They Live by the Sword

by Colonel Jan Breytenbach, Lemur, 1990, H/b, 272pp, b/w photographs.

Anyone who has read and enjoyed books such as Selous Scouts, Top Secret War by the Rhodesian COIN expert, Ron Reid-Daly, will find this book by Reid-Daly's South African counterpart, Jan Breytenbach, equally fascinating and enjoyable. A soldier's (as opposed to a historian's) account of the guerrilla and conventional battles fought by 32 "Buffalo" Battalion of the SADF - an elite battalion consisting of former FNLA guerrillas from Angola, led by white South African officers and NCOs.

32 Battalion was formed in great secrecy from the rag-tag, half-starved remnants of the Angolan guerrilla movement, the FNLA. The founding commander, a former "Recce" (South African equivalent of the SAS), turned these unwanted orphans from the Angolan guerrilla war into one of the most respected and feared units to see action in Namibia and Angola in later years.

Breytenbach's method was a simple one - he instilled in his men a total commitment and loyalty to the unit, rather than to a country or cause, the time-tested formula of the French Foreign Legion. He also demanded total loyalty to the black troops from his white officers - a vital factor if the unit were to become an efficient fighting force.

32 Battalion first saw action as "Combat Group Bravo" during Operation Savannah in 1975, after Breytenbach had fed, clothed and trained what he called "the most miserable, underfed, ragged and villainous bunch of troops I had ever seen in my life..." Breytenbach knocked his new recruits into shape, often literally by using his fists, gaining their respect and willing cooperation.

The account of Operation Savannah which takes up several chapters of the first part of the book provides an insider's viewpoint of the campaign that was the start of South Africa's involvement in Angola.

Much of the equipment used by the Battalion during Op Savannah was obtained in classic guerrilla fashion - by "liberating" it from other units. At one stage 14 newly arrived Unimogs mysteriously went AWOL from the army maintenance unit and by the time the MPs were notified were already in action with 32 Battalion in Angola.

Breytenbach's methods of warfare were as unconventional as his methods of obtaining equipment for his unit. When he was denied permission to demolish a bridge across the Okavango, which he knew was being used by FAPLA, he sent a Recce team to demolish it anyway and then sent a signal to Task Force HQ that he had heard unaccounted for explosions in the area and asked innocently should he investigate? He then later signalled that reconnaissance had revealed that the bridge had been destroyed, according to locals, by UNITA...

Lacking heavy weapons and equipment, 32 Battalion had to adopt guerrilla tactics and prove themselves better at this style of warfare than their enemies, FAPLA and SWAPO. They fought on foot, harassing the enemy in their own home base areas, using the vital element of surprise to keep them off balance. Tracking was easy in the sandy soil of Angola, but made anti-tracking extremely difficult, so that the level of expertise needed was high if they were to remain out of sight and reach of the enemy. The black troops, with their guerrilla background, possessed the required skills already, but their white leaders had to learn new skills on the job, coping with severe extremes of temperature and lack of food and water for long periods. Black and white had to rely totally on each other and developed close relationships, so close that when on one occasion a white lieutenant was killed, his men carried his body for several days, all the while engaged in a running battle with SWAPO, refusing to abandon him to the enemy or the bush.

Initially Breytenbach was not very impressed by his allies, UNITA, and there were a number of clashes between them and his men, formerly rivals in the war against the Portuguese. One such clash involved an accidental engagement in which 13 French mercenaries and 70 UNITA soldiers in a Panhard armoured car, 5 heavily-armed land-rovers and some Unimogs armed with Entac missiles, 106mm anti-tank guns and SAM-7s were captured by a mere handful of Breytenbach's Recces:

The French wandered about disconsolately, in spite of having put away a bottle or two of wine with Willy and his men while toasting the international comradery of paratroopers. They, quite correctly, felt they had badly lost face in their game of wits with the South Africans. All wore the green berets and badges of French Foreign Legion paratroopers, which meant they considered themselves the most formidable fighters in the world, and certainly a cut above the South African Recces, whom they had not even heard of...
The increasing effectiveness of 32 Battalion in the years following Operation Savannah led to the usual tactic of atrocity allegations from overseas armchair warriors and "experts" -
A white deserter, Edwards, fled to Great Britain and claimed in the press that 32 Battalion troops had been slaughtering civilians and committing atrocities in Angola, alleging it was official policy to eliminate SWAPO supporters. The overseas media, as usual, lapped up every word. From time to time similar allegations were made against the unit, and all of them including Edwards', were investigated by highly qualified independents from outside the ranks of the armed forces, and found to be without substance. In truth, SWAPO was coming off second best to the fearsome soldiers of 32 Battalion on the battlefield, so characteristically, they took the communist propaganda course and smeared them with false accusations of atrocities, hoping the SADF would be forced to withdraw the unit from operations in the face of national and international revulsion.
Of course any deserter from a fighting unit is laying himself open to charges of cowardice and the simplest way of avoiding this is to accuse the unit of atrocities and thus justify his desertion, changing his status in the eyes of the outside world from that of coward to a man brave enough to make a moral stand against injustice... Breytenbach points out in the book that the lie was given to atrocity claims by the Angolans themselves - they never fled when South African troops appeared and many expressed great satisfaction at the hidings they were giving both FAPLA and SWAPO.

There were also lighter moments for 32 Battalion, both on the battlefield and off. New arrivals posted to the Battalion were often greeted by exploding mines and large numbers of fierce, camouflage-clad troops brandishing AK-47s, and many a raw recruit must have thought that his last day on earth was at hand, until he realised that it was all a hoax. Other jokes involved fake "hangings", particularly when senior Air Force officers were visiting the base at Omauni. One such hoax backfired slightly when it resulted in a later visit by an irate General, demanding to see the unit's "mass grave"...

In time the Battalion gave rise to a number of legendary figures and colourful characters. One of these was Sergeant Major Koos "Crocodile" Kruger, so named after he escaped from the clutches of a large crocodile which had grabbed him by the leg. Thinking fast, Kruger had thrust his hand into the crocodile's throat and grabbed its throat flap, causing it to drown.

Humorous situations also arose on the battlefield as a result of the unit's resemblance to guerrillas. A number of unsuspecting FAPLA officers once wandered into a 32 Battalion camp by mistake and regaled the white officers with harrowing tales of their desperate encounters with "the Boers" (South African troops) at Cuvelai. The South Africans gave them food and coffee and courteously listened to their tale of woe while the 32 Battalion troopers looked on, grinning with delight. Eventually, curious, the FAPLA officers enquired if their hosts were Russians or Cubans. Koos "Crocodile" Kruger thereupon thrust his fierce, bearded face into the FAPLA lieutenant's and gave him a near heart attack by telling him that he had wandered into a camp of the dreaded "Boers"...

32 Battalion became acknowledged as one of the best fighting units in the SADF and was the first unit to receive its colours in an operational area. Its reputation was such that during the JMC period, when FAPLA and the SADF cooperated to oversee the withdrawal of both SWAPO and the South Africans, some FAPLA men became as enthusiastic about killing SWAPO as the 32 Battalion men. Some even enquired about career opportunities in the Battalion!

Breytenbach did not have a very high opinion of UNITA's tactics and describes how on numerous occasions they fed the South Africans incorrect information on FAPLA forces, understating their strength in an effort to encourage the South African troops to become involved. The South Africans would then commit a small number of troops to battle only to find themselves facing unexpectedly heavy odds. Nevertheless such situations generally ended in victory for the determined South Africans.

In 1980 at Savate a situation of this kind ended in a rout for the superior FAPLA forces:

FAPLA's fire was intensive and 32 Battalion had no heavy weapons, apart from mortars, with which to overcome FAPLA's superiority in firepower. All they could do was stick it out and carry on slogging in the hope that FAPLA's nerve would crack first. Deon's small command group was in the thick of the firefight and were soon pinned down. His intelligence officer was killed next to him... Amazingly it became apparent the FAPLA commander was preparing to order his brigade to retreat, leaving Savate to 32 Battalion. The storm of fire from his attackers clearly showed he had a wild cat by the tail - not a tame UNITA force as he had first thought... Deon Ferreira, in a Buffel, led the pursuit. The chase was on and excitement reached fever pitch. Like cavalry gone wild and on the rampage, the Buffels broke away from each other and began hunting groups of FAPLA vehicles... they chopped FAPLA up with intensive fire, pouring bullets into the madly fleeing trucks, the frightened occupants holding on for dear life as they rocked through the bush at high speed, desperate to escape the Buffalo soldiers.
By the end of the day the FAPLA brigade had lost all of its equipment and weapons and suffered hundreds of dead. 32 Battalion lost 16 men. Savate had been occupied by over 1000 men, not the 300 that UNITA had suggested. UNITA afterwards claimed the victory for themselves.

An instance in which the American sanctions on arms for South Africa backfired was the capture by 32 Battalion of an intact highly advanced SAM-8 anti-aircraft missile system, complete with firing system, radar and transport. 32 Battalion took the huge vehicles of the missile system with them. UNITA demanded the system for itself and when the South Africans refused, pointed out meaningfully that their "allies", meaning the Americans, would like to have it as they had been trying to get hold of one for years. The South Africans informed them that the Americans applied arms sanctions and were therefore not regarded as allies of South Africa. UNITA didn't get the missile system...

They Live By The Sword is an engrossing book, a colourful account of an irregular unit that achieved unequalled success in its battles, outfighting the Angolans and Cubans, and out-manoeuvring their Russian advisers. They not only lived by the sword, but many died by the sword, and their nickname "South Africa's Foreign Legion" is one that they earned on the battlefield. Jan Breytenbach has done them justice with this book.

Colonel Jan Breytenbach, a living legend in South Africa, gained reknown as the creator of no less than 3 elite units of the SADF: 1 Recce Commando, 32 Battalion and 44 Para Brigade. He led the successful assault on SWAPO's main base at Cassinga, Angola, in 1978 - believed to be the largest airborne assault anywhere since World War 2. He also formed the South African Army's Guerrilla School, which he commanded until his retirement in 1987. His first book was Forged in Battle, an account of the early history of 32 Battalion.

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