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Duncan Mattushek's Story

He was the first South African SADF soldier to have lost both arms resulting from a military contact.

Bdr. Mattushek – 71282099- My story

Artillery School -1974 4th Field Regiment-1975

Brief History

This is a very brief bit of history (from what I have read, so it is open to debate) of why the South African Defence Force got involved in Angola in the early years before international pressure forced them to completely withdraw later. South African internal politics were never discussed with National Servicemen, only the Red threat to South Africa.

South Africa had patrolled the Caprivi Strip, which was part of South West Africa, (PLAN was the military wing of South West Africa People’s Organization), governed by the South African Government since 1917, under a League of Nation mandate. It was easier for them to keep this part of the border secure, because if they didn't they would have had no option but to patrol the entire border of South West Africa. This would have thinly stretched their defenses along the border.

Strategically, it also would have become more difficult to do so when the Russians began to play a bigger role in Angola. Russia had a big interest in South Africa for its mineral wealth and the Cape sea route and, as South Africa become more isolated internationally due to its political policies, it became a soft target.

The SADF were to give UNITA and the FNLA time to establish themselves in Southern Angola as a formidable force against the Russian-backed MPLA. The agreement South Africa had with UNITA was that it would assist the SADF in combating SWAPO, in return for the SADF to gain as much territory for UNITA, before elections.

A bloodless coup in Portugal had put the left-wing party in power, thus forcing Portugal to abandon its colonies. This led to a vacuum in its colonies, especially Angola. This state led to chaos in the country as the three liberation movements sought power and territory before elections and the eventual handing over of government from the Portuguese.

Angola was very wealthy in minerals and oil. It also had a big game reserve in the south where the last of the Southern black rhino were found.

Operation Savannah was the first cross-border covert military operation into Angola by the SADF, with a small SADF component supporting FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) and UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) soldiers, in their fight against FAPLA - the military wing of the communist MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) backed by Cuban forces and Russian advisors.

The SADF personnel who entered Angola were supplied with non-SADF clothing, shoes and weapons so as they would not be recognized as belonging to the SADF. All SADF markings were painted over or removed from vehicles where possible as well. They were classed as mercenaries. There was limited access to supplies and limited air cover, so as to keep their involvement as low- key as possible. The SAAF did fly in supplies and evacuated casualties where and when they could during this time.

The CIA and some African leaders supported the SADF's involvement in Angola.

Operation Savannah began in earnest in August 1975. By mid-December the South African government came under increasing international pressure to withdraw from Angola when it became internationally known they were involved. The American government also had a change in its policy in aiding South Africa. This caused great frustration for the South African forces, as they were within reach of the capital, Luanda. Even after their eventual withdrawal, over the years the SADF still continued with various cross-border operations in support of UNITA and the FNLA and several operations against SWAPO.

My Story

Like all white South African males, you were duly called up to do your National Service at the age of 18 years. I was in my matric year (1973) when I received my call up papers. We had all taken part in cadets at school and I had also attended a cadet instructor course at Natal Command. So, basically, one knew your left foot from your right foot.

As youngsters we were always interested in finding out where your friends and you had been called up to and to which area of the Defence Force you were enlisted. I was called up to 4th Field Regiment, Potchefstroom. This was an Artillery Regiment. I was quite excited about it, as it was something different to Infantry, Air Force or Navy.

My father was always concerned about his sons doing military service - there being three sons in the family. Maybe this was because he had experienced the horrors of war first hand and didn't want his sons to be part of it.

I never objected to my call up. It was just something we young white males did and never really questioned it. What did we as young 18-year-old boys, straight out of school, know about politics and the ideals of the ruling government? The government had a “blanket” covering its ideals and policies. The man in the street knew very little about the government’s ideology and dogma. One may have read an article or two in the newspaper, considering the strict censorship laws of the time, very little information was printed.

You could choose to go to university or tertiary college which gave you exemption from military service for the years spent studying, but once your studies were complete you still had to do your compulsory national service.

I was instructed to report to the Durban station on the 2nd January to catch the train along with hundreds of other young boys, barely men, soon to become servicemen. We arrived at Potchefstroom station, where we underwent much obligatory verbal abuse by the instructors. We were allocated our barracks, received our “trommels” (trunks) along with our newly-issued army clothing. We had haircuts and vaccinations as well. Basic training had begun in earnest.

At the start, you didn't know when you were going to get any sleep, have time to shower, wash clothes let alone write to loved ones back home. This was to ostensibly 'knock” all the “civvie crap” out of you.

Fortunately, I had kept up my level of fitness from school days and had done some extra training in preparation of my call up. This meant that I was not last in training exercises which was a big advantage in that the rest of the platoon didn’t suffer having to re-do the exercise again because of me.

After about 4 to 6 weeks of basics, we were called to fall in and were told that military service had now been extended to either eighteen or twenty–four months voluntary. If you opted to complete either of these periods of training, you would not have to attend any camps after your twelve months of service was up. On top of this, you would receive a bonus of R2,400 for the eighteen months or R3,600 for the longer period. I chose to do the twenty-four months as my time would end at the end of the year and it would fall in with the academic calendar if I chose to study or to make it easier to find work at the beginning of a year.

Those who volunteered were asked if they would like to stay in Artillery or move to another branch of the Defence Force. A friend I had made and I were keen to join the Parabats. After some discussion we decided we’d stay. Consequently, we were then moved to Artillery School. There, it was suggested that we think about completing the NCO or officers’ course. I chose the NCO course. This was to be six months of “hell”, but challenging. After completion, I was posted back to the 4th Field Regiment, but as there weren’t any new recruits at 4th Field Regiment, I was seconded to a new Regiment, the 14th Field Regiment. My role was to teach the recruits to drive the various vehicles, ranging from Land Rovers to the big Maguiris Deutz gun tractors. This I did until the new intake arrived at 4th Field Regiment. After that, I re-joined 42 Battery. Later, in March, Lt. Chris Robin joined the Battery after completing the officers’ course. I became his Bombardier. Our Regiment Commander was Commandant Nel and our Battery Commander was Captain Theron.

The year was 1975 and our Regiment was due for border duty and in October 1975 the Regiment left to do border duty on the Caprivi. Even as an Artillery Regiment, we had been trained in unconventional warfare. I think many a person would well question what the artillery was doing there and what did they know about unconventional warfare? Initially, we faced weeks and weeks of “bush lane” walks, setting up temporary bases, patrolling and becoming familiar with the type of weapons we would encounter which, at that stage, were limited.

On deployment to the Caprivi, we were divided up and some of the Regiment went to Mpacha and the rest to Kwando. I was based at Kwando. At this stage there was no hint of the Regiment being involved in Angola. After having been in the Caprivi for a while, doing patrols along the “cut line” between the Caprivi and Zambia, the Regiment being based at Kwando and Mpacha, was informed that we were to go into Angola. We were summonsed into the mess tent and told of our deployment into Angola.

This was part of Operation Savannah. If I remember correctly, we weren't given a great deal of time to pack all unnecessary gear away and to load all the stores and ammo that had to accompany us. I remember jotting off a quick letter to my parents, telling them that I would be out of communication for an untold period of time, and not mentioning to them where we going. With a couple of armoured cars for support, we left the base in Kwando in convoy and arrived south of Luiana. The vehicles were loaded with supplies for an extended stay.

En-route to Luiana

Here we set up base camp. Immediately after, we set out on patrols in the choking dust, intense heat and swarming flies and gathered whatever information we could on any and, if any, movement by insurgents in the area. Being summer, good clean water was scarce. We came across numerous watering holes, but the water was not the cleanest or safest to drink. All water had to be boiled when we could or simply filtered through a T- shirt.

This area was well-known be notorious as this was where SWAPO insurgents crossed from Zambia through Angola into South West Africa, so we focused and concentrated our patrols in the area. Just a few weeks before, contact in the area had been made when an Eland armoured vehicle had driven over a land mine.

I had made good friends with Rfn. Adam Schonfeldt, the platoon’s dog handler, and we’d spend our down time talking about what we were going to do once we finished our time in the army. He spoke about wanting to buy his dog off the army when he completed his time. He came from a farming family in the Zeerust district and was an only son. I said I would like to follow an agricultural career.

On Thursday, 13 November 1975, a message was received by our base that Lt. Brand and his platoon had to go set up an ambush about five to six hours’ drive north of Luiana as a big group of SWAPO insurgents were expected to pass through the area. Lt. Brand’s platoon had just set out on patrol and was recalled to carry out the ambush. This area was known to be a big SWAPO infiltration area. Our platoon had just returned from patrol the previous day.

When I heard that Lt. Brand’s platoon was going to lay an ambush, I approached Captain Theron and asked to accompany them to provide extra firepower for a platoon going into an ambush not knowing the number of enemy they were going to come up against. I never gave a second’s thought as to what might happen, how the ambush would evolve or to my own safety. My main concern was to offer support to the platoon as best as I could, resulting in as few casualties as possible. I felt an extra rifle would give them a little, much needed extra support. After discussing this with Captain Theron, he said he thought that it would be good for me to accompany them to provide extra firepower.

Our personal gear, supplies and enough ammunition to last us for seven days were loaded on to a Hippo and Unimog, to drop us off at a certain point, after which we would walk the rest of the way to set up the ambush. Most of the munitions were loaded on to the Unimog because there was more space compared to the Hippo. There was everything from Claymore mines to grenades to mortars. The other Hippo had mechanical problems, so couldn't be used.

The reason why there was only one Hippo

Lt. Brand drove in front with the Hippo to locate the area where we were to disembark. Lt. Robin accompanied us so that he could drive back with one of the vehicles.

The driver of the Unimog was Gunner Huisaman. Gunner Retief was one of the drivers as well. I was sitting in the Unimog with my friend Schonfeldt and his dog (Rinty). We had supplies for seven days. The Hippo was mine protected so it drove in front of us, not realizing the axle-width was not the same as the Unimog. Lt. Robin was sitting in the (front), right-hand side passenger seat of the Unimog because the Unimog was a left-hand drive). Schonfeldt and I were discussing the ambush we were going to lay and how very hot it was.

The next thing I remember was a massive flash and then darkness. This was at about 17h00 on 13th November. I remember waking up and lifting my right arm up to look at my hand with the full moon in the background and seeing all this skin just hanging from it. There were long pieces of bloody skin hanging in shreds from my hand. I could not feel my left arm at all but never gave it any further thought. I couldn’t feel that the rest of my body had also been badly burnt.

In hindsight, I think my body was in shock and it had not yet registered in my conscious mind. I do remember someone lying next to me but who, I had no idea. I couldn't smell any burnt flesh or charred clothing either at that stage. All the soldiers who were on the Unimog were blown off by the force of the explosion. I had been gripping the side of the vehicle with my left arm when the blast went off, so my natural instinct was to grab a hold, causing me to stay on the vehicle and take the blast up my left side. It didn’t help matters either that I had been sitting on top of the diesel tank of the vehicle at the time of the explosion which caused the diesel to splash and ignite on me. Diesel needs a higher flash point to ignite than petrol does and because it has higher oil content, it tends to stick to one’s skin more intensely.

Gunner Hennie Bekker who had been blown off the vehicle by the blast, realized that I was still on the vehicle, he charged back into the inferno to pull me off. Lt. Robin succumbed from his injuries a short while later. Two Alouette helicopters were dispatched the next morning from Mpacha to casevac the dead and injured back to Mpacha for transfer to 1 Military hospital.

As soon as our main base had been notified of the incident and the number of injured and dead, a C130 Hercules was flown up from South Africa to casevac the deceased and injured. I woke lying in the back of the C130 Hercules, suitably doped up having received medical attention at Mpacha. Our regiment’s second in command, Major Bosch, was there to wish us well.

I arrived in 1 Military Hospital twenty-three hours after the incident. I remember the medic cutting off what was left of my shorts in the ambulance on the way to hospital. I was to spend eight hours in theatre where they amputated my left arm and right hand and treated my burns. Dr. Louw, who was a private surgeon, said afterwards that, when he saw me being taken into theatre suffering 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th degree burns all over my body; he only gave me a two-percent chance of survival. He said my saving grace was that I was still young and exceptionally fit and healthy; otherwise my body would have shut down long ago.

I spent nine months in hospital and underwent eight further surgeries, receiving skin grafts, physiotherapy, and attending rehabilitation therapy. (Fortunately, I only had to confront the psychologist once and I told him to leave me alone, which, thankfully for him, he did).

I heard later from my parents that they had cleaned my face as best as possible for them to identify me and say their goodbyes as they had given me so little chance of survival. The smell of burnt flesh is with me always as well as the phantom pains which never give any warning when they are going to start.

I shall never forget what happened to me. I get up every single day to put on 2.5 kg of plastic and steel so that I can get on with normal day-to-day life. I remember the pain, as if it were yesterday, of having my new skin pulled off my back and legs every time the nurses changed and treated my injuries for weeks on end. This is hard to forget.

The staff who nursed me told me that I was an exceptional case and they had no training and prior experience in coping with someone like me who had suffered such debilitating, devastating and life-threatening injuries. The pain of the amputations, the skin grafts and the sensation of being burnt alive have never left me. Medication was administered to me, but only so much could be given at one time. It was only weeks later that a nursing sister changed the procedure of treating my burns.

I was the first soldier in the country to have lost both arms resulting from a military contact. (This I know, reliably, from the orthopedic prosthetic makers both in Johannesburg and Durban).

One of the gunners, Mark Nieuwenhuis, who had received bad burns to his face and hands, was also in the hospital with me but we were placed in separate private rooms with absolutely no access to the public or to unnecessary medical staff. Military Police were placed outside our rooms to enforce this.

It must have been a few weeks after my admission that I was told of the casualties that had been suffered. I was devastated by the news, as I had a lot of respect for Lt. Robin as a leader, Adam Schonfeldt as a friend and Christo Retief as a fellow gunner.

Later, we were moved to large, general wards and I think that I was moved in to Ward 1. But we were still under secure lock down there. The South African public, at large, were still in the dark about what was happening on the border and any information about military skirmishes like these were deliberately being kept away from them.

The nursing staff had no experience with young men in their prime with legs missing, severe body wounds, and head injuries from shrapnel and burns from land-mine explosions. They would pull portable curtains around severely injured patients, so other patients, visiting parents and family could not see the severity of the wounds when visiting their loved ones.

One day you would see new patients and the next they would be gone - had they died overnight or just moved to another ward? One wonders what went through the nursing staff’s minds as they saw more and more injured servicemen being admitted. How were they helped to cope emotionally with what they were experiencing? The excellent care and treatment that these nurses, surgeons and welfare therapists gave to us can never be acknowledged enough.

The smells of open wounds, disinfectant, burnt flesh and, dare I say, death, was there with us every single day and every single minute.

A Captain Kruger was appointed my welfare officer. I will always remember her as a gentle and wonderful person. Rank was never a question when asking for a time of conversation with her. I had many a cup of tea or coffee in her little office. She would fetch me and help me to put on my gown to cover my injuries and walk down to her office.

Sister Erasmus was a civilian night sister on night duty. She was a lovely person and we were to meet 40 years later at a veterans’ get together in New Zealand.

The burning Unimog -Photos courtesy of Bdr. van Wyk

Unveiling of the Gunners Memorial - 4th Field Regiment 13 November 1976.

(D. Mattushek & Lt. A. Brand)


To Lt. C. Robin, Gunner C. Retief and Rifleman Schonfeldt, you will always be remembered.

To Lt. Brand, Gunner Bekker and the other Gunners who took care of us, you shall not be forgotten.

I shall forever be indebted to the surgeons, doctors and nursing staff for the care they took in my healing process. I can never say how much I am thankful to my parents, my brothers, their wives and mostly to my lovely wife, for their support and love. To her parents and our two lovely children as well, for their support and love over the years, thank you. Not forgetting the wonderful friends who have stood by me and given me encouragement over the years.

Can one say one regrets what happened? I don't think so, because that was the way it was at that time; your fellow soldier was your responsibility and you did what you had to, to ensure they came back safely from whatever task they were sent out to do. One never knew what life was going to “dish up”. It was a great experience to do what we were trained for, to experience the friendship of other soldiers and to know they had your back always. Maybe if one knew then what one knows now, it might have all been different. As they say, “hindsight is a wonderful thing”.

I shall end the story here, as the following years are my personal experiences in dealing with everyday challenges, my achievements in life and living life.

A Hippo anti landmine vehicle A Unimog, similar to what we were travelling on

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