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.

 

They started it!

By Steve De Witt

The day we declared war on Zimbabwe

According to a report in the Sunday Independent, a troop of 200 baboons is conducting a reign of terror on Beit Bridge. They live on the catwalk below. From there they stage ambushes on cars and travellers, eating and thieving and taking their loot back to the catwalk.

39755130_10156497723659976_7188637117235331072_nI find this gut-wrenchingly hilarious. It’s amazing how history turns full circle. The last group of baboons terrorizing the catwalk on Beit Bridge was our army platoon. It may only be a footnote in the history of old South Africa, but it was us – little ol’ us – who unintentionally declared war on Zimbabwe in the early 80’s.

Beit Bridge was a sensitive posting. ‘Daaie fokkin communis en terroris’ Robert Mugabe had come to power only a few months before. At the last outpost on the frontier, standing face to face with the enemy half-way across the bridge, our platoon was instructed to defend South Africa against the swart gevaar.

Our company commander, an Infantry captain, took this mission as a personal honour bestowed by PW Botha, Constant Viljoen (Chief of the Defence Force), Jannie Geldenhuys (Chief of the Army) and God, in that order.

On the sandy, blisteringly hot parade ground of Beit Bridge he stood us at ease, not stand easy, for two hours in the sun. We were lambasted about the massive responsibility of our task. We were not under any circumstances to communicate with the Zimbabwean soldiers.

We were to be perfectly turned out, representing the whole SA army in appearance and discipline. We were the gate-keepers between SA and Communist Africa. The smallest indiscretion could flare into an international incident. “En julle fokkin Engelsmanne,” he said, referring to the minority five of us in Platoon 1, “Ek watch julle – Pasop!”

Thus entrusted with the safe-keeping of all SA, we were dispatched to the very same catwalk under the Bridge inherited today by our successors, 200 large monkeys.

And thus the Alfred Beit Bridge (1952) over the Limpopo River was once our possession, our kingdom. Amazing how the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

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Actually, the bridge is a beautiful place on the Limpopo, especially at sunset. Strong legs brace into the flowing waters, and in the early 80‘s all manner of wildlife would come down to drink, including hippos. A resident crocodile patrolled the waters below, and we had endless hours of reflection from our bunker, now hidden behind overgrown foliage at the red circle (see picture below).

Now our Captain may have been a drunken, Soutie-hating messiah but he knew his men. Leave low-ranking troops idle for too long and something untoward will happen. Leave five Souties in a bunker with a machine gun on an international border and you’re asking for a career-ending incident.

So we never told him that we’d smuggled cases of Castle Lager into the bunker. Nor that we’d chatted to the cautious Zim soldiers on the catwalk. He also never found out that we’d snatched a camouflage cap off one’s head. And that both sides had cocked rifles, resulting in a tense stand-off, before we threw the cap back to them. Such small indiscretions were relatively easy to hide.

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But when one drunken Soutie, feet up on the sandbagged wall, cocked the machine gun in a routine way to check the supposedly empty chamber, then pulled the trigger, we didn’t expect a clip of twenty odd rounds to fire across the water at the Zimbabwean bunker.

Consternation and chaos broke out in the bunker. We all hit the floor, beer bottles scattering.

“What the hell…!”
we yelled at Trevor.
Crack! Crack! came AK47 bullets back across the water.
“They started it!” yelled Trevor.
“They didn’t start it! You started it!”
“Are you fuckin mad?” he yelled, wide-eyed – “We’ll all go to DB if we started it. They fuckin started it!”
Thus the story was born.
Within seconds an apoplectic, drunken Captain raged into the bunker ducking AK 47 bullets.
“Julle fokkin Soutpiele!”
“They started it!” we yelled in unison.
“Almal in die bunkers!” he yelled into the radio.

A hundred men stumbled out the bar and fell into trenches, and stayed there all night as the odd bullet continued to crack across our heads. In the morning the border post was closed, reinforcements sent and the Captain summoned to Messina HQ, some 20 km away.

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Weeks later we were at that landmark Oasis of the North, the Messina Hotel, getting pissed after a rugby game. The Captain, dronk verdriet, was there too, staring into his Brannewyn. It was safe to ask what happened when he got called to Messina HQ that day.

He sukkeled to stay upright on the barstool as he revealed the biggest uitkak in the history of the SADF.

39883804_10156497724024976_2389294176530333696_nA Colonel had grilled him, asking – “who fired first”?
“They started it,” he said.
The Colonel then reported to Jannie Geldenhuys, Chief of the Army.
He in turn told Constant Viljoen, Head of the Defence Force.
Who spoke to Pik Botha, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Who called in the Zimbabwean Ambassador…
Who said “the SA Army started it”.
(Here our Captain paused, and downed his Brannewyn)
…Pik stared at him, not knowing what to believe.
But had to inform PW Botha, who crapped him out.
PW also kakked out General Viljoen.
Who shat out Jannie Geldenhuys.
Who got bedonnered with the Colonel.
Who went bevok at the Captain…
… who got five lying Soutpiele on orders in front of him, and in an unparalleled fit of drunken rage, demanded the truth.

There was only one truth, and we stuck to it. “They started it”.

In matters of unresolved blame, the army falls back on an old tactic – the opvok. Sandbags were dished out, a killer sergeant instructed to break us physically and mentally, and down to the fence by the river we were sent.

It was the most brutal of PT sessions. We were drilled all day firstly into cramp, then heat stroke and finally semi-consciousness. The fences are still there today but Zimbabweans cutting holes in them care little about us Souties who nearly died there thirty years ago.

Ah well, it’s all water under the bridge now, so to speak. Beit Bridge now has a new set of problems with millions of refugees, cholera, traffic congestion and a shortage of toilet paper.

I’m glad all this nonsense is not happening on my beat. It seems appropriate that baboons are the new custodians of the bridge – their intellectual capacity suits the chaos there, and at least they won’t accidentally declare war on Zimbabwe.

Still, I get nostalgic for the bridge we once defended, and which God made our kingdom for two short months. It was beautiful and calm there when the Captain had passed out. I sometimes wish I could return to that bunker at sunset, if only for a beer and a banana with the new guard.


Editor’s Note; Sometimes we get a 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 (and the Border on Zimbabwe), thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post.  Copyright  – Steve De Witt.

Other Stories by Steve de Witt

Kak Vraag Sit – click this link;  Kak vraag sit


Mast picture of Steve de Witt’s Platoon guarding Beit Bridge in 1982 copyright and courtesy Carel Pretorius.  Steve’s article was originally published in 2008 by News 24

The ‘Two comma Four’!

Most military veterans will remember the 2.4 km run, it’s a test that is permanently burned into memory; the “two comma four” run is a fitness threshold and has to be completed in under 12 minutes.  No easy run, especially when you consider the run is done in military fatigues with boots, webbing, assault rifle and helmet.

At all phases of South African military training, from basics onwards and even after training the 2.4 km run was used to establish the fitness and readiness of all serving personnel (so too a little cheating as this author was to find out when senior officers were called out to complete the run – only to run around a wall and wait till the younger and fitter officers to come back and rejoin them).

Those national servicemen who did “Junior Leaders” (JL’s) officers or non-commissioned officers course as part of their National Service were expected to meet this minimum standard of 12 min or less for this run, running with rifle, webbing and helmet to complete their ‘officers course’.

“Pah” I hear some runners out there say – easy! So here’s a challenge – map out a 2.4 Km run, find a pair of leather sole shoes or boots (no nice running shoes), then add 18 kg odd in lead weights to a backpack (this will simulate the weight of the “helmet”, “rifle” and “webbing”) – and then head out for a sub 12 minutes and let us know how you get along.

For interest the 1.5 mile (2.4 km) test is known as “The Cooper test”, originally designed by Kenneth H. Cooper in 1968 for US military use to test for physical fitness.


Written and researched by Peter Dickens

Africa’s greatest ‘Exodus’

August 16th 1975 Angola, in the feature image we see Portuguese refugees of the Angolan war housed in emergency SADF army tents at Grootfontein. To many who don’t understand why South Africa embarked on a war on the Angolan border with Namibia (then South West Africa), this tragedy – the largest exodus in the history of Africa, is very central to South Africa’s military “mission creep” and the prelude to Operation Savannah which saw South Africa invade Angola on a stabilising mission starting the next month Oct – 1975.  Read on for a real understanding of the “Border War”.

The Carnation Revolution 

The start of the war in Angola stated in earnest in April 1974, the trigger was the Carnation Revolution in Portugal which changed the politics of that country.

The Carnation Revolution was initially a military coup in Lisbon, Portugal on 25 April 1974 which overthrew the authoritarian regime of the Estado Novo.  The revolution started as a military coup organised by the ‘Armed Forces Movement’ composed of military officers who opposed the regime, but the movement was soon coupled with an unanticipated and popular campaign of popular civil resistance. This movement would lead to the fall of the Estado Novo and the withdrawal of Portugal from all its African Colonies – including Mozambique and Angola.

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Portuguese Armed Forces with carnations in their barrels during the Carnation Revolution of 25th April 1974

The name “Carnation Revolution” comes from the fact that almost no shots were fired and that when the population took to the streets to celebrate the end of the dictatorship and war in the colonies, carnations were put into the muzzles of rifles and on the uniforms of the army men.

The new government announced that it would grant independence to Angola on 11 November 1975; the three rival anti-colonial forces (UNITA, MPLA, FNLA) immediately began jockeying for control of the capital Luanda, with international intervention in support of the different factions.

In late 1966 the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) joined the fight against the Angolan colonial power of Portugal, who were already in conflict with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA).

UNITA was mainly active in southern and eastern Angola, while the MPLA and FNLA were mainly active in northern Angola. At the request of Portugal, South African Air Force helicopters were first sent to support the Portuguese Armed Forces in Angola against UNITA in 1967, thus beginning South Africa’s decades-long involvement.

The Exodus

In 1975, on the date stipulated for the independence hand over the war moved from being a war of Independence from Portugal to the Angolan Civil War. In fear of their lives the Portuguese civilians in Angola became refugees as the country entered full-scale war.

Regarded as the greatest exodus of a singular population group in Africa, the Portuguese population left Angola for safety and refuse in South West Africa (Namibia) and South Africa in their hundreds of thousands, and not just the Portuguese, hundreds of thousands of Angolans from various ethic and political divides found themselves resorting to refugee status too.

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Portuguese civilians living in Angola stream across the South West African (Namibia) border to safety in 1974.

The Red Cross estimated that more than 500,000 Africans had been displaced by the fighting in ANGOLA. Because of the tribal basis of the three main nationalist movements, most of those caught in the wrong tribal area had resorted to flight. The Ovibundu who worked in the coffee plantations and diamond mines of the north have all gone home to their homelands on the central plateau.

The next to suffer were the southerners, mainly National Front supporters, who found themselves caught in the crossfire between the National Front and the Popular Movement; about 20,000 have left for the south, and others had taken refuge in empty buildings in the centre of the city Luanda.

Then it was the turn of the Bakongo northerners, also supporters of the National Front. Once their movement had been smashed in Luanda they were exposed to Popular Movement reprisals. During July 1975, about 15,000 of them gathered in front of the government palace with their possessions demanding repatriation to the north; they were provided with ferries and aircraft to transport them there.

But as for the half-million Portuguese and other foreign nationals in Angola, they had nowhere to go and a haven outside was hard to find.

South Africa initially did not exactly offer a welcoming face to thousands Portuguese despite their years in Africa, but were allowed to enter South West Africa (Namibia). Brazil was in theory, a better prospect but only the middle class could afford to go so far; and in July 1975, the Brazilian airline, Varig, ceased its flights through Luanda to Rio, which were already fully booked to mid-October.

Portuguese officials had planned to bring home between 250,000 and 300,000 people by the end of October. Up to 200,000 had left Angola already, in June and early July more than 6,000 a week were taking scheduled commercial flights on the Portuguese airline, TAP, and another 3,500 were flown home on military aircraft. Since then the Portuguese airline has been chartering whatever jets it could obtain.

The Portugal government had also chartered two ships, one to carry passengers and the other to carry the refugees’ luggage and cars.

But many Portuguese, fed up with the huge queues at shipping and airline offices and the up-to-four-month delay in getting a reservation, also with the war creeping closer , had taken matters into their own hands and left in convoys to South West Africa (Namibia).

The exodus had a devastating effect on Angola’s economy and administration. but this was more about a life struggle then economics.The Local government in Angola had collapsed.

The majority of Portuguese left Angola with only their clothes and a small suitcase, leaving everything else behind . A real tragedy in the making.

The Aftermath 

In the aftermath of this, the resultant regional instability and increased insurgency of military operations into South Africa’s Protectorate – South West Africa – by SWAPO (using the unstable and war-torn Angola as bases), forced the South African government to increase military presence and embark on what was in effect a regional “Police” action (Peacekeeping). Over the decades protagonists allied to one another in Angola started bringing in supplement Cuban and Russian military support, further exasperating South Africa’s fear of a Communist invasion of Southern Africa and an extended version of “The Cold War” in Africa was set to ramp up the war to a whole new level.  In modern military speak this is known as ‘mission creep’.

The exodus and the plight of the refugees, and specifically the unstable country, the armed incursions into South West Africa and communist threat, are the direct reasons underpinning Operation Savannah on the 14th October 1975, which saw South Africa, with the support of the United States of America, invade Angola on a stabilising mission and to effect regime change.  The mission was destined to fail as the United States and the surrounding African states supporting South Africa’s intervention withdrew their support, leaving the SADF with no other option other than to return to base in South West Africa (Namibia). 

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Operation Savannah 1975, this rare photograph taken deep into Angola of a SADF Eland 90 Armoured Car of Combat Group Foxbat at the Re-Supply point at the abandoned Clinic at Santa Comba


Lets also talk about the real reasons for South Africa’s border war and not the mumbo jumbo political rhetoric so often heard from the current governments of Namibia and South Africa. South Africa did not invade Angola to ‘occupy’ the country. The intense military buildup had nothing really to do with the ‘ANC Liberation struggle’ in South Africa. None of South Africa’s actions in Angola were to ‘subjugate’ the people and implement Apartheid. All the South African actions where ‘tactical’ i.e. temporary with well-defined objectives – once completed South Africans returned to base, they were never ‘defeated’ or ‘turned around’ by ‘victorious’ liberation movements. No large-scale SADF action in Angola did not meet its overall military objective (all where successful to varying degrees). SWAPO’s PLAN (operating out of Angola) was never able to militarily occupy and hold any part of South West Africa (Namibia) prior to the democratic election process and implementation of UN Peacekeeping resolutions.

The Cold War (Western Democracy vs. Communism standoff) was a very different time and scenario to what the world is today, and from a purely military perspective, South African military veterans of Operation Savannah and all subsequent operations in Angola have every reason to hold their heads high.


Researched by Peter Dickens. Reference and thanks for main extracts to Mark Goller.