German POW’s hitch a ride on a South African armoured car

Amazing image taken at Fort Capuzzo in Libya during WW2 – December 1941. Two German Afrika Corps soldiers – now Prisoners of War (POW) – hitch a ride into captivity on the front of a 2nd South African Division Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car.

The Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car was a series of armoured vehicles produced in South Africa and adopted by the British Army, other Commonwealth Forces (India used them) and South African army during World War II.  Highly popular as they could be adapted into all sorts of roles and configurations, some captured examples even made their way into the German army and other Axis forces during the war.

 

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Marmon-Herrington Mk III

Featured image Copyright Australian War Memorial

 

‘Armed’ SA Native Military Corps in WW2 – this Corps screams out for a definitive work!

Now what is truly remarkable about this photograph?  Well it shows a bunch of armed South African soldiers during World War 2 who by all accounts never carried a firearm and by directive were not allowed to either.  These are members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC), and it’s proof positive that there is no such thing as skin colour or ‘Segregation’ legislation when under fire.

This photograph was taken by Warren Loader’s Grandfather Noel Edgar Fuller while serving with The Royal Durban Light Infantry (DLI) B Coy in North Africa during WW2. What makes this photo remarkable is the DLI L/Cpl is standing next to three armed members of the South African Native Military Corps (NMC).

During the Second World War the South African government of the day held out that members of the NMC could only function in non-combatant roles, and where not allowed to carry firearms whereas funnily members of the Cape Corps (Cape Coloured members) where fully armed and enrolled in combatant roles.

All this political segregation and racial discrimination became quite irrelevant when serving in combat areas and in many instances serving Regiments, Units and Sections of the South African Army quite quickly issued firearms to their NMC ‘support’ members – and this photo stands evidence of such practice.

Thier lives – Black or White, depended on it, and logic prevailed.  As is often the case in combat, the man who joins you in the fight is your brother – irrespective of the colour of his skin – there is no such thing as racial segregation in a foxhole.

The caption written on this photo is “our Lance Corporal and his two native pals”. Quite a lot can be seen and said to this remarkable snapshot into the attitude of the time versus the attitude of soldiers.

It’s an often ignored fact and statistic – one which most certainly the National government after 1948 did not want widely published, lest national heroes be made of these ‘Black’ men.  Simply put the ‘Black’ contributions to World War 1 and World War 2 were quite literally erased from the narrative of the war after 1948 and dismissed by the incoming Apartheid government as ‘traitors’ (a tag also suffered by their ‘White’ counterparts) for serving the ‘British’.

Bear in mind when reviewing what this actually means to the prevailing opinions by many South Africans of the war (White and Black)  – approximately 40% of the standing South African servicemen in WW2 where persons of “colour”.  In all more than 146,000 whites, 83,000 blacks, and 2,500 people of mixed race served in the standing forces of the Union of South Africa at this time.  Mull that over for a minute.

The sacrifice of the men of the Native Labour Corps no less significant – if you think that as “non combatants” this corps came through unscathed by war, also think again – this is the honour role of those NMC members who laid down their lives during the war, their sacrifice is literally quite eye-opening:

In total approximately 1655 Native Military Corps members died during World War 2, read that again – One Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Five ‘Black’ South African soldiers died during World War 2.  That’s almost three times the number who died on the SS Mendi during World War 1, and that’s only from one ‘Corps’.

Put into context, nearly as many South Africans died during the entire 23 years of fighting during the Border War in the 70’s and 80’s (approximately 2013 died) – from all arms of the military, yet the here we are talking about only one single Corps of South Africans.  Consider that the book shelves on South African history are stuffed full of books on the Border War and not one single book is dedicated to the history of the South African Native Military Corps in World War 2.  There is also almost nothing by way of definitive work on the unit history on the internet.

The history of the South African Native Military Corps needs to resurface – it’s screaming out for a proper definitive work and information access – this photograph alone calls for it.  We need to fundamentally rethink who and what has been sacrificed to military conflict by South Africans of all ethnic origins, we need to completely re-dress how we honour them and we need to take some serious perspective.

Written by Capt. Peter Dickens (Retired)

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NMC Corps Badge

Cassinga! … truths and myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Military base or Refugee Camp?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Errors in Planning

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

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

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

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

The Devastating Opening Bombing Run

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

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SAAF Canberra bomb run on Cassinga

The Shambolic Drop

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

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

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

Regrouping and on the Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civilians in the Trenches

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

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

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

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

The extraction 

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

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

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

The Cuban Counter Attack

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

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Mirage III destroying a vehicle in the Cuban column

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

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

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

The destruction of the Cuban column 

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

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

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

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

The Mass Grave Propaganda Campaign  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

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

To put aside the obvious tragedy of civilians in the cross-fire, we also need to be truthful when reviewing Cassinga, there is still the very awkward question of what qualifies a ‘civilian’ and what qualifies a ‘civilian in support of combat operations’?  It’s one that modern reviews of Cassinga tend to skirt well around, but the stated SWAPO survivor testimony points to a Cassinga as a ‘exile’ clearing camp of people making their way into Angola to be trained and join the war effort, in this sense they qualify as ‘military recruits’ and therefore a wartime target by any definitions of it.

Then there is also the thorny question of civilians supporting armies by way of preparing food and other resources which would otherwise be considered as an auxiliary military role.  This argument was used to justify the ANC MK bombing of the Southern Cross Fund offices (a civilian support group of the SADF providing care parcels) to qualify it as a ‘military target’.  It’s was also an argument used by the British to inter Boer families supporting commandos in the field during the 2nd Anglo Boer War – with devastating civilian casualties.

That said no doubt amoungst the dead were actual ‘innocents’ too, especially children and family dependents, which by any account of war is always regrettable, to both sides. This ‘fog of war’ is a shared trauma that haunts the survivors of Cassinga and SADF Paratroopers alike.

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

Today

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

Official celebration of this event by the SANDF ended in 1996.  Veterans of the various South African parachute battalions still privately commemorate Cassinga Day, and many stand in remembrance of all who died that day and all those traumatised by it – from both sides of the conflict.

SADF Honour Roll

71384234BT Rifleman Edward James Backhouse from 3 Parachute Battalion. He was 22.
68546134BT Rifleman Martin Kaplan from 2 Parachute Battalion. He was 25.
70510813BT Rifleman Jacob Conrad De Waal from 2 Parachute Battalion. He was 23.
65383390BT Rifleman Andries Petrus Human from 3 Parachute Battalion. Reported Missing in Action after jumping from the aircraft at Cassinga.. For administrative purposes, he was officially declared dead on 22 January 1980. He was 29.  Recent discovery points to a grave dug by a village headman to bury him and funds are been raised to examine this and bring him home.

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

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Rifleman Edward James Backhouse as he came home

Captured MPLA Propaganda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image and background courtesy Andrew Bergman

Springboks and Diggers … part of the Anzac ‘mateship’ legacy

Iconic image of Commonwealth forces in North Africa during World War 2. Easily identified by their distinctive headgear, South African and Australian soldiers enjoy a game of cards in a gun pit. The South Africans where know as ‘Springboks’ and the Australians known as ‘Diggers’ – a nickname they both inherited during World War One.

The distinctive headgear as shown is quite interesting, so too the unique military bond and history of that exists between South Africa and the Anzac alliance, Australia and New Zealand.

SA PithSouth African.  The South Army (and Air Force) was issued with a “Polo” style “Pith” helmet.  Made from cork it was not intended to protect the head from flying bullets and shrapnel, that was the purpose of the British Mk 2 Brodie helmet (also issued to South Africans). The pith helmet was worn mainly as sun protection when not in combat.

slouch-hat-ww2Australia.  The Australian army wore the “slouch hat”, also intended for sun protection when not in combat, like the South Africans they where issued with the British “Brodie” Mk2 steel helmet when in combat.

The “slouch” hat also has a little South African history to it.  The word ‘slouch’ refers to the sloping brim. The brim is made from rabbit-fur felt or wool felt and is always worn with a puggaree.

History has it that the origins of the Slouch Hat began with the Victorian Mounted Rifles; a hat of similar design had been worn in South Africa by the Cape Mounted Rifles for many years before 1885. The design of the Victorian Mounted Rifle hat originated from headgear of native police in Burma where Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Price had recognised its value.

The Victorian hat was an ordinary bush felt hat turned up on the right side. The intention of turning up the right side of the hat was to ensure it would not be caught during the drill movement of “shoulder arms” from “order arms”.

sagaieIn addition to Australians, believe it or not some South African units also wore the “slouch hat”.  Most notable was the South African Native Military Corps members, who made up about 48% of the South African standing army albeit in non frontline combat roles during both WW1 and WW2.  The legacy of the “slouch” in the modern South African National Defence Force is however now on the decline and little remains now of its use, a pity as it would be a gracious nod to the very large “black” community contribution to both WW1 and WW2.

150281In an iconic Australian War Memorial photograph to demonstrate this unique association,  a Australian soldier working on the Beirut-Tripoli railway link is seen here chatting with two members of a South African Pioneer Unit (SA Native Military Corps) also working on the railway. The photo is designed to show off their similarities of dress and bearing and promote mutual purpose.

Of interest – The Gun in the pit

8493892_2Interestingly the gun in the pit is not South African standard issue.  Instead it is a British made Hotchkiss Portative MK 1, which was used by the Australians, dating back to World War 1, so it is probably their gun pit.  Of French design the MK I was a .303 caliber machine gun, used in ‘cavalry/infantry’ configuration, with removable steel buttstock and a light tripod. This gun is normally fed from either flexible “belts” or strips like you see in the featured image. Normal Hotchkiss Portative strips hold 30 rounds each.

Camaraderie 

Because of mutual historic, military, language, British Dominion and cultural ties here was certainly was plenty of camaraderie between the South Africans and the Anzac Australians and New Zealanders during the war. Lots of informal rugby and cricket matches were played at any good opportunity, games of cards (seen here), exchanging of “souvenirs” (especially badges, sun helmets and slouch hats), occasional punch ups in Cairo pubs fuelled by beer which were soon forgotten and forgiven.  Generally good old good old fashioned soldierly fun and “band of brothers” stuff.

Tobruk

Because the South Africans were responsible for the “fall of Tobruk” in World War 2, a city the Australians fought to hold with such tenacity before handing it over to the South Africans to defend, as a South African you might also come into some light hearted but pointed “sledging” from an Australian military veteran, even to this day.

ANZAC Remembrance

Modern South Africa does not extensively praise, idolise and remember her statutory armed forces and the origins of their fighting legacy anything near the Australians and New Zealanders do to their forces now.   This has manifested with the inclusion of hundreds of South African veterans residing in Australia in National Anzac Day parades held around Australia and New Zealand, and it is because of this unique bond forged by our forefathers in WW1 and WW2 that they are welcomed with open arms.

Featured image copyright IWM collection, insert image copyright Australian War Memorial photograph

Conveniently ignored ‘Heroes of the struggle for Democracy’ … the ‘old’ SADF

Here is an unusual “hero of the struggle for democracy in South Africa”.  This is a South African Defence Force (SADF) former “whites only” National Service conscript turned “volunteer” holding a R4 assault rifle as he safely escorts the ballot boxes to a counting station during South Africa’s landmark 1994 election.

He, like thousands of other old SADF white “National Servicemen” literally volunteered over the transition between 1990 and 1994 to bring democracy to all South Africans and make the elections a reality.  For good reason to, even on the election day itself bomb attacks where still going on and lives were still under threat. Yet now these military “heroes” are conveniently forgotten or vanquished and rather inappropriately branded as “racists” by a brainwashed South African public that has lost perspective.

This is their story and it needs to be told. 1990 was a significant year – Apartheid in all its legal forms was removed from the law books, the system that had generated “the struggle” was dead. The African National Congress (ANC) was also officially unbanned in February 1990, unhindered to practice its politics. All that remained was a period of peaceful negotiation and reconciliation … the future looked bright.  But did that happen?

Unfortunately not, all hell broke out and the organisations that ultimately kept the peace were the statute armed forces of South Africa (SADF and SAP), who by default steered the country safely on the path to democracy in its final course up to and through the 1994 elections, and not the “struggle heroes” of the ANC, who it can really be said to have stumbled at the last hurdle.

It’s a pity as without this stumble the ANC could truly claim the mantle of  the “liberators” who brought democracy to all South Africans but now, rather inconveniently for them, they have to share it with the SADF – and in addition to SADF professional soldiers a huge debt gratitude is owed by the country to the old “white” SADF National Servicemen.

In 1990, once unbanned the ANC immediately went into armed conflict with all the other South Africans who did not favourably agree with them – especially the Zulu ’s political representation at the time – the Inkata Freedom Party (IFP), but also other “Black” liberation movements such as AZAPO (Azanian Peoples Organisation) and the old “homeland” governments and their supporters.  Instead of taking up a role of actively peacekeeping to keep the country on the peace negotiation track, they nearly drew South Africa into full-blown war.

From 1990 to 1994 South Africa saw more violence than the entire preceding period of actual “Apartheid”. There was extensive violence and thousands of deaths in the run-up to the first non-racial elections in South Africa in April 1994 – and to be fair it was not just the ANC , the violence was driven by a number of political parties left and right of the political spectrum as they jostled for political power in the power vacuum created by CODESA negotiations.

To deal with this escalation of all out political violence, the SADF called out for an urgent boost in resources, however conscription was unravelling and numbers dropping off rapidly from the “national service” pool.  Luckily however, tens of thousands of “white” ex National servicemen were now serving out “camp commitments” in various Citizen Force units, SADF Regiments and in the Regional Commando structures who heeded the call and volunteered to stay on – fully dedicated to serving the country above all else, and fully committed to keep the country on the peace process track and stop the country sliding into civil war.

In an odd sense, if you really think about it, these “white conscripts” are the real “heroes” that paved the way for peace. For four full years of political vacuum they literally risked their lives by getting into harms way between the various warring protagonists, left/right white/black – ANC, IFP, PAC and even the AWB – and it cannot be underestimated the degree to which they prevented an all out war from 1991 to 1994 whilst keeping the peace negotiations on track to a fully democratic settlement.

That South Africa enjoys the fruits of the CODESA democratic process, without plunging itself into civil war whilst democracy was negotiated is very much directly attributed to the men and women in the SADF.

In 1991, the armed insurrection in South Africa became more complex when far right-wing “white supremacist” break-away groups such as the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) began to increasing turn to armed violence to further their cause. South Africa’s Defence Force and Police structures and personnel now also had to deal with this added, rather violent, dynamic to an already feuding and violent ethnic and political landscape.

“White” loyalties where quickly cleared up between white right wingers and white members of the statute forces when the issue came to a head at ‘The battle of Ventersdorp’ on 9 August 1991.  The statute force maintained the upper hand and in all, 3 AWB members and 1 passer-by were killed. 6 policemen, 13 AWB members and 29 civilians were injured in the clash.

In addition to Pretoria and surrounds, this right wing “revolution” also focused  on Bophuthatswana in 1994,  The AWB attempted an armed Coup d’état (takeover by force of arms) after Bophuthatswana homeland’s President Mangope was overthrown by a popular revolt.  In addition to the SADF, this uprising was also foiled by what remained of the statute forces of Bophuthatswana, and was to cumulate in the infamous shooting of 3 surrendered AWB members in front of the world’s media by a policeman.

Luckily not part of this particular controversy, the SADF ‘national service’ soldiers were deployed into the region to quell the uprising and arrested looters in the chaos of the revolt stabilising the situation – as the below famous image taken in Mmabatho by Greg Marinovich shows.

The net result of all this is recorded as a “SADF victory, removal and abolition of Lucas Mangope’s regime, disestablishment of Bantustan”.  In all, Volksfront: 1 killed, AWB: 4 killed, 3 wounded and Bophuthatswana’s mutineers suffered 50 dead, 285 wounded.

To get an idea of this low-level war between the ANC and IFP for political control in Kwa-Zulu Natal alone, The Human Rights Committee (HRC) estimated that, between July 1990 and June 1993, an average of 101 people died per month in politically related incidents – a total of 3 653 deaths. In the period July 1993 to April 1994, conflict steadily intensified, so that by election month it was 2.5 times its previous levels. Here SADF soldiers conduct a search through bush veld in KwaZulu Natal 1994 and keep a close eye on protesters with “traditional weapons” – Section A KwaMashu Hostel, an Inkatha stronghold.

Moreover, political violence in this period extended to the PWV (Pretoria– Witwatersrand-Vereeniging) region in the Transvaal. The HRC estimated that between July 1990 and June 1993, some 4 756 people were killed in politically related violence in the PWV area. In the period immediately following the announcement of an election date, the death toll in the PWV region rose to four times its previous levels. Here are SADF National Service soldiers on patrol in Soweto, South Africa, 1991/2 and keeping the peace in Bekkersdal in 1994.

Much of this climaxed into famous incident when the IFP chose to march in Johannesburg brandishing “traditional weapons” in 1994.  Outside the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters at ‘Shell House’  a shootout in downtown Johannesburg between the ANC and IFP supporters erupted. Here in a famous photo taken by Greg Marinovich is a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) who lies dead, his shoes are taken off for the journey to the next life. These three SADF soldiers have come forward into the line of fire – strait between the two warring factions and are keeping the ANC gunmen at Shell House at bay preventing further loss of life, the another image shows a SADF medic coming to the assistance of a wounded IFP member at Shell House – the degree of the life changing injury of a bullet shattering his leg quite graphically evident.

Another good example is also seen here at Bekkersdal township, Transvaal, South Africa 1994. AZAPO supporters fire at ANC supporters in armed clashes between these two groups of the “liberation struggle”.  The SADF again suppressed the clash, the next image shows heavy armed SADF National Servicemen in support by driving into the middle of the fray and keeping the belligerents apart – in effect saving lives.

Bigger clashes took place in KaZulu Natal – an example is seen here at KwaMashu in 1994. ANC militants with a home-made gun or ‘kwash’ do battle with Inkatha Freedom party supporters across the valley at Richmond Farm.  Again SADF personnel were moved in to separate the protagonists, here 61 Mech National Servicemen in a SADF “Ratel” IFV patrol Section A, KwaMashu Hostel, an Inkatha stronghold.

In an even stranger twist, a blame game ensured with the ANC not blaming itself and instead accusing a “third force” of guiding the violence and laid the blame on FW de Klerk.  Funnily no evidence of a “third force” has ever been found and the TRC hearings rejected the idea after a long investigation.

In the lead-up to the elections in April 1994, on 24 August 1993 Minister of Defence Kobie Coetsee announced the end of “whites only” conscription. In 1994 there would be no more call-ups for the one-year initial training. Although conscription was suspended it was not entirely abandoned, as the SADF Citizen Force and SADF Commando ‘camps’ system for fully trained conscripts remained place. Due to priorities facing the country, especially in stabilising the country ahead of the 1994 General Elections and the Peace Progress negotiations, the SADF still needed more strength to guard election booths and secure key installations.

So in 1994, the SADF “called-up” up even more “white” SADF Civilian force members, SADF Commando and SADF National Reservists to serve again, and despite the unravelling of conscription laws the response was highly positive with thousands of more national servicemen ‘voluntarily’ returning to service in order to safeguard the country into it’s new epoch.

National Reserve members were mustered at Group 18 outside Soweto in January 1994, some even arriving without uniform.  As part of this mustering I even have the personal experience of asking one of them what happened to his equipment and uniform to which the reply was “burnt it after my camps, but for this I am prepared to serve my country again.”  This comment says a lot as to devotion and commitment of someone making a difference at a turning point of history.

“Camp” call-ups and the call-up of ex-conscript SADF members on the National Reserve reached record proportions over the period of the April 1994 elections, and for the first time in history, in a strange twist of fate, the “End Conscription Campaign”( ECC) called these conscripts to consider these “election” call-ups to be different from previous call-ups and attend to their military duties.

It is highly ironic that even the ECC could see the necessity of security to deliver South Africa to democracy in this period – it was not going to come from the “liberation” movements or any “cadres” as they were part of the problem perpetuating the violent cycle in the power vacuum – it had to come from these SADF conscripts and statutory force members committed to their primary role of serving the country (and not a political ideology or party).

The threats on election day where very real – here South African Defence Force personnel cordon off a bomb blast area and South African police personnel inspect the bombing near the air terminals at Jan Smuts International Airport (now OR Tambo International).  This was the final Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) cell attack on April 27, 1994 in response to the landmark election day held the same day.

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While campaigning for the Presidency, even Nelson Mandela, seen here in traditional dress, made sure to stop and thank citizen force members of the SADF for their support and duty during South Africa’s first fully democratic election in 1994.

These ordinary South African servicemen showed what they are really made of by putting themselves in harm’s way to bring about the democracy that South Africans share today – they where literally the unsung heroes, and all respect to Nelson Mandela, he knew that and took  time in his campaigning to recognise it – these men did not ask for much in return and this small recognition would have been enough.

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Here a SADF member keeps a guarding and secure eye whilst fellow South Africans are queuing to vote in the historic first democratic election on April 27, 1994. This election poll was in Lindelani, Kwa Zulu Natal. Nelson Mandela voted here at 6am and his car passed by as these youngsters sang to honour him.  Another image shows a SADF National Serviceman guarding the election booths in Johannesburg, whilst a newly enfranchised South African eagerly points the way to the voting polls.

It was not just National Servicemen, all the uniformed men and women of the SADF and the SAP, of all ethnic groups in South Africa, paved the way for real peace when the country really stood at the edge and about to fall into the abyss of violence and destruction from 1990 to 1994.

This is an inconvenient truth – something kept away from the contemporary narrative of South Africa’s “Liberation” and “Struggle” – as it does not play to the current ANC political narrative. These men and women are now openly branded by lessor Politicians in sweeping statements as “Apartheid Forces” – demonised and vanquished – whereas, in reality nothing can be further from the truth. South Africans today – whether they realise it or not, owe these SADF Professionals and especially the former “whites only” national service conscripts a deep debt of gratitude for their current democracy, civil rights and freedom.

If you had to summarise the military involvement in the transition period, it was the SADF – not the “Liberation” armies of the ANC and PAC, who brought down civil revolts in all the ex-“Bantustans”, it was the SADF that suppressed an armed right-wing revolutionary takeover in South Africa , it was the SADF that put itself into harms way between all the warring political parties in the townships all over the country and literally saved thousands of lives for 4 long years and it was the SADF who stood guard and secured the 94 election itself.

The SADF veterans by far make up the majority of South Africa’s military veteran community, they also fought for liberation and peace, and as they say whenever current South African politicians idealise the MK veterans and demonise the old pre 94 SADF veterans – “please don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Article researched and written by Peter Dickens.

Photo copyrights to Greg Marinovich and Ian Berry.  Feature image photograph copyright Paul Weinberg

A little cheeky military humour

A little bit of “cheeky” military humour to see out the old year – please excuse the brashness but this is typical of military humour.

Here a South African Air Force Alouette III helicopter’s Flight Engineer/Gunner gives a typical response to fellow crew members flying alongside.

Not found in the Public Relations photographs in the SADF at the time. However in the light of combatants fighting  far away from home, and in need of some light banter to alleviate the seriousness of combat on the Angolan border, who can blame them  … “boys will be boys”.

Photo courtesy of the SAAF Alouette crew veterans fraternity.