It was late in November 1975. I was the engineer troop commander (or the sappers, as we were referred to) during the advance by road of a battle group of the South African Army into Angola, destination Cela, a small town around 400 km south-east of Luanda.
The convoy was a mix of all sorts. All of us were in green uniform in an effort to disguise the fact that we were South Africans. No dog tags hanging around our necks with the customary force number, initials and surname stamped into them, only our blood groups. All markings that could point to us as being South Africans had been removed, even scratched off our toothpaste tubes. We received Bibles before we left Grootfontein in South West Africa (now Namibia). But even those first pages which usually showed where the Bibles were printed, were totally blank.
Apart from Unimog trucks and other paraphernalia, our convoy included armoured cars and, very import, the 5.5 caliber artillery guns that the South African forces already in Angola were eagerly waiting for.
We drove without stopping, exchanging drivers often while on a roll. Time was of the essence.
Breakfast, lunch and supper were from ration packs. Based on what was inside, I at times wondered whether they could have been left-overs from World War 2. How we longed for something fresh to eat!
At the end of yet another long day on the road, our convoy arrived at Sá da Bandeira (now Lubango), a town deep into Angola. As was the case with all towns that we passed through on our journey thus far, Sa da Bandeira also had the battle scars of the raging civil war. Not much was left of it. We slept at the airport that night.
Commandant van der Westhuizen (if I remember correctly) who was in charge, held an order group upon arrival. He had good news for us. A local Portuguese butcher who has not fled Angola during the civil war, was so overjoyed by our arrival, that he set off to fetch us a couple of beef hindquarter.
“Fresh meat!” Our spontaneous reaction sounded like a well-rehearsed chorus.
But the commandant also had bad news. The meat was solidly frozen.
“Does anybody perhaps have a saw?” he asked. A hand went up and, low and behold, someone actually brought a saw along for the expedition!
But alas, the little hand saw didn’t even make a mark on the rock-hard meat.
Entered the sappers!
I instructed a few of my men to fetch the chain saws that were part of our engineering equipment from our Unimogs. We put the meat on the low wooden airport benches, adorned ourselves with some plastic sheets that were lying around to keep blood, bone and meat off our clothes, and started to cut steaks the size of tea trays (and just as hard as it was still frozen) with the chain saws.
That night everyone in the convoy feasted on tough steaks without salt, though flavoured lightly to heavily with chain saw oil, depending on the stage of the cutting process when collecting one’s meat.
And the Sappers were the heroes!
Sá da Bandeira Airport, 1975/76. (Picture credit: Unknown.)