- Commandant Roland de Vries
- Major Thys Rall
- WO1 HG Smit
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
- Bravo Company
Overview by the Commander
On the way to Grootfontein
Early in January 1981 I flew from Waterkloof Air Force Base to Grootfontein in SWA to take over command of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group.
Sitting next to me inside the droning cavernous interior of a C-130 B Hercules were my two small children Roland Jr and Elmarie — they were excited, their eyes were wide and staring all around them, excitement and anticipation were stirring in the tepid air of the Hercules.
Sitting next to my children on the red jump seats of the aircraft was young captain Giel Reinecke and his family. Giel was going to become my new logistics officer. He later served with me as a Senior Logistics Officer Instructor again at the time I commanded the SA Army College from 1988 until 1991. We are still close friends today. He was to become one of our army’s best logisticians in the business. Giel’s wife Maureen traveling with him was a staff sergeant in the army’s personnel corps and was destined to serve at “61” as well. Giel and I worked together again in the 90s. This time to stem another onslaught very similar to the infiltrations encountered in 1981 and 1982 in SWA. ESKOM, our country’s electricity provider, had requested us to develop a comprehensive plan for them to defeat conductor theft in the Gauteng Central Region. Giel acted as the project leader. Within 3-years we closed the crime down completely to a 0-base. The criminals applied the tactics of the SWAPO insurgents. We applied the tactics learned and applied at “61”. Thorough planning, teamwork, superior intelligence and operational tactics and superb command and control once again paid the dividend.
Tied to the C-130 struts in front of us was the somewhat elderly, but distinguished looking, Mercedes Sedan of Air Force brigadier Huyser. He was on his way to SWA to take over the Air Force contingent of the SWATF’s Western Air Command. This was an important and extremely pleasant and opportune chance encounter for me. Later consecutively on the initiation of both the April 1981 and April 1982 incursions he would ask me directly on the airfield at Tsumeb: “Roland, how much air assets do you need, where and when”? I would appreciatively so enjoy this air force officer’s spontaneous supportive nature, enthusiasm and energy for two full active and eventful years in SWA.
Sitting in the C-130 and flying into SWA for more than two hours I was deeply contemplating what was awaiting me.
I was 37 when I arrived at “61” in January 1981. I was 39 when I left “61” in January 1983. I was 55 in 1999 when, as the retiring Deputy Chief of the South African Army, I said farewell to “61” at the Army Battle School. I am 66 today.
The story I am going to tell happened more than 30-years ago. For me it was and still is a “61” era to be remembered and some memorable thoughts to be cherished amongst friend and foe.
An unforgettable experience
Meeting with outgoing commandant Johan Dippenaar and his staff first at Tsumeb and later at Omuthiya was an unforgettable experience. True to his nature as an outstanding commander the incoming personnel of “61” were subjected to thorough “Handing and Taking Over” procedures”. Everything had to be checked, inspected and signed for.
Planned visits and briefings ensued. All the important stakeholders and key role-players in the life of “61” were met and important issues dialogued — key role players and decision-makers I met were: colonel Tommie Thomasse of the SWA Police; the respective Part Time Force Commanders of the local Area Force Units at Grootfontein, Tsumeb, Otavi, Etosha and Outjo. These units were commanded by SWA Part Time Force commandants exceptional in character and seasoned in experience — important names recalled now were Lucas Nel (Etosha), P. C. Oosthuizen (Grootfontein), Henne Volkman (Otavi) and C. H. Rothmann (Outjo).
Visits to the Northern Logistics Command at Grootfontein followed. This impressive logistics establishment was commanded by Colonel Willem Enslin. Serving with him was the energetic somewhat hyper active Commandant Callie Kaltwasser of the Technical Service Corps. He commanded 101 Medium Workshop — an all important friend of “61” in terms of our guaranteed second line vehicle maintenance and repair services and once a year full technical overhaul of eighty-six battle weary Ratels. Another important visit was to Commandant Buks Koen who commanded the SWA Special unit at Otavi. They provided an excellent tracking capability and could deploy motor cycles, horses and dogs in an operational role. This unit became closely allied to “61” and the local Area Force Units, especially during the habitual annual SWAPO incursions into the Tsumeb-Grootfontein-Otavi area.
An incredible experience was meeting with, visiting and talking to the local SWA farmers — extraordinary people like Rheinard Friedrich, Horst Korner, Daan van der Westhuisen, “Tannie Pompie” van der Westhuisen and many others. They played an incomparable role in the security and livelihood of the region. All of them fielded and maintained highly experienced and military trained tracker teams standing by on their respective farms for terrorist incursions. Such was the ordinary life of those exceptional farmers in the northern region of SWA.
Handing and taking over parade at Omuthiya and a quiet resolution taken
Visits during the command handing and taking over procedure reached all operational bases and HQ positions of “61”. The journey took us from Tsumeb to Tsumeb Air Field, the relevant HQs of the AFUs and Tsintsebis and finally ended at Omuthiya.
The Command Hand Over between me and Johan Dippenaar appropriately so took place at Omuthiya. It was on 9 January 1981. It was an impressive mechanised parade in the bush with the respective sub-units passing me and Commandant Johann Dippenaar in salute. Johan Dippenaar quietly at some stage drew my attention to some of the bullet and shrapnel marks on numerous vehicles as they passed us by. The event triggered deep thinking about my future responsibility towards “61”; especially the precious lives I now had in my hand as their commanding officer. This experience left me deep in thought and I made a quite resolution that I was going to work extremely hard at building and maintaining a cohesive combat-ready unit and in earning the respect of my people. I was looking forward to the challenge.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group was a formidable fighting force — awesome and inspiring both to friend and foe. It was one of the primary first-line fighting units of the South African Defence Force (SADF). It was based at Omuthiya in South West Africa during my term of command from 1981 to 1982. The unit formed an essential combat element of South Africa’s and South West Africa’s’ mobile conventional forces. The unit operated under the command of the South West African Territorial Force (SWATF). The Commanding General of the SWATF at the time was Major General Charles Lloyd. General Jannie Geldenhuys commanded the South African Army and General Constand Viljoen the SADF during my term at “61”. All three of these officers were inspirational commanding generals who had a marked affect in shaping and building the best army in Africa.
It was my privilege and honour to command 61 Mechanised Battalion Group from 9 January 1981 to 10 January 1982. I took over command from commandant Johan Dippenaar in January 1981 and handed over command to commandant Gert van Zyl in January 1983.
61 Mechanised Battalion Group was a unit with a life of its own. It was a military unit with a dynamic culture shaped by soldiers who were highly trained and extremely adept at fighting fast moving offensive actions on the hoof. It was a unit that could ultimately move fast and fight decisively. The soldiers of “61” were continuously building a valuable asset from 1978 onwards throughout its 27 – years of active existence. It was building a tradition of success.
To could have commanded “61” was stimulating at best. To could have actively participated in the creation of its spirit, its leadership and skill at arms was one of the greatest emotional and intellectual satisfying experiences of my 37 – year’s long military career. For this I have to thank the officers, soldiers and staff I served with, and my commanding generals who afforded me the opportunity.
Scope of the commanders’ overview for 1981 and 1982
The purpose of this commander’s overview is to provide a clear perspective of what life at “61” was all about. It contains some stories about our ups and down, trials and tribulations in 1981 and 1982. I trust that these reflections were kept as close to the truth as possible. Some relevant details could have faded somewhat because of passing memories and time. “61” for me today was thirty years ago. Although in the writing of this narrative I was quite surprised at how vivid the precious memories of “61” were. I also found the writing thereof immensely therapeutic and fulfilling. So please bear with me. I could of course not include all the interesting stories and names in the rich life and history of our unit in such a brief narrative.
I will leave some of the names and tidbits to be added to the full story of “61”as contributions to some of our other members. There probably were interesting stories and events of a more serious or less serious nature that I as the commander never even knew about. My script however will touch on some operational perspectives and instances that I however do remember. Some interesting stories will be told herewith I believe to illustrate the abounding spectrum of life at “61”. The finer points of all the operations “61” were involved in through 1981 and 1982 will be the subject of more detailed separate sustaining writings.
Combat-ready sub-units were provided to serve for designated operational periods at “61”. This was a function of the full-time training units located all over South Africa.
Initially sub-units changed over every three months. I however found this arrangement impractical and early in 1981 requested Chief of the Army to change this to twelve months operational commitments. The request was approved by Chief of the Army’s general Jannie Geldenhuys. This operational scheduling practice contributed to a much higher level of active service and training continuity, unit cohesion and the overall combat readiness of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group.
The primary “Feeder Units” were: 1 South African Infantry Battalion (1 SAI) for mechanised infantry; 1 Parachute Battalion (1 Para Bn) for the motorised infantry component when so required; 1 and 2 Special Service Battalions (1 and 2 SSB) for the armoured car components; 14 Field Regiment for the artillery component.
The other additional required combat, combat support and combat service support capabilities were also provided by a variety of training units from South Africa.
On arrival at Omuthiya these sub-units were made mission-ready for their designated and anticipated combat tasks, which “61” was destined to perform.
Relationship with feeder units
The command element of “61” maintained an excellent relationship with the commanders and staffs of the respective feeder units. Many of us were friends and colleagues who have worked side-by-side for many years in the past.
Many of these feeder unit commanders viewed “61” as the operational extension of their own units. This process ensured that operational lessons learned and specific training requirements could be smoothly and continuously evaluated and fed back to the respective training environments. They were officers such as commandant Tony Savides from the Mechanised Infantry, commandant Fred Rindle from the Armour, commandant Koos Loubcher from the Artillery and many other colleagues not mentioned in the script.
Operational Concepts and Doctrine
The African battle space as we knew it
Warfare in Africa as we experienced at “61” was not neat and clean, easily comprehended or linear with peace and war at the end of spectrums.
At the flick of a command you could switch from conventional war fighting tactics to counter insurgency and back again; or apply a combination thereof.
In between came training and making and maintaining combat readiness. This phenomenon quite often happened to “61” — counter insurgency operations inside the death triangle in April 1981; back to Omuthiya for training; conventional operations in Angola in August 1981. It was a phenomenon which had a pronounced effect on training methods and operational approaches adopted.
The training methods and operational concepts developed and accepted for “61” became rooted in its specific tactical doctrines. These said doctrines were continuously developed at Omuthiya and anywhere elsewhere in the field.
Politics in war furthermore exerted a direct influence at tactical and operational grass roots level. At times you fight, then at times “they” negotiate and you fight invisibly and restrictively or not at all; then “they” stop negotiating and you fight freely again. “They” as a term aptly I believe selected by me in describing the military chiefs and the high level politicians.
Sometimes these high levels “doings” were not fully comprehended by us on the ground and in many instances we did not even know about it happening. I can clearly remember one specific incident at Oshivello – I had returned for a brief respite from Angola for an operational de-briefing and operational planning session. I left “61” with Thys Rall. Foreign Minister Pik Botha was there at Oshivello for the work session as well. He was back in SWA for a while from his high level peace talks in Washington. Together with general Jannie Geldenhuys they were at the time engaged in intensive negotiations and discussions abroad. Angola and the foreign community for some or other reason did not appreciate our boundless gallivanting in Angola. I briefly met with the Minister at Oshivello. I received his habitual friendly greeting and smile and he said to me knowing well that realities were otherwise in what was expressing: “Of course, Roland, we all know that you are not in Angola”.
I found his remark quite interesting and exhilarating.
Meanwhile back at the ranch Thys Rall was laid up deep in Angola with more than 1 200 National Serviceman soldiers of “61”. In adding some rich flavor to the insult the media was constantly and “truthfully” informed that there were no living sools of any soldiers inside Angola — it made interesting reading for our families and the Tsumeb community — especially Tannie Pompie who were monitoring our movements in Angola constantly day and night.
The outcome of the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings in South Africa after 1994 bear witness to the fact that many in positions of power and command sometimes overstepped the hazy boundaries of the reasonable person and that of normality. All of us in positions of command where at times subjected to unholy enticements and even power abuse. Later in the 90s what was exposed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came as quite a shock to the overwhelming majority of us. Ordinary soldiers like us believed in a sober code of military disciplinary conduct rooted in honorable soldiering and military professionalism. The 80s were interesting times for those of us serving at the tactical and operational levels of command in the field.
We at “61”, I believe, learned sufficient honorable values and sound military practices for appropriate applications later in our respective military and ordinary lives. This was another value adding factor that could be accredited to “61”. We really worked hard in what we believed was doing the right things right.
There were highly relevant factors tirelessly and persistently to be considered at “61” Some of these were: The forever shifting threat scenario; regular variation in operational tasking of “61”; the relevance of human intelligence; the culture and traditions of various peoples in SWA and Angola; individual personalities and different leadership and command traits encountered. All of these internal and external environmental factors had a tremendous impact on our evolving operational approaches and training methods adopted. This process included doctrine applied, the ensuing operational and contingency planning and the execution thereof.
Then there were the forever looming dangers and the risks of the operational environment, harsh terrain and extreme weather as well. We were working with mere mortal humans, their precious lives exposed to the vast expenditure of live ammunition nearly on a daily basis. This was either during training, or otherwise in operations; sometimes experienced at lower and sometimes at higher levels of intensities.
We had a higher headquarters, families and communities to contend with. It took a fine balancing act at “61”.
Operational concepts for conventional war fighting
At “61” we had to blend man, machine and support with relevant operational concepts, training and doctrine. This rich mix was supplemented with essential force multiplying factors such as superior command, leadership and morale to a force of ten. The process was augmented by day and night training and more day and night training. We did it at Omuthiya. We even did it during operations in Angola. We did mock fighting through the old trenches at Xangongo and the built up areas in Ongiva. We played war games and did terrain analysis and developed contingencies in the field. We experimented in the day and the night with battle drills, fire support coordination, quick appreciations and quick orders, movement and navigation techniques — it never stopped.
The outcome was a formidable combat ready “61”. This recipe manifested itself in the words of a young National Serviceman at Omuthiya one day. He came up walking towards me as I was preparing my maps for Operation Protea early in August 1981. He 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”.
The South Africans were extremely well versed and adapted for mobile warfare in the African bush. They were imbued with a will to win no matter the odds. One of the secrets lay in the operational concepts, military art and doctrine applied by the South Africans during the bush war. This was a unique concept of mixed mobile conventional and guerrilla warfare.
As a prime example 61 Mechanised Battalion, 32 Battalion and 31 Battalion operated at times in one mix and at other times with the added advantage of the formidable guerrilla force UNITA. The process included deep fighting behind SWAPO and FAPLA lines operating from helicopter bases. This operational concept was relevant during Operation Meebos 2 in 1982. This was a winning fighting recipe well attuned to the African battle space.
The above-mentioned concept was sometimes amplified by interesting battle innovations such as “Jackal Operations”. This was a tactical theme taught to us as young and older officers by general Jannie Geldenhuys — apply battle craft and ingenuity — always out-think and outsmart the foe. A concept cleverly linked to what the renowned military author BH Liddell Hart referred to as: “The strategy of the indirect approach” — attack with strength against weakness; hit the enemy in his centre of gravity; take the enemy from a direction least expected; strike deep with ferocity; threaten his lines of communication, rear areas and command centres.
Another obvious winning factor of course was that the South Africans and UNITA made so much better use of the neutral factor, namely the space, the dense bush and the darkness.
The dense bush and the night as medium for maneuver was cleverly utilized to offset a major deficiency of the South Africans in mechanised land warfare capability numbers; and lack in appropriate and adequate anti-aircraft weapon systems and air fighter assets. The shroud of the night was used as a source of protection, for controlled movement and concentration or dispersion of forces, and to mask, to hide and to strike.
The South Africans fought the battles in Angola along the lines of mobile warfare and were initially completely successful, until Quito Cuanavale. Mobile warfare was characterized by movement, quick decision, agility and extreme flexibility in the employment of forces — it is a recipe accompanied by violent execution. This was the forte of the South African mechanised mobile forces, supported herein by their UNITA guerrilla counterpart. This concept embraced the exploitation of consecutive battles of encirclement and annihilation; the sequence being: Manoeuvre, encircle, envelope and penetrate deep into the enemy’s rear area; and then annihilate completely — as was done during Operation Protea in August 1981 and with other successive operations in Angola later until 1988.
The concept embraced the destruction of the opposing force, as opposed to the seizing or holding of ground; this was one of the reasons why the South Africans withdrew from Quito Cuanavale in August 1988.
Offensive mobile operations are the means to achieving this aim; it is also the main method of preserving one’s own force and not to get caught in any position where you are vulnerable to set-piece attack or destruction in detail by fire. This was very important to the South Africans as we were not prepared to loose unnecessary lives in futile exercises; blood was definitely not the price for victory.
Tactics that suited the requirements of the South Africans within this particular operational sphere were applied as far as possible. These practices had to be stretched at times and at Quito Cuanavale in 1987 to 1988 it was to an extent forfeited. Some of these characteristics where:
- Ground was only held, as long as it afforded tactical advantage. When stationary for short durations combat groups leaguered in hides providing all-round defence. The artillery operated from well camouflaged battery firing positions. “61” was never stationary for too long and operated from well concealed hides. When stationary for short periods troops dug shallow slit trenches for protection against possible enemy air attack and ground and artillery fire. Combat was offensive by nature.
- Maneuvering was charcterised by constant movement, of controlled concentration and dispersion of forces and of hiding, camouflaging and planning; then purposefully moving once again. It was a process of continuous operational assessment, intelligence gathering and quick decision; being constantly situational aware. Knowing yourself and knowing your enemy and where he was all the time was crucial. Excellent timing was an essential requirement for this kind of mobile warfare.
- The battle sequence constantly applied was to see (sense), to decide and to act; but quickly so as not to allow the foe the latitude and privilege of quality thinking, timely response and sensible engagement.
Some of the above-mentioned manoeuvre warfare concepts were rooted in what general Jannie Geldenhuys taught us; something which was embedded in our subconscious minds and became second nature to us: “Make the battlefield fluid; strike deep; exploit your night fighting capability; use mobility and fire power to the fullest.” He taught us to win not withstanding the odds, because there was no alternative. He taught us to believe in and apply the principles of warfare to the fullest. This was known as general Jannie Geldenhuys’ “winning recipe”.
In practical terms the operational concepts successfully developed and implemented at”61” manifested in its Standing Operating Procedure (SOP) — the yellow book – that was developed and implemented in the northern operational area in 1981 and 1982.
Standing Orders, Unit Policy Bulletins and Standing Operating Procedures (SOP)
61 Mechanised Battalion Group’s governance was aided by means of a set of official documents containing guiding precepts for general conduct, unit management and battle procedures.
The documents referred to above were a set containing a simple unit standing order, an all encompassing set of unit policy bulletins and a standing operating procedure.
Unit Standing Order of “61”
The “Unit Standing Order” of “61” contained the concise history of the unit, covered general guidelines pertaining to safety and security, disciplinary aspects and do’s and don’ts.
Unit Policy Bulletins
The unit policy bulletins were registered documents undersigned by me supporting the general management of the unit in terms of the following disciplines: Routine administration; personnel, logistics, pay and finances, security; health and safety; discipline and military law; regimental funds; messing; chaplaincy services and welfare; etc.
Each sub-unit commander and key staff member received his sealed set of policy bulletins in a specifically marked army green steel trunk. This occurred in concert with the sub-unit commander receiving his signed “Command Directive and Duty Sheet” from me.
Standing Operating Procedure (SOP)
The standing operating procedure (SOP) of “61” was a direct derivative of the evolving battle doctrine of the unit. It was a doctrine that was continuously developed, experimented with and improved over time. It was contained in a yellow pocket book bearing the emblem of “61”, undersigned by me.
The motto on the book expressed the age old dictum that: “Thorough planning and superb training saves lives”. The SOP was a prized possession and could be found in the hands of every cadre at “61”.
All sub-unit commanders worked hard at developing the doctrine of the unit. It was a book mostly developed in the field, even being written at times in a Ratel on the move. The SOP contained valuable hand over of the past, such as “Visgraatril” (fish-bone tactics”) in advent of an enemy air attack and some leaguering procedures.
In time the Sop was more fully developed to suit the needs of “61”.
Every sub-unit commander arriving at “61” received his SOP as a matter of extreme urgency. They were then allowed the latitude to plan, play and train at hearts content until they declared themselves “battle ready”. This event was then followed up with a full blown all systems go “Combat Group Exercise”. An exercise was usually preceded by a deliberate operational planning cycle. Training was always done with live ammunition and overhead indirect fire support.
The favoured drill by all “61” was ‘Fire Belt Action” (Vuurgordelaksie in Afrikaans).
On this command “61” unleashed all hell on its front – all guns delivering scathing fire at rate intense for one minute within interlocking arcs of responsibility. This practice gave time to surprise, to netralise resistance or destroy, time to win the fire fight, time to recover, time to think quickly and then to act swiftly.
The SOP of “61” contained the following subjects in outline:
- Handling, developing and managing SOP’s.
- Safety instructions and measures during training and operations.
- Personnel battle administration.
- Operational security.
- Operational planning cycle and operational orders.
- Deployment drills.
- Handling of casualties.
- Handling of prisoners of war.
- Mine drills.
- Readiness states, weapon states and stand-by arrangements.
- Personal equipment of troops.
- Clearing of enemy trenches.
- Leaguering and harbouring.
- Operational movement by road and across-country.
- Battle handling (use of smoke, signals, etc).
- Contact and other appropriate battle drills.
- Fire support, planning, coordination and control.
- Fighting in built-up areas.
- Final inspections.
- Office work in the field and states and returns.
- Echelon system and logistics.
- Coordinating related measures and instructions.
- Daily maintenance of weapons, vehicles and other general equipment.
Terrain — the neutral factor
Lush bush veldt was characteristic of the northern border region of SWA and the southern part of Angola where our forces operated in 1981 and 1982. The region in many areas was sparsely populated. The landscape was dotted with African villages, small “Mahango Lands” and “Gorras” (shallow water pits dug by hand in the sand). A few locals were some times found staring in total bewilderment at the stream of military hard ware passing by in the bush during the day or the night. Troops would throw down a few nice goodies to them contained in “Rat-Packs”. Now and then we would engage in deep friendly conversation to acquire some dearly needed information from them.
Infrastructure such as good gravel roads and not even to mention tar-roads was sparse. The sandy ground and the gravel roads and bush paths were landmine prone.
The dwindling bush pathway cum main road between Techamatete and Cuvelai, as described by Jan Malan, was especially spooky and mine and ambush prone. This is why the South Africans opted for “Bundu-Bashing”. That and to avoid running into ambush like FAPLA regularly did.
For some strange reason and much to our amazement they always came along these roads asking to be ambushed time and again; as 32 Battalion successfully demonstrated on countless occasions; as Jan Malan and an infantry platoon from “61” so aptly demonstrated one dark night on the Cuvelai —Techamatete road during Operation Meebos 2; with a FAPLA mobile column experiencing their wrath.
You cannot feed a combat group of 1 200 men drinking water from a few “Gorras”. For this you needed rivers like the Cuvelai, Calonga and the Kunene and many water trucks moving with the force.
Sappers were needed in many instances to establish sophisticated field water purification and provisioning plants. This was the case during operations of long duration such as Protea and Daisy.
Vehicle movement and navigation
Flat vastness with thick sand and dense bush covered the operational area. The terrain is extraordinary flat as it extended north from the “Red- Line” in SWA up to the approximate area of Cuvelai and Techamatete. Here rocky ground, hard standing and meaningful high ground could be found again.
The terrain generally speaking restricted vehicular movement on the one hand; and on the other it provided exceptionally good ground cover and cover from hostile aircraft. Trails followed or trails made were by “bundu-bashing” — men and machine thrashing their way through the thickest bush imaginable. This took effort and time — the approximate rate of advance was twelve to fifteen kilometers per hour, night or day. A combat group moving in single column was approximately forty five to sixty kilometers in length.
Night bundu-bashing was easier — cooler, less flies, less dangerous, less danger from Migs, easier to navigate with the stars. In the daytime there were more flies; at night more mosquitoes. The ground was sandy — it was easy and quick to dig into the earth’s protection against hostile ground and air attack. Dense bush made it relatively effortless to conceal man and machine with Barracuda camouflage nets .
To navigate in the dense flat terrain was not easy. Light aircraft and Impala jets were sometimes used as “tellstars” to plot, to spot and to guide movement, even at night. These were the prismatic slide off your Ratel walk away 30-meters take a bearing and get back on your vehicle compass days. It was a tiring, laborious, muscle-aching practice — no “Satnav” then. Bundu-bashing required endless training at Omuthiya day and night. A Ratel spare wheel is extremely heavy and difficult to change. Initially troops encountered countless flat wheels, especially caused by broken tree stumps and nasty pungi type mopani sticks.
The drivers learned after a while the lesson expressively fast to avoid punctures at all cost and then it was perpetual motion again — more experience, less punctures. Thick sand sometimes required the rapid harnessing of the kinetic rope to pluck Ratels as if by magic from sticky ordeals The Tiffy’s were there with there astonishing recovery means as well. In many instances Ratels were found in mutual support with there on board tow bars and chains being used extensively to pull one another from these said sticky encounters.
Terrain conditions favored the guerrillas
The dense bush and sparse infrastructure favoured the way of the guerrilla. Forces such as SWAPO and our allies UNITA were favoured by these terrain conditions. Finding and fixing them was the difficult part. In the bush SWAPO could hear our mechanised clamor and screech from approximately 8 to 12 km depending on wind and weather. Meebos 2 was therefore an ideal type operation with helicopter born forces and those on foot striking at SWAPO and “61” acting as the mobile reserve and protection against FAPLA’s conventional arm.
FAPLA’s conventional forces
Fighting against FAPLA’s conventional force was different; this again needed the heavier mechanised means in the front. The Cuvelai-Casinga-Techamatette- Chetequera-Bambi-Mupa-Evale area was a guerrilla haven. It was the proverbial guerrilla strategic base area that Moa Tse Tung was so fond of refers to. Crossing and re-crossing this area during Operations Daisy in 1981 and again with Meebos in 1982 brought to the fore signs of countless SWAPO activity in this area. Tracks, old caches, old derelict field bases, abandoned trenches and unmarked landmines were found everywhere.
Before Operation Protea in August 1981 SWAPO drove from here in military trucks right down to the border to cross into SWA. From here the border lay approximately 350 km to the south.
Furthermore they were afforded the luxury of FAPLA’s protection.
After Protea they had to walk from there, without FAPLA’s protection. To infiltrate to Tsumeb was a further 200 km grueling walking distance. Therefore the choice they made for deep incursions in the more bearable rainy season.
Towns like Tsumeb, Ondangwa, Oshikati, Umbulantu and Ruacana could be found in SWA. They generally throve in those days and provided sustenance for military logistics and some resemblance of sanity. There were good air fields to be found at all of these towns.
On the Angolan side were towns such as Cahama, Xangongo, Ongiva, Evale, Mupa, Cuvelai, Mongua, Cassinga and Techamatete. In FAPLA’s heydays, before Operation Protea in August 1981, these were thriving little settlements invested by FAPLA. You could occasionally by cold “Cuca Beer” there. Some Russian advisors and interesting assortments of Cubans could also be found there — too many of them to our taste. Your odd detachment of SWAPO could definitely be found there.
These towns were used by FAPLA as strong point defenses. The towns were surrounded by elaborate trench systems, minefields and underground bunkers, in many instances reinforced with concrete, as found at Xangongo. Most of these towns in southern Angola were left broken and desolate in the aftermath of Operation Protea. Towns like Ongiva and Cahama sported impressive landing strips.
There was a large underground fuel storage facility at Ongiva adjacent to the airfield. I know, because we were stupid enough to blow it up during Operation Protea — an impressive sight however. The problem was that we came back after a few weeks and had to cart loads of fuel back into Angola again. A somewhat embarrassing lesson learned. The same accounted for the imposing 800 meters long bridge at Xangongo that was also blown up at the end of Protea. This required the South African Sappers a few months later to improvise a crossing there to get to FAPLA and SWAPO West of the Kunene River again.
Rivers in Angola
The Kunene is the main river to be found in southern Angola where we operated in 1981 and 1982.
The river is vast and imposing presenting a complete obstacle for military vehicles wishing to traverse from east to west or vice versa. Crossing could only be achieved at deliberately constructed crossing places. At the time there were only two, namely at Xangongo and north of Ruacana, close to Calueque. At Calueque there was a rickety concrete constructed crack-webbed low-water difficult with a Ratel to cross bridge to be found. I know because on the night of 23/24 August 1981 I watched each of my vehicles crossing the bridge one-by-one. This was to participate in Operation Protea. Ask Lieutenant Gert Minnaar about his experience on the bridge that night.
The Kunene River naturally divides southern Angola into a western maneuver and an eastern maneuver area. It is therefore subsequently quite easy to partition these maneuver zones. This allows one to take FAPLA first into account in the one and then in the other zone, if you so wish; or to stop them dead in there tracks on the river obstacle if need be. During Protea we dealt only with FAPLA deployed on the Kunene at Xangongo and those forces deployed further to the east at Ongiva. For a time we momentarily left the mobile reserve of FAPLA deployed at Cahama to its own devise. This was one of the reasons why the military powers to be decided to deploy “61” west of the Kunene on its own some during Operation Protea. This was not only to provide a two-pronged attack on FAPLA straddling the Kunene at Xangongo, but also to use “61” to prevent interference by the enemy from the west.
One day I still want to ask FAPLA why they never attacked eastward from Cahama to Xangongo.
Other rivers in southern Angola such as the Calonga River close to Cassinga and Techamatete was a torrent and amazingly difficult to cross. Rivers such as the Cuvelai was excellent for drinking and bathing purposes. It however posed a challenge in seeking practical fording places for a large number of vehicles. However through some careful reconnoitering these crossing places could be found without to much difficulty. This we especially experienced during Operation Daisy in 1981 and Meebos 2 in 1982. There were dry river beds like the Mui and the Mulola, which provided excellent traversing routes for military columns, but the generating of vast dust clouds needed to be considered.
Mobility and general going during the wet-season (April onwards to November) was a nightmare – vehicles slipping off roads and getting stuck in the mud was the norm. Little streams and shonas were problematic. The “61” troops devised an innovative and unique method to counter the problem. They cut short tree stumps with power saws during halts, which they then carried on the roofs of the Ratels. These were dumped off the rear of the vehicles as they passed water soaked points to progressively develop improved fording sites for the following vehicles. Such was the innovative nature of young National Servicemen. Such was the nature of the terrain in southern Angola relating to maneuver.
It was the terrain, as described above, which made positive control of moving mechanised formations extremely difficult in Angola. Successful maneuvering in the dense bush relied on well established and continuously practiced standing-operating-procedures.
Fire and movement in the bush was extremely difficult; more so the tight coordination and control of indirect firing weapons such as artillery and mortars. Well worked out radio procedures by the South Africans allowed for the sharing of information and the issuing of quick orders, precision engagement and rapid action; observation — orientation — decision — action was the drill and the norm.
The terrain south of the “Redline”
The terrain as it related to military usage south of the “Red-Line” differed remarkably from the north.
Sand was exchanged for hard ground, making the tracking of insurgents challenging. Many farms and fences were encountered. The fences were a problem when hunting and destroying insurgents at high tempo were at the order of the day. Farmers hated broken fences and became extremely agitated when this happened. In April 1982 this situation required repair teams standing by to repair fences.
I had also learned from my April 1981 experience. This time I appointed a full time Board of Inquiry immediately when the incursion commenced to manage the continuous development and aftermath of this problem.
Vast areas of bush in the area were the nearly impenetrable “Haak-en-Steek” (a dense vicious clawing type thorny bush). This made hiding easy for SWAPO, but also made movement at night difficult. In some instances it had a canalizing effect, even when moving by foot.
Roads were excellent for the rapid traversing of forces to deploy, to cut off and to follow-up. Air fields and air strips were in abundance. Helicopters could even land at farms and refuel there from previously positioned fuel drums, waiting close by for the right moment to strike.
Radio and telephone communications were superb. One of the major problems posed to own forces were when SWAPO entered the formidable mountain area which lay between Tsumeb, Grootfontein, Kombat and Otavi. This area did not favour guerrilla chasing and follow up. It took all our means to keep them out of there. When we at times did not succeed it took some innovating thinking to get them out again. Major Chris Roux even fired our artillery rounds into the mountains. Other methods used were setting up literally hundreds of mock observation posts and stopper groups simulated by means of fires along roads around the area.
Another was throwing thunder flashes out of creative AFU pilot Tickly Kessler’s Beecchcraft onto the insurgents at night. Mounted underneath his air craft were two captured twin Russian AK-47 Rifles triggered from inside his cockpit. In addition there was mounted a metal pipe for the expedient popping out of hand-grenades down below on to the ungodly unexpected SWAPO soles.
In April 1982 this worked, turning back the tide and allowing us more free chasing and follow up in the open killing areas of the farms and the surrounding bush. What counted in our favour was the advantage of near-real-time intelligence provided by the local population.
Three cut-lines, prepared, maintained and patrolled traversed across SWAPO’s front. The Alpha, the Bravo and the Charlie cut-lines extending from Etosha Game reserve in the west to the Rundu tar road in the east. The Bravo was on the “Red-Line”, the Alpha further to the north and the Charlie approximately 30 km north inside Ovamboland. The Delta was being developed and lay to the south within the faming area. This facilitated rapid movement by own forces, early waning of crossings and valuable intelligence regarding SWAPO infiltrations and ex-filtrations.
Such was what terrain as the natural factor forced us to do, or allowed us to do. It was an invigorating experience making better use of the terrain than the enemy
Force preparation — on training and battle doctrine
As a young Officer-Instructor at the Infantry School in the early 70s I had at some time come across the maxim: “Train hard, fight easy”.
This principle of combat training I believed in and was totally committed that it should now apply to “61” as well.
Koos Liebenberg once said to me at Omuthiya: “It seems to me, that if we are not deployed, or at times doing base development and maintenance, we are busy doing SOP training”.
His words described life to its fullest at “61”
I enjoyed training. It allowed space for innovation, it was invigorating, and it built spirit, report and self-confidence. It provided valuable minutes to meaningfully interact with my people. Moments I especially enjoyed were waiting at the end of the sequel where the men were clearing trenches with live hand —grenades and small arms. You could smell and feel these moments. They were my dirty troops, satisfied troops, comfortable and relaxed in their adventures achievements and skill at arms. These exercises afforded me the privilege to talk to, discuss, question and enjoy moments with ten of them at a time.
Preparing a military force such as “61” provided for the full spectrum of training and even the marginal educational development that is required to prepare such a unit to a high standard of combat readiness. It furthermore implied exercising the force. At “61”this regularly included some focused research and development on battle doctrine and force employment concepts. I believed that “61” was not only a doer unit, but a thinking unit as well — ecology of new ideas. Training had to be fun, rewarding and uplifting.
Our training at “61” therefore needed to be based on doctrine that not only served the requirements of our missions and tasks, but our pallet as well. At “61” we therefore thought, played, experimented, discussed and developed our own yellow SOP — good or bad it was ours.
Training at “61” in a nutshell, varied between: force training to allow for unique training (infantry, armour, artillery etc) and joint exercises; continuous informal training; leadership, command and management development; simulation (war-gaming) — the idea was that troops at “61” train as they fight. Precious time was also allocated for cross-training programmes to support multi-role applications.
This practise for example allowed for the switching of drivers with informally trained driver/gunners, so that they could rest during periods of strenuous nights movement. For war-gaming we had a facility specially built in our Corrugated-Iron Operations Centre at Omuthiya.
Our policy framework for force preparation at “61”was based on conventional training as basis. This implied exercising effective command and control as well as the sustainment of operations. This process obviously required full training programmes to ensure effective combat support and combat service support as well. Major Giel Reinecke the Commander of HQ Company and also serving as my Logistics Officer therefore not only provided daily support services to “61”, he had to train his support capability as well for operations.
Combat operations implied the fusion of classic conventional type military operations at “61” with counter insurgency warfare. This was an essential requirement because of the stand-by commitment of “61” for the annual incursions by SWAPO. These incursions into the farming zone south of the “Red-Line” happened regularly in April. This implied that “61” had to be ready for this eventuality by at least the first of March each year. As an example Sierra Battery of “61” was mission trained for their standby- commitment to provide “Farm Protection Elements” for these counter incursion eventualities.
I sometimes deployed infantry companies to Ovamboland for short periods to gain experience in counter insurgency operations. This not only allowed valuable knowledge to be gained, but also developed leadership and the mastering of the terrain conditions we were subjected to in SWA and southern Angola — some excitement was also to be had in a realistic and risky process of exposure and experience. In 1981 Bravo Company of major Koos Liebenberg was deployed to N’Kongo for a period of two weeks. He moved directly north from Omuthiya to his designated deployment area to practice bundu-bashing and operational movement — bundu-bashing became to be the forte of “61”. I had arranged for his deployment with Sector 10. They welcomed Bravo Company of “61”as an addition to their force levels.
Military operations at “61” could range from small-scale tasks and contingencies to large-scale armed conflict fought in any latitude, terrain and climate of northern SWA or southern Angola. It was therefore essential that “61”, the soldier, his arms and equipment, command and control and support, be ready and readily adaptable to meet all these contingencies.
Thorough and constant training enabled “61” to attain and maintain its required high levels of combat readiness and military proficiency. The process sharpened the required skill at arms, knowledge and attitudes for productive service at”61”. “61” had to be ready and deployable at all times.
A key feature of credible deterrence is the ability to provide units such as “61” at high states of readiness for its active periods of service. Similarly the ability to deploy forces rapidly over long distances significantly adds to the role and function of deterrence and conflict prevention. The process is significantly enhanced if a potential aggressor perceives that such a force can deploy quickly to threatened areas, operate effectively on arrival, and have the ability to fight across a wide spectrum of military operations.
I still maintain until today that the deterrent value of “61” kept SWAPO and FAPLA at bay and far north and west of southern Angola for a startlingly long period. In actual fact they only returned to the southern area of Angola during the cessation of hostilities in 1988. They were driven away through Operation Protea in August 1981 and they were just too scared to venture back. They tried it once at Evale in 1982 coming down from Cuvelai. They were driven back again through cheer deterrent potential and a minor skirmish with elements of 44 Parachute Brigade during Operation Meebos 1 in March 1982. Forces such as “61” and 32 Battalion at the ready made them think twice and twice again. These ready forces were a constant factor to be considered by the enemy. The mere formidable presence of “61” in SWA and being within hours striking distance of Angola implied that the unit was performing a valuable function constantly.
The deterrent value and projected force potential of “61” lay within the military strategic and operational strategic spheres. It formed an integral component of the overall strategic scheme of SWATF HQ in Windhoek and Army HQ in Pretoria. I many times wondered whether our “61” troops realised that they were performing indispensable work merely by being at Omuthiya. The striking potential of units such as “61” and 32 Battalion forced the SWAPO insurgents to walk much further to the northern border of SWA. Creating valuable time and space for maneuver was thus space gained and maintained at the cost and peril of SWAPO and FAPLA.
In brief summary: The work at Omuthiya therefore implied continuously maintaining high standards of soldiering and a professional approach to all military matters; with the provision of appropriate and serviceable equipment, effective training and the ability to deploy quickly with appropriate support to sustain military operations even beyond designated operational – viability periods.
It was training and exercising all the time integrating man and machine at Omuthiya. This included an intimate responsibility for equipment awareness and maintenance. “61” was worthless if it did not function at 99.99% serviceability and readiness of equipment. Sub-units at “61” were provided sufficient latitude for their respective unique training and joint combat team exercises. On completion of this sequel they declared themselves combat ready. My 2IC Major Rall performed a valuable function in supporting me with the planning, coordination, supervising and safety management of training at this level. After sub-unit training followed a succession of exercises at combat group level. These exercises were preceded by applying the integrated operational planning cycle of “61”. Then followed extensive war gaming. On completion of the combat group exercises it was debriefs at all levels, lessons learned discussed and documented and the improvement of our doctrine. In between came experimenting with battle techniques.
I found a loose note in one of my old military books as I was packing for Jordan in 20010. I got all excited again. The notes referred to the aims of one of our exercises at Omuthiya. It read as follows:
“Combat Readiness Exercise – Aim:
1. To practice the combat group HQ and sub-unit commanders in:
- Mission oriented tactics.
- Point of main effort tactics.
- Graphic command and control techniques.
2. To exercise in mobile, combined arms combat.
3. To confirm the combat readiness standards of combat forces at sub-unit level.”
The official de-brief of the South African Army for Operation Protea was held in Grootfontein on 9 to 10 September 1981. At the debrief of Operation Protea an officer from the office of the inspector general, Colonel P.P. Roberts, said that “61” was one of the best trained units in the army. To my mind this was due reward and a wonderful compliment to the members of “61”. They were the people who worked extremely hard at making “61” a fighting unit that was the best of its kind. Colonel P.P. Roberts had accompanied “61” as an observer during Operation Protea in August 1981.
Training was fundamental to the development of the fighting power of “61” The term “fighting power” defines the ability to fight. The three inter-related components of fighting power are the conceptual component; the moral component and the physical component.
The conceptual component presented the thought process behind our military actions that involved the principles of war, our doctrine and the development of the integrated combat ready capability of “61”.
The moral component was the ability to get our soldiers to fight. It had four fundamental elements. It addressed the motivation for mission accomplishment, effective leadership, adequate and appropriate welfare provision and sound management of all personnel and resources.
The physical component related to combat power. This spectrum implied the means to fight in the way “61” was organised to perform its designated role, mission and tasks; including its personnel, equipment and resources needed for combat.
Training programmes and curricula therefore allowed for the institutionalisation of the three components of fighting power within “61” as one of the indispensable professional fighting unit of the army. The components for fighting power described above furthermore served as a baseline for the measurement of the combat readiness of “61”.
On battle doctrine
Battle doctrine in the way it was applied by “61” was the formal expression of our military thinking at the tactical level. It related to our designated role, mission and tasks as the mobile reserve of the SWATF. It also made provision for our substantial ordered commitments that the unit had to prepare for in any eventuality of it occurring.
The SOP of “61” provided guidelines for planning, preparing, executing and completing military operations. The scope of which will be explained under the heading relating to the SOP of “61” below.