Covert ops out in the light

2014-12-13 00:00

A KWAZULU-NATAL ex-soldier whose elite unit was tasked to sabotage those perceived to be the enemy, has now lifted the lid on years of clandestine seaborne operations.

And now his search for information on their covert missions has led him to an unexpected friendship with a Russian soldier, one who used to clean up the destruction left by the South African defence force.

Steyn and former explosive ordinance officer in the Russian Navy, Maxim Ivanov, met face to face for the first time in ­Durban last week, finding new common ground as old soldiers reminiscing about their time in battle.

After serving two decades in the SANDF, Douw Steyn (59) from Durban North, decided to document top secret missions conducted during his service in the army.

The former Lieutenant Colonel was part of a team of highly qualified troops that sabotaged countries like Angola and Mozambique – from bombing oil refineries and harbour infrastructure to sinking enemy ships and even destroying ANC offices.

All this is now revealed in Steyn’s book Iron Fist from the Sea, which is co-authored by retired army admiral Arne Soderland. It was launched two weeks ago.

Born in Ermelo in Mpumalanga, Steyn matriculated in Klerksdorp High School.

The father of three joined the army in 1973. “In 1976 I did my first military operation, Operation Savannah in Angola; we blew up bridges and other sabotage work.”

“We did raids into countries like Angola, Mozambique and Cabinda, destroying strategic targets like oil refineries and depots. We also sank enemy ships, I always feared being caught by the Russians,” said Steyn.

In 1996 he left the military and in 2006 set out to document his past life.

“I thought writing a book would be easy, all I had to do was interview a few people who were part of the operations,” said Steyn.

But his former colleagues had only scattered memories about the operations.

“So I decided to write a letter to the Minister of Defence requesting the declassification of 42 covert operations we had done,” he explained.

Three months later Steyn received correspondence from the minister’s office and was handed 100 top secret files of operations conducted between 1978 and 1988.

During his research, Steyn stumbled upon the Russian Veterans of Angola who provided him with vital information.

They also led him to Ivanov, who according to Steyn, was the “missing puzzle piece that he needed to complete his book”.

“He told me about how had placed his life in danger by diving under oceans to disarm bombs we had planted on ­Russian ships,” said Steyn.

The men communicated via e-mail, exchanging information about their work.

Over the year they developed a friendship so strong that Ivanov travelled from Russia to South Africa to meet Steyn, a dream come true for both men.

Ivanov was later awarded the Red Star, the highest achievement for bravery in the Russian Army.

“I always dreamt of having wine or beer talking about what we had been through. Can you imagine how the world changes? Twenty five years ago we were enemies and today we are like brothers,” said Ivanov.

“This just shows that the world is moving forward. We are going to remain friends for life. Who knows? Maybe he will visit me in Russia next year,” said Ivanor, bursting into laughter.


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