2 SAI - School of Infantry - 4 SAI
Ratels in Op. Hooper. (1987-1988)
Charlie Section photo: `59th Brigade Day'
Back row L-R: H Van der Merwe, Mark van Schalkwyk, Mark Stanley, Sven Veltman, Wayne Brider.
Front row L-R: Dave Hobbs, Andy Smythe, Damian French, Greg Spence.
The gunner and the other guy left us after Hooper (G3 K3)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Link toDamian French's account of his service.
My brother had finished his two years - we were 18 months apart. When I was finishing matric he had klaared out. He finished in December and I went in January. I had some sort of idea about the military; either you are going to make something out of it or you are going to waste two years. I was hoping to make something out of it. Brother was in the tiffies (technical services), so he spent his two years being a diesel mechanic; he had a very different experience to me. He probably came out with a skill; there wasn't much call for a guy who could fire 20mm cannons and bust trenches wide open. The skills taught to combat troops weren't very transferable.
BASICS AT WALVISBAY
I actually joined 1 SAI from a roundabout route. I went from Walvis Bay to Infantry School first. At Walvis, they don't need camp walls because if you do go AWOL, you're not going to go very far. They don't go looking for you because they know there that there is not many places to go, if you head into the desert there is a good chance you will not be going anywhere.
This however did not hold true for a troop how happened to go awol get lucky and get a lift to SA. He reported into a police station that he went awol due to the conditions in the camp. From what I remember it did throw the camp into a slight wobble.
I injured my shoulder in Walvis a week before leaving for infantry school. I got gastro from a dodgy burger and was booked off on Light duty. As luck would have it there was some G3's who had a issue with the RSM, he retaliated by giving everyone on light duty a opvok, which involved standing in the push up position for 6 hours. At this stage I think I had a gung ho! attitude as I just kept going, not willing to give up. The next day I woke up with no feeling in my shoulder. I did not go to the medics afraid they would not let me go to Infantry School, as they only wanted G1 K1.
Selection for Infantry School
The army always seemed to have a system in that you would have an Alpha and a Bravo, or an A- and a B company, whichever way they wanted to designate it. In our case it was Oscar and Alfa Company. Alpha Company were sent out to Rooiklip, which is in the middle of the frigging desert. It was 37 degrees C on average. The story goes Oscar Company seemed to be everybody who had some form of matric or higher. On the train up to Walvis, they did their selection; you were sent to Walvis centre, or to Rooiklip.
There was total segregation between the two companies. From Oscar company, the various specialist units would come to look for the leadership element, the Parabats, the Recces. There would be this list of recruiters for the different specialisms. It would be Reconnaissance, closely followed by infantry school, Parabats, closely followed by the Cavalry; motorbikes, horses, and then dogs and things like that.
I think they came in a specific order, to take the people they wanted to, selecting down all the way to the bottom of the barrel. And those that were left would go out and become infantrymen.
The Story of 2 SAI
2 SAI - the military base was about a metre below sea level. It was built during the Second World War as temporary housing for the military, and it was still used when we were there. The bungalows where built on stilts, for some obscure reason the powers that be decided we had to build little walls of sand all around the bungalow, and then rake patterns into it. In retrospect these were infantry school graduates but more about that later.
Inspections where interesting as it was the only place where you didn't have to wash the outside of the windows, because you couldn't open the windows. The hinges generally would have rusted off. The windows would actually physically drop out of their mountings. There seemed to a reduced budget surrounding the replacement of these windows as you were explicitly told not to open the windows and as there where no ladders there was not much you could do about the outside.
Another bonus is that every morning the dew would come up through the floor, and it would polish the floor for you; it would leave this incredibly shiny floor. If you had inspection at the start of the day; at 6 or 7 o'clock, you had the most brilliant floor. If they had the inspection at 10 o'clock, you would have a salt layer on the floor because the dew would evaporate.
We had a guy with us; he was one of seven brothers- he was the smallest, but he was a monster. He was a boxer. If anyone ever told you that Neanderthals had died out. They didn't die out - they just interbred. `Here's one of them!' This guy decided to go AWOL within a week of us being there. He climbed over the wall as I mentioned before we didn't have the toughest of security because they knew that if you went off into the desert, you weren't going anywhere in a hurry. He stole a rifle out of the guard room and went into the centre of Walvis Bay and decided that he was going to teach the civilians how to march. He got them all out of the bar, got them to `tree aan', and he marched them up and down Walvis Bay's main road for the duration of the evening,. he then decided to come back to the base as though nothing had happened. I remember that we had to try to catch this guy. He was running all over, and you had this platoon running behind him. The only way to stop him was to physically tackle the guy so that the MPs could arrest him. I think we eventually brought the guy down so that they could cuff him and take him away.
I saw some strange things at 2 SAI, I think it was the first view of the things to come. In typical military fashion we would be standing in line (hurry up and wait), and there would be always be someone who would keep pushing into the queue. They tended to pick on the smaller guys, if I remember it was Sunday Lunch break, which meant we had the afternoon off. That afternoon, the guy who kept pushing in was lying on his bed- the victim of his actions came in, stepped up on his trommel, and kicked him in the head. It was such a short-arsed guy, and he had to climbed on the trommel so that he could launch a kick at the guy's head.
I was at 2 SAI for about 6 weeks - I had just finished basics, and then I moved off to Infantry School. They only started to form people into cohesive groups after basics. At that point they started to specialise either to become a support weapons platoon or group (mortars, 106 recoilless etc.) or infantry rifleman section.
That period was when your section actually starts to bond. Up until that point you were pretty generic. They would just move you from one section to another, as things worked. They were just training basics. It was only when they started moving you into sections that started forming the cohesiveness. They broke it down; it wasn't the platoon in which everything happened, it was at a section level. It was the sections that could be blamed. This structure of section, platoon, company, and battalion actually becomes your hierarchy of loyalty.
The most fascinating thing about 2 SAI was the drills, there would be water parade, all the troops would get to drink two litres of water before the days activities began, this was to prevent dehydration. The second drill was rifle cleaning, rifles were drawn to be oiled and cleaned twice a day, the rust that occurred within a short space of time was amazing.
SCHOOL OF INFANTRY
I got pretty disillusioned with infantry school. We had to Laurel and Hardy as our CO and 2IC, because these guys would stand in front of you and have a raging argument about issues. Rumour had it the captain wanted to become a major, and the major wasn't too keen on him moving.
That they would have this Laurel and Hardy act, this big guy and this little guy, fighting in front of the whole company. An example of this was - they told me to put up a machine gun tripod; on the LMG you could deploy a fixed tripod that you could put down for base defence. There is a specific way that you put them down - you let the tripod lie with the legs open flat on the ground, then from the centre pull up the block onto which the LMG mounts, this allows the legs to follow the contours of the ground. I put the thing down and the Captain told me to move it 15 cm to the side. Because the Major had said put it here, he said; `Move it 15 cm this way.' The tripod has a rotating mounting plate; 15 cm was not going to change my arc of fire. He was just doing it because he could. The pettiness of who they were and what they were had got to them. They had lost sight of what they were really doing.
At this point in my military life I formed a benchmark test which was 'would you go to war with these guys as your leadership'? This question was not difficult to answer in this case.
Infantry school was obsessed with inspections, I think there was actually a prize for best inspection, and the best candidate would also be the one with the best inspections.
You got the impression that we were there to fight any battles based on the squareness of socks or how neatly you could fold your shirt.
I always had the impression of this charade, no matter who I shot, nobody bitched about what my inspection looked like. Not one enemy stood up and said; `You're not allowed to shoot me. You have a crap inspection.' I always had the opinion that as long as your boots worked and if your rifle was clean and you had the right mental attitude then you were ready for war; the rest of it was just an irrelevance. (This was borne out on Hooper; we never shaved, ironed, or washed.)
They were not training soldiers, they were training people could fold socks, iron shirts and make sure that their beds were square. That doesn't make you a good soldier. A good soldier is someone who has the mental toughness and the understanding, and the ability to operate in a unit, and make sure that the core things work for you; your rifle and your boots, because that's what its all about.
I was an NCO candidate. At infantry school we were split up into companies to allow you down the particular training route because you would have a slightly different speciality and that they start to train you along this line. NCOs; it seemed they had the opinion that you needed to be slightly more hard arsed, and the Lieutenants seemed to be the guys who were more the mummy's boys. It just seemed to work out that way. I never came across one of them at infantry school that I wanted to go into battle with. They were frigging scary. Although this is not strictly true.
A quote to live by from a Sergeant Major from Infantry School Delta Company: `The toughest muscle in your body sits between your ears.' If you can control, that, everything else becomes relatively simple. Its all about determination. You live of fail by what's between your ears. No matter how tough you think you are, or how big you think you are, if you don't have it right up there, you're not going to make it. Out of all the things I learnt from Infantry School this is what stayed with me. Surprisingly that Sergeant Major actually earned my respect; come to think of it I would have gone into battle with him. I did also pity him having to work with the other leader element. It must have been difficult
I always heard these stories of the brainwashing, - a friend of mine was with the Parabats, and they were shown all these videos about the Rooi Gewaar, and the A N C and things. We never had that brainwashing component. I'm not sure why, or I wasn't paying attention when they were showing the movies. The brainwashing was never there so I could never really understand what these guys were speaking about. In my case, you were a soldier irrelevant of skin colour. You were told what to do and you did it. It didn't matter who the enemy was.
I think a part of it was that our company had quite a lot of 101 and 121Bn guys in the unit, which were black units. We were quite a mixed group, and it might have been difficult for them to try to run through all of these things when you were sitting next to a guy from 121 Battalion. I don't know if it was because they had that mixture, they didn't run us through that typical `hate your enemy' propaganda. I found it strange later on to hear about this as how can an army have different standards.
Infantry School was an interesting state of affairs. I really was quite disillusioned with the fact that I don't think they were actually breeding soldiers; they were breeding people who could iron very well. It became quite clear when we actually did the first training for combat, that the training at Infantry school actually was of little value... They hadn't actually prepared us very well for what the war was to become. The combat drills that we had to go through, the ability to break into trenches even that was not used.
Life in Infantry School: Although you were a platoon, you weren't quite a platoon. The set up was that there were rooms where you had two people per room. There was a guy called Bruce, and English chap that I shared with. It was friendly, but nothing like the friendships that developed on Hooper. I don't know whether I quite fitted in with them. I don't think I was quite driven by the same things that they were. I wanted to cut the crap and get down to the real stuff. The striving for the person who had the neatest ironed square shirt wasn't for me. If that was what they wanted me to do, I think they were wasting their time. Mine was square, but maybe it wasn't as square as everybody else's.
Expectations SCHOOL OF INFANTRY; You were told the stories about how you did not eat off varkpanne; you ate from a mess - all the plates and things. They told me that the toughest thing about Infantry School was that you would go through the conventional phase, where they would take you up into the mountains, and do trench clearing and things like that. It would be in the rain. It had quite a bit of awe built around it. It was nothing like what I experienced at Lohatla, and what I experienced in Angola. It was absolutely a walk in the park in comparison. It was nowhere near the reality of what needed to be done. Infantry School was impressive in the fact that it had an image attached to it. It had an image attached to the vasbyt belt, which everybody though was close to Parabats, but I think it was a lot more hype than substance. Maybe it was much hype because they had nothing to benchmark it against. I think that the toughest thing that I have ever been through was living out in Angola, eating luncheon roll because that was all that had come through instead of rat packs, drinking water that was so dirty often you could not tell if you had put coffee in the water, wearing the same shirt for four months, and turning the thing inside out because one side was slightly dirtier than the other. Infantry school did produce some good guys I am sure, but I think it was more about the hype than the reality.
I was at infantry school for close to five months I think. I left after vasbyt - I was support crew person during vasbyt.
Although I have slated Infantry School the question can be asked why I went there in the first place:
I went off to infantry school because I had always had the theory make the most of what you can do in the situation. As I mentioned earlier I had managed to paralyse my left shoulder. I had absolutely no feeling in my arm for four months... I could operate but I just had no feeling on the left side of my body. That didn't stop me for a while until I got to Infantry School, and we were getting ready for the vasbyt walk. It was in full combat gear, and I wanted to walk,. I did all the preparation for it. At that point the physiotherapist said that if I carried on with this, I could end up doing permanent damage to my back. I now had a choice whether to stay at Infantry School, or you leave. I think that was probably one of the most difficult things; where these Leadership look at you as though you are quitting; they actually believed that what they were doing was right. I remembered the OC saying; `You're wasting taxpayers' money. You want to leave this course.' I thought; `If it's a choice between two years of my life, as opposed to going through the rest of my life without the ability to use my left arm.' I didn't give a rat's arse about the taxpayers' money!
It really in retrospect wasn't that difficult for them to then say to me do you want a RTU, I felt; `if I risk a paralysed shoulder, I don't think it's really worth me sitting around here.' The future for me after Infantry School lay in the fact that I was going to get a desk job at Infantry School, or run some store somewhere, which wasn't really what I was all about. The key for me: I excelled and enjoyed in the intelligence work, and in the platoon weaponry. There I was way ahead of the rest, but my inspections weren't anywhere near - it passed, but nobody ever gave me the best inspection award.
It was a relatively simple choice. So I got shipped off to 1 SAI, in Bloemfontein, and I think there must have been some grand plan, because that's where I met up with the team.
My RTU came through after Vasbyt if I can remember correctly.
Regrets: In retrospect, I regret not having done the vasbyt. Unfinished business. I did all the preparation, but sitting back, I think it was a gamble. I could have walked vasyt, The caveat could have been; `Yes, I walked vasbyt, but I don't have the use of my arm.' If I had done that, I probably wouldn't have gone to 1 SAI. That's probably the biggest thing that sits out in my mind. Sometimes I think maybe I chickened out on this thing. `What would have happened if ...'
I was hoping that if I left Infantry School, then I would join 101 or one of the combat units. I really didn't see myself as a training officer, which was probably what 90% of all rank went to a base to train the next bunch. It was a never-ending cycle of training, and potentially waiting for something to happen. I really wanted to go operational, because I didn't think that spending a year teaching a person to fold their clothes was what I wanted to do.
I also felt that when I left infantry school, if I was going to be G3 or something, I might as well got and get some sort of qualifications for a career or something. To sit behind a desk and hand out uniforms was not what I wanted to do.
I headed up to 1 SAI literally as they had completed their conventional phase, and where preparing for counter terrorism. I was at that stage allocated to the platoon which was to become Platoon 2 Alpha Company at Middleburg.
The platoon was sent out to a rather desolate out post somewhere near Steelpoort. Steelpoort can best be described as a one-horse town, where the horse was said to have requested to be relocated. We were a single platoon in a tented camp, which in someone's infinite wisdom had been erected in a clearing in a bush next to a small river; we were in the dry riverbed. Strangely that year we had a fair amount of rain which ended in us digging trenches late at night to keep the water out, this was good practice for things to come.
Riots as it was known was relatively quite, the section I was then with got to spend a few days camping above a hospital. This was a suspected ANC cell, we spend a few days observing and reporting back, what the outcome of our exercise was I will never know.
Life in the tent camp was laid back, to an extent, the cook allocated to us was an absolute GIT, who decided to swap food supplies for marijuana, when some of the troops found this out, and there was a distinct plan to do this chap some harm.
The relationship with catering corps was one of an evil necessity, at a base in South West, after a period of particularly bad food, some troops set fire to the tent in which the catering troops stayed, they happened to be in the tent at the time. It was said catering had the highest kill rate in the army unfortunately it was our own troops. I once got involved in an argument with a 'chef' who threatened to not give us wet rations and supply us with rat packs, it would have been a blessing as at least then we would have known who to blame when the food was burnt.
After riots we returned to 1SAI and the companies we were in were divided into sections to be sent off for training at Lohatla. At this stage I had applied to join the SADF as Permanent Force member in the Finance corps. This was in line with my intended career. I was at this point thoroughly disillusioned with the military life as an infantry soldier. My shoulder had not yet healed at I had developed a problem with the cartilage in my knee. I was allocated to Charlie Section as an anti aircraft gunner (supposedly). Charlie sections was an interesting group of people;
Andy the intrepid section leader (who had the kakkest job as he got shit from all sides)
Sven, 2IC who had a mission to drive whom ever was within range to drink,
van Schalkwyk a mag gunner who was continually planning what he was going to do after the two years,
Damien a particular avid arsonist,
Van Der Merwe the 20mm Gunner who actually hailed from Steelpoort, enough said,
Dave the driver, the only member who could not speak Afrikaans as he was an immigrant who volunteered, an once described the Voortrekkers as a bunch of people who actually got lost during the great trek and thus ended up in the old Transvaal, he had a point based on the leadership of the SADF's ability to navigate.
Stanley, a surfer boy who gave us endless days of mirth with his antics and actions.
Spence who was the only real G3 in our section and thus became the Anti Aircraft gunner.
Me? Well I got the enviable task of carrying large quantities of ammunition for the Mag and probably made the easiest target for the enemy as I had to pay attention to the LMG and not what was going on in the front. I was also the back up gunner for the 20mm cannon for which I did develop a particular soft spot.
We were an English speaking section. There was one Afrikaans member that was loaned to us briefly until we decided we were going to shoot him because he was stealing our stuff. There were 10 of us originally. I think it was just circumstance which probably worked because the two corporals and the lieutenant didn't quite know what to do with us, so they just stuffed us all together in one section to keep us quiet. The rest of the company was overwhelmingly Afrikaans, but we probably made up for the representation in the company because they weren't that many English people. It just seemed that we were very few and far between
In terms of mental toughness, I think Lohatla was the test. The physical toughness is relatively easy to get over. You just go and do it. The thing about Lohatla was that you had the extremes in temperature, you would do three or four live drills during the day, firing off hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and that evening you would have to clean everything, and prepare everything to be ready for the next morning. You would probably have to do about six Ratel tyre changes every day; there were these little bushes that burn down, they leave hardened stumps, and these take the tyres out one after another. It actually got to the point where we would have to stop because there weren't enough tyres in repairable state to keep the Ratels doing. We would do about five or six Ratel tyre changes every day. Every day would comprise of a dry run practicing trench busting, followed by live attacks. You would run kilometres during these attacks. That was probably what kept us alive in Angola; the sheer fact that we had been through that rugged discipline. The way that the unit worked together; you knew exactly where everybody was. You knew exactly what everybody was doing. We had gone through I don't know how many rounds of ammunition without an incident. We would go through absolute extremes of temperature; it would absolutely fry you during the day, and it would freeze solid at night. I think what got to us; the last operation in sweepslag they sent us up to a trench that we were going to be defending, and somebody else would be attacking. They sent us to a point where we were supposed to dig trenches, but we couldn't. The trenches had to be built on a flat solid piece of rock. . We ended up building our trenches ion top of the rock. Our MAG gunner- at that stage had an accident with rock on his foot, (We suspected he decided to flatten his foot with a rock), so he could get casevaced out of there. We would have a litre of water with you. You would have to sit there for days on end, in these trenches backing in the sun, and then freezing at night. . That was probably far tougher than anything that infantry school ever threw at anybody. You knew that at some stage they respected your time at Infantry School - from between sun up until about 8 o'clock you were there; after that you had your own time. Sunday was strictly for you; they couldn't touch you. I think that was the escape part of it. At Lohatla, your time was never yours. Day or night, Saturday or Sunday - it was continuous; it was proper combat situation.
Lohatla was cut short for us; we were supposed to be there for eight weeks or so. We were busy with an operation called sweepslag; which is where the military get all their future COs, and they run a large scale mock conventional battle. I think they run a few of them every year; this was a conventional warfare exercise, where we had pantser, G6, Air Force, the whole shooting match.
We had just finished sweepslag, and we were supposed to do another training operation; the plan was that we would come back, and in the next four weeks there was to be a big parade at 1 SAI, and we were going to do a demo, and the parents were all invited. We were getting ready to start the training for that at Lohatla. We were called together and told that the training had been called short; we were going home. We had to go on pass. That was all we were told.
We had a suspicion that something was happening. We just didn't know what. After pass we were transported off to the "Border" in Hercules transport planes. When we landed at Rundu and we climbed in the Samil 20s and 50s they had waiting for us; I think it dawned on us when we crossed the big river, because there is only really one big river in the area. We had our suspicions.
We were told that things were going to be a bit hairy, when they handed out the wills. Then you understood that this was serious stuff. We had a suspicion that we were going up to the border. Nobody had told us that we were going any further than that.
4 SAI (I cover this here as we were 4 SAI but had not officially transferred yet)
How we became Alpha 4 SAI
We had Alfa, Bravo, Charlie and Delta companies. At 1 SAI, which is the training camp. When you had done your training, you were supposed to break up. We then became Alfa and Bravo Company of 4 SA Infantry, and the other two became part of 61 Mech. There was a huge debate while we were at Lohatla about whether we would go to 4 SAI or 61 Mech I don't think that at that stage anybody quite knew that we were going to be deployed operationally, and it didn't make a difference anyway.
When we got there, we didn't have a Ratel, the original 12C had been shot out by a T 54, and the gunner killed.
They gave us a Buffel to ride around in, which wasn't quite the same thing. Imagine going into battle with this thing that couldn't quite keep up, and by the way, there was a good chance we were all going to die! You would be looking for the gun but the biggest thing lying there would be a water bottle, or a catapult. They send us our car eventually after getting the correspondence that said we can't send you a Ratel because they are sitting there in case we ever have a war.
I remember my first night at Mavinga, we deployed, were introduced to our Buffel and set up camp for the night.
A word of advice never dig the trench longer that your bivvy. That night we had rain, as it does in a jungle type environment. My bivvy started to collect water and sag down onto my face. With all the thought one gives to a situation at 2h00 in the morning I pushed the bivvy upwards and proceeded to dump all the water into my trench which now made a rather good pond. There is no worst sensation than being cold and wet (a fact discovered by prisoner of war camp masters) I proceeded to spend the rest of the night sleeping in the balsaks packed next to the Buffel.
We spent the next weeks doing practice attacks not much fun in a Buffel as it could not keep up and it had a tendency to bounce at high speed. Sven did manage to incur the wrath of the corporal by asking for more coloured flares as it would therefore make a more spectacular explosion as they were being smashed about in the back of the Buffel.
Trip up to the front.
After the training we as a fighting group had to move up to the front. As we had no Ratel we were split up amongst the other Ratels in the convoy to move forward. Sven and I were allocated to a command Ratel of the engineers. Unfortunately command Ratels tended to have the medically unfit troops in them and we spent our time digging out Ratels and building log bridges. It was a long night, in which we probably moved 8 k's in eight hours. The progress was slow as we had to break bush and cut a road up to where we were going, it was raining as well which meant the road that was cut was being churned up into mud, this trail had to then be filled with logs to provide traction for the Ratels and log vehicles.
It was early morning when we had a Victor Victor (Afrikaans for `Vyandleke Vleigtuige'/enemy aircraft) Sven and I were outside the Ratel at the time and I jumped into a foxhole. Something felt odd under my feet, I bent over to see what I was standing on, it was the corpse of a dead Fapla or Cuban, and we were on a previous battleground. I remember the incident but it does not bother me. We were to have occasions were people were woken up with skulls put in front of them to try scare the daylights out of them. It was not something I thought was particularly bright not because it was wrong but most guys had a loaded rifle in their sleeping bag.
After much struggling we eventually got to the front, and reunited with our section.
Eventually our Ratel arrived on the eve of the first battle (13 January), a brand spanking new one, but when I unpacked the gun (20mm cannon) out of the crate, but they hadn't sent me a cradle to put it in the turret. So I had this 20 mm cannon that I couldn't mount in the turret. They hadn't sent the feed chute either. We could maybe tie the gun in with wire, but a 20 mm cannon doesn't quite work that way. You could poke people in the eye with it, and maybe intimidate them maybe.
So we'd had a Ratel, and I was trying to put this damn thing together and I would go and speak to the Gunners in our platoon and say; `Can I look at your gun? I want to see how it's mounted,' and then steal a bolt out of the side of it, so that I could mount our gun. I had count on them to leave us alone in their turret. We eventually had sufficient bolts to mount the cannon. Later that evening we had the gun mounted but no feed chutes.
In the battle of the 13 Jan (21st Brigade) one of the cars had struck a landmine (11B), so again I was busy cannibalising the feed chutes.
The cannibalising got so bad that I think that the Cubans were worried that we weren't there to shoot them; we were there to steal their equipment.
By the second battle we had the gun mounted, the feed chutes sorted out, but the electrics wouldn't work so I actually had the Browning machine gun wired up to the 20 mm cannon so we could get this thing to fire electronically. Andy used to sit in the turret with a piece of rope tied to the Browning machine gun. You would shout `Fire!' and he would just yank it. It was like something out of a puppeteer movie!
We now had a functional Ratel which was christened `The Pope-Mobile'.
Things that happened in this whole episode.
It was one heck of experience. It was something that to a large extent formed the character of a lot of people who were there.
Andy ran Radio Charlie for us; he was part DJ. Radio Charlie was something that struck out of boredom more than anything else. We had a few Walkmans up there. The way that the Ratels were set up was an Alfa car, a Bravo car, and a Charlie Car. Charlie Car was traditionally supposedly the recovery car; it had slightly more equipment than the other two Ratels. It would have two radio sets. A 53 radio set which was for communication within the platoon and a B radio which was for communication generally back to the company. You could call in recovery to come and assist where normal means of technical repairs could not be undertaken... Andy was a DJ while he was at university and his Dad ran the Veltskoen Drive-in at Randburg, and he used to DJ for that. Out of pure boredom he started playing tapes on the platoon net. The thing started to grow, and take on a life of its own, until one day when Andy said; `Tell me what the call signs are', and zero came across, which was the CO's car, and then they tried to turn this thing into some sort of motivational thing, and the Dominee wanted him to stop playing this music, stop swearing etc, at which point Andy shut the whole damn thing down. I think the closest would be `Good Morning Vietnam'. The popularity of the station could be best judged by a response to a problem.. We ran short of batteries one day, and somebody swiped the batteries out of the Sergeant Major's car. We called for batteries, and we didn't know how many batteries we were going to get.
Religion in the military
Religion was one thing sacred in the army, it was one area you could get away with all sorts of things if you were willing to take the chance, in a account of the Angolan campaign I seem to remember having read someone's report about wanting the Dominee in their car with them. Have never heard so much shit spoken by so few people in such a short time. The Dominie was an absolute prat. I remember 14th February, St Valentine's Day, that was a Sunday, and the attack on the 59th. We had a church service on the Saturday. These guys did their utmost to convince us that we were fighting heathens, and that it was right to go into battle on a Sunday because God was with us. Up until that time the Dominee had been quite palatable and quite plausible. `If you say so,' sort of thing. I remember seeing a dead Cuban kid he could not have been more than 14, with a Bible in his hand. You think that was not quite a story that I heard yesterday. Heathens don't hang on to Bibles. These were 14 year old children. They were shipping them over from Cuba that young. We ran into a few of them. They were youngsters. They were in uniform. I don't know whether they were combat troops or what, but we were led to believe that they were Cuban exports. Being a soldier was the way to go. I don't know whether this was just a very young-looking adult, it could have been, but he was stone dead, and clutching a Bible. It didn't fly with me after that. Ever since then religion hasn't played a major part in my life. I believe firmly that there is something out there. We had some very narrow, very inexplicable escapes. One that I'm not quite sure that the guys who stand up on Sunday and ask for your cash actually understand what this is all about or it just a business like all other corporations.
Before going in - church background: My parents believed up until I was about 16 that Sunday School was the way to go, and at 16 I could make a call for myself. I was Roman Catholic so there was an element of that but my Dad always believed that you have the right to question. If you don't understand, ask questions. It wasn't a case that I was strictly religious - I think at that point when you in the whole war environment religion does become something to think about. - I think of the 4SAI Sergeant Major who probably best summed it up, he said go back and prayed to any and all gods you can think off, there is no harm in covering al, the bases.
Personal view on Religion - I believe there is definitely something greater out there; we had some very inexplicable things that happened. We acquired our RPG rocket launch from an Angolan who stepped out from behind a water tanker and took a shot at us. As he fired, we fell into a trench - the Ratel physically fell into a trench, and the whole front of the Ratel just disappeared. The rocket actually passed over the nose of the car. If we had been carrying on straight, he would have smacked up right in the middle of the door. We did this guy in and collected ourselves a new RPG, which was, at that stage, a 1986 model. We were quite chuffed with that.
The was another incident with the tanker where the tank was shot out in front of us - up until that point we were driving next to that tank. When they said; `Pull in behind the tank,' because the bush got too thick, we actually moved in behind - or the tank moved in front of us. Happen it was the other way around, that shell that hit that tank would have taken a Ratel out. The fact that it hit the tank and merely broke the phos bins (phosphorus grenade launchers) off was something - if it had hit our Ratel that would have been the end of us. The damage to the tank was minimal we found out later. The incident happened so quickly the tank was hit we jumped out of the Ratel and ran over to the tank. Myself and Sven provided the cover, Damian and Mark pull the tank commander out of the turret and brought him back to the Ratel. I think we believed the tank was still going to explode. On getting back to the Ratel we found it full of shell-shocked Unita troops who happened to be sitting on top of the tank when the round hit it. Our Ratel immediately with drew to a safe distance.
I have heard the tanker CO is alive and well farming in the Freestate. I believe what probably saved the life of that tanker, because we had the B radio. We could call up the recovery and the medics quite quickly.
Andrew Smythe, Section Leader 12C - Hooper, adds:
I would just like to know from Dion, what it was that smacked Le Riche Coetze's tank. Was it a 90mm ratel from 61 mech or was it a T 54? I have never in my life seen anything like that. The Tank just rocked back and almost did a wheelie. The UNITA guys fled and then Le Riche's team popped out of the turret like they had a serious fire cracker up their backsides. My orders under such circumstances was to reverse the ratel so that recovery tanks could move in. We were doing this when our driver Dave, saw the tank crew criss corossing each other trying to find cover. I think that they were shocked from the smack. Dave went against standing orders and me kicking him in the head and drove up to the tank crew and let them into the ratel together with about 4 or 6 UNITA guys. One guy had a huge tear on his back from the incoming round or from being shot while he was in the bush after falling off Le Riches tank. Dave should get a medal as what he did was absolutely right. I should get a kick in the head instead.
Some really amazing things happened. An entire tree disintegrated in front of us so I assume that that was an incoming T 54 shell. (59th bgd) My tower lit up from the light of a passing incoming RPG. (59th bgd) Our platoon comander got us stuck in a tank trap (21st bgd), and an RPG fired at us, missed and struck the tank next to us on the front part of the left hand track (late in the day 21st bgd, this was the tank that they had to repair through most of the night, we then used the RPG for the rest of the trip and it had a ding on its nose from the shrapnel from the tank that took out the guy who fired it.) When Le Riche's tank took the knock, we were still under heavy fire including the ZU 23 mm that took out 61 mechs ratel. It is reported that they fired gas at us late in the afternoon of the 59th bgd attack. I saw smoke puff up and then blow away from us.
We were also tasked to go and deal with a group of FAPLA who had been spotted moving on the other side of a shona (a break in the forest covered in grass similar to a meadow). As we approached the shona, the clouds opened, and because we didn't have any anti-aircraft, we stopped dead. There was a tank trap sitting on the other side waiting for us. We just sat and waited, so they could not spring the tank trap on us. But we had been literally walking into an ambush. They had tanks and ZU23 anti aircraft guns waiting in the tree line for us. (Its usually in the tree line where you put in three or four tanks which are part of the trap, so as the guy drives in you just nail him with the tanks)
These things that happened, under normal circumstances you would think that all of these things were coincidental , but three of them in one day? It just doesn't wash. [And this is without having the Dominee riding with you?] That's it. That was the key to the whole damn thing - give him to somebody else.
I think the sods still lied to us - they were telling us that these Fapla units were down to their last three grains of rice, and they were partitioning them to share out amongst the platoon, and when we hit them we captured coffee-cans sizes of tuna, Norwegian sardines, rice supplied by the United Nations and later we found out flown in by a South African airline. The standing joke was `Shoot low because you don't want to hit the guy's foodpack.' "Where's the next battle? We're hungry!"
Their rations were better than ours. There's only so many times that you can eat luncheon roll, and there's only so many things you can do with it. You can put luncheon roll with cheese between two slices, or you could put cheese on either side of the luncheon roll, but that's about it. For the really adventurous out there here is a recipe for a survival hamburger:
You require a piece of tin foil
Two military dog biscuits
Processed cheese in a squeeze tube
And a secret ingredient - desperation
Place ingredients in-between the dog biscuits slightly moisten with water preferably unpurified river water
Wrap in tin foil and place in a fire. Foil can be scrounged from old porridge packs
Whenever you are ready remove and eat.
Please note the author does not accept any responsibility for the rapid weight loss which could occur due to you having to sprint to the toilet after using unpurified river water.
The senior rank of 4 SAI and 61 Mech was a different class of person from what the average South African soldier was ever exposed to. I think someone mentioned about Mike Mike being very protective over his troops, when we came to Alpha - demobilize, he took on the camp rank because they were hassling hid troops. I remember our sergeant major making the catering crew eat the company's food because they had watered down the drinks, and it was what he considered substandard. He made the catering crew sit down and eat the whole lot on their own, and make proper food for what he considered to be his troops. There was very little difference between our mess and the rank's mess. The sergeant major would at any time be prepared to walk in and eat with us. The food quality was identical; the only difference was that they had plates and we had varkpan type scenario. I think this also exacerbated my lack of faith in infantry school because I saw what rank should be, as opposed to the circus that they had in infantry school.
Experiences of combat
Life really does slow down into the typical war scenes as shown in the war movies. Small things lose there significance and at that point in time you either become totally focussed on the job at hand or become totally immersed in fear. The time when the situation really takes its toll is before the battle, the time sitting waiting, this is when you sit and think about what can happen.
Our medic Manny was at his busiest now, we had one of the gunners go into an absolute state of shock. It got so bad that he was replaced by the back up gunner and spent the duration of the battle in the back of the Ratel.
The thoughts that run through your mind I suppose relate to what your greatest fears are, for some it is death. For me it was being disabled by a land mine. We had been told that there were mine fields we had to negotiate, these were not the problem as we would have engineers to clear a path for the advancing Ratels. My fear was of Anti Personal mines. It was the loss of a foot that really was the thing I feared most. The thing that sort of provided me with a level of comfort was that we would mostly be fighting from the vehicles.
In Modular our typical method of deploying to fight on foot, in formation with the Ratels was used, however there were cases where FAPLA had deployed machine guns in the trees to be used as we deployed. The training we received was to spray the trees with machine gun fire from the Ratel before deploying. This also posed problems as we were told some of our own troops had been deployed in the trees as forward spotters. Things were never easy.
These fears seemed to leave ones mind very quickly as the Ratels and tanks start up and the attack group moves out. A Ratel offers limited vision so sitting in the back with small side windows and shooting points to look out it means you really can only judge the situation by the sound of the guns. The first noticeably sound is that of incoming mortars, artillery and rockets, these weapons mean you are within a few kilometres of the enemy.
The first indication you get that you are closing in is when you hear the popping sound made by the AK 47 rounds whipping overhead. And the retaliatory sound of other tanks or Ratels. The war starts to be experienced with all the senses; you hear the sound of the guns, feel the shock from the 105 cannons on the tanks taste and smell the cordite. You tend to see with the view of evaluating everything as potential targets.
Time starts to slow down during the attack on the 59th Brigade the Ratel fell into the trench, myself and Sven, the 2IC jumped out of the car, and we literally picked the tow bar up and hooked the Ratel up without thinking about what we were doing. We now had to get ourselves out of this mess because we were in a full on combat zone, and we were sitting ducks. The Ratel was not going anywhere. The guys who thought they were the toughest weren't there, and the ones who we didn't expect it of were out there forming the perimeter to pull us out. It happened so quickly. I picked up a tow bar - I don't know if you know how heavy a Ratel tow bar is - it's a solid lump of steel that must be about 14 feet long - it must he a diameter of about 18 or 20 cm. It was a solid piece of steel capable of towing 17 tons. We just picked this thing up as though it didn't exist, hitched the Ratel up to another, hauled ourselves out of the hole, and put the tow bar back in holders again, and climbed back into the Ratel and off we went.
I think the same thing happened in one of the combat situations. My browning broke a extractor claw, the machine gun came with a spare, it was a weak point on a other wise superb weapon. Things that would probably take you fifteen minutes to fix to perfection, was not something you wanted to do in a moving Ratel - its damn difficult to take a Browning machinegun to pieces under normal conditions now had to be done while you are in a car, in a battle, and having putting it back again ready to fire at the next target. Those things remain with me. It is a constant reminder of what can be done if you have to, a sort of self-motivational tape.
There was one other attempt where the guy tried to bomb us, and that was at the taking at Tumpo; the last battle of Hooper. Our company had been pulled back because we had been in the foreword line for every single battle until that point, and they pulled us back and gave us the task of protecting the anti-aircraft installation - well, our platoon was. Sven and I were sitting watching on a hill, and we saw this MiG come in. I think he was marking with phos, and he came into a typical dive, and you hear the engines cut as he gets ready to jettison. He came straight down on top of a cactus missile point. On the cactus you have a set of binoculars that you can lock on, and at a certain point the cactus just takes over by itself. We were sitting watching this guy come in, and we saw the phos come out. The Air Force guy was trying to lock on to this MiG, but he couldn't get lock on because the thing just kept coming closer and closer. The cactus took over, and he happened to be standing behind the thing when the rocket fired. It took his eyebrows off, melted off half his beard, and took the hair off his head. The rocket fired at the MiG at a distance of a few hundred feet, whipped right past the ouk - we heard the guy go off in the Air Force listening base - we could speak Cuban because he was swearing so badly. We hauled arse out of there because the guy was dropping phos, and its almost as bad as napalm. Those two were the two incidents that we came closest to being bombed, or whether something was dropped on us.
Other than that, I don't think they ever actually targeted us; they targeted a UNITA convoy at night; one guy happened to switch his lights on. When you are that deep into the bush, any light is not natural, so they were whacked with a missile. The MiGs never really did any damage against us. The bush was just too dense, and we never attacked unless it was a cloudy day or when it was rainy. This would force the MiGs down to there they would be in range of the anti-aircraft gun. Our anti-aircraft capability was actually piss-poor.
The thing that probably sticks is the camaraderie, how we bonded together. I've been talking to quite a few of the guys that I was with.
Popemobile: The name given to the car by Dave Hobbs who was a British citizen who for some reason decided to volunteer for the South African military. He named the car the Popemobile. For some reason the name stuck. He and Dan Botwood - if you ever wanted to meet someone who was completely off the wall, it was Daniel Botwood. His favourite trick was to climb up a tree, and then ask us to cut the tree down at the base. Damian will be able to give you the origins of why it was named that. I think our car was the only one that had a name attached to it. I don't think the Afrikaans ouks understood what it meant, or why it was called that.
The military seemed to have this pattern - I've noticed it at Walvis, and at Infantry School, and I saw it again at 1 SAI and 4 SAI - they tended to group people together. They didn't try and mix the unit to get a balance; you would have all the matrics and greater in one company, and we would have a saying; `If Bravo Company gets allocated live ammunition, the vultures start to fly.' Literally, the guys would start to shoot the hell out of each other. The reason for this can only be speculated. I believe it was because they had the Std. 8 and lower educated people in this company. It was almost a case of setting these guys up. I think Bravo Company killed more of their own people than the Cubans did. Alpha Company - we went through the entire battle without losing a single person in the entire 18 months that we were operational. Nobody was ever killed in Alpha. In Bravo, people were getting shot regularly, or running in front of guns, or shooting each other, or having their necks broken because they were sitting on top of a Ratel trying to drive through bush. I don't know whether the military had a grand scheme where they would try to keep all the same type of people together - I don't understand quite how it worked.
Probably the worst reaction I ever saw out of our platoon was when the Bravo section car from 61 Mech was shot out in Hooper, and when we were doing a reaction to a situation in South-West, our Bravo car hit a landmine and the first reaction of the guys was not to secured the car. The first reaction was to go straight across to the kraal that was there and just about take out the people there for not telling us. I remember quite vividly thinking; `You should have told us about this.' Your reaction to the situation - it was not what you would normally expect from people. It's more of a programmed response. I think you have disposed of the emotions which the military saw as not essentially.
We had a guy with us who was G3K4 due to mental problems; a guy by the name of Swart. His dad was the head of one of a large company. This guy was an absolute washout. By some default this guy ended up with us in the operational area. By military law he had to be issued with a weapon, and he had to be issued with ammunition. Swart used to go through life with a magazine loaded with rounds with people's names written on them. People he didn't like. Sven's favourite game was to get this guy to put the round with his name on it right at the top of the magazine. It would absolutely drive this guy batty. He would set out at the start of the day to see if he could get this guy to get to a pointing of frothing, and to move the round to the top. I used to go through life walking one step behind Sven with my hand on the safety of my rifle, knowing that this guy could one day absolutely loose it, however I am not sure he would have done it. He took a shot at one of our troops one day. The only good thing was that because he was G3 he didn't really know how to shoot properly. He pointed and pulled the trigger, and a round went whipping over the guy's head. There wasn't much they could do about it. They got the message, and they would leave him on his own, and he would wander around the camp, moving the round around and telling you who was on the top of the list. As soon as we got back, we shipped him. By that point you couldn't really casevac the guy, because there were guys going down with hepatitis etc. It was a case of `just deal with it'; leave the guy to wander around and do whatever he saw fit. It was strange that some of the guys slipped through the cracks. Swart was G3 due to a mental problem, yet here he was in a combat zone with a rifle. I sometimes thought that he wasn't quite as bad as he made out, and I think he was a relatively bright chap and he knew how to manipulate. I sometimes got the feeling that this might not be quite who he really was because he didn't quite have the irrationally behaviour that you would think that somebody like that would have. He was a bit more controlled: There is a legend that you hear in the army when you klaar in of a troop you spent the whole day saying `I'm looking for it. I'm looking for it.' When they hand the klaar out papers to the guy as they have found him medically unfit, then he would say `I've found it.'-. That was my feeling on the whole thing, but you never know. He's the sort of person that you would expect would now be living on the docks with Stanley.
There were quite a few others who just went way off the track. You tend to lose contact with quite a lot of people.
The debriefing was at Alpha Base in Angola. We flew back from Rundu, and stuck us into some dormitories while we were waiting for our plane. I heard from friends in Rundu that one of guys - they wouldn't let him use the supertube, so he threw a hand grenade into the swimming pool.
We flew from Rundu to Waterkloof, climbed on a bus and drove all the way to Bloemfontein, which was quite an interesting scenario. Suddenly you've got all these guys coming back into 1 SAI, and you had all the new recruits who had just klaared in. You could almost see the discomfort of the current leadership group because they probably felt that they weren't going to get their authority that they thought they deserved, and they weren't going to push the issue either. These were guys who were either from Infantry School of from the JL leadership course in Bloemfontein. These were guys who had been with us in basics who then went off to do these various things, and now they are training guys, and suddenly you had this bunch of people who had come back - even though they gave us new uniforms, you still really didn't smell that good. I had the misfortune of taking my uniform out of my balsak about two weeks into my pass and smelling this thing. I could understand why you tended to have open seats on the train around you. You got used to the smell; it was something that you became used to, but nobody else would. The leadership element were told; `If the guys just want to walk out of the gates, you just leave them. You don't try and stop anybody.' They were told not to push us. One of the guys went on pass to go and collect money from his bank, and the teller said sorry your money is not paid in so he promptly stab the teller. It was a perfectly normal thing for you to do in that situation, but it wasn't normal for society. Now you have these two sets of rules.
Society says violence is not acceptable it does not solve anything, however we have just spent 6 months immersed in a incredibly violent situation to solve a problem on national importance, makes you think doesn't it.
I think we spent about three days in Bloemfontein. At that point they left us absolutely alone. I think you get to a point - and I've seen it at Etali base when we went back up, and we moved in with one of the other units, and our OC said to the others; `Be careful. These guys will kill you.' You don't teach a person to kill people, spend months doing it, and then expect him not to do it. You couldn't really debrief people and then put them back into a combat situation. Our way of dealing with something was to take out whoever was the problem.
Since that day they treated us very differently. I don't think we had any opvoks after that. It was interesting that the unit was so tight at that stage. If something happened to one of the guys, the whole unit was there to deal with the problem. It got to the stage where they actually had to move the guys out of the base because the guys would strut around and make noises, and there was so much infighting going on between the units that it was just frightening. In some cases it almost escalated into full-on gun battles. Particularly between Koevoet and 101 Bn and 121 Bn. They actually used to ambush each other.
The days on pass and the misinformation
Nobody knew just how far into Angola we were because of how they stamped the post etc. My mom said; `We say that you got Christmas lunch on the border' because that's what they thought. My brother had been up to the border, and she had seen the Sector 10 stamps on stuff, and thought; `Oh, you've been to the border'. I said; `I'm not quite sure what you're talking about. I remember what we got for Christmas was a bar of soap, and we didn't have any water to use it with, so I don't quite understand the purpose of the soap.'
I didn't know how to speak to anybody about it. I think you were in a heck of a lot of shock. I stay near Johannesburg International Airport and for a few days with the planes taking off, I was an absolute nervous wreck. You would hear that jet engine, and it was so clear. I remember Damian, Sven and I had new guys to come and join us, and we could hear a plane minutes before anybody else could, because we had become tuned into it. We would say; `A plane is coming' and everybody would look at you as though you were stark raving mad, and the next minute this plane would rock up. Or you would hear a vehicle engine kilometres away, and people would not believe it. You would know that something like that was happening way before anybody else wood. It was quite a difficult pass in the sense that we almost wanted to go back to where we had a purpose and an understanding of how things worked.
We had some new recruits posted to us; the keen senses would play havoc with their nerves. We would all be sitting around a fire and then suddenly disappear into the foxholes, minutes later the enemy aircraft warning would come through on the radio.
We returned to Bloemfontein to klaar out of Bloemfontein officially, caught busses and the drove - it was Johannesburg railway station, to Bloemfontein, then Bloemfontein to Middelburg two days later - we spent quite a bit of time driving around on the busses - Elwierda Tours (`El Wierdo Tours'). It was interesting coming back, because I think there was a problem with flooding - there had been some serious rainfall, and coming back they couldn't follow the normal route, so we found ourselves going through Welkom. I remember saying to Sven; `I think we've been this route', as it turned out the bus driver was lost. This was not what you wanted to happen to a group of troops returning from a war and only had one thing on the their minds and that was going home, and every hour on a bus is one hour less at home. One of the guys had a pencil flare with him, and he was shooting pencil flares out of the window, and the bus driver said; `If you don't stop that, I'm taking you to the nearest police station', and at that stage the whole bus erupted with pencil flares. We thought if we could find enough pencil flares he would take up to the police station, and we could at least get our bearings. It took about nine hours to drive from Bloemfontein to Johannesburg.
After pass and the transfer to 4SAI we left for the border, and where eventually based in Etali and Eenhana. Alpha was based at Etali and Bravo was based at Eenhana. The rifleman s flew up to 61 Mech's base -, and the driver and myself drove the Ratels up in convoys from Middelburg. I had taken up the position as gunner as Van Der Merwe was RTU'd as a combat unit was not supposed to have G3's.
It was an interesting scenario - because the 4SAI base was so tightly integrated into the town Middleburg - it was about 9 o'clock at night and we had just finished prepping the Ratels. All you wanted to do was to go to bed. We were told that we needed to go to the mess hall. They wanted to talk to us. When we got there, the ladies from the town had brought us snacks and things to eat. The next morning when we drive through, we got the feeling that everybody had stepped out to see the Ratels. It must have been quite an impressive sight; the whole company of Ratels driving through town. Everything was so tightly integrated into the fabric of that town. They had put all these packets of sweets and snacks together - was it for lambs to the slaughter; a last meal type thing. I remember feeling; `Can't they just let me go to sleep now?' I knew that I was getting up at 4 the next day to drive.
We drove up -I I think partly because of the build up of Cuban troops. Ratels are where not normally deployed as Romeo Mike (reaction troops for counter insurgence). Quite a few times we headed up to form a barrier, and do a fire-belt action across there. One of the funniest things that happened was when we were supposed to do reaction force work with Koevoet, and we were to do that the Ratels were too slow. Koevoet crossed the border, and the guys in T54s were waiting for them on the other side of the border, and pushed them back. After that the Ratels suddenly became rather popular companions. They had Ratel 90s up there as well - both Ratel 20s and Ratel 90s. The 90s did a lot of convoy work. Probably the shortest fire fight in history, was when there was an ambush on a convoy that had a Ratel 90; a guy stood up and opened fire on us, and the Ratel turned the gun and fired a single round, and that was the end of it.
Thinking about it now, the locals were caught between a rock and a hard place; he had SWAPO in there who would say; `If you don't do this, I'm going to kill you and your children', and we'd rock up there, drive through his kraal. And say ask the same of him. We had a rule that if it was a proper fence made of wire and poles we weren't allowed to push it over, but if it was any other indigenous material - anything made with sticks, we could just drive right over it. Instead of us leaving thought the same hole, we would drive through the other end of the kraal and totally flatten it, and drive through his crops. I don't think the poor guy stood a chance: it was purely psychological - who ever he feared the most would get the best intelligence. I could sympathise with the poor souls - the war for them was from both sides.
Bombing of the Buffel - we heard that they had been watching the MiG come in, and they were looking for a better seat. I don't know how true this was, but the story was that there was some stupidity involved. When we heard a MiG we would see how flat we could get to the ground. There however was a point during Hooper when due to absolute boredom we tried to attract the MiGS in with mirrors we had been involved in the few contacts, but things were getting a bit slow. The guys decided to take the mirrors off the Ratels, whenever there was a Victor Victor we would climb on top of the Ratels and flash the mirrors at them, because if they came in close enough we could do what they call the fire-belt action, which is where you would fire everything that could possibly go bang went straight up into the air with the intent that hopefully, the MiG would fly into it and get damaged. It was also a case of us trying to attract them down so that we could get rid of some ammunition. I don't know if the Cubans at that point had realised that they were dealing with mad people, and he decided that this wasn't for them. You would tell who the pilot was by the height at which they were flying. Cubans would fly at a combat height, and then you would have the Angolans flying at the ceiling, where they would stay, if you wanted to shoot at them you would need to use G6 cannons. There were Russian pilots up there as well, and you could just tell the difference; it was like night and day. Just by watching the pilot fly you could identify who was flying.
Andrew Smythe, Section Leader 12C - Hooper, adds:
I remember that there were two very brave and worthy Cuban pilots, Renaldo and Remano. They used to fly together in sorties and our comms guys would often hear them chatting in the air. One day, one of them fell out of the sky. I am not sure which and i am not sure why. Neither ourselves nor FAPLA shot at him. I don't think that their aircarft were kept in very good order. When we were keeping watch over the AA unit in the first Tumpo attack, one of their MiG's or SU 22's bombed the 59th Brigade area that we had cleared out two weeks earlier and flew up to our position. This was when the comander of that funny french missile pod thing fired at point blank range without warning. His Sgt Major was behind the outlet of the missile when it took off. He was still speaking gibberish half an hour later. He could hardly hear anything and his clothees were smoking! Half his beard was gone as well. The Cuban plane went right over my head as I was diving into my foxhole. Before I heard the wooosh of the engines all I could hear was an unbelievable rattling sound from the rivets on the plane.
We did some Romeo Mike. With the Romeo Mike we would go out at night, and if there was infiltration - because of the curfew, anybody who was outside was fair game. They were told; `From sunset to sunrise, you don't move outside of your kraal because we will shoot you.' We had a few of those incidents where you just opened fire where there was potential movement, and shoot the hell out of it.
The guys from 2 SAI had been in Etali base for the whole duration of us sitting in Angola. Nothing had happened there. The nigh we arrived, the next morning there was an ambush and we hit contact. They were not the most happy of campers.
We were in a situation one evening in South West; we had infiltration. At that point I was manning the guns on the Ratel. They said to me; `Fire at anything that could potentially hold somebody.' We were in the middle of no-where and we opened up with the Ratels. We opened up with the 20mil and the browning., shooting at anything that could potentially can hold someone; it was open ground near Oshakati. There was a lot of shonas. I remember saying to the corporal; `I remember there was a kraal here. Can you spot for me?' We had opened fire on this kraal, and the 20 mil cannon - we were using high explosive rounds - were exploding. I could see them exploding. `Are we hitting something?' It wasn't a normal explosion pattern. We had open fired on this kraal. My first thought was that that was a good place for a SWAPO to hide. I've never woken up thinking; `Did I kill somebody innocent. Did we ever do anything that was wrong? Did we ever shoot somebody that we shouldn't have?' (Funny experience: I went through a period when I wasn't quite sure what was dream and what was reality. I'm not sure how to explain it. I would think that there were things that I had to do. I would wake up at night and think; have I done this? It would be something really obscure, like turn off a waterpipe, or something. I don't have any waterpipes running through my house. I don't understand what I was supposed to do. I had a problem trying to differentiate between what was reality and what was a part of the subconscious. It wasn't necessarily with a military context. I've never woken up thinking that what I did was wrong. I've never felt guilt for it.)
Damian and Dan Botwell used to take 105 tank rounds to pieces to get to the cordite in it. The cordite was about the size of a small dog food pellet. It's a fair chunk of cordite, and they decided that they were going to build a smoke bomb the one day, in a bunker that we had just constructed, and covered up with some serious logs. They had just got this smoke bomb going when we had a Victor Victor warning. Now we couldn't get into the foxhole, so we were standing staring at these two. They had smoke pouring out, so they covered the entrance of the bomb shelter with a ground sheet, and every now and then they would open it slightly to peek inside. Have you ever seen the classic cartoon of Indian smoke signals? You would get this puff appearing. Andy was sitting there at the radio waiting for the call from the OC to say; `Wat die vok gaan daar aan?' You would just see these clouds of smoke. By that point we had got past the fact of how this war was going, and we were just killing ourselves laughing. This was the funniest thing that we had ever seen. The guys were trying to seal this thing up air-tight, but smoke would be leaking out, and when you would open it, there would be this classic puff, which would rise slowly above the trees.
We were never directly targeted by the MiGs. It was quite dense bush. The closest that we ever got to being bombed; FAPLA pilots were not allowed to land with a payload, so they would jettison their bombs before they would go back to Menogue to land. We had just finished with the 59th - we had been involved in quite a long battle. It was late in the evening or early morning, and we had set up a bivouac or lager. We saw this plane come in, but we were quite used to them falling out of the sky. They would fly, and you would see this guy jump out, and then the plane would then just drop out of the sky. We saw this thing drop and the parachute appear, and we thought that the guy had jumped out. It was the sort of thing that happened with FAPLA pilots. I think it was a 500 lb bomb that he had dropped. We watched this thing floating merrily inwards, and it dawned upon us that it was heading straight for us. It exploded in the middle of the lager, and blew a great big crater. I had been fast asleep under the mozzie net, after having been awake just about the whole night. The thing just exploded in the middle of the lager, leaving a great big hole. I've actually got photos. Huge chunks of shrapnel just went whizzing off everywhere, and one guy - Barwood was running, and a piece slapped him in the back - it had lost so much momentum that it just slapped him flat - as opposed to hitting him.
Andrew Smythe, Section Leader 12C - Hooper, adds:
Barwood was and still is alive and well. He was looking through the sight block of his ratel when an AK round hit it. That was during the attack on 59 brigade. He never got smacked by shrapnel. The corporal that was hit by the shrapnel was Grassmann from Platoon 1. Thankfully it only grazed him on the back. I think that Simon Inglis helped clean him up.
About the crater, I remember that the bomb landed just outside the lager, close enough to make us members of the 100metres club. I was also asleep under a mozzie net. There were two bombs.
The tail fin of a bomb was melted and folded over from the heat of the explosion and was found at the bottom of the crater. It still had the words "Des Tornados Puesto" stencilled on the side of the fin. This means "The Tornado of Destruction". A piece about the size, possibly slightly smaller than a soccer ball landed near the vehicle that I was in, remember that our section had been split up and we were in other ratels as our ratel had not been replaced after 12C was taken out. 45 minutes after the bomb landed, the shrapnel was still smoldering as it had passed through countless trees before landing up near us. The wood of the trees that was imbedded in the shrapnel was smoldering. This was the densist part of Angola and even though the Cubans were under orders not to land with a full payload, I still think that they must have seen something as we were pretty gung ho at that stage having not been exposed to serious fighting yet. At one stage while moving up to the front we were standing on ratels with side mirrors trying to attract the MiG's in order to have a look at them! Crazy!!! We sure as hell didn't do that again after being bombed. Suddenly we realised that things were serious.
That was the closest that they ever got to bombing us. It was by accident more than anything else. They were jettisoning their bombs in preparation to landing. They never followed up with an attack. It was just a single bomb that got dropped. If it was a targeted attack, we would have been buzzed silly.
KOEVOET: They used to jump on the spoor ahead of us. There were a few incidents where a group of Parabats wondered into a Koevoet ambush, and `accidentally' they killed one or two Parabats. Parabats and 121 Bn retaliated by actually launching an ambush against a Koevoet patrol. I remember one guy from 121 was telling us a story; we were sitting around at a rest point, and he was talking of the rivalry between 121 who were issued with Wolfs as opposed to Casspirs; they had the same reaction force capability as Koevoet. He was saying that his brother was with Koevoet, and someone had reported him as SWAPO so they had captured his brother, took him for interrogation and beat the crap out of him. They called him in, and he said; `Its my brother.' They actually knew it was, they would just take advantage of the ability to beat the crap out of each other. There was so much rivalry going on there. Their kill rate was high for Reaction Team type work, but if you were to compare this to how many people were taken out in Modular and Packer, they would have to have killed a heck of a lot of SWAPOs to get anywhere near that number. It was a different war. In guerrilla warfare, it's a heck of a lot more difficult to take out one or two people successfully, and always with the constant doubt as to whether this was a real situation as it was often difficult to tell the locals from the targets. You didn't engage that many times in a long drawn out fire fight things tended to happen quickly and last a few seconds.
The wrapping up , the `9 Days of War' must have happened about two months after we left. We handed over to the guys from our intake who were taking over. I think we were back in 4SAI base for about three weeks before we klaared out. We literally came home to klaar out. It was quite an anti-climax; it was come back, collect your personal stuff, hand in your military kit, go on parade, and they said; `That's it. You're gone.' We never had a debriefing after we spoke to the group of psychologists sent up for Hooper which was six months prior to us finishing off.
Parents could come and fetch you or you could make your own way home, or there were busses. It was pretty much; Walk out of the gate. It was all over bar the shouting.
I klaared out about the 10th of December, and I started with First National Bank on the 2nd of January, as an undergraduate. I didn't really have time to sit and think about what had happened. I came home, had Christmas and then got ready to go back to work.
I was assigned to 2nd Regiment, Northern Transvaal. They called it a `Reaction Team'; if something happened, we were to be sent to hold the line until they could mobilise. Cannon fodder, possibly. We were supposed to have a pantser and a Ratel element for a forward mobile team that was supposed to go out. We never really trained with Ratels again, and we never really trained with anything else, but at that point they started to scale down the whole military thing.
I missed one camp in the first year that I was entitled to. Then I did one every year until they scrapped them. With the level of training and the attitude of the troops If anything had ever happened, I think we would have been better off shooting our own people.
I did a camp over the 94 elections. That was the last camp I did. I had more ops medals than our SM. He outstripped me in General Service medals though.. There was the whole issue around Fort Klapperkop, with the AWB. They came to us and said that we might have to deploy against the Right Wing; `What are your feelings about that?' `You called me up to do a job, and that's what we're going to do. It doesn't matter who you deploy us against. That's the way the cookie crumbles.'
In the Citizen Force, when I did camps, I was there with guys who had been security guard types, they seemed to get off on the rank they held in the military as it was a power issue.
An Example of this was on a camp in the Northern part of SA on the Border with Botswana and Zimbabwe . The situation was that we had been deployed to a place called Wembi, which is on the border at Messina near Beite Bridge. There's is area called the Wembi Gap which is where the electric fence stops and for about 15ks you've got sisal plants, and then the electric fence starts again. The base is in a game reserve at Wembi and it is an absolute pleasure to be there, but we had the `National Lampoon's Vacation' running the camp. There was a Captain who was there to shoot bush-pigs and the sergeant was there to get his ego boosted. On the first occasion we got back to the camp, they had done us a favour and brought us in that day so that -we could shower, clean our clothes etc. we had an 'INCIDENT". What is key to this is the only rifles that were in the came that evening were those of my section, - sorry I lied! The Captain had brought his hunting rifle with, so the camp was literally defenceless. They woke me up at some ungodly hour - it must have been at about twelve that evening, to tell me that there had been an explosion at the electric box, and they thought that an attack was coming. I got my section out, had to draw our rifles, and get ready to defend the base. One of my troops had decided that he hadn't had anything to drink for a while, so he was out of it. I took the rest of my troops (the grand sum of one other) - I had one rifle left and - A corporal arrived at the store - I said; `One of you can sign out one of the rifles. I don't really care what you do, but I'm taking my section to take up defensive positions, where I think that we can best defend the base.' The rest of the base was just running around like headless chickens; we had the CO and the sergeant standing in the middle of the parade ground with a torch trying to get communications with the radio. If anything; they were firstly lighting their position and secondly they couldn't make a better mortar target than being in the middle of the parade ground. The other two were wandering off through the mountains with a portable radio trying to get comms. I moved into a rocky perimeter just outside of the base, and I detailed the troop to face back into the base `Shoot if you see anybody. I don't care who it is, because our chances of survival will go up greatly if its just us sitting here in the bush.' It was farcical that we didn't get over run, or taken out, the only thing was it was a false alarm.
The next incident occurred when I was out on patrol, I heard a vehicle driving up and down the road. I met up with the Buffel to be briefed by the Lieutenant from our Platoon, (he actually was one of the people who had potential). We were informed there was a large group of ANC members who would cross over the border that evening, the whole area was to be put on red alert. We were supposed to observe for this crossing we had no night vision or binoculars and I had three of us to cover 15 km's so as you can imagine we had it covered. I later found out that the captain had caught a guy crossing the border, and had proceeded to interrogate him, and he told him that there were a group of ANC guys coming across the border the next night.
I ordered night vision equipment, and I made the mistake of giving it its official name. I wanted a MOT, which is medium level optical surveillance equipment. It took them the whole period of the camp for them to try to understand what I had just order. Nobody actually knew what I wanted. They finally found it the day we were getting ready to go home. It was an absolute joke how this thing was operated.
RETURN TO CIVVY LIFE
We went on to spend quite a lot of time working with 121 battalion and 101 Bn. When I did my first job interview, it was rather amusing as I had actually flown in from Hooper, and I was being interviewed for the time by First National Bank; it was three white guys and this black chap, Harvey Ketswayo. When I saw Harvey again several years later, I was actually chosen to go on to their management undergraduate programme and their management development programme, Harvey said he didn't want to say a single word to me because he didn't know how I would react to him. Here I was, having flown straight in, landed, get fetched for my interview - I was this guy who probably smelled as though he had died a few days ago, and now start to debate whether you should have black integration. They asked this question of the integration of me and I said; `I don't quite understand the question. I had just been working with a whole lot of black troops. Who had slept in the same foxholes with you, and eat the same food so I don't understand your point. As long as the guy does the job, then so be it.' I'm not saying that I would necessarily get married to a black person, but I've got no problem if the guy does what he's supposed to do. I think it was a case of `we don't quite have the same level of this brainwashing that everybody talks about'.
A standing joke was; We weren't racist. We shot every race. We treated everyone not South African with equal contempt.
The group; myself, Damian, and Andy Smythe who was the 1IC, and Sven Feltman who was the 2IC we were quite a close group, and we still are. Dave Hobbs was killed probably about five months after we finished in an accident with a truck that took him and his brother out. This was as a civilian. He was on his way down to Durban to give testimony in a court case and of all things; a brewery truck crossed the highway and took him out in his car.
The other guy who was in our section, Mark Stanley, he totally went off the rails. I believe he's a hobo living in Cape Town at the moment. Mark van Schalkwyk is out of the whole group - one guy we don't know where he is.
Andy is a successful advertising guy, working for himself. Sven is a senior member of an insurance division at Investec. So out of five or six people in the group, only the one went off the rails badly. I think the interesting part is that all of us have seen a set of symptoms. We understand each other. I am sure we feel that nobody else understands us. We don't see life in the same perspective as everybody else.
I was speaking to Manuel Pereira, our platoon medic. In this discussion I had with Manuel that I realized there is something that's different with us.
With the exception of one guy who is a hobo, the rest of us have all been successful to varying degrees. Everyone has a different opinion as to what success is. Each person that I know of is quite well respected in their field. I myself have been invited to speak on international conferences on elections by governments.
You don't often get a group on friends that you know that you can absolutely trust their intent. We were getting rations of water, and you would know that nobody would steal your water, because ultimately money meant nothing. The really valuable things were food and water. Nobody would take your food and nobody would take your water. As a result of this, I know that there are four or five guys out there who I can absolutely trust. That trust is at the very core what their very principles and value systems are.
From a relaxation point of view, Sven and I would often go camping to get away from it all. I'm still in regular contact with most of the guys. I saw Damian for the first time about two months ago, because luckily I do travel quite often.
We are planning a 2008 anniversary - the 20th anniversary of Hooper. Andy wants to invite some of the Cubans that he has been in contact with. . I think here are some English speakers amongst the Cubans. We tracked down the tanker that was involved in the tank that was shot out in front of us. He's a farmer in the Free State. He was looking for the guys who had pulled him out of the tank.
Tracking down the team has not been without its moments . When Damian left the military he said that he was going to California to stay with his sister. Every time I went to the USA I would look for `French' - `How many Damian French's could there be?' I never found anything. I was doing a project for one on the big insurers here in South Africa, and they put me on the telephone and email, and the person who was on the telephone read `You' magazine, which is local magazine. Damian had posted `Do you know these following people: Wayne Brider, Sven Veltman and Andy Smythe.' That day the woman on the switchboard was reading through this thing, and sent me this as the first Email; `Do you know Damian French?' I don't believe the Dominee, but I know there's something up there.
It might have been by accident, but the army actually created by fighting machines. I think they did a superb job. Andy's brother, Don, was CO of Transvaal Scottish, and we sit down and talk. He has never been operational. We tell him that we were two battalions, and we were attacking a Brigade. (The military thought pattern they still teach today is that you need to dominate at least four to one. Well we were outnumbered 16-1. `We need to call up a few boys because we have a slight technical problem here!' I think what pulled us through was the absolute discipline and I actually get quite mad when I listened to people saying things like I started drugs in the military on the border because of the tension. I think if you look at our team, our section, yes, we have a few problems I'm sure, but none of us went off the rails in terms of that. We probably experience things similar to that experienced by people in the Second World War. We were involved in the most intense military operations that South African forces have ever been involved in. It's not an excuse. It's all about what sits between your ears.
Quite a few have a deep anger, particularly at the current situation in the country; the fact that we and the international community are now told the `the struggle' forced the change, and how `the struggle' did everything. You sit and thing; we did an Ops in the Kruger Park against the ANC, and it was a joke. The guys were deciding who should carry ammo, and who shouldn't. We had such contempt for the ANC. They were something that you would wipe up on your way back from battle, but you wouldn't actually give them the time of day to go and deal with them. There's a guy called Jeremy Cronen - a communist whiz-bang top character. He was spouting stats about how many thousands of us were killed in Cuito. My comment was; if they killed that many, you killed me three times. We just didn't have that many people up there. Those sorts of things make me angry. I remember saying to Andy; `If the guys want to start this thing up again, lets just do it properly now. Lets prove the point and get it over and done with, because I'm tired of listening to them sprout off about a victory that they never had.' We are on the back-foot because you can't exactly prove them wrong. Nobody admitted what really happened.
Another thing for me and the other guys; its difficult to talk to somebody who wasn't there because nobody quite understands. I don't think people understand. You get all the stories about it being `them or us'; it wasn't about that. It was about the fact that you had your section up there, and that's where you were. It was a Catch-22 situation. It wasn't about the war. It wasn't about `them or us'. It wasn't about die rooi gewaar or die swart gewaar. Your section was there, and that's what you were expected to do. I saw people kill because they enjoyed it. Some of the people who were the biggest pacifists became some of the worst protagonists of senseless violence that I've ever seen. I remember guys coming to our car so that they could borrow the saw so that they could cut off somebody's hand because they wanted a trophy.
PTSD? - A lot of people talk about it without actually understanding it. That particularly from the medical fraternity. Unless you have been there, you cannot understand; you can't really see what's going on. Its not quite what everybody thinks its about. Its not about feeling guilty. I don't think any of us feel guilty. Maybe there's something there, but its not what everybody thinks it is. People who were there might have a better grip on it than anybody else. The people who write all the articles and crap need to go through a war to realise that it's not quite the same as they think it is. There's a different set of motivators.
Who do you go and talk to? My fear is that if you go to talk to someone about it, they will start on the guilt trip; `You feel the way that you do because you feel guilty!' Crap! I don't feel guilty. Then you're `psychotic' or something. Yes, there are things that I don't understand emotionally; because it didn't do anything for us, I think you block it out.
I do have a lot of guilt about how I used to interact with my mother, because I think I changed after the military. I had far less patience. She would phone me for trivial things; `My TV set doesn't work' and when you go over there and the sleep button's pushed. That sort of thing. You're not out rightly nasty, but you know that they sense that you're frustrated, and with her passing away, I sit back and I think that I could have done things differently. I could have been more understanding, maybe. I might think that what I'm doing is right, but the rest of the people don't. Often at work, people will ask; `Don't you care about this project?' I'll say; `No. Its not that I don't care. I think that we just need to do things. Running around with your arms in the air doesn't do anything for anybody.'
I've been told by a lot of people that I need to have a human side, because I don't. I once told a project manager, when our executive sponsor had a heart attack, I said: `I take it that we are not having our twelve o'clock meeting.' At the time I felt; `Is this guy trying to upset my project?' And he was in intensive care with a heart attack.
I do a lot of bow-hunting now. Its part of the challenge, its part of the experience. Everything has to be difficult - more difficult than the previous. I have the extremes in my personality; there's no moderation - there's nothing down the middle.
In matric, I had more of a fun side. I have it still, but its not the same. The extremes weren't quite as bad then. I was a more moderate mix of things, whereas now its more extreme. I'll go on holiday with my laptop.
I've been engaged for the last 14 years. Commitment? No, I'm just working off the engagement ring! R50 a month! :)
I realise that I tend to implement what one would do it a combat situation at home; I expect you to know what to do. Do it! I know what to do; why don't you? I don't quite have the tolerance that I should have. It has caused problems. It was; `The world is out of step: There's nothing wrong with me.' Sven is the same, and Andy is the same, and Manuel is the same. It must be you guys that are all wrong. It was only when I started to speak to Damian that was the catalyst - he started speaking about that patch that he went through. We discussed that we had these sorts of symptoms; I started to look more closely at people around Andy; not so much Sven, and me but Manuel particularly went through a very bad patch. He stared to say; `I recognise those things. Now I need to do something. But who do I talk to about them?' The average psychologist wouldn't understand.
I've noticed a pattern of symptoms, but I don't think that we all deal with it the same way. At some point you have to decide that there is a problem before you can do anything about it. People think that you should be emotional, but they welcome the fact that there is someone who steps up and does what needs to be done. That somebody says; `I can put aside the emotive side, and operate in a purely logical way and sort things out.' Manuel was a classic example. His mother passed away. The doctors came and said: `Your mother is in a coma. She's seriously brain damaged. Can we switch the machine off? And Manuel said `Yes.' They asked him, `How can you make the decision so quickly?' He said; `Here are the facts.' None of this; `Lets go back and think about it.' That's where the past kicked in. If that happened to me, I am sure that I would say the same thing. Recently, his mother passed away, and my mother and my father also passed away a few years apart. At the point where Manuel's mother passed away, his reaction was get down to business and sort the problem out. There was absolutely no emotion. There was no mourning for want of a better word. The same happened when my mom passed away. Take charge, it sort things out, draw up a list of what needs to happen. People asked; `Are you were normal person?' At the time of crisis you just kick into doing all it needs to be done, as opposed to how we do would be if everybody went into the `fall apart' mode. This is probably not healthy. You never have the ability to relate to people at that emotive level. I think you actually lose that. That was probably taken from us during those years. You don't have time to actually sit around and mourn of the whole thing.
When my dad passed away. I went to the ward and they said to me; `Please go and collect his personal effects.' I went and took his rings off and I took his chains off. It was purely; `This is what is needed to be done. Can I fill in the forms. Can I deal with it?' That's the scary part; where you can operate at that level. What can become of it? What could this become if something goes wrong in the country. What am I capable of doing? The check-point is not there any more. The morality that says that you need to feel sorry; that you need to feel sad is not there.
You become totally rational, totally conscious of what you need to do. If something happened to my fiance, what would I be capable of? Its not that I believe that I am a psycho or anything, its have they created something that they don't quite understand and we've never been deprogrammed. Like a mortar, at some stage you have to turn it on to `arm'. Is that the scenario? I don't know. Everything for me is calculated; that is the really frightening part. It probably can also be seem as a blessing I know, that I can rationalize a situation, I do not react without thinking.
Demons? - I don't know because I don't know what the benchmark is. There are some things that are not quite right. It might be in our reactions to things that we need to explore. I don't know where this thing goes, and what it does. They didn't know about PTSD in WWII - what were the outcomes? It would be interesting to follow up a section, and see where they went. Maybe to get some idea of what to expect. Demob Alpha was a microcosm of what was going on at the front.
Surprisingly I've have never drunk alcohol since the army. Not at all.
I don't ever regret the fact of what happened. What I do regret was that in some cases we never finished the job. I don't understand the point of putting a string of landmines in a country where you could just drive around them. You may as well not have bothered. That's what we did. At Quito river we put down a mine field; this was Angola, this was Cubans, this was FAPLA, they can drive a thousand kilometres and drive round it - you haven't achieved jack! Why bother. You should rather have gone across and attacked them and dealt with the problem properly, as opposed to sit there and watch. We pushed them across the river - so what? If that was the sole purpose of the battle, we might as well not have been there. The day we pulled out, they were back where we started. For the guys who died in Bravo Car of 61 - that was an absolute waste.
First of all it doesn't feel as though it was ever a part of my current life. It's a movie part that you play. I think it was like that for everybody. We weren't supposed to be there, so it didn't really exist. What do you say to a person like that? I remember sitting in a session after Hooper the debriefing officer said " remember you are not allowed to kill people any more" I asked Damian `Do you remember that?' because that was the one thing that I remembered very vividly as it was a very strange suggestion.
The military creates a different set of rules for you live by, because up there it was perfectly all right to deal with the problems in a violent manner, because that's what you were doing. It was perfectly all right to take, or for all intents and purposes, pretty innocent people in their own country, and killing them was a perfectly all right thing. When you come back, people would say to you; `You shouldn't do it.' And we would ask; `Why not?' The only thing stopping people from committing it is because we have this little thing that says; `Its wrong.' `But why is it wrong? We were told to do it.' You had these two very distinct sets of parameters, or paradigms that you live in, and you try and bring the two of them together. I think the only way you can deal with it is by saying; `It was part of another life.' At the time it was our life, it was real. Was it really the fact that you could just go and do this, in someone else's country, and no one said to you; `This is bad.' If you look at what happened, and I've been reading a lot of books about it, how many people were killed there? There were thousands. It was a massacre on a monumental scale. We were no more than two battalions up there; that was two companies apiece, so we weren't more than 3000 people in total. We were fighting against brigades. Each brigade would have three or four battalions in it. I think the statistics were that we were outnumbered 16-1. When we left, they couldn't put enough together for a company. It wasn't even a fair fight.
Published: 4th March 2006.
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