Five Zimbabwean soldiers who braved the icy Atlantic Ocean during a SADC Special Forces exercise in Namibia last October have been promoted in rank for “enduring difficult conditions in the ocean to survive disaster”.
The Zimbabwean Sunday Mail, quoting the latest edition of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) magazine, said the five who spent three and a half hours in the sea off Sandwich Harbour near Walvis Bay in Namibia, were promoted following “their heroics”.
Around 32 special forces personnel in four boats were taking part in Exercise Welwitschia off the coast of Sandwich Harbour near Walvis Bay on October 6 when two of them capsized in rough seas. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said the boats were headed for a beach landing exercise when one Barracuda boat executed a power turn and was flooded by a large wave and capsized. Another Barracuda boat went to the rescue and members on the distressed boat scrambled to the one side of the rescuing boat causing it to tilt and capsize as well.
A Malawian soldier died after being hit by the prop of a Barracuda boat and two South African Special Forces were declared “Missing in Action” and later declared dead with cultural rituals performed for Captain Kgabo Wilson and Corporal Senalta Sebooa at Sandwich Harbour at the end of October.
Apart from a Malawian and two South African casualties, 11 men managed to swim to safety while two others were rescued by an Angolan Navy boat.
The five Zimbabwean soldiers – corporals Frequency Manunure, Samuel Mapfumo and Shadreck Mutemera of 1 Commando Regiment and lance corporals Obey Jakarasi and Justice Makandiona of Parachute Regiment– have all been promoted a rank following their ordeal in recognition of the three hour-swim they endured to get to safety despite rough seas and the orientation difficulties of navigating through the ocean at night.
Lieutenant Colonel Washington Chidavanyika, Officer Commanding 1 Commando Regiment, was the Zimbabwean stick commander during Exercise Welwitschia. He told the paper his soldiers’ “ability to make split second decisions was the difference between life and death”.
“They came face to face with death but, like true soldiers, they did not let the daunting odds of survival deter them. On realising their boat was slowly drifting deeper into the ocean, the team decided to swim to shore. It was pitch dark and orientation was difficult to maintain. A decision was taken to swim close to each other and help those who tired by carrying them on their backs,” he said.
According to the ZNA publication the survival of the Zimbabwean soldiers “attests” to the army’s training methods.
“The survival of the ZNA soldiers in the Atlantic Ocean boat disaster in Namibia, despite that Zimbabwe is a landlocked country, is a true reflection of the country’s Special Forces’ commitment to conditions of training in acquiring skills to operate in any terrain and weather conditions.
“The high standard of training in military skills makes it easy for the soldiers to quickly adapt to changed conditions, making it possible for them to even operate in oceans and deserts even though they may not have been acclimatised to such environments,” it said.
Exercise Welwitschia was a multinational exercise involving more than 700 personnel from several Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and host Namibia.
The exercise involved practicing the tactics, techniques and procedures of desert warfare and improving the readiness and interoperability of SADC special forces, the Namibian Defence Force (NDF) said. It also gave special forces the chance to co-ordinate anti-piracy operations.