I read books for knowledge or entertainment. Most offer one or the other, many neither. Brig Gen (Retd) Dick Lord’s From Fledgling to Eagle, published in October, is the exception that offers both.
From Fledgling to Eagle tells the story of the South African Air Force (SAAF) in battle from the first days to the last of the Border War. The SAAF carried police and paratroopers to Ongulumbashe near Ruacana on 26 August 1966 to initiate Operation Blouwildebees and a 23 year counterinsurgency campaign and semi conventional war. The Air Force was among the last to pull back from Namibia in the last days of the South African administration.
Lord, a fighter pilot, served in the “Operational Area” of Namibia and Angola both in that capacity and as senior air officer at the joint “Sector 10” headquarters in Oshakati. As such he is well qualified to tell this story – and a fine tale it makes.
It is the best all-round account of the Border War the reviewer has yet had the pleasure to read, stretching as it does from Blouwildebees to Merlyn in April-May 1989. It is an account of the strategic, operational and tactical use and abuse of airpower in support of ground forces and the higher political aim, for “it must be appreciated that in warfare political considerations are a fact of life”.
With the SAAF acting in close support of the Army and police, Lord has made sure to include their doings as well. Indeed, if one is to recommend read just one book of the Border War to give the interested reader insight into that bygone conflict, From Fledgling to Eagle is it.
And it gets better. Lord has included good quality maps, excellent technical drawings of air tactics and a raft of very useful annexures. To be sure, many were previously published in Vlamgat, his work on the Mirage F1 in SAAF service, but they will no doubt be useful to all who have not read that other fine book.
New and absolutely invaluable is Lord`s complete list of operations, including those flown in support of the Rhodesian Security Forces pre-1980s. To this reviewer`s knowledge this is the first such list in the public domain.
From Fledgling to Eagle is in one word, impressive. It is interesting that it took an airman to write the best-to-date comprehensive account of the Border War: the same appears to be the case regarding the Rhodesian Bush War, on which Group Captain (Retd) Peter Petter-Bowyer has probably written the definitive account, Winds of Destruction. It is quite a coup for 300 South Publishers that they have both authors on their book.
There are many books on aspects or the whole of the Border War, including Helmoed-Römer Heitman and Willem Streenkamp`s accounts. There is Col Jan Breytenbach and Sergeant Major Piet Nortje`s `s excellent histories of 32Bn and Peter Stiff`s fine work on the “Nine Day War (Operation Merlyn) and the police`s Operation “Koevoet”. All these books are valuable in their own right. But no other author has – in this reviewer`s opinion – yet captured the essence of that war as well as Lord, an honorary 32Bn member.
One aspect most other books lack is the global view From Fledgling to Eagle offers. Another is that few offer any criticism. In this regard Petter-Bowyer excelled and one can learn no end of lessons from Winds of Destruction. Ditto From Fledgling to Eagle
Lord says he was driven to write the book because although the “fighters on both sides, including the SAAF, gave a collective sigh of relief and returned to more peaceful and humanitarian activities” at the war`s end, the politicians and some other busy-bodies have not. “Posturing, gesturing and laying claim upon absurd claim became the order of the day.”
Shortly after publication, the investigative programme of one of the South Africa`s national television network`s, channels, Special Assignment, showed a revisit of some South Africans to the Cuito Cuanavale battlefields (Operations Hooper and Packer). Providing commentary was retired Chief of the SA Defence Force Gen Jannie Geldenhuys and a former uMkhonto we Sizwe combatant (who was not at Cuito Cuanavale at the time). Geldenhuys – who has published a book on the Border War as well, insisted his forces gave the enemy no end of a beating. The MK cadre adamantly asserted the opposite.
It was quite obvious they were describing separate battles: Geldenhuys was describing the Lomba River battles of 1987 (Operation Moduler) and the cadre the Cuito battles of 1988. Lord offers his view: Moduler was an undoubted success, the Angolan-Cuban advance to Mavinga and UNITA headquarters at Jamba was stopped. “It was at this juncture that adrenaline replaced reason. The aim of the operation changed and orders were issued, contrary to advice from SAAF planners, to harass the enemy during their retreat (from the Lomba to the Cuito River).
“The SAAF`s objections to the plan [to clear the Angolan and Cuban force from the east bank of the Cuito] were based on geography and physical science, not a reluctance to fight. … With the battle arena shifting to the Chambinga high ground immediately east of the Cuito River, the aerial battle shifted completely in the enemy`s favour. … The situation was aptly described by one SAAF pilot as being ‘akin to playing with a lion`s testicles`. The situation around the Chambinga high ground reached a stalemate. The aim, as laid down by the SADF for Hooper, had not been achieved …” The same can be said for Packer.
Tactical stalemate and geopolitical change (the end of the Cold War) led to negotiations and talks led to peace – and nonracial democracy in South Africa. Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz described war as the continuation of politics by other means. The Border War, as an insurgency, certainly was. Clausewitz believed war was the dynamic interaction of two opposing human wills, where one or both parties were attempting to oppose its will on the other. In this case the South West African People`s Organisation (SWAPO) willed South Africa to leave. The South Africans willed to stay and maintain a racist status quo.
Twenty-three years is a long time and allowed for education and reflection on the respective wills. In the end South Africa`s political leadership – and the majority of the white minority – came to see that holding onto Apartheid and South West Africa was neither reasonable nor worth the cost. This outcome suited everyone except a few hotheads who would have preferred to impose their idea of freedom through the barrel of a gun and who through distance from the sound of the guns have never learned that dulce bellum inexpertis (loosely: war is sweet to the inexperienced). It is time shut up the blood thirsty.
From Fledgling to Eagle
30 Degrees South Publishers