A parabat (Parachute Batallion) is a South African paratrooper. The history of the Parabats started on 1 April 1961 with the formation of 1 Parachute Battalion (after 1994 renamed to Parachute Training Centre). The motto of the Parabats is Ex alto vincimus, meaning "We conquer from above".
Shortly after the formation of 1 Parachute Battalion, 2 Parachute Battalion, 3 Parachute Battalion and 4 Parachute Battalion were formed, but 4 Parachute Battalion was soon disbanded. The combined battalions were named 44 Parachute Brigade and later 44 Parachute Regiment.
After integration of the new South African National Defence Force, the Reconnaissance regiments had their names changed to the Special Forces Regiments and the Parabats could no longer use the title, since it was now the formal name of the Recces.
These units often trained together and operated together and soldiers often served in two or more of these units during their military career. It is noteworthy to say that the commander of the 1978 Battle of Cassinga, Col. Jan Breytenbach (a very respected Parabat, who also served in the British SAS), was the founder of both the Recces and 32 Battalion. Each unit fulfilled a different purpose, with the Parabats fulfilling a conventional role in assaults, raids and fireforce operations; 32 Battalion acted in a search and destroy, as well as reconnaissance role while the Recces performed long range reconnaissance and many other special forces related work from land, sea and air.
In 1960 fifteen volunteers from the SADF were sent to England, the majority to train as parachute instructors, some as parachute-packers and one SAAF pilot in the dropping of paratroopers. These formed the nucleus of 1 Parachute Battalion at Tempe in Bloemfontein. The first paratroopers were Permanent Force men, but soon the training of Citizen Force (similar to the National Guard) paratroopers commenced. Members of 1 Parachute Battalion were the first S.A. Army men to see action after WWII when, in 1966, they participated, with the South African Police, against terrorist insurgents in S.W.A. (now Namibia).
In 1966, members of 1 Parachute Battalion participated in the first action in the war in South West Africa during a heliborne assault on an insurgent base. Thereafter, Parabats were involved in operations in SWA/Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Mozambique and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and elsewhere on an almost constant basis for over 20 years.
1 Parachute Bn. was organised as follows: Permanent Force - Batt. H.Q., H.Q. Coy and A and B Coy's; Citizen Force: C Coy Cape Town, D Coy Durban, E Coy Pretoria and F Coy Johannesburg. Further battalions were added: 1 Para Batt. in 1971 and 3 Para Batt. in 1977.
In 1974 and 1975 1 Parachute Bn. operated along the Angolan border with S.W.A; along the Caprivi Strip; a platoon jumped near Luiana, Angola to relieve a group of Bushmen trapped by a SWAPO force; and in Operation Savannah during the Angolan Civil War of 1974-5 when 2 companies of 1 Parachute Battalion were dropped on the northern border of SWA at Ruacana and Santa Clara in Angola to relieve two Portuguese communities trapped by the MPLA.
From April 1978, the 44 Para Brigade came into being under Brig. M J du Plessis as O.C. This Brigade became a powerful force. The first large airborne exercise of the Parachute Battalion Group took place in 1987 in the North Western Transvaal (now North West Province). Eventually the Parachute Brigade disbanded in Pretoria and moved to Bloemfontein, where the paratroopers were incorporated in 1 Parachute Battalion Group.
In 1986, the Parabats embarked on their first HALO/HAHO (High altitude Low Opening/High Altutude High Opening) course in Bloemfontein. This would enable the Parabats to drop in to enemy territory from aircraft following commercial routes. Two CIA operatives had previously arrived in South Africa in 1981 to train the Parabats in this new form of freefall.
The 3 Para BN reserve force consisting of A-Coy, C-Coy and D-Coy form an active part of the parachute battalion today and are active participants in monthly jumps, exercises, 2 annual water jumps and refresher courses to maintain their professional active status.
Over the years, the S.A. Parabats have participated in eighty-four operations. Forty-five Parabats have been killed in action.
The South African Parabats are, like their counterparts the world over, fit, tough, extremely aggressive and totally committed; a confident and proud breed of men.
To give would-be Parabats the endurance and the fitness they will need for operations in the harsh African conditions, the instructors of the 44th Parachute Regiment place particular emphasis on basic physical training. Young men volunteering for service with the parachute forces first undergo a battery of medical tests - as stringent as that for flying personnel - before setting off on a 5km timed run. Before they can recover their breath, they tackle the second test: 200m run in which each man carries a comrade on his back.
The applicants are then put through various psychological and physical tests - though these are usually well within the reach of anyone with sufficient motivation and willpower. The real ordeal will then start: for four long months, the recruits Bats will endure forced marches, physical exercises, shooting sessions and inspections - all this barracked by the screams of their eagle-eyed instructors. The South African Parabat instructors, like their British counterparts, enforce strict discipline. For example, trainees always take their grooming kit along with them on 30km marches and at dawn, when back at the base with aching bones, devote whatever little time is left they have to rest to 'spit and polish'.
Those who are accepted are then transferred to 1 Para, where they first complete the normal three-month basic training course, with some differences: PT three times a day, no walking in camp under any circumstances and a 10-15km run to end each day. 20 km runs carrying tar poles; car tyres attached to the candidates by a long rope; or the dreaded 25 kg concrete slab that has to be carried everywhere the candidate goes. Some 10 to 20 percent drop out during this phase, returning to their original units. All this builds up to what is called the koeikamp ('cow camp'). It is 3 days of the ultimate challenge of physical and psychological endurance. Until the 1990’s the physical course was 2 weeks, but due to national service being shortened to one year, the army had a need to change and make the training more compact and fast paced. However some of the ‘older’ Parabats still do physical training courses to ensure that standards do not drop.
The would be Parabats get a 24 hour ration pack or 'rat pack' for the duration of the selection. During these days, they are given several tasks to perform in an allocated time: Several 20-30km Night marches/runs with 25kg bergens, boxing, 75 kg stretcher run over 20km, digging trenches and the carrying of artillery canisters over 10 km during a timed run are just a few of the tasks that has to be completed. On top of all this the candidates are out in the African bush with no showers, hot meals or beds after each grueling day. Each year the sequence of what ‘tests’ will be done to get the strongest out of the ‘wannabees’ changes, so it comes as quite a surprise each year. Due to lack of sleep, hunger and extreme physical tasks many of the men give up. After all the above tests, the few remaining soldiers head back to camp were they have to complete an obstacle course called the "Elephant". Some foreign Elite soldiers claimed this to be one of the hardest bone breaking obstacle courses ever. Again, this is a timed exercise , which has to be completed several times, its also done with full battle kit. Again the instructors are looking for any hesitant students during the high obstacles and underwater swim through a narrow tunnel. At the end of the "Elephant" several more students drop out due to injury or not completing the course in the required time. At this point the course has been completed. However there is always the 'bad surprise" which has historically become part of the Selection Phase
After a six week ordeal, the selected few (about 40% of the original intake), make the 12 jumps required to obtain their wings. During this time, the chances of being disqualified are still very high. This phase is followed by some advanced individual training, during which such subjects as advanced driving, demolitions, tactics and patrolling, unarmed combat, survival skills, escape and evasion, aspects of guerrilla warfare, tracking, raiding, counter-insurgency operations, fast rope skills, ambush and anti-ambush techniques and foreign weapons and techniques are covered.
Their instructors, however, always find that something is left to be desired with the inspection which invariably follows. To harden their muscles, trainees are made to carry a telegraph pole for two days, at a rate of 20km daily. Back at base, the 'marble', a stone weighing about 25kg which the soldier must carry wherever he goes, is used as a substitute for the same purpose.
A very distinctive tradition of the Parabats concerns Tannie Mossie (English: Aunt Sparrow).
Tannie Mossie is Ms Joan Abrams, a teacher in the city of Bloemfontein. She chose the name after the legend of a group of women who requested government to put a sparrow on the smallest coin in South Africa’s currency denomination. The reference comes from the Bible in Matthew 10:29: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father".
Tannie Mossie wanted every soldier to know that God will protect them “falling from the sky” with their parachutes. She handed every soldier a necklace, consisting of a half cent on a string of para-cord, before they were deployed for active duty, telling them the story of the women and of Matthew 10:29. She truly loved the soldiers and the duty they were doing for their country and took it upon herself to be a mother or loving aunt to all of them. She enlisted thousands of elementary school children to write letters to the parabats, usually titled: Liewe Oom Dapper Soldaat (Dear Uncle Brave Soldier).
These letters made an impact on many soldiers, not only providing a face of the innocents that the soldiers were protecting, but also much more. Even soldiers killed in action were found with some of these letters, tattered from repeated reading, folded inside their pocket Bibles. Lifelong friendships were found with families from these letters and an unknown amount of motivation came from them.
Apart from letters, Tannie Mossie made sure that paratroopers regularly got other mail, food parcels, visits and even published a few books – which were mostly compilations of soldiers’ tales.