Book review: Ops Medic

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Ops Medic: A National Serviceman’s Border War is Steven Webb’s account of his time in the SA Medical Service (SAMS) from July 1984 to July 1986.
Webb, a Briton, volunteered for national service in the SA Defence Force and chose to serve it in the SAMS, usually a “cushy number”. He then volunteered for the Combat Medical Operational Company and after six months of further training graduated as an “ops medic” and posted to Sector 10 in the Operational Area.

There he was posted to Etale, a company base roughly halfway between Ondangwa, home to an air force base of the same name and the Angolan border. At the time Etale was garrisoned by troops from the then-Southwest African Territory Force`s 101 Battalion.

The Border War lasted from 1966 to 1989 but to date very little has been written about the national service experience of many thousands of young men and even less about the “medics”.
The SAMS features in nearly every book written on the border war but always hovers in the background. Ops Medic breaks new ground, giving the SAMS centre stage. Ops Medics enjoyed an enviable reputation for toughness – their training was severe – and competence in the medical field.
Webb`s war was more routine than action. His days were spent alternating between base and patrol, with the latter preferred as it took him away from Permanent Force oversight, The patrols – with 101Bn – were mostly uneventful, barring a few minor contacts and lively interactions with the local population.
Base routine consisted of morning sick call, afternoon equipment checks and long periods of reading and sleeping, with the odd drinking session thrown in. Tall talk around braaivleis fires aside, this was largely the border experience of the national service generation.
If memory serves 1985 and 1986 was largely quiet in Sector 10. The major operation recorded in Ops Medic, in which Webb was only peripherally involved, was “Boswilger”, involving 32Bn, 101Bn, 53Bn and some others.
Webb missed the “big” operations of 1983-4 and 1987-9. That was his good fortune. Other national servicemen did not and some paid the full price with their young lives. Some were scarred physically and otherwise. Happily only a small number of servicemen ever saw heavy action but those who did, often saw war at its ugliest.
Many of them were ops medics. In October 1987, for example, two ops medics attached to 101Bn during Operation Firewood won the Honoris Crux (then the highest decoration for valour) for fighting off the enemy while saving wounded infantry under fire. The battle itself, at Indungo, far to the north of the Namibian border has seldom been written about and never in any great detail. Yet it marked the rare occasion the SADF faced off uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK). At Indungo the enemy was a Cuban tank and artillery element with MK motorised infantry. From the telling, both sides gave a very good account of themselves.
Webb records that 37 ops medics died in combat during the Border War and 13 were decorated with the Honoris Crux (HC) in Bronze. The 101Bn duo deservedly received the HC in Silver. Three of the 15 medals were presented posthumously.    
Ops Medic is a satisfying and nostalgic read for every ex-NSM and anyone who wants to know how it was. Webb does not indulge in embellishment and tall tale. For that, as an ex 101Bn NSM (1987-9) I thank him.   
               
The reviewer also hopes to read more accounts of this nature, both on the contribution of the SAMS to the SADF war effort – and about 101Bn.
Steven Webb
Ops Medic: A National Serviceman`s Border War
Galago
2008