Book Review: Pathfinder Company


What an excellent book! Well written, well illustrated and humorous, Pathfinder Company tells the story of the short-lived reconnaissance and raiding force of 44 Parachute Brigade. As the tale unfolds, it also casts interesting asides on the Afrikaner-dominated, Anglophobe South African Defence Force of the 1980s.

Formed in April 1980 through a quirk of fate, this English-speaking grouping lasted less than two years, disbanding in Januar 1982. Author Graham Gilmour served in the company – more a large platoon – as a signals specialist, crewing the vehicle of the brigade commander, none other than Colonel Jan Breytenbach, warrior extraordinaire and the founder of the South African Special Forces, the counterinsurgency 32 Battalion and eventually 44 Parachute Brigade.

In a short but invaluable introduction the unconventional colonel writes the airborne battalion attack on Cassinga in May 1978 showed the need for pathfinders to mark drop zones (DZs) and help form paratroopers back into their tactical formations on the DZ. “I therefore visualised that all future airborne assault be preceded by the deployment of pathfinder teams… In addition, I wanted teams on the ground, virtually on a permanent basis and right inside the guerilla base area, to locate juicy targets for airborne assaults…
“It followed therefore that the pathfinder organisation essentially had to be a PF (Regular Army) organisation. It would take far too long to train pathfinders to even think of using National Servicemen (NSM) for this task. … Because these men had to be regulars (PF) it presented me with problems I could not readily solve since 44 Parachute Brigade was, essentially a CF (reserve) fomation. Part-time soldiering for pathfinders could not even be contemplated and creating a regular force within a reserve force would be like turning water into wine. Fortunately, Chief of the Army, [Lt] General [Constant] Viljoen, inadvertently came to my rescue. A hostage situation in a bank in Pretoria suddenly materialised which called for the police to deploy their special anti-hostage squad [the Special Task Force], which they did rather successfully. For some reason General Viljoen decided that we, too, should have our own anti-hostage squad in the army. He called me in and ordered me to get a PF one off the ground as soon as possible. This, of course, was duplicating an already existing capability [the Special Forces] but I held my tongue because I suddenly was presented with the required gap to start recruiting for my pathfinder company.”

Breytenbach adds that he believed Special Air Service (SAS) style “Sabre” vehicles would be ideal for such a force. As an aside, Breytenbach had been attached to the Rhodesian SAS for a short time prior to establishing the SA Special Forces. An unnamed Director Army Operations wanted “Q Cars”, armed but disguised vehicles, to kill insurgents attacking military vehicles. “This created anther gap I could exploit … to develop our own SAS-styled Sabre. The Director Army Operations did not know the difference between a Q Car and a Sabre anyway.”

The advent of Robert Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe also meant combat experienced ex-members of the SAS, Selous Scouts and Rhodesian Light Infantry were available for recruiting. As a result, they were immediately unpopular: “Brigadier [“Witkop”] Badenhorst, OC [officer commanding] of Sector 10 and a soldier with an inbuilt animosity toward anybody who spoke … English, hated the very sight of us,” Breytenbach writes, “however, and especially when the small pathfinder company started to achieve significant operational results while his much larger subordinate units struggled to achieve anything beyond the mediocre.”

Gilmour’s account thus starts with a gruelling SAS-style selection course in the Drakensberg. A deployment to northern Namibia, the Operational Area” followed in December 1980. Noteworthy is the disdain the Pathfinders quickly developed for the way PFs [mis]treated NSM. At Okatope “the food for the NSM was extremely poor, whereas the few PF personnel did rather better with their own dining tent and properly prepared meals.” First blood is in a paratroop assault on Cuamato in early 1981. A Zairean officer (!) is captured.

Again reflecting on the SADF, Gilmour says: “The SADF was essentially a peacetime army where duty on the border was an occasional, often unwanted, requirement…” To true, which is why people like Breytenbach repeatedly turn up in the annals. Further action follows, often with the colonel in attendance. And there is more on the NSM: “The pathfinders, whose combined military experience totalled hundreds of years … were not overly impressed with with how they saw the NSM being used and abused by the PF staff. To be always running about, stamping their feet and standing to attention was absolutely correct for recruits, but these were men trained men on active service. It seemed outdated that the emphasis was all on obedience and that the true meaning of discipline had been overlooked, but that was apparently how the system worked. As a result the uitlanders were ever ready after a drink or two to side with the NS soldiers by deriding this aspect of the system.”

The SADF found other ways to irk these professionals too: “A visiting colonel addressed the men, telling them that it didn’t matter if they were killed as they were foreigners and therefore expendable.” (!) Rightly Gilmour says: “Such an attitude, openly expressed by senior ranks was bound to have an effect on the attitude of the men.”

The highlight of the Philistines’ service was Operations Protea and Daisy. But the end came soon after when Breytenbach was removed from command. “The men were not wanted or needed … so as their enlistments ran out they faded away. A sad end to a unit of such highly experienced combat soldiers.” Indeed.

Pathfinder Company – 44 Parachute Brigade – The Philistines

Graham Gilmour
30 Degrees South Publishers