Born in Zambia, Barlow started his schooling in Francistown, Botswana and moved to South Africa in the mid-1960s. After matriculating in 1972, he joined the SADF. He was commissioned in the SA Corps of Engineers where he served as the Engineer Commander for the 53 and 54 Infantry Battalions in the South West African Operational area. Barlow was recruited to serve with 32 Battalion Special Forces in Angola. Although 32 Battalion operated independently, the SADF was supporting the UNITA rebel movement (funded by Washington and Pretoria). Subsequently, he was assigned to SADF's Directorate of Military Intelligence and then to the CCB where he commanded Region 5, an area that encompassed Europe and the Middle East.
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