The South African Irish Regiment
Citizen Force Duty - 1981 to 1986
I took a while to readjust to being a civilian again, but thanks to Sharon and my employers, Barclays National Bank, I eventually settled down nicely and forgot all about the army. Besides, Sharon and I were due to get married in January 1981, and much of our efforts over the remainder of 1980 went into seeing this through to a happy and successful conclusion.
We were barely married, and the army was far from my mind, when much to my disgust I received an official envelope once more in the mail. This was a letter from the South African Irish Regiment, informing me that I was now attached to their regiment for an additional two years Citizen Force service (known as Territorial Service here in New Zealand), which I was to serve in call ups ranging from a week to three months at a time. I was also informed that I had to report to their Headquarters one particular evening in uniform, where I would be inducted and see the Regimental Sergeant Major and Officer Commanding.
On the night in question I arrived at the Regimental Headquarters in Marshall Street, Johannesburg, and was pleased to see two old friends from my Elandsfontein training days, a Jewish guy named Ashley, who hailed originally from Durban, and Leslie Bromilow. While waiting to be ushered into the presence of the OC, we caught up on events since our days in basic training, and I found out that Ashley had relocated to Johannesburg for work, hence his call up to the Irish Regiment. Les had spent his two years in Pretoria, and had been promoted to Lance Corporal, but had lost the rank again on call up to do his Citizen Force duty.
We were introduced to the OC, Commandant Stan Moir, and the Regimental Sergeant Major, WO1 Day, and were then informed that we were now in the SA Irish Regiment as infantry, and were in turn part of 72nd Motorised Brigade, based at Alrode, near Alberton.
Much to my surprise, I was placed in the machine gun Company. I had never fired one and said so. They asked what training I'd had, and I replied chef, but this seemed to carry no weight and I was never to serve as a chef again. Instead, my rank changed from Private to Rifleman, and that is what I became - an infantry rifleman.
We were then issued with replacement infantry green berets (our Service Corps one's were blue), as well as a regimental badge (the Irish harp) and a green feather hackle, which we were to wear on the beret, behind the badge. We also received two pairs of black boots, as our Regiment wore these in place of the standard issue brown boots worn by the rest of the Army.
Citizen Force units in the early 1980s were also used in the continually escalating war in South West Africa / Angola, and a sort of rotation system seemed to apply. One year your regiment would be required to do a three month tour of duty, which usually meant operational service on the Angolan border. The following year they would do a three week or one month training camp, usually at the Army Battle School in Lohatla, Northern Cape, and the third year would be a three month operational call up again.
72 Motorised Brigade shoulder flash (left) and The South African Irish Regiments Badge and motto. The latter means "Clear the Way".
Guard Duty and Vehicle Maintenance at 72nd Motorised Brigade
Like many of my contemporaries who had been to South West Africa for a protracted period during our two-year National Service, I was not keen to repeat the dose, especially as I was now a married man and also one of the PBI, who did all the patrolling, fighting and sometimes dying there! 1981 was a three month camp year for the Irish Regiment, as they participated in Operation Protea, another incursion by the South African forces into Southern Angola, and subsequent attacks on Swapo bases there. But, being a new boy I was lucky - I never received a call up for that tour of operational duty. Instead, I was called up for a number of few smaller time periods of up to three weeks, usually to do guard duty at the Marshall Street Headquarters itself or at 72nd Motorised Brigade in Alrode.
The latter was established at the site of the old Peugout and Citroen factory, where my father had worked when I was a youngster, so it was with a sense of dejà vu that I reported there. My father had taken me there once for a swim in the water tank in the front of the office buildings, and it was quite weird to see that it was still there, as were the buildings.
All of the regiments attached to 72nd Motorised Brigade had large warehouse like buildings at Alrode, and here were located their stores, equipment and vehicles. In our regiment's case, as befitted a mechanised infantry unit, the latter consisted of Magirus Deutz trucks, lightly armoured Ratel IFVs, Buffels and one or two old Unimogs. The other mechanised infantry regiment attached to 72nd Motorised Brigade was First Battalion Transvaal Scottish, and we also had the Transvaal Horse Artillery (artillery) and No.1 and No.2 Light Horse Regiments (armoured car regiments). There were a smattering of National Servicemen stationed permanently at Alrode, including clerks, chefs and tiffies, plus some PFs who worked in the offices or kitchen.
The guard detail at Alrode used to be quite big at any one time, as it covered a factory space and had fairly extensive fences to patrol, besides the obvious things inside like weapon stores and vehicle hangars. Guard duty was very tiring too, as we were required to work in the hangars during the day and stand guard at night, so worked 24 hours, with only limited sleep between guard duty details. The only up side was that the guard duty camps were usually no longer than three weeks.
In winter it could be bitterly cold too, as much as -7 degrees Centigrade at 4 am in the morning, and I wore a number of layers and still froze! The cold used to seep straight through your boots, socks and feet, and get to you that way, especially when you were standing on roadways or concrete steps. Eventually I would go numb, but the downside came when you were relieved by the next lot of sentries and went to get some sleep. As you thawed out, all your extremities (hands, feet etc.) hurt like hell, and this kept me awake at least.
Being a regiment, you never knew who you would be called up with for any given camp, and I met a few interesting guys. There was Tex, a big Portuguese greengrocer who had been a qualified electrician. He'd given up the latter occupation because he became afraid of handling electricity, a bad career move for an electrician!
Another very interesting guy I served with on one of these Alrode camps had been in the RLI, or Rhodesian Light Infantry, before coming to live in South Africa and being conscripted for National Service. He had seen and done some pretty hairy things during his time in the RLI, fighting insurgents in Rhodesia. He'd also been his unit's unofficial photographer, and had tales and snapshots of the most gruesome things! One that sticks in my mind was a head of one insurgent which they had cut off, and stuck on their table back at their base. Here they played cards and gave the head a cigarette and even the odd drink, which went straight through his severed neck of course! Another photo he showed me was of a number of dead insurgents, hung on a wire fence by their chins. He told me that these were killed in a single ambush and then laid out to be photographed like this, only for a bus load of tourists to drive by while they were doing the photographing!
For all his gruesome photo collection, this guy was distinctly anti-war and would avoid all his three month call ups by volunteering to do more frequent guard duty stints instead. I think he'd seen more than enough death in the Rhodesian Army, and was not keen to repeat the dose.
For my part, in 1983 I was to come to the same arrangement with a young National Service clerk who was in charge of the paperwork at the Marshall Street Headquarters of our regiment. I promised to do any number of awkward local camps without question or complaint, if he did not call me up for any operational tours in South West Africa, an agreement he could live with, at least unofficially. Officially I was not supposed to receive any preferential treatment when call ups were being made, but it certainly paid to have a friend in the right place. I never did go back to South West Africa with the South African Army, a fact I am extremely grateful for given the escalating nature of the conflict there at the time.
To get back to Alrode camps though, the maintenance duties carried out in the hangar each day could have their moments sometimes. On one occasion we were hooking up vehicle batteries to charge in a field maintenance truck, as the vehicles needed these batteries properly charged at all times, and they were rarely driven long enough to charge the normal way (driving).
I was leaning over the row of open batteries, hooking up the charging cables to the array, but made the mistake of reversing the cables when I hooked it all up. The result was an explosion of sorts, and I got sprayed in battery acid, or at least my face did, especially my eyes. I panicked big time as I couldn't see, but my Lieutenant had the presence of mind to drag me off the truck and into the nearby toilets, where he filled a basin with water and made me immerse my head in it with my eyes open. This washed them out effectively enough before the acid could do any real damage and I had no lasting ill effects, only sore eyes for a day or two.
Another time I was working on a Magirus Deutz truck, standing on the cabin roof, which is quite high off the ground, when I slipped and fell backwards. I suppose I was lucky as I didn't fracture my skull on the concrete floor, but I hit my elbow a sickening blow on a metal roof support girder as I fell. Boy, did I feel sick! I was as white as a sheet and I couldn't use the arm for an hour or two afterwards.
Guard Duty at Marshall Street Regimental Headquarters
Besides the camps at Alrode, I was also called up at least three times to do guard duty at the Marshall Street HQ, which is not as strange as it sounds. On 10 February 1983 an African National Congress (ANC) guerrilla planted a bomb outside the walls, which detonated without causing too much damage or any casualties, but I wasn't in the army doing a camp on that particular day. However, it was against similar actions that we were guarding the HQ.
One particular camp was interesting in that we helped call up men for a three month operational tour in South West Africa during the day, and stood guard at night. It was quite heart wrenching in many ways as a lot of the guys tried to get out of going, many with better excuses than I had. One bloke was a self employed plumber, married and had six kids, but they made him go. My friend the clerk saw to it that I didn't though.
This same camp I came across my old school friend Luis Matias' records, and a query as to his status as he was not responding to any correspondence from the regiment, who were trying to call him up. I happened to know that he was living in Portugal at the time, running a family business, so I told them this and saved Luis from being charged with being absent without leave. Eventually the silly bastards found the letter Luis had written them before he left for Portugal, saying that he would be living there from then on. The clerk had misplaced it!
Me with an Irish beret (a composite photo, as I have none taken with me in an Irish beret).
Battle School, Lohatla, October 1982
In 1982 the regiment was due to do a training camp, or manoeuvres, at the Army Combat School in Lohatla. I had just returned from a holiday in the UK with Sharon when I was called up for this camp, and as it didn't involve operational service, I made no attempt to get out of it. The call up was for three weeks, but an interesting three weeks they were.
We all had to report at Alrode, as the whole of 72nd Motorised Brigade was going on the manoeuvres at Lohatla. As is normal in the army, we were chased around by our officers and NCOs that first morning, seemingly to no purpose, but once we had each been given a ration pack, we prepared to depart by truck, Ratel etc. for Lohatla, some 600 kilometres from our base in Alrode.
I had managed to wangle my way into the good graces of the Corporal in charge of the regiment's stores, and was assigned to his truck rather than one of the troop trucks, which were overcrowded and not very comfortable for such a long journey. The stores truck, by comparison, was heaven as the truck was filled with various soft items, such as tents, camouflage netting etc., and I and the other four or so guys assigned to stores could stretch out on these and lie about during the long drive.
After creating something of a traffic nightmare on the surrounding roads, we finally hit the open road in a massive convoy of military vehicles late that afternoon, and drove through the night to Lohatla, arriving at daybreak the following day. It was cold that morning, but clear, and I had no idea just how hot it would become during the day.
By the time we had set up a base of operations, in mid morning, the temperatures had soared to over 35 degrees Centigrade, and that first day we all drank between six and ten litres of water each, constantly filling our water bottles from the nearby water cart, between digging slit trenches or fox holes, and issuing supplies from the truck.
None of us was used to the heat, or the dust, which was whipped up in even the slightest wind, and got into everything - eyes, nose, mouth and equipment! It was a peculiar red sand too, and made everything filthy. Personally, I was delighted when evening fell, but soon changed my mind about that too as temperatures plummeted and it became cold enough to need a few layers of clothing.
Typical terrain at Lohatla, sparse vegetation with the red sand just underneath everything. The latter used to plague us at meal times particularly, if the wind was blowing.
When time came to settle down for the night, we all tried to find space in the back of the truck, out of the biting cold, but I was one of the slowest men and missed out, all the decent spots having been taken. I tried to settle on one of the hard benches, but after falling off this while trying to change position, I gave up and moved outside, into my slit trench. Here I was at least lying in the soft red sand in my sleeping bag, and had my ground sheet to cover me. I was surprisingly comfortable and warm, and I was so tired that I soon drifted off to sleep. That settled it for me and for the remainder of that camp I slept in my slit trench. Everyone in the truck thought I was mad!
After a few days we had all become accustomed to the heat somewhat and were already only drinking between one and three litres of water a day, despite their being no drop in temperature. At 7 am each morning the temperature was already about 27 degrees Centigrade, and by midday it was well into the 30s.
The daily routine for most of the men consisted of infantry manoeuvres with vehicles, or on foot, and they were generally foot weary by the end of the long hard day. We accompanied them in the truck as they did need re-supply, but our lot was nothing near as tough as the poor footsloggers! We had all the dust and discomfort to put up with, but none of the lugging of heavy webbing and helmets, although we were issued with rifles as we were supposed to mimic operational conditions.
One day the men practiced being attacked by aircraft, and for the purpose the SAAF obliged by sending an Impala jet to do the attacking. I saw the whole thing and it was terrifying to say the least. Even though you knew he wasn't actually going to shoot at you, the sight of that aircraft diving steeply at the road we were on was enough to make me sympathise forever with those in war who have had the misfortune to be strafed by aircraft!
We were not showering or washing at all, water being available only for the vehicles and for drinking. None of us were aware of it while on manoeuvres but we were all filthy and we all stank to high heaven, although I never noticed it at the time. None of us did really, as we all smelt as bad as one another. Another thing that quickly deteriorated was our general conversation. Remove the veneer of civilisation, like our women and children, and in no time we were swearing in normal conversation, every second word being `F'.
Towards the end of our three weeks, some beer was brought in from nearby Sishen, only enough for a couple of cans each though. Also, some T-Bone steaks were provided, and a barbeque was organised for the whole Brigade one night. In the Irish we had no barbeque so dug a long trench, filled it with wood and set this alight. Once sufficiently reduced to coals, we threw corrugated iron sheeting over the trench and cooked our piece of meat on this, using our filthy hands to turn it periodically! The wind was blowing, as ever, and when I bit into my well done steak it was very crunchy with sand, but it's still the best steak I've ever eaten. It shows you just how much you'll appreciate real meat after living on rat packs and cold rations for three weeks.
The day before our return to civilisation some cold field showers were set up using simple poles, and we tried to wash some of the three weeks accumulated sweat and grime off, thinking ourselves quite successful in this endeavour. Little did we know!
The day of our return dawned, and after packing up that same evening, the Brigade was ready for an early start the next day. We were again issued with rat packs, and being in the stores I managed to `organise' a couple of spare rat packs for Sharon to try when I got home. The drive home was long, hot and very boring, but in the late afternoon we finally reached our convoy rendezvous point at Halfway House, midway between Pretoria and Johannesburg, where we disembarked.
We were told we could go home at this point, provided we had some means of getting there, but like many of the guys, I had no way of getting home from here, and it looked as if I would have to wait for the convoy to get moving again, to Alrode. Luckily, one of the guys I was serving with lived nearby, and he offered me and two others a lift home, once he had collected his car from his parents' place. This meant we didn't have to return to Alrode, so we jumped at the chance. He duly returned with his car and the four of us set off for his parent's house first, so that he could change into civvies. We were greeted by his mother, who looked rather startled to see all four of us. Her startled appearance turned to abject horror when her son invited all of us to jump in the family pool, in full uniform! Having been water deprived for so long we all did, without giving it a second thought, although I did wonder why his mother was so against the idea. It was only long afterwards that I gave a thought to what must have been three very dirty and smelly soldiers in equally dirty and smelly uniforms jumping into her clean pool. It must have taken some cleaning afterwards!
After being dropped off at home, I found that Sharon wasn't yet home from work so I ran a hot bath and luxuriated in this. It was then that I realised just how dirty I was. It took me longer to clean the grime and accumulated sweat off the bath than it had to clean myself, and to do the latter I had to resort to a hard scrubbing brush over most of my body! It's probably the dirtiest I'd ever been, and proof positive that all the civvies who crossed the road to avoid us could smell us from a mile off. No wonder they'd been avoiding us!
Parades - Sidi Rezegh and otherwise
Another consequence of not doing three month operational tours with the regiment, was that each year in October I was called up to do drill practice for three weekends, and then had to attend the Sidi Rezegh parade in November.
The latter parade was our regiment's equivalent of an Anzac Day commemoration, as done here in New Zealand, and stems from the regiment's involvement in the Battle at Sidi Rezegh in the Western Desert, during World War Two. This battle was fought principally on 23 November 1941 and our regiment was decimated by the German armour, losing 400 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner, and they effectively ceased to exist as a separate unit, being absorbed into 4 South African Field Regiment.
The parades themselves were held in central Johannesburg, but coming from our civilian homes and families, we had to first practice our drilling, to get back into something resembling a military squad again. For three Saturdays before the annual parade, those of us called up had to report in uniform to Milner Park, where we drilled for a few hours in the afternoon. Personally I hated these practice sessions more than anything else we did in the regiment, as all the drill practice was done in full view of the public using the park, and our officers and NCOs would shout and harass us just like any new recruit, which I felt embarrassed about. In hindsight I think my reaction was probably silly, but that's the way I felt at the time.
The parades themselves always took the same format. We would arrive early on the Sunday at Regimental Headquarters in Marshall Street in our neatest browns, shiny boots and beret with green feather hackle. Here we were issued with a rifle for the duration of the parade, and we would be formed up outside in the courtyard in our squads, ready to march.
At the appointed hour, the regimental pipe band would strike up a song and, with our Irish Wolfhound mascot and his dog handler just behind the band, we would set off for the main cenotaph in central Johannesburg. To get there we had to march through a number of streets, and were escorted the whole way by traffic police on motorcycles, who diverted any traffic away from the streets we were marching in. This was my favourite part of the parades, the marching in time to the pipes and drums. It was magnificent, and made you feel ten feet tall, especially when the civvies along the pavements all stopped to gawp at the spectacle as you marched past.
After reaching the cenotaph, our NCO's would halt us in full regiment order in front of the former, on the road of course, and facing the assembled dignitaries (mayor and mayoress etc..) plus our own Commanding Officer and some senior officers. Once assembled and stood at ease the short service began, usually conducted by an army chaplain, and at the conclusion, we were brought back to attention, and then made to present arms, while the names of the regiment's World War Two dead was read out, very slowly and deliberately. This latter could be torture, as it is awkward to stand for a long time while presenting arms. Once the names had been read, we shouldered arms and would then be marched back to Regimental Headquarters, led by the pipe band. Once there we handed back our rifles and were discharged back into civilian life for another year, or at least until your next call up.
Of the five parades I attended between 1981 and 1986, only one of these Sid Rezegh parades stands out in my memory, and then for a single reason - rain. As in previous years, we had practiced our drilling at Milner Park for three Saturdays, the last one only the day before the parade was due to take place itself. All practices had been completed in warm conditions with fine sunshine, without a hint of bad weather at all.
On the Sunday morning, however, I woke to find that the weather had turned completely, and it was pelting with rain, and had been for some hours. There was also a bitterly cold wind blowing everywhere in Johannesburg that day, and the prospects for a dry parade were slim indeed. Nevertheless, parade we had to, so I reported at Marshall Street, where we were all kept indoors until the last possible moment, in the hope the rain would at least ease. It didn't.
We formed up in our squads in the pelting rain, and were soon soaked through to the skin and freezing in the cold wind, in fact before we had even left Headquarters. That march was the longest I ever experienced; it seemed to last forever. The odd brave civvie, safely tucked into their rain coats or under their umbrellas, stared at us more in sympathy than anything else. I believe Sharon was one of them, having come to the parade that morning for the first and only time.
We reached the cenotaph and the service commenced, followed by the order to present arms. By the time this order was received, at least two men standing near me had collapsed and were lying where they had fallen. On parade nobody moved unless ordered to, and if you fainted or were incapacitated for some reason, nobody was allowed to come to your aid. I was freezing, and shaking uncontrollably, but still able to stand up, and I could see that most of the guys around me were in no better shape. Somehow we got through the reading of the names, and I was never more glad to receive the order to shoulder arms, and then march. If I'd stood there another two minutes I swear I would have joined the other fainted ones on the pavement! I'd never been so cold and miserable, and although I have over the years been soaked occasionally, I still feel a shiver when I think of that parade. I think we had about ten men collapse, just in that short time, and the rest of us were also suffering from mild hypothermia by the time we reached the sanctity of Marshall Street again, and were able to get out of the rain and wind.
The biggest parade I had to attend was the granting of the Freedom of Germiston to 72nd Motorised Brigade. For this one a lot of us were called up for a couple of weeks, and billeted in tents in the middle of a park in Germiston. It was mid winter, and bloody freezing overnight and in the early mornings, and to make matters worse, we were not allowed to go home at night. It was maddening being close to home but unable to go there, and some of the guys flouted orders and just went home anyway. I was not brave enough, especially as I could not guarantee that I'd be back before daylight each morning, which was the only way to be there for roll call.
The parade was a really big thing, and all the regiments in 72nd Motorised Brigade were taking part. This meant there were marching elements as well as vehicle ones, the latter ranging from Ratels to armoured cars and trucks with artillery. It made for a lot of organising. The Irish were supposed to provide mainly marching infantrymen, with a few light vehicles suitably manned by infantrymen in combat uniform, brandishing machine guns, mortars and the like.
The marching infantrymen had to be in full dress uniform, and would be drilling all day from morning until night, with stops for meals and the like, and that decided it for me. I quickly volunteered to help out with logistical support, spending the days running around finding things or fetching things, and as a `reward' I was allocated to one of the vehicles as a fighting infantryman. This meant we drove through Germiston on the day of the parade, rather than marched, and we could wear our normal combat fatigues, not dress uniform. Hooray!
Receiving the freedom of Germiston. This is the photograph taken by the Benoni City Times as we drove past their photographer. I am sitting in front.
On the day of the parade, my good friend Gavin, who was working as a journalist for the Benoni City Times, arranged to bring Sharon to the parade, as he and a photographer would be covering the latter for his newspaper. All the organising behind us, three of my fellow infantrymen and I were placed on a Unimog with a mortar, and with two guys driving, we joined the vehicle parade. There was a huge crowd gathered to see the Brigade march through Germiston and by the time we arrived in our Unimog, the soldiers had marched through the city centre, and only the procession of military vehicles were passing by.
I was idly watching everyone as we drove past when I spotted Sharon and Gavin right in the front of the crowd, on the roadside. They waved and I smiled, being unable to wave as we drove right by. I didn't know it then, but Gav had his photographer nearby and told him to take a photo of our Unimog as it passed them. He presented me with the black and white original a few days later, and I've always treasured it. It's the only photograph I ever had taken of me while I was in the SA Irish Regiment.
Final Days in the SADF
By mid 1986 the internal situation in South Africa had deteriorated quite markedly and there were ongoing riots and civil disobedience in the black townships, as well as occasional bomb and landmine attacks being carried out by the armed wing of the ANC inside South Africa.
Sharon and I now had our first child, son Brett who was born in August 1984, and my vague thoughts of trying to emigrate were becoming clearer in my mind, without me actually doing anything substantive to further them though. I had written to a couple of employment agencies in New Zealand, and also to Sharon's uncle who lived there. He worked in the Information Technology industry, as did I, and I had enquired if there were any jobs available for people with my skills, in New Zealand.
Then, in early June that year, I was called up once again for three weeks to do guard and other protection duty at 72nd Motorised Brigade. We had hardly been there for a week when the South African Government declared an indefinite State of Emergency, in response to the growing civil unrest.
The immediate effect to us at Alrode was to have all leave suspended indefinitely while the authorities frantically called up other Citizen Force soldiers to deal with the situation. This meant I could not go home to Sharon and Brett, and we were placed on full time standby. I was naturally very worried about them, but fortunately they came to no harm during the period we were separated.
The industrial suburb at Alrode bordered on one of the major black townships in the Witwatersrand area, Katlehong. This township was a hotbed of unrest, with gangs of disaffected black youths rampaging at night through the township and surrounding areas, waging pitched battles at times with the army and police. It was feared that some might attempt to break into or attack 72nd Motorised Brigade, and we were placed on guard duty 24 hours a day, two hours on and four off. During the day this was tedious but at night it developed into quite a spectacle.
My good friend Tex and I used to stand guard in a tower on the side of one of the hangars bordering the perimeter fence, and facing the nearby township. At night it very quickly became evident by the flickering glow that there were many fires burning in Katlehong, and we would listen tensely to the gunfire sporadically breaking out through the night, ever fearful should someone take a pot shot at us out of the dark.
Those nights at Alrode in 1986 finally made my mind up for me. I could not see a future for us in South Africa, and didn't want my young son growing up in a country where he too might one day be called upon to fight this seemingly never ending war. To be honest, I was also heartily fed up with the army, and wanted out.
After a few weeks of this 24 hour guard duty, sufficient reserves had been called up for the Brigade to relax our conditions, and we were allowed to go home at last overnight. On my first night at home, we received a telephone call from IDPE, an employment agency in Auckland, New Zealand, who said that they could get me a job if I could only get to New Zealand on my own steam. Impulsively I decided to take a leap of faith and go.
As soon as I had been discharged back to my civilian occupation, hasty arrangements were made to obtain references from my employer, Standard Bank, and my parents offered to look after Sharon and Brett for me, while Sharon's mother paid my airfare to New Zealand.
After selling everything we owned, apart from a few precious possessions like photo albums and family heirlooms, Sharon and Brett moved in with my parents, and I flew out of South Africa on 8 August 1986.
I arrived in New Zealand on the 9th, the day before my 26th birthday, and stayed with Sharon's uncle and aunt for a few weeks while I sought employment and rented a place for us to live. In October 1986 Sharon and Brett joined me in Auckland, and we have lived here ever since, settling nicely into the New Zealand way of life and being blessed with two more boys, Garrick and Kirk, in 1989 and 1992 respectively.
In February 1994 my father died suddenly in South Africa, aged only 62, following his third heart attack. I was too far away and opted not to fly back to attend his funeral service, as it would have placed a tremendous financial burden on us as a family if I had borrowed the money for the airfare.
His death left me feeling somewhat detached, and to deal with my grief, I obtained his Korean War photographs and service records, and began delving into his service in the SAAF. The more information I found out, and there was precious little of it, the more I cursed myself for not pursuing the story while he was still alive and able to talk to me about his time in the SAAF.
One of the things I discovered was that his discharge from the SAAF made no mention of his service with 2 Squadron in Korea, and he had never been issued with the three medals (South African, UN and South Korean) that he was entitled to for this same service. I wrote to the Chief of Staff Personnel, SANDF in Pretoria, who not only put his service record right, but issued his South African Korea War Medal posthumously. Further assistance from the South African Korean War Veterans Association saw him receive the other two medals posthumously, satisfying honour and settling the matter, as far as I was concerned anyway!
My research on behalf of my late father stirred me to do the same in my own case. I reasoned that I should write down all I could remember of my time in the SADF, as it would be hypocritical to not do so, given how frustrated I was with my father for not doing so!
I had also never given the thought of any personal medal entitlement much thought during my service, but now decided to enquire if I had in fact been entitled to any medals. Again, I wrote to the SANDF in Pretoria and, after an exchange of letters and an affidavit from me declaring my dates and places of service between 1978 and 1986, I was awarded the Pro Patria Medal for my service in South West Africa in 1979, and the General Service Medal for my service in the SA Irish Regiment during the State of Emergency in 1986.
I have read a number of memoirs of my fellow South African soldiers, where they have shunned the medals owed to them, making no effort to claim them or keep them. This is particularly the case with some men who have seen combat and suffered directly. While I respect their standpoint, I cannot agree with it, even though I never saw any combat and was never attacked personally (apart from once with a brick!).
My reasoning for applying for mine was quite simple; none of us ever received any official recognition of the service we did or risks we ran, particularly in South West Africa. The few medals issued to us by the SADF, for operational and semi-operational service, were the only tangible recognition we received from them, and I am proud of my service, and that of the men of my generation.
In his book Grensvegter? (Sentinel Projects, 1996), Barry Fowler, a former South African army psychologist who saw operational service in 1987, sums operational duty up nicely, as experienced by the non-combatant support soldier. Firstly, he says he feels somewhat unfulfilled as he lived with the tension but was never in any real danger and was never shot at, tripped a landmine or `revved' (shelled). I too feel like this, although it is a personal thing; I was never made to feel this way by any of my less fortunate friends who did indeed get `revved' or shot at.
Barry also writes his version of a military `pecking order', with the lowest placed person being someone who never went to the army. Next would be someone who was in the army, but spent their entire service in South Africa (my brother Dave fits in this category). Third level would be someone who was sent on a tour of duty to South West Africa, but was stationed below the Red Line, somewhere between Grootfontein and Windhoek, receiving medals and the very occasional scare. I fit in this category. Next would someone who was stationed above the Red Line, but never saw any action, and last would be someone stationed above the Red Line who did see action or was attacked at their base camp. So, on Barry's ascending scale of one to five, I fit on level three, which is just about right.
I was both unfortunate and fortunate in being sent to South West Africa; unfortunate in as much as only 33 of us were selected for this dubious honour from an entire company of 180 men, the rest being safely transferred to bases in South Africa. On the other hand, I was fortunate to go, to see something of this strange and beautiful country and the war being fought there, and to return unharmed, to write about it.
As I said in the foreword to this account, my son Garrick is contemplating a career in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, which is ironic in many ways. I left South Africa for a better life overseas, not so much for myself but for my children. When Sharon and I first arrived in New Zealand, I fervently hoped that none of my children would ever be a soldier, but the years have mellowed this rather narrow viewpoint. I didn't understand why I should have changed my opinion, but in writing this account it has become clear to me.
Garrick has the choice; it's that simple. I did not, and neither did any of the other young men who served in the South African armed forces as National Servicemen during the 1970s and 1980s. We served as best we could, and fought for an ideal that we didn't really understand. Some were less fortunate than me, they died in the execution of their duty, and did not have the luxury of living their lives out to a ripe old age, or exploring the world around them to the fullest.
In 1979, the year I was stationed in South West Africa, the South African Defence Force lost 99 soldiers, either killed in action or died in accidents, and had many others wounded. Our enemy, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia, or PLAN, suffered an average loss of 90 insurgents killed in action per month by the end of that year.
The army gave me many things I had not realised before. A sense of independence, and of purpose for one. It also taught me a great deal about self reliance. I had lived very much under my mother's wing, despite my attempts at rebellion as a teenager, and to be removed from her so suddenly taught me to fend for myself better than I would have ever learned elsewhere. I also met many good people, friends who will remain in my memory as long as I live.