The turn-around: military strategy
Like the British army, the SADF traditionally looked down on an intellectual approach to war. This is illustrated by the fact that the Military Academy in Saldanha only instituted a course in military strategy in 1991, while military history has never really taken the necessary central position in providing officers with an intellectual understanding of what their profession entailed. It seems that the SADF preferred action above thinking – as if there was no need to understand what you were doing, and in doing so also understand how to do whatever you were doing. Quite a lot of the mistakes made during the course of the war was directly attributable to this unfortunate lacune.
One general officer who, at least in hindsight, seems to have overcome this wide-spread disdain for knowledge and understanding, was General Jannie Geldenhuys. If one can accept his memoirs as an accurate mirror of what happened, he and his staff during the late seventies apparently really set their minds to how to root out the Swapo insurgency, keeping close to the dictums of McCuen and Fraser. Interpreting what he wrote there and going beyond, let us look at how the South Africans tackled the problem.
The basic strategic task was to prevent the conflict from developing beyond Mao’s first phase to open mobile warfare, or even the final conventional phase. But how? The operative word here seems initiative.
Internally, the security forces needed to wrest the initiative from the insurgents by forcing them into fights on the former’s terms. As the security forces were much better equipped – and, as the eighties approached, also better trained – than the Swapo guerrillas, such firefights would mostly end in the defeat of the insurgents. The SADF relied more and more on black and white professionals and less and less on the white conscripts and reservists who were clearly not up to the job.
By the end of the seventies, the Rhodesian “fire-force” system was taken over, adapted and perfected. Troops being utilised for defensive tasks, such as escorting vehicle convoys, guard duties, etc., were minimised to free up men for offensive tasks. Typically, the operational area would be patrolled aggressively and continuously, on foot, on horse, on motor cycles with muffled engines and on mine-resistant infantry vehicles such as Buffels, Casspirs (Koevoet and 101 Bn) and, at times, even Ratel IFV’s or Panhard 90 armoured cars. They would invariably have expert trackers with them, often from 102 Bn (Bushmen), although Koevoet preferred native Ovambos. When chancing on an enemy band’s tracks, or when receiving information from the locals about a Swapo unit in the vicinity, the news would be radioed to the nearest HQ. There a “Romeo Mike” (the Afrikaans term was reaksiemag or reaction force) team would be on alert. Often the RM would be paratroopers, flown in on Puma helicopters, with air support from specially converted Alouette III helicopters equipped with 20 mm cannon. These mostly proved devastating in firefights. Sometimes, a C-47 Dakota with parachute-equipped troops or a Dakota gunship, similar to the American “Puff the Magic Dragon” used in Vietnam, would also be used. In the case of Koevoet and 101 Bn, the RM would more often than not consist of ground troops, rushing to the battle zone in their Casspir vehicles. Although the insurgents would sometimes really astound the pursuing troops with phenomenal feats of physical endurance and excellent bushcraft techniques like anti-tracking or hiding themselves, often the contact would result in some or most of the insurgents being killed or wounded. EspeciallyKoevoet, and to a somewhat lesser extent 101 Bn, became highly feared killing machines, achieving the highest “kill ratio” of all units in the war.
With these methods, according to General Geldenhuys, the number of combat contacts with insurgents doubled in 1979 compared to the previous year. Of those contacts 85 per cent were initiated by the security forces, illustrating their ability to dominate the operational area militarily.
Externally, the SADF decided not to wait for the insurgents to come to Namibia, do their mischief there and then try to kill or capture them, but to take the war to their bases in Angola and prevent them from coming to Namibia in the first place. In a military appreciation of the situation in Namibia, dated 1 April 1978, the SADF Chief of Staff Operations pointed out that Swapo’s actions had notably improved the previous year, mainly because of the movement having many bases just across the border in Angola. In contrast, because the SADF was not allowed to cross the border in a big way, it was forced to react to Swapo, while Swapo retained the initiative.
Actually, cross-border operations against Swapo had already started clandestinely soon after the SADF pulled out of Angola in the wake of Operation Savannah. Under the inspired but unorthodox leadership of Colonel Jan Breytenbach 32 Bn, consisting largely of black Angolans, struck repeatedly over the border and harassed Swapo in places where it deemed itself safe. It was his intention, Breytenbach wrote, “to turn the southern Angolan bush into a menacing, hostile environment for Swapo.” In short, he wanted to “out-guerrilla the guerrillas”.
However, the first sizable external operation, Operation Reindeer, took place in April 1978, when a understrength composite parachute battalion was dropped over Cassinga, a large Swapo administrative, supply and training base about 300 km inside Angola, which was completely destroyed. This gave rise to a hysteric furore, with Swapo alleging that the approximately 700-1000 killed were all innocent and defenceless women and children refugees on the run from the South African racists. However, the newest research by a professional SANDF paratrooper General has shown that, although there were indeed some women and children refugees at the base, by far the majority were Swapo cadres. At the same time, another Swapo base at Chetequera, much nearer to the Namibian border, was also attacked and wiped out.
But this was not the turning point. In spite of Swapo losing up to a third of its military strength at Cassinga and its war effort being hugely disrupted, this success – in contradiction to all military principles – was not followed up, and within six months everything was back to where they were before Reindeer. Sam Nujoma writes that Swapo’s strategy at this time was “to carry out military offensives on all these fronts [eastern Caprivi, Kavango, eastern and western Ovamboland and the Kaokoveld] at the same time, to confuse and overstretch the enemy’s military power...”
It was not to be. In the years to come, until 1984, Swapo was kept on the ropes with several successive operations, mostly with great success, at times less so. Operations Sceptic and Klipkop (1980), Protea and Daisy (1981), Super and Meebos (1982) and Askari (1983-’84) were, perhaps, the most well known, but there were also several smaller ones.
There can be no doubt that, taken as a whole, these cross-border operations, the regular ritual international condemnations notwithstanding, were hugely successful in breaking the back of the Swapo insurgency. As Susan Brown – not particularly friendly towards the apartheid government – put it perceptively:
Swapo’s ability to strike at will into the Ovambo area of Namibia now began to diminish rapidly. Plan combatants, previously based within a few kilometres of the Namibian border, were forced hundreds of kilometres back into the Angolan hinterland. The Plan headquarters and regional command points came under constant air and ground attack. Forward command posts from which guerrillas operated into Namibia became increasingly insecure if close to the border, with their lines of supply disrupted. When Swapo could no longer establish bases close to the border, this imposed on combatants the need to carry land-mines, mortars, automatic rifles, medical equipment and so on hundreds of kilometres on their backs before they even entered Namibia, let alone crossed into white farming areas. This long trek south was impossible without water, so Plan operations became restricted to the rainy season between November and March... This cut into the time combatants were able to stay in Namibia. This crucially affected their ability to conduct political work among the local population. After 1982, the politicising role of guerrillas who move continually and easily among the people of Ovamboland, often in civilian clothes, able to communicate and convince, began to wane. The role of combatants was increasingly forced into an exclusively military mould.
This fact was facilitated by the fact that the SADF successfully prevented Swapo from spreading the war so wide that the security forces could not adequately cover the entire operational area in Namibia intensively. According to Geldenhuys, the main purpose of the SADF’s strategy “was to clean Kaokoland, Kavango and the Caprivi... If we could attain this goal, we could reduce the wide-spread insurgentinfested territory until only Ovambo remained. We could then concentrate our efforts there...”
Swapo’s first geopolitical set-back was when President Kenneth Kaunda decided to kick the organisation out of his country in 1978. This was a breakthrough in that it made the insurgency in the eastern Caprivi impossible. “This was the beginning of the fulfillment of our plan”, Geldenhuys commented. Infiltration into the eastern Caprivi became impossible.
Adding to Swapo’s woes, Canu broke with its erstwhile ally in 1981, therebydealing a death blow to the insurgency there. The fact that Swapo allowed Savimbi’s Unita to become an ally of South Africa, now also came into play. As Unita dominated the whole southeast corner of Angola, this meant that any attempt to infiltrate into western Caprivi and Okavango became so fraught with danger as to be next to impossible. To the west, the Kaokoveld remained implacable to the Ovambodominated Swapo.
That left Ovamboland, admittedly Swapo’s heartland and therefore a tough nut to crack. Nevertheless, the fact that this territory was only 56 000 hectares big made it much easier for the security forces to keep it in an iron grip. Swapo also made sporadical attempts to infiltrate into the white farmlands south of Ovambo, but the bands were invariably hunted down and wiped out. “And so we reached our goal to limit the insurgency to Ovamboland in a relative short time”, according to Geldenhuys.
That the war went rather well for the security forces is borne out by the South African statistics. If they are accepted as accurate, the casualty rate looked like this: