Collecting Recce in Militaria

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On the Trail of the South African Special ForcesSpecial forces paratrooper

Month in month out; year in year out… “recce” is consistently one of the most frequently searched terms on bidorbuy. Just think: out of half a million searches (give or take a few) performed on the site over one month, “recce” is usually right there among the top fifty, rubbing shoulders with the latest and the most coveted tech devices.

So, what is recce and why does it hold such fascination for so many bidorbuy visitors?

On bidorbuy, you’ll find recce paraphernalia in the militaria category, spread over several subcategories, such as: badges and insignia, clothing and equipment, books, and war memorabilia. 

Depending on the supply at the time you browse, you are likely to find on bidorbuy “recce” uniforms, tack suits, berets, shoes, belts, cravats, badges, torches, pouches, documents, and so on. All in all, even on a good day, you will probably find less than one hundred listings with the term “recce” in them.
And therein, of course, lies one of the reasons why recce-related items are in such demand among collectors: they are relatively rare.

Other reasons for their popularity stem from the story behind the items. 

The History

Every original recce item listed on bidorbuy once belonged to one of those secretive types who have (or have had) what it takes (and it takes a lot) to become an operator of the South African Special Forces.

These operatives were called the Recces. This is short for the Reconnaissance Commando, the name given to the first special forces unit when it was officially established in Oudshoorn in 1972. Its primary aim was to collect intelligence far behind enemy lines, to execute special operations in the enemy rear and, on occasion, to act as an elite combat element.

The Recces went through several re-organisations. The one in 1993 included a change in the name, from Reconnaissance Regiments to Parachute Brigades, before being finally re-designated as Special Forces Regiments.

Recces were deployed in South African Border War (1966 – 1989) and in other top secret raids into surrounding African countries. After the fall of apartheid the need for special forces did not evaporate. It is said that they were used in 1995 to deal with the violence that shadowed South Africa's transition to democracy. Since the 1994 democratic elections, the operators of the South African Special Forces were, among other assignments, deployed in the Central African Republic during the South African military assistance to that country, in Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of the United Nations’ Stabilisation Mission, as well as (it is believed) during the turbulences in Lesotho at the end of 2014.

The Perception

How one perceives Recces may depend on where one stands. The South African Special Forces have been portrayed as a sinister organisation used in secret operations at home and in neighbouring countries as one of ”the apartheid terror-and-destruction gangs”. Others say that the South African Special Forces are one of the greatest sources of pride, because (1) they were ready to do everything it takes in order to serve and protect their land and because (2) they were probably the first multiracial entity in South Africa.

In any case, the post-apartheid democratic South African government allowed the continuation of the rich tradition of Recces, perhaps realising that the secret forces units and their operators were, after all, only the tool, and that you cannot blame the tool for what it was (or is) used.

South African Special Forces badges and insigniaAnd what a fine and valuable tool the South African Recces make! They are superbly trained for their hush-hush missions. Wikipedia says that only about 8% of recruits who undergo the South African Special Forces training pass the course. The Ultimate Challenge, as South African Special Forces Selection is often called, is considered one of the more difficult courses of its kind in the world, ensuring that only the best remain, in terms of endurance, resourcefulness, fellowship, strength of character, and so on.

The Insignia and the Badges

The Recces’ distinctive laurel blade was adopted in 1976, along with the motto "We fear naught but God". Couple of years later, units specialising in sea and airborne special warfare were formed, and the insignia specific to those units was designed.

Old South African Recce commando shoulder emblems were black and white. After 1994, some colour was added to the otherwise unchanged original insignia.

All members who complete the training and become a Special Forces Operator are awarded a unique, non-transferable numbered badge.  The badge consists of an inverted commando knife within a laurel wreath, which symbolises both Special Forces (the knife) and victory (the wreath).

Standard operator badges are silver. A gold badge with an embedded diamond is awarded to operators with more than 10 years of active service.
New badges have been designed for wear on the camouflage combat dress. These are black embossed plastic on a thatch green background.

Original or Replica?

Besides recce badges and insignia, you may also find on bidorbuy recce-related items of clothing or pieces or equipment, as well as various documents. While there is nothing wrong with collecting replicas of recce of any other collectible item, it is important that you know what you are buying into, an original or a replica. Do bear in mind that, according to some estimates, as of 2014 only about 1000 persons had ever qualified as South African Special Forces Operators. So, make sure to read the description carefully and to Ask the seller a question (find the link in the upper right section of the item listing) if anything is not clear to you.

If you want to learn more about the history of the Recces up to 1994, the book The Silent War by Peter Stiff comes with such excellent reviews that it should probably be compulsory reading for every collector of recce memorabilia. You may also want to visit the South African Special Forces website, but do not expect to lean much there.

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