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South African Border Wars

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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 unconventional warfare as well as conventional. SADF soldiers would often fight on foot, walking patrols, contacts would take place between these troops and SWAPO. There were many conventional battles involving motorised heavy vehicles, tanks, artillery, air bombardments and mechanised units rolling into attack each other. The combatants included Russians, American former Vietnam vets, Cubans, East Germans and Portuguese.


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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 unconventional warfare as well as conventional. SADF soldiers would often fight on foot, walking patrols, contacts would take place between these troops and SWAPO. There were many conventional battles involving motorised heavy vehicles, tanks, artillery, air bombardments and mechanised units rolling into attack each other. The combatants included Russians, American former Vietnam vets, Cubans, East Germans and Portuguese.



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Episode 113 - More details about the fierce fighting when PLAN invaded Namibia in April 1989

This is episode 113, we’re wrapping up the series with the final days of South West Africa as the country became Namibia. I’ll talk about the SADF’s departure later in this episode. First we need to go over the events in early April 1989 that almost put paid to the peace agreement. As you heard last week, SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma had ordered his military wing, PLAN to invade Namibia starting on April 1st. We’ve spent time hearing about the diplomatic fallout — now for some details about what happened on the ground. Constable Sakkie Jooste for example, group leader of Koevoets Zulu Five Juliet, who was based on high ground overlooking the Kunene River — a hotspot for SWAPO crossings west of Ruacana. There had been no reports of anything untoward overnight, but that was not surprising because the night had been dark, no moonlight. Excellent for anyone moving around and at first light Jooste’s radio crackled with the report that spoor of about 50 insurgents had been found. Jooste thought they were mistaken, and went to check the signs himself. IT was true, so he reported this to Ruacana police control. The war was supposed to be over, so he didn’t want to make himself look foolish, he didn’t want to appear jittery. Just in case, he called his men together and headed off to track the spoor about 15 km west of Ruacana. It was clear a large number of insurgents had crossed, map reference VL0873, Chevron boots, SWAPO, and some barefoot. Oshakati was contacted, General Dreyer was in command, and Inspector Nick Peens who was commander of Kaokaland police radio’d Jooste back. Mobile Air operations head Captain Keith Fryer was called in, to request a bosbok spotter plane to be despatched to Opuwo so Peens could go see for himself what was going on. He also asked Fryer to organise a few Alouette gunships. “Why should I put gunships on standby?” Asked Fryer, “There’s been no infiltration..” “But there has,” answered police comms control room sergeant Rassie Ras. Then at 08h05 another unit Zulu Hotel commanded by Constable Danie Fourie reported they’d found tracks of insurgents near the others. Most of Zulu’s team, inlcuding /yankee, Hotel, Oscar, were on their way to chase the insurgents while one of the team members radio’d back “April fool, April Foo, the whole lot of us…” He was cut short by Warrant Officer Fanna du Rand On the mountain, Koevoet commanders said a small war had broken out. SWAPO was firing downhill and missing, while the police fired back. The insurgents fled, heading towards the northern slope of the hill, and were spotted by the Captain Slade. Still the police on board didn’t open fire. What was going on? SWAPO was supposed to be moving north inside Angola, towards bases where the UN would be counting them and disarming the fighters. Instead, here they were inside Namibia, shooting at the security forces.


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Episode 112 - SWAPO's Sam Nujoma pulls a fast one and UNTAG struggles to cope

So here we are, the sound of peace settled over Ovamboland, it was the end of 1988. The South Africans were actually in a much better position than it appeared. Yes, they were losing Namibia, and were going to also lose their vital strategic port of Walvis Bay. Still, UNITA was left out of the discussion, they would continue to fight against the Angolan MPLA. In 1978 the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution SR 435/78 — and from then on Pretoria led the UN on a merry dance by increasing it’s military involvement in Angola, not decreasing. The United States joined the South Africans in calling for the Cuban withdrawal from the country to be part of any future negotiations. This had eventually led to the dramatic signing on the 22nd December 1988 of the implementation of SR 435/78 with a period of transition set down to begin on April 1st 1989. Elections would be held in Namibia by November 1989, and by mid-1990 Namibia would be independent. But from earlier, by early August 1988, the South Africans had begun a process of withdrawing its troops from southern Angola. On 30 August 1988, the last of the South African troops crossed a temporary steel bridge into SWA/Namibia watched by the world's media and the Joint Monitoring Commission, 36 hours early than the planned time. A convoy of fifty vehicles with around thousand soldiers crossed over singing battle songs. After officers of the three countries walked across the bridge, the South African sappers begun to dismantle the temporary steel bridge. There was a prickly round of discussions about the United Nations Transition Assistance Group or UNTAG. The role of the UN was reduced in early 1989 when the Security Council decided to cut the military component of UNTAG from 7500 to 4650. Originally the permanent members wanted to cut this still further, but the non-aligned movement, the Organisation of African Unity, the Namibian Council of Churches and most Nordic countries were opposed to further cuts - they were really worried about the South Africans. Hundreds of SWAPO guerrillas suddenly began streaming across the border on the 1st April 1989 in large groups of fifty or more. The flood was picked up by elements of the SWATF and police, and alerted the South Africans. Pretoria was stung into action, and shouted foul as the aggrieved party, calling for the UN to deal with what they saw as an obvious attempt by SWAPO to take advantage of their pullout. UNTAG was enjoying demonstrations and celebrations throughout Namibia, when the Administrator-General told the Special Representative that further armed SWAPO personnel had crossed the border and firefights and contacts were occurring on a broad front throughout the Ovambo area of northern Namibia. A series of similar reports came in during the first and second indicating military action and casualties on a scale not seen for many years in the Namibian conflict.


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Episode 111 - Two Scorpions in a bottle and peace after 23 years

This is episode 111, in cricket the number is known as Nelson, it’s unlucky for the batting side, and players are expected to stand on one leg as the bowler launches his ball. It’s perhaps symbolic that we get to episode 111 at precisely the moment that the South Africans agree to peace after 23 years of fighting over South West Africa. Within a few months the country will officially be known as Namibia, and soon all SADF troops will have been withdrawn. I was working as a journalist starting in 1987 and had the honour to attend the tripartite signing ceremony in Brazzaville in the Congo, an experience that was strange, weird, otherworldly. The Cubans, South Africans and Angolans signed the Accord, observed by the Americans and the Russians, afterwards everyone drank vodka and mampoer The Russians brought the Vodka, and threw away the bottle caps, the South Africans brought the Mampoer and did the same. Chester Crocker had managed the impossible, but as he told people afterwards, the Cubans and the South Africans were like two scorpions in a bottle — both sides circling each other but not prepared to strike the killer blow. More about this peace in a moment, but first the fallout from the terrible MiG-23 attack on Calueque Dam that killed 11 8SAI troops on 27th June 1988. We ended last episode hearing how the MiGs had easily overcome the South African anti-aircraft defences, and damaged the Calueque Dam wall, hitting it with six 250 kilogramme bombs. As the recriminations and finger pointing followed the blowing up of the Buffel near the dam that led to the deaths of so many young South Africans, Commandant Mike Muller of 61 Mech had a challenge. His tanks and Ratels were stuck on the north side of the Kunene River, the earth ramp that had been built up to the Dam wall to allow the tanks to cross had been destroyed. But just before midnight on Monday June 27 1988, Muller was ordered to withdraw all his forces from Angola. Commandant Jan Hougaard was also ordered to pull all his 32 Battalion units back to South West. That was a surprise. Suddenly, it was over. This 23 year war that had started in Ovamboland, ended with the announcement that a peace agreement had been signed. Sixteen days later on an island in New York harbour, South Africa, Angola and Cuba agreed on the terms of peace, with both the Cubans and the South Africans withdrawing troops from the region.


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Episode 110 - Cuban MiG-23s bomb Calueque Dam and 11 SADF troops pay the price

When we left off last episode, the Cubans and Angolans were gearing up to face another invasion by 61 Mech and 4SAI, Operation Excite as it was to become known. But for once, the Cubans had decided that they’d seize the initiative and were about to launch a two pronged assault towards the South Africans from Xangongo. Just a quick recap, 61 Mech had arrived in the eastern theatre with a tank squadron, four more motorised infantry companies from 32 Battalion, including their anti-tank troop in four Ratel 90s and four more ZT3s, 3 motorised companies from 101 Battalion in Casspirs, one motorised company each from 1 parachute, 202 and 701 Battalions who were in Buffels. The SADF artillery support was also significant, a battery each of G-5s, G-2s, Valkiri rocket launchers and 120mm mortars. This was task force Zulu under command of Colonel Michael Delport. The South Africans had built an approach ramp up to Calueque Dam which allowed the Olifants and the Ratels to cross over for the invasion. Ostensibly the plan was to flush out the SAM-6 missile stations which were based around Techipa then hit them with artillery, but also to push the Cubans back from the dam which provided water and power to Ovamboland. It was a key point in the war. On the 23 June 1988, reconnaissance units reported a heavy Cuban artillery bombardment ahead of the dust cloud, it appeared an attack force was heading south and was eventually spotted on the 24th by members of 32 Battalion. Reccies also spotted Cuban columns moving southwards from Techipa towards Calueque, with this stop-start advance the technique preferred by the Russians. Bombard, move, dig in, bombard, move, dig in. There appeared to be a two-pronged assault under way. It was to be a furious battle, one which ended when MiG-23s bombed Calueque Dam, killing 11 8SAI soldiers - the worst single incident for the SADF in the entire 23 year war.


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Episode 109 - A Bosbok survives a missile near miss as both the SADF and the Cubans gear up

We left off last week hearing that the Cuban 50th Division had been moved towards the SWA Border, a clear message to Pretoria that Fidel Castro was no longer going to tolerate the losses that he and FAPLA had endured in southern Angola. All this as the South Africans, Cubans, Angolans, Americans and Russians were negotiating the future of Namibia. Time was running out. And in particular for a small group of men, a platoon if you like, that was going to take the brunt of a MiG bombing raid close to the Calueque Dam, just across the cutline. ‘Sent to deal with this threat was Commandant Jan Hougaard who by how had discovered that the biggest threat seemed to lie around the small town of Techipa around 50kilometers inside Angola. Besides thousands of Cuban soldiers, it had also begun to spout radio antennas and what appeared to be anti-aircraft positions. Because the South Africans were stretched so thinly, the SADF top brass could only send 500 soldiers for a planned assault on the town, all 32 Battalion men. Then the idea was a second conventional force would be setup and moved to Ruacana for a much larger incursion. On the 30 May and 1 June, operational instructions for Operation Hilti were released to the officers who’d be planning South Africa’s invasion. The op was to be enamed Operation Prone later - development of a conventional and counterinsurgency plan for north-west South-West Africa and south-western Angola. The instructions called for a sub-phase called Operation Excite to regain military control of south-west Angola by August 1988.


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Episode 108 - Cubans start heading towards Calueque Dam and another South African POW

This is episode 108, it’s the 23rd June 1988 and the south Africans, Cubans, Angolans, Americans and Russians had gathered in Cairo for negotiations over the future of Namibia and the Cubans were seething. American Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker opened up the meeting by presenting the Cubans and Angolans with Pretoria’s comprehensive proposals. The South Africans made themselves scarce during the presentation, Defence minister Magnus Malan and Foreign Minister Pik Botha were joined by chief of the Defence Force Jannie Geldenhuys as they headed off to the British Commonwealth War Cemetery at Heliopolis to lay a wreath to the fallen South Africans. They had flowers from home, so took a bowl of Proteas from the first class lounge of the Boeing 747 that had brought the delegation to Cairo. Then they headed back to the Hyatt el Salaam hotel, site of the conference. The Cuban delegation led by Jorge Kaspaars Risquet was infuriated by Pretoria’s suggestion that Havana move its soldiers out of southern Angola in seven months. They were even further incensed by the suggestion that UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi be brought into a transition government within six weeks. Risquet said if this was the case, then the system of apartheid had to be added to the agenda and negotiated at the same time. Pik Botha, never one to stand back, suggested that Risquet’s own Cuban government be also placed on the agenda for its human right abuses, and Chester Crocker like all good referees, called an early break so that all sides could calm down. No-one mingled that night. The South Africans were now convinced that their rooms were bugged so they marched off to the bottom of the garden and huddled behind a giant colourful umbrella. Meanwhile, Crocker met with the Russian representative Vladilen Vlasev summoned the Cubans and the Angolans to a late night chat behind their own colourful umbrella in a separate corner of the Cairo Hyatt garden. Miraculously, the Russian intervention led to the Cubans and Angolans managing to find a few common ideas with the South Africans, although they still differed on virtually every point. Still, the talks hadn’t completely broken down and all sides agreed to take the documents home with them to try and find a way to get a consensus before the next meeting. Less than a month later, on 4th May, a Cuban company attacked a members of 101 Battalion inside southern Angola. The battalion was reconnoitring territory 50 kilometers inside Angola near the Cunene River and was ambushed by a Cuban platoon. Lance Corporal Hendrik Jacobus Venter was killed and Private Johan Papenfus was lsited missing. This had hardly happened to the South Africans in 23 years of fighting, things were changing. Papenfus was duly wheeled out in Havana, a prisoner of war, now being treated for serious wounds to his leg.


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Episode 107 – Reagan, Gorbachev, Ulysses the Bull, Fidel Castro: Diplomacy Breaks Out

Operation Hooper had ended in failure for the SADF and back in Pretoria, it was time to reassess the political and military situation. What had been achieved after 23 years of war - fighting ostensibly to stop SWAPO from seizing control of Namibia but really a war to buffer the apartheid state from the sweeping post-colonial independence movements. This was no longer possible in 1988 because the Cold War was rapidly coming to an end. The Soviet Union experiment in communism has failed as an experiment, ironically it was failing at precisely the moment that the whites-only lunacy in South Africa was failing. These two countries, Russia and South Africa, shared a common dawn. It was a moment that was to change both, and to alter world history. While Russia and South Africa were indulging in this long term military dance across southern Africa, the Americans and the Cubans hadn’t been far away. Perhaps its more accurate to say that both Havana and Washington had been directly involved in these distant wars, both had ideological reasons to send their advisors and troops, their operators and specialists into the region. Propaganda and hoopla replaced a proper analysis. On the Cuban and Angolan side, they trumpeted what they called a great victory at Cuito Cuanavale. The only problem was there was never a battle of Cuito Cuanavale. It wasn’t like Stalingrad, fighting in the streets. But it was like the Battle of Moscow in the Second World War. There the Germans never reached the city, fighting for months outside the western edges, never defeating the Russians. The battles around Cuito Cuanavale were a bit like this. Now that the fighting had subsided, both sides licked their wounds. Behind the scenes, however, diplomacy was the real game. The soviet Union’s deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Adamishin had been meeting both Cuban and Angolan leaders and pressurising them to talk peace. The USSR was bankrupt and could no longer send men and weapons to their satellite states.


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Episode 106 – Operation Packer/Tumpo 3 and Castro’s obsession

More than two decades of conflict in Ovamboland and southern Angola had worn down South African military domination - tactical superiority was no longer certain. The initial approach which had been innovative and inspirational, fast, seat of the pants and smart, had slumped into attritional raging bull blow for blow brutality. It was March 1988, time for one last push by the SADF against their FAPLA enemy and their Cuban and Russian allies. As you heard last episode, Commandant Gerhard Louw and most experienced officers of the Border War thought the overall plan to attack the Tumpo Triangle for the third time was a bad idea. Jan Breytenbach called it truly misguided. Cuban president Fidel Castro had made it very clear that he wanted the East bank of the Cuito River held at all costs. As long as the Cubans, Angolans and Russians held the bridgehead, it meant the SADF could not attack the town directly. Not that this was the South African’s aim - at least not their official aim. The plan was merely to seize the east bank, cross over to the West side, blow up the bridge which would put an end to FAPLAs assaults on the UNITA held towns of Mavinga and Jamba. However, the Angolans thought that Cuito Cuanavale was the main target and so did many South African troops fighting against FAPLA. I mean, there was the strategic town right in front of them, do you seriously think that had the Angolan army broken and run, that the SADF would have stopped across the Cuito River? So with that small diversion as a way of introduction, we rejoin Commandant Gerhard Louw and his ou-manne. IT’s Four pm on Tuesday 22nd March 1988, and the attackers were heading towards FAPLAs well defended positions on the east bank of the Cuito River 32 Battalion and Groot Karoo Regiment troops were joined by UNITAs 4th Regular Battalion on the western slope of the Chambinga High ground sweeping the area and trying to blunt any FAPLA reconnaissance from moving east of the Amhara Lipanda flatlands. UNITA spent a lot of time lifting mines, but it wasn’t enough, more than 15 000 landmines awaited the SADF and this was going to lead to a lot of trouble for the Olifant tanks. Laid in layers, the Cubans had doubled up the fields of death by laying anti-tank mines along with 130mm shells, when these detonated, the effect would be biblical.


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Episode 105 – Citizen Force ou-manne train for the third Battle of Tumpo while Russians drink rice-vodka to forget

The Third Battle of the Tumpo Triangle was about to begin - the date - 23rd March 1988. The weary 61 Mechanised battalion had withdrawn, the men exhausted after 4 months of shifting about and fighting FAPLA, while their equipment was in worse shape. By 13th March the tattered 20 Brigade of which 61 Mech was part had arrived back at Rundu across the Kunene River and for the third and final attack on the Triangle, Pat McLoughlin had returned command to Colonel Paul Fouche. IF you remember last episode, he’d been sent back to the Republic to try and drum up another Brigade which he’d found difficult. So he’d turned to the ou-manne - the campers or the Citizen Force as it was known. Fresh troops were brought in from South Africa, mostly from 82 Mechanised Brigade and this would be the first time since 1984 that the Citizen Force would furnish most of the troops of the upcoming Operation Packer. When you hear the makeshift formation you’ll understand that this operation was not going to be easy for any commander, however motivated the men were. The reality was these were soldiers who were part-timers, they may have been excellent as National Servicemen, but now they were back in civvie street, mentally they had to now contend with wives and children far away, they were accountants and teachers. Helping Fouche put together a viable force was commandant Gerhard Louw, the tank and armoured car instructor at the South African Battle School based at Lohatla in the northern Cape. The haphazard nature of Pretoria’s tactical planning and strategic understanding of how the fight a mobile war with tanks and infantry in thick bush was going to upend another group of tough South African soldiers. The Generals who were now interfering in all decisions, along with Cabinet members, were a hindrance to the officers on the ground, at least according to their accounts. The West Bank of the Cuito River was bristling with artillery of all kinds, massed in places to provide truly phenomenal fire-power. There were batteries of the D-30 122mm guns, M-46 or 130mm heavy artillery, BM-21 122mm rockets, and BM-14 140mm multiple rocket launchers. Protecting these from the Recces and SADF forward Artillery observers, A battalion of 36 Brigade was stationed between the Cuito and Cuanavale Rivers to protect the Angolan artillery from the Recces and SADF forward Artillery observers, while another battalion from 36 Brigade had moved west of the Cuito River. Russian advisors were making a big difference by now, along with the Cubans. They were adding a great deal of skill to FAPLAs basic fighting capacity. They’d shown the Angolans how to survive being hit by an anti-tank mine by leaving the hatches of their armoured personnel carriers open. Battening down the hatches meant that the blast wave inside the vehicle had no-where to go and flattened those inside. “If you leave it open, you might get away with concussion and perhaps some shrapnel wounds…” wrote translator Igor Zhdarkin. They had taken to brewing rice vodka and the Russians said afterwards they’d listen to the Voice of Moscow, Voice of America, BBC and the South African Broadcasting Corporation - the SABC. They spent a lot of time drinking, as Russian advisor Vyacheslav Barabulya explains in the book Bush War published in 2007. They were experiencing daily bombardments by the SADF artillery and said that they’d managed to tap into the almost 100 percent proof alcohol used in the Pechora anti-aircraft system.


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Episode 104 – The SAAF raids Lubango and a tired 61 Mech launches the Battle of Tumpo II

Last episode we heard about the failed first battle of the Tumpo Triangle, officially known as Tumpo one which took place on February 25th 1988. You know that things aren’t going well when battles are numbered, and there would be three attempts at overrunning FAPLA in its defensive positions east of the Cuito River, outside Cuito Cuanavale. Still, some good news had filtered in a few days after the audacious attack on SWAPO facilities in Lubango. This was a town that lies nearly 300 kilometers north of the cutline, in the Angolan highlands, a jump off point for FAPLA as it sent its soldiers into the fighting in the south east, along the South West African border. A bomb had exploded at Oshikati First National Bank in Ovamboland on the 19th February, killing 20 people, wounding six. The South Africans wanted revenge, and decided to target SWAPOS training base at Lubango. Planning for the raid began immediately after the blast, and continued all the way through until the next morning, led by Colonel John Church of the SA Air Force. The Mirages were refuelled while the men were briefed, and at 08h00 they took off from Ondangwa, heading north west towards Lubango. Major Norman Minne led this attack flying F1AZ 218. It had the most accurate navigation system, errors were less than a mile at way points. As they flew low level from the southeast, the compact warning receiver or CRWS began picking up signals from the Soviet Barlock search radar - they had been spotted. Minne descended lower and lower, only a few feet off the deck by this stage, but his navigation system was spot on so he folded his map confident he’d find the target. Back on the eastern front, outside Cuito Cuanavale, Colonel Pat McLoughlin had decided to launch the next assault on the Tumpo Triangle at night. Unlike the first attempt to take Tumpo, this time 61 Mech’s Mike Muller planned to use the northern route through the Chambinga high Ground, then down the tricky Heartbreak hill steep drop into the Anhara Lipanda - and then to charge directly at FAPLA positions. The night of February 29th was chosen, with the battle set to continue into Tuesday 1st March if necessary. While the final plans were being checked and double checked, on the other side of the River, the Cubans had sent combat engineers to re-mine the route in the north, and these men ran into a reconnaissance patrol - either it was the South Africans or UNITA. The SADF didn’t report this anywhere, so it was probably UNITA. Their patrol apparently turned and fled into the darkness, and FAPLA engineers laid another 150 mines - there were now 15 000 in total across this part of eastern Cuito Cuanavale. But now the Angolans were almost certain the next attack was going to come from the north East. The SADF did not know that the Angolans knew with almost 100 certainty the direction of the next South African attack.


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Episode 103 – The First Battle of Tumpo Triangle where 61 Mech faced a fierce FAPLA bombardment

It was D-Day for the next attack across the open ground east of the Tumpo Triangle, just outside Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola. The town was now regarded as a moral prerequisite rather than strategic necessity, Luanda’s position here was no surrender, while in Pretoria, the political leadership knew that they could not take the town. This would have prompted an escalation which the National Party could not afford at this moment in their history. The South African economy was weakening, and the public support for this long war in Angola had ebbed significantly. As you’ve heard, the Cubans and Angolans with the Russian advisors were dug in and ready to the east of Cuito Cuanavale, dozens of tanks, thousands of men, covered by Su-22 and MiG fighter jets and ground support aircraft, M-46 heavy artillery ranged and ready, the terrifying Zu-23 anti-aircraft guns horizontal, ready to pound the Ratels. Mike Muller’s 61 Mech was going to launch itself into this flatland on 25th February 1988, a direct assault on a heavily fortified position with fewer men. Not what the military handbook says - as we all know. If you do not have the element of surprise, then you need 3 to 1 odds in your favour, however poorly trained you believe the other side may be. The Angolans by now were not as poorly trained as the SADF liked to think. FAPLA been fighting the South Africans since 1975 and had learned a great deal over the past 13 years.


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Episode 102 – 32 Battalion strikes Menongue Airfield and a Mirage is shot down

The South Africans were attacking FAPLA’s 59 Brigade, but had run into an ambush - Cubans operating Soviet tanks had laid up waiting for 4SAI to cut across their hull down positions. These were the T55s of the 3rd Battalion — the commanders and the gunners were Cuban, while the drivers were Angolan. As the SADF had found out earlier on the 14th February 1988, Cubans were also operating as spotters. Mike Muller of 61 Mech was now trying to capture a Cuban, but the last he’d seen had been shot down right in front of him, while trying to surrender, by UNITA troops who’s blood was up. When we left off last, it was afternoon - and the SADF had just won a victory over 59 Brigade and 3rd Battalion - the Angolans and their Cuban allies were in full retreat towards the Tumpo Triangle, that y junction in the road south east of Cuito Cuanavale, and just north of the Tumpo River. This retreat was a rout in many ways, with FAPLA officers only managing to halt the retreating 59th Brigade 120 kilometers north east of Cuito Cuanavale. 21 and 25 Brigades were also pulling back along with the 3rd tank Battalion. They left behind 14 destroyed T55s, eight armoured cars, one BM-21 Stalin Organ, one mobile radar guided SAM13 missile system, and seven ZU-23 anti-aircraft guns. 400 FAPLA were dead, hundreds more wounded so far on the battle on Valentines’ Day. Meanwhile, what was called a sideshow had been underway far to the north west of this battle ground. To coincide with the big attack by 4SAI and 61 Mech against 59 Brigade on Sunday 14 February 1988, Deon Ferreira wanted 32 Battalion to strike the Menongue Airbase. This was to hamper the Angolans as they dispatched their attack helicopters and ground support MiGs - and the plans had been under way since the 6th February . It may have been a sideshow, but it was extremely daring - a one-off event in the entire Border War in terms of its conventional style plan. The idea was to launch from a small stream called the Cuma, which was 20 kilometers south east of Menongue. One Friday 19th February, four Mirage F1AZs took off from Grootfontein in Northern SWA, their target was a FAPLA convoy expected to pass through Cuartir, 40 kilometers east of Menongue. The last plane out that day was flown by Major Ed Every, known to all at the base as Never Ready because he often forgot things - like his gloves, maps, or flight documents - but on this day he forgot nothing.


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Episode 101 – The Valentines Day assault on 59 Brigade and a Cuban tank ambush

It’s the second week of January 1988 and FAPLAs 21st, 59th and 25th Brigades had taken up the front line in what was to be a three layered defenses ahead of the Tumpo Triangle, where two roads joined just north of the Tumpo River. That was aeast of Cuito Cuanavale. Behind these three Brigades, 16th and 66th hunkered down in expectation of an SADF follow up attack which had started ended on the 14th January. The third Angolan line of defence was just west of the Cuito River, manned by the 13th Brigade joined by a Cuban battalion. By now FAPLA was communicating by fixed telephone line, going back to an earlier technology which made it much more difficult for the South Africans to intercept their messages. From the beginning of January 1988 to the end of March, the SADF was going to make six frontal attacks on these well-entrenched FAPLA positions and now the Generals in Pretoria were almost literally breathing down the necks of the tactical commanders. 61 Mech, 4SAI and UNITA had been repulsed after taking ground, the South African troops disgusted as they watched the land they’d fought to seize being retaken by Angolan units around the Chambinga High Ground. The haphazard nature of the SADF’s attack - part of Operation Hooper - was caused by the territory and by a confused series of orders. I recently attended talks at Voortrekkehoogte by high ranking generals of this period, they defended their decisions and made some pointed comments about false information, but I’m afraid to say that the facts speak for themselves. Let’s go over a few of these and consider for yourself what was going on in these final days of South Africa’s Border War. After the attack on 21 Brigade some of the Recce observation teams were moved to positions between the Cuito and Cuanavale Rivers, well behind enemy lines, north of Cuito Cuanavale. From here, the observers could see the airfield and the Cuito Bridge. The main danger for these specialists were the crocodiles, the Cuanavale River teemed with them, but after some scouring of the banks, one team led by Justin Vermaak spotted two Makoros, or canoes made from a hollowed tree trunk, and crossed over after dark. They were prepping for the next major assault which SADF HQ had indicated was supposed to take place by end January, but ended up starting almost a month after their first assault on 21st Brigade. One of the strategic weaknesses plaguing the SADF now was the slow response and planning, logistics was a big problem here hundreds of kilometers away from their bases at Rundu and Oshikati. Eventually Vermaak and his OP team found an excellent spot behind some of FAPLAs brigades, and watched 21 Brigade reorganised, digging their trenches in the same area that 4SAI had freed only a few days before. The Recces were also in a good spot to warn their 20 Brigade HQ back in Rundu when they spotted MiGs, being behind enemy lines. That would buy the South Africans a couple of minutes. They were also being warned 200km further west, teams of Recces under Johnny de Gouveia and Buks van den Burg were watching Menongue airport spotting the MiGs and choppers taking off heading towards Cuito Cuanavale. Pretoria was dithering. They eventually decided on January 25th that the rearming and new plans were ready and the nest target was not 21 Brigade, it was 59th. 61 Mech lieutenant Clive Holt explained how they all knew that 59 Brigade was the key to the FAPLA defences. FAPLAs 3 Tank Battalion was waiting in support, so this was not going to be easy. Because 59th Brigade was FAPLAs strongest, the aim was to hit them until they collapsed, then 21 and 25 Brigades would fall back towards the town - hopefully without much fight left.


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Episode 100 – FAPLA pushed from their positions along the Chambinga High Ground on Friday 13th

D-Day for the renewed attack on FAPLA’s 21 Brigade was reset from January 5th to January 13th 1988 - a Friday, for those who suffered from triskaidekaphobia - a fear of Friday the 13th, it merely served to increase their worries. 4 SAI was now being led by Commandant Jan Malan who replaced Leon Marais, 61 Mech was under temporary command of Koos Liebenberg who’d relieved Mike Muller who had headed home for a six week break to move his home from Pretoria to Tsumeb. UNITAs 3rd Regular Battalion was under command of former Portuguese army’s General Demostenes Chilingutila - who was the rebel movements Chief of Staff and had decided to come and get more directly involved. 4 SAI and UNITA were going in from the east of the Cuatir River source, using the Chambinga High Ground while 61 Mech would squeeze through between 21 Brigade and 59 Brigades, then take up position on the heavily forested hillside. As you’ll hear, this became known as 61 Koppie and is one of those hills that appears to be a merely pimple on the landscape but one that turns into a major strategic position. The Koppie protruted just west of the Chambinga high ground, east of the Cuanavale River. The koppie was 3 kilometers south of 21 Brigade’s perimeter and north of the Dala River source, it was hemmed on three sides by rivers, and to the East lay the Chambinga thickets on the high ground. There are many small rivers that rise around the high ground east or south of Cuito and the Dala was one of these. The landscape was going to feature as a kind of 3rd force in the upcoming battles, as had happened previously in the SADFs attempts at dislodging FAPLA from East of the Cuanavale and Chambinga rivers. 4SAI began it approach just after midday on the 13th, after the Mobile Rocket Launchers and G5s had softened up the two outposts - more than 300 rounds were pumped towards these FAPLA troops who numbered around 800. The SA artillery continued with 81mm and 120mm mortars, as the SA Air Force flew in, their incendiary bombs setting fire to the forest around FAPLAs position.


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Episode 99 – The SAAF tests a top secret weapon while new recruits come to terms with giant moths and skulking MiGs

We’re approaching the date of Operation Hooper, but first a bit of bad news for the SADF regarding disease. The heavy rains through November and December of 1987 had created a perfect breeding ground for the flies and mosquitoes that carried hepatitis and malaria. This was impacting the morale let alone the operational capacity of the army. The replacement troopies were on their way by the 19th November but they had to receive additional training on the border before they were let loose on FAPLA. FAPLA too was rearming itself, and new recruits were also arriving at 21 Brigade and other units stationed around Cuito Cuanavale. There was a real expectation building on both sides that something significant was going to happen over the next few months. This kind of war couldn’t continue, it had mutated from a low intensity guerrilla war ostensibly fought though Ovamboland to a conventional war fought exclusively in southern Angola. The troops arriving to replace die the national servicemen had no idea what they were in for. This was an old trick of the SADF, most of these men only realised they were going into Angola once they were inside the country. The law stated that they had to volunteer to fight outside the country, but the SADF top brass had got around this by asking if the men were prepared to volunteer once they had crossed the border. Had these troops not "volunteered", they would have left their brothers to fight with fewer hands. So it was a contorted and rather malicious psychological trick these blokes played on the minds of these youngsters - most of them 18 or 19 years old. AS the SADF prepared for Operation Hooper, the SA Air Force was testing a new top secret weapon system on the Buccaneer S Mk 50, known as the H2, built by Kentron, a subsidiary of Armscor. It was a 460 kilogram pre-fragmented, folding winged glide-bomb, controlled by a TV link between the bomb and the aircraft. It was a simple form of missile, with a guidance unit in its nose with its own power generator, driven by a small impeller at the back of the bomb. An impeller is something like the rotating component of a centrifugal pump. A comms pod was carried under the opposite wing of the Buccaneer which setup the TV link - and the weapon could controlled after launch by its parent aircraft.


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Episode 98 – Hougaard goes marauding and a Russian commander dies as an ammunition bunker explodes

When we left off last episode it was the end of Operation Moduler, and Cuban Leader Fidel Castro had begun to consider a negotiated solution to the Namibian and Angolan war. There was a side-show planned before the next major op in Angola. The SADF top brass had finally decided to try and cut off the logistics route west of Cuito Cuanavale through to Menongue. This was also a period in the war where the generals began to get more and more involved in the tactical decisions. Some of the upcoming battles were going to involve the SADF forces creeping ahead, similar to the fighting in World War One. FAPLA had not folded and run, commanders on the ground said that the enemy had often fought with a degree of determination that drew grudging respect from the South Africans. It’s time to consider Jan Hougaard’s Marauders and an approach that perhaps in hindsight, was about two months too late but better late than never. The commandant had been sent back to Rundu in late October to put together a secret mission to head west of Cuito Cuanavale, where the road runs east west but the rivers run north south. That means there’s quite a few points that are strategic because they’re bridges or drifts, at least five places where a motivated and well structured team of saboteurs or attackers could cause mayhem. Convoys of vehicles were arriving in Cuito virtually daily, some with 300 or more trucks, tankers and support machines, bringing supplies and equipment. Each convoy that made the trip safely from Menongue 200 km to the west was greeted by cheers, and each was a knife in the back of the SADF morale. He had to begin destabilising FAPLAs routes by early December, so he turned to 120 men from 101 Battalion made up of soldiers from Ovamboland. The mobile rocket Launcher battery was shifted from Hartslief to Hougaard. He scouted around Fort Buffalo, 32 Battalion’s headquarters, and managed to pull together a special support company with 81mm mortars, jeep mounted 106 mm anti-tank guns and Milan anti-tank missiles. The Angolans had been forced to recruit more troops and rush them south, many had not been trained properly and the calibre of fighting man on FAPLAs side had dropped. But offsetting this was a far cleverer approach to fighting the South Africans. FAPLA had already shown some steel in previous confrontations, they had deployed their mechanised units in a more mobile fashion, moving them around the battlefield. The Cubans and Russian advisors were more hands on as well.


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Episode 97 – Castro starts to talk peace but along the Cuito River all hell rains down

We’re wrapping up Operation Moduler this episode and throwing forward to the next assault on Cuito Cuanavale which was to fixate the South African political leadership at a time when the Cold War was melting away. This was to have a direct effect on the satellite wars such as those in Angola. Assessing this stage of the conflict it all appeared to be in South Africa’s favour - on the surface. Combat Groups Alpha, Bravo and Charlie had fought running battles against FAPLAs 21/25 Brigade, 66 Brigade and 59th Brigade for weeks pushing them back to close to where they’d started the own Operation October. Instead of overcoming UNITA at Mavinga and taking their HQ at Jumba, FAPLA had been defeated. Between July and 18th November 1987 FAPLA had lost 1 059 dead, more than 2000 wounded, 61 tanks were blown up along with 84 armoured cars and 20 artillery pieces. Some have suggested that if 4SAI and the tank squadron of 12 Olifants from the start of Moduler, they would have overrun the Angolans with ease. That is I’m afraid, an incorrect assessment for two main reasons. The first was the SA Air Force did not control the air war. The Angolans did. And anyone who understands modern warfare knows that those who control the air, particularly these days of missiles and drones, controls the battle. Russia has failed to take complete control of the airspace over Ukraine since their invasion in February 2022 - and has paid the price for that failure. Unlike the UN and American force that overran Iraq in Desert Storm after decimating and completely destroying the Iraqi air Force and bludeoning it’s anti-aircraft system into dust. The war was lost from then on for Saddam Hussein whatever his Revolutionary Guard thought. Secondly, the SADF was attacking entrenched defensive positions without the advantage of the element of surprise and numerically weaker. Tactical college interns at military school will tell you that’s not a blueprint for success. Even if 4SAI and the tanks had arrived earlier, they would still have had to face MiGs that were spending more time over the ground forces than the Mirages. Perhaps the SADF would have managed to overcome FAPLAs 21 and 25 Brigade, but then they would face four more Brigades. Two east of Cuito and two others in reserve. And if you check the facts, 59 Brigade fought well and in fact, deflected an Olifant attack on the days before 16th November 1987. By now Cuba's Fidel Castro had lost over 10 000 and some say closer to 20 000 troops as casualties of this never ending war across the Atlantic from his small island nation. Initially, he had supported the war, sending his men and women in to fight. It’s not well known, but Cuban women for example made up most of the anti-aircraft battery crews around some of the towns of Angola. He began to think about negotiating a solution rather than fighting to the death against the SADF, and sent his diplomats to the United Nations along with Angolan MPLA officials to contact the South African mission in New York. Castro was wanting out of Angola.


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Episode 96 – The Chambinga Gallop and the end of Operation Moduler

FAPLAs 21 and 25 Brigades were manoeuvring around the western edge of the 1370 meter high Viposto high ground which lay south of the Hube and Chambinga Rivers before dawn on the 16th November 1987- and those rivers flowed in an almost direct east to west direction. That meant the Angolan Brigades were now squeezed between the high ground and the river, heading towards the Hube’s source. Their plan was to circle around the east side of the source, then head back westerly along the right bank of the river, eventually reaching the strategic Chambinga River bridge - and then escaping back towards Cuito Cuanavale. At 06h00 the 21 and 25 Brigades were refuelling before the next quick push for the headwaters of the Hube, with the Russian advisors team leader Lieutenant colonel Anatoly Artiomenko standing on the top of his troop carrier. The SADF’s Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Battle groups were thundering north, trying to cut them off on the east side - the right - of the Viposto high ground. During the night of the 15th, SADF Recces and spotters were on the move ahead of the advancing Battle Groups and despite the Angolans determination to co-ordinate their next moves, the next few hours were going to be grim. And Battle Group Charlie wasn’t hard to spot - FAPLA recon teams heard them miles away because the commander Leon Marais had decided to breach a large minefield using the Ploffadder explosives - fired from a rocket they landed on the minefield in a long strand, detonating loudly and also detonating mines. They did not always work and this time, they worked well enough to signal Charlie’s presence to advancing FAPLA Brigades. Because both sides had driven into the same area at night, the South Africans had further compounded their own lack of quick quiet action by firing mortar shell illuminating flares before dawn. They gave their positions away in both cases long before FAPLA actually spotted their forward Ratels and Buffels. The South Africans were also traveling very slowly as the commanders fretted about the exact location of the minefields, even despite having maps they’d seized in the attacks on the 16 Brigade two weeks earlier. Lieutenant Koos Breytenbach was the SADF forward artillery observer at strategic Bridge and he became known as the Murderer of the Chambinga after what happened next. He was extremely accurate in his distance measurements and timing, bringing down constant G-5 shells, rockets and 120mm mortars on the Angolans crossing the bridge. **This episode has been re-edited to include comments from Paul Gladwin who kindly provided a more accurate rendition of a casevac that led to an Honoris Crux for Sergeant Labuschagne.


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Episode 95 – 21/25 Brigade makes a dash for the Chambinga Bridge amidst heroics by 32's Van Zyl

We’re into the final phase of Operation Moduler in November 1987, and the SADF was lining up FAPLAs 16 Brigade after giving them a bloody nose on the 9th. Combat Group Bravo was going to draw FAPLAs attention between the Mianei and Vimpula Rivers, south east of Cuito Cuanavale, but that was a diversion. 59 Brigade was based here, and moving slowly in a northerly direction to support 16 Brigade almost due east of the town. The are a series of short rivers that rise to the north, east and south of Cuito Cuanavale, most flow west and join the Quito River - and it was along these rivers that most of the next phase of Operation Modular would be fought. The Recces spotted T54/55 tanks heading towards the source of the Hube River and the South African commander Commandant Deon Ferreira was weighing up neutralising these heavy weapons before continuing with the attack on 16h Brigade. The South Africans were still not fully aware of what 59 Brigade was doing, although they had a better idea about 16 Brigade. During the night of the 10th, the SADF pulled of a switcheroo, moving Combat Group Alpha to the south of 16th Brigade, combat Group Charlie was now slightly north. Early on the morning of the 11th, Combat Group Alpha was in position and began to fire their Ratel 90 guns along with the Ratel 81 mortars towards FAPLA trenches. The G-5s also began to pepper 16 Brigade along with the Multiple Rocket launchers, the Valkiris. ON the same day, the Angolans were celebrating their independence but as the Russian advisors met with their African colleagues for muted festivities, Mirages flew overhead, and began to bomb the Angolan positions. “Something quite unimaginable is happening now …” wrote Russian translator Igor Zhdarkin, “The Angolan troops are almost completely demoralised the brigades are on average at 45 percent strength. For every 10 or 15 shells launched by the enemy the Angolans are able to send only one…” The SADFs rate of fire was wearing FAPLA down while the Recces and artillery spotters were passing on information constantly and then picked up 59th Brigade’s shifting position. The Russians reported that the Angolans had spotted what they called “their buffalo” - that was 32 Battalion and the advisors reported that “the Angolans fear the South Africans like fire…”. As both sides picked up their pieces, an incredible casualty evacuation was about to take place. 32's Piet Van Zyl realised that one of the Battalion’s troops was missing - and was told that the infantryman was last seen lying dead in a FAPLA trench 800m away.


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Episode 94 – South African and Russian tanks go toe-to-toe at the Chambinga river in southern Angola

It’s early morning November 9th 1987 and the SADF was advancing towards FAPLAs 16th Brigade based at the source of the Chambinga River. The Angolan brigade had received orders to shift eastwards, and the units were about to move when the SADF launched their attack. The first sign of the impending assault was an artillery bombardment and SAAF bombing raid on the eve of the assault. Commandant Deon Ferreira was OC of Task Force 10 as it was known although the main battle plans had been drawn up by Roland de Vries, his 2 IC. It was a plan that was based on the principles of fluid operations, with the South African mobility exploited to the full. De Vries had also decided that one of the main aims was to destabilise the enemies logistics and communications, disrupting their plans and likely counter attack. Robbie Hartslief’s Combat Group Bravo unleashed on 59th Brigade to the south, creating a diversion. But when his units overran the position, the south African commander was surprised to find the brigade’s positions were empty, it had already withdrawn north towards the 16th Brigade. The Angolans counter attacked with tanks, and Bravo retreated, Hartslief’s actions had confused the enemy and he didn’t want to continue a needless fight against FAPLA which was using heavy weapons, including the T54 and 55s. The Soviet advisors thought they had won a victory and began exchanging congratulations. Little did they know that the main SADF assault was going to take place further north close to the source of the Chambinga River. That’s where Commandant Deon MArais led Combat Group Charlie towards 16th Brigade, although the going was slow, hampered by the thick bush around the river. By 06h57 on the morning of 9th November, Recces posted near the 16th Brigade radio to say that could hear FAPLAs tank engines start up - moments later a G-5 bombardment hit one of FAPLAs ammunition dumps, which exploded. Marais’ Charlie Group approached in close formation, with 4 SAIs two mechanised infantry companies of Ratel 20s on both sides in the front, and an armoured car squadron of Ratel 90s as well as a platoon of 32 Battalion troops between them. Piet van Zyl’s company of 32 infantrymen were all black, led by four white officers. “We moved 30 km west from the lagoon, riding on Ratels,” said van Zyl quoted by author Fred Bridgeland. “We passed the tank squadron and its support Ratels under the command of major Andre Retief of 4SAI, That man really knew how to look after his troops…” Retief had brought a refrigerated canteen truck all the way from South Africa, and van Zyl organised a raid on the truck when 4SAI was looking the other way - liberating two cases of ice cold beer. “Man that was nectar from heaven” said van Zyl. The Angolans still believed that the SADF was attacking 59 Brigade further south, but that all changed just after 7.30 when 16 Brigade comms reports that South African tanks appeared to be about to overrun their positions.