North of the Red Line
by Authors Hanlie Snyman Wroth and Gerry van Tonder
Operation Firewood B
Paddy Carolyn: Operation Firewood took place during July and August of 1986. The purpose was to allow Special Forces to determine the location of the base and recce the routes to be used during Firewood.
I was involved in Op Firewood B as the leader of the SAAF Mobile Air Operations Team [MAOT]. I had been tasked to participate in Exercise Golden Eagle at Rundu during May 1987. This was to have been a five-day affair to analyse the previous year’s ‘Summer Games’, and to come up with solutions to the problems that had been encountered in the 1986 equivalent. The participants would then form the nucleus of the SAAF ops team to run the 1987 ‘Games’ from Rundu, better known to most as Ops Modular, Packer, and Hooper.
As luck would have it, the first SAAF elements, comprising the Tac HQ and some MAOTs, deployed across the cutline on day four. As the paper exercise was being played out, CAF [chief of air force] came to the MAOT Coordination Centre (MCC), which I was in charge of, and asked why the information on my boards differed from all the other info on other boards. When I explained that my info was real time and the rest a paper exercise, he called off the ‘Games’. We had in fact suffered our first SAAF casualty in the form of Coen van den Berg, the MAOT at the Tac HQ, who had been slightly injured when his Buffel [APC] had rolled during ingress. Golden Eagle was called off, and the ops set-up at Rundu was put in place to manage the real thing.
As the MCC was already up and running, my team was automatically instructed to stay. The result was that of the eighty-three individuals who were supposed to be the team running the show, only fifteen in total were finally tasked to stay, while the rest returned home to their loved ones. They would become the reserves who would relieve us later. Well, we did not see much of them ever again, and the fifteen of us gave ourselves the collective title of, ‘The SAAF’s Famous Fighting Fifteen’.
Later, I was deployed as the MAOT with 61 Mech as part of one of the battle groups. After being relieved on 16 September 1988, I returned home. I arrived home a little after midnight on Saturday, 17 September, and decided to give work a miss on the following Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, 21 September, I returned to work. That was Far North Command, working under Colonel Jurie Lombaard in COMOPS, when I was told that I had to phone SAAF HQ urgently. An irate Staff Officer at SAAF HQ asked me:
“Where the hell are you? You are supposed to be in Oshakati.”
Jurie and I went to see General Georg Meiring, GOC [general officer commanding] Far North Command, to complain, but we were told that CAF had asked for me to be redeployed, and General Meiring had consented. General Meiring asked us:
“Het ek ‘n fokop gemaak?” [Have I made a fuck-up?]
That took the wind out of our sails. Early the next day I was off to Pretoria.
On Thursday, 22 October, I flew by B707 to Grootfontein, and then with Safair to Ondangwa. Then it was straight off to Oshakati for a briefing. The next day I was flown in an Aztec to Operet airfield, and then by road to Dolphin Base. There I met up with James Hills, the battle group commander, elements of 5 Recce (51, 52 and 53), two Parabat companies, and the members of my MAOT team, including Anton Marais, our intelligence officer. Anton had just been posted in to 310 AFCP [air force command post] as the new IO. The officer commanding, Louis Lourens, and Ian van Vuuren, the outgoing IO, thought it would be a nice opportunity to have a hands-on introduction to the bush and SWAPO scenario.
Ratels [APC] with 81mm mortars and four companies from 101 Battalion were to join us as well. All in all, the convoy would comprise some 156 vehicles. I spent the rest of the day writing the air plan. The target was a SWAPO base, which was the central SWAPO HQ, from which operations into Ovamboland were planned, so the place was equipped with the necessary tools of the trade like food, weapons, clothing, etc. Later, during the strike itself, many SADF items of clothing were found in the main bunker. These were obviously used to allow the infiltrators to look the part.
Saturday was spent getting our Casspir [APC] ready for the trip. It was about 1,200 kilometres to the target. We all celebrated with a braai [barbecue] to end off the preparation. On Sunday, 25 October, we completed our final preparations. I was invited to join the Recces for a non-denominational church service prior to our departure. I felt humbled by the commitment shown by these elite troops, and I felt honoured to have been invited to be part of their private preparations.
We finally left at 1800B for Tsumeb, Grootfontein, and Rundu, arriving at 0710B on Monday, 26 October. We waited outside Rundu for fuel bowsers, and were still a long way from our first planned stop at Katitwe. We eventually arrived at 1730B. Half the group spent the night at Katitwe, while the rest pushed on northwards.
Travelling was harsh, as little of it was on any roads of note, the bulk of it being ‘bundu bashing’. This infiltration route via Rundu was done so that if we were observed, it would appear as if we were on our way to join up with Op Modular.
On the Tuesday, the plan was to get as far as Ionde. Things progressed quite well until 1000B, when we stopped for a break. Problems then started. We had breakdown after breakdown, and we only advanced five kilometres in the next three-and-a-half hours. We eventually stopped about 120 kilometres short of Ionde. We camped in the road and slept. Then the rain started.
The next day proved no different. We planned for a 0500B departure, but we eventually left at 0615B. We had our first breakdown about twenty minutes later. During the morning, we passed aircraft wreckage, some of which we collected. It was Russian, and appeared to have come from a Sukhoi SU-22 ‘Fitter’. The pieces seemed fairly new, as there was no mud or dust on them, and cut wires showed no tarnishing. We had no time to waste investigating any further as we behind schedule, so we pressed ahead. We finally reached Ionde at about 2300B, just as the rain started again.
On 29 October, it was decided to postpone the strike by twenty-four hours. We waited until 2250B for a Dakota to arrive, bringing staff with final instructions. They briefed us on updated information, and left at 0045B the next morning for Chilombe. We arrived there at 0700B.
We kept moving north on 30 October, the planned H-Hour being 1000B on 31 October 1987. Four Buccs [Buccaneers] were to attack a target to the north, to coincide with our strike and act as a diversion. Four F-1AZs, call-signs Cameo, Casper, Goblin, and Gambit, were tasked to drop six bombs each.
On 31 October, we were up at 0100B to move an hour later. We made slow progress to the target area. We had to delay the strike by an hour and a half, and then a further thirty minutes to 1200B. Just south-east of Indungo, we were told to separate from the Tac HQ and form a back HQ. This was a very unsatisfactory situation as we would have no comms whatsoever with James. We had to work through call-sign OB, which had national servicemen on board. I sent Anton over to monitor and assist where he could.
I heard the F-1AZs on the pitch and informed them of the slow progress: still about four kilometres short of the target. Contact was made with the enemy at 1221B. Nine minutes later we received information that MiGs had been scrambled from Lubango for, ‘a position south of Jamba where the South Africans had bombed’. I believe that they were responding to the Bucc diversionary attack, as they did not have a go at us. We warned the B702, call-sign ‘Rembrandt’, of the potential danger to the Impalas who were providing top cover.
Due to some navigation problems, the main attacking force was still not properly formed up, and the Bats that were supposed to be the side stop group, walked directly into the enemy lines and drew fire. A mortar fell among the Bats while they were still debussing. These were the first losses of the operation. The front line adjusted itself, and the fight was on.
The battle raged all afternoon. Our problems were compounded by the fact that Cuban reinforcements arrived on the scene from their base near Jamba – or so we thought. The fighting was fierce at times, with vehicles making contact with the enemy whilst loading fresh ammunition from the supply vehicles. One Casspir, having run out of ammunition, flattened a large anthill that was home to a machine gun that was causing a lot of concern, and drove over those who fell from it. Numerous vehicles took RPG-7 hits.
I have always been of the opinion that far too few medals were awarded for actions on that fateful day. There were certainly many deserving cases.
As evening arrived, I arranged casevacs for our casualties, which were originally reported as four dead, and thirteen wounded: six lying and seven sitting. These numbers grew steadily during that night.
The first Pumas [helicopters] arrived at 1930B and left again at 2025B. The second pair arrived just before the first ones took off, and only left at 0315B. The first pair returned at 0015B and left at 0245. By the time the Pumas had all gone, we had evacuated fifty-seven wounded soldiers, and those killed in action [KIA] were initially given as eleven. It would now appear that there were fourteen, with two left behind in their Casspir, and one who died later of his wounds. One Buffel had rolled and three Casspirs were abandoned. There seems to be some discrepancies about casualties and vehicle losses, but this is the information that was passed on to me during the early hours while the casualties were being taken care of.
Rod Penhall, the chopper leader, and I, observed one of our own troops boarding the Puma under his own steam. We advised him that the evacuation was for sitting and lying casualties only. He got up and started to leave the Puma, but even in the poor lighting conditions, we noticed blood on his trouser leg. We asked what the cause was, and he calmly told us that he had been hit in the knee. We got a doctor to have a look at him, and were told by the doc that he must have been in absolute agony, and took care of him right away. The guy was more concerned about the wellbeing of his comrades than his own suffering, and would have given up his seat for someone else. My deepest regret is that I never found out his name. I doff my hat to you my friend. You deserved far more recognition, and on behalf of those of us involved, I would like to offer my apologies.
I was trying to arrange for a pickup of the remaining body bags, but this went on a little longer than I thought it would. Eventually James said he was leaving at 0500B, with or without the MAOT, as ground fire was getting hectic and close. At 0500B the next morning, we finally made arrangements for a rendezvous point with the Pumas, before making a hasty departure with James, who had stayed to look after us anyway.
We reached the agreed-upon position just over an hour later. After refuelling, we moved further south to avoid the bombardment from the north. They had a superior range than us; our best being the 81mm mortars.
Some of the KIAs were taken out during the casevac that night, but Rod Penhall returned with two Pumas to uplift the last seven of our KIAs. As it was being done in broad daylight, the choppers understandably did not want to spend much time standing still. So the decision was to load four into one, and three into the other. They had also reached Bingo fuel, so a very short stop to load was needed. The loading was done by Anton and our driver, as everyone else was busy. We spent the rest of the day trying to get some rest, but we were continually forced to move south to the Chitombe area to avoid heavy mortar fire from the north that was moving closer. We had salvos of BM 21 ‘Grads’ [Soviet truck-mounted 122mm multiple-rocket launchers] looking for us as well.
On 2 November, we did what repairs we could and were in our foxholes by lunchtime. We were instructed not to remove anything from our vehicles so that we could move at very short notice if the flushing fire got too close. There was a lot of flushing fire from the north, as well as a lot of MiG activity when the cloud cover allowed it.
We were fast running out of water. A small stream passed our temporary base, so during the afternoon I went in search of some water. I found a pool of rather filthy water, which stank to high heaven, but bathed in it anyway. It was full of elephant turds and surrounded by elephant spoor.
I asked Anton to take our Casspir and move upstream to see if there was cleaner water. He had a twenty-litre oilcan that we had borrowed from someone, to scoop up any decent water he could find and pour it into the vehicle’s reservoir. We also filled the two fifty-litre plastic bottles that I had insisted on loading as part of our kit. It was a slow process as Anton and the two drivers took a long time to complete the process.
The next moment, a Casspir from 101 Battalion, with Obie at the helm, came charging down the hill on the other side of the stream towards them. He asked why they were wasting time filling up with the dirty water. Anton’s reply was, “Kak vraag, sit Obie” [shit question, stay]. Obie then asked Anton if he would like to fill up with water from a tap, clean water from a tap. Anton told him to get lost and thought that Obie had gone ‘bossies’ [bush happy] as there was nothing to indicate any form of civilization.
Anton promised Obie a ‘kiss brandewyn’ [case of brandy] if it was true, and expected one in return if the information was false. Anton ditched the scooping plan, and drove after Obie with the vehicle’s reservoir opened to drain the water they had collected, and drove to the point where Obie had indicated. They drove a few hundred metres upstream, and there the ‘tap’ was. In the middle of nowhere, there was the ‘tap’. It was not the type of tap that we all know, but a concrete dome built over a very productive spring, with two copper pipes protruding from the dome about two feet off the ground. The water pushed up into the dome and then flowed out through the two pipes. They filled every conceivable container with the best water I have ever tasted. I got my whole MAOT team to throw out what they had, and fill everything else with clean water, including the two fifty-litre water bottles which I had insisted on loading. We advised the rest of the group, and that spring supplied the entire battle group with clean drinking water for the next few days, without running dry.
During the chase to the south, the weather, which had been such a nuisance during the ingress, now became an ally. During a lull in the fighting, due to low cloud, we set up a temporary base [TB] and even enjoyed a game of baseball. Everyone joined in, and in the middle of all the chaos after the severe fighting, the battle group was able to find time to relax.
Some years later, in fact in 1990 at the laying-up of the colours of 101 Battalion, Robbie Blake gave me a photograph of the well which had been taken during Firewood A. Sadly, the photo has been misplaced. That well was a very special spot in the middle of nowhere.
However, there was a down side. Our co-driver, Nangwatu, was helping to load one of the fifty-litre containers into the narrow aisle in the Casspir. During the process, I grabbed and jerked the container to get it in place, and it slipped from our grip, catching Nangwatu’s finger on the tow bar, all but amputating the digit, leaving it hanging on by sinews. He grabbed his injured hand with the other and looked at us somewhat bewildered. All Anton could manage was to point to the medic area and shout, “Hardloop [run]!” Later that day he was casevaced to Ondangs where they amputated his finger.
And a silver lining …
After Anton returned to Oshakati, he popped in at 101 Battalion to look him up and to apologize. Nangwatu was fine, running around with a smile. He is still a driver, but one with far more status, as he told all and sundry that he had lost the finger in combat. And we still owe Obie his case of brandy.
On 3 November, we were up early. We received reports of an airstrike on Mupa to the south. Other than that, it turned out to be a restful day due to thunderstorms and rain, which kept our pursuers away. We made the best we could of celebrating Koos Verwey’s birthday.
The next day, the powers that be came up to visit us by Puma. Plans changed quite dramatically, and in a signal sent on two days later, the Firewood forces were split up. The Recces were given a task which all thought was absurd, the Paras went elsewhere, and the MOAT was to stay with 101 Battalion. We were to move into the Cuvelai area. The rain never let up, and thunderstorms were the order of the day. The only real benefit from the heavy rain was that one could shower by simply standing outside. More water than the showers at Ondangwa.
We were informed that we were now part of Op Daffodil in the Cuvelai area. There were no mission orders, and it slowly went from the sublime to the ridiculous. The only good news was that Louis Lourens told me that I would be going home. Oh, and the other piece of good news is that it rained again and again. Everything was soaking wet.
On 10 November, we moved into position for our new tasking, and finally, the rain stopped. All that was left were patches of high and middle cloud.
The next night we were paid a visit by Louis Lourens and his team from Oshakati. The good news for me was that I was not going home, but would be staying until Op Daffodil was over. To this day, I am not sure what the object of the operation was.
Apart from the rain and the uncertainty, the story of the week was when the logistics officer at Sector 10 HQ in Oshakati instructed the RSM with the battle group to send spares and ammo back to them as they needed them in Oshakati. On 13 November, there was not much movement due to rain, but enemy aircraft attacked to the southwest of our positions. That night we had a night drop from a Dakota, but the rain persisted. By the following day, the sky had cleared quite considerably, and we received our final orders from Louis Lourens. This was all passed on to the Browns and then we heard that ‘we’ had decided to laugh off taking Cuvelai due to fear of own losses through attack from the air.
A standoff bombardment was planned, but due to the continued threats of MiG and helicopter strikes during the day, this was cancelled. There were delays in the planned night strikes by the Impalas. The first two arrived at 1924B and drew 23mm fire. The second pair arrived about an hour later. Mortars with illuminating flares were fired, and André Stapa reported four flares visible. I told him that three were on the ground and one in the air. He later reported that it appeared that they had all burned out. He attacked, and we heard four bomb detonations as well as a large secondary explosion. The OC of 101 Battalion also reported this. Their people had also seen a larger explosion, with lots of flames and sparks.
There was no further contact with André. After failing to get comms with André, Jan Minnie then returned to Ondangwa. I contacted Louis Lourens of the developments, and after long deliberations, they gave permission to proceed with an artillery bombardment which went on until 0300B.
The 14th and 15th saw heavy fighting, with air strikes from the north being the order of the day. FAPLA intercepts indicated twenty-four dead and thirty-seven wounded. On 16 November, I finally left for Oshakati. The trip back was a shambles to say the least, and I finally crossed the cutline for the last time in my career late that afternoon.
My final link with Op Firewood came on 10 April 1990 when I was invited to attend, as master of ceremonies, the laying-up of the colours of 101 Battalion and the standard of the Selous Scouts [disbanded Rhodesian Special Forces unit] in the chapel at 5 Recce, Phalaborwa. It was the most moving ceremony I have ever had the privilege to attend. Many of those who were deployed in Firewood were present. I am proud to have known and served with so many of them. ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’ – Shakespeare’s Henry V.
Dr Wouter de Bruin: Ja, like you pilots, we as medics were also not involved in the actual fighting of Op Firewood, but we sure had a battle on our hands. The number of wounded was sixty-seven, no doubt about that. One of the wounded, Jean Schuurman, died later on the C-130 on the way to 1 Military Hospital, Pretoria. That was on Monday, 2 November 1987. The rest of the wounded all survived.
I am less certain about the KIAs, because from the very beginning we were unsure of the number of 101 Battalion KIAs. The names I have on my list are:
Captain Andries Rademeyer
Second Lieutenant Deon Botes
Sapper E. Steyn
Rifleman W. Abraham
Rifleman P. Epafu
Rifleman V. Petrus
Rifleman M. Uushona
Rifleman T. Sheepo
1 Para Battalion:
Second Lieutenant D. Cobbolt, 5 Recce
Corporal Nic Olivier
Lance-Corporal R. Light
Rifleman H. de Rose
Rifleman W. Ewels
Rifleman J. Schuurman
Rifleman D. van Rooyen
I composed this list of names as we were treating them, as well as when we were handling their bodies at AFB Ondangwa. The bodies of the 101 Battalion KIAs were taken to their base, and we did not take care of them at AFB. What bothers me is that I always had in my head the number of twelve white soldiers that had died. Somehow, two names are not on my list. It is also possible that all bodies could not be recovered.
You may perhaps get more insight on the 101 Battalion KIA number from someone like Obie Oberholster, who was their 2-i-c during Op Firewood. As far as you guys are concerned, you did a hell of a job that day. We were loading the Pumas to capacity and I think you had ferry tanks on board as well. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think Commandant Rod Penhall was the pilot of the last Puma out. I was on it because I was supposed to go back with Major Berry in the Rinkals field ambulance, but because of the high number of wounded, there were not enough doctors at the op’s hospital at Ondangwa. Roland then told me to fly back on the last Puma out. I remember Commandant Penhall, because I had worked with his brother, who is a doctor in Bloemfontein. We had all the bodies of the KIAs on the last Puma. We had to place some of them into a tail compartment to get everybody in. We only left Indungo after 0300 that morning. We had to land at Eenhana to refuel, if I remember correctly.
It was mentioned earlier that Commandant Penhall flew back the next day to pick up more bodies. We only had twelve bodies with us. That is a fact, because I was taking care of the last chopper that morning. The last Casspirs that had come through were all from 101 Battalion. They most likely had dead bodies with them. These were probably the bodies Commandant Penhall flew out the next day, which may also explain why we never saw the black 101 Battalion fallen. Their bodies may have been taken directly to the 101 Battalion base at Ondangwa for burial.
We had a POW with us, a SWAPO artillery commander named Andries – it may have been Andreas. He had told me in perfect Afrikaans that he had worked in the mines at Klerksdorp and Orkney in SA. Andries told us that they had been expecting the attack, but did not know when it would to take place. He also told us that there was a SWAPO base nearby with Typhoon troops [SWAPO PLAN], which came to their assistance shortly after the attack had started.
Second Lieutenant Botes of 101 Battalion was very badly burned. His body was brought to us, but I am sure that some bodies might have been left in his Casspir.
I played a very, very small role in the op, but like the Puma pilots, our role was to get the men home alive, so I always think back with a degree of pride at the job that we had done. I remember seeing nothing but 100 percent commitment from every medic involved. Also, back at the ops hospital at Ondangwa, everybody was waiting with that same commitment. Everyone wanted to make a difference. It was that same commitment that we have always sensed from you guys in the air force. It was that esprit de corps that made the difference and made us brothers-in-arms forever.
Loot Joubert: I was based at 102 Battalion in Kaokoland in 1986, doing mine hunting, mainly in the western area of Angola. Our area operations stretched from Calueque up to Tchipa, and to the west of that. I met Deon ‘Boats’ Botha at 101. I went there to wait for an op to start. We had become big mates, but we never saw each other again. I had searched for the last seven years to find him, only to find out that he died in 1987 in Firewood. The shock of finding out about Boats’s death was really a low point in my life. To Second Lieutenant Deon ‘Boats’ Botes, 101 Battalion, killed in action on Saturday, 31 October 1987:
I have been searching for you for a very, very long time, and I have only just found out that you had been killed in action in 1987. I looked for you, as I wanted to thank you for your hospitality back then, and just to see how you were.
I first met you in 1986 at 101 Battalion. The adjutant had instructions for you to look after me. I shall never forget how you made me feel so at home. Every night, while waiting for the next op to begin, we would sit up for hours chatting. I will always remember the passion you displayed for 101 Battalion, and the mutual respect that developed between the two of us in just those three days.
Rest in peace, I shall never forget you. My child is also trying to be as hospitable as you were.
Loot Joubert: I also recently discovered that someone I had been searching for had been killed in action in 1987. I had started by trying to find out more about what had happened during Op Firewood, when I came across someone else’s death, Dirk Willem van Rooyen.
His sister wrote this letter:
I don’t really know what to write. Don’t really know, why I’m writing. I went onto google, typed in Angola Ops Firewood and got to this site.
Dirk was my big brother. Me, my sister, dad and mom went to Bloemfontein on 9 Nov ‘07, for a remembrance service. My other brother didn’t go … because, Dirk is not there, and everything’s changed. Yes, after 20 years … it still hurts a lot. I can’t believe it’s already 20 years. Yes, I was small (11 years) when Dirk died, but he was my big brother. I miss him and always wonder, if he would’ve been alive, where he would have been today. I would also like to hear more about him and his friends in the army.
[Afr] I am and will always be proud of you, Dirk Willem. I wish you were here today, but I know you are in a better place. All you ever wanted to be was the best Parabat there can be.
I will always love you,
Your little sus.
Tiaan Dekker: I was in Operation Firewood in November and December 1987, when we were lying below a small town waiting for the order to go in. Our artillery bombarded the town, and the dull thudding noise of their exploding bombs could only be a guarantee of victory. The gunners did a sterling job reloading and firing at such a pace. Moolman, my gunner, and I, were sat on our Noddy’s tower, looking out for occasional flashes that were visible in the darkness. I remember how the two of us discussed how anyone could survive such an onslaught.
Shortly after, we received a report that the Vlamgatte [jet fighter aircraft] were on their way. The tempo of the artillery fire slowed down over the next twenty minutes, before finally stopping altogether.
Then, for the first time, we had the spectacle of our fighters doing their thing. The sight of the flashes in the night sky defies description. At one stage, it appeared as if someone had set off a fireworks display. The largest explosion that my nineteen-year-old eyes had ever seen followed.
Our shared elation when the ammo dump took a hit, however, was short-lived, when we received a report that it was one of our aircraft that had been brought down. Everyone went quiet. On my own, I quietly offered a prayer for the pilot’s safety. I believe that everyone who saw me doing this did the same No-one wanted to talk. They just wanted time alone.
Without being ordered to do so, we carried out an inspection to ensure that all the vehicles were 100 percent ready. I must have cleaned my periscope ten times and went for a pee every five minutes. The fear of the unknown and the unexpected I experienced that night will forever be engraved in my memory, so much so, that to this day I still have the smell of my sweat and the steel of our armoured car in my nostrils.
A couple of days later we heard that the pilot had died. I still don’t know who he was, and would like to know. [This may have been Captain André Stapa from AFB Ondangwa who was killed on 14 November 1987.]
Trevor Schroeder: My Firewood moment occurred while I was Ops CO at Ondangwa. Our forces had taken some heavy losses, and we were busy flying casevacs from the front with Pumas. Needless to say, it was a busy evening in the ops room. We had an Impala Telstar up, which had been tasked to cover the Pumas until they were safely inbound for home. The casevac C-160 to transport the injured back to the RSA was also on schedule, so all seemed under control when I left the ops room just before midnight. As I was about to retire to bed, I received a call from the ops room telling me that the Pumas were delayed, and the Telstar had to return to base within the next ten minutes due to fuel being Bingo. I was the only available Impala pilot at that stage, so I rushed straight to the aircraft and got airborne ASAP. I had been on station for about an hour when I heard the C-160 getting landing instructions and commenting on the fog which was coming in. My first thought was, fog? Surely not at Ondangwa?
When the C-160 landed, I thought that it could not be that bad and that I would have no major problems getting in. About forty minutes later, the Pumas were busy returning, so I moved closer to Ondangs in preparation for the landing. The 8/8 cloud [‘completely overcast’ in Okta measurement] that I was in, was of no major concern. I carried out a TACAN approach in which you centreline yourself and descend 300 feet for every mile from touchdown. When I reached two miles and 600 feet, however, I was still solidly in the soup, and now became more than a little concerned. I did not have sufficient fuel to divert to Grootfontein, so was committed to getting in at Ondangwa.
I broke off the approach and climbed to 1,500 feet, from where I did a ‘teardrop’ [reverse the direction of the aircraft and permit the aircraft to lose altitude] in order to intercept the reciprocal centreline at five nautical miles. Once again, I started my approach, and once again I was still in the cloud at 600 feet. I pushed the approach knowing that there was no high ground around and broke through at about 400 feet, which was great, except that the runway was close and I was about 100 metres off centreline. At this stage, extreme measures were called for. I was left with no choice other than to execute a low-level turn on instruments, while keeping the runway visual in order to teardrop back onto the runway. The landing was uneventful, but it was great being back on terra firma.
Marius Neser: During this op, a lot of wounded arrived at Ondangwa, casevaced by Puma crews. The strength of 515 Squadron, responsible for base protection was, if I remember correctly, about 130 national servicemen. We had a photo of each with ‘nommer, rang en naam’ [number, rank and name], and his blood group on a huge board in my office. As the Puma crews approached, they radioed the wounded men’s blood groups through to the medics, who would then convey that to us. My sergeant and I would stand in front of the board and select troops with corresponding blood groups to go and donate blood at the sickbay. Shame, some of the buggers were almost bled dry. Although not at the front, they did their part and saved lives.
Johan Kruys: Towards the end of 1987, two platoons of D Company, 1 Parachute Battalion, were seconded to 5 Reconnaissance Regiment. The platoons were under the command of Captain P.A. ‘Pine’ Pienaar, 2-i-c of D Company. The platoon commanders were Lieutenant J. de V. Kruys and Second Lieutenant F. J. Wiese. Together with members of 5 and 2 Reconnaissance Regiments, the members of D Company took part in an attack on a SWAPO base in central Angola. The operation was codenamed Op Firewood. The attack commenced at dawn on 31 October 1987, and SA forces only withdrew after dark on the same day. It was estimated that more than 300 SWAPO fighters were killed during the battle.
At the end of the day, Corporal N.S. Olivier, Lance Corporal R.M. Light, and riflemen H.N. de Rose, D.W. van Rooyen and W.F. Wessels were dead, killed in action. Several other members of D Company were also wounded during the battle. Rifleman J.M. Schuurman died of his wounds on 1 November 1987.
Captain P.A. Pienaar was killed in West Africa almost ten years later, on 29 October 1997.
The names of these members of D Coy appear on the Wall of Remembrance at 1 Parachute Battalion in Bloemfontein. We remember our comrades who paid the highest price on that day in 1987. They were heroes and proud paratroopers.
Thinus De Klerk: Op Firewood did not follow on from any operation, but was a stand-alone operation against the SWAPO Eastern Area HQ and vicinity. The forces involved were a strengthened commando from 5 Recce (who were also involved in Hunter, the security forces’ support operations for Modular, Hooper and Packer), elements of 2 Recce, a Ratel 81mm mortar group, two Parabat platoons, and four 101 Battalion companies as the fighting elements, and the SAAF airstrike. It was the deepest mobile penetration by any SADF force. The 101 Battalion companies were deployed as cut-off stop groups. The main SADF losses happened when SWAPO sent reinforcements from the north and they clashed with 101, resulting in eight of the battalion killed and fifty wounded. The Parabats suffered five killed, and another Bat died of his wounds later. Only a Recce non-operator IO lieutenant was killed in action. The unit suffered more than ten wounded. There was no jumping in the operation, thus the DZ is actually referring to another OP. The enemy forces comprised a Cuban tank and artillery element, with an MK [Umkhonto we Sizwe: abbreviated as MK: Zulu for ‘Spear of the Nation’, the armed wing of the African National Congress] motorized infantry unit. Two op medics attached to 101 Battalion won the Honoris Crux for fighting off the enemy while saving wounded under fire.
1a. About Hanlie Snyman Wroth
Hanlie is a former teacher who spent some time teaching refugee pupils from Angola and Mozambique. She has been a sales manager at Oxford University Press and later international sales manager at Juta Publishers, South Africa. Now semi-retired, she teaches aviation English in China.
Hanlie is married to former air force officer Charlie ‘Backseat’ Wroth, who served for sixteen years in the South African Air Force as navigator on bombers and transport aircraft. He also performed tours of duty on the ground with the 61 Mechanised Battalion Group during Operation Askari in Angola. He now works in Iraq.
With her son serving in the British Parachute Regiment and her husband and son spending a number of years in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hanlie is very well read in aspects of modern warfare.
1b. About Gerry van Tonder
Born, raised and educated to university degree level in the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Gerry
immigrated with his family to England in 1999, where he later took up full-time historical research and published writing, specializing in the military genre. His titles include:
Rhodesian Combined Forces Roll of Honour 1966-1981 (co-author)
Rhodesia Regiment 1899-1981 (co-author)
Rhodesian African Rifles/Rhodesia Native Regiment Book of Remembrance
North of the Red Line: Recollections of the Border War by Members of the South African Armed Forces: 1966–1989 (co-author)
Lt-Gen Keith Coster SASS, ICD, OBE: A Life in Uniform
Chesterfield’s Military Heritage
The Berlin Blockade: Soviet Chokehold on Berlin and the Great Allied Airlift 1948–49 Malayan Emergency: Triumph of the Running Dogs 1948–1960
Nottingham’s Military Legacy
Sheffield’s Military Legacy
Echoes of the Coventry Blitz
Echoes of the Leicester Blitz
Korean War Vol. I, North Korea Invades the South
Korean War Vol. II, The UN Stand at Pusan
The Sino-Indian Border War, 1959–1963
SS Einsatzgruppen: Nazi Death Squads, 1939–1945
Irgun: Revisionist Zionism 1931–1948
Derby in 50 Buildings
Mansfield Through Time
Gerry has his own website, The Rhodesian Soldier: http://www.rhodesiansoldier.com
2a. Links to the military: Hanlie Snyman Wroth.
Hanlie’s husband, Charlie ‘Backseat’ Wroth, saw active service in the South African Border War as a navigator on Buccaneers, Canberras, C-130s and C-160s. Her son performed two tours of duty with the British Parachute Regiment. She takes great interest in the causes and outcomes of worldwide wars through the ages.
2b. Links to the military: Gerry van Tonder
Gerry served with Intaf (Internal Affairs) from 1975 to 1980, when he was posted to various stations in the Operation Hurricane counter-insurgency operational zone during the Rhodesian bush war against Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA guerrillas. In this period, he also underwent twenty-four months’ national conscription with Intaf.
At the time of the ceasefire, Gerry was based in Mount Darwin where he had been appointed returning officer for the Zimbabwe independence elections. In the build up to the elections, he liaised with the Frelimo army in Mozambique, and with returning ZANLA guerrilla leaders and political party candidates.
- How did the book come about?
The publication is a compilation of true stories related by individuals who, at some time, had served in the 1966–1989 South African Border War. The initiative commenced with the establishment in May 2012 of a Facebook group page titled ‘SWA/Angolan Border War 1966-1989’. Here people, mainly veterans of the conflict, could tell their stories for historical recording and preservation. The solid, frequently anecdotal stories are unashamedly related without any unnecessary complaints about the present regime and general ‘state of the nation’.
Within a year, the Facebook group had grown to 23,850 members.
- What is different about the book: The contents are structured in the same Facebook format in which they were originally written. It was in this manner that each contributor could add whatever part they played at a particular, base, operation or aircraft, and his time in the South African military.
- What is unique about the book?
All members were invited to contribute stories on the Facebook page, to which comments were afterwards added by others. This could be done in English or Afrikaans, after which Gerry van Tonder translated all contributions into English. The stories come from an eclectic, all-encompassing blend of all arms of the defence forces: air force, army and navy. Uniquely, there were also contributions from the erstwhile ‘enemies’: Russians, via their veterans’ association, South West Africa People’s Organisation and Cubans, all who saw action in both Angola and the then South West Africa (now Namibia).
- What makes the photos unique?
The taking of photographs of anything in the Border War operational areas was strictly forbidden, therefore the images accompanying the stories are ‘stolen’ photos, clandestinely taken by individuals with basic instamatic cameras, hence the slightly blurred quality of some of them. They do, however, augment and attest to the veracity of the stories from all members on active duty during this time. Most stories, therefore, are accompanied by a few totally unique photos never before seen in the public domain.
- What is the extract?
The excerpt selected relates to Operation Firewood. Prior to this publication, little was known of this operation in 1986 to 1987. There has been no mention of it in any book, and records pertaining to the operation are not found in the military archives. Of particular importance, is the fact that this was where the SADF sustained the most fatalities in any single operation. The book is also recognizing and acknowledging these men.
Contributions were from members who actually participated in the war.