Saturday, December 30, 2006

A Letter From a Son Of Africa.

Hello Riana,
First of all, allow me to say how terribly sorry I am for your loss. I knew all the men who died in the Ratel that fateful day. I got to know your dad, Lt van der Westhuizen and brother-in-law, Sktr J.H. Potgieter through operations in 61 Mech. I can't begin to tell you what good men they were. I remember both you Dad and brother-in-law as true Sons of Africa, who loved their country, but also loved the people they served with. They could be serious on the job, but also enjoyed a good laugh in between tough situations. They were true heroes, who gave their lives so others may live in freedom.

It is now long ago, but I will pass on to you what I remember about the brave, fearless men of 61 Mech.

Operation Yahoo was in the making of what started on Friday, April 9th, 1982. About 190 terrorists had made their way past Tsumeb and past 61 Mech base at Omuthiya. A Koevoet group tracked them and made contact. There was also a farmer, who's name I don't remember, who helped in the attack by flying over the battle with his private plane and dropped grenades on the ters. Unfortunately the ters shot his plane down and also shot out a Caspir belonging to Koevoet, in the process killing 6 of our men. The Koevoet group continued to track this group as they dispursed into smaller groups, making it difficult to attack all together.

On Wednesday, April 14th, we (Alpha and Bravo company of 61 Mech) attended a concert in Tsumeb. I don't remember too well, but I think the performer was Geraldine, who came up to Tsumeb to raise the troops' morale a little. Halfway through the show, our RSM, Sergeant Major Smith (Killer Smith), got on stage, told the singers to stop and made an announcement for 61 Mech to dispurse immediately and go to our vehicles. We left immediately back to 61 Mech base, Omuthiya. Once there, we were pulled together and received our orders. Left over groups of April 9th were tracked and spotted and we were to track them down and eliminate them. We started arming ourselves and loading up the Ratels with ammunition for a full scale attack. Operation Yahoo officially began the morning of Aril 15th at 2:30 AM as we left Omuthiya.

We reached Tsintsibis at about 4:00AM the morning of April 15th. We monitored the radios as we heard various groups, including ourselves, observing ter movements, tracks on the "Kaplyne". Three Alpha company Ratels were following the track of a large band of SWAPO ters. The tracks were fresh. Your Dad, Lt D.R. van der Westhuizen and Skt J.H. Potgieter were with us that day in one of the Ratels. Lt vd Westhuizen was in the command position in the Ratel's turret. The normal vehicle commander, Cpl Van Jaarsveld had given your Dad his seat and moved to the back of the Ratel into the Anti-air Gunner's position, allowing your Dad better visibility of the terrain. One of you Dad's Bushman trackers also joined us in that Ratel and was sitting on the nose of the Ratel to let him track the spoor better.

At one point, around 10:00AM, the band of ters split up, I believe 20 went one way and another group (60 if I recall correctly), went the other way. A decision was made to let two Ratels continue on the spoor of the large group and let your Dad's Ratel follow the small group for a few miles to get an idea of what direction they were heading, since they sometimes walked in circles to confuse us temporarily and then head in their planned direction. Once we figured out what direction this group was going, the Ratel would turn around again and join the other two Ratels in the hunt.

Your Dad's Ratel set out, followed the spoor through thick bush and plains for about 1/2 hour. When they again crossed an open plain, the ters opened fire with RPG's from the tree lines where they were dug in. The first RPG hit the Ratel on the side through the engine compartment, instantly killing Cpl Van jaarsveld, wounding everyone inside. Your Dad managed to call "Contact" over the radio and the other two Ratels turned around to rush to their assistance. Meanwhile the men all opened fire, but was very vulnerable with the Ratel disbled and sideways against the attack. The blast blew the Gunner off the turret, as he was just sitting on top of the vehicle, and not positioned inside next to your Dad. About four more RPG's followed into the Ratel, while the ters also opened with AK 47's as the men tried to get out of the burning, disabled vehicle. The Ratel exploded inside as the ammunition caught fire. The men fired back and fought with all they had, but being badly wounded and trying to get out of the Ratel into the line of small arms fire and incoming RPG's, they just did not have a chance. The Bushman tracker and the gunner, who were both blown off the vehicle were also wounded, but they opened fire on the ters. Four ters were killed and the rest escaped before the other Ratels could arrive.

More explosions followed through the Ratel and it was impossible for us to even get closer than a few hundred meters from the vehicle. After the explosions stopped, the Ratel burned at an extreme heat. It was impossible for us to reach any of the bodies and it continued to burn the next day. We were able to reach the bodies of our friends later and take it back to Tsintsibis on Saturday, April 17th. This was a terrible day for us. We lost a lot of good men that day.

Ops Yahoo continued with many more successes by us in 61 Mech and Koevoet and finally ended on May 18th, 1982 with us returning to 61 base at Omuthiya.
I kept notes of every day of Ops Yahoo and together with my memory, this is about as much as I can recall of this day. I hope this helps you in some way bring closure about your Dad. All I'd like to add is that he died a brave man, a hero and friend to all of us. What's more important is the way he lived. He led by example, fearlessly, unselfishly and protected all of us by giving up his own life. There is no greater honor in than what he did.

Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.
Kind Regards,
Anton Hattingh.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Oom Daan and Tannie Pompie

Im Riana, the youngest daughter or Oom Daan and Tannie Pompie. He was 2nd Lt. D.R. van der Westhuizen and she was Sgt. C.C. van der Westhuizen.

But to many boys on the border they were known only as oom Daan and tannie Pompie. He was a man with a good humor and was accomplished at bushman tracking techniques. My mother was the radio operator guru known as 91.They were farmer’s, great parents and wonderful human beings and then came the army.

We are 4 children, my oldest sister Retha is now 52, married to Dup Venter and mother of 2 sons and a daughter and the grandmother of the light of her life, a 3 yr old girl.

My second sister Oliva, is 49 and she is the widow of J.H. Potgieter (Hendrik) who died with my dad on 15 April '82.She got married again to Izak Visser who helped her raise her 2 children from her marriage Hendrik. Louis and Marlize were aged 5 and 1 years old respectively, when their father died.

My brother Danie who was in the army at the time of my dads death is now 44 and has 4 kids and he is now married to Retha...(not my sister, another one) LOL

Im Riana, the last and unplanned child, im 36 yrs old. no hubby, no kids.

The story I’m about to tell u started many years ago and its not about any of the kids. Its about my parents.

When it was decided to start the Etosha commando's my parents not hesitate for one moment. They signed up and they inspired others to do the same. They felt they had to do their duty towards their country and could not expect the kids from all over the country to fight while they sit back and nothing. At that time, South West Africa was under South African Rule and South West Africans were loyal to South Africa and visa versa.

My dad was an natural leader with the most an incredible sense of humor. I have no doubt that he could make even the worst danger look like a walk in the park. He was just that kind of person. Nothing was ever too difficult to do and the glass was always half full and never half empty. He would never expect anything of anybody unless he was repaired to do it himself.

My mum was not the quiet wife type, she loved my dad and her family to bits but she found her other big passion in the army. Radio's were her passion. She had a knack for them and I believe she could do magic with those big green monsters. Give her a radio and she will have it working in no time and hear distances and people that only she could hear. She even designed her own Antennae, reversed V with which she was able to hear as distances far into Angola. Many people would come to the farm, yes she operated them from the farm. Between 3 and 6 of those big green monsters were considered worthy enough to take up prime space in our kitchen. The visitors would wonder if it perhaps was the geographical contours of the farm that made communications over such vast distances possible. Here was a woman on a farm, achieving comms that they as highly trained radio operators could never accomplish.

Mum just smiled and hid her sketches of her reverse V antennae.

In the mid 70's terrorist was big word for a 6 yr old and I became very confused with terrorist and tourist. I struggled with pronunciations and I called myself Hanna because it was just too difficult to say the R in Riana. It took me a while to sort of, know the difference between the two, probably never got my head around the tourist part even though I got to learn that they fighting terrorists and I knew for certain that there was danger in the air.

We had a high fence around the house by now and all bushes on the other side had been taken out and we had to paint a number on the roof of our house and dad and Hendrik went to "chase terrs" now and then. When this happened Olivia and her kids would come and stay with us. I wasn’t allowed to play outside the fence and before dark I had to be inside. But as a child I still did not realise the full impact of what was going on.

Mum was in front of the radio, I was told to shhhhht and be quiet, she had to listen. She started with one small radio and she had to tape record conversations of troops on frequencies only she could hear and she did that with a small cassette tape deck, like I got for my 12th birthday years later. But that meant there had to be absolute silence and she was sitting hunched over the radio's listening and turning knobs. To me it was pure craziness! So the kitchen became radio room and the green monsters got more and bigger. Mum became callsign 91 and the radio guru with the private telephone number directly to “oom Jannie Geldenhuys” (General Jannie Geldenhuis)

In the Meantime dad got a few bushman trackers together and helped them set up camp on our farm Koedoesvlei. He had to teach them the military basics but they were raw and primitive people of the veld, and my father didn’t want them to loose that but they needed to learn how to conduct themselves in an army environment. So they had parades in the morning, dad showed them how to march which at times was real funny. They obviously could not read or write, didn’t know left from right and now they had to learn to march in proper military style. They couldn’t pronounce Lieutenant correctly and to them he was "luitlant" and that was it.

The army provided them with food, which we went to fetch on Grootfontien every Friday. A long drive in a garry (what we called the landy the army gave dad) The Bushmen got the same food as any member of the SADF but before long they started to complain, "Luitlant, dis food make us lazy and don’t give us energy, we want mieliepap." They were not impressed with the cheese and polony and tinned food and boxes of the best food the SADF came up with to feed them, no sir, they wanted meiliepap, that’s what they know, that’s what their bodies were used to and what gave them sustenance that made them feel energetic so that’s what they got.

They learned to do the things a soldier in the army would do and they were my dad's pride and joy. He was extremely proud of them and they swore that he could walk on water.

In the meantime the farming had to go on and so it did. Dad and Hendrik weren’t only family and comrades but they were also best buddies and would chat for hours on end. They were both farmers and good farmers at that, spending many hours looking at the clouds and working hard, and getting up 4 in the morning. When I was not in school I would wake up with him and follow him around like a shadow. He didn’t have to receive the Honoris Crux to be my hero. He was my hero because of the love he showered me with.

He taught me the phonetic alphabet which I remember till this day. He taught me his army nr, which I still remember off the top of my head. These are the little memories of him I treasure till this day.

I only had him for 11 yrs and 11 months, but he gave me enough love to last me a lifetime...

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Heroes of 61 Mechanised Battalion.

A couple of weeks ago I came across Riana on the internet and we exchanged the usual questions starting with ASL (age, sex, location). She told me she is from Namibia and I suspect because of my age (44), she asked, whether I had been to Namibia before, whereby I replied that I had been there, courtesy of the South African Defense Force during 1982 to 1984.

She went on to ask me whether, I had been on or known of, operation Yahoo and I replied, no. In fact I had never heard of it or could not remember ever hearing of it and was sure that she was either mistaken or having me on. I all too often come across people who claim to have been amidst the goings on of the brutal terrorist war that was being fought, in the northern regions of what is now Namibia, thinking that they can somehow convince people into believing their stories of glory. They fool some of the people some of the time but they cant fool all of the people all of the time, especially those who have actually been there.

Riana began telling me a story and I soon came to the somewhat shocking realization that she was real and the story she was telling was the real. I sat on the edge of my chair till 3 in the morning taken back to a world that I had almost forgotten and in a way, so desperately wanted to forget.

After eventually going to bed, I could not sleep and could not stop thinking of that period of my life and what it was like to be there but, I could not help having doubts about the finer details of what she had told me.

Even though the sincerity in which she had conveyed the story, had me convinced that there surely must be some truth in it and I was convinced that an event of such magnitude must surely, be documented somewhere on the internet.

It was!! However, what I find so extremely saddening is that the details of our heroes are so sparsely documented that, they are forgotten by the vast majority and the fading memories of those who still do remember, will soon dissappear under the sands of time leaving the rest with nothing.This is the exact purpose of this Blog. To remind you, NEVER to forget!

In Remenberence of 2nd Lt D.R. van der Westhuizen and Rfn. J.H Potgieter who were attached to 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, Omuthiya in the Tsumeb district. “Etoshagebiedsmag”. Veni Vidi Vici!! Lest we forget.

In short, this is the story Riana van der Westhuizen’s conveyed to me. The details of which may be blurred by myself. She is the daughter of late 2nd Lt D.R van der Westhuizen and sister in law of late Rifleman J.H Potgieter. This is her Blog and I merely set it up for her together with this prologue, for her to continue with. The details are up to Riana and the men of 61 Mech, who hopefully come across this page, to keep it alive together with the memories of our heroes and our past. Go for it guys!

As mentioned above 2nd Lt
D.R van der Westhuizen was attached to 61 Mech and who was an accomplished tracker. Between 6 and 18 April 1981 there were numerous infiltrations, which led to four events where fire was exchanged with Swapo infiltrators and which lead to the death or capture of eight of the enemy. Lt D.R. van der Westhuizen was involved in all four events.

On the 14th April 1981 two of his comrades, without substantial cover, were pinned down by Swapo insurgents, whereby 2nd Lt van der Westhuizen, “without hesitation”, as quoted by military documentation regarding the incident, stood upright in a military vehicle known a “Buffel” while ordering the driver to position the vehicle in which he was standing upright, between the Swapo and the solders pinned down by hostile fire, thereby redirecting the fire to himself, giving the soldiers opportunity to take cover. The Swapo
insurgents were subsequently killed. For this act of bravery, 2nd Lt van der Westhuizen was awarded the Honoris Crux.

For those who don’t know the enormity of being bestowed the Honoris Crux. It is awarded only to those who "without thought of own safety and through personal courage and determination performed a gallant act or deed against the enemy in the field". It has only been awarded 187 times since its inception in 1952 to 1991.

One year and one day later on 15th April 1982, while on patrol in a Ratel, Lt van der Westhuizen was following a couple of a tracks that one of his trackers had picked up. The Ratel was hit by no less than five RPG-7 rockets in an ambush just after 10am. By the time backup went to their aid, the majority of the occupants of the Ratel had been killed including Lt van der Westhuizen’s son in law Rfn. J.H Potgieter. Riana was only 11 years old at the time.

Lest we forget.
Rfn. B.J Wolfaardt
Rfn. M Peterson
Rfn. JH Potgieter.
Rfn. Hough
Rfn. JDC du Toit
Rfn. GPC Hattingh
2nd Lt. DR van der Westhuizen
L/Cpl. JJ van der Berg
Kpl. MJ van Jaarsveld

Riana would like to hear from anybody who was involved with 61 Mech Battalion. Her address is at the top of this page.

Neville van Jaarsveld.