South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 17 March 2011 was Lt Col Clive Wilsworth whose topic was the subject of his book, First In, Last Out - The South African Artillery in Action 1975 - 1988, published in 2010.

Col Wilsworth introduced his lavishly illustrated talk by showing us a picture of a Natal Field Artillery gun and its crew in action at Potchefstroom in the late 1960's/early 1970's during the obligatory periodic three-week call-up training camp, which was the core element of the Citizen Force service scheme. These training camps in those days were very relaxed affairs, with mess tents and leisurely deployments to the range each morning. There was only one place for an OP - on top of the nearest high ground, normally a koppie - and everything was predictable. Camouflage netting was not used, night movement seldom practiced and everyone packed up at 1630 so that everybody can make their way back to camp to slake their thirst before dinner! Not the best training scenario for the coming Border War!

Col Wilsworth served for six years in the NFA after his National Service before joining the Permanent Force and recalled these happy times training in peacetime. Training was static as there were no proper gun tractors. Trenches were not dug, there were no camouflage nets and the regulatory French-style helmets were worn, but not covered with netting. Pictures show gun crews with helmets - but the berets tucked under the epaulettes.

The South African Artillery was equipped largely with the 25-pounder which had been introduced in 1933 and was used extensively throughout the Second World War. During the War it was upgraded to the Mark 2 Version (with muzzle brake) which remained in service with the SA Artillery until 1990. During the 1980s the name of the gun was changed to QF1 88mm GV1. It had a gun detachment consisting of six men.

Other ordnance used by the SAA included the Sexton, a self-propelled 25-pounder mounted on a turretless Sherman tank used by the Sixth SA Armoured Division in Italy during WW2, and the 5.5 inch medium gun. These guns were supported by Cymbeline Radar sets originally designed to trace the location of hostile mortars. They were light weight and easy to move and deploy. Used to pinpoint enemy artillery positions, they were manned by the men of the Locating Batteries and were very useful pieces of equipment.

Our speaker showed us slides of the various target acquisition items used to direct fire in those days - these had all been used during WW2. They included maps, the compass, the artillery board for ballistic calculations, logarithmic tables and the slide rule, as well as the displacement calculator (used to determine the angle of sight when there was a difference in height between the gun position and the target). There were no electronic computers and calculators in those days - considered to be indispensable today!

Meteorological data was calculated was calculated using the meteorological graph. The balloon tracking equipment was not suitable for use in the heat and dust of the Border War zone so it was necessary for ranging rounds to be fired, thus providing the enemy with ample warning to take cover or disperse!

By 1973, the SA Army had been reorganised for conventional operations - up to then the emphasis had been on counter-insurgency work. I SA Corps was established with two divisions - 7th, 9th Infantry and 8th Armoured Divisions - and support units at Corps level (maintenance units, signals units, etc).(2) Each division had three brigades and, by 1975, the best prepared formation was 72 Brigade. A new weapon being introduced at that time was the towable 120 mm Mortar which was a useful medium range support weapon. From the mid-1960s to 1975, the Border War was a low key counterinsurgency war, initially run by the police and later taken over by the SADF. The revolution in Portugal and the subsequent withdrawal of the Portuguese from Angola and Moçambique in 1974 resulted in South African involvement in the Angolan Civil war, at the request of the United States. This was the end of the peace-time status for our armed forces since the Second World- and Korean Wars in general and the artillery in particular. The Angolan civil war was in progress and the first Cubans were arriving.

In August 1975, Lt Herman van Niekerk, who had trained on the new 120 mm mortars in Israel, was told that he and 40 gunners were to be sent to Angola to train UNITA and FNLA troops. When he arrived in Angola, he discovered that the mortars were 4.2 inch rifled mortars from the USA. So he had to re-train himself and his men in their use. The operating and maintenance manuals were fortunately available so a proper training programme could be instituted. When he took the people he had trained into combat, he found the mortars to be very reliable and the gunners who manned them "diligent and skilled",

The SA Artillery's next involvement in Operation Savannah happened when, at 2000 on the night of 7 November 1975, Capt Jacob van Heerden was ordered to prepare a troop of three 5.5 in. medium guns for deployment to the border that night. Most of the men of 2 Medium Battery had gone home on pass. Nevertheless, by 2300 when they left Potchefstroom, 17 members had been mobilised. While the gunners collected the technical equipment in the dark (14 Field Regiment had no electric lights!), their wives were packing their husbands' personal kit at home as best they could!

When the troop reached Waterkloof Air Force Base, they were met by a sleepy Colonel from Chief of Staff Logistics, who told them to leave the guns behind as he had already supplied these from the mobilisation stores. When they inspected these newly-supplied guns, they discovered that some of the sights and even a breech-block on one gun were lacking! Fortunately the gunners kept their own technical equipment and could offset the shortages, except for the the breech-block. The equipment and troops were loaded onto a "Flossie"3 and off they went to war. Arriving at the Grootfontein Base they found that everything was deathly quiet - the base troops had enjoyed their year-end function the previous evening and were now sleeping off the after-effects - needless to say, nobody could be found that knew of their arrival or were inclined to be helpful. Eventually a "helpful" officer suggested that they carry on to Rundu - maybe they might be able to find out what their orders and final destination were!

At Rundu, they were met by the then Maj Gen Constand Viljoen, [who] duly briefed them. They were issued with green combat uniforms(4) and canvas sneakers. Seventeen members of 14 Field Regiment, under command of Maj J Bosch, together with three 5.5" G2 guns, were then flown to Ambriz, some distance north of Luanda. Here they were met by Brig B de W Roos who was the liaison officer with Holden Roberto's FNLA forces, who took command of the new arrivals. It was then discovered that no gun tractors were available or even thought of - the problem was duly solved by Holden Roberto (FNLA leader) who, without further ado, commandeered three six-wheeled, two-wheel drive tipster trucks that were used to transport salt!

At 0540 on Monday 10 November 1975, two of the three G2 guns took part in the FNLA-Zairian attack on the MPLA/FAPLA positions from a quarry some eleven kilometres north of Luanda. This was the first rounds fired by the SAA in anger since WW2, in support of FNLA and Zairian troops trying to effect a river crossing in the face of strong MPLA resistance. The FNLA/Zairian force met with MPLA strong opposition, supported by Cuban artillery, resulting in a hurried withdrawal back to Ambriz. The SA guns were also successfully extracted, again towed by their six-wheeled, two-wheel drive gun tractor cum tipster trucks.

After more adventures, Brig Roos and the other South Africans were picked up by the SAS President Steyn off Ambriz on 14 November 1975. Their guns were towed to Kinshasa by the FNLA and were later returned to South Africa by air.

Col Wilsworth showed us a picture of an SAA gun crew in Angola at that time, in their green uniforms and wearing East German helmets. He pointed out that the trousers had become short pants and shirts were sleeveless - not as a fashion statement "in die bos", but out of necessity - there was simply no rags provided or to be found in order to keep the guns clean! This was not dictated by military etiquette but an operational necessity, in order to keep the guns operational under these adverse climatic conditions. The terrain was also such, that, if guns were moved off-road (or rather off-track), they immediately became mired in the ubiquitous mud that clung to everything and made the artillerists' lives a misery. A number of artillery officers were decorated with South Africa's highest decoration for bravery during the on-going Operation Savannah. These were Major J H Potgieter HC, and 2 Lts H van Niekerk HCS and M J Prins HC. Our speaker described the actions in which they were awarded these medals. He then described the role of the SAA during the battle of Bridge 14, so named by Lt Jaap Nel, which took place from 10-12 December 1975. The artillery bore the brunt of the fighting without relief. P Battery comprised of partially-trained men but the appointment of Lt Potgieter as battery commander improved their efficiency and morale very quickly. Operation Savannah opened the eyes of senior artillery officers to the necessity of modernising our artillery as our guns were hopelessly out-ranged by the Russian 122mm gun and BM21 rocket launcher.

Although there were only some 2,000 men in the South African battle groups that fought in Operation Savannah, they won a number of important victories over the numerically superior and better-equipped MPLA/Cuban forces. Deficiencies in doctrine, logistics and equipment were revealed and subsequently rectified.

The Border war continued in northern SWA but, in 1978, the SADF adopted a different strategy and took the war to the enemy, commencing with cross-border pre-emptive raids on SWAPO/PLAN{5} bases in Angola. Col Wilsworth described some of these.

Operation Reindeer was the first large raid into Southern Angola. Two separate attacks were launched. The main one was the airborne assault on Cassinga by a composite force consisting of elements of 1, 2 and 3 Parachute Battalions, supported by the SAAF. The secondary attack was further south at Dombondola by Battle Groups A and B, supported by a medium battery with air support where needed. Col Wilsworth was one of the two air Ops, carrying out his duties despite the fact that he had yellow jaundice. The next day, Lt Wilsworth learnt that the gunners' artillery support amounted to one bicycle found wrapped round a tree! Nothing else! There was no artillery support for the airborne attack because, at that time, the SAAF had no light or airborne capability.

The next S battery mission was the deployment of a troop to Ruacana to support operations in the area of the Calueque Dam complex. This was the start of a ten year deployment. During 1983, an NSM 2Lt who was acting troop commander fired a counter bombardment which repulsed a SWAPO/PLAN mortar attack and infiltration operation. The new state of Zimbabwe was born on 18 April 1980. This necessitated Operation Bowler, the protection of the South African weapons and equipment lent to the Rhodesian Forces while these were being returned to South Africa. No shots were fired during this operation.

The next major operation was Operation Sceptic in June 1980, which had as its objective the destruction of the new and widely dispersed and well camouflaged SWAPO base at Chifunda. The main assault force was 61 Mechanised Battalion supported by 142 Battery from 14 Field Regiment. The advance was delayed by up to an hour because the gun tractors had buried themselves in the thick sand, overheated and their engines cutting out. The attacks were unsuccessful as the enemy had already fled. The attackers were later ambushed in the southern sector of the base area, which contained the domestic area and vehicle park. The SADF lost 2 Ratels (six-wheeled armoured personnel carrier) and 12 men.

Operation Protea was planned to neutralise the east German/FAPLA air defences and disrupt SWAPO operations. It was the biggest operation since Savannah and an SA force of brigade size was utilised. The Army Staff and Command Course students were used for both the planning and, to a limited extent, the execution of the operation. The SA Artillery had received new equipment - the 120 mm mortar to provide close support and the 127 mm multiple rocket launcher for intensive area bombardment. The point of main effort for this operation was an attack on Xangongo, followed by an attack on Ongiva. These would have the effect of neutralising the FAPLA air defences. The terrain was featureless, flat, with thick bush and soft sand.

During the attack, the artillery was beset by communications and observation problems, amply illustrated by images shown by the speaker. Nevertheless, all targets were neutralised. For the victors there was the pleasure of being able to eat tinned tuna, provided to SWAPO by the Netherlands Government via the ostensibly "neutral" UN! During the attack on Ongiva, Capt Jakkie Celliers directed the fire of 4 Medium Battery from the top of a Buffel (four-wheeled, open-topped armoured personnel carrier) which was the only raised platform available with a view of the target area and in full view of the target area of Ongiva. The SADF lost 10 men with a SWAPO/FAPLA loss of more than 1,000 men and 250 tons of ammunition and weapons, as well as numerous pieces of equipment and vehicles, captured or destroyed.

Operation Askari in December 1983 was the sixth large-scale cross border operation. The objective of this was to pin down the SWAPO/FAPLA forces in Cahama in order to prevent them from intervening in an infantry operation to be launched from Oshakati in SWA against SWAPO camps in southern Angola. Our speaker described the Seeker unmanned air vehicle, a combined artillery and intelligence project, which was used for the first time in this operation. Brig Gen Dick Lord's comment on this Army project was "if the Good Lord had intended the Army to fly, He would have painted the sky brown". It became a SAAF project and proved to be very successful.

With each successive cross-border operation, the quantity of artillery support grew. Askari commenced with air attacks on Xangongo, with ground force exploitation to a point west of Humbe. This was followed by a mechanised attack on Quitana by two combat teams from 61 Mechanised Battalion, with their supporting S and R Batteries (5.5 in/140 mm G2). 4 SAI with a 127mm medium rocket launcher battery operated in support of another combat team of 61 Mech. Bn. This was protecting a battery of 155 mm G4s and would act as a flank protection and blocking force east of Cahama.

Operation Askari was a success and ended on 13 January 1984. It forced Angola to start discussions with the SA Government in Lusaka on the ending of hostilities in Southern Angola. The G4 gun was used in this operation but this proved to be unsuccessful with many shortcomings detailed by Col Wilsworth.(6) It was soon replaced with the 155mm G5. The G5 was altogether a more formidable weapon. The concept developed initially by a brilliant Canadian engineer named Gerald Bull; it attracted the attention of the SADF, who managed to obtain some examples of this revolutionary gun and ammunition. A batch of the particular 155 mm artillery ammunition was obtained from a Belgian company. This combination proved to be a very good one and tests were organised, which took place on the West Indies island of Antigua in the Caribbean region. The US State Department by chance found out about these tests and a diplomatic tussle ensued. Fortunately, the guns, ammunition and the blueprints found their way to South Africa where further development work took place and production started. After Operation Askari, operations were supported by Batteries of G5s, 120mm mortars and rocket launchers.

Other cross-border operations were discussed briefly by our speaker but the next large-scale operations were Operations Moduler, Hooper and Packer. The first of these was Operation Moduler which was a full conventional operation running from 1 July to 15 December 1987. The South African forces fought in support of UNITA to halt the FAPLA/Cuban advance on Mavinga and Jamba, south of the Lomba River. A small brigade of SA troops took part, supported by for the first time by an ad hoc artillery regiment commanding batteries of G5s, 120mm mortars, 127mm MRLs and even some 140mm guns. A new development was the introduction of a troop of G6s - the self-propelled version of the G5 and an excellent piece of equipment. On 3 October the FAPLA forces suffered a crushing defeat.

Operation Moduler ended in mid-December and was replaced by Operation Hooper in March 1988. This was similar to its predecessor being brigade-sized but with longer lines of communication. A stalemate was reached and peace talks commenced. The final operation was Packer and our troops withdrew from Angola. On 27 June 1988 the last rounds were fired and the Border War came to a close. The last SA gunners to leave were the men of S Battery who were sea-lifted back to South Africa by SAS Drakensberg. Ironically, the first and last SA gunners to serve in the Border War were brought home by the SA Navy.

Col Wilsworth described the technical advances made by our artillery in the ensuing years, both in the weapons used and in the technical and electronic equipment used to control the fire of the guns. New weapons include a 40-barrel rocket launcher to replace the old 24 barrel Valkyrie launcher and a new 105mm gun which is now being brought into use. This is light-weight and has an exceptional range for a 105. In these years, the SAA has been transformed from a poor relative of the British Royal Artillery into one of the best artillery forces in the World.

Space unfortunately precludes doing justice and covering all aspects of Col Wilsworth's excellent talk. The talk, as stated at the beginning, was based on the book recently written by Col Wilsworth - which is well worth a read!

Our Chairman Johan van den Berg thanked our speaker for an enthralling and informative talk (in great part enhanced by an excellent visual presentation), and presented Col Wilsworth with the customary gift.



We are sad to report that one of our full members, Dr T B Hugo-Hamman, of Newlands, have passed away since the last meeting. Our deepest sympathy and sincere condolences are extended to his family.

We extend our best wishes to Brig-Gen Dick Lord who was finally released from his medical "incarceration" a few weeks ago. Gen Lord is recuperating at home and is well on his way to make a full recovery. Gen Lord sends his regards to all the members and an appreciative "thank you!" for all the visits, calls and messages wishing him well, which he received during his illness. On behalf of our members and the Society we wish him a speedy and full recovery.

Maj Tony Gordon suffered a very mild stroke at the end of the previous meeting and is currently only plagued by a mild impairment of his motor abilities on his left side, but otherwise is making excellent progress.



A reminder that the Cape Town Branch's Annual General Meeting will be held on the 14th of April. The AGM will start promptly at 20:00, to be immediately followed by the talk. Notice of the meeting, the agenda and the minutes of the 2010 meeting are enclosed with this Newsletter. The audited and signed statements of income and expenditure will be distributed at the meeting. Matters for consideration or points to be discussed - to be tabled under GENERAL - must reach the Secretary not later than 12:00 on the day of the meeting (for his contact details, please refer to the end of the newsletter).



14 APRIL 2011:
XENOPHON: In the Footsteps of the Ten Thousand
, by Dr Dan Sleigh (SECOND Thursday of the Month)
Our speaker for April, Dr Dan Sleigh, historian and author, is no stranger to us. Dr Sleigh has lectured to the society on a number of occasions in the past. His last lecture, a few years ago, dealt with the Attica-born historian, Xenophon, who chronicled the expedition led by Cyrus the Younger against his older brother, the emperor Artaxerxes II of Persia, in 401 BC. Xenophon participated as young man in this expedition and shared the same trials and tribulations suffered by Cyrus' ten thousand followers in their epic march through Asia Minor, largely located in modern-day Turkey and Iraq. This feat has so intrigued and fascinated Dr Sleigh, that he undertook an expedition himself, together with his daughter, to retrace as much as possible of the footsteps of Xenophon and the Ten Thousand..... His experiences and reminiscences will be the subject of an illustrated lecture to supplement his previous talk on the subject and is surely an event not to missed . . . .

(Dr. Sleigh's fascination with this intriguing subject has, in his characteristic style, evolved into a book of note. Utilising Xenophon's famous Anabasis as foundation, he has built a historical novel around the epic event. Currently only available in Afrikaans, Afstande [lit. trans. as "Distances"] is issued in hardcover, 617 pp., published by Tafelberg, Cape Town).

12 MAY 2011:
, Slide-illustrated Talk by Stan Lambrick
The Battle of the Alamo (February 23 - March 6, 1836) was a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution. Following a 13-day siege, Mexican troops under President General Antonio López de Santa Anna launched an assault on the Alamo Mission near San Antonio de Béxar (modern-day San Antonio, Texas). All but one of the Texian defenders were killed, which included such famous names as Jim Bowie and Davey Crockett amongst the fatalities. Santa Anna's perceived cruelty during the battle inspired many Texians to join the Texian Army. Seeking to revenge the wanton slaughter of the Alamo's survivors, the Texians defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836, ending the revolution. The 75th anniversary of the ending of the siege was commemorated in March.



BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

1 QF - "quick-firing"
2 Seventh Inf Div consisted of 71, 72 & 84 Mot Bdes; Eighth Armd Div consisted of 81 Armd, 82 Mech & 73 Mot Bdes; Ninth Inf Div was planned, but never constituted, while 44 Para Bde was directly subordinated to I SA Corps HQ.
3 SA troops' affectionate nickname for the Lockheed C-130B Hercules freight/troop transport plane.
4 The uniforms were ex-USA tropical fatigues, similar to the combat gear issued to American troops in Vietnam during the sixties and early seventies.
5 SWAPO: South West African Peoples' Organisation - Political party dedicated to achieve political independence of South West Africa as a (then) future autonomous state, to be known as Namibia. PLAN: Peoples' Liberation Army of Namibia - the military wing of SWAPO.
6 The G4 155 mm gun is in fact the Israeli SOLTAM M-68 which was secretly operated by SADF forces. It soon proved to be unsuitable for typical Southern African veldt conditions - the main reason being the fact that the chassis was too low-slung to cope with the sandy ruts that served as roads in Angola. The Israeli SOLTAM M-68 howitzer in turn, is based upon the Finnish-developed Tampella 155 K 83 towed 155 mm field gun.


South African Military History Society /