I got him! I got him! I got him!

This is a very rare audio clip of a SADF crew in a Ratel ZT3 Infantry Fighting Vehicle converted into a anti-tank role taking out Cuban/FAPLA coalition soviet T55 tanks during the Battle on the Lomba River in Angola – Operation Modular in 1987.

Please excuse a little of the “blue” language but this is a ratel crew at the height of combat, listen out for the sounds of the Ratel’s missiles been fired and finding their targets and for the crew members yelps of jubilation and frustrations, also listen to the Ratel manoeuvre itself in an out of danger as it takes up firing positions – and the co-ordination and teamwork of crew members to do so. Also listen out for the intense sounds of explosions in and around the Ratel and firing from other Ratels from 61 Mechanised Battle Group and 32 Battalion as they engage the FAPLA/Cuban tanks (click play on the link below).

This is combat at its fiercest in what was arguably one of the most decisive mechanised battles fought on African soil since the Second World War and one which turned the fortunes of the “Cold War” coalition of Cuban and Soviet interests in Southern Africa for the worse.

These men – fighting in inferiorly armoured Infantry fighting vehicles against heavily armoured tanks knew that victory would boil down to strategy, innovation, decisiveness, leadership, teamwork, discipline and training – and not superior equipment or numbers, all of this becomes very apparent in this audio clip.

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Burning FAPLA armour as seen from the South African position on the Lomba

The backdrop to this battle was the Cuban/FAPLA advance on Mavinga – a UNITA stronghold, in what was to become a manoeuvre called the ‘Battle of the Lomba’ the SADF 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, supported by other formations and SAAF fighter aircraft literally destroyed the entire FAPLA/Cuban 47 Armoured Brigade and stopped the advance in its tracks.

SADF_61_Mech_flash_badgeThe Operation was Modular, the battle ground was the Lomba River in Angola and Commandant Kobus Smit was the Operational Commander in charge of the SADF’s 61 Mechanised Battle Group. Three combat groups – Alpha under the Command of Cmdt Kobus Smit himself, Bravo under the command of Cmdt Robbie Hartslief, Charlie, under command of Maj Dawid Lotter. All supported by 20 Artillery Regiment (Cmdt Jan van der Westhuizen) – Papa battery from 32 Battalion, Quebec battery from 4 SAI and Sierra battery from 61 Mech Battalion Group.

Fapla crosses the Lomba River

On the 9 September 1987, Fapla’s 21 Brigade began to cross the Lomba River about twelve kilometres east of its confluence with the Cunzumbia.  They were engaged by the South African mechanised armour of Combat Group Bravo with 101 Battalion of the South West African territorial force, destroying a FALPA BTR-60, but they were forced back by a FAPLA artillery counter-attack.

A detached unit of Combat Group Bravo returned on 10 September to the fording site on the Lomba River and again attacked elements of 21 Brigade, but the Angolans’ counter-attacked sending in three tanks. The SADF Ratel-90 Infantry Fighting Vehicles failed to stop the tanks’ advance, so the South Africans brought in their new Ratel ZT3s into the battle.

The ZT3 and it’s launch system was developed under the codename ‘Project Raleigh’ in the 1980s as a “long-range indigenous antitank guided missile”. Essentially a highly manoeuvrable Ratel (honey badger) IFV with anti-tank capabilities, these were untested pre-production models which mounted a triple launcher on top of the Ratel IFV – at the time they were considered state of the art in anti-tank warfare, and their first combat engagement delivered battlefield success to a staggering effect.

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Concealed ZT3 during Ops Modular

The ZT3’s firing seven missiles in total at 21 Brigades armour with four successful strikes on the tanks. Soviet built MiG aircraft then arrived over the battle site and forced the South African units to withdraw but, it was game over for the Cuban/Fapla coalition – they had stopped 21 Brigade’s advances, it would be downhill for the Cubans and Angolans from that point out.

Major Hannes Nortman and 12A

SADF_32_Battalion_SSIMajor Hannes Nortman from 32 Battalion arrived on the battle scene at the Lomba on the morning of 10 September, the ZT3 Ratel, code 12A – one of 32 Battalion’s ZT3’s had taken up position under the initial command of Lt Ian Robertson,  Lt Robertson was injured when he jumping out of the ratel to give fire guidance to the 90mm Ratel next to his ZT3 Ratel. Unfortunately, he landed at the same spot as one of the incoming mortars and took a large piece of shrapnel in his head. The crew of the ZT3 were busy with the casevac of their injured commander, when three T55 Soviet made, heavily armoured enemy tanks rolled up.  Major Hannes Nortman came running up, taking charge of the ZT3 Ratel 12A and the attack.

One of the crew members of 12A had an 80’s style cassette player inside the Ratel, he wisely decided to record the action and pressed ‘record’ on the player – and this stunning bit of history of South African servicemen in action was forever recorded.

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Ratel combat during the Battle of the Lomba

The SADF’s ZT3”s were positioned in a tree-line just short of the Lomba River’s adjacent ‘shona’. The first two missiles fired by 12A where fired by a young and very over excited gunner, Darryn Richard Nelson – whose commentary is heard throughout the recording.  The first missiles pulled up vertically at around 200 meters. The third did not fire.

The gunner now fired his fourth missile which hit the lead tank in its tracks, stopping it dead. A fifth missile finally destroyed Tank 1 and the gunner his jubilant “I got him! I got him! I got him! Now very excited the young gunner focussed on the second tank, which was retreating back towards the river, his first shot at tank 2 missed as the missile hit the ground just in front of the tank.

Here’s where Major Nortman demonstrated years of senior military experience in combat, he quickly brought the excitement into focus in a time-honoured way – by giving the young gunner a sharp crack to the back of his head. This calmed him down and the sixth missile hit the tank on the rear plate blowing the turret about 25 meters away. Maj Nortman ordered the ZT3 to withdraw and reload, he then maneuverer into a new firing position to fire at the last tank which was still advancing. the Ratel hit tank 3 with two missiles.

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The destroyed Soviet FAPLA T55 Tanks – from left to right Tank 1, Tank 2 and Tank 3

With that the crew of 12A march into history, a South African ‘light’ armoured fighting vehicle made by Denel, taking out heavy armour T55 Soviet made ‘heavy’ battle tanks.  The only Ratel IFV to ever achieve his – before or since.

The action of this motley crew of English and Afrikaner, senior and junior, permanent force and conscripts, all in a single Ratel, had now played a decisive role in the outcome of the entire battle to come.

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Major Nortman and the crew, Johan Jacobs, Neels Claasen, Darren Nelson, 32 Battalion September 1989

The Battle heats up

According to Cmdt Smit, “21 Brigade utilized all forces at its disposal and its T54 tanks and D 30 used several tons of ammunition to support its forces in crossing the river initially, and later in the day to cover the withdrawal of its forces to the northern side of the river.”

“21 Brigade was forced to abandon its efforts to cross the river and was in need of re-supply before another attempt could be made to cross the river.”

47 Brigade re-deployed it’s tactical group to attack a nearby UNITA base, this was met by the SADF’s Combat Group Bravo on the 13th September 1987, however the terrain was  crisscrossed with the UNITA bases’ trenches making manoeuvrability difficult Combat Group Bravo and Cmdt Hartslief withdrew his forces for replenishment and repair, Col Ferreira ordered combat group Charlie to move forward and prevent further movement of 47 Brigade’s 1 Tactical Group to the east.

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Missiles been loaded onto a ZT3 during Operation Modular

Major Dawid Lotter moved to the west and hit contact with FAPLA forces the same evening, destroying a number of FAPLA vehicles, contact was broken the next day.

Combat group Alpha was deployed to making contact with 47 Brigade on the 16 September. At the same time Charlie squadron made contact with FAPLA infantry and tanks, even as close as 50 meters.  After a fierce firefight the SADF withdrew to consolidate, leaving UNITA to hold the positions.

47 Brigade was now under threat from two flanks and all The FAPLA brigades were ordered back to consolidate their positions on the northern banks of the Lomba.

47 Brigade was ordered to advance over the Lomba River again and established a bridgehead.  The South African 61 Mechanised Battle Group assembled to attack them again on the 3rd October, this time Charlie Squadron took the lead commanded by Major Philip van Wyk.  Making contact later the same day with 47 Brigade.  A tank battle ensued; the largest tank battle ever fought on southern African soil.

The FAPLA infantry soldiers were observed fleeing the battlefield and to keep momentum 61 Mechanised ordered in the reserve squadrons and combat groups, with fresh forces FAPLA’s resistance finally crumbled and the remaining forces fled the battlefield.  The South African’s had won the day with the loss of only 3 SADF personnel and a further 6 wounded, one Ratel was lost.

47 Brigade destroyed

47 Brigade was decimated with the majority of its equipment either captured or destroyed, amongst which were 18 x T55 and T54 tanks, 22 x BTR60 and 85 trucks. 47 Brigade for all practical purposes had ceased to exist.  The remaining Cuban and FAPLA forces withdrew to their initial positions and The South African objective for Operation Modular – to halt the FAPLA advance and prevent the capture of Mavinga –  was decisively achieved.

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Ratel 12 A taken after Operation Modular – note the ‘kill’ markings on the turret.

History made

The remarkable efforts of Major Nortman and the crew of ZT3 Ratel 12A are now to be seen at the South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg (later marked 23), thier ZT3 Ratel is on display with its three ‘tank kill’ markings clearly painted on the side of its missile system.

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Researched by Peter Dickens and published with much thanks to Johannes “Hannes” Noortman and the crew of this Ratel – and to the 61 Mechanised Veterans Fraternity, with special thanks again to Dawid Lotter and Kobus Smit

War in Darfur – Operation Cordite

Looking into South Africa’s more recent involvement in Peacekeeping Missions in Africa.  Here, on  2 August 2010. South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Lieutenant Justin Heath, from Boksburg (greater Johannesburg), forms part of the UN peacekeeping mission to the Sudan for 7 months.

He is seen here patrolling in Tiksas, a village abandoned by the population some years ago due to the war in Darfur.

The War in Darfur is a major armed conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, that began in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups began fighting the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the indictment of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

Estimates of the number of human casualties range up to several hundred thousand dead, from either combat or starvation and disease. Mass displacements and coercive migrations forced millions into refugee camps or across the border, creating a humanitarian crisis.

The Sudanese government and the JEM signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2010, with a tentative agreement to pursue peace. However, talks were disrupted by accusations that the Sudanese army launched raids and air strikes against a village, violating the Tolu agreement. The current situation is that the JEM, the largest rebel group in Darfur, vowed to boycott future negotiations.

Operation Cordite in Sudan began in July 2004 with the deployment of South African National Defence Force staff officers and observers to Darfur, Sudan, in support of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) It was an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force operating primarily in the country’s western region of Darfur with the aim of performing peacekeeping operations related to the conflict in Darfur.

The AU mission was terminated in December 2007 when it was integrated into the United Nations mission to form the UN African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) in January 2008. it was the first African Union-United Nations hybrid mission. An Infantry Protection Company and an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit were added to the deployment, which was increased further in February 2005.

Operation Cordite made an immense contribution to the successful referendum on the future of Sudan, which resulted in the relatively peaceful division of the country into two: Sudan and South Sudan. Additional South African soldiers were sent to Juba, the capital of the new country, South Sudan, to assist with security for the independence celebrations in July 2011. In addition to this, South Africa also helped secure the air space for the duration of the celebrations. South Africa also trained police, prison officials and air traffic controllers: currently stationed at Juba International Airport

However typically, successful military operations are so often undermined by political antics of governments and Operation Cordite is no different.

In April 2016, South Africa withdrew it UN forces from Sudan, ending Operation Cordite after a short and unspecific Presidential statement – coincidentally and unsurprisingly it was marred with controversy and against a backdrop of political scandal which started in June 2015 when President Omar Al Bashir – who was visiting South Africa to attend an African Union summit, was allowed to escape South Africa in a private jet.

His escape, allegedly with the connivance of President Jacob Zuma, came in defiance of an order by the South African High Court, pending a decision on whether to hand Al Bashir over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in accordance with international arrest warrants for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The decision remains highly controversial in South Africa today, so too South Africa’s strained relationship with the ICC (South Africa taking the standpoint that the ICC should not interfere in South Africa’s legitimate obligations to African Union AU).

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The repercussions on how South Africa sees its compete military role in United Nations Peacekeeping remains to be seen, hopefully in future it will positively underpin the great work of the majority of good South African men and women who enter the armed services and have the privilege of wearing the United Nation’s “Blue Beret”.

Photo copyright Albert Gonzalez Farran / Unamid

400 shells/min fell on the Springboks … “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”

With the commemorations of the Battle of the Somme offensive and the Battle of Delville Wood coming around every year, we remind ourselves once again of the hell endured by the South Africans fighting in the wood, known at the time as “Springboks” – and nothing says it more than seeing the mountainous piles of artillery shells fired at them.  In all during the battle 400 shells per minute were being fired into the South African positions no more than a square mile in size – and that went on day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute 400 explosions at a time – now imagine that sort of ‘hellfire’ and ‘sheer terror’ for a moment, and you’ll be in the mind of a Springbok soldier at Delville Wood witnessing it in 1916.

This World War 1 feature photo from the Herr Woerner Eugen Collection, shows the German side opposite the South African offensive at Delville Wood, this German soldier is overseeing the shell case dump nearby the wood.  That’s just the spent ammunition, so let’s have a look at the South Africans who took the brunt of this intense barrage and how they came to be there.

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“Hold it at all costs”

As part of the initial Somme offensive, the British under Major-General Furse of the 9th Division, had to secure the advance on Longueval, but to do this, Delville Wood (a small wood directly next to Longuval) had to be taken first.  Major General Furse had no option but to commit his last reserve—the 1st South African Brigade to do it.

The 1st South African Brigade under Brigadier General Henry Lukin was ordered to advance and to capture Delville Wood on the 14th July 1916 and “hold it at all costs”.

The first attack progressed smoothly and by 07:00 the South Africans had secured the southern half of the wood,  by 14:40 the whole wood had been secured, with the exception of a strong German position in the north west adjoining Longueval.  The South African troops where now spread along the entire perimeter in groups forming strong–points supported by machine–guns.

But, rather than having “secured” the wood, the brigade was now in a trap, occupying a salient with only the south-western base being in contact with the 26th Brigade in Longueval. All troops were equipped with spades but digging within the perimeter of the wood was made difficult by roots and remnants of tree trunks from the previous day’s artillery fire, making the preparation of proper trenches impossible, with the South Africans having to make do with shallow shell-holes and burrows. With unprepared trenches, a narrow base to their salient and facing over 7,000 German troops, holding the wood was going to be extremely difficult!

The Germans launched one of the heaviest artillery bombardments of the war in an effort to dislodge the South Africans in the wood. It has been estimated that at its peak the rate of firing exceeded 500 shells per minute – even at one stage some references say 600 shells per minute were fired at the South African positions. To think this relentless volley of shelling was into a wood no bigger than a square kilometre in size.

The South Africans began to dig in beating off counter attacks as they did so. The roots and remnants of tree trunks made the preparation of proper trenches impossible and the South Africans had to make do with shallow ones.

The bloodiest battle hell of 1916

Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack in the wood, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood  – the depth of bravery required to do this under this fire power is simply staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.

“…Delville Wood had disintegrated into a shattered wasteland of shattered trees, charred and burning stumps, craters thick with mud and blood, and corpses, corpses everywhere. In places they were piled four deep. Worst of all was the lowing of the wounded. It sounded like a cattle ring at the spring fair….”

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The battle is of particular importance to South Africa, as it was the first major engagement entered into by the South African 1st Infantry Brigade on the Western Front. The casualties sustained by this Brigade were of catastrophic proportions, comparable to those encountered by Allied battalions on the first day of the Somme. On the Western Front, units were normally considered to be incapable of combat if their casualties had reached 30% and they were withdrawn once this level had been attained. The South African Brigade suffered losses of 80%, yet they managed to hold the Wood as ordered. This feat has been described as “…the bloodiest battle hell of 1916.”

It was this horrific baptism of fire, of South Africans from across ethnic and cultural divides – fighting as one in union and strength, that the newly formed Union of South Africa’s national identity was forged for the years come.

Related links and work

Springbok Valour – Battle of Delville Wood Centenary ‘Springbok Valour’… Somme 100 & the Delville Wood Centenary

In Flanders Fields (Afrikaans) ‘In Flanders Fields’ translated into Afrikaans for the Somme 100 commemoration, July 2016

William Faulds VC Taking gallantry at Delville Wood to a whole new level; William Faulds VC MC

A Diary from Delville Wood A South African soldier’s diary captures the horror of Delville Wood

Mascots at Delville Wood: Nancy the Springbok Nancy the Springbok

Mascots at Delville Wood: Jackie the Baboon Jackie; The South African Baboon soldier of World War One


Researched by Peter Dickens.

Image copyright: Herr Woerner Eugen Collection – Imperial War Museum, Images of the wood copyright to the Imperial War Museum. Feature Illustration – The Battle of Delville Wood Illustrated London News Lithograph by the Spanish artist – José Simont Guillén (1875-1968).  Block images copyright Imperial War Museum.