SA Special Forces celebrate 50th anniversary

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The SA Special Forces Brigade recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, capping a long and illustrious history filled with extraordinarily tough training, almost impossible operations as well as, sadly, heavy losses.

Special Forces in the modern sense go back to World War Two. The British were prolific in creating irregular units, but the best-known were the Army Commandos and the Special Air Service (SAS), the successor to the Long Range Desert Group. The US (United States) founded, among other units, the Alamo Scouts and the Marine Raiders.

Most units were disbanded at the war’s end with the Cold War leading to many being resurrected. The British SAS were re-constituted in 1952 to fight a Communist insurgency in Malaya, while America founded the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) in the same year; US Navy Sea Air Land (SEAL) special warfare units followed in 1962. The rise of terrorist attacks, notably the Munich Massacre at the 1972 Olympics, saw many countries creating similar forces, including the German Grenzschutsgruppe 9 (Border Protection Group 9), better known as GSG-9 and Israel’s Sayeret Matkal, made famous by its rescue of Jewish hostages from Uganda’s Entebbe airport in 1976.

South Africa’s Special Forces were founded by General Fritz Loots with then Commandant (Lieutenant Colonel) Jan Breytenbach and a small cadre at Oudtshoorn, site of the Infantry School, in an unofficial capacity in 1970. The unit went under various cover names, such as the Alpha Operation Group and the Irregular Warfare Wing of Infantry School. Opposition in the Army saw Loots take early retirement, but the story was not over.

On 1 October 1972, the unit was named the Reconnaissance Commando, although its commander, the legendary Breytenbach, preferred Parachute Commando. The unit was officially named 1 Reconnaissance Commando in 1974, with Loots back in command of Special Forces. In this period, the term “Special Forces” was not synonymous with the Reconnaissance Commando as a unit, but the “recces” were subordinate to Special Forces, which included other units including 32 Battalion. In 1975, 1 Recce Commando moved to the Bluff in Durban and comprised an operational commando and the “TRG”, or training wing.

As the Border War intensified, additional commandos were added, 2 Recce being a Citizen Force (reserve) unit; 3 to 6 Commandos were added around 1980, but 3 and 6, made up of ex-Rhodesian soldiers, were disbanded, leaving 1, 2, 4 and 5 Reconnaissance Commandos. Further changes took place in the command structure in 1981, with units re-designated as regiments. In 1992, 2 Recce Regiment was disbanded, but the reserve component remains and is made up of retired Special Forces members willing to serve in the Reserve Force.

Following the transition to democracy, there was confusion and media reports spoke of Recce regiments being disbanded, but in 1995 the units were placed in in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) structure as Special Forces Regiments (SFRs).

The founding regiment, 1 SFR, was disbanded in 1997, leaving 5 SFR, based in Phalaborwa in Limpopo, to house the land-based component and 4 SFR as the seaborne element at Langebaan in Saldanha Bay in Western Cape. SF Headquarters was moved to Swartkop Game Reserve (known as “Speskop”) outside Pretoria.

The training of South Africa’s Special Forces is extraordinarily tough and the SA Special Forces Association states that about six percent of those who start selection complete the full training. This number is even lower when all who initially applied for pre-selection and were rejected is included.

Unlike many militaries, South African Special Forces operators, still known as “recces” from the original name, are trained to operate not only on land, but also handle riverine and open water environments, due to the low number of operators. This demand to train in both “airward” and “seaward” environments goes back to the beginnings of the unit. Today, an operator can, having completed the training cycle and been deployed for some time, request further specialist training.

The primary function of the Special Forces Regiments remains reconnaissance, to be the eyes and ears of the military, of which there are many examples.

One is the 1987 observation of Soviet, Cuban and FAPLA build-up for Operation Salute to October. The Recces gave the then SADF (SA Defence Force) early warning, allowing time for a military response in the form of a conventional campaign under Operation Moduler.

Reconnaissance and long-term observation of key roads and railways is an important Special Forces task (in much of southern Africa, infrastructure is sparse, making these lines of communication extremely important.) When the need arose, Recces were tasked with either guiding in aircraft or destroying roads, railways, bridges, tunnels or power supplies.
Some 300 operations were undertaken during the war in Angola alone, according to the SA Special Forces Association (SASFA) website. Many were planned as strategic attacks on communication lines or points. In 1986, for example, Operation Second Congress was launched by a combined Angola, Cuban and Soviet force, aimed at destroying UNITA, a guerrilla movement aligned with the West and with South Africa. Operation Drosdy, a raid from the sea on the strategic port of Namibe in southern Angola in June 1986, sank two Soviet ships and destroyed an oil farm, depriving the assault campaign of fuel.

These demanding and dangerous operations, though achieving great successes, had a cost. Proportionally, the Recces had the highest casualty rates of any SADF unit in the conflicts in Namibia and Angola. Indicative of this is that the first South African soldier to die in that war was a Recce (in 1974) and the last was also a Recce (1989).

After political changes leading up to the 1994 elections, the now-renamed Special Forces Regiments continued training – which paid off in March 2013 near the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR) Bangui. A small group of about 200 South African soldiers, both paratroopers and Special Forces, were attacked by thousands of Séléka rebels, invading the country from Chad in the north. A series of running battles ensued, with the CAR military withdrawing and French forces holding only the airport. Eventually, SANDF troops suffered 13 paratroops killed and 27 other soldiers wounded, while inflicting at least 5 000 (some estimates say 7 000) casualties on Séléka. In a tribute to the Parabats and Recces, Séléka asked for a ceasefire and the French unit held a parade for the lost South Africans.

Today, the Special Forces Brigade falls directly under CJ Ops (Chief of Joint Operations) and are in the same building complex at Speskop, along with administrative support staff. Selection and main training is carried out by the Special Forces School at Murrayhill, north of Pretoria; the Supply Unit is at Wallmansthal, while 4 and 5 SFRs continue to work from their bases. Special Forces Reserves are deployed where needed.

To anyone who has served in the military, the South African Special Forces are deeply respected and oft envied. The record over the past 50 years of the unit’s existence tends to show that the motto of 5 SFR, We Fear Naught but God, could be that of the Special Forces Brigade as a whole.