Our speaker on 11 October 2007 was Commander* Eddie Wesselo who spoke about his service during the Border War with 32 Battalion and other units. He explained that, when he left school in 1958, there was a ballot system with one in every three young men being selected for service in the ACF. He was not balloted and so volunteered for service, spending a year at the SAAF Gymnasium. He qualified as an Air Mechanic Photography.
A few months after leaving the Gymnasium, he responded to a recruiting drive and joined West Park/Sandton Commando, where he served under Colonels George Duxbury and Ossie Baker. Many years later, Eddie became OC of the unit when it received the Freedom of Sandton and a Unit Colour from the then State President, Mr Marais Viljoen.
Sandton Commando and the Sandton Town Council developed the SA Civil Defence System which was adopted throughout South Africa. Members of the unit gave many presentations to units all round the country on this system.
After commanding Sandton Commando for five years, Commandant* Wesselo was transferred to 7 Division. Three years later, he was asked to organize the SA Navy's Citizen Force Marine Branch. He served in this unit until the Marines were disbanded in 1990. He was appointed OC of SAS Ysselstein in 1993 and commanded the unit until May 1999. He was officer in charge of the SA Navy Museum for two years and finally retired in 2006 after 45 years service - in the Reserves!
Cdr Wesselo explained that, whilst CF units were called up for three months every two years, the Commando units were called up in companies, platoons, sections or as individuals - this was done for various reasons, e g running one man businesses, for health reasons, etc. Commandos also had township duties to fulfill, with West Park Commando being responsible for Alexandria Township in Johannesburg. Commandos only had one full time member, a half day civilian secretary, so much time was spent on admin duties.
He then spoke of his time on the Border. He showed us maps of the operational area, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean at the mouth of the Cunene to the westernmost part of the Caprivi Strip. He showed us photographs of the important hydro-electric scheme at Ruacana, where he served as relief OC of 51 Battalion for six weeks. The unit had a mounted component and, while mounted men could see over most of the scrub-like bush, the soft sand made it very bad going for the horses.
Cmdt Wesselo was called up in January 1977 for three months to serve as operations officer at the HQ in Grootfontein. After one night with an experienced ops officer he was thrown in at the deep end. The next morning he was summoned to see the Brigadier who introduced him to a commandant who turned out to be the legendary Jan Breytenbach, OC of 32 Battalion, who offered him a post in his unit, manned by Portuguese speaking FNLA Africans from Angola. This was a hush-hush unit largely unknown until 1980, when a disgruntled ex-member published an article entitled "Dogs of War" in a British newspaper.
After three days of briefings and orders, Cmdt Wesselo joined a ration run heading for 32 Battalion's main operational base at Omauni. The main HQ was at Rundu with a training and residential base at Buffalo in the Caprivi. Although the journey was only 200 kilometres, most of this was bundu-bashing as the roads were bad, often mined and unusable. The terrain was sandy with scrub and low trees. There were also a number of shallow pans near which the local population built their dwellings.
Cdr Wesselo described his time at Base CN which was occupied by a platoon from 3 SAI Battalion. The base was 7km south of the border and 15km north-east of Eenhana near Beacon 27. Increased enemy activity in the area necessitated patrolling on both sides of the border, hence the base. The handover by 3 SAI took all of 20 minutes with everything except personal equipment being handed over.
Cdr Wesselo described the town of Pica Pauw established by Colonel Breytenbach in the Caprivi for the families of the men of 32 Battalion.
Although the rations were dry, the inventive Portuguese chefs managed to serve Provita and Bully Beef in many different ways! Dog biscuits and Bully Beef were popular items and the Commando, for many years, carried on the tradition at their home base of serving these items every Saturday, but washed down with beer!
In February, Cmdt Wesselo lost his first soldier, a National Service lieutenant named Gerhard Keulder, who was killed in a five-minute fire fight with a 300 strong SWAPO force. His body was evacuated by the SAAF, whose excellent service and support throughout the Border War, he recalled with gratitude.
At times there were only two or three people left in Base CN so these would bombard the surrounding bush with 60mm mortars using HE rounds, to deter SWAPO. 60mm illuminating flares were also used, with the parachute and flare removed and replaced with PE4 explosive. With the fuse set to 11 seconds, these were fired from a commando 60 mm mortar tube and produced a spectacular explosion and mushroom cloud!
Cdr Wesselo described the move to Nkongo where he and his men took over a corner of the existing base. He described how the base was set up. At this stage he agreed to extend his call up by a further three months, so that he could relieve Maj (now Maj Gen) Eddy Viljoen as Tactical HQ base commander at Omauni. Here he enjoyed the luxury of a new, well-laid out base with hot showers and good food. He played us a very moving tape of 32 Battalion troops singing at the funeral of one of their comrades killed in action. He told us of the Tree of Remembrance unveiled by Gen George Meiring on 25 May 1985, on which were recorded the names of the fallen on silver plaques.
Discipline in 32 Battalion was enforced in a unconventional and traditional way which would be totally unacceptable today. Cdr Wesselo showed us photographs of the unit's mascots - Fiado a klipspringer and Makato a vervet monkey sharing a plate of canned peaches. The latter's habit of stealing cigarettes and tearing these up led to his untimely end when he was poisoned by an irate soldier. Various aspects of life in these camps were discussed as was the extremely fine fighting record of 32 Battalion which was probably the best counter-insurgency unit in the world at that time. It was so described by Gen Geldenhuys when he presented the unit with its Regimental Colour.
One of the highlights of his Border duty was a visit by Gen Constand Viljoen who quickly sorted out the unit's logistic problems. Few other visitors were permitted and uninvited guests had to remain outside the main gate under guard until they could be sent back the next day. He recalled the hazards of the deceptively beautiful area in which the camp was situated. An officer who ignored the strict safety regulations was killed by crocodiles in the Kavango River. Cdr Wesselo spent his final stint at Omauni with 32 Battalion's Recce component - an extremely well trained, highly motivated and disciplined force.
The move from SWA/Namibia to SA and its new home in Pomfret in the Northern Cape and its subsequent disbanding was described in moving terms by Cdr Wesselo. Many questions followed before Cdr Mac Bisset thanked the speaker on behalf of the Branch and presented him with the customary gift.
* Note to readers: To avoid confusion, please note that our speaker's army rank at the time whilst serving with 32 Battalion was Commandant (Cmdt) (now Lt Col) and that his final rank upon retirement was Commander (Cdr) in the SANDF Naval Reserves. These ranks have been used alternatively throughout the text within the chronological context referred to by the scribe, ie past or present.
The end of the year is fast approaching and a number of members have not yet paid their subscriptions. If you have not paid yet, please do so as soon as possible either at our meeting on 8 November or by mail or deposit to our bank account at Nedbank Foreshore Branch, branch code 108309, account number 108 333 2058, noting your name in the "Remarks" field. Thank you for your co-operation.
Next year's programme
The committee is looking at next year's lecture programme. If you have a subject you would like covered or would like to present a talk yourself, please let your branch committee know. Our objective is to provide a programme for the year which includes a variety of subjects and which will attract as many members and visitors as possible.
Final lecture for 2007
Our speaker is fellow-member Major Helmoed-Römer Heitman who will discuss new information available on the 1988 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. He will also give us a round-up of developments in the current African military/security situation.
The Branch Committee want to wish members and their families a Blessed and Peaceful Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year.
Bob Buser (Secretary / Treasurer)
Phone - Home evenings 021 689 1639 office (mornings) 021 689 9771
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