32 Battalion

OPERATIONS

SAVATE - OPS TIRO A TIRO

Savate Day (21 May) is today still honoured by the 32Bn Veterans Association as a general remembrance day to all those who had fallen while serving in the unit.

SAVATE - THE STORY

Here is the story of Savate, as is given in Piet Nortje’s book, called “32 Battalion – The inside Story of South Africa’s Elite Fighting Unit”: 

In early 1980, FAPLA (The then Soviet backed Angolan army) occupied all the small towns along the Kavango River as far north as Caiundo. Until the end of 1979, the US and South African backed movement, UNITA had applied a scorched earth policy against all towns and territory captured from FAPLA, but in line with a political decision by the organisation’s leaders, it then became customary for UNITA to occupy and defend former FAPLA strongholds. On 14 April, UNITA took Cuangar after driving a 900-strong FAPLA force out. This was the first major town captured by Savimbi’s forces, and the taking of Cuangar marked the beginning of a new phase in UNITA’s war, aimed at securing the entire southern region of Angola. 

As part of the plan, Savimbi asked the South African authorities to authorise the attack and destruction of Savate, a major FAPLA base 75km (47 miles) inside Angola on the Cubango River, by 32 Battalion. 32’s commander, Cmdt Deon Ferreira, was provisionally ordered to plan an attack, based on UNITA intelligence that an under-strength battalion held the base. Savate was also home to FAPLA’s brigade headquarters, and two more battalions were deployed upstream at Caiundo. 

The 32 assault force would consist of three rifle companies (one to be held in reserve), a mortar platoon and reconnaissance teams acting as stopper groups. The element of surprise was crucial to success, so no air support could be relied on. Pumas would be on standby at Rundu to evacuate casualties, and a Bosbok spotter aircraft would be available if needed. 

By 15 May the assault group and mortar platoon were at Omauni (the battalion’s forward base in Ovamboland) preparing for the attack. The 270 men from the rifle companies, the six recce teams and the mortarists would be taken in by road on ten-ton trucks and four Buffel armoured personnel carriers, while three Kwêvoël cargo trucks would carry ammunition, rations and other equipment. The HQ element was small, but included an intelligence officer.  

Also attached to the column was one Francisco Lopes. Better known as “Senhor Lobbs’, a UNITA agent working for the SADF’s Chief of Staff Intelligence.  He had claimed to know the Savate area intimately, and would guide the assault force to the base. 

Ferreira’s battle plan was simple.  Armed with both high explosive and white phosphorous bombs, the mortar platoon would bombard the base with four 81-mm mortars set  up four kilometres to the south.  Alpha and Foxtrot companies would attack form the west, pushing the enemy towards the river and leaving them with nowhere else to go but north.  Two platoons from Charlie Company under command of Lieutenant Sam Heap would attack the vehicle park north of the airfield, two kilometres outside the town, where the reconnaissance photographs had shown no troops were deployed.  The attack would thus concentrate on the trench system surrounding Savate.  Heap’s third platoon would be held in reserve. 

On the night of 17 May, despite not yet having received the final authorisation for the attack, Ferreira sent Lieutenant Willem Ratte’s reconnaissance team to Savate to confirm the information gleaned from the photographs and UNITA intelligence.  Senhor Lobbs and another UNITA guide accompanied Ratte’s team from Omauni to a point supposedly north-west of Savate, assuring them that if they walked due east, they would reach the Cubango River, where they could assemble their Klepper kayaks and row downstream to the target area.  It should take no more than six hours to cover the distance to the water, according to Senhor Lobbs. 

After the recce team was dropped of at 23h15, Senhor Lobbs returned to Omauni, leaving only the other UNITA guide with Ratte.  By daybreak the river was nowhere in sight, and the team laid up for the day, finally reaching the water – after considerably more than a six-hour-walk – on the night of 18 May.  A seven-kilometre kayak trip lay ahead, but it was obvious from the start that the territory was completely unfamiliar to the UNITA guide.  After several hours the team reached a small town on the west bank of the river, and laid up for the day.  The guide fell strangely silent as Ratte informed him that they would enter the town after dark to confirm FAPLA’s presence an deployment, but was not until he and the three members of the team stepped ashore, finding the entire settlement deserted, with not even a chicken in sight, that the guide apparently realised what had happened. 

Instead of being dropped off north-west of Savate, Senhor Lobbs had led the team to a point south-west of the target.  The unsuspecting recce-team had then rowed approximately nine kilometres downstream, arriving to the long-abandoned town of Pande, some 20 km south of Savate. 

But the attack was scheduled for 21 May, and ground reconnaissance was vital, so at 23h00 on 19 May the teams slipped their kayaks back into the water and spent the entire night rowing upstream, negotiating a dangerous stretch of rapids into the bargain, finally reaching the outskirts of Savate just before first light.  While laid up on the east bank, they constantly heard vehicle movements to the north, confirming that both the town and the base were still occupied. 

At just about the time the recce-team were moving into their daylight ‘hide’, the main assault force set of from Omauni, again under the guidance of Senhor Lobbs.  They followed the same route as the recce teams, but would debus at a crossroad some distance east of Savate and proceed on foot.  By the time Ratte managed to contact the column and suggest a 24-hour delay in order to ensure a detailed reconnaissance could be done, it was to late.  The assault force had already travelled so far north than any unscheduled layover could lead to detection.  The entire battle plan was based on the assault force debussing long before the last light on 20 May.

As soon as darkness fell, Ratte, Sergeant Piet van Eden and Corporal C Paulo slipped into Savate to pinpoint the enemy’s troop deployments, defences and mortar positions.  UNITA’s intelligence about an extensive trench system around the town proved accurate, but far from an under-strength battalion, Ratte found a force well in excess of battalion strength.  He also identified a strong deployment of troops north of the airfield, and instead of an unmanned vehicle park, he discovered a 14,5-mm anti-aircraft gun position. 

Ratte was unable to reach the assault force by radio to convey the fresh intelligence, so he and Van Eeden moved to pre-arranged positions to await the arrival of the troops.  First light on 21 May come and went with no sign of the assault force, and the recce teams withdrew to the east bank of the river and set up observation posts from which they could direct the mortar fire. 

Senhor Lobbs had struck again.  When the column had not reached the cross-road by 18h00 on the 19 May, and found themselves facing an open chana instead, Ferreira realised that his ‘guide’ had led them no less than 16 km north-west of Savate, to Chana dos Elephantos.  The road to Savate was nowhere in sight, and Ferreira had no choice but to laager at the chana overnight and for the next day, unable to communicate with his recce teams by radio. 

At 20h00 on 20 May, the column began backtracking on its own route. Due west of Savate, the force turned east – relying on a compass rather than Senhor Lobbs – and found the road, which turned out not to be an intersection after all, 15km from the town. The troops would cover the last eight kilometres to the town on foot, while vehicles were to wait ten kilometres away and move up once the mortar bombardment began. Each troop was given an 81-mm mortar bomb to carry over the last stretch to the assembly point. From there, the mortar crews themselves would have to move the tubes and some 200 bombs to the launch position. 

At 02h00 on 21 May, the force began moving towards Savate in single file, with Charlie and another company on the left shoulder of the road, the third company, HQ, the recce teams and the mortar platoon on the right. It was dark moon and the bush was dense, making for slow progress. The troops had to hold on to one another to avoid getting lost, and about six kilometres out of Savate it became impossible to proceed. Ferreira ordered the column to wait until first light, when visibility would improve. The original timetable for the attack had already been abandoned, and a further setback occurred when the column leaders ran into a FAPLA vehicle patrol just five kilometres from Savate. At least five FAPLA troops escaped, and Ferreira realised that they would raise the alarm at the base, costing him the element of surprise. 

The pace of the advance was immediately stepped up, and by 09h00 the mortars were in position, the ten three-man recce teams in stopper groups to the north. Only then could Ratte inform Ferreira that he and his men had found a somewhat different situation to the one on which the battle plan was based. But it was too late and the mortars open fire, immediately drawing heavy counter-bombardment as the rifle companies, armed with assault rifles, machine guns and 60-mm mortars, advanced towards the trenches, trying to dodge the bombs exploding around and among them. At the airfield, two platoons from Charlie Company unsuspectingly took on a full FAPLA air defence company, using the 14,5mm gun in a ground role. The first salvo killed three Charlie troops and seriously wounded four more. 

At the main base, FAPLA was pouring everything it had at the rifle companies, pinning them down. Ferreira’s command group was one of those unable to advance, and his intelligence officer was shot and killed just two metres from his side. One of the companies managed to break through into the trenches, where they were forced to fight hand to hand. 

At the airfield, Heap’s platoons had taken more casualties and he sought permission to retreat. Orders went out for the platoons to break off engagement and report to the main assault force as reserves. The vehicles, meanwhile, had moved up as planned, but while the dead and wounded were being loaded into them prior to being airlifted to Rundu, enemy forces moved between the convoy and the assault force, cutting the vehicles off and forcing the crews to enter battle as well. 

By noon, the enemy fire began to abate, but they remained in position in the trenches. From their observation post on the river bank, Ratte’s recce team reported a large group of enemy moving on foot along the road to the north, some carrying 122mm single tube launchers. FAPLA apparently decided to move the rocket launchers to their effective firing range of six kilometres. What they did not know, however, was the stopper groups were waiting, and when these opened fire, chaos erupted within the FAPLA ranks. Radio intercepts showed that the brigade commander was arranging an organised withdrawal to the north even as the first gunfire was heard from that direction, and he apparently decided it was wise to proceed with this plan. As the first convoy of 29 vehicles loaded with troops was reported to be leaving the base, Ferreira ordered the Bosbok spotter plane, with his second-in-command Major Eddie Viljoen aboard, to fly in from Omauni and report on the enemy withdrawal from the air. 

One of the companies sent through an urgent radio message to report Captain Charl Muller, 32’s operations officer who was acting as company commander, missing. First, it was thought that he had been captured by the enemy and four Buffels under command of Staff Sergeant Ron Gregory were ordered forward. The reserve company piled into the vehicles and the chase was on. The Buffels, each mounted with a 7,62-mm Browning machine gun, caught up with the escaping enemy column while it was engaged in heavy fighting with the stopper groups, and opened fire from the rear. From the Bosbok Viljoen was able to steer the Buffels straight towards the enemy, now running all over the floodplain like mad dogs. While this melee was in progress, Ferreira received a radio signal informing him that Captain Charl Muller’s body had been found lying face down in one of the trenches. He had been shot in the head. Although the stopper groups and the Buffels were unable to halt the flight of the enemy column, they did ensure that 12 vehicles and a large number of dead travelled no further north. 

Back at the base, close combat had become the order of the day in the trenches, shacks and buildings. It was now evident that the entire FAPLA command structure had collapsed, and by 14h00, mopping up could start. A nominal roll-call among the assault force accounted for 13 dead and 22 wounded, with one corporal and one troop missing. An immediate search was launched, but their bodies were only found the next day by Charlie Company. By last light, the assault force pulled back four kilometres to the south-west for the night. 

The next morning a small UNITA advance party arrived to claim victory and to hold the captured base. In the aftermath of the battle, it was established that FAPLA had grouped a full brigade at Savate three weeks before in anticipation of a possible UNITA advance from the south. UNITA was acutely aware that this was the situation, but deliberately failed to inform 32 Battalion, knowing that the authorities would never agree sending 32 up against an entire brigade. Captured documents showed that at the time of the attack, Savate held at least 1066 heavily armed troops – a far cry from the 300 estimated by UNITA. 

In classic 32 fashion, they had won the day, even with all the odds against them, capturing tons of ammunition and equipment. All in all 19 Fifa trucks, two Star fuel tankers, a complete and well-equipped mobile workshop and a Land Rover were driven back to Omauni. A Russian-made motorcycle with side-car promptly became the official transport of 32 Battalion’s Regimental Sergeant Major at Buffalo. Another 24 vehicles, including a mobile bridge, were destroyed before 32 left Savate.

But the toll in human terms was terrible. Of the 150 men who died while fighting with 32 Battalion, 15 were killed during the Savate-attack, the battalion’s heaviest casualties in a single engagement.

Radio intercepts later indicated that FAPLA had 558 dead and wounded.

By 24 May, the attack force was back in Buffalo.

A special word of appreciation to Piet Nortje for granting permission to use material from his book

“32 Battalion – The inside Story of South Africa’s Elite Fighting Unit”

and to Nico vd Walt for coordinating this grant.

 

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This is the first in a series of pages to follow that will give you a brief description of most major operations 32 Battalion participated in.

Cmdt Deon Ferreira