“What the hell? Why didn’t they explode?” Musa asked Sipho as they strained to see the oil storage tanks in the distance.
They were perched on a ridge about two miles from the refinery where they had planted four limpet mines at around midnight. It was now 2 a.m., and the bombs should have gone off precisely on the hour.
“What do we do?” Sipho asked. “It would take us too long to go back and adjust the timers. It will be daylight. We’d easily be spotted.”
“Let me think,” Musa said. As the leader of the operation, he would have to call it off or salvage it.
It was late 1980, and in mid-year, the African National Congress had successfully destroyed much of the Sasol refinery where coal was made into oil and petroleum products. However, the apartheid government was still firmly in control of South Africa. The ANC needed to continue its campaign of infrastructure sabotage, and Musa and Sipho were meant to inflict further damage on another one of the Sasol refineries. However, the South Africans were on a higher alert after the successful previous strike. Musa and Sipho had devised a way to lull into complacency the night guard at their targeted plant. The plan was simple: throw rabbits over the fence on random nights to distract the patrolling security officer and his dog. Sipho was an expert at trapping the wild hares that populated the region. That part of the undertaking had taken nearly two months, but the guard had grown increasingly aggravated with his furry friend’s frantic barking about seemingly nothing. Hares are quick and not easily seen at night.
With that successful preparation, they were ready to complete their assignment. Early in the day of their attack, they traveled to a spot near the refinery. With the aid of a map, they located the four explosive devices buried in a shallow grave. They were bubble-wrapped and carefully taped to keep out moisture and dirt. Next, they took the contraptions out of their packaging and stored them in their backpacks. Musa and Sipho then waited in the glen where the bombs were hidden until late into the night.
It was a cool, pleasant evening, the sky mostly clear of clouds, revealing the sparkling of a million stars. A perfect night for their mission. At about 11 p.m., when all had been quiet at the refinery for several hours, Musa and Sipho approached the perimeter fence with the deadly devices secure in their knapsacks. The storage tanks loomed in the luminescence light like giant white cylinders, mushrooms without caps. They cut a semicircle low down on the wire security fence, making sure to leave a portion at the bottom uncut. No alarms sounded. The South Africans still had not had time to do anything more than increase the evening patrols. They folded the cutaway part downward and inward.
After throwing their rucksacks inside the fence, they crawled in after them, stood up, and listened. Nothing. They pulled up the wire fencing behind them and meticulously returned it to its original position. The fence appeared undamaged unless you got very close and scrutinized it. They would need to do the same on the way out: they did not want the mines to be detected and defused.
Musa had already chosen the two oil containers they would blow up. The towering tanks were near each other, and the idea was to plant the explosives high on one of them to ignite it in a massive blast. The other tank would be hit low, allowing the oil to flow out and hopefully damage other storage units. Sipho would place his two bombs on the side near the first tank to flame the fire that would follow. Two limpets would be put on each tower in case one did not go off.
As Sipho and Musa walked towards their tanks, they heard the guard’s dog howling. Loudly. They dashed to the opposite side of their respective tanks and waited. The patrolman and his canine could be heard approaching. The officer was exasperated at the ruckus and was restraining the dog. As they closed in on Musa’s tank, Musa circled in the opposite direction of the barking. The guard and his furious animal also circumnavigated the oil containers but never spotted Musa.
After fully rotating around the tank, Musa could hear the guard talking to his dog. Musa stifled a laugh. The security officer was asking his canine why he was barking at him. The bloke then told his hound that he was tired and that they would get some sleep. The dog kept barking, but the noise faded into the blackness of the night.
Musa climbed the ladder leading to the top of his oil tank while Sipho attached his two mines to his giant oil drum. Having placed his two limpets near the top of the cylinder, Musa descended. They gathered their empty backpacks and exited the way they came in, bringing up the wire fencing behind them.
The walk to their observation hill was long and arduous. They avoided the roads to keep from being seen by passing vehicles. The moon was out, but it was a silver sliver, shedding little light on the bushes and trees they needed to circumvent to reach their destination. Hours passed, and they were exhausted when they finally flopped down to watch the refinery in the distance.
“Musa, what do we do if the bombs don’t go off?”
“I’m still thinking,” Musa said. “It’s a long way back, and I am tired. Like that guard, I want to get home and get some sleep. Also, if we headed back and they blew up when we were near, we would be caught.”
“We have to cancel the operation?” Sipho asked. “We failed?”
Just then, there was a massive explosion, like the thunder after a lightning bolt. Musa and Sipho turned toward the oil facility and saw an enormous fireball emanating from Musa’s tank. The fire was spreading. Another boom! The trick with Sipho’s tank must have worked. Hopefully, there would be more oil containers put to flames. But they could not delay.
They would later learn that the timers were slow on their batch of limpet mines, but for now, they rose from their prone positions, dusted themselves off, and headed in the direction of Swaziland. After reaching that country, they would need to transit into Mozambique and report on their mission’s success.