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Aug 22

Written by: Bobby Thomson
2015/08/22 01:09 AM  RssIcon

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.



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.]

11 comment(s) so far...


Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

Someone loaded some Katima movies:


He had a facebook entry with Katima base photos. But I remember the base (April - August 1980) quite differently (sure, memory fades with age, but some things remain quite distinct) - who has some more photos, especially around the mess, the parade ground in front of the mess, the car park for the armoured cars and the guard house at the main entrance (or was it the back entrance?). I can still draw from memory, but it looks different than in the film above.

By German volunteer on   2016/09/16 11:03 PM

Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

It was the most terrifying moment of my life. All the Nationals who lived with us in Ngwezi township Katima Mulilo went to their rural homes that night. We were the only two black families from South Africa left behind in the township. We had nowhere to go.A miscile fell in front of our house with great thud, there was vibration everywhere and shuttered windows worsened the situation. By God's Grace the mortar didn't explode. Experts removed it. In the early morning one soldier used a loudspeaker to calm us down. We then looked through the window and saw dead people in the truck. I remember it distinctly, scary event!!

By Elizabeth Maboea on   2016/11/29 01:39 AM

Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

Mrs. Maboea, when you write, it is like history coming alive again. Today we are old enough to sit in the Circle of the Elders, when we look back, we see our youth flowing away and old age creeping up like a thief in the night. Hope your people are fine today, there was so much unspeakable treachery and sorrow under which we all suffer today, and we, that really know what happened back then, have no stage from which our voices can be heard. We suffer and are helpless, the same for the heroic black man who soldiered on our side was also thrown to the wolves, see 32 Battalion and also the Caprivi people, and some time in history all these events will backfire on the perpetrators or their descendants, for these events will not be forgotten in the collective memory of the nations, even if it is not mainstream today anymore

By German volunteer on   2017/02/06 02:22 PM

Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

I was 12 years old on that date and I was in my father's residence next to Ngweze primary school and was just in the house with my brothers when the sound of a rocket that landed some four hundred meters from our residence was clearly heard as it shaked our house and other adjacent houses. I saw a vehicle that was moving from the urban settlement of boma heading towards the southern direction of town where the unexploded rocket was embedded. The voice from the speaker that early time was in Afrikaans and english saying stay in your houses SWAPO is beneKant. The next day we went to the cite where the rocket penetrated the ground and later moved to Mafuta with my brothers where we spent a night. Two days later we returned and I also witnessed a blue Bedford full of dead bodies that was paraded in front of the Legislative Assembly hall at Ngweze.

By Dr. Boniface MutumbaA on   2017/08/26 07:11 PM

Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

I still remember that night so well. I was with 3 SAI, B Company and based at Wenela at that time. We were out on a platoon patrol along the 'kaplyn' that night, probably 3 or 4 miles from Wenela, but had been warned of heightened activity in Zambia. We all awoke when the first missile was fired at Katimo and went into a standby mode. Within a short while we were instructed to pull back to an artillery base (4th or 14th Field Regiment) a few miles back. It was absolutely surreal walk as the South African artillery was laying down a barrage of 155mm fire just beyond the kaplyn and these shells were whistling a couple of hundred feet overhead. It was probably the noisiest night of my life. When we reached the base we were assigned as base protection while the Operation went ahead. Hard to believe this all happened about 40 years ago. I have set up a FaceBook page containing quite a few photos of our time in the Caprivi. All the best to those that still remember this event.

By Hugh Hudson on   2017/09/04 02:19 PM

Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

My sister is currently touring the area and her talking about the area and sending photographs has brought back memories of that horrific night. I was sleeping in the bungalow next to the one that was hit that night. 40 years later I still have vivid memories and count my blessings.

By Jim Tait on   2017/09/21 10:31 PM

Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

My memories are not as good as Hugh and Jims but I do think this was the scariest night of my life, waiting for the next explosion and hoping it wasn't me next.

By Craig Sharland on   2017/09/30 04:01 AM

Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

I was 10 years old and went to skool in Katima Mulilo, I will never forget that knight, siting in the bom shelter. Our house was against the Zambezi river next to the gest house.

By Jan Cronje on   2018/01/23 02:28 PM

1980 camp in katimo

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.

By Gordon Rudman on   2018/10/16 03:12 PM

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
Slept in a bunker after that attack.Still have nightmares about that attack.

By Barry Callaghan on   2019/04/02 04:41 PM

Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.

41years later. Remember Lorry Lesch my driver, Erasmus Alpa gunner. Scary and prepare us for more later.

By Danie Rousseau on   2019/08/23 08:53 PM

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Recent Blog Comments
Re: Photo Gallery of Operation Sceptic (Smokeshell) added
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.
By SuperUser Account on: Friday, October 25, 2019
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
By A H Du Plessis on: Monday, September 30, 2019
Re: 23rd of August 1978 01h15 I remember it distinctly.
41years later. Remember Lorry Lesch my driver, Erasmus Alpa gunner. Scary and prepare us for more later.
By Danie Rousseau on: Friday, August 23, 2019
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Will there be another reunion .?
By Jack on: Thursday, April 04, 2019
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
Slept in a bunker after that attack.Still have nightmares about that attack.
By Barry Callaghan on: Tuesday, April 02, 2019
Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One
hi to all
just wandering if any of you served with my dad , Derick Anthony Beard on the Angola border in the 70s .
he was in the Kaffrarian rifles unit according to my mom
My Dad passed away in 2016 August and would like to find out more about his amry days
By Bruce Berad on: Thursday, January 10, 2019
Re: The outbreak for the border war
This is a great information about the history you put in here. thank you go to website
By Chris on: Sunday, December 16, 2018
1980 camp in katimo
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.
By Gordon Rudman on: Tuesday, October 16, 2018
I used to be able to log in but can’t do so any more.
Johan can you assist.
Thank you
By Rocky Marsicano on: Saturday, September 08, 2018
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.
By john jones on: Monday, August 06, 2018
Re: Operation Savannah - The battle of the casualties of the war
Duncan, I remember you well!

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Take care!
By Johan du Preez on: Thursday, May 17, 2018
Re: Operation Savannah - The battle of the casualties of the war
Hi Johan
You mentioned 1 Mil in your story. I was there 15th Nov 1975 spent 9 mths-also very secretive. Lost both my arms. You mention a Major Kruger -Social Welfare. She was a wonderful person. Would you by any chance know if she is still alive and if so, how to contact her. I last met her in 1980 at 1 Mil.
Great site
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Re: The Battle of Mongua: From Ondjiva to Preira d’eça
Sorry to reply very late Lukas, but the story of the statue is a sad one. In short the money to make the statue was either stolen... There is lots of infighting in the provincial government.
By Dino Estevao on: Monday, April 30, 2018
Re: The Battle of Mongua: From Ondjiva to Preira d’eça
I must say i'm so happy to see my great grandfathers name being mentioned in the books of history. i grew up hearing of his names in stories (folk tails), know i have discovered myself his name and his contribution to the world history and the shaping of the Namibian and Angolan borders of today
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Hi Johan
I drove 72C in smokeshell, Kobus Nortje who has put up a number of Photos was in 72A
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