musings while allatsea

Musings of a curious individual

61 Mech: The Book

When the 61 Mech Veterans Association was founded a few years ago, it was decided that the story of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group needed to be told. Not only to preserve the history for the future, but also to correct many of the myths, lies and propaganda associated with the battalion group.

I was a member of Bravo Company of 61 Mech and served with the unit from December 1980 till December 1981 and consider it to be my “home unit”; and while my memory is not as good as it was, I do remember that way back then we knew we were special and that when butts needed kicking we were the ones to do it.

The book took a long time to write, even longer than the average service period of a national serviceman way back in the bad old days. Mobility Conquers, the story of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group is co-authored by the much respected Willem Steenkamp and Helmoed-Römer Heitman.

I received my copy in early August of 2016, before the book was officially launched in South Africa.

My first impressions were that it was roughly the same size as the box that a 200 round belt of 7.62 ammunition came in, and almost the same weight! In truth it weighs in at 2.6 kg (1062 pages) which is one heck of a lot to balance on your chest at night when you lay in bed reading.

The book covers the period 1978-2005 which is the period when it was founded till when it was disbanded, although in my experience it appears as if the post border war era is really short of detail and does seem rushed.

My biggest gripe is the images, some are almost illegible, and others are way too small too. The maps, while really helpful and beautifully created, are way too small. I struggled to see the detail and frankly just gave up on them. I do however like the occasional sidebar that is used to enhance a page or story or person, they are very helpful and contain some fascinating information.

The book does read easily, interspersed with anecdotes from those who were there and those who planned and oversaw the operations. If anything the book does provide a really good insight into the border war as it was fought in Angola, although it is really restricted to the roles of 61 Mech and affiliated units that served under it’s very large umbrella.

My own interest was in the 1981 years and it was really strange to read about the happenings in that year without shaking your head in agreement. Our OC back then was Cmdt Roland De Vries, and we were really privileged to have him as our OC. This man wrote the book on mechanised warfare for the SADF, and his influence permeated throughout the book. It was also interesting to see how many of the officers from our era moved up in the ranks to lead formations in later operations. As a former nsm we went home after our two years, and for them the war really continued because many were career soldiers.  

Some of the action reports make for interesting reading, and the sheer scale of the operations is amazing. However, the enemy that they fought was even bigger and the losses that they took is staggering. It was really in the nature of these conflicts that lives were thrown away all in the name of a “Liberation Struggle”.  

61 Mech had a reason to exist while the border war raged, and once peace came the writing was really on the wall. There was no real need for a unit that had waged war so effectively, and which had the respect of it’s  friends and foes, and up till now the story of 61 Mech had never been told, and now it is all there in print. 

In my humble opinion the book should have been split into two, although where that spilt would be inserted is difficult to pinpoint. Two volumes would have enabled the authors to expand on the later years and add in a lot more about the operations, equipment and other associated minutiae that made up the unit and it’s men.  It would have also made for a much lighter read, and allowed for choosing which era your interest was in. 

The book is pricey, and hopefully when a second edition does come out some of the errors and omissions will be corrected and the quality of the images will be addressed.  I think I spotted maybe 5 typos in the whole book which was great. 

On my 2nd last day as an nsm  I remember thinking that I was finished with all the crap and once I walked out the main gate I would never hear about the unit again. I was wrong, because 61 Mech fought on and even today, long after it was disbanded it  is still leading the field, it is just that the field is now full of old men who look back with fondness on those days where we were fit and ready to conquer the enemy. 

Mobility Conquers reminds us of those days and those who never came back, our friends and comrades, our much loved Ratels, and the starlit sky above the sandy roads of our base in Omuthiya, and if we cast our minds back we may hear the generator in the distance or the feint whine of a Ratel or the bark of a Hyena.  Those are memories most of us share, and they are well defined inside the book. 

If I wanted to I could nitpick, but I will leave that to those who are more erudite than I am. I will do a reread of the book at a later stage, but this time I will dip in and out, savouring the past and smelling the diesel and cordite, and hearing those familiar sounds once again.

A great read. Congrats to those involved. This is one of the best Border War Books out there and we can be rightly proud of it.

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