South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 8 May 2014 was Colonel Lewis (Lew) Gerber whose topic was the airborne raid on Cassinga, the main SWAPO base in Southern Angola, on 4 May 1978. Colonel Gerber was second-in-command to Col Breytenbach for this, the first major airborne operation in Southern Africa and the first for South Africa.

Col Gerber explained that he had been rejected by the paratroops (Parabats) as being too tall, but was able to get through the medical tests on his second attempt – as being 1,68m (5ft 6in) in height – not easy for someone over 1,83m (6ft). He rose in the ranks and, at the time of Cassinga, was a Commandant and OC of 3 Para Battalion, a Citizen Force (CF)[currently designated Reserve Force] unit.

Our speaker explained that the operation was not a battle but an action in which some 370 South African Reservist Paratroopers dropped on Cassinga, a main supply and training base some 260 kilometres north of the South West African (SWA)[the present independent nation of Namibia]/Angolan border. This was part of Operation Reindeer, the other part being a mechanised and light infantry attack on a number of SWAPO bases some 20 or so kilometres north of the SWA/Angola border. The forces involved there were 2 SAI and 32 Bn.

Cassinga was a major SWAPO logistical base with medical and repair facilities as well as fuel, ammunition, weapon and ration stores. It was a collecting point for trained insurgents who would be deployed to the SWA border from there. It was well defended by zig-zag trenches in the Soviet style, dugouts for armoured vehicles, mortar and machine gun emplacements and a concrete base for a SAM-3 battery and radar, although these were not in place. There was also a civilian bus which had been hijacked with 30 children some weeks earlier. Cassinga was also the command post for Jerobeum “Dimo”, commander of PLAN (Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia) and other senior commanders, who coordinated SWAPO operations in Southern Angola and South West Africa.

It was estimated that SWAPO’s PLAN forces varied from 1,000 to 3,000 insurgents with a number of camp followers. A civilian refugee camp was situated just north of the town. Anti-aircraft defences comprised two ZPU-4 14,5 mm heavy machine-guns, one ZU23-2 gun and some ZSU 12,7mm machine guns. A Cuban battalion of some 400 men with some T-34 tanks and BTR-152 armoured personnel carriers was stationed at Tetchamutete 15 km south of Cassinga. They were not spotted by SAAF photo reconnaissance aircraft before the battle and their arrival at Cassinga came as a surprise to the South Africans during the battle.

SWAPO were becoming increasingly active at the end of 1977 and the beginning of 1978 and incursions into the white farming areas of South West Africa were expected. What to do? Wait until they are in South West Africa or do a cross-border raid and take them out before they enter SWA? The latter course of action was decided on.

Operation “Bruilof” (Wedding) was planned to drop 3 Para on Cassinga and 2 Para (under command of Cdts Gerber and Brett respectively) on Chetequera. Much training was done but the operation was cancelled after a breach in security was found. This operation had been initiated at a meeting in the Manhattan Hotel in Pretoria. The SAAF had been engaged in a programme of photo reconnaissance over Southern Angola and discovered Cassinga by accident – it was not camouflaged like the other bases. It was identified as a target for the future. PLAN had observed the recce flights and added to their defences, digging in their food, ammunition and fuel stores and setting up a secondary camp to the north.

A while later, Operation Reindeer was proposed – this would have three objectives, namely Cassinga (attack by Paratroops), camps round Chetequera (mechanised attack) and camps round Dombomdola (light infantry attack). Cassinga could not be attacked by a conventional force as it was 260 km from the border and SWAPO would have ample time to vacate the place. So air attacks and a parachute attack were decided upon as the best course of action. Planning commenced. The SAAF took a lot more pictures – amongst other, to make photo strip maps for the tactical low flying legs - and more pictures of the target and its defences.

The air photo interpreters put the wrong scale on the maps they produced. The original photos had the correct altimeter readings but the SAAF planners used what they were given and decided that the drop zone was long enough and wide enough for the drop. It was not. The warning and drop points for the run-in to the Dropping Zone (DZ) were also wrong.

The operation was under the overall command of Major General Ian Gleeson, with Brig du Plessis commanding the parachute assault. The ground commander was Col Breytenbach, a highly experienced officer. Brig du Plessis was not supposed to be on the ground but he insisted on dropping as “he needed the experience”. Du Plessis should have been in the Telstar aircraft to control and coordinate the whole operation. A number of other Permanent Force (PF) Parabat officers also got in on the act, including CJTF [Combined Joint Task Force] commander Brig Hannes Botha. This complicated the whole command process and there were to be too many senior officers cluttering up the battalion command post during the battle, especially when Chief of the Army, Gen Constand Viljoen, also arrived by helicopter. Proper airborne doctrine was thus not followed.

The OC of the Helicopter Admin Area was Maj James Hills with 40 Parabats, some medics and many barrels of helicopter fuel. Capt. de Beer commanded the airborne reserve company in two C160s. The helicopter force (17 helicopters) was under Commandant James Kriel of the SAAF.

The SAAF also allocated four C130s, five C160s, four Canberras with Alpha bombs, five Buccaneers with 8 x 1,000 pounder bombs, four Mirage 3 fighters, a Telstar Cessna and an Electronic Warfare Skymaster – a large force. Col Breytenbach was to have four understrength companies, two independent rifle platoons, a mortar platoon and an anti-tank platoon for his attack.

The members of 2 and 3 Battalions were called up at the end of April, to take part in Exercise “Kwiksilwer” (Quicksilver) and started training at Tempe, but not as enthusiastically as previously at Phalaborwa. Due to the academic disruption the previous call-up brought about, this time round university students were not called up as well as elements weeded out that were not too particularly keen to participate in the subsequent exercise. This, in essence, left a largely volunteer cadre to participate in the exercise and carry on with the training.

A practice drop was made but this was a disaster! Permission was granted for the attack on Cassinga by the Government although the Foreign Minister was very concerned about the effect the news of the attack would have overseas.

When the go-ahead was given, the gates of the camp were sealed, the troops assembled and they were told that they were not taking part in Exercise “Kwiksilwer” but were going to Cassinga. They were then briefed on the operation and later in the day boarded the transport aircraft which took them to Grootfontein where they arrived after dusk. Upon arrival they were taken directly to a hanger where their parachutes and kit lay ready, sorted into sticks and labelled with their names. This had been done by dispatchers from the Parachute School. A meal was provided and they were able to sleep – however, the excitement of the last few days and the adrenalin-charged anticipation of what lay ahead kept most awake throughout the night.

Very early in the morning of Thursday, 4 May 1978, the troops were roused, collected their kit and boarded their aircraft – four C130s and two C160s for Cassinga and two C160s carrying the reserve company which would fly in a holding pattern east of Cassinga, ready to intervene if so required.

At 0600 the transports took off. At 0630 the ELINT/EW [Electronic Intelligence/Electronic Warfare] DC4 took off and flew in a holding pattern just south of the border. Its function was to listen to the SWAPO/Cuban radio transmissions and to jam these. At 0630 Puma helicopters flew to a clearing 22 km east of Cassinga where the Helicopter Admin Area (HAA) was set up. This consisted of Cdt Kriel and Maj James Hills with a signaller, a 40-man protection force, six medics and a large number of drums of fuel for the helicopters. The rest of the helicopter force then flew in and also brought a further senior officer to the scene – none other than the Chief of the Army, Gen Viljoen.

Five Super Frelon and twelve Puma helicopters were now fully fuelled and in position. At 0700 a Cessna 185 Telstar aircraft took off and headed for Cassinga. Its function was to relay radio messages. The four Canberras and four Buccaneers took off from Waterkloof at 0519 and 0543 respectively and flew direct to Cassinga – their ETA was 0800. Two Mirage 3 fighters were to take off from Ondangwa and join the bombers. One of the Buccaneers landed at Grootfontein to refuel before re-joining the others. It would remain over Cassinga during the para drop to provide top cover to the landing and subsequent fighting.

The bomber force was supposed to attack at 0800 – when the PLAN cadres would be on the parade ground. They arrived at 0802, a creditable effort seeing that the aircraft had flown from Waterkloof. The Canberras attacked first at an altitude of 152m (500 ft.) above Cassinga, flying north to south in line abreast. Their attack was accurate with 1,200 Alpha bombs dropped into an area 500 metres by 500 metres. The two Mirages then strafed the target with their 30mm cannon. They were followed by the Buccaneers, flown by one experienced pilot and a group of “youngsters”. A total of 32 1,000-pound bombs were dropped of which 24 hit their targets, which were vehicles, storage buildings and supply and ammunition dumps - all-in-all a very successful attack. The bomber force then headed home to refuel – Mirages at Ondangwa and Buccaneers at Grootfontein. The Buccaneer which had refuelled at Grootfontein remained overhead with a full load of 68mm rockets – a fortunate choice of armament.

The transport aircraft now arrived on the scene at 200 feet and climbed to 600 feet. The pilots were distracted by the bomber force and gave the “green light” to drop a couple of seconds too late. Someone (not Col Breytenbach) had changed the IP [Initial point: A point close to the landing area where serials (troop carrier air formations) make final alterations in course to pass over individual drop or landing zones] and the Drop Zone was seen to be much smaller than it appeared to be on the photographs. This meant that the DZ box scaling and drop point distances were incorrect. This resulted in some Parabats landing on the wrong side of the river or out of position in maize fields near the town and the drop was a shambles.

The attacking Companies landed south of the town, instead of next to it. The northern and southern stopper groups had landed more or less in the correct places. C Company was south of its proper position and needed to head north. A and B companies had to head north and their attack on the town from the south east and not from the west. The anti-tank platoon and the two independent platoons were just south of their planned positions. D Company in the north headed south to attack the “engineering buildings” (probably workshops) and got strafed for their pains by the Buccaneer, fortunately with only a few light injuries. While this was happening, Dimo Amaambo and the other PLAN commanders managed to escape the net, leaving their comrades to fight it out with the South Africans. One paratrooper - Rifleman Human - is thought to have dropped into the river and presumably drowned, as his body was never found.

By 0900, A and B companies had regrouped and started their attack on the town, moving north and not east. C company, on the eastern side, had to move north to its position as a stopper group. While this was happening, many PLAN members managed to escape. Brig du Plessis landed and commandeered Col Breytenbach’s B25 radio, thus leaving the latter with no means of contacting Col Archie Moore in the Telstar aircraft or HQ back in SWA. He could contact his troops on another radio and ordered the independent platoons to move south to attack the anti-aircraft guns. D company moved north, took some buildings and deployed as stopper groups, while the anti-tank platoon moved off to mine the road to Tetchamutete, the Cuban base.

Our speaker described the devastation caused by the bombing, with bits of bodies scattered all over the parade ground. He was moving to the medical building where battalion HQ was be set up. On his way he found a baby girl wandering around so took her to the medical building and handed her to some very frightened girls to look after. They and other civilians were kept in the Medical building South African casualties and dead were collected there and the first aid post and HQ were also placed there. Col Gerber was able to contact Ondangwa by radio. The fighting to clear the town was fierce, with strong resistance by the PLAN troops, both male and female. The anti-aircraft guns (14.5mm and 23mm) were used in a ground role and were served bravely. As a gun crew was shot down, so others rushed to man them. The mortars engaged the guns and numerous trenches had to be cleared. The guns were eventually silenced but, according to a PLAN survivor named Paavo Max, they ran out of ammunition. Had they not, they might have exacted a fearful toll amongst the troops of the assaulting force. The fighting died down and the town was secured about two hours late.

Col Breytenbach was advised by Brig du Plessis that a Cuban battalion with tanks were on the move, which, luckily, had been observed by one of the Buccaneer pilots. The brigadier wanted the troops to be evacuated but Col Breytenbach insisted on securing the LZ first. Only then half the paratroops could leave, while the others would finish clearing the town, collecting useful documents and preparing the captured fuel and ammunition stockpiles for demolition. Each soldier had a stick number and was supposed to embark in the helicopter with his stick number. The helicopters had been called for by Brig du Plessis but the LZ was not yet completely secure, so the helicopters landed all over the place wherever there was space. Gen Viljoen also arrived with the first flight to apprise himself first-hand of the situation on the ground.

Col Gerber was advised by the anti-tank Platoon that tanks were approaching. The Buccaneer pilot advised that there were five tanks and twenty-five armoured personnel carriers (APCs) loaded with troops and each towing an anti-aircraft gun. The anti-tank platoon had 22 men, ten RPG launchers and had laid their few mines on the approach road. At this point, Gen Viljoen, Col Breytenbach and sundry PF officers arrived at the HQ. Col Gerber had ordered the wounded and dead to be loaded on to the first helicopter for transport to the HAA and then to Ondangwa where there was a medical facility, a wise move. Breytenbach contacted the anti-tank platoon for details of the strength of the Cubans. He was told (unhelpfully) “a whole shithouse full”.

The first flight of helicopters then loaded the Parabats awaiting evacuation. As the helicopters were parked in no order everyone was ordered to board the nearest one. In the process the two Engineer officers with all the demolition fuses boarded as well. The LZ was quite near to the Tetchamutete road and the first tank was blown up on a mine. The RPGs were fired at the APCs and the Cubans dismounted and took cover some 800 metres away.

Col Gerber then called for the second flight of helicopters and the remaining troops, including the anti-tank platoon (now out of ammunition), started to move to the LZ. The Buccaneer, piloted by Maj Dries Marais now attacked the Cubans with its rockets. Two Mirages also joined in the attacks but had to leave as they were short of fuel. Marais then flew over the Cubans at a very low altitude in an attempt to slow them down – he received the Honoris Crux for this and held them up. Further air attacks followed until1855.

The troops were taken to the HAA where the helicopters were refuelled and the troops were taken to Ondangwa. Here a roll call was taken. All troops were accounted for with the exception of Rifleman Human. SA casualties were 4 dead and 11 wounded. All the aircraft and helicopters returned to base.

Was the raid successful? Heavy casualties were inflicted on SWAPO and their base but it was not destroyed. None of the leaders were caught or killed, so at best it was a partial success. It showed SWAPO that South Africa would go to extreme lengths to destroy them. With the shooting finished, the propaganda war started. This was lost by South Africa as the government of the day was inept in the extreme in their handling of this very necessary art and essential political tool in international affairs. SWAPO claimed that Cassinga was a refugee camp and the people there had been slaughtered mercilessly. The wounded and children were brutally killed and many atrocities committed. It is probably true that some civilians were killed in the cross-fire - PLAN often used civilians as human shields and groups of civilians were regularly abducted from within SWA to be used as camp labour or to be inducted into the PLAN forces. The orders given to our troops emphasised that civilians were NOT to be harmed. The point made by one of the participants was simple – if someone is shooting at you, you tend to take drastic action to stop this.

Col Gerber then noted that a large number of books and articles have been written giving the anti-South African side of the story, but few have been written giving South Africa’s side of the story. The first book was Borderstrike by Willem Steenkamp, written without access to official sources. Brig Gen McGill Alexander wrote an MA thesis on the battle. He had full security clearance and was able to access all South African official records. Col Breytenbach has written his own account in Eagle Strikes and a further account is by Mike McWilliams in the Africa at War Series [McWilliams, Mike: Battle For Cassinga: South Africa's Controversial Cross-Border Raid, Angola 1978: Africa At War Volume 3.] Col Gerber is of the opinion is that McGill Alexander’s account is the most accurate.

Col Gerber in conclusion noted that the operation was well planned and well executed but the South Africans were extremely lucky to get away with this operation with so few casualties. Four South Africans gave their lives while there were approximately 600 SWAPO/PLAN casualties. The chairman thanked our speaker for a particularly interesting talk and presented him with the customary gift.

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Invoices have been sent to the members who have not renewed their membership for 2014 and the Treasurer has kindly asked that those who have not reacted as yet, please do so without delay. He also expressed his thanks to the members who have reacted promptly upon receipt of the renewal reminder.

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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, but the author could not be reached for confirmation, that publication in actual fact had already taken place, or not, before the distribution of the newsletter for an update. Members will be informed of the book’s release and availability once confirmation has been received.

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Forthcoming Meetings: 12 JUNE 2014: SOUTH AFRICA’S BORDER WAR: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY by Maj. Willem Steenkamp

Maj Steenkamp will share some thoughts on the Border War that are not always clear or normally covered in the books published on the period. He will delve into aspects as what happened behind the scenes in planning and managing the war. With whom lay the final decisions to provide defensive measures? How did the channel of command and decision-taking work in the initial stages of the conflict and how did it evolve over time? How did politics in faraway Pretoria influence decisions and operations on the ground?

Knowing Maj Steenkamp and his ability to captivate his audience with his disarming charm, it promises to be a most enlightening and thought-provoking evening, not to be missed!

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.

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

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /