South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 12 June 2014 was Major Willem Steenkamp whose topic was South Africa’s Border War – the Story behind the Story. He introduced his talk by noting that a large number of books had been written about this war and, indeed, are still being written at present. The ones written during the war years were all subject to military censorship and are a bit limited in the information included. The later books, however, benefitted from greater access to official documents and records.

The first book Adeus Angola was written by our speaker and discussed the latter part of Operation Savannah when many Citizen Force units were called up. This was followed by Border Strike, also written by our speaker. This covered Operation Reindeer in 1978. He included some swear words in this book (soldiers tend to use such language!) but his publishers Butterworths, noted publishers of academic books, deleted these words from the text. During Operation Reindeer at Cassinga, Gen Viljoen had remarked to Col Gerber that the operation was a f**k up! Our speaker included this in his original manuscript for this book. He was then approached by the Chief of the Army’s Personal Assistant who told him that Gen Viljoen felt that, as he was responsible to the Chaplain General for the maintenance of high moral standards in the Army, he would be glad if this comment could be toned down. In the first edition it thus became “muck-up”! However, both Gen Viljoen and the Chaplain General are now retired so the second edition of the book has reverted to the original wording.

Turning to Operation Savannah, our speaker recounted that the first shots fired by South Africans were fired by Col Holtzhausen, whose habit it was to lead from the front in his Toyota Landcruiser, which was armed with a couple of machine guns. He was a highly skilled soldier but his English left much to be desired, for example “I don’t see a mice!”

Maj Steenkamp made the point that the Border War was in reality not a war in the true sense of the word but rather it was a long counter-terrorist campaign which lasted 25 years.

He described Prime Minister B J Vorster who had a reputation as a forceful and stubborn leader with a bad public image when in fact he was a very cautious politician. South West Africa was a Class C Mandated Territory which Gen Meiring described as 80% of the size of South Africa with the population of Benoni. All of the infrastructure of this large area had been and was being provided at the expense of the South African taxpayer and it was a costly drain on our economy. South Africa’s aim was to assist the population to establish a democratic neutral government.

After the Portuguese left Angola, a civil war broke out and South Africa was initially reluctant to get involved. Mr Vorster, supported by Lt Gen Hendrik van den Bergh, wanted to seal SWA’s northern border while the then Minister of Defence, Mr PW Botha, argued that this was not possible and urged that infiltration should be stopped by killing SWAPO insurgents before they entered SWA. This latter strategy was later adopted by the Cabinet. All military action was carefully controlled by the politicians. Our speaker told of the frustration felt by the military when carefully planned operations were cancelled at the last moment. There were also frequent changes in Government policy.

Our forces were not very well-equipped at the time of Operation Savannah. For example medical first aid dressing packs dating back to the Second World War were issued to the troops. Cmdt O’Brien of the CTH had a collection of these, each with a different date!

Our speaker recalled the night when his jeep was at the rear of a convoy when it got stuck with a burst tyre and he was faced with the need to provide all-round defence with his two men! Fortunately, the second part of the convoy rescued them. When the Citizen Force (CF) were called an “army of thieves”, their reply was that the Permanent Force (PF) had made them that. One of the most welcome comforts of the campaign was the Angolan Cuca beer. Although Angola was in ruins, the Cuca Brewery had miraculously survived and its unlabelled bottled beer was greatly enjoyed by the SADF troops.

The reason for our eventual intervention was that Zambia, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Botswana and Senegal had asked us to intervene. These countries all had small, lightly-equipped forces. The USA was involved in the civil war, using the CIA but US policy was illogical – yes, no, maybe or do not get involved. When the Cubans got involved, the US Congress passed a law preventing the CIA from getting involved and South Africa was left holding the baby. So we pulled out. The lessons learned during Operation Savannah were taken to heart by the SADF. It was glaringly obvious that we were outgunned and most of our equipment was obsolete. Our training and organisation were inadequate. Remedial action was prompt and vigorous.

Our speaker then discussed the SAAF’s role in Operation Reindeer at Cassinga. He explained that it was provident that half of the SAAF aircraft supporting the attack had been armed for ground attack. This enabled them to destroy the Cuban armoured column which would otherwise have overrun our paratroopers.

Our speaker then looked at 61 Mechanized Group which included infantry, armour and artillery elements which operated with one another most efficiently. This was a new concept for Africa but was in fact invented by the Russians during World War 2. 4 SAI was another such unit in our army.

Maj Steenkamp then pointed out that operations very seldom take place the way they were planned. One small hitch can throw the whole plan out of kilter. He described how a poor roads and inadequate maps had disrupted Operation Protea in 1981. Another example was when a 201 Bushman Battalion force was infiltrating enemy territory and was one day’s march away from its destination when it encountered a FAPLA patrol, which it attempted to avoid but ran into again. Their radio failed and they had difficulty in calling for air strikes and reinforcements. They managed to break contact and were able to disengage safely.

A particularly hazardous form of fighting was developed by the SAAF during the Border War by Maj Dick Lewer, a veteran pilot who had served with 2 Squadron in Korea. He would fly at tree top level and at very slow speed in the dark and with all communication systems switched off. Passive radar could not detect him. When he found a convoy, he would activate all systems and fire at it with cannon and rockets. This was dangerous and a very experienced pilot Maj Eugene Kotze was killed on a similar operation.

Our speaker then discussed Brigadier Proppies van Heerden whom he first met at a formal CTH mess dinner in a tent at De Brug during a CF training camp in June 1975. Foreign military attachés were present and our speaker noted that he had not been able to remove the dust that had accumulated on the collar of his undress blues afterwards. When he saw the short, tubby PF Colonel at the dinner, he presumed that this was another “oxygen thief” (rear-echelon pen-pusher). He subsequently learnt that he had seriously misjudged his man for this highly competent and ingenious officer had led a force of FNLA refugees (later 32 Battalion) and Bushmen with a few South African troops some 3,000 kilometres from the SWA border to the outskirts of Luanda, using as transport a collection of Portuguese fruit/vegetable lorries. He later met him again when he served on the Joint Monitoring Commission in 1984.

He then discussed a subject seldom mentioned in official documents or war histories – latrine arrangements in the field. One of the young soldiers serving under him reported the following disturbing experience – having defecated in the bush, he turned to examine his load and was shocked to see that the site he had chosen was on top of an enemy land mine! He told Maj Steenkamp that he did not know that it was possible to be constipated and have gyppo guts all at the same time!

Maj Steenkamp was also caught short one night with an upset stomach and had to relieve himself behind a tent. The occupant of this tent was his OC! The next morning he was summoned by the OC who told him about this disgusting incident and ordered him, as intelligence officer of the unit, to find the guilty party so that he could be punished. Needless to say, Major Steenkamp’s efforts to find the offender came to naught! On another occasion, while cleaning his weapon, he fired some rounds through the roof, narrowly missing a signaller working there! Life on the border was not uneventful.

Major Steenkamp then talked about Operations Ashanti, Sceptic and Protea which took place before the start of the rainy season. This was done to disrupt the enemy before they were able to make use of the rains to infiltrate the north of SWA. 90% of the six brigades which took part in these operations were Citizen Force men who were called up for three months. To the enemy these call-ups were an indicator that operations against them were imminent. He praised the PF personnel and noted that some of the officers were remarkably able despite their inadequate pay. They were innovative and developed and tested new tactics. They were also able to prepare budgets two years in advance and he noted that they could easily have done very well in the private sector.

He then discussed some of the senior officers he had encountered. The first of these was Colonel Hollie Holzhausen who had started off in the ranks and rose to the rank of Sergeant- Major before being commissioned. He was a successful battle group commander and after his Border War service he became Officer Commanding the SA Army Women’s College in George Here he became much loved by the young ladies whom he trained – these became known as “Hollies Dollies”.

Our speaker showed us a photograph of Brig Ben Roos who was the military advisor to Holden Roberto in Northern Angola during the civil war in 1975. He explained that Roberto chose to ignore his South African advisor’s advice and the resulting shambles made it necessary for the SA Navy to send SAS President Steyn, commanded by Capt Sam Davies, to rescue Brig Roos, his team and their encryption equipment from a beach at Ambrizette.

Reverting to Operation Savannah, Maj Steenkamp praised the Bushman scouts whose tracking ability was unsurpassed and which enabled them to find mines which had been missed by the SAEC sappers. He described the vegetable lorries and other civilian vehicles which played such an important role in Operation Savannah. On one occasion a vegetable lorry broke down and was replaced by an abandoned tipper truck! He also explained that the South African troops all grew beards during Operation Savannah as razor blades were not to be had. Indeed by the end of the operation they had run out of almost everything as the logistics system had virtually broken down.

Maj Steenkamp then discussed the casualty evacuation teas which rendered such excellent service throughout the long Border War and saved so many lives. The SAAF Puma crews and the medical teams carried by these helicopters saved the lives of many injured men. He recalled a friend of his who had been wounded four times and was near death when he was lifted from the frontline by a Puma. Today he is still alive and happily married with two children.

He also praised the Russian advisors attached to SWAPO and FAPLA in Angola, whose advice was frequently ignored by those they were advising and noted that their training had been very comprehensive and lengthy and that they were top class.

He then contrasted the South African Ratel and Olifant tank with their enemy counterparts and explained that our vehicles were built for rough African conditions while the Russian equipment was built for use on the Russian steppes and North German plains. Our vehicles were built higher off the ground and visibility from our vehicles was much better than from the Russian vehicles.

A lengthy question and answer period followed and the one of our visitors for the evening Dr Elina Komarova-Tagar, a Russian academic with an interest in the Russian participation in the Border war, presented our speaker with a copy of an English translation of a Russian officer’s account of his service in Angola. Our Chairman, Johan van den Berg, thanked our speaker on behalf of the branch for his interesting talk and presented him with the customary gift.

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We welcome Mr Phil and Mrs Pam Beck who joined the Society at the meeting and trust that we will see them at our future meetings. On a sadder note we regret to announce the passing of two of our members within the last month. Our sincere condolences and sympathy are extended to the families and relatives of Mr Fred van Alphen Stahl and Mr Michael Pate. Mr van Alphen Stahl was for many years heavily involved with the S.A. Legion and its retirement home at Rosedale in Cape Town.

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New Publications:
A limited edition, coffee table-sized, de luxe pictorial has just been published under the patronage of the Chief of the South African Air Force, Lt.-Gen. F. Z. Msimang, in support of the SAAF Benevolent Fund. The book is titled South African Air Force: Inspiring Confidence and is printed in a rigid back, landscape format configuration on high quality art paper and is richly illustrated in full-colour. It consists of 132 pages containing potted histories of all the SAAF squadrons, technical data on each type of aircraft being flown by the SAAF as well as of museum aircraft. It also contains a map and listing of all air bases in South Africa and the squadrons based there. The Staff of the SAAF Museum at AFB Ysterplaat graciously has made a number of copies available to be sold to interested members and visitors at our meetings. Please take into account that this is a limited edition and it will be sold at the meetings on a first-come, first served basis. The book costs R150,00 a copy and is good value for money considering the quality of the illustrations. All proceeds go towards the SAAF Benevolent Fund. Books can also be bought at the museum shop at Ysterplaat or ordered directly by mail from the museum staff (postage and packaging costs are not included in the unit price).

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Please note that Dr. Dean Allen’s book Empire, War and Cricket in South Africa: Logan of Matjiesfontein was due to be published in May 2014. The author had in the interim reported that due to problems with the printer the publishing date had to be postponed until further notice. Members will be informed of the book’s release and availability once confirmation has been received.

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Forthcoming Meetings:

10 JULY 2014: SUPREME FIGHTER IN THE AIR: MARMALUKE THOMAS ST JOHN “Pat” PATTLE, DFC & BAR (1914–1941) by Ms. Hilary van den Vyver

Pat Pattle, born in Butterworth, Eastern Cape, was to become the Supreme Fighter in the Air in the North African Desert, the mountains of Albania and during the Battle of Athens in 1941, when he lost his life saving that of a member of his Squadron.

  After the war, the renowned aviation historian and author, E.C.R. Baker, the expert on Pattle, undertook extensive investigation into his achievements and discovered that Pat had indeed downed more enemy aircraft than any other pilot in the Royal Air Force - which includes all the commonwealth air force contingents that participated, either in RAF squadrons or under their own nominal command (this includes the late Group Captain Johnny Johnson who was the highest-scoring RAF fighter ace and for many years viewed automatically – but erroneously - as the highest-scoring commonwealth ace).  Pat had amazing eye-sight and split-second reaction time - abilities which were to save his life on many occasions. He was effortlessly able to elicit the co-operation of others and his squadron respected, and indeed loved him, hugely.

  The writer Roald Dahl flew with him in the Battle of Athens and rated him highly - both as a pilot – and as a gentleman. He achieved all this by the age of 26.

  An oil painting of Pattle by E.C.R Baker and given to Ms Van der Vyver by his family, now hangs in the Ysterplaat Military Museum. She also lectured on him as a person and his achievements at his old school, Graeme College, Grahamstown, to the boys about their illustrious son and to present a plaque in his honour.


At the end of the long, drawn-out and destructive Rhodesian Bush War – in which our speaker himself participated in one of the elite units – the clear winners were Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF (Chinese-supported) faction on the one hand and Joshua Nkomo and his ZIPRA (USSR-supported) faction on the other. Split along tribal and ideological lines, dissension in the ranks soon surfaced after the newly independent Zimbabwe was established in 1980, with Mugabe’s numerically stronger and Shona-based party dominating the political scene. The Matabele did not take the Shona take-over lying down and soon open conflict and political strife marred the local scene in Matabeleland, starting with the Entumbane (Bulawayo) uprising in November 1980.

In February 1981, there was a second uprising, which swiftly spread to Glenville and also to Connemara in the Midlands. Former Rhodesian security units were called in to stop the bloodletting, which they were able to do only after three hundred lives were lost.

The Matabele unrest led to what has become known as 'Gukurahundi' (Shona: "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains") or the Matabeleland Massacres, which lasted from 1982 until 1985. Mugabe ordered his notorious North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade to occupy Matabeleland, crushing any resistance to his rule. It has been estimated that at least 20,000 Matabele were murdered and tens of thousands of others were tortured in military internment camps. The slaughter only ended after Nkomo and Mugabe reached a unity agreement in 1988 that merged their respective parties, creating the Zimbabwe African Union-Patriotic Front.

Mr Stephan Fourie is no stranger to the audiences at the Cape Town meetings of the society, known for his no-holds-barred, first-hand “I was there” accounts, which included amongst others: Combat Group Foxbat's epic Blitzkrieg-like advance across Angola during Operation Savannah in 1975 (Newsletter No. 276, March 2001); the Battles of Ebo and Bridge 14 as some highlights of Operation Savannah (No. 355, June 2008); experiences as a volunteer in the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment (No. 389, July 2011), "Pseudo" Operations in Post-WW II Insurgency Warfare and an account of his time with the Selous Scouts during the Rhodesian Bush War (No. 406, February 2013).

Although his upcoming talk deals with events which he did not witness first-hand, his personal experience of, and interaction with, tribespeople from Matabeleland prior to independence, should make for some unique insights and interpretations when delivered with his normal verve and down-to-earth approach which hall-marked his previous lectures.

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

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /