Objective of the Operation
Operation Makro was an external counter-insurgency operation which took place in 1981. It was conducted in Southern Angola, effectively directed from a tactical headquarters which was located at Ongiva. The operation unfolded under the overall command of Sector 10, with its military HQ based at Oshakati. The SADF referred to the area of operations, located in the central part of Southern Angola, as the area in dispute. For Angola this was known as the 5th Military Region. In reality the area in dispute had become an extension of the operational area of Sector 10. Operation Makro was achieved soon after Operation Protea was successfully completed by the SADF in September 1981. In effect FAPLA had been driven violently from the area in dispute, where in the past they had supported and protected SWAPO’s revolutionary war against northern South West Africa. The name of Operation Makro changed to Operation Meebos on 1 January 1982. The focus of main effort for Operation Makro and Meebos in 1981 and 1982 in Southern Angola was to relentlessly hit at the command and logistics centres and lines of communication of SWAPO. Even so to progressively deplete enemy insurgent numbers deployed in theatre. 61 Mech at the time was on constant stand-by as the mobile reserve of SWATF for undue crisis anywhere in the northern border region. For this purpose 61 Mech had been placed under operational command of Sector 10 in advent of any emergencies happening in Southern Angola. The role of 61 Mech for Sector 10 therefore entailed high readiness in support of the counter-insurgency forces involved in Operation Makro and later on in Meebos as well. The objective of 61 Mech was therefore plain and simple: To deny the area in dispute to FAPLA in the advent of the enemy attempting re-entry or re-capture. A secondary mission was to support the forces deployed for Operation Makro in advent of crisis. 61 Mech came to the rescue of the counter-insurgency forces deployed for Operation Makro in December 1981. FAPLA’s 19th Brigade had moved aggressively southwards from Techamutette to Evale, where the enemy had unexpectedly deployed in defence. On 29 December 1981 a patrol from 2 Parachute Battalion had a surprise encounter with the enemy brigade at Evale. During a fierce encounter with the enemy an Allouette 111 gun-ship of the SAAF was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire. The latter fiery encounter with the enemy prompted the rapid deployment of 61 Mech from Omuthiya to Evale.
Composition of 61 Mech Battalion Group
|Commander:||Commandant Roland de Vries|
|Second in command:||Major Thys Rall|
|Alpha company:||Captain Jan Malan|
|Bravo company:||Captain Johan Visser|
|Charlie squadron:||Major Jakes Jacobs|
|Sierra battery:||Major Chris Roux|
|Intelligence Officer:||Captain Gerrie Hugo|
|Unit Chaplain:||Padre Koos Rossouw|
|Logistics Officer:||Major Robbie Robertze|
|Medical Officer:||Major Neels de Villiers|
|Signals officer:||Captain Sean McSweeny|
|RSM and Echelon commander:||Sergeant Major WO1 HG Smit|
|Light workshop troop:||Sergeant Major WO2 Duppie du Plessis|
Personal Impressions of the Commander
The Enemy Comes from the North — the Fighting Games Continue
An enemy brigade came with stealth from the north to Evale in December 1981.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group came swiftly to the rescue from the south, from Omuthiya to Evale, on 29 December 1981.
This narrative transpired within the spheres of the South African Border War in the early eighties. The stage was set for a crisis which unfolded at Evale on 29 December 1981.
The story following on explicates the role which 61 Mechanised Battalion Group played therein. The backdrop is the northern operational area of South West Africa and Southern Angola. It concerns the latent potential of fighting power and combat readiness, demonstrated at the time by a first-line fighting unit such as 61 Mech.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group participated in Operation Makro over the period 29 December 1981 until 21 January 1982. The main storyline relates to an interesting war account of those times. It has to do with the occasional brawling between the South African forces and the conventional forces of the Angolan government during those operationally exciting days.
During stand-up fights in the early eighties fun was primarily had by the South African forces. Our battle air craft still reigned supreme in the skies over Southern Angola. This was an extremely unsavoury situation for our foe and the reason for them to manoeuvre with great wariness on the ground. We did not object to our unfair tactical aerial advantage – even so when our forces were vastly outnumbered, most of the time, in the natural medium of Southern Angola on the ground. By 1987 the enemy had turned the tables on us in one way. By then their fighting Migs in turn ruled the sky. They could still not contend with out tactical prowess on the ground, not withstanding their vastly numerical superiority.
All About Averting a Crisis at Evale — Rapid Response
The narrative is furthermore all about averting a crisis at Evale in Southern Angola. It includes an account of a fleeting external mobile operation. It was undertaken by our fighting unit from Omuthiya into Southern Angola during Operation Makro.
Swift responses were in line with the classic role which 61 Mech performed in the northern operational area of South West Africa and Southern Angola. This was done under the auspices of our fighting unit acting as the mobile reserve of the South West Africa Territorial Force.
The involvement of 61 Mech during Operation Makro was triggered by a commotion caused by our revered conventional enemy. They came in surprise from the north to Evale in Southern Angola in December 1981 — to our Southern Angola and over Christmas mind you, to the area which we had captured from them during Operation Protea in August-September 1981.
From Whence the Enemy Came
From Techamutette a mechanised enemy brigade warily advanced opportunistically southwards, step-by-guarded-step-in-stops-and-starts, in close column. They came offensively via Cuvelai to Evale. They moved cautiously from the one firm base to the next. Their staccato moves were in line with the dogmatic doctrine taught to them by their Russian military masters. They were careful in their advance, very, very careful.
From Cuvelai the enemy brigade left the beaten track as they progressively followed their way south, pass Mupa, then heading on resolutely towards Evale. The brigade moved guardedly under the cover of dense African bush to the west of and alongside the Cuvelai River. The latter move in itself was surprising, as our conventional foe rarely bundu-bashed away from road or track. Consequently the enemy’s stealthy covered advance southwards was not sensed by own reconnaissance on the ground and neither in the air. Full marks for the enemy thus far.
On reaching Evale the enemy suddenly stopped and dug in profusely: Camouflaging their fresh trench rows with stacks of withering Mopani; setting out their interlocking arcs of defensive fire; carefully placing out their artillery and air defences.
The methods used by the enemy brigade for their offensive move southwards, as described above, were only later confirmed by tactical intelligence received. It was also confirmed as such; when 61 Mech followed their tracks northwards pass Mupa, during a brief pursuit on 31 December 1981; we could then investigate how the enemy brigade’s moves had come about. We remembered the teachings of Tsun Tzu from 500 BC: “Know yourself and know the enemy or succumb in every battle”. We filed away the knowledge acquired about the enemy and saved it for another rainy day.
What next would follow on the enemy’s offensive plan southwards? Were they aiming at Ongiva, a mere 64 kilometres due south, or what? Would reconnaissance southwards first follow, then careful planning for an attack on Ongiva?
Far to the western side of the operational zone the broken bridge at Xangongo kept our conventional foe at Cahama at arms-length from Ongiva. This particular bridge was demolished by the SADF during Operation Protea in September 1981. The western front across the Cunene River remained eerily quiet. It was 64 kilometres from Cahama to the demolished bridge at Xangongo. 61 Mech new this area well from the days our unit had participated in Operation Protea.
The enemy brigade had guts, for sure, but was there move under existing operational circumstances not folly? Was their thoughtless offensive manoeuvre not the result of command imprudence? We shall see ………………
On reaching further southwards the wary enemy brigade became more and more removed from the safety beckoning longingly from Cuvelai and Techamutette behind them; at Evale they were out on a limb. However, came 29 December 1981, our own security forces at Ongiva did not know they were there – surprise. By then the enemy brigade was deeply entrenched at Evale. They were sitting pretty on the front turf of Ongiva staring southwards, some of their brave soldiers were still digging in deeper.
Where was the enemy brigade on Christmas day? 61 Mech was on stand-by at Omuthiya — 283 kilometres south-east of Evale.
The aforementioned little surprise at Evale was caused by no more than the 19th Brigade of the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola; FAPLA – in Portugeuse referred to as the Forcas Armadas Populares de Libertacao de Angola.
The minor drama which unfolded in December was not to the amusement of all. Understandably there were slight tremors to be felt at Sector 10’s tactical HQ deployed at Ongiva; and the logistics and the helicopters and so forth kept there.
It was far more than just a fluttering in the coop at Ongiva. They were deployed there without any anti-tank weapons or similar heavier conventional war faring goodies. The latter refer to pieces of armament not usually found in a home-brew counter-insurgency arsenal. Heavier armour, anti-tank guns and artillery were nice to haves, when enemy tanks unexpectedly decided to come your way.
A feeling of strong insecurity rapidly found its way from Ongiva to Oshakati and Windhoek, much further to the south.
The particulars of an unfolding crisis at Evale reached the ears of 61 Mech early on 29 December 1981 at Omuthiya.
What Operation Makro Meant for 61 Mech
In essence by December 1981 Operation Makro became a mobile rescue operation; one in which its operational objectives were suitably achieved by mere force projection. It was brought about by formidable 61 Mech and the limited, though effective employment of air power. The value of the aforementioned was the accumulative effect of potential combat power and unwavering readiness.
Makro for 61 Mech followed on Operation Carrot in April 1981; Protea in August-September 1981; Operation Daisy, which was completed by 19 November 1981. Makro preceded Operation Yahoo, which commenced on 15 April 1982.
The Year of 1981 and the start of 1982 were exciting periods of intermittent operational activity for 61 Mech. Our fighting unit was on stand-by almost to the hour.
Makro was the code word used by the South African Defence Force (SADF) and South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF) to define an external counter-insurgency operation. It was conducted by Sector 10 in the central operational area of Southern Angola, from September 1981 onwards. Makro followed on Operation Protea.
The Angolans referred to the aforementioned operational zone in their turn as the 5th Military Region. The SADF simply denoted it the area in dispute.
The area in dispute was covered in dense African bush. It was permeated by a number of picturesque Angolan riverine such as: The Cuvelai; the Mui; the Calonga. In many areas these small rivers turned out to be formidable natural obstacles for vehicular movement. In the rainy season from December to April the sandy earth was converted into a quagmire, making it extremely difficult to negotiate with mechanised forces. The hostile areas illusive serenity nestled between the Cunene River in the west and the Cubango in the east – a distance of approximately 242 kilometres. The operational zone extended from the SWA-Angolan border in the south to Cuvelai in the north — a distance of about 208 kilometres.
The aforementioned killing field had become a barb in the flesh of FAPLA. Operation Protea in August-September 1981 had rid said area in dispute (AID) of FAPLA. Xangongo, Mongua and Ongiva had been taken violently by the SADF. Attacks had materialised from unexpected directions with surprise, through successive onslaughts, by combined SADF ground and air force units. This denoted the end of FAPLA in the area in dispute until 1984.
By late September open hunting season was declared against the wily insurgents of the South West Africa Peoples Organisation (SWAPO). The area in dispute became the preferred destination of the SADF’s counter-insurgency forces operating externally in Southern Angola. Counter-insurgency operations were directed from a Tactical HQ located at the air field at Ongiva. This less than holier operational situation, for FAPLA that is, irked the likes of them to wits end.
FAPLA wanted to re-capture Ongiva and Xangongo. Yes, the latter erstwhile strategically important well defended towns, which were rudely taken from them in August-September 1981. Our lethargic foe had nonetheless remained extremely weary for some time since Protea. They were biding there time. Until December 1981 they had not been adventurous and idealistic enough to come back.
The closest brigades of FAPLA to Ongiva were situated respectively at Cahama in the west and at Cuvelai and Techamutette, respectively to the north: The 21st Brigade at Cahama; 11th Brigade at Cuvelai; 19th Brigade at Techamutette. At Techamutette and Cahama there were Cuban units deployed as well.
Off course SWAPO was everywhere. That in reality was what the show in Southern Angola was all about, was it not? That is how we understood it on the ground. FAPLA was not the real enemy, were they?
Our conventional enemy glared from the north and the west over their earthy ramparts at the area in dispute, which they had so generously given up recently in August-September.
In the meantime the politicians and the diplomats of the opposing parties gleefully remained in the play. To no avail over the short term did the numerous peace talks’ tender results. Blood still needed to flow from the Cunene River, across the Cuvelai and the Cubango to the Cuito Cuanavale, Chambinga and the Lomba until 1988.
The name Makro was changed to Operation Meebos on 1 January 1982. By July 1982 our esteemed 61 Mechanised Battalion Group would be involved in the hunt for wily SWAPO north of the Cuvelai River once again. Anew this operation would be conducted in close cahoots with units such as 32 Battalion and 1 Parachute Battalion. This part of Operation Meebos would include a classic clash by 61 Mech with FAPLA on 4 August 1982:- On the eerie dirt track leading from Techamutette to Cuvelai – twenty two Russian Urals would be on the offering.
The 11th Brigade of FAPLA, in steadfast defence of Cuvelai, would meanwhile watch the security forces pass them by, as if watching at leisure a game of tennis being played at Wimbledon. Their time would come when 61 Mech struck them down on 13 January 1984.
About Political Games Played during Makro and Meebos
What influenced the lives of us mere mortals at 61 Mech on the ground? This question particularly relates to Operations Makro and Meebos unfurling gracefully from December 1981 until September 1982. How did we understand the politics surrounding our small world? In saying so, even the military operations following on for that matter, until the conventional side of the war ended at Calueque with Operation Prone in August 1988?
Similar experiences to ours at 61 Mech happened to other combat units as well — especially the ones operating diligently with 61 Mech in our private operational theatre of war – the one straddling the northern border of SWA. In spite of everything, even the politics, we lived quite contentedly through our intermittent operational encounters at the tactical level. It unfolded brazenly within the confines of counter-insurgency and limited conventional warfare.
Our lives were spent continuously and conscientiously in either preparing for or executing military operations. Albeit within the close parameters of the mission and operational environs near venues such as: Omuthiya; Oshakati; Xangongo; Ongiva; Evale; Mupa; Cuvelai; Techamutette.
More and more we found that the politics and diplomacy up high, started interfering with the mission and the tactics down below. It became a serious case of micro-managing the battlefield. The cusp was reached during the major conventional battles fought in Southern Angola from 1987 until 1988. During the aforementioned battles the SADF and UNITA eventually stood collectively against the combined military might of FAPLA and the Cuban forces. The conventional war in Southern Angola by then had escalated beyond proportion. Politicians on all sides were more than jittery, whilst the soldiers doggedly continued to fight it out on the ground.
Remember well that the free and less free worlds were extremely cross at South Africa through the eighties. This included the universal effects of the cold war and politics and diplomacy and economical sanctions against South Africa. Many worldly reasons came to the fore as resentment gradually increased to the detriment of our beloved country.
The aforementioned motives, inter alia from the more worldly wise so to speak, swirled angrily around issues such as: The wickedness of apartheid; South Africa holding doggedly on to SWA-Namibia; the continued militarization of the northern border region; for fighting in and out of Angola. Furthermore the United Nations (UN) pursued the need to implement Resolution 435 for the independency of SWA-Namibia as soon as possible. The UN was passionately supported by the international community.
There was tremendous international pressure on South Africa to withdraw from Angola and SWA. At the time of Makro and Meebos high level talks between the opposing parties were happening regularly at venues such as Washington, London, Lusaka and the Cape Verde Islands.
The aforementioned international escapades were regularly undertaken by high level officials such as: Mr Pik Botha, South Africa’s Minister for Foreign Affairs; General Jannie Geldenhuys, the Chief of the South African Defence Force. Their agendas included issues such as: The uncanny wish by South Africa for the Angolan government to withhold support from SWAPO; the withdrawal of South African and Cuban forces from their respective areas of operation in Southern Africa; the proposal for an ever elusive cease fire. All the political meandering and twisty peace talks came to nothing in 1981 and 1982. So the political, diplomatic and military games continued. Meanwhile the conventional war for Southern Angola steadily escalated towards the biggest conventional fight ever in the region by 1987-88. War clouds were looming.
The ongoing political and diplomatic developments at the time influenced the scope of operations unfolding on the ground. Operational instructions were reasonably clear cut to our fighting units operating on the ground:
- Counter-insurgency actions against SWAPO were an all-out go. This was what the main fight was all about as we understood it at grass-roots. The focus of main effort for Operation Makro and Meebos in Southern Angola was hitting the command and logistics centres and lines of communication of SWAPO for a six. Even so progressively depleting enemy insurgent numbers more and more by the dozens.
- Operations against FAPLA were restricted to the bare necessity. Direct involvement or offensive operations directed at FAPLA were prohibited at the time. Offensive operations against FAPLA were only sanctioned from a high as far as keeping them at bay and in denying the area in dispute to their brooding conventional might — consequently denying FAPLA’s support to SWAPO.
Talk-talk, fight-fight-fight, one step forward and two steps backwards, three steps forward.
Now you shoot FAPLA; now you don’t ………………..
Background to the Evolving Military Situation during Makro and Meebos
Operation Savannah was the first large scale cross border operation of the bush war. It lasted from 2 October 1975 until 27 March 1976. The aforementioned conflict evolved from the Angolan Civil war. It saw the SADF fighting a limited conventional battle against FAPLA and Cuban forces inside Angola — albeit in support of Angolan liberation movements such as UNITA. On 19 December 1975 the USA withdrew all support from Angola. This quickly resulted in the withdrawal of South African troops from in country.
The Angolan MLA and Cuban forces soon filled the vacuum left by the SADF and moved all the way down to the border with SWA. Subsequently SWAPO was supported and protected by them in their revolutionary war faring effort directed from Angola at SWA. This was not a nice to have.
From 27 March 1976 until about February 1978 the SADF stayed reasonably put inside northern SWA. Counter-insurgency operations, to the great frustration of our military, were therefore restricted to SWA proper.
The first cross-border operation ever launched employing Ratels were in March 1978. The military objective was a SWAPO base located at Eheke, approximately 8 kilometres inside Angola. The purpose of this operation was to save Rifleman Johan van der Mescht, who was captured by SWAPO close to the border in SWA.
Other well known cross border operations soon followed, such as: Operation Reindeer in May 1978; Operation Sceptic in June 1980. Last mentioned operations were solely directed at SWAPO. Now and then FAPLA and the Cubans became involved in the cross-fires as enemy ad ons — their choice up to then.
Then Operation Protea happened in August-September 1981. During Operation Protea the SADF destroyed two main integrated FAPLA and SWAPO (PLAN) defensive complexes located at Xangongo and Ongiva respectively. It served FAPLA right as they were supporting SWAPO. The aforementioned enemy strongholds were located in the Cunene Province of Southern Angola. In reality the conventional side of Protea was an all-out fight against FAPLA. Operation Protea was one of the largest mechanised operations ever undertaken by South Africa since the Second World War. It was even larger in force than Operation Moduler, which followed on in August 1987.
Operation Protea in a sense was a watershed. It removed the sting of FAPLA. It allowed the SADF to operate freely against SWAPO inside Southern Angola from September 1981 onwards. This advantageous operational situation lasted until the Lusaka Accords were agreed to in 1984. Then FAPLA filtered back into the area in dispute. Once again the war faring ends, ways and means of the SADF were curtailed by politics in the northern operational area. That’s life.
Further to the east of the area in dispute UNITA held the fort. For all practical purposes the commanding presence of UNITA in South East Angola covered the eastern flank for the SADF. The guerrilla forces of Jonas Savimbi comfortably resided in their guerrilla liberated zone east of the Cuito Cuanavale River. It kept SWAPO suitably at bay from the Okavango Province and Caprivi — tolerably so.
FAPLA tried to capture Mavinga from UNITA repeatedly in South East Angola from their stronghold at Cuito Cuanavale. It happened in 1981 and again in 1982. Each time FAPLA was repelled by UNITA. The sabre-rattling for South East Angola continued at controllable levels until August 1987. In August-December 1987 a massive FAPLA-Cuban offensive directed at Mavinga and Jamba was stopped in its overwhelming tank tracks. It was achieved decisively by a diminutive South African brigade in support of a few UNITA guerrilla units. FAPLA and the Cubans were severely mauled in the bloody fray which followed. Mavinga and Jamba, the strongholds of UNITA in the south-east, remained twinkle-twinkle little stars for FAPLA – even until the end of the Angolan Civil War in 2002.
In 1981 and 1982 the far eastern flank of the SADF beyond the Cuito Cuanavale River was reasonably covered by UNITA. Closer towards the east, between the Cubango and Cuito Cuanavale rivers, the influences of FAPLA and SWAPO were far less than in the central region.
The centre of gravity for the external counter-insurgency war in 1981-82 therefore became to be the area in dispute. The consequence was the launching of external counter-insurgency operations such as Makro in 1981 and Meebos in 1982.
Turning the Tables on the Enemy — Tactical HQ Established at Ongiva
On successful completion of Operation Protea by September 1981 the SADF moved en force into the area in dispute. The area of operations of Sector 10 for all practical reasons was now extended into Southern Angola.
A tactical HQ was established forthwith at Ongiva as an extension of Oshakati. Ongiva was converted into an operations and logistics base for the SADF. This included using its air field as a forward air base. From here Allouette gun-ships and Puma helicopter troop carriers could be employed at leisure, wherever the SADF choose to strike in the central part of Southern Angola. From Ongiva to Evale as the crow flies was 64 kilometres. From the SAAF air force base at Ondangwa, where the ground attack Mirages and Impalas were kept, to Evale was 157 kilometres.
Colonel Jan Pieterse was appointed as the operational commander for Operation Makro at the time. He operated from Ongiva and was supported by adequate staffs, which included: Operations; intelligence; personnel; logistics; technical; signals. The SAAF established a forward air force command post, which at this level was referred to as a mobile air operations team (MAOT).
Special Forces as well as UNITA provided liaison staffs for the said operation at Ongiva. Reconnaissance teams from Special Forces as well as 32 Battalion and 201 Battalion supported these external operations on a continued footing. The famous scout from 32 Battalion, Captain Willem Ratte, was deployed in theatre virtually throughout operations.
Combined counter-insurgency forces of the SADF and SWATF started operating from forward bases located inside Angola, such as at Xangongo and Ongiva — the tables had been smoothly turned on FAPLA and SWAPO.
Adequate counter-insurgency forces were allocated to the operational command of the TAC HQ at Ongiva. The forces operated on a rotation basis and were provided by the SADF as well as SWATF respectively. This included units such as 32 Battalion; 201 Battalion (Bushmen); 1 Parachute Battalion; 2 Parachute Battalion (citizen force).
In December 1981, at the time of Operation Makro, 2 Parachute Battalion was deployed in theatre. It was a citizen force unit operating under command of Commandant Monty Brett. The paratroopers of Brett were highly active and extremely professional. The unit was out there in the dense entangled bush to the east of Ongiva on a search and destroy mission. Several of their foot patrols were fervently probing for the illusive insurgents of the Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) near Anhanca, Evale, Mupa and Ionde. It was a relentless day and night affair.
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group at the Time of Operation Makro
At the time of Operation Makro in December 1981, 61 Mech was about 1 000 men strong. Our fighting unit was readily trained for mobile conventional as well as counter-insurgency 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.
- RSM: WO1 HG Smit and commander of Alpha Echelon.
- Intelligence Officer: Captain Gerrie Hugo.
- Signals Officer and Commander of the Signals Troop: Captain Sean MacSweeny.
- Unit Chaplain: Padre Koos Rossouw.
- Medical Officer and Commander of the Medical Section: Major Neels de Villiers.
- Logistics Officer: Major Robbie Robertze
- Alpha Company Commander (Ratel-20): Captain Jan Malan.
- Bravo Company Commander (Ratel-20): Captain Johan Visser.
- Charlie Squadron Commander (Ratel-90): Major Jakes Jacobs.
- Artillery Battery Commander (120 mm Medium Range Mortar): Major Chris Roux.
- LWT Commander: WO1 Duppie du Plessis.
In addition to the above-mentioned force composition 61 Mech boasted a Ratel-90 anti-tank platoon as well as an 81 mm Mortar platoon — like Ruth and Naomi.
High Readiness — 61 Mech Strikes North from Omuthiya
The political and military situations, briefly described in the narrative above, sketched the state of play as it related to 61 Mech and Operation Makro by 29 December 1981. This was the day when 61 Mech was suddenly called upon to perform its part of Operation Makro.
25 December 1981, Christmas Day arrived in the northern operational region of SWA at Omuthiya, the home of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group.
On Christmas Day the soldiers had their Christmas lunch at Omuthiya. Our national servicemen were served by the permanent force members. That was the habit of 61 Mech.
61 Mech was on 24-hour standby for Sector 10 in case anything unsavoury should brew out in Southern Angola to the north of us — more specific the area in dispute as it was referred to. The border with Angola was approximately 110 kilometres due north of Omuthiya. Ongiva, where the tactical HQ for Operation Makro was located, was about 187 kilometres away to the north.
61 Mech at the time was on constant stand-by as the mobile reserve of SWATF for undue crisis anywhere in the northern border region. For this purpose our fighting unit had been placed under operational command of Sector 10 in advent of any emergencies happening in Southern Angola to the north of us. The role of 61 Mech for Sector 10 therefore entailed high readiness in support of the counter-insurgency forces involved in Operation Makro.
I visited the HQ of Sector 10 at Oshikati regularly from Omuthiya with my key staff members. The reason was simply to remain abreast of the operational developments happening to our north. I was usually accompanied by my: Second-in-command Major Thys Rall; logistics officer Major Giel Reinecke; intelligence officer Captain Gerrie Hugo.
The main concern of 61 Mech was the conventional forces of FAPLA and the Cubans, which could threaten the area in dispute at any moment. To reiterate what was stated above: 11th Brigade of FAPLA was defending Cuvelai; another conventional brigade, namely 19 Brigade was based at Techamatette; 21 Brigade was deployed at Cahama. The 21st Brigade of FAPLA acted as the enemy’s mobile reserve in the region. There was therefore a continuous threat from FAPLA in making an all out effort to recapture Xangongo, Mongua and Ongiva from the SADF.
The continuous force preparation of 61 Mech at Omuthiya and contingency planning evolved around the above-mentioned latent threats posed by FAPLA. In our forward planning at Omuthiya we had considered possible enemy courses of action and own counter actions. This especially related to the tactical usage of terrain and probable lines of advance and attack from both sides. All of the last-mentioned possibilities were marked on our battle maps. The aforementioned was also the subject of continued war-gaming in the corrugated iron operations centre at Omuthiya.
The objective of 61 Mech was therefore plain and simple: To deny the area in dispute to FAPLA in the advent of the enemy attempting re-entry or re-capture. A secondary mission was to support the forces deployed for Operation Makro in advent of crisis.
At Omuthiya the battle arsenal of the respective sub-units and subordinate groupings were dispersed in designated staging areas, bombed-up and ready to go at moments notice on my command.61 Mechanised Battalion Group as the designated mobile reserve of the SWATF operated customarily in rapid deployment mode. Rapid deployment underscored the concept of speedy employment of an immediately available 61 Mech to particular trouble spots.
Critical performance criteria for 61 Mech as a mobile reserve centred on time (rapid) and distance (deployment). Force deployment and redeployment was therefore viewed by 61 Mech as the ability to mount, move and stage our unit between home locations and a designated area of operations and between areas of operations — such as from Omuthiya to Ongiva and Evale in this particular instance. This in addition required 61 Mech to maintain operational viability at all times, so as to achieve its mission and operational objectives effectively. It also implied returning 61 Mech safely back to its home location at Omuthiya.
The above-mentioned combat readiness and rapid deployment requirements were about to be proved in concept and reality, as 61 Mech stood by at Omuthiya on 29 December 1981.
Early on 29 December 1981 I was called to the operations centre at Omuthiya. It was Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst on the radio. Badenhorst commanded Sector 10, as well as the area in dispute, from his operational HQ located at Oshakati. He explained to me that the paratroopers of 2 Parachute Battalion had unexpectedly made contact with a brigade of FAPLA near Evale. During a fiery mêlée an Allouette 111 gun-ship of the SAAF had been downed by hostile air defence fire at Evale.
My instruction following shortly was to make the way of 61 Mech hastily to Ongiva. On arrival at Ongiva I would be briefed by Colonel Jan Pieterse of our impending mission. Commandant Monty Brett and his out of breath paratroopers in the meantime had withdrawn safely to Ongiva. Brett would be available to assist in explaining the enemy situation to me.
By mid-day on 29 December 1981 61 Mech was on the move, under 3-hours, after receiving the warning order from Oshakati. The unit was steadily moving northwards in column, hell-bent for Ongiva — standing-operating-procedure.
On the way northwards to Ondangwa one of our 18-ton Ratels overturned on a steep incline near Okatope during a brief 10 minute halt. The combat vehicle had just toppled over next to the tar road. Miraculously no one was hurt, neither was the protruding barrel of its 20 mm quick-firing gun damaged. The light workshop troop (LWT) of 61 Mech summarily turned the monster back onto its six-wheels, whilst the fighting column started moving again, heading for Ongiva. Speed for interest sake on tar roads never exceeded 70 km per hour, as this was deemed safe by 61 Mech for its convoy procedures.
The Trigger Event — Contact, Contact at Evale
What happened at Evale on 29 December 1981 was what prompted the rapid deployment of 61 Mech northwards for the rescue mission.
One of the small patrols of 2 Parachute Battalion had walked unexpectedly, smack bang, into the FAPLA brigade at Evale. Suddenly the paratroopers were fighting for their dear lives, against more than 3 000 enemy soldiers. The soldiers of 19 Brigade was conventionally trained and experienced. The brigade was equipped with heavy armament, including tanks, armoured cars and troop carriers, artillery and air defence weapons.
A vicious fire fight subsequently ensued. Allouette gun-ships from Ongiva were immediately scrambled to support the fire-fight on the ground.
Captain A.W. Walker and Sergeant C. W. Botes carried out the aforementioned close air support mission, with Walker acting as the flight leader. Walker commanded the fighting flock of fiery Allos on their way to Evale.
Air defence fire erupted in continuous streams from the defensive position of 19 Brigade, as the helicopters entered the battle zone. The gun-ships continued to fire downward as they turned and twisted to evade the scathing fire streaming upwards from the ground.
During the aforementioned fiery fray the Allouette 111 gun-ship of Lieutenant Serge Bovy and Sergeant Dolf van Rensburg were shot down. They had come under intense enemy fire, whilst providing close air support for the paratroopers on the ground. The air craft crash-landed in the midst of the heavily defended locality of FAPLA. It was a miracle that the two crew members of the downed helicopter were still alive. Their situation on the ground was dire, as they were completely surrounded by the enemy.
Without hesitation and with total disregard for their personal safety Captain Walker landed his Allouette near the wrecked helicopter and immediately searched for the crew. Eventually the situation became suicidal compelling Captain Walker and his crew to withdraw. When he was airborne he spotted the missing crew and yet again, without hesitation and despite the fact that virtually all enemy fire was now directed in his direction, he landed and lifted the crew to safety.
Captain Walker returned to the contact area once again. This time to provide top cover for a Puma assigned to casualty evacuation. His Allouette gun-ship was repeatedly subjected to heavy enemy anti-aircraft fire. During the withdrawal a second helicopter developed difficulties and called for assistance. Yet again Captain Walker returned to provide top cover drawing virtually all the anti-aircraft fire to his Allouette. His courageous act thus prevented the loss of an Allouette and crew.
Capt. A.W. Walker and his flight engineer, Sergeant C. W. Botes, were later on awarded Honoris Crux decorations for bravery under life threatening circumstances. There actions at Evale were outstanding displays of military professionalism, devotion to duty and courage.
Whilst the aforementioned fire-fight lasted the paratroopers progressively extricated them from the battle under the direst of fighting circumstances. They withdrew in leaps-and bounds-of-fire-and-movement to safety from the immediate firing line.
The paratroopers then succeeded in withdrawing to the illusive safety of Ongiva. That was where 61 Mech found them the afternoon of the fateful 29 December 1981.
Arriving at the TAC HQ at Ongiva and about Meeting the Paratroopers
Slightly beyond midday 61 Mech arrived at Ongiva and subsequently deployed in an open leaguer on its southern outskirt. I immediately moved forward to the TAC HQ of Colonel Jan Pieterse at the air field. 61 Mech was left for the interim in the capable hands of Major Thys Rall, my second-in-command. In the meantime 61 Mech would refuel and do the necessary repairs required to our battle array.
Colonel Jan Pieterse swiftly briefed me about the precarious situation surrounding the unexpected engagement with the 19th Brigade of FAPLA at Evale on 29 December 1981. Of course the imminent threat to Ongiva and the integrity of Operation Makro was mentioned. There was not much tactical intelligence to go on. In the meantime an air-strike had been called in from Ondangwa and Evale had been bombed with the Mirages of the South African Air Force. What the effects of the bombing were, was yet unknown to Ongiva.
The story about the Allouette gun-ship was also briefly told to me — yes we were to recover the wreck of the gun-ship as well. It was not to be left for the enemy to use for propaganda purposes. That would not look good in the eyes of the Western Contact Group, whoever they were.
What to do 61 Mech? Attack the position at Evale and destroy the enemy or drive them back from whence they came. I was thinking. What would the enemy commander of 19 Brigade at Evale do according to their traits and doctrine, as I knew them?
Yes, the MAOT confirmed the air support position. The Allouette gun-ships at Ongiva and the Mirages and Impalas from Ondangwa would be on stand-by for close air support tomorrow morning.
I requested a reconnaissance team from 32 Battalion to be put under my operational command forthwith. The request was granted. I met the team leader and told him to muster his men and join me at my HQ, which was still deployed on the southern outskirts of Ongiva, as soon as possible. Radio frequencies and call signs were immediately allocated, exchanged, confirmed and tested. Let’s go, no time left to play with.
I then moved off to find the paratroopers of 2 Parachute Battalion to gather some more first hand information about the Evale situation. I needed to know more about my newly acquired enemy: Their intentions, their strengths, capabilities, equipment and deployments?
When I stopped with my Ratel Command near the position of the paratroopers at Ongiva I could see that they were exasperated, tired, dirty, battle weary, their faces still smeared with black is beautiful.
I dismounted and walked towards Commandant Monty Brett their commander. He was still wound up, but relieved when he saw me and my Ratel. The effect of the infuriating situation his paratroopers had recently experienced at the hands of FAPLA near Evale was still draining him. It happened with close encounters like these of the worst kind. More so during an unexpected stumbled upon engagement with a heavily armed and a vastly superior numerical conventional foe.
I knew Commandant Monty Brett well. He was a close friend of mine. We were befriended during the seventies from our training hay-days at the infantry school, Oudtshoorn. I was then his course-leader on a company commander’s course. Lew Gerber, another close friend and a paratrooper, had done the course with Brett. The three of us had remained friends ever since Oudtshoorn.
I could therefore sit down at ease with Monty Brett, old acquaintances having a fleeting meeting at Ongiva. We sat down comfortably on army camp chairs, having a talk, having coffee, battle maps lying at our feet in front of us in the sand. Our fleeting interlude was relaxed, the discussions serious. The home comforts of a Ratel could be enjoyed in a moment’s respite. Let’s talk about Evale now. His paratroopers were lying down behind us along a hedgerow, utterly exhausted, but composed. Lots of fight still left in them.
I then motored back to my HQ. A quick battle appreciation followed: Time and map appreciation; terrain; possible enemy courses of action; own forces; time and distance; surprise; approaches; pre-deployments. Quick orders soon followed. 61 Mech was ready to move again eastwards towards Anhanca. We needed to reach Anhanca 39-kilometres away, before night set and prepare for the actions required the following day.
The reconnaissance team of 32 Battalion was tasked by me to reconnoitre the enemy position at Evale the same night and report the situation to 61 Mech by first light. They were to be deployed by helicopter to get closer to their target area. The approach by the team leader as planned on his map I could see edged along the Cuvelai River through the dense bushes from the western side. I said foot it out of there towards the east by first light. We would probably be attacking with 61 Mech from the east or north-east of Evale. Quick extraction plans for our fearless scouts were finalised and agreed to — cool, calm and collected. The Allouette and the Puma were on stand-by for them as well.
61 Mech moved due north-east and deployed in all-round defence near Anhanca before night-fell. The diesel tanks were filled to the brim and final repairs completed once again. 61 Mech was 100% serviceable again. Thanks to our mechanics, the Tiffies under command of unfaltering Sergeant Major du Plessis — and our crews of course.
We completed our planning for the following day at Anhanca. We waited patiently for the intelligence from our reconnaissance team, who by now was closing in on Evale from the south-west. In the meantime battle orders were given down the command line.
61 Mech was March and Combat ready at Anhanca, ready to strike towards Evale at first light. What was our enemy doing in the mean-time? Where would they deploy their reconnaissance? Where was the enemy’s indirect fire missions registered on the ground? How will the enemy react when we attacked from the north-east? Where was their mobile reserve located?
The operational plan of 61 Mech called for a full blown mechanised attack on Evale from the north-east, with artillery and mortar support. We did not call for an aerial pre-bombardment. The aircraft were on stand-by for close-air support anyway.
The line of initial advance would follow off the road leading to Evale to the west of it, for 5-kilometres. The fighting column of 61 Mech would then move into dense cover far to the west of the road and bundu-bash to a selected forming up place 7-kilometres to the north-east of Evale. Here 61 Mech would form up in assault formation and lead the attack south-westwards. This was the direction we surmised the enemy least to expect an attack. The paratroopers at Ongiva had informed me that the defensives at Evale were facing south — our enemy as we knew them, as usual.
Offensive Move by 61 Mech on Evale
Evale was a mere 35 kilometres away by road, north from Anhanca.
Through the night our reconnaissance team from 32 Battalion successfully completed their scouting mission. They reported that an eerie silence enclosed Evale. There was no sighing sighs of cooling metal, the quiet nervous chatter of soldiers, any erratic snoring or the clatter of AK-47 magazines. Had the enemy suddenly withdrawn, as quietly as they had come? Were the previous day’s fiery encounters from the ground and the air and the aerial bombardment too much for them to stomach?
None the less, 61 Mech would go in that day ready to blaze guns if so required — the planning assumption was that the enemy would still be there at Evale. Therefore, take no chances. Secure the start line, work from the one firm base to the next.
It was approaching first light. It was time for 61 Mech to deploy northwards and then attack Evale from the north-east.
As we moved along the road northwards for the first few kilometres we encountered numerous empty tank dug-outs along the way to both sides of the road. The tank positions were found every 100 metres or so. We could see that they were aged and derelict. If hostile reconnaissance picked us up now, those scouts would report an incoming attack from the south, as would normally be expected by our enemy — strange people FAPLA?
We swung away from the road for the envelopment of Evale from the north-east. At approximately 10h00 we had formed up for assault at our selected forming up place 7-kilometres away. I reported to Ongiva that we were moving offensively towards Evale to attack if the enemy was still there. The go-ahead to attack if need be was given.
61 Mech advanced towards Evale in assault formation ready to engage the enemy at moments notice and proceed with fire and movement. The immediate front remained quiet. As our forward line approached the hamlet I could see some buildings appearing just across the Anhanca-Evale-Mupa road. No incoming fire. We could now clearly discern wide-ranging phalanxes of abandoned trenches in front of us. The trenches were fresh-fresh. The red gum of the Mopani used for camouflage was still oozing from the breaks and cuts of the branches.
The assault formation of 61 Mech entered Evale directly from where the enemy’s flank was deployed as they defended southwards.Abandoned equipment was left strewn everywhere. The enemy must have left in a hurry, probably during early darkness the previous day.
We had missed our valiant enemy by a hairs-breadth. This was a disappointment to us. We had looked forward to a scrap with FAPLA.
61 Mech swept through the position in battle formation. There was no sign of the enemy. We found fresh tracks where they had retreated across the Cuvelai River. Their escape path led northwards as they had high-tailed it out of there. They went along the exact same way as they had come in to Evale. I eventually gave the command to adopt all-round defence so that we could assess the situation.
Suddenly there was a sudden welcoming torrential — hammering rain poured down by the buckets, as one could only experience in Angola. On the spur of the moment I gave the command: “Stop, switch off, wash”. At moments notice the soldiers of 61 Mech were naked alongside our battle array, having a well deserved bath in the pouring rain — utterly refreshing, laughter everywhere — a catharsis.
I walked around the erstwhile enemy position with some of the members of my command group. We were very careful of personnel mines and booby-traps, watching out for the tell-tails. Empty shell cases lay strewn everywhere. It must have been a helluve fight by the paratroopers and the gun-ships. We found the wreck of the Allouette 111 of Bovy and Janse van Rensburg. It lay in a cluster of bushes in the centre of the defensive position. It was extremely close to the anti-aircraft position, which had shot it down. Countless shells lay strewn. How the hell could they have been rescued by Walker under such conditions and still make it out alive – totally amazing, divine intervention and utmost bravery all rolled into one.
The Allouette wreck of Bovy and Janse van Rensburg was loaded on to a Samil-100 cargo truck by the Tiffies. They used the crane of their trusty Yster (Iron) Samil-50 recovery vehicle to perform the work. The wreck was later on returned to the air force base at Ondangwa. The stock book of the SAAF balanced once again. The Allouette wreck was not the possession of FAPLA’s 19 Brigade anymore.
Similarly on 9 August 1981, during Operation Meebos, 61 Mech would back-load a Puma SA-330C helicopter on a SAMIL-100 as well. It was shot down in the Mui River north of Cuvelai by anti-aircraft fire. The tragic event happened suddenly when the Puma flew over an insurgent position of SWAPO, of which the crew members were not aware of. The aircraft was summarily downed by fire from the ground without prior warning. 61 Mech was on the scene of the smouldering Puma within the hour. The bodies of fifteen brave men were recovered — three crew members and twelve paratroopers.
Further to the rear we found the abandoned position of the enemy’s erstwhile administrative and logistics position. A few broken down Russian Urals were left abandoned there as well. The area was a total mess — spare parts lay scattered and floods of old oil inundated the sandy soil. Major Giel Reinecke, my logistics officer, would have loved to see the shambles left behind by FAPLA — serves Reinecke well to be absent with leave.
It was approaching late afternoon and we leaguered 61 Mech in all-round defence at Evale for the night. Interlocking arcs of fire all around were carefully sited. Indirect fire weapons were deployed for defensive fire.
A comprehensive situation report (SITREP) was submitted to Ongiva about the situation at Evale. There was instant relief by them that the conventional enemy threat had dissipated to the north from whence it had come — the threat to Ongiva had been successfully fended off by means of rapid force projection. Our sincerest appreciation was expressed to our worthy scouts of 32 Battalion. The small spirited team in the meantime had been withdrawn to Ongiva.
I informed Ongiva that we were going to pursue the enemy retreat northwards the following day. They said to go ahead.61 Mech spent a peaceful night at Evale, without any enemy incidents occurring. Our sentries, listening posts and radio watches were forever vigilant. Through the hours of darkness the 120 mm mortar battery of Major Chris Roux did sporadic harassing fire all around. We could hear the lethal bombs through our quiet sleep ever so often exploding in the distance — most comforting.
Pursuit into Nothingness – Beyond Mupa
Evale at first light on 31 December 1981, with the fresh smell of rain and foliage and earth, was pleasant to experience. The noises of 61 Mech I had become so used to comforting to my ear, as our fighting unit prepared to move out.
61 Mech advanced northwards in pursuit of 19 Brigade.
The rapid pursuit followed through dense bush, following on the tracks and the oil spills of 19 Brigade – from Evale northwards, way pass Mupa, towards Cuvelai. The enemy retreated along the way they had came — through the bushes to the west of the Cuvelai River and the road, which connected Anhanca-Evale-Mupa-Cuvelai-Techamutette-Cassinga.
No nothing. The enemy had disappeared like morning mist dissipating in the hot Angolan sun. They had no fight left in them.
A few kilometres north of Mupa, now advancing along the side of the road for fear of landmines, we halted. We had received very clear instructions from higher up the chain of command that we should not engage FAPLA — politics and perhaps some slight apprehension of harming the ongoing peace-talks up there more likely.
61 Mech decided to use its time well in Southern Angola. This was the ideal training ground and we still needed to project some serious force northwards. On the other hand training never ceased in forever sharpening our combat edge.
We duly threw a few 120 mm mortar rounds 10 kilometres to the north, where our enemies were. It was wonderful to watch the rocket assisted mortar bombs of Major Chris Roux accelerating into the wild blue yonder. We could clearly hear the pleasant far off explosions of the lethal 120s. The scouts of the enemy would hear them as well and cringe somewhat we believed.
Down the road we spotted some derelict ruins. The Ratel-20s and Ratel-90s were duly instructed to test-fire their deadly arsenals. We obviously knew what force projection was all about. We presumed that the scouts of FAPLA deployed nearby would know as well and report.
Near the end of the day we leaguered close by and deployed 61 Mech on adequate all-round defendable terrain for the night. To the south was a clearing and a riverine, which provided passable observation and fields of fire. 61 Mech settled down for the night.
Of course there were always the possibility of SWAPO attacking our position or firing at us from a distance with mortars and rockets. In reality they would know more or less where 61 Mech loitered — we were large and noisy. It was not that easy for us to know exactly were the sneaky insurgents lurked.
With all of the aforementioned in mind there was a subtle commotion near midnight. The sentries raised us to stand-to. There was something suspect in the killing area; immediate stand-to. Eventually the target was identified as four legged, not armed or dangerous — a herd of cattle wondered serenely through our killing field — stand-down.
After two more days of manoeuvrings in the area we returned empty handed to Evale.
War-gaming at Evale
Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst visited 61 Mech soon after we returned to Evale. We discussed the pros and cons of terrain and own and enemy forces in relation to time and space.
It was decided that 61 Mech would remain in the area of Evale for a little while longer. Evale was a good tactical location to influence the enemy’s northern approaches from. The underlying purpose was to evaluate what our conventional foe to the north was up to — flaunt the enemy more likely.
Our unit was not overly taken in by remaining stationary in one position for too long. Our general rule had always been: No more than three days in one spot at a time. We were definitely not going toe dig in at Evale – or for that matter, on any other plausible southwardly approach FAPLA may choose if they so wished.
Even on the defensive mobility remained the norm for 61 Mech. We were not perturbed by the enemy situation in any way. Our vandalized conventional foe would not be back for a while; we intuitively and practically knew this.
We kept ourselves busy and productive at Evale by means of occasionally patrolling for SWAPO and by war-gaming. In between moments of high activity the leader group indulged in terrain analysis and contingency planning. Occasionally we threw 120 mm mortar rounds to whatever, wherever. This all increased the combat readiness of 61 Mech. It also added insult to FAPLA’s injury. This was all in a day’s work of projecting force as 61 Mech thought best. Careful calculations from the map ensured that we did not blow innocent civilians residing in the kraals around us to smithereens.
I enjoyed sitting on top of my Ratel playing enemy and force commander at the same time during the two-sided field exercises we held at Evale. The combat teams took turns in fighting through 19 Brigade’s erstwhile defensive positions. It was a joy to watch the combat teams of 61 Mech manoeuvring aggressively on receiving snippets of information and responding rapidly to quick commands — fire and movement forwards and backwards and side-ways. It was emotionally satisfying to experience the confidence and self-esteem of our combat team commanders, supporting staff and soldiers continually growing as we operated, exercised and trained. The local inhabitants could report all they saw to the north, for all we cared.
The extrapolative deterrent value of 61 Mech in theatre marginally increased the success rate of counter-insurgency operations, such as Makro and Meebos. At least the initiative and freedom of action so desperately required by our counter-insurgency forces in Southern Angola could be maintained by curbing FAPLA.
At some stage we became bored at Evale and deployed southwards to the area of Ongiva for a few days. We had the chance to do some well deserved maintenance on our equipment. A massive stable parade was held on the airfield at Ongiva, flaunting SWAPO and FAPLA in the process. Training 61 Mech and improving our SOPs on the hoof continued.
The work in Southern Angola by 21 January 1982 was done for the moment — another mission accomplished by 61 Mech.
Closure — Simmering Fighting Power and Brooding Threats
61 Mech returned to Omuthiya on completion of Operation Makro by 21 January 1981.
Following On Operation Makro our fighting unit continued to fulfil its mission as the mobile reserve of the SWATF. In the most basic terms this implied: Remaining abreast with the evolving military situation in our area of responsibility; doing the required contingency planning for the latter; continuing with force preparation for our primary mission and operational tasks foreseen in the close future; maintaining a high combat readiness state at all times.
Merely by being in the northern operational area in a perpetual state of high combat readiness was sufficient endorsement for 61 Mech to achieve its mission. Added benefit was the ability to move at moments notice. Latent combat potential for that matter even kept the conventional enemy deployed close by in Southern Angola at bay. 61 Mech was a force to be reckoned with by the enemy across the border.
All in the entire aforementioned outcomes accrued to the ability of 61 Mech to fight well at any time and at any place. This included: The thought processes behind our military actions and the war faring doctrine applied; our motivation for mission accomplishment; the ability to fight effectively with the military means provided to us. This was the reason for the existence of 61 Mech — operational ends, ways and means.
More than anything the achievements of 61 Mech in the field were because of young men, the greater share being the national servicemen kind. To their honour: The success of 61 Mech was the consequence of their clear military thinking, tactical prowess and leadership portrayed under dire operational circumstances — even in the ordinary daily things. My leader group and our soldiers were a pleasure to work with.
What was the military situation in Southern Angola on completion of Operation Makro by the end of January 1982?
The hunt for SWAPO to our north continued relentlessly. For some time this advantageous situation would be maintained without undue interference by FAPLA, until 1984 that is.
The ground had been prepared to launch the next major search and destroy mission against SWAPO from Ongiva, which was to be Operation Meebos in 1982.
- 61 Mech once again undertook a hasty force projection sortie into Angola from 1 March until 7 March 1982, as part of Operation Meebos. This time the likes of Xangongo, Mongua and Ongiva were subjected to our force — where our tracks still clearly lay from the heydays of Operation Protea in August-September 1981.
- 61 Mech would participate in the hunt for SWAPO north of the Cuvelai River during Operation Meebos proper. This counter-insurgency operation was conducted from 18 July 1982 to 30 August 1982.
Before Operation Meebos in July 1982 realised, our fighting unit had to contend with a large scale infiltration by SWAPO’s special unit into the death triangle. This happened over the period 14 April until 25 May 1982. It played out in the farming districts of Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein. It took the task force under command of 61 Mech close on two months to find, fix and destroy the special unit of SWAPO, who had stormed over the red-line with more than 156 insurgents.
The equilibrium regarding conventional forces in the interim, as it related to the area in dispute, had been restored:
- The threat posed by 19 Brigade had been fended off by the end of December 1981. The enemy was back where it belonged, from whence it came in early December.
- An uneasy stalemate remained with FAPLA’s menacing brigades brooding respectively at Cuvelai, Techamutette and Cahama.
Politics, diplomacy and peace-talks merrily continued. The shores of the Cape Verdi Islands in West Africa were to be fared upon now and again by the opposing political and military grand masters.
An era was entered in the northern operational area, which acknowledged keeping the SADF’s military hands-off FAPLA for the moment. This was somewhat frustrating for the senior commanders on the ground. For soldiers operating at the tactical level the hands off FAPLA restraint was strange: There the enemy is, we can see them and they present a clear and present danger, why can’t we take them on”?
In the meantime the enemy bided their time. The plot was thickening, literally with military man and machine. Angola and Cuba kept on reinforcing their menacing military screen hemming the area in dispute. Wide ranging enemy air defences besieged the area of operations of the SADF, impressively so. At the same time FAPLA forces were continually reimbursed with more and more Cuban combat units flowing in from Havana and military hardware from Moscow.
By late 1983 Cahama to the west and Cuvelai to the north had become major thorns in the flesh of the SADF — mission creep was smouldering on the horizon for December. By December 1983 political grace and high level military authority were granted to take on FAPLA over open sights once again.
The aforementioned political and military situation led to Operation Askari in December 1983-January 1984. At the time Brigadier Joep Joubert commanded Sector 10 from Oshakati. Incidentally, the command of 61 Mech, under Commandant Gertjie van Zyl, was taken over in the field near Cahama by Commandant Epp van Lill in late December 1983. I had in turn handed over command of 61 Mech to van Zyl on 10 January 1983.
Operation Askari was an extremely large scale external operation. The mission remained more or less the same as in the past: Continue to hit at SWAPO’s command, logistics, communication lines and insurgent force levels deployed in Southern Angola. This time FAPLA would come in the way once again, with permission so to speak.
During December 1983 Sector 10 probed the defences of Cahama with 61 Mech; a deliberate attack was launched against the salient on 31 December, but without success. The enemy was too strong, their tanks too aggressive, for the much smaller force of the SADF deployed in theatre to the west of the Cunene River.
A much stronger combat force was then mustered to the east of the Cunene River, which later turned on the 11th Brigade at Cuvelai. Cuvelai subsequently fell on 13 January 1984 at the mailed fist of 61 Mech.
Evidently the political and military games needed to continue, as no form of peaceful order or practical solution could be reached for the burgeoning conflict. The evolving political and military situation was steadily building up towards a major conventional clash looming in Southern Angola. Heavy war clouds were building for 1987-88, to the east, across the Cuito Cuanavale River. The storm would break in August 1987, when Operation Moduler was launched by the SADF.
Not withstanding the enormous force levels deployed to the north of Omuthiya, the dark forces of SWAPO were making ready to surge southwards in April 1981. On 15 April 1982 their special unit crossed into the death triangle and sparked off Operation Yahoo.
Operation Yahoo would be the most intense and challenging of all the military operations experienced by 61 Mech from January 1981 until December 1982, even more so than Operation Protea.