ORDNANCE SERVICES 1986-7, 88
EDITOR'S NOTE: Chris was a Scouting friend from my university days, now a professional geologist. Most of this material is taken from his letters, included with his permission.
BASIC TRAINING AT 1 MAINTENANCE UNIT KIMBERLEY
16 January 1986At the moment I am sitting in a long line waiting for an army haircut. It is 06H00 and we've been here for about half an hour already. I think we should finish by lunch. The rest of the day will probably be spent getting equipment. ... Amazing how similar everyone looks with short hair and brown overalls - like something out of a WWII American war movie or those black and white pictures of Auschwitz labour gangs. So far things have been OK - good food and willing and friendly comrades. Being one of the oldest has disadvantages - position of bungalow captain for half of the bungalow. Bloody clever idea - one does need leadership other than that of the corporal's, who seems to be a decent type. (How vague!) This should provide additional interest to life. Trouble already - some blokes teasing Stephe, a chemical engineer ... calling him 'good' in a mocking way. Only once so far, but it makes me bloody mad. Quite a few of the blokes have done a couple of years at tech. or varsity, only a few have actually completed post matric study. The only bit of psychological 'testing' has been in a social studies questionnaire - have you or a member of your family suffered from and been treated for stress? I suppose that those who do have problems will get more detailed treatment later. Did you hear about the ECC and their huge (SADF Symbol - Cape Town Castle) shaped sand-castle in Cape Town the day before we left? Apparently the SAP didn't like this and asked them to remove their sand-castle!! Hilarious. Quite a divided public reaction - some very supportive and others vociferously antagonistic. No one had the courage to wear an ECC T-shirt on the train. Engine of vehicle turned on and left running for twenty minutes - fumes pouring over the blokes. Some comments on haircuts; "Spunky" , "Too long." Next day: Got shat on for writing this letter while waiting for a haircut. Perhaps they expect us to contemplate our navels and meditate on the virtues of the army. Haircut is a real crew cut - short and bristly - they say I look like Gandhi! Could you please send me a white sheet? (And a pair of sandals and a walking stick?) Gandhi II starring Christopher Stallone now being shot on location in Diskobolos. Ian's comment about being issued with so much kit just so that it can lie around for inspections is true. We even have a ceremonial piss trough and three out of six basins are kept in pristine condition for the important ritual called inspection. Its amazing the amount of people who get a big lift out of messing prisoners around. Spent part of yesterday washing out bungalow and then carting everything plus additional mud and sand back in. Hoo boy! Saturday morning: Corporal: "Wait in the bungalow. I'll be back at 8.20." Four hours later, still no corporal so we had a tremendous bullshit session - on the floor; no sitting or lying on beds until 4.30. Some very gifted raconteurs, especially Carl; a tall prop-like fellow who has only got a few credits left for a B. Comm. One of the chefs dropped in to arrange a bus for our first pass and spent two hours chatting. We know very little about what we are going to do here, so this bloke was a mine of information. Cheerful pleasant chap - quite a change from all the formality. Apparently quite a few gays in kitchen staff - rampant sexuality. I thought this sort of thing would be stamped out in the arm. One of the chefs wore purple eye shadow while serving food. (Scene for 'Nam movie!) Heard on the radio that basics has been reduced from 12 to 10 weeks. Church parade - troops told that it was unnatural, unbalanced and cowardly not to be Christian. Quite a bit of pressure on and manipulation of guilt feelings. Chatting to one of the blokes from another company at lunch I heard that one of their chaps tried to commit suicide by cutting a spiral around his arm with broken glass. Apparently this happens quite a bit. Our chaps seem to be pretty well adjusted - no really quiet withdrawn types, or overly extroverted and loud. What should one be on the lookout for? Similarities to Scouts - we make our bungalows ship shape - corporals etc. live in gloriously disordered quarters (seen on the way to haircuts)!
15 February 1986Individuality certainly does not find uniforms to be an effective shield - it does escape. But it does make people more uniform to look at. Often see guys run past their platoon without identifying their companions. Surely the theory is to make everyone look the same (group identity) rather than to curb individuality of personality? Uniformity in superficial looks, behaviour at certain times and reactions to certain stimuli (Is South Africa right? Its a privilege to do National Service. ANC members wear long hair (! - not short, fuzzy hair?) seem to be the goals in training soldiers. (Speaking Afrikaans) I'm doing the same - it seems to make quite an impression. I also have a horrible tendency to address Lieutenants in Afrikaans regardless of the language they are speaking! (What's the term for this? Stereotyping? Can't think of it.) 11 March 1986 Things have been extremely rustig (restful) here. Last week no PT, very little drill, scrappy lectures and plenty of practise for the next depression (sitting on our bums.) We spent half a morning waiting for haircuts and then not getting one because we went to lunch. We head off to Smitsdrif on Friday for our ten day camp which many 'ou manne' (old timers) have described as the best part of basics. Had a lecture especially to show us how to dig a shallow trench!! (To sleep in). Intellectual stimulation comes from seeing how many cock-ups the 2Lts and corporals make in instructing - especially map work, and gently correcting them - much umm-ing and aah-ing and moving on to the next question, or 'Jy praat kak!' [You talk shit!] for less qualified questioners. I am getting quite fit so basics here is fun and enjoyable (i.e. slack). A pity, because I won't have so many 'hard times' stories to relate and bore friends with. Still no pass. We listen to the radio and groan at everyone's story of pass next weekend. Personally I don't mind, but a lot of the chaps are yearning to go on pass. Had more MPI tests (Lt. Rothmann) - rerun of previous tests to see changes to answers (Do you think that National Service is a privilege and honour? etc.) and a questionnaire on group and individual growth - very poor questionnaire. A lot of the questions were not clear and used big words, especially rating things on a scale of 1 to 7, weren't sure what was being rated (two things mentioned in the question). Very curt reply to "What do you use this information for?" Answer: "Research." Fucking arrogant. They divide us into English and Afrikaans groups and then address our group in Afrikaans!! I'm walking a bit of a tightrope as bungalow captain by not taking on a cleaning job like everyone else, although I think that one does end up spending more time checking on jobs, doing small things like picking up papers and representing the guys. Would be interesting if I come under attack for this. So far we seem to be one of the more organised bungalows. Inspections aren't too bad - occasionally things get thrown around, 3 cases of shower PT (helps motivation). Had one 'opvok' (getting fucked up) PT session - all of us ended up feeling quite buggered, but soon recovered. Only one PT session so far - one chap of ours taken off to hospital with exhaustion. During this session lightning killed a married national Serviceman and injured ten others about 500 m away from us. Two chaps in the bungalow next door were arrested for dagga [Cannabis] possession. An eventful week. Conditions at this base sound a lot better than at others. At intelligence down the road, they often have their beds and kaste [trunks] thrown onto the floor, midnight rifle drill etc. None of this happens here - so far! It is quite definite (?) that we will not be getting a pass during basics. Basics finishes 5 April followed by a seven day pass (unrivalled generosity). I managed to wreck my ankle - suspected ligament injury but now the quack (Lt. Eck) feels that it is a 'soft tissue injury' and put me back on normal duty. A bit worrying as the ankle is slightly swollen and I cannot run around normally. I hope that it is OK by Monday. One does feel a bit left out of things, not being able to do PT, drill etc. Basics lectures - fieldcraft largely Scout stuff. Musketry is interesting. Spent a day at the shooting range to fire five shots! I managed to at least get them on the target figure. Staff were quite supportive - I expected a lot of shit from them, shouting and running around. This did help make the exercise bearable, almost pleasant. Other lectures on military law, role of a free press in a democracy (Oh for a George Orwell to address the crowd!). Free press lecture - largely a discussion on the disadvantages of a free press. Did make me realise that I know very little about threats to a free press. Also a lecture on parliamentary system. No comments about exclusion of blacks. The Lt. usually takes these lectures - gets the information out of us - usually by asking those who don't know the answers - so it drags along. The Corporal's lectures on Fieldcraft and Musketry are brisker, being dictated to us. Interesting because of relatively new content. Simple test every Friday. One of the big hassles here is communication. First two tests we were told to learn stuff we weren't supposed to be tested on. Last test we found out about from the other half of the bungalow! Always getting orders, counter orders, conflicting orders. Unit parades attended by soldiers wearing berets, plastic helmets and bush hats! There is a band which sounds tremendous; plays 'Sarie Marais', 'Yellow Submarine', 'Auld Lang Syne' and the 'Kelly's Heroes' theme music. One does miss out on all the pomp, pageantry and splendid uniforms of pre 1899 armies - brown uniforms don't look as impressive. The training ('superior to the enemies') is on a lower level than at a Scout Troop. Mouth to mouth during Buddy Aid session - one chap asked to demonstrate the steps. No thought of breaking up into small groups to practise, no training aids. Even in musketry - no dummy shells to practise loading a magazine or demonstrating how a round is ejected. The corporals are not particularly motivated or intelligent enough to put more into their training sessions. The Officers and NCOs lose a lot of respect by leaving us standing in the sun outside HQ. We eventually break ranks and sit under the gum trees. This seems to be quite acceptable. We have already submitted 3 lists of broken and missing kit and repairs needed for the bungalow and still no action. We had some blokes from the psychological services doing the Junior Leader's tests on us - a 2Lt Wessels. He did an impressive job in administering the test - efficient and helpful. A fair dose of testing attitudes to army and killing. Who has access to the results of the tests - just the Psycho Services or can the Unit Commander ask to see the individual's answer paper?
29 March 1986SCHMIDTSDRIFT - about 90 km west of Kimberley. Company HQ set up camp near windmill with a tempting reservoir nearby - beds, TV, radios, gas lights, etc. while the ten platoons parked off in the bush in bivvys - just like a backwoods camp. We were given three litres of water per day - for drinking and washing (we shaved in our helmets as the sun rose) - much fun gyppoing water from the water trailer and the poor Staff wondering what happened to his calculations "300 mense, 3 liters elk = 900l, maar dit is leeg en daar is pelletonne wat niks gekry het nie." [300 people, 3 litres each = 900 l, but its empty and there are platoons who haven't had any.] One 'Rat Pack' each per day - very good chow, but one needs more water to be able to use all the dehydrated stuff. I was section leader of 9 others (Platoons split into three). We did revision of the stuff we had been taught; stalking, camouflage, map reading (we got lost, but worked out what had gone wrong - HQ's fault - and got back first) and observation posts (in a tree). Monday afternoon witch hunt for those who had bathed and shaved in the reservoir (which wasn't used for drinking, officially). About 20 own up. Still not satisfied so 'Op vok' for two and a half hours - 1.5 km of sprinting and falling (quite restful, getting up was more difficult) followed by endless 'wissels' (changes), 20 m leopard crawl and carrying someone 20 m and then run back 1.5 km. While this was going on there was the most gorgeous sunset; blue sky, rose and gold clouds, thorn tree silhouettes. All this was after an obstacle course where we had large quantities of sand ('sandstorm') kicked in our faces by the Corporals as we did a crawl - and very little water for washing. So we were ready for bed after this. We found a nest of ostrich eggs, so scrambled egg appeared surreptitiously on the menu. Evenings were the best - no floor polishing so we could talk to each other - religion, politics, sex, army, philosophy. We saw Halley's comet each morning - not very spectacular, about 2 cm long with the tail flaring out into space. Some lovely butterflies and minute veld flowers, a few buck (antelope). One night we heard jackals calling. Eerie sound. On Thursday and Friday we had a 36 hour evaluation - which meant hiking to the other company bases with full kit. On arrival some or all of us were tested on the practical parts of the course. The old style webbing is a real bastard - heavy and two sets of straps cutting into your shoulders. The army does use modern back packs but ironically we don't use it although maintenance deals with equipment. I managed OK except for cutting a strap on the last hike. At the First Aid base the company was tested and didn't do well. This of course offended the Lieutenants who had taught buddy aid: 'Julle wil nie leer nie' ['You don't want to learn'] -> OPVOK! This time with full kit. We felt like tortoises transported to the Olympics. Lasted about 1.25 hours. Fallen kit strewn all around. Surprising what the body can take. Part of the 'reason' given by the corporal was that we had forgotten our rifle safety precautions (had just been tested on this). That night the corporal handed his rifle to one of the guys who wasn't issued with one - slept with it in his sleeping bag. Next morning he starts cleaning it and finds the magazine full of blanks!! Idle speculation as to whether we should give the corporal an opvok for forgetting his safety precautions. We should have fired a few, poured tomato sauce over Paul and presented him to our corporal, everybody wailing and tearing their overalls and gnashing their teeth! Back to the Lieutenants - I'm sure that there was no questioning of their teaching methods. They gave us the theory, but very little practical training. When a company consisting largely of non-matriculants suddenly got presented with practical tests, they wonder why the poor buggers don't cope. Had a shower in a shower truck - 1.5 minutes - lovely! Saturday and Sunday we made our bivvies at another base and ate, drank and slept. Altogether quite an enjoyable ten days. Some people described it as the "worst time of my life" - obviously not Scouts. Once back in camp we spent a morning running thirty consecutive times around a tree 60 m away to atone for a few minor problems with our inspection (would hate to have seen the other platoons inspection). We are getting fit from all this. One consolation next day; the other corporals were copying this method of sharpening up NAAFI troops; so we weren't the only ones running around madly. One gets used to all this and manages to do it all, so its not too bad.
JUNIOR LEADERS COURSE AT ORDNANCE SERVICES SCHOOL, VOORTREKKERHOOGTE
Candidate Officers did their training at Ordnance Services School, Voortrekkerhoogte, were they were given the option of Bondelsport at OS School; an activity that seemed to involve carrying heavy objects and being something like doing an obstacle course - for fun?
Officer candidates had to have their washrooms and toilets ready for inspection, and as a labour saving arrangement, they agreed to all urinate in the toilet bowls, leaving the urinals in shining pristine condition. They were often given punishment PT between the lines, which was illegal, but no one was going to make an official complaint. They got one afternoon off to attend a fun run for charity somewhere locally. On Saturday afternoons, they were generally allowed to receive visitors.
Chris recounts, while he was on the Junior Leaders' course being involved in house to house searches in the townships. One family was woken up, and an old man, very unimpressed, walked outside to have a pee. There were cases where soldiers making house to house searches in the townships helped themselves to possessions that they fancied. The legal mechanisms were in place to prosecute such offenders, when they were reported.
Ordnance Services had a badge consisting of a shield comprising wavy stripes in blue and white, and were referred to as `radiators'. The staff officers had obtained an old railway carriage from somewhere which they had brought along to the their base and were going to convert into their officers bar. Ordnance Services School took the 1989 fittest SA Army Training unit - taking it from the Parabats. (PARATUS March 1990, p. 11)
A stroppy soldier on a Junior Leaders course was so imprudent as to write down on a form that he was an atheist. This lead to numerous interviews, during which he was ranted, raved and frothed at by the chaplain and others. He was nearly thrown off the course for this alone, but somehow survived. Do you have to be a good Christian to go and kill people?
While being marched to lunch the Corporal demands a song. Deafening silence - no one in the mood after a bit of rondvok drilling on the way. Corporal repeats request in a threatening tone. I start the "I like/lark traffic lights/larts' (Afrikaner yob tone) & the platoon (a bit surprised as this is a new one) responds. This goes on for about six verses of the same followed by "only when they're red". This gets changed to "I hate traffic lights/larts" which gets on the Corporal's tits - `Aargh. Shuddup. Shuddup. You ous can't sing." Rest of the march/jog done without further musical accompaniment, much to our delight. Junior Leader candidates spent some time manning road blocks. They were instructed to tie a cord around their wrist, and to tie their rifle to the other end of the cord. Apparently there had been an incident at a road block where a car had run down a soldier, the occupants grabbed the soldier's rifle, and driven off with it.
DOING A CAMP IN THE EASTERN TRANSVAAL
30/10/1988: Army call up 11/11 (symbolic) to 09/01. Letter from boss - "only 2 geologists on the mine ... productivity will suffer if away for more than three weeks etc." No deferment. Took delight in telling the army to arrange transport from here (Evander) to Standerton for the train - no busses or taxis here either. PF's obviously need someone to chase / change the guard while on Christmas and New Year vacation - system sucks! I feel most unhappy about leaving work at this stage.
11/12/1988:I thought that we would get the weekend off to jorl in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, but we were bussed off to Barberton at 10 p.m. on the day of our call up. Two weeks at a place in the bush called 'Dusty ranch' where our maintenance unit was re-trained in infantry counter insurgency tactics. I was impressed with the morale and motivation of the blokes and the leadership of the NCO's - no shouting and screaming to get things done, no 'rondvok' [getting fucked around]. Our unit achieved the highest points in the practical evaluation, beating all the previous infantry units. Did things like road-blocks, cordon and search, mine and ambush drills, legal aspects of arrest, crowd control etc. Looked as though we would be going out to a full scale township war, but not so. We have been deployed out here in the sticks - I am platoon commander with a couple of sergeants and a lot of corporals to share the load. Our other platoon is camped in an industrial area near Nelspruit with all its attendant hassles of having a newly promoted captain as O/C and constant visits from Nelspruit HQ staff. Out here the captain has visited twice, no visits from Nelspruit brass in the three weeks we have been here. This relative freedom from interference has been invaluable for morale - have arranged several passes and two day trips to the Kruger Park so far. The other platoon have not had any pass - the Colonel in Nelspruit says "no pass - operational area". One corporal's wife has left him since the camp started and several others have had difficulty in contacting the wife. Being in charge is rather like a Scout camp and being Scout Master. I am actually enjoying it - largely because things are running smoothly and the blokes are co-operative. Only one night of hassles after a drinking evening - sorted out by limiting the drinks and marching the offenders in on orders.
Our tasks include patrolling the local bus routes in what we call "fishtanks" - Toyota bakkies (pick ups) with a high glassed in canopy and five seats down the middle - sides and roofs open up - a lot less frightening to the local population than driving around in Buffels. Also do foot patrols in the townships and help the SAP with roadblocks (illegal immigrants from Mozambique). Quite a need for security patrols in the townships - no telephones if things go wrong and the SAP station 15 km or more away. Often had people stopping us and asking for help - armed stock theft, murder and arson threats, domestic fights, stoning of an Induna's house, using an AK-47 to threaten people etc. Generally things are very quiet and peaceful and the people are friendly towards us. The high school pupils are more politically aware and we usually get a cool reception to our waves and "sabona's" [greetings]. The townships are mostly concrete block and corrugated iron roofs - a lot more established looking and don't resemble the crowded, desperate looking shanty towns one sees elsewhere. One school has "Viva Mandela. Viva ANC. Viva UDF." painted on the wall. We are staying in an old farmhouse - troops in tents in the garden. Snooker table, table tennis, darts, video contract, bar, portapool sunk into the ground (such a pleasure!) and dirt roads through tobacco and banana plantations for running. Plenty of time off - time makes life rather a pleasure at the "Hazy View Sun". Return to Evander on 11 January. Could miss this place.
06/01/1989:Some examples of Army bloody mindedness: Spare tyres for our 'fish tanks' have to be ordered 2 months in advance - we weren't even here two months ago. Object to the system and we get told to contact the last unit who was here and complain to them. An action that is really likely to solve the problem! Colonel in Nelspruit: "This is an Operational Area. No pass." We have a few blokes on detached duties with E. Tvl Command and these blokes get pass and every weekend off. Us fuckers in the field are supposed to accept this. As it turned out we organised illegal pass for those who could organise transport. Our Christmas and New Year wasn't too bad. Largely spent in the pool with lots of beer and Graca and Champaign and quiet congenial company. I have got on well with a lot of the NCO's and wouldn't mind having them as friends if I was around in Durban. We leave here on Sunday. Quite weird - feels like I've been doing this job forever and civvy life seems quite remote and unreal. Whole camp has been quite a holiday - not too much stress and the job has been very simple - not a real challenge at all. Wouldn't mind coming back here again.
Here is a shortcut back to the Sentinel Projects Home Page