BEHIND ENEMY LINES
Dedicated to all the operators
and support personnel of 1 Recce
During the writing of 1 Recce: The Night Belongs to Us it soon became apparent that there was too much material to fit into a single book. That book was therefore written with the idea that other volumes would follow in order to provide a more comprehensive account of the history of the reconnaissance unit 1 Recce.
Whereas the first book deals with the period from 1966 to the late 1970s, 1 Recce: Behind Enemy Lines starts in 1977 and covers events up to the end of 1980.
This is not an academic work or a military treatise. The book is a narrative of the ups and downs of 1 Recce’s operators and support personnel who took part in special operations. In short, then: What it was like being a Recce in those days. The reader gets an insight into this extraordinary group of people’s day-to-day experiences in tough situations.
1 Recce was the mother unit from which the current Recces originated. Today (2020) they are strong in number and exceptionally active. In typical Recce fashion, the present-day group still wear the maroon beret with the compass rose as well as the same operators’ badge on the chest. They are subjected to rigorous training and continue the Special Forces tradition under great secrecy in the new era, deployed clandestinely and under cover in foreign countries.
Some of the operations dealt with in this volume may be known, but with this story the reader is taken into the actual aircraft or submarine and exposed to the finer details of a Special Forces operation. The focus is specifically on the Recces’ exploits and especially on how the individual experienced the war. The accent falls on the particular and not on the general – thus the aim of the book is not to place or to discuss this unit’s role in a wider military context. The objective is rather to take the reader into the Recces’ ‘inner sanctum’ by not only providing information about special operations, but also sharing anecdotes and personal and humorous moments.
Nearly all the erstwhile team leaders kept notes during operations that also served as a journal of their experiences as Special Forces operators. These personal notes are the main source they drew on during interviews about specific operations.
I took cognisance of existing operational reports, but found that the personal notes compiled during operations provide a more accurate version of the ‘smaller’ things. In some military reports, people are mentioned as operational commanders when they were not at all part of the operation. That is not to say that operational reports do not still provide a good overview of the operations. But the personal notes give the reader insight into the tension, anticipation, fear, adrenalin, exhaustion, thirst and grief experienced by the operators. They allow the reader to share in the smell of the battlefield and the bonds of friendship that were forged.
In 1 Recce: Behind Enemy Lines I rely on these personal interviews with those who were involved. In addition, the information was submitted for verification to different people who had been part of an operation. Hence in each case consensus was reached about facts before I incorporated them in the book.
The first book, 1 Recce: The Night Belongs to Us, contained several references to the Rhodesian Bush War – in this second volume this topic is covered in greater detail. In Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the Recces were involved in so many operations on the so-called Russian Front (in Mozambique’s Gaza province) that not all of them could be included. Therefore only a few operations are highlighted. These accounts will give the reader a good understanding of how 1 Recce executed these operations on foreign soil.
Given that considerable attention was devoted to the formation of the unit in the first book, it was not considered necessary to revisit that history. In 1 Recce: Behind Enemy Lines the emphasis is largely on the operations, and the reader is given fewer expositions and more narrative descriptions of the Recces’ operational deployment.
In the period in question in this volume, the conflict gained in intensity and clandestine specialist operations were carried out seaward, landward and airward. The Recces were no longer engaged in infantry work or base attacks. The objective now became reconnaissance and sabotage tasks. The focus was on strategic operations, inter alia the shooting down of aircraft, demolition of bridges and rail tunnels, and sabotage of fuel storage depots. New operators came to the fore, and great strides were made in respect of advanced technology, including modern equipment, radios and weaponry.
Angola remained an important factor in the Border War. Accordingly, the book starts off in that country with a search for the Unita leader, Dr Jonas Savimbi, in the wooded and remote eastern part of Angola. Then the focus shifts 2 000 km away to Rhodesia, and a variety of bush operations are covered – all part of the overarching Operation Acrobat. 1 Recce’s Alpha and Bravo groups served rotational tours of duty in top-secret conditions in Rhodesia. From their operational base at Mabalauta, they conducted military raids against Frelimo and Zanla in the Gaza province of Mozambique. The Recces shared this base with the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS).1 They had limited air support, and were occasionally also deployed with the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI).
The Rhodesian deployments were characterised by heavy firefights, victories and also losses. In December 1979, with that country’s first democratic election around the corner, the Recces started to withdraw from Rhodesia just as quietly and covertly as they had arrived. While the war on the Angolan front was never suspended during the Rhodesian phase, after their withdrawal the Recces again focused fully on Angola.
With all the operators back in Angola, there were a number of unique bush operations in this region that feature in the story told in this book, inter alia the shooting down of enemy aircraft and the sabotage of strategic targets. The book concludes with an epic seaborne operation on the west coast of Angola – a raid in which the Recces had to rely on their versatility under conditions that were poles apart from those they faced in the Rhodesian Bush War. The Recces’ reconnaissance team was transported to the target by submarine, after which the raiding teams infiltrated in strike craft. Known as Operation Amazon, it was a mission that demanded exceptional perseverance and initiative.
Recces snatch Savimbi away from the enemy’s grasp
‘It was around 23:00 when the pilot said we were approaching the area where we were due to jump out. The plane switched over to the Unita frequency, and Unita actually replied and said: “Roger, get ready to drop the jumpers.” They said they could hear the plane and would light the fires … And, sure enough, far below us we saw the triangle of fires suddenly starting to burn brightly.
‘We were slightly out of line, and the pilot had to make a minor adjustment to his approach. Then all three of us went to stand at the rear of the plane, on the ramp. The loadmaster was hanging out of the door, his thumb up in the air. At that moment the green jump light went on and he turned his thumb downwards – the signal we were waiting for. We held on to each other and went out in a linked exit.’
Moments after the jump, Hennie Blaauw glanced down and saw they were virtually opposite the three fires – they could not have jumped more accurately.
‘We let go of each other, moved apart and opened the parachutes. Next time I looked down, I saw, yes, we were still directly above those three fires.’
It was a clear moonlit night, and Blaauw and his comrades – Amilcar Queiroz and Gert Eksteen – landed without problem close together in the shona where the fires had been lit. They quickly regrouped and sorted out the parachutes.
‘So we stood there in the moonlight. Before long, we saw figures coming towards us out of the darkness.’
Queiroz, an Angolan, spoke Umbundu fluently and he challenged them. Umbundu was spoken in Unita circles, while the governing MPLA’s soldiers spoke Kimbundu. The group turned out to be the three