“In the South African Defense Force, my first experience with the Migs came as we got stuck in a river on the way to the front. We managed to extricate our Ratel (Honey Badger in English) IFV after a few hours of being stuck in the mud just before dawn, concern was starting to set in as there was always dawn MIG combat air patrol down the length of the river as it was part of our supply route. We just managed to get into the tree line as 2 Mig 21’s came down the river at about 100 feet. We started to take camo’ing our vehicle seriously after this.
The Migs used to fly sorties against us every day but we could always tell the Angolan pilots because they would stay high and bomb from high so we could watch the parachute and see where the bomb was going. This changed in the New Year (1988). My first experience of this change came early on the 3rd January. We had done a pin-prick assault on the Angolan 21st Brigade the night before and then withdrew to a harbour area.
I had just got into my sleeping bag in my foxhole at dawn when I heard bombs close by followed a sonic boom then a Mig 23 went over me at tree top height. You heard the shrapnel flying through the trees so you knew it was close. A whle later one of my guys came to me with a piece of shrapnel about 4in x 4in and 2 inches thick. I asked where he found it and he replied it had ricocheted off the branch above his foxhole and buried itself about a foot into the ground on the edge of his foxhole. He asked what should he do with it so I said take it home and put it on the mantelpiece so every time you see it you can thank your lucky stars it wasn’t a foot over and taken your head off.
We heard rumours of East German and Russian pilots now being in the conflict not just Angolan and Cubans which was confirmed a few weeks later after we had attacked the 21st Brigade again and took them out. The battle only finished at around 9pm at night so we sent the night on their emplacements. The next day we had plenty of Mig activity and as I was stood on top of my vehicle I had two Mig 21’s in a tight wing tip to wing tip formation come past me at tree top height with the pilots wearing the orange flight suit, white helmet with the red star on the side – the Russian flying uniform. We now knew we had effective pilots fighting against us.
When we arrived in Angola the guys we relieved told us that the Migs don’t fly in bad weather and at night but with the Russian pilots that all changed. Night time sorties against us became a reality and the Migs would drop illumination flares and MI 25 Hinds would be scouring the bush underneath them looking for us. One night we were watching the flares which were about 10km’s away when someone from the vehicle next to me lit up a cigarette. The Mig must have picked up this up on his IR because next second we had 2 air to surface missiles coming at us out of the night, they landed close by but fortunately no one was injured but we had to move our location before they came in strength in the morning to bomb us, which they subsequently did.
The sorties were becoming more frequent and we would bemoan our lack of air cover but the aging SAAF fleet of Mirages, Buccaneers and Canberras could not operate for long so far from base and against the massive AA radar blanket set up by the enemy, the politicians also didn’t want to risk the airframes but at the time we were told the pilots didn’t want to fly which transpires wasn’t accurate. This led the SAAF to develop a technique whereby they would lob bombs onto targets. They would approach their target at tree top height then go rapidly gain altitude in to the radar blanket, release their bomb then turn and descend to tree top height below the radar blanket again and exfil. The bomb would then continue on its trajectory and fall on the target. It wasn’t accurate but as they were aiming at the area taken up by a Brigade it didn’t have to be.
The last attack we did was the indirect heaviest fire we received and Mig sorties. Our recce elements had not identified a minefield and we hit it. All the artillery and BM 21’s were then brought to bear on us and the Migs came as well. They flew 59 sorties that day dropping 26 tons of bombs on us as well as over 300 BM 21 ripples and over 1000 heavy artillery shells.
During this engagement our AA was allowed to open up for the first time with their 20mm Ystervarks (Porcupine in English). I watched a Sukhoi 22 fly through the exploding 20mm shells 3 times until he determined the position of the AA battery then dropped his bombs on them. We were in Angola for 3 1/2 months before being withdrawn and replaced but none of use will forget the Migs.”
– L/CPL Russell Jones, OPs Medic Platoon 2, Bravo Company, 62 Mechanised Infantry Battalion, SADF.
This story was documented by Battles and Beers. As we always say here: Every soldier has a story, and every story deserves to be told.