Operation Savannah – a Rifleman’s View: January to April 1976

by Ray Matthews

As part of the continuous military training in the South African Defence Force (SADF) which was required of white, male South African citizens in terms of the Defence Act of 1957 I had, prior to 1975, been on two three-week camps. A member of the 1st Battalion, the Transvaal Scottish Regiment, my first camp was at Madimbo Base in the Northern Transvaal (as it then was), in September-October 1970, while the second, at Gazankuwa, again in the Northern Transvaal, was in May-June 1973. I could therefore rightly regard myself as part of the Old Guard, nearing the end of my nine years of Citizen Force duties.

The third notification of a forthcoming camp arrived dated 6th November 1975 and was for three weeks of continuous training in Bloemfontein from 17 January to 6 February 1976. I was counting myself fortunate that I would complete my three, three-week camps without pulling the short straw and doing a three-month stint on the border. (At this time South Africa was engaged in a major armed incursion into Angola, launched across the northern border of South West Africa, as it then was. Its presence in Angola was strongly opposed by a mixture of FNLA (i.e., Angolan) and Cuban troops. Both of the latter were heavily influenced by Marxist ideology and were without question supported by the Soviet Union. The letter was signed by Lieutenant Don Sterling, who had been a year or two ahead of me at Jeppe Boys High. At one of the previous camps, he was my Lieutenant and after the camp I gave him all the officers’ training material that I was given while undergoing my year’s basic training at the Army Gymnasium in 1967 (the gym then situated at Voortrekker Hoogte). Then, somewhat to my surprise, on the 22nd of December 1975 I received a notification, again signed by Don, canceling the camp; this we all had to acknowledge.

Then on the 10th of January 1976 things changed dramatically. I received a much more formal letter from the SADF advising me that I had been called up for what was known as Special Continuous Service, beginning on the 22nd of January 1976. This was for approximately three months, but it also cautioned that the period could be extended for up to six months. A very comprehensive kit list was also enclosed.

This did not leave a lot of time to prepare fully, and in particular some changes had to be made to family travel plans we had been making: we had been planning a trip to the United Kingdom to visit my in-laws. Eventually my wife went with my younger sister, Carol.

I had also with a few other friends who had been called up; most notably Kenny Holme and Theo Jackson, who was a clerk in our Regiment, the 1st Transvaal Scottish. We had formed the running section of Jeppe Quondam Club and had been following a busy but enjoyable training schedule as we were hoping to enter that year’s Comrades Marathon from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

My kit had always been well looked after and items like army-issue underpants and pajamas had never actually been used! I supplemented my kit with a copy of Roberts Birds of South Africa, a pair of cheap binoculars and a few bottles of red wine.

We assembled – perhaps appropriately! – At the cattle section of the Rand showgrounds, ready for the train trip to Bloemfontein. In the train we were six to a second-class compartment. We had already been sorted into sections. My mustering was as rifleman in Platoon 1, A Company. I did not know any of the others but did see a face I knew from my Jeppe matric class: Richard Silverthorne, now the Sergeant of our platoon.

I recall a lone piper playing a lament as the train pulled out of the station. (In the official journal of the day they say the pipes and drums played up and down the station, but that does not agree with my memory of the event!)

There were five others in my section: Corporal Ian McKendry (Parabat), Lance Corporal Keith Dobie (Parabat), William (‘Mac’) McKenzie, Robert McNeil and Larry Wolfson. This meant that we were under strength by two. This would leave more space in tents, trucks and the like but would also put more strain on guard duties and patrols.

The only other persons we would really come into contact with would be Rupert Hammond our Lieutenant and Richard Silverthorne, our Sergeant and, on occasions, our Company Sergeant Major, Steve Botha.

Being parabats Ian and Keith were tough and could be relied on. Larry was a lovable Jewish fellow with the thickest glasses I have ever seen; in fact, he was to all intents and purposes blind! McNeil had just completed his two years of basic training and was running away from a small family problem – his girlfriend was pregnant, and according to him her father wanted to kill him. In spite of this he was a happy reliable chap.

Mac was the time-bomb of the section. He was the Platoon Sergeant until a day or two before we left Johannesburg. His farther was Grand Master of a Freemason’s Lodge and Mac was also a Brother lodge member. The Lodge had arranged a special farewell meeting and dinner in Mac’s honour. Unfortunately, this clashed with the final meeting that our Company Commander, Major Richard Armstrong, had called to brief his officers and Non- Commissioned Officers (NCOs). Mac had requested permission to be excused from that meeting and was given an ultimatum: attend or be demoted. The bonds within his Lodge were such that it was impossible for Mac not to attend the dinner being given in his honour. The resultant “court martial” demoted Mac back to the rank of Rifleman, and to add insult to injury, he was to serve as a Rifleman in his old section.

Mac’s brooding and hatred would haunt us through most of the campaign. This partly explained Richard’s mood: he was called up and promoted to sergeant a day or two before the departure and he told me that he was not happy with the situation.

The train trip to De Brug, the large SADF base outside Bloemfontein, was spent making new friends and enjoying the few bottles of wine we had smuggled aboard. We all knew that come tomorrow it would all change.

The kit issue at Bloemfontein was very different from any other I had known in the SADF, consisting as it did of a civilized issue of a complete new kit, including webbing and rifle. The old kit was all handed in: away with the khaki and in with the brown!

Training then began in earnest. This included fitness, shooting, and the use of hand grenades, light machine guns (LMGs) and radios. I do not have the rainfall figures for January and February 1976, but it must have been one of the wettest in recorded history! I remember lying at the shooting range, day after day, in water inches deep. This worried a lot of people but the only way to cope was to simply switch off and make the best of it. On the fitness front, due to my running I was always at the front of the field in the three-mile run, which was in full kit including boots.

The heavy artillery came in and gave us various demonstrations using their 88 mm guns. We sat on the hillside while they shot up derelict vehicles down in the valley.

As positions in the section got sorted out, I landed up as the LMG operator, with Larry carrying the ammunition. However, we still had to keep our standard R1 rifle.

The hostility between and Mac and Rupert was evident all the time; it seemed that Mac had felt Rupert did not support him at his enquiry.

At 27 years old I was the oldest in the Section. Perhaps self-preservation prompted me to select Mac as my Buddy. The Buddy-Buddy system was standard practice in the SADF. Buddies would do guard duties together and I figured that if we were awake together, I could watch Mac and see that no revenge took place.

The only interesting bird I saw was the flapper lark, and we took to saluting in imitation of the way it flew. This was to raise up our arm sharply then flutter it down slowly with a whistle that change in crescendo from high to low pitch. I think it drove the officers mad!

So, our time at De Brug passed, as our departure date, set for the 4th of March, approached. As a special treat my company, Henred, flew my wife Liz down to Bloemfontein the weekend before we left. We were given special passes and we spent some time at the President Hotel.

The train trip to Grootfontein, a medium-sized town in northern South West Africa southeast of Etosha Pan, where the principal SADF logistics base for the Angolan ‘Border War’ was situated, took three nights and four days. However, it was fairly relaxing. McNeil’s father-in law had given him a copy of James Michener’s great novel The Source. I found it enthralling and never put it down till I had finished it. The trip itself was painfully slow, with the train stopping at numerous stations along the way.

Grootfontein Railway Station – 1976

Approaching Grootfontein, we saw for the first time a large missile battery guarding the approaches to the town. We also saw long queues of foreign cars filled with Portuguese families evacuating Angola. The cars were piled high with all their worldly goods. A very sad – and humbling – experience.

Portuguese civilians leaving Angola

The great camp at Grootfontein was a cesspool. The roadways had been ploughed up as a result of the heavy rain and to venture out of the tent was to sink up to your knees in fine gray mud. The toilets were long, most unhygienic, rows of seats above long-drops.

Camp Swampy- Grootfontein – 1976

Soon we were on our way from Grootfontein, travelling by road in three-ton SAMIL troop carriers to the SADF base at Ruacana, which was situated some 450 km northwest of Grootfontein. Situated a short distance south of the South West African-Angolan border, which was separated by the Cunene River, Ruacana was the site of a major SADF base. There we took over a Unimog (a six-seater, four-wheel drive Mercedes-Benz vehicle used extensively in day-to-day operations in the Angolan War) from the Cape Town Highlanders (CTH)1. The Highlanders had fitted four front seats (which they had looted from local cars!) on each side in the middle, facing outwards. Some still had seat belts. This modification made for a very comfortable ride.

The C.T. Highlanders in Darling street upon their return from the Operational area on March , 17th. 1976.

From Ruacana we crossed the Cunene into Angola. While traveling north we passed convoys of SADF low-bed trailers bringing all types of road building equipment, as well as the odd aircraft, out of Angola. As we passed small towns, I was amazed at the destruction of the buildings caused by artillery shells. I was also disappointed to see the lack of infrastructure. After all, the Portuguese had occupied Angola for hundreds of years, and yet there was very little evidence of development.

We proceeded up the road to Cahama, some 180 km northwest of Ruacana, to our Platoon Headquarters (HQ), which was situated a few kilometres from our Company HQ. The terrain was fairly thickly wooded with a tree canopy about six metres above the ground. There was the occasional rocky hill.

Our duties included foot patrols, sweeping hutted villages in our area. This was quite scary work. We would walk along a track which would eventually lead to a village. No matter how quietly we approached, by the time we arrived at the village it was always the same: deathly still, all the locals having disappeared into the surrounding bushes, leaving pots cooking on the fire. Sometimes we heard the stifled cry of a child. It was only the dogs who stayed behind. We were left with the eerie feeling of being watched. We would do a walk around the village, carefully looking for boot tracks in the sand. We never did find any. Then we would set up the LMG with a good vantage and the rest of the patrol would search all the huts. It was interesting to see that in some huts grain was stored on elevated log platforms. We were looking for signs of arms, ammunition or soldiers but we never found any.

We also took part in motorized patrols, using our Unimog. Due to the small size of our section, we did not have a designated driver. We therefore agreed amongst ourselves to rotate the driving duties, as this was the most dangerous position on a motorized patrol. On one such patrol we rode next to a group of Zebra who ran at our speed for a few kilometres. They kept just within the cover: a grey haze.

We saw the odd SAAF plane and helicopter flying overhead but with the thick tree canopy it was unlikely they could see any activity on the ground.

Life at our base at Cahama was pretty routine. We were on dry rations: bully beef, dog biscuits, tea, coffee and condensed milk. Each soldier was given a pack a day. No fires or smoking after dark. Complete isolation. The three sections formed a circle around Richard, although each looked after their own catering. Richard’s job was to see that adequate water, rations and ammunition were at hand. Rupert joined us on a few foot and motorized patrols.

Guard duty was done from a trench. That was your sleeping pit and was within whispering distance of your buddy. Rifles were kept at the ready and passwords were issued each night. We heard that the Springs Regiment based nearby had experienced a fatal shooting as a result of a password mix-up.

The most exciting night time experience we had was when a donkey with a bell around his neck circled the camp. He did so slowly, causing panic until identified! While on a motorized patrol we came across a fine farm house and surrounding buildings. It was obviously a Hereford stud farm, as a few workers had two of the most magnificent bulls strung up in a tree, cutting them up after slaughtering them.

The foot patrols were pretty much of a hit-and-miss affair as at section level we had no ordinance maps. One day we became lost, and as evening approached found our way up a rocky outcrop. Even from this vantage point we could make no sense of which way we should go. So, we decided to ask Rupert, via the radio that we carried, to fire off a shot, and we could move towards the sound. He informed us that he would not do this. Our situation was now quite desperate, and Mac just lost it, screaming about Rupert and eventually throwing his fully loaded rifle down the outcrop into the rocks below.

When we recovered the rifle, its rear sight was broken off. We did not know what to do, and I said that we should place Mac under arrest, which we did. So here we were walking around with Mac, without his rifle, under arrest. Fortunately, by chance we stumbled into our Company HQ. Sergeant Steve Botha handled the matter. I think that they did suggest that Mac could be sent away. But as no charges were laid, he stayed on with us.

The roads we used were all gravel, and as a result of the rain mostly muddy. However, the Unimog handled the muddy conditions well. One day we became bogged down and had to push the truck out. As fate would have it, Rupert was with us that day driving up front in the cab. We put our rifles up against a tree while we toiled trying to get the Unimog onto dry ground. When we had finished, and reboarded Rupert discovered that his rifle was missing. The most important rule in the army is to look after your rifle. Lose your rifle and you have committed the most cardinal of sins. Our section spent hours looking and searching in the mud. It was gone … Impossible. What to do? It was clear to us that Mac had chosen his moment, and hidden the rifle in the mud, and now Rupert would be in trouble. It was a somber trip back and a plan was hatched. Rupert, Ian and Keith would go to company HQ, make out a report that we had come under enemy attack and that while we ran away, Rupert’s rifle became lost.

The matter was never discussed again, and I assume nothing happened to Rupert.

Shortly after that our section were ordered to report to Company HQ.

A section under Lt. Robinson, the officer in charge of 2 Platoon, who were in a forward position, had had a problem. What we discovered was that while they lay sun tanning on the roof of a house in the town, they became aware of the noise of motor vehicles. On investigating they discovered that a Cuban advance party had entered the town along the road behind them. They all fled, regrouped in the bush and then made there way to safety, minus most of their equipment. We were going to be their replacements.

It took most of the morning to motor to our new position. We were allocated to a section consisting of three Eland armoured cars of the Mooi Rivier Regiment. That night we dug in around these Elands, our job being to see that no enemy approached and destroyed the armoured cars.

Early next morning after breakfast an officer arrived in a Jeep. When he stopped it sounded as though his vehicle had backfired. Suddenly shouting erupted all around us with shouts of “Mortars! … Take cover!” Well, with the shout of Mortars! We all dived into our holes, only to discover that, in true army style, we had not dug them deep enough for our liking! After a few minutes everything returned to normal and it was agreed that we would take off on a patrol, going north up this road.

The way in which a patrol which includes an armoured section operates in thick bush is as follows. The infantry section splits in two and advances cautiously on each side of the road, clearing the area on each side of the road as it goes forward. This continues until a bend in the round is reached. At this point an armoured car is called up on the radio. It takes up station in the bush at the bend but facing in the direction from it has come so that it is in a position to make a rapid escape, should be necessary! (However, its gun is of course facing forward up the road.) The infantry patrol then continues onwards until the next bend is reached and calls up the next armoured car. This way the escape route will always have a gun facing the enemy at a bend in the road.

On one occasion, after proceeding up the road for some way, just past a bend and after an Eland had settled in the bush, an enemy vehicle towing a light cannon came down the road. The Eland pulled into the road, fired, and all we heard was a click. (The crew told us later that the solenoid had failed.) The Eland took off at speed down the planned escape route, the Cuban truck and cannon fortunately made a hasty about-turn and disappeared, while we footsoldiers had to retreat down the road and form up at the camp we had left that morning.

From then on, we slowly made our way back south to Ruacana en masse. Rumour had it that Pik Botha, our Minister of Foreign Affairs, had made a statement at the United Nations to the effect that that no South African troops were in Angola – and so we had to get out!

Operation SAVANNAH: The last South African SADF units in Angola cross the Cunene River at Ruacana into SW Africa 27 March 1976

We saw our explosive experts rigging up explosives on all bridges and other important positions and I assume they were all destroyed after we passed.

After that we hardly stopped, crossing the Cunene back into South West Africa and continuing all the way back to Grootfontein.

I was only in Grootfontein one night. This was, however, long enough to collect my pay and buy a case of beer. There I also met up with an old friend Duncan Clements, who was in the Witwatersrand Rifles, who were taking over from us.

Later that evening I met up with another like soul and we hitch-hiked all the way down to Windhoek, arriving on the Saturday afternoon/evening. That night we stayed at a hotel an enjoyed a great steak. As all air flights back to South Africa were by now overbooked, we only managed to return to Johannesburg via Cape Town. We arrived home on Sunday evening, and I was back at work the next day.

Not long after this I received my discharge papers, which placed me on an inactive SADF roll until age 50. For me the ‘Border War’ – and indeed all my military service – was over … I also received the Pro Patria medal with Kunene clasp.

I have subsequently read in Tartan on the Veld (Chap. 8, pp.213-252 ) that the Mooi Rivier Regiment did not have orders to fire on the enemy. Maybe the crew of that Eland armoured car lied to us to save embarrassment for the danger they had left us in by their sudden flight. I also only discovered while reading this book that this whole venture went by the name of Operation Savannah. I also see that I might have been one of the lucky ones to get to Windhoek before the regiment clamped down on escapees.

Keith Dobie joined Jeppe Quondam Running Section and I raced and trained with him on many occasions. I met Mac at a Pick ’n Pay marathon we both ran, and he seemed quite relaxed. Rupert went on to become the Colonel in charge of the Transvaal Scottish. I have had a few business inquiries with Rupert as he runs some divisions of Coca Cola.
Note: As I was a rifleman, I had no access to any strategic maps or documentation the above is from my recollection.
~ Ray Matthews ~ 2022
[Mark II; 28.ii.09]

Photographs sourced from:
Grootfontein Railway Station – 1976
Camp Swampy- Grootfontein – 1976
Portuguese civilians leaving Angola
The C.T. Highlanders in Darling street upon their return from the Operational area on March , 17th. 1976. Photo taken by The Argus
Operation SAVANNAH: The last South African SADF units in Angola cross the Cunene River at Ruacana into SW Africa 27 March 1976

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