44 Battery, 4 Artillery Brigade
at 10 Artillery HQ in Potchefstroom 1990
Before Reporting for duty.
My grandfather on my mom's side fought in North Africa during WW2, he also was a MOTH member.
My Great Grand mother on my dad's side was a nurse during WW2.
My brother is 8 years older than me and did his National Service in Youngsfield in the Cape and became a Number 1 on the 35mm anti-aircraft gun, he went to the border and took part in Operation Hooper and Packer.
He never spoke much of the events up there, most guys that went to the border are timid about the experiences.
Reporting for National Service (NS) was something that I looked forward to, a coming of age, growing up, becoming a man or something like that. After all it was your duty as a white male do serve your country.
I knew that I had to do NS and in Std 8 we registered and cadets was part of the "initiation" into army life, however, cadets was a breeze in comparison.
Two mates and myself that lived in the same suburb were all due to do NS the same year, and as the brown envelopes rolled in, we waited in anticipation to find out where we were being sent. Joseph got his first, Potch 4 Art was his destination, secondly, Gavin got his, 4 Art too. I really wanted to go far away, like my brother did, it seemed more like the Army adventure to be posted far away from home, but at the same time, I wanted to be with someone that I knew, such as Joseph and Gavin, they had each other to count on. I opened my envelope, 4 Art was going to be my home too.
We all rejoiced in the luck of going to the same place, and Potch was "down the road" from our Southdale suburb of Johannesburg, we would be home every weekend- so we thought!
I was fit enough from soccer, so I never trained for the army, I was 17, fit as a fiddle.
I took many tips from my brother on what to take and what to expect.
Buying padlocks, polish, toilet paper, cigarettes, chain, washing powder, sweets, biltong, old stockings, Game mix cooldrink, writing paper and envelopes etc…
Then, the television news informed us that NS was cut to 1 year due to the Angolan conflict being wrapped up. We watched TV and saw the men come home from war.
I was disappointed to a certain degree as I believed that to be a real soldier, you had to go to the border, never less, the National Party with Pres. de Klerk got my vote there and then.
Joseph, Gavin and myself decided to go together to Nasrec. I pulled out toward the end as I wanted my brother to have the honour of driving me to Nasrec, (to give him that sense of pride in seeing his little boettie go to the mag). After all, I was there when he reported to the Showgrounds in Milner Park 8 years earlier.
That morning I went to the toilet due to nerves and at one stage did not want to leave the loo, at another, did not want to be late.
I met up with Joseph and Gavin and we huddled together saying goodbye to our families and to our friend's families.
My mother was crying but I felt okay, cos my brother would reassure her that all is normal. He gave me the best handshake ever and I felt that for the 1st time ever, that my brother was proud of me, proud to see his boettie go to the army.
The 3 of us were shepherded into the huge halls, halls we had enjoyed at the Rand Show over the years, this time, they were bare, cold and filled with some of the weirdest looking guys around. Dogs were sniffing bags for dagga and the guys in uniform were shouting, and there was so much noise.
We were given weak orange juice and a crappy biscuit to eat.
After what seemed to be forever, we "marched" to the awaiting trains, we got in and the window blinds were pulled down, we played cards and got to talk to new faces.
When we got to Potch, it was hot and sunny and we were moved from the train to and open field lined with Samils.
We got into the Samils and it was so hot in them, that heat was unbearable. Whoever klaared in that year will know exactly what I mean by the heat.
After a long bumpy and jerky ride, we finally got to the base.
We were off-loaded near the Paddadam at the tuck shop and were told to sit on the grass, sit, not lie, as I had done, only to get a taste of what was to come. Bombadier Erusmus crapped all over me and reminded me that this is not Civvy Street. "Sit op jou fokken droll".
I am sure he wanted to give me an oppie, but we had not had medicals yet, so he was not allowed to.
When we signed in, the Lt that took my name was none other than Lt Stanley, he was the guy that organized me his paper delivery job a year earlier, just before he went to the army.
After that we lined up to get some kit, a trommel, sleeping bag and some odds and sods.
We had to carry that heavy trommel from the stores all the way to our lines on the other side of the base, and when an "ou man" offered to help me I accepted and he took my trommel in the wrong direction, giving me another 500 meters to carry it.
We got to our lines and there were tents, not bungalows, and the tents never had any "kante" (sides).
That was our 1st task, to erect the sides of the tents. Joseph, Gavin and I pilled into the same tent and 3 other guys joined us. They came from PE. The next morning at 4:00 Bombadier Erusmus put his ugly head into the tent and yelled "Staan op, dit is nie Durban hier nie, staan op."
This introduction was exactly how I saw army life, the only difference was that we had to sleep in tents.
The "ou manne" told us that tents were better than bungalows and they were right, In a tent, you had 6 guys, and less polishing to do than in a bungalow with 60 guys and plenty brass and copper to shine.
As the days rolled on, we were relocated into platoons, and this meant a new tent and new buddies.
Standing in the line, the guy in front of me said, "My name is Randall, yours?" " Roberts" I said, and to this day we are still mates, we have been through it all.
In our tent was myself, Randall (Alberton), Pelser (Triomf), Schroeder (Germiston), Martin( Rhodes Park) and ...
Randall and I listened to the FA cup final that May when Man U were forced to a replay due to two goals from a young sub called Ian Wright of Crystal Palace.
Pelser came into the army a good boy, the army life roughed him up and taught him how to drink and smoke.
The 1st night he ever drank alcohol, he threw up all over the entrance to the tent. On pass, being afraid that his parents would see, he asked me to buy him a carton of JPS smokes.
I am glad to say that he and I have given up smoking and now enjoy fresh air in our lungs.
Schroder was a postman from Germiston and got paid while doing NS. I haven't seen him since the army.
Martin had the most beautiful girlfriend and I am sure that I heard him crying deep in the night for her. Saw him once at Masquerade with "Schollie", he was a modern day Trompie, without the boksom bende.
Trevor came from a very tough background and even though he has chilled out in the past few years, the road back to Alberton/ Yeoville life is a short one. Trevor still drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney. But he is happy.
Basics were exactly that, basic.
Due to the cut of 1 year in NS, we did 6 weeks basics and I don't know how they got 3 months out of it before, there was not much to do but learn the Basics. We learned what "Opfok" meant and as time moved on you got better at oppies, learning how to conduct yourself during an Oppie, in a way, letting the Bommie feel that you were dying, in the mean time, you were handling quite well.
Basics were conducted in the open-air class a few km away from the camp in the bush area; "Leer houding" is what I remember it being called.
Our Bommie allowed the first guy that could dismantle his R4, and run around the tree and back and re-assemble his R4, to have the afternoon off as far as physical labour was concerned.
I was 1st around the corner and fell into a ditch and everyone overtook me, so I strolled back.
"Het jy seer gekry?" asked the bommie.
Nee was my reply.
Stupid me, I ended up squatting with a rock, and when the rock got too heavy, rolling twigs with outstretched arms became the next task. It is amazing that twigs can become heavier than a rock. According to Bommie, I should not have given up.
One guy was told to go talk to the tree, when he returned, the Bommie asked what the tree had to say, "nothing" was the reply. This went on for a few trips until, we saw the troep talking to the tree, this time, when he got back, Bommie asked again and the reply this time was " Die boom will nou graag me Bombadier praat". Boy did he get it then.
During basics you got your 1st letters from home and it took a long time for the 3 of us to get any letters, at one stage you wondered if anyone cared for you cos the guys from afar as PE got letters before us, and we were from JHB, down the road. The day came when I got the 1st letter and we would all read them in silence in our own space and time. Martin read his late at night over and over using a torch, sniffing from time to time.
Homan was the nominated guy to start the generator in the mornings and switch it off at night. Light bulbs were so valuable back then that we used to lock them away in the trommel. If you saw a bulb in another tent during the day, you would steal it – no problem.
Then came 2nd Phase.
Here you specialized in a particular discipline related to Artillery tactics. Joseph almost went to Zeerust at the Keering, he cried so much they let him stay. Quinton Heynes, with his lockjaw and all went to Berede, up the road, he liked animals.
We were the 1st Battery to get training on the Bateleur (40 pipes vs Valkiris 24).
It was a gun of note, built on the back of a Kwe Voel, it was a huge, 5 crew gun.
I did not want to disappoint my brother, but I was scarred of that Gun, I became a signaler, so did Joseph and Gavin.
Randal was to become the # 1 and Pelser his #3, and Martin aswell, Schroeder became a water truck driver, and a great connection to have in Lohatla.
The Gunners were drilled with their training, and shackles became part of their daily routine and vocabulary.
Bush phase came and went and we finally got to see the Bateleur shoot for the first time.
This was a wonderful sight and our Bommies always told us that when it shoots that you get a "Piel styf".
That MRL lit the up the sky and the G6 Battery, G5 and G2 batteries could not beat us on accuracy.
44 Baterry became the most loved battery in Potch by the PF's.
When your Major tells you that he will go to war with you, you know that you are doing bloody well.
2nd Phase was tougher that basics and you got to do what you would in a war, we were being conditioned for a full-scale attack.
The crap thing is that, as a Gunner, you never sleep in the same place twice, always on the move from Skuiling to skuiling. When you were in the bush, you longed for the camp and visa versa, and we spent a lot of time in the bush.
Rat packs became the norm and thank God for individual tastes, as we would swap certain things with others that wanted what you didn't like. I remember that I loved the Chilli con Carne, since then and due to speaking Spanish, I now know that it meant Chilli with meat. Those fuel tablets were okay, we only warmed the food up at night, in the Dixies.
Then the big word went around ... we were going to Lewatler, better known as Lohatla, a place that the Devil moved away from, for it was too hot for him.
For the convoy I became the signaler for the Majors Ratel, Kuneke being the driver, and Erusmus the Bommie. I still wonder how the major got there, cos he was not in the Ratel.
The convoy sped out of Potch and along the way, we had a burst sump.
This worked out well for us as some farmer took us to his house and gave us a glorious meal and his daughters could give a dog a bone if you know what I mean. Erusmus was as proud as a pig in a puddle of shit, he was portraying how in charge he was over us, and in reality, he was, and he still was the same arsehole as always.
We eventually got to Lohatla late at night and only got to see the God Forsaken place in the sunlight the next morning.
Lohatla was actually a lekker place to be as the Oppies were almost non-existent and inspection was held in such a relaxed mood. The food was good and plenty of it; it was a good place to be.
The guys back at Potch were shit scarred of Lohatla, we did it, we went there, we are men!
The reason of going to Lohatla was two fold.
- Take part in Operation Excalibur (a simulated full scale attack, including Anti Aircraft, Aircraft, Infantry, Artillery and the like)
- To polish up the Alpha Bravo (Fire and Movement) maneuvers.
The rumors started to generate that we would go to Iraq, and that 6 months extra would be added to NS.
Then rumors that we would Klaar out before Christmas made the rounds. This was the ugliest rumor, we Klaared out after exactly a year, Feb 3 1991.
The country was experiencing township unrest and we were sent to Pietermaritsburg to patrol the area around Henley dam.
The trip down was in a bus and such a jol as we could see out of the windows, there is something special about being seen by the public when in your uniform, makes you feel something that is unexplainable, and the 1st night was spent in a soot ridden train station.
As the time moved on, the army became more bearable and actually we started to enjoy is as Natal was what we would call "n Rustige plek"
I had been out on a few patrols, 4 hours off, 2 on and so on.
One day I decided to wait in the Buffel with Kuneke, I wanted to finish reading one of the many Sidney Sheldon paperbacks that were going around. Randal urged me to walk patrol.
This is the day, 10 Oct 1990 that my life was almost ended, by the most unlikely source, Kuneke.
We were siting in the Buffel at different ends, I was crouched in a slumped position reading, with my feet up over the wall of the Buffel. Kuneke wanted to see how the R4 extracted the round from the mag and placed it into the chamber.
Somehow, 4 rounds went of and missed my head by millimeters, but one round shattered upon contact with the thick wall of the Buffel, 3 flew right through.
To this day, I still have the shrapnel in my chest and leg.
Kuneke rode like a mad dog back to base and I prayed that I would get to see my mother again, there was blood all over my leg, chest and what really scared me was the river flowing from my head, I really thought that this was my dying day. I was sent to Grey Hospital, and later to 1 Mil.
Randal cried, so did Kuneke and I became talk of the town.
Word got out about my 21 days recovery pass at home. Back in Natal, Cox deliberately sent a round through his shoulder and almost took Joseph out at the same time. To his disappointment, Cox got 4 days leave and court marshaled.
I spent the remaining time in RHK (RHQ) Regimental head Quarters at Potch.
RHQ was made up of all the Fuck-ups that were to lame, lazy, stupid, scarred to be a soldier, and the injured like me.
RHQ members were known as G3K3- Fucked Up.
My nerve to my left leg was damaged and I could not move my foot as normally as before.
I did nothing all day long and it was really boring, but I kept counting the days down to Uitklaar, which kept me sane. The day came that my buddies came back from Natal.
It was great to see them and somehow something was different, I had not been with them, I was different as I had not been involved in some close calls that they had down there.
Anyway we were still buds and we got to the Klaar out day.
It was a simple affair, nothing like the worst day of my life 6 months earlier when the "ou manne" klaared out.
That July when they klaared out, we were all on the parade ground and it was so sad, cos as we were ordered to stand at attention, the ou mane were marching out of the army back into civvy life. There was such a sad atmosphere in the camp for us that day.
Our Uit Klaar Certificates arrived late and most of the other batteries had been released, RHQ included.
It seemed as if the army were getting their last little stab at us, trying to make us feel that we were not meant to leave, we waited and waited for the certificates, and you wondered if you would be at Masquerade or in the tent again that night.
Eventually, at about 2pm, the certificates arrived, Hallelujah !!!
When Joseph's car rolled out of the gate, I saluted the new intake by showing them and the camp a "brown eye".
I was back on Civvy Street.
Being at home was weird, to be in control of your own comings and goings was strange.
I ate less food than before the army and drank a lot more alcohol.
Going past the high school was strange as we had now been there done that, and been to the Army.
I felt a sense of pride, knowing while we were kakking off in Potch, that life went on normally on civvy street, proud that my efforts and pain kept civvy street safe, I had done my duty for my country.
To this day, I look at kids in Matric and know that they were not yet in school when I was protecting them form the "Enemy", I look at kids 13 and younger, knowing that I helped give them a safe country to be born into, they were part sperm and part egg when I was in the Army.
I got a job at Telkom SA (old PT & T).
I got out of one camp with help from Telkom SA.
Then, I was called up for another one to Lohatla for 2 weeks.
I decided to go as there was something that was eating me up inside, my rank was that of Gunner, yet I never shot the Bateleur at all, I felt like a Doctor that has never performed surgery. I had not earned the title, as Randal and Pelser had.
On that camp I asked to learn how to shoot the Valkiri.
In just 3 days, the Bombadier that just klaared out taught me the sights and one night I got to sit with him as the gun rocked and rolled.
Kordit filled the cab and I was content knowing that I contributed to the firing of a MRL.
Two things were missing which I did get to do:
- I got to turn the tit and was effectively the #1 for a moment.
- I earned the right to be called Gunner.
One more thing, the Bommie was right, when you shoot with a MRL, you do get a Boner.
On that camp, conscription became voluntary, It was my 1st and last ever camp.
13 Years Later
Joseph lives in Fourways, is married and has 2 boys.
Gavin committed suicide in 1993 with the help of a 9-mill pistol. I was in the USA when he did it, I came back after two weeks and cried rivers with his sisters and parents, one more of the saddest moments in my life.
Pelser is a Fireman and we have re-established contact, we cycle at races together, he has two kids and a wife.
I don't know what ever happened to Martin and Schroeder.
Randal is still my mate and we now watch the football together, he has a daughter that was conceived on a pass weekend.
I am unmarried, no kids but have a wonderful girlfriend Tania.
When we get together and talk army talk, the girlfriends and wives switch off, we know that they don't understand the bonds that were developed due to the conditions we went through together.
When we get together, someone will remember some other story from that year back in Potch and we laugh and enjoy the memories.
We have photos and looking back, we were just kids in uniform, kids in a mans world.
I went back to the camp after 12 years, I was in Potch for a cycle race and wanted to see the camp.
Stopping at the main gate, I felt a flood of emotion arise with in me, feelings of happiness, sadness, love, hate, pride, disgrace, honour etc…Such a mixed bag of memories and feelings.
I had voluntarily re-entered a place that was my hell 13 years earlier, and I loved every minute of being back there.
The veld is bare where our tents once stood, the Parade field is now a huge mess hall.
The tuck shop is still there with the same smell and the grass still grows where I lay down that 1st day.
The road from the tent site to the stores is a long one and without any kit, I felt it a tough walk.
The telephones where we would queue for hours are gone.
Our mess hall has made way for new bungalows.
The place has changed yet it has also stayed the same.
Ex MK soldiers now occupy what were their enemy's camps.
Nelson Mandela is free, so is South Africa, free of that unexplainable system called Apartheid, the system that ensured that I complete NS.
The US and Iraq are still at war !!!
Randal is Trevor, and Pelser is Johan.
Watching the TRC hearings a few years ago made me so angry inside, angry that unknown to me at the time, that being part of the Army, that I was part of a very evil greater force.
I now know why 1990 was one of the biggest intakes at Potch, the government were putting a safety measure in place, in case the release of Nelson Mandela went wrong.
I hope that this has made good reading, after all, it is real life, it really happened and those that read it that have been there, will find it funny, and sad at the same time. There is so much more to tell…
Published: 4 June 2003.
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