Large memorial service for the remarkable career of Jan Breytenbach

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The late Colonel Jan Dirk Breytenbach was remembered by an unusually large group of military veterans at the Voortrekker Monument’s Wall of Remembrance in Pretoria over the weekend, made even more unusual by the multitude of elite headgear visible, from the Parabat’s winged maroon berets to the compass rose of Special Forces and the characteristic camouflage berets of 32 Battalion.

Breytenbach passed away peacefully on 16 June at the age of 91 in the company of his family in George. He is survived by his wife Rosalind, his son, Richard, daughter, Angela, and his grandchildren Christopher and Matthew.

During the memorial, Chaplain Marius van Rooyen quoted Psalm 90, saying God was the dwelling place of people of faith, which he explained Breytenbach had been throughout his life. He characterised the Colonel as a man who had “lived an impactful life” and who had “contributed significantly to our nation.”

The eulogy was given by a former member of the original “recces”, also known as the “Dirty Dozen”, Major General (Ret.) Dan Lamprecht. He summarised Breytenbach’s remarkable career, pointing out that in the Union Defence Force (UDF) Army Gymnasium, he received the Sword of Honour – given to the top student — in 1953. When he resigned and joined the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, he was also the top student in his class.

He continued to excel in training and his vision and creativity led him to see and seize opportunities that others missed. Lamprecht said: “When a man rises to establish and lead elite units … through his vision, dedication and example, and those units have achieved world recognition he creates a following of loyal followers who have formed a bond with their leader.” He added: “He lived his ethos and left a legacy and a special bond that we respect and honour today.”

Following the usual bagpiper’s Lament, the Last Post and the Reveille, a group of aircraft from the nearby South African Air Force Museum flew over the remembrance wall.

Breytenbach’s military career reads like a Who’s Who of military achievement.  Joining the then UDF he served in the Armoured Corps. In the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, where he hoped to become a pilot, a rugby injury put him in the observer/navigator’s seat, yet he was still judged the top of his class. He first saw action in the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956. On his return to South Africa in 1961, he joined the newly formed South African Defence Force (SADF) and was posted to 1 Parachute Battalion.

In 1964, Breytenbach was sent to Fort Benning, Georgia, in the United States to attend an officer’s course. The base is known as the home of the US Army Airborne School.

Breytenbach became interested in the ‘small wars’ being fought as Asian and African nations became independent, and sought to find ways of countering insurgencies. Western nations began to re-form wartime special units as counterinsurgency (COIN) forces and one of the first was the United Kingdom, which re-activated the Special Air Service (SAS) in its fight against the Communist insurgents in Malaya. Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) sent a group known as C Squadron to Malaya. It was during this conflict that the Commander of the Commonwealth forces, General Sir Gerald Templer, famously said: “The answer [to the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.”

Using this experience, the Rhodesians trained further SAS operators, and this led Breytenbach to attend the training course there in 1965. Breytenbach led the first South African special operation in 1969 with other paratroopers, in support of the breakaway Biafrans in their civil war with Nigeria. The secret operation was a failure militarily but helped the then White ruled South Africa introduced then Captain Breytenbach to working with Black Africans.

Starting in 1970, Breytenbach led 10 men, and the 11 came to be known as the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and would form the nucleus of the future Special Forces units. As a Commandant (Lieutenant Colonel) Jan Breytenbach founded South Africa’s first Special Forces unit, which was named in 1972 as the Reconnaissance Commando, and 1 Reconnaissance Commando from 1974. It was simply “one recce” for the operators.

Speaking to defenceWeb after the memorial, Brigadier General John Moore (Ret.), himself one of the original 11, explained further: “I think that the name ‘Dirty Dozen’ came from the fact that we were attached to the Infantry School and we did our own thing and I don’t think they enjoyed that.” At this time the initial names of the fledgling special forces unit included the Irregular Warfare Wing and the Alpha Operation Group.

Moore continued: “We had no home; we were attached to the Infantry School and the problem was it was a regimental unit and because of our irregular training hours and our dress for training didn’t gel well with them. Eventually we were moved under Southern Cape Command, and they didn’t bother about our routine and what we were doing. There wasn’t really an ill feeling, but the point is we felt a bit alone and pushed out.”

In 1975, Breytenbach led former Chipenda faction members of the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) as Bravo Group in an attempt to prevent the Communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and allied Cuban forces from taking over Luanda in Operation Savannah. After their withdrawal from northern Angola, the Angolan soldiers were reorganised as 32 Battalion, also led by Jan Breytenbach.

Breytenbach went on to take part in the planning of the paratrooper drop at the South West Africa People’s Organisation’s “Moscow Base” at Cassinga in Angola in 1978, where he was in charge of ground operations. Later, dissatisfied with how the “jump” had actually taken place, he urged the formation of a full airborne brigade, which became 44 Parachute Brigade, of which he was the second commander.

Breytenbach also founded the Guerrilla School which operated until his retirement in 1987, after 37 years of service in the South African Army and five years in the Royal Navy.

Lamprecht told defenceWeb of Breytenbach: “I first met him in 1968. But in 1968 they had the first “Infantry Specialist Course” as they called it, but it was actually a Selection; and Jan and “Yogi” Potgieter (Staff Sergeant MJ Potgieter) presented that. We were drawn from the infantry units, and I was totally impressed with Jan. He was such a dedicated and professional man, and he gently brought us into this. I lost 20 pounds, that’s about nine kilos, in weight on the six-week course. But he did everything with us; he taught us so nicely. His instructions were clear, so you knew exactly (what he wanted). So, when I was invited to join, I was totally committed. I always found him friendly, but he didn’t tolerate nonsense or lackadaisical … things like that.”

Moore agreed, saying: “All I can say is Jan was an excellent leader, a fantastic leader, irrespective of the size of the group; if you’re talking about small teams, small patrols, right up to a full operation, like at Cassinga, he lad that too, the biggest airborne operation since World War Two.

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Radies Rademeyer, one of the first members of 32 Battalion, described his experience of Breytenbach: “He led from the front, he was extremely demanding, but he was a very, very humble person. You know, we were 20-year-old guys and he helped us, trained us. At that stage he was about 45, he could’ve been my dad. He would come to us in the bush in a bloody Land Rover and he would set up a sand model and tell us what we had to do and off he would go back into the bush.”

Along with the accolades from his former officers, American veteran Dave Barr flew in from Los Angeles to remember his old commander. Barr said Breytenbach saved his life after their vehicle drove over a mine and he was trapped in the flames. Breytenbach went back and pulled him out, although unfortunately Barr lost his legs in the incident.

Lamprecht summed up the Jan Breytenbach’s life by saying: “All those who had the privilege of working with him, whether they called him ‘Colonel, ‘the Brown Man’, ‘Jan’ or ‘Oom Jan’, would agree we are saying farewell to a man who became a true SADF icon.”