A National Serviceman's Border War
Author: Steven Webb
296pp; 242 X 168mm, 16 pages colour illustrations, map
Trade paperback; ISBN 978-1-91985-429-8
As a recent British immigrant Steven Webb was exempt from the compulsory two-year call-up for National Service that all white South African males faced when they turned 18. Despite this he volunteered for National Service in July 1984 and then volunteered to serve in the South African Medical Service. Following basic training he was posted to SAMS Combat Medical Operation Company (Ops Company) for six months of advanced specialist training. In the lecture room and later in civilian hospitals he learned the arts of stabilising patients, stopping bleeding, maintaining airways, suturing wounds, administering drips and performing minor lifesaving medical procedures.
On 1 March 1985 he was sent to SWA/Namibia, where he saw service in
Angolauntil the SADF withdrew its troops a month later. From there he was posted to 53-Battalion’s company base at Etale. It was garrisoned by Owambo troops of the SWATF’s 101-Battalion and white National Servicemen.
He writes about border patrols conducted on foot and in Buffel mine protected fighting vehicles, seeking out SWAPO’s armed guerrillas who had infiltrated from
and the constant anticipation of ambush by an elusive foe. He tells of the stabilisation and casevac of casualties by helicopter. Angola
In truth white National Service units achieved little success in the border war against an underrated enemy. As one senior officer put it: ‘In my view SWAPO, despite inferior weaponry, was ahead of us in most respects. We took a boy who had just matriculated, gave him a gun, two or three months of basic training — and threw him into the middle of a country that he didn’t know, people he didn’t understand and an enemy he had never seen. No wonder he didn’t do very well. Nevertheless, the young conscripts bore a terrible load, for which they received little gratitude.’
So this is not the story of elite and glamorous fighting units like the Reconnaissance Commandos, Koevoet, 32-Battalion, or the Parachute Battalions and the successes they achieved, but of young, white, conscripted National Serviceman, often straight from school, who were thrown headfirst into a guerrilla war in a country outside of South Africa and far from home.
Many National Servicemen, including 37 Ops Medics, died fighting in the Border War. Fifteen were awarded the Honoris Crux (two of the silver grade) for bravery — four posthumously.
Important note: Book includes the SADF’s Roll of Honour which lists almost 2,500 of its honoured dead killed on active service and the complete roll of the SADF’s Honoris Crux awards for bravery — both published for the first time.
Ops Medic: A National Serviceman’s Border War is Steven Webb’s account of his time in the SA Medical Service (SAMS) from July 1984 to July 1986.
Webb, a Briton, volunteered for national service in the SADF and chose to serve in the SAMS, usually a ‘cushy number’. He then volunteered for the Combat Medical Operational Company and after six months of further training graduated as an ‘Ops Medic’ and posted to Sector 10 in the Operational Area. There he was posted to Etale, a company base halfway between Ondangwa, home to an air force base of the same name, and the Angolan border. Etale was garrisoned by troops of the then SWA Territorial Force’s 101 Battalion.
The border war lasted from 1966 to 1989 but to date very little has been written about the national service experience of many thousands of young men and even less about the ‘medics’. The SAMS features in nearly every book written on the border war but always hovers in the background. Ops Medic breaks new ground, giving SAMS centre stage. Ops Medics enjoyed an enviable reputation for toughness ¾ their training was severe ¾ and competence in the medical field.
Webb’s war was more routine than action. His days were spent alternating between base and patrol, with the latter preferred as it took him away from Permanent Force oversight. The patrols with 101 Bn were mostly uneventful, barring a few minor contacts and lively interactions with the local population.
Webb missed the ‘big’ operations of 1983-84 and 1987-89. That was his good fortune. Other national servicemen did not and some paid the full price with their young lives, Some were scarred physically and otherwise. Happily only a small number of servicemen ever saw heavy action, but those that did, often saw war at its ugliest. Many of them were ops medics. In October 1987, for example, two ops medics attached to 101 Bn during Operation Firewood won the Honoris Crux (then the highest decoration for valour) for fighting off the enemy while saving wounded infantry while under fire. The battle itself, at Indungo, far to the north of the Namibian border has seldom been written about and never in great detail, Yet it marked the rare occasion when the SADF faced off Umkhonto we Sizwe. At Indungo the enemy was a Cuban tank and artillery element with MK motorised infantry. From the telling, both sides gave a very good account of themselves.
Webb records that 37 Ops Medics died in combat during the Border War and 13 were decorated with the Honoris Crux The 101 Bn duo deservedly received the HC in silver. Three of the 15 medals were presented posthumously.
Ops Medic is a satisfying and nostalgic read for every ex-NSM and anyone who wants to know how it was. Webb does not indulge in embellishment and tall tales. For that as an ex-101 Bn serviceman (1987-89) I thank him.
African Armed Forces Journal: November 1988
Steven Webb was a volunteer (he had been exempted) who nevertheless joined the SA Medical Service – now SAMHS – and completed two tours of border duty as an ops medic.
His understated descriptive style only heightens the impact of his story, with the inevitable absurdities among the boredom, drama and occasional tragedy. Animal ‘walk-on parts’ include a drunken meerkat and a sharp-toothed genet.
Useful pointers for the uninitiated include don’t excavate your nose while travelling at speed, in convoy, along a possibly landmined, definitely bumpy, sand road. The resulting self-inflicted trauma can end up filling your staaldak with about as much blood as is left in your body.
Bonus features: the first complete SADF Roll of Honour for the border war years, plus a first full listing of Honoris Crux winners.
James Mitchell – The Star
I have just finished reading the book Ops medic and its quite good. (Far better than an Unpopular War). What really impressed me though was the Roll of Honour at the back and the write up by Peter Stiff .At last someone has published the names of the men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, some of whom I recognized. Off the top of my head I am sure Lt R W Glynn(a pilot ) and Cmdt. J C du Randt (a forward artillery observer) were shot down in a Bosbok in Angola during an op (is that not classed as killed in action?). I definitely would really appreciate a book with a little write up on each individual soldier who died in combat - I think more so than a name on a wall, it would imortalize a lot of forgotten men and maybe give closure or dignity to their loved ones. I dont know about its profitability or the logistics involved but that would definitely be a private memorial to thousands of families. Unlike' an Unpopular War' this will be the stories of the dead, and dead men don't lie. Thanks for listening, I was a gunner and later an 81 mortarist in a Ratel with 61 Mech and was involved with Ops moduler 1987. For some unknown reason I kept a diary of my three months in Angola along with a load of photos and other bits and pieces. One day I have promised myself to rewrite it so my kids can read it and understand what happened there.
What a terrific product and my warmest congratulations to you all on what I consider, to be a fabulous addition to the growing book collection of our stories. As I said in an earlier mail, your thoughtfulness in including the Roll of Honor is deeply appreciated for those of us who served and I hope it makes new readers reflect on the sacrifice those young men made. I often wonder if the families who lost their sons and fathers felt special when they received their TV set and the little troopie statue....!?? ... I would like to say here that I am deeply honored that my painting has been used for this publication. I have many, many pieces published and used in various ways all around the globe, but this one is for me, the most personal.
Mark Raats - Australia