That morning Cmdt. Webb sent two combat teams from Santa Comba to stop the enemy from preventing us using secondary routes North; A group consisting of two squadrons of Elands under the command of Lt.Du Raan moving East, Capt. Holm with 2 companies consisting of Infantry, Elands and Mortars going north on the main road. The area north of Santa Comba was extremely marshy and this caused some delays as the Elands got stuck, time and time again, the maps we had did not do justice to the terrain, the Aldeias (farming communities) were connected to one another by a myriad of winding dirt roads, and as the rainy season was in full swing most of these were non-existent, Lt.Duraans’ combat group quickly fell behind schedule and found that there was no way he could make the RV at the cheese factory situated at Aldeia de S. Marmede where he was to liase with Capt. Holm.
Capt. Holm had made better time on the tarred highway, but he also had some problems, one of our Elands got to with 50 metres of the cheese factory when we discovered that the Cubans and FAPLA were dug in on two koppies called Taba and Canda, east of the road and on the other side of the factory, the road was so narrow that the Eland couldn’t make a U-turn once it drew fire and had to reverse all the way back, and boy! Did it motor!
This battle lasted 9 hours, and the terrain off road was that bad that the infantry had no choice but to stay on the road, which surprise surprise was a registered target, the armour and even the mortar platoons weren’t able to get closer than 8 klicks, during the course of the battle Lt.Duraan rocked up but being stuck on the dirt roads he couldn’t get closer than 4 klicks to Capt. Holm and thus couldn’t give effective fire support. Another disadvantage that he had was that there wasn’t any cover available for his armoured cars, when they deployed they received incoming fire from 14.7 mm AAA, these shot away their bins and most of the junk they had tied to their turrets. His gunner was a first member of Foxbat that got revved by Red Eyes, courtesy of FAPLA.
By nightfall both combat groups went back to Cela where everybody realised that it was suicide to try and take on the Cubans and FAPLA without Arty. Luckily for them the gunners were on their way.
On the morning of 12 November Capt. Holm ordered Lt.Du Toit to take his troop north again, Capt. Holm had a habit of acquiring Honda 4 x 4’s and by this time he had got himself another, but this time it was a blue one. He and this blue Honda joined up with Lt.Du Toit, and hit the road They were rather surprised when they were able to drive right up to FAPLA’s position of the day before and found it deserted, the Grad P and anti aircraft machine gun looking rather forlorn, saying “Take us with you”. We found, quite often, that during Savannah it was a sort of 9 to 5 war the other guys adhered to. Fortunately for us FAPLA made a balls up this day by sleeping late which would cost them dear…
After checking for booby-traps, the weapons, ammo and whatever could be used was loaded onto our vehicles and the journey north was resumed until we reached a saddle in the Cassamba mountains, from there the road meanders down a valley to the Nhia river. As we reached the saddle, a FAPLA convoy consisting of 2 Landrover and 2 Gaz vehicles were spotted moving towards us, the Elands were deployed in the bushes by the side of the road and FAPLA drove into the ambush blissfully unaware of what was in store; the front and back vehicles were shot out by the Elands and the infantry finished off the two in the middle with small arms. Somewhere in Angola there are 2 world class sprinters and I for one wish them well even they might be somewhat buggered and bent like me nowadays, may they grow old and never have low back pain.
The rear vehicle actually became airborne when the 90mm Heat projectile struck it, apart from small arms and ammo a 75mm recoilless rifle was also captured, a while later the combat team encountered the temporary base where the convoy had set off from, but by then the straphangers who were manning this had gapped it as soon as they saw us, no doubt alerted by the goings on earlier, the only noteworthy find apart from the odd AK were some pots full of Mealiepap which we had for a belated breakfast with “Wambo’s”.
Major Holtzhausen joined us at this point and the combat team moved as fast as it was prudent North only encountering very light resistance and reached the bridge spanning the Nhia – Bridge 14, by about 13H00,only to have it blown up in our faces. A very professional job this was indeed, both bridgeheads had been utterly destroyed, and although the river was not very wide, our Elands were unable to ford this due to the depth of the water, and allied to the fact that the Nhia was in flood this effectively put paid to this operation. We were only able to cross this obstacle a month later after a 5 day offensive, the positive result however was the neutralising of FAPLA and their Cuban allies from the area around Cela and we could move up our HQ further North.
The demolition of the bridge over the Nhia was the first of many undertaken by the Cuban advisors to hinder Foxbat and Zulu from gaining territory and for the first time we started to encounter the extensive use of minefields to slow us down. On 15 November we suffered our first casualty from a mine when a Unita soldier lost a foot on the banks of the Nhia, the first of many…
After considering his options Cmdt. Webb decided to send a party to reconnoitre Conde via Ebo and Hengo on 13 November and later that same day this combat team bumped into FAPLA in the vicinity of Ebo, after a short fire fight FAPLA gapped it. The fact that FAPLA already had forces in numbers at Ebo, made Cmdt. Webb decide to by-pass Ebo and carry on towards Catofe and Quibala, using the routes available on his eastern flank. By this time there were large concentrations of FAPLA in front of the Nhia, and he had to keep them in the dark as to what his intentions were, Lt.Van Niekerk was tasked to recce the two routes to Ebo.
Initially the combat team tried the route via Hengo, but again they were delayed once more, by a destroyed wooden bridge. Using the tow cables of the Elands, and some wooden poles nearby they managed to build a surface the Elands could traverse albeit with some care, once across they had no surprises and reached Ebo later on.
The town was a ghost town and many of those who were there that day later on mentioned that the place gave them the Heebie Jeebies to say the least. Signs of human occupation there was a-plenty, fresh tyre tracks, stoves with the omnipresent pots of Mealiepap still cooking on them, there were open boxes of ammo on the streets, but the population seem to have disappeared into thin air.
Lt.Van Nierkerk was deeply suspicious of this Marie Celeste situation and posted two armoured cars at the two entrances to the town. He decided to reconnoitre on his own towards Quibala, but after 2 klicks he decided that this was rather foolish, and turned back, this was a very wise decision….
Most combat teams during Operation Savannah were ad-hoc units based on the concept that even though you might be a cook, signaller or whatever attached to an Infantry Unit, as a result of this attachment you were an Infantryman first and foremost, and whatever secondly, allied to the fact that during this era nobody micro managed us, gave us a degree of autonomy and flexibility that was probably unique in the history of the SADF, the down side was that sometimes the supply chain broke down, but most of the units managed to make do , we never ran out of fuel and ammunition, food quite often, and our weaponry was outdated to say the least.
Vehicles were obtained by means fair and foul, and most of those who took part in Operation Savannah can probably remember the civilian trucks we pressed into service, the best I ever saw was a civilian truck locked and put up for storage, the fuel tank was padlocked, but about 10 minutes of undivided attention and a jerrycan full of diesel transformed this into a welcome addition to our group, no windows were broken, the lock on the fuel tank was picked, and the truck was hot-wired, makes you wonder though what some fellows did in civilian life! The only problem was the colours these Civvie trucks came in, in the case of Lt.van Niekerk the one carrying the mortar platoon was a bright Day-Glo orange.
The two things we did in Angola whenever we had a chance was to eat or sleep, this modus operandi was based on the premise that you never knew when you would have the chance to do one or the other again. Everybody had just started eating in Ebo when FAPLA decided join in uninvited and signalled their displeasure for not having received an invitation to dine by revving all and sundry with RPG-7’s and Grad P’s.
Things became somewhat hectic to say the least, and Lt.Van Niekerk decided that discretion was the better part of valour, but two of his Eland armoured cars refused to start, most probably the engines had been flooded by the drivers, all the towing cables had been used to construct the bridge earlier on, and as a desperate measure somebody hit on the idea to join the jumper cables of the armoured cars and use these as tow ropes. To cap it all it started to rain, and using the rain as a screen FAPLA started to advance, by this time the route we had used coming into Ebo had been cut by the enemy and the only avenue of escape was a road to the right, nobody knew where this led to. The orange truck was a major disadvantage as this was highly visible and everybody was relieved when we were out of range, and noses were counted, it was confirmed that nobody had been left behind in the rush. Throughout this whole episode the two armoured cars were still being towed, the makeshift towrope kept on snapping, and had to be repaired, on one occasion at least these repairs took place under fire.
Eventually the combat group discovered a fairly good road, which incidentally was marked only as a track on the Caltex road maps we used to navigate in Angola in those days. This road led to a river, the Tunga, and it came as no surprise when they found that this bridge was down. Comms were established with Capt. Holm and he was informed of their plight. They realised that with FAPLA following up and no bridging equipment there was a problem, sort of…
Again the Afrikaans saying “‘n Boer maak ‘n plan” came to its own: each Eland has metal plates bolted on the glacis plate, these are intended to be used as a duckboard on soft terrain to prevent the vehicle from sinking into the ground, what the crews did was to bolt all of these plates together and thus create a makeshift bridge, most of those present including Lt.Van Niekerk knew that this was a do or die effort, an Eland weighs about 5.4 tons these plates were now being asked to do the impossible.
As the first Eland crossed towing the other, the whole contraption buckled and twisted, for a moment it looked as if both of them would end up in the river bed, but it held, and they were across, the third and fourth Eland car followed suit, the runners deployed to give covering fire, and as the last vehicle made it across the first 122mm rockets started landing amongst them.
Like something out of a B western, the cavalry in the shape of Capt. Holm and his combat group arrived, after a short firefight FAPLA decided to retire and left Lt.Van Niekerk master of the battlefield, but also very relieved about the fact that he had completed his mission that day although at times it was sort of touch and go. The SADF “took” Ebo on Saturday 15/11/75.
After routing FAPLA both teams went back to the first river where the tow cables that had been used to build a bridge were recovered, and went “home” to Santa Comba, some serious soul-searching took place as a result of the 4 day excursion and the subsequent encounters with FAPLA and their Cuban allies. It became clear to us that we had no answer to the Grad P without Arty. In the meantime Cmdt. Webb had been replaced by Cmdt George Kruys and a second squadron Elands arrived, as well as battery consisting of four 8.8cm (WWII vintage 25 pounders) guns arrived under the command of Maj. Chris Venter, the next couple of days were spent welding the Armour, Artillery and Infantry into combat teams who could and would give as good and better than they got.
A few days later the march on Quibala got underway.
Foxbat was still looking for a route and at first light 18/11/75 Capt. Holm and Maj. Holtzhausen both departed with a combat team from Santa Comba. From the start Maj. Holtzhausen found it heavy going on his route in the mountainous countryside of the Nhia river valley, due to the poor conditions of the roads. Early in the afternoon he decided to return to base, but with the marshy terrain, none existent roads and rotten wooden bridges it was four in the morning on the 19th when he finally returned to base. This was the route that Cmdt initially chose as his line of march to attack Quibala, but as a result of the poor results from this recce, it was back to the drawing board…
We had a choice of two routes we could follow, the first option was the route via Ebo to Conde where we had just destroyed the bridge over the Tunga. The other option was the route via Hengo, but the enemy had blown the bridge here, this option was the least favoured as the bridge was a registered target and under enemy observation, when the recce party arrived there to see what the situation was, they were revved and was fortunate to escape unharmed.
So, the only option was for Major Holtzhausen to rebuild the bridge they had destroyed not so long ago, ironically enough a week later only 20 Klicks away FAPLA would be rebuilding the bridge they had blown up at Hengo.
The banks of the Tunga aren’t very steep and it was relatively easy to construct a ford so that the advance could continue, the first troops crossed but then the weather took a hand, it started to rain, hours on end. Anybody who has experienced the rain in Angola will know what this means, virtually solid sheets of water coming down, visibility cut down to about 1.5 metres, the phrase ” Its tipping down ” must have originated here, a solid wall of water washed away the ford and the ballast leaving a sea of mud, vehicles were swamped, comms were non-existent, at that time we were using the A36 set, well, you couldn’t even contact someone 500 metres away, messages had to be relayed by foot, that evening we lagered at Quissobi that boasted a Cuca Shop, a house and a clinic built by the Portuguese in the Colonial times.
The same day Capt. Holm had taken the Western route, apart from trying to find a way to Quibala he had to destroy the bridge that had been discovered over the Tunga near Ebo earlier, as FAPLA and the Cubans would be able to attack us in the rear if they could repeat Lt.Van Niekerks’ trick , to get to his objective he had the choice of two roads , these joined one another at a junction which with surprising originality everyone called the “Y “, once he had reached the junction he decided to go to Ebo via Quissobi.
It really was uneventful until they got to the Tunga when after rounding a bend about 1 Klick from the river they suddenly found themselves face to face with an enemy convoy consisting of three trucks moving towards them . Luckily cool heads prevailed and immediately the Elands went over to the attack, and blocked the enemies escape route by knocking out the rear truck of the convoy, the infantry dismounted and finished the job with small arms and in the process became the proud owners of two brand new trucks , slightly second hand, used , one previous owner, Sans windscreen in one case.
The capture of these two trucks really turned out to be a goldmine, in one of them half the load consisted of proper military maps of Angola, stacked about a metre high, these turned out to be a Godsend to the South African forces during Operation Savannah , the Caltex and Shell road maps we had to rely up to now could be relegated. The rest of the convoys cargo consisted of boots, which the Unita contingent really appreciated as about 75% of them were without footwear, uniforms which some of us would regret later on not getting our hands on , Havana cigars, cigarettes, brand name Populares (?) canned food from China and the Netherlands.
Whilst everybody was looking at all these goodies and having fun and games, the truck that had been shot out was still burning and seeing it had been carrying ammunition, this provided some excitement as the occasional round or mortar shell would cook off. After this engagement Lt.Du Raan demolished the bridge and with our two new trucks leading and Capt. Holm in his “new” blue Honda following them, the convoy started on its way back to base. Capt. Holm had the habit of suddenly appearing out of thin air with this vehicle in the environs of Cela much to the chagrin of friend and foe alike. Nobody really likes somebody suddenly scaring the hell out of you when they materialise next to you when you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing in the first place.
Well, Tuesday 18th November 1975, was to prove to be no exception … Unbeknown to us the enemy had followed a route we were unaware of, and had decided to occupy the “Y” as this would enable them to cut off both routes to Quibala via Conde.They were expecting reinforcements and when our two newest acquisitions appeared these were allowed through the area covered by the “Y” and for a while the enemy of never even realised that there was anything untoward going on. The same couldn’t be said when the blue Honda made its appearance, those following in his wake were just in time to witness a sight that few are privileged to see, let alone survive without a scratch, 30 or so FAPLA soldiers opening up with small arms from about 20-25 metres on the Honda, Capt. Holm spat in the face of Death that day and got away with it…
When he realised what was happening he did the only thing possible, floored the accelerator, and drove through the ambush, the Honda had been hit in four places , the left front wheel, a ricochet through the roof, the back of the drivers seat and one just behind his heel on the floor. Once he had reached safety, with considerable sang-froid he parked the car, switched off the ignition, and wandered back to watch the bun fight from a distance. In the triangle formed by the “Y” there was a dense eucalyptus plantation, the one leg of the “Y” points South, and FAPLA had chosen their positions to stop any advance from a southerly direction on the “Y”.
The South African combat team had unexpectedly arrived to their rear along the other leg of the “Y” It would be difficult to say who had the biggest fright, FAPLA or us, as both parties had thought themselves relatively secure, FAPLA and the South Africans recovered from this nasty surprise in double quick time, and before long there was fierce fire fight in progress. The first troop of Elands engaged the enemy and advised those following of the situation, and these started to deploy. The 2 Eland troops deployed on the farm roads whilst the mortar crews had to deploy on the tar road in front of their orange Civvie truck.
Luckily for us Lt.Du Raan was on high ground and he could plot the fire of the mortar crews that enabled them to spoil FAPLAs’ day somewhat. This was turning out to be a day of surprises to say the least, without realising it the rest of the combat group had by-passed the enemies infantry positions. While the mortars and Elands in front were firing at the enemy, one of the South African drivers in the rear of the convoy left his vehicle and mooched over to one of our Elands, as he was talking to the commander in the turret he noticed a group of infantry approaching the Eland.
At first he thought that these were Unita soldiers, but then the penny dropped, there were no Whites integrated in the Unita forces, this had to be FAPLA, and those Whites either had to be Russians or Cubans, by this time the enemy was quite close to the Eland , but a quick word and some MG fire solved that problem, a close call! FAPLA decided to call it a day after losing some men, the South African Combat Team suffered no casualties, the spoils consisted of three 75mm Recoilless rifles, ammunition for these, and the ubiquitous AK47’s, again we managed to shoot out a ammunition vehicle that kept everybody on their toes while it was burning. Although no progress had been made in the campaign to take Quibala, at least we had stopped the enemy from digging in at the strategic crossroads only 12 klicks from Foxbats’ base.
The only way that seemed feasible was the route towards the West….
The following day the Engineers started rebuilding the bridge with material they found locally, these National Servicemen were the unsung heroes of Operation Savannah, 18, 19 year olds that did everything and more that was asked from them, day after day week after week. At last light on 22 November 1975, they were able to look back and feel justifiably proud. The bridge was finished. While all this was going on those of the combat group who were keeping an eye over the Engineers busied itself with the mundane tasks that soldiers all over the centuries have occupied themselves with, writing letters, cleaning weapons, wondering if the folks back home were alright.
A light plane appeared one day and caused some anxiety as it circled over their position a couple of times, one of the problems both sides faced in Angola as mentioned previously, was the fact that appearances never were what they seemed to be, and this proved to be no exception, both sides used and commandeered civilian aircraft, and when choppers made their appearance the fact that both sides used Allouette’s had fatal consequences for the South African forces on one occasion…
As standard operating procedure dictated that no one was to fire until the identity of the aircraft had been established a radio message was sent ” Be advised, we have an aircraft over our position at grid reference so and so, do you have any knowledge of any friendly flights in the vicinity? “Standby ” was the reply from the combat groups HQ, who in turn got in touch with Cela.
“Negative, I say negative.” was the message that was eventually relayed to the Elands guarding the Engineers, but by that time the ‘plane was long gone. Later that evening some of the Eland gunners were prepared to swear on a stack of Bibles that they could have taken out the ‘plane with their 90mm cannon, no problem, if this message had been received a few minutes earlier.
Such are the fortunes of war… During this period FLNA soldiers from Sa Da Bandeira and Mocamedes under the command of Maj. Jock Harris and Sgt Almerino Mourao Da Costa reinforced us. In the battle that followed FNLA, Unita and South Africans would fight and die side by side for the first time in Angola. Cmdt. Kruys’ Force was exposed to the enemy for two days who could evaluate the South Africans’ strength and weakness at their leisure, so we had no chance of catching them with their pants down. Kruys knew that the enemy would be waiting for him this time.
The Force that set off on Sunday 23 November 1975 to take Ebo was under the command of Capt. Holm. This was to be his last contact, his place on the “Flossie” taking him back to the “States” had been booked long time ago. Maj. Holtzhausen was in charge of the tactical H.Q. at Tunga while Capt. Anton Fourie was in charge of the reserve squadron. The Arty under Maj. Venter was tasked with the 81mm and 107mm mortars to deliver fire support if necessary. The night before the attack an order group was held as usual, Lt. Van Niekerk had built a model of the area around Ebo, and Capt. Holm presented his plan.
This is how he saw the situation –
His appreciation was that the enemy would try to ambush us north of Ebo therefore our orders were to move through the town as fast as possible as fighting in built up areas was bad news, and to keep on going until we hit the stream about 2.5 klicks north of the town itself. The Infantry would have to dismount here and clear the forested area between the two koppies (on both sides of the road). After this had been completed the advance would be continued.
Capt. Holm had decided that Lt. Swanepoel ‘s Troop would be in the vanguard with Lt. Du Toit’s Troop following him. When Capt. Holm announced this everybody broke up, Lt. Du Toit was reputed to initiate contacts when nobody else would do so, and had earned the nickname “Magnet Arse”. Whenever fire was exchanged he was always in the thick of it and more than once the following phrase “Johan you can be wherever you want tomorrow, I bet your ass you’ll be the first one to make contact with the enemy” was heard under gales of hysterical laughter.
As the first rays of the sun lit up the sky on Sunday 21 November, a short service was held and we asked God to be with us on this day, afterwards keys were turned in ignitions, engines coughed, sputtered and fired, engines ran irregular at first and later on settled into a steady purr, the signallers tested their radios, some of us had a piss, most of us did some soul searching, some read their Bibles and prayed, cigarettes were lit, the older ones amongst us thought about wives and children, and I bet all of us looked at the sky and wondered if we would see a sunrise again…
Foxbat crossed the Tunga without incident, once across we realised that we were well and truly in “Indian” Country, but nothing untoward happened and round about 08H00 the leading echelon entered Ebo and it was with a sense of foreboding that the members of the task force surveyed the deserted streets, no food on stoves this time, somebody must have told the folks this time that the ” Boers” were on their way.
We had the services of Lt.Williamson, courtesy of the SAAF spying out the land for us in his Cessna, in the days leading up to this incursion he had reported lots of traffic on this road, but today there was nothing. Not a soul to be seen. Capt. Holm decided to push on and as the first Eland moved out of Ebo, a shot was fired from a high koppie, (Dondo) with a RPG-7, this put the wind up everybody and our FAC asked Lt.Williamson to have a shufti at this. He reported that two trucks were gapping it from two koppies about 3 klicks North of Ebo, we then decided that this shot must have been a warning, and everybody got back on the trucks and we carried on along the road.
Lt.Swanepoel leading with his troop of Elands arrived first at the two koppies, he saw some tracks leading from the tar road into the bush and decided to follow suit and find out what they had been up to, before carrying on. He signalled his intention and his Eland followed the tracks. It was clear that the two trucks had been bogged down and that considerable effort had been made to get them out, the tools the enemy had been using had been left behind, to his discomfort his Eland suffered the same fate, and he had to be pulled from the mud, this gave rise to great hilarity as all his friends started ribbing him for “Bogging down in the face of the enemy”. Little did they realise that most of them would suffer the same fate that day.
Once back on the road Lt.Swanepoel carried on with the advance and realised that he had reached the area where Capt. Holm had expected them to be ambushed. Lt.Williamson advised that he had spotted the enemy trucks parked about 2 klicks North from the Elands on the banks of the Mabassa River, an ideal target of opportunity. Lt.Swanepoel had by this time moved about 200 metres North from the koppies but could not see the trucks. He spotted a dirt track road about towards the East and took his troop along this in the hope that he might be able to spot the enemy, without luck.
Lt.Williamson was spitting nails with frustration at this state of affairs, in desperation he flew over the Elands directly towards the enemy to show their position to the Elands, who traversed their guns in that direction and fired about 30 rounds to no effect. It was clear to the South Africans that the enemy was not FAPLA this time, in the past under such a volume of fire, even if it was inaccurate, FAPLA would react in one of two ways, either gap it, or return fire, both courses of action would have suited us down to the ground, but the Cubans who were facing us this time was of a totally different calibre, their fire discipline was excellent and we were still none the wiser as to where their positions were, and would remain so until it was to late for Foxbat to do anything about it.
Lt.Johan Du Toit, leader of the second troop of Elands, decided that we had to force the issue and advised that he was moving forward, Capt. Holm advised him to be on the lookout for mines at the approaches to the bridge and the 4 Elands started moving forward, to support Lt.Du Toit, Lt.Swanepoel ordered his troop to get off the road and to advance in two groups parallel with Lt.Du Toits’ Elands. The two in front had scarcely advanced 100 metres when they sank to their axles in the mud, and for all intents and purposes were rendered Hors de Combat:
Lt.Du Toit kept a running commentary of his progress up to the bridge, and then the magic words came over the receiver ” I am at the bridge” Lt.Williamson broke in to advise that he had observed some movement on the bridge itself, when the first shots shattered the silence “Get us out of here!” we heard Lt.Du Toit scream over the radio, a cloud of black smoke suddenly appeared above the treetops where the bridge was, and the only sound on the radio was the hiss of static.
We had suffered our first loss of the day, there would be many more… Lt.Du Toit’s Eland had been taken out by a 75mm recoilless rifle that had been emplaced on the opposite river bank, as this weapon was situated on a higher plane than the target it was actually firing downwards, and the hollow charge projectile had no problem defeating the Elands armour that only offered protection against small-arms in any case. Trooper Neil Lombaard from Riebeeck-Wes died on the spot, the Eland went out of control and ended up on its side in the river, this signalled the start of the battle, at 09H00 in the morning.
We heard numerous radio broadcasts from Luanda afterwards that we had been taken by surprise this morning, nothing could be further from the truth, we knew they would try and stop us before we crossed the river, and Capt. Holm had two choices:
- Advance along the road which was the only surface suitable for the Elands,
- Keep the Elands in reserve and let the Unita and FNLA infantry try and take the bridge.
It really came down to one choice in the end, as there was no way that the Unita and FNLA Infantry would go forward on their own.
After recovering from the effects of the explosion, Lt.Du Toit and his gunner observed a Grad P position barely 50 metres to the front of them, attempts to relay this information failed due to the fact that their antenna had been grounded and although they could receive messages they could not transmit. At this point in the battle neither Lt.Du Toit nor Cpl van der Merwe had any inclination to rectify this situation, this surely would have alerted the enemy to the fact that they were still alive.
At the same time FAPLA opened up with long range artillery on us and we discovered that most of the places where we were deploying turned out to be registered targets, the area between the two koppies was totally unsuitable for vehicles and Capt. Holm really had no choice here. The road North of Ebo was turned into a shooting gallery, the South Africans and their allies being the targets, later on some would recall how panic stricken members of the infantry were scurrying around looking for cover, and the pathetic sight of some of them looking for shelter on the road that was utterly devoid of any cover whatsoever.
Back at the approaches to the bridge Cpl Gert Botha managed to fire one shot with his main armament before the third Eland was knocked out. The second Eland now cut off, was an easy target and suffered the same fate, the crew baled out, and immediately got fired on by enemy soldiers in foxholes about 60 metres away, Lcpl Gibbon fired at them with his 9mm Star pistol and this enabled them to reach a donga nearby and relative safety, they stayed put there the whole day.
In the rear Eland, the crew and Cpl Botha decided that they were safer inside the knocked out Eland as the enemy probably thought they had been killed, and a short while later the Eland of Staff Sergeant Van der Linden was knocked out as well, all three these armoured cars were knocked out at relatively close ranges by RPG-7’s. In the hours following the crews of the first eight Elands that had been boxed in became the prime targets of the enemies artillery, rocket launchers, small arms and “Red Eyes”, The rest of the battle now revolved around saving them and their crews, there was no talk of launching a counterattack against the enemy in his well prepared positions.
Lt.Swanepoel and Cpl Adams immediately decided to go to the assistance of his friend Johan Du Toit, at the road junction there were two huts, and an open field about the size of a rugby pitch, the two Elands stopped on the left and right hand sides of the road to see if they see the missing armoured cars, but to no avail, the sounds of the battle was clearly audible but they could not determine where this was taking place. They then saw a BM-21 positioned on a slope on the other side of the Massaba River. Both opened fire with their 90mm cannon, but the enemy was a little bit faster and on target this day. Cpl Adams’ Eland was straddled by a salvo, One rocket actually went under the drivers compartment and exploded there, the wet terrain this time saved their lives as the rocket buried itself before detonating, the mud absorbing most of the blast, but the explosion was powerful enough to ensure that the driver injured his knee, another exploded in front of the Eland, Cpl Adams wanted to withdraw but the driver could not operate the vehicle due to his injury. The third a missile hit the Eland on the drivers’ hatch and the fourth exploded on the turret. The interior of the Eland filled with smoke and the crew decided to bale out and gapped it in the direction of Ebo, the driver only remembering that he had a injured knee a sometime later.
Lt.Swanepoel in the meantime realised that on his own and out of 90mm rounds there was nothing he could do to help his friends at the bridge, and decided to go and help the crews of the two Elands that had bogged down earlier on. They had been receiving small arms fire sporadically from the enemy trenches, and as soon as he left the road he bogged down as well, he and his crew grabbed their tools but by now the enemy had spotted them outside the Eland and started using them for target practise, there was no way they were going to get these vehicles out without some outside help, and that possibility was getting slimmer with each passing second.
He ordered the crews to abandon the three Elands and to gap it back to our own lines, as a precaution he ordered them to split up. His decision was to gap it back to the two koppies, the rationale being that our mortars would be somewhere in the vicinity behind them. They were just about move through the gap in the Koppies when the enemy decided to start hitting the koppies with 122mm rockets, “Omkeer!”
To the left of these koppies there was a wooded area and him and another decided to take this route, The only weapons they had was his 9mm pistol and his companions R1 (FN FAL), on the way there they passed a kraal and one of the occupants started shouting at them, (Most likely he was telling them that “No thanks, we don’t need any new double glazing, vacuum cleaners, and you certainly don’t look like insurance salesmen to me!”), they just eyed him, and kept on running, and only stopped way past Ebo, and in hindsight this was a good decision , the air was literally black with “Red Eyes” over our mortar positions.
While all this was happening, an Eland drove to the shot out Eland of Cpl. Botha, and in process suffered a hit on the muzzle brake of its 90mm gun, rendering it useless, but notwithstanding this Cpl Botha was brought to safety, by this time the Eland squadron that had been held in reserve moved forward and one of them managed to silence the 75mm recoilless rifle that initiated the battle, to great relief of the other two members of Cpl. Botha’s crew who were brought to safety after this.
By this time the South Africans artillery had been deployed at a old runway just North of Ebo, and soon opened up counter battery fire, which although impressive to the observer on the ground proved to be relatively ineffective due to the fact that they were not getting proper grid references from the Cessna at first, and when these were getting through eventually, nobody would believe the pilot. What the enemy had done was to turn conventional artillery doctrine on its head, instead of having their guns far to the rear of the infantry positions they had sited these as close as 2500 metres from their front line, all our shells fell way behind them. We learnt a valuable lesson from them this day; the same tactic was applied by us in Operation Modular and Hooper with great success.
We still couldn’t use our mortars as we were out of range, and these were eventually brought forward to a crest east of the two koppies Lt.Swanepoel had chosen as his objective when they abandoned the bogged down Elands. The 107mm mortars were situated about 60-70 yards in front of our 81mm mortars and we were busy setting up our mortars, getting ready to shoot the base plates in when a couple 122mm rockets which we presumed came from a Grad-P fell in the vicinity, nobody was overly exited about this as nobody really rated FAPLAs accuracy when using these. (At the time we were unaware of the fate that had befallen the Elands, and that whoever was doing the shooting on the other side knew their business).
Well the same fella must have been fairly busy that day, a salvo from a BM-21 (surprise! the 122mm rockets earlier had not been from a Grad-P as we had thought) revved both mortar positions leaving a number of dead and wounded amongst them Staff Benson and 14 Unita 107mm mortarists KIA, Staff Steenkamp, Sgt Da Costa and scores others seriously wounded, most of these were brought to rear by Capt. Holm and Venter. Sgt Sierro who was in charge of the FNLA contingent was powerless to stop them from becoming a panic-stricken mob under this bombardment, and 20 plus of them died because they were running around aimlessly trying to seek shelter, and thus became easy targets. To top it all they came under fire from RPG-7s from the one koppie as they withdrew, it really wasn’t the nicest 2 hours that they spent on a road in Angola.
In all this excitement Sgt Da Costa had been left behind, and as he had suffered serious injuries to his leg, he had to crawl the two klicks back to safety. The mortars were now without an infantry screen and to cap it all most of the Unita members were gone, Lt.Van Niekerk “volunteered” all the survivors and turned them into surprising good mortarists in one lesson that lasted all of about 20 minutes. Foxbat had a First-Aid post at the Tunga River Bridge and the wounded were stabilised there first before they were taken to Cela where proper facilities existed for SADF surgeons to perform operations.
This day was turning out to be a real ball breaker…. Lt.van Niekerk decided to try again to reach the stranded Elands this time with a group of infantry and on the way there met W O Burger who had decided to withdraw from the mortar position after being bracketed by 122mm missiles.
Early on in the fight Capt. Holm had changed vehicles, Capt. Holm driving an Eland, and Lt.van Niekerk the blue Honda, in which he had done sterling work this day, this car had served as ambulance bringing wounded to the rear, ammunition to the front, and as a reconnaissance vehicle. Another misfortune struck the Unita contingent, their truck carrying the food and ammunition and personal belongings had bogged down and had to be destroyed in situ to prevent the enemy capturing it.
Once Lt.van Niekerk reached the mortar positions he found two South African soldiers loading the abandoned mortars and ammunition on to two trucks, a little while later Capt. Holm arrived and was standing in the turret talking to the group when a single 122mm rocket exploded close to them…
Death had repaid the insult from Capt. Holm at the “Y” with interest, Cpl Taljaard and Capt. Holm were killed, and Lt.van Niekerk and the other soldier were wounded, notwithstanding this all the equipment was loaded on the truck, finally Cpl Taljaards’ body was wrapped in a poncho by Lt.Van Niekerk and put on the truck. It is not known how Capt. Holms’ body was brought back. The blue Honda was peppered with shrapnel, the tyres punctured, and the windows broken, they managed to get it going, but a short while down the road it finally broke down, and was abandoned.
The order was finally given to the reserve force to recover the stranded Elands, at about 16H00; those that could not be recovered had to be destroyed. This was indeed a black day for us. That evening we discovered that all Elands had been accounted for except two and their crews, and Lt.Williamson flew looking for these until the lack of visibility forced him to return to Cela.
The cost to the South Africans was heavy indeed, 4 dead, numerous wounded. The biggest loss was that of Capt. Johan Holm, if any man can claim that he is “A man amongst men” he could, everybody who ever served with him, and note I use the word “with” and not “under” had the greatest respect for him, even though he was a hard taskmaster sometimes, he always made you feel a part of the team and a valued member at that .The enemy had captured 2 Elands, but most of all they had proved to themselves that we were not invincible, and could be stopped. Unita and the FNLA had probably lost about 50 dead, with as many wounded.
Casualties on the enemy side was very hard to establish, the figures for FAPLA are unavailable, on the Cuban side they were 27 dead and 11 wounded, this information came from Cuban POW’s, how reliable this is I do not know. The fire discipline of the Cuban Forces facing us was admirable and earned the grudging respect of the South Africans.
The causes of this defeat:
- Lack of trained infantry, (Unita and the FNLA) the Elands had to make up for this deficit more often than not, the ambush would have posed no problem to well-trained infantry
- The terrain was totally unsuited for Elands, who were forced to operate mainly on the road
- Complacency on our side, we had won every time, and this was going to be no exception.
The missing crewmembers were reunited with us on the Monday, after some hairy adventures to say the least, but that’s a story in itself. This defeat blocked our advance so it was back to Bridge 14 on the Nhia, but we would be a little more streetwise this time.
On the Tuesday 25th November 1975, Lt.Williamson took off from Cela to do a recce over the Massaba River, he did not return.
- Rev : Rhodesian slang, to fire at somebody e.g. we revved them
- Koppie: (Lit. Cup) Afrikaans for small hill, shaped like a cup that’s been placed upside down
- Gap: Rhodesian slang, to run away e.g. we gapped it
- Klick: Kilometre
- Omkeer! : Afrikaans term for the order “About Face!”
- Eland: French Panhard Armoured Car made under license in South Africa. Armament 1 x 90mm low-pressure gun, 1 x 7,62-mm Browning 60mm breech loading mortar, 1 x 7, 62mm Browning Mg
- Grad-P: 122mm Free flight Soviet rocket, with HE warhead has a very simplified launcher, the Missile can be fired from any improvised launcher, but this effects the accuracy
- RPG-7: 85-mm Soviet rocket propelled grenade, the direct descendant of the WW II German Panzerfaust 150, can defeat more than 20 cm of armour, a very versatile weapon
- AK-47: Abbreviation for Avtomat Kalashnikov, the standard Soviet rifle, fires 7,62 x 39mm intermediate cartridge, America’s gift to the world was Coca-Cola; Russia’s was the AK-47
- BM-21: Soviet 122mm Multiple Rocket Launcher mounted on Ural Truck
- Red Eye: Translation of Afrikaans name “Rooi Oog” for 122mm rockets due to their signature whilst in flight