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


61 Mech AGM

It was August last year that I seem to have started this blog thang, and my fourth post dealt with the 2nd AGM of the 61 Mech veterans Association. I served with the unit from December 1980 till December 1981 and consider it to be my “home unit”. 


As in previous years, the AGM was held at the Ditsong National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg.  The museum is home to the 61 Mech Memorial as well as a display room dedicated to the unit and it’s exploits. The weather was turning to summer on the day of the AGM, and it was reasonably well attended, although I had seen more members in previous years. 

First on the agenda was the AGM which was quickly dispensed with, and it was good to hear that the definitive 61 Mech book is still on track. It is long overdue, and should be a good read when it appears, possibly in 2014.  From there we held the Memorial Parade with all the pomp and ceremony that goes with it. 
Guard of Honour
Guard of Honour
Placing the Standards
Placing the Standards

The message was delivered by the former commander of the unit during my era: Gen Maj Roland de Vries (SD, SM, MMM, SA, st C).  

If anything, a memorial parade is always an occasion for reflection, I knew 3 of the men who names on the memorial, and while we who are left behind get older, they will always be young.   My old company “Bravo Company” is reasonably well represented,  although there are always people that you wish you could see once again. 
Following the service by Chaplin Pieter Bezuidenhout it was time for the two minute silence and the laying of wreaths.
Once the wreath laying was completed, we all attended a briefing on Operations Makro, Meebos and Yahoo in the Lemmer Auditorium.  I always find it interesting to hear the many stories that get told. This year Jan Malan spoke about the loss of a Ratel in an ambush during Ops Yahoo. And, as a war grave photographer many of those names are familiar to me, but understanding the way that they died is a different story altogether when it is told by somebody that was there.
Our South African War Graves Project Border War List  only provides the following information on these casualties: “Whilst on patrol the Lt sent out a section (1 Ratel) to follow a couple a tracks that the tracker had picked up. The Ratel hit an ambush just after 10am. By the time backup had formed up and went to their aid a group of soldiers had been killed.
We were also given a briefing on the logistical side of some of the operations, and two things came out of it: 61 Mech was extremely efficient when it came to logistical support, and that our Tiffies were the best on the border! 
For the first time though, Roland De Vries was not able to complete his words, when he described the death of one of  the men involved. We all forget how the deaths of so many of these men have stayed with those who were in command of them, and how the deaths affected the families and futures of those left behind.  It was a poignant moment, and one that will stick with me for a long time.
Then it was over, and after some quick photography I was heading back home. On the way I remembered what the national co-ordinator of SAWGP had said about 61 Mech; “While we were at war 61 Mech was a fighting unit, but during peace it lost it’s reason for existence”     
The unit was disbanded in March 2005, today it is part of history, but what a proud history it has. 
© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 25/03/2016

They do not grow old, as we grow old.

In the course of my gravehunting I was always on the lookout for four specific graves. These are the final resting place of 4 young boys who died during their military service, and with whom I served during my two years. 
The first death I encountered was of a rifleman who was a member of E-Company in Jan Kemp Dorp.  His death was one of those that should never have happened, but it did, all because of the pig headedness of those who were supposed to lead us. I will not go into details, but he has been in my mind since 1980, and I have never found his grave. But, Sktr Van Der Kolf, (possible Van Der Colff) I have never forgotten you and hope that one day I will find your resting place.
The next loss I experienced was that of a young rifleman, Lionel Van Rooyen. During a rehearsal for what would become Ops Protea, the platoon that he was in, as well as some of my friends, was involved in a live fire accident and 15 of them were wounded, Lionel never survived. He was a very popular guy and a Springbok figure skater. That accident devastated our company, and Lionel became yet another statistic. Many years after the incident I read a report about the investigation, and  a magistrate in Ondangwa found nobody to blame. Ask anybody that was in platoon 6 on 10 July 1981, and they will quite happily tell you who they think was to blame. (Image courtesy of Eleanor Susan Garvie)

The next death that struck us very hard was that of Cpl  Johan Potgieter, who was killed during Ops Daisy on 04 November 1981. The events leading up to his death tell of his bravery and his sacrifice. It was not too long before the operation that I stood guard with him, and I remember us brewing coffee in the guard post. We had 44 days left of our national service when he died, and he never saw the day when he too could walk out of Tempe and return to civvy life. I was fortunate enough that I found this grave myself and was able to stand and say my goodbyes in person. It was a very emotional moment.

The final death was that of Rfn Peter Hall. I do not know the circumstances of his death too well, but if anything it was through “misadventure”. However, it matters not. He lost his life on the 2nd of March 1981. We had been on the border just over 3 months by then,  and he too became a statistic. Finding his grave was always a problem because we did not know where he was buried. Now I know, and this image is courtesy of  Tanite Swart.
The platoon commander of the platoon where Peter Hall was in, said that this grave completes the circle, and while in my case that circle is not yet complete, I suspect that I have found the grave of my Sktr Van Der Kolf, but just need confirmation to close it.  
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn them,
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
© DRW 2012-2018. Images recreated 22/03/2016