3 SAI: NATIONAL SERVICE
(1981-1982, 84, 86 etc)
Jakes reported for national service at 3 SAI Potchefstroom in January 1981. He did Junior Leaders: Section Leaders course. After that he spent significant time with 52 Bn, Sector 10, including at Mahenene Base, and walked foot patrols into Angola. He did border camps with the First City Regiment (Grahamstown) in 1984 and Townships in 1986, and later camps within South Africa.
See Jake's SADF photo collection.
Like most boys born in SA between 1957 and 1972, I received my Force number when I was 16, in standard 8 (form 3).
I had been brought up with lots of exposure to WW2 veterans: my father, my uncle, and all their friends had fought or served in WW2, and I remember stories of Tobruk and North Africa. I had stood at countless veterans parades at diverse MOTH halls and memorials. So basically, military honour and military service had been subconsciously drilled into me from an early age, with "war stories" of WW2, a war that was fought to rid the world of very real and obvious criminals and tyrants, like Hitler.
The South African government of that time in my youth had a very real reason to fear "Die Rooi Gevaar", or as it has been labeled, "The Total Onslaught". Mozambique had fallen to a Communist regime in 1975, as had Angola, despite our best efforts to intervene. By the time I received my force number, Rhodesia was under extreme pressure. If South West Africa fell, it left poor Botswana as the sole democratic front-line state. (I won't count Swaziland or Lesotho as "states").
When I got my force number, I went into "gung-ho mode": A son of a friend of my dad had served in the Parabats, and I got an old set of browns from him, as well as an old Parabat "bunny jacket" (they called them bum-freezers). I resuscitated my Dad's air-force boots, and I would to pitch up at school cadet drill parades in this gear.....I got some very funny looks, but then again, I never was normal, and always pretty much marched to the beat of my own drum, even today.
In any case, I spent standards 8, 9, and 10 running 2,4 km, as well as doing the Trim park circuit at Tuks sports grounds. I ran every day, and also played rugby and hockey during winter. I remember looking back after my first year of National Service, and realizing that I was a fool to think I was either fit or prepared enough for military training in an Infantry Battalion.
Due to a little "tiff" with my step-mother, I ran away from home after my last Matric exam, and moved into a room at my girl-friend's house out in the smallholdings near Bronkhorstspruit. Her dad got me a job at Grinaker Electronics in Waltloo, and I spent a month working at the Fighting Vehicles Department, fitting out communications shelters (22ft containers filled with the latest radio equipment) for SADF Signals regiments. I'm not too much of an electronics buff, but even I was impressed that these things had 1 KiloWatt radio amplifiers. And I chased my hormones. By the time I reported for National Service at Pretoria Station on 12 January 1981, all my training had been lost.
"Inklaar Dag": I remember being dropped at the station by my girl-friend and her parents, with just a suit-case, and with hundreds of conscripts walking around with stunned, shocked faces: This couldn't be happening!
At the main door of Pretoria station, army personnel were checking for call-up instructions, and comparing names to lists. We got sent to different parts of the platform, depending on our destination and musterings, but from what I could see that day, we were mostly all going to Potch.
As we all got shoved into train carriages, I remember that I had never before felt so alone and unable to control my destiny. It was a feeling that would never completely leave me for the whole duration of my 2 years. That feeling, that loss of control of my own life, was one of the major reasons why I never joined Permanent Force, even when they made it very tempting to sign a short-term contract.
The train started its journey, and slowly we started making friends and acquaintance with those around us. Funnily enough, two of the guys I met on that train stayed my friends through the whole 2 years, and through some of my roughest times. I still miss those guys:
Zane van der N was a pretty weird guy from Halfway House (now Midrand). Medium height, with long sun-bleached blond hair, he had been a competing body-builder during high-school, and a track athlete of some skill. Glen F was a short, stocky guy from Moloto north of Pretoria, and a real extrovert. He had been head-boy or something at CBC (Christian Brothers College), and 1st team rugby captain. Probably flyhalf.
Finally, after stopping at just about every little hick station between Pretoria and Potch, we arrived at a station inside Potch University (Potchefstroom Universiteit vir Christelike Hoe Onderwys - Pukke). I think the station was called Kaserne. It felt like days, but we'd only been on the train about 4 hours.
As soon as we got off the train, there was pandemonium! Corporals were screaming at everybody in Afrikaans, and conscripts were running around like flies around a dog-turd. Eventually, everybody was lined up in 3's, and for the first time in national service, we were told to count off from the right. This didn't take as long as one might think, as our Cadet training kicked in.
We were told to pick up our "civvy shit", to left-face, and to forward march. It was more of a fast walk actually, but that didn't stop the continual abuse and running commentary from the instructors.
After marching for about 2 Km's through a deserted university campus, we swung through a gate into our "home": 3 SA Infantry base. To my unpracticed eye, everything looked square, straight, or at right-angles. In retrospect, that wasn't far wrong: everything in Infantry bases IS square, straight, or at right angles; that's what makes RSMs happy...
Our first stop was the mess, where we were graciously allowed to eat 2 slices of dry bread between which a square of rancid butter had been slapped, and a styrofoam cup of weak colddrink. Jam was optional, if you could wrestle it away from the flies and bees. Welcome to the army! At that point, I truly started regretting not going to Varsity first. Not that my father had really provided the option.
Many guys started pulling "civvy food" out of their suitcases. I thought about it, and then realized that I wasn't starving yet, and might have a bigger need for my biltong and stuff later. It proved to be a wise decision.
In no time at all, we were back in ranks of 3, and off for registration, medical, and haircuts. By the end of the day, I knew my force number off by heart. Afrikaans wasn't a problem for me, being bilingual, but some English guys really suffered.
Even though I had bad eyesight and flattish feet, there I went: G1K1, medically fit for combat training. I also saw one guy with only one arm. He also stayed. The medical exam was a farce: if you could get there on your own power, you were OK. I doubt if the medical orderlies even knew what a hernia was: I think they just enjoyed feeling the other guys' balls. I think they realized the training would weed the useless ones out soon enough.
The haircuts were the only high-light of the whole day: we went into hysterics at the sight of some of the people: I didn't even recognize Zane after his hair-cut. The barbers were from town, and they had a ball. There was only one length: Number 1. That's an electric clipper with the finest-tooth comb available, a "# 1". Our hair was so short, we couldn't even grip it with our finger-tips. We were to bless the hair-styles later, when maintaining hygiene in the bush became difficult. But most high school boys are proud of their hair, and set great stock on their hair as being an extension of their personalities, so being sheep-sheared like that was a real leveler.
From there, we were off to the QM stores, still carting our suitcases, bags, and hold-alls like a bunch of teen-age refugees in a world gone Orwellian.
At the QM, we had to queue in alphabetical order, and then go through the process of measurement, issue, and signing. Walking out the other side, we had: a steel trunk (trommel), filled with blanket, sheets, pillow, pillow-case, and eating tray (varkpan); a kit-bag (balsak) filled with 3 x overalls, 3 pairs browns, 2 pairs boots, webbing, rucksack, water-bottle, vests, 3 x underpants, 3 x socks, scarf, balaclava, cammo-net, helmet, and a dozen other items. One person couldn't possibly carry his own stuff, so we moved off to our designated area on the other side of the parade ground in pairs, coming back for everything in trips.
At some point, a staff sergeant walked past, and tore a strip off a corporal because we were in civvy clothes ("Wat maak hierdie fokking civvies op my paradegrond, Korporaal?"). We were ordered to strip immediately, and put on overalls, army socks and boots. There we were, several hundred guys stripping down in the middle of a parade ground. Truly bizarre. Overalls were to be our preferred dress for the whole of basics.
After sitting around for hours, suddenly a line of old Bedfords roared down the road, and pulled up next to each other in a line on the other side of the parade ground. Suddenly, after waiting all afternoon, with the sun almost gone, we were led to believe that it was imperative that we only have 30 seconds to move our kit 100 meters. Once again, pandemonium, as we tried to move a mountain of kit instantaneously.
By then, some of the guys had started muttering about this little snot-nosed Corporal. Unfortunately, he heard us, and we did our first little jog for PW Botha - up and down the road, touch the boundary wire, come back ("Gaan raak die draad, rowers"). This continued for a while, and some of the unfortunates were still paired up on trommels, and had to run with these beastly objects. Finally we were "embussed" (klim in die Bedfords, rowers). The kit was bundled onto trailers.
Then we waited for ages until the last poor bastards got their kit and climbed onto a Bedford. By now, it was dark, we were cramped in like sardines, and everybody was very quiet, probably thinking about home, like I was.
Suddenly, the engines started, and off we went through the base, out the gate, into a suburb that glowed with street lights. I suddenly felt totally alienated from that civilian world. It was amazing how quickly the SADF had detached us from the real world.
Then we swung off the tar, onto a dirt road, and we were subjected to 30 minutes of choking dust and bumps. After what seems much longer, we swung off the road, bumped down a dirt track past some dark trees, and stopped. The corporals had disappeared. I think they stayed behind in town, the sods. All the driver did was open the tailgate and tell us we must have our kit off in an hour.
It was dark. When I mean dark, it was almost pitch black, with only starlight for illumination. Zane, Glen, and myself realized we had a torch between the 3 of us, and we started getting our stuff off the trailer. We'd had the presence of mind earlier to mark our kit with masking tape we found at the QM, otherwise we'd never have come right.
Over near the trees were lines and lines of 5m x 5m army tents, so we found an empty one, and moved in. There were 6 beds with mattresses per tent, and eventually 3 other guys moved in: I don't remember their names any more. We finally settled down after midnight, and fell asleep.
So now we found ourselves in tents in good old Bloekombos, about 10 Kms outside of Potch on the Klerksdorp road. Over the next couple of days, more and more guys arrived. If I remember correctly, eventually there were over 900 troops housed in a huge square of 150 tents. We were to be temporarily called Foxtrot Company, if I remember correctly. This was the company that would be used to select likely candidates for, among other musterings, Infantry School. Those that were selected would be sent to the Infantry School at Oudtshoorn.
From day 1, we were subjected to the standard "rower" (scab: name for a raw recruit) indoctrination: we ran everywhere, we always had our helmet-liners on ("doibies"), except when we, ate, slept, or prayed.
I started learning Afrikaans curses and swear-words I never could have imagined. We were woken up 3 or 4 times every night to call the roll. Can you imagine how long it takes to read 900+ names? We used to run the obligatory laps - "Om die bome, om die tente, om die kakhuis. Daar gaat julle, rowers!" (Round the trees, round the tents, round the shithouse). Think about it: 900 guys running circuits, with the dust thick in your lungs. The "trees" were a copse of bluegum trees about 400m x 100m, the shithouse was a pair of 4mx8m tents erected over a line of long-drops about 400m to the north, and the huge square of 150 tents made up the eastern part of the triangle, and must have measured about 100m x 75m. You can just imagine. I started to realize at this point that Infantry training at Potch was going to be no picnic.
Basic Training had started. During about 2 weeks of seemingly aimless PT (it was to weed the useless from the pack), we started endless lessons regarding drill, military protocol and practice.
After 4 or more weeks, we were issued our new R4's, straight out of the vacuum-packs. These were the post-wooden R4's, with tubular riveted stocks, and small fore-sights. It took us weeks to get them clean, and every time they were in the sun, more grease baked out around studs and rivets and collected dust.
Our tents had sand floors, and each bed had a steel "kas" (cabinet) next to it: you know the one, 2 sliding doors with shelves on one side and hanging space on the other. At some point, it started to rain, and for a week-and-a-half, our tents were 8 inches under water. Since our trommels couldn't stay under our beds anymore, we slept with them on the foot of our beds. Nevertheless, everything in the trommel got wet, and our stuff started to rot.
I cursed my civvy suitcase, as well as all the crap that I'd brought with because the National Service Induction Guide said we should: floor polish, iron, scrubbing brushes, steel-wool, and so on. What use in a tent? I finally sold the whole thing, with my civvies, to an Ou Man driver for R10.
After 10 weeks of basics, they started separating us into musterings, so that we could complete basics with our new units, where applicable. I was picked for Officers Training Course at Oudtshoorn, but I declined the mustering. If I look back after all these years, I reckon I was just chicken that I'd fail, and have to RTU. I suppose I have a lot of fear, as you will read later (if you don't fall asleep first). One of the officers, a Lt. Andy Birrell, tried to change my mind, but I was adamant: I wanted to stick with my mates. He told me I was making a mistake....
We were offered other units: Sappers, Bikes, Medics, Parabats, and so on.
Instead, cunts that we were, we volunteered for Section Leaders. The end-of-basics parade was held , and so while most of this massive company split up and moved away, we spent 2 weeks taking down tents, and replacing our kit at the QM. We left around 25 tents standing, and found that odd.
Hell, we thought, this SL course is going to be tame, and then we get rank in any case. Shit, were we wrong.
We were shipped back to base and pushed into some tents just outside the main company lines.
For a while, we got away with attending parades, and we thought we'd been forgotten. Not so: we were found, and sent to populate a set of bungalows in what would become Bravo company lines. But at that stage, that company was still in tents, and I can only assume that the lines used to belong to Charlie or Delta Company, who were on the border. Again, we thought SL's was going to be OK: bungalows, hey! Wrong again. We were there long enough to learn to hate bungalows: they needed extra cleaning, and there was suddenly no excuse for dust in the barrel of the R4!
If I remember correctly, Section Leaders was 16 weeks, from the beginning of April until the end of July. We would deploy to our new companies then, ready to lead our sections, we hoped.
Glen F, Zane vd N and I were still together. The Three Stooges/Musketeers?
There were about 200 guys on Section Leaders to start off, but we were told right at the start that selection would weed out 50%. We were now officially part of Alpha Company, for the time being.
Never, during the entire SL course, did we get any preferential treatment. In fact, I reckon our instructors went out of their way to grind us in front of the other troops. Almost to say: "See, these guys are better".
After a month in bungalows, it was time for "verlof". In that month, while other the normal companies were easing into the Second Phase of Basics (non-combat troops only ever get to see the First Phase of 12 weeks: Second Phase lasts another 8!) we had already started learning about squad weapons, and were also deep into Conventional Warfare lectures, which were usually held either up next to the Bravo Coy mess, at the mini veldkuns area next to the base, or some kilos out towards Dirkie Uys skietbaan.
We were to leave on pass early Friday morning: or so we thought: four glorious days in civvy street. The normal rigmarole applied for this pass: opfok, rondfok, opfok, rondfok. We started off with an inspection at 06h00 in Browns, the inspection, needless to say, was a disaster: fault was found with everything. Our bungalow was dirty, we were also, somebody hadn't shaved perfectly, etc, etc. After 2 hours of PT up and down Bravo Coy lines ("Sien jy die draad daar onder? Raak die draad!"), we had 5 mins to shower and change into Step-outs. More opfok. Back into Browns....opfok.....step-outs. Push-ups in step-outs? You daren't touch the ground with anything else but your hands and toes, chum, or else you're dirty. And then you can't go on pass, can you? Fire-man's lift, sheep-lift, baby-carry, and on, and on, and on. Eventually at around 10h30, somebody's parents at the gate complained. The instructors relented, but promised to continue the fun when we got back......we had no doubts about that anyway.
And so, off we went, for our first pass.
Zane's dad gave me a lift to an off-ramp on the Ben Schoeman, near Kyalami, and it was easy enough to get a lift through to Meyerspark: roughly 3 hours from Potch main gate to home. Some poor bastards from Port Elizabeth and East London spent 24 hours on busses and in cars.
The four days passed very quickly: I touched base with some friends, slept late, and even fetched my 100cc scrambler from my so-recently ex-girlfriend (I had received the Dear Johnny letter during basics). The bike had no electricals, and I rode it home in the dark along the old Bronkies road.....the things I did and got away with...
Monday came too quickly, but I got to Zane's place in time, and the trip back to Potch was spent in silence. As we got closer to Potch, the familiar sinking feeling started coming back. It was a feeling I would associate with military bases for many years.
We were no sooner in our bungalows that afternoon, than we were told to get into browns: "Ons gaan nou daai civvy kak uit jou uit kry, fokkers!"
Since we had been doing squad weapons, and our R4s were still in the weapon store, it was natural that we were given Brens for the opfok. Thank God I had remembered the drills: switching mags, IA drills, stoppages, barrels swops, gunner 1 & 2 rotation. After about 30 minutes, I was allowed to sit it out for a while, as the other poor idiots who hadn't paid attention did Bren-gun PT. That thing is normally heavy anyway, but when in the high port position.....
And all the time, the subtle questioning regarding dropping out: "you can stop any time; just tell us, you can be back with your company immediately." I can't remember how many did, but quite a few fell away at every stage. As I said, I think we started off with about 200 hopefuls. By the time we were finished SLs, they had to quickly find extra section 2ICs, as we were short....that means more than 100 dropped out in some way or other.
I remember at one stage while we were in bungalows, we ran back from the shooting range with poles, and around the airfield as well, but that was all part of the "fun"...
Suddenly, after 2 weeks or so in base, we were told to pack up. Within a day, we were back at Bloekombos, in the tents we had left standing. To me, it felt like being home...
Now that we were away from the constraints and confines of base routine, training started in earnest. We realized that our time in base had just been to accommodate the leave cycle, and to weed out any weaklings.
The routine became the following, as far as I remember:
06h30-07h00 Prepare for inspection
07h00 Inspection, prep for lectures
07h30-09h30 Lectures, battle-drills, etc
10h30-13h30 Lectures etc
16h30-until dark: Battle PT
Sometimes the Battle PT started after Tea and went on all afternoon. Battle PT is, in effect, PT with normal combat gear: helmet, webbing and rifle. By then, the webbing had been fleshed out to 3 x R4 ammo pouches and 3 water-bottles. All bottles had to be full at the start of PT, and all pouches should have gravel inside. Extra magazines were left in the tents. The kidney pouches had to have the dixies inside, and we had to have gravel in the dixies.
With between 5 and 8 hours of lectures per day, we were also being exposed to a huge amount of military information every day.
The daily program concluded as follows:
19h00-21h00 Own time, washing, etc.
21h00-22h00 Study time (and they checked!)
22h00 Bible time (and they checked!)
22h30 Lights out
This routine was basically followed for 6 days out of the 7. On Sundays, we didn't get lectures, we just got more opfok. Several times the Dominee was sent away because we were too busy with Battle PT somewhere in the Bloekombos valley.
A favourite habit of Cpl Sparks Reyneke was to sneak between the tent-lines and peek into tents. If you didn't have a book or bible in your face during the appropriate time, it meant the WHOLE tent did extra PT the next day, and you got a "marble": a 20kg cube of cement, about 30cmx30cmx30cm. A bitch of a thing to carry, but at least it wasn't round or smooth. I avoided that thing like the plague. Consequently, I ended up being very up to date with my studying! Zane and I used to score in the top 10% on every test, and it became a mini competition between us.
Formal exams were written every couple of weeks, but from the start there was some serious corruption. Some of the "good old boys" that were into the instructor's bum-holes were given the answers during the exams. This pissed Zane and me off no-end, but there was nothing we could do. The practice continued until graduation, and I guess about 10% of the SL graduates actually failed their theory, and indeed, most of their practical exams too. I now realize that the leader group had a serious tight-rope to walk: how to maintain some standards while keeping the English/Afrikaans demographics from getting out of hand. Probably the same issue they have today....
I can't remember too much of the time on SLs, except to say that we were always tired and hungry. All the push-ups, sit-ups and buddy PT just blends into one memory. Of course, we did all the training at an accelerated pace, as we had to be ahead of the sections we were to lead later. So we effectively finished our infantry training in half the time.
There was one very funny incident: we kept on being sent up the hill behind Bloekombos to fetch leaves or to go see what was on the other side. At one stage, Reyneke asked one trainee what he had seen. He replied: "Ek het pantserkarre en tente gesien (I saw armoured cars and tents)". Reyneke was incensed by this blatant lying, so we all had to go and see. And true enough, a squadron of Eland 90s was parked over the hill.....
I do remember that the theoretical content of the lectures was quite advanced: we did command and control lectures up to a battalion commander level, which was probably too high for most of the target audience. Perhaps the reason for the "assistance"?
The practical drills were up to a Platoon Commander level, and we all had turns commanding a platoon during live-fire exercises.
We did so many live-fire exercises, some guys actually had to have their R4s replaced. I think there was an issue with the ammo and the number of turns of rifling in the barrel, I'm not sure. Could just have been poor maintenance.
I also had to have my R4 replaced, but for the following reason:
We were practicing 2-phase platoon live-fire attacks, with an LMG off on the left flank providing covering fire. Zane and I got our turn to be LMG group, so when the attack started, the drill was that the platoon returned fire, and we sprinted up the side of the saddle of the hill to the Bren emplacement. When we got there the first time, the instructors had decided that the acting Platoon Commander had duffed something, so we got sent back down. Half-way down, I tripped, and to save myself, I ditched my R4. I ended up breaking the cocking lever and front sight off the weapon. The weapon tiffy was not impressed, but I was one of the first to get a second-generation R4, with the new folding butt and larger front sight. And all the fire-and-movement cooked the grease out soon enough.
Two other incidents are still fresh in my mind: the syndicate vasbyt, and the final forced march.
The syndicate vasbyt was supposedly modeled on the Oudtshoorn vasbyt: except that it was shorter (24 hours) and there were no mountains, just plenty of hills. We were divided into syndicates, or teams, of 20 or so. The idea was that we had to get to a series of check-points as a group, find the map co-ordinates for the next checkpoint that were hidden in the area, and move on, finishing with finding a final message, all within 24 hours. Something like wide-area orienteering, which I had done ad naseum in Boy Scouts. For me, this was bread and butter stuff. I could find north without a compass, and a map was like an open book to me. I'd been navigating with topo maps and a compass since I was 12. Some of the jokers couldn't work out back-bearings or True North.
The other problem here was that we were carrying full Marching Order: full kit, with clothing, sleeping bags, bivvies, ground-sheet. The whole shebang, barring the kitchen sink. Roughly 30kgs of dead weight. We started off well enough, but by 22h00 we realized two things: we had missed the crucial message at the last check-point on some hill, and now the syndicate was fighting. Some guys, including Zane, had decided to sleep until first light, and then to enter base and declare we had all gotten lost.
Now, with us on the SL course were guys I think were called "Ops Clerks": guys that would end up being seconded to battle group HQs, and who had to have a high level of combat skills to fit into a place like that. Myself and one of these guys decided that we were not going to give up and lose the syndicate competition, and we were going to leave our kit and back-track about 7kms and try and find a hidden beer-bottle with a message inside. On a hill. In the dark. Without a torch. And we did.......we got back to the syndicate after 01h00, where they were still sulking in the TB. Most of them were asleep. We 2 were about dead on our feet, we were scratched and torn, and we'd fallen over or into countless rocks, logs and holes.
But we did it. And we were the second syndicate home. This proved to be a turning point in my development as a SL, indeed as a person.
You have to understand that when I got to 3 SAI, I was introverted, self-conscious and undeniably without self-confidence or leadership reserves, despite the fact that I had been a Scout patrol leader for many years. After just 5 months, I was realizing that I could influence people. To me, that was a paradigm shift. I still had a long way to go, but suddenly I could see a road ahead.
I'm sorry I never saw that Ops Clerk again after SLs, he was REAL, man. All I remember is that he was some Soutie from Jo'burg.
The second incident and also the final selection hurdle was the forced march. Once again, full marching order. This time, we were dropped off just outside Potch in groups, and had to make the 10kms back to Bloekombos in 60 minutes. Now, let me put this into perspective: a really fast walk is around 6 km/h. A 2.4km with webbing and R4 is run at about 20 km/h. We had to do 10km in an hour with full kit. A straight road, so no short-cuts. I made it with 3 minutes to spare. Many fell out of SLs on this final test.
Once again, this taught me something: that if you have the commitment and desire to complete something, you can and will. At that stage I was damned if I was going to fail, I'd put in too much effort.
Finally, the Section Leader course was over. I was fitter than I'd ever been, before or since. Suddenly, I was finishing runs in the top 10, not the last 10.
The results were handed out:
Jakes: Section Leader
Glen: Section Leader
Zane: Section 2IC
Zane was gutted. A natural athlete with an above average IQ, I think his only failing was that he moaned under pressure. I tended to shut up and sulk (Zane even called me the Incredible Sulk), and Glen just stayed Glen (naughty bugger). But Zane complained. He was too much of a micro-manager, I suppose, and hated inefficiency. He's a very good Project Manager now, I hear, and that makes sense!
Why do I mention Zane specifically? Well, that I will soon reveal....
We had our End Of Course party at Bloekombos, and all I remember was Glen F, drunk as a skunk on 4 beers, running straight through the tent from one side to the other, making Buffel engine noises.....and Sgt Scrivener, newly-promoted Sgt Reyneke, and another Sgt from the LWT passing out around their fire.....I don't know if this was the time Reyneke was saved from burning to death in the fire because he passed out, but it might just have been...
With SLs over, we were posted to our "new" companies. Glen, Zane and I wangled the queue (we were learning...) so that we all got assigned to Bravo Coy.
Glen got his own section in Platoon 3, and Zane and I were sent to Platoon 1, under Cpl Steyn (more about this character later). Hmmmm.....guess who became my 2IC in Section 1? Yep, Zane.
Over the next 6 months, the only reason I coped with all the new problems associated with being an SL, was Zane. It's not that he provided support: in fact, he was often more critical of my dubious leadership than the rest of the section: no, it just helped that I had an ally. And his criticism was often a God-send, catching me from doing something stupid. Here's to you Zane, may the road rise up to meet you, comrade.
The start of my new deployment was rough. Very rough. We hadn't been given stripes, not even one. I suppose the leader group wanted to see if there were more dropouts. Very wise, because the first 2 months was a VERY stressful bonding period. And some leader-group elements didn't help us at all.....Steyn, for instance. He would make sure he never missed an opportunity to drive a wedge between the new SLs and the troops. What was his problem? I found out later.......
We were in base in Bravo Coy's new bungalows (coincidentally the same row as when we were there at the start of SLs) for 4 weeks, finishing off conventional training with our new companions. Enough to rediscover my dislike for a structured base routine and fixed inspections.....I remember Steyn giving us pole PT around and around the line of bungalows next to the Artillery School fence....
While we were in base, the new SLs and section 2ICs in our platoon had a huge fight with the troops. This cleared the air, but all I remember is Zane vd N standing on his bed and waiting for people to attack him, then either snap-kicking them into the corner, or else performing some really cool judo stuff on them. I just did my best not to get smacked: I wasn't a big fighter back then.
In this period, we spent a week in trenches, finishing off Conventional Training with the battalion. It was so cold, 1-liter water-bottles froze solid over-night. I won't discuss digging trenches into the bed-rock of the Potch hills, which are part of the larger Witwatersrand Bowl complex, but you can imagine...
We finally got our first stripes: the SLs were marched off to the QM and were each given a nice new shiny pair of nutria stripes (kameelbyte). I still remember my heart swelling in my chest when I pulled those horrible silk-screened things over my rolled-up shirt-sleeves.
Then back to Bloekombos for COIN and final prep for the Operational Area. This translated into section and platoon Battle Drills, COIN movement drills, vehicle drills, and endless sessions of fire-and-movement. At one stage, the tendons and ligaments in my knees became so inflamed, I couldn't bend my legs. And if I bent them, I couldn't straighten them....
It was during this period at Bloekombos, where we slept in bivvies, that it snowed in Jo'burg (Sept 1981). A slushy type of frozen sleet feel in Potch, and I have NEVER been so cold. But the training went on....
One funny incident occurred when we were doing vehicle IA drills: instead of dropping the sides of the Buffel when debussing for an attack, we had to jump over the top. Now that is easily an 8-foot drop. After the umpteenth attack, I misjudged my landing, and somehow my chin connected with my knee, and I knocked myself lights-out. Everybody thought it was funny. I didn't, it was bloody painful. I was lucky: I saw some guys perform face-plants and various other stunts.
At the end of September, there was a pre-selection for Junior Recces. Some of us did this pre-selection (3.2km run, push-ups, buddy PT, etc), and quite a few of us passed this, but I didn't go do the course. I suppose the thought of another 3 months of pain at the Bluff in Durban and DukuDuku sort of put me off, just for the dubious pleasure of wearing a little badge above one pocket....(A Junior Recce, as far as I remember, was NOT entitled to be called an operator: he simply got a badge of a Compass Rose on a red background that he could wear over one browns shirt pocket, like a tracker badge (ratel). If I remember correctly, the idea was to add skills to the standard infantry, but I think the idea didn't catch on, and fell away after a couple of years.)
And unless you have also experienced extended periods of physical training, you won't understand that being pushed at that level all the time is extremely painful, both physically and mentally. By then, we had been exposed to 10 months of physical and mental abuse, including our time on SLs which was much worse than for the normal trainee. I take my hat off to the guys that become Recces, if just for the fact that they finish their selection, let alone for their technical skills. We had had 3 or 4 guys that RTU'd from 1 Para Bn, and all of them said that Parabat training was no worse than 3 SAI: the only difference was the jump training, and that's where all 3 had fallen out due to various reasons like injury, fear of heights, and so on. One of these guys was another volunteer: Virginio Ponte, an Italian, whose father owned the Ponte Building in Jo'burg.
Hugely nice guy, big and as strong as an ox. A blonde Italian!
So instead of Junior Recces, we SLs were issued our 2nd stripe, the 2ICs got their "kameelbyte", and on 1 October, 1981, we stepped into the C-130s for our flight to Grootfontein...
Four hours later, we stepped out of the plane into a 40-degree oven. What a shock from the late winter in SA. On to "wit olifante": 20-ton Mercedes drop-side trucks, and off we went. The next stop was Oshigambo, 53BN, Sector 10. This was a small permanent company base about 35kms NNE of Oshikati on the Wit Pad to Eenhana. The primary strategic reasons were: area dominance of that section of mid Ovamboland, mine-sweeping of the Wit Pad, and protection of the water-towers (Echo and Delta, if I remember correctly).
What a dump! When we got there, some CF unit was there, and they had done zero base-maintenance. There were no elevated water tanks, and therefore all water came from rubber bladder-tanks that were refilled on an infrequent basis from dubious sources. The base was filthy, and the kitchen a cesspool.
Within 2 days, we went out on patrol to allow the CF unit to sign everything back and leave for SA.
The patrol started off badly. At that stage, our PelBev was a huge Afrikaner teacher from Potch (Badenhorst?), who played rugby for Western Tvl. And the PelSers was Steyn, with his new bush rank of Sgt making his arms look like they were on localized steroids ("pampoen armpies"). We got lost. We ran out of water. We had tins of beans and beetroot instead of rat packs. After 6 days, I was CASEVACed with dysentery or something similar: I was shitting and puking simultaneously. Maybe the dead goat in the one water-hole had something to do with it....
So, on my 19th birthday, I was in sick-bay on a drip.....
When the platoon got back, we all got an opfok for being such shit troops...for me, shit was the operative word.
Things got no better: I never really got rid of the squirts in my time in Sector 10, but the medics kept me supplied with a daily stock of Lomatil and Immodium, so I didn't have another "incident".
Things with Steyn and the Loot got worse, and came to a head on Boxing Day, when they gave us an opfok for displaying a Christmas spirit. That evening, Steyn and the Loot found an LMG 7.62 round under each of their pillows, and at around 19h00, after Stand To, a shot went off and a bullet went right through their tent while they were in it. Neither of them was hit, but nobody ever owned up either.
Three days later, they were on the plane back to RSA. They got the message.
We had a temporary leader-element for a couple of weeks, and then we got a PelBev and PelSers that were due to finish up in June.
Things were OK after that, and we settled into a comfortable 4-4-8-4 routine:
4 days in base, 8 days on patrol, 4 days at Echo Tango, 4 days patrol. We ranged the area, from the deep south-west near Ondangwa, to the Etale road in the west, up to the pipe-line to Eenhana in the north, and to the huge haak-and-steek forests in the east. We crossed some spoor, but Koevoet or Romeo Mike always got the kills. We saw the tail-end of at least one Op: Protea, Daisy or maybe even Super, when we did an all-night forced march to deploy on the cut-line half-way between Etale and Eenhana, and then walked all the way back. We were also sent to Etale once, and patrolled around Santa Clara for 4 days, before being pulled back. We did our share of mine-sweeping, and our company had its fair share of mines: one of the mines destroyed the trailer with our kit going to Echo Tower, and another mine nearly killed the Dominee coming from Oshakati. I saw a Buffel literally flatten a Ford F100 at the t-junction of the Wit Pad and the Ondangwa tar road: the Buffel fell sideways onto the Ford F100, which ended up being 30cms high.
I nearly shot a SWA Police TIN Reserve Constable near Delta Tower: we met on a path near a cuca shop, and the only thing that saved him was that he shouted "Polisie!" The idiot was in cammos and armed with a Heckler and Koch G3, walking around in an area dominated by NDPs. Brave or stupid? We let him go after he showed his ID, but I was badly shaken. Anybody who says it's easy to kill somebody the first time is crazy.
I nearly shot myself by mistake on one patrol, but apart from saying that it was a close thing indeed, I'd like to draw a veil on that, if I may. I don't know if my ego could survive the detail of that being in the public domain. Suffice to say, it was a life-altering moment, to be sure.
We did normal stuff as well, such as doing rat-runs, being morning mine-sweeper escorts and doing security detail for VIPs.
Near the end of our rotation, who should join us as CSM? None other than Sparks Reyneke, with a new rank of Staff Sgt. On his way up, indeed. I think he'd been on course in the interim. He managed to get the base sorted, and the food and kitchen improved 100%. Morale went up.
After 4 months, we were rotated home, to a very welcome 2-week leave.
I bought a Suzuki PE250, a great under-powered pig of a bike, and went riding with my old school friends, Andre H and Lucky N. Andre was exempt from NDP, being one of the Thalidomide babies. He was born with a deformed left hand, but he came out all right, and his disability didn't slow him down in the least. He was a trainee manager at Clicks. Lucky was the only boy in his family, and had to run the family business (Greek café). Anyway, I suspect he managed to miss a call-up because foreigners were still exempt in 1981.
When we got back to Potch after leave, we were told that we were off to De Aar to stand guard until the new intake had worked out which end of a weapon was dangerous. So, until almost mid-March, we stood guard at 97 Ammo Depot. We pulled out of there just in time: combat troops shouldn't do that type of job, and we were all getting slack and out of hand. One morning, I was still so drunk while on guard at 07h00 that I saluted a colonel without having a beret on. He must have been a useless old base-wallah, or else CSM Reyneke intercepted the complaint, because nothing happened to me.
When we got back to Potch, we did some 2.4kms to see if we were still fit (I ran my best 2.4 time here: 8min50secs), did the required kit-swops and admin, and then it was onto the C-130s at Potch AFB, and we landed at Ondangwa this time. The spiral final descent was very interesting....
We were assigned to 52BN, HQ at Ogongo: we deployed to a base up near Ruacana called Mahenene. It used to be a fish project; probably tilapia farming, and all the dams and sheds were still there waiting for peace-time to come. The only problem in summer was the mosquitoes. These bastards could penetrate a browns shirt, and they came in swarms.
When we got there, a company of the SAKK was resident, and once again, the place was a mess. CSM Reyneke, true to form, quickly assessed the situation and executed his plans. After a month, we had a new latrine, a pool, and a new mess. The NCO/Officers pub had been revamped and base security and defenses had been sorted. Thank God for that, as you will see later. There was ample water, being slap-bang on top of the main Ruacana-Ombalantu canal, so most of our patrols were great. The Angola patrols tended to be short of water though.
Our newish Loot and Sarge turned out to be strict but good (I might remember the names at some stage), and as Section Leaders, we were given more responsibility and leadership roles.
In the 6 months we were deployed at Mahanene, I must have spent at least 30 days inside Angola, as our base was only 6kms from the cut line, and we had official permission to patrol inside for at least 30 kms, but we never received any recognition for "external operations". Reyneke and the OC had also changed the patrol and base rotation, and we did a 5-3 split: 5 day patrol, 3 days in base, occasionally a huge 10-day patrol deep into Angola, with ration re-supply on the cut-line. A maximum of 2 platoons would be in base at any one time, and the first night after coming back in was always reserved for a platoon braai & beer ("Tjop en dop"). The other 2 nights we stood guard. That meant that the HQ platoon and Mortar platoons did their fair share of guard duty, make no mistake, in return for their life of "leisure".
At the beginning of this deployment, we were only equipped with standard R4s and FN-MAGs. Suddenly, after a month, we were equipped with a lot of new, lovely goodies: new RPG-7s, one per platoon, as well as a 60mm PatMor per platoon, and also an M-79 40mm grenade-launcher per platoon. My section had most of the skills: Richter (Space Muis/Reisies Rot) and Odgers (Podgy Odgy) were the RPG gunners, Du Toit had the PatMor and Erlank was the Medic, Zane and Ficq (a Belgian volunteer) were the Maggers. We carried 1000 rounds of 7.62 in belts, 10 x 60mm PatMor bombs, and around 7 RPG rounds, all in one section. As well as our personal R4s, with 210 rounds front-line ammo.
Section 2, I think, under Cpl Reynders, had the M-79 for a while, and then we took that as well. All these "spes" guys were picked on the basis of 2 things: they had to show profiency, and they had to volunteer. I was happy: if my section was hit, I had enough fire-power to level a company base......
The only problem with this new fire-power was the weight. Suddenly, our old webbing "grootsak" back-packs were being strained to their limits.
Here's a breakdown of my average kit:
5 x day rations ("rat packs"): 1 kgs each = 5 kgs
5 x liters water: 1 kg each = 5 kgs
7 x R4 magazines: 1 kg each = 7 kgs
5 x assorted grenades: 1 kg each = 5 kgs
3 x assorted flares: 500g each = 1.5 kgs
100 rounds 7.62 = 5 kgs
1 x 60mm PatMor = 3 kgs
A53 man pack radio = 5 kgs
5 x batteries = 5 kgs
1 x sleeping bag = 3 kgs
TOTAL = 44.5 kgs
I've "guesstimated" the rat-pack weight, as well as the PatMor round.
Add to this an R4 at 4 kgs, and you get an idea that the first day of patrol was a bit of a hump.
Substitute my radio for an LMG, PatMor, RPG, or just extra ammo, and you will see we all carried heavy. And apart from the food and water, the weight never varied!
Interestingly enough, none of the guys left extra ammo in base, they rather took less food! I remember one guy had an "auction" after 3 months: he had so much extra rat-pack food, he couldn't keep on hiding it in a hole under the tent!
By the way, the old webbing kidney pouches and the old grootsak both had integrated ammo-pouches for R1 magazines: these were perfect for grenades! I could even trust the Eveready batteries for the A53 to stay in the pouches on the grootsak.
Luckily, summer was warm enough that those of us who had been "clever" at the QM stores, could take the "inner-bags" for our sleeping bags on patrol, instead of the regular sleeping-bag. This, with a ground-sheet, was more than enough on those hot summer nights. And in winter, our water usage was less, so we didn't mind the weight of the full sleeping bag.
It was at Mahanene that I met Sgt Chris Vlok, ex-32Bn, ex-Rhodesian Light Infantry. He had been in the RLI with Sgt Scrivener. He was on his 2nd contract with the SADF, and since there seemed to be certain rules regarding redeployment of ex-pat Rhodesians, he had been seconded to 52 Bn as an armoury NCO.
We also had a mutual acquaintance, a certain Lt A.N., who was then still in 32Bn. So Chris and I became great drinking buddies on the days I was in base, and we were very naughty. One night the gate guard had to call CSM Reyneke from his bed, because Chris Vlok and I, in browns pants, Bravo Coy t-shirts and Infantry Berets, armed with only an R4 and a single magazine each, pissed as newts, were off to kill gooks.
We earned several extra duties for that.
We had our share of contacts and incidents at Mahanene, and for the most part, patrols were interesting and exciting, with our PelBev doing his best to be creative within the operational parameters he had been given. We got to know the 30km x 30km stretch of Angola near our base quite well....
Right at the beginning of our tour, I was tasked to guard a CONCOR road unit camp somewhere between Ombalantu and Ogongo. We packed our kit, drew some rations, and were dropped at an artificial water-hole where the graders and things were parked. That was it: no further orders.
It was an exposed position: the bush had been cleared for 200m meters around the dam. No cover. So I put our bivvies inside the huge dam, on the dam walls. We dug a bunker for the LMG, facing north.
After a couple of days, Zane and I were being slack and chilling in the bush to the north, when one of the vehicle guards called me: there was a Grootkop at the TB. I hurriedly pulled on my boots and galloped over the exposed plain. And there he was: the CO of the battalion. I was in a tizzy, he was furious. Why were we there? How could we camp in the dam?
I explained that we had been dumped there by call sign 20 (Mahanene), and our mandated duty was to stay at the vehicles until relieved.
The kommandant was seriously pissed off, and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Not too long afterwards, our Loot arrived, looking very sheepish. We and all the road-work vehicles were moved 500m to a better position, and we were given sand-bags and zinc roofing to build a better guard position. We stayed there for 3 weeks, and then went back on patrol when the Ruacana/Ogongo road was completed.
At one stage, the whole company was pulled in from patrol; we were given extra ammo, cammo cream, and dropped off at Ombalantu. At midnight, we left base, separated into platoons and all walked south on different headings. We stopped at sunrise. We must have walked over 40kms. The Buffels picked us up at 10h00. We never found out why we did this, or whether it was part of a larger Op. The rumour was that there were 100 SWAPO in the area. I think they mortared the bank branch or clinic there shortly afterwards anyway. Could this have been the group 32Bn or the Recces intercepted on their way south near Opupa?
About this time, we got a little irritated with each other, having been in the bush for far too long. One day I had a ding-dong fight with Richter: I did a lot of punching, he did a lot of ducking. Zane finally pulled me off when I attempted to combine Richter's face with a stainless-steel wash-basin.....we shook hands and made up afterwards, but it was never really the same between us. He didn't trust me, and I just wanted to kill him....
We also had a fight with section 3 when we stole their tape of "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and destroyed it. We made peace by buying a replacement: a reggae tape; I think it was Peter Tosh's Bush Doctor. "Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights....."
Not exactly the right stuff to promote army discipline, but what the hell.
In June, our great Loot and Sgt went home: their time was up. The Loot was PF, but he had been reassigned to Div HQ, and the Sgt was finished with his NDP period. We got a very young Sgt, with a very quiet, timid manner (the name Heymans comes to mind), and for a Loot, we got some idiotic wannabe from Intelligence: a long-time PF, he had only ever managed 1 pip. He couldn't navigate, he had no idea of bush tactics and proper COIN drills. Nobody knew what he had done wrong to be seconded to a combat infantry unit. The new Sarge could not help: his official duty was discipline and logistics, not command and control. So the Sarge took the SLs aside and told us we could override the Loot's commands if they sounded dubious: the Sarge himself only had the limited bush experience he picked up when doing the short COIN tour during his Infantry School training to use as a practical reference. Soon afterwards, we were glad we had this support.
We were on patrol just north of the cut-line, about 12kms NE of Mahanene. Forming up into patrol formation after the lunch-break, a guy in section 2, vd Merwe, slung his R4 and a shot rang out. Our signaler, Heyns, collapsed in a heap. There was chaos until we realized that vd Merwe's R4 had accidentally discharged and the ricochet had hit Heyns in the stomach. When vd Merwe slung his R4, the ambidextrous safety had clicked to "R", and the water-bottle lid had "pulled" the trigger....
The Loot was completely ineffective by then. I took over comms and the Sitrep, while Reynders and Visser, the other SL, organized circular defense and arcs of fire. They also disarmed vd Merwe, and unloaded his R4, because the poor guy was almost hysterical.
The Sarge helped the medic, Erlank, with Heyns. The bullet had luckily also first hit the magazine pouch before going through the webbing belt into the abdomen, so the bullet had not gone in far, but Heyns was bleeding internally, and there was a risk of peritonitis. I called in a chopper CASEVAC.
The chopper relayed that they wanted Green Smoke, as usual, and they wanted a large area burned clear as a landing target. So I sent the Loot off with his Whiskey Papa grenade (can we say we carried White Phos?) to start a burn. One section went with for landing area defense and to stop the fire burning too far, and to lob the green smoke when the time came.
And the Loot nearly killed himself: he walked into the middle of the clearing and casually lobbed the grenade UNDERHAND. Obviously, he had no idea of the effective range of those grenades. As the white tendrils start falling towards him, he realized his mistake and did the fastest 50m I have ever seen. There were burn-holes in the back of his bush-hat, and at one stage I think he was taking 5m strides.
I talked the Puma in, and we got Heyns dusted off in a hurry: that pilot barely got the wheels down. Actually, those guys say very little: "21, I see your smoke, get the person ready". That was about it. I said thanks afterwards, and all I got was a "Roger, out". Nervous buggers.
The Loot lost all the respect of the platoon that day, and patrol decisions were made by the SLs after that. The Loot would code the SITREP, decipher the reply from HQ, and tell us where HQ wanted us for the day and night, and we'd navigate to there and do all the TB drills for the Loot: recce, dogleg, last light movement, etc. We decided what patrol formations and when to move. The Loot would bring a book and would just let us get on with what we were good at. In effect, since I was Section 1 and usually on point, I ended up doing all the navigation and formation work. No worries, it was great fun. It's what we were trained for.
We usually walked in three single files, between 100m and 200m apart with sections 2 and 3 flanking section 1, but about 20m behind my line of advance, so that they could check my navigation and formation signals out of the corner of the eye. All the guys in all the sections watched each other: it was easy and natural. We had 2 point men, usually with the M-79, I had Ficq with MAG up next to me, and the 2 other sections kept the MAG at the rear in a conventional single-file formation. We used short whistles and radio-clicks to communicate. Our bush-craft was good: in Angola we actually walked half-way through a herd of Eland or Kudu one day before they saw us and broke for cover. That was amazing.
Other people have told me: "No, an extended line", or " a box formation.... blah blah blah". We used what worked for the majority of our terrain and the risk we normally faced. With 3 single files that distance apart, we could never be all pulled into an ambush, or get hit by a single claymore or mine, and controlling an extended line in thick southern Angolan bush is just too strenuous. A single file with a good 5m gap between members is ample. Except for really large shonas or mahangu fields, the terrain was never open enough for anything else, and in those cases, the standard drill is to advance one section at a time anyway (OK, we sometimes didn't do that either: section 2 and 3 around either flank, section 1 in extended line down the middle).
And then, on 17 August 1982, SWAPO evidently thought that since we had been at Mahanene for 5 months, we were ripe for the pickings.....
The first 81mm Soviet mortar bomb landed on the base at 00h20, shortly followed by an RPD opening up on the South-West bunker, and an RPG rocket whipped past the aapkas on top of the comms mast.
The mortar corporal, van Coller, who was on first watch up there, literally dived out of the aapkas and concussed himself, and the second rocket discouraged any more people from going up. That's what saved SWAPO. Without a proper range-spotter, the mortar section was firing blind, so they picked an existing fire-plan and went to it....it turned out they were firing in the right direction, but SWAPO was 500m closer, and our mortars were blissfully pasting the crap out of a deserted kraal.
Our tents were next to the South-West bunker, and I woke up with the first set of explosions. My first thought was: "Ah, Sparks has scheduled a surprise drill, the bugger!"
We all grabbed our webbings and R4s, and Zane and I went and stood ON TOP of the skietwal, to watch the fire-works.
We were idly watching the bunker-guard blast away at the furthest fish-dam with his LMG, wondering why there were 2 colours of tracer, when we realized that the pink mortar-bomb bursts were getting uncomfortably close to the south wall where we were.
You must understand, we'd just woken up, and logical thought is sometimes a little lacking when the biorhythms are so low...
We were still debating the safety of this when Sparks galloped past in a pair of jogging shorts and a pair of boots without socks, shouting "Dis 'n regte aanval, slaan dekking!". We then realized that shrapnel was hitting the trees behind us, so we sort of got a lot lower behind the wall, a lot quicker. Some guys even used the trenches.
The corner bunker got the range of the RPD gunner, who decided he wanted to live to fight for SWAPO some other day, and gapped it.
But the 81mm mortars kept on coming. They fired 102 rounds at the base that night, and luckily, only 10 or 20 fell inside. They had two pipes so there must have been more than 6 guys at the mortars. We had 2 casualties: the weapon-store NDP Corporal, who ran even when Vlok told him to stay and stand still, and who got shrapnel in the back of the hamstring, and one other, I think an officer, who got a small bit of shrapnel embedded in the back of the lower part of the skull. The doc didn't even bother to remove this; he just put a plaster on the wound. I got knocked off my feet by a blast, but to this day I thank the horrible quality of the Soviet Bloc mortar-bombs, that really failed to fragment properly. We found bombs the next morning that had hardly been blown apart, with half of the casing still intact. The tents of Glen F's platoon had been turned into sieves, but luckily they were out on patrol.
And we had 6 punctures, because even though a Buffel can survive even a close miss, the tires can't.
And that's how the bastards got away. Every Buffel had at least one flat. By the time the drivers and tiffies had fixed enough tires, SWAPO was long gone. They had neatly targeted our platoon tents, the HQ, and the LWT, but they had just been 30m off target. Otherwise their prep and recce had been spot-on. They must have paced off the range and mapped it out. The day-guards hadn't noticed a thing....
The follow-up was a typical military SNAFU: some kommandant from Ogongo wanted to lead the chase, so we had to wait for this tit to arrive with his "trackers": not Bushmen, some NDP troops with short course tracker badges. Not even local Ovambos from one of the SWATF units. We ended up, 50 kms later, 40 kms into Angola, tracking an elephant that was running away from the noise of 3 Buffels and a platoon of troops in hot pursuit.
I don't know how we got onto that spoor, but I was seriously unimpressed.
After the kommandant left, we did our own "spoorsny" with a 101BN soldier, and found SWAPO had used a large LDV, probably an F100. They had driven down from the Ruacana/Concor side at last light, off the main road, and had hidden and waited until midnight. They had escaped by following their own tracks back in the moonlight, that's why nobody saw or heard anything. They picked up the RPD and RPG gunners at the road, and quietly trundled back towards Concor. They knew we wouldn't risk moving at night, and they also knew our patrols NEVER formed a TB within the shooting-plan range of our 82mm mortars. We found one of their unused mortar bombs in a bush, left behind in the dark.
It was miracle that we got off so lightly.
SWAPO 1, SADF 0.
About 2 weeks later, Platoon 3 was in a pair of ambush positions just off 2 foot-paths running perpendicular to the Nyati, about 3 kms apart. Their Sgt was in charge of one stick, the Loot in charge of the other. A bunch of SWAPO came walking towards Angola, but unfortunately for Platoon 2, were moving off of the path on the same side as the one ambush group. Unfortunately, also, this was the half of the platoon with only one LMG, and he was on the OTHER end of the ambush line. The SWAPO guy on point basically stumbled into the ambush position. Big fuck up, kak en hare, snot en bloed. When the dust cleared, one SADF guy had lost half a hand from an AK bullet through his R4 magazine, and the Sarge was shot through the inside of the upper thigh. From accounts by Glen F and others, the SWAPO troops made a very disciplined withdrawal through a shona, even though one of them was wounded, firing well-placed single-shots. So much for wild full-auto-over-the-shoulder antics as we had heard during training. These guys were good.
The Loot's group heard the shit, got on the radio and found out what happened. SWAPO happened to be moving in their direction. As luck would have it, AGAIN the SWAPO team approached the ambush team from a strange angle, this time from BEHIND and to one side. Once again, SWAPO got away after exchanging some fire. Luckily no injuries on the second SADF stick. I don't remember the details of the CASEVAC: it must have been difficult at night, so they probably waited for morning. That must have been a rough night.
Lessons learnt: cover the sides and back of an ambush position. Use trip-flares. Don't sleep in the ambush position, maybe rather disengage to a TB, or else have guards at both ends of the line.
SWAPO 2, SADF 0.
About this time, Chris Vlok asked if I was interested in joining 32Bn. He'd been asked to look for fresh recruits with some savvy and the right mind-set to swell the contracted white leadership elements. I also had a smattering of Portuguese from our holidays in Mozambique. I thought about it, but realized that not being a natural athlete, I'd be under permanent pressure to keep up with some seriously professional soldiers. I declined, a decision I have also pondered over the years. Was I scared of the physical issue, or of the fighting? I'll never know...again the fear.
A couple of weeks later, we rotated back to RSA for leave. I did some more off-roading, and even managed to kiss a girl or two. While we were at 3 SAI, I realized why Steyn hated the Section Leaders: when we got back from the Operational Area, we kept our 2 stripes. Steyn didn't, he had to become a Cpl again. Zane and I ran into him and his little cohort, Swanepoel. All he could manage was a strangled "Ja, Korporaal". I nodded and just walked past. Even though he was technically a "senior NCO", I could get away with not acknowledging his seniority. It wasn't worth it to take any other revenge. The fact that Steyn had been PF for nearly 10 years and was still a Corporal Instructor was enough revenge. It must have grated his arse to have that happen year after year.
While we were in base, somebody from the new intake shot himself in the old Alpha Coy toilets because he was scared of the Border. Apparently he did a shit job, and only blew half his brain away. He lived for nearly half an hour afterwards. Dumb shit.
After leave, we were told that due to the base attack and the failed ambush incidents above, we were to go to Oshivello for retraining ("opskerp"). The leadership believed that 6 months of patrols had dulled our skills. This was probably true: everybody develops bad habits.
Anyway, we did the 2 week "thing" at Oshivello, and scored VERY well, thank you, apparently bettering the record, until I think 7 SAI came along in 1984 and broke the score.
We picked up a couple of skills learnt during Daisy and Protea: the proper use of the M-79 in a forested area, the proper use of an RPG-7 against tanks, and the latest trench-clearing drills. I realized that I was crap with an RPG-7, but I liked the M-79 Snotneusie. If fired into a tree, it can cause a fairly decent air-burst. We also learnt a couple of new F&M tricks, especially when it came to command and control.
Since we scored so well, there was time left over before the end of the 2 week evaluation, and the SLs and leader group were given short courses on claymores and demolition, as well as 3 different variants of night-sight. Also some tips on improvised devices, which I would use a short while later...
Heyns, who had received the ricochet in the stomach, rejoined the company, but was not allowed back on patrol due to a piece of nylon tubing keeping his intestines together. He became a base signaler.
Bravo Coy was once again deployed to Mahanene, but there was a twist: Section 1, Platoon 1 and half of Section 2, Platoon 1 was going to be detached under my command and fall under base defense at Ogongo. At first I was pissed off: I liked Mahanene, and I enjoyed patrols, but you gotta go where the brass tells you to.
In the end, it turned out OK, and we did some cool things. I got to do a lot of Reaksie Mag type stuff, doing follow-ups and detective work on sabotage scenes and SWAPO attacks on civvies. This meant checking and chasing spoor, looking for booby-traps and AP mines, looking for evidence, taking statements using a translator, and writing up the reports. I don't know why we did this and not SAP TIN, I suppose they were too busy.
We also did escort duties for recovery trucks and other convoys, and even had a flip in an Allo as a stopper-group.
At one stage, we did a 2-week mine-sweep of the cut-line, between Okatope and Etale, I think. We saw several double-mines detonated by the sappers: what a helluva bang, and what a hole!
I also did the ration run for the whole of 52Bn: 2 x Kwevoel 100s full of food and stuff! That taught me a lot about logistics and provisioning: there were pages of stuff that had to be verified and loaded.
One high-light was befriending the weapon store NCO at Ogongo: he gave us a Unimog full of interesting stuff, and we went to the Asgat for a day of fun. That's where I saw how really shit the Star B pistol was: the pin holding the round extractor climbed out of the slide, and the extractor and its little spring disappeared. It took us an hour to find these objects, crawling on our hands and knees. I whacked the pin back in with an AK magazine.
We fired Uzis, RPDs, AK-47s, even a Draganov sniper rifle! All the stuff we had read about, but never seen! It was like Christmas! There was a Colt 1911, but sadly no .45 ammo. We never did find out exactly where this pistol came from, it was there when the storeman took over, but he heard rumours that some American in one of the SF units had given it in and never reclaimed it. There were also weird SAM launchers in boxes, I think they could have been Stingers, but we weren't allowed to inspect them.
I was then given orders to deploy with my group as a stopper group. There was some sweep ops going on in Angola, and they wanted to make sure none of SWAPO bomb-shelled in the confusion. We went to a point just east of Ruacana, debussed from the Buffels, and walked into Angola. I stopped at my northern boundary: about 15kms inside Angola. Every night, I deployed the group into ambush positions in 3 x 5-man sticks, about 1 km apart, along a path running towards the Nyati. We were told to be careful of our flanks, as there were some SF units in the area: we shouldn't exceed our area. I don't know who this was supposed to protect: us or them...
I used an improvised-device trick here: We didn't have trip-flares, so I tied a rusted tin to a small Mopani tree at knee height. I then placed a 2-star Instant Light tightly inside the tin, and pulled the pin. I then tied a normal 14-foot army-issue nylon cord from the grenade to a bush on the other side of the path. We all knew where it was, so I could leave it there until we moved every day, then just reinstall the pin and take it to the next ambush position. It was visible (to us) in daylight, but not at night.
Early one morning, after we had consolidated the 3 groups again, we were drinking coffee and discussing tactics for the day, when the northern OP reported movement from the north. We put out our fires, and melted into the bush. Gradually, an extended line of SADF troops appeared, walking slowly but making a lot of noise. Their point man tripped my grenade, there was a quick double-pop, and the whole bunch of them just froze where they stood. We could have mowed them down. I stood up slowly, and with my R4 slung, walked towards the Loot who was clearly wearing bright yellow pips while on patrol. He was immediately aggressive, so I made as if I was also a Loot, and explained that they had walked into our ambush position. He was seriously pissed off that his "highly trained" troops had missed us and the trip-wire. I told my guys to stand up. The look on the Loots face as 13 guys with faded browns and cammo faces appeared from the surrounding mopani scrub was priceless. They had missed the 2-man OP one click back as well.
I said he should rather get going south to the pick-up, but by the way, who was he anyway? Apparently they were a "crack" bunch of June 1981 intake troops from one of the SA Mech Inf units. I reckon the only "crack" was in their butts.
I wondered why idiots like this were used in external Ops when we had to do base defense...... I think the issue here is that Mech Inf don't understand humping through the bush, they understand sitting in tin cans. They should stick to conventional warfare; the MOT guys will do the COIN, thank you very much.
At the end of the Op, we humped back to Mahanene for a pick-up, and while we were there, I was in the Officer/NCO bar with other guys from my old company, having a beer, catching up on things, when CSM Reyneke walked in. I stood and greeted him, and offered him a beer. He looked me up and down. Finally he smiled and said: "Ja, Korporaal Louw, ek kan sien jy het baie verander. Veels geluk, nou lyk jy soos 'n soldaat". I could ask for no better a compliment. He sat with us and had the beer, and a couple more.
We were still sitting there in the pub when the same Loot from the Op walked in. They were also waiting for transport. He was seriously cross when he saw I was only a 2-liner SL. But he could do nothing about the confrontation in the bush: any mention of it would make him look stupid. I never heard anything about this ever again, despite an aside comment about me impersonating an officer.
I asked about Sgt Chris Vlok. Apparently his contract had expired, and the SADF could not or would not offer a new one. The last I heard, Chris was a traffic cop in Potch. What a shame.
I spent my 40-days celebration getting quietly blotto on Baileys Irish cream at Ogongo with a great bunch, the guys who made up our little "Afgedeelde diens" stick.
In early December, we joined the Company again, under the same confused Int Loot, and we did a HUGE vehicle Ops in the haak-and-steek forests that lie south-east of Eenhana and south-west of Rundu. Truly thousands of square kms of wag-n-bietjie, acacia, haak-and-steek, and other thorny shit.
The food issue was a problem the whole Ops, and had started at the staging area on the south side of Eenhana airfield, even BEFORE the Ops had started. I remember scrounging a couple of old moldy potatoes out of Sparks Reyneke's Buffel bin: they were boiled in a coffee-tin, and were the best spuds I ever had!
I dunno who the Log officer was, but he sucked. We ran out of food, and started shooting duikers for food. We eventually camped outside Rundu on the main road that runs towards Eenhana, and refused to budge until we got rations. Some time later, a Kwevoel 50 with the rations came screaming down the road, misjudged a corner, and crashed into one of the company Buffels. I suppose that guy did some serious PT at the very least.
Once a chopper dropped wet rations for our platoon: now that is just plain stupid. We ended up using the engine-grills off the Buffels as braai grids. Eventually our Loot got NAAFI and we spent 5 days camped on the banks of the Kavango river, near a monastery or nunnery or something. We even drove the Buffels into the river and washed them. This Loot had improved somewhat since I'd seen him last, as Reynders and Visser, the other 2 SLs, made him do all the work I used to do.
We were still arseing around the Rundu bushes when we were called back to base: our planes were waiting. It was 20 December, 1982.
A day later, we were cleared straight through customs at Waterkloof AFB, and some hours later, the busses stopped at 3 SAI for the last time.
Uitklaar took 2 days, and I arrived back in Pretoria on Christmas Eve: older, wiser, tougher, and definitely changed. My initial National Service was over, but the SADF wasn't finished with me yet!
Epilogue to NDP: My parents had moved in the previous 3 months, and my post was still somewhere in Sector 10. I never did get those letters. Finding strangers living in my house was very odd. It turned out that my father and step-mother had bought a long lease on the West Beach Café in Port Alfred, as well as a house. Therein my fate was sealed: my CF regiment was destined to be in the Eastern Cape!
I stayed at a friend's place for a couple of months, until I got a job, and I remember opening my balsak on my first day there, and discovering 2-star instant lights and flares (as well as 200 MAG rounds). So I wired a bunch of stuff together and placed a trip-wire across the railway bridge in Duncan Street on New Years Eve. The first vehicle? A SAP bakkie.......I nearly wet myself laughing, and they must have soiled themselves in fear, because they nearly rolled.
My first year after NDP, 1983, was quiet, without any call-up papers. I settled into my job, but things still felt very disjointed in the "real" world. In October I took leave for my 21st birthday, and I stopped in on First City Regiment, my CF unit in Grahamstown.
They said a one-month call-up had been cancelled due to bad response, so I said to the chief clerk that they should make sure my name was on the next one.
Sure enough, I got my papers early in 1984: a 3-month call-up. I was IT section at the Dept of Post and Telecoms, and all my colleagues said I should join the P&T Regiment: the thought of sorting mail in Oshakati or Rundu left me cold. In fact, it made me shudder.
So, I jumped on the train as requested in early May, and within a day we were in Grahamstown. The trip wasn't bad, we just stopped at just about every little siding, and I won R100 in small change playing blackjack.
The last 50kms to Grahamstown had to be by truck, since the last bit of rail could only be done by steam, but the steam-train was in for boiler repairs.
The first thing that I realized was that First City was a very otherwise unit: we immediately got tam o'shanters (they were a Scottish regiment, but I can't remember which tartan they used) and started with induction. We were hammered with tradition at every turn. I also realized that 50% of the unit didn't have any infantry experience, and that we were on our way to the border......oops!
The other thing that I didn't like was the fact that we were issued with R1s. I'd fired them, but I hadn't done extended training or combat simulation with them. These were actually old FN SLRs with the old Union of SA stamp on the mag receiver. Half of them jammed when clean and oiled, let alone dirty and dry. Some ended up having broken firing-pins.
I was stupid, and surrendered my green Infantry Bokkop beret instead of keeping it: the issue was that First City would swop without cost, but if you kept the beret you then had to pay for the Tammie and chromed emblem. Over R30, back then, was a lot of money for somebody only earning around R500 per month.
After a couple of days of drill and admin, we were on the planes at PE AFB. We might have flown on 707s, but I'm not sure now.
Once again, we landed at Grooties, this time we slept at a grotty transit camp/hostel just outside town.
A day later, we were at Oshivello, in the exact same tents as when I was an NDP.
We did our retraining, and on the whole First City did well for a CF unit. Just before we were deployed, there was an ugly incident: some troops busy with a SWATF officers or JLs course detonated a Communist Bloc grenade during a lecture at the canteen: 7 dead, 21 injured, I heard later. They had been packed in under the roof like sardines. I wonder if they ever cleaned all the human muck off of the underside of the roof.
What a waste.
Our final test was a 30 km forced march with full kit. This is where I first met "Hasie" Els ("Hasie", or Rabbit, because of his missing front teeth), a PE dock-crane driver. At the start of the march, those of us with infantry experience started off quickly while it was cool and we were fresh, and set a good pace.
Some of the other guys stood or sat around and fiddled with kit, had a smoke, and so on.
Some officers and NCOs waited with the tail-end Charlie's, and the company ended up spread over a couple of kms.
Hasie moved off with is, but suddenly stopped after about 2 kms. We thought he's had a call of nature.
About 10 kms later, we heard a commotion behind us, and this guy came jogging past. It was Hasie. That was the last we saw of him until we reached the base. It came out that Hasie was a big dagga smoker: he'd made a huge "pipe" when he stopped, and had basically run the 30 kms. He slept for 10 hours......
First City passed the route march test, and a day later, we were at Oshigambo: but the New Improved Oshigambo, about 1 km down Oom Willie se Pad. The strategic reasons had not changed: they were still area domination, mine-sweeping, and water-tower protection. It was like coming home in a way.
The whole deployment was uneventful, except for a couple of things:
At parade one day, I was getting my pen and notebook out of my shirt pocket, and my R1 slid off my bent leg. Clang! The RSM called me up to the front, I halted as smartly as if I was straight out of Oudtshoorn, and the RSM told me to "make love" to my R1. Knowing enough mil law, I refused on the basis of an illegal order. I spent a week doing extra duties....After that the RSM in question (Granny) and I were forever at loggerheads.
After only 2 patrols, our platoon managed to be assigned to Echo Tower on a permanent basis. I was glad: most of the guys had very little bush craft and almost no operational experience. I got nervous about 9 guys behind me with dubious weapons proficiency.
We made a routine of going for a run every day while we were at Echo Tower, down towards the Koevoet base and back again. Koevoet thought we were mad, and so did the locals. Koevoet invited the NCOs and Loot for a couple of drinks, one thing led to another, and the next thing we were committed to a CASSPIR patrol the next day. Koevoet duly picked us up, and I was given the dorsal MAGs for the day. First order of the day is to test the MAGs: any target next to the road will do, just let rip with the dual bicycle levers. Then we lined the CASSPIRS up in an extended line with our bums against the Etale road, and off we went due west. With a gap of several hundred meters between vehicles, the Koevoet unit covered a huge area, and at the speed they drove at, we covered a generous distance that day. We collected 5 suspects, 2 of which we simply dumped 5 clicks away when Koevoet realized they were harmless. The other 3 were tied up and blind-folded. Who knows what their fate was.
When we got back to the Koevoet base, the next order of business was "Tjop en dop", as usual. We were delivered back to Echo Tower much later, in a bad state of repair.
While we were at the tower, a Kwevoel from Ondangwa or Oshikati clobbered a cow on the main road. The Kwe didn't stop, and very soon we had an irate head-man wanting compensation from us, as we were the closest Boere. A quick call to HQ got us the "going rate" for a cow, and the Loot collected cash and paid the head-man. This was a loan, and was paid back by the SADF later. But in the meantime, we had a 300kg piece of dead meat. So we hacked off a hind-quarter, and gave the rest back to the community. We were heroes after that. We were a little unsure about the sanitary issue with the meat, but decided if we cooked it properly, it would be OK. And so it was.
Some of the guys befriended a feral cat, and fed this thing copious quantities of meat. Then an incident occurred which made me realize the gap between certain people's social standards: 2 guys thought it was hugely funny to attach the parachute from a 82mm mortar illum round to the cat, and drop it off the tower. The cat soon reached terminal velocity and made a small crater. I had to kill it with my 9mm (I had taken my Tokarev 9mm with on the camp, as I couldn't leave it in the boarding-house back home). Unfortunately, the SADF had no punishment for these people, as there was very little SADF property involved. I was not impressed.
A couple of weeks later, my section 2IC and I were seen sunbathing on the tower by some Grootkop in a Puma. We got a tongue-lashing, and that was all, as we had actually been alert and were scanning the bush at the time. Quite lucky, really. We used the excuse that it was hot up there and we needed to stay cool as there was no shelter.
My 2IC on this camp was studying for his psychology doctorate.....go figure.
At one stage, the Bike Squad left one of their bikes there because of a flat rear tire. The rider got a lift back to Ondangwa (yes, the bike squad moved from old Oshigambo to Ondangwa when the new base opened) with one of the Buffels, but the bike stayed until they could bring the trailer. So.....I wired the rear tire to the rim to stop it spinning, and we rode the crap out of that XR500RE until it ran out of petrol. We then cut the wire off the rear wheel. When the mechanics fetched the bike a week later, they were appalled at the condition of the rear knobby. We kept straight faces and made innocent comments.
I took over as PelSers for the last 2 weeks, as our Sgt got a late deferment/early demob.
And so ended my last Sector 10 deployment! Much as I tried to go back again, I never did.
When I got back home, I bought a Yamaha TT600 trail bike, cash, new from the dealer for R4100, with my accumulated army and civvy pay. It joined my KTM250 twin-shock MX bike and my Yamaha IT175G enduro bike.
I was left alone by the SADF in 1985, as this was again a 1-month camp, and I think the cost of transporting us all the way from the Transvaal was just not worth it. I heard one company of the unit went to Lohatla for Ratel/Mech Inf training. Apparently they had a really shit time, as this was the windy season, and they had to clean the Ratels all the time. I was happy: I hate enclosed spaces, and I wasn't too keen on a rolling tin-can.
In 1986, once again I got a call-up for a 3 month camp: May to July.
Again, I found myself on that train to Grahamstown. I had just moved into a commune, but I knew the train drill now, and I had the necessary "liquid rations" for the trip.
I had also "scored" a military H-frame back-pack in 1984, and I had a Berede ammo vest from a friend, so I was well prepared.
We were hardly in Grahamstown for 2 days, when we were back on the train: destination Jo'burg.
From Jo'burg station, we were trucked to a base just outside Heidelberg at the Army College. For 2 weeks, we were given refresher courses on riot control and crowd suppression.
While we were there, we did a Table 2 shoot against the Army College, and I shot a 218. I never told anyone that my R1 had a #2 sight, which is finer than the #1 which is standard. The target is actually visible at 600m! RSM Probart was hugely impressed.
I never told him that I'd also spent several sessions at Scurweberg with my mate Brian and his Moot Kommando R1. I realized again how much of an advantage the guys have that live near their CF units. I must say, the SLR is a shooter's infantry weapon, and is seriously effective out to over 600m. I shot better with that R1 than with my .308 Mauser hunting rifle.
And then, Soweto. We deployed to Doornkop base, just outside Diepsloot.
The SLs were issued new 40mm grenade launchers with CS grenades (tear gas). It's actually a nerve agent, but let's stay with tear gas.
Everybody also had an R1 and a definite, exact number of rounds. These rounds were counted and checked on a regular basis, and the reason was because of certain racial "incidents" with previous units. But the tear gas rounds were not controlled.
Most of this deployment was boring stuff, except for June 16 when it got really interesting. We operated as semi-independent sections, the Loot with one vehicle and the Sarge another. They let me go on my own.
We also saw some gruesome acts perpetrated by young black kids hardly into puberty: murder, vandalism, violent civil disobedience. The ANC and COSATU are today reaping that which they sowed in the 80s.
Based on my effectiveness on patrol, I was also selected to help train 2 Natal units that had arrived at Heidelberg:
If I recall, they were DLI (Durban Light Inf) and NMI (Natal Mounted Inf). Or the latter could have been the Kaffrarian Rifles, but I'm not sure. Barry, have you got memory pills?
Giving training was a blast, but it's very scary being armed with a loud-hailer and being faced by 200 men for the first time. I screwed up some practical drills due to nerves, but the lectures were OK, and I settled down eventually. This was also a great learning experience for me, and saw me come out of the final bit of my shell: you don't have much of a choice, it's sink or swim.
Sergeant Major Probart was now Regimental SM, and he was also there assisting. This is where he and I really clicked, and where he decided I was Senior NCO material, especially after my Acting Sgt role 2 years previously. He saw that I was way more competent that most of the Platoon Sergeants that had got their rank based on weekend camps, and who had been promoted by the previous RSM.
Our half of the company had no serious incidents, even though we had some splendid fun dispersing crowds of students. But the guys in Alexandra were not so lucky: one guy returned fire after receiving incoming, but without identifying a clear target. The ROE was clear: do not fire unless the target or enemy is identified and clear.
His rounds killed a black baby in a shack. They charged him with murder, and who knows what happened to him. It really made us realize that we were no longer immune to irresponsible actions. I told my section that they better only fire if they could see somebody's life was actually at risk.
By the end of July, we'd all had enough, and we left Soweto to stew in its own juice.
I was blessed never to go back, but the smog had already done its damage to my lungs.
A couple of years later, I had a full check-up done by a sports doctor, as an insurance check, and they noticed severe upper respiratory damage. I have no doubt this was caused by the bronchial infection I had while in Soweto, as I've never been a smoker.
Just after Soweto, a guy I met at a braai gave me a mint condition 1982 Honda CR250: the first water-cooled Red Rocket, in return for a case of Amstel. He had drowned it in a river, and all the mechanics had told him it would cost a ton to repair. Yeah, it did: a whole R180 to rewind the ignition coil. What an idiot. What a nice bike.
In 1987, I was called up to do a Platoon Sergeants course at EP Command. What fun, a month at the sea, I thought. This was the wrong attitude, as you will see.
We were based at an old Naval barracks somewhere on the western PE beachfront.
The course started off well: I was very gym-fit, I was also running 5kms per day, as well as doing karate twice a week, and weekend cycling. The exercise portion of the course was a breeze, but that is where I made a mistake, and where I didn't play the game. Having been well trained at 3 SAI, and having done 2 camps with First City, I could drill squads in English or Afrikaans. I had also received lectures up to and past Company Commander level during SLs, so the conversion to a logistically-based CSM/CSQM concept wasn't too hard. The CSM marching drills were also easy: "Kom op parade" and all those commands.
I really thought I had passed. I was wrong: I had made two mistakes. Firstly, I hadn't played the "buddy leader" role during the fitness sessions, encouraging and helping my fellow candidates. The second mistake was chatting up the Senior NCOs daughter at the end-of-course braai.......
The rejection letter showed I had passed all practical and theoretical portions with an above-average score. But the Senior NCO had failed me for not being leadership material.....
I was crushed and gutted. I had been selected to go to Oudtshoorn, I had been an acting platoon sergeant, and I had been a combat section leader. I had given lectures to all ranks up to Captain. I was a technical team-leader in my civilian career. "Not leadership material" my foot.....
I became very bitter about the SADF.
I was called up to do a one-month camp in 1988. Once again, all the way down on the train. All the guys that I had helped with their course material and practical drilling on the course in 1987 had 3 stripes. In fact, one SL got his 3rd stripe and he didn't even do the course until 1989. I was devastated, and to make things worse, they all gave me the cold shoulder. This time we flew back to Pietersburg, and spent a night at Far North Command.
The next day, before the crack of dawn, the SAMILs were started up, and later that day our platoon was dropped at a farm 30 kms from a town called Steelpoort, in amongst the "Chrome Belt". Our duty? To patrol Sekhukhuneland and suppress "subversive elements". But we only had one SAMIL 20, and that was always either broken or needed by the Loot.
Reading between the lines, I realized that the Nationalist government was worried about internal insurrection while their attention was focused on the fuck-up in Southern Angola. I wished, once again, that I was there and not down here with this bunch of nepotistic Eastern Cape campers. I spent the month tanning and running. I just went through the motions. On the 2 patrols we managed to do, I bought meat and we braaied at a dam. What a waste of tax-payers money, and of our productive time. Apart from that, I had missed my exams for my first year of the IT Diploma, which I was paying for privately. Once again, the PelSers got an early deferment. They asked me to become PelSers. I refused. If I was good enough for the job, I was good enough for the rank and benefits.
The Loot had to do both jobs, but I was unimpressed and unmoved.
In 1989, once again it was a 3 month call-up. By now, the war in Angola was red-hot, and everybody "knew" something. My Recce colleague disappeared for 3 months, and came back looking totally old before his time. He refused to talk. In the time since my last camp, I'd gotten married, and my first kid was on its way. Since the "due date" coincided with this deployment, and I was again studying for my IT Diploma, I decided to pull some strings: for the first time, I used my SAP&T "get out of jail free" card, and applied for deferment on the grounds that I was critical to operations. And I was: by that time I was the Acting Manager of the Operating Systems section of 17 people. That meant that if I went on the camp, my senior manager would have to take up the slack.
But the paper-work went in too late. I never got to write these exams either. In the end, I met the regiment in Pretoria and ended up in the Lowveld once more. This time, we were assigned to a soccer stadium in Thulamahashe, a small God-forsaken town in the Giyani area of one of the homelands just north of Nelspruit. The closest town was Bosbokrand, and the closest military base was at Bourke's Luck. We were supposed to patrol the area and win the hearts and minds.
By now, the writing for me was on the wall: one-man, one-vote was coming, and neither PW Botha nor the Nat government was going to be able to stop it. It was that or civil war.
I questioned the Int Officer during the briefing in this regard. All he could say was that we were there to maintain stability. Of course, he pattered out the party-line issue that the government's concept of a Tri-Cameral parliament and Homelands was working, blah blah blah, but the whole regiment had seen the riots in PE, East London and Grahamstown, and they all had a good giggle. We all knew that the time of camps was coming to an end. I think that by this time, the will and commitment by the average person to keep on delivering and sacrificing for the Nationalist Government was declining, even amongst the party faithful.
In any case, I only had a maximum of 3 camps left by that time, and I was seriously tired of playing soldier, especially as a Section Leader.
On this camp, another advancement opportunity arose, and this time I blew it away on purpose....
We were given Toyota Hilux "Glaskas" LDVs: a standard one-ton LDV cab and chassis, but the rear load-area had been replaced by a frame made of square steel tubing, covered with Plexiglas panels. This was to provide visibility while also providing protection from stones and petrol-bombs. But not bullets....
Like the Buffel, there was a line of back-to-back seats, 4 on each side. The driver and SL sat up front.
The engine was only a standard 2L or 2,2L petrol unit, so any uphill would mean that we would have to wring the poor thing's neck to go anywhere.
After a month of patrols, we realized that apart from the normal low-key crime and corruption there was really nothing happening in Giyani: no political unrest, no assassinations or intimidations. These guys were probably all 100% pro-ANC already.
Staying in base meant "enjoying" RSM Probart's base improvement projects.
We "escaped" to a dam and a river once or twice for a braai, but that got boring quickly. We even sneaked under the fence of one of the posh game reserves and did a 3 hour game-walk......armed with R4s, but we ran the risk of clashing with anti-poaching units and the police.
So I held my first democratic election, 5 years before the government did: the whole section gave a great "Aye!" in favour of touring the Lowveld in the Glaskas, courtesy of our own tax money.....
The deal was that they would behave, and I would cover their arses.
We went everywhere: Pilgrim's Rest, Nelspruit, Sabie, Oribi Gorge, you name it.
We were at Bourke's Luck Potholes one day, when the vehicle-guard came to fetch me: "Corp, there are 2 big cheeses at the parking lot".
When I got there, I saw two PF senior NCOs. I "strekked", and the Staff Sgt did a double-take when he saw my age and my tammie. He had thought we were NDPs...
"What maak julle hier, Korporaal?"
"Fokkol, Staff, ons ry lekker rond en kyk na ons land se natuurskoon".
That threw him.
"Maar wat is jou opdrag?"
"Om rond te ry en ons oe oop te hou, Staff". That was true; we were just 100kms out of our area....
The two PFs decided that we were a lost cause. They left, but forgot to write down our vehicle registration, so when my Loot asked about a Glaskas being reported out of its designated area, I was as wide-eyed and innocent as a baby.
Our PelSers earned a deferment. The replacement was a guy that had done the course with me, but due to farming deferments, hadn't been called up since. He'd been called up as a SL, but now they gave him our PelSers position and promoted his 2IC.
I was past caring. I actually got on well with the guy.
One day, while driving around with this new Sarge, we stopped a black guy on a super bike (Suzuki GSX) in the main street of Giyani, about 30kms from the stadium. We'd stopped for beer (the Sarge's idea, honest), and I stood next to the Glaskas with a beer in my hand (in full uniform), while the Sarge rode the super bike up and down the road.
I saw another Glaskas approaching, and right there and then I decided I didn't give a damn whether anybody saw me. True enough, the company 2IC, a captain, was driving the vehicle.
His eyes popped out of his head:
"Corporal, what have you got in your hand?"
"A beer, sir, do you want a sip......"
That night, I was on orders. I got a dressing down. They told me that the new Sarge was also on his way home due to some farming activity (planting, reaping, who knows), and they had been considering me as acting PelSers.
I shrugged. What could I say? They asked: "What do you say?"
I said: "I understand. Here are my stripes". I peeled off my sleeves, dropped them on the table, did an about-face, and walked out the door. I'd had enough.
About a month before the end of the camp, my deferment orders came in.
By then, I'd managed to sneak back to Pretoria (when the Sarge went home) and fetch my Nissan Skyline.
I was back at home the same night. My boy was born on the 27th July, 1989. I got home with 2 days to spare.
The next year, I didn't receive a call-up. SWA was lost. Nelson was out. In 1991, I received a plaintive request from the unit to volunteer. I wrote a nice note, something on the lines of: "Sure, promote me to Staff Sgt, so that it's worth my while, and I'll consider it". I never heard from them again. As far as I know, I'm still on Active Reserve.....
Published: 23rd March 2006.
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