In any military campaign there are always setbacks, and Ops Firewood qualifies one of the very few real setbacks that the SADF experienced during the Border War. To view it as a resounding victory of PLAN (SWAPO) over the SADF would however be an overstatement.
Currently in Namibia and South Africa there are overqualified claims that this operation points to PLAN superiority over the SADF, but that would also be a myth, these claims coming mainly from modern Namibians being fed a long stream of political propaganda.
However, to face up to a ‘truth’, Ops Firewood was a tactical ‘loss’ for the SADF, it was not widely circulated, and thus relatively unknown to many SADF servicemen (now veterans). So let’s look at it and face the truths and debunk the myths.
On the 31 Oct 1987, a 101 Battalion Battle Group, supported by members of 5 Reconnaissance Regiment together with D Company, 1 Parachute Battalion, 2 Reconnaissance Regiment and other SADF support elements, attacked SWAPO/PLAN positions at Nindango in Southern Angola, They used Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Armoured Personnel Carriers (Ratels, Casspirs and Buffels).
The Operation was known as Ops Firewood. The key objective was to destroy the Northern Front PLAN Head Quarter (HQ) base.
This PLAN base was set in a densely wooded area, and was attacked from the west by the Reconnaissance Regiment (recce) and Paratroopers (parabats) of the SADF (South African Forces), while 101 Battalion of the SWATF (South West African Forces) covered the base from north, east and south, the direction PLAN forces were expected to flee.
From the on-set of the Operation it became clear from the start that SWAPO/PLAN had been expecting such an attack as they were in well prepared defensive positions and supported by a Cuban Tank and Artillery element with a FAPLA Motorised Infantry Unit in support.
During the extremely heavy fighting that continued throughout the day, about 7 hours in total, a 101 Battalion Casspir was knocked out by a RPG-7 anti-tank rocket and burnt out. The Battle Group suffered 15 casualties with approximately 67 wounded before contact was finally broken off at nightfall.
The base was not successfully taken by the SADF forces, who withdrew when PLAN reinforcements were understood to be on their way.
The South African forces are said to have incurred 12 killed and 47 wounded (while other sources say it was as high as 19 killed and 64 wounded, but this is yet to be substantiated). On the SWAPO side, the casualties were said to be very high, with at least 150 PLAN soldiers killed (however, again there is controversy here as a source within PLAN command maintains that this figure posted on Wikipedia is inflated somewhat, however an actual figure from PLAN is still not forthcoming).
All the SADF dead and wounded were casevaced to AFB Ondangwa during the night of October 31/1 Nov 1987. The last Puma helicopter departed at about 03h30 the following morning and ferried the remaining dead and lightly wounded. The 101 Battalion casualties were taken directly to their Unit and not to AFB Ondangwa.
The featured image is a SADF Buffel Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) captured by SWAPO/PLAN combatants during Ops Firewood. To put this ‘capture’ into perspective only four Buffel APC’s were captured fully intact in different battles during the entire period of the Border War. Before we stand up and claim a great military prize, lets take perspective, the Buffel was a personnel carrier, nothing more, there were over a thousand of them deployed during the entire period of the war.
The picture was taken between September 1987 and March 1988 by Col K.A. Satenov, the Soviet military advisor to the 1st and 20th PLAN Brigade commanders (seen in the picture on the left). The Buffel APC captured belonged to 2 Reconnaissance, it was lost fully intact in that battle, three 101 Battalion Casspirs were also lost.
In the aftermath, Honoris Crux (South Africa’s highest bravery decoration) decorations were awarded to five 101 Battalion members for gallantry in action.
So, was it a demonstration of superior PLAN fighting prowess over that of the SADF? Judging by the death toll to PLAN versus that of the SADF/SWATF the simple answer is – no. Was it a PLAN victory, the answer is yes (by many accounts one of only a handful). Was it a ‘tactical’ defeat for the SADF in not meeting its objective? The answer is – ‘yes’. Did it affect the overall military dominance of the SADF on the South West African (Namibian) Border and change any thinking or modus operandi behind the large scale (and small scale) operations into Angola? The answer is ‘no’ – not really, learnings were however taken on over-confidence in using special and elite forces for full front armour assaults, a role not specific to their brand of battle order. Was it a ‘great decisive battle’ on African soil? The answer is ‘no’. It was part of a broader campaign, to the SADF commanders it qualified a tactical set-back, nothing more – part and parcel of waging war.
As such the SADF sought no reason to highlight it as a ‘devastating loss’, it remains relatively unknown to many ex-SADF personnel (especially those not involved in Operations into Angola and those not in elite forces circles) as it would have affected morale, and for the wrong reasons entirely.
It is however remembered by veterans of the SADF special forces and elite forces, so too the PLAN combatants, and if you asked either of them for the ‘truth’ of the battle, they would both agree that the real ‘truth’ is to be found in their dead, for only they who have seen the end of war.
The Battle Group casualties who we remember as South Africans were:
“D” COMPANY, 1 PARACHUTE BATTALION
82513110BG Rifleman Hughes Norbert De Rose. He was 21.
82437369BG Rifleman Wayne Valentine Ewels. He was 21.
81033292BG Lance Corporal Raymond Mark Light. He was 21.
83219139BG Corporal Nico Smith Olivier. He was 19.
83247502BG Rifleman Dirk Willem van Rooyen. He was 20.
83271031BG Rifleman Jean Marc Schuurman. Critically wounded and evacuated from the battlefield to AFB Ondangwa where he underwent emergency surgery. He was evacuated back to the RSA the following day on 1 November 1987 but he succumbed to his wounds before the aircraft landed in Pretoria. He was 20.
5 RECONNAISSANCE REGIMENT
83561928BG 2/Lieutenant Dylan Chevalier Cobbalt. He was 20.
101 BATTALION ROMEO MIKE
76330893PE Captain Andries Hercules Du Bruyn Rademeyer. He was 27.
83587345BG 2/Lieutenant Deon Botes. He was 20.
84533793BG Sapper Erasmus Albertus Steyn. He was 19.
Rifleman W. Abraham
Rifleman P. Epafu
Rifleman T. Sheepo
Rifleman M. Uusshona
NOTE from the custodians recording SADF losses during the Border War. “The Roll of Honour for this engagement has been debated at length. To date, not one individual has supplied any official proof to substantiate their claims or come forward with the names of the four individuals that are supposedly missing from this Roll. Until such time as this happens, we continue to pay homage to these 15 Brothers and accept this list as the official Ops Firewood Roll of Honour”. Their names and Sacrifice have not been forgotten.
Sources that point to the ’19’ dead maintain that 4 members of 101 Battalion are unaccounted for.
Colonel Satenov wrote a book called “Army is my Destiny” and currently lives in Kazakhstan (the former Soviet Republic) – this picture is also in his book.
Written and Researched by Peter Dickens
Photo, thanks and caption courtesy and copyright to Igor Ignatovich who was also a Soviet military advisor to SWAPO. Reference wikipedia, Igor Igantovich, Maj. Du Toit’s daily honour roll, SADF veteran on-line forums.