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:

“D” COMPANY, 1 PARACHUTE BATTALION

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.

5 RECONNAISSANCE REGIMENT

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

101 BATTALION ROMEO MIKE

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.

My recollection of events

By Arthur Douglas Piercy

Honouring another true South African hero – this is SAAF pilot Arthur Douglas Piercy’s crashed Mirage, here is his story:

This is my recollection of events leading up to the accident.

“It was approximately 1500B (local) on 27 September 1987 when all hell broke loose. There had been numerous call-outs previously which proved to be nothing at all, so when the hot line started ringing there was very little reaction. However this time the call wasn’t to go on cockpit standby like before, but rather to scramble immediately.

61_6

The letter home I was writing went flying as I scrambled to get into the cockpit. In a matter of minutes we were screaming down the runway. I was lucky I was number two in the formation as it was about 45 deg C outside and the take-off was hair raising. How numbers three, four, five and six got airborne I don’t know.

19679125_1987189094843412_4188581052706242754_oAfter take-off we remained low level and set heading for the combat zone. It was our intentions to remain low level for as long as possible to avoid being detected by the Angolan radar’s.

The order came to pitch about 10 minutes after take-off and up we soared like homesick angels. We leveled of at about 30 000′ and the mission controller sounded like a horse racing commentator with all the instructions he was giving us to intercept the targets. Next came the order to jettison the drop tanks. This command is a little strange for me, because one never throws the tanks away in training so only when I saw a 1 200 liter tank falling away from the lead aircraft did I know this was no training sortie. It was serious. The adrenaline was flowing.

The next thing I saw was a Mig 23 flying through the formation about 300′ below us. My first reaction was WOW what a great looking aircraft. This was the first time I had seen one in the flesh so to speak. When he started turning only then did I see the second Mig. I called the engagement and started turning. I was doing Mach 1.3 (about 1600 km per hour) and he was going like hell so the turn was so wide I almost lost sight of him.

mig23.16

This where I get a little frustrated. For 10 years I have trained for this day and the majority of the fight I cannot recall. WHY! Anyway the next thing I remember is this Mig coming head on at me from about my one, two o’clock position. Still turning towards him I remember flicking the trigger safety over to the cannon position. If he was going to fly through my sights I was going to squeeze off a few rounds. Unfortunately for me he got off the first shot.

There was a bright orange flash from his left wing and then this incredibly fast telephone pole came hurtling towards me trailing a solid white smoke trail. What more is that it was cork screwing so I was never sure where it was going.

In all our training we were taught to break towards the missile. This could or should create a tracking problem for the missile and cause it to possibly overshoot.

But faced with reality I found it took a lot of willpower to fly towards something I knew was trying to kill me. However, I kept breaking towards it and I watched it corkscrew over my right wing and disappear behind me. I thought it had missed until I I heard a dull thud and felt a light bump on the aircraft. I immediately scanned all the gauges but there was not indication of any damage. When I looked up again the Mig flew over the canopy and disappeared behind me as well.

I immediate informed the leader that I thought I might have been hit and his reaction was: “OK let’s go home.” I did not need a second invitation and I rolled the aircraft onto its back and headed for the ground.

With hindsight it appeared that the whole fight whole fight lasted no more than 60 seconds from the time we pitched until I got the ‘go home’ command.

This is perhaps where I got a fright for the first time. I had not retarded the throttle any and I was rushing at the ground in a vertical dive. When I pulled the stick into my stomach to recover from the dive all that initially happen was the aircraft changed attitude but not direction. The momentum was so great the aircraft carried on descending. Just when I thought that is the end of me, the aircraft bottomed out just above the trees.

With all this rolling and diving I was separated from my leader and had no idea where he could be. Just then I started getting a radar warning audio in my helmet from my 6 o’clock (from behind). Some radar was looking at me. Was it the anti aircraft batteries or was it the Mig? I radioed to the boss that I thought someone was behind me. His reaction was to tell me get as low as I can, as fast as I can and not to turn to look behind me.

My first reaction was – I was so low I was raising a dust cloud like those crazy American Road Runner cartoons. The leader said he could set any dust trails so I eased the aircraft lower. The radio alt read 50′ and the speed approximate 730-740 knots.

At this stage I was beginning to think that I’d over-reacted and that I might not have been hit. Had I got out of the fight too early? The aircraft was performing as if there was nothing wrong with it. No vibrations and no handling difficulties. Oh well tomorrow I’ll be back I thought.

19667589_1987189318176723_754693072696350782_oIt was now about five minutes later and half-way home when the first warning light flashed on. EP pump failure. Instinct must have taken over because I thought my first reaction was to call the boss and tell him I have a failure. He pulled out his emergency check list, and started reading the failure procedures for me. All the necessary switches had be set. I don’t remember doing them.

While he was reading the EP pump failure I got the second failure, a right hand fuel pump failure. This is not too serious under normal operating conditions as the engine can gravity feed. While the boss was reading the fuel pump failure procedure and I was confirming that they were done the following light on the warning panel appeared. A HYD 2 system failure.

This caused a little concern initially as the aircraft’s main systems use hydraulic fluid. Undercarriage, flaps, controls, airbrakes and of course wheel brakes. After a quick and careful analysis of the situation I relaxed a little. The HYD 2 system is basically a standby system for the main HYD 1 system. All I had really lost with the HYD 2 failure was the nose-wheel steering. It could have been worse.

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Artwork of the incident by Ryno Cilliers

By now we were far enough away from the combat zone and the dangers associated with it, so I started to climb to try and conserve fuel.

The next thing that happened is that I was getting an audio warning but no visual warning when I looked at the panel. The hours of simulator training came into action – a pending OIL failure. This concerned me a little more than the rest of them. There are two critical components that use oil. The throttle and the nozzle flaps on the engine.

Flying the aircraft on the emergency throttle (electrically operated) is not easy. The throttle is very slow and unresponsive.

At this time the leader pulled in next to me to inspect for any damage. He reported fuel leaking out the aircraft and the drag chute was missing. As he said that the 500 liter warning light came on. The fuel gauges still read 1700 liters so now which one is right. A little more pressure was applied to little old me.

19621295_1987189214843400_4368832538098416481_oLanding a perfectly serviceable aircraft on a 7500′ runway requires some work. I was going to have to do it on emergency throttle and without a drag chute – a task I felt I could handle.

I planned to land the aircraft short on a new stretch of runway that was being constructed. This would give me an additional 500′ to play with on the landing roll. I got her down at the threshold but when I applied the brakes the only thing that happened was the expression on my face changed. I pulled the nose higher so that there would be some form of aerodynamic braking but this did not help. About a 1500′ from the end of the runway I applied the emergency hand brake with little effect. The arrester bed or sand pit at the end of the runway was my next hope of stopping this machine.

The aircraft went through the arrester bed like a hot knife through butter. No braking effect whatsoever. The next ‘obstacle’ was the security fence.

Where does ones sense of humor come from in at a time like this? I was about to go AWOL (absent without leave) with a multimillion rand aircraft. The board of enquiry are probably going to ask me who authorized this illegal departure from the security area. At the same time I was scared I was going to drown in the river just beyond the fence. My seat has a land survival pack in it and not an inflatable dingy!!

When I went through the fence I remember putting my hands in front of my face. It was at this precise moment that there was a loud bang. I remember smelling cordite or gunpowder and then everything went black. I felt the rush of wind over my face and the feeling of silk on my cheek. With hindsight I realized that when the ejection seat went off, my helmet must have come off as well and the silk I felt on the cheek was the ejection seat’s stabilizing parachute and not my personal parachute.

19780759_1987189404843381_7792459567201945123_oWhen I regained my senses I was lying in the sand on my right hand side. The first thing I attempted to do was to roll onto my back and when I pushed on the sand with my left arm there was this incredible piercing pain in my arm. The left arm was broken just above the elbow. I then looked down at my legs to see why they had not moved and I could not feel them at all. I realized that the ejection seat was still strapped to my back and thought that this might have something to do with the lack of movement in my legs. I had no idea that the neck was dislocated.

I then started looking around and the first thing I saw was that I was lying directly in front of my aircraft. Here was a F1 Mirage pointing straight at me. The problem wasn’t that the aircraft was pointing at me but rather that there was a fire just behind the left air intake. I know there is a fuel tank there but even worse was the fact that the ammo bins (with over a hundred rounds of 30mm ammunition) was just under the fire. If those rounds started going off I was in the line of fire.

When the fire brigade arrived on the scene they naturally came to my aid first. My immediate advice to them was that no one touches me until a doctor pitches up and that they immediately tend to the fire on the aircraft. There is no way that I want to be shot at by my own aircraft.

When the doctors arrived with the ambulance my first concern was they treat my arm for pain, then they can worry about the rest. Even after 2 morphine injections there was still not relief from the pain. I was later told that the adrenaline in the body was so high that the morphine had no effect.

Just before they pushed me into the back of the ambulance I passed out only to wake up in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria 10 days later.

It was another seven months before I left the hospital with a C6, C7 fracture of the neck and permanently confined to using a wheelchair”.

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Posted on behalf of Arthur Douglas Piercy, image copyrights – Arthur Douglas Piercy.  Artwork image copyright Ryno Cilliers

 

‘Don’t forget I’m up here TODAY for your tomorrow’

Sometimes someone sends you something priceless. This is a letter written in the Area of Operations in 1982, during the SWA/Angola Border War. It is written by Angelo Angelides to his son, Ryan who was just 3 years old at the time.

In it he expresses his reasons for fighting in a manner only a small 3 year old can try to understand. It also shows the deep sense of anguish and fore longing caused by conscripts called up to duty away from their families.

9 Nov 1982

Dear Ryan

Thanks for your letter son with all squighs and circles I got the message.  You love me. Well son the same goes for you I love and miss you and it is not long now before I am home again.

Don’t forget that I am up here today for your tomorrow. 

Well your Mom say’s you are naughty.  Don’t worry I am not cross with you because I love you.  Don’t cry for your Dad because I am home soon.

Lots of Love

Angelo wrote it whilst he was a member of the Transvaal Scottish and off fighting in Angola at the time.

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Angelo Angelides (left with beard) and his brother Basil, serving with him at the same time – pictured 1978

My deepest thanks to Ryan Angelides for sharing this priceless memory.

 

Cassinga! … truths and myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Military base or Refugee Camp?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Errors in Planning

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

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

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

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

The Devastating Opening Bombing Run

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

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SAAF Canberra bomb run on Cassinga

The Shambolic Drop

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

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

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

Regrouping and on the Attack

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civilians in the Trenches

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

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

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

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

The extraction 

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

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

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

The Cuban Counter Attack

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

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Mirage III destroying a vehicle in the Cuban column

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

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

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

The destruction of the Cuban column 

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

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

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

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

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

Aftermath

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

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

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

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

The Mass Grave Propaganda Campaign  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today

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

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

SADF Honour Roll

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

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

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Rifleman Edward James Backhouse as he came home


Colour SADF photographs of the battle, and photo of Edward Backhouse  –  credit and copyright to Mike McWilliams, with his kind permission.  Other images of the battle including Mike under his canopy copyright Des Steenkamp.

Source Wikipedia, South African History on-line,  On-Line veterans SADF forums and witness accounts.  Truth and Reconciliation commission reports.  Remember Cassinga by Christian A Williams.