Halfway into April 1982 an incursion of 300 SWAPO fighters threaded their way through the dense vegetation of eastern Ovamboland and were predicted to be heading for the area around Tsumeb. They had passed 61 Mech to the east and were somewhere in the vast trackless wilds the north of the first row of private cattle farms.
Tsumeb was to be the HQ for operations, and many units were to be gathered there. We were informed briefly of the state of affairs, the number of terrorists, that they were well armed and still travelling in a single large group.
Alpha Company drove south to Tsumeb in the late afternoon. Ratpacks had been issued, the ratels loaded to capacity with ammunition, tons per vehicle, and we drove south through swarms of white ants in the low gold sunset. The company stretched for about 5Km along the road.
Now came a time of surprises; we found things out as they happened. At Tsumeb, a pleasant treed town with many jacarandas, we parked outside 61 Mech’s Tsumeb admin office. This was where our post was sent to. It was our known address. We were told of a variety concert to be given that evening by entertainers who travelled around the fighting units. It may have been a front for the mobilisation. Anyway, it was pretty terrible.
The hall was filled with officers and their wives. Kommandant De Vries Se Vrou was there in the front row, as well as Captain Malan’s wife. Sitting in their groups were also some clerks and some fighting units. All were as bored as each other. The show seemed to go on for hours. Finally there was an interval, during which we rudely scrambled for cooldrink and chips. After we were darkened the stage lights came on and three costumed lady dancers came on, as well as Captain Malan. They looked at him in surprise, and he announced that a group of SWAPOs had just been seen and their position confirmed. Alpha Company was to form up outside at their vehicles, and if anyone knew of someone missing they were to find them. “Word gereed vir orders in tien minute. Loop nou asseblief ordelik uit”.
Captain Malan was always impeccably polite… but we were terrified of him angry.
We filed past the enquiring faces of women and other troops and out into the darkness. The orders were simple. We were to drive to the Charlie Cutline at Tsintsabis. There we were to deploy along its south side, concealed over 6Km of its length until morning, in the path of the oncoming insurgents. If contact occurred at any point in the line, reinforcements would quickly arrive from either side and a battle would follow. It was hoped to contain them north of the cutline, and the bush there would be saturated with SADF units.
We organised ourselves at Tsintsabis, a small bermed fort, and from there drove slowly along the cutline, ratels at the back stopping one at a time every couple of hundred metres. The troops then disembarked and spread thinly between the vehicles and hid. We listened like bat eared foxes all night. The gunners and drivers stayed in their seats, the gunners scanning the opposing bush through their magnified optical sights.
We lay under bushes in the growing day and heat, waiting.
Finally an order came to group into platoons and move down the cutline to receive trackers, deploy separately, and search. But at about 10 a.m. an urgent message from Platoon 3 said they had landmine casualties and needed assistance. As Platoon 2 had found and was following tracks, we went. We drove west from our position in the centre of the three platoons until we came upon the distraught group. On seeing tracks on the cutline several troops had dismounted to loosen the game fence wires and cables for a follow up to the north. The detonation of a black widow had removed a troop’s leg entirely. 5 others had been less seriously wounded. We helped with bush clearing for a casevac, but when the puma came it accepted only 3 patients. Something serious had happened to Platoon 2 several kilometres away.
The Captain and Platoon 2 had joined up with a contingent of territorial force members and trackers, and the group of 5 ratels loaded with extra passengers had come upon a clear trail of debris on the cutline – empty cans, AK-47 rounds, sweet papers, as well as many footprints. This they followed for several hundred metres until it turned off north into the thick bush. The trackers led and it became obvious to those following that something was afoot, something not right. The insurgents made every attempt contrary to concealment.
I believe the intended plan was to put stopper groups in place to the north and flush the insurgents. “1-2-Alpha”, the Platoon Sergeant’s vehicle, was sent ahead with trackers to confirm the direction of the trail so that stoppers could be accurately placed. A radio message said that the tracks led across a wide shona. Such a feature was completely unexpected in this thick bush. It was unique there. The section was directed to follow across, enter the bush on the far side for not more than 100m to make sure there were no changes in the trail’s direction or composition, and return.
Across the shona they drove with extra people making 17 on board, into the dense growth, and then into a small open space. The tracker started running back to the ratel. An RPG-7 hit the ratel’s sight block. The driver, Lenny Hough, caught the blast on the back of his head. Before he lost consciousness, with marvellous grace he operated the pneumatic door opening levers to let the others escape the bruising noise – first left, then right. An older farmer who was standing in the command hatch and his son, Territorial Force members, and a bushman tracker, died immediately. The gunner, Cruywagen, was seriously wounded in head, neck and elsewhere. (On 13.11.82 I visited him in 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. He couldn’t move or speak, but his hospital friends got him to open his eyes. Once as blue as the sky, they were now the colour of slate).
In the following seconds, 6 other RPGs exploded into both sides of the ratel. Petersen, killed outright, had red blotches all over his face and body from the searing copper droplets and screaming steel chips. Wolfvaard’s remains were collected later. It is easier to pick up bits of blackened, shattered bone than the fresh flesh sprayed over the inside of the ratel. An RPG-7 detonated on his chest as he emerged from the door. Corporal Van Jaersveld, who had trained us at 1 SAI, lost his legs, his arms, his lower torso, and his head.
A local woman, Tannie Pompie, who operated a radio relay in the area, reported the news and thus learned that she had lost a son and husband.
After the RPGs were done automatic fire intensified. With a shoulder wound, crawling through the long grass with bullets for a ceiling, Lance Corporal Scheepers found a remaining tracker, grabbed him, shook him out of his terror, saying, “Kry net die ratels, die ratels!” and forced him to backtrack. The others leopard crawled through the long pale grass of the clearing and in a loose group, found visual cover.
Pietie Pienaar had been sitting on the spare wheel when an RPG went into the edge of the engine covers. These blew open, hurling him unhurt to the ground, where instants later an exploding rifle grenade took a chunk from his backside. Piet Swarts, sleeping on the ratel floor and protected from serious hurt by the central seating console, escaped over the remains of Wolfvaard, but took two AK-47 bullets in the left arm once outside.
De Villiers escaped miraculously. An RPG was aimed at his middle. It went through the only solid towbar in the entire battalion (the rest being made from pipe sections; this towbar was well known for it was given as punishment during opfoks), though the ratel’s side and into the diesel tank whose far wall it failed to penetrate into the service passage where he sat. But his eardrums burst and he was deaf afterwards. Mostert was bleeding through many holes. Corporal Viljoen was also wounded by shrapnel.
The section leader Corporal Du Toit went back to the ratel under fire and collected a shirt-front of full magazines and brought them to Corporal Viljoen who fired 14 of them empty on automatic on the section’s only surviving rifle until it jammed. Its hand-protector had been blown off in the RPG attack.
Nearly 2Km away, the crews of the other four ratels clearly heard what sounded like a firefight between platoons. Deprived of radio comms with 1-2-Alpha, the Captain ordered an advance along the tyre tracks leading to the noise. Scheepers and a bushman presently appeared running towards them and blurted the worst news.
Drawing up in a line the vehicles crashed through the dense bush and emerged on the wide, circular shona known as Olifantspan after the thousands of elephant footprints imprinted there in the dried mud. Crossing this at speed and reaching the bush on the far side the troops disembarked and firing high, the line advanced. The ambushing group vanished into the greenery but with the increase in noise the survivors cowered in an extremity of fear. The first thing Mostert saw was a tracker with an AK-47, an image of impending death.
Platoon Medic Piet Spreeuwenberg saved Cruywagen’s life while the Company Medics and all their frantic helpers struggled in vain wit the unrecognizable Lenny Hough. I am told they gave up when his brain fell out. The first puma to arrive contained badly wounded friends. No one amongst the troops knew clearly what was going on.
The trackers counted 42 shallow trenches arranged in L-formation and confirmed the presence of 42 ambushers from tracks and spent ammunition including that from 4 machine guns. The group split up immediately into individuals or groups of 2 or 3. Later in the day one fleeing ambusher was shot by a gunship above RPG height. Another of the trackers had run through the ambush and turned up that evening with an SADF unit far to the north.
The event ended in fire when the shot vehicle erupted in flames and explosions and glowed like a furnace for two days.