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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Establishing the force



At 2 pm on 11 March 1989 a United States Air Force C-5 Galaxy aircraft circled J.G. Strijdom Airport (now Chief Hosea Kutako International Airport), about 40 kilometres east of the Namibian capital, Windhoek, before alighting warily in the ‘battle zone’. For Australia's first ‘combat’ troops to be deployed overseas since the Vietnam War, it was a dramatic moment. As one South African newspaper reported, the Australians ‘leapt out in full battledress with filled water bottles, semi-automatic rifles at the ready, and sprinted to circle the (USAF) aircraft to secure the area’, but relaxed ‘when they saw only the wind blowing through the grass’. A journalist, writing perhaps from the distance of the airport bar, observed that once the Australian commander ‘realised that his first day in Windhoek was not going to be at all like the last day in Saigon, but more like a dry and dusty afternoon in Alice Springs, they relaxed, abashed and a trifle sheepish’.

The story was an exaggeration – the Australians were certainly wearing webbing and were carrying rifles, but had merely stood around on the tarmac – yet it was still being repeated years later. It was, however, the first glimpse of South Africa's sensitivity and jealousy. The Australians were to bear the brunt of South African resentment for at least two reasons. First, many South Africans believed that the United Nations was dominated by anti-Western nations, and the Australians were the first formed unit of the UN force to arrive.

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