Koevoet was the colloquial name given a police paramilitary unit based in South West Africa (now Namibia) during the South African border war in the 1980’s. Its official name was SWAPOL-COIN (South West African Police counterinsurgency), but Koevoet (translated as Crowbar) was just easier for everyone concerned. It compared the insurgent to a nail, buried in the wood, which would then be pulled by Koevoet.
During the ‘war’, Soviet and Cuban trained insurgent troops were crossing the Angolan border on foot and then heading south into the interior of the country to wage asymmetric warfare against soft targets. It was very difficult to track and kill these insurgents with conventional military forces. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, these insurgents looked exactly like the local population, spoke the same language and were very difficult to differentiate by foreign troops. Koevoet developed very unique tactics to fight these insurgents effectively and had the highest kill ratio for any unit in the conflict.
Koevoet was a joint unit comprising of South African police officers and local Ovambos who acted as trackers and light infantry. The Ovambos were peerless trackers and could with exceptional accuracy tell the difference between a local and an insurgent (through accents and mannerism). They were also familiar with the terrain and well adapted to the harsh bush climate.
Koevoet would usually deploy in four or five mine protected armored personnel carriers, known as Casspirs. These were all terrain vehicles with a V-shaped hull. The design of the hull deflected the blast of a mine or IED to either side of the vehicle. Casspirs could protect their occupants from three Russian TM-57 anti-tank mines detonating underneath one of the vehicles tires.
The battle group was usually also supported by an armored tanker and a recovery vehicle (depending on the operational range). The group would drive to an area that they suspected insurgents were moving through, the trackers would then dismount and look for tracks left by insurgents. They could cover a lot of ground quickly. Trackers would alternate, mounting the vehicle, taking on water and resting while another tracker dismounted to take his place.
Having found tracks one of the Casspirs would then leap frog the column and drive a distance in advance of the others, although not so far that he couldn’t quickly be reinforced. The trackers would then dismount and look for tracks. If tracks were found the lead Casspir would radio the others and the column would quickly catch up. The exercise would then be repeated.
This allowed the Koevoet unit to very quickly gain on the insurgents. The insurgents knowing they were being hunted would begin to move faster, tiring themselves out and being easier to track and subsequently kill. Its only later in the conflict that they developed their own counter tactic called ‘bomb shelling’ where they would scatter in different directions all at once, making them much harder to hunt down and kill.
Once the trackers sensed that the insurgent group was close they would quickly mount their vehicles again. The Casspirs changed formation from a column to a line and engaged the insurgents, often at very close range.
Insurgents were almost always engaged from the Casspirs using the ‘high-ground’ advantage from the turret mounted weapons and the gun ports in the crew compartment. The Casspir itself was also often used as a weapon driving over insurgents who were firing from prone or ramming trees that were being used as cover. Fleeing insurgents were often run down and crushed.
If the insurgent group was too large or deemed to have too many anti-tank weapons the Casspirs would engage with mortars from a distance or call in air support to break the group up into more manageable components.
- The Casspirs, while mine protected, were vulnerable to Russian made RPG7’s. A frontal hit from an RPG7 could (theoretically) slice right through a Casspir and kill everyone inside, especially in close quarters combat where the operator of the RPG was less likely to miss.
- Casspirs often traveled ‘open top’, because of the oppressive heat, they were vulnerable to fragmentation and phosphorus grenades being thrown in. Also if the crew were sitting on top of the vehicle when it hit a mine or IED they could be seriously injured or killed.
- Close Quarters Combat is fast and chaotic. It required the individual Casspirs to maintain line discipline and co-ordinate effectively, something that was often difficult to do with terrain (ravines, fallen trees, rocks and heavy scrub)
- While (usually) outgunned the insurgent gets to pick the place the battle takes place and often gets to shoot first.
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