Positive Aspects of Actions of the SADF and in Particular the SA Navy in the 1980's


V. Adm. Glen Syndercombe, SA Navy (Rtd)


When evaluating the merits or demerits of the actions of the SADF during the period 1980 to 1990, it is necessary to pause for a moment and view the broader scenario within which those actions took place. For some reason this does not appear to have been done to any noticeable degree. This is a most regrettable omission, since it is that overarching situation which shaped the perceptions and attitudes of the serving members of the SADF.

Contextual Considerations

Firstly, it needs to be appreciated that the conflict between the then SA Government and the liberation movements took place in the context of the "Cold War". Indeed, virtually all clashes of arms occurred, or at the very least were perceived to occur, in that context. It is common cause that the two super-powers which were locked in that titanic struggle sought every possible opportunity to gain advantage by means of influencing the outcome of political conflict situations all over the World. This certainly occurred in Angola, and once Soviet armaments and advisers and Cuban forces intervened in support of the MPLA against its former colleagues, FNLA and UNITA, most members of the SADF viewed the "Border War" quite simply as an extension of the greater World conflict between the West and the Soviet Union.

This perception was strengthened by the events such as the Berlin airlift, Korea, Vietnam, and the numerous insurgencies which had taken place or were still in full swing worldwide. In virtually all these cases the intervention by one or other or both of the superpowers resulted in a polarization of the opposing forces which placed a negotiated settlement beyond reach. Thus it was that for most of us, the justification of the liberation movements' armed actions became largely obscured, and were in any event perceived to be of relatively minor consideration compared with the overall threat posed by the Soviets and their surrogates.

As the ANC, PAC and SWAPO were clearly identified with, and completely dependant upon, the Soviet Union for the continuation of their armed struggle, it was quite logical to see them simply as extensions of the greater Cold War. To further exacerbate the matter, the Marxist/Leninist One Party State situations which developed in other African countries, where a Soviet- or Chinese- supported had succeeded, left most of us with the perception that until such time as the influence of the communists was reduced in some way, no meaningful political solution was achievable, in the short term at least. It was unthinkable to most of us that a political outcome should be forced upon South Africa by the forces of Communism or their proxies.

To summarize: most SADF members saw themselves as legitimately and honourably doing their duty, in defence of a sovereign state which was under attack by a foreign power, or powers, i.e. the USSR or Peoples Republic of China. Arguments about the legitimacy or otherwise of the government at that time are academic; after all, if full democracy and an unblemished human rights record was to be used as a yardstick to justify sovereignty, there would have been very few representatives sitting in the UN at that time!

SADF Contributions to the ending of the Conflict

By 1979 the SADF was already advising government that a military solution to the conflict in South and Southern Africa was not possible, and that all we could do was buy them time in order to find a political solution. Thus it was that a strategy evolved which was aimed at creating a favourable climate for eventual negotiations. As a first step the albatross of the Border War, with its economic, financial, manpower and logistic burdens had to be terminated. To achieve this a number of prerequisites needed to be established:
a. The Unita movement should be strengthened to the point that it could stand alone against the Cubans and MPLA forces and occupy most of south-eastern Angola. This would have fairly devastating consequences for SWAPO, and would severely limit their ability to carry out terrorist attacks, intimidate the population, and exert undue influence on future negotiations and elections in Namibia.

b. Combined pressures by the SADF and Unita should be used to bring about a perception on the part of the Soviets and their Cuban surrogates, that the attrition they were being subjected to was not worth pursuing further, and that they should withdraw from at least southern Angola, if not from Angola itself.

c. Movement towards democracy in Namibia should be set in train in order to wean people away from SWAPO and to provide them with a democratic alternative.

In the meantime fate took a hand. During the second half of the 1980s indications began to emerge that the Soviets and their surrogates were indeed beginning to become disillusioned with their Angolan adventure. Little did we know at the time that the collapse of one of the World's superpowers was imminent! The crushing burden of the arms-race, together with the drain of Aghanistan, which had become the USSR's Vietnam, and the other smaller Third World conflicts, such as that in Angola, had simply become too much for the inefficient Soviet economy to sustain.

What followed is history; the impossible was now within reach. With the assistance of the UN and the USA, withdrawal of the Cuban forces from Angola was negotiated, with the result that as predicted SWAPO was dealt a severe blow. In the event the SADF had conducted a textbook counter-insurgency campaign in Namibia, and the strategy outlined had been successful, in as much that it limited SWAPO's share of the eventual vote to prevent an undesirable constitutional model being forced upon the people of the territory.

With the reasonable resolution of the Namibian conflict now in train, the Government was able to turn its attention more effectively to the achievement of a negotiated settlement of the conflict at home. However, if one casts one's mind back to the events of those days, it was evident that the ANC was not in any mood to negotiate. The phrase "We are only interested in negotiating the hand-over of power" was one which regularly emanated from Lusaka and London.

Window of Opportunity

This was not a sustainable attitude under the circumstances. For the Government a "window of opportunity" was opening, while for the liberation movements it was beginning to close. With their principal sponsor now in a state of economic collapse, and communism discredited worldwide, their options were diminishing. That is not to say that the pressures of economic isolation, boycotts, etc, were not having their effect too - they certainly were. Both sides were now under pressure, and, most importantly, the prospect of a solution which would lead to true democracy and not to a Marxist/Leninist One Party State was in sight.

Ultimately, I believe that it was the realisation by both sides that a continuation along the road of confrontation and conflict would not lead to victory for either party, but simply to mutual destruction and impoverishment, which led to the successful outcome which we have today.

The SADF Commitment

During the decade which led up to the commencement of serious negotiations, the SADF conducted a remarkably successful counter-insurgency campaign in Namibia, which at times required temporary escalation to conventional warfare. That these operations were so effectively carried out thousands of kilometres from bases in SA, with ground forces which never exceeded brigade strength, testifies to the efficiency of our logistics operations and the standards of training, commitment, and innovative planning of the SADF. Let us also not forget that at the same time the borders of the Republic had to be secured, full time assistance had to be provided to an over-extended SAP in many fields, support for other government departments and diplomatic initiatives had to be carried out.

All this in the face of a total arms boycott, and little or no contact or exchange of ideas or training with the rest of the world. To add to the difficulties, an already modest (in comparison to many other countries with no immediate threat to deal with) defence budget was being reduced in real terms so that government could address other more pressing requirements in the fields of socio-economics and reform.

The Navy

The Navy was subjected to all the pressures which were applied but suffered from the added disadvantage that it had always been seen as a bit of an "odd-ball" by many in the SADF, and even as a complete anachronism by some. Be that as it may, the priority for available funds always went to the other Arms of Service simply because they were seen to be carrying the major part of the military burden. That could not be gainsaid, although it is arguable whether a greater emphasis on giving the Border War a more dynamic maritime dimension would have been appropriate.

Hard Decisions

These pressures resulted in the Navy having to make some hard decisions. One of these was the withdrawal from service of the last of the frigates. This meant that we would lose the last vestige of an anti-submarine capability, plus the know-how of operating "large" warships, plus the ability to operate maritime helicopters in the fighting role. However, the facts were that the frigates, fine ships though they were, were not what we required in our existing operational scenario. We needed small, fast ships with massive surface to surface firepower to present an effective counter to the missile-armed fast attack craft being supplied to the Angolan Navy by the Soviet Union. Their small size also meant that they were difficult to detect, either visually or by radar, while their shallow draft, speed and maneuverability gave them the ability to penetrate into restricted waters where other vessels dared not go.

The high cost in manpower and fuel, which are the most significant cost drivers when operating warships, was also a major consideration. No less than five strike craft could be kept in commission at the cost of a single frigate!

Much has been made of the fact that the Strike Craft were not designed for sea conditions on the SA coast. This resulted in the sailors of the SA Navy who manned these ships paying a heavy price in fatigue, sea-sickness, and just plain discomfort. Nevertheless, the Navy continued to carry out the tasks expected of it, in fair weather and foul. Despite their obvious size limitations, ways were found to make the Strike Craft perform all kinds of roles which had never been envisaged by those who had designed them.

Ancillary Roles: Strike Craft

Among others were a "bolt-on-bolt-off" system of rails which transformed them into high-speed mine-layers. Another was a system consisting of a double stern ramp and winch, which gave them the capability of carrying and launching small, high speed ski-boats, in order to put reconnaissance commandos ashore to execute various operations. These were extremely hazardous operations as they required vessels to penetrate deep into hostile waters under cover of darkness, and at times to loiter literally under the guns of the Port defences. To aggravate matters further there was the ominous threat posed by Cuban-flown MiG-21s and SU-22s at nearby airfields.


Arguably, the greatest challenge of all came with the decision in 1979 to take responsibility for the protection of the Republic's commercial harbours. To appreciate the magnitude of this task, it must be remembered that "protection" did not simply mean "security measures". It went far beyond that. It encompassed the complete protection of the port from all forms of attack, including conventional attack from seaward, sabotage by infiltrators, stand-off attacks by insurgents by means of mortars or rocket projectiles, and the laying of sea-mines or the deliberate scuttling of a vessel in the approaches and entrances to the ports. The responsibility also included the planning and putting in place of the necessary passive and active measures to contain and minimize the consequences of a successful attack.

The first consequence of this was that it became necessary to establish a specialist branch within the Navy to handle this. This resulted in the establishment of the "Marine Branch". All the old National Service guard forces were disbanded and the bulk of the Naval NSM intake was drafted into the Marines.

An obvious need existed to establish a headquarters element at each of the selected ports to plan and implement the protection measures, and to provide the Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence functions. In all of the ports, Harbour Protection Units (HPUs) came into being and the local Naval Base Operations rooms were modified to satisfy the needs of this new dimension of warfare. In all ports joint intelligence centres and appropriate liaison structures were established between the Naval Base Commander and his Army, Air Force, SAP and especially SARP colleagues.

The Naval CF Component

The heavy load which these developments placed upon the reserve bases was in many ways a blessing in disguise. For the first time in many years the Navy's CF component had a real and important job to do, and they rose to the occasion in style. For obvious reasons they could not handle the entire job on their own. So there had to be a leavening of full-time forces in all centres.

Mine/Bomb Disposal

It soon became apparent that one of the threats was the possible attack by swimmers, armed with limpet mines, on ships berthed in the ports. The counter to this required the availability of trained diving/bomb disposal units in all the ports. This challenge was met by having mobile/air-transportable units at Simonstown and Durban, based on standard shipping containers, which could then rapidly deploy where needed on receipt of intelligence or request.

Security/protection plans were carefully compiled for each port, including likely infiltration routes, and possible sites outside the port limits for stand-off bombardment. These were then integrated with those of the Army and Air Force, which was quite an eye-opener; in many cases it was discovered that the self same site had been identified by the other arms of service as suitable for attacks on areas for which they were responsible. This brought about a major economy of manpower and effort, since by mutual agreement the patrol and domination of areas could be allocated to the authority best placed to achieve it.

Border Deployment

The Marines were deployed to the border at company strength. They formed a part of the garrison at Katima Mullilo, and provided the garrison for isolated Mapalela Island, on the Zambezi at the junction of Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana. They were also responsible for water-borne patrol of the Zambezi between those two points and for the logistics supply facility for Mapalela Island.

Amphibious Capability

One of the most innovative and cost-effective outcomes of the formation of the Marine Branch was the development of a limited amphibious capability, using existing platforms and equipment and spare dockyard capacity. The harbour protection role was not an exciting one and despite the best efforts of the HPU OCs, boredom and morale problems were endemic to the young marines. It was decided to experiment with the creation of an amphibious capability, in order to present the Marine Branch with new challenges and to give them the prospect of a more demanding and adventurous role.

Accordingly, plans were drawn up in short order to further modify SAS Tafelberg, which had already been provided with a large flight-deck and hangar in order to deploy Puma helicopters. Heavy davits were fabricated and installed by the dockyard, capable of launching small high speed landing craft. Each of these craft could carry and put on the beach a short wheel-base Land Rover and an infantry section with all equipment. The dockyard also built an accomodation block under the flight deck for up to 300 troops, which included messing, and ablution facilities.

This capability was brought to operational status during 1988, and it was decided to make something of a demonstration of our capabilities. In order to boost the force levels the Army made additional troops available from the Parabats and a fleet consisting of SAS Tafelberg, 6 strike craft, 2 MCM vessels, and a submarine, deployed to Walvis Bay and remained there for some weeks.

Amphibious Demonstration

During the period in Walvis Bay several simulated amphibious landings were carried out using the LCUs and helicopters, first by day and later by night. These were accompanied by naval bombardment by the strike craft of "enemy" positions, and both surface and anti-aircraft fire against targets provided by ourselves and the SAAF. The MCM vessels cleared the paths to the landing beaches, while the sub conducted reconnaissance operations and lay in wait for any hostile surface ship interference. All in all it was a most successful operation.

These activities were not lost on the local SWAPO agents, and were duly reported to Luanda. Subsequent intercepts indicated that there was palpable anxiety regarding the imminent opening of a third front or a major raid on a harbour city. There can be little doubt that, if nothing else, it added to the already considerable burdens and pressures with which the MPLA/Cuban forces were confronted.

Return to Main Page.