Source “Die Verste Sektor” (2016) by Johan van Wyngaard
Soon after midnight on 23 August 1978, at 01:15, Katima Mulilo was woken by a wave of explosions. Within one minute six 122mm rockets came screaming across the river and fell in and around town. The last rocket hit a barrack inside Katima Mulilo military base, just as soldiers were scrambling to leave the building. Ten were wounded, and ten were killed outright.
PLAN was bombarding Katima Mulilo from like-named Katima Mulilo in Zambia, 9km away. The artillery men were in radio communication with an observation post at Sesheke, from which the fire was directed: “No, that rocket is over by 1.000m, reduce the range. No, by 300m, reduce!” As soon as the target was hit they were told to concentrate fire. However, things did not quite go according to plan. The artillery men got conflicting information: “We hit that hostel, and if we had continued we would have hit a lot of army barracks. But someone said, you must change direction. So after that we missed.”
At the South African side the newly installed Cymbeline radar system, as well as the Cook sound detection system, were put to immediate use to find the enemy position. At the moment the attack started, a patrol from Wenela base was moving along the border, and at 01:19 they reported the direction and distance of the gun’s position. It took a few more minutes – minutes that felt like hours – until exact coordinates were established. But at 01:26 Wenela base started returning fire with 81mm mortars and some minutes later Golf base followed with the 140mm cannons.
Once they had targets, the South Africans were loading and firing as fast as they could. From Sesheke 81mm mortars had also joined the assault. Since South Africa’s large cannons were located inland, rockets and mortars from both sides were now criss-crossing over Katima Mulilo. It was a terrifying commotion of blasts and explosions.
After twenty-five minutes, the SWAPO 122mm guns stopped: “We had 40 rockets. When the South Africans joined, we were already almost finished.” Expecting the South African military to come after them, the PLAN fighters wasted no time but immediately moved north towards their bases deep in Zambia. The South African artillery, when they detected that the SWAPO guns were quiet, started aiming the 140mm gun at possible retreat routes, up to 10km into Zambia.
Meanwhile, back at Sesheke and Katima Mulilo the battle was by no means over. Zambia had joined in, and for the next hour and a half the South African Defence Force exchanged fire with the Zambian National Defence Force, which had its base at Sesheke.
Finally, at 03:30 all went quiet. It was time to see to the dead and wounded, and to appraise the damage. Many artillery shells had fallen outside Katima Mulilo and Sesheke, but still the destruction was extensive. No numbers are available for SWAPO and the ZNDF, but according to their records, the South African military fired off 600 rounds of artillery, 400 81mm mortars and 315 60mm mortars.
That was not the end either. While the PLAN soldiers were making their way back to base, South Africa started preparing their pursuit. They would move across the border at first light.