The courage and dedication of members of the 61 Mechanised Battalion Group (61 Mech) has been remembered at the annual memorial at the Ditsong National Museum for Military History in Saxonwold, Johannesburg.
Speaking during the service, retired General George Meiring paid tribute to the soldiers of 61 Mech, who he said were internationally recognized as some of the best in their field.
He said if it was not for the South African soldiers on the borders in those years, the country would have been set on a completely different path and might not have experienced the years of peace it has enjoyed as a democracy.
Meiring was the last chief of the South African Defence Force and the first head of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). He retired in 1998.
Family, friends and military veterans marked the service with two minutes silence. The first minute was to remember the almost 100 soldiers who lost their lives during operations, and the second minute to give thanks for those who returned.
Around thirty wreaths were laid, and crosses planted to remember those who died during operations such as Protea in 1980 and Moduler (1987) and Hooper (1988). Wreaths were laid on behalf of former commanding officers of 61 Mech including Roland de Vries, Gert van Zyl, Gerhard Louw and Jaap Steyn; the South African Indian Legion, the Council for Military Veterans Organisations (CMVO), the Armour Formation Association and the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTHS) from both South Africa and Namibia.
The memorial includes a granite needle bearing the names of those who died on active duty at the base. The needle was first erected at the 61 Mech base in Omuthiya in Namibia in 1982. It was later moved and eventually placed in Saxonwold in 2010.
It also has a newer addition of several miniature metal trees planted by Angolan government, military representatives and 61 Mech veterans around a relief of a Ratel infantry fighting vehicle and set in concrete.
This echoes a similar memorial at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola created during an official 61 Mech unity and friendship – Unidade de Amizade – battlefield tour to that country in May last year. It was started at a memorial service at the remains of one of three South African tanks left behind following fighting in 1988.
Although 61 Mech had only existed for 27 years by the time it was disbanded in 2005, it had played a significant part in the often-hard-fought battles in Angola between 1978 and 1988. Sixty-one Mech specialized in mobile warfare in the difficult African terrain and operated the iconic Denel designed and built Ratel. Military specialists and historians have generally acknowledged it as the best fighting unit in Africa in its day.