During the late 1960s, the South African Police became engaged in counter insurgency operations in the Rhodesian War of Independence. The political influence at that time dictated that, within the Republic of South Africa, the communist-backed guerrillas would be considered a criminal conspiracy group. As a result, police rather than military intervention was promoted. In 1967, in an effort to counter criminal activity, the South African Police assigned approximately 2000 representatives to guard the northern border of Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia. The situation at ground level proved to be more difficult than anticipated as the South African Police Services was ill-equipped to deal with guerrilla warfare and rural terrorism. This proved to be a learning curve for the police services.
As a result of certain key events, the Security Branch of the South African Police began to realise that a specialist unit would be required to undertake high risk operations. Instrumental to this initiative was Captain J.J. de Swardt of the South African Police Security Headquarters. He demonstrated a clear understanding of the security-related terrorist occurrences and threats at the time; was extremely skilled in high risk operations and demonstrated a keen grasp of insurgency practices. In addition, he recognised and could propose solutions for the training, equipment, command and control shortcomings.
The much venerated Captain J.J. de Swardt - who later took on the handle of ‘Black Jack’ - received his initial training at the South African Police Security Branch based in Durban. Whilst stationed there, he established the first police karate club and introduced combat shooting. He saw the establishment of a special unit within the police as his life’s mission and doggedly pursued this quest identifying the initial specialist areas listed below:
- Specialized Counter insurgency;
- Counter urban warfare and terrorism;
- VIP protection; and
- Executive security at public events attended by VIP’s.
Captain J.J. de Swardt was closely connected to Sergeant Roelf de Plooy, based at Tin Transito, the Counter Insurgency Transito located at the South African Police College in Pretoria West. Sgt de Plooy, or ‘Hagar’, had been severely wounded during a previous tour of duty in Chishuma, Rhodesia, by ZANU terrorists. His position as a counter insurgency (COIN) instructor provided him with a prime opportunity to evaluate the physical capability, competency and mental preparedness of the various South African Police candidates posted for COIN duty in Rhodesia.
An unofficial, close-knit, intrepid and adventurous group of police representatives rapidly evolved with a shared vision of formalising a police-based special forces unit.
Establishing this unit from grassroots was far more difficult than originally anticipated and, as a result, an attitude of sheer determination and a will to succeed against all odds emerged amongst the founding members.
A primary priority was the improvement of survival and bush skills to effectively execute high risk targeted COIN operations and drastically reduce the chances of member fatality.
The Munich Massacre of 5 September 1972 at the Munich Summer Olympics in Southern Germany shocked the world. Members of the Israeli Olympic Team were taken hostage and murdered by a terrorist group named Black September. This event highlighted the need for police units world-wide to acquire specialist skills to deal with high risk and hostage release rescues. Unfortunately, this event did not trigger the formation of a specialised police unit but it did ignite the determination of the informal band of brothers.
This small group of police officers grew in a short space of time. With increasing vigour, they continued to endorse their vision and spread the word that they were actively seeking men with the ‘right stuff’. The term 'staaldraad' later emerged to demonstrate that these determined, adaptable and resilient men were as tough as steel wire.
In the initial stages, the formal structures of the South African Police did not share this vision and training was undertaken after hours and over weekends. Members had to dig deep into their pockets to fund all aspects of this project. The associated costs included fuel, meals and the purchasing of private firearms. This was especially difficult given the basic police wages.
Senior personnel at the South African Police Security Headquarters did however keep a keen eye on this feisty group who often returned from weekends bearing a vast array of off-duty injuries. The band soon earned the title of the ‘Bliksems’ due to frequent comments such as, ‘wat het jullle Bliksems weer aangevang?’ (What have you Bliksems done now?).
Below, are some of the fundamental problems which faced the ‘Bliksems’ in their pursuit of knowledge, experience and capability:
- - Weapons, ammunition, battle gear, vehicles, etc.
The members of the group not issued with official weapons were required to sign up to the South African Police shooting club so as to acquire R1 assault rifles. Police camouflage uniforms were however unofficially acquired. Additional equipment, such as binoculars, had to be personally funded by members.
- - Existing training facilities within the South African Police were not accessible to the ‘Bliksems’ as they were an unofficial body.
The search for training facilities proved to be challenging as an area suitable for live hand gun and assault rifle fire, and which could offer formal shooting ranges, was required. In addition, the facility would have needed to be an urban environment with rural terrain. Various sites in Pelindaba were explored. Eventually, a spot at the Baviaanspoort Correctional Services was availed to the unit by Col. van der Merwe. This enormous stretch of vacant land, which would continue to be used even after the official formation of the Special Task Force, was ideal for tactical training.
- - Specialised skills were not readily available within the South African Police and the ‘Bliksems’ had to look elsewhere for up-skilling.
Capt. J.J. de Swardt contacted Major Sybie van der Spuy who proved to be quite an asset. A visit to the Hunter Group from the East Rand Commandment of the South African Defence Force (SADF) was arranged. This meeting formed the backdrop for the enduring and productive relationship which developed between Capt. de Swardt and one of the Hunter’s instructors, a martial arts specialist, Joe Grant Grierson. Skills exchange with the Hunter Group proved fruitful and provided useful information including a training curriculum on weapons’ handling, rural patrol formations and tactics, ambushes and skirmishes. Post training, it was confirmed that the style, approach and methodology adopted by this group were too stringently based on military protocol and the ‘Bliksems’ required a more flexible framework.
Joe Grierson was immediately accepted amongst the ranks of the ‘Bliksems’ and was soon appointed as the band’s senior instructor. Sadly, Joe passed away in July 2007 but his accolades – including the achievement of tenth DAN; confirmation as a First Generation Head Master and First Bujitsu Master and the establishment of the Noble House of Imatsu International and the International Institute for Martial and Military Arts, Tactics and Survival – will be eternally memorialised by those who knew him.
This truly remarkable individual had originated from South Africa but moved to Southern Rhodesia, Nyasa Land, primarily to train their police services and later to instruct the British South African Police. He was responsible for the training, command and control structure material relating to the Salisbury Special Unit received by the ‘Bliksems’ which was considered to be quite advanced at the time.
In later years, Joe became a founding member of the South African Railway Police Special Task Force. As a South African Police reservist, he was promoted to the rank of Captain and took on the role of official instructor for the acclaimed SWAT course initiated by Gen. J.J. de Swardt in the mid-1990s.
Other acclaimed instructors include Bill du Toit (ex-SOF and former Wild Geese) - a specialist in terrorist tactics; Mr K. Lucy - a rope work and abseiling expert and Mr T. Segala - an authority on booby traps and improvised explosive devices.
Increasing financial expenses, the liability and medical costs associated with off-duty injuries and the increased dangers related to training activities - which now included rock climbing, rope access, rescue work, skydiving and parachute training - became a real bone of contention. Nonetheless, the ‘Bliksems’ remained resolute despite the fact that all injuries – ranging from gun wounds to broken bones and lacerations - had to be accepted as off-duty and recovery time fell within personal holiday leave. Capt. de Swardt did however continue to appeal to the South African Police to, at the very least, cover parachuting injuries, but to no avail.
Skydiving and parachuting training was received from experienced civilian skydivers and, in this respect, Gary Magnusson played a pivotal role as an instructor. He was joined by Hannes Smit who had volunteered to be a police reservist in order to facilitate his involvement. Further assistance was received from Major Jakkals de Jager from the Parachute Regiment.
A lucky break for the ‘Bliksems’ came in 1973 during the South African Games. With the Munich Massacre still fresh in the minds of citizens world-wide, the Israeli government stated that it would send their team to South Africa, but only on condition that the safety of its athletes could be assured. Gen. Mike Geldenhuys - the then Head of the South African Police Security Branch - summoned Capt. de Swardt to discuss the matter and, as a result, the protection detail was awarded to Capt. de Swardt and his ‘Bliksems’ who executed their mandate with absolute precision. The South African Police received international acclaim in the press and commendation from the South African Secretary for Foreign Affairs. The ‘Bliksems’ proved their worth and the concept of police-based special forces had been solidified.
Having received such international acclaim, the ‘Bliksems’ became increasingly determined to secure better training and acquire more relevant information.
Capt. J.J. de Swardt’s position at the South African Police Security Headquarters proved useful in several ways. He was able to access official governmental documentation on international emerging best practice relating to the creation of the structure, command and control of special forces units such as the GSG9 documentation of September 1972 . Although the ‘Bliksems’ had access to this valuable documentation, they required circumstance-specific solutions and training for the prevailing conditions in South Africa.
On 28 April 1974, a hostage drama unfolded at the Israeli embassy which later became known as The Fox Street Siege. The trigger for this saga continues to remain a mystery and, even now, it cannot be confirmed whether or not either the South African Police or the South African Defence Force assisted. It is however clear that the ‘Bliksems’ were not involved as the unit remained unofficial and therefore required explicit permission to mobilise. Although Capt. de Swardt and certain of his men were available, Brigadier Mike Geldenhuys could not be reached for authorisation. The Fox Street Siege clearly revealed the South African Police Service’s inability to effectively manage high-risk situations and a public outcry calling for the establishment of a hostage rescue tactics capability ensued. The wheels had been set into motion for the official creation of a South African Police Special Forces Unit.
The South African Police indicated that it was inundated with problems at the time and that its position was aggravated by limited available manpower due to the over-allocation of its resources to the two (2) COIN wars in South West Africa (SWA), now Namibia, and Rhodesia.
In 1974, the South African Police handed over control of the South West African border area to the South African Defence Force and, in 1975, it withdrew from Rhodesia. The South African Police earned the Battle Honour Rhodesia for their Colour ; a decoration which had only been awarded to this unit.
1975 saw a flurry of activity to motivate for the creation of the Special Forces Unit. The Bureau of State Security provided recommendations and supported the creation of such a unit and, on 6 June 1975, Brigadier Vic Verster wrote an official recommendation from the South African Police Security Branch to the Commissioner of the South African Police and proposed a structure, command and control for the Special Task Force. The handle ‘SAP Commandos’ was put forward.
Lt Gen. Mike Geldenhuys - the Head of the South African Police Security Branch - officially authorised the creation of the Special Task Force as one of its subdivisions on 1 February 1976.
Col. Dries Verwey was appointed as the first commanding officer of the Special Task Force and Capt. J.J. de Swardt and the nucleus of the ‘Bliksems’ were transferred to the Special Task Force as instructors. The recruitment and selection process commenced immediately and the first phase of selection saw 113 applications; mostly from within the membership of the trained ‘Bliksems’. Thirty-eight (38) members conforming to the set standards were accepted and an additional four (4) reserve candidates, including one (1) South African Police medic, were assigned to duty.
Upon Gen. Mike Geldenhuys’ appointment as Commissioner of the South African Police in 1978, he transferred command and control of the Special Task Force from the Security Branch over to Counter Insurgency (COIN) under the command of Maj. Gen. Vic Verster. The immediate divisional commander was Col. Bert Wandrag with operational command under Maj. JJ de Swardt.
Further updates on the subsequent history are to follow under the leadership of commanding officers Gen. Tienie Strydom and Gen. Mike Fryer.