South African Border Wars

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

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

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

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

The other reality was despite being a low-key war, it was high intensity and at times featured unconventional warfare as well as conventional. SADF soldiers would often fight on foot, walking patrols, contacts would take place between these troops and SWAPO. There were many conventional battles involving motorised heavy vehicles, tanks, artillery, air bombardments and mechanised units rolling into attack each other. The combatants included Russians, American former Vietnam vets, Cubans, East Germans and Portuguese.

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Episode 91 – Russians on the Lomba and the Olifant Battle Tank

FAPLA had taken a battering at the Battle of the Lomba River on 3rd October 1987 - the SADF had crushed 47 Brigade, and they had also deal 21 Brigade a serious blow earlier as you’ve heard.

Operation Modular had led to a mauling - and the Angolans began withdrawing northwards.

The South Africans had been victorious despite being hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, the Ratels had somehow defeated the T54s and T55s. The cabinet was delighted back in Pretoria - but now faced a serious question that had not been fully addressed before the Lomba bloodletting.

Now what?

FAPLA was withdrawing but they weren’t defeated. Furthermore, FAPLA’s logistic centre at Cuito Cuanavale was untouched and operating. The bridge the Recces had destroyed was up and running once more.

IT was almost immediately that folks like the chief of the SADF Jannie Geldenhuys knew consolidation of the gains was crucial, along with preventing the enemy from regrouping.
By now, the political leadership had decided that they’d throw everything they could at this invasion into Angola - they’d gone too far to pull back. They’d grabbed a Tiger by the tail, and couldn’t let go.

For the Angolans, it was a bitter defeat, and the end of FAPLAs Operation Saludando a Octobre, Salute to October, their grand offensive of four main Brigades which were supposed to seize Mavinga from UNITA then push on to UNITAS HQ at Jamba - and destroy the rebel movement once and for all.

Not this time.
Russian advisors who were part of the FAPLA Brigades on the Lomba, and based in Cuito, confirmed just how badly the Angolan army had been mauled. Igor Anatoliyevich Zhdarkin was on the ground in Cuito when the battered 21st and 47th Brigades staggered back into the town.

“There on the Lomba, misfortune had befallen them…” he wrote in his journal “…They had been battered with shells from the rapid firing guns of the South Africans.”
On the ground, 20 SA Brigade was joined by 4 SAI Battalion, a fully mechanised unit with extra G-5 batteries, four self propelled G6 guns - although one broke down and most important, a squadron of 13 Olifant tanks.

Because these were to play such a significant role in the upcoming battles, I’ll spend a few minutes talking about their production.

Episode 90 – FAPLAs 47th Brigade shattered as Operation Moduler continues

One of the most crucial periods of the Border War was under way - although military strategists didn’t realise this until a little later.

It was imperative for FAPLA to take Mavinga, this would have pushed the South Africans much further south - and factored into Luanda’s plan along with the Cubans to begin building longer runways for bombers and fighter aircraft to take control of southern Angola.

I’ll get to some of the Russians views as we go - they were aware of this ultimate plan to set up a possible jump off point to invade Ovamboland should this war continue interminably. While Moscows original strategy was to avoid this kind of incursion, by 1987 the Soviet Union was under huge pressure economically and really wanted the War of independence in Namibia to end asap.

FAPLAs 21st Brigade had been stopped twice from crossing the Lomba River, this was very important and had a bearing on the rest of the Battle which lasted almost three months in total.

An entry in 20 SA Brigade’s war diary for the 29th September contains three phases for the upcoming offensive - One that the enemy must be prevented from taking Mavinga, two that the SADF would conduct operations north of the Lomba river - in other words they should chase FAPLAs 4 main brigades, the 21st, 16th, 47 and 59th and third the advance on Cuito Cuanavale.
That order was rescinded on 1st October and 47 Brigade was told to finish building a temporary TMM bridge over the Lomba, then to withdraw to the north and join up with other FAPLA forces. Back at SADF Mavinga HQ, Commandant Deon Ferreira was receiving radio intercept updates - they were listening in to FAPLAs calls.

It so happened that FAPLA using their Russian, Cuban and East German comms experts, had also broken UNITAs code by now and were doing the same.

Early on Saturday 3rd October, Combat Group Alpha began advancing from the east to the west, following the wide Lomba Flood plain.

There were three lines of 61 Mech’s armoured car squadron leading this assault - all from Charlie Squadron with 12 Ratel 90s. Behind them was UNITA in a light infantry screen, and their task was to winkle out enemy units that would be hit by the South African infantry.

After this group passed, then the armoured cars of Alpha company mechanised infantry, supported by 81mm and 60mm mortars. 32 Battalion’s Golf company would mop up after the battle.

To the south, or the left, Combat Group Charlie would shadow Alpha as they headed west, with a force of 61 MEchs Bravo Company, 8 Ratel 90s which were going to focus on the tanks.

They were a reserve force in the main, to cover Alpha Group from a counter attack by 47 Brigade from their main defensive position a few kilometers further south east. Another company of UNITA troops was assigned to track Bravo on their left - shadowing the shadow group so to speak.

The only problem with this plan was 47 Brigade was not where the South Africans thought they were.

Everyone thought the bulk of 47 had remained behind to the south, that they hadn’t moved up to the TMM bridges.

Everyone was wrong.

Episode 89 – Mirages, MiGs, missiles & the Lomba River tango to the death

We heard last episode how Operation Modular had begun, and how FAPLAs 21st Brigade had been stopped from crossing the Lomba River by Major Hannes Nortmann and his squadron of Ratels using the experimental ZRT3 rockets in early September 1987.

This was happening along a river where the approaches were a mix of tropical grasslands and riverine bush that was almost impenetrable.

Despite a raid by MiGs which bombarded the area shortly afterward the failed ground assault by the 21st Brigade, the SADF had managed to drive back FAPLAs attempt at reaching the south bank of the Lomba.

But a bigger challenge lay west, where FAPLAs 47th Brigade had managed to circumvent the river and the wetlands, and had turned to eastwards face Mavinga, and the SADF.

The date was September 11 1987.

South Africa’s artillery kept up constant fire towards the retreating 21st Brigade and FAPLAs commander could be heard on radio ordering a general withdrawal - along with phrases like annihilation when he referred to his condition of his men.
The SADF artillery had managed to hold up 47 Brigade after they’d wheeled east from their southwards march. FAPLA then sent a vanguard of PT-76 amphibious light tanks forward in a reconnaissance mission, while half a dozen T54/55s hung around between this advance recon party and their brigade headquarters further west.
This was learning on the job stuff - as the battle developed inside this dense bush, Ratels began to out turn the T54/55s. The tactic deployed was jaw dropping - the Ratel would turn past the tanks but too close for proper firing, then turn and attack them from the rear.

The T54/55s rear armour was 20mm thick, whereas it was more like 80mm at the front, that’s almost a meter of iron and the 90mm canon could not penetrate.

FAPLA also began to turn leading to a kind of heavy metal pirouette between these two major tools of war - the Ratel and the T54/55, a kind of terrible battle tango to the death.

Jan Breytenbach called this the dance of death.
The SAAF had conducted their first sortie at 05h45 - opening their air offensive with a combined air strike against 47 Brigade’s presumed position - dropping 100 mark 82 pre-fragmentation devices. These are a hefty 250kg each and were modified American Mark 82 bombs. The casing had been altered to allow larger-diameter ball-bearings to be squeezed in, and these balls could penetrate lightly armoured personnel carriers.

Commandant Johan Rankin led one of these attacks, and he was weary because by now reconnaissance and drone flights had picked out Russian SA6 and SA8 missiles in the area. Despite this, Rankin hurtled in for the vergooi, the far throw technique bomb run, low level, rise to release the ordinance, sink back to low level and the bomb arcs across the sky like deadly sine wave.

After the release, the Mirages would pull a 130 degree bank dropping down to low level to avoid missiles. Rankin duly released his bombs and rolled back towards ground, then heard on his radio that a number of the missiles were heading his way.
IT was only a few days before this operation that the SA Air force pilots were going to receive a clear indication that the Angolan Air Force had changed their modus operandi, they were both hunting each other.

A few days before this assault, SA AF Commandant Carlo Gagiano and Captain Anton van Rensburg had found themselves in a dogfight against two MiGs in their Mirages.

Episode 88 – Operation Moduler begins with T54/55s taking on Ratels at the Lomba

The first phase of Operation Modular has begun. 32 Battalion, the Recces and UNITA are facing 8 FAPLA Brigades in southern Angola, four of these have advanced towards Mavinga.

As you hear last episode, FAPLas 21 and 47 Brigade of about 3000 men were on their way to the Lomba River, north west of Mavinga.

Chief of the Army Lieutenant General Kat Liebenberg had written in his report before August 1987 that a physical attack on Menongue by the SADF would probably solve the problem of the FAPLA attack. But he also wrote that because of the SA Army’s manpower shortage, this was not feasible.

To buttress Unita then, the initial group of 80 special force soldiers had been deployed along with anti-tank weapons to form tank hunting teams. This largely failed because the Angolans always deployed company’s of men as screens around their precious tanks.

Colonel Jock Harris who was OC of 32 Battalion was writing furious notes about what he called the foolish proposals being adopted by Defence force top brass.

At one minute to midnight on 19th August, the SADF began fighting back with heavier stuff - firing a ripple of 96 Valkiri rockets at the FAPLA forces who were occupying a place called the Catado Woods.

32 Battalion’s Harris had seen enough of this war, along with Jan Breytenbach who was now advising UNITA, to know a full-scale mechanised assault by an enemy when he saw one.

After the slow going of early August, FAPLA suddenly surged and the lead elements reached the Lomba River in early September.

The scene was set for the Operation Modular showdown.

Episode 87 –Crocodiles attack Recces and the Lomba River heavy metal clash looms

The SADF was now facing a crisis as the MPLA government in Angola was growing increasingly determined to crush UNITA in the south east.

The Apartheid government was also facing an internal uprising and new organisations had been developed to deal with these.

In this episode we hear about Colonel Piet Muller who commanded Sector 20 in SWA.

He had considered the threat posed by FAPLA which was now attacking UNITA head-on at Mavinga and the Angolan rebel movement led by Jonas Savimbi was wilting.

Muller had a plan involving a Brigade-sized force and a three pronged attack. First he thought that FAPLA should be hit behind the lines so to speak, by ignoring their advance east of the Cuito River and focus on the West, hitting the Cubans and Russian support at Menongue.

That would halt the supply of heavy weapons streaming eastwards.

This implied something else. Quito Cuanavale needed to be attacked and subdued, even further north west because it was the fulcrum, a point through which everything heading towards UNITA was now moving. It was a strategic target that was also juicy.
And third, was to create some kind of direct head-on clash further east of the Quito River at some point after the supply lines had bee cut, which would give the Angolans a bloody nose.

Colonel Jock Harris who commanded 32 Battalion thought this an excellent idea. It conformed to SADF tactical doctrine, using the mechanised brigades, punching first, using the troops directly to take on the Cubans and FAPLA driving their armoured vehicles and tanks towards UNITA forces.

We are moving inexorably towards the battle for Quito Cuanavale, and this period has been debated particularly hotly by military historians so I’m going to tread very carefully indeed.
I also have some excellent source material from the Russians - so unlike some of the other battles, I’ll be able to tell you what was going on day to day from both sides.

One of the Russians is Vyacheslave Aleksandrovich Mityaev, who was in Angola between 1986 and 1989, advising FAPLA reconnaissance units. He was stationed in the 6th Military district in Manongue and Quito Cuanavale and had a great deal of experience facing 32 Battalion, the Recces and 61 Mech.

Episode 86 – The SAAF harried in Angola and Soviets import arms from Afghanistan

We are traveling with 5 Recce and they are planning to attack the SWAPO base that was discovered by some systematic sleuthing by Koos Stadler and Jose da Costa as you heard last episode.

The base was north of Tethamutete, east of the Cubango River - and from Menongue, heavily armed, a few hundred SWAPO cadres, perhaps as many as 350 were training at what was the Eastern Front HQ.

The troops gathered around for the intelligence briefing by Dave Drew before James Hills explained how the attack would unfold. A mortar platoon and two stopper groups, 51 and 53 Commando were ordered to take up their positions north of the base, led by Koos Stadler. They were to approach the base using the same route that the main force would use early the next day.

A few kilometres from the target, they left the mortar platoon which setup near the track that ran east to west through the base. Commando 53 then moved directly north of the base, ready to confront any SWAPO attempting to escape north as the stopper group.

Stadler headed off west of the target with 51 Commando, also following the track. These two groups formed a significant threat to any SWAPO fleeing in their direction.

Just before first light, a company from 101 Battalion, soldiers from 2 Recce reserves, along with the regimental HQ and 51 Commando would assault the base led by Jose da Costa.

As this attacking force arrived at the river the mortars would open fire.

They took off at dusk, the trucks dropping the troops around 20 km from the target, they covered the remaining ten kilometres on foot and eventually stopped at the east west track.

By 0200 they were at the forming up point, the mortar platoon was ready.

Starting in January of 1987, the SA Intelligence became aware of a major Soviet airlift of heavy weapons and military supplies from Tashkent north of the Black Sea and from Moscow, all the way to Luanda the Angolan Capital. The Soviets were withdrawing this equipment from Afghanistan where they’d been roundly defeated by the Taliban with American backing.

The new equipment arriving in Angola was the latest Russian material, BTR-60 APCs, BRDMS-2 ARVs, BMP-1 IFVs, all were heading south. Heavy transport aircraft were now flying into Menongue daily, carrying food, ammunition, troops. More than 400 trucks were counted traveling back and forth between central Angola and Menongue.

Episode 85 – Small teams missions behind enemy lines and the courage of 7 Med

We’ve heard about the 1 Recce and 4 Recce and the covert war throughout this series, and at times, I’ve included the voices or the individual stories where possible.

Unfortunately there is just not enough space and time to include everyone’s personal views or their memories. However, in this episode, I’m going to concentrate on two specific Special Forces members because they epitomize two different aspects of the South Africans who were involved in this 23 year war.

The first instance is one that is chilling and horrific, where MPLA soldiers let their base instincts take over and when they realized they weren’t getting what they wanted, lead to the execution of 7 Medical Battalion corporal, Bruce Fidler (Feed-luh) in September 1985.

The other illuminates the visceral and tractical elements of operating in an African bush scenario behind enemy lines with join Koos Stadler a year later in late 1986 as he collected reconnaissance information as an operator.

First, Bruce Fidler. His story exemplifies courage and has a more recent resonance because the unit he fought in, the 7th Medical Battalion, was involved in the infamous attack on South African paratroopers in the Central African Republic town of Bangui, in 2013.

For those who don’t know this story, just a quick reminder. The SANDF was involved in peacekeeping operations in central Africa – and 200 paratroopers were surrounded in Bangui by at least 3 000 rebels. In a two-day battle, thirteen SANDF parabats died, but remarkably they are thought to have killed up to 800 rebels – all this without artillery, armour or air support. Afterwards, Corporal Mandla Maxwell Ngobese of the 7 Med was awarded the SANDF's Leopard Decorations – and like his predecessor Bruce Fidler, his was a case of extreme courage under fire.
Changing gear and moving forward to where we left off last episode, on 25th October 1986 the whole of 5 Recce had been congregated in Oshivelo training area just north east of Etosha Pan. Having spent time in the bush there myself, it is like any other part of Ovamboland, hot, flat, full of thorn bushes and snakes where the dust hangs in the air at dusk and coats your equipment – jamming automatic rifles and sticking in your throat.

This is just across the red line area, which divides the farmlands to the south – including the triangle of death - from the operational area in the north closer to the cutline. The Recces were training for something called Operation Colosseum which was a planned attack deep into Angola on SWAPO HQ in the Eastenr Front.

I’m using Koos Stadler’s excellent book called Recce, Small Team Missions behind enemy lines as reference along with other source material for this episode.

Episode 84 - FAPLA renew their offensive against UNITA at Mavinga

It’s early 1986 and the SADF had learned a great deal through 1985, particularly what FAPLA were up to. In the time of the Joint Commission you heard about, both sides were actively collecting intelligence about each other - their operating procedure, their weaknesses and their strengths.

After years of strategy and diplomacy, the protagenists in this war had moved firmly from attacking the opponents strategy and diplomacy as the first phase to a new phase where victory apparently lay in only one outcome - destroying the enemy’s army. More material, more heavy weapons, actions and reactions.

Things were becoming more bitter, and the South African government was up against the wall. They had decided to take a few leaves out of the books of dictatorships like General Galtieri’s Argentina and developed death squads and torturers comprised of police and civilians. They were known as the Civil Cooperation Bureau and some would join SADF Special Force Operations from the end of 1985.

As you’re going to hear, the professional soldiers in the Recces and 32 Battalion regarded these civilians and police as amateurs in the art of war.
Particularly as the ANC’s MK were now targeting white civilians for special attention. The PAC were also changing their targets. In October 1985 a chicken farm near Bushbuck Ridge in the eastern Transvaal, today’s Mpumalanga, was attacked by men armed with AK47s. Landmines were being laid by the dozen inside South Africa.

In December a bakkie carrying families was traveling on the Farm Chatsworth, 45 km west of Messina, when it hit a landmine. Six died, four children and two adults, two children and three adults were injured.

A farmer and his wife were shot dead in a night of attacks outside Uitenhague in the Eastern Cape. The PACs armed wing APLA claimed responsibility.
But first, back to the ground war in the western theatre, Angola.

FAPLA supported by the Russians and Cubans, began their annual attack on UNITA in early 1986 and South African special forces were on the ground working with the rebel movement monitoring and sabotaging.

One of the Recces was Koos Stadler, who’s book on Small Team missions behind enemy lines is an exceptional document. It was first published in 2016 and for training and operational insights, it’s first class.
In the western Theatre, 32 Battalion launched Operation Gomma on 18th March 1986, where four reconnaissance teams were sent to gather information about the bridge at Cuito Cuanavale and the surrounding area.

Episode 83 – The most ambitious Op involving SADF special Forces hits Namibe

By January 1986 internal unrest in South Africa that had started in 1984 was in full swing – with the security forces hard pressed to cope. The SA Police were largely responsible for dealing with the ANC and PAC internally, although the SADF was going to get much more involved later.

The unrest would barely calm down before the SADF was involved in a much bigger war in southern Angola, while special ops were increasing against the ANC MK targets in countries other than Angola during this period.

The South African military establishment had drawn clear lines between what they regarded as terror activities and politically motivated unrest that was violent.

This is an important distinction and had a bearing on how they’d conduct some of their external attacks on ANC cadres. Terror was defined by the SADF as actions conducted by infiltrators who committed political murders, lay mines on roads, and blew up substations and other infrastructure.

Unrest was burning down schools and government buildings, barricading streets, large groups of people on streets who’d attack others, sometimes including the terrifying necklace killing technique which was a car tire filled with fuel thrown around the neck of a victim.
IN Ovamboland, SWAPOs armed wing PLAN stepped up attacks on administrative officials. IN March 1986 South African President PW Botha proposed in parliament that Resolution 435 be implemented by August, but wanted the Cubans to withdraw from Angola first. In fact, the opposite was going on as we know.

Back in Angola, Russian general Konstantin Kurochkin who was a veteran of Moscow’s failed push into Afghanistan had instituted his own set of changes. We heard about some last episode, the improved Russian weapon systems, new aircraft, artillery, anti-aircraft and missile systems.

As these built up, the SADF began to focus its attention on FAPLAs logistics and weak points. One of these was the port of Namibe in southern Angola. It lay almost directly due west of the Mavinga and Cuito Cuanavale towns.
So the Recces were ordered to Namibe and Lobito to try and find out what kind of equipment was being collected, and to report back on any possible targets. After a thorough debriefing, it was decided that an attack on Namibe was feasible. There were vessels in the harbour that could be mined, this would kill two birds with one stone. If the Recces could sink a number of these ships, then the quayside would be virtually unusable. They’d also go after the fuel depot.

Eventually, in May 1986, the SADF gave the warning order for Operation Drosdy planning to go ahead. Pretoria had given up on the latest round of negotiations.

Episode 82 – More Russian choppers down and 32 learns how to use SATNAV

It’s September 1985, and the SA Air Force and ground forces have already shot down two Russian helicopters and an Antonov transport plane. That was an attempt at slowing down an MPLA ground assault using it’s PLAN troops against UNITA at Mavinga. If you remember, this was the Angolans Operation Second Congress.

On the 29th September, 32 Battalion ground team near Cuito Cuanavale radio’d the SA Air Force operations of a helicopter formation that had just taken off, bound for the battle zone around Mavinga.

This was a mixed formation, two Mi-8/17 transport choppers escorted by Mi-25 gunships. The Impalas were scrambled and headed at low altitude to the targets which were picked up along the Lomba River. The Russian helicopters were flying at 3000 feet AGL, and the Mi-8/17 formation was in a trailing echelon about 1000 meters apart. About a kilometer back, the two Mi-25s were flying in support and were also at 3000 feet.

The first pair of Impalas launched their attack, and then the second with devastating consequences for the chopper pilots and crew. All four were shot down. A third pair of Impalas who were monitoring watched as two MiG-23 fighter jets approached at 200 feel AGL, then swept their wings back, accelerated and climbed out of sight. They preferred to avoid dogfighting the South Africans.
ON first December 1985 operational order number 1/12/85 required 32 Battalion to inflict maximum damage on FAPLA personnel and equipment in the 3rd and 6th military regions by sustained bombardment. Easier said than done.

The main targets were Cuito Caunavale and the airstrip at Menongue. There were also specific instructions to target the FAPLA force as soon as it began moving towards Jamba using the all-important Multiple Rocket Launchers or MRLs. 32 was warned not to let these fall into enemy hands.

Colonel Eddie Viljoen commanded this part of the operation targeting Menongue, both the MRL troop along with Charlie Company, while Captain Daan van der Merwe led an MRL troop and Golf Company as they attacked Cuito Cuanavale. Ten years earlier 32 had deployed around Menongue during operation Savannah, now they were going back.

On the 15 December four MRLs were flown to Rundu from Waterkloof Air Force Base and everything was set to roll on Christmas eve.

Episode 81 – The MPLA attacks UNITA and the SAAF shoots down Russian choppers

By mid-1985 air traffic between Lubango on the Atlantic coast and Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola had grown exponentially. Since the railway line running east had been rendered useless by UNITA, the MPLA was relying heavily on transport planes to get their logistics to the front.

Daily flights of the Soviet Antonovs could be seen carrying troops and material to Menongue in support of the MPLA’s war effort. This turned into a veritable flood of planes by late August when the MPLA launched their offensive against UNITA.

As you heard last episode, the Russians and Cubans had tired of being forced into defensive positions by the South Africans and UNITA and had decided to launch a two pronged as part of Operation Second Congress. The initial thrust began to the east into the Cazombo salient, while a second thrust turned south east.

The SA Air Force was then called in to help ferry UNITA troops as well as their own material in something that the South Africans called Operation Magneto. SA Air Force Mobile Air Operations Teams or MOATs were based at Cago Couthino and Cazombo and they guided the Hercules and Pumas in at night. That was to avoid being shot down by the MiGs which operated only during the day.

It was thought that the final phase of the battle for South Africa had begun, at least that’s how the hawks inside cabinet regarded this part of the Border War.

The Recces moved into Angola in support of UNITA and their mission was to shoot down Antonov and other MPLA transport aircraft using captured Russian SA-9 missile systems.

The Angolans were flying aggressive missions daily, resupplying FAPLA on the ground and conducting casevacs. The Mi-25 gunship helicopters, provided flushing fire, air-to-ground support, firing their 57mm rockets at possible UNITA targets, and sometimes, using their cannons.

Watching these flights were the Recces and members of 32 Battalion seconded to UNITA. The SADF was monitoring the Angolan army radio and picked up that many of the helicopter flights were used to ferry the all-important Soviet and Cuban advisors around the battle zones.

The Angolan push called Second Congress now presented an opportunity for some score settling – Pretoria had always regarded the Soviet presence as a perversion, warning the Russians that playing around in South Africa’s back yard would have consquences.

Episode 80 – An SA Navy sub damaged at the end of the failed Cabinda raid

We’re picking up where we left off in Episode 79 with Captain Wynana Du Toit captured, two Recces dead, and six others hiding in a coastal thicket surrounded by FAPLA intent on capturing or killing them.

Operation Argon in 1985 was one part of a two-punch with the plan to send nine operators were heading to oil storage tanks at Cabinda enclave – they’d been dropped off by a submarine but had ended up at the wrong lay-up position.

Their tracks were spotted, then a South African hat was found on the trail and that was the clincher. In the follow up firefight, du Toit had been captured after Corporal van Breda and Liebenberg had been hit and killed.

Two others, Captain Nel and Corporal Hough were wounded and lying alongside four other operators inside the thicket – it was late afternoon on the 21st May 2985.

Desultory fire was aimed at the thicket, but the six survivors did not shoot back. They were running out of ammunition and were waiting for the final assault on their position.

Later during the hurried extraction the submarine was waiting on the surface, an unusual tactic in this particularly dangerous area. By 0400 on the morning of the 23rd the Barracuda’s rendesvouzed with the sub again, with the sub pointing out to sea. That was just in case of attack.

And they were lucky the Captain had ordered this position because moments later, the Stead saw lights of a ship approaching from the south east. His periscope radar detector indicated a vessel was indeed heading their way. Stead wasn’t sure they’d been spotted, but the detector revealed that this ship was steaming directly towards them.

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