At Thy Call We Did Not Falter is an infantry corporal’s account of Operations Hooper, Packer and Excite in 1988, the climax year of the 1966-1989 Border War between South Africa’s then-white government and the rest of the world. The title comes from the South African national anthem of the time, the Call of South Africa: “At thy call we shall not falter, Firm and steadfast we shall stand, At thy will to live or perish, Oh South Africa, dear land.” For most people these are merely pretty words, but for some of the 1987 national service intake it was to become grimly real. (The reviewer is also a veteran of this intake and served in northern Namibia from December 1987 to late April 1989.)
Hooper and Packer was the culmination of South African efforts to assist the Unita Angolan rebel movement maintain a strategic base area and involved the heaviest conventional fighting the country has engaged in since taking Florence in Italy in April 1945. Holt, a mechanised infantryman with 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, was among the unlucky few to become caught up in this fighting in late December 1987 and early 1988. Later that same year, he was part of Task Force X-Ray based on Ruacana in the west of northern Namibia and saw some of his comrades killed in a Cuban airstrike on the Calueque. The book contains some rare pictures of the damage and it is suffice to say the pilots were spot on, cratering the roadway across the dam, destroying a water pipeline and hitting a Buffel armoured personnel carrier, killing all 11 soldiers aboard.
There is a certain universitality about the experiences of returning soldiers. Thus we find Holt amused at the requirement that his mother sign a library card application form: “I found it deeply ironic that I was old enough to fight for my country and kill people, yet had to get my mom`s authorisation to borrow a library book!” He was still under 21 at the time. And: “Something else I became aware of was how many people, once they knew I`d been in Angola, asked me: ‘So, did you kill anyone?` should any of those curious people read this book, perhaps they will appreciate why that is the most inappropriate question to ask any returning serviceman.” And: “I suppose I had this romantic idea that South Africa would mark our return with some kind of red carpet reception. Instead, what I found was a total lack of appreciation for and understanding of what I had done – because the South African public had been so misinformed (kept in total darkness is more like it) about what had happened in Angola and how serious the … threat was at the time.” And: “The Calueque Dam incident had made the front page of all the major newspapers in South Africa, and my mom had kept them for me. For the first time, I felt people may start to appreciate what I`d been through, because it had become public knowledge. The reality, however, is that unless the event affects someone directly, it is forgotten soon after making the news.”
What were these events? Mind-numbing waits, often under enemy air or artillery bombardments, laborious convoy movements through the soft sand of eastern Angola, being cooped-up in the stifling heat of a Ratel fighting vehicle while MiGs circle above and reversing out of a previously-undiscovered minefield under enemy direct fire. “… as I reached up to close my hatch, I saw some [23mm] tracers flash directly above it, exactly where I had been standing only seconds before. It blew my mind to realise that someone was actually aiming at me with the sole intention of killing me. Welcome to Angola, have a nice day! We reversed out of there rather quickly… Geldenhuys, the driver, told me to have a look at his windscreen – there were bullet marks on it.”
This is certainly a book to read and keep. As the author puts it: “The Angolan war affected my life and the lives of many others in ways we have not even begun to fathom. It was never my intention to produce a historical account of the war; that has already been done. I wanted to write a first-hand account of what it was like to fight in the war, based on my personal experiences and thoughts, which I recorded in my diary.” In this Holt admirably succeeds.
At Thy Call We Did Not Falter