After two straight days of almost nonstop rain about 225 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers and U.S. Light Armoured Reconnaissance (LAR) marines wait to begin a company-sized assault on a barren ridge populated by imaginary enemy troops and their pill boxes.
It’s about noon, three hours past when the assault was supposed to begin, and a handful of U.S. and SANDF vehicles have gotten stuck in the mud directly on the planned assault route. July is South Africa’s coldest month of the year and the rain is yet again falling sideways in the heavy winds.
Exercise Shared Accord 2011, a bi-lateral military training and civil assistance mission held annually throughout Africa, has brought the two forces together.
The marines huddle together in the scant shelter near their light amphibious vehicles (LAV-25s) while the South Africans, water dripping off their helmets and just-cleaned rifles, begin to sing: “We are brothers. We are here for each other. When times are hard, we stay together.”
They sing this refrain in four rotating tribal languages as the soldiers are the product of a nation with 11 official languages, only one of which is English.
“They are boosting their morale,” explained South African infantry Lance Corporal Nelson Charl, a section leader. “When it’s cold, when it’s wet, you can sing and dance and maybe feel a little warmer.”
By late afternoon the vehicles were free and the dry-fire practice assault begins. Four of E Company, 4th LAR’s LAV-25s lead the charge along a pre-planned route, training their cannons at the ridgeline, but only radioing back shots and impacts.
LAR scouts have to pick a path with ample rocks and shrubs, enough to support the LAV’s massive frame, explained Major Randall Parker, E Company’s commander.
“When we go over mud our 14 tons is gonna sink us down,” he said, adding that flattened root structures can act like “snow shoes” for the vehicles.
The S.A. infantry follow on line behind the vehicles down a two-kilometre stretch of hillside. They aim their unloaded weapons at the opposing hill before making the long hike back up to where they started. When they get there, they turn around and prepare for a live fire assault.
Breathless and sweating under their warming layers, they begin to sing:
“Nobody told me the war wouldn’t be easy.” Back up singers join in, repeating “nobody, nobody” as a bass line.
Before they can begin, however, an S.A. fire truck gets stuck in the same mud that the first U.S. and S.A. vehicles had just been freed from and a second fire truck, sensing a comrade in peril, attempts a rescue and gets stuck as well.
A half-hour later the S.A. and U.S. forces are back on line.
“According to our doctrine as mobile infantry, we don’t use LAVs with movement. So, this is actually quite new to us,” said S.A. Major Denzil Sampson.
Real U.S. sniper fire and mortars signal the start of the live-fire attack as the ridgeline erupts in smoke and fire.
The S.A. follow behind the LAV-25s, which pound the ridge with cannon and machine gun fire, until they are within the effective range of their rifles and RPGs.
“Firing positions!” call out the S.A. company’s section leaders, and the line is singing yet again: small arms rifles pop and rattle while the medium machine guns boom. Every so often the whoosh and thump of an RPG launch and explosion echo from the company’s flanks.
The S.A. fire and move in 9-man sticks just as they’ve practiced over the past few days in smaller numbers. Section leaders scream and run from soldier to soldier coordinating the line ever forward until, barrels smoking in the damp afternoon, they reach the opposing ridgeline.
“This is our daily bread,” said Charl in between labored breaths as he hiked back up the hill with his section. “All we need is ammunition and we go.”
Later that night the marines and soldiers practice a similar assault under the cover of darkness. Throughout the next week a new company of S.A. soldiers and marines will start the entire training cycle over again before the exercise concludes at the end of the month.
This year’s evolution represents the first joint US-South African military exercise of significant size held in more than a decade and the largest to date. “We’re making a bit of history here,” South African Navy Rear Admiral Hanno Teuteberg, commander of Exercise Shared Accord, told the American and South African troops.
Approximately 700 US service members, composed mainly of members of the Marine Corps Reserve along with a number of US Army National Guard and Reserve soldiers, sailors and airmen, have joined more than 1400 SANDF troops for Exercise Shared Accord.