HOW GREEN WE WERE
'Andre' (not his real name) was a Permanent Force Major, who served with 1 Special Service Battalion between 1973 and 1985, taking part in a number of cross border operations into Angola, most notably Operations Savannah and Protea. The following are a few recollections he shared with the editor. Some minor editing has been done to make certain comments easier to read.
[In] December 1975 Battle Group X-Ray [was] attacking enemy positions at a town called something like Cancomba, halfway between Silva Porta and Texeira da Silva on the Zaire border. As usual during all the trans-border ops, the armoured cars lead the attack.
The resistance was poor, [and] after the initial fire the enemy "evacuated" their positions. They ran away. With the enemy running, UNITA joined us and, with the armoured cars in close support, UNITA "searched" [looted] the town. My troop commander - Sakkie - and my car were stationary in observation about 100 metres from the outskirts. We were eating, sitting in the crew commanders hatch and commenting on the UNITA actions in town. In the thick forest 120 metres on our right there was a loud bang, immediately followed by a loud swooosh noise and something like a skyrocket passed about 20 metres overhead, exploding in the air a few hundred metres further. I asked him what it was and he answered he did not know, but it blew a nice circle when exploding. Another few followed, but we ignored them until a UNITA captain, I think he was Johny Capella or something, ran towards us, screaming HAR PE GEE HAR PE GEE. We realised this must be something important and drove towards the bushes, firing a few Browning rounds towards the smoke. Nothing happened.
B was a PF corporal, the old Infantry School version - all PF instructors used to be trained at infantry school. A tough one - on our course, 73 started and 23 finished. In any case B was one of those cast iron models. In reality a nice guy. [In] 1975, with Jan Breytenbach, they advanced too fast for the enemy to follow, I think even too fast for our own brass/government. There was a big triangular road of which Lobito was the eastern sharp point. Jan Breytenbach split his force, covering two legs of the triangular roads, effectively blocking in Lobito. But the enemy did not realize this. They fled out of Lobito with anything they could get - the faster, the better.
B was an Eland crew commander, [and] troop sergeant. He was deployed as a stopper group on the enemy's escape route. Typical B waited, [Eland in the] turret under position, right in the middle of the tar road - NOBODY PASSES HERE!!! ‘Turret under' means from the front the only thing you see was the head/binocs of the crew commander. In front of his Eland the tar road made a decline and two kilometres further [there was] another hill, giving excellent observation. He saw a yellow car screaming towards him, at full speed. The little 1200 Datsun had no windows, battered but moving – fast, with three officers and a Cuban in it. Crossing the top of the hill, at max speed, they saw the armoured car right in front of them; their brakes were not too good and they stopped less then ten metres from the Eland. B got halfway out of the hatch, and calmly told them - in Afrikaans - that they must reverse, as he cannot shoot with the main weapon at such a short distance. Somehow they translated this, selected reverse and top revs, and lost control of the Datsun. Recovering, they turned around, picking up revs. That was when the 90 HE [shell] hit the rear [of the Datsun]. Dicey story? Very much true.
Eenhana 1977 - The good old days before the Buffel. Anti-mine measures were sandbags and conveyor belts on a Unimog, that was even before the Bosvark [a Unimog with mine protection - only for the driver]. 1977 [and] 1978 were the best years for the SWAPO mine-layers, the bloody things were everywhere. One infantry driver had hit three - I asked him once if he got hurt - hitting a mine; he answered 'yes', [as] once when he came down he fell into a bush.
BossiesThe individual's reaction to extreme stress, unhooking psychologically. I once saw it, it [he] was a gunner, [and] they were for three months with UNITA and another six months non-stop with a battlegroup, [and] saw some tough action - [and he] lost it a bit. [He was] Doing some crazy things, laughing for nothing. Once he came to my armoured car, got on, looked me straight in the eyes and said: "And everything came to a griiiinnnddinnng halt.", got off and walked away, carrying his pet-duck with him. "Bossies" was scarce; in retrospect l think our training was more stressful and tough than the real thing, [it] prepared the troops for the real thing.
Basic Training 1978 - 1 SSB.The Bats [Parachute Battalion], our [unpopular] neighbours in Tempe, had a few cases of meningitis. Everybody were very conscious of heat/training/exertion etc. That is everybody except Spikkels Terblanche, an instructor, he simply did not care and took his bungalow for some serious sweating. One of his infamous troops fell down and stayed down. Spikkels stood next to him, kicking him in the ribs [not very hard] telling him to get up, while the rest "makeer die pas [marked time]." At that moment a doctor from 3 Mil [3 Military Hospital] drove past, saw this and stopped, blowing a gasket about meningitis/heat etc.. Calmly, Spikkels looked at the doc and smiling, took off his beret, removed a needle from behind the badge and gave this "casevac" a quick jab at which the "casevac" gave a yelp and jumped up, joining the squad. The doc reported Spikkels [but] nothing came of it. By the way, the Bats are great soldiers.
November 1978, Sector 10[We were] Operating from old Etale Base [the old base had character, trees etc smelled a bit when it rained, years of go-carting; the new base had no nothing].
We were patrolling east of St Mary's Mission, troop commander Jakes Jacobs, troop sergeant Spikkels, one armoured car troop with a infantry section [or two - I can't remember]. We heard on the radio in our sector another infantry platoon were drawing fire from across the border-Angola. During that period [crossing into] Angola was strictly forbidden. We rushed towards the area but could not get hold of the infantry and stopped. I went along for the ride [I did that often, to see how the troops operated on the ground]. Jakes decided to test the 90's recoil and his gunner aimed at a derelict building in Angola. The next moment there were a huge bang and schrapnel everywhere. I ran to Jakes' car, shouting that his round had hit the bushes in front of his car. At that time he was in his car, he peeped out and said with big eyes: "I did not shoot!" Then the next explosions followed - we were drawing enemy fire from Angola. With the 90's in max elevation we returned fire and the enemy fire died off. We went across the border and destroyed a few buildings with armoured car fire and set fire to the rest. We [then] withdrew back across the Yati [the border].
Two things happened which ensured that I will never forget that day. Reaching [a] "safe" area, south of the Yati, we realized we were missing an armoured car. Backtracking, we found them; they had decided, while we withdrew, to quickly go to our original position and picked up a few spent shells!
The second thing is when we originally stopped, I ordered two guards into the highest tree as OP. When we drew fire an enemy 82mm mortar round fell into the tree where I had put the OP, but the tail got caught in a fork of a branch and it was hanging there. When we went back for the missing armoured car the OP showed me the mortar - again no comment.
By the way, I saw in the newspaper a few weeks ago [that] Jakes was killed in Bloem[fontein], shot. I was shocked, he was a soldier, [and] had the ability to squeeze the best out of his men, not always popular, but a winner. Pity. I was a member of 1 SSB for ten years, 1973-78, 1980-85,the heyday of 1 SSB, the glory years. You knew every year that you will go to the border, you will have a contact, the chances were excellent for a trans border op. The best of times, the best of men, the best unit and the very best of equipment, the Eland armoured car, if you knew how to use it and really wanted it to keep on going. I had the privilege of serving in 1 SSB under the command of Hanz Heinze, Reg Otto and Alwyn van Niekerk - the very best. It was a privilege.
Operation Protea - 1981.Ten clicks north of Quiteve [about 70 clicks north of Xangongo-old Villa Rocadez], we were a flank guard, preventing the enemy from intervening in the main assault on Cahama, from the north. We were oversize battle group strength with a big recce team  under admin command of my squadron. CM was in command of the recces, Julius was there as well, big names, men with a reputation that is easy to respect. Witkop Badenhorst was in command of the op. At some stage he left to brief the government and his second in command took over - WL. Now WL had a reputation as a hothead, rushing things; [he] saw himself as a little German blitzkrieg evolution. When Witkop left, WL came on the hopper[auto encoded radio] and told us to break through the enemy lines and ambushed the enemy on the main road north. I told the recces about this because I expected them to go with, although they were only under admin command they knew the area very well. CM and Julius looked at us with astonishment. Are you crazy? Do you know that you have 32 enemy tanks in this area where you want to break through? Do you know you are going to break through on the tank target range and training area? It is the worst piece of Angolan soil you can choose. As it was their right, they said no, not going with - end of story. Jitter time - WL combined with this could prove to be a mess - like Ebo during [Operation] Savannah where a hothead attacked well prepared enemy positions with eight armoured cars. I had eight armoured cars, only four [of which were] 90's, and an infantry platoon with no anti-tank ability. This was, I think, September 1981 and since that day I have never worried about big/small/any problems, that day I was in the shit and very few situations at any time in my life could compare with that day. Four 90's against 32 tanks [with a few T-62's thrown in].
We started the morning early, before first light, [and] after about 20 kays [kilometres] the infantry reported engine noises. We stopped, switching everything off and heard it, the deep grumbling noise of big engines somewhere in the dense bush. One characteristic of a tank is in the dark or dense bush-you can hear it, but it sounds as if it is all around you. You cannot determine their direction. We continued with our advance. At some stage we heard "vlamgatte [jets]" - airforce, above us in the sky, I tried to get hold of them, because we had air superiority, [but could raise] nothing. For quite a while they were there above us. I even threw a white phos to attract their attention-but nothing on the radio. Later I was told we had no aircraft in that area and that it was MiGs! In any case, we advanced until a steering arm on one of the cars broke, [a] tiffie job but my drivers were all trained to do it and it took about an hour to change it. After fixing the car we start advancing again, very slow now. Then zero called. Witkop had come back from Pretoria, and screamed what the ##$$%%!! were we doing where we were. [He was] extremely angry, and ordered us back to the position north of Quiteve. So much for the small wannabe German, lucky for us. I don't scare easily, but suicide were never an option.
During Protea security was extremely important. If you use 10,000 men and a lot of millions [in currency] to achieve success against a enemy you don't want them to be warned before the time. With Protea, the whole thing was critical and very few people in the states [slang: South Africa] knew something of this magnitude was coming down. A fax was received at 1 SSB requesting me to report to D Armour ASAP. At that time there were a conference in Pretoria re small tactics in urban areas, of which I was a specialist, and I assumed it would be for a few days, and told my wife two to five days, and left, [armed] with the authorization for an army sedan - I should have clicked, but did not. I reported at Army HQ and before I could have blinked, was dropped at 61 Mech. and then [to] Protea, [a] great op.
The "few days" proved to be two months. Luckily the UN accused us internationally of cross border big scale raids, [as] my wife saw it on TV and [then] realized the reason that instead of a week, it was more than two months [before I came back].
RanksAgain, I had the privilege of going through the ranks, covering all from corporal to major; Troop sergeant/instructor to squadron commander, skipping WO [warrant officer]. The best was corporal, [which was] without responsibility, going for broke with everything, enjoying training [toughening the troops] and ops duty. Young, tough and fearless[?], going for the toughest, most dangerous, trying to prove how good/tough you are [to oneself? - editor]. Reckless without much responsibility. We were good and well trained, maybe tough in the circumstances - and lucky. A sergeant [was the same as] a very, very tough corporal with a little more responsibility.
[They were] Supposed to guide the new officers through the maze; for example to corporals, Staff Sergeant, a junior WO, responsible for discipline, a model instructor, a boffin on everything. I enjoyed the ranks. Troop commander was fair, but squadron commander was the most satisfying, but the most taxing.
During my ops experiences I lost two men, both accidents on the border [not involving ammo]. I insisted on attending both funerals, maybe that was a mistake. A commander on any level has a primary responsibility towards the command he has received, the welfare of his men was secondary. As squadron commander the blind loyalty, the absolute trust and the way they believed in me and the commands I issued, my fairness, my decisions wore me down, I was always sensitive to the welfare of my squadron re safety,food and protecting them from unfair decisions and bullying. My training was tough, good, my troops were the best, but the responsibility got to me. Changing a schoolkid into a soldier requires hard, very hard work, [and] long hours. In every soldier,the result of an effort, is something of the instructor, the commander. Eventually you know every single member of the squadron like your brother [you had to, they were your responsibility]. If something was wrong with any individual you must pick it up immediately and attend to it, whether it's family/girlfriend, command or whatever, his physical/mental welfare is crucial if you want results. That's why commanders on any level refer to "my men"; you have trained them, shaped them, made them what they are, if they make mistakes it's your mistake. This shapes a unique relationship in a squadron, every single one is known intimately, you know what to expect in any situation from everybody, trust one another, believe in the squadron's abilities - esprit de corps.Sometimes you break rules/laws to ensure this cohesion, to protect an individual, your men, sometimes risky, but to protect the individual you protect the squadron, the integrity of the entity, the cohesion to function, irrespective of the circumstances. But all this starts with caring, then it loses the term "job"; it became life, the reason. More important than most outside the military. But it cost you.
FearScared in a contact situation ? - yes for sure, but you do your job, you function. The only time l was really @#$%!!! scared was during training. A specialized course, small teams ops in urban areas. The psychological phase was in the Eastern Cape. A crazy phase, doing stupid things to break you mentally, coffee with salt instead of sugar and vice versa with the soup. Dancing on Clap Clap Sound with a tyre. Carrying a f.......g pet rock around with a name. But for me personally the scary thing was the obstacle course, a specific obstacle. It was an elaborate tough course, about 1600 metres long. The one specific obstacle was leopard crawling through a pipe, after [a] sharp turn the pipe suddenly drops, [and was] filled completely with water. Obviously you are suppose to leopard crawl through the water and obviously the f......... instructors will not allow you to drown, but............crawling full kit with R1 in [a] narrow pipe, down into the water, without knowing how deep or how far it was. It was scary; very, very scary. But somehow I made it. I dropped off the course close to the end due to a cracked ankle, but made it through this pipe. I will never forget it.
The Noddy was the pet name for the Eland armoured car - [a name] used mostly by non-armour soldiers. This came about due to the way the Eland 90 rocked when driving it in uneven terrain. But no story of the Bushwar/Angolan episode will be complete without at least a chapter dedicated to this "little tank" - the way we used them - a small tank, that was never intended to be one.
Two and a half ton, powered by a Chev 2,5 inline motor with a beautiful 6 speed gearbox. Armed with 90 mm gun or 60mm mortar and two 7,62 Brownings - co-ax and anti-aircraft. The AA were used most of the time as a spare or a test for really cool crew commanders. A cool crew commander had a few kills himself with the AA. Stupid but true. Its speed was slow in broken terrain. Armour protection, good against small arms but vulnerable to 14,7 mm and a sitting duck for a 23 mm or RPG. Accuracy: HEAT up to 1200 [metres], HE up to 2400 [metres]. Not exactly a tank, the secret [to operating it] was "first shot, first hit." Being petrol driven, a few burned. Its biggest advantage - it was easy to underestimate.
Especially during '75-'76 the Eland created an aura that far outweighed its ability, and that spirit stayed; the enemy was s..t scared of them, senseless but true. On the other hand, the Eland during Op Savannah and a few others had a big part in all the enemy losses, taking out a few T-34's, even T-54's. Their ability to move quite fast over long distances [by tar/good gravel] surprised the enemy time and again. They were fairly quiet, and the first thing the enemy knew was the big white flash of the 90 - if he was not the target. And we knew what our enemy was like, one big hit and they ran, with Eland armoured cars like a pack of dogs chasing and eating.
The best ever armoured car parade was held in December '75 at Luso. After the fight, at last light, the squadron withdrew from both ends of the runways of Aeroporta Augostina Neto. The enemy was running, and UNITA took over their positions and was wasting their ammo - so the squadron withdrew to the centre of the airport in front of the hangars to refill. It was beautiful, sixteen cars, eight on a side, riding slowly like a squad marching, down the runway, turning into the centre square. A few were hit hard, most wheels were flat, the crews tired and dirty, but fiercely proud. Unforgettable. But that's the main characterisic of Eland personnel, fiercely proud of their cars - never say no!
The Elands were crucially instrumental in at least 60% of all kills, 80% during '75-'76, creating a legend. It's nice to write about the Bats or Recces or, when you are hard up and writing for idiots, how good Koevoet were - but the unsung heroes, very seldom mentioned, were the Eland armoured cars and their crews. Totally ill-equipped for how they were used and what they achieved, but they did their thing and, "All that was left was the dead and the dying." (quoted from Mark Saxon, as always quoted by Frans Badenhorst :- Sqn Cmdr 1SSB 1974)
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