Most people are familiar with the British SAS and American Navy SEALs. Some may have heard of the Rhodesian Light Infantry and Selous Scouts, but nearly lost to contemporary military history is the South African Recces. These white, black, and interracial soldiers pulled off some of the most hair-raising operations that you have never heard of, largely due to politics. When mentioning South African Defense Forces in a college paper, my professor politely reminded me that I should never reference apartheid-era structures as something we should seek to emulate. That sounds like throwing the baby out with the bathwater to me.
Thankfully, a few members of the South African Special Forces community have begun to come forward in recent years and commit their memories to paper for us. Koos Stadler, author of “Recce: Small Team Missions Behind Enemy Lines,” got off to an early start in the reconnaissance business as a young conscript in the SADF. Later, he went on to Recce selection, completed Special Forces training, and became a member 5 Recce (5 Reconnaissance Commando). Stadler’s ultimate goal was to become part of “small teams,” which were two-man Recce elements who did strategic reconnaissance deep inside communist-held territory.
In the 1980s, the Cold War was alive and well for a strategic target like South Africa. The ANC (and their armed wing called MK) were launching terrorist attacks against South Africa. Neighboring countries like Angola were launching attacks into southern West Africa, and the Cuban and Russian militaries deployed advisors on the ground there. Thousands of Antonov supply planes flew in to resupply the communist forces and MIGs flew over SWAPO (guerrilla)-held territory.
Stadler describes it all, including one mission in which he spent nearly two months in the field with a couple of teammates and a surface-to-air missile platform. After waiting for weeks on end, the Recces managed to shoot down an Antonov flying a number of Russian advisors into the country. On another mission, the 5 Recce members performed route recon for a larger SADF element coming in to do a raid. One chapter describes sabotaging train tracks with specially constructed charges. One particularly fascinating mission saw Stadler and a few teammates infiltrate into Zimbabwe and launch a raid against an ANC facility in Harare.
“Recce: Small Team Missions Behind Enemy Lines” provides an important and much-needed look at these elite soldiers. Stadler provides a sober and even analysis of events without resorting to embellishing. Frequently, the author mentions his shortcomings and disappointments, such as twisting his ankle and having to be left behind on the train track demo mission.
While there remains much more to be written about the Recces, this book is a great snapshot of the unit and the mission from one member’s perspective.