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How Moscow Battalion came into being
By Fanuel Katshenye

It had a long and turbulent journey to becoming a fully-fledged combat battalion, starting as a small observation post of up to 30 combatants of the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) in 1978.

Its main responsibility was to secure supply routes to the northern and north-eastern fronts' forward bases respectively. The identified insignificant threat was posed by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) elements who repeatedly disrupted the free flow of PLAN's supplies in parts of the Cunene Province of Angola through attacks and planting of land mines. After several stages of transformation, the unit was later named Moscow Battalion, one of the PLAN's combat units which later became a formidable fighting force.

I joined this observation unit while in its infancy at Efitu in Angola at a tender age of 26 in late 1978. The South African Air Force discovered the observation post presumably through UNITA informers or its air surveillance capability and destroyed it with buccaneer fighter jets around October 1979.

Two fellow fighters, a Camp Commissar and a female combatant were killed in that day-light aerial attack. Consequently, we vacated the post and moved to Kalemo in the Chitumba operational area, just a few kilometers from the Northern Front's forward bases.

The attack took place a few months after I survived the enemy air and paratroop attack on Cassinga, some 250 km inside Angola, on 4 May 1978. The South African Defence Force (SADF) code named the attack "Operation Reindeer".

The years 1980 and 1981 were tough for what would become Moscow Battalion. The SADF and proxies launched a series of ground and air offensive operations against PLAN rear bases deep inside Angola's southern Cunene Province. Among such offensives was "Operation Smokescreen" and "Operation Meebos" which targeted PLAN bases and observation posts in Omulola, Okalavi, Mupa and other places. This was the first of its kind that SADF's ground troops, in collaboration with UNITA elements, had penetrated in PLAN's free areas of operation in Angola and thus triggered a strategic shift in combat tactics on both sides in the liberation and counter liberation war which the racist military authority in South Africa referred to as "the bush or border war".

South Africa's 32 Battalion Veteran Association summed up the then military situation along Namibia's northern border: "In the middle of 1981 the military situation on the northern border of SWA had become serious. The stock-piling of large quantities of ammunition and the increase in FAPLA and SWAPO forces in South Angola had become a real conventional threat to SWA. In July 1981 several skirmishes took place between the security forces and PLAN."

The shift in combat strategy and tactics saw PLAN deploying specialised combat units along Namibia's northern border with the Cunene Province in early 1982. Among the units formed and deployed were Moscow Battalion, Alpha Battalion, Bravo Battalion and the 8th Battalion. These deployments were in addition to strengthening the Striking Unit - an artillery unit - Salute Unit and the Volcano Commando Unit which had launched a series of devastating summer attacks on enemy positions in the so-called Police Zone south of the Oshivelo Veterinary Control Gate.

Apart from the Secretary for Defence, the SWAPO political leadership and PLAN Commander Dimo Hamaambo, credit goes to all PLAN Commanders who had played a key role in the new deployment, especially PLAN Chief of Operations Martin Shalli, PLAN Chief of Staff Charles Ndaxu Namholo and many others.

Moscow Battalion, in which I served as Battalion Secretary, became a combat formation under Commander Ikokonane (Iko) Williams Kenyatta. The battalion engaged in its first major battle when it attacked a UNITA base at Chamaimbi during the early stage of its formation in 1982. In the meantime, the battalion also served as a transit base for newly trained fighters from Tobias Hainyeko Training Centre (THTC) in Lubango who were on route to the northern, northeastern and north-western fronts. Permanent combatants of the Moscow Battalion fighters were occasionally deployed as reinforcement on a temporary basis to the forward bases of the three fronts.

In one of its highly significant engagement on 9 August 1982, a combined force from Moscow, Northern and North-Eastern Fronts' anti-aircraft batteries inflicted heavy losses on a squadron of enemy attack Alouette and Puma helicopters and mirage fighter jets. The ambush was laid in the Okalonga area, north-west of Cuvelai Settlement amidst "Operation Meebos."

The losses inflicted on the enemy helicopter squadron resulted in the downing of six helicopters, which included Alouettes and Puma troop carriers. Our fire power hit at least two Mirage jets which fled the battle scene ablaze towards northern Namibia. This was a morale boosting battle as we suffered no single casualty and enemy choppers had no chance of returning fire.

At sunset we retreated towards Town of Chamutete. Without knowing that the enemy's "counter insurgent elements" were observing our night movements closely as we pulled our anti-aircraft guns until sunrise the next morning, on 10 August the enemy fought back. As the anti-aircraft batteries started with mounting their guns, we came in for a major defensive combat. Enemy helicopters and fighter jets were on our heels and initiated a surprise attack.

We returned fire and downed three helicopters instantly, one with a heat-seeking Strella 2M missile launcher and others with anti-aircraft fire. The tide turned against us as most of the anti-air defence guns were not deployed in combat positions. Worst of all, we ran out of our shouldercarried ammunitions from the previous battle. We suffered heavy casualties in manpower and equipment as a result.

Fortunatus David Kalimba, a village mate and longtime friend from childhood at Elyambala Village near Ongwediva and scores of other comrades, sacrificed during this battle. I was personally looking forward to meeting Kalimba after loss of contact in mid-1978. This did not happen. We retreated and set up a temporary base in the vicinity of Chamutete. According to accounts by 32 Battalion Veteran Association in May 2009: "Operation Meebos" was launched in July and August 1982 and consisted of a number of air attacks on SWAPO's command and control system. By their own admission, the SADF security forces lost 29 soldiers, of whom 15 were killed when a Puma helicopter was shot down. Given that "Operation Meebos" was launched in July and August 1982, it is clear that the 15 soldiers "killed in an incident when a Puma helicopter was shot down" could be a result of the August 9 ambush in the area of Okalonga.

In another incident, we had just set up a temporary base at Oifini in mid-1982 where we received new arrivals from THTC for deployment to the various fronts. At mid-day three enemy fighter jets flew over the base and returned to base in Namibia. They spotted one of our anti-aircraft positions. After an hour or so the fighter jets returned at the same spot at around 13:00 and out of our stubbornness and proud reliance on the anti-aircraft fire in our possession, we did not even change gun positions. One of the forward jet dived for bombing and, without releasing a single bomb, it was hit by a combination of fire from ZGU- 1, ZPU-4 and heat-seeking Strella anti-aircraft missiles. It came down just metres away from the base. The surviving two other jets did not even venture into fighting back, but fled the scene instead.

Battery Commander Mutope gwaLoide and his crew, accompanied by reconnaissance Section Commander Junias Shivute (Artillery), rushed to the smoke-smoldering downed jet with a hope to capture the pilot or treat him for injuries. The pilot was unfortunately dead already and was later acknowledged by the SADF authority on South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) late evening news as Major Coetzee "missing in action in Angola".

Years after the "bush/border war" had ended, 32 Battalion Veteran Association recalls that over its 23 years of military operation in Namibia, the SADF had launched 11 offensive operations into southern Angola with a view to suppressing SWAPO's armed liberation struggle. The Veteran Association cited Operation Savannah (5 October 1975-27 March 1976); Operation Reindeer (1978); Operation Rekstok (March 1979); Operation Safraan (1979); Operation Sceptic or Smokeshell (1980); Operation Protea (23 August 1981-1 September 1981); Operation Daisy (1-20 November 1981); Operation Super (1982); Operation Askari (1983-84); Operation Modular (September 1987); Operation Hooper (1988); and Operation Packer (1988). The racist South African Air Force (SAAF) extensively used Mirage and Buccaneer fighter jets in its occupational "bush/border war" in Namibia and neighbouring Angola. These were in addition to Alouette and Puma helicopters for combat, troop transportation and casualty evacuation.

Section Commander Artillery, now a Warrant Officer in the Namibian Defence Force, recalls other Moscow Battalion battles and ambushes against invading SADF and UNITA in Moscow's areas of responsibility at Oshiteyaula, Okalavi, Oshimukwa, Etale and Okambada in 1982 and 1983 respectively.

I parted with Moscow Battalion temporarily to attend party school in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in September 1984. Basic teachings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin were core in the curriculum of this one-year training course. When I returned from Germany in July 1984, I was deployed to Moscow Battalion again in January 1985 where I found that some changes had taken place - from Battalion Commander to the rank and file combatants. After a year service with Moscow Battalion, the party recalled me again on 20 July 1985 to attend a basic course in journalism in Brighton, United Kingdom. While in transit in Lubango, I met Omunona Gwandje Asser Ntinda coming from THTC to attend the same course.

We were a group of 12 on the training course which was conducted by the International Press Institute (IPI). A few months later in May 1985 we flew back to Luanda. With my journalism training completed, it became time for me to bid farewell to my mentor battalion. Straight from the training, the party deployed me in October 1986 to the PLAN Commissariat at the Defence Headquarters in Lubango to serve on the Editorial Board of The Combatant - a PLAN monthly military journal.

The Combatant had reported extensively on PLAN's military operations against the SADF and its UNITA proxies at all fronts. I served as reporter for The Combatant until June 1989 when the majority of Namibian exiles started with voluntary repatriation to the Land of the Brave. I stepped foot on the Namibian soil on 19 June 1989 at Ondangwa Airport after spending 14 years battling to eradicate apartheid occupation from Namibia and never to re-occur again.


SWAPO Headquarters Mandume Strt
Windhoek, Katutura