Fact file: 1 Special Service Battalion
Written by Leon Engelbrecht, Monday, 01 March 2010
Regarded as the senior regular unit of the SA Army, 1 SSB was formed as a Permanent Force (PF) unit on May 1, 19331 under Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) “Uncle” George Brink, a division commander during World War Two.
It was both a feeder for the PF and, according to Major Tylden, a social experiment to bridge the gap after leaving school. The latter role was so successfully carried out that, in 1935, a Pioneer Battalion was formed at Bloemfontein along similar lines2. The SSB was initially headquartered at Roberts’ Heights (Thaba Tshwane) with detachments in Cape Town and Durban. By June 1935, 5000 youths aged between 17 and 22 had enlisted. By 1937, 6802 youths had been placed in civil employment (a task made easier by the Great Depression drawing to a close and massive civil public works programmes coming on line) and a cadet company was training men for commissions.
Many were in 1939 drafted into 1st and 2nd Field Force Battalions that saw action in Ethiopia in 1941 and El Alamein in 1942. In August 1941 youths under 18 were formed into the Youth’s Training Brigade and the older men were formed into another infantry battalion, converted to an armoured car commando in 1942. This unit served as a tank regiment with 6 SA Armoured Division’s 11th Armoured Brigade throughout the Italian campaign. Tylden describes unit discipline as “very severe”. Lt Col “Pappa” Brits was OC at the time. A unit history sheet notes he is the only SA soldier ever to have served as RSM, Adjutant and OC of the same unit.
1SSB also took part in the Border War, serving in Namibia and Angola. More recently, the unit also took part in Operation Boleas, the controversial intervention in Lesotho in 1998. B Squadron, a Ratel 90 sub-unit took part in the fighting on September 22, while A Squadron, with Rooikat, arrived the next evening. In 2004, the unit consisted of a regimental headquarters and six squadrons. The unit’s 270 vehicles was 50% serviceable.
Current role: Operational armoured car regiment.
Current base: Tempe Bloemfontein
South-West Africa 1975-6
South-West Africa 1976-89
Motto: Eendracht Maakt Mag, later Eendrag maak Mag and Unity is Strength3; also: Faithful, true and steady, come what may we are ready
1 Major G Tylden in The Armed Forces of South Africa, City of Johannesburg Africana Museum Frank Connock Publication No 2, Johannesburg, 1954,says 1934. This date comes from a unit history sheet and a note from the GOC Armour Formation, Brig Gen Chris Gildenhuys in December 2006.
2 This was mainly aimed at uplifting “poor whites” , mostly impoverished Afrikaners and can be seen for what it was – an aggressive affirmative action programme.
3 The mottto, in Dutch, of the Union of South Africa and the 1961 Republic.
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