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Today's Honour Roll

April
22
Today's Honour Roll recognizes 177 Australians who fell on this day in history.
See Full List
Name Date of Death Conflict
WARSKITT, Kenneth 22 Apr 1917 World War 1
MARGINSON, George Melbourne 22 Apr 1918 World War 1
HUGHES, Robert Edward 22 Apr 1970 Vietnam War
COLE, James 22 Apr 1917 World War 1
TANNER, Albert Alfred 22 Apr 1941 World War 2

UNTAG in Namibia - 1989

UNTAG in Namibia - 1989

In 1989, Australia sent 613 personnel to Namibia as part of the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) on a peacekeeping mission. At that time it was the largest contingent of Australian troops deployed since the Vietnam War.

Portuguese explorers first set foot in Namibia in 1485, and over the next 500 years the country was colonised by the Dutch, English and Germans. Namibia became a German colony in 1884 (known as German South West Africa) before it was annexed by South Africa during the First World War. At the completion of World War Two, South Africa refused to place Namibia under UN trusteeship. It took until 1966 for the UN General Assembly to resolve the issue by issuing Resolution 264, which officially declared Namibia the direct responsibility of the UN and the presence of South Africa in Namibia illegal.

A series of conflicts ensued as the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the military arm of the South West Africa People's Organisation (SWAPO), began attacking South African forces and infiltrating bases in Zambia. The Namibian War of Independence escalated into what became known as the South African Border War when other groups began to align with the PLAN. Across the border in Angola, Cuba had deployed troops in support of the leftist People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA). The FAPLA were competing against two right-wing groups for control of the country, the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Both were supported by United States-backed South African and Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) troops. Cuban and FAPLA forces aligned with the PLAN against their common South African enemy, and supported PLAN insurgency operations such as recruitment of members, armed propaganda activity and raids on political activists and white settlements.


SWAPO guerrillas inspecting a captured Casspir (a mine resistant vehicle used by the South African military). Their leader and later Namibian President Sam Nujoma is depicted in lighter clothing.
December 1987
SWAPO Party Gallery

UNTAG was established by UN Security Council Resolution 435, which was formally accepted by Cuba, Angola and South Africa in 1978. Resolution 435 aimed to achieve “the withdrawal of South Africa's illegal administration from Namibia and the transfer of power to the people of Namibia with the assistance of the United Nations”. It also authorised UNTAG to deploy up to 7,500 troops in Namibia to oversee the withdrawal.

In Australia in the 1970’s, Prime Ministers Whitlam and Fraser were active in their international support of an independent Namibia, and were involved in the UN process of removing South Africa from the beginning. Australia pledged its support to UNTAG in 1978. A 300 plus man squadron consisting mainly of the 17th Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers and supplementary Field Troops were given 8 weeks notice to move in July. Unsuccessful negotiations between South Africa and SWAPO continually postponed the deployment date until September 1979 when the unit was released from standby. A breakthrough was finally made in 1988, and the UN asked Australia once again to commit to troop deployment. Within a month, Foreign Minister Gareth Evans reaffirmed Australia’s commitment of 300 engineers to Namibia.

After many years of false alarms, the Australian government was unsure if the deployment would occur, and were cautious in funding the operation. Many politicians disagreed with the reluctance to commit funds and voiced their concerns in parliament. Tasmanian senator Jocelyn Newman even labelled the government’s actions “disgraceful”.[i] The budget was finally approved on 1 March 1989, officially authorising the commencement of ‘Operation Picaresque’. The majority of the 1st Australian contingent deployed for Namibia on 14 April 1989. An advance party of 36 had been sent a month earlier.

The Australian force was structured into two contingents, 1ASC commanded by Colonel Richard Warren and 2ASC commanded by John Crocker. Other notable appointments included Lieutenant Colonels Kevin Pippard (1ASC) and Ken Gillespie (2ASC), as well as 17th Construction Squadron Commanding Officers Majors David Cargo (1ASC) and Brendan Sowry (2ASC).

The force deployed with a huge quantity of mechanical equipment, including over 200 vehicles and trailers as well as demolition explosives and ammunition. The supplies were unloaded in Walvis Bay before being transported to the South African Defence Force Logistics Base at Grootfontein.


The three different types of mine resistant vehicles (left to right: Casspir, Buffel and Wolf) used by Australian forces in Namibia.
November 1989
AWM P03485.025

The withdrawal of South African troops was not the only goal UNTAG set out to achieve in Namibia. The force, which at its largest comprised of over 8,000 personnel from 120 different countries, also supervised the first general election in independent Namibia, as well as facilitated the return of Namibian refugees.

Australian soldiers were involved in conflict as soon as they landed in Namibia. On 1 April, a large contingent of PLAN combatants attempted to re-enter Namibia from Angola. The Australian force was the first to learn of this information. An intense period of fighting between SWAPO and the South African Defence Force (SADF) followed, resulting in the loss of 21 SADF soldiers and 324 SWAPO/PLAN guerrillas.

On the 9th of April, the UN called for the rapid deployment of UNTAG forces to help end the fighting and provide safe passage for PLAN soldiers. Operation Piddock (a sub operation within the larger Operation Safe Passage) required Australian engineers of 1ASC and British signallers to work as infantry and man checkpoints within Namibia and along the border. The aim was to assist in the peaceful withdrawal of PLAN troops.

The operation was extremely difficult and ultimately unsuccessful, as most PLAN combatants either remained in Namibia to merge with the local population, or ignored the checkpoints on the border and withdrew independently. The SADF positioned soldiers immediately adjacent many of the checkpoints, pointing machine guns at the outnumbered Australian and British troops in an attempt to intimidate them. Tensions escalated to the point where a grenade was thrown at an Australian-manned checkpoint at Ruacana by a SADF soldier. Thankfully, it did not detonate and no one was harmed. Despite the best efforts of the Australian and British forces, multiple SWAPO casualties occurred in the near vicinity of checkpoints. Colonel Richard Warren reported that he was “amazed none of his men [were] killed or seriously injured” during Operation Piddock.

The conclusion of Operation Safe Passage meant the Australian contingent could begin their engineering tasks. Over the course of their deployment, 1ASC were responsible for building electoral centres and police stations, as well as the construction of an airstrip in the remote city of Opuwo. They also built multiple camps and reception centres to house returning Namibian refugees. By the end of the UNTAG mission, the Australian contingents’ had assisted in returning 42,736 Namibians to their home country.


A polling station in Eenhana, Namibia built by 9 Troop, 17th Construction Squadron.
AWM P02123.009


The Opuwo airstrip during renovations conducted by 17th Construction Squadron
December 1989
Wikimedia Commons

The Australian force was rotated between September and October in 1989 as 1ASC returned home and 2ASC were deployed. The main mission of 2ASC was to support the Namibian elections in a mission named Operation Poll Gallop. 2ASC constructed and provided support at 120 of the 350 UNTAG-built polling stations during the elections. They also continued the work of 1ASC in the construction and maintenance of UNTAG accomodations including schools and hydroelectric plants. Twice during their deployment, the 2ASC Ready-Reaction force (a collection of 50 2ASC troops) was used to control Namibian rioters.

UNTAG ensured the Namibian elections were unencumbered and conducted fairly. Over 97% of the population participated in the vote. SWAPO won the election with 57% of the vote, meaning their leader Sam Nujoma became the first Prime Minister of Namibia. The Namibian constitution was adopted on 9 April 1989 and Namibian Independence Day was celebrated on the 21st. Namibia was also inducted as the 160th member of the UN. In the months that followed, any remaining SADF forces were withdrawn and Namibia began functioning as a democratic, independent state. The Namibian and South African governments established formal diplomatic relations despite their recent hostile history.

The UNTAG mission as a whole was considered a resounding success by the UN and its member states. In just over a year of occupation, 19 UN personnel were killed. There were no Australian casualties. The last of 2ASC disembarked from Namibia on 9 April 1990.

The Australian UNTAG contingent were awarded a Chief of the General Staff Commendation in 1990, and were linked to the Nobel Peace Prize of 1988, which was shared by all UN peacekeeping missions world-wide. In 2012, the 17th Construction Squadron was awarded the Honour Distinction after Army Chief Lieutenant General David Morrison AO approved their recommendation. In his letter of approval addressed to the Governor-General, Morrison wrote:

“With the selfless support of individuals from other units of the Australian Defence Force, 17 Construction Squadron played a key role in the smooth and effective transition of Namibia from colonial rule to independence. The Squadron performed a role well beyond what was expected and brought great credit on itself, the Australian Army and Australia.”


A copy of the Chief of the General Staff Commendation awarded to the Australian contingent to UNTAG
March 1990
Wikimedia Commons

The work of UNTAG is still felt in Namibia today. It is one of the safest and well-run countries in Africa and remains a democratic republic. It is important to remember the contribution of the Australian contingents to the UNTAG mission, from their engineering and peacekeeping efforts to their contribution to the first Namibian election.

References:

Awm.gov.au, 2020 | The Australian War Memorial [online], Available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1029905>.

Awm.gov.au, 2020 | The Australian War Memorial [online], Available at: <https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/CN500095>.

En.wikipedia.org, 2020 Australian Contribution To UNTAG [online], Available at: <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_contribution_to_UNTAG>.

Vwma.org.au, 2020 Virtual War Memorial [online], Available at: <https://vwma.org.au/explore/campaigns/82>.

[i] ‘Hansard, Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade”, 29 May 1991.