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Only Registered Users of War In Angola that have subscribed to the PREMIUM MEMBERSHIP will have access to their own WarBlogs. For more information on the Premium Membership, click here...





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Jan 11

Written by: Johan Schoeman
2011/01/11 05:51 AM  RssIcon

I was deployed as an anchor observer (call sign 35A) with a 2nd Lt (Lt "Pikkie" Prinsloo) and a Lance-Bombardier acting as Technical Assistant, for the attack of 82nd Brigade on the Tumpo Triangle on 23 March 1988. My position on the Chambinga high ground directly east of Cuito Cuanavale gave me a panoramic view of the entire Tumpo Triangle as well as the Cuito and Cuanavale Rivers and the town of Cuito Cuanavale beyond. I also commanded a good view of the east slope of the Cuito high ground to the west of the Cuito River and my primary task was counter-bombardment of Fapla artillery batteries and rocket launchers deployed there. I was unable to see any of the actual defences of the Tumpo Triangle itself and therefore engaged very few targets of opportunity there. Only when I saw the occasional vehicles dart out between the dense bush did I attempt engagements of targets in the triangle.

I could clearly see the high ground in the "Delta" north of the Cuito-Cuanavale confluence, where another anchor observer was deployed. He was protected by the UNITA 118th Semi-Regular Battalion. We, ourselves, had a section of UNITA soldiers protecting our every move - I can't remember from what battalion. A third OPO was deployed south of the Tumpo Triangle who had a direct sight on the Cuito Bridge and the Tumpo Triangle itself. This OP had the most opportunities for direct engagements of targets in the triangle.

Just after 5 am on the morning of 23 March, we were shelled by Fapla... a 130mm shell went right through the branches of our observation tree where "Pikkie" was perched, ready to engage the pesky BM-21s which responded every morning to our "wake-up" call - a ripple of rockets from the MRL troop deployed to the north-east of us. This was fast becoming a ritual. I was busy brewing some coffee in our make-shift kitchen the Unita soldiers had constructed for us, and feared the worst when I stormed out to the tree to see if Pikkie was alright. Shaken, but completely intact, he was climbing out of the tree... the shock was quickly treated with a cup of coffee and both of us were ready to respond in kind. We reported the shelling by DET (Data Encription Terminal) calmly as we did not intend to let Fapla know how close they came to hitting us. Clearly the training we had instilled a harsh discipline which prevented us from panicking and shouting on the radio, as many of our opponents often did when we struck at them!

When the third attack on Tumpo went in later that morning, we were in the amazing front row seat watching the biggest military showdown in Africa since World War 2. While I was engaged with registered targets of known artillery positions on the Cuito high ground and watching out for opportunities to take out a BM-21, which kept reappearing in different positons all the time, I was able to see the progress of the battle.

I will never forget the amount of dust and noise generated by the tanks and Ratels during their approach to the target in the morning, and was puzzled by the lack of initial response of Faple to the advance. Surely everybody within a ten kilometer radius would be aware of this approach??!!

But when the response did come at about 08h30, it came in the form over 60 guns opening up with indirect fire upon the advancing SA armour from all over the Cuito highground and Tumpo Triangle itself. I was sure EVERY available gun was concentrating its fire on the approaching South African force! I did counter battery as best as I could with the three remaining G-5s but I really don't think I made a dent in the artillery assault Fapla directed at the oncoming force.... The thought flashed through my mind that I am glad I wasn't deployed as Forward Observer with the attacking force!

By 10am the attack was in full swing, and T-55s tanks joined in returning fire on the by then stuck South African force. The attack was stalling in the minefields. We brought G-5 fire down on the positions of the enemy tanks and I think the southern OPO reported a tank knocked out with a direct hit... As I was unable to see the tanks directly, I could not tell whether it was as a result of our fire or his (not that it made a difference).

At one time during the morning, Captain Rendo Nel, the observer deployed at the Cuito-Caunavale confluence and the battalion of Unitas were driven from their positions when Fapla launched an attack on the "Delta" to clear it. Rendo attended a number of Artillery courses with me at the School of Artillery before and also studied with me at the Military Academy in Saldanha Bay, so I knew him well. It was unnerving to hear his panic when they had to start running, being evicted from his observation post by the attack. I could clearly hear the snap of the bullets on the radio as he maintained a steady report of their progress.

This fire was sustained on the South African force for a number of hours, increasing in intensity everytime the force tried to force its way through the minefields. Eventually, by about 14h00, there was a backwards movement when the tanks started pulling back. By then, unkown to us, three Olifant tanks that were damaged in the minefields were left behind. Commandant Gerhard Louw, who had been my Course Leader when he was a Captain during my Formative Training as an officer in 1981 at the Military College in Pretoria, was in command of the two squadrons of tanks, and he tried to recover the immobilised tanks, unsuccessfully.

By 15h00 several MiGs were in the air, attacking the force, although very inaccurately. How it was possible to miss such an incredible target creating so much dust and noise I still do not know, but their bombs feel way off target!

It was clear that the attack was a failure. I was amazed to learn that we did not suffer any casualties in all those bombardments, which in its intensity and duration may have been something like El Alamein all over again, except that the bombardment was not delivered by us this time.... It would be interesting to know how much ammunition was expended during this attack.

I had no idea of the number of UNITA casualties that were suffered, as they were simply riding on the tanks and Ratels and must have taken the brunt of the force of the bombardments. We were never told of their losses.... only afterwards, when talking to some of the tank crews that were there, did I learn of the horrors of cleaning the tanks and tracks which were covered in blood, body parts and intestines from the dead and wounded... many having being killed while run over by the withdrawing tanks. An ex-family member that are still today unable to hold on to any job or relationship, was a tank driver at the battle, and told me of this many years later. He has never been sent for counseling for post traumatic stress - same as most of us that were there, but he was unable to recover from his nightmares and his life now resolves around his daily alcohol intake. In "War In Angola" Helmoed-Römer Heitman states that Unita had only lost thirteen killed and some wounded in this battle. I have later also heard that Unita lost over 1200 men in the three Tumpo battles... I cannot substantiate any of this, except the fact that there were NO South African casualties and that three Olifant tanks were lost.

I was unable to see the Olifant tanks directly, and reported as such when asked by the Brigade Headquarters. It was obviously of cardinal importance that the three tanks not fall in the hands of the Angolans, Cubans and Soviets, but there was nothing I could do about it.

However, the next day, in the calm and quiet of the aftermath of battle, Pikkie and I took the opportunity to explore the old 59 Brigade position just a few hundred metres north-east of the observation post. There were a number of T-55 tanks that were destroyed in their hull-down positions around the perimeter. We investigated the HEAT hits on the turret and clambered all over the tanks like a couple of school kids. The Unita section assigned for our protection were showing us around and even led us into the main bunker which housed the 59 Brigade Headquarters and the Soviet advisors. We were amazed at the trouble they went into to construct a bunker 4-5 metres deep and as big as two large rooms, covered with three or four layers of tree trunks each at least half a metre thick! It was most impressive! We were discussing whether a direct hit from a G-5 155mm shell (note not just a normal 155mm) with a delayed fuse would penetrate this formidable bunke. The general consensus were - YES, of course it would! The problem was that we were mostly using airburst which exploded the shell about 30 m in the air. This would be ineffective against a bunker complex.

There were remains of the rocket boosters of lots of rockets from our MRLs scattered around the area. We found a cache of intact Fapla uniforms and, while sizes too small for me, I was soon prancing around in full FAPLA "camo", with a Russian helmet on the head, and an AK-47 from a Unita in my hand. There is a photo of me floating around somewhere, me looking like a proper "Cuban" with my flaming red beard (from the sun... not naturally red), with the Russian helmet and AK-47.

Our fooling around was soon interrupted when the Technical Assistant, the Lance-Bombardier (I wish I could remember his name), came running down the high ground in a panic, calling us. Breathlessly he told us that there was an URGENT DET message for our action. We rushed back to the OP post and started processing the message.... and looked at each other in surprise. Without attempting to recreate the exact wording, the essence of the message read: "Vernietig dmv stelpunt eie Olifant tanks in vy gebied met Regt bestoking op Ruit 12345678" ("Destroy, by means of adjustment point, own Olifant tanks in enemy territory with a Regimental Fire Mission on grid 12345678"). The surprise quickly turned to shock....

The message was clear enough: We are to use every gun in the Regiment to concentrate fire on our own tanks that were left in the mine field... which we could not see! But there was a problem... I looked at Pikkie and asked him "Wat de donner is 'n stelpunt nou weer?" ("What the hell is an Adjusting Point again?"). He shook his head and lifted his shoulders....How should he know? I knew I was supposed to KNOW what the hell it is, but at that moment my mind was a blank. With no manuals to refer to and look up the exact procedure, neither of his had any idea of what to do... to our shame. I have not done a stelpunt shoot since I did my Gun Post Officer's (GPO) training in 1980.... maybe again once thereafter while training troops in 1981/82...

But this was real and action was called for... so I swallowed my pride and typed the message into the DET: "WAT IS N STELPUNT?" ("What is an adjustment point?"). It was followed by about 10 minutes of deadly silence.... no reply from the HQ... and then: "WAIT" - in my minds eye I saw how even they were scampering around to find a manual from which to explain this STELPUNT to me.... After 20 minutes a lengthy message was received through the DET. I think someone actually typed the entire description of the procedure using those horrible rubber keys of the DET, totally unnecessary, as I remembered exactly how it worked the minute I read the first paragraph and it all came back to me!

A "Stelpunt" works on the principle that you adjust fire on a known registered target that you can see to obtain the correction that has to be applied to the raw grid reference in order to hit the actual observable target. This correction is then applied on the grid reference that you CANNOT see and, in theory, if the new target is actually on that grid position, the first shots should be a hit, without any observed adjusting fire preceding the bombardment. In principle, quite easy enough!

The problem of course is that no one knew what the true grid reference of the tanks were. They were hastily plotted on the map by Cmdt Louw and given through as a grid reference to me. I, of course, had no idea of the accuracy of the plot, still not able to observe the tanks. I think the idea was to wait until the Recces observed movement of Cubans and maybe Russians close to the tanks before proceeding with the actual Regimental bombardment. So I was instructed to carry out the Stelpunt shoot on a visible target about 2 kms to the south, which I did and then had it registered as a Stelpunt which could be used for the actual bombardment. These corrections were calculated and converted in terms of the positions of all the batteries of the Regiment (the G-2 140mm battery, the G-5 155mm battery of 3 guns, the 120mm mortar battery, and at least one 127mm MRL troop), bringing them all on a "common grid" from which to concentrate fire on the given grid reference of the Olifant tanks.

Finally, when someone deemed it ready, (there is a time and distance limit to the application of a Stelpunt, 2 hours and 2 kms I seem to remember), I was given the go ahead for the fire mission. I cannot remember the number of rounds per gun/pipe, but it may have been at least 10. So over the next 2 minutes or so, a "kakhuis vol skote" ("shithouse of shots") must have fallen in the vicinity of the Olifant tanks. Being unobserved fire, I could not report back a result for the fire mission, but later heard it was rather ineffective and did not hit anywhere close to the target. Obviously, the grid reference was not too accurate (we had no GPS AND no Google Earth then!).

And thats how it turned out that I did the ONLY full Regimental fire mission of the operation.... ON OUR OWN TANKS!!!

Taken from my posting on the War In Angola Forums at : http://www.warinangola.com/default.aspx?tabid=590&forumid=43&postid=295&view=topic

For a full historical account of the battle see "The Third Attack on Tumpo" under the Historical Accounts section of the War In Angola website (http://www.warinangola.com/Default.aspx?tabid=1007).

The photos below were taken from the discussion topic "URGENT! Clearing the minefields at Cuito Cuanavale" viewable at:

They have been taken VERY recently by the mine clearing crews of the HALO Trust , and shows two of the Olifant tanks described above that have been unable to be recovered all these years. One was repaired and actaully driven out into 'captivity' by the Cubans. There are a few photos of this tank with its captors on the internet.

The Olifant tanks in the minefields at Cuito Cuanavale

The Olifant tanks in the minefields at Cuito Cuanavale

The Olifant tanks in the minefields at Cuito Cuanavale

The captured Olifant tank...

31 comment(s) so far...


Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Hi Johan. Again, a great story about the Olifante. Isn't the Border War [in fact, war] full of such anomalies?

Cuito Cuanavale will, I suppose, remain contentious for a long time. Some claim it as a great victory for the SADF's opponents. But was it the SADF's eventual battle plan to capture it? Could a victory of this kind have helped us? Could we have held such a position? And at what cost in lives and resources? If one thinks of the Kursk salient, and the determination of the Germans to capture it, and the horrendous losses they suffered, then Cuito [in my admittedly very limited understanding of military strategy] takes on another perspective. Unlike so many generals in warfare throughout the ages, the SADF's seemed able to resist the temptation to attack a strongly fortified target simply because it was there. And in the process, though it was not captured, a lot of damage was inflicted as compared with the SADF's small losses. Am I wrong is asking this? What do you think?

By Phillip Vietri on   2011/01/20 02:55 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Yes, Phillip.... Our opponents do claim it as a great victory!
But not because they defeated us in battle, or caused us great losses, or even gained any ground (at all!)...
They claim a victory because they were under the impression we wanted to take Cuito Cuanavale, and then we did not! In fact, to make matters worse, not only did we "fail" to take Cuito, but we withdrew out of Angola completely! Now if THAT did not present them with an opportunity to claim victory, nothing ever could!
I think that possibly they were under the genuine impression that it was our intention, and that was probably deliberately created by our higher command as a subversive measure, designed to demotivate and demoralise them.
The facts are simple: FAPLA launched an offensive to take Mavinga, a UNITA stronghold. To prevent this from happening, scratch South African forces were sent in to assist UNITA to halt the offensive. As the nature and strength of the attacking force became known, more and more South African forces were called in, effectively halting the FAPLA offensive with the crushing defeat of 47 Brigade on the banks of the Lomba. This put the entire offensive in jeopardy, and the FAPLA force desperately tried to get away, back to where they started, at Cuito Cuanavale. A cat and mouse game erupted between the two antagonists, which lasted a few months and saw quite a few battles, but the bulk of the FAPLA force managed to escape annihilation, eventually to consolidate and dig in on the east bank of the Cuito River, in the Tumpo Traingle. Our main intention was to drive the existing FAPLA forces on the eastern side of the Cuito river across the river, or to destroy them, so that it would be impossible for them to launch another offensive against Mavinga that year.
I am sure that if the opportunity did present itself, in that the FAPLA force broke completely and routed across the river, we would have been prepared to follow up, do a river-crossing, and take Cuito. I say this only because I know that during exercises at Army Battle School in November 1987, before I was deployed to Angola in Feb 1988, the engineers did a river crossing as part of a Divisional excercise.
Tactically it would not have made sense to plan an attack ACROSS a river to take a strongly defended town on the WRONG side of the river, as any tactician can tell you. It would make more sense to approach the town from the south on the SAME side of the river, where we did have elements cause diversionary attacks. This may have contributed to the impression that our ultimate goal was to take Cuito Cuanavale!
However, as history has shown, we were unable to destroy or defeat the well-dug in Fapla forces in the Tumpo Triangle, and THAT is where we failed, despite practically no casualties!

By Johan Schoeman on   2011/01/21 10:10 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Thanks, Johan. Your explanation is very clear. And it does seem to confirm for me something I have long suspected as a result of my [admittedly limited] observations - that the SADF Generals were not prepared, systematically, to throw away our soldiers' lives unnecessarily. If one thinks of the British losses in the Boer War, or on the Western Front, where unthinkable numbers were just hurled over the top. Sir Redvers Buller in Natal seems to have been the only British General in the Boer war not to waste his soldiers' live needlessly [Spionkop notwithstanding]. Ditto for the Australian General Monash during the First World War. For me it was an article of [military] faith in Ladysmith during infantry Basics, and one I have clung to ever since.

By Phillip Vietri on   2011/01/23 01:18 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

My respect to you guys for having done a wonderfull job in Angola back in the end 80's. Thanks to your participation my country Angola is a much more safer place right now. Of course it still can be always be a little bit safer. But seeing young children and old people having a smile on their face is just beautifull. I can't describe it with my words.

By Betha Casi on   2011/10/09 11:14 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

War is a horrible thing but you can always find the good stuff in it ,
I remmeber I used the FN FAL and when I got the AK 47 I felt like the king of the world hhh!

By Philadelphia lock change Henry on   2011/10/11 12:43 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Henry war is indeed a horrible thing not only for the soldiers and innocent civilians but also for the country itself. But sometimes it's necessary to restore equality and we really should be gratefull for brave soldiers risking their lives in enemy territory all for better cause.

By Pokerface1986 on   2011/10/25 01:13 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

I got so consumed in this informative article that I couldn’t quit reading. There are many points that influence smart readers to reckon. Thank you.

By Forex on   2011/10/30 01:35 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Great to read - I was a Kwevoel Ammo driver driving projectiles to the G5's in Nov and Dec 87 - Johan's description helps a lot to percieve what was going on in those days (I didnt have any high ground to observe what was going on - just shona's and tall trees for Africa....)

Philip is right - our Generals were concerned with loss of life unlike some more more modern campaigns fought by countries who you would expect more of...

By ROUTE MARCH on   2011/12/23 07:15 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"


It is quite confusing as to why did we ever attemted the Tumpo attacks, not to mention a third time. It seems quite clear that there was a lot of prepared defenses in place that will make a frontal attack to succeed unlikely. What was the goal of attacking Tumpo?

By Billy on   2012/03/06 02:52 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Billy, the Tumpo was considered Fapla's last bastion and was important to the South Africans and UNITA because it served as a bridgehead for Fapla on the east bank of the Cuito. If the South Africans withdrew, Fapla could quickly reinforce its forces on the east side of the river and again build up a force sufficient to threaten Mavinga once the rainy season have passed. The intention of the repeated attacks by the South Africans was to allow UNITA to remain in control of key terrain opposite Cuito Cuanavale by destroying or driving all Fapla forces on the east bank (i.e. the Tumpo defences) across the river. The repeated attacks, even though they failed, did weaken the Fapla forces through attrition, but boosted Fapla morale which increased their resolve to resist. The only reason 82 SA Brigade was called up was to relieve the National Servicemen of 61 Mech and 4 SAI, and they could not just sit idly and watch Fapla build up its forces again. So it became 82 SA Bde's mission to operate in conjunction with UNITA to destroy the Fapla forces east of the Cuito by 20 March or drive them off the east bank. As we know the last attack only went in on 23 March. It was NEVER the intention of the South Africans to cross the river and capture Cuito Cuanavale, which the Angolans and Cubans claims the South Africans had failed to achieve, thus resulting in their "defeat". I was there and can assure you that at no time were we ever under threat to be "surrounded" and "destroyed"! We pulled back after failing to achieve our objective and also due to the Cuban buildup in the West. We had come to the end of our three month stint so it was normal for us to be relieved and withdraw...so we (the men on the ground) thought nothing of it. I do believe, however, that if we succeeded in driving Fapla out of Tumpo, we would have exploited to the maximum, which may have included establishing a bridgehead on the west bank and capturing the town in order to secure that bridgehead. Our engineers did a bridgelaying exercise at the Army Battle School during our month at Army Battle School in November 1987, so I don't doubt our capability to have been able to cross a river. However, if the intention ever was to capture Cuito Cuanavale, it would have made much more sense to attack it from the south and on the SAME side of the river, rather than from the wrong side of a formidable obstacle such as the Cuito River!

By Johan Schoeman on   2012/03/07 08:29 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Hi Johan,

Many thanks for such an informative and well written account of your experiences at Cuito. I was there too, and as a mortarist with 4SAI took part in the attack on the FAPLA’s 21st Brigade positions both on the 2nd Jan 88 and the 13th Jan 88, during which my Ratel took a direct hit from a 23mm. I agree wholeheartedly that the objective given to us back in Dec 87 was not to capture the town but to either destroy the east ground forces or force them to move back to the west of the Cuito river. I only wish that history can be left to be told by those that were involved and not by those that sit on the side and speculate. I fought side by side with some heroic men whose memories of these battles remain as strong today as they were back then.

Johan, thank you for the support given by your actions carried out during those most trying of times, us troops up fount were very happy to have you look over us.

By Dirk on   2012/03/07 02:26 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"


See the extract from an article in Beeld.

"Die probleem is dat die Weermag-leiding – baie teen die sin van die offisiere ter plaatse – die uiters suksesvolle mobiele benadering wat tot in dié stadium gevolg is, daarna verruil het vir ’n Tweede Wêreldoorlogse uitputtingsbenadering.
Dit het geëindig in ’n reeks frontale aanvalle op goed voorbereide stellings en slim verdedigingstaktiek van die Kubaanse offisiere wat intussen die bevel by Tumpo oorgeneem het. Dié aanvalle, drie agtereenvolgens, is afgeslaan met beduidende verliese onder die Unita-magte. Dis dié mislukte aanvalle wat aan Fidel Castro en sy aanbidders in die ANC die propaganda-oorwinning gegee het waaroor hulle nou nog kraai. Aan SAW-kant was dit die gevolg van ’n afwyking van sy eie militêre doktrine, wat reeds sedert die 1960’s deur ’n groep briljante offisiere ontwikkel is, onder wie mense soos genls. Johan Dippenaar, Roland de Vries, Koos Liebenberg en André Bestbier, kols. Paul Fouché en Jan Malan. As ’n mens alles in ’n weegskaal plaas, het die Suid-Afrikaners waarskynlik tog ’n punte-oorwinning behaal, maar die vyand geen uitklophou toegedien nie. Die offisiere en manskappe wat aan die front was, het egter niks om hulle voor te skaam nie; hulle het eerbaar opgetree en uitstekend gevaar binne die beperkings".

Do you perhaps have an answer/insight as to why the deviation from the well established doctrine of mobility to a war of attrition.

Further to the above what insight do you have of the SADF's readyness and ability to handle an escalation of activities in the west by the Cubans. Although it seems that we mobilized 81 Armoured Brigade/Battle Group, mostly Citizen Force, in a very short span of time I do get the "feeling" that all was not well. What was the state of our equipment? It seems that we if had to bring in substantial numbers of 88 and 140mm cannons and Eland armoured cars. A previous comment by you that we did not have barrels for the G5's would have reduced our capability to an extend that we would be "outgunned". What is your opinion on the outcome of a scenario where we had to engage the Cubans to prevent them from invading Namibia?

By Billy on   2012/03/13 11:28 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Billy, The extract from Beeld is probably VERY applicable. As to why the very successful mobile tactics were deviated from, I have a few thoughts: Considering that 82 Mechanised Brigade was probably best suited to mobile warfare than any other CF brigade, and the fact that it was claimed to be the best brigade in Africa, it is indeed sinister that was indeed used in a role of attrition, a role better suited to an Armoured brigade. More tanks, however, would not have solved the problem, as that would have simply led to more getting stuck in the minefields! Such was the problem of warfare in the African bush... normal doctrine, well practiced on the Army Battle School range simply does not work in the bush and sands of Angola. We must also remember that by then the FAPLA forces were considered to have been close to breaking point after sustaining huge losses in the mobile warfare up to that point. I think the generals simply did not expect them to kick in and and resist to the extend that they did. The attack was launched THREE times, because it was believed that FAPLA would, as they did before, simply pack up and flee across the river. But not only did the change to Cuban command bolster them, they also got a boost in morale EVERY time they managed to withstand an attack, and in EVERY attack they witnessed UNITA taking massive losses. For the first time since the start of the campaign they were able to stand up to the South African aggression. So by the time the 82 SA Mech Bde took over, both the physical defences and morale of the FAPLA troops were stronger than ever. For some reason it was still believed that they would break under the strain of being attacked directly by tanks. I saw the volume of fire that fell on RPS and the UNITA troops with my own eyes. While the tanks were never in any direct danger, UNITA took the brunt of their response, and our own Infantry thankfully never even made it close to enemy positions, having being stalled behind the tanks. I think the problem was also the objectives laid out for Operation Hooper and Packer, in that the intention was to destroy or drive FAPLA forces to the east of the Cuito across the river. This in itself dictated the doctrine as there are only so many sides you can attack from if your objectives are THIS side of the river. If the objectives were in fact, changed to capture Cuito Cuanavale, for example, I think a frontal attack on the Tumpo defences would not even have been considered. Many more opportunities for the kind of maneuvering and outflanking suited to mobile warfare would have been offered as alternatives. The chances of success may also have been much higher if Cuito Cuanavale was threatened by a highly mobile force from the north, or even northwest, with binding forces attacking from the south... ON THE CORRECT SIDE OF THE RIVER at least! It would not have been possible to channel a mobile force into a death zone as what happened at Tumpo, and most of the heavy firepower could have been neutralised simply by outflanking them. So.... The three things that nailed down the lid on the coffin of the South African attack on Tumpo: 1 the limited objective set, 2. the nature of the terrain, 3. the well prepared defences and minefields channeling the attack, making it predictable.

By Johan Schoeman on   2012/03/14 03:12 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

As to the extend of our readiness to meet the Cuban onslaught in the west, I also do have my doubts. As you saw... the state of the G5 guns were by then rather pathetic compared to normal standards. I can only think that the rest of the equipment were also rather below standard. I am still to investigate the OOBs for this potential face-off so cannot really say at this stage, but as you can imagine... Ratel 90s and Eland-90s with a squadron or two of Olifant tanks, facing at least two battalions of T-55/T-62s and even T-72s...G1 (88mm) and G2 (140mm) guns taking on batteries of BM-24 (240mm) MRLs and 152mm guns. Let us not even dare mention all those Shilka ZSU-23/4 SP AAA and 57mm SP AA guns, which would cut through Ratels like a warm knife through butter! There are also the relative inexperience and fitness levels of the CF to consider, despite the resolve and courage they may have exhibited! I do not doubt that it would have led to a VERY bloody encounter, but if South Africa was found not be able to reinforce the forces with the latest equipment such as Rooivalke, Rooikatte, Cheetahs, Bateleurs etc. in a VERY short timespan, South Africa would have been hard pressed to keep the Cuban force away from Grootfontein, let alone from crossing the border! It would be a VERY interesting scenario to recreate on the miniature battlefield, creating an opportunity to actually field those miniature Rooikatte and Rooivalke against the T-62/72s Hinds, etc... My experience on the tabletop tells me the Cuban force would cut through the older equipment of the South Africans until such time as the new equipment arrives. One can only speculate as to whether South Africa would have in fact been able to supply new equipment in any worthwhile quantities. But, knowing the Boer... "We will fight them from horseback and the kopjes if we have to!" LOL

By Johan Schoeman on   2012/03/14 03:43 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

I recently heard that the captured Olifant tank which was on disply in Havana has now been moved to Mexico. Can anyone confirm this?

By Steve on   2012/03/19 12:30 PM


Hi, The 23rd of March 1988, as a Commander of a cuban helicopter regiment I was at km 17 of the road that leads from Cuito Cuanavale to Longa-Menongue with a pair of helicopters. One MI-17 and one MI-24, landed. With ues was the comander of FAPLA forces General "Viet Nam".
We were triangled probably by one artillery canon. First shell passed over, the second went short. The third we were not there anymore.

By Mario on   2013/07/24 11:51 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Hi, Cubaensucesion. Its nice to finally hear from one of you guys as well! PLEASE do tell us more of your experiences and let me load it on here..I cannot recall having taken shots at helicopters on that day, even though we were doing many single gun missions all the time! As the OPO deployed on the high ground on the eastern side of Cuito, I was possibly able to see movement on the other side of Cuito and the road towards Menongue. The most likely OPO that may have been able to have spotted you 17 kms away from the town would have been the one deployed on the high ground on the "Delta" between the Cuito and Cuanavale rivers just north of the bridge. Although I am not sure that the guns would have been able to reach THAT far! The G-5s only have an effective range of 39km, although at that altitude we have often fired accurately at ranges of up to 47 kms! Of course, you were right in moving away when you were being bracketed by fire... that NEXT one would have probably have been ON target, given our training to always have at least the third shot right on target! And you cannot argue with an incoming 155mm shell, especially not when you are in something as vulnerable as a helicopter!Lets talk some more... email me at johan@warinangola.com

By Johan Schoeman on   2013/07/26 03:27 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Hi All. I know this thread is old but I find the best way to collect history is to talk to those who were there. I am fascinated by war, not because I'm a psycho, I just try to see what drives people to the point of breaking the 6th commandment. I have spoken to many a war damaged veteran soldier that had their lives changed in combat.
I would like to share some of my findings and hear your views. Please keep in mind, I was not there, a lot of the official accounts is not true and were politically motivated. So don't jump on me if you disagree, lets just discuss what we know and try draw informed conclusions.
Its difficult to build a sequence of events but ill attempt it anyway. SA paranoid about another communistic neighbor and desperate for favor on the international scene eagerly invaded Angola in 74 after the CIA intervention failed. Seen as the aggressor the UN pressured SA to withdraw and the Cubans were a formidable dug in force so it was better to leave than to get kicked out. To prevent SWAPO from positioning itself right on SWA border an DMZ was formed and financial and military assistance was provided to UNITA in the south east. SA kept the war alive and used it in my opinion to stay on the international scene albeit under sanctions. Arming up was done with a lot of covert help in contravention of the UN arms embargo. Cuba did something similar but with a motivation to stay in Soviet favor as an enemy of the west. Castro was looking for a fight to keep the revolutionaries from turning on him and to keep the Russian supply lines open. Early 80s for SA was a time of trouble, economic sanctions was beginning to take its toll and the cost of conventional war would sink SA. On the other hand the Cubans were continuously supplying Angola constantly urging the Soviets to help prevent a victory for the west in the wake of Vietnam. The conflict was kept small enough to prevent any direct super power involvement. But in the greater scheme of things the USSR was falling into financial troubles of its own. Afghanistan was taking its toll and an imbalanced flow of resources was making them poorer. Coupled with Gorbachev policies to reintegrate the USSR, was bringing their conflict involvements to an end.
From what I could gather so far, It looks like Pik Botha was either recruited by the CIA while in NY or he offered to be a backline for what he saw as the solution. Either way it looks like it was know that the Soviets were making a last ditch effort before withdrawing from Angola. Intelligence came to light that the Russians were sending their own advisers and what looks like about 1 Billion Dollars worth of equipment to Angola. The Cubans knew they were going to be left high and dry so they advised against attacking UNITA in the south east where moving military equipment was difficult and the SADF would intervene on UNITAs behalf. The Russians most likely had no plan to escalate the conflict as they did not put in place any measures the resupply a fighting force. All parties most likely knew this if you inspect the actions in hind site.
The SADF plan, as I see it, was not to go into a full out fight. 6 or 7 G5 155 Howitzers developed with help from dr Bull, were placed outside Quito about 45 kilometers from the runway which was just outside the range of Russian guns. MIG 23s from Menonge were supposed to find and destroy these but could not fly low due to UNITA being armed with stingers. The Recce teams would call out Victor Victor when a MIG 23 took off and that gave about 15 Minutes to stop firing and cover up. The SADF learned early on that a tank was really ineffective in Angola and that wheeled vehicles with better range could out maneuver a tank and shoot it from behind through its radiator with a much smaller gun. The Ratel 60 and 90 performed well against a tank and could be chained together for river crossings. Never the less to invoke a tank battle you need tanks. So the tanks were taken around to the north east and send down to the confluence as this would look like a move to capture the bridge and cross. This slow paced advance through a known mine field would give the enemy ample opportunity to send all armor across as a stopping force while the tanks simply turn around and leave with the enemy exposed to artillery on the eastern side of the river with very little chance to retreat back to Quito. The missions were called modular, hooper and packer, stop, push back and cross. We all know packer was deemed a failure. But was it? was it ever the plan? If you look at the ordinance supplied it does not look like there was ever an intention to cross the river, just to draw out and destroy enough equipment to justify an end of hostilities and withdraw. So Pik Botha and Magnus Malan goes to Egypt for piece talks and the agreement was that SADF leaves Angola immediately, Cuba withdraws over 2 years and leaves as Victors to keep piece at home and UN gets to start the handover process of SWA.
I am troubled by the pictures of the Olifants from 61 Mechanized (Ill stand corrected on the division number) as they were moved to the engagement aria, 1 tank would tow 3 tanks followed by a fuel truck. The 3 being towed would have their backsides in the air as if they were a little light were the engines supposed to be. As part of the upgrade programs on the Olifants, engines were changed to petrol and then back to diesel. And then there is the magic 8 tanks that kept on being upgraded. Is it possible that a lot of the 250 odd tanks were not even combat ready? That they were just towed in to create the numerical response needed?
Something else to ponder about. Sweden made its intentions agains SA clear and had their President killed or assassinated, but his friend Bernt Carlsson was the socialist who did most of the damage behind the scenes. He claimed he was the target of SA intelligence agencies while living in London. He was in Egypt for the piece talks and he was supposed to fly with Pik Botha and Magnus Malan to NY to sign the piece deal. The story goes that Pik Botha and Magnus Malan took an earlier flight, of course Bernt Carlsson never made it as he died on Pan Am Flight 103.
The rest is history as played out by FW de Klerk with some very questionable motives.
So if we did not play along, if we decided to stay in Angola, what would have happened 3 years after Quito in 91 with the fall of communism?

By Hein de Kock on   2014/08/23 04:06 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Hi Hein... Just a view points: the most tanks used in a single operation were 28, which were the 26-odd tanks from the two squadrons of Regiment President Steyn plus two command tanks (and/or 1 Command Ratel) used by the command element from the School of Armour. Most of these tanks had been in action in the previous operations and have simply been taken over by the RPS tanks, which only brought in a single squadron of replacement tanks. This explains the confusion that arose due to the call signs displayed on the tanks, e.g. Bravo Squadron using the tanks previously deployed as Echo Squadron, and therefore labelled with the 50 series of call signs and not the 20 series Another squadron was already on its way home, which, in theory, would bring the total number of tanks in the operation area to around 40. There had been previous rotations in December as well (at least two), but there had never been more than the two squadron, ad-hoc regiment of tanks deployed. I don't think there were any intention to create an appearance of having more tanks deployed than was actually the case as a deception measure, in fact, I would lean towards the other side, that in fact, the field commanders would have preferred the enemy to think there were only one squadron present. Deception measures that had been taken did include the simulated sound of tank engines to confuse the enemy, but that was more intended towards creating uncertainty as to which direction the tanks would actually be attacking from. Tanks do provide a demoralising effect on dug-in enemy troops and it is always good to let them know that they are going to be attacked by tanks. No surprises there... as I saw from my vantage point in the tree, when the tanks approached the objectives, there could be NO DOUBT at all as to where they were and where they were going to! The noise and dust could be heard and seen from tens of kilometres away! Given the extend of the defences and preparation allowed the enemy, and the limited artillery preparatory bombardment on known positions, I can only surmise that the attack was never intended to actually succeed, but merely to keep the military pressure on the enemy during negotiations. It was NOT the usual way of doing things in the SADF and we did notice it on the ground. While we were still supremely confident in our abilities, I think the writing was pretty much on the wall, especially after TWO direct frontal attacks had already failed previously! We were a new lot and were obviously ill prepared for what we were to face, but I think the field commanders were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs by the politicians, and were silently hoping that maybe the enemy resolve would crack and they would simply run away again.As to the combat-readiness of the Olifant tanks, while not really equipped to any technical level when it comes to the tanks, I don't think there were too many of the 250-odd actually ready as only a few of them had actually being upgraded to Mark 1A status... most of the others were Mark 1s although the regiments would have been maintaining them to a high standard in the way I knew the old SADF. The problem was that most of these regiments were Citizen Force units and were not exactly on a ready footing.Our Tiffies (Technical Service Corps) did a magnificent job of maintaining, fixing, and recovering our vehicles, including the tanks. Most of the tanks that had been attributed as losses by the enemy had been recovered and reintroduced in the field within days of their recovery. No tanks were actually shot out or destroyed by enemy fire but most had suffered from damaged tracks and bogeys, mostly caused by mines. This is what makes the events of 23 March 1987 so sad... that we had to abandon three slightly damaged tanks in the battlefield because we had been told that we would recover them later... except that we were prevented to do so by the political events which had overtaken the decisions in the field!.
Unfortunately I cannot comment on the intelligence picture as that was simply not my expertise, but, as you say, very interesting coincidences did occur and does give one the idea that things had been engineered.As to whether we ourselves would have been able to hold out in the field at Cuito Cuanavale until the Soviet collapse, I doubt it very much, judging from the level of deterioration that our equipment had gone through and the obvious economic strain the war was placing on the SA government. While I think it is safe to say that we had actively contributed to the Soviets collapse, it is probably safe to also say that they directly contributed to the demise of Apartheid by tying us up for so long in Angola! As it turned out, Namibia became an independent nation, which was the long term goal of all the parties concerned anyway, including the SA government.

By Johan Schoeman on   2014/08/24 12:51 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Hi Johan. A SA tank squadron consist of only 11 tanks. 3 x troops with 3 tanks each and then the commander and 2 in command tanks.
As on readiness we had more than enough just Pres Steyn had 35 ready and well maintained at 7 Div Mob centre and I believe the other tank regiments would have had the same amount. Tactical it did not matter whether is was Mk1 or Mk1A, we never really used the new features of the 1A.

By Cornie van Schoor on   2014/08/24 09:21 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Thank you Johan. Well from all accounts I have read, most were involved in some small part and only now get to share with others how they fitted into the big picture. Information is mostly memories and speculation so we will never really know what intelligence was provided by whom and for what reason. I'm really beginning to doubt what is put forward af fact. Just think about what you have seen, after Quito we were constantly reminded how outmatched and outnumbered we are and that piece is the only way. That there is an army on the SWA border ready to invade and we will have to retreat to Grootfontein as an optimistic estimation. I just don't see that, I can only find accounts of people facing SWAPO over the river. The logistics of moving and supplying an army is huge and it leaves clear traces. You can see those traces from Luanda to Quito. What you don't see is any trace of an army moved through the DMZ. There was no civilian infrastructure for several kilos into Angola and to supply from the air would have meant constant transport planes which would have been a turkey shoot. Im trying to contain my imagination but keeping the airforce out of the fight, pulling back to Rundu, hasty moving to Oshakati. And until now I did not realise that the commanders was young. In my opinion, someone was trying very hard to take us out of the fight and spread fear before we became unstoppable (dream a little). I just cannot see, realistically, how we can all echo that we were on a path to defeat due to technical or resource constraints. If you doubt that, just look at what executive outcomes did with precious little, and we had a lot.

By Hein on   2014/08/24 04:13 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Thanks Cornie. I do also have that a squadron of tanks comprises of eleven tanks, but I did read somewhere that there were 28 in total (not sure where, though). I suppose that this included the three ARVs as well as the two command tanks of the regiment's CO and the 2IC, which brings the total to 27. Maybe there was another held in reserve? Be it as it may, there could have have been no more than 24 fighting armoured vehicles directly involved in the attack.

By Johan Schoeman on   2014/08/25 05:06 PM


I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. .


By rachelle on   2014/12/10 09:37 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Dit was nie alles waar nie .Ek weet Ek was daar. Ek was gunner in die eerste tank wat n mynveld geslaan het .My tank is weer gerecover. daar het net twee tanks agter gebly van a eskadron

By lourens van wyk on   2015/07/23 03:33 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Lourens, dis juis wat ek na verwys as mens daar reg op die grond is. Al die feite is nie onmiddelik beskikbaar nie en mens sien net wat jy KAN sien. Die feite wat tot dusvêr bevestig is, is dat drie tenks agtergelaat is, naamlik 12A (A Esk), 52 (B Esk) - hulle het op die hoof-mynveld vasgesit en is albei later daar opgeblaas deur die Kubane omdat selfs hulle nie die tenks kon uitkry nie. Hulle is albei vandag nog daar enm ons hert verskeie fotos van hulle. Die derde tank (53, van B Esk) het op pad uit in die heel eerste mynveld agtergebly nadat dit ook 'n myn afgetrap het maar het slegs geringe skade opgedoen. Eerder as om dit saam te sleep het die generaal bepaal dat die tenk later herwin moet word wanneer ons weer anval. Dit het egter nie gebeur nie en diue Kubane het 'n geskenk gekry in die vorm van 53 wat hulle na ligte herstelwerk uit die mynveld self kon ry en oor die rivier neem. 53 staan vandag weer daar as vertoonstuk van die tenk wat hulle oorgeneem het (maar sonder toring - die is skoonveld!) Volg gerus die hele storie oor Operasie 53 by http://www.warinangola.com/default.aspx?tabid=590&view=topics&forumid=3026

By Johan Schoeman on   2015/07/27 02:20 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

I read your blog.I thought it was great.. Hope you have a great day. God bless.


By Leslie on   2015/12/05 04:42 AM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Dankie vir die gesprek, ek maak nou juis die boek deur Roland de Vries klaar en dit is lekker om meer te lees op jou forum.

By Danie on   2015/12/28 01:51 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

For those that are not aware of this. Highly interesting, filled a few knowledge gaps for me, and I consider myself well-read:

New analysis on this conflict by mr. Stuart Sterzel, a compatriot of mine (I have never met him), and ex SADF special forces operator:


And a document on this topic by him, to be found on www.academia.edu, search for "South Africa and the Angolan War Stuart Sterzel". It is for free.

By German volunteer on   2016/10/19 08:49 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Dag Johan,
Baie intersante komentaar en het eers vandag die site ontdek.
Ek was die gunner van die tank wat die myn-vee apparaat vooraan gehad het en ook in die mynveld gelos was - Ek kan om die dood nie die roepsein onthou nie. Jy is reg, die eerste tenk het ons in n mynveld verloor gedurende die opmars. Daar is toe - eers onsuksesvol, met plofadders n pad deur die mynveld gemaak. Ons was nog besig om vuur te rig op loopgrawe met ons co-ax en af en toe n HESH as ons gedink het daars bunkers, toe ons die bevel kry om terug te trek. Ons het terug gestoot, nie omgedraai nie. maw die mynveer was nie aan die kant waarheen ons beweeg het nie, ons het afgewyk van die geveede spoor en toe die myn getrap. Die ander tank was ook in die aanval beskadig en is ook gelos. Daar was ook spar tenks wat ons het ook n klein aanval gedoen op dorpie- Bambi as ek reg onthou, met een van die spaar tenks na ons ons sn verloor het by Tumpo.

By Deon Louw on   2017/02/21 04:15 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Baie dankie vir jou terugvoer, Deon. Jou tenk met die mynvëer was 12A. Kontak my asseblief op johan@warinangola.com. Ek sal graag jou hele storie ook wil laai. Jy sal die volgende video wat etlike dae na die aanval gemaak is waardeer en ook jou tenk sien:

Videos - Cuito Cuanavale after the battle
blogs.warinangola.com /Videos/CuitoCuanavaleafterthebattle /tabid/278/language/en-ZA /Default.aspx (onthou om die spasies uit die link te haal!)

Hier is ook fotos van die tenks, 12A, 52, en 53....
Tank Data
blogs.warinangola.com/Forums /TankData/tabid/266/language /en-ZA/Default.aspx (onthou om die spasies uit die link te haal!)

Dan is daar ook besprekings oor die tenks by War In Angola General Forums - “Operation 53”
www.warinangola.com:8088 /default.aspx?tabid=590 &forumid=3026&postid=11851 &view=topic (onthou om die spasies uit die link te haal!)

Jammer ek sien nou eers jou antwoord... ;-)



By SuperUser Account on   2017/04/10 04:40 PM

Re: "Trying to destroy the Olifants"

Dankie Johan vir insiggewende artikel

Ek was daar saam RPS, moes die volgende oggend n' "tenk gaan recover", diesel refill...met my Samil 20 Lappiespomp. Daar aangekom was die track af aan die regterkant, n' paar jong UNITA "soldate" het daar rondgestaan, Nodeloos om te sê, moes maar omdraai en teruggaan na TB. Die sand was so dik die vooras van die Samil 20 het oppad terug gebuig en dit het my omternd die hele dag geneem om 13km terug te ry.

By Gerhard on   2017/12/21 12:34 PM

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Recent Blog Comments
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
Remember that night and still hear the Red Eyes flying.
By Coenie (Sdpikes) Groenewald0 on: Sunday, November 22, 2020
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
Hi Alistair, I have set up a Facebook page titled '3 SA Infantry B Company 1977 - 1978'. Feel free to check it out and join up. This applies to anyone else that may be interested. Thanks.
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We want to do a short film about Katima and would like to have more information about the town of Katima and also your thoughts on what you think shaped the region
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Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
I was in the mortar platoon of B Company 3 SAI based in Wenela. We, along with all others, returned fire across the cutline at Katima Zambia. I will always remember this day, like any veteran remembers as one filled with noise, but you did your job. I don't have nightmares, I remember and honour those we lost.
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Die beste is maar om vir my die fotos en jou stories per epos aan te stuur na johan@warinangola.com. Die WarBlogs is 'n heeltemal aparte portaal van die www.warinangola.com een, maar as jy daar geregistreer is kan ek altyd hier ook 'n rekening met dieselfde besonderhere skep... Laat my maar net weet. Ek kom net so eenmaal 'n maand hier om gou op te vang, terwyl ek elke dag op die War In Angola portaal is.
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Re: Photo Gallery of Operation Sceptic (Smokeshell) added
Hi johan ek het probeer regestreer.Kan nie inkom nie was ook daar saam vegroep 3 ons bev was j Jacobs het ook n paar fotos wat ek graag sal wil opsit het ook n foto van ons bev. laat weet wat ek moet doen is nie rekenaar vaardig nie kan my sel net net help. groete
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Will there be another reunion .?
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Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
Was a gunner in that attack . Was in 1SSB and slept in the isle on that night, in the bungalow .Ran out of the bungalow after first red eye was shot
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hi to all
just wandering if any of you served with my dad , Derick Anthony Beard on the Angola border in the 70s .
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This is a great information about the history you put in here. thank you go to website
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My last 3 month camp in Katimo in 1980 after doing stints all over swa was the best of all. Slept in a bunker next to the river spying on the pont that was crossing over the zambesi river.cathing tigers in the river .
Would love to return to that erea of the world.
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I used to be able to log in but can’t do so any more.
Johan can you assist.
Thank you
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Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One
Very interesting read. I was also a Durban 1973 intake ( may 1973 to 4 SAI ) My experience of the whole 'boertjie - soutie ' thing was a little different. Right in the beginning there was a bit of " Wat kyk jy jou blerrie Engelsman" / " What's your problem clutchplate / dutchman" but I would say that by halfway through basic that had gone almost completely. The platoon I was in after basic was probably 70 % English 30 % Afrikaans but in reality there was no distinction at all among us. Our platoon had an Afrikaans lieutenant , the other two platoons in the company had English speaking lieutenants . There was not a man in either of those two platoons who would not have jumped at the chance to join our platoon. It sounds like a stupid war cliche but we really would have followed that man into hell and back. We loved that man and would have done anything he asked. He never shouted at us to do anything . Only ever asked and it was done. Just before we went to the border we lost him. He had to go home on compassionate leave and he never rejoined us. We all felt like we had lost a father. And here is the thing. He was also just a DP like us who started off the year before us and naturally being degreed was older than most of us. Anyway that was my experience. One other little thing. You mentioned that they were not allowed to hit you ?. No-one told the PTI's or PF instructors that at 4 SAL lol . I had the shit kicked out of me on the shooting range so hard I fell beneath the 'skietpunt'. When I clambered back the staff sgt inquired in a faux concerned way ' Het meneer seer gekry ?. Will meneer n klagte afle ?. Moet ek vir meneer n vormpie gaan haal. ??. I just managed to stammer 'Nee staff' to all three questions. I had stood up and turned around after getting a stoppage and got the man's point. Anyway this is your blog not mine. Thanks for your blog.
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