Conducted by Peter Chapman on 30 May 2011 with
Corporal LUIS MATIAS
1 Maintenance Unit, 8 SAI, North West Command, 3 SAI – July 1978 to July 1980
S.A. Irish Regiment – January 1981 to December 1983.
Your family background? Was there anybody who served in the military?
No, not really.
I recall that you mentioned that you had a cousin who was in the Portuguese Army?
Yes, not South African, but the old Portuguese colonial army. I had a cousin who was part of the Special Forces, the Portuguese Special Forces, and he lost his foot on a landmine. Also all of his brothers were (in the army). This was all during the colonial days, in Mozambique. Family within the South African Army? No, it's only myself and my brother.
What did you think about being faced with National Service?
Like the rest of us in those days we were all sort of conditioned, I guess; apartheid and fighting the Swart Gevaar. Everyone was called up and we just accepted it and did it at the time.
So you never gave any thought of taking off to Portugal?
No, not at that time.
Did you do anything to get fit before reporting?
No, nothing, because I had no idea what it was all going to be about. It was only when I got there, then you realised what you were in for. But you know, you adapt, and we did what we had to do. That's about it, really. I must say that, out of my two years National Service, I can only really recall really good things. There weren't really bad things that happened as far as I was concerned, it was just a learning curve, something we had to do. I don't regret doing my two years National Service and I enjoyed it actually you know.
Where and when were you called up?
I was called up in the July intake of 1978 and I first went down to Kimberley, to 1 Maintenance, and I guess there were too many of us and we all milled around there for a little while; started our basics there of course, and then they just sent a whole bunch of us to 8 SAI, Upington, to the infantry, and I continued my basics at 8 SAI.
How many of you got transferred to 8 SAI? Do you remember?
I can't recall. It wasn't like just a platoon, it was a couple of hundred of us, if I remember correctly.
So how long were you at 1 Maintenance?
Oh, I guess it was probably a couple of weeks. I don't know, probably two, three weeks or thereabouts.
Did you just join the guys that were already at Upington late?
Well, I guess so. We were just transferred because there were too many at 1 Maintenance.
Were there any interesting characters at 1 Maintenance Unit?
No, there wasn't really because it was too short a time to really to get to know any interesting characters there. There were some interesting characters at 8 SAI. We had a Sergeant-Major there, a big, huge guy, Afrikaans.
Do you remember his name?
No, I can't remember. He had this moustache, a handlebar moustache. Apparently, they said that he was from the Recces. I don't know if that was true or not. He was one of those typically no-nonsense sort of characters and everyone was absolutely petrified of the guy, with good reason, because we'd heard stories that when he was in the Recces he had killed so many terrorists and done certain things with certain body parts of the terrorists. If that was true or not I don't know. He was a Sergeant-Major but apparently he should have been a Captain a long time ago, but because he had had altercations with some of the officers and had come to blows with some of them he never really was progressed or was promoted. That's how the story goes. Again, I'm not sure if that's true or not.
That was the rumour mill?
Ja, probably, I don't know, but he was a character that I don't think you'd want to meet in the middle of the night, or tangle with.
I assume your Corporals were all National Servicemen?
If I recall, ja, I think they were all National Service Corporals. The rest of the guys above that, like Sergeants and Sergeant-Majors were PF.
Was it what you expected, at infantry I mean?
Ag, infantry is infantry, we kakked off like everybody in basics, sent running around all over the show; the usual story that you have to do in basics. But nothing out of the ordinary. It was the normal buggering around, normal training, physical training.
So what was the training at Upington, in terms of chronological order of things? I know you did the initial three months basics?
Ja, three months basics was just jaaging you around for the first three months. I guess on the physical side of things, early in the morning, about four o'clock in the morning they'd chase you out of bed and you'd start running around. You know, chasing you, marching, chasing you with your rifle, doing PT. Just doing some form of PT the whole day basically. And of course orientation; how to strip a rifle, put it together, shooting practice.
What sort of rifles were you issued with?
I had a R.1. So that's really the normal basics that we did. It was drummed into our heads about the Swart Gevaar. We were fighting for the country, against invaders and the rest of the usual stories and brainwashing at the time, I guess.
Was there anything particular that you hated about first phase training?
No, not particularly. At the time, obviously you hated every minute of it because they'd just chase you around all day, every day, non-stop, and you got very little sleep.
But there wasn't any one particular thing?
No, not really, no. I was also the type who was told, 'never be at the back and never be in the front. Always be where most of the people are, in the middle, because there you are a lot more invisible. Just go with the flow'.
Where did you get that advice from?
I can't even remember who gave me that advice.
Was it in the army?
One of the guys at Upington?
Probably, some guy that was already in the army, or one of the ou manne, as they're called. They always gave us the advice to be inconspicuous - to not bring attention to yourself. Otherwise you were a marked man all the time. I tried to (be inconspicuous) all the time.
Did you have any hassles, being a Portuguese and an English speaker?
No, not at all. The only thing is they had a little difficulty with pronouncing my surname, and I had such a long surname, being Portuguese. At roll call they always had difficulty because it was a bit awkward for them.
What platoon and company were you in?
Now you're asking me. I can't remember.
And the base itself, was it well equipped?
No, it was very sparse you know, I mean it was mostly tents. At that time 8 SAI was just tents. The only fixed buildings were things like the ablutions and the mess, some storage and vehicle maintenance facilities, otherwise everything else was just tents.
Did you do second phase at Upington?
No, I didn't do second phase at Upington, again I don't recall what the reason was or how it all happened, but I was transferred to Potch - Potchefstroom, but to their main HQ. At that time it was called North West, North West Command. I did sort of odd jobs there. I think I was, at least for some time, I did some storeman work.
So you basically stopped doing any training?
Stopped really doing any training, I was just like a normal troep in the main Headquarters there, and I think I was a storeman if I recall. Again, it's such a while ago, half of the stuff I can't recall. And then, I decided that I was bored with that. That was already after I had been in the army probably close on a year.
So how long were you doing the storeman thing at Potch?
At Potch? Well probably, I guess, close to nine months or thereabouts.
So you'd only done a total of three months at 1 Maintenance and 8 SAI?
Ja, but I was bored with that (being a storeman) and I decided that I wanted to do, I don't know why, I decided that I wanted to do a PTI course, so I enlisted in that and then I went to Pretoria.
How did you go about enlisting in the PTI Course?
Again, I can't remember. I know we had to fill in some form.
You didn't have to do any selection?
No, not really, I can't recall any selection. There was some form, and I think you had to get authorisation from somebody, and I went to do the PTI course.
You said you'd been in about a year by then?
That was already maybe a year, or just over a year that I went to go and do the PTI course, and then after I had completed that I really only had, I think, about six months left in the army.
So, the PTI course, where did you do that?
That was in Pretoria, at the college. What do they call that college in Pretoria? SADF college or Defence Force college or whatever.
And the whole course was held there?
Yes, everything was there. That we finished at the end of December 1979 if I recall correctly, and I only had another six months to go, to complete my National Service. Then they sent me back to 3 SAI, to the infantry, to Potch. I guess obviously to do PT. I can't recall if I did PT more than once or twice. I can't recall doing PT more than that.
You had come in as an extra body?
Ja. I spent most of my time just being there, not really doing much.
Obviously by this stage you were an NCO?
An NCO, staying in the NCO barracks. Three months before I finished, you know you were a one-liner for the first three months, and then my second three months I requested to be promoted to Corporal, which they did; they gave me two stripes. I was there for another three months, and I finished my National Service, and that was it.
Your PTI course, what did it actually entail?
Again, a lot of physical work from morning, noon and night. All kinds of different PE.
Ja, it was different instructors. Each one would give interval training, then you'd do long distance running, and then you'd do like a type of gymnastics. It was all different types of exercise but it was more specific. With a PTI course, it wasn't like basics, where you were run off your feet morning noon and night. With a PTI course it was more specific training, that athletes do, proper sportsmen do. It was more to that effect. There you did proper gym, proper interval training, proper long distance training, but also jaaging you just for the sake of it. Swimming, a lot of swimming as well. It was, you know, treading water. As you know swimming is very good, makes every muscle work, muscles that you never knew you had. And that's where you also did a lot more theoretic training on the body, you know the muscle, the skeleton, sports injuries, that type of training as well. We had to write exams, I think it was every Monday. You did the physical, you had to get a certain level - you had to do so many push-ups in a minute or whatever it was, so many pull-ups, so there was always a physical standard you had to attain, which I think was on a Monday and there was also exams that you had to pass. If you failed those exams, both physical and the written exams, you were out.
Straight away, ja. I think they gave you, again if I recall correctly, you were allowed to fail one, but if you failed the next one you were out, or something to that effect. A lot of the guys were RTUed you know.
How many of you started?
I can't remember.
Roughly? I don't know. Probably about 40 or so, I think, and by the time we finished it was probably about half that left.
So you lost about half of the guys?
Half of the guys along the way, ja. Only half of the guys finished up.
So it was tough, with the dropout rate being 50 percent, the course would have been pretty hard to complete?
Ja, it was tough, as I said.
What was the hardest part for you? Was it the mental side or the physical side?
I think, for the most part, it's always the mental part. Your mental side I think takes over. It's always your mental side that gives up. Not physically, but mentally.
So you think most of the guys who dropped out, did so because they couldn't cope?
No, not really. It was varying factors. Some guys dropped out because they couldn't handle it mentally or physically, some dropped out because they weren't good enough with exams; they failed both physical exams and written exams. So, there were a number of factors that forced some of the guys out. It wasn't just purely physical or the mental but a whole lot of things that caused them to fall out along the way. The thing is, as I found, as you got closer to the end, physically you got fitter and mentally as well. And then, right at the end, when they gave us our last PT, they tried to screw us up, you know, fuck us up for the last time. We did PT that day, the whole day, all kinds of different things; they tried to break us down for the last time. But, by that time, we were so fit, mentally and physically, it was like water off a duck's back and we took it in our stride. It was just nothing, absolutely. We had reached such a point of mental and physical fitness that it was nothing. It was like picking up an ashtray and putting it down again. That's where we had got to, so they could have done anything to us right at the end and we would have just taken it in our stride.
So they couldn't mess with your head anymore and you were so fit that they couldn't tire you out?
Ja, and I can tell you that I'll never, ever for the rest of my life be that fit again, like I was then. You were like a machine, literally, an absolute machine. You could do everything and anything, both mentally and physically, you could handle anything.
As part of your PTI course, did you do any other NCO training, you know, drilling squads, that sort of stuff?
Again, that I think came already in the basics.
They didn't give you anything specific?
No, not specific. It was just the normal other army stuff you did anyway. Just a continuation.
So it would be very different to, say, JLs? You'd still end up a Corporal, but you'd receive very different training to a JL Corporal?
Ja, I guess so. JL's would have been more warfare oriented, whereas this was really more towards the sports and the physical fitness side of things. A couple of the instructors, and a couple of the guys that actually did the PTI course with me, in their own right already had colours, for whatever sport. You know, provincial colours, whether for athletics, or whatever. There was one guy there, who was unbelievable. This guy, again a thin, lanky guy, after a full day's training, when the rest of us would be completely buggered and go and just relax and rest for the night, he would still go and run a 12K run, on top of that. It (the training) just wasn't enough for him; he wanted more.
What was your average day like, during the course?
Again, you'd wake up early in the morning and they'd start chasing you; about 4 or 5 in the morning.
Did you still do inspections?
Still the normal military stuff, still the inspections and the rest of it, and then throughout the day I would guess you would be doing quite easily 12 hours of some kind of physical training.
How many days a week?
Monday to Friday.
You got weekends off?
Did you get a lot of leave?
Well, the lucky thing was that I was close to Jo'burg. Friday afternoon you'd go home and then you'd pitch up back on Sunday night.
Being at the college, you didn't do things like guard duty etc.?
No, I can't recall doing those type of things.
So at the end of your training, December '79, they sent you back to Potch?
Ja, back to Potch. This time to 3 SAI, 3rd South African Infantry Battalion. Like I said, for the remainder (of my time), the six months, I didn't really do much. It was like, to be quite honest with you, a holiday.
You were an NCO by then?
I was an NCO by that time and used to go to the NCO's mess, which was more privileged; and sleep till late. We practically did nothing for the remainder of those six months, I did anyway.
As a PTI, you would have finished your course. Was there any formal sort of thing where you stood up and got your PTI emblems etc.?
I recall they gave us certificates, how they gave it to us I can't recall. I believe it was a ceremony on the last day, at the end (of the course), when they gave us the certificates. I know that one of the last things we did, we had to arrange a golf day, and that was towards our course marks. My memory now is so bad that much of it I've completely forgotten.
Was most of the training done by NCOs, or were there officers too?
There were NCOs and officers, ja.
All were PTIs themselves?
Yes, I think they were PTIs themselves as well. I don't know if you recall the Western Province guy; he was a prop? A guy with blonde hair; I can't remember his name now. He played for the Springboks, a couple of games, not many. He was a prop and he played for Western Province. He was the officer and leader for that particular course. Not Western Province, Western Transvaal.
Do you remember any interesting people that you did the course with?
No, again I can't recall.
Were the PTIs all from the infantry, or were there some from other units?
The guys who were on the course? There were some from infantry, some from Field Artillery and Air Artillery; ja, from different units.
So, you klaared out of 3 SAI at Potch, in July 1980.
In June 1980, we klaared out of there.
Do you remember anything amusing, funny or tragic incidents from your two years service particularly?
Not really, hey? Not that I can recall. I guess my two years were pretty normal, pretty straight forward and run-of-the mill.
You did quite well, for the infantryman, never to go to the border?
Ja, that was during my two years National Service. During that time I never went to the border. The border was when I did the camps. Except for Lohatla, we did a one month camp in Lohatla, the other three month camps I was up in Ruacana - the first one - that was 1981 if I'm not mistaken. And then in 1983, no it wasn't 83, '83 I did Lohatla; I think it was a November camp. It pissed down; it was manoeuvres - conventional warfare.
'83 sounds familiar because I was also on that camp?
You were there. You were there on that same camp to Lohatla. That was '83, wasn't it?
It was, yes. You're right, it did piss down. I remember it.
OK, I think it was like this. I think '81 was a three month camp and that was Ruacana, and there was another three month camp in '82, yes, and that I did up on the border as well, at Eenhana. And I think '83 was the one month camp we did at Lohatla, if I recall. No, hang on. Wasn't it '82 we did Lohatla? That was it, because I remember we I did the one month camp between the two three month camps.
Yeah, it was '82. You're right. It was the year my brother got married, I remember.
'81 - three month camp, Ruacana. '82 - one month camp, Lohatla, and then '83 I did a three month camp again up at Eenhana. And then, the following year of course, I went to Portugal and I never did any more camps. I did my National Service and then another seven months camps, and that was it.
When did you first hear from your Citizen Force unit, the Irish Regiment?
The first time?
After you finished in July '80, when did you get notice to report to them?
I don't know if it was later in that year, 1980, or early in 1981. Some time round about there, I can't recall now, that I had been assigned now to Citizen Force with the South African Irish. My first RSM if you remember correctly was that guy with the beard, was it Daly?
Sergeant-Major Day.[WO1 A.L. Day]
Sergeant-Major Day, ja. And the Officer Commanding was that Afrikaans guy, Swanepoel,[Commandant J.H. Swanepoel, who commanded the regiment between 1980 and 1982.] with the bulging eyes. Do you recall? And then it changed. Moir [Commandant Stan H. Moir.] took over from him.
Yeah. I didn't like that guy.
Nobody liked Moir. I hated him too.
And that stupid RSM, with the blonde hair. It wasn't Day, it was his sidekick at the time. He became RSM. The second lot (RSM and Commanding Officer) were idiots.
I ended up in the machine gun Company. Which one did they put you in?
I can't remember.
Alright, so that first camp, when was that? Tell me the timeframe?
It was, I think, the second half of the year. I think it was probably July, August, September, or thereabouts.
OK, and you went up to Ruacana you said?
How'd you go?
Oh fine, you know, the usual patrols, driving around.
Did you do foot patrols?
I did a lot more standing guard. They had those things around the town, those posts.
You were at one of the guard posts?
Ja, guard posts and things. Doing that more than anything else.
Is that all the guys, or was that just something that you specifically did?
I guess some of the guys did other stuff, but that's what I did specifically. Our whole unit went up there.
You retained your stripes when you went to the Irish, hey?
Ja. We did proper courses so we kept our rank.
You were still a full Corporal?
Ja, still a full Corporal.
Did you have any incidents on that first camp?
Not really, no. We had a bastard of an RSM - Permanent Force.
Ja, at Ruacana.
What was his name?
I can't remember. He was a guy with glasses.
Ja. He wanted to jaag me around sometimes as well. He just didn't like the look of my face, I guess, and I got no support from my Officer Commanding Irish at the time.
Who actually was in charge of you guys at Ruacana? Was Moir and them there, or was it more junior officers?
It was more junior officers. There were some Captains there. Captain Ford. Do you remember Ford? And there was another Loot there, a two-pip Loot with a moustache, but I can't remember his name. But they were useless. They were typical campers; they wouldn't support their own. Every time a PF guy said 'jump' they would say 'how high?', you know?
So it was a fairly quiet three months?
Ja, nothing much.
Did you have any sort of medal parade afterwards?
I did do a couple like you did. I remember doing one parade in town, near the library.
Ja, that was probably the Sidi Rezegh. I did a couple of those, I think, and that was the only one I can actually recall standing in the parade there. I can't recall any of the others. And then that Lohatla camp was in '82, where it was one month at Lohatla doing that conventional warfare thing. It was dry, and that was the first time it pissed with rain, and we were doing night manoeuvres, and we got fucking soaked to the bone that night. It never rained normally, but it rained and we were sitting in those jeeps, what's those things on the jeeps? The cannons?
Ja. I was part of that, and it just pee'd down that night, and we were just wet the whole night, and we were sleeping in our sleeping bags in this wet and mud.
Yes, I was lucky as I was also on that camp, but I managed to wangle my way into the stores and we just slept in the back of a Samil, so didn't get wet. But I remember the rain.
And then, the following year....
'83. I got called up to Eenhana. That wasn't bad at all.
How did you guys get up there? Did you fly?
Ja, flew up you know, in the usual Flossie.
Where did you fly from? Pretoria?
Pretoria somewhere. I think it was at Waterkloof. And there again, most of what I did was driving. I never drove a Buffel in my life.
Did nobody ask if you had any military licences?
They just told me, "You're flipping driving! We need drivers and you must drive." We were doing those mine sweeping patrols.
Oh, I see. So you were basically following the Engineers from a safe distance, riding as escort and support?
Ja. And couriering troops all over the show. In that particular one as well I did, no, not so much Eenhana, was it Ruacana? There were a lot of foot patrols as well, I did a lot of foot patrols. We went out for maybe a week or two.
Didn't see anything? Didn't come across anything?
No, not really. At least I didn't, anyway. No major incidents, per say.
No landmines, or anything like that?
There was only one time, it was at Ruacana, the three month camp at Ruacana, where we were doing a foot patrol in Angola. We were in Angolan territory.
You were actually in Angola?
We were in Angola, because we did that quite a lot. We'd walk into Angola quite a lot. There was that fence there, a cattle fence on the cutline, but we'd just go straight through it. We did a lot of patrols into Southern Angola, and one of the guys, it was just by pure...it just shows you, when it's your luck, it's your luck, and I think it was some abandoned border post or buildings, or something like that, and we were trapping around there, walking around there. We climbed out the Buffels and we were stretching our legs, and the guys were walking around there, and one guy stood on a landmine, and lost his foot.
Anti-personnel mine obviously?
Ja, anti-personnel mine; took his foot right off. I remember his name, Peter. Peter Tainton. He was a jovial guy, a short, stocky guy, always joking. And we had to rush him with a Samil, back to camp. Obviously he got casevaced out, and apparently they later found a whole lot of other mines, booby-trapped around there (at the border post) but luckily none of us stood on any. From that day onwards, I never climbed off a Buffel just to walk around.
You were obviously the driver, and you and the infantry guys got down to walk around?
Ja, but I never did that again.
So, they didn't fly a chopper in to fetch this guy?
I can't remember. I think we drove a certain distance, before he got casevaced out.
So they must have told you to get down the road, and they would meet you halfway?
Ja. Something like that. You know, a lot of things are fuzzy or hazy nowadays and I can't recall details.
So one of your guys had a foot blown off, and you never saw a terr?
Never saw a terr. We came across old bombed out buildings that belonged to the MPLA or terrorist things, but I never saw any action per say, in those patrols and in the six months that I was up there.
So that was your last camp, 1983?
That was my last camp, 1983. The following year I went to Portugal.
That would be the year they were looking for you and I told them you were overseas. I think you'd actually written to them, and I found the letter you'd written to them. That was on one of the camps I got called up, to do Admin. Did you ever do any medal parades, for your Pro Patria? You did get it?
No, no. I don't recall getting that. I doubt I could have got it as didn't you have to do a certain amount of days before you got anything like that?
Have you got the Pro Patria Medal?
You should have got it. You actually were entitled to it. In fact, you should be entitled to the Pro Patria AND the Southern Africa Medal, especially if you were doing walking patrols in southern Angola? If you crossed the border into southern Angola then you got the Southern Africa Medal as well.
When I got back, I said to them I would be going to Portugal, and they asked when I would be back, and I said I had no clue, because I didn't know whether I was going to stay in Portugal or come back. I didn't know at the time. But then, after three years, when I did come back, I never heard from them again, and I obviously wasn't going to contact them and encourage them to be quite honest with you! After three years of not going to camps, I didn't want to go back to doing camps again. And I guess, from that point on, I don't know if my file just got misplaced, or filed in the archives.
Can you recall where you walked the patrols in Southern Angola?
Well, you know Ruacana is basically on the border of Angola and South West, and it was in that area, across the border that we did the patrols. By that river, which borders South West and Angola (the Cunene – editor (confirmed by Luis since the original interview - editor)
I know the Irish were terribly disorganised?
Hopeless. The first lot of guys that were there in command, Swanepoel and Day, Sergeant-Major Day, they were still OK, but Moir was a poes! An arsehole. After Swanepoel left, the Irish was an absolute joke. Those guys couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery!
So overall, would you say your experiences in the SA Army were positive?
Yeah, positive. As you say, at the end of the day, far more positives. I can't even think of any real negatives. What it did for you as a person - your own personal discipline and way of doing things - it gave you a sense of rigting; direction for life. That's what it did. In hindsight, I'm glad I did it. At the time I might have bitched and moaned, and said that this was a waste of time, but at the end of the day it's stood me in good stead, as they say.
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