Military heraldry
November 2006 / November 2013

Military heraldry

IN its broadest sense, the heraldry used by the military forces in South Africa includes a variety of items, not all of which are strictly armorial. They include arm-of-service emblems, Colours, helmet flashes, ships' badges, tartans, and unit coats of arms.

South African military heraldry dates from the 17th century. The modern system was developed by the SA (National) Defence Force from the 1920s onwards. The SADF system was also adopted by the now-defunct homeland defence forces and the SW Africa Territory Force.

Pre-Union forces

There are a few examples of early military heraldry during the colonial era preceding the Union of South Africa in 1910.

Cape of Good Hope — The Dutch garrison, established in 1652, had a colour / standard by 1662. The first militia unit was presented with a blue silk standard in 1664, and later units received different coloured standards. They may have borne designs – certainly the green standard approved for the Free Corps in 1787 did. It depicted a sword-wielding hand emerging from a cloud, with the motto 'Pro patria'. This device seems to have been used in several armies at that time.

Two items of silverware from the 1780s suggest that the militia may have used unit coats of arms. One, with an inscription referring to the Burgher Artillery, displays an oval crowned shield depicting a hand holding a sword. The other is a gorget, made for Ensign Nicolaas von Wielligh in 1788, which displays a rococo shield bearing the figure of Hope.

Zululand — The Zulu kingdom, which existed as a state from c1816 to 1879, had a proto-heraldic system of identifying individual military units (amabutho). Its equipment included almond-shaped oxhide shields, whose colours indicated the relative seniority and battle experience of units. Newly formed units' shields were dark, but as they gained experience over the years, lighter patches were added to create a pied pattern - the lighter the shield surface, the greater the experience and seniority. The king, as supreme commander, bore a shield that was entirely white.

SA (National) Defence Force

The Union Defence Forces (later South African Defence Force), were formed in 1912-13 and eventually consisted of the SA Army, SA Air Force, SA Navy, and SA Medical Service, under a central Defence Headquarters.

In 1994, the homeland defence forces and the two 'non-statutory' liberation armies (Azanian People's Liberation Army and Umkhonto weSizwe) were integrated into the SADF, and the organisation was renamed the SA National Defence Force.

Heraldry Sub-Directorate — Until 1954, the management of military heraldry seems to have been rather haphazard.

From c1910 to 1949, the defence forces had access to – but didn't always use – the services of the Inspector of Regimental Colours at the College of Arms, and from 1930 they paid him an annual retainer. From 1949 to 1954, the defence forces used the Chief Archivist, Dr Coenraad Beyers as an heraldic consultant.

Finally, in 1954, the Military Archives, which had been established the previous year, was made responsible for heraldry, and the staff officer in charge, Capt Heinrich du Toit, was trained at the College of Arms. He directed defence force heraldry until his retirement in 1977, and then continued as a consultant.

The heraldry section has moved around the defence force organisation over the years. It moved to military intelligence with Du Toit in 1964, to the quartermaster-general's branch after his retirement in 1977, and to the logistics division in 1989. It currently falls under the defence secretariat.

At one time, the section was called the Central Heraldic Section, but it is now referred to as the Heraldry Sub-Directorate. Evidently, the section comprises a staff officer (currently a lieutenant-colonel) in charge, some artists and, no doubt, some administrative personnel.

Arm-of-service emblems — The SA (National) Defence Force and each of its component services have distinguishing emblems. The SADF emblem, introduced in 1966, depicted crossed swords superimposed on a pair of wings superimposed on an anchor. It was depicted on a background representing the ground plan of the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, and later the emblems of the individual services were placed on similarly shaped devices..

The present emblems were introduced in 2003. The background is now a roundel engrailed of nine points (presumably alluding to the nine provinces), and while the air force and military health service retained their existing devices, the others were given new designs. The SANDF emblem depicts four assegais and two crossed swords behind a pair of bull's horns, alluding to a traditional African battlefield formation.

Some South African military helmet flashes Helmet flashes : Staff - Artillery - Engineers - Signals - Service Corps - Military Police.

Helmet flashes — The practice of wearing coloured cloth patches on the khaki helmet arose in the British and colonial forces during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The Union Defence Forces made it systematic in 1923.

Flashes were standardised as rectangles in arm-of-service colours. Citizen Force units' flashes also indicated the provinces in which they were based.

Helmet flashes became obsolete when helmets were discontinued during World War II, but many of the branch colours and some of the patterns have survived in present-day unit arms, and in the enamelled metal bars which Army personnel wear below their unit badges on their berets.

Shoulder patches — In 1940, the Army introduced green and yellow cloth sleeve patches of different shapes to identify its different combat divisions. The shape identified the formation : diamond (1st SA Division), roundel (2nd SA Division), rectangle (3rd SA Division), and triangle (6th SA Armoured Division). This arrangement was continued in divisional coats of arms in the 1970s.

Homeland defence forces

The Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, Transkei, and Venda homelands had their own small defence forces. They used unit coats of arms, few, if any, of which survived the incorporation of the forces into the SA Army in 1994.

  Homeland forces : BDF Military School - Ciskei Special Forces Unit - 1 Transkei Battalion - Sibasa Military Base.

Bophuthatswana — The Bophuthatswana Defence Force, which existed from 1979 to 1994, had a relatively extensive system of unit arms. BDF HQ and each unit had its own arms, each bearing a simple design. Several featured animal heads and / or BaTswana traditional weapons, e.g. the spear and battle-axe in the Military School arms.. Green and orange (the BDF colours) predominated, sometimes at the expense of the 'rule of tincture'.

Ciskei — The Ciskei Defence Force, which existed from 1981 to 1994, had at least two unit coats of arms. 1 Ciskei Battalion's depicted the CDF's descending eagle emblem. The Special Forces Unit, formed in 1991, had arms depicting a parachute, a dagger, and two crane-bird feathers (a Xhosa symbol of bravery) on a khaki field. These appear to be the only arms to use this colour.

Transkei — The Transkei Defence Force, which existed from 1976 to 1994, had arms for TDF HQ and at least three units. 1 Transkei Battalion's depicted the numeral 1 against the colours of the Transkei flag. The Special Forces' arms depicted a commando dagger. The Mounted Battalion's arms featured a horseshoe.

Venda — The Venda Defence Force existed from 1982 to 1994. It had arms for VDF HQ, the three military bases, and some units. The bases' arms all depicted the VDF elephant head badge, with a chief bearing the name of the base, e.g. Sibasa Military Base.

South West Africa Territory Force

In 1980, SADF units that were based in South West Africa were formed into a SWA Territory Force, which was controlled by the SWA administrator-general. The SWATF ceased to exist in 1989 / 90.

The SWATF inherited the SA Army's system of unit coats of arms, worn as shoulder flashes, but applied its own rules.

  SWATF : Sector 30 - Otjiwarongo AFU - 91 Field Engineer Sqn - Logistics Brigade.

SWATF HQ, each sector HQ, and each brigade had its own arms. Each sector HQ's arms had a principal charge and a chief displaying the SWATF emblem : three diamonds charged with gemsbok heads. The arms of Sector 30, for instance, depicted Fort Namutoni.

Commando ('area force') units within each sector added to their arms a chief bearing the principal charge from the sector HQ's arms. The example shown is the Otjiwarongo AFU arms, depicting a thorn.

Units within 91 SWA Brigade divided their arms per bend, with the brigade arms (a gold lion rampant on light blue) in chief and a unit device, such as 91 Field Engineer Squadron's grenade, in base.

The SWA Logistics Brigade arms depicted two diamonds and an escarbuncle. Units in the brigade placed these charges on a chief on their arms.

Legal protection

SA (National) Defence Force insignia are doubly protected against unauthorised use, in that they are covered by both the Defence Act and heraldry legislation.

Several regimental badges, and defence force sports jersey and badges, were registered under the Protection of Names, Uniforms & Badges Act between 1936 and 1963. The Defence Act 1957, which was brought into operation in 1958, made the unauthorised wearing of SA Defence Force uniforms and insignia an offence punishable by a stiff fine or six months imprisonment. The current Defence Act 2002 has increased the prison term to five years.

When the Heraldry Act was introduced in 1963, SADF insignia, as official emblems, automatically qualified for registration at the Bureau of Heraldry. Registration commenced in 1965.

The registration process differs from that for civilian heraldic representations. When designing a new device, the SANDF heraldry section checks with the Bureau to make sure that the device doesn't duplicate any existing registered design. The section then prepares an art card, containing a colour painting, which is signed off at the various levels of the military chain of command, by the heraldry section, and the National Herald. A copy of the card is deposited at the Bureau and incorporated into the register.

No notices are published in the Government Gazette, and no registration certificate is issued. The only official publication on the subject is a list of units which have registered items over the years.

References :
  • African Military Connection website.
  • Anon; 'BDF 5 years old' in Paratus (Jan 1985).
  • Becker, D.; Yellow Wings (1989).
  • Bid or Buy ('Militaria' category).
  • Bureau of Heraldry; Alphabetical Index to SANDF Heraldic Representations Registered with the Bureau of Heraldry (2000).
  • Calendars, illustrated with unit arms and ships' badges, published by Castrol in the 1980s and '90s.
  • Curson, H.H.; Colours and Honours in South Africa (1948) ; 'Pagri Flashes: 1900-1962' in Africana Notes & News (Dec 1962).
  • Du Toit, A.F.; South Africa's Fighting Ships (1992).
  • Flags of the World.
  • Goosen, J.C.; South Africa's Navy - the First Fifty Years (1972).
  • Heraldry Council Collection (National Library of SA, Cape Town - MSB 662).
  • Keene, J.L.; 'The Scottish Tradition in the SA Army' in Museum Review (June 1990).
  • Maxwell, K.A. & Smith J.M.; SA Air Force Golden Jubilee Souvenir Book (1970).
  • Owen, C.R.; Military Badges and Insignia of Southern Africa (1990).
  • Potgieter, H. & Steenkamp, W.P.; Aircraft of the South African Air Force (1980).
  • SAAF Journal (1948-50).
  • SA Air Force website.
  • SA Military Collectors Society; Omnia Militaria (journal) (1980-89).
  • SA Special Forces League website.
  • Smith, H.H.; Army, Air Force and Naval Colours and Flags in SA (1980) ; Flags of the UDF and of the SADF 1912-93 (SAVA Journal No 2/93) (1993) ; SA Military Colours 1664-26.04.1994 (SAVA Journals Nos 7/98, 8/99, 9/05).
  • Welz, S; Cape Silver and Silversmiths (1976).

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