Book review: Kloppies – The story of WO1 Jacob Schalk Kloppers HC MMM – a South African Recce Operator

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Anyone who has served as a South African recce will have known or heard of the legendary recce operator widely and affectionately known as “Kloppies”.

Jacob Schalk Kloppers served with the South African Defence Force (SADF) in the Bush War in Angola and South West Africa and his personal memoir, compiled by historian and author Peet Coetzee, is based on notes and recorded tapes provided by Kloppies before his death on 19 August 2016.

Born in December 1956 and raised on a cattle and tobacco farm near Brits in what was then the Transvaal, Kloppies, together with his two older brothers, helped their mother run the farm after the death of their father. He was not particularly interested nor proficient in schoolwork, but in high school he excelled in sport, particularly athletics, long distance running and rugby.

After matriculating, Kloppies was conscripted for military duty in January 1977, and was assigned to 3 South African Infantry Battalion in Potchefstroom. After basic training, he applied to be considered for the Recces and reported for pre-selection. The pre-selection, followed by the actual Recce selection and training cycle were tough, but as Kloppies was super fit and very determined, he passed. He thoroughly enjoyed the training and was proud to serve in the unit. Although he was dedicated to his career, he was also fun to be around as he was mischievous and a practical joker of note!

Coetzee’s book details the many anecdotes that marked his life, such as when an ex-Australian arrived at Fort Doppies and was surprised by the base’s tame pet lion Terry, whilst the new arrival was relieving himself at one of the base’s urinals. Another incident involved Kloppies catching a large shark while spear fishing off the Bluff in Durban. Kloppies was small in stature but athletic, and this led to some interesting rugby matches that often devolved into outright fights, as the diminutive Kloppies was often picked on by opposing players.

Coetzee’s book describes many clandestine Special Forces missions across South Africa’s borders that Kloppies and his colleagues took part in. Some were more successful than others, but all were life threatening. For example, in 1978, Recce operators were flown to what was then Rhodesia and were issued with Rhodesian camouflage uniforms and divided into teams. Their orders were to penetrate 70 km into Mozambique, crossing a minefield. They found a suitable spot to cache their extra equipment and then continued towards their target. Suddenly the enemy started firing on them. Kloppies realised to his horror that he had lost the pipe needed to fire his mortars. He dropped his kit and armed with only an AK-47, ran back through the enemy fire to find it, oblivious to his bleeding shrapnel wounds. He retrieved the pipe and also saw that two of his buddies were pinned down by enemy fire. Returning to his abandoned mortars, he cleaned out pockets of enemy troops and was instrumental in the safe retrieval of his buddies. From there they attacked and cleared a village being used as an enemy base. Kloppies fired a mortar from 150 metres away, that landed in the fire right in the centre of the village – no women or children were harmed, but many enemy cadres were eliminated. One South African was wounded during the skirmish and was carried to safety by his buddies. When questioned regarding why he had run back through enemy fire, Kloppies shrugged and sheepishly admitted that he had lost his mortar pipe and as it was needed, he had to go back and find it!

Kloppies was a gifted operator. He was a legend in recce circles because he was absolutely fearless. He was also hot headed, headstrong, funny, and impulsive. Like many recces, he could always make a plan in dire situations. The book covers the many missions and funny incidents that Kloppies was part of, but the mission that defines him is the one that earned him the Honorus Crux Medal for Bravery.

The well known “Operasie Kerslig” (Operation Candlelight) took place on 30 November 1981. The purpose was to destroy the oil storage tanks at the SONANGOL oil refinery north of Luanda, Angola. After meticulous planning and reconnaissance, the decision to go ahead was taken in absolute secrecy. Luanda would be approached by sea to avoid Soviet and Cuban detection. Top recce operators Jack Greeff and Sam Fourie conducted a final reconnoitre of the proposed landing zones and the route to the target was chosen the day before the proposed attack. Mines were sprayed silver, to blend in with the oil storage tanks that they would be attached to. The recces who would take part in the exercise were divided into several three-man teams. Kloppies and Piet (Vaatjie) van Zyl were in the team led by Captain AJP de Kock (Kokkie).

The SAS Protea would be the mothership for the mission and the teams were ferried to the Luanda area in strike craft. After a Bible reading and a prayer, the teams were transferred to Barracudas for the final approach, landing 3 km from the target. The last 60 to 80 metres before reaching the refinery’s security fence consisted of open ground and had to be traversed on hands and knees. Greeff cut an access hole in the fence, and the teams entered they refinery where they split up towards their targets.

While Kokkie kept watch, Vaatjie and Kloppies armed and attached mines to the first two oil storage tanks allocated to them. They were busy arming mines for attachment to the next two tanks when Vaatjie’s first mine exploded with an ear-splitting thud. Then Kloppies’ first mine also exploded. Something was seriously wrong! Kloppies calmly continued to arm his second mine, but it expelled a pin which struck him in the eye. However, both Kloppies and Vaatjie managed to attach their mines and returned to Kokkie, who, irritated that the amount of time allocated to attaching all the mines had expired, demanded: “Where the fuck were you?” Suddenly lights, vehicles and refinery staff were everywhere. Mines planted by the other teams were exploding and there was fire all around them. It was chaos!

Kokkie then decided to plant a mine on one of the huge pipes carrying oil from the tanks. Kloppies tried to dissuade him as their escape route could be compromised, but Kokkie was adamant. He climbed under the pipe to find a suitable spot and attached the charge. On his return, Kloppies and Vaatjie warned him that he had forgotten an essential step – he had not armed the mine. Kokkie removed the mine and placed it on his lap to arm it. He pulled out the pin and the mine exploded right in his hands. Kloppies and Vaatjie were approximately 3 meters from the blast and both were deafened by the blast and severely injured by shrapnel. Kloppies was on fire and covered with blood and flying body parts. He managed to douse most of the flames with one hand (the other was injured and useless) and found Vaatjie. He knew that Kokkie was dead. He told Vaatjie that he was going for help and promised that he would return for him. Kloppies, although badly injured, found his way to the rest of the teams waiting outside the security fence. He then led a rescue team all the way back to Vaatjie to extract him. They found him crawling along. Kloppies had lost his remaining mine, and was upset because he wanted to plant it before departing in honour of Kokkie.

In 1998 Kloppies left the service of what had by then become the South African National Defence Force. He worked for a private company for several years, locating, de-activating and destroying landmines in Mozambique dating from the time of the Bush War. On 27 March 2002 a mine that he was de-activating exploded in his face, leaving him blind and partly deaf.

He later became a motivational speaker. Kloppies started taping the stories of his life experiences, which after his death, together with input received from several friends and colleagues, eventually resulted in this book. Although it needs to taken in historical context, the book is an entertaining read that will be enjoyed by anyone with a sense of adventure or who served in the South African Defence Force.

Kloppies is also available in Afrikaans, titled “Kloppies: die verhaal van ‘n Recce Operateur” (ISBN: ISBN 9780620920568)

360 pages including photos

Published by War Books in 2021

www.warbooks.co.za