Photos by Andre Venter and Trevor Cohen
Polokwane, the Capital city of the Limpopo Province, was a hive of military activity the last week or so, the annual Armed Forces Celebrations took place in the City from 14 February to 21 February.
Armed Forces Day commemorates the sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel on February 21 1917, it resulted in the deaths of over 600 soldiers from the South African Native Labour Corps, as well as commemorating all South African soldiers that paid the “ultimate price” to defend freedom‚ peace and justice. Over the years Armed Forces day has been extended to a week of activities hosted by one of the four branches of the SANDF, namely the SA Airforce, SA Navy, SA Army and the Military Medical Health Services.
The South African Army were the hosts for the 2020 rendition and as it was in landlocked Limpopo the SA Navy was excluded to a certain extent. Armed forces week was jam packed full of activities, which were designed to expose the local public to the functions of the SANDF, from sports events to the impressive parade through the streets of Polokwane. The all-time favourite for all the aviation enthusiasts was without a doubt the Weapons Capability Display at the Roodewal Bombing Range just North of Polokwane held on 18 February.
It was an early start for the invited guests and members of the media, we were instructed to assemble at AFB Waterkloof bright and early on 18 February for our flight to Polokwane. Everyone was quite surprised when we realised that we would be making the short 28 minute flight in one of South African Airways’ Airbus A340-300’s, it was good to see the SANDF supporting the embattled airline at this very difficult time. There was a slight hold up at Waterkloof as Polokwane International Airport Emergency Services were not equipped to handle an aircraft of this size and had to loan a fire tender to temporarily be upgraded in category.
The SANDF had a convoy of buses at the ready to quickly whisk us off to the bombing range once we landed. On our arrival the specially erected grand stands were already starting to fill with a mixture of SANDF members and foreign attaches that were invited to attend. Big screens were erected around the seating area to bring the action closer, footage from the SAAF’s “Koiler” observation system was being live streamed from a circling Cessna Caravan.
After a short parade of the emergency equipment and safety briefing by Major “Maverick” Jansen and Captain “Castro” Nkoata, the alarm was sounded declaring the range active. While the briefing was in progress an Oryx helicopter had gotten airborne carrying Special Forces members.
A scenario of a terrorist base attack was sketched and the SANDF were to simulate an attack on this base. The “pathfinders” were deployed by “HALO” parachute jump from the Oryx, their mission was to land undetected and relay reconnaissance information back to operation command. One of the special forces members was using a tandem to bring in a specialist that is not necessarily parachute trained, this method is used for deploying medical personnel, explosive experts and/or any specialist needed for the given operation.
While the pathfinders were landing a sniper was deployed armed with a 20mm NTW20 Anti-material rifle this weapon was developed by Denel and has interchangeable barrels for using 14.5mm or 12.75mm ammunition. This is the rifle that held the record for the longest “kill” that was just over 2km the record has since been broken. The sniper’s mission was to neutralise high value targets while the raid team were advancing.
The raid team were utilising small but very effective “Hornet” attack vehicles, as they were launching, their attack cover fire was provided by the “Hero of Bangui” the SA Army Special Forces 107mm Multiple Rocket Launcher along with vehicle mounted 60mm mortar fire.
The SA Army then displayed their mobility vehicles around an obstacle course starting with the “Gecko” 8x8 rapid deployment troop carrier, followed by the “Hornet”. The RG31 troop carrier was next to display, this vehicle is fitted with a remotely operated 7.62mm self defence weapon. The workhorse of the SA Army, the “Ratel”, was next to display its abilities, followed by the 8x8 “Rooikat” 76mm quick firing armoured vehicle. The final vehicle to display its abilities was the mighty “Oilifant Battle Tank” with its 105mm quick firing gun that can be utilised while on the move.
Finally we got to the airborne section of the display, an Oryx helicopter arrived displaying fire fighting techniques utilising the bambi bucket. The mini battle was about to begin, once again pathfinders were inserted by parachute deployed from an Oryx helicopter.
Area around Roodewal suddenly became very loud with a two on one simulated air battle between two 2 Squadron Gripen fighter against a single Hawk fighter trainer, not exactly a fair fight, the Gripens soon illuminated the Hawk, the three aircraft then joined up for a formation flypast.
The next part of the capability was a simulated downing of an aircraft, the first teams to respond was a formation of two Agusta 109 helicopters to search for the downed aircraft. Once the aircraft was located members from the Elite 500 Squadron were deployed from two Oryx helicopters. All of this took place under “top-cover” provided by a Rooivalk Attack Helicopter.
Once the troops were on the ground a team prepared the injured airmen for evacuation while the rest of the forces protected them by engaging the enemy. Once the patients were stabilised and ready for evacuation an Oryx was once again called in to stretcher lift the badly injured airman while the not so badly injured crew member was evacuated by means of a sling hoist into an A109.
The 500 squadron members were then evacuated by means of a long rope which they attach themselves to and are then airlifted out of the danger area, the remainder of the troops were evacuated by a landing Oryx helicopter.
44 Squadron were the next to wow the large crowd with a simulated cargo drop of four pallets, despatched by 101 Air Supply unit from a CASA 212. Each pallet is safely brought down to the ground with its own round parachute.
The air above Roodewal once again filled with “The Sound of Freedom” as the four Hawk lead-in fighters approached from behind the crowd for a bombing run, the Hawks were led by Maj Mandisa “Comet” Mfeka. The Hawks were armed with four Mk 81 150kg bombs which were released from above and behind the crowd and impact down the centre of the range at “Charlie Coke” about 1000 meters away from the viewing area.
After the bombing run the ground troops advance on the softened enemy with a host of artillery and mechanised weapons. Once the Hawks had successfully dropped their bombs the Gripens were also called in for a bombing run on the same target.
The Hawk formation were then called in to do a cannon strafing run with their 30mm cannons, they attacked the area just in front of the ground forces, their position was marked with yellow smoke. Following them was the Gripen fighters also with a cannon strafing run.
A Rooivalk AH2 was then called in to the attack with its 70 mm Rockets once the rocket attack was completed the Rooivalk approached for a gun-run but unfortunately the gun had a blockage after an unsuccessful attempt to clear the blockage the Rooivalk had to retreat. Followed by all the mechanised infantry units that were deployed.
That brought to and end the daylight portion of the demonstration, everyone was then invited to enjoy a delicious meal prepared by the military catering corps. This break offered the guests time to interact with the military members before returning to their seats for a spectacular night display.
The evening demonstration got off to a flying start with a cannon display by the mighty Rooivalk, this state of the art helicopter uses a 20mm chin mounted cannon that is controlled by the helmet sighting equipment of the gunner on-board. The gun-run was then followed by a rocket launch and a flare deployment.
All Hell then broke loose with the SA Army shooting with all their assets from their mechanised artillery to mortar fire. Air defence Artillery fire was also demonstrated utilising both the 35mm and 23mm Bosvark anti-aircraft vehicles. The fire went on for several minutes illuminated by 82mm illumination mortars. The order was then given to cease fire, giving the multiple rocket launcher an opportunity to display its brutal fire power.
Once the airspace was declared safe a Gripen fighter entered the area performing a high speed upper-charlie and simultaneously deploying flares. The demonstration was closed off with a multiple flare drop by an Oryx Helicopter followed by the detonation of a massive wall of fire.