Operation Modular

Operational Years

Objective of the Operation

The aim of Operation Modular was to halt and reverse the FAPLA advance on to the Unita strongholds of Mavinga and Jamba

Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group

Commander: Commandant Kobus Smit
2IC: Major Danie Laas
Adjudant: Lieutenant Jardin
Alpha Company: Major Philip van Wyk
Bravo Company: Major Dawid Lotter
Charlie Squadron: Captain PJ Cloete
Foxtrot battery (anti aircraft): Captain Deon Bormann
Sierra battery: Major Theo Wilken
Echelon commander: Sergeant Major WO1 Kobus Kemp
Light workshop troop: Sergeant Major WO2 Joe Lombaard

Personal Impressions of the Commander

Introduction to the different subunits that composed 61 Mechanised Battalion Group

61 Mechanised Battalion Group consisted of two mechanised infantry companies, an armour car and tank squadron, an artillery battery, a support company, an anti-aircraft troop, light workshop troop and signal troop.

The battalion’s senior and middle command levels were manned by career soldiers whilst the junior command levels and men were by large conscripts permanently transferred to 61 Mechanised Battalion Group for their second year of military service.

E Squadron (the tank squadron) did not participate in Operation Modular as it was moth-balled and not manned.

FAPLA planned a massive military offensive against UNITA in 1987

During early 1987 intelligence indicated that a massive military offensive was planned by FAPLA against UNITA. We as commanders were briefed about the situation and about contingencies contemplated by UNITA and the South African Militaries.

It was my understanding that the direct involvement of South African Defence Force would be the last resort to maintain the status quo in South Eastern Angola.

UNITA’s military presence in the South-East of Angola implied that SWAPO’s operations were contained in the South West and the SADF could limit and concentrate its own actions in Ovamboland and the area directly north of the SWA/Angola boundary.

The name of Operation Modular befitted the deployment of the SADF

The selection of the name Modular for operations in support of UNITA during the FAPLA winter offensive was befitting the deployment of the SADF.

The South African military forces were deployed in a modular methodology.

The forces employed were originally restricted to the South African Special Forces, elements of 32 Battalion, artillery and anti-aircraft elements not even of battalion strength. As operational requirements dictated, the force levels increased in numbers and caliber.

During November 1987 the force levels escalated to a full mechanized brigade comprising infantry, mechanized infantry, armour and artillery units.

I received operational instructions in June 1987 to mobilize Sierra battery

During June 1987 I received an operational instruction to mobilize Sierra Battery, commanded by major Theo Wilken.

In line with policy to limit the conventional profile of the SADF, the battery was mobilized and equipped with 120mm M5 Mortars. The G5 guns and gun tractors remained at Omuthiya, 61 Mech’s operational base.

Similarly, Foxtrot battery, commanded by captain Deon Bormann, in reality only an anti-aircraft troop, was mobilized to be deployed for protection of the South African ground forces.

61 Mech Battalion Group moved to Bittersoet for a week and then returned to Omuthiya

During the latter part of June, the remainder of 61 Mech Bn Gp was deployed for a short operation in the Oshakati area and moved to Bittersoet, the small training area of Sector 20 just south of Rundu, primarily to show its presence in the operational theatre.

Here the unit spent about a week and the command element participated in contingency planning.

I realized that if the unit was indeed employed it would have to use its full conventional capability and the utilization of its full fighting capability. It was also made clear that the South African Government and Military High Command would only deploy overt conventional forces if limited force employment proofs to be unsuccessful.

The facilities at Bittersoet were unsuited to sustain a large force for a lengthy period of time and the proximity of civilians implied that the main weapon systems could not be used. The unit returned to its base area where full scale preparation, including fire and maneuver was done. The unit remained at Omuthiya until it was clear that authority for its employment would be granted.

Meanwhile the FAPLA offensive against Mavinga gained momentum

Meanwhile the FAPLA offensive gained momentum and no less than nine brigades were deployed to the 6 Military Region where four strengthened brigades would launch the offensive against the strategic UNITA stronghold at Mavinga.

The remainder of the forces was used to safeguard FAPLA’s communication lines.

The FAPLA forces established a safe area to the west of the Cuito river. 47, 59 and 21 Brigades moved to their respective deployment areas whilst 16 Brigade remained in the rear.

Siera battery fired the first shots of Operation Modular

Sierra Battery, deployed at Samunguri, north-east of the source of the Mianei river fired the first shots of Operation Modular on 13 August engaging 47 and 59 Brigades.

UNITA’s reports indicated that more forces were required to prevent the capturing of Mavinga

UNITA indicated that the force levels and determination displayed by FAPLA showed that more forces would be required to prevent the FAPLA forces from reaching and capturing Mavinga and accordingly the deployment of an additional artillery battery; Quebec battery and the anti-tank squadron, commanded by major Hannes Nortman, of 32 Battalion, were approved.

Quebec battery was deployed from 4 SAI. The battery was equipped with Sierra batteries guns and gun tractors. The guns and crews were air-transported to Mavinga while the battery’s vehicles were moved by road.

Colonel Jock Harris briefed us on the operational situation

Accompanied by my sub-unit commanders: major Phillip van Wyk from A Company, major Dawid Lötter from B Company and captain P.J. Cloete from C Squadron; colonel Jock Harris briefed us on the operational situation at the Forward Headquarters located at Ingue.

We conducted a reconnaissance of the terrain circumstances in and around Mavinga and the Lomba River.

Meanwhile the main force again moved from Omuthiya to Bittersoet under the helm of the Battalion 2IC, major Danie Laas.

The FAPLA forces started their advance on 17 August

FAPLA forces started their advance towards Mavinga on 17 August and made good progress in spite of actions from Papa and Sierra batteries and were within five kilometers from the Lomba River by 29 August.

Major Theo Wilken identified possible crossing points at the Lomba river to cover with indirect fire

Major Wilken reconnoitered the Lomba river to identify possible crossing positions.

Based on his analysis, he selected possible deployment positions for Sierra battery’s mortars. The most likely crossing could be covered by fire from these positions.

To prevent being isolated to the north of the Lomba River, Sierra battery crossed the river and deployed in a position to cover FAPLA’s forces crossing the river.

Satisfied that his men were deployed in the best possible firing position he then joined commandant Robbie Hartslief as indirect fire support coordinator on 31 August.

Arrivals at Mavinga

32 Battalion’s anti-tank squadron and Quebec battery’s vehicles arrived at Mavinga on 25 August.

Our appreciation of FAPLA’s intentions

It was our appreciation that the FAPLA’s commanders intention was to use 47 Brigade to secure bridgeheads on the Lomba’s southern bank ensuring a safe crossing for 59 and 21 Brigades.

These bridgeheads would then be used to launch the attack to secure and capture Mavinga.

By the end of August, 47 Brigade reached the source of the Lomba River, 59 Brigade reached a position directly north of the Lomba near the Cunzumbia’s confluence and 21 Brigade reached the Lomba approximately 10 kilometers to the east of the Lomba/Cunzumbia’s confluence.

Deployment of Papa and Sierra batteries

Papa battery deployed to the west to reach the positions of 47 Brigade at the source of the Lomba River and moved in an easterly direction when 47 Brigade proceeded with its advance.

Quebec battery completed its preparations and deployed in a position eighteen kilometers south-east of the Lomba/Cunzumbia’s confluence. From this position the both 59 and 21 Brigades could be reached.

On 29 August I gave the instruction for 61 Mech Battalion Group to move to Mavinga

The restriction on deployment of 61 Mech Battalion Group was lifted on 29 August and the unit left Bittersoet to reach Mavinga at best speed.

I gave this instruction from the Forward Headquarters located at Ingue where we did a full-scale planning cycle.

The composition of South Africa’s 20 Brigade

The escalated South African Forces were grouped as 20 SA Brigade and colonel Deon Ferreira (nick-named Falcon) appointed as brigade commander.

The available forces were grouped in three combat groups:

1. Combat group Alpha, with myself in command, was formed by grouping G company from 32 Battalion, A company, C squadron, 81mm mortar group and an anti-tank group from 61Mech Battalion Group.

2. Combat group Bravo, with commandant Robbie Hartslief in command, was formed by grouping two motorized companies from 101 Battalion with a motorized infantry company, anti-tank squadron, 81 mm mortar groups from 32 Battalion.

3. Combat group Charlie, with major Dawid Lotter, was formed by grouping B company, 81mm mortar group and an anti-tank group from 61Mech Battalion Group

20 Artillery Regiment, with Commandant Jan van der Westhuizen in command, was formed by grouping Papa battery (127mm Multiple Rocket Launcher) from 32 Battalion, Quebec battery (155mm G5 Guns) from 4 SAI and Sierra battery (120mm M5 Mortars) from 61 Mech Battalion Group.

An eventful movement from Rundu to Mavinga

61 Mech Battalion Group’s movement from Rundu to Mavinga, with major Danie Laas in charge, was quite eventful reaching the refueling point at Luengue on 2 September.

A bush fire destroyed some of the diesel bunkers implying that the unit was forced to use its own supplies to proceed.

Fuel available was also found to be contaminated and all available diesel filters were used to get the unit going again.

The unit however reach a position about 26 kilometer from Mavinga on 6 September, where I joined them to assume command and oversee the final bound to the area of operations south of Ingue on 9 September.

FAPLA’s 21 Brigade started to cross the Lomba river on 9 September

The FAPLA forces were ready to take their next move and on 9 September, 21 Brigade started to cross the Lomba about twelve kilometers east of its confluence with the Cunzumbia.

Battle group Bravo reacted with a motorized company and an anti-tank group equipped with 90mm Ratels. Supported by Quebec battery, battle group Bravo was able to limit the forces crossing the river to a company, it was however clear that 21 Brigade was ready to cross the river with its tanks.

Commandant Hartslief ordered major Hannes Nortmann with the remaining elements of the anti-tank squadron to deploy to the area of the intended crossing.

Major Hannes Nortman arrived on the scene on the morning of 10 September.

Battle group Charlie was moved closer to the area to act as reserve to strengthen battle group Bravo if necessary.

The T54 tanks also started to cross the river but met with resistance

Meanwhile 21 Brigade had established a bridgehead of battalion strength during the night and the T54 tanks started to cross the river.

The T54 tanks were forced to cross the river in close formation and a mobile bridge was deployed at the river. This crossing forced the concentration of the force and allowed the concentrated fire of 20 Artillery Regiment.

The individual armour vehicles were engaged by major Nortman’s anti tank squadron and 21 Brigade lost its momentum. At the same time the bridgehead was attacked by the infantry element of the combat group.

21 Brigade was forced to abandon it efforts to cross the Lomba river

21 Brigade utilized all forces to its disposal and its T54 tanks and D 30 used several tons of ammunition to support its forces in crossing the river initially, and later in the day to cover the withdrawal of its forces to the northern side of the river.

21 Brigade was forced to abandon its efforts to cross the river and was in need of re-supply before another attempt could be made to cross the river.

47 Brigade deployed its 1 Tactical Group

47 Brigade had reached the confluence with the Cuzizi River and started to prepare its position. This brigade then deployed its 1 Tactical Group to the east towards the UNITA logistical base four kilometers to the east.

Colonel Deon Ferreira deployed combat group Bravo to counter this endeavour and on 13 September commandant Hartslief’s combat group clashed with 1 Tactical Group. Being an abandoned UNITA base implied that the terrain was crisscrossed with trenches and the maneuvering mechanized forces found it very difficult to move and deploy its forces.

Fearing an envelopment from the south, commandant Hartslief withdrew his forces for replenishment and repair.

Colonel Ferreira ordered combat group Charlie to move forward and prevent further movement of 1 Tactical Group to the east.

Major Dawid Lotter’s combat group made contact with FAPLA on 13 September

Major Dawid Lotter moved to the west and established contact with the FAPLA forces by 22h00 the same evening. Contact was maintained and during the night a number of FAPLA vehicles were destroyed. Contact was broken off in the early morning of 14 September.

Combat group Alpha was tasked to attack 47 Brigade from the west

Combat group Alpha was tasked to envelop 47 Brigade from the south and attack 47 Brigade form the west.

Information on the specific whereabouts of 47 Brigade and its defensive positions was limited. We moved from our positions south of Ingue during the night of 15 September and made contact with 47 Brigade during the late hours of the morning of 16 September.

The terrain was very dense and it was almost impossible to deploy a mechanized force sensibly.

Charlie squadron made contact with infantry and tanks on distances as close as 50 meters. Captain P.J. Cloete, Charlie squadron’s commander was wounded and temporarily evacuated later the evening. Major Danie Laas, an armour officer was temporarily appointed as squadron commander.

In order to circumvent further losses colonel Deon Ferreira ordered us to withdraw from the area. These positions were taken over by UNITA. Fortunately captain P.J Cloete’s wound was not very serious and he could return a few days later to once again assume command of Charlie squadron.

The FAPLA onslaught on Mavinga had lost its momentum

47 Brigade was now under threat from its eastern and its western flanks.

Efforts to replenish 47 Brigade from the north were also unsuccessful. The inability of 21 and 59 Brigades to cross the Lomba, and the isolation of 47 Brigade south of the Lomba implied that FAPLA has lost its momentum.

The FAPLA brigades were ordered to consolidate their positions on the northern banks of the Lomba.

47 Brigade received instruction to cross the river and establish a firm base north of the Lomba.

It was appreciated that 47 Brigade would reach the crossing point by 5 October.

Combat groups Alpha and Bravo were integrated as the main attack force

Planning to attack 47 Brigade on more favourable terrain commenced.

Colonel Deon Ferreira decided to integrate combat groups Alpha and Charlie as the main attack force with combat group Bravo in reserve. This decision in practical terms meant that 61 Mech Battalion Group was now grouped as a single fighting force.

Some advance elements of 47 Brigade moved to the crossing area to establish a bridgehead to cover the main forces crossing of the Lomba.

61 Mech Battalion Group moved to the assembly area during the night of 2 October and by first light on 3 October the forming-up place, at the old UNITA base, was reached.

We also established contact with the 3rd UNITA Battalion.

We crossed the advance line with Charlie squadron in the lead

Charlie squadron crossed the advance line directly followed by Alpha company commanded by major Philip van Wyk.

Major Dawid Lotter with B company and the anti-tank platoon was kept as battalion reserve.

Quebec battery was in direct support and the other batteries were in support.

Contact was made at 10h47 on 3 October

We made contact at 10h17 and 47 Brigade’s tanks were engaged by the Charlie squadron’s Ratel 90’s. Progress was very slow and some pockets of severe resistance were encountered. These pockets of resistance were neutralized using concentrated artillery fire.

The recoil systems of the Ratel 90’s started to break down and I the ordered all forces to halt, UNITA forces to stay put and ordered Charlie squadron and Alpha company to move back some 1000 meters. When they reached their position I ordered a temporary seize fire to allow the technical staff to re-gas the Ratels 90’s recoil-systems.

The attack was continued by 14h00 and immediately heavy tank fire was encountered.

Major Philip van Wyk also reported that that some FAPLA infantry soldiers were observed fleeing into the shona towards the crossing point. In the pursuing clash second lieutenant Adrian Hind was fatally wounded.

Very soon the recoil systems of the Ratel 90’s started to become unserviceable again.

I decided to employ the battalion reserve to maintain the momentum of the attack

In order to maintain momentum I then decided to employ the battalion reserve.

I thus ordered Bravo company and the anti-tank platoon to move into the void created by the withdrawal of Charlie squadron and Alpha company.

The few (three) serviceable armour cars and Alpha company now became the battalion reserve.

The fresh forces progressed well and by 17h00 FAPLA’s resistance finally crumbled and the remaining forces start fleeing into the shona.

The objective was cleared by Golf company from 32 Battalion and 3rd Battalion of UNITA

I ordered the mechanized forces to halt and tasked Golf company from 32 Battalion to link up with UNITA 3rd Battalion who had to clear the objective on foot. Bravo company had to be available to react if necessary.

Losses on the South African side were curtailed. Only three men died and a further six were wounded. Charlie squadron lost only oneRatel 90, the vehicle of second lieutenant Hind.

47 Brigade was effectively destroyed

47 Brigade was effectively destroyed and the majority of its equipment was captured or destroyed.

The captured equipment was handed to UNITA. Amongst the equipment captured/destroyed were 18 x T55 and T54 tanks, 22 x BTR 60 and 85 trucks. 47 Brigade practically ceased to exist.

The total annihilation of 47 Brigade came as a blow to FAPLA’s High Command and an order to withdraw all forces to the area to the west of Cuito Cuanavale was issued.

Repositioning of the FAPLA forces after the destruction of 47 Brigade

By 15 October 59 Brigade took up position at the source of the Mianei River, 21 Brigade at the source of the Cuzizi, 16 Brigade at the source of the Chambinga River and 66 Brigade at the bridge over the Chambinga River.

The result of the annihilation of 47 Brigade

This meant that FAPLA was forced back to the positions they occupied two months earlier before they started their advance towards Mavinga.

The South African Forces’ objective to halt the offensive and to prevent the capturing of Mavinga was achieved.

I handed over command of 61 Mech Battalion Group to my successor

After this battle I handed command of 61 Mech Battalion Group to my successor, commandant Mike Muller and returned to the unit’s headquarters in Tsumeb.

I started with the preparation for the relieve-in-line and the demobilization of my battalion.

The January 1987 intake, with commanders from 1 SAI, 1SSB and 4 Artillery Regiment took over the equipment in the field to proceed with operations early in 1988.

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