During the 1970’s and 80’s, South African paratroopers, affectionately called ‘Parabats’ or simply ‘Bats’ were at the forefront of the nation’s counter insurgency operations, acting as a fireforce unit and conducting airborne operations against SWAPO guerrilla bases inside Angola.
Their esprit de corps and reputation became the stuff of legend and for a young collector growing up in South Africa in the 1970’s. Facing the prospect of being called up for national service in the not too distant future, my aspirations turned to becoming a paratrooper one day and my collecting became narrower in scope, concentrating on airborne units and the ‘Bats’ in particular.
The history of South Africa’s airborne capability dates back to the Second World War when the South African Air Force briefly established a Parachute Company in 1943, though this was disbanded before the troops had started to jump. However more than sixty South Africans did serve on secondment to the British Airborne Forces during the war, participating in airborne operations in Italy, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and for one officer, David McCombe, during Operation Market Garden at Arnhem.
But it was not until 1960 that South Africa resurrected the idea of an airborne force sending a group of 15 volunteers, who had just completed a two week selection course, to the UK to undertake training at the Royal Air Force’s No 1 Parachute Training School at Abingdon. The majority qualified as instructors whilst others underwent training as riggers. On their return they established a parachute training wing at Tempe, Bloemfontein and in 1961 the 1st Parachute Battalion was formed with volunteers from the 2nd Mobile Watch and on 29 January 1962 the first 48 South African trained paratroopers received their wings. Within a couple of years, conscripts undertaking their national service were also being accepted for service with 1 Parachute Battalion.
Over the coming years and as the tempo of operations against insurgents opposing the South African government increased, South Africa’s conventional airborne capability expanded to, at its peak in 1989, four parachute battalions plus supporting units under the umbrella of 44 Parachute Brigade. However, by 1998, in post-Apartheid, South Africa and facing financial constraints the decision was made to decrease the SANDF’s airborne capability and on 2 November 1999 a greatly reduced 44 Parachute Brigade was redesignated 44 Parachute Regiment. Since their formation, the operations carried out by the Parabats have become legendary and you can hear many of the veterans recount their exploits in these interviews conducted by Efpe Senekal that formed the basis of the excellent 3-part documentary, “Parabat” (see trailer below).
However, for the historian/collector, Marc Norman and Paul Matthysen’s Parabat: A Guide to South African Airborne Units (Volume 1 & 2) published in 2011 are invaluable reference books. PARABAT Volume 1: A Guide to Collecting Insignia of the South African Airborne Units 2021 Edition is the update to the first book in the set (volume 2 will be out in July 2021) and includes information that was previously unavailable at the time of the first publication. Together the 2 volumes contain the history of all the South African parachute battalion and brigade units.
The amount of information included in this updated edition of Volume 1 is impressive to say the least. In addition to presenting a historical overview of each of the airborne units the bulk of the content takes an in-depth look at the various insignia worn, including qualification brevets, beret and shoulder badges plus unit affiliation and sub unit tactical insignia. Extensive colour photographs, including close-up images of specific details, help to identify the variations (as well as fakes) and these are complimented by information gleaned from the original insignia ‘art cards’ plus the personal recollections of some of the key individuals involved in the development and implementation of the badges.
Privately published, the book is currently limited to a print run of 50 copies and is available directly from Marc Norman in New Zealand. For collectors or those with an interest in South Africa’s hard fought bushwar, this book is an essential addition to the reference library. Contact Marc and grab a copy whilst you still can.
PARABAT Volume 1: A Guide to Collecting Insignia of the South African Airborne Units 2021 Edition by Marc Norman & Paul Matthysen
Dimensions: A4, Full colour. 300gsm laminated stiff card cover. 290 pages 130gsm coated art paper.
Publisher: Marc Norman Publishing (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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