I had followed 32 Battalion’s exploits throughout the 1980s in Soldier of Fortune magazine when they embedded journalists to go on missions and conduct interviews with the fabled unit. I remembered reading about their effectiveness in the field against SWAPO their primary enemy at the time.
SWAPO (Southwest Africa People’s Organization) was a communist guerilla unit. It found itself time and again, supremely outclassed by the remarkable men of the 32. The Battalion battered SWAPO so badly on the plains and in the jungles of what is now Namibia, that SWAPO’s fighting abilities in comparison were little more than an embarrassment. No matter how hard they tried to best 32, the end result was always the same: Dead insurgents and their AK-47s placed in piles after an ambush by what would become the most highly decorated, and controversial, unit of apartheid South Africa’s war against communism.
32 Battalion’s origins begin with displaced mercenaries from the Angolan Civil War. That war ended in 1975 after the communists (FAPLA) seized power and the remnants of the opposing force, known as the FNLA, sought refuge in nearby countries. Many headed into South Africa in the hope of finding support and continuing the struggle.
That same year, FNLA requests found the sympathetic ear of Colonel Jan Breytenbach of the South African Special Forces Brigade. He asked and received permission to form a unit around the displaced fighters, called Bravo Group. Yet, despite the unit’s foreigners pledging allegiance to South Africa, the chain of command almost destroyed the unit before it got off the ground. After much persuading and Breytenbach’s refusal to abandon them, the detachment was allowed to not only exist, but to grow until it contained two rifle companies, a machine gun platoon, a motor platoon, an antitank section, and reconnaissance section. In all, this amounted to about 600 men with both blacks and whites filling its ranks.
The unit then deployed into southwest Africa and, occasionally, Angola itself as a kind of fire brigade. It used conventional and unconventional techniques to engage the communist groups, who ultimately desired to bring the anvil of totalitarianism down upon South Africa. These groups involved FAPLA, their Cuban mentors, as well as the unit which that 32 would decimate almost like a sport in the coming years, the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). The 32 fought these groups for 15 years in many operations. Some of these operations were joined with other forces, others — like their most famous mission that occurred in 1980 — were solo.
With the arrival of the new decade, for many of 32’s members there remained a great desire to renew efforts in Angola. Still angry that they lost, they did not intend to let Angola grow in strength and export its brand of utopia toward South Africa’s border. When a unique military situation presented itself in their former country, they were all too happy to return. This would be Operation Tiro A Tiro, a campaign against a major FAPLA base at Savate, 47 miles across the border on the Cubango River.
By this stage of the game, Angola’s communists were faced with another significant challenge to their authority; one that resided within the country. It was called UNITA and was created under the leadership of Doctor Jonas Savimbi. This guerrilla force often operated hand-in-hand with South African Defense Forces to keep the Angolan military busy. UNITA scored huge victories that put the southern region of Angola at risk of coming under the unit’s control. Yet, it needed help to ensure that and 32 Battalion got the call to wipe out what was left of one of FAPLA’s strongest holdouts.
A plan was finalized. The attack would be conventional. It would use two rifle companies (with one being held in reserve) for the main attack against the FAPLA base. Reconnaissance teams and a mortar platoon would provide cover and operate as a blocking force. As is typical in these types of operations, surprise was crucial, therefore no air support would be provided.
On May 15, at the Battalion’s forward operating base in Ovamboland, Namibia, the force, consisting of 270 men in total, boarded armored personnel carriers and heavy trucks and headed into southern Angola and the drop-off point.
For the next several days, the convoy navigated toward Savate. It frequently used reconnaissance units to report changes in troop strength and vehicles at the FAPLA base. As 32 got closer, the recon teams used kayaks to travel downstream and upstream on the Cubango River. Once all the information was gathered, the two rifle companies disembarked from their vehicles three miles away from the base. They attacked the main encampment at approximately 0900 hours on May 21, under the cover of a mortar barrage.
The fighting was fierce and fast-paced. The two companies approached from two different directions and swept through the startled garrison. Another contingent attacked the nearby vital airfield. After approximately four hours of combat, including moments when FAPLA fired rocket artillery in vain to stave off the battle’s outcome, the objectives were realized. FAPLA was evicted and put on the run, with over 500 killed and wounded. 32 suffered 13 killed and 22 wounded against a force over four times its size.
After a UNITA occupying force arrived, the battle-weary men boarded their vehicles and headed back toward Namibia, unaware they had scored one of the greatest victories in the history of South Africa. Today, May 21 is viewed with reverence as “Savate Day” by former members of the Battalion. Celebrations have been held since for this momentous event in 32’s history.
After Savate, the Battalion continued hit-and-run raids into Angola but diverted more of their time toward the other threat that kept pestering them: SWAPO.
SWAPO’s intent was to remake Namibia in the image of Angola while using Angola as a base of operations. SWAPO operated in mostly small units, using terror tactics. 32 Battalion proceeded to hunt them down mercilessly. All 32 had to do in many cases was deploy their secret weapon: seasoned trackers. These men knew the African bush better than any man or animal in the world.
Raised in the art from birth and superior to a bloodhound, they picked up the slightest variance or disturbance on the ground. They led ambush teams to encampments where many of the guerrillas were killed as they slept. To blend in, white members of the ambush teams painted all their exposed skin black so as to not give away the unit’s type at a distance if spotted during the day.
All of these tactics paid off. During this time, 32 Battalion suffered minor losses; in contrast, by the end of the 1980s SWAPO was having to force unwilling villagers on gunpoint into its ranks. Enemy propaganda often called 32 Battalion “The Terrible Ones” for their brutal efficiency. The bullet-ridden corpses of SWAPO members served as poster children for this.
32 Battalion blossomed into masters of counterinsurgency. It still was able to answer the call one final time as a conventional force, when it ventured back into Angola in numbers to participate in the 1987/88 battle of Cuito Cuanavale. This was a time when another incursion was needed to stop one of FAPLA’s last attempts to destroy UNITA and deny the barren SWAPO’s use of staging areas.
The battle ended up raging for six months. It was the largest battle on the continent since World War II. The outcome was UNITA surviving, SWAPO losing its staging areas, and FAPLA suffering its greatest defeat. Once more, 32 Battalion added another streamer and bucket loads of medals to its record. As the decade ended, communism was in retreat all over Africa.
The 1990s saw 32 Battalion larger in size but less active due to Namibian declaring its independence in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsing in 1991. At that point, it seemed that nothing could tarnish 32’s accomplishments. That was until April 8, 1992. The day sealed the Battalion’s fate forever, by writing its epitaph in the blood of innocents.
In a town called Phola Park, 32 Battalion was deployed and ended up using live ammunition against several civilians. Images of the dead played all over television. South Africa, going through a touchy transition to the Mandela and African National Congress era, ordered a commission to investigate. The findings concluded that an atrocity had been perpetrated. Resultantly, the unit was disbanded on March 26, 1993. Its fantastic record is now forgotten and its members shunned, only praised and recalled by those who served within its ranks. The ranks one of the greatest fighting forces in the history of the African continent.
This article was written by Mike Perry and originally published in 2016.
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