Three times winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross – Johannes Jacobus Le Roux

Squadron Leader Johannes Jacobus Le Roux – DFC & Two Bars, Commanding Officer of No 602 Squadron RAF in the cockpit of his Supermarine Spitfire Mark IXb “Betty” MJ584 LO-A, at B11/Longues, Normandy. 10-12 July 1944

Le Roux, a South African, joined No. 73 Squadron RAF in France in 1940. He was shot down twelve times, but enjoyed better luck with No. 91 Squadron in 1941 and 1942, shooting down eight enemy aircraft before joining No. 111 Squadron RAF in North Africa. He ended his second tour in command of the Squadron. Following a rest from operations he was given command of No. 602 Squadron in July 1944. Le Roux is generally credited as the pilot who attacked and badly wounded Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel in his staff car on the road between Livarot and Vimoutiers on 17 July 1944, the day on which he also destroyed two Messerschmitt Bf 109s and damaged two more to bring his victory score to 23.5.

He won the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) not once, but three times, here are the citations:

Distinguished Service Cross
Awarded 17th October 1941
Citation:

“This officer has carried out over 200 operational sorties which have included shipping reconnaissances, during which much valuable information has been obtained, and numerous attacks on shipping and enemy aerodromes in the face of heavy enemy fire. Flight Lieutenant Le Roux has destroyed 3 hostile aircraft in combat and at least 1 on the ground.”

Distinguished Service Cross – First Bar
Awarded 11th December 1942

Citation:

“Since being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross this officer has destroyed a further five enemy aircraft. In addition to his air victories he has attacked shipping and targets on the ground with considerable success. At all times Flight Lieu- tenant Le Roux has displayed a fine fighting spirit”

Distinguished Service Cross – Second Bar

Awarded 9th July 1943
Citation:

“Sqn. Ldr. Le Roux’s magnificent leadership has played a large part in the many successes attained by his squadron. He has personally destroyed 14 enemy aircraft and damaged many others, and has also inflicted much damage on enemy shipping.”

Ultimately, however, like several other truly great fighter pilots, he was not destroyed by enemy gunfire, but by the unfortunate circumstances surrounding a fateful cross-channel flight on 29 August 1944. It seems that he had taken off from France and was attempting to make his way through appalling weather taking alcohol back to his squadron at Tangmere. He never reached the coast and crashed into the Channel. According to Paddy Barthropp, ‘Chris’ Le Roux was without a dinghy and was sitting on numerous bottles of champagne, which, as Barthropp points out, do not float. It was indeed a tragic end to one of South Africa’s most popular and gallant fighter pilots.

His cheerful personality and good looks had made him one of South Africa’s most popular fighter pilots, and he was mourned by all who had known him. The No.111 Squadron Operations Record Book contains a magnificent “line” which remains as a fitting memory of one as young, as gallant and as gay (happy) as Chris le Roux. It quotes him as relating the story of his having made a good landing in very dirty weather and the mud described earlier, and finishes up: “I didn’t realise I was down until I heard the ground crew clapping!” He was a very worthy member of “the gayest (happiest) company who ever fired their guns in anger.”

Le Roux was to leave behind an English wife and two children, the family resident at the time in Shropshire.

(Image courtesy of the IWM, CL 784) Royal Air Force official photographer F/O A. Goodchild

(Colourised by Benjamin Thomas from Australia), caption courtesy WW2 Colourised photos

 

‘Bake-off’ South African style!

The politics of the jam tart. At one stage the politics of division between Jan Smuts’  politics of reconciliation’ and Barry Hertzog’s ‘politics of separation’ even entered into the kitchen, and this is one very hot political cup cake.

In 1924 during the General Election women showed their political support from the kitchen. During this time the little jam tart in honour of JBM Hertzog or the ‘Hertzoggie’ started to grace the tea tables of staunch  National Party supporting women.

Going head to head in the bake off with a jam tart of their own, women supporting Jan Smuts’ South African Party came up with the ‘Smutsie’ or the Jan Smuts Cookie (also known as a General Smuts cookie).

The irony is that they are baked in nearly the same way with an apricot jam filling, the difference is in the topping. The Smutsie cookie has a creamed butter and sugar topping (similar to a penuche frosting) whereas a Hertzoggie has a much paler macaroon-style of topping made of egg white and coconut.

It is said that those supporting the one style of cookie refused to bake or eat the opponents offering.  Such was the intense political rivalry and deep division between the two.

The recipe of the Smutsie seems to have varied over time and from what I can see the Sugar Butter topping has been lost from more recent recipes, whereas the Hertzoggie has been quite popular and commonly found. So, here’s a challenge to the bake-off enthusiasts out there – rejuvenate the Smutsie with its original topping!

This is one for the ‘The Great South African Bake-off  2017’ challenge I would love to see, one half doing a take on the Hertzoggie using ‘ouma se resepte’ and the other half sprinting around the kitchen frantically stealing each others recipes trying to figure out a Smutsie.  All the while both groups shout ‘veraaier’ at one another.  How South African is that!

A Smutsie with a penuche frosting as a topping, now that’s the Smutsie for me …. although I am told that a Hertzoggie made on a braai (yup, a braai – believe it) is to die for. As a ‘Soutie’ married to a ‘Boertjie’ to keep peace in the house I might just find the safe political middle ground and go with her excellent Springbok rugby player inspired  … Jan Ellis Pudding.

A Kibbutz called Jan Smuts

Did you know that Jan Smuts has a kibbutz named after him because of his support in founding the state of Israel, and that this kibbutz was at the centre of the 1948 Arab Israeli War (or sometimes known as the Israeli War of Independence)?

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The Balfour Declaration

Jan Smuts was a supporter of the Balfour Declaration, first adopted in November of 1917 and then again reaffirmed in 1922 in the League of Nations British Mandate for Palestine which set forth British policy towards the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.

Smuts became personal friends with Chaim Weitzman, who would go on to become the first President of Israel and Smuts and he saw to it that his government voted in the United Nations in support of the creation of the State of Israel. As a consequence of this a Kibbutz near Haifa is named after him, Ramat Yohanan.

Smuts’ relationship with the idea of a Jewish state started when South African supporters of Theodor Herzl contacted Smuts in 1916. It was in London that met and became friends with Chaim Weizmann, the President of the Zionist Organization. Weizmann went on to become the first President of Israel. He was elected on 16 February 1949, and served until his death in 1952.

In 1943 Weizmann wrote to Smuts, detailing a plan to develop Britain’s African colonies to compete with the United States – essentially a United States of Southern Africa – something which appealed to Jan Smut’s ideology of “Union” of former colonies and states in Africa for the greater good of all (his philosophy of Holism at work).

When South Africa became a “union” in 1910 it was originally envisaged that Bechuanaland (modern-day Botswana) and Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) would also form part of the newly created South Africa.

Political manoeuvring (mainly by the British) meant it was not to be and South Africa forged ahead as a union of the British Colonies of the Cape and Natal and the two Boer Republics – the Orange Free State and Transvaal (South African Republic) only. The idea of a regional superpower union was never really lost though and only fully put to bed when the National Party came to power in 1948 effectively ending any further union ideas with commonwealth countries in Southern Africa.

During his service as Premier, Smuts also personally fundraised for multiple Zionist organisations.

Now to Ramat Yohanan (Hebrew: רָמַת יוֹחָנָן, meaning Yohanan Heights), a kibbutz in northern Israel, named after the then South African Prime Minister and wartime leader – Jan Smuts.

It was the location of the Battle of Ramat Yohanan during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. In April 1948, The Druze Regiment of the Arab Liberation Army was engaged by Jewish Haganah soldiers in a hard fought battle at the kibbutz.

The Druze attacked Ramat Yohanan and other neighbouring kibbutzim in order to try to take the roads leading to Haifa. The attack was unsuccessful and the Druze withdrew to their base in Shefa-‘Amr with a high number of casualties, this action led to a non-aggression treaty which was signed by the Haganah with the Druze. Throughout the kibbutz, there are still scattered defence towers used by the kibbutz to defend itself.

The Haganah was a Jewish paramilitary organization operating in the then British Mandate of Palestine, which went on to become the core of the Israel Defence Force (IDF).

As an interesting fact, in 1941, Yitzhak Rabin joined the Palmach section of the Haganah during his stay at Jan Smuts’ kibbutz – Ramat Yohanan. He was the fifth Prime Minister of Israel, serving two terms in office, 1974–77 and 1992 until his assassination in 1995.

Today, the kibbutz grows produce including mainly avocado, lychee and citrus fruits, raises both meat and dairy cattle, and is the home of a Palram plastics factory. They also produce a small quantity of olive oil and dairy products, much of which is used and sold on the kibbutz. For several years, Ramat Yochanan has run an ulpan program that serves primarily American and Russian students.

Modern day Shavout festival at Ramat Yohanan

The last official act Jan Smuts carried out before leaving office in 1948 was to recognise the independent State of Israel, fulfilling his long standing commitment to Chaim Weitzmann.

Most of Jan Smuts’ history has been downplayed significantly in the years since his death, his politics and endeavours largely glossed over by a Nationalist government and overshadowed by the implementation by the Nationalists of Apartheid in 1948.

This history lies largely forgotten to most South Africans today, but the fact remains, that other than Nelson Mandela, not too many South African leaders since Smuts have had such a presence and role in shaping world politics as we know it today,

The featured image today shows Jan Smuts and Chaim Weitzmann and early IDF soldiers using adapted South African designed and manufactured Marmon-Herrington Armoured Cars – as well the flag raising of the Israeli flag once independence was fully established.

A lost SAAF legacy

Rare colour image of South African Air Force 22 Squadron Venturas on the right in a formation flight over Table Bay in 1959.  Of interest, if you look closely is that their markings have just been changed, compare it to the SAAF Ventura on the left.

These three on the right are seen flying in the revised SADF livery which had just been introduced at the time i.e the Springbok inside an image of the Castle of Good Hope – introduced a year earlier in 1958 – which replaced the traditional Commonwealth aircraft identifier roundel – which had an orange Springbok in the centre of it.

commonwealthrounds

Commonwealth aircraft rondel markings, left to right – Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and South Africa.  Note, Australia and New Zealand still use this rondel marking to this day as a nod to maintaining their Commonwealth heritage.

These Ventura are Ventura PV-1 an American aircraft made by lockheed and were extensively used during World War 2 by the Allies. The SAAF also operated the aircraft during the war and continued to do so after the war for many years.

The changes formed part of the Nationalist government’s wish to break the SADF’s military identity and association from its British Commonwealth historical legacy. The changes where far reaching and included insignia, rank terminology, uniform changes, disbandment and reformulation of infantry regiments, renaming of institutions and bases, military hardware deals, new medal orders etc. etc.

Note: these changes to the defence force livery occurred before South Africa ‘resigned’ from the Commonwealth of Nations, so the plans to make this change were entirely domestically driven by the government of the day.

Note, the Springbok in the centre was further changed again to an eagle in line with the new SADF composite mark.

Funnily, and rather tragically to many parts of our military heritage and legacy – this is a process which seems to repeat itself historically whenever South Africa changes political dynasties.  The SAAF livery was changed again in response to the new SANDF re-branding the armed forces – literally everything connecting the past has to go (rank, uniform, medals etc), the military structures changes again (the Commandos went), the ruling edict is to break its connection and legacy with National Party’s “Apartheid” South Africa.  These changes were initiated in 2003.

I can’t but think that military tradition is been lost through the political epochs and this initial fundamental re-vamp of the SAAF emblems by the National Party and their resignation from the Commonwealth means that the new revamp, done when South Africa had re-joined the Commonwealth, has lost sight with its very rich military tradition and legacy.

When the emblems came under review in 2003 no consideration to the proud legacy of South African involvement in WW2 (and especially our Air Force) was given at all, so far had it receded from collective consciousness by this stage.  Again, I can’t but think that the loss of general public awareness and the military of this very proud moment in South African history is nothing short of tragic – especially considering the sacrifice of Black and White South Africans alike to it.

‘Tradition’ and maintaining ‘memory’ of those who have served is a fundamental cornerstone of soldiering, but unfortunately this was not a political priority – to either National Party or to the African National Congress.

Cassinga! … truths and myths

The Battle of Cassinga was the very first South African airborne attack, it was also the first full-scale airborne attack in Southern Africa.  The target was a South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) military base at the former town of Cassinga in Angola on 4 May 1978.   As it was a “first” in many respects it would also carry with it many learnings and many controversies.

Upfront let’s dispel with the untruths and challenge the prevailing myths and truths.  The Battle of Cassinga is today mourned in Namibia as a public holiday, politically it is referenced as an Apartheid “massacre” of ‘innocents’ – the deliberate targeting of refugees and civilians in a refugee camp.  However, this is a political narrative to gain political currency and simply put this is a myth, it is an untruth.

That civilians were killed in the cross fire during the battle, unfortunately that is truth.  That civilians are very often the casualties of war, any war the world over, this is also unfortunately a prevailing truth.

Also, a truth is that there are extensive records and photographs covering the SADF’s planning and actions around the operation (declassified since the change of government in 1994), no SWAPO records exist at all.  The only other thing that exists is the photographic evidence of a mass grave, which was re-opened after the battle for journalists to take photos.

That Cassinga was a military base housing PLAN (SWAPO military personnel) there is absolutely no doubt, and therefore it was a legitimate SADF military target, that is also a truth.  That there were misjudgments in planning and execution, like any military operation anywhere, this is also a truth.

So let’s have a look at how this Operation, Operation Reindeer, stacks up as a military battle, and lets examine how civilians came into the cross-fire.

A Military base or Refugee Camp?

Aside from the overwhelming volume of Intelligence gathered by the SADF prior to the attack pointing to the fact it was a legitimate military base and target, the case was taken to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the 1990’s.  The TRC themselves challenged all sides of the story, and it’s the TRC records which found Cassinga base to be the following:

A SWAPO (PLAN) unit posted at Cassinga consisted of approximately 300 male and female PLAN cadres.  The military section of Cassinga was easily partitioned from the non-military sections. The overall commander of PLAN in town was Dimo Amaambo, who responsible for the co-ordination of all PLAN actions in Southern Angola, including incursions into South West Africa/Namibia. A headquarters such as Cassinga was second in importance only to Lubango, which was the overall SWAPO military headquarters in Angola. Aside from the system of trenches and bunkers, defensive equipment included two ZPU 14.5 mm anti-aircraft guns, one ZU-23-2 23 mm gun, and around one or two ZSU 12.7 mm guns. These were all capable of being used in a ground attack role.

The simple fact is that the SADF encountered hundreds of trained and armed SWAPO (PLAN) combatants, large AA guns, defensive structures, SWAPO military commanders and depots full of weapons and ammunition of all sizes.   This was a military base.

So where does this argument of ‘refugee’ and ‘refugee transit camp’ come from?

According to one source, in the weeks preceding the attack, civilian numbers were growing rapidly inside Cassinga.  This build up consisted of Namibians going into ‘exile’ in the months preceding the attack and the intake in this camp of these exiles joining SWAPO was particularly high.

A truck usually picked up these civilian exiles and took them onward to Jamba and Lubango.  This truck did not arrive in the preceding weeks before the attack . The result was a bottleneck at Cassinga of people who under normal circumstances would have left the camp within days.

Another source agues that the civilians in the camp were made up of both soldier’s family members and dependents and some 200 civilians ‘abducted’  by SWAPO in northern South West Africa a few months earlier, and brought to Cassinga in a bid to convince UN aid agencies that they needed food and funding, which they duly received.

The ‘abduction’ of civilians for ‘re-training’, especially children, was a tactic to build numbers and used extensively by “liberation movements” all over the Southern Africa in the late 70’s.  The ‘liberation movements’ on the other hand argue that these were willing exiles fighting the cause or that it was necessary to deconstruct tribal people of their colonial indoctrination.

What is also telling as to the military nature of the camp and the indoctrination into the military of incoming ‘exiles’ comes from SWAPO photographic and witness evidence of how they conducted the daily parade and roll call.   It was held on a parade ground near the SWAPO (PLAN) offices. This source recalls that all would assemble in the groups in which they had arrived at Cassinga, each of which was organised according to ‘sections’ and ‘platoons’ with the earliest arrivals in Cassinga queuing first and the most recent queuing last.  They would march on, the SWAPO Commanders would march on last, after liberation songs were sung a roll call would be taken, the commanders then handed out the daily tasks and finally dismissed the parade. It is reasonable to assume from this account that ‘exiles’ entering the camp where in fact ‘military recruits’ and treated as such.

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Photo clearly showing the daily military parade at Cassinga with the mix of combatants and non combatants as well as dependents and children

So, whichever way it’s looked at, there was a large military camp and there was a large contingent of newly arrived Namibian civilians at Cassinga (whether they were ‘exiles’ or ‘new recruits’ will never be known) and a very large number of family members and dependents of the SWAPO combatants at the base. That the military planners in the SADF had accounted for the unusual ramp up in civilians numbers of ‘exiles’ just prior to the attack, the sad truth and answer is no, they were not really aware of it.

Errors in Planning

In the truth that errors occurred, some started in the planning phase.  Reconnaissance air-photo interpreters of the Cassinga military base put the wrong scale on some of the maps that were used in the planning, despite the altimeter readings being clearly visible in the original reconnaissance photographs.

Consequently, the Air-Force planners overestimated the size of the Drop Zone (DZ) believing it was long and wide enough to drop the paratroopers, when in fact it wasn’t. This ‘scale error’ also mis-positioned the ‘Warning’ and ‘Drop’ points on the run-in to the drop. Compounding this error, the pilot of the lead aircraft was momentarily distracted by the effects of the bombing, and issued the ‘jump’ signal a few seconds late. The net effect was that many SADF paratroopers overshot their intended Drop Zones, many landing beyond the river – and some in it.

The SADF also underestimated the Cuban military presence in the area, In briefing the strike aircrew, the SAAF Chief of Staff Intelligence was specific that there was no known large Cuban military formation within 130 km of the Cassinga base.  They had intelligence that pointed to Cuban armour and that some 144 personnel was present at the village Techamutete 15 km south of Cassinga.  To this end they planned communication jamming (which proved a wise decision in the end as it resulted in a delay) and a detachment was earmarked to ambush any Cuban armour on the road from Techamutete.

However unknown to the SADF planners was that this force was somewhat bigger than anticipated, in fact there was a well sized Cuban mechanised battalion at Techamutete consisting of at least 4 T-34 tanks, 17 BTR-152  armoured personnel carriers, 7 trucks and 4 anti-aircraft guns, accompanied by around 400 Cuban troops.

The Devastating Opening Bombing Run

The attack opened with a SAAF Canberra bombers and SAAF Buccaneer bombers hitting the target. Timed for 08:00 to coincide with SWAPO’s daily roll-call  on the parade ground, most of the people in the camp were assembled in the open when the Canberras initiated their low-level bomb run. This was followed by the Buccaneers and then SAAF Mirage IIIs.  Fragmentation and conventional 1000lb bombs hit a zone of some 800 metres by 500 metres, causing most of SWAPO’s and civilian casualties and ‘hard target’ building destruction on the day.

cass strike

SAAF Canberra bomb run on Cassinga

The Shambolic Drop

At 08:04, 367 SADF ‘Parabats’ (Paratroopers) were dropped from 6 aircraft.  Due to the reconnaissance photo scaling error, and obscured pilot visibility of the tracking and distance markers (caused by smoke from the bombing) the drop was a shambles.  Nearly all paratroopers did not land on the intended target zone, many been scattered into positions that put them into serious danger. Some dropped right on top of the enemy, some landed kilometres away from their intended positions, some in trees, some into tall maize fields, others into the river and some on the wrong bank of the river.

The resultant confusion caused numerous delays, ruining the schedule of the ‘drop-to-contact’ plan, and much of the advantage of surprise. As a result a number of top PLAN commanders, including Dimo Amaambo and Greenwell Matongo (two principal targets of the attack) escaped (Amaambo later  became the first head of the Namibian Defence Force in 1990).

The loss of the element of surprise,  also allowed the surviving SWAPO (PLAN) soldiers from the bombing ample time to set themselves up in the extensive trench and bunker system that surrounded the camp. Instead of the short, sharp skirmish planned, the attack was now going to be an extended affair. The camp defenders brought their anti-aircraft guns to bear on the SADF ‘Parabats’ and onto the aircraft, these powerful guns were not all silenced for some hours to come.

Regrouping and on the Attack

After regrouping the ‘Parabat’ companies commenced the assault, training and professionalism of officers and men on the ground played a key role in consolidating and adapting their initial tasks to the changed circumstances.   Instead of attacking eastwards as initially planned, the two companies attacked the base in a northerly direction.

Initially, they encountered very little resistance, though this changed dramatically once the paratroopers neared the centre of the base. Heavy sniper fire was directed at the paratroopers from a number of trees inside the base, they were subjected to B-10 Recoilless Rifle  fire, and some SWAPO guerrillas had regrouped, using houses as cover from which to fire at the paratroopers, critically wounding two paratroopers.

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The attack on Cassinga from the ground, note the dead SWAPO combatant in Cuban/Soviet issue green uniform in the foreground

However, the paratroopers faced their greatest challenge when they were fired upon by a number of multi-barrel anti-aircraft guns now been used in the ground role.  This brought both assault companies to a complete halt. A SAAF Buccaneer tasked with Close Air Support could not conduct a strike on the guns for fear of hitting the paratroopers close by.

Colonel Breytenbach then ordered the commander of D-Company to take some men and work up towards the guns by attacking the trenches to the west of Cassinga. He also ordered the mortar platoon to begin attacking the guns.

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Silenced Soviet 23mm ZU-23-2 Anti-Aircraft Gun at Cassinga

Civilians in the Trenches

Upon entering the trenches, the SADF men from D-Company were surprised to find a number of civilians in them in and amongst the combatant SWAPO (PLAN) fighters.

At the TRC hearings, the witness accounts from the paratroopers involved maintain that these civilians were being used as human shields by the SWAPO combatants taking cover inside the trenches.  Accounts from  SWAPO maintain that the civilians of Cassinga had taken cover in the trenches to protect themselves from the bombing and shooting.

In either event, the fact remains that civilians had found themselves in the trench network and were mixed in with SWAPO fighters who immediately opened fire on the paratroopers, leading the paratroopers to enter what they described later as a mode of “kill or be killed”, in which preventing the deaths of the civilians in the trenches was impossible.

The paratroopers moved successfully through all the trenches and strong points up to the guns and after the fall of the guns, all major resistance in Cassinga ended.

The extraction 

With hostilities over in Cassinga, the paratroopers immediately set up a HQ and Aid-Post next to the SWAPO hospital, and began treating the worst of the injured.

In ‘mopping up’ in Cassinga the paratroopers recovered a vast number of mainly Soviet weapons, this included AK-47, AKM and SKS Assault rifles and carbines, boxes and crates of RGD-5, RG-42 and F1 Hand Grenades, crates of  TM-57 Anti-Tank Mines, RPG-7 Anti-Tank Rockets and 82mm B-10 recoilless Rockets still in their tin transit canisters.  Uniforms (Soviet and East Bloc supplied) and combat boots, AK-47 and AKM Bayonets and crates of AK-47 Ammunition.

The first wave of SAAF Puma helicopters extracted half the ‘Parabats’, leaving the remainder to continue to mop up while waiting to be evacuated themselves. Now at half their strength, the Parabats were warned by a circling SAAF Buccaneer in CAS that a column of twenty armored vehicles was approaching the base . The Cuban mechanised battalion from nearby Techamutete was now on the counter attack.

The Cuban Counter Attack

During the air drop attack phase, D-Company had already dispatched the anti-tank platoon to lay a tank ambush on the road to Techamutete. The lead Cuban Soviet era T-34  tank was destroyed by one of the anti-tank mines, while the paratroopers destroyed four of the BTR-152s using their RPG-7s. They also killed approximately 40 of the Cuban troops before making their ‘fighting retreat’ back along the road towards the Helicopter Landing Zone.

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Mirage III destroying a vehicle in the Cuban column

This was a grave threat to the few remaining Parabats. Their LZ’s came under tank fire and APCs full of Cubans threatened to swamp the remaining Parabats. Support was called in to rescue the beleaguered paratroopers, a Buccaneer and two Mirage III’s appeared, the Mirage III’s destroying a further 10 BTR 152s before running low on fuel and returning to base.

The sole Buccaneer remained and destroyed at least two tanks, an anti-aircraft gun (which as firing at it) and a number of other vehicles.

The Buccaneer ran out of ammunition at this point, and this coincided with the arrival of the 17 helicopters to extract the remaining paratroopers in the second wave.  The Cuban armoured column then advanced on the helicopter’s landing zone.  In a desperate attempt to prevent the Cuban tanks from firing at the vulnerable helicopters and the assembling South African troops waiting to be picked up, the Buccaneer pilot dived his aircraft dangerously low, nearly hitting trees as he flew close over the top of the tanks in mock attacks.   This brave and dangerous action by the pilot disorientated the Cuban tank crews and forced them to break off their developing attack on the paratrooper’s’ positions.

The destruction of the Cuban column 

Ten minutes after the last of the SAAF helicopters took off, two of the Puma helicopters were directed to return to Cassinga, as it was feared that some of the paratroopers might have been left behind. They spotted a group of people huddled together, but closer inspection revealed that they were the 40 prisoners of war who had been mistakenly left behind.  No more paratroopers were found.

In the mid afternoon SAAF Mirage IIIs returned to Cassinga, and once again strafed the Cuban vehicles that were still on the road. About a kilometre south of Cassinga, another Buccaneer attacked another column of vehicles, coming under heavy anti-aircraft fire in the process.

In the late afternoon SAAF Buccaneers and Mirages surprised the Cubans moving through the ruins and destroyed more Cuban T-34 tanks and anti-aircraft guns.

The result was that by nightfall nearly the entire Cuban battalion had been destroyed, accounting for Cuba’s biggest single-day casualty rate during its military involvement in Angola up to that point.

A complete Angolan tank brigade relief force, arriving at dusk, was too late to have any impact and found only scenes of destruction at what had once been Cassinga.

Aftermath

According to an Angolan government white paper, the official toll of the Cassinga Raid was a total of 624 dead and 611 injured comprising civilians as well as combatants. Among the dead were 167 women and 298 teenagers and children. Since many of the combatants were female or teenagers and many combatants did not wear uniforms, the exact number of civilians among the dead could not be established.

The South Africans declared the attack on Cassinga to be a military success, and it set the SADF strategy for dealing with SWAPO bases in Angola for the next 10 years (although in future, the larger strikes were primarily armoured based not airbourne). A SWAPO propaganda campaign on the other hand labelled the attack on Cassinga as a civilian massacre.

The position of SWAPO and all the organizations and governments that were supporting it by 1978 benefited from the moral outrage incited by a ‘surprise attack’ on a ‘refugee camp.’ In the aftermath of the raid, SWAPO received unprecedented support in the form of humanitarian aid sent to it from sympathetic governments.

It was however clear to the South Africans that Cassinga was a military facility rather than essentially a refugee camp or refugee transit facility, as SWAPO claimed.  They had the proof.

The Mass Grave Propaganda Campaign  

Although a military success, politically it was a disaster for the National Party government of South Africa.   SWAPO and Angola press statements described the base as a refugee camp and claimed the SADF had slaughtered 600 defenceless refugees.

The bodies were buried in two mass graves.  Pictures of one of the mass graves (the larger one) was used extensively for propaganda purposes, and for many people these pictures became the imagery and symbology associated with Cassinga.

Taken from the grave’s edge, the mass grave photos are close enough to the corpses for individual bodies, and in some cases the clothing, wounds and flies covering them, to be discernible. The photos demand an emotional reaction, the photographs are set in such a way as to look like a WW2 styled premeditated massacre, appearing as if the SADF had dug a grave and piled in the ‘civilian’ bodies.

cassinga posterSWAPO propaganda in the weeks following the attack used “text” on posters to draw attention to the ‘civilian’ qualities of the bodies, the suffering of Namibians under colonialism, and the violence committed against oppressed people in other settings. In so doing, they associated the mass grave at Cassinga with the history of the ‘refugee’ camp.

In truth the SADF paratroopers did not dig a mass grave, nor did they have the heavy equipment to dig such a grave, the urgency of the extraction meant they left most of the dead where they lay.

The holes used for the mass graves were originally built by SWAPO as food storage spaces. Following the attack, the survivors at Cassinga, together with Namibian, Cuban and Angolan soldiers, collected the dead scattered in and around the camp and laid them to rest in the two holes and interned them in with sand and soil closing the holes.

Some days later, survivors and others were instructed to re-open the larger of the two graves to show international journalists who would be arriving at the camp on 8th May. People took turns digging up the sand and brushing it away from the bodies so that it would not obscure the journalists’ view.

The attending journalists noted that they assumed that the larger grave had not yet been covered and made no mention of how the grave was prepared for them.

A detailed examination of the mass grave photographs indicates that the bodies are those of adults more than teenagers, though some of them are certainly young adults. The overwhelming majority of them are men, with only a few women. Most of the men are wearing uniforms and there is little evidence of the ‘brightly coloured frocks’ although several of the photographs are in colour.

In conclusion

The truth and reconciliation commission special report on Cassinga could not attribute any ‘war crimes’ to any specific SADF personnel and officers taking part in attack on Cassinga.

In the end the Operation can be regarded as a military success, it was a classic daring paratrooper styled assault with the usual high risk associated with it, if it had gone wrong it would have gone very wrong.  In total the SADF casualties where very light for an assault of this nature.

There were however some fundamental failures.  Primarily this was the failure of the SADF Intelligence Services to account for the high number of civilians in the camp in the lead up to the attack, and failure of SADF Planners to envisage the high probability of these civilians entering into the cross fire or been subjected to the bombing run’s killing zone.

No modern statutory military force bound by the Geneva Conventions intends to purposefully kill civilians, and the South African Defence Force was no different.   However the simple truth is that using fragmentation bombs at the beginning of the assault accounted for most of the civilian casualties.  ‘Dumb’ ordinance like this is indiscriminate (‘smart’ bombing had not been invented in the late 70’s) and in this sense such bombing is no different to WW2 ordinance and like the Allied WW2 bombings it is a sad truth that many civilians are killed when using it.   The sheltering of civilians in the trenches from the bombing added to the tragedy which was to come.

In the end, although Cassinga was a military success, it was a political failure.  The South African government sought a highly aggressive settlement to Namibia with the agreement to hit the base at Cassinga and not a passive or negotiated one.  The backlash of world-wide condemnation was something many of the National Party politicians did not really foresee.

Today

After independence, the new government of  Namibia  declared 4 May as  “Cassinga Day” a public holiday to commemorate the loss of life.  In 2007, the names of the Cuban soldiers who were killed were carved into the wall of Freedom Park in South Africa.

Official celebration of this event by the SANDF ended in 1996.  Veterans of the various South African parachute battalions still privately commemorate Cassinga Day in remembrance of all who died that day.

SADF Honour Roll

71384234BT Rifleman Edward James Backhouse from 3 Parachute Battalion. He was 22.
68546134BT Rifleman Martin Kaplan from 2 Parachute Battalion. He was 25.
70510813BT Rifleman Jacob Conrad De Waal from 2 Parachute Battalion. He was 23.
65383390BT Rifleman Andries Petrus Human from 3 Parachute Battalion. Reported Missing in Action after jumping from the aircraft at Cassinga.. For administrative purposes, he was officially declared dead on 22 January 1980. He was 29.

May all the people lost in this attack rest in peace, and if you had to ask any of these veterans of this attack and who have really ‘seen’ war, they mourn the destruction and loss caused in all war, civilian and combatant alike.

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Rifleman Edward James Backhouse as he came home

General Mark Clark’s praise of the South Africans

WW2 – In December 1944 an American General – General Mark Clark – took overall command of Allied ground troops in Italy (15th Army Group). This included taking overall command of the South African 6th Armoured Division, and he said this in praise of the South Africans:

“It was a battle-wise outfit, bold and aggressive against the enemy, and willing to do whatever job was necessary. In fact, after a period of severe day and night fighting, the 6th had in an emergency gone into the line as infantrymen. When the snow stalled their armour they dug in their tanks and used them as artillery to make up for our shortage in heavy guns. Whenever I saw them, I was impressed by the large number of decorations and honours they had earned the hard way. Their attacks against strongly organised German positions were made with great élan and without regard for casualties. Despite their comparatively small numbers, they never complained about losses. Neither did Smuts, who made it clear that the Union of South Africa intended to do its part in the War – and it most certainly did”.

General Mark C. Clark, Calculated Risk. p. 391

The featured image shows General Clarke inspecting South African troops at the end of the war during a parade in Monza,  Italy (held on the famous Monza race track).

G10154203_282011528635253_3582423716020249574_neneral Mark Clarke was ultimately made the Supreme Commander of the AFHQ in the Mediterranean, replacing Field Marshal Sir Maitland Wilson, He was promoted to the four-star rank of General on March 10, 1945, aged 48, the youngest in the United States Army. Clark led the 15th Army Group in the Spring 1945 offensive in Italy codenamed Operation Grapeshot, which brought the war in Italy to an end, and afterwards he accepted the German surrender in Italy in May and became Commander of the Allied Forces in Italy at the end of World War 2 in Europe.

Captured MPLA Propaganda

Bush War in Angola – this is an example of a MPLA propaganda poster which was retrieved by the SADF (by the hundred) from SWAPO bases in Angola in the aftermath of Ops Protea in 1981.

It calls for the Liberation of ALL of Africa, saying NO to Apartheid, Colonisation and Neo-Colonisation.  These posters were gathered primarily by SADF Intelligence personnel investigating the over-run SWAPO bases.

1200px-Movimento_Popular_de_Libertação_de_Angola_(bandeira)The MPLA i.e. The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, ruled Angola since the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975 on the simple premise that it “held” Luanda, the capital city, after the Portuguese left it.  This put it in immediate conflict with fellow anti-colonial movements in other parts of the country which disputed the MPLA’s claim, primarily the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).  It however supported SWAPO, the South West Africa People’s Organisation and allowed its military arm (PLAN) to operate armed insurgencies (terror attacks in reality)  into South West Africa (Namibia) from territories it controlled.  The armed wing of the MPLA was FAPLA, the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola.

Allowing SWAPO bases to operate brought the SADF into conflict with the MPLA and FAPLA.  Operation Protea was launched by The South African Defence Force on 23 August 1981. Its objectives were to destroy the SWAPO command and training centres at Xangongo and its logistic bases at Xangongo and Ongiva.

The Operation was a planned strike into Angola and regarded as a SADF success. Notably for not only capturing loads of intelligence, like these posters, but also all the captured Soviet equipment which South African units in Battle Group 10 (61 Mech) brought back to their bases in South West Africa (Nambia), somewhere around 3,500 tonnes of it.

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Ops Protea, SADF Crossing at Xangongo with Captured Enemy 23mm AA Guns.

In the aftermath, the SWAPO bases were destroyed, Soviet casualties stood at thirteen: nine officers and four civilians, while one soldier was captured. South African casualties included 10 dead and 64 wounded. PLAN and FAPLA casualties were high with 831 dead and 25 captured.

Such is the course of history and changing times, that the MPLA are still the party in charge of Angola and most of this military hardware is still in South Africa, some in museums but also at military depots and displayed at army bases.

The MPLA has sofened somewhat now from the fire-brand anti-colonisation messages and propaganda slogans of the 70’s and 80’s, it is regarded as “centre-left” politically now and uses the slogan “Peace, Work and Liberty”.

Image and background courtesy Andrew Bergman