Book review: Recce: Small Team Missions Behind Enemy Lines


Professional soldier Koos Stadler has written a remarkable book chronicling his experiences as a special forces small reconnaissance team member operating behind enemy lines during the Border War period in Angola, South West Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Stadler’s account is a worthy read not just because it is an entertaining and well written story but because it gives a well-balanced account of the failures as well as successes that reconnaissance ‘operators’ had to endure, as well as the tough psychological as well as physical tolls such missions would take on them.

Far too often Border War soldiers exaggerate their experiences but Stadler remains steadfastly down to earth and pragmatic in his account. “Despite the Honoris Crux on my chest and a whole stack of certificates and commendations, I have been the antithesis of the Special Forces hero. I have been scared – to death. I have had to run away from life-threatening situations more times than I can remember, and certainly more than I would care to acknowledge…But, with God’s grace, I have never shown my fear, and have always crawled back, often in a literal sense, to complete my mission,” he writes.

The book starts with an account of Stadler’s childhood in the 1970s and how his experiences of hunting game, running long distance marathons and camping in the Kalahari wilderness would later serve him well in the reconnaissance business. When he was conscripted in 1978 Stadler felt his calling to be a professional soldier, to “rise above the normal ill-discipline, no-care attitude and incompetence of the average conscript.”

Stadler then spent three years serving with the reconnaissance wing of 31 Battalion (a Bushman unit in the Caprivi), after completing recce wing selection, “the toughest experience of my life so far.”
“During those three years I spent most of my time on tactical reconnaissance emission behind enemy lines in the southern parts of Zambia and Angola, patrolling for enemy presence and stalking guerrilla bases, honing my skills until they became second nature. Then I did Special Forces selection and fulfilled a lifelong dream: to become part of this elite group.”

Only some 6% of recruits became qualified special forces operators but it was not just physical strength and stamina that made the cut (small teams operators would routinely carry 100 kg packs into the field). Psychological strength was essential as well, as the loneliness, boredom, stress and fear worked on the mind of the operator – things which Stadler had to learn to overcome. He would often prepare himself by going for weeklong solo hikes in the wilderness and exhaustively rehearse missions to keep the stress and fear under control. Nevertheless, like many other operators the lifestyle of going out into enemy territory for weeks and months at a time sometimes took its toll, both physically and mentally.

When he achieved his goal of joining 5 Reconnaissance Regiment, Stadler took part in numerous combat missions in several African countries, including Angola and South West Africa (Namibia), and was also involved in an abortive plot to kill ANC leaders in Tanzania. In Zimbabwe, he took part in Operation Caudad that conducted pre-emptive strikes against ANC facilities there.

Some of the highlights he details in his book include shooting down a Russian cargo aircraft with captured Soviet air-to-air missiles and blowing up trains with ingenious mines that would only detonate under the engine carriage.

Stadler is not shy to point out that a lot of the highly secretive missions did not work out, from political, logistical and other reasons. For instance, attempts were made to destroy Angolan MiGs at their air bases but this proved a challenging task, as he describes in the book.

As Stadler advanced through the ranks and gained more experience, he helped develop the concept of smaller and smaller teams, which went from eight down to two, and he contributed a lot to small teams tactics and doctrine. However, he also details the larger operations he took part in and the assistance South African forces gave to supporting the friends of its enemies (primarily UNITA).

But overall this engrossing book is not just about the bigger operational picture and weapons and tactics: it is about being down there in the bush, far into hostile territory.
“For many years of my adult life I lived in a small world, a world where two people operated in a hostile environment that in a split second could erupt in violence – a world of perpetual vigilance. Sometimes we were hundreds of kilometres into enemy territory, miles away from the comforts of suburban life and the reassuring presence of other people. It was a world…filled with nagging fear and uncertainty, with hunger and thirst,” Stadler writes.
“Then there was the silence. For long stretches of time I would work in absolute quiet, while communication with my single team member was limited to hand signals or the occasional whisper. This was the world of the specialist reconnaissance teams, or Small Teams.”
352 pages

Publisher: Tafelberg

Publication date: 2015

Recommended retail price: R225