Objective of the Operation
Operation Protea was launched on 23 August 1981 to destroy the Swapo command and training centre at Xangongo and its logistic bases at Xangongo and Ongiva with the intention to neutralize SWAPO's military forces in Southern Angola between the Cunene and Kavango rivers, also known as the Central Theatre. The destruction of the bases at Xangongo and Ongiva would undermine Swapo’s ability to conduct operations on the North-Western front and also have a psychological impact by reinforcing the message that it no longer had the luxury of safe sanctuaries in Southern Angola The following restriction guidelines were imposed: 1.Not to attack any FAPLA positions or troops unless they interfered and the safety of own forces were thus threatened 2.To respect the lives and property of the local population 3.That the duration of the operation should not exceed fourteen days 4.That the success of the operation must be certain 5.That the safety of own troops and equipment must be of prime importance 6.To capture leaders as well as advisers and/or supporters from Russia, Cuba or any other country h3. Task Force Alpha Task Force Alpha under command of colonel Joep Joubert consisted of an HQ, Task Force Reserve and four battle groups, namely 1.Battle group 10 under command of commandant Roland de Vries 2.Battle group 20 under command of commandant Johann Dippenaar 3.Battle group 30 under command of commandant Chris Serfontein 4.Battle group 40 under command of commandant Deon Ferreira 5.Task Force Reserve under command of commandant Johan Coetzer The battle groups further had their own complement of armoured cars, artillery and the necessary support services while the Task Force Reserve consisted of a mechanised company, two Ratel 90 troops, one Medium Artillery Battery and two protection platoons. h3. Task Force Bravo Task Force Bravo under command of colonel Vos Benade consisted of an HQ, Task Force Reserve and four battle groups, namely 1.Battle group 50 under command of commandant Frans Botes 2.Battle group 60 under command of commandant James Hills 3.Battle group 30 under command of commandant Chris Serfontein 4.Battle group 40 under command of commandant Deon Ferreira 5.Task Force Reserve consisted of teams from 52 Reconnaissance Regiment and a pathfinder platoon from 1 Parachute Batallion h3. Battle group 10 The task of battle group 10, which in essence was the 61 Mech Battalion Group main force, was to move along the western side of the Cunene river to Humbe and cut off any SWAPO escape to the west over the bridge at Xangongo and to prevent any intervention by FAPLA from Cahama.
Composition of Combat Group 10
|Commander:||Commandant Roland de Vries|
|2IC:||Major Thys Rall|
|Alpha Company:||1 Parachute battalion – Captain Pale van der Walt|
|Bravo Company:||1 SAI – Captain Koos Liebenberg|
|Charlie Squadron:||2 SSB – Major Joe Weyers|
|Logistics Officer:||Captain Giel Reinecke|
|Echelon Commander:||WO1 M Barnard|
|81mm Mortar Platoon:||1 SAI – Second Lieutenant Ettienne Gertzen|
|Combined Platoon 61 Mechanised Battalion Group:||Second Lieutenant M Michau|
|Sappers:||25 Field Squandron – Lieutenant M Olivier|
|HQ Commander:||61 Mechanised Battalion Group|
|Medium Artillery troop 140 mm:|| 4 Field Regiment
Battery Commander-Captain Bernie Pols
Troop Commander-Captain F van Eeden
Personal Impressions of the Commander
BATTLES OF ENCIRCLEMENT AND ANNIHILATION
- OPERATION PROTEA AUGUST 1981
By Roland de Vries
Operation Protea in a nutshell
Operation Protea occurred more than thirty years prior to my writing of this account, yet most of it was still as clear in my mind as during the days that it actually happened
Protea was a military operation which came to pass in August 1981. It occurred during the South African Border War and the Angolan Civil War. The South African Defence Force (SADF) was about to launch its first classic large scale conventional strike into southern Angola since Operation Savannah in 1975-76.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group was to be part of this encounter.
The enemy had a surprise coming.
During Operation Protea the SADF destroyed two main integrated FAPLA and SWAPO (PLAN) defensive complexes located at Xangongo and Ongiva respectively. The aforementioned enemy strongholds were located in the Cunene Province of southern Angola.
Operation Protea was launched across the border on 23 August 1981 by two brigade size task forces, namely: Task Force Alpha and; Task Force Bravo.
D-Day for the surprise offensive was 24 August 1981. It 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 Modular, which followed on in August 1987.
This then is a story about 61 Mechanised Battalion Group and how a proud combat unit participated in Operation Protea. It is all about mobile conventional operations which were conducted in southern Angola from 23 August until 2 September 1981
Our unit simply believed that strength in war fighting lay in mobility. The credo for our unit was “Mobilitate Vincere” — victory through mobility.
The year of 1981 was an exhilarating time for 61 Mech. We had already completed one operation and was preparing for the next. Our first-line fighting unit was extremely well trained and comprised young national servicemen as the main share of our combat force. Our young subalterns and junior non-commissioned officers were national service men of calibre. The small clan of permanent force staff members commanding and managing 61 Mech were proud of our fighting unit and our young men.
It was a privilege and an honour to could have commanded 61 Mechanised Battalion Group during those thrilling and operationally active times. I had the best of men. Protea was going to be my first external operation with them, as part of a cohesive and spirited 61 Mech, into Angola.
I wrote this account as a tribute to the men of 61 Mech. People I dearly cared for appreciated and respected — a band of brothers – until today.
Operational outcome the enemy was left aghast
Protea as we knew it was fast and furious. It was limited warfare in the true sense of the word – a bloody sequel of move, surprise, encircle, annihilate and withdraw.
Operational guidelines were clear cut, it stated: “In and out within fourteen days”. The conventional side of the operation transpired over the period from 23 August 1981 until 2 September 1981 — far less than fourteen days. The immediate operational outcome was devastating to the enemy.
The overall medium-to-long-term strategic effect envisaged by the SADF however remained eluding. The escalating conflict would build up to a massive conventional battle in southeast Angola came August 1987 — we just did not know it then.
Short term operational outcomes envisaged for Operation Protea therefore, were crystal clear. Strategic questions for the medium to long-term however remained.
Before the story relating to the astonishing build up and the remarkable execution thereof unfolds in the script below, just something about the operational outcomes of Operation Protea to whet the appetite.
- The outcome of Protea left the enemy aghast. The Russian military advisors and their families abandoned Xangongo with breakfast still untouched on dining room tables. Clothes were flapping in the wind on washing lines. Limp FAPLA and MPLA flags were left abandoned on flagpoles. Numerous enemy soldiers lay dead amongst the trenches. Smouldering metal wrecks lay scattered in the streets and fields of Xangongo and Ongiva. Without any vanity the enemy abandoned their defensive positions – they fled from hell. The enemy’s bloody defeat was followed by political hue and cry from their side and throughout the world.
- The civilian population we encountered in southern Angola were wide eyed, staring bewildered at the unknown belligerent forces passing by in their war machines. There was a strange emptiness to Xangongo and Ongiva. In a sense the desolation and destruction left behind were sad to see.
- The resounding success of Protea drove FAPLA and the Cuban forces far away to the north — north of Cuvelai – away from the vital shallow operational war zone in southern Angola. This was the area where our own counter-insurgency forces needed to operate freely against SWAPO in future; without undue interference from their ardent conventional war fighting supporters, our political and military masters surmised.
- Only ten South African soldiers fell during Protea and fifty eight were wounded. These few personnel casualties stood in stark comparison to the more than thousand enemy fatalities and their many wounded. The enemy wounded could not even be calculated accurately.
- The ten slain South African soldiers were still too many. The crucial importance of taking the calculated risk in mobile warfare should not be misread. South African military commanders were extremely sensitive about their scant and precious human souls. Uncalled-for casualties were not the norm. Blood was definitely not the price of victory.
- More than four thousand tons of war material and equipment were captured during Operation Protea. The war booty included a large number of enemy tanks, armoured cars, troop carriers and logistic vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, artillery pieces and anti-aircraft guns. The spoils in addition included assortments of ammunition, food and fuel and sensitive documents. The enemy’s military hardware was mainly of Russian origin, I may add.
Know the enemy or succumb in battle
Tsun Tzu one of the oldest Chinese military philosophers had predicated in his book “The Art of War, 500 years before Christ, that: “You must know yourself and the enemy, or succumb in every battle”. This we believed in at 61 Mech and ardently followed the norm as part of our doctrine.
Painted on to a colourful display board in front of our operations centre at Omuthiya was another saying by Tsun Tzu: “Warfare is based on deception”.
Primary Foe and General Enemy Situation
The primary foe of the SADF in the counter revolutionary war for South West Africa-Namibia was the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). The military threat to South West Africa (SWA) manifested in the form of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).
The aforementioned liberation movement was founded in Windhoek on 19 April 1960. Herman Toivo Ja Toivo was the founding member. The party was originally created to advocate immediate Namibian independence from South Africa. SWAPO was destined to become Namibia’s leading party and the eventual political governing authority, following Namibia’s independence in 1990.
Carefully built into the core of SWAPO was PLAN, SWAPO’s insurgent guerrilla army. PLAN was established in 1962. At the same time SWAPO had established its Military Headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
From the early seventies through the eighties SWAPO methodically established strategic bases in southern Angola to support its insurgent war against SWA-Namibia. The centre of gravity for their political-military struggle was Ovamboland — where the supportive masses were. PLAN insurgents struck southwards into SWA from safe liars located inside southern Angola. They were protected by FAPLA – the conventional army of Angola.
The MPLA government was in power in Angola at the time of Operation Protea. During the Angolan Civil War the MPLA was opposed by Dr Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA . UNITA was intentionally allied to South Africa and SWA in the struggle for southern Angola and northern SWA against mutual enemies.
Both FAPLA and SWAPO were ardently supported by Russian military advisers and Cuban forces in the ongoing revolutionary struggle. FAPLA entangled with SWAPO therefore inadvertently became the combined enemy of the SADF. The Russians together with the Cubans became optional enemy add-ons.
Steady Build-Up towards Operation Protea — the Plot Thickens
Some close encounters with FAPLA during Operation Sceptic in 1980 preceded external operations such as Ceiling and Carnation — more specifically Operation Protea, which was ordained for August-September 1981. Ceiling and Carnation were counter-insurgency operations conducted in southern Angola from June to August 1981.
As a result of several sobering setbacks in 1980 SWAPO had moved some of its bases further to the north. However, closer to the SWA-Angolan border the insurgent enemy lurked within the protective folds of FAPLA. SWAPO’s logistic system became virtually entangled with those of FAPLA, the conventional army of Angola.
According to the SADF’s assessment in 1981 the military situation in the northern border region of SWA was extremely threatening. It was viewed as being strategically more serious than was generally tolerated by South Africa’s military’s high command.
The enemy was stockpiling large quantities of weaponry and supplies, including fuel and ammunition, very close to the border with SWA. Immense integrated force levels of FAPLA and SWAPO were now deployed at staging points such as Cahama, Xangongo and Ongiva. The evolving military situation posed a clear and present danger for SWA. Even so far as an emerging conventional military threat to the territorial integrity of SWA.
At the time FAPLA became more militarily self-assured and provocative – more than ever before towards the combined forces of the SADF and SWATF operating against SWAPO inside southern Angola. The unfolding situation curtailed own external operations, especially the depth to which own operations could be launched. Own security forces needed to operate much further north than twenty five kilometres, which they were now restricted to do. Extended operational depths of more than three hundred kilometres against the sneaky SWAPO insurgents were required. The conventional enemy’s wide-ranging air defence systems equally and consistently posed a real threat to ongoing air operations against SWAPO inside Angola.
By early 1981 the operational picture in SWA was therefore steadily building towards the initiation of Operation Protea, which was marked on the planning maps for August 1981.
Operation Carrot had just been successfully completed in April 1981 by 61 Mech. The aim was to destroy a special unit of SWAPO, who had infiltrated into the death triangle — the natural triangle formed by Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein in the so called “White farming area”, south of the red line. These incursions by PLAN’s special unit had become annual events. It occurred in April-May and was commonly referred to by the SADF and SWATF as the winter games.
Normal internal counter-insurgency operations were pursued relentlessly in the northern border region. At the same time limited externals, such as Ceiling and Carnation mentioned above, were launched into the shallow operational zone of southern Angola.
The purpose of Ceiling and Carnation was to pre-empt and disrupt the enemy’s insurgent actions southwards. These said external operations were directed solely at SWAPO and served as the forerunners for Operation Protea. Now and then clashes with FAPLA occurred. However, up to now this was in a way avoided by own security forces. The latter mentioned counter-insurgency operations were already underway when the operational planning for Protea commenced in all seriousness in July 1981.
Our persistent insurgent enemy from the north inter alia now started operating more freely from their safe FAPLA liars located inside southern Angola — they became near untouchables. For this reason the SADF were restricted in pre-empting the strikes of SWAPO into SWA. Our wily insurgent enemy constantly took to their heels and sought unfair refuge with FAPLA. The brave terrorists were clinging to the fleshpots of FAPLA in towns such as Lubango, Cahama, Xangongo and Ongiva.
FAPLA was now much to close for comfort. Other ways and means were therefore required to disrupt the wills and the woes of our enemy. The plan for Operation Protea therefore secretively unfolded.
By August 1981 the two brigade-size defensive strongholds of the enemy were deeply entrenched respectively at Xangongo and Ongiva — a mere 60km from the SWA-Angola border. The potential targets presented closely integrated FAPLA and SWAPO military forces. These aforementioned strategic military bases were vital to the support of SWAPO’s war effort in SWA. SWAPO lurked within and struck southwards from the protective folds of these painstakingly constructed FAPLA defences.
A surgical incision by the SADF was therefore required to dismember the foe. What followed was Operation Protea.
Conventional Foe for Operation Protea – Task Force Alpha’s Enemy
FAPLA’s defensive strongholds at Cahama, Xangongo and Ongiva lay slightly north of the SWA-Angolan border and were deemed too close for comfort by the SADF. By now many of SWAPO’s military deployments were embedded within the defensive web of FAPLA.
The regional headquarters of FAPLA for the Cunene Province was located at Lubango (previously known as Sá da Bandeira). The enemy’s defences in the region were extensive. It was protected by wide-ranging air defence screens, which were carefully interlinked with modern Soviet radar systems.
Each defensive layout of FAPLA was set up in depth. This clearly indicated that Russian planning and doctrine guided the designs. At Xangongo and Ongiva it was found that layers of defensive echelons were interlocked with communication trenches and reinforced concrete bunkers. A number of tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery pieces were carefully positioned throughout the respective defensive schemes. The enemy’s defences where protected by all-inclusive minefields. The widespread defences generally faced southward. FAPLA thoughtlessly expected the SADF to attack from the south; which made them extremely vulnerable to attacks from alternative directions.
All in the entire conventional force of the enemy in the Cunene Province accrued to slightly more than a full scale Russian division. A careful analysis was done by the SADF concerning the enemy’s deployments, either those designated as targets, or those who could intervene. We poured over annotated aerial photographs, studied maps, intercepted careless radio chatter and had a few friendly conversations with those captured from the north. Intelligence sources indicated that the following main enemy deployments were to be found in our designated target area:
- FAPLA’s 19th Brigade was deployed in defence of Xangongo and the bridge. This was the main objective for Task Force Alpha on D-Day. It was appreciated that a component of the enemy force could be situated at Humbe. A tactical group of the brigade was deployed at Peu-Peu as a local mobile reserve for Xangongo. Intelligence indicated that approximately five hundred SWAPO insurgents where deployed in the vicinity of Xangongo and that another five hundred semi-regular guerrilla fighters were interspersed with FAPLA’s regular forces. 19 Brigade was to be taken in a pincer manoeuvre by the full wrath of Task Force Alpha and the SAAF. Battle Group 10 (61 Mech) was destined to execute a west flanking of the Cunene River. The remainder of the task force were to storm Xangongo along eastern approaches.
- FAPLA’s 21st Brigade lurked at Cahama. This force served as the mobile reserve for the region. It was suspected that a reinforced SWAPO battalion could be found at Cahama, or alternatively hidden in the bush veldt somewhere between Cahama and Xangongo. It was also presumed that the enemy would push defensive outposts further south-eastwards and southwards to secure the integrity of Cahama. 21st Brigade was not the target for now, but had to be prevented from interfering with Operation Protea. Incidentally this came to be one of the tasks of Battle Group 10 (61 Mech). The intelligence picture about FAPLA’s 21st was not to clear; even more so about any possible devious doings along the route from Xangongo to Cahama.
- FAPLA’s 11th Brigade was deployed at Ongiva. The brigade defended the town with its airfield as well as the District Headquarters of SWAPO located within. Ongiva was the second military objective of Task Force Alpha. It was to be for the taking by Battle Groups 20 and 30 and Combat Team Mamba. The enemy was found to be more obstinate than expected. Task Force Alpha, soon after the attack commenced on D plus 3, was to be supported by Combat Team 2 of Battle Group 10. The aforementioned combat team was commanded by Captain Koos Liebenberg.
- There was a strong enemy outpost discovered at Mongua on D-Day, which was not originally appreciated or even designated as a viable target for Task Force Alpha. Mongua lay halfway between Xangongo and Ongiva. This juicy target of opportunity was presented to Combat Team Mamba for the taking on D plus 1.
Russian military advisors and their families were located at Xangongo and Ongiva. On the morning of 24 August 1981 they were comfortably sitting down to have an English breakfast, oblivious of the approaching attackers from the east and the west.
Revolutionary Foe for Operation Protea – Task Force Bravo’s Enemy
SWAPO (PLAN) was the primary enemy of Task Force Bravo, pure and simple.
Potential enemy targets were dispersed throughout the habitual target area where the wily insurgents were normally hunted. This encompassed the central part of southern Angola; to the north and northwest of Ongiva. Military objectives were presented as command and control structures as well as some carefully selected operational and logistic bases of the insurgents
The enormous designated target area stretched north of a general line which linked Evale, Dova and Ionde. The area of operations included Mupa, Cuvelai and Techamutete.
SWAPO’s area of operations and strategic bases in southern Angola was carefully organised to facilitate command and control and logistics as well as continued military, political and propaganda operations. The operational design of PLAN fitted into the protective screen provided by the conventionally deployed forces of FAPLA.
SWAPO divided their operational area into a western, central and eastern region. Each respective subdivision had its own Regional Headquarter, which was responsible to coordinate operations and logistics in the said designated areas.
SWAPO operated reasonably independent from FAPLA in the eastern region. Within the Central and Western regions the situation was completely different. Here SWAPO’s logistics and those of FAPLA were more or less fully integrated.
The main road leading from Lubango via Cahama further southwards towards the border of SWA was a lifeline for both SWAPO and FAPLA. It was the enemy’s umbilical cord to Namibia. The bridge at Xangongo lay at a critical juncture.
Stratification for Operation Protea
By July 1981 the campaign strategy for Operation Protea was neatly packaged by Major General Charles Lloyd. Lloyd was in overall command of Operation Protea.
Operation Protea formed part of the stratification of the war for South West Africa (SWA) and southern Angola — simply stated the military plans which shaped the ends, ways and means to defeat the foe.
Lloyd was one of those outstanding military commanders with the calibre of a Field Marshall Bill Slim. Slim beat the hell out of the Japanese during the Burma campaign in 1945. Lloyd did the same with FAPLA and SWAPO in 1981.
Major General Charles Lloyd commanded the South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF) from Windhoek. His Main Headquarters (HQ) was called Bastion. Strangely enough the high command of SWAPO’s defence force, occupying Bastion today, still calls it by that name. There is some irony to that — them lounging casually today in our erstwhile bastion makes one think does it not?
I had profound respect for Major General Charles Lloyd. I felt exceedingly confident in his aptitude for high command and the strategic direction his military campaigns were taking in SWA and southern Angola. He was all thinking and action. It was clearly evident that he had acutely conceptualised the counter-insurgency war in SWA. He had formulated a well substantiated military strategy, which he conscientiously followed. His strategy included a series of well thought out interlocking campaigns inside and outside the borders of SWA. Operation Protea formed part of his campaign to spoil the devious intentions of SWAPO in southern Angola.
Operation Protea was all about going for the jugular. Xangongo held by FAPLA was selected as the point of main effort — the strongly defended southern Angolan town was both vital and vulnerable to surprise attack from unexpected directions. The bridge over the Cunene River was the centre point of attack. The attack on Ongiva, a key secondary military objective, would follow hours later. Surprise, encircle and annihilate successively were the names called for in this deadly game.
The SADF and SWATF’s approach to Protea employed a sound operational concept with adequate means. The objectives were clear and the scope limited, as is generally acceded by the exponents of mobile warfare; in this instance a mobile concept cleverly interlinked with counter-insurgency warfare.
The campaign strategy for Operation Protea was aligned with an important higher military intention of the SADF for counter-insurgency warfare in the border region. Incapacitating SWAPO’s military forces in southern Angola was one of the main themes.
The focus of main effort for Operation Protea was therefore the destruction of FAPLA and SWAPO’s integrated defensive system in southern Angola. The attack needed to be highly destructive and conclusive. The salacious military targets located at Xangongo and Ongiva needed to be crushed.
Hopefully the destruction of the FAPLA defences at Xangongo and Ongiva would deprive SWAPO of sanctuary in the central area of southern Angola — where their main guerrilla strategic base-area lay.
The sanctified ground in dispute was designed and exploited by the enemy according to one of the key strategic principles of Mao Tse Tung; namely to establish strategic bases. Another principle of Mao taught the exponents of revolutionary warfare to secure external support; in this instance the unholy alliance of SWAPO with Angola, the Russians and Cuba. An alliance the SADF and SWATF jointly sought to sever.
Cahama was not on the agenda for the taking by the SADF during Operation Protea. That would have resulted in mission creep for the moment. Cahama and other similar targets such as Cuvelai could perhaps come later. The idea was to first see how it went after Xangongo and Ongiva fell. Protea was therefore designed to fight from one firm base to the next. Exerting military influence and domination over the area, where the wickedness of SWAPO lay, was in mind as a strategic outcome.
The Killing Fields — Terrain as the Neutral Factor
The one who utilises terrain as a neutral factor the best in the fighting business is afforded a grand advantage. A similar norm is afforded manoeuvre: Historically, smaller forces had relied on terrain and manoeuvre to overcome numerical deficiencies in achieving victory.
In assessing the utilisation of terrain by belligerents during Operation Protea it is well to remember that the enemy favoured positional warfare, whilst the South Africans favoured manoeuvre.
Using terrain and manoeuvre far better than the enemy did benefited South Africa’s fighting feats during Operation Protea. Even later on in the war the latter wisp of wisdom remained relatively true. This fact was even more so relevant in August-December 1987. This was when the South Africans and UNITA fought against immeasurable enemy odds in South east Angola. A diminutive South African brigade and a few UNITA guerrilla units remained tactical victorious – whilst fighting against more than nine enemy brigades and two tactical groups between the Lomba and Chambinga rivers.
During Operation Protea more than two brigades of FAPLA were slaughtered on terrain of their own choosing, as they attempted to defend Xangongo, Mongua and Ongiva respectively. In the unfolding stratagem their escape routes were completely cut off. Our own approaches reached the foe from directions least expected — emerging through the darkness with war machines from vast bush covered manoeuvre areas extending to both sides of the Cunene River. The same river was cleverly used to isolate the target zone — effectively dividing the west from the east.
The exponent of manoeuvre was allowed a generous chance to destroy the latent foe fixed in useless defence to the east of the Cunene. Terrain and stratagem used in combination allowed the enemy’s two main dormant defences to be taken successively.
The foe lay entrenched, negated for the lack of mutual support. The weary enemy reserve at Cahama was left aghast. The FAPLA soldiers stared over their earthy ramparts. For more than ten night and days they remained inactive as the sun rose in the east and set in the west behind them. They could only wonder as a bloody sequel of attack and destroy unfolded only a few kilometres to the east. Even after Protea was successfully completed by the South Africans on 1 September 1981 the garrison at Cahama remained dormant for days and months on end.
The target zone selected by the SADF and SWATF for Operation Protea was vast. It was however operationally manageable. The operational area of choice was the central part of southern Angola, from the border up to the line with Techamutete – Cassinga. The potential killing ground nestled in the dense African bush-veldt, between the Cunene and Cubango rivers. It included the few strategic towns ardently defended by FAPLA. For Operation Protea the extent of the target and the strategic reach envisaged was adequate for the moment, thank you.
The terrain was reasonably flat, with some undulating ground stretching further north and north-westwards. The typical sandy surfaces of southern Angola, which surrounded the few towns mentioned above, were covered with dense entangled African bush. During the rainy season in December-May the sandy surfaces and the shonas became a quagmire — a dilemma for mechanised forces and therefore the reason for the attacks on Xangongo and Ongiva in August.
Road infrastructure was sparse. One derelict tar road connected the towns of Cahama, Humbe, Xangongo, Ongiva and Santa Clara-Oshikango south-eastwards to the border with SWA. The tar road crossed the magnificently constructed 800 meter bridge at Xangongo.
The bridge at Xangongo was vital for the war effort to the opposing sides in any direction — either for offensive manoeuvre, defence, delay and especially logistics. It was a choke-point connecting the vast manoeuvre areas located respectively to the west and the east of the magnificent Cunene River. Another vital crossing point was located at Calueque near Ruacana, approximately sixty kilometres south of Humbe and Xangongo.
The terrain and the military objectives selected were neatly partitioned for its usage as a plausible killing ground. This was to the advantage of the SADF — terrain as the neutral factor was exploited to offset the enemy’s numerical strength and their clumsy tactics:
- UNITA covered the south-eastern part of Angola quite adequately to the east of the Cubango River and more so further to the east of the Cuito Cuanavale – an area liberated by the guerrilla forces of Jonas Savimbi. It was the proverbial guerrilla free zone where FAPLA and SWAPO feared to tread. For the moment southeast Angola remained the thorn in the flesh of FAPLA. Hostility was simmering in anticipation for still greater conventional battles to be fought between the Lomba and Cuito Cuanavale rivers later on in 1987-88.
- Southern Angola somewhat further to the south-west of the Cunene River valley, on the other hand, was a moonscape. The terrain was extremely arid. Inhospitable mountains stretched northwards from the border, as well as towards the Atlantic Ocean. One navigable pass led from the enemy’s south-western coast at Namibe to Lubango. The aforementioned pass was a vulnerable choke-point for the logistics of FAPLA and SWAPO to southern Angola.
The aforementioned environment was inhospitable for conventional warfare and nearby impossible for SWAPO to live in and infiltrate through. Incidentally it was on the south-eastern fringes of this rough and bleak stretch where Operation Super happened in March 1982. The purpose of Super was to prevent large scale infiltration into SWA. During Super more than two hundred and twenty one SWAPO insurgents were slaughtered by some forty five soldiers of 32 Battalion. The forbidding terrain did not provide adequate cover for guerrilla forces. Only one enemy soldier was allowed to escape.
To present a main conclusion for the stratagem of Operation Protea from the aforementioned discussion – which in the conceptualising thereof included the following factors: Terrain; enemy; own forces; time; space; assessment of tasks; support; command and control and; surprise and deception of course: A conventional brigade size task force designated Alpha would go for the conventional foe at Xangongo and Ongiva. A counter-insurgency task force, christened Bravo, would seek out and destroy SWAPO insurgents in the hinterland north of Ongiva. The SAAF would see to dislocation and disruption. Own combat service and medical support would irrevocably be provided
Own forces – ends, ways and means
Operational Framework — Interdependency was Paramount
At the operational level of war Operation Protea unfolded under the command of Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst of Sector 10. His HQ was located at Oshakati. The sector held the responsibility for the ongoing internal counter-insurgency war against SWAPO in Ovamboland. Brigadier Badenhorst was a veteran of the war in SWA and was well-matched for his mission.
The area of operations of Sector 10 encapsulated Ovamboland. In all truth this was the centre of gravity of the revolutionary as well as the counter-revolutionary war for SWA-Namibia.
Through Operation Protea the hinterland of SWAPO in southern Angola was to become the wished for killing zone. This was the ideal hunting ground where SWAPO could be pursued and slain relentlessly. The aim was to curtail the elusive insurgents, who were striking continuously southwards into SWA. The operational zone of Sector 10 therefore logically needed to be extended into southern Angola.
Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst structured the combat force for Operation Protea in three separate, but operationally interdependent brigade-size tactical groupings. The selected force arrangement readily facilitated unified command and control, the appropriate delineation of operational responsibility, operational interdependence and the sound management of intelligence.
- Task Force Alpha was the main force marked for external mobile conventional operations.
- The second task force was called Task Force Bravo. This task force was appropriately structured to conduct an external search and destroy mission against SWAPO.
- A third task force was designated Task Force Charlie. This task force constituted the internal counter-insurgency units. These units were already operationally active inside Sector 10. The conduct of Task Force Charlie was of less significance for Operation Protea and will therefore not be further discussed.
52 Reconnaissance Regiment of Special Forces Command formed an integral component of the overall force marshalled for operation Protea. The same accounted for the South African Air Force (SAAF) and South African Medical Services (SAMS). These said services provided the required force components to support Operation Protea. Colonel Ollie Holmes commanded 10 Forward Air Force Command Post (10 FACP) at Oshakati and Major Rinus van Rensburg the medical contingent deployed for Sector 10 and Operation Protea.
The South African Air Force (SAAF) mustered an impressive combat array for Operation Protea. At the time of Protea our combat aircraft were still fortunate to rein supreme and uncontested in the skies over southern Angola. There were however substantial anti-aircraft fire being drawn from the ground, which made air operations uncomfortable in southern Angola — it was becoming one of the most hostile air environments in the world at the time.
In addition to the fighter jets a substantial number of transport and light reconnaissance aircraft, as well as Alouette and Puma helicopters, were deployed by the SAAF for the operation. A few unmanned aerial vehicles were quietly deploying into theatre as well.
The following combat aircraft were ready to strike in support of the ground forces – either from Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria or from forward airfields such as Grootfontein and Ondangwa:
- 12 x Mirage F1AZ.
- 8 x Mirage F1CZ.
- 7 x Mirage IIICZ.
- 6 x Mirage IIID2Z.
- 16 x Impala II.
- 5 x Buccaneer.
- 5 x Canberra.
The following brief account records the amazing work which was done by the SAAF during Operation Protea. This did not only include offensive air missions, but transportation and evacuation duties of personnel in and out of theatre as well:
During the eleven days of Protea 1,112 individual sorties were flown from Grootfontein and Ondangwa; 333 tons of bombs were dropped; 1,774 rockets and 18 x AS-30 missiles were fired. A Mirage 111 CZ was damaged by a SA-7 missile, but landed safely. The air force lost an Alouette helicopter and the crew Lieutenant Roos and Sergeant Stacey. They were shot down near the town of Mongua in Angola.
Style of Conduct Protea Became a Famed For — with a Touch of Flair and Audacity
Operation Protea was a violent surprise offensive conducted with lightning speed. It was designed to achieve victory in a minimum of time. It was executed by concentrated and closely coordinated military ground and air force units.
A characteristic of mobile warfare throughout history always remained and always will be the integration of effort and violent execution, whilst thriving on mobility and Élan audacity. Operation Protea was the same.
No wonder Protea was studied as a classic in class rooms of foreign command and staff courses in other parts of the world.
Two brigade size task forces of the SADF would strike simultaneously at carefully selected FAPLA and SWAPO targets located inside southern Angola — the one task force conventional and the other counter-insurgency oriented as previously noted.
Task Force Alpha — Battles of Encirclement and Annihilation
The primary mission of Task Force Alpha was to encircle and annihilate the integrated defences of FAPLA and SWAPO at Xangongo and Ongiva in succession. In reality FAPLA was the main concern. A side-slap was to be given to SWAPO and if fortunate all those insurgents lurking nearby could quite happily be killed in the cross-fire.
The conventional strike force was commanded by Colonel Joep Joubert. He was an accomplished operational commander and understood mechanised warfare. The second-in-command of the task force was Commandant Tobie van Schalkwyk. Astute gunner Commandant Koos Laubsher commanded the artillery.
Task Force Alpha consisted of a task force headquarters, four battle groups and a mobile reserve. Battle Groups 10 and 20 where mechanised combat units and 30 and 40 motorised infantry. The command arrangements where as follows:
- Battle Group 10 under command of Commandant Roland de Vries.
- Battle Group 20 under command of Commandant Johann Dippenaar.
- Battle Group 30 under command of Commandant Chris Serfontein.
- Battle Group 40 under command of Commandant Deon Ferreira.
- Task Force Mobile Reserve under command of Commandant Johan Coetzer.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group (Battle Group 10) and 32 Battalion (Battle Group 40) were first-line combat units permanently structured and deployed in northern SWA at the time. The aforementioned units therefore formed core components of Task Force Alpha. Battle Groups 20 and 30 were temporarily mobilised for the operation and comprised subunits from training establishments located in South Africa. The last-mentioned battle groups were disbanded on completion of Operation Protea
Combat Group 40 reverted to under command of Task Force Bravo on completion of the attack on Xangongo. The same accounted for Combat Group 30 on completion of the attack on Ongiva.
The mobile reserve was designated Combat Team Mamba for the duration of Operation Protea and comprised: Alpha Company (mechanised with Ratel-20s) and a Ratel-90 anti-tank platoon provided by 61 Mechanised Battalion Group; two support sections equipped with Ratel-60s; one 140mm G-2 medium artillery troop; two protection platoons. The mechanised company and the anti-tank platoon were commanded respectively by Captain Hannes van der Merwe and national service Lieutenant Chris Walls of 61 Mech. On completion of the attack on Ongiva Alpha Company and the anti-tank platoon returned to the command of Battle Group 10 (61 Mech).
Force groupings matched the missions of the respective combat forces. The force composition of the respective battle groups and the mobile reserve mentioned above were therefore organised as follows:
- Battle Group 10: 1 x mechanised infantry company; 1 x motorised paratrooper company; 1 x motorised protection company; 1 x armoured car squadron with two Ratel 90 armoured car troops, two Eland 90 armoured car troops and four support sections; 1 x medium artillery troop; 1 x field engineer troop; 1 × 81mm mortar platoon; 1 x protection platoon (nicknamed Phantom).
- Battle Group 20: 1 x mechanised infantry company; 2 x motorised infantry companies; 1 x armoured car squadron with two Ratel 90 armoured car troops and two Eland 90 armoured car troops; 1 x medium artillery troop; 1 × 81mm mortar platoon; 1 x field engineer troop; 1 x assault pioneer platoon; 2 x protection platoons.
- Battle Group 30: 3 x motorised infantry companies; 1 x Eland 90 armoured car squadron; 1 × 120mm mortar battery; 1 × 81mm mortar platoon; 1 x field engineer troop; 2 x protection platoons.
- Battle Group 40: 3 x motorised infantry companies; 3 x Eland 90 armoured car troops; 1 × 120mm mortar battery; 1 x field engineer troop; 4 x anti-tank teams; 2 x protection platoons.
- Mobile Reserve: 1 x mechanised infantry company; 1 x Ratel 90 anti-tank platoon; 2 x Ratel 60 support sections; 1 x medium artillery troop; 2 x protection platoons.
Task Force Bravo — Search and Destroy
The mission of Task Force Bravo was to seek out and destroy designated command and control centres as well as operational and logistical bases of SWAPO located in the target zone. Drastically depleting insurgent numbers were high on the fighting agenda.
The counter-insurgency task force was commanded by Colonel Vos Benade. He was an accomplished infantry officer, well versed in counter-insurgency warfare.
For their initial deployment Task Force Bravo comprised two motorised infantry battalions designated Battle Groups 50 (201 Battalion – Bushman) and 60 respectively.
Battle Group 50 was under command of Commandant Frans Botes and 60 under command of Commandant James Hills. The two battle groups comprised four motorised infantry companies and one 81mm mortar platoon each.
On completion of the attack on Xangongo Battle Group 40 (32 Battalion) of Commandant Deon Ferreira was destined to join up with Task Force Bravo in the vicinity of Mupa. The same accounted for Battle Group 30 on completion of the attack on Ongiva. Commandant Chris Serfontein planned to move rapidly northwards as soon as Ongiva fell.
The task Force Reserve for Bravo comprised two paratrooper companies and one pathfinder platoon from 1 Parachute Battalion. It included Special Forces teams from 52 Reconnaissance Regiment.
Secrecy and Security was Paramount— Code Words and Nick Names
The maintenance of operational security and secrecy and the need to achieve complete surprise over the enemy was paramount for the success of Operation Protea.
A series of code words and nick names therefore underlay Operation Protea as references to particular military objectives, key settlements and small towns within the area of operations. These said code words and nick names where used during planning and the conduct of the operation itself. This practice was used to enhance operational security and secrecy. All our battle maps were marked accordingly.
Some of the code words and nick names used during Operation Protea by both task forces were: Ruacana — Long Drop; Calueque — Aquarius; Naulila — Astrix; Humbe — Apple Pie; Xangongo — Yankee; Peu-Peu — X-Ray; Cahama — Juliet; Cuamato — Screw Ball; Mongua — Hotel; Ongiva — Charlie; Omupande — Delta; Santa Clara — Father Christmas; Mission at Mucceipo — Flat Cat; Chibemba — Elephant; Evale — Taurus; Tar road from Cahama to Xangongo — Bloody; Mary; Big Boy 1 — Stopper Line selected 18km east of Cahama; Big Boy 2 — Stopper Line selected Halfway between Cahama and Xangongo
Task Force Bravo, in addition, used the code words: Wynland, Grootkop, Systap, Voorstad and Laatlam. These designations referred in combination to their targeted area, where SWAPO lurked to the north and northeast of Ongiva. Their area of operations selected lay within the settlements of Evale, Mupa, Cuvelai, Nehone and Ionde.
Foremost Operational Phases and Guidelines for Operation Protea
The main operation was to be initiated with a deliberate attack on Xangongo, Humbe and Peu-Peu on D-Day — 24 August 1981. The aforementioned military objectives were viewed as one integrated enemy complex.
The felling of Ongiva was to follow only a few hours after the defeat of Xangongo as the next phase of the attack; the enemy towards Cahama would be isolated. Only after the destruction of Ongiva and the sanctification of the respective target zones would the conventional combat force withdraw to SWA. In the meantime the hunt for SWAPO would be on — open hunting season was declared.
Each task force was assigned a primary mission within the overall operational framework. Accordingly each task force and its respective battle groups determined its own designs for battle.
The respective battle schemes of the two main task forces where to unfold within the ambit of eight logical operational phases, as described below:
- Phase 1 made provision for the deployment of cut-off forces inside southern Angola. Some of these forces where already operating externally and formed part of Operation Carnation. Other additional forces still needed be planned for and where to be inserted before D-Day. This included foregoing operations by the South African Air Force as well as Special Forces.
- Phase 2 required the South African Air Force (SAAF) to strike at and neutralise enemy air defences and radar installations deployed respectively at Cahama and Chibemba on D minus 1 – 23 August 1981. Dislocation and disruption of the enemy’s command and control system and subsequently their ground and air forces were the operational aims. This equally obliged achievement of air superiority in the area of operations.
- Phase 3 entailed simultaneously capturing Xangongo, Peu-Peu and Humbe on D-Day – 24 August 1981. This was the main assault and was assigned to Task Force Alpha. Forming part of the assignment was the preparation of the bridge over the Cunene-river at Xangongo for demolition. The said field engineering task had to be completed by D plus 1. Coincidental with the attack on Xangongo was the protection of the main force against any attack or interferences by enemy forces from Cahama. Xangongo then needed to be defended until completion of Operation Protea — thus protecting the western flank of Task Force Alpha and Bravo for uninterrupted continuation of the operation.
- Phase 4 was the capturing of Ongiva on D plus 3 by Task Force Alpha. The town then needed to be defended until D plus 14. This was the day initially scheduled for the withdrawal of the South African strike force from Angola.
- Phase 5 was the external counter-insurgency ingredient of the operation to be conducted solely against SWAPO by Task Force Bravo. It was executed simultaneously with Phase 3 and 4 of Operation Protea. The operation entailed search and destroy missions against PLAN insurgents in a designated target area. The target zone lay north of the line formed by Evale, Nehone, Dova and Ionde and was known as the Tango Area. The inter-related counter-insurgency part of Operation Protea was destined for completion by D plus 14.
- Phase 6 required specific deep operations of a classified strategic nature to be performed in the rear areas of the enemy. One of the selected targets included an important bridge, far to the enemy’s rear, which in the long run was not destroyed by Special Forces. This was probably due to certain political imperatives expounded by the grand masters in Pretoria.
- Phase 7 was the withdrawal of the South African combat force back to SWA. This was initially determined for D plus 14. The operation was however successfully completed long before the scheduled end-date. The South African conventional force withdrew to SWA on D plus 8 — 1 September 1981 — spring-time.
The general guidelines assigned for Protea was a clear indication that the operation was limited to bare military necessities and that innocent civilians were not to be harmed.
- Striking at FAPLA was a go; as far as it was operationally warranted.
- In the warring process the civilian population and their properties needed to be spared.
- Victory was dependent on capturing maximum enemy equipment, as well as enemy leaders and foreign military advisors — getting hold of a few Russians in the process would be nice.
- Careful planning and execution of security, surprise and deception were essential determinants for overall operational success.
- As always incurring minimum own casualties was the norm. Each commander had to follow utmost discretion in saving the lives of own personnel and those of innocent civilians — our young souls were precious to us.
- All churches and hospitals in Angola were pertinently marked on our maps as places not to be harmed.
As combat soldiers we pursued the above-mentioned operational restrictions dearly. All of these instructions were contained in our operational orders down to the level of our individual soldiers.
Disposition of 61 Mech Battalion Group for Operation Protea
General Situation in Outline
The conventional side of the operation conducted by Task Force Alpha and the role which 61 Mech played therein as Battle Group 10 remains the primary focus of this chronicle — therefore the more detailed historical account afforded this prestigious fighting unit and its men in the script following below.
Operation Carrot had just been successfully completed in April 1981 by 61 Mechanised Battalion Group in the so called death triangle. This was the natural triangle formed by Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein in the so called “White Farming Area” south of the red line. Operation Carrot was a counter-insurgency operation. The operation had been conducted at lightening speed, accounting for twenty two insurgents of SWAPO’s special unit within thirteen days — eighteen insurgents were killed and three captured in the action. Only one insurgent escaped northwards. He had evaded the clutches of Captain Cassie Schoeman just north of the red line in escaping towards Angola and was probably waiting for us at Xangongo.
By May 1981 our combat unit had returned to its operational base at Omuthiya to. Here 61 Mech was continuously training for battle and preparing for the next mission, what ever.
We did not know then that Operation Protea was on for August 1981. The planning at the highest military levels in Pretoria and Windhoek had already commenced in utmost secrecy.
The Operational Base of 61 Mech at Omuthiya
61 Mechanised Battalion Group was based at Omuthiya in northern South West Africa at the time. The operational base was situated approximately twenty kilometres north of Oshivello. Omuthiya lay in close proximity to the tarred-way leading northwards to Ondangwa and Oshakati.
The operational base lay snug in the southern part of Ovamboland. It was aligned with the northern border of the Etosha Game Reserve, which was situated to the west. About one hundred and twenty kilometres to the south nestled the tin-mining town of Tsumeb.
The base was of a temporary tented arrangement with some pre-fabricated buildings — it was extremely neat; its impressive layout militarily defined. It was hidden from view by the dense-entangled African Bush. It provided a comfortable home, training area and operational staging area for 61 Mech and its subunits.
The subunits had its own tented lines at Omuthiya and shared the base amenities with the other members of 61 Mech. This inter alia included messing and some recreational facilities, a sick-bay, parade-ground, logistic infrastructure, an enormous training area and even a swimming pool.
A vast training area stretched to the north of Omuthiya into Ovamboland — the most useful any commander could wish for. The training area and operational zone was the same thing.
Each subunit had its own vehicle staging area. Here the combat vehicles and other main armaments were permanently bombed up and ready to move at moments notice.
Towards the northern expanse stretched the dense African bush – deep into Angola. The border was a mere hundred and five kilometres away if one bundu-bashed due north from Omuthiya. The operational base was ideally situated to launch operations into Angola — such as for Operation Protea in August 1981.
The main concentration area of Task Force Alpha for Operation Protea was located in the vicinity of Omuthiya and Oshivello. 61 Mech was therefore privileged to prepare for battle from its own home ground.
Omuthiya was the staging ground for 61 Mech as the conventional mobile reserve force for the SWATF. By June-August 1981 61 Mech was ready for its next mission.
The Mission of Battle Group 10 in Relation to the Enemy Situation
The mission of Battle Group 10 for Operation Protea influenced the way we appreciated the enemy and terrain so as to create our plan. Planning factors such as the latter determined our design for battle and even the way we organised to attack and defend.
- The primary mission of Battle Group 10 on D-Day was to capture Humbe and secure the area further eastwards towards the bridge at Xangongo. Humbe lay approximately eight kilometres northwest from Xangongo on the way to Cahama. The fighting work designated and envisaged included cutting of any enemy remnants escaping towards Cahama from the Xangongo salient.
- A secondary target was also allocated to our battle group on the first day of attack. The designated objective was located near Mucceipo (known as Techiulo today). Here a hospital and Roman Catholic Mission was to be found. This particular target was presented to us by Task Force Alpha as an alleged SWAPO deployment. Intelligence was not clear on the actual properties of the objective. This and the soft nature of the target caused some raised eyebrows from our planning team. The devious target lay approximately eight kilometres northwest of Humbe, alongside the road from Cahama. It later proved only to be a slight embugerance factor.
- Link-up with the remainder of Task Force Alpha, through Battle Group 40, needed to be achieved across the bridge at 08h00 on 25 August 1981 — D plus 1.
- In addition our battle group was ordered to exploit towards Cahama and northwest of our target zone on D plus 1. This included the conduct of area operations in immediate designated areas of responsibility throughout the operation. The purpose of the latter moves were to seek out and destroy opportune enemy remnants; SWAPO especially. These operations were also intended to determine the lay of the land, provide early warning of possible enemy intervention and to secure our area of operations.
- Throughout Operation Protea Battle Group 10 was tasked to prevent enemy intervention from Cahama and to defend Xangongo for the duration of the operation. A period of fourteen days was initially foreseen. The mission however was completed by 31 August 1981 — D plus 7. The work entailed setting up a Reserve Demolition and Guard for the bridge at Xangongo. The bridge needed to be prepared for demolition by 12h00 on 25 August 1981 – D plus 1.
- Additional tasks entailed the mopping up of the objective at Xangongo. This required some more mundane garrison duties to be performed at Xangongo as well, rendering essential repairs to damaged infrastructure in the town and establishing friendly relations with the local inhabitants.
- An added ordered commitment entailed the hand over of the defence of Xangongo and the Reserve Demolition of the bridge to a contingent force of UNITA. This was scheduled for the day of withdrawal of Task Force Alpha from southern Angola and Battle Group 10 from Xangongo. UNITA was referred to as ‘Silver’ by the SADF for the benefit of secrecy and to maintain operational security — in this instance especially to the outside world.
- Finally our battle group needed to withdraw safely from Angola to our operational base at Omuthiya on completion of Operation Protea. We were to cover the withdrawal of the remainder of task Force Alpha. The final ambiguous task was to recover captured war material from Xangongo to Oshakati in SWA. The withdrawal and recovery of enemy equipment were successfully completed on 1 September 1981 — D plus 7.
On consolidation of the position at Xangongo Battle Group 10 was ordered to provide a second mobile reserve for Task Force Alpha, in addition to Mamba. The force mentioned constituted the mobile reserve of our own battle group for the defence of Xangongo. The said reserve force remained under command of Battle Group 10 until it was called for by the HQ of Task Force Alpha. This happened on 27 August 1981, on D plus 3, to support with the attack on Ongiva. The Task force had run into some difficulty with an obstinate enemy when the Ongiva assault force was released early on the same day. Flexibility, balanced groupings and rapid response of our mobile forces throughout Protea was therefore vital.
Time and distance were other important factors carefully considered in the foregoing planning for the operation. This included the reaction times of possible enemy intervention in some way or other. Surprise and deception were therefore key elements employed in depriving the enemy of early warning and accurate assessments of unfolding situations.
Our style of conduct and direction of attack were key elements in achieving surprise and in continuously deceiving the enemy. We knew well that the enemy was extremely languid in responding to dynamic situations — we needed to keep the battlefield fluid. The enemy’s lethargic nature was mainly due to their rigid Soviet doctrine applied and decrepit command and control — for them sluggish command from the rear was the norm.
We were quite happy with the above-mentioned debilitating traits of our enemy. Battle Group 10 was banking on their inherit weaknesses for the somewhat daring attack followed along the open western flank towards Humbe – even in doing so, momentarily turning our backside to Cahama on D-Day.
This manoeuvrist approach we followed even accounted for the eventual defence of Xangongo in the face of an overwhelming foe lurking at Cahama. Now and then some probes in the direction of the enemy and harassing fire in the direction of Cahama were therefore planned for — keep them guessing at Cahama. Let them think they were going to be slaughtered next.
The aforementioned mission of Battle Group 10 implied crossing the Cunene River at Calueque and inserting the combat force on the tar road between Cahama and Xangongo. This manoeuvre would put our battle group in a position to capture Humbe from the northwest. In addition we had to be ready to contain a threat to our rear from Cahama at any moment, day and night.
Battle Group 10 took cognisance of the fact that enemy reconnaissance could pick up our progressive northwardly move as soon as we crossed the border near Calueque on the night of 23 August 1981 — D minus 1. This was however not expected. The threat was more so to the remainder of Task Force Alpha. The main force was much larger and destined to approach Xangongo from the eastern side of the Cunene River. Known enemy outposts were located as far south as Naulila and Cuamato, to the east of the Cunene, more or less in line with Calueque. These latter enemy deployments could therefore quite easily sense or observe the larger scale noisier movements to the east.
Initial intelligence gathered before hand indicated that Humbe could be void of enemy. Needless to say we were not happy with this. Empty enemy trenches were observed on a number of aerial photographs taken a few days before D-Day. To us doing the enemy appreciation this was a strange phenomenon. Such a disposition would leave the enemy’s defences at Xangongo wholly open for surprise attack from the west. The vital bridge over the Cunene River would be left completely exposed. A reinforced FAPLA battalion or company at least was expected to defend towards the west and the south at Humbe. An enemy outpost was also expected close to the Caculuvar River, on the gravel road leading south from Humbe to Calueque. Of course the enemy could at any time occupy Humbe as part of a more flexible defensive scheme — we had to be ready for such an eventuality.
We continued with the planning of a deliberate attack, supported by a range of contingency plans. The contingency plans were based on operational forecasts we war-gamed at Omuthiya beforehand.
For the initial attack towards Humbe and Xangongo we needed to face our designated target and possible escapees from Xangongo head-on — with an extended assault formation. The aforementioned situation in particular influenced our decision to attack Humbe from the northeast — in actual fact choosing the Cahama-Xangongo road as our axis of attack. We were prepared to run the risk of having the enemy’s mobile reserve at Cahama to our rear for a moment. We calculated that this enemy could not respond in time, if at all. This assessment was based on a dynamic situation suddenly being presented to the enemy, their indolent nature and our reliance on surprise.
We knew well that as soon as our enemies were attacked on D-Day that the battle field would become fluid. Any plan changes when the first shots are fired. The dictum of 61 Mech therefore was that a plan is a basis for change.
Of course there were many unknowns regarding the enemy situation at Cahama and about other possible enemy forces likely to be loitering between Cahama and Xangongo. This later proved to be true. It came as a little surprise to our Combat Team 3 during the night of D plus 1/D plus 2 on the road to Cahama. It was to be a bigger surprise to some FAPLA rogues who came unexpectedly in the night — this story will follow further along.
- One unknown entailed the enemy’s disposition at Cahama. This was due to insufficient tactical intelligence. Battle Group 10 therefore had to rely purely on its own military appreciation to determine likely courses of action from that direction and source. In our pre-assessment we determined that the enemy would be reluctant to respond. However in war you never truly know what is going to happen. We had to be ready for a deliberate counter-offensive. Probing attacks, reconnaissance in force and artillery onslaughts by the enemy were however predicted.
- Another unknown was that we did not know what other forces of evil awaited us on the eerie road between Cahama and Xangongo — friction de guerre always exerted its toll on the unwary when least expected. There was constant enemy movement on the road leading from Cahama to Xangongo and Ongiva. Intelligence sources also indicated that other enemy deployments in the same areas were highly likely. Battle Group 10 therefore had to be prepared to become embroiled in running battles. We were looking forward to such a possibility happening — a measure of uncertainty always engendered excitement and triggered adrenaline. For this we had contingency plans up our sleeve and also maintained a mobile reserve of our own at all times. This was the reason why we phased our attack on Humbe. We also relied on our training and proven battle SOP to expend immediate action drills on an unwary foe during crisis. We were combat ready for such eventualities – 61 Mech thrived on this.
As an additional resort we had the SAAF on standby to fly close air support missions if so required throughout the operation. Lieutenant Jacques du Randt acted as our forward air controller in this regard. We also flew reconnaissance missions with unmanned aerial vehicles and had a dedicated Bosbok light aircraft at our disposal for reconnaissance as well. These sources actively monitored the areas where we were vulnerable. The same Bosbok served the purpose of forward air controller for close air support missions and artillery fire control.
Extremely valuable sources of real-time and near-real-time intelligence throughout were provided by enemy radio intercepts and our own Special Forces teams deployed at critical junctures. Active patrolling and reconnaissance in force from our side would fill in the gaps. Prisoners of war and some friendly locals to be questioned would complete the intelligence picture.
We expected the enemy air threat to be completely dormant.
Through an extremely thorough military appreciation conducted by the command cadre of 61 Mech at Omuthiya in August 1981 the operations order for Battle Group 10 was created.
Operations Order of Battle Group 10 for Protea
The operations order for Battle Group 10 was already finalised by middle August 1981 — signed by me at Omuthiya and dated 14 August 1981. My command cadre diligently participated in the planning and writing thereof
My second in command, Major Thys Rall, had the order typed on wax sheet by our trustworthy typist Annatjie de Beer in Tsumeb. For one full night and day she locked herself in a room, did the job and kept our secret. Her husband who worked at the Tsumeb mine was not too happy with us. Later in September, on completion of Operation Protea, he was quite friendly with us again. He was then extremely proud of his wife’s typing effort. There were a few typing errors on the document we did not have time to correct, not that it really mattered.
In the true sense the operations order only served as a historical record, as my command cadre and their troops knew the plan by heart. This was because of endless planning, repetition, war gaming and training at Omuthiya. What we really worked on were the map overlays depicting deployments and approaches — something the old German militarists used to refer too as “graphic orders” — a picture is worth a thousand words and it was imprinted into our minds. Anyway, the subunits of 61 Mech were good. They only needed to be pointed in the right direction. Our fighting unit was thoroughly versed for what was coming — this was done over and over at Omuthiya, night and day.
The aforementioned operations order made reference to the aerial photography and topographical maps we used as well as my command appreciation and the SOP of 61 Mech. It contained sketches of enemy layouts and the following appendices were attached as supporting plans to the main order: Overlay of enemy deployments; grouping of Battle Group 10; overlay of own courses of action; movement and navigation plans; clearing of the objective; orders for the demolition guard; summary of references, code words, nick names and report lines; commander’s forecast of operations and contingency actions; artillery plan; engineer plan; air support plan, administrative order; personnel plan; chaplaincy plan; intelligence plan; operational security plan; signals plan and instruction.
The order was all encompassing and contained the shared vision of our battle group for operation Protea — once the vision is clear, the how to will be invented along the way. The goal comes first and then you see – you do not see first. If you do not goal-set through, you flatten out. A plan is therefore only a basis for change.
The operations order of Battle Group 10 described the situation regarding enemy and own forces in detail as well as the mission and how it was to be executed and supported. In brief orders contained: Situation — mission — execution — coordinating instructions — command and signals — administration and logistics.
On the battle field mission orientation for 61 Mech manifested as fighting through an objective, not onto. We believed in all of the last-mentioned at 61 Mech.
What brought everything together in the operational plan mentioned above were the phases, which described how the operation would unfold in logical steps — the lines of operation. Who of 61 Mech, as Battle Group 10, must do what, where, when, how and why.
How the Operational Phases Unfurled — Lines of Operation
The operational phases summarised below were planned for and selected by Battle Group 10 to coincide with the operation by the remainder of Task Force Alpha — one integrated operational framework.
The battle design was the product of a joint planning effort conducted by me and my staff at Omuthiya in August — one integrated team, one partnership in command. It had been an immensely satisfying and intellectually stimulating process for all of us. The active involvement in planning by our leadership for Protea, down to grassroots, as well as creative thinking, were keys to success — building a shared operational picture, mutual trust and understanding were some of the outcomes. We had fun.
For the main attack on Xangongo on D-Day the main assault force of the task force would attack from the east of the Cunene River, whilst Battle Group 10 was destined to strike from the west. To complete the mission our battle group needed to successfully execute the following operational phases:
- Phase 1: Mission training at Omuthiya and preparation for the battle from D minus 21 until D minus 2.
- Phase 2: Operational movement from Omuthiya to the forward assembly area (FAA) at Ruacana from D minus 2 until D minus 1.
- Phase 3: Operational movement from Ruacana to the forming up place (FUP) northwest of Humbe on D minus 1/D-Day.
- Phase 4: Capture Humbe on D-Day, cut off any enemy escaping from Xangongo, consolidate the occupied position and exploit towards the Cunene River.
- Phase 5: Conduct follow-up operations including: area operations; exploitation to Mucope; blocking of enemy interference from Cahama; mobile defence of Xangongo; provision of a demolition guard for the Reserve Demolition of the bridge; provision of an additional mobile reserve for Task Force Alpha.
- Phase 6: Withdraw from Angola and return to Omuthiya on D plus 8.
- Phase 7: Conduct the debriefing of Operation Protea on completion of the operation.
What remained was to organise and prepare Battle Group 10 for the mission on hand. The job included the final touches of force preparation and mission training. Man and machine needed to be at the highest combat readiness state imaginable. For our men and our unit this included sound morale.
61 Mech as Battle Group 10 – Order of Battle
About the forces provided to 61 Mech:
- The two mechanised infantry companies, 81mm mortar platoon and anti-tank platoon of 61 Mech were originally provided by 1 South African Infantry Battalion (1 SAI) from Bloemfontein. For Operation Protea the mortar platoon had arrived at a late stage, without adequately completing its training at 1 SAI. Their training officer, young Captain Kobus Smit, accompanied the platoon. Smit continued with their training at Omuthiya and even on the way to Ruacana and during the operation itself. What could be more realistic for training?
- 1 and 2 Special Service Battalions (1 and 2 SSB), respectively from Bloemfontein and Zeerust, provided our armoured car squadron. For Operation Protea our armour troops were provided by 2 SSB from Zeerust.
- 1 Parachute Battalion (1 Para Bn) usually provided a motorised infantry company to 61 Mech for operations when so required.
- 14 Field Regiment in Potchefstroom provided the artillery battery of 61 Mech.
- Other additional required combat support and combat service support capabilities (such as field engineers and protection companies), were provided by a variety of training feeder units from South Africa or from SWATF itself.
For Operation Protea 61 Mech as Battle Group 10 was appropriately organised and grouped for the mission on hand. The organisation therefore differed somewhat from the usual organisational structure referred to above. Subsequent lower level force groupings were to be handled along the way as the planning and the operation itself unfolded. The composition of Battle Group 10 and its key personnel for Operation Protea were as follows:
- HQ of Battle Group 10:
Officer Commanding: Commandant Roland de Vries.
Second-in Command: Major Thys Rall.
Regimental Sergeant Major and Commander Alpha Echelon: Warrant Officer Class 1 M.C. Barnard.
Operations Officer: Commandant Epp van Lill.
Intelligence Officer: Commandant Joe Aveling.
Logistics Officer and Commander of the Administrative Support Company: Major Giel Reinecke.
Senior Engineer Officer: Major Leon Terblanche.
Technical Services Officer: Captain Philipp ‘Jakkals’ Jeackel.
Adjutant: Lieutenant Henri ‘Bossie’ Boshoff.
Signals Officer: Captain Thinus van Wyk.
Personnel Officer: Lieutenant Willem van der Vyfer.
Medical Officer: Dr Reitz Malherbe.
Chaplain: Padre Koos Rossouw.
Alpha Company: Captain Pale van der Walt (1 Parachute Battalion).
Bravo Company: Captain Koos Liebenberg.
Charlie Squadron: Major Joe Weyers.
Protection Company (701 Battalion) and Garrison Force Commander: Major Dawid Mentz.
Medium Field Artillery Troop G-2 140mm (4 Field Regiment): Battery Commander Captain Bernie Pols and Troop Commander Captain Francois van Eeden.
81mm Mortar Platoon: Second Lieutenant Etienne Gertzen.
Alpha Troop – field engineer troop from 25 Field Engineer Squadron: Lieutenant Martin Olivier.
Protection Platoon (Phantom Squad): Second Lieutenant Marche Michau.
Light Workshop Troop Commander: Warrant Officer Class 1 Duppie du Plessis.
- Mobile Reserve of Task Force Alpha — detached from 61 Mechanised Battalion Group to HQ Task Force Alpha until completion of the attack on Ongiva:
Alpha Company: Captain Hannes van der Merwe.
Anti Tank Platoon (Ratel 90): Lieutenant Chris Walls.
An essential ingredient required for combat – morale
The following section is all about building the high morale of 61 Mech. Esprit de corps was an essential ingredient for successful combat and healthy unit livelihood. We needed to establish sound morale and unit cohesion before we departed Omuthiya for Humbe on 22 August 1981.
Esprit de Corps — Morale is to the Physical as three is to one
When entering the battlefield, death rides on the one shoulder of every soldier. There is always the subtle fear of being wounded or even dying. However, the greatest fear of any commander and his soldiers is not the bayonet or the bullet, but that of not successfully completing the mission.
To me as the commander of 61 Mech it was therefore extremely important to insistently build the esprit de corps of our unit. I saw this as one of my main responsibilities, with the full support of my cadre of course. Napoleon Bonaparte had expressed a fundamental truth many years before 61 Mech existed for soldiers and units such as ours — “Morale is to the physical as three is to one”.
It was all about building character, of the individuals as well as the clan. In practice one finds a powerful interaction between the individual, the leadership and the unit. This all accrues to self confidence; mutual trust; physical and psychological preparedness; faith in oneself and the unit and; belief in appropriate battle doctrine.
There was an immense feeling of pride in belonging to 61 Mech — a spontaneous sense of identification with our fighting unit. I could tangibly sense the feelings of loyalty, which existed between the members of the respective sub-ordinate groupings and amongst 61 Mech as a whole. This was notwithstanding the different combat, combat support and combat service corps 61 Mech was immersed in. The reason for this was that we trained mainly as integrated combined arms teams, of which marrying up drills played an essential part — full integration of arms, not play-play.
You cannot get up at 05h00 one morning at Omuthiya and declare: “From today onwards, by the powers vested in me as the commander, there shall be high morale, mutual respect and trust”. It needs to be earned. This is hard work, but merits tremendous personal satisfaction. These are all emotions of a transitory nature. Once created it remains steadfast, until undermined by small persistent circumstances or broken by some major catastrophe.
“Morale is the instinct that enables men to face the fear of death and injury undaunted and to endure hardship. It is the will of man and of a unit to fight and suffer heroically. The strongest natural instinct of man is self-preservation and his most basic motivation is self-interest. Both these are quite contrary to man’s exposing himself to danger and to physical hardship. This is the nature of morale; it is an instinct that transcends the natural instinct of self-preservation and raises man above the pettiness of self-interest.” — Michael Elliot Batement, Defeat in the East.
This was how I knew 61 Mech to be.
Training, Exercising and Equipment
Unique corps as well as joint training, exercising and experimenting in the field was all important. This was our core business when we were not out on a mission. Koos Liebenberg used to say about 61 Mech: “We were either training, doing maintenance or were out on operations”. This is about a good description of life with 61 Mech one gets.
Continued intellectual stimulation and inspirational motivation of our leaders and troops were passable stand-alone morale boosters, as I experienced with 61 Mech in the field.
61 Mech had devised its own SOP on which training and operations were based. We believed in our doctrine. The unit was extremely proud of its heritage and continued operational successes and its unceasing accomplishments as a mission ready first line fighting unit — one which was unique in all of the SADF — the one and only 61 Mech. Our unit oozed self confidence, which of course spontaneously contributed to lasting self-esteem and high morale.
Training was also there to be enjoyed. With live ammunition this became exhilarating, alive with challenge and experiment. A credo of 61 Mech was: Train as you fight, train hard, fight easy.
The quality of our equipment had a major effect on high morale. The Ratel Infantry Combat Vehicle was a six-wheeled icon. 61 Mech thrived in maintaining 99, 9% serviceability. The small percentages of unserviceable vehicles were being fixed somewhere by Sergeant Major Duppie and his amazing “Tiffies” — night and day. We were singularly proud of this achievement. Serviceability of equipment to us meant pride and mobility.
Spiritual preparedness was extremely important to us. Herein our unit chaplain Padre Koos Rossouw and our subunit commanders played an exceedingly important role. What a man, Koos Rossouw! He was not only a preacher with a touch of mischief, but a great sportsman as well. This counted with our young and contributed to his amazing report with our young soldiers.
Regular prayer parades were held. Every Sunday was marked for a church parade in the mess hall at Omuthiya, commencing at 11h00 if we were not away in the operational area.
Sport, Recreation and Leisure-Time Outings
Sport and recreational outings added to the high morale of 61 Mech. Major Thys Rall, our second-in-command, organised regular bundu-rallies, which were not only competitive, but lots of fun as well. Abundant laughter, jostling and jesting were engendered this way. We had our regular runs, the Ovambo Marathon, in which everyone participated — the commander as well.
Some leisure utilisation outings were undertaken by our troops, even during those hectic days. Our subunits chose venues close-by such as the Etosha Game Reserve, Olifantsfontein Dam and Tsumeb to visit with their troops. The troops were usually allowed a quick hour to do some essential shopping at Tsumeb.
Charlie Squadron for example had a leisure outing to Tsumeb and Olifantsfontein Dam on Thursday 6 August 1981. The dam was situated slightly north of Grootfontein. The men travelled with three Magirius Deutz cargo trucks and returned joyfully the evening in high spirits. All work and no play make soldiers dull.
Dart-boards, soccer, rugby and volley balls were a plenty at Omuthiya; as well as an ice-scream machine, which did not work; its heavy cables drew our generator to ominous quietness. Two cold beers per man per day were there for the taking. Bush pay was ample.
At times “braais” were organised in the unit lines, the pleasant aroma and the chatter of young soldiers and laughter carried on the breeze trough the trees at Omuthiya — all these little things added-up to the high morale of our unit; out there on a limb, isolated by the denseness surrounding Omuthiya. Us, all in nutria, a band of brothers, unto ourselves — marvellous!
An Important Facet was Leadership
At times I was viewed by the classic over control authoritarian fanatics in the military as one in command allowing too much latitude for those serving under my command. So be it. Room for manoeuvre and considering the individual was my norm. I believed in mission command, both tight and loose control being the median. It worked for me and 61 Mech. I was extremely proud and confident of my subordinates. To me cultivating self-discipline counted more than enforced discipline. If you push people and organisations, they push you back. Some ardent so-called over bearing militarists never learned this all important lesson. They should have read “IF”, by Rudyard Kipling every man at 61 Mech counted, our sons were men. More so, they were warriors.
My subordinate commanders and their soldiers at 61 Mechanised Battalion Group in 1981-82 taught me that leadership was an essential ingredient for combat. I sometimes observed in awe how they improvised and got things done. This was especially true during Operation Protea. From the crossing of the Caculuvar, close encounters with the enemy on the floodplains of Cunene, at Cahama, Mongua and Ongiva, to a soccer game at Xangongo.
Pure military leadership played a crucial role in the life of 61 Mech and our combat unit’s preparation for battle and war itself. It was something our senior permanent staff members carefully and diligently nurtured in our young national servicemen as well. Their knack for leadership, improvisation and using initiative was dearly appreciated by me.
To 61 Mech leadership was about unleashing potential. It forged bonds. It went hand in hand with initiative and empowerment and the limiting of aspects which impeded creativity; in the end it contributed to efficient and effective delivery.
People, their safety and well being were up there in front of our priorities, all importantly, with the achievement of results. Prime premises were placed on military professionalism and cultivating self discipline.
In my mind’s eye I viewed leadership at 61 Mech as being similar to a spider web — if you touched one jota it energised throughout. Through these aforementioned simple processes and lessons in inspiration and humanity we were steadily building a cohesive fighting team that was second to none.
Command and Control
Trust in the command cadre throughout 61 Mech was one of the main generators of sound morale. The subordinate commanders at 61 Mech had what it took, said and done. Know your own capabilities, know what you are up against, know your work, and trust in self and those around you — complete interdependence
To 61 Mech, command was about successfully achieving military missions and preserving own and innocent lives — missions and lives went hand in hand.
In any operational environment there is an acute need for timeous, accurate and relevant information to enable quality decision-making and precision engagement. This in essence refers to swift and appropriate actions and the deployment of resources to meet planned contingencies, challenges and emergencies.
Keeping our men informed was all important for morale. This was one of the reasons why we institutionalised the joint operational planning system at 61 Mech; why we cultivated the habit of was gaming down to grass roots. All of the aforementioned was built on the participative premise and honest caring about the well being of others. We had to; we were involved in dangerous undertakings.
Even inspections, such as our “Stable Parades”, were based on the participative premise. All our commanders were involved in the maintenance work undertaken with our troops, whilst some of the troops made up the inspection teams — work should be fun. Normally after each massive unit stable parade we had a unit-braai.
Success should be celebrated; misgivings and mishaps used as firm bases to learn and grow from. Responsible errors should be allowed (loose control), but not too many. If there is a serious negligible mishap, deal with it swiftly and decisively (tight control). If everyone understands the aforementioned norm, morale and delivery is fine. That’s it.
Other Important Things
Battalion parades were held at Omuthiya to keep things together. This is something in the military you just do. Something stirs inside when one experiences and views the orderliness of 1 000 men on parade — more so alone in the bush on a flat piece of sand in Ovamboland. More so when one entered Omuthiya and saw more than eighty six Ratels and several 140mm guns and other assortments of prime mission equipment dispersed in orderly staging positions; neatly in rows, bombed up and ready to go.
61 Mech adopted a range of unit, subunit shoulder flashes and emblems with the idea of promoting ownership, cohesion and esprit de corps. These said subunit flashes were worn on the one sleeve of a 61 Mech member’s shirt, with the shoulder flash of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group worn on the other.
The abovementioned emblems were also displayed on the vehicles. The same accounted for the battle names chosen by the soldiers for their fighting and supporting vehicles. The soldiers were extremely proud of these respective names and emblems chosen by them. Some examples of these subunit insignia are illustrated in the current day website of the veterans association of 61 Mech. Subunit emblems were approved at unit level by the officer commanding and his senior command and staff team. Subunit commanders such as Captain Jan Malan, Captain Koos Liebenberg, Major Joe Weyers, Captain Bernie Pols, Major Giel Reinecke, Captain Hannes van der Merwe, Captain Cassie Schoeman, Captain CP du Toit, Major Jakes Jacobs and many others played an important role in designing and marshalling these emblems at 61 Mech in 1981 and the following years.
The aforementioned emblems and names were proudly displayed on the battle array of 61 Mech when we crossed the border in darkness on 23 August 1981.
Individualised Consideration and Inspirational Motivation
In the field where the danger lay, I found that intimacy was at the heart of camaraderie and competence. These young national servicemen of 61 Mech had taught me this simple value at Omuthiya and elsewhere in the field where we operated. I could read it on their young faces; discern it in their way of talking and walking, and in their jesting and laughter.
I made it a habit to wonder amongst the tents in the evenings, whilst we were preparing for battle at Omuthiya. Many a time Koos Rossouw our chaplain accompanied me. I sometimes found small groups of soldiery war gaming on sand models amongst the tents — wonderful. Sitting down on my army camp chair in the midst of them, we would chat, say a quick prayer together, crack a few jokes and have value adding tactical jostling — great. I did the same when our troops fought with live ammunition and hand grenades through the mock trenches we had prepared just north of Omuthiya in the bushes — great fun. No better place to have talks with troops appearing out of the dust and the gun-smoke – dirty troops, smiling troops, accomplished troops. These special moments made me feel happy, confident and relaxed. And I wished their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, teachers and girlfriends could have seen them as I did – what a God given privilege!
We had a Langeberg mobile home, with small separate rooms, at Omuthiya. The large caravan was located within the eastern perimeter of our operational base. Here I resided with my subunit commanders and key staff members. I sometimes had the privilege to wake them up at 05h00 with a cup of coffee in hand. Even in these simple and more mundane matters 61 Mech was invigorating, exciting and rewarding and it was fun
I had acquired a loudspeaker system for Omuthiya. I used this system to wake up 61 Mech early in the mornings. One of the songs my good friend Captain Frans van Eeden, our gunner, still recalls to date was: “Good morning captain …..“. Frans and I were together again during Operation Moduler in southeast Angola in 1987.
Every evening after training was debriefing time and the adjustment of operational planning as required. Training and force preparation were all encompassing and thorough. It was taken to the extreme. The morale of the force was high. I cannot explain to any person how proud I felt of my people. Until today I do not have the words to express my feeling towards them.
Every minute of my life with 61 Mech was filled with sixty minutes worth of distance ran.
Building Morale Worked Both Ways – Something about a Soldier
I was working on my battle maps, alongside my Ratel command vehicle, one special morning the day before departing on Operation Protea. With a sideward glance I viewed one of my troops passing by. He saluted, suddenly stopped, turned sideways and walked towards me and said with extreme confidence and visible self-esteem: “No matter the odds, Commandant, we will fight a hole through any enemy.”
I felt emotionally uplifted and appreciative of this simple gesture by an enthusiastic friendly spontaneous young soldier of 61 Mech. Such was the calibre of the young national servicemen serving with ‘61’. Enthralled I saluted him.
The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts
With the entire abovementioned physical and psychological cutting edges in hand, 61 Mechanised Battalion Group was raring to go.
Combat readiness was reached by 04h00 on 22 August 1981 — D minus 2.
Task Force Alpha mobilises at Oshivello and Omuthiya
Concentration of Task Force Alpha at Oshivello and Omuthiya
Operation Protea was on. 61 Mech was already deployed at Omuthiya. It was D minus 21 and counting — 3 August 1981.
The mobile HQ of Task Force Alpha and the four combat groups were assembled in the most southern region of Ovamboland. The concentration area of Task Force Alpha lay in close proximity to Oshivello and Omuthiya. Here the respective combat groupings were located in separate operational field bases, where they planned, trained and prepared for Operation Protea – it was done in utmost secrecy.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group was advantaged to be based at Omuthiya. At and from Omuthiya 61 Mech did its planning, mission training and other administrative and logistic preparations for Operation Protea.
I suggested to Colonel Joep Joubert to locate his task force HQ at Omuthiya for the duration of the force preparation and mission training phase, which he subsequently did.
All the conventional war fighting training and preparation for Operation Protea happened under the watchful eye and close supervision of Colonel Joep Joubert as the commander of Task Force Alpha.
I knew Joep Joubert well. He was an outstanding operational commander. In 1977 I served as his second-in-command at 1 SAI in Bloemfontein. 1 SAI was responsible for mechanised infantry training and leadership development in the SA Army. Joubert became the first commander of Combat Group Juliet in 1978. Juliet was formed to do external operations into Angola. The unit was based at Oshivello and became the forerunner for 61 Mech.
61 Mech was established at Oshivello in 1979. Commandant Johann Dippenaar was the first commander. Dippenaar commanded Combat Group 20 during Operation Protea. I had taken over command of 61 Mech from Dippenaar on 5 January 1981. He was then transferred to the headquarters of SWATF in Windhoek as an operations staff officer.
From the respective temporary bases at Omuthiya and Oshivello the four combat groups sauntered out daily to assault carefully prepared simulated enemy objectives in the training area, which lay to the north in designated training areas for each.
There were heart-rending moments as well during the training and exercising phase. Some of the artillery gunners of the task force had a serious accident with a Buffel Mine Protected Vehicle close to Oshivello. Precious lives were lost.
Combat Group 20, exercising a few kilometres to the east of 61 Mech, also had a serious training accident. A number of soldiers were killed and wounded during a fire and movement exercise. One of the company commanders, Captain Craig Harrison, was seriously wounded during the fray. A 90mm round had exploded behind him in a tree during a mock assault. He sustained ninety one shrapnel wounds and was summarily evacuated to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. He recovered miraculously and later became a celebrated intelligence officer. Craig served with me at the Army College in 1987-1990. We both had the privilege at the time to participate in Operation Moduler/Hooper and Prone/Hilti. Craig had finally received his chance to participate in operations in Angola.
Fortunately 61 Mech did not incur any casualties during Operation Protea.
Operation Protea was rapidly gathering momentum as the tempo for battle preparation increased. The force needed to be made combat and mission ready. This goal needed to be achieved by 22 August 1981, D minus 2 and counting.
Grootfontein Needs to be Mentioned
Grootfontein was a huge general support as well as an air force base for the military in SWA. It was established in the seventies to support the South African Border War. It was strategically located in the communication zone between Pretoria-Windhoek and the northern border region.
Grootfontein was home to the Northern Logistic Command (NLC). The officer commanding NLC was Colonel Willem Enslin. The air force base was commanded by a sterling SAAF officer, Colonel Pottie Potgieter, ‘Oom Pottie’ to us. Pottie was a renowned Spitfire pilot from the Second World War. Both Enslin and Potgieter were close friends of 61 Mech.
The need for the base to support operations to the north was realised during Operation Savannah in 1975-76. The installation was well planned and neatly laid out to facilitate supply, technical repair, maintenance, transportation and medical care to the front and the rear.
The support base at Grootfontein hosted a number of impressive logistical, supply, technical and medical installations, as well as a large military airfield. It contained an important railhead, which effectively linked the national rail system of South Africa to northern SWA.
The operational sectors in the northern border region were supported with logistics from Grootfontein, as were 61 Mech at Omuthiya. The bare essentials were munitions, fuels, lubricants, spares, rations and other assortments of consumables, equipment and clothing.
Relevant distances were as follows: From Pretoria to Windhoek, 1 830km; Windhoek to Grootfontein, 452km; Pretoria to Grootfontein, 2 282km; Grootfontein to Tsumeb 60km; Grootfontein to Omuthiya, 180km; Grootfontein to Ondangwa in Sector 10, 307km.
Grootfontein became a crucial juncture and served as mobilisation centre for Operation Protea. From here supplies and war material were received from Pretoria and Windhoek, organised, managed and distributed to flow northward.
The base at Grootfontein in addition served as a transit camp receiving, administering and dispatching units and soldiers to the front. Additional officers and men mustered for the operation arrived at Grootfontein by air in phalanxes, transported by huge Hercules C130 and Transall C160 aircraft of the SAAF. They flew in mainly from Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria.
A Predator in Hand is Better than Two in the African Bush – plus Two Graders
This part of the script is about the gathering of a fighting flock for Operation Protea; moreover within the fold of 61 Mech and a how a few temporarily escaped the nest.
In the military we referred to this part of operations as attachments and detachments and eventually to the particular mission-oriented groupings of subordinate force components. In our situation slipping through the net were two yellow graders of the engineers amongst others. Even attachments and detachments make for interesting story telling.
All is said below and was done positively during Operation Protea for the benefit of the greater whole — with Operation Protea the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.
- Senior Command and Staff Course of the army — a Gathering of Stalwarts
By 4 August the senior command and staff course of the army had arrived in the operational area from Pretoria. The course members, about thirty of them, were subsequently used in different senior appointments within the combat groupings. This was one of the ways the South African Army used to expose its future commanders and senior staff officers to combat and for the benefit of the selected individuals. For the individual this was to personally develop leadership competency and gain operational experience. Their Chief Instructor, Commandant Johan Coetzer, accompanied the course to the operational area.
Some of the members recalled from the senior command and staff course to perform operational duty were Commandant Epp van Lill, Commandant Andre Kruger, Commandant Joe Aveling and Major Dawid Mentz
Commandant Epp van Lill was seconded to 61 Mech. I subsequently appointed him as my senior operations officer for the duration of Protea. We knew each other well and he would travel with me in my command Ratel. Van Lill was a close friend from our training heydays at 1 SAI in Bloemfontein through the late seventies. He became the commander of 61 Mech in December 1983 and participated in Operation Askari in January 1984.
Another close compatriot was Commandant Andre Kruger, also from 1 SAI. Kruger was originally seconded to 61 Mech. Commandant Johann Dippenaar however had requested me to transfer Andre Kruger to his battle group. Kruger was subsequently appointed as the second-in-command of Battle Group 20.
Commandant Joe Aveling was appointed as the intelligence officer of 61 Mech for Operation Protea.
Major Dawid Mentz was appointed as the commander of a protection company to perform essential garrison duties at Xangongo under command of 61 Mech. His mission included the guarding of a Reserve Demolition for the bridge at Xangongo.
Commandant Johan Coetzer was appointed as the commander of the mobile reserve (Combat Team Mamba) of Task Force Alpha for Operation Protea.
The members of the South African Army College played an indispensable role during Operation Protea — in planning, supporting, guiding and coordinating, even commanding. 61 Mech as well as Task Fore Alpha could only be grateful to the invaluable contributions delivered by officers of calibre, such as those mentioned in the script above.
- Colonel Robbie Robberts from the Office of the Inspector General
At the time of Operation Protea Major General M.J. (Marthinus) du Plessis served as the Inspector General (IG) of the army. Colonel P.P. (Robbie) Robberts from the office of the inspector general was assigned to Battle Group 10 for the main portion of the operation.
Robberts joined our battle group before we departed to Ruacana on 22 August 1981. He travelled with me in my Ratel command. The purpose of Robberts was to record operational lessons learned during Operation Protea. A debriefing under direction of Chief of the Army was to be held at Grootfontein on completion of the operation.
The role of IG inter alia intended to improve the planning, preparation and successful completion of military operations during war-time. This was referred to as military doctrine. Doctrine is general in outlook and describes fundamentals, principles and preconditions of military operations at different planning and executing levels — be it of strategic, operational or tactical nature. This was important for the army at a time our tactics and operational concepts for mobile conventional warfare were developing at a rapid pace. More so the refinement of our emerging doctrine needed to fit within the context of the African battle space
- Mobile Reserve of Task Force Alpha — a Spitting Mamba
The mobile reserve mentioned in the story telling above was designated Combat Team Mamba. The force operated under the direct command of the task force HQ. Combat Team Mamba comprised (repeated from the script above for the benefit of a complete situational picture): Alpha Company (mechanised with Ratel-20s) and a Ratel-90 anti-tank platoon provided by 61 Mechanised Battalion Group; two support troops equipped with Ratel-60s; one 140mm G-2 medium artillery troop. The mechanised company and the anti-tank platoon were commanded respectively by Captain Hannes van der Merwe and national service Lieutenant Chris Walls of 61 Mech.
Our unit therefore temporarily lost the aforementioned combat potential so as to afford the means for the benefit of Task Force Alpha as a whole.
- Mailed Fist — About Charlie Squadron
By 4 August 1981 Major Joe Weyers rejoined Charlie Squadron of 61 Mech as its commander. He had returned from the South African Army College in Pretoria, where he had attended the pre-phase of his senior command and staff course. Weyers had participated in Operation Carrot in April 1981. He then left to attend his course at the SA Army College. Lieutenant Grobbies Grobler had commanded Charlie Squadron during his absence.
Captain Chris Gildenhuys also joined the squadron from the School of Armour later on the same day. He was appointed as the second in command of Charlie Squadron. Gildenhuys was one of those outstanding officers who always seemed to keep his head — a leader of men. Chris Gildenhuys meticulously kept a diary of the actions of his squadron during Protea in his own writing. I found the diary most useful in the writing of this particular account. I kept a copy of his diary from 1981 onwards as a memento, which I gave back to him in 2011. In 1999 Gildenhuys was appointed the officer commanding of the Armour Formation of the South African Army — deservedly so. He was promoted to Brigadier General soon after returning from the USA as our military attaché. It was a privilege for me in 1999, as the Deputy Chief of the Army then, to could have been instrumental in his promotion and new appointment.
On Thursday 6 August Lieutenant Grobbies Grobler of Charlie Squadron, with three Ratel-90 armoured car troops and their support sections, were detached for operational duty to Battle Group 20. Incidentally one of the troop commanders was the remarkable Second Lieutenant Johan Grove. Grove, with candidate Officer Andries Helm from 2 Special Service Battalion, Zeerust, each received a Honoris Crux decoration for bravery. Amazing exploits are recorded in citations about how they successfully fought with Ratels against tanks in the battle for Xangongo and Ongiva, whilst serving under command of Battle Group 2.
By now two incoming Eland-90 armoured car troops were on the way to join 61 Mech from 2 Special Service Battalion, Zeerust, as part of Charlie Squadron. The decision to split up the armoured car squadron of 61 Mech was taken higher up. The reason was to provide Battle Group 20 with three armoured car troops equipped with Ratel-90s. In return 61 Mech would receive fresh armoured car troops equipped with eight four-wheeled Eland-90s. The reason for this was to provide a more balanced anti-armour array of six-wheeled Ratels for the combat force as a whole, respectively to the west and the east of the Cunene River.
I was not all happy with this untimely decision about the detachment of the three Ratel-90 armoured car troops. The more so Major Joe Weyers, the commander of Charlie Squadron. We were not overly delighted with these late decisions taken shortly before D-Day. Inadvertently it would influence the morale and combat cohesion of the squadron. Charlie Squadron at that stage was a close knit and well trained first-line fighting subunit of 61 Mech; Battle Group 20 was only temporarily assembled for Operation Protea. It would however bare the brunt for the attack on Xangongo and Ongiva.
The incoming armoured car personnel from Zeerust arrived at Grootfontein Air Force Base on Saturday 8 August and were immediately incorporated in the force preparation process of the squadron. Their armour colleagues gave them a hearty welcome. They were now part of 61 Mech.
On Sunday 9 August eight Eland-90 armoured cars, issued for the coming operation to Charlie Squadron, arrived at Omuthiya from Grootfontein. All of us at 61 Mech were ogling the newly acquired four-wheeled Eland armoured cars with trepidation. The Eland had a notorious habit of leaving one in the lurch at inopportune moments. We had been spoilt with the amazing cross-country capability, combat potential and home comforts of the Ratel.
On Monday 10 August the Eland-90s had its baptism of fire in the training grounds north of Omuthiya. This was during an advanced subunit training exercise held by Charlie Squadron. The combat training required some adjustment with the eight newly acquired four-wheelers. The six-wheeled Ratel-90 oriented squadron was not used to the lesser terrain capability of the Eland and its technical shortcomings. On return to base the squadron continued with the maintenance of equipment and recovery of quite a few Eland-90s casualties to the Light Workshop Troop (LWT) of 61 Mech. The LWT immediately commenced with technical inspections and maintenance chores.
Charlie Squadron experienced major technical problems with the eight Eland-90s during training exercises at first. More than half of the Eland armoured cars broke-down during training. Notwithstanding the negative ordeal with the Eland-90s the squadron held extremely successful field exercises.
The LWT of 61 Mech toiled night and day to get all the Eland armoured cars repaired and the other prime mission equipment of 61 Mech maintained in prime condition. By Monday 17 August the teething problems with the small herd of Eland had been sorted out. The cars were giving less-and-less technical hitches. The squadron was smiling again — they were nearing combat readiness once again.
- A Gathering of Eagles — Airborne Soldiers Mechanised in the Ground Role
On or about 4 August 1981 a paratrooper company under command of charismatic and tactical astute Captain Pale van der Walt arrived in theatre. The company from 1 Parachute Battalion in Bloemfontein was about to come under the command of 61 Mech.
I found the paratroopers lounging casually under the trees at Omuthiya. They had arrived from Grootfontein with three Magirius Deutz cargo trucks. The 150 airborne soldiers remained in a comfortable posture as I closed in on them, not perturbed in any way by a foreign commandant clad in nutria and a green beret. They suddenly jumped up and saluted smartly. They had seen my paratrooper wing on my uniform — paratroopers were like that. South African paratroopers were superb fighting soldier’s second to none, high confidence and self-esteem, irresistibly bound by esprit de corps. I was quite pleased with our newly acquired fighting fledglings.
The paratroopers were issued forthwith with Buffel mine protected vehicles, which my logistics officer Major Giel Reinecke had acquired from Grootfontein. Unwieldy four-wheeled Buffels were not the best transportation to be desired in the mechanised fighting business — however the airborne soldiers were quite happy that they were not going to foot it to where ever.
Pale van der Walt was issued with a Ratel-60 as his command vehicle as was his colleague Captain Herbie Pos during Operation Carrot in April 1981. The paratrooper company of Pale van der Walt was subsequently converted in all haste to mechanised infantry at Omuthiya in preparation for Protea. Incidentally, the same company participated in Operation Daisy with 61 Mech in November 1981. They were now our paratrooper-cum-mechanised company and soon became part and parcel of the close-knit family of 61 Mech.
- Unwelcome Guests — Two Yellow Clad Graders Arrived at Omuthiya out of the Blue
Came middle August and two yellow graders arrived to my surprise at Omuthiya as unwelcome guests — not the dirty overall-clad oil smudged drivers from the corps of engineers mind you, they were fine soldiers.
This addition of two yellow monsters to our battle order without spares or sufficient spare wheels was the scheme of some brainless staff officer higher up the chain of authority.
The purpose of the graders, it was said from higher up, was to bury dead FAPLA in their own trenches came D plus 1. I summarily placed the graders under command of Major Dawid Mentz, the elect garrison commander for Xangongo.
How the hell were we going to bundu-bash with said graders through dense bush from Ruacana across the Caculuvar River to Humbe and Xangongo? We eventually did it with flat wheels and all. I still wish to meet that staff officer some day!
Setting the Scene for Operation Protea — Climate Creation
At the call of a general from SWATF one should not falter.
At 14h00 on 5 August I departed with my subunit commanders to Oshivello airfield. On arrival we joined the other commanders and subunit commanders of Task Force Alpha. The combat and support cadre of the task force had been ordained to attend a briefing by Major General Charles Lloyd, the General Officer Commanding the South West Africa Territorial Force (GOC SWATF).
General Lloyd explained the reason for the force build up by the South African Defence Force in the northern operational theatre of SWA. This was due to the increased threat posed by SWAPO and FAPLA. Them being in cahoots across the border he explained, which therefore posed a major threat to the integrity of SWA of course. The address by the GOC encapsulated the operational situation in general, without compromising the plan for Operation Protea itself. The talk also served as a morale booster for the command and support cadre and to establish force cohesion.
That same evening at Omuthiya the Oshivello address was carried over to our troops in no uncertain terms by the respective subunit commanders.
The briefing by Lloyd set the scene for Operation Protea. In Afrikaans this was referred to as “klimaat-skepping” — climate creation. The details of the operation were still kept a big secret to those below the level of the respective battle group and support unit commanders.
The troops were not stupid — ours never were. A proper cover story for Operation Protea from higher up had not been adequately devised.
The ordinary soldiers — the South African kind extraordinaire more likely – therefore realised well that something awe-inspiring was brewing. At this stage the battle indications were becoming glaringly obvious. That the enemy across the border did not sense the same was astounding.
Roused Excitement and Creative Tension
By 5 August the men of 61 Mech were still unaware that they were going to cross the Angolan border in fury during darkness on 23 August 1981 — D minus 1. However, they instinctively knew that something awesome was gathering force – the factual details were still alluding. The factor of uncertainty contributed to the alluring mystique, the atmosphere was tensing, and the excitement was mounting.
For the first time in their lives these young national servicemen were going to meet their enemies FAPLA and SWAPO head-on over open sights. Thrown in to boot, where a few Cubans and Russians as well.
Heightened creative tension and roused excitement bode well for force preparation and the training onwards, until our forces were released for battle on 22 August.
Preparing for battle – sharpening the combat edge
I am going to lift the secretive shroud somewhat and provide a sneak preview of how we prepared for Operation Protea. We find 61 Mech at Omuthiya decidedly involved in preparing for battle- in sharpening the combat edge.
- 61 Mech, designated Battle Group 10, formally underwent mission training and prepared for battle at Omuthiya from 3 August until 21 August 1981. From D minus 21 until D minus 3.
- Our combat unit was destined to depart from Omuthiya to its forward assembly area (FAA) at Ruacana on 22 August 1981 (D minus 2); cross the Cunene River near Calueque into Angola at 22h50 on 23 August 1981 (D minus 1); successfully complete the operation by 1 September 1981 and; return safely to Omuthiya on 1 September 1981 (D plus 8).
It was to be into and out of southern Angola, fast and furious.
The entire operational scheme still needed to be revealed by our planning, which commenced by 4 August onwards
Warning Order Received and Understood for Operation Protea
I received the warning order for Operation Protea at Omuthiya near the end of July 1981.
What did I discern in essence from the warning order and mark as essentials in different colours with china graph crayons, on the talc covering my battle map?
- Marked in red as potential objectives: One of the main military objectives, namely Xangongo in southern Angola, called Yankee as well as a secondary target Ongiva, called Victor. The military objective given to 61 Mech by the military planners in Windhoek, namely the small town of Humbe (Apple Pie), approximately 8km west of Xangongo and then the bridge across the Cunene River. Many years before us the “Dorsland Trekkers” had passed through here, I could remember from past history.
- Marked in double red as a potential threat: Further to the west of Xangongo, about 64km away, the town of Cahama. It was home to a mechanised mobile reserve of FAPLA. From Cahama the tar road reached Humbe and then extended south-eastwards to cross the 800 meter bridge at Xangongo. The road then stretched further eastwards towards Mongua and Ongiva.
- I immediately marked the tar road extending from Cahama-Humbe-Xangongo-Mongua-Oshikango-Ondangwa-Omuthiya in black, so that it stood out clearly. Adjacent to the black line I drew a red arrow pointing from Cahama towards Xangongo — it somehow seemed threatening.
- The SWA-Angola border was dotted in black — so what, irrelevant really.
- The crossings over the Cunene River at Calueque and Xangongo I encircled in blue and then carefully filled it with red. These were prominent choke points allowing access to the obvious manoeuvre areas extending to the east and the west of the Cunene River. Where would we cross the Caculuvar? Or would this not pose a real problem — impending for the moment, assess and plan later? Both crossings were for the taking and exploitation by the enemy or own forces — all part of the balancing act in warfare. Later on during Operation Moduler in late 1987, I found an abundance of burnt-out enemy wrecks scattered around similar crossing-sites. In southern Angola there were always fights going on about such crossing places.
- Omuthiya and Ruacana were marked in blue. Omuthiya was our staging point. It was quite obvious that Ruacana could become a possible forward assembly area where our combat force could be released into Angola. Our mission was to left flank the Cunene River and Ruacana provided by the entry point at Calueque. Then I marked Calueque as this is where we had to cross the Cunene — no other choice. The crossing therefore needed to be secured before hand. Any enemy reconnaissance and outposts deployed on the way to Humbe-Xangongo? Where? More substantial intelligence bits and pieces were required, impending for analysis later.
- The Cunene and Caculuvar rivers were marked with blue, lined in heavy green to indicate the natural obstacles to contend with in the planning.
Mongua and Ongiva were also marked in red on our battle map. At the time it did not have that much significance for 61 Mech, due to our primary mission centring on Xangongo and Cahama.
- We did not know then that Mongua would become a target of opportunity for Captain Hannes van der Merwe’s Alpha Company and Lieutenant Chris Wall’s anti-tank platoon on D plus 1. Both these subunits and their commanding officers were from 61 Mech. They were also busy planning their mission for Operation Protea at Omuthiya, as the designated mobile reserve of Task Force Alpha.
- We did not know then that Ongiva would be presented as a target of opportunity for Combat Team 2 of Koos Liebenberg, in supporting the second main attack on Ongiva on D plus 3.
An operational picture of our mission on hand in relation to the general threat scenario and terrain started unfolding in my mind. Situational awareness was mounting. I was ready to do my command appreciation which would guide all other operational planning, following on by me and my command cadre.
Forthwith all the operational planning for the operation unfolded in utmost secrecy. Planning maps were marked with code words and nick names and were to apply to succeeding planning and preparation.
At this stage only a few key personnel of 61 Mech knew that Operation Protea was brewing. They were my second-in-command, Major Thys Rall; my logistics officer, Major Giel Reinecke; my RSM, WO 1 M. C. Barnard; my Chaplain Koos Rossouw; Captain Koos Liebenberg of Bravo Company; Captain Hannes van der Merwe of Alpha Company and; Captain Bernie Pols, my artillery battery commander. These officers were more than close confidants. They were my close friends.
Together we readied 61 Mech for the force preparation and planning stint. Training soon followed on simulated targets we had laboriously prepared at Omuthiya. The training area extended into Ovamboland to the north of our base. We could fire live and manoeuvre freely wherever we pleased.
It needs to be mentioned for the record: I was furious when I analysed our mission for the first time. It became glaringly clear, according to my perception, that our unit was handed the more mundane of tasks for Operation Protea. This included irresponsibly taking away certain force elements from 61 Mech and grouping them with other force organisations, which were temporarily mobilised for Operation Protea. Other smaller force elements in turn were grouped with our battle group. All these underhanded moves materialised out of the blue a critical few days before D-Day. These were moves which subtly influenced the cohesiveness of 61 Mech, which at the time was already combat ready. I could never really fathom what lay behind these underlying decisions, as it transcended lucid military thinking. Was it for selfish reasons, in so playing with the lives of others? This was not deserving of 61 Mech, one of the best trained cohesive fighting units in the SADF at the time. These strange groupings even baffled the Inspectorate General of the Army as was clearly expounded during the debriefing of Operation Protea at Grootfontein in September. I spoke my mind during a coordinating meeting a few days later at Oshakati — to no avail. It was too late to change the situation. The planning had gone too far. I gracefully accepted what had been preordained for 61 Mech.
It needs however to be mentioned in retrospect that the role 61 Mech played during Operation Protea was indispensable to the overall success eventually achieved. Orders were orders. In the military the mission always comes first and needs to be carried out in the most professional manner. That was exactly what we were going to do. I had the utmost confidence in my subordinate commanders and men.
Living in the Fast Lane — Pulsating Rhythm and Creative Tension
The high tempo preparation activities for Operation Protea were exhilarating — it was living in the fast lane.
The concentration area at Oshivello-Omuthiya was a hub-bub of fervent activity. There was constant movement to and fro, day and night, as the force was readied at breathtaking pace for combat.
At the beginning of August an all encompassing order group and coordinating conference was held at Oshakati by Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst and Colonel Joep Joubert. The actual date of the meeting had eluded me. The aforementioned was the indisputable kick-start of Operation Protea.
I attended the Oshakati summit on behalf of 61 Mech. Major Giel Reinecke accompanied me to oversee to the logistic side of things, which was comprehensive in its own right. Major Thys Rall, my second-in-command, remained behind at Omuthiya. Rall oversaw and guided the force preparation and training of 61 Mech, which was already in full swing. The guideline was to prepare for an offensive external mobile conventional mission. The detail about the operation was still omitted so as to maintain utmost secrecy.
The force preparation and planning schedules for Task Force Alpha and the execution thereof unfolded rapidly. Progression was carefully monitored on a daily basis by means of inspections, staff visits and daily coordinating conferences. In doing so the respective subordinate combat and supporting commanders and their staff officers were allowed enormous latitude to achieve combat readiness by D minus 2 – 22 August 1981.
- By 3 August the task force started mobilising. Forces assigned for the operation arrived in the theatre of war and moved towards the concentration area at Oshivello-Omuthiya. Each force component was allotted its own designated staging area.
- Force preparation was carefully planned and commenced in all seriousness forthwith. This included the simultaneous planning for their respective missions by the task force HQ, the four battle groups, mobile reserve and support units.
- On 5 August Major General Charles Lloyd gave his unveiling address for Operation Protea to his combat and support cadre at Oshivello.
- By Thursday, 20 August 1981 all the respective plans of Task Force Alpha were approved by General Constand Viljoen, the chief of the SADF. The go ahead for Operation Protea was finally given.
- Last light on Sunday, 23 August 1981 found Battle Group 10 at Ruacana ready to attack northwards towards Humbe and Xangongo. The remainder of Task Force Alpha was deployed on the SWA-Angola border in a forward assembly area, further to the east near Okalongo, ready for action.
Operational Planning — Planning is Preparing for Action
I felt completely comfortable with operational planning and command. I knew my work and the operational concepts for mobile warfare and the doctrine that went with it as I was instrumental in the design thereof in the army. The SADF used me again later on during Operation Moduler and Hilti. In 1987 we faced the FAPLA and Cuban hoards in southeast Angola; in 1988 it was the Cuban’s crack 50th Division in south-west Angola.
I thrived on mobile matter. Later on I taught the same mobile warfare concepts expounded at 61 Mech to the Army: For five years since 1983 at the Army Battle School near Lohatlha and; for a further three years to selected senior officers of the Army at the South African Army College as the commanding officer. I was always fortunate to be accompanied by outstanding officers who in some way came through the mould of 61 Mech. Men like Paul Fouche, Koos Liebenberg, Les Rudman, Johan Potgieter, Chris Gildenhuys, Jan Malan, Cassie Schoeman, Kobus Smit, Frik van Zyl, Giel Reinecke, Theo Wilken and Kowie Steyn, to mention but a few. The souls of those who had served with 61 Mech were touched and their collective destinies somehow became interwoven for ever. Through the eighties the army developed an amazing core of competent mechanised commanders, such as the aforementioned.
My young command cadre for Operation Protea at Omuthiya were imbued with similar tactical prowess as the officers mentioned above. They had the making. Many of them later on became gifted commander and senior staff officers in their own right. I was extremely proud of them and revelled in their achievements. We thrived on creativity and sharpened our wits through gruelling planning cycles and war gaming, such as for Protea at Omuthiya.
The central part of the base at Omuthiya boasted a large corrugated iron operations and communications centre. The one part of the centre contained a planning room. The centre also sufficed as a cloth-model for war gaming purposes. Ample space was allowed on the iron-ridged walls for maps and planning charts. Here the leader group of 61 Mech did their deliberate planning and war gaming for operations such as Protea. For Protea we had allowed ample time for planning down to grass roots.
An integrated planning process was followed by our leader group. The joint planning method incorporated all our combat, combat support and combat services support subunit commanders and staffs. The planning cycle was a pertinent trait of 61 Mech and was specifically devised to incorporate joint planning at battle group level. The said planning system was based on an Israeli concept which had been adopted for the SA Army at formation level. The methodology was contained in the SOP of 61 Mech.
The battle maps utilised for Operation Protea displayed the code words and nick names to be used for the planning and execution of the operation. On Friday, 7 August we commenced with the joint operational planning cycle at Omuthiya to prepare for our part of the mission. The leader group was subjected to gruelling operational planning and war gaming at the respective command levels.
Adding on to the mission training in the field we indulged in war gaming on a daily basis. Built into our operational planning and operations order was operational forecasting. This best practice took own and enemy capabilities, doctrine, time and terrain factors into consideration. The contingencies that resulted from the forecasting were exercised at Omuthiya. Tsun Tzu’s dictum was thus applied to the letter: “Know yourself, know your enemy …………..” Simultaneously with the planning my intelligence staff assessed incoming intelligence on a daily basis.
During the planning phase renowned SAAF pilot Mossie Basson flew an unscheduled aerial reconnaissance mission for 61 Mech with his Impala — this was not authorised from higher up I may add. Somehow Mossie Basson always got into trouble with senior Air Force officials. He was a superb and seasoned combat pilot. I was to meet up with him again during Operation Moduler in southeast Angola in October-December 1987.
Mossie Basson brought back valuable aerial photography of the possible fording sites over the Caculuvar River. This potential natural obstacle lay to the south of the Humbe-Cahama road.
By 14 August all our planning was completed, the operations order produced and signed off. The issuing of formal orders was a mere formality.
Force Training — Knowledge is Power
Gruelling and realistic training, combined with thorough planning, minimises slips and oversights when fighting. In battle every error sanctions failure of mission and loss of life or limb. So at 61 Mech we trained and trained, day and night, even during operations.
Well planned and strenuous force training and exercising were indispensable ingredients for the high level of combat readiness achieved by Task Force Alpha for Operation Protea. 61 Mech as Battle Group 10 was already more than halfway there when the training started on 3 August 1981 and was completed by 20 August.
The policy framework for the force preparation of 61 Mech was founded on mobile conventional warfare. This implied in addition exercising effective command and control, fire support coordination, as well as logistic sustainment for mobile operations. This process obviously required all encompassing training programmes to ensure effective combat support and combat service support as well. Safety during training and operations formed part of the whole.
Training at 61 Mech varied between force training to allow for unique training (infantry, armour, artillery, engineer, support, etc) and joint exercises. Continuous informal training focused on leadership development, the mastering of command and control and in refining the latter by means of simulation (war-gaming) — the central idea was that 61 Mech train as we fought.
For formal and informal war-gaming we specially built the corrugated iron operations centre at Omuthiya. The troops also war-gamed in smaller groupings on sand models. These simple, but highly effective operational planning aids were devised in the sandy surfaces in the midst of the tent lines at Omuthiya or elsewhere in the field — plenty of sand to go around wherever 61 Mech fared. We even war gamed on maps or with sketches on the sides of Ratels, playing with china graph strokes or magnets. There were very few dull moments to be had with 61 Mech in the field.
Training in and mastering bundu-bashing, bush-manoeuvring, immediate action drills and navigation formed an integral component of the combat readiness requirements of our fighting unit. This especially accrued to movement and navigation at night through dense entangled bush. These were still the days when prismatic hand-held compasses were used for navigational purposes. You needed to dismount and walk thirty paces away from the iron-clad to take a bearing.
In addition precious time was allocated for cross-training programmes to support multi-role applications. This practise for example allowed for the switching of drivers and gunners with informally trained driver and gunners, so as to afford scheduled moments of well earned rest to others after sessions of strenuous night and day movement.
Armour and infantry capabilities were regularly grouped into combat teams for the purpose of training as well as for operational expediency. Integration of arms training and the rapid grouping and regrouping of combat elements in the field were special traits of 61 Mech.
Our doctrine supported the process of winning the fire fight. This gave time to recover, to think quickly and then to act swiftly. One of the dictums of 61 Mech was: “To fire is to move”. Another stated that “the one who has the fire habit is always looking for forward ground”.
The Standing Operating Procedure of 61 Mech was a useful planning, training and operational aid. It was utilised extensively by the respective subunit commanders. The SOP was a direct derivative of our evolving battle doctrine. Our household doctrine was continuously being developed, experimented with and improved over time. It was contained in a yellow pocket book bearing the emblem of our unit. The motto on the front page expressed an age old military dictum: “Thorough planning and superb training saves lives”. The SOP was a prized possession and could be found in the hands of every leader of 61 Mech.
About the doctrine of 61 Mech and its standing-operating procedure:
- We all worked diligently at developing the doctrine of our fighting unit. The basics were contained in our SOP mostly developed in the field, even being written at times during training or operations on the move.
- The manual contained valuable drills of the past, such as ‘Visgraat drill’ (‘fish-bone tactics’). This particular combat drill allowed for rapid controlled dispersion in advent of an enemy air attack.
- The favoured drill by all at 61 Mech was the ‘Fire Belt Action’ (‘Vuurgordelaksie’ in Afrikaans). On this command 61 Mech unleashed hell on its front – all guns blazing for one minute within interlocking arcs of fire. These lethal practices intended to surprise and disrupt an enemy, to win the fire fight, to neutralise or destroy resistance by fire, but fast.
- The SOP contained everything required by 61 Mech to do battle, from: leaguering procedures, immediate action drills, fire coordination and safety, coordinating measures and administrative procedures.
- Every subunit commander arriving at Omuthiya received his SOP as a matter of extreme urgency and expediency. The subunit commanders were then allowed the latitude to plan, play and train at heart’s content, until they declared them and their subunits ‘combat ready’. This advent was then followed up with a full blown all systems go ‘joint combat group exercise’. Exercises were usually preceded by deliberate joint operational planning cycles. Training was always done with live ammunition and overhead indirect fire support. Close air support was also adequately catered for.
- In time the SOP was fully developed to suit the needs of 61 Mech.
By Monday, 3 August the respective subunits of 61 Mech were seriously immersed in advanced combat training at subunit level. This played out in the training area north of Omuthiya — the firing and the manoeuvring could be heard all day. Almost every night the subunits exercised night movement and navigation. Simultaneously the maintenance of weaponry and equipment were pursued relentlessly, day and night. This included the test firing and calibration of weapons. Subunit level training was successfully completed by Wednesday, 12 August.
On Saturday, 8 August at 08h00 Captain Koos Liebenberg, the commander of Bravo Company, gave a lecture to our leader group on area operations. Liebenberg was an accomplished mechanised infantry officer serving with 61 Mech. He had acquired substantial experience regarding counter-insurgency oriented area operations during Operation Carrot in April 1981. His company also deployed from Omuthiya to Okongo (Sector 10’s area of operations) in March 1981. This was to gain relevant experience in counter-insurgency tactics. Liebenberg was now sharing his knowledge with the other members of the leader group of 61 Mech. This formed part of the battle preparation for Protea. The knowledge was relevant for the coming operation. Area operations formed an integral component of our mission. It was intended to seek out scattered enemy remnants following on the main attack to be executed on D-day.
A major portion of Wednesday, 12 August was spent on the repair and maintenance of vehicles and equipment. A war game was specifically planned under my direction on this day with the leader group to test the emerging operations plan. This was required before finalising the operations order of Battle Group 10 by 14 August.
At 08h00 on Saturday, 15 August the subunits attended lectures in rotation on buddy aid (first-aid), signals, enemy weapon systems, and mine awareness. At 12h00 all the troops viewed a ground attack demonstration by a sortie of Mirage fighters in the training area just north of Omuthiya. At 15h00 a demonstration was delivered by the artillery’s 127mm Valkiri Multiple Rocket Launchers. This was the debut of this lethal system in the operational area of SWA. Its fiery balls were soon to be referred to by the enemy as ‘Shindungu’ — the red pepper that burns.
Every evening on completion of training or exercising it was ‘debriefing and war-gaming time’. On this followed the adjustment of operational planning and orders as required.
Training and force preparation were all encompassing and thorough. It was taken to the extreme by 61 Mech. The morale of the force was extremely high due to the vigorous training and the excitement, which was ever prevalent.
Exercising the Combat Force— Battles without Bloodshed
An important lesson through ages of warfare formulised by Josephus came to 61 Mech at Omuthiya: “Battles are exercises with bloodshed and exercises battles without bloodshed”. So at 61 Mech we exercised and exercised, day and night, even during operations.
Fortunately during the training and exercising at Omuthiya for Protea there was no bloodshed — at times it came close.
Initially the subunits exercised independently, then as combat teams and eventually as part of an all encompassing shooting and manoeuvring battle group. There was a rule in South Africa’s mechanised forces: If a combat team fights well, the battle group fights well, the brigade or task force fights well.
How the exercising on completion of training unfurled for Operation Protea:
- By Thursday, 13 August the respective subunits were grouped into combat teams for joint exercising. This was preceded by marrying-up drills performed by the infantry, armour, artillery, support weapons and support elements. The respective groupings were adopted from our progressive operational planning happening daily and nightly. The combat teams, now appropriately grouped for the coming operation, commenced with combat team level field exercises until Monday, 17 August. Training and exercising continued to be conducted with live ammunition in the training area north of Omuthiya.
- By Monday, 17 August the intelligence team and the engineers of 61 Mech had carefully prepared mock enemy defensive locality a few kilometres north of Omuthiya. The layout was orientated and designed to what could be expected at Humbe — north was north.
- In addition a comprehensive mock enemy trench system, also similar to what could be expected in Angola, was prepared on the northern fringe of our operational base. Here the respective subunits and sub-subunits of 61 Mech regularly practiced and honed their high tempo trench fighting techniques: breaking in, fighting through, clearing trenches, replenishing ammunition, evacuating casualties, taking prisoners of war, and breaking out. These were fun adrenaline-flowing exercises which the troops enjoyed tremendously. These exercises were instrumental in sharpening the combat edge of 61 Mech and in practicing small-unit leadership
- On Tuesday, 18 August Battle Group 10 departed Omuthiya to launch its first simulated attack on the mock enemy defensive locality awaiting fire and brimstone to the north of Omuthiya.
- The aforementioned exercise was repeated on Wednesday, 19 August. At 04h00 Battle Group 10 was to be found well on its way to the objective. From 12h15 the troops enjoyed some hard earned rest. The same day at 17h00 General Constand Viljoen, the Chief of the South African Defence Force, visited 61 Mech to give final approval to our battle plan.
- By Thursday, 20 August the green light for Operation Protea was finally given. A final run through with all guns blazing was executed on the ‘enemy objective’. As always the attack was supported with artillery and mortar fire. The Ratel-90s and Eland-90s did extremely well. The explosive wrath of their 90mm guns impressed the fighting infantry and it boosted their morale.
- By Friday, 21 August 1981 Battle Group 10 was combat and mission ready, all set to sally forth northwards.
A Bosbok light reconnaissance aircraft was allocated to 61 Mech for Operation Protea. The name of our pilot was Freddie, I had forgotten his surname. The Bosbok also sufficed as a forerunner (‘Voorloper’ in Afrikaans) to be used as an aid for navigation by a moving 61 Mech. At the time we still navigated by means of prismatic compass.
Navigation was a challenge in the denseness and flatness of southern Angola. However we were good at it. The ‘Voorloper’ was only to be used in an emergency, so as not to compromise security of the moving force, or for that matter, the relative position of 61 Mech.
The Bosbok was also to be used for aerial reconnaissance and to scout ahead of 61 Mech in the advance to contact. Other uses of the light aircraft were artillery fire control and playing forward air controller for own attacking aircraft. Our own forward air controller Lieutenant Jacques du Randt revived his friendship with Freddie, his old school friend and now our pilot. Together they spent many a night in the cockpit above 61 Mech at Omuthiya, experimenting and honing the air-to-ground-to-air techniques.
A mild surprise would be awaiting Freddie, our gallant Bosbok pilot, near Cahama. An astonishing ordeal would soon be experienced by him one dark and eerie night on the road 17km southeast of Cahama – on the ground and not in the air.
No casualties were incurred during any of the exercises mentioned above. However, during the final exercise a fin broke off a 60mm mortar bomb, whilst it was overhead our skirmish line. The bomb tumbled down onto the fighting line. I was on the ground and could clearly see the mortar bomb twisting-and turning as it dropped out of the sky. I shouted to the troops in the assault formation right in front of me to take cover and remain prone — “val plat, lê stil!” Fortunately, to the relief of all, the mortar fell on its side amongst our troops and did not explode.
Through all of these aforementioned meticulous battle preparations the excitement was steadily mounting. Anticipation reached its cusp by 21 August. We were ready to move out from Omuthiya, northwards to Ruacana.
Amazing Tiffies and Maintenance and Serviceability of Prime
Energetic Captain Phil ‘Jakkals’ Jeackel was our technical staff officer. He was responsible for overall technical planning and support.
61 Mech’s Light Workshop Troop (LWT) was commanded by Sergeant Major Duppie du Plessis. His trusty second was Staff Sergeant Kokkie de Kock. Their loyal clan of ‘Tiffies’ (mechanics) rarely had time for saluting or similar other mundane military fixations; either at Omuthiya or wherever they toiled came night or day — they were fixers of war machines par excellence.
Duppie du Plessis was Tiffy extraordinaire. He was a motivator of men who cared tremendously for his people and 61 Mech. He performed far above and beyond the call of duty. The motto and promise of Duppie to me was that all the vehicles of 61 Mech will be serviceable when the sun rose each day. The eight four-wheeled Eland armoured cars, our new floundering foundlings however, were going to give the Tiffies a run for their hard-earned bush-pay.
It was not a strange sight at Omuthiya to see the lights of the corrugated lean-to light workshop at Omuthiya burning throughout the nights and hearing the over burdened generator’s eternal growling. The LWT at Omuthiya was always a hub-bub of activity 24-hours a day.
When on the move, vehicle casualties were towed behind Ratel Recovery vehicles — ‘hang-sleep’ or became the burden of the trusty ‘Yster’ (Iron). ‘Yster’ was an impressive SAMIL recovery vehicle, the icon of the Tiffies, with its said name lovingly painted onto its side. During exercises and operations our loyal Tiffies were used to repair vehicles on the tow! It was no strange sight to see booted feet trailing from dormant engine compartments. The amazing Tiffies could pluck a Ratel engine from its fighting compartment within 20 minutes, fix it in no time flat and replace it within 30 minutes.
Many a time our fighting crews accompanied a break-down to the LWT to work hand-in-hand with the Tiffies to get it repaired as fast as possible – back into commission again.
Stable parades (‘Stalparades’) were instituted at 61 Mech to contribute to a nearly extreme level of combat readiness. It related directly to high levels of equipment care and the serviceability of weapons, vehicles and all other equipment associated with high standards of combat readiness. This readiness state stood in direct relation to mobility. With its stable parades our unit applied the participative premise of leadership. Every commander with his men was involved with the cleaning and maintenance process. Everything was packed out, cleaned and inspected, nothing was left to chance. Logbooks of all controlled items were filled in, checked and signed off.
Soldiers of 61 Mech in the past, present and future always saluted these men who were covered in loose fitting oil smudged overalls, wearing dirty black berets.
Serviceability for 61 Mech meant mobility.
Logistics — Moving Mountains
Major Giel Reinecke and his reliable support team were somewhere out there, in or outside Omuthiya, shaking and stirring up the logistics at break-neck pace.
Logistics was an essential ingredient for combat. Sustainability added to the mobility of 61 Mech during Operation Protea. This was especially true for the long distances travelled, sparse infrastructure and challenging terrain conditions encountered in southern Angola.
Reinecke was my logistics officer and administrative support group commander, at times referred to as HQ Company. He was promoted to the rank of major during our preparations for Protea. Reinecke was smart, energetic and logistical gifted. Simply the best any commander and fighting unit could wish for. 61 Mech’s logistics was comfortably left in his hands and those of his diligent support team. I trusted the support staff completely — Reinecke and his team could move mountains.
My Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) M.C. Barnard commanded the administrative tail, the life-line of 61 Mech. It was referred to as Alpha Echelon. From the echelon the supplies reached the forward fighting subunits and elements, like an umbilical-cord, stretching outwards — ammunitions, fuels, lubricants, ration-packs, spares, batteries, body-bags, toilet paper and what ever. Everything was neatly packaged, well managed, ledgered and accounted for. No wonder 61 Mech won the competitions for the best managed logistics in the operational theatre.
61 Mech was organised to sustain itself during operations for ten days at least. The logistics tail was substantial. It not only carried consumables, but also an impressive array of spare radios, engines, axles, gearboxes and spare wheels. The workhorses were a range of SAMIL military trucks, with mine protected cabs, manufactured in South Africa. There were diesel bunkers and water bowsers in abundance and the amazing Lappies fuel pump, which was installed on a SAMIL-20. The Lappies-pump was named after Colonel Labuschagne, the man behind the design. From the Lappies-pump, 61 Mech could refuel four Ratels at a time, or other vehicles for that matter, in no time flat.
Alpha Echelon was afforded a motorised platoon for protection during movement.
Our field engineer troop had the ability to set up water purification plants in the field to sustain 61 Mech endlessly with fresh drinking water. Of water there was sufficient to be found in the shonas and rivers of Angola.
During force preparation at Omuthiya we did not have sufficient steel helmets for the troops, spare radios and Ratel engines available before moving out. Reinecke arranged for our requirements to be delivered to Ruacana airfield by Hercules C130 on 23 August 1981.
Major Giel Reinecke was awarded the Military Merit Medal (MMM) for the sterling work he had performed at 61 Mech during his term of duty from 1981 until 1982.
To my mind logistics was so important to mechanised warfare that I had requested Giel Reinecke to write a separate account on logistics for the history of our unit. His story later on became part of an electronic monument for 61 Mech, which is kept on the web-site of the unit’s veteran’s organisation. (The saying ‘electronic monument’ was coined by the well known military writer Willem Steenkamp. Steenkamp, Helmoed-RÃ¶mer Heitman and Leopold Scholtz are currently busy writing the history of 61 Mech).
Personnel Administration — Every man Counted
National service Lieutenant Willem van der Vyfer and our personnel staff oversaw personnel management at 61 Mech. The staff included civilian personnel who worked at our unit’s administrative office in Tsumeb.
Before going into battle, personnel administration needed to be 100% correct and accounted fore — every man at 61 Mech counted. Name lists, personnel record cards, blood groupings, immunisation, remuneration, name tags (dog tags) and book numbers were all important.
The book numbers served as an additional measure for identification purposes of individual soldiers going into battle. Such identification measures went as far as drawing up seating plans for the respective fighting vehicles. This was to facilitate the identification of disfigured personnel in the eventuality of a vehicle becoming a battle casualty; for that matter burning-out and so forth. With this eventuality in mind went a number of body bags carried with our logistic echelon. It was always a macabre exercise to stow the body-bags – one never new whether you were loading your own. Book number codes, which were recorded in a safely kept ledger, were issued by the HQ of 61 Mech.
A conference regarding personnel administration was attended on Saturday, 6 August by the respective second-in-commands and administrative personnel of the sub-groupings of 61 Mech. The second-in-commands of subunits, such as Lieutenant Kowie Steyn of Bravo Company and Captain Chris Gildenhuys of Charlie Squadron, played indispensable roles in unit administration. The conference held by the aforementioned was in preparation of our unit’s operational documentation programme, which was scheduled for Sunday, 9 August.
The respective sub-groupings of 61 Mech commenced with personnel administration at 08h00 on Sunday, 9 August, which was followed by a church parade at 11h00. Book numbers were issued to all troops. These numbers, as well as individual blood groupings, were marked onto clothing and personal equipment as additional means of identification.
By Sunday, 16 August all the troops of 61 Mech had been immunised against Yellow Fever and bush-paid – cometh the moment for 61 Mech, cometh the man. Each man needed to be healthy, somewhat wealthy and wise for what was coming.
Signals — Mastering Communications
Through history, it was said by military historian Sir B.H. Liddell Hart, “That the whole secret of the art of warfare lies in the ability to become master of communications.” Fundamentally this implied the mastering of command and control as well.
Captain Thinus van Wyk was the man behind the many radios utilised constantly by 61 Mech. He planned, issued and managed the many radio diagrams and the allocation of frequencies. Communication by radio was the nervous system of 61 Mech, either when on the move or when stationary. Stationary was never for long.
Every vehicle and every commander in the battle order of 61 Mech were linked by tactical two-way radio. Communication means were facilitated by helmets and chest-harnesses and boxes with three switches; including intercom inside the Ratels.
Over radio-nets would flow information and command. Rapidly assessing situations and issuing quick radio-orders were attributes of 61 Mech – to see, to decide and to act.
Facilities even existed to listen in on enemy radio nets so as to provide real-time intelligence, even in the midst of a raging battle. Task Force Alpha was provided with specialist Ratels by the signal corps to facilitate electronic warfare during Operation Protea.
The Plan of Battle Group 10 is approved — 20 August 1981
As a formality the final operations orders were given by the four combat group commanders about five days before D-Day. In reality operational plans were constantly evaluated and refined, even up to 21 August 1981. Amendments to plans were done progressively as new information continuously came to light during the foregoing battle preparations. This was especially true to the changing either of timings by the Task Force HQ or an evolving enemy situation.
Thursday, 20 August 1981 had arrived. This was the day when Battle Group 10’s battle plan was approved by General Constand Viljoen, the Chief of the Defence Force.
General Viljoen was accompanied by Lieutenant General Jannie Geldenhuys, Chief of the Army; Lieutenant General Jan van Loggerenberg, Chief of the Air Force; Major General Charles Lloyd, GOC SWATF; Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst, Commander of Sector 10 and Operation Protea; and Colonel Joep Joubert, Commander of Task Force Alpha. In their wake was a hoard of staff officers from Pretoria, Windhoek and Oshakati.
General Viljoen only asked me one question during my presentation: “Tell me Roland, what is your plan if you run into trouble along the axis of attack on the way to Humbe, with the enemy’s mobile reserve deployed behind your back at Cahama?” I subsequently explained how we had appreciated the situation time and space wise. I described our plan about phasing the attack on Humbe-Xangongo from the west; the maintenance of a mobile reserve at all times for just such a contingency. General Viljoen immediately replied, he said, “Fine”.
General Constand Viljoen was satisfied with the aforementioned explanation. The operational plan of Battle Group 10 was subsequently approved, as previously endorsed by Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst and Colonel Joep Joubert. That afternoon at Omuthiya I felt great. Especially after the hard work my command cadre and support staff had put in. Due credit was given by me for the proceeds of their relentless toil at Omuthiya over a few hectic and eventful days.
The right of passage for Battle Group 10 to assail southern Angola on the night of 23 August 1981 was formally established.
Final Inspections and Refinements — Ready to Roll by 22 August 1981
After returning to base on the final mock attack north of Omuthiya by 12h30 on 20 August 1981, Battle Group 10 was informed about the final movement arrangements of Task Force Alpha. There was to be no movement by Battle Group 10 before 09h00 on 21 August 1981.
Final planning and preparation continued unabatedly, whilst final inspections were now scheduled for the morning of 21 August 1981.
On Friday 21 August 1981 our command cadre did a quick re-appreciation regarding the movement plan. Preparations for battle were simultaneously finalised and final inspections carried out. Movement to ‘Long Drop’ (Ruacana) was now scheduled for 04h00 on 22 August 1981.
By 22 August 1981 61 Mech, as Battle Group 10, was ready to engage the enemy as ordered: regardless of what, where and when – even if the mission should for some reason change.
Execution by Battle Group 10 – the mission comes first
On the Move — the Departure from Omuthiya to Ruacana
Saturday, 22 August 1981 had dawned — D minus 2. It was early morning at Omuthiya, some hours before first light. Battle Group 10 was ready to roll. The movement of our battle group had been meticulously planned by my second-in-command Major Thys Rall, logistics officer Major Giel Reinecke and the seconds-in-command of the respective subordinate groupings.
At 04h00 the forward combat and support groupings started departing for Long Drop (Ruacana), under cover of darkness. The movement out of Omuthiya took some time. The time past-point of our battle group exceeded 60 minutes on loose Namibian sand in this instance. A heavy diesel smell hung in the air. Early morning was cold. The armour types wore their green nomax jackets.
- The command group and mechanised portion of the attack force followed Route 1 – so referred to in the operations order. The column moved across country north of the Etosha Game Reserve and eventually towards Ruacana via the Kamanjab road. A total distance of 470 kilometres. My second-in-command, Major Thys Rall, oversaw the move. Heavy dust hung in the sky and accompanied our column.
- The remainder of Battle Group 10, including Alpha Echelon, moved the 336 kilometre by road via Ondangwa and Oshakati to Ruacana along Route 2. This group fared to Ruacana under command of Major Giel Reinecke and the supervision of our RSM, Sergeant Major M.C. Barnard. In the wake of the echelon followed two graders.
Closing in on Ruacana and Leaguering for the Night
During the forward move to Ruacana great emphasis was placed not to jeopardize operational security. For this reason my command group and the main force with the Ratels, moved out during darkness and crossed the Oshivello-Ondangwa tar road.
Our column then passed north of the Etosha Game Reserve, mainly across country, towards Ruacana. For the first leg of the route we followed slightly to the north of the game fence of Etosha. The area we moved through was desolate and sparsely populated. Hardly any African kraals were to be seen — nobody who could report our move.
Major Giel Reinecke had arranged for a refuelling point, halfway along Route A, at Onaiso. The refuelling point was established by the maintenance unit from the Northern Logistic Command based at Grootfontein. When we arrived at Onaiso the diesel bunkers and Lappies mobile fuel pumps were awaiting our combat array in readiness. Well done, thank you Reinecke.
During halts young Captain Kobus ‘Bok’ Smit was still training the 81mm mortar platoon of Second Lieutenant Etienne Gertzen, as we progressively moved towards Ruacana. Later on in the war, on 3 October 1987, Kobus Smit commanded 61 Mech at the Lomba River in southeast Angola. On that momentous day 61 Mech annihilated FAPLA’s 47th Brigade and turned the tide of the enemy’s overwhelming advance towards Mavinga.
The two forces of Battle Group 10 joined up at Ruacana after last light on 22 August 1981. The Ratels arrived at Ruacana airfield at 22h50. The combat teams subsequently deployed in a forward assembly area (FAA) under bush cover close to the airfield. Replenishment was completed before our unit leaguered for the night and to stay over for a portion of the next day.
Ruacana was the domicile of 51 Battalion under command of Commandant Eric Lambrecht. I had arranged beforehand with Lambrecht to secure our FAA near the airfield at Ruacana. His coordinating officer awaited our incoming columns at the pre-arranged check-point.
Final-final preparation and some hard earned rest were on hand as deep darkness set over northern SWA – D minus 2. The SWA-Angola border was very close now — within the reach of our 140mm G-2s.
Forward assembly Area at Ruacana on Sunday 23 August 1981 — D minus 1
Our men roused leisurely at about 07h00 on 23 August 1981 — late for us, but no reason to hurry. We were well rested. There was a relaxed feeling about us. The metal of the Ratels were cold to the touch.
D minus 1 found Battle Group 10 at Ruacana counting the hours – we were about to round off the final movement stage before offensively assailing Humbe-Xangongo on D-Day. Excitement stirred in the cool winter breeze as we awaited darkness. Some final inspections, briefings, a church parade and a few other important things still needed to be done.
Little by little there were hub-bubs of activity every where. All important were the final checking of personnel records and book-numbers by the respective combat teams and other subordinate groupings. Here and there the combat team commanders sat in groups, surrounded by their men, doing administration and final briefings, cool calm and collected.
The Tiffies were on the go again busy with final repairs – technical chores never seemed to end with a mechanised force. Major Giel Reinecke and Captain Phil Jeackel were doing final staff checks on fuel, ammunition and spares, just to make sure. Shooting was heard near the airfield as a few weapons were calibrated and test fired. I walked about in the leaguer, coffee in hand, feeling fine.
At about 11h00 I held my final briefing and pep-talk. Each and every one of my soldiers of Battle Group 10 was there. I sat on top of Ratel 0B, the command vehicle of Commandant Joe Aveling, my intelligence officer. Bible in hand our chaplain Koos Rossouw poised next to me on the Ratel’s spare wheel. Oversized battle maps were attached to the side of the Ratel, marked with blue and red battle arrows, own and enemy forces clearly depicted. The proceedings included an intelligence briefing by Joe Aveling – enemy first, own forces next. Then a church parade was held by Padre Koos Rossouw. The troops lounged peacefully on the sandy Namibian soil in front of me. Their eyes were shining, stark anticipation could be read on their faces. I wished that the enemy, their fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers and girlfriends could see them, as I saw them. They were young and energetic. Awesome!
For the first time my troops heard it from me: This is not an exercise — this is Operation Protea, the real McCoy. A sortie of Mirage attack aircraft flew low over us from west. It was unexpected. The troops were jubilant. There was a spontaneous cheer.
The fighters were returning from a strafing run on enemy radar installations north of us inside Angola near Chibemba.
I told them with calm confidence that according to our plan we would cross the border into Angola the same night. It was a splendid morning. I felt extremely assured and relaxed
From my view atop the Ratel two yellow graders in our marching order assailed my eye momentarily. In quick succession it beset my mind. The stark yellow was completely dissimilar to the impressive array of nutria coloured Ratels and other hardware surrounding us amongst the wintry foliage. Fleetingly my thoughts drifted aggressively southwards to Windhoek.
With regards to the Mirages which flew over us: Operation Protea was initiated by the South African Air Force (SAAF) attacking enemy targets inside Angola on 23 August 1981. The air force targets were the key enemy radar installations and few air defence positions which could interfere with the coming operation. The air attacks by the SAAF simultaneously served as psychological dislocation of our conventional foe and disruption of their command and control.
At 15h00 we had a brief visit from the high brass. Lieutenant General Jannie Geldenhuys our Chief of the Army and Major General Charles Lloyd, GOC SWATF, arrived by Puma helicopter. They had brief chats with some of our troops. In essence the two generals were ensuring that everything was ready before unleashing hell northwards. Of course we were ready.
The planning went like clock-work. Our Bosbok light aircraft with Freddie behind the stick arrived at Ruacana. It now stood by to assist us with navigation through the night, if the need should arise.
Aerial scouting and spotting and artillery fire control as planned for Battle Group 10 was confirmed for the next day. On arrival in the target zone at 11h00 on D-Day Freddie would be overhead. My two artillery commanders Captains Bernie Pols and Frans van Eeden still needed to finalise a few coordinating arrangements with our young pilot. The same applied for Lieutenant Jacques du Randt, our forward air controller. Du Randt travelled with Combat Team 3 under command of Major Joe Weyers.
Commandant Eric Lambrecht had been requested by me beforehand to secure our entry into Angola at Calueque across the Cunene River during cover of darkness on D minus 1. Under his command a small combat force from 51 Battalion moved out early in the day and crossed into Angola. By last light Lambrecht reported that the low-water crossing at Calueque had been secured. Everything was quiet he said, no enemy forward elements were observed. So far, so good. Incidentally, Commandant Mike Muller crossed into Angola with 61 Mech across the same low-water bridge on 26 June 1988. They were on the way to attack the advance guard of the 50th Cuban Division near Techipa. This was to be the last epic battle of the war.
By late afternoon Pretoria was still flying in a few Ratel engines, axles and other assortments to the airfield at Ruacana. As the day set, a few Hercules C130s were still landing. Major Giel Reinecke, Captain Phil Jeackel, Sergeant Major M.C. Barnard and Sergeant Major Duppie du Plessis were running about coordinating and organising the final logistic throes. Some steel helmets still needed to be issued to a few of our troops, other commodities to be stowed onto an assortment of logistic SAMIL cargo trucks standing idling. Yster, the large recovery icon of the Tiffies, was lifting spare engines and axles and placing it onto SAMIL-100s.
Suddenly there was a commotion in our ranks. A SAMIL-20 of our medical section was on fire — instantaneous combustion was caused by some chemicals stowed in the hold. The fire was rapidly smothered with fire extinguishers. The same as we would do with any enemy encountered come D-Day.
At last light Battle Group 10 started forming up near the airfield in its preordained marching order, testing communications and readying for departure. My respective commanders were linked to me by means of a combat-net. My secondary radio net was linked to the combat-net of the task force. Captain Thinus van Wyk manned an alternative rear link with the HQ of Task Force Alpha. In addition we maintained reliable ground-to-air communications. Each subordinate organisation had its own combat-net. My artillery commander, Captain Bernie Pols, managed the fire-support coordination centre with sufficient radios to do the job properly. He was also responsible for the safety of our own troops regarding the safety of close indirect fire support.
By 18h00 the Battle Group HQ, respective combat team commanders, the artillery, mortars and Alpha Echelon reported: “March and combat ready!”.
A small combat grouping in front of my command group was responsible to scout ahead and navigate our battle group northwards. It comprised the squadron commander, one Ratel-90 armour car troop and a mechanised infantry platoon with Ratel-20s. It included the engineer troop for the eventuality of assisting with obstacle crossing at the Caculuvar River. The commander of Bravo Company and also commander of Combat Team 2, Captain Koos Liebenberg, travelled with the vanguard. Liebenberg acted as its alternative commander. His position would assist him to assess the situation rapidly as the lead assault force commander once we approached the forming up place. Somewhere in the extended column behind me were two growling yellow graders.
Our battle group departed Ruacana orderly at 19h15 and started moving progressively northwards as planned, towards the forming up place (FUP). The FUP had been selected 12km northwest of Humbe. We crossed the SWA-Angolan border and the Cunene River near Calueque at 22h50. Not much sleep was going to be had over the next three days. Cat-napping would have to suffice. Troops had the knack to sleep anywhere, any time.
Far to our east at Okalongo the Task Force HQ, three brother battle groups and the mobile reserve brooded to strike north well after midnight. The main force was poised to go east flanking at 03h00. Battle Group 10 was on its way going west flanking. The offensive show was on, initiated by our aggressive move northwards.
Rolling Forward — From Ruacana to the Forming Up Place (FUP)
For the first phase of the move our combat unit followed a bush track due north in the direction of Humbe. The track was marked on a vintage Portuguese topographical map we had, probably originating from the Dorsland Trek the previous century. The track soon disappeared and it was bundu-bashing all the way.
Navigation was laborious business, sliding off the sloping armoured nose of the Ratel and climbing back on again, prismatic compass in hand. It was necessary to walk at least 35 paces away to avoid magnetic deflection from the armour hulls.
Notwithstanding my trusty navigation team out just to the front, I double checked. Remaining orientated and maintaining situational awareness for commanders at all times were crucial. How many times I repeated this navigational ritual through the night, I can’t remember. It was utterly tiring.
I encountered serious problems with my radio communications through the night. It was in and out of my command Ratel during the move so many times that I stopped counting. I eventually clambered into Ratel G49. This was the command vehicle of my artillery battery commander, Captain Bernie Pols. His communications were superb. My signals officer Captain Thinus van Wyk was doing his level best to fix my radios. Meanwhile the clock was running faster than usual. We were aiming at reaching our FUP northwest of Humbe by 10h30, with some minutes to spare. D-Day and H-Hour was approaching fast now. After midnight came and went, my radios were serviceable. Thanks heaven, a quiet prayer on the move, one of many.
On the way grinding north into the darkness we came across a lone African man on a bicycle. We could see the whites of his eyes, utter astonishment to be read on his sweating face, notwithstanding the cold. He had a typical African bicycle. The chain was groaning and there were large springs underneath the saddle. However, the bicycle was not of tactical importance. Our man had travelled quite a distance from Humbe. He was totally amazed when he came across the large herd of Ratels. During a quick tactical chat told us that everything at Humbe was quiet and peaceful. He also told us that some enemy deployments lay in the floodplains of the Cunene River, with the bulk of the heavies at Xangongo. The main road leading to Cahama was also quiet he said. Our new found Angolan friend was awarded a ‘ratpack’ before he pedalled southwards. We rumbled the opposite way, into the country of this friendly man who never was.
Through the night the hard-working grease smeared Tiffies were recovering some broken down vehicles, repairing them on the move. It was an endless process. In the field a BÃ¼ssing 6-cylinder diesel engine needed to be removed from the armour hull of a Ratel. Here and there some six-wheelers stood to one side of our instant bush-track. The crews were rapidly changing huge wheels: flat ones with spare ones, then joining up on the move. H-hour was waiting for no one. Short Mopani stumps paid account to pliable rubber. It was extremely hard work, changing the heavy Ratel wheels.
Then one of the graders received a puncture and developed a technical hitch. Murphy’s Law. Blessed be the senior staff officer who decided that Battle Group 10 needed the ogres in our arsenal. I left Commandant Dawid Mentz and Lieutenant Marche Mucho and the Phantoms behind to care for our cripple non-camouflaged glaring yellow grader.
Mentz was destined to be the Garrison Commander at Xangongo, soon to bring some order to the town and to see to repairs, after it had been shot to bits. Marche Mucho commanded the ‘Phantom Squad’, my dirty dozen. This questionable bunch was crammed into a Buffel mine protected vehicle, armed to the teeth. As ‘Code 7’ troops, from the engineers, they were not supposed to bear arms. According to official SADF policy they were ‘untrainable’ and were only to be used for harmless maintenance chores in the army. Their informal leader was the notorious ‘Captain Payne’, a druggie who wore his non-commissioned captain’s rank tattooed onto his shoulders. In a weak moment at Omuthiya I had allowed them to come with as an additional protection platoon. If something serious happened to them, like bleeding, I was going to be in unfathomable trouble. Goodbye professional career in my beloved army, goodbye my beloved 61 Mech. Painted on the side of their adored troop-carrier was the word “Phantom”. They became phantoms later when they were involved in a viscous fire fight with FAPLA on the road leading to Cahama where, miraculously, nobody was killed. So I still had my 37 year career in the Army.
The exploits of the ‘Phantom Squad’ are recorded elsewhere in the annals of 61 Mech and will therefore not be repeated in this script. They were in Angola as a small precious protection element for the artillery. Change of mission: Momentarily now they were ordained to protect the lonely grader in a dark hostile Angolan night, see to repairing it and bringing it safely to Humbe.
Goodbye Phantoms, fare well, God speed, see you later. A snap prayer by Roland de Vries, close and personal:“Dear Lord if You may; not to allow a SWAPO patrol to come across our lonely yellow grader and take it to Cahama. Thank you dear Lord”.
It was an interesting night. At the same time short and endless. All was not over yet.
One of our drivers in a SAMIL truck decided to take a cat-nap during one of our short 10 minute halts. He fell into a deep sleep probably dreaming of home comforts. As Battle Group 10 trundled steadily northwards a large gap of 10km ensued. I am still waiting for the name, Major Giel Reinecke! Troops have the uncanny habit of making life interesting for military commanders. However, I would go nowhere without them, especially the South African kind. Fortunately we could scramble our light spotter aircraft at Ruacana to lead our lost flock forward onto the straight and narrow. It was after midnight in a dark African night. We were somewhere close to Rotunda. Our force was intact once again. The clock was ticking.
Our battle group had planned to branch off 45º northwest close to the small African kraal marked ‘Rotunda’ on our map. My second-in-command, Major Thys Rall, and I made quite certain of our geographical position. There was no satellite navigation available to aid and we had to rely on the aerial photograph of the village in our hands. The village was in the shape of a kidney. Torch in one hand, Thys and I felt the perimeter with the other to make sure of the kidney shape — some bloody scratches received, yes, Rotunda affirmed.
Dawn was approaching swiftly We were on the move again, now rumbling north-westward to go west flanking, leaving the crimson tinged African horizon behind us. I informed Colonel Joep Joubert by radio that all was fine and that Battle Group 10 was running to plan. He informed me that they had encountered movement and navigation problems to the east of the Cunene River. He was subsequently going to move H-Hour, which had already changed earlier from 10h30 and then to 11h00, to 11h30. The hour of reckoning was thus shifted a further 30 minutes to the ‘right’. This decision came as some relief to us, as the dense bush was taking its toll. Laborious bundu-bashing was eating steadily into our movement time even though, to our reckoning, we would have made the earlier H-Hour by a hair’s breadth. I informed my task force commander that our battle group was on schedule as planned. It was a good feeling to say so.
H-Hour was all important for the thorough coordination of all the respective movements of the task force’s combat groupings; the timing for the air attack on Xangongo; the safety of own aircraft; the accurate positioning of all indirect fire support weapons and; for tight fire support coordination and control.
We had intended to follow an old Portuguese north-westerly cut line marked on our aerial photograph. The cut line showed up as a thin grey line on the aerial photographs we had carefully studied at Omuthiya. There was no cut line to be found. The bush was now so thick in areas that it jerked the turrets of some of the Ratels around on the ratchets. It was still semi-dark, one side of the sky towards the east was gradually turning to a deep luminous blue — first light in the Angolan sky arising. During halts we could hear birds chirping. Battle Group 10 pushed on relentlessly. Reliance was now on brutal force, prismatic compass, sheer navigational skill and dead-reckoning. We burrowed through a maze of trees and brushwood.
“How could I describe the particular area Battle Group 10 was moving through at daybreak? Until today this memorable experience remained uppermost in my mind. Extreme denseness formed by giant trees, stunted shrubbery and tangled undergrowth. In one sense magnificent to see in the cold morning light. The smell of fresh breaking foliage lay heavy in the morning air as our fighting column purposefully tunnelled its way through the intertwine draped in dappled shadow. In another way the experience was eerily threatening as the continued bashing by men and their machines relentlessly ate up our movement time. The sloping armour of the Ratels in front was smeared with the sap of countless shredded shrubbery.”
Daylight came and in a number of open areas we found clusters of fresh enemy tracks leading westward towards Cahama. FAPLA combat boot tracks and chevron sole pattern worn by SWAPO could be discerned. The answers to these large numbers of tracks leading westward remain unanswered until today. This situation posed the question in my mind whether our task force had succeeded in total surprise? My presumption was that certain FAPLA and SWAPO soldiers had became aware of the pending attack and were high-tailing it out of the danger zone. There were visionaries amongst them and they probably breached the crocodile infested Cunene River when their sixth senses warned them. Our treasured enemy occasionally did such things, without requesting permission from higher authority. In many instances higher authorities usually fled slightly ahead of them.
The conventional enemy later on ran again at the Lomba and Chambinga in October-November 1987. They ran at Tumpo close to Cuito Cuanavale as well, early in 1988 and swam amongst the crocodiles. Brave people they were FAPLA, in this sense.
Our battle group soon arrived at a point just to the south of the dry Caculuvar River. This was a specific chosen point, reasonably far to the west of Humbe, we were aiming for. Our potential crossing site was still masked by dense foliage. The position reached was planned beforehand as a forward waiting area to be occupied for no more than 60 minutes. 61 Mech had established this little best practice during our training exercises at Omuthiya. This habit acquired through past experience allowed for leeway in case of timing hitches along the way. We were however suitably on time and could spend some valuable moments here in peaceful respite.
Radio contact was made with the higher HQ and some valuable titbits of information were exchanged. The new H-Hour was confirmed; no fresh intelligence regarding the enemy’s disposition at Xangongo was received; nothing intercepted out of Cahama through electronic means; and the air attack on Xangongo was going in on time. It was all systems go as planned, incorporating the aforementioned marginal timing amendments.
Time now for a few quick prayers, friendly nods here and there, the final clearing of fallen leaves and debris from the open mechanisms of the 20mm quick-firing guns of the Ratels. The guns were mounted upside down in the mountings. The open slots for the ejection of expended cartridges were prone to falling leaves and other flotsam from above. There was plenty of this.
Final confirmation of the combat group’s orders followed and a quick thumbs-up between the respective combat parties, those who were in view of each other. Our chaplain, Koos Rossouw, was flitting amongst some vehicles having quick chit-chats with the troops, those who were poised on top of their machines not sleeping.
Battle Group 10 was now “combat-ready”. The final move to the forming up place for the attack on Humbe was on hand – time now to cross the Caculuvar River. An unpleasant trivial surprise was waiting for us a few kilometres northwards.
The combat group started moving again as the advance guard swung northwards. Mossie Basson’s aerial photos at Omuthiya had indicated the Caculuvar River as a wide hard mud-caked flood plain. He had however missed one important part with his aerial recce: it was something that neither showed up on the aged Portuguese maps we had studied so carefully at Omuthiya. We ran slap-bang onto the southern bank of a deep donga, a dry river-gulch, a reasonably deep one with steep sides. I knew from experience that the Ratels could just get through with some difficulty, but what about the rest of the force? There were SAMIL trucks, gun tractors, mine protected Buffels, yellow graders and all, in the impressive progressive procession following behind me.
I had visualised a clock in my head earlier at our last staging position. In my head I could see the hands of my imaginary clock going faster and faster.
Moments of apprehension was felt. The clock was ticking on. H-Hour was approaching fast now. The Mirages were already screaming on tar macadam at Ondangwa. Task Force Alpha east of the Cunene was pushing hard towards Xangongo. Contact with the enemy was imminent. Urgent work needed to be done. We were not there yet. Many conflicting feelings momentarily washed over me. Then there was a feeling of strange calmness and immense confidence, especially in the people around me.
We stopped. Over the radio I explained our minor dilemma to my combat team commanders, “Small problem. Slight obstacle on our front encountered. Wait. Out.”
We rapidly dispatched a single Ratel-20 to breach the donga. Going down was a breeze, climbing out the powerful six-wheeler reared precariously on to its hind wheels and fell forward onto all six-wheels on the other side. The problem remained. We did not want to loose any machines at this stage of the game.
Commandant Epp van Lill, my operations officer, jumped from my Ratel. He ran down and then westward up the donga, anxiously scouting for a viable fording point. A number of yards further westward van Lill found a feasible crossing for the Ratels but not suitable for the four-wheelers. Relief washed over me. Decision time. We decided to cross with the Ratels and high-tail it towards the Humbe-Cahama tar-road. 11h00 were 45 minutes away. The remainder of Battle Group 10 was instructed to bundu-bash westward to seek a viable crossing point. This meant that our attacking force could be without the support of our trusty 140mm guns for a while. Splitting our force at this late stage was not a comfortable undertaking. What the hell, do it and carry on.
Fortunately the tail-end of our battle array joined up with the lead six-wheeled combat force before long. Alpha Echelon now leaguered in a relatively safe position further to our rear and flank. The protection company of Major Dawid Mentz deployed in all-round defence, leaving the echelon reasonably secured. Our Bosbok light aircraft with Freddie was on its way from Ruacana to Humbe. The SAAF Mirages and Buccaneers from Ondangwa were lining up to attack Xangongo and Peu-Peu.
Comforting news was received by radio from the south. The yellow grader had been repaired and was progressively rolling forward to join us. The yellow monster was following in the tracks of our battle group. We did not need the enemy taking ownership and driving it to Cahama. At times during our forward move I felt like giving our uncalled for burden to the enemy.
Battle Group 10 nudged forward towards the tar road linking Humbe and Cahama. It was a great feeling, a catharsis for me, when I saw the road. We were anxiously observing up and down the road searching for any enemy presence or activity. The road was mystifying and quiet. We were squarely inside hostile territory. Humbe lay eighteen kilometres to the east and FAPLA’s mobile reserve approximately forty two kilometres to our west at Cahama. We would soon swing south-eastward, with Cahama to our rear. Ignore the enemy to the rear for the moment, focus on the front.
By merely influencing and dominating this critical stretch of road with our awesome presence, our mission had already been achieved in a sense. That is to say by firstly being on site to attack eastwards towards Humbe and by cutting off the enemy’s possible escape from Xangongo; secondly by being in position to prevent enemy interference from Cahama.
We were now suitably deployed for a running fight coming from Humbe-Xangongo. For the moment we did not need anything unsympathetic coming from the rear, thank you. Later would be fine. We first needed to capture Humbe, consolidate our position and then turn around to face the hostiles at Cahama. We had carefully calculated the risk beforehand at Omuthiya. We estimated that surprise would not allow FAPLA’s mobile reserve at Cahama to interfere timeously with the knocking out of Humbe and Xangongo in the game. However in battle you never knew.
To briefly indulge in wafts of reflective thinking about mobile warfare:
- The operational move by Battle Group 10 from Omuthiya to Humbe-Xangongo was a feat in itself. After the operation was completed I was requested by the inspector general to write a case-study about this particular achievement. Due credit for this exceptional tactical move was afforded Major Thys Rall, the respective subordinate commanders and their seconds-in-command in the planning and execution thereof. As my second-in-command Rall was responsible for movement planning. To this end he was meticulous in everything he undertook.
- Swift and effective tactical movements by mechanised forces are essential ingredients for mobile warfare. In a wider sense all the combat participants of Protea were steadily and surely building a solid knowledge base and the prowess for mobile warfare in Africa. These attributes would be dearly required later on during Operation Moduler in 1987-88. We would then become entangled in viscous conventional battles, facing immense combined numerical FAPLA and Cuban odds. More so from the angry skies as our aged counter air fighters became completely outclassed by the opposing side’s modern Russian Migs.
- To my mind mobile warfare was a combination of art and science. The South Africans appropriately mastered the tricks of this particular war faring trade in wide expanses of African bush. Our conventional foe never seemed to embrace the war of movement effectively. Russian war fighting doctrine, as adopted by FAPLA, was dreary and unimaginative. Their war fighting style lacked lustre — it was positional inclined, as we saw at Xangongo and Ongiva.
Progressively through the night Xangongo had become besieged from the east and the west — the noose had tightened, leaving little escape. Stand and deliver FAPLA, or not?
West Flanking towards Humbe-Xangongo — Advancing on Bloody Mary
First things first, the capturing of Humbe and cutting off the enemy by Battle Group 10 from the west was on hand.
FAPLA’s Xangongo – Peu-Peu – Humbe defensive stronghold was waiting to be taken simultaneously from the east and the west of the Cunene River. The two sectors were interfaced by the strategically vital bridge at Xangongo. For the moment the bridge became of tactical importance to the extreme — the centre point of the enemy’s separation and cut-off. It was vital ground.
The enemy was now locked in a pincer hold by the South African Forces. The three African towns were ready to be ravished. War was coming to them with unrelenting vengeance from directions least expected.
Weapons of the attackers from all sides were locked and loaded, eyes where squinting, ears where peeled, fingers where itching. The South African forces probed steadily with determination towards the encircled enemy from the east and the west.
On reaching the Cahama-Xangongo tarred road, Battle Group 10 swung its vanguard offensively south-eastwards towards Humbe and Xangongo. The road, nicknamed ‘Bloody Mary’, now served as an axis of advance and attack.
The FUP, nicknamed ‘Sweet Sam’, approximately eighteen kilometres northwest of Humbe, was reached with precious minutes to spare. The forward mechanised combat team of our battle group swiftly deployed into an extended fighting line, we were now straddling the road with our attack formation facing eastwards.
Forming up in Attack Formation to the West of the Cunene near Mucceipo
For the attack on Humbe the plan was simple. It was to be executed as a phased attack, with Battle Group 10 organised into two main assault forces:
- Combat Team 2, call sign 20, under command of Captain Koos Liebenberg was the main mechanised assault force and would lead the attack. His combat team comprised Bravo Company in fourteen Ratel-20s and two armour car troops with eight Ratel-90s. Major Joe Weyers acted as the second in command and commanded the two Ratel-90 troops. An 81mm mortar group was in direct support.
- Combat Team 1, call sign 10, under command of Captain Pale van der Walt was the mobile reserve for the duration of the attack. His combat team followed in line-of-march in the wake of the Battle Group HQ and Combat Team 2. The force comprised one Ratel-60 command, Alpha Company in fourteen Buffels and the eight Eland-90s of the two armour car troops. Captain Chris Gildenhuys acted as the second in command and commanded the two Eland-90 troops. An 81mm mortar group was in direct support.
The command arrangement for the attack worked as follows:
- Situational awareness was paramount. Knowing what was going on about the enemy, own forces and terrain in terms of time and space. Anticipating what could happen beyond the next bound and being ready to assess and take rapid action — see, decide, act.
- My command group was positioned in the centre of the attacking formation, hugging the road. Our command group was deployed in their respective command vehicles in open formation to both sides, slightly behind me. My personal radio call sign as the commander of Battle Group 10 was 9; my second-in-command Thys Rall was 9A, and so on. Each key member of the command group had his personal call sign.
- My Ratel Command vehicle, call sign Zero, was positioned slightly to the rear within stones-throw of the forward fighting line of Combat Team 2. Close by was Captain Bernie Pols my artillery commander in Ratel G49 and our air support officer in Buffel LS1. Together our portion of the command team inter alia was responsible for operational safety and close coordination of direct fire and movement in relation to the indirect fire and air support. Bernie Pols acted as the fire support coordination centre of our battle group. Captain Frans van Eeden in Golf 49A commanded the guns to the rear and could also act as a forward observation officer (FOO). We had refined the act of close fire-and-manoeuvre and fire support-and-coordination to a fine “T” during our training at Omuthiya. We were very relaxed about it.
- My second-in-command Major Thys Rall in Ratel ØA (zero alpha), acted as the alternative commander of the battle group. Our intelligence officer Commandant Joe Aveling in Ratel ØB, the signals centre Ratel ØC and the electronics warfare Ratel ØC1 moved in proximity of the alternative command group. Interception of enemy communications and providing early warning about what could come from the front or rear was the main thing for the moment.
- One of ØB’s functions on the move was to assess incoming intelligence and disseminate what was relevant to command — especially real-time intelligence; collect, collate, interpret, disseminate.
- My logistics officer Giel Reinecke and Chaplain Koos Rossouw travelled with Thys Rall in ØA. Captain Thinus van Wyk my signals officer was with me in my command Ratel. He had to keep our comms going come hell or high water.
- Sergeant Major M.C. Barnard in Ratel 9F followed one tactical bound behind the fighting force with the fuel, water, ammunition and other bits of logistics. These essential commodities were carried with Alpha Echelon for first-line support. A Ratel armoured recovery vehicle and Ratel armoured ambulance moved with each of the combat teams.
The four 140mm guns would deploy rapidly once within 10-15km range of Humbe. The medium artillery troop would then immediately commence with adjusting fire in the target zone with the support of our aerial spotter. The respective 81mm mortar groups were ready to come into quick action when so required on command of the respective combat team commanders.
Combat Team 3, call sign 3Ø, centred on Charlie Squadron under command of Major Joe Weyers. Combat Team 3 was to be reformed and appropriately re-grouped on completion of the attack. Combat 3 would then move swiftly westwards towards Cahama as covering force – early on D plus 1 was the plan.
Mid morning at 11h00 sharp, found our battle group squarely deployed in the FUP, ready for battle. Senses of roused excitement were in the air as the rays of the mid morning sun penetrated the thick Angolan bush around us. A few magnificent Baobab trees could be seen along the road to our front. A lonely African kraal nestled in the morning sun to the left in front of us. No living soul was to be seen anywhere.
The smell of diesel fuel mingled with the dust. The relaxed hum of the large number of powerful diesel engines was strangely subdued. A slight breeze drifted the dust away in the still cool Angolan air, clearing the scant observation so desperately required. A sudden burst of energy, pulsated, as if by signal ……. H — Hour at 11h30 was approaching fast. The squelch of high frequency radios could he heard.
To the west the South African attack aircraft pounded Xangongo. The 140mm guns of Bernie Pols and Frans van Eeden started firing on Humbe. The Bosbok spotter with Freddie was overhead.
“Eyes to the front. Ready to fire at will!” Battle Group 10 grinded steadily in the direction of Humbe and Xangongo, ready to convert the progressive forward movement into controlled fire-and-movement at any moment.
The first mission of Battle Group 10 was to capture Humbe, then to exploit eastwards to the river. The mission entailed cutting off any enemy escaping from Xangongo. At the same time our combat force was ready to prevent enemy interference from the west. The capturing of Xangongo and Peu-Peu by the remainder of Task Force Alpha from the east was not to be hindered in any way by the enemy from the west.
The Battle for Xangongo and Peu-Peu to the East of the Cunene
The flanking move of Battle Group 10 allowed the remainder of Task Force Alpha to deal with the enemy at Xangongo and Peu-Peu without any qualms from the west.
Task Force Alpha in the meantime had started forming up approximately 7km to the east of Xangongo. There the main force split. This left Battle Groups 20 and 40 to deal with Xangongo and Battle Group 30 with Peu-Peu 10km to the north.
The main attacks on Xangongo and Peu-Peu were preceded by an air attack and artillery bombardments.
The murderous assault from the eastern side of the Cunene River only commenced at about 12h00. Colonel Joep Joubert and his three battle groups by then had overcome some movement and forming up difficulties. The deliberate attack in the east went in later than expected.
The mission of Battle Groups 20, 30 and 40 was now to capture the towns of Xangongo and Peu-Peu as quickly as possible.
Battle Group 30, under command of Commandant Chris Serfontein, was already on its way to capture Peu-Peu 10km to the north.
Battle Group 20, under command of Commandant Johann Dippenaar, was to capture the southern sector of Xangongo. This was the major portion of the offensive task required at Xangongo. The objective included FAPLA’s defences to the south and at the airfield. In true sense this offensive manoeuvre forced the enemy onto their own minefields. Layers of defensive minefields lay further to the south. The enemy had foolishly calculated that a deliberate attack could come from the south. The layout of their phalanxes of interlocking trenches and reinforced concrete bunker systems therefore faced the wrong way.
Attacking westward on the northern flank of Battle Group 20 was 40 under command of Commandant Deon Ferreira. The mission of Battle Group 40 was to fight through the most northern FAPLA defences at Xangongo and capture the old Portuguese Fort overlooking the river.
The old fort was situated on high ground. From here the critical bridge across the Cunene River and the main road leading from Humbe into Xangongo could be clearly observed and effectively influenced with direct fire weapons, small arms and short range mortars. The high grounds at the fort and to the south of the main road, adjacent to the river, were important tactical features either for defence or attack.
This included a high-rise water tower just to the south of the main road next to the river. The water tower afforded excellent observation to the west and over the town. Commandant Dawid Mentz would put the same tower to good observation use the next day when we crossed the bridge and moved into the salient. This high rising stretch of ground adjacent to the Cunene formed the most western edge of the Xangongo defences. Later on Battle Group 10 would use the river and the high ground in combination for the defence of Xangongo.
The small town of Peu-Peu 10km to the north also nestled alongside the Cunene River. Out on a limb to the north of the main force Battle Group 30 had its own stiff battle. In the proceeds of the battle was the destruction of a localised mobile reserve force of FAPLA. The enemy, equipped with a number of T-34 tanks, were intercepted as they started heading south to intervene with the battle for Xangongo. Peu-Peu was subsequently defeated and large quantities of enemy stock and ammunition were captured.
Xangongo was a serious battle. It took two days for Combat Team 20 and 40 to subdue the foe. The battle raged on in stops and starts, through day and night, well into D-day plus 1
Capturing Humbe and Exploitation towards the Cunene
What followed in the attack to the west of the Cunene River at Humbe was not a major fight. It was almost a set-piece formality.
As our battle group advanced progressively towards Humbe the light spotter aircraft informed us that the trenches in the vicinity of Humbe seemed neglected and abandoned. Astoundingly so no hostile movement was observed and there were no enemy forces presently breaking out of Xangongo.
Captain Bernie Pols immediately stopped the firing of the G-2 guns, but remained ready to open fire at a moment’s notice. Freddie flew westward in his Bosbok. He reported that our back was clear as well — astonishingly so, all quiet on the western front – although this was what we had predicted in our planning beforehand at Omuthiya. The enemy’s quietness to the west was the proceeds of surprise, miraculously so. One full enemy brigade 45km to our rear still remained dormant. Nothing was coming out of Cahama.
It was decision time for me again. My original orders from Task Force Alpha included an alternative objective allocated to our battle group. This was especially so in the advent of Humbe being deserted. Intelligence predictions by the task force indicated that the settlement at Mucceipo, close to Humbe, could possibly provide home to a SWAPO force of unspecified strength. The nature of the target was undefined. To our planning staff at Omuthiya there was some logic in the possibility of SWAPO lurking in the neighbourhood of Mucceipo – where home comforts could be had.
Mucceipo included a few buildings, a missionary and a hospital. Originally for the main attack we would have by-passed Mucceipo and sorted it out later. The less than hostile situation on our immediate front had however changed this.
During the conceptualisation of ‘Plan B’ at Omuthiya, and hearing about the mission and the hospital, I had felt some reservation and discomfort. I had however quickly shifted the eerie feeling about our alternative target from my mind, whilst concentrating on our main course of action. The alternative attack on Mucceipo however was planned and our battle maps were marked accordingly. Our original contingency planning called for an attack on the designated alternative target if so required. We were closing in on Mucceipo, which would come up slightly to our left on the northern flank; approximately eight hundred metres up the connecting road.
We were approaching the turn-off and I decided to secure Mucceipo. I halted my Ratel command on the intersection and faced halfway to Mucceipo. I could clearly see the outbuildings, the hospital and the mission. I immediately halted the attack line of Combat Team 2 and ordered them to stand fast. As instructed Captain Koos Liebenberg released a subordinate combat grouping under command of Major Joe Weyers to rapidly secure the potential target to our north.
As I glanced up the road to the settlement I saw numerous FAPLA soldiers frantically fleeing through the settlement in a north-westerly direction. The enemy soldiers were clearly visible through the sparse trees and bush surrounding Mucceipo. Some of the enemy soldiers were carrying personal AK-47s; many others were without their rifles. I saw though my binoculars some fretful sweat streaked faces glancing our way. One moment the frenzied enemy soldiers possessed with flight were there and then they were gone, disappearing into the beckoning sanctuary of the dense bush.
Captain Koos Liebenberg released the small combat grouping for the intended quick encirclement of Mucceipo. For some or other reason there was an argument between him and Major Joe Weyers. The origin of the minor verbal confrontation on the cross-road I never fathomed. It was also not very important to me. However, during the minor verbal maul Joe Weyers encountered some difficulty in swinging his attacking formation ninety degrees to the north. I had a serious talk to Weyers across the gap between our respective Ratels as well as I wanted to get things moving faster.
Something cold momentarily touched my soul. I leaned over my turret again, looked at Joe Weyers and said. _ “Move and encircle. Don’t shoot unless we are fired upon first”._ Captain Pale van der Walt in his Ratel-60 accompanied Joe Weyer’s combat team as they started executing their searching move towards Mucceipo. This would put van der Walt in the position to assess rapidly if need be and to assist with Combat Team 1, if this should be required. The small combat grouping ventured rapidly towards Mucceipo. In a spur-of-the-moment scuffle which followed, Pale van der Walt shot one suspect enemy with his R-5 rifle from the turret of his Ratel-60. The sorry soul was trying to break out of encirclement.
Divine intervention served us well and saved our bacon. Out of the mission stepped seven white nuns from the Red Cross, as well as the sick, the lame and the lazy …… “Yes” they said, _“there had been some SWAPO and FAPLA here in the past, but they were not here anymore”. _
Another silent prayer by Roland: I would not have wished myself, our unit or South Africa to bare the brunt of a serious international outcry. South Africa was in enough trouble as it were from the international community, about Operation Protea as well. Mucceipo was a personal lesson learned by me: Heed your inner voice and make damn sure about higher intelligence received.
By 12h30 Battle Group 10 resumed the advance towards Humbe. We passed some road signs indicating the distance, Humbe 10km. It was inscribed on one of those old Portuguese concrete signs with the recognisable rounded crest. One of these milestones were picked up by someone from 61 Mech and taken back to Omuthiya as a souvenir.
As we entered Humbe we saw the derelict trenches FAPLA had once occupied. We felt some apprehension about running into minefields. We probed forward carefully keeping our eyes peeled for the tell-tale signs. There were no indications thus far of any enemy escaping out of the Xangongo. At this stage Battle Groups 20 and 40 were fervently fighting in Xangongo, keeping the foe securely fixed within the bounds of their trenches.
Our trusty Bosbok roved overhead ensuring our security through aerial scouting all around us. This was the luxury of still enjoying air superiority in those erstwhile fighting days. By 1987 this would change in all of southern Angola — no more Bosbok then free-wheeling in the skies over Angola.
As we advanced through Humbe I momentarily stopped my Ratel near the Angolan police station. The small building was just to my right off the road. I leaned over to cut a limp tattered FAPLA flag off the flagpole. I jumped down and went into the police station. Everything was left as is, total abandonment. The local police chief needed a serious talk-to; strangely enough he was not there. He had left his office in total disarray. The in-tray was filled to the brim with bundles of useless paper, probably a few charge-sheets as well for the sorry souls living in poverty in and around Humbe. I mounted my Ratel and moved on, following behind the advance formation. We spotted a few graders, not at all as pristine as our own two yellow ogres. Approximately three kilometres from the bridge I halted our combat force and moved into an open leaguer. The ground we were on was reasonably defendable. We remained totally alert for anything hostile coming our way from any direction.
Humbe was captured. I gave a brief situation report (SITREP) to Colonel Joep Joubert on the other side of the river by radio. He said well done. I could sense that he was pre-occupied with the grinding battle unfolding to our east. We could clearly hear the firing and explosions reverberating from across the river. Dark ominous battle smoke hung in the air over Xangongo.
The tail end of our combat procession was moving steadily towards our leaguer position selected for the night. This comprised the artillery, Alpha Echelon and the protection company following on behind.
There was time for a quick break on our side of the river and to make some coffee.
It was now time to exploit towards the Cunene River, clear the area of possible enemy remnants and consolidate our position for the night. There were to be no rest for the weary just yet, from both sides of the fence it so seemed.
As planned beforehand, Combat Teams 10 and 20 were released for exploitation towards the Cunene River.
Fighting on the Floodplains
For the two weary combat teams of Captains Pale van der Walt and Koos Liebenberg the work was not over yet. Their next task was to exploit swiftly eastward towards the river and to clear the area of possible enemy remnants. It was important to ascertain whether the enemy situation to the east of our position up to the river and across the bridge was secured.
With their customary flair van der Walt and Liebenberg sallied forth with their respective combat teams and did what combat teams usually do on the move. A few enemy numbers were subsequently to be retired on the western bank of the Cunene. The former enemy had succeeded in escaping across the bridge. Some of them, the more stalwart, had swum the crocodile infested river. They were about to be scathed down on our side of the Cunene.
Pale van der Walt subsequently ambushed a number of fleeing FAPLA soldiers with his combat team. The Ratel borne fighting force of Koos Liebenberg skirmished through the floodplains of the river, killing more than fourteen enemy soldiers. One of the enemy numbers killed was the quarter master of a FAPLA unit, caught in the lethal cross-fire with complete ledger (stock book) and all — what the hell was he thinking? This later on impressed my Loggie Major Giel Reinecke to wits end.
Across the river on the east bank the skirmishers of Combat Team 2 could see Battle Group 40 occupying the high ground at the old Portuguese fort. Flanks were now secured from both ends.
Lieutenant Gert Minnaar, a platoon commander with Bravo Company, recalls the following about his eventful fight on the floodplains:
_“Captain Koos Liebenberg was instructed to deploy his combat team on the flood plains to the west of the Cunene River at Xangongo. The area needed to be cleared of enemy who were escaping from the town and its surroundings. This was how my platoon and the one commanded by Second lieutenant Ariel Hugo, proceeded from the bridge in a northerly direction in open combat formations.
We did not travel far before we encountered at least a platoon of FAPLA soldiers on the run. The wind was blowing from their direction and the sounds of our Ratel engines were obviously muffled. At first the enemy was oblivious of our ominous presence. I ordered a ‘skiethalte’ drill (fire-belt action).
I spotted some more enemies approximately 150 meters away at my 10 o’ clock position towards the bushes. They were also at first oblivious to our presence. Then one of the enemy soldiers turned around, looked at us and proceeded to walk on as if we did not exist. I could not believe my eyes. My Ratel gunner, Rifleman Anthony Pike, from Port Elizabeth, opened fire with the 7.62mm Browning machine gun. Three hapless FAPLA infantrymen were caught in the open.
The FAPLA soldiers spun around and started to return our fire. At that point in time I still stood out of the turret of my Ratel, but I very quickly decided to no longer expose my body as a target to the enemy. I could see how one of the FAPLA soldiers took specific aim with his AK-47 at that part of my body that protruded from the turret and I needed no further encouragement to disappear into its relative safety. The hatch was now firmly shut. I can remember thinking that that enemy soldier was making it much too personal for my liking, by aiming at me without knowing who and what I was!
The rest of the fighting proceedings I had to watch through the confined view of the turret’s ‘sigblokke’, whilst the bullets filled the empty space. It was not that I was that much concerned about the bullet that would have my name on it because there was nothing I could do about that, but I was more terrified of those bullets with the inscription “To whom it may concern”, because those bullets did not discriminate when finding its target.
I caught sight of Corporal Anton Viljoen from Bravo section, from Patensie in the Eastern Cape. He had moved forward in his turret with his R-4 rifle. By now he had been so taken up by the situation that he decided to add firepower with the 7, 62mm Browning machine gun of the Ratel as well. He did not seem to care about the return fire from the enemy.
Another picture that I can still recall vividly was when Rifleman Anthony Pike hit the target with the 7, 62mm Browning machine gun. This picture has been ingrained on my mind since that day. I was shocked to see how a volley struck one of the enemy soldiers and caused him to perform a macabre dance of death in the air, until he slumped to the sand. The realization that war was a matter of life and death then really struck home to me. I was grateful that I was one who could survive that ferocious clash. We took note of where the enemy soldiers fell, and fought through the target until a kilometre or so after the point where we had first engaged the enemy.
We then moved back to the area where we had the contact with the enemy the first time to consolidate the target area; also to collect any survivors, enemy dead and their weapons and equipment. Our Intelligence officer also needed to be provided with some valuable information we could source from the skirmish.
We found one enemy soldier alive. He turned out to be the platoon commander of the group and had dragged himself into the shade of a tree. He was badly wounded in the chest and his thumb was shot off, but he showed amazing tenacity. I could not help but admire the man. He was duly evacuated on the Ratel of our company second in command, Lieutenant Kowie Steyn, back to our battle group HQ. Later on I learned that the FAPLA lieutenant had survived the ordeal.
While searching through the pockets of the dead enemy soldiers we found photos of their loved ones, letters from home and also a passbook in terms of leave taken; just like ours, it was meticulously recorded date by date.
I realised that they were soldiers and human beings just like us. Who longed to be with their loved ones and who also looked forward to passes to go home as we did? That they also could not wait for a letter from a special person to arrive?
It became plain to me that we were fighting human beings with families and feelings just like us, and not necessarily evil indoctrinated communist-inspired socialists, who were hell-bent on destroying South Africa.”_
By late afternoon the two victorious combat teams returned to the leaguer position close to the bridge. They were wholesomely invigorated and satisfied by their adrenaline rush experienced by fighting through the floodplains. It was good for the overall morale of our combat force.
Well done Combat Teams 1 and 2! In a sense I felt relief for the combat experience gained by our young national service soldiers. The young had been blooded. They were warriors.
Simultaneous Action — Doing the Urgent as well as the Important Things
In the meantime, simultaneously with the late afternoon fighting some three kilometres to the east, Major Giel Reinecke and Sergeant Major M.C. Barnard had set up a replenishing point. Our tail end vehicles coming in from the west momentarily stopped to refuel as they entered the leaguer. The generators of the Lappies fuel pumps hummed contentedly. Everyone from the echelon wanted to know what was happening towards the river. The triumphant fighters from the floodplain would replenish and repair as soon as they returned to leaguer as well.
Sergeant Major Duppie du Plessis and the Tiffies by now had established a stragglers collection area outside the leaguer for broken down vehicles. In addition a forward repair point was hastily organised. The signallers were setting up some subdued lighting beneath and behind the camouflage nets, which would enable the Tiffies to work through the night. Their generator was already droning monotonously. A protection platoon would guard the stragglers until only the oil in the sand remained.
I was wrapping up the actions for the next day, huddled down with my lean command group on camp chairs surrounded by maps. An order group would soon follow, before we settled down for some hard earned rest we trusted.
It was necessary to reorganise and regroup Battle Group 10 for the tasks to follow on impending first light. It was vital to affirm the missions of the respective combat teams, before settling down for the night. My subordinate commanders still needed to give their own orders down the line. This would happen quickly as they were well versed in deployment drills.
Majors Thys Rall and Giel Reinecke were finalising their own bits of orders respectively for the defence of our leaguer and what was to follow on — all part of an interwoven military game. The arrangements included a careful night routine: All-round defence and interlocking arcs of defensive fire; pass words; radio watches, guards and sentries; early warning of impending enemy action; and logistics required for the next 24-hours.
Major Joe Weyers by now was working on reorganising Combat Team 3 for its next mission westward to Cahama the following morning. Marked on his battle map was ‘Big Boy 1’, the intended stopper-line position approximately 17km east of Cahama. His outward move was originally scheduled for 06h00 the next day. His combat team would however only move on my command.
First we needed to assess the enemy situation through the coming night. My intelligence staffs were already deeply involved in re-evaluating the emerging intelligence picture. I received occasional sitreps from van der Walt and Liebenberg about their fighting. Although extremely tired I was cheerful. How did my fighters and support personnel feel?
The activity list for D plus 1 was comprehensive and briefly contained the following:
- Mopping up of the riverbed near Xangongo on the western side at first light.
- Link-up with Task Force Alpha at 08h00 across the bridge.
- Confirming my follow-up orders with the task force HQ in Xangongo.
- Setting up the impending defence of Xangongo and the garrison duties required from D plus 1 onwards. This entailed finalising the preparation of the bridge for Reserve Demolition by 12h00 the next day and setting up a guard for it.
- Deploying Alpha Company of Captain Pale van der Walt for area operations on foot to the north of Xangongo on the western side of the river. For this purpose tracker teams and interpreters were to be grouped with the paratroopers. The hunts for SWAPO were to be pursued relentlessly.
- Most importantly Combat Team 3 needed to be deployed as a covering force near Cahama as quickly as possible. The reason as previously stated was to provide early warning of impending threat and to prevent or delay enemy interference from the west.
- My battle group HQ and the remaining portion of the mechanised force were to exploit 45km northwestwardly to Mucope the following day. We would then cheerfully return to Xangongo on D plus 2. This was one way of confusing the enemy at Cahama of our further intentions and to keep them fixed, to secure our immediate area of operations and if luck held, deplete a few more numbers of FAPLA or SWAPO.
It had been an extremely long exhausting night and day thus far for all of Task Force Alpha — gruelling wear and tear on man and machine. Some of our soldiers lay dead on the other side of the Cunene. Thus far our battle group had been fortunate in not incurring any casualties, although we would have preferred more action.
The gladdening news from across the river was that Battle Group 30 had captured Peu-Peu. Task Force Alpha with Battle Groups 20 and 40 had partially taken Xangongo. The fight for Xangongo was to be continued early the next morning. Occasional shots fired, machine gun ripples and huge explosions continued to be heard to the east of our position. Explosive tremors rolled across the river.
The bridge over the Cunene River by now had been secured from both sides. In actual fact, Major Leon Terblanche and the engineers from 25 Field Engineer Squadron were already placing the demolition charges onto the pillars and the surface-area of the eight hundred metre long bridge which spanned the Cunene. The Sappers were wasting no time.
Settling Down for the Night — Goal-Set Through
It was now late afternoon on 24 August 1981. Battle Group 10 settled down in its defensive leaguer close to the Cunene River on the west bank. An all round defensive and mutually supporting posture was duly formed. The area was properly defendable. Local protection patrols were already deploying and early warning and security arrangements set up. Sentries were posted and listening-watches on the radios organised for the coming night. Simultaneous activities were happening instinctively all around: It was standing-operating-procedure. We were ready to settle in for the night.
There were short-lived moments of adjournment I enjoyed sitting beside my Ratel on a camp chair and experiencing the tangible aura of 61 Mech all around me. I could smell and feel 61 Mech. I was having an aromatic and refreshing cup of army coffee with my crew, a welcome touch of luxury at the time. I enjoyed my people. Our Barracuda camouflage net was laying heaped in a hapless bundle beside the Ratel. I was eying it. It looked soft, comfortable and inviting.
As we lounged next to our Ratel we saw a distinguished looking African gentleman chugging gently towards us on a dilapidated Moped motorcycle. There was no anxiety or uneasiness about him as he closed in on us through an array of combat machines — nobody challenged him. Our Angolan man was smartly attired and wore spectacles. He hailed from the same Humbe we had heaved 140mm shells at a few hours ago. On the motorcycle in front of him sat a small boy dressed in tatters. The young child clearly portrayed Portuguese features. I was intrigued by the man and the child in more ways than one. Our new-found friend was extremely gracious and we started a congenial conversation. He felt no apprehension towards the South African forces. He was a local school teacher who lived near Humbe._ “Yes, really, early that same day the local inhabitants and the police had fled Humbe, slightly ahead of the time the air strike was delivered at Xangongo. No, there had been no garrison of FAPLA deployed there for some time now.” _
Our Angolan friend then told us that he was the stepfather of the lost boy he was caring for as a son of his. He had found the boy wandering in the wide expanse of southern Angola on his own. The child was a victim of the evil civil war for Angola. We finished our conversation and our gracious black friend and his small adopted white son drove away into the setting sun towards Humbe. I had taken a photo of the unusual pair with their moped, victims of circumstance in their own peculiar way. I still keep the photograph and sometimes wonder what became of them. One day I would visit Humbe again and look for them.
My command group assembled for our habitual evening debriefing session and quick order group as the sun was setting. We shared our feelings and disappointments of not having had a worthy fight that day. We were happy with our performance thus far. I quietly thought back about our move to Humbe, the consolidation of our objective, the state of our equipment and even the viciousness of the few successful fleeting skirmishes happening in between. We reaffirmed the orders and ordered commitments for the next day. Maps were checked and marked, watches synchronised.
Our drivers had made coffee for the members of the command group. Steaming pleasurable and welcoming tin-cups of coffee. In troop terms, to be more correct, we drank from our ‘fire-buckets’. Signs could be heard of our soldiers entrenching for the night, delving shallowly into the hard ground all around us, berms of earth stacked around their sleeping bags. Arcs of interlocking defensive fire were being arranged, set up carefully and coordinated by the respective seconds-in-command of the combat teams and their junior leaders; from left to right, from front to rear. Last parades were completed by the crews on vehicles and weapon systems. The Tiffies were still grinding away relentlessly, repairing some of the vehicles and other hardware. A few generators gently chugged away.
Evening meals were hastily prepared from 24-hour ration-packs. There was a pleasant mixed aroma of smouldering esbit-fuel and food being prepared, wafting through the leaguer – luxury supreme.
Orders were dutifully filtered down to squad level. Activities started quieting down. There was the pleasing settling-down sounds and sighs of cooling metal, a sure sign of a full night and day’s torment through the African bush. South Africa’s ranges of military equipment were the best, proven in battle and entangled shrub once again. Some subdued laughter drifted pleasantly in the cold Angolan air. Chaplain Koos Rossouw was doing his rounds amongst the crews, quiet prayer and comfort accompanying him.
Night settled over our battle group’s defensive leaguer on 24 August 1981. A calm discomfort came over our broken surrounding. It was as if we sensed something was going to happen, but just not what and when.
All became quiet in the area of our battle group, now momentarily stationary at last. There were no signs or other battle indications of an enemy onslaught coming from Cahama. This information was confirmed by means of radio interceptions as recent as 21h00. Further to our east the bridge at Xangongo was secure. All was quiet on the eastern as well as the western front; no more sporadic shootings were heard from across the river.
After final orders were given I just flipped back on to the camouflage net and fell asleep instantly, R-5 rifle in my left hand, sights set at 200. It was about 22h00. It was forty two hours since my key personnel and I had closed eyes. With all the excitement of the day, the enduring journey through the bush and the uncountable navigational exploits, I was bone-tired.
Some of my soldiers probably had taken occasional cat-naps on the move. Soldiers can sleep any time, any where. This is a good habit. Sometimes there is no sleep to be had at all. Sleep was a luxury the respective commanders and key personnel of our battle group were rarely afforded, especially under dire operational circumstances. As night settled we were left safe and secure in the capable hands of our respective operations officers and sentries posted and dutiful signallers performing radio watch.
The engineering task on the bridge was swiftly and efficiently being completed a few kilometres to the east of our leaguer by the Sappers of 25 Field Engineer Squadron. Major Leon Terblanche was working through the night, a fine soldier, operationally gifted. You realise this immediately when you see him — all mission-oriented and militarily professional. The Reserve Demolition of the bridge formed an integral part of our impending defence of Xangongo.
At midnight or just beyond, I was rudely awakened by my frantic radio-operator. I was called to man my radio and was awake instantly. I immediately occupied my commander’s jump seat in the rear compartment of the Ratel, headset on, subdued red light switched on, battle map in front of me. It was Colonel Joep Joubert on the radio, audibly excited about unfolding explosive events on his side of the Cunene. I could here explosions rippling from his direction.
Joubert informed me that a rogue FAPLA column was hell-bent on breaking out of Xangongo across the bridge. Battle Groups 20 and 40 were hastily preparing to ambush the foe along the way. An added measure he said was for Battle Group 10 to hastily occupy an immediate ambush position on our side of the river.
I immediately started rousing my commanders from their deep well deserved slumber for the new unexpected mission on hand. In my mind I was working out a set of quick orders to be issued as soon as required. A few minutes later Joubert informed me over the radio that the enemy had been slain on their side — in the streets of Xangongo. The unanticipated battle noises to the east of us subsided. Stand down. Battle Group 10 could now proceed to rest in peace until close to approaching first light whilst the enemy to the east rested in pieces.
Battle Group 10 stood down. Those of us not on standby for the night’s vigil went back to sleep instantly; again. An eerie quiet settled over us. We were all still exhausted to the bone.
Impending Link-Up by Battle Group 10 – Entering Xangongo from the West
The 25th day of August 1981 (D plus 1), dawned for Task Force Alpha and FAPLA at Xangongo. Many of the enemy had succumbed through the fiery ordeal of one full day and a night. A few of our own soldiers as well. Close on 500 of the foe lay dead and the killing was not finished yet. Our dead were mounting towards ten.
A new day for Battle Group 10 with its own challenges waited. Stand to at first light and saddling up for the day’s work was done. Directly across the river the battle for Xangongo started raging on after an eventful night with little respite.
Battle Group 10 moved towards the bridge and came to a temporary halt on the western river bank. Our force deployed in open formation, waiting for my signal to move into Xangongo. The morning air was extremely cool. We were still too early for the link up with Commandant Deon Ferreira and his Combat Group 40 across the bridge.
My mobile command gathering moved to the western edge of the bridge and flared out in herring-bone (‘Visgraat’) formation. The crews dismounted. Radios squelched. There was some leisure time on hand for a hastily prepared rat-pack breakfast and some longed-for coffee. It was esbit-fuel, fire-bucket and metal Dixie time.
I walked towards the end of the bridge with my “basin canvas for washing purposes only: drab-veldt: mark one: with stand: wooden: collapsible’’ and shaving kit, accompanied by a dawdling Colonel Robbie Robberts and Commandant Epp van Lill.
Being from the office of Inspector General, Robberts up to now had been arduously following the moves of Battle Group 10 during Operation Protea. He was making copious notes and recording lessons learned for an impending operations debriefing somewhere in September. Not of any importance for me for the moment, thank you — pend for later.
I used the moment at the bridge for a quick shave. Looking over the railings of the bridge Robberts, Van Lill and I could view scores of explosive charges. Special charges in canvas bags, like oversize schoolbags, hung suspended on the pillars as far as the eye could see along the 800 meter span of the bridge. The field engineers had been busy through the night. Their job of preparing the bridge for demolition had been expertly done.
We could hear the shootings from across as the explosions in the capturing of Xangongo rolled progressively southwards in ebbs and flows.
Meanwhile Combat Team 3 was getting ready to turn around and move towards Cahama, awaiting my command. The regrouped Combat Teams 1 and 2 and the company sized garrison force of Major Dawid Mentz started with mopping up operations. They flared into an open sweeping formation as they entered the floodplains on the western side.
A large number of brand new abandoned enemy anti-aircraft guns and other assortments of equipment were soon recovered from the shores. These weapon systems had been deployed as part of the air defences of the bridge. Some of these weapons were brand new towed triple-barrelled 23mm anti-aircraft guns — ZU-23-3’s. The weapons were made safe, dragged out of their entrenchments and the bushes and towed behind the Buffel troop carriers towards the bridge and Xangongo. Dawid Mentz and his small enthusiastic force found a number of brand new modern AKM-47s. Numerous older version AK-47 rifles and other small arms, still smothered in grease, were also recovered. Hoards of equipment had been left abandoned by the fleeing enemy. All the booty found was brought to Xangongo.
Close on 08h00 we crossed the bridge with my Ratel ahead of our procession and proceeded to the eastern end for link-up. As I halted, looking up slightly to our left, we could see the magnificent old Portuguese fort. There was a smoking wreck of a T-34 tank stranded close by. Near the wheels of our Ratel lolled a slain FAPLA soldier. The prone inert body was close to one of the sand-bagged pressure charges, which the engineers had positioned the pervious night. I briefly thought that the man probably had an interesting tale to tell. At some stage the body disappeared. The former FAPLA was probably helped over the side by someone, to the delight of the crocodiles below us.
Whist I waited to establish link-up with Combat Group 40, I saw a careering Buffel troop carrier driving rapidly towards a house near the fort. The vehicle was filled with bouncing jubilant Sappers. The Buffel swayed to a stop at the house and the troops dismounted leisurely, joking, smiling. I was suddenly, instinctively, overcome with an amazing feeling of shrouded dread. Before anything further happened I called my medical officer, Juliet 9, over the radio. I requested him to move forward as fast as possible. As I spoke, I saw one of the Sappers saunter towards the house and enter it. Instantaneously there was a massive explosion, ripping the house apart, black smoke rising in the morning air. The house had been booby-trapped by the fleeing foe. It was a sorrowful sight as the single soldier was blown to smithereens right in front of our eyes. Our medics rushed to the scene, but it was too late. Ironically our medics were the first to fully cross-over into Xangongo.
I still keep a photograph of the slain Sapper, with his sorrowful face, which I had blotted out. I sometimes think of that unnecessary happening near the bridge and the fort, of the soldier and what could have been, and of his loved ones. Did they know what actually befell him? Who was he? I never found out. In the still of the night I remember him. He was one of the ten killed during Operation Protea, unnecessarily so.
Link-up with Combat Group 40 was eventually established closer to 09h00. Xangongo was now going to become our domicile until 31 August 1981, D plus 7. I subsequently led our battle group into Xangongo. As we trundled into town we encountered groups of refugees assembled along the main road of Xangongo near the fort and the river. They were guarded by a lonely Eland-90 armoured car poised on a high rise. The locals seemed calm and at peace with themselves, lethargic and brow-beaten more likely. Burning wrecks scattered the area. The sweet smell of burning flesh and decay clung to particles of dusty air. We could see a number of slain FAPLA lying in dribs and drabs further to the south amongst abandoned defences. They had been mauled by Battle Group 20 the previous day.
There where ant-like activities happening all over Xangongo. The media with their pestering cameramen were there already — ignore. Teams of intelligence personnel and other inquisitors were rummaging through houses and buildings searching for maps, documents and other juicy titbits of intelligence – amazing. The searchers were probably on to some interesting souvenirs as well – macabre. The house, which had been abandoned in frantic haste by a Russians military adviser and his family, was of particular interest to the rummagers. The rummagers had probably slept well the previous night? I drove past a group of wounded FAPLA prisoners of war, lounging morbidly near a small church converted into a medical post.
Near an open area close to the hospital we deployed Battle Group 10 into an open leaguer. The old Portuguese hospital still wore the name of Villa Roçades with pride on its tattered red coloured colonial style tiles. Below the shattered windows winked in the late morning rays of the sun.
Brief Respite in Xangongo – Quick Orders and Turning Around
Some time was now allowed for a brief respite in Xangongo. Grab every moment — warm army coffee and drenched dog biscuits to be had. A few mundane maintenance chores needed to be performed rapidly — the Tiffies were at it again with a clamour of high activity.
25 August 1981 required a complete turning around of impending events. We now needed to reorganise rapidly before setting off in our different directions with parts of our combat force going back across the river to the west.
The combat ends, ways and means of Battle Group 10 therefore needed to be diversified swiftly. Simultaneous action and flexibility was required, each warrior king to his own castle. Quick orders were being issued to activate the following actions:
- Swift exploitation by a portion of our mechanised force 45 kilometres north-westwards to Mucope.
- Rapid deployment of Combat Team 3 as covering force 42 kilometres towards Cahama in the west
- The northwards deployment of Alpha Company’s paratroopers to hunt for SWAPO.
- The protection company and the engineers to immediately start attending to the defence and administrative matters of Xangongo.
- Finalisation of the Reserve Demolition of the bridge and the guarding thereof.
- Alpha Echelon to set up the administrative and logistics base-line at Xangongo.
I left my commanders to attend to their next missions and hastily motored over to the command post of Colonel Joep Joubert. His command group was deployed on the eastern outskirts of the town. Quick feedback by me was followed by a quick exchange of some valuable information on operational developments over the past 36-hours. What did we think would develop over the next 24-hours? Let’s predict, and let’s see what would happen next.
It was good to see Joep Joubert. Commandant Tobie van Schalkwyk, his second-in-command, was sitting on a folding camp chair next to their Ratel Command. Map boards were lying on the ground in front of them. It was time for another quick coffee break. How could I refuse an offer from our wonderful Ratel crews of the time?
My orders for the next phase at Xangongo and beyond were re-affirmed. Joubert informed me that he was putting a pathfinder group of 44 Parachute Brigade with renowned Colonel Jan Breytenbach in charge, under my operational command. “Yes, Colonel, thank you”, was my reply. Apparently nobody wanted Breytenbach and his gang of warriors under their commands.
I knew exactly what I was going to do with my newly acquired combat power. I was going to put them with Combat Team 3. Added fire power and some inherent aggression and solid operational experience were always bargains to be had in Angola. Breytenbach and his mercenaries had what it took. The Pathfinders had been wandering around doing some interesting fighting work to the north of us near Peu-Peu. The band of warriors was now searching for some more interesting killing work to be done elsewhere. Where they went shooting was apt to follow.
I returned to my battle group. Close to midday the subunits were ready to move on. I was leaving the minute garrison force of Commandant Dawid Mentz and the field engineer troop behind. The small garrison force had important duties to perform, such as organising a soccer game against the stars of Xangongo. The main portion of our administrative and logistics Alpha Echelon was to remain behind as well, enshrouded by the relative safety of Xangongo.
I was most anxious to get Major Joe Weyers and Combat Team 3 on the road. The open flank of the task force needed to be positively secured as soon as possible. Some time was still needed to group Combat Team 3 with the small, but potent fire force of Colonel Jan Breytenbach. I soon made contact with the Pathfinders close to the bridge with their few heavily armed Sabres. They had just returned from Peu-Peu.
Our medics supported Breytenbach and his Pathfinders with some urgently required medical aid. One of his Sabres had run over a landmine and a number of his soldiers were seriously injured.
I conveyed the orders of Colonel Joep Joubert to Breytenbach telling him that he was to be attached under operational command of Major Joe Weyers, from whom he will receive further instructions. Breytenbach did not mind and neither did Weyers. The Pathfinders were there for the action and annihilation of the foe I surmised – wherever and whenever they could find them. It was good for the confidence and self-esteem of Combat Team 3. I was quite satisfied with the fortunate turn of events. Jan Breytenbach’s presence as a seasoned and respected combatant to be travelling with my Combat Team 30 was a comfort.
Combat Team 3 now included the small, but highly volatile combat element of 44 Parachute Brigade. The paratrooper strike team was equipped with an assortment of machine guns and 106mm recoilless guns mounted on the Sabre Land Rovers — therefore a deadly alliance mixed with the Ratels, the Elands and the G-2 guns.
Our troops fondly referred to these seasoned, yet strangely attired soldiers of Jan Breytenbach as ‘Tandeborsels’ (tooth brushes). It was because of their weird foreign accents and outlandish habit of speaking. They spoke on the inside of their mouths and not towards the outside, as normal people tend to do. Nevertheless they were fierce fighters, not to be encountered on a dark and eerie road as the one which led to Cahama.
Major Joe Weyers duly reported _“March and Combat ready”._On my command Combat Team 3 was released westward towards Cahama. The unwavering combat force crossed the bridge and followed the tar road to ensure rapid deployment.
At the same time as our battle group prepared for our next moves, tragic news was received from Battle Group 20. Major Louis Harmse had been killed whilst clearing trenches with his company from 1 South African Infantry Battalion. I could see that the advent touched Captain Koos Liebenberg and Lieutenant Kowie Steyn deeply. Both were close friends of Harmse. A comforting word was all I could offer. Colonel Des Harmse, the father of Louis Harmse, had been killed under operational circumstances during Operation Savannah in 1976. The Harmse family was facing another tragic loss due to the war in southern Angola.
The diversified combat groupings followed on behind Combat Team 3 and deployed rapidly for their respective missions. The 25th of August 1981 became another long day, excitements never waning.
Exploitation towards Mucope — Reconnaissance in Force
Our revered conventional enemy’s habit to bask in an around settlements drew Battle Group 10 to Mucope. Mucope lay on a sandy track to the west of the Cunene River. This gravel bush path stretched from Mucceipo northwards to Mucope. The small African hamlet was approximately 45 kilometres due east of Cahama.
The area chosen for exploitation extended from Xangongo to Mucope, about forty five kilometres due north-west of the Cunene River. Our outward-bound planning concentrated on the sector lying north of the tar road and west of the river. We strongly suspected some FAPLA and SWAPO remnants still to be located there. In a sense the area south of the Xangongo-Cahama road was already cleared by our battle group during its approach march towards Humbe-Xangongo on 23-24 August 1981.
We were overly optimistic. It was a vast area to cover even by mobile means. The dense bush provided ample air and ground cover for friend and foe. Fields of observation were restricted by dense vegetation. The sandy conditions, however, allowed for tracks to be located quite easily, especially tank and vehicle tracks.
Our battle group only had two days available to perform area operations. We had therefore selected specific suspect areas to reconnoitre in force. The area of Mucope was an ideal position for a FAPLA outpost. SWAPO was left to Captain Pale van der Walt and the paratroopers. Searching for and destroying wily insurgents were best done on foot with infanteer, tracker and interpreter.
The purpose of the mechanised manoeuvre towards Mucope was, amongst others, to further destabilise both FAPLA and SWAPO and to secure our area of operations to the west of Xangongo. Silently there were high hopes that we could run into enemy. The theory seemed sound to us. This was to be proven the same night to our west.
Mobile reconnaissance in force was therefore the mode of operation selected for swift exploitation by the mechanised portion of our battle group. ‘Search and be ready to strike’ was the maxim. We were searching for motorised tracks of FAPLA and signs of SWAPO. Our Mucope force constituted the HQ of Battle Group 10 and Combat Team 2 of Captain Koos Liebenberg. The grouping included a mechanised infantry company, an armoured car troop and the 81mm mortars.
We were spoiling for a fight and swept aggressively towards and through Mucope in open formation. No luck, no hostiles were to be found. Here and there signs of recent enemy occupation could be discerned. Someone photographed the water tower at Mucope from a moving Ratel and that was it.
We leaguered for the night in dense bushes to the west of Mucope. The ground was extremely hard to dig in to and it was cold through the night. A lone enemy reconnaissance aircraft passed high above our heads.
Our leaguer lay approximately 35 kilometres to the east of Combat Team 3, which by now was deployed at Chicusse. Their modest force was the menace to FAPLA’s mobile reserve, which in turn lurked 18 kilometres to their west at Cahama. The diminutive blocking force under command of Major Joe Weyers was settling in for the night. The gods of war would smile favourably on Combat Team 3 at Chicusse came midnight.
I had difficulty in maintaining radio communications with Combat Team 3 through the night. This was probably due to what the signallers refer to as skip distances. Deep into the night, close on 22h24, there was a hurried radio message relayed from Joe Weyers, “Contact ……Contact …… Wait, Out”. We could clearly hear the mauling near Cahama from our position. A viscous fire-fight ensued from their direction.
The message from Combat Team 3 was conveyed via the relay station of Tannie Pompie van der Westhuizen from her farm Koedoesvlei near Tsintsabis in SWA — approximately 370km south-southeast of our position at Mucope. Tannie (Aunty) Pompie was well known to the South African forces during the border war. She was a member of the Etosha Area Force Unit (AFU), a citizen force unit based in Tsumeb. Tannie Pompie provided an invaluable radio-relay service during the border war. Her husband, well known AFU bush-tracker Lieutenant Danie van der Westhuizen, was killed in action near Tsintsabis the following year. This was whilst serving with 61 Mech during Operation Yahoo in April 1982. For his brave conduct during a SWAPO ambush, Danie van der Westhuizen was awarded a Honoris Crux Decoration posthumous. In fact, Tannie Pompie relayed the message of the fateful contact to me early on 15 April 1982. 61 Mech at the time had established its tactical HQ at Tsintsabis during the night to counter an insurgent threat to the south. Captain Jan Malan, the commander of Alpha Company of 61 Mech, was at the scene of the fateful enemy ambush where 61 Mech lost six soldiers in a Ratel shot out by the insurgents.
From our position at Mucope we were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the frenzied skirmish at Chicusse, keeping our mechanised force poised for rapid deployment westward.
The battle noise soon subsided and all became quiet on the western front. Joe Weyers reported back to us by means of a radio relay. They had won. A brief account of the surprise encounter with FAPLA on the road near Cahama was given.
The next day I moved the mechanised exploitation force of Battle Group 10 back to Xangongo. I had a fleeting opportunity to visit the site were FAPLA had been slain the previous night. I was accompanied by my Ratel crew, Colonel Robbie Robertse and Commandant Epp van Lill. As a memento I took a picture of a battle ruined Russian BTR-152 armoured troop carrier left abandoned on the road.
The position to the west of the Cunene River towards Cahama was now reasonably secure. The work of our battle group towards the west was done. I decided to withdraw the entirety of Battle Group 10 to the east of the Cunene River for the night for some hard earned rest. We intuitively knew that the enemy at Cahama would stay put.
The defensive work could now be adequately performed from Xangongo, with a covering force to the west of the river being deployed closer by. At Xangongo we had the added advantage of the intimidating Cunene River serving as a natural obstacle between us and the enemy. Our covering patrols would still be out there to the west providing adequate early warning of impending attack.
There was a range of additional ordered commitments waiting to be performed at Xangongo. As I moved back towards Xangongo I thought about the job at hand. I reflected on the planning and thinking we had done earlier at Omuthiya and how it related to our current operational situation and fresh knowledge and insight gained.
The battle indication about the future intentions of FAPLA’s forces at Cahama was quite clear to me. The bloody entanglement the previous night near Chicusse had demonstrated our conventional enemy’s incompetence and passivity. FAPLA was very slow at reacting offensively. All of these factors considered were sure indications that the enemy was not going to launch a deliberate counter-attack against Xangongo from Cahama. This was definitely not going to materialise soon. Not under current operational circumstances and the presumed perception by the enemy that an overwhelming South African mechanised force was lurking threateningly nearby
The enemy had forfeited initiative and freedom of movement through ineffective command, lack of agility and waning operational ability. By merely being at Xangongo and projecting force, Battle Group 10 was doing its follow-on job in protecting the flank of Task Force Alpha. A quick prayer on the move, dust trailing, the comfortable drone of the Ratels all around: _ “Thank you Dear Lord for saving our people from harm ………….”_
Battle Group 10 thus far had accomplished our mission as designated and planned. I felt extreme gratitude towards my soldiers. They had passionately and willingly tackled the job, faced danger and hardship. To me, as extremely young warriors, their ways were something extraordinary.
The threatening disposition of FAPLA’s mobile reserve at Cahama had swiftly, efficiently and effectively, been turned around by force projection and manoeuvre.
Contact, Contact, Wait out — Unexpected Fighting near Cahama
The war chronicle unfolding below is about the ill-fated rogue enemy artillery column of FAPLA mentioned above, and a victorious Combat Team 3. In making their way quietly westward, supposedly to safety, the aforementioned FAPLA column was annihilated on the road near Cahama by Combat Team 3.
The ill-starred enemy had broken out of encirclement from Xangongo on 24 August 1981. Their subsequent demise was the proceeds from the fighting surrounding Humbe-Xangongo-Peu-Peu on D-Day. The said enemy’s defeat came from a surprise encounter with the westerly covering force of Battle Group 10.
The bloody clash transpired on the front turf of FAPLA’s 21st Brigade near Chicusse, a mere 18 kilometres east of Cahama, from where safety beckoned the doomed.
The mobile reserve of FAPLA for the Cunene Province resided lethargically in their defended locality refusing to intervene decisively — apart from throwing some buck-shot at our esteemed Combat Team 3 the day following the night of the aforementioned clash.
How the aforementioned surprise engagement with FAPLA’s artillery column had came about? The account is summarised below in both logical as well as chronological order.
- Firstly: To re-affirm the mission of Combat Team 3 and to tell something about their advance to ‘Big Boy 1’
The mission of Combat Team 3 was to provide early warning and to cover a possible counter-attack from the west by FAPLA’s mobile reserve. It was a tall order for a combat team. To reiterate: The enemy’s mobile reserve for the Cunene Province, namely FAPLA’s 21st Brigade, both heavy and menacing, was deployed at Cahama.
If need be, the combat team had to make contact with the enemy’s vanguard and then either stop them in their (tank)tracks, or be prepared to fight a delaying battle rearwards to Xangongo. This would give the remainder of Battle Group 10 and the SAAF time to come to their support. A simultaneous surprise flanking attack on the enemy’s vanguard or whatever from the northeast would have been nice, thank you.
The SAAF was on standby from Ondangwa to cover the exploits by Combat Team 3 with close air support and ground attack, should this be required. An unmanned aerial vehicle and a Bosbok light reconnaissance aircraft was also used for aerial reconnaissance missions — our famed Freddie was in the cockpit of the Bosbok. The forward air controller with the combat team was Lieutenant Jacques du Randt.
Likewise, the remainder of Battle Group 10 remained on high alert to support Combat Team 3 in the advent of an emergency. On 25-26 August 1981 the remaining mechanised component of Battle Group 10 under my command, was deployed west of Mucope in a holding position. There we leaguered for the night, approximately 35 kilometres east of Chicusse. Chicusse for the moment was the domicile of Combat Team 3.
Mucope had been the other target for exploitation on D plus 1, following on the capture of Humbe on D-Day. The aforementioned mechanised combat force would return to Xangongo later on 26 August to set up the mobile defence proper, based on Xangongo and the Cunene River. Makes sense, does it not?
Combat Team 3 under command of Major Joe Weyers was based on Charlie Squadron of 61 Mech. Captain Chris Gildenhuys was his second-in-command.
The combat team of Weyers and Gildenhuys, operating as a close knit combined arms team, was a weighty adversary to any enemy. The formidable fighting package was organised as follows for its mission as the western covering force:
o Combat team HQ (two Ratel-90s).
o Armoured car troops 1, 2 and 3 (four cars per troop, Ratel-90 as well as Eland-90).
o Support Sections 1, 2 and 3 (Ratel-60s operating as support infantry to the armour totalling platoon strength).
o One mechanised infantry platoon from Bravo Company (four Ratel-20s).
o One medium artillery troop (four 140mm G-2 guns).
o One pathfinder group from 44 Parachute Brigade, equipped with an assortment of heavily armed Sabres, under command of Colonel Jan Breytenbach (referred to as a tank hunting team by Combat Team 3 in their diary).
o One engineer section.
o An administrative echelon.
Combat Team 3 could fight their own private war with the above-mentioned lethal assemblage if they so wished. On my command the aforementioned combat team sallied forth from Xangongo towards Cahama. By midday on 25 August 1981 the potent force was well on its way.
No contact was made by Combat Team 3 with the enemy during their advance westwards towards ‘Big Boy 1’. The aforementioned nick-name was marked as the original stopper-line selected on the battle map of the combat team. The relative position of ‘Big Boy 1’ had been planned beforehand at Omuthiya earlier in August. The intended destiny now needed to be confirmed on the ground as a viable blocking position before the combat team deployed for its mission. Freddie in his trusty Bosbok was scouting the way ahead of the advancing combat team.
By mid afternoon Combat Team 3 reached there deployment position aimed for. The site they chose to deploy was close to a hamlet with the name of Chicusse. This was on the tar road approximately 18km east of Cahama. From here Cahama was just about in range of the trusty 140mm G-2 guns of Captain Frans van Eeden.
On arrival, clear indications were found and fresh signs observed that the same position had recently been evacuated by a reasonably large enemy force – most probably an enemy outpost, which had been deployed for the defence of Cahama.
Had the enemy withdrawn their forces to Cahama for the eventuality of an attack by the South Africans? Through our manoeuvring the next few days we were going to reinforce the enemy’s perception about impending peril. This should keep them at bay for the moment, was our thinking.
There was a tall radio mast at Chicusse where Major Joe Weyers decided to occupy the covering position. Weyers knew very well that infrastructure like this were to be left untouched – a specific instruction for the duration of Operation Protea as it could be of value, in this case for the intercept of enemy communications.
On arrival Colonel Jan Breytenbach suggested that they blow the radio mast. I read in diary of Captain Chris Gildenhuys that he affirmed this hands-off policy towards Breytenbach. A few moments later an explosion ripped the air. Breytenbach had blown the mast in a sort of devil-may-care manner regardless of the standing orders and potential compromise of this small force deployed at the doorstep of an enemy brigade.
It was disappointing when I heard about the incident later on. My respect for the man and his operational aptitude as a combat soldier of note is immense. In the seventies he had been my instructor on a gruelling specialist infantry and more than invigorating tracker course. I had also parachuted many a time with him in Bloemfontein and Oudtshoorn. This time his actions were somewhat defiant. At Chicusse I had expected the operationally seasoned to mentor and support the operationally less seasoned. Mentor rather than defy.
Even though Colonel Jan Breytenbach outranked Major Joe Weyers, or for that matter, me as a commandant commanding Battle Group 10, he and the Pathfinders were put under my operational command by Colonel Joep Joubert. Furthermore, the command arrangement was for the Pathfinders to support Combat Team 3 (and not the other way around). My instructions at the bridge about this were explicit. The responsibilities were in the hands of Weyers. In the military one expects command arrangement to be respected.
In the end the damage to the enemy’s tower was immaterial. However, the damage to status of command and personal relationships in the battlefield could have been far more serious.
Not withstanding the mishap at Chicusse, the uneasy marriage between Combat Team 3 and the Pathfinders worked out well for the surprise encounter with FAPLA, which followed close on midnight.
The combat team subsequently deployed the covering force astride the Xangongo-Cahama road facing the enemy’s overwhelming mobile reserve to the west. This was done in such a manner that they could adequately observe the front towards Cahama and cover it with interlocking arcs of fire. An all-round defensive posture was duly adopted and listening posts were deployed. The Caculuvar River extended from north to south on the southern flank of the force. African bush and scattered kraals covered all the wind-directions. The diminutive force was vulnerable to attack from any direction, especially from the possible angry onslaught of the enemy’s indirect firing weapons.
The Pathfinders deployed independently to the rear in a flanking position. They were positioned to the south of the road, slightly distanced from the front line of the combat team. Their position later on proved to be fortunate. The 140mm G-2 medium artillery troop of Captain Frans van Eeden was deployed still further to the rear. The four guns faced westward so as to provide adequate defensive fire to the combat team when called for.
In the meantime the combat team intercepted an interesting media report by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) at Chicusse as was subsequently recorded in their war diary. The news broadcast stated that South Africa had attacked Angola with tanks — the first we heard of as the closest iron-clads were in Bloemfontein. Apparently the Americans were keeping silent about South Africa’s latest military intervention into Angola. All of these interesting stories from the outside world and impending threatening circumstance on site, emphasised the loneliness of Combat Team 3, out there on a limb to the west.
All expected a quiet night as the enemy had shown no enthusiasm thus far on leaving their cosy lair at Cahama. This was confirmed by the ever vigilant Bosbok which had reconnoitred from overhead up to then. Lieutenant Jacques du Randt religiously maintained the air-to-ground communications with Freddie, his old school friend, in the Bosbok.
Interestingly enough, the Bosbok light reconnaissance aircraft then landed daringly on the road near ‘Big Boy1’ and was subsequently parked inside the covering position of Combat Team 3 for the night — not exactly according to the SAAF’s standing-operating-procedures.
Night approached fast. The combat team awaited the friendly shroud of darkness which, at the same time, could be ominous. A long day was brought to a close but not the vigilance and the tiredness.
- Secondly: To give an explanation about the rogue enemy force
Taking the enemy’s nocturnal tactical preferences into account, there would probably be no devilish surprises for Combat Team 3 on the eerie road near Cahama on the night of 25-26 August 1981.
Furthermore to unfriendly hostile nightly escapades in Africa: Our esteemed conventional enemy was not truly attuned to night manoeuvres. Even so, moving forward or rearward, day or night, FAPLA usually stuck to the roads generously allowing for their own demise by ambush in situ.
Such unwelcome surprises were either unleashed by our UNITA friends, 32 Battalion or even 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. 61 Mech would strike again at a similar FAPLA column on the road hallway between Cuvelai and Techamutete on 4 August 1982, during Operation Meebos – for which there had been 22 Russian Ural trucks in the offering.
According to 61 Mech an ambush, either immediately or deliberately planned or initiated, was defined as: A surprise attack, from a hidden position, on a moving enemy. So be it at Chicusse at the hands of Combat Team 3 and the Pathfinders.
What did combat Team 3 at Chicusse, the remainder of Battle Group 10 near Mucope and a FAPLA column on their way to Cahama not know?
That night a rogue enemy artillery battery leisurely ran into the rear of Joe Weyer’s combat team, the menacing flank of the Pathfinders and the unfriendly side of their artillery troop. Combat Team 3 was mainly facing westwards, towards Cahama.
The blocking operation was converted instantly into an ambush. All hell was instantaneously unleashed on the bewildered enemy by a somewhat less bewildered combat team. The enemy had no chance. The proceeds of the startling contact required some quick thinking and rapid action by the combat team and the Pathfinders, as fire and brimstone ensued. Cool heads, superb battle handling, a few loose shots and well directed fire saved the day for our victorious combat team.
The enemy column had presumably escaped from Xangongo in the early hours of the previous day or even the day before that. Or had they been deployed in the vicinity of Peu-Peu to the west of the Cunene River? Anyhow the enemy had thought that they would make good their escape after the attack by Task Force Alpha on Humbe, Xangongo and Peu-Peu had been completed. They had probably lain up in the dense African bush somewhere west of the river waiting for darkness to set in and the opportune moment to escape westwards. Until then they had successfully evaded the encircling clutches of the South African’s attacking forces. Their movement back to Cahama was steadily and stealthily. Initially they came through the bush and eventually along the road, aiming in desperation for Cahama. Carefully at low engine revolutions and with infra-red lights switched on.
There was an uncomfortable surprise waiting for the enemy as they closed in on Cahama. Conversely the revelation was not only for FAPLA.
Thirdly: To clarify what happened with the unexpected fighting near Chicusse
At 22h20 the artillery troop deployed to the rear of the blocking position reported possible enemy movement from the south-east. It was indicated as approaching from behind on the road, from the direction of Xangongo.
A brief message followed, which stated that eight suspect vehicles had passed and were progressively moving towards the forward deployment of the combat team. The vehicles, identified as being from Russian origin, were travelling without any lights — FAPLA low and behold.
The combat team was ordered into immediate readiness. The first enemy vehicle approaching the forward line was a Russian BRDM armoured car. The enemy’s point vehicle was engaged by Armoured Car Troop No 1 and was instantaneously destroyed as it passed through the 12 O’clock position of the leaguer, amidst the forward line of own troops. As if by signal, all hell broke loose.
A fire-belt action ensued in all directions. The other seven reported enemy vehicles did not reach the forward line of the combat team. Many of them were annihilated on the road by the tank hunting team of Breytenbach’s Pathfinders. The road became an instant killing ground.
Only the next day it was determined that the rogue enemy column had been a composite artillery battery of FAPLA, which comprised:
o One BRDM armoured car of an artillery observer.
o Three BTR-152 armoured troop carriers fully manned with FAPLA soldiers.
o Two motorised 122mm BM-21 multiple rocket launcher systems.
o Four towed 23mm anti-aircraft gun systems.
o Four GAZ trucks fully loaded with ammunition.
o One communications (radio) vehicle, which served as a fire control post.
The diary of Captain Chris Gildenhuys recorded the unexpected fiery event as: “The contact with the enemy at Big Boy on 252224B August 1981”. The immediate aftermath of the explosive sequel was colourfully described by him as follows:
“There was no further sleep that eventful and operationally active night. Any suspect enemy movement was immediately answered with Browning machine gun fire. At some stage even the rising moon was engaged”.
On Wednesday, 26 August 1981 the rays of the sun crept through the African bush from the east towards the dreary sight at Chicusse. At 07h30 the combat team commenced with the mopping up of the killing area. The charcoaled remains of FAPLA soldiers were found in the slain BRDM.
As the recovery work of the abandoned combat chariots and other equipment of FAPLA commenced, the troops come under rocket attack – 122mm multiple rocket launcher fire was drawn from the direction of Cahama. Incoming ’rooi-oÃ«’ (red-eyes) as the troops used to refer to the lethal arrivals. Fortunately their rockets fell short. A lonely FAPLA soldier surrendered to Captain Chris Gildenhuys. The enemy soldier, still armed with his AK-47 rifle, was duly taken prisoner of war.
- Withdrawal of Combat Team 3 to Xangongo and Redeployment on 27 August
On 26 August 1981 I recalled Combat Team 3 to Xangongo for some rest and recuperation. The fighting subunit performed a tactical retro-grade action to Xangongo and leaguered within the town’s relative safety for the night.
The rearward move of the combat team was in line with the operational plan of Battle Group 10. The designated exploitation area had now been satisfactorily cleared of enemy remnants. We now also understood the lay of the land much better – time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted.
To our calculations the enemy at Cahama should in addition remain disrupted for some time to come. Keep them at Cahama in keeping them guessing more likely.
Combat Team 3 left Xangongo and sallied westward again early on the morning of 27 August 1981. This time they occupied a stopper line closer to Xangongo, near Catequero, nick-named ‘Big Boy 2’. The combat team comprised the following elements:
o Two Ratel-90 troops (troop’s 1 and 2).
o One Eland-90 troop.
o One mechanised infantry platoon.
o One 81mm mortar platoon.
- Aftermath of the Fiery Ordeal at Chicusse
All of our battle group was extremely thankful that the soldiers of Combat Team 3 had only suffered negligible injuries — some minor wounding occurred to the heads of three soldiers by mortar shrapnel — it was an amazing feat interspersed with a touch of divine intervention.
Battle Group 10 was extremely proud of the aforementioned achievement by Combat Team 3 and the Pathfinders. More of our young warriors had been baptised by fire.
The said fighting work at Chicusse was successfully performed under difficult operational circumstances. The fire force of Colonel Jan Breytenbach had performed superbly as usual. Once again I was particularly pleased for the exceptional battle experience afforded the soldiers of 61 Mech, especially the small flock of national servicemen and their minute permanent force cadre.
The two Russian BM-21 Multiple Rocket Launcher systems were the only ones netted during Operation Protea. The war booty were recovered to Xangongo and later driven under own steam back to Oshakati on completion of Protea.
Meanwhile FAPLA’s mobile reserve at Cahama remained quietly at peace, not daring to venture further to the east. Only the few haphazard inaccurate 122mm multiple rockets were fired in retaliation from the west. What were they thinking? Were the South Africans coming for them next or what?
The vicious fire fight 18km away with their ill-fated FAPLA comrades left them in complete apathy. The mobile reserve of FAPLA did not seem to care about the plight of their bleeding and dying companions. They seemed to care less about the captured BM-21s and the assortment of armoured vehicles and trucks soon to be venturing the other direction. On completion of Operation Protea the stock-books of FAPLA’s chief quarter master for the Cunene Province were not going to balance in any way.
The day after the battle of Chicusse, Joe Weyers and his troops presented me with a treasured piece of flat shining metal. It came off the burnt Russian BRDM armoured reconnaissance vehicle. The metal pieces had melted on the road. I still keep the trophy to date in remembrance of my soldiers of 61 Mech. I kept one of the BRDM’s pristine optical sight blocks as well. It was probably blown to one side as the armoured car exploded. In 2011 I handed the BRDM’s sight block over to the National War Museum in Johannesburg in safe-keep of the veterans association of 61 Mech.
On the return of Charlie Squadron to Omuthiya on 2 September 1981, I requested Captain Chris Gildenhuys to deliver a bouquet of flowers to Tannie Pompie. This was in appreciation for her invaluable radio relay services to our battle group in the field. The second-in-command of Charlie Squadron duly paid Tannie Pompie a memorable visit on the farm Koedoesvlei near Tsintsabis.
Cahama Remained a Thorn in the Flesh after Operation Protea
Cahama remained a thorn in the flesh of the South Africans long
after Operation Protea was successfully completed. This was especially true to the airfield and the formidable air defences protecting this important military stronghold of FAPLA.
In 1983-84 the SAAF had to cope with modern SA-8 and SA-9 surface-to-air missile systems. During this period a number of Impala Mk 2s were hit by SA-9 missiles. Cahama was never subdued.
61 Mech knocked at the gates of Cahama in December 1983. Joep Joubert by then was a brigadier and commanded Sector 10. 61 Mech, now under command of Commandant Gertjie van Zyl, was instructed to probe the Cahama defences. At the time an unmanned aerial vehicle was shot down during a reconnaissance mission by a surface-to-air missile close to Cahama. In the fighting process command of 61 Mech was handed over to Commandant Epp van Lill in the field near the end of December. In turn van Lill was ordered by Joubert to attack Cahama on 31 December 1983.
Cahama was however too strong and a counter attack by the newly acquired Russian T55/54 tanks of Cahama forced 61 Mech to withdraw. 61 Mech was now ordered to cross the Cunene River to the east. The bridge at Xangongo in the mean time had been converted into a passable cross-over for South African forces. Remember well that the same bridge had been demolished by the SADF in September 1981 on the completion of Operation Protea.
Van Lill was subsequently tasked to attack the much stronger 11th Brigade of FAPLA at Cuvelai. Subduing FAPLA on 13 January 1984 took some hard fighting, which lasted more than a night and a day. The fighting included a number of serious engagements by the Ratel-90s of Captain Chris du Toit with the T55/54 tanks of 11 Brigade. During the battle 61 Mech captured an intact SAM-8 battery.
In May 1988, during Operation Hilti-Prone, the ardently defended locality at Cahama became the stronghold of the elite 50th Cuban Division. The airfield was extended and used as an operational base for modern Russian Mig fighters. The Cuban forces could by then strike into SWA if they wanted to with nothing much to stop them in the hostile skies.
Path Finding Flights of Fancy — or Grandeur maybe
Soon after the fight at Chicusse the Pathfinders of Colonel Jan Breytenbach returned to the command of Task Force Alpha. Not that command to my mind really bothered them that much. I therefore need to clarify one of my own truths as I came to perceive it later on:
I had read some of the recounts of Colonel Jan Breytenbach about the exploits of his eminent Pathfinders from 44 Parachute Brigade during Operation Protea. Some of the telling came as a slight surprise to me.
Colonel Breytenbach and his Pathfinders left the command of 61 Mech the day after the successful contact with FAPLA, 18km east of Cahama. To my mind the combined fighting effort of the Pathfinders and Combat Team 3 was magnificent. It was a job well done and worthy of professional soldiers, working closely together under dire circumstances. The Pathfinders however, were now off into the wild green yonder to the north of Xangongo, doing their own thing as they usually did.
In the chronicle of Breytenbach and his legendary Pathfinders about the final fling of Protea he refers to an incident, which related to support required by means of a Puma helicopter. Allegedly, according to Breytenbach, as the commander of 61 Mech I did not want to dispatch said Puma helicopter to his needy and courageous out there to the north somewhere. Old age must be blowing my mind as I could for the hell of it not remember this particular incident.
I was a person inclined to render support wherever and whenever it was either required or warranted, especially when lives were at stake. Furthermore it should be remembered that Battle Group 10 at the time, deployed in defence of Xangongo, did not have any air assets under command. That was the privilege of Colonel Joep Joubert as the commander of Task Force Alpha and the mobile air operations team residing comfortably at Ongiva.
There were apparently also questions about me withdrawing Combat Team 3 from Chicusse on 26 August 1981. It was probably not understood that we did not want to take on a 21 Brigade with a combat team, rather that we wanted to keep the enemy fixed at Cahama through a series of well-planned actions.
I forgave the Pathfinders there aforementioned flights of fancy. They had not been parley to our planning at Omuthiya early in August 1981. They probably did not understand the higher scope of operational things.
This above-mentioned short story is not that important. I however just wanted to adjust the record somewhat.
The Fight for Mongua — Spitting Mamba
The next story relates to the actions taken by the mobile reserve of Task Force Alpha in capturing Mongua on 25 August 1981 — D plus 1. The mobile reserve was nick-named Mamba — a spitting one.
Throughout Operation Protea I followed the moves of the mobile reserve of Task Force Alpha carefully. They were my people, with men like Captain Hannes van der Merwe and national service Lieutenants Chris Walls and Hubrecht van Dalsen, running the mobile show.
The main component of the reserve force constituted Alpha Company of 61 Mech. Occasionally I made radio contact with my people out there on a limb to the east. It was going exceptionally well with them and I felt satisfied.
Commandant Johnny Coetzer was in overall command of the task force’s mobile reserve. He had been appointed as such after secondment from the SA Army College. Johnny had accompanied the students of the Senior Command and Staff Course, who were inserted into key positions for Operation Protea.
On 25 August 1981 the small combat force was operating eastwards towards Mongua from Xangongo. At the time Mongua was the furthest target of opportunity selected towards the east, whilst the task force was locked in battle at Xangongo. Mongua lay halfway on the tarred route leading from Xangongo to Ongiva.
Colonel Joep Joubert had tasked the mobile reserve to attack Mongua on 25 August 1981 — D plus 1. It had become known that there was a mechanised force of FAPLA lurking there as a defensive outpost. The potential enemy threat lay to the rear of Task Force Alpha. It was soon to become the front, when the task force turned to attack Ongiva on 26-27 August 1981. The enemy outpost en route to Ongiva was in the way and had to be removed
The Task Force Mobile Reserve duly struck FAPLA at Mongua and annihilated them on 25 August 1981. The combat team fought hard and well and succeeded in destroying the enemy’s mechanised force after a viscous fire fight. The battle included the destruction of some enemy T-34 Russian tanks by the eight wily Ratel-90s of Lieutenant Chris Walls’ anti tank platoon.
During the skirmish an Alouette helicopter gunship, providing overhead fire support, was shot down by 14,5mm FAPLA air defence guns. Air Force pilot Lieutenant Bertus Roos and air gunner Sergeant Clifton Stacey were killed during the action. Chris Walls and Hubrecht van Dalsen could clearly see the helicopter falling out of the sky.
The downed Alouette helicopter was later recovered by 61 Mech and taken back to SWA. This was the first of three helicopters to be recovered by 61 Mech from Angola in 1981-1982. The second would be an Alouette gunship shot down during Operation Makro on 29 December 1981at Evale. The third a Puma troop carrier shot down by SWAPO in the dry riverbed of the Mui during Operation Meebos on 9 August 1982 — three crew members and twelve paratroopers were tragically killed.
Lieutenant Hubrecht van Dalsen, Platoon Number 1 of Alpha Company and Anti-tank Platoon Commander Lieutenant Chris Walls, tell their story about the fight for Mongua.
Hubrecht van Dalsen takes up the story first:
_“During Operation Protea, a quick-response battle team codenamed Mamba was mustered from numerous elements of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. Combat Team Mamba was a subunit of Battle Group 10 (effectively the standing formation of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group at the time), which was under the command of Commandant Roland de Vries.
The infantry elements of Mamba included Alpha Company (61 Mech) in Ratel 20mm ICV (infantry combat vehicles), with each infantry platoon comprising four Ratel 20mm ICV; and two anti-tank groups each with four Ratel 90mm ICV, from the Anti-tank Platoon of 61 Mech. This battle team was under the command of Captain Hannes van der Merwe.
The Mamba platoon commanders were: Lieutenant Hubrecht van Dalsen, call sign 11 from Alpha Company; Lieutenant Etienne Gilbert, call sign 12 from Alpha Company; Lieutenant Ferdi de Vos, call sign 13 from Alpha Company; Second lieutenant Chris Walls, anti-tank platoon, call sign 72 from Bravo Company’s anti-tank group; Second lieutenants Pete Phillips and Koos Le Roux, sharing command of call sign 71 from Alpha Company’s anti-tank platoon and; Lieutenant Louis Buys, usually Alpha Company’s 2IC, who acted as our logistics officer.
During the first day of Operation Protea, 24 August 1981, most of battle team Mamba performed stopper and ambush group tasks in the eastern region of Xangongo.
I initially provided navigation for Battle Group 30 under Commandant Chris ‘Swarthand’ Serfontein to their target at Peu-Peu on D-Day. After an eventful night and day, my platoon rejoined Mamba late on 24 August 1981, as they proceeded to Mongua to attack a FAPLA position.
Clear orders were given the night before the day of the assault on Mongua. We did the usual weapons preparation, refuelling, checking of our personal and vehicle kits and conducted some repairs to our vehicles. We slept rather lightly.”_
Chris Walls continues:
_“We proceeded line ahead in a southerly direction — 72A — 72C — 72 — 72B. We saw the smoke trails of our ‘Vorster-Organ’ — Valkiri Mk1 MRLS 127mm — rockets (South Africa’s counter to the ‘Stalin Organ’ — Soviet BM 21 MRLS) as they launched west of our position. This was meant to be our artillery pre-bombardment.
We swung our direction NE and continued for another 1km to reach our pre-planned assault-formation setup point, according to our maps. By now we had made contact with the crew of an Alouette gunship, which was overhead. The helicopter confirmed that our direction was fine. The bush was already burning around us at this point and we soon realised that the artillery (Valkiri rockets) had missed the FAPLA emplacements positioned on the north side of the road — the rockets fell short! This was a disappointment, and worrying. We then formed our Ratels up line abreast on the move — from left to right 72B, 72A, 72 and 72C.
Almost immediately after taking up our assault formation. Ben, my 72 command vehicle driver, decided there and then to crash into every large tree in our immediate path. Ben drove straight into two sizeable trees, one after the other in quick succession with the 90mm barrel flash-hider hitting the tree trunks with enough force to push the breach block almost into my turret radio-sets. Forcing the 90mm recoil system to depress in this way could damage the system — and we hadn’t even drawn enemy fire yet!
I tapped Ben’s headset lightly with my boot and pleaded with him to avoid the trees. There were times when you had to accept being cursed by your subordinate ranks — and this was one of those times!
I realised alarmingly that there was something drastically wrong with the steering of my command Ratel. Ben thought we either had a flat tyre, or we had lost the ’power-steering’ of the vehicle. I asked my section vehicles on my flanks whether I had a front flat. The tyres are fine! I then reported my command-vehicle situation to 1Ø who asked what I wanted and would do in the current situation! We were already line-abreast, in attack formation on our attack line moving at pace, and I was struggling to keep abreast with the section vehicles because of the heavy-steering.”
I instructed Derek Lewies [reserve 90mm gunner] who was sitting in the cabin behind the turret to squeeze between the 90mm bomb racks on the left hand side and the turret frame to help Ben with the steering wheel (they broke one of the steering wheel spokes during the course of the day). I reported to 1Ø that I had no option but to continue the attack with my vehicle as is because there was no time to substitute my vehicle with one of my section vehicles. I decided to alter the order of my vehicles for the road-crossing, which required an obstacle-breach movement due to the height of the tarred surface above the surrounding ground.
The original assault plan required my Charlie (Corporal Koos Prinsloo) vehicle to cross the road first, followed by Alpha (Corporal Botties Bothma) and then to establish the breach head in the thick tree-line north of the road, with my command vehicle following as third vehicle. Given my steering problem, I figured that my vehicle was half ‘unserviceable’ [‘u.s.’], so it would be wiser to send C first with me 2nd. We were struggling to manoeuvre around the trees and bush and I was not sure for how long we could keep the vehicle mobile and I needed to cross the tar road before I lost the vehicle. I also thought that if we were going to get stuck on or just over the road, rather lose 72 as half ‘u.s’; and then perhaps end as a target decoy then lose any of the other abled-vehicles at this early stage.
I signaled 1Ø my intentions and he bade me ‘good luck’ which was a very reassuring touch — he knew that I had a possible predicament ahead of me.
To this day, I marvel at the self-discipline and maturity of my guys that day inside 72: — Ben (Driver), Lance Corporal Bruce McFarlane (Gunner), and Rifleman Derek Lewies (reserve Gunner/90 mm shell-handler), and Corporal Meintjies (Ops Medic). Not one of them questioned my decision to continue to fight or hesitated in reaction to any of the commands and situations that were to follow.
At this stage our back hatches were closed, with my turret hatch still open allowing me free-vision from the top of the turret. I needed the hatch open as the bush and trees were intensely thicker than we had anticipated. I could not yet see the tar road ahead. I also wanted to keep an eye on our Alouette spotter.
We drew our first enemy fire, which was difficult to identify — for a number of reasons. A number of the trees around us splintered and fell as the enemy rounds struck the trunks. I wondered how come FAPLA knew exactly where we were because we had no sight of the tar road yet let alone their front lines. I thought their fire to be perhaps speculative, but then realized that our Alouette spotter was directly above my vehicle at a height of about 150 feet.
I turned my sight back to the attack-line to ensure my head wouldn’t be whacked by any of the tree branches. As the FAPLA fire intensified, I decided to ask the Alouette pilot to back off as I thought that he was giving away our exact position.
I looked up for the Alo again and called his sign, only to see him explode above — having been hit by a ZGU-1 14.5mm.This was how lieutenant J.G. Roos and sergeant C Stacey perished. I reported the Alo’s loss to 1Ø, who indicated he would inform higher HQ.
In terms of the attack line we were now on our own. Watching that Alo was a terrible sight, and we were drawing more FAPLA fire, but could not see them — yet! Bruce McFarlane thought I was kidding at first and could not believe that we had lost the Alo.
At this point, everyone decided to talk to me at the same time — 1Ø, Pete Phillips (who was deployed SE of the Town to cover our right flanks from any counter attacks deployed from the Town Centre) — everyone wanted to know what FAPLA fire was being thrown at us. I still needed to keep my hatch open to pop my head up now and again to maintain the abreast-line amongst 72 vehicles. I had never heard the sound of large calibre breaking sound above my head and around me before.
There was no need for us to deliver speculative fire because we now knew the direction we were drawing from. What we didn’t know was the distance to the FAPLA front line, and we did not know what was there. We eventually caught sight of the road and manoeuvred to the edge of the south tree-line before the road.
It was time to go — I gave the order for all hatches down and for 72C to “go”, where after Corporal Koos de Jager (72B), my anti-tank group Sergeant yelled “All the Way” over the 72 platoon net — which was inspired by the last scene of Paul Newman and Robert Redford when they run out to face the Bolivian Army fire in the movie Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid.
We had watched the movie at the 61 mess open-air screen.
72C (Corporal Koos Prinsloo — section leader) hit the tar road first, and disappeared into a thicker tree line on the other side.
You have to believe how much guts that took for Koos Prinsloo and his section — our air photos had shown the FAPLA north-western front line to be approximately 10 meters north of and parallel to the road. We expected to drive straight into their trenches — and Koos Prinsloo was first vehicle in!
We had previously learnt to ramp 21 tons of Ratel 90 at 60 kph speeds on the sandy dunes of the N-S cut line north of Omuthiya. Probably not SOP at the time — it was exuberant “sport”, but the prior experience of this ramping helped us nonetheless to tackle the road at Mongua.
If I recall correctly, Koos de Jager later informed me that all 6 wheels of 72 lifted as one over the southern road-edge as we hit it at full tilt, with only our back wheels touching the northern road-edge as we traversed the tarred road.
As we hit the northern tree line, a FAPLA round caught a fair-sized tree right in front of us which came down on top of my turret and entangled itself with the turret-mounted (AA) 7.62mm Browning.
I could hear 72C, but couldn’t see him. I needed to disentangle the tree and wanted to ensure that 72C and 72 remained abreast to allow for adequate frontal fire allowing 72A to cross-over and then 72B.
I managed to disentangle the Browning and on looking at the ground below saw that we were in fact sitting on top of old trenches, which had showed up brilliantly in the aerials.
The terrain to my right was less dense and I manoeuvred right catching site of 72 C for the first time — to my right, who I thought was on my left, given their entry point into the northern tree line.
At this point I also saw the first of the FAPLA 14.5mm emplacements and after giving Bruce Mac the target direction we opened with Co-axial Browning testing the range after which he fired a 90 HE (high explosive).
Through my binoculars I saw 72’s first direct hit on FAPLA.
Immediately after this we saw some fleeing FAPLA heading direct north. We fired another 90HE — I saw no result given the explosion, dirt and smoke.
I now needed to get 72A and 72B across the road and manoeuvred closer to 72C, only to realize that our dear Neville van Zyl was instrumental in persuading Koos Prinsloo to head right after their entry point because he saw something on the ground which needed attention.
The visual I have to this day is Neville out of the turret scrambling low to the right of 72C (in my direction).
In all of this, we were still drawing FAPLA fire and it was then that I spotted the FAPLA 76mm Soviet Howitzer field gun emplacements. It was these weapons which were being used in a direct role against us which we had encountered when still south of the tar road.
Bruce let off a few high-explosive rounds at the 76s, while Neville climbed up onto his turret, fully exposed to the front, and climbed back into his turret. I never asked him why he hadn’t used the left door. The attention he was desperate to give was directed at a FAPLA bush cap (Chinese-made), which he wore forever thereafter.
72A joined us first and once abreast in line with partial tree cover, Bravo followed. We then proceeded to manoeuvre right using ‘afskil’ (peel-off) drills to line up to the 76s and what I now saw as fresh trenches and bunkers in front of them. Bravo didn’t join our afskil; I called Koos de Jager — but no answer.
This was worrying because the tempo of the 76mm guns and remaining 14.5s had increased. The noise remains hard to describe. I managed to send a SITREP (situation report) to 1Ø, who then became concerned about the new trenches, bunkers and the 76mm guns.
I then manoeuvred 72 lamely to the left again to see if we could find 72B. We found him in the very thick tree line where the old trenches were. They had taken a direct hit on the windshield from a 14.5.
According to Koos de Jager, his driver Rifleman Jacobs experienced some shock at seeing the front windshield block shatter right in front of his eyes. He apparently thought that he had been personally hit as well and froze for a while. Jacobs did activate the windshield armour pop-up plates after the shield had shattered. If it had been a double round — the second would have penetrated the shattered laminates and Jakes would have been eina (hurt).
If I recall correctly it was at this stage that 1Ø commanded Hubrecht to integrate with me to tackle the trenches and bunkers. The trenches and bunkers were to the west of the town buildings — FAPLA had surmised the direction of our advance line from Xangongo and our possible attack line correctly. We were now in open ground and I caught sight of the FAPLA HQ and the flag for the first time because FAPLA were launching RPGs at my right flank from the 2 houses behind (north) of the HQ.
At this stage Corporal Meintjies (Ops Medic) asked me (using the cabin headset and boom mike) what to do with a FAPLA, who was shooting RPGs — fortunately missing — at our right flank. His R4 skills through the sight-ports of the Ratel were brilliant.
Once Hubrecht was across and our forces were ‘married-up’, we managed to neutralise the 76mm guns which had us pinned down for about 30 minutes in the open ground.
We had no idea that FAPLA would then start throwing mortars at us from behind our right flank out of the SE. I am open to correction, but we were then pinned for a further 30 minutes by the FAPLA mortars until Pete Phillips and Koos Le Roux were dispatched to the SE with their 90s to silence the mortar emplacements.
It was more precarious for Hubrecht because he was debussed, and I could not advance further into the trench and bunker emplacements without his ground—level support.”_
Hubrecht van Dalsen resumes the story:
_“I remember very clearly what I thought when I saw the Alo go down. This is real, a two-way fight. I also realised that they had anti-aircraft guns. By that time, after the lessons learnt in Operation Sceptic and others, we knew that AA guns used in the ground role were very effective against Ratels.
We crossed the road inside our vehicles. While it carried risks, moving across the road before debussing helped to maintain momentum. Immediately after crossing the road, I ordered all vehicles to debus. Corporal Stander, 11A, was in his usual place, on the left in front; Corporal Smith, 11B, on the right, with Corporal du Plessis, 11C, behind my own vehicle. We were now integrated with 72’s Ratel 90’s.
We had hardly hit the ground before becoming aware of the heavy mortar and maybe some 76mm gun fire too. Soon thereafter, while trying to get an idea of the ground in front of us, a mortar exploded behind me and my crew, possibly in a tree, but I can’t be sure.
The first thing I noticed was that one of my R4 magazines in my webbing had popped out of its pocket, dangling only on its spring. Then I saw that I had been hit in the right upper leg too. I guess I quickly realised that I was not written off yet, and made my way back to my Ratel, which was only 15 meters or so away.
As I got in, I grabbed my headset and reported the situation to 1Ø.
He, understandably, wanted to bring either Etienne Gilbert’s platoon (12) or Ferdi de Vos’ (13) to take over from me.
By that time, as I was half-sitting in my commander’s seat in the left of the turret, my platoon Ops Medic, JS Gort, was busy on my leg.
He had cut open my browns, and was busy patching me up. The wound was not as serious as it first looked, and he managed to stop the bleeding quickly and bandaged it up very well.
I realised that we would probably create chaos on the target by trying to exchange positions with either 12 or 13, and said to 1Ø that I was fine and ready to carry on. (Maybe I also did not feel like missing this fight after all the effort and training.)
The R4 magazine that popped out of my webbing (I have it to this day) had a massive shrapnel ‘wound’ right on its back. The shrapnel set of a few of the rounds, which caused the whole magazine to pop, bulge out and blow its base plate out, which is why it was dangling from its spring.
I used this time back in the vehicle to bring down some pretty ‘unconventional’ fire on the target, in addition to all the other rifle, 20mm and 90mm fire already brought down.
For months, we had experimented with a 60mm mortar installed on the back of our platoon commander Ratels. We used a Land Rover tyre, put some half-filled sandbags where the tube and rim would normally go, and then took a conventional ground 60mm mortar base plate and tied it down on top of this tyres and sandbag contraption between the rear hatches of the vehicle. We used heavy duty wire (‘bloudraad’) to tie the base plate down. This meant we could not quite close the hatches, but the extra firepower far outweighed this risk. On the base plate we connected an ordinary 60mm mortar pipe, but clipped the handle and rangefinder of a patrol mortar (‘patmor’) on the pipe. This allowed us to fire 60mm mortars from the back our Ratels, at the same time as firing the normal 20mm gun and Browning machine gun. It was awesome, and the mortar crew had some protection from upright hatches on the side, and the turret in front.
All I had to tell them, for example, was 300 m, 11 o’ clock, fire. The vehicle direction was of course 12 o’clock. They would fire mortars at a rate and with relative protection never achievable on the ground. Nevertheless, in retrospect, it was probably a risky improvisation. But boy, did it work.
I have engrained in my memory, how the mortarist sat on his back, with this tyre and base plate contraption between his legs, holding the mortar’s handle and his mate just dropping bombs down the pipe. The mortarist had some medical issue with his feet, and for a while could not wear boots. So, there he was with his feet in beach thongs, enjoying himself with his mortar. It was very effective in the range 100m to about 400m, which was as much as we could get out of it without supplementary mortar charges (which we learnt earlier, was way too much for our ‘bloudraad’ installation). I got back out. By that time the firepower got our enemy dislodged and we started to make good progress.
The section leaders did a good job bringing down rifle and machine gun fire onto the trenches and 76mm gun positions in front of us. We made our way through the trenches, bunkers and a few 76mm gun positions, employing our hand-grenade trench clearing methods.
By now the terrain opened up, and I could see the houses and Fapla HQ (complete with flagpole and flag) to the northeast. By this time, Fapla was running, and we met with little further resistance.
We started mopping up, and found the 14.5mm position that almost certainly took the Alouette out. The 14.5mm gun had taken a direct hit, from what must have been a 90mm. It was in small pieces.
This is when I noticed a half-buried ‘black widow’ anti-personnel mine close to the remnants of the 14.5mm gun, and realised that there was plenty time left in this game to leave this pitch on a stretcher or in a body-bag. I asked my men to be very careful around enemy equipment and to use their ‘soeksteekstokke’ (sticks used to probe the ground for mines) if in any doubt.
It started to get quiet, and we ensured that the three or four houses on the target were safe and clear of enemy.
I guess it was around this time that Chris Walls and I both eyed the Angolan flag, lazily moving in the mid-day sun.”_
Chris Walls continues:
_“The flagpole was outside the house that was used as the FAPLA HQ. I recall that there was a beautiful male German shepherd dog scared out of its wits on the front veranda. I felt a lump in my throat for that dog.
We also found brand new tight-woven blankets made in East Germany at the HQ. We ‘captured’ a few to ward off the night-chill during the following days. I still have the blanket to this day.”_
Hubrecht relates further:
_“We must have thought pretty much the same thing, but I recall that I spoke first. I said to Chris words to the effect that neither of us could have taken this target without the other. I was very sure I could not have done it without Chris and his men trust me.
So, I suggested that we flip a coin for the flag. Chris agreed.
We flipped, and I won. Chris must have been very disappointed, as I would have been, but accepted the outcome like a gentleman. I kept the flag safely for 26 years, looking at it only rarely. When a small group of 61 Mech veterans gathered in Caledon in August of 2007 at Ariel Hugo’s house, to establish the 61 Mech Veterans Association, I took the flag along. I gave it to Chris, saying that I kept it for 26 years, and for the next 26 years it was his to take care of.
Given that we both now live abroad of the RSA, Chris requested Ariel Hugo to safeguard the flag for submission to the intended 61 Mech museum. Ariel gracefully agreed.”_
The job was done. On completion of their fighting mission at Mongua, Combat Team Mamba prepared to participate in the attack on Ongiva, which followed on 26-27 August 1981.
Combat Team 2 and the Battle for Ongiva — Rapid Response South-eastwards
It was now 26 August 1981, D plus 2. The attack on Xangongo, Peu-Peu, Humbe and Mongua had been successfully completed by Task Force Alpha.
By 26 August 1981 the HQ of Battle Group 10 was firmly established in Xangongo. The bulk of our battle group for the moment had been withdrawn to the east of the Cunene River for a brief respite. In the meantime our HQ continued setting up the mobile defence of the area. Mopping up of Xangongo had already commenced.
By early morning on 27 August 1981 Combat Team 3 moved out of Xangongo and occupied a stopper line closer to the Cunene River near Catequero (nick-named ‘Big Boy 2’ as mentioned above). The combat team of Major Joe Weyers was facing towards the enemy at Cahama once again — however, they were now well rested.
The next operational objective of Task Force Alpha was the combined FAPLA and SWAPO stronghold located at Ongiva. The final offensive phase of Operation Protea was about to commence. The attack on Ongiva by Task Force Alpha was to be launched on 27 August 1981 – D plus 3.
Within hours of 27 August dawning, Combat Team 2 with two Ratel 90 armoured car troops would be high-tailing it south-eastwards. Their objective: To participate in the battle for Ongiva.
Combat Team 2 was founded on Bravo Company of 61 Mech under command of Captain Koos Liebenberg. The combat team at the time was acting as the mobile reserve for Battle Group 10 for the defence of Xangongo. The story of the exemplary action by Captain Koos Liebenberg and his combat team and how they participated in the next battle follows below.
After the fiery mêlée at Xangongo the remainder of Task Force Alpha, minus Battle Group 10 and 40, prepared to attack south-eastwards towards Ongiva. Their line of advance followed the tar road to Mongua which had been secured by Combat Team Mamba on 25 August 1981.
The forward assembly area for Task Force Alpha was located in the vicinity of Mongua. The various forming up places of the respective combat groupings for the attack were selected to the north of Ongiva. Mongua lay about 46km to the east of Xangongo by tar road. From Mongua to Ongiva was a further 56km southeast — the total distance by road therefore from Xangongo to Ongiva was 102km.
The main assault force for Ongiva comprised the mobile HQ of Task Force Alpha; Battle Group 20; Battle Group 30; and Combat Team Mamba as the task force mobile reserve.
Battle Group 10 (61 Mech) remained behind at Xangongo to keep the open western flank of the task force secured by means of mobile defence. My battle group HQ was located in Xangongo at the time.
One of many secondary missions of Battle Group 10 entailed providing an additional mobile reserve for Task Force Alpha. The latter offensive task in essence came into fruition with the rapid deployment of Combat Team 2 on the morning of 27 August 1981 (D plus 3) to support the task force with the attack on Ongiva.
Battle Group 40, on the other hand, reverted to the command of Task Force Bravo on 26 August 1981. The latter status of command changed on completion of the attack on Xangongo. The aforementioned battle group then moved rapidly from Xangongo northeastwardly via MÃ´ngua to Mupa, approximately 119km. Mupa lay about 104km to the north of Ongiva as the crow flies. The aforementioned battle group was destined to participate in search and destroy missions directed at SWAPO. The latter counter-insurgency oriented operation was executed under the command Task Force Bravo. The hunt for SWAPO was pursued until Operation Protea was completed by early September 1981.
The pre-actions for the battle for Ongiva on 26 August 1981 in outline unfurled as follows:
- On 26 August 1981 the Task Force HQ, Battle Group 20 and Battle Group 30 moved swiftly south-eastward from Xangongo to occupy their respective forming up places north of Ongiva. Combat Team Mamba awaited them southeast of Mongua after securing it the previous day.
- The day before the attack the South African Air Force dropped pamphlets on Ongiva, requesting FAPLA soldiers and civilians to leave the town forthwith. The key message was that the SADF’s fight was with SWAPO and not with FAPLA and the civilians.
- The enemy at Ongiva, not being visionaries, did not heed the pamphlet-message. In actual fact, FAPLA’s headquarters at Lubango gave instructions to 11 Brigade to stay put and to defend the town at all cost — which happened, at all cost that is. However it did not happen without a serious battle for the town. The enemy was ready when the SADF’s attack was mounted from the north the next day — the element of surprise thus forfeited.
The attack commenced on the morning of 27 August 1981. Ongiva was captured only after two days of heavy fighting:
- During stage 1 of the assault on Ongiva, Battle Group 20 attacked the airfield and the military complex on the north-western and western edge of Ongiva. More resistance was encountered than expected. This included retaliation by enemy tanks. Enemy counter actions required intervention by the task force reserve — Combat Team Mamba. The battle delay had a negative impact on pre-determined time arrangements for the attack as a whole.
- Stage 2 encompassed an attack by Battle Group 30 on Ongiva itself and the clearing of the town. Once again more resistance was encountered than expected. The battle group stumbled across minefields on the way to their objective. The hour glass was steadily running out. Resistance included aggressive enemy counter attacks with T-34 tanks.
- Combat Team 2 of Battle Group 10 and the mobile reserve were called for to resolve the unexpected enemy resistance encountered by Battle Group 30, as mentioned above. The enemy resistance was eventually neutralised by last light. The account of Combat Team 2 and how it came to participate in the battle will be explained below.
- On 28 August 1981 the town was finally cleared and mopping up commenced. Only minor resistance was encountered during the final clearing up phase. The enemy had escaped through the night.
Soon after the attack went in early on 27 August 1981, Colonel Joep Joubert realised that his task force was in for a heavy fight and that he urgently needed reinforcements.
The attack force had already run into serious resistance in the early hours of the fight for Ongiva and therefore needed additional back up. What Colonel Joep Joubert required was a mechanised combat team with adequate anti-armour capability. Joubert contacted me by radio at Xangongo and explained his dilemma — he requested immediate support.
It was now nearing 10h00 on 27 August 1981 and counting.
I immediately tasked Captain Koos Liebenberg to perform the aforementioned mission as ordered with Combat Team 2 from Xangongo. I recalled the two Ratel-90 armoured car troops deployed with Combat Team 3 in a stopper line position, a few kilometres west of Xangongo. On their speedy arrival at Xangongo the eight Ratel-90s were immediately attached to under the operational command of Combat Team 2. Liebenberg was already finalising the assembly and readying of his force for immediate departure to Ongiva. Marrying-up occurred in an open square in front of the battle group HQ at Xangongo.
Combat Team 2 now comprised two mechanised infantry platoons (Ratel-20) and two armoured car troops (Ratel-90). The combat team immediately moved southeastwardly, following the tar road towards Mongua and Ongiva, soon to join the final fight for Ongiva a few hours later.
Captain Koos Liebenberg provided me with a written account of the actions of Combat Team 2 at Ongiva on completion of Operation Protea. Liebenberg’s account was recorded in writing in Afrikaans, which I translated as follows:
_“The next day (27 August 1981) at about 10h00B, I received an instruction (from Commandant Roland de Vries, the commander of Battle Group 10) to move to Ongiva to act as task force reserve. I arrived at Ongiva with my combat team at about 13h00B. My combat team comprised two Ratel-20 mechanised infantry platoons and two Ratel-90 armoured car troops. I did not have the required maps or aerial photography. The situation at Ongiva was foreign to me. Everywhere one could here shots fired and explosions erupting. It seemed as if I was the only person concerned about it.
At approximately 15h00B, I received an order from the task force commander (Colonel Joep Joubert) to clear an enemy mortar position south of Ongiva. After acquiring the necessary aerial photograph I started moving. As soon as I started moving I received an instruction to hold fast. I poised for some time observing the apparent chaos unfolding at the airfield.
I was monitoring the command net of the task force. About one hour before last-light I heard that the assault troops of Commandant Serfontein (Battle Group 30) was under threat of enemy T-34 tanks from the east. I received an order to block the counter attack of the enemy tanks.
I immediately moved forward with the two Ratel-90 armoured car troops. I located Commandant Serfontein at the eastern edge of the town. As our small force advanced I could observe the enemy tanks. We also came under fire. The enemy tanks were on the side of a Shona and were making their way steadily towards Anhanca.
Dusk was approaching fast. I deployed the two armoured car troops to the left and right of the road at the edge of the town. The exact position was at the intersection where the road turns south in the direction of Namacunde. The Ratel-90s had excellent firing positions and commenced with the delivery of fire within their respective troop formations. The main threats were from two enemy tanks approximately 900 metres further to the east. It was becoming dark very quickly now and we resorted to speculative fire. We could only deliver pin-point fire when we observed the gun flashes of the enemy tanks momentarily lighting up the darkness.
By now it was completely dark. All our Ratel-90s fired simultaneously at the enemy tanks, when suddenly two huge balls of fire erupted. The incoming fire of the enemy tanks seized immediately. We assumed that it were two successful hits.
In the meantime own forces had received the order to withdraw and to regroup half-way between the town and the airfield — it was chaos. Everyone rushed back at the same time and the road became completely congested. The problem was only resolved at about 01h00B the next morning.
My combat team was the last to leave the fighting zone. We leaguered adjacent to the town. My orders were now to prevent any enemy intervention, which could come from Ongiva.
It was a restless night. I was speculating, what would happen the next day? I had not received any further orders from anyone.
At approximately 04h00B I received an instruction by radio to join up with Combat Team Mamba under command of Commandant Johnny Coetzer. An enemy target to be attacked northeast of the airfield was designated to our joint force. We rendezvous at Ongiva airfield and quickly determined our course of action. There were clear indications that neither orders nor quick orders were going to be given to us.
Our attack was launched at 08h00. Phase 1 of the attack was executed by Captain Hannes van der Merwe and his mechanised company. I bypassed next during Phase 2 and attacked my designated target. Another disappointment awaited our combat team as the target was void of enemy.
Our involvement with the task force was completed by 12h00B (28 August 1981 — D plus 4). I received an order (from the task force HQ) to return to Xangongo.
We arrived at Xangongo at about 16h00B and were afforded the opportunity to rest for the night.
The following morning (29 August 1981 — D plus 5) I received orders from battle group HQ to relieve Major Joe Weyers and Combat Team 3 in their stopper position half-way between Xangongo and Cahama at ‘Big Boy 2’.
Combat Team 3 up to now had performed the mission as the western blocking force. The deployment of Combat Team 2 was completed at 16h00B. Shortly after performing the task as the blocking force I was relieved by Captain Hannes van der Merwe and his mechanised company in the stopper line.
The mobile reserve force of van der Merwe had rejoined 61 Mech the day after Combat Team 2 had returned to Xangongo. That same evening I received an instruction to withdraw to Ondangwa the next day and to evacuate as much captured enemy equipment as possible to Oshakati. That night I did my planning and issued my orders for the return move.”_
Armour Car Troops 1 and 2 (Charlie squadron, 61 Mech), also reported back to Combat Team 3, after they had participated in the attack on Ongiva. Call signs 31 and 32 had accounted for two Russian T-34 tanks. Similarly the members of the support troop had killed a number of FAPLA soldiers. The participation by Troops 1 and 2 in the attack was viewed as a major success by their squadron.
The mobile reserve of the task force, provided for this purpose by 61 Mech, as well as Koos Liebenberg’s Combat Team 2, accounted well for them at the battle for Ongiva. This was good for the morale of the troops and I was pleased for them. It was a great learning experience and something to remember at older age — building memories.
I was proud of the exemplarily actions of our fighting and supporting subunits. These said actions once again proved the value of mobile forces within the context of the African battle space — speed, mobility, firepower and flexibility are norms, paramount for the success of fast flowing battles.
More so the battle for Ongiva and Mongua as well, demonstrated the mettle and leadership of the South African soldier. Those who were fighting diligently day and night under dire situations, sleeping by cat-napping, wherever and whenever opportunities were afforded in shell-scrapes or on the move. A full night’s rest was a luxury rarely afforded.
A few more of South Africa’s sons had become warriors overnight.
About Mobile Defence and the Relevance of a Bridge
Let us for a moment return to the day after Battle Group 10 had captured Humbe and was still deployed on the western bank of the Cunene River.
It was first light on 25 August 1981 — D plus 1. The attack on Xangongo across the Cunene River by Task Force Alpha was entering its second day. In the original plan it was supposed to be completed the day before.
A magnificent spectacle emerged in front of my eyes as I looked across the bridge in the direction of Xangongo and the rising sun. An impressive span of reinforced concrete and tar macadam reached over 800 metres of river and floodplain. The spectacle looked somewhat different from the surreal aerial photography we had studied at Omuthiya.
I could now well appreciate why the Cunene River and the floodplain formed a formidable natural obstacle, especially from a military viewpoint. No way could a mechanised force cross the Cunene River here, or for that matter anywhere close, without viable crossing means.
Explosives were already clinging to each and every pillar of the bridge. Special charges had been placed there the previous night by the South African field engineers.
During a battlefield tour to Angola in October 2010 I stood at the exact same spot looking eastward across the river as my thoughts drifted back ………… By now the Chinese had rebuilt the bridge, which had been destroyed by the SADF in September 1981. Who had built the bridge in the first place I did not know — probably the Chinese, most definitely not the Angolans? I knew who whacked the bridge early in September. The latter little secret I will disclose at the end of the next narrative dealing with the Reserve Demolition of the said bridge.
I had to start thinking about the next task of Battle Group 10 — the mobile defence of Xangongo and about covering the western flank from the threat at Cahama. I needed to involve my command cadre in the planning process, also to discern what they had learned during the operation thus far. The latter especially related to the utilisation of terrain and about the traits of our enemy.
Any defence, but especially mobile defence, should be an active and not a passive operation. Fortunately for us the Russians did little to teach their protégés, FAPLA that is, about this important trait of defensive operations. Furthermore, that mobile defence can be used to maintain the initiative if cleverly taken advantage of. The latter evenly implies skilfully using obstacles to impede the enemy’s ability to manoeuvre; whilst at the same time preserving the mobility of ones own force. This was exactly what Battle Group 10 had in mind for the successful completion of Operation Protea.
Obstacle planning for mobile defence is closely linked to the enemy’s most probable manoeuvring courses of offensive action. The latter needs to be assessed in close relation to the utilisation of terrain, time and distance. Battle Group 10 therefore planned to use the Cunene River as a natural obstacle for defence against the enemy’s mobile reserve deployed at Cahama towards the west, approximately 64km away from Xangongo.
Xangongo was selected as the centre of gravity or pivotal point so to speak for our impending defensive manoeuvre albeit not for a fixed defence in the static sense, but for mobile defence.
I thought briefly about the planning we had done beforehand at Omuthiya. There was no question in my mind why the bridge had become the focal point during the course of Operation Protea. By the same token the bridge as well as the river was relevant for defence and attack. For a defender or attacker it all depended from which perspective you wanted to influence the desired end results by either defending the bridge or capturing it, or by making the most of its intrinsic military value.
- From FAPLA’s viewpoint as the primary defender:
I could clearly understand the rationale why FAPLA’s 19th Brigade should have held the bridge at Xangongo at all cost. Pure military logic makes it clear that it was the bridge which ensured the viability of their defence.
The conundrum was that the enemy, strangely enough, did not protect the bridge against attack from the west. A big mistake. Here I was standing high and dry on the western bank with Battle Group 10 right behind me. In the meantime the remainder of Task Force Alpha was finalising the fighting on the other side. The commander of 19 Brigade should have been fired months ago.
Loosing the bridge early on 24 August 1981 to Task Force Alpha in essence invalidated the defence by 19 Brigade for the following reasons: It removed the justification for defending there in the first place; the immediate consequence of 11 Brigade defending Ongiva becoming completely isolated; the cutting off of the escape route to Cahama; severing of the lines of communication likewise to the east and the west. The result was that mopping up afterwards by Task Force Alpha merely became a formality.
- From the SADF’s viewpoint as the original attacker:
The weakness of FAPLA to adequately protect the bridge from the west was the very reason the SADF had chosen to attack simultaneously from the east and the west.
Of course there were consequential rewards from the aforementioned proceeds. One was the immediate physical and psychological dislocation and disruption of the enemy’s overall defence. Another was that Task Force Alpha was allowed afterwards to take 11 Brigade defending Ongiva more or less at leisure.
There, however, was one key proviso to ensure the successful outcome of Operation Protea once Xangongo was taken: The battlefield to the east of the Cunene River needed to be effectively isolated from the west. The thorn in the flesh was 21 Brigade, the enemy’s mobile reserve for the region, lurking a mere 64km away at Cahama.
- From the SADF’s long term perspective as the defender and isolator of the battlefield:
After Xangongo had fallen, the SADF had in effect turned the tables on the enemy by better utilisation of the terrain. The river now served as a formidable natural obstacle against our enemy to the west. The Cunene River could now be used to the best advantage by the SADF to isolate the battlefield and successfully complete Operation Protea as originally intended.
During the great manoeuvre battles of World War 2 in the Western Desert, Rommel once stated: “One should endeavour to concentrate one’s own forces both in space and time, while at the same time seeking to split the opposing forces and to destroy them at different times.” The latter wisp of wisdom was exactly what Operation Protea was about. The Cunene River formed part of this manoeuvre scheme — before and after the attack on Xangongo.
The aforementioned conundrum once again accentuated the importance of the bridge at Xangongo. On the one hand either denying it as a viable crossing point to the enemy, on the other exploiting it for own use
From the aforementioned it is quite clear that the attack by Task Force Alpha on Xangongo contained a strategic as well as tactical dimension.
Incidentally, with the battles surrounding Cuito Cuanavale from December until April 1988 the SADF did not succeed in capturing Cuito Cuanavale and its strategically important bridge. The SADF had always maintained that the last mentioned was neither a strategic nor a tactical objective. Furthermore the fighting brigade of the SADF was never tactically defeated on the battlefield. However FAPLA held on doggedly to Cuito Cuanavale with more than seven brigades and two tactical groups. In denying the last-mentioned bridge to the SADF the enemy secured tactical initiative and was afforded strategic advantage. In so much that FAPLA and the Cuban forces became entrenched on the political and propagandistic high ground. The aforementioned merely illustrates how important a bridge can be in warfare, strategically and otherwise tactically.
Holding ground was not the forte of the South Africans. During our operational planning at Omuthiya early in August we had decided that we would opt for mobile defence, once we had captured Humbe and moved into Xangongo. The details we decided would be left for later once we understood the threat on our front and the situation on the ground surrounding Xangongo better.
The mobile defence Battle Group 10 eventually set up at Xangongo was covered by observation posts on the eastern bank of the Cunene River. The observation positions were linked to mobile covering patrols operating westward towards Cahama. Surprisingly so, no nothing offensive came forth out of brooding Cahama. Early warning of possible enemy intervention, however, was crucial for our mobile defence. The intelligence gathering process was supplemented by means of enemy radio intercepts and aerial reconnaissance.
The mobile defence required the respective combat teams of Battle Group 10 to be vigilant at all times. The plan called for counter attack from carefully selected staging positions. We had carefully analysed the possible forming up places and approaches the enemy could use for attack. We did not favour entrenchment or holding ground ourselves at Xangongo. Tactical ground was given by the Dear Lord to fight on, not to hide in. Shallow trenches were however used by our own forces for the purpose of local protection that is at all times when we were stationary for limited periods. But we were never stationary for too long. The rule of thumb was never to be in one position longer than three days, if at all.
The tactical positions of the mobile command group and the respective combat teams of our battle group were dispositional tactical features on the eastern bank of the Cunene-River. These positions were occupied mostly at night-time. During the day the combat teams were busy with a multitude of chores in and around Xangongo. Combat Team 2 as a pure mechanised force, under command of Captain Koos Liebenberg, served as the mobile reserve for Battle Group 10.
Our two artillery commanders, Captains Bernie Pols and Frans van Eeden, had developed a deliberate defensive fire plan for all our indirect firing weapons. The gunners, strange species themselves, call these plans a funny name, like ‘Tiddlers’ or something like that. They talk a language normal uniformed folk and civilians do not really understand. Now and then the gunners sallied forth and did some impressive harassing fire with the 140mm guns in the direction of Cahama, taunting the enemy. Nothing angry came back at us – cowardly enemy they were.
The mobile defence towards the west was maintained until completion of Operation Protea by 1 September 1981. The responsibility for the defence of Xangongo was then handed over formally to UNITA.
There still was work to be done before we started organising the mobile defence of Xangongo proper. The 25th of August 1981 was about to be to become the second longest day in the life of Battle Group 10. This was the day of the fighting at Chicusse near Cahama and the simultaneous exploitation of Battle Group 10 to Mucope still needed to happen as were already explained.
At the start of the day Major Joe Weyers had most definitely thought about the impending move of Combat Team 3 towards the west. None of us at the time new that the surprise encounter with the enemy would follow near Chicusse at midnight — little did we know that the unexpected excitement and the annihilation of an enemy column close to Cahama was already on the cards. Did Weyers at this particular break of day perhaps have a feeling of foreboding and felt some slight apprehension ………….Who knows?
The defence of Xangongo was not a highly exciting operation, it was however extremely important in the larger scheme of things. Our battle group, 61 Mech as such, through Operation Protea, had gained valuable operational experience across the spectrum of offensive as well as defensive operations.
By late afternoon on 25 August 1981 the position of Task Force Alpha had been consolidated at Xangongo. During the fighting process the bridge had literally been converted into a Reserve Demolition through the night on 24-25 August 1981.
The Reserve Demolition of the Bridge at Xangongo — Burning Bridges
By 12h00 on 25 August 1981 the task to prepare the strategically important bridge across the Cunene River at Xangongo as a Reserve Demolition had been completed. The Sappers of Alpha Troop from 25 Field Engineer Squadron effectively worked endlessly through the previous night and the morning to get the job done. D plus 1 had arrived in all its glory.
The bridge at this point was ready for demolition. The Reserve Demolition formed part of the defensive scheme against a possible attack from the enemy’s mobile reserve from Cahama to the west.
The many tasks of Battle Group 10 now incorporated commanding the Reserve Demolition operation for the bridge at Xangongo. A commander as such has the responsibility to prevent the capture of critical reserve obstacles and demolitions, which in addition includes executing the demolition when so ordered.
The masses of plastic explosives and specially made demolition charges were carted to Xangongo under the protection of Combat Group 40. The reason for this was that Battle Group 40 had the responsibility to capture the high ground to the east of the bridge by last light on D-Day. This in effect allowed the field engineers easy access to the bridge and to commence immediately with the preparation of the bridge for demolition through the night. The logistics work and protection of the sappers were overseen by Major Eddie Viljoen. He was the second-in-command of Battle Group 40 (32 Battalion) at the time.
A Reserve Demolition is of utmost strategic and tactical importance and forms part of counter-mobility operations. This for Operation Protea implied impeding the mobility of the enemy to the west by Battle Group 10 whilst at the same time, enhancing the initiative and security of Task Force Alpha.
A Reserve Demolition only happens when the boss says so. The authority to blow the bridge at Xangongo lay solely with the General Officer Commanding SWATF, Major General Charles Lloyd. It is therefore understandable that the executions of Reserve Demolitions are governed by strict governances and well-ordered battle handling procedures.
For the benefit of the reader some information is provided forthwith concerning Reserve Demolitions the well-regimented army way:
- According to laid down military doctrine a particular unit (in this instance Battle Group 10) is designated to manage the Reserve Demolition operation. Such a unit is responsible to appoint a designated engineering unit as a firing party. In addition a demolition guard commander and force is formally appointed as well.
- Demolition guard commanders (for this operation Major Dawid Mentz was the designate commander) are responsible for the tactical command of all troops at the reserve obstacle site – it is the guard force as well as the firing party. This particular task includes: Security of the site; preparing the obstacle for demolition; transmitting the demolition order to the firing party commander and; the successful execution of the Reserve Demolition. As such, demolition guard forces are responsible for protecting the reserve obstacle and preventing enemy capture prior to execution.
- The demolitions firing party commander, normally a field engineer officer is responsible for the technical control of the demolition and is in charge of technical preparation, charging, and firing of the demolition. The demolition firing party normally comprised of field engineers who are responsible to assist in the technical preparations and firing procedures of the demolition.
- There are strict governing procedures concerning the execution of a Reserve Demolition. The demolition function is regulated by a series of code words for the activation of readiness states and the demolition itself.
- The whole Reserve Demolition activating and execution process is facilitated by means of special communication and alternative communication arrangements.
For Operation Protea the arrangements for the Reserve Demolition of the bridge at Xangongo were either laid down in specific operations orders or ordained as such in official writings:
- The senior command authority appointed to give the order for the said Reserve Demolition to be activated was Major General Charles Lloyd. He was appointed in writing as the sole authority by the Chief of the Defence Force, General Constand Viljoen.
- The unit designated to manage the Reserve Demolition operation from inception to completion was Battle Group 10. Major Dawid Mentz was subsequently appointed as the guard force commander by me. The guard force was provided for by a motorised infantry company from 701 Battalion. Essential tasks of Mentz as the guard force commander included: Protection of the bridge against enemy attack and sabotage; traffic control across the bridge; demolition of the bridge and; orderly withdrawal from the site when so ordered.
- The engineering unit responsible for the demolition task was Alpha Troop of 25 Field Engineer Squadron. The man who commanded the engineering operation was astute Sapper officer Major Leon Terblanche. He was also the person solely in charge of the detonating device. The blowing up of the bridge was literally in his hands.
- For Operation Protea the code words to actually activate the said demolition were as follows: For the demolition of the concrete bridge and the ferry the code word chosen was ‘Bride’; for the demolition of the steel bridge it was ‘Rubicon’.
From 25 August 1981 onwards the bridge at Xangongo over the Cunene River remained ready for immediate demolition. The latter status was maintained until completion of the defensive mission by Battle Group 10 on 1 September 1981.
On 1 September 1981 the responsibility for the defence of Xangongo and the Reserve Demolition was officially handed over to UNITA.
On 1 September 1981 I delegated the responsibility or the Reserve Demolition at Xangongo to Captain Charl Naude of Special Forces. He remained behind for the defence of Xangongo with UNITA.
There now follows an interesting story regarding the bridge and the Reserve Demolition. These facts only became known to me in recent times when the archives of the old defence force started spilling its deepest secrets.
On 26 August 1981 a secret telex message had been dispatched by General Constand Viljoen from Cape Town to General Charles Lloyd in Windhoek. It was obvious, due to political considerations that the South African government had decided not to blow the bridge. However, there was one stipulation. The telex, from the archives of 61 Mech, read as follows (translated from Afrikaans):
_“Secret — Immediate
26 Aug 81 at 07h50
From CSADF to GOC SWATF
For Information To: Minister for Defence, Chief Army, Chief Air Force, Chief of Staff Int and Chief of Staff Ops
1. For Attention Maj Gen Lloyd from Gen Viljoen regarding Reserve Demolition of bridge over Cunene at Yankee (C Army/003/Aug 81 refers).
2. After political discussion, further consideration and for the sake of good sense it was decided that the bridge should not be demolished.
3. You are therefore not to demolish the bridge, unless it becomes absolutely necessary in lieu of a possible enemy intervention and to prevent the enemy from capturing the current position at Yankee. In such an instance you are the highest approval and controlling authority.
The above-mentioned information is interesting when considering what eventually happened to the bridge.
The bridge was eventually blown by a one man demolition squad. He was the ever creative and somewhat mischievous young Special Forces Captain Charl Naude. The spectacular event happened at 03h00 one morning. It was probably close to 9 September 1981. Charl Naude’s recollection on his special moment of massive destruction: “Ek het die brug geblaas, ek alleen” — (translated: I blew the bridge, me alone).
At this stage the main assault force had already withdrawn from Angola safely back to SWA. Rumour has it that Charl Naude did not walk back to SWA with his tremendously large back-pack. Somehow the story is linked to a captured Scandia truck which was seen heading southwards.
- The bridge was demolished somewhere close to 9 September 1981. This happened only a few days after Battle Group 10 had departed the scene. It must have been one almighty explosion, dazzling to observe.
- The attack from the FAPLA’s 21st Brigade from Cahama never came. The mission by Battle Group 10 for the defence of Xangongo and isolation of the battlefield for the duration of Operation Protea was therefore accomplished.
In December 1983 61 Mech under command of Commandant Epp van Lill received the order to attack Cahama. What followed was one of the first operational bridge-crossings by the SADF since the Second World War. This took place just north of Xangongo. The Sappers had to build a Bailey bridge for 61 Mech to cross over on the same day of the attack on Cahama from the southwest. The aforementioned attack was repelled by FAPLA and followed through with a vigorous counter attack by their tanks which forced 61 Mech to withdraw.
The South African field engineers afterwards needed to improvise a crossing over the original site. This was necessary to facilitate ongoing operations by the SADF against FAPLA across the Cunene River.
In a sense, ironically so, the abovementioned story it also a lesson: A lesson of (not) burning one’s bridges.
Keeping the Western Front Quiet — Parrying and Sparring
From 25 August 1981 until completion of Operation Protea the western front needed to be kept quiet. The continued offensive operation of Task Force Alpha to the east, towards Ongiva, needed to remain neatly partitioned off by the Cunene River. The rule regarding the effectiveness of any obstacle used in warfare, such as the Cunene, is that it should ideally be covered by observation and fire.
Furthermore, the enemy had to be kept guessing by Battle Group 10. This required some careful foot work, whilst continuously parrying and sparring the enemy to the west. No-mans land lay between the Cunene River and Cahama. This particular field was afforded equal opportunity and space to both the enemy and own forces for manoeuvre. It was however only influenced effectively by Battle Group 10.
The aforementioned part of the operation by Battle Group 10 was of an offensive-defensive nature and entailed continuously blocking any possible enemy interference from the west. The said mission made life extremely interesting for Battle Group10 during the short life span of Operation Protea. More so in the sense of a diversified spectrum of offensive and defensive tasks and varieties of other ordered commitments. From attack and defend to playing soccer — more likely parrying and sparring without any rules.
With Xangongo safely in our hands Battle Group 10 was literally and figuratively occupying the high ground. We had the mobility and flexibility of the forceful Battle Group 10 in hand and the Cunene River as a formidable obstacle between us and an apathetic enemy. The mere threatening posture of Battle Group 10 at Xangongo implied that our fighting unit was fulfilling its next mission of denying Xangongo to FAPLA’s 21st Brigade.
The origination of any possible major threat lay within the folds of Cahama, the home of the mobile reserve of FAPLA for the region. Time and space wise, under prevailing operational conditions, the only viable enemy threat towards the east lay via the bridge at Xangongo. Battle Group 10 was therefore squarely deployed in the most probable counter-attacking path of FAPLA.
The recent triumphant clash of Combat Team 3 with FAPLA at Chicusse had demonstrated the enemy’s inherent lethargic nature quite clearly. We did not really believe that they would be up to any deviousness in the short term.
In my mind I had carefully contemplated the affect of the recent bloody fray with FAPLA and the enemy’s continuous passivity. I did not truly see 21 Brigade mounting a deliberate counter-offensive from Cahama in the short term.
In war, however, you can never really be sure. Our enemy did some strange things in the past and they could do it again. The enemy possessed more than enough latent counter offensive potential if they wished to employ it as such. So, we had to watch out carefully for the possible damaging effects friction de guerre could cause us at any moment.
In terms of our defensive mission Battle Group 10 was sitting pretty.
- The bridge at Xangongo was vital for defence towards the west. It was now in our possession and had been prepared as a Reserve Demolition. It was covered by both our fire and observation.
- A fire base on the high rising ground on the eastern bank of the river was the key to the denial of any crossing hopes to any suicidal inclined offensive foe. That and the blowing of the bridge in the face of the enemy of course.
- Any possible immediate threat from the north was removed through the recent capture of Peu-Peu by Battle Group 30.
- Both our southern and eastern flanks were adequately secured for the moment.
Anyway, opportunistic Jan Breytenbach and his Pathfinders were operating somewhere in the vicinity of Peu-Peu, to the north again, doing their own thing – a Jedi force onto their own. They somehow reminded me of the well known words uttered by Pontius Pilate, somewhere in the not too distant past. I could not remember whether Pontius served at the headquarters of Task Force Alpha or Sector 10.
To pick up on some of the additional actions taken by Battle Group 10 to the west of the Cunene Rive onwards from 27 August 1981. The purpose remained the covering of the western flank.
Remember that I had left the story above about the deployment of Combat Team 3 to the stopper line position west of the river (nick-named ‘Big Boy 2’) on 27 August 1981. Also that soon afterwards at about 10h00 I had withdrawn two Ratel-90 armoured car troops to participate in the attack on Ongiva with Combat Team 2.
Combat Team 3 comprised the following combat elements for their covering mission after the two Ratel 90 armoured car troops were redeployed by the battle group HQ: One Eland-90 armoured car troop; one mechanised infantry platoon and; one 81mm mortar platoon. Soon afterwards a second Eland-90 armoured car troop joined the combat team at ‘Big Boy 2’.
The next day (28 August 1981), soon after a prayer parade, was held in the stopper position at 08h00, the combat team made an interesting finding. An abandoned camouflaged Russian ambulance of FAPLA was located nearby. The newly acquired former enemy ambulance was duly brought into the position of the combat team.
Life in the stopper line in essence remained tranquil and peaceful for Combat Team 3 throughout the day without any undue excitement. A few members of the local population passed by, some were questioned and others searched. Maintenance was regularly performed on vehicles and equipment.
At about 17h30 on 28 August 1981 Major Joe Weyers departed to Xangongo to receive orders at the HQ of Battle Group 10. From 19h50 onwards, intense artillery bombardments were observed by Combat Team 3, approximately 10 to 15km west of their position. It seemed as if the indirect barrages delivered by FAPLA were crawling closer. It remained ineffectual. More likely it was harassing fire in fear of a deliberate assault against Cahama by the South Africans. That was probably uppermost in their minds and not to counterattack.
At 11h00 on Saturday, 29 August 1981 Combat Team 3 was relieved by Combat Team 2 of Captain Koos Liebenberg in the stopper position at ‘Big Boy 2’. The two Ratel-90 armour car troops also reported back from the attack on Ongiva. They remained behind in the stopper line with Combat Team 2.
The armour car troops could tell their story to the other members of their combat team of how they had accounted for two enemy T-34 tanks at Ongiva. Similarly the members of the support troops could reveal how they had killed a number of FAPLA soldiers during the fight for Ongiva.
Combat Team 3 subsequently withdrew to Xangongo for some well earned rest and recuperation. All the troops of the combat team were afforded the luxury of washing in the Cunene River. Three goats (‘Boerbokke’) were subsequently acquired and barbecued the same evening by the combat team.
On the same day it was necessary for me to recall Combat Team 2 to Xangongo. This came as somewhat of a disruption for Captain Koos Liebenberg and his men. It was however necessary as I had just received orders for the withdrawal of Battle Group 10 to SWA on 1 September 1981. Combat Team 2 had to return to Xangongo to start organising the recovery of the bulk of the captured enemy equipment to SWA. The reason for this was that they were equipped with Ratel 20s, which were destined to tow two to three pieces of equipment behind each of their six-wheelers.
Fortunately Alpha Company and the Ratel-90 anti-tank platoon of the erstwhile mobile reserve of the task force rejoined Battle Group 10 on 29 August 1981 and could be deployed in the aforementioned stopper position until Monday 31 August 1981.
On Sunday 30 August 1981 elements of Combat Team 3 were instructed by the battle group HQ to escort the artillery troop on a harassing fire mission to the west of the Cunene River. The firing position chosen was to the northwest of Mucope.
The G-2s delivered harassing fire in the direction of the enemy located at Cahama. During the retrograde move from the aforementioned firing position at about 12h00, a conservative sized enemy force was located near Mucope. Additional forces were immediately requested to support with a quick attack on the newly located enemy position. The remainder of Combat Team 3 was hastily dispatched to Mucope for this purpose.
A quick attack followed on Mucope at about 15h00. The enemy, however, had fled back to Cahama in the meantime. In their haste a medical post was left behind by the enemy and was subsequently captured by Combat Team 3. The booty contained substantial pieces of equipment and medication. It was clear to us that the enemy had started to probe carefully outwards from Cahama to discern what was going on around them. Mucope was one of their traditional defensive outposts.
On Monday 31 August 1981 Combat Team 3 were instructed by the battle group HQ to once again occupy the stopper position at ‘Big Boy 2’ and to relieve Alpha Company.
Combat Team 3 now performed the role as rear guard to cover the withdrawal of Battle Group 10 eastwards from Xangongo.
At 12h00 Combat Team 3 handed over their defensive responsibility to an UNITA contingent. The combat team then withdrew to Xangongo, where it deployed in all round defence near the airfield. At 14h50 the Battle Group 10 withdrew orderly from Xangongo leaving the defence of the town to UNITA. The column followed the tar road and moved towards Ongiva to leaguer there for the night.
Combat Team 3 moved to the rear of the column still performing the task as the rear guard of the battle group.
Life to the full at Xangongo — and the not so Exciting Garrison Duties
Back to a few chronicles about the life Battle Group 10 experienced at Xangongo.
Battle Group 10 provided for the mobile defence of Xangongo as well as a temporary garrison force for the town. The said trials and tribulations lasted from 26 August until 31 August 1981.
If this was what life in mobile defence was like, I would probably volunteer to do it again. There was some fun to it especially with interesting souls such as those of 61 Mech. Did we originally plan for these ordeals? Most definitely not.
I am therefore going to share some of the comings and goings about life at the fullest at Xangongo. In many instances the following mere happenings could be removed from the military norm. Each and every application thereof therefore did not require following every jota and title of the principles of warfare.
The chronicles following below all added up to a woven fabric of rich life experienced at Xangongo — so be it, life to the fullest, especially with the soldiers of 61 Mech. The odds and ends following below are not usually listed in job profiles or job descriptions of ordinary soldiers.
- A Town Called Xangongo
Xangongo was a typical African town. In most places the town looked like a slum, with desperately poor people residing in and outside shacks and Hessian lean-tos. The town was crowded with rickety tenement buildings and corrugated lean- tops. These buildings often collapsed under the weight of there own inhabitants. The alleys were unpaved, without names, and in perpetual darkness. A morbid atmosphere clung to the place. The town was smelly. The streets ran with raw sewage, choked with mounds of uncollected garbage. At night the town was ruled by packs of skinny wild African dogs. The children of Xangongo wore rags, drank water from cesspools, and lived in fear of being eaten alive by rats. There was little running water, only brief interludes of electricity, and even less hope.
Spray painted onto several propaganda billboards around town, were derogatory remarks about the racist South Africans, and how the MPLA and the Cubans were the saviours and how they were going to stuff us up. “Viva Castro, Viva MPLA, Viva Cuba …” and so forth. Okay, noted.
The town was surrounded by an interlocking trench system with sophisticated concrete bunkers. Abandoned derelict Russian army green wrecks were everywhere. Driving through Xangongo and Ongiva during a battle field tour in October 2010 I found that nothing much had changed after many years of so-called freedom.
- The People in and Around Xangongo
We had to establish trust relations with the inhabitants of Xangongo. This was in order to support them more overtly in the repair and maintenance of Xangongo after the attack. The reason for the latter was most probably rooted in the conscious of the South African for fairness and humaneness. Showing kindness to civilians was therefore decreed by military order.
Providing municipal services suddenly became part of 61 Mech’s operational portfolio. I will not say that I was exceedingly overjoyed by this but notwithstanding I knew that the mission always comes first and should always be executed in the most professional manner. This is the trait of the South African soldier.
I was extremely pleased that Major Dawid Mentz was with me and under my command. Management treatise tells that the delegation of appropriate work packages should be done, and I did, with Mentz at the receiving end. He did a grand job.
We soon became near close friends with the local population of Xangongo. Presenting some captured Cuban food supplies and cigars to the local traditional chiefs and their people as gifts helped tremendously. We also helped the locals with some medical aid. In the meantime our chaplain Koos Rossouw was enthusiastically comforting and converting a few Angolan souls; that is if he was not playing darts or volley ball with the troops.
I wondered at times what the FAPLA soldiers, Russians and Cubans had done to these ordinary people. We heard horrific stories of ill-treatment. In the SADF we had strict guidelines towards the appropriate handling of civilians and prisoners of war. During the offensive planning for Xangongo we had marked our maps carefully, so as to avoid undue damage to civilian sectors, hospitals, churches and cemeteries.
Suddenly Xangongo was not a fear zone for the local inhabitants anymore.
I sometimes drove freely with my Ratel Command vehicle to ‘Mission Mucceipo’ and its mission hospital, which lay approximately fifteen kilometres to the west of Xangongo. It was on the way to Cahama. We supported the Roman Catholic nuns and medical staff at the mission hospital with some medical aid and medicines. They did not have the luxury of abundant modern medical supplies as we did. It was also a good experience for our operational medics to do some work under those field conditions. There were some juicy and valuable titbits of information and gossiping to be had at the mission about Cahama and the enemy.
The nuns told us an interesting story. Due credit goes to the South African Air Force (SAAF). Their Impalas did it with their innovative ‘moonlight operations’ over the roads in Angola and of course with mischievous pilots such as Mossie Basson and Brand Haasbroek. Apparently many FAPLA and SWAPO casualties ended up at the mission hospital. This was sort of an added extra due to the SAAF sorties over the angry fields of Angola, even when they were harmlessly sitting in a pub at Ondangwa. SAAF pilots where therefore productive even when drinking Windhoek beer safely south of the border. The erstwhile animated enemy soldiers were rapidly reduced to casualties, when some bailed at high speed from their Ural and Gaz trucks travelling along the road. These amazing acrobatic feats happened on seeing a hawk or an eagle in the sky. This made travelling for them between Xangongo and Cahama somewhat perilous, interesting and exciting. The SAAF always aimed to please and did anything to save costly jet fuel. This taught FAPLA to drive more carefully and slowly.
- Mayoral and Garrison Duties at Xangongo
Our esteemed garrison commander, Major Dawid Mentz, was more likely the acting mayor of Xangongo. As the garrison commander he had the trying chores to fulfil. This was not truly everyday jobs becoming a soldier, especially a revered paratrooper, but in his ever enthusiastic and energetic way he did the municipal work and services at Xangongo exceedingly well.
Mentz was also responsible for the more static elements of defence, as well as the garrison duties to be performed in our newly acquired town. This included the guarding of the Reserve Demolition of the bridge. With this important defensive oriented task went the tying in of early warning systems, listening posts and observation posts for the static defence of Xangongo.
Performing garrison duties was a new experience for us. It was an important one, not necessarily spectacular or exciting. However being with the souls of 61 Mech in the field, even the more mundane tasks on hand were converted into exciting ones.
An important task of Mentz was to build friendly relations with the locals. This required regular meetings with the local tribal chiefs and community leaders and supporting them with repairs to some of the infrastructure — especially electricity and water. I sometimes helped Mentz with the liaison work and talks to the tribal chiefs and community leaders of the town. The latter high-ups became extremely friendly when we handed over the packets-and-packets of Cuban cigars we had liberated from a warehouse — friends for life, with the locals that was, not the Cubans for the moment.
Our engineers, medical staffs and the Tiffies did amazing work during our brief stay at Xangongo. The Tiffies, for example, soon after we occupied Xangongo, had the old water pump adjacent to the Cunene River repaired and pleasantly chugging away.
So, as part of the garrison duties Dawid Mentz had the repairs of the town to attend to; the mopping up of the objective still needed to be organised and completed; liaisons with whoever were ongoing business and; the static element of defence needed to be overseen. Even sport was on the agenda.
I was extremely pleased that the path of creative and resolute Dawid Mentz had crossed those of 61 Mech — thank you Dear Lord.
- The Amazing Soccer Game at Xangongo
An interesting incident occurred after the attack on Xangongo was completed on the third day following on D-Day. The town was settling down after all hell had been unleashed by the South African forces coming from all the unexpected directions. The locals were still somewhat shell-shocked and were left aghast at all these comings and goings around them. Ratels, SAMIL’s and guns were coming and going all around them. After all they were just innocent bystanders.
Battle Group 10 was gradually getting adjusted to its new role, which was to protect the Task Force’s western flank; to commence with mopping up of the objective and; as part of its garrison duties, to restore some order to Xangongo.
Through this malady of feverish activity I was called to one side by General Jannie Geldenhuys who said:_ “Roland, organise a soccer game against the town.” _ I was somewhat astounded, but reacted as all good mechanised combat commanders usually do with a “Yes sir!” I was obviously not going to say to him what I was thinking of this, and I am still today not prepared to repeat my erstwhile thoughts here in writing. Of course I had immense respect and caring for him and realised that he had something up his sleeve. He was one of our unusual generals with amazing insight and a flair for indirectness and creativity.
So I promptly delegated the soccer game responsibility, as good commanders occasionally do, to my Garrison Commander Dawid Mentz (who was equally astounded). I added an after remark,_ “No backchat.” _ National Service Lieutenant Henri ‘Bossie’ Boshoff was duly appointed as the official referee. I was now free to pursue my duties in overseeing the more military oriented, and to my mind, more important work at Xangongo and further to the west.
Needless to say, in true military style of planning excellence and professional execution, the soccer game was a grand success, although 61 Mech (playing in their official T-shirts), lost 3 to 1. The opposing team wore their official jerseys as well. The traditional town spectators turned out to support the local team in high spirits and all exuberance. 61 Mech became the instant and trusted friends of the local community.
On 19 November 1981 General Jannie Geldenhuys wrote me a letter of appreciation stating that the soccer event had paid immense dividend amongst the national and international community. The simple soccer game at Xangongo had softened the blow from the angry United Nations against South Africa’s aggression against Angola. This was similarly reported by then Foreign Affairs Minister Pik Botha to his other colleagues in government. South Africa’s ambassador Mr. Riaan Eksteen could also use the game at Xangongo as a means to swing the negative moods in the United States that were repeatedly flung against South Africa. The reports by at least four journalists that accompanied the South Africans during Operation Protea could further spur a more positive view about South Africa’s exemplary military conduct in Angola.
The aforementioned action clearly showed the positive relationship existing with the local Angolan citizens. There was to my knowledge more than two television broadcasts abroad that televised the soccer game at Xangongo.
A non-military mission accomplished in a military manner. “Well done Dawid Mentz and Henri Boshoff and the soccer team of 61 Mech. To the citizens of Xangongo, heart felt appreciation and a grand word of appreciation”. I was thinking that 61 Mech in future would clearly have to add soccer and rugby tactics to its battle doctrine and SOP.
- Mopping Up Xangongo
The combat teams of Battle Group 10 continued with a variety of more mundane mopping-up tasks at Xangongo, repair and maintenance of equipment and even doing some training.
The aforementioned task apparently included a few ever creative souls of 61 Mech driving around Xangongo on captured enemy motor cycles. A warehouse full of brand new Mopeds were found somewhere by the Loggies of Major Giel Reinecke who I had a ‘friendly’ one-on-one discussion with later on. Careering mopeds they were, to the dismay of our Regimental Sergeant Major M.C. Barnard. The first day they were Mopeds with tyres, the next without. Oh well! The troops of 61 Mech, even under the guise of Battle Group 10, had the uncanny ability to test and stretch the norm. Sometimes, more so than often, they got away with it, those magnificent troops of 61 Mech. The mechanised ones tend to be much more mobile and creative than the Army’s average.
Tons of booty and large numbers of captured equipment had to be organised for recovery to Oshakati. Major Giel Reinecke, my logistics officer, and the combat team commanders were not going to enjoy the long haul southward with the enemy booty in tow. Especially Captain Koos Liebenberg and his esteemed Bravo Company.
There were a number of special mopping up teams flown in from Pretoria and Windhoek. They worked at mopping up and on analysing and classifying enemy spoils. They also needed protection, against themselves as well. The teams included sombre officers from counter-intelligence and logistics, walking around quietly, ever investigative. Cloak and dagger types. They came to Xangongo suddenly, out of the blue and never ceased to amaze with their ways and mannerisms. Strange folk they were. The coordination functions concerning the latter beings to be delegated forthwith to Dawid Mentz.
There were some mischievous things which materialised out of the blue that I as the commander was not even aware of — or I merely ignored such incidents when said came to the fore. That’s the spice of army life. I still remained accountable for what the souls of 61 Mech did or did not do whilst under my command. I will forever be proud of them and for richness added to my life.
- From Counter-Intelligence I presume
My very tall good friend Commandant Durrie van Deventer was one of those from counter-intelligence. He approached me in the early days at Xangongo and enquired very seriously: “Do you know anything about ten thousand Rand which was allegedly stolen from the local bank in Xangongo?” Incredible.
I stared at him in honest amazement. Apparently the bank had been penetrated with something like a 90mm gun. I responded: “Ask Combat Group 20 and 40. They where in Xangongo before me and they also have Ratel 90s or Eland 90s.” Now and then when I run into Durrie, even to date he asks me, “Roland, don’t you no anything about the ten thousand Rand of Xangongo.” _ I answer honestly, _“No Durrie, look at my car I am driving and the house I am living in.”
- With Compliments from FAPLA and an Enquiry from a Height
The following short story is really to pay compliments to FAPLA and to say thank you. It is about a house in Xangongo, a jeep, some Kwacha and a goat.
Looking from the said house I good see the brand new Russian Jeep in front of the minister’s, sorry Battle Group 10’s, new home and HQ. The jeep had become my rover vehicle in Xangongo, with the compliments of FAPLA. It was bloody uncomfortable to get in and out of it; tell me all about Russian engineering and design.
It was the nice house, the one which originally belonged to the esteemed Minister of Education from the Angolan Province of Cunene. It had a little neglected garden in front. Inside was a toilet, with solid waste filled to the brim; it was that house I am telling about.
We had temporarily occupied the aforementioned house as the static command post of our battle group. We could only really use the lounge, which we summarily organised into our operations centre and planning and conference room. The radios were on the side-board and the maps where on the walls. The signals Ratel ØC gracefully poised on the driveway next to the window of the lounge with radio cables trailing inside. The radios were humming constantly.
Somehow a large cardboard box filled to the brim with useless Kwacha, the local currency, appeared on the veranda of our HQ. It became part of our every day scene, the box standing there. It remained a mystery to me until today, how it got there in the first place. The box just loomed up there in front of us, amidst my command group, there it was.
I do not know where the Angolan money inside the box came from either. However, there the Angolan takings were in our newly acquired house at Xangongo.
I looked at the box filled with Kwacha minding its own business. It looked inviting, desperately asking to be put to better use. I looked at Major Dawid Mentz, our garrison commander and said: _“Dawid, go and buy us a goat for this evening, the command group is going to have a ‘braai’ in our garden.” _ At times garrison commanders get saddled up with the more mundane tasks of buying goats for dinner.
Dawid took the semi-precious box filled with Kwacha, mounted his Buffel and sallied forth into the wild green yonder, towards the rural area beyond Xangongo. That evening we had our command group “braai”.
We sat on our army camp chairs around a moderate fire; chit-chatting like soldiers do. Talking shop, about our families and about rugby and soccer. It was a pleasant evening. I could share some of my flat tinned smoked oysters with the members of my close-knit team. At one stage I was thoughtless enough to ask Dawid where the hell he had purchased our prized, now barbecued, goat.
Dawid told us in minute detail, as garrison commanders sometimes do, that he had made a careful appreciation of his mission. He had closed in moving tactically towards a particular ‘kraal’ of choice, just outside of Xangongo. There he was involved in some serious negotiations in order to close the deal for the goat. One handful of Kwacha was handed over to the beckoning black hand of the Tribal Chief. “Not enough”, then another hand filled with precious Kwacha was handed over. Dawid related that again it was not enough. “Nee, Basie” — remember Dawid was short. Two hands full of Kwacha in return were handed over. _“Enough”, _ said the chief, as he handed back one hand filled with Kwacha to Dawid. The deal was closed. Dawid returned back to HQ with his prized possession.
The next stupid question was asked by me again to Dawid: “Dawid, Why are you not enjoying dinner and some delicious goat with us.” _ Dawid fielded as follows: _“Naw, no appetite. When I purchased our goat his family and friends were gnawing on some dead FAPLA lying around in the immediate area.” Suddenly some other appetites also waned. Dawid could have spared us the detail. Garrison Commanders sometimes do that, when they go into gory detail, no pun intended.
Rumour has it that there was some trepidation later on at senior level about me allegedly giving an instruction to hand over the semi-useless Kwacha leftovers to UNITA. Apparently there was an official letter written about this as well (which proves my point earlier about useless staff work done by some senior staff officers, who have nothing better to do. Probably the one who said we had to take the grader along). I never heard about the Kwacha issue again. We could not harm the monetary system in Angola or cause inflation anyway – there was nothing about that.
- Gert Minnaar and the Irish Nuns he Encountered at Mucceipo
Lieutenant Gert Minnaar, Platoon Number 1, Bravo Company (Combat Team 2), had the following to say about the Roman Catholic nuns he encountered at Mucceipo during Operation Protea:
“My platoon visited the Irish nuns at the hospital at Mucceipo, north of Humbe, on the afternoon of 25 August 1981. I can remember that one of the nuns were quite young and pretty. I wondered what motivated her to be out here, spending her life in the outskirts of Africa. The other nuns were much older. They were extremely friendly towards us. They told us that many of their patients had fled into the bushes the morning of 24 August 1981, when the battle planes of our air force passed over. It was somewhat strange for me to walk with the nuns on the veranda of the hospital and having a casual conversation in English; whilst they as women were so deeply imbedded in a war zone. The water-pump at the hospital required urgent repairs. In no time at all Sergeant Major Duppie du Plessis and his Tiffies had the water-pump repaired”.
At the time of the aforementioned brief visit to Mucceipo the combat team of Gert Minnaar was on its way to Mucope, as part of the exploitation of Battle Group 10.
- A Decorative Plate from the Minen Hotel of Tsumeb Found at Xangongo
Inside our newly converted command post, which was kindly provided to us with the compliments of the Minister of Education of Xangongo for the Cunene Province, I found a decorative plate. Low and behold it was from the Minen Hotel in Tsumeb.
The said plate was suspended against the wall in the lounge; pardon me, our operations room. It had probably been stolen. Ministers in Africa occasionally do such things.
The Minen was our only hotel in Tsumeb and we knew the proprietor well. I took the plate down and later returned it to the rightful owners of the Minen. They were surprised and extremely pleased. What I would not do for a complimentary dinner at the Minen – Eisbein?
- Major Les Rudman and the Paratroopers and How they Returned Safely to SWA
Operationally astute Major Les Rudman, with his company of energetic paratroopers, was placed under operational command of Battle Group 10 for the defence of Xangongo — that is to say once they eventually reached our position.
Les Rudman, with his company of hundred and fifty paratroopers, had been tasked by Sector 10 to patrol and reconnoitre their way into Angola by foot. This happened all the way northward from the border to Xangongo just prior to D-day. Paratroopers do these kinds of things, walking and patrolling long distances in heavy paratrooper combat boots, impressive. Their stealthy move started just prior to the crossing of the main force on 23 August 1981. They had been acting as early warning and as a screening patrol for Task Force Alpha.
The paratroopers had some harrowing experiences with the enemy’s minefields. These were encountered to south of the main defences of Xangongo as they moved in towards the settlement, where Battle Group 10 waited for them.
I had dispatched a mobile patrol under command of Captains John Bell and Philipp Jeackel to meet with and transport the paratroopers from the vicinity of Cuamato. The patrol however encountered an extensive minefield of FAPLA to the south. Our own Sappers were not suitably equipped to breach the minefield. Captain Jeackel had a harrowing ordeal to share when he returned to Xangongo. Two Buffel mine protected vehicles had tramped mines. One of these vehicles was thrown from one mine on to another. Miraculously no serious injuries were incurred. I subsequently gave instructions for our patrol to extricate them and move back to Xangongo.
The paratrooper company of Rudman therefore had to move all the way to Xangongo by foot.
As if the aforementioned was not enough, the paratroopers had to patrol their way south again on completion of Operation Protea by 1 September 1981. All of the aforementioned happened by the grace of the HQs of Task Force Alpha and Sector 10.
At the close of Operation Protea, Major Les Rudman reverted back to under command of Sector 10. The paratroopers had to patrol their way back to SWA by foot. I thanked the Dear Lord that I had intelligently so progressed from a PT-10 parachute to a Ratel command vehicle.
I duly handed over Les Rudman to our non-officially-sanctioned communication relay lady, Tannie Pompie. From her farm in Tsintsabis she dutifully followed the moves of the paratroopers back to SWA. Along the way she kept me informed about the progress and safety of our paratroopers.
- Looting can be Fun
Although not spectacular work, the defensive tasks of our battle group were important ones and we learned a fair amount from this. One was not to be saddled up with such a burden again. Stay out of sight and harms way of the next General with wild ideas, was a new maxim for me. This idea I summarily added to my list of principles for warfare.
Captain Jeackel and Sergeant Major Duppie, our remarkable and unusual chief Tiffies, and their merry mechanics, now had broken-down enemy relics to contend with as well. It seemed that the drivers of FAPLA had the knack of breaking anything. Most of these erstwhile metal wrecks of FAPLA were soon in a serviceable condition, summarily to be brought on to the inventory of the SADF.
The Tiffies somehow had expeditiously so expanded their tool inventory as well. Stock-taking by Major Giel Reinecke at Omuthiya was going to be a ball. There were entirely new surpluses acquired by our quartermaster personnel as well as the Tiffies.
The loot at Xangongo also included a brand new overhead projector. It was an item, which we could not acquire from our own army stores at the time.
Campaigning was great. Johann Dippenaar and Battle Group 20 had presented us with a brand new red ‘dumper’ for Omuthiya. The prized item was soon loaded by Giel Reinecke and the Loggies onto a Samil-100.
Looting was fun, but it had to be carefully tempered and controlled. The soldiers were given clear instructions about the ‘safe’ souvenirs which could be kept. Stable parades and inspections were duly held prior to leaving Angola. Every member of our unit was requested to show and tell and the troops knew that we were sensitive about their ‘souvenir’ desires.
At all the respective military airfields the military police kept careful watch. We therefore gave our troops certificates for the souvenirs which they could keep and take home. Now and then an innovative soldier would slip something through illegally. Sergeant Majors however knew the tricks of the trade from past experience.
I later found out that my innovative sergeant majors had done some affirmative shopping as well. Some heavy iron bars and African ‘Kiaat’ flat timber were on its way for the new canteen to be erected at Omuthiya.
The duty bus that 61 Mech longingly eyed at Xangongo for Omuthiya was soon taken custody of. Rank had its privilege. It was done personally by Brigadier Witkop Badenhorst of Sector 10 fame. I longingly eyed the bus in later months, when occasionally visiting Sector 10 for operational briefings and debriefings. The bus, now being in possession of Sector 10 at Oshakati, left a saddening feeling in me. It should in right be serving between Tsumeb and Omuthiya.
- Testing a Russian SAM-7 at Xangongo was Exhilarating — don’t Tell Anyone
At one stage for fun we send up a 1,000 feet illumination flare and fired one of the liberated Russian SAM-7s at it. I can now say that we did it, as I am already retired out from the army. I could not say it at the time. The SAM-7s were quite precious. Our special forces used the captured ones to shoot down enemy aircraft over Angola.
The SAM-7 missed. No wonder one of our Mirages could return home safely after it had received a glancing blow from one during Operation Protea.
- Our Enemy Never Ceased to Amaze — Defences at Xangongo
At one stage at Xangongo I took my Ratel crew, Colonel Robbie Robertse and Commandant Epp van Lill with me to study the FAPLA defences at Xangongo. The town was interlocked by an all-round defensive system.
The minefields lay to the south. That was the direction they expected our attack to come from, if ever it came they thought. The defences where extensive and there were rows and rows of these carefully prepared earthworks. Trench on trench, interlinked with communication crawl ditches and dugouts. Some with metal stead beds inside. Quite comfortable if you enjoy living underground for months at end. The defence was set up in depth, Russian style.
Another interesting left-over from the Russians and FAPLA we found at Xangongo was a comprehensive sand model. It was large and it was neatly constructed with concrete. There was an exact to detail layout of the defences of Xangongo displayed on the model. Their South African foe was displayed in blue. Their own forces were marked in red – exactly as we did it. It was most applicable that the Russians saw FAPLA as ‘Red Forces’. They were spot on, full marks for them. The model was obviously used many a time for training purposes but it did not help much. We could send better training staff than the Russians to them, if only they would see our way.
The sand model had a wooden construction close by which was probably used as an observation tower for their artillery. Close by I picked up a beautiful single page sketch made by some junior FAPLA commander. I still have it. The staff writing on the sketch was carefully and neatly done in Russian text and tactical symbols. Wow, I thought if they could just fight as they did staff work, we would have been in for a surprise.
- Lessons learned — Battle Orientation Range for the Army Battle School
In later years, following on 61 Mech, I became second-in-command at the SA Army Battle School, at Lohatlha. I had a battle orientation range constructed (‘Gevegsorientasie-baan’). Commandant Paul Fouche was the commander of the Infantry Branch at the time. Major Les Rudman was his second-in-command.
Both these officers were operational commanders of note. Paul commanded the force in southeast Angola during Operation Hooper and Packer in 1987 and 1988. He took over from Deon Ferreira and I, as Deon’s second in command, in mid December 1987. Les was distinguished by receiving the Army Cross for valour for the work he later did in southeast Angola. Paul and Les did the layout and construction of the range at the SA Army Battle School.
We used a similar layout for our orientation range as the real one found at Xangongo, Ã la Russian doctrine style. We tactically deployed some of the Russian equipment captured during Operation Protea. Suddenly we felt at home at Lohatlha. It was fun having mock fights through the Russian cum FAPLA range. Some of the forces training there experienced the real thing later in southern Angola. The fighting work was not finished yet — Operation Moduler was looming.
- Life in Xangongo Drew to a Close
Life for our battle group at Xangongo suddenly arrived at a close, came 1 September 1981. The inhabitants were not happy to see us go, we were told, especially Dawid Mentz, the Tiffies and the field engineers.
The locals had started appreciating us more and more. Rumour had it that Dawid Mentz was on the list of favourites to be elected as the next mayor for Xangongo. We were searching for the next Minister for Education as well. My adjutant, Bossie Boshoff, seemed like a possible candidate. By the way, I suddenly wondered where the former Minister for Education disappeared to. I know where the fleeing Russians went. They ran into an ambush the other side of Ongiva.
Orders Received for the Withdrawal — Operation Protea Declared Successful
On 28 August 1981 the Chief of the Defence Force, General Constand Viljoen publicly declared that the SADF’s mission in Angola was successful and that the combat force was withdrawing from Angola.
At 18h30 on 29 August 1981 I was hastily summoned to Ongiva by Colonel Joep Joubert to receive orders for the withdrawal from Angola as part of the main combat force. I requested Captain Chris Gildenhuys with an armoured car troop and a mechanised infantry platoon to escort me to Ongiva and back again the same night. On the way close to Mongua we encountered a few Tiffies who were busy repairing and evacuating captured enemy tanks and equipment to Ongiva.
The orders I received at Ongiva stated that the retrograde operation of Task Force Alpha was scheduled to commence by 31 August 1981 — D plus 7. This was earlier than originally estimated during the planning at Omuthiya. The final date of withdrawal was set as 1 September 1981 — D plus 8.
The first part of the withdrawal route would take Battle Group 10 via Mongua to Ongiva, where we would leaguer for the night near the airfield. The latter part of the route would follow via Santa Clara and Ondangwa to Omuthiya. Thus would end ten days of pulsating military operation – from 23 August until 1 September 1981 from the time our battle group crossed the border at Calueque until the afternoon we reached Omuthiya.
My orders included handing over the defence of Xangongo on 31 August 1981 to a combat force which would be provided by UNITA. This included handing over the Reserve Demolition of the bridge at Xangongo as well.
I returned with Captain Chris Gildenhuys and his escort party to Xangongo well after midnight. On the way back I issued a warning order to the leader group of my battle group for an order group to be held early the next morning at my HQ in Xangongo.
I issued my own orders for the withdrawal of Battle Group 10 on 30 August 1981. The newly issued instructions and timings influenced some of the rapid switching of our covering forces deployed in a stopper-line to the west of the Cunene River.
The first withdrawal actions of the task force as well as Battle Group 10 to SWA were premeditated for 31 August 1981. This was also the day intended for UNITA to arrive at Xangongo. Things were moving fast.
The sorrowful sights of the battlefields at Humbe, Xangongo, Peu-Peu, Mongua and Ongiva were soon to be left behind in the wake of our combat force.
Handing over the Defence of Xangongo to UNITA — on a Silver Platter
The code word the SADF used for the guerrilla forces of UNITA was “Silver”. This was for security purposes. The outside world were not really to know that the SADF was that close in cahoots with UNITA.
A guerrilla unit of UNITA arrived at long last on 31 August 1981 at Xangongo. More so to keep Xangongo safe from FAPLA and SWAPO intruders we thought, than to keep Captain Charl Naude’s company. We were wrong in both instances.
Our UNITA contingent was accompanied by Commandant Mo Oelschig. He was a liaison officer with UNITA at the time. Liaison officer teams operated closely with the UNITA guerrilla forces in southern Angola. The aforementioned teams were provided for by Chief of Staff Intelligence of the SADF. Oelschig hitch-hiked a lift back to SWA with me on my Ratel.
The first batch of UNITA arrived by Russian Ural truck from who knows where. The trucks were appalling. All available space was stacked to the brim with anything you could think of: From blankets to ammunition, RPG Rocket Launchers and spare uniforms. To the one side, observing the mess, I could see my Loggie Major Giel Reinecke arching his eye-brows.
The second batch of UNITA arrived by Puma helicopter. They were probably flown in by Hercules C130 from Jamba to Ondangwa and from there by Puma to Xangongo.
This was my fastest relief operation in the line ever. “Hello UNITA, this is Xangongo, this is the current enemy situation, good-buy and good-luck UNITA.” They did not seem extremely interested in their surroundings or perturbed by the tactical situation on the ground. Later on I understood why — they were not going to remain there for long.
Battle Group 10 left courageous Captain Charl Naude behind in Xangongo. He settled down comfortably in our soon to be evacuated highly-appreciated Angolan ministerial home at Xangongo. The demolition of the bridge was left reservedly in his capable and responsible hands. The detonating device was handed over to the plucky Charl Naude by the engineers, carefully so.
The town of Xangongo, Captain Charl Naude and the Reserve Demolition were now safely in the capable hands of our esteemed UNITA ally.
Xangongo soon became a semi deserted ghost town. Only later on did some of the local inhabitants started filtering back. We met them a few months later. This happened in March actually, when 61 Mech was tasked to conduct a hasty force projection operation into southern Angola. This all had to do with striking fear into the hearts and minds of the ungodly. FAPLA had to be kept at bay and in animated suspension, away from our newly acquired hunting ground in the central part of southern Angola. 61 Mech was commissioned to conduct quite a few of these deterrent type exercises into southern Angola in 1981-82.
The UNITA guerrilla force of Savimbi only momentarily occupied Xangongo and Ongiva. Rightfully so the crafty guerrillas soon decided that the holding of towns did not suit their palette. They took to the bush again. As befitting guerrilla fighters their dictum was “annihilation of the foe and self preservation”, according to the teachings of Mao Tse Tung. They were not ready for mobile warfare yet, that would come in 1987, when Mavinga and Jamba were seriously threatened by FAPLA and the Cubans.
In the end Battle Group 10 handed Xangongo over to UNITA on a silver platter — with a cardboard box of Kwacha.
Withdrawal from Angola — Going Home to Omuthiya
Battle Group 10 departed Xangongo for Ongiva by midday on 31 August 1981 — D plus 7.
The following stayed behind in the diesel wake of our Ratels and assortments of towed or driven captured Russian military hardware: Our newly found friends, the amicable local people of Xangongo and their soccer stars; the mobile reserve of FAPLA at Cahama; the contingent force of UNITA; the intact bridge at Xangongo and; Special Forces Captain Charl Naude and the detonating device.
It was to the delight of our troops that we were trailing the wide assortment of captured enemy equipment back to Oshakati. The towing delight was not shared by my respective combat team commanders, Giel Reinecke my Logistic Officer, or the Tiffies of Sergeant Major Duppie. Nearly every vehicle of our battle group had something in tow – two to three enemy burdens in a row. In a way it was a forlorn sight to see. Some of our soldiers became instant drivers of Russian military hardware. Those selected sat proudly behind the steering wheels in an assortment of military cabs. I wish FAPLA could see them.
Our battle group moved steadily along the tar road towards Ongiva. The military column was accompanied by a few civilian refugees. The road led via Mongua where the mobile reserve provided for by 61 Mech had fought and won their battle single handed and where the Alouette gunship was downed. The Tiffies of the task force where still there struggling with some Russian T-34 tank left-over. The wrecked Alouette was also taken home.
As we approached Ongiva we could view a Puma helicopter hovering above. A television media-team was dutifully recording the withdrawal of the South African combat force — politics and propaganda, so be it.
We leaguered close to the Ongiva airfield for the night. Replenishment was done as a first priority. For the first time beer and cold drinks were provided in abundance to the men. A large Wild Fig Tree near the entrance to the airfield became the sleeping spot for our command group. We dug our shallow shell scrapes and set up local protection for the night. SWAPO was forever present and we did not particularly want to invite an unwelcome stand-away bombardment with mortars and rockets – by some of their stouter hearted still left in the area. Somewhere in the near future we would stop over at our fig tree again. That same evening under the tree Captain Koos Liebenberg told us in minute detail about the momentous fight for Ongiva. The otherwise calmness of the night was only disturbed now and then by the sporadic all- round harassing fire of the artillery.
Battle Group 10 had one final task left. I received an instruction from the task force HQ early the next morning to demolish the underground fuel bunkers adjacent to the Ongiva airfield. The engineers immediately warmed up to me and soon after the three underground tanks erupted into three impressive fire balls and black smoke. From my vantage point on top of my Ratel I took a photograph. The smoke hung for quite a while over the airfield as testimony of the South African’s successful clash of arms with FAPLA and SWAPO in southern Angola. For Battle Group 10 Operation Protea ended on a fiery note.
The road home led south via Ongiva, Omupande, Namacunde and Oshikango to Omuthiya. Those Angolan names of the towns were like music to us whenever we passed them by. There was some mystical ring to it.
It was now downhill all the way. The story however does not end here.
The Dear Lord admittedly looked after the livelihood of our beloved unit. He also had a fine sense of humour, especially humour in uniform. Here He especially favoured Captain Koos Liebenberg and Bravo Company. The following chronicle relates to Captain Koos Liebenberg, one of his captured Russian Ural truck and a driver cum soldier from 61 Mech.
_“Whilst returning to SWA after Operation Protea one memorable day on 1 September 1981 I was viewing the long column of Ratels from my stationary command vehicle. They were hauling south from Ongiva on the road near Omupande. Most of the Ratels and SAMIL cargo trucks were dragging captured enemy equipment behind them. The same accounted for the troops of 61 Mech driving an assortment of captured enemy trucks and armoured vehicles. All the vehicles had an interesting assortment of captured enemy burdens behind them, sometimes in a three towed-in-a-row marching order.
At times the column of vehicles stopped and dispersed to both sides of the road for a habitual 10-minute halt. This happened every two hours to allow for a brief respite, some coffee and other bodily necessities. As I watched I noticed a strange somewhat spectacular spectacle playing off before my bewildered eyes. One of Koos Liebenberg’s drivers of Bravo Company in a captured Russian Ural Truck would leave the road and then promptly start bundu-bashing a rough circle in the dense bush alongside the road without stopping. No ten minute halt for this 61 Mech driver.
Strange things frequently happened to Bravo Company. It took jumping onto the Urals’s side board to gather the necessary intelligence to find out what the hell was going on. Our trusted driver straight away responded: “I don’t’ have a clutch, I can’t’ stop and nothing is going to stop me from bringing my Ural home to Omuthiya”. Such was the tenacity displayed by our men. I loved these troops of 61 Mech. A well deserved commendation to Koos and his company for seeing the goal through. “61” to me, to reiterate once again, was the spice of life.”_
The abovementioned was not finals for Koos. He had to take his captured enemy burden to Oshakati, before turning around and returning for a well deserved cold Windhoek beer at Omuthiya.
By this time, duly acknowledged by me, Koos was ‘gatvol’ (fed up). Arriving at Oshakati one of our favourite staff officers told him to start parking all the enemy wrecks in neat little rows, as staff officers wish to do. Koos duly ignored him._ “Ek het hom in sy moer ingestuur”_, Koos later on told me, and he abruptly unhooked the burdensome metals, started up again and motored towards Omuthiya about 170km away to the south as all good mechanised commanders should do when receiving instructions from staff officers who are not their commanders. The staff officer was left standing in the heavy dust of fourteen Ratel-20s and eight Ratel-90s. At Omuthiya the rest of 61 Mech were already having cold beers._ “Hallo Koos, welcome back”._
Task Force Alpha returned safely to SWA by 6 September 1981. 61 Mech was the last combat group to cross the border into SWA at Oshikango.
Omuthiya was a homecoming of note. It was great to be back. My wonderful staff, creative and visionary as always, had organised a homecoming ‘braai’ for 61 Mech. Tannie Pompie, I believe had something to do with this. At our home in Omuthiya the cold beers were sweet. The aroma of the bush ‘braai’ drifted gently over us as the sun was setting. There was pleasant chit-chat and spontaneous laughter to be heard everywhere, especially about Bravo Company. Deep comradeships were felt, as if something tangible and close. The young, some of them for the first time blooded, were warriors.
Chaplain Koos Rossouw’s thanksgiving ceremony of the following day was solemn and thought provoking. We sat there, on camp chairs or flat on the warm sand, with private thoughts deeply embedded in the emotional recesses of our minds.
What were the young warriors thinking, I thought? I sat and stared at their faces. As I write this account today, some of them are deep into their forties approaching fifty, with families and responsibilities. Their children should know what amazing warriors they were.
Everyone was bone-tired. Soon they retired to their tents for a long night’s rest.
To summarise our homecoming:
- Except for three soldiers who had sustained light injuries, 61 Mech returned safely to Omuthiya – everyone of our battle group had survived and we had much to be thankful about.
- Our men, vehicles and equipment performed exceptionally well.
- The battle doctrine of 61 Mech had been proven.
By Wednesday 2 September 1981 Operation Protea was said and done.
Epilogue – hopefully learning from history
Establishing an International Military Benchmark
The conventional side of Operation Protea was successfully completed by 2 September 1981. Complete strategic and tactical surprise had been achieved over FAPLA by the SADF. It was a classic military operation. It was executed perfectly, effectively integrating the offensive and defensive dimensions of mobile conventional warfare with those of counter-insurgency operations. The joint planning and conduct of the South Africans were unique to the African battle space.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group had established a benchmark for the effective conduct of mobile warfare at battle group level within the context of the African battle space. In a sense Operation Protea heralded a turning point in the way the SADF would conduct mobile conventional warfare in future.
To my mind Operation Protea was an international benchmark, worthy of study across the globe in the classrooms of well-regarded military command and staff colleges.
The operational outcomes still needed to be evaluated and the lessons learned documented for the purpose of corrective action by the SADF. Understanding of the operational situation and terrain and knowing yourself and the enemy remained all important — situational awareness needed to be maintained.
Reflecting on What Happened at Humbe and Xangongo
Needless to say, the lack of serious enemy resistance at Humbe was a huge disappointment for 61 Mech. The feeling that our fighting unit had been betrayed by the operational planners in Windhoek prevailed. The same applied for the detachment of some of our subunits and combat elements for some important and some less important operational chores elsewhere.
The planners higher up, to my mind, could have used other forces, or changed our original missions. During the debriefing of Operation Protea at Grootfontein in September 1981 it was re-iterated that it was irresponsible to have detached parts of our cohesive unit in this manner. The guidelines recorded during the debriefing minutes vividly stated that it should never happen again – not without extremely good reason.
The important mission of 61 Mech, which was executed to the letter and more, should in no way be underestimated. Our lonely commanding presence west of the Cunene River ensured the maintenance of freedom of action and initiative for the main force. 61 Mech was also adequately prepared and ready to take on the mobile reserve of the enemy from Cahama, had the need arisen.
During the planning earlier at Omuthiya I surmised that we would probably not be presented with a viable target worthy of 61 Mech at Humbe. We could clearly discern this from the aerial photography. However, nobody could be sure of this. In actual fact, it made military sense that the enemy should have had a strong military presence covering their western flank, as well as their escape and logistics route towards and from Cahama.
It was downright surprising that the enemy at Xangongo had opened their backdoor for 61 Mech in such a way. They were definitely not expecting 61 Mech in their vulnerable western back yard. This was confirmed by the fact that we encountered no minefields when we moved towards Xangongo from the northwest. The enemy’s abandoned air defence positions which we found on the western banks of the Cunene River also support this conclusion. The enemy had no choice but to flee and take to the field when 61 Mech arrived on the scene from the west. This situation probably served Combat Group 40 well during their attack of the fort on the eastern side of the river. Our action prevented them of drawing scathing fire of 23mm anti-aircraft guns and mortars from across a formidable natural obstacle such as the Cunene.
Considering the above, the enemy clearly did not expect a South African combat force west of the river. This mere fact was furthermore borne by the nasty surprise on the armoured column of FAPLA by Call Sign Tango 3Ø on the road to Cahama the night of 25 August 1981.
The enemy’s disposition of forces at Xangongo, the layout and the conduct of their defensive battle was somewhat ill-considered I believed. This especially related to the impotency of their mobile reserve at Cahama. About everything they had at Xangongo was rashly facing southward. Their western flank lay unreservedly exposed for the taking.
Of course Task Force Alpha could not take unwarranted risk and therefore required a well balanced mechanised force on the western side of the Cunene River. This was where FAPLA’s mobile reserve lurked in a potentially threatening posture at Cahama. The enemy was within striking distance of Xangongo, a mere 64km away, as previously stated. The eventuality of this force reacting aggressively towards Xangongo was more than plausible. This was a feasible enemy action which was seriously contemplated at Omuthiya by both the task force and the planners of 61 Mech. We had war-gamed this particular contingency.
In comparison to FAPLA’s passivity: Striking back at the enemy immediately and supporting our own insistently is something the South Africans assuredly would have done. It would have been done in the most aggressive manner conceivable, if we were in the enemy’s combat boots. We would never have left our own to squander in dire straits as the demented souls at Xangongo were. This abandonment by FAPLA was shameful, to say the least. I cannot imagine that the enemy commander at Cahama felt good about his decisions. In the history of warfare, commanders like him had been court-martialled and shot at dawn.
The interesting part of Operation Protea was the vast experience it allowed 61 Mech to gain over a relatively short duration. Within less than three weeks 61 Mech had conducted all the phases of war: The advance; the attack; the defence; the withdrawal and; the Reserve Demolition. An interesting addition was the occupation of Xangongo, the friendly and supportive interaction with the local inhabitants as well as the garrison duties performed. The matter of town management during belligerent activities was also put on the agenda for debriefing. The SA Army later decided to formulate a proper doctrine for such eventualities. A military part-time force component with the required skills for town management was to be structured for this purpose.
I was extremely grateful to the Dear Lord that 61 Mech only incurred a few wounded soldiers during the eventful skirmishes of our combat teams in the Cunene floodplains, near Cahama, at Mongua and Ongiva. No serious accidents occurred either during training or the run of the operation itself. The equipment was in an outstanding condition. 61 Mech had distinguished them in an outstanding manner during Operation Protea. I was extremely happy with the high combat standard, the discipline and the esprit de corps of our unit. I was thankful for the operational experience gained by each and every member of our fighting unit.
61 Mech was quite adept at organising and playing vicious rugby against the stalwart miners of Tsumeb. Of soccer we knew less. We now new much more about soccer and could add new knowledge gained to our battle doctrine. The latter thanks to Lieutenant General Jannie Geldenhuys and our opponents that we encountered during the amazing soccer game of Xangongo.
To comfort our veterans who were there during Operation Protea: your precious 61 Mech was then and would forever be the best in the fighting business.
Something of Value from the Ashes of Xangongo and Ongiva
There were some gifted junior level commanders embedded within the force which took Humbe, Xangongo, Menongue and Ongiva. They were going to make their mark in the other Angolan battles soon to come – especially at Cuvelai, the Lomba, Chambinga, Tumpo and Techipa. There were names such as Epp van Lill, Jean Lausberg, Frans van Eeden, Kobus Smit, Koos Liebenberg, Hannes van der Merwe, Paul Fouche, Pat McLoughlin, Les Rudman, Piet Muller, James Hills, Eddie Viljoen, Fred Oelschig, Louis Buys and Kowie Steyn. This is only to mention a few of those officers who served either with Combat Group 10 or could be encountered somewhere else in Task Force Alpha and Bravo They were the A Team and always did outstanding work, where ever they served in the military. It was an honour to know these fighting men.
The abovementioned South African professional career officers were generously exposed to combat. They were learning the tricks of the fighting trade and gaining operational experience and they were doing it fast.
Shoulder-to-shoulder with the career officers and men of the SA Army fought the young vibrant national service junior leaders. They commanded sub-subunits and squads. They were the products of the National Service System of the SADF and did sterling fighting work in the elongated bush war. They were cherished, trusted and respected by their opposite permanent careerists. There were officers like young Lieutenant Chris Walls, who at the age of nineteen accounted for the enemy tanks at Mongua. Lieutenants Chris Walls and Hubrecht van Dalsen still share the FAPLA flag they had cut off the flag pole at Mongua on achieving their important victory. There were a number of national service junior officer I especially remember from the heydays of 61 Mech. Their respective roles diligently performed during operations on the border made them indispensable. They exerted a tremendous influence on the building of trust relationships between the permanent and national service members. They subsequently added to the building of a cohesive 61 Mech and the high morale of our fighting unit. Some of them I recall from the top of my head include: Etienne Gertzen, Chris Walls, Hubrecht van Dalsen, Etienne Gilbert, Gert Minnaar, Ferdi de Vos, Ariel Hugo, Henri Boshoff, March Michau and, Willem van der Vyfer.
The junior leaders went forth after their two years compulsory service at 61 Mech and other such units to join the reserve forces. During Operation Packer in 1988 the reserve forces of Colonel Paul Fouche’s 82 Brigade participated in the battle of Tumpo. Engaged in a few vicious skirmishes with FAPLA and the Cuban forces close to Cuito Cuanavale they gave an outstanding account. I had the privilege of commanding 7 South African Division from 1993 until 1995. I met up with my erstwhile reserve force friends from 61 Mech again — one mobile family. The aforementioned kinship lives on in veteran’s organisations such as those of 61 Mech and 32 Battalion.
In 2007 Gert Minnaar and Ariel Hugo became the founding members of the veterans association of 61 Mech. It happened at Caledon in April 2007. A core of former national service members with their families came from wide and far: Chris Walls from Bahrain; Hubrecht van Dalzen from Australia and Ferdie de Vos from Pretoria. They had all served with me as national service lieutenants at 61 Mech in 1981. They requested retired permanent force officers such as me, Epp van Lill, Gert van Zyl, Kowie Steyn, H.G. Smit, Servaas LÃ¶tter and Duppie du Plessis to support them with their new 61 Mech venture — this time it was a peaceful one — even extending friendship towards former foes. The former clan was together again — somewhat older now. We remain close friends to date. It was an enduring friendship which was forged at 61 during Operations such as Carrot, Protea and Daisy in 1981 and Makro, Yahoo and Meebos in 1982. Comradeship in the end is what soldiering is about. Comradeship is truly forged in hardship and when facing extreme danger together. In a sense we were privileged to have served the SADF during the many military operations, which were borne for more than twenty years in SWA and Angola.
There were other soldiers, who served 61 Mech well during Operation Protea, besides the leader group. I still keep and cherish the many photographs of my soldiers I knew at 61 Mech. I can recall incidents, their faces and mannerisms well, but not all their names. I clearly remember my Ratel driver and gunner, the many loyal soldiers, the chefs, the store men, the signallers, the medics, the Tiffies, Captain Payne and the ‘rough hands’……… All my people from the bygone era of 1981 and 1982. There were more than 1,000 of them serving 61 Mech loyally during Operation Protea. I cherished their unwavering service to our wonderful unit and will be grateful to them forever. Every so often we have the pleasure of unexpected brief encounters. I have seen 61 Mech veterans in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Australia. We meet as always with a knowing smile in friendship and pleasant remembrance of 61 Mech and our fallen comrades.
Past, present and future – 61 Mech squarely stood up for 61 Mech.
De-Briefing Protea and Some Other Side-Shows – Lessons Learned
On returning to Omuthiya 61 Mech held its own debriefing.
I had requested Captain Koos Liebenberg to write his own brief account of Operation Protea. I still have his treasured document, which was typed in the old fashioned 1981 way. One day I will give it back to him. In his account he wrote that he was satisfied with the conduct of the combat group headquarters during Operation Protea. I was appreciative of his words and felt encouraged for future military operations to come. I believed that we were leading 61 Mech in the right way. It was not the wet blanket kind which stifled people. It was something else; something which spontaneously allowed for creativity, initiative, mission accomplishment and continuous learning. To me the leadership at 61 Mech resulted in team work and mutual trust and understanding.
With regards to the general operational conduct of 61 Mech, our subunit commanders felt satisfied. They especially rated the unit’s movement, grouping and regrouping abilities high. The same applied for the execution of 61 Mech’s battle drills according to our standing-operating-procedures. According to Liebenberg the 61 Mech SOP was tried, tested and found valid for operational circumstance. Koos Liebenberg however believed that the individualised battle skills of our soldiers still needed further refinement. With 61 Mech the professional development and training of our soldiers within the respective combat teams would remain an ever lasting quest.
As the officer commanding 61 Mech it was important for me to heed the views and recommendations of my young combat leaders, especially those at 61 Mech with the operational dexterity and devotion they later became renowned for.
We had many subunit commanders of calibre who served with 61 Mech through its twenty excellent years of active existence. I always felt proud of their achievements in later years during their respective military careers. Koos Liebenberg, as one example, later commanded 61 Mech during the strenuous battles at Tumpo in southeast Angola in 1988. He currently serves as a Brigadier General with the Chief of Joint Operations in the newly transformed South African National Defence Force. He has since commanded our country’s peace-keeping forces at far-away destinations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Koos Liebenberg furthermore wrote in his account about Operation Protea that he felt let down by the military powers that be, which had designated a less than worthy mission for 61 Mech. In essence, as the commander of 61 Mech, I echoed his sentiment. I however knew and understood that 61 Mech had an important mission to fulfil during Operation Protea and that we had performed the work in the most professional manner conceivable, so no reservations and no regrets. Uppermost in my mind was the military professionalism borne by the 61 Mech band of warriors. I have now indicted my subconscious mind with the treasured thoughts of 61 Mech and the men who served.
I attended the official debriefing of Operation Protea on behalf of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. The debriefing took place at Grootfontein on 9-10 September 1981.
I kept my copy of the minutes and it is still in my possession today: File Reference — C Army/Inspector General/305/3 1, Secret, and Copy No 117 of 133 Copies (issued by Chief of the Army, Inspector General).
The conference was widely supported. All the commanders down to combat group level and the relevant senior staff officers attended. In his message to us Lieutenant General Jannie Geldenhuys, the Chief of the Army, informed us emphatically that he envisioned more operations like Protea in future. He also stated in his commanding manner that there was no substitute for winning battles; loosing was not an option and in no way were the outcome of any battle going to be left to chance or luck.
The debriefing conference was organised by the army’s Inspector General (IG) and his staff Colonel P.P. ‘Robbie’ Robberts, who had accompanied 61 Mech during the operation was also in attendance. The army’s IG at the time was Major General M.J. du Plessis. Major General Charles Lloyd, General Officer Commanding SWATF, could not attend because of other important commitments. The General Staff of the Army attended. Lieutenant General A.M Muller of the South African Air Force was there as well. He was at the conference as a guest of the army. It was a grand occasion and there was serious deliberation about the SA Army’s future conduct of conventional warfare.
The aim of the debriefing conference, as stated by the Chief of the Army, was to identify operational shortcomings for immediate corrective action. He stressed the point that the army needed to learn from the experience gained from the ground. Lieutenant General Jannie Geldenhuys viewed Operation Protea as a manifestation of the operational readiness of the SA Army and he expressed his satisfaction with its overall conduct during the operation. He thanked the respective task force and combat group commanders for their support and told them that they had done well.
The Inspector General, Major General M.J. du Plessis emphasised the point that operational planners should not in future detach elements from a cohesive unit, unless absolutely necessary. I knew that he was making this statement on behalf of 61 Mech and what was done to our unit, irresponsibly so to my mind, by higher operational planners.
There was one specific feather in the cap for 61 Mech. The final decisions of Chief of the Army expressed the need to study the operational conduct of Battle Group 10 (61 Mech), as was followed during Operation Protea (Debriefing Minutes, page 15, paragraph 13). The case study as envisaged was to be used by the army to enhance mobile conventional war faring practises. I believe that this decision was made because of the scope and complexity of the operation conducted by 61 Mech. All in all, the operational medley of 61 Mech included: The planning and preparation for battle; the operational movement; attack; deep exploitation; blocking operation; ambushing, mobile defence; guarding a Reserve Demolition; rapid grouping and regrouping; mobile reserve function; garrison duties and; withdrawal. All the last-mentioned phases of war had been rolled up into one complete operation for 61 Mech. It was an amazing learning experience.
Following-on to the abovementioned decision, the army historian Commandant Casparus Bakkes was requested to support the army with the writing of a philosophy on the future conduct of conventional warfare in Africa. The Chief of Army Staff Operations (GS 3), Major General Dirk Marais, was explicitly tasked by Chief of the Army to undertake a study and to develop a philosophy for conventional warfare within an African context. As far as my knowledge goes the said philosophy for conventional warfare the Africa way, never saw the light. Maybe because our army of the 70s and early 80s was extremely counter-insurgency oriented. This all came as some frustration to me.
I was transferred to the Army Battle School in 1983, after an exciting two year operational spell with 61 Mech in the field. One of my new tasks was to go and teach exactly what was implied during the Grootfontein debrief. Our army was still saddled up with the old impractical doctrine, which was called the “Conventional Land Battle”. As far as I knew the said conventional land battle manual was copied from old American teachings. Even British doctrine would have been an improvement. To make it worse, this doctrine was still taught ‘as is’ at the SA Army College at the time.
In 1987 my own book on mobile warfare was published in Afrikaans, as a perspective for Southern Africa (“Mobiele Oorlogvoering — ‘n Perspektief vir Suider Afrika”, HAUM, Pretoria, 1987). I wrote the book from my own studies of warfare and what was learned at 61 Mech in 1981-1982. I had trusted that my simple writing act would stimulate the SA Army to develop a required treatise on conventional warfare, within the African Battle Space context. Recently, in 2010, I was approached by the Officer Commanding of the School of Infantry at Oudtshoorn to have my book translated into English. This was needed, according to his letter, to stimulate doctrinal studies at the school within the African war fighting context. I was pleased to hear this. Captain Sollie Henning at the School of Infantry was duly entrusted with the work.
Two things of importance, beside the official debrief on Protea, happened in September 1981. It was probably of more relevance to the higher military and political realm, to my mind not so important for us at 61 Mech at the time. I cannot recall the exact dates:
- Firstly, I was requested with the other commanders of Operation Protea to join the military powers in Oshakati for a media conference. The gathering was attended by a phalanx of inquisitive and highly excited reporters. I looked somewhat amused at these strange beings assembled in front of us. It was a grand affair with real tasty and touchable refreshments. The lower level battle weary bided their opportunity and had some of the food and drink. Lieutenant General Jannie Geldenhuys managed the proceeding. He was extremely good at this. There were more reporters and hangers-on than the enemy we had faced at Xangongo. Some of us mere mortals had to be there just in case of technical and operational related questions, the juicy stuff. Masses of captured enemy equipment where displayed to the wide staring eyes of the media at Oshakati. It was an impressive array. To see all the captured Russian relics of war en masse was a ‘wow’. It was interesting and comforting, to say the least, to view the enemy’s former arsenal at Oshakati. 61 Mech’s baited two BM-21s stuck out like a sore FAPLA thumb. I quietly smiled in private amusement thinking about Koos Liebenberg and Bravo Company’s recent hauling expedition from Xangongo to Oshakati.
- Next I was requested to fly officially to Cape Town. I had to buy a suit. This was not an easy undertaking in Tsumeb and it was extremely expensive. In Cape Town some of the operational commanders and staff from Operation Protea met with Lieutenant General Jannie Geldenhuys. He was preparing his speech to Parliament. Apparently they wanted to know what happened and what was going on in the north. Once again we were ready to field more technically and operationally related questions. Colonel Ken Snowball was there with us. Ken was on the staff of SWATF. He was the strategic communications, media and public relations magician. He was an extremely pleasant character and pretty good at his work. I sometimes went to him in private at Bastion in Windhoek. He then briefed me on the organisational politics and inner workings of the fuzzy higher military works in Windhoek. He was a valuable friend of 61 Mech. Few people at 61 Mech, or elsewhere for that matter, knew this – our inside man. The restaurants in Cape Town were great. The hotel bed at the Drostdy was thought provoking smooth and comfortable. Amazing, yet I wanted to get back to Omuthiya.
Keeping 61 Mech Combat Ready
There was working waiting for us to be done at Omuthiya. We had to start up the training again. Our main equipment needed to go to 101 Workshop at Grootfontein for a major overhaul. I still wanted to take my command group and key staff members to Jakkalsputz on the Namibian coast for a fishing expedition and a team building exercise. I had requested Major Thys Rall to start organising this important event. Major Giel Reinecke was organising a SAMIL 50 to be filled with dry ‘Kameeldoring’ wood – a silent salute to Kameeldoring.
In the evenings at Jakkalsputz we spontaneously sang the “SÃ¼dwesterlied” — the pleasant to the ear and morale boosting ‘anthem’ of South West Africa. “Hart wie Kameldornholz ist unser Land ……… Wir lieben SÃ¼dwest …………” Early in the morning at first light we placed fresh Galjoen on the coals. There was a comfortable togetherness amongst us.
Said and done. 61 Mech was great fun.
It was back to base and basics again.
The operational lessons from Protea were learned by 61 Mech and doctrine and standing-operating-procedures and training were adapted accordingly. We were ready for whatever was coming our way.
One of the resultant features of Operation Protea was that 61 Mech was continuously placed on 24-hours stand-by by SWATF – also by Sector 10 at their request. As the mobile reserve for SWATF, 61 Mech was under command of Bastion. However, in many instances 61 Mech was placed under operational command of Sector 10, as was done for Operation Protea. For Operation Carrot in April 1981, 61 Mech had operated under operational command of Sector 30. The HQ of this said sector was based at Otjiwarongo.
On our own initiative 61 Mech decided to be instantly ready at all times, bombed-up, ready to move at three-hour notice. The high readiness state of 61 Mech was one of the proud moments of my life. We were therefore instantly ready on 29 December 1881 and on 14 April 1982. This was when Operations Makro and Yahoo were jumped on us respectively as surprises by Sectors 10 and 30.
In the aftermath of Operation Protea, Sector 10 started activating Ongiva more and more as a permanent extension of the counter-insurgency HQ at Oshakati. This resulted in the creation of a forward tactical HQ at Ongiva. The airfield was repaired and a forward field operational and logistics base was established.
The military powers at the time felt a bit sorry afterwards about one minor decision made earlier during Operation Protea. They had requested 61 Mech to blow the underground fuel tanks at the Ongiva airfield on leaving Angola on completion of Protea. Sometimes a second order decision results in a first order fracas. Ah well, these things happen. Who thought we were going to occupy the central area of southern Angola so soon after Operation Protea was completed? The enemy’s fuel spoils could have been used well by own forces for the current counter-insurgency operation inside southern Angola.
61 Mech now started doing regular operational sorties into Angola to revisit places such as Xangongo, Mongua, Ongiva, Anhanca, Evale and Mupa. These operations were mostly oriented towards force projection and a show of force. FAPLA had to be kept out of the ‘occupied zone’ or ‘area in dispute’ as it became to be known. Open hunting season was declared against SWAPO in central southern Angola.
61 Mech used these times in Angola productively for the sharpening of our combat edge – the whole unit and nothing but the unit. The moments were used for realistic training, mock fighting through the trenches and abandoned built-up areas of erstwhile FAPLA. All guns blazing. This was one of the best methods we knew how to show and project force. These were glorious moments which our fighting unit thoroughly enjoyed. It was invigorating, I was with my people, and we could progressively build our team and work at our combat readiness and esprit de corps. There is nothing like hard realistic training that heightens these crucial imperatives.
Now and then in mockery we parked the guns and the Ratels on the eastern bank of the Cunene River and fired invitingly in the direction of Cahama. These were great exercises to improve our SOPs, command techniques, battle drills and fire support coordination. Always with own operational safety and those of the local inhabitants in mind. We thoroughly enjoyed these external ventures.
The conventional enemy, FAPLA, was quietly biding their time further to the west and the north, longingly staring at our operational investments made at Xangongo and Ongiva. They were not at all happy with the reversed state of military affairs. In December 1981 they attempted re-entry with a mechanised brigade inserted from Techamutete. They reached Evale before they were driven back, right into their starting blocks. The enemy was quite adept at these retrograde moves which were normally undertook at high speed and without any higher command consultation nor any deliberate planning or detailed orders. That was their African way and another story for later.
During Operation Meebos in July 1982, 61 Mech hammered FAPLA in an ambush on the road between Techamutete and Cuvelai. More than twenty vehicles of FAPLA were destroyed and two captured. Captain Jan Malan and a platoon of Alpha Company were party to FAPLA’s agonizing experience. Malan and his platoon destroyed two Russian Urals and captured two. Captain Neall Ellis and I could partake in the fun in an Alouette gunship flying overhead in fire support of the victorious platoon of 61 Mech. With the flock of gunships we destroyed yet another eighteen vehicles that was spread out in escape towards Techamutete. Operation Meebos is also a separate recount.
Interaction with FAPLA settled down until Operation Askari was launched by Sector 10 in December 1983/January 1984. Once again 61 Mech, now under command of Commandant Epp van Lill, participated intimately in the said adventurous exploit.
Closure — Mission Accomplished
I trust that I have in some way managed to put the story of Operation Protea into perspective, especially for the soldiers of 61 Mech who had participated therein. Many of them were young national service soldiers. They were not always clear about the higher essentials and the reasons why things happened the way it did.
Operation Protea and the role 61Mech played, happened in the way discussed in the script above. Here and there I might have mixed up a few less important dates and derailed some of the more mundane detail. Protea happened many years ago and the mind tends to change certain perceptions and perspectives over time. To my mind some of the historically speaking less important matters was actually the miracles and stories which happened within our precious unit. Many of these occurred under the most extraordinary circumstances. Those are the stories which still need to be told, to be appreciated again by all who were there and even more so by those who were not.
By 2 September 1981 Operation Protea was completed and the mission accomplished. Not withstanding some hardships, 61 Mechanised Battalion Group had the best of times. Once again our unit had assuredly forged a tradition of success. Life at Omuthiya in maintaining 61 Mech at a high state of combat readiness continued. The soldiers of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group felt satisfied and proud of their achievements. 61 Mechanised Battalion Group had the best subordinate commanders, junior leaders, staff and soldiers any dynamic organisation could wish for.
For their vital contribution to Operation Protea the soldiers of 61 Mech received the operational identification emblem of our unit, the ‘61 Meg Balkie’. The presentation of the 61 Mech emblem was primarily a means to appraise and give recognition to our soldiers who served the unit with loyalty, courage and dignity during operations.
The design of the metal operational identification badge was in chrome and enamel. It was a rectangular bar in yellow with a black dagger embellished in silver and three red lightning flashes angled diagonally across the blade. The operational badge was also worn on combat dress and was made in material in black on a thatch beige rectangular bar with a black dagger and three black lightning flashes angled diagonally across the blade. The awards to members were reflected in Unit Orders. The fighting dagger aptly symbolised the elements of skill at arms and courage and valour on the battlefield.
The insignia was highly appraised and appreciated by the members of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. This was especially true to the young national servicemen serving our unit during those trying, but highly invigorating and operationally exciting active years.
In a sense the ‘61 Meg Balkie’ was a tangible tribute to the national servicemen and an acknowledgement for selfless service to 61 Mech, South Africa and SWA at the time. This was for the continuous unwavering operational service rendered by them under extremely dire and dangerous circumstances.
In conclusion: The following is recorded in the memoir of Captain Chris Gildenhuys, the second-in-command of Charlie Squadron, on Completion of Operation Protea:
“The next week Commandant Roland de Vries entertained his commanders and senior key personnel on a dinner at the Minen Hotel in Tsumeb. That evening I was awarded my 61 Mech yellow operational badge by the Officer Commanding. I was, and still is, extremely proud of having had the privilege and honour to be part of one of the finest fighting forces in the military history of South Africa”
This then is my story, reflections and truths about Operation Protea as I saw it. It was told to honour those who did their duty and played their part with utmost loyalty and conviction.
The aforementioned tale is furthermore a tribute to the many people who worked behind the scenes and those who were never officially acknowledged. I salute those men and women and their families, who shared and shouldered an amazing responsibility towards the ultimate success of our fighting unit and Operation Protea.