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
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
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
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
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
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
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.