The incidental ‘terrorist’

Not too many people are fully aware of the story behind the bombing of the Koeberg nuclear plant in 1982, it made the news alright, big news, but who really knows the real story behind it? Now, if you’re not familiar, you are going to need a stiff drink and sit down, this story is guaranteed to make you laugh and cry all at the same time.

It’s actually a very comical and random sequence of events which led to the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) getting this one right, and it’s one that will leave you simply astounded.  It’s also an inconvenient story to the general narrative, as the bomber is in the same category as Hein Grosskopf, who bombed Witwatersrand Command – he was also ‘white’.

It gets better, not only was he ‘white’ he was also a serving Citizen Force Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in the South African Defence Force (now that’s very inconvenient news to many SADF veterans). However, it gets even better than that, unlike Grosskopf he was a ‘English South African’ in origin, a South African national sporting champion and a free-thinking liberal soul, a little like the archetypal ‘hippy’.

He’s was not your typical MK cadre at all, in fact nowhere close. MK didn’t even need to train him (the SADF did) and he randomly arrived on their doorstep in Zimbabwe with Koeberg blue-prints under his arm, his proposition was so ‘out there’ MK thought he was a spy and initially laughed him off.

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Koeberg Nuclear Plant

The bombing of Koeberg is now posted by MK as one of their ‘Top Achievements’ on their website, but the inconvenient truth is that it was not really theirs to start off with, it was more about the bombers own politics in resistance to Apartheid than the African National Congress’ (ANC) politics and the ‘operator’ was pretty much in his own ‘cell’ with his equally free-spirited girlfriend who in reality was a speech therapist. MK just provided some very ‘unstable’ limpet mines and helped pin-point the placement targets.

So audacious was the attack that the South African security forces at the time suspected the operation was the work of a ‘group’ of highly trained saboteurs. But in fact, and here’s a military truism, never under-estimate the ability  of a ‘single’ corporal in the South African Defence Force (SADF) to wreak havoc.

The bombing of Koeberg Nuclear Plant reads like the ‘Incidental Tourist’, stuff just randomly falls in place with loads of luck and even though it is a very serious matter it even comes across as comical at times, you just could not make it up  – so let’s have a look at a pair of ‘hippies’ Rodney Wilkinson, South Africa’s fencing sword fighting national champion and his side-kick, his girlfriend, Heather Gray, the speech therapist.

‘Planning’ the Koeberg bombing

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Rodney Wilkinson taken in 1995

The Koeberg operation was born of sheer chance in 1978. Rodney Wilkinson was living in  a ‘hippy’ commune near Koeberg. The commune ran out of money and Rodney, a student of  building science and UCT drop-out, rather reluctantly mind, had to take a job at the nearby nuclear plant which was under construction.

Whist working at the plant for nearly two years he was privy to the building plans and blue-prints. With a strong anti-Apartheid sentiment and liberal conviction he was encouraged by his girlfriend Heather to steal a set of them. But what to do with them?

They came up with an idea, give them to the African National Congress (ANC) so they might find them handy and conduct an attack on the nuclear station.  Buoyed up with this idea they both trekked off to the newly independent Zimbabwe to hand over the plans to the ANC in exile there, job done.

Not really.  Rodney pitched up randomly on the doorstep of the ANC office and told them he was in possession of plans to one of the most secure and secret facilities in South Africa.  The ANC took one look at the hapless hippy in front of them and dismissed him out of hand as a government spy.

The ANC were very circumspect of him, but Rodney was persistent so they agreed to take the plans from him and have them authenticated first.  After many delays with Rodney hanging about, during which time the stolen plans were shown to Soviet nuclear scientists and an investigation into Rodney Wilkinson himself was done. Eventually the ANC reverted. Great news – all vetted, job done, they’ll take the plans, Rodney and Heather figured they now could head off home.

Not so fast snowflakes!  The ANC then threw a curveball at Rodney and told him that the only way the job could really be done is if he carried out the attack himself.  By his own admission he was initially taken aback by all this, as becoming a MK operative really wasn’t in his plans, however he pondered their proposal and eventually agreed.  The operation was code-named Operation Mac (named after Mac Maharaj).

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SADF Koeberg Commando flash

No military training required, luckily the South African Defence Force (SADF) had already provided all that when he was called up as National Servicemen conscript, completed his two years of training and deployment and he was now serving out his Citizen Force commitments with the rank of Corporal.

In fact he had even served duty on the Angolan border and at one stage wrecked a truck going AWOL and landed up in hospital, he was not prosecuted by the SADF and not demoted.

Therein lies the hazard of conscription, not everyone agreed with the government of the day and moreover many didn’t buy into the ‘whites only’ Afrikaner Nationalist government’s program of conscription at all, especially many of the ‘English’ conscripts and certainly not Rodney, but it did produce very proficient soldiers in any event.

‘Dirty weekends’ in Swaziland 

To Rodney’s own surprise, more luck, Koeberg Nuclear station wanted him back at work on mapping emergency pipes and valves at the plant.

The ANC appointed a ‘Dolphin’ MK commander in Swaziland as Wilkinson’s ‘handler’, he was Aboobaker Ismail. So once a month Rodney and his girlfriend trekked off to Swaziland, the small independent kingdom which allowed gambling (banned under Apartheid South Africa), before Sun City was built, this was the premier destination for thousands of white South Africans to go gambling on weekend getaways and not unusual ‘movement’ of white people over a border at all.

Whilst in Swaziland, Rodney and his handler thrashed out the strategy, it was designed to maximise embarrassment to the South African government while minimising the risk to human life – this after all was a nuclear facility and required ‘careful’ thinking.

Aboobaker and Rodney then drilled down the targets onto which limpid mines would be placed. It was suspected at the time that Koeberg Nuclear plant would be used to produce plutonium for the construction of atomic bombs, so to avoid a radioactive fall-out, the attack had to happen before the plant went on-line.

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Soviet era SPM Limpet mine commonly used by MK

Limpet mines were to be placed on the two reactor heads, yup – read that again, the reactor heads – they figured as these were made of 110 tones of steel the limpet mines were not really going to really harm them, also they figured there would be fantastic PR and media value in it for the ANC.  Other mines were planned for the control room and a containment building, designed to do as much damage as possible.

The date for the attack was deliberate and designed to humiliate the government – it was set for 16th December, the National Party’s ‘Day of the Covenant’ – ‘Dingaan Day’ to others and ‘MK Day’ to members of the ANC.  That the attack happened on the 17th December is another event of haplessness and chance.

The arms ‘cache’

To anyone with a military background, the arms ‘cache’  is where the story gets comically scary, as if blowing up a plutonium nuclear plant is not scary enough.  Rodney and Heather were directed to the arms cache, and it was not where you would expect, nope this cache consisted of four very old and unstable limpet mines left next to a road side in the middle of the remote Karoo.  Makes you think what else is still ‘out there’ in this quirky part of South Africa.

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SADF Corporal holding a Soviet era SPM limpet mine

So, how to smuggle them unnoticed?, No problem to Rodney and Heather, they dug them up and simply hid them in decanted wine boxes – the good old box wine ‘doos’ now makes another unusual entry into South African history folklore.  They jump into their little Renault 5 and head to their home in the tranquil up-market, very ‘white’ suburb of Claremont in Cape Town.  If you have not yet reached for your stiff drink now is a good time.

Now enter the worst co-conspirator ever!  Their puppy dog, Gaby.  Gaby had been pretty efficient digging holes all over their garden, so thanks to her labours they buried these old and unstable limpet mines in the holes.

From there Rodney smuggled the mines one by one in a hidden compartment of the Renault through the perimeter security fence at the nuclear installation. But were to hide them in order that nobody would dare to look?  No problem Rodney simply put them in his desk drawer in his prefabricated office.  Now, to get them into the main building and past all the heavy security, no problem again he simply walked in carrying one at a time hidden in his overalls – so much for the ‘heavy’ impenetrable security on South Africa’s most vital, most prized and most secretive Nuclear Plant.

A series of mishaps 

s-l300So on to the attack itself and it’s marred by a series of mishaps. It started with an unrelated accidental short-circuit which started a cable fire. The incident was reported in the local press.  Now enter the ANC’s President-in-exile, Oliver Tambo, who had been made aware of the operation but not really the details of it, like timing.  So he released a statement immediately claiming the fire as an ANC victory.  All this did was prompt a security scare and clamp down at the plant and gave the National Party some ammo to ridicule the ANC for unsubstantiated claims.

Then, in November the firm hiring Rodney informed him that they were laying him off at the end of the month, so much for timing.  Luckily for Rodney they changed their minds and asked him to stay on for another month.  As fortune would also have it, he turned the security scare to his advantage and told them he would stay on, but only till the 17th December, thereby obtaining an official alibi and cover for his planned disappearance.

Here is where he missed the deadline of the 16th December, as previously stated the limpet mines were old and unstable.  Rodney placed the mines in the pre-determined targets setting 24 hour fuses on the 15th December (a Friday) so they would blow on the public holiday (a Saturday), thereby assuring minimal casualties to his fellow contractors as nobody would be there.

Here’s the kicker, as his contract was ending, his fellow contractors and engineers liked this young man and decided to throw Rodney a farewell party at the plant on the Friday evening just after he had been busy planting the bombs.  Rodney had to sit through his impromptu ‘going-away’ party stressing endlessly that the bombs would not go off prematurely.

He had no real need to worry, as said these limpet mines were old and they would not go off on the Saturday either in fact they eventually went off a day after the target date on the Sunday. The springs on the firing mechanism proved to have been brittle and the devices also exploded over a period of several hours instead of simultaneously.

Rodney’s ‘Great Escape’

Reach for that stiff drink again, you’ll need it for this next part of the story.  Instead of bolting it out the country with a keen sense of urgency, as the other ‘white’ lone wolf MK cadre did – Hein Grosskopf who high-tailed it directly into Botswana after bombing of Wit Command on his motorbike, not even looking back for a nano-second.  No, not our ‘hippy’ would casually, get this, ‘cycle’ out of South Africa on a bicycle, yup you heard right … a bicycle.

He took a domestic flight to Johannesburg and was driven with a borrowed bicycle to a point near the Swaziland border where he jumped on the bicycle and then casually cycled through the border post into exile.

Aftermath 

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Oliver Tambo at a news conference in exile (left) Gallo Image

A few days beforehand South African special forces had attacked ANC targets in the kingdom of Lesotho, Oliver Tambo claimed the Koeberg attack was an act of retaliation carried out by a MK ‘unit’ (one chap in reality and as propaganda goes his efforts had nothing to do with the Lesotho raid at all).

How close to nuclear fall-out did we come? Take a big sip that stiff drink again.  Not part of Rodney’s plan but unbeknown to him enriched uranium fuel had been moved into to the plant when the attack took place and was due to come on-line in the reactors.  Luckily for all of us (and here we include the entire planet) it was in dormant storage.

The attack delayed the commissioning of the plant by about 18 months and cost the Apartheid government millions of rand.  This is why this attack sits as No. 2 on their all time greatest achievements (No. 1 is the Sasol bombing and No.3 is the rather controversial and bloody Church Street Bombing).  Although there were no deaths attributed to the bombing, that it nearly cost thousands of lives in the entire city of Cape Town is lost on this particular MK ‘highlight’.

Rodney flew on to Maputo where he met Oliver Tambo, the two exchanged a warm and tearful embrace.  Rodney’s girlfriend Heather was already in Maputo having flown out a week beforehand.  The two jumped on a flight to the United Kingdom and further into exile.

They married one another in Woodbridge, Suffolk, before returning home to South Africa following the general amnesty and unbanning of all ‘liberation’ movements. The TRC rewarded the Wilkinsons and Aboobaker Ismail full amnesty in April 1999. Given the nature of this MK ‘cell’ it seemed a little unlikely that the ANC and its brand of politics is quite Rodney and Heathers bag, anti-apartheid, yes but unlike Carl Niehaus we don’t find him regularly wheeled out in a PEP store set of camos with the other ‘struggle heroes’ and he lives a life in relative obscurity.

A happy ending to our ‘Incidental terrorist’ and an equally and far more happy ending to just about every Cape Town and Western Cape resident, South Africa as a whole, the entire South African tourist trade, the local bio-sphere and the green planet in general. We can now all universally breathe a sigh of relief that the entire Cape Peninsula is not a radioactive ‘Chernobyl’ no-go zone thanks to the African National Congress.

If you chose not to have a stiff drink reading this article, nows a good time to really start.

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Related Work and Links

Wit Command Bombing; The truth behind the bombing of Witwatersrand Command

Struggle ‘Heroes’; Tainted “Military Heroes” vs. Real Military Heroes

Rocketing of Voortrekkerhoogte; The not so ‘spectacular’ MK attack on Voortrekkerhoogte


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Primary source, an interview with Rodney Wilkinson by a daily mail staff reporter in December 1995 and photograph.  Published news snippets, MK official web-page. TRC references. Image references – general net search. Nuclear terrorism in Africa: The ANC’s Operation Mac and the attack on the Koeberg Nuclear Power Station in South Africa. Jo-Ansie van Wyk

 

The South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’ is not recognised and not commemorated

1200px-Emblem_of_the_South_African_NavyHere’s a question for many,  in what action did the South African Navy (SAN) experience its greatest single loss of personnel, the largest sacrifice of South African life in a single  sea battle  – in essence when and what was the South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’?

I’ve asked this question of senior South African military personnel, including the South African Navy as well as the South African Naval fraternity, the veterans – and the bottom line is … nobody knows.

Some immediately say it was the Mendi, as the remembrance of the Mendi is now the South African Navy’s key responsibility, but the loss of the SS Mendi in World War 1 was not a loss of South African Navy personnel (the South African Navy did not exist in WW1 and the Royal Navy was in charge of this particular troop ship full of South African ‘Army personnel’) and the loss of the Mendi was an accident at sea and not a combat action.

za)nv81Most (actually the majority) of SAN officers and veterans would say it was the loss of the SAS President Kruger (16 souls) but that would also be very wrong, both in terms of scale and action, the SAS President Kruger loss was also an accident at sea and not a combat action.

A tiny handful of SAN officers and vets who have a little knowledge of World War 2 might venture to answer the question by stating the loss of any one of the four South African minesweepers sunk during the war as the ‘darkest hour’ of the war.

22308811_10155537271456480_3745202244434378650_nThese are the HMSAS Southern Floe (24 souls) or the HMSAS Parktown (5 souls), or the HMSAS Bever (17 souls) or the HMSAS Treen (23 souls) – getting warm but that too would be wrong, as these did not happen over a defined period of the war that would warrant a ‘darkest hour’ in Churchill’s definition of the phrase (Churchill coined the term).

Nope, the largest loss of South Africans in a single sea battle, its ‘Darkest Hour’ took place fighting against Imperial Japan from the 5th to the 9th April 1942 … yup, the Japanese – believe it, and by the end of this particular naval engagement at sea a grand total of 65 South African souls were lost.  Now how many people know that!

The reason to ‘forget’!

So why does nobody know about this, why is this incident not ‘recognised,’ why is nobody ‘commemorating’ it and what exactly happened?

Simply put, it’s because they all died fighting whilst seconded to four British war ships in an action in the Pacific called ‘The Easter Sunday Raid’ – and it involved the sinking of the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire in a single day – and later the sinking of HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock a few days later by the Japanese Imperial Navy.  But why should that be an issue and a reason to ‘forget’?

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Japanese Imperial Fleet Ensign from World War 2

Again the simple answer is because just three short years after World War 2 the National Party in a stunning and unexpected election win over Jan Smuts’ United Party, came into power with their proposal of ‘Apartheid’ and making South Africa a ‘Republic’ independent of Britain – and they hated the British or anything to do with Britain.  The Nationalists had grounded an entire Afrikaner identity and a country’s ‘nationalism’ on two events – The Great Trek and The 2nd Anglo-Boer war, both of which carried a history of either British betrayal or British atrocity.

During the Second World war these nationalists either openly sided with Nazi Germany and in many cases (by their tens of thousands in fact) even joined Neo-nazi South African parties and/or adopted national socialist movement (Nazism) ideology publicly, some (including a future Nationalist South African President) embarked on sedition and terrorism to undermine the war effort (see “Mein Kampf shows the way to greatness for South Africa” – The Ossewabrandwag).

Bottom line, to the Nationalists thinking anyone who took part in Smuts’ campaign for South Africa to fight in the Second World War was a traitor to their ‘Volk’ (peoples).  In their minds they went to fight ‘Britain’s war’ alongside the hated British – traitors all (even though an unprecedented 1 in 4 white South African males volunteered to fight in WW2 – half of them Afrikaners).

For the Nationalists commemorating the sinking of South African ships fighting alongside British ones in World War 2 was bad enough.  However, commemorating and remembering the South African loss whilst fighting on His Majesty’s British ships themselves would be, for the nationalist government at least, an unforgivable betrayal.

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Members of the South African Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve serving on board HMS Nelson. The group is sat on one of the 16 inch gun barrels.

For this reason, the sinking of South African ships lost in World War 2 was not really extensively commemorated by the ‘old’ South African Defence Force  (SADF).  The SADF came into existence once the Nationalists declared South Africa a ‘Republic’ and replaced Smuts’ old ‘South African Union Defence Force (UDF) with a reformed military entity.  The sinking of HMSAS ships are only ‘remembered’ in small pockets of veteran South African Legion branches and MOTH shell-holes.

It is also for this reason that the SADF and the South African Navy did not ever commemorate the South African losses on British Ships, it is the reason why this particular ‘darkest hour’ in the South African Navy’s history is not recognised or remembered at all, which is utterly unforgivable as this is the very institution who supplied the men to The Royal Navy in the first place.

It is made worse in the modern epoch, by the newly reformatted South African National Defence Force’s Navy after 1994, which has not only lost the link thanks to the Nationalists, but also does not attempt to re-kindle it, party because of lack of knowledge, but also because it suits the African National Congress’ political agenda not to remember this association (commemorating or remembering a time when South Africans went to war for the ‘Colonials’ does not suit their current narrative).

So, let’s start addressing this betrayal of our armed forces personnel and understand what happened to qualify this as the South African Navy’s ‘darkest hour’, who is on this honour roll and what’s been done about in now?

What happened? 

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Simonstown Dry Docks, when next there look out for the ships emblems of the Dorsetshire, Cornwall, Hermes and Hollyhock

As Simon’s Town was a Royal Navy base during World War 2 (British soil in the middle of South Africa), men volunteering for the “South African Naval Forces” (SANF) to fight in World War 2 where either allocated to Royal Navy ships (titled HMS – His Majesty’s Ship) or on South African Navy ships (tilted HMSAS – His Majesty’s South African Ship), therefore whenever a large Royal Navy ship was lost during the war it is almost guaranteed that a number of South African Naval Personnel (SANF) were lost with it.

When large HMS ships are lost in an action on the same action the number of South African naval personnel lost just rockets – and this is the case with the sinking of the HMS Cornwall, HMS Dorsetshire, HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock.

The Japanese Easter Raid of 1942

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A Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane takes off from the deck of the Japanese aircraft carrier Akagi, part of the Japanese Naval force in the Indian Ocean

With Japan’s entry into the war, and especially after the fall of Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) became a front-line British base. The Royal Navy’s East Indies Station and Eastern Fleet was moved to Colombo and Trincomalee.

Admiral Sir James Somerville was appointed as the commander of the British Eastern Fleet, and he decided to withdraw main component the fleet to Addu Atoll in the Maldives, leaving a small force to defend Ceylon (now Shri Lanka) consisting of an aircraft carrier, the HMS Hermes, two heavy cruisers – the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire, one Australian Destroyer the HMSAS Vampire and the flower class HMS Hollyhock.

The Imperial Japanese Navy, in much the same way and with the same objectives that were used at Pearl Harbour planned a decisive attack of the British Eastern Fleet to end their presence in the North Indian and Pacific oceans.  Unaware that the main body of the British fleet had moved to the Maldives, they focused their plan on Colombo.

The planned Japanese attack was to become collectively known as the Easter Sunday Raid and the Japanese fleet comprised five aircraft carriers plus supporting ships under the command of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo.

In an almost exact copy of the raid on the American fleet at Peal Harbour (as if no learnings were made by the Allies), on 4 April 1942, the Japanese fleet was located by a Canadian PBY Calatina aircraft, the Catalina radioed the position of the Japanese Fleet to The British Eastern Fleet which alerted the British to the impending attack before it was shot down by six Japanese Zero fighters from the carrier Hiryu,  However, despite the warning Nagumo’s air strike on Colombo the next day, Easter Sunday – 5th April –  achieved near-complete surprise (Pearl Harbour was also attacked on a weekend). The British Radar installations were not operating, they were shut down for routine maintenance.

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The Japanese high command had planned the bombing of Colombo very much like the Pearl Harbor operation (many of the same planes and pilots participated in both strikes); but most of the British Eastern Fleet was at Addu Atholl in the Maldives, so when the Japanese attacked at Colombo there were only three ships there.

The sinking of the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire.

The day before, 4 April, when the Japanese carrier fleet was spotted, the two heavy cruisers the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire set out for Addu Atoll in pursuit of the Japanese. On 5 April 1942, the two cruisers were sighted by a spotter plane from the Japanese cruiser Tone about 200 miles (370 km) southwest of Ceylon.

As part of the engagement known as the Easter Sunday Raid, a wave of dive bombers led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off from Japanese carriers to attack Cornwall and Dorsetshire, 320 km (170 nmi; 200 mi) southwest of Ceylon, and sank the two ships.  Both the Dorsetshire and the Cornwall had long associations with South Africa and had large contingent of South African Naval Personnel on board.

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Japanese combat photograph showing the Royal Navy heavy cruisers HMS Dorsetshire and HMS Cornwall on fire and sinking

In the attack, the Japanese airman flying Japanese  D3A-1 ‘VAL’ dive bombers, a total of 53 dive bombers in the attack wave, dropped 10 bombs on the HMS Dorsetshire itself (250- and 550-pound bombs) and 8 near misses, all in the span of 8 minutes.  One of the bombs detonated an ammunition magazine and contributed to her rapid sinking.  Of the two British cruisers, the HMS Dorsetshire sank first, with her stern going first at about 13:50, the HMS Cornwall was hit eight times and sank bow first about ten minutes later.

For a full story on the HMS Dorsetshire and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link: “They machine gunned us in the water”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Dorsetshire

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For a full story on the HMS Cornwall and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link: “A terrific explosion lifted the ship out of the water”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Cornwall

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British and Allied losses were 424 men killed; 1,122 survivors spent thirty hours in the water before being rescued by HMS Enterprise and two British destroyers.

The sinking of the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock

If the above losses qualify a dark day for the South African Navy it then becomes the SAN’s ‘darkest hour’, when in the same Japanese Operation, only a couple of short days later, on 9 April 1942, the Japanese focussed their attack on the harbour at Trincomalee and the British ships off Batticaloa. The HMS Hermes left the Royal Naval Base of Trincomalee, Ceylon escorted by the Australian Destroyer HMAS Vampire and HMS Hollyhock looking to engage the Imperial Japanese fleet which had attacked Colombo.

While sailing south off Batticaloa on the East Coast of Ceylon, this British flotilla was also attacked by the Japanese Carrier-Borne dive-bombers from the Imperial Japanese Task Force now in the process of attacking the Naval Base at Trincomalee.

Approximately 70 Japanese aircraft were despatched to bomb the HMS Hermes which sank within ten minutes of being hit by numerous aircraft bombs. HMAS Vampire was also sunk by bombs a short while later.

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HMS Hermes ablaze and sinking

The HMS Hollyhock was about 7 nautical miles from the HMS Hermes escorting a tanker, the RFA Athelstane when the Hermes came under attack.  The Hollyhock came under attack by the same Japanese aircraft and it too was bombed and sunk.

Once again, the HMS Hermes also had a very large South African Naval Forces contingent seconded to it on board, and the same applied to the HMS Hollyhock, and therefore once again there is a large of loss of South African life in this action against the Imperial Japanese fleet.

For a full story on the HMS Hermes and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link “Dante’s Inferno”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hermes

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For a full story on the HMS Hollyhock and her long association with South Africa, see this Observation Post by clicking this link “She immediately blew up”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Hollyhock

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HMS Hollyhock

The Honour Roll

Total South African Naval Force (SANF) losses on the HMS Cornwall and HMS Dorsetshire in the single day of action were as follows (MPK means “missing presumed killed”):

HMS Cornwall

BESWETHERICK, Hedley C, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 86671 (SANF), MPK
BOTES, John S, Stoker 2c RNVR, 68924 (SANF), MPK
COMMERFORD, Noel P, Able Seaman RNVR, 66493 (SANF), MPK
CRAWFORD, Cecil E, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c RNVR, 67922 (SANF), MPK
DU PREEZ, Charles P H, Able Seaman, 68175 (SANF), MPK
DUTTON, Charles C, Stoker 2c RNVR, 68949 (SANF), MPK
HANSLO, Raymond F, Able Seaman RNVR, 68295 (SANF), MPK
KEITH, Kenneth I B, Able Seaman RNVR, 66742 (SANF), MPK
KENYON, Graeme A B, Able Seaman RNVR, 68002 (SANF), MPK
KIRSTEN, Monty G W, Able Seaman RNVR, 68917 (SANF), MPK
LAW, Edward, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c RNVR, 66760 (SANF), MPK
MCDAVID, William K, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69138 (SANF), MPK
MITCHELL, William A, Stoker 1c RNVR, 68796 (SANF), MPK
PALMER, Walter A, Able Seaman RNVR, 68344 (SANF), (rescued, aboard HMS Enterprise), Died of Wounds
SPENCE, Noel W, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68732 (SANF), MPK
SQUIRES, John E, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68728 (SANF), MPK
STEPHEN, Eric B, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68861 (SANF), MPK
SWANN, Lawrence T, Stoker 1c RNVR, 68710 (SANF), MPK
THORPE, Maurice, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69140 (SANF), MPK
VERSFELD, Peter H S, Able Seaman RNVR, 68859 (SANF), MPK
VINK, Benjamin F, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68860 (SANF), MPK
WILLSON, Gerald F, Stoker 2c RNVR, 69006 (SANF), MPK
WRIGHT, Thomas H, Able Seaman RNVR, 68039 (SANF), MPK

HMS Dorsetshire

BELL, Douglas S, Ty/Act/Leading Stoker, 67243 (SANF), MPK
BRUCE, Alexander M, Stoker 2c, 67907 (SANF), MPK
CONCANON, Harold Bernard, Surgeon Lieutenant (Doctor)
EVENPOEL, Albert, Stoker 2c, 67909 (SANF), MPK
GEFFEN, Sender, Stoker 1c, 68035 (SANF), MPK
HOWE, Horace G, Ordinary Seaman RNVR, 68680 (SANF), MPK
KENDRICK, George, Stoker 2c, 67910 (SANF), MPK
MCINTYRE, Norman G, Able Seaman, 67446 (SANF), MPK
MCLELLAN, Robert, Ordinary Telegraphist, 67897 (SANF), MPK
MILNE, Lawrence Victor, Able Seaman
MORROW, Douglas E, Able Seaman, 67989 (SANF), MPK
ORTON, Charles P, Able Seaman, 68009 (SANF), MPK
REDMAN, Roland A, Leading Stoker, 67406 (SANF), MPK
SCOTT, William J, Able Seaman, 68007 (SANF), MPK
SEVEL, Harry, Stoker 1c, 68100 (SANF), MPK
VAN ZYL, David Isak Stephanus, Stoker 1st Class
WILLETT, Amos A S, Stoker 1c, 67240 (SANF), MPK
WILLIAMSON, Walter N, Able Seaman, 67803 (SANF), MPK

But, unfortunately there is more.  As in the same Japanese Operation, just a couple of days later saw the loss of the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock (also lost in a single day), the honour roll of South Africans on board these two fighting ships who were lost is as  follows:

HMS Hermes

BRIGGS, Anthony Herbert Lindsay Sub-Lieutenant (Engineer) Royal Navy (South African national), MPK

BRYSON, Neil W, Ordinary Telegraphist, 69147 (SANF), MPK
BURNIE, Ian A, Able Seaman, 67786 (SANF), MPK
CLAYTON, Frederick H, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68102 (SANF), MPK
DE CASTRO, Alfred T, Stoker 1c, 67914 (SANF), MPK
KEENEY, Frederick W, Able Seaman, 67748 (SANF), MPK
KEYTEL, Roy, Able Seaman, 67296 (SANF), MPK
KIMBLE, Dennis C, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 67600 (SANF), MPK
KRAUSE, Frederick E, Able Seaman, 68321 (SANF), MPK
RAPHAEL, Philip R, Able Seaman, 67841 (SANF), MPK
RICHARDSON, Ronald P, Able Seaman, 67494 (SANF), MPK
RILEY. Harry Air Mechanic 2nd Class, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Navy (South African national), MPK
TOMS, Ivanhoe S, Able Seaman, 67709 (SANF), MPK
VICKERS, Colin P, Able Seaman, 68296 (SANF), MPK
VORSTER, Jack P, Able Seaman, 67755 (SANF), MPK
WHITE, Edward G, Stoker, 68026 (SANF), MPK
WIBLIN, Eric R, Able Seaman, 67717 (SANF), MPK
YATES, Philip R, Supply Assistant, 67570 (SANF), MPK

Included in this Honour Roll is also a South African serving with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm on the HMS Hermes.

RILEY, H, Air Mechanic, Fleet Air Arm, HMS Hermes, died 9 April 1942

HMS Hollyhock

ANDERSON, Henry G, Able Seaman, 67501 (SANF), MPK
BASTON, Douglas T, Act/Engine Room Artificer 4c, 68600 (SANF), MPK
BUITENDACH, James M, Stoker 2c, 69223 (SANF), MPK
JUBY, Kenneth J, Ordinary Seaman, 69211 (SANF), MPK
LEACH, Peter A D H, Stoker 2c, 69225 (SANF), MPK

 Lest we forget the tremendous sacrifice of our countrymen in this world war for the liberation of human kind.

Why is it important we get this history right?

Logo_of_the_Royal_NavySo there we have it, the South African Navy’s biggest single loss in a single day – 41 souls, a ‘black day’ and added together with the HMS Hermes and HMS Hollyhock , we see a complete total of 65 South African souls lost in one single engagement at sea – qualifying a very ‘black week’ – The Easter Sunday Raid and this then marks the Easter period as the South African Navy’s ‘Darkest Hour’.

But is this correct – is this the full complement of South Africans lost in the incident?  The answer unfortunately is – probably not.

Whilst the honour rolls distinguish the South African Naval Forces personnel seconded to British ships, they do not distinguish the South Africans who joined the Royal Navy directly in either Simonstown or in the United Kingdom – of which there were thousands and those who lost their lives are now listed under the Royal Navy’s honour roll.

The ‘old’ South African Defence Force (SADF) did not maintain these records, nor was a honour roll tracked by the South African Navy and simply put, when the Nationalists broke the formal ties with the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and after the resultant four decades in the ‘wilderness’ during the Apartheid epoch – many of these names are now ‘lost’.to all of us as South Africans.

To find out which of these are South Africans requires research into each and every case on the Royal Navy’s record – a momentous task which some dedicated people looking into this are only now beginning to get their heads around.  Here we must thank the likes of Glenn Knox, David Bennet, Allan du Toit, Cameron Kinnear and Graham Du Toit and a handful of others for sterling work recovering this history.

So, in all likelihood more than just ’64’ South Africans died in this action, and why is this important for us to know who they were? Read this letter I received when I published this honour roll and action in a previous article on the HMS Dorsetshire it says everything as to the importance of this work:

Letter from Chris Crossley

Hi Peter,
Just another story for you! This post you put up on the Legions page has some amazing history which you wouldn’t know about but I am happy to share with you to show my gratitude for these “nuggets” of info you share with us.

My wife, Tracy, was an adopted child who after 35 years found her birth parents. Wonderful people they turned out to be and we are building a relationship with them that is priceless. As things go, curiosity led us to find out about family history and Tracy’s birth Dad told us about an uncle of his that was lost during the war. He was in the SAN and went down with “some” ship somewhere. He was married at the time and his wife, on hearing the news that her husband was lost at sea (MIA) never gave up on the hope of his return to Durban because he was never seen and not confirmed deceased. Because of this, she never remarried and passed away many years later, remaining faithful to her husband. Her husband was Roland Redman who served with the SA Navy volunteers on the HMS Dorsetshire that your story includes. His name is included in the Role of Honour for the Dorsetshire.

None of the wider family have ever known what happened to him and the facts and details of his service were not known by the surviving family members either. This last Saturday evening, I was talking to my wife’s birth Dad when he recounted the scant details he had of his uncle. I went on line and found your article and shared it with him on fb. Well he was overcome by this information as well as other members of his family and now for the first time in seventy odd years the facts of Uncle Roland, his service and his sacrifice are now known and cherished by his family left behind.

As an historian, I am sure this story will be something that you can cherish as your post has made a huge difference to some wonderful people! Thank you.

Chris Crossley

See When “nuggets” of history make a BIG difference

In Conclusion 

Now, with this letter in mind, I cannot think of a better reason to get this history right and establish the correct commemorations and full honour roll.  We owe it to our countrymen whose sacrifice brought us international freedom and liberty – it is our duty to carry this flame of remembrance and rid ourselves of the divisive and petty politics of one-upmanship played out by politicians with agendas (nationalists and the ANC) – this politicisation shrouds our most honourable history and only serves to dishonour the sacrifice of our South African servicemen and women – which is by its very nature is as ‘unforgivable’ as it is ‘dishonourable’.

Related work and Links:

For related work in the Observation Post on the above story, click on the following links:

SS Mendi: Let us die like brothers … the silent voices of the SS Mendi finally heard 

HMSAS Southern Floe:  ‘A sole survivor and a ship’s crest’; the South African Navy’s first loss – HMSAS Southern Floe

HMSAS Parktown: The feisty South African minesweeper that went down fighting – HMSAS Parktown)

HMSAS Bever  “Under a hail of shells”; Recounting the bravery and loss of HMSAS Bever

HMSAS Treern: The last South African Navy ship to be lost in action; HMSAS Treern

SAS President Kruger:  “Out of the Storm came Courage” … the tragedy of the PK

South Africans lost on other Royal Navy ships:

HMS Barham: “She blew sky high”; Recounting South African sacrifice on the HMS Barham!

HMS Edinburgh: “Gold may shine; but it has no true light” South African sacrifice on the HMS Edinburgh

HMS Gloucester: A “grievous error”; Recounting South African Sacrifice on the HMS Gloucester

HMS Helca: “Every man for himself” … South African sacrifice and the sinking of HMS Hecla

HMS Neptune: South African sacrifice on the HMS Neptune


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  References Wikipedia. CASUALTIES BY DATE and SHIP Compiled by Don Kindell sourced on the Royal Naval History Homepage.  Image copyright of Royal Navy, SA Naval Reserve, Imperial War Museum.  Japanese Imperial Ensign object, Imperial War Museum copyright.

 

The ‘Two comma Four’!

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

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

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

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

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


Written and researched by Peter Dickens

The last South African medal to be issued by a British monarch!

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Queen Elizabeth II

Here’s something on the SADF/SANDF’s John Chard Decoration and Medal series for long service in the Citizen Force, many who even hold the medal may not even know.  But did you know, the John Chard Decoration and John Chard Medal Series was instituted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 (just two short months after she became Queen) and it is the last medal to issued by a British monarch and worn by members in all four South African military formations – Army, Navy, Air Force and Medical Service.

The John Chard Medal was instituted by Queen Elizabeth II on 6 April 1952, during the Tercentenary Jan van Riebeeck Festival, to replace the South African Union Defence Force’s Efficiency Medal and the Air Efficiency Award which had been awarded to members of the Citizen Force between 1939 and 1952.  The John Chard medal series is a ‘service medal’ awarded for pre-determined tenure of service to the statuate South African defence forces.

So why ‘Rorke’s Drift’?

The John Chard medal and decoration was named after John Chard VC, the lieutenant in command of the supply depot at Rorke’s Drift during the Anglo-Zulu War, when it was attacked by Zulus on the 22nd of January 1879.  

For anyone whose seen the landmark movie ‘Zulu’, Lt. John Chard is played by Stanley Baker.  Baker stars alongside Michael Caine who plays Lt. Gonville Bromhead.

The two officers, John Chard and Gonville Bromhead both earned Victoria Crosses’ along with nine others in defending Rorke’s Drift against a Zulu army attack.  This is the largest tally of Victoria Crosses (the ultimate British award for Valour) from one single engagement, per head this battle has the highest concentration of bravery awards and decorations ever received (11 Victoria Crosses, one VC Mentioned in Dispatches and 4 Distinguished Conduct Medals).  There were only just over 150 British and colonial troops who successfully defended the missionary and crossing at Rorke’s Drift against an intense assault by 3,000 to 4,000 Zulu warriors. It is an act that has never been repeated, and likely never to happen again in future.

So why so many Victoria Crosses for so few defenders?  Well, simply put , a significant part of the British expeditionary force had been annihilated at the Battle of Isandlwana on the same day 22 January 1879, and the little missionary and crossing at Rorke’s Drift was the last line of defence should the Zulu Army have built on its victory at Isandlwana and invaded the British colony.  The Natal Colony would have been for the most part left defenceless whilst Lord Chemsford and the remaining bulk of British forces searched for the Zulu army in the Zulu Kingdom itself.  The action of these ‘few’ at Rorke’s Drift literally saved an entire British colony.

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The Battle of Isandlwana was an embarrassing defeat for the British. The British Empire suffered its worst defeat against an indigenous foe with vastly inferior military technology. The site today is most interesting, because of the hard ground the British were unable to bury their dead, so they built stone cairns where they fell to cover them instead. These cairns, painted white – are a grizzly reminder of the calamity which took place there and literally map and bring the battlefield into perspective.

So why is John Chard singled out?

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John Chard VC

John Chard was a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers who was busy building a pontoon bridge across the river, when he received the news that Isandlwana was under fierce attack.

Leaving his work, Chard rushed to the mission station at Rorke’s Drift, here he calmly set about building defensive walls around the hospital using bags of grain and biscuit tins.  Chard took up overall Command to defend the missionary buildings and it was his strategy and tactics during the battle that literally saved the day and helped to avoid complete annihilation of his small force of wounded and sick men, and a sprinkling of some very scared and bewildered Natal Native Continent soldiers.  The redoubt he ordered be built was key to the British success on the day.

For his role in the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift, Queen Victoria awarded the Victoria Cross to him, he also received a promotion to captain (he would retire a Colonel).  To get a modern perspective on this in living image, this compilation from the movie ‘Zulu’ captures the destruction at Isandlwana and the fierce fighting in defending Rorke’s Drift, take the short time to watch it – look out for the concentrated volley fire and the use of the redoubt – a tactic missing from the Battle of Isaldlwana but used to absolute effect at Rorke’s Drift.

Citation 

medalThe citation for Chard’s and Bromhead’s Victoria Crosses says everything:

THE Queen has been graciously pleased to signify Her intention to confer the decoration of the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned Officers and Soldiers of Her Majesty’s Army, whose claims have been submitted for Her Majesty’s approval, for their gallant conduct in the defence of Rorke’s Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus, as recorded against their names, viz.:—

For their gallant conduct at the defence of Rorke’s Drift, on the occasion of the attack by the Zulus on the 22nd and 23rd  January, 1879.

Royal Engineers Lieutenant (now Captain and Brevet Major) J. R. M. Chard

2nd Battalion 24th Regiment Lieutenant (now Captain and Brevet Major) G. Bromhead

The Lieutenant-General commanding the troops reports that, had it not been for the fine example and excellent behaviour of these two Officers under the most trying circumstances, the defence of Rorke’s Drift post would not have been conducted with that intelligence and tenacity which so essentially characterised it.

The Lieutenant-General adds, that its success must, in a great degree, be attributable to the two young Officers who exercised the Chief Command on the occasion in question.

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Painting by Alphonse de Neuville – The defence of Rorke’s Drift

The John Chard Medal set

Even we learn something new everyday, what makes this surprising is that a medal issued by a British Monarch remained in the service of The South African Defence Force for so long, especially after it was reformatted after the National Party took South Africa out of the British Commonwealth and they embarked on a campaign to change the South African military emblems, insignia and medals and rid the SADF of anything “British” (especially the Queen’s crown which now had to go).

In many instances these changes where resisted and a number of civilian force “Regiments” where able to hold onto some of their British heritage – however the medal sets where all changed and new medals instituted, except the John Chard Service medal series which survived the changes.

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John Chard 10 year service medal

The medal was awarded to all ranks of the Citizen Force for twelve years efficient service, not necessarily continuous. After a further eight years a recipient could qualify for the award of the John Chard Decoration (JCD).

This was later changed in 1986 to allow Citizen Force members to earn the John Chard Medal after ten years service, not necessarily continuous and the John Chard Decoration after twenty years.

The John Chard medal comes in heavy brass and the John Chard  Decoration comes in heavy silver, and is not only beautiful to handle, but also fairly valuable. The early medals and awards bore the royal cypher on the rear, while the later ones bore the coat of arms of the Republic of South Africa.

The ribbon also carries the arm of service, crossed swords for the South African Army, a spread eagle for the South African Air Force, an anchor for the South African Navy and a Rod of Asclepius for the South African Medical Service.  A ‘bar’ also existed for The John Chard Decoration, which signified 30 years service.

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John Chard Decoration for 20 years service

The John Chard decoration/medal series continued in the SANDF from 1994, but was finally discontinued in 2003 and replaced by the SANDF’s new long service medals. This was done when the new African National Congress (ANC) political dispensation did a sweeping change to all military emblems and insignia to rid it of anything the ‘nationalists’ or ‘colonialists’ instituted (and lets not pull any politically correct punches – to the Zulu nation Rorke’s Drift is symbolic of British imperialist aggression, land grabbing and expansion into an independent Zulu Kingdom).

The John Chard medal is now superseded by the SANDF’s Medaljie sir Troue Diens and the Emblem for Reserve Force Service.  The John Chard medal (and decoration) is still recognised as an ‘official’ medal issued for a statutory force member, and is still worn very proudly in the South African Reserve by those who have received it.

We can’t but think that each time a new political dispensation brings in its particular sweeping changes into the defence force, something by way of tradition gets lost.

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Photo of General Roy Andersen, the head of The South African Reserve by Cornelius Bezuidenhout, notice the John Chard decoration (with bar) and John Chard medal at the far right hand end of his medal set when looking left to right.


Written and Researched by Peter Dickens.  Clip of Zulu taken from YouTube, original movie copyright Paramount Pictures, released 1964 Directed by Cy Enfield and Produced by Stanley Baker.

Africa’s greatest ‘Exodus’

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

The Carnation Revolution 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Aftermath 

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

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

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


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

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


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

BOETIE gaan PD Skool toe!

BoetieLet’s enjoy some ‘old school’ South African military humour. “Boetie gaan Border toe” doubtful that it’s still on Arnold Vosloo’s top 10 now (he’s made a great Hollywood blockbuster “Mummy” since his debut as Boetie), but still, it’s a firm favourite amongst the old South African military veterans.

Filmed at Personnel Services School (Personeel Diens Skool), affectionately simply known as ‘PD School’ situated in Voortrekkerhoogte (or Roberts Heights or Thaba Tshwane, take your pick … we like renaming stuff depending on who is in charge), Boetie Gaan Border Toe is a 1984 comedy satire set during the South West African (Namibia)/Angola Border War.

Funnily many of the old SADF national servicemen during the time would not have made head or tails of the insignia used in the movie as it was basically restricted to Personnel Services Corps (PSC) whose graduates were often placed in administrative positions within the Command, Training Unit or Regiment structures and more often than not adopted that particular Command, Unit or Regiment’s insignia once deployed.

 

In terms of role, Personnel Services officers were usually posted to various units as Sports Officers, Operations Officers – handling SITREPS (Situation Reports) and often dealt in operation areas with mobilisation and demobilisation of troops in terms of number management and administration.  They also dealt with troop morale – mail and entertainment, public relations and at times they were also involved with the more sinister side and oversaw Prisoner of War (POW) registration, death notices and grave registration.

In general, the Personnel Services Corps (PSC) was also responsible for conscription and National Service call-ups, personnel in PSC Reception Depots in various commands often found themselves as convoy security moving fresh national service recruits around the country (see Conscription in the SADF and the ‘End Conscription Campaign’).

540084_10150927983551480_1637557049_nAs mentioned, the SADF often used PSC members to manage troop morale and public relations projects, arranging press and PR stunts such as various Miss South Africa pageant winner visits to troops on the border etc. so it made sense that the PSC training base would be opened for filming something like Boetie Gaan Border Toe and the actors provided with the necessary kit, insignia and military advise.

As an active training base it also provided a great backdrop with a number of unwitting extras undergoing current training seen marching up and down the parade ground (it would be of interest is any of them were paid – doubt it).

The movie expresses a time when national service was part of South Africa’s national fabric, so much so the movie industry could find profitable satiric comedy in it and make popular culture out of it.  

It has since come into criticism (there’s no surprise there), literary analyst Monica Popescu described Boetie Gaan Border Toe and its sequel, Boetie Op Manoeuvres, as works which essentially romanticised the South African Border War and devoted a disproportionate amount of emphasis to the “chivalrous conduct of SADF soldiers”. Whereas the University of Johannesburg recently criticised the film as “propagandistic”.

However, the truth be told, it would have been a stretch of the imagination then to see these movies as ‘propaganda’ pieces.  At the time, conscription for white South African male youth was normative in society and satire was often drawn from it which would extend across all sorts of media.  This satire included, amongst others, cartoon strips and caricature books, photo-story books (like Grensvegter), television commercials, Forces Favourites radio (see A soldier’s dedication to Pat Kerr), mainstream music and music video recordings and movies like the two ‘Boetie’ offerings.  

 

In short a movie covering the funny part of conscription was a popular proposition, which made it commercially viable and therefore profitable – and that would have been the main driving motive behind the Boetie movies, not propaganda.

To illustrate the satire and vast amount of ‘material’ available for humorous lampooning have a look at this snippet of the movie.  It certainly brings out that unique humour that only the ‘old’ South African Defence Force (SADF) had to offer.

This short snippet lampoons the extensive use of Afrikaans in the SADF which the English-speaking recruits simply did not at first fully understand, and even when they ultimately did get it they often used ignorance purposely to drive their Afrikaner instructors crazy.

Here Corporal Botes – played by Eric Nobbs, steals the show as the hapless and rather over zealous “paraat” instructor charged with training a bunch of misfits, facing just such a situation from a fresh English speaking recruit.

Enjoy this snippet from an old 80’s classic, it’s a bit of time warp to period not many fully understand now.

 

 

Editors note:  I’m loving the ‘Kapoen’ Personnel Services Corps beret, so named because it is orange/brown in colour and sarcastically referred to by those who have worn it (including me) as a cross between Kak (sh*t brown) and a Pampoen (pumpkin orange).

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Written by Peter Dickens: Boetie Gaan Border Toe Director: Regardt van den Bergh. Writers: Johan Coetzee, Cor Nortjé. Stars: Arnold Vosloo, Eric Nobbs, Frank Dankert and Frank Opperman. Distributor and copyright Ster-Kinekor Pictures.

‘Ride Safe’

Ride Safe“Christmas passes have been issued men and you need to organise a safe ride home. Here’s your reflective ‘Ride Safe’ band “Daar gat julle” (bugger off) … ”

Remember this – the ‘Ride Safe’ campaign? These Ride Safe signboards were posted all over South Africa at one stage so friendly motorists could pick up a “troepie” (troop or ‘troopie’ – English varient) hitching a ride home on ‘pass’ (leave).

The sign boards where distinctive showing the SADF ‘Castle’ emblem with a trooper and his ‘balsak’ (duffel bag) in the centre.

c0cdb806f57202285e560e8ca8863199‘Ride Safe’ was a national campaign instituted by The South African Legion of Military Veterans (SA Legion) and co-ordinated across all the various municipalities and the roads authority. It was designed to give a safe pick-up place for members of all the country’s armed services to stand and wait for motorists to stop for them and give them a lift.

It was a campaign which came about in an age when service in the SADF was part of South Africa’s socio-cultural make-up this was a very normative practice.

The campaign included relective orange bands sponsored by Sanlam so motorists could easily spot a servicemen day or night as an added safety measure.  Generally not enough of these bands were available and not everyone used them, but it was a great gesture and added safety measure.  Motorists also had ‘Ride Safe’ number stickers which showed their support of the program.

To think that at its height this system was the primary shuttle for literally thousands of national servicemen on any given weekend heading to all parts of the Republic of South Africa, near and far, remote rural towns and farms as well as the big cities.

On a point as to the intensity of the ‘struggle’ and threat it posed, on a weekend tens of thousands of troops would be hitching on the highways, the majority where unarmed (you had to leave your weapons safely stored in the base) and here’s the hidden truth – the vast majority of National Servicemen never felt under any sort of threat or in any form of danger by ANC Umkhonto we Sizwe (Mk) forces or any other ‘struggle’ forces for that matter – a softer and easier target than an unarmed and isolated soldier you could not get and it never really posed an issue.

Such was the degree of ‘low key’ resistance in South Africa during the critical Apartheid ‘struggle years’ when it came to confronting the SADF directly (the ‘sharp end of a military confrontation), that thousands of unarmed national servicemen and permanent force members could freely roam the country and stand on the national roads without any real worry, and nor was it a concern of the military establishment.  

In fact it was enthusiastically supported by the public at large, literally thousands of motorists and it was assisted by private corporate sponsorship, so much so it even became a media sensation and many will remember the ‘Ride Safe’ song by Matt Hurter (and here it is if you’re in need of a ‘blast from the past’).

Waiting in the middle of nowhere for the next lift was not unusual – and sometimes for troops who lived remotely the entire pass would be spent on the road trying to get home and the idea abandoned.  There is a rich tapestry of ‘Ride Safe’ stories told by many a veteran on the quest to get home and the characters they would meet along the way.

Many veterans will immediately understand this image of a signaller, Stuart Robertson on his way home in the middle of absolutely nowhere hitching a ride.

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Unfortunately by the late 80’s they became exploited by any hitch-hiker wanting a free lift, so motorists avoided the stop.  By 1990 the ANC had been unbanned and the country spiralled into a political dog-fight, so by this time it was also deemed dangerous as it placed troops in a vulnerable position as the unrest intensified between an array of different political factions trying to power grab during the CODESA negotiations.  In Afrikaans the campaign was called ” Ry Veilig” (ride safe) and by this stage national servicemen started to sarcastically call it “Ry Verby” (ride past).

By 1994 the ‘Ride Safe’ program and national service conscription was all but gone.  Still – the good old days in South Africa when it was safe for national servicemen to hitch rides and safe to pick up a hitch hiker, especially when you did your bit for the country and gave a happy ‘troepie’ a ride home to his much-loved and missed family for Christmas.


Written by Peter Dickens. Copyright and thanks to Stuart Robertson for this great memory, the “Ride Safe’ song copyright Matt Hurter and Gallo Records.