Flawed but often fascinating account of activities of 4 Recce in the Border War

Review: Archie Henderson

Iron Fist From the Sea: Top-Secret Seaborne Recce Operations (1978-1988) by Arnè Söderlund and Douw Steyn (Delta Books)

iron fist from the seaIf this book looks familiar, it’s because it is. Helion & Co of Solihull in the UK first published it and Delta Books, part of Jonathan Ball, has republished it and smoothed over its rough edges. The new version has given it a more coherent structure and the editing has made it an easier read.

The authors are a navy man, Söderlund, and an army man, Steyn. They have clearly had access to classified information not available to the usual researcher and have fully exploited this advantage. Too bad, then, that much of their prose reads like operational reports.

Nevertheless, they have some fascinating stories to tell. Their telling, often cluttered with unnecessary detail, does not detract from the tension on occasion. One such is the failed attack on an ANC camp near Luanda in 1987. It is interesting to consider what might have happened to delicate negotiations between the ANC and the South African government at the time had the attack been successful. It might well have set back peace negotiations and a peaceful transition to democracy.

Steyn, then a commandant (a rank later renamed lieutenant-colonel) in 4 Recce, which was a maritime special forces unit, was the operations commander of a mission to plant radio-activated marker-flare systems around the ANC base for Buccaneers of the South African Air Force to hone in on and bomb without causing collateral damage to Angolans living on the fringes of the camp.

The operation was high-risk. The aircraft needed to be refuelled in the air and operated a long way from their base. The 4 Recce soldiers (always referred to as ‘operators’ in the book) were landed by submarine just off Luanda. The operation went awry when the soldiers failed to identify the exact position of the ANC base, unsurprising since they were working with a map from 1975.

Although the book, understandably, glorifies the successes of 4 Recce, it doesn’t skimp on some of the failures. Among these was the capture of Wynand du Toit in Cabinda and the attempts to assassinate top ANC figures in Mozambique.

There was clearly much bravery involved and also excellent planning and preparation among the various Recce units, but this is hardly a dispassionate assessment of the wars that were fought in Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

We still have a long wait for one of those because, as the sales of bush war/border war books show, the emotions are still too raw for an objective look at all the conflicts and an unemotional analysis of the how the wars affected the politics of today.


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