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.


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.


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). 


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.

Kak vraag sit

By Steve De Witt

“Decades ago we came barreling around a corner in Onjiva and drove into a T-34 tank. We were just a SAI section in a Buffel. This was a seriously unequal encounter. Like when Bismarck concussed himself bouncing off Eben Etzebeth.

You get two kinds of leopards, Oom Schalk Lourens said, one with more spots and one with fewer spots. But when you come across a leopard in the bush you only do one kind of running. And that’s the fastest kind.

The same applies to a T-34 tank. If you’re in a Ratel I guess it’s different. I hear they knocked out quite a few T-34s. If you’re an NSM BokKop in a Buffel, there’s nothing you learnt in bush-alley shooting that can help you.

You become acutely aware of your shortcomings when facing a Russian tank. A bunch of R4’s, an LMG and a shotgun don’t get you far. I suppose we could’ve used our pikstel knives as well but this wasn’t the time to check inventory.

They said don’t volunteer for anything in the army but in that moment your body commits treason against you. Your anus volunteers to open right there and then in the Buffel.

That’s a secondary and unimportant reaction. Your first response is to scream at the driver to Reverse! All of you, screaming the same thing simultaneously.

At the same time you duck down behind the steel plating. A T-34 cannon is pretty intimidating when you’re facing it from the front. And when it’s job is to erase you from the planet.

Not that ducking down helps much. There’s also that little round bubble on the T-34 with a short barrel poking out. You don’t know if it’s a 7.62 or a 20mm or even a 30mm cannon. Whatever, you suspect it can fire big chunks of Siberian lead right through your Buffel.

Christo, our driver, was now under severe pressure. He had a bunch of screaming, sh*tting maniacs behind him and a Russian tank in front.

Pressure wasn’t Christo’s thing. He was everyone’s buddy but had cracked in Basics. They were chasing us around with bed frames at 1am when Christo gave in. Sat down, lit a cigarette and told the Instructors to f-off. THAT was something to witness. Another story for another day.

Point is, he couldn’t take the punch, they said. Let’s keep him away from contacts. Make him a driver. So much for that theory. But now Christo had the chance to redeem himself. Pretty easy, you might think. Just hit reverse gear and back up around the corner.

Maybe his hesitation was influenced by 10 infantryman and a sergeant yelling at him in 3 languages – English, Afrikaans and NuweVloekerei. The last is when you spontaneously construct sentences consisting only of swear words. Bad ones that make you cry when confessing to the Dominee. He also cries.

Some of the swear words are old, the stock ones in your vocabulary. When they don’t work and Christo is grinding the gears trying to find Reverse, you spontaneously invent new words. These involve a combination of the driver’s, your own and everyone else’s mother, including the T-34’s.

The amazing thing is that this new language works. Christo hammered us into Reverse, popped the clutch and we shot backwards faster than a T-34 projectile goes forwards.

Straight into a line of Buffels behind us that veered left and right to avoid a crash. This caused Onjiva’s biggest traffic snarl-up since Antonio the Porto arrived with fresh veggies from Lubango.

On top of the skidding and sliding Buffels a company of BokKops jumped up shouting What’s Your <NuweVloekerei> Problem!?

Kak vraag sit. Go round the corner and see for yourself.

… So last month I walked around London’s Imperial War Museum looking at nice war things like Spitfires and bent steel girders from the World Trade Centre and suicide bomber vests and stuff. Relics from other people’s wars.

Then you walk around a corner straight into the barrel of a T-34 tank. Deja vu. Instinctively I ducked and shouted out the same NuweVloekerei I’d used many years ago. I didn’t know those words were still in my vocabulary.

A museum guide smiled and helped me off the floor. He told me the tank fought at Stalingrad where they defeated the Nazi Panzers. I told him I know this tank. And asked him to take the picture.

We don’t get many visitors who fought against a T-34, he said. I had to correct him. You don’t get many visitors who ran away from a T-34, I said.”

Written by Steve De Witt and published on The Observation Post with his kind permission.


Editor – Sometimes we get a 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 in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post.  Copyright  – Steve De Witt.

‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’

The featured informal ‘happy snap’ of Magnus Malan, PW Botha and Jonas Savimbi on the Angolan border speaks volumes – it most certainly highlights the political edict “the enemy of enemy is my friend” and carries with it the typical sort of politics which involves ‘odd bedfellows’; the kind of story which involves intrigue, betrayal and political assassination.

South Africa’s relationship with Savimbi and UNITA the ‘National Union for the Total Independence of Angola’ was indeed an odd pairing, it started with UNITA as an ‘enemy’ of the South African Defence Force in their commitments to help Portugal in the Angolan War.  Once Portugal left Angola, an ‘ally’ was made of UNITA when it was in South Africa’s interests in destabilising Angola to stop SWAPO (PLAN) armed insurgencies entering into South West Africa (now Namibia) from Angola.  The ‘alliance’ was made stronger when ramped up Cuban military presence entered the frame in the Angolan conflict, and UNITA was made a pawn in South Africa’s ‘total war’ against communist expansionism in Southern Africa.  In the ultimate betrayal South Africa then hung UNITA out to dry when Cuban troops left Angola.

It really is a case of South Africa ‘shooting at UNITA’ which changed to a case of ‘shooting alongside UNITA’ and then became a case of ‘shooting UNITA dead’.

To be fair, the United States of America was also as compliant in the betrayal.  So how did it all begin?

Shooting at UNITA

In the 1960s, during the armed struggle against Portuguese colonial rule, Savimbi founded UNITA, and along with the two other ‘anti-colonial liberation movements’ – the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) and the ‘Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola’ (MPLA) – they all started to fight Portugal for an independent Angola.  UNITA and the FNLA were also against MPLA rule but that inconvenient difference was put aside to fight Portugal. Aggression between the MPLA and UNITA started in earnest again when the Portuguese ultimately left and a power vacuum ensued.

UNITA carried out its first attack against Portuguese forces on 25 December 1966 by derailing railways.  At that time, beleaguered by three anti-colonial movements Portugal turned to South Africa and Rhodesia for military help.  Both South African and Rhodesia governments were concerned about their own future in the case of a Portuguese defeat in neighbouring Angola and Mozambique.

Rhodesia and South Africa initially limited their participation to shipments of arms and supplies. However, by 1968 the South Africans began providing Alouette III helicopters with crews to the Portuguese Air Force (FAP), and finally there were reports of several companies of South African Defence Force (SADF) infantry who were deployed in southern and central Angola (primarily to defend iron mines in Cassinga).


SAAF Puma in support of Portuguese troops in Angola

When the first Portuguese unit was equipped with South African Air Force Puma helicopters in 1969, the crews were almost exclusively South African.  In all the SADF had pilots and helicopters operating out of the Centro Conjunto de Apoio Aéreo (CCAA – Joint Air Support Centre) in support of Portuguese military actions against the MPLA and UNITA alike.  The SADF set up its joint operations in Cuito Cuanavale during 1968.  In an iconic sense the small town of Cuito Cuanavale in the South East of Angola was to be the beginning the South African military involvement in Angola and almost exactly two decades later this small town would signal the end of South African involvement in Angola – having now come full circle.

So far in the war, none of the three nationalist groups (UNITA, MPLA and FNLA) had posed a serious threat to Portuguese rule in Angola. But in 1974, a Left-wing coup in Portugal brought to power a regime which pledged to end all wars in the country’s African colonies – Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau – and to introduce democracy at home.  This seismic change in Portuguese politics and foreign rule became known as the ‘Carnation Revolution’.

Shooting alongside UNITA

By the time the Portuguese military (and its South African help) left Angola in 1975, the country was in political chaos. Savimbi was soon leading the fight against the future government of President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

In July 1975, the Soviet Union and Cuban Communist backed MPLA forces attacked and swept UNITA and FNLA forces out of the capital, Luanda. This resulted in a international refugee crisis, made worse by thousands of Portuguese nationals streaming into South African territories in fear of their lives.  The United States of America (USA) then entered the fray by supplying arms to both UNITA and the FNLA to hold back this onslaught of Communist backed guerrillas in the MPLA.  The USA saw UNITA as an ally in the fight against Communist domination in Africa, the Americans also turned to South Africa for help, South Africa also held a fierce anti-Communist stance and was taking the brunt of Portuguese refugees fleeing Angola.

South Africa’s fight by this time had also turned to the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO), who had commenced an armed insurrection campaign for South West African (Namibian) independence – at the time a South African protectorate bordering Angola, SWAPO began using bases in Angola and was been supported by the MPLA.

With both the Soviet Union and the USA arming major factions in the Angolan Civil War, the conflict escalated into a major Cold War battleground.  Coming the assistance of the Americans was South Africa, in many ways positioning itself as a ‘Ally’ of the NATO western states in their Cold War with Communism, as it had been in WW2.  Conversely it also aided the South African government’s need to soften the ‘West’s’ stance on the National Party’s policies of Apartheid.

By August 1975 BJ Vorster, the South African Prime Minister, along with his Defence Minister PW Botha, struck an extraordinary deal. Vorster authorised the provision of limited military training, advice and logistical assistance to UNITA and the FNLA. In turn FNLA and UNITA would help the South Africans fight SWAPO.  The ‘enemy of his enemy – became his friend’.

This kicked off Operation “Sausage II”, a major raid against SWAPO in southern Angola and on 4 September 1975.  This was immediately followed by Operation Savannah and then by many more large scale armed incursions and small scale raids into Angola in support of UNITA and against SWAPO bases in Angola – from 1975 all the way to 1989.  SADF South African soldiers literally found themselves fighting ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with UNITA Angolan soldiers for the next 14 years.  Jonus Savimbi himself was even given the code-name ‘Spyker’ (Spike) by the SADF members working with UNITA.


SADF Troops and UNITA troops in Angola

The ‘Odd Couple’ Alliance 

Thus began a two decade long Alliance with UNITA in a proxy Cold War fight against International Communism, and strange bedfellow alliance between an anti-colonial freedom movement and ‘Apartheid’ South Africa.

With continuing aid from South Africa, Savimbi was able to fight on. By 1977, UNITA was becoming a powerful threat to the Luanda government, carrying out operations without apparent difficulty.

In the early 1980s, Savimbi further increased his power. South African “hot pursuit” attacks against SWAPO rebels in southern Angola forced the Luanda government to concentrate its forces in that part of the country, leaving Unita a free hand to consolidate bases throughout the rest of Angola.

Yet, although strengthened by heavy Soviet weapons captured by South African troops and American weapons, Savimbi was well aware that he could never take Luanda against the combined Cuban and MPLA government armies with Soviet support.  He based his hopes on forcing the MPLA to agree to a coalition government and to free elections.


UNITA, SADF and National Party members

However, by 1986 he was under intense pressure from Luanda’s combined forces, which had seized large areas of his territory. Pretoria had informed Washington that UNITA would need more arms to meet continued attacks, and Savimbi decided to go to America to appeal for help in person.

In Washington, he succeeded in putting his case to President Reagan; and Congress proposed a programme of covert aid which enabled the first American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to reach UNITA within a few months.

Savimbi continued to enjoy military successes, however by the late 80’s the Soviet Union had commenced political reform, Cuban involvement in Angola had met with repeated defeats, limited success, high loss of life and an economic and military drain, and domestically South Africa was preparing for domestic political reform against growing international pressure and sanctions against Apartheid.

It all came to a head with a military stalemate at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 (where it had all oddly started in the mid 1960’s).  South Africa intervened to block a large-scale MPLA attack with Soviet and Cuban assistance against UNITA’s primary operating bases at Jamba and Mavinga. The campaign culminated in the largest battle on African soil since World War 2 and the second largest clash of African armed forces in history. The MPLA offensive was halted and a stalemate ensued.

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is credited with ushering in the first round of trilateral negotiations mediated by the USA.  The Tripartite Accord involved Angola’s MPLA government, South Africa and Cuba (without UNITA).  While the hostilities in Angola continued at Cuito Cuanavale, negotiations initially reached a deadlock.

It was broken by the South African negotiator, Pik Botha, who convinced the delegates that “…We can both be losers and we can both be winners…” Pik Botha offered a compromise that would appear to be palatable to both sides while emphasising that the alternative would be detrimental to both sides.

His proposal, South Africa could claim ‘Victory’ with the removal of Communist military aggression from Southern Africa (including Angola), and Cuba could claim ‘Victory’ with the withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia (South West Africa) in accordance with United Nations Resolution 435 (tabled 10 years earlier in Sep. 1978).

The middle-ground was struck on that simple premise and was to be known as the Tripartite Accord, Three Powers Accord or New York Accords, South Africa, Angola (MPLA government) and Cuba all signed the bottom line on 22 December 1988.

Shooting UNITA dead

Savimbi refused to accept the Tripartite Accord, which also forbade further military aid being supplied to any rebel groups – which included UNITA in the definition of ‘rebel group’; then, in January 1989, President Bush (Snr) reassured Savimbi that American arms would continue to be sent to UNITA for as long as Cuban forces remained in Angola.

With a phased timetable for the withdrawal of Cuban forces to be completed by June 1991, Savimbi was ready to fight on. Almost immediately in the beginning of 1989 Angola accused South Africa of breaking the agreement by supplying arms to Savimbi.

Pretoria denied aiding UNITA. Savimbi then approached the South African government to size up the situation with an ailing and politically beleaguered President P.W. Botha, who told him very bluntly that all South African aid to UNITA was to be cut off.

In plain language, UNITA was no longer South Africa’s ‘friend’. Jonas Savimbi was for 20 years, a figure as important in Southern African politics as Nelson Mandela, and he was now officially out in the cold, UNITA had become an embarrassment and hindrance to the seismic global geo-politics between the Soviet Union, Cuba, Namibia, Angola, South Africa and the United States of America in 1989.

The ceasefire between South Africa and Cuba/MPLA Angola and the path to independence for Namibia had been the last acts of PW Botha’s legacy as President, later in 1989 (August 14th), F.W. De Klerk took control of Presidency due primarily to P.W. Botha’s failing health.


If the American betrayal of Savimbi was not bad enough, this last dismissal by PW Botha was the final betrayal of UNITA, it was the ‘nail in the coffin’; with the loss of South Africa as an ally (in addition to the USA), UNITA literally stood no hope at all. Jonus Savimbi’s fate was sealed, along with that of UNITA.

17103592_10154636267172862_2137630330946939084_nSavimbi’s international isolation was further increased when, after a peace deal had been struck and elections held in 1992 in Angola, he refused to accept either his defeat at the polls or a role in a power-sharing government. He withdrew to Huambo in his country’s central highlands, and from there he fought on.

UNITA continued to fight on unsupplied and rather vainly on their own till 2002, until Jonus Savimbi was finally shot dead on the 22nd February by advancing MPLA troops.

Jonus Savimbi was a highly educated and charismatic leader. A burly man, 6ft tall and with a bearded face that could as easily convey an expression of menace as break into a dazzling smile, Jonas Savimbi was usually photographed wearing well-pressed camouflage fatigues and a jaunty beret. At his hip there was often a pearl-handled revolver; and he had a favourite ivory-topped cane.

Jonus Savimbi once gave PW Botha an AK47 assault rifle made out of ivory as a gift of friendship, a gift that remained on display at the George Museum in South Africa for some years until 1998 (when all of PW Botha’s gifted artefacts were removed).

The ivory AK-47 now stands as an unusual reminder of how history can be unkind and the absurdity of getting into bed with ‘strange political bedfellows’.  It really is a symbol of the type of betrayal which so often comes with the political edict; “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.

Researched by Peter Dickens.  Source – various obituaries, including the Daily Telegraph of Jonus Savimbi and Wikipedia

Ops Savannah fashion statement; East German Helmets

One distinctive thing about the Angola/South West Africa Border war was the vast array of ‘Soviet’ and Communist ‘East Bloc’ military equipment, materials and canned food.  Much of which became ‘war booty’ and prized by South African Defence Force personnel fighting in the conflict as a memento. To them, it all represented the very distinctive difference between ‘Western’ styled materials and those produced in Communist bloc countries at the time, in a sense it very much brought home just what the war in Angola was to them – part of the ‘Cold’ War of the ‘West’ against Communism.

SADF Helmet

During Ops Savannah in 1975, whilst in Angola some South African Defence Force (SADF) personnel came across a huge stash of East German Steel Helmets.  For some reason the SADF Artillery Gunners took an instant liking to these helmets and it became an instant ‘bush’ fashion. A prized possession, many Gunners sought out this helmet and whilst on Operation Savannah replaced their SADF issue ‘Staaldak’ M1963 helmets with it – it’s was a ‘gunners thing’ to look a little different and develop a distinctive combat zone ‘esprit de cour’. The feature image shows a SADF 140mm Medium Gun Crew somewhere in Central

The East German M-56 helmet was originally designed in 1942 as a replacement for the M1935/M1940 model WW2 German ‘Stahlhelm’.  The helmet had seen trials since 1943, but was not adopted during World War II.

East German Helmet

The design was never progressed and was unused until the requirement for a distinct German helmet for the Volkspolizie (East German Police) and the National People’s Army (East German Army) arose after Germany was split down the middle into the ‘Democratic’ West Germany and ‘Soviet Communist’ East Germany after WW2 ended.

The East German leadership adopted the M-56 helmet so as not to cause offence to their new Soviet masters by using their iconic WW2 German ‘Stahlhelm’ so they switched to this new design as it also closely resembled another iconic WW2 helmet – the Soviet SSh-40.

The M-56 helmet came in three basic versions, Mod 1 or I/56, Mod 2 or I/57 and Mod 3 or I/71, and was widely sold, or in most cases given free of charge, to Third World armies.  As Angola was deemed a 3rd World conflict by the East Germans it proved a fruitful country to off-load stocks of this helmet to the MPLA’s FAPLA and other Communist aligned military support groups in Angola.

Although there is not much on East German involvement in the Angolan/South West African Border War. Most military advisors and support troops to the Angolan MPLA Forces were either Russian or Cuban. East Germany as it was a Soviet ‘ally’ did play a role in support, and these helmets would point to this fact.

Image and reflection thanks to Colonel Graham Du Toit.  Source Wikipedia – Researched by Peter Dickens

The ‘Fog of War’

The term ‘Fog of War’ is defined as ‘uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in a military operation’.  It can manifest itself at the time or even many years after the action has taken place.  This deeply tragic account of the loss of a SADF Ratel Infantry Fighting Vehicle, containing two members of the same family’ illustrates this ‘fog’.

The incident

14 Feb 1988: Four Members from B Company, 1 SAI including two Cousins who acted as the MAG Machine Gunner team, were Killed in Action in South Eastern Angola during a contact with elements of the 59th FAPLA Brigade during Operation Hooper. The B Company, 1 SAI troops had not klaared out (demobilised) prior to deployment for Ops Hooper so they became 61 Mech Battalion Bravo Company Element. These troops swopped over with B Company 4 SAI and were operating as part of 4 SAI during this attack as part of 61 Mechanised Battalion.

Their Ratel (Honeybadger) Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), Callsign 22C was hit on the left hand side and knocked out by a ZU-23-2 Soviet 23mm Anti-aircraft gun deployed in the ground role. On the right hand side where the Groenewald Cousins had been sitting, a large hole was ripped out of the vehicle. It appeared that the Ratel had also been struck at some point by a South African 105mm discarding sabot anti-tank round, thought to be fired from an SADF Olifant tank.

The 105mm discarding sabot round’s entry can be seen on the top below the second rifle port with the distinctive “star” penetration.

The ‘blue on blue’ debate

There is much debate which surrounds this image and the ballistics in the veteran community, some thoughts are that the 105mm discarding Sabot round made the big hole on top left (the fins made the star pattern) and the three discarding pieces from the Sabot could have made the other three holes to the below right. Others maintain the additional holes came from the enemy 23mm AA gun. Whilst others have proposed that it was all enemy fire and possibly the distinctive ‘fin’ penetration came from a Soviet 100mm T55 6 wing sabot based on the ballistics.

SADF 105mm Discarding  Sabot (left) and ZU-23-2 Soviet 23mm Anti-aircraft Gun in a ground role (right)

At the time the SADF published this as enemy fire and did not make reference to a  “blue on blue” incident – a blue on blue is a term used for ‘friendly fire’ when forces mistakenly shoot, target or bomb their own forces (this may possibly have been in the interests of moral of both Olifant tank and Ratel IFV crews) and reported it as enemy 23mm fire only. Accounts from the 22C Ratel driver and members on site after the incident point to a SADF “blue on blue” from a SADF Olifant (Elephant) Tank involved in the formation attack on enemy armour and positions, a ‘V” formation in which Ratel 22C took part.

Such is the “Fog of War” and incidents like this leave a very big lump in veterans throats. In any event, whether enemy fire, friendly fire – or both, the brave men who fell in this  Ratel are honoured on the roll:

In Remembrance 

84269315BG Corporal Jan Hendrik Kleynhans. He was 19
85263262BG Rifleman Andre Schalk Groenewald. He was 18.
84358266BG Rifleman Pieter Henrich Groenewald. He was 19.
84477751BG Rifleman Vincent Vernon Nieuwenhuizen. He was 19.

May they rest in peace and never be forgotten.

Researched by Peter Dickens with references from a number of Border war forums and Graham Du Toit.

“If we don’t end war, war will end us” H.G. Wells

On this day, at 17h00 the guns fell silent in Southern Angola, when on the 8 August 1988 a ceasefire came into effect effectively ending hostilities between South African statute forces and Angolan/Cuban Forces.

The Tripartite Accord was to follow, an agreement between the People’s Republic of Angola, the Republic of Cuba and the Republic of South Africa.  It in essence granted independence to Namibia on the proviso that Cuban forces left Angola and South African Forces would leave Namibia.  

The offer made by Pik Botha, who convinced Jorge Riquet, to quote Botha “…We can both be losers and we can both be winners…”. Cuban Forces could return to Cuba victorious with the idea that they had ended South African rule in Namibia and South African Forces could return victorious with the idea that they had turned back the greatest Communist threat of arms in Southern Africa and stabilised the region for democracy by the ballot and not the gun.

There is some truth to H.G. Wells’ quote “If we don’t end war, war will end us” and without this accord South Africa (Africa’s Super-power) and Cuba would have been set for a protracted war between two foreign powers in a foreign country, and it would most certainly have left a devastating impact on all humanity in the region for many more years to come.

Let us remove our headgear, bow our heads, and observe a minute of silence to remember all those that paid the supreme sacrifice in this war.

Photo copyright Stephan Bothma, from 101 Battalion Romeo Mikes.  Written by Peter Dickens

A failed SADF Operation; Ops Firewood – truths & myths!

In any military campaign there are always setbacks, and Ops Firewood qualifies one of the very few real setbacks that the SADF experienced during the Border War.  To view it as a resounding  victory of PLAN (SWAPO) over the SADF would however be an overstatement.

Currently in Namibia and South Africa there are overqualified claims that this operation points to PLAN superiority over the SADF, but that would also be a myth, these claims coming mainly from modern Namibians being fed a long stream of political propaganda.

However, to face up to a ‘truth’, Ops Firewood was a tactical ‘loss’ for the SADF, it was not widely circulated, and thus relatively unknown to many SADF servicemen (now veterans).  So let’s look at it and face the truths and debunk the myths.

On the 31 Oct 1987, a 101 Battalion Battle Group, supported by members of 5 Reconnaissance Regiment together with D Company, 1 Parachute Battalion, 2 Reconnaissance Regiment and other SADF support elements, attacked SWAPO/PLAN positions at Nindango in Southern Angola,  They used Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Armoured Personnel Carriers (Ratels, Casspirs and Buffels).

The Operation was known as Ops Firewood. The key objective was to destroy the Northern Front PLAN Head Quarter (HQ) base.

This PLAN base was set in a densely wooded area, and was attacked from the west by the Reconnaissance Regiment (recce) and Paratroopers (parabats) of the SADF (South African Forces), while 101 Battalion of the SWATF (South West African Forces) covered the base from north, east and south, the direction PLAN forces were expected to flee.

From the on-set of the Operation it became clear from the start that SWAPO/PLAN had been expecting such an attack as they were in well prepared defensive positions and supported by a Cuban Tank and Artillery element with a FAPLA Motorised Infantry Unit in support.

During the extremely heavy fighting that continued throughout the day, about 7 hours in total, a 101 Battalion Casspir was knocked out by a RPG-7 anti-tank rocket and burnt out. The Battle Group suffered 15 casualties with approximately 67 wounded before contact was finally broken off at nightfall.

The base was not successfully taken by the SADF forces, who withdrew when PLAN reinforcements were understood to be on their way.

The South African forces are said to have incurred 12 killed and 47 wounded (while other sources say it was as high as 19 killed and 64 wounded, but this is yet to be substantiated). On the SWAPO side, the casualties were said to be very high, with at least 150 PLAN soldiers killed (however, again there is controversy here as a source within PLAN command maintains that this figure posted on Wikipedia is inflated somewhat, however an actual figure from PLAN is still not forthcoming).

All the SADF dead and wounded were casevaced to AFB Ondangwa during the night of October 31/1 Nov 1987. The last Puma helicopter departed at about 03h30 the following morning and ferried the remaining dead and lightly wounded. The 101 Battalion casualties were taken directly to their Unit and not to AFB Ondangwa.

The featured image is a SADF Buffel Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) captured by SWAPO/PLAN combatants during Ops Firewood.  To put this ‘capture’ into perspective only four Buffel APC’s were captured fully intact in different battles during the entire period of the Border War.   Before we stand up and claim a great military prize, lets take perspective, the Buffel was a personnel carrier, nothing more, there were over a thousand of them deployed during the entire period of the war.

The picture was taken between September 1987 and March 1988 by Col K.A. Satenov, the Soviet military advisor to the 1st and 20th PLAN Brigade commanders (seen in the picture on the left). The Buffel APC captured belonged to 2 Reconnaissance, it was lost fully intact in that battle, three 101 Battalion Casspirs were also lost.

In the aftermath, Honoris Crux (South Africa’s highest bravery decoration) decorations were awarded to five 101 Battalion members for gallantry in action.

So, was it a demonstration of superior PLAN fighting prowess over that of the SADF?  Judging by the death toll to PLAN versus that of the SADF/SWATF the simple answer is – no.  Was it a PLAN victory, the answer is yes (by many accounts one of only a handful). Was it a ‘tactical’ defeat for the SADF in not meeting its objective? The answer is – ‘yes’.  Did it affect the overall military dominance of the SADF on the South West African (Namibian) Border and change any thinking or modus operandi behind the large scale (and small scale) operations into Angola? The answer is ‘no’ – not really, learnings were however taken on over-confidence in using special and elite forces for full front armour assaults, a role not specific to their brand of battle order.  Was it a ‘great decisive battle’ on African soil?  The answer is ‘no’. It was part of a broader campaign, to the SADF commanders it qualified a tactical set-back, nothing more – part and parcel of waging war.

As such the SADF sought no reason to highlight it as a ‘devastating loss’, it remains relatively unknown to many ex-SADF personnel (especially those not involved in Operations into Angola and those not in elite forces circles) as it would have affected morale, and for the wrong reasons entirely.

It is however remembered by veterans of the SADF special forces and elite forces, so too the PLAN combatants, and if you asked either of them for the ‘truth’ of the battle, they would both agree that the real ‘truth’ is to be found in their dead, for only they who have seen the end of war.

The Battle Group casualties who we remember as South Africans were:


82513110BG Rifleman Hughes Norbert De Rose. He was 21.
82437369BG Rifleman Wayne Valentine Ewels. He was 21.
81033292BG Lance Corporal Raymond Mark Light. He was 21.
83219139BG Corporal Nico Smith Olivier. He was 19.
83247502BG Rifleman Dirk Willem van Rooyen. He was 20.
83271031BG Rifleman Jean Marc Schuurman. Critically wounded and evacuated from the battlefield to AFB Ondangwa where he underwent emergency surgery. He was evacuated back to the RSA the following day on 1 November 1987 but he succumbed to his wounds before the aircraft landed in Pretoria. He was 20.


83561928BG 2/Lieutenant Dylan Chevalier Cobbalt. He was 20.


76330893PE Captain Andries Hercules Du Bruyn Rademeyer. He was 27.
83587345BG 2/Lieutenant Deon Botes. He was 20.
84533793BG Sapper Erasmus Albertus Steyn. He was 19.
Rifleman W. Abraham
Rifleman P. Epafu
Rifleman V.Petrus
Rifleman T. Sheepo
Rifleman M. Uusshona

NOTE from the custodians recording SADF losses during the Border War.  “The Roll of Honour for this engagement has been debated at length. To date, not one individual has supplied any official proof to substantiate their claims or come forward with the names of the four individuals that are supposedly missing from this Roll. Until such time as this happens, we continue to pay homage to these 15 Brothers and accept this list as the official Ops Firewood Roll of Honour”. Their names and Sacrifice have not been forgotten.

Sources that point to the ’19’ dead maintain that 4 members of 101 Battalion are unaccounted for.

Colonel Satenov wrote a book called “Army is my Destiny” and currently lives in Kazakhstan (the former Soviet Republic) – this picture is also in his book.

Written and Researched by Peter Dickens

Photo, thanks and caption courtesy and copyright to Igor Ignatovich who was also a Soviet military advisor to SWAPO.  Reference wikipedia, Igor Igantovich, Maj. Du Toit’s daily honour roll, SADF veteran on-line forums.