SA Irish Regiment Theas Afican na hÉireann Reisimint

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A Brief History

The South African Irish Regiment celebrated its centenary on 1 December 2014, having served the Nation with pride, honour and dedication since its first formation in 1914.


The South African Irish Regiment was formed at the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 when three ex British Army officers then resident in Johannesburg met at the Irish Club in Johannesburg in order to propose the raising of an Irish regiment from among the citizens of Johannesburg and its surrounding areas who were of Irish descent.


After a request to The Union Defence Force (UDF) Headquarters, authority was granted to form the regiment and Lieutenant-Colonel Brennan was appointed as its first commanding officer. Major Twomey was appointed as its recruiting officer. The wife of General Louis Botha (a lady of Irish descent with the maiden name of Emmett) was appointed as the regiment's first honorary colonel.


Although the Regiment was raised on  9 September, the battalion’s first official parade, with six companies, formed up at Booysens Camp in Johannesburg on 1st December 1914, being the date it was officially gazetted in the Government press. The 1st of December is thus  generally regarded as the Regiment’s birthday.


After training, the regiment was made part of 4 South African Infantry Brigade (part of the Northern Force) and embarked from Cape Town to the then German South-West Africa on 21 December 1914.


On 25 December 1914 the Force landed at Walvis Bay and went into action immediately. The Regiment itself first came into contact with their German enemy on the following day, barely three months after it was raised.


At the end of the campaign in South-West Africa, Active Citizen Force regiments were by law not permitted to proceed to other theatres of war as such. Special war service units were created to fight in East Africa and Europe. Volunteers from the South African Irish Regiment were formed, together with members of other units, into the composite 9 South African Infantry Regiment. 9 SAI campaigned in East Africa, where it earned the honours Kilimanjaro and East Africa 1916-17.


The SA Irish were formally deactivated on 31 December 1919. On 29 January 1921, at a ceremony in Johannesburg, the regiment was posthumously presented with the King's Colour by Prince Arthur of Connaught, the (then) Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, in recognition of its service in South-West Africa.


At the outbreak of World War II in 1939 the 1st South African Irish Regiment was reactivated through the efforts of Major Twomey, Captains Jeoffreys and Cullinan (the latter was the son of Sir Thomas Cullinan, of diamond fame).


Although the unit was designated as the 1st South African Irish, a second battalion was never raised as the men intended for this second battalion were drafted to the 1st as replacements. In practice, the usual designation for the regiment was thus the South African Irish Regiment.


The South African Irish Regiment initially consisted of a regimental HQ, a Support Company and three infantry companies; a pipe band was added in 1940.


After a period of training, the regiment was mobilized on 16 June 1940 under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel D.I. Somerset. It was grouped together with 2 Regiment Botha and 3 Transvaal Scottish to form the 5th South African Infantry Brigade. In July of the same year, the brigade was shipped to Kenya via the port of Durban to become part of 1st South African Infantry Division.


After concentrating at the town of Gilgil in Kenya, the regiment took part in the invasion of Southern Abyssinia on 1 February 1941, part of the East African Campaign; it distinguished itself during the fighting at El Gumu, Hobok and Banno in early February as well as more famously during the capture of the fortress of Mega on 18 February 1941.


5 Brigade, including the South African Irish, then returned to Kenya and embarked at Mombasa on 18 April heading for the North African theatre. The SAIR reached Suez in Egypt on 1 May and immediately began training for desert warfare.


In November 1941, Operation Crusader, the invasion of Libya and relief of Tobruk, began. 5 South African Infantry Brigade, supported by the Transvaal Horse Artillery Regiment, took part in the bloody fighting at Sidi Rezegh on 23 November 1941.


23 November 1941, an overcast Sunday, ushered in by a cold wind which cut through even the warmest clothing, bringing 'showery rain, with much low cloud throughout the day was a momentous one for the Regiment. At first the day was quiet with sporadic contact with the enemy. In the afternoon, the real storm broke over the Brigade as it was attacked by German armour and supporting infantry. The SA Irish which bore the initial brunt of the attack and its sister units resisted the might of German armoured units in heavy fighting at close range before finally going down in defeat when their ammunition ran out, and the infantry was finally overrun. The bloody fighting at Sidi Rezegh was remembered by the Germans as Totensonndag – “The Sunday of the Dead” in view of the seriousness of their casualties, particularly amongst leader group – which incidentally they also blamed for their inability to finally reach the Nile some weeks later.


As darkness came over the cold and wet desert, the South African Irish had effectively ceased to exist as a unit, The casualties of the South African Irish were extremely heavy (only 140 men of all ranks escaped), including its commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dobbs who was wounded in the early stages of the battle (he was replaced by Major C. McN. Cochran. Major Cochran then led the remnants of the battalion, along with the remaining five guns of 9th Field Battery eastwards towards the lines of the Scottish (these were the only guns in 5 Brigade which were not captured!), in an attempt to escape. In addition, several members of the unit drowned while on their way to Italy by ship as prisoners of war when the ship was torpedoed by an allied submarine.


Initially, survivors of the Regiment served with New Zealand units until the end of November, when they rejoined the remnants of the decimated 5th Brigade at Mersa Matruh. Due to their heavy losses, the South African Irish and 3 Transvaal Scottish ceased to exist as independent infantry units. In February 1942, the survivors of these two battalions joining together to form a composite battalion and it was later re-constituted as 2nd Regiment Botha under command of Lt-Col Boerstra. 2nd Regiment Botha was then further reinforced with replacements coming from the 2nd Witwatersrand Rifles after which, the battalion moved by rail and in New Zealand troop carriers from Mersa Matruh to El Adem. In this form, the remnants of the South African Irish were once again in action during September 1942, during the fighting at El Alamein.


As for the SA Irish Regiment itself,  on return to the Union of South Africa in 1943, it was reconstituted as 4/22 Field Regiment, South African Artillery. In this guise, the Regiment later returned to North Africa as a component of the South African 6th Armoured Division and also took part in the subsequent fighting in Italy.


The regiment received four battle honours for its service during World War II, but they were not awarded immediately because, at the time of the publication of the honours, the unit was an artillery regiment - artillery regiments in the South African Army do not carry any honours. However, when the regiment was later converted back to an infantry unit it became entitled to those honours and they were incorporated into the colour of the regiment.

Post World War 2

At the end of World War II it was requested that the Regiment be reformed as an infantry unit. However, as there was no intention at that time to establish additional Active Citizen Force infantry battalions, this request was refused. However, as a form of compensation, authority was granted for the formation of an artillery unit with the designation of 22 Field Regiment (South African Irish), South African Artillery. This unit was formed in June 1946 and it operated until 31 December 1959 as an artillery regiment. On 1 January 1960 the regiment was converted back to an infantry unit and regained its old nomenclature, the South African Irish Regiment.


The period from 1960 to 1974 saw the Regiment entrenching its traditions as an Infantry Regiment and during this period received the Freedom of the City of Johannesburg (Nov 1966), and it’s Regimental Colours (Nov 68). During this Period the Regiment formed and trained "The Hunter Group", a volunteer special force unit, which was the precursor to the Reconnaissance Regiments.


In 1971 members of the Regiment and Regimental Association started the annual visit or "raid" to Barberton. In 1966 and 1971 the Regiment participated in the 5th and 10th respective anniversaries of the Republic.


The period from 1974 to 1988 saw the Regiment being part of 72 Motorised Brigade and being re-established as a conventional infantry unit. During these years the Regiment saw active duty in Angola during Operations Savannah and Protea as well as undertaking operational duties during the Border war, together with internal security duties within South Africa; as well as exercises at the Army Battle School, e.g. Quicksilver and Thunderchariot. In 1987, the Regiment underwent conversion from a motorised infantry Regiment to a mechanised infantry Regiment.


In 1979 the Regiment was granted the Freedom of entry to the City of Barberton in remembrance of the WW II training period and the frequent "raids" to the town. In 1984 the Regiment, as part of 72 Motorised Brigade, participated in the parade celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Brigade’s Formation.


In 1989, due to the reorganisation of the forces within the conventional force Brigades, the Regiment was transferred to 81 Armoured Brigade. This year was also the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Regiment and this event was celebrated by a battalion parade in Barberton.


During 1991 the Regiment organised the National 50th anniversary of the battle of Sidi Rezegh Parade in Johannesburg. In the same year, due to further restructuring of the conventional forces the Regiment was transferred to Northern Cape Command and reverted to a motorised Infantry Regiment.


During this period the Regiment successfully executed duties in support of the civil authorities in maintaining law and order as well as training exercises at the Army Battle School.

The Regiment since 1994

From 1994 to 1998 the Regiment went through a period of significant decline as the annual intake of national servicemen dried up with the ending of conscription. In 1998, the Regimental muster was only four strong.


In 1999, the Regiment received authority to recruit untrained members directly from the streets, training them on a part time basis. At the completion of internal training, the recruits were then sent to a regular army training establishment for final assessment and evaluation. The success of this approach lead not only to the expansion of the concept, but also the transformation of the Regiment, with not only the first black riflemen entering the ranks, but black Officers and NCO’s joining the unit. During this time, the SA Irish continued it’s tradition of innovative thinking by motivating and facilitating the joint recruitment and training of new volunteers for all the Gauteng based Reserve Force Motorised Infantry Regiments by creating a combined training team centred on Kensington Garrison which provided the critical mass of instructors, administration and equipment to quickly revitalize units who did not have the means to do so themselves.


In addition to the “off the shelf” recruits training, from 2003, SA Irish officers were also a dominant driving force, in conjunction with the SAMHS behind the conceptualization and planning of the URTP (University Reserves Training Programme). The URTP which is now a formal SANDF programme, recruits and selects potential officers directly from Universities and provides part time training up to first commissioning for successful members, and thereby provides a flow of professionals into the ranks of the Reserves and indeed the SANDF.


With regard to training, the regiment has been second to none. In addition to external deployments and its own routine infantry readiness training requirements, 2006 and 2007 saw Regiment tasked with executing conversion training for ex Commando members converting to the conventional reserve following the closure of the Commando units.


The year 2006 also saw the establishment of the distance learning centre, which at that time was the only one in the country. This has since been expanded under the auspices of our current Officer Commanding Lt-Col Marius Bennett and our Honorary Colonel, Colonel Brian Molefe, to include an indoor shooting range which included an R4 and a mortar training system. The Regiment was also given the added responsibility of overseeing the Gauteng South Training Pack, which included the maintenance of Alpha Base.


By 2004, and Regiment had grown back to two companies in strength and a Regimental HQ, the same size it had traditionally been during the 1950s and 1960s. Since 2003, members of the Regiment have been being deployed almost annually on external deployments in support of United Nations and African Union peace operations in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Sudan. At the same time the Regiment reached effective battalion strength for the first time since the end of National Service.


In 2008 the Regiment was rated as the third best Infantry Unit within infantry formation, which is no small achievement if you consider the list of illustrious units that was our competition in this respect. In that same year the SA Irish was also rated the best Reserve Motorised Infantry unit within the Motorised North area.


In 2009 the Regiment provided Infantry Formation with a combat ready mobile force within 4 hours and additional mobile elements within 24 hours during the SANDF strike that year.


During 2013 the Regiment was proud to have participated in Operation Prosper, as our final tribute to our former Commander-in-Chief, Nelson Mandela, as part of his funeral arrangement.


Beyond the routine duties of Reserve Force infantry soldiering, the SA Irish are also tasked with ceremonial duties by the SANDF, both in support of the Defence Force, as well as national Remembrance observances. On parade, the SA Irish are distinctive with their green hackles and green trews for the infantry, whilst the Regimental Pipes and Drums are resplendent in in saffron kilts. Indeed, the Regimental Band has achieved an enviable international reputation having been invited to participate in various international Military Tattoos (Edinburgh Military Tattoo and the Basle Tattoo) as well as the annual domestic Tattoos in Cape Town, Durban and the South African Tattoo at Monte Casino where it has proudly showcased the Regiment, the SANDF and the Nation. The SA Irish Regimental Pipes and Drums are instantly recognizable worldwide in their saffron kilts and green hackles, and have not only made many friends across the globe, but have also created a large international following as an exemplar of South African military culture and Celtic music.


The Regiment Motto of the SA Irish is 'Faugh-A-Ballagh' ('Clear the way'). The original motto of the Regiment in 1914 was that of the Royal Irish Rifles (later the Royal Ulster Rifles), 'Quis Separabit?') ('Who will separate us?'). During World War 2 it changed to 'Faugh-A-Ballagh', which has remained to the present time. The motto echoes the history of the Royal Irish Fusiliers the First Battalion of which was known as the 'Faugh-a-Ballaghs', an honorary title conferred upon them during the Peninsular War (1809-1812).


When it was first formed in 1914, it was raised as an Irish Regiment, but it has evolved since then and today the term “Irish” refers to selfless service and a culture of serving your country and putting your country before yourself. This is an ideal that all members of the SA Irish Regiment have embraced as their ethos under our current Officer commanding, Lt Col. Marius Bennett.


Current role: Motorised infantry.

Current base: Johannesburg (Kensington Garrison)

Regimental March: Killaloe

Motto: Faugh a Ballagh (Clear the Way)

Battle honours:

• South West Africa 1914-15

• East Africa 1940-41

• Mega

• Western Desert 1941-43

• Sidi Rezegh

Article by Maj. I.D. Stins & Lt. D.W. Chambers

The Battle of Sidi Rezegh: Sunday of the Dead

Every year, on the Sunday closest to 23 November, the Regiment holds a drumhead service to commemorate those of its members who fell at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, fought on that day in 1941.

23 November 1941 represented the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical year. In Britain, it was officially the "Sunday next before Advent". In Germany, the day was styled "Totensonntag", (Sunday of the dead). The events, and magnitude of losses suffered, on this day resulted in the Afrika Korps memorialising the battle by this forbidding name. Sunday, November 23, 1941, saw some of the bloodiest fighting of Operation Crusader, the offensive designed to relieve Tobruk, and to throw back the hitherto invincible Afrika Korps.

By the end of that day, the allies had been comprehensively defeated; Panzergruppe Afrika, through superior tactics and leadership was victorious, although stunned by the ferocity of the fighting and the great number of casualties sustained in achieving victory.

During the course of that day, the South African 5th Brigade, of which the SAIR formed part, was overrun and destroyed by German armour. The following graphic account based on an article published in Springbok (November 1957 pp 17-18) describes the events of the battle.

At 3 o' clock, the storm broke on the south-eastern end of the perimeter, defended by the South African Irish, and elements of Regiment Botha. The Germans committed to the attack 110 tanks of the 15th Panzer Division, and 40 tanks of Panzer Regiment 5. In a departure from standard Panzer doctrine, the German tanks charged in waves, with lorried infantry and support weapons moving at the same speed, interspersed with the panzers.

The South African and British forces, opened up with a wall of fire to which the German war diaries eloquently paid tribute, enumerating the weight and accuracy of fire which caused great numbers of casualties amongst the tanks and infantry, decimating the attacking Regiments. The South African gunners stood to their guns, firing at point blank range until either destroyed or out of ammunition, whilst the infantry fought from their rudimentary trenches scraped into the rocky ground, and from wrecked vehicles until their positions were overrun by the German tanks and supporting infantry.

The weight of the German armour could not be withstood once the guns were gone, and like a giant steamroller, the German attack passed through and over the Brigade position. Fighting continued until nightfall, leaving the fires of scores of burning vehicles to provide a fitting funeral pyre for the 5th Brigade, the vast majority (some 3500 men) of whom were either dead, wounded, or now in enemy hands. Indeed, had the formation disintegrated in the fight, losses would have been smaller, given the nature of desert warfare. However, in the tradition of Isandlhwana, Ulundi and Blood River inherited by the South African Army, the 5th Brigade stood, fought, and died in position.

The Germans were stunned by their losses, 70 priceless tanks (together with troop carriers and other vehicles), 5 Regimental or Battalion commanders, as well as most of the leader groups of the attacking units, in addition to large numbers of tank crews and infantry. As a result, the Germans called this day the fiercest battle of the entire campaign, and referred to it as "Totensonntag", the Sunday of the Dead.

By Lt Col. Godfrey Giles, JCD (Ret.)

Read More on the Battle of Sidi Rezegh (PDF - 864KB)


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