Bringing the Border War back to life

Striking Inside Angola with 32 Battalion

by Marius Scheepers

30 Degrees South, R185

Pretoria lawyer Marius Scheepers was a signaller for the formidable 32 Battalion when it was based inside Angola during 1983. Almost 20 years later, he has put pen to paper to describe his experiences as a member of the unit – a feat that may not have been possible had several documents referred to in his detailed account of his time there not been declassified.

Because Scheepers was a signals officer he was privy to all the major communications and command decisions taken to neutralise Swapo bases at the time.

The author rightly states in his introduction that the Angolan bush war fascinates many people. His book provides his and other witness accounts of the battles and life in camps inside Angola while young South African men were completing their national service. In his case, he highlights, it was with “arguably one of the most formidable battle units that ever existed in the history of the South African Defence Force: 32 Battalion”.

While Scheepers claims the book is not aimed at giving a comprehensive account of all the unit’s military actions during the period he served with it – for 13 months in 1982 and 1983 – it is an unusually detailed account of a number of daily events and operations.

Given the number of books that have been written by former South African soldiers, Scheepers’s account is interesting in that despite being raised in a military family, he had decided to join the former Defence Force only after a failed rocket attack by Umkhonto we Sizwe from Laudium on Voortrekkerhoogte (Thaba Tshwane). Two of the rockets exploded at his high school.

After undergoing intensive basic and officer’s training at the Army Gymnasium in Heidelberg, he was promoted to second lieutenant in the Signal Corps just before being shipped off to the then South West African (Namibian) border with Angola and assigned to 32 Battalion.

While most of the accounts are extremely detailed, others are not. There is great detail about Operations Snoek and Dolfyn, as well as a look at future operations, including Askari and the controversial 1987/88 battles at Cuito Cuanavale. I would have wanted to know more about the Unidentified Flying Object that unit members had spotted at their Angolan base instead of the fleeting mention of the event.

One of the most interesting stories is that of Lance Corporal Mario Oliveira who survived an M60 grenade attack. Angolan forces had fired rockets at 32 Battalion members stationed in the Mupa area of Angola in 1983. One of the grenades had lodged in Oliveira’s chest, only millimetres from his ribs. After being airlifted to Ongiva and then Oshakati, doctors proclaimed that if the grenade had touched his ribs it would have exploded.

It is an interesting account of South Africa’s involvement in Angola given that it is from the perspective of a signaller, and not a foot soldier or commander. But, it will be a difficult read for those not interested in detailed accounts of life in, and battles by, the military. – Eleanor Momberg