Book Review: The Covert War


The Covert War is Peter Stiff’s account of the “Operation Koevoet” counter-insurgency unit that operated in northern Namibia between 1979 and 1989. Now almost always reviled and described as notorious – or worse, Koevoet was in many ways an equal to Rhodesia‘s Selous Scouts.

Stiff, himself a former Rhodesian policeman has previously written about both – he authored Top Secret War on the Selous Scouts and Nine Days of War about the South African reaction to the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia’s (PLAN) April 1989 incursion from Angola. Koevoet’s successor, the Southwest African Police Counter-insurgency Unit (SWAPOL COIN) featured prominently in that account, and indeed this latest work draws heavily on the former for that period.

Koevoet was without doubt the most successful insurgent killer of that conflict, chalking up 3225 kills or captures in 1615 contacts. The about battalion-strength unit accomplished this feat at a cost of 160 killed and 949 wounded in the decade it operated in Ovambo, Kavango and the Kaokoland The Army, by comparison, fared poorly. Most soldiers serving in Sector 10, using conventional COIN tactics, techniques and procedures, never saw a PLAN insurgent during their three month stint there – and seldom managed to kill the few they may – almost accidentally – have seen. 101 Battalion, an Army Koevoet clone where the reviewer served for 18 months was the most successful Army unit south of the Angolan border while the famous – but now also often defamed 32 Battalion – was likely the “top scoring” unit in Angola.

Koevoet was made up of a dangerous combination of regular South African police, locally recruited “specials” and Casspir mine-protected armoured personnel carriers. As was the case with 101Bn`s Veghulpdiens (Combat Auxiliaries), many of them were former guerrillas who changed sides after capture – a better alternative than standing trial for whatever crimes the authorities could pin on them. Because these turncoats were intimately familiar with PLAN`s latest tactics, techniques and procedures, they were especially loathed by guerrillas in the field and have suffered the consequences since. Koevoet and 101Bn`s Kwanyama, Ndonga, Kwambi, Kavango, Herero and Himba-speakers were not only excellent trackers in own right – they could often identify individuals by their footprints alone – but they could question locals bout the movement, clothing and intentions of passers-by. Most of the war zone was rural, agrarian and communal, meaning everyone knew everyone else`s business – and were often willing to inform on strangers moving through.   

Much of Koevoet`s success was likely due to its throwing overboard of convention. Teams – four Casspirs and a Blesbok supply vehicle – were not normally restricted to within allocated boundaries but could range wherever information or experience suggested insurgents might be encountered. Tracks were then followed until contact was made, no matter ho long it took. Several guerrillas were followed for many days and hundreds of kilometres before they were run down. The Army was more inclined to observe boundaries and hand over the tracks when insurgents crossed lines on the map. The commander of the pursuit was the commander of the first team on the tracks – whether constable, captain or colonel. Team commanders in Koevoet were always the most experienced and proven available – merit and acceptance by the troops, not rank, mattered. Even at 101Bn the highest rank was in charge – even if inexperienced – and military protocol was observed. This sometimes made its Reaction Teams (Platoons) and companies less effective than they could have been…

The last part of Stiff`s book is a lament for what he considers the disgraceful abandonment of Koevoet`s specials to their fate under a SWAPO government by FW de Klerk – perhaps the fist of his many betrayals of those who believed in the National Party`s promises.

All told, regardless of what the reader thinks or believes of Koevoet, The Covert War is a book well worth having in the book shelf. It records the experience of one of the finest counter-guerrilla units the world has ever seen and provides many pointers to the future. As a bonus it is an interesting and arresting read.

Peter Stiff

The Covert War, Koevoet Operations 1979-1989