During my National Service training in 1972, I was assigned to Charlie Company 3 SAI based in Oudshoorn. Unlike most platoons, our platoon leader was a more experienced and professional Lieutenant. Lt Freddie Zeelie was different not because he was a PF Officer but because he displayed more wisdom and insight whilst treating us like adults unlike the other National Service Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers. This must never imply that he was soft on us. No siree! WE HAD TO BE THE BEST PLATOON. To achieve that, he worked us harder than any CF officer but without the bullsh*t.
Main picture: Lt Zeelie circled in the bottom left with me circled on the top right hand side.
Of all my “bosses” over the years, only three can be classified as outstanding. All were iconoclasts who have long since broken the mould and become their own men. They were Ben de Klerk, Geoff Colloty and Lt Zeelie. Of them, I knew Lt Zeelie the least but yet his influence was profound.
Instead of an immature 19 year old as our Platoon Commander, Platoon 3 was allocated Lt Zeelie. In spite of being roughly the same age as the CF Lieutenants, he operated at a more mature level. Already he had developed his own inimitable style. The most pronounced of these was his saluting. Unlike the standard method, it was a truncated movement of the arm terminating with a flick of the wrist. Perhaps the intention of this almost spastic salute reflected his disdain for military nonsense.
One already sensed that here was somebody who would rise to the top in the military but not as an instructor. As a matter of pride he would instruct us in all the finer aspects of field craft, tactics and strategy. Fortunately the whole platoon comprised troepies with a matric certificate except one or two.
When it came to vuur en beweging [fire and movement], the exercise had to be as realistic as possible which always meant with live ammunition. He was not just more capable than us, but he was fitter, stronger and he never tired. The Army was in his blood and soul and not some passing episode in his life.
Then he started telling us about a new elite unit that would be formed in the near future. This nameless unit would initially be based in Oudshoorn and would use a training area adjacent to ours. This unit was to be known as 1 Recce Commando.
When we got our first glimpse of the recruits, one sensed that they were a different league.
The first intake would include Lt Lieutenant Zeelie.
The next time that I heard about him was in 1974 when his death in action was announced and that he had been awarded the Louw Wepener Decoration for bravery.
The most comprehensive account of this action that I can find is in a book by Peter Stiff entitled The Silent War: South African Recce Operations 1969 – 1994.
In June 1974 1 Recce Commando was attached to 1 Military Area in South West Africa, where they were tasked to operate clandestinely within Southern Angola, seeking out SWAPO guerrilla groups intent on infiltrating the Okavango from their Zambian rear bases.
The area was wide open to them because subsequent to the Lisbon coup in April and since 19 May 1974, the Portuguese Army Commander had confined his troops to their bases in Angola.
The Recces worked with paratroopers, using Sabre Land-Rovers mounted with MAGs. Generally tracking was conducted from the bonnets of Land-Rovers, sometimes Bushmen and at other times by Recce Operators.
On 23 June 1974, Sergeant Dewald de Beer, undoubtedly the unit’s best tracker, picked up spoor indicating that an incoming SWAPO group was moving through the bush in search of water.
Knowing the location of the nearest water, Jan Breytenbach decided to get the drop on the insurgents and drove straight to it. After tucking his Land-Rovers into hiding, he mounted two ambushes at convenient sites in the vicinity of the water holes. The paratroopers were given the job of driving the enemy in the direction of the ambushes.
The plan worked and eventually a party of armed SWAPO walked into one of the ambushes. The Recces opened fire and killing three, the survivors fleeing back along their tracks.
Getting the Land-Rovers from their hides, Jan Breytenbach ordered a motorised follow-up. He took command of the lead vehicle, while Sergeant Dewald de Beer perched himself on the bonnet so that they could follow the spoor.
Suddenly de Beer waved the vehicle to a halt, urgently indicating that Jan should join him at the front so they could jointly examine the spoor.
“Looks bloody fresh to me,” Jan Breytenbach said.
“As a matter of fact, sir, “Dewald said quietly, “I think we could be standing in the killing ground of their ambush.”
Jan Breytenbach debussed the others and quickly apprised them of their peril. He ordered the drivers to stay with the vehicles and the rest to fan out for a sweep.
Sergeant Koos Moorcroft, one of the drivers, tried to restart his stalled vehicle but the engine failed to fire. He called Sergeant Trevor Floyd, the driver of the second vehicle, and reported the problem.
Neither had particularly appreciated the seriousness of Jan Breytenbach’s caution of impending peril. On Trevor Floyd’s part at least, it was probably because he was slightly deaf. Koos lifted the bonnet and fiddled with the points and plugs.
Meanwhile the sweep line had come across a cache of SWAPO backpacks. It was clear the insurgents were in ambush, but the South Africans had unwittingly failed to play the game by the rules. They had entered the killing ground on the wrong side by 180 degrees. Having triggered the ambush, SWAPO had obviously intended to grab their packs and duck out. Now, unfortunately for them, the Recces were astride their escape route.
Sergeant Moorcraft and Sergeant Major Floyd were concentrating on more mundane mechanical problems when the former sensed rather than heard a twig snap in the nearby bush.
“There’s something out there,” he said
“What’s that?” Trevor asked.
Koos repeated himself, feeling no hint of impending danger. He was still busy with the engine, so he asked Trevor to investigate.
Trevor straightened up from the bonnet and scanned the bush, looking at it section by section. His heart lurched, as his eyes locked on those of a SWAPO guerrilla, in cover only 10 metres away on the far side of the truck.
“Terrs,” he yelled.
He ducked, grabbed a MG from the truck, laid it across the engine compartment and opened fire.
Lieutenant Freddy Zeelie and Corporal Hildebrand, to the left of the sweep line, swung straight into the attack as Trevor opened fire. Hildebrand was pinned down, but Freddie Zeelie, without a thought for his personal safety and in spite of the dangers to which he was exposed, stormed the ambush and shot an enemy machine-gunner. He was killed in the process.
There was a continuous crackle as both sides opened fire.
In the confusion, Jan Breytenbach experienced difficulty in understanding what was happening. To overcome this he bawled out to Lieutenant Zeelie on his left flank for a sitrep.
Freddie Zeelie did not reply so he shouted again.
“The lieutenant’s been floored,” Corporal Hildebrand shouted back.
“Where are you Hildebrand,” Jan yelled.
“Over here, sir,” he said hoarsely.
“I am looking at them. There is a machine gun in front shooting at me, sir.”
“I’m almost looking down the barrel, sir.”
The contact lasted about fifteen minutes, with neither side suffering any further casualties. Eventually SWAPO broke off the action and fled.
Lieutenant Freddie Zeelie was the first Recce operator killed in action.
From “Cross of Honour” by Ian Uys and “We Fear Naught but God” by Paul Els.
Freddy Zeelie went to school in Alberton, where he became a champion backstroke swimmer in the town club. In 1970 he attended the Army Gymnasium in Heidelberg and became a candidate officer.
On 23 June 1974, at about 17h45, Lieut Zeelie, 22, was on the left flank of a patrol combing thick bush in pursuit of terrorists. Two enemy machine-guns suddenly opened fire on Lieut Zeelie and Lance-Corporal Hillebrand.
‘Lieutenant Zeelie and L/Cpl Hillebrand immediately went on to the attack. Hillebrand was pinned down near to the enemy position but Zeelie, without thought for his personal safety and in spite of the extreme danger to which he was exposed, stormed the enemy position and forced one machine-gun to withdraw and overpowered the other, regrettably losing his life in so doing.
‘As a result of this selfless act in the face of personal danger, the left flank of the patrol was able to re-deploy owing to the lessening of the enemy fire. The charge took place over a distance of 50 yards.
‘His courage, determination and self-sacrifice received recognition by the posthumous award of the Louw Wepener Decoration.’
Zeelie became the first South African soldier to be killed in action on the border. The circumstances of his death were not released, although it turned out that he was a member of the Recce Commandos.
Admiral Hugo Biermann, chief of the SADF, stated that Zeelie had been killed ‘in a skirmish with a group of terrorists who attempted to cross the South African border . . . a unit of the permanent force killed and wounded a number of terrorists.’
He was buried with military honours in Alberton. He was the only member of special forces to receive the Louw Wepener Decoration.
Having known him during my National Service, I would have expected nothing but unthinking subconscious bravery. He died for the job that he loved.
The comment by Ian Uys in his book that Lt Zeelie had been the first South African to be killed on the border is clearly incorrect. It should have read the first Recce Operator but at the time, the Recces were a clandestine unit whose existence had not yet been revealed to the general public.
During my National Service in 1972, Delta Company served the last 3 of their 9 months service on the border. On the very first night on the border, one of members was killed. It was not by SWAPO but by a fellow troepie. Apparently he had wandered into the nearby bush at night for ablution purposes. On his return, a nervous guard had not received the password despite requesting it. Without further to do, he shot and killed him.
We will remember them
From the poem
For The Fallen (1914)
by Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)
Cross of Honour by Ian Uys
We Fear Naught but God by Paul Els
The Silent War by Peter Stiff
Comment manually pasted:
Because for roughly 1 million young white South African’s the Army was one of their most intense experiences for a variety of reasons. For a fair chunk of those, border duty was a reality. The death as a ratio of the population was roughly on par with what America experienced in Vietnam but we were not allowed post 1990 to celebrate our ‘achievements’ as the Americans continue to do with all their Hollywood productions. The term war vet is used with pride there, but there are 100,000’s of war vets in SA who are denied a voice. The average white SA soldier has found himself in a very similar position to the German soldier of WWII.
Although, obviously not supporting the Government and its policies and not a supporter of war, I nevertheless think that those young South Africans can be proud of their performance. I, obviously, personally know what we achieved on the military technology side across the full spectrum in the face of virtually 100% sanctions. What we managed was quite amazing. There was virtually nothing that we were afraid to tackle or what we thought was too difficult. I was amazed and proud of our chutzpah.