South African Special Operations

South African Special Forces Brigade (Recces)

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The South African Special Forces Brigade (populary known as “Recces”) is the main Special Forces unit of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

South African special forces are internationally considered to be among the best in the world, particularly in bush warfare. Their operational and fighting capabilities are renowned, proven year in and year out during the country’s long, 30 years, border/bush war.

The South African Special Forces have successfully faced the most varied enemy forces of our modern times, including, during the Cold War, regular forces of the Soviet Red Army, the Soviet Special Forces (Spetsnatz), other Soviet and Warsaw Pact regular army Special Forces Units from Ukraine, Byelorussia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany.

They have also faced the regular and Special Forces from other countries that aligned themselves to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, including Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and others.

South African special forces consists of Special Forces Headquarters in Pretoria, 4 Special Forces Regiment in Langebaan, 5 Special Forces Regiment – Phalaborwa and the Special Forces School in Murrayhill.

4 Special Forces Regiment specialize in maritime-related activities, whereas 5 Special Forces regiment specializes more in overland techniques, especially long-range infiltration.

Though an infantry unit, the Brigade is not a part of the South African Army and instead falls under the authority of the Joint Operations Division of the SANDF.


The first South African Special Forces unit, 1 Reconnaissance Commando, was established in the town of Oudtshoorn, Cape Province on 1 October 1972. On 1 January 1975, this unit was relocated to Durban, Natal, where it continued its activities as the airborne specialist unit of the special forces.

Later, two additional Reconnaissance Commandos were formed:

  • 4 Reconnaissance Commando, specializing in seaborne operations, was established in the coastal town of Langebaan, Cape Province.
  • 5 Reconnaissance Commando was established at the Duku-Duku camp in Northern Natal, but was later moved to Phalaborwa in the Transvaal province.

On 1 January 1981, a re-organization of Special Forces took place, as part of which the Reconnaissance Commandos and other special forces were transformed into an independent formation, directly under the command of the (then) South African Defence Force (instead of the South African Army). As part of the re-organization, the various Reconnaissance Commandos were also given the status of regiments. In the latter part of the same decade, a Special Forces headquarters and a Special Forces stores depot were also added to the Special Forces structure.

In 1991, the structure of the special forces underwent another change, when the special forces headquarters was disbanded and a Directorate Reconnaissance, reporting directly to the Chief of the Army, was established instead.

Another organizational change followed in 1993, when the Directorate Reconnaissance became 45 Parachute Brigade. As a result of this, all the units were renamed: 1 Reconnaissance Regiment became 452 Parachute Battalion, 4 Reconnaissance Regiment became 453 Parachute Battalion and 5 Reconnaissance Regiment became 451 Parachute Battalion.

As a result of the changes that took place in South Africa after the first fully democratic elections, the special forces organization was changed to its current structure in 1996. The Special Forces Brigade, as it is presently known, consists of 4 and 5 Special Forces Regiments as well as 1 Maintenance Unit, which provides logistic support. Designation of these forces as being of “brigade”-size, however, is highly misleading. Total fighting manpower of 4 and 5 Special Forces Regiments combined does not approach even the strength of a regular infantry battalion.

As part of the military transformation process, 1 Special Forces Regiment was disbanded in 1996.


The South African “Recces” were deployed to many local hot spots during the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly Angola.

The main enemy then was a group known as SWAPO (South West Africa’s People Organization). It was an all-black guerrilla organization fighting for an independent Namibia and SWAPO proved to be a formidable enemy.

One of the “Recces”‘ most effective operations came in 1982: Operation Mebos penetrated deep into Angola and destroyed the SWAPO Headquarters. In Operation Askari, in the winter of 1984, the “Recces” cut off almost all supply lines to and from the SWAPO in Angola. In 1985, a “Recce” team undertook the controversial Cabinda Operation.

Due to the peacekeeping and other duties which the South African National Defence Force have been tasked with in recent times, new opportunities for the deployment of the special forces are continiously presenting themselves, which promises a major growth potential for these units.


The Ultimate Challenge, as South African Special Forces Selection is often called, is one of the toughest selection courses in the world. A soldier must meet very high requirements to actually attend Special Forces Selection. However, he has to be in excellent shape to make it through.

Pre-Selection Training

This includes all aspects of psychological and physical tests. For the psychological tests, soldiers will be given written tests and oral interviews with Special Forces NCOs. A soldier must be self-controlled and mature. Soldiers are ejected from the course if there is any suggestion of mental instability. The Physical Test includes 40 continuous push ups, 67 sit ups in two minutes, fireman lift, three-kilometer run in full gear in eighteen minutes, a rope climb (to show upper body strength ), 40 shuttle runs in 95 seconds and wall scaling. A student must scale a ten-foot high wall, complete a fifteen-kilometer march in less than 150 minutes and perform 120 shuttle kicks.

Parachute Selection Course

Basic Parachute School is one of the most demanding. All Special Forces candidates who aren’t parachute-qualified will have to attend this course.

Special Forces Orientation Course

This is a time when a student will learn what Special Forces are and what they do. He will be told about what to look forward to in training. He is made to train every day to get into shape for the toughest part of Selection yet.

Special Forces Selection

Little is known about Selection. However, it is believed to be one of the toughest in the world.

The Cycle

Once past the Selection process, he will be placed on a training cycle to acquire the skills required. These include: air co-operation, water orientation, obstacle crossing, bushcraft, tracking and survival, demolitions and tactics in urban as well as rural areas.

Advanced Airborne Training: a recruit will be taught about military free-fall such as HALO and HAHO. They will also learn about helicopter operations – how to rappel fast down a rope out of helicopters. Combat extraction is also taught, along with learning how to set up a LZ.

Land training consists of many things: including sniping, demolitions and reconnaissance. Bushcraft and survival is also taught. Climbing and photography are taught to new recruits. Urban and rural combat is perhaps the newest training – developed quite recently, this training provided South Africa with a new counter-terrorist force. Medical and communications training is also given to those who wish to become qualified.

Maritime training consists of the use of small boats, underwater demolitions, swimming, diving, beach reconnaissance and navigation. It is thought to be based on the SBS training.

Operator’s Badge

All South African Special Forces operators receive the Operator’s Badge, which is given only to those members who have completed all the qualifications as an Operator. It consists of an inverted Commando Knife within a laurel wreath, which is meant to symbolize both special forces (the knife) and victory (the wreath).

Standard operator badges are silver, but a gold badge with an embedded diamond is awarded to Operators with more than 10 years of active service.

The Operator’s Prayer

The following is the official prayer of the “operators” of the South African Special Forces:

Heavenly Father,
King of the world,
I know that all things
are in Your hands,
whatever happens to me.

As a Special Forces Operator,
I am prepared to suffer hardship.
I am ready to endure danger,
unrest, pain and hurt.
I am going to be hungry and thirsty.
I am prepared to face the enemy
fearlessly, Lord.
I am weak.
I cannot depend
upon my own strength;
I do not want to trust
in my own abilities.

Lord, my God,
let me trust in You alone.
And, above all,
to do my work fearlessly
– always.



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