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'Operation Savannah

 

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This page is devoted to letters dealing with claims that have come out though the years. There are those who were heros, and wannabe heros, some of whom on questioning could only have been in Operation savannah in spirit. In addition uncertainty still exists in many areas with those concerned wanting maximum glory for their part in the action.

Lt van Vuuren  pulled into our exact positions after the battle
when the snoopy air op reported tanks moving forward in order to allow us to
re-log with heats to go forward and meet them. When we returned bombed up,
we heard all these hero stories, but we saw no new bodies. I doubt very much if any chap will manage to shoot 11 Cubans nogal through a 10cm empty shell porthole at distances of 10m plus with a Star 9mm  with only two mags? He had
never proved himself as a shot when we did range work at
School of Armour.

You have to bear in mind that that specific war pre and after independence
in November 75, was a very fluid one.  We were "seconded" to Angola as
"foreigner" soldiers dressed in all sort of gear with all supposed RSA
signatures removed.  No one bought the phony guttural English accents
though. Three smallish combat groups lightly armed started the fracas, and
later as the show picked up speed and the fighting escalated by everyone
upping the art, both sides upped the weaponry.  So our 60mm mortars became
81mm, later added 25 pounders, and eventually 5,5 howitzers against much
heavier opposition.  No air support by both sides.  Pity that one though.
The early part of the war up to the middle high lands were pretty romantic
days as military excursions go.

My own recollections were that yes, initially the infantry did some good
work, but when we got bogged down in a more conventional battle, it was
predominantly an artillery/armour war with the better individuals acting in
support of the command structures i.e. OP's etc. 

OP"s played a strong role on both sides as the world was pretty broken terrain around there.  Their artillery were good and you had to watch out for any tell tale signs. If
you were sloppy or got within eye sight, boom boom boom!! and you had to
scoot in a hurry to set up base elsewhere. This happened very frequently and
in fact increased.  If we deployed our patrols, we noticed smoke fires
lighting up as far as we drove, they  would manage to track us and bring
artillery down on us.  We ended up disciplining these malpractices with our browning 7,62's, and it was only later in Rhodesia that I saw the other side of the coin and how povos are the true losers from both sides.

The Cubans never or hardly countered our armoured car troop movements with equal force.  Except once towards Amboive when Lt"bevel box bones" Beneke and his fresh unblooded troops (June 75 intake and half trained) had to patrol towards Amboive,  enroute crossed a rickety bridge and got mortared with 120's and one shell landed on top of the commander hatch of the Trp Sgt and effectively neutralized him.  They broke
and tried to "withdraw" too fast when Lt bevel box bones' car received a
direct hit from a heat type projectile just beneath the turret blowing a
wheel off, (we surmise it to have been a 110/106 recoilless type as we
couldn't find any surface marks indicating heavier guns?) , they then
abandoned all caution and simply rushed in total chaos with the result that
they damaged what had to pass as a bridge and only managed to get 2 cars
across.

They actually left the other 3 cars intact with all operational
radio settings and call signs in place, and all decamped at speed on top of
the last remaining two. We  (Papa troop) were at that stage miles way on
the right flank of the road on a similar probe, when we were recalled at
speed to try and recover the cars.  No such luck, as when we eventually
arrived 6 hours later, the Cubans have driven them off.  Along with the cars
captured earlier at Ebo they are today on display in Luanda.  Want to go and
have a look-see one day...  Obviously we all had to do some serious net
changing onto new frequencies as well as apply new shackle codes.

To my mind it was Foxbat that took the main battles.  (of course I would say that), though Papa troop worked in all three groups over time and were in Angola the longest of all individual units, 2 months in the south and then from Oct till Feb  nearly 5 months, close onto 7 months running; and we loved it.  I in fact was sad when we
eventually drove over the Rocades bridge and ended a wonderful adventure (all
expenses paid.)

I certainly never trusted the Unitas an inch. His irregulars were certainly better dressed, equipped and led than the rest, probably because of Col Jan's direct involvement and command.  Our recollection of any of these local irregulars were that they decamped at the sound of the first shots and could hardly be called military fighting forces, rather militia at best.  It was amazing how "our" ranks swelled on
ration days, hordes, but the moment you had to do some fighting work, you
had to make do with a rather shrunken force who preferred the "mole" approach, deep down under fire.  They became very boisterous after a battle, and liked to prance around with new found booty.

There were the  odd good ones, but their efforts went to the wind amongst the rabble.  The only leadership that got anything out of them were absolute ruthless dictators.  The comandantes and tenentes wore full uniforms and fancy boots, the sargentos lesser clothed.  I even saw some 13 year old sargentos.  The troops had bare feet and rags, with initially a motley array of weapons.  Anything from M1's, stens, G3's, mausers, and I even saw a MP 43!!!  Later they were re-equipped with G3's, but tended to
discard it for AKs under fire with little regard for ammo. 

The Unitas also varies between geographic areas, with the middle lot somehow more barbarous. I saw them slice meat from a live cow tied to a tree, apparently part of
their belief system.. it lived for a couple of days till they got to the
more vital parts and blood loss made it keel over. We could not stand the sound of that poor beast in agony, yet were told to leave them at it.

I still remember the more tranquil part of that time, with the smoke trailing lazily up into the sky early in the morning, with ourselves brewing tea and drying ourselves.  Breakfast? that was  only invented when we got back to the States.  Food was always in a bit of short supply.  We often had to trade food from mulattos and the odd surviving Portuguese in town, and the only currency was petrol.  We came across warehouses filed with valuable stock, but worthless in war or for use by povos. 

We had to rescue caged animals and sometimes shoot them to relieve them of
their misery. 

At Ela Ela we found an abandoned cheese factory and did it reek!!  From a fully equipped hospital we re-equipped ourselves with theatre tools as we never were issued knife and fork sets when we traveled forth into the Angolan yonder from Grootfontein.  In fact we had no personal gear and were only issued one pair of green fatigues per man.  With my no: 11's all they had were sail takkies and I had to do with a cut up pair of old unrecognizable army boots of which the seams came apart, right through the
campaign. I also had four front false teeth, and soon the front bit broke
off.  That I carried around in my pocket, and every time I had to "dress
formally", back went the teeth to be held in place with my tongue and I
spoke with a lisp.  No one pitied the fragile ego of a 18 year old
mind.

We got one up one old Kruis one day with a local capitano who dearly wanted to get in Kruis' good books but wasn't allowed near enough to prove his worth.  He lamented his fate with us, and asked us if we couldn't teach him some Afrikaans as the good Cmdt would certainly then favour him more.

We obliged, but it took two days for him to master the sentence
phonetically which we assured him were a highly approved manner of greeting
you seniors with much aplomb and respect.


"...jou manaivirbaksteneom'nhoerhuistebou".  When he felt confident enough he
strutted off to the combi one day and came to an unbelievable smart
attention, snapping his hand to his black beret, whilst uttering the said
mastered greeting aloud enough for all and sundry to hear.  For a moment he
stood there with a huge grin, and then a big burly major stepped forward and
klapped him so hard he cart wheeled away to find his feet and disappeared
complaining bitterly.  We told him that the major had a bad day and maybe he
should go back the next day.  Poor bugger got shot before he got another
opportunity.

Unitas?  We troops didn't take to these dudes at all, and when out of eye
shot of brass took them out whenever we could.  Just before bridge 14 when
attempting a crossing, we saw some Cubans in a jeep pulling up on the other
side, I lined my sights up and saw that a large tree with a platoon size
group of Unitas clustered underneath it, blocking my sights.  I hollered at
them to clear out, but they simply stared at me with sullen eyes as they are
wont to do if told to do something they didn't agree on.  As we couldn't get
into another position, I simply let go a HE round to clear the tree, and
after that a HEAT for the jeep.  I got the jeep, but strange didn't notice
any UNITA jumping around in joy at the sight.  Till this day I wondered
where those okes went?

To the best of my memory Danny was a Angolan that caught Jan's favour and
served him well as a junior leader.  Due to Col Jan's loyalty to his troops,
he managed to withdraw them out to S.W.A. and they formed the basis for the
later 32 Bat, one of the best light fighting units in the world in
their specific role.  The rest of his history you know well.  His book
Buffalo Soldier is highly recommended for the true soldier.

As far as the infantry goes, totally unreliable!!They discarded there G3's for AK's without a thought as to ammo, attacked by laying down a tremendous noisy barrage of rifle and RPG fire ill aimed if aimed at all, something to do with he who makes the most noise wins?? In Africa context it appears to be the norm till today, hence the low kill rates on either side.  Normally one side breaks and runs like hell, and the poor sods who gets caught were summarily killed if not first tortured. 

Specifically at bridge 14 just beyond the first line of defenses we crossed, I at one stage had to get out of the armoured car, take down a co-ax aerial and walk around and thrash the infantry out of their hiding places to get them to move in something like a
military formation to give us an infantry screen as we were pulling fire.
Nothing heroic, simple necessity. They had a habit of melting away, for soon we saw no more covering Unita troops with us.  Oh! they re appeared soon after the battle only to shoot the couple of prisoners in cold blood we were able to have captured in a swamp. They all joined in that and took great glee in emptying their mags in the spastic bodies. At such times we had little control over them. It took great aggression for us to secure two captives and spirit them away in a jeep to Cela where
they were hospitalized and later ended up in the Rapport and Sunday Times as
agricultural advisors. By rescuing them we nearly fought a greater war than the one just past. I remember having to have to pistol whip quite e few AK waving Unitas who were on the verge of shooting the poor buggers as well. I never heard Col Jan's troops to have behaved the same.

To the best of my knowledge, what Danny Roxo did at bridge 14 was some
recce jobs and do OP work, for which he was not trained and had to be led
by the receiving artillery officer at the guns, he managed this very commendably.

I am familiar of his participation at Bridge 14, but in general their role
as infantry were very limited, and the leader element contributed to
artillery OP's etc.  That was limited to the period up and till the actual
crossing.  Thereafter we lost contact with them as we were in positions
consolidating our advance. 

The real fighting were done by the artillery who softened up the various strong points, and preceding bridge 14, the immediate opposing defenses till the armoured cars could cross and deploy to the flanks, and that point (the flanks) was the deciding factor as all the enemy defenses were set up facing the road as all movement at that time of the year were limited to the road ways. 

Thunder storms broke out EVERY afternoon around 3 pm, but the 4 days prior to our actual attack/crossing, we had dry days, draining the ground sufficiently for
our 5 ton cars to deploy and roll them up.  This was however not planned,
and it was our Papa troop Charlie call sign car driver by Eion Gibson, who
upon managing to cross the bridge, realized that his right wheels were holding well on the road dirt shoulders and tested it further.  We were suppose to attack along the road in a herring bone formation, but pulled effective fire soon after managing to cross the bridge. We were on the right hand side of the road with our wheel on the
bit of shoulder that it offered, when Eion came over the intercom stating
that the ground felt stable and that he was going to pull off. Soon all four cars were on either side of the tar road, drawing less fire.


The Cubans had all their guns sighted on the tar road and could not get to
us in time as we advanced too fast for them to reposition.  It was like
swatting flies and it was a good killing time...  Our crew were well
experienced and integrated and worked together fantastically.  Eion the
driver would call directions as Martin Ziegler and I worked from the
turret and watched from the sights.  It went like clock work and we
leaped frog forward in two teams each of two cars banging away with our main
armament and machine gun.  We had them on the run and didn't  have time
to wait for reinforcements to come up.  We just kept on going.  Maybe the
true hero of bridge 14 was Eion Gibson?  If not for him testing the ground we just might have been stopped on the tar road alla Ebo!

The infantry played a very limited role at Bridge 14. Col Jan
refers to an incident in which Danny was sent forward under the protection
of the armoured cars, but best of my recollection it did not happen like that.Based on some comments he made towards that end, I think that his orders might have been passed on incorrectly and /or misconstrued before they got to us. It was still in the days of the strict need to know British military tradition, so we lowly rankers had little
knowledge of what the brass had in mind.  Yet, I think that it was exactly
troop initiative that sometimes went further than the anticipated brass
intentions, and carried the day. 

Bridge 14 was a prime example of that. Deploying off the main axis of advance and carrying on well beyond the stated objective.  So, maybe a mere kavalaris driver in the armoured Corps were the reason of Cmdt Kruis' moment in the sun and further
rapid promotion. Although I think chaps like him made sure they had all the
right contacts for such an event.  Not like poor cmdts Jan en Eddie or even
the Holshauzen brothers!!!

Bear in mind that a armoured car troop was sent forward every day for more or less
10 days to cover the engineers building the bridge. The infantry who
were supposed to do so ran away at the first sight of the enemy approaching.
We would park in a staggered formation on the road leading up to the bridge.
The right side was bordered by a lane of trees beyond which the river
wound off to our right rear 45o.  The left side had shrubs facing the
hillocks, sloping upwards.  The river bankd were thickly grown.  The 1st
bridge collapsed, and the 2nd had logs thrown over the causeway and tied
together.

The last day or two we were supposed to effect a crossing, but we were frightened away every time by close artillery fire and rocket fire. The actual crossing was simply another attempt which worked.  We had strict orders not to proceed beyond 3 km's, but when we saw that we could deploy on the soft ground, we took own initiative and carried on till 13km's. 

Cmdt Kruis kept on calling us back over the radio, but we "had trouble in understanding" as we seemed to "receive" him only 1/5 to 2/5 intermittently. He sent  Lt Heinze in an armoured car, who upon a tactical appreciation realized the value and radioed back, strangely finding good reception...  and we advanced in
a five car formation. We could have carried on till the next town 20 klicks away, and hence Luanda, as we had wiped out the last major fighting formations
before Luanda. Snoopy reported that they were frantic digging up the tar
road with graders to stop us. Between the artillery and armoured cars we
killed upwards of 2000 Cubans that day and Papa troop as the only
complete and experienced regular troop led the way, thus
facing all major opposition. The position around the main infantry and
artillery positions looked like something out of Delville Wood, thick tree
stumps shot of 3 feet above the ground, and collapsed bunkers. Every where
was pieces of body, and the ground looked well ploughed over. It would have
yielded a remarkable harvest upon a year if agriculture could have been properly used!

We used to drive up to the bridge every afternoon, accompanied by Unita infantry, it was nothing new the specific day that Col Jan refers to when Danny and his troop went with us as we again went forward. The infantry trudged along and well before the
bridge went to ground. The moment we stopped, we pulled heavier than
usual fire. We noticed a movement to our right and the next moment received incoming RPG rocket fire all over. We started returning fire, but it appeared that we were going to be cut off, and we could see none of our covering infantry even close to our position, so we beat a hasty retreat for 2 klicks down the road to get behind the cover of the hill on our left.


He states that he revved the crew, which I cannot recall, but we were asked
where our infantry were, and told them that they left us before the shooting
had started. Later it appeared that Danny was their platoon leader and found himself cut of over the river without any support. 

Col Jan blames us, but what about Danny's own troops? They were supposed to give that cover, and how did Danny get himself separated from his troops to the point that he had no tactical control over them? In addition, we were not briefed that we had any special function other than the usual prodding, nor that we had "special soldiers" with us. Danny certainly didn't make or keep contact with us, and was not on the same
radio net as us. For all practical purposes we had no tactical deployment cohesion or control.

The only other notable action resembling such an intensity was Ebo where we
were totally defeated and lost something like 5 cars and seven crew as well
as lots of infantry and the full mortar complement under Staff Sgt "Stasie"
from School of Infantry. He came driving back with all his mortar men piled
dead on the back of a "groentelorrie" (commandeered vegetable truck). It
appeared that the Cubans had them zeroed to a T and doesn't matter where
they deployed, after a second or third shot, the Cubans smacked them
with counter artillery. We speculated that they had radar, but with
hindsight it might just have been good OP work or excellent positions.

The time around the 1st November the three combat groups were the only organized fighting formations and had a free run of the south, hence the rapid advance. The MPLA and Cubans (whom we started seeing around from Oct on) simply didn't have time to organize sufficient defenses in depth and were over awed by our rapid advance
and aggressive actions. Real cowboy stuff till Ebo where we certainly lost
our initial bravado, and after our recovery became true veterans who could
stand the ground.

At the time of Bridge 14 the Foxbat Combat Team were deployed and later
reinforced with small detachments from the other two groups which all ended up on the central road to Luanda due to practical circumstances.


To the east at Sanga the roads were impassable to CG Orange and equally so
to the west where marshy areas prevented CG Bravo. They left strong holding
forces and joined Foxbat with small detachments. They reached us
after Bridge 14.  Col Jan had some troops there arriving in the nick of time
at the battle of Ebo, and they appeared to have saved the day by deploying
at the Y-junction to Ebo when we came helter skelter down the track only to
stop at the pass/tar road. I maintain that if only a BRDM or a couple of
trucks with infantry full of Cubans pursued us, we might have been defeated that day as we were totally demoralized after seeing for the first time our own white troops being shot to pieces and close comrades running through the bushes bleeding and hysterical with wide eyes. It shook us as we didn't know what had happened and what terrible force they had run into for nothing came over the net. 

Kruis took over from Eddy Webb days before and I think he made a mistake to order a general withdrawal, it could easily have turned into a route. I think he should have dug in as he still had cohesion at that point with a couple of armoured cars on the back ridges. Kruis was the staff officer sort, not of Webb or
Breytenbach's mettle (both controversial but highly effective tactical
commanders)  Kruis hardly left his command combi or came close to the front.  We only saw him when we went back for more supplies.


REMF?  Ebo was the first time we faced trained troops, and to boot regular Cubans.  No MPLA. We got our own back at Bridge 14. After that it was simply holding stations while we were losing the initiative, prodding around behind lines, and eventually we withdrew in Feb with the Cubans hot on our tail. Papa troop did tail end Charlie duty again and we had many skirmishes on our way down. We had to change a bevel box on a car under fire!! Another spot we had to blow one of our cars up when another
bevel box packed up with no spares avalible.  Damned bevel boxes!!!  We learnt
how to change engines without tiffie(mechanic) help under trees.  Our drivers were a
marvelous cool headed imaginative lot (though smelly and with awful stomach
odours especially when we were hatched down!)  So ended our Angola
excursion of 75/76 called Ops Savanah and I earnt my Cunene clasp to go with
my Pro Nutro service medal.


OLD SOLDIERS NEVER DIE!