Thursday 30 July 2020

Death Flight: Brief for Modern African and Military Historians

Michael Schmidt, left, interviews the late Sergeant-Major Trevor Floyd, one of the original "Dirty Dozen" founders of the Recces over 1970-1972, co-founder of D40 in 1979, and the unit's longest-serving member until the CCB was disbanded. Photographed on 20 October 2010 © Byron Kennedy

‘They must never return… This was the only answer.’ – Colonel Johan Theron, Delta 40 co-founder

‘Those were extremely sensitive operations that must never go in[to] any book…’ – Colonel Charl Naudé, commander of Project Barnacle, Delta 40’s successor

From veteran defence correspondent and best-selling non-fiction author Michael Schmidt comes the first-ever detailed military doctrinal study of the shrouded origins – reaching back to its roots in the black ops of the famed Selous Scouts – of one of South African Special Forces’ most controversial projects, the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB). Military expert and author Jakkie Cilliers calls the book “Gripping and important… very well researched.”

For the student of modern African and military history, Death Flight: Apartheid’s Secret Doctrine of Disappearance (Tafelberg, Cape Town, 2020) is a unique doctrinal study of the origins, formation, and operations of D40 and its successors, Barnacle and the CCB, the civilian-clothed pseudo-operations unit tasked from April 1979 to July 1990 with the clandestine elimination of enemies targeted by the South African Defence Force (SADF) at the height of its Cold War powers. 

Under the overarching aegis of “total war” doctrine (André Beaufre, Algerian War), Schmidt’s focus is on the evolution of “pseudo-gang” doctrine (Ian Henderson, Mau Mau Uprising), especially within the Selous Scouts and its assigned Special Branch and chemical/biological warfare details during the Rhodesian Bush War, and their marked influence on South Africa’s Special Forces, colloquially known as the Recces. 

Schmidt theorises – in an monograph that will shortly follow the publication of the book – that such small-team pseudo-ops as conducted by the D40/Barnacle/CCB line form the micro-tactical end of the SADF’s military counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine which had at its other end the macro-tactical doctrine of nuclear deterrence.

The book, which is already provoking heated debate among former Recces and Military Intelligence officers, traces the Rhodesian imprint from early collaborations in the field between the two countries’ security forces from 1967 into the creation of D40 in 1979 and of the short-lived 3 and 6 Reconnaissance Commandos in 1980 until this influence was diluted with the expansion of Barnacle into the CCB over April 1987 to January 1988.

The text is based on rare and exclusive face-to-face interviews with veterans of the unit including its adviser Colonel Johan Theron who was Special Forces HQ Senior Staff Officer Counter-intelligence, Recce founding icon and the unit’s longest-serving member Sergeant-Major Trevor Floyd (who died shortly before the book’s release), and Barnacle’s second Officer Commanding, Colonel Charl Naudé. Also described is the shadowy pseudo-ops ecosystem that supported D40/Barnacle (Military Intelligence's Daisy, and Departure), as well as other pseudo-ops units and sub-unit elements that flanked it, run by the Security Branch (C1, better known as “Vlakplaas”), the Recce regiments, South West Africa Police (Koevoet), Eastern Cape Command (the Hammer Unit), and the National Intelligence Service. 

The core of Schmidt’s work is, however, D40/Barnacle/CCB’s most occluded and notorious function, Operation Dual, under which several hundred prisoners-of-war and other detainees were murdered and dumped in the oceans from a light aircraft over 1979-1987. This is the application by the SADF of what he terms the “secret doctrine” of death flights (Guillaume de Fontanges, Malagassy Insurrection) which was earlier practiced in Vietnam, Algeria, and Latin America. Argentine death flight investigator and author Miriam Lewin says the book is “Outstanding… packed with incredible scenes worthy of a spy novel, absolutely breathtaking.”

With interviews ranging from corporals through Recce regimental commanders and up to Deputy Chief of the Army level, plus the detailed reconstruction of pilot’s log-books, court testimony, and numerous other textual sources, the book also examines the varied attempts to deal with the CCB’s legacy into the 2000s and so will be of interest to transitional justice specialists too. Illustrated with organisational diagrams and rare photographs, this is a ground-breaking portrait of the men, mandates, matériel, evolution, and operations of apartheid’s most benighted killing machine.

Death Flight is available now from all quality bookstores in Southern Africa like Exclusive Books, and will be available internationally in both its print and e-book versions from platforms like Amazon from the end of July 2020.