South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 12 May 2016 was Major Willem Steenkamp, the distinguished author and military historian, whose power point illustrated topic was the history of 61 Mechanised Infantry Battalion Group, the subject of his forthcoming book. This was established on January 1, 1979, and disbanded in November 2005. Our speaker explained that the unit had played a unique and remarkable role in evolving a doctrine for fighting the Bush War, and as such played a prominent role in the history of the SADF.

Its composition was a totally new concept in the SADF. Combat groups had been formed by attaching a squadron and battery to a battalion as needed. 61 Mech was set up to include all arms permanently. It normally consisted of two mechanised infantry companies in Ratel 20s, an armoured car squadron of Eland 90s - later Ratel 90s from 1 SSB - a battery of G2 guns from 4 Field (Art.) Regiment, a support company, logistics and engineer troops and, in later years, a tank squadron. They were not attached but formed part of the unit. If more infantry was needed, a paratroop company would usually be attached.

Our speaker pointed out that Jan van Riebeek was the spiritual father of 61 Mech as it was he who introduced horses to the Cape. Governor van der Stel realised the strategic value of the Cape and the role that it played in seaborne commerce. Especially the British East India Company might want to take the Cape, so he established a regiment of dragoons (mounted infantry), a mobile force that could defend possible landing sites. They distinguished themselves opposing the landings of 1795/1806.

Our operations in German SWA in the First World War and in Ethiopia/Somaliland in the Second World War were characterized by extreme mobility. Our speaker explained that the Italians in East Africa and Ethiopia had tended to remain in static positions, whereas mobility without too long a logistical trail was what was needed. The UDF used Ford three-tonners carrying enough supplies for a rifle section for a week.

The British writer Capt B H Liddel-Hart proposed a doctrine of mobility and a strategy of indirect approach. The Germans successfully adopted this doctrine in World War 2 for their Panzer divisions.

Maj Steenkamp spoke of the emergence of a new post-World War 2 generation of young officers who succeeded in replacing the World War 2 approach with a new, practical African-oriented mobile warfare doctrine. They did this against opposition from their more hide-bound seniors. Their number included future general officers like C L Viljoen, J Geldenhuys, Fido Smit, Roland de Vries and Wouter Lombaard.

South Africa was outnumbered by its potential enemies, lacked suitable vehicles, and did not have adequate air support. The SADF needed to act swiftly and decisively as it had no outside sources of supply. In spite of the handicaps, we maximised our resources and did our best with what we had.

The secondary role of all armed forces is to act in support of the civil power and, in 1974, the SADF took over the policing of the SWA borders. SWA was a Class C Mandate - one which could never be self-supporting because its tax base was too small. SA had paid for SWA's infrastructure with the SA taxpayer's money. In 1978, Prime Minister Vorster announced South Africa's intention to assist the inhabitants of South West to work out their own future and provide them with sufficient elbow-room to do so. SWAPO refused to cooperate while the USSR was determined to take SWA by force of arms.

The South African Army's WW2 weaponry had been augmented in the 1950's with some Saracen armoured personnel carriers and, later, with Panhard armoured cars. They were not suited to the African bush and their petrol engines were liable to ignite if hit. The SA-built Eland series of armoured cars evolved out of the Panhard as a result of practical experience in the field and in combat.

One of the consequences of Operation Savannah in late 1975, was that operational use revealed the inadequacy of the SADF's weaponry. By 1977 the Ratel had been developed. It has been described as "the single most important weapon system for cross-border operations". It was mine-proofed and armed with a 20mm gun, firing both armour-piercing and high explosive ammunition. Maj Steenkamp praised the role played by Roland de Vries and Tony Savides in its development.

Our speaker next discussed the importance of the Ruacana hydro-electric scheme. The dams were at Calueque in Angola and the power station and pump station were at Ruacana in South West Africa. This supplied water to Ovamboland via a 300 km system of canals and pipelines and electricity to SWA. When the Portuguese withdrew from Angola in November 1975, the SADF was deployed to defend the Ruacana Scheme.

During a deployment in Ovamboland in 1977, Cmdt Joep Joubert proposed the formation of a mechanized battle group in the operational area. Battle Group Juliet was formed under the command of Cmdt Frank Bestbier. This became 61 Mech Inf Btn in 1979. This unit was used in the attack on Chetequera, as part of Operation Reindeer in 1978. Many lessons were learnt from this operation. The attack highlighted deficiencies in the SADF vehicles which were badly damaged when forced to make their way through the featureless and dense bush in southern Angola, where sight was often measured in mere metres.

Colloquially it became known in the SADF as "bundu bashing". Our speaker noted the importance of keeping on the move as vehicles in a static role are more vulnerable (a lesson the German armoured units learned the hard way, very quickly, at the start of WW 2). The border war landscape was of a flat and monotonous nature, which had no vantage points and hampered navigation. Air reconnaissance was also unsatisfactory as the bush was too dense.

In 1978, Gen Constand Viljoen offered his ADC, Cmdt Johan Dippenaar of the SA Armoured Corps, command of 61 Mechanised Infantry Battalion. He had been an observer at Chetequera.

Maj Steenkamp described the Battle of Smokeshell, part of Operation Sceptic, commanded by Cmdt Dippenaar. This was an attack on a network of different types of SWAPO bases. It was decided to shell these and send the infantry in to mop up pockets of resistance. All the SWAPO bases were underground and invisible from the air, and equally difficult to observe at ground level. The anti-aircraft positions photographed by the SAAF were dummies but while the real ones were well camouflaged and utilised most effectively as anti-vehicle guns, knocking out three Ratels and killing 12 SA soldiers.

Dippenaar's command Ratel hit a mine and Gen Viljoen was hurled clear of the vehicle, luckily without sustaining serious injuries other than a bruised ego. Our speaker showed us rare pictures of four Ratels being refuelled simultaneously, using the so-called "Lappies pump", invented by Col Labuschagne. Maj Steenkamp recalled that a SWAPO POW was being interrogated by an intelligence officer in a Ratel when a land mine exploded. When asked why he had not told the Intelligence Officer that the area was mined, his reply was "you didn't ask me."

Our speaker commented on the excellent record of the SA Medical Service during the Border War and noted that its record battle casualty survival was better than that of the USA in the Vietnam War. An ambulance Ratel with doctor and medical orderly was sent into battle with each unit and helicopters used to evacuate casualties were similarly equipped. He told us of the casevac of a SADF soldier who had been hit by an anti-tank grenade in the face. He was flown in a C130 Transport as the only passenger to 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. Unfortunately he failed to survive the trip.

The SWA Territorial Force was formed in 1977 and took over a large part of the counter-insurgency campaign in South West Africa, assisted by 32 Battalion. South African forces took over cross border operations - here 61 Mech and 32 Battalion took the lead with other National Service units contributing additional forces where necessary. SWATF, made up of all the races in SWA, bore the brunt of the counter-insurgency (COIN) operations.

Our speaker then discussed the importance of the airstrip at Mavinga, held by Unita and used to fly in supplies. Mavinga was within range of Jamba, Savimbi's headquarters. If either was captured by the MPLA/Cuban forces, Savimbi and his Unita would be destroyed. He explained that Unita had no field or anti-aircraft guns, nor armoured cars or tanks. A large conventional offensive was launched by the Angolans and Cubans against Unita in August-September 1985. This included tanks, Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs), artillery and anti-aircraft missiles and advanced from Cuito Cuanevale. The Angolan army was in a chaotic state and the advance was slow but Savimbi's forces stood no chance without help from South Africa which was reluctant to intervene. Savimbi appealed to Pres Botha who agreed to assist. The SAAF, assisted by Valkiri rocket launchers from the Army, destroyed the column, the main targets being the ground-to-air missile launchers.

Our speaker then discussed Operation Protea, the biggest SADF operation during the Border War, which took place in August 1981. Some 4,000 troops took part. Cmdt de Vries commanded Group10, comprising 61 Mech with an added paratroop company. Its composition was as set out in page 1 of this summary. There were three other groups, more or less ad hoc but similar in composition to 61 Mech. The first rounds fired in anger by Ratel 90s were fired by 2nd Lt Grove and C/O A Helm. Both destroyed a tank each and earned the Honoris Crux.

FAPLA had a squadron of tanks but these had been deeply dug in and their usefulness was limited. The mobility of the South African force and their steadiness enabled them to inflict a major defeat on the enemy and to capture between 3,000 and 4,000 tons of weapons and equipment. The battle was fought in very difficult terrain and a big factor in the SA victory was the efficiency and ability of the Technical Services Corps personnel (colloquially known as "Tiffies") who did such excellent salvage and repair work. They could replace the engine of a Ratel in one hour. There is even a recorded incident where the Tiffies repaired a Ratel engine while the vehicle was being towed along an Angolan road. When they finished the job, the Ratel was once again operational.

Our speaker noted that our anti-aircraft weapons were not very effective. The 35mm guns and missiles were not very mobile and this led to the development of the Ystervark, a Unimog converted to accommodate a single-barreled 20mm gun on the rear cargo-bed. It had no radar but succeeded in shooting down some Migs. Anti-aircraft guns captured from the enemy were also put to good use.

The rainy season was the time chosen by the enemy to infiltrate into SWA. The rain would wash away the guerrilla's tracks and scent, making it difficult for trackers and dogs to find the enemy.

A large infiltration took place in December 1982 to January 1983, in the rainy season. In succeeding months there was a follow-up in which the SADF and SWATF forces hunted down and eliminated the infiltrators. Operation Askari followed in December 1983. It was a long time in planning and was risky because the heavy army vehicles could become bogged down in the mud.

The new Israeli-made G4 gun was used but was found not to be very mobile. After Operation Protea, the enemy had been resupplied by the Russians and Cubans and now had T54 and T55 tanks with better armour than the old T34 tanks previously used. There were also new Soviet SA8 and SA9 anti-aircraft missiles. A skirmish between a Recce Commando patrol and a SWAPO/FAPLA force alerted the enemy to the danger of another big SADF operation.

As the SADF was fighting SWAPO it was only permitted to attack FAPLA if it was protecting SWAPO personnel so a siege strategy was adopted against Quiteve, Cahama, Malondo and Cuvelai. On 28 December orders were changed and Col van Lill was ordered to attack Cahama and capture a Soviet- made SA8 surface-to-air missile launcher. Despite only having a low-velocity 90mm gun, the Ratel 90s, with their better-trained crews and superior mobility, destroyed two T55 tanks. Faced with a determined defence at Cahama, the South Africans abandoned the attack. Soviet-made ZSU23 anti-aircraft guns were very effective against Ratels and Elands and forced these to withdraw.

Maj Steenkamp praised the proficiency of the South African signallers who intercepted a message from the Cuvelai officer commanding, requesting reinforcements because 75% of his artillery had been destroyed by SAAF bombers.

Thanks to the great bravery of Alouette pilot Capt Carl Alberts, who was spotting for the S A Artillery, several enemy guns were destroyed. Lt Colin Steyn, grandson of Pres M T Steyn, was in command of a Ratel 90 which also destroyed a T55 tank. Operation Askari succeeded in its objective of halting SWAPO's 1984 rainy season infiltration. Although a SA8 launcher was not captured, two SA9 launchers were captured - the first ever seen in the West. This operation resulted in the transfer to 61 Mech of tanks because the Ratels and Elands were no longer a match for the Russian T54 and T55.

During the Border War, a number of SAI battalions were converted into clones of 61 Mech and one of these took part on the Modular/Hooper/Packer battles with 61 Mech. These battles were briefly referred to by our speaker. Unfortunately, in later years, these battalions including 61 Mech were disbanded and it seems that our army has lost the skills it once had in fast mobile warfare.

Our speaker then looked at the negotiations which ended the Border War and praised the SA Navy's highly successful Operation Magersfontein, an amphibious landing exercise at Walvis Bay which led the Angolans to believe that South Africa was planning a landing at Namibe. All of this led to peace, the withdrawal of the Russians and Cubans and an election in SWA. In conclusion, Maj Steenkamp showed us photographs of the two Border War medals - the Southern Africa Medal for cross-border operations and the Pro Patria Medal for border operations. The chairman thanked the speaker for another enthralling talk and presented him with the customary gift. The chairman added that he was proud to have served with the 2 SA Infantry Battalion Group based at Walvis Bay/Rooikop at the end of the sixties, which in the 1960-1980s was the sole Combined Arms Combat Group in the SADF, in that it consisted of an infantry battalion with anti-tank capability, a battery each of field and medium artillery, as well as a squadron each of Centurion tanks and Panhard 60 armoured cars (the latter for reconnaissance). As such it should be viewed as the fore-runner of 61 Mech in the development of the reinforced, combined arms battle group concept.



The Annual General Meeting was held before this month's lecture. The Committee elected at the meeting for 2016 was as follows:


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /