Thursday, April 23, 2015

15 April revisited

I normally do a small write up for the 15th April every year, this year I tried, I just could not come up with something that I was satisfied with, so I started to scratch online..

The following comes form Eye of the Firestorm, written by Roland de Vries. I hope he wont mind me using some of his excellent writing here.

"This was how Captain Jan Malan told me his story and how it was written in his report (translated from Afrikaans):
“With my arrival at Tsintsabis I met the tracker team of Lieutenant Daan van der Westhuizen for the first time (the husband of the legendary Tannie Pompie) and his son-in-law, Rifleman Hendrik Potgieter. There were five Bushmen trackers in his team.
After a quick marrying-up and a motivational talk to my platoon, we left for the area were the enemy tracks had been found. Just before we left Tsintsabis, Hendrik Potgieter still remarked how joyful it was to work with such motivated and dedicated men.
The trackers travelled with us, mounted on top of our Ratels. As we moved along the Bravo cut-line, the Bushman maintained close watch for signs and tracks of the enemy. We proceeded westwards along the Bravo.
As we approached the alleged enemy crossing site we observed numerous sheets of white paper strewn about, alongside the cut-line.
When we reached the suspect area I instructed my men to dismount from the Ratels. We approached in open formation on foot. Closer inspection revealed that the white papers lying around were typical SWAPO propaganda pamphlets.
The next moment one of the Bushman trackers came to an abrupt halt. He pointed to a suspect area in the sandy track. I halted our search and marked the suspect area with a mine marker I had on me. I then tasked the trackers to do an all-round search of the area. The trackers reported that there were three enemy tracks leading in a southerly direction.
We found shallow trenches alongside the northern edge of the cut-line, which had been prepared by the enemy. The signs on the ground indicated clearly that the enemy had evacuated their positions hastily the previous night. We found a clear path of approximately twenty tracks left by the enemy. The tracks lead in a north-westerly direction.
After a brief discussion with Van der Westhuizen and Potgieter, we decided to do a 360° search of the suspect area. This was to determine exactly where the enemy tracks were leading to. All of us were in agreement that the enemy tracks would most likely swing back and cross the cut-line in a southerly direction. The reason for this was that the infiltration direction obviously, should lead in the direction of the farms to the south.
It was now about 10h45 and the trackers indicated that the tracks were approximately twelve hours old. At this stage I gave feed-back to Commandant Roland de Vries at the Tsintsabis tactical headquarters by radio. My suggestion was to carry on with the search. My battalion commander agreed with me.
The plan was now for one infantry section to move to the south of the cut-line and to search for enemy tracks 200m in a westerly direction. At the same time Lieutenant Daan van der Westhuizen, with the remainder of the trackers and another infantry section, continued with the search to the north in a westerly direction for 200m.
The terrain alongside the cut-line, in both directions, was extremely dense. From the moment Ratel 12A, with van der Westhuizen on board, left, they were out of my sight.
Daan van der Westhuizen, apparently occupying the Ratel turret, reported that the enemy tracks were leading in a westerly direction. The next moment there were maddening explosions and rippling small-arms fire coming from the receding Ratel’s direction.
I immediately recognised that the fire was not coming from the Ratel’s 20mm quick firing gun. I tried to call the section on the radio, but there was no answer. I immediately deployed the remainder of the platoon and started moving in the direction where the fire was coming from. The bush was dense and our movement was slowed down considerably. At one o’clock from our position in front of us we observed two 300m signal flares bursting in the sky. By now the small-arms fire had ceased.
I instantly reported our dilemma to my battalion commander at Tsintsabis and requested the gunships. Without more ado the Alouette gunships were airborne and flying towards us. We then sighted our burning Ratel. My troops dismounted into an open formation as we moved forward. We did not fire for fear of hitting our own people – those soldiers who could possibly be in front of us. At that same moment two of our soldiers came running anxiously towards our left-front. They were streaked with blood and totally shocked.
The two soldiers reported to me that they had driven right into an ambush with their Ratel and that many of their section members had been killed.
Massive black clouds and flames were erupting from the Ratel. I deployed two of our sections and moved them to the other side of the burning Ratel where they took up a defensive position.
There were no signs of enemy. Accompanied by the platoon commander I quickly moved towards the burning Ratel. We peered inside and it was obvious that nobody was alive. At this stage the ammunition inside the Ratel started exploding and the roof-hatches were blown sky-high.
All around the burning Ratel I found our remaining soldiers of the section. They were all wounded and shocked. The medical orderly, company HQ and platoon HQ personnel removed the wounded to a safer area, away from the dangerous explosions. They rendered first aid to our wounded fellow soldiers.
At that moment the Alouette gunships arrived. I indicated to them the assumed direction the enemy had retreated. Approximately one kilometre further west of our position we heard the gunships firing at the ground.
In the meantime I had requested the HQ at Tsintsabis to dispatch the two Puma helicopters for casualty evacuation. The Puma’s were on their way without delay.
We had by now adopted an all-round defence and started preparing a helicopter landing zone while the Ratel was burning profusely. The tyres were causing columns of black smoke and internal explosions ripped large pieces off the hull. The Pumas landed and our dead and wounded were taken on board and flown south to Grootfontein.
The gunships were still firing into the bushes to the west of us.. One of the gunships evaded a SAM-7 which had been fired in retaliation by the enemy from the ground. The crews reported three possible terrorist kills.
I then followed up with two sections in the direction of the contact. We found the three bodies as well as the SAM-7. One of the dead terrorists was later identified as a section leader.
I had lost a total of eight men killed in this one ambush.
It was later confirmed that one enemy platoon had been tasked to lay an ambush on the cutline to serve as deception for the other enemy groups to infiltrate across into the farming area. Five mines were later lifted by our engineers in the area where the ambush had been sprung.
The enemy had left a clear trail for us to follow. The ambush had been carefully planned and cleverly set up. It was in the form of a horse-shoe. It was located in a thicker part of the forest on the verge of a more open area. The enemy had prepared shallow trenches for their RPG-7s, SKS rifle grenades and machine guns. We found the position for the SAM-7 and a 60mm mortar as well.
Our Ratel was allowed to approach to within 15-20m before the enemy opened fire. It was later found that the Ratel had been penetrated by seven RPG-7 rockets and rifle grenades.
The enemy platoon returned to Angola after they had completed their mission.”

This was a sad story, was it not? Sad stories happen to own and enemy alike…
I felt deeply for Jan Malan, his soldiers, their loved ones, even myself. I could never describe to anyone what I felt that one tragic morning in the war…
…If you can meet with triumph and disaster… If you could risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss… with sixty seconds worth of distance ran.
We had now lost ten of our young in one day, eight of them taken in one fell swoop…
Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it… Which is more…? You were men, my sons!
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew, to serve your turn long after they are gone, and hold on.
What more was there to utter?
What was heart-rending was that Tannie Pompie van der Westhuizen, close by on their farm Koedoesvlei, was monitoring the crisis over her radios. She was calmly relaying Jan Malan’s radio messages to me to help with the dispatching of the helicopters and the evacuation of the dead and the wounded. Only then could I hear that she was at her tethers. I asked Padre Koos Rossouw, our chaplain, to console her over the radio. Koos Rossouw and the Van der Westhuizens had become good friends, as all of 61 Mech were. As soon as one of the Pumas returned from Grootfontein I had Koos Rossouw flown to her farm.

The ambush of 15 April 1982…This was how Operation Yahoo for 61 Mech and the community began.
When I found some quiet in the night the following week, I wrote a citation for a brave man. This was for the Honoris Crux Decoration of Lieutenant Daan van der Westhuizen. He had died under the banner of 61 Mech. The decoration was long outstanding; he should already have received it for Operation Carrot in 1981 – undoubting service to others under extremely dangerous situations.
In memoriam, the names of eight brave soldiers…
Second Lieutenant D.R. van der Westhuizen, HC.
Corporal M.J. van Jaarsveld.
Lance Corporal J.J. van den Berg.
Rifleman M. Peterson.
Rifleman J.H. Potgieter.
Rifleman B.J. Wolfaardt.
Bushman Tracker, Jan Kouswab.
Bushman Tracker, Unknown.
The intense burning of the stricken Ratel only allowed us to recover the remains of our men two days later and move the wreck to the Tsumeb airfield.
That particular morning in the war had been heart rendering for the soul. It is hard for any commander to lose soldiers in combat, for their comrades it is the same. What about the loved ones in South Africa and SWA. Those who did not know yet…?
This was only the first day. The battle was not over yet!
Fortunately friction de guerre visits the enemy too. Finesse lies in making it happen more to the foe. This implies wresting the initiative from the enemy and keeping it. This was what Operation Yahoo was all about…
Let us successfully complete Operation Yahoo now – first things first. Let the Winter Games commence and be successfully completed once again.
There was work to be done, Giel Reinecke, Gerrie Hugo! What is next on our action list?
The closing of 15 April 1982 was upon us. There will be no 15th of April 1982 again. Only the memories and the aching remained.
It was time to move our small command team to the Tsumeb airfield, brief the incoming forces, take control, deploy the plan, and carry on – swiftly. Seek forward ground (when you can keep your head…)"


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