The South African Reconnaissance Regiments are one of the lesser-known or understood groups of soldiers in the world today. They have been through many phases and missions under the command of very different governments, especially in the last quarter-century. Today’s ‘Recce’ is often attached to missions of the United Nations for peacekeeping missions in various parts of Africa. The old SADF (South African Defense Force) was primarily a highly specialized unit born in the midst of a growing fire of communist insurgencies across the continent.
Similar to the big Army mindset of the United States that was against any type of Special Forces, South Africa did not see the need for anything beyond the vaunted airborne forces known as the Parabats. A few visionary soldiers saw the need for highly specialized and mobile forces, able to perform deep recon and direct action behind enemy lines. In 1967, Jan Breytenbrach, a highly innovative officer in the Parachute Battalions secured permission to take 12 of his men to Rhodesia and undergo SAS selection in an attempt to bring that training back and multiply it and eventually form up a successful Counterinsurgency (COIN) unit of its own.
Many growing armies in war and peace seek knowledge from other countries who have experience in the areas they want to strategically employ. Breytenbach and all of his men were ground down with intention but passed Rhodesian SAS selection in good shape. This nucleus would be the beginning of a unit that would be permanent and legendary.
The initial training of a special operations soldier is generally referred to as Selection. There are other terms such as Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) but Selection is a word that holds significance. The magnitude of what men go through to make it into a unit is intended as a mutual selection. The instructors get a chance to determine the suitability of a candidate through whatever means they can devise but equally important is the soldier’s chance to select whether he truly wants to follow through and be standing at the end.
Each unit has its own tried and true methods to strip everything away down to raw and bloody will and each soldier must find a way, inside, to not only stay in the game but to find a way to perform up to standards.
The Recces went through their own learning curve to find the best men. In the beginning, a traditional SAS-style course was undertaken. Half of the cruel and unusual punishment came from the landscape and wildlife of Africa itself. The heat, terrain, and ability to endure it would ensure Darwins ‘Survival of the Fittest’ had some say so in the Recces.
Once the unit became official in the mid-1970s the recruiting and training classes commenced, the cadre often found themselves searching far and wide for candidates. With the rigorous process of applying, showing physical fitness, and a suitability interview with a psychiatrist much was invested in prospects before they showed up for Selection.
A series of events in 1975 proved that the ‘head shrinks’ would be an invaluable tool and that the evolution onto a plain of pain and endurance was indeed a large part mental.
One class began with 14 candidates. Only one of them graduated. He was on the course alone for a great part of it. General Fritz Loots, who had become the General for Special Forces command and development with Breytenbach was quite distressed. Missions for the Recces were available and a lack of manpower was holding the entire concept hostage.
The course officer had also reported that a further eight of them had the potential to become operators. Both Loots and Breytenbach decided that until further notice, no one would leave the course without permission. They reasoned that duty with the Recces was chosen and like any other unit, it was their duty to stay on regardless.
Another class of 28 formed up and within a week fourteen men had thrown in the towel. Angered by this, the 14 were ordered back to Selection and several of them continued on to graduation and proved to be useful and capable Recces.
Two psychiatrists were put on duty to be available to help the men on Selection. The idea of seeing a ‘headshrinker’ being for the weak-minded was slowly dispelled and accepted by the majority of the cadre.
Although eventually men would be allowed to drop or ‘throw in the towel,’ the importance of a strong psychological workup before and during Selection greatly improved their success rate. They also improved the entire pre-selection work up to determine the likely success of volunteers. Sports science was coming into its own and was advantaged by doctors to find out if the cardiovascular system was capable of enduring training. Joint flexibility, wear and tear on knees, hips and lower back was profiled with X-rays and load tests to weed out those who were unable to carry up to 120 pounds on their back.
The old school method of finding bodies and letting them sink or swim was not proving useful and amounted to a waste of time and money to a fledgling organization. In essence, men who showed up had nothing standing between them and success except the unforeseen injury.
The cadre learned as well. Simple mistreatment and discouraging an individual did not gain positive results. Pushing a man to his limits and instilling desire while holding to the rigorous standards gave the best results.
However, these changes did not lessen the difficult nature of the course. Recce Selection proved to be one of the most difficult in the world. As with any mission, the terrain dictates the type of training needed. Operating in the subtropic heat and arid environment proved to be the downfall of many men.
Some people simply could not acclimatize to the heavy workload in the heat. Endless marching through rough terrain with packs, rationed food, and water day after day was simply too much for many men.
Being able to map read and keep yourself and your team on a ruler’s edge to an objective was fundamental. Doing so after a 24-hour march shouldering an 80-pound ruck with blood pouring out of your boots from raw skin and limited food and water became exceedingly difficult.
A man’s temperament was constantly under surveillance, especially at these key times. A cool head in the midst of extreme physical discomfort was paramount. A man who would lose his head with another candidate or God forbid an instructor could lead to a swift ticket home. The Recces needed the type of mentality that could ruck 150 klicks, recon a target, and hoof it back on foot with the enemy in pursuit, being out of food and searching for water.
The wildlife of Africa was a built-in part of the course that could not be avoided and would always be present in combat operations. A notorious exercise to quell the natural fear of predators including the crocodile is presented in Harry McCallion’s book “Killing Zone.” McCallion had served in the British Paras and sought adventure in South Africa. Upon arrival, he was offered a slot to try out for the Recces. He was accustomed to the extreme physical fitness required and endless marching but one exercise nearly caused him to leave straight away.
The class was conducting evolutions near a lake. The men were brought up to see the crocodiles that slithered up and down its banks and into the water. Later into the night after endless log and rifle PT and hard running they ended back up at the lake. They were instructed to dress down to their skivvies and swim across a croc-infested lake. There was a lot of protesting, and especially from McCallion.
Why in the world would he risk his life during Selection? A rope was there to help you get across. Twenty men refused to swim the 100 yards and disqualified themselves. McCallion decided that he had some and pass the course, alive or dead, and went for it. He lived as did the others.
Later a course instructor came to him and told him the reason for the evolution. A similar situation had occurred recently on a hot extraction after contact. Several chanced it and made it but two men refused. A scout happened to have found a narrow place farther upriver. The whole team’s life was in jeopardy due to fear. They didn’t want mindless men. They wanted men who could face their fear in the direst of circumstances, overcome them and continue the mission.
Almost all selection courses have their version of Hell Week. After my personal interviews with two Recces one thing stood out that the South Africans required of the men during the most mentally and physically grueling part of the Selection course to determine if they had the fortitude to become Recces. The intentional lack of food for 5-6 days. Whereas in BUD/S they are fed up to 6000 calories/day, potential Recces had a handful of rice here, a fruit there. In fact, one of the Recces I interviewed said that was the hardest part and probably the thing that messed with their will to finish the most.
When the body is beyond empty and at a physical low, the South Africans believed they could find a man’s deepest desire. Taking one of the most powerful needs that humans have and depriving them of it while continuing the demands of endless marches and PT could reveal the men who could stick around and endure the missions required by these Soldiers.
All of the bushcraft, tracking, counter tracking, minor tactics, assaulting tactics, reconnaissance fieldcraft could only be given to the men who were physically, mentally, and morally able to undergo the fear, deprivation, and punishment that is Selection for the Reconnaissance Commandos.
Below you will find a Recce candidate’s notes during the equivalent of Hell Week. It contains many gems and insights. The translation belongs to Willem Ratte, one of the most experienced small unit reconnaissance operators in the world (thank you, Mr. Ratte).
- Wednesday (4.5.75): We got wet in the rain that night and it was bloody cold.
- Thursday (6.5.75): Start 6 am with PT running through water and over sand dunes With a full sandbag. Lectures. Went to Sibaya lake where we had to swim. Nearly saw my ass. At 6pm we started our z (bedford) BD with ropes too sore. Waiting now for the next trick.
- Friday (7.5.75): The next trick was to walk to Sibaya lake with full sandbag 16km. This morning we had to double 16 km back to camp. Then we had to run with kit on the beach and the crawl through the surf. Midday we had a compass lecture, practical. We walk up to our hips in a huge swamp. Then shooting practice. 8pm we start to walk, until 2am, approx 20km.
- Saturday (8.5.75): the night was heavy & cold. 6am we started to pull the bedford with ropes, until 9am, approx 4km. Suffer heavy because we have been without food for 2 days now. 10am we start walking until 1.30pm, approx 8km. Midday we do observation skills. Tests that evening. 8pm we must do 16km again. GREAT EVENING FOR ME.
- Sunday (9.5.75. 6): Am we double back to camp. Rifle inspection and bush lane. Swim with kit and ambush for night.
- Monday (10.5.75): after ambush we have to move along beach to our RV. Arrive in the morning at 7am, approx 10km then mountain climbing exercises. We are heavy & hungry. 3 days without food. Get food and sleep well.
- Tuesday (11.5.75): rest and get kit ready for big thing. Jump tonight for our starting point. We will have to do 400+km.
- Wednesday (12.5.75): Jump last night and start walking until 2am, approx 20km. start walking at 6am. Do 28km until 12pm. Ha!
- Thursday (13.5.75): Walk approx 25 km to Sibaya lake. Then row for 20km to the other side of the lake to the next RV.
- Friday (14.5.75): Walk with the boat for approx 8km. Suffer a lot. Then walk for 30km to coast. Eat lekker (nice) pap (porridge).
- Saturday (15.5.75): Start walking 5am. Must do 36km before 3pm. get there 4.30. Only group there. Throw food out for us by parachute.
- Sunday (16.5.75): Wait until 1pm for others. Made nice porridge for breakfast. Must now walk 43km. They take all our kit and food.
- Monday (17.5.75): It is now 6am and we are hungry and ice-cold. Wait for instructors. We walk approx 40km in direction of Ovbombo mountains. Must go over river. Me and Hein go over first. Half-way the rope breaks. float back to bank. Hein probably kicks off rope which holds rifles, 2 metres from shore. Search but find nothing.
- Tuesday (18.5.75): Walk until this morning 4.15. We receive orders to walk back 45km with a pole. My feet are one blister.
- Wednesday (19.5.75): Walk approx 30km until 9,30. my feet heavy & sore. Cross river by boat. Eat coffee and bread. very tired and full of longing.
- Thursday (20.5.75): get to RV at 9.30am. We cammo ourselves with ash. Think is nearly over. General loots is at RV and we must do buddy rating. We lay an ambush 24km further on.
- Friday (21.5.75): Get to RV at 8am. Bush was very thick. The next RV 15+12km far. My feet heavy & sore. Take short-cut through swamp. (They) Catch us and take our shoelaces and all our food.
- Saturday (22.5.75): had to walk 12km further the previous night to emergency RV. From there we start walking at 1am. For 45km. Have no food. with (native) chief we eat porridge, tea and coffee. Full of longing. We are first to get to RV. Tell us to walk along road for 10km. Hope this is the last stretch. (They) chase us all the way. Get there 5pm. 6pm they tell us back 25km. We are heavy & tired, exhausted and hungry. Walk only until 8.30. O ja, ;we ate many dates. Wish I could give them to Hannelie.
- Sunday (23.5.75) Start walking at 4am. am still stiff. 40km. Get to RV at 10am. First there. Get food and tell us to walk along road, individual test, appr 5km, when instructor in the bush calls us and gives us a beer and tells us the course is over. Bloody glad. Gen Loots also there.
This article was originally published in May 2020.
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