Commandant Roland De Vries
Major Thys Rall
WO1 HG Smit

Composition of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group

Overview by the Commander


The purpose of the commander’s overview is to provide a comprehensive perspective of what life at “61” was all about. It contains some memorable stories about the unit’s ups and downs in 1981 and 1982.

When the unit was not operationally deployed, 61 Mechanised Battalion Group could be found at its operational base at Omuthiya. The base lay close to Oshivello, which was located in southern Ovamboland. The base was ideally suited for training and for the unit’s operational deployment to any trouble spot either in SWA or Angola.

Operational role of “61” and its ordered Commitments

The purpose of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group was to provide a mobile reserve and conventional strike force for the South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF). The Headquarters of the SWATF was located at Bastion in Windhoek.

61 Mechanised Battalion Group was structured, equipped, prepared and tasked to perform its primary role as a conventional fighting unit. In this regard the unit was destined to conduct lightening pre-emptive strikes against threatening enemy concentrations inside southern Angola.

The South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) was origanaly the primary enemy of the SWATF and “61”. The Peoples Liberation Army (PLAN), as the military wing of SWAPO, was enemy number one. From Operation Protea in August 1981 onwards the Angolan government forces became an integral part of the fighting scene in southern Angola. They were known as the “Forcas Armadas Popular de Angola”.

FAPLA was fervently supported by Russian and East German military advisors and Cuban military forces. In the midst of it all FAPLA and their Russian and Cuban handymen were obsessively and overtly supporting SWAPO. This included crossing the border into SWA to do harm, political propagandising and other devious deeds terrorists do. The general threat scenario described herewith of SWAPO operating in cahoots with FAPLA and the Cubans remained a reality until hostilities between South Africa and Angola ended in 1988.

Counter insurgency operations

Additional ordered commitments of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group incorporated counter insurgency operations in any part of SWA. This role first and foremost included counter offensives against SWAPO incursions directed deeper than Ovamboland into SWA. These threats were harrowing and traumatic as it was linked to the farming communities and some major towns in the district. There were important towns in the northern area of SWA such as Otjiwarongo, Outjo, Tsumeb, Grootfontein and Otavi. These towns referred to were thriving settlements providing home to civilian populace, commerce and industry. They were all juicy targets for SWAPO.

SWAPO’s target area referred to above was located south of the so called “Red-Line”. This area in SWA was commonly referred to at the time as the Tsumeb-Otavi-Grootfontein “death triangle”. This became one of the the prime anual targets for SWAPO’s Special Unit.

Here SWAPO had something to prove, it was a dramatic show of arms, it sported tremendous propaganda value and it was overly tangible. These regular raids by SWAPO were high-flying events and prominent to the eyes of the media and it basked in national limelight.

Everybody of importance flew to Tsumeb during these annual excursions. Here they visited the Task Force HQ at the Air Field, listened to a presentation, said their say, stayed happily at the Minen Hotel in Tsumeb, enjoyed the traditional German eisbein and flew away again.

These deep incursions by SWAPO’s Special Unit were conducted regularly during the rainy season, which normally started in April.

Operations Conducted by “61” in 1982

From its operational base at Omuthiya “61” participated in the following military operations in 1982 respectively in SWA and Angola under my command:

  • Operation Makro from 30 December 1981 to 21 January1982. This was a cross-border operation into Southern Angola. The operation was intended as a show of force. It aimed at dominating the area of Xangongo — Mongua – Ongiva — Evale – Mupa in Southern Angola. This area was previously cleared of enemy forces during Operation Protea in August 1981. The South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF) was determined to maintain this preferred status quo. It was literally creating and maintaining a no-mans land for SWAPO and FAPLA in the shallow area of southern Angola. It became an area the South African and SWA forces had a free reign in.
  • Operation Meebos 1 from 1 March 1982 to 7 March 1982. This operation had a similar aim as Operation Makro mentioned above. The operation inter alia involved rapidly coming to the rescue of a Citizen Force unit deployed in Angola at the time. The unit was 2 Parachute Battalion, commanded by Commandant Monty Brett. He was a close friend of mine. One of his small paratrooper forces had a close encounter with a FAPLA Brigade at Evale and a vicious fire fight ensued. In a surprise manoeuvre FAPLA had moved stealthily south from Cuvelai to occupy a hastily prepared defensive position at Evale. They were steadily and cautiously creeping back to Ongiva. During a vicious skirmish at Evale the South Africans lost an Allouette helicopter gun ship. The small paratrooper force had to beat a hasty retreat back to Ongiva were “61” linked up with them soon after their arrival. “61” then moved on Evale. As “61” approached; the FAPLA Brigade beat a hasty retreat back to Cuvelai from were they originally came.
  • Operation Yahoo from 14 April 1982 to 25 May 1982. This operation was similar to Operation Carrot which was most successfully conducted by “61” in 1981. This operation however differed in operational scope and tempo, force levels employed, duration and intensity. This was a deliberate, well planned and extremely aggressive incursion by SWAPO’s Special Unit into the farming area inside SWA. It took close on two months to destroy this enemy group. This was one of the most operationally challenging, exciting and satisfying experiences of my 1981/1982 deployment in the Northern Operational Area. Once again I was in command of this operation under Sector 30.
  • Operation Meebos 2 from 18 July 1982 to 30 August 1982. This operation aimed at wiping out SWAPO bases and their forward headquarters controlling insurgent activities inside Ovamboland. It became a sequenced action by a joint SWATF counter-insurgency task force aimed at destroying a series of SWAPO bases deep inside Angola. The task force was commanded by Colonel Jan Pieterse, who was not only a gifted commander, but also a close colleague and friend of “61”. 61 Mechanised Battalion Group acted as his mobile reserve and provided protection against FAPLA conventional forces. FAPLA conventional brigades, with integrated Cuban support, were deployed at Cuvelai and Techamatete, Techamatete lay close to Cassinga. Close by were a series of carefully selected and reconnoitred SWAPO targets destined for obliteration. During this campaign a platoon size force of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group destroyed a FAPLA column of eighteen vehicles one night on the road between Cuvelai and Techamatete. Captain Jan Malan commanded this small force. I had the privilege of providing overhead command and air support during the continuing skirmish the following morning. This occurred from the gunship of renowned air force Captain Neil Ellis. Neil was supported by some of his other Allouette Helicopter gun ships and a sortie of Mirage jet fighters reigning supreme over the gravel road linking Techamatete to Cuvelai.

61 Mech was in 1982 as operationally active as in 1981

The year 1982 was as operationally active as the one in 1981. It started off still seeing “61” deployed in Angola on Operation Makro. The unit returned to its base in SWA on 21 January. The next operation was Meebos 1 from 1 March 1982 to 7 March 1982; Operation Yahoo from 14 april 1982 to 25 May 1982; Operation Meebos 2 from 18 July 82 to 30 August 1982.

The Ratels of”61” went in for a serious overhaul at the technical workshop at Grootfontein on completion of Meebos 2.

Unit planning event at Katimo Mulilo

In February I decided to take my command cadre and key staff members to Katima Mulilo for a unit planning event as well as for teambuilding. This was graciously granted by major general Charles Lloyd, who commanded SWATF.

We set off in a Dakota from Tsumeb Air Field, flip charts, fishing rods and all. We were received with open arms by my friend colonel Gert Opperman who commanded Sector 70. For a few glorious days, without interference from the enemy or inspection teams from Pretoria, we enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of Sector 70.

At one stage we went fishing for Tiger fish on the Okavango with boats and skippers provided by the sector. The day’s excursion lacked somewhat in thorough planning, which did not become the style of “61”: One boat went off with the beer; one boat went off with the meat; one boat went off with the bread and the salads. Late the afternoon one planning group returned cheerful and somewhat intoxicated and two other groups returned contentedly well fed, but unhappy about the beer situation.

We had a detailed debrief on the previous year and prepared thorough unit plans for 1982 during the Katima Mulilo work session. Many of the due dates for our planned objectives ended on 30 April 1982. Needless to say came 15 April 1982 we were heavily engaged with SWAPO in Operation Yahoo’s intensively active two months.

Completion of logistics and administrative stock taking and rectification

Soon after we returned from the Katima Mulilo Work Session I placed the full battalion group under command of major Giel Reinecke for one full week, myself included. This was early in March. The central idea was to do complete logistics and administrative stock taking and rectification.

We were inspecting, checking, cleaning and maintaining everything – only SWAPO was left out of the equation this time. Signals officer McSweeney had also developed an impressive control and maintenance system for our radios and accessories that we were busy implementing. Providence smiled on fortunate “61”.

A surprise visit from the Treasury Department and the Inspector-General’s office

During the logistics mêlée another surprise visit materialized at Omuthiya. This time it was the infamous mr. Koos Kruger from the government’s Treasury Department in Pretoria and major general Buks Crafford from the Inspector General’s office. There was a hoard of other inspecting officials as well. Needless to say they were highly impressed with “61”. A week later we received a letter of commendation from the Chief of the Army. This was a letter that”61” was extremely proud of.

Tragically enough major general Buks Crafford and some of his officers were killed when their Lear Jet fell close to Pretoria on their way home. This was the year when Major Giel Reinecke and “61” came first in the annual SWATF logistics competition.

Sport, sports and recreation and social functions

Sport, sports and recreation and social functions continued to be held whenever we could find the time.

This included playing vicious rugby games against our arch enemy namely the Tsumeb rugby team. Sometimes we ventured further to go and play against the other Sector HQs in the region. When the”61” rugby warriors attended these matches they were attired in their now well recognised “61” tracksuits and jerseys.

Pre-emptive attack course

An extremely successful pre-emptive attack course was once again presented in1982. It was similar to the one presented in 1981.

These sought-after training programmes were undertaken by “61” on behalf of the Chief of the Army. We even had major general J.W. Peatzold attending this prestigious course.

Colonel Fido Smit of the Armour attended the same course. Fido and I would work together again during Operation Moduler in 1987 in south east Angola. Fido then served as the commander at the operational level HQ which was established at Rundu for Operation Moduler.

Special medal parade

In June 1982 we held a special medal parade to honour soldiers and colleagues of “61” who had distinguished themselves during past operations.

On this occasion colonel T.W. Thomasse of the SWA Police was presented with a commendation from Chief of the Army for his outstanding support to “61” during the 1981 and 1982 SWAPO infiltrations.

A few personal thoughts

As the end of my command term with “61” approached I was thinking more and more about my own personnel growth and of those I had served side-by-side with. What we had learned collectively as a close knit team, generally speaking, was indescribable to others.

My life and operational experience as a commander with 61 Mechanised Battalion Group furthermore had strengthened my belief in faith. “61” had taught me that you could trust yourself and strongly believe in others. It had reinforced my belief in the value of true comradeship.

This was another good year for “61” according to my estimation. Bitter however goes before the sweet and our tragic losses through the year, especially during Operation Yahoo in April and May, were forever uppermost in my thoughts.

Special acknowledgements

61 Mechanised Battalion Group will forever be remembered in the annals of history as a unit that played one of the most significant roles in South Africa’s modern military history — but, not only for the sake of history, but also as a tribute to those who fought and served with distinction under the units’ military emblems and other insignia.

Credit, honour and recognition go to all our units’ former living members, those who paid the highest offer, their families and their friends.

Through the publishing of the commander’s overview from 1981 until 1982 I wish to acknowledge and pay tribute to the people I served with in 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. This acknowledgement includes those organisations and people who supported our unit in South West Africa (SWA — now called Namibia).

Appreciation and recognition goes to all those South African and South West African regular soldiers, reserve forces, police forces and civilians who worked with “61” in SWA and Angola.

In the light of the above-mentioned scenario special credit, honour and recognition are due to our young National Servicemen who served South Africa and “61”in the Bundu far away from home.

Mechanised hand over parade of command to my successor, commandant Gert van Zyl

In December 61 Mechanised Battalion Group prepared for my command hand over to Commandant Gert van Zyl. The event was planned for 10 January 1983.

It drew to conclusion with a spectacular mechanised parade held by “61” in Tsumeb. Many people of Tsumeb were there. It provided an opportunity for me to say farewell to the people of Tsumeb and the unit I dearly cared for.

It was a fitting way to introduce my friend commandant Gert van Zyl and his family to the gracious town of Tsumeb and the remarkable “61”.

Final comments and a personal tribute to “61”

61 Mechanised Battalion Group played a significant role in my life, and those I served with and those I lost with “61”.

The experience allowed me to shape my future view about military leadership, command and management. Through the “61” experience I further had the privilege to publish a book on Mobile Warfare — a Perspective for Southern Africa in 1987. My exposure at “61” allowed me the privilege to meaningfully contribute to the development of operational concepts for our army as well as in the building of the best army in Africa

Military operations by “61” were conducted successfully under a succession of professional and seasoned military commanders from 1978 to 2005. The unit was never defeated on the battlefield. The commanders and the soldiers of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group was highly trained and extremely adept at fighting a mobile war in Southern Africa. The unit became world renowned as it progressively fought and operated under its well known emblem – a fighting dagger and lightning bolts emblazoned on a black shield.

61 Mechanised Battalion Group was one of the South African units commended for its professionalism and military prowess by the Cubans for battles fought extremely successfully in Angola. This said announcement by a Cuban delegation during the peace negotiations of the Angolan War in 1989, serves as a tribute to the units’ fighting men.

Most of the soldiers of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group at the time were young National Servicemen. These soldiers marshaled the now internationally recognised unit badge of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group with pride throughout all its military campaigns and operations conducted in Southern Africa. This was a badge that became a status symbol in the former South African Defence Force and later also in the South African National Defence force. This tribute was due to the unit’s widely recognised military professionalism and highly regarded operational standing.

61 Mechanised Battalion Group will forever be remembered in the annals of history as a unit that played one of the most significant roles in South Africa’s modern military history — but, not only for the sake of history, but also as a tribute to those who fought and served with distinction under the units’ military emblems and other insignia.

Today and tomorrow, ever triggered and strengthened by the insignia of “61”, the memories live on. To the members of “61” belong the true glories of achievement. Their refusal to be beaten by the cruel hazards of nature, a somewhat fierce and dangerous environment and even sickness at times, with the discipline and faith to continue at all cost was outstanding — I salute you. Similarly the parents of our young revered National Serviceman would have been able to say to them: “You became a man my son”.

I trust that this overview will add to the richness of the military history in South Africa and that of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group in particular.

I sincerely wish that a relatively true and full picture was painted of the exciting life of “61”; as well as a few precious moments shared with me and the remarkable people of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. I learned that with “61” to live was to experience. Mission accomplished.

I was now on my way to report at the SA Army Battle School as a new Colonel. I was going to become the Training Wing Commander responsible for combined arms training at unit and formation level. The experience gained at “61” would stand me in good stead. I became the Second-in-Command at the Battle School in 1986.

I would see “61” again in October 1987 when I joined the Headquarters of 20 Brigade to participate in Operation Modular in south east Angola.


Tell your Story

Did you serve with 61 Mech? Do you have a recollection or anecdote to share?

Subscribe Now and share your experiences.

If you subscribe to the member site, you can read stories and view photos which can not be accessed from the public site.