Our speaker on 8 May was Mr Stephan Fourie whose topic was the Action at Ebo on 23 November 1975, during Operation Savannah. He described this as the worst reverse in battle suffered by the SADF since World War 2.
Before discussing the battle at Ebo, our speaker described the physical conditions in Angola at that time. Angola, like the Highveld, is a summer rainfall area with afternoon rains. The heavy rain and resultant muddy conditions forced both sides to remain on the tarred roads. Portugal, the recent former colonial power, had not really developed its African colonies to any great extent. It had, however, profited greatly from Angola's natural resources - coffee, diamonds, iron ore, fishing and oil. Portugal's overhasty decision to grant independence to Angola on 11 November 1975, without laying any stabilising groundwork for transition, led to the outbreak of the civil war.
South Africa intervened to protect the hydro-electric power station at Ruacana and the water supply project at Calueque, as well as the civilian personnel working on these. At this stage the MPLA faction was receiving heavy support from the Eastern Bloc countries and Cuba in their struggle against Unita and the FNLA. Initially our government thought that the USA, Germany and France would support South Africa's intervention, which followed on CIA overtures to enlist our involvement.
The SADF at that time operated a 12-month National Service system, which meant that the experienced National Servicemen serving in the area were due to complete their initial period of service in December. They would be replaced by the inexperienced servicemen of the June intake.
The Intelligence Corps did not provide any maps of the operational area and the South Africans had to make use of tourist road maps (supplied by an oil company!), until they were lucky enough to capture a truck loaded with Portuguese military maps of Angola. Mr Fourie noted that our intelligence reports often proved to be incorrect.
Logistic support from South West Africa was very poor and the frontline troops had to supply themselves with eating utensils and blankets, which in the case of Stephan Fourie's armoured car troop, were looted from the hospital at Cela. Initially, no South African artillery was present and SAAF support was limited to reconnaissance aircraft. There was no medical support until two National Service doctors and a Permanent Force surgeon, Col Tony Dippenaar, arrived. They saved many lives. No provision was made for the holding of prisoners of war.
Stephan Fourie illustrated his talk with photographs. One of these showed the Eland 90 armoured car which, despite its thin armour and 90 mm gun, proved to be a formidable weapon of war. He explained that the 7,62 cal machine-gun on the turret , utilized in an anti-aircraft role, was too exposed, also, that a lucky encounter with an RPG had given the impression that the armoured cars were less vulnerable that they really were. This false sense of indestructibility encouraged their crews to act more boldly, sometimes almost recklessly. The periscopes in the turret gave the crew an adequate view of the world outside. The tarpaulin stored on the front of the car was supposed to be a rain cover for use when the vehicle was not in use but was rather used as a tent by the crew.
Initially the enemy offered little resistance enabling the South African Task Force Zulu to advance swiftly and capture the ports of Namibe (formerly Moçamedes), Lobito and Ngunza (formerly Nova Redondo). At Namibe, Col van Heerden (nicknamed "Rommel" because of the speed with which he had advanced), almost got involved in a "naval battle" when he threatened to sink a Portuguese corvette in the harbour, even though he lacked the means with which to do this. Nevertheless, the threat was taken seriously and the vessel sailed that night.
The Cuban contingent initially consisted of between 40 and 100 instructors commanded by Gen. Raul Diaz Argüelles. Although these men were initially of African ancestry, they were later joined by further Cubans of European ancestry. Gen. Diaz Argüelles reported to President Castro that it would take three months to train the MPLA.
Stephan Fourie described the weapons used by the Cubans, largely of Soviet origin. He spoke of the role played by the Stalin Organ or Red Eye 122mm mobile rocket launcher in the campaign.
He described the Officer Commanding of Battle Group Foxbat, Commandant Eddie Webb, as a dashing, strong and practical front line soldier. Shortly before the action at Ebo he was relieved by Cmdt. George Kruys who was to win renown for the later Battle of Bridge 14.
The action at Ebo took place north of the town beyond some enormous granite outcrops, reminiscent of Paarl. Just prior to the action, the SAAF Cessna reconnaissance aircraft pilot, Lieutenant Willemse, reported that the road showed signs of having been frequently used in the preceding days but that there was no sign of life below. Capt Johan Holm was given the task of getting through to Quibata via Ebo as there was no other way. The bridge had been destroyed.
In the briefing session prior to the attack, Capt. Holm and his officers had been warned that the enemy would ambush them just north of Ebo. Full details of the South African force were available to the enemy as an unidentified aircraft had overflown the South Africans earlier.
2nd Lieut. Swanepoel's troop of armoured cars led the attack, followed by 2nd Lieut. du Toit's troop. At daybreak they crossed the bridge to the north of Ebo and entered enemy territory. As the first car left Ebo, the enemy fired a warning shot from the granite hill on the left of the road. 2nd Lieut. Willemse was asked to carry out a further aerial reconnaissance and he reported seeing two lorries some 3km north of Ebo.
2nd Lieut. Swanepoel advanced and left the road. He found evidence that enemy vehicles had been bogged down. There were some abandoned tools lying there. His armoured car also got bogged down and he had to be towed out of the mud. His attempts to see the enemy trucks from higher ground proved unsuccessful and he fired some 30 rounds in the direction indicated. His armoured cars had all left the road and were soon bogged down.
When 2nd Lieut. du Toit reached the bridge, a FAPLA 75mm gun opened fire and a shell penetrated the turret, killing the driver. The armoured car rolled over on to its side into the river, badly damaging the radio aerials, which made radio communication virtually impossible. He could receive radio messages, but 2nd Lieut. du Toit could not send any and thereby inform Capt Holm of the whereabouts of the enemy rocket launcher.
The third armoured car in 2nd Lieut. du Toit's troop was also hit and knocked out. The second Eland was cornered and suffered the same fate. The three man crew left the vehicle but came under heavy enemy fire and, while Lance Corporal Gibbon provided covering fire with his pistol, they safely reached a donga by the side of the road where they remained for the rest of the day. Corporal Botha and his crew remained in the third armoured car. The fourth armoured car was also hit by rockets and knocked out.
The first eight armoured cars were pinned down by enemy artillery, rocket and small arms fire. For the remainder of the engagement the SADF attempted to relieve their comrades. Stephan Fourie explained that the Cuban fire was both rapid and very accurate.
2nd Lieut. Swanepoel with two armoured cars decided to rescue his great friend 2nd Lieut. du Toit, so his troop drove back to the main road and stopped on either side of the road at the junction next to a soccer field, to see whether they could spot the missing Elands. When they sighted a 122 mm rocket launcher on the other side of the river, they fired at it with their 90mm guns. The enemy responded quickly with projectiles landing underneath and in front of Cpl Adams's Eland. He tried to reverse but the driver had been hit in the knee. The next projectile hit the driver's hatch and the fourth hit the turret. Smoke engulfed the vehicle, the crew bailed out and withdrew to Ebo.
2nd Lieut. Swanepoel's ammunition was exhausted. Nevertheless he decided to try to help his trapped friends but his Eland was also bogged down and his crew's efforts to dig themselves out while under heavy fire, proved to be unsuccessful. They were forced to abandon the rescue plan and their armoured car and withdraw on foot.
When three more armoured cars advanced, the muzzle of Lt Kriel's gun was hit and put out of action. The other cars remained trapped. Lieut. Alberts, a member of the squadron held in reserve, then advanced. He saw where the enemy 75mm gun was, which had been so effective, and destroyed it with his 90mm gun. After leaving the rest of the crew behind, he went forward and successfully rescued the two men in Cpl. Botha's car.
Capt. Holm realized that it would only be possible to rescue the remaining trapped Eland crews if the enemy fire could be stopped. He deployed the Unita mortar teams on a crest east of a road behind the granite hillocks. The positions were poorly chosen and very exposed but were the only ones available in the wet terrain. Enemy fire quickly killed and wounded a number of the mortar men and 27 men were killed while they were withdrawing.
While the mortars were being moved to safety, Capt. Holm stopped his armoured car and was standing in the turret when an enemy 122mm rocket exploded nearby which both killed him and Cpl. Taljaard standing next to the armoured car.
Cmdt. Kruys now ordered Capt. Fourie to recover the stranded armoured cars and bring these to Ebo, destroying those which could not be saved. 2nd Lieut. du Toit and Cpl van der Merwe were pinned down inside their armoured car and, when they heard this message on their radio, they feared the worst. Fortunately, they were out of sight and were not hit. About an hour later, they heard men outside the car talking in a foreign language and items being removed from the vehicle. Someone tried to force open the hatches with a crowbar and, when someone else peered at them through the periscope, they pretended to be dead.
That night, 2nd Lieut. du Toit and Cpl van der Merwe made their escape, passing the crew of another car hiding in a donga, who took them as FAPLA soldiers. Both groups set out separately heading eastwards. They reached safety the following afternoon. That day FAPLA towed the armoured cars left behind, away as war booty. Stephan Fourie also showed us recent colour photographs of two of these cars in their new role as war memorials nearby the scene of action.
The Vice Chairman, Mr Johan van den Berg, thanked the speaker for an enthralling talk and presented him with the customary gift.
VISIT TO WAR GRAVES
Maj. Tony Gordon conducted one of his periodic visits to military cemeteries, of which there are quite a number in the Peninsula, on May the 10th. The tour group was small and manageable and the cemeteries visited were Maitland (the main cemetery in the Peninsula), Plumstead and the three small ones in Wynberg. The tour seems to have been enjoyed by the participants.
The military parts of these cemeteries are currently in good condition thanks to the efforts of the Commonwealth War Graves Commision's SA representatives. The grass is neatly mowed and the places are now well maintained and clean. This is good news as in the past some of these cemeteries have been badly neglected and ill-maintained.
We welcome Dr B Stockland who has joined our branch in the last month. We wish him a long and happy association with us in the years to come. We also would like to welcome our new committee member, Ray Hattingh, who will forthwith take over the portfolio of Secretary from our long-suffering treasurer / scribe, Bob Buser. We are always interested in new members so, if you have a friend or acquaintance who is interested in military history or might want to join, please bring them along to a meeting and persuade them to join. They will be most welcome. This seems to be the most successful way of attracting new members! Some 80% of our members have now paid their subscriptions which is excellent. It should be noted that Johannesburg will supply Military History Journals to full members who have paid their subscriptions. This is understandable if one considers printing and postage costs.
A book entitled Ops Medic by Steven Webb has recently been published by Galago. This is the story of a National Serviceman serving as an Ops Medic and is for this reason very interesting. It is obtainable from our book-selling members - Dave McLennan at Select Books on phone 021-424-6955 or Johan van den Berg at The Military Bookshop on phone 021-939-7923.
Thursday 10 July 2008 - Modular, Hooper & Packer: The Truth about the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale
Our speaker is fellow-member Brig.-Gen. Dick Lord, aviation historian and author. Brig. Lord's topic for the evening deals with a currently very contentious aspect of the aerial warfare during the Angolan phase of the Border War. (He is busy putting the finishing touches to his latest book on the history and his involvement with the SAAF, which in particular deals with the very same subject as the talk, amongst others - something to look forward to!)
BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Scribe
Phone: Home: (evenings) 021-689-1639
Office: (mornings) 021-689-9771
RAY HATTINGH: Secretary
Phone: 021-531-6781 or 021-513-1758