The ‘Two comma Four’!

Most military veterans will remember the 2.4 km run, it’s a test that is permanently burned into memory; the “two comma four” run is a fitness threshold and has to be completed in under 12 minutes.  No easy run, especially when you consider the run is done in military fatigues with boots, webbing, assault rifle and helmet.

At all phases of South African military training, from basics onwards and even after training the 2.4 km run was used to establish the fitness and readiness of all serving personnel (so too a little cheating as this author was to find out when senior officers were called out to complete the run – only to run around a wall and wait till the younger and fitter officers to come back and rejoin them).

Those national servicemen who did “Junior Leaders” (JL’s) officers or non-commissioned officers course as part of their National Service were expected to meet this minimum standard of 12 min or less for this run, running with rifle, webbing and helmet to complete their ‘officers course’.

“Pah” I hear some runners out there say – easy! So here’s a challenge – map out a 2.4 Km run, find a pair of leather sole shoes or boots (no nice running shoes), then add 18 kg odd in lead weights to a backpack (this will simulate the weight of the “helmet”, “rifle” and “webbing”) – and then head out for a sub 12 minutes and let us know how you get along.

For interest the 1.5 mile (2.4 km) test is known as “The Cooper test”, originally designed by Kenneth H. Cooper in 1968 for US military use to test for physical fitness.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens

A simple thank you would be nice!

This is a letter of thanks from Field Marshal Jan Smuts sent to every single South African who served in the armed forces during World War 2.  It formed part of his demobilisation debrief . This particular one belongs to my Grandfather – Sgt. Albert Edwin Dickens – and he cherished it so much that it survives to this day.

A simple thank you goes a very long way, decades later I was to serve in the South African Defence Force as a conscript and no such thank you letter was ever given to me – not even so much as a verbal thanks let alone in writing.  Not just me, generally thousands of South Africans called into service of country as conscripts (and even permanent force) received nothing for it by way of a thank you, or even a simple demobilisation debrief in many cases.

Some units in the ‘old’ SADF were a little better than others and some have received thanks from Unit, Regiment, Corps, Squadron, Ship or Battalion commanders, some even received a formalised demobilisation debrief, but many did not (in fact most).  As a result many South African military veterans are now left with deep-seated disgruntled attitude of “what was it all for”.  My Grandfather and his generation of military veterans had no such dilemma.

This simple letter of thanks from the Prime Minister goes a long way to demonstrate the vast difference in attitude between South African forces operated under the Union under Smuts as opposed to those who operated under the National Party.  It is not only the Nationalists, in 1994, I volunteered to remain with the newly formatted SANDF as a Reservist and to date have not received anything from a State President of South Africa or anyone else by way of a simple thanks.

Perhaps there is a lesson to the current SANDF to invest in a simple personalised pro-forma letter.   It will go a very long way to install pride and purpose in someone who has risked their life to serve in a South African uniform.

As is very much the custom in the USA, the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, when next you see a SADF or SANDF military veteran on parade or veteran members of the South African Legion of Military Veterans and MOTH collecting funds for poppies of remembrance or participating in charitable contribution – be sure to walk up to them, shake their hands and give them a simple thank you, it will mean the world to them – because to date there is a very good chance nobody else has.

Capt. Peter Albert Dickens (retired)

Cpl. Ngobese joins a proud legacy of bravery in 7 Medical Battalion Group

Celebrating South African heroes – here Corporal Mandla Maxwell Ngobese from 7 Medical Battalion Group – South African Military Heath Service looks down on his newly presented decoration for bravery – the Nkwe ya Boronse (Bronze Leopard) decoration for valour and joins a proud tradition of this special unit.

Elements of 7 Medical Battalion partook in the Battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic. The battle has been described by military analysts as one of the hardest-fought actions ever by the South African Army. During this battle which lasted from 22 March 2013 – 24 March 2013 a company of about 200 South African paratroops supplemented by a small number of Special Forces members was attacked, near their base in the outskirts of Bangui, by a reb10676374_353960348107037_5707337649502288620_nel force estimated to be up to 3000 strong. During this action 13 South African paratroopers were killed and a further 27 wounded. Rebel losses are estimated to have been well over 800. For their actions during this battle three members of 7 Medical battalion; Sergeant Mampa Serole Colman, Corporal Ngobese Mandla Maxwell and Corporal Nkoana Molatelo Alphina were awarded the Nkwe ya Boronse decoration for valour on 21 February 2014,

Also, together with 1 Parachute Battalion and 5 Special Forces Regiment, 7 Medical Battalion Group received battle honours for the first time.

7 Medical Battalion Group is the specialist Airborne Medical Battalion of the South African Military Health Service. The Battalion’s main task is to render medical support to the South African Special and Airborne Forces

These men join a proud tradition of recipients for valour from this Battalion, starting with Corporalfidler Bruce Andrew Fidler in 1985.  Bruce, also from 7 Medical Battalion Group was attached to 44 Parachute Regiment during Operations in Southern Angola.  A true hero who laid down his life for his friends. His unit was ambushed and in the ensuing firefight, he was captured by enemy forces on 15 September 1985 and subsequently Reported Missing.

Bruce was brutally tortured and interrogated by the enemy before being executed but he never once revealed the presence of his nearby unit thereby enabling the 7 Medical Battalion Group Surgical Team of between 5 and 10 doctors to successfully evade capture and reach South African lines. His remains were repatriated back to South Africa in June 1992. Corporal Bruce Fidler was posthumously awarded the Honoris Crux for his bravery and selfless devotion above and beyond the call of duty in the face of brutal torture. He was 21.

The Nkwe ya (Leopard) series – Bronze, Silver and Gold decoration series for the highest bravery in the military replaced the Honoris Crux – Bronze, Silver and Gold decoration series from 2003.

Thank you to Graham Du Toit for the reference on Bruce Fidler.

One Major accomplishment!

On Friday 23rd March 2017, this 31 year old Major not only touched down flying a C-130  military cargo plane at Waterkloof Air Force base‚ as part of her evaluation, she also went in the record books as the first black woman to qualify to fly this particular aircraft in the South African Air Force.

Her task was to fly the C-130 and be responsible for the safe arrival of both the aircraft and crew members on board from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Congratulations Major Nandi Zama on breaking new ground for black female pilots and female pilots the world over.  You exemplify the fine values and traditions of your Squadron – 28 Squadron SAAF.


South African Air Force Lockheed Hercules C-130BZ from 28 Squadron with grey paint scheme

Article and image reference Times Live

War in Darfur – Operation Cordite

Looking into South Africa’s more recent involvement in Peacekeeping Missions in Africa.  Here, on  2 August 2010. South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Lieutenant Justin Heath, from Boksburg (greater Johannesburg), forms part of the UN peacekeeping mission to the Sudan for 7 months.

He is seen here patrolling in Tiksas, a village abandoned by the population some years ago due to the war in Darfur.

The War in Darfur is a major armed conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, that began in February 2003 when the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) and Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel groups began fighting the government of Sudan, which they accused of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population. The government responded to attacks by carrying out a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Darfur’s non-Arabs. This resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and the indictment of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court.

Estimates of the number of human casualties range up to several hundred thousand dead, from either combat or starvation and disease. Mass displacements and coercive migrations forced millions into refugee camps or across the border, creating a humanitarian crisis.

The Sudanese government and the JEM signed a ceasefire agreement in February 2010, with a tentative agreement to pursue peace. However, talks were disrupted by accusations that the Sudanese army launched raids and air strikes against a village, violating the Tolu agreement. The current situation is that the JEM, the largest rebel group in Darfur, vowed to boycott future negotiations.

Operation Cordite in Sudan began in July 2004 with the deployment of South African National Defence Force staff officers and observers to Darfur, Sudan, in support of the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) It was an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force operating primarily in the country’s western region of Darfur with the aim of performing peacekeeping operations related to the conflict in Darfur.

The AU mission was terminated in December 2007 when it was integrated into the United Nations mission to form the UN African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) in January 2008. it was the first African Union-United Nations hybrid mission. An Infantry Protection Company and an Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit were added to the deployment, which was increased further in February 2005.

Operation Cordite made an immense contribution to the successful referendum on the future of Sudan, which resulted in the relatively peaceful division of the country into two: Sudan and South Sudan. Additional South African soldiers were sent to Juba, the capital of the new country, South Sudan, to assist with security for the independence celebrations in July 2011. In addition to this, South Africa also helped secure the air space for the duration of the celebrations. South Africa also trained police, prison officials and air traffic controllers: currently stationed at Juba International Airport

However typically, successful military operations are so often undermined by political antics of governments and Operation Cordite is no different.

In April 2016, South Africa withdrew it UN forces from Sudan, ending Operation Cordite after a short and unspecific Presidential statement – coincidentally and unsurprisingly it was marred with controversy and against a backdrop of political scandal which started in June 2015 when President Omar Al Bashir – who was visiting South Africa to attend an African Union summit, was allowed to escape South Africa in a private jet.

His escape, allegedly with the connivance of President Jacob Zuma, came in defiance of an order by the South African High Court, pending a decision on whether to hand Al Bashir over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague in accordance with international arrest warrants for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The decision remains highly controversial in South Africa today, so too South Africa’s strained relationship with the ICC (South Africa taking the standpoint that the ICC should not interfere in South Africa’s legitimate obligations to African Union AU).


The repercussions on how South Africa sees its compete military role in United Nations Peacekeeping remains to be seen, hopefully in future it will positively underpin the great work of the majority of good South African men and women who enter the armed services and have the privilege of wearing the United Nation’s “Blue Beret”.

Photo copyright Albert Gonzalez Farran / Unamid

The Horrible History and many names of Thaba Tshwane

The featured photo of the South African Army College in Thaba Tshwane has a lot of hidden history. South Africans just love re-naming things in pursuit of one political party’s agenda over that of another one, all in the interests of political narrative – all of them serving to either change or hide South Africa’s strong military and cultural heritage to suite this or that political likeness.

Take the military compound in Pretoria as an example – First it was called Roberts Heights – then Voortrekkerhoogte – now Thaba Tshwane  – even the changes in language used in the name and subsequent name changes speaks volumes.


Lord Roberts

The complex was founded around 1905, just after the 2nd Anglo Boer War by the British Army to garrison the city of Pretoria, and they called their new garrison area Roberts Heights after Lord Roberts.

Field Marshal Frederick Roberts (Lord Roberts) VC, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, KStJ, VD, Pc was one the most successful British commanders of the 19th century and the overall commander of British Forces during the 2nd Anglo Boer War.

It was however. renamed Voortrekkerhoogte (“Voortrekker Heights”) to commemorate The Great Trek in a flurry of Afrikaner nationalism which accompanied the Great Trek centenary – and what better than re-naming the hated “English occupiers” military base and removing the name of Lord Roberts – a man loathed by Afrikaners – and for good reason for many Afrikaners – the Boer war left this community deeply scarred, how the British and English South Africans felt about it at the time – different matter, to many of them Lord Roberts is a hero.  So, a controversial move that deepened social differences.

Following the end of the National Party and their influence of Afrikaner Nationalism as an ideology to govern South Africa, it was renamed again on the 19 May 1998 by the incoming ANC regime, this time called Thaba Tshwane instead.   This was done by the ANC to rid the area’s heritage of both its much hated ‘Colonial’ heritage and ‘Apartheid’ heritage with something more ‘universally shared’.


The inaugural ceremony of the Voortrekker monument at Voortrekkerhoogte, held on 16 December1949

So, Thaba Tshwane it is then, meaning of which is a little lost in translation, but some say its named after Tshwane, son of Chief Mushi, an Ndebele leader who settled near the Apies River, although there is some debate to whether he actually even existed as a historical figure (there’s a problem – there is no written or historic record – its all deeply back in a mystical oral tradition).


Chief Tshwane statue

In any event, the name was changed again, and once again it was done to suit the next incoming regimes’ political narrative – the replacement of Black African culture and history over that of White African culture and history and scrubbing out anything the National Party or United Party or even the British did in the name of Afrikaner or English identity and heritage in South Africa.

The casualty in all this re-naming and one-upmanship is the actual history, the actual legacy, the golden thread that links our combined journey together – that it was British military compound established and named after Lord Roberts – was sadly even lost on the thousands of  South Africans who served there in the 70’s and 80’s who simply knew it as Voortrekkerhoogte and now even that will be sadly lost to the next generation of South Africans who serve there – who will in time just know it as Thaba Tshwane.  The actual “History and Heritage” lost forever.

To give an idea of  just how much of this rich tapestry is lost in ‘Thaba Tshwane’ can be found in one simple little cornerstone. The oldest building in the military complex is the one pictured – the “South African Garrison Institute” what is now re-named as the “South African Army College”. But here’s the really interesting bit – Lord Kitchener laid the cornerstone of this College on the 12th June 1902.


Lord Kitchener

During the Second Boer War, both Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts (the chap they originally named Thaba Tshwane after) arrived in South Africa together on the RMS Dunottar Castle – along with massive British reinforcements in December 1899.

Following the defeat of the conventional Boer forces, Kitchener succeeded Roberts as overall commander of British Forces in November 1900. He subsequently inherited and expanded the successful strategies devised by Roberts to force the “Bittereinder” (Bitter End) unconventional Boer forces to submit.

The “Bittereinder” Boer Commandos had changed their tactics and were now using highly controversial and relatively new “hit and run” guerrilla tactics. The British in turn – in order to figure out how to stop “guerrilla war” – came up with the idea of containing the Boer’s supply line (their horse feed, shelter and food which where been provided by their families/homesteads) and placing all involved in supply (families and farm workers /servants alike) into both “White” and “Black” concentration camps respectively – and then burning the farms (a policy known as “scorched earth”).

Conditions in the concentration camps, which had been conceived by Roberts as a form of control of the families whose farms his forces had destroyed, began to degenerate rapidly as the large influx of Boers outstripped the ability of the minuscule British force to cope. The camps lacked space, food, sanitation, medicine, and medical care, leading to rampant disease and a very high death rate – especially among women and children (children particularly).

41cMeyjGDRL._SY450_You’ll recognise Lord Kitchener anywhere – he became the poster model for the “Your Country Needs You” campaign to spur British and Commonwealth men to sign up and fight in the trenches of World War 1. The poster is funnily seeing a little contemporary resurgence in celebration of the centenary of WW1.

It’s a “Horrible” history – but it’s history none the less – and for this very reason – that it is “horrible” that this history really needs to be told – lest we forget the sacrifice that it took.

Covering over it by re-naming everything, for the sake of a political one-upmanship merely washes out the country’s history, heritage and cultural understanding – it cleanses the rich tapestry that makes us unique as a nation.

In effect it takes us ‘off’ our combined journey as South Africans and does exactly the opposite of all the ‘good’ intentions for getting us to the best and most ‘shared’ option  – it separates us again, it deepens racial and cultural divide and perpetuates South Africa’s deepest problem, its on-going race politics.

Written by Peter Dickens