A documentary on the loss of the SAS President Kruger and 16 souls

This is a must see video on the sinking of the SAS President Kruger by Marc Bow, it outlines everything about the tragedy, and the impact the sinking of this vessel still has on the South African Naval Community – even to this day.

For the full story on The Observation Post, feel free to follow this link:

“Out of the Storm came Courage” … the tragedy of the PK

The honour roll of the South Africans lost that tragic day is as follows:

05507629 PE Chief Petty Officer Johannes Petrus Booysen
77060150PE Chief Petty Officer Hartmut Wilfried Smit
69443794PE Chief Petty Officer Willem Marthinus Gerhardus Van Tonder
07467392PE Chief Petty Officer Donald Webb
05208145PE Petty Officer Stephanus Petrus Bothma
70351226PE Petty Officer Graham Alexander Frank Brind
65718058PE Petty Officer Robin Centlivre Bulterman
73317695PE Petty Officer Granville Williams De Villiers
66510579PE Petty Officer Evert Koen
08302440PE Petty Officer Hjalmar Lotter
70343553PE Petty Officer Roy Anthony McMaster
72362379PE Petty Officer Roy Frederick Skeates
72265465PE Petty Officer William Russel Smith
75060863PN Petty Officer Michael Richard Bruce Whiteley
72249998PE Petty Officer Coenraad Johannes Wium
80100167PE Able Seaman Gilbert Timothy Benjamin

May they rest in peace, never forgotten.


Video Footage:  Marc Bow

 

Forget Tigers, The Royal Air Force’s 74 Squadron has a legacy of South African Lions!

One of the most prestigious fighter Squadrons in the history of the Royal Air Force was 74 Squadron, known as the ‘Tigers’.  However, three South Africans played a key role in forging the great fighting legacy of the Tigers, two of them commanded the squadron, one during World War 2 and one took the squadron into the jet age.

So let’s look at these three remarkable South Africans and how they have come to influence not only 74 Squadron, but The Royal Air Force itself.

World War 1

19424342_1982409011988087_4980834163001230819_n74 Squadron was formed during World War 1,Its first operational fighters were S.E. 5as in March 1918, and served in France until February 1919, during this time it gained a fearsome reputation and was credited with 140 enemy planes destroyed and 85 driven down out of control, for 225 victories. No fewer than Seventeen aces had served in the squadron, including one Victoria Cross Winner Major Edward Mannock.  In this line up of aces was one notable South African, and this man came from Kimberley, Capt. Andrew Cameron Kiddie DFC, and he came from unassuming beginnings – he was one of Kimberley’s local bakers.

Captain Kiddie became a flight commander of 74 Squadron in the summer of 1918 and scored fifteen aircraft shot down victories by the end of the war. For this he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and  the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

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To read more in-depth about his remarkable South African follow this link to a previous Observation Post story Kimberley baker was a South African WW1 Flying Ace.

World War 2

malan1World War 2 would shape 74 Squadron as one of the best in The Royal Air Force.  It became the front-line squadron which took the brunt of the attacks during The Battle of Britain, and this time the squadron was commanded by a formidable South African, Group Captain A G ‘Sailor’ Malan DSO & Bar DFC & Bar.

Arguably one of the best South African pilots of the Second World War and certainly one of the best Royal Air Force pilots during the Battle of Britain – now one of the much idolised ‘few’ who, along with his command of 74 Squadron, turned the tide of the war, and he did it based on a set of rules he drew up, now famously known as “Ten of my rules for air fighting”.

Sailor Malan’s rules of air combat were readily adopted by pilots in the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, these rules saved many a pilot and brought down many enemy aircraft, they are directly attributed to the success of the Battle of Britain and in so keeping Britain in the war.

Sailor Malan was given command of 74 Squadron, which by this stage was flying the iconic Spitfire, Sailor, now with the rank of Acting Squadron Leader took command at the height of the Battle of Britain on 8th August 1940. Three days later on August the 11th, the Squadron was in battle, and it was a battle that help turn the tide of the Battle of Britain.  When Sailor finished the day’s combat The Royal Air Force had downed an astounding 38 enemy aircraft.  This day is forever marked now in the history of the Battle of Britain and the squadron history as “Sailor’s August the Eleventh”.

In all, by the end of the war Sailor Malan scored 27 enemy aircraft kills, seven shared destroyed, three probably destroyed and 16 damaged. He was to receive the Distinguished Service Order decoration – not once, but twice and well as the Distinguished Flying Cross decoration, again not once – but twice.

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Much has been written on Sailor Malan on this website, so for an in-depth profile on this most exceptional South African please follow this link: Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!

The Cold War

But that is not the end of 74 Squadrons remarkable commanding officers, one South African was to take the squadron into the jet age and himself achieve the dizzy heights of Air Vice-Marshal in the Royal Air Force.

21414618_10214639016195019_6362419216829534532_oAir Vice-Marshal John Howe was one of the RAF’s most experienced and capable Cold War fighter pilots, whose flying career spanned Korean war piston-engined aircraft to the supersonic Lightning and Phantom.

Howe was appointed to command the RAF’s No 74 Tiger Squadron in early 1960, the squadron had just been issued one of the fastest fighter aircraft ever built, the EE Lightning and Howe was going to put it through its paces. Once again, we find a South African Lion leading a squadron of Tigers. So how did a South African land up in such a position of Command in the Cold War?

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John Howe in the SAAF

John Frederick George Howe was born in East London, South Africa, on March 26 1930 and educated at St Andrew’s College, Grahamstown. As soon as he left school, he joined the South African Air Force (SAAF) and trained as a pilot. In early 1951 he joined SAAF No 2 Squadron, known as the Flying Cheetahs. John along with 2 Squadron became part of the South African commitment to United Nations to take part in the Korean War.  Here his prowess as fighter pilot took root.

During his first tour of duty in Korea for the South African Air Force he flew the American made  Mustang F-51D fighter-bombers in front-line action.  One notable action took place on June 24, when Howe took off with three others. They responded to an emergency call for air support by a surrounded ground force. In the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, the four Mustangs attacked gun emplacements a number of times. Howe did not expect to survive, but the four aircraft returned to base. All four South African pilots received US gallantry awards. A month later, Howe was forced to crash-land and was rescued by a helicopter.

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In September, as a 21-year-old second lieutenant, he was the leader of four aircraft instructed to attack enemy troops that were threatening friendly forces. Fierce enemy fire damaged Howe’s aircraft but he continued to lead his formation against the target. The US authorities awarded him an immediate DFC, the citation recording:

“He displayed a standard of leadership above and beyond that normally expected.”

After completing his flying tour, Howe remained in Korea on a second tour as a ground based Forward Air Controller for the SAAF, serving with US Infantry and operating in the thick of the fighting. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal from the United States for his service during these actions.

Returning to South Africa after the war, Howe found himself in a changed political landscape.  The National Party had come to power in 1948 with its policies of Apartheid and entrenched hatred of anything British (a legacy given them from the Boer War), by 1954 the political situation in South Africa became more difficult and extreme, especially for senior officers of English origin in the South African defence forces, who were by-passed for Afrikaans officers instead. As was also the case with Dick Lord, John Howe would now find his future in The Royal Air Force (RAF) instead, so in 1954 he decided to resign from the SAAF and moved to England where he transferred to the RAF with the rank of Flying Officer (Service No. 503984) to fly early types of jet fighters.

In April 1956 he joined Royal Air Force No 222 (Natal) Squadron flying the Hunter. When a volunteer was required for forward air controller duties with No 3 Commando Brigade in late 1956, Howe’s experience in Korea helped to land him the job. He sailed with the Brigade for the ill-fated Suez campaign and, at dawn on November 6, landed on the beaches at Port Said with No 40 Commando, to direct aircraft on to targets in the area. In the event, the campaign was short-lived.

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Howe returned to his squadron before joining No 43 Squadron as a flight commander, still flying the Hunter. He was awarded a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air, receiving a second two years later. In June 1959 he started training to take command of his Lightning squadron – No. 74.

Based in Norfolk. The aircraft represented a great advance in technology and performance, with a remarkable rate of climb to heights in excess of 60,000 ft and capable of flying at twice the speed of sound.

With no simulator or two-seat training version of the aircraft, Howe made his, and the squadron’s, first flight on June 14 1960. A few weeks later he was instructed to provide a four-aircraft formation for the annual Farnborough Air Show.

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Despite the inevitable early teething troubles with the complex aircraft, Howe and his pilots flew on all but one day of the show. The squadron was made the RAF’s official aerobatics team for 1961 and was in demand for appearances at British and European shows. For the Farnborough event that year, Howe trained and led a “diamond nine” formation.

Howe realised that air shows were good for publicity and potential international sales of aircraft, but the time devoted to them hindered the development of full operational capability. He drove himself, and others, hard, but he was a highly respected leader. The squadron’s high morale helped it to reach operational status within the first 10 months despite the many problems that had to be overcome. At the end of his tour, Howe was awarded the AFC.

He said of the Lightning: “It was one of the most exhilarating aeroplanes, even by today’s standards.”

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John Howe in a vertical dive flying a RAF EE Lightning

Howe remained in the fighter business, including a tour of duty with the USAF which gave him an opportunity to fly the latest American fighters, including the Phantom. In 1968 he was appointed to command the RAF’s operational conversion unit that saw the introduction of the Phantom into RAF service, his unit being responsible for the conversion of the first squadron crews.

After a staff tour he became the station commander of RAF Gutersloh, the home of two Lightning squadrons and a support helicopter squadron. His fighter squadrons, based a few minutes’ flying time from the border with Warsaw Pact forces, mounted a continuous quick-reaction capability. He rarely missed an opportunity to maintain his fighter pilot proficiency.

After attending the Royal College of Defence Studies he served at HQ 11 (Fighter) Group, and on promotion to air commodore was appointed the commandant of the Royal Observer Corps (ROC). The organisation had a fine record, but Howe justifiably believed that it was in need of modernisation and a more robust attitude. He set about applying the same exacting standards to the ROC that he did to his flying. By the time he left in 1980, the efficiency of the Corps had risen sharply.

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In May 1980 he was appointed the air officer commanding the Southern Maritime Region, a departure from his previous fighter experience and where his usual forceful approach was much in evidence.

His final appointment in the RAF was the dual role of Commandant General RAF Regiment and Provost Marshal of the RAF. He retired in November 1985. He was appointed CB (1985) and CBE (1978).

In his younger days, Howe was a high-spirited officer who knew how to enjoy life – his South African roots never left him and his “Zulu war dance” at social functions was a speciality. But on duty he was utterly professional and he set himself and those around him difficult goals.

22046893_10214639202959688_8200957218336099859_nIn retirement he was a sheep farmer in Norfolk, where he was known as the “supersonic shepherd”; he retired in 2004. He was a capable skier and a devoted chairman of the Combined Services Skiing Association. A biography of him, Upward and Onward, by Bob Cossey, was published in 2008. John Howe married Annabelle Gowing in March 1961; she and their three daughters survive him.

Air Vice-Marshal John Howe, was born March 26th 1930, he died 27th January 2016 aged 85. He remains another one of South Africa’s finest military exports, another South African who truly carries the 74 Squadron motto:

I fear no man

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For some video footage of Air Vice-Marshal John Howe in action and the equipping of 74 Squadron with Lightnings, have a look at this rare footage:


Researched by Peter Dickens.  Primary reference and extract on Air Vice-Marshal John Rowe taken from his Obituary in The Telegraph and Wikipedia.  Images of Air Vice Marshal Howe thanks to Alan Mark Taylor

Do you recognise this flag?

If you’re a South African you should know exactly what flag this is – but we’re guessing most South Africans won’t have a clue.

What if we told you it is the South African national flag as it was during World War 1.  Read a previous Observation Post which outlines the inconvenient and hidden history of South African National Flags – just click on this link:

The inconvenient and unknown history of South Africa’s national flags


Posted by Peter Dickens. The image is – TO VICTORY! “UNION IS STRENGTH!”, “EENDRACHT MAAKT MACHT!”. Part of a set of 6 Postcards promoting the Commonwealth countries commitment to partaking in World War 1. The series focussed primarily on the dominions, including South Africa – this one carries the then National Flag of South Africa.

FRIDAY STORY #7: Sailor Malan: Fighter Pilot. Defender of human rights. Legend.

We’re glad to see this highly unsung South African hero finally profiled by other historians. Sailor Malan’s legacy is coming to life through video and other mediums like this and in so back into the general consciousness, and it can only be a good thing. Once watching this you’ll want to hit that share button, and please feel free to do so.

14322420_1091043234297657_3731584281145428934_nThis time Sailor’s legacy has been carried forward by “Inherit South Africa” in this excellent short biography narrated and produced by Michael Charton as one of his Friday Stories – this one titled FRIDAY STORY #7: Sailor Malan: Fighter Pilot. Defender of human rights. Legend.

Many people may know of the South African “Battle of Britain” Ace – Adolph “Sailor” Malan DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar – he is one of the most highly regarded fighter pilots of the Second World War, one of the best fighter pilots South Africa has ever produced and he stands as one of the “few” which turned back Nazi Germany from complete European dominance in the Battle of Britain – his rules of air combat helped keep Britain in the war, and as a result he, and a handful of others, changed the course of history. But not many people are aware of Sailor Malan as a political fighter, anti-apartheid campaigner and champion for racial equality.

Sailor Malan remains an inconvenient truth to the current political narrative of the “struggle” in South Africa, as the first mass anti-Apartheid and pro-Democracy protests were led by this highly decorated Afrikaner war hero and the mass protesters were not the ANC and its supporters, this very first mass mobilisation was made up of returning war veterans from the 2nd World War, in their hundreds of thousands – and this video footage and story captures some more fascinating “hidden” South African history.

The purposeful “scrubbing” by the National Party of South Africa’s “Torch Commando” and its President – Sailor Malan is in itself a travesty, and its made more tragic by the current government conveniently glancing over this glaring mass anti-apartheid and pro democracy movement starting in 1951 involving over 250 000 mainly “white” South Africans. Years before the ANC Defiance Campaign started in earnest and the mass “black” mobilisation against Apartheid stemming from the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. Inconvenient as it does not fit the current political narrative of South African history and thus still remains relatively unknown to the majority of South Africans.

Inherit South Africa is the brainchild of Michael Charton and his short videos are platformed on youtube, packaged as great South African Stories, usually released on a Friday.  Feel free to visit his websites and social media platforms via the following links:

Inherit South Africa website

Inherit South Africa YouTube

Inherit South Africa Facebook

For more information on Sailor Malan, feel free to follow this link to The Observation Post’s story on him:

Sailor Malan; Fighter Ace & Freedom Fighter!



Written by Peter Dickens. Many thanks to Micheal for permission to post this video of his, Inherit South Africa copyright.

Braaivleis, Rugby, Sunny Skies and Submarine!!

There is a South African Naval tradition in the ‘silent service’ of having a “braai” (South African BBQ using a wood and coal fire) on a 10659328_347729672063438_449914227600569864_nsubmarine when it has surfaced.  It is a true statement of South African heritage, and what better way to wish all South Africans a ‘Happy Braai Day’ (Heritage Day) than to show them how these South African naval servicemen over the years have enjoyed this particular heritage in their own rather unique way.

The featured image up top shows this bit of South African cultural epic-ness as it is today in the SANDF, here is the SA Navy crew braaing on the Casing of S-102 the SAS Charlotte Maxeke the middle of the ocean, with photo thanks to Colin Cloete.

The inserted image shows  the SAS Emily Hobhouse in 1983 off Beacon Isle after a lengthy trip up the east coast. Proof positive that Saffa’s will ‘make a plan’ and braai anywhere. Giving the big thumbs up in front of the braai is Mike Jensen, a popular man sorely missed by the South African submariners and the SA Naval community.

At times even large braai’s have made it onto Navy submarines stored securely and rattle free between the casing and the pressure hull, as this image from the late 70’s shows.

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Reminds us of another antic in the South African Navy which has “South Africaness” written all over it, this time the Strike Craft personnel – follow this link, Epic Navy Style Water Skiing.

Have a happy ‘Braai Day’


Written by Peter Dickens.  Thank you to Cameron Kirk Kinnear, Peter Marais, Colin Cloete and the South African Naval Fraternity for the information and images.

Londoners sheltering during the ‘Blitz’ owe their saving grace to a South African engineer.

During the Second World War, Londoners used the “Tube” underground rail system for air raid shelters, highly effective the tube system saved thousands of lives, but did you know that Londoner’s owe their saving grace to a South African – James Henry Greathead (6 August 1844 – 21 October 1896)?

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James Henry Greathead

Greathead was born in Grahamstown, South Africa; of English descent, Greathead’s grandfather had emigrated to South Africa in 1820. He was educated at St. Andrew’s College, Grahamstown and the Diocesan College private school in Cape Town. After migrating to England in 1859, he completed his education from 1859 to 1863 at the Westbourne Collegiate School, Westbourne Grove.

He returned briefly to South Africa before finally moving to London in 1864 to serve a three-year pupilage under the civil engineer Peter W. Barlow, from whom he became acquainted with the shield system of tunnelling.

He spent some time (around 1867) as assistant engineer on the Midland Railway between Bedford and London (working with Barlow’s brother, William Henry Barlow).

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Barlow-Greathead Shield

Soon after, in 1869, he rejoined Barlow and they began work on designs for the Tower Subway, only the second tunnel to be driven under the river Thames in central London. Barlow was the engineer for the tunnel and Greathead was in charge of the actual drive.

The tunnelling shield for driving the Tower Subway, while designed by Greathead, was inspired by Barlow’s ideas for a circular tunnelling shield which he had patented in 1864 and 1868.

The Barlow-Greathead shield consisted of an iron cylinder 7 ft 3 in (2.21 m) in diameter fitted with screw jacks which enabled it to be jacked forward. In use, the shield was inched forward as the working face was excavated, while behind it a permanent tunnel lining of cast iron segments was fitted into place, itself an important innovation.

Greathead patented many of his improvements including the use of compressed air and forward propulsion by hydraulic jacks, both of which are now standard features of tunnel construction.  Without Greathead and his patents, London would simply not have the underground tube system it has, and it was this very system that ironically also provided ideal shelter from German bombing raids on London.

The tube tunnel system was accessible from just about anywhere in central London, the stations were well-known to just about every Londoner and it was deep enough so as to provide ideal cover from bombing.

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The mage shows a London Underground Station during the “Blitz”. This was one of London’s most popular shelters is that which is to be found in a section of the London underground system which has been converted by tearing up the tracks. The advertisements remain pasted on the wall. Hats and coats are hung on nails which have been driven in between the bricks on the wall. People sleep on the platform and on the space which was formerly the track, this part stretching for a quarter of a mile.

The featured image shows London’s Aldwych underground tube station being used as a bomb shelter in December 1940. The image illustrates just how basic and uncomfortable the facilities were, but considerably safer than being above ground during the London Blitz.

During the war, Aldwych station was a major air raid shelter which could accommodate up to 1500 people and was equipped with first aid facilities and a canteen. The train service to Holborn was suspended on the 22nd September 1940 from when the station was used as a shelter.

In all 79 tube stations were used as air raid shelters by Londoners.


Researched by Peter Dickens. Photo – Imperial War Museum copyright, reference Wikipedia. Colourised featured IWM Photo – Colourised by Royston Leonard, copyright

The not so ‘spectacular’ MK attack on Voortrekkerhoogte

Whilst researching Umkhonto we sizwe (MK) actions against the SADF, I took to the MK Veterans association webpage.  Their ‘operations list’ section pulls up a section on attacks they (MK) wish to highlight as significant military achievements .

It states; “Out of some 1500 attacks between 1977 and 1989, amongst the most spectacular were the following:
1. June 1980 – Sasol Oil Refinery limpet mine blast

2. December 1981 – Bombing of Koeberg Nuclear Power station
3. May 1983 – Car bomb outside Air Force base and killed 19
4. August 1981 – Grad-P Rocket launchers on the South African Defence Force (SADF) headquarters in Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria”

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Stop the PRESS!

I am all for credit were credit is due for great or significant military deeds and actions (this blog is dedicated to them). But I also like to put things into context, the Sasol limped mine attack was pretty “spectacular,” 8 fuel tanks were blown up causing damage estimated at R66 million – I’ll give them that one.

Koeberg Nuclear Station attack. Yes, “Spectacular” enough, 4 bombs went off, nobody was killed, one of the buildings bombed was for radioactive nuclear waste and was not yet on-line and under construction.  A very effective message sent to the SADF’s nuclear weapons program, so “spectacular” – I’ll give them that one too.

As to the bombing of the SAAF ‘Air Force Base’, lets put this one into context as the statement is misleading. The SAAF administrative offices targeted were inside the Nedbank Plaza Building in Pretoria (shared with Nedbank and the Dutch embassy) and not a stand-alone heavily guarded “Air Force base” (those bases were in Voortrekkerhoogste). The bomb was set off in a public road ‘Church Street’ outside Nedbank Plaza. As a result I would not put the tag “spectacular” on it – ‘tragic’ and ‘deadly’ yes, because of the aftermath, of the 19 killed: 2 of them were MK operators themselves (‘blue on blue), 7 SAAF members and 10 civilians. 217 people were wounded, most of them civilians.  It’s the biggest ‘feather’ in the MK military achievement cap by far – but it remains a very ‘innocent’ blood soaked and controversial one no matter how you try and spin it.

Now, this last “spectacular” attack caught my eye “Grad-P Rocket launchers on the South African Defence Force (SADF) headquarters in Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria”. Because during my National Service training as a candidate officer at Personnel Services army base situated in Voortrekkerhoogte there was a base story about an attack which left unexploded mortars bouncing off the base’s barracks roofs. So I took to investigating it.

Here’s the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Hearing – and I would ask readers to focus their minds on how ‘spectacular’ it is.

The Attack on Voortrekkerhoogste military installations: August 1981

This attack took place on 12 August 1981.

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Barney Molokoane

Voortrekkerhoogte was the main command base of the South African Army. The initial reconnaissance was carried out by two ANC supporters from Europe, namely Klaas de Jonge and Helene Pastoors. A smallholding which was to be used as the base for the operation was rented at Broederstroom. Thereafter the commander of the unit which was to carry out the operation, Barney Molokoane, was infiltrated into the country.

He selected the site from which the rockets used in the attack would be launched. The material to be used in the attack was then brought into the country from Swaziland and cached on the smallholding. The remaining members of the unit were then infiltrated into the country. They were Sidney Sibepe, Vuyisile Matroos, Johannes Mnisi, Vicks and Philemon Malefo.

The unit proceeded to the operational site, which was approximately four kilometres away from Voortrekkerhoogte and fired their rockets at the target. A GRAD-P rocket launcher was used to fire the rockets. However, as they were doing this a crowd gathered to watch them. Philemon Malefo, who was in the getaway vehicle, drove off in order not to be exposed. The unit leader, Barney Molokoane and others then attempted to get an alternative vehicle in nearby Laudium and in so doing a man was shot and injured. The unit members then successfully withdrew from the scene.

The rockets struck in Voortrekkerhoogte and the attack resulted in minor injuries to one woman.

Truth and Reconciliation Amnesty Hearing – January 2000

In reality

The attack was launched from a nearby koppie, the rockets (or bombs) launched were ineffectual, no substantial damage whatsoever.  If the base story is to be believed most of them were launched towards the SADF’s Personnel Services School (known as PSC or PDK in Afrikaans), located in the centre of the Voortrekkerhoogte complex. It has the Army College opposite it and Technical Services School, Military Hospital, Maintenance Services School and the Provost School nearby it as well as a civilian managed supermarket and petrol station next to it.  As ‘schools’ almost all of them are training bases.

The “main command base for the SADF’ they were not.  That command base was located in an underground ‘nuclear proof’ building behind the Pretoria Jail called ‘Blenny’ and it housed “D Ops” – Directive Operations (and its located quite a distance from central Voortrekkerhoogte).

Grad-P-batey-haosef-2The Soviet era GRAD-P portable rocket system uses a monotube and fires 122 mm high-explosive fragmentation rockets (which arm themselves in flight). This system is highly effective, accurate enough and delivers on some very devastating results (with a very good impact radius) – deadly to both buildings and people.  In essence it’s ‘one’ tube of the GRAD multiple rocket launch platform. For this reason it is loved by terrorist, paramilitary and guerrilla forces the world over – usually mounted on small trucks or large pick-up vehicles (known as ‘technicals’).  It’s robust, simple and highly effective.  It also makes a very big ‘bang’.

So I can’t possibly understand why this attack did not deliver on the ‘Big Bang’ this weapon is famed for, nor is there much recollection of the type of ‘loud’ and ‘devastating’ effects this system has – all launch variants of the GRAD scare the living wits out of anyone anywhere near it – from the firing position to the target, and it was reported as fired into a very populated area bustling with thousands of troops undergoing training and civilians.

Also, where is this weapon system now?  It is certainly not on display at any military or ‘Apartheid Struggle’ museum that I am aware of, there are very few significant military ‘artefacts’ of the MK ‘struggle’ as it is, and as this attack is regarded as one of their key successes, so it carries with it some historical value.  All Soviet weapons captured at the time by the SADF are now at the disposal of the ANC government, or they are still in possession of some ANC members not willing to give them up – very little of the total arms cache’ of weapons smuggled into the Republic by MK have ever been declared (in fact in the early 90’s much of it fell into the ‘black market’ and into criminal’s hands when many MK Cadres demanded and did not receive remuneration and the free houses they were promised when joining and fighting for MK).

Maybe the fuses were set to the wrong distances maybe its an issue of operator capability and training, maybe it was badly aimed?  Don’t know, maybe MK are confusing the GRAD-P with a small portable mortar system instead – the GRAD-P tube is a very big section of kit and does not ‘break down’ to fit into an average civilian vehicle, nor do the rockets themselves – especially in one already full of men trying to be inconspicuous in a populated area – have a look at the image below of a IS terrorist cell launching a GRAD-P and you’ll see what I mean.   Who knows, far too many unanswered questions.

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In any event, there was an MK attack of some sort using either rockets or mortars on bases in Voortrekkerhoogte – that part is true (the Apartheid ‘state’ secret apparatus even retaliated the attack by covertly bombing the ANC offices in London – because of the ‘British connection’ in the assault on Voortrekkerhoogte).

However, the results speak for themselves. No significant military buildings were damaged, some accounts recall one of the bombs/rockets falling on the parade ground of the Army College, other accounts report one bomb/rocket hitting an empty bungalow at PD School (this building was destroyed), whilst another account states one more bomb/rocket bounced off another PD School bungalow roof and did not explode.  Some recall that another bomb/rocket hit a toilet block at the PTI section of Army College and another landed on Northern Transvaal Command’s lawn.

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PSC (L) and Army College (R)

There are no accounts of wide-spread panic around Voortrekkerhoogte (military or public) from a GRAD-P rocketing, no large media flurry (It was reported in local papers, but there was no large scale media pursuit), there were no SADF casualties (injuries or deaths) and the casualties were in fact two civilians.  One female civilian domestic employee who was down-range of the launch, she was living in a room adjacent to an SADF officers house, her living quarters were hit, however she received only a minor injury,  The second civilian injured was up-range of the launch, who (lets face facts) was shot and injured in a car hijacking caused by a botched getaway plan, when their MK driver got scared and ‘scarpered’ off with their vehicle.

‘Spectacular’ it is was not.

How much is fact and how much is hype?

Because the record on the MK vets website seemed a little inflated, misleading and incomplete to me, I took to checking the 1500 other claimed attacks to see how many of them were against the SADF itself – force to force so to speak (apples to apples).  The only effective attack against the ‘SADF’ on the list other than the attack on the Nedbank Plaza in Church Street housing the SAAF offices was the Wit Command bombing, which resulted in 25 injuries and structural damage to a military base building (the drill hall), but luckily nobody died  – it was also a ‘one man op’ carried out by a ‘white Afrikaner’ ironically (see The truth behind the bombing of Witwatersrand Command).

There is probably good reason that the MK list only 4 highlights (followed by a sweeping claim of thousands of attacks), as simply put, there are not many more ‘spectacular’ highlights at all.  The rest of the attacks on the SADF by MK were simply not effectual and did not meet any significant objective.  There was a bomb attack on a Citizen Force Regiment’s car park – The Kafferian Rifles (but no information to back it), two bomb blasts in SADF Recruitment offices open to the public (no injuries and minor building damage), an attack on an outlying SADF Radio communications post, with no damage or injuries, a foiled  bomb attack on a Wit Command medic post (no damage or injuries) and a bomb which went off in a dustbin outside Natal Command (no damage or injuries).  That’s it.

The only other related attack was more ‘soft’ civilian than ‘hard’ military target, this was the bombing of The Southern Cross Fund offices.  Luckily no injuries or deaths, just building damage – as many may recall The Southern Cross Fund was a civilian driven charity which collected Christmas presents and the like to support troop morale in the SADF, a very ‘soft’ target indeed.

There were also some MK claims to the TRC as to numerous SADF personnel killed in armed MK skirmishes with SADF patrols on the Botswana border. However I checked the dates against the Honour Roll and the military record of SADF deaths and operation reports and I came up with nothing – no SADF bodies in evidence to the claims on the dates specified to the TRC by MK.  I also checked the SADF veterans social forums on-line and nobody had any recollection of these attacks (nor do many of them even recall this ‘spectacular’ attack on Voortrekkerhoogte).  It stands as an odd testimony that there is literally not one proper ‘war story’ of the SADF engaging MK combatants by literally thousands of SADF veterans now recounting their time in the SADF and freely publishing papers, on-line stories (across a variety of portals), their diaries and even books on their experience.  Maybe the MK is confusing the South African Defence Force (SADF) with The South African Police (SAP), who knows.

On platforms such as Wiki, MK is listed as one of the belligerents in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, however if you ask any old SADF veteran if they saw any MK combatant and engaged them during the entire duration of the Border war from 1966 to 1989 (or even at the Battles on the Lomba and at Cuito Cuanavale specifically), they will say no, not one  – SWAPO, MPLA, Cubans and even Russian combatants – yes, they saw a great many of these.

In line with the old SADF veterans testimony, there is some truth to it, there is not one recorded attack by MK of an MK unit, section/platoon strength and above, on any SADF personnel, armour or installation during the entire Border war.

All the other quoted attacks were stated as been on the South African Police and Police stations, not the SADF, and access to this record is not easy and not of concern as I was looking into the SADF only so as to record actions against the actual military by another military outfit.

In conclusion

What it does say, is that for the most part the SADF were unmoved by any actions by the MK, it certainly did not change their mode of operation in the Republic itself, nor were they overly fearful of MK attacks.  The bases remained relatively lightly guarded in terms of ‘operational readiness,’ usually by National Servicemen bored out of their minds with only 5 rounds in one magazine (not inserted) – as was the regulation on many bases (the SADF bases in South West Africa/Namibia – different story – there was a proper war on in Namibia against SWAPO, the MPLA and Cuba, in response SADF personnel on base were armed to the teeth).  Unarmed and uniformed SADF National Servicemen were to be found in their thousands roaming relatively safely all over the Republic on weekend passes.  The SADF was even confident enough that any internal violence generated by MK (and other liberation movements) could be curtailed by the South African Police (primarily) that they even reduced military conscription to just one year when the Border War with SWA/Angola concluded in 1989 – reducing SADF manpower and ‘operational readiness’ in the Republic even more.

What this record and new hype around MK also shows is a gradual ‘inflation’ of ‘combat prowess’ and the heroic deeds of men in MK, now so revered as national heroes and positioned as ‘war heroes’ with a combat record to be reckoned with.  Whilst the SADF and its very solid combat record has been demonized and vanquished.  There is some truth, to many in South Africa now (especially the youth) that MK played a role in standing up against Apartheid, and we can’t take that from them – they did, so they are idolised by many, that’s a fact. But we need to scrutinise the historical record (the hard facts) in all this hyper-admiration of MK.

Where the ANC were successful, lies less in any great military mission by MK and more in making the old ‘black’ townships of South Africa ungovernable by the use of simple ‘civil dissonance’ – here they were ‘spectacularly’ successful. It was this deepened civil unrest and broader political violence on a grassroots level that brought all the significant pressure on Apartheid South Africa.

Militarily speaking it’s an ‘inconvenient’ fact that South Africa did not have an armed insurrection anything like those initiated by other ‘liberation armies’ in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Mozambique, Angola and South West Africa (Namibia).  Unlike these countries, South Africa is a little different, as at no point were armed MK cadres tested in a conventional military battle scenario against armed SADF soldiers – that never happened.  So as time moves on and memories fade we need to keep perspective, no matter how inconvenient.

Written and Researched by Peter Dickens


References: South African History On Line. ANC Umkhonto we sizwe Veteran Association website.  Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Wikipedia.