Kmdt. Willem Ratte’s military career PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 19 October 2010 21:12

From 32 Battalion Forum

An interesting background to Willem Ratte one of South Africa’s elite special forces commanders.


Soldier in Rhodesia

Willem RatteUnlike in South Africa, which was still relatively peaceful and prosperous at this time, a bloody war to the bitter end was raging in Rhodesia, its north-eastern neighbour. Willem did not tell his family of his plans. He told them he was going to settle in Johannesburg, but instead he travelled to Salisbury, the Rhodesian capital, and joined the Rhodesian army as a volunteer. Only after his application had been accepted did he phone his parents in Windhoek to inform them of his latest career plans. In the following years, Willem Ratte attended the NCO training course of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) with great success, which resulted in his being transferred to the elite unit Special Air Service (SAS). In this new capacity, he carried out special assignments as a paratrooper. War in Africa, especially the Rhodesian war, can in no way be compared to military confrontations in Europe. Whereas European military actions are characterised primarily by military units occupying opposing positions and by large-scale confrontations over vast areas, in an African bush war it is the soldier personally that matters. Of such a nature were the assignments given to special soldier Ratte. Acting in small units, usually comprising only a few men, their objective was to spy out enemy bases, destroy them and eliminate the enemy. That was the task for which he had been trained and which had been drilled into him. However, there were also enemies that could not be fought with knives or an R1: extremely arduous terrain, the virtually impenetrable bush with its obstinate thorn trees, thirst, unspeakable heat even at night, malaria and bilharzia - not to mention a veritable army of venomous snakes, scorpions, lice and the “big five”: rhinoceroses, elephants, buffaloes, lions and leopards. And on top of all that, a pack of at least 40 kilos on your back at all times. Nor was it only in actual conflicts that one might have to spill one’s blood. The despicable lengths to which the terrorist went are illustrated by a “civil” act - one of an endless list of such cases - which almost cost NCO Ratte his life. Together with Ben van der Merwe, Willem wanted to visit a friend in Samabula. The two men met on a farm and got into their armoured Jeep. The vehicle had hardly moved off when it tripped a land-mine, which completely ripped apart the front third of the Jeep. It was an absolute miracle that the two friends escaped unscathed. As the terrorists kept invading Rhodesia from Mozambique to plant mines and attack farms, special cross-border raids were frequently undertaken. In these years, Willem acted under the pseudonym Willum Butler. In the commemorative book on the Rhodesian SAS we read the following about “Operation Inhibit”, which took place on 17 December 1978: “They were now desperately short of water. They had been unable to find any on their long march, and what little remained in their water bottles was very precious indeed. They knew that they would have a real problem if they didn’t find water soon. Lieutenant Rich Stannard, his 2 IC, Sergeant Billy Gardner, and the main body of men were to form the killer/ambush group, with Sergeant Dale O’Mulligan and his partner in one early morning group ... and Sergeant Willum Butler and his partner in the other. The early warnings took up their positions either side of the main ambush group, and Sergeant O’Mulligan had no sooner dropped his pack and settled down to await ZANLA vehicles than his partner whispered that there were civilians approaching. As he looked up, he could see a group of kitted-up ZANLA men sauntering into sight along the rail line. He quickly passed the news to the mission commander, then counted forty terrorists strung out along the rail track. The SAS callsign, caught completely unawares by the walking ZANLA men, watched in the bushes in amazement - and let them walk by. The new SAS lieutenant knew he had blown it. Rich Stannard cursed himself but knew it would be no use explaining he simply had not been expecting ZANLA pedestrians. He knew his mistake would neither be forgiven nor forgotten. How could he have let such an opportunity pass?” But most of the time Willum, like a good “butler”, served. As a member of the special task force, he served the terrorists what they deserved. In recognition of his outstanding actions, Willum later received the Rhodesian decoration for bravery and continuous performance, the “Wings on Chest”. In 1976 the elite soldier was seriously wounded during an attack on a terrorist camp in Mozambique. One bullet hit him in the right thigh and the other in the left shin, so that he had to be evacuated to the field hospital in Salisbury. During his convalescence, his friendship with a young woman by the name of Aletta de Clerq - who had been one of his and his friend Johan Joubert’s acquaintances for some time - grew further. She is an Afrikaans-speaking Rhodesian, of Huguenot lineage, who was employed by a Salisbury bank at the time and often served in the police reserve as a “Woman Field Reservist” in her free time. Some years later, she was to become his wife, and would bear him two sons and two daughters. To this day, their friends still call Aletta Zaanzie.
Willem recovered completely; scars are all that remains from his wounds. As soon as he had regained his health, he rejoined his unit. His career as a soldier was his life - he was the genuine born soldier. The Rhodesian war was lost, for reasons that need not be discussed here. Suffice to say that one essential aspect of the defeat was a factor he was to be confronted with again and again during his life: treason. What was important at this stage was that although the war was lost, NCO Ratte’s military career was by no means over. On the contrary; the past six years had equipped Willem Ratte with an almost unsurpassable military training honed to perfection by intensive experience. He now wished to make this knowledge and expertise available to his home country, where things were by no means as peaceful as they had been.

32 Battalion

32 BattalionIn 1979, shortly before Rhodesia’s so-called “independence”, Willem Ratte left the SAS, returned to South Africa and promptly joined the South African Defence Force. It is not surprising that the South African army was aware of Willem Ratte’s abilities as a soldier. He was promoted to lieutenant and immediately assigned to the elite South African unit, 32 Battalion. This combat unit, led by Colonel Deon Ferreira - with whom Willem Ratte got along excellently - was the South African defence force unit that was used the most, and with the greatest success by far, during the entire battle for South West Africa and in Angola. The battalion consisted entirely of Angolans who had been driven out of their country and were fighting against the communist government’s troops.
In this military unit, Lieutenant Ratte advanced to officer in command of the select reconnaissance group. In accordance with the aims of this unit, the primary task of Lieutenant Ratte and his men was to find and destroy SWAPO bases. And this -seen from the perspective of the communist terrorists - he succeeded in doing frightfully well. Under Willem Ratte’s leadership, this unit within 32 Battalion became not only one of the best known, but also one of the most feared South African combat forces - at least amongst the enemy. In 1984, Lieutenant Ratte was promoted to captain and acting commander of 1 South West African Salvage regiment. Unfortunately he could not get along with his superior officer, Commandant Willie Snyman, who was given to excessive use of alcohol. After only six months, therefore, Captain Ratte left this unit and had himself transferred to Nepara in the Kavango, where he designed the Spiderweb plan and put it into effect. At this stage, the land-mine war was causing untold suffering in the border area between South Africa and Angola. Willem Ratte was given charge of a special project in the northern province of Kavango which was as clear as it was laudable: clean up and give humanitarian assistance. Within a very brief span of time he succeeded in establishing settlements for the sorely tried natives and putting these under his protection, thus ensuring their peace. None of his protegees were killed while they were in his charge. Once again, there was food, and during this period the children in particular were able to forget the horrors of war. In 1985, Captain Ratte was promoted to major. In 1987 Major Ratte was transferred to the Quando River in the Caprivi, where he now trained UNITA soldiers. For a while he served here under Colonel Jan Breytenbach, who was to publicly slander him as “naive and dubious” almost ten years later. However, with Colonel Breytenbach’s successor, Colonel Bert Sachser, Major Ratte got along very well indeed, with the result that a large number of Angolans were enabled to cross the border and to go and fight for Angola armed with thorough knowledge. Major Ratte was filled with a sense of mission in that he wanted to give as many blacks as possible an excellent military training. He therefore worked day and night in the firm conviction that he had to train a strong force against the constantly expanding communism and terrorism. He never spared himself, and as a result he once made an error with serious consequences during a training session on land-mines. Major Ratte was giving a demonstration lecture on anti-personnel mines and was explaining the construction, operation and effect of mines. In order to show his class how to deal with this dangerous device, he began to dismantle it. When he had screwed out the detonator, the over-exhausted front-line officer’s concentration lapsed for a fraction of a second, and a careless manipulation caused the detonator to explode in his hand - blowing off the front part of his right thumb and one finger.
Two years later he was transferred to the 5 Salvage Unit of the South African Defence Force. In March 1989, about the time when the UNTAG politics in South West Africa began which forced the South African Defence Force to withdraw and hand over the power to Swapo, Major Ratte set up the Ombili Foundation. His friend from the days of 32 Battalion, Dawid van der Merwe, gave him his untiring assistance. This unique humanitarian project, a caring foundation to protect the rights of the Bushmen, came into being north of Tsumeb, on the farm “Hedwigslust” belonging to Klaus Mais and his wife Beate. It must be remembered that the Bushmen are a people in their own right, who have had the misfortune to be exploited as slaves by more powerful tribes time and again. Moreover, their living space is increasingly being threatened and destroyed by industrialisation, urbanisation and tourism. The fact that these last remaining original inhabitants of southern Africa are able to maintain their unique way of life and can survive to this day is due not in the last instance to Willem Ratte’s efforts. Furthermore, especially after the withdrawal of the South African forces, South West African idealists came forward and declared themselves willing to support and expand the project. After the death of Klaus Mais, one of the founders, his wife continued the work. Besides horticulture, agriculture and stock farming, the Bushmen’s time is occupied mainly by small jobs, craft work and needlework. Most of the completed products are sold abroad, and the Bushmen use the proceeds to buy mainly sugar, soap, tallow, tea, coffee and tobacco. "The hand-made articles", says a pamphlet published by the Ombili Foundation, "take much more time and effort than is generally realised. In the case of baskets, for instance, the palm leaves must first be gathered and worked. As they have a different conception of time than we do and do not live such a hurried life, the Bushmen need days and weeks for preparation and manufacture." This foundation was made possible by, amongst others, generous financial assistance from Germany, including donations by private German individuals and organisations, such as the Förderungsgesellschaft Afrika, the Verein Hilfe zur Selbsthilfe, the Dutsch-Namibische Entwicklungsgesellschaft and the entrepreneur Gerd Brülle, die Ressle couple in Bavaria and the Schwarz family in Heilbronn, to mention but a few. The Ombili Foundation is one of the few internationally recognised African human rights institutions that really safeguard the life and existence of threatened people and has not allowed itself to be taken over and misused by political interest groups. In 1990, Willem Ratte was promoted to commandant. The political tide was turning. The South African troops had to withdraw from South West Africa. For the next year and a half he was stationed first at Phalaborwa, then in Queenstown, his last garrison.