- Commandant Gerhard Louw
- Major "Smokey" de Kock
- Lieutenant Derek Scolnic
- WO1 JAB van Zyl
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
Overview by the Commander
Location and Affiliation
With the ultimate democratization of South Africa rapidly approaching and the prospect of armed conflict in the region gradually fading, 61 Mech Bn Gp now had to come to terms with the fact that its glory days were over. Like a middle-aged person, it had run out of maneuvering space: perpetually settled at Lohatla, ‘married’ to the Army Battle School and, in many ways, increasingly representative of a past era. 61 Mech Bn Gp therefore remained in Lohatla as a permanent unit of the RDF and administratively supported by the Army Battle School.
Bn HQ Appointments
Commander: Cmdt Gerhard Louw
Second in Command: Maj ‘Smokey’ de Kock (wef 1 January 1993)
Adjudant: Lt Derek Skolnic
RSM: WO1 JAB van Zyl (wef 1 January 1993)
Chaplain: Cpln Fanus Hansen
Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group
While the structure of 61 Mech remained virtually unchanged, its demography did not. With the dissolution of 32 Bn around the corner, its complement of soldiers and their families were being shipped out to a number of new units — and 61 Mech Bn Gp was a main beneficiary, primarily from the defunct unit’s C Coy and the Supp Coy. As a result, the rifle infantry complement of 61 Mech was soon almost entirely comprised of former 32 Bn members. However, the unit’s order of battle remained unaffected, viz:
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: 1 x G5 Artillery Battery
Air Defence Artillery: 1 x Ystervark ADA Troop (20mm)
With the CODESA negotiations underway and the ill-fated National Peacekeeping Force being structured at De Brug, it appeared as if the gods of war were being tied down to an ever-greater extent compared with preceding years. 61 Mech was becoming used to the idea that its raison d’ etre would in future be the rendering of support to the practical phases of a variety of military learning events being conducted at the ABS: all-arms battle handling, senior NCO operations duties and junior command-and-staff courses. As a result, it (reluctantly) became reconciled to its subordinate and restricted functions within the greater Army scheme of things and was gradually conforming, while losing some of its individualism and unique flavour along the way. Other causes of the continued evolution lay in the turnover of unit’s personnel: the departure of key staff members (the indomitable WO1 Kobus Kemp, for example) and the integration of former 32 Bn soldiers, as well as the inexperience of the new generation of junior leaders, which necessitated much closer supervision than before.
61 Mech had also become heavily dependent upon the HR- and logistics management functions of the ABS, which had other consequences as well. Without fading into the wallpaper, the unit was becoming more relaxed and comfortable in its new surroundings and was accordingly offered the Artillery Clubhouse as an HQ and/or LTU facility. Not-so-coincidentally, the clubhouse needed a new thatched roof that was estimated to cost about Rk100, and 61 Mech had a solid non-public fund account at its disposal. At the same time, the ABS also had another private facility under construction and Brig Dippenaar hinted that 61 Mech could make a financial contribution towards the project, receiving unspecified rights in return, but this temptation was also resisted until I had departed at the end of that year. After all, I was convinced that the unit wanted its own, exclusive facility and I was still retaining a spark of hope that 61 Mech may in future regain some of the independence and individuality that I had found so inspiring when I had first served there in 1984. However, there was no getting away from the fact that the 61 Mech’s idiosyncrasies were rapidly being worn down by the peacetime bureaucracy and the unit’s operating environment of late, which was changing its effervescent character and making it altogether more mundane.
Overview of Activities
Still Making a Difference
As had become customary, 61 Mech provided vehicles and personnel to support the tactical courses that were presented at the ABS, including the final exercises of each learning event: Ex Sweepslag I, II and III, in this particular year. The last exercise of 1993 was, as usual, the RDF’s Ex Sombré. On that occasion, the advance was carried out at night in a wide loop from Lohatla via Postmasburg and DaniÃ«lskuil, on to the road towards Kuruman and from there into the training area through the North Gate. From my point of view, the latter exercise was a disappointing one, not only for 61 Mech Bn Gp (which will be commented upon later), but also for the RDF in general. In the absence of the threat of war, there seemed to be much less urgency, focus and intensity than I was used to; but all of this was to be expected, given the country’s vastly reduced need — and budget – for a prepared conventional military outfit in the approaching democratic dispensation.
As far as operations were concerned, 61 Mech was (again) placed on standby on a number of occasions, but moved from its permanent station in only a few cases. Of these, two come to mind immediately. After the murder of Chris Hani on 10 April 1993 and with the country on the verge of conflagration, military forces were dispatched to Gauteng post-haste. Within a couple of days, 61 Mech’s HQ and two Casspir companies reported to Gp 18 HQ at the Doornkop military base, which had Col Mc Gill Alexander in charge. We immediately commenced with the stabilisation of the Alexandra township, which one dark night resulted in a firefight between our side (represented by Capt Riaan Gray taking command of a small squad) and unknown shooters on the other. For this particular action, a draw was recorded. I also remember that, on 18 April and at the 35th anniversary of my birthday, I was presented with a candled cake during a little ceremony among the vehicles parked on the Doornkop sports fields; also, on the afternoon of the late Hani’s funeral, the unit moving through a tollgate on the N2 Highway in force, unencumbered by the usual procedures, to leaguer in an open area in the suburb in which Hani had resided. (Our progress was observed by a medium-sized dog, apparently standing on wooden boxes to get his forepaws extended over a 1,8m vibrocrete fence. Since our orders were changed while we were in Alexandra earlier in the day, I was not prepared for the chilly night out and my ex-32 Bn driver, a competent and affable second-generation soldier, kindly offered his blanket to line my temporary bed on the Casspir’s camouflage net.)
The other operation commenced after the St James Church massacre in Cape Town on 25 July 1993, when 61 Mech (same grouping as before, but with two Ratel companies this time) was instructed to report at De Brug in Bloemfontein as a matter of urgency. Upon our arrival, we drew ammunition for the main guns from the stores — as well as volleyballs and other LTU equipment from the Orange Free State Command communication section – and conducted shooting exercises, all in preparation for an action in Transkei. During the ensuing two weeks spent in the wintery dust of De Brug, I took the time to conduct reconnaissance of the advance axis up to Stutterheim, where the small team spent one night at the town’s showgrounds. Wandering among the buildings that evening and studying the photos of a variety of prize-winning, long-dead farm animals in the rooms (some of which still sparsely furnished), I came under impression of a bygone era and could not help but feel a measure of nostalgia for the town, the defunct 32 Bn and especially for the 61 Mech of old. My sadness was all the more acute when, upon our return to De Brug the next day, I was told that the troops had gotten wind of the potential operation and that the indigenous seTswana- and seSotho-speaking privates were giving indications that they would be very reluctant to get involved. After addressing them on the matter, I felt a small measure of confidence that they would perform as required. In spite of having previously taken command of inadequately-prepared soldiers during Operation Savannah in 1976 and Operation Packer in 1988, this was my first experience of doubting the willingness of my troops to fight. It was an unpleasant and disillusioning one, and I must therefore confess to some relief — for all the wrong reasons – when this particular venture was called off and we could return to Lohatla without having to engage in combat.
Straining to Adapt … — or Die
While the learners on ABS courses remained impressed with the competency of 61 Mech’s leader group during 1993, they were less so with most of the (primarily ex—32 Bn) foot soldiers. Given my previous observations, and despite the best efforts of their company commanders to the contrary, the soldiers’ apparent lack of progress remained a vexing problem with many possible causes. Apart from the absence of a war-fighting mission, the soldiers’ loss of heart seemed to point to their geographical and (more importantly) psychological and spiritual dislocation, first from Angola, then from South West Africa/Namibia and lately from the single factor that had still tied them together as comrades: 32 Bn. Before my departure from 61 Mech Bn Gp at the end of 1993, I was therefore witness to a simulated late-night attack during Ex Sombré, where most of the soldiers not only debussed slovenly and belatedly (and under physical pressure from their leader group), but some also had warm blankets under their arms. The next morning, we counted the bullet impacts on the hardboard targets that were put out the day before: there were none.
While nonetheless frustrating, the rank-and-file’s failure to maintain the flame of the warrior spirit, which was also omnipresent in the 61 Mech of old, was only to be expected. A month or so before, Capt André had nervously called me to a hangar in which the disillusioned ex-32 Bn soldiers had been assembled. Obviously unhappy, the Portuguese-speaking group had to communicate via an interpreter and submitted only one request: could the SA Army please, please provide them with a ‘pachod’ (severance package) so that they could retire with some dignity. In return, I could offer them nothing except intellectual explanations and platitudes, concluding with the one thing that I knew to be true: if they failed to abide by the military rules of the game, disciplinary action was sure to follow. Even though I knew that this would not be well received, I was still dumbstruck by the confusion and the hubbub that accompanied my final remarks; until I learnt that my statements had been translated as threats to kill them, that is. Capt André thereupon corrected the mistranslation, which provided some comic relief in the — sympathetic, but essentially pointless — discussions that continued for a short while thereafter.
Not with a Bang
During the course of 1993, I attempted to follow up on my predecessor’s efforts to have the unit history recorded. I had learnt from the unit staff that volumes of archived documents had previously been presented to a potential author (Sophia du Preez, who had previously written Avontuur in Angola about Operation Savannah), but I was unable to establish fruitful contact with her and the idea was (again) allowed to lapse into latency. However, we had more success in researching and designating official military campaigns for 61 Mech Bn Gp’s colours, which were approved after some exchange of letters, and eventually incorporated in Ms Dulcie Byrne’s exquisite design by the end of that year. It was accordingly left to my capable successor, Cmdt Hannes van der Merwe, to conduct a formal parade on which the unit colours were finally bestowed in 1994.
While there were many other incidents that could be commented upon — such as the young and vocal Capt Rob Mc Gimpsey, S Bty’s commander, beating a hasty retreat to avoid physical contact with one of his gunners’ bulky fathers, whom he previously aggravated by telephone – my last impressions of Lohatla were ones of ominous irony. On the one hand, 61 Mech’s leader group were under continuous pressure by the parents of the (White) NSM to have them cleared out and returned home as soon as possible; on the other, the (Black) volunteers from the Northern Cape, whose contracts were about to expire, were refusing to hand back their uniforms and toy-toying in front of the duty room, closely watched by the MPs: hoping, against all odds, to obtain permanent employment in the military. Times were indeed a-changing, not only for 61 Mech Bn Gp and the SA Army, but also for South Africa as a whole. As for myself, I was leaving behind some of the most wonderful people that I would ever have the privilege of acquainting, but taking with me some of the best memories of my life. It was time to go.
16.In retrospect, the factors militating against 61 Mech’s continued existence as the Army’s only permanently grouped all-arms unit were gaining momentum even before: the slashing of the defence budget, the disappearance of an armed threat and — since the unbanning of political rivals in 1990 — the anticipated transformation of the South African state.
17.Along with the foot soldiers and a smattering of junior NCOs came two officers: Capt André and the (considerably older) Capt Appollonario. The Supp Coy had been involved in operations in the East London area from January to the end of February 1993 and was therefore the last element of 32 Bn to be deployed in action, and also the last to arrive at 61 Mech Bn Gp.
18.I understood the government of the latter homeland had apparently incurred the wrath of South African security forces by tacitly assisting and sheltering the APLA cadres that had carried out the deadly attack on the congregation.
19.Understandable, given that the country was on the verge of a democratic election that the SADF’s political antagonists were expected to win. The Portuguese-speakers, though, did not appear to have qualms and accepted my invocation of the professional military values of ‘honour, duty and country’ with aplomb.