South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on Thursday 9 February 2012 was Rear Admiral C H Bennett whose topic was the role of the South African Navy in Operation Savannah in 1975 - 1976. Admiral Bennett explained that the involvement of South Africa had its origins in the political and military situation that developed in Angola after the Portuguese coup d'etat in April 1974.

This period was dominated by the struggle for power in post-independent Angola between the three main groups - MPLA (Agostinho Neto), UNITA (Jonas Savimbi) and FNLA (Holden Roberto). In January 1975 they signed the Agreement of Alvor, stating that the three organisations were the only legal representatives of the Angolan people with independence scheduled for 11 November 1975. The only time these three bodies ever agreed to anything, although the MPLA and the Portuguese had no intention of honouring the agreement!

In the period up to Savannah, the MPLA received considerable support in cash, training and equipment from the USSR and Cuba. UNITA and the FNLA, in an uneasy alliance, looked to the USA and later to South Africa for help.

South Africa started to supply arms to UNITA through Rundu in South West Africa in October 1975. Intermittent at first, this became a regular occurrence by August 1975. In return, Savimbi promised to prevent the incursion of SWAPO into South West Africa. FNLA approached South Africa for help in February 1975 and in August 1975 a political decision was taken to support UNITA and FNLA to prevent MPLA with its Russian/Cuban allies from gaining control of Angola without an election. UNITA operated in the Southeastern quadrant of Angola and the FNLA in the North.

By November 1975, a South African force named Task Force Zulu was operating some 800 km north of the South West African border and a further 26 advisors were with an FNLA force approaching Luanda from the north. The SA Army had two concerns:

* The MPLA with its growing Cuban support might insert a force from seaward south of our Task Force to cut it off
* When the time came to withdraw our advisors north of Luanda, it would not be possible to do this by air.

The Navy, from Chief of Navy down, was blissfully unaware of Operation Savannah at this stage when the Army and Air Force generals eventually decided to call on the Navy for assistance. They did not consider it necessary to first ask for the Navy's advice!

The only thought that the Navy had given to Angola was to prepare a provisional plan for the extraction of South African citizens after independence if required and to assist possible refugees. No preparatory planning had been carried out for any other naval participation and especially for any hot war type operation off the Angolan coast.

Only of the President Class frigates, SAS President Kruger and SAS President Steyn, commanded by Captains Roy Kingon and Sam Davis respectively, were in commission. President Steyn was due to sail on a diplomatic and operational visit to Reunion. President Kruger, on normal 8 hour notice for sea, was in the middle of a routine boiler clean and both of her boilers had been opened for this process.

ON 3 November 1975, Adm Bennett was Senior Staff Officer Ops (Navy) at Silvermine so had the dubious honour of being the first person in the Navy to hear about Operation Savannah. At 1830, an Operational Immediate Top Secret signal addressed to both NAVCHIEF and COMNAVOP was received. Neither Chief of the Navy (Vice Adm Flam Johnson) nor his Operations Deputy Commodore Bill Hogg could be contacted - they were on their way to AFB Ysterplaat to attend a social function for Chief of the Air Force. COMNAVOP (Commodore Gert Brits) was not at home, so our speaker, next in the operational line-of-command, was contacted.

The message was delightfully vague. Its originators, a very small group or so-called initiates at Defence Headquarters controlling the very secret and sensitive Operation Savannah had no naval officer in their number and did not have even a basic understanding of naval readiness procedures.

The instruction stated that:

* SA Army personnel were involved in operations in Angola. Might be necessary to evacuate them by sea. Fire support from sea probably required.
* One frigate to come to 12 hours notice for sea from 041800B Nov 75 until further notice.

Both frigates in commission were at a shorter notice for sea. No indication was given whether this was 12 hours notice to sail from Simon's Town notice or to be off the Angolan coast. Sailing from Simon's Town required a warning order for the ship, but having the ship at 12 hours notice to be off the Angolan coast was another matter. Even at full speed this would be impossible. The ship would need to sail immediately to be off Walvis Bay by 1800 the next day where she could be at readiness until stood down. If the operation were to continue for some time, then SAS President Steyn's visit to Reunion would have to be cancelled so that she could relieve SAS President Kruger after a couple of weeks. The two ships would then have to alternate duties. Attempts to contact the originators of this signal in Pretoria by phone to clarify the situation were fruitless. So our speaker decided to act on behalf of his bosses and to assume the worst-case scenario for the following reasons:

* The signal implied a warning order for a ship to be available in the Angola operational area within 36 hours (this proved to be correct). This was not possible so it was important to reduce any delay to a minimum.
* This was also the most difficult to comply with.

The Navy was obviously in a no-win situation and it was thus imperative that contact be made with COMNAVOP or Chief of the Navy. COMNAVOP was on his way to the local drive-in and the manager was asked to place his name on the screen and tell him to phone his office - no cell phones in 1975!! A cryptic message was given to the duty officer at Ysterplaat for Cdre Hogg to the effect that the operations staff at Silvermine needed to speak to him or CHIEFNAV immediately regarding Operation Savannah.

Our speaker then decided to initiate the process by ordering SAS President Kruger to immediate readiness. This involved recalling all members of the ships company from shore leave and getting the black gang to prepare the boilers for steam. Capt Kingon was entertaining guests to dinner on his ship. He was phoned by Adm Bennett and told that PK was to be brought to immediate readiness for sea, but not to tell his guests!

At Ysterplaat, Cdre Hogg had received the message and asked the Chief of the Navy Vice Adm Flam Johnson what Savannah was. The SADF was effectively involved in a limited war but the chief of one of the fighting services, the Navy, had been kept entirely out of the loop! Adm Johnson asked Gen Bob Rogers, Chief of the Air Force, what "savannah" was, only to be told that "if you don't know, I am not authorized to tell you!" Flam then refused to allow his ships to be involved in an operation that he could not be told about!

By midnight PK was ready to sail and did soon the morning of 5 November to conduct a covert patrol off the Angolan coast, be on standby to extract SADF forces if required and provide naval gunfire if so required. The patrol was uneventful.

Silvermine had proposed to Pretoria that a submarine be sent to interdict one of the ships bringing troops and supplies from Cuba to try to stem the flood of support coming in. SAS Maria van Riebeeck was sent fully armed with torpedoes to patrol off Walvis Bay in case she was required. After a week of sailing in circles, she returned to Simons Town.

Comments made by both frigate captains in their reports indicate how poorly equipped the ships were for an operational patrol. PK reported that they had a shoot at sea at a floating target but that the helicopter kept getting in the way while spotting - they had not been trained in naval spotting. The guns had fired and this was the first time that any of the gunners had ever participated in a live firing exercise at sea, so the practice had some value! In the case of PS, she met up with SAS Tafelberg to replenish stores and fuel and it was reported that the entire replenishment crew was new to the job!

As the war continued, ships painted over their names, pendant numbers and red springbok emblems on their funnels. What this achieved is obscure as our Type12 frigates were all different in configuration and to all other Type 12s in the world. Our strike craft were the only ones in our part of Africa and so were easily identifiable as South African.

SAS President Steyn had set sail for Reunion but had been turned back, docking at Cape Town on the 17th of November. Capt Davis was given his orders - handwritten and photocopied by our speaker as there were no typists with a top secret clearance at Silvermine! They were concise and set out guidelines for the Captains, who were given some degree of independence to cater for changing circumstances and adverse weather conditions. Very rigidly specified was the need for the ship to observe radio silence and a tightly controlled electronic emissions policy.

It became clear that the evacuation of our personnel from Angola was imminent. PS was ordered to refuel from SAS Tafelberg. In 1975 there was no GPS or other system to give either of the ships their true position so they had to find one another. This took most of the day as radio could not be used! They eventually found one another - they been only 32 km/20 miles of one another for most of the day! In addition a super-heater tube in the starboard boiler had burst. This required the shut down, draining and cooling of the boiler before repairs could be started. The burst was minor and repairs were completed late on the 24th.

Unable to use her search radars, PS was very dependent on her electronic warfare passive detection systems. These had an overheating problem and continuous spurious detections of Russian attack radars and aircraft radars were occurring. MIG 21s were stationed at Luanda so everyone was twitchy. Some of the equipment was overheating.

Radio contact between the ship and 3 Military Area was established and it became apparent that the OPPIK would be happening soon. The Navy were worried that the Army did not use any form of identification on its radio circuits. This is normal practice in the Navy to ensure that that the person at the other end of the radio was the person you thought he was. Eventually the Army was persuaded that the Navy was dead serious about this requirement and the following was sent by Silvermine to PS - 3MA will use call sign ECHO with authentication 69, PS would use call sign ROMEO PAPA with authentication 51. The OPPIK was to be in the area of Ambriz and PS moved up to be some 120 km/75 miles off the coast there.

On 27 November, 3MA asked PS to pick them up shortly after midnight at Ambrizette, 70 km/44 miles north of Ambriz. This was adjusted to 0500 to give the ship time to get there. It was noted that moonrise was at 0230 and sunrise at 0710. The operation would take some hours so the ship was not very happy about the situation as they would be close inshore at sunrise.

At 0031 on 28 November a signal was sent to PS from Silvermine informing them that, as soon as the OPPIK was complete, the ship should break radio silence and send a one word message in plain language to indicate the result of the operation - SUPER to indicate a successful OPPIK or DUCK to indicate a failed operation. PS was then to steam at best speed to 160 km/100 miles offshore, making no further electronic emissions until she was at that distance. During the encryption, transmission and decryption process, the message became garbled and the ship understood that the signal for a successful OPPIK was SUPER SUCCESSFUL DUCK and the word UNSUCCESSFUL would indicate a failed operation.

PS was closing the coast and reached the 15 fathom line some 10 km/6 miles offshore. The approach was planned in the belief that they would see the light from the Ambrizette lighthouse. Nothing was seen, so the course was changed to South East. Capt Davis thought that he would be able to see the lights of the town even if the lighthouse was not working. There were no town lights as there was no fuel! Three sweeps of the navigation radar were authorised and cliffs were identified. They were able to use the ship's echo sounder without fear of detection and, as the soundings began to increase, the ship changed course to the north. When the lowest depth shown on the chart was reached, they knew they were off Ambrizette Bluff and in the right position to evacuate the troops.

At 0330 the ship closed to action stations and at 0400, call-sign ECHO informed the ship that they were at their destination. At 0430 the headlights of two vehicles were seen beamed to seaward. At 0440 three inflatable boats were launched and headed shoreward into a 3-4 m/10-12 foot swell. Capt Davis asked if he could use his helicopter and Brig Ben de Wet Roos agreed as he "had half a million Rands worth of communications and cryptographic equipment they would like to bring with them".

Lt Rowan Erleigh, officer in charge of the landing operation, signalled the shore and made his approach to land behind a small breakwater where the swell was much less. The vehicle lights helped. It was agreed that the troops would be evacuated five at a time and that the Wasp helicopter would remove the equipment. The inflatable boats took their troops beyond the swell and transferred them to the ship's motor boat for transfer to the ship. The last people were taken out to the ship and the Wasp moved the last of the stores, landing at 0645 and the boats were all recovered by 0656. 26 people and most of the stores were recovered and the ship headed west at 25 knots as dawn was breaking. The army had been well-prepared for evacuation with all equipment ready to be moved. Their choice of Ambrizette was a good one as there was a small breakwater to break the swell.

Capt Davis duly reported SUPER SUCCESSFUL DUCK to the utter confusion of Silvermine and Pretoria, who demanded that the ship be contacted immediately to confirm the results of the operation, but the ship's transmitters had been shut down until she was clear of the area. Eventually with considerable difficulty the ship was contacted as the high frequency transmitters were all closed down to comply with the very specific instructions to maintain radio silence and the fact that the ship was at extreme limit of radio communication range with the shore transmitters available at the time.

PS now began to make her way home. Although now much further off the coast, she was still within range of possible air attack if launched from Luanda and was still having major problems with her EW systems. These worked for a while and then had to be shut down to give the technicians a chance to repair them again.

On 30 November a church service was held on PS after which Brig Roos thanked the ships company for a successful evacuation and the hospitality shown to him, his officers and men. That night the army group and their stores were landed at Walvis Bay and the ship sailed again for Simon's Town. For the next two months the two frigates relieved one another, between them maintaining a continuous patrol off the Angolan coast until January 1979 when their part in Operation Savannah came to an end.

Secrecy shrouded this operation as well as all other patrols carried out by the South African Navy in Operation Savannah. This was notwithstanding the fact that a large number of men were involved as members of the ships' companies of President Kruger, President Steyn and Tafelberg. It was only eight years later that the public, and for that matter, the rest of the Navy, received confirmation that the Navy had participated. Such was the ignorance of, and, dare one say, the disinterest in the Navy on the part of the SADF, that even the official history of Operation Savannah "Operasie Savannah" by Prof FJ du T Spies published in 1989, mentioned very little about the Navy and that was only superficial and even inaccurate. Efforts by the speaker and Capt Brink, his assistant at Silvermine, to correct the information in the book were unsuccessful.

Because of the secrecy surrounding the S A Navy's involvement, participants were not even allowed to tell those in the Navy who had not been part of it, what had happened. Defence Headquarters would not sanction the award of any public recognition (medals) for those who had done so much under extremely difficult circumstances. In the opinion of staff at Silvermine, some recognition should have been given to the helicopter crew, the boat crews and the technicians onboard who had worked so hard to keep their ship operational. This unfortunately was not to be.

Cdr Bisset thanked Adm Bennett for another fascinating talk on an operation in which he had played a key role. He pointed out that Prof Spies had allocated only three pages to the Navy in his official history of Operation Savannah. The full story can, however, be found in Adm Bennett's book "Three frigates - the South African Navy comes of age". He then presented Adm Bennett with the customary gift.



The excursion will take place on Tuesday, the 27th of March. Members who would like to accompany us to Robben Island must please provide their names without fail to either the Secretary or the Treasurer, as we can only accommodate 20 people in the group, due to transportation limitations. So far 15 people have indicated an interest to join us. Our cut-off date will be next Friday, the 9th of March. The cost, time schedule and other details will be announced closer to the date as we are still awaiting the cost breakdown and final approval from the RIM director. PLEASE NOTE: First come, first served!



The membership dues for 2012 remain the same and Renewals for 2012 are now due.

We also would like to welcome two new members in our ranks. They are tonight's speaker, Rear Admiral C H Bennett, and Mr E H Froese. We are looking forward to their company at our regular meetings.



In the November 2011 newsletter we reported on the new DVD recently released on the fortifications of Pretoria: Pres. Paul Kruger's Fortification of Pretoria. We promised to provide Col Andy Malan's contact telephone number for orders - it is 012-654-1617 or 082-335-5167.



PLEASE NOTE: Our regular monthly meetings are held every SECOND THURSDAY of each month.

8 MARCH 2011: 1942: YEAR OF DESTINY by Simon Norton
Historically and militarily 1942 is now seen to be a pivotal year in the Second World War, in which the fortunes of both the Allies and the Axis powers oscillated from one extreme to the other. Multiple victories came to the Axis powers and defeat stared the Allies in the face. Yet by the end of 1942 the situation had been completely reversed.
This presentation takes a brief journey across the stage that was the year 1942, a year in the most violent and destructive war ever fought in the history of mankind.

APRIL 2011: AIR WAR KOREA by Prof Derrick Dickens


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)
Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /