Thursday, April 19, 2012

Battle for Cassinga

As a pacifist forced via military conscription to devote a large part of my young life to the call of the SA Defence Force, I have belatedly taken an interest in just what went down, as the Yanks say, during the 1970s and 1980s. My review of BATTLE FOR CASSINGA, South Africa’s Controversial Cross-Border Raid, Angola 1978 (Africa@War Series, Volume 3. Published by 30* South Publishers) appeared in the Weekend Post, Port Elizabeth, on February 18, 2012. This is that review, uncut, and including several pictures from the book.

The cover of the book, Battle for Cassinga

IT is said that in war truth is often the first casualty. And it seems, more than three decades after the guns fell silent, what happened at the battle for Cassinga in Angola remains hotly disputed.

This book – part of a useful series on African conflicts during the Cold War – seeks to put the case for the SA Defence Force, or at least it provides a first-hand account, including numerous photographs, by one of the paratroopers involved.

The year was 1978 and the United Nations had just passed Resolution 435, paving the way for elections in South West Africa, which was ruled by South Africa under a UN mandate, and its eventual hand-over to majority-rule. But the apartheid government feared that SWA People’s Organisation (Swapo) guerillas based in Angola would attempt to pre-empt this process by launching a massive invasion.
In fact, independence only came a bloody 12 years later, in March 1990.

Wounded SADF paratroopers wait to be evacuated during the battle for Cassinga in Angola, 1978.

The author, Mike McWilliams, was born in 1951 and conscripted into the SA Defence Force. He volunteered to join 1 Parachute Battalion, qualifying as a rifleman paratrooper in 1970. He served in this capacity in the 1970s as the insurgency in northern Namibia escalated. The battle for Cassinga – codenamed Operation Reindeer  –  was his last operation.

I have found it very difficult over the years to read books of this nature, because unlike most of the 600 000 or so white males conscripted between the 1960s and 1990, I was an ardent opponent both of apartheid and of the use of force to maintain white domination in Namibia and South Africa. But there were those like McWilliams who believed their cause was just, and this book is written in the spirit of someone who was proud of what he did. Only history will tell whether the ends – keeping out Marxist governments in SWA and of course in South Africa itself – justified the means.

Indeed, there is a growing belief that the fact that South Africa held out until after the fall of communism in eastern Europe in 1990 ensured the survival of relatively free market economies both in Namibia and later in South Africa.

But the means of upholding the status quo were often brutal – and they were executed with ruthless efficiency, in this case under the bold leadership of Colonel Jan Breytenbach, ironically the brother of the anti-apartheid poet Breyten, who was jailed from 1975 till 1982 for high treason.

An ammunition dump is engulfed in flames during the Cassinga battle, while in the foreground an SADF demolition team moves to its next target.

In 1978 the SADF’s reconnaissance aircraft had established that there was a large Swapo military base 250km north of the SWA border in Angola. This book is McWilliams’s account of how an audacious, highly outnumbered force of paratroopers were dropped well behind enemy lines, how they fought and defeated a powerful, heavily armed force there, and then were airlifted out by helicopter in the nick of time, as tanks and armoured vehicles carrying Cuban and Angolan combatants, bore down on them.

There are some wonderful accounts of heroism under fire, including that of a pilot of a Buccaneer jet who, having used up all his rockets, continued to “buzz” Soviet T-34 tanks as they advanced on the South African forces scrambling to board their vulnerable helicopters.

A radio operator directs helicopters into a landing zone after the battle.

There are some lighter moments, too, including how the author found himself alongside a dust-covered, grey-haired soldier without rank, as they made hastily for the choppers. The man was none other than Lieutenant-General Constand Viljoen, chief of the South African Army, who had flown in after the fire fight, and was among those taken by surprise when the Cubans and Angolans counter-attacked. He had hidden his epaulets under some rocks.

One or two of McWilliams’s stories border on the ludicrous. For instance, after the initial parachute jump was somewhat off-course and he narrowly missed landing in a nearby river, he says a comrade landed nearby. Now this happened in broad daylight, with him having just written about how he even filmed the drop while under heavy enemy fire. So his mate asks him for a fag, which he duly lights for the guy – only for it to be “shot from his mouth”. They then decided it would be wise to take cover!

That aside, this is, I believe, a valuable independent account of a key moment in a protracted, often low-key war which for decades tied up the lives of most young white South African men, but which no one really wanted to talk about.

With half the attacking force already evacuated, the remaining paratroopers assemble to counter a Cuban/Angolan armoured column that closed in on Cassinga from a base at Techamutete.

The controversy arose after the attack, which Swapo claimed had been a massacre of civilian refugees. However, McWilliams provides evidence to suggest fairly convincingly that this was indeed a heavily fortified Swapo military headquarters. The civilians, some of whom were indeed killed in the cross fire, were both camp followers and some 200 civilians abducted  by Swapo in northern SWA a few months earlier and brought to Cassinga in a bid to convince UN aid agencies that they needed food and funding, which they duly received.

McWilliams also reveals that the Swapo combatants were largely from a group loyal to Andreas Shipanga, an opponent of Sam Nujoma, and that they had been deliberately sent there because Swapo knew the base was under threat of attack, having received vital intelligence to this effect from Soviet spy Dieter Gerhardt, who was based at the SA Defence Communications centre at Silvermine in the Cape.

For all those veterans of this and other conflicts during the African bush wars, as well as the public in general, this series provides useful and often quite readable accounts not only of the actual battles, but also of the people on both sides involved in the high-stakes political machinations behind the scenes. Each also contains a brief, well-researched history, from before the advent of colonisation through to the inevitable bloody anti-colonial battles which led finally to uhuru.

Other volumes in the series are: Operation Dingo – Rhodesian Raid on Chimoio and Tembue, 1977; Selous Scouts – Rhodesian Counter-Insurgency Specialists; and France in Centrafrique – From Bokassa and Operation Barracuda to the Days of EUFOR.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mapping South Africa's history

Maps seem pretty innocuous objects. But just how significant they really are becomes clear when reading MAPPING SOUTH AFRICA, A Historical Survey of South African Maps and Charts, by retired history professor Andrew Duminy, published by Jacana. My review of his book appeared in the Weekend Post, Port Elizabeth, on March 31, 2012, and can be viewed on the Jacana website at This, however, is the uncut version, complete with pictures as I would have liked to use them. Unfortunately, a glitch has crept in, compacting the text. On the positive side, if you hold down shift and right click on the maps, you can see them big and clear. By holding down "control" and using the mouse scroll wheel, the text can also be enlarged. Sorry, but all attempts to ditch the glitch failed.

The cover of Mapping South Africa

ANTI-COLONIALISTS should, logically, be vehemently opposed to historical maps of South Africa and, indeed, of all the other parts of the world colonised by European powers.

Because this remarkable book reveals that the mapping of our country went in tandem with its colonisation and conquest, first by the Dutch, then the British.

It also casts an interesting light on the whole debate, launched somewhat gauchely in parliament recently by Dr Pieter Mulder, as to whether black Africans can lay claim to the whole of the country. Judging from the maps included here, it seems clear that the Khoisan occupied much of the land to the west of the country when the whites arrived, not the Xhosas or other darker tribes. But this is a history of map-making, not anthropology, so I’d better steer clear of that particular issue.

This is the first map to show the southernmost tip of Africa. It was drawn by Henricus Martellus, a German, in 1489, a year after the Portuguese explorer Batholomew Diaz had first rounded the Cape and established the latitude of his landing as 34 degree 22 minutes south. Clearly not much was known of the eastern half of the continent!

What is evident, as one advances into the 20th century, is that by the time of Union in 1910, the European colonisers had occupied and surveyed vast swathes of the country. There is a particularly telling map from a survey conducted over five years from 1905 by H M Jackson, just after the Anglo-Boer War ended. One of 55 sheets done at a scale of 1:125 000 of the Orange Free State, it is not a proper topographical map, but it does show the extent to which the land around Boshof – like elsewhere – had been neatly parcelled out. Each farm, established when the Boers – who trekked north from the Cape in the mid-1830s – settled in the Orange River Free State and the Transvaal Republic, is shown and named.

By 1513 things look more familiar. This map, by the German Martin Waldseemuller, of the southern African coastline was the first printed map of the subcontinent. Note how far out of place Madagascar is.

This was the reality in South Africa 100 years ago already, and the history of how map-making played in integral part in the process is both fascinating and disturbing. For the conquerors of European extraction, despite all the hardships they had to endure, acquiring that land must have been like manna from heaven. For the indigenous tribes scattered across the land, it was a nightmare.

After Jan van Riebeeck established a settlement at the Cape in 1652, map-making began in earnest, but remained very inaccurate. This, from 1724, was by the Dutchman Francois Valentyn.

Duminy is a Professor Emeritus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and a descendant of one of the early French mariners, Renier Duminy, who played a significant role in the early mapping of the Cape. Indeed, as can be expected, it was the Cape peninsular and the southern Cape coastline up to Algoa Bay which were the first areas to be extensively surveyed and mapped – initially as an aid to the shipping trade with the East following Jan van Riebeeck’s arrival at the Cape in 1652. Then, as the centuries passed, the interior was explored and the first basic maps were made. Initially, with longitude an ongoing problem, the southern part of Africa was depicted as far more pointy than it is. It was only in 1834, after Captain (later Vice-Admiral) William Owen’s scientific survey using the latest available equipment – theodolites, sextants, chronometers and telescopes – that the first accurate map of southern Africa’s coastline was published.

By 1752, however, the map of the western Cape was starting to look far more accurate. This was done by French navigator Jean-Baptiste de Mannevilette.

About the same time, the first map, by Lt James King, was made of Port Natal (later to become Durban). But it is the mapping of the Eastern Cape frontier which makes up a large part of this book. Because it was here that colonial boundaries were in a constant state of flux during the 100 years of conflict between the white settlers and the Xhosas. Interestingly, one of the reasons Britain set about exploring and mapping the east coast of Africa was to intensify the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery campaign, Britain having resolved in 1807 to put an end to the ocean-going slave trade. At the time, it seems, Brazil was taking slaves from east Africa.

Cornelis van de Graaff, the Cape governor from 1785 to 1791, organised a major survey of the coastline and interior as far west as the Fish River. This is the eastern half of his map competed in 1794.

Britain first took over the Cape Colony in 1795 and, apart from a brief interlude from 1803 to 1806, governed it until Union in 1910. During this period massive strides were made in mapping the whole region. This map, from 1834, gives the first accurate representation of the southern African coastline.

Of note regarding the Eastern Cape is the fact that before Port Elizabeth was established with the arrival of the 1820 British settlers, the main centres in the area were Graaff-Reinet and Uitenhage. Grahamstown also predated PE, as the British military established an outpost there in an attempt to stem the Xhosa insurrection. In the mid-19th century, towns like East London, King William’s Town, Queenstown, Cathcart and Burgersdorp were formed as the frontier wars continued.

This map, shown to the House of Commons to illustrate a report by Cape governor Sir Benjamin D’Urban, reveals what a political hot potato the eastern frontier had become. The area outlined in red was the Ceded Territory. Envisaged as a buffer zone in 1819, it was annexed by D’Urban but abandoned the following year.

The maps in this book are also reflective of the way the indigenous people were seen, with one from 1847 referring to an area occupied by the “Amakosa or Kaffirs Proper”, as opposed, I assume, to the Khoisan. Elsewhere, in a map of Natal and its interior (1851) there is a note on the map that the interior is “Inhabited by wandering tribes of Kaffirs and Zulus”.

Taking shape. British publisher John Barthlomew’s map of South Africa, published in the Scottish Geographical Magazine in 1885.

The book concludes with sections on modern map-making, and it is here that Port Elizabeth features heavily, with Sir David Gill, the Astronomer Royal at the Cape from 1879-1906 having personally established the co-ordinates for a beacon at Buffelsfontein in 1885. The baseline he established became the datum for the entire southern Africa, as a major geodetic triangulation was conducted. It remained the datum (the point to which all survey measurements related) until 1999, when, thanks to satellites, the Radio Astronomy Observatory at Hartebeesthoek supplanted it.

The Buffelsfontein beacon in Port Elizabeth, with a plaque installed in 2004. On the right is a second beacon marking the other end of the baseline of 5 600 feet measured by Sir David Gill in September 1885. All southern African triangulation surveys were based on this datum.

Yet in the 20th century, it was those beacons which in a way became symbols of the new country. A national trigonometric survey of South Africa was launched in 1936 but, with World War 2 intervening, it was only completed in 1976, producing 1 916 sheets at a scale of 1:50 000. In the course of this process, more than 29 000 beacons were erected – including one in the East London suburb where I grew up, which was so prominent the place was called Beacon Bay. Duminy says: “These are still a feature of the South African landscape and there is every reason why they should be preserved as national monuments.”

There was intense interest in Britain in the Anglo-Boer War, Britain’s biggest conflict since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. This map, published in Edinburgh in 1899, shows just how detailed maps had already become. Note how small Johannesburg was compared to Pretoria.

The book, which includes numerous maps and photographs, concludes with a chapter on two South Africans who, in the last century, pioneered the use of photography and radar in map-making.

What Duminy’s well-researched and beautifully presented book does is reveal just how complex our country’s history really is. If you consider that each little name on a map – whether a farm or a dorp or a koppie – has a history, a story of human endeavour , and then you consider how many such places there are across the length and breadth of our land, it gives you serious food for thought.

After the Anglo-Boer War, the Orange Free State was surveyed by H M Jackson over five and a half years from 1905. This is a detail from one sheet. Note how each farm around Boshof has been accurately recorded and named.

Maps are the repositories of a nation’s history, and without them – and all that led up to their being made, for good or bad – I doubt whether we would be living in a modern, industrial state today. The key for our new African leaders is to build on the work of nearly 350 years of European rule, not to break it down and destroy it.

This letter from Andrew Duminy was published in the Weekend Post on April 7, 2012. He subsequently informed me that his book has ruffled a few academic feathers over a few minor quibbles. I sense a case of professional jealousy.

Did George Mallory conquer Everest?

Was George Mallory the first man to summit Mount Everest? This is the key question which Wade Davis attempts to answer in his book, Into The Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest (The Bodley Head, London). My review of this book was published in the Weekend Post, Port Elizabeth, on April 7, 2012. This is the uncut version.

The cover of the book, Into the Silence. The 1924 Everest expedition party is dwarfed by the North Col, to which they are heading. Bentley Beetham took the picture.

THE best place to start discussing a book of such a vast scale of scholarship is not at the beginning, but at the end, with the epilogue.

For it is here that the Canadian author deals with the key question which has fascinated the world ever since George Mallory and Sandy Irvine failed to return from a last-ditch attempt to summit the highest mountain in the world on June 9, 1924: did they reach the top?

Sandy Irvine (back left) and next to him George Mallory, with other members of the 1924 expedition, photographed by John Noel and later colour-tinted.

To get to this point, however, one must first accompany the author – through over 550 pages – on a series of journeys of such heroic proportions it is almost impossible for someone in the 21st century to fathom how people could have endured such hardship and survived.

This was a time when to be British and an adventurer meant you inevitably became part of the Great Game, the running of the largest empire the world had ever known, which embraced about a quarter of the world’s land mass and population (about 500 million people). And a large percentage of those people lived in India, where the Britons’ meticulous mapping of the terrain had led to the discovery in the 1850s of the highest peak in the world. This book sticks with imperial measures, and the mountain, named after the surveyor general of India, Sir George Everest, stood at just over 29 000 feet. Interestingly, it was pronounced Eave-rest, not Ever-rest. And by the late nineteenth century, the clamour to be the first nation to conquer it grew apace.

The problem was that the British Raj in India was not on good terms with the Nepalese government, so an assault from the south was ruled out. Thanks to the work of old “Asia hands”, the government under the 13th Dalai Lama in Tibet was less antagonistic, so it was decided to tackle the mountain from the north – from the highest plateau in the world, where even before you start to climb mountains you experience altitudes and temperatures guaranteed to induce illness in those who have not spent a lifetime acclimatising to the conditions.

George Mallory (right) and Sandy Irvine, who died in 1924 while trying to become the first people to climb Mount Everest.

Davis could simply have written a book about attempting to climb Everest. Indeed, much of this saga deals with the 1921 expedition where a major survey was done of Everest and its surrounds, as the explorers sought a way onto the mountain. This, the North Col, was only found after months of trekking across arid plains, along crevasse-riddled glaciers, through knee-deep snow and up ice-covered cliffs while scaling peaks way higher than anything in Europe.

But with this and the subsequent attempts in 1922 and 1924 – Mallory was the only man to participate in all three – Davis also explores the personalities involved, and especially how the horrors which so many endured during World War 1 affected them psychologically. It is a fascinating premise because in his exhaustive research, conducted over 10 years, Davis was able to delve into the very heart of a conflict which, when seen in retrospect, was clearly the height of madness. Never before had governments sent out their young men in such numbers to face such atrocious odds of coming back alive.

Most of the men, having somehow survived the war, who made it onto the Everest expeditions were either still in the military (many based in India), or were medical doctors who had seen the horrific effects of shells, bullets and mustard gas on human flesh. Many, like Mallory, were highly educated graduates. Indeed, while at Cambridge Mallory counted among his friends and acquaintances the likes of Rupert Brooke, EM Forster, Bertrand Russell, Maynard Keynes, Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf. At university, one of the key pastimes during annual summer vacations for energetic young men was to spend the time climbing in the Alps. It was there that Mallory established a reputation as the greatest rock and ice climber of his age. He was the obvious choice to lead the climbing party.

However, in this era before modern communications and transport, the biggest stumbling block for such expeditions was logistics. The trek parties would each have to set off – hundreds of heavily laden yaks, ponies and porters – from Darjeeling in northern India, and cover hundreds of miles of inhospitable terrain before arriving at the foothills of the Himalayas. Only then, with the rudimentary climbing apparatus available to them, could they set about establishing the various camps up the East Rongbuk glacier. This is the story of just how arduous that task was, as porters collapsed under massive loads; as in mid-summer their bodies experienced heat in the high 30s centigrade, while their feet (shod in leather boots, a far cry from modern nylon-based boots) suffered frostbite.

Geoffrey Bruce and George Finch, photographed returning to Cape IV by John Noel in 1922, after climbing to a then record of 23 000 feet.

Davis unpacks a wealth of information, all of which adds to the poignancy of the story. How, for instance, the Everest Committee in London rejected an Australian expert on the new-fangled concept of using oxygen tanks for the 1924 expedition because he had rubbed them up the wrong way. And how Sandy Irvine, aged just 21, stepped in to fill this gap, and as a result ended up that fateful day accompanying Mallory on what was the last of several attempts to conquer the mountain that year, as the impending monsoon threatened. Indeed, it was the weather – totally unpredictable at those altitudes - more than anything else, which scuppered those many early attempts.

The last picture of George Mallory (left) and Sandy Irvine, taken by Noel Odell at Camp IV on the North Col of Mount Everest on June 6, 1924.

So, with eight lives already lost (seven of them porters swept away in a 1922 avalanche), everything boiled down to whether Mallory, 36, and Irvine managed to scale a 100 foot cliff face, the Second Step, which would have left them with a relatively short final spurt up the last pyramid and onto the top of the world. One of the climbers, who was at the support camp just below them, swore later he saw them, through the mist, having conquered the Second Step and surging for the summit.

In the epilogue, Davis fast forwards to 1999, when top US climber Conrad Anker leads an expedition to try to find Mallory’s body. Miraculously, he finds it, mummified but partially exposed above the ice, name tag still visible on his collar, three letters in his pockets. Anker then attempts to climb the Second Step in a bid to ascertain whether it was possible. He cannot do it without the sort of assistance not available to Mallory at the time. But does this prove Mallory didn’t make it? Davis, of course, is unable to say one way or the other, but he does note that, having survived the horrors of the trenches and being driven as no man before him, it was indeed possible Mallory did indeed summit Everest 29 years before Edmund Hillary and the Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay.

Exhaustively researched (the annotated bibliography runs to over 40 pages of small type), this book is an intellectual accomplishment on a par with the physical achievements of Mallory and his comrades nearly 90 years ago, before any aerial photographs had even been taken of Everest and its surrounding peaks. Indeed, one of the great advances made during these adventures was in the development of photography, both stills and movies, which set a benchmark for an industry which would become so powerful and influential down the century.

Read this book and marvel at what individuals with drive, guts and determination are capable of achieving, even those mentally and physically scarred by the most terrifying of conflicts.