Tag: Infantry

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.

© DRW 2016-2018. Created 29/08/2016 

Updated: 01/01/2018 — 16:21

Rest in Peace Lionel

On 10 July 1981, Bravo Company of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group was rocked to the core by the death of one of its own and the wounding of 15 of its members. If you speak to anybody that served with the company you will realise how much his death affected us. It is 35 years since he left us, but he still lives on in our memories, he is always 19 unlike the rest of us who are now mostly in our 50’s.

I was never able to visit his grave personally but I do have contacts through my own war grave photography and was able to have his grave photographed. It was a cathartic moment.

I cannot explain the circumstances of his death because I was not on that operation. I just recall the return of the company afterwards, and the sheer anger of those boys as they walked back to their tents.  We were 6 months away form kla-ing out, at that point of our service we had all gone through hell in training, only the month before we had been in in Lohathla carrying out battle group drills, and little did we realise that Ops Protea was not that far away. The tragic part is that this incident was a “blue on blue” incident. Swapo had not killed our friend, our own artillery had.

Over the years I was able to settle many of my ghosts from back then, but the strange thing is that you never really do, They are always there in the back of your mind.

The official enquiry really apportioned no blame, and according to General Roland De Vries there was no such thing as “acceptable losses through training”. I respect his stance, but given how badly the SADF treated national servicemen  I will always question that.

It will not bring back the young 19 year old, or heal the wounds of the 15 others. We still have the duty to make sure that we remember Lionel Van Rooyen and that he does not become yet another statistic on a memorial.

 

 

Lionel Van Rooyen is buried in Stellawood Cemetery in Durban, and is remembered on the 61 Mech Memorial in Johannesburg

His memory will live on.

Update: 07/08/2016.

Because it was his anniversary I asked one of my friends in Durban to visit his grave for me and the rest of Bravo company and see what she could do.

I would also like to dedicate this to Rfn Locke who was badly wounded in the incident.

© DRW 2016-2018. Created 14/07/2016. Updated 07/08/2016

 
Updated: 01/01/2018 — 16:26

Two comma four

On Sunday afternoon there was a post on Facebook about the dreaded “Two comma Four” that was used as the standard fitness test in the SADF waaaay back when I was a conscript in 1980/81. The cut off time was 12 minutes and the first 2,4 we ran in 3SAI was in pt shorts and takkies. I remember it well, we had a one pip loot that would mark the turning around point (theoretically 1200 metres away) and then we would be on the downhill stretch. On your marks, get set… fokof! 
 
And so it started. A regular test of our fitness levels, and in 61 Mech it was compulsory for everybody to run it, whereas in basics only us roofies seemed to run it. We ran and ran and ran and ran and ran, further and faster than we had ever run before. Far from the perimeter fence of our high school and the the 3 rugby fields that we sometimes ran during PT. Far from Phineas Mackintosh Park in Mayfair where we tried to fitten up for the army in those last days of our school careers. That road was endless, and there was no sign of that sodding lieutenant! At some point we realised he was not there and we started to turn around and run back to the start line. I seem to recall walking a bit, but coming in at  under 13 minutes. 
 
 
We ran that 2,4 twice in PT gear, after that we did it in “Staaldak, webbing en geweer” which weighed a gazillion kilos and which became second nature to us, almost like a pair of underpants but heavier and on the outside. I know my times improved dramatically, and by the time I moved to Kimberly and 11 Commando could easily run it in under 12 minutes. That course took us through the middle of the camp and around the one parade ground, still in staaldak, webbing en geweer. 
 
 
When I ended up at Jan Kemp Dorp our fitness dropped, and our stamina was more in keeping with 4 hours of guard duty. Those were fun days, although in winter we really suffered. Shortly before we left some of us started to run the 2,4 for fun, and even then could do it under 12 minutes.  
 
The next major run we did was shortly before we went to the border when the whole company ran 3,6 kilometres in De Brug, and I believe we all made it under the allotted time, but we were buggered by the time we had done it. 
 
When we hit the border we used to run the chalk road from our tents to the tar road and back first thing in the morning (about 3,8 kilos). It was hell, partly because of the blistering pace and the early morning heat, but also because we ran it as a squad and that was difficult. When we got back to our tents we would then have inspection and company parade and those meticulously shone boots were all white from the morning run in that chalk road. 
It was hell. 
Trust me on this.
 
Today? I would probably not even manage 1 kilometre, although I am very walking fit. I was never a runner, and I never will be.
 
ps. cpl Slegter, cpl Strydom, and cpl Akker: you three are a bunch of “obscenity delete-eds”
 
DRW © 2016 – 2019 The image of the platoon running comes from social media, I do not know who it belongs to, but wanted to use it as it is very representative of what we faced back them. If the photographer will come forward I will gladly acknowledge you. 
 
Updated: 21/11/2019 — 18:34
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