South African Military History Society

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The chairman, Jan-Willem Hoorweg was forced to delay the opening of the Meeting due to some technical issues with the projection equipment. Only one notice was given, that of an upcoming excursion to Kedar Lodge on Saturday 7 October 2017 and anyone interested should please give their names to David Scholtz if they require transport by a bus being laid on. He then introduced the evening's speakers: Hamish Paterson and Pierre Lundberg.

Hamish Paterson chose to present a pet subject of his, titled "Women & War in the 20th & 21st Centuries, from the 'Gentle Sex' to Fighters."

In 1914, after the declaration of War by Great Britain on Germany, the following years would see the change of Women's status forever. By 1918, after years of striving, women aged 30 and over would receive the vote. The United States followed with women's franchise in 1919. Ever behind the times, South Africa waited until 1930 to grant the vote to white women. As the role of women in warfare has traditionally been that of Nursing, it follows that this function was soon organized. Dame Sidney Browne took the lead. She was the Matron-in-Chief of Queen Alexander's Imperial Military Nursing Service, imminently suited to shoulder the task and became Matron-in-Chief in turn of all nursing. Although there were many, the largest single group of women nurses was the "Voluntary Aid Detachment", the "V.A.D's", which served in all theatres. Names come to the fore; one is commemorated in Johannesburg, Nurse Edith Cavell. But the War demanded more: women took on other major roles as circumstances changed

On the vast Russian front where losses were huge, whole regiments of women were raised to make up for manpower shortages, a precedent for Russia's recruitment of female fighters in the Second World War. The demands of Empire eventuated in the formation of units which would free men to go into combat roles; Queen Mary's Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, the Women's Royal Naval Service and the Women's Royal Airforce. The inter-war years saw some changes; one body, "The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry" becoming the Women's Transport Service. Hostilities commencing in 1939 of course saw a variety of organisations coming into being, nursing no longer the only reason for deploying women in the services.

The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry though, had a clandestine feature; women officers of the Special Operations Executive, the "SOE," were commissioned into it! Notable names like Nancy Wake who eventually commanded Marquis in France, along with Violet Szabo and Odette Sansom, who both were awarded the George Cross for their sacrifices to the War. Another key unit, The Air Transport Auxiliary, employed 166 women pilots who broke many barriers including getting equal flying pay from 1943.

Women rose to command squadrons, with Pauline Gower the most prominent. Women on several occasions were recipients of the highest awards for gallantry and valour, winning in various ways the George Cross and the George Medal. Cpl. J.D.M. Pearson GC, WAAF, won her award by flinging herself on the pilot of a crashed aircraft and saving his life. Young Charity Anne Black, an ARP bicycle dispatch rider during the Blitz, made several trips between her control centre and the scene of firefighters dealing with incendiary bombs. She was a mere 14 years old! She went on to a career of 22 years in the WRAF.

In South Africa we had a Women's Auxiliary Air Force, the brain child of Lt. Col. Doreen Dunning. The elitist of our serving women other than The V.A.D.'s, were the S.A. Women's Auxiliary Army Service who provided Artillery Specialists to the Coastal Defence Batteries.

Our American cousins were not as successful in providing with their Women Airforce Service Pilots as the British Air Transport Auxiliary. It was disbanded before the war's end.

However, in the Soviet Forces the 46th Taman Guards Regiment which became known as "the Night Witches," was a force to be reckoned with. Piloting Antonov single-engine bi-planes, at low altitude at night they dropped bombs causing confusion and damage on the ground in many front-line areas. In addition Soviet women fighter pilots were so good they counted 3 Heroines of the Soviet Union in their ranks, one of whom, Lidya Litvyak was top gun; 12 individual kills with 4 shared! On the British side no less than 5 women have won awards for gallantry in this Century. Flight-Lieutenant Michelle Goodman, RAF, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. 4 Combat Medics have won the Military Cross, Private Michelle Norris, Able Seaman Kate Nesbitt, Corporal Sarah Bushbye and L/Corporal Kylie Watson.

Time constraints are the only reason why the Story of Women in War cannot be fully told.

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The Main Lecture was presented by Pierre Lundberg; "The Reconnaissance and Attack on Namibe Harbour 4/5 June 1986 by No. 4 Reconnaissance Regiment."

Pierre introduced the audience to Special Forces - No. 4 Reconnaissance Commando. In the period 1978-1989, 480 soldiers qualified as Special Forces Operators - of these only 45 served in No. 4 Recce. This highly secretive unit provided a capability for deadly raids well beyond S.A.'s borders. Area of ops: north on west coast to beyond Angola /Congo and on the east coast as far as Tanzania. No. 4 Recce's a seaborne operations specialist branch of Special Forces. Based at Langebaan near Saldanha it is normally transported and supported by the South African Navy. Specialisation by operators who have qualified for the Recces is done at their base. In 4 Recces' case this involves a host of skills associated with seamanship; 'combat' swimming, small boat handling, attack diving, underwater reconnaissance and demolition.

In late 1985 and early 1986 the build-up by MPLA/Cuban forces for an attack on UNITA's base in South-East Angola was reaching critical proportions. A massive drive on Mavinga was planned. The SADF initiated Operation "Cide"- reconnaissance of the Angolan ports of Lobito and Namibe, and Operation " Drosdy"- Inflict maximum disruption on all logistic supply lines of enemy forces that emanated out of Namibe. The period 18 Feb 1986 14 Mar 1986 was allowed for Operation "Cide."

On 16 Feb, the submarine SAS Johanna van der Merwe arrived at 4 Recce's Base at Donkergat, loaded boats and equipment and conducted rehearsals of launching and recovery. Departing two days later the submarine arrived off Lobito on 26 February. The launch of inflatables from the submarine had to be aborted owing to heavy sea conditions including a lightning storm which at one point revealed the submarine on the surface glowing with the "Saint Elmo's Fire" phenomenon! The following night a reconnaissance of the port was done. Travelling at night on surface and by day submerged, the team arrived off Giraul Point at Namibe on 4 March. A periscope reconnaissance was undertaken during the day and the Recces' route in was identified as well as rocket installations and the presence of two missile boats.

At 21h00 the team was launched and, after exploring the harbour, was recovered 5 nautical miles out to sea at 04h30 on 5 March and the submarine started for home, the basic reconnaissance of the port complete.

Operation Drosdy could now be initiated. The task force for this operation would consist of a submarine, 3 strike craft specially modified to transport 6 "Barracuda" rigid attack boats, 2 K50 inflatables, and the support vessel SAS Tafelberg with 2 Puma helicopters. Besides the crews of the ships the raiding force would comprise 58 Special Forces members. Thirty two operators would be landing or undertaking underwater demolitions while fourteen operators were needed to crew the Barracudas, one of which was armed with a 20mm cannon. Seven men from No 1 Recce and a Chaplain accompanied the force aboard Tafelberg.

On 21st and 22nd May the tactical recce teams exercised with Johanna vd Merwe in the Langebaan area after which the submarine loaded stores and gear and departed for the target area. During the 24th to 26th May the raiding and attack diving teams rehearsed with the 3 strike craft and that night the first Strike Craft left with a tactical reconnaissance team to rendezvous with Johanna vd Merwe 75 nautical miles out to sea from the target. On 30th May the other two strike craft left Donkergat with the remaining No.4 Recce teams and their equipment. The same night, the submarine conducted a close in periscope recce of the harbour confirming the presence of a number of commercial ships alongside or at anchor. On the nights of 1st and 3rd June Tactical Reconnaissance teams were landed and in turn recovered by the submarine. These teams were able to establish rendezvous points and other key locations for weapons, etc. before leaving the area. After debriefing on the submarine it was agreed there was no further need for reconnaissance and D-Day was set for 3rd June 1986.

The countdown for launching the 6 Barracuda Boats at 20h00 commenced at 14h00 but a hydraulic/mechanical problem with the launch gear delayed the operation until 21h30 when it was decided to abort the operation that night. On 4th June the countdown recommenced after the submarine had confirmed targets. The strike craft approached the coast and launched all the Barracudas 5 nautical miles out at 20h00. Boats #1 & #2 carried the Shore Raiding Team, Boats #3 & #4 the Early Warning and Dive Team #1 which would head for the Iron Ore jetty. Boat #4 - the 20mm gunboat, would cover the landing and diving areas. Boats #5 & #6 carried dive teams 3 & 2 for the main jetty.

The boats grouped together and ran in. Boat #3 peeled off north to the iron ore jetty but the target ship had sailed so it joined #1, #2 and #4. The boats carrying the swimmers/divers would not be able to get closer than 1000m to their objectives so these men had to make their approach swimming. Their re-breather apparatus had limited air supply so the swimmers were trained to swim on their backs on the surface before splitting apart close to the target to make their attacks underwater. Only one hitch occurred with the swimmers; while two operators were busy attaching charges to one ship, a hand-grenade was tossed into the water from the ship. Fearing they could have been spotted, the operators ceased working and remained still under the hull. After a while and no further action from the ship, the swimmers completed their task of attaching mines. Boats #1, #2 and #3 were unable to beach owing to a heavy shore-break and the raiding party had to make their way through the surf to land. Deposited near the sub-station, all operators went to their respective targets. The fuel tanks and other installations were targeted using RPG 7 rocket launchers placed on stands whilst other demolition charges were placed by hand.

By 02h30 all operators had rendezvoused with their respective boats which then moved 5 nautical miles out to sea and linked up with the waiting strike craft. At 05h33 when the flotilla was 25 miles out at sea the sky was seen to illuminate over the land: "ALL HELL HAD BROKEN LOOSE IN NAMIBE."

At 06h15 the Johanna van der Merwe slipped cautiously into the bay to carry out a periscope observation of what results might be seen. At the fuel farm only one tank and LPG store were not burning. Three of four ships alongside the quay were listing: a Cuban cargo ship of 6000 tonnes, the Habana, sank at 10h00. Two Russian cargo ships Kapitan Chikov (16 000 tonnes) and Kapitan Vislobokov (12 000 tonnes) were resting on the sea bottom alongside the jetty. Other damage was done to shore installations, railway points, electricity sub-stations and pylons.

The initial impact of the raid was that the MPLA delayed the impending campaign to capture the strategic town of Mavinga. SADF forces inland were able to take advantage of an opportunity to destroy enemy stockpiles of fuel and munitions in the Menongue-Cuito Carnivale area, thus putting off the MPLA's plans for a full year.

Russian salvage teams were flown in and a much increased Soviet Naval presence resulted. The only medals awarded were to six Russian salvage engineers who de-activated some unexploded mines.

Just days later, the Security Council voted on a draft resolution condemning the raid and calling for increased sanctions against South Africa for a premeditated and unprovoked attack on Namibe.

Although other clandestine operations continued until hostilities ceased, no further attacks or raids of this nature were carried out by the S A Navy and Special Forces.

Operation Drosdy was an outstanding example of the unique bond that existed between the SA Navy and No. 4 Reconnaissance Regiment.

Statement by the Russian Veterans of Angola: "They were a deeply specialized reconnaissance and sabotage unit capable to act for a long time in isolation from the main forces of the enemy often relying only on themselves. Commandos of the defence Force of South Africa not only developed their own and extremely effective and ruthless system of selection and training but also enriched tactics by specific techniques and modes of action. From a professional point of view their experience is invaluable and unique." High praise indeed!

Colin Harris


The Society has reached an agreement with the Ditsong National Museum of Military History whereby the Society will in future publish the Military History Journal. Members are reminded that articles are required for the Journal - please e-mail to

Branch contact details

For Cape Town details contact Johan van den Berg 021-939-7923
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng details contact Joan Marsh 010-237-0676
For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Roy Bowman 031 564 4669

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KZN in Durban:

Thursday 12th October

Thursday 12th October

Monday 9th October

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

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