The recent passing of Lt Gen R (Witkop) Badenhorst, SSAS, SD, SM, MMM came as a great shock to me.
I served under Gen Badenhorst when he was the sector commander of Sector 10 in then-South West Africa (now Namibia) and frequently reported to him or briefed him on 32 Bn’s reconnaissance operations. Regardless of the rank I held, he simply called me “Sapper”.
Whenever I was told to report to him, I felt both nervous and scared as he was known to be extremely cantankerous. He was a strict disciplinarian, set very high standards and took no nonsense – not even from his seniors in the armed forces or from politicians – especially politicians as he held them in very low regard.
In later years, he became the Chief of Logistics and then the Chief of Military Intelligence. As a member of MI at the time he was the chief, I did everything in my power to avoid him. Mostly, I was successful.
In later life, after he retired, our paths crossed again and we frequently had breakfast together and discussed all things military. Past operations, mistakes made, lessons learnt, political ineptness and the book I was writing about Executive Outcomes became the main topics of discussion. When he offered to write the foreword for my EO book, I was surprised, excited and honoured.
When I was invited to travel to an African country to discuss doctrine with their armed forces, he offered to “come along” and he was a great source of support and amusement to me and despite his reputation in the military, I discovered that he had never lost his sense of humour. Our African hosts were extremely gracious and kind towards him and many moments of that visit remained with him for a long time after our return.
He had an incredible memory and recounted several stories to my wife that I had semi-forgotten about. Some I cannot recount here but one he particularly enjoyed telling had to do with a briefing a Special Forces officer and I had to give him in his office at Sector 10 headquarters. Maj JW from 5 Reconnaissance Regiment had to give a briefing about his pending operation and I (a captain at that time) a briefing on a pending 32 Reconnaissance Wing operation.
It was very obvious when we arrived at his HQ that Maj JW had ample time to prepare for his briefing as he arrived with flip charts, maps, transparencies and all the paraphernalia associated with given a detailed briefing. I on the other hand did not even have a piece of paper. Maj JW was smart, had shaved and even his boots were gleaming. I on the other hand looked like a scarecrow that had been dragged through a bush.
Glaring at both of us from behind his cigarette smokescreen, he demanded to know who would do the first briefing. I pointed a dirty finger at Maj JW – he in turn glared at me – and then he thankfully started preparing for his briefing. Meanwhile I was getting more and more concerned about my coming briefing, the status of my health after giving my briefing and even contemplated jumping through the window to escape my rapidly approaching fate.
Maj JW’s briefing was a proper Infantry School-style briefing. Brilliantly done and well presented, it showed that a lot of effort had gone into planning his operation. After Maj JW’s almost hour-long briefing, Witkop had no questions, although he gave the major his customary glare – all visible behind his Lexington cigarette smokescreen.
“Sapper, what is your plan?” he growled. Out the corner of my eye I saw Maj JW’s smile as he anticipated the tongue-lashing I was soon to get as he knew I had nothing to present my briefing with.
With trembling legs I walked closer to Witkop’s desk and with a shaky voice I presented my “plan” to him.
“Sir, I don’t want to waste your time as I know you are very busy. The plan is to infiltrate the area, locate and follow the enemy’s tracks, find them and then kill them”.
I wasn’t sure who was the most surprised at my 15-second briefing – Witkop or Maj JW.
Witkop glared at me for what felt like an hour. Watching him slowly light another Lexington whilst given me the evil eye, I felt like a condemned prisoner marching towards the gallows. Then, he slowly smiled and with eyes twinkling he said “Mooi (Good) Sapper. Major, that is the type of briefing I like!”
Once outside the office, Maj JW cursed both my forefathers and myself and stomped off. I rejoined my team – relieved to have survived and happy with my performance.
Whenever Witkop told that story – which he did several times to my wife – he would always laugh about it. But, that was the type of man he was.
At our last meeting, he gave me valuable feedback on book I am currently writing and told me that he was looking forward to reading the rest of my work.
So, it was with great sadness that I learnt of the sudden passing of my old commander - and in later life my friend - Lt Gen R "Witkop Badenhorst SSAS, SD, SM, MMM.
Lt Gen Badenhorst's wife passed away after a long illness last week and he was admitted to hospital a few days later and whilst there decided to join her, barely a week after she died.
I will always remember him as he was – cantankerous, strict, sharp-minded and humorous. I am just sorry I was never able to bid him farewell. I am however very grateful that I was eventually able to know him as a person and call him my friend.