The black smoke from the fires hung thick over the refugee camp as members of the SA Navy marines secured the area against rebels. The day had started with a beach landing at sunrise and the maritime soldiers were now giving protection to fellow Navy members providing first aid and humanitarian assistance to the local population.
The local villagers in Southern Floe had been held captive by a group of belligerent armed Bungu soldiers. With no access to food and water, the basic infrastructure had collapsed and women were being assaulted and raped by the rebels. Acting under the authority of the African Union, the South African forces were determined to intervene.
The first item after securing the area was to assist the local mayor who had to deal with protesting locals. Thereafter, with no indication of exactly how many were dead or injured, the forces has to help the villagers whilst confronting infiltrating rebels, snipers and accusations of rape from those they were meant to be helping.
This was the scenario played out at the West Yard of Naval Base Simon’s Town and the nearby beach on Monday as members of the SA Navy’s Maritime Reaction Squadron (MRS) and SAS Drakensburg partook in the DISTEX humanitarian and disaster relief exercise during Exercise Red Lion.
Although the Valour class frigate SAS Spioenkop (F147) and the mine countermeasures vessels SAS Umhloti (M1212) were anchored in False Bay in close proximity to SAS Drakensberg (A301), the Navy’s sole fleet replenishment ship, it was the latter that acted as lead ship for this evolution.
Coordinated and overseen by the Operational Sea Training (OST) Team, a full DISTEX exercise is not something that the Navy practices very often. Whilst the MRS is well versed in anti-piracy, boat boarding and conventional military sea- and land-based activities, assisting a civilian population in distress is another matter entirely.
Not only had the naval members to assist the local authorities in quelling civil unrest, but they also had to provide first aid, firefighting, electrical distribution and food after overcoming physical obstacles in entering the refugee camp, whilst simultaneously coming under fire from infiltrating rebels. Of course, having the local media constantly demanding information and trying to interview the protestors and captured rebels did not help either!
To add authenticity, the local ‘Mayor’ was taken by boat to the Drakensberg where she was afforded due respect and briefed on the current state of the humanitarian mission by the Officer Commanding, Captain Lotto Mabula.
Exercise Red Lion is the naval component of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) force preparation and combat readiness Exercise Ndlovu. Red Lion has and will still see the Navy rehearse all spectra of maritime conflict, three dimensional warfare, constabulary and benign operations before it wraps up on July 29.
Last week, Captain Michael Boucher, task group commander for Red Lion, told defenceWeb that he was satisfied with the exercise so far. “At the beginning of Red Lion 2016 we reviewed the previous exercise to learn from mistakes and will take note of this year’s exercise with a view to minimising errors and mistakes the next time around,” he said.
Boucher said Red Lion up to now had seen “a lot of tactical staff work” with officers taking on other roles to gain maximum experience.
Such was the case with the DISTEX, as it was evident that certain actions could have been performed differently. However, the advantages of the exercise will be of tremendous benefit to those involved and experience gained will be put to good use.