Objective of the Operation
The aim of Operation Yahoo was to counter the Swapo infiltration that took place during April to June 1982.
Since August 1981 a specially trained Swapo group consisting of ten platoons underwent training at the Vulcano base in Angola.The first platoon infiltrated South West Africa/Namibia during February 1982 with the aim to lay landmines and to execute acts of sabotage.
Two forces, an eastern and a western group, spearheaded the whole infiltration.They moved south during March 1982 and finalised preparations to cross the cut line.
On 7 April 1982 a group of 52 insurgents crossed the border between beacons 5 and 6 and moved south to the Ogandjere tribal area.One insurgent surrendered to the police.The rest of the group moved further south.Contact was made with the security forces on 9 and 11 April 1982 and the grup retreated to an area north of the Etosha pans.The group was then again discovered on the farm Bakenkop and in the ensuing contact the security forces killed the leader and four other insurgents.Inthe following weeks another eight insurgents were killed in skirmishes with the security forces.According to intelligence reports, eighteen insurgents infiltrated this area and all of them were accounted for.
Seven different groups infiltrated the eastern side with three groups breaking away to Kavango.From 8 to 11 April 1982 groups were spotted with insurgents numbering about 150, 90, 40 and 21 respectively.The groups moved south and on 15 April 1982 ambushed a security force follow up group.A Ratel ICV was destroyed by RPG 7’s, and in the same contact two insurgents were shot.From 1 May the infiltrators went to ground, but over the period 15 April to 1 June 55 Swapo insurgents were killed.An estimated 165 insurgents had infiltrated the eastern area with 55 killed, 16 apprehended and 36 fleeing.The rest of the insurgents exfiltrated back to Angola.
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
At the time of Operation Yahoo in April-May 1982, 61 Mech was about 1 000 men strong. Our intake of fresh sub-units were finalising their mission training at Omuthiya for mobile conventional as well as counter-insurgency type operations.
61 Mech comprised the following key personnel and organisational sub-groupings at the time:
• Commander: Commandant Roland de Vries.
• Second-in-Command: Major Thys Rall.
• Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM): Warrant Officer Class 1 (WO1) HG Smit.
• Intelligence Officer: Captain Gerrie Hugo.
• Signals Officer and Commander of the Signals Troop: Captain Sean MacSweeny.
• Unit Chaplain: Padre Koos Rossouw.
• Logistics Officer: Major Giel Reinecke.
• Personnel Officer: WO 1 Jack Sindon.
• Alpha Company Commander (Ratel-20): Captain Jan Malan.
• Bravo Company Commander (Ratel-20): Captain ‘Vissie’ Visser.
• Charlie Squadron Commander (Ratel-90): Major ‘Jakes’ Jacobs.
• Sierra Battery (from 14 Field Regiment) Commander: 140mm medium guns and 120mm Medium Range Mortar: Major Chris Roux.
• Light Workshop Troop (LWT) Commander: WO1 Duppie du Plessis.
In addition 61 Mech boasted a Ratel-90 anti-tank platoon, an 81mm Mortar platoon, a medical section and a signals platoon. At the time of Yahoo the 81mm mortar platoon had been detached to Sector 10 to participate in Operation Meebos in Southern Angola.
Personal Impressions of the Commander
OPERATION YAHOO, 1982 – WE WILL NEVER FORGET
Another Counter Insurgency Operation by 61 Mechanised Battalion Group in the Death Triangle – 14 April 192 until 25 May 1982
By Roland de Vries
Overture for Living and Dying – Lest we Forget
In the Grip of Terror
The Death Triangle was the target zone for deep annual surges by ‘Volcano’s elite Special Unit of devoted enemy insurgents. This came to pass in an exacting sector of the northern operational area of South West Africa/Namibia.
The enemy belonged to the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO).
With each deep incursion during the rainy season the enemy brought terror and trauma with them. This normally transpired from April to May. Death and mayhem trailed behind and were left in the wake of the fighting following on.
Where was the Death Triangle precisely? Who lived and died there? Who was the Volcano Special Unit? Who stopped the enemy in their tracks… those who went on the warring path south of the Red Line, to search and destroy the enemy persistently…?
Let us accompany 61 Mechanised Battalion Group down memory lane then, to get to these answers. Let us revisit Operation Yahoo for a moment. Where 61 Mech met with triumph and disaster in April-May 1982… and treated the latter two swindlers just the same.
This aforementioned dramatic event played out from 14 April until 25 May 1982. It was thirty years ago. It happened in the northern border region of South West Africa in the districts of Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein.
This was the area which had been dubbed the ‘Death Triangle’ – where a terrorist threat held innocent communities in a grip of terror.
The Death Triangle – Area of Operations of Sector 30
The South African Border War intimately embraced the towns and farming districts of Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi. In those years this region was commonly referred to as the ‘White Farming Area’. No wonder the revolutionaries, fighting the irrefutable grip of South Africa over SWA/Namibia, struck viciously so far to the south.
Otjiwarongo and Outjo were other affluent towns in northern SWA. Towns such as those lay close to that exclusive theatre of war and were held closed-in by the dense entangled African bush and the warmth of the African sun. Otjiwarongo nestled in the Haak-en-Steek, approximately 188km south-south-west of Tsumeb and halfway from Tsumeb on the way to Windhoek, the capital of SWA. Outjo was north-west of Otjiwarongo, on the way to the magnificent Etosha Pan and its well known game reserve.
From the ground in spirally raise-ups of military pre-eminence one could find:
• Omuthiya, the operational base of 61 Mech. The home of our mechanised combat unit was located approximately: 220km due north of Otjiwarongo; 120km to the north of Tsumeb by tar road; and about 18km further north of Oshivello. The base was hidden away in the most southern part of Ovamboland. Close to the tarred road, this extended 140km northwards towards Ondangwa. Roughly 32km westwards the eastern fringes of the Etosha pan lay swathed in a humid haze surrounded by the dense bushes of Africa.
• Otjiwarongo, the habitat of Sector 30, then commanded by Colonel J.T. Louw. He was sort of my military boss when it came to operations in his sector.
• Oshakati, where sector HQ of Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst was located, 165km crow’s flight to the north-west of Oshivello and Omuthiya. Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst was my other boss, when it came to military operations fared into southern Angola
• Windhoek, with Bastion in it, was the domicile for the headquarters of the South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF). The general officer commander was Major General Charles Lloyd. I had immense respect for this outstanding military commander. He was my real boss. 61 Mech performed the role of mobile reserve for the region under his overall command.
The Death Triangle lay south of the Red Line. This boundary lay parallel from west to east across the northern part of the Etosha Game reserve. The Red Line also connected Oshivello to Tsintsabis – in military terms it was referred to as the ‘Bravo cut-line’ in the latter sector.
During the days of peaceful farming the Bravo cut-line had formed the barrier for mouth and foot disease between the northern border regions. The complete northern quarter of SWA encapsulated Ovamboland and the Okavango Province and the southern farming district. During the war the Bravo cut-line was primarily used to demarcate this area for military purposes: when the enemy crossed the Bravo cut-line the Death Triangle was instantly converted into a killing zone.
Sector 30 was in overall charge of counter-insurgency operations in the region specified above. This equated to the Death Triangle.
Dear reader you now know where the fighting was about to take place in April-May 1982. With Operation Yahoo it started on the fateful morning of the 15th of April 1982, followed by the mourning, the killing and more mourning.
When peace finally settled in that quarter of the world after twenty four years of bitter war, South West Africa came to be known as Namibia. The South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) became the governing party. It was them we were ardently fighting all those years, remember, during Operation Yahoo as well. The war played-out in the north had ever rippling circles of terror spilling over the White Farming Area in the south and Southern Angola to the north. These two features characterised the border war.
We will Never Forget – an Opening Gambit
To my soldiery way of thinking, warriors from both sides had not fought, lived and died through an elongated bush war for nothing, particularly for those young soldiers of ours, my men. Those magnificent 19 year old South African soldiery types who had been ensnared by compulsory national military service; those men who had fought so courageously and loyally during the border war. Those who bore the brunt of the enemy’s opening onslaught on 15 April 1982 during Operation Yahoo.
Were our national servicemen not taken for granted? Perhaps…However, as a permanent force officer and a commander of a combat unit such as 61 Mech, I knew one thing for certain: They were the best of the warrior kind any commander could wish for. You were men my sons. Amen.
This reminiscence, I fleetingly thought, included the warriors of SWAPO. Implied are the combatants of their Special Unit, who had fought just as hard for their own peace and liberty. Even during the same operation I am writing about.
The innocent civilians who had suffered unending trauma were forever clouding my mind in rushes of understanding and compassion. Those people 61 Mech had lived with and fought for. They had not only been the victims of shear terrorism; they were also left incessantly at the mercy of militaristic and political whims and woes in that particular theatre if war.
In the merry months of April and May, many of those embraced within the aforementioned rationalizations were going to die, get wounded and remain wounded and maimed for life.
Why was this?
High Intensity Counter Revolutionary Warfare – a Surge with Bitter Flavours
The political masters and military commanders of SWAPO were making an enormous play for worldly propagandistic appeal. They needed to demonstrate strike capability. Their international support and their funding depended on this. The support by their people was dependent on this too – the masses and all that, for the struggle…The ‘cause’.
SWAPO was going to squeeze every ounce of life out of this immense warlike effort – their next suicide mission on hand. Give no quarter, even if this meant dying for the cause. Be it at the hands of an overwhelming persistent counter-insurgency task force. Conversely: Considering their deliberate well-planned incursion during April to May 1982, deception and all; many insurgents died in the end on those grounds for their cause.
Operation Yahoo was the eighth and most serious deep infiltration by SWAPO into the triangle of terror. It was launched from deep inside southern Angola, from Lubango and developed in two southerly routes via Cahama and Techamutete-Cassinga. The two incursions developed over a wide front – towards Kamanjab in the west and Tsumeb in the east. It was carried out by more than 200 of the fighters of PLAN, the armed wing of SWAPO.
The operational dimensions of Yahoo were imposing and from both sides the force levels enormous – this was not the norm as in past infiltrations. The counter-insurgency task force, which performed under command of 61 Mech, comprised more than 3 000 military and para-military combatants; a South African Air Force (SAAF) contingent of inspiring proportions; police forces which roused the interest and; service support of staggering percentages.
More so, Operation Yahoo basked in the lime light of media attention; enticed political apprehensions and; propagandistic outings of note from all sides. It reverberated in the halls of the South African parliament and brought the focussed attention of the highest military commands of South Africa and SWA to bear.
Out there in front were a few young soldiers from opposing sides, for ragged moments in time, at the whims of the militaries and of politics. A total number of seventeen of our warriors and civilians died in action during Operation Yahoo. All together forty four were wounded in the fiery fray. Of these numbers:
• Ten members of the security forces were killed during contacts and from landmine explosions. Forty one soldiers were wounded in contacts and through landmine explosions.
• Five civilians were killed through contacts with the enemy or by landmine explosions. Three were wounded from such incidents. The insurgents succeeded in murdering only two community members over the two month period of operational viability.
Of the original surge of two hundred fighters of Volcano, 156 combatants succeeded infiltrating the Death Triangle. Of the latter bad company we kept during Operation Yahoo:
• We killed 56 of Volcano and captured sixteen of their comrades. All of the sixteen captured were convinced to work with the security forces in the end. All together 72 of their fighters were thus taken out of the fighting equation. Many, many more were wounded and some probably succumbed later on in the wide expanse of Africa’s bush.
• Over the two month period almost 69 of the vanquished succeeded in making their escape back to Angola. Of the enlightened a few filtered quietly into the neighbourhoods, keeping low profiles. Sixteen fought on enthusiastically with the security forces against erstwhile comrades. The pay and the service conditions were much better… Africa my beginning, Africa my end.
Operation Yahoo was therefore not your ordinary house hold low-intensity type counter-insurgency operation. It was high-intensity counter-revolutionary warfare, no holds barred.
When I wrote this chronicle about Yahoo I invariably thought about one of the poems of a Senegalese poet of the 60s. David Diop had written the following: “It is Africa, Africa that surges up again, patiently, persistently, and whose fruits, little by little, acquire the bitter flavours of freedom”.
Operation Yahoo was such a surge with bitter flavours… When so many died and were wounded within those two months of intense fighting!
So Who Won the Fight in the End?
So who won this fight in the end – considering the dead and the wounded versus the immense propagandistic proceeds engendered trough the dying for a political war?
Thirty years later, after Operation Yahoo ended, I visited Tsumeb again. The tin-mining town was at peace with itself, surrounded by flowery aromas of Jacaranda and blooming Bougainvillea. The visit transpired during a battlefield tour undertaken unreservedly by a few veterans of 61 Mech and 32 Battalion to Namibia and southern Angola in October 2011. Many Black and White people in Namibia greeted us with friendliness in Afrikaans.
I introduced my two good friends Louis Bothma (renowned military writer) and Camille Burger to a man I knew well from the 1981/82 Operation Carrot/Yahoo, 61 Mech and Tsumeb era. His name was Alex Britz and he came to greet us in Tsumeb, my friend from many years ago. We shared a few Windhoek beers, shed some tears and laughed. It was about the good old days. The African sun was setting in a blaze of colours over the westerly mystique of Tsumeb’s mountains covered in thorn bush.
We were seated comfortably on old army camp chairs reminiscing about times of Yore. A camp fire was smouldering gently away on dry Camel Thorn. We banded around its companionship as old warriors sometimes do.
In one of those quiet moments Alex Britz said to us in an extraordinary pensive way… “You know, when 61 Mech left us after the war, I thought a lot about everything… What was it all about… this war…For what…?
To one side sat Ockert Britz, a town Clerk of Tsumeb, once… A part-time force Major of the Etosha Area Force Unit, once… A man who had lived through Operation Carrot in 1981, Yahoo in 1982… He answered broodingly: “61 Mech was good for us, our town thrived in those days…We learned a lot during the war…and afterwards we made peace and friends…Black and White… Namibia is the best country in the world to live in”!
We were all lost in thought about the past and what had happened during Operation Yahoo in April-May 1982, thirty years ago.
Memories came rushing back as I wrote this chronicle………..
Yahoo had been a military operation I will never forget! It was one of the most challenging and exciting fractions of my life and military career. The military and civilian people who lived and died during that period touched my soul. I must be careful of what I utter, as emotions flood back in ebb and flow.
People had learned through this life-long struggle I thought, politicians as well…Hopefully…?
Through the many years of bitterness and fighting a better form of peace had been created in our part of the world by 1989, had it not? Yahoo had done its bit for sure, from all the sides involved.
What follows is the story of Operation Yahoo as I saw it. It is not an easy story to tell. It is not simple either.
State of Play – us and Them
Elusive Serenity South Of the Red Line
To the south of Omuthiya and the Red Line one could find a few farms and the town of Tsumeb, wrapped in languid African serenity…
Beyond Tsumeb, the farms and the bush and the mountains nestled the settlements of Otavi and Grootfontein and some more farms. It belonged to the communities within which 61 Mech flourished – some of our own permanent force families as well. We lived amongst these people of northern SWA. Our children went to school there, whilst their soldier fathers went to the north, mostly far away from home…Even Omuthiya, the operational base of 61 Mech, which was 120km north of Tsumeb.
The community saw 61 Mech as belonging to them – their bulwark against terrorism.
Strangely enough the aforementioned towns prospered during the South African Border war. These small settlements became affluent, notwithstanding the war, but because of the war. It was quite pleasant for us from 61 Mech, to live and fight there, in the African warmth and the companionships of the people we befriended there.
It was this elusive serenity 61 Mech found up north – the tranquillity wherein ordinary people lived and could die violently.
The odd tourist, who came to visit the Etosha Game Reserve, could not discern off-hand that these communities were gripped by fear. This you could only read on their faces came April-May each year.
When the insurgents came with the rain and the Winter Games began…Once again…
Back to Basics – Operational Relevancies of Our Time
To appreciate Operation Yahoo better it is important to identify with the position of 61 Mech before the fighting came about. These included the operational relevancies which led up to the action of April-May 1982. One significant reason for the latter was that 61 Mech played an essential role during Operation Yahoo.
It is important to note that 61 Mech had participated in a fair number of internal as well as external operations during 1981-82. Those were: Operation Carrot in April 1981; Protea from August to September 1982; Daisy from October to November 1981; Makro from December 1981 to January 1982 and; Meebos I in March 1981. Operation Carrot had been the hunt for SWAPO internally in SWA in the Death Triangle and Daisy externally in southern Angola. The other operations were mainly directed at the conventional army of Angola (FAPLA – Forças Armadas Populares de Libertação de Angola). The external fighting zone was denoted by the Angolan 5th Military Region. The SADF and SWATF had simply christened it the Area-in-Dispute after Operation Protea.
• Operation Carrot April 1981, albeit on a much smaller scale, was the forerunner of Operation Yahoo. Operation Carrot was thirteen hectic days of searching and destroying an insurgent group of SWAPO’s Special Unit. Twenty two terrorists had infiltrated the Death Triangle on 6 April 1981. It had been an extremely successful operation, fared by a joint task force of Sector 30 under the command of 61Mech. The operation was completed within thirteen days. Eighteen insurgents were killed and three captured. Chance put me in position to shoot the last insurgent from my Ratel on 18 April 1981. Only one combatant escaped. Major General Charles Lloyd was happy with the results of the operation. The counter-insurgency task force, together with the community, felt pleased about their combined achievement. ‘Better luck next time SWAPO’, we all thought. Normal life in this particular sector of the northern operational area of SWA resumed peacefully until 14 April 1982.
• Operation Protea (23 August – 2 September 1981), had cleared FAPLA from the Cunene Province in southern Angola quite viscously. FAPLA, until Protea, had ardently defended the southern Angolan towns of Xangongo, Môngua and Ongiva. Through their militaristic presence in the region they had been screening and protecting SWAPO’s terrorist operations and other activities into northern SWA up to then. Thrown into boot were a few bothersome Cuban forces and Russian military advisors. FAPLA had now been driven back: Across the Cunene River as far as Cahama in the west and to Techamutete 270km to the north of the Angola/SWA border. The Area-in-Dispute, however, remained swamped by SWAPO. Southern Angola was their springboard for insurgency towards northern SWA and the Death Triangle. For this reason Sector 10 now started operating freely against SWAPO in counter-insurgency mode across the border. Search and destroy operations were effectively directed from a tactical headquarters deployed at Ongiva. The SADF and SWATF intended to keep the said area unsoiled by FAPLA, whilst the hunt for SWAPO continued relentlessly.
• For the aforementioned reasons 61 Mech was kept at high readiness at Omuthiya for swift intervention into either southern Angola or internally into the Death Triangle. This had become the primary role of 61 Mech as the mobile reserve of SWATF at the time. The stand-by arrangement of 61 Mech had been preordained by the HQ of SWATF. Our unit was now either at the call of Sector 10 northwards or southwards to Sector 30. At thy calls 61 Mech shall not falter.
• 61 Mech had just returned from southern Angola on 7 March 1981, on completion of Operation Meebos I. Meebos I was a flash in the pan rapid force projection exercise to Xangongo, Môngua and Ongiva. These were all well known haunts of 61 Mech from the hey-days of Operation Protea. No fighting with FAPLA, however, had been anticipated. Our combat unit had deployed externally from 1 March until 7 March 1982 at the request of Sector 10. The operation was intended as a show of force. It aimed at physically dominating the Cunene Province by means of military power. Once again this swift intervention had served as a fair warning for the conventional enemy army to remain at bay: Cahama to the west of the Cunene River and Techamutete and Cassinga to the north – stay there enemy or else.
61 Mech was on 24-hours stand-by for SWATF all the time as it were. On own initiative 61 Mech had changed this to 3-hours stand-by. All our sub-units were bombed up at Omuthiya and ready to go at moment’s notice from preordained staging areas at Omuthiya to wherever required. This accounted for rapid deployment from the field as well. For that matter, the sub-units or our unit as a whole trained and did its military exercises anywhere. This was life with 61 Mech at its best, exciting times, living on the edge.
Where did the operational priorities of 61 Mech lay, to the north with Sector 10, or the south with Sector 30? Good question.
Forewarned is Forearmed – the Unending Quest for Situational Awareness
The middle of March 1982 came, then April as were the drenching rains of SWA and southern Angola… It was about to come in rushes and down-pours.
The rainy season in the operational area normally lasted from April to December. This provided the insurgents with sufficient drinking water to undertake deep infiltrations to the south. This observable fact furthermore brought flash rains to wash away their tracks; denser foliage to move under cover; inundations to impede the vehicular movement of security forces for cross-tracking and follow-ups and; showers to obscure the view of scouting aircraft.
In the meantime April 1982 was crawling closer. The terrorist threat towards the south was building up fatefully towards 14 April 1982. Who was responsible for this insurgent threat from the north?
• Pre-emption of enemy threats from the north was in the hands and military devises of Sectors 10 and 20. This was the vast operational area which lay north of Sector 30 and the Red line, right up to the Angola/SWA border. SWAPO’s Special Unit needed to infiltrate through Sector 10 or Sector 20 to reach the Death Triangle. Sector 10 covered the western part and encapsulated Ovamboland. Sector 20 to the east was responsible for the Okavango Province. As it were, Sector 10 was already operating inside southern Angola across Ovamboland, within the Area-in-Dispute.
• Prevention and containment of the threat to the south of the Red Line was the responsibility of Sector 30. As mentioned before, the man accountable and responsible to hold the enemies from entering the portals of Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein was Colonel J.T. Louw, the commander of Sector 30 situated at Otjiwarongo.
• As the mobile reserve for SWATF, 61 Mech could only watch, remain aware and be ready to respond rapidly from Omuthiya. At the beg and call that is and not to falter when crises reared its ugly head to the north, south, east or west of us.
What loomed was ominous. The unfolding situation bode evil to the innocent community residing unawares to the south of Omuthiya and the Red Line. Was anyone responsible out there noticing the war clouds rising higher than ever before? Or seeing the impending fire storm approaching more severe than ever? Apparently not, as nothing wise came forth that 61 Mech or the community could discern from the more informed to the north and south of us.
In the meantime seven large insurgent groups were already moving stealthily southwards on their voyage of death from SWAPO lairs deep inside southern Angola.
The signs were there for all too see, ironically so. The operationally astute anyway knew the habits of the foe and that SWAPO’s winter infiltration could be expected – not IF, but WHEN.
Operation Super which had been successfully completed by 32 Battalion a month ago, was a crystal clear indicator.
• Early in March 1982 it became known to the security forces that SWAPO was preparing to open a new front in Kaokoland. Furthermore, that PLAN was preparing to infiltrate northern SWA with larger insurgent numbers. This should have been a clear indication that the intensity and scope of deep infiltrations to the south were about to change face from the past.
• On 12 March reconnaissance elements of Special Forces were sent out to locate a large group of SWAPO terrorists. PLAN was allegedly planning to infiltrate this group through the western operational corridor of northern SWA, to the west of Ruacana.
• The region selected for reconnaissance was an inhospitable mountainous stretch close to the border in south-western Angola. More than 200 insurgents were duly found rallying near the little town of Iona in the Cambêno Valley. This was their jump-off point for a well planned infiltration southwards through Kaokoland.
• Seventy five soldiers of 32 Battalion were subsequently flown to the area to launch a surprise attack on 13 March 1982. The planned attack was aborted due to adverse weather conditions and was only carried through the next day. Thirty soldiers were deployed as stopper groups, while the main force of 45 launched the attack on the enemy base. Although the terrorists greatly outnumbered the soldiers, they were surprised and overwhelmed – altogether two hundred and twenty one SWAPO insurgents were killed with only one managing to escape. Three members of 32 Battalion were killed in action and two sustained slight wounds. A large number of prisoners were captured and significant quantities of food, weapons and logistical equipment taken.
• The purpose of Super had been to prevent a large scale infiltration into north-western SWA. The mission was crowned with exceptional success.
Something formidable was cropping up at SWAPO’s lairs in southern Angola that was for sure. The intelligence community of the SADF/SWATF should have realised this.
Forewarned is forearmed, the prompt for pre-emption and pro-active measures. Did this happen, yes or no? I don’t think so!
61 Mech at Omuthiya – Minding our Own Business
61 Mechanised Battalion Group was residing comfortably at Omuthiya under command of SWATF – at the ready as usual. We were more or less minding our own business. Oh yes, we were planning, preparing, training and exercising fervently as usual. This was operation normal for 61 Mech. As the mobile reserve of SWATF our combat unit needed to maintain high readiness standards.
Our current predicament was that the particulars of the impending enemy April-May invasion threat remained alluding. We could literally do nothing about the situation, apart from guessing, assessing, planning, preparing and waiting at the ready.
At 61 Mech we instinctively knew that the insurgents of Volcano were coming south – call it logic, gut feeling, womanly intuition, whatever. When, where, how, how many? Where they were now…? Time and locale by map grid reference please…! Hey, is anybody interested in telling 61 Mech what the hell is happening out there?
In our beloved corrugated iron operations centre at Omuthiya the maps were up – the enemy picture neatly marked and kept up to date hour-by-hour. The radios were humming as our intelligence and operations personnel monitored the radio nets of Sectors 10 at Oshakati, 20 at Rundu and 30 at Otjiwarongo.
The members of the HQ staff of 61 Mech were equally interested in the weather forecasts and similarly watched out for rain clouds. They knew the game: second-in-command Major Thys Rall; intelligence officer Captain Gerrie Hugo; logistics officer Major Giel Reinecke and; Regimental Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class 1 H.G. Smit. Their supporting staffs as well. They were old hand at infiltrations. We knew our enemy.
We had made a list of battle indications we could use as yardsticks to monitor any omen coming from the vast bush lands to north of Omuthiya.
There were, however, four teeny-weenie issues which influenced the way 61 Mech went about its progressive day-to-day operational work. This especially concerned the impending enemy threat to innocent souls to the south of us, those innocents who lived at nearby farms and towns. Those were the people who were depending on the might of the military machine in the region to safeguard them against stark terrorism.
• The first unease was that 61 Mech was not in control of threat containment for the Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein districts anymore. This responsibility 61 Mech had relinquished after Operation Carrot had been successfully completed by 18 April 1981. The mandate for this then reverted to Sector 30 whose responsibility it actually was. The package-deal included handing over the former role 61 Mech had to command the joint task force in times of crises. I am not complaining, as this was exactly what I had requested from Major General Charles Lloyd. The reason for this was simply that 61 Mech was being committed more and more for fleeting operations into southern Angola. This had become the nature of the beast. In fairness, this was the true role of 61 Mech. We were the high-readiness conventional mobile reserve for SWATF for operations at large.
• The next disquiet concerned 61 Mech’s continued responsibility as one of the stand-by forces for impending threats to the Death Triangle – if our unit was available for such crises-employments, that is. Such operations would in future obviously unfold under command of Sector 30. The real worry was that we were hearing nothing from Sector 30. This was about WHEN and not IF, the proverbial paw-paw was going to hit the fan. Yes, there was a general emergency plan in place, which I would explain in more detail below. The problem was that no particular contingency planning or pro-active measures were being undertaken for the brooding enmity on hand. This really had me worried as the bewitched month of April was creeping closer. To 61 Mech who knew and understood high readiness, this was not the way, if I may say so myself. As it were, we were already on three hours stand-by for any possible threat, which could explode in our faces at any moment.
• Another apprehension was for the community itself. Would we be there to support them if the time came? The perception of the community was that 61 Mech was theirs. Fortunately for them, we had always been available in the past for emergencies, more or less at beg and call. They had come to rely, respect and trust 61 Mech. The ordinary person on the street most definitely did not understand 61 Mech’s wide ranging ordered commitments elsewhere. What would their perceptions be, if trouble came and 61 Mech was not there to come to the rescue?
• My last minor trepidation was that I had received a new intake of sub-units from our feeder training units in South Africa. Our sub-units still required extensive mission training and were in the process of acclimatizing and getting used to the operational ways of 61 Mech. They were however well trained, make no mistake about that. The other plus point was that 61 Mech had outstanding soldiers, both permanent force and national servicemen. 61 Mech, by and large, was a national service unit. It was commanded and managed by a core of permanent force members and national service junior leaders. Those leaders were men of calibre.
61 Mech had a few tricks up its nutria coloured sleeves to adjust to the mentioned minor challenges:
• Firstly, as mentioned before, I had put 61 Mech on three-hour stand-by for an emergency in the Death Triangle, just in case.
• Secondly, 61 Mech dusted off its contingency plan for just such an emergency. The previous year, prior to Operation Carrot, 61 Mech had done a comprehensive threat assessment and had compiled a contingency plan for such crises. The said plan was then war-gamed with all possible combat participants for such operations. This occurred early in March 1981. For the 1982 season this plan was reassessed and now served as a base-line for our new sub-unit intake. Our HQ and other supporting capabilities were on stand-by and high-readiness as well.
• Thirdly, we did some mission and induction training with 61 Mech, just in case we were required for counter-infiltration tasks. This was done in accordance with the aforementioned contingency plan: The two mechanised infantry companies for follow-ups, rapid response, ambushing, cross-tracking, etcetera; the armour squadron for mobile patrols, convoy duties, road-blocks, cross-tracking, cordoning, show of force and so forth; the artillery battery to deploy for farm protection operations, as the tradition was. (My battery commander, Major Chris Roux was a conscientious officer. Roux would be in overall control of all farm protection operations, if this should be required. This required making a careful assessment of the threat and then providing farm protection elements ahead of the enemy’s surge. Cool thinking and the ability to deploy and re-deploy rapidly was the name of the game). Major Giel Reinecke would sort out the logistics, no question about that. Warrant Officer Class 1 Duppie du Plessis, our Light Work Shop Troop Commander would keep the wheels rolling, no question about that either.
One major concern remained. 61 Mech would most probably be at the receiving end of crises, considering operational lethargy in the region. We dearly needed timeous early warning from Sector 30. The whole stance of 61 Mech was to pre-empt and be pro-active. Our unit, as such, was extremely uncomfortable when we had no choice, but to wait for something to happen. Our dictum had always been to search for forward ground and to be ready at all times.
Frustration was not the word to explain our current situation. So be it 61 Mech, be ready in any case, notwithstanding… After all, this was not our responsibility anymore. It was the responsibility of Sector 30 and their Northern Border Company now deployed at Tsintsabis, was it not?
Terrain and Cutlines – The Killing Fields
Deep Raiding by the Enemy – Pouncing South of the Red Line from Angola
Where were the target zones for terror in the Deep South…?
In the rainy season the game of SWAPO’s Special Unit was to raid south of the Red Line. In April-May they came. To achieve, the foe needed to assail simultaneously from Lubango via Cahama and Techamutete-Cassinga. The main goal was to terrorise the White farming community and to bring about propaganda gains through devious deeds in the Death Triangle.
Other political-military objectives included attacking the towns and the farms in the region; striking at targets of opportunity along the many roads; sabotaging infrastructure, such as rail, telephone lines and windmills; conducting land-mining operations and ambushes against the security forces; intimidating the local population; performing political and propaganda actions; murdering the innocents; surviving as long as possible only to exfiltrate back to the safety of Angola, within two month’s time, if lucky.
The enemy needed to cross vast expanses of ground to reach their targets and exfiltrate again. It took planning, craft utilisation, time and effort.
Own forces needed to track down and destroy the enemy across the same ground which took better planning, craftier utilisation, optimal utilisation of time and effort.
Naturally all enemy infiltrating routes led south and exfiltrating routes led north.
There were basically two aiming points for the enemy when attacking towards the killing area south of the Red Line: Firstly by pouncing on Kamanjab and Outjo from the western side of the Etosha and secondly, to take on Tsumeb-Grootfontein-Otavi- Otjiwarongo through the bush veldt, to the east of the Etosha. To come through the stark Etosha Pan would be shear madness if without a respirator and sixteen jerry cans of water per combatant. The enemy’s assault to the south was therefore naturally split into two prongs, west and east, like a broken devils fork.
• The western approach through the Kamanjab-Etosha corridor was the most perilous for the enemy. It was difficult to survive and to hide in the harshness of this unforgiving terrain. It was relatively easy to hunt the enemy down in the infertility of this killing field. The starting point for the western approach was the enemy’s lair near Lubango. From there by road to Cahama. From Cahama on foot, passing Ruacana to its east, southwards to the north-western fringes of the Etosha Game Reserve, 360km and counting. Then, action stations, onto Kamanjab and Outjo, another gruelling 124km, for the dying to begin.
• The eastern approach was the preferred option for their Special Unit. To the east there were the abundance of cover, food and water of Ovamboland and Okavango – everything the insurgent required to sustain deep infiltrations to the far south. The one problem was the sandy soil conditions to the north of the Bravo cutline. The sand stretched deep into southern Angola. This terrain was ideal for the tracking of the insurgents by the security forces. From their base our wily foe travelled in luxury by Russian Ural past Matala to Techamutete-Cassinga. Then it was a la foot all the way south, until the lights of Tsumeb winked, 475km to go and counting.
To the south of the Red Line it was another winter ballgame all together. There were plentiful hiding place in the dense thorny bush and the ground was extremely firm and rocky, which made tracking difficult for own forces. There were, however, a few advantages for the hunters. The first was the mere fact that they knew the terrain better than the enemy did. The next was the excellent infrastructure, which allowed the rapid deployments of forces by ground and air means.
Haak-en-Steek Claws at the Flesh, Saps the Energy, Eats Away Resilience
The Haak-en-Steek man! The Haak-en-Steek and the Wag-‘n-Bietjie in the Death Triangle… Could still be your death…?
The Haak-en-Steek and the Wag-‘n-Bietjie infuses the earth up north; it gnaws relentlessly at cloth and flesh… It provides cover, impedes movement, canalizes… It does not deter the determined. Especially those committed, tenacious local trackers, the mainstay against terrorism. They were out there, taking point, searching for and destroying the enemy at high tempo, notwithstanding the thorns.
The hard rocky earth, nor the Russian Pom-Z personnel mines, could put off the undaunted trackers and their persistent follow-up groups. The highly committed teams were spreading out on the ground – relentlessly searching and destroying until the job was done. The local fighters were supreme, they knew the ground man, and they knew the ground.
The foxes left countless Russian Pom-Z mines and other booby-traps in their wakes to deter the hounds. During Operation Yahoo many a follow-up force became victim of those explosive devices left behind by the receding enemy. To enemy mines alone our force sustained two killed and twenty six wounded. The answers to these threats of the undaunted were sixth sense, superb field craft, eyes to the ground, eyes to the front, fire, take cover, win the fire fight, fire and manoeuvre from the ground and the air, and fight through the enemy to the other side. To carry on and repeat the performance until the job was done.
Four cut-lines Cris-Crossing the Killing Fields – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta
Four cut-lines partially prepared and maintained and to a degree patrolled, traversed across the enemy’s Special Unit infiltration front in the eastern fighting sector.
The Alpha, the Bravo and the Charlie cut-lines extended from the Etosha Game Reserve in the west to the Rundu tar road in the east. Alpha and Bravo were well maintained. The Bravo cut-line was patrolled on a daily basis throughout the year. Every day the 169km was traversed by soldier, Buffel (mine protected troop carrier) and broom. The broom was usually a small tree pulled behind the vehicle, which left clean drag marks for the next patrol to follow, so as to find enemy tracks more easily.
The Bravo was based on the Red Line; the Alpha was located parallel to the Bravo, 10km further to the north. Cut-line Charlie lay approximately 30km further north inside Ovamboland and was also parallel to the Alpha and Bravo.
On completion of Operation Carrot in April 1981 it was decided to develop an additional cut-line further to the south of Bravo inside the farming area. The aforementioned cut-line was still being constructed when Operation Yahoo commenced on 14 April 1982. The new cut-line was known as Delta and lay approximately 30 km to the north of Tsumeb – it cut across farms and fences from east to west. A yellow grader was still standing on the Delta, left abandoned by its crew. It would later on in Yahoo entice a group of insurgents (stupidly so) to fire a RPG rocket at in the darkness. Through this “illegal and unlawful act” two terrorists would be bagged, with only minor injury sustained to aforementioned yellow grader. The story will be revealed in the script below under additional “interesting bed-time tales”.
The cut-lines together with the excellent road network in the region facilitated rapid movement by own forces for follow-up and cut-off deployments. Enemy tracks crossing these control lines equally provided early warning of crossings and valuable tactical intelligence – how many enemies in, when; how many out, when?
The farm fences were a problem when hunting and destroying insurgents at high tempo. Fast hunting was at the order of the day and the follow-up groups could not be bothered with fences; they summarily drove over these hindrances with their combat vehicles. Koevoet became past masters at this.
Good roads infrastructure in the operational zone to the south was excellent for the rapid traversing of forces to deploy, to cut off and to follow-up. Air fields and air strips were in abundance. Helicopters could even land at farms and refuel there from previously positioned fuel drums. Here the gunships waited close by for the right moment to be dispatched and strike. Radio and telephone communications were superb in the region and could be described as one of our main force multipliers.
We rather needed the enemy in the inhabited farming area, which allowed our counter-insurgency forces free hunting in the more open killing locales of the farms and the surrounding bush.
What counted in our favour was the advantage of having real time and near-real-time intelligence provided for by the local population. The intelligence system for the area was linked into a comprehensive informer scheme. The extensive network of intelligence contacts and agents were linked by the military area network and local telephone system.
Such was the influence of terrain, as the neutral factor, on counter-insurgency operations in the Death Triangle. Terrain was a constant factor that was assessed minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, and daily. The maps were marked and updated minute-by-minute.
Keeping the finger on the pulse and staying one step ahead of the enemy became the norm. From these planning and thinking exercises followed quick orders for rapid force employments and precision engagements.
The Winter Game, which had begun on a sad note on 15 April 1982 for us, came to be fun by the 17th.
Keep the Insurgents Out of the Mountains
Dear readers look at a topographical map of the Death Triangle and see the rugged mountains stand out like a painful throbbing thumb. The rugged thorn-surfaced mountains are encapsulated within the folds of Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi. In turn, these towns are surrounded by dense entangled thorny African bush. The terrain conditions favoured the wily ways and means of the insurgent in a way.
Rules 1 for the insurgents were to aim for the cover of the rugged mountains. This was the terrain best suited for the exponent of unconventional warfare. From its protective folds the enemy could strike outwards at the juicy targets presented in the surrounds.
Rule 1 for the security forces was to keep the enemy out of the mountains, because it was damn difficult to hunt for them there.
Terrain the Neutral Factor
What remains to be seen in the end was who had exploited the terrain the best, when it came to either fighting or evading. The dictum was quite simple really: The one who used the terrain the best has the best fighting or evading chance…
What did the terrain allow the enemy to do, what did the terrain force the enemy to do?
What did the terrain allow own forces to do, what did the terrain force own forces to do?
All of the above considered the enemy’s traits and the capabilities of own forces. Everything conceived was formulated in terms of time and space, the enemy as well as own forces – war-gaming supreme.
Our battle map was coloured and marked. A map should speak to you as ours did.
Our military apperception concerning terrain, enemy and own forces focused on three important interlocking viewpoints:
• Where were the enemy’s target areas where they could cause the most damages – all roads lead to Rome?
• Where were the killing areas where we could best find, fix and strike at the enemy?
• Where were the no-go areas where we needed to keep the enemy out of, where the hunting was the most difficult?
Voila! Make the battle plan and go and get them.
The best plan was to hunt the enemy down persistently north of the cut-lines. Do not let him enter the Death Triangle in the first place, should have been the dictum. If this was not possible, strike the enemy down in the farming areas. Why was this? The reasons for this were that there were abundant sources to report enemy presence and movement in those areas, which would lead to the death of many insurgent. More so, the counter-insurgency forces knew the terrain like the palm of their hand. The local area force units were the masters – they wove the fabric for counter terrorism insistently. Knowledge is power!
Know your foe, know yourself and know the terrain!
To Summarise: Seven Keys to Success on the Ground for Counter Insurgency
The big seven – seven keys to success… Lessons learned from the enemy infiltrations.
What were those seven force multiplying factors, which needed to be held firmly in play on Mother Earth, through leadership – the participative open-minded kind?
• Superior command and control, aggressive action and grand cooperation amongst all combat participants should be the first norm – the fighting high performance mix and the leadership made all the difference.
• Maximising the operational employment of trackers fairly mixed with the optimisation of local knowledge of terrain and enemy – this was about six senses and foxes and hounds.
• Superb telecommunications systems as one of the main force multiplying dimensions – this was not only about radios, it was about high dialogue too, amongst the own and the enemy captives. Success together with communication and teamwork raised high productivity and high morale – tell me all about it.
• Accurate tactical intelligence, real time and near real time – strike when the iron is hot. Go all out for information superiority, whilst denying it to the enemy. The latter mix led to quality decision-making and precision engagement.
• Optimal utilisation of terrain and environmental conditions – this was about exploitation of these neutral factors, no more, no less.
• Fool-proof-follow-up systems in finding fixing and striking the foe at critical moments, again and again and again, with overwhelming air and ground means – swift and sweet, one after the next, mini blitzkriegs by numbers.
• Be surprisingly different in finding creative solutions and having some fun in the fighting process as well – “Jackal Operations”, to out-jackal the foxes and to allow for some exuberance to spread amongst own forces, so be it. The norm simply stated is that psychological to the physical, is as three is to one.
May the best man, with the highest morale, using the terrain optimally and knowing his enemy by heart and sinew, win!
61 Mech and their fighting compatriots were simply the best.
Operational Concepts – Us against Them
At the Call of the Guinea-fowl
Operations to counter-surprise incursions south of the Red Line were immediately activated by the call of the code word “Guinea-fowl”. In Afrikaans the code word used was “Tarentaal”.
The code word Tarentaal was issued by both SWATF and Sector 30, when an incursion south of the Red Line became a reality. Through the issuing of this code word counter-insurgency contingency plans were immediately activated and previously arranged combat and support resources were released for action.
The respective part-time area force units (AFU – similar to erstwhile commando units in South Africa) were the first-line responders. 61 Mech was always first on the scene next, soon to be followed by 1 SWA Special Unit. At the time SWA Special Unit was based at Otavi under command of Commandant Buks Koen.
Other additional forces as planned and readily scheduled were rapidly mobilised and released for the operation by the HQs of SWATF, the SA Army and South African Air Force (SAAF) – upwards in the line of command. This happened according to elaborate stand-by arrangements. It was worked out beforehand for each year to keep a few staff officers higher up busy.
On ‘Tarentaal’ being issued, appropriate and adequate forces were scrambled from wide and far, even from South Africa. The forces employed in this role became popularly known as “Tarentaal Forces (Tarentaal Magte)”.
The force composition included military as well as police forces. The air force composition always included local AFU (commando) pilots from SWA. Those part-time force pilots knew the terrain in SWA extremely well. Transport aircraft, helicopter gunships and light reconnaissance and liaison aircraft flew in to Tsumeb airfield as if cheaper by the dozen. The mini air force was then available around the clock for the counter-insurgency operation at a moment’s notice. It was merriment to have your own air force.
The other military sectors in SWA usually released tracker assets to assist at the counter-insurgency operation’s point of main effort.
Wait and See Plan – Re-action Rather than Pre-emption
“Operation Awake” was the emergency plan of Sector 30 for the region. It was viewed as the bulwark against major enemy incursions into the Death Triangle from the north. It was a reactive plan. A wait and see plan and then come awake plan. I did not like that plan.
I had propagated the re-invention of Operation Awake many a time after we had completed Operation Carrot successfully by 18 April 1981. It was not 61 Mech’s business really. It was the core business of Sector 30, overseen by SWATF.
61 Mech, however, always got stuck with the conundrum, after the fact. Early in 1981 61 Mech had developed its own contingency plan anyway, within the constraints imposed by Operation Awake.
Counter-insurgency Warfare Concepts in the Death Triangle
The counter to SWAPO’s habitual April surge by the SADF, SWATF, respective police services and Sector 30 was comprehensive, even though the plan was reactive.
In due fairness, the higher military realms had not provided sufficient military resources to Sector 30 to do a proper pre-emptive job. They therefore sat twiddling their thumbs, waiting for the enemy to strike every blooming April. Only then would they start defending their wickets – makes you think about sense and non-sense does it not?
Sector 30 was therefore the one responsible to counter the insurgent threat into the White farming area south of the Red Line. The sector relied on the efficiency of Sectors 10 and 20 to their north to stop or impede the foe. If this did not work, boy, then they were in deep trouble! Even so, Sector 30 relied on tactical intelligence and early warning generated from up north, to get their house in order to the south in time.
If all else failed up north, Sector 30 had to rely on early warning of enemies coming for them from up there – who, what, where, when, how?
Sector 30 was more attuned to farm protection and the continuous training of their part-time force units and members. They had no other forces to deploy and were therefore a completely reactive force. The meagre infantry numbers of the Northern Border Company patrolled and swept the Bravo cut-line second-by-second. There were no more Buffels and eyes to go around doing anything serious about the Alpha and Charlie cut-lines further to their north.
Stand and Deliver – Innocent Communities to the South.
O yes, the innocent peoples living on the edge to the south of the Red Line were informed by their military compatriots: “Neither develop a war psychosis; nor become over relaxed” – what a choice to be made by the sane?
So the cut-lines it were and the ever vigilant super efficient area force units as the bulwark against terrorism. Thanks heaven for that. Luckily for them (the friendlier) that 61 Mech lurked in the bushy fringes of Ovamboland at Omuthiya within striking distance of the Death Triangle. Not so for SWAPO’s Volcano, who would be consumed in the end, nevertheless.
If the enemy crossed the battle lines to the north, fun and dying was to be had to the south. The shooting lasted about two months and then ended for a while; until about the same time the next year. Then once again, repeat performances of the Winter Games, again-and-bloody-again ad infinitum. Until death once again ripped us apart by means of a landmine explosion, fighting gunships or something unholy to be found in abundance in the bush.
Life there, up north, was then usually followed by two months of agony, interspersed with minute spurts of ecstasy. Afterwards it was back to peaceful farming, doing business, window-shopping and undergoing schooling again… Back to normal life south of the Red Line – thanks army, thanks police, thanks air force, thanks 61 Mech.
If the enemy crossed the battle lines drawn to the north… Alpha, Bravo and Charlie… then the heavens of the SADF, SWATF and the police will open, flooding umpteen fighting ground and air force units into the Death Triangle – the more the merrier; at what cost? This normally lasted until the crisis was resolved in the Death Triangle by means of high intensity counter-insurgency warfare, search and destroy style.
The military solution truly sought after should have been not to have the enemy’s Special Unit playing Winter Games in the south at all!
The Enemy – Special Unit at Large
Cause and Effect – the Enemy did his Homework – Wow, Can You Believe It?
The deep infiltrations of SWAPO’s’ Special Unit into the farming area south of the Red Line in 1981 and 1982 should be viewed as a holistic sequel. The reason for this was simple. The enemy’s decisive defeat during the April 1981 Operation Carrot-infiltration of 22 insurgents had a marked effect on their operational conduct during the April 1982 infiltration (Operation Yahoo).
The enemy’s infiltration in 1981 was characterised as a suicide mission. In 1982 SWAPO had done their homework, they came back better prepared and more dedicated and ferocious. It took the security forces close on two months to find, fix and destroy them.
Came March-April 1982 a large number of insurgents were stealthily making their way southwards from southern Angola, fanatically so. They had a plan! Who knew about this?
Those insurgents of theirs, who infiltrated hundreds of kilometres from southern Angola through to Tsumeb on foot, had pure guts. It was a treacherous journey, considering fierce dangers from harsh environ, opposing heavily armed angry men and their umpteen war machines.
From the area of Techamutete-Cassinga to the border alone is approximately 260km by foot, through treacherous dense bush clad veldt. From the Angolan border to Tsumeb the terrorists snuck a further 215km southwards by foot. This happened with black combat boots, Chinese rice patterned combat fatigues, AK-47 rifles, drab veldt rucksacks and some other devious goodies of their devilish trade. Their arsenal included propaganda pamphlets and badges of SWAPO which could be dished out to willing and unwilling recipients. Also mines and more mines and a few SAM-7s (Russian shoulder launched ant-aircraft missile system) they brought with them this time around.
I salute them as one soldier to another. They were no military walk-over this time around. Let us keep the politics out of this argument for the moment.
The lights of the mining town of Tsumeb and the flickering red lights on the communication masts near the Lake Otjikoto would soon be winking at the insurgents in the night. The glow would guide them towards the south into a killing field – like a flame entices a moth.
Overview of Volcano – The Special Unit of SWAPO
SWAPO’s Volcano Special Unit comprised well trained insurgents. The unit had an active strength of about four hundred combatants. The soldiers of Volcano were devoted to the cause and revolutionary ideals set by SWAPO for the liberation of SWA/Namibia. Their command cadre underwent rigorous training overseas in Eastern Bloc countries and in China. New recruits were carefully selected for infiltration missions, especially those earmarked for the deep raids directed at the White farming area, south of the Red Line.
The commander of Volcano was legendary Danger Ashipala. Danger was supported in the command by his second-in-command Kapoko, political commissar High Court as well as engineering commander Kandove. (The names of these insurgents denoted their combat names, which they used for security purposes. Many of these insurgents became legendary under their combat names during the border war. After the war I have met a few of them with a beer in hand, really nice people.)
Volcano was well trained in subversive tactics such as: Infiltration; counter-tracking; field craft; survival; camouflage and concealment; deception; ambushing; attacks; sabotage; mine-laying; surprise killings; special demolitions; communications; basic first-aid; political and propaganda actions. In 1973 as a young paratrooper captain I went to Taiwan on a special warfare course to learn what mainland China was teaching our enemy – the subjects mentioned above. We referred to this as: “Chicom Tactics” – Chinese Communist tactics. Know your enemy!
The main operational base of Volcano was located approximately 35km south-west of Lubango. From the interrogations of sixteen captured insurgents later on, Captain Gerrie Hugo could draw a neat sketch of the base and position its whereabouts close to Lubango. This was another juicy target for our Special Forces or the air force, or both, to be had somewhere in the near future.
Volcano was organised into ten platoons of 35 – 45 men each. The platoon commanders were: Kilimandjaro; Amin; Mandume; Nangobe; Castro; Ndowishi; Kayofa; Kalulu; Shikongo and; Kaunda, all reasonably smart guys and seasoned warriors.
SWAPO’s Deep Raid to the Far South Develops
Know your enemy…
It was exciting to see how the enemy picture evolved, became alive, as the operation progressed. The building of this picture was in the capable hands of Captain Gerrie Hugo, the intelligence officer of 61 Mech who also acted as the intelligence officer for Operation Yahoo.
Hugo was supported by a joint intelligence team comprising officers from Military Intelligence, SAAF, Special Forces and Koevoet. Those in cahoots with us were Colonel ‘Foffie’ Badenhorst from the special branch of the police, Major Derek Botha from Koevoet, Major Henk Coetzee from Special Forces, and Captain Lukas Delport from Military Intelligence. It was a grand team, clever guys, working as a close knit team – out think the foe was the norm.
Our intelligence team spent countless hours with our new-found captured friends from the SWAPO Special Unit. All sixteen of them who were captured during the course of the operation, participated spontaneously in this interesting play-off. It was truly not necessary for undue persuasion; most of the times our friends spilled the beans within 30 minutes of being captured. It was amazing to see.
Another extremely valuable source of intelligence was captured enemy documents found on the living or the dead. What was further interesting to observe was that all our intelligence requirements, formulated at the beginning of the operation, were satisfied as we shot insurgent-by-insurgent, jot and title. Tick the box – who, what, where, when, why and how.
How did the enemy’s deep raid go after leaving their base at Lubango?
• Mandume left Angola in February 1982 with his platoon for a reconnaissance mission to eastern Ovamboland. His group carried a large quantity of explosives and vehicle as well as personnel mines. One of Mandume’s missions was to establish caches in the eastern sector of Ovamboland. For what, who and why, nobody could tell us.
• The remaining platoons left Lubango in March 1982 for infiltration into northern SWA. They were briefed and motivated by the senior cadre of SWAPO. (That was before the heroes of the revolution departed for their respective missions.) Sam Nujoma did it in person. Nujoma was supported by Martin Shalli (the Senior Staff Officer PLAN) and Danger himself (the commander of Volcano). The final instructions to the insurgent commanders were withheld until the last minutes before their departure. This was how strict SWAPO was about keeping this particular raid secret and to maintain operational security. The main message portrayed by the senior cadre was that:
“This is the Year of SWAPO.
The soldiers of SWAPO must infiltrate the areas designated and fight, until it was liberated!
Sally forth and do it comrades!”
• At the beginning of April 1982 seven insurgent groups of Volcano infiltrated towards the Death Triangle, as well as the Mangetti Block. Those groups were commanded by Nangobe, Castro, Ndowishi, Kayofa, Kalulu, Shikongo, and Kaunda. The seven groups left their base near Lubango and travelled by vehicle to Matala and then eventually to the Techamutete-Cassinga area, the jump-off point.
• Then the enemy infiltrated from Techamutete-Cassinga to the border by foot, approximately 370km. From the border to Tsumeb was another 240km. In my book their effort portrayed sheer guts and tenacity. Being Mechanised Infantry, I would have bummed a lift somewhere with a Ratel or an Ural.
• The platoon of Amin remained behind at the base. Mandume had already left for his reconnaissance mission to eastern Ovamboland. Kilimandjaro and his platoon left a few days later as well. They travelled from their base by vehicle to the area of Cahama.
• Three of the eastern groups were tasked to infiltrate the Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi districts. The other two eastern groups were tasked to commit terrorist actions in the Mangetti slightly to the north of the Red Line. Part of their mission was to deceive the security forces and to fix and attack them in the Mangetti.
The Tasking of the Respective Insurgent Groupings – Devious Deeds to be Done
It is interesting to note that Volcano was on its way to infiltrate as far southwards by foot, as we had raided northwards by vehicle and parachute during Operation Daisy in November 1981. There would, however, be more killing in April 1982, than there were in November 1981.
SWAPO was doing their raid southwards notwithstanding Operation Daisy and the ongoing counter-insurgency operations of Sector 10 in the Area-in-Dispute and in Ovamboland. The enemy groups were infiltrating in large numbers right through the reasonably closely packed screen of security forces,The enemy would cross in the night, on 14 April 1982, to the east of Omuthiya, half-way between the road leading to Ondangwa in the west and the one to Rundu in the east.
We would meet the enemy at midday on the Bravo cut-line, on 15 April, 3-5km east of Tsintsabis – destiny?
Interestingly enough, to come back to Operation Daisy for a moment, 61 Mech had left Omuthiya on 30 October 1981 for Chitequeta, to participate in Operation Daisy. The main target complex for Daisy was about 45-60km south-east of Techamutete-Cassinga – from where Volcano now came.
Was the deep raid by Volcano a fair warning for what, in the future? Political games shall continue elsewhere, not our worries at the moment. Well to remember: It was a political war, a revolutionary war, not only a military one which Operation Yahoo was part of!
Enemies Crossing the Border and Coming through Ovamboland
There were far more than 200 PLAN fighters coming south towards the Death Triangle. They had a far and perilous way to go southwards by foot and rucksack and AK-47 and Pom-Z mine.
• The Western Group of Kilimandjaro:
Fifty two insurgents crossed the Angola/SWA border on 7 April, between Beacons 5 and 6, near Ruacana. After the crossing the enemy broke up into three smaller groups of 20, 20 and 12 each. Their next rendezvous was Okasheshete, in the operational area of Sector 10.
The vanguard of 20 insurgents made contact with the security forces close to Okasheshete on Friday 9 April 1982. One of the enemies surrendered the next day in the Ogandjera tribal area. Due to this contact the respective insurgent groups were prevented from rendezvousing at Okasheshete.
On Sunday 11 April 1982 the security forces once again made contact with those insurgents in the Ogandjera tribal area. On 15 April 1982 two groups of 20 insurgents were reported at Namatanga.
The insurgents who were left over stealthily made their way southwards. The first group of insurgents was reported to the security forces on 29 April 1982, on the farm Welkom, in the district of Kamanjab.
The route the insurgents had followed had taken them from the border, southwards past Ogandjera, past the salt pans and along the Okashide road further to the south.
Their first contact with the security forces waited for the insurgents on 30 April 1982, when four of them would be killed.
• The Eastern Groups:
On 9 April 1982 three of the eastern insurgent groups were reported near Oshifitu. The Koevoet forces of the South African Police (SAP) followed up immediately. They drove right into an ambush with their heavily armed Casspirs. It transpired at 15h00 on 10 April 1982 near Ehahe. Koevoet reported that they had made contact with a group of more than 90 insurgents. They had killed eight of them. The enemy had immediately scattered and their tracks were later on lost, during a number of follow-ups, which followed suit.
On 8 April 1982 a further group of 40 tracks were reported in the vicinity of Nkongo. The tracks led southwards. The security forces followed the insurgents for a while, but later on lost the tracks.
On 10 April 1982 an awesome 150 tracks were located approximately 30km south of Beacon 37. The tracks initially led south, then turned north-east, and were eventually lost during a pursuit by the security forces.
On 11 April at 19h00, a Buffel mine protected vehicle on patrol from Sector 10, detonated a mine on the Charlie cut-line, 30km to the north of Tsintsabis. The tracks of twenty insurgents were subsequently followed-up. The enemy tracks lead in an easterly direction.
The Tasking of the Respective Insurgent Groupings – Devious Deeds to be Done
Let us pause for a while and consider the initial tasking of the groups, before they left their base near Lubango. This is relevant for the story about the grand infiltration southwards, which follows on below.
• Ndowishi had been ordered, whilst moving through Ovamboland, to task one of his elements for terrorist actions at Mount Aukas, near Grootfontein.
• Kayofa and Kalulu had been tasked to activate and terrorise the Mangetti.
• Kaunda was tasked to infiltrate and subsequently activate the Tsumeb, Otavi and Kombat districts with their unholy attendance, to be followed by their misdeeds.
• Shikongo was commissioned to infiltrate further south. His target zone was Omaruru and Otjiwarongo. They had some way to go.
• Kilimandjaro had the worst job. His was to infiltrate through the unforgiving Kamanjab-Etosha corridor and aim for Kamanjab and Outjo to die there.
• The mission of Nangobe was unclear. He was apparently on his way to an area with the name Shamkweyu, which was unknown to the security forces.
• The mission of Castro remained unclear as well.
It was surmised later on by the intelligence community at Sectors 10 and 20, that Nangobe and Castro had been dispatched to go and cause devious trouble in the Okavango.
The specific missions of the three groups (Ndowishi, Kaunda and Shikongo), who were tasked for the Death Triangle and Otjiwarongo, were as follows (so what’s bloody new?):
• The laying of ambushes for vehicles and intensive mine lying. These actions to a great extent were aimed at deception and disruption – the enemy knew well that the security forces patrolled and followed up by vehicle, these were their counter-measures in this dangerous game.
• The insurgents were instructed to infiltrate the district of Tsumeb-Grootfontein-Kombat-Otavi-Otjiwarongo-Outjo forcefully by means of covert military mode. They were to expend all their ammunitions and explosives and only then, after a month or so, exfiltrate northwards, back to Angola, with lesser combat weight.
• Specific smaller insurgent groupings were tasked to infiltrate southwards to Otjiwarongo and even beyond. Then to go underground. Their work was then to organise an underground movement and to establish a clandestine logistics network, leading back to Ovamboland.
• Furthermore, the insurgents were given instructions to murder White farmers; sabotage infrastructure; shoot at vehicles, especially on tar macadam; plant mines; attack and raid shops on farms; attack the towns; scout the area for progressive political actions to boost the cause of SWAPO; do their political work and that propaganda thing; reconnoitre enemy bases and plot targets of opportunity; establish and develop an underground network and; establish agents in situ, who could support the many infiltrations to follow.
Sally forth insurgents and do the devious deeds the grand masters wish you to do in the Deep South. Yours is not to wonder why, but to do or die, into the valley of death…
How did our own intelligence put the above-mentioned information together into a coherent near-real-time enemy picture, came early April 1982? Who the hell knows?
Know your enemy, or…
The Enemy’s Deception Plan for the Bravo Cut-Line on 15 April 1982
The deception-plan we did not know or think about…
Dear readers please keep the following enemy script in the back-pocket, when I explain about the tragic events which unfolded on the 15th of April 1982 later on. This particular story is told in some detail in the script following on below. It is about a series of bloody events which played out on the Bravo cut-line close to Tsintsabis on 15 April 1982.
The two enemy groups of Kayofa and Kalulu, who had been tasked for the Mangetti, had a very specific mission. It was focused on achieving deception and disruption. It was well timed as an opening gambit and was to occur as the three groups of Ndowishi, Kaunda and Shikongo crossed over the Bravo cut-line into the farming area during the night of 14 April 1982.
The Mangetti ruse was furthermore intended to provide a measure of freedom for the other three groups. Firstly to cross more-or-less undetected over the Bravo cut-line into the traditional farming area. Secondly to win some time and space for their infiltrators to get deeper inside the Death Triangle; that is before the counter-insurgency forces could react effectively. It later on became clear to us that the enemy had studied the tactics followed during previous counter-infiltration operations very, very, very carefully.
Theirs was a clever ruse. It was a deliberate plan well thought out by the high command of SWAPO and the commanders of Volcano. Their plan worked. The enemy in the Mangetti had effectively targeted the security forces. Their mission was to ambush and lay mines and then to withdraw unscathed back to Angola. This they did, bar the three left dead in the Mangetti with their SAM-7 after being taken out by Alouette gunships on the fateful 15th. I will tell you about later.
Full marks go to SWAPO’s Special Unit for an opening gambit well planned and executed. For the remainder of your plan, tactically wise SWAPO and Volcano, you failed! Keep politics and propaganda gains out of this for the moment.
Young Insurgents Were Left to be Minced
The majority of the other three terrorist groups (Ndowishi, Kaunda and Shikongo), were made up of young recruits. They were the cannon-fodder, left to be minced by an immense counter-insurgency task force to be assembled soon.
It was therefore quite easy to dispatch of them by means of fire and brimstone once the battle was joined. This factor dawned more-and-more on our enemy, when the realities became suddenly clear to them that their game was over.
The war on the ground was all about living or dying and not about being heroes for the revolution.
Own Forces – Know Yourself
The Plan Comes Together – Marshalling Fighting Man and War Machine
In the east, to the south of the surging enemy lay Tsumeb, Grootfontein, Otavi and Otjiwarongo. This was where the trouble started on the 14th of April 1982.
When the trouble started that night, the Northern Border Company bore the brunt of discovering the enemy on its own. They found numerous enemy tracks on the Bravo cut-line, surging over into the farming area. The respective area force units of Sector 30 were already on stand-by. They were the first line of defence – especially their outstanding tracker teams.
61 Mech was first on the ground and absorbed the initial shock of aggressive enemy action on the 15th of April 1982 on the Bravo cut-line. This happened close to Tsintsabis. Two Puma helicopters and two Alouette gunships arrived at the scene of conflict at Tsintsabis early on the 15th. Almost immediately afterwards they saw action as well. Shortly to follow was 1 SWA Special Unit, moving swiftly from Otavi towards the Air Field at Tsumeb, awaiting instructions, ready to deploy.
Following suit in next to no time were additional forces hastily marshalled for the crisis in the Death Triangle.
The counter-insurgency task force mobilised for Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi in the east comprised more than 3 000 highly committed soldiers. At times the force was carried into battle by more than four to five hundred vehicles.
It was a combined task force, comprising units from the South African Army, South African Air Force (SAAF), Special Forces, SWATF, SWA Police and South African Police Koevoet (SAP-K).
The ground force fielded close on: Sixteen infantry companies; an armoured car squadron (Ratel-90); an additional artillery battery (personnel only); a field engineer troop and; nine SAP Koevoet teams, constituting 340 men alone. This included the deployment of up to five tactical HQs at a time.
The SAAF task team provided a Mobile Air Operations Team (MAOT) and commanded an impressive number of Puma transport helicopters, Alouette gunships and Bosbok light aircraft. The air force array included light aircraft from the part-time commando air force units of SWA. Amongst them was the legendary Tickely Kessler, armed and dangerous.
Tickely Kessler could launch grenades from his light civilian aircraft through specially fitted pipes and shoot at the ground with a brace of AK-47 rifles slung beneath his fuselage. He had the uncanny knack of spotting terrorists hidden in the denseness below and to track them through long grass from his Beechcraft Bonanza. The man was German, had a moustache and seemed as if he had just returned from fighting in the northern desert with Rommel in 1942. The time would soon come for me to clean his dashboard, some left-over breakfast from twisting and turning in the sky, to search for terrorists – one of my more embarrassing moments. Sorry Kessler!
The South African Medical Service Corps (SAMS) supported the operation with adequate resources as well.
The above-mentioned force elements were organised reasonably swiftly after the 15th of April and were initially mobilised and deployed from Tsumeb’s airfield.
In the west lay Kamanjab and Outjo… The trouble had not started there yet. That would come on the 30th. In the meantime the wild west was left in the capable hands of Commandant Stoffel Rothman, the commander of Outjo AFU. Sector 30 was also keeping a watchful eye there, with some of their meagre resources.
Counter Insurgency Task Force East – Action Stations
Let me lift the shroud somewhat and indicate how the counter-insurgency task force in the east was organised before we start with the fighting. How the different force elements were employed will be given explanation on top.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group formed the back bone of the task force and will therefore be dealt with firstly and separately in the first paragraph following below.
Composition of 61 Mech for Forthcoming Operations
At the time of Operation Yahoo in April-May 1982, 61 Mech was about 1 000 men strong. Our intake of fresh sub-units were finalising their mission training at Omuthiya for mobile conventional as well as counter-insurgency type operations.
61 Mech comprised the following key personnel and organisational sub-groupings at the time:
• Commander: Commandant Roland de Vries.
• Second-in-Command: Major Thys Rall.
• Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM): Warrant Officer Class 1 (WO1) HG Smit.
• Intelligence Officer: Captain Gerrie Hugo.
• Signals Officer and Commander of the Signals Troop: Captain Sean MacSweeny.
• Unit Chaplain: Padre Koos Rossouw.
• Logistics Officer: Major Giel Reinecke.
• Personnel Officer: WO 1 Jack Sindon.
• Alpha Company Commander (Ratel-20): Captain Jan Malan.
• Bravo Company Commander (Ratel-20): Captain ‘Vissie’ Visser.
• Charlie Squadron Commander (Ratel-90): Major ‘Jakes’ Jacobs.
• Sierra Battery (from 14 Field Regiment) Commander: 140mm medium guns and 120mm Medium Range Mortar: Major Chris Roux.
• Light Workshop Troop (LWT) Commander: WO1 Duppie du Plessis.
In addition 61 Mech boasted a Ratel-90 anti-tank platoon, an 81mm Mortar platoon, a medical section and a signals platoon. At the time of Yahoo the 81mm mortar platoon had been detached to Sector 10 to participate in Operation Meebos in Southern Angola.
Included in the 61 Mech arsenal was a Headquarters Company (support company), which was commanded by Major Giel Reinecke, my logistics officer. He was assisted by our RSM, WO 1 H.G. Smit, who commanded Alpha Echelon (administrative echelon). The latter extremely important establishments provided first-line combat service support wherever 61 Mech moved: Administrative; financial; logistical; technical and; catering.
61 Mech were employed as follows during Operation Yahoo:
• The HQ of 61 Mech served as the Task Force Tactical HQ East.
• The HQ of Sierra Battery provided the HQ for farm protection operations.
• Mechanised infantry companies were used for follow-ups; cross-tracking; observation posts; stopper groups; listening posts; ambushes; mobile and foot patrols; visiting and patrolling of farms.
• The armoured squadron and anti-tank platoon were employed for monitoring and patrolling of routes; road blocks; stopper lines; canalising of the enemy through movement and noise; escort tasks and; convoy protection.
• The artillery battery provided farm protection duties and harassing fire missions into mountainous areas.
• HQ Company and Alpha Echelon were responsible for establishing and maintenance of the operations and support base at Tsumeb airfield as well as logistics and maintenance support for the task force as a whole.
The Remainder of Task Force East Comprised the Following Force Structure Elements under Command of TAC HQ EAST (HQ 61 Mech)
• 1 SWA Special Unit: The HQ of the unit provided the TAC HQ for Otavi. The specialist elements of the unit were used for their specialists functions as and when were required, namely tracking, mounted horse and motor-cycle patrols, tracker and patrol dogs.
• The area force units (AFU) such as Etosha (Tsumeb), Grootfontein and Otavi were used for traditional infantry tasks. Valuable supports were rendered as guides, who could be integrated with and move with the respective forces in the field, as well as liaison with the community. Their most valuable asset was the numerous tracker teams which assisted the many follow-up groups. Important tasks of the AFUs were home and hearth protection and the protection of vulnerable points.
• Two parachute companies were provided by 1 Parachute Battalion. The paratroopers were employed for follow-ups; as rapid reaction forces; for cross tracking and; observation posts.
• The capability of the Northern Border Company was reinforced with an additional two companies from 203 Battalion and 201 Battalion. A TAC HQ was established at Tsintsabis. The sub-unit was almost at battalion strength now. The Tsintsabis force component was responsible for the patrolling of the Alpha, Bravo and Charlie cut-lines. This included area operations and restricted follow-ups in the Mangetti Block.
• A motorised company was provided by 6 South African Infantry Battalion of Grahamstown. The company was used to supplement farm protection operations as well as for area ambushing ahead of enemy surges.
• An additional motorised company was provided by 911 Battalion, Windhoek. This company was utilised for observation posts and stopper groups.
• One part-time force company from Witwatersrand Rifles (WR) was provided for farm protection duties as well.
• In addition, the personnel of an artillery battery, was provided by Transvaal State Artillery (TSA – citizen force), to boost farm protection duties.
• 911 Battalion provided an additional platoon, which was used for the protection of National Key Points (NKP) in the region.
• A field engineer troop was provided to fulfil traditional engineering tasks and the lifting of mines. Their work included the provisioning of purified drinking water for forces deployed in the field.
• Two infantry platoons were provided to the task force to undertake farm protection duties. These part-time force platoons came from Sectors 50 and 60.
• The SAAF provided air assets for helicopter gunship support; medical evacuation; trooping; liaison flights; aerial reconnaissance; aerial radio relay and; fixing of the enemy. The following air assets were deployed at the Tsumeb airfield: Three Alouette gunships; one Alouette helicopter for command and trooping purposes; two Bosbok light aircraft; two commando (part-time force) aircraft from SWA and; three Puma transport helicopters.
• The South African Medical Services (SAMS) provided for the following deployments: One Regimental Medical Post at Tsumeb; one medical officer at Otavi; one medical officer at Tsintsabis and; one medical team at Grootfontein.
• The South African Police provided one specialist counter-insurgency platoon, which was used only for follow-ups.
• The Koevoet force of the South African Police provided nine follow-up groups comprising 340 men. Koevoet was employed for hot-pursuits, cross tracking and for clandestine work. This force did outstanding work and received the accolades of their friends from the task force. The name Koevoet (crow bar) meant “covert operations”. This was a term which covered many functions, such as tracking terrorists internally in SWA as well as across the international border into southern Angola. Koevoet was also used for interrogation, liaison with local people, and other mainly policing duties, for which regular military forces were not normally suited.
• Elements of the South African Police (SAP), SWA Police and SAP (Security Branch) were deployed for the maintenance of law and order, intelligence operations and clandestine operations.
That was it, a force to be reckoned with. It now only needed to be pointed in the right direction and unleashed…
Composition of Forces in Sector 30 at Otjiwarongo and Task Force West
Sector 30 had the following forces available for employment in its immediate locale:
• The area force unit (AFU) of Otjiwarongo.
• Sector 30 could call on the restricted services of the Damaraland AFU which was still being formed and busy training its recruits.
• Task Force Nutcracker consisting of two motorised companies which could be employed for area operations, follow-ups, road blocks and observation posts.
Task Force West comprised the Outjo AFU, an infantry company deployed at Onaiso and one infantry platoon at Uis.
Command – the Force Multiplying Factor(bar Trackers)
About Command and Control
In the same vane as for the composition and employment of the described task force, I wish to elaborate about command and control beforehand.
Operation Yahoo was directed from Otjiwarongo under the overall command of Colonel J.T. Louw, as noted before. Louw had a complete staff’s complement to shore up the planning and conduct of operations in his vast designated area of operations. He needed to oversee his interests to the east and the west. Colonel Louw answered to Major General Charles Lloyd, GOC SWATF, with his HQ Bastion located in Windhoek.
For practical expediency and to facilitate better command and control, the area of operations of Sector 30 was sub-divided into Area East (Tsumeb) and Area West (Kamanjab). For the latter reason main tactical headquarters (TAC HQ) were established at Tsumeb in the east and Kamanjab in the west.
• TAC HQ East, Tsumeb: Counter-insurgency operations in the east were directed by me, under the auspices of Tactical Headquarters East. My TAC HQ, as previously noted, was deployed at the Tsumeb airfield.
• TAC HQ West, Kamanjab: Operations to the west were more low-key than those which played out to the east, in the Death Triangle. These operations were commanded by Commandant C.H. ‘Stoffel’ Rothman, the commander of the Outjo Area Force Unit (AFU). He was a seasoned warrior of the region and a veteran of all the previous infiltrations as far back as July 1976. The Wild West was in good hands.
Later on, as the operation progressed, smaller TAC HQs were established to support command and control. Those were at Otavi, Grootfontein and Tsintsabis. These secondary TAC HQs managed 24/7 operations and communications centres, as were the main ones. I had requested Captain Daan Liebenberg to man the Tsintsabis TAC HQ and Commandant Buks Koen, commander of 1 SWA Special Unit, the one based at Otavi. Koen was supported by Major H.K. ‘Henne’ Volkmann, another seasoned part-time warrior and commander of the Otavi AFU. The Grootfontein TAC HQ was sponsored and manned by the Grootfontein AFU under command of Commandant Piet Oosthuizen.
In addition to facilitate command and control:
• Every AFU had its own HQ in their respective home towns. Each HQ boasted a dedicated operations centre with guaranteed telephone and radio communications.
• The region sported a military area radio network (MARNET). This military telecommunications system was an extremely reliable counter terrorism communication network. The local radio network linked all the farms and the HQs of the respective AFUs in the district. The network was used for early warning of terrorist activities, for sharing real-time and near-real-time intelligence and for command and control purposes. Needless to say, the network was linked to the operations centre of 61 Mech at both Omuthiya and the rear HQ at Tsumeb, as well as the TAC HQ at the Tsumeb airfield. (The aforementioned TAC HQ was only activated during terrorist incursions into the Death Triangle).
• Adequate communications systems found at the respective TAC HQs were supplemented with telex, line and radio links to 61 Mech with the HQ of SWATF at Bastion in Windhoek and Sector 30 in Otjiwarongo. Our unit similarly maintained constant communication with the HQs of Sector 10 at Oshakati and Sector 20 at Rundu.
• Communication/Liaison Forums were established with local municipalities to facilitate close cooperation with the local community and for operational expediency in case of crisis.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group, in addition, had the means to field a tactical headquarters for any operation quite rapidly, if and when so required by any operational expediency.
For mobile operations 61 Mech commanded from their Ratel-Command vehicles. Many a time I deployed a mobile command post with one or two Ratel-Commands to be closer to the action. This enabled me to get a better feel for the operation and to be in a forward position to better assist commanders swiftly on the ground. Our Ratel-Commands were adequately equipped with superb communication systems, which included frequency hopping radios. All those unique assets were extremely helpful in maintaining secure communications against enemy interception. At that time the frequency hopper was a first in the world, invented and produced in South Africa by Grinnell.
The TAC HQ at Tsumeb was rapidly established and readily equipped and maintained by 61 Mech with the necessary supporting staffs, radio equipment, furniture, stationary, planning aids and maps.
Command and Planning Procedures Followed and War-Gaming
It needs to be mentioned that Operation Yahoo was a brigade level (task force) counter-insurgency operation.
61 Mech had adopted an integrated command and control system for Operation Yahoo. This incorporated for the planning and conduct of operations by the army’s ground forces from the SADF and SWATF, SAAF, SWA Police Services and Koevoet.
The commander, subsequent lower level commanders and supporting staffs worked full-out during Operation Yahoo as a combined high performance team.
Although I commanded Operation Yahoo, Colonel Tommy Thomasse, the District Commissioner of SWA Police, and Commandant Lucas Nel, the commander of the Etosha (Tsumeb), acted as my partners in command. Major Thys Rall, my second-in-command, performed the role of Chief of Staff for the operation. The supporting staffs of 61 Mech fulfilled the senior staff positions at TAC HQ East for personnel, intelligence, logistics, maintenance, catering and signals.
In addition to this command and staff arrangement, specialist command and control assets were provided for the operation by:
• Special Forces – Major Henk Coetzee to manage Special Forces operations.
• Military intelligence – Captain Lucas Delport to assist Captain Gerrie Hugo with intelligence operations.
• SWATF, at my request, for the continuous planning and conduct of psychological operations against the enemy – Colonel Basjan van Niekerk and Commandant Jan Greyling.
• Sector 30 at my request: Major Tas van Solms from 1 SWA Specialist Unit and WO 1 Hennie Blaauw to advise on tracking operations and to manage the numerous tracker assets deployed for operations. Also Major Alex Britz to assist as my senior operations officer.
• South African Security Police – Colonel ‘Foffie’ Badenhorst (brother of Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst) to manage covert intelligence operations against Volcano. He had control of numerous intelligence sources in the region.
• Intelligence assets provided for by Major General Hans (‘Lang Hans’) Dreyer from Koevoet HQ, Oshakati – Major Derek Botha who was a pillar of strength during Operation Yahoo and provided outstanding services.
For the duration of Operation Yahoo I had requested the HQ of SWATF to support me with an experienced senior officer. This was to act as my rear link officer to the operations centre at the HQ of SWATF in Windhoek. Commandant Louis Rheeder was my man. I furthermore appointed him as the president of an ongoing board of inquiry which I instituted as soon as Operation Yahoo commenced. This was for issues and subsequent complaints received from farmers regarding the numerous broken fences and properties left in the wakes of hot pursuits. Koevoet follow-up teams especially, were by no means respectful of the fences and the environment. When following closely on the heels of SWAPO vagrants our Koevoet friendly forces saw nothing else but enemy tracks until they could spot the blood-shot whites of the enemy’s eyes. Rheeder was also responsible to manage the repairs relating to the damaged fences and property and was given a small staff to aid him. It included an officer/farmer from the Etosha AFU. By the end of May all broken fences had been repaired, complaints resolved and the board of inquiry completed. All of the aforementioned tricks of the trade were due to lessons learned during Operation Carrot in 1981. Not again Roland, I had said, on completing Carrot 1981.
During Operation Yahoo our newly established combined command and support team followed the proven integrated planning system of 61 Mech.
• This implied that all operational planning and control assets provided for by the respective participants were integrated into specialist or functional teams. Such as for command, operations, intelligence, covert operations, counter-intelligence, psychological operations, combat support, combat service support and even specialist tracking services.
• Combat support included the planning and conduct of field engineer operations, signals, strategic communications as well as psychological operations.
• Combat services support included personnel, finances, logistics, catering, technical and medical.
• The planning and conduct of farm protection operations, movement control, convoy protection and subsequent other protection duties were performed by Major Chris Roux, the commander of Sierra Battery of 61 Mech.
• All maps were marked and updated minute-by-minute. Maps displayed corresponding situational awareness pictures, which were time-dated. Layers of information reflected the enemy situation as well as ongoing own operations. All contacts with the enemy and relevant wide ranging information collected, were carefully marked and analysed.
• Most of the contacts with the enemy, especially during follow-up and snatch operations, occurred from about 09h00 until last light (about 18h00). These actions followed on nightly assessments by own planning staffs of the enemy situation for that particular day and the night following on. Through these means and intelligence gathered and interpreted, the latest positions of the respective insurgent groups were predicted and marked on our maps. Using the aforementioned information the enemy’s possible courses of action for the following 24-hours were then predicted and described in terms of time and space. From this intelligence own courses of action were then determined and orders generated, evenly so related to time and space. Graphic orders (using map overlays) and quick orders were mostly used.
• Each contact or critical event was followed by a quick war-game in the operations centre between the intelligence and operations staff. The supporting staffs stood by to provide the required inputs and to design supporting actions.
• Early mornings at 07h00 were initiated by brief 10-minute standing meetings followed by a more formal get-together at 17h00. The hours of darkness were used for deliberate planning.
• True to form, follow-up and supporting operations commenced at first light the next day. The focus then was on the minute-to-minute controlling, orchestrating and supporting of operations and unfolding events. Start at 06h00, eliminate before 18h00 – a good 12-hour day’s work. Devious things concocted were left to bewitching darkness – another 12 hours of solid work. Maintain the pressure relentlessly on the foe, zero tolerance and zero empathy.
• Daylight allowed optimisation of the following expediencies: Investigations of what had happened on the ground; countless hot-pursuits of the various scattered enemy groups; air reconnaissance; Alouette gunship fire-support during contacts; cross-tracking; area-ambushing and; employment of stopper groups and observation posts.
• The nights were used for psychological operations against the enemy; night operations such as ambushing; resting and recuperation of trackers and follow-up teams; de-briefing of unfolding events; assessments and planning of operations; the issuing of orders for counter-insurgency actions following on the next day; redeployment of own forces; maintenance and repairs of prime mission equipment; logistics replenishments.
Now and then I would go home for a quick bath. As the water ran into the tub I would sit next to it, on the toilet seat, doing my military appreciation for the next operation with my clip-board on the plastic laundry bin in front of me.
Cries for Meaning – Why do we not learn from History?
Before going any further I need to bare the bones and deal with a few essentials from my soul. That is before going into action with 61 Mech and the counter-insurgency task force I was soon to command in the Death Triangle.
The story will continue…
The rainy season had arrived by April 1982. Were the farmers pleased about the coming rains, not really? For them danger surreptitiously approached from the north with the rain. How did the situation affect the security forces which were there to protect the community and be prepared themselves?
For this reason I wish to bare my soul. Dear reader, the revelation following on below is between you and me. I wish to tell this part of my story before I disclose what happened at midday on a fateful 15 April 1982. More specifically about what had happened on the Bravo cut-line, 3-5km to the west of Tsintsabis. This was the moment when tragedy struck home and young Alpha Company of Captain Jan Malan bore its bitter fruits. It was the moment when one of our Ratels ran into a trap purposefully set by the enemy. One solitary Ratel was taken out in a flurry of flame. Eight of our people died in its terrible heat.
The aforementioned misfortune was not a passing moment in the war; it had hurt all of us at 61 Mech dearly at the time and remains a heart-rending happening until today. For loved ones and friends, near and afar, for 61 Mech was and still is a band of brothers!
Here follows my lament:
• At the end of Operation Carrot we held a comprehensive de-briefing in May 1981, about the enemy’s latest incursion into the Death Triangle. The de-briefing took place at the HQ of Sector 30 in Otjiwarongo. One thing was glaringly obvious to all of us attending – we could clearly expect repeat of the enemy’s performance, came the rainy season and April in 1982. Many valuable recommendations were generated by the participants in the discussions following on. I am therefore only going to mention two salient aspects. One such recommendation was to improve the current early warning and intelligence systems regarding impending enemy threats to the Death Triangle. Amongst others, this proposal included placing Sector 30 intelligence personnel with Sectors 10 and 20 throughout the year. The reason for this was to closely guard the interests of Sector 30 and the community it was responsible to protect. Eyes on the front, the goal comes first and then you see, you do not see first…
• Another thought I personally expressed over-and-over concerned pre-emption and obviously the matter of working out its pro-active measures beforehand. My question simply was that: “If we knew that the enemy was going to infiltrate in April, why not deploy the counter-insurgency task force beforehand, just in time? Why not stop the enemy north of the Bravo cut-line and save the communities south of the Red Line the agony and its accompanying long-during trauma?” The latter proposal meant that the current “Operation Awake” plan of Sector 30 required a complete overhaul – a re-invention. Operation Awake was wholly re-active and allowed our dear enemy to enjoy the proceeds of initiative until they had crossed the Bravo cut-line. We needed to shift the killing ground to the north of the Bravo was my cry for meaning.
• In the same vein as the above-mentioned line of thinking, I had an in-depth discussion with Captain Daan Liebenberg. This followed in May 1981 on successfully completing Operation Carrot. Liebenberg had been the commander of the Northern Border Company at Tsintsabis during Operation Carrot in 1981, as well as during Yahoo in 1982. Daan Liebenberg was a respected man of the community, knew all the farmers in the region and was experienced to the ways of SWAPO. The contingency plan of 61 Mech, prepared early in 1981 for Operation Carrot, had led to the establishment of the Northern Border Company at Tsintsabis on 1 April 1981. This happened just prior to that incursion, when 22 insurgents crossed Bravo on 6 April 1981. Liebenberg, a man from the Tsumeb community, was then serving as an officer with 61 Mech. On completion of Operation Carrot, Captain Daan Liebenberg and the Northern Border Company had been transferred from 61 Mech to Sector 30. The said company maintained its role as the guardians of the portals to the Death Triangle from Tsintsabis. This included the daily physical sweeping and monitoring of the Bravo cut-line from the Grootfontein-Ondangwa highway in the west; to the Grootfontein-Rundu highway in the east – a distance of 169km. The cut-line was physically swept by improvised brooms which were laboriously dragged, day-by-day-hour-by-hour, behind Buffel mine protected vehicles. These operations were controlled from a 24/7 company HQ residing at Tsintsabis. I had subsequently requested Liebenberg to compose a letter to the HQs of Sector 30 as well as SWATF. This letter provided clear-cut recommendations for battlefield preparations in lieu of impending infiltrations to the south – proactively preparing battlefields had been one of my favourite subjects on the senior army command and staff course I had attended in 1980. Captain Daan Liebenberg’s letter (NG Komp/303/1/Ops Carrot, dated 25 May 1982) was duly written and submitted to the higher hierarchies on 25 May 1981. Here is the essence of what was either emphasised or recommended by Captain Daan Liebenberg:
From the successes of Operation Carrot it was clear that enemy incursions could be halted effectively on the cut-lines, if prior warning was given.
The negative psychological effects on the community were brutal, due to severe trauma caused by harsh terrorism generated sporadically in the region.
The high cost relevant to the conduct of such operations needed to be considered. Should the incursions then rather not be prevented?
The enormous force levels required for such operations in the Death Triangle needed to be considered as well. Especially the negative affects thereof were applicable, considering force levels required for operations elsewhere in the northern border region.
The main quest was for the proper development of the respective cut-lines. This especially related to the most northerly cut-line, christened the Charlie. The Charlie cut-line lay across the infiltration front, approximately 30km due north of the Bravo.
The key dilemma stressed by Liebenberg was that if the enemy crossed the Bravo cut-line undetected, they would already be in position to cause severe harm to the community inside the farming district. Why, was his question, could the enemy not be pin-downed much further to the north and effectively destroyed, before crossing over the Alpha and Bravo cut-lines?
It had seemed to me that after Operation Carrot in 1981 only lethargy remained. So why did we not learn from history? Did we fall into the age old trap of comfort zoning, or was there more to it? Perhaps teetering on the edge of military ineptness with blinkers on? Was this what the renowned military historian, Sir B.H. Liddell Hart, meant when he outspokenly wrote “The only thing that we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history”?
We had furthermore underestimated our foe. We had grown accustomed to his face. The face of Volcano we knew so well. Yes, from previous aborted attempts by them, with their puny force levels, yes those ones. Those the security forces laconically referred to as the Winter Games and suicide missions by SWAPO. Who then, were those resting on their laurels in between the April’s? No names, no pack-drill.
Considering that the oldest Chinese military theorist had said 55 years BC: “Know yourself and your enemy, or succumb in battle…” What did we not know about Volcano and impending peril?
We did not know that the enemy insurgents had gone back to their base and said ‘never again’. That they had learned dearly from the tricks of the trade of the security forces in the past. How the cut-lines were guarded and monitored… and how the counter-insurgency forces operated beyond, with their follow-ups, in the Death Triangle…!
The enemy had gone back to their base and had done their homework. They had gone through a thorough de-briefing themselves, like we did. They were coming back with a vengeance… and a plan…With deceptions and ruses and feints… and with greater force numbers and aggression than ever before…
This time the enemy was emphatically committed to achieving their mission under the leadership of a number of their more seasoned warriors of Volcano.
Let the Winter Games begin again…
Stand and Deliver – Fighting in the Death Triangle
Situational Awareness – To be Prepared at All Times
From early March through to the 14th of April 1982 the pressure came to bear on 61 Mech… Stand and deliver.
All commanders are depended on situational awareness. Without it, there cannot be correctness of military action. This relates to accurate information and thorough assessments regarding the mission, terrain, weather, enemy, own forces, tasks, time and distance, command and control, administration and support, and communications.
The unending quest is for timeous accurate intelligence to be provided. This allows a commander and his staff to make quality decisions which enables precision engagement – to be able to see, to decide and to act swiftly and precisely.
The disquiet and the vagueness remained as April came and started crawling unstoppably towards the 14th.
The situational awareness picture still remained unclear to 61 Mech – including the tasking of our unit for impending events. No warning orders were received from our higher HQ, none whatsoever!
We could not see what was going to happen on the 15th. Was it destiny or something else… coming our way?
One youthful-looking sub-unit in particular would bear the deadly brunt of Operation Yahoo, came 15 April 1982. That was Alpha Company under command of astute tactician and young vibrant mechanised infantry Captain Jan Malan. The second-in-command of the company was Lieutenant H. van Daalsen. The company sergeant major was Staff Sergeant E. Koen. All-in-all they were a young, enthusiastic and committed command team. They reined over a bunch of lively well-trained national servicemen. The 150 of them were going into action for the first time in their young lives before long. They were soon going to see their enemy over open sights and feel invigorated through adrenaline pulsating.
• Foxtrot Company of 1 South African Infantry Battalion (1 SAI), Bloemfontein, became Alpha Company at 61 Mech early in March 1982. 1 SAI was one of our key training feeder units based in South Africa. The unit was commanded by a close friend of mine, Colonel Tony Savides. 1 SAI was responsible to provide combat ready sub-units and personnel to 61 Mech, companies such as Foxtrot. 61 Mech was responsible for mission readiness, added combat training as well as operational employment, which followed on.
• Alpha Company underwent rigorous mission and combat training at Omuthiya from early March until 14 April 1982. The company was outstanding and I was extremely satisfied with their training achievements, tactical prowess, leadership acumen and esprit de corps.
• By early April the signs and the symptoms became clear to 61 Mech that the infiltration to the Death Triangle by either the end of April or early May was imminent. I therefore decided, on my own initiative, to deploy the company of Captain Jan Malan to the north of Tsintsabis, between the Bravo and Alpha cut-lines. Tsintsabis lay on the traditional pathway of the enemy’s infiltrations from the north and 61 Mech regularly used this area for training. The mission of Malan’s company was to maintain a military presence in the area and, at the same time, to complete their orientation training – training on the hoof, so to speak and at the same time gaining operational experience, was the central idea.
• I duly informed Colonel J.T. Louw, the commander of Sector 30, of my decision to deploy Alpha Company in proximity of Tsintsabis. He was ecstatic at the idea of boosting his meagre force numbers north of the Bravo cut-line. As it was, he had only one company, namely the Northern Border Company, which patrolled the vast stretch of cut-line extending 196km from Oshivello in the west to the Grootfontein-Rundu highway in the east. We were all happy. As were Captain Daan Liebenberg, who commanded the Northern Border Company from Tsintsabis.
• Alpha Company consisted of a company HQ and three mechanised platoons, armed with fourteen Ratel-20s in total. An anti-tank group of four Ratel-90s also formed part of this formidable highly manoeuvrable fighting package.
• The fighting ensemble, armed to the teeth, left Omuthiya for Tsumeb on 14 April with their Ratels. First to attend a concert at the Etosha High School; then to deploy to Tsintsabis the following day to continue with training and operational duties.
Alpha Company was soon to be joined by the whole of 61 Mech from Omuthiya for the concert to be held in Tsumeb. They were to be transported in large Samil-100 trucks.
A Concert and a Crisis – Pulsating Energy, Swirling Action, Unending Motion
On the evening of 14 April 1982 61 Mech attended a concert in Tsumeb. It was sponsored by the Entertainment Group of the SADF. This was one of 61 Mech’s regular recreational outings for our people. It was a Wednesday. A crises was about to unravel!
The Ratels of Alpha Company were parked at the rear HQ of 61 Mech, on the eastern outskirt of Tsumeb. The Ratels were still sighing gently as they cooled down. The most beautiful sound, bar the combined whine of their torque converters and the growl of powerful Büssing Diesel engines – the more the better and the merrier for own forces.
Take note that the whole of 61 Mech was still on full alert for any emergency – this was standing-operating-procedure (SOP). Just in case of crisis the Command Ratels of my combat group HQ were parked at our rear HQ as well. This was about 3km from the school hall where the concert was to be held. Incidentally, my family home was adjacent to our Tsumeb HQ.
Our families were also attending the concert. We were gathered in the concert hall of the Etosha High School which had been graciously provided for the occasion by the community of Tsumeb.
The RSM of 61 Mech, WO 1 H.G. Smit and his wife Ansie, were keeping tight reins on the jubilant proceedings. The troops called the RSM ‘Killer’ Smit, with some caring and marked respect mind you, but not to his face. There was merriment and there was joy in the school hall.
At 21h00 said concert was in full swing, to the utter entertainment of all 1 000 of 61 Mech attending the fun.
At about 21h30 I was called to the radio room at our Tsumeb Rear HQ. Captain Daan Liebenberg, the commander of the Northern Border Company, informed me that there had been a massive influx of insurgents over the Bravo cut-line during the course of the evening. As yet he could not reveal the details. He had sent out patrols to find out what the hell was going on. He had also reported the situation to his commander, Colonel J. T. Louw of Sector 30.
I went back to the school and summarily stopped the concert. The civilian entertainers were wide eyed. Good-by, thanks very much, see you somewhere in the future, don’t call us, we will call you. I instructed my second-in-command, Major Thys Rall, to activate the 61 Mech contingency plans immediately: “Await my further guide lines, orders will follow”. Thys Rall said, “Roger, I will establish the TAC HQ at the Tsumeb airfield through the night as well”. This was all SOP really, not necessary to say.
I ordered Captain Jan Malan to deploy Alpha Company forthwith into a stopper position to the north of the Bravo cut-line, close to Tsintsabis.
I requested my logistics officer Major Giel Reinecke to accompany me in my command Ratel, Call Sign Ø, to Tsintsabis. I took into consideration that it was his 27th birthday on 15 April 1982 and I wanted to be the first to congratulate him at 24h05. As a quick afterthought I requested our unit chaplain Padre Koos Rossouw to get his kit and accompany our diminutive TAC HQ to Tsintsabis.
Our small command team duly mounted my armoured six-wheeler and sallied forth. Swiftly 65km north-north-westwards-ho, to Tsintsabis we went. Captain Gerrie Hugo, my intelligence officer, followed suit in Ratel ØB.
We were trailing in the swirling dust of Alpha Company’s eighteen Ratels. Captain Jan Malan and his platoon commanders were travelling with him inside his command Ratel, Call Sign India 1Ø. They were already assessing the current operational situation, super efficient and highly dedicated as Jan Malan always was. Under the cabin lights in the command compartment of his Ratel they were working out their plans and orders on the move.
Seek to establish the unfolding situational awareness picture as rapidly as possible… Terrain…enemy…own forces…courses of action…each of the latter considered in terms of time and distance… Time and space…
Arriving at Tsintsabis 90 minutes later Reinecke, Hugo and I established a tactical HQ to control the unfurling crisis. Padre Koos Rossouw was good with putting up and marking maps. His enemy was not only the devil but SWAPO as well. He was going to work over-time on 14/15 April 1982.
Captain Daan Liebenberg of the Northern Border Company joined us at the newly established TAC HQ. We hastily construed an operations centre; the maps were up against the wall of Liebenberg’s company HQ. I informed Colonel J.T. Louw of Sector 30 that for the time being I was taking control of the unfolding events. I furthermore requested him to activate the emergency plan of Sector 30 and to dispatch a few Puma helicopters and Alouette gunships soonest to Tsintsabis. The show was on. Operation Awake (crisis plan of Sector 30) was about to unfold, whilst 61 Mech was holding the line.
By 01h00 Captain Jan Malan reported to me that he had deployed his company to the north of Tsintsabis, they were ready for the vigil and the action. Well done dependable Alpha Company! We now had a foot on the ground. How do we fight? We fight from one firm base to the next. Malan and his company were guarding the portals through the night but no enemy came their way.
Daan Liebenberg, Gerrie Hugo and I started conversing simultaneously with the farmers in the Tsintsabis-Tsumeb district via the Etosha AFU, over the military area radio network (MARNET) and the telephone. We were warning them of the impending terrorist threat. Similarly we were trying to find out what the hell they knew about the insurgent situation on the ground. We were grabbing desperately at each scrap of useful information we could find during those bewitching hours. The enemy’s tracks were the only real piece of intelligence on the ground we had. How many in, where did they cross, when? We did not even know this yet! Mark the known crossing sites on the map and assess in terms of time and space as soon as possible.
In the meantime Major Giel Reinecke was in liaison with Northern Logistic Command at Grootfontein arranging the activation and implementation of the logistics support plan for the coming operation. This involved the accommodation, vehicles, fuel, and technical support to be deployed at the Tsumeb airfield forthwith.
The region’s MARNET was now being exploited to the fullest. All the lines were humming.
The local part-time area force units in the region, Etosha (Tsumeb), Grootfontein and Otavi were immediately notified from Tsintsabis that the next perilous Winter Game spell had begun. Action stations – activate your crisis plans and warn the farmers and the other communities forthwith. Fully man your respective operations centres now! Put your tracker teams on immediate stand-by! Notify the respective mayors and town clerks to activate crises plans and procedures now!
Those communication and liaison forums between the local communities and the security forces for operational expediency in case of crisis – get them up and going fast, was the guiding precept now. The value lay in local town clerks such as Ockert Britz of Tsumeb. Ockert Britz, friend cum part-time force major. They will get things moving rapidly. The same accounted for the local mayors such as Mr Heinzie Hellwig, the mayor of Tsumeb. Hellwig knew 61 Mech well from taking the salute at military celebrations and the regular parades held by us in Tsumeb. Grootfontein and Otavi would follow suit with their emergency action-plans and procedures. Move, move, move!
I knew the respective area force unit commanders by name as we were friends. They were stalwarts of the region, pillars of strength, either farmers or business men, respected, trusted and endeared by the community. They were Commandant Lukas Nel of Etosha Area Force Unit, Major Henne Volkmann of Otavi Area Force Unit and Commandant Piet Oosthuizen of Grootfontein Area Force Unit. Together we had worked out our contingency plan for such infiltrations for Operation Carrot in 1981. We had war-gamed possible enemy actions, as well as possible own courses of action beforehand. We operated as a close knit working party, a partnership. We knew how to work and fight as a cohesive high performance combat team.
To be added to the aforementioned these AFUs were the other commanders with whom 61 Mech maintained firm and friendly relations. They were Commandant G.D. Bennett of Otjiwarongo Area Force Unit and Commandant C.H. Rothmann of Outjo Area Force Unit. They were all contacted about the unfolding enemy situation through the night by the HQ of Sector 30. For any crisis in the Death Triangle the AFUs of Sector 30 was the first line of defence.
I contacted Lieutenant Daan van der Westhuizen next; he lived on the nearby farm Koedoesvlei, approximately 15km west of Tsintsabis. He knew this hazardous no-rules terrorist game which was already surging southwards. I explained to van der Westhuizen what was unfolding on the ground close by and that we needed his revered tracker team soonest at Tsintsabis. He replied that he was on his way.
Tall, imposing Daan van der Westhuizen was held in esteem by the community. He was a respected farmer and at the same time served as a committed part-time force officer of the Etosha Area Force Unit (AFU). Daan van der Westhuizen was master-tracker and fieldsman par excellence and a veteran of previous infiltration operations. Daan van der Westhuizen’s faithful tracker team comprised his son in law, farmer/rifleman Hendrik Potgieter, married to daughter Olivia; endeared Bushman master-tracker Jan Kouswab (with utmost respect our troops used to call him Jan Kaka) and; two other Bushman trackers. They were on their way to Tsintsabis in their cut-off drab veldt-coloured Land Rover. I was anxiously waiting for them to arrive through the night – 20 minutes and counting. What more could I say?
The wife of Daan van der Westhuizen was legendary in the region. She was also a member of the Etosha AFU. She acted as the radio relay station for the district, even throughout the northern operational area of SWA. Many a time she had relayed radio messages from her farm to 61 Mech in the field. This usually happened at critical moments during operations, deep inside southern Angola. Many the bacon of a lost soldiery soul had been saved in the operational area by her, when she had discerned a fluttering radio signal with accompanying anxiety. Then coming to the rescue with her high clear pitched voice: “Gooi uit ‘n lyntjie…” (Throw out a ground antenna).
Tannie (aunt) Pompie and Oom (uncle) Daan were more than honouree members of 61 Mech – they were our dear friends. Members of 61 Mech had visited them many a time at Koedoesvlei for endearing moments of friendship, farmer rusks and coffee. As the crisis unfolded around Tsintsabis and Tsumeb, Tannie Pompie was operating her beloved radios in her kitchen, 15km to the west. The invisible tentacles of her radio network reached wide and far, to farmers, AFU HQs in the region, 61 Mech – the force groupings already deploying in the field. She was ‘Madame Operations and Communications’ in the region. Tannie Pompie, the hub and heart of information and communication, what more could I say?
Tick the box, who is next? I phoned Colonel T.W. (Tommy) Thomasse, the District Commissioner of Police in Tsumeb and said: “Tommy dit is sulke tyd, die terroriste is hier” (Tommy it is time, the terrorists are here). Let us get to it and go get them. I need you soonest. Activate your networks, inform your boss in Windhoek. Get your assets from elsewhere here. See you at the airfield tomorrow.
Tommy Thomasse and I had become close friends since the previous incursion (Operation Carrot). He knew exactly what needed to be done. He was steady in his ways, conscientious, meticulous and supportive. I had commanded the operation in April 1981 as a commandant, even though he outranked me as a colonel and he had no problem with this. In the true sense we had established a close knit partnership in command and I could not do these infiltration type operations without him. Tommy was painstaking, to a force of ten, when it came to recording the details about insurgents and what they were up to next. In fact, all their movements and going-ons were carefully recorded in his book of knowledge – a terrorist balance-sheet of those dead and alive and where the remainders could be. He only completed this work when we could draw a red-line through all the enemies. Tommy possessed uncanny investigative skills. Stay with me Tommy – elementary my dear Watson.
Then it was time to phone the legendary Commandant Lukas Nel, the officer commanding the Etosha AFU. He was our energetic farmer cum part-time force commander and World War II veteran. Nel was another pillar of strength in the community. He commanded his AFU with utmost empathy but with an iron hand nonetheless. He was respected and endeared by all he came in contact with. His HQ was situated in the centre of Tsumeb, adjacent to the office of the District Commissioner of SWA Police, Colonel Tommy Thomasse. I said:
Uncle Lukas…, the time is here; let us do what must be done. Put your tracker teams on immediate stand-by. Let them commence with cross-tracking across their farms. Keep them ready. Instructions will follow. I am still at Tsintsabis, I will keep you in the picture; see you at the airfield soonest.
Many farmers in the district boasted well trained and readily available tracker teams. They became legendary in SWA and were renowned in the region as the mainstay against terrorism. The tracker teams were ordinary farm workers, ordinary people of all colours earning their daily bread amongst the danger and the hardship. They all stood by on their respective farms at immediate call for terrorist incursions. Such was the ordinary life of those exceptional farmers and their workers in the northern region of SWA.
The tracker teams had done stalwart work during Operation Carrot. Many of them came under enemy fire and were wounded. This would happen to them again during the unfolding Operation Yahoo… soon… and again.
The farmers and their tracker teams were used to operating as one with the respective follow-up teams of the counter-insurgency force during these infiltrations. Similarly these part-time AFU members provided invaluable service as guides and operational advisors. The locals were integral to our planning, ingrained so to say; they knew the habits of the enemy, more importantly so, they knew the terrain.
These tracker teams were led by extraordinary people like Reinhardt Friedrich, Frank Bosch, Ockert Britz, Dave Keyser, Horst Körner, Daan van der Westhuizen, Klaus Meich Riche and Izak van Zyl (called ‘Sakkie Kaalvoet’ because of this strange being’s custom of tracking on his bare feet). Many others like them played unrivalled roles in the security and livelihood of the region and many of them were farmers. All of these men belonged to the area force units in the region. The work done by the trackers during Operation Yahoo became one of our prime force multipliers. They were the ones to take point, there where the killing work needed to be done. This was one of the main reasons why the insurgents deployed so many personnel mines in their wakes during Yahoo.
As we continued with our operational activities at Tsintsabis, the phones started ringing in the dead of night at the farms of our tracker team leaders.
Major Giel Reinecke then said to me: “Alex Britz is on the phone, he wants to speak to you”. We had passed the farm of Alex Britz, as we made our way to Tsintsabis a few hours ago. His farm was about 12km out of Tsumeb. “Where must I report, at Tsintsabis or Tsumeb airfield”, Alex Britz then asked me. He was a part-time force major and served as an operations staff officer with Sector 30. He knew the dangerous field we were entering. With each infiltration into the Death Triangle he acted as my adjutant and field operations officer. Later on, somewhat illegally and unlawfully, I called on his services and took him with on Operation Meebos (July-August 1982) into southern Angola with 61 Mech. Being a regional part-time officer in SWA, taking Britz with during such wildly excursions would have been frowned upon by the military powers to be – if they knew.
I lived through sixty seconds worth of comfort washing over me. The plan was coming together swiftly. Where the hell were the enemy and what were they up to?
The remainder of 61 Mech had been high-tailing it back to Omuthiya in the mean-time. The concert was history. Our fighting unit for the moment were under the scrupulous control of Major Chris Roux and WO 1 H.G. Smit. This was 61 Mech SOP as well… Simultaneous action when required, a concerted effort when striking home. The vanguard of 61 Mech had arrived at Omuthiya.
I contacted Major Chris Roux by radio and said that the priority for farm protection now where the first phalanxes of farms from the Bravo cut-line southwards to the Delta cut-line, 20km north of Tsumeb. He said that he had already given orders and that his gunners were making ready to deploy southwards swiftly. Fare well Sierra Battery! Into the night, there is crucial work to be done. Lives of innocents are at stake.
14 April passed into 15 April 1982 – none of us at Tsintsabis really noticed.
Congratulations on your birthday Reinecke, my friend, may you have a fruitful life and many more such exciting celebrations in future. “Have a luke-warm beer, on me. I am pleased to have my trustworthy logistics officer with me. By the way, what is Northern Logistics Command (NLC) at Grootfontein reporting about the umpteen activations of our logistics emergency procedures? Are they ready to equip the stand-by forces on early arrival this morning?” Reinecke was at work as usual doing his logistics things – grinding on through the night; a man, trustworthy and highly efficient.
Early-early morning I made another phone call. This time it was to my colleague, the commander of our sister unit at Otavi, Commandant Buks Koen. Koen commanded 1 SWA Special Unit. This unit possessed sought after assets for the wily bush war, namely trackers, horse and motorcycle mounted infantry as well as patrol and tracker dogs. Commandant Buks Koen replied: “I am on my way”. He was part of the first-line package deal. 61 Mech and 1 SWA Special Unit was always first on the scene.
We were following the ways of 61 Mech, race to the swift… pre-empt… disrupt, dislocate the foe…always seek forward ground… We were coming for you Volcano. We were not there yet!
61 Mech followed the principle of ‘command from the front’, that is: Assess the situation… be in a position to decide and to act… not to take over… that is the prerogative of the next lower level commander on the ground… This was the way the mechanised sub-unit commanders and their young subalterns had been trained…Initiative…Decentralised control…Mutual trust and understanding. The mission comes first.
The mission comes first and the safety of your men…
We will probably make some errors along the way during fluid operational situations… but not too many. Why? For the reason that during dynamic moments we will never have all the required information on hand, or enough time to make the perfect decision or perfect plan.
So take the best decision under unfurling uncertainty until the situation becomes more certain and the operational pattern evolves…Take calculated action none the less – don’t fret. Decisions breed insight and new information…Go for it, always seek forward ground.
Force the enemy’s hand… Search for the pattern…
Things were on the roll. It was highly exciting. I was proud of 61 Mech.
We did not know what the hell was unfolding on the ground… The enemy picture remained unclear to us… In the early morning darkness of Tsintsabis, south of a vast field populated by beautiful giant Mangetti Trees, the enemy had infiltrated through. The enemy was out there somewhere, moving. Where, how many?
I phoned Colonel J.T. Louw. He was in his office now, at his HQ in Otjiwarongo. I gave him a brief SITREP (situation report) and said:
“Colonel, good morning, a bit busy here, who have you appointed as the commander for this operation?”
He said: “Thank you Roland for handling the crisis, I will let you know about the command thing”.
I had one important request that I uttered to Colonel Louw. That was to detach WO 1 Hennie Blaauw as my assistant for the employment of our tracker capabilities, as soon as possible I insisted. Hennie Blaauw was another part-time force stalwart and a SWA tracker of note. He was the RSM of the Otjiwarongo AFU. Blaauw and I had become close friends during Operation Carrot in April 1981. He had then assisted me with the tricks of the trade regarding the optimal utilisation of trackers in the counter-insurgency war faring game. He had been with me when I bagged my insurgent on 18 April 1981. This happened close to the Charlie cut-line during a follow-up with the paratroopers of Captain Herbie Pos.
My wish was granted – Blaauw was on his way to Tsumeb. The more trackers we had at call and on the ground the better and the merrier.
During the early morning hours of 15 April 1982 three separate enemy crossing places were found on the Bravo cut-line. In all cases the crossing areas had been heavily mined and booby-trapped by the enemy.
The 15th of April was about to become my longest and most tragic day of my life.
Command from the front… Ready as can be.
To Arms – The Call of the Guinea Fowl
The story continues… came first light 15 April 1982.
Tsintsabis was a hub-bub of activity… the radios were squelching. The sun was rising out of the fiery haze of Botswana and Bushmanland to the east, over an amazingly beautiful bush veldt landscape… First light was approaching fast now.
There was no enjoyment for me in the spectacular kaleidoscope caused by the rising sun. The mission came first; the approaching light was but an aid to improve vision and a breath of hope. In my heart of hearts I knew that we were going to lose a few good men and innocent civilians in the next few days. That was a given! How long would this infiltration last I thought? If you can think Roland, but not make thoughts your aim…
On the one side we faced an unknown number of determined insurgents of Volcano. Our enemy had already crossed into the Death Triangle we realized. This gave them an added advantage of time and distance. What was more; our enemy was still an unknown factor to us. At the receiving end of SWAPO’s wrath, the counter-insurgency task force I was about to command was still being formed. The opposition’s size and shape was another unknown factor to me. At this time they still had the initiative, but not for long, I said to myself.
As the sun rose over Tsintsabis I telephoned Colonel J.T. Louw once more. I briefed him a second time on what was happening and asked a second time who he was going to appoint as commander. He told me a second time that he would let me know soonest. Thank you sir, once again!
At about 06h00 a Ratel of Sierra Battery left the road and overturned. The vehicle was deploying southwards during darkness. It was on its way from Omuthiya to deploy gunners for farm protection operations in the Tsintsabis area. One of the gunners of Sierra Battery was killed; he had protruded from his turret. Fortunately there were no further injuries. Major Chris Roux, the artillery battery commander informed me about our sad loss while he was still at the scene of the accident. Had the driver been too hasty, too anxious, or too tired, what could be the cause? The accident had occurred at the Ovambo-Omaramba low water bridge on the road leading from Oshivello to Tsumeb, 4km south of Oshivello. Any death comes as a shock and immense sadness to a commander. This was my first shock on the 15th of April 1982.
My next shock came at about 09h00. One of the patrols of the Northern Border Company detonated a personnel mine on the Bravo cut-line, approximately 30-40km west of Tsintsabis. The patrol had found a suspect enemy crossing and on investigating closer one of the men stepped on enemy personnel mine boosted with a Russian 82mm mortar bomb. Save his death another eight of my men were wounded in the massive explosion.
Two good men down for the day and we had nothing to show but receding enemy tracks by the numbers.
In the meantime my second-in-command, Major Thys Rall, had some good news for me from the TAC HQ – the forces under the stand-by arrangement for Operation Yahoo were being marshalled at an uncanny speed. Ground and air forces by the numbers as scheduled beforehand, were converging at Tsumeb airfield. Receiving these forces and briefing them as they arrived at the airfield was left in the capable hands of Major Rall, who had also established the TAC HQ at the Tsumeb airfield through the night. At the same time WO H.G. Smit, my RSM, was establishing an operations and logistics base. Major Giel Reinecke and the RSM had been in constant communication by radio through the night.
Two Puma helicopters and two Alouette gunships were airborne and on their way to Tsintsabis from Ondangwa. Estimated time of arrival was 09h00, I was informed. At least, this was some more good news received to boost morale.
The code word “Tarentaal” worked magic. It reverberated upward and downwards, spiralling trough HQs from Tsintsabis, Otjiwarongo, Windhoek and Pretoria and back again. Keep the higher staff officers off my back Alex Britz! You know the rule: Within the ambit of the mission the commander must remain focussed and maintain freedom of action.
At the call of the guinea fowl the forces, which had been placed on stand-by beforehand, did not falter. And there were more forces to be marshalled, if required…
Just express your wish sire, of what is required on the ground! Thank you sir!
My next shock was about to come, at about 11h10, on the 15th of April 1982.
Tentacles of Terror Unfurls and Reaches Out of Mangetti – Disbelief and Shock
The surreal friendliness of first light reached Tsintsabis on the 15th of April 1982… Terror and severe trauma was about to reach out from the Mangetti and strike down eight of our young soldiers, four of them national servicemen who were going into action for the first time.
I now wish to tell a sad story about the brave and the young; about a captain and his soldiers… Doing their job under the harshest of soldiery conditions thinkable, imaginable…Into the gaping jaws of an ambush at 11h10, high noon.
Firstly, please take note dear reader that, an ambush is a surprise attack, on a moving enemy from a hidden position.
We had learned a few hard lessons during operations in SWA as well as southern Angola: If the enemy took out one Ratel, upwards of eight people would normally die. The same accounted for a Puma helicopter.
On 9 August 1982 61 Mech recovered 15 bodies from a Puma been shot down by the enemy in the Mui River near Cuvelai. Incidentally, Alex Brits and Giel Reinecke, who were part of Operation Yahoo, were with me when we recovered the fifteen bodies of twelve gallant paratroopers and three crew members from the Puma. When 61 Mech arrived at the scene the helicopter was still burning.
For a soldier conceptualising the Border War was fairly simple:. We did not dwell on the politics – it was us or the enemy.
How simple or complex were things really when it came to the fighting on the ground? For the military the difficult part, I believe, arrives when tactical plans need to fit into operational scheming, or vice versa. For that matter, thinking about war, it is crucial that such military plans and the execution thereof should be aligned with strategic artifice. Hopefully such military strategies are connived expertly from above.
I thought as a tactical commander, at the time, that it was in dogged pursuance of the military mission and the execution of the plan where the challenges usually lay – friction de guerre, the unexpected, that is. This friction or the fog of war equates especially to the moment when the first shots are exchanged. Then the plan usually changes as if at own free will.
For a young captain and a mechanised infantry platoon fresh out of training from Bloemfontein, this happened quite suddenly at 11h10 on the 15th of April 1982. The small force was under command of astute tactician and young vibrant mechanised infantry Captain Jan Malan.
Eight of our soldiers were killed instantly, devoured by flame. The tragedy happened within the first few scathing minutes of the contact. Fierce enemy fire erupted unexpectedly from the African bush; only three of the enemy would succumb during the fire fight. This was instant shock for the living young who survived and one of their most traumatic experiences ever in their lives!
I could reconstruct the story from my debriefing of the platoon of Captain Jan Malan. This happened soon after the ambush had occurred. Later on I requested Malan to write me his story, which he did.
The two of us served together at the Army Battle School at Lohatlha from 1983 onwards. I kept his written report of that time and still have it. This included an accurate sketch he made of the ambushing incident. About two years ago I gave Jan Malan back a copy of his report. He was deeply touched by the memory. As a man who always led by example he always remained close to his people.
Remember well that I had deployed Alpha Company of Captain Jan Malan hastily to Tsintsabis on the evening of the 14th; they were deployed in the field to the north and were then already close to their enemy. I recalled his company to Tsintsabis early on the 15th for their next mission. They were extremely tired by then I could see; all of us were.
Numerous tracks of the enemy had been sighted where it had crossed the Bravo cut-line in a southerly direction during the night. The tracks came from the Mangetti Block and led into the Death Triangle. By that time we knew about three to four sets of crossings to the west of Tsintsabis on the Bravo. We now desperately needed to confirm the reports – we needed hard accurate tactical intelligence.
The nearest tracks reported, which were numerous, were crossing Bravo approximately 3-5km to the west of Tsintsabis. The nearest spot was marked by a number of enemy propaganda pamphlets strewn all over. This had been reported earlier on by a dawn patrol of the Northern Border Company. We knew by now that all the enemy crossing sites were heavily mined.
It was obvious to my small command group at Tsintsabis that things were not the same as with previous infiltrations by the enemy; something was fishy. What was and what was not?
For this reason I instructed Captain Jan Malan to take one platoon and the seasoned tracker team of Lieutenant Daan van der Westhuizen and to go and investigate. What the hell was going on? We dearly needed accurate information. I told them to be extremely vigilant as things were not right. By now the Puma helicopters and the two Alouette gunships sat poised at Tsintsabis, the pilots briefed and ready to take off at moment’s notice.
This was how Captain Jan Malan told me his story and how it was written in his report (translated from Afrikaans):
“With my arrival at Tsintsabis I met the tracker team of Lieutenant Daan van der Westhuizen for the first time (the husband of the legendary Tannie Pompie) and his son-in-law, Rifleman Hendrik Potgieter. There were five Bushmen trackers in his team.
After a quick marrying-up and a motivational talk to my platoon, we left for the area were the enemy tracks had been found. Just before we left Tsintsabis, Hendrik Potgieter still remarked how joyful it was to work with such motivated and dedicated men.
The trackers travelled with us, mounted on top of our Ratels. As we moved along the Bravo cut-line, the Bushman maintained close watch for signs and tracks of the enemy. We proceeded westwards along the Bravo.
As we approached the alleged enemy crossing site we observed numerous sheets of white paper strewn about, alongside the cut-line.
When we reached the suspect area I instructed my men to dismount from the Ratels. We approached in open formation on foot. Closer inspection revealed that the white papers lying around were typical SWAPO propaganda pamphlets.
The next moment one of the Bushman trackers came to an abrupt halt. He pointed to a suspect area in the sandy track. I halted our search and marked the suspect area with a mine marker I had on me. I then tasked the trackers to do an all-round search of the area. The trackers reported that there were three enemy tracks leading in a southerly direction.
We found shallow trenches alongside the northern edge of the cut-line, which had been prepared by the enemy. The signs on the ground indicated clearly that the enemy had evacuated their positions hastily the previous night. We found a clear path of approximately twenty tracks left by the enemy. The tracks lead in a north-westerly direction.
After a brief discussion with Van der Westhuizen and Potgieter, we decided to do a 360° search of the suspect area. This was to determine exactly where the enemy tracks were leading to. All of us were in agreement that the enemy tracks would most likely swing back and cross the cut-line in a southerly direction. The reason for this was that the infiltration direction obviously, should lead in the direction of the farms to the south.
It was now about 10h45 and the trackers indicated that the tracks were approximately twelve hours old. At this stage I gave feed-back to Commandant Roland de Vries at the Tsintsabis tactical headquarters by radio. My suggestion was to carry on with the search. My battalion commander agreed with me.
The plan was now for one infantry section to move to the south of the cut-line and to search for enemy tracks 200m in a westerly direction. At the same time Lieutenant Daan van der Westhuizen, with the remainder of the trackers and another infantry section, continued with the search to the north in a westerly direction for 200m.
The terrain alongside the cut-line, in both directions, was extremely dense. From the moment Ratel 12A, with van der Westhuizen on board, left, they were out of my sight.
Daan van der Westhuizen, apparently occupying the Ratel turret, reported that the enemy tracks were leading in a westerly direction. The next moment there were maddening explosions and rippling small-arms fire coming from the receding Ratel’s direction.
I immediately recognised that the fire was not coming from the Ratel’s 20mm quick firing gun. I tried to call the section on the radio, but there was no answer. I immediately deployed the remainder of the platoon and started moving in the direction where the fire was coming from. The bush was dense and our movement was slowed down considerably. At one o’clock from our position in front of us we observed two 300m signal flares bursting in the sky. By now the small-arms fire had ceased.
I instantly reported our dilemma to my battalion commander at Tsintsabis and requested the gunships. Without more ado the Alouette gunships were airborne and flying towards us. We then sighted our burning Ratel. My troops dismounted into an open formation as we moved forward. We did not fire for fear of hitting our own people – those soldiers who could possibly be in front of us. At that same moment two of our soldiers came running anxiously towards our left-front. They were streaked with blood and totally shocked.
The two soldiers reported to me that they had driven right into an ambush with their Ratel and that many of their section members had been killed.
Massive black clouds and flames were erupting from the Ratel. I deployed two of our sections and moved them to the other side of the burning Ratel where they took up a defensive position.
There were no signs of enemy. Accompanied by the platoon commander I quickly moved towards the burning Ratel. We peered inside and it was obvious that nobody was alive. At this stage the ammunition inside the Ratel started exploding and the roof-hatches were blown sky-high.
All around the burning Ratel I found our remaining soldiers of the section. They were all wounded and shocked. The medical orderly, company HQ and platoon HQ personnel removed the wounded to a safer area, away from the dangerous explosions. They rendered first aid to our wounded fellow soldiers.
At that moment the Alouette gunships arrived. I indicated to them the assumed direction the enemy had retreated. Approximately one kilometre further west of our position we heard the gunships firing at the ground.
In the meantime I had requested the HQ at Tsintsabis to dispatch the two Puma helicopters for casualty evacuation. The Puma’s were on their way without delay.
We had by now adopted an all-round defence and started preparing a helicopter landing zone while the Ratel was burning profusely. The tyres were causing columns of black smoke and internal explosions ripped large pieces off the hull. The Pumas landed and our dead and wounded were taken on board and flown south to Grootfontein.
The gunships were still firing into the bushes to the west of us.. One of the gunships evaded a SAM-7 which had been fired in retaliation by the enemy from the ground. The crews reported three possible terrorist kills.
I then followed up with two sections in the direction of the contact. We found the three bodies as well as the SAM-7. One of the dead terrorists was later identified as a section leader.
I had lost a total of eight men killed in this one ambush.
It was later confirmed that one enemy platoon had been tasked to lay an ambush on the cutline to serve as deception for the other enemy groups to infiltrate across into the farming area. Five mines were later lifted by our engineers in the area where the ambush had been sprung.
The enemy had left a clear trail for us to follow. The ambush had been carefully planned and cleverly set up. It was in the form of a horse-shoe. It was located in a thicker part of the forest on the verge of a more open area. The enemy had prepared shallow trenches for their RPG-7s, SKS rifle grenades and machine guns. We found the position for the SAM-7 and a 60mm mortar as well.
Our Ratel was allowed to approach to within 15-20m before the enemy opened fire. It was later found that the Ratel had been penetrated by seven RPG-7 rockets and rifle grenades.
The enemy platoon returned to Angola after they had completed their mission.”
This was a sad story, was it not? Sad stories happen to own and enemy alike…
I felt deeply for Jan Malan, his soldiers, their loved ones, even myself. I could never describe to anyone what I felt that one tragic morning in the war…
…If you can meet with triumph and disaster… If you could risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss… with sixty seconds worth of distance ran.
We had now lost ten of our young in one day, eight of them taken in one fell swoop…
Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it… Which is more…? You were men, my sons!
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, to serve your turn long after they are gone, and hold on.
What more was there to utter?
What was heart-rending was that Tannie Pompie van der Westhuizen, close by on their farm Koedoesvlei, was monitoring the crisis over her radios. She was calmly relaying Jan Malan’s radio messages to me to help with the dispatching of the helicopters and the evacuation of the dead and the wounded. Only then could I hear that she was at her tethers. I asked Padre Koos Rossouw, our chaplain, to console her over the radio. Koos Rossouw and the Van der Westhuizens had become good friends, as all of 61 Mech were. As soon as one of the Pumas returned from Grootfontein I had Koos Rossouw flown to her farm.
On 21 April 1982 we were to receive a visit from the high brass in Tsumeb. General Constand Viljoen, the Chief of the SADF, was one of them. We discussed the course of the operation. He asked me: “How did Captain Malan allow his platoon the run into an ambush and got eight of his men killed?” I said, general, remember, I was in command, he only carried out my orders. I then described to the general the foregoing situation, and what had happened that morning. He said to me: “Tell the captain he did well, he did what he had to do, I feel sorry for our loss!” I shared with Captain Malan, the following day, what General Viljoen had asked me to convey to him. I saw that it meant a lot to Jan Malan. We had to share a tremendous and painful burden.
Incidentally, later that year, on 4 August 1982, 61 Mech had an extremely successful small-unit encounter with the enemy. This happened on the road halfway between Techamutete and Cuvelai during Operation Meebos. During the night a small force under command of Captain Jan Malan had ambushed a large enemy convoy. Two Russian Ural trucks were destroyed and two captured. The young soldiers were jubilant. The next morning I followed up the ambush with an ensemble of Alouette gunships of Captain Neall Ellis. Another eighteen enemy trucks were subsequently destroyed on the road leading to Techamutete.
When I returned I said to the tired Captain Jan Malan and his gallant thirty five men enveloped in bush: “Well done, let us be grateful for your amazing success.”
The ambush of 15 April 1982…This was how Operation Yahoo for 61 Mech and the community began.
When I found some quiet in the night the following week, I wrote a citation for a brave man. This was for the Honoris Crux Decoration of Lieutenant Daan van der Westhuizen. He had died under the banner of 61 Mech. The decoration was long outstanding; he should already have received it for Operation Carrot in 1981 – undoubting service to others under extremely dangerous situations.
In memoriam, the names of eight brave soldiers…
Second Lieutenant D.R. van der Westhuizen, HC.
Corporal M.J. van Jaarsveld.
Lance Corporal J.J. van den Berg.
Rifleman M. Peterson.
Rifleman J.H. Potgieter.
Rifleman B.J. Wolfaardt.
Bushman Tracker, Jan Kouswab.
Bushman Tracker, Unknown.
The intense burning of the stricken Ratel only allowed us to recover the remains of our men two days later and move the wreck to the Tsumeb airfield.
That particular morning in the war had been heart rendering for the soul. It is hard for any commander to lose soldiers in combat, for their comrades it is the same. What about the loved ones in South Africa and SWA. Those who did not know yet…?
This was only the first day. The battle was not over yet!
Fortunately friction de guerre visits the enemy too. Finesse lies in making it happen more to the foe. This implies wresting the initiative from the enemy and keeping it. This was what Operation Yahoo was all about…
Let us successfully complete Operation Yahoo now – first things first. Let the Winter Games commence and be successfully completed once again.
There was work to be done, Giel Reinecke, Gerrie Hugo! What is next on our action list?
The closing of 15 April 1982 was upon us. There will be no 15th of April 1982 again. Only the memories and the aching remained.
It was time to move our small command team to the Tsumeb airfield, brief the incoming forces, take control, deploy the plan, and carry on – swiftly. Seek forward ground (when you can keep your head…)
Turning the Tables – When in Charge, Take Charge
The hunt was on, search and destroy.
It was to be high-intensity counter-insurgency warfare: Hot-pursuits by the numbers; cross-tracking; stopper groups; canalising of the enemy; psychological operations; snatch operations; clandestine operations; intelligence operations; road-blocks; farm protection etcetera; etcetera – shoot to kill.
Initially, on the 15th of April 1982, the enemy insurgents had the upper hand. We were reacting to events, rather than initiating them. Then the sun set over the triangle of death and the insurgents kept on surging southwards through the night. Operation Yahoo’s mobilised security forces converged at the Tsumeb airfield, ready for the hunt of SWAPO to begin in deadly earnestness.
The 16th of April dawned… It was three days after it all began and the enemy insurgents started losing the initiative, never to regain it from the upper hand of the security forces. On the killing side of the battle that is…Mind you, on the propaganda side the enemy was faring quite well. Their dying for the cause apparently helped.
We started initiating so many contacts that at times we did not know where to dispatch the gunships to. The tables were turned on the foe. Interestingly enough, from the 21st onwards, very few casualties through enemy actions were incurred by the security forces.
Theory and Practice, Winning or Losing – So what was this war all about?
During Operation Yahoo the enemy was on the offensive, undoubtedly so. The SADF/SWATF task force marshalled for the mission was indisputably on the counter-offensive. Conventional war faring wisdom expounds the fact that any offensive or counter-offensive should develop from one firm base to the next. Implied is that the break-in, break-through and break-out battle should be planned and executed extremely well. This precept applies equally to the counter-offensive. It is furthermore emphasised that any fighting process should be followed through determinedly, to the end. The end usually acknowledges the winner as the one destroying his opponent physically and by breaking his will to fight.
On the contrary, dear reader, consider the wisdom of revolutionary warfare, underscored by unconventional warfare ways and means Mao Tse Tung style. SWAPO, the masters of revolutionary warfare, intentionally allowed sacrifices – martyrs for their cause. They furthermore ruthlessly estimated that the proceeds of political propaganda could be achieved through human losses. Such as through deaths and propaganda pamphlets left in the wake of receding tracks and dissipating cordite on the Bravo cut-line. All is fair in love and war!
The enemy’s high command probably gauged that their April 1982 infiltration would be another human sacrifice by numbers; though not political suicide. They heartlessly allowed the situation to happen anyway. In a sense, for them dying were the means and the ways to achieve their ends.
So was SWAPO winning or losing? And how do they gauge success or failure?
I was extremely pleased not to be employed by SWAPO at the time. It was bizarre for a conventional soldier like me, to think that my enemy could achieve his aims and higher outcomes by means of human offerings. The question was whether the ordinary combatant of SWAPO knew this when he crossed the Bravo cut-line at 21h00 on the 14th of April 1982 – in this instance being highly motivated to achieve success – just as I was in stopping them, forthwith.
Notwithstanding either conventional or unconventional wisdom, the counter-offensive task force had no choice but to destroy the enemy ruthlessly and swiftly. The will of the foe needed to be broken absolutely. And after two months of bitter fighting we had indeed achieved it to the letter.
So who really had won the battle by the end of May?
By and large operational successes are ensured by maintaining initiative and freedom of action. Rightfully so these yardsticks can be used in warfare to measure either accomplishments or failures. The enemy unquestionably had the grasp on initiative on the ground on the 15th of April. They had achieved this through a clever ruse and by means of securing initial surprise. How this had been achieved, physically and psychologically, we had already discussed when our Ratel and its treasured content were taken that mid day.
I firmly believe that the norms applying to initiative and freedom of action in politics are similar to warfare… This I had observed in Africa.
So who was winning the war and the politics by the end of May and throughout the bush war, us or them?
On the ground we had a serious battle to fight; notwithstanding the politics and the political pressures coming to bear on the front line.
It was time to methodically start unravelling the fabric of terror in the Death Triangle – break through, break out, maintain the pressure on the foe, keep the momentum, give no respite, through day and night. Do it swiftly. Search for forward ground.
It is said that war should be joined by the ordinary, won by the extraordinary. Where the hell did these illusive insurgents come from and where in the bushes north of Tsumeb were they now? About every soul outside, I thought, was observing and commenting on what was transpiring inside the Death Triangle… for the following crucial 42-days that is. Those were radio-hams, the media, and the politicians… the military’s masters. Even loud-mouth Sam Nujoma had his say. He was bragging that his forces had control of Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi… This enticed a few sniggers here and there… Still? To hell with all of that, if you can trust yourself…
On the 16th the insurgents scattered into smaller groups of 3, 6, 9 and even 18. Thus the soldiers of SWAPO, still fanatically committed to their mission, were about to begin their devious killing work following deadly methods of mayhem. Not for long.
By the second day, entering the third day, a commander for Operation Yahoo in the east had not been appointed yet. So be it, I decided to remain in control of the situation, until otherwise specified. In the end a commander was never appointed to command Operation Yahoo on the front. I remained in command and finished the job by 25 May 1982. I was closely supported by my magnificent newly formed team. By the grace of the Dear Lord and the circumstance, it sort of came naturally and easily. I can only express deep gratitude to the people I served and who I could work with so intimately – intimacy lies at the heart of competence.
I remembered the words of S.L.A. Marshall I had read but only a few days before the 14th of April 1982. In this outstanding book on fighting, “Men against Fire”, he wrote: “the one who has the fire habit is always searching for forward ground.” My maxim derived from his wisdom was: “When in charge, take charge”.
Operation Yahoo 1982 would last for forty two days – almost two months of agony and ecstasy, of living and fighting, winning or losing, living or dying… on all sides.
The War in the East – Warfare by Extraordinary Ways and Means
The enemy’s declaration of the battle for the Death Triangle on the 15th of April 1982 was now signed, sealed and delivered – for body, mind and soul, for better or for worse, until death do us part.
From 15 April until 1 May there were more than 23 contacts and in excess of 36 enemies killed and 16 captured in our eastern sector. Another 19 insurgents were killed by follow-up forces from Sector 10, operating in the area to the north of the Charlie cut-cine. To the north of us Sector 10 was feasting on those remnants.
Now to unfold the story about the fighting from the 16th of April onwards…
On the 16th of April it was reported to the newly formed TAC HQ at Tsumeb airfield that an innocent local farm worker had been shot dead by the insurgents. This devilish deed transpired on a farm in the Mangetti Block north of Tsintsabis. The enemy was doing the work they came to do, unleashing stark terrorism on the undeserved. I was hopping mad. The purpose of terrorism, it is said in their manual, is to terrorise. On this day Rifleman J.D.G. du Toit of 61 Mech was killed in action. Control the anger.
From the 16th onwards the tracks of the three main insurgent groups were feverishly pursued by the security forces. All the tracks led progressively deeper into the Death Triangle. The tracks were spreading towards the south and the west.
On 18 April 1982 Mr L.P.J. Fourie (67) was killed on his farm Ruimte, near his home, when a group of insurgents fired at him. Corporal Bester, a national service soldier from 6 SAI who was travelling with Fourie, was killed during the same shooting.
On the same day Lieutenant Dave Keyser (51) was in hot pursuit of terrorists. As he was following the tracks of insurgents with his tracker team he ran straight into the enemy on the farm Toevlug. A fiery contact ensued. When a RPG-7 rocket grenade exploded in a tree next to Keyser he was slightly wounded. The next day he returned to duty.
By the 19th the enemy force started unravelling. No new infiltrations were reported over the cut-lines. No exfiltrating enemies were recorded either by the Northern Border Company patrolling the Bravo cut-line. All our enemies, it seemed, were in the bag. Let us finish the job.
It now became fun for me to command a brigade sized combined task force as a commandant. I could get used to this.
The 19th of April 1982 was one helluve hectic day.
• Early the morning of the 19th eighteen terrorists was reported as far south as the farm Uithoek. The tracks of another 15 insurgents were located at Grasvlakte. The tentacles of terror were reaching out to all the corners of the Death Triangle.
• Six insurgents were killed less than 10km north of Tsumeb. The booty captured revealed: 5 AK-47 rifles, 1 RPG-7 rocket launcher with 6 rockets, 7 personnel mines, 17 hand grenades, 15 blocks of explosives, 1 medical kit, 6 FAPLA uniforms and a large quantity of ammunition.
• Mr D.J.J. Erasmus (54), from the farm Vaalwater, was tragically killed when a landmine exploded beneath his vehicle on this day. The deaths of our civilian friends in the Tsumeb district were mounting steadily. This situation was disconcerting.
Erasmus had been travelling on a gravel road on his farm Vaalwater. He lost both his legs and succumbed of his wounds during the operation in the hospital at Tsumeb. He had farmed on Oerwoud and on one part of Vaalwater. What was heart-rending was that I had spoken to him earlier that morning. He had told me that he wanted to visit his farm and I had warned him explicitly not to do so. For some or other reason he did not pay heed to my warning. The wife of Erasmus, Ms Rita Erasmus, worked for 61 Mech at the Tsumeb administrative rear headquarters. I remember well consoling Rita Erasmus on that tragic day.
• During a follow up on the 19th, tracker Reinhardt Friedrich of the Etosha AFU, was injured in an explosion of a Russian Pom-Z anti-personnel mine. He was wounded in the ankle. This happened while he was out in front leading his tracker team. He was fortunately not in any danger from the wound. It was, however, necessary to evacuate him to 1 Military Hospital in Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria. When I saw my friend Reinhardt in Tsumeb in October 2011, he was still limping.
• Another farmer, Mr J.P. Steyn (48), died after a landmine explosion on his farm Masaus, 25km west of Tsumeb. A Bushman tracker and a national service soldier, travelling with him, were slightly injured.
• Two Black children, aged 7 and 11, were killed in a landmine explosion in the Mangetti Block near Tsintsabis.
Something about the life of a commander in the field is to be revealed: It was rumoured that notorious ‘Smittie’ Smit, a reporter for the Windhoek Observer, was sneaking around the Tsumeb airfield. Apparently he had interviewed some of our troops; without my permission I may add. Pictures were taken it was said. Some were taken of a row of dead insurgents lying on the tar runway. I reacted: “O my, Roland (that is me), behold!”
The next day I received a call from Major General Charles Lloyd in Windhoek. He was extremely calm: “Roland, there is rumour about minor atrocities to the enemy and the desecrating of bodies”. I thought: “What the hell, not that I know of? What about the close on ten of the enemy who were already working happily for us – us, their preferred employer?” I remained just as calm. We decided that the best was to hold a formal Board of Inquiry to clear the murky field, as ‘something was rotten in the state of Denmark’ (Hamlet from Shakespeare, by the way).
The honours befell Commandant Louis Rheeder, one of the respected operations officers of SWATF, to do the board. There was some or other legal person who supported him. After a rather bulky legal proceeding of many useless hours of toil, the findings revealed that we were in the clear. Woo-wee, that was close!
There was however two incidents which happened, something I wish to confess seeing that a commander is accountable for everything his soldiers do, or don’t do. (Or something to a similar effect).
• Number 1, befell my beloved paratroopers: They had exterminated a few terrorists and were bringing them back to Tsumeb by Puma helicopter. The feet of the deceased were sticking out of the door as the Pumas landed. Written in red ink on the sole of one of the kills were the letters: “F-U-C-K-E-D”, which was true in a sense, as the feet were covered with blisters, of course. However, if notorious ‘Smittie’ Smith had snapped those feet, I would have been in serious trouble. I commanded my paratroopers: “Give me all your red pens!”
• Number 2, involved my beloved intelligence officer, mischievous Captain Gerrie Hugo: He had to search for information from the pockets of the enemy corpses on the airfield. Many documents were already lying on a heap to one side. I could see all of this as I approached the silent ensemble. What I also saw was Hugo, bending over to search through some bloody uniforms. He had put his sunglasses on one of the non-complaining and a burning cigarette in his mouth and a Coke in his hand. I demanded: “What the hell Hugo, please! I enjoy my career in the army, please don’t do this!” Afterwards I went ice cold when I thought about it and Roland in life hereafter and about notorious ‘Smittie’ taking a picture of such for the Windhoek Observer. Living on the edge is what life is all about! I then instructed my RSM H.G. Smit: “Sort out the bloody entrance control at the airfield, now and forever more, amen!”
Incidentally: Soldiers of the SADF were trained to handle the enemy as well as prisoners of war with respect and in strict compliance with international standards, as well as the Geneva Code. Operations orders specified very clearly how prisoners of war as well as civilians were to be treated. As commanders we were extremely serious about compliance herewith. I can only say that in my entire military career, I was extremely proud of the discipline and conduct of South African soldiers in the field.
On the evening of the 19th I recalled the words of William Shakespeare: “When troubles come, they don’t come singly, but in battalions”.
On the 20th another soldier of 61 Mech was killed in action: Rifleman G.P.C. Hattingh. Only one of SWAPO was killed on this day.
By the 21st of April the insurgents had been scattered into more than eight groups in the Tsumeb district. They kept on infiltrating southwards towards Grootfontein and the mountainous region and westwards towards Otavi and Otjiwarongo.
The GOC SWATF, Major General Charles Lloyd and the SWA Administrator-General Danie Hough, met farmers for a three-hour heated question and answer session on the same day. The ensuing fire and brimstone came to pass in the hall at the Etosha High school, Tsumeb. War weary farmers complained of inadequate protection and absence from their farms when helping the security forces. Allegedly Major General Charles Lloyd told the farmers that they ‘would have to learn to live with this sort of thing’!
General Constand Viljoen, the Chief of the SADF, also attended the gathering. He used his time well to talk to some of our soldiers during the day. It was good for the morale of the few men he spoke to. I had a thorough chat with him about unfolding events and the Ratel incident of the 15th. Not only about that, but also about what I thought should have happened before the 14th of April 1982 and the 6th of April 1981; about pre-emption or more euphemistically stated prevention rather than cure.
On the afternoon of the 21st Captain Gerrie Hugo informed me that he had solid information about two terrorists lurking in the informal settlement of Tsumeb. So we firstly went on reconnaissance to find a suitable ambush position; secondly we devised a brilliant plan. We would infiltrate one of our agents into the settlement and then with some nice promises entice the unsuspecting into an ambush on the eastern outskirts of the town. The selected killing area was near the dark side of the mining complex. This was quite close to my family home. Major Giel Reinecke and Captain Gerrie Hugo were some of the sods selected for the killing group – a selected six or so. For security purposes I deployed the ambush group with my white army Datsun Stanza (after an uncomfortable ride). The killing group was in position by 19h00, waiting for the bewitching hour of 21h00. I returned to my home and hid in my garden with a few 1 000ft illumination rockets, ready to be fired on signal. Okay, I sat on my: Drab Veldt Metal Folding Chair Type Army Camp. We waited and waited and waited. Eventually we received a call from the operations centre. Our agent had turned up with our two terrorists at our operations centre at Tsumeb airfield; they were waiting for us there. Bloody hell!
So I called off the ambush and we returned to our TAC HQ. This was another of my minor embarrassing moments. I mentioned to my ops staff that this particular incident needn’t be recorded in too much detail in the operations log when we shared a few knowing smiles and beers. One day later our two freedom fighters were employed by Hugo and loyally so, for months to come… They were nice people really.
By 22 April it was clear that 18 determined insurgents were pushing towards the south of Tsumeb to find refuge in the dense thorny bushes and rugged mountains of the Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein triangle. We had to get the enemy out of the mountains and keep them out of there as that area was a no-no for the hunt. It was time for some creative thinking and to construe some devious plans for the enemy as dusk was setting. We were relying on the utter exhaustion of our foe and their cultural superstitions. So that night, low and behold our revered enemy… We referred to the next type of operation as ‘Jackal Operations’… foxy stuff:
• The first ace up our sleeve befell the artillery. We knew more or less, time and distance wise, where the enemy would hide-out in the mountains. Major Chris Roux was given the honour to work out and deliver a spectacular indirect harassing fire mission for the night. There are very few things as exciting as when 120mm mortars fire with rocket assisted ammunition; and then many minutes later explodes with an imposing crump. Go for it Roux!
• The next was up to Major Giel Reinecke and our German pilot Tickely Kessler and his Beechcraft Bonanza. They would float silently over the target area and drop thunder flashes on to the unsuspecting enemy below. Reinecke be very careful not to drop one of those exploding devices inside Kessler’s craft! Sally forth and have fun for the night! Be off now!
• The next idea was to have maintenance runs through the night with a few Ratels on the roads surrounding the target zone. Every so often the vehicles would stop and make fires next to the road, as if deploying a massive cordon and search force. The play was on.
• Lastly our psychological warfare team, Colonel Basjan van Niekerk and Commandant Jan Greyling, came up with a weird idea. More so than delivering useless pamphlets to innocent civilians about the undeserving SWAPO. They wanted to trail an improvised brightly illuminated snake behind Kessler’s Beechcraft. I asked: “With candles?” Nice idea, abort, go and think some more!
The next few days we found enemy tracks high tailing it to the north, away from the mountains. We smiled knowingly, satisfied.
On 25 April a farmer was shot on his farm 8km east of Otavi. He was seriously wounded in the arm which was amputated the next day. On the same day a group of insurgents attacked a farm 24km north of Otavi. This was the first direct attack on a civilian farm during the current deep infiltration. Also on the 25th five insurgents were killed. Some of them were hunted down 16km north of the Mangetti Block as they withdrew to Angola.
It became clear to us that the enemy had lost faith and that some of the groups were exfiltrating, but expeditiously. We found more and more frantic tracks leading northwards. The tide had turned.
By 28 April our intelligence reported that some of the enemy groups were desperately seeking civilian clothes. One insurgent was captured wearing a white shirt and civilian trousers, which confirmed our intelligence. The insurgent had food that was bought locally.
On or about the 28th Colonel Tommie Thomasse and I hitched a ride with a Puma helicopter to a beautiful farm. If I remember correctly, the name of the farm was Ghaub. The farm was situated more or less in the centre of the mountainous triangle. A farm worker had shot a terrorist in his back with an old .303 rifle his trusty master had given him. The unlucky lonely insurgent had approached the homestead of the farm worker and then held him and his family hostage with an AK-47. The farm worker then made our trusting insurgent relax by the cooking-fire and gave the man food. The worker then said he was going to fetch some blankets for our exhausted insurgent. What he did fetch was his trusty .303 which he subsequently fired in the back of his unwanted alien visitor – end of story! Our brave farm worker was now eligible to collect some fees earned with the one accurate shot: R500 for a dead body; R400 for an AK rifle; R250 for a personnel mine. It had been productive work for one day. Well done our friend from Ghaub, see you again, don’t give up the good work! We flew back to Tsumeb with our macabre find. Our silent passenger was probably not recorded in the statistics of enemy killed.
The tables were completely turned by the 1st of May. With four enemies killed on this day it heralded the last contacts in our sector. The remainder of the murderous bunch were high-tailing out of the territory.
By 3 May 1982 Operation Yahoo started winding down. It seemed that the insurgents who had been instructed to carry out attacks on 3/4 May, to commemorate ‘Cassinga Day’, had lost complete interest. (A SWAPO base, located at Cassinga, had been subjected to an extremely successful airborne attack by SADF paratroopers. This took place during Operation Reindeer on 4 May 1978.)
As late as the middle of June 1982 there were reports that a small number of insurgents, seven to ten, were still at large in the farming areas. They were lying low, extremely low.
There was not too much serious commanding to be done by the 3rd. I called my crew, mounted our Ratel and sallied forth to the north, beyond the Bravo cut-line. We joined up with one of our follow-up groups. They were following six enemy tracks leading northwards into Ovamboland – I had done the same during Operation Carrot on 18 April 1981 and had been lucky. This time my luck did not hold. Close to the Charlie cut-line we ran into a follow-up group of 52 Battalion (Sector 10, Ondangwa). They were hot on our enemy tracks. There was a major in charge. Very politely their commander confirmed: “Sir, these are our tracks now, if you take the enemy, you will spoil our kill ratio”. Apparently there was a stupid competition on in Sector 10 rewarding the battalion’s with the most kills. I replied: “Fine, this is your area, carry on and have fun.” Then: “By the way, radio Commandant Daan Nel and tell him that we have lots of bodies in the Tsumeb mortuary. If he wants to boost his kills he can come and fetch some.” They went north; we went south. We were somewhat pissed-off, sorry to say. Not very long after this incident an elephant was killed by an enemy mine in the Charlie cut-line.
The War in the West – Search and DestroyWhat was unfolding in the west, whilst we were fighting in the east?
• What we surmised was that enemy infiltrating through the western corridor, towards Kamanjab and Outjo, had lain low within the north-western fringes of the Etosha Game Reserve. They waited patiently for a high density operation of Sector 10 to subside. Then they made their move stealthily southwards to the White farming area in the Kamanjab-Outjo districts.
• On 30 April five terrorists were reported on the farm Bakenkop. The security forces immediately launched a follow-up and 4 of the enemy were subsequently killed. Amongst the four was their platoon commander, Kilimandjaro. The remainder of the enemy fled to the north. Their tracks were eventually lost, dissipating into dust.
• From 29 April until 2 June there were a further eight contacts in the western operational area of Kamanjab. During the same period one improvised personnel mine was detonated by a local inhabitant and another by a giraffe.
• Of eighteen insurgents who had allegedly infiltrated through the western corridor, twelve were killed, one was captured and five escaped back to the north.
In effect the low-intensity counter-insurgency battle in the west ended on the 2nd of June 1982.
The Final Throes of Yahoo
It was early May 1982, the final throes of Volcano’s aborted raid was in regress. The few enemies remaining were fleeing frenziedly northwards. Their mission was dissolving. All the vanquished wanted to do now was escape and go home to their Angolan base and the fleshpots of Lubango – 400km or more to go by foot, depending on the route they took. How many were going to make it?
My Ratel-Command was parked in the bushes on the northern side of the Tsintsabis-Oshivello gravel road. It was hidden in the bushes. We were facing southwards across to the bush clad farm named Vaalwater. This was the same farm where farmer ‘Rassie’ Erasmus came to his demise at the hands of Volcano on 19 April 1982. My crew and I were alert, R-4 rifles clutched in hands, locked and loaded. A mere 3km to our south the Alouette gunships were twisting and turning, firing lethal 20mm rounds into the bushes below. Two Pumas were circling close by with two sticks of paratroopers on board.
Something camouflaged in Chinese rice-pattern had to come across the Tsintsabis road in front of us we deduced. We were waiting anxiously in a hastily construed one Ratel stopper position. I then received a radio message from the operations centre in Tsumeb. The message spoke of two wounded terrorists that had been sighted at one of the outposts on the farm Vaalwater. Farm workers had reported the news by farm telephone, I was informed. Start up and go, driver advance!
We quickly drove to the position where the two terrorists had been reported and found them a few minutes later, lying in the open near the outpost. They were exhausted to the bone, their camouflaged uniforms in tatters. The one was bleeding profusely from a wounded arm; it was hanging by a piece of skin, the work of a gunship’s 20mm. The second insurgent threw his AK-47 rifle to one side as he saw our Ratel appearing in a haze of diesel and dust.
As we captured the two insurgents the helicopters arrived and started circling above us. The one Puma landed close by in a swirl of grit. Captain Gerrie Hugo jumped out and approached me in a film of dirt. After a quick exchange of information he took custody of the two captured insurgents. A few paratroopers had already deployed in all-round defence. “Yes insurgents, you will receive medical attention as soon as you have pointed out the stash of personnel mines and goodies hidden in the bushes 300m to the east of us”.
This was more or less the train of events by the end of April and the start of May when we could clearly see that we were entering the final round of the fight and that the enemy had received a knock-out blow.
Early May 1982 – The Fight was Over
What remained was to commence with a thorough mopping-up operation in the districts of Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi – a methodical search for enemy left-over. This was the work for mobile forces and foot infantry, supported by the AFUs. The AFUs were one with the community. The local community and their workers now had an extremely important role to play. Roll-call, who belonged and who didn’t?
In the aftermath of the fiery rush of Yahoo, we could now plan the calmer approach of cleaning up the mess which had been left in the wake of the fire storm. Many of the forces now demobilised and left for home or other destinations where they were required for operational duty. The gallant 340 men of Koevoet went off to the north to Ovamboland to do what they did best – hunting SWAPO and shooting them down by the numbers.
So we went about our work and did it, the cleaning up, until the military high command in Windhoek signalled that Operation Yahoo was officially completed by 25 May 1982.
All I could say to each and every combat participant leaving us: “Thank you; you had done a magnificent job! We were a great team…Until next time.”
All we could do to the community was to support them in mourning and the jubilee. For the moment 61 Mech needed to do the same… Remember our fallen and celebrate our successes… It had been a hard and a triumphant time for us. One that I will never forget!
Once again 61 Mech had completed its mission successfully and contributed to an arsenal of operational experience and war faring knowledge. The young had been blooded. They were simply the best.
For a mere minute I pondered about Volcano and quietly said to myself: “You were stupid and madly suicidal, but boy, did you have guts to come this far to die, or be captured, or flee back to Lubango… What a choice!”
A casual salute, one soldier to others he had come to respect and pity in a way, his enemy, for the moment: “You had risked in one turn of pitch-and-toss, and you have lost, but will probably start again… Come April 1983?”
In all this time the enemy only succeeded in sabotaging two railway-lines, blew up one telephone-pole and three windmills in the east. In the west only two windmills were damaged with explosives.
Some Insights shared about Contacts and Enemies Killed
There could be some discrepancies regarding the numbers of the enemy killed described so far in the script. The numbers killed could be slightly more than those indicated. Specifically I know about two occasions near to the end of April 1982 where Koevoet shot six insurgents on consecutive days.
I was with one of the aforementioned contacts when it happened, just to the east of the Tsumeb-Oshivello main road, near Lake Otjikoto. The exact location was a large radio station; we referred to it as ‘Maxplan’ (Forshungstation). It lay 18km to the north-west alongside the tar road leading to Oshivello. There were a few unsuspecting telecommunications personnel working on the high radio masts as the contact was initiated by Koevoet and their charging Casspirs. The telecommunications workers had a birds-eye view as the drama unfolded in the Haak-en-Steek beneath them. The Alouette gunships were circling around the masts as they fired streams of 20mm shells at the insurgents. When the fire stopped and the cordite had settled, the telecommunication personnel descended. They were scared stiff and ash white when they reached the ground. They had a story to tell in the pub of the Minen Hotel that evening – about how normal life on the border truly was.
The contact furthest south, at the end of April 1982, happened approximately 5km to the south of Otjiwarongo. I was present at this contact as well. The fire-fight played out in the Haak-en-Steek, slightly to the east of the tar road leading to Windhoek. One insurgent was killed during this incident.
Many a time these sporadic kills were not recorded in operational statistics.
Only one contact was initiated by the enemy during the period of operational viability. This was the ambush when the Ratel was shot on the Bravo cut-line on the 15th of April.
There were more than 48 contacts in the Death Triangle where enemies were killed. This happened during the period of 15 April to 2 June 1982. The information below is a true indication of unfolding events. These also indicate the intensity levels of the counter-insurgency operation. The high-intensity period in effect lasted from the 15th of April until the 1st of May 1982. There were quite a few days when two to three contacts played-out on the same day (15 April; 19 April; 23 April; 25 April; 28 April; 30 April and; 1 May).
By the 1st of May the operation tapered down quite considerably. This happened abruptly, when the respective remaining enemy groups started fleeing frantically northwards through Ovamboland, back to Angola. Only a few insurgents, about seven to ten, remained behind in the district and went underground. For this reason two of them were killed as late as the 2nd of June 1982 to the west, near Kamanjab.
To Summarise– the Dead and the Wounded
The cost in lives and those wounded to successfully complete Operation Yahoo was high.
We lost the major portion of our people on the first day of combat, at 11h10, on the 15th of April 1982. Nine of our soldiers were killed on this day and another died in an accident when a Ratel overturned.
• Killed in action: 10.
• Wounded in action: 41.
• Killed in accidents: 6.
• Killed in action: 5.
• Wounded in action: 3.
• Murdered: 2.
• One hundred and fifty six combatants succeeded in infiltrating the Death Triangle. Fifty six of the Volcanoes were killed and sixteen captured. The major portion of the enemies was killed from 15 April until 1 May 1982.
• All together 72 of their fighters were thus taken out of the fighting equation. Many, many more were wounded and some probably succumbed in the bush later on.
• The security forces could confirm thirty six pairs of enemy tracks exfiltrating northwards. It was clear that the remainder of the enemy had also fled the danger zone.
• By the end of May there were only about seven to ten lost enemy souls the security forces could not account for. They had most probably remained underground in the area.
Sorry, enemies, better luck next time.
War and other Stories from Operation Yahoo
On Logistics by Giel Reinecke
Major Giel Reinecke, as the logistics officer of 61 Mech, was responsible for the logistical support of Operation Yahoo. This required full blown logistics from the inception of the said operation on 14 April, until it was successfully completed by 25 May 1981.
The logistics challenge for Operation Yahoo was gigantic. This was not only due to the enormous size and diversity of the force. In addition, support was required over vast distances, involving wide ranging requirements. Some of the key challenges were to keep the force in fuel and to maintain high levels of serviceability during night and day – toilet paper as well, reams and reams of it. No, kilometres of it!
Major Giel Reinecke and his supporting staff did an outstanding job. Logistics never faltered once. The support teams rarely slept for the 42-days the operation lasted. Our counter-insurgency force was extremely proud of them. Never once did we run short of general commodities or otherwise lacked the logistical support required many kilometres away in the field.
What follows below is a brief account on logistics for the said operation. It was written by then, Major Giel Reinecke, one of the outstanding men of 61 Mech.
“After a successful 1981 (operationally and logistic wise), we started 1982 in late January with a team building and planning session at Katima Mulilo. The target date to achieve most of the logistic goals was set for 30 April 1982. We needed to complete all our logistic administration before the annual ‘Winter Games’ (SWAPO Infiltration) took place. We just knew that it was coming. All staff in the unit work very hard and long hours to achieve our operational, logistical and administrative objectives.
In March-April 1982 61 Mech was constantly on stand-by for any operational crises which may arise in the northern border region. We performed this role as the mobile reserve of the South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF). This accounted for operational emergencies to the north or to the south, respectively, in the areas of operation of Sectors 10 and 30.
In anticipating a possible enemy incursion to the south towards the area of Sector 30, Commandant Roland de Vries placed 61 Mech on 3-hour stand-by for just such an eventuality.
On the evening of Wednesday 14 April 1982, the permanent staff, their families and the national service members were assembled in the Etosha High School assembly hall. We were entertained by a visiting SADF Entertainment Team. I was sitting next to my wife and five year old son, Gielie, enjoying the concert. It was a great evening. In the passing of the fun I realised that the next day would be my 27th birthday. Then the fun was nipped in the bud.
Our commander, Commandant Roland de Vries, abruptly stopped the show. He said ‘the Winter Games are on’.
A massive incursion by countless insurgents of Volcano, the Special Unit of SWAPO had occurred at about 21h00 over the Bravo cut-line. Captain Daan Liebenberg, the commander of the Northern Border Company, had contacted and informed Commandant de Vries by radio.
The commandant immediately instructed Major Thys Rall to activate the contingency plan of 61 Mech for such an emergency. Such procedures included immediately establishing a tactical headquarters (TAC HQ) for the unfolding crisis at the Tsumeb airfield. Major Chris Roux, the commander of Sierra Battery, was instructed to implement the farm protection operation forthwith. This was the traditional task of the artillery for such crises.
The troops of 61 Mech returned to Omuthiya as fast as possible to gear up for the unfolding advent. Alpha Company of Captain Jan Malan deployed straightaway from Tsumeb to Tsintsabis for the operation with their Ratels. They had planned to move to Tsintsabis anyway the next day. This was to complete their orientation training and to gain some operational experience to the north of Tsintsabis.
My family went home – to our Langeberg caravan home – on the edge of Tsumeb town – 200m from the thick dense bush of the Death Triangle, not knowing when they will see me again. I joined Commandant de Vries. We travelled in his Ratel to Tsintsabis. Fortunately our command Ratels were standing by at Tsumeb. We could leave at once.
At Tsintsabis we established a forward tactical HQ to run the operation and to coordinate the initial mobilisation for Operation Yahoo. In the process we provided added operational support to Captain Daan Liebenberg and the Northern Border Company. They were out there alone on the front.
I needed to be up front as well. This was to assess the situation and to get the ball rolling for the logistics support required. This was not only for impending operational events, but for the mobilisation of the counter-insurgency task force too.
In true sense Sector 30, under command of Colonel J.T. Louw from Otjiwarongo, was responsible for the unfolding crisis. Commandant de Vries, however, informed Colonel J.T. Louw about our plans. He furthermore said that 61 Mech would take control of the operation in the mean time. This would give Sector 30 the opportunity to activate code word ‘Tarentaal’. On activation of this code word stand-by forces would be released for an operation against the invading insurgents.
We worked throughout the night, initiating the contingency plan for the ‘infiltration’ operation and plans for the deployment of own forces the next morning. I was in addition responsible to arrange for logistic support infrastructure to be established at the Tactical HQ being formed at the Tsumeb Air field. From here the forces mobilised for Operation Yahoo would operate.
I called Commandant Thys Snyman at Northern Logistics Command (NLC), Grootfontein. I did this immediately on arrival at Tsintsabis. It was now close to midnight. I told him that the infiltration had happened and that ‘Tarentaal’ was a go. Fortunately I had phoned Snyman the previous day and said that 61 Mech was expecting an enemy infiltration across the Bravo cut-line any day now. It was affirmed that NLC needed to keep its logistics act together for the impending crises.
All of our staffs were now intensely busy and focused on a multitude of tasks. Early on the morning of 15th April 1982, still in darkness, we had our first casualty. One of the Ratels of the artillery overturned on the way to deploy troops for farm protection duties. This happened close to the Tsintsabis turn-off on the Grootfontein-Oshivello tar road. One of our troops, standing in the turret, was killed. This unnecessary tragedy came as a shock to us – the operation was only at its beginning.
Later in the morning, at about 09h00, a patrol investigating some suspect tracks on the Bravo cut-line activated an enemy personnel-mine. It was boosted with an 82mm mortar-round. One of our soldiers was killed and eight others were wounded in the explosion. At midday one of our Ratel combat vehicles was shot out by SWAPO fighters at the loss of eight men, 15km west of Tsintsabis. This was not the same kind of operation as the previous year with Operation Carrot I contemplated.
Through all of this I was now deeply involved in arranging more vehicles, tents, diesel fuel, helicopter fuel, mobile kitchens and messing facilities, technical support, signal equipment, rations and ration packs, ammunition, vehicle spare parts, tyre repair facilities, etc, for the air field at Tsumeb. We had to establish a temporary operations and logistics base for the forces being mobilised externally from South Africa and internally from South West Africa. The counter-insurgency task force by day two totalled more than 3000 men, with close on 500 vehicles.
Later on the afternoon of the 15th of April 1982, Commandant de Vries and I were sitting in front of the Tsintsabis HQ operations centre, contemplating what had happened through the day – one that neither of us would ever forget. We were extremely tired because of an eventful day and the lack of sleep. We were sad about our losses, those soldiers who had been our close friends. We thought about the tracking team of Uncle Daan van der Westhuizen. The four who had been taken so suddenly, their loved ones living close by on their farms. As we reflected I realised that I would never ever forget this day – for it was my birthday – nor Roland de Vries, as he contacts me every 15th of April, to congratulate me on my birthday. Then we remember our fallen of the 15th of April 1982 and have a beer on them. That sad event took place thirty years ago.
This was how Operation Yahoo started. Hundred and fifty six SWAPO fighters had crossed the Bravo cut-line and infiltrated into the farming districts of Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi.
The demand on the operation for logistics, personnel and medical support was enormous.
The RSM of 61 Mech, WO 1 H.G. Smit and the Support Company supported me in setting up an immense logistics support base at the Tsumeb airfield. It was done within a night and a day.
Similarly, as with Operation Carrot the previous year: military and police forces; military trucks; field kitchens; recovery vehicles; ambulances; fuel bowsers; water bunkers; helicopters; and; additional support personnel arrived en masse. The logistics support plan for Operation Yahoo was set smoothly in motion to support the gigantic counter-insurgency force.
Ops Yahoo lasted six weeks and deployed over an area extending from the Bravo cut-line in the north, to the south of Grootfontein, all the way to the Grootfontein-Rundu highway in the east and to the west as far as the Etosha Game Reserve and Outjo. The dense bush veldt covered an area of more than 30000sq kilometres.
The Tsumeb airfield was transformed over night into an immense military support base, with tented accommodations for the troops. The base included facilities for technical support, tyre repairs and diesel and petrol provision. Two large 45000 litre rubber cushion tanks for helicopter fuel and mobile bunkers for refuelling of light spotter aircraft were held in constant readiness. The catering section deployed a large number of field kitchens and a canteen was established.
16 Maintenance Unit from NLC at Grootfontein served as our second line logistics installation and delivered diesel, petrol and helicopter fuel on request. The HQ Company was responsible for the collection and distribution of normal general store requirements, canteen items, rations and vehicle spares.
The operation had its own specific logistics challenges. These were mainly due to the long duration of the operation and the far-away outskirts to be reached. This was to satisfy wide ranging logistics and maintenance requirements coming from the front line. This spread-out in all wind directions. 2nd Lieutenant Coenraad Schultze established various logistics’ delivery points for the forces deployed in remote areas. This included supplying commodities such as diesel, ration packs, vehicle spares, spare wheels and canteen items far out in front.
Another unique logistics expediency undertaken was to pre-position 200litre fuel drums of helicopter fuel at pre-selected points and on farms. This saved time in refuelling our helicopters and allowed the Alouette gunships longer air-time and the expediency to be close to the action. Keeping track of fuel being expended was achieved through excellent liaison and co-work with the South African Air Force support personnel.
The key to operational success was the integrated planning process followed by 61 Mech for the operation. All the staff members were involved in the process. The planning and control measures cascaded down to ground level. This allowed everyone to be fully informed and committed to the overall mission of Operation Yahoo. The mission came first. This was to track down and destroy the SWAPO fighters.
We were involved countless times in ongoing operational planning, as well as anticipating future events. We made support plans for each unfolding action and developed ranges of contingency plans for plausible courses of action. We were always ready for any possibility.
In the course of Operation Yahoo in addition: We had undertaken umpteen small chores, provided radios to the part-time area force units, supplied thousands of 24-hour ration packs to police forces, repaired their Casspir mine protected vehicles, escorted farmers to their farms and used up kilometres of toilet paper. The level of dedication, cooperation, respect and loyalty experienced all-round was tremendous.
When Operation Yahoo ended on 25 May 1982 we demobilised the support base at the Tsumeb airfield. Life returned to normal. However, we had to work extra hard during the next couple of weeks and put in additional hours to achieve the goals set for 30 April 1982, thanks to SWAPO, we were 25 days behind schedule.
Today, thirty years later, as I reflect on those days in my life, I realise how focused we were on the mission. I was only 27 years old at that time, but with a huge responsibility. So was the responsibility of our commander and all the other officers and men deployed for operations in the northern border region. The quality of our training, dedication to the task and the level of leadership displayed by all our commanders, remains fixed in my mind as a treasured memory.
We were moulded into one team – focused on the mission. Even my birthday could be celebrated at Tsintsabis with a luke-warm beer and a cheer by close compatriots. I am proud and honoured to could have served with 61 Mech and experienced Operation Yahoo in 1982."
About Legendary Lukas Nel
This is to salute a great man – uncle-Christian-commandant-farmer-father-soldier-commander-veteran Lukas Nel.
Lukas Nel was the officer commanding Etosha Area Force Unit at Tsumeb. He served throughout the South African Border war as a citizen force soldier. He was twice the citizen. He was a pillar of strength to his community, the mainstay against terrorism in the district and a staunch supporter of 61 Mech.
Lukas Nel was my friend and to many others of 61 Mech as well. His heart and those of his family were open to us.
The simple dictum of Lukas Nel was: “To believe in God, to be positive, to stay busy and to keep a sense of humour at all times”. We could all learn from this unique farmer-soldier about life – nothing, but nothing could get him down.
What was more amazing was that he was a veteran of the Second World War. He had joined the defence force in 1941. He is in his nineties today and still lives on his farm near Tsumeb. He is as fit as a fiddle and an example to all of us, who are now becoming elderly veterans ourselves.
Lukas Nel taught me in a way to always search for forward ground.
A Humorous Story – Compliments to Commandant Lukas Nel
This action-packed story happened one night during Operation Yahoo in April 1982. It was in a disagreement that would arise between members of Etosha AFU and a few of their archenemy, SWAPO. This astonishing event unfolded slightly north of Tsumeb on the new Delta cut-line. The cut-line was in development to accommodate nasty friends, such as SWAPO’s Special Unit, infiltrating and exfiltrating out of the farming areas.
Sitting in the Operations Centre at Tsumeb airfield, I received a message that the road-grader working on the cut-line had broken down. Nightfall was approaching fast now and there was not sufficient time to send out a repair team. Uncle Lukas Nel was in the operations centre with me. I asked him to dispatch an Etosha AFU infantry section to the scene for the protection of the grader against possible SWAPO interference through the night.
The said task was duly carried out with utmost military precision. The section arrived at the scene and dug their trench next to the broken-down grader. They then settled down for the night, armed and dangerous, with trip flares set, Claymore mines positioned, the works. They had just finished tucking in for the night, when someone suddenly started up the grader. It sallied forth as graders sometimes do for 100 metres in a westerly direction. The ill-fated grader then came to its second dead stop that day. The section leader then made a very important tactical decision, namely, “We stay where we are for now.”
Low and behold, at midnight a SWAPO section suddenly appeared at the scene of the crime-to-be, out of the unwholesome darkness they appeared. The enemy duly, as they normally do, aimed their RPG Launcher and took a pot-shot at the grader. True to SWAPO’s form, it was a grazing shot, missing the grader’s body by inches and only penetrating its fuel tank.
The next important scene unfolded when our section became fully aware of the enemy’s commotion and interest in one grader. Orders to fire were immediately given to the AFU section. A deadly fusillade ensued. One SWAPO insurgent was killed instantly. The remainder fled unceremoniously through the Haak-en-Steek in a northerly direction. They were killed in a follow-up a few days later.
Meanwhile, a jubilant Uncle Lukas was found back in the operations centre sitting next to me in front of the battle map. The Etosha AFU had scored a “kill” before any other AFU had. This was a glorious and victorious night. Lukas immediately, and needless to say, gleefully, phoned his friend Stoffel Rothman of Outjo AFU to share the story and to gloat somewhat.
Uncle Lukas was not too fond of speaking English. So Commandant Louis Rheeder (deceased since), an observer with us from SWATF, and I decided to play a prank on our dear friend and colleague. We told him that he had made serious publicity and that the Sunday Times were flying in the next day to be briefed by him in English. The next day Lukas appeared ready with copious English notes and all dressed up in his best SWA Military “step-outs”. We had our laugh, but I still feel a little bit bad about the prank that was played on him – sorry, Lukas.
The Etosha AFU, as all the others, did outstanding work to counter every SWAPO incursion threat into the farming areas successfully through the successive years. Without their tenacity, intuitive insight regarding the bush war and local knowledge, it would not have been possible to achieve the successes we had.
The Strange Ambush at Kombat
During Operation Yahoo, at the end of April 1982, one particular somewhat serious, somewhat humorous story unfolded close to Kombat. More specifically it happened on the road halfway between Otavi and Kombat
We had learned from one of or sources that two SWAPO insurgents were comfortably entrenched in a home of one of their devious friends in Grootfontein informal settlement. I immediately felt like storming in where angels fear to tread to go and snatch them. Sanity prevailed, however. With the insight of my friend, Colonel Tommie Thomasse of the SWA Police, we sat down to thoroughly appreciate the situation. Various options were considered on how to pulverize our two SWAPO friends.
Colonel Tommy Thomasse of the SWA Police, Colonel Foffie Badenhorst, my own intelligence officer Captain Gerrie Hugo, and I were now immersed in deep thought and thinking this through. A short interruption on the side – both Foffie and Gerrie were brilliant at intelligence work. In fact, after Operation Carrot, I wrote a citation for Gerrie’s Military Merit Medal, which he duly received later. After Carrot, I also requested his transfer to 61 Mech from Sector 30 as my full-time intelligence officer. He was at 61 Mech with me until I left in January 1983. Foffie Badenhorst was from the Security Branch of the South African Police, seconded to us to run his impressive network of intelligence sources. Foffie was also the brother of Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst, who commanded Sector 10 at Oshakati at the time.
Our preferred option rested on an ambush for the two unsuspecting members of SWAPO at Kombat, halfway between Grootfontein and Otavi. The exact killing spot chosen was a resting-place alongside the road with concrete table, four chairs and all. This was civilised country after all. The killing spot selected was under a massive Maroela tree. We duly planned, reconnoitred the lay of the land, assembled the force, gave orders and happily sallied forth to Kombat. The fortunate ambush team selected was under command of Major Mac Alexander, with a ready platoon of enthusiastic young paratroopers.
Meanwhile, at our ranch at Tsumeb, Foffie had done some exquisite intelligence work. An old, faded brown Ford Grenada had been acquired for his trusted informer. The informer had made contact with our SWAPO friends. They were going to buy fish and chips at a café in Grootfontein, then drive to our killing spot under the Maroela tree for a bite to eat. The time was set for 20h00 that same night. After dinner, the informer supposedly would take them through to Windhoek to continue with the devious work terrorists do further to the south – that was all part of the carefully worked-out plan.
Meanwhile, at our exceedingly large Maroela Tree near Kombat, a strange ambushing procedure was busy unfolding – one not to be found in any doctrinal manuscript, to date, that is. Creative signaller McSweeney was preparing the Maroela tree as if for a Christmas celebration.
Heavy-duty, well-concealed cable and pin-prick lighting were strung painstakingly throughout the Maroela tree. Far away, out of hearing distance, McSweeney’s mobile generator was gently chugging away. At last light, Mac Alexander’s paratroopers were deployed and ready in their ambush position. We were now waiting to pounce on our unsuspecting victims in another unforgiving minute. Total surprise was going to be the key to success. I was lying comfortably close to Foffie Badenhorst. Foffie’s only trusted weapon was a bright blue loudhailer. Next to Foffie was McSweeney with the generator switch in hand. Colonel Tommie Thomasse and Major Giel Reinecke were lying next to me and the Kombat Road in the long grass. I could not keep Giel at home this time to indulge profusely as ever in unfinished logistics work. He was now armed to the teeth and without his pen.
Eight o’clock came and went. You just could not trust these SWAPO terrorists keeping to exact timings – Africa. Close to nine o’clock, the paratrooper lookout-post to the south of the ambush position reported that they were hearing the drone of a vehicle not dissimilar to that of a Ford. The road otherwise had been deathly quiet the whole night thus far – no pun intended – raised excitement at last. Nobody except the military and your odd SWAPO were using these roads at night.
As they had been briefed, the driver informer and his two SWAPO colleagues rolled to a gentle stop under the Maroela next to the concrete table and chairs. They were relaxed and ready to feast on fish and chips.
The terrorists got out of their vehicle, completely relaxed and, with fish and chips in hand, gently ambled towards their chosen camping spot. It was action time, excitement stirring all around like electricity – no pun intended either. The signal came and McSweeney depressed the generator switch and electricity soared. The Maroela lit up as for a serious Christmas celebration. Our terrorist friends were aghast and stared with open mouths into a brilliantly lit sky in an otherwise pitch-black SWA – compliments to McSweeney’s MacGyver innovation.
Foffie now took the next scene which was his forceful commanding voice reverberating out of the bush from a now brilliantly lit blue loudhailer. No shots were fired in anger that night and the rest is history. An interesting assortment of terrorist weapons, hand grenades, explosive devices and camouflage uniforms were found safely stacked in the boot of the faded brown Ford Grenada. All of us had a great evening.
With his uncanny ability, Foffie Badenhorst turned the two SWAPO terrorists. They immediately exchanged their rice-patterned camouflaged uniforms for “browns” and were back in business two days later chasing SWAPO as ardently as we were. Strange people they were, those SWAPO’s. I could never understand this side of them.
Through all the triumphs and tragedies encountered during Operation Yahoo in an exhilarating action-packed April-May 1982, there were the fun parts as well. It was also a stirring period in light of the many casualties we had suffered. It was much more stirring to SWAPO.
Up Close and Personal – One Disaster and Two Triumphs
There were three interesting incidents which took place during Operation Yahoo. All three happened near the end of April 1982 and were up close and personnel. One ended in a tragedy for own forces and the other two in mini-triumphs – score, one for the enemy, two for own forces.
In all three the cases local farm workers reported to the security forces that individual insurgents had taken sanctuary with them. In addition it was clearly said that the enemy incumbents were extremely hostile and that they were armed and dangerous.
The first two incidents were controlled from the tactical HQ located at Otavi and the last one from Tsumeb. All three incidents occurred on farms, which were located within 8km of the respective towns mentioned above.
• The first incident near Otavi resulted in a tragedy. Captain Leon van Wyk, the second-in-command of the paratrooper company under command of Major Mac Alexander, was killed. This happened during a brief skirmish with a single insurgent. Van Wyk and one other paratrooper were waiting in ambush outside the hiding place of the insurgent. When the insurgent came out he was challenged by van Wyk. The enemy soldier immediately threw a hand-grenade at the two paratroopers and made good his escape before they could retaliate. Van Wyk was killed when the hand grenade exploded. The insurgent escapee was never apprehended or killed during Operation Yahoo.
• With the second incident near Otavi dear lessons had been learned. Commandant Buks Koen and his merry planning team had a trick up their sleeve this time. The local chemist of Otavi concocted a potent mix, which was duly inserted into the drink of unsuspecting insurgent number two. He was taken whilst snoring. When our man woke up he was in the employ of own forces – that taught him not to sleep on the job.
• The incident with the insurgent close to Tsumeb was a shoot to kill one. Special Forces Captain Henk Coetzee and one other did their infiltration thing during one cold early morning at the end of April. The two operators were in hiding and well camouflaged outside an outbuilding when the insurgent appeared at first light. Still armed to the teeth, he was on his way to do his early morning thing even insurgents do. On being challenged our insurgent reacted aggressively and was taken with one shot by Coetzee.
Thus ends the three short war stories.
A Tribute to Alex Brits – A Farmer-Soldier – A Man from Tsumeb
I have made mention in my script of the remarkable Alex Britz – a farmer-soldier from Tsumeb.
What follows is an accolade to a great man, to Alex Britz. It was written by Giel Reinecke – the master of logistics during Operation Yahoo – he writes about the man from Tsumeb with a mark of respect.
“Alex Brits is a farmer from the Tsumeb district. He still farms on his farm “Nes Eier” (Nest Egg) today. His domicile is approximately 15 – 20km north of Tsumeb, on the Tsintsabis road.
During Operation, Yahoo in April 1982, the insurgents of Special Forces had crossed over his property. At the time he was in the operations centre at Tsumeb airfield, doing his duty as the operations officer of the counter-insurgency task force.
Alex is not only a farmer; he was actively involved with the Etosha Area Force Unit, 61 Mech Bn Gp and later on served at the HQ of Sector 30. When I met Alex early in 1981, just before Operation Carrot in April 1981, he was a part time force captain with the Etosha Area Force Unit (AFU). At the time he held the position of operations officer of the unit. Alex later on joined the SWA Territorial Force (SWATF) and was duly appointed as the operations officer for Sector 30. During Ops Meebos, Alex accompanied 61 Mech as the adjutant of our unit into Southern Angola.
I had the privilege not only to work with Alex as a colleague during Operation Carrot (April 1981), Operation Yahoo (April-May 1982) and Operation Meebos (July-August 1982). I also had the privilege to share twelve weeks with him as students on a battle group commander’s course. This was at the remote SA Army Battle School near Lohatlha in Northern Cape.
What I can remember about Alex Britz was that he was a gifted operations officer.
He was always extremely calm in times of crises. He had an amazing comforting way about him and spoke in a soft tone when conveying operational orders. It had a calming effect on all of us.
Alex’s forte was counter-insurgency operations. As a native of SWA, he knew the terrain, the people and the operational area of Sector 30 by heart. More so, he knew the tricks of the trade of the enemy, the Special Unit of SWAPO. It seemed to us as if he never slept. He could work long hours without any sleep. He was the first one up in the mornings during operations.
There Alex Britz would be, making coffee for the HQ staff. He was always the last man at night to crawl into his sleeping bag. He was extremely meticulous in keeping the “War Dairy”, preparing the daily situation report (SITREP) and updating the operations planning map.
Alex’s participation and contribution during the counter-insurgency operations in Sector 30 area and with 61 Mechanised Battalion Group only speaks of dedication. His work was a mark of outstanding excellence.
Alex was not only a good operations officer. He was an excellent field cook as well, a “Master Chef” of the veldt. He could build a ‘potjie’ (food cooked in a cast iron pot over open fire), of the highest standard, out of nothing. What I can remember about Alex is that he never used a BBQ tongs to turn the meat, he used his right hand, dipping it in a bucket of water, and then turning the steaming meat – Britz from far away SWA, a man extraordinaire!
I had the privilege to visit Alex Britz and his family a few times on their farm near Tsumeb. I was always overwhelmed by their Namibian hospitality and friendship. Alex always made time to make you feel important. He paid full attention to me as a friend and colleague, whether it was at home or at work. He was always the same.
As I grow older I will remember Alex Brits as a friend, a fellow officer and an exceptional operations officer. He was a man who was dedicated to the safety and well-being of others”.
I can only acknowledge in humbleness to what my close friend Giel Reinecke had written about our great friend Alex Britz. We remember him from the days of Operation Carrot, Yahoo and Meebos…
Tsumeb and 61 Mech Mourns and a Visit to the Wounded in Pretoria
61 Mechanised Battalion Group, our allied security forces involved and the communities of Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi had suffered deeply due to Operation Yahoo in April-May 1982. There were many deaths and wounded encountered at the hands of SWAPO – too many for such a small community.
A meditation of our Chaplain Koos Rossouw was published in the Otjikoto Journal of the Tsumeb District in June of 1982. The first part read as follows, from Micah 6 verse 8:
“He has showed you, O man what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you;
But to do justice, and to love kindness;
And to walk humbly with your God …….?”
And then Koos Rossouw asked, “What is the meaning of this?”
Gift parcels were prepared with loving care for the wounded at 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. This was the work of the ladies of the Etosha AFU, Northern Border Company and 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. Local firms and individual people in Tsumeb contributed towards these gifts. They included Alfa Corporation, Inge Scholtz, Model Supermarket, Nictus, Gerdi Muller and Joey Nel the wife of Etosha AFU Commandant Lukas Nel.
The ladies flew to Waterkloof and back in a South African Air Force transport aircraft. It was bitterly cold in the Second World War vintage Dakota 3, but they were happy and happily covered in some army blankets provided for this special occasion. There was something comforting to be had from a bottle as well. They enjoyed the visit and appreciated it as much as did our wounded comrades in Pretoria. They were accompanied by Tsumeb Padre and Etosha AFU Chaplain Landman Vogel and Commandant Naudé of HQ Sector 30. In one of the army beds at 1 Military Hospital wounded farmer and renowned tracker and bush craft expert Reinhardt Friedrich was staring lovingly into the eyes of his wife, Yvonne, who came to visit him.
In the days of the remote border war it was the honour, privilege and responsibility of the commanders and chaplains of the training and feeder units to bring the heartbreaking tidings of the fallen and the wounded to parents, families and loved ones. Thus, commanders like Colonel Tony Savides at 1 SAI had to bring many of these sorrowful messages to those at home. This was done with great dignity on behalf of the Chief of the Army to the loved ones of our fallen or wounded comrades.
Writing a Letter to Riana van der Westhuizen – We Shall Remember Them
I remember a little girl, 11-years old on a farm called Koedoesvlei… Her mother, Tannie (aunt) Pompie, in her kitchen, behind her beloved radios, with her beloved cigarette in her hand…Her brave father Daan van der Westhuizen, who died in the flames of a Ratel at midday on the 15th of April 1982, close to Koedoesvlei, 25km west of Tsintsabis.
Elements of the story about Daan and his dear wife Pompie van der Westhuizen are captured in the main script above. The sad parts of the story relates to how van der Westhuizen and his son-in-law, Hendrik Potgieter and two of his Bushmen trackers, succumbed in an enemy ambush. This happened at midday 3-5km west of Tsintsabis. The story also reflects on how Tannie Pompie had relayed the particulars of the tragic event to me at Tsintsabis, as the drama unfolded.
You already know that I had written the citation for the Honoris Crux (HC) Decoration of Daan van der Westhuizen, for bravery. It was later on received by his widow, Tannie Pompie van der Westhuizen, posthumous. The HC was awarded to her by the then Minister for Defence, General Magnus Malan. The ceremony took place at Suiderhof Military Base, Windhoek in June 1983.
I wrote the citation for Daan van der Westhuizen’s HC not only for Operation Yahoo (1982), but for Operation Carrot (1981) as well. Both these times van der Westhuizen and his small team of Bushmen were attached to 61 Mech, as accomplished trackers. Between 6 and 18 April 1981 there were numerous infiltrations in the Death Triangle. This led to four particular events where fire was exchanged with SWAPO infiltrators by Van der Westhuizen and his brave trackers. These contacts eventually gave lead to the death of eighteen and the capture of three of the enemy.
On the 14th of April 1981 two of his comrades, without substantial cover, were pinned down by SWAPO insurgents, whereby Van der Westhuizen, “without hesitation”, stood upright in a military vehicle, known as a “Buffel”. He subsequently drew enemy fire onto him. This he had ordered the driver to do, thereby redirecting the enemy’s fire to give the pin-downed soldiers the opportunity to take better cover. The SWAPO insurgents were subsequently killed in the ensuing fire fight.
The Honoris Crux is awarded only to those who "without thought of own safety and through personal courage and determination perform gallant acts or deeds against the enemy in the field”. One year later, nearly to the date, Daan van der Westhuizen was killed by the enemy.
Two days after the aforementioned tragedy, Tannie Pompie reported to me at the Tsumeb TAC HQ and said to me: “Roland, I know it is not safe for me and my family on the farm at present. However, I am going back to Koedoesvlei, as soon as this is all over. Daan would expect that of me. I will take the wife (daughter) of Hendrik Potgieter (deceased son-in-law of the ambush) with me and my children, Riana and Mannetjies. For the moment I want to work in your operations centre, hear at the air field”.
On 16 June 2007, after many years, I made contact with Riana van der Westhuizen. It was 26-years after Operation Yahoo had ended. She was living in Swakopmund. I could remember her as an eleven-year old girl, when her father died in the fateful ambush on 15 April 1982, near their farm Koedoesvlei.
I wrote the following letter to her (translated into English from Afrikaans):
Thank you so much for your e-Mail I had received yesterday. It came as a wonderful surprise.
Your mail brought back memories of long ago, I can remember: A cute little girl; your mother in front of her radios in the kitchen on your farm Koedoesvlei; your mother jumping into the farm dam close to her kitchen, flowering dress and all; your father and his tracker team leaving Tsintsabis atop a Ratel on a fateful 15th of April 1982…
I can imagine how you must feel about your father. The war left none of us untouched. Your father was a wonderful, enthusiastic and loyal person. He was a man with special leadership qualities and true dedication towards others. He was a hero from whom I learned so many things. He made life easier for me during the border war, because of his special qualities. He was a man I could always trust. I can recall exactly where I sat and how I felt about him, the day I wrote the citation for his Honoris Crux Decoration for bravery.
Your mother was one who had saved many lives on the border, through her special gifts with communications. This she did many a time at critical moments in battle. Especially when relaying critical messages, at the times we had problems with sustained communications in the field. She always knew exactly where we were deployed and how she could aid us – she kept us together in a way with her radios.
Please give my regards to all. We must really see each other one day. I have requested some of the members of the 61 Mech Veterans Association, one by name Ariel Hugo, to keep contact with you.
Mech greetings, I trust that I will see you soon.
As a postscript:
I have a friend his name is Deon Lamprecht. He was a soldier with 61 Mech in 1982-1983. He is currently a reporter with Beeld (well known Afrikaans news paper). He wrote an electronic mail to me a few days ago, which read as follows:
“I went to visit Riana van der Westhuizen in Swakopmund a few days ago. It was for a story I am writing about the border war. She is the daughter of uncle Daan and Tannie Pompie van Der Westhuizen, both deceased. She showed me the military medals of her father and mother. The Honoris Cross Decoration for bravery as well – the citation you had written for her father in April 1982. She was proud of all of this. She then showed me a gold lighter, engraved with the words, ‘Yahoo 1982’. The gold lighter you had given to her when Operation Yahoo ended in May 1982.”
We shall remember the fallen of 61 Mech, with the going down of the sun… and their loved ones and friends who are still alive today.
Epilogue – Finding Closure or What
Safeguard this Document it is classified…
On the 24th of May 1982 classified documents were issued to members of the communities in the districts of Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein. This was done by decree of Sector 30. The one pager summarised the security situation in the region. How the infiltration came about in the first place… The revelation that SWAPO was not finished yet… That a few dangerous strays could well be lurking in the region in civilian clothes…The fact that the enemy would most probably be returning in the near future for unfinished business.
Farmers had to sign for their copies of the communiqué. To be signed by whom, by farm, by date.
So be it, draw a line on Operation Yahoo, came the 25th of May 1982.
Operation Yahoo had been successfully completed. The military work of hunting for Volcano officially ended on 25 May 1982. This ending was done by the powers vested in the HQs of SWATF and Sector 30. 61 Mech had done its bit. Go home to Omuthiya 61 Mech.
So 61 Mech went home to Omuthiya – to remain at high readiness at 3-hours notice. This was for any military crises which may rear its ugly head in the northern operational area whatever, wherever, whenever.
Operation Meebos in southern Angola was already looming in the sights of 61 Mech for July 1982. This is another story in the annals of 61 Mech to be continued
The de-briefing for Operation Yahoo was held at the HQ of Sector 30 during May 1982.
It was an interesting exercise. It irrevocably stated that the plan for Operation Awake needed to be urgently reviewed. The comprehensive document (De-Briefing Document: Secret/Operation Yahoo/Sector 30/305/3/1 dated 11 June 1982) was signed, sealed and delivered on 11 June 1982. I still have Copy Number 12 of that document; yes the one which found its way to the archive.
We had a few moments and minutes of silence to remember our fallen during the de-briefing at Otjiwarongo. My moment and minute were infinite.
At the end of the war our enemy had had won their governing position in Namibia through a free and fair election – give that to them. The final process was based on democratic principles – was that not what we were fighting for? It did not come about through a Communist military takeover or some Africa type military coup. SWAPO had to work damn hard for it.
Eventually, from April 1989 onwards, it came about through peaceful political means. The politicians from opposing sides had at last came to their senses.
That same peace is still lasting. It is quite fun visiting Namibia today. Otjiwarongo, Otavi, Tsumeb and Grootfontein – people are extremely friendly there and greet you in Afrikaans. It makes you wonder…
Why don’t we learn from history?