Cassinga! – a talk with Peter Dickens

Join me for a frank talk on The Battle of Cassinga at Quentin at Oakhurst in Hout Bay on the 24th July. Booking direct with Oakhurst Barn it includes a sit down three course dinner. I’m really looking forward to exchanging views on this poignant and far-reaching battle.

Veterans of this battle specifically and the Border War in general are most welcome, their story needs to be told.

The details again:

Where? ‘Quentin at Oakhurst Barn Restaurant’, 3 Dorman Way, Oakhurst Farm Park – Hout Bay, South Africa, 7806

When? Wednesday 24th July 2019

What Time? 19:00

How much? R 295 pp – includes a three course dinner

Booking e-mail: accounts@oakhurstbarn.com


 

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 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 1-2, 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 1-2 and the attack.

The newly developed Ratel ZT3 had a ‘black box’ which recorded crew actions when the missile system was selected – 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 1-2 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 1-2 march into history, a South African ‘light’ armoured fighting vehicle made by Sandock Austral (now 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 1-2, now marked 12A 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 1-2 are now to be seen at the South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg (later marked 23), the ratel on display is updated composite of various demobilised ratels when upgrades were made, however a part of it comes from Ratel 1-2, therefore the tank ‘kill’ markings were retained on this version and are 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

The last soldier to die in the Border War

There is something deeply disturbing when you read about the ‘last soldier to die’ in a war, it’s a complete sense of futility, a young life that is snuffed out for this or that political conflict. The South African Border War (1966 – 1989) along the now Namibian border with Angola carries with it the same sense of pointlessness when you read about the first soldier lost and the last soldier lost as it was with the 1st World War.

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Pvt Parr (Left) and Pvt Ellison (Right)

During World War 1, the first British soldier to die was Private John Henry Parr on 21st August 1914, Killed in Action near Mons – Belgium.  The last British serviceman to die in  WW1 was Private George Edwin Ellison, killed in action near Mons – Belgium on Armistice Day itself – 11 November 1918.  The irony, both died in a foreign country and they are buried in the same graveyard in Belgium facing one another – a few meters separate them.  The futility, for 4 years millions of more casualties separate them, in the end – all with no tangible military ‘gain’.

One cannot avoid thinking whether this same sense of waste of young life has a parallel in the South Africa’s Border War on the Namibian/Angola border.  The sad truth is that it does.

Lieutenant Freddie Zeelie from 1 Reconnaissance Regiment is regarded as the first SADF combat casualty of The Namibian Border War. Killed in Action on 23 June 1974 while engaged on anti-insurgent operations in Southern Angola. On hitting contact with insurgents he bravely stormed their machine gun position regrettably losing his life in the process. He was only 22 years old.

The last soldier to die in combat in this Border War was Corporal Hermann Carstens, also from 1 Reconnaissance Regiment, Killed in Action on 04 April 1989 during fierce close-quarter fighting with a numerically superior force of heavily armed SWAPO PLAN insurgents near Eenhana. He was only 20 years old.

The irony, Lt Zeelie and Cpl Carstens both died in a foreign country – defending the same stretch of border between the same two countries – South West Africa (Namibia) and Angola, both fighting the same insurgents. The futility, for 15 years separating their respective deaths there would be thousands of casualties. In the end – all with no tangible military ‘gain’.

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Lt Zeelie (Left) and Cpl Carstens (Right)

It’s a sad thought indeed, however their actions and losses are not entirely futile, as with the First World War, the Border War resulted in changed ideologies – changes which were necessary to attain peace, and our modern freedoms as we have them now is because of their sacrifice.

So let’s have a look at the ‘last’ soldier to die during the Namibian Border War’, and I must thank both Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout whose work this is, and who have shared it with us:

The last soldier to die in the Namibian Border War- Corporal Hermann Carstens, 1 Reconnaissance Regiment.

Written by Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout

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Corporal Hermann  Carstens, 1RR, Operators Badge and Wings on his chest

A short background: Introduction to 23 years of war, 1966–1989

South Africa administered the former German colony of German South West Africa since 1920 after the First World War (1914–1918). Initially, South Africa wanted to incorporate the territory as a fifth province of the country. The incorporation into South Africa never materialised, however, and since the 1960s more and more states wanted to declare the then South West Africa (SWA) an independent state, Namibia.

In 1966 the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) started an armed insurgency against the South African administrators through its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). The war would last for 23 years, and eventually it would also escalate into Angola and, for some time, into Zambia.

In essence, the Namibian Border War (also known as the South African Border War) became a cold war by proxy. By the early 1970s, the United Nations (UN) adopted Resolution 435 to lay the foundation for Namibian independence. By 1988 the Cold War drew to a close and the South Africans, Cubans and Angolans were ready to engage in negotiations to withdraw their troops from the SWA/Angolan border. These negotiations opened the way for Namibian independence.

One of the issues agreed upon in the trilateral negotiations was that the South African troops would be reduced to 1 500 men and would be confined to base. SWAPO would withdraw to 150 km north of the border. Resolution 435 made it clear, however, that with its implementation (which would be on 1 April 1989), SWAPO would also remain at their bases. If they therefore had established bases on SWA soil, they would also be confined to these bases. SWAPO saw this as a loophole, and secretly planned a massive invasion for 31 March/1 April 1989. The sole intention was to establish bases in northern SWA.

The South Africans, however, did not trust SWAPO, and even less so the influx of foreign troops of the United Nation’s Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). This force would supervise the transition period and comprised peacekeepers from several UN states, including Finland, Britain, Australia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Kenya. South Africa continued operating their intelligence sources. The South West African Police (SWAPOL) and its Security Branch were tasked to keep up their system of informers and spies.

To help monitor the situation and assist in gathering information, about 30 men from the South African Special Forces (colloquially known as the Recces) and several South African Military Intelligence operators were placed in SWAPOL. As part of the Recce contingent, several Swahili-speaking operators were also included to monitor the Kenyan soldiers of UNTAG. This military operation was known as Operation Saga. The deployed Special Forces contingent would only use the Police as cover and still send their information directly to the Senior Operational Special Forces Officer in Windhoek.

The man: Hermann Carstens

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Hermann as band major, Hoërskool Voortrekkerhoogte

Hermann Carstens was born on 30 September 1968. He was the son of a South African military officer and went to Laerskool Uniefees (English: Uniefees Primary School), 25 km north of Pretoria. He later attended Voortrekkerhoogte Hoërskool (English: Voortrekkerhoogte High School), which mainly comprised children of military personnel.

 

It was in this environment that the young Carstens soon proved himself as a man destined for a bright military career. Among other, he was the band major of the school’s military band; as an athlete, he excelled in field and track events, and was a very good long jumper.

After completing his school career in 1986, he joined the South African Defence Force (SADF), like all young white men of that age. But he would not remain an ordinary soldier. He had a vision. He was driven. He wanted to be with the best. He volunteered for selection to the elite South African Parachute Battalion and passed the course. But even that was not good enough, and when the Recces visited, he volunteered again.

This time he was among the big fish. Special Forces all over the world usually comprise older soldiers; not 18- or 19-year-olds. But he was one of the exceptions. Hermann passed the selection, continued with the course and passed the course. He was not even 20 years old.

When the teams from the reconnaissance regiments were selected for Operation Saga, it was decided that all of them would first complete an advanced medical course, as this would be their cover: They would be medical personnel. Hermann was too late, however, and did not partake in the medical course. He was later sent to join those who had already been selected for the operation. This was fate – and he would be destined to be behind the exposed guns of a Casspir on 4 April 1989. The other Recce in the ambush that day was inside another Casspir – as the operational medical orderly (“ops medic”).

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Hermann during Recce training

Operation Saga: Corporal Hermann Carstens

Operation Saga, an independent Special Forces operation, was planned as a long-term intelligence-gathering operation in northern SWA. This operation and other combined operations were aimed at painting a real-time intelligence picture of events that were unfolding as UNTAG and the SWAPO exiles started arriving. Their cover was also changed from medical personnel to members of the SWAPOL Security Police, as this would ensure more freedom of movement without raising suspicion.

At the start of February 1989, the operators from the Special Forces contingent arrived in Oshakati after spending a week preparing at the SWAPOL Security Police farm on the outskirts of Windhoek. They used the cover of the Security Police and also received police ranks. Another few days of preparation followed in Oshakati at the Security Police Headquarters before they were deployed. The 4 Reconnaissance (“Recce”) Regiment (4RR) was deployed to the Kavango and Caprivi regions, while the 1 “Recce” Regiment (1RR), supported by some operators and intelligence personnel from 5 “Recce” Regiment (5RR), was deployed in the central and eastern areas. The 1RR and 5RR area of operations stretched from Nkongo in eastern Ovamboland and west to Opuwa in the Kaokoland. The operators were posted at Security Police bases. Constables (Corporals) Pieter du Plessis and Hermann Carstens were deployed to the Security Police base at Okatope in Ovamboland.

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Throughout March, in terms of the agreed-upon UN Resolution 435, UNTAG soldiers arrived in dribs and drabs to become the interim authority on 1 April 1989.

On Friday 31 March 1989, Koevoet (the SWAPOL Counter-Insurgency Unit, or SWAPOL TIN) and SWAPOL Security Police patrols were placed on high alert along the border in anticipation of a possible SWAPO invasion. Earlier, police informers had brought information regarding the execution of a SWAPO invasion plan on 31 March 1989.

On the Saturday morning of 1 April 1989 events took a turn for the worse as heavily-armed SWAPO insurgents began to invade SWA. The police were under pressure as heavy fighting broke out. Koevoet bore the brunt, as all the South African Defence Force (SADF) units had either been disbanded or were confined to base.

For the time, before the army could be mobilised, SWAPOL used everyone at its disposal. Security Police teams also deployed on 1 April 1989. Over the next four days, the bloodiest fighting of the war took place on SWA soil. The SWAPO groups were large, with up to 250 insurgents in a group. As the groups were attacked, they scattered and splintered off into smaller units.

On 4 April 1989 near Eenhana, Call Sign 21C – the Okatope Security Police team of which Pieter and Hermann were members – left their temporary base near the SADF’s Okankolo base just after 08:00 to patrol the area. Because he had not been on the advanced medic course, Hermann was appointed as one of the vehicle commanders, which entailed manning the mounted machine guns. Pieter, in the absence of the team medic who was on leave, acted as the Ops Medic in the other Casspir.

At approximately 11:45 four sets of tracks, about three hours old, were discovered. After following the tracks for a while, they noticed that more SWAPOs had joined, bringing the total number to more than 10.

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Hermann in the Operational Area, Northern Namibia 1988

The Security Police team entered a belt of thick vegetation, followed by grassland and then a mahango field and a kraal. About 3 km south of Eenhana, SWAPO initiated an ambush with AK-74 and RPG7 rocket grenade launchers. At this stage, Hermann’s Casspir was ahead of the rest of the team, busy with voorsny[English: tracking ahead]. Voorsnyis a term used when some of the vehicles drive ahead to see whether they can perhaps pick up the tracks further ahead. When they can identify indeed tracks further ahead, the rest of the team is informed per radio to also come to the newer tracks. This means that a part of the tracking can be avoided, and the insurgents be caught up with quicker.

It was during this voorsny that Hermann’s Casspir entered the ambush. Standing up, he shot back with the twin Three Os Brownings from the machine gun turret at an angle behind the driver. It was possibly just after the start of the ambush that an insurgent fired a projectile at the Casspir with a RPG7 rocket grenade launcher. The projectile entered the Casspir on the left, about 800 mm above the gear box, in line with the firing holes below the front side window of the passenger compartment. The red-hot metal shrapnel caused devastation inside and hit Hermann from behind where he was firing the guns. His back was littered with shrapnel. A large piece of shrapnel hit him in the back of his head, and he died instantly.

The rest of the team fought through the ambush and started to maal[English: to mill]. This is a tactical move used and perfected by Koevoet, and was also used by the SWAPOL Security Teams and 101 Battalion. It entails all the vehicles fighting through the ambush and thereafter driving in different directions through the contact area to confuse the enemy, thus presenting a difficult target and engaging the enemy from every direction. Sometimes it even happened that the insurgents were overrun and killed with the Casspir’s wheels.

Pieter still remembers when his Casspir drove past Hermann’s Casspir; he saw Hermann slumped forward in the machine gun turret. The right rear wheel of Hermann’s Casspir had been shot out and the vehicle came to a standstill. In the ensuing contact 12 SWAPO’s were killed (one perished under a Casspir’s wheels during the maal, while two blew themselves up). More than 20 insurgents were part of the ambush.

About three minutes later when the contact had died down, Pieter made his way over to Hermann, and saw he had a wound behind his ear; all his vital signs indicated that he was dead. Hermann’s body and a wounded yet walking Special Constable Matheus Gabriel was casevaced by helicopter. Gabriel had shrapnel in his throat. A Koevoet team arrived, reported (and by doing so effectively claimed) the deaths and followed the tracks of the remaining SWAPOs who had escaped and later that afternoon killed another seven of them.

The legacy: The last man to die

It took nine days to stop the treacherous SWAPO incursion. When the last shot was fired, more than 300 of the estimated 1 500 insurgents had been killed. Between the SADF, which had since been released from their bases, and the initially under-gunned and under-strength police force, 31 people from the Security Forces died. Lt. Els of the Special Service Battalion was wounded on 3 April. He died of his wounds on 4 April. Several SWAPOL and South African Counter-Insurgency policemen would also be killed in action on 4 April 1989; however, the last soldier to be killed in action was the brave Corporal Hermann Carstens. He was, like most South Africans who had died in that war, a very young 19 or 20 years old. But this young man was destined to be there. As a young man he set high standards, and against all odds became the Recce he wanted to be. Hermann Carstens was a man who pursued his dream, and then started to live it.

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After his death, Hermann’s fellow operators sent his boots, covered in gold, back to his parents.One of the boots is now in Duxford, England, with Renier Jansen, his close friend from high school. The bond between the two young men always remained. The other boot is with Hermann’s father in Pretoria

Hermann was buried with full military honours in April 1989, in the Heroes Acre at the Warmbad Cemetery. The town is now known as Bela-Bela. His bravery will be remembered forever by a special stone on his grave.

On 23 June 1974, Lt. Fred Zeelie became the first South African soldier to die in action in the Namibian Border War. He was from 1RR. On 4 April 1989, Corporal Hermann Carstens of 1RR became the last South African soldier to die in action during the Border War. Between the deaths of Fred Zeelie and Hermann Carstens, 61 more members of the South African Special Forces made the ultimate sacrifice. The contribution of the South African Special Forces in this war, and the cost in lives that they paid, is significantly higher than the average casualties of any other unit.

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Freddie Zeelie (left) and Hermann Carstens (right)

Hermann Carstens will be remembered during the 13thAfriforum Springbok Vasbyt 10 & 25 km Road Race in 2019, and his name will be given a special place among the previously-unknown soldiers honoured by this event.


Published with the kind permission of  Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout

Copyright: Tinus de Klerk & Leon Bezuidenhout
THIS ARTICLE IS NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE, OR TO BE SOLD IN ANY FORM Renier Jansen reserves the copyright of all photos

Introduction and Edited by Peter Dickens

The silent South Africans in the silent service

Submariners are the true ‘heroes” of the Navy, known as the ‘silent service’ it is the most dangerous service any Navy can offer.  The death of a submarine is a harrowing prospect to those who serve in it – it takes a very special and very brave person to serve in or command a submarine.  Yet in South Africa we don’t really have any real idea of our bravest of the brave in the ‘silent service’ – we’re clueless and it’s because we “don’t know the half of it”.

Typically, in Navy circles, the South African Navy seems to begin regarding its ‘firsts’ from different political epochs and the confusion kicks in because the history of the South African Navy and the British Royal Navy in South Africa are so intrinsically muddled.

I recently came across a day to day in South African history by Chris Bennet, where he lists Lt. A. H. Maccoy DSC, serving on the Royal Navy’s submarine HM Umbra as the first South African to command a submarine.

With much respect to Chris Bennet, he does a cracking job keeping us abreast of our Naval history, but he is only partly correct. Lt. Maccoy DSC is the first member of the South African Naval Forces (formed at the beginning of World War 2) to be seconded to British Forces and command one of their submarines. BUT, and its a big but, he was not the first South African to command a submarine.

In fact, there is a long a rich heritage of South Africans who served on Royal Navy submarines who came before Lt Maccoy, and their service extends all the way back to the First World War.  Not only these early South African naval pioneers, many of whom were sacrificed in the line of duty, there is even a bunch of very decorated and very heroic South Africans in command of British Submarines during World War 2 whose service pre-dates Lt MacCoy’s command.

So, who are all these South African submariners and why don’t we know anything about them in our contemporary account of South African military history?

The answer lies in the correct account of South African Naval history.  After South Africa was formed as country in 1910 it did not have a navy as part of its armed forced. Naval protection and patrolling our shores was left entirely to the British and the Royal Navy. During WW1, all South African volunteers to join the navy found themselves in the Royal Navy from 1914.

It was only by the onset of World War 2 in 1940 that a South African Navy as we know it even started to take shape. Even in 1940, all the South African Navy could offer any South African volunteering to serve in Naval Forces were a handful of fishing trawlers converted to mine laying and mine hunting.  The bulk of volunteers found themselves in the Royal Naval directly as Royal Navy Reservists or found themselves seconded to the Royal Navy as South African Navy personnel.

So lets have a look at the really ‘silent’ history of South African’s in the ‘silent service’ of submarines – and we start with World War 1.

Notable South Africans in submarine service – WW1

The First World War properly developed the submarine as a tool of war, it can even be argued that it is the beginning of the submarine service itself.  It had been used in the American Civil War but it was only by WW1 that it became defined.

Even at this early time of submarine warfare we find some notable South Africans at the forefront of this foreboding weapon of war, here are their stories:

William Tatham

Sub-Lieutenant William Inglis Tatham, Royal Navy, was the Son of Lieutenant-Colonel The Hon. F. S. Tatham, D.S.O., and Ada Susan Tatham, of Parkside, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the Tatham’s being a well-known Natal and South African family.

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William Inglis Tatham

William Tatham was born in Natal and volunteered to join the Royal Navy to serve on submarines.  He was assigned to H.M. Submarine “H3”, an “H” Class submarine was developed in 1915 to respond to German mine-laying ships, whose operations were taking a heavy toll on Allied Merchant shipping during the war – especially around the British Isles and the Adriatic.

H3 was built by the Canadian Vickers Company in Canada and it was commissioned on the 3 June 1915.  H3, and her sister submarines H1, H2 and H4 sailed across the Atlantic and set up base in in Gibraltar.

One short month later, H3 was on operations in the Adriatic waters under the command of Lieutenant George Eric Jenkinson age 27, when she tragically sank on the 15 July 1916 after hitting a mine in the gulf of Cattaro while attempting to penetrate defences. H3 sinks with all 22 crew and unfortunately took our 19 year-old South African hero, Sub-Lieutenant Tatham with her.  It gets worse for the Tatham family, William’s brother will be killed just 3 days later serving in the South African Infantry.

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Royal Navy ‘H’ Class submarine from WW1

William Tatham enters our history books as the very first South African submariner to lose his life.  He is not acknowledged as such or extensively remembered in South Africa by the government or South African Navy, he is however remembered in England, his and name appears on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial.

Charles Philip Voltelyn van der Byl

Lieutenant Charles Philip Voltelyn Van der Byl, Royal Navy, came from Cape Town, and like William Tatham he was also from an illustrious South African family. Charles van der Byl initially joined the Royal Navy and served aboard the battleship HMS Goliath, he is also a lucky survivor when the HMS Goliath was sunk during the Gallipoli campaign in the Dardanelles in 1915.

Lt. van der Byl then transferred to the submarine service and was assigned to HMS Submarine G1. G1 was a “G” Class submarine of the Royal Navy and was built at Chatham Dockyard, had a crew of 31 and a top speed of 14.5 knots (surface) and 10 knots (submerged). G1 was launched on the 14th August 1915.

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Royal Navy G Class submarine from WW1

G1 would survive the war, however very sadly Lt Van der Byl would not, he was drowned on the 9 October 1916. His drowning having occurred just three months after the loss of his fellow South African pioneer and submariner – William Tatham,

Lt. Van der Byl’s name is also only really remembered in England, and is found on the Chatham Naval Memorial,

Wiggie Bennett

Another South African who served with the silent service during World War 1, was “Wiggie” Bennett, from Johannesburg.

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Royal Navy ‘K’ class submarine in WW1

Wiggie was known as a fearless dare devil serving on K boat submarine patrols operating from Harwich, and again, rather tragically, he too paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Between the World Wars

As we pass between the First and Second World War’s we find another notable South African in the ‘silent service’ of the Royal Navy.  Lieutenant Harold Chapman.

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HMS Thunderbolt (Thetis)

Harold Chapman was a ‘Botha Boy’ having trained aboard South Arica’s notable training establishment – the South African Training Ship, General Botha. Chapman then relocated to the United Kingdom and entered the Royal Navy in 1927 as a Midshipman.

He entered the Royal Navy’s submarine service as second-in-command of HMS Thetis (N25) a T-Class submarine.  Tragically the HMS Thetis sank during her sea trials on the 4 on the 1 June 1939, taking 99 men, including our South African submariner with her.

The tragedy was attributed to a test cock on the number 5 tube which was blocked by some enamel paint and no water flowed out the when the bow cap was opened, the inrush of water caused the bow of the submarine to sink to the seabed, 46 meters below.

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The stricken Thetis, surrounded by rescue boats

Interestingly as the HMS Thetis was at a relatively shallow depth it was salvaged, brought back to operational service and became the HMS Thunderbolt, however HMS Thunderbolt was destined to be sunk again and was lost during WW2 off Cap St. Vito, north of Sicily, on the 14 March 1943, having been depth charged by the Italian corvette, “Cicogna”.

World War 2

By the beginning of the Second World War we find many more South Africans in the Royal Navy’s Submarine branch.

Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl

During the Second World War we find our first South African to command a submarine – Captain Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl, the second son of Lt.Col. Voltelin Albert William van der Byl, OBE (1872-1941), and Constance Margaret Jackson of Cape Town, South Africa.

Born in Cape Town on the 04 May 1907, Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl stemmed from famous Van der Zyl military family which attained political fame under Smuts in South Africa and ironically he was relative of Charles Van der Byl, mentioned previously who was sacrificed in a Royal Navy submarine during World War 1.

Voltelin James Howard Van der Byl joined the Royal Navy as a Cadet in 1924, attaining his commission as a Midshipman in 1925.  Serving on various Royal Navy ships, he joined the submarine service in April 1929 and assigned to HMS Submarine Odin and serving in Chinese waters.

Promoted to First Lieutenant, he continued to serve on submarines and was assigned to HMS Sturgeon in 1933 in the China seas and HMS Rover in 1934.  On the 8th August 1936, prior to the Second World War, he made history as the first South African to command a submarine, taking command of HMS Salmon serving in the Mediterranean.

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HMS Salmon (N65) – WW2

At the on-set of World War 2, he was again assigned a command of submarine, taking command of HMS Taku (N38), the Taku was a British T Class submarine. On the 8 May 1940 Van der Byl found himself in the thick of combat, when he attacked a German convoy with ten torpedoes, damaging the German torpedo boat Möwe  east of Denmark. For his actions he subsequently received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) at the end of June 1940.

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HMS Taku – WW2

By October 1940 he found himself as a Staff Officer to the Commander in Chief of the Home Fleet and in 1943 he served with the Anti-Submarine Warfare Division of the Admiralty (HMS President).   By the end of the war in 1945 he found himself as the Commanding Officer, HMS Medway II (submarine base, 1st Submarine Flotilla, Malta).

Promoted to Captain, he remained in the Royal Navy after the war, retiring in January 1958 as the Commanding Officer of HMS Forth and as a Naval ADC to Queen Elizabeth II.

Captain V.J.H. Van der Byl, Royal Navy, DSC passed on in Hampshire, England on the 21st September 1968.

Frederick Basil Currie

Lieutenant-Commander Frederick Basil Currie of the Royal Navy, is another notable South African submariner of the Second World War. The son of Colonel O.J. Currie of the South African Medical Corps and Sarah Gough Currie. Frederick Currie was given command of HMS Regulus (N88) a R Class Submarine.

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HMS Regulus (N88) – WW2

Frederick Currie was the second South African to be given command of a submarine and as is common to this very dangerous arm of service he was lost when the HMS Regulus went on patrol from Alexandria in Egypt, on the 23 November 1940.  The general consensus is the HMS Regulus may have hit a mine just off Taranto, Italy, on the 6 December 1940.

Arthur Hezlet

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Sir Arthur Richard Hezlet

A South African born submariner became one of the most famous submariners of the Second World War.  His colourful career started in 1928 when Hezlet joined the Royal Navy aged just 13 years old.  Nicknamed Baldy Hezlet he became the Royal Navy’s youngest captain at the time, aged 36 and its youngest admiral, aged 45. In retirement he became a military historian.

Born in Pretoria, South Africa on the 7th April 1914, he attended the Royal Navy Colleges  in Dartmouth and Greenwich before going to sea in 1932 as a Midshipman on Battleships HMS Royal Oak and HMS Resolution.

Hezlet was promoted to Lieutenant on 1 April 1936, achieving the highest mark in his Lieutenant’s examinations and winning the Ronald Megaw Memorial Prize. In December 1935 he began the submarine course at HMS Dolphin, something for which he had “not applied or volunteered”.  He however later volunteered to serve on submarines and ironically cut his teeth in 1937 on HMS Regulus (the same submarine on which fellow South African Frederick Currie later lost his life).

Following which he was appointed First Lieutenant of submarine HMS H43 from January 1938 to April 1939, and later transferred to the HMS Trident.  On HMS Trident he was to see his first action when he was engaged in operations in the Norwegian Sea as the Germans launched their occupation of Norway.

He subsequently passed the notorious “Perisher” exam (Submarine Commanding Officers Qualifying Course), and thus became a submarine commander.  He then commanded the following Royal Navy submarines during the war, HMS Unique, HMS Ursula, HMS Upholder, HMS Thrasher and HMS Trenchant.

His first combat test came when he was in Command of HMS Unique, when Hezlet fired four torpedoes at the Italian troop ship ‘Esperia – his first ever torpedo attack on the enemy and sank her. In November 1941 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his attack on the Esperia.

However, it was whilst serving as the Commander on HMS Trenchant that Hezlet became a submarine warfare legend.  Taking Command on 15 October 1943, HMS Trenchant saw combat in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) during Operation Boomerang when she sank a Japanese coaster. Hezlet stopped to pick up survivors and managed to coax 14 Japanese crew to accept rescue.

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HMS Trenchant during WW2

Hezlet undertook long-range patrols in the Indian and Pacific oceans, earning him his first Distinguished Service Order (DSO). when he sank the long-range German U-Boat 859 on 23 September 1944, near the Sunda Strait after receiving ‘Ultra’ decrypts on her position.

Under his command on 27 October 1944, HMS Trenchant deployed two MKII Chariot manned torpedoes ‘Tiny’ and ‘Slasher’ off Phuket on a mission to destroy two Axis merchant ships in what would prove to be one of the most successful uses of Chariots of the whole War.

Ironically, on one of the MKII Chariot manned torpedoes was another notable South African, Sub/Lt Anthony Eldridge DSC, he had joined the Royal Navy in January 1942 and was awarded the DSC for his outstanding courage and determination.

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Sub/Lt Anthony Eldridge DSC

However it was the action on 8 June 1945 in which Arthur Hezlet walked into fame, Hezlet took HMS Trenchant into shallow and mined water in the Banka Strait to sink the Japanese heavy cruiser ‘Ashigara’,  the cruiser’s protection, the Japanese Destroyer ‘Kamakazi’ spotted the Trenchant and attacked it. Despite being under attack, Hezlet held his nerve firing 8 torpedoes at the Ashigara, 5 of them struck and the Ashigara sank quickly. The Ashigara goes down in history as the largest Japanese warship sunk by a Royal Navy warship during the war

For his action on the Ashigara Hezlet was awarded a Bar to his DSO and the Americans awarded him the US Legion of Merit.

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Japanese heavy cruiser ‘Ashigara’

After the war Arthur Hezlet would continue to have a stellar career in the Royal Navy’s submarine service and would later aspire to the rank of Vice-Admiral, and one of his subsequent appointments would be that of Flag Officer Submarines.  In 1946 he was present at the nuclear test on the Bikini Atoll and would pioneer submarine nuclear capability in the Royal Navy. In 1964 he was appointed as Knight of the British Empire (KBE) and given the prefix of ‘Sir’.  Sir Arthur Hezlet passed on aged 93 in 2007.

Peter Gibson

Lieutenant Peter Rawstorne Gibson, born in Umtata in the Transkei region of South Africa was lost with the submarine HMS Regent when it was lost with all hands on the 1 May 1943.  Accounts to the loss of the HMS Regent differ, some accounts indicate it may have struck a mine after attacking the Italian tanker Bivona another theory is the Italian corvette Gabbiano depth charged her.  In either event Lieutenant Peter Gibson and the crew of HMS Regent are ‘still on patrol’.

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HMS Regent

John Claude Hudson Wood

John Claude Hudson Wood, born in Nyasaland (now Malawi) and educated at Durban High School, another ‘Botha Boy’ after high school he joined the Navy and completed his training aboard the South African Training Ship General Botha.  He was lost whilst serving on submarine HMS Utmost on the 25th November 1943 when on patrol in the Mediterranean.

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Crew of HMS Utmost with their “Jolly Roger” success flag

On the 23rd she sank an enemy ship, but on her return journey to Malta, she was located, attacked and sunk south west off Sicily by depth charges from the Italian torpedo boat.

X-Men

Some South Africans even found themselves in the most perilous of submarine service in the Royal Navy, the ‘X-Craft Midget Submarines.

Lieutenants’ P.H. Philip and J.Terry-Lloyd, both of South African Naval Forces (SANF) seconded to the Royal Navy’s submarine service, who gained fame for their role in “Operation Source” in September 1943.

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X-Class midget submarine underway

Operation Source was a series of attacks to neutralise the heavy German warships – Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and Lützow based in Norway using X-Class midget submarines. The attacks took place in September 1943 at Kaa Fiord and succeeded in keeping Tirpitz out of action for at least six months. 

Philip and Terry-Lloyd commanded X-Class midget submarines X7 and X5 respectively in the attack – for this darning mission both South African submariners were awarded MBE’s.

Lieutenant Alan Harold MacCoy

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Lt A.H. Maccoy DSC

Now we finally get to Lieutenant Alan Harold Maccoy of the South African Naval Forces (SANF), seconded to the Royal Navy, who stands out in some historical accounts as the ‘first’ South African to command a submarine (albeit incorrect).

Lt Alan Maccoy served aboard the submarines HMS Sunfish (N81), HMS Pandora (42P), HMS Umbra (P35), HMS Porpoise (83M) and the HMS Tantalus (P98).  He received his Distinguished Service Cross on the 25th May 1943 from King George VI at Buckingham Palace for his actions and service on the HMS Umbra.

Lt Maccoy was given command of British submarines towards the end of the war, when he commanded HMS Seaborne and HMS Unruffled (P46)  having seen service nearly all theatres of maritime combat during the war.  He was to serve out his service in his final command on HMS Unruffled until on the 18 Oct 1945 it was  paid off into reserve at Lisahally.

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The men of HMS Unruffled hoist the Jolly Roger

Post World Wars

The 70’s

64493_153678184801922_1761770907_nSpool forward to the 1970’s – two significant moments stand out in the history of South Africans in the silent service, the handing back of Simonstown as a British Naval base to South Africa in a colourful ceremony on the 2nd April 1957, after being in British hands since 1813.  A thorn in the Nationalist government’s agenda as Simonstown continued to operate as official British naval base after 1957 under the ‘Simonstown agreement’ and well after the Nationalist’s rise to power in 1948.  The Simonstown Agreement terms finally ending when the United Kingdom government terminated the agreement on 16 June 1975 (citing in part – Apartheid).

In advance of this, South Africa saw the need to develop its own submarine program and began a covert operation in conjunction with the French in the late 1960’s called Operation Duiker to buy small French diesel powered shore patrol Daphne submarines.

On completion of trials the SAS Maria van Riebeeck (named after Jan van Riebeeck’s wife) was formally commissioned by Commander JAC Weideman on 24 July 1970 and accepted into the South African Navy as the first South African submarine.  In 1971, two other Daphne class submarines were added, the SAS Emily Hobhouse and the SAS Johanna van der Merwe.

In the French tradition of giving submarines female names the focus was on South African woman who mattered to the Afrikaner Nationalist (NP) history of South Africa.

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SAS Maria van Riebeeck’s launching in France

South Africa’s Dafne class submarines never fired a torpedo in anger, however the service was involved in many reconnaissance and clandestine operations in support of special forces during the Border War (1966 to 1989). The submarines also shadowed many a potential hostile nation’s military and navy shipping around the South African cape during the Border War period.

As an interesting aside, the 1970’s also produced another famous South African born submariner in the Royal Navy  – Cecil Boyce

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Lord Boyce

Admiral of the Fleet, Michael Cecil, Baron Boyce KG GCB OBE KStJ DL was born in Cape Town South Africa and currently is a member of the House of Lords.

Boyce commanded three British submarines, HMS Oberon in 1973, followed by HMS Opossum in 1974 and finally the nuclear submarine HMS Superb in 1979.  In 1983 he took Command of a Royal Navy frigate HMS Brilliant.

Thereafter Boyce achieved  higher command in the Royal Navy, serving as First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff from 1998 to 2001 and then as Chief of the Defence Staff from 2001 to 2003. In early 2003 he advised the British Government on the deployment of troops for the invasion of Iraq.

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HMS Superb

Post 1994

In so far as ‘firsts’ go, the ANC government on its accent to power in 1994 has on many occasions dismissed the entire history of South African’s involved in submarine services, whether South African or British as somehow irrelevant.  Within a short time frame they renamed all three Daphne Class submarines after African spears – the SAS Maria van Riebeeck became the SAS Spear, the SAS Emily Hobhouse became the SAS Umkhonto and the SAS Johanna van der Merwe became the SAS Assegai.

Under the ANC epoch, the South African Navy replaced the ageing decommissioned French Daphne Class submarines with updated Type 209/T 1400 ‘Heroine’ Class German made submarines.  Returning to the tradition of naming submarines after women, the submarines became the SAS Manthatisi, the SAS Charlotte Maxeke and the SAS Queen Modjadji – all heroines who matter greatly to African Nationalist (ANC) history of South Africa.

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SAS Queen Modjadji

As more firsts go the first ‘black’ South African to command a submarine was Commander Handsome Thamsanqa Matsane when he took command a the SAS Queen Modjadji in April 2012.

In Conclusion

History remains history, there is no denying facts or somehow changing it to suit this or that politically inspired take on history – the facts, people and dates remain as truths.  South Africa’s naval and submarine history in particular did not start from 1994, nor indeed did it start as some would have it from 1957 when Simonstown ceased to be officially British or from 1975 when Britain finally departed.  It started in 1910 when South Africa became a country, and it’s a simple truism – for the first 40 years of the country’s existence, the Royal Navy was South Africa’s default navy, we did not have one, South Africans serving in the Navy served in the Royal Navy – no changing that.

South Africa’s submarine service has its pioneers grounded in the Royal Navy, that’s a fact – over 100 years of this rich history in fact.  It is also a fact that many South Africans who have served in the Navy or currently serve in the Navy have no idea as to many of these South African submariners who have served with such distinction – this is represented by the fact that no formal recognition is given to any South African serving in British submarines in South Africa whatsoever, not on memorials, not in history annuals, not at remembrance events – we even get our history wrong when we try and understand ‘firsts’ in this service.

We as South Africans are really remiss in our values if we cannot honour these very special countrymen of ours and remember the supreme sacrifice and bravery they have made on our behalf.  By all standards the submarine service qualifies ‘the bravest of the brave’ – and these men are truly the ‘silent’ South African names in the ‘silent service’ and it should be a moral obligation to bring their names into the light and recognise them.  It is a sincerely hoped that this article is a first step.

Related Observation Posts and links 

Elephant in the Room The South African Navy’s ‘elephant in the room’

South Africans in the Fleet Air Arm South African sacrifice in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

References and large extracts – South Africans in the Submarine Service of the Royal Navy, 1916-1945 By Ross Dix-Peek and South Africa’s fighting Ships Past and Present by Allan Du Toit.

Images – Imperial War Museum and Wikipedia

A red helmet that spelt ‘afkak’

One piece of kit all the SADF veterans will instantly recognise – and it will send instant shivers down their collective spines. The infamous ‘Rooi Doiby’ or ‘Rooi Staaldak’ was a bright red helmet and it meant the member wearing it was in deep trouble.

12654133_540849699418100_3353302099646048226_nThis headgear was usually a M1963 SADF steel helmet, known as a ‘staaldak’ painted red or the helmet’s plastic detachable ‘inner’ called a ‘doiby’ or ‘dooibie’ also painted red. It was issued to anyone whose behaviour or actions were deemed undisciplined in the old South African Defence Force (SADF) system and they were ‘Confined to Barracks’ (CB) or given ‘CB Drills’.

CB drills was a sort of mini prison sentence, the member been confined to the barracks perimeter and not allowed to leave the base.  Whilst confined they were subject to intense military drills and exercises designed to break anyones spirit.

During training all SADF recruits received ‘corrective physical training’ known as a ‘Oppie’ meaning Opfok (literally to get ‘fucked up’), the British Armed forces would know it as ‘Beasting’. This form of training is common to many militaries world over and usually involves a lot of running, push-ups, stress exercises etc but it has a relatively manageable beginning and end.  In effect it’s an ‘add-on’ to physical training (PT) and very intense.

Being ‘confined to barracks’ ramped the simple ‘Oppie’ onto an entirely new level and it meant these intense physical exercises became extremely punitive, in effect the person was subjected to an endless cycle of one Oppie on top of another – morning to night until the end of the specified CB punishment period.  Punishment would also often involve ‘water’ PT were offenders wearing the red helmet were pushed to physical excess and vomiting.

For anyone receiving this item of kit i.e the ‘Rooi Doiby’ and subject to CB Drills, then this Afrikaans term seemed apt … “dit was nag” (darkness would descend) and you would simply ‘Afkak’ (to have your spirit relentlessly broken).

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SADF Troops on a full kit march show two members who are also on ‘CB’ drills wearing ‘rooi staaldaks’

As said ‘Confined to Barracks’ drills are a sort of prison sentence, the difference been that it was designed for minor infractions like going AWOL (absence without leave), ‘indiscipline’ or ‘insubordination’ which if elevated into the strict definitions of military law and a military tribunal would carry an actual prison sentence which often did not really fit the ‘crime’ (the SADF would have had a heck of time if every case of a conscript going AWOL landed up in court and subsequently in a Detention Barracks (DB) – a military jail).

CB sentences were solved ‘internally’ at a Regiment or Unit level, sometimes by the Commanding Officer and his leader element, but often also by the Regimental Sergeant Major and his leader element – or both.

A CB sentence sometimes meant been handed over to the Regimental Police known as RP’s for the period of sentance. The RP’s are a sub-strata of Military Policing made up of specially trained members of the regiment or unit itself and not members of the Military Police (provost) corps.  Sometimes it meant that the offender was incarcerated in the Regimental Police holding cells (usually located at or near the guardroom), and when taken out given repeated ‘Oppies’ (punishment exercises) overseen by RP non-commissioned officers (NCO’s).

Sometimes a CB sentence simply meant been confined to the barracks, issued a red helmet and given repeated punishment PT by the Regiment or Unit’s instructors, usually instructor NCO’s were given the task.  Where ‘instructor’ qualified NCO’s did not exist, company or platoon leaders NCO’s were sometimes allocated the task of dishing out the PT punishment to the poor sod/s issued with this infamous ‘red helmet’.

There was however a flaw to the CB system, whilst many offenders subjected to it were a little relieved they had been excluded a formal legal case and sentence and just had to ‘vastbyt’ (hang in there) during the intense Oppies until it was all over.  Others found themselves at the disadvantage of subjectivity and ‘interpretation’ of the law by regiment or unit leader elements.  A CB sentence could be given to a troop who simply arrived late from leave (deemed as AWOL), or having mistakenly broken an expensive bit of kit.

The CB sentence was also a ‘punitive’ system used to bring ‘subversion’ under control and very often this was targeted to specific individuals who repeatedly questioned SADF policy, methods or even the politics of the day – regarded as the ‘Communists’ or ‘Liberals’ in opposition to the Nationalist cause.  In the military veteran community today there are many who would say that this system was frequently abused by over zealous PTI corporals with defined political views and quite a number of these SADF conscript veterans were very traumatised by it.

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SADF Troop boarding a transport, his ‘Rooi Staaldak’ in his right hand – he was likely to be subjected to extra drilling and PT – the wry mile shows he’s taking it in his stride.

Some who were often given the ‘Rooi Doiby’ were just habitually ‘naughty’ or ‘stoutgat’ (hard arse) conscript troops and wore the helmet as a ‘badge of honour’ to their insubordination of the system and giving it the middle finger.  Some even kept their own personalised ‘rooi doiby’ or ‘rooi staaldak’ having been issued it so often.

In either event, this distinctive helmet brings about mixed feelings, usually dread and many veterans would enjoy a wry and knowing smile remembering a tough time when they were super fit and could handle just about anything life could throw at them.


Written by Peter Dickens

Photo source – internet search, should the owners come forward please accept my thanks and we will credit accordingly.

Ballasbak with the Stars!

Many readers of The Observation Post have asked for the follow-up story by Steve De Witt of their humorous encounter with the Soviet made T34 tank in their SADF made ‘Buffel’ APC and what happened to Christo their Buffel driver?

Original story, Part 1 – Kak vraag sit (follow this link Kak vraag sit)

So here goes .. Part 2 of ‘Kak vraag sit’ … ‘Ballasbak with the Stars’

By Steve de Witt


Christo our driver – he who successfully retreated from a Russian T-34 tank – was the most reluctant soldier in the Border War. The army didn’t want him to fight as he couldn’t handle pressure, and he didn’t want to fight anyway. Why? – because Jesus said turn the other cheek.

31SwbZnWebLOnce we stole his Old Brown Sherry and quickly owned up. Then tried to make him open us another bottle, on religious principle. Instead he cocked his rifle and gave us some Old Testament vengeance.

The bunker after sunset was our preferred drinking hole. Here we’d open the first bottle next to the machine gun. And open the last in darkness long after the generator had killed the power.

Sherry had the effect of converting Christo to other faiths. After one bottle he suddenly believed in Buddhism, and told you so. After a second bottle he became an Atheist, and told the Dominee. Most times he couldn’t find where the Dominee was hiding.

As punishment for this wavering religiosity, fate led Christo towards that Russian tank. Later he drove our troop carrier over a landmine. Christo the pacifist survived both encounters but he’d had enough.

Back at Base, he drank himself through Atheism into a new phase, Bravery. This helped him steal ratpacks from the store, pack them in his Buffel and attempt to drive home from the Border.

He hit another landmine.

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For these colourful adventures and many more, our mate Christo was much liked. When he transgressed, Christo’s older brother gave our Captain bottles of brandy to drop the disciplinary charges. So the rank looked forward to Christo’s antics.

12346436_521085104727893_7469123754393135756_nYes, Christo’s GrootBoet had a Milky Way of pips on his shoulders. He was so important he only moved by Helicopter. Christo said he even flew to the GoCarts on the other side of his Base. And he would swoop in regularly to haul KleinBoet out of our Kas, and then fly back to wherever again. Wherever was very far away. I know that because, where we were, I never saw GrootBoet Brigadier fighting the enemy.

I suppose that’s not unusual because Brigadiers aren’t allowed in combat. Even the enemy went to primary school. Brigadiers worry wearing so many gold stars.

Anyway, it wasn’t GrootBoet Brigadier’s job to get Kills on the Operations Board. That was our task. Problem is, we weren’t getting enough kills, as he often told us.

It wasn’t through lack of trying. These were SWAPO guerrillas we were hunting in Owamboland, real insurgency specialists. We wanted to fight them. They wanted to hide.

Mao Tse-Tung taught them that. Sleep during the day somewhere in the thick bush. It’s such a big country they’ll never find you. Then at night let the army sleep in the bush – while you drink beer and talk freedom in the kraals.

They won a country like that, those freedom fighters.

Not that we lost – don’t dare suggest that! We just had nothing more to fight for. In ’89 the Berlin Wall came down and the Communists suddenly wanted Democracy. It was such a shock that PW Botha had a stroke. And gave them one man one vote, just like that.

Or maybe he had his stroke later – after realising he’d given away the country we fought and died for. I forget which came first.

Anyhow, back to the Border War. None of us could have predicted it’s outcome. In the days of GrootBoet Brigadier, we were too busy looking for sleeping guerrillas to worry about winning or losing.

Winning was everything, for sure, but that was the Brigadiers’ problem. They saw the big picture and designed strategies for our victory. They had massive responsibility considering all the planning, logistics and execution involved.

Then they still had to criss-cross Owamboland by Chopper to wherever their brothers were in DB, or hunt ivory.

One time GrootBoet Brigadier flew in, unlocked the DB and stayed the night with us, drinking with the officers. But he had to leave early the next morning, he said. 32Bn was on Ops in Cuvelai and he needed to organise fuel columns.

I guess Zambia was far away which meant much more aviation fuel. During heavy fighting up north the elephants always fled there.

Before leaving the next morning he inspected us on Parade which was nerve-wracking for all, especially the Sergeant Major.

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Not for Christo. GrootBoet Brigadier spent a long time looking through KleinBoet’s barrel for that elusive speck of dust. Eventually Christo smirked and offered him some advice.

“You’ll see the sun come up through that barrel, Brigadier”

The Sergeant Major exploded and threw him back into DB for insubordination “and you stay there until you klaar out, Troep!”

GrootBoet Brigadier sighed and climbed into his helicopter. My faith in military discipline was restored. You can’t just chirp a Brigadier like that on the parade ground.

After supper the Captain ordered a bottle of brandy delivered to the Sergeant Major’s tent. He was so happy he reached into his kas for a short glass and downed two doubles, straight.

I always respected our Sergeant Major. You could rely on him to uphold military discipline regardless of a man’s rank or family connection. In the army you can’t let the Christo’s get away with murder.

Hell he could drink, that Sergeant Major. And get angry too, especially after downing doubles. I remember how shocked the MP Sergeant was when confronted in the bar. He stood rigidly to attention as the Sergeant Major shouted obscenities into his face.
“Who the (NuweVloekerei) do you think you are, locking up the Brigadier’s brother!”

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Editor – Sometimes we get another gem of a story, and this one from the heart of a veteran SADF national serviceman who has “been there, done that and got the T shirt” fighting on the Angola/Namibia (SWA) Border, thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story and photos in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post. Copyright  – Steve De Witt, with many thanks to Dave Bosman and Steve’s brothers in arms for the use of thier images.

Other Stories by Steve De Witt

They started it!  Starting a war with Zimbabwe – link: They started it!
Kak vraag sit! Encountering a T34 tank in a Buffel APC: Kak vraag sit

David vs. Goliath, SA Navy Strike-craft harassing the US Navy

Here’s a little bit of relatively unknown South African Navy history. Did you know that the colossal USS Nimitz nuclear aircraft carrier was harassed by the South African Navy using two small strike-craft in January 1980?

It is a little like a David vs. Goliath story for the relatively small South African Navy to take the wind out of the sails of the gigantic US aircraft carrier’s escort – the USS California some 15-20 nautical miles ahead of the carrier.  It led to a very high tense moment on the high seas and an international outcry, and we have evidence of the incident – this remarkable photograph was taken by Joe Johnson, the Navigator on the SAS Jan Smuts, a South African Strike-craft and it shows just how ‘up close and personal’ they were with the American super carrier the USS Nimitz off South Africa’s coastline.

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So what happened that found two South African strike-craft inside the Minitz’s defensive screen harassing this US task force.  Well, it boils down to two things, South Africa’s 200 nautical mile (370km) economic exclusion zone (EEZ) and a very unique strike craft ‘special force’ ethos.

High Seas Harassment

On the 4th Jan 1980, the USS Nimitz sailed in response to the Iranian crisis, leading a nuclear-powered battle group including the USS California and the USS Texas from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean . The three ships sailed out of separate Italian ports and rendezvoused, sailing at a speed of advance of 25 knots around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean to “Gonzo Station” (named by sailors serving there, supposedly deriving the term from Gulf of Oman Naval Zoo Operation).

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On encountering this US Navy task force in South Africa’s economic exclusion zone waters – two ‘Minister Class’ South African Navy strike craft , Boat 1 (the SAS Jan Smuts) and Boat 5 (the SAS Frans Erasmus) manoeuvred right into the defensive screen of the USS flotilla – so much so the USS Nimitz’s escorts the USS Texas and USS California, both nuclear powered cruisers, had to alter course to avoid collision.  In fact one of the South African strike craft – Boat 1, cut across the bow the of the USS California which was travelling ahead of the USS Nimitz.  Whilst Boat 5 was able to move up the USS California undetected by all its modern radar until in visual range.

This action caused a massive diplomatic fury between the USA and South Africa, as much to the embarrassment of the US Navy, the South African Navy strike-craft had sailed unchallenged right through the flotilla’s defensive screen into lethal striking range of pride of the US Navy.

A true ‘David’ and his sling

To dismiss the South African strike craft with their Israeli DNA as no danger to a nuclear US Navy aircraft carrier and its escort would be folly.  Boat 1, the SAS Jan Smuts had even started out as an Israelite, it was a modified Israeli ‘Reshef Class’ strike craft, built at the Haifa facility of Israeli Shipyards, under contract between the Israeli Military Industries as part of three strike craft sold to South Africa.  The three Israeli craft were covertly sailed to South Africa and classified as ‘Minister Class’ strike (named after South African Ministers of Defence).  Boat 5, the SAS Frans Erasmus was built under licence in South Africa to the Israeli modified Reshef Class design, along with five other ‘Minister Class’ strike craft.

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Five of South Africa’s ‘Minister Class’ Strike Craft Photo, SAS Jan Smuts (P1561), SAS Jim Fouche (P1564), SAS Frans Erusmus (P1565), SAS Hendrick Mentz (P1567) and SAS Magnus Malan (P1569). Photo courtesy Frank Lima

Both Boat 1 and Boat 5 (and all other Minister Class strike craft for that matter) were fitted with a leading Israeli designed ship killing missile system at the time, the ‘Gabriel’ surface to surface missile and launching system. The Gabriel Mk 2, an improved version of original Gabriel was created by Israel in 1972 and entered service in the Israeli Navy in 1976. This missile system was subsequently built under license from Israel in South Africa under the name Skerpioen (in English meaning Scorpion).  This little arachnid packed a big poison punch, the scorpion, then took the pride of place in the newly formatted South African strike craft flotilla’s emblem in 1977.

No small thing, this guided missile system was designed to fire a missile which skimmed the water using an altimeter hitting its target just above the water line and designed to obliterate targets, a true ‘David’ could take on a ‘Goliath’ and like the arch angel ‘Gabriel’ (after whom it was named) could bring about a biblical hell-fire – especially if brought down on a small to medium-sized ship.  Each South African strike craft had 6 such scorpions in its arsenal.

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South African Strike Craft launches a ‘Scorpion’ missile (Gabriel Mk2) – Photo thanks to Chris Miller

Can it obliterate a true ‘Goliath’, a super carrier like the USS Nimitz? It’s not been tested on a vessel this size, but in all likelihood – possibly not.  It would however cause significant damage if it had hypothetically got through the anti-missile defence systems of the Nimitz in the first place.

Nerves of steel

Did the South African Navy pose a threat to the US Navy?  The obvious answer is not really.  In 1980 the South African Navy did not have an aircraft carrier (it still does not), on the sharp fighting end of the assegai. South Africa had 3 relatively small Daphné-class diesel submarines, 3 ageing Frigates and 9 fast coastal protection strike craft (who were the new focus of the South African Navy in 1980, the Nationalists deeming that since Apartheid isolation there was no real need for frigates to act as ‘grey ambassadors’ on international flag showing missions).

To the commanders of the Nimitz and its escort ships, South Africa was not regarded as hostile nation in 1980, sailing within a 200nm EEZ is perfectly legal if the vessels are not involved in fishing or drilling for energy which may be deemed as in economic competition to the country to which the zone belongs.  In effect a EEZ is classified as ‘International Waters’ and it must be noted that there is a big difference in maritime law between South African ‘territorial’ waters to which they have sovereignty which extend only 12nm from the coast – unlike South Africa’s 200nm EEZ.  There’s also nothing to really prohibit a ‘non-hostile’ nation’s naval vessels from operating near a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier and its escort’s in their own EEZ  – within reason.

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USS Nimitz in 1979

The US navy normally anticipates Russian, Iranian and Chinese naval vessels which they deem as ‘hostile’ from cutting across bows of their vessels in their EEZ waters, so a ‘friendly’ South African Naval vessel risking such a manoeuvre by cutting across the bow of an US Navy vessel would have been deemed as rather usual, so too two strike craft sneaking up on them and it most certainly would have led to surprise and a tense moment on the bridge.  Cutting across the bow of a ship is contrary to maritime ‘rules of the road’ and a violation of maritime standards.  By not reacting to such a maneuver by a rather deadly South African ‘strike’ craft and escalating the situation the Commander of the US task force flotilla most certainly demonstrated the patience of a Saint and some nerves of steel.

Here you have to also consider that the USS Nimitz’s defensive screen would not have consisted of just the USS Texas and USS California, but also the ‘silent’ and unseen service of the US Navy’s Nuclear submarines, which are almost always nearby a aircraft carrier task force and the unseen US Navy fighter/bombers routinely launched from the Nimitz for protection and patrolling in the area.

To the Commanders of the South African Strike Craft it was a different matter entirely. As South Africa was ‘at war’ in Angola and politically at odds with United Nations and ‘the outside world’ in general over Apartheid – any foreign military shipping in South Africa’s 200nm EEZ attracted the attention of the South African Navy and the South African Air Force.  This heightened state of readiness and intelligence gathering against any potential military adversity was not only directed to US Naval vessels, it was especially directed at Soviet vessels in addition – in fact as aircraft carriers go South African strike craft had already got very ‘up close and personal’ when the mighty Soviet Kiev Class  ‘Minsk’ and her escorts ventured around South Africa and its 200nm EEZ in 1978.

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Boat 3 (P1563) the SAS Frederick Creswell ‘shadowing’ the Soviet aircraft carrier ‘Minsk’ at extremely close range.

It’s this part, ‘shadowing’ any military shipping for intelligence and demonstrating fearless and bullish ‘David versus Goliath’ testing of the defence capability of the world’s naval super-powers, which had come to define this strike craft fraternity – the ability and skill to punch well above their weight.  It took special mental conditioning and discipline – and a bucket load of ‘nerves of steel’ – as a fraternity they even define themselves as a ‘iron fist from the sea’ when it came to conducting special forces operations from sea to land – and this why they saw themselves as a unique ‘special force’ in a naval context – not to be taken lightly and to be reckoned with in every respect, it’s an attitude they had to have to be as successful as they were.

Diplomatic ‘Ballyhoo’

Diplomatic demands from the USA for an answer from the South African government over their strike craft venturing undetected into the Nimitz’s defensive screen, cutting across the bow of the USS California and forcing both the USS Nimitz’s escorts to alter their course fell on the usual stoic National Party government to answer to – so much fuss and hot air was made of it for political appeasement, with little result.

48939834_2307720506123601_1085318676418134016_nSuch diplomatic protesting fell on deaf ears within the South African Navy strike-craft circles as they saw intelligence gathering in South African waters and demonstrations of fighting prowess as their job to do, and all the diplomatic ‘ballyhoo’ simply reinforced their legacy as an elitist naval force and in fact another reason to hold up their heads in pride.  So all in all, given the political circumstances of the time, the South African Navy strike personnel felt they did a great job.

To the Americans the USS Nimitz and her escorts journey from the Mediterranean around South Africa was well publicised and no secret, also sailing in 200nm exclusion zones was perfectly legal according to international maritime law and South African naval intervention was unwarranted and qualified as harassment and nothing more.

Because of the political and diplomatic fallout, the strike-craft Commanders of P1561 the ‘SAS Jan Smuts’ and P1565 the ‘SAS Frans Erasmus’ were called onto the ‘carpet’ by the top Navy brass and reprimanded, but rumour has it they where then promptly taken out to lunch to celebrate.  Nobody lost their jobs and nothing more was said of it.

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Operation Eagle Claw

The US Navy would also have considered this a minor incident as they had much bigger issues on their plate to deal with than maritime regulations and harassment experienced around South Africa’s coast. The USS Nimitz was rounding South Africa on its way to Iran to take part in Operation Eagle Claw (Operation Evening Light).  In 1980, the Iranian Hostage crisis, a diplomatic standoff between Iran and the United States of America was in full swing with fifty-two American diplomats and citizens were held hostage in the American embassy in Tehran for nearly a year starting on the 4th November 1979, something had to be done.  The American President, Jimmy Carter, elected for a special forces military operation to rescue the hostages and end the crisis.  

On the 24th April 1980, this special forces operation to rescue the hostages was launched from the flight deck of the USS Nimitz in eight Sikorsky RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters containing Navy Seal special forces personnel to much cheering and thumbs up from the Nimitz crew, but disaster loomed.  

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Repainted RH-53Ds in sand camouflage and without markings aboard USS Nimitz prior to the launch of Operation Eagle Claw.

From the get go the Operation encountered many obstacles and was eventually aborted. The eight helicopters from the Nimitz were sent to the first staging area, ‘Desert One’, but only five arrived in operational condition. One encountered hydraulic problems, another was caught in a ‘Haboob’ (a sand storm) and another showed signs of a cracked rotor blade.

During planning it was decided that the mission would be aborted if fewer than six helicopters remained, despite only four being absolutely necessary. In a move that is still discussed in military circles, the field commanders advised mission abort, which President Carter accepted and confirmed. As the US rescue mission prepared to leave, they were plagued by another ‘haboob’ sandstorm and one of the helicopters crashed into a transport aircraft which contained both American servicemen and jet fuel. The resulting fire destroyed both aircraft and killed eight US servicemen.

The failed operation took on a legendary aspect in revolutionary Iran, with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, describing the sandstorms causing the failure of the mission as “angels of Allah” who foiled the US conspiracy in order to protect Iran. They then promptly erected a mosque (the Mosque of Thanks) at the crash site.

The failure of Operation Eagle Claw was a humiliating blow for the United States Presidency and its Armed Forces on the international stage.  The hostages were scattered all over Iran to prevent a second rescue attempt.  The Ayatollah Khomeini milked Carter’s embarrassment for all it was worth declaring;

“Who crushed Mr. Carter’s helicopters? We did? The sands did! They were God’s agents. Wind is God’s agent … These sands are agents of God. They can try again”

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Iranian officials investigate the crash site.

Then, literally minutes after President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential term ended on the 20th January 1981 the Iranians ended their humiliation of Carter by releasing the 52 US captives held in Iran, promptly ending the 444-day Iran hostage crisis.

In conclusion 

These bigger events over shadowed the SA Navy ‘harassment’ of the US Navy issue somewhat and the story is lessor known to annuals of history, but to South Africa’s strike craft community it remains a time when they stood up as David as did and fearlessly challenged a Goliath. For all the political hot air and statements of grandeur they found weakness in the US Navy task force in 1980, and all the ‘blustering’ about US Naval size and fighting prowess aside, lessons on protecting such a flotilla from small and very lethal Israeli developed and South African perfected strike craft would hopefully have been learned.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

This great snippet of history is courtesy of Johnny Steenkamp and Joe Johnson – with deep thanks.  Photo copyright of the Nimitz – Joe Johnson.

Reference: Seaforces on-line, Naval information.  The South African Naval Fraternity on-line.