61 Mechanised Battalion Group Memorial

This page reflects the memorial and display up till 2012. I am in no position to comment on the situation at the War Museum in 2021. 
“Mobilitate Vincere” – Destruction of the enemy through mobility.
When 61 Mechanised Battalion Group was disbanded in November 2005, amongst its regalia was the Memorial Needle where the unit remembered those who had died in battle. This memorial had been with the unit since Omuthiya, where it had been originally erected in 1984.  When the unit re-located it was moved to Walvis Bay for storage.  During 1992 it was moved once again to the Army Battle School at Lohathla and re-erected. With the disbanding of the unit the memorial was left without a home until the formation of the 61 Mechanised Battalion Group Veterans Association. High on the list of priorities was moving the regalia of the unit to somewhere safe, the most logical place being the South African National Museum of Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg.
I had first become aware of the memorial through John Dovey who posted photographs of it on the Armytalk  webgroup. My own connection to the unit had ended in December 1981, but I still consider it to me my “Home Unit”. The image below, found in a “Paratus” of Feb 1985, shows the Memorial as it was at Omuthiya. 
I was a member of Bravo Company that served with the unit from Dec 1980-Dec 1981, and have 3 friends listed on that memorial. I really hoped that one day I would be fortunate enough to see it up close and personal.
The move to the museum was set in motion, and on 25 May 2010 it was re-erected at the “Ditsong Museum of Military History in Saxonwold (aka National Museum of Military History), and the unveiling of the memorial was set to coincide with the Anniversary of Operation Sceptic (Smokeshell) as well as the Annual General Meeting of the 61 Mech Battalion Group Veterans Association.
Like many such memorials it is visually striking, replete with the original 61 insignia on the needle. The name plates had been fixed around the base and the white stones provided a contrast with the grey granite from Karabib in what was then South West Africa.  The grounds of the museum provide an interesting contrast with weapons from both World Wars and those who attended on this day were veterans  of the Border War, and most were proud members of the unit, having served with it over the years.
We were blessed with perfect weather on 12 June 2010, and we all gathered at the National Museum of Military History. The functionary was Maj Gen (retired) J.M Dippenaar SD, SM, MMM SA ST K (ARMY) Who is also the patron of the 61 Mech Military Veterans Association. The parade commander was Lt (Veteran) Ariel Hugo, who served with 61 Mech during 1980/81. The parade Warrant Officer was Chief Warrant Officer J.J Kemp, PMM, MMM, of 43 Brigade HQ and ex RSM of 61 Mech from Dec 1986 to Dec 1992. 
The unit existed for 27 years, and participated in 37 large scale operations and actions. Earning itself a fierce-some reputation and was considered to be one of the finest fighting units in the history of  South African military operations. 
Originally founded as Battle Group Juliet for an operation against the Chetequera base in Angola, it was renamed 61 Mechanised Battalion Group in January 1979, and took its place in the regular order of battle as the first ever constituted multi-arm fighting unit, later becoming the armys’ rapid response unit.     Comprising a semi permanent force of Infantry, artillery and armour, it was equipped with Ratels, Eland and G5 artillery pieces, these being upgraded as newer weapons came available as a result of experience gained in the border war. It’s main base was in Omuthiya in Owamboland (Google Earth co-ordinates: -18.491546°, 17.061755°) where the memorial was first erected.
The unit was based at Walvis Bay for a period before relocating to the Army Battle School at Lohathla where it remained until it was disbanded. 
Sadly, like so many other units in the military, it bore a number of casualties, and the names of these are inscribed on plaques around the base of the memorial; each major operation being covered by a plaque. The full Roll of Honour may be found at the appropriate webpage of the veterans group.
61 Mech was finally disbanded on 18 November 2005, and the battalion group became part of South Africa’s military history, and a much feared unit that was respected by friend and foe and one that carried the fight deep into enemy territory. 
The Hind Memorial forms part of the legacy and traditions of 61 Mech.
The brass bell, engraved “Ano De Santo 1950”  was liberated from the battlefields by members of 61, although the origin of where it came from is not known as it was in the hands of FAPLA at the time. It was taken to Omuthiya where it was placed adjacent to the 61 Memorial. It is named after 2nd Lt Adrian Hodgson Hind who was killed on 3 October 1987 during the attack on 47 Brigade.
Today the memory of the unit lives on in it’s veterans and the association that has helped to maintain the legacy of the unit. Active participation by members of its leader group has ensured that the legacy carries forwards into tomorrow.
The memorial and exhibition space dedicated to the unit at the museum will ensure that others will come to know the history behind the memorial that they encounter as they enter the museum. Ironically the museum does not have an example of a Ratel IFV in the collection, although it did have at one point. I took the two images below somewhere in the early 2000’s. (This has since been rectified I believe)

The original Ratel that used to be at the war museum (2004?)

There is a special exhibition room in the museum dedicated to 61 Mech and it is worthwhile stopping to relive some of the memories inside the space.

Mockup Ratel 90 in the exhibition space

Bravo Company of 1981 trained at 1SAI in Bloemfontein in 1980, before being sent to the border in December 1980.  I joined the company shortly before it started doing evaluation in De Brug before it went to Omuthiya. It was the resident infantry company and was based there for the whole of 1981 except for a short period when it participated in a battlegroup at Lohathla that was really a rehearsal for Ops Protea. The company was in action during Ops Carrot, Ops Protea,  and Ops Daisy and suffered 3 losses while it was with 61 Mech. Those names are now inscribed on the memorial. (Rfn. P Hall, Rfn L Van RooyenCpl JL Potgieter)

© DRW 2006 – 2021. Memorial and ceremony information courtesy of Jan Malan, special thanks to Ariel Hugo, Gert Minaar and the 61 Mech Battalion Group Veterans Association. Updated 16 June 2010. Moved to blog 01/01/2014, edited images and text 21/05/2015, added plaque images 15/04/201, edited 14/03/2019. Moved to Musings 06/01/2021

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