Operation ASKARI - December 1983 to January 1984

Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy

Chapter 16

By Morgan Norval

Copyright 1989 Published by: Selous Foundation Press, Washington DC

ISBN: 0-944273-03-3 Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 89-62602

NOTE Page numbers appear between [square brtackets] at the start of the page. Footnotes appear in red, and appear at the end of the chapter, although in the original book they appear at the foot of the page in question.

[170]According to Maj. Gen. George Meiring, the Military Commander of South West Africa, the primary aim of Operation ASKARI, "was to disrupt the planned infiltration of SWAPO's special units into South West Africa."1

ASKARI intended to stop almost 1,000 SWAPO terrorists from infiltrating from Angolan sanctuaries into areas of operations in Namibia. The terrorists normally would wait until the onset of the rainy season, January through March, before attempting such large-scale movement across the border into Namibia. During the rainy season, the heavy rains wash out their tracks making it extremely difficult for the security forces to hunt down the infiltrators.
However, the rains came early in December 1983 and this precipitated the South African pre-emptive strike against the SWAPO military staging bases in southern Angola.
By striking at SWAPO's military bases in southern Angola the South Africans were attempting to deny sanctuary, as much as possible, to SWAPO close to the terrorist area of operations.
The results of prior large-scale South African cross-border pre-emptive strikes, REINDEER and PROTEA to name just two, had been major setbacks to SWAPO. Not only had the terrorist organization suffered enormous losses of trained personnel and supplies, but the operations forced SWAPO to move their bases farther north in Angola.

[173] This relocation had detrimental effects on SWAPO in three ways. The terrorist bands now had to expend a good deal of their effort just to get from their bases in Angola down to the Angolan-Namibian border. South African security force units made the terrorists' journey more dangerous now by extending their patrols over the border looking for infiltrators. These patrols forced SWAPO to break their infiltrating groups into even smaller units to avoid detection. The down side of this was that the smaller the group the fewer supplies and weapons they could carry with them. Since SWAPO had no bases in Namibia, they had to bring everything necessary for their war of terror with them on their own backs. By the time the terrorists, who had eluded and survived the security force patrols, reached their target area, they were low on supplies, often exhausted and faced a population that was growing more hostile to their terror tactics.
The further away the SWAPO bases were from the populous northern Namibia border areas the less of a psychological threat they were to the people of Namibia.
Command, control and communications problems increased and intensified for SWAPO the further away they were from their revolutionary battlefield.
The difficulties created by South Africa's cross-border operations had a cumulative effect on SWAPO. REINDEER severely reduced SWAPO's trained manpower and disrupted their communications and logistical system. PROTEA forced the terrorist organization to move its training and logistic bases further north in an effort to escape the long arm of the South Africans. The operations placed enormous strains on SWAPO communications and their logistical system, further reducing the efficiency of the revolutionary effort.
Ultimately, the cumulative difficulties forced SWAPO to send a large number of insufficiently trained terrorists on a harrowing and tiring journey in the rain and mud south to Namibia in the hope that some of them might succeed in reaching their destination and be able to carry out their mission of terror. And it seemed that nowhere could they afford to relax on their journey, as units of the South African security forces were hunting them like sharks ready to devour their prey
"It is our duty to protect the people of South West Africa and to prevent the enemy from crossing into the area where they can commit their murderous deeds against unarmed civilians," Meiring told reporters at his Windhoek press conference.2

[174] ASKARI started out as a search and destroy operation against these small bands of SWAPO terrorists working their way south towards Namibia and the bases from which they were coming.
South African intelligence had pieced together most of SWAPO's operational plan for the impending rainy season infiltration. The SWAPO plan called for a seven-prong movement into Namibia by specialist units composed of terrorists trained to infiltrate and operate in small groups.

After leaving their main bases at Lubongo, Matala and Dongo in Angola, the SWAPO groups would follow one of the seven prongs aimed for either Kaokoland, Western Owamboland, Central Owamboland, the so-called triangle of death (area of intense counterinsurgency operations by the security forces) which is the Otavi-Tsumeb-Grootfontein area, or one of the two prongs heading for Eastern Owamboland and the Kavango region of Namibia.
Based on this intelligence, the South Africans decided to meet this proposed major infiltration effort of SWAPO by attacking and interdicting it. This pre-emptive strike was given the code name ASKARI.
The South African force used in ASKARI included four major combat groups, plus a fifth which was involved far to the east of the major activity during the operation.
The combat groups were: Task Force Echo-Victor, Task Force Delta-Fox, Task Force Victor and Task Force X- Ray The fifth component was Combat Team Tango.
Task Force X-Ray was made up of 61 Mechanized Battalion and attached units: three motorized infantry companies, one armored car squadron, two troops of mobile rocket launchers, one artillery battery, two anti-aircraft batteries, a reconnaissance element and a troop of engineers.

X-Ray's mission included sending an element west of the Cunene River to capture Quiteve and to pin the enemy down in Cahama. With these two objectives secured, the element would be in a position to protect the western flank of X-Ray from attacks by FAPLA/SWAPO reinforcements that might try to prevent the Task Force from carrying out its main mission. With their western flank secured, X-Ray could move on to the next phase of the mission. That was to link up with Task Force Delta, to attack and capture Cuvelai.

Quiteve was quickly captured without much resistance, but Cahama was a different matter. The enemy was defending Cahama in strength-a brigade as opposed to the combat team. But since the plan was to pin the enemy forces down and prevent them from to reinforcing their comrades to the east, the capture of Cahama was not essential to the operation. Nevertheless, the FAPLA/SWAPO defenders had to be given a bloody nose to convince them to [176] sit tight and stay out of the rest of the developing fight.

On December 20,1983, a combat team bypassed Cahama to the east and executed a feint toward Chimbemba to test the enemy's reaction. Since Chimbemba, in the eyes of SWAPO, was the stepping stone for an attack upon their operational headquarters at Lubango, they reacted strongly to the South African feint. They launched an armored column consisting of T 54 tanks and armored personnel carriers to deal with the threat.
A fierce fire-fight broke out which resulted in both the FAPLA/SWAPO column and the South African "advance" grinding down to a protracted stalemate.
Meanwhile other elements of X-Ray attacked Cahama from the south. Just to the west of Cahama, there was an advanced SWAPO headquarters manned by approximately 200 terrorists. Its function was to direct the terrorist infiltration efforts from this advanced position.
Heeding the old saying "the better part of valor is discretion," the terrorists abandoned their headquarters and fled into Cahama, where they would enjoy the protection of FAPLA and Cuban forces stationed there.
During previous incursions into Angola, the fighting was over and done within a short period of time because there was little interference by the Angolans or Cubans. South African security forces had gone to great lengths in dropping leaflets and making radio appeals stating their quarrel was with SWAPO and not the Angolans or Cubans.

"We don't like becoming involved with FAPLA and Cuban forces, and would rather respect them in their areas and expect them to respect our fight against SWAPO," said General Constand Viljoen, chief of the SADF.3
This time, however, the Angolans and Cuban forces got heavily involved in the fighting.
The defenders were well prepared and there was little cover for the combat group just outside the enemy's defensive perimeter.
Heavy fighting raged back and forth with both sides suffering casualties. However, the fire discipline and ferocity of the attack convinced the defenders to stay in their positions and leave their comrades to the ease to their own fate. They didn't venture out of Cahama until after the South African operation concluded.
Task Force X-Ray had successfully completed the first part of its mission.
The task force celebrated New Year's Day 1984 by taking a short, well-deserved rest (4:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.). That afternoon they moved off to [177] carry out their second task-to link up with Task Force Delta and capture Cuvelai.

While X-Ray was getting its brief rest before moving northeast to link up with Delta, elements of Delta were fighting for their lives.
A combined FAPLA and Cuban force, with their Soviet advisors, had ambushed a unit of Delta on New Years Eve near the town of Cuvelai.
Delta, made up predominantly of Citizen Force (comparable to our Active Reserve or National Guard) called up for duty in ASKARI, had sent out a battle group of about 600 men to probe and test the enemy's defenses. The South Africans were probing towards a SWAPO base near Cuvelai when they ran into two battalions of Cuban troops, soon reinforced by SWAPO terrorists and FAPLA forces of the 11th Mechanized Brigade. This enemy force was backed by a company of Soviet-supplied T 54 tanks. The combined communist force attacked the probing unit from Delta.

The situation looked bleak for the South Africans. Outnumbered better than six to one, they faced more than 4,000 troops with superior firepower provided by the tank company.
All of a sudden, a counterinsurgency operation had quickly developed into a conventional battle. Assessing the situation later, General Meiring said, "The security forces did not have heavy caliber arms with them and had to fight against much more powerful firepower. "4

In spite of the odds, the Delta group hunkered down and slugged it out with the SWAPO, FAPLA and Cuban forces in a three-day battle.
After three days of fighting, the 11th Brigade suddenly withdrew from the battlefield. One of the battle casualties was the communist tank company. It no longer existed. The South Africans had knocked out all twelve of the T 54 tanks. Using the Ratel armored personnel carriers mounting 90mm guns and anti-tank rocket launchers, the tank unit was destroyed.
Superior training, better discipline, and the Ratel's ability to find targets in the thick bush due to its higher silhouette and better maneuverability, saved the day for the South Africans. All these factors paid off in the battle for Cuvelai as the SADF suffered only seven killed while communist deaths exceeded 324.

But the outcome had been a close thing and the nature of the battle pointed out that future incursions into Angola might have a more conventional than counterinsurgency nature. Cmdt. Faan Greyling, commander of Delta, pointed out that in view of the type of weaponry deployed against the security forces, it would force the SADF, in the future, to have [178] similar weaponry available when operations are launched against SWAPO.5

The communists broke off contact and fled in spite of having superiority in manpower, firepower and being directed by Russian military officers while fighting from well-prepared positions.

Captured documents clearly proved Soviet involvement. Some documents contained comprehensive detailed sketches and instructions fashioned by Soviet army officers that were so meticulous in their design that they left open spaces between the Russian lines, in order to permit instructions in any language to facilitate comprehension.
Maps with battle instructions written in Russian were also captured. Other maps containing both Russian and Portuguese writing, that the FAPLA commanders had utilized the Russian instructions and translated them into Portuguese-the lingua franca of Angola.
Some captured documents showed that Soviet officers were operating and directing SWAPO, FAPLA, and Cuban forces down to the company level. In one instance, the Soviets urged their clients to hold a position "at all costs" and "down to the last man." Fortunately for the beleaguered unit of Delta, the communist troops didn't follow the Soviet advice. Perhaps, this was because the Soviet advisors dispensing such advice to their SWAPO and FAPLA comrades were among the first to flee when the communist forces broke off the fight.

Why did the enemy suddenly break off contact and retreat? Nobody knows for sure except the commander of FAPLA's 11th Brigade and, if still alive, he isn't talking.
By the third of January 1984, 61 Mechanized group had linked up with Delta.
At 8:00 a.m. the next morning both launched the final attack on the SWAPO-FAPLA defensive complex at Cuvelai. By 6:00 p.m. the last communist forces had fled the town. All that remained was the mopping up of a few scattered disorganized bands in the vicinity. On the 5th of January, Cuvelai was firmly in the hands of South African forces and the battle of Cuvelai was over.
Five days later Task Force Delta withdrew leaving 61 Mechanized Battalion battle group holding Cuvelai.

Combat Team Tango's job was to disrupt the planned SWAPO infiltration into Eastern Owamboland and Kavangoland. Operating west of the Cubango River, Tango moved north towards the town of Caiundo [179] engaging in a series of small firefights with groups of SWAPO terrorist working their way south towards Namibia.

The presence of Tango quickly had a negative effect upon SWAPO's infiltration plan. After a few isolated clashes the SWAPO terrorists either broke up into small groups of five or six terrorists who continued to try and run the gauntlet to Namibia, often with disastrous results, or they scattered into the bush and worked their way back north to regroup and lick their wounds.
Task Force Echo-Victor's job was to disrupt the SWAPO infiltration as the Task Force worked its way north to its primary area of operations between Cuvelai and Cassinga.

The task force was made up of units from the famous South African Army unit 32 Battalion.
The "Buffalo Battalion," nicknamed after its cap badge, the head of the ferocious African Cape Buffalo, has a well-earned outstanding reputation within the South African Army. On August 27, 1985, the unit was officially presented with its Unit Colour-the first time that had ever been done in the operational area. (The ceremony usually takes place at the unit's home base in the Republic of South Africa.) A highlight of the parade was the commissioning of nine black officers. A year later Paratu.r, the official magazine of the SADF, said 32 Battalion had "the best fighting record in the SA Army since World War II."

Although 32 Battalion has been involved in all major South African incursions into Angola, most of its missions were covert small-unit search and destroy operations above the "outline" border with Angola.

Search for SWAPO terrorists and destroy them when found is the battalion order of the day 32 Battalion uses stealth, surprise and speed to carry out its missions. But the search is nearly always long and difficult. It demands skill in bushcraft, the ability to live off the land and not require constant resupply. It requires tracking ability approaching that of the Bushman, to travel swiftly and silently at night and during the heat of the day across some of the toughest terrain in Africa. The troops must be constantly on the alert and poised for sudden, quick and deadly contact with SWAPO.

Soviet Bloc weapons are normally used during operations. This simplifies the resupply problem as the SWAPO guerrillas have well-stocked supply sites ready for the taking by the men of 32 Battalion and the SADF has thousands of tons of captured Soviet equipment, readily available for use by its forces. Use of captured Russian-supplied weapons also adds an element of confusion for the enemy A group of armed blacks encountered in the bush carrying SWAPO weapons can more readily pass as fellow comrades than if [180] they were carrying normal-issue SADF weapons. Since SWAPO and FAPLA also wear the same uniforms and use the same Soviet weapons, the confusion also extends to FAPLA as the following incident during ASKARI points out.

During Operation ASKARI the South African forces moved north toward the SWAPO stronghold at Cassinga, spearheaded by 32 Battalion.
Rapidly moving north, 32 Battalion occupied the small town of Techamutete, south of Cassinga. The FAPLA forces had fled before them, but a few of the FAPLA troops were a little tardy in their retreat and, as darkness approached, got mixed in with 32 Battalion.

Three of these FAPLA stragglers arrived at the FAPLA command post in Techamutete, which had been taken over by Col. Eddie Viljoen, the officer in charge of 32 Battalion.
In Portuguese, they asked to speak to the officer in charge. They were escorted into the presence of Viljoen, a bearded scruffy-looking individual, dressed in camouflage fatigues. (32 Battalion wears camouflage fatigues of a pattern similar to the old Portuguese Angolan pattern worn by both SWAPO and FAPLA.)

The three FAPLA soldiers, one of them a lieutenant, put down their rifles, made themselves at home, and were given coffee and food.
While eating, Viljoen asked them:
"Who do you wish to speak to?"
"The Cubans," replied the FAPLA officer.
"Who do you think we are?" asked Viljoen.
"Wrong. Guess again," said the South African.
"East German?" was the quizzical reply.
"Wrong. Guess again."
"Russians then?" asked the FAPLA officer apprehensively
"No, guess again," replied the patiently amused South African.
"We don't know, who are you?" said the now thoroughly alarmed Angolan.
"We are the South Africans," came Viljoen's reply.

Upon hearing that, one of the FAPLA soldiers was so startled he dropped his food.

All three of them were momentarily paralyzed. Then they looked at each other and started shouting at each other, trying to pin the blame on one another for falling into the hands of the South Africans.
The South Africans waited until their outbursts subsided and then made [181] them prisoners of war.6
Tango's mission was a huge success which threw a big monkey-wrench into the SWAPO rainy season infiltration attempt into Namibia by causing them to flee further north into Angola.

Millions of dollars worth of Soviet-provided equipment was destroyed by the South African security forces during ASKARI, but weapons worth millions more were captured. Among them were an intact AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher and a complete SAM-9 surface-to-air missile defence system.

The AGS-17 was captured from SWAPO at Cuvelai. It is a 30mm, air-cooled automatic grenade launcher, described by General Meiring as, "one of the most sophisticated weapons of its kind in the world." A circular drum magazine holding twenty-nine rounds is simply inserted into position, and machine gun-like, the grenades are hurled for distances of up to 1750 meters.7
The complete Soviet mobile SAM-9 (NATO code name "Gaskin") ground to air missile defence system captured during ASKARI was the first such complete system to fall into the hands of the West. It was part of the comprehensive anti-aircraft defense network in Angola, that far exceeds that country's defensive requirements. The SAM-9 is bigger, faster and far more manoeuvrable than the SAM-7. The SAM-9 will explode near a target and doesn't have to make contact with an aircraft to bring it down.

The missile launching tubes of the captured SAM were mounted on an adapted Soviet BRM2 amphibious armoured vehicle. The system is easily deployable and it only takes about 90 seconds to reload the missile tubes.8

In executing Operation ASKARI, the South African forces had successfully disrupted the logistical base for the planned SWAPO rainy season infiltration and had forced the terrorists to withdraw north deeper into Angola.

Having accomplished their purpose, the South Africans withdrew their forces. The direction of events in the troubled region now passed once again into the hands of the diplomats.


Press conference, Maj. Gen. George Meiring, Windhoek, January, 1984.
2 Ibid.

3 Norval, M. Gung Ho, February 1985, p.45.

4 Meiring press conference, op, cit.

5 Sector 10, Op Askari, "Burgermag Dra Sy Deel By," 1 Military Printing Unit, 1985, p.19.

6 Author's conversations with SADF officials during numerous trips to the operational area in Namibia.

7 Section 10, Op Askari, op. cit., p.23. 

8 Ibid., p.22.

@ A Forgotten War
@ No more heroes
@ What happened to the boys on the border?
@ In conflict

@ Death in the Desert: The Namibian Tragedy Chapter 6
@ Chapter 7
@ Chapter 12
@ Chapter 13
@ Chapter 14
@ Chapter 15
Chapter 18
@ Chapter 19
@ Chapter 20
@ Chapter 21

@ Civil supremacy of the military in Namibia


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