With the politicians minds finally made up, it was time, for the now around 3000 strong SA forces, to consolidate their gains, hand them over to UNITA and hot foot it out of Angola, hopefully by the end of January.
The 4 battle groups had to retain security, capture what remained to be captured and enable UNITA going forward.
December was however still mostly a consolidation phase and so, after taking the bridge at the battle of bridge 14; and in spite of it now being an unwanted asset, there were still defensive and other preparations to be made.
To prevent a counter offensive and complete the mopping up of the immediate area, the armor and infantry took up forward positions. The artillery had to take up positions in the areas which the MPLA and Cubans had just occupied.
Since the other forces were still busy mopping up pockets of resistance and establishing new lines, the "clean-up" of the area fell to the artillery gunners. "Clean-up" in this instance euphemistically referred to, among other things, the disposal of the dead.
Artillery gunners often experience battle from many kilometers away without being involved in the thick of the fighting and death.
This particular set of artillerymen were teenage conscripts and were normally based at the SWA border. This short excursion into Angola had been anticipated as an adventure by them.
Their adventure was about to turn into a nightmare and their victory, hollow.
Not only did the battle of bridge 14 take place unnecessarily, but it would turn out to be the bloodiest of the whole operation and they would be left with the unenviable task of clearing away the dead.
These were also not just any dead, these were their own handiwork.
Many of the dead in this battle had succumbed to the artillery shells that these teenagers had fired at them. This had been a surprise dawn attack on the opposition artillery positions. Many had been caught out in the open, by the opening barrages, with the resultant explosions and shrapnel, dismembering and shredding many of their targets.
It is one thing to fire explosive ordinances at an enemy from kilometers away. It entirely another thing to pick up bits and pieces one has created. The "enemy" is so easily demonized at a distance, but suddenly, they become all to human, at close range, especially when dealing with their body parts and shredded corpses.
The sights of the day would fill the hours of the night. Since not everything would be recovered and buried in mass graves, the stench of death would be there to remind one in the morning and all the following days, until they were moved out a week later...
Not much was known about PTSD in the 70's, since the war in Vietnam had only just ended. It would be years before this kind of psychological trauma would be better understood.
These teen conscripts would have to process the horrors of war on their own.
The SA Government, still obsessed with secrecy had the withdrawing columns hold up during the day and only cross the border back into SWA at night to avoid the prying eyes of journalists. There would be no heroes welcome.
Many of the returning troops were also segregated, at their bases, from the new intake of conscripts and some were not even allowed to communicate with them until their unceremonious discharge.
This would not be the first or last time a military has turned its back on its fighting men...
Other posts in this series
The piece of the cold war nobody told you about - Africa's forgotten war
The Air Battles
The SA Fighter Aircraft
The SA Bomber Aircraft
The conflicts deep roots and start
Africa's forgotten cold war - Angolan War of Independence.
Africa's forgotten cold war - Mozambican War of Independence.
Africa's forgotten cold war - Rhodesian Bush War
Africa's forgotten cold war - The Angolan War of Independence transitions to the Angolan Civil War
The South African Border War - The start of Operation Savannah and Large scale South African involvement.
The South African Border War - Operation Savannah - the wheels start coming off.
The South African Border War - Operation Savannah - Battle of Quifangondo
The South African Border War - Operation Savannah - Battle of Ebo
The South African Border War - Operation Savannah - Battle of Bridge 14
The South African Border War - Operation Savannah - Battle of Luso
The South African Border War - Operation Savannah comes to an end.