South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 12 November 2015 was fellow-member Major Helmoed Römer-Heitman, the well-known military analyst, correspondent and writer, whose topic was the security situation in Africa.

As usual, he started his talk with a preamble, by referring to three amphibious landings which all took place in the month of September – over a period of some 74 years.

The first of these was in 1914, when a South African force left Cape Town to conduct landings at Lüderitz and at Swakopmund in the German Colony of South West Africa as part of an attempt to take over the colony. To do this by land would have meant an advance of some 800 kilometres, driving the German defenders out of successive positions on their way to Windhoek. The Germans had a railway from Windhoek to the south which could be used to move supplies and reinforcements to the front. The South Africans would have been reliant upon ox-wagon transport from the railhead at Steinkopf, through an almost waterless desert. This would have caused almost insurmountable problems so General Louis Botha turned to sea power in the form of amphibious operations.

On 31 August 1914, a force of troops assembled at Upington and another sailed 536 km from Cape Town to Port Nolloth, some 160 km south of the South African/German S.W.A. border, to focus the minds of the Germans on the southern border. On 14 September, a Royal Navy force shelled the German radio station at Swakopmund, 1,434 km north of Cape Town and landed a small force. Five days later, a small South African force (less than a brigade) landed at Swakopmund, to present a threat to the capital Windhoek.

On 26 September, a force of five battalions, two mounted infantry regiments and three batteries landed at Lüderitz, 964 km north of Cape Town. Moving inland along the railway, this force threatened to cut off the German forces along the southern border, so forcing their withdrawal to the north.

On 25 December a force of two infantry brigades, a mounted rifle regiment and a battery landed at Walvis Bay, a South African possession just south of Swakopmund, and joined later by two more battalions. These two forces then launched the main attack on Windhoek, which fell on 12 May 1915. The other forces in the south and at Lüderitz had also moved north and inland to join with the main attack. On 9 July 1915, the Germans surrendered.

Some 36 years later, US forces under Gen Douglas MacArthur, landed at Inchon in Korea, deep in the rear of the rampant North Korean forces seeking to conquer South Korea. This operation, carried out at a distance of 785 km from the remaining allied bridgehead at Pusan (situated at the southernmost extremity of the Korean peninsula), unhinged the entire North Korean offensive and forced their withdrawal north. This appeared to have been a fast-moving operation compared to Louis Botha’s operation but Windhoek is 260 km from the coast, with very rough terrain on the way, lacking infrastructure and with hardly any water supplies available, except for what could be transported from Swakopmund.

Seventy-four years after Botha’s operation, another undertaking was authorized. This was Operation Kwêvoël, an amphibious and airborne raid on the Angolan port of Namibe, 1,005 km north of Walvis Bay. Namibe was the logistic hub for the Angolan and Cuban forces in South Western Angola. These forces would be crippled by the destruction of supplies and port facilities there.

The plan was to drop 500 paratroops on Namibe at first light. A similar force of Paratroops and marines would land from SAS Tafelberg, supported by gunfire from a number of strike craft. This force would destroy supplies and infrastructure, to make an offensive by the Cubans impracticable and to hamstring them should South Africa decide to take the offensive. The force would then return to SAS Tafelberg and, escorted by the strike craft, return to Walvis Bay. The rehearsal was Exercise Magersfontein, in September 1988, near Walvis Bay. 400 troops were landed from SAS Tafelberg at night, joining up with the paratroops who came by road. The next night, the whole force of 1,000 men was withdrawn by 6 small landing craft and 2 Puma helicopters in 4½ hours.

The operation never took place but it had an effect on the settlement negotiations. The Cubans, through their intelligence sources, became aware of Exercise Magersfontein and deduced – correctly - that Namibe was the intended target. They knew that a successful raid would cripple their forces in SW Angola and this became a factor in their decision to seek a settlement, accepting linkage of their withdrawal and South Africa’s withdrawal from Namibia.


Our speaker then came to the main talk – Conflict in Africa. Conflict on our continent takes many forms ranging from very large to very small, from military to para-military covering inter-state wars, revolutions, major guerrilla conflicts, secessionist and smaller guerrilla conflicts, terrorism and religious conflicts, tribal warfare and lesser para-military problems such as piracy, banditry, illegal mining and logging and cattle rustling on a large scale. A further reason for inter-state conflict is over the control of water supplies. Maj Heitman then discussed each of these types of conflict in an African context.

Inter-state wars

We have relatively few of these in recent years. The first of these in the modern era was the four-day war between Egypt and Libya. There was a two-year war between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden and a number of invasions of Chad by Libya. In 1979 Tanzania invaded Uganda to oust Idi Amin.

In more recent times, there was a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in the years 1998 and 2000, ostensibly over an area of land known as the Badme Triangle but in fact the cause of the conflict was over trade disagreements. A solution was proposed by the United Nations and the African Union, but both sides appear unwilling to accept this solution. They appear to have decided to use Somalia as a proxy for their disagreement and Eritrea has recently raised the stakes by supporting the Ogaden National Liberation Front in Ethiopia.

The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo really started in 1960, when the then Congo was granted independence and a sort of tribal war started. This became both an inter-state and an internal war in 1996. A rebellion in the east was followed by an invasion by Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Angola, with the intention of dealing with guerrillas using the then Zaire as a safe haven and of removing the government of Mobutu Sese Seko which was permitting these groups to do so. Mobutu was toppled in 1998 but his successor, Kabila, had the same approach and took no effective steps against the guerrillas in the east. The result was a further invasion in 1998, which won more than half of the country for rebels allied to Uganda and Rwanda, while Burundi was content with a slice of land along the land border and lakeshore. This time Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia sided with Kabila, saving him from defeat.

The conflict ground to a halt when all the armies involved had advanced as far as their logistic support allowed. The problems are still there with guerrilla groups operating in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi from the DRC and internal strife in that country. The UN peacekeepers are too few to do any proper peacekeeping and the African Union is in the same situation. This is in an area the size of Bosnia but with thick forest and jungle, hardly any roads and with many bandits, rebels and what-nots wandering around. In Bosnia 23,000 troops equipped with tanks and other heavy weapons, including air support as well as a major diplomatic effort, were needed to sort out the problem. Six battalions of AU troops in a peace-keeping role in Central Africa are not a viable option – not even in the short-term.

The troops have done quite well, especially the South African troops supported by Rooivalk attack helicopters. The reality is that the rebels avoid contact with a major force and, when this has passed by, they just continue as before. The peace-keeping force is just too small and there are too few boots on the ground.

There was also some fighting between Sudan and South Sudan but this was very contained and brief.

In December 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia, ousting the Islamists and installing the Transitional Federal Government. Not unlike the United States in Iraq, Ethiopia was left fighting an insurgency in which its presence was the main focus, but which it could not ignore without undoing the main purpose of the invasion. They withdrew in 2009 and went in again in 2012. The insurgency in Ethiopia’s south-eastern province of Ogaden has started up again.

Border Disputes

There are also multiple border disputes to be resolved, some of them long-standing. One can hope that some of these may be resolved peacefully. Our speaker listed some 27 of these.

Intervention Operations

The UN has intervened in Africa on many occasions and these are well-known and include evacuation missions. The Cuban interventions in Angola and Ethiopia are also well-known. But there have also been a number of intervention operations carried out by African forces. These include operations in Chad, Liberia (a number of times), Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Guinea-Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire and Somalia. This last country has suffered many interventions by Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi and Kenya. Some of these intervention forces are still stuck in Somalia and terrorists from Somalia are now operating in the countries which invaded it. South Africa was involved in the Central African Republic where our troops performed well, albeit with little support from our Government. The French have been involved in Mali and the Central African Republic, with other African countries. These operations are still ongoing.

Major Civil Wars and Guerrilla Wars

The wars for independence are long over but Africa continues to suffer civil wars and guerrilla conflict in many countries.

The civil war in Libya arose from protests – whether popular or other means - similar to those in Egypt and Tunisia. In these two countries the armed forces stayed loyal to the state and not the regime. This was not the case in Libya and an armed rebellion started. This led to calls for intervention and NATO became involved, resulting in the defeat of the forces loyal to Gadhafi. The country is split between two factions based in Tripoli and Tobruk respectively and the war continues.

The civil war in Angola ended after 30 years but the government has not been generous in its help to resettle ex-Unita members and this could lead to rural banditry and even the resumption of the civil war. The defence budget is increasing fast but much of this spending is to address concerns over the security of Cabinda and its oil.

The civil war in Burundi may be restarting. Many peace agreements were signed but are not being applied. The president wants to stand for a third term which is contrary to the constitution and the pot is once again coming to the boil. There is a small scale civil war on the go in the Central African Republic (CAR) where the French defeated the rebels in the north but they were replaced first by a UN force and then by an African force. These are ineffective and the country has disintegrated into a failed state. Part of the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda has moved into the CAR under pressure from Uganda, the DRC and South Sudan.

Chad is quieting down. The main problem is in the east, where Sudan is the main external player. Rebel forces based in Darfur raided the capital Ndjamena in 2006 and 2008, moving through the CAR over a long distance. Some of these are still in Chad. The forces involved consisted of two groups of 500 and 250 vehicles respectively, moving on different routes and arriving at Ndjamena simultaneously. There were some seriously good logistics and the staff work was very competent. Chad seems to fear a further attack from the Sudan and also from Boko Haram in the north.

The civil war in Cote d’Ivoire was triggered by a failed coup d’état and lingered on in spite of the presence of various peace-keeping forces. It is far from clear whether the measures taken will result in long term stability.

The civil war in Liberia is over but there is still considerable instability and it remains to be seen whether the country will settle down enough for a transitional government to function. There is a UN peacekeeping force but this will have to remain there for a long time. The insurgency in neighbouring Guinea is not good news.

A coup d’état in Mali’s capital gave Tuareg rebels in northern Mali the chance to declare secession. The situation escalated with a number of guerrillas returning to Mali after fighting for Gadhafi. They brought their weapons with them and finally had control of two thirds of the country. This caused a fast response from the French in January 2013, who drove the rebels back. A West African force arrived to provide security in cleared areas. The fighting has seesawed backwards and forwards and guerrilla attacks still continue.

The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, which started in 2002, flared up in 2009 and is now a full scale guerrilla war in which most of the towns of north eastern Nigeria are controlled by the rebels. The Nigerian army was too small and underfunded to push the rebels back and Boko Haram moved into Niger and the north of Cameroon. Their armies and a strong Chad contingent operating from northern Cameroon then came into play. Military contractors then arrived to repair equipment, train Nigerian forces and advise on tactics. The Nigerians have managed to recover most of the towns lost but the main Boko Haram forces are still elusive and are counter-attacking. In addition Nigeria faces the renewed threat of insurgency in the Niger River delta.

The present government of Rwanda seized power after a brief war in which the Hutu-dominated government that launched the genocide against the Tutsi minority was deposed. The deposed government is now based in the east of the DRC and has launched a guerrilla campaign against the Rwandan government. This threatens to spread and bring in other players. Rwanda has moved tanks and other heavy weapons to its border with no reasons given – a further escalation.

Like the war in Liberia, the war in Sierra Leone was a particularly brutal war and is now ostensibly over. There is a new government and there was, up to December 2005, a UN peacekeeping force. There is still some instability in the country and the danger of a spill-over from Guinea is very real. The guerrillas of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were funded by the diamonds produced in the Tri-border area where Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia meet. The diamonds are still mined there and there is a level of insurgency in that part of Guinea.

The civil war in Sudan and South Sudan carried on for over 20 years. The peace accord provided for a referendum in the south after six years to decide on independence. This produced the expected secession. This has gone unexpectedly peacefully, even reaching an interim agreement on the Abyei area, rich in oil and straddling the two regions. The South Sudan had built up conventional forces too strong to be overcome in a sudden rush, making a coup de main impossible. Khartoum was left with the choice between accepting secession or launching what would probably have become a protracted war. It chose the former but most analysts expect renewed conflict sooner or later and recent events suggest that there is still real risk of renewed fighting if not full scale war.

There have been serious semi-conventional clashes in both Abyei and Heglig, between Sudan and South Sudan as well as a real problem of internal insecurity in South Sudan, which Khartoum will exploit. South Sudan also looks politically less stable with the President having sacked his whole cabinet recently. There are also insurgencies active in other parts of southern Sudan as well as in the east and the north.

In addition to the tension with South Sudan in the south, and the southern insurgencies, there is the conflict in Sudan’s province of Darfur in the west, added to which are the old land conflicts between farmers and cattle herders. This conflict has become intermingled with insurgencies in Chad and the Central African Republic. The AU mission of some 7,000 troops in Darfur is too small and poorly equipped to be effective and is itself a target for rebels and government- supporting militias alike. This is supposed to be replaced by a combined AU-UN force of 26 000, but this strength has not been reached and it still lacks sufficient attack and transport helicopters.

A civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 and continues. This has a largely tribal base – The Nuer in revolt and the Dinka in government. The Vice President is leading the rebellion.

Uganda’s Museveni government seems to have a clear idea of how it would like to develop Uganda and has achieved a real measure of success. But it is plagued by several guerrilla groups. The Lord’s Resistance Army [LRA] raids from the Sudan and has destabilized the northern quarter of the country. Ugandan troops are operating in Southern Sudan against the LRA but they have not yet been pinned down and are operating in the CAR, the DRC and in South Sudan. The LRA and other groups (Allied Democratic Forces [ADF], Peoples Redemption Army and others) are supported by Sudan.

Ugandan, South Sudanese and DRC forces are operating in the southeast of the CAR but the Sudanese have resumed aerial supply of the LRA and ADF groups in the east of the DRC. Al Shabaab and Libyans have also been reported. There seems to be a complete shambles going on and the role of the Sudan is murky to say the least.

Smaller Guerrilla Wars

Smaller guerrilla wars flare up from time to time. The Sahel countries experience outbursts from the Taureg groups who do not really recognize borders or governments. Mali and Niger currently have small Taureg insurrections. Eritrea faces attacks by the Alliance of Eritrean National Forces which is supported by the Sudan. Ethiopia has an Islamic insurgency, an expanding guerrilla war by the Ogaden Liberation Front and a possible attack from Kenya by the United Liberation Forces of Oromia facing it. Bandit groups are also active in this area. In Guinea smaller groups operate along the borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia, but these are small scale.

Coups d’état and Popular Revolts

Africa has taken over from South America as the home of the coup d’état and there are a few every year. In recent years there have been coups in Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Mauretania, Madagascar, Lesotho, Togo, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome, the CAR, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad, some successful, others not. There have also been popular revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya but it is not certain if a more democratic regime has resulted. The AU claims that it does not recognize governments “elected” by coup. It does not follow its own policy.

Failed States

A failed state is one where central government has ceased to function, leaving regions and towns to fall to anyone with the firepower to take them over. Somalia and the Central African Republic are two examples. Liberia, the DRC and Sierra Leone came very close to achieving failed state status. The danger presented by a failed state is that it becomes home to guerrilla groups, terrorists, bandits and pirates and becomes a source of instability in its region, Somalia being a prime example. Al Shabaab operates there and elsewhere in East Africa.

Secessionist Groups

There are few of these currently in Africa. The AU wants to keep borders as they are and have largely been successful in this. Eritrea has broken away from Ethiopia. Cabinda has long argued that it is not part of Angola, but the latter disagrees vehemently as it cannot afford to lose Cabinda’s oil revenues. The northern part of the Western Sahara was given to Morocco by Spain in 1973, but the Polisario Front wants this land. A guerrilla war is being waged but the Moroccans have prevailed. There are extensive deposits of phosphates and fishing grounds in the area. A part of Senegal feels that it should not be part of Senegal, which disagrees - the spreading gas and oil industry in the area may be the reason.

Zanzibar and Pemba are areas with the potential for secessionist movements and Equatorial Guinea could be another candidate. Finally the Caprivi Strip does not want to be part of Namibia but all parties there are not yet at the shooting stage.


Terrorism, both international and homegrown, is present in Africa but not yet on a large scale. Examples of imported terrorism include the attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and an attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner at Mombasa. Homegrown terrorism includes attacks on tourists and tourist attractions in Egypt and Tunisia. There have also been some assassinations and there is an increase of incidents by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in East Africa. These are by Islamic extremist groups, but the LRA in Uganda and the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone have committed many brutal acts of terrorism as well.


We all know about South Africa’s crime problems but few of us are really aware of just how serious the problem of organized rural banditry is in many African countries. In Kenya, for example, an infantry company was driven out of its base by bandits raiding from Somalia. They held the base for a week while they looted everything worth carrying away. This does not show how incompetent the Kenyan Army is – it is in fact well trained and competent – but indicates how capable some bandit gangs are. Also in Kenya, a group of cattle rustlers used an anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a police helicopter.

Rustling is a major problem along the Kenya/Uganda border. Somali and Sudanese raiders are also a problem. Last year 2000 bandits crossed from Tanzania, burned down villages and stole several thousand head of cattle. Our speaker quoted some mind-boggling details of the cost of banditry, rustling and highway robberies. Allied to these problems are those of the smuggling of cloves, spices, hardwood, rare woods, diamonds and rare minerals (gold, columbite, tantalite, etc.). Some of the countries and areas most affected by these are the DRC, East Africa, Angola, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In West Africa, Cameroon experiences serious banditry problems along its borders with Nigeria, Chad and the Central African Republic, to the extent that it has formed specially-trained and heavily-armed army units to fight the menace.

The bandit gangs usually comprise a “mix of army deserters, fugitives and militias”, working in small groups. In West Africa, gang activities also include the movement of stolen cars and other property, child smuggling, weapon smuggling and drugs. Just about every country not mentioned above has a bandit/ gang problem of some or other type. Even South Africa and its neighbor Lesotho have a two way cattle rustling problem.


We all remember pirate movies with the handsome hero swinging in the rigging of his ship with a cutlass between his teeth. In fact, piracy has never been stamped out and it is again a serious problem world-wide, and a profitable business for the pirates. South East Asia has the worst problem but East Africa, with pirates centred in Somalia, and the Gulf of Guinea, centred on Nigeria, have in recent years becoming major problem areas. Hijacking of ships and the holding to ransom of ships and crews has become big business for the Somali pirates. It must be said that with a non-economy in their country, the pillage by foreign trawlers of their once prolific fishing areas and the pollution of their waters by unscrupulous foreigners, they have no other way of making a living.

The problem is no longer coastal-bound but extends deep into the Indian Ocean and is spreading southwards. The pirates are becoming more sophisticated, using modern communications and electronics and a spy system that alerts them to high value cargoes. The countries of East Africa have very small and ill-equipped navies and it has been left to NATO and other navies to try to eradicate piracy. Our speaker quoted statistics which show that the problem is a serious one.

Some navies are more successful than others. The Danish and French Navies tend to be aggressive, burning pirate vessels and attacking shore bases. The Chinese, Indian and Russian Navies also take a hardline approach so the East African problem is being contained to a degree.

West African piracy is becoming a serious problem. Many attacks have been made on fishing boats in Nigerian waters, with industry there suffering serious losses. Our speaker quoted some statistics which showed us the extent of the problems. Boats are burnt and crews and boats are held to ransom and the problem is spreading along the West African coast. The navies in the area are ill-equipped but efforts are being made to increase the number and effectiveness of naval vessels.

Another problem is “bunkering”, organized theft of oil in Nigeria’s Delta area. This takes the form of mooring barges next to oil pipelines, filling them and towing them to tankers offshore after dark to transfer the spoil. Lately this has included actual attacks on tankers underway. The cargoes are transhipped and the tankers and crews are held to ransom. The loss to Nigeria’s economy has been immense. There are also many diamond mining vessels and oil and gas platforms offshore with valuable things to steal and foreign crews to hold to ransom. These problems are growing.


This catalogue of recent and current security problems does not mean that Africa is beyond redemption. It is at a stage of its political development that other continents have passed through some time ago. Think of the Dark Ages in Europe. There are however some very real problems to be resolved.

In colonial times, the borders of the various colonies (now Countries) were drawn with scant attention to economic, demographic or even geographic realities. The best example is the Caprivi Strip. It also seems that some borders were drawn on small scale maps in thick pencil.

There are a number of governments which are relics of the Cold War when the super powers were happy to support anyone who would ensure a secure supply of critical raw materials, vote their way in the UN or just generally irritate the other side. These relics lack the financial and military support of the past but cling to power none the less.

Many a war has been fought over natural resources, be these water or fertile farm land or at the profitable level of high value or strategic minerals. Taken with poorly selected borders, the issue of such resources can be very difficult to resolve. An example is the use of the waters of the Nile.

There is the problem of ethnic dislike which is built on past events and become stereotyped over many years. These will take many years to undo – if ever.

Some of the worst horrors in human history are being perpetuated in the name of religion. Today it is the clash between the radical brand of Islam and other religions that is set to become a problem in a large part of Africa.

None of these problems is impossible to resolve but they are difficult to resolve and will take a long time to resolve. In the meantime they will present a wide range of security challenges to African governments and those who wish to do business in our continent.

Possible Future Flashpoints

Against the background of what has been happening in recent years and is happening now and the origins of these conflicts, we can identify some possible future flashpoints:

The Impact of Foreign Interests

The growing interest that foreign powers are showing in Africa will have an impact on Africa’s security. The United States is seeking to prevent Al Qaeda from establishing itself in the Sahel and surrounding areas. The longer term will see all of the major powers with an interest in Africa supporting their favoured governments, opposition groups, warlords or guerrillas. This has happened before. The key is to be aware of this trend and to respond to the resulting problems intelligently and coherently.

There is no conspiracy against Africa. All governments act in what they perceive to be the best interests of their own country. These sometimes coincide with our interests and sometimes clash with them.


South Africa will become ever more engaged in Africa and must face up to these problems and the dangers that they present. We cannot distance ourselves from the security and stability problems of our continent. We need to monitor tensions, conflicts and developments and need to keep in mind that we may find ourselves drawn into any one of them at short notice. Knowing what is going on in Africa is essential or contingency planning will be impossible.

After an extensive and lively question-and-answer session, our chairman thanked Major Heitman for a thought-provoking and highly informative talk and presented him with the customary gift.


MEMBERS We trust all our members are well and have had a pleasant break - we wish that you all will enjoy a prosperous 2016.



THURSDAY, 21 January 2016: BATTLE SCARS & DRAGON TRACKS – A FAMILY STORY OF LOVE AND WAR by Anthony Louis von Zeil and Glenn von Zeil

Our first speakers in the New Year are the father-and-son duo of Louis and Glenn von Zeil. Glenn is a long-time and well-known fellow member of the Cape Town Branch of the SAMHS. His father, Anthony, is the author of the historical biography, Battle Scars & Dragon Tracks. It is the story of one of his ancestors, Arthur Owen Vaughan, a Welsh soldier who served in South Africa during the Anglo-Boer War. It is also a story of the war in the eastern Free State, of intrigue, romance and fate. Vaughan met, fell in love and married a Boer girl from Vredefort and this is his story of fighting and family. Vaughan later on became a well-known author of military-romantic novels.



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