With the paratroops moving toward a more conventional airborne-forces role, the SADF felt a distinct need for an SAS or Fernspaher type of unit. This need was met by the establishment of a small specialist unit in Durban (1 October 1972) called 1 Reconnaissance Commando. Since then, a number of additional Recce Commandos have been established, in-including a CF element and 4 Recce, based at Langebaan in the Cape and trained for amphibious operations. All have amply proved their worth on operations, and the 'Recces' have earned the admiring re spect even of the tough 'parabats' and the bush war experts of 32 Bn.
One of the tasks of the Recce Commandos is that of gathering intelligence on activity in enemy rear areas. The execution of special operations in the enemy rear also falls within their ambit. In general, they could be described as specialists in strategic intelligence, although the war against PLAN insurgents has seen them carry out tactical intelligence-gathering missions. On occasion, they have also been used as an elite combat element, as was the case in operations during 1982 which were aimed at the elimination of two PLAN front headquarters. Normally, however, the superbly trained Recces are too valuable to risk in a combat role despite their undoubted efficiency. As is the case with their equivalents in other countries, they are best employed in a covert observation role. Little has been released about how Recces are organized or how they operate. It has been said, however, that the basic element is the five- or six-man team wherein each member is a specialist some kind. A typical team might include tracker, a navigator, a medic, an explosives expert and a signaler. On the other hand, there have also been occasion references to reconnaissance teams; small as two men operating well inside Angola, which can safely be taken to mean the Recces.
Operational and tactical details are non-existent, which is only natural considering that the Recces must rely always on stealth for the success of their missions and often for their very survival. Broadcasting these methods would be one way of committing suicide. The only information available this regard is that they are trained in the use of boats, and that they do have some armed and modified vehicles among the equipment. Given the thinly populated nature of much of southern Africa, it does not take too much imagination to see them sometimes operating in a style not dissimilar to that of the British Special Air Service (SAS) of World War II.
Both the selection procedure and the actual training of the Recces are very stiff indeed, putting even the Paras and Battalion in the shade. Above all, every effort is made to avoid roughnecks and 'muscle-bound morons.' While the Recce must be very fit indeed, they also need more than an average intellect to carry c their mission. Strong character and a considerate nature are additional requirements for their role: any weakness of character or inability to get along with other team members could all too easily spell the failure of a given operation. The toughness of the selection process is demonstrated by the fact that a typical year may see up to 700 applicants - in themselves a select group - of whom perhaps 45 make the grade. It is also interesting that more than 5 percent of the Recces have their matric, and not a few hold university qualifications in very diverse subjects.
Two selection courses are held each year, prior to which recruiters visit various units to outline the nature and role of the unit and its training programme. They also show films of the process to ensure that there are no false impressions among potential applicants. Potential candidates then undergo thorough medical and psychological examinations and are quizzed about their reasons for wanting to join and what they think they can contribute to the unit. Even prior to this very searching interview, they must pass a PT test which includes: a) 30 km with normal kit and rifle and a 30-kg sand bag in 6 hours; b) 8 km in long trousers and boots, with rifle, in 45 minutes: c) 40 push-ups, 8 chin pulls and 68 sh-ups within a specified time; d) 40 shuttle runs of 7 m each in 90 seconds; e) Swim 45 m freestyle.
Those who pass this PT test, plus the medical and psychological examinations, and convince the selection board that they have something to offer the unit, can then enter the three-week pre-selection programme course! This kicks off with two weeks of strenuous PT for eight hours a day to prepare aspirants for the rigours of the selection programme proper. Some lectures on relevant subjects are thrown in with the same purpose. Usually some 20 percent of the applicants drop out during this phase - eloquent testimony to its harshness, given the standard of fitness required even for entry. This is followed by a one-week water orientation programme in Zululand. This tests the candidates' adaptability to water and their adeptness in small boats. Instruction is given in the use of kayaks, two-seater canoes and motor boats. Navigation exercises take candidates many kilometers through swamps, and there is an 8-km race with poles over the dunes --one four-man pole per two men. Candidates are allowed to form up into teams of their choice during this phase and are watched closely for teamwork and leadership; a buddy rating is called for toward the end of the phase. Rations are gradually reduced during the week. Candidates are rated for adaptability, swimming and other water skills, ability to work under difficult circumstances and stress, resistance to cold, claustrophobia, co-ordintion and fitness. At this point another ??'percent drop out.
The remaining candidates are then flown to the Operational Area for the final phase of the selection programme. The first week here takes the form of a bush orientation/survival course during which they are taught which plants are edible, which give water, how to get a fire going without matches and how to cope with lions and elephants. The first day of this course sees the candidates stripped and searched for cigarettes, tobacco, sweets and toiletries - only kit and medical items are left to them. They are then given time to build a shelter with their ground sheet; which must be dug in 45 cm and are marked on its neatness, practicality and originality. Rations are further reduced and water is limited to five liters a day per man.
Apart from the survival training, PT stays with them throughout: a typical day might include an hour of PT before a breakfast consisting largely of water; observation tests wherein candidates are given a fixed route to follow on which they must identify and note down ten different objects; three runs over an assault course -- the last with a 35-kg pack, including a mortar-bomb container filled with cement; a five-km run along an gully without their kit, followed by loading up again and carrying a tree trunk back to their camp. During this phase the candidates are evaluated for adaptability; water discipline; bush navigation; fear of the dark, animals and heights; ability to do without food; care of weapons and equipment; memory; powers of observation; leadership; and the ease with which they move in bush. Particular emphasis is placed on the ability to get on with others while under stress. A second buddy rating is called for.
This phase ends in a spate of automatic rifle fire that heralds the next stage which is intended to try the candidates psycho logically to the uttermost - and succeeds Then comes the 'crunch' phase. One morning the men are told that, 'The courseis 51 degrees magnetic. You walk 38 km and your RV is l900 hours this evening at a dirt landing strip. If you make it, you may get some food.' Twenty km along they are met by some of the instructors and allowed to fill their water bottles - while the instructors drink and spill ice-cold soft drinks. On arrival at the RV, each man is given eight biscuits - only to discover that they are contaminated with petrol and totally inedible. Meanwhile, the instructors have a happy barbecue picnic which any candidate can join - if he is only willing to drop out.
Finally, the candidates are put into the bush for five days with a tin of condensed milk, half a 24-hour ration pack and twelve biscuits, eight of which are soaked in petrol. Elephant, lion, and bush fires are among the problems of this final stretch. When they finally get to their last rendezvous, the men are given a new bearing and told there are another 30 kilometers to go. Those who go on find the instructors around the next corner. Seventeen percent make it.
Those who survive the selection programme must then complete and pass the parachute course before being accepted into the Recces. The actual Recce training lasts some 42 weeks and includes tracking, survival, weapons handling, explosives, unconventional warfare, unarmed combat, mountaineering, guerrilla tactics, bush- and field craft, map reading, day and night navigation and signalling. Throughout this training they are also taught how to handle enemy equipment in each of the categories. Physical training naturally also stays with them and, in fact, reaches new peaks in what is demanded and achieved. The final test is a night or two in lion country with rifle, ammunition and a box of matches. The new Recce is now posted to a team in one of the existing Recce Commandos specializing in whatever he proved best suited to during his training. After serving in such a team for a while, members can choose to specialize further in this direction or in other areas like military free-fall parachuting or sea training. The latter includes combat diving, kayak work, small boat handling, coastal and deep-sea navi- gation and sailing. Given the demands of their selection and training, the Recces will always be a very small group of men, a group that others look up to as examples of the ultimate individual soldier. Envy plays no part in this, for their work is easily as demanding and often as unpleasant as their training. Only a special sort of man would seriously want to join.