The run-up to the attack was as follows: After the successful operation Reindeer and the battle at Cassinga or (Moscow and Vietnam) bases, SWAPO had to do something to save face and they came up with Ops Revenge. The strategy was to attack and annihilate Katima Mulilo, Wenela, Golf and Mpacha. A force of SWAPO and Zambian military personnel and equipment was gathered on the other side of the river and longer range weapons were positioned along the riverbank between Sesheke and their border post "Katima Mulilo" which was situated just across the newly scraped no-mans land from Wenela Base, which in turn was situated at the point where the Zambezi River turns into Zambia and the so-called Kaplyn started.
[View from the guardpost on the wall at Wenela looking towards the Zambian border post (their Katima Mulilo, meaning place where the fire dies). In the foreground is the beginnings of the cleared no-mans land area later called the Kaplyn. July 1978.]
I was a Gunner and at the time part of a mortar locating crew. We had come to the Caprivi around three months before and were first situated at Golf and Wenela. One day we were still quietly going about our business when the Genie invaded our camp and began to dig in the Ops room and other key buildings and positions.
[Engineers digging in the base at Wenela, Caprivi strip, in June, July 1978.]
[Wenela base seen from an OP position in a very tall tree with a mortar pit in the foreground and the beginnings of the Kaplyn in the background.]
At the time we should have realized that something was happening, but no information was passed on to us. A couple of weeks later a third set was flown up from South Africa and a tower was built at Katima to raise the screen up on to. Our group was then moved to Katima and we began registering enemy positions along the riverbank using the Cymbeline Radar Set to do so.
[Mortar locating Radar tower being built at Katima Mulilo July 1978.]
At that time, there were no known co-odinates that could be used to survey in any of our gun positions or those of the Radar Set which would be necessary to be able to give adjustments to the guns at Golf and/or, the mortars at Romeo Zulu which was situated out of town along the river. This was soon remedied as a surveying team arrived from SA and used the known co-ordinates at Mpacha as a base and performed what we called then "trekmeet" all the way from Mpacha to the Radar Platform at Katima, the base at Golf and the mortars at Romeo Zulu. At least we were now on the same grid. From these known points a map of the area was drawn and the co-ordinates of the enemy positions were registered onto the map. Seeing as the Cymbeline could also pick up any metal, we could plot the movement of motorvehicles and equipment across the river and even were able to plot dust roads and paths over a period of time as the people and equipment followed the road and the co-ords could be plotted. When equipment stopped moving and stayed at a position, those positions were listed as possible enemy positions and were registered as targets.This information was also updated onto the other maps at Golf and Romeo Zulu on a regular basis.
[Hoisting up spare units for the Radar for tests and adjustments at Katima Mulilo 1978.]
[Completed radar tower and control room dug in with sandbag protection.]
[Radar crew in the dug-in unit hole with the author in front.]
One day, on the way back from Wenela to Katima, a SWAPO soldier walked out of the bush at the side of the road and handed himself over to us. He was bristling with weapons, had a new set of camo’s on and was fully kitted out. He said that he had been promised that he would be able to go to university in Moscow if he joined and spent some time with the “Freedom Fighters” . He stated that he had been with Swapo for three years now and that most of that time they had not had much to eat and that the promises that had been made were not realizing. His kit was full of food at the time, which was totally the opposite of what he was saying and he explained that they had just been issued with new kit, weapons, food etc, but that he had had enough and had decided to hand himself over. We took him to Katima and handed him over to the Intelligence Officer at the base and I believe he supplied them with some much needed info concerning the build-up of forces across the river.
So we spent our days at Katima, waiting for the end of our stint. As was always the case in later years, the gunners and the guys from the armour regiments befriended each other as both were and would always be minority groups wherever we served. We played many soccer games against each other and so-doing some of us made some good friends with them. If I remember correctly, trooper Elworthy was an excellent soccer player and had been selected for some or other SADF soccer team as well. Our Radar set was situated at the North Eastern corner of the base and the armour guys were situated on the South eastern side. So, the days went by and we heard that the armour guys were going home. One night , just before their “aflos” arrived, the guns were fired at some “targets” on the Kaplyn as an exercise and I believe a donkey was killed by mistake. A week or two later, their “aflos” arrived and the armour guys had a braai on their last night, the 23rd of August 1978. We said Good Bye to them and they carried on with their braai. If I remember correctly, the guys that were leaving were told to bed down in the bungalows opposite the mess and the new guys took up their duties in the vacated positions. We all went to bed and at 01h15 all hell broke loose.
I remember waking up to a searing sound and then hearing an explosion not far from our position. This was the first 122mm red eye fired on us and it landed in a maize field behind the base. It was most probably the fastest I have ever moved and we got to our positions even before the next rocket fell.
To start the generator of the Radar Set, one had to get up onto the platform and start it there. I can’t remember who did, but the set was immediately started up and we waited for the next shots. From our positions we could hear the bang as the rocket was fired, see the flames of the rocket motor raising up into the sky and then the motor died . The second rocket descended and fell on the Bungalow opposite the mess. It broke through the roof and as per some armament specialists later, exploded about 1 meter above the floor in the bungalow. At that specific moment, many guys were either running toward the specific part of the bungalow where the missile would hit, or were leaving the bungalow. The reason for this was that the bungalow was designed with two exits, one on each side of the long side of the rectangular building, which meant that all personnel had to move to the centre of the building.
It was exactly at that point where the rocket hit. If the rocket had hit the bungalow first or if a later rocket had hit the bungalow, there would have been far less effect. At the time, we only heard the explosion, but did not know the effect of it. With the radar up and running, we started giving through target co-ords to the guns at Golf.
The third rocket hit the ground just 30 meters from the radar set on the outside of the diamond mesh fence of the base, with some pieces of shrapnel slicing through the strong fencing wire like a hot knife through butter, leaving the fence sagging sadly in front of the radar set.
[The author standing in the crate left by the rocket that landed in front of the radar set with a piece of shrapnel in my hand.]
One of the prime targets was the ferry across the river on which SWAPO and the Zambian army were now ferrying troops, equipment and supplies across the river. I believe the guns took out the fully loaded ferry with the second shot, effectively stopping the stream of troops, equipment and supplies from reaching the near bank. I believe that this was most probably the most important shot of the battle and turned the odds in our favour. After that initial target, we gave through co-ords of all the registered positions along the bank and systematically wiped out the positions, one by one.
During this period, we would hear the bangs of the rockets being fired, see the “red-eye” in the sky and soon learnt if we needed to take cover or not. Some writers about this incident state that it was mortar fire, but as a gunner, we were well aware of what shrapnel from a shell looked like vs the shrapnel we picked up the next day which definitely was not the same and was identified as coming from a 122mm rocket. I am not stating that there was no mortar fire, but the explosions around us were definitely from “red-eyes”. About 20 minutes later, we had effectively silenced the positions along the riverbank and the guns started firing at targets around the town of Sesheke, which is roughly opposite Katima Mulilo on the far bank of the Zambezi.
[A newspaper cutting published on the 24th of Aug 1978 detaling the layout of the area at the time.]
I remember that there was an officer that was either looking after the civilians or had quite a lot to do with them while bomb shelters were being built on the southern side of their houses. In the town there was a microphone system and he was consistently warning the civvies and appealing to them to move to the shelters and if they did not have one yet, to take cover on the southern side of their houses. He must have come from the Boland as he rolled his RR’s and supplied some sort of comic relief during these hours. We would listen to the radio and when the command to fire was given, look toward Golf. The night sky would light up, looking like an intense lightning storm, moments later we would hear the whistle of the shells above us and then hear the massive explosions as they hit their targets on the other side of the river.
Experiencing that was and still gives me goose bumps. The unadulterated destructive power of those shells is absolutely awesome. I must say that after SWAPO and the Zambian army stopped firing on us, the effect of those shots coming over was extremely heart warming. The firing continued sporadically throughout the early hours of the morning as new targets were identified and fired upon.
Lieutenant (at the time) Schalekamp, joined us and later climbed up onto the water tower to give us the co-ords of visible targets and corrections once the first shots had been fired. He spent some time mopping up wherever he found anything worth firing upon.
[View from the Radar tower with the base fence in the foreground, the chopper pad in the background and the Water tower that was used as an OP by Lt Schalekamp during the attack.]
Later that morning we were told that we could go and get something to eat and the bad news of the bungalow being hit was heard. On arriving at the mess and seeing the bungalow, my life changed in an instant. The bungalow was a mess. Parts of the building, kit, you name it, was strewn across the ground. There was a guy who had been appointed to keep the vultures at bay. At the time we did not know it, but ten of our friends and comrades had been killed and another 10 or 20 injured. There was blood everywhere. Most of the dead and injured had been removed from the area, but the evidence of the ferocity of the blast was to be seen everywhere.
[At the time of this report, the body of one of our comrades had not been found yet.]
Standing in line for breakfast, the coffee can was positioned long before the food and guys would fill up their mugs while waiting for their food. While standing there that morning, some idiot pulled off a shot and everybody dived for cover with hot tea and coffee flying everywhere and burning some of the guys. We all sat and ate in silence and went back to our positions. What I had seen that morning has stayed with me all my life since. It has influenced many of my decisions in my life. In many cases the effect has been negative. The loss of life of those troopers that night, guys whom you shared a part of your life with, played soccer with, ate with, joked with, worked with, just suddenly gone, left a scar that I still carry with me to this day..
The next day the follow-up went into Zambia and a day or two later they brought a truckload of bodies back. I wanted to see what these guys looked like and wanted to see their dead, possibly to satisfy a feeling of retribution. I walked over to the truck and getting closer I could smell death. I looked at these bodies, my enemy, and seeing them like that felt no remorse, no sympathy. They were all in various stages of rigor mortise and were later layed out on the parade ground for the intelligence guys to inspect. The base at Katima is quite close to a township and we were told that part of our tasks were to protect the local population. Funny though, that night there was not a single person in the township. They had known and I could not understand why they had not told us, seeing as new were their “protectors”. For many years I walked around with an ingrown mistrust of all black people as I could not understand the issues. Furthermore, the fact that we had killed some of the enemy never made up for the losses we had had. It felt as if the guys that were killed died in vain. Especially after 1994. It is only now, and I thank Arn Durand for giving me the answer, that I can say the following: No, they did not die as part of a well known Op, firing on the enemy and walking away as heroes into the sunset. But, they died, running to get to their weapons, ready to serve their country, ready to take part in a battle that was never given a name, but surely would have been given one, had SWAPO and the Zambian Army been able to succeed in their strategy of retribution for Cassinga.
[KJ BIGGS, HW DE LANGE, AH ERASMUS, GP ERASMUS, JL LESCH, JJR SCHUTTE, GJ SMIT, WS SMUTS, AD VAN DER MERWE, DM ELWORTHY, WHC BRITZ ]
Solemn the drums thrill
Death august and royal Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres
There is music in the midst of desolation And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young, Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.
[A letter from my mother on the morning of the attack.
We must always remember that they also had tough times.]