- Commandant Johan Dippenaar
- Captain Thys Rall
- WO1 MC Barnard
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
- 2 x Mechanised Infantry Companies from 1 SAI Bn
1 x Anti tank platoon
1 x 81mm Mortar platoon
Com logistic personnel
- 1 x Armoured Car Squadron plus support troop from 1 SSB or 2 SSB
- 1 x Artillery Battery from 4 Artillery Field Regiment
- 1 x Engineers Troop from 16 Maintenance unit
Overview by the Commander
The request to establish a mechanized unit
In October 1978 I accompanied the then Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Constand Viljoen during inspection to commando units in the Karoo when he asked me if I would be prepared to establish a permanent mechanized unit in the South West Africa operational area. My immediate answer was yes and I added that I saw it as a great challenge.
In November 1978 I was appointed SO 1 Operation Planning at 2 Military Area Head Quarters (later to be known as Sector 10 headquarters) at Oshakati, as well as the commander of the newly established mechanized unit, which was to be stationed at Oshivello. I immediately started to plan for the establishment of this new mechanized unit.
On 5 January 1979 my wife, our 3 minor children and I arrived at Oshakati where our family would stay. On our arrival we were welcomed by the only other member of the unit at that time, namely Lieutenant Neels Halgryn, the quartermaster.
Battle Group Juliet
Battle Group Juliet was the name used for the equipment stored at Grootfontein that was earmarked for ad hoc military operations and during 1978 this equipment was used by Commandant Joep Joubert and later by Commandant Frank Bestbier when they commanded mechanized units in operations like Operation Reindeer.
Establishing a base for the new mechanized unit
On my first visit to Oshivello I found approximately 200 infantry soldiers staying in tents, scattered through the bushes. These soldiers were from Alpha Company of 1 SAI Battalion from Tempe, Bloemfontein under command of Major Ep van Lill from Battle Group Juliet.
I did a reconnaissance of the area and decided that the unit had to be established at a place called Omuthiya, an Ovambo name which means “camel thorn tree”.
The layout of the new base was planned in detail and when the first soldiers arrived they had to pitch their tents in the correct allocated areas. However, the construction of the base still had to commence.
Name of the new unit
The initial name for the new mechanized unit was 60 Mechanized Battalion Group, but this name had to be changed to 61 Mechanized Battalion Group because Sector 60 already existed in South West Africa.
Construction of the base
The construction of the base was done by a small element of engineers, supported by the combat soldiers that occupied the base.
The priority of the construction team was to erect:
|_.1.||the 2 big bathrooms with all the facilities;|
|_.2.||cement floors for the tents in which the soldiers lived;|
|_.3.||kitchen and dining hall big enough to house 1000 soldiers.|
Although the first few months at the base must have been challenging and tough, the soldiers worked hard and displayed a great spirit.
The leader group of these soldiers, Captain Fred Burger, Lieutenant Hannes van der Merwe, Lieutenant Nick Greyling, Lieutenant Chris Greyling, Lieutenant Mike Muller, Lieutenant Martin Schalekamp and all the others must be commended for their flexibility, hard work, perseverance and dedication.
Contribution of the Permanent Staff
The permanent staff should also be commended. The RSM of the unit, WO1 MC Barnard was a pillar of strength while he maintained discipline and managed the non-commissioned officers. Captain Thys Rall was an extremely supportive officer who was prepared to go out of his way to ensure the effective functioning of the mobile headquarters. He did not flinch from any task, no matter how unpleasant it might have been. WO2 Doepie du Plessis was in command of the Light Workshop and his extraordinary efforts kept the fighting force mobile at all times. The chief chef, Staff Sergeant Willem van Rensburg did his best to keep the men healthy and marching on full stomachs.
Routine in the early days
During the first months of 1979 the routine in the base was as follows:
|_.1.||One week joint training and combat exercises which were called Exercise Blitz; this consisted of section and/or platoon drills. This was to prepare the soldiers for any eventuality that could transpire at any time.|
|_.2.||One week was spent partly on equipment maintenance and the rest of the time on the construction of the base.|
|_.3.||The remainder of the month was spent on collecting the building material, obtaining additional vehicles, upgrade and change of equipment, mainly radios (the series A 52, 53 and 55 VHF entered service with B25 HF and TR18 HF units) for communication between the different corps.|
Completion and official opening of Omuthiya base
The construction of Omuthiya base was completed towards the end of 1979 and it was officially opened on 17 November 1979 by the Administrator-General of South West Africa, Dr Gerrit Viljoen. The Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General Constand Viljoen and his wife Ristie attended this event as well.
The programme was as follows:
|_.07h30||Flag hoisting parade and opening|
|_.08h30||Battalion Group demonstration|
|_.10h30||Equipment Inspection and Base viewing|
|_.13h30||Departure of VIP’s|
|_.16h00||Sub — unit competition|
|_.19h30||Concert Theatre production of Exercise Blitz for which this battle group has trained, presented by the soldiers of the units due to lack of the real operation which was canned.|
The mechanized unit inherited some of the equipment that formed part of Battle Group Juliet, but because the Ratel infantry combat vehicles were used during December 1978 in the Ombalanto area for high density presence operations during the preliminary elections in South West Africa, upgrades and maintenance to these vehicles and equipment were essential.
During the course of 1979 new equipment was introduced to the unit and by November that year the combat equipment was ready for inspection.
At the inspection of the equipment after the parade during the official opening of Omuthiya base, it was brought to the attention of the Chief of Army that the available Ratels and some vehicles were not ready to be used in combat. This resulted in the systematic introduction of new equipment during battle exercises in 1980.
What made 1979 such a challenging year was the sudden change in mission for 61 Mech because of Operation Carrot and the move of the headquarters from Oshakati to Tsumeb.
The 61 Tactical Headquarters was deployed with the support of the Tsumeb Commando for the first time on 9 May 1979 at the Tsumeb Airfield. The static headquarters for 61 Mech relocated on 18 June 1979 to an almost demolished house in Tsumeb that used to be the house of the mine captain. However, these structures became almost a model headquarters by the end of 1980.
The permanent staff members of 61 Mech with their families settled in Tsumeb as well.
Quality and calibre of our soldiers
By 1979 I had seventeen years of military experience behind me, of which most of this time was spent with National Service Men.
From my experience, the morale, spirit, teamwork and endurance of the soldiers who served with 61 Mech Battalion Group was remarkable.
Away from home, living in field conditions and exposed to a challenging work environment where they did anything from combat exercises, attend to building tasks in the base, guard and kitchen duties, they still remained well disciplined and motivated.
Elephants wandering through the base
Omuthiya, which is located just outside the Etosha Game Reserve was often visited at night by elephants that walked through the base.
The zebra based at Omuthiya
With Omuthiya in such close proximity of the Etosha game reserve, it was therefore no surprise to find a baby zebra taking residence between the soldier’s tents.It was not very long before the zebra became spoiled and very naughty.The zebra loved to visit the kitchen where he collected fresh vegetables.
The other behavior of the zebra which the troops enjoyed to watch was when it would stand on the concrete walkways and then by blocking it forced the leader group, and in particular the commander, to walk around it.If one tried to chase it away, the zebra would turn its back to the chasing party while proceeding to kick non stop with its hind legs. This was not a nice experience although it was clear that the zebra enjoyed the attention.
This unacceptable behavior by the zebra led to the instruction to the troops that they had to get rid of the zebra.It was only some time afterward that the truth about its departure transpired.
The troops apparently organized with their friends at SWA Spes to send a horse trailer to Omuthiya, the zebra was painted black with the camouflage ointment “black is beautiful” and subsequently transported through the pest control gate at Oshivello in its new capacity as a horse to the south to a farm near Tsumeb. The zebra eventually ended up on a farm in the Western Cape.
Alternative sporting events
As a sport crazy nation, the NSMs had to get more excitement. The organized sport like soccer, cross country and volleyball was not enough. The regular shouts and cheers led one to the spots where everybody was concentrated around a hole 1m x 1m and 0.5m deep where a scorpion and “Bobbejaanspinnekop” were fighting each other to the bitter end until the strongest contender reigned supreme. The support for these fights were split between North and South like the sport competitions.
The chicken thief
Another matter that had the leader group concerned was the regular complaints by the Local Population (LP) that their chickens were stolen.
The information about the truck registration number and time date was always correct, which indicated that there was some truth in the reports.The possibility that there was not enough food for the soldiers was also checked but that was not the reason for the disappearance of the chickens.
Inspections then showed that there was a python held captive in a cage and the chickens were used to feed the python. Again the troops were instructed to get rid of the snake.Their story was that the SPCA would remove the snake but the story that did the rounds was that the python was flown to the “States” in a soldier’s trunk (trommel).
These soldiers showing all this ingenuity, proved in combat action that they were the best in the world at that time.