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In June 1970, a decidedly scruffy group of 12 men lurked around a barracks at the rear of the SA Infantry School in Oudtshoorn. Though lead by a young commandant with trademark unshaven cheekbones, there was no saluting, and the oddballs styled themselves, should anyone be brave enough to ask, the “Alpha Operational Experimental Group”.

That commandant was Jannie Breytenbach, who died in George on Sunday a retired colonel aged 91. No-one could have foreseen that his “Dirty Dozen” would evolve into one of the world’s most famed special forces outfits, and that within only five years, Breytenbach would be commanding a battle group that was poised to take Luanda from the Cubans and Marxist MPLA.

Born on July 14 1932, brother to Breyten Breytenbach who would become a renowned left-wing writer-poet, Jan Dirk Breytenbach first served SA’s Union Defence Force tank corps from 1950, followed by a stretch in the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm as a navigator, taking part in the Suez landings in 1956. In 1961, he joined the new SADF as a parachutist “parabat”.

By 1967, impressed by C-Squadron SAS’s counterinsurgency in Rhodesia, Breytenbach convinced SADF chief of the army, Lt-Gen Willem Louw — against the resistance of SADF chief Rudolph Hiemstra — that a similar specialist capacity would soon be required in SA, and so to send him and a select band of 11 volunteers for six months’ training with the Rhodesian SAS.

Breytenbach and three of his men in turn trained the rebel army of the Nigerian breakaway state of Biafra. The Biafran adventure was a disaster — but the Dirty Dozen formed the core of 1 Reconnaissance Commando, “the Recces”, established at Oudtshoorn under Breytenbach on October 1 1972, soon relocating to Durban’s Bluff. Yet, at the end of 1974, he was transferred to army headquarters in Pretoria — a desk job he hated, making himself a nuisance until ordered to train refugee Angolan guerrillas from Holden Roberto’s defeated FNLA faction.

Blitzkrieg in Angola

With Recce instructors, the FNLA group became the core of Battle Group Zulu (later Bravo), which went down in military annals for its blitzkrieg strike up the Angolan coast from October 14 1975, initiating Operation Savannah, the first large-scale SADF invasion of Angola. It advanced an astounding 3,159km in 33 days to within sight of the Cuban freighters preparing to re-embark arms and panicked troops in Luanda, despite being critically undersupplied with Recces, parabats and bridge-building engineers.

But what should have been the peak of Breytenbach’s military career turned to bitter disappointment when then prime minister John Vorster and his general staff lost their nerve at being so deep in enemy territory that they called a four-day halt, enabling the Angolans and Cubans to mine the remaining bridges and thwart the SADF advance.

To his dying day, Breytenbach believed that if he had taken Luanda, “SA would have become the unassailable power in Southern Africa”, dealt communist insurgency a mortal blow and allowed moderate governments to come to power in Angola and Namibia.

32 Battalion

Bravo would soon become the renowned rapid-raiding light infantry 32 Battalion, its nickname Os Terrívais (The Terrible Ones), indicating the fear the mostly black counterinsurgency soldiers struck into their enemies; it earned battle honours across Angola.

On May 4 1978, Breytenbach led the parabat assault on the heavily armed Swapo camp at Cassinga, the largest airborne operation in the world after World War 2, but notorious in liberation movement circles as a massacre at a “refugee camp”, as the guerrillas had indeed gathered thousands of civilians around them. About 582 guerrillas and civilians died versus three SADF soldiers killed.

In 1998, the SA’s truth commission ruled that though SADF photoreconnaissance showed a military aspect to the camp, in wartime, Swapo could be expected to fortify even civilian camps. Yet Breytenbach still argued in a 2009 paper that “the designation ‘refugee camp’ was deliberately misused to ‘camouflage’ the true nature of Cassinga and also to provide a ‘human shield’ for what was essentially a military establishment”.

After commanding 44 Parachute Brigade during 1980-1982, and later founding the SADF Guerrilla School, he retired in 1987 to write seven military history books, including on 32 Battalion and the Cassinga raid.

Breytenbach is survived by his wife Rosalind, son Richard, daughter Angela and grandsons Christopher and Matthew.

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