South African Military History Society

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The Chairman opened the meeting and extended a special welcome to what appeared a large number of visitors. He issued a special invitation to visitors to give consideration to joining the Society as members. Only a brief notice of next month's meeting was given and he then introduced our speakers, both of whom have impressive CVs.

First to the podium was Ian Thurston who previously has told us about Col. James Stewart. Ian continued to enlighten the Society with his considerable knowledge of the USAAF, this time to tell us about Joe "Rosie" Rosenthal and his squadron, the "Bloody 100th."

This ordinary guy, a kid from Brooklyn, a lawyer now and just 24 years old, joined up on 8 December '41 as an air cadet and after getting his wings spent time training air gunners. All the time he was begging to go on active service and in August 1943 he joined the 100th Bombardment Group, USAAF at Thorpe Abbots in Norfolk, as captain of a B17 Flying Fortress.

Like all his peers he named his aircraft; she was "Rosie" after the popular song "Rosie the Riveter," which paid tribute to the thousands of women who had taken jobs in industry to free the men to fight. The 100th was soon in action after arriving on 8 June 1943, the first mission was to Bremen on the 25th in which 3 aircraft were lost. With 4 squadrons of plus minus 12 aircraft comprising a "Group" about 45 aircraft would leave on a mission. The 100th did not drop the most bombs or fly the most missions, but their early missions gave them the name the "Bloody 100th" because they did have a high proportion of losses.

On only his third mission, October 10 to Munster, 20 B 17's took off; 7 were forced to abort and of the remaining 13 only Rosie, flying "Royal Flush" as his own aircraft was unserviceable, returned. He flew back on only 2 engines and with an unexploded 20mm cannon shell in a fuel tank! After this hair-raising event he and his crew were sent on R & R even though the norm was after 15 missions.

Completing his 25th mission, Rosie signed up again for a second tour. On 10 September 1944, returning from Nuremburg on one engine, he crashed in France and knew nothing until waking in Oxford with a broken arm and nose and many cuts where he was kept for 5 weeks. His last mission was on his third tour, his 52nd, and he was badly shot up over Berlin. With no chance of returning to England he carried on eventually crash-landing behind the Russian lines where amongst other adventures he lunched with the American Ambassador in Moscow.

From 7th August 1943 the 100th Bomb Group carried out 306 missions comprising 8630 aircraft sorties. It dropped 19 257 tons of bombs and suffered losses during these missions of 182 B 17's. Of course many were written off after returning to base, besides those which crashed. 784 aircrew died and 939 were captured and became POW's. Rosie flew no further combat missions but flew on Operation Chowhound in May 1945 in the desperate effort to drop food to the millions of starving Dutch. The 100th lives on; at Thorpe Abbots admiring locals started a comprehensive museum in 1977 and in September 1986 "Rosie" Joe Rosenthal officially opened one of the buildings. In the modern United States Airforce, the 100th's square "D" insignia is displayed on the tails of giant K-135 tanker re-fueling aircraft based down the road at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk.

After some short questions and answers, Jan-Willem introduced the next speaker; Col. Jan Malan - The Destruction of FAPLA's 21 Brigade by 4-SAI on 13 January 1988.

Abandoning his lecture notes on the podium shortly after the commencement of his lecture, Colonel Jan Malan placed himself before a very large and responsive audience and spoke "off-the cuff." Backed by an ongoing and breathtaking display of slides on "Power Point" he drew everyone into that period of the so-called "Border War."

From as early as 1983, the SADF had been drawn into assisting its UNITA ally annually as the MPLA's FAPLA endeavoured to reach Jamba, Savimbi's base deep in south-east Angola. Each year's dry season had seen ever growing forces deployed by FAPLA and by 1987 it was heavily bolstered with Cuban, East German and Russian "advisors."

FAPLA's mission was, as ever, capturing the tiny hamlet of Mavinga which strangely had a very good airstrip. To do so they would have to have a secure bridge crossing over the Cuito River into a deep and well defended bridgehead. This was at Cuito Carnivale. By the time Jan Malan was deployed into the area the SADF had been fighting almost continuously to stem the FAPLA advance in a series of heavy battles since October 1987. Despite heavy losses of men and equipment, FAPLA'S attempts continued. Efforts to destroy the bridge had only been partially successful, although by late 1987 FAPLA had a variety of means of crossing using Russian specialised equipment which reduced the bridge's strategic value.

Drafted almost overnight from his post commanding the SADF's Battle School at Lohatla, Jan found himself in a darkened "Flossie" spiraling down to land in total darkness with a 'plane load of men and munitions on the Mavinga airstrip. It was early December 1987 and he was taking over command of Combat Group "Charlie," one of the three South African fighting elements engaged in bolstering UNITA's defence of its homeland. "Alpha," now to be taken over by another "hi-jacked" officer, Cmdt. Koos Liebenberg, and "Bravo", had borne the brunt of the so-called Lomba River battles as the combined Cuban/FAPLA force tried to break into a position to capture Mavinga. "Charlie" was in reality a heavily reinforced No. 4 South African Infantry Battalion, a mechanised unit, and "Alpha" was No. 61 Mechanised Infantry Battalion, "61 Mech." They would now have to do the job without "Bravo," in fact 32 Battalion.

From the wide open semi-desert of Lohatla where manoeuvring of tank and mechanised infantry was so clear and straight forward, Jan Malan was thrust into this area of heavy, impenetrable bush. He was soon catching up with his headquarters and being faced with the atrocious conditions which his new command had been facing; sand which seemed to have no solid bottom no matter how deep one dug; "bush" like no other he seen in all of South Africa and equipment showing alarming signs of wear and tear and fierce combat!

The South-Eastern Angola "bush" covers thousands of square kilometres with the trees reaching unbelievable heights of 30 metres and more and the one big positive is that so much can be concealed from air observation. With Cuban and Angolan MiG 23's overhead for major parts of the day as they tried to pinpoint and identify the South African G-5's, cover was all important. One of the first lessons anyone arriving in the area was camouflage.

The minus factors however were many; the bush was "bush" from ground level to the forest canopy and men and vehicles had to force their way through, the sand was so deep and soft that vehicles, especially logistics trucks, bowsers and ambulances, could only proceed with difficulty. 4-SAI had elements of two "Olifant" tank squadrons attached for a planned offensive to dislodge 21 Brigade from its well dug-in and defended positions east of the Cuito River. It had sacrificed its highly mobile Ratel 90's to 61 Mech in exchange for having all the available tanks. The lightly armoured Ratel 90's had had surprising success against Russian T54/55 tanks. The rest of the unit was equipped with Ratel 81's, 60's and 20's. The latter were able to manoeuver reasonably well in the bush/sand conditions.

Many books have brushed over how the terrain was such a major factor, but Jan's, sometimes amusing, descriptions allied to the pictures appearing on the screen behind him as he talked, brought home to the audience the reality of what soldiers on both sides had faced. When confronted with the fact that his foot-soldiers were UNITA guerillas, Jan requested and was granted a few days to deploy to a rear area where he could give at the least the rudiments of fighting a conventional war to the troops. He had to be satisfied with what he hoped he had achieved and the two combat groups deployed to the laager areas which were to be their jump-off points. 4-SAI in three columns was to advance almost due west after making a feint northwards, while 61 Mech would position itself in the "seam" between FAPLA's 59 and 16 Brigades in a position to interdict the fleeing remnants of 21 Brigade.

The defences around the bridge on the Cuito River were classically Soviet Russian in layout and consisted of three rings in depth. The forward brigades were backed by a huge artillery array of some 160 guns of up to 130mm caliber was dug in behind the high west bank of the river with ranges of up to 35 kilometres. However, for months the G-5's and at one time the mobile G-6's of the South Africans had reduced Cuito Carnivale and its airstrip to make the area virtually untenable. The D-Day for the attack depended on weather conditions; blue skies would mean having to attack under Cuban air superiority.

The right time seemed to arrive; the 13th January dawned with low overcast to give the operation cover and matters were set in motion. At 11h00, 4-SAI started rolling after some softening up by the G-5's and an SAAF strike. FAPLA immediately reacted with a heavy bombardment but alas their shells were landing on a dummy area where Malan had been drawing attention to his force days previously, but only as part of a feint. Immediately the counter-bombardment by South African started which had previously pinpointed many Angolan gun positions. Malan's Combat Group was advancing in three parallel columns with Olifant tanks leading but the bush and sand almost proved too much.

Progress was very slow and the first clash took place in the early afternoon when about 20 FAPLA soldiers put up a fierce defence retreating cleverly but 4-SAI was now within 21 Brigade's defences consisting of interlocking and interconnecting bunkers and trenches. The Olifants soon developed the means of dealing with these bunkers; a tank would move up under covering fire from the 20mm Ratels and poke the 105mm gun barrel into the bunker's firing slit and fire a high explosive shell. End of the matter! The sand, bush and a stiff resistance kept the advance slow and suddenly 4-SAI found itself in a minefield. Such obstacles are designed either as killing grounds or to "funnel" an attack towards one. Armscor's "Ploffadder" mine clearing devices failed to detonate which meant engineers had to clear pathways for the advancing columns further slowing the operation.

Once through, the Olifants initiated a "firebelt" action which sent dozens of 105mm shells into all areas of cover which had a devastating effect on the defenders. Men and some vehicles started to flee under the onslaught with 20mm and machine gun fire blanketing the area. Jan quotes one bewildering episode when 61 Mech had some 20 naked Angolan soldiers fleeing right through its formation which was flanking 4-SAI on the south. As darkness descended Malan pressed forward to overrun the deep 21 Brigade defences and using starshell fired from his 81mm and 120mm mortars, continued the attack until 23h00 when resistance totally ceased. The battlefield was eerily lit with the flames of several brewing enemy tanks. The unit then consolidated and secured the area before resting.

The following day 4-SAI exploited their victory ranging as far as the Cuito and Dala Rivers and captured numerous pieces of enemy equipment. It was too risky for his superiors and when Malan with four tanks were within reach of the Cuito Bridge, he was ordered to pull back east of 21 Brigades' vacated lines. "The MiG's swarmed in the air and a host of parachute-braked bombs fell right in my laager," said Jan. Seven FAPLA tanks were destroyed, five captured intact, four armoured cars type BMDR-2 were captured.

A sigh of disappointment arose as Jan Malan had eventually to bring one of the year's highlight lectures to an end

Colin Harris

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Season's Greetings

The chairman and committee wish all members a happy holiday season and Christmas celebration, and safe travelling for those who venture afar.

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CR= curtain raiser; ML= main lecture; DDH = Darrell D Hall Memorial Lecture;

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Branch contact details

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