South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 8 June 2017 Mr Kevin Vos whose topic was his experiences as a paratrooper during Operation Savannah in 1975/6. At the time he was a member of 1 Para Battalion. He introduced his talk by explaining that he had been called up for National Service in the Infantry but, after six weeks of basic training at 11 Commando in Kimberley, he then volunteered for service in the Parachute Battalion. He was selected for an officer's course but declined the offer because he was not prepared to serve for two years during his initial period of national service.

When he and the other 20 volunteers arrived at 1 Parachute Battalion they were welcomed by a tall young officer, who addressed them as "gentlemen". Their first meal in the unit was breakfast which included bacon and eggs and all the trimmings, served on crockery instead of the usual varkpan. For those who have not served in the military, this is a cafeteria tray made of aluminium, with recesses for the various items of food and a coffee mug.

This very pleasant introduction was followed by the arrival of a rather ruder NCO, who ordered them to run to a distant building and back in 60 seconds. This made them all violently sick. Our speaker then described the extremely tough two week course that followed. The basic training had been tough but the selection course was much, much tougher.

There was continual physical training (PT) from 0700 until lunch, followed by more training until 1700 - Monday to Friday. During this period, they were introduced to the "marble", a heavy round kerbstone which they had to carry with them wherever they went - including during the physical training as well as visits to the shower. It had to go to bed with them as well.

Another training exercise involved carrying a telephone pole for some 20 kilometres, with of course, the ever-present marble. The pole featured in many of the exercises which increased in intensity. From time to time they were shown Second World War films, used by Mr Vos and his comrades to catch up on some much-needed sleep during the show. There were also night-time navigation exercises which also reduced their sleeping time.

At the end of the two weeks the survivors were evaluated. Evaluation consisted of a series of extreme physical exercises. At the end of this period they were informed that they would be starting their parachute training. This started with endless PT designed to help one to jump and land correctly. They were then taken to the "Aapkas", a tall tower. They climbed up this and were fitted with parachutes attached to a cable stretching from the top to ground level. They jumped and slid down the cable, making a proper landing. Then they were kitted up with parachute and taken for a flight in a C47, commonly known as the "Dakota", or simply just as the "Dak." They stood in the door and had to decide whether or not they were ready to jump. If a trainee decided that he could not, he was returned to his parent unit (RTO) and left the course. At the end of the jump course our speaker received his wings and was a fully-fledged Parabat. Of his group of 21 volunteers, only two were left.

During the training period they also received weapons training. They were issued with the standard issue personal weapon, the venerable and much-loved FAL rifle.1 Our speaker volunteered to be trained as a mortar gunner, which meant that he had to carry a mortar as well as his other kit into battle.

At the end of 1975 our speaker went to South West Africa, where he served in Operation Savannah, South Africa's first campaign since the end of World War 2. After their revolution, the Portuguese left their African colonies and South Africa, at the request of the United States, intervened in Angola to support the anti-communist liberation movements FNLA and UNITA. The first troops were led by Commandants Jan Breytenbach and the late Delville Linford, leading ex-FNLA and Bushman troops. They soon needed support and initially Parabats without heavy support weapons, other than platoon-level support weapons, such as mortars, were also sent to assist the small clandestine force.

The SADF personnel were supplied with olive green uniforms, tackies and old Portuguese G5 rifles and told to speak English and not Afrikaans. The non-South African uniforms meant that they had revoked their rights under the Geneva Convention. Initially the Parabats were not deployed to the battlefront but guarded banks, such as at Sa de Bandeira, and other ancillary military tasks. But the Cubans were arriving with heavy weapons and the South Africans were reinforced with armoured cars and Parabats operating heavy weapons. The recces had also been deployed to perform much-needed reconnaissance and information-gathering in a totally unfamiliar, and very much hostile, environment. The South Africans soon discovered that they were outnumbered and outgunned by the Cubans and FNLA.2

Our speaker and his colleagues were attached to Cdt Breytenbach's FNLA troops (later 32 Battalion). He described his first contact with SWAPO as an 18-year-old conscript. At that time the SA Defence Force (SADF) had no mine-proofed personnel carriers (such as the later and ubiquitous mine-proof "Buffels") - the troops were using soft skinned Bedford or Unimog 2 ton 4x4 troop carriers. These vehicles were "mine-proofed" with sandbags and could transport 10 - 11 troops. In their first real "contact" with enemy forces occurred when they drove past a small mission church and came to the top of a rise. Feelings of fear verging on cowardice overwhelmed them when they saw green tracer bullets coming towards them. The Unimog withdrew and they did what their training told them to do. Mr Vos described the action that followed, in which he made good use of his 60mm mortar, taking out the enemy machinegun.

He described his feelings when he saw one of the dead SWAPO soldiers and looked into his eyes. The dead soldier's skull felt like glass when he touched it with his boot. One of the other troops cut off one of the corpse's ears but their officer ordered him to bury it immediately. Our English-speaking speaker explained that, during quiet periods, despite his Afrikaans ancestry, he was mercilessly ragged and regarded as a "hanskakie/draadsitter" by his Afrikaans comrades. However, when in combat all this friendly rivalry and cultural animosity were very quickly forgotten and the troop then functioned like a well-oiled and well-drilled combat machine

He then spoke about the 700 km advance into Angola by the SA battle groups Zulu and Foxtrot. The South Africans were ill-equipped and were quick to improvise when necessary. Pews from a catholic cathedral were placed back-to-back in a Unimog to provide Buffel-style seating when they went on reconnaissance patrols. On these they were usually escorted by 2 Eland 90,3 colloquially known as "Noddy Cars" to the frustration and ire of their crews.

Our speaker recalled an ambush on 29 December 1975. He described the clear air, the beautiful green landscape, white sands and rivers of Angola and an enormous rock which they named Tolkien's Rock. An RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade of Communist Bloc manufacture)4 glanced off the turret of a "Noddy Car" and the car veered off into a deep ditch. During the fire-fight that followed there was dust and stones everywhere. He explained that, despite the terror he felt, he became calm when he started to do the job he had been trained to do. One of his comrades was wounded in the spleen and liver but, miraculously, recovered later. What the South Africans did not realise was that they were facing 600 Cuban troops. They were obscured by a large rock. The "enemy" also included red ants which attacked them viciously and forced them to move despite the risks involved.

Mr Vos spoke of the uncertainty of continued American support by President Gerald Ford. They were fired on by Stalin Organ rockets which were terrifying but these usually landed in soft sand and could be avoided by lying flat on the ground. More hazardous was friendly fire from our own Second World War 5.5 inch (140mm) guns.

He recounted an incident which occurred two weeks before the end of Operation Savannah when carelessness nearly proved fatal. He and other members of his unit were ordered to protect sappers who had been tasked to blow up a bridge, but they decided to go fishing in the river with grenades. This attracted own artillery fire which, fortunately, could be stopped by their officer. On another occasion, he was at a road block and stopped a Land-Rover. One of the passengers was a handsome soldier who turned out to be a woman in disguise. She was handed over to the military police for questioning.

Our speaker and his company were at one stage split into small groups of 4 or 5 Parabats who went out on patrol with one or two Recce Commandoes and a member of the future 32 Battalion to look for Cuban or Angolan troops. Some of these patrols were on foot and others in vehicles. Extreme care had to be exercised to remain undiscovered as the South Africans would always be outnumbered. The civilian population could be friendly or otherwise, so it was preferable to remain unseen. He described other operations in which he took part.

South African troops are fond of collecting souvenirs, including uniforms, knives, bayonets and even arms and ammunition. One of Mr Vos' friends acquired a Tokarev pistol from a dead Cuban but, when reaching Sa de Bandeira, swopped it for a tin of peaches. All troops were searched by the Military Police who confiscated everything and, especially, ammunition.

At Sa de Bandeira, Mr Vos and his mates saw a light in the airport control tower. Upon investigation, they found some troops guarding a Brigadier's loot (single malt whisky, 200 year old port, etc.). This had been stolen and thus fair game...

Eventually they came back to Grootfontein and had to wait for quite a while before a train became available. For their gallant services in Operation Savannah, the SADF troops had been promised mercenary pay by Mr P W Botha. He subsequently decided that too much money for young soldiers would be a bad idea and it would corrupt them. So each of them was awarded a Parker Pen. The veterans were so disgusted by this that they stamped on them when they were presented with them. The veterans were bitter because no Honoris Crux Medals were awarded for bravery during the Operation. They were also upset that every one of them was strip-searched by the Military Police before returning to South Africa.

Mr Vos then discussed post-traumatic stress and noted that no provision had been made in 1975 for the treatment of this He said that, when he returned home, his mother had looked at his eyes and knew at once that something was seriously wrong with him. He found it impossible to visit crowded shopping malls. He healed himself by going away to the Klip River and fishing. Kind friends invited him to stay with them and this helped him to recover. One day, while out with his brother, he heard a woman screaming a short distance away. He immediately rushed to investigate and, possibly help her. A man had raped her and was about to kill her. Mr Vos had a bayonet with him and would have killed the man if his brother had not taken it from him. He explained that talking about his military experiences had helped him greatly. He has now recovered from his problems and now holds the post of operations manager in a local company.

Our speaker praised the legendary figures of the South African Border War, such as Colonels Jan Breytenbach and Delville Linford (†2015). He discussed the officers and non-commissioned officers under whom he had served. Some of these were men he would have followed anywhere, who commanded from the front and looked after their men. Many others did not meet these standards.

He described how the Portuguese settlers who had been driven out of their Angolan homes returned as the South Africans advanced. Regrettably, when the South Africans returned to the then South West Africa (present-day Namibia) as it had become apparent that the Americans were about to leave us on our own, carrying the can, the settlers were forced to flee once again. This time it was for good.

He also recalled a glamorous blonde who was entertaining South African troops in Angola. This prompted one of the audience to make a very explicitly sexist remark - in Afrikaans. She overheard him and replied "my boer - ver van die huis". She was a Dutch journalist and the South Africans should have been speaking English....not that it would have fooled any foreigner.... The only society not aware what was really transpiring beyond our borders, were the South Africans.....

Mr Vos then recalled his post-Operation Savannah camps. He described one in which his unit was the "enemy" in an exercise. They took passage in a SA Navy vessel and an argument soon developed about whether the divers were tougher than the paras. This went on for a while until the ship's captain brought it to an end by saying that, if they did not shut up, they could all swim ashore.

He praised the excellent esprit de corps existing in 1 Parachute Battalion. When Colonel Jan Breytenbach suffered a heart attack some years ago and his medical aid had run out, the paras donated funds to cover the balance of these expenses. A further donor was a former enemy, an MPLA general.

Mr Bob Buser thanked our speaker for a most fascinating talk and presented him with the customary gift.



The South African War occurred during the middle of the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration (1895-1922) so it is not surprising that many men took part in both - but what the speaker found interesting when researching the subject was that for many of the important leaders of Antarctic exploration (Ernest Shackleton, Frank Wild, Ernest Joyce, John King Davis & Lawrence Oates) the South African War was directly or indirectly responsible for their careers as polar explorers.

In the talk Dr Cullis shall give a brief outline of the History of Antarctic exploration and how the South African War was responsible for the careers of some of the important explorers - and also mention that part that some of the explorers played in the War (including Lawrence Oates about whom Taffy Shearing spoke to the Society about 20 years ago). He was wounded, being shot, just outside Aberdeen in 1901 and 10 years later died when returning from Scott's unsuccessful attempt to be the first at the South Pole.

The lecture will be illustrated.


Our speaker for August is fellow-member Greg Pullin, on the subject of Operation Barbarossa: The Start Of The Russo-German War, 1941. The 22nd of June, 1941 saw the 76th anniversary of the start of the biggest military campaign in recorded history. More than 3,8 million Axis forces, led by the German Wehrmacht (along with the Finnish armed forces as co-belligerents), took on the military might of the Soviet Union. The Axis' underestimation of the strength and resilience of the Soviet forces eventually cost Hitler's Germany the Second World War and led to the subjugation of the Axis partners, along with other democracies, in Eastern Europe, to Soviet domination. Operation Barbarossa saw radically new tactics, extensive tank battles and the development of new armour equally to the surprise of friend and foe.

Greg is well-known - nationally and internationally - amongst the modelling, war gaming, armour and military aviation research fraternities. His knowledge on the aforementioned subjects, is in one word, phenomenal....and then he still follows a most demanding professional career. The lecture will be illustrated and is certainly not to be missed.


1 The FN FAL (French: Fusil Automatique Léger, English: Light Automatic Rifle), is a battle rifle designed and manufactured by Fabrique Nationale d'Herstal (FN Herstal). During the Cold War it was adopted by many North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries (except the United States). It is one of the most widely used rifles in history, having been used by more than 90 countries, including South Africa. The FAL was predominantly chambered for the 7.62×51mm NATO round (in civilian use known as the .308 Winchester calibre) and was in widespread use among the armed forces of many NATO countries and other western countries during the "Cold War" period. A British Commonwealth derivative of the FN FAL has been produced under licence as the L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle. The FAL was produced under licence in South Africa by Lyttleton Engineering Works, where it is known as the R1. The first South African produced rifle, serial numbered 200001, was presented to the then Prime Minister, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, by Armscor and is now on view at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg. Due to its length which exacerbated handling in confined spaces, a shortened version with a folding stock was also introduced, used in the main by paratroopers. The standard version came with a wooden stock (FAL) and the locally-manufactured R1 was fitted with a high-impact-resistant nylon stock.

2 The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (Portuguese: Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola, FNLA) was a militant organization that fought for Angolan independence from Portugal in the war of independence, under the leadership of Holden Roberto. Founded in 1954 as the União dos Povos do Norte de Angola guerrilla movement, it was known after 1959 as the União dos Povos de Angola (UPA) guerrilla movement, and from 1961 as the FNLA guerilla movement. During the 1970s the Israeli government shipped arms to the FNLA through Zaire. The People's Republic of China already began supplying the FNLA with arms in 1964. It gave the FNLA military equipment and at least 112 military advisers. When Gerald Ford assumed the US presidency in August 1974, the new foreign policy favoured support for black rule in Angola as well as passive support for white rule and so minimal aid was returned to the FNLA. But by November 1974, the US decided they did not want a future government dominated by a pro-Soviet MPLA so the CIA funded the FNLA with $300,000 to help it achieve that objective. The main liberation movements were the FNLA, MPLA (People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola - Labour Party (Portuguese: Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola - Partido do Trabalho)) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) (Portuguese: União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola). They met in Portugal on 10 January 1975 and on 15 January 1975, signed the Alvor Agreement, which would grant Angola independence from Portugal on 11 November, ending the current conflict between the FNLA, MPLA and UNITA. After the military coup in Portugal during April 1974, the military junta negotiated a cease-fire with the main Angolan movements. By 25 November 1974, a ceasefire was concluded between the FNLA and UNITA and with the MPLA on 18 December 1974. The ceasefire almost immediately collapsed and Portugal eventually suspended the Alvor Agreement on 29 August 1975, except for independence on 11 November 1975, and withdrawal of its troops that signal an escalation of violence for the control of Angola prior to that date. The civil war started even before that date. The threat of attacks around the Calueque hydroelectric facility, forced the South African army to enter Angola to initially defend its interests in the hydro-electric facility and irrigation scheme. Chaos and unprecedented bloodshed forced the SA government's hand and limited involvement would escalate into Operation Savannah to assist the FNLA and UNITA militarily to gain as much control of southern and central Angola prior to Independence Day in November. The US gave the green light for the South Africans covert invasion via the CIA, but this would soon change as their involvement became public knowledge, with the left-leaning US State Department vehemently opposing SA involvement and US support, resulting in the US ceasing the support to both the FNLA and UNITA, and of course, South Africa. The shoestring South African force was superbly led and would advance close to Luanda from the south while a small force of South African artillery and advisors would support the FNLA in the north, before withdrawing. Many FNLA troops chose to withdraw with the South Africans - they were later mustered and formed the backbone of that formidable Light Infantry force, 32 Battalion.

3 The Eland is an air portable light armoured car based on the French Panhard AML. Designed and built by South Africa for long-range reconnaissance, it mounts either a 60mm (2.4 in) breech-loading mortar or a Denel 90mm (3.5 in) low-pressure gun on a very compact chassis. Although lightly armoured, the vehicle's permanent 4X4 drive makes it faster over flat terrain than many tanks. Eland was developed for the SADF in South Africa's first major arms programme since World War II, with prototypes completed in 1963. By 1991, 1,600 examples had been built for home and export; prominent foreign operators included Morocco and Zimbabwe. Local overhauls incorporating lessons from internal operations have resulted in a vehicle capable of withstanding the unforgiving Southern African environment and highly mobile operational style of the SADF.

4 The RPG-7 (Russian: ???-7) is a portable, reusable, unguided, shoulder-launched, anti-tank rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Originally the RPG-7 (?????? ??????????????? ?????????? - Ruchnoy Protivotankoviy Granatomyot - Hand-held anti-tank grenade launcher) and its predecessor, the RPG-2, were designed by the Soviet Union; it is still manufactured in Russia. The ruggedness, simplicity, low cost, and effectiveness of the RPG-7 has made it the most widely used anti-armour weapon in the world. Currently around 40 countries use the weapon, and it is manufactured in several variants by nine countries. It is popular with irregular and guerrilla forces. The RPG has been used in almost all conflicts across all continents since the mid-1960s from the Vietnam War to the early 2010s War in Afghanistan. Widely produced, the most commonly seen major variations are the RPG-7D paratrooper model (can be broken into two parts for easier carrying), and the lighter Chinese Type 69 RPG. The RPG-7 was first delivered to the Soviet Army in 1961 and deployed at a squad level.

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

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /