South African Military History Society


Newsletter/Nuusbrief 159

December/Desember 2017

SAMHSEC’s November meeting took place on Saturday 18th at the South African Air Force Museum in Port Elizabeth. The meeting commenced at 10h30 with a lecture on the life and times of Major Allister Miller, the South African Aviation pioneer, presented by Michael Mills, supported by Mark Kelbrick. A summary of this excellent lecture will be distributed to members when it becomes available. This was followed by a guided tour of the Museum with its many fascinating exhibits, including several aircraft.

The rest of the meeting took place after a convivial lunch and was composed of the three usual presentations. The member’s slot by Malcolm Kinghorn was on United States fatalities during the Second World War.

Malcolm began by displaying comparative data on American casualty rates. These were Coast Guard, 1 in 421 of those who served;the US Navy, 1 in 114; the Army 1 in 48, the Marines, 1 in 34; and the Merchant Marine, 1 in 26. The high casualty rate amongst merchant seamen caused President Roosevelt to promise veteran status and a Seaman’s Bill of Rights for the US Merchant Marine and Army Transport Service. This promise died with him. There are nevertheless many monuments to, and memorial services for, Merchant Navy casualties. Psalm 107, verses 23 and 24: They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; / These see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep are often inscribed on such monuments.

The SATS General Botha Memorial in Cape Town records graduates who died during the Second World War and a service is conducted at the Memorial in March as part of an annual series of events commemorating the SATS General Botha Commissioning Day.

The Merchant Navy Cenotaph in the Cape Town docks was dedicated in 1961 “To the memory of South African seamen of the Commonwealth Merchant Navies who lost their lives during the Second World War 1939-1945 and who have no known grave”. It was relocated to near the Port Captain’s office in 1996 due to port expansion. Although the inscriptions on the Cenotaph commemorate those who died during the Second World War, the Society of Master Mariners of South Africa’s annual ceremony at the Cenotaph has broadened to include all Merchant Navy sailors who died during conflict.

The curtain raiser, also by Malcolm Kinghorn, was on The significance of Armistice Day. It is widely accepted that the First World War ended at the almost romantic sounding 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. More accurately, what happened at 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 was a cessation of hostilities on the Western Front in the Great War. ‘The Great War’, which some at the time believed would be the war to end all wars, was not known at the time as the First World War as there was no way of knowing that there would be another world war. The Western Front was not the only front of the War, although it is the front which typifies the Great War for most of us, because that is where most of the South African participants in the war served and because most of us read military history in English. 11th November was not the only Armistice Day of the Great War. On the Eastern Front, for instance, Armistice Day was on 3rd November 1918. Nor was Armistice Day, not Victory Day as in VE Day and VJ Day in 1945, the end of the Great War. Hostilities in Russia, for example, which included international participation, continued until 1921 and between Greece and Turkey until 1923.

So, why is Armistice Day significant? If that is a mystery, it is because the Great War was a mystery and, in many respects, still is. In 1914, Europe was at the height of its success as a source of global wealth and power and at a peak of intellectual and cultural achievement. Why did it choose to risk all it had achieved and all it offered the world in vicious and mutually destructive conflict? Principle was certainly at stake, but the principle of the sanctity of international treaty, which brought Britain into the war, scarcely merited the price eventually paid for its protection. The principle of defence of national territory, for which France fought, caused almost unbearable damage to its national well-being. The principle of defence of mutual security agreement, underlying the entry into the war of both Germany and Russia, was pursued in both those countries to the point where security lost all meaning as state structures disintegrated. Simple state interest, Austria’s impulse and the oldest of all reasons for making war, proved of no importanceas the pillars of the Hapsburg Empire collapsed.

So was its course. Why, when hope of bringing the conflict to an early and decisive conclusion dissolved within months of its outbreak, did the combatants choose to persist in their military effort, to mobilise for total war and commit their young manhood to mutual slaughter? And, what is probably one of the greater mysteries of the War, how did the anonymous millions find the resolve to sustain the struggle and continue to believe in its purpose? Whatever the answers to these mysteries, 11thNovember as Armistice Day is sufficiently significant to be recognised internationally, at least in the English-speaking world.

A common theme in the commemoration of Armistice Day in Commonwealth countries is reciting the stanza from Lawrence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, which ends with We will remember them, sounding the Last Post and Reveille, the former in memory of the fallen, the latter in expectation of a better future. Observing a two minute silence between the two is a tradition instigated by a South African with Eastern Cape connections and whose son was killed on the Western Front, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.

Armistice Day is recognised differently in various parts of the world. In some countries, it is for honouring those who died in conflict. In some, for example Canada, 11thNovember is a public holiday. In others, for example the UK since 1939, those who died in conflict are honoured on the Sunday closest to 11thNovember. In the United States, 11thNovember is Veterans’ Day, when public appreciation is expressed for the service of all military veterans, not only those who died. Memorial Day in May is the day for remembering those who died in service of the USA.

What is the significance of Armistice Day in South Africa, a country whose history is a military history? Ours is not only a history of conflict, but of conflict in which we have never all been on the same side and conflict in which both sides believed that they were fighting the good fight. In addition to never having been on the same side, throughout the 20th century the side violently opposing the government of the day became the government after the cessation of hostilities. After being defeated in the Anglo-Boer War and losing the independence of their republics in 1902, by 1910 Boers were governing the two former republics and the two former Colonies, the four of which formed the Union of South Africa. By 1924, the Rebels of 1914, who had violently opposed South Africa’s participation in The Great War, were the government. In 1948, those who had violently opposed South Africa’s participation in the Second World War became the government. In 1994, those who had been violently opposing the government of the day became the government.

South Africa has cultural, linguistic, ideological and other centrifugal forces, with one person’s hero being the next person’s villain and one person’s monument being the next person’s symbol of oppression. Outward signs of this are that public war memorials are dilapidated and memorial events poorly attended. Yet, here South Africa is in a world in which racial and other tensions abound to a far greater extent than in South Africa and where disintegration is a far greater possibility, and indeed probability, if not reality, than in South Africa. Where people don’t have the luxury of allowing school girl hairstyles to become an issue. And this in spite of the centrifugal stresses in our society. Why is this? I believe it is because there are enough South Africans, anonymous and un-thanked as they may be, who put service before self, people of the many service organisations, those in the education, health, judicial and other professions, the fourth estate and the many other pillars of our society, not to allow what has been built against such heavy odds to come to naught.

And let us remember the contribution of military veterans, to what we have; those who, in putting service before self, put themselves in harm’s way in what they believed to be service to our country and its peoples

This remarkable country of ours certainly isn’t what it is because of the excellence of our political leadership; indeed, one could say that what we achieve is in spite of our political leaders. It follows that we can’t look to political leadership to give significance to Armistice Day. So, what is the significance of Armistice Day in South Africa today? I believe that it matters not what the significance of Armistice Day is to anyone else. What matters is what its significance is to each one of us individually. I, as a South African military veteran, am proud to say on Armistice Day, as I should on every other day, “I am a veteran, that’s why I’m here. I am a veteran because I put service before self. I am a veteran and at the going down of the sun and in the morning, I will remember them.”That is why Armistice Day is significant to me.

The main lecture,titled Helicopter operations in the Western Desert Mountains during the Southern Africa Thirty-Year War, was given by McGill Alexander.

Vertical envelopment is a form of manoeuvre, carried out by means of airborne operations. These comprise parachute, air-landed and helicopter actions. In this talk, an overview of three airborne operations in a little-known area of conflict was given. The aim is to illustrate vertical envelopment by helicopter in a low-intensity conflict, using three specific operations as case studies.

The Thirty-Year War is the term increasingly given by historians to encompass the conflicts that took place in Southern Africa between approximately 1960 and 1990. This includes those ‘small wars’ referred to as the Portuguese Colonial Wars, the Rhodesian Bush War, the Namibian Border War, the civil wars in Angola and Mozambique and the internal unrest in South Africa. These are all also known individually as liberation struggles, or collectively as the Liberation Struggle.

A little-known area of military operations is the Western Desert Mountains, straddling the lower reaches of the Cunene River, and encompassing the Kaokoveld in Namibia and the Iona National Park in Angola. Most of the operations between the South African Defence Force (SADF) and SWAPO’s insurgent People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) took place to the east of this area. However, during the early 1980s the operational situation along the central and eastern sections of the border between the two countries was dominated by the presence of the SADF. There were up to ten battalions of infantry deployed along this section, making infiltration by PLAN very difficult.

A decision was taken by the PLAN high command to activate the mountainous but arid, inhospitable and sparsely populated western section in order to outflank the SADF. For this to happen, a staging point would need to be established from where insurgents could be supplied before crossing the Cunene River into the Kaokoveld.

The first location chosen was the small town of Chitado, just five kilometres north of Swartbooisdrift on the Cunene. It had suffered severe damage during the war until then, and most of the civilian population had long since fled. The SADF picked up PLAN’s intention to establish a transit base here from documents captured during Operation REINDEER in 1978 and Operation SCEPTIC in 1980. A decision was therefore made to monitor activity in the town, the task being given to the SADF’s Special Forces. By means of a high altitude, high opening (HAHO) night time insertion, a Special Forces team infiltrated to high ground overlooking the town and conducted an extended surveillance operation. This was possibly the only HAHO operation carried out during the war, and a great deal of accurate and valuable intelligence was obtained by the team.

During July 1980, PLAN mortared the town of Ruacana, on the Namibian side of the border and some 50 km east of Chitado. The SADF decided to carry out a retribution attack on Chitado, by means of a helicopter assault. Although Chitado was lightly defended, a mechanised attack would have taken time to mount due to the distances involved. Because of the Cunene River, a mechanised assault would have required crossing the dam wall at Calueque, inside Angola, which would have negated any attempt at surprise. Terrain, distance and enemy dispositions all indicated that a vertical envelopment was the best manoeuvre to implement. The objective was close enough to be reached by helicopter, and there were sufficient helicopters available to transport half a company in one lift. The action was named Operation KLIPKOP, and it took place on 30th July 1980.

B-Company, 1 Parachute Battalion was assembled at the airfield at Ruacana on 29thJuly. With no time for a rehearsal, they were issued their orders, additional ammunition and other items, prepared their equipment and took off at dawn the following morning. The assault force consisted of 60 paratroopers. They were transported in five Puma assault helicopters and supported by five Alouette III gunships armed with 20 mm cannons mounted in the door. There was a sixth Alouette III helicopter for command and control.

The garrison at Chitado consisted of a 25-man platoon of FAPLA (the Angolan Armed Forces) and a Cuban-trained platoon of the TGFA (armed Frontier Guard), about 35 strong. Manning the PLAN building that was used to house supplies, explosives, land mines, ammunition and arms, was a contingent of only eight insurgents. However, this number grew to as many as 30 immediately prior to an incursion, or when insurgents were returning from an incursion. The nearest intervention force that could reinforce the Angolan garrison was a mechanised battalion based at Otjinjau, some 100 km to the north.

The defences of the town faced east – the direction from which a mechanised attack was anticipated. But the helicopters flew low along the river gorge, turned up the dry river bed leading to Chitado and landed the paratroopers behind some trees to the south-west of the town. Supported by the gunships, they assaulted across open ground, having outflanked the garrison and taken them completely by surprise.The five assault helicopters returned to Ruacana and collected the second lift, comprising the remainder of the paratrooper company, a 12-man sapper section with explosives, a six-man Special Forces team to sift through captured documentation and weaponry, and a medical officer. But by the time they were landed at Chitado, the town had been taken. The fighting had been intense but brief, with some bitter house-to-house clearing taking place.

The SADF had suffered two wounded, while the combined FAPLA/TGFA/PLAN casualties were 27 dead and an unknown number of wounded who may have escaped. Four were captured. There were five civilian casualties: two dead and three wounded, including two children.

The SADF flew a contingent of media in from Windhoek to Ruacana, and from there they were helicoptered to Chitado. They were briefed by the paratrooper company commander and permitted to walk around the town, take photos and interview civilian survivors. The operation was therefore successfully used as a propaganda exercise by the SADF within South Africa, but the international media largely ignored it. The sappers blew up the PLAN building and all their armament and supplies, as well as the MPLA headquarters and the TGFA barracks.

The success of the operation did not cause PLAN to give up their strategy of infiltrating from the west. They realised however that their staging point could not be located in an easily identified centre like Chitado, so close to the Ruacana base with its airfield. In fact, it seems that PLAN was already, even before the attack, considering a more secure option. Operation SCEPTIC, earlier that year, had yielded SWAPO documents that referred to Iona (spelled by them Uuyona), a small former Portuguese village some 30 km north of the Cunene River border, just beyond a harshly rugged mountain massif. It was about 90 km from the Skeleton Coast and approximately 150 km from Ruacana.

Radio intercepts indicated that there was some sort of PLAN or FAPLA signals capability in the general area of Iona; so, once again, a team of Special Forces was inserted into the area and they commenced with surveillance. G-Company, 1 Parachute Battalion was flown to the Marienfluss, a prehistoric desert flood plain between the Hartmann and Otjihipa Mountains on the Namibian side of the border, directly south of Iona. A tactical headquarters and helicopter administrative area was set up beside the lonely and unpaved airstrip on the sandy floor of the Marienfluss.

The objective was identified by Special Forces as being a few kilometres south of Iona, on a road leading to a water point. It was located within a narrow, steep-sided valley between two mountain ridges and consisted of a couple of prefabricated buildings. There was reported to be a PLAN detachment of between 20 and 30 men based there, with several civilians also in the area. The SADF assault force consisted of some 80 paratroopers, transported in six Puma assault helicopters and supported by three Alouette III gunships. There was, as at Chitado, also an Alouette command helicopter.

Code named Operation DORSLAND, the action took place on 20th October 1980. The helicopters crossed the river and the mountains, flying the approximately 50 km to the objective. Half the company was placed in the steep-sided valley as a stop line, and the other half on the far side of the objective to carry out the assault. As at Chitado, the fighting was sharp but short. Surprise was complete, and the paratroopers had soon taken their objective. The only SADF casualty was an Alouette helicopter that was damaged by ground fire. However, it was possible for it to recover back to Namibia, and it was eventually repaired. Eighteen defenders died in the assault, and two were captured. Some ten civilians were killed and five wounded. There appears to have been some controversy as to whether the objective had been a FAPLA or a PLAN facility, and this could not be confirmed one way or another from available records.

Whatever the case, the attempts by PLAN to establish a western desert infiltration route seem to have subsided after this operation. But about 18 months later, in the wake of Operations PROTEA and DAISY in 1981, the South Africans had established what amounted to a permanent presence in central South Angola, opposite Owamboland. Once again, SWAPO was experiencing considerable difficulty in infiltrating along the routes that had become traditional since 1975. The PLAN high command had to start casting their eyes back to the west. It was clear that locating their staging facilities inside the settlements of Chitado and Iona had compromised their security and made SWAPO’s activities open to observation by civilian informers, so a more unobtrusive location would have to be found. Water however remained the determining factor. And it was the fresh water well near Iona that drew them back to the area, despite their previous attempt having been compromised. But this time they would not congregate around the water point and they selected a location in what was known as the Cambeno Valley, about 10 km from Iona.

Unfortunately for SWAPO, their breaches of radio security derailed their plans. From early in 1982, SADF radio intercepts began to pick up references to Iona, and indications that vehicles were transporting supplies into the area. A tactical HQ was again set up in the Marienfluss, this time by the SA Special Forces. A ten-man reconnaissance team commenced with a mission on 9 March 1982 to find the location of the suspected SWAPO base where a build-up for an incursion was thought to be taking place.

In case the Special Forces team was compromised, there were two Alouette gunships at the tactical HQ to provide them with close air support, while a platoon from 32 Battalion with two Puma helicopters was standing by as reinforcements at distant Ruacana, some 185 km away.

As things turned out, the Special Forces team was compromised and came under attack by a 20-man PLAN patrol. A stick of 12 men from the 32 Battalion were flown in from Ruacana as reinforcements and landed by helicopter under fire. This turned the tide, and 14 of the PLAN fighters were killed, with six captured. The prisoners were flown out to the Marienfluss tactical HQ, together with the soldiers from 32 Battalion. Here, the prisoners were interrogated, and it emerged that there was a concentration of between 250 and 300 PLAN insurgents concentrated in the Cambeno Valley. They were engaged in constructing a transit base, and their armament included shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles.

It was decided by the SADF to launch an attack on the base under construction, and for this purpose further reinforcements from 32 Battalion were flown to the Marienfluss, together with additional helicopters. By the afternoon of the following day, an assault force took off to carry out the attack. They were however forced to turn back because of a major thunderstorm. Re-planning took place, and on the morning of 13th March 1982 the attack took place.

The attacking force consisted of a composite company of 124 men, a 12-man mortar fire group (all from 32 Battalion), five Puma assault helicopters and four Alouette gunships. Once the base had been pinpointed, the various elements were positioned by means of two lifts, and the attack commenced. It turned into a heavy battle that continued for seven hours. Fighting through scrub bush on steep hillsides and over rocky outcrops, the soldiers of 32 Battalion found themselves up against a determined foe. The PLAN insurgents fought like lions. But their base was located in a narrow valley overlooked on all sides by high ground, so the guerrillas were extremely vulnerable, particularly to the fire of the 20 mm cannons of the four gunships. They were boxed into an area from where escape was extremely difficult and there was very little cover behind which they could hide. The 32 Battalion mortar fire group was dropped by the helicopters on high ground from where they could actually observe the base, so their fire was devastatingly accurate. The Pumas brought in additional fuel and ammunition for the Alouette helicopters, and established a forward Helicopter Administrative Area in an isolated spot in the mountains, some 12 km from the objective. This enabled the gunships to keep up their fire support throughout the battle, with two of them in the air at any given time. By mid-afternoon, the fighting was over. A total of 197 PLAN guerrillas lay dead in the mountains, seven had been captured and an unknown number of wounded may have escaped. The SADF suffered three killed in action (one officer and two NCOs), five wounded and one Alouette gunship damaged. There were no civilian casualties, as there weren’t civilians in the base or the surrounding area. Effectively, SWAPO’s base in the west had been destroyed and its garrison wiped out.

Retrospectively named Operation SUPER, the action produced plenty of evidence of a planned major incursion by SWAPO. The PLAN equipment captured or destroyed in the Cambeno Valley included a vast arsenal of armament and ammunition. There was also a great deal of food stored in the base. The SADF attempted to fully exploit the magnitude of the victory by flying both foreign and South African journalists to the Cambeno Valley base by helicopter to view the captured weaponry and the bodies of dead insurgents, clad in combat gear. Although the attempt at a propaganda coup was successful with the South African journalists, the foreign media was however muted and gave the South Africans little publicity.

Nevertheless, regardless of the political or propaganda aspects of these three operations, they show without any doubt that vertical envelopment, properly executed and based on accurate intelligence, gains for the attacker the advantage of both surprise and speed, and overcomes terrain limitations. Of equal, if not greater importance, is the psychological factor that comes into play. The mere existence of the capability to carry out this manoeuvre, creates a dislocation in the thinking of those under threat.As with any airborne operation, accurate intelligence played a crucial part in the success of these actions. And as for other airborne operations in a low-intensity operational environment, surprise ensured that casualties amongst the attackers were minimal, while major losses were suffered by the defenders. Airborne operations, properly planned and executed, and based on accurate intelligence, can achieve results out of all proportion to the size of the airborne force employed. PLAN was never able to effectively carry out their western outflanking strategy as a consequence of these airborne actions.

Future meetings and field trips/ Toekomstige byeenkoms en uitstappe

The next SAMHSEC meeting will be on 11th December 2017 at 19h30 at the Eastern Cape Veteran Car Club in Conyngham Road, Port Elizabeth. The curtain raiser will be by John Stevens on Bigwamjamaeuce: the second biggest naval disaster in US history, and the main lecture will be presented by Anne Irwin on Horses in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).

Matters of general interest / Sake van algemene belang

Parades /Parades

PAG’s Annual Umzintzani Parade will take place at the PAG Regimental Memorial, St George’s Park, Port Elizabeth, at 10h00 on Sunday 3rd December 2017.
Dress: Veterans outfit with medals.There will be refreshments and a cash bar available at the PAG Drill Hall after the parade.

WW II Calender

Fogarty's Bookshop has in stock a 2018 wall calendar featuring South African posters from World War II. The cost is R195.00. Contact
Shop 20 Walmer Park, Port Elizabeth
P.O.Box 211121, The Fig Tree, Port Elizabeth, 6033
Tel: 041 - 368 1425
Fax: 041 - 368 1279

World War I Centenary Years / Eerste Wêreldoorlog Eeufeesjare

The Battle of Beersheba which ran from 31st October to 10th November 1917 was mentioned in SAMHSEC Newsletter 157. In a joint venture between Australia, New Zealand and Israel, aspects of the battle, in particular the mounted infantry charge through the Ottoman lines has been re-enacted in situ. For Australia and New Zealand, this is a particularly memorable occasion as it was their first victory after the Gallipoli debacle. For more details, pictures,maps and a few short videos, see:

A re-creation of the Australian and New Zealand mounted infantry charge at Beersheba in November 1917
(With acknowledgements to BBC News(Australia)1st November 2017.)

Major engagements in December 1917

The only major offensive of December 1917 took place on the Palestinian Front. General Edmond Allenby (who had served in the Anglo-Boer War with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel) continued his advance towards Jerusalem. Although opposed by a strong Turkish army stiffened by a German force under General Erich von Falkenhayn, Allenby was able to outflank them andthe city fell on 9th December. Allenby himself entered Jerusalem on 11th December – famously on foot.

Allenby’s securing of the Allied line from Jerusalem to the sea constituted a significant loss of prestige to the Ottomans as well as loss of morale among their troops. It was also a welcome boost to the Allies, especially after the collapse of Russia. The overall campaign in Palestine cost some 18 000 Allied troops while Turkish losses were estimated at 25 000.

The following websites are of interest in this regard:
Allenby’s account of the fall of Jerusalem
The Austro-German report on the fall of Jerusalem
Allenby’s proclamation of martial law

Websites of interest/Webwerwe van belang

Lockheed SR-71‘Blackbird’ pilot shares his experience of this remarkable aircraft
Tickld 23rd September 2017

The ‘Seven Years’Anglo-French War in North America

Workers find live British shell, fired in 1759 in Quebec Canada
BBC News (US and Canada) 15th July 2017

World War I

World War One poem spelt out in poppies
BBC News (UK) 26th October 2017

German WW1 U-boat found off Belgian coast
BBC News (Europe) 19th September 2017

Vignettes of Port Elizabeth during World War II

Japanese warplanes over Port Elizabeth during WW2
The Casual Observer 13th November 2017
[Ron Belling’s painting and description of the event can be found in Military Aviation in South Africa (1989) p48.
Some of his original aviation paintings are held at the GFI Art Gallery at 30 Park Drive Port Elizabeth – Eds.]

1943 Liberty Cavalcade in Port Elizabeth
Dean McCleland The Casual Observer 16th November 2017

Mission: Destroy U-Boat 240 Miles South of Cape Recife
Dean McCleland The Casual Observer 10th November 2017

Resource materials of military historical interest/
Bronmaterieel van krygsgeskiedkundigebelang

A 3-part video series Cambrai: The Tank Corps Story produced by the Tank Museum to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917.
Part 1/3
Part 2/3
Part 3/3 (16:15)

Members are invited to send in to the scribes, short reviews of, or comments on, books, DVDs or any other interesting resources they have come across, as well as news on individual member’s activities. In this Newsletter, there have been contributions by Richard Tomlinson, Jonathan Ossher,Malcolm Kinghorn, Barry Irwin, Michael Irwin, and Peter Duffel-Canham.


General Sir Edmond Allenby, dismounted, enters Jerusalem on foot
out of respect for the Holy City, on 11thDecember 1917.
Allenby vigorously promoted harmony between Jews, Christians and Moslems and in his honour
the Allenby Bridge, which crosses the River Jordan near Jericho, is named after him.

Chairman: Malcolm Kinghorn:
Secretary: Franco Cilliers:
Scribes (Newsletter): Anne and Pat Irwin:
Society’s Website:

South African Military History Society /