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.


Wednesday 22 July 2020

Death Flight: Apartheid's Secret Doctrine of Disappearance

Death Flight: Apartheid’s Secret Doctrine of Disappearance
 (Tafelberg, Cape Town, South Africa, 2020). My sixth book to be published is now in many stores like Exclusive Books and will be available for sale both in hard-copy and as an e-book from Amazon and other platforms from 30 July.

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

In the late 1970s, as the apartheid government fought a desperate and dirty battle to stay in power, its security forces devised a chilling new tactic. A shadowy, top-secret unit called Delta 40 was established, tasked with the murder of hundreds of ANC, PAC, and SWAPO members. Victims’ bodies were flung from aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of South West Africa. Death Flight provides the first detailed account of these sinister missions. Seasoned investigative journalist Michael Schmidt traces the journey of Neil Kriel, Delta 40’s first commander, from his boyhood in Rhodesia to his dark deeds as an apartheid operative in the 1980s. Schmidt also tracks down Kriel’s partner, Colonel Johan Theron, as well as several other veteran Special Forces operators. Based on the detailed analysis of flight logs, court records, military studies, and numerous interviews, Death Flight sheds shocking new light on one of apartheid’s darkest chapters.

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

"This book will make your stomach turn. Do not avert your eyes… Death Flight shines a much-needed light on some of the darkest corners of a regime waging a desperate and dirty fight against the inevitable. It is the first detailed exploration of the horrendous practice of flinging murdered prisoners into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. By following the thread of apartheid’s violence into Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Swaziland, and Zambia, Death Flight elucidates the transnational nature of this crime against humanity. In so doing, it raises fascinating questions about the role of international law in the attainment of hitherto evasive justice… Death Flight is a daring mission to salvage the ghosts of those who were thought to have been eternally dissolved, by apartheid Special Forces, deep in the oceanic waters off our shores. It is destined to become an invaluable tool, connecting the dots in the quest to ensure that no victim of the deadly hand of apartheid is left unaccounted for." – Nkosinathi Biko, son of the murdered Steve Biko, and board member of the Steve Biko Foundation

"… full of information but also packed with incredible scenes, worthy of a spy novel… absolutely breathtaking. The similarity of illegal repression groups’ practices, organised from the state, between South Africa and Argentina has yet to be analysed. The fact that Rubén Chamorro, the director of the School of Navy Mechanics, site of the main clandestine detention centre, where 4,000 were assassinated in death flights, was appointed Navy Attaché in the Argentine Embassy in Pretoria back in 1979 cannot be a coincidence. At that time, across the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of anti-apartheid activists were being eliminated using exactly the same method… The lesson seems to be that no peace can be achieved without justice, and no justice can be achieved with oblivion." – Miriam Lewin, Argentine journalist, survivor of two illegal detention centers, and author of two books on the Argentine death flights, Skyvan and Final Destination

"Gripping and important… very well researched." – Jakkie Cilliers, military expert and author 

"An intriguing read that lays bare the inhumanity of Apartheid crimes. It does so despite the best efforts of the criminals to hide their crimes. May we never forget the lives lost in the struggle for our freedom." – Lukhanyo Calata, son of the murdered Fort Calata, journalist and co-author of the book My Father Died for This. 

“The work he has done before Death Flight speaks for itself, but with this book he has gone further, challenged not only himself but all of us in his quest for truth and in revealing injustice. What I appreciate about Michael’s work is that it is brave and uncompromising. He has been talking to me about his research and everything he uncovered while writing this book. I have been struck not only by his commitment to telling a part of history that most of us might find too uncomfortable to know, but also by how much of his heart has gone into this book. I hope everyone gets a chance to read Death Flight because we cannot afford not to know the details of this part of our history.  We cannot afford to look away from the lives we lost, but most importantly, we cannot afford to go on thinking that history can only be seen as black and white.”  – Kagiso Lesego Molope, South African novelist 


Foreword by Nkosinathi Biko

Prologue Disappeared men tell no tales 

PART I: The Rhodesian roots of SA’s dirty war 

1. A youth in the shadow of an insurgent war
2. From Pretoria bar to Rhodesian bush
3. Behold a pale horse: Rhodesia’s biochemical warfare
4. Horrors and honours
5. Neo-Nazis and mercenaries enter the fray
6. ‘The doctored bodies are in the back’

PART II: A secret killing machine takes shape 

7. Black-ops boon for South Africa
8. Recruiting a few hard men
9. Rhodesia’s revenge
10. Mobilising against the ‘Total Onslaught’ 
11. The ‘hunter-killers’ of Koevoet 
12. SA’s small-team recce pioneer 
13. ‘Ex-Rhodesians became cannon fodder’ 
14. Delta 40 embraces the ‘Dark Side’
15. The first death flight
16. ‘I never counted the bodies’
17. A death flight victim fights back
18. An old Recce gets blooded

PART III: The shackles come off: From Delta 40 to Barnacle

19. Mandate to kill
20. A war crime at Lanseria
21. Two hammers: Barnacle kills its own
22. The founding chief’s last flights
23. Barnacle in its prime
24. ‘Like a James Bond movie’
25. A changing of the guard
26. Barnacle’s role in the Maseru Raid
27. Small-teams success
28. Trained, betrayed, murdered
29. The Wonder Air death flight
30. A death flight over the Indian Ocean
31. Barnacle’s final small-teams mission

PART IV: Dramatic expansion under the CCB 

32. ‘The Organisation’ takes shape
33. Parallel pseudo-ops teams
34. The elimination of Victor de Fonseca 
35. The CCB’s Inner Circle
36. The Cessna Caravan death flight
37. Resistance by Speskop’s new Air Ops chief
38. The End of Operation Dual

PART V: Aftermath: Our Pact of Forgetting

39. The end of the Border War
40. The CCB shuts down
41. Shadow-boxing: The Trial of the Generals
42. Half-truths at the Truth Commission
43. Dual exposed: the Wouter Basson trial
44. (Re)disappearing the disappeared
45. Quietus: the founding chief’s exit


Saturday 11 July 2020

This Nothingness

This Nothingness
© Michael Schmidt, 2020

now this is something, this nothingness
if i suddenly stop, the afterecho of 
the wet suck of my boots is all there is
even the rasp of my breath wisps away
there's the ruin of a chinese lantern
some sort of unseen bird in the hedgerow
and the far cadence of a siren
like the tutored grief of a professional mourner
in twilit eighteenth-dynasty egypt
the sky a bruised smear, a beaten dancer
the television tower off-channel like alexanderplatz
the cycads silent detonations of rust
the buildings cavernous, unwelcoming
no-one lives here anymore
smirks the marlin
the fishermen have all drowned in their nets
they dream like garcía lorca
the bullet humming in his brain like a bee
of vines entangling our skyscrapers
of anacondas loving our dreams to death
were we beautiful in transit
were we something to behold
an ectoplasmic comet
barely there, and then gone?