The new Pro Patria Museum at the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria gets its name, not only from the medal awarded to all soldiers who did border duty during the Bush War, but from the Roman poet Horace in his Third Ode. “Dulce et decorum est, Pro Patria Mori.”
“It is sweet and fitting to die for ones country.”
The Unfinished Business of the Bush War.
The universal adage, No One is Left Behind, is often more an optimistic aspiration rather than an actual occurrence. Witness the hundreds of thousands of soldiers, from all sides, buried in cemeteries all over the world. These soldier’s remains were not repatriated to the lands of their birth, but were buried where they fell.
While this is very sad, they were at least given respectful and honorable funerals by their own comrades or at times by their enemies.
South Africa was fortunate that during our Bush War, our military leadership was insistent that all remains of the fallen were repatriated and given to the families for burial.
There were a few exceptions where our dead were not found due to aircraft crashes or other out-of-the-ordinary circumstances.
One such soldier is Andries (Skillie) Human.
Skillie was last seen alive as he jumped from the door of a Hercules C130 500 ft above the SWAPO camp at Cassinga in Angola. Due to a scaling error in the photo interpretation of the camp, the drop was bisected by the Culonga River and half the paratroopers in the attack companies landed on the camp side and half on the other side. This led to the attack group splitting up and only reuniting hours later after the attack on the camp had been completed. The battle was intense and hand-to-hand at times with the SWAPO soldiers well prepared and entrenched due to the paratroopers having lost the element of surprise because of the inaccurate drop.
SWAPO’s use of Soviet heavy anti-aircraft guns in the air and ground roles made the fighting quite lop-sided with the paratroopers only having hand-held weapons.
Entrenched SWAPO soldiers fought bravely from a system of trenches and bunkers that surrounded the camp. Due to very thick bush and ample warning given to the defenders, the approaches to the camp were very difficult. Instead of an enemy taken by surprise by a comparatively small force of paratroopers, the paratroopers had to contend with a fully armed and supplied force of cornered SWAPO who had no option but to fight it out till the end.
The battle raged on almost the whole day instead of being over within a few hours as predicted.
Once the heavy weapons had been silenced, the SWAPO defenders surrendered.
This however, was not the end of the battle. SADF helicopters had lifted half of the paratroopers out when a Cuban column of 20 armored vehicles approached Cassinga from Techamutete 20 kilometers south of the camp.
An anti-tank mine that the paratroopers had laid at the beginning of the battle proved to have been a wise precaution when it blew up the leading Soviet T52 tank.
This temporarily stopped the column, buying time for the helicopters to refuel and return to uplift the rest of the paratroopers.
While the armor had been temporarily delayed in their advance, a frantic request to the SA Airforce based in Ondangwa 250 km south produced a couple of Mirage jets that laid into the armor, destroying a few tanks and APCs with cannon fire before they had to head for home due to their limited fuel supply.
The paratroopers fought on using captured Russian RPGs and light machine guns to take out and harass the Cubans, the armored column still advanced off the road to attempt to wipe out the approximately 170 paratroopers awaiting their lifts home.
A lone SAAF Buccaneer aborted its mission to support another ground attack group fighting in southwest Angola just over the border in Angola and flew to Cassinga instead.
Armed with rockets, the Buccaneer attacked the armor until the rockets were used up.
Much of the armored column had been destroyed, but the vehicles kept advancing, firing on the remaining paratroopers waiting on their Landing Zones for the helicopters to extract them.
The Buccaneer pilot, now totally out of ammunition flew up an avenue of gum trees at below treetop height straight at the remaining tanks. This halted the advance and gave the helicopters time to return and uplift he relieved paratroopers.
Only when the troops returned to their bases in South West Africa was it found that Skillie Human was missing in action.
The tally sheet of the battle was four dead South African paratroopers, including Skillie Human Missing in Action. Six Hundred to a Thousand SWAPO combatants and 250 Cuban soldiers from the armored column.
Bringing Skillie Home
Only 40 years later did we find out that Skillie had landed in the river and drowned. His body was found by a local tribesman and buried in a shallow grave next to the river.
This information started a long and arduous quest to Bring Skillie Home. Launched by the Paratroopers of the Parabat Veteran Organization (PVO), a fund was set up to collect enough money to enable a team to go to Angola and search for Skillies’ grave, exhume the remains and bring them back to South Africa for a decent burial at the Voortrekker Monument alongside the Great Wall that commemorates all those that fell during the almost quarter century of Bush War.
The mission to bring Skillie home has been a long process bedeviled by administrative difficulties in dealing with four country’s red tape, the weather, Covid 19 and the raising of sufficient money to do the job.
With the invaluable assistance of a former MK soldier, we established good relations with both Angola and Namibia which helped enormously in building cordial relations with all the ex-enemies in the equation.
After helping to find what happened to an Angolan MPLA soldier who was missing in action since 1981 and also finding another MIA from the SWAPO force at Cassinga in 1978, we had cemented good relationships with all the countries involved.
We have finally received official approval from the President of Angola to proceed with the project and we hope to depart for Cassinga when the big rains have stopped.
We would like to thank the paratroopers from all over the world for their contribution to this project as well as those many South Africans, soldiers or civilians who have given of their time and money to make ‘No Man Left Behind’ a reality rather than an aspiration.*
Mike McWilliams Rfn. Ret.
Director PVO NPC.