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.
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.
Episode 17 – The SAS Steyn’s role in the remarkable evacuation from the beach at Ambrizette
This is episode 17 and we’re approaching the end of Operation Savannah which had started out so well but was rapidly turning into a strategic nightmare for the South Africans.
One of the fastest mechanised invasions since World War Two had resulted in the SADF now deep into Angola – and in the case of Brigadier Roos who was a liaison officer based in Ambriz with the FNLA – he was cut off on the coast to the north of the capital Luanda.
IT was mid-November 1975 and the MPLA and Cubans were starting to move determined to rid the country of the FNLA. Meanwhile to the south, Unita was holding onto its main gains which now extended from the South West African border to the main railway linking the coastal ports of Benguela and Lobito – and the resource rich Katanga region of neighbouring Zaire.
The political strategy was about to come under intense pressure – although the US, France Unita and the FNLA had all requested the South Africans to remain inside Angola and support Jonas Savimbi.
Remember the Holden Roberto had decided to attack the capital with SADF support – an attack that ended in dismal failure along Luanda’s Death Road.
Brigadier Roos who was the SADF Liaison officer based in Ambriz now faced possible capture – along with South Africa’s three 5.5inch guns they’d flown into northern Angola to assist the FNLA in their hapless assault on Luanda on 10th November. IT was decided that the an anti-submarine frigate SAS Steyn would steam to Northern Angola to extract the SADF. This was not going to be easy with Russian and Cuban ships and planes on the lookout...