THE AIRFORCE - THE BORDER WAR
In early 1966 SWAPO insurgents were based in Zambia. The first incursion into SWA occurred in September 1965, the second in March 1966. The first major clash between a unit of the South African Police, supported by SAAF helicopters, and SWAPO occurred on 26 August 1966. And so began the 23 year long 'Border War'.
Late in 1966 Unita entered the struggle in Eastern Angola against Portugal, who were then fighting both the MPLA and FNLA in northern Angola. SAAF helicopters were sent to support the Portuguese against Unita in 1967. In May 1968 1 Air Component was established at Rundu to coordinate the operation. The helicopter crews, flying the Allouette III, bore the brunt of the increased activity. Their main role was to back-up SWA Police Counter Insurgency unit ('Koevoet') tracker teams. They operated in pairs, ranging ahead looking for insurgents, for the tracker teams, maintaining separation from the other Allouettes, talking on the radio and watching for ground fire. Pumas were also used to transport troops for fire force assignments.
Although not in the spotlight as much as their chopper brothers, the crews of the light aircraft flew really difficult missions in the bush and were never lacking in spirit. The tandem seat Bosbok was used as a general visual recce as well as for seven hour night flare dropping sorties to disturb the sleep of SWAPO. The Bosbok pilots stayed at tree top height and when flying along a road they would fly between the trees. The South African built Kudu was used as a light transport, while the Cessna 185 was employed in the Skyshout role.
Angola achieved independence on 11 November 1975 and by 29 February 1976 all the Portuguese forces had withdrawn. Cuban forces began to move into Angola in April 1975 and South Africa faced the prospect of communist state bordering SWA. South Africa, with the covert assistance of the CIA, began assisting Unita and the FNLA.
South Africa entered Angola during Operation Savannah and within thirty three days had covered 3 159 km, stopping within artillery range of Luanda, but was forced to withdraw when covert Western support was withdrawn. Helicopters, light aircraft and transports were used, while jets flew photo reconnaissance missions. Wasp helicopters, operating from frigates, evacuated South African troops north of Luanda. Unita was supported to the extent of ensuring that SWAPO did not establish springboards in southern Angola.
The jet squadrons first action since Korea occurred on 4 May 1978 at Cassinga in Angola. Canberras of 12 Squadron and the Buccaneers of 24 Squadron softened the target before parabats were dropped from C-130's and Transalls. When reinforcements threatened the SA forces from the south, 2 Squadron Mirage III's stopped the two dozen armoured cars before the Buccaneers destroyed the T-34 tanks that were threatening the helicopters.
Impalas were permanently deployed to provide a tactical recce and ground attack capability. Whenever there was major operation, Mirage F1 AZ's were brought in for ground attack and F1 CZ's and Mirage III CZ's for air superiority. Mirage III RZ's and Canberras were used for reconnaissance. Buccaneers were only used for special roles, such using laser guided weapons.
In September 1985, Impalas based at Rundu engaged Mi-25 and Mi-17 helicopters on two separate days, destroying six helicopters in all. Maj. Johan Rankin, flying 3 Squadron Mirage F1 CZ's, holds the unique distinction of shooting down the only two MiG -21's that were downed in the Bush War, on 6 November 1981 and 5 October 1982. The large transport crews showed exceptional skill and bravery by landing in impossibly small strips, hacked out of the bush, in the pitch black of an African night. The aircraft would land, off-load their cargo and take-off, all before the first rays of light appeared.
SAAF Mirage F1CZ and Angolan MiG-21 meet at AFB Swartkop
From the late 1970's the SAAF participated in almost all military operations across SA borders into Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique. It was inevitable that South Africa would become involved in the conflict between Unita and MPLA forces assisted by Cuba, which by 1987 were equipped with the latest Soviet air defence weapons.
With the UN arms embargo preventing the Air Force from acquiring more modern combat aircraft, Angolan airspace was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to be and the use of the SAAF was restricted to operations which posed the least risk of losses. Following operations Modular and Hooper in 1987/88, negotiations finally paved the way for peace in SWA/Namibia. The final withdrawal of SA troops f rom Cuito Cuanavale was completed on 30 August 1988 and in 1989 the SAAF withdrew from Namibia.