The silent war: South African Recce Operations 1969 to 1994 Paperback – 31 Dec 2002
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A look at South African military operations during the apartheid years. It deals with all the top secret raids by Special Forces into surrounding African states, the political dynamics which led to them and the turbulent history of the times. This account tells not only the story of South Africa's Special Forces, it has also been described as the most important and frank history of South Africa itself during the apartheid years. Not only does it deal with military operations but it also explains the political dynamics that prompted them.
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I certainly learned a lot from this book, which filled-in many gaps in my limited knowledge of the conflicts in the "Front Line States", but learned less about the Recces than I expected.
The pattern that emerges is that after spending many pages building-up the background politics and events the author notes in a couple of paragraphs how the Recces were involved and then moves on to do the same for the next operation or theatre.
It is difficult to follow the thread of a particular theatre, such as Mozambique or Angola, as their chronological chapters are interspersed throughout the book. Perhaps this prevents monotony but I found myself having to jump back to earlier chapters to refresh my memory. The book really needs more and better maps, too, beyond bland white boxes with a few towns scattered across.
I was also disappointed at the lack of penetration into the Recce's organisation and fabric beyond the OCs and their bases. The exception is 2 Recce, the territorial members of which the author promotes to first-class characters, whereas the other Commandos are never permitted to develop.
The penultimate chapter about the pending election and last stand of the Homelands has no connection with Recce operations at all and belongs in a different book! Most odd.
The narrative is a blend of thorough first-hand research and digest of other books, which makes the prose a little uneven at times. The author needs to pay more attention to minor details, such as the constantly oscillating calibre of the Recce's recoilless rifles ( 106 mm , then 105mm, then 106mm.... ) and on occasion dial-back the hyperbole. I'm sure every nation contends that their SF are "the best".
I found presentation of the book tiring to read; it uses a sans serif font in a very wide column with little side margin.
Certainly a worthwhile book, and one which corrects several points in Barabara Cole's book "The Elite", but not quite what I had expected from the subtitle.
The true power of this book results not merely from its ability to tell the story of military operations but to make these stories interesting to the lay reader and to present the conflicts in their context. Stiff goes beyond the history of the Recces to present short histories of the wars in Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique as well as giving the full picture of South Africa's politics. When discussing the decision to intervene in both Angola and Mozambique he provides a history not only of FRELIMO and the MPLA but he discusses the local situations and gives startling pictures of the fate of the bushmen and Portuguese colons and other minority groups who were deeply affected by independence. In addition he presents the full picture of the tribal support for various groups and politicians in each country, expertly explaining the differences between UNITA and the FNLA and other, now forgotten, guerilla groups.
Beyond the context Mr. Stiff deftly describes the foreign policy of South Africa during the period, concentrating on such towering figures as John Vorster, both the Bothas and De Klerk. Many of South Africa's generals make appearances throughout including General Loots and Magnus Malan.
The brilliance of the book is in its organization, presenting each operation by itself within the context of operations in a given country, chronologically and thematically organizing the immense amount of material so that it makes clear and easy reading. With large amounts of dialogue and scenes described as if the reader is sitting there listening to the story first hand the book reads like a novel with the caveat that it is all true tales of daring and heroism.
The book's theme is not merely combat but also about the people involved and the training methods used. The story of raids on Cobinda, Gaborone, Tanzania and Harare are all fascinating and detailed as are the unique black and white and color photographs included. Maps and diagrams help the reader navigate the sometimes hard to recall place names and descriptions.
Stiff describes the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the 1994 elections and his final chapter discusses assaults on white farmers, the gunfight in Bophuthatswana, the formation of the AWB. Stiff refers to the appointment of Ronnie Kasrils as Deputy Minister of Defense in 1994 as a positive act describing Kasrils as "a soldier at heart." Some may have qualms with this description but with this exception the book is one of the most important to describe the history of South Africa in the second half of the 20th century. A well written, masterful account that will not be surpassed because the author took such painstaking time in interviewing his sources and presenting a balanced story.
Seth J. Frantzman
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The first two hundred pages have virtually nothing to do with Reconnaissance Commando (Recce) operations and only mention fleetingly that South African Special Forces were used in African conflicts in the 1960s and early 1970s. The book starts to fulfil its title from the years when the Rhodesians (mainly SAS & Selous Scouts) are recruited into the South African Special Forces. Perhaps more operators from this era were available to regale Stiff with stories then for the previous period. Similarly, the last 100 pages have almost nothing to do with Recce operations.
As one would expect, most operations are discussed without much real detail, with Stiff padding the pages with peripheral information on the politics and history of the time, interspersed liberally with his own, unresearched, ill-judged and often ignorant comments. As a consequence, of the nearly 600 pages, only about 200 are really about Recce operations - which saves the book from "absolute rubbish" status. He does spend a chapter on recruitment, selection & training - which was enlightening, albeit superficial.
There are several photos, but many are of training, and some are dubiously associated (Operation Colosseum - Recces wearing helmets - possible, but not likely).
Content-wise, Stiff misses many contextual points which are far more relevant than his poorly researched attempts at historical context. He fails to discuss how the Recces worked with other special force units and how the lines between special forces and the Civil Cooperation Bureau became blurred, with many operators "transferring", or straddling the two units. An interesting take-away is how elite operators can be let down by poor quality or unserviceable equipment, outdated or incorrect intelligence, lack of tactical and operational support, or political interference.
While the book is generally an easy read, Stiff's writing style wavers between vain attempts at pomposity, and indifferent, lazy colloquialism. The editor should be shot: the chapters have no apparent flow and are devoid of overall sequencing; spelling mistakes abound and the grammar is, in places, disgraceful. The 2009 edition that I read had made very little effort to update the content with Recce information publically available on the web, or through the TRC submissions.
If you really want to buy the book, it's at best a skim-read for superficial interest and not for any real understanding or analysis.
Seth J. Frantzman