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Forged in Flames

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Forged in Flames:The SADF experience of The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale1987 – 1988This is my History Honours Thesis - 2010I welcome any comments, questions or criticisms. Please email me at: [email protected] item will always be a work in progress as there are always aspects which can be improved upon and new information to include.The Video Documentary accompanying this thesis can be found here:Part 01: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fclRzi4E9TYPart 02: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdO1EM3FpsoPart 03: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TsMmTDDUJYkFor more info on this topic see:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_African_Border_Warhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cuito_Cuanavale
1 History Honours Full Name: Garrett Ernst Eriksen Student No: 607e4967 Supervisor: Professor Gary Baines Due Date: 12 November 2010 Thesis Title: Forged in Flames: The SADF experience of The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale 1987 – 1988
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History Honours

Full Name: Garrett Ernst Eriksen Student No: 607e4967

Supervisor: Professor Gary Baines Due Date: 12 November 2010

Thesis Title:

Forged in Flames:

The SADF experience of

The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale

1987 – 1988

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A literature review detailing select pieces of literature on

The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale.

- Pages 3 - 27




A script of the included documentary: Forged in Flames: The SADF experience of

The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale 1987 – 1988.

- Pages 28 - 34



Detailing the journey from inception to completion of all aspects of this thesis.

- Pages 35 - 44


30 AUGUST 2010 – 03 SEPTEMBER 2010-11-09

Transcriptions of the interviews held with Danie Crowther, Johann Lehman and

Rodercik van der Westhuizen.

- Pages 45 - 92

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The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale – A Literature Review



The South African Border War took place during the years 1966 to 1989 and has been

the subject of controversial studies, scholarly analyses and political scrutiny for many

years since. Arguably, however, no Border War battles have been more controversial

than those involving the town of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola during which Angolan

and Cuban forces, with Soviet support, and South African and UNITA forces engaged

in fierce skirmishes for control of the area in and around the obscure Angolan town.

The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale1 lasted from December 1987 to March 1988

and were arguably the most important battles of the South African Border War. The

ceasefire that followed the Battles of Cuito Cuanavale is regarded as a pivotal event in

the implementation of UN resolution 435, which brought about the withdrawal of

SADF forces from Angola and Namibia, and as a seminal event which lead to the end

of Apartheid South Africa. It was also an important event in the Angolan Civil War

(1975 – 2002) and lead to the independence of Namibia.

New information and fresh research concerning the battles held there are

continuously published, with a new generation interested in dealing with the legacies

of the conflicts in Angola. A constant flow of debate on who “won” the overall

skirmish underpins the research and memories of some of those involved, as (ex-)

soldiers, civilians, scholars and politicians all vie for control over this knowledge and

the implications it may hold. In the last eight or so years, several books have been

written on the subject; mostly from the view of ex-soldiers or other people directly


1 In this paper I have purposefully chosen to use the term “Battles of Cuito Cuanavale”, as opposed to the title “Battle of Cuito Cuanavale”, which is the traditional title given to this period. While it is true that several battles did occur at Cuito Cuanavale, the latter is usually used to encompass the entire period from December 1987 to March 1988, which, through my research, I have come to conclude is an inaccurate title. Defining all the events that occurred between that time as one battle, is a misnomer to say the least, and was originally created for ease of use by Cuban and Angolan propaganda as a symbol to rally behind. The name was picked up and distributed by news agencies around the world, and popularised by anyone sympathetic to the Angolan cause and/or by those who stood against Apartheid and the SADF, whom they saw as the Apartheid governments’ guard-dog. The misnomer has since been latched on to and perpetuated by historians, researchers and journalists alike.

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This literature review will serve as a guide that will briefly outline the Battles

of Cuito Cuanavale and a choice of relevant works concerned with the topic. This will

hopefully provide the would-be researcher with the information that they would need,

in order to adequately decipher the events that happened there and what they meant to

the people involved, those who write about it and historians today.


This research paper will comprise a literature review of selections from available

literature concerning the Battles of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola during the South

African Border War. The paper will focus on issues concerning South African

Defence Force (SADF) involvement in Cutio Cuanavale specifically, and will, for the

most part, ignore most other work on the Border War, only using general information

for contextual purposes, unless it pertains to this battle in some way or another. This

also extends to circumstances leading up to the battle as well as the aftermath. This

paper will hopefully guide the reader through relevant materials that will help provide

an understanding of the battle and the people who were involved.

Make no mistake, the soldier’s thoughts and feelings in the matter are as relevant

to this paper’s objective as any geographical or tactical data one may come across. As

such, most of the literature selected has been written by South Africans who were

either ex-SADF, military historians or conventional historians; this, I believe, is an

excellent place to begin work on unpacking the events at Cuito Cuanavale. Although,

there is the danger that some of these sources will be rather biased (in fact many are);

however, if enough of them are consulted, a more balanced picture can be formed.

But the psychology of the soldier must never be forgotten:

“War stories aren’t always about war, per se. They aren’t about bombs and bullets

and military manoeuvres. They aren’t about tactics, they aren’t about foxholes and

canteens. A war story, like any good story, is finally about the human heart.”

-Tim O’Brien

The soldiers in the Border War are not dead and forgotten; they are alive, here, now,

writing about and remembering their experiences. And it is our job as historians to

understand what it is they are trying to say, as well as the circumstances and events

that occurred then and how they are relevant now.

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After the Carnation Revolution in Portugal of April 1974, Angola became an

independent nation, due to Portugal releasing its overseas colonies, and a transitional

government was put in place. Almost immediately, the three militant, political groups,

who had been fighting for Angolan independence, turned on each other and the

interim government and began the Angolan Civil War (1975 – 2002).

The three factions engaged in the civil war were: the leftist MPLA (and its

armed wing FAPLA), led by Agostinho Neto, the conservative FNLA, led by Holden

Roberto (who was supported by Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaïre); and UNITA, led by

Jonas Savimbi (who originally had broken away from the FNLA and would later

come to be sponsored by the US CIA and South Africa). Each group managed to

capture their ethnic strongholds and began launching operations all over the country:

the MPLA in central Angola (and thus the capital), the FNLA in the north and UNITA

in the south.

Shortly before the Carnation Revolution, a League of Nations mandate, which

stipulated South Africa as the official administrative supervising body over South-

West Africa from 1919 onwards, was terminated by the United Nations in 1966.

South Africa refused the termination and in 1971, the UN declared the presence of

South Africa in the newly renamed Namibia illegal. South-West Africa was adjacent

to southern Angola and thus a beneficial partnership formed between UNITA and the

SAP (South African Police) and SADF when SWAPO (Southwest African liberation

movement) began armed resistance in early 1966, using southern Angola as a staging

area for operations into Southwest Africa. Thus, UNITA became an invaluable ally

against SWAPO for the SADF (although this was not the case from the outset.)

Most of the Angolan Civil War took place during the Cold War, which saw

the Soviet Union and United States of America attempting to manipulate the outcome

of the arms race by gaining power through proxies in other countries, Angola was no

different. The liberation movements in Africa, who naturally opposed apartheid in

South Africa, found support in socialist countries, such as Cuba and the USSR.

Angola and SWAPO were supported by the afore mentioned, as well as a few other

eastern bloc countries, whilst countries like the US covertly supported South Africa

and UNITA. In this way, a mini-Cold War was being fought in Angola, with the

winner being either the East or the West and her respective proxies. This, of course,

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begs the question then: was Cuba simply a Soviet proxy in this conflict, and South

Africa and American one?

After the Cubans had assisted the MPLA in consolidating power in 1975, they

decided to remain until conditions in the country stabilised, whilst the USSR supplied

FAPLA with munitions, advisors and technical staff. UNITA, meanwhile supported

by South Africa and the US in the form of soldiers from the former and funds and

weaponry from the latter, began posing considerable threat to the Angolan

government, and by extension the Soviet Unions’ support.

South Africa wished to prevent the MPLA government from gaining control

of south-eastern Angola and to keep UNITA in power in the region as a territorial

buffer zone, partly to prevent the spread of communism over South Africa’s borders,

aka “Die Rooi Gevaar” (The Red Danger), partly to ensure SWAPO guerrillas would

have difficulties launching attacks into Namibia and partly to ensure a foothold in

Angola should further actions against the Angolan government become necessary

should South Africa, or her surrounding territories, become threatened.

The MPLA was viewed by Pretoria as a pseudo-Soviet government, with

strong communist ties, and the continued presence of Cuban troops simply served to

strengthen this view. It was within South Africa’s interests to overthrow the current

Angolan government, based in the capital of Luanada, and replace it with a “friendly”

anti-communist one.

Leaping ahead to 1987, the Angolan government launched Operation

Saludando Octubre with the intention of removing UNITA forces from their

strongholds at Mavinga and Jamba. As with many previous operations, preparation

and direction were in the hands of the Soviet advisors; as were the higher ranks of the

FAPLA military occupied by Soviet officers. FAPLA was given new armour and air

power which increased their military might significantly. The Cubans did not engage

actively in the combat that took place and instead provided support functions. The

attack would commence from the town of Cuito Cuanavale.

The SADF noted the military build-up around Cuito and promptly warned

UNITA. However, the SADF was aware that UNITA would be overwhelmed by the

military force assembled by the Angolan government and decided to intervene on

June 15, launching Operation Moduler on 4 August 1987 to halt the FAPLA advance

on Mavinga. Shortly after consolidating themselves in Cuito, FAPLA brigades left the

Angolan town and advanced towards Mavinga. On August 28 they reached the

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northern banks of the Lomba River near Mavinga, where they had been expected by

the SADF.

The resulting battle has since been called the Battle of Lomba River and is

known for the series of severe skirmishes, between 9 September and 7 October,

wherein FAPLA suffered heavy losses, owing to SADF and UNITA forces, and was

prevented from crossing the Lomba River. Following this, the Soviets withdrew their

advisors, thus leaving FAPLA without any senior officers, providing a significant

strategic advantage to the SADF / UNITA forces.

Operation Hooper was launched on 29 September by SADF and UNITA

forces, with the objective being an offensive strike on the Angolan army. On 3

October, a FAPLA battalion was utterly destroyed on the southern banks of the

Lomba River by SADF and UNITA forces, and two days later the Angolans retreated

190km back to Cuito Cuanavle where they proceeded to fortify the area. SADF and

UNITA forces began a siege of Cuito on 14 October with long-range artillery, and

used the strategic advantage of artillery fire to prevent enemy retreat, as well as to

maintain control of the bridge and airstrip near Cuito.

By November of that year, UNITA had control of the road from Menongue,

on and around which they planted mines and set up guerrilla ambushes, whilst the

SADF were engaged in artillery strikes as well as the destruction of the remains of

three FAPLA units, east of the Cuito River near Tumpo, who had been cut off by

SADF artillery strikes. The now surrounded FAPLA units, who had also lost any

armour or artillery abilities, were on the verge of annihilation by UNITA and the


This dire situation prompted the Angolan government to request urgent

military intervention from Cuba, to which they responded almost immediately with

over 15,000 elite troops, including officers, technicians, advisors and special forces

operatives. The first Cuban troops arrived on 5 December, and began to reinforce the

Angolan position at Cuito. This had become personal for Fidel Castro, who saw a

potential South African victory as a win for the apartheid regime and a loss for

socialist pride (although, it is probably safe to say it was his pride on the line, more

than socialism’s). On 25 November, the UN demanded the unconditional withdrawal

of the SADF from Angola by December 10, and the SADF replied by putting further

pressure on the besieged Angolans.

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From 13 January 1988 until 23 March, six large-scale assaults were performed

by the SADF and UNITA on the entrenched Angolans, but only the first produced any

worthwhile results, which were soon overturned by the third assault, after FAPLA

troops found and effectively used a perfectly defensible position to the north near the

Dala River. Eventually, the assault was brought to a halt by combined Angolan and

Cuban forces.

Cuban reinforcements neutralised the SADF’s air superiority, and this in turn

made ground operations costly and dangerous. Unable to gain any further ground, and

suffering a final failed assault on 23 March 1988, the SADF withdrew the majority of

its forces, leaving a small holding-force to secure their retreat with heavily mined


Six months later, South Africa finally withdrew all remaining forces, and the

implementation of UN resolution 435 lead to Namibian independence one month

later. A peace agreement was finally signed in New York on 22 December 1988,

mediated by Chester Crocker, a significant figure throughout the peace proceedings,

and Cuba finally pulled its troops out on 1 July 1991.

The collective battles at Cuito Cuanavale, lasting over six months, make up

the largest battle to occur on the African continent since World War II. The death toll

for the Angolans was high, around 20,000 soldiers killed. Debates on which side was

victorious still rage to this day; in terms of a military victory before Cuito, the SADF

and UNITA had clearly won, however the assaults on Cuito Cuanavale ended in

defeat for the assailants, and was the first SADF offensive that had been halted for

many years. Arguably, these events were significant, not only for the outcome of the

Cold War, but also for Namibian independence and the ending of the apartheid


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The events in Angola between 1988-1989, and the Border War in general, have

comparatively few texts actually written about them than, for example, the two World

Wars or the Vietnam War, and is a conflict which is little known in common

understandings around the world. The average South African university library, and

perhaps city library, will no doubt host a few books on the Border War, but most

literature would have to be procured either via book stores, internet orders or

borrowed from private collections. The last five or so years, though, have seen a

revival of interest in the Border War, and the desire for all its secrets and battles to be

displayed, much like with the Vietnam War for US soldiers (which was also not

considered mainstream for a while but is now the subject of many films and books),

and so this literature review can be written, despite a lack of “mainstream” literature.

This revival is possibly spurred on by the next generation of South African’s taking an

interest in what many of their parents or relatives had to live through and take part in

during the apartheid era, and by ex-soldiers finally coming to terms with and writing

about their experiences.

In South Africa, the Border War, in general, is considered something that

happened during, and as a result of, the Apartheid regime, and thus, most young South

Africans dismiss it as something that happened to the previous generation, but not

something they should concern themselves with anymore. The Border War is not

something readily taught in most schools or universities, and it is considered taboo in

many parts of the country to even speak about. Many black South Africans consider

the Border War the final act of aggression the apartheid government managed to

inflict before it was finally ended in 1994.2 As such, the final Battles at Cuito

Cuanavale, despite the victories the SADF did achieve there, are considered the

definitive blow by black-Africa against white-Africa which ended apartheid, as the

SADF was forced to withdraw after some failed operations and due to international

pressure. According to most of the literature (mostly autobiographies and biographies)

the SADF’s goal was never to conquer Angola, or Cuito Cuanavale, but thanks to

Cuba’s propaganda initiatives, stating that they had beaten the SADF, striking a

2 African Union report, 1983, “Resolutions adopted by the Nineteenth Assembly Head of State and Government” in Organiztion of African Unity. (Accessed on 30/10/10), pp 23: http://www.africa-union.org/root/au/Documents/Decisions/hog/sHoGAssembly1983.pdf

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decisive blow against apartheid, the world believed that this was indeed the case. The

apartheid government did counter these claims, stating that they had won the war,

whilst paradoxically they were in the process of silencing any news about the war

overall in South Africa and eventually ended Apartheid in any case.

Now, more and more texts are coming to the fore, and the opportunity to

effectively research the Border War, or in this case the Battles of Cuito Cuanavale,

has never been greater. This literature review will serve as a guide through some of

the texts which I believe have assisted me the most in understanding the events at

Cuito. Some of these works are also highly recommended by academics and ex-

soldiers alike and so special care should be taken in understanding them as many are

personal accounts, which, of course, is one of the best ways to understand any battle.

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Historical Narratives

When creating a critical literature review, one should always keep in mind the

author’s agenda, perspectives and disposition. Even though objectivity is something

many historical authors strive towards, it is something that, arguably, is not

achievable. The predisposition of the author(s) always enter into whatever it is they

are writing, even this literature review will be affected thus. It should also be noted

that some authors, especially in this situation, write their opinion and interpretation of

events unabashedly with their own bias, which is more than fine, provided the reader

is aware of this when reading the work. The literature analysed in this review, will

focus on who the authors are, why they are writing what they are writing, their

perspectives on the battles at Cuito Cuanavale and the more topical aspect of who, in

their opinion, won the overall conflict at Cuito.

The “who won” debate essentially consists of two camps: the Cuban / Angolan and

the UNITA / SADF. Both sides maintain that, despite any battles lost, setbacks or

failures, theirs was the overall victory. On both sides one will still find veterans of the

conflict who state categorically that their side won, regardless of what the other says.

Cuba was very quick and very loud in maintaining that they won, and

broadcast this “fact” to the whole world within days of the SADF pulling back. This is

so well believed that even Nelson Mandela, whilst visiting Havana in July 1991, said:

“We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed to the people of Cuba.

What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has

displayed in its relations with Africa?”3 in reference to the overall part that Cuba

played in liberation movements across Africa and the victory they created in Angola.

The names of fallen Cuban soldiers have even been included on the recently built

memorial wall in Freedom Park near Johannesburg, which honours heroes who fought

against apartheid, to the exclusion of all fallen SADF soldiers, who were seen as

defenders of apartheid.

3 Mills, G. & Williams, D. 7 Battles that Shaped South Africa. (2006) – Pp 187

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The War For Africa: Twelve Months That Transformed a Continent

- Fred Bridgland

Fred Bridgland’s The War For Africa: Twelve Months That Transformed a Continent,

covers the 1987 - 1988 operations which we are mostly concerned with, and provides

excellent analyses and facts, while also giving credit where credit is due, i.e. he also

acknowledges UNITA’s contribution to the victories the SADF enjoyed. Bridgland

also analyses how Cuba immediately claimed victory, after the peace accords were

signed, which Bridgland points out was “nonsense”, but that:

“…the Cuban story was taken at face value by Castro’s sympathisers in the

Western press and repeated so many times that it became received truth. The

Cubans were helped by the South Africans’ own clumsy efforts at propaganda,

which amounted to saying as little as possible about the full-scale war they

fought in Angola.”4

This is somewhat different to the viewpoint that Dr Greg Mills and David

Williams, authors of 7 Battles that Shaped South Africa, take wherein they hint of an

overall loss for the SADF / UNITA side whilst still showing that both sides lost and

won. At a glance, they do not seem to take any specific sides in their final few

paragraphs, rather choosing to write on the victories and defeats on both sides, which

include negotiation, military, political, economic and social spheres. They provide an

overview of the negotiation processes and touch briefly on the aftermath of the battle,

neither stating anyone categorically lost or won, although hinting along the way that

one side did loose. Given the guide-book style of their writing, and their aim to reach

a wide reader base, their style allows for a birds-eye view, as it were, on the numerous

operational outcomes.

Bridgland goes on to say that the SADF at no stage had wanted an all-out war

that would take them to Luanda as conquerors. Their objectives had been to fight a

limited war in support of UNITA and prevent the Cubans from capturing UNITA’s

strongholds; a view that General Jannie Geldenhuys, author of At The Front, also

shares. The SADF had succeeded in this and was content to let the Cubans take the

limelight (although, many ex-SADF want their victories acknowledged now).

4 Bridgland, F. The War for Africa: Twelve Months that Transformed a Continent. – Pp 228

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Bridgland summarises the war thus:

“The War for Africa and the New York accords provided Cuba with pretexts

for slipping out of a commitment that had become too hot and too expensive to

handle. In 1975, when the Cuban adventure in Angola began, the ‘scientific

socialist’ and ‘internationalist’ tide running from Moscow looked unstoppable.

By 1988 it was a faded dream. Despite 13 years of Cuban support, the Angolan

economy was ruined. The Marxist MPLA was in utter disarray and was trying

desperately to shed its ‘scientific-socialist’ past... Castro’s dreams of a Marxist

revolution spreading from Angola to encompass the whole of Southern Africa

had become a poor music hall joke...”5

This work really puts some meat on the bones of our research, and gives a very

wide scope of events whilst also detailing the events as much as possible, and with the

focus being on the 1987 to 1988 operations in Angola; certainly an interesting take on

Cuito. This is the first work so far, in this review, where the author is foreign. This

provides us with some “outsiders” perspective as well. Bridgland is a British writer,

biographer and is known as one of Britain’s most experienced foreign correspondents.

He has reported on wars in The Middle East, Pakistan, India and Africa, and has

filmed a documentary on the Angolan civil war which has been screened


He is credited as the being first to report on South Africa’s secret, US-backed

invasion of Angola in 1975, uncovering the CIA’s involvement in the Border War in

the process. It should be noted, however, that he has frequently been labelled as a

sympathiser to Jonas Savimbi, UNITA’s leader, and never more so than when he

published his first book Jonas Savimbi: A Key To Africa. Thus, any researcher should

be aware that these sympathies may colour his work.

5 Bridgland, F. The War for Africa: Twelve Months that Transformed a Continent. – Pp 372

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7 Battles That Shaped South Africa

- Greg Mills and David Williams

Possibly the best text for a quick understanding of Cuito Cuanavale is 7 Battles That

Shaped South Africa by Dr Greg Mills and David Williams. Dr Mills is currently the

director of The Brenthurst Foundation, which is “dedicated to strengthening Africa’s

economic performance”.6 He has degrees from universities as far afield as Cape Town

and Lancaster and has taught in several universities in the Western Cape. He has been

Director of Studies and then National Director at the South African Institute of

International Affairs and has also published several journals and local and

international press articles. David Williams is an Associate Deputy Editor of the

Financial Mail and an SAIIA Research Associate. He is acknowledged as an expert

on several desert campaigns in the El Alamein battles and has lectured often on

military subjects in South Africa. He has also served in the South African military and

at one point qualified as a Citizen Force infantry section leader. He has reported on

military affairs for the Financial Mail for many years and has published two books on


Given their backgrounds, why are these authors writing about Cuito?

According to their preface, they were inspired to write on the most influential South

African battles due to a conversation, between the authors, in 2002 wherein they

discussed the role of South Africa in World War II. More specifically, with reference

to the Italian POW’s who were incarcerated in South Africa during that time and how

this affected South African society. This brought about the discussion on South

Africa’s long involvement in warfare, and thus the decision to write this work was

taken between the two.

This work, as the title states, provides information on seven different battles

that occurred in South Africa through the ages and, as such, does not delve too deeply

into the battles themselves, but rather provides a guided overview of these events, and

so is perfect for building some framework on which to understand our specific battle

further. The authors acknowledge in the preface that this book is meant to be an

overview, and not “an exhaustive, encyclopaedic account of South African military

history.”7 They also go on to state that the work is meant to appeal to a wide range of

6 Mills, G. & Williams, D. 7 Battles that Shaped South Africa. (2006) – Pp 1897 Mills, G. & Williams, D. 7 Battles that Shaped South Africa. (2006) – Pp 14

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readers and that it is also meant to act as a rough guide to the battle sites themselves.

The authors have also personally visited each battle site themselves (except in the

case of Cuito, which is rather disappointing, considering how thorough the rest of the

work is) and have done extensive research into the events before, during and after the


The text traces the battle from beginning to end, including a lengthy first few

pages on the Border War itself and the events leading up to it, as well as some of the

aftermath of the battle and the Border War. Whereas, not nearly detailed as, for

example, Fred Bridgland’s The War for Africa, (whom Mills and Williams mention in

the opening page of the Cuito section) which really pushes to cover all the angles of

the Border War, it certainly makes up for it by providing the information in a reader-

friendly manner, ensuring all the main players are accounted for, as well as the main

events that make up the battle, such as the SADF / UNITA ambush of the FAPLA

forces at Lomba river, the siege of Cuito, the UN negotiations and resolution, etc.

The chapter also speaks about the lack of knowledge that the general public in

South Africa had of the battle (of which Bridgland and Jannie Geldenhuys, author of

At The Front, speak of at length) and the war in general. Many of the other texts seem

to gloss over this or mention it only briefly, but it was a huge factor not only for the

civilians but also the soldiers. It goes on to dedicate an ample amount of the pages to

understanding Cuba’s involvement and motivations in the war and at Cuito, which is

critical to understanding why the SADF pulled out of the conflict.

So, in their opinion, who won? As stated earlier, they take a more impartial

stance, showing who won and lost on both sides, and also chastising both sides for

their stubbornness. However, and this may simply be because they are South African

authors and thus have opinions with more South African slants than not, they do seem

to point out that the SADF lost overall as they were forced to give up many things at

the following negotiations.

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At The Front: A General’s Account of South Africa’s Border War

- Johannes Geldenhuys

Now we move on to a text of a more biographical nature. I would go so far as to say

that I enjoyed reading this one almost as much as I felt I had received an education on

the Border War from its pages. At The Front: A General’s Account of South Africa’s

Border War is written by Johannes “Jannie” Geldenhuys, a prolific figure in South

African and SADF history. He joined the South African Army as an infantryman in

1954, commanded South West Africa Command from 1977 to 1980 and was briefly

the first General Officer Commanding of the South West Africa Territory Force in

1980 before being promoted to Chief of the Army. He served as Chief of the SA

Defence Force from 1985 to 1990, and was a member of the negotiating team which

ended the 23-year-long Border War in 1989. He was one of the first authors to write

about the Border War and published At The Front in 1994 (although, at the time is

was under the title: Die Wat Wen (Those Who Win)), and republished it in 2009,

making use of new information and revised personal accounts to explain South

Africa’s Border War in this all-inclusive work. As Geldenhuys was directly involved

in most of the decisions involving Border War activities, and considering his

experience as a soldier and as a commanding officer, this particular work comes

highly recommended for understanding the mindset of the SADF intelligencia and the

workings of the upper echelons of Pretoria High Command.

His work is essentially biographical, however, but this simply allows the

reader to relate better to what he writes so one can understand the events from the

ground up, as it were. It is also a broad work, only briefly touching on specific events,

operations and tactics, instead rather giving a “general’s account of South Africa’s

Border War” than a specific retelling.

After the framework generated by the first text, and the strengthening from the

previous text, this is a good way to build some alternative understanding, as

understanding the commander’s mind-set during the war is just as important as

knowing the events themselves. Why this book is such a worthwhile source is that

Geldenhuys has kept his views and information largely unchanged, refusing to alter it

to fit political pressures or to compromise his thoughts and experiences on the matter.

One must always keep in mind, however, not too get too caught up in the stories, as

one must try to keep things relatively critical.

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Geldenhuys takes the stance that the SADF did not “win” the overall battle per

se, but rather that the SADF succeeded in achieving its objectives in the field, and

simply drew a stale-mate when attempting to take Cuito; justifying why certain

decisions were made with regards to pulling out. He also talks of media

misrepresentation, during and after the Border War, and of the media blackout

surrounding Cuito Cuanavale, berating local and international news agents for

believing propaganda then as now. One should be aware that this is Geldenhuys’

personal account of the Border War, and so much of what he says is personal opinion,

but he is frank about what he writes and only omits things, it seems, that may harm

himself or his family. If anything, he adds his own personal narrative to the overall

story of the Border War in a way that can help bring an aspect of understanding to

events at Cuito Cuanavale, or the Border War in general.

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The Buffalo Soldiers: The story of South Africa’s 32 Battalion 1975-1993

- Jan Breytenbach

One of the most important pieces on the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is written by

Colonel Jan Breytenbach, who was appointed by the Founder of the South African

Special Forces Brigade, General Frits Loots, as the first commander of 1

Reconnaissance Commando, aka “Recce’s” (the first unit founded within the South

African Special Forces.) He was also appointed as the first commander of the 32-

Battalion, aka “Buffalo Battalion”, as well as 44-Para Brigade. Thus, his text The

Buffalo Soldiers: The story of South Africa’s 32 Battalion 1975-1993, should be of

very special interest to anyone doing research on Cuito. This unit is legendary in the

SADF and was well-known amongst the Angolan and Cuban forces during the

skirmishes there, not to mention anywhere else on the continent high-command

needed them. It should be noted, however, that Breytenbach himself was not at Cuito

Cuanavale; rather the stories are told through the eyes of people who were under his

command and experienced Cuito first-hand.

32-Battalion were mainly deployed in southern Angola, acting as a buffer

between the SADF’s regular forces and its enemies. They also assisted UNITA

directly, although their main function was counter-insurgency, which eventually led to

them also being used as a semi-conventional force, especially during the later phases

of the war and at the various battles around Cuito Cuanavale. As such, 32 Battalions

involvement in the Border War is reported to have been greater than that of any other

unit of the SADF. It is also claimed that they caused more enemy casualties than any

other SADF unit, but these claims still require verification. Their legendary status was

boosted even further by their reputation for brutality, including allegations of targeted

attacks on civilians; torture and massacre (although, these reports are as hard to find

citations for as are their legendary achievements. That being said, they were highly

decorated for a reason, and many of the fantastical stories one would not believe are

indeed true.) The Buffalo Soldiers focuses on 32-Battalions story specifically, but they

were so widely used for so many roles, and were so deeply involved in skirmishes at

Cuito Cuanavale, that this work is an excellent resource for the would-be researcher

as it is filled with personal accounts and raw emotion (which is, of course, a danger in

and of itself when researching this work, as one might be swept up in the emotion of

the author).

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As with any mainly biographical work, this is filled with the bias of the writer,

however, this work should be noted for the seeming lack of any particular stance on

part of the author. This work is about the Recce’s, their deeds, services, victories and

losses as well as personal experiences. Breytenbach seems to refrain from stating any

definitive “who won” scenario and rather focuses on his own story as well as those of

the men he commanded, only commenting on political situations directly involving

him and 32-Battalion, which, of course, is completely fair given that the focus of his

writing is 32-Battalion.

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Days of the Generals: The untold story of South Africa’s Apartheid-era Military Generals

- Hilton Hamann

Next is Hilton Hamann’s Days of the Generals: The untold story of South Africa’s Apartheid-

era Military Generals, which consists of interviews with retired South African generals and

focuses on strategic elements and even differences between the generals themselves. This

work broadly speaks about various SADF operations, and focuses briefly on the Battle of

Cuito Cuanavale by describing the stalemated series of battles that occurred there, which led

to successful negotiations on the independence of Namibia. Hamann was conscripted into the

SADF in 1975 and fought in Angola that year. Hamann later became the military

correspondent for the Sunday Times, also wrote for the magazine Soldier of Fortune (which

has a long-standing and somewhat dubious reputation as a magazine for mercenaries and

assassins8), and travelled with the SADF, UNITA, and South Africa’s Special Forces.

This is the first instance, in this literature review, where we encounter a “scoresheet”

wherein the author points out that the SADF “won” due to the fact that their losses were far

fewer than the Angolans and Cubans. 4,785 men are listed as killed in action on the Cuban /

Angolan side, whilst 31 men were confirmed for the SADF. Naturally, this kind of

“scoresheet mentality” tends to bias the author to the point where wins and losses are

determined by numbers alone, thus devaluing human life and experience with regards to their

wartime experiences and accomplishments (or failures.), not to mention that it also blatantly

ignores the political consequences of the battles, and thus the fallout that the soldiers had to

deal with.

We find here though, that both Hamann and Clive Holt, author of At Thy Call, leave

out any UNITA losses, even though they too were heavy. It can be argued that the UNITA

losses were irrelevant to deciding an SADF military victory, in which case the SADF were

most certainly victorious up until the Cubans prevented them from advancing, however

UNITA were most certainly integral to some of the military victories the SADF enjoyed. That

being said, these works are SADF-based (and thus biased to varying degrees), and so it can

also be argued that UNITA losses are not important to the texts being discussed. One must be

aware that, as this is a collection of interviews, it is mostly a collection of personal opinions,

and therefore should be viewed as a series of personal views on historical events.

8 New York Times report on Soldier of Fortune magazine contract killings lawsuit outcome (2000) (accessed on 30/10/10): http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D01E5D9113FF935A25753C1A9669C8B63&sec=&spon=&&scp=10&sq=Soldier%20of%20Fortune%20magazine&st=cse

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On the Border 1965 - 1990: the White South African Military Experience

- David Williams

On the Border 1965 - 1990: the White South African Military Experience is also a very

important work to consider. It is written by David Williams, who also co-authored 7 Battles

that Shaped South Africa, who writes from personal experience as a professional conscripted

soldier and focuses on the trials the raw recruits endured, using his personal diary, and many

other first hand accounts, both from soldiers and officers, as references. Williams provides us

with the “grunts-eye view” which one can compare and contrast against the “generals-eye

view” from At The Front. He explains:

“Though the Border War ended 18 years ago, the war for its history continues

to wage. The term ‘border’ was deliberately used by the state to perpetuate the

fiction that troops were protecting the border and not actually fighting on

foreign soil.”9

This is important for understanding the mindsets of the soldiers fighting at Cuito. The

personal accounts truly bring the operations to the fore. One should be made aware, however,

that even though the work has many excellent pictures, details, such as who is in the photo

and where / when it was taken, are left out. However, Williams does include a terminology

glossary, a good list of sources and bibliography, as well as a worthwhile index and this book

is endorsed by Chester Crocker, who was pivotal in the negotiations that ended the Border


Williams dedicates the final chapter of his work to the question of “who won?” and

discusses it at length. He begins by presenting equal arguments from both sides, and then

focuses on SADF opinions specifically, citing Geldenhuys’ opinions above most others.

Williams seems to lean more towards the stance that no-one “won” per se, but rather that the

SADF objectives were met, which he then questions as possible “face-saving tactics”.10 He

also states that the question of “who won?” has: “…distracted attention from two other

engagements that were arguably more important – both tactically and strategically”11,

meaning the “thrust by FAPLA and the Cubans towards the Namibian border.”12

9 Williams, D. On The Border: The White South African Military Experience 1965 – 1990. – Pp 11710 Ibid – Pp 11811 Ibid – Pp 11812 Ibid – Pp 118

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At Thy Call We Did Not Falter

- Clive Holt

This next work comes personally recommended to me by many ex-soldiers and some

researchers, whom I interviewed regarding their experiences in Angola. At Thy Call

We Did Not Falter, by Clive Holt, is a corporal’s account of Operations Hooper,

Packer and Excite in 1988, the final year of the Border War. The title comes from the

South African national anthem at the time, The Call of South Africa: “At thy call we

shall not falter, Firm and steadfast we shall stand, At thy will to live or perish, Oh

South Africa, dear land.”13 Operations Hooper and Packer were important events in

the timeline of the Cuito Cuanavale battle and is considered the culmination of South

African efforts to assist UNITA movements and maintain a strategic base area. These

operations involved the heaviest conventional fighting the country has engaged in

since World War II.

Holt was a mechanised infantryman with 61 Mechanised Battalion Group ( a

group also heavily involved in Cuito and one recommended as a good source of info

by other soldiers and researchers) and was among the unlucky men who became

caught up in this fighting in late December 1987 and early 1988. The book contains

some rare pictures of the damage caused during the battles, which are few and far

between but most definitely help illustrate the occurrences there. One should keep in

mind what Holt said, regarding his work, when reading it:

“The Angolan war affected my life and the lives of many others in ways we have

not even begun to fathom. It was never my intention to produce a historical account

of the war; that has already been done. I wanted to write a first-hand account of

what it was like to fight in the war, based on my personal experiences and thoughts,

which I recorded in my diary.”14 


13 Holt, C. At Thy Call – We Did Not Falter. – Pp 414 Ibid – Pp 185

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Indeed, Holt succeeds in producing a vivid and powerful first-hand account of his and

others experiences on the Border.

Holt does not state specifically who “won”, but simply offers SADF and

FAPLA figures (read: losses) in contrast against each other (which overwhelmingly

shows the SADF as the victor against FAPLA – although, yet again, UNITA losses

are omitted) and strategic and tactical objectives which were achieved on part of the

SADF. He paints the image that the SADF won the conflict but without expressly

saying so, rather ending that particular train of thought with the short statement: “You

decide who ‘won’”15, which could be construed as Holt dodging the bullet, so to


15 Holt, C. At Thy Call – We Did Not Falter – Pp 108

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Beyond the Border War: New Perspectives on Southern Africa’s Late-Cold War


- Gary Baines and Peter Vale (eds.)

This next text is written by a wide variety of academics and delves deeply into the

almost everything there is to do with the Border War, with a chapter dedicated to

Cuito Cuanavale specifically. Now that the researcher has presumably familiarised his

or herself with the Border War and Cuito; Beyond the Border War: New Perspectives

on Southern Africa’s Late-Cold War Conflicts, which is edited by and with

contributions from Professors Gary Baines and Peter Vale, is the next important work

to consider.

Unlike the previous texts, this one hosts many different pieces of research,

opinions, criticisms and historical narratives. These different chapters will provide the

reader with a well-rounded perspective on the Border War, allowing one to get to

grips with many approaches to the subject, and for those researching Cuito Cuanavale,

it debunks many myths surrounding the events that happened there (although, it

should be said that a few of the previous texts mentioned also do, or at least try to).

Chapter 12, “Countdown to Cuito Cuanavale: Cuba’s Angolan Campaign” by

Edgar Dosman, is the chapter this review will be most concerned with analysing.

Dosman is currently a Senior Research Fellow and Professor in the Department of

Political Science at York University in Toronto. He has a PhD in Government and is a

“frequent writer and commentator on international affairs”.16 He is currently writing a

book on Cuba’s involvement in the war in Angola, from 1975 – 1991.

His chapter is the only instance in this review wherein the author writes more

on the Cuban involvement, and from the Cuban perspective, than from any other

perspective. Thus, this is a valuable resource for the would-be researcher where

information on Cuba’s involvement specifically is rare (in English at least). To

Dosman’s credit, he does state things with relative balance, acknowledging the

accomplishments and failures of both belligerents, but it is his access to Cuban

documents that makes his perspective unique in this review.

16 Baines, G. & Vale, P. (eds) Beyond the Border War: New Perspectives on Southern Africa’s Late-Cold War Conflicts. (2008) – Pp x

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Unlike most of the other texts, that deal mostly with the SADF specifically or

briefly mention UNITA involvement, Dosman analyses and critiques the relationship

between the Cubans and Angolans and determines whether or not the MPLA was

simply a Cuban proxy, as many of the previous texts state.

“In challenging the orthodoxy of the military history of the sub-continent,

Dosman supports Pierro Gleijeses’17 contention that intervention in Angola

proved to be South Africa’s, and not Cuba’s, Vietnam!”18

This sentence alone demonstrates Dosman’s perspective on “who won” wherein,

despite the relative balance of his article, he does feel that the SADF lost the most in

this conflict, not in terms of men or equipment, but rather in terms of political stakes

and perhaps credibility. One must ask, is this due to his Cuban-orientated perspective?

Perhaps, but his reasoning is sound and his facts are well-researched. This article

provides a worthy balance to the Border War perspectives and research.

The prospective researcher should keep in mind, as with all academic works,

that this work is not the be-all and end-all of the information on the Border War, and

is more of a collection of steps in the right direction: towards a more thorough

understanding of the Border War, albeit steps that take you past some very

informative signs on the sides of the academic road. Beyond the Border War, unlike

most the previous works, is not written by soldiers or ex-combatants or people who

have directly experienced war, and thus the articles can provide decent academic

understanding to a researcher who has encountered mostly biographical work, until


17 A professor of US foreign policy and author of Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959–1976 – a book tracing the Cuban intervention in Angola.18 Baines, G. & Vale, P. (eds) Beyond the Border War: New Perspectives on Southern Africa’s Late-Cold War Conflicts. (2008) – Pp 9

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“The victors of the liberation struggle, whose refrain is now the official voice,

appear to have triumphed in their version of events. Those who espouse the

SADF version are largely seen as discredited adherents of a regime based on


This quote accurately, and perhaps unfortunately, sums up the current viewpoint on

research into the Border War in South Africa. For the most part, if one writes from an

SADF perspective, one is considered an apartheid sympathiser. Conversely, research

from the Cuban / Angolan side is seen as false or exaggerating claims of SADF

failures and Cuban / Angolan successes, by many ex-SADF and some researchers.

Even though there is little written on the Border War, when compared to the

Vietnam War or World War II or even simply the Anglo-Boer War, there is a revival

occurring where the newer generations are taking a direct interest in South Africa and

South Africa’s history and getting to grips with subjects that have been taboo for so

long. The veterans of the Border War are also slowly but surely coming to the fore,

telling their stories and demanding to be understood rather than shunned.

Why this subject is exciting now is that it’s still fresh, there are still new

discoveries being made and soldiers to be interviewed and academics to generate a

real interest. People still have a passion for what happened there because it happened

to them. It was only a generation ago, and such a rare opportunity to engage with

those who fought the battles is exactly what a historian searches for.

For the time being, the occasional academic text and biographies are what will

constitute Border War literature, especially in the case of the Battles of Cuito

Cuanavale. Hopefully, this will soon change and the taboo subject of what really

happened there and who “won” will no longer be taboo, and will be something we can

discuss, not only as academics, but as a South African nation, where we acknowledge

those who served their country, regardless of what their government ordered them to


19 Williams, D. On The Border: The White South African Military Experience 1965 – 1990. – Pp 117

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Baines, G. & Vale, P. (eds) Beyond the Border War: New Perspectives on Southern

Africa’s Late-Cold War Conflicts. (2008)

Breytenbach, J. The Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of South Africa’s 32-Battalion 1975-

1993. (2009)

Bridgland, F. The War for Africa: Twelve Months that Transformed a Continent.


Geldenhuys, J. At the Front: A General’s Account of South Africa’s Border War.


Hamann, H. Days of the Generals: The Untold Story of South Africa’s Apartheid-era

Military Generals. (2008)

Holt, C. At Thy Call – We Did Not Falter. (2005)

Mills, G. & Williams, D. 7 Battles that Shaped South Africa. (2006)

Williams, D. On The Border: The White South African Military Experience 1965 –

1990. (2008)

African Union report, 1983, “Resolutions adopted by the Nineteenth Assembly Head

of State and Government” in Organiztion of African Unity. (Accessed on 30/10/10):



New York Times report on Soldier of Fortune magazine contract killings lawsuit

outcome (2000) (accessed on 30/10/10):




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Forged in Flames:

The SADF experience of

The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale

1987 – 1988

De facto Script

Garrett Eriksen


12 November 2010

Page 29: Forged in Flames


[Film Begins.

White text on black background fades in and fades out x 4: ]

The South African Border War lasted from 1966 to 1989.

During that time, many battles were fought, won and lost.

Cuito Cuanavale, an obscure Angolan town, became the final skirmish point, of a

series of battles and operations, lasting almost a year.

These are the stories of three SADF soldiers who fought in those battles.

[Music begins: “When the Man Comes Around – Johnny Cash”

White text on black background fades in, then fades out: ]

Forged in Flames:

The SADF experience of

The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale

1987 – 1988

[Series of Border War footage cuts begin to play.

Song and cuts end after approximately two minutes.

Fade to black.]

[Music begins: “Battlefield 1942 Theme”

Fade in from black to Google Earth Earth spinning.

It comes to a halt over Africa.

Yellow border-lines appear and Google Earth zooms in to Cuito Cuanavale - Angola.

White text on dimmed background fades in: ]

Page 30: Forged in Flames


The battles of Cuito Cuanavale lasted from December 1987 to March 1988 and

were arguably the most important battles of the South African Border War.

[Text fades out.

Google Earth then zooms out to show markers for Operations Modular, Pack &

Hooper as well as a marker for Mavinga.

White text on dimmed background fades in: ]

Operations Modular, Hooper and Packer were the three main operations

undertaken by the SADF and UNITA against the Angolan FAPLA forces, who

were supported by Russian advisors & Cuban troops.

[Text fades in to next text: ]

Mavinga was a strategically significant base which acted as a gateway from the

north to UNITA-held Jamba.

[Text fades out.

Google Earth fades to black.

Music ends.]

[Fade in to Danie Crowther section of interview.

Caption fades in: ]

Lt. Col. Danie Crowther

SADF Military Intelligence Officer (Ret.)

[Text fades out.

Danie talks on Military Intelligence, FAPLA & UNITA.

Fade to black.]

[Music begins: “Battlefield 1942 Theme”

Page 31: Forged in Flames


Fade in to Google Earth map showing markers for Operations Modular, Pack &

Hooper and Mavinga.

Marker for SA-8 SAM System appears, zooms in.

White text on dimmed background fades in: ]

Major Johann Lehman and Captain Piet “Boer” van Zyl capture an SA-8 SAM

system west of Cizizi / Cunzumbia confluence with the Lomba river.

[Text fades in to next text: ]

This was the first time such powerful and advanced Soviet tech had been

captured by a Western nation since the start of the Cold War.

[Text fades out.

Google Earth fades to black.

Music ends.]

[Fade in to Johann Lehman interview.

Caption fades in: ]

Lt. Col. Johann Lehman

SAAF Intelligence Liaison Officer (Ret.)

[Text fades out.

Johann talks on capturing of SA-8.

Fade to black.]

[Fade in to second Danie Crowther section.

Danie talks on FAPLA / SADF engagements.

Fade to black.]

[Fade in to Roderick van der Westhuizen interview.

Caption fades in: ]

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Cpl. Roderick van der Westhuizen

SADF 61 Mechanised Battalion (Ret.)

[Text fades out.

Roderick talks on personal experiences as part of 61 Mechanised, also provides

personal opinion on Border War in general.

Fade to black.]

[Fade in to second Johann Lehman section.

Lehman provides opinion on importance of Cuito Cuanavale to parties concerned.

Fade to black.]

[Fade in to third Dane Crowther section.

Crowther provides opinion on Border War, Angolan operations and Cuito Cuanavale.

Fade to black.]

[Music begins: “Die Kaplyn – Bok van Blerk”

Music video of song begins to play.

Afrikaans text (part of the music video) appears at the bottom of the screen: ]

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Grensoorlog – 1966 – 1989

(The South African Border War – 1966 – 1989)

Die Kaplyn was ‘n oopgeskraapte stuk grond aan die gevegsfront.

(The “Cut Line” was a

Dit was die Grens.

(It was the Border.)

Elke jong seun moes gaan veg.

(Every young boy had to fight.)

Page 33: Forged in Flames


[White text on dimmed background fades in: ]

The ceasefire that followed the battles of Cuito Cuanavale is regarded as a

pivotal event in the implementation of UN resolution 435, which brought about

the withdrawal of SADF forces from Angola and Namibia, and as a seminal

event which lead to the end of Apartheid South Africa.

[Text fades in to next text: ]

It was also an important even in the Angolan Civil War (1974 – 2002) and lead to

the independence of Namibia.

[Text fades out.

Music video continues.

Credits roll: ]

Forged in Flames:

The SADF experience of

The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale

1987 – 1988

Directed, filmed and edited by:

Garrett Eriksen

Special thanks to:

Danie Crowther

Johann Lehman

Roderick van der Westhuizen

Gary Baines

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Glenn & Andrew Eriksen

Linda de Jager


All those in the armed forces (serving and retired) who assisted me in my


All those in academic departments at Rhodes University and abroad who also

assisted me in my research.

All those who assisted me on my journey and provided me with open homes,

hearts and minds.

Stock Footage Courtesy of MNET

Music used:

Johnny Cash

“When The Man Comes Around”

“Battlefield 1942 Theme”

Bok van Blerk

“Die Kaplyn”

All video footage and audio data included in this film are the licence and

property of their respective owners. This is purely a non-profit academic work.

“War stories aren’t always about war, per se. They aren’t about bombs and

bullets and military manoeuvres. They aren’t about tactics, they aren’t about

foxholes and canteens. A war story, like any good story, is finally about the

human heart.”

-Tim O’Brien

Page 35: Forged in Flames


[Music video ends.

Film ends. Fade to black.]

Treatment on the making and writing of:

Forged in Flames: The SADF experience of

The Battles of Cuito Cuanavale 1987 – 1988

Detailing the journey from inception to completion

of all aspects of this thesis.

Page 36: Forged in Flames


The biggest danger when filming a documentary, especially one about human

experience, is becoming so involved in the story you are creating that you fail to

remain critical, and instead start to relate to those you are interviewing. Unfortunately,

I found myself falling into this trap and for quite a while, my new found loyalty and

friendship to the people I had interviewed, who had allowed me to be the one to tell

their stories, coloured my view of my research. I found myself sympathising with

most of what they said and defending them personally, rather than defending my work

on its own merits. Of course, developing friendships and relating to people is only

natural, it is just what happens, and is practically unavoidable.

As a researcher, however, and especially when dealing with research on

peoples experiences, remaining critical is what is important. One should also realise,

that being critical, does not mean being disloyal, or that you have to disprove the

stories the people you interviewed have shared, or show them in an unfavourable

light. All it means is that, you should not let your emotions cloud your judgement to

the point where your work becomes biased and one-sided (but do not forget to include

emotion in your work, or it will be dull and unreadable.) Try to balance it all and use

your emotions to your advantage instead of your detriment. At the very least, one

should strive to be critical when putting together the final draft.

Initially I was not sure what I wanted to research for my Rhodes University History

Honours thesis, but I knew I wanted to do something to do with warfare and soldiers

experiences, possibly on the South African Border War. I knew very little about it at

the time, apart from the fact that my father, Andrew Eriksen, had served as an Able

Seaman at Walvis Bay, at the signal station at Rooikop and that many of my

Afrikaans friends’ fathers had also served in the SADF, or who are serving currently

in the SADF or SAPS (South African Police Service). Not to mention I also grew up

in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape, which was a military town with one of the most

highly rated infantry training regiments in the world at the time; so seeing a Casspir,

an Ystervark20 and a line of soldiers marching about when I was growing up was not

20 Information on Ystervark AA vehicle, as per 61 Mech specifications (accessed: 08/11/10):http://www.61mech.org.za/equipment/14-ystervark

Page 37: Forged in Flames


that odd an occurrence. I spoke to Professor Gary Baines, whose course entitled

“Contest Pasts: History and Memory” had sparked my interest in how the world views

and remembers an experience, especially for soldiers, and he helped me whittle the

scope of my project down from the whole Border War, to just focussing on “The

Battle of Cuito Cuanavale”.

Initial research was difficult as there was not much readily available to look at,

apart from a few books Professor Baines lent me. I soon found that I had to purchase

most books myself and trawl the internet for more information. I found that there

were actually quite a few forums and websites on the Border War, and even quite a

few on Cuito and Angola in general. It was surprising how vocal these soldiers were

on the internet, some had created music videos of their experiences with footage and

photos from the Border War interlaced with music (usually Afrikaans country songs

about/from that era) and a stirring message near the beginning or end. One group has

even taken to creating miniature vehicles and models for war games they play with

Border War themes, even going so far as to create products such as t-shirts and

DVD’s that one can order via their site.21 One would think that the selling of Border

War themed t-shirts would cause some form of disapproval, even outrage, amongst

ex-SADF combatants, but it seems there is quite a vocal and positive community on

the websites forum that appears to not only support this, but offers insight into

improving models and even combat strategies for their games, as well as shirt


I looked further into the internet forums and stumbled into the argument that

seems to plague the operations that happened in Angola, namely “who won?” There

seem to be three general opinions on this question, and all seem to be very set in what

they believe: 1) the SADF won. 2) Cuba / FAPLA won. 3) Cuito Cuanavale was

never the objective in the first place, so no-one won as the SADF pulled out before

the fight could be concluded. I can’t help but notice that in all three camps, UNITA

seems to have been forgotten on the wayside. That being said, I do find that many

soldiers speak of UNITA troops fondly, but only seem to forget them when it comes

to tallying the score, as it were. Another camp exists, usually maintained by

researchers, that states that Cuito was the objective and that option 3) mentioned

earlier, is a story used by the SADF to “save-face” (more on this later).

21 “War In Angola” miniatures website (accessed: 08/11/10): http://www.warinangola.com/

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Eventually I decided that I wanted to do something unique with this topic, so I

decided to attempt to make a video game wherein the character would be able to play

a soldier from the different factions (SADF, UNITA, FAPLA or Cuba), and will

engage in various missions designed to not only provide the player with an idea of

what battles were like in those conflicts, but also educate them on the operations and

events that happened before, during and after the Border War. It was very ambitious,

too ambitious in fact, and whereas I did find some individuals who were interested in

creating the game themselves (and who have already made some progress)22 and who

were willing to help me, I soon found that I lacked the experience, expertise,

manpower and time to create this game as I had envisioned it. I abandoned the video

game concept and instead looked towards my background in film, and decided that a

documentary might not only better suit me, but this project as well. I cleared this with

Professor Baines and thought about the script whilst I was busy writing my literature


The literature review was a research project for Professor Baines’ and Professor

Vales’ Cold War Studies course, from the beginning of the year, which I decided to

add to my thesis. It focuses on mainly biographical and auto-biographical material,

with a few other non-biographical works as well, and in turn focuses on Cuito

Cuanavale. On a side note, I mentioned in the literature review that I chose to call

these the “Battles of Cuito Cuanavale”, instead of “Battle of Cuito Cuanvale”.

Through my research, and interviews with the soldiers I met, I believe this is a far

more accurate title. Even at Cuito Cuanavale, there was no one defining battle, there

were up to six battles that occurred around the town, all with varying ferocity, and

before that many other operations and battles all through Angola. There was no final

climax; the SADF withdrew and Cuito remained occupied. It all petered out as the

negotiations began to make headway. The “Battle of Cuito Cuanavale” never

happened, and was simply something Cuban propaganda created, named and used as a

symbol to rally behind and which the media picked up and popularised. Even the title

I created is actually quite inaccurate as it suggests Cuito Cuanavale was a climax to

the operations that came before it, but the operations ended in something of a stale-

mated anti-climax with Cutio just happening to be the final place the SADF could not

22 “Bush Wars” game mod website (accessed: 08/11/10): http://www.armedassault.info/_hosted/bushwars/index.html

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or did not take (depending on who you believe). I am not trying to choose a side here,

rather I am suggesting that “The Battle of Cuito Cuanvale” stops being used as the

title to describe the battles that happened there and a new title is given to it, or none at

all and each operation is treated separately. I think that this aspect may also be part of

the “who won” debate, as many people I spoke to, via emails, in person and on the

forums, told me that calling it “The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale” is highly inaccurate

and that I should look into it.

In order to facilitate the documentary, I had to find people to interview. So I used the

websites that I had made note of, from my previous trawling, and sent word out

detailing what my thesis was about and that I was looking for people to interview or

just provide basic information that could assist me in my project (this was about the

time people told me my title was wrong, as mentioned above). Very quickly I

received emails and replies to forum discussion boards on my request, with people

offering themselves to be interviewed, suggesting I get in contact with certain

individuals or organisations, website and book suggestions. It was through this

method that I eventually got hold of the three men I ended up interviewing: Danie

Crowther, Johann Lehman and Roderick van der Westhuizen. Danie and Johan both

live in Clarens in the Freestate and Roderick lives in Oudtshoorn (my hometown).

Approximately twenty people were interested in being interviewed, of those ten were

of direct relevance to my research and of those I chose Danie, Johann and Roderick as

they seemed to be of most interest as well as being the most convenient to interview.

All who contacted me were SADF or 61 Mech, except for one UNITA member who

only contacted me after the interviews had been completed.

I chose Danie, for his role as a military intelligence officer, and his

connections within the (ex-)SADF then and now, Johann, for his role in capturing the

SA-8 missile system, which I had read about in 7 Battles That Shaped South Africa by

Greg Mills and David Williams, and for his proximity to Danie. I chose Roderick, for

his “on the ground” experience in 61 Mechanised Battalion and his geographic

location. As a student researcher, I had no budget to speak of, so I had to pick

locations and interviews that were relevant to my work, as well as economically

efficient. Thanks to the generosity of my parents, Andrew and Glenn Eriksen, I

managed to achieve this and I believe the information I got from the interviews was

worth more than all the petrol money I could muster.

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After arranging the interview times, which were to be during the vacation we

had from Rhodes University, between 28 August to 5 September 2010, I drove up to

Clarens and spent the night at Danie’s farm.23 In his interview he was very

forthcoming with information and provided plenty of reference material for later

research. Johann was just as interesting and very helpful in helping me pinpoint on

Google Earth maps where the SA-8 system was captured (as Google Earth has no

listing of the Angolan river systems, which made it nearly impossible to track the

operations properly until I found a download which mapped out most SADF

operations in the Border War24). Roderick’s account hit me the hardest, it was clear

the story he told was rather unsettling and painful for him, but I think he was happy

someone was taking an interest. His war memorabilia collection from Angola was

also very interesting to go over, as well as his photographs.

I spent the next few months editing the footage and putting together what I thought

would work for the tone of the film. I managed to get stock footage from MNET and

used excerpt from their Grensoorlog documentary series, as well as Google Earth

map footage and a variety of music tracks, as well as Bok van Blerk’s Die Kaplyn

music video as my credits background.

The footage flows from a collection of Border War images, captured from the

Grensoorlog DVD’s, with Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” playing in

the background. I chose this song for its apocalyptic imagery, as Cash sings about the

end of the world brought about by the biblical apocalypse. I believe it was an apt

metaphor as the war destroyed and ended many lives and changed the world for many

more, as war tends to do. The footage then moves to Google Earth with the war-

themed “Battlefield 1942 Theme” song playing. I felt this footage was similar to those

games and movies where a futuristic, holographic map is used to display the

battleground for the soldiers, and it was something of a homage to the game I never

managed to create. The music is also from a war-themed computer game, so I thought

they matched quite well. I wanted the audience to be able to see the places that the

interviewees talk about, so they can get an idea of where things were in relation to one

another. I also added some text to set the scene further and provide more context for

23 I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Danie and his lovely wife for having me over and for the delicious supper, as well as Johann and Roderick for their time and support.24 User-made Google Earth Map of South African Border War (accessed: 08/11/10):http://bbs.keyhole.com/ubb/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showthreaded&Number=425893&site_id=1#import

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the audience, this was my replacement for the narrator voice, which is explained

further on.

The documentary then moves to the first interview, which consists of Danie

Crowther speaking about SADF military intelligence as well as UNITA and FAPLA

and their relations to one another. Following that is another Google Earth section with

information and markers about the SA-8 system. This sets up Johann Lehman’s

interview where he speaks of his capturing of the SA-8. We then move to Roderick

van der Westhuizen’s section, wherein he speaks of his personal experience involving

a MiG dropping a bomb on his mechanised battalion, killing and injuring two soldiers

respectively. He then provides his final opinion of the Angolan operations. We then

have Johann and then Danie doing likewise, ending with Danie’s final words on the

matter. Following this is Bok van Blerk’s Die Kaplyn with the credit sequence rolling.

I originally had a different song chosen, but Professor Baines suggested this song and

I feel it suits the ending far better, especially the lyrics which talk of the “Cut Line”.

The blurb under the music video on the page for van Blerk’s CD reads:

“From 1966 to 1989 The South African Defense Force (SADF) fought a

war on the border between Angola and South West Africa (today known as

Namibia). This 23 year conflict is today referred to as the Forgotten War.

The 'Kaplyn' (cutline) was a thin strip of land cleared of any growth. This

was the border.

During this period every single white South African son was forced,

through the Conscript System, to serve at first, one, then later two years as

soon as they left school. A total of 715 South African Soldiers gave their

lives to protect their country.”25

Originally I had wanted to film a documentary which was done in “omniscient

narrator” style, which basically entailed that members from both sides of the conflict

are interviewed and the documentary does not take a particular stance. Rather it “tells

it like it is”, showing the different sides and arguments, spiced up with footage and

music, and lets the audience decide. It was only when I was editing the footage that I

started realising that I wanted to make this more about the three men I had

25 Blurb for Bok van Blerk’s Die Kaplyn music video (accessed: 08/11/10):http://www.liquida.com/video/a3e63cb5c/die-kaplyn-bok-van-blerk-van-cd-afrikanerhart-blog-www-diekaplyn-co-za/

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interviewed, and their experiences as soldiers in the SADF, than the overall conflict. I

also left out the narrator voice to allow them to tell the story themselves, thus keeping

it more personal and focused.

I think, in the end, it came out very well and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire

process leading up to it and the stress that occurred whilst creating it. I am hoping

that, at some point, I can take this to a production company and get a proper budgeted

documentary made, in the same style as those that include actors and fabricated

scenes and explosions of all sorts. Joking aside, I think this is the kind of conflict that

could benefit from having a more soldier-specific approach, for both sides of the

conflict, and hopefully this will allow a more diverse audience to connect with and

understand the soldiers who fought in the South African Border War.

One piece of critique I have is that the three I interviewed seemed to have similar

opinions on what happened, to the point where it warrants further investigation,

seeing as this ties in with the “who won” arguments: they all said that Cuito

Cuanavale was not an objective and that the true objective, which basically boiled

down to installing democracy in Namibia and Angola without communist / Cuban /

Soviet influence, and thus protecting South Africa from Die Rooi Gevaar26, was

achieved. They also said that, if one looked at the SADF’s operations per objective,

most of them were successful, and that, when compared to those of FAPLA or the

Cubans, the SADF is the clear winner. This includes losses, as the SADF lost far

fewer troops and equipment than did any other force present. When speaking with my

father, he also agreed that, at the time, it was a fact that the Soviets would probably

invade South Africa at some point and that the SADF was all that stood between

South Africa and a communist take over, which at the time was a terrifying prospect.

Danie and Johann were quite positive about their experiences in Angola,

almost to the point of nonchalantness, whilst Roderick was decidedly more bitter in

his recalling. Despite this, all three believed the war was important and that without it,

South Africa would be a very different country. One has to ask, though, given the

time scale between the conflict, the natural degrading of ones memories and the

literature and general opinions that would probably circulate amongst these close-knit

groups of currently serving and ex-soldiers, how much of their opinion has been

altered or coloured by the influence that such information circulation would have.

26 “The Red Danger” – referring to the threat of communism.

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Their opinions seem to be shared, for the most part, by the online communities

I mentioned earlier, and in much of the literature. Of course, it is only fair that they

feel pride in their part in the war, as they lost many friends and relatives and faced

much trauma fighting for what they believed was right. They state that they did not

fight for apartheid and that they were fighting to preserve South Africa and prevent

communist-friendly governments from starting near South Africa. This may be true

for them, being what they genuinely believed then and now, it could also be that they

are reacting to the general negativity and anger that has been displayed towards the

(ex-)SADF and the conflict in general, as the SADF was seen by many as the

Apartheid governments guard-dogs. They could be pulling back defensively, using a

“it wasn’t our fault, we were following orders” cover story, which would also be

understandable considering how many South Africans, especially black South

Africans, still feel about the war and the era pre-1994. The Border War is known as

“The Forgotten War” by many ex-SADF and some researchers, that title alone

suggests that, much like the Vietnam War for American soldiers, their achievements

and sacrifices have not only been misunderstood, but disregarded utterly and even

blamed for being negative impacts on South Africa.

Honestly, it is hard to say. I was not fully aware of what was happening until it

was well over as I was just a child when all these great political changes were

occurring. What I do know is that they believe what they are saying is true, and many

will stick by this until they die. As a historian, and as a critical thinker, it is my job to

ask these questions, even if they are uncomfortable or difficult. It can be very hard

being critical of someone whom you consider a friend, and again, these are the

dangers associated with creating a documentary such as this one. However, if they

truly stand by their convictions, then no manner of critical questioning in the world

will alter that, which can be a blessing and a curse.

Overall, this has been an amazing journey and hopefully, the research

generated here will inspire further researchers to delve into this incredibly interesting

field whilst it is still available to be researched. The soldiers who fought in the

conflicts in Angola need their stories told and analysed so that everyone can better

understand them and so that we can remember the Forgotten War.

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Information on Ystervark AA vehicle, as per 61 Mech specifications (accessed:



“War In Angola” miniatures website (accessed: 08/11/10):


“Bush Wars” game mod website (accessed: 08/11/10):


User-made Google Earth Map of South African Border War (accessed: 08/11/10):



Blurb for Bok van Blerk’s Die Kaplyn music video (accessed: 08/11/10):



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Transcriptions of interviews held between

30 August 2010 – 03 September 2010-11-09


Garrett Eriksen


Interviewed (in order):

Lt. Col. Danie Crowther – SADF Military Intelligence Officer

Lt. Col. Johann Lehman – SAAF Military Intelligence Liaison Officer

Cpl. Roderick van der Westhuizen – 61 Mechanised Battalion


Personal experiences in Angolan Border War operations with special

reference to the Battles of Cuito Cuanavale

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Lt. Col. Danie Crowther – 30 August 2010

Okay I started my career in the military in 1980. Being called up for national service

to Potchefstroom. The artillery was 1st,4th Field regiment, I then got selected for junior

officer’s course, went to the school of artillery in Potch. In 1981 moved to 14th Field

Regiment and that was also my first exposure on the border. We also participated in

Operation Protea in the artillery at that time. 19……

I then…first joined short service for an additional two years in1982, I think, I was

recruited into the Military Intelligence Division, South African Military Intelligence

Service. As such I did the selection, got approved, and was transferred to Military

Intelligence Headquarters in Pretoria, which was at that point in the Pointon building.

I then went to the Military Academy. I did the B Mil degree and went back to

Pretoria in 1985. As from 1986 I was working on the Angolan Desk in Military

Intelligence…External Directorate, external Theatre, which covered all the so called

frontline states at the time.

Right, so in the headquarters the….what military intelligence…..the Intelligence

Service within the Defence Force was first of all the arms of services. They each had

their own intelligence. At the Chief of Staff Intelligence, which was Military

Intelligence Division was the Strategic Intelligence Organisation of the Defence

Force. Whereas the army, navy, the air force and the medical services also had their

own intelligences. It was purely intelligence of a tactical nature. So it has to do with

battles. What happened there…..our role as a strategic Intelligence organisation was

to look at the whole conflict…at the theatre of conflict that took place. Which means

that where the desk, or the section that we working in, was called the section western

front. Which included Namibia and Angola because it’s one theatre of battle. But of

course you must also take into consideration that that war took place against a bigger

background, which was the Cold War.

So of course that also meant that we looked at policy and decisions in the West,

specifically the United States and Britain, that could influence the war. We had

intense knowledge of the Russian, the Soviet government and what’s happening in

there, and of course Cuba which was heavily involved in that war. So it’s not only

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about military, it’s about politics, it’s about economics, and in the end every…all the

factors that influenced in the end our forces on the ground. The team at Western Front

were highly trained. I think we were the best in the world on what we did, especially

Angola. I think we knew more about Angola than the Angolans themselves, at the

time Same with what’s happening in SWAPO. I’ll just talk a little bit about the

intelligence work. People often do not understand it properly because there’s a sort of

mystical secrecy stuff around it and there is that too. But the majority of our

information was open source information, so we would…had a section that collected

newspapers from all over the world and our military attaches gave us information and

always in any service like that, that forms the bulk of your intelligence work, from

where you can do your analysis. Then we had other sources which was very

important to us was electronic warfare where we listened to two way radio

communications of the enemy. We also had, together with national Intelligence, the

capabilities to intercept satellite communications. A system called Valkoog, which I

believe is still in existence today. I suppose much more advanced, which allowed us

to intercept telex communication, stuff like that which was a vital part of our

intelligence collection. We then also had relationships with various other intelligence

agencies of countries that were…I won’t say necessarily pro South Africa, but that

more anti-Soviet in that sense.

So we worked together with the CIA, the American Defence Intelligence, with the

Brits, with Germany, with Israel, and various other services. And there was a regular

exchange of information between that. Another component of our intelligence feed

was of course our forces on the ground, so there was a good communication system

right from the border, from the front to the various sector headquarters, to sector

headquarters to the territory force in Namibia, and from there feed through to us and

the communication line was effective and fast and it worked well. We also…..that

was at the time a highly secret component, but we had an intelligence staff deployed

with UNITA which was an important part to access all the information that UNITA

gave us with their forces on the ground. Okay, then there was the covert collection

aside, where we had teams, the Directorate of Covert Collections was responsible for

that, where they had their sources within various strategic positions within the

Angolans, within SWAPO etc. And this is the cloak and dagger stuff, and all that

information was also fed through to the desk where we would evaluate it and

disseminate it to the relevant things. That’s more or less what the work entailed.

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It also meant that this team was highly schooled in the soviet military tactics and

operations, and how to…how it was conducted. I think that knowledge was centred in

Military Intelligence Division. Within the army even, I mean we reported directly to

the Chief of the Defence Force, so we weren’t part of the army or the navy, whatever.

We were Chief of the Defence Force staff. The division itself did not have any

operational capabilities as such. There’s perceptions that has been created in the

media, especially herein the early 90’s that military intelligence was involved with the

third force, and it’s all nonsense. The organisation did not have that capability. We

did not have the capability to run operations, except operations to gather intelligence

or to communicate certain message outside. That’s the essence of…of…of the work.

Right, the focus here is what happened in…in…in the Cuando Cubango Province

1987. It…..that battle was, I think, the…..I think everybody knows that that was the

turning point. That was the defining moment in this long history of that war when that

triggered the negotiation process. FAPLA tried to attack UNITA and the focus has

always been to destroy the Jamba. Which was the headquarters of UNITA in South

East Angola, from where UNITA fought their war all over Angola.

Now the whole South Eastern Part of Angola, specifically the Cuando Cubango

province was controlled by UNITA’s, FAPLA had no access to that territory and of

course it was a thorn in their flesh. The support to UNITA was very important for

South Africa, because UNITA formed a buffer between…from the Namibian border

between the South African forces, the Cuban forces, and it hindered SWAPO ion

executing their…their infiltrations into Namibia. It was also important….UNITA

played an important role in bringing about a balance of forces, a balance of power in

Angola. Now that balance of power in Angola was..…was vitally important. Given

the background against the cold war, I think I must just explain that a bit. If we looked

at the cold war which was essentially triggered by Soviet expansionism which started

straight after the Second World War, it built up over time. We had the arms race

between the…specifically the United States and the Soviets into nuclear and various

areas. But the Soviet doctrine was focused thereon to get the communist ideology

established all over the world. And there were certain strategic areas for that to take

place. And Southern Africa is one of those vital points, and it had to do with a few

things. And I think the first thing is the strategic location of South Africa in terms of

shipping routes.

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If you control the southern port of Africa, a huge part….I can’t remember the exact

figures now…of the shipping from East to West goes past the Cape of Good Hope So

it is strategic in a geopolitical sense It is highly important. At the time South Africa

itself was the biggest producer of gold and various other minerals in the world. And

for any…..in this ideological warfare that took place between these two super-powers,

access to those minerals was important. Also, denying the other party access to that

minerals was important, if you can’t get your hands on it yourself. So…the Soviets

had the strategy of letting other people fight their wars for them. And that’s where the

surrogate forces was created. And that happened all over the world. The history of all

those revolutions in the territories was taking place.

So, on the one hand we had this…er…..battle taking place here in the southern point

of Africa, against the background of a conflict between the United States and the

Soviet Union. And for both parties the outcome of it was important. But there was

another dimension to the war, and that was that within South Africa we were facing a

revolutionary war. A revolutionary war defined in our terms, and that’s a recognised

definition all over the world. That a revolutionary war is fought to bring about a

change of government by unconstitutional means. And that was in essence what the

ANC was fighting in South Africa. That was what SWAPO was trying to bring about

in Namibia. That is how the MPLA came to power in Angola. That is how FRELIMO

came into power was through this means. So that was one of the methods that the

Soviets used with their doctrine to get governments, pro-Soviet governments into

place into various places in the world and specifically also in Africa.

Right, um…..in Angola, since 1976, more or less, the Cuban forces was a factor. I’m

not going to go too much into the history of that now, but at that time when we

reached 1987 the Cuban forces reached the level of about forty thousand troops. Very

well equipped with the best Soviet technology that was available at the time, like the

SA-8 air defence system. It’s a ground to air missile defence system. It was unique in

the world. The west had nothing similar, and we didn’t even have the capability of

neutralising it at the time. It was a very, very effective weapon system. Highly

sophisticated. Tanks, T54 tanks generally later in the war the T62 tanks that came in.

Towards the end brought in by the 50th Division of Cuban forces, and that was the

first time that this highly sophisticated Soviet equipment was used in a war anywhere

on the globe. Right…we….okay, given the situation in Angola, the focus was for

FAPLA to destroy UNITA. Without destroying UNITA they did not foresee a

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change of government can take place in Namibia. And I think they were right in that


So they started…they launched offensives …in 1985 Operation Second Congress was

launched from Cuito Cuanavale with the aim to capture first Mavinga and then Jamba.

They reached the outskirts of Mavinga, they were stopped by UNITA, with the aid of

South African artillery..…at the time that was deployed, and some ground forces, very

limited forces. In 1986 there was Operation Alpha Centauri, then launched by

FAPLA. Same pattern, and they got hammered properly. South African Air Force

involvement, artillery involvement, very little ground forces. There were some 32

battalion elements and some special forces that was deployed, but that’s it. I don’t

think in those two operations the total contingent of South Africans on it were SADF

soldiers on the ground. I don’t think that the total contingent of South African forces

committed in 1985 and 1986 was ever more than three to five hundred, if that. And

here I’m talking about specific operations in aid of UNITA. Right, 1987 was a total…

in early 1987 we received the first indications that a major offensive was being

planned. I can remember very well the first….although we suspected in our

appreciations and with loose pieces of information coming in, that a build-up of

equipment and……was about to happen in Angola. We intercepted a letter from

President dos Santos to a lobbying group in the United States, where he instructed

them to help to prepare the….to, ja…call it a propaganda war if you want to, but to

prepare the climate for a major offensive against UNITA, and he gave them certain

guidelines. And from that we clearly deduced that something big was coming. And

now with a piece of strategic intelligence like that, immediately it triggers a whole

process of collecting, of being very aware and so on.

We quickly picked up that more arms were coming into Angola, ships were coming

from Russia, more tanks. And we were seeing FAPLA 16th Brigade being re-trained

by the Cubans, re-equipped. So the 21st Brigade, the 25th Brigade, the 47th Brigade, all

of them was being re-equipped and being re-trained. And it’s all indications of a

major offensive being planned. As time developed, we became very well aware of

what their plans was. The early preparation phases took place where our…we liaised

extremely close with UNITA to prepare for that. We did…..we expected that South

African forces would be involved because we quickly realised…I think round about

June, July, we already knew that UNITA will not be able to…to….to…withstand this

onslaught on their own. Although we didn’t know what force levels would be

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involved, there was no doubt in our mind that the SADF will get involved in those …

in this coming battle. So ground reconnaissance was done. We did very detail terrain

studies, so that we could predict the routes on which FAPLA was going to advance

towards Mavinga and then later Jamba.

The…um…..the offensive, the build-up took place, and we defined the start of the

defence….the offensive, the moment the FAPLA forces crossed the Cuito River at

Cuito Cuanavale Now the name Cuito Cuanavale is about the confluence…it’s a small

little village on the confluence of the Cuito and the Cuanavale rivers. There’s a bridge

there which is a vital…in their communication and their logistics and so on. So the

first step was to take the bridge out. Um….we waited ‘til the main force of

the….which consisted of four brigades. The 21st Brigade, 16th Brigade, 47th Brigade,

59th Brigade and…sorry five brigades and the 25th Brigade, which formed the main

force of…of FAPLA when they crossed the river we wanted to take the bridge out so

that they are cut off from their logistics. That was firstly done by a team of

reconnaissance Special Forces guys, that was dropped off north of the bridge. They

then swam down the river. They were from 4th Reconnaissance Regiment which was

the divers. Quite an interesting story. The guys got to the bridge, they attached the

explosives, got back into the river and one of them was bitten by a crocodile right

between his legs. The crocodile missed his vital parts, luckily. But they then…the

guards on the bridge became aware of their presence and there was a lot of shooting

going on and so on. They hid on the river-bed between the reeds and a day or what

later got out. All of them alive. But the charges went off…it did damage the bridge,

but not enough.

So a second attempt was made, and that was….I believe one of the first times that a

smart-bomb was used by an air force in an operation where this bomb…I think there’s

better technology today,…but essentially they video-tape the route to the bridge, the

bomb gets dropped many kilometres from it and then follows the path up the river,

and that took out a section of the bridge. It was not big enough to stop them. They

managed to do some repairs, but it allowed time to…to prepare. The first

deployment of South African forces was artillery. UNITA was already deployed

there, their regular battalions there. Their regular battalions were the guys trained in

conventional warfare, armed with relatively light equipment, but they were okay.

They were good, well-trained. And it was their job to stop it. So the initial forces

from South African side was first of all the artillery. The Valkyrie 127 mm multiple

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rocket launchers, G5 guns, and then the anti-tank eskadron Squadron from 32

Battalion was also deployed. They were equipped with Ratel 90’s to that.

Now at the time I was still in Pretoria at Headquarters. My job there was to be totally

focused on the tactical situation. I had to compile the maps and then do the daily

briefing to the general staff at Defence Headquarters, as well as to Chief of Staff

Intelligence. Started very early in the mornings, collected the information, plotted it

on maps, contacted whoever needs to be contacted to get clarification and by …

normally by 7o’clock in the morning we would start the briefings. So I was in a

position where I was very well aware of what was happening on the ground. Right,

the first skirmishes took place just outside of Cuito Cuanavale..

Now just...I want to say at this point, the words battle for Cuito Cuanavale is a bit of a

misnomer, because there was never a battle at Cuito Cuanavale. Everything took

place to the west of…..excuse me, to the east of the Cuito River. And there was never

an intention to go to the west where Cuito Cuanavale is situated. The instruction…the

first instruction to the forces was to harass and delay the advance of FAPLA up to the

Lombo River. At the Lombo River…. then further forces were committed. 61

Mechanised Battalion was deployed, as well as the rest of 32 Battalion, elements of

101 Battalion, some Special Forces and supporting staff. That was the combat units

at that time. In total not more than one thousand five hundred people. We’re talking

at more or less four hundred and fifty fighting combat troops and the rest was support.

Logistics staff etc. etc. Air Force was already involved.

The Air Force also played their role in stopping the advance, but we had a big

problem. Fr the first time we did not have air superiority. It had to do with a few

things. The first one was the distance from Rundu. We were now fighting about 350

kilometres into Angola and the holding time of the Mirages was very short. And

secondly is….for the first time they deployed the SA-8 missile system which we knew

very little about, except that it’s very effective Now that meant that the Air Force had

to change their strategies. That mostly the Mirages would come in very, very low and

then do a toss bombing. They would release the pitch up into the air, round about four

kilometers before the target, throw in the bombs and then break away to stay out of

range of the SA-8’s which…the guys were bloody good. They were still effective.

But it’s not an ideal situation. The other thing is that they could not keep the MiG’s

away from us because of the holding time is so short, in the air. Which meant that far

the Angolan air force had free reign. That limited our movement during the day. We

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moved mainly in the night because we will get bombed. I’ll talk a bit about the

bombing a bit later.

Right, so FAPLA advanced up to the Lomba River and that was the second phase of

the operation….was to halt the advance at the Lomba River. That was the specific

instruction to the forces. The first attempt to cross was 21st Brigade. The Lomba

River runs from west to east. Then there are two rivers running from north to south

into the Lomba River. The Cuzizi and the Cunzumbia. The 21st Brigade was deployed

to the west…excuse me, east of the Cunzumbia River. And they tried with the first

attempt to establish a bridge there and cross the river. The river itself is not the only

obstacle in that crossing because it’s a floodplain that’s about at places up to five, six

kilometres wide, with no trees on it. Dense, dense bush on the side, then you have this

floodplain with a river in the middle .. It’s quite a big river. They used T & M bridges

that they wanted to cross. The tactics was to first of all bomb the opposite side, where

they want to cross, with artillery, then move in the tanks up to the crossing point. Start

shooting anything that moves on the other side. Get the bridge across the river, cross

the first few tanks to establish a bridge-head, and then the infantry would cross, move

a bit further ahead and then allow the rest of the forces to go in.

32 Battalion was deployed there, they dug in, in proper defensive positions, just on

the bush-line next to the…um….next….ja, next to the floodplain. And then withdrew

out of the positions. The reason was the fears of gas attacks. We had several reports

during the time that chemical and biological weapons were used by the FAPLA

forces. We had several cases…now I’ve seen these guys myself from UNITA that

was bombed in the north of the country by artillery…had some very strange

symptoms. Many of them we flew up to Pretoria and was…there was a lot of time

spent on what was it that poisoned them. And we didn’t really know. All we knew is

these guys did use gas. We also knew that they were equipped for this type of warfare.

Now it’s something we knew very little about, really. We had very rudimentary

protection against it. Some gas-masks was available, but we basically used raincoats

as protections, you know. We didn’t know. So we….we……32 Battalion pulled out

of the positions. When the artillery from FAPLA bombed that positions there was

nobody there. When the artillery fire lifted, very early in the morning, 32 Battalion

quietly moved back into position.

When they crossed the river they waited till the first tank crossed the bridge and all

hell broke loose. They fired with….phew,.., I’ll have to check the name on the

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system, but it’s a laser-guided anti-tank missile which was used the first time in battle

there. It was still under testing. That took out the first tanks and the Valkyrie systems

caused havoc with their infantry. So they failed. They tried a second time, also failed.

My involvement in that operation was just after that battle. I was in Pretoria and

General Chris Thirion Who was the Chief Director of Military Intelligence, he called

me to my office and said ‘you need to deploy’. Combat Group Bravo which consisted

of 32 Battalion and elements from 101 Battalion as their Intelligence Officer. I was a

Captain at the time. I had 24 hours to pack and say bye to my wife. Next morning I

was on a plane to Rundu arrived in Rundu, reported at the Sector 20 Headquarters, the

Intelligence office there to get briefed. I then reported to the Chief of Staff

Intelligence base in Rundu, which was the UNITA liaison office. Drew some

equipment there. I didn’t really know where I was going. I must say it was quite a

situation. That night got onto an aircraft, flew to Mavinga and then had to find a

vehicle and somebody. I then hitch-hiked and found a Buffel that took me to the

Brigade Administrative area and the Brigade Headquarters which was deployed round

about….I’d say….forty kilometres south of the Lomba River, to the west of Mavinga.

Arrived there at the night, got briefed and the next day joined the …..Commandant

Robbie Hartslief was the Commander of Combat Group Bravo and I joined the

combat group there as the Intelligence Officer and immediately started preparing.

Luckily I knew exactly what the situation on the ground was. They were without an

Intelligence office for a while. The one they had was sent to 61 Battalion because the

guy was…at 61 Battalion was not very good, and then pulled back.

Right. Um……Okay, then….I don’t know. I’m not going to describe every single

battle, but the big crunch thing……okay that was after the second attempt of 21st

Brigade What happened then was at the source of the Lomba, the 47th Brigade went

around the source of the Lomba to the south of the river to establish the bridge-head

there. They were not going to join up then with 21 Battalion, but with 59. 59

Battalion was deployed between the The Cuzizi and the Cunzumbia rivers, so when

they….the first crossing failed with 21, they then decided send 47 around the source,

let them establish the bridge-head, bring the 59th over and then move westwards

along the Lomba and allow 21 to join and move from there to Mavinga. That was the

plan on FAPLA’s side. Although we knew 47 was going to go around the source,

there was no attempt made to stop them, there was only harassment fire from the

artillery, and we allowed them to deploy it. Very near the confluence of the Cuzizi /

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Lomba rivers. 61 Mechanised Battalion led the attack against 47. The first attempt

was unsuccessful. It was mainly terrain, that was the issue. The bush is dense. It’s

extremely dense. You…er…you can’t see more than 20 metres in that bush, which

means that your main weapons, your anti-tank weapons cannot be applied. But terrain

is neutral, because it’s the same for the other forces as well. What FAPLA did in that

situation was these guys were very good at digging, and they dug themselves in. We

didn’t like that very much. We preferred mobile warfare, and we would rather move

to a point where we attack and be able to move out quickly and never get dug in to a

specific situation except the situation where we had the river crossing. That’s


Right, but these guys dug in and 47th was well dug in. Everything was underground.

Good overhead cover….um…and there they were sitting. So it’s a tough nut to crack.

61 failed in their first attack. I think we lost a few troops. They re-grouped, decided

to attack from a different direction, I think three days later, and it was havoc.

Um….behind the 47th Brigade a bridgehead was already….a bridge was already set up

across the river, and that was the escape route should they go into trouble. When the

attack came with huge ferocity, the G5’s were devastating, and when they started

withdrawing…um…the artillery took out the bridge behind them so they had nowhere

to go. 47th Brigade was crushed. There was nothing left. Only two hundred infantry

without equipment. We captured all their tanks, all their equipment, and that is where

the SA8 missile system first fell into South African hands. Johann Lehman was the

guy responsible for that. Um…..right, so…..right….um…47th Brigade was crushed

and that marked the end of the FAPLA advance. They were effectively stopped.

Although FAPLA at that point did not give up on the offensive. They decided to re-

group, so they retreated their forces to form more or less a defensive perimeter around

the bridge at Cuito Cuanavale, if you want to call it …so they deployed forces to the

sources of the Mianei river, then at the confluence of the Hube and…what’s that

river? …um…that’s the Cunzumbia? Anyway there’s a bridge there. 21st Brigade

was there, 16th Brigade further north, 21st Brigade between the two of them. I

lie….the first…then….I must just remember now. Sorry, let me just re-think again.

Okay, they withdrew back to …first to the north and then they deployed southwards

again. This time to…..to…between the Cuito River and the source of the Lomba.

There’s a river there, the Miyama….. Miyama formed the southern part. They

deployed there with 25th Brigade and 59th Brigade to the west. There we had a very

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interesting thing. When these troops were moving down we knew their movements so

well. We know exactly the speed at which they move when they advance. And we

were picking up on the radio that the communications between the front tank

commanders who were leading the advance. So we calc…we knew the position

where they started, but there were no eyes on them so we couldn’t see where these

guys were. There were no artillery observers that could see their movements and so

on. But we guessed it and we calculated..okay, they should be more or less in this

area. We plotted it on a map and we gave those co-ordinates through to the artillery

who started firing. In the meantime our guys were listening to the tank commander

reporting. And we would report, ‘shots landed 50 metres to the left of us’. We would

tell the artillery move the fire 50 left, until the radio went quiet. That was…ja. And

that tactic was used several times.. When we used their own communications and the

way they reported on our fire to…to…to hit them.

Right, then we….er….Combat Group Bravo decided to attack 25th Brigade at the

source of the Mianei. It was hectic. Once again the terrain is inhospitable. It is

absolutely terrible. You can’t see. It is high trees, big trees, and bush with heavy

undergrowth. And I think we took a bit of the plan, I can remember the two of the

Intelligence officers it was 61 and 32. We were not happy with their plan these two

commanders came up with. Because what they decided was to move to the north, find

the tracks of where 25th went to their deployment area and then just follow the tracks

in until we get them and hit them. Which is stupid because that’s where the guys are

going to deploy their main force. We had zero intelligence on the deployment

itself….let me say quality intelligence. We didn’t have aerial photography, for

instance, available yet. The only thing is we had ground forces supported more or less

where the position was. We moved to the north, we joined up with UNITA and we

started to ring in with 61 as the attacking force, 32 Battalion in depth. And as

expected, all hell broke loose. They started shooting at us. We turned around and we

ran. That’s the first time I actually saw the whole 61…what they looked like.

Because you can’t see the whole battalion in the bush. But where we were

deployed….. the holding force, and 61 was in front, all these vehicles came past us

when they started shooting. We then, with the anti-tank weapons, just held FAPLA

back so that 61 can re-group and then we withdrew out of it. The….the battle had a

bit….after that a bit of a stalemate for a week or more.

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I think everybody rested after the previous battles. From our side, we re-grouped, did

re-training, some R & R. It was wonderful. We were there in the bush. They flew in

meat for us so that we could have a braai for the first time in months. It was quite

great. Okay, then the instructions came for FAPLA to move further back and form

the defensive perimeter around Cuito Cuanavale. We then decided to stop that retreat

of the 25th Brigade, and we engaged them at the source of the Hube River. That

battle….phew..they were…as they pulled back to the north they stopped against the

Hube River with their defence focused to the south. We decided to attack them all

along the side of the river from the west with the combined force from 32 Battalion

and 61, it was Combat Group Alpha and bravo, to move in there. We moved all

through the night. The battle started very early in the morning and lasted about nine

hours. At the time we took out….if I remember correctly, eleven tanks, from their

side. We …considerable losses on their side. We did not lose…we had some

wounded, nobody dead.

There was a terrifying experience. It was the first time that…although I’ve read in

books that it is in Russian doctrine, that the red eye, the Russian 122mm rocket

launchers, was used in a direct role. In other words we could see it just across the

little stream there. And this rocket launcher took it’s rockets down, because it’s an

indirect weapon. It’s supposed to fire over kilometres. And the next moment all this

stuff just starts going past you. It is crazy. But it didn’t hit us. It was a fierce battle.

A bit of a humorous incident there was we didn’t have a padre with our combat group.

Normally after battles we…it was between….the various squadron commanders or

the company commanders and Robbie Hartslief, Commander Hartslief to de-brief the

soldiers. So they would do it in their own way. Read a bit out of the bible, everybody

tell their story, cry a bit about lost comrades etc. etc. and then ‘Okay boys, let’s go

back to battle’. There was no professional way of dealing with this and the chaplains

were normally supposed to do it and we didn’t have a chaplain. Just before that battle

a young chaplain, he was an Anglican Chaplain if I remember correctly, was attached

to our Unit and he was specifically given to me because I had space in the Ratel. So

he formed part of our crew. Um….within the heat of the battle of that day, when we

re-grouped in the evening the Padre was gone. We didn’t know where he was. No

idea. He was gone. Now this is scary stuff…um…no other troops lost, this guy is

gone. He was reported missing in action. Nobody…some troops saw him at some

time, and we tried to find out but nobody really know. About three days later we then

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found reports, way back from the brigade administrative area which was about eighty

kilometres from us, which is about… in that bush it’s about three days drive. He

arrived there. He hitch-hiked some logistics vehicle back but he just said ‘ no more

battle for me’. He was out. That happened thee at Hube river.

Right…um, we withdrew 25th and 59th then went around the source of the Hube river

to cross the bridge and a very silly instruction came from Brigadier Swart who then

took over as the Brigade Commander, whom I felt at the time was not really in touch

with what was going on. He felt that FAPLA was now so de-moralised that they

won’t fight back any more All we have to do is just chase them and shoot them a little

bit. They will bugger off across the Cuito River, which of course didn’t…so they

chased them across the bridge and then the guys dug in. So now we had the 25th

Brigade at the Shamabinga? Bridge, we had 21st Brigade further north, we had the

remnants of 21st Brigade and we had 16th Brigade dug in. It was then decided to

attack 16th Brigade. The forces were then strengthened and 4th South African Infantry

Regiment was deployed. 4 SAI. And for the first time tanks arrived from the front. It

was huge excitement. We couldn’t believe our eyes. I mean we were fighting all these

days, various fights against tanks, we shot out many of those, over a hundred at that

time, and we never had tanks of our own. Doctrine wise you fight tanks with tanks,

and we didn’t do it. This was big-time now. And 4 SAI was used to attack 16th

Brigade. A very fierce battle raged. I didn’t take part in it. We were deployed in depth

as a reserve force. We listened to it on the radios and we heard the shooting. That was

two days o heavy fighting. Withdrew, they went back and they caused them severe

losses and 16th Brigade was dislodged from that position and moved closer to Cuito

Cuanavale…..um….then……we…we were now nearing the end of Operation


On the 25th…sorry the 24th of November, Combat Group Bravo was ordered to attack

the 25th Brigade at the Shambinga bridge. Once again a very difficult tactical

situation with the bush. We decided to use the Shambinga River as our navigational

aid, move in around the source, then come in from the north. Our terrain evaluation

told us that where 25th Brigade was deployed, just to the north west of it was high

ground. A little hill. And what they normally would do is what’s called a brigade

outpost, would be deployed on top of that, with about four tanks, some infantry. The

idea is to force you to attack them and then they would withdraw you……withdraw to

their defensive positions to pull you in to where their main force are deployed. So

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that’s the most dangerous route of attack. And we evaluated that deployment. We had

some good feedback from the artillery guys who had visual on the target. We once

again didn’t have aerial photography, but we felt sure we could do it. But we had to

pass that little high ground. And the idea was that we would get close, then UNITA’s

5th Regular Brigade would be used to attack that force, that brigade outpost, to allow

us to pass and then we would attack from the east and not the north-west which they

would have liked us to do.

It was difficult going. We departed at dawn, right through the night, and we had to

move through the positions where 16th Brigade was previously deployed with a battle

with 4 SAI Now they were dug in, so it was extreme slow movement at night. I know.

I was, as Intelligence Officer, navigating this force during that night. It was

nightmarish. So we were very late. It was already daylight when we arrived close to

their positions. And UNITA, as usual, was late. Er…eventually, then there was

minefield, we had to clear that before we could get through on our route. Luckily we

saw it in time. UNITA then attacked the brigade outpost and failed miserably. They

just fired their weapons for five minutes and that’s it. Gone. So we decided we’ll take

it. Do it ourselves. We’ll take these guys head-on. So we moved into that bush, onto

that hill, engaged the enemy on the hill ..um….and we quickly wiped out that little

force and as we moved over the top of the hill we were now on a slope facing the

enemy. And just after the short battle we were busy with re-grouping. So that meant

that the guys were out of the vehicles, they were counting their ammunition, do

replenishment where necessary, check the vehicles, etc. etc.

I was sitting in my Ratel with all the intelligence systems and radios and stuff going,

and I heard one of the artillery observers directing fire onto the target. Now I needed

more information. I didn’t know exactly where their tanks were deployed. You know

we used a tactical map of that area, and we always tried to determine as accurately as

possible where the headquarters of the enemy is. Where their…. we looked for things

like radio masts and most importantly, what my Commander always wanted to know,

Robbie Hartslief, is ‘where is the tanks?’. Because if you break the back of the tanks

you destroy the force. Now while we sitting here, their artillery was responding as is

their tactics onto this hill. But the artillery was shooting over our heads behind us on

top of the hill. I made contact with the artillery observer and he said well he was not

far, about three hundred metres in front of our tanks in a tree. And he gave me some

directions. I went to Robbie Hartslief, told him that we have visual on the target and

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that I’m going to go to the guy. He said he is coming with, and Hannes Nortmann

who was the Commander of the Squadron, Ratel 90. Squadron Commander, Major…

um….the three of us then set off on foot. Now in this type of situation, you know you

sit in a Ratel with a heavy helmet, with radios and stuff. Here I just took it off, I took

a map, my sketch-book, a binoculars, compass, all the tools of my trade, not even a

rifle, no helmet, nothing, and run. And the three of us went there, we found the guy,

we got up into the top of a tree

Okay, right, so it was me, Robbie Hartslief and Hannes Nortmann. We arrived at this

young artillery observer. He was a lieutenant, I think. And he was parked with a

Casspir underneath the tree and he was up in the tree. We climbed up there and we

had a beautiful view of the 25th Brigade’s position. I was sitting there with my sketch

book and could plot what was happening. In the meantime this artillery firing that

went over the hill stopped. I was immediately concerned about it because I knew that

they were going to adjust the fire, but the big question is do they know where we are.

The next moment we draw small arms fire. We literally fell out of the tree, lie down

behind the wheel of the Casspir. We had about six troops just as protection around us.

There was exchanged fire, but it was short, it took about a minute or so and it stopped.

Robbie Hartslief was next to me and he said ‘what was that?” I said ‘well, I think it

was a reconnaissance element from the enemy that…to find out where our position is.

They want to adjust the artillery fire. He then said ‘well , let’s get back’ He

immediately radioed back all troops back into the vehicles because they were out in

the open at the time. I did not go back to my vehicle. I got back into the tree because I

needed more. I was still busy checking this situation out, and I still didn’t know where

all the tanks were I sat there, I spotted them and was quite excited, I could advise the

commander on how to proceed with the attack and I had to run about three, four

hundred metres back to my Ratel.

Heavy artillery fire rained down on our position. It was D30 guns, it was 122 rockets,

the whole works. And mortar fire as well. That was the longest run of my life. I

didn’t make it. A few metres away from my Ratel I could already see it. As I was

running, something exploded in front of me and hit me on the top of my head, as I

was running, it penetrated here, my face, and my chest .I fell down. I couldn’t walk.

I didn’t know I was hit in the head, I thought I was hit on the legs because I couldn’t

move my legs. But I was totally conscious. A few minutes before that there was guy

called Jan Swart. He was standing next to his vehicle and I shouted for Jan. He came

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to me, saw what was happening and went to fetch a medic. Medics came. At that time

another mortar fell on top of the hatch of a Ratel that was parked right behind me and

that driver was killed instantly in that situation He was the only guy we lost that day

There were about fourteen of us wounded with that artillery fire. The UNITA

Commander was also shot in his stomach. They then… ..the medic stitched me up.

My face…immediately, there under fire. They then took me, put me into the Ratel and

Robbie Hartslief decided to withdraw. And that was the end of the operation for me. I

had to wait until night-time, got blood transfusions, was then transferred. Had to go

by field ambulance to a point where a helicopter can pick me up, which had to be out

of the artillery range. So it was only about midnight. It was about three o’clock in the

afternoon when I was shot. At midnight we had a copter pick me up, flew me to

Mavinga, there on a Hercules C-130. To Rundu, into the hospital at Rundu, and only

there I realized I was actually shot in the head, when they did the X-rays. They then

casevaced me back to Pretoria and round about six o’clock the next day I arrived at 1

Military Hospital. That was the Thursday. Friday night they did a brain operation.

They could not take the shrapnel out. It was still in my head. I was paralysed on my

left-hand side. The medical treatment we received was world class. A few weeks later

I was walking again and although I was booked off for three months, I couldn’t . I

think I stayed home a week and I said to my wife ‘I can’t sit at home while my mates

are dying in the bush. I have to get back to work’. And I went back to Military

Intelligence Division, walking with walking stick…not really walking, more limping

all over the place. But anyway, we got on walking. Right, so I assumed my role again

at Headquarters, briefing general staff, keeping everyone up to date with the day-

today- running of the battles.

To briefly summarise what happened next was the 32 Battalion and 61 Mech and 4

SAI. Was replaced with citizen troops. We then led several attacks against these

forces. The instruction was to cause enough damage to these forces so that they will

not be able to launch another offensive at that time. So that consisted of constant

artillery fire, some ground attacks against these forces which were now very deeply

entrenched more or less in a half circle to the east of the Cuito River. And they

wanted to drive these forces back against the river and then create a….a…..enough of

a hindrance in terms of minefields, to make it extremely difficult to cross. Cuito

Cuanavale was never in the picture, never. The only thing that happened east of the

river there was an element of 32 Battalion. Once again Robbie Hartslief, and some

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artillery guys who went to the far east of the river up to Manong and fired some

artillery on their logistic troops. Just to cause some disruption there as well.

That’s it. It has nothing to do with Cuito Cuanavale. The idea from the beginning

was harass, slow down the advance, stop the advance, chase them back and then cause

as many losses as we can to the forces. In that we succeeded at that time. Right,

round about that time the Cubans brought in the 50th Division from Cuba, to deploy in

the west. Now what nobody knew at that time is that the first contact was made via a

messenger…it was a major that arrived in Pretoria from Portugal with a message from

Dos Santos. It was actually a funny situation. This guy tired to contact the ministry of

Foreign Affairs. When they heard it was about Angola they said the military must

handle it. They gave him the number of the Minister of Defence. They refereed it to

the Chief of the Defence Force, who referred it to the Chief of Staff Intelligence, who

referred it Chief Directorate Military Intelligence to Directorate External Theatre, and

it landed on my desk. To go and see this guy…um….I didn’t know what it was about,

met him, saw the letter and realized something is happening. They wanted to talk.

Now although the indications of 50th Division deployment and the intelligence was

already coming in, its’ often the perception, especially by the Cuban propaganda, that

the deployment of the 50th Division in the west, together with so-called losses we

suffered in Cuito Cuanavale. I don’t know what losses they were talking about, very

few…um, forced our hand to go into negotiations.

It is not true negotiations had already started before that. I think it did play…..the

deployment of the 50th Division did play a role in giving more urgency to the matter.

Now, with the deployment of the 50th Division into western Angola…um…or south-

western Angola, did put, from a pure military perspective, us in a bit of a dilemma.

The planning to....to attack this forces was done. It was huge planning. It was called

Operation Hilti and never took place. And that would have been an attack on the

main force at Manong. Our estimates was that on the first day of battle we would have

lost three hundred troops which I think was politically unacceptable at the time.

Um…right, the negotiations then started. The first….er…meetings was very, very

covert meetings and it was mainly between departmental officials. We established a

communication channel between South Africa and Angolans in New York at the

United Nations, where there was representatives from them through Foreign Affairs.

A team was assembled from the Department of Foreign Affairs, from SADF and

National Intelligence.

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Yes. To run this negotiation. It changed our focus on the desk quite a lot. Now we

had to still look at this military situation, but we had to put ourselves in the position to

know what these negotiations were about. The first meetings then took place in Cape

Verde…er….on the island there where….on a technical level the main thing that was

discussed was the way withdrawals should take place because here linkage was the

issue. Now, let me come back. If we look at the war in 1974 where it all started, and

specifically in 1978, when the United Nations…their Resolution 435 was accepted,

South Africa accepted the implementation of Resolution 435 in ’78 already, but on the

condition that the Cuban troops must leave Angola and that the democratic process

must take place in Namibia. If you look at what firstly SWAPO was planning at that

stage, and specifically the Constitution they drew up for Namibia in 1978….it was to

have a one party Marxist government in Namibia. The intention was to cause that by

revolution. That was it.

Secondly, at the time in 1978, the escalation of the presence of Cuban forces took

place. South Africa always said that from 1978 on…um…from 1978 on, that we will

implement it if there is a democratic process and the Cubans withdrew. And that was

still the position we went into the negotiations…Chester Crocker got involved and the

whole issue of linkage was brought into the….it has been around for a long time, but

that was now on the forefront. That, yes, we negotiate, the message from the

Angolans was very clear. The losses was unacceptable to them. They could not

continue. We had, in the negotiation process, a very militant stance from the Cuban

side throughout, but the openness to talk was there. An interesting thing that…

okay….we…I’ll come back to that just a bit later…….several meetings then took

place in the technical level, that decided how withdrawal should take place. And it

had to do with, first of all more or less the line from Lubongo. To Cuito Cuanavale.

All forces had to move north to that, and then further back to the north of the

Benguela railway line. The Cuban withdrawal, a phased withdrawal for them and

them out of the country. Whereas the South African forces would first of all

withdraw out of Angola, consolidate in Namibia, specifically Sector 1 Zero and 2zero.

That was in Oshakati, and Rundu. Then group at Groottfontein and move back with

the final movement back taking place on the 1st of March 1989. That was the time.

The negotiation process was difficult at times. I was in several of those meetings, and

then the breakthrough came in Egypt. The meetings in Cairo where the

Minister…..where the politicians got involved. We had Pik Botha there, General

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Magnus Malan was there, the Minister of Foreign Affairs from…from…..Cuba. The

initial...the first day of the negotiations in Cairo was hectic. It was to such a point that

the South Africans felt, ja, we’re not going ahead. But then a key meeting took place

between General Ochoa Sanchez who was the Commander of the Cuban forces in

Angola and General Jannie Geldenhuys. The two of them had a discussion where a

very cordial discussion….I wasn’t present in the meeting, but I later on had to do the

transcript… you know, when General Geldenhuys told us what happened we wrote it

down. And essentially the message was that the sons of both countries, Cuba and

South Africa, were dying in a foreign country and it is time to end the war. And that

meeting of minds that took place between those two generals then transferred back

into the political arena. Sadly, Ochoa Sanchez was blamed for the loss at Cuito

Cuanavale Was later brought some trumped-up charges against him. I’ve got the book

here interestingly enough, if you want to read it. The Cuban version. And he was

executed by the Cubans.

Right, various commissions were set up to monitor the ceasefire. The ceasefire was

signed and basically that withdrawal then took place eventually at the start of

Resolution 435. Now there was another thing there was when the SWAPO invasion at

1…..1st of April, sorry, 1st of April 1989. I’m not going to go into that now because its

past Cuito Cuanavale. Right, just some perspective, if we look at the objectives that

was set to the South African Defence Force by the Government in 1978. It was that

Resolution 435 must be implemented in Namibia, that it must be a democratic

Constitution and there must be no Cuban forces in Angola when that happens. That

was the aim of the war. We achieved that. We achieved that.

The other thing is that means that that conventional side, as far as I’m concerned,

we’ve won hands down. If we look at what the other side was planning…that was to

have a revolutionary overthrow of the South African presence in Namibia, the

establishment of a communist, one-party state in Namibia, that did not happen.

Which meant that there is a whole other dimension to the war which I didn’t even

touch on. That’s what happened in Namibia. That was revolution, a counter-

revolutionary war that we were fighting. We won that hands down. I can even pull

that through to South Africa. If we look at what the ANC intended, specifically their

Kabwe Conference, also in 1978, it took place in Tanzania. No I lie, it took place in

’87. At Kabwe in Tanzania, the ANC had a specifically revolutionary programme.

And that was the unconstitutional overthrow of the government in South Africa and

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the establishment of a democracy as they called it. But if you look at that document it

is a Marxist document. That did not happen. I think that the Defence Force, South

African Defence Force, in both Namibia and South Africa, has fought one of the most

successful counter-revolutionary wars that the world has ever seen. Because we

implemented the democratic state in both Namibia and in South Africa.

The fact that the AMC or the SWAPO, politically became the government of the day

is neither here nor there. That is not what it was about. It was never about the party.

SWAPO was always legal in Namibia. They could operate. It was different in South

Africa, but in SWAPO was always a legal political party there. The only part that was

banned was their military wing….plan which was solely defeated, many times over.

Um….so…um….I think information…I think that was....because people often ask me

‘was this war worth it?” I don’t think any war is ever worth it. But if we look at what

South Africa set out to achieve in Namibia and Angola, we have achieved that. And

that is the important point. It’s not about the propaganda or Cuito Cuanavale.

Although it was a defining battle. Um…that was not the strategy…the strategy of

South Africa was not to win Cuito Cuanavale, or any other battle for that matter. It

was to have a democracy established without Cuban and Soviet presence in Angola.

And that’s what we achieved in that war. I think that’s the essence of it for me.

Um, a few other remarks. I think…I feel greatly honoured to have been part of the

South African Defence Force. We were….I nearly swore there. We were bloody

good. We knew what we were doing. Our troops were in very difficult situations

in….in almost unthinkable situations. Brave, well-equipped, well motivated, and there

were hard times. I know there was a tone time during the Operation Modular there

was mutiny, almost. A mutiny in 61 when one of their companies refused to go back

into battle. After these guys had really got hammered hard. 18 year old guys that

saw, in that 3-4 months, more battle than almost any soldier has seen during the whole

second World War. I don’t know if I can describe to you the intensity. You know I

pershonally was involved in ten conventional battles. And when it’s conventional

battles, I’m not talking about a skirmish. We’re talking about big stuff here. Tanks,

aircraft, bombing the shit out of you…the noise. And these battles last for hours on

end. It is never-ending. You go without sleep for days. You don’t know what a bed is

like. You stink. You haven’t seen a bath or water for two, three months. It’s hard.

It’s tough conditions. And yet these guys, many of them national servicemen…. it

was exemplary. I’m so proud to have been part of that. It was worth it. Every bit. I

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think that’s my summary. I don’t know if you have more questions? If there anything

you want me to specifically go in…?

(Garrett Eriksen: )

Why do you think they have given it the name the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale?

Why do you think that title specifically has suddenly become the thing? Do you

think it is partly because of the original propaganda from Cuba, that they named

it that? Was it a name that they just picked up somewhere?

I think that specific…there was a speech Fidel Castro made. Um….More or less

when the ceasefire was signed. More or less.. that was more or less the timing. Where

he gave an analysis of the situation. A very long speech, but it’s quite a famous

speech. It’s worthwhile reading it. Where he gave his perspective of the war in

Angola. And Fidel Castro really twisted the facts. And the way, in that speech, he

described it…was that South Africa was the aggressor in south-east Angola. That the

offensive was launched because of the South African presence there. Which is

bullshit. We weren’t there. We only went in when they started the offensive. And then

that we wanted to take the strategic town of Cuito Cuanavale, but could not succeed.

We did not take Cuito Carnvavale because we did not want to. But, okay, and then he

said because our forces…now they totally overestimated our forces. I mean we were

never more than three thousand two hundred troops I think, in total, involved in the 6th

military region of the FAPLA…the Cuando Cubango Province . Never more than

three thousand two hundred at any time. I don’t think in any operation there were

more than three thousand two hundred troops. Their estimates of South African

troops, there runs into the tens of thousands. They say 30, 40, depending on which

fool you propaganda you read. He said they were committed there, and their strategy

was then to deploy the 50th Division in the west, which would split the forces in two.

And South Africa has committed so many forces and they would not be able to cope..

…and because of that clever strategy of that, we had to negotiate. It’s not true. We

had three thousand two hundred there and we had another two hundred thousand

available to go in if we wanted to. Sorry,….but that storyline was now carried

through in all the propaganda from that anti South African forces over the time. And

this story is being told over and over, and over. And it’s not true. It doesn’t

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correspond with the facts on the ground. We know it, I mean we were there. Anyway,

we were part of that process, so ja, never. It was never the intention. In fact, we never

really had a fight with the Angolans. You know, we …it was never about Angola. It

was about the Cubans ja. Getting them out. And strategy dictated and so on. And it

was about SWAPO, very definitely, in the end. We didn’t really have a fight with the

Angolans. I mean there was no reason for us to go and attack Luanda or Cuito

Cuanavale or anything. That’s silly. But I think that’s why that story…specifically

that speech of Castro, paved the way for this propaganda exercise that took place and

still continues.

Do you think that the SADF veterans have been partly betrayed by their

country, I suppose, after the war and even now, as far as …the general opinion

seems to be that the SADF at the time was fighting for apartheid, and you know,

they were apartheid’s lapdogs. And we do know that the SAP and the SADF

were used for example clearing out certain townships and what not. But the

general opinion is that…………….

Let me just put a thing here straight. We were bloody professional as soldiers. And we

were taught to serve first of all everything we did was guided by the Defence Force

Act and the Constitution of South Africa. Not apartheid. Not the political party. We

were apolitical in a sense. And I’m talking about professional soldiers, and I know

that there are a lot of national servicemen that has certain perceptions about

specifically the communication that was given to them about the ANC and so on. And

most of the stuff they heard were true, but there is all this perceptions that is created.

So first of all …even in my later career where I was involved internally in South

Africa, it was always apolitical. It was always objective. We told politicians stuff they

didn’t like to hear. And our job was to stabilize the situation. To have a stable and

safe environment wherein, in the end, elections could take place. And it happened. So

we were successful in that.

With a change of government,..um…it is..…I think the end of a war is always a

difficult situation for battle-hardened soldiers because we don’t like peacetime that

much. It’s a bit boring being a peacetime army I think. Betrayal….there are a lot of

emotions about it. Um…I don’t think so. You know I know the generals, many of

them. I know them well. My father was also one of them and these guys always

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remained loyal. And to this day if you go and speak to General Geldenhuys and these

guys, they’ve got the highest appreciation for..for..for what everybody has done Not

just the guys in battle. Also the guys who did the work here at home….and the

extreme difficult situation we had here in South Africa, with this deployment in the

townships. I don’t think that any General liked to send these troops into that

conditions. But the change of government, and with the propaganda in it, I think the

betrayal is in there. In that. That we got tarred with a political brush, which I don’t

think we deserved. That is…I don’t blame the generals. I do think that the politicians

hasn’t done a good job in the negotiation process, to protect our interests. It became,

for many of us who were professional soldiers and who would have liked to be a

professional soldier until we retire, it became impossible for us to continue in the

SADF because of politics and we were tarred with a brush which we didn’t deserve.

In that sense that is sad, ja. I won’t blame generals, no. But the politicians made a

hash of the negotiations as far as this is concerned.

Thank you. Is there anything else you want to say. I think I’m ....

Are you happy?

Ja, no that’s great. Thank you so much.

Pleasure, there’s so much more I could tell.

- END -

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Lt. Col. Johann Lehman

Okay, um….let’s just begin by just telling me…um….your name, occupation,

what rank you were when you retired or left the armed forces. And then just tell

me what you are going to be talking about.

My name is Johann Lehmann. I live in Clarens and I run a little accommodation

establishment. The period we are talking about, I was a so-called Intelligence Liaison

Officer between the South African forces and the UNITA forces. I‘m talking about

the period 1986 to 1988, I left the air force in 1993. The rank of Commandant, then


I think you want to know about 1987 Modular and the taking of the SA8. I was

somehow…got separated from my liaison team in…...must have been September of

1987 and found myself billeted with the forward command group of 32 Battalion.

And together with a guy called Piet van Zyl, Captain Piet van Zyl, famous ‘Piet Boer’.

Was asked by Jan Hougaardt to do a recce into the area where 47 Brigade was

cornered and got taken out during the course of a day and a night. And we drove into

this heavily wooded, previously heavily wooded area, as daylight broke and found

ourselves in the middle of what then looked like Delville Wood. And it was the

position where they had drawn laager, and I think in the previous day they were taken

out..they were heavily bombarded by SAF Mirages, by the G5 cannons, by MRL’S or

MLR’s….MRL’s… and during the course of that night they had actually tried to

escape. This was just on the heavily wooded area next to the floodplain. And they

built, with logs that they had cut, they built a road leading up to the river


(Danie Crowther: )

Lombo confluence?

Timpoo river Ja. Lomba, it was the Lomba river, sorry. And then tried to escape and

take as many of their vehicles and whatever with them. And they were heavily

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bombarded on the way. We had a forward observer, artillery observer, directing the

fire after them. In any case, as I said, when we arrived there it was the remnants of

the Brigade. It looked like…….serious damage was inflicted. anyway we walked out

just past the tree-line and looked out over the floodplain and the floodplain was about

a kilometre…maybe a kilometre…and in the distance we could see where the vehicles

had gotten stuck in the mud as they tried to cross. They did some fantastic things I

mean it must have been horrendous, under fire, to do what they did. And to drive…a

PT76, they actually drove into the river and crossed over this flat top PT76. But of

course a lot of the stuff got left behind.

Anyway I…..with the binoculars I spotted what looked, in this haze, this morning

light, like an SAA and I recognised that because of my background…it was an air-to-

ground missile type. And I realised what it was and got onto the radio back to

headquarters and said ’listen I think this is what we’ve got’. They didn’t believe me.

So Piet and I decided to take a walk out. We walked and as we got closer of course

this was it. And it seemed intact.

Anyway so we walked across. We had a couple of UNITA’s that accompanied us. A

couple of UNITA soldiers. We got there and noticed that these things were actually

bogged down in this mud while the one was trying to tow the other. It was the actual

SA8, the launching platform, and then there was another vehicle, SA vehicle, SA

vehicle with a missile carrier. With a couple of missiles in it. The one was trying to

tow the other. They both got bogged down. And Piet was a ..Piet Boer was a farmer

and he used to drive D8 bulldozers. He noticed a tank standing close by and this tank

was still idling. He said that he could drive this things. And so we got the tank in

position and we uncoupled the two vehicles and they were totally lying flat o their

stomachs in this mud, and started hauling out the first one. I think at that stage, 21

Brigade was across the road in the tree-line across…on the other side of the river, and

they must have noticed that there was something going on. And they started

bombarding us.

The first vehicle we took out up to the tree-line, came back with the second one and

got that out. And as I said, in the meantime, they weren’t too happy about it on the

other side. And I think we went back for a total of six or seven trips, trying to get as

much stuff as we can…and logging, by then headquarters was onto us and trying to

get picture of what was on the ground. And it finally just got crazy, MiG’s were

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rolling in and they were really…I think they got some sort of instruction. We believe

later, in the intercepts, that they were told to stop us at all costs.

Anyway we finally left the scene and spent the night with the vehicle in the place

where we parked them and camouflaged them. And that night we towed…one of them

was drivable, funnily enough. The missile vehicle you could still drive. We figured

that out. Drove that on its own and the actual SA8 Piet towed with a tank to a position

in about thirty kilometres from where FAPLA was. and the following day they flew

Mossie Basson and everybody else, he was a technical type. To come and have a look

at these things. And there they stayed for a couple of days And I know UNITA was

under huge pressure from the Americans to get these systems. But eventually, with

the help of 32 Battalion, we had a whole protection force. Finally we got it all back to

the Brigade headquarters and from there of course it was recovered later. I think we

the tug-of-war between UNITA and South Africa carried on for quite a while to get

access to these things. But Piet and ….I. I mean our job was finished now. We went

back. I think we popped about a handful of Reactivans, didn’t sleep for 72 hours. Got

back to the Brigade headquarters, had a couple of beers and collapsed for 24 hours,

and that was it.

Johan could you maybe give me some background on the SA8 and the effect the

SA8 had on the missile, and then afterwards…what was the significance of the

SA8 missile system?

Well I mean, when the planning phase…there were two things which largely

determined our tactics halfway through this war. Because we always enjoyed air

superiority, we always enjoyed…you know…and of course the army could operate

under this umbrella of air superiority. But we heard through intercepts prior to the

actual advance or the start of the offensive, that they had a secret weapon...or that they

had secret weapons. And this time around it would be a different story. It turned out

they were referring to two things. They were referring to the SA8, which at that stage

was a premier tactical ground-to-air missile system that the Soviets deployed. And

the second was of course the front vector air-to-air missile, which took everybody by

surprise. Well, the net result of the SA8 of course was that, given it envelope, that you

couldn’t safely operate below 20 000 feet. You either had to go in very low or stay

above 20 000 feet. Very, very capable missile system. Not of the range, at that stage.

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We lost….the first time we really became aware of it was when we lost a Bosbok – an

artillery spotter aircraft in the same vicinity about four or six weeks prior to this

incident. We lost the pilot and the observer. Two of them. And then, all of a sudden

we realised there was shit, you know. So that certainly just brought in a whole new

dimension to what we felt was our right to do in the war...all our previous clashes

with these guys. So certainly that changed tactics, it change dour freedom of

movement, it changed everything. And of course when the first Mirage was hit by the

front-vector missile and the SAF declined to do any……any…….any further flights.

Certainly interceptor flights. That, once again, changed the face of the war. And the

army had to adapt and we had to adapt very quickly. Certainly to the army’s credit

they managed to still use artillery. Because of course that was your next big thing, I

mean even though you are flying from a position where…from ground force you are

relatively safe the air, the air threat… it remained a huge problem. But they continued

to support…they continued to fight the war.

So certainly the…of course the 8…the first time ever that a western back or western

back force defence force got hold of one of these things and in the ensuing times, a

couple of months, we managed to find out how the thing operated, what the PRF was.

The PRF was important because you base your electronic counter measures…

on….the once you know the pulse frequency you can develop a counter-measure. The

system spent some time in…it was shipped to Israel. It was flown…it was tested

extensively and flown against extensively. And when the Americans went in…...the

first Gulf war, and that was one of the systems they faced. They had everything

ready. They could ….the ECM’s was in place. So it meant, I think, for a lot of people

and for a lot of defence forces and for a lot of countries it meant quite a lot in the end.

We didn’t know that of course. For us it was just ‘there’s something, let’s go and grab

it’, you know. But no, I think….listen we had a nice time taking it out. It was a lot of


Is there anything else? Like is there any general opinion you have of…like you

were telling me earlier the…well, your opinion on like who won? you were saying

that there was no ‘who won’ as far as….

Listen, I mean, when that phase, Modular…we certainly did what we were supposed

to do. The objective was to take Mavinga and deny Savimbi a forward air base or a

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logistical supply base. That was where we were flying logistics into. That failed. With

huge men and material losses. There are various opinions, but the average body

counts are there. We then pushed them back, back to Cuito Cuanavale. They still

retained a slight bridgehead, but I mean it was nothing, really. But that’s where they

stayed. I mean that offensive of theirs was stopped. Then Patter which…Modular

Packer, Hooper Packer. Which was a holding exercise while men and material were

changed and then Hooper. Eventually….and I think…..you know… that was… it was

still a holding exercise. There were various..…I sat in on planning exercises where the

possibilities of taking Cuito and taking actually Manong that’s where they were

staging their offensive from at that stage. Cuito was nothing. Cuito was a shell. The

runway was non-operative. There was nothing. Ja.

Farewell portion left out between visitors and interviewer

Ja, we were either crossing the river, taking Cuito and then…anyway. We did that in

’86 by the way. We had forces on Cuito. Jan Breytenbach was the leader of that little

expedition. And we held Cuito for a couple of days until the tanks rolled in and

UNITA ran (last word inaudible). But it became a political decision. You made a

body-bag count and projections and said ‘well listen, how many losses can we

justify?’, and that’s why it was stopped. In ’88 I was with the Cactus missile system,

the Crotale missile system. We were sitting on the high ground at Shabing(?). We

managed to lift their aircraft. Once again the same role that the SA8 played with us.

So they were limited to operating from 20 000 feet, and very effectively. So our guys

did a bit of manoeuvring and…but as far as I’m concerned, it was then a process of…

tactically and on the ground, holding these guys and keeping them from achieving

whatever objective they still had in mind. While the politicians were busy negotiating

a settlement. As far as I’m concerned it’s not an argument. There is no argument. We

did what we were supposed to do. It’s a pity that we…tactically that we were

restrained. I mean if we really wanted to, of course, we could have done what we

liked. But it was not our decision to make. Ja, so….done.

Anything else you want to add?

Unless you ask me something specifically, of a certain (intelligible) or whatever?

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Well, there’s….general..from the literature…there’s an opinion that the reason

we were pulled back in the end was when FAPLA and that entrenched

themselves in Cuito there were three or so operations to try and get in there and

try and push them out, but they eventually repelled and repelled and the losses

became too great for SA to…..

Yes, you see once again it was this inertia that was caused by the political

considerations. Also, with Packer of course, there was a troop change-over. One

section of national servicemen at that stage had to go, others had to come in, we re-

trained and whatever, and in that time it obviously gave them the opportunity to

entrench themselves in Cuito. It also gave them the opportunity to lay the minefield.

etc. etc. etc. But those are things that you can overcome, with enough will, whatever,

it’s not an issue. Certainly Cuito Cuanavale, as I said, was…..the little town itself…

the runway, whatever, was nothing. I sat on the high-ground overlooking Cuito.

There were a couple of BM21’s , they used to drive around, stop, fire off one or two

missiles and then get up again. There was nothing. We were bombarding that place,

we had to. ..to smithereens. It became a symbol. They had a bridgehead, and that’s

all they were interested in you know. I think we probed a couple of times. We brought

in the tanks, the Oliphant tank. We brought in the G6’s for the first time.

So then it also… I think it was a bit of a FAPLA’s competition. Right, now we’ve got

the tanks, now we’ve got the G6’s, what are we going to do with them? And

obviously those…..the powers to be concerned with the deployment of the Oliphant,

wanted to prove themselves. Same with the G6’s. But it still remained a non-event. I

think we lost two or three tanks, as far as I remember…that was about it. But it still

remained a non-event. We were all sitting there waiting, looking at each other, with

skirmishes here, skirmishes there. But by then there was…there was inertia. Nothing

going on. It was a holding exercise. No, I left in…I left that area...the area of

operation in about May of ’88 and then pulled back and of course by then I think the

groundwork ..whatever, had been done and the political decision was pending, and

that’s eventually what happened. As far as I’m concerned the initial FAPLA

objective of taking Mavinga, with limited resources that we had on the ground, in

support of UNITA. I think the figures were, I’m not 100% sure. But I think the

frontline troops never more than three hundred. Am I right? three thousand?

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Three thousand? Never more than three thousand. Back-ups of course, etc etc. But

with the couple of thousand UNITA’s in support position. They were okay, but they

couldn’t hold . They were fine for a limited type of operations, but certainly nothing

conventional. With what we had facing the forces opposing us, I think it was a great

war…a great little war. And we certainly proved that we could go up against vastly

superior forces. You know at one stage, and if you think about it, and I think the

people were very pissed off with the SAF forces when they indicated that they were

not prepared to fly anymore. At that stage the 61 Mechanised and the other

mechanised elements were going up against tanks with Ratel 90’s.

I mean….in terrible conditions, heavily wooded, soft sand, you know? Not the type

of terrain where an armoured battle would ideally…terrain hat would ideally suit an

armoured battle. You like nice open ground. You like, you know, that sort of stuff.

Hard underfoot… or your conditions underfoot must be allright. Terrible conditions.

And they were winning. They were taking these tanks head-on. And that’s of course

what pissed off a lot of the army guys, when the air force phase 1 missile…and I’m an

air force guy. I was there. No it was a splendid effort.

- END -

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Cpl. Roderick van der Westhuizen

I thought you were just going to ask me one or two questions and that was it.

Well, you only have to speak for as long as you want to. Okay, first, just tell me

your name and your original rank when you finally left the SADF, and what

operations you were involved in. And then after you have told me that you can

just start speaking about your direct stories as far as Modular goes. You don’t

have to tell me like pershonal stories, just your general…you know, how the

thing went. And after you’ve told me how the operation went, you can feel free to

tell me any opinions on the overall battle, what happened afterwards. Okay?

Right. I’m Roderick van der Westhuizen. I used to serve with 61 Mechanised

Battalion Group. When I left I was a corporal. I was a national serviceman from

January ’86 until December ’87. I was involved in Operation Modular. Yes. What

basically happened was we did our basic training in South Africa. I was with

Armoured Corps. We used to work with armoured cars. Then towards the end of ’86

we went up to the border. To 61….first I was with 2 Special Service Battalion, then

we went up o 61 Specialised Mechanic…whatever. There we did specific training.

We didn’t understand it at that stage, but afterwards we found out that the powers that

be knew exactly what was going on and what was transpiring, what would eventually

happen. And we did specific training for that. At that stage it was fun and games for

us. But afterwards we realised. What basically happened was we did specific training,

which eventually was a very good thing. They split us up, for example into two

groups. There was a red force and a blue force. The red force had to do an advance on

a specific target and the other group had to halt the advance, you know, stop them.

Yes, that was basically it. And we did specific operations and training operations and

stuff. And at one stage we were close to Rundu and we had to go back to the base

where they installed better sights for the armoured vehicles. Better than the ones we

used to use .We went back to Rundu and we were busy with an operation and one

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night they just called us all to the Commander’s Ratel and he briefed us. He told us

that everybody had to go back, write letters to their parents without giving any

specific information and that we had to give that to our troop commanders and get

everything packed and ready. And he said to us the next morning when the sun rose

we will already be inside Angola. Which also happened. . You know they sent the

letters and stuff, but the next day...that night we crossed the river and the next day we

were in Angola. We travelled towards Mavinga. At that stage, if I can just basically

explain what the purpose of the operation was. The eastern part of the Angolan

border between Namibia and Angola was fairly safe because that was controlled by

UNITA forces. And we didn’t have too much problems there. The western

section ,however, was not controlled by UNITA and MPLA and SWAPO forces used

to cross the border, plant land-mines and attack people. As it was explained to us. I

don’t have proof of this, but as explained to us at that stage, in one year they had

already…not abducted…hi-jacked, two schools. I don’t know exactly what the term

is, but they took two schools with teachers and everybody, at gunpoint, took them

across the border, brainwashed them and trained them to be...we used to call them

terrorists, in order for them to attack us at a later stage.

So then what basically happened was that MPLA was supported by Cuban and

Russian forces...not only forces, advisors etc etc. and they then planned an advance on

the UNITA forces. The way I understood it was that UNITA and MPLA forces were

quite similar in strength and abilities, but with the help of the Cubans and the

Russians you know, UNITA didn’t stand a chance. And if they defeated, the UNITA

forces, then that whole part of the border would be exposed and it would make our

task almost impossible and the risk would be much more….the danger would be much

more. So basically what we then did was we then went across the border to help

UNITA to stop the advance. Because UNITA was our ally and also for our own


Yes, okay, at that stage, as I said, UNITA’s forward base was Mavinga, and their

main base was Jamba. The MPLA forces, their main base was Cuito Cuanavale.

Right. As I said, we went across the border. The main clashes were roughly four

hundred kilometres into Angola and we took a circular route. We didn’t go into Jamba

or Mavinga, we went past them. We didn’t really see anything. You know for about

four hundred kilometres into Angola...you know, it was just sand and bush, there was

no roads, no houses, nothing, you know. And then, we were briefed on a need to

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know basis. So we didn’t know exactly what was going on, they briefed us in a way

so we knew basically what was going on, but we didn’t know where we were and how

we were involved. And then at one stage, if I remember correctly the 47th Brigade and

the 51st or 59 Brigade of MPLA wanted to cross the Lomba River because it was one

of their major obstacles. If they cross that river they had a clear path to Jamba or

Mavinga. And as they were busy crossing the river we went in to stop them. That was

our first clash. Our first contact that we made.

Yes, and then basically from there it was ….our Commanders used the resources they

had. We didn’t know exactly what was going on. So at some stages we were pulled

back. At some stages we went forward. Various things happened but we only knew

our own part. You know, where we were involved in. Sometimes….all kinds of things

happened. I can tell you, you know, a lot of different stories of what happened. For

example at one stage they moved in with tanks…the whole Brigade moved into one

specific spot where they basically cornered themselves into a place where two rivers

converged. And we went forward and at this one entrance point we deployed and we

waited for them so that if they did come out, you know, we had the side flank and we

could attack them. We were so close to them at that stage that at night we could hear

them speaking, you could see them sitting around their fires, you know, speaking

Cuban and whatever, and Portuguese. So we couldn’t make any noise, we couldn’t

light any fires. We couldn’t even Inside the Ratels there is an infra-red light. You

could not see it from a distance. We couldn’t use any of that. It was a little bit tricky

because the section we had to sit in was a burnt-out piece of bush. There was no real

cover. Um….so that type of experiences. Um…..right. There are so many things I

can tell you about.

Anything you feel like sharing.

Yes. Right. What was a problem when we came out they kept us about 18 k’s into

Angola at the rehabilitation camp and there we discussed…you know, we did a de-

briefing session. There we discussed, you know, what was our strengths, what was

our weaknesses, you know. What they can take into consideration in future.. I can

remember a lot about what happened there you know, so if I can go back onto

that……If I can just basically explain to you. A tank and a Ratel is not really evenly

matched because a D54 tank at the front of the turret ring it has 107mm of armoured

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steel. A Ratel never has more than 10 mm of steel anywhere on the vehicle. A tank

has a 105mm cannon with, I think, two or three different armour- piercing type of

rounds. We only had one 90mm, you know. They had a crew of four. One guy was

just loading one guy aiming and firing the cannon, the other guy giving instructions.

With us we had a crew of three. There was a driver a gunner and a crew commander

The crew commander had to basically give instructions, tell the driver what to do,

load the cannon, you know, and do everything. Which made the, you know...they

were much faster, more efficient. A tank used to work with joysticks and when it

locked onto a target it remained on the target, the vehicle could move. The Ratel we

had to use hand-wheels, you know, if the Ratel moved the whole turret was static.

They had infra-red distance...an instrument that could give them the distance.

Our group commander had to stick his head out of the turret an judge from his own

training...and that was 1200 metres or whatever, the distance. So what they told us on

the training was that if a tank spotted you…okay I just wanted to say one other

thing...if we went into contact there used to be 4 vehicles in a troop. These 4 vehicle

shad to move separately. For example 1 and 3 would be in a position to fire, 3 and 4

had to move. 3 and 4 used to go into position then 1 and 2 had to move. We had

basically I think it was 34 seconds in a position, then we had to move. If it was out in

the open, because if a tank spotted us and it locked onto our position, then it could

move and fire. And what they used to tell us was if it fired once and it missed, then

you knew you were dead. Because the next, you know, the next shot would take out

the Ratel, you know, without any problems, I also read in the books that, I think on

average, we shot some tanks, I think, up to seven times. I think at least three times

before we could disable it, with one Ratel, which you know, the odds was……… So

the odds were not even, you know. But even so the statistics I heard when we came

out, I knew we lost three Ratels and in that contact that we were involved in, we shot

out 61 tanks. The personnel ..we lost 31 of our…of my colleagues was killed, and if

I’m not mistaken it was something like was four and half thousand of the MPLA,

Cuban and Russian forces who were killed. So even though the odds were stacked

against us ,you know just because of good training and good motivation and stuff like

that…that part was a very, very good success for us.

Some things that went wrong was for example, because we were 400 kilometres into

Angola our air force could not give us support. Their MiG’s flew over us every day.

Where they thought we used to be, they threw bombs all day long. They were trying

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to see where we were. So we could travel at night and when…at dusk…. in the

morning at dawn before it started getting light we had to camouflage all our vehicles,

we had to dig fox-holes for if they started bombing us and the rest of the day we used

to spend maintaining the vehicles and the firearms, cleaning and stuff like that, our

armaments. Yes, they…their…the biggest threat to them was our G5 cannons. The G5

cannons had a range of 40 kilometres and they were very accurate. So what happened

once was, for example, we were still travelling towards them. In the end, after this

manoeuvre we were so close to Cuito Cuanavale, that from a MiG taxiing on the

runway, until it was above us ready to throw its bombs, it was three minutes or

something like that. We were very close to them, and during this stage one morning,

we were travelling right through the night and when the sun came up we were still

travelling and everyone knew it was extremely dangerous but our commander got lost

so we carried on travelling. And you cannot just stop, you have to follow them or

otherwise you get lost, you don’t know anything, you just follow the convoy, so what

happened at this stage, he explained to us that we had to wait where we were and he

went forward. He didn’t give clear instructions. He just said ‘wait’, you know. What

we used to then was what they called...in Afrikaans they call it a vis-graat. One

vehicle would go left, the one would go right, the next one would go left again at

different distances off the track , you know, so they could be scattered. Because if

everybody was in a line a fighter aircraft can come in and you know just…

strafe...everybody in a line.

So we decided to pull off in that way as we were trained as we used to do. And then

we were sitting there. And as I said the sun was coming out, you could see this dust

cloud coming out clearly where we were travelling. We were just sitting there. We

didn’t know what was going on. At that stage some of us decided that we were going

to camo the vehicles. The problem with that is that if you do camo the vehicle the

camo net gets stuck in the bushes, and in the vehicle, and everywhere. You cannot jus

troll it up in five minutes and get going again. It takes a while to clear this up again.

So we were not sure, you know. If he came back and said ‘rush, rush, go’ then we

would not be able to. On the other hand, while we sitting there we were totally

exposed. So a few of us decided we were not taking the risk , we were going to camo

it anyway. At that stage I used to be a commander on a Ratel. A command Ratel I

used to be a crew commander, but because of my training and whenever somebody

became ill I used to help out in different places .In one contact I was a gunner. In a

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different contact I was a crew commander and at that specific stage I was driving a Q4

truck with rations and water and fuel and ammunition, you know. all stacked on

this…..and I was busy camo-ing, rolling out the net and putting in bushes and stuff

when I heard fighter aircraft. And at that stage, because of our experiences, you know,

when you hear fighter aircraft you know it is extreme danger.

So While I was standing on top of the truck camo-ing I heard this, I looked up I saw

one aircraft flying very low and very slow, coming at us. Basically in the direction we

were travelling he came in the direction opposite us. I stood there and I watched, and

I didn’t hear him turn around or anything. I got the impression that because he was so

low he was looking, maybe further out from the aircraft where he didn’t see us right

below him, but what I didn’t know was that he did spot us. And afterwards, that this

was a Russian pilot. If I can just quickly explain that. The MPLA pilots were quite

bad. At some stages when we were in contact they used to drop bombs on their own

people . they were not really well trained. The Cubans were much more efficient,

but…....they…..for example the Angolan pilots would sit and squabble between

themselves while they were flying. The Cubans were much more disciplined, and

much more better trained. So they used to be quite effective. The Russians on the

other hand, this is what I heard, were so well trained that they didn’t even speak on

the air. They just pressed the clicker switch. They had codes you know. One click to

go here, two clicks to do something else, whatever. They came directly....that was

shortly after the conflict tin Afghanistan...where the Russians in Afghanistan where

they were in war….. so those pilots came directly from there, so they were

experienced, they had all the training, all the experience, whatever. What I heard was

that there were three aircraft and the main pilot...the aircraft I saw was a Russian pilot

and I think he had two Cuban wingmen. That’s the way I understood it afterwards,

I’m not sure of the facts.

Anyway he did spot us, he turned around, he radioed in and when he came in for the

second round, there was already a…in Afrikaans you call it an eskadron. I’m not sure

what you call it in English…a whole group of airplanes already bombed up and taking

off already on their way towards us. As I said we were not that far from Cuito

Cuanavale at that stage, so they could reach us quite quickly Then when he came in

for the second round I jumped off the truck. I was standing next to the truck and I saw

the aircraft coming in, at that stage we were travelling all night we were all of us

extremely tired. The dust is fine dust .it sits in your eyes. It causes mud. When you

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rub your eyes you are in a bit of a state anyway I was standing there and I was

watching this Mig coming in. I think it was a MiG 21 or a MiG 23. I’m not sure. And

I saw the bomb underneath it detach and it started falling slowly. It was quite a big

bomb, it was either a 500 or 1000pound bomb. And I saw a parachute behind it

deploy, at that stage I’m not sure if it was the tiredness or whatever, I didn’t register

what was going on I saw this bomb fall and it exploded. And it was one massive

explosion. From where I stood it was, I guess, just one ball of flame and afterwards I

heard someone screaming and only then I registered what was going on.

I was standing there right next to a truck full of ammunition and then everyone

realised now there’s trouble because this...then I noticed that whatever they hit was

making a cloud of black smoke into the air so anyone from anywhere could see

clearly where we were stuck. At that stage I asked the guys around me from the other

vehicles. There was a shona. And we were in the bushes right next to the shona. and I

asked them to dig foxholes for the injured right behind the shona the thought was that

they would expect us to flee into the bush and they would start bombing into the bush

and it would be safest on the edge of the shona. They would not expect us. And I

rushed in and another friend of mine, Duncan Taylor, he had taken out the driver okay

let me explain it this way. The driver that was driving all night was lying inside the

Ratel You get two doors that you open with hydraulics on the sides, then there’s a

little gangetjie, a corridor, where, if you do travel...take people, there’s three seats

there and where their feet used to be there’s a grid and he was lying on that grid


The crew commander was away from the vehicle and the gunner as well. The gunner

was talking to his friends at another Ratel , I believe about 20 metres away and he was

finished talking and he was getting off the gunner and he took water behind the rear

wheels, there is a little water tank and he was taking water to drink and while he was

busy the bomb fell. The bomb hit just behind the turret, on the body of the Ratel and it

went in. It was so big, the explosion, that it broke the...we call it the romp..and it went


Okay, the guy that was taking water, the gunner...if I can quickly explain…this part of

his leg was shot away. only the tendon at the back was there, and the piece of the leg

that was...no.. he had his boots and his socks and everything on. It went through his

browns, his socks and boots, like a knife through butter. You know, it was cut clean

there isn’t even a threads or anything sticking out it was clean cut. And the part of the

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bones, of the fat and the flesh sticking out. But Anyway he was the guy that was

screaming .the guy that was lying inside. De Jager, the shrapnel of the explosion

pierced his body all over. For example in the the back of his head there was piece of

shrapnel that went into the floor underneath the grid and then ricocheted into his head.

For example on his leg there was a hole big enough...for example the medics had

tweezers that used to look like a scissors, you know? It had handles, and it could

clamp. They put it in and they clamped the vein.

I said Duncan took him away, carried him out. I put a stretcher I ran there and put him

on the stretcher and then the medics came and they started helping him. Because we

were so far into Angola we didn’t have water supplies, you know. We used to take

water supplies from the rivers at night and so we didn’t shave, we didn’t…. we only

washed when ewe really could when we reached a river we would jump in and we

would wash.

So Frikkie was lying there, you know, his beard was singed by the explosion and he

was full of holes You could see the holes and see the blood spreading around it And

he was pleading with us to help him. He was moaning of the pain and pleading with

us to help. We were just watching him, you know, there was nothing we could do. We

tried to console him a little bit, and tell him, you know ‘be patient, help is on its way’,

stuff like that. But it wasn’t much of a help. And also because we were so far into

Angola we couldn’t have air support. The choppers could only come in at night to

casevac. We used to call it casevac...Casualty Evacuation. So it took him about 8

hours to die. And only after nightfall the choppers came in. So he was already dead by

then. The other guy…I cannot remember his name right now…the gunner who lost

his foot. He was also lying there in pain you know, and.…Because we used to casevac

all our injured and dead. They just left them there to rot, so the flies were terrible.

Yes, it was bad. We tried to, you know, make it as comfortable as possible for them.

But, for example Frikkie, they gave him three morphine injections before he could

really, you know, lie still. They could work with him. Okay, then we carried him to

the edge of the shona. Yes, and as I said only that night they came into casevac, all of

them. What happened there, the way I understand it, as I said...our anti-aircraft

systems used to be 20mm cannons mounted in the back of a Unimark(?). We used to

call them ystervarkies. And every day the MiGs came over we used to see, we used to

watch this. The MiGs came past and then you see the airbus, you know. There was a

long path, then the airbus. The next time they came past you see the airbus and then

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the MiG came past, so they didn’t really have a chance. At that stage we had Mirages.

I think we had just stated with the Cheetah, but their MiG 21 was the equivalent of

ours. The MiG 23 at that stage was much more advanced than ours. You know. They

had a frontal attack system where we had a heat detecting system, things like that for

example. So we didn’t really have a chance against their fighter aircraft. But on that

specific day because the pilot flew so low and so slow, he was so over-confident.

What happened was that our anti-aircraft came behind us. We were in a unit with

different sections. You know, we had artillery, we had armoured cars, we had anti-

aircraft. All of that in one group. And this one guy was busy opening the flaps, and he

dropped the flaps, he was about to get off when he heard this MiG approaching, so he

got in behind the controls and as the MiG came over he started shooting. And I

believe the only MiG that was hit by a 20ml was that specific MiG that dropped the

bomb. And they say they saw smoke coming out of it and then it turned round and

went back to Cuito Cuanavale. And because of that they called back the whole

eskadron, the whole group that was on their way towards us.

In my opinion, if that did not happen, then most of our group would have been killed

that day and wiped out. Because, as I say this Ratel was burning. There was a huge

column of black smoke in the air. They would have most probably just started

bombing on the smoke and then just spread out. They had the whole day. That was

about 8oclocok in the morning. They had the whole day to bomb that whole piece of

bush where we were in, you know. The chances of any of us surviving was quite slim.

Especially us that was close to where it happened. But that’s the way things worked

out you know. There was bad things, and in some miraculous way, you know, it

worked out well as well. Um…..yes. That’s the one experience.

Yes, as I said, if I stick to experiences I’m going to keep you busy all day. A few

things I can just mention was that, as I say, we were well-motivated and well trained,

so although we had inferior equipment, we had much bigger successes than them.

What basically happened was they tried to move in on UNITA. We stopped them and

we beat them back. And it was like…it was a conventional war, but there was

guerrilla tactics as well. We used to hit them at times etc. There’s so much things I

can say, you know. I’m trying to figure out what’s worth- while.

Well just maybe one or two things that you think are really important to people

understanding this war. Like if someone viewed this documentary, what would it

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be like? Say one or two or three things that you think are really important that

they know about this.

What I can mention is at one stage one of the MPLA people got lost and he came into

our people, you know. We caught him. At that stage somebody gave him what was

left of their rat-pack for the day, you know.. He ate. You know, he was very hungry,

and afterwards he put, I think, the dog biscuits into his pocket. And he said that was

the only time in the whole war that he had enough food to put in his pockets. You

know. That’s the way it worked. He was afraid to come towards us you know because

they explained to them that whoever we caught we would sodomise them, we would

torture them and all kinds of stuff. So they had a fear. And this guy couldn’t believe

the type of treatment he got. Yes.

What happened was at one stage….some of the tanks that were shot out…I didn’t see

it for myself, but the people explained it. Some of those tanks even had…what is

boei? Like shackles, welded into the tanks. For example the driver, they would put in

the tank and they would lock him into the tank. He wouldn’t be able to get out and run

away. So, you know, they were forcing them to make war They weren’t really

motivated. Another thing that I hear. I’m going to jump around a bit now,

because...you know….another thing I hear, even with the Afghanistan war they refer

to and all the other conflicts all over, that at that stage it was the only full Russian

General outside of Russia who was in Angola during that operation. Because…now

it’s a little bit of a problem to distinguish, but while we were trained they were always

talking about the communism and the threat towards our democracy, you know…our

The rooi gevaar?

Ja. The rooi gevaar. They were always talking about that. But what they also told us

is that if something happened, for example, they would block the Suez Canal, the only

route between the east and the west would be around South Africa. So its…that was

quite crucial They also said that all the resources, you know, agricultural resources,

gold, diamonds, that type of stuff, everything that you can find anywhere else in the

world is in south Africa and that could be a measure to see how desperate they were

to capture South Africa .That’s why…because they pumped ink you know, huge

amounts of weaponry, personnel, to try and win this war. And this was explained to us

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the reason why. So it was quite intense. At that stage they said it was the biggest

conventional war since the 2nd World War. They said that our killing rate was best

since the 1st World War. You know, the killing rate being that we lost thirty one and

they lost four and half thousand, if you take the amounts. If you took the amount of

money and the people they put into this you know, so it was quite a…..desperate

attempt from their side, you know. They had previous operations that was similar,

where they tried to move against UNITA and they were unsuccessful and this time

they really threw everything into it.

Yes, another thing that is fairly significant is at that stage we never had…..we had a

battalion and they had much more advanced weaponry and much more people than us.

If you take a Brigade it’s built up out of various battalions. We only had one battalion

there. So we were about a thousand men. Each brigade they had …they used to have

much more personnel. So if you take it in that sense, then, you know, they had

superior numbers, superior equipment, but even that...even though, because of that we

still had big successes, if you look at it in that way. The way that I understand it why

there’s now such a debate and discussion about this and why they are trying to say

that we are not as good as we like to portray, is...um...the way I understand it now, is

that they tried to move in on UNITA, we went in to stop them.

That part of Operation Modular was extremely successful in every way that you can

look at it. It was extremely successful. What happened after that is that they dried to

push their forces back towards Cuito Cuanavale. And I think they tried to, you know,

destroy their infrastructure in such a way that they could not easily re-start their effort,

you know. If we withdrew they couldn’t just you know, ‘okay, now they’re gone’, and

just start driving down the same road and attack UNITA once again. I think they

wanted to ensure that, you know, they blow up the bridges, stuff like that, to make it

difficult for them. Which was also not all that bad. But then at one stage I believe

someone got it into their head that we should attack Cuito Cuanavale itself. Which

was an extremely dumb thing to do because of the situation, because of, you know,

the rivers and everything around it. As they explained, what would you do with it if

you did capture it? It’s pretty idiotic and useless. And I think at that stage somebody

thought everything was going so well, we might as well take it one step further. And

then they got into a situation and thought no it’s not that good. And we did lose a few

tanks and we were…because of what happened there it discredited everything that

went before that, you know. So if you look at it, Operation Modular was a big

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success. The part after that was also successful and then they went and, you know,

tried to do something that they never should have. And where the chances of success

were slim and when our forces withdrew then, it was easy for them to say ‘they lost

the war’. So it is tainted in a way and if you look at everything together then in many

ways we did get a bit of a hiding. But that was only one part of it. If you look at the

rest of it, you know, it was a sound success, all of it.

One or two other things I can just quickly mention is that while we were in the veld,

or in the bush. They used to give us briefings on certain things so we had an idea of

what was going on. Just one of two of these sections was, for example, whenever a

MiG used to taxi on the runway we use to know about this. You know, on the radio

they would say ‘Victor, Victors’. You know, ‘victor victor’ is the sound of the

vliegtuie. So we would know there is danger .we would lie low. We wouldn’t move

around. Because if you fly over and Ratels are camo’ed you can’t really see it, but if

someone moves you can pick it up very quickly. Our intel was so good, our recces

were so good that they knew everything. Say for example if a MiG attacked and it

was a Russian pilot, we used to know about it. That was very good in our favour.

There was one stage where our G5 cannons were 40 kilometres away from Cuito

Cuanavale. One of three MiG’s taxied and they shot it out on the runway, before it

could take off. That’s how good our systems used to be .There was one stage where

they had a meeting in a hangar on the airfield and something went wrong, they didn’t

yet…pitch up, but all their top brass would be there and with the G5’s they shot that

whole hangar to pieces. Everything was burning in the morning. But as I said, if

something happened and they were not there so that was unsuccessful.

What used to happen also, as I said, their dead and their wounded they would

sometimes just leave, you know. They wouldn’t bother. Which is a little bit gory, but

we could only get water if we could get to rivers. So for some stages up to more than

two weeks we didn’t get any water whatsoever. Then when we did get water, it would

be muddy and full of tadpoles and everything, and sometimes there would be corpses

rotting in this water. And that was the water we used. For example if you take your

fire bucket thatch was around your water bottle and you put water in it and you boil it

to try and make coffee, then eventually there would be a ring on the inside of this fire

bucket that you cannot get...you know, where you just take sand and water and sand

and rub everything off, you couldn’t get it off. That ring was there. So it was a little

bit gory. Another thing is that they normally only sent in their choppers to Casevac

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when it was Russians that was injured. Not even the Cubans they really put an effort

into it. At one stage one of these chopper that came into Casevac, the Russians, was

also shot down, also by a G5..So yes, the G5’s really gave them hell and the G5’s was

our…if it wasn’t for the G5’s it would have been different. And that was why, every

day when they flew around, wherever they thought the G5’s would be, that’s where

they dropped their bombs. We were sitting there, for example if a MiG 23, it slows

down, the wings come forward. Speeds up, the wings go back. We would sit and

watch them cross over us all day, drop bombs all around us, you know. It was not that

good because when we came back, whenever I heard a jet I would just freeze up and

go into a state of shock almost.

What happened once was we were on our way to our Commander’s Ratel for a

briefing session. Normally they told us when our, uh, our aircraft came in. what they

said whenever our aircraft came in they could drop bombs on a specific point or

target, and then they used to withdraw, What happened there was they turned

around...I think they had something like three and a half minutes manoeuvring space

then they had to get out because the MiG 23 was vastly superior and they had to put

on their after-burners to get out.. And at one stage we were on our way to a

Commander’s Ratel for a briefing session and there was a ...we call it a waterbanker,

you know, it was a truck, a water truck and we used to go there and fill lour water

bowls and then walk to his Ratel, and sit down and he would take out his maps and

show us what is going on. And as we were walking towards that we just heard this

sound. And what happened is our mirages came in but they didn’t tell us in advance.

They used to, but this time they did not. So the mirages came in and I think it was

something like sixteen kilometres before the target they used to pull up and release

their bombs. With that, the momentum would take the bombs to where they had to

drop. So as we looked up we saw these fighter aircraft pull up and we used to see the

bombs released. And everyone went into a state of panic. The driver of the

Commander’s Ratel…the foxhole used to be about a metre high…deep, you know,


At that stage 8 people got into this hole, the top one was lying level with the ground,

he didn’t get inside. He was just lying there. Some people ran into the bush. I think

one of them only got back...we only found someone two days later. And everyone was

just running all over because of this. We didn’t know what was going on. Another

stage, also, we saw that…a Mirage and a MiG you know, got into like a dogfight. And

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at that stage I was with one of the armoured…I was driving either a water-bunker or

an ammo-bunker. But .anyway I was not with the group itself. The group went

forward to, you know, they were in a conflict. In a contact situation. And the rest of us

were at the temporary base, guarding the temporary base for whenever they came

back. And as we were standing there this Mirage came over. But it felt like tree-top

height. It was right over us. Straight over us. I had just reached the water bunker when

that happened and a few seconds later we thought okay that was it, and a few seconds

later this Mig was right behind the Mirage, also coming at a terrific speed and noise,

you know. The guys….because of the shock he just fell over. I had to catch the guy

because he just fell over. Afterwards he said he had a bitter taste in his mouth, you

know, because of the shock. Yes, there’s, as I said, there’s all kinds of stuff I can tell

you. What else?

I think I’m nearing the end of my….tape. Um…do you want to…I think we’re

towards the end here now. I’m thinking is there anything you want to say like

after the war. Like how it was perceived afterwards? How your life has been

since? How the war has…ja, just like your opinion..because there’s that big

debate on who won, overall. What’s your opinion about that?

Woo, I’ve got lots of opinions. Okay, we did have a rehabilitation camp before we

came out of Angola. We had a rehabilitation camp and then we withdrew. At that

stage we were quite negative because, I’ll quickly just mention…One night we knew

something was going on quite close to where we were because there was a lot of

activity. And that night I saw the choppers coming in. I leopard-crawled through the

bush and got close to....I shouldn’t have been there, but I could hear that our generals

and general Savimbi was there. Everybody was sitting around talking. And at that

stage they needed to decide whether they used to...you know …we were towards the

end of our two years, if they were going to withdraw us and bring in new guys, or are

they going to keep us there because we had the experience and the training. But we

were de-moralised because we had lost our, you know, some of our guys and we had

been there for quite a long time. We were very demoralised. They had to decide

whether to continue with the experienced and the demoralised people or get the more

motivated people that now didn’t have the experience. And eventually, you know, we

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were the lucky ones and they brought in new guys and it went into, I think, Hooper

and then Packer.

When we did come out...eventually, like for example when we landed in Pretoria, at

Waterkloof Air Base, with the Flossie. All the generals and brigadiers, everyone was

standing there and saying ‘welcome back, our heroes’, We just said ’get lost, we’re

not interested, just bugger off’, you know, ‘we want to get home’. So at that stage we

were not really…they were trying to….the way we experienced it, you know, it was

like two politicians sitting around the table playing chess and the one guy was saying’

‘Okay they’ve taken one of my pieces, I’m going to show you now’ and push 1000

men into bush. They never saw us, they never knew us, they didn’t worry about our

experiences or backgrounds It was just a situation of Cuba is going to try and show us

something, and we’re going to show them something. It was like a political game and

we were very demoralised about the whole situation. If I had to look back now I

would say that it was important and it needed to happen. Because it’s easy to say that

when we withdrew, SWAPO took over Namibia anyway. What we were fighting for

was undone anyway. But if we did not keep up, you know. We had big successes.

The operations before us also had big successes. But if that did not happen, then

maybe South Africa would be totally different now.

Because at that stage it was still a cold war. Say for example if South Africa came

under indirect Russian rule it would be a totally different situation here today. So we

did what we had to do and at that stage it was not a very good system. Although I

believe the national service was a good system to get the guys focused and motivated

and make men out of them. But everything was fun and good and built us up there

until we made contact and we see the guys lying there wounded, you know Because

we got guys back that were wounded and shot to pieces. The guy who died you can

live with because its final, but the guys who were wounded….we were 18, 19 years

old at that stage. That stuck with us. It you’re your mind. Saw the guys cracking,

stuff like that. Yes the rehabilitation camp was basically to de-brief us. See what was

good, what was bad and after that, that was it basically. We had served our purpose,

get lost, you know. That was the end of it. Our government didn’t really support us.

You don’t only think of monetary terms, you think of all kinds of other stuff, for

example. once the guys on the other side, Umkonto wi Sizwe and APLA and those

guys you know, they got good posts and they got pensions and all…they got a lot of

money.. ..got a package, whatever.

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Our guys, at that stage was fighting for..to preserve what was in South Africa and also

in Namibia and it was just basically that was it. We were used and after they had

finished using us we were discarded. It was not very good. Just one thing I’d also like

to mention. Many people think of us as oppressors, which is totally not the case. We

used to work very well. Apartheid was something that was in South Africa. Where we

were there was no such thing .We used to work with all races every day in the bush.

We had to rely on each other to survive. I would like to say something else as well.

At one stage while we were busy, also moving. There was rumours that there were

very special forces close to us. Going to attack us and this one morning I was busy

around my Ratel and I noticed someone close to the Ratel and I watched this guy and

it was one of 32 battalion’s guys. 32 had a lot of people that came out of Angola that

converted and started helping us. Eventually I started talking to this guy. This guy was

Portuguese speaking. He could barely speak English. He used to be with the enemy,

and he was helping us. He dug himself in, he packed his supplies around him. Dug

himself in. He lay there for 3 days. I never saw him move He protected us. If there

was a special force. We were conventional warfare, you know, Ratel against the

tanks, something like that. But somebody creeping through the bush, coming to attack

us, you know, we didn’t have training for that type of thing. We were exposed .When

I did speak to this guy he said that he used to live in Cuito Cuanavale and him and his

father and his brothers had left fifteen years earlier. His mother and his sisters had

remained behind. Here we are, almost attacking Cuito Cuanavale, throwing bombs on

Cuito Cuanavale and he is not asking questions. He is not saying ‘I don’t want to do

this, what about my sisters?’ he is doing his part. He is giving his everything. And

that’s something else that makes a person very bitter as well. For example, 32

Battalion was eventually just disbanded. Those guys that came over to us and did

everything that we asked of them. They were also discarded you know, not so badly

with us, but also with them, So yes, it’s not a good experience. Sorry, what else was

your question?

On your…the whole who won debate. There’s three camps, there’s the one that

said Cuba and Angola definitely won. The other one that says SADF definitely

won and then there’s the other one that says no one won. SADF just completed

their objectives successfully, and that’s what happened and then Cuba went. And

the big propaganda story about it. So that’s the three.

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Yes, the problem is with politics. What they said, the first casualty of war where

politics is involved in always the truth. And that’s basically how I believe as well.

What happened is they sent in the best equipment, MiG’s the latest tanks and MiG’s.

The best equipment, with thousands and thousands of people. We went in with the

equipment that we had. It was sufficient at that stage, with only 1000 men. We

stopped them from wiping out UNITA and getting access to that part of the border, so

whatever….what we did do….in a fairly short space of time, we did it very

successfully. So our objective was met. They tried to remove UNITA, they never

succeeded. They never really even crossed the Lomba. They got a few vehicles this

side of the Lomba and we gave them a proper hiding and sent them running,. So they

never got close to their objectives. And as I explained, what happened then is

somebody high up in our command structure decided that they wanted to take it too

far, and he made a mistake and then they gave us a hiding in that specific last part of

the operation. Which was stupid of us to do. We should never have gone there. And

then they did have success. They had the upper hand in that limited space of time,

whatever. There they had success. They were triumphant. So either side has a little bit

of merit to say….

What I do want to say, but if you look at the bigger picture and you look at the whole

scenario,, they tried to do something. They were not even closely successful,

whatsoever. We went in to stop them. We did stop them. So you look at it in that

sense then I would say that whatever we set out to do we did. And you know, I think

we were…, yes…….I don’t think we have anything about that section to regret. I

think we can be proud. And as I said we never went to oppress anybody or anything.

We worked with them. We tried to…..whenever a school was abducted we tried to get

those children back, you know. We were working more for the local population of

Namibia than for anything else. So you know, anybody trying to politicise it

afterwards and say that we were oppressors and we were White and we were fighting

Blacks, that’s utter bullshit. It never happened that way.

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