The meeting was as usual opened by the Chairman, Flip Hoorweg who started the year by wishing everybody present the Compliments of the Season and then went on to give out the usual notices of upcoming events. This done, he stood aside so that his CV could be presented by Colin Dean. As Chairman, this is well known to all of us. Flip then presented the curtain raiser, which was entitled "Julius Caesar and the Battle of Alesia, 52 BC", a serious look at a piece of Roman and French history familiar to many of us through the antics of the cartoon hero Asterix and his compatriots. Using slides and maps, Flip reminded us that the history of Rome in classical times is a fascinating one, and one of the cornerstones of our Western civilization. By comparison with today, with its overdose of information sources, comparatively little is known of life as it was then, but people like Livy, Plutarch, Cicero and Tacitus have left invaluable snippets of information which enable us to form an idea of life as it was at that time.
Julius Caesar was a particularly fascinating person and in the front rank of contemporary Roman writers, statesmen and generals. He was a remarkable military tactician and strategist, and a politician who displayed an uncommon ability to develop a plan of action and manage the details of party politics. Although a strict disciplinarian, his personal charm enabled him to create a remarkable esprit de corps amongst his troops, and evoked loyalty and solidarity from his political supporters. The Roman Senate elected two consuls every year for a one-year term and each had two or more Army legions allotted to him. Caesar was elected to this office in 59 BC and given the governorship of the provinces of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum and Transalpine Gaul, the modern southeastern France. In 58 BC the Helvetii, a Gallic tribe living in the area now known as Switzerland, was forced through overpopulation of its homeland, to migrate through Transalpine Gaul, plundering and looting as they went. Caesar took this incursion as an opportunity to increase his own personal power and wealth and immediately moved into action against this tribe. The fighting was wide-ranging and lengthy and by 52BC Caesar had established a successful military reputation, was commanding six legions in the field, and had subdued his opponents. However, there was widespread resentment over this Roman domination by the Gauls and in that year they rose in rebellion. Led by Vercingetorix of the Averni, an army was formed from not only that tribe but from most of the tribes of western and central Gaul as well.
An extensive campaign ensued, during which Caesar moved against Vercingetorix, in what we would today call a counter-insurgency campaign, forcing him back to an ever-decreasing area of territory and finally surrounding the rebels in their capital of Alesia. There Vercingetorix made a last stand, as he found himself besieged in the city. In a typical display of Roman engineering skill and ingenuity, which Flip described in detail, the Romans invested the city by surrounding it with a series of earthworks, walls and ditches, which effectively found the rebels besieged inside a Roman fort which was impregnable to attack from either a relieving force or the besieged themselves. With the arrival of a rebel relieving force and its attack on the Roman lines, Vercingetorix attempted a simultaneous but unsuccessful breakout. Caesar retaliated by using his German cavalry to rout the relieving force and then turned on Vercingetorix's men, forcing an unconditional surrender and thus ending the rebellion. Caesar returned to Rome in triumph, with Vercingetorix as his prisoner and where the latter was ritually and publicly strangled after the "triumph" or victory parade.
At the conclusion of his talk, Flip introduced the next speaker who would deliver the main lecture of the evening entitled "We Were Volunteers - Angola 1975". This was Mr Frank Diffenthal, a former National Serviceman in the SADF and Regimental Sergeant-Major in a number of famous Citizen Force regiments, who spoke about his and others' personal experiences during the conflict in Angola.
Frank started by giving the political background to his experiences in Angola at that time. With the Portuguese revolution in 1974, and their subsequent withdrawal from Angola, Angola was left in a power vacuum and as the scene of an area of conflict between two ideologies - communism versus capitalism. There had been no hand over of power by the Portuguese and three revolutionary movements immediately moved in to fill the vacuum. These were FNLA, led by Holden Roberto, brother-in-law to the Congo's Mobuto and backed by Zaire, China and, covertly, by the USA; the MPLA, under Augustinho Neto, backed by Russia; and UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi, the smallest of the three and backed by Communist China. The FNLA operated primarily in Northern Angola where, with US backing, they made their presence felt in Cabinda, the oil rich province, and where Gulf Oil was still in full production. While the superpowers of Russia, China and the USA gave a lot of verbal backing to their protégés; there was no real commitment, except on the part of Russia which, in 1975, was supplying surplus World War II equipment to the MPLA.
At that time, South Africa was besieged on all sides and had withdrawn into its "laager" to face the "total onslaught". It was the year before Soweto; Rhodesia was collapsing and the outlook was not a good one. At about this time Cuba appeared on the scene and was promptly labelled the "bad guys" by South Africa and the USA. In fact Cuba already had a long history of involvement in Africa but the question was, and it still remains unanswered today, was Cuba acting independently or was it in cahoots with the USSR? The problem for the South Africans was, was Cuba prepared to push south and enter South West Africa, and, if so, would it stop there or would it press on to "liberate" South Africa? This was to lead to pro-active incursions by the South Africans into Angola and to another yet unanswered question - did the USA condone these incursions? The first of these incursions took place in October 1975 when Battle Group Zulu pushed into Angola and made a temporary link up with UNITA, by now also an ally of South Africa.
All this meant very little to Gunner Frank Diffenthal who, on finishing high school, was called up for his National Service for service with 4th Field Artillery based on Potchefstroom and being trained on 5.5" World War II vintage guns as well as in an infantry role to combat counter-insurgency. In August/September 1975 the Regiment was deployed as infantry via Mpacha to Quondo in sub-sector 2, the Caprivi Strip where the five borders of Zambia, Angola, Rhodesia, Botswana and South West Africa met, the spot being marked by a plinth at Singalongwe. There they were employed in counter-insurgency patrols along the Border, known to the troops as "the Kaplyn" and in a minor seek and destroy operation across the border to the former Portuguese military base of Luiana. This was being used as an insurgent staging post but was unoccupied on the South African arrival. However, a food store was found and this was booby-trapped, but left undisturbed by the enemy. It was then decided to unbooby-trap this cache, with hilarious results which, luckily, did not end in any casualties. On returning to Quondo, his unit handed over its responsibilities to the State President's Guard and moved across to Katima Mulimo as 1 Medium Battery. A few days later 42 Battery based at Quondo entered Luiana, was ambushed and sustained casualties and deaths.
After taking compassionate leave on the death of his mother in Johannesburg, Frank rejoined his unit at Grootfontein in South West Africa, where their 5.5" guns and gun tractors arrived and they were re-mustered and retrained as artillery. A series of strange events then occurred. The unit was confined to base and its Batteries re-formed. Their own personal kit was handed in and locked away and they were issued with green uniforms as a replacement for their SADF uniforms. No badges of rank were allowed, their packmacs were taken away and the iron rations they were issued with had no labels to identify their origin. Needless to say this latter led to an annoying state of affairs where one had no idea on opening a tin as to what it contained for a meal, although it invariably seemed to be baked beans! All members of the unit were then "asked" to sign a form indicating that they were "volunteering" for service in Angola. Needless to say all did, although this gave rise to much speculation amongst the conscripts as to their actual and future status in the SADF. All markings were removed from the guns and vehicles, and a strict ban was placed on the use of Afrikaans over the radio. Eventually, in October 1975, and dressed in their non- descript green uniforms, these "volunteers" set off into Angola, to the cheers of the local populace which, despite all the secrecy, seemed to know exactly where they were going!
Frank then described the types of vehicles and guns involved in the move of this large incursion force, including a particularly humorous incident when he accidentally lost his gun along the way! The force made its way North to Pereira de Eca, where the town and airfield were taken over by these South African troops. 1 Medium Battery was there split into two groups - one to Battle group Orange, which would move up the Angolan coast towards Luanda, and the other to Battle Group Foxbat, which would move North inland. Frank was with the inland group which moved North through Nova Lisboa and Silva Porto to Mupa, a small town which was slowly deteriorating through military action and just plain neglect. After a number of amusing incidents which marked the life of a "troopie" at the time and which included dropping a gun in a river, the unit moved to Santa Combo on 27 October. There they found fresh water and were able to have their first wash in 16 days! The main group of Battle Group Foxbat then moved West to Quibala and Frank and his unit were visited by Jonas Savimbi, accompanied by an American in the uniform of a "bird" colonel.
Between then and the 11th October, Frank's unit moved further North to Cela, a beautiful town reduced to rubble by military action. After a number of both humorous and tragic incidents, the unit became involved in the famous "Battle of Bridge 14" on the 9/ 10th November. In this action a group of Engineers found themselves caught in the middle of erecting a bridge across a river and came under heavy enemy fire. Frank's Battery responded, using a phenomenal amount of ammunition and with great success, but losing two guns to mechanical problems in the process. These two guns were airlifted out and replaced with two new ones by a SAAF C-160, which landed in the vicinity and then did a rocket assisted take-off. The action gradually deteriorated into a series of hit-and-run actions in the general area of Ebo, to where the unit eventually moved. Whilst the unit was emplaced there it was subject to a rocket attack and a brush with two Russian T-34 tanks and, as a recent radio broadcast by P.W.Botha had just been received by the troops "that there were categorically no South African troops in Angola", there was a general air of unreality setting in.
Christmas lunch was pilchards and beetroot and New Year's Eve 1976 a pretty gloomy one. Shortly thereafter Rifleman van der Mescht was captured and the South African "cover" was blown. The "volunteers" were brought back over the Border and reissued with SADF uniforms before coming home, whilst the US distanced itself from South Africa. Gunner Frank Diffenthal's National Service was over - one of the 5% of National Servicemen to actually see action.
Frank finished off his lecture with a selection of coloured slides of his National Service to illustrate some of the characters and incidents he had mentioned and was then thanked by Colin Dean for what was a most enthralling and well-presented account of one man's war and thereafter presenting him with a Society tie.
Flip then declared the meeting closed and invited all present to both enjoy a cup of tea and to view the books on sale in the foyer.
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