The silent South Africans in the silent service

Submariners are the true ‘heroes” of the Navy, known as the ‘silent service’ it is the most dangerous service any Navy can offer.  The death of a submarine is a harrowing prospect to those who serve in it – it takes a very special and very brave person to serve in or command a submarine.  Yet in South Africa we don’t really have any real idea of our bravest of the brave in the ‘silent service’ – we’re clueless and it’s because we “don’t know the half of it”.

Typically, in Navy circles, the South African Navy seems to begin regarding its ‘firsts’ from different political epochs and the confusion kicks in because the history of the South African Navy and the British Royal Navy in South Africa are so intrinsically muddled.

I recently came across a day to day in South African history by Chris Bennet, where he lists Lt. A. H. Maccoy DSC, serving on the Royal Navy’s submarine HM Umbra as the first South African to command a submarine.

With much respect to Chris Bennet, he does a cracking job keeping us abreast of our Naval history, but he is only partly correct. Lt. Maccoy DSC is the first member of the South African Naval Forces (formed at the beginning of World War 2) to be seconded to British Forces and command one of their submarines. BUT, and its a big but, he was not the first South African to command a submarine.

In fact, there is a long a rich heritage of South Africans who served on Royal Navy submarines who came before Lt Maccoy, and their service extends all the way back to the First World War.  Not only these early South African naval pioneers, many of whom were sacrificed in the line of duty, there is even a bunch of very decorated and very heroic South Africans in command of British Submarines during World War 2 whose service pre-dates Lt MacCoy’s command.

So, who are all these South African submariners and why don’t we know anything about them in our contemporary account of South African military history?

The answer lies in the correct account of South African Naval history.  After South Africa was formed as country in 1910 it did not have a navy as part of its armed forced. Naval protection and patrolling our shores was left entirely to the British and the Royal Navy. During WW1, all South African volunteers to join the navy found themselves in the Royal Navy from 1914.

It was only by the onset of World War 2 in 1940 that a South African Navy as we know it even started to take shape. Even in 1940, all the South African Navy could offer any South African volunteering to serve in Naval Forces were a handful of fishing trawlers converted to mine laying and mine hunting.  The bulk of volunteers found themselves in the Royal Naval directly as Royal Navy Reservists or found themselves seconded to the Royal Navy as South African Navy personnel.

So lets have a look at the really ‘silent’ history of South African’s in the ‘silent service’ of submarines – and we start with World War 1.

Notable South Africans in submarine service – WW1

The First World War properly developed the submarine as a tool of war, it can even be argued that it is the beginning of the submarine service itself.  It had been used in the American Civil War but it was only by WW1 that it became defined.

Even at this early time of submarine warfare we find some notable South Africans at the forefront of this foreboding weapon of war, here are their stories:

William Tatham

Sub-Lieutenant William Inglis Tatham, Royal Navy, was the Son of Lieutenant-Colonel The Hon. F. S. Tatham, D.S.O., and Ada Susan Tatham, of Parkside, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the Tatham’s being a well-known Natal and South African family.

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William Inglis Tatham

William Tatham was born in Natal and volunteered to join the Royal Navy to serve on submarines.  He was assigned to H.M. Submarine “H3”, an “H” Class submarine was developed in 1915 to respond to German mine-laying ships, whose operations were taking a heavy toll on Allied Merchant shipping during the war – especially around the British Isles and the Adriatic.

H3 was built by the Canadian Vickers Company in Canada and it was commissioned on the 3 June 1915.  H3, and her sister submarines H1, H2 and H4 sailed across the Atlantic and set up base in in Gibraltar.

One short month later, H3 was on operations in the Adriatic waters under the command of Lieutenant George Eric Jenkinson age 27, when she tragically sank on the 15 July 1916 after hitting a mine in the gulf of Cattaro while attempting to penetrate defences. H3 sinks with all 22 crew and unfortunately took our 19 year-old South African hero, Sub-Lieutenant Tatham with her.  It gets worse for the Tatham family, William’s brother will be killed just 3 days later serving in the South African Infantry.

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Royal Navy ‘H’ Class submarine from WW1

William Tatham enters our history books as the very first South African submariner to lose his life.  He is not acknowledged as such or extensively remembered in South Africa by the government or South African Navy, he is however remembered in England, his and name appears on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Charles Philip Voltelyn van der Byl

Lieutenant Charles Philip Voltelyn Van der Byl, Royal Navy, came from Cape Town, and like William Tatham he was also from an illustrious South African family. Charles van der Byl initially joined the Royal Navy and served aboard the battleship HMS Goliath, he is also a lucky survivor when the HMS Goliath was sunk during the Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915.

Lt. van der Byl then transferred to the submarine service and was assigned to HMS Submarine G1. G1 was a “G” Class submarine of the Royal Navy and was built at Chatham Dockyard, had a crew of 31 and a top speed of 14.5 knots (surface) and 10 knots (submerged). G1 was launched on the 14th August 1915.

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Royal Navy G Class submarine from WW1

G1 would survive the war, however very sadly Lt Van der Byl would not, he was drowned on the 9 October 1916. His drowning having occurred just three months after the loss of his fellow South African pioneer and submariner – William Tatham,

Lt. Van der Byl’s name is also only really remembered in England, and is found on the Chatham Naval Memorial,

Wiggie Bennett

Another South African who served with the silent service during World War 1, was “Wiggie” Bennett, from Johannesburg.

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Royal Navy ‘K’ class submarine in WW1

Wiggie was known as a fearless dare devil serving on K boat submarine patrols operating from Harwich, and again, rather tragically, he too paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Between the World Wars

As we pass between the First and Second World War’s we find another notable South African in the ‘silent service’ of the Royal Navy.  Lieutenant Harold Chapman.

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HMS Thunderbolt (Thetis)

Harold Chapman was a ‘Botha Boy’ having trained aboard South Arica’s notable training establishment – the South African Training Ship, General Botha. Chapman then relocated to the United Kingdom and entered the Royal Navy in 1927 as a Midshipman.

He entered the Royal Navy’s submarine service as second-in-command of HMS Thetis (N25) a T-Class submarine.  Tragically the HMS Thetis sank during her sea trials on the 4 on the 1 June 1939, taking 99 men, including our South African submariner with her.

The tragedy was attributed to a test cock on the number 5 tube which was blocked by some enamel paint and no water flowed out the when the bow cap was opened, the inrush of water caused the bow of the submarine to sink to the seabed, 46 meters below.

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The stricken Thetis, surrounded by rescue boats

Interestingly as the HMS Thetis was at a relatively shallow depth it was salvaged, brought back to operational service and became the HMS Thunderbolt, however HMS Thunderbolt was destined to be sunk again and was lost during WW2 off Cap St. Vito, north of Sicily, on the 14 March 1943, having been depth charged by the Italian corvette, “Cicogna”.

World War 2

By the beginning of the Second World War we find many more South Africans in the Royal Navy’s Submarine branch.

Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl

During the Second World War we find our first South African to command a submarine – Captain Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl, the second son of Lt.Col. Voltelin Albert William van der Byl, OBE (1872-1941), and Constance Margaret Jackson of Cape Town, South Africa.

Born in Cape Town on the 04 May 1907, Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl stemmed from famous Van der Zyl military family which attained political fame under Smuts in South Africa and ironically he was relative of Charles Van der Byl, mentioned previously who was sacrificed in a Royal Navy submarine during World War 1.

Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl joined the Royal Navy as a Cadet in 1924, attaining his commission as a Midshipman in 1925.  Serving on various Royal Navy ships, he joined the submarine service in April 1929 and assigned to HMS Submarine Odin and serving in Chinese waters.

Promoted to First Lieutenant, he continued to serve on submarines and was assigned to HMS Sturgeon in 1933 in the China seas and HMS Rover in 1934.  On the 8th August 1936, prior to the Second World War, he made history as the first South African to command a submarine, taking command of HMS Salmon serving in the Mediterranean.

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HMS Salmon (N65) – WW2

At the on-set of World War 2, he was again assigned a command of submarine, taking command of HMS Taku (N38), the Taku was a British T Class submarine. On the 8 May 1940 Van der Byl found himself in the thick of combat, when he attacked a German convoy with ten torpedoes, damaging the German torpedo boat Möwe  east of Denmark. For his actions he subsequently received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) at the end of June 1940.

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HMS Taku – WW2

By October 1940 he found himself as a Staff Officer to the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet and in 1943 he served with the Anti-Submarine Warfare Division of the Admiralty (HMS President).   By the end of the war in 1945 he found himself as the Commanding Officer, HMS Medway II (submarine base, 1st Submarine Flotilla, Malta).

Promoted to Captain, he remained in the Royal Navy after the war, retiring in January 1958 as the Commanding Officer of HMS Forth and as a Naval ADC to Queen Elizabeth II.

Captain V.J.H. Van der Byl, Royal Navy, DSC passed on in Hampshire, England on the 21st September 1968.

Frederick Basil Currie

Lieutenant-Commander Frederick Basil Currie of the Royal Navy, is another notable South African submariner of the Second World War. The son of Colonel O.J. Currie of the South African Medical Corps and Sarah Gough Currie. Frederick Currie was given command of HMS Regulus (N88) a R Class Submarine.

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HMS Regulus (N88) – WW2

Frederick Currie was the second South African to be given command of a submarine and as is common to this very dangerous arm of service he was lost when the HMS Regulus went on patrol from Alexandria in Egypt, on the 23 November 1940.  The general consensus is the HMS Regulus may have hit a mine just off Taranto, Italy, on the 6 December 1940.

Arthur Hezlet

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Sir Arthur Richard Hezlet

A South African born submariner became one of the most famous submariners of the Second World War.  His colourful career started in 1928 when Hezlet joined the Royal Navy aged just 13 years old.  Nicknamed Baldy Hezlet he became the Royal Navy’s youngest captain at the time, aged 36 and its youngest admiral, aged 45. In retirement he became a military historian.

Born in Pretoria, South Africa on the 7th April 1914, he attended the Royal Navy Colleges  in Dartmouth and Greenwich before going to sea in 1932 as a Midshipman on Battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Resolution.

Hezlet was promoted to Lieutenant on 1 April 1936, achieving the highest mark in his Lieutenant’s examinations and winning the Ronald Megaw Memorial Prize. In December 1935 he began the submarine course at HMS Dolphin, something for which he had “not applied or volunteered”.  He however later volunteered to serve on submarines and ironically cut his teeth in 1937 on HMS Regulus (the same submarine on which fellow South African Frederick Currie later lost his life).

Following which he was appointed First Lieutenant of submarine HMS H43 from January 1938 to April 1939, and later transferred to the HMS Trident.  On HMS Trident he was to see his first action when he was engaged in operations in the Norwegian Sea as the Germans launched their occupation of Norway.

He subsequently passed the notorious “Perisher” exam (Submarine Commanding Officers Qualifying Course), and thus became a submarine commander.  He then commanded the following Royal Navy submarines during the war, HMS Unique, HMS Ursula, HMS Upholder, HMS Thrasher and HMS Trenchant.

His first combat test came when he was in Command of HMS Unique, when Hezlet fired four torpedoes at the Italian troop ship ‘Esperia – his first ever torpedo attack on the enemy and sank her. In November 1941 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his attack on the Esperia.

However, it was whilst serving as the Commander on HMS Trenchant that Hezlet became a submarine warfare legend.  Taking Command on 15 October 1943, HMS Trenchant saw combat in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during Operation Boomerang when she sank a Japanese coaster. Hezlet stopped to pick up survivors and managed to coax 14 Japanese crew to accept rescue.

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HMS Trenchant during WW2

Hezlet undertook long-range patrols in the Indian and Pacific oceans, earning him his first Distinguished Service Order (DSO). when he sank the long-range German U-Boat 859 on 23 September 1944, near the Sunda Strait after receiving ‘Ultra’ decrypts on her position.

Under his command on 27 October 1944, HMS Trenchant deployed two MKII Chariot manned torpedoes ‘Tiny’ and ‘Slasher’ off Phuket on a mission to destroy two Axis merchant ships in what would prove to be one of the most successful uses of Chariots of the whole War.

Ironically, on one of the MKII Chariot manned torpedoes was another notable South African, Sub/Lt Anthony Eldridge DSC, he had joined the Royal Navy in January 1942 and was awarded the DSC for his outstanding courage and determination.

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Sub/Lt Anthony Eldridge DSC

However it was the action on 8 June 1945 in which Arthur Hezlet walked into fame, Hezlet took HMS Trenchant into shallow and mined water in the Banka Strait to sink the Japanese heavy cruiser ‘Ashigara’,  the cruiser’s protection, the Japanese Destroyer ‘Kamakazi’ spotted the Trenchant and attacked it. Despite being under attack, Hezlet held his nerve firing 8 torpedoes at the Ashigara, 5 of them struck and the Ashigara sank quickly. The Ashigara goes down in history as the largest Japanese warship sunk by a Royal Navy warship during the war

For his action on the Ashigara Hezlet was awarded a Bar to his DSO and the Americans awarded him the US Legion of Merit.

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Japanese heavy cruiser ‘Ashigara’

After the war Arthur Hezlet would continue to have a stellar career in the Royal Navy’s submarine service and would later aspire to the rank of Vice-Admiral, and one of his subsequent appointments would be that of Flag Officer Submarines.  In 1946 he was present at the nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll and would pioneer submarine nuclear capability in the Royal Navy. In 1964 he was appointed as Knight of the British Empire (KBE) and given the prefix of ‘Sir’.  Sir Arthur Hezlet passed on aged 93 in 2007.

Peter Gibson

Lieutenant Peter Rawstorne Gibson, born in Umtata in the Transkei region of South Africa was lost with the submarine HMS Regent when it was lost with all hands on the 1 May 1943.  Accounts to the loss of the HMS Regent differ, some accounts indicate it may have struck a mine after attacking the Italian tanker Bivona another theory is the Italian corvette Gabbiano depth charged her.  In either event Lieutenant Peter Gibson and the crew of HMS Regent are ‘still on patrol’.

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HMS Regent

John Claude Hudson Wood

John Claude Hudson Wood, born in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and educated at Durban High School, another ‘Botha Boy’ after high school he joined the Navy and completed his training aboard the South African Training Ship General Botha.  He was lost whilst serving on submarine HMS Utmost on the 25th November 1943 when on patrol in the Mediterranean.

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Crew of HMS Utmost with their “Jolly Roger” success flag

On the 23rd she sank an enemy ship, but on her return journey to Malta, she was located, attacked and sunk south west off Sicily by depth charges from the Italian torpedo boat.

X-Men

Some South Africans even found themselves in the most perilous of submarine service in the Royal Navy, the ‘X-Craft Midget Submarines.

Lieutenants’ P.H. Philip and J.Terry-Lloyd, both of South African Naval Forces (SANF) seconded to the Royal Navy’s submarine service, who gained fame for their role in “Operation Source” in September 1943.

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X-Class midget submarine underway

Operation Source was a series of attacks to neutralise the heavy German warships – Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Lützow based in Norway using X-Class midget submarines. The attacks took place in September 1943 at Kaa Fiord and succeeded in keeping Tirpitz out of action for at least six months. 

Philip and Terry-Lloyd commanded X-Class midget submarines X7 and X5 respectively in the attack – for this darning mission both South African submariners were awarded MBE’s.

Lieutenant Alan Harold MacCoy

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Lt A.H. Maccoy DSC

Now we finally get to Lieutenant Alan Harold Maccoy of the South African Naval Forces (SANF), seconded to the Royal Navy, who stands out in some historical accounts as the ‘first’ South African to command a submarine (albeit incorrect).

Lt Alan Maccoy served aboard the submarines HMS Sunfish (N81), HMS Pandora (42P), HMS Umbra (P35), HMS Porpoise (83M) and the HMS Tantalus (P98).  He received his Distinguished Service Cross on the 25th May 1943 from King George VI at Buckingham Palace for his actions and service on the HMS Umbra.

Lt Maccoy was given command of British submarines towards the end of the war, when he commanded HMS Seaborne and HMS Unruffled (P46)  having seen service nearly all theatres of maritime combat during the war.  He was to serve out his service in his final command on HMS Unruffled until on the 18 Oct 1945 it was  paid off into reserve at Lisahally.

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The men of HMS Unruffled hoist the Jolly Roger

Post World Wars

The 70’s

64493_153678184801922_1761770907_nSpool forward to the 1970’s – two significant moments stand out in the history of South Africans in the silent service, the handing back of Simonstown as a British Naval base to South Africa in a colourful ceremony on the 2nd April 1957, after being in British hands since 1813.  A thorn in the Nationalist government’s agenda as Simonstown continued to operate as official British naval base after 1957 under the ‘Simonstown agreement’ and well after the Nationalist’s rise to power in 1948.  The Simonstown Agreement terms finally ending when the United Kingdom government terminated the agreement on 16 June 1975 (citing in part – Apartheid).

In advance of this, South Africa saw the need to develop its own submarine program and began a covert operation in conjunction with the French in the late 1960’s called Operation Duiker to buy small French diesel powered shore patrol Daphne submarines.

On completion of trials the SAS Maria van Riebeeck (named after Jan van Riebeeck’s wife) was formally commissioned by Commander JAC Weideman on 24 July 1970 and accepted into the South African Navy as the first South African submarine.  In 1971, two other Daphne class submarines were added, the SAS Emily Hobhouse and the SAS Johanna van der Merwe.

In the French tradition of giving submarines female names the focus was on South African woman who mattered to the Afrikaner Nationalist (NP) history of South Africa.

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SAS Maria van Riebeeck’s launching in France

South Africa’s Dafne class submarines never fired a torpedo in anger, however the service was involved in many reconnaissance and clandestine operations in support of special forces during the Border War (1966 to 1989). The submarines also shadowed many a potential hostile nation’s military and navy shipping around the South African cape during the Border War period.

As an interesting aside, the 1970’s also produced another famous South African born submariner in the Royal Navy  – Cecil Boyce

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Lord Boyce

Admiral of the Fleet, Michael Cecil, Baron Boyce KG GCB OBE KStJ DL was born in Cape Town South Africa and currently is a member of the House of Lords.

Boyce commanded three British submarines, HMS Oberon in 1973, followed by HMS Opossum in 1974 and finally the nuclear submarine HMS Superb in 1979.  In 1983 he took Command of a Royal Navy frigate HMS Brilliant.

Thereafter Boyce achieved  higher command in the Royal Navy, serving as First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff from 1998 to 2001 and then as Chief of the Defence Staff from 2001 to 2003. In early 2003 he advised the British Government on the deployment of troops for the invasion of Iraq.

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HMS Superb

Post 1994

In so far as ‘firsts’ go, the ANC government on its accent to power in 1994 has on many occasions dismissed the entire history of South African’s involved in submarine services, whether South African or British as somehow irrelevant.  Within a short time frame they renamed all three Daphne Class submarines after African spears – the SAS Maria van Riebeeck became the SAS Spear, the SAS Emily Hobhouse became the SAS Umkhonto and the SAS Johanna van der Merwe became the SAS Assegai.

Under the ANC epoch, the South African Navy replaced the ageing decommissioned French Daphne Class submarines with updated Type 209/T 1400 ‘Heroine’ Class German made submarines.  Returning to the tradition of naming submarines after women, the submarines became the SAS Manthatisi, the SAS Charlotte Maxeke and the SAS Queen Modjadji – all heroines who matter greatly to African Nationalist (ANC) history of South Africa.

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SAS Queen Modjadji

As more firsts go the first ‘black’ South African to command a submarine was Commander Handsome Thamsanqa Matsane when he took command a the SAS Queen Modjadji in April 2012.

In Conclusion

History remains history, there is no denying facts or somehow changing it to suit this or that politically inspired take on history – the facts, people and dates remain as truths.  South Africa’s naval and submarine history in particular did not start from 1994, nor indeed did it start as some would have it from 1957 when Simonstown ceased to be officially British or from 1975 when Britain finally departed.  It started in 1910 when South Africa became a country, and it’s a simple truism – for the first 40 years of the country’s existence, the Royal Navy was South Africa’s default navy, we did not have one, South Africans serving in the Navy served in the Royal Navy – no changing that.

South Africa’s submarine service has its pioneers grounded in the Royal Navy, that’s a fact – over 100 years of this rich history in fact.  It is also a fact that many South Africans who have served in the Navy or currently serve in the Navy have no idea as to many of these South African submariners who have served with such distinction – this is represented by the fact that no formal recognition is given to any South African serving in British submarines in South Africa whatsoever, not on memorials, not in history annuals, not at remembrance events – we even get our history wrong when we try and understand ‘firsts’ in this service.

We as South Africans are really remiss in our values if we cannot honour these very special countrymen of ours and remember the supreme sacrifice and bravery they have made on our behalf.  By all standards the submarine service qualifies ‘the bravest of the brave’ – and these men are truly the ‘silent’ South African names in the ‘silent service’ and it should be a moral obligation to bring their names into the light and recognise them.  It is a sincerely hoped that this article is a first step.

Related Observation Posts and links 

Elephant in the Room The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’

South Africans in the Fleet Air Arm South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and large extracts – South Africans in the Submarine Service of the Royal Navy, 1916-1945 By Ross Dix-Peek and South Africa’s fighting Ships Past and Present by Allan Du Toit.

Images – Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia

Shameful! The Dept. of Veterans snubs South African military sacrifice

The article in the Sunday Times, today 17 February 2019 is simply shameful and outrageous, on the Front page and Page 6 it makes for very grim and sad reading for any statutory force military veteran.  It’s utterly unacceptable and the Department of Veterans needs to be held account by the veterans fraternity they serve for their revolutionist history which discredits all military service and sacrifice of South African statutory forces pre 1994, including those of the SS Mendi.

In addition, the wholesale discrediting of the Gunners Association because of ‘colonial’ origins has ramifications for all veteran associations under the Council of Military Veterans (CMVO) in South Africa, including the South African Legion and the Memorable Order of Tin Hats whose origins date back to World War 1.

SALegion_FinalLogoLayout_GreenPrintTextOn the other hand, in my capacity as President of the South African Legion England branch, I am assured that the South African Legion of Military Veterans, as a charity organisation concerned with Remembrance will continue to remember the fallen of all South African military personnel irrespective of race, gender or historical epoch and irrespective of the views presented by South Africa’s Department of Veterans in the article today.

The South African Legion also remains committed to the SS Mendi Remembrance Parades and Services, having just completed a Mendi Memorial service at Avalon yesterday – without the inclusion of The Department of Veterans.

The South African Legion will continue to remember this tragedy in history which suffered so much dishonour and disrespect for politically expediency in the past and now may even stand to suffer the same dishonour by the current government going forward.

We need to truly evaluate our values as South Africans.  The South Africans lost on the SS Mendi suffered the indignity of South African ‘white’ politicians once, it is simply inconceivable that they may suffer the same indignity again – only this time its been done by the African National Congress and its government organs.

Titled “Veterans snub SS Mendi heroes” and written by Bobby Jordan it makes for infuriating reading – here it is:

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17 February 2019 

Veterans snub SS Mendi heroes

By Bobby Jordan

“More than 600 mainly black South African soldiers died in a World War 1 shipping accident but the department of military veterans says it will no longer honour them because they were involved in an “imperial” war.

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Mbulelo Musi.of the Dept of Veterans

The department has previously supported annual Gunners Association commemoration ceremonies at the SS Mendi memorial in Cape Town. But no more. “We can’t be encouraging an approach that says we still belong to an imperial past,” said department spokesperson Mbulelo Musi.

Kevin Ashton, the chair of the Gunners Association, said the decision — which means there will be no formal military presence at Sunday’s memorial — was an insult to the descendants of the 646 Mendi dead,

The department of military veterans has withdrawn support for an “imperial” commemoration of a World War 1 shipping disaster in which 646 mainly black South Africans died. The department said this week it would not take part in the annual commemoration of the SS Mendi sinking.

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The annual ceremony, organised by the Gunners Association, is due to take place on Sunday at the SS Mendi memorial in Cape Town, just three days after President Cyril Ramaphosa visits the same site for a separate Armed Forces Day ceremony.

The Gunners Association event has previously enjoyed support from the department of military veterans and the South African National Defence Force, but it has now been labelled politically incorrect.

Department spokesperson Mbulelo Musi said it had decided to support only “unified” ceremonies that did not involve formations rooted in the imperial and apartheid past, such as the Gunners Association.

‘Wars of colonialism’

“Now in a democratic dispensation, we can’t be encouraging an approach that says we still belong to an imperial past,” he said. “It cannot be, for it defeats the purpose of what our democratic government stands for, which is reconciliation, social cohesion and nation building.” Musi said both world wars were “wars of colonialism” that had little to do with SA’s democratic freedom. “Colonialism was by nature divisive — it is the opposite of what we stand for as South Africans post-’94,” Musi said. “We must therefore be very sensitive to these matters.” Musi said the department would take part in Armed Forces Day on Thursday “in the spirit of trying to say we are all together. It is unfortunate that people move outside the efforts of the nation.”

Dept-of-military-veteransKevin Ashton, chairman of the Gunners Association Western Cape branch, said the decision was an unfortunate break from tradition and an insult to the families of the deceased.
A department staffer informed him of the decision in a phone call two weeks ago. “He said the DMV will not support colonial memorials. I said, ‘what are you talking about?’,” Ashton said, adding that the Mendi commemoration was a deeply symbolic event. He said the department also withdrew support for.last year’s Cape Town commemoration of the 1916 Battle of Delville Wood, in which about 2,500 South Africans died in France during World War 1.

No military bands

A retired senior military officer this week described the department’s decision as “abominable and a disgrace”. He said: “This means no military band or guards in fact no formal military presence at a memorial for South Africans who died on service in war.”
But Musi insisted the department’s intention was not to dishonour victims but to avoid “reopening old wounds”.

end.

In Conclusion

There will no doubt be reactions to this Sunday Times article and accompanying it will be a stream of deniability, retraction and ‘misinterpretation’ of a ANC government spokesperson.  However the truth is it happens time and again, be under no disillusion, the ANC is insidiously and consistently eroding South Africa’s military history which is inconsistent with their own political rhetoric.  There is an ongoing campaign to discredit all veterans who served in South African military units prior to 1994 and their long-standing veteran organisations – and it extends to both the war dead and memorials to them.

It’s a foreboding and bleak future for military veterans who fought and died in South African wars prior to 1994 i.e WW1, WW2, Korean War and the Border War.  The inconvenient truth is that their sacrifice is South Africa’s modern liberty. It is a warning of things to come if not challenged now – and the ANC government and Department of Veterans should heed this famous quote by George Santayana;

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.


Posted for the Observation Post by Peter Dickens – extract and reference “Sunday Time, 17 February 2019 Veterans snub SS Mendi heroes By Bobby Jordan

Related Observation Post Links:

SS Mendi: Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard

South African Navy Sacrifice Ignored: The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’

When Holocaust survivors speak, we ought to listen!

Finally! This famous old gritty black and white photo has been colourised to bring this human tragedy into a modern context. This photo is one of the most published images of the Holocaust, the surviving children. So what’s in this iconic photograph taken during the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp by Soviet soldiers on 27 January 1945, what does it actually tell us?

There is a lot more to this than just a photo, it carries with it one of the greatest human failings, it also has a remarkable eye-witness testimony of what actually happened at Auschwitz – from both a survivor and a tormentor, and it even has a South African back story.

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To answer, what’s in a photo! just for starters, there are two sisters in this photo, 10-year-old Eva Mozes and her twin sister Miriam Mozes. Miriam is on the extreme right and Eva is next to her sister slightly behind the boy with the cap.

Zwillinge, Zwillinge!

Eva Mozes is still alive and gracefully with us and she has time and again provided a living testimony to horror – the fact is the Holocaust is still in living memory. She has recalled that her parents Alexander and Jaffa Mozes, together with their four daughters (her sisters) Edit, Aliz and her twin sister Miriam were among thousands of jews who were collected in the regional ghetto of Cehei and transported to their final destination – Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Upon their arrival, the Mozes family was immediately separated for extermination ―her father and Mother together with her sisters Edit and Aliz and twin Miriam were all taken aside to be taken to the gas chambers.

The twins survived the death camp thanks to a single trait, being ‘twins’. Eva revisited Auschwitz on several occasions after the war and stood at the same place where she saw her mother, father, Edit, and Aliz for the last time. She recalled;

“The SS was running from that direction, yelling in German, ‘Zwillinge, Zwillinge!’ which means ‘twins.’ We did not volunteer any information. He approached us, looked at Miriam and me, we were dressed alike, looked very much alike, and he demanded to know if we were twins.”

After this was confirmed, the two girls were taken away from their family, none of whom were ever seen again.

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Eva (right) and Miriam (left), in 1949.

Another fate awaited the twins ―they were both subjected to gruesome experiments conducted by Dr. Josef Mengele himself.

The Angel of Death

Dr. Mengele was known to the inmates at Auschwitz as Todesenge (English; Angel of Death).  He was given a free hand in experimenting on human subjects, an approach unthinkable by any ethical standards in modern medicine. He was especially interested in twins, for his genetic research which revolved around improving the birth-rate of German ‘Aryan’ people.

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Josef Mengele pictured outside Auschwitz in 1944

Twins were subjected to weekly examinations and measurements of their physical attributes by Mengele or one of his assistants. The experiments he performed on twins included unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or some other disease, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other. Many of the victims died while undergoing these procedures, and those who survived the experiments were sometimes killed and their bodies dissected once Mengele had no further use for them.

A witness named Miklós Nyiszli recalled one occasion on which Mengele personally killed fourteen twins in one night by injecting their hearts with chloroform. If one twin died from disease, he would kill the other twin to allow comparative post-mortem reports to be produced for research purposes.

Eva and Miriam, who were 10 years old at the time, were injected with various substances and they were constantly compared and tested while living the harsh reality of the concentration camp.

Eva concentrated on how to survive the camp, despite all odds.  She said “at Auschwitz dying was so easy. Surviving was a full-time job.” Her first memory of the children’s barracks in which she was placed was the latrine, in which several dead children were piled up on the floor.

On one occasion, Eva said; “I was given five injections. That evening I developed extremely high fever. I was trembling. My arms and my legs were swollen, huge size. Mengele and Dr. Konig and three other doctors came in the next morning. They looked at my fever chart, and Dr. Mengele said, laughingly, ‘Too bad, she is so young. She has only two weeks to live ..”

Eva knew that the moment she died, her sister Miriam would become useless for experiments. She would be murdered with a lethal injection and sent for a comparative autopsy. This left no other option for Eva but to survive her illness, and after the two weeks that she wasn’t supposed to survive, she got better and started to heal.

What’s in a ‘hug’? 

The Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, finding around 180 children among the survivors, most of them being twins. Eva and Miriam were captured on film that day, exiting the barbed wire corridor together with other children.  On seeing the Russian liberators Eva recalled

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A photograph of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp by Soviet soldiers in January 1945. Eva and her sister Miriam are seen holding hands

“We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies and chocolate. Being so alone, a hug meant more than anybody could imagine because that replaced the human warmth that we were starving for. We were not only starved for food, but we were starved for human kindness. And the Soviet Army did provide some of that.

The photographs and films taken at Auschwitz-Birkenau by the Allied forces shocked the world, but oddly enough they knew exactly where the extermination camp was and exactly what was going on in there – and that is thanks to another photograph – and this one was taken by a South African aircrew who discovered the Nazi extermination camp and exposed it to Allied intelligence.

In the spring of 1944 a South African Air Force Mosquito XVI aircraft of SAAF No. 60 Squadron piloted by Lt. C.H.H Barry and his navigator Lt. I McIntyre discovered and photographed the Auschwitz concentration camp whilst reconnoitring a nearby rubber plant which was earmarked for bombing by the USAAF (USA Air Force)..

This image is an enlargement of part of a photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau taken by the SAAF on Sortie no. 60PR/694.

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For more on this remarkable intelligence gathering by the South Africans – click on this link: The South African Air Force discovered Auschwitz extermination camp

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The Mozes twins made it, they had survived a holocaust, even though their parents and sisters perished in the gas chambers. The twins returned to Romania for a while, and in 1950, they both moved to Israel. Eva recalls that only after reaching Israel did she stop feeling the fear of being persecuted for her ethnicity. For the first time in a decade, she slept through the night.

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Eva Mozes-Kor

In 1960, Eva married Michael Kor, who was also a concentration camp survivor. The pair moved to the U.S. and had two children, while Miriam remained and founded her family in Israel. While in the U.S., Eva established the Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors (CANDLES) in 1984. The main purpose of this institution remains the education of young people about the horrors of the Holocaust. It also served as a place to reconnect the survivors of the infamous Mengele twins experiments.

The scars left by the 10 months spent in Auschwitz were not gone. In 1993, Miriam died from a kidney related cancer. Miriam’s kidneys stopped growing in Auschwitz, caused by an unknown substance that was injected into her as a child. She spent her life living with kidneys of a 10-year-old. Doctors were helpless in determining the true cause of the defect.

“A human being in a SS uniform”

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Hans Wilhelm Münch at the time of his arrest

After Miriam’s death, Eva made contact with an unusual person – a former SS physician who worked in Auschwitz by the name of SS-Untersturmführer Hans Wilhelm Münch.

In addition to other duties SS physicians at Auschwitz were required to be present at the line selections of arriving Jews (and other ‘non Aryan’) to select (or deselect for that matter) Jews healthy enough to be kept for labour and those destined to go straight into the gas chambers.  Most of the SS doctors viewed selections as one of their most stressful and unpleasant duties, unlike their colleague Dr Josef Mengele who undertook the task with a flamboyant air, often smiling or whistling a tune.  

In addition SS physicians were also required to oversee the administration of Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide that was used for the mass killings in the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers.

Dr. Hans Münch was present at various exterminations at Auschwitz, but he was very different to the rest of his colleagues.  He was so against going ‘selections’ which he viewed as “disgusting and inhuman” that he formerly applied to be removed from this duty (which although the application was dimly viewed by his colleagues in the SS he was given exemption). Then he did something completely at odds to the SS doctrine, but perfectly in line with his medical oath and his conscience – he started to save lives and filed ‘false’ experiments to by-pass the system and save people destined to be executed or maimed.

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“Selection” of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Birkenau, May/June 1944

In 1945, after evacuating from Auschwitz, Münch spent about three months in the Dachau concentration camp. After the end of the war he was arrested in a United States internment camp after being identified by another Auschwitz physician.

Münch was extradited to Poland in 1946 to stand trial in Kraków with 41 other Auschwitz staff. However, quite remarkably, although accused of performing inhumane experiments injecting inmates, the inmates stood up for him – one after another testified in his favour calling him the “Good Man of Auschwitz” and referring to him as “a human being in a SS uniform”.

The court acquitted Dr. Hans Münch on 22 December 1947 with this statement; “not only because he did not commit any crime of harm against the camp prisoners, but because he had a benevolent attitude toward them and helped them, while he had to carry the responsibility. He did this independently from the nationality, race-and-religious origin and political conviction of the prisoners.” The court’s acquittal was based, among other things, on his strict refusal to participate in the selections.

No small matter, of the 41 Auschwitz staff tried in Kraków, 23 of them (including the Auschwitz commandant, Arthur Liebehenschel, the Political Department head Maximilian Grabner, and Women’s Camp Director Maria Mandel) were sentenced to death, the rest received heavy prison sentences. It was only Hans Münch who was acquitted and who walked away from the trial a free man.

“Silence helps the oppressors”

Eva Mozes-Kor and Hans Münch, two eye-witnesses to horror – one the Jewish victim and one the SS tormentor, both survivors of the Holocaust in their own way, met and agreed to attend the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1995 arm in arm.

In an act of mutual catharsis Eva formally forgave Münch and her Nazi tormentors and Münch in turn formally apologised and attested the fact that he was part of the SS run systematic genocide machine at the same time also confirming the existence and use of gas chambers to fulfil this end. His document was intended to put to bed once and for all a growing revisionist lobby who try to deny that the Holocaust ever happened.

Gas Chambers copyAs living witnesses Hans Münch and Eva Mozes-Kor signed their respective public declarations regarding what had happened there and declared that such a thing should never be allowed to happen again.

Eva is a woman of substance, she has every reason to hate and demand retribution, but she refuses to be a labelled a victim, she is a survivor. In her journey she has realised that to purge herself of demons and monsters she would forgive them – and only in the act of forgiveness could she move on, she believes that; “Getting even has never healed a single person” and would go on to say  “forgiveness is free. It does not cost anything to let go of grievances and remove the victim label from oneself”.

As to another Holocaust survivor, Leslie Meisels who said silence helps the oppressors”, Dr. Hans Münch later felt compelled to further comment on Holocaust denial. During an interview Münch was asked about the claim that Auschwitz was a hoax, he wearily responded:

“When someone says that Auschwitz is a lie, that it is a hoax, I feel hesitation to say much to him. I say, the facts are so firmly determined, that one cannot have any doubt at all, and I stop talking to that person because there is no use. One knows that anyone who clings to such things, which are published somewhere, is a malevolent person who has some personal interest to want to bury in silence things that cannot be buried in silence”

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Eva Mozes-Kor,and Hans Münch at the 50th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau

In Conclusion

Although Eva’s views stress we should never forget the Holocaust her views on forgiving the perpetrators of the Holocaust sits at odds with many in our modern-day who view the Holocaust differently and demand continual retribution and compensation for it.  In many respects her view echoes in modern-day South Africa – where Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and others (the principal victims of Apartheid) who whilst never forgetting Apartheid also sought reconciliation and peace through the act of forgiveness, and it was in this way they sought to remove the label of ‘victim’ which so crushes the human spirit – and not surprisingly their view is also at odds with modern South Africans who are still seeking continual retribution and compensation for Apartheid victimisation.

It’s a very sensitive subject and there are grounded issues on both sides of the argument, but a lot of learnings must be taken from the people who were ‘there’ and experienced a human failing like the Holocaust (or even Apartheid) at its very worst – first hand. Eva Mozes-Kor founded CANDLES to shine light on the both the dark and bright side of history, because the ‘human spirit’ must always prevail and as Charles Dickens once wrote many years before;

“There are dark shadows on earth, but the lights are always brighter.”


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and extracts: Lessons from a Holocaust survivor by Tyler Tucky.  The Jewish Virtual Libuary –  article on Hans Münch.   War History on-line article – SS Dr. Hans Munch, called the “Good Man Of Auschwitz”, How is That Possible?  The Vintage NewsEva Mozes Kor, a Holocaust survivor and a Mengele twin, chose to forgive the Nazis. 

Photo Color by Mikołaj Kaczmarek
https://www.facebook.com/KolorHistorii/

A red helmet that spelt ‘afkak’

One piece of kit all the SADF veterans will instantly recognise – and it will send instant shivers down their collective spines. The infamous ‘Rooi Doiby’ or ‘Rooi Staaldak’ was a bright red helmet and it meant the member wearing it was in deep trouble.

12654133_540849699418100_3353302099646048226_nThis headgear was usually a M1963 SADF steel helmet, known as a ‘staaldak’ painted red or the helmet’s plastic detachable ‘inner’ called a ‘doiby’ or ‘dooibie’ also painted red. It was issued to anyone whose behaviour or actions were deemed undisciplined in the old South African Defence Force (SADF) system and they were ‘Confined to Barracks’ (CB) or given ‘CB Drills’.

CB drills was a sort of mini prison sentence, the member been confined to the barracks perimeter and not allowed to leave the base.  Whilst confined they were subject to intense military drills and exercises designed to break anyones spirit.

During training all SADF recruits received ‘corrective physical training’ known as a ‘Oppie’ meaning Opfok (literally to get ‘fucked up’), the British Armed forces would know it as ‘Beasting’. This form of training is common to many militaries world over and usually involves a lot of running, push-ups, stress exercises etc but it has a relatively manageable beginning and end.  In effect it’s an ‘add-on’ to physical training (PT) and very intense.

Being ‘confined to barracks’ ramped the simple ‘Oppie’ onto an entirely new level and it meant these intense physical exercises became extremely punitive, in effect the person was subjected to an endless cycle of one Oppie on top of another – morning to night until the end of the specified CB punishment period.  Punishment would also often involve ‘water’ PT were offenders wearing the red helmet were pushed to physical excess and vomiting.

For anyone receiving this item of kit i.e the ‘Rooi Doiby’ and subject to CB Drills, then this Afrikaans term seemed apt … “dit was nag” (darkness would descend) and you would simply ‘Afkak’ (to have your spirit relentlessly broken).

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SADF Troops on a full kit march show two members who are also on ‘CB’ drills wearing ‘rooi staaldaks’

As said ‘Confined to Barracks’ drills are a sort of prison sentence, the difference been that it was designed for minor infractions like going AWOL (absence without leave), ‘indiscipline’ or ‘insubordination’ which if elevated into the strict definitions of military law and a military tribunal would carry an actual prison sentence which often did not really fit the ‘crime’ (the SADF would have had a heck of time if every case of a conscript going AWOL landed up in court and subsequently in a Detention Barracks (DB) – a military jail).

CB sentences were solved ‘internally’ at a Regiment or Unit level, sometimes by the Commanding Officer and his leader element, but often also by the Regimental Sergeant Major and his leader element – or both.

A CB sentence sometimes meant been handed over to the Regimental Police known as RP’s for the period of sentance. The RP’s are a sub-strata of Military Policing made up of specially trained members of the regiment or unit itself and not members of the Military Police (provost) corps.  Sometimes it meant that the offender was incarcerated in the Regimental Police holding cells (usually located at or near the guardroom), and when taken out given repeated ‘Oppies’ (punishment exercises) overseen by RP non-commissioned officers (NCO’s).

Sometimes a CB sentence simply meant been confined to the barracks, issued a red helmet and given repeated punishment PT by the Regiment or Unit’s instructors, usually instructor NCO’s were given the task.  Where ‘instructor’ qualified NCO’s did not exist, company or platoon leaders NCO’s were sometimes allocated the task of dishing out the PT punishment to the poor sod/s issued with this infamous ‘red helmet’.

There was however a flaw to the CB system, whilst many offenders subjected to it were a little relieved they had been excluded a formal legal case and sentence and just had to ‘vastbyt’ (hang in there) during the intense Oppies until it was all over.  Others found themselves at the disadvantage of subjectivity and ‘interpretation’ of the law by regiment or unit leader elements.  A CB sentence could be given to a troop who simply arrived late from leave (deemed as AWOL), or having mistakenly broken an expensive bit of kit.

The CB sentence was also a ‘punitive’ system used to bring ‘subversion’ under control and very often this was targeted to specific individuals who repeatedly questioned SADF policy, methods or even the politics of the day – regarded as the ‘Communists’ or ‘Liberals’ in opposition to the Nationalist cause.  In the military veteran community today there are many who would say that this system was frequently abused by over zealous PTI corporals with defined political views and quite a number of these SADF conscript veterans were very traumatised by it.

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SADF Troop boarding a transport, his ‘Rooi Staaldak’ in his right hand – he was likely to be subjected to extra drilling and PT – the wry mile shows he’s taking it in his stride.

Some who were often given the ‘Rooi Doiby’ were just habitually ‘naughty’ or ‘stoutgat’ (hard arse) conscript troops and wore the helmet as a ‘badge of honour’ to their insubordination of the system and giving it the middle finger.  Some even kept their own personalised ‘rooi doiby’ or ‘rooi staaldak’ having been issued it so often.

In either event, this distinctive helmet brings about mixed feelings, usually dread and many veterans would enjoy a wry and knowing smile remembering a tough time when they were super fit and could handle just about anything life could throw at them.


Written by Peter Dickens

Photo source – internet search, should the owners come forward please accept my thanks and we will credit accordingly.

Soviet made Libyan tanks seized by South Africa and gifted to Rhodesia

For the most part of the Rhodesian Bush War (July 1964 to December 1979), Rhodesia did not have any battle tanks.  As far as armour went they had armoured reconnaissance vehicles and armoured personnel carriers (APC) but did not have an armoured battle tank to speak of.  Prior to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965 the Bush War which waged in Rhodesia was very low-key,  small insurgency groups were relatively easily dealt with by Police and Army personnel in ‘soft skinned’ trucks and Land Rovers to ferry troops to the contact zones.  Britain, as Rhodesia’s primary military partner, saw no reason to send tanks to Rhodesia, the conflict at that stage simply did not demand such a vehicle.

Rh7After UDI, the Bush War gradually escalated and Rhodesia was simply left with no battle tanks and had to make do with small Ferret and Eland 90 armoured cars and a home-grown industry adapting and making all sorts of V-shaped hull armoured vehicles to protect troops from landmines and any sort of small arms assault. Innovative as ever during the war the Rhodesians literally made do with using anything they had at their disposal.

Big punching battle tank armour in support of these operations the Rhodesians did not have.  Untill the South Africans gave them an unexpected gift, and it was not South African ‘Elephant’ battle tanks (adapted British Centurion tanks with Israeli tech), nope, this gift was the property of Libya.

If you have not declared war on that country it’s a  brazen step to give that country’s battle tanks to another country without even paying for them in the first place – so let’s have a look at how Rhodesia landed up with some of Libya’s Polish built Soviet T-55 Tanks originally destined for Uganda and re-directed to Rhodesia courtesy of South Africa.

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Libya’s Polish built Soviet T-55 Tanks in Rhodesia, seen here still in their Libyan Army camouflage scheme.

This one reads as an International who’s who in the world of ‘terrorism’ and the world of ‘international intrigue’ surrounding it.  It also leaves a big ‘what if’ question.

Confiscated 

In late 1979, a French flagged cargo ship, the ‘Astor’ rounded South Africa’s cape transporting a heavy weapons consignment from Libya, destined to support Idi Amin’s regime in Uganda.

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Field Marshal Idi Amin

Earlier in 1978, Idi Amin’s support had waned, Uganda’s economy and infrastructure had started to collapse, by November 1978 this general demise of Amin’s authority came to a head when a contingent of Ugandan troops and officers mutinied.  True to form for a dictator Amin sent troops against the mutineers, some of whom had fled across the Tanzanian border. No problem to Amin, he had vengeance in mind and had to stamp his absolute authority, so he promptly accused Tanzania of waging war against Uganda, and he then invaded and annexed a section of Tanzania.

Tanzania counterattacked alongside rebel elements of Uganda’s army not happy with Amin. Uganda found itself in a war with a neighbouring state and in need of as much military armour and equipment it could lay his hands on.

As dictators go, a fellow ‘Muslim’ African dictator, ‘Colonel’ Muammar Gaddafi of Libya was right behind ‘Field Marshal’ Idi Amin and elected to support Uganda with military equipment including ten of Libya’s surplus stock Polish built (made in 1975) Soviet T-55LD tanks. The tanks, which including assorted ammunition and spare parts for them were to be offloaded at Mombasa, Kenya, and from there transported overland to Uganda.

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Colonel Muammar Gaddafi

The tanks would never get to Uganda, whilst docked in Mombasa the crew of the Astor received the belated news of Uganda’s defeat in the Uganda-Tanzanian War and received new orders for their cargo.  Instead of Uganda, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, now well-known for its support of international terrorism and destabilising African states in countenance to its ideology, felt that the next best use for their tanks would be the Angolan War in support of the Communist and Cuban aligned MPLA.

The freighter with its cargo of Libyan owned T-55 Soviet tanks turned around and re-entered South African waters on its way to Angola.  The Astor’s unexpected return to South African waters on its way to Angola with the same manifesto and its subsequent call into Durban port in October 1979 aroused suspicion from the South African Navy and Port Authority.

South African port authorities then boarded and seized the French freighter and its cargo of Libyan T-55 tanks.

Total Onslaught

By late 1979 P.W. Botha’s position on maintaining Apartheid South Africa had started to take shape and in particular his ideas of ‘Total Onslaught’ of Communism to bring about ‘Total War’ against it.  South Africa had never officially declared war against Angola, yet it was at war with Angola – and even fighting in Angola.  It was also at war with ‘terrorism’ and ‘communism’ and saw itself as aligned to the ‘west’ in the Cold War against Communism.  In this respect, like the USA, it also regarded itself at war with ‘terrorist states’ – Muammar Gaddafi not only sponsored all sorts of communist insurgency (anti Colonial) in Africa, he also backed the African Nation Congress (ANC).

The tanks were now headed to Angola, and therefore posed a significant threat to the South African Defence Force fighting a proxy war against the MPLA and Cuba in Angola. So as to South Africa’s position, the Libyan tanks qualified as ‘war booty’ and ‘fair game’ – and insofar as international law goes they simply broke it and confiscated all ten of Libya’s tanks.

Keen on understanding and testing Soviet armour and technology for weaknesses and advantages, two of the tanks were kept by the South African Army. The remaining eight were transported to Rhodesia, together with SADF advisers for the purpose of training Rhodesian crews.  But why Rhodesia?

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P.W. Botha and his Cabinet

As to Botha’s fears of total onslaught, by October 1979 the Rhodesian bush war had entered its final phases of negotiated settlement.  As early as March 1978, The Rhodesia Agreement put the now ‘Zimbabwe-Rhodesia’ into a transitional power-sharing state. On 1 June 1979, Josiah Zion Gumede became President. The internal settlement left control of the military, police, civil service, and judiciary in white hands, and assured whites about one-third of the seats in parliament. It was essentially a power-sharing arrangement between whites and blacks.  However ZANLA (ZANU) and ZIPRA (ZAPU) factions led by Robert Mugabe and Josuha Nkomo respectively denounced the new government as a puppet of ‘white’ Rhodesians and fighting continued. Later in 1979, the British, and Margaret Thatcher’s government called a peace conference in London to which all nationalist leaders including ZANU and ZAPU were invited to find a solution.

This led to an unsettled state of affairs, and to Apartheid South Africa and PW Botha it was imperative that Zimbabwe-Rhodesia remained a ‘friendly’ state and not another hostile neighbour from which insurgencies into South Africa could be launched.  It was in South Africa’s interests that the Rhodesian Army maintained an operational readiness to see off ZIPRA and ZANLA attempts at military overthrow.  ZIPRA’s intentions had all along been to roll into Rhodesia using some sort of conventional warfare – including their Soviet donated T-34 tanks, Mugabe’s ZANLA focused primarily insurgency warfare (terrorism) with the land-mine as their primary weapon.

Bolstering the Rhodesian Army with eight of Libya’s tanks was in South African interests, and it was not just tanks, prior to 1979 the South African Air Force and South African Army had been conducting joint operations and sharing all sorts of weaponry, technical advancement and training with the Rhodesians.  In fact in September 1979 Operation Uric had just taken place, and that was a joint operation with South African Air Force Puma helicopters covertly in support of the Rhodesian ground and air forces.

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Operation Uric, note SAAF Puma’s in support of the Rhodesian Army

However the South African’s were very secretive as to any of their military involvement in Rhodesia and did not want the international spotlight on Rhodesia drawn to them in any way, and a lot had to do with the National Party generally not wishing to have anything to do with the British and a wish to have the ‘friendly’ ‘Black’ neighbouring states like Botswana and Zambia leaving them alone.  South Africa’s ‘official’ policies towards Rhodesia had blown hot and cold from 1975 onwards, whereas covertly they maintained involvement in the Rhodesian Bush War, mainly in the form of South African Police personnel and later with South African Air Force aircraft and personnel. As part of their ‘sanctions-busting necessities the Rhodesian Armed Forces also acquired South African military hardware and ‘advisors’ on its use from South Africa.

To the above need to keep out the spotlight, the movement of Gaddafi’s Libyan tanks from South Africa to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia needed a cover story, so a rumour was concocted and spread to the effect that the tanks had been captured in Mozambique by Rhodesian forces.

Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment 

At the on-set of the Rhodesian Bush War after UDI, the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment consisted of a handful of aging British ‘Aden Crisis’ surplus ‘Ferret’ armoured reconnaissance vehicles and even fewer very unserviceable World War 2 era American T17 Staghounds.

As the Bush War progressed, although aging, the Ferrets remained operational in a counter insurgency role, equipped with a single heavy machine gun, Browning medium machine guns, or a 20mm Hispano-Suiza HS.820 anti-aircraft gun,  In addition the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment used MAP-45 and MAP-75 armoured personnel carriers (APC), for infantry support.

As the Ferret’s were aging and their firepower was limited, Eland Mk4 armoured cars were also imported in quantity from South Africa (the Eland was a South African variant of the French Panchard AML) and it was utilised for fire support and anti-tank duties when operating over the border into Mozambique and Zambia (both of whom had Soviet era battle tanks).  The Eland was armed with a 90mm cannon capable of destroying a T-34 at medium range, enabling the smaller armoured cars to punch well above their weight, but the Rhodesian Army remained woefully short of battle tanks.

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Rhodesian Eland Armoured Car

The remaining eight Libyan  T-55 tanks offered as aid to the Rhodesian Army by South Africa, as well as a small contingent of South African Army technical advisors and armour specialists from the SADF School of Armour sent along with them were happily received by the Rhodesians, and they were assigned to a newly designated “E” Squadron in a now re-defined Rhodesian Armoured Corps.

The first intake of T-55 crews were recruited only from Rhodesian Army regulars, mainly from ‘D’ Squadron RhACR and assigned to a German Army veteran, Captain Kaufeldt, who was well versed in tank warfare. More recruits arrived from the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) and Selous Scouts to fill the gaps.

To create the impression that Rhodesia suddenly possessed a large contingent of heavy tanks, the Rhodesians used a ‘revolving door ruse’, and E Squadron drove them all around Zimbabwe-Rhodesia on tank transporters for several months in order to give the impression to ZANLA (ZANU) and ZIPRA (ZAPU) intelligence that there were many of them.

Improvements and adaptations made to the Libyan T-55’s

Personnel assigned to “E” Squadron were trained by South African tank crews, who also modified each T-55 with an improved communications system adopted from the South African Eland Mk7.  The South African headset system used a throat-activated microphone system and were far superior to the Soviet models.

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Rhodesian T-55 in American camouflage scheme

Oddly, the Soviet manufactured radios on the T-55 were positioned near the gun-loader’s position and operated by the gun-loader and not the tank commander.  Figuring the gun loader was not the right person to co-ordinate radio communications and already had his hands full operating the gun, the Rhodesians and South Africans removed the radio from the loader’s position and reinstalled it near the tank commander for his control and use.

On arrival the T-55’s also sported their original Libyan desert camouflage scheme. The Rhodesian’s repainted them in an American tank camouflage scheme, which was completely unsuitable to the African bush environment and finally the South African instructors had them painted again in anti-infra-red South African camouflage, which proved perfect for Rhodesian conditions.

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Rhodesian T55 in the South African camouflage scheme

In a unique ‘battlefield tradition’ the Rhodesian T-55 crews kept up with their Soviet DNA irony and they were all given brand-new Soviet made AKMS assault rifles (most likely part of captured stashes of soviet armaments).

Operation’s Quartz and Hectic

The incorporation of heavy tanks into the Rhodesian Armoured Corps came a little too and too late to effect a change the Bush War, political circumstances were to over-take them, but they very nearly changed history altogether in a planned operation called ‘Operation Quartz’ along with a parallel operation called ‘Hectic’.  If these two particular operations had gone ahead Zimbabwe may well have been a very different place to what we know it to be now.

The Lancaster House Agreement was already in its final phase by the time Zimbabwe-Rhodesia received its battle tanks, both Mugabe and Nkomo had already agreed to end the war in exchange for new elections in which they could participate.  This General Election was scheduled in a couple of months – February 1980, and the guerilla insurgents had all ‘come in’ from the bush during the cease-fire arrangement and were at designated ‘assembly points’ under a British led commonwealth military team (acting in a transitional and oversight role – called Operation Agila) and awaiting demobilization or integration with conventional forces.

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Major General John Acland, Commander of the Monitoring Force (CMF), with guerrilla fighters at an Assembly Area during the seven day ceasefire at the start of the peace process. During the ceasefire, 22,000 communist guerrilla fighters of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) as well as regular soldiers of the Rhodesian Security Forces gathered at sixteen assembly areas scattered throughout the country. General Ackland acted as Military Advisor to the Governor of Rhodesia and Chairman of the Ceasefire Commission. Imperial War Museum

Operation Quartz is still shrouded in a little secrecy, but consensus amongst veterans and documents was that it was based on two slightly different assumptions, the first assumption; Mugabe would be defeated in the elections and ZANU would revert to their insurgency campaign and the war would simply continue. therefore it would be necessary for conventional Zimbabwe-Rhodesia forces to carry out a strike against ZANU irregulars and wipe them out en-masse whilst at their assembly points, so as to prevent its forces from ever attempting a coup and taking over the country by force.

The second assumption; It was obvious to all political players at the time, it would be very unlikely that Mugabe and ZANU would be defeated in the elections and if anything would still win significant seats and even if in coalition would find themselves in power anyway.  In this respect, if there was sufficient electoral fraud and intimidation Operation Quartz would be given a GO and would effectively be a military Coup d’état of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia.  In this scenario, the ZANU guerillas now stationed at the various assembly points would be targeted by conventional Zimbabwe-Rhodesia forces and literally wiped out en-masse.

In either event, this plan envisaged placing Rhodesian troops located at strategic points from which they could simultaneously wipe out all guerilla insurgents at the Assembly Points, with specific attention to the ZANLA (ZANU) ones. The Rhodesian security forces had been tasked with monitoring the pre-election activities and keeping the peace during the election process, therefore most Rhodesian combat units were already in position within easy striking distance of the ‘assembly point’ camps. The plan also factored strikes by the Rhodesian Air Force on the assembly points to soften them up before the ground forces moved in.

‘Operation Hectic’ was a second plan underpinning Operation Quartz and this plan was to use Rhodesian SAS special forces to assassinate Robert Mugabe and ZANU leaders at their national and regional election campaign headquarters/offices.

Of the eight T-55 tanks, half of them were designated for Operation Hectic and half of them were allocated in support of Operation Quartz.  Four tanks were sent to the Audio Visual Arts building of the University of Rhodesia to support the planned SAS assault on the ZANU leaders located there. The other four T-55 tanks were sent to Bulawayo to assist the RLI Support Commando in the attack planned for a large Assembly Point in the area.

The tanks were bombed up ready to go, the SAS fully prepared and tooled up for their task. As Zimbabwe-Rhodesia’s 1980 landmark elections drew to a close, the tankers, SAS and troops of the RLI and Selous Scouts waited patiently by their radio’s for the operation GO code-word “Quartz”, they were quietly ‘chomping at the bit’ – the ‘terrorists’ were in for a big surprise.

But the signal never came.

Three hours before the planned GO Operations Quartz and Hectic were cancelled and Mugabe was announced as the election’s victor, his men and their supporters jubilant in the streets and the various assembly points in the future Zimbabwe, all the while the Rhodesian troops watched them stoic and dismayed silence.

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Monday March 04,1980 RhACR ‘E’ Sqn listen to ZRBC election result broadcast – Operation Quartz will not go ahead.

Some sources on Operation Quartz even point to South African involvement, which in the context that South Africa had provided the Rhodesians the T-55 tanks for the planned strike a couple of months ahead of the election carries some validity.  To these sources the planned Operation Quartz strike also included Puma helicopters of the South African Air Force (SAAF) and would also involve the participation of elite Recce units of the South African army (nothing unusual in this, SAAF and SA Special Forces already had a close working relationship on Rhodesian Operations in 1979).  An auxiliary plan was to allow a Battalion’s worth of South African troops into the country in order to protect the Beit bridge area, the main route of escape for Rhodesian whites should the situation degenerate into all-out war.

What if?

The Libyan T-55 tanks gifted to Rhodesia by South Africa never fired a shot in anger, the Rhodesian military powers deeming that Mugabe’s win in an election overseen by Britain and other international powers was legitimate, and a military Coup d’état of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia by the Rhodesian Armed Forces General’s and officer elite would not have lasted long and in all likelihood there is some truth to that. Hitting ‘cease-fire’ assembly points under British Military oversight would never have ended well. But, had it happened, it does ask the question whether a Mugabe free Zimbabwe today would have been an infinitely better place?

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Robert Mugabe at the height of his Presidency

It also asks what South Africa’s role would have been should the Rhodesian Bush War have ramped up to a whole new level or if a newly reconstituted Rhodesia remained ‘friendly’ to Apartheid South Africa with a closer relationship – could the Apartheid Nationalists have held on for longer against international pressure? The assassination of Mugabe and his team, and stumping his forces en-masse is the sort of hypothetical question along with historical hindsight many can ask, it’s up there with what would have happened to Germany should Adolph Hitler and his Nazis have been removed sooner.

In the end we’ll never know, but of the T-55 battle tanks today one of the original 10 seized by South Africa is now found at the South African War Museum in Johannesburg (in Libyan desert camouflage) and it stands as a permanent reminder to ‘what if?’

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Researched and written by Peter Dickens

References include The Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment on-line.  Operation Quartz – Rhodesia 1980 by R. Allport.  The Mukiwa – Operation Quartz on-line. Operation Quartz: Zimbabwe/Rhodesia on the brink – Peter Baxter History.

Related links:

Operation Uric; Joint South African/Rhodesian Ops & the loss of SAAF Puma 164

Ballasbak with the Stars!

Many readers of The Observation Post have asked for the follow-up story by Steve De Witt of their humorous encounter with the Soviet made T34 tank in their SADF made ‘Buffel’ APC and what happened to Christo their Buffel driver?

Original story, Part 1 – Kak vraag sit (follow this link Kak vraag sit)

So here goes .. Part 2 of ‘Kak vraag sit’ … ‘Ballasbak with the Stars’

By Steve de Witt


Christo our driver – he who successfully retreated from a Russian T-34 tank – was the most reluctant soldier in the Border War. The army didn’t want him to fight as he couldn’t handle pressure, and he didn’t want to fight anyway. Why? – because Jesus said turn the other cheek.

31SwbZnWebLOnce we stole his Old Brown Sherry and quickly owned up. Then tried to make him open us another bottle, on religious principle. Instead he cocked his rifle and gave us some Old Testament vengeance.

The bunker after sunset was our preferred drinking hole. Here we’d open the first bottle next to the machine gun. And open the last in darkness long after the generator had killed the power.

Sherry had the effect of converting Christo to other faiths. After one bottle he suddenly believed in Buddhism, and told you so. After a second bottle he became an Atheist, and told the Dominee. Most times he couldn’t find where the Dominee was hiding.

As punishment for this wavering religiosity, fate led Christo towards that Russian tank. Later he drove our troop carrier over a landmine. Christo the pacifist survived both encounters but he’d had enough.

Back at Base, he drank himself through Atheism into a new phase, Bravery. This helped him steal ratpacks from the store, pack them in his Buffel and attempt to drive home from the Border.

He hit another landmine.

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For these colourful adventures and many more, our mate Christo was much liked. When he transgressed, Christo’s older brother gave our Captain bottles of brandy to drop the disciplinary charges. So the rank looked forward to Christo’s antics.

12346436_521085104727893_7469123754393135756_nYes, Christo’s GrootBoet had a Milky Way of pips on his shoulders. He was so important he only moved by Helicopter. Christo said he even flew to the GoCarts on the other side of his Base. And he would swoop in regularly to haul KleinBoet out of our Kas, and then fly back to wherever again. Wherever was very far away. I know that because, where we were, I never saw GrootBoet Brigadier fighting the enemy.

I suppose that’s not unusual because Brigadiers aren’t allowed in combat. Even the enemy went to primary school. Brigadiers worry wearing so many gold stars.

Anyway, it wasn’t GrootBoet Brigadier’s job to get Kills on the Operations Board. That was our task. Problem is, we weren’t getting enough kills, as he often told us.

It wasn’t through lack of trying. These were SWAPO guerrillas we were hunting in Owamboland, real insurgency specialists. We wanted to fight them. They wanted to hide.

Mao Tse-Tung taught them that. Sleep during the day somewhere in the thick bush. It’s such a big country they’ll never find you. Then at night let the army sleep in the bush – while you drink beer and talk freedom in the kraals.

They won a country like that, those freedom fighters.

Not that we lost – don’t dare suggest that! We just had nothing more to fight for. In ’89 the Berlin Wall came down and the Communists suddenly wanted Democracy. It was such a shock that PW Botha had a stroke. And gave them one man one vote, just like that.

Or maybe he had his stroke later – after realising he’d given away the country we fought and died for. I forget which came first.

Anyhow, back to the Border War. None of us could have predicted it’s outcome. In the days of GrootBoet Brigadier, we were too busy looking for sleeping guerrillas to worry about winning or losing.

Winning was everything, for sure, but that was the Brigadiers’ problem. They saw the big picture and designed strategies for our victory. They had massive responsibility considering all the planning, logistics and execution involved.

Then they still had to criss-cross Owamboland by Chopper to wherever their brothers were in DB, or hunt ivory.

One time GrootBoet Brigadier flew in, unlocked the DB and stayed the night with us, drinking with the officers. But he had to leave early the next morning, he said. 32Bn was on Ops in Cuvelai and he needed to organise fuel columns.

I guess Zambia was far away which meant much more aviation fuel. During heavy fighting up north the elephants always fled there.

Before leaving the next morning he inspected us on Parade which was nerve-wracking for all, especially the Sergeant Major.

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Not for Christo. GrootBoet Brigadier spent a long time looking through KleinBoet’s barrel for that elusive speck of dust. Eventually Christo smirked and offered him some advice.

“You’ll see the sun come up through that barrel, Brigadier”

The Sergeant Major exploded and threw him back into DB for insubordination “and you stay there until you klaar out, Troep!”

GrootBoet Brigadier sighed and climbed into his helicopter. My faith in military discipline was restored. You can’t just chirp a Brigadier like that on the parade ground.

After supper the Captain ordered a bottle of brandy delivered to the Sergeant Major’s tent. He was so happy he reached into his kas for a short glass and downed two doubles, straight.

I always respected our Sergeant Major. You could rely on him to uphold military discipline regardless of a man’s rank or family connection. In the army you can’t let the Christo’s get away with murder.

Hell he could drink, that Sergeant Major. And get angry too, especially after downing doubles. I remember how shocked the MP Sergeant was when confronted in the bar. He stood rigidly to attention as the Sergeant Major shouted obscenities into his face.
“Who the (NuweVloekerei) do you think you are, locking up the Brigadier’s brother!”

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Editor – Sometimes we get another gem of a story, and this one from the heart of a veteran SADF national serviceman who has “been there, done that and got the T shirt” fighting on the Angola/Namibia (SWA) Border, thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story and photos in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post. Copyright  – Steve De Witt, with many thanks to Dave Bosman and Steve’s brothers in arms for the use of thier images.

Other Stories by Steve De Witt

They started it!  Starting a war with Zimbabwe – link: They started it!
Kak vraag sit! Encountering a T34 tank in a Buffel APC: Kak vraag sit

David vs. Goliath, SA Navy Strike-craft harassing the US Navy

Here’s a little bit of relatively unknown South African Navy history. Did you know that the colossal USS Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier was harassed by the South African Navy using two small strike-craft in January 1980?

It is a little like a David vs. Goliath story for the relatively small South African Navy to take the wind out of the sails of the gigantic US aircraft carrier’s escort – the USS California some 15-20 nautical miles ahead of the carrier.  It led to a very high tense moment on the high seas and an international outcry, and we have evidence of the incident – this remarkable photograph was taken by Joe Johnson, the Navigator on the SAS Jan Smuts, a South African Strike-craft and it shows just how ‘up close and personal’ they were with the American super carrier the USS Nimitz off South Africa’s coastline.

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So what happened that found two South African strike-craft inside the Minitz’s defensive screen harassing this US task force.  Well, it boils down to two things, South Africa’s 200 nautical mile (370km) economic exclusion zone (EEZ) and a very unique strike craft ‘special force’ ethos.

High Seas Harassment

On the 4th Jan 1980, the USS Nimitz sailed in response to the Iranian crisis, leading a nuclear-powered battle group including the USS California and the USS Texas from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean . The three ships sailed out of separate Italian ports and rendezvoused, sailing at a speed of advance of 25 knots around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean to “Gonzo Station” (named by sailors serving there, supposedly deriving the term from Gulf of Oman Naval Zoo Operation).

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On encountering this US Navy task force in South Africa’s economic exclusion zone waters – two ‘Minister Class’ South African Navy strike craft , Boat 1 (the SAS Jan Smuts) and Boat 5 (the SAS Frans Erasmus) manoeuvred right into the defensive screen of the USS flotilla – so much so the USS Nimitz’s escorts the USS Texas and USS California, both nuclear powered cruisers, had to alter course to avoid collision.  In fact one of the South African strike craft – Boat 1, cut across the bow the of the USS California which was travelling ahead of the USS Nimitz.  Whilst Boat 5 was able to move up the USS California undetected by all its modern radar until in visual range.

This action caused a massive diplomatic fury between the USA and South Africa, as much to the embarrassment of the US Navy, the South African Navy strike-craft had sailed unchallenged right through the flotilla’s defensive screen into lethal striking range of pride of the US Navy.

A true ‘David’ and his sling

To dismiss the South African strike craft with their Israeli DNA as no danger to a nuclear US Navy aircraft carrier and its escort would be folly.  Boat 1, the SAS Jan Smuts had even started out as an Israelite, it was a modified Israeli ‘Reshef Class’ strike craft, built at the Haifa facility of Israeli Shipyards, under contract between the Israeli Military Industries as part of three strike craft sold to South Africa.  The three Israeli craft were covertly sailed to South Africa and classified as ‘Minister Class’ strike (named after South African Ministers of Defence).  Boat 5, the SAS Frans Erasmus was built under licence in South Africa to the Israeli modified Reshef Class design, along with five other ‘Minister Class’ strike craft.

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Five of South Africa’s ‘Minister Class’ Strike Craft Photo, SAS Jan Smuts (P1561), SAS Jim Fouche (P1564), SAS Frans Erusmus (P1565), SAS Hendrick Mentz (P1567) and SAS Magnus Malan (P1569). Photo courtesy Frank Lima

Both Boat 1 and Boat 5 (and all other Minister Class strike craft for that matter) were fitted with a leading Israeli designed ship killing missile system at the time, the ‘Gabriel’ surface to surface missile and launching system. The Gabriel Mk 2, an improved version of original Gabriel was created by Israel in 1972 and entered service in the Israeli Navy in 1976. This missile system was subsequently built under license from Israel in South Africa under the name Skerpioen (in English meaning Scorpion).  This little arachnid packed a big poison punch, the scorpion, then took the pride of place in the newly formatted South African strike craft flotilla’s emblem in 1977.

No small thing, this guided missile system was designed to fire a missile which skimmed the water using an altimeter hitting its target just above the water line and designed to obliterate targets, a true ‘David’ could take on a ‘Goliath’ and like the arch angel ‘Gabriel’ (after whom it was named) could bring about a biblical hell-fire – especially if brought down on a small to medium-sized ship.  Each South African strike craft had 6 such scorpions in its arsenal.

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South African Strike Craft launches a ‘Scorpion’ missile (Gabriel Mk2) – Photo thanks to Chris Miller

Can it obliterate a true ‘Goliath’, a super carrier like the USS Nimitz? It’s not been tested on a vessel this size, but in all likelihood – possibly not.  It would however cause significant damage if it had hypothetically got through the anti-missile defence systems of the Nimitz in the first place.

Nerves of steel

Did the South African Navy pose a threat to the US Navy?  The obvious answer is not really.  In 1980 the South African Navy did not have an aircraft carrier (it still does not), on the sharp fighting end of the assegai. South Africa had 3 relatively small Daphné-class diesel submarines, 3 ageing Frigates and 9 fast coastal protection strike craft (who were the new focus of the South African Navy in 1980, the Nationalists deeming that since Apartheid isolation there was no real need for frigates to act as ‘grey ambassadors’ on international flag showing missions).

To the commanders of the Nimitz and its escort ships, South Africa was not regarded as hostile nation in 1980, sailing within a 200nm EEZ is perfectly legal if the vessels are not involved in fishing or drilling for energy which may be deemed as in economic competition to the country to which the zone belongs.  In effect a EEZ is classified as ‘International Waters’ and it must be noted that there is a big difference in maritime law between South African ‘territorial’ waters to which they have sovereignty which extend only 12nm from the coast – unlike South Africa’s 200nm EEZ.  There’s also nothing to really prohibit a ‘non-hostile’ nation’s naval vessels from operating near a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier and its escort’s in their own EEZ  – within reason.

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USS Nimitz in 1979

The US navy normally anticipates Russian, Iranian and Chinese naval vessels which they deem as ‘hostile’ from cutting across bows of their vessels in their EEZ waters, so a ‘friendly’ South African Naval vessel risking such a manoeuvre by cutting across the bow of an US Navy vessel would have been deemed as rather usual, so too two strike craft sneaking up on them and it most certainly would have led to surprise and a tense moment on the bridge.  Cutting across the bow of a ship is contrary to maritime ‘rules of the road’ and a violation of maritime standards.  By not reacting to such a maneuver by a rather deadly South African ‘strike’ craft and escalating the situation the Commander of the US task force flotilla most certainly demonstrated the patience of a Saint and some nerves of steel.

Here you have to also consider that the USS Nimitz’s defensive screen would not have consisted of just the USS Texas and USS California, but also the ‘silent’ and unseen service of the US Navy’s Nuclear submarines, which are almost always nearby a aircraft carrier task force and the unseen US Navy fighter/bombers routinely launched from the Nimitz for protection and patrolling in the area.

To the Commanders of the South African Strike Craft it was a different matter entirely. As South Africa was ‘at war’ in Angola and politically at odds with United Nations and ‘the outside world’ in general over Apartheid – any foreign military shipping in South Africa’s 200nm EEZ attracted the attention of the South African Navy and the South African Air Force.  This heightened state of readiness and intelligence gathering against any potential military adversity was not only directed to US Naval vessels, it was especially directed at Soviet vessels in addition – in fact as aircraft carriers go South African strike craft had already got very ‘up close and personal’ when the mighty Soviet Kiev Class  ‘Minsk’ and her escorts ventured around South Africa and its 200nm EEZ in 1978.

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Boat 3 (P1563) the SAS Frederick Creswell ‘shadowing’ the Soviet aircraft carrier ‘Minsk’ at extremely close range.

It’s this part, ‘shadowing’ any military shipping for intelligence and demonstrating fearless and bullish ‘David versus Goliath’ testing of the defence capability of the world’s naval super-powers, which had come to define this strike craft fraternity – the ability and skill to punch well above their weight.  It took special mental conditioning and discipline – and a bucket load of ‘nerves of steel’ – as a fraternity they even define themselves as a ‘iron fist from the sea’ when it came to conducting special forces operations from sea to land – and this why they saw themselves as a unique ‘special force’ in a naval context – not to be taken lightly and to be reckoned with in every respect, it’s an attitude they had to have to be as successful as they were.

Diplomatic ‘Ballyhoo’

Diplomatic demands from the USA for an answer from the South African government over their strike craft venturing undetected into the Nimitz’s defensive screen, cutting across the bow of the USS California and forcing both the USS Nimitz’s escorts to alter their course fell on the usual stoic National Party government to answer to – so much fuss and hot air was made of it for political appeasement, with little result.

48939834_2307720506123601_1085318676418134016_nSuch diplomatic protesting fell on deaf ears within the South African Navy strike-craft circles as they saw intelligence gathering in South African waters and demonstrations of fighting prowess as their job to do, and all the diplomatic ‘ballyhoo’ simply reinforced their legacy as an elitist naval force and in fact another reason to hold up their heads in pride.  So all in all, given the political circumstances of the time, the South African Navy strike personnel felt they did a great job.

To the Americans the USS Nimitz and her escorts journey from the Mediterranean around South Africa was well publicised and no secret, also sailing in 200nm exclusion zones was perfectly legal according to international maritime law and South African naval intervention was unwarranted and qualified as harassment and nothing more.

Because of the political and diplomatic fallout, the strike-craft Commanders of P1561 the ‘SAS Jan Smuts’ and P1565 the ‘SAS Frans Erasmus’ were called onto the ‘carpet’ by the top Navy brass and reprimanded, but rumour has it they where then promptly taken out to lunch to celebrate.  Nobody lost their jobs and nothing more was said of it.

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Operation Eagle Claw

The US Navy would also have considered this a minor incident as they had much bigger issues on their plate to deal with than maritime regulations and harassment experienced around South Africa’s coast. The USS Nimitz was rounding South Africa on its way to Iran to take part in Operation Eagle Claw (Operation Evening Light).  In 1980, the Iranian Hostage crisis, a diplomatic standoff between Iran and the United States of America was in full swing with fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage in the American embassy in Tehran for nearly a year starting on the 4th November 1979, something had to be done.  The American President, Jimmy Carter, elected for a special forces military operation to rescue the hostages and end the crisis.  

On the 24th April 1980, this special forces operation to rescue the hostages was launched from the flight deck of the USS Nimitz in eight Sikorsky RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters containing Navy Seal special forces personnel to much cheering and thumbs up from the Nimitz crew, but disaster loomed.  

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Repainted RH-53Ds in sand camouflage and without markings aboard USS Nimitz prior to the launch of Operation Eagle Claw.

From the get go the Operation encountered many obstacles and was eventually aborted. The eight helicopters from the Nimitz were sent to the first staging area, ‘Desert One’, but only five arrived in operational condition. One encountered hydraulic problems, another was caught in a ‘Haboob’ (a sand storm) and another showed signs of a cracked rotor blade.

During planning it was decided that the mission would be aborted if fewer than six helicopters remained, despite only four being absolutely necessary. In a move that is still discussed in military circles, the field commanders advised mission abort, which President Carter accepted and confirmed. As the US rescue mission prepared to leave, they were plagued by another ‘haboob’ sandstorm and one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both American servicemen and jet fuel. The resulting fire destroyed both aircraft and killed eight US servicemen.

The failed operation took on a legendary aspect in revolutionary Iran, with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, describing the sandstorms causing the failure of the mission as “angels of Allah” who foiled the US conspiracy in order to protect Iran. They then promptly erected a mosque (the Mosque of Thanks) at the crash site.

The failure of Operation Eagle Claw was a humiliating blow for the United States Presidency and its Armed Forces on the international stage.  The hostages were scattered all over Iran to prevent a second rescue attempt.  The Ayatollah Khomeini milked Carter’s embarrassment for all it was worth declaring;

“Who crushed Mr. Carter’s helicopters? We did? The sands did! They were God’s agents. Wind is God’s agent … These sands are agents of God. They can try again”

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Iranian officials investigate the crash site.

Then, literally minutes after President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential term ended on the 20th January 1981 the Iranians ended their humiliation of Carter by releasing the 52 US captives held in Iran, promptly ending the 444-day Iran hostage crisis.

In conclusion 

These bigger events over shadowed the SA Navy ‘harassment’ of the US Navy issue somewhat and the story is lessor known to annuals of history, but to South Africa’s strike craft community it remains a time when they stood up as David as did and fearlessly challenged a Goliath. For all the political hot air and statements of grandeur they found weakness in the US Navy task force in 1980, and all the ‘blustering’ about US Naval size and fighting prowess aside, lessons on protecting such a flotilla from small and very lethal Israeli developed and South African perfected strike craft would hopefully have been learned.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

This great snippet of history is courtesy of Johnny Steenkamp and Joe Johnson – with deep thanks.  Photo copyright of the Nimitz – Joe Johnson.

Reference: Seaforces on-line, Naval information.  The South African Naval Fraternity on-line.