Many of the men who gathered in the Officer’s Mess at the Castle of Good Hope early in November wore a tie with a distinctive crow. They were soldiers who had fought under the command of Colonel Delville Linford in the legendary 31 Batallion some 40 years ago in the military campaign Operation Savannah.
Eavesdropping on the conversations it was clear that each man there had a story to tell, but they had come together to celebrate their collective story, and that of their erstwhile commanding officer, and they raised their glasses to honour his memory and to welcome the publication of As the Crow Flies: My Bushman Experience with 31 Battalion by Linford with Al J Venter.
Venter spoke about the challenges Linford faced and the context he had entered into. Brigadier Constand Viljoen had issued instructions that a base be established in the western Caprivi to accommodate, equip and train “Bushman soldiers” to help protect what was the South West African border against SWAPO. With the help of six national servicemen and 39 black troops, Linford established Camp Alpha. Combat Group Alpha participated in Operation Savannah from October 1975 to January 1976 after which the company was named 31 Battalion and operated in south-east Angola and Zambia.
“In the battle for the independence of Angola,” Venter said, “the Bushmen had been marshalled by the Portuguese to do their tracking and attacks. They were extremely efficient at killing the guards without guns. With the Portuguese Carnation Revolution and the independence of Angola, the country was bled dry. When the Portuguese left, the Bushmen were abandoned to their own devices. The South Africans entered the region and, realising their potential, recruited the Bushmen.”
Delville Linford was given staff to form 31 Battalion but had a very difficult time in the beginning. “The attitude of the Portuguese had been to ‘live and let live’. The Bushmen had a job to do, but no real discipline had been established. They could stand at attention and march, but none of the traditional military rigmarole was imposed on them. Also, their training was a means to kill. They could track and scout, but when it came to military conventions they did only the basics. When they came south and the South Africans accepted them, Delville was under orders to make a large number of people into soldiers. He had to marshal them into a military community.”
Venter said that under Linford’s instruction the 31 Battalion built schools, and attempted to turn the Bushmen into “civilised” people in that environment. “Delville built camps but had to marshal people. The trackers were being sent through for our own border war. However, they were not issued with guns, so, when they were sent out to track with a squad of South African troops they would go through, hot on the trail, then trail would ‘go missing’. This happened half a dozen times. Eventually Linford got together with the Bushman leaders to find out what was going on.
“They held an indaba. In his own language the Bushman leader said, ‘Do you think we’re stupid? If we lead you there, who is the first one to get shot? You won’t give us guns. We aren’t going to take you to them.’ Linford was then faced with the challenge of making these troops fully qualified to make a fire drill,” Venter recalled.
At that point Operation Savannah happened. “The battles they fought were quite remarkable. At Benguela the place crawling with MPLA. The Cubans were coming through all the time. They got through and took the airport. There were South African troops but also a lot of Bushmen. The Cubans had already smuggled men into the country and saw the South Africans as a problem. When Operation Savannah was over, we had suffered just a fraction of the casualties because of the way we had husbanded our resources with just a few thousand people,” he said.
“We didn’t get to gates of Luanda but we got a long way north.” Venter had been in Luanda while this was happening. He was working for Scope magazine at the time. He shared his harrowing stories of death threats and capture with a Le Monde journalist, the torture and his narrow escape thanks to Francois Mitterand.
Returning to the subject of As the Crow Flies, Venter said of the Bushmen, “There are so many facets to their story.” He summarised an exchange that stood out in his memory between a captain who had issued a command of dubious wisdom. It illustrated the sharpness of the Bushmen when they countered him, implying it was not a very clever move. “‘Are you trying to tell me I’m stupid?’ asked the captain. ‘No Sir, you’re the cleverest captain I know!’ said the Bushman. ‘So, what are you saying?’ asked the captain. The Bushman replied, ‘A very clever man doesn’t make the kind of decision you’ve just made.’”
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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:
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