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The 44 Pathfinder Platoon is part of 44 Pathfinder Company of the South African Army, within 44 Parachute Brigade and 1 Parachute Battalion respectively. The Pathfinder is a trained and specialized soldier who performs covertly behind enemy lines, either in small groups or in collaboration with other reconnaissance units.

44 Pathfinder Platoon
Active January 1978 to present
Country  South Africa
Branch 70px 70px
Type Airborne Assault

History of the Pathfinders in 44 Parachute Brigade[edit | edit source]

44 Pathfinder Company 1980–1982[edit | edit source]

In the early 1980s and following the creation of Zimbabwe a number of former Rhodesian Army soldiers joined the SADF on short contract. Some were absorbed into 32 Battalion and others, mainly Rhodesian professional soldiers, were recruited by Col. Jan Breytenbach into 44 Parachute Brigade to serve as a new fighting arms within the brigade. These British, Rhodesian and American Troops were at that time humorously referred to as 'The Philistines' because of their haughty attitude towards counter-insurgency warfare.

After their selection and induction these recruits underwent further training in bush warfare and conventional pathfinding methods as a part of 2 pathfinder selection courses. This training by early 1981 produced sufficient personnel to be deployed on active service. Their envisaged role was to conduct mobile, fighting patrols deep inside Angola. They were highly trained in counter-terrorist operations and already self-sufficient and in most cases independent from the rest of the SADF.

They were based at Ondangwa, South-West Africa (now Namibia) and from there they would launch patrols into Angola mostly led by Colonel Breytenbach. This force in its short and controversial history proved to be highly successful and when Colonel Breytenbach left the Brigade in 1982 they were disbanded. Before its eventual disbandment the Pathfinders were involved to a degree in giving instruction to 44 Parachute Brigade’s Citizen Force Paratroopers, however on the completion of their one-year contracts some chose to leave the SADF whilst others which were the majority, were transferred to 32 Battalion.[1]

44 Pathfinder Platoon[edit | edit source]

In 1976, 1 Parachute Battalion possessed a limited pathfinder capability in a small group of permanent force members who were Drop Zone Safety Officers and Freefall qualified. These comprised the following: Capt. J.E.Rabie Lt. J.C. Van Wyk 2 Lt. M. Ellis 2 Lt. M.J. Boon Sgt M. P .J. Liebenberg Cpl. D.W. Van Zyl and Cpl. J.J. Grobler.

The Battalion had no other specialized training except that of paratrooper soldiering. With fixed posts within the Battalion, these members only grouped as and when the situation required and then mainly for the purpose of training. With the success and learnings from Operation Reindeer in May 1978, it became clear that a method for ensuring correct and safe dropping, grouping and extraction of paratroopers was urgently needed. In order to have the capability to covertly insert behind enemy lines, and do reconnaissance on the target, the Battalion would need to create a formal structure, command system, specialized equipment and operational procedures to support this.

The then Commander of 1 Parachute Battalion, Col. D.J. Moore, requested Maj Joos Rabie to formulate staff, equipment tables and to establish guidelines for the formation of an extended Pathfinder capability within the unit. The blueprint used was a culmination of the British SAS, USA Pathfinders and the Reconnaissance Regiments (Recces) of the SADF. The objective was to train the Pathfinder to be on par with the Recces' in their training schedule regarding land warfare, but specializing in pathfinder and airborne operations. 2Lt. Jacobus. C. Hoon and 2Lt. Pierre Lundberg together with Cpl's I.J. Pretorius and Daniel. J. Schutte were the first Permanent force leader group who trained the first group of Pathfinders in September 1978.

The first group[edit | edit source]

This first group consisted of the above four members as the leader group and nine national servicemen, namely, Lt. P.I. Niewoudt Lt. V. Nel Sgt. L. Ackerman Sgt. D. Nibet Sgt. J. Keuler Sgt. M. A. Nel L/Cpl. L.L.M. van Tonder L/Cpl. C. Landman L/Cpl. M. Steyn L/Cpl.H The new Pathfinders undertook Recce Scheduled Training at Fort Doppies in the Caprivi Strip, South-West Africa, incorporating minor tactics, survival, tracking and bushcraft. All other Courses like freefall, field medics, signallers, drop zone safety and others were done in Bloemfontein. Specialized equipment was also acquired to enable the Pathfinders to better fulfill their role, including amongst others, strobe lights (DZ marking), special webbing, back packs and weaponry.

This resulted in the Pathfinders in general being far better equipped in comparison to the other Paratroopers of the unit. Pathfinders also adapted and operated using camouflage uniforms and Soviet Block weaponry whilst on manouvres behind enemy lines. With the War in Angola being relatively low in intensity, the first group of Pathfinders were seconded to the Special Forces (Selous Scouts) of Rhodesia where they did further orientation courses and were deployed operational in the Rhodesian Bush War. With the first Pathfinder group of 1978 having been trained it was decided to train new National Service Pathfinders on a yearly basis from then onwards.

The recruiting process[edit | edit source]

Although by 1979 there were two National Service intakes each year, one in January and the other in July, in order to keep the Pathfinder small and elite Pathfinder selection took place only once a year in January. Pathfinder candidates were all volunteers taken from the members of 1 Parachute Battalion who had already successfully completed the 1 Parachute Battalion physical selection (PT Course) and Basic Parachute Training, and been awarded their Parachute Wings. Essentially selection for the Pathfinder Company followed a fairly standard Special Forces selection process which included working closely with existing South African Defence Force (SADF) Special Forces units.

Because only two years of full-time service was anticipated, followed by a further ten years of Citizen Force service, National Service Pathfinder's were not required to meet the stringent selection requirements of a career Special Forces soldier. They were however still expected to be able to perform core pathfinder operations and basic reconnaissance operations in support of 44 Parachute Brigade efficiently and effectively to Special Forces standards.

Requirements[edit | edit source]

Pathfinders were required to operate behind enemy lines in small teams (two to six) for extended periods, often under conditions of enduring physical, mental and emotional stress and fatigue, while carrying out their primary and any other supporting tasks to effective completion. They were expected to be able to operate far behind enemy lines for up to two weeks at a time without resupply, while carrying full operational kit that included all necessary water and food, personal weapons and ammunition, radios and ops medic kits, LZ/DZ marking equipment, survival equipment, camouflage equipment, specialist weapons with extra ammunition, demolitions equipment, and any other specialist operational equipment. They would often walk for twenty kilometres or more, especially during the infiltration phase, during the day or at night in hostile environments, all the time maintaining strict discipline in anti-tracking, personal camouflage, noise suppression, and generally leaving no trace of their presence. They were also required to be able to set up small ‘invisible’ hides where they could lie up during the day undetected by herders looking for ‘enemy’ tracks and signs.

The National Service Pathfinder was expected to demonstrate mental, physical and emotional toughness under conditions of stress and discomfort while maintaining high standards of personal discipline. He had to be able to think and act clearly and effectively and take leadership where necessary to complete the mission at hand regardless of the circumstances. It is clear therefore that although the national service Pathfinder was not a professional or career soldier, he had to be able to perform similar tasks a professional Special Forces soldier and therefore the selection process could not be ‘diluted’ too much from standards required for career soldiers. The selection process implemented was therefore structured to weed out candidates who could not meet the required standards and criteria for extended external operations and any other Pathfinder operational requirements.

Training[edit | edit source]

At the beginning of each January intake, soon after arriving at their allocated Infantry Unit, prospective Pathfinders would initially volunteer for service with 1 Parachute Battalion where they needed to pass a pre-selection for entrance to carry out Basic Infantry Training with 1 Parachute Battalion at Tempe in Bloemfontein. Three months of Basic Infantry Training followed, designed to prepare troops for the intensive five-week selection process they had to pass to get their Parachute Wings as members of 1 Parachute Battalion. The two-week Parachute Battalion ‘PT Course’ that followed basic training had a high fall out rate, and was designed to weed out those who would not be suitable for operational service with 1 Parachute Battalion.

For fourteen days candidates would begin each morning with roughly four hours of Physical Training, which aside from the usual punishing array of military PT exercises also included ‘Pole-PT’ with heavy telephone poles, ‘Marble PT’ with concrete blocks affectionately referred to as ‘Marbles’, boxing sessions, ‘buddy-carrying’ sessions and runs with full kit and rifles, endless circuits of the Parachute Battalion obstacle course, and ‘Rifle-PT’ sessions. Each afternoon after lunch candidate’s would then have to complete a long run, often over a couple of hours carrying poles, vehicle tyres and each other with rifles and kit, interspersed with a bunch of back-breaking exercises that the instructors would conjure up en route. Two weeks of afternoon runs included at least a few 21-kilometre runs and a couple of the dreaded ‘De Brug’ runs back from the De Brug training area thirty or so kilometres away.

At the end of the two-week PT Course, six tests of strength, endurance and coordination had to be successfully completed in required time limits. Candidates who failed any of these tests would either be sent back to their unit, or, if fortunate, be allocated to a non-operational role within the Parachute Battalion to try again at another time. After the PT Phase successful candidates would have to successfully complete the three-week Basic Parachute Training course, after which they would receive the coveted Maroon beret and Parachute Wings. Usually directly following the Wings Parade for newly qualified Paratroopers, the Pathfinder Company leadership and instructors would assemble everyone at the main parachute training hangar and give a detailed presentation on the work and functions of the Pathfinder Company, flowing which volunteers would be called for.

Recruiting in 1979[edit | edit source]

In 1979, because of the large number of troops volunteering for Pathfinder selection, an initial pre-selection was conducted at the Hangar in Tempe just after the Wings Parade. Volunteers were gradually eliminated based on Instructor ratings, shooting scores, basic fitness, and general performance during Basic Infantry Training.

Forty candidates were finally selected to be sent to the Military Medical Institute (MMI) in Pretoria to undergo the SADF Special Forces Medical and Psychological Evaluation. The Special Forces evaluation took place at MMI over three days, and included an array of comprehensive physical examinations by a team of specialist doctors, various co-ordination and fine-motor tests, aptitude and intelligence tests, logic and reasoning tests, high-altitude tests in the compression chamber, and a complete psychological evaluation. Following the psychological evaluation candidates were each interviewed individually by a psychologist as well as by a board of selectors. On return to Tempe the Pathfinder candidates waited for two weeks before they were informed of the results, and ten unsuccessful candidates were returned to the regular Parachute Battalion Companies.

The remaining thirty candidates then commenced eight months of selection and training, beginning with the Military Operational Freefall Parachute Course, conducted over six weeks. Candidates were taken from static line through to day and night high altitude freefall jumps with full Pathfinder extended external operations kit and specialist equipment. Freefall jumps were made from various fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft including Cessna, Kudu, C-130 and C-160, Dakota[specify] , and the Super Frelon helicopter both at night and during the day. Progression Tests were conducted at the end of each phase of parachute training, and a further nine candidates were returned to the regular Parachute Companies before the end of the course.

The remaining twenty one candidates were then sent to Fort Doppies, the Recce training base in the Caprivi Strip to complete Minor Tactics, and Bushcraft and Survival Training. They were joined by their ‘seniors’, the 1978 Pathfinders who served as assistant instructors. Instructors from Reconnaissance Commando and 44 Parachute Brigade conducted the Minor Tactics and Bushcraft and Survival training. From this time on buddy ratings were employed on each course to assist in the final selection process.

Following the 1979 intake[edit | edit source]

Courses that followed for the 1979 intake included Special Forces Ops Medics, Advanced Signallers, Section Leaders, Forward Air Control, Landing Zones and Drop Zones (Pathfinder Operations), Basic Demolitions, Basic Reconnaissance, Enemy Weapons and Tactics, Escape and Evasion, and others. At the end of this approximately eight-month period of selection and training Major John Murphy was seconded from 1 Reconnaissance Commando to the Pathfinder Company as Commanding Officer. Soon after taking command of the Pathfinder Company in late 1979, Major Murphy and a group of Selous Scouts conducted an intensive two-week bush warfare orientation near Beitbridge, and in early November 1979 the Pathfinders were then deployed into Rhodesia, where they operated from bases in Gwanda, Rutenga and then the Chiredzi/Triangle area, working variously with the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian African Rifles (2RAR) on OP/Reconnaissance operations and on Fire Force deployments. Some external operations were also conducted into western Mozambique during that time in conjunction with a larger force from 44 Parachute Brigade.

Major Murphy introduced a system into the selection process whereby he would only recognise individual Pathfinders as having ‘qualified’ after taking into account ‘buddy ratings’ following ‘real life’ operations and deployments, and them having seen action or being in contact with the enemy. He was adamant that he had to be confident and comfortable that he could operate with the men under his command under any circumstances of war or otherwise. With the intensity of the Rhodesian war at that time and especially with the number of fire force deployments going out, this was soon accomplished, and a few Pathfinder candidates were returned to their units after a brief period on operations in Rhodesia.

The remaining Pathfinders from the 1979 Pathfinder Company intake served in Rhodesia until May 1980 under Major Murphy before being extracted and re-deployed to the South West African/Namibian operational area for the rest of their two-year National Service. There they conducted various reconnaissance operations into Angola, Zambia and along the South West African/Namibia border. They would join the fire force operations with 1 Parachute Battalion and 44 Parachute Brigade companies whenever possible and also conducted some search and rescue operations.

Major John Murphy was killed in an unfortunate military freefall parachute accident, and the Pathfinder Company continued operations under the command of then Captain Dries 'Rooies' Veldhuizen.

After 1980[edit | edit source]

The Pathfinders who served with the second group of the Pathfinder Company (1979), which soon became 44 Pathfinder Company under the command structure of 44 Parachute Brigade, cleared out of National Service directly from operations in Angola in early January 1981. They were: JR Mossner, PJ Lander, JD Fourie, MW Tullis, DJ Blom, LA Meyer, PG Figg, JA Pienaar, RJ Crisp, MJ Trenor, SD Hansen, AP de Beer, MJ Reid, JC Greyling, JSF Coetzee, CE Riekert, PD Wehmeyer, and AC Robertson. LJ Lombaard would also have served to the end but was injured in an unfortunate training accident before completing the Pathfinder training. Some members went on the serve with 32 Battalion (Recce), and the various Reconnaissance Commandos as career soldiers.

The 1980 Pathfinder Training of National Servicemen also saw the amalgamation of a permanent force group consisting mainly of foreigners who joined the SADF after the independence of Zimbabwe. "The Philistines", as they became known, were officially formed in Nov 1980 by Col Breytenbach, the Officer Commanding 44 Parachute Brigade and they were named The Pathfinder Company. Their appointed Commanding officer being Captain Botes, who served with 32 Battalion and their Company Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Second Class (WO2), or Seargent Major, McAleese (Former British SAS).

This group of Pathfinders did not fall under the command of 1 Parachute Battalion but rather 44 Parachute Brigade. With the passing of the command of 44 Parachute Brigade from Col. Jan Breytenbach to Col Bestbier In January 1982 one of the first actions was the disbandment the Brigade's Pathfinder company and the transferring of those who were still under contract to the SADF to 32 Battalion.

Only five members remained and these men formed the core of the training wing. They were WO2 Peter McAleese, Sgt Derek Andrews (Selous Scouts), Cpl Terry Tagney (RLI), Cpl Chris Rogers (RLI), and Cpl Jock Philips (RLI). They remained at the Brigade until December 1983.

1981 saw another fresh intake of National Servicemen being trained as Pathfinders to be operationally deployed at the beginning of 1982. The regime and training cycle was the same as per previous 2 training intakes namely at Fort Doppies.

Operations[edit | edit source]

Operational Duties (Ondjiva—Angola: January 1982 – August 1982)[edit | edit source]

The command of this group fell under Jamie Hill (1st Pathfinder Group 1976) and Paul Troll. Both Hill and Troll were from 44 Parachute Brigade. The Pathfinder group teamed up with 101 Battalion South West African Territorial Force (SWATF) who mainly served as trackers, translators, backup firepower (60mm Mortars and LMGs) and the Pathfinder group acting as team leaders and medics. They operated in small (4 man) teams (2 Pathfinders and 2 101 Battalion Ovambos) looking for weapon caches and doing counter insurgency operations for the upcoming expected rainy-season offensive. For their service this group of Pathfinders were awarded the Chief of the SADF Commendation Medal.

After the initial deployment at 101, Capt Pierre Lundberg who was a member of the initial group was again asked to command the national service pathfinders, which he did until the end of 1982. He was also joined by Lt John Tawse and both served in this capacity until leaving at the end of Jan 1983 where each respectively joined 4 Recce in Langebaan and 31 Battalion Recce at Omega, Caprivi on a permanent basis. After this departure the Pathfinders had no Permanent Force leadership for almost 4 months until Capt John van Aswegen (Former Rodesian SAS and 1 and 6 Recce) took over as the Pathfinder Commanding Officer.

All the subsequent Pathfinders groups followed the similar training schedule as the first three groups in regime and quality. In November 1983 John van Aswegen moved to 44 Parachute Brigade and became the new Commanding Officer of the newly formed 44 Parachute Brigade Pathfinder Company.

Pathfinder statistics[edit | edit source]

From 1978 until October 1989 and at the end of the bush war (Citizen Force Members)[edit | edit source]

98 members successfully completed course during their National service, of which 62 members attended citizen call-up camps. A further 86 members did training camps or Brigade exercises and 67 members participated in operations in the SWA/Angola Operations Area. As at December 1989 the company strength stood at 86 members.

The Pathfinders were a relative small group of soldiers. By comparison, the Reconnaissance Regiment from the formation of 1 Recce Commando at Oudtshoorn in 1972, to end of the Angolan/Bush war (1989) has over 450 qualified Recce operators; an average of 26 to 27 operators a year, while there were only 98 qualified Pathfinders from 1978 up to 1989, an average of 9 Pathfinders per year.

Pathfinders were also the only Special Forces troops in the SADF that mostly comprised national service members with only their officers being Permanent Force members. In comparison the Recce Regiments and 32 Battalion members were required to join the Permanent Force (5 years) or at least in short-term duty (3 years).

Synopsis[edit | edit source]

The fact that the Pathfinders were National Servicemen worked in certain instances against them. The leader group in 1 Parachute Battalion and 44 Parachute Brigade (comprising mostly career soldiers), followed the age old tradition of the British Army with their very strict rank and chain of command with limited understanding of Special Forces work.

Their application of the warfare doctrine “shock and awe” was in contrast to special operations which revolved around clandestine and reconnaissance operation. The small, close-knit elite unit function worked best when run in an egalitarian manner. The differentiator being that a strong chain of command existed well in such a unit however with no one working hard at wielding power.

In most instances the Pathfinder with the most experience assumes command for that specific operation which sometimes superseded the command of a Colonels or Sergeant Majors. This being totally out of the norm of a regular army. In units like the Recce Commando’s and 32 Battalion the ethos of Special Forces were well understood and practiced by the leader group. In contrast the Pathfinders were an isolated group in the Parachute battalion, as their war doctrine and command ethos differed radically from that of the normal Paratrooper Companies. This situation was further exacerbated with the Commanders lack of understanding of how to use specialist’s forces.

This led to amongst other, airborne battle-handling courses being presented at the newly formed 44 Parachute Regiment (Downgraded from Brigade to Regiment in 1999 following a transformation of the SADF to SANDF) The issue as described is discussed and dealt with and every junior officer in the airborne attends.

Most of the Citizen Force Pathfinders needed refresher courses where the latest battlefield lessons were imparted to them during this call-ups. The officers and many groups of Pathfinders were also trained by elements of Recce Regiment and many of the battlefield experience the Recces acquired were also transferred to the Pathfinders. With the transformation and new dispensation in the National Defence Force, combat experience and lessons learned on the battlefield that was transferred from one Pathfinder group to the next, was unfortunately lost and many of the leader group have subsequently left the service.[2]

Commanding Officers[edit | edit source]

Commander Period
Maj. Joos Rabie 1978–1981
Capt. Pierre Lundberg 1982–1983
Capt. John van Aswegen 1983 – Information Outstanding

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Pathfinder Company 44 Para Brigade, SADF: Angola 1981 Reproduced from: `The Elite’, Vol 5 Issue No. 51, pp. 1014–1020” – Graham Gillmore
  2. “1982 / 1983 Pathfinder Cycle — Airborne Soldier" – Sweps Scheepers

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