About Me

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I saw active service in conventional, clandestine and covert units of the South African Defence Force. I was the founder of the Private Military Company (PMC) Executive Outcomes in 1989 and its chairman until I left in 1997. Until its closure in 1998, EO operated primarily in Africa helping African governments that had been abandoned by the West and were facing threats from insurgencies, terrorism and organised crime. EO also operated in South America and the Far East. I believe that only Africans (Black and White) can truly solve Africa’s problems. I was appointed Chairman of STTEP International in 2009 and also lecture at military colleges and universities in Africa on defence, intelligence and security issues. Prior to the STTEP International appointment, I served as an independent politico-military advisor to several African governments. Until recently, I was a contributing editor to The Counter Terrorist magazine. All comments in line with the topics on this blog are welcome. As I consider this to be a serious look at military and security matters, foul language and political or religious debates will not be entertained on this blog.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

ROOIPLAAS PARATROOPERS COMMUNITY


I have never been a member of any SADF Veterans Organisation for numerous reasons. Many have asked me to join them but I have always declined and walked away. That is until my old Parachute Sappers (specifically by name of Chappies van Zyl) twisted my arm to the point that it almost broke.

I finally relented when the founder of ‘Rooiplaas’ (Nico Beneke) graciously—and without Chappie’s violence—convinced me to find a home with them.  

I therefore dedicate this short piece to the men of Rooiplaas…a great group of ex-paratroopers from 1 Parachute Battalion…A true paratroopers’ community (http://www.rooiplaas.co.za)



To my new ‘home’, here is a story I wish to share with you all:

My sapper section (at that time, very few sappers were jump qualified) and I arrived in a cool Bloemfontein in early September 1978.

Our mission was to support an exercise of 1 Parachute Battalion known as Exercise Caledon Downs, an operational training exercise in the Wepener area of the Orange Free State.

Having no clue what equipment was required for the training exercise, we left Bethlehem (22 Field Squadron) with an old Bedford truck laden with mines, mine detectors, assault boats, explosives, and a mobile water point (I need to emphasise that whoever came up with the name ‘mobile water point’ must have been delusional!)

On arrival, and while my men wandered around the battalion area like lost sheep—or rather lost sappers—I attended the Orders Group (O Gp) for the exercise. Amongst the paras, the rumour mill was already hard at work—this they said, was to be a rehearsal for a large scale airborne operation into Angola.

The battalion’s pathfinders were to freefall into the designated target area under cover of darkness, and mark a drop zone (DZ) for the incoming parachute assault early the following morning.

In my absence, the men found what appeared to be a deserted bungalow and they would seek me out later to give me a bed they had ‘scored’ for me.

In the meantime, I left the O Gp feeling rather dejected after receiving our orders. There would be no big demolition tasks, no clearing or laying of minefields, no assault river crossing…only a damn water point for the paratroopers.

Giving my orders to my sappers was akin to addressing a rugby team that had suffered its worst loss ever. They were utterly disgusted at what they were supposed to do to support the exercise.

Early the next morning, my sappers, under the capable command of my troop sergeant Cpl L Steyn, left feeling rather miserable for a grid reference somewhere in the eastern Free State.

The following day, I was to jump with (then) Major Anton van Graan’s HQ element while my sappers drove to a grid reference specified in the O Gp.

Being a well-trained sapper officer, I snivelled around for the rest of the day, fearful I would be given a task I was unable to do—that is, until a Major Grundling found me hiding in a deserted bungalow. After giving me a severe dressing down, he finally told me where to report to the next morning.  

Due to the nature of the exercise, we were not going to jump with Personal Weapons Containers (PWCs). Instead the parachutes would simply be strapped over our battle order equipment.

On the road to the airport, there was great excitement. On arrival, we kitted-up and waited…Soon we were all shuffling off to board the C-130s.

I was part of the second wave and was to jump second in Major van Graan’s stick on that fateful day of 7 September 1978.

After the usual “Stand up! Hook up!…” the door opened and out we went.

The green canopy billowed…Phew! But there was no time to admire the view.

I recall two things very vividly: (1) We were very low and (2) I saw a barbed wire fence and a large anthill next to it…I knew I was going to meet the one or the other.

And I did.

No amount of pulling on the risers or trying to climb up the canopy worked. It all happened too fast.  

After a very hard landing and what I thought was a broken foot, I limped off to find my company commander, Major van Graan. I was certainly not going to show the paratroopers that I had been hurt. Sapper pride took hold.

It was then that I came across Captain Blaauw (I think it was David but I am not too sure anymore!) looking rather forlorn and visibly upset. On asking if he was okay, he told me that Major Grundling had landed in a farm dam and drowned. I was shocked but also realised that had any of us landed in a dam, the weight of our equipment would have dragged us down. Plus, as it was still early morning, the water was freezing and those brave troops who tried to rescue him were simply unable to do so.

In addition, several other paratroopers had been hurt when they went off the edge of some high ground.

Needless to say, and despite the great loss to the battalion, objectives had to be assaulted, captured and consolidated before we could move on to the main objective which was a farm house some distance away.

And so I hobbled across the Wepener fields, humping my equipment and trying to keep my pose as best I could.

After a river crossing (I thought we were supposed to do that with the boats we brought from Bethlehem!), my sappers finally arrived later that afternoon to collect me and ferry me across to the water point where we spent the rest of the entire exercise—purifying water for the paratroopers.  

I had not broken my foot but instead, had very badly bruised the sole of my foot. To this day, I have an aversion to anthills.

After the exercise, we made the long trip back to Bethlehem.

We never did deploy for the great air assault operation that was rumoured to be in the offing…but we all went to war.

And now, almost 39 years later, I have become a member of the Rooiplaas Paratroopers’ Community—a long time to find a home amongst men who share common values. I am still a sapper at heart but also feel at home with the paratroopers of Rooiplaas.  

Thank you Nico, Chappies and all other members of ‘Rooiplaas’ for welcoming me into your community. .


15 comments:

Marx Thomas said...

Great experiences placed on record Eeben, always enjoy listening with respect.... Thank you for sharing...

Marx Thomas said...

Thank you for sharing Eeben, really enjoy listening with respect, can only be an honour to be part of a group that share such great experiences..

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks Tom!
Those were rough and tough days but we all came out better - or so I think!
Rgds,
Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

I am indeed honoured to be invited to join them Tom!
Rgds,
Eeben

Die Stoor said...

Eeben during my time at the Battalion some 11 years after this incident involving Major Grundling (RIP) had become part of the lore of 1 Bn. Something that used to bother me about night jumps in particular over an unknown DZ that you couldn't see where you were landing. It became quite literally a leap of faith.

Other incidents of note were the new troops that were sent out to mark un-exploded ordinance that decided to take a mortar bomb back with them and play hot potato with it in the bungalow with the predictable carnage that ensued. Another being the guy that killed himself by getting drunk and attempting to navigate the swimming pool at one of the border bases by crawling under the pools plastic lining.

There were so many other incidents. Some unavoidable tragedies and others to remind one to maintain a healthy sense of self preservation. After all its not like there was a shortage of things just waiting to cut ones young life short without tempting fate.

McGill Alexander said...

Thanks for that, Eeben. A different perspective of a tragic day in the history of 1 Para Bn. One day I would like to share with you the frustrations of trying to convince those in authority at 1 Para Bn of the value of a balanced airborne force that included artillery, engineers and other non-infantry elements. It proved to be a losing battle, as there was no support for the idea and there was a decided animosity in the unit towards anyone and anything that was not infantry. Fire Force was the concept that had gripped the imaginations of the regular paratroopers, and that was what they wanted to train for and what they wanted to do. The average officer at the battalion saw no role for non-infantry elements amongst the paratroopers. It was Constand Viljoen who had a far greater vision and who initiated the establishment of a balanced parachute brigade, and it was Jan Breytenbach who understood the concept and tried to develop it. But those in positions of command at 1 Para Bn resisted with every fibre Viljoen's intention to include them in the brigade, so it was left to the part-time soldiers of the CF para battalions to implement and test the concept under the guidance of successive brigade commanders. By then 1 Para Bn had succeeded in getting itself removedd from the brigade's order of battle, and was once again a unit of OFS Command. When 14 Para Bn Group was established in 1988 (ten years after your exercise at Wepener), it was done out of desperation, because 1 Para Bn was so reluctant to build such a force. It met with the same resistance from those in authority at 1 Para Bn when the brigade did establish the first para bn group in the SADF. But by the early 1990s there was finally a viable, balanced, conventional airborne force and the engineers had a full para regiment (CF). It was possible to drop combat tractors, plant for the repair of runways, inflatable boats for river crossings, defensive equipment for building obstacles and large amounts of mines and other explosive ordnance. Alas, by then it was too late - the war was over, and there were still people whose concept of airborne operations remained limited to Fire Force. By the way, it was Capt David Blaauw. He was the 2IC of D Coy (after the disastrous Frenchman, Capt Breton, had absconded), and took over command after the untimely death of Maj Lukas Grundling. Anton van Graan was A Coy Commander. The Wepener exercise was not a rehearsal for an operation, but was an attempt to hold a battalion group exercise, using two companies. It was probably insisted on by Constand Viljoen, who was C Army at the time, and wanted his newly-established para brigade to start thinking along integrated arms lines. But as you so clearly indicate, nobody knew what to do with the "group" part of the under-strength battalion group that was put together! Or perhaps they did not want to give it a role?

chris badenhorst said...

Welcome Eeben, hope u have a good stay, a permanent one at that..
Chris

chris badenhorst said...

Glad u could find a home Eeben, as far as I'm concerned u are one of us and always will be.

Regards, chris

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks Stoor.
A night jump is, I think, everyone’s most anxious jump as you rightly don’t know where/what the DZ will look like. A leap of faith it certainly was. Imagine those in World War 2 doing night jumps into real problem areas! Brave men indeed!!
Nowadays things are easier with the technology we have. Decent map studies, photographs transmitted via the ether and so on can allow us to build decent and realistic sand models to brief our men on.
Many incidents you recall happened because of poor soldier education. I think that type of thing happens in most (all) armies and can sadly be traced back to soldiers not being taught certain things. All too often we assume something is common sense when in fact it isn’t.
Sadly though, there are always those who wish to tempt fate and in the process, kill or maim innocents.
Rgds,
Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks for sharing the background to the events we experienced Doc.
It was indeed sad that some officers never saw the bigger picture as it could have made us so much more effective in what we were supposed to do. My sappers were all trained to fight as infantry but the infantry didn’t like us saying so, forcing us to keep our mouths shut and ‘follow orders’. Most teeth arms regarded us as being there purely for construction purposes, because they never fully understood the value of engineers. I tried to get my sappers involved in everything possible to make sure they understood their value and the support they should give to whoever needed them.
That didn’t always go down well as it was not in line with the thinking at that time. Our motto of “Ubique” was never fully exploited either as some of our senior officers were sadly happy to sit at the rear and watch and criticise. But, we were supposedly the original ‘go anywhere, do anything’ people and so I found their views both distressing and frustrating. I always tried to enforce our motto on my sappers.
I think many things like you recount went awry with the way we (SADF) were organised and trained. As a young officer, I never fully understood the value of armour or of logistics (as example) as the general battle handling skimmed over these things. Later on, I had to find peers from all service arms to discuss their roles with me properly so that I could understand better how to support them. But, I believe this lack of understanding prevented us from having better balanced forces.
When I wrote my book on warfare, I tried to emphasis the value of balance. Indeed, we (STTEP and EO before it) make sure we are as balanced as possible when we deploy – and we have never regretted it. It gives us such agility, flexibility and manoeuvrability that we are able to accomplish missions faster and more successfully.
The rumour mill when we arrived at the Bn HQ was hard at work but I always told my sappers to never believe anything unless it was me giving them orders. But, we were excited at the prospect of a possible operation and I think that prospect alone, make us hope it would be so.
Anton van Graan (then a Cmdt) was my Bn commander at 54 Inf. I think he by then knew that my sappers and I were not content to sit and watch from afar and he gave us a lot of latitude in tasks. I think I sometimes overstepped that mark but although he frowned at it, he didn’t stop me.
Looking back at the SADF, we could have done better but then again, we could have done a lot worse!
Thanks again for your backgrounder. It is really helpful for me to understand the ‘politics’ behind some decisions.
Rgds,
Eeben

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Many thanks for the warm welcome Chris.
I hope our paths will cross again , soon.
Rgds,
Eeben

Krige Van Heerden said...

Thank you Eeben for your very interesting Para Sapper story above, much appreciated! You Sapper guys gave the first giant steps within the SA Airborne community and although not fully realised or appreciated at that early stage, you were instrumental at that time in the formal establishment of 44 Fd Engr Sqn within the 44 Para Bde structure, where our Para Sapper Unit finally, after 12 years since its establishment on 20 Apr 1978, received its full Regimetal status on 12/1/1990 and thereafter become 44 Parachute Engineer Regiment! Col McGill Alexander played a vital key role herein with his hard work and unselfish dedication as the OC 44 Para Bde to ensure that our CF Sapper Unit became another proud unit and capability within the bigger 44 Para Bde family. Upto today, 44 Para Engr Regt still exists as a Reserve Force Unit (although currently under command of the SA Army Engineer Formation) with the only official dedicated engineer airborne capability that currently exists within the SA Army, a strategic skill that actually should belong or located within the Regulars! Welcome back again within the Paratrooper brotherhood !!!

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...


Thanks for the welcome Krige!
I read your comment with great interest. Although I long ago discarded my sapper beret to become a ‘street mongrel’, I have always tried to keep abreast with what the sappers are doing.
I always followed McGill Alexander’s writing in then Paratus and found them of great interest in my developing military mind. I also understood at times that he too fought a losing battle with some of our great ‘strategists’ we had. A pity as we could have been so much better than we were.
If only our leaders will appreciate the value of a well-balanced airmobile/air assault force. I agree with your comment that it ought to be with the regular army. Maybe one day they will wake up. I am always worried it will be a bit late though and then we will find ourselves under pressure to cope.
Rgds,
Eeben

chris badenhorst said...

Eeben, as always I'm here should the need arise, always Ready, willing and able to do my bit, no matter how big or small it might be!

Warmest regards...

Eeben Barlow's Milsec Blog said...

Thanks Chris. I know you can be relied on.
Rgds,
Eeben