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South African Irish Regiment

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Commanding Officer: Lt Col M Bennet

Regimental Sergeant Major:

Kensington Garrison, 128 Langerman Drive, Kensington, Johannesburg

Administration night: Tuesdays from 18h00

Short History

The South African Irish Regiment was founded during September 1914.  Prior to this, however, a number of Irish regiments of the British Army had seen service in South Africa, starting in 1795 with the 86th Regiment of Foot (later to become the Royal Irish Rifles and thereafter to be reconstituted as the Royal Ulster Rifles, with whom the South African Irish Regiment was affiliated in 1949).

During the latter half of the 18th century the Irish military tradition was continued in South Africa by the formation of the Cape Town Irish Volunteer Rifles in 1885 and who are recognised as the first predecessor of the South African Irish Regiment, in so far as it was the first Indigenous South African unit with a distinctive ethnic Irish component (It is interesting to note that this regiment had the same motto as the South African Irish Regiment; "Faugh A Ballagh" - Clear The Way). Other Cape regiments had Irish components within their strengths usually companies that were referred to as the "Irish companies" namely:
Cape Town Rifles (The Dukes) - H Company
Prince Alfred's Guard - C Company

During the Anglo - Boer War, 1899 - 1902, the Driscoll Scouts, a second predecessor to this Regiment was formed to fight on the British side. This unit comprised some 500 Irish men of all ranks and saw action at the siege of Wepener and operations in the Lindley and Fouriesburg districts. During this same conflict and resulting from opposition to Britain from Irish and American Catholics, the "Irish Brigade" was formed and fought on the Boer side, seeing action at Modderspruit, Nicholsonsnek and Colenso.

At the outbreak of World War 1 in August 1914, three Officers met at the Irish Club in Johannesburg with the view to raising an Irish Regiment from amongst the citizens of Johannesburg. These Officers were Lt Col F.H. Brennen VD, Maj G. Twomey and Capt J. Jeoffreys DCM. Resulting from this meeting, and a subsequent request to Defence Headquarters to form a Regiment, authority was granted by Defence Headquarters for the formation of the South African Irish Regiment and Lt. Col Brennan was appointed as Commanding Officer.  The Regiment saw action against the Germans in South West Africa under General Botha and in German East Africa under General Smuts. At the outbreak of World War II the Regiment was remobilised, trained at Barberton to form, together with 2nd Regiment Botha, 3 Bn Transvaal Scottish and 3 Coy, Regiment President Steyn, the 5 SA Infantry Brigade. The Regiment saw action: in the East African Campaign before moving to North Africa for service; in the Western Desert during the Crusader Campaign. During this Campaign on Sunday, 23rd November 1941 the Regiment took part in the Battle of Sidi Rezegh.

During this Battle (know to the Germans as "Totensonntag") the entire 5th Brigade was decimated by Rommel's Afrika Korps. The Brigade sustained nearly 3,400 casualties, the majority of them prisoners. The Regiment lost over 400 men, including 32 dead, who lie today in Knightsbridge War Cemetery near Acroma, Libya. In remembrance of these men the Regiment wears a knot in their lanyard. A further 13 men died when the prisoner of war ship, carrying the surviving prisoners to Italy was mistakenly torpedoed by an allied submarine. Annually a Drumhead commemoration service is held to remember those who were lost during that and other battles. As a result of the grievous losses the Regiment was deactivated. Some of the survivors were posted back to South Africa to join other units, but many were posted to 11 Battery, 4 South African Field Regiment. Know as the "Irish Battery", with shamrocks painted on their 25 pounder gun barrels, these Irish fought on through the North African and Italian campaigns with 6 Division.

In April 1946 the Regiment was reformed as the 22nd Field Regiment, SAA (SA IRISH) and remained as an Artillery Regiment until January 1960 when it reverted to an Infantry Regiment. (The Regiment acknowledges this period of service by wearing an Artillery button on the left cuff of their tunics)

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

The period from 1974 to 1988 saw the Regiment being part of 72 Motorised Brigade and being re-established as a conventional force. 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; and 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 because 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 1Oth 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 completed township unrest camps as well as training exercises at the Army Battle School.

SA Irish Colours

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No unit values any of its ossessions more than it does its Colour - the symbol of its history and tradition - the record of its fiercest battles and bloodiest moments.

The Regiment received its Colours from the State President, Mr JJ Fouche, on 23 November 1968 together with the following Battle honours:

South West African 1914-15

East Africa 1940-41


Western Desert 1941-43

Sidi Rezegh

 In the old days the colour was carried into battle and indicated the position of the commander on the battlefield.  Whilst the colour flew, the fight continued and consequently it became the rallying point and often the place where the fiercest fuighting occurred, as the men defended their Colour to the bitter end.

The veneration accorded the Colour stems from those early times and, although the Colour is no longer carried into battle, it is accorded the same respect by all who see it unfurled.

The Colour of the South African Irish Regiment comprises a field of rifle green, common to all South African Infantry units, with fringes, cords and tassles of black and silver.  The black colour is complementary to the rifle green, these being the  infantry colours, whilst the silver is complementary to the metal badges and buttons worn by the unit.

The centre piece of the COlour is the harp emblem which forms the unit badge surmounting the regimental motto "Faugh a Ballagh" which is loosely, but best, translated from Gaelic as "Clear the Way".

The central emblem and motto are framed by an open wreath which symbolises the Irish origin and South African entity of the Regiment and depicts, with clarity, the mane of the Unit whoch is unique in having the words "South African"  as part thereof.

Below the wreath are emblazoned the battle of Sidi Rezegh, at which the unit was decimated.  Survivors were posted to other units and the South African Irish did not have the opportunity of participating in other battles of the Second World War.

The Springbok, which surmounts the pikestaff, is the South African Infanrty Corps symbol.  Below it, affixed to the pikestaff, is a miniature artillery badge which commemorates  the 14 years which tthe unit served as the 22 Field Regiment in the immediate post war period.

Thuis is the first Regimental Colour which was presented to the unit, and it was purchased from contributions made by the present and past serving members, as a tribute to the past members who actively participated in gaining for the unit the  Battle Honours of which we are so proud.  In particular it is a small token of the great respect and appreciation we owe to those who fell, whilst members of this unit, in the service of our country.

SA Irish Regimental Pipes & Drums

The Regiment maintains an active Pipe Band of some 24 members under Pipe Major Craig Herwill.The S A Irish Pipes & Drums, as the band is known today, has its roots in a time long, long before our own.

It is a fascinating history, which uncovers not just the military origins of the band, but which also tells of the birth of the Irish warpipe, the evolution of the instrument and the role it has played in Irish life and militia over the centuries.

As for today's band in particular, the story begins in 1939 when the Irish Battalion was formed, under the leadership of Pipe Major Fred ('Pipey') Symons. The Regimental Pipe Band was dissolved in 1942, following the de-activation of the Irish Regiment in South Africa. At the end of the war, P/M Symons assumed the same leading role in the Irish Association Pipe Band. 'Pipey' Symons has, on many occasion, been described as "a gentleman in every sense of the word". He was also an outstanding instructor, and some of his most accomplished pupils are Pipe Majors and leading pipers in South Africa today. P/M Symons was a driving force in the re-emergence of the Regimental Pipe Band In 1977. Two bands henceforth existed within the compass of the Irish regiment, comprising musicians of both the Association and the Regiment. Other figures who played a prominent role in the consolidation of the Regiment's bands were Drum Majors David Marx and Alfred Haswell. Both had served in the band of the World War II Battalion.

D/M Marx manifested his soldierly qualities at the Regimental Pipe Band's first parade, which was at the Royal Scottish Gathering, in Johannesburg in 1978. During the event, as the band played a variety of tunes, they suddenly found themselves being jeered by the crowd and bombarded with cans and other missiles. Mr Marx never wavered for a moment, and led the band away. It later transpired that the band had played "The Sash"; a tune specifically associated with the Protestant Orange faction in Northern Ireland. Unwittingly they had sparked off sectarian hostility in the crowd. Today, both the "Wearing of the Green" and "The Sash" are played together, to ensure impartiality in such matters!

The Pipe Bands of the S A Irish Regiment are unique among pipe bands in South Africa today, insofar as they only ever been under the command of three Pipe Majors: Pipe Majors Symons; Mulinder and Herwill. Pipe Major Craig Herwill still leads the Band today. The Regimental march is based on two tunes: "South Down Militia" and the "Wearing of the Green". It is sometimes assumed that Killaloe is the Regimental march but this is not actually the case, although it is a tune that has been played more successfully by the bands over the years, having first been played at the Barberton Ceremony of 1972.

Today, the band plays a significant role as a military and ceremonial instrument and adds its distinctive look and sound to special commemorations of events like The Battle of Sidi Rezeigh and Armistice Day.It also appears at less formal occasions, and plays an important part at St Patrick's Day celebrations and the like.  The S A Irish Pipes and Drums is also a formidable competition band, having won most of the pipe band competitions in which it participated in 2001, and having been awarded Champion of Champions in it's grade for that year. 2002 sees the band promoted to Grade 3, and stronger in numbers, commitment and enthusiasm than in many years previously. It seems that, as Guardians of the Irish Spirit, there's just no putting them down

Sidi Rezegh, The 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, they called this day the fiercest battle of the entire campaign, and referred to it as "Totensonntag", the Sunday of the Dead.

SA Irish Regimental Piper - Tops at the Royal Scottish Gathering 2004

Clement Zvikonyo, a piper of the South African Irish Regiment Pipes and Drums walked away with the top prize at the 72nd Royal Scottish Gathering 2004, held at Parktown Boy's High Johannesburg.

2004 has proved to be his best year for his piping career so far.  Clement is currently learning and catching up on the piping front and putting in a bit of work towards a great and fun filled 2005 piping wise.

Clement started learning the bagpipes in 1989, his first year at high school at Churchill Boys High School in Harare, Zimbabwe. His tutor was Kevin Macintosh. Cyril Hall supported the band at their workshops, solo competition etc.
Murray Henderson, multiple world champion piper, held some workshops at Churchill and Clement attended. He still has his autograph at home.
Clement unfortunately missed the School band tour to Scotland 1988 as he only went to Churchill in 1989. But he benefited from the enthusiasm and experience the band gained from that tour. Clement was never really good at sports, rugby and soccer were held in very high esteem by the schools then. The next best activity that was highly sought after, was the Pipe Band and he quickly signed up.

Clement made a number of trips to South Africa for competitions and the Durban Tattoo during his school years.  He would play at solo competitions at ever opportunity and managed to win some medals at the RSG (Royal Scottish Gathering and the South Coast Gathering.

After school he did a brief stint with a senior band in Harare (which was the only band apart from Churchill in Harare) made up of many bandsman from the old Northlea and Churchill.

After moving to South Africa in the late 1990s, Clement purchased a set of bagpipes from Chris Mulinder in early 2001.  Shortly thereafter he joined the South African Irish Regimental Pipes and Drums.

In 2002 he restarted solo piping and to date has played at most competitions including the East Rand Gathering, 100 Guineas, PBSA (Pipe Band Association of South Africa) competitions etc.

Some of the medals that he has won were from 1993 (South Coast Highland Gathering) Silver for Strathspey and Reel. His first trophy was at the RSG 2002 where he won the following medals: Gold for jig & hornpipe (and the subsequent trophy), Silvers for MSR, and Strathspey & Reel and a Bronze for the March.

2004 has proved to be his best year for his piping career so far. The highlights are as follows:

  •  He started giving beginner tuition for pipiing and has two regular students.
  •  He started giving beginner tuition for piping and has two regular students
  •  His debut stint as a piping judge at the KES Juvenile individuals
  •  RSG Championship in the individual contest took 5 trophies:

 The Major Bennet Gass Trophy  -  Open Marches
 The Lawrie Shield  -  Best Military Piper
 The John Morrison MacDonald Memorial Trophy  -  Confined Piobraichead
 The Distillers Company Trophy  - R.S.G Champion Piper
 The Challenge Shield

  • His photo appeared on the front cover of the Piping Times of Scotland, which has a circulation of 10,000 throughout the world of piping. The title of the edition was "CROSSING CONTINENTS".  In fact, when the Royal Irish Regimental Bugles, Pipes and Drums 2nd Battalion visited South Africa last month, they all wanted to meet Clement having read the article in the magazine.
  • Clement appeared in the local Bedfordview Edenvale News
  • Clement was featured in a special edition of the SA Irish Regimental Association newsletter
  • He passed his Department of Defence evaluation for principal musician
  • He played with the Royal Irish Regimental Bugles, Pipes and Drums 2nd Battalion at the British High Commission for the Beating Retreat ceremony
  • He played with the 3rd best piper in the world, who is a member of the Field Marshal Band and The Royal Irish Regimental Bugles, Pipes and Drums 2nd Battalion. aged 17.

Clement is currently learning and catching up on the piping front and putting in a bit of work towards a great and fun filled 2005 piping wise. The South African Irish Regimental Pipes and Drums have been invited to the Edinburgh Tattoo in 2005.

It is very interesting to note in the editorial of "Piping Times", they state 'a glance at the prize lists at last month's World Championships shows a mini crisis in the cradle of piping civilisation. Northern Ireland, not Scotland, has become the dominant nation in the pipe band world...'

We salute Clement and his fellow members of the South African Irish Regimental Pipes and Drums and wish them well for their tour to Scotland next year showing the world how great the South African Irish Regimental Pipes and Drums are!

Lt Col Godfrey Giles

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