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Aug 23

Written by: Gert Hugo
2015/08/23 06:00 PM  RssIcon

I wanted to talk about emotions and feelings for a while now. I'll try and cover emotions as I relate a very broad sequence of events.

The build-up to Op Savannah was exciting. A few cross border raids etc. made me believe, man o man this is the real thing. Then working with the refugees made me all the angrier towards the heathen enemy. (I did not have the knowledge then that I have now and gobbled up all the propaganda we were fed.)

The trip back to RSA with all its glitches. Taking Toon Slabbert’s unserviceable armoured cars back to Walvisbay from Ruacana. A mad dash overnight as we had to catch the troop train back. Having to beg for a lift from PW bloody de Jager to catch the troop train at Usakos. This after Toon Slabbert promised us that we will be looked after. De Jager is still not one of my favourites because of the way he treated us and made us wait. Bloody arsehole. 

The trip back to the operational area. Driving Elands from Bloemfontein to Ondangwa. Man, it was a long advance and that was just the start. Chris du Raan entertaining us over the airways with his rendition of Oom Ollie in die Hoeveld Helikopter. 
The briefing in the recreational hall at Ondangwa made me proud. Proud to be chosen, or rather offered a chance to go and sort out this heathen crap that was responsible for all the wrongs in Angola. Even the prisoner’s uniforms did not put me off in the beginning. We were told one set was enough as we were only going in for a short while. What really got my goat was that we were not offered the chance to zero in (shoot-in) our nineties. We could fire one short burst with the co-axial Browning, and that was that. At least we had ample time to test and adjust the sights of the 90 mm as the waiting for the Flossie was long. We figured out that it must have been a very long way in as the Flossie took ages to do one run. Still our destination was unknown to us.
The arrival at Silva Porto. Scary as crap. All the useless UNITA milling around and instead of offering us protection, pointing their weapons in our direction. The feeling of total despair been without our personal weapons.
And then the training and problems started at Capollo. I went for a walk one day and found a bloated corpse lying in a small stream just outside the forbidding prison complex. My deduction was that the man must have been executed because he was stripped naked and he was left to rot and not buried. Was this a training casualty? I would like to know. I thought so at the time but who executed the man and why?
The total relief when Savimbi gave each one of us a brand new 9mm Browning short as personal firearm. We were by then feeling very despondent because we were largely ignored and kept in the dark by the leader group.
The relief when the advance started towards the West. The numerous battles that followed. The incident where Doctor Barrett sewed up the face of a member of the local population who ended up on the wrong end of a 90mm HE. How I urged him to hurry things up as it was going to rain. He’s response; “I am doing good work here. It will not rain.” It rained right around us that day. Some places as close as 30 meters away but not one drop fell on the spot where Dr Barrett was working. A miracle? I think so. One could set your watch for when the rain will come down every day. How Doc Barrett was too busy to attend to a Zaire member who thought the battle was over and charged in with their armoured car to go and loot. It was only a lull in fire and they got clobbered for their efforts. This guy picked up a serious gash over the top of his head. Dr Barrett told me to stitch him up without any local anaesthesia. That I did and sewed him up. Right, my needlework was not very good at that stage so the top of his head resembled a tobacco pouch by the time I was done. 
After the medical experiment, we, Jaco Bok Kriel, Richard Flappie Ludwig and myself volunteered to lead the advance to the crossroads. There was a helluva rush to get to the crossroads as this was the place to cut off the fleeing enemy as another battle group was attacking Lobito from the South The enemy situation was unclear and as we had to move through a mountain pass we expected an ambush at any given moment. Our reasoning was simple. As a lone car we drive as fast as humanly possible and if any resistance gets met then we take them out from the rear. Or so we argued. We sped off and upon our arrival we found some enemy positions which we quickly cleared with browning fire. Most were already abandoned. We also got stuck in a minefield, for lack of a better word. Anti-tank mines were planted and clearly visible in the tarred road. It was however the unseen ones that bothered us. Here we learnt that we were between 30 minutes to one hour ahead of our main fighting force with our supreme dash to reach said crossroads. I can remember feeling very alone but we kept on firing on vehicles speeding across our front. It was difficult to judge the speed and thus to calculate how many mills to aim off. I believe we fired six HE of which two came close enough to do damage to the occupants. We never went to the trouble to go and check. At that stage Bok Kriel was getting worried about, (a) been alone and (b) running out of ammo. We thus played a waiting game until the main force arrived. It was one of the longest, loneliest and scariest periods of my life. Captain Schoeman came to our car to get a briefing and after a very brief consultation guided us through the minefield and we moved onto the Lobito road with orders from Eddie Webb to shoot anything that comes from Lobito as that was to be deemed as enemy. As we went over the crest a Landover with two people in it was scarcely 50 meters away from us. They screeched to a halt scarcely 30 meters away and tried to reverse as to turn around. They momentarily got stuck in a roadside ditch which gave me enough time to aim and shoot. I could not bring myself to shoot a 90mm into a human so I aimed for the left front wheel which filled my whole sight. The bonnet went about 200 meters into the air and the driver was killed instantly. The passenger jumped out and tried to scramble up the embankment but was no match for the raking of the co-axe Browning. Then we started getting really busy. I stopped three more vehicles of which two were trucks with, if not direct hits, then close enough to do serious harm to the occupants. Our car was standing with the left wheels in a ditch which influenced accuracy a lot. Only then did the first elements of our main force move past us and the mayhem of that ambush started in full swing. It lasted for a few days and we killed a large number of people. More than 30 vehicles (my count and not official) were shot out over the next few days without making any effort to ascertain whether these people might have been civilians or not. In some cases there were serious cases of mistaken identity. This will forever be the point where my views of Savannah changed forever. I was sick to my stomach. Sick about what we have done and were still doing, under orders. One just have to go and look what an exploding 90 mm HE does to a woman standing about a meter away from the point of detonation. The less I say about this the better. Others experience a lot more gruesome things than we did and they can speak for themselves if they so wish. I have no doubt in my mind that our orders were wrong and that there had to be a better way to deal with this.

I just need to point out a few things regarding my narrative. This for the sake of correctness.
Soon after Capt George Schoeman guided us through the minefield he stepped on the anti-personnel mine that eventually led to his death on Nov 23rd. 
I have no idea how high the bonnet of the Landrover travelled into the air as I was watching through my sights which enlarges X7. I might thus have exaggerated with 200 meters. It could have been anything between 50 to 200 meters. Suffice to say it went bloody high up into the air.
I cannot recall exactly how many rounds we fired and what the effect of all of them were. In some instances the vehicles sped around the corner to the North and could even have rolled. As I’ve mentioned, we never went to the trouble to go and check. Some of the vehicles I immobilised got pushed off the road by others so I could not go and check up on the effect of my fire and/or casualties. And, oh yes. The occupants of the Landrover did wear uniform. I did not do a too close inspection so I cannot tell you the nationality. 
It is not clear exactly how far ahead we were of the main force or how long we had to wait for them to join up with us. Those that have been in a contact situation knows how time can telescope or microscope. However, it felt like a long time.
Nowadays I have the harshest judgement for our actions over that period and more so for our leaders who gave the orders.

After the ambush at the crossroads something inside of me died. I cannot really explain it, but it was like my eyes opened for the first time. I started noticing things around me that mattered. How bad we were treated. How scruffy and dirtywe were. How we were kept totally in the dark. A resentment built up inside me and I was emotionally dead. I cannot recall having any other emotion but anger towards the leadership and a total apathy towards the rest. Or so I thought. But why then would I not hesitate to go and try and help my comrades at Ebo? Did I not care about my own life? I honestly cannot answer that one.
The next few weeks went pass in a blur. I became very withdrawn and focussed my concentration on weapon maintenance and helping Flappie Ludwig with the drivers’ tasks. I spoke to very few people. It suited me well that we were not part of a troop but the 2IC car. Flappie and I were thus mostly alone as Bok would be at the HQ during periods of “rest” and Ludwig, the big German spoke very little. At times, like at Capollo, I explored on my own. I did not care two hoots about what any officer said or thought. Don’t get me wrong. I had no intention to leave, malinger or desert but I just did not care what the leadership thought or what lied ahead. It is as if I denied myself company and conversation.
Yes, there were incidents, some of them funny as well, but as I’m trying to cover emotions I will fast forward to Ebo.
My main concern at this stage was that I was shitting myself to death and was always hungry.
I missed a petite little girl, called Elize, whom I met in Pretoria and I missed my mom. I even missed her cooking and she was definitely not a renowned chef.
I will skip the build-up to Ebo and all the battle indications that seemingly got ignored by the Command Staff. It is enough to say that we all knew we were going into some serious shit the next day. We knew it as a certainty and yet we did not question it. At least not out loud.
The afternoon, dusk, of Nov 22nd Niel Lombaard came and fetched Flappie and I for scripture reading and prayer with the troop of Johann du Toit. The first time this ever happened. It will stay with me for the rest of my life. Niel was our driver when we first arrived at Capollo and he must have had a foreboding of what was to happen the next day. It felt kind of nice for the two loners to be pulled into the fold of a troop. Thank you all involved!

The next morning we started with the advance. I will not rehash Ebo here but try to concentrate on my thoughts and feelings.
When we moved out it was with a feeling of dread. I had a knot in my stomach and was for the first time again, scared. It was hair raising to scout ahead and to the North only to get stuck. We knew that the enemy were close but not how close.
When the first few armoured cars got hammered and there was a call over the air for help we did not hesitate but immediately charged in.
We got shot to shit. I was angry. Very angry with the people that landed us in this situation. Angry with the enemy for disabling our armament and leaving us as useless. Frustrated that we could do no more. I was kind of berserk and the tears of frustration streamed down my face. I was also very worried about Bok who had a gash over his head as well as about our mates stuck in front. Strangely enough I was also at peace with the idea that we were dead. I had the full knowledge that the 76 mm will hit us again as I was on target and saw it when it fired, thus hitting us on the muzzle-brake. We got hit by other shots as well but the next one from that 76 mm would have killed us. It was a miracle that the first one did not go inches to the left or down. Then John Wahl shot it out and Flappie started reversing. With this came the knowledge that we might just make it out alive and a kind of panic took the place of the feeling of peace. We made it and had the knowledge that our actions and that of others at least stopped the enemy from using the already shot out cars for target practice.
On our way out we picked up the wounded Volgraaf. (Initially I was not sure but Flappie confirmed it for me and my mind unblocked) Bok was by then out of the car and have already commandeered the car of Abrie Cloete. We took Volgraaf back to the Tact HQ/medical post and carried him inside the building that was already overflowing with the wounded. We placed him just to the left of the door as you entered. I went and sat on a rock and seriously considered going back in but with what? By then the bodies and wounded were streaming back, in front of armoured cars and in B-vehicles. I just sat and watched and nobody worried me. I got quite a fright when Bokdoos Coetzer went hysterical when he saw the corpses of Taljaard and Benson and started screaming and wailing. (Kruys referred to this in one of his reports so that placed him at the spot at the time and not at the front when the fighting and rescuing was still ongoing) I must have been in some form of a trance as I cannot recall how much time passed before we made our way back to Cela. We did this alone, without any protection and useless weapons.
That night Flappie and I stood vigil in front of the hospital while Tony Dippenaar was operating on Volgraaf. It was quite a shock to receive the news that he died because he seemed OK enough when he went in.
The combination of all of these events made me clam up totally. I spoke to no-one. I just sat and stared into space. I believe I reached saturation point already at the cross-roads and that Ebo just pushed me over the edge.
The next morning, before we received the news that 5 men were spotted, I was still in mourning over the loss of my comrades. Someone noticed my blank stare and went to fetch Bok Kriel. My Crew Commander then helped me up, put his arm around my shoulder and started escorting me to the clinic. All of a sudden I broke out in tears. I could not stop it. No matter how hard I tried. It was huge racking sobs that made my muscles and tendons want to tear apart. Never before or since then, have I cried like that. However when we reached the clinic it was all over and I was composed. Tony Dippenaar decided to sedate me and put me in a bed after Bok explained what happened. 
When I woke up I got the news that the 5 guys were rescued. It felt good.
I am no hero. I am human. Heroes do not crack. Or is it OK to do so after the fight?
We were just at the right place at the right time to try and help.

2 comment(s) so far...


Gravatar

Re: Operation Savannah

Hi Gert

I was not part of Savannah (was involved with Ratel evaluation at the time); but I have the greatest admiration for those who were - including my youngest brother who was at 2 SAI.

Your recollections are amazing and your comments totally acceptable - as you can only really comment on what and how you experienced. Others may well differ from some of your comments but that's life!

Personally, I think that you should continue writing until you have thoroughly exhausted your memories - and then you should sit back and read through them and accept how important what you guys did was to what followed; and be thankful that you gave your best and survived.

Nobody likes war but soldiers are prepared to die to give others the privilege of saying so.

Forget the politics and look upon yourself as a professional soldier:

THE THANKSGIVING OF THE PROFESSIONAL

I have never ceased to give thanks that life,
Whatever else it might have in store for me, has brought me
Not as a mere traveller but as a soldier into this world.
Wherever we go we often encounter hostility. The eyes that meet ours are often sullen with a consciousness of grievance and hurt.
Even the salesmen, the porters and the others who cheat us and harry us, resent us.
But none of it bothers us.
It is not we, but they who are the newcomers, the interlopers, the transients. We know it and they know it.
We belong to that which is older than any nation.
We are the Greeks, the Romans, the Moguls, the Tartars, the Aryans and the Dravidians.
We go back to the beginning of history. We are the beginning of history.
We are the soldiery!

Best regards

Tony Savides

By TonySav on   2015/08/27 12:07 PM
Gravatar

Re: Operation Savannah

Hallo Gert,

jissie, dis nou lekker om van jou te lees. Jy was mos 'n Eland kannonier, ek was ook, net twee jaar later. Het jou op youtube sien praat. Nou die dag weer op www.sainfantry.co.za paar skakels na Ops Savannah herdenking gelees. Ek koekeloer maar van hierso oorsee af en toe van die websites van die ou SAW, net om weer my kop reg te ruk van al die mislike nuus wat mens hierso lees, veral nou oor die toestroming van volksvreemdes in die hele Europa, en hoe hulle blykbaar met oop arms verwelkom word, terwyl ons in Suid-Afrika eerstehands weet wat dan sal gebeur, en 'n wereld wat skynbaar koekoes geraak het.

By German volunteer on   2015/10/10 10:30 AM

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