South African Border Wars

Much has been written about the South African Border war which is also known as the Namibian War of Independence. While the fighting was ostensibly about Namibia, most of the significant battles were fought inside Namibia’s northern neighbour, Angola.

South Africa’s 23 year border war has been almost forgotten as the Cold War ebbed away and bygones were swept under the political carpet. South African politicians, particularly the ANC and the National Party, decided during negotiations to end years of conflict that the Truth and Reconciliation commission would focus on the internal struggle inside South Africa.

For most conscripts in the South African Defence Force, the SADF, they completed matric and then were drafted into the military. For SWAPO or UNITA or the MPLA army FAPLA it was a similar experience but defined largely by a political awakening and usually linked to information spread through villages and in towns.

This was a young person’s war which most wars are – after all the most disposable members of society are its young men. Nor was it simply a war between white and black. IT was more a conflict on the ground between red and green. Communism and Capitalism.

The other reality was despite being a low-key war, it was high intensity and at times featured by unconventional warfare as well as conventional. At times SADF soldiers would be on foot, walking patrols or SWAPO on foot, launching attacks across the border.

But there were motorised heavy vehicles, tanks, artillery, air bombardments and mechanised units rolling into attack each other.

For some that was a nightmare, for others, freedom. At times youngsters from the suburbs of Pretoria or Durban were fighting experienced soldiers from Russia and Cuba. For veterans the territory would come to be known as “Nam” as the experience replicated the American experience in Vietnam to some extent.

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Episode 29 – Two parachute battalions begin training in earnest for Operation “Wedding” aka Reindeer but there’s a hitch

This is episode 29 and we’re covering the period up to the start of Operation Reindeer which was to take place in early May 1978.

First the planning phases – of which there were many.

By early that year intelligence had convincingly proven that there were a number of SWAPO bases that were critical to the organisation’s operations in southern Angola and these had to be attacked. As you heard last episode, the main base was at Cassinga 250 kilometers north of the cutline – the South West African border.

There were signs that SWAPO was increasing its attacks on the farm areas around Ovamboland and the SADF was determined to stop these. SWAPO’s forward operational bases were filling up and heavy support weapons were being moved south. The commercial farming areas were likely to be subjected to a flood of incursions, particularly since these were also timed to coincide with the height of the rainy season.
Meanwhile, a heavy blanket of secrecy enveloped the planning for the upcoming attack on southern Angola. One of the most important characters of the upcoming assault was 32 Battalion commander Colonel Jan Breytenbach. He had passed through Cassinga on the way north during Operation Savannah three years before and what’s more, was a paratrooper with experience in Biafra in Nigeria. He’d also launched One Reconnaisance commando, the Reccies, which were an SAS type organisation.

Episode 28 – Operation Reindeer gets the green light after SAAF Buccaneers discover Cassinga camp

This is episode 28 dealing with events in early 1978 – mainly operation Reindeer and the attack on Cassinga. As with Savannah, I’m going to spend some time and a few episodes drilling down into Ops Reindeer because it has left a legacy of recrimination and bitterness particularly between SWAPO and former SADF commanders.

While most combatants have allowed by-gones to be bygones, the attack on Cassinga now forms one of the cornerstones of SWAPOs propaganda of this war while Angolan forces are more forgiving and as you hear the details, you’ll understand why.

In the wake of Operation Savannah border incursions and unrest escalated in northern Ovamboland. SWAPO was now crossing into northern SWA in small, lightly armed sections or groups. Every now and again, a larger group would cross as we heard last episode where more than 80 insurgents fought running battles with SADF platoons to and fro across the cutline.

South African political leadership believed the increased activity in early 1978 was directly linked to the effort by the Big Five western countries – the US, UK, France, West Germany and Canada to negotiate a settlement regarding SWA. While the negotiations stalled over two main issues – the timing of the SADF troop withdrawal and ownership of SWA main port, Walvis Bay – there was still hope.
The main target however remained Cassinga and this was code-named Moscow. It was 250 kilometers inside Angola and there were significant swathes of bush and Miombo forest between it and the cutline. IT was a sprawling base, large by the standards of Angola, and protected with an intricate trench and bunker system. There were heavy machine gun positions along with 82mm mortars, B10s and possibly anti-aircraft guns.

Episode 27 - A prelude to Operation Reindeer and the SADF airborne attack on Cassinga

This is episode 27 and we’re focusing on the end of 1977 through to early 1978. Later that year Operation Reindeer would once again shake southern African political leadership and cause more ripples in the global pond – and also leave a legacy which SWAPO continues to commemorate to this day.

Just as an aside – this week I had a chance to discuss various tactics and matters with General Roland de Vries who is one of the most important military tacticians of the SADF. He was instrumental in setting up 61 Mechanised Battalion Group which first saw action during Operation Reindeer. So through the next few episodes we’ll hear his first-hand account of various action and his innovative leadership concepts.

At times I will include the voices of those who fought on both sides which I’m sure you’ll find informative. Remember this is not a series that seeks to glorify war – it seeks to inform and educate those who have no idea what significant events and issues are at the heart of our recent past and to honour those who are no longer with us.

Because, as we know, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it and no-where is the more apparent than in Southern Africa.

Episode 26 – Jannie Geldenhuys takes charge of SWA Command

This is episode 26 and we’re covering events in 1977. The incursions into Ovamboland increased suddenly in early 1977 and the SADF was also concerned about reports that the four frontline states of Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Angola had agreed to support the new wave of insurgency. From early December 1976 SWAPOs armed wing PLAN had set its sights on traditional leaders, literally, who were mostly conservative and well disposed towards the South African administration.

To SWAPO, they were sell-outs and had to be eradicated.

Then in February 1977, the Caprivi experienced its first incident in two years when a PLAN group opened fire on a South African patrol base near the borders with Angola and Zambia.

Three SADF troops were wounded and twelve insurgents were killed in follow up operations before they had time to cross over into Zambia. At the same time, the SADF’s communication operations scheme or hearts and minds campaign, got off the ground.
79 selected national servicemen were withdrawn from other tasks and assigned to teaching duties in black schools in the border area starting on the 22nd March.

Just over a week later, on the 31st March, PW Botha announced in Parliament that during the two years since April 1975 a total of 231 insurgents had been killed in Ovamboland, Kavango and the eastern Caprivi. ON the South African side, 33 men had died while Swapo had also killed 53 locals – many were traditional leaders or their family members.

Episode 25 – The Reccies and 32 Battalion continue the war inside Angola and the Soweto Uprising shocks the Nationalist

This is episode 25 and we’re focusing on the second half of 1976.

Last episode we heard about the Cold War machinations which had led to Cuba and Russian coming to the assistance of the MPLA in Angola. We also heard about the deployment of black troops inside the SADF for the first time and how South Africa was rearming itself as its defence equipment was out of date.

32 Battalion had been deployed to the cutline at the border and was highly active, as were SWAPO’s PLAN insurgents. Meanwhile the diplomatic storm that had broken over South Africa’s invasion of Angola continued to rage with the OAU breaking its own membership rules to accept the MPLA in as the official and yet unelected government of Angola.

ON the security front South Africa was in a terrible situation. In June 1976 the Soweto Uprising shook the Pretoria government with both its ferocity and its unique character. For the first time black youth living in the township to the south west of Johannesburg decided enough was enough and went on the rampage in what was an historic event as they rose up against the apartheid government.
Watching all of this was the International Community which was to increase sanctions on Pretoria shortly. While a full arms embargo had still not been enforced -that was only to follow in 1977, Pretoria had effectively entered pariah status already and most nations were already loathe to sell weapons of any sort to security forces who were being photographed shooting teenagers in the streets.

After Operation Savannah the government forbade the SADF to cross the border into Angola as it tried to reset relations with neutral African countries – most of whom had been shocked by the extent of the SADF’s invasion – all the way to the edge of the capital Luanda.

That frightened Zambia for example which was tinkering with support for the ANC and other liberation movements.

Episode 24 – The Angolan Army re-organises, Moscow refocuses on Africa and Mirages arrive in Ondangwa

This is episode 24 and we’ll hear how Swapo insurgency into Ovamboland began increasing rapidly after the end of Operation Savannah in early 1976.

The Angolan war was just getting going and its future would be determined to a large extent by Cold War politics. Despite strong competition, the Soviet Union managed to reassert it’s power and its decision to intervene drastically in Angola was motivated by the perception that it had lost influence in the Third World.

They wanted to show support for liberation movements in Africa and Angola was an opportunity which they exploited to the full. By the start of 1976 the USSR actually had relatively few ties remaining in Africa. Moscow had suffered setbacks in Ghana, Mali, Zaire and the Sudan while relations with Egypt were also in decline.

The Chinese meanwhile had made great strides in East Africa, particularly in Zambia and Tanzania and Beijing was challenging Moscow openly – worse the Chinese and the Americans had colluded in their joint covert support of the FNLA.
In May 1976 and twenty three years after the end of the Korean war, 2 Squadron was called on to fly their first operational mission of the border war. Intelligence reports on Angolan defence deployments were received at Grootfontein. Commander colonel Dan Zeeman was given authority for three cross-border missions and number 2 Squadron was given the task of carrying out this attack.

The reason was intelligence reports were starting to indicate that the Russians had installed SA-2 and SA-3 missile launchers in southern Angola.

On the 14th May 1976 commandant Ollie Holmes led a formation of four Mirage IIIs on the ferry flight from Waterkloof air force base in Pretoria to Ondangwa via a refuelling stop at Grootfontein.

Episode 23 – The SADF re-equips after Savannah and the Ratel is born

This is episode 23 and we’re dealing with the fallout from Operation Savannah which began in October 1975 and ended in March 1976.

What started as the deepest and fastest invasion of any country by a mobile army since World War Two turned into a strategic blunder for the South Africans. The South African Defence Force battle groups had fought well and the opportunity had presented itself early in the engagement for the chance to change Angola’s history.

A combination of diplomatic and military setbacks through December 1975 and into January 1976 altered that picture.
Operation Savannah had mixed consequences for the SADF. The main issue was equipment that was dated – the officer corps was also still trying to wrench itself free from the decades of neglect that had followed World War II.
And that big brother and the first major breakthrough in terms of equipment was the design of a radically new armoured car – the Ratel IFV. Three years after the Ratel’s first prototype rolled off the test facility, the Minister of Defence reported in parliament that the vehicle was ready for production.

I fought alongside Ratels in Angola and can attest to their incredible firepower, speed and manoevrability over an African landscape. They appear to float over rough terrain traveling at up to 80 kilometers per hour smoothly. Watching them is a thrill and facing them – not so much so. It’s only major weakness was the fact that it did not have a stabilised gun and had to stop to fire gave up much of its mobility.

Episode 22 – The SADF Day of Disaster as Operation Savannah winds down

This is episode 22 and we’re looking at the end of Operation Savannah which was winding down by early January 1976.
We have dealt with various Battle Groups setup by the South Africans as they sought to secure southern Angola – including Foxbat and last week, Orange which had experienced a major battle south of Quibala.
A fourth battle group called X-Ray led by Commandant SWJ Kotze had been formed in early December 1975 and was tasked with securing the important Benguela railway line. Unita leader Jonas Savimbi had asked SADF commanders to help him control this line which was crucial in order to deliver Congo commodities to the coastal ports. IF he controlled the railway then the MPLA in Luanda would find their income severely curtailed and would also be a propaganda coup.
X-Ray was comprised of a Unita company along with an armoured car group and an artillery section and faced Fapla at a battle at Luso on the 9th December.
The MPLA armed wing lost over 250 men to the South Africans at Luso, along with a substantial amount of equipment including heavy weapons which were duly handed over to Unita after three days of fighting.
The OAU postponed its emergency meeting once more – to the 18th January. But between Christmas and mid-January there would be a few more engagements and something that the SADF HQ called the Day of Disaster was imminent.
That was the 4th January 1976 SADF anti-aircraft gunners stationed in central Angola near Mussende spotted what they thought was an enemy helicopter.
So far their attempts at shooting down enemy aircraft had failed but this time they would succeed. The only problem was it was a SA Air Force Aérospatiale SA 330C Puma Helicoptern from 19 Squadron that was flying Staff Officers between Mussende & Carriango.

Episode 21 – The Battle for Bridge 14 part II and Battle Group Orange face T34s at the Pombuig River

This is episode 21 – the Battle for Bridge 14 Part II – and the trials and tribulations of a new outfit called Battle Group Orange.
When we left off last episode Commandant Kruys’ men of Foxbat had succeeded in driving Fapla and their Cuban allies back from the important Bridge over the Nhia river south of Catofe. What happened now was a debate about whether or not the South African’s should follow up their success – with Kruys preferring to wait.

In the action which took place between the 9th and 12th December more than 400 Fapla and Cubans had died – four South Africans had been killed while dozens more were wounded along with Unita which had also lost dozens in the fighting.

The exact number of casualties was disputed by the MPLA and the SADF but its clear from subsequent evidence and reports by journalists that the forces opposing the SADF had been defeated in what was an important strategic engagement. But it also showed the SADF that much of their equipment was out of date and something needed to be done.

The battle for this bridge and the region 250 kilometers south east of Luanda was not yet over.
While all of this was good news, there was not such great news from a newly formed Battle Group called Orange.

It was led by Commandant APR Carstens and made up of a Unita infantry battalion along with a South African infantry company, an armoured car squadron and an artillery section. It’s task was to watch over the northern marches of Unita territory by sweeping around to the West and linking up with Task Force Zulu around Quibala. Orange drove into one problem after another – at first the fact that the MPLA had destroyed all bridges on the road north to the capital.

Episode 20 – The Battle at Bridge 14 part I

This is episode 20, the Battle at Bridge 14. Operation Savannah was supposed to be winding down but two of the most important clashes were to take place at the tail end of this op.

I explained last week how the Bridge over the Nhia River near the town of Catofe was seen by both the MPLA and the SADF as a key position.

It lay 250 kilometers away on the main road from Luanda to the capital’s South East. It lay was the main route south heading towards the crucial Benguela Railway where minerals from Katanga province of neighbouring Congo – or Zaire as it was now called – could be transported to the Atlantic Ports of Lobito and Benguela.
So far during this Operation the SADF had defeated the MPLA’s armed wing Fapla, overrunning dozens of towns and villages and taken Lobito and Benguela – but had suffered its first big defeat at the Battle of Ebo only a few days before Bridge 14.

So we left off last episode with the SADF south of the Nhia River and the engineers planning to rebuild Bridge 14 using wood from a nearby forest. We also heard how a special forces unit had been dropped north west of the river in an attempt at seizing the high ground but this unit was caught in an ambush and one of the members killed.
Meanwhile, Comandante Ochoa who was officer commanding the Cubans and Fapla had similar goals to Colonel Swart. The Angolan’s fighting each other on both sides – Unita and the FNLA with the South Africans and Fapla, the MPLA’s armed wing with the Cubans were all highly trained.

Episode 19 – The SADF conducts an off-the-record briefing and the start of the struggle to control Bridge 14

This is episode 19 and we’re dealing with the fallout after the Battle of Ebo, and the preamble to the next battle for Bridge 14.

As the battle of Ebo ended, terrible news emerged about the shooting down of one of the crucial spotter planes. Remember last episode I mentioned Captain Williamson who helped locate the missing 5 South Africans mechanised troops who’d managed to survive their Eland’s being knocked out – then trying to walk back to Cela.

Captain Williamson’s Cessna 185 was shot hit by ground fire on the 25th November leading to the loss of all three on board including Lieutenant Thompson and Captain Taljaard close to Ebo a few days after the battle ended.

Ebo was the first defeat for the SADF inside Angola and drove home three major weaknesses which defence HQ realised had to be fixed and quickly.

First was a lack of highly mobile heavy artillery and air cover. Ebo had shown that a well-setup Fapla position with Cuban and Russian technical assistance could not be easily overcome.

As we’re going to hear, re-equipping the SADF would be difficult because South Africa was already facing military and other sanctions because of apartheid – and because they refused to allow free elections in South West Africa.

Second was intelligence. The information was patchy and the SADF began to actively recruit more Portuguese army refugees who crossed the border from Angola.

The third weakness was in how the citizen force was being deployed. The draft system at this time was a lottery which meant that soldiers spent a year in the army and were then rotated back to civvy street.
As we head to towards the end of Operation Savannah there was to be one more major battle inside Angola and it involved something called Bridge 14 which took place on the 9th December 1975.

Episode 18 – The Battle of Ebo - the first major defeat for the SADF during Operation Savannah

This is episode 18 and folks back home were in for a bit of a shock. The invasion of Angola by the SADF during Operation Savannah had been an exercise in support of both Unita and the FNLA – but the government had said that the South Africans were merely technical support.

The reality was hundreds of SADF troops were directly involved in the fighting – and had fought all the way to south of the capital Luanda. This was almost a thousand kilometers inside Angola. As we heard last episode, by the end of November a group of liaison officers and artillery had been evacuated by ship from Ambrizette north of the FNLA headquarters at Ambriz.

The Nationalist party government had been relying on the MPLA backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union fighting a war on two fronts – both in the north and the south. But the collapse of the FNLA in the north which Pretoria still had not fully grasped was going to throw this strategy into some chaos. The withdrawal of the CIA and a Congress decision coming in December which would ban further military support put paid to the overall grand strategy.

And the grand strategy was to weaken the MPLA until they were forced to the negotiation table – thereby protecting South West Africa which was the main reason why the SADF went into Angola in the first place.
Battle Group Alpha was to arrive at Ebo at 09h00 on the morning of Sunday 23rd November for a coming fight that was to be a real test of character for the South Africans.

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