call sign 21:
  • 76338946 BG Rifleman FJ Loubser
  • 77217907 BG Rifleman PJ Joubert
  • 70518303 BG Rifleman CJ Venter
  • Ratel Call sign 21A:
  • 76464809 BG Rifleman GJ Kemp
  • 76389238 BG Rifleman JH Fourie
  • Ratel Call sign 21C:
  • 75222695 BG Cpl P Kruger
  • 77210839 BG Rifleman SM Cronje
  • 77412153 BG Rifleman PW Warrener
  • 772605788 BG Rifleman FJ Lello
  • 77471423 BG Rifleman MC Luyt
  • 76395813 BG Rifleman RN de Vito
  • 76325646 BG Rifleman AJ Madden

Nightfall on 10 June 1980

At last light on D-day combat team 1 under command of Major Paul Fouche captured an enemy base and came to a halt between the trenches. It took an extraordinary effort by the battle group command to guide his combat team to safety.

By nightfall on 10 June approximately 370 of the enemy were dead on the objective. No enemy personel were captured, but a great amount of weapons and equipment was seized.

Medical evacuation by chopper under enemy fire

At one stage a helicopter had to do the evacuation of a casualty and it had to land under heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire. The pilot landed and evacuated the casualty successfully and for his bravery he was rewarded with the Honoris Crux medal.

Mistaken identity of a wounded soldier

The evacuation of the soldiers that were killed and wounded happened in a controlled manner and their details were reported to Sector 10 headquarters. Riflemen HP Ferreira from Theunissen in the Free State was reported as dead, while in fact he was wounded.

The Commander of Section 10, Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst, brought it very firmly to my attention the next day that we had made a mistake with the evacuation reports, because Rifleman HP Ferreira was still alive and recovered from 23mm and 14,5mm shots through his waist and stomach.

I visited Riffleman Ferreira at 1 Military Hospital afterwards and was again impressed by the spirit and calibre of our soldiers. I can not remember how many operations he had to undergo, and how he was handling the situation that he had to go through in his later years, but what I do know is that the hospital management used him to be an example and motivator to other patients in distress.

Navigation with the Southern Cross

We used the Southern Cross during night time to maneuver the battle group out of the target area to a safe area, and this was an outstanding achievement.

Stopper groups

The paratroop soldiers could not be deployed on D-day to cut off the enemy escape routes, because of the fact that the Aftur for the helicopters never arrived at the refueling point.

Deployment of battle groups 50 and 53

These 2 battle groups could not be deployed in time because the tracks of the Ratels made it almost impossible for them to keep up with the 61 Mech battle group.

Recovery of a burnt out Ratel

It was a remarkable achievement by the recovery team which recovered a Ratel that was shot and burned by the enemy.

Despite difficult circumstances and against all odds, this Ratel was recovered and brought back to South Africa.

The landmine and the General

Lieutenant-General Constant Viljoen was a passenger in my Ratel with the call sign “O” while traveling back on 11 June to the target. My vehicle turned out of the line of the convoy to inspect deserted enemy positions when it detonated a landmine.

Fortunately nobody was injured, but the vehicle was not serviceable for the next couple of days. The vehicle that followed could see what happened and there was great stories about what happened and many jokes of how the crew including, Gen Viljoen performed during and after the incident.

However, the battle had to continue I therefore immediately took control over the battle group from the Artillery Observation Officer’s Ratel. Within minutes from the incident, Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst came through loud and clear on the command network to enquire about the welfare of the personnel.

Mopping-up and Collection of enemy equipment

The next days after the attack on 10 June were used to collect enemy equipment and to consolidate the target area. The paratroopers under command of Captain Piet Nel did a great job in this regard.

Tons of equipment were then flown out by the helicopters to Oshakati.

The capture of George, a SWAPO radio operator

The vehicles were refueled by 14 June and after 61 Mech had moved back to Mulembe, the next mission was to move on 16 June to the Omanhede base near Ongiva and Anhanco to capture the SWAPO bases there.

A leading mechanized infantry platoon made contact with a group of SWAPO’s soldiers and the radio operator of the enemy, George, was captured alive. He served as a source of information and guided us to the targets, but these targets were found empty.

Reunion with next of kin

The forces moved back to Ondangwa on 21 June. It was arranged beforehand that the next of kin of the permanent staff members of 61 Mech would travel from Tsumeb to Ondangwa to meet with their husbands on 22 June. Some husbands, wifes and children will recall this meeting for the rest of their lifes.

Reports were received by the leader group that the morale of the troops were, made me decide that the “Dominee” Reverend Braam le Roux had to investigate the matter. He had already discovered that troops have recovered pieces of the Bible from the bunkers on the objective and in most cases particular verses in the Bibles were underlined. The doctrine of the theology of the revolution was clear and it had to be explained to the soldiers to put it into the correct prospective.

Last actions in Angola

The following action was to move the force to Cuamato for area operations in the triangle formed by the three Angolan towns of Xangongo, Mongua and Ongiva. However, before the forces could be deployed, 61 Mech was tasked to find and recover the personnel of a chopper that was shot down by the enemy. When we got close to the area where the helicopter was shot down, it came to our attention that the flight engineer managed to escape from the danger area and that he was safe.

The last task that remained was to assist combat group 10 to cross the enemy route at Mongua. They were on their return from Evale with the recover of the captured vehicles.

61 Mech was back at Ondangwa on 30 June 1980 and on 7 July all the additional forces that were attached to the unit for the duration of Operation Sceptic, had left and returned to the Republic of South Africa.

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