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A WHISPER IN THE REEDS
2nd Edition – Published by the author.
A gripping, personal account of one man’s journey through a border war that contributed to transforming a country from being the pariah of the world to a shining example of reconciliation, peace and hope.
From an idyllic childhood growing up on a sugar farm in Zululand, the story takes you through the realities of life during the Apartheid days in South Africa and the resultant call up for National Military Service during the 1970’s and ‘80’s. On completing his training, Justin Taylor graduated as a Signals Officer and volunteered for Border Duty in the operational area of the Angolan – Namibian border. There he joined the ranks of the secretive and little known 32 Battalion … the Portuguese speaking soldiers of whom were so feared by their enemies they were known as “Os Terriveis”…“The Terrible Ones”.
Drawn from the remnants of an Angolan rebel movement, 32 Battalion conducted secretive, clandestine operations into Angola at a time when South Africa was officially not at war with Angola. Taylor takes you through his ‘baptism of fire’ on arrival where he was thrust into offensive operations as an inexperienced junior officer responsible for the battalions communications. Nearly thrown out of the unit due to a communications failure, he put himself through a ‘retraining course’ with the units reconnaissance wing. This gave him the tools required for his subsequent deployment on combat operations. In pursuit of elusive guerrilla fighters, he details life as an anti-guerilla fighter on missions in the harsh and unforgiving conditions of the African bush and the intricacies of ground-to-air & ground-to- ground radio communications.
Most notable is his account of the Battle of Savate where, heavily outnumbered, the battalion attacked an enemy brigade deep in enemy territory with the odds stacked against them. Told from the perspective of his role as a junior officer in the HQ, he vividly recounts the horrors of battle with the turmoil of the killing and the loss of close friends and comrades, intertwined with the challenges of maintaining communications with the command and control difficulties of an HQ caught up in the heat of battle.
His following deployments into the bush were as a seasoned Signals Officer, culminating with his training of the replacement troops at the end of his service, arming them with the skills they would need to meet the standards required of a 32 Battalion Signaller.
On completing his military service, he found it difficult adjusting to civilian life back in South Africa. With the racial segregation of Apartheid still well entrenched at the time, he found it all the more difficult having returned from a unique army battalion that knew no colour … “When the shooting starts, it’s not about the colour of a man’s skin next to you that counts, it’s what he is capable of”.
And then the disbanding of the battalion with South Africa’s transformation to a democratic society in 1994, and with it the promise of a Rainbow Nation … it was as if the batten of racial integration had been passed from the unit to the country as a whole.
“First and foremost a soldier’s story, it is told without self-aggrandisement and with a balance of sensitivity together with the harsh realities of war. While the factual and detailed insights into the legendary 32 battalion are both intriguing and historically significant, it is in essence a human story. The anguish and emotions experienced by the author are honestly portrayed … and coupled with his wry sense of humour, it is a story easy to read and easy to identify with.”
Peter Chapman, South Africa: Amazon.com, Editorial Review, 2014
Tears, days of deep thoughts and clearer understanding
This book touched me so intensely that I am still captured by it. Reliving the pictures in my mind detailing the contrast between the battle of Savate for instance and the slumbering bush. An honest picture from all sides. Tears flowing, appreciating the photo of Three-two’s last parade….
John Oosthuizen; Amazon customer, Reviewed in the United States 2017. Verified Purchase, 5 out of 5 stars
Falcons right-hand man.
Justin Taylor comes across as a real mensch. He lived thorugh the crucible of the Battle of Savate , and now, so many years later, his stark recollections took me back to Angola via the Caprivi. He draws the reader in with unpretentious anecdote of the battle for Savate, from early preparations (he was the Signals Officer for that operation), through the naked trench-by-trench advance with no air cover or artillery support, the the sombre loneliness of standing down after an op that has taken some of your best mates forever. If you’r after a technical overview with stategy and tactics, this book is not for you; if you want a himan story that lays its soul bare without self-pity, then a A Whisper in the Reeds should be at the top of your bucked list. Well done Justin.
Hilton Ratcliffe; Warbooks.co.za Editorial Review 2018
I have just finished reading your story. Thank you for an amazing dialog. The emotions it brought back to me were incredibly overwhelming. Some of us have managed this past by forgetting all the facts. This story changed that coping technique of mine. Again, thank you.
2nd Lt Peter Pletts; Platoon Commander, 101 Battalion, SA Army, 1983
I am humbled by you and your fellow HQ comrades. I was not aware of how involved the HQ element had become in the Savate battle. I am impressed by the courage and fortitude you all displayed in what was a very intense battle. My thanks to you for making your personal memoire available. It is an honest account of your experiences as a young soldier in a very demanding environment.
Sergeant Kevin (Fitz) Fitzgerald; 32 Battalion Recce Group, SA Army 1980’s
Humour, truth, reality, tragedy, loss, fear….. only a few words to describe the emotions I went through when I read a “A Whisper in the Reeds”. Having been in the same war, sans the combat, I not only re-lived the whole experience, but got a different insight into the covert nature of “our” war. Justin’s style of writing is such that not only did I immediately relate to it, but it completely and utterly engrossed me. I could not put the book down until I had finished it.
Lt Henri Meistre, SA Signal Corps – 1980’s
I would like to thank you for the opportunity to read ‘A Whisper in the Reeds’. I could literally not put it down.
Apart from your account being riveting and empathic, it also highlighted a few unanswered questions I had about people close to me who experienced this war. It is the first time I have read an account of such a nature and it led me to better understand some important people in my life and how this war affected them …. quiet a wake-up call after reading your book. There are no words to describe my appreciation, respect and gratitude to you and those like you.Thank you.
Wendy Dodd, South Africa
I have just finished slowly savoring an outstanding classic of South Africa`s Bush War “A Whisper in the Reeds” …. Congratulations! I was struck by the sensitive, balanced and absolutely honest way in which you depicted your experiences with 32 Battalion, not shying away from some rather personal feelings. The story has an easy, natural flowing style, and your economic use of necessary detail gives it authority while providing an historical perspective that even outsider “civvies” can appreciate. You told it as it was.Thank you.
Colonel Stefanus van der Walt; 32 Battalion platoon & company commander (as a Lt &Capt) 1980’s
Nearly through this book of Justin’s. It has been a great read because it really expresses the sensations (sounds, smells, visual impacts) of those experiences. No other book really does this as they are usually written by a journalist who has drawn information from interviews and the accounts from others of what actually happened.
Lt (Dr) Tim Matthews MMM; 61 Mechanised Brigade, Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Angola. 1987
I have a keen interest in military history and especially books about this era and have read many of them but this one stands out head and shoulders above the rest. It is excellently written and in an honest yet casual, down to earth style together with an abundance of information pertinent to the psyche of Three-two Battalion operations and personnel. Justin has mastered the ability to open up his inner thoughts and emotions about a war many feel was fruitless; and in doing so he shows that war is as much about what we put in and loose as it is about what we ultimately learn and take away from it
Sergeant Peter Williams; 32 Battalion Reconnaissance Group, 1980’s
Thank you for sending me the rough manuscript … I’m impressed. Its factual without getting bogged down in the detail. I also thought it was honest, sincere, and respectful. Respectful of the time, the place and the people involved o both sides. Well done.
Cpl Shaun Prior; 32 Battalion Signals, 1980
Justin Taylor has written about his adventures and experiences as the Signals Officer at 32 Btn from the end of 1979 to the end of 1980, in a refreshing style. He has taken pains to record much detail, along with the anguish and emotions he experienced during that time, but with a strong sense of wry humour that makes it easy to identify with him and makes the book hard to put down. A great read about a chapter in the border war that is all too often misunderstood. I think this book goes a long way to explaining what was actually happening on the ground and why we as young South Africans doing our National Service were there. Highly recommended.
Lt Jock Findlay; Signals Officer, South African Army 1980: Amazon.com, reviewed in the United States on September 3, 2014, Verified Purchase, 5 out of 5 stars
Brilliantly written, great balance of sensitivity and harsh reality. A difficult time for many young men called up. Were you fighting communism on the border or to uphold apartheid? Simple but complicated and I guess many are still looking for the answers. This is a must read for anyone interested in the border war history of South Africa.
Amazon.com; Verified Purchase, reviewed in the United States on July 25, 2016, 5 out of 5 stars
Best read I’ve found next to Operation Koevoet by Hooper I’ve found!
Very engaging read, it was hard to put down once I started! I felt the authors emotion and I connected!
M N Lew; Amazon.com, Verified Purchase, Reviewed in the United States on September 22, 2017
Highly recommended !
What a great read! I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Justin recounts his time in 32 battalion with a healthy dose of humour, a little sadness but above all total honesty – no bravado and no melodramatics. A really uncomplicated, interesting peek into a world that the rest of us will never get remotely close to experiencing.
Amazon.com; Verified Purchase,Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 11, 2016. 5.0 out of 5 stars
A good read.
Interesting and well told. RSM Ueckerman was our RSM during basics and we never new about his past. This book is definitely worth reading.
Amazon.com; Verified Purchase, Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 2, 2020, 5 out of 5 stars
Good reading. This and Battle on the Lomba, both written from the perspective of national servicemen make me proud of my country and the men who fought for it
B. Horton; Amazon.com, Verified Purchase, Reviewed in the United Kingdom on October 10, 2017, 5 out of 5 stars
Completely Credible and Riveting
Justin Taylor’s descriptions are real and riveting. He takes you into his mind; his doubts, fears, sorrow and exhilaration together with the abject terror of combat. As one who has experienced a bush war in Southern Africa I found his book completely real. So sorry it ended when nit did, but that was his life.
Thank you Justin for a great read.
Amazon.com; Verified Purchase, Reviewed in Canada on August 15, 2018, 5 out of 5 stars
A War you might have missed…
Taylor captures the feel of the African Bush Wars that dominated several decades. Taylor combines genuine thoughtful observations with humble descriptions of his role in the battles he was part of. This book reinforces the universality of the soldiers experience and should be read by students of South African history as well as military history.
Without doubt the best book to emerge about the border war in Angola to date. An honest and insightful look at the bravery and sacrifice of the young men who left their homes and went to war.
Excellently written …. What a bunch of determined and committed people South Africans are in general. These guys so so stepped up to the plate and gave it their all. The huge sadness is that at the end they were abandoned by politicians and military alike and had to carry their scars alone and with no one to help them to bury the ghosts. We salute him and his fellow soldiers… theirs not to reason why, theirs simply to do and die !
This is one of the most profound and we’ll written books on war in general. The author is funny and charismatic throughout the whole book while also giving you a fresh perspective of the war on the border of Angola. The insight into the infamous battalion is equally incredible. One of my favorite books to have read and lucky to have met the author. Can’t say enough good things about the book.
I can’t explain how your book put me in a trance for a long time. I would wake up at night thinking of the layout of different bases and the people there. The night of Savate I will never forget. I was in Rundu and was asked to see that wounded men were as well cared for as possible in the hospital. Choppers never stopped coming in and we knew things did not go well. Things were very different that night and the next day. Very, very sombre. So many memories I wish that I had made notes of events and names. Your book is a great read. Thank you.
Lt Frank Ferriera; Rundu Army Base, 1980
It was first published in 2013 by Helion and GG Books in the UK. It was then ‘self-published’ by the author in 2020
How long did it take to write the manuscript for “A Whisper in the Reeds”
This took two and half years with my writing the story after hours
Was it difficult writing the story behind “A Whisper in the Reeds”
Yes, very difficult. It was an emotional roller coaster revisiting the memories of an emotionally turbulent time … sleepless nights and long walks to process it all again
What gave you the idea to write the story of “A Whisper in the Reeds”
I met up with Piet Nortje at the 2010 Savate re-union in Pretoria where he asked me to write my account of the Battle of Savate for historic reasons … when I hesitated about this in the months after we met he insisted I write it as I am the only officer that was in the HQ that day that is left alive. Of five HQ officers that went into the battle only two of us survived, the OC CmdtDeon Ferreira and myself … and CmdtDeon Ferreira has since died of natural causes in the 1990’s.
What motivated you to publish “A Whisper in the Reeds”
This took some convincing as it is a very personal account written for my two daughters and the Savate part for Piet Nortje for historical reasons. Not thinking anything would come of it I agreed to let Piet Nortje forward my manuscript to his publishers in the UK. They liked it and asked if I could flesh the story out for publishing … it took approximately six months to persuade me to agree to sign the publishing agreement in order to start the process of publishing the book
Will there be a movie made of “A Whisper in the Reeds”
If there is to be a movie it would be focused more on the battalion as a whole rather than on A Whisper in the Reeds.
Was it the right decision to publish “A Whisper in the Reeds”
Yes. While I didn’t set out to publish the story when I wrote it and was very hesitant about putting it out there, it has been both worthwhile and rewarding given the feedback and reviews from people who have read the book
What gave you the idea of writing your next book “Fighter Pilots & Polo Players”
Quiet simply I was concerned that when I die most of the history I have collated over the years on my father and grandfathers experiences as Fighter Pilots in the two World Wars would disappear unless I recorded it all in the form of a book
How long do you think it will take you to write the book “Fighter Pilots & Polo Players”
This should take at least two years. Although I have collected a lot of information over the years there is still a lot of research to be done. The coming of age of the internet and Wikipedia will make this task a lot easier.
Where did you learn to touch type ?
In the army of all places.
Are there any other books you are planning to write ?
Yes … but one step at a time !