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The BRAVE block-busters

  •  07-31-2008, 9:50 AM

    The BRAVE block-busters

    Cmdt. Cornelius Noël Breytenbach was Squadron Commander that day when they flew in with 12 Pumas to attack various targets simultaneously. The initial stages of the attack were planned to the last seconds. Strike aircraft were first to bomb the targets and take out the gun positions; choppers were then to put down troops to do the real fighting, to be followed by other choppers with high explosives for the demolition of the enemy strongholds; the troops were then to be picked up and flown back to base. The whole operation was to have been completed within an hour, but this proved to be optimistic.

    The choppers were to operate in four groups, the two bigger ones having four choppers each. Breytenbach was leading one of the latter groups, with his second-in-command, Maj. Peter John Stannard, flying one of the four. They were to attack an enemy stronghold well defended by both anti-aircraft guns and troops, and this turned out to be the toughest of the four targets.

    It was a bright and sunny forenoon when they flew out. Five minutes from the target they made contact by radio with the strike craft, only to learn from them that the enemy positions were more heavily defended than had been anticipated.

    As the Pumas were coming in, the fighter aircraft were still attacking the target. They were supposed to have cleared the area by then, but they couldn’t knock out the anti-aircraft guns.

    Says Stannard: “We could see, as the strike aircraft were coming into their dives through the smoke, the flack from the anti-aircraft guns exploding — they were following the fighters in. We then had no option but to go into an orbit, with some rather unfriendly people down below.”

    Coming to the end of their third circle, Breytenbach was getting worried, for the whole operation had been planned for a critical fuel consumption. They had to land or return. He consulted with Stannard by radio, and they agreed that to postpone the job was to invite tougher resistance the next time. On enquiry the leader of the fighter planes replied that they hadn’t succeeded in taking out the guns, but that Breytenbach could take a chance.

    That settled it, and the two dragonfly Pumas darted from the east to just north of the target, where they split up: Stannard to touch down first at the north end of the target area and Breytenbach about two kilometres to the south.

    Stannard explains: “Coming in, it is extremely difficult to pinpoint yourself exactly to a spot. Obviously at that stage the co-pilot had to do the navigating; he had to tell me how close I was coming to the gun positions, which we couldn’t see because of the bush. We could only see the flack going off. When he called out that we had got close enough, I quickly stopped the aircraft — and we virtually landed next to the gun positions, which came up immmediately on our right. Perhaps those gun crews got a bigger fright than I did when I saw the guns coming up, because as they came into sight our troops, who were very well trained, opened fire from the helicopter. I didn’t look very much after that, for I was worried about getting the aircraft down on the ground and off again as soon as possible after the troops had scrambled out.”

    Meanwhile Breytenbach was preparing to land his craft and crew amidst the dust and smoke of the last missile attack by the jets and with the roar of the anti­aircraft guns and small-arms fire all around. He succeeded without mishap, but came under heavy fire while flying out to touch down again, like Stannard, at a central meeting place some fifteen kilometres away. The other choppers that had landed troops at the remaining targets were also gathering there.

    Breytenbach had barely shut down, when he received a radio SOS for an emergency casevac: one of their own troops had been wounded. He received the message via a chopper that was still in the air, and as his own fuel position was critical, the airborne chopper was sent in for the casevac — only to get shot down and have its flight engineer killed.

    Matters had become rather complicated. With one plane down, one man killed and another wounded, and with the troops running into heavier fire than had been anticipated, the two remaining aircraft could not deliver their high ex­ plosives. That had to wait.

    An operation that was to last 60 minutes at the outside, continued for hours into late afternoon. Meanwhile the teams that had completed their jobs were leaving one by one, until at last only Breytenbach’s four Pumas remained with four troops to guard them. “This”, he says, “was not to my liking at all. Not being a fighter myself, I was lying very, very low behind the backs of those army lads.”

    However, the ground-troops did their job at the target well, the choppers were sent in with the explosives and just before dark Breytenbach was notified that the charges had been laid and that the troops were ready for evacuation.

    The four Pumas went in, picked up the troops and the casualties, as well as the remaining crew members of the downed plane, and as they swished off into the evening breeze, the stronghold-positions exploded on the ground.

    By six o’clock they were all back at base, having completed their job, but it had been touch and go.

    The following day Breytenbach and his squadron repeated their performance on other targets and again ran into extreme difficulties, but it ended well.

    Both Breytenbach and Stannard were decorated with the Honoris Crux, Breytenbach receiving the coveted Silver decoration. “But,” he says, “I want to put it clearly and emphatically, that the decoration should not be regarded as having been awarded for bravery on my part, but on that of the squadron as a whole during the whole period of operations. We all faced the same danger and they should feel that they fully shared in winning it for the squadron.”

    This proves the esprit de corps among these men.

    History collector of our ONCE PROUD FORCES:
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