This year Armed Forces Week was held in Durban in the build up to Armed Forces Day which was commemorated on the 21st of February. For just over a week Durban came alive with the sights and sounds of military activity. It seemed as if the whole of Durban was in the midst of a war zone!
The date 21 February was proclaimed by the President in 2012 and was chosen to coincide with the sinking of the SS Mendi with the loss of 646 people, the vast majority being black South African troops. This accident happened off the Isle of Wight when the Mendi was hit by a cargo ship the Darro. This year commemorated the 100th year since the tragedy. In his speech, President Zuma paid tribute to the men that were lost.
This is the fifth year that SA Defence Day has been held. Last year it was held in Port Elizabeth and prior to that it was held in Gauteng, the Free State and the North-West Province. Overall command of the event is rotated and this year it was the turn of the Army with the chief executor being Lieutenant General Lindile Yam on behalf of the Chief of the SANDF General Solly Shoke. It is estimated that there were up to 6000 people taking part in the events over the course of the week. In addition, there was an impressive array of hardware.
The objective of the exercise was to educate and to create awareness with the public about the South African National Defence Force, its role, function and capabilities. Another aim was to inspire the youth to join up and make a career in one of the branches of the military. The Fan Park and Naval base were free to visit, as were all the displays performed throughout the week. At both venues, the public was able to get up close to ships, tanks and guns etc.
One of the big challenges for the week was Durban's unpredictable weather. Up to and including Saturday the 18th Durban was extremely hot and very humid. On Sunday, this began to change and on Monday and Tuesday it was a lot cooler but the rain, low cloud and wind played havoc with the flying programme. The balance of the activities continued as scheduled and on Defence Force Day a fine display was put on at Moses Mabhiba stadium. Troops marched, bands played and there was a massive motorcade and flypast with President Zuma in attendance. Only the jets did not fly due to the inclement weather. After the mechanised parade, everything moved to Blue Lagoon for the Joint Capability Demonstration.
The build-up commenced well before the event with the movement of men and machines into the province. Official proceedings commenced with the opening of the fan park on Thursday 16thFebruary.
Due to the nature of such a massive event, the deployment covered a large area of greater Durban. The Gripen and Hawk jets, a CASA and the C-130 Hercules aircraft were based at King Shaka International Airport.
The Rooivalk, Oryx, A-109 and BK117 helicopters were based at 15 Squadron base at the old Durban International Airport. Virginia Airport hosted the Silver Falcons, 2 x King Airs, a PC12, a CASA and the Air Force Museum Puma.
The Fan Park, with a wide array of exhibits was located on the old Durban Drive-In site. Over the road, on the old Natal Command site, a tent town had sprung up to house many of the participants.
The Naval vessels were located next to the NSRI on the north side of the harbour. Frigate SAS Spioenkop (Frigate F147). SAS Drakensberg (Fleet Replenishment Vessel), SAS Protea (Hydrographic Survey Vessel), SAS Queen Modjadji (Submarine) and SAS Galeshwe (Offshore Patrol Vessel). In addition, there were smaller craft including two landing craft.
On Thursday afternoon at 15h00, the first rehearsal of the Capability Demonstration was held at New Beach, Durban. This exercise was all action; with troops being put onto the beach after the area was prepared by strikes from the Rooivalk, Hawks and Gripens.
The men abseiled onto the beach from two Oryx helicopters. The Gooderson Beach Hotel became part of proceedings and the roof was used to land and extract troops using Oryx, BK117 and A-109 helicopters.
There were massed helicopter formations, para drops, SAAF Gripens and Hawks and a mass fly past of all aircraft.
The following morning at 10h00 the same Capability Display rehearsal was held at New Beach.
That afternoon at 15h00 saw the Ceremonial Flypast Timing Run that involved all the SAAF aircraft.
On Saturday morning, the actual Capability Display took place at 10h00 in front of a large crowd who were treated to non-stop action. Explosions, fixed wing aircraft helicopters all over the sky, beach landings and landings on the pier and Beach Hotel.
In the afternoon at 15h00 there was a further Ceremonial Flypast Timing Run.
At 19h00 there was a military music evening at the City Hall.
Sunday was a rest day as the weather was overcast and damp. The Silver Falcons did fly but nothing else was possible and the SAAF rehearsal was cancelled due to the weather.
Monday afternoon saw the rehearsal of the night firing exercise. The was a barrage of military guns that fired an impressive array or ordnance out to sea. They had to operate in rainy and windy conditions.
At 19h30 that night, the Night Firing Demonstration was held for the public.
Despite the conditions a big crowd made the effort to get down to Blue Lagoon. The traffic was severe as the M4 was closed for the duration and people were allowed to stand on Connaught Bridge to watch proceedings.
After the impressive shooting of the variety of guns there was a spectacular wall of fire to end proceedings.
When Tuesday the 21st dawned for Armed Forces Day, it was soon apparent that the break in the weather would not be happening. If anything, the rain was heavier and steadier than the day before. It was going to be a wet weather finale. The Presidential parade commenced at 10h00 with troops and bands marching past the President Zuma's dais, which was situated on the eastern side of Moses Mabhida Stadium.
The troops were followed by an impressive mechanised column of military vehicles that moved from North to South down Masabalala Yengwa Avenue (formerly NMR Avenue.)
SAAF aircraft flew above the parade to add to the spectacle.
After the parade the focus moved to Blue Lagoon for the final highlight a Capability Demonstration at Blue Lagoon. The president was again in attendance along with numerous VIP guests. The rain was heavier than ever but a big crowd gathered to witness proceedings. The jets were unable to fly and the Falcons only flew one aircraft due to the conditions but otherwise the event went as scheduled. For the first time the Frigate SAS Spioenkop joined in and was the centre of simulated boarding from an Oryx and extraction of troops after the ship was secured.
Fourteen helicopters flew in formation, the Oryxs landed troops, the Rooivalks did mock attacks with explosives synchronised to explode on the beach.
Landings on the building were switched from the Beach Hotel to the top of the Malgrove flats due to the new venue.
Despite the weather hardships, the displays went off largely as planned with the exception of the SAAF Gripens and Hawks being unable to fly on the last two days. The low cloud ceilings and poor visibility made it prudent to keep them on the ground. Events all were conducted safely and as planned.
It should be mentioned that three Navy personnel and three contractors died from methane gas poisoning at the naval base but this was not part of Defence Week as such. Despite this President Zuma paid tribute to the men during his speech.
All in all, Defence Week was an exhilarating and impressive demonstration of what the South African Armed Forces are capable of. Can't wait for the next one!