- Commandant Gerhard Louw
- Major Paul Bezuidenhout
- Lieutenant Derek Scolnic
- WO1 Kobus Kemp
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
Overview by the Commander
Location and Affiliation
On 21 March 1990, the country of 61 Mech Bn Gp’s birth had already become the sovereign state of Namibia and soon became relegated to stories about the days of yore. Although 61 Mech was one of the fortunate few SADF military units that was destined to survive its removal from the territory of its origin, for the time being at least (another notable exception being 32 Battalion), it still had a very strong emotional bond with its old stomping grounds and was located within a few days’ march of it. At the beginning of 1991, 61 Mech was still stationed at the Rooikop Military Base to the East of Walvis Bay, which was the former location of the disbanded 2 SA Infantry Battalion. Most of the base’s facilities were brand new, since – as per the planning of the tumultuous previous decade – it was approaching handover and commissioning after completion of an Rm22 construction project by the South African Department of Public Works. In theory, 61 Mech Bn Gp continued to function under the operational command of 60 Bde HQ (with Col Jan du Toit in charge and located at the Army Battle School in Lohatla), but it was administratively supported by the Walvis Bay Military Area HQ in practice. Clearly, 61 Mech was a unit in transit, under loose control and very much left to its own devices — a situation that suited it well and allowed for much innovation at all levels of command and in all domains of its collective ethos.
Bn HQ Appointments
Commander: Cmdt Gerhard Louw (appointed wef 01 Jan 91)
Second in Command: Maj Paul Bezuidenhout (appointed wef 01 Jan 91)
Adjudant: Lt Derek Skolnic (appointed wef 01 Jan 91)
RSM: WO1 Kobus Kemp (appointed wef 14 Dec 86)
Chaplain: Cpln Fanus Hansen (National Serviceman, appointed in Jan 91)
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
Bn HQ: Equipment for 61 Mech Bn Gp HQ (mainly Ratel IFV variants) Bn Gp A Echelon (mainly mine-protected Samil variants)
Infantry: Equipment for 3 x Mechanised Infantry companies (Ratel IFV)
1x Support company, comprised of
1 x Anti tank platoon minus (Ratel 90 variant)
1 × 81mm Mortar platoon minus (Ratel 81 variant)
Armour: Equipment for 1 x Olifant MBT Squadron
Artillery: Equipment for 1 x G5 Artillery Battery from 4 Artillery Field Regiment (155mm)
Air Defence Artillery: Equipment for 1 x Ystervark ADA Troop (20mm)
61 Mech Bn Gp was stationed at Walvis Bay as part of C Army’s reserve, with the potential to deter violence and armed conflict during South West Africa’s progress towards an independent and sovereign Namibia. In practice, however, the unit was but a shadow of its former self. While two of the infantry companies were actually staffed, they were both deployed to the East Rand (Katorus Area), without their vehicles and heavy equipment, in what would today be called ‘stabilisation operations’. The other sub-units enjoyed the limited maintenance services of skeleton staff, ranging from a troop of NSM from the School of Armour to a company minus of volunteer reserves from the Cape Corps.
The main purpose of the rear HQ in Walvis Bay was to maintain the unit’s prime mission equipment that was occupying all of the available hangar space at Rooikop. With most of the Bn HQ’s personnel being new at the job (I had been detached to 61 Mech Bn Gp only once before, during 1983 and as commander of the tank squadron at the venerable Omuthiya base) and the unit stripped of its combat troops, 61 Mech Bn Gp could by no stretch of the imagination be called even marginally combat ready.
Overview of Activities
Having taken over the unit from Cmdt Mike MÅ±ller during a formal parade at Rooikop on 21 December 1990, I returned to Pretoria to impatiently await the birth of my firstborn. His arrival on 16 January 1991 — a week late, and coinciding with me watching the first major contact between the opposing forces of the Gulf War on television — finally saw me off to Walvis Bay on the day after. Maj Paul Bezuidenhout led the welcoming party at Rooikop Airport and had me comfortably ensconced in a caravan at the main base in town for the first week, which changed to an allocated house with the arrival of my furniture thereafter. I spent the first month or so settling into the job and getting to grips with understand my de facto position as ‘chief caretaker’ of the unit’s operational assets. 61 Mech Bn Gp had not yet adapted from its war-fighting mode to its peacetime responsibility and a number of administrative issues (including the unit’s short-term business plan, the placement of personnel and the implementation of minor control measures) had to be attended to. By and large, though, the unit’s morale and functional discipline was as good as usual.
Work as a Hobby
During this early period I took the opportunity to visit the two companies deployed in South Africa (A Coy in Thokoza under Capt Riaan Gray, and B Coy in Katlehong under Maj Fires van Vuuren). The detachments were hard at work in their respective operational areas, with especially A Coy being active in patrolling and searching for contraband in its ‘difficult’ area of responsibility. During my tour of a particularly volatile section of the informal township, Capt Gray brought me to a corrugated iron hut in which the company had previously found an illegal firearm. For this adventure I was duly issued with a 9mm pistol, which I (being used to the armour and firepower of a main battle tank) thought to be rather quaint. Upon our arrival at the designated shack, we found a number of agitated locals and a nun from a Scandinavian missionary organisation, dressed in sky-blue with a white collar, already on the scene. After a cordial inspection of the abode’s dim insides, I was told that the situation outside had changed from being balmy to uncomfortably warm, and that we should be leaving soon. Our departure through the narrow alleyways was therefore accompanied by a number of apple-sized stones thrown across the shanty roofs in our approximate direction, but I was (in spite of the thin beret on my head) not concerned — after all, the nun was holding my arm and reassuring me quietly “…not to worry, the people will not harm us…” Back home in a cool Walvis Bay, the core of 61 Mech was enjoying the hiatus in unit operations and serenely making the best of the transition between Omuthiya and whatever lay ahead.
Those Halcyon Days
While the unit’s small complement of troops resided in dormitories at Rooikop, the married personnel were housed in dwellings in the town of Walvis Bay. Most of the junior leader group were accommodated in a military hostel, along with other officers and NCOs from the military area. Duty buses, often somewhat sandblasted by the ‘Oosweer’, were provided for the majority of personnel to commute between Walvis Bay and Rooikop, where a standard military unit routine was adhered to. The unit’s primary enemy appeared to be boredom, evidenced by a number of disciplinary incidents among especially the grouping from the Cape Corps, who were — understandably so — ignorant of the professional military ethos in general and of 61 Mech Bn Gp’s history and values in particular. Since no training or field exercises could be conducted, there was also no opportunity to meld the unit into any form of coherence. However, a measure of understanding was eventually cultivated by open dialogue, which was in turn brought about by the fact that my offhand remark “…Cape Town seems to have emptied its gutters in 61 Mech Bn Gp…” had resulted in me having to respond to a ministerial inquiry. Thereafter, I expected less and got more from this interesting bunch of volunteers, many of whom were missing their front teeth
Soon after the arrival of our (very) new National Serviceman chaplain, Fanus Hansen, we got wind that a small, thin and scrawny cook was intimidating the other kitchen personnel, to the extent that they were on the verge of hysteria and refusing to work night shifts with him. Upon further investigation, the source of his actual power over people and his perceived power over events became apparent: he was a self-professed Satanist. A search of his abode revealed a number of interesting artefacts, among which were the skull of a seal and an assortment of lurid pencil sketches. The matter was reported to Chaplain General and the artefacts passed on to his office, whereupon Col (Ds) Attie Bezuidenhout used the props and compiled a video on ‘Satanism in South Africa’. Fanus was thereafter considered as our resident expert, but no further incidents came to light in the years that followed. With the thrall of the mysterious now broken and the manipulation exposed for what it was, peace returned to 61 Mech’s kitchen. There were other comical incidents as well, some of which gave rise to the presentation of the ‘DVDW’ trophy to reluctant recipients. One particular young officer (who shall remain unnamed) was alleged to have escorted a female friend to the Seamen’s Inn at the dockyard, where he — innocent of the fact that the venue was a Christian missionary haven — promptly proceeded to ask for the ‘restaurant’s’ menu; on another occasion and at a real restaurant this time, ordering his German dish of raw mincemeat, eggs and spices ‘well done’; lastly, while on the duty bus one morning he purportedly drew a dainty item of female underwear from his pocket by accident when he was reaching for a handkerchief …
In contrast to the ‘hired help’, the permanent unit staff had therefore easily adapted to the local conditions and had taken up the local culture with a vengeance. While participating fully in the sport- and recreation activities of the main base, most had also become enthusiastic anglers of the type that actually considered the catching of fish as a primary objective. Structured social events (such as braais on the sands of Langstrand) were well attended, as was the ‘Mafia Ball’ that was held in a City Hall surrounded by oasis-like palm trees. 61 Mech also participated in the military area’s ‘Anything that Floats’ competition, which was held in the lagoon and contested by all kinds of nautical vessels weird and wonderful. On another occasion, the units of the area were invited by the Military Area HQ to each mount a culinary display of some kind, for which 61 Mech chose a ‘shipwrecked party’ — complete with dilapidated wooden dinghy – as its theme. One could also comment on the visit by the Chief of the Navy, for which 61 Mech had to organise a fishing trip (and with V Adm Woodburne making a remarkably refreshing impression during our impromptu power walk towards Sandwich Harbour), but there are limits to the space available for these tales. Suffice to say that the unit had a memorable and well-earned sojourn in the Walvis Bay Military Area, but was at the same time regressing in terms of its expected military effectiveness.
Winds of another Change
In the autumn of 1991, I was called to the Army Battle School (ABS) in Lohatla for what I thought would be a briefing on 61 Mech Bn Gp’s upcoming relocation. Instead, I was warmly welcomed by the Battle School’s commander (Brig Johan Dippenaar), tasked to draft an appreciation for 61 Mech’s future placement and given access to the ABS’ administrative staff to get the work done. I was informed that three options appeared eminently viable: first, relocating to 4 SA Infantry Battalion’s base in Middelburg; second, moving to 8 SA Infantry Battalion’s base in Upington. (In both of these cases, I inferred that 61 Mech would be absorbed by the applicable units and effectively disbanded.) The third option was for the unit to move to Lohatla, where it could be employed for the support of practical course exercises if it was not involved in operations, or preparing to do so. In the end, there was little choice and my proposal was therefore that 61 Mech Bn Gp should be relocated to Lohatla. Word soon came that the recommended option had been approved by C Army, and preparations to effect the transfer of equipment and personnel to the ABS commenced as a matter of urgency.
Many people obviously had a hand in the arrangements that followed, but the Logistics Officer of 61 Mech has to be singled out. Maj Stef van Zyl, my neighbour in Walvis Bay, did a sterling job of managing the extraction of the unit from Rooikop and moving all of the equipment to Bulkop Station in Lohatla within a space of a few months. For this period and from September onwards, 61 Mech was split in two: the Main HQ under Maj Bezuidenhout remained in Walvis Bay, with the objective of packing at Rooikop, moving and then loading the unit’s assets on trains at Walvis Bay Station; the Forward HQ under myself, comprised of a logistics team under the RQMS (WO1 Strong) and the majority of the two staffed rifle companies, was transported to the ABS by air, where we had two functions. The first of these was to assist in the construction of the new base, and the second was to commence with the provisioning of manpower to conduct courses support. For the former activity, we positioned the office caravans in the logistics park that was allocated to serve as 61 Mech Bn Gp’s future HQ and sub-divided one of the hangars into company stores; for the latter we employed the equipment of the Courses Branch’s “Skeleton Force” to provide token force levels for the learners on courses to play around with. Competing against Cmdt Natie Taljaard’s ‘Red Forces’ in tactical simulations, 61 Mech put in long hours on the training range and gave indications of ramping up to its former levels of combat readiness.
While the Main HQ carried on with the work in Walvis Bay, the Forward HQ was accommodated in tents in one of the unit areas that were usually reserved for Citizen Force elements. A messing facility was erected in the permanent building on site, where a TV was installed and we had the opportunity to watch the first cricket test between India and South Africa. I was fortunate in having a tent with a small black & white TV all of my own, but shared the bathroom with the remainder of the contingent. It was here that I one evening had a minor disagreement with a small group of inebriated Cape Corps soldiers and called in the assistance of WO Strong, who proved true to his surname by gently, firmly and effectively admonishing the wayward troops when he thought that I had already left the scene: “…julle maak my nou skaam om ook ‘n Kleurling te wees…” Early in November, the ABS brought the wives and small children of 61 Mech’s married members in by air and briefed/entertained them for a few days, in an effort to make them more comfortable with the move to their new home. As usual some were impressed with the preparations, while others had misgivings regarding their future home base. This interim period came to an end later that month, when the unit was finally moved to Lohatla by rail (which saw a Withings recovery vehicle catching on an overhead bridge near Keetmanshoop and falling off the flatbed coach), by road and by air. By the end of that year, 61 Mech had come home to South Africa; looking forward to carving out a new niche for themselves, but also remembering with unbearable sadness that it had lost a vital part of its cultural framework. Although Walvis Bay was ceded to Namibia on 28 February 1994 only, it had already become abundantly clear by the end of 1991 that the South West African era, with all of its poignant and exuberant moments, was irretrievably consigned to legend. It is probably mere coincidence that the unit’s year-end function was held at the ABS Combined Club in the form of a ‘Wild West’ party, during which some of the unit staff allegedly lost small valuables that were taken from handbags by children crawling under the tables.
1.32 Bn was initially comprised of former Angolans from the Holden Roberto faction and had been relocated to the old mining town of Pomfret, in what-was-to-become the Northwest Province, during 1990 already.
2.2 SA Infantry Battalion was later revived in Zeerust, with the old cap badge from Rooikop (including its effigies of fuel drums and flamingos) intact. After the eventual disbandment of 32 Bn in 1993, a sizeable complement of its soldiers chose to be relocated there and accordingly donned the 2 SAI regalia, with all of its South West African connotations. As will be seen later in the narrative, a large group of 32 Bn soldiers were also transferred to 61 Mech Bn Gp, which was another cultural repository of the stream of military history flowing between Angola, South West Africa and South Africa.
3.About a month later, I returned to South Africa collect my wife and son from Kroonstad, where they had been staying with my in-laws. My spouse was rather underwhelmed by my early departure from 1 Military Hospital – where she had given birth-, by my lack of attention thereafter, and by ample evidence of my poor housekeeping skills that she found upon her early-morning arrival in Walvis Bay; my son, though, remains ignorant of the 2 000km nighttime journey and the pong of the fishing town’s air to this day. My credibility was not enhanced when, after explaining to my wife that Walvis Bay was located in a desert of sand, our entry into the town was accompanied by a rain shower …
4.During winter, the high-pressure cell in the Namibian interior sometimes escapes to the coast in the West, heating up as goes and picking up sheets of sand from the desert floor; ergo, paint-free edges on vehicles moving East from Walvis Bay to Rooikop.
5.When translated from Afrikaans, aka the ‘Turd of the Week’. The item in question was a football-sized, varnished product from an Etosha elephant’s digestive tract.
6.Apparently concerned that the new OC may curtail their extended angling expeditions, the unit staff presented me with a complete set of fishing equipment on my birthday in April 1991, and instructed me on the use thereof during a number of practical sessions thereafter.
7.The caravans — and the unit HQ — remained here until the unit’s closure in 2005. During 1991 and the years thereafter, Brig Dippenaar and his logistic staff appeared to be moving the earth in effecting the relocation and settlement of 61 Mech Bn Gp.
8.In the typical way of professional soldiers, the issue of race was very much subordinate to performance, comradeship, shared experiences, trust and all manner of other values at 61 Mech Bn Gp. It was simply irrelevant.