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 37 – A Cuban counter-attack causes chaos at the Cassinga LZ and Pretoria’s political strategy backfires

This is episode 37 and we’re dealing with a Cuban counter-attack targeting the South African paratroopers still being airlifted out of Cassinga.

It was the afternoon of 4th May 1978 and more than half the paratroopers had still not been evacuated from the landing Zone to the east of the shattered town.

Jan Breytenbach had requested urgent close air support and had also ordered the helicopters at Whisky Three which was the Helicopter Administration area 35km east of Cassinga to return and extract his trapped paratroopers.

But the Cuban armour was almost on top of them and there was no sign of any aircraft.

Breytenbach withdraw into the surrounding bush and try to get to an emergency LZ setup as you heard last episode. In the meantime some eyewitnesses claim that General Viljoen, concerned now about the very real possibility of being captured, removed his badges of rank and his beret and hid them under a stone. He’d flown in on one of the first evacuation choppers and decided to remain very much against Defence Force operating procedure. The commanding officer of the entire Army should not place himself directly in harms way – even if he was trying to show that he was a courageous as the rest.
And yet the MPLA and SWAPO had actually won a major victory at Cassinga. Pretoria’s political strategy had failed miserably with SWAPO about to gain a vast amount of credibility.
It so happened that the World Conference for the Eradication of Racism and Racial Descrimination was about to take place in Basle, Switzerland between 18 and 21st May.
SWAPO Secretary for Information and Publicity Peter Katjavivi was a speaker there and he denied the presence of any military installations or PLAN combatants at Cassinga saying it was a refugee camp.

Episode 36 – Paratroopers in Cassinga face off against T34s as the Cubans infiltrate the battle zone

This is episode 36 and we’re at the tail end of Operation Reindeer – and we kick off this episode by viewing the SADF attack on Cassinga alongside Captain Joseph Kobo of the ANCs armed wing, Mkhonto we sizwe – the spear of the nation.

On May 4th 1978 - the day of the airborne assault on Cassinga 250 kilometers into Angola, Captain Kobo was travelling back to the town having picked up provisions and was part of a convoy of vehicles.

It was Ascension day.

Kobo’s convoy was speeding towards Cassinga and he was in a confident mood. The convoy had radio’d ahead hours before and everyone was looking forward to an upcoming celebration. This wasn’t Ascencion day, it was the fall of France’s military stronghold at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam to Viet Minh General Giap in May 1954. MK along with SWAPO and Fapla were going to celebrate the French defeat – it was a symbolic victory that also had led to the American’s involvement in Vietnam.

And here in Africa, the guerrilla movements were fighting to overthrow their colonial masters so naturally they viewed the fall of Dien Bien Phu as a shining example of how to go about crushing western armies.
In Cassinga, the paratroopers were being airlifted out of the town to the HAA protected by the rearguard. The Cubans had arrived from Techemutete with their armoured personnel carriers and half a dozen T34s and as you heard last episode, were about to drive straight into a strafing and an ambush.

There were about 100 Cubans and FAPLA troops in this column from the south which was trying to break up the organised air lift out.

Unfortunately for them, they drove into Pierre Peter’s anti-tank platoon. Earlier the South African’s in this platoon had watched the first wave of paratroopers take off and were apprehensive.

Episode 35 – Cassinga finally surrenders but the Cubans in Techamutete mobilise their T34s

This is episode 35 and we swing further north to pick up the story in Cassinga.

Last episode I ended with the Battle Group Julient attacks on Chetequera to the south which was an overland assault using Ratels, Buffel troops carriers and Eland-90s. In Cassinga, the South African paratroopers had been dropped in by air and were on their way to finishing their task of overrunning SWAPOs base when they had stalled – Alpha Company was held up by an extremely motivated group of SWAPO figthters deployed at their Anti-aircraft battery which included a heavy 14.5mm gun amongst other automatic weapons.

Bravo company were busy sweeping the area which was a women’s barracks near the hospital that for some reason the paratroopers referred to as the prostitutes area. I supposed it was because they weren’t use to women soldiers.

So Snipers had pinned down Bravo company and they’d also been fired on an 82mm recoilless gun. After managing to silence both the snipers and the 82mm, Bravo Company commando Hugo Murray led his men north into Cassinga and it was apparent that the SWAPO fighters were now squeezed into the central and northern areas of the base.
So SWAPO was fighting hard – they were trapped but they were not going to go quietly. These men and women also knew about the Cubans to the south – surely if they held off long enough their cavalry would save them.

Episode 34 – The SADF begin to take casualties as they attack Chetequera where hyaenas and jackals would feast

This is episode 34 and the SADF are inside Angola – it’s the 4th May 1978 and Operation Reindeer is under way – it’s the joint attacks on Cassing and Chetequera.

As we heard last episode, both assaults are not going according to plan.

We ended episode 33 alongside Battle Group Juliet as it began to move into Chetequera, one of SWAPOs main base networks just over the cutline or border. Juliet had arrived at its attack position north of the base and first managed to bypass a thick field of Mahangu – a type of corn, then were faced with thick bush and trees as they moved southwards towards the settlement.

They had taken heavy fire so far and things were not going to improve. According to the initial plan, Major Van Zyl and his mechanised company burst past the kraal lying north east of Chetequera and headed straight for the base.

Remember van Zyl could only see 4 of his 14 Ratels the bush, grass and trees were so thick. For a moment he wondered if he should dismount his infantry who were on board the Buffel troops carriers then thought better of it. Speed was of the utmost importance now and that would mean slowing down.

As his mechanised units moved into the ramparts of the settlement, individual vehicles fell foul of the trenches and bunkers mainly because many were almost invisible they’d been camouflaged so well.
Meanwhile, further south, Commandant Joubert and his combat team had also decided to lie up after working over the bases which were below Chetequera. The initial plan was for Combat Team Serfontein to cross the Cutline east of beacon 8 and advance north for around four kilometers then attack a base called Dombondola2 in support of Joubert.

Episode 33 – SA Parabats are in Cassinga but SWAPO fights back, while Juliet raids Chetequera

This is episode 33 and we’re inside Cassinga on the 4th May 1978 with the SADF paratroopers and SWAPO who are going toe-to-toe.

Episode 32 outlined the detail of the jump – now we’re going to follow the action inside the town which was SWAPOs HQ in southern Angola. We’ll also hear about the mobilisation of the SADF mechanised battalions far to the south, just against the cutline – the border between South West Africa and Angola. They were heading for Chetequera and other bases and this force was going to face its own set of challenges.

Remember there were different groups of SADF paratroopers doing different things at Cassinga that cool morning in May. Charlie Company had settled into its assigned stopper position East of the town - but they were already 45 minutes behind schedule. The entire attack was supposed to take two hours and this was a bad sign.

Even more of an issue was the Alpha and Bravo main assault groups which had landed almost two kilometers off their assigned dropzone south west of Cassinga. This was mainly because the C130 and C160 pilots had waited a few extra seconds as they flew over the town because they couldn’t see the zones – the wind had blown dust and smoke from the Canberra and Buccaneer bombing runs over these points and confused them.
While the critical battle for this strategic position would continue, we need to shift our attention almost directly due south of Cassinga to the join the men of Battle Group Juliet.

That was the second third of a three phased attack into Angola set for May as part of Operation Reindeer – and overland assault just over the cutline.

That plan was to the advance on Chetequera and the various mechanised units began rolling out of their training bases at 22 hours 40 on May 3rd.

That’s when columns of emerged from Juliet’s training camp into a bitterly cold semi-desert night. But there were three separate combat teams involved starting from different positions.

Episode 32 – First the Canberras, Buccaneers and Mirages then the paratroopers leap into hi

This is episode 32 and we’re joining with the SADF paratroopers aboard 9 planes flying towards Cassinga for the start of Operation Reindeer.

Its just before 8am on the 4th May 1978. Three hundred and 43 parachutists from 1,2 and 3 parachute battalions are about to jump from these planes in an airborne assault on SWAPOs HQ in southern Angola.

The major punch in this operation was going to be delivered by the Canberra medium bombers and six naval type low level Buccaneer bombers. Canberra’s had been in service with the Royal Air Force for twenty years and could fly at 50 000 feet – it also had a useful range of 2 600 nautical miles.
Unfortunately for the SADF, the bombing run that was about to take place just after 08h00 hours did not achieve its aims. The Canberra’s were up first, hugging the curves of the earth and at high speed. This meant that no-one heard them coming inside Cassinga. The Camberra’s arrived almost in silence, and just short of their IP or initial point they lifted their noses and climbed to a few hundred feet spewing the Alpha bombs from their open bomb bays.

These laid a carpet of spherical devices that exploded just above head height after they bounced – two lines of Camberra’s rushed over the town from north to south and side by side but many of the devices actually ended up bouncing into the bush and exploding over no-one. As the paratroopers were going to discover, the defenders had been shaken but not broken by that first run.

Episode 31 – D-Day and Operation Reindeer begins

This is episode 31 and it’s the start of Operation Reindeer – the twin assaults on Cassinga and Chetequera in Angola on May 4th 1978.

Colonel Jan Breytenbach was the most important of these leading fighting forces on the ground at Cassinga code-named Alpha assisted by Commandant Deon Ferreira. SWAPOs code name for Cassinga was Moscow by the way so I will sometimes refer to it by that name.

Seventeen medium-transport helicopters were going to be used to airlift the paratroopers out of Cassinga after they were airdropped in – and you know by now this would be the first major airborne attack carried out by the SADF anywhere.

On May 2nd the South African government of John Vorster finally gave the go-ahead for Operation Reindeer on 2 May two days before the SADF would launch its invasion.

The date was calculated to follow a United Nations Security Council debate on South West Africa. According to government officials later, this was to avoid making things difficult for the Big Five western nations who had been tacitly supporting Pretoria at the UN.

The other target was Chetequera which was 30 kilometers from the cutline. Major Frank Bestbier was commanding the ground forces there.

Episode 30 – A four phased blueprint to attack Cassinga as Operation Reindeer is good to go for May 4th 1978

This is episode 30 and it’s the start of Operation Reindeer, one of the most important ops conducted by the SADF during the Border War.

It involved two different attacks – one by air on Cassinga and the second a ground assault by a mechanised battle group targeting Chetequera and its satellite bases further south.

Cassinga was 250 kilometers across the border – the cutline – so this was going to be tricky from the start. We heard last episode about the high risk factor and as with many airborne assaults, this one was not going to go too well for the South Africans at times – while the chaotic extraction saw T34 tanks making it all the way to a key helicopter administration Area and the final minutes were touch and go.

First Cassinga. It could be compared to the size of Oshakati at the time. There were many civilians amongst the troops and this was going to cause the SADF quite a bit of trouble as they bombed then assaulted this medium sized Angolan urban area. A large number of women were being trained as soldiers here and many were training as a family – in other words their husbands or partners and their children were also living alongside.

It’s a bit like the SADF base at Voortrekkehoogte in Pretoria. While it is a training area for different army commands, there are also schools. By the way Voortrekkehoogte was targeted by the ANC’s MK and the PAC’s Apla over the years. Civilians living openly inside a military zone often end up as collateral damage.

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.

37 episodes

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