Father of SA Special Forces dies

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Retired SA Army colonel Jan Breytenbach, the founding father of Special Forces in the South African military, died in the George Mediclinic on Sunday (16 June) at the age of almost 92.

Well-respected locally and internationally as a soldier’s soldier, Breytenbach was born on 14 July 1932, and is survived by his wife Rosalind, his son Richard, daughter Angela and grandchildren Christopher and Matthew.

Breytenbach was the first commanding officer of 1 Reconnaissance Commando, the first dedicated Special Forces unit in South Africa and also took charge of 32 Battalion and 44 Parachute Brigade during his military career. All told he was in uniform for 37 years, all in South Africa apart from five years in the Royal Navy (RN) Fleet Air Arm.

He attended the Army Gymnasium, now headquartered at Heidelberg in southern Gauteng, in 1950, earning the unit’s sword of honour in 1953. A period of service in what was then the Armoured Corps ended when he left the country to become a Royal Navy staffer.

On his return to South Africa and the South African Defence Force (SADF) he was instrumental in founding SA Special Forces in 1970. The establishment of 32 Battalion followed six years later.

Breytenbach attended Staff College in 1977, was promoted to colonel and appointed Senior Staff Officer (SSO) Operations at the then Northern Transvaal Command. He commanded 44 Parachute Brigade from 24 September 1980 to 31 December 1982 and founded the SADF Guerrilla School, which he commanded until his retirement.

His achievements in uniform and service were honoured with the DVR (Dekorasie Van Riebeeck), SD (Suiderkruis Dekorasie), SM (Southern Cross Medal) and MMM (Military Merit Medal) decorations.

He retired in 1987 and wrote a number of books on the military and nature conservation. Titles include ‘The Buffalo Soldiers’, ‘Forged in Battle’, ‘They live by the Sword’, ‘Eden’s Exiles’ and ‘The Plunderers’.

“His career is testimony to his unrelenting commitment to the military. Blue skies always,” his son Richard noted adding the “bruin man” – as he was known colloquially to those he led and served with – was and will be revered as an icon by many in South Africa as well as in the international Special Operations world.

“The Breytenbach family understand and appreciate the widespread interest and sympathy for the demise of our dearly departed husband, father, brother and grandfather and wish to bid him farewell in a dignified manner. Details regarding funeral arrangements and memorial service will be communicated in due course,” according to a family statement.

“For now the family is well supported by close friends and military veterans organisations and request we be allowed space to mourn and finalise arrangements.”

An indication of the esteem and respect he garnered is a foreword to one of the late brigadier general Dick Lord’s books ‘From Fledgling to Eagle’, detailing SA Air Force (SAAF) operations in the Bush War.

Breytenbach’s closing paragraph reads: “During his service on the border Dick was made an honorary member of 32 Battalion, a unit I had formed, by Eddie Viljoen because we considered him to be one of us, a soldier to the core while also having proved himself an airman of impeccable credentials. It gave me great joy, as a former AWF naval observer/navigator to see a former AWF naval pilot being accepted into my own unit as just another beetle-crushing ‘pongo’”.

One of many tributes posted on social media was by long-time defence and military writer, De Wet Potgieter. His contribution on Nagkantoor read, in part, “Salute, brown man – you will long be respected by both friends and enemies”.