- Commandant Gerhard Louw
- Major Paul Bezuidenhout
- Lieutenant Derek Scolnic
- WO1 JJ Kemp
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
Overview by the Commander
Location and Affiliation
The start of 1992 saw 61 Mech Bn Gp becoming settled at the Army Battle School in Lohatla. While the permanent, married staff was distributed among the surrounding towns (including Postmasburg, the married quarters on the base, the reopened mining town of Glosam, Olifantshoek and of course Kathu), the living-in members and troops were housed in single quarters on the base. The caravans of the unit- and company HQs were beginning to appear more like home, with the construction of stone-paved pathways among them lending an air of permanence to the surroundings. 61 Mech Bn Gp remained as part of C Army’s reserve, under operational command of 60 Bde HQ and being administratively supported by the Army Battle School. However, during the course of 1992 Brig Dippenaar was about to receive an instruction from C Army that the organization of the Battle School was to be amended for it to execute two functions concurrently: first, continuing to administer the facility as a large training institution for reserves and full-time forces as it had been in the past; second, to provide the headquarters for a virtual Rapid Deployment Force, which would include the units located at Lohatla as part of its permanent order of battle. This new command affiliation, with Brig Dippenaar firmly in command, set the tone for my following two years with 61 Mech Bn Gp.
Bn HQ Appointments
Commander: Cmdt Gerhard Louw
Second in Command: Maj Paul Bezuidenhout
Adjudant: Lt Derek Skolnic
RSM: WO1 Kobus Kemp
Chaplain: Cpln Fanus Hansen (who joined the Permanent Force during the course of the year)
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
During the course of the year, much of the worn prime mission equipment of the unit — with the notable exception of the B-vehicles – was replaced, starting with the Ratels of the Bn Gp HQ. Soon, the vehicles that remained from the Border War and Walvis Bay epoch lost their patina of white Ovamboland / Namib Desert dust, to be replaced by the rust-red coating of the Northern Cape. The unit’s Light Workshop Troop, assisted by the local Field Workshop, took considerable pride in once again painting 61 Mech’s insignia, the relevant call signs and, in the case of the Bn Gp HQ Ratels, the vehicles’ names on the armour plating. Sadly, the tank squadron was withdrawn from 61 Mech’s ranks due to the need for the SA Army to centralise its maintenance capacity. However, the blow was softened by the arrival of a new complement of National Servicemen — and especially junior leader group — that brought dormant sub-unit structures to life once again. The unit was therefore organised as follows, with troops this time:
Bn HQ: 61 Mech Bn Gp HQ (mainly Ratel IFV variants) Bn Gp A Echelon (mainly mine-protected Samil variants)
Infantry: 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)
Artillery: Equipment for 1 x G5 Artillery Battery from 4 Artillery Field Regiment
Air Defence Artillery: Equipment for 1 x Ystervark ADA Troop (20mm)
It was also during 1992 that 61 Mech was, to conserve its conventional equipment, temporarily issued with a battalion minus’ worth of Casspir APCs. While the Ratel drivers had to undergo conversion training to master the new equipment, this initiative certainly contributed to the unit’s flexibility in its new roles, especially since the vehicles were kept and maintained by the ABS’ transport section. For the main, course support was executed with vehicles drawn from the ABS’ reserves, in the belief that 61 Mech still had a role to play in the SA Army’s order of battle for future conventional operations. During the next two years, this anticipation became more realistic and was eventually replaced by resignation to unit’s new role.
Since 1989, which year rang in the end of both the Cold War and the ‘Border War’, the South African political- and (especially) military security paradigm had been changing rapidly. However, with 61 Mech having become such a closely-knit, isolated and uniquely encultured grouping within the SA Army, its unit ethos had remained largely unaffected by the changes at higher level – until now, that is. The move to the Republic (or the ‘States’, in American slang as employed by the South African troops) and its permanent relocation to the ABS finally forced 61 Mech to come to terms with its new status: an expensive, highly specialised hybrid that was equipped and trained exclusively to engage an enemy on a conventional battlefield, but was now without a mission. At the time, I was left with the impression that the Infantry Corps was uncomfortable with having the unit as part of its order of battle, while the Armour Corps no longer had a direct stake in its administration. Also, that the other co-located units at the ABS were intimidated by 61 Mech’s prominent and invasive presence in their midst. In effect, the unit increasingly appeared to be an anachronism that was appreciated for its past contribution and its present potential by most, but at best tolerated and at worst resented by others.
This delicate situation was initially not ameliorated by the confident, forceful attitudes of 61 Mech’s personnel or by their demands upon the ABS’ administrative systems. While its main purpose had now become the support of courses at the Battle School, with a smattering of internal stabilisation operations on the East Rand thrown in, the unit still attempted to maintain a strong streak of independence and — dare it be said — elitism. Nevertheless, Brig Dippenaar saw to it that 61 Mech was rapidly integrated into the ABS mainstream and maintained a good balance in terms of being prepared for a conventional mission, while at the same time being committed to the subordinate roles of course support and internal stabilisation operations. This became the governing paradigm for the next two years: a continuous cycle of maintenance, unit training, course support and stabilisation operations, the latter often without main equipment and in a light infantry role.
Overview of Activities
The Challenges of Fading In
In adapting to a peacetime regime, many of the senior leader group — myself included — had trouble with the routine execution of the SA Army’s standard Strategic Management Process. Many of the unit staff were socialised in — or even selected for – their war-fighting aptitudes and were not enamoured to the restrictions that they now suffered. As happened in so many areas of the SADF at that time, talented warriors had to get used to managing instead of mainly leading. The shifting ethos was especially painful for middle management – the sub-unit and section headquarters — and some never succeeded in the adjustment during my time as unit commander. (I remember an incident where, during a presentation of the unit’s short-term planning cycle, the LWT commander commenced with a submission on how he was going to support the Air Force’s Ex Golden Eagle.) After many decades of detailed operational planning, converting into loose control and command initiative during execution, the unit’s logistic recordkeeping was chaotic. To exacerbate the problem, there was a dearth of logistic- and service support personnel and, even if they had been available, the unit did not have the structures or facilities to accommodate them in. Although the ABS assisted as best they could (the efforts of the SSO Log, Col Fanie van Schalkwyk, and Ms Yda Knight come to mind), this vexing issue was also not resolved during my tenure. However, these derelictions had little influence on the rank and file. Unit morale remained excellent, although — in the absence of a clear and present armed opposition – it became increasingly onerous to maintain the type of functional discipline that 61 Mech Bn Gp had become renowned for.
Flexing New Muscles
Apart from its own training early in the year (which was deemed essential, given the rawness of 61 Mech’s NSM complement) and the rendering of sub-unit support during the courses’ minor field exercises, the scaled-down battalion group participated in both Ex Sweepslag I and II with equipment on loan from the ABS. As the year progressed, the unit revised and re-printed its SOPs, drafted many years before and proven in operations, which served in no small measure to guide the confused and inexperienced learners arriving on ABS courses. During the practical field phases, the command posts of the combat elements were filled by learners under instruction, who were in turn ‘supervised’ by regular 61 Mech leader group. It will never be known how much of the learners’ performance during this time was actually due to control by the 61 Mech staff; what was well understood, though, is that a frustrated Cpln Hansen often de facto commanded large sections of the formation in simulated combat — a fact that eventually became noticed by the petulant directing staff of the ABS, in spite of the Cpln’s expert use of appropriate callsigns during the issuing of radio orders. The arrival of 61 Mech at the ABS also provided a perfect vehicle for the latter to entertain a series of ‘Freedom of the City’ parades in surrounding towns, with the unit providing a mechanised column for those of Postmasburg, Olifantshoek and Kuruman (the latter two on 14 August and 18 September, respectively) in rapid succession. In closing, 61 Mech Bn Gp was also awarded the trophy for best exhibition — arranged by the Support Coy commander, Maj Frans von Tubbergh — at the ABS’ open day on 7 November 1992. However, the primary focus of the unit was on building it up to its former war-fighting capacity, in which participation in stabilisation operations played a major part.
Due to the volatility of the internal security situation, C Army (D Ops) often had 61 Mech put on a 24-hour standby, usually on a Friday afternoon between 15:00 and 16:00. While the unit was comprised mainly of NSM that were housed in dormitories on the base, this was no problem; one year later, with the married members of the former 32 Bn filling much of the ranks, one often saw company HQ personnel rushing off to the ABS gates to block the usual Friday afternoon outflow of soldiers to the surrounding towns. During the late winter of 1992, 61 Mech Bn was accordingly deployed to the Esselen Park farmhouse (Tembisa) with its full infantry complement of about 800 soldiers, using main equipment and enjoying the company of the newly-formed RDF Tactical HQ under Col Izan Leibbrandt for about a week. The nighttime journey from Lohatla saw the driver of one of the Ratels falling asleep behind the wheel, with his vehicle going bundu-bashing under trees next to the road near Fochville — fortunately, with no damage apart from a truncated commander’s hatch cover. Arriving at Tembisa the battalion HQ was located in the farmhouse and patrols were conducted 24/7, with many incidents and experiences coming to mind. One memorable event was the conducting of a show-of-force convoy along the main streets and highways of Johannesburg with the mechanised battalion, expertly chaperoned and guided by burbling hordes of white-and-orange Nissan Skylines from the traffic department ; another was a forlorn Capt Rob Mc’ Gimpsey who had taken to plunging the depths of a (very large) sewerage pit with his Casspir command vehicle.
Two other occasions bear mentioning in this narrative: first, an irate member of the public arriving at the Esselenpark base in his German car, trailing a cloud of dust, and demanding to know why we had stopped his domestic servant on her way home and had appropriated the liquor that she was carrying with her in the process. I explained that some of the entrepreneurial local women had taken to pushing liquor by wheelbarrow to our camp, where they were initially turned away by the leader group. In this particular case, however, the domestic in question had persisted in her attempts to breach the perimeter and her stock was eventually confiscated and destroyed. As proof, I had to take the employer to the scene with the broken bottles and to our bar facility, where none of the alleged contraband was visible. In the end, the — mollified, but still fuming — employer departed for his home. The second incident was initiated by the arrival of a nearby plot owner, who, on this particular Sunday, was looking for an escort to search for two of his horses. Horses were often raided from the surrounding farmsteads and invariable ended up in Tembisa’s coal yards, where they were worked and starved to death. We were happy to oblige and after an hour or so the two fortunate animals were retrieved under conditions as predicted — in coal yards, unkempt and with all bystanders denying ownership.
The operation proceeded with some material successes being recorded, notably the confiscation of a number of illegal firearms and small quantities of ammunition. The troops were incentivised by the awarding of unrecorded vacation leave for every firearm found, with an RPG 7 being worth a full week’s vacation. After about two months of this, the unit departed back to Lohatla and were immediately thrown into the RDF’s field exercise Sombré, consequently spending the next week-end on the training range and within sight of some of the married members’ homes, as instructed by the RDF HQ. (Yes, neither I nor those under my command appreciated the practicing of abstention from family comforts for exercise purposes, but such was life in the Army of that time.) With specific reference to its own military culture, 61 Mech was evolving towards being an operationally capable training facilitator of major importance, attested to by its participation in the RDF’s stone-laying ceremony of 6 September 1992.
Fun as Serious Business
While stationed at the ABS, 61 Mech Bn Gp reverted to a standard unit routine of roll call and sub-unit parades on every workday, with battalion parades once per month or when it was called for. More and more, the battalion group was reverting to being a peacetime outfit in which formal discipline, dress codes and military culture became the norm. For example, the unit’s affiliation dress — with specific reference to a unique cap badge, cravat and affiliation hanger — was approved, manufactured and distributed during this year and, in addition, new vehicle pennants and unit flags were produced and displayed wherever 61 Mech took part in mechanised parades. Unit solidarity was further encouraged by the construction of an imposing unit entrance, complete with stone walls, steel gate, palm trees reminiscent of Walvis Bay, and welded unit insignia.
With the permanent staff of the unit spread in a number of towns and over a large area, the arrangement of regular social functions after-hours, as 61 Mech was used to, became a real challenge. This contributed somewhat to a decreasing feeling of being part of a family, but the unit staff nevertheless attempted to maintain their personal ties as best they could. A welcoming function was therefore conducted at the ABS on 14 February 1992, followed by a rather special autumn bash at Glosam on 20 March. Since Glosam was occupied and managed virtually exclusively by 61 Mech staff, this particular event took on the appearance of a major festival and went off exceptionally well. On a more sobering note, a function of a different kind was later held to formalise the re-emplacement of 61 Mech’s memorial obelisk and the bell from Santa Clara in front of the ABS/RDF headquarters building. For the inauguration ceremony, Brig Dippenaar must have dug into his archives to produce the contact details of the deceased’s closest relatives, who were also invited to attend the event. On that sparkling spring morning of 1992, I was left speechless and humbled by the tears and fortitude of those that had remained behind after the premature passing of their kin. At the time I did not consider myself to be a person easily moved by emotion, but that quiet day was something else …
Other social functions during 1992 included those held at the ABS on 28 August and at the ABS Sports Grounds on 10 October. The latter event was founded on a ‘potjiekos competition’ and nearly ended in tragedy when one of the Corporals, slightly the worse for wear, had an involuntary ejection of his supper while at the deepest point of his dive into the swimming pool. The year was concluded with a well-organised jacket-and-tie social function in the largest hangar on 61 Mech’s inventory, which usually housed the major portion the unit’s prime mission equipment. Even though I felt buoyed up by the success of the evening, I also had other things on my mind that night.
Preparing to Absorb the 32 Bn Legacy
During November of 1992, Brig Dippenaar had sent Cmdt van Vuuren – from the ABS HQ – and me to the military town of Pomfret, a former mining hamlet under thorn trees, with a very detailed mission: to select candidates from the ranks of 32 Bn that were willing and able to join 61 Mech Bn Gp and the ABS/RDF infrastructure. Although we of the mechanised brotherhood had the greatest admiration and respect for “The Terribles” and what they had achieved during the Border War, I could not help but notice the advanced age, poor education and unconventional military bearing of the majority of the potential recruits that were presented to us. Nevertheless, we did as was expected and reported back to Brig Dippenaar, who was already initiating a project to find and/or construct suitable accommodation for the influx of the veterans and their families to the ABS. During the next year, the absorption of this group with whom we had so much sympathy and shared history, but so little cultural commonality, was to change the face of 61 Mech Bn Gp forever. While there was virtually no transfer of a positive military culture to its unit ethos, 61 Mech thereafter had to deal, in as a humane manner as possible, with soldierly habits that were not only ingrained through many years of deprivation and survival — and therefore very hard to change -, but very often also contrary to the demands of a briskly transforming South African Army.
9.In Afrikaans, the ‘Snelontplooiingsmag’ (SOM), from which the name of its annual exercises (Ex Sombré) was derived.
10.The unit members’ spouses got to know the drill, but my wife commented in the last year of my tour that, when the unit was put on standby, it invariably remained in the base; when the definite call came to report in the next week, it invariably went. In retrospect, I found this to be true.
11.The co-location of the battalion group and brigade headquarters did not work out well, as could be expected. The shortage of space — and dearth of hot water for showers during the cold of winter — was accentuated by the cordial inflation of egos among staff at all levels.
12.To this day, I can clearly visualize the Johannesburg Stock Exchange’s façade as it appears from the turret of a Ratel command variant.
13.Whether regrettable or fortunate, the last-mentioned prize was never claimed.
14.Tsumeb’s ‘Street Braais’ was legendary among all of the long-serving staff members.
15.During an internal stabilization operation, members of 32 Bn were involved in an incident at Phola Park on 8 April 1992, giving rise to public calls for the unit’s urgent disbandment. This unit, so rich in character, was finally closed down by Pres de Klerk on 26 March 1993, for reasons that had at least as much to do with its political connotations as it had with its recently inappropriate warrior ethos.