PSYCHOLOGY DEBRIEFING TEAM
Barry was a permanent force psychologist on detached duty at 5 SAI (Ladysmith) when he was assigned to a psychology team assembled to debrief soldiers returning from Operation Hooper in early 1988. He had previously completed a border duty at Oshakati (Sector 10) which has been documented as Grensvegter?.
IN A DEMOBILIZATION CAMP IN ANGOLA
When I was in Oshakati, Sector 10, from June to October 1987, it was in the air that `something big' was happening in Angola above Sector 20, Rundu. When I returned to 1 Military Hospital for the balance of 1987, I came across patients who had been in what sounded like a full scale conventional war. One had been the driver of a Ratel Armoured Personnel Carrier who had been bombed by a Russian made Mig fighter aircraft. (This could have been in the incident referred to in Brigland (1990), p. 174.) I'm not sure at what stage the South African government actually admitted that South African forces were involved in conventional warfare, but it was common knowledge by the time I was first informed that I would be sent to Angola.
In December 1987 about 20 South African soldiers died of cerebral malaria which they had contracted during operations in Angola months previously. (Brigland, (1990), p. 257.) While the government admitted that they had been in Angola, an insinuation was made that they had not taken their malaria tablets, and consequently it was `their own fault!'
GOING TO ANGOLA
While I was serving at the 5th South African Infantry Battalion, at Ladysmith, Natal, attending to the psychological needs of the recruits who had just started with Basic Training, I was phoned by a Commandant Jansen of the Military Psychological Institute (MPI) in Pretoria to give me warning that I would be going to the border for the period 1 March to 30 March. He wanted to give me advance warning (two weeks at that stage), but said that a signal to this effect would be sent within the next couple of days.
I phoned the Head of Psychology Section, Natal Medical Command, Captain Quintin Chrystal to tell him of what I had just been told. I expected to be told what the travel arrangements were, but nothing happened.
A week later I phoned the personnel people at Natal Medical Command. They said that they had still heard nothing, but they were waiting to react to the fact that I had been told what was intended before my officer commanding, Colonel Landman had been informed. He was ready to make trouble.(Typical! Commandant Jansen had only been friendly and done me a favour by letting me know what was on the cards.)
I didn't mind the idea of going back to the border except that my sister was going to be married on the 26th of March so it was unlikely that I would be able to attend the wedding. I found it ironic that I was the only psychologist at 5 SAI and had dealt with all the psychological work there after the initial intake assessments. I had referred nothing down to Natal Command, and yet three psychologists were keeping themselves busy with just the work generated from Durban. I saw the work that I had been doing as more important, with the suicide prevention aspects of recruits having difficulty with basic training, than the much more civilianised work that I had done for a month in Durban, and with which my colleagues busied themselves. After my first border duty I had specifically volunteered to do another, and it became apparent to me that I had been asked for `on high', by name.
The first of March came and went, and there was no indication that I would not be staying at 5 SAI for the foreseeable future. The next day I got a phone call from one of the female clerks from Natal Medical Command Headquarters; `Did I know that I was going to the border from Monday 7th March?'
`No, I didn't,' I could tell her honestly.
That was on Wednesday. I was to fly out the following Monday. There was not really much time to make my own travel arrangements, which is what I ended up doing. The clerk told me that Commandant Fouché had already phoned up Brigadier Oosthuizen from the Directorate of Psychology to plead that they needed me, but they had been told that the priority was for me to go to the Operational Area. Natal Medical HQ had known about the border duty longer than I had. They could have given me more notice.
I terminated my therapy cases, and informed my insurance company where my computer and car would be kept while I was away. I referred all the patients I wanted followed up to which ever of the psychologists would fill in for me at 5 SAI. I signed my equipment out of the store at 5 SAI; a brand new sleeping bag and a brand new rain coat, which smelled of motor car tires. I had signed out an R 4 Light Assault Rifle some weeks before, much to the amusement of my medical colleagues, to do systematic desensitization training with.
I was summoned to see the OC of 5 SAI who made me pay for official calls to Natal Medical Command and Natal Command because I had not logged them down on my call register. I would have liked to have fought that out, but that would have delayed me further. I said good `Public Relations' goodbyes to all the medical personnel of the sick bay and was on the road to Pietermaritzburg by 3pm.
I took Friday for myself in lieu of the Sunday which I would be spending on the coach travelling up to Pretoria at state expense.
I travelled up on the coach in uniform, taking my rifle with me. `Don't say you're bringing that thing on my bus?' the coach hostess remarked. A student-type got chatting to me, taking an interest in things military. He told me that he had been G5-ed(Medical Discharge) in 1986 with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He was an interesting companion. He explained this diagnosis away as being due to his having suffered from malnutrition, but I doubt that my colleagues at 1 Mil would have made such a mistake. I didn't argue with him.
I had live ammunition with me, which I had illegally brought back with me from the border. I can't remember why. I had two loaded magazines in my nutria trouser pockets. (It was an offence to have a loaded magazine inserted in one's rifle.)
I arrived at Pretoria station in good time to be collected promptly by a SAMS driver. I spent the evening with my friend Fred and his lady friend, whom I had not seen for couple of months.
Next morning the SAMS driver took me to Waterkloof Air Force Base for 7.30 for 9.00. Here I met the people destined to be my colleagues for the next three weeks. We waited, sitting on metal garden furniture outside the terminal building. I saw Captain Charl de Wet putting his wife, Lizette, on the plane to Oshakati. He was still staying on in the Republic for a week longer. It was interesting to see him again, and we were very friendly with each other.(Do I remember correctly that he asked if I didn't want to return to Oshakati? Apparently things had not gone very well with Deon Crafford, who had replaced me. Apparently he had misogynistic tendencies and had antagonized Sister Bertha, and possibly some of the other women. See Grensvegter?)
The 9 am flight either did not materialize, or else it was fully booked and occupied with people enjoying a higher priority than we had. It was around noon when we were actually on our own Hercules aircraft.
There were four camouflaged Hercules on the runway but we were shepherded to a snow white one. The aircraft took a long time taxiing along the runway. `Are we going to drive all the way there?' asked Christo.
Two hours later we touched down at Rundu. I had been told that Rundu had a climate like Durban, and while I cannot agree with that, it was much greener than I remembered Oshakati to be, but the glare was about the same. There were a conspicuous number of tank transporters visible from the airport buildings. At the terminal buildings, I recognised someone I recognised from the SAMS Club in Voortrekkerhoogte; Hein McCarthy, who was now a major. I greeted him, but I don't think he remembered me.
We collected our gear at the airport and climbed aboard a Samel 100 truck and drove to the Sector 20 Medical Section HQ, where we `Klaared' in, and filled in forms with two witnesses saying that we would not molest the local population. While there, I met Captain Trevor Reynolds, a friend from 1 Mil. He was stationed at Rundu at that time, and was not joining us who were going into Angola.
Somehow we would always get briefings about the state of the war by some psychologist pointing out the sites of various battles on a sketch map with a swagger stick. Charl had done it in Sector 10, to an audience of only me.
Then we climbed back into our cattle truck and we drove comfortably along the tarred road and then off onto a track. This was apparently a freeway when compared to what passes for tracks up north. The comfort ended when we left the tar, and we were thrown around unless we hung on to the sides, or sat on the spare wheel, which only seated four.
The sky ahead of us was darkening, and we could see lightning. Would we make it to our camp before the storm? We took a wrong turn and bounced around unnecessarily until our driver got us back on the right track.
A Ratel armoured personnel carrier appeared behind us and raced along beside us for a while trying to overtake, before slotting into a position behind us where the road narrowed. We came to an open area which formed a margin of rice paddy type land along the river which forms the border between South West Africa - Namibia and Angola.
As we crossed the pontoon bridge, a 32 Battalion transport truck also started to cross from the other side. Behind us the Ratel waited, respecting the sign which said `Only one vehicle on the bridge at a time'. Eventually the 32 Bn. truck started to back off, and we drove off the end of the bridge and into Angola. The 32 Bn. driver swore abuse at our driver.
A 32 Battalion Ratel waited behind him. One of the white crew had injured himself by shutting his hand in the door. A soldier riding with us in our truck urged us to go and help him, but we were psychologists, with no more than a basic knowledge of first aid, so we drove on. Behind us, the Ratel started to cross. We saw each pontoon dip down into the water as the weight of the Ratel depressed it.
We drove into Angola. Local PBs(`Plaaslike bevolking' meaning `Local Population') waved at us, and smiled with friendship. South African Breweries beer cans were dotted along the side of the Angolan track where they had been tossed from passing vehicles. Another Ratel followed us and we pulled over to allow it to pass. In the bush about 2 km into Angola we passed the wreck of a Cessna aircraft in civvy colours - apparently it had been shot down a couple of years previously. Two black soldiers in nutria waved us down. We stopped and they climbed on to the back of the truck. I saw that their rifles were AK 47's - the preferred weapons of our enemies. We assumed they were UNITA (Angolan rebels, lead by Jonas Savimbi, supported by South Africa.), down on a `Steek Breek' (A crude term relating to conjugal activity). They could have been anyone. Until this stage, of course, none of us had any legal ammunition.
We arrived at the demob camp which we expected would be our home for at least three weeks. We passed a sign which indicated a `visitors parking' area. In Angola? We were allocated a large tent, in which there was nothing but some grass stalks on the sandy earth, but we were told where we could go and get stretchers issued to us. Some of us set about trying to improve the tent, including digging rain furrows around it to lessen the irritation of having rain getting inside. Russell and I seemed to be the ones doing most of the work. Russell seemed to make an alliance with me in this regard; saying something like `People like us are needed to do this work.'
The medics who were already at the camp arranged a `braai' for us, which was delayed by a convincing tropical rainstorm. Eventually a fire was made in a tent (which can be burned to the ground in 19 seconds), and the tent filled with smoke. We had supper at about 10 o'clock, and went to sleep on stretchers amongst the chaos of our tent.
Captain Neil Tuck, the spitting image of Freddy Mercury, then found that he had mislaid his sleeping bag on the flight to Rundu. Over the next few days he kept discovering things that he had lost by rolling them up in his sleeping bag. He only noticing that they were missing when he tried to find them.
Next morning we were given a formal briefing, with the first team of psychologists being the experts. Commandant Jansen was the master of ceremonies, and he outlined the debriefing process, which was similar to the one I was familiar with from Sector 10, except that we would be seeing ALL of the returning troops, and that we would generally see them in groups. Almost as a sociologist, the Commandant introduced us to the terms used in the war; `Victor Victor' was the abbreviation of`Vyandlike Vliegtuig' (Enemy aircraft).
He also told us anecdotes of some of the things that had happened during `Operation Hooper' which was the phase of the greater operation that the soldiers we would be debriefing had been involved in. He enjoyed telling the stories, as though by telling them, he was gaining some credit for the experiences he described.
One of the stories, which he told of with amusement, was from the driver of a tank which had been rendered `US'(Un Serviceable) by detonating a land mine in clear view of FAPLA (The Cuban backed and Russian supplied Angolan defence force.) positions. `Ek het myself beskeit!'(`I shat myself') the Commandant quoted him saying.
Russell then made a bit of a tit of himself by launching in with an explanation of the physical causes of this in terms of the interaction between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, and the `fight-flight reflex.' I am annoyed by people who can't leave a good story alone, but I grew to be very fond of Russell - in two weeks - of frequent boredom!
We were told of psychological warfare techniques, like `ground shout', and firing shells containing propaganda pamphlets.(Brigland (1990), pp. 115, 260. p. 115: Brigland reports that two psychologists were sent to the front HQ from Defence HQ in Pretoria. They had made a special study of the African Psyche. `... the "ground-shout" vehicle was one idea they came up with. These were Casspirs mounted with powerful loudspeakers which ventured out at night to within three kilometres of the enemy brigades and poured out torrents of propaganda designed as much to keep the enemy soldiers awake as to persuade them of the error of their ways. ... The psychologists' theory was that if we could keep the awake all the time they would inevitably take casualties at an increased rate because of exhaustion.'
The editor was later to meet one of the psychologists who was involved in the `ground shout' technique, L J, and his account may be found in Chapter Six of this book.
Propaganda pamphlets were scattered from special shells fired by the G-5s, but this might not have been very effective, as UNITA soldiers suggested that most of FAPLA were illiterate. (p. 260))
LIFE WITHOUT THE TROOPS
THE PEOPLE WHO SHARED MY TENT: `US!'
16 March 1988 - The eight other people who shared my tent with me were:
Captain ATTIE BOSMAN is a tall thin man with distinguished grey hair, who at about thirty-two is very paternalistic and keen to take people (especially me) under his wing. He will, in a kindly way, entice people to go drinking with him, although he says he very seldom goes drinking under normal circumstances. He can be a bit pushy in getting people to go drinking with him or go and shower with him. He is married, has two children and lives on his farm about twenty-five minutes drive outside Pretoria. His home unit was Northern Transvaal Medical Command.
Captain ARTHUR NEALE is slightly older than me, but looks boyish because he is small, and has a childlike enthusiasm and energy. He married young, and the oldest of his two children is three years old. He enjoyed basics as `like being back at school' as a bachelor again. In spite of his name, Arthur is the most `Afrikaans' of the group. He has a little bar of cool drinks from which, like an alchemist, he mixes up abominable brews for himself. He drinks a minimum of alcohol.
Lieutenant WAYNE MANN is the quietest member of the tent. I met him very briefly at 1 Mil when he had just finished basics and I helped to orientate him to the set up at 1 Mil although he only stayed there a week. Wayne is one of the two national service men in the tent, but he was involved in the December 1987 psychological debriefing of soldiers returning from the front in Angola. Although quiet, he is well worth getting to know, and has a very quiet playful sense of humour, like suddenly punching you softly in the stomach. Wayne looked a little like Martin Sheen from some angles.
Captain MICHAEL LIEBOWITZ was the greatest extrovert amongst us. He was small and dark; a clinical social worker (Whatever that may be?). He was a brilliant joker and entertainer. He played guitar and had a special interest in the Beatles. He made a nuisance of himself one day by trying to bully all the others into going to swim in the river with him. Most of us opted to swelter it out in the tent, and he crowed about it when he came back; `You don't know what you missed.' Most of the time he was very good fun!
Major RUSSELL BEATTIE is a clean crisp clean living industrial psychologist intelligent born-again Christian. He mixed well, not walking out of the tent when the jokes are obscene (Which was most of the time). He doesn't preach, but is happy to discuss Christianity with anyone interested. He has the neat and tidy mind of a successful industrial psychologist. He was always very articulate about `processes'. If I remember correctly, he held some position in the Western Cape Medical Command, and there was simmering antagonism directed at him by the two psychologists from 2 Military Hospital (Cape Town), Captain Christo Eloff and especially the emotionally volatile Captain Neil Tuck.
Captain CHRISTO ELOFF is a Cape Afrikaner who speaks excellent English. He went to a dual medium school and was a Boy Scout. He must have been bitten at least once by each bug that lives in or has passed through south eastern Angola; consequently has great difficulty getting to sleep. He has a very ironic sense of humour. He was physically big and thick set.
Captain NEIL TUCK, the Freddy Mercury look-alike, if not better looking, is not married, and seems obsessed with women. A quick wit and very touchy. He and Christo were old friends, and would hunt as a team, especially when they were being antagonistic towards Russell.
Lieutenant WILLEM D-. was a tubby little chap, something like `Piggy' from `Lord of the Flies' (1963), but he suggested he could be `naughty'. He was a national service social worker, and he drifted into our tent several days after we had arrived. He seemed very effeminate, and soon teamed up with a `camp' member of the `other' psychologists group. He had done his social work training at some religious institute somewhere in the Cape. He claims to have smoked dagga(Cannabis).
The demob camp was a little tent town, just near to a former Portuguese holiday town of Caupri, which was out of bounds because it is apparently heavily booby-trapped. I asked an Intelligence Captain about the town, with the idea of exploring one day when we had absolutely nothing to do. `You can go there,' he told me, `But you won't come back!' It would have been nice if the sappers had cleared it for us, but I'm sure they had more important things to do. Buildings would have been much more pleasant than our dusty tents.
The demob camp was badly organized; we were shown to a tent, and told where we could get stretchers. That was it! We were promised pillows, but these never arrived. We were promised mosquito nets, but these did not arrive. Two of our number had had the foresight to bring mosquito nets with them. These were erected where they could be used by the most people; four to each one-man net.
With my normal `Don't worry about me, I'll be all right!' attitude, I removed myself from the most crowded net, which, if I had wanted my head included under it would have had to sleep with my head considerably lower than my feet, trusted on my experience of not being much interest to mosquitoes, swallowed my Darachlor anti-malaria tablets, and risked sleeping out from under the net. I don't think I was bitten once. The bugs walked over me, and the mosquitoes flew over me to burrow through the nets to get at Christo. Poor bastard!
LIVING ON TOP OF EACH OTHER
Sharing a tent with nine others meant that we had no privacy, and people wanted to talk all the time. Just when that conversation ran down, someone else would enter into the conversation, and the same conversation would start all over again.
All nine of us were psychologists and social workers, which leads to bizarre ongoing analyses of the group processes. Everyone's behaviour was interpreted all the time. Anything one did was commented on by several of the others. There was nowhere we could hide or get privacy.
Reading was not allowed by the group. If one managed to concentrate enough to read, someone would come along and start a conversation, and the more one tried to brush them off, the more determined they seemed to feel that they had to rope you into a chat.
`After one and a half weeks we've exhausted all conversation, but we face another two weeks here in the same company with nowhere else to go. We don't have the energy to do much during the day, even like washing clothes, and anyone who says they are going to SAWI (a truck adapted to be a shop, which actually sold cold beers and other drinks) gets asked to bring thinks back for everyone else in the tent.'
Mike Liebowitz and I sought peace and quiet in the Chaplain's tent. He wanted to write letters and I had a book to read. The Chaplain, Fred Celliers, familiar to me from 1 Mil, must have been surprised to have a Jew arrive at his tent chapel.
Cases from rockets for rocket launchers were readily available, and were used as benches in front of the stage, which was set up at one end of the Hockey field sized parade ground. One of them, which lay just outside our tent was systematically reduced to matchwood by being run over repeatedly by various heavy vehicles.
We had a camouflage net(A SADF nutria camouflage net consists of a net with gaps of probably about 4 cm between knots to which a sheet of canvass type material had been attacked. Thus canvass has then been cut into coil like designs, and apart from these cuts, was complete; if laid out flat, the cuts would not be obvious. When draped over anything, like a vehicle or our tent, the coils would then separate out following the lie of the net, and thereby breaking up the outline of whatever the net was covering.) over the top of our tent, and our tent bordered on the parade ground. `The fact that we have a massive parade ground just next to this tent makes our efforts at camouflage superfluous!' Neil Tuck observed.
On the other side of our tent, we opened another door, which gave us access to shade under some small thorn trees, right next to our slit trench. On quiet days, we would take stretchers out there, and drowse there as an alternative to drowsing in the tent. We called this area `Club Med(ics)'.
Arthur sat in Club Med, idly digging a hole with our spade. `There's no point trying to tunnel your way out of Angola,' someone told him. I think it was me. That was how desperate our humour became.
I find it surprising looking back, at how little attention we paid to the security of our rifles. We would spend a great deal of time away from our tent, and would leave our rifles in our collapsible beds, but there was no plan to make sure that there was always someone there to prevent pilfering. I am sure that we would have been in serious trouble if any or all of our rifles had gone missing.
This whole bizarre sequence of my `Angola Experience' would be incomplete if I did not relate two pathetic jokes, that in our boredom we laughed ourselves sick at, over and over again.
`In the days before `Datsun' still called themselves `Nissan', there was once a desperate shortage of Datsun cogs needed for the manufacture of cars at their main assembly plant on the Reef (Johannesburg). Supplies personnel searched high and low, but the nearest supplies they could find were just being unpacked at Cape Town harbour. With production halted, and the company losing millions of rand every hour that the assembly line stood idle, arrangements were made to fly the cogs up to the production line, and this was arranged.
As the aircraft started to fly over the Karoo, one of the engines `conked' out. This was not a problem; there were still three more. Then another `conked' out. This was not a problem; there were still two more. Then another `conked' out. This started to be a problem, and the aircraft started to lose altitude. The pilot shouted back that the aircraft was too heavy, and to stay airborne, some of the cargo would have to be jettisoned. The crew knew the importance of the cogs, but they could not risk their lives and the aeroplane, so they started to jettison the cogs.
Two Karoo farmers, Oom Sarel and Oom Koos are sitting on their stoeps(porches), drinking beer and reminiscing. In the distance they see small metal objects falling from the sky.
`Look, Oom Sarel,' says Oom Koos. `Its raining Datsun Cogs. (It has to be said; it's a Spoonerism!)'
Another unforgettable joke from that time in Angola was aimed at heavyweight boxing champion, Mike Sch-., popularly regarded as one of the dumbest people in the South African public eye.
One of his friends sees Mike Sch-. walking uncomfortably, stooped forward. `What's the matter, Mike?' asks the friend.
`I've just shat in my pants,' Mike Sch-. replies.
`Well that's not a problem. Why don't you go and change?'
`I haven't finished yet!'
THE OTHER TENT FULL OF `PSYCHOLOGISTS': `THEM!'
There was rivalry between the two tents of psychologists. How childish this all seems now, looking back. The psychologists who were there to meet us, had already been at the camp for a week. They had been on the flight which Commandant Jansen had tipped me off that I would be on. They seemed to all know each other, and all seemed to be from the Military Psychological Institute.
In our group, the `Cape' people; Russell, Neil, Christo and Mike knew each other. Mike seemed to be neutral in their conflict. The rest of us met each other for the first time.
`WE' felt that `THEY' saw themselves as superior because they had been there a week longer. I don't believe that they had been busy debriefing returning soldiers in the week before we arrived.
There was the Commandant's blue eyed boy, a very young looking PF Lieutenant, who was an industrial psychology student of some kind. We had to have tetanus injections the day after we arrived, and he hung around the doctor's sick bay, making out that he was going to give us the injections. We were not amused. We decided that we didn't like him.
The Commandant's right hand man, who actually organized us into who would be debriefing which particular batch of soldiers was a Captain called Willie Theron. I thought that he was in his mid or even late thirties, and was very surprised to find that he was only twenty-four or twenty-five - younger than I was! He was all right, though very much `in' with `them'.
We would have `order groups' almost daily, but these did not have much impact. I remember once after a briefing, which had appealed to my journalistic sense rather than my therapeutic interests, asking the Commandant whether the stories and anecdotes he was telling us were being recorded somewhere. The Commandant replied that there was someone up at the front who was documenting it all.(This was presumably Helmoed-Romer Heitman, who published his book `War in Angola' in 1990.)
OTHER MEDICS AT THE CAMP
The doctor was a South West African, of strong German heritage. His SWA rank consisted of grey (silver in `step out' uniform) diamonds, where we had five pointed stars on our epaulettes. He was a pleasant enough chap. His job was to see to the medical needs of the returning soldiers, assisted by the couple of Ops. Medics, whom he supervised.
There were also two or three dentists, to attend to the dental needs of the returning soldiers, who had been without dental care for at least four months. They were quiet, and very Afrikaans, but outside the tent that housed their dental surgery, they had a sign declaring in English: `Angolan Tooth fairies!'
THE ENTERTAINMENT CORPS
Our neighbours, on the other side of the track, were a tent full of Entertainment Corps; a group of permanent force musicians (protective employment to an advanced degree?). They were sent to the demob camp to put on a concert or two for the returning troops. We watched them from a distance.
They never seemed to practise, but loafed around all day. (We did see many people some days, so this made us superior!) They had a little truck that had a screen onto which films could be projected, and also a television screen onto which videos could be shown. The musicians sat and watched the same old videos over and over again. Those of us who were musical cringed at singers and musicians being off key during their performances.
For a while, there was a female singer, who came and sat at our Medics sing song after one of their official shows, when Mike Liebowitz, and a camper psychologist who was one of `Them' and one of our `Ops. Medics' would play their acoustic guitars. For some reason, that poor woman cuddled up to me, who, apart from the Gay lads, was probably the least interested in her of all the men gathered around our camp fire. Did that make me more of a challenge? She was a single mother, and she told me she was missing her little daughter.
There was some friction in the band, and after days of lying around, one member broke a guitar over another member's head. I didn't see it, but it gave us something to talk about for ages.
At one of their concerts, the male `Master of Ceremonies' told a racist Anti-FAPLA joke, about their training being inferior and them all being stupid. The sketch has an instructor holding up weapons, and telling the name of the weapon to the FAPLA troops, and getting them to shout the name back at him.
Instructor: This is a rifle!
FAPLA Soldiers: This is a rifle!
Instructor: This is a bullet!
FAPLA Soldiers: This is a bullet!
Instructor: This is a magazine!
FAPLA Soldiers: This is a magazine!
Instructor: (Holds up the rifle again.) What is this?
FAPLA Soldiers: What is this?
I wonder how that joke went down with the few non-white South African Cape Coloured Corps who were in the audience?
One boring evening, some of the psychologists drifted over to the Entertainment Corps camp to watch the video of `Nurds Vacation' - again! They settled down to watch, and after a while, one of them noticed something moving on the ground under the truck. He called attention to it.
The light might have been fading, but it was soon recognised as being a snake - a big fat one! I watched from a distance, as the video watchers scarpered - leaving only little puffs of dust, like a picture from a comic book. The snake disappeared, but it was some time before the watchers summoned up enough courage to continue watching the video.
Wayne Mann mentioned that, on the earlier debriefing he had taken part in three months previously, he and his colleagues had been shown video footage of the battles at the front. We asked, but the video was not available for us to watch. That was a pity. It would really have been interesting to see that.(A video made by a Cuban Army Film Unit showing the Cuban/FAPLA side of the `Victory of Cuito Cuanavale' (1988), in which the South Africans - the soldiers that I was there to debrief, and whose uniform I wore, were the `Bad Guys!'. I hope that at some stage the South African authorities will release their video material. I would certainly buy a copy!)
Wayne, reminiscing about his previous duty in Angola, mentioned that Captain Quintin Coetzee, whom I had met at the SAMS Club, and again at Sector 10, had been there the last time. He was, amongst many other incredibly interesting things, a survival expert, and he had given them many interesting lectures about how to live off the land; telling them about what fruit and bugs you can eat, and what you could not. His style sounded familiar of the many interesting hours I had sat listening to Quintin; `This little fellow will make you stortz in your shorts!'
The days of the week had no significance; we would work or laze regardless of whether it was Sunday or Monday. On some days we saw as many as four groups of soldiers, while on others we had nothing to do.
I always thought that I could never get bored because there are too many things that I want to do, and things that I want to write, but I managed to spend afternoons sleeping, and then slept fine at night as well. I think the climate might have had something to do with that!
GOING TO RUNDU
On our first Sunday in Angola, we wanted to go to Rundu to look around and maybe have a swim. The message came back that there were two visitors groups in town that day so we were not allowed to go in. The next day, on which we were expecting to work quite hard, the Commandant told us that we would only start debriefing the approximately 200 G5 (Artillery) personnel on Wednesday. Half of us could go in to Rundu on Monday, and the others could go in on Tuesday (but we would not be permitted to roam the streets in our uniforms).
We divided up into two groups (us and them) almost according to the tents we slept in. Both parties wanted to go in on the Tuesday. Was this so that one could enjoy the prospect of spending the next day in Rundu, rather than getting it over with and having nothing to look forward to while sitting at the demob camp on Tuesday?
Mike Liebowitz and I were talking about the distance to Rundu. `Each time we talk about it, the distance gets shorter,' he observed. `If we keep on long enough we'll arrive back home.'
On 14/03/1988 we went to Rundu, bounced around all the way in the back of a Unimog ambulance. We stopped briefly at a SAWI supermarket, and then went to the main army camp, were we swam and lazed around until it was time to return home. Mike Liebowitz pointed out that we went to another country just for a swim.
Those with wives or girlfriends who were likely to be at home at that time of day, queued up outside the public telephone box to make a call. Neil, Christo and I joked about making appropriate gun battle noises in the background, to impress the people who were being called. Imagine; `No, darling, there's no need to worry - hang on a moment - (pause) (FX: Loud impression of explosion) - no need to worry at all!' It seemed very funny at the time.
SWIMMING WITH CROCKS
One day we went swimming illegally in allegedly crocodile infested waters, with rifles ready to blast anything that looked like a crock. This was just near the pontoon bridge between Namibia and Angola, of which I have since seen many photos. I have walked across that bridge. Some of the more enthusiastic swimmers dived off that bridge into the strong current, and then swam to a little beach, at which the rest of us bathed.
I had my rifle with me, but I don't know what good it would have been if one of our party was attacked by a crocodile. I would probably have been as likely to have hit our man as the crock, especially if they were thrashing about. I didn't go into more than about a foot of water. Cowardice has great survival value!
Swimming with us at the time were a group of `Tiffies'. They told us that the previous day, one of them had reversed a Samel 100 truck, slightly off the track, and it had detonated a land mine, which had blown the wheel off. This added to the idea that there was danger lurking around us, but it didn't change our behaviour much.
AT NIGHT IN A TENT - SOMEWHERE IN ANGOLA
On nights when there was no entertainment laid on, some of us would go to bed early. With our tent being next to a corner of the parade ground, we had the main road about five metres from our door. Lying in bed, we could see whole convoys of battle-scarred trucks and army vehicles grinding their way past us to the area in which they would make their camp for the time they were at the demob camp. (The expense it would have cost to recreate the scene for a war film?!)
A recovery vehicle drove past us towing a truck.
`What a lazy truck,' Mike commented.
`Listen to the sounds of the African night,' Wayne suggested, as we heard the whine of a Ratel above the deep drone of its engine.
During one manic night, Neil expressed the fear that 61 Mech (Combat Group) would arrive and would accidentally drive through our tent, which was in darkness and camouflaged on a corner that could easily be cut by a heavy all-terrain vehicle in a hurry.
`There is a consolation,' Christo pointed out. `If they do go through our tent, we won't have to debrief them tomorrow.'
`What are we going to do tomorrow?' Arthur asked.
`There won't be a tomorrow!' Christo told him.
Conversation started on the film `Fatal Attraction' (1987) and moved on to psychotic killers, and after that it was open season. Someone started a rumour that unidentified blacks had been seen walking around the camp. We had been told that the camp had perimeter guards, but we had seen no evidence of their existence.
Entering into the spirit of things, (Did I need a reason?) I cocked my rifle in the darkness (without magazine) which cracked Russell. Russell was already paranoid, and slept with his rifle; loaded magazine inserted. Strictly against regulations! This gave Neil and Christo even more grounds to dislike him.
Then Christo drew our attention to big flashes on the skyline, which we would have accepted as lightning if there had been any clouds in the sky. Russell and I went out to have a look. They were in the direction of Rundu and (impossibly) Tumpo. We knew that there was going to be an attack on Tumpo at some stage. Could this be it? But surely we wouldn't be able to see the flashes in the sky at such a distance. Was Rundu being bombed?
Russell and I eventually walked down to the Ops. Room, where two young national servicemen didn't know how to start to find out the answer to our question. We persuaded them to radio the enquiry through to Rundu, which they did. Rundu replied that they were not aware of anything to get worried about. So it must have been just lightning, but the whole episode made for a couple of interesting hours.
While we waited for the HQ staff to make radio contact with Rundu, we looked around the tent which formed the makeshift Ops. Room. On a table in front of us were cartons containing hundreds of rounds of rifle ammunition, including some with red tips, which we identified as tracers. We stuffed our pockets with these, and shared them with the others when we returned to the tent.
Despite the vague idea that, as we had `Recce's behind enemy lines, so they would have `Rangers' behind ours, many of us would wander is little way out of the camp into to bush for some privacy to have a wank or to go to the toilet. We could have been killed or kidnapped during such activities.(Also see Baker (1981), p. 40.)
We rise and shave, attend prayer parade (compulsory!) from 07H15 to 07H17, have brunch at 10H00, have supper at 17H30 and spent the whole day either sitting outside getting sunburned, or having a sauna in the tent.
We are staff, and as such have to attend prayer parades at 7.15 each morning. The OC of the camp, Commandant Bench, thinks it's a good thing to do, and the only exemptions from the parade are Jewish. Mike made a point of getting up at the same time as the rest of us, and being dressed in uniform by the time we mustered for the prayer parade, so as to avoid any criticism of him using his Judaism as an excuse to sleep in.
`The OC of the camp is a Commandant, as is the Medical OC, but the Medical OC just sits back and accepts that the Medics have to attend Church Parades. Normally once a week is considered sufficient, but not in Angola it seems. Medics just passively comply with what the army demands of us, forgetting that we are a separate branch of the SADF.'
- You'd think I would be used to this by now!
We have primitive living conditions; possibly to help the troops to identify with us, although I doubt that such a Master Plan exists. A temporary tent camp brings one face to face with the basics of life. Showering and going to the toilet become expeditions. We are always sandy and hot, and feel unclean. Sand gets into your sleeping bag and one has to take precautions to prevent oneself from becoming bitten by mosquitoes and sand fleas. It is very hot and one wants to siesta from about half past ten until about five.
The toilets are all long drops, with varying degrees of noxious odours. There are urinals scattered around amongst the tents, and look rather like lilies (Wayne's description). I didn't know what they were at first. They looked like plastic tail cones of unexploded rockets which had become lodged into the ground. Going to the toilet was unpleasant with the number of flies around. Comments:
`Before you've finished, they're already taking it away.'
`You don't have to push. They go in and fetch it.'
Two of our party returned to the tent triumphantly announcing that they had discovered a toilet hidden away in a tent somewhere, and best of all - there was NO SMELL! We all used it from then on, but people saw us going to it, and it became known, and used, and soon smelled as bad as any of the others.
We had a choice of showering facilities. There was a large truck, the back of which had been modified into an extended communal shower. This was most often used by soldiers returning from the front, who would wait patiently in platoons for their chance for their first decent wash in months.
The alternative was a Scouting-type of shower; a canvas bag with an adjustable nossle to let the water out of. This we had in the privacy of the medics area. Obviously there was no hot water anywhere, but if one washed in the evening, the water had generally stood in the little water trailers in the sun all day and was quite tepid. One bucket full of water was usually good for a reasonable shower.
`WE'RE NOT IN SOUTH AFRICA ANY MORE'
`We are in Angola now, not South Africa or South West Africa. We are, as soldiers (?!) obviously under the military disciplinary code, but does South African law still count here? In the army, dagga use cases are handed over to the police, but that would be difficult here what with us being in Angola. We have mused about trying to make contact with UNITA to buy some dagga, but haven't got around to it - yet!'
One day while there were no returning soldiers around the camp, we became aware of something happening on the parade ground so we all wandered out to have a look. There were a couple of civilians, including a young looking woman standing talking to some major-level officers. Where had these civilians come from?
A team of artillery men were demonstrating getting a G5 cannon ready to fire. They were all small men, or boys rather, and everything about the cannon seemed to be hydraulic, and the boys had big mallets to bash the things which were not. Part of the assembly had a little motor in it, which enabled the driver to drive the cannon slowly over short distances.
The G5 cannon was usually towed by other vehicles, whereas the G6 cannon was the same gun but mounted on the body of a Ratel. They didn't fire it. We never had an explanation about who the civilians were. Bloody tourists!
I spoke to a young national service doctor who had just returned from two weeks with a small contingent of 32 Battalion. He told me that he had made an arrangement with his mother to let her know where he was. He had had a suspicion that he would be going to Angola, when he was told he was being sent to the Operational Area.
They agreed that he would use the code-word `ice cream' in his letter to indicate if he was in Angola. He arrived at Rundu to find that he was indeed going straight into Angola. He wrote a letter to his mother; `It's very hot here, and I'd love some ice cream.'
Weeks later he received a letter from his mother saying, `I'm glad to hear that you are in Rundu. We've got some ice cream in the fridge for when you come back.' She must have forgotten the code word. (Or was she just playing along?)
I wrote a brief note to my parents, in which I said something about the danger being passing Mig fighters. This was censored by someone before it arrived. The danger of Migs became public knowledge at about that time anyway.
There was talk for a while of two of our number being sent up north to a forward command post, to be much nearer the front, and so more readily available for `on the spot' debriefings. Volunteers weren't called for, but I found myself seriously considering volunteering. I think I discussed it with Wayne. I have a problem with a compulsion to volunteer! I think my motivation was a sense of adventure; to see from closer what the situation was, and to get material to write about one day. I might even get shot at; something I had missed out on in Sector 10.
But I didn't like doing debriefings - I hated them(The procedure for doing these debriefings was straightforward enough and is documented in Grensvegter? (1990,1996) and elsewhere. Possibly at that stage I had done too many, and I found them very emotionally draining, if done what I would consider `properly', and at this stage psychologists didn't know as much about the risk of `burnout' amongst debriefers that was documented later on. Most more recent debriefing protocols make special reference to the need for a `debriefing of the debriefers', which we didn't do in those days.) - and volunteering for that mission would definitely involve a great deal more of them. In the end I did not volunteer. Mike Carney and the camper psychologist went up north.
ODDS AND ENDS
Major Mike Carney, promoted since I had met him at Windhoek five months earlier, arrived, on his way to do debriefings closer to the front line. I overheard a comment passed about him (`Major Carnage' - as Russell called him behind his back) describing going up to the front: `You go in low in the helicopters, and you hear the rotors going `Whup ... whup ... whup!' Just like Apocalypse Now (1979)' Was real life imitating the movies?
I watched him, waiting for him to confirm himself to be the `wally' I expected. Not a long wait! Around a campfire, he enthusiastically joined in singing dirty rugby songs, though it became apparent that he didn't know the words.
Neil and Christo's aggression wasn't just aimed at Russell. They came across some soldier who had been seen back at Rundu by Captain Trevor Reynolds, mentioned earlier. This soldier said that Trevor had been unsympathetic to his symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and said that Trevor had told him to pull himself together. Neil, particularly, was up in arms about this, and talked of lodging a complaint against Trevor with the Professional Board for Psychology. I doubt that he would have made the effort though. His bark seemed to be much worse than his bite!
Kurt Vonnegut (1969) can do this better; `Once I looked down at my feet, and I saw that they were in boots, shining boots, with some dust on them, and standing on sandy ground. My legs were clad in nutria, as was my chest. I had stars on my shoulders, and I was walking around in Angola. Was it real?'
Where we were in Angola, there is a type of moth which urinates on people. These were, surprisingly enough, called `Pissmoths'. Unless this liquid is diluted, it forms a blister. Isn't nature wonderful?
THE FUNCTION OF THE DEMOB CAMP: THE JOB WE WERE THERE TO DO
The purpose of the `Demobilization Camp' was to facilitate the `Termination process' of the soldiers returning from the Operation Hooper stage of the 1987 - 1988 war in Angola.(For more structured information on `Operation Hooper', see Steenkamp (1989), pp. 153 - 161, 255 - 256, Brigland (1990) and Helmoed-Romer Heitman (1990). The first draft of this material was written before the appearance of Brigland (1990), but references to that book have been added below as footnotes. Reference is made to demob camps such as this in Morgan (1988, p. 21). Presumably Morgan's `Commandant Albert Janse' is the man referred to here as Commandant Jansen.) The termination process included issuing the soldiers with new uniforms and kit to replace that damaged or lost in Angola. There were also psychological debriefings to identify and treat those likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (which was where the psychologists came in), Intelligence debriefings, giving the soldiers a chance to get used to `wet' rations (fresh food) again after months of living on `dry' ration packs. Apparently the transition from `dry' to `wet' rations resulted in massive outbreaks of `gippo-guts'.
There would also be a return to more traditional military roles - restoration of military discipline; haircuts and inspections and such things which had gone by the board in the front line. Soldiers would also receive their pay and medals (the inevitable Pro Patria) before returning to South Africa.
The camp was situated just inside Angola, and the rationale for this was apparently so that this termination process could be completed before the soldiers set foot on South African (Read: `South West African') soil, they could return leaving the war behind them. This was probably true for most of them, but there were rumours that some of the soldiers had come to the demob camp via Rundu. They had passed briefly through South West Africa to get to our camp.
This sense of `leaving the war behind them' might have been undermined by the belief expressed by many of the soldiers we saw. They had been told that they would be returning to South Africa for a couple of months for retraining, before they would be sent back into Angola, to carry on with the fighting.
Helping the soldiers to adjust to fresh food was the excuse for the excellent food available at the camp. Each new group arriving was treated to a braai, at which hand sized steaks were freely available, to staff members as well. We became accustomed to eating T-bones steaks every night. And this is Angola?!
Together with one or two friends, I spent some time talking to the chef in charge of catering at the camp. Inevitably, in all institutions, the food is always complained about. I don't think any complaints were made about this chef and his team's efforts, but he was still quite defensive. He told us that he had been awarded some certificate of having won the `Combat Cook of the Year' or some such honour. He was good. The meals that he served were great. He produced Vetkoek(A batter-type scone, very much part of Afrikaner traditional cooking.) for hundreds of people, which must have been quite an achievement. We had officers' privileges, in that we ate in a tent dining room on benches at collapsible tables, while outside we could see the `other ranks' standing or squatting and eating from their varkpanne on their knees. We didn't have to wash our own varkpanne either. We were given very sweet milky chocolate to drink, almost on demand. I had a great amount of respect for the chef. We certainly ate better at that camp than we had at Sector 10.
ENTERTAINING THE TROOPS
Television monitors were mounted on the backs of specially modified Unimog transports, to entertain the troops in the evenings, but the videos offered were not appropriate; 4 SAI combat group returned from four months of battle to be shown a video called `The Punch and Judy Man' (1962) made many years ago and intended for children. A Com.Ops Lieutenant explained that the army had a contract with a video chain to supply videos. It looked as though the chain were off loading their junk onto the army. Other movies included `The Fall of the Roman Empire' (1964), which was probably good, but inappropriate. There were some goodies; `Wargames' (1983) and `Over the Top' (1986). The film probably most appreciated by the soldiers was `Nurds vacation'.
DIFFICULTIES DOING DEBRIEFINGS
The soldiers were in well bonded units, who had (mostly!) been together for more than a year. They had been participating in the war for four months by the time we saw them - the psychologists were outsiders - intruders? - and the soldiers were not going to open up and express their feelings to us. It must almost have been an insult to the soldiers; `You've been in a war, and now you've all got to go and see the shrinks, and we all know that shrinks work with mad people, don't we?'
I also felt guilty about not having experienced what they had gone through - I hadn't been in any danger that I was aware of. The only positive things I can see our psychologist involvement having been was (1) to show all the soldiers that (some?) psychologists are actually normal, well balanced people, and so that if they or their wives or their children develop psychological problems some day, they may feel that psychologists have some credibility and might be able to help them, and (2) the fact that they were all seen by psychologists, and given information about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may make them sensitive to what is happening with them if the do develop PTSD later on - an awareness that Vietnam veterans didn't have - so they may come for help rather than just isolating themselves and drowning their sorrows in alcohol.
To be `debriefed', various sections of the Combat Groups were told to report at a specific location, very close to the psychologists tents, and Commandant Jansen's right hand man would divide them up to attend different psychologists. One could either get one or two officers or NCO's or a group of up to twelve troops. We would then take them off to whatever venue might be available. A few tents had been pitched for this purpose, but inevitably too few. On at least one occasion I did a debriefing discussion on the entertainers' stage.
The wait to be allocated to a psychologist was not a very formal affair. I remember seeing a young soldier holding an interesting looking weapon, which turned out to be a grenade launcher. I asked him about it, and he told me that it wasn't much use in a heavily wooded area like they had been in combat in.
A senior officer spoke to the Troops from 4 SAI (Fighting Group) and told them that when they return to South Africa they will read of UNITA's victories in Southern Angola and it will make them angry. There are good political reasons (unspecified) why UNITA is given credit for their victories. (Brigland (1990), p. 372-3; `Geldenhuys conceded that government silence on SADF victories in Angola caused problems with the fighting men. `Good or bad, right or wrong, the South African government's position was that it was Savimbi's war, not ours. It tied our hands in dealing with the media. Savimbi was issuing the press releases. We only began to issue statements when we began to take casualties. It was only then that we began to claim victories. Savimbi took exception and got very annoyed.'
General Geldenhuys said that he met the field commanders in January 1988 and told them; `You know who is winning the war, and I promise you that the records will be set straight in the future. We do not want to say we are defeating the Cubans because we will have to negotiate with them. They want the implementation of 435 [United Nations Resolution 435 calling for South Africa to grant independence to Namibia. We want the Cubans out of Angola. We are happy to give 435 if the Cubans leave Angola.'
Brigland goes on to suggest that `The Cubans [suggestion that they won the war] were helped by the South Africans' own clumsy efforts at propaganda, which amounted to saying as little as possible about the full-scale war they fought in Angola.')
I overheard a Com.Ops Major (Own Forces) debriefing troops on their way back from Operation Hooper. The Major explained to the assembled Troops that he wanted them to evaluate their equipment; how did their weapons compare to those of the enemy.
`Why can't we use the AK?' asked one of the English soldiers.
`Why do you want to use it?' the Major asked.
`The AK is kak(Shit)!' The Major retorted.
(So `kak' that our special forces use it?)(On later reflection, I realise that South African special forces might use it because it would be inconspicuous in neighbouring countries where it would be the standard infantry weapon, and also there would be greater ease in obtaining ammunition and magazines on location.)
After a pause, the Major admitted; `I don't know why we don't use the AK!' (I heard this with my own ears!)
4 SOUTH AFRICAN INFANTRY BATTALION (COMBAT GROUP)
Banners were put up to welcome the soldiers; `Laat Waai, 4 SAI'(`Let Rip, 4 SAI'), `Pantzerkrag is Wenkrag' (`Armour Power is Winning Power'), `Well done, 61', `Home is the Hunter' and of course, `Still Champions' which was the motto of the SADF's 75th anniversary.
4 SAI were the first big combat group to arrive at the demob camp while we were there.(PARATUS March 1990, contains an article about 4 SAI Bn's History (pp. 50-51). Also see the article by Yves Debay in RAIDS magazine, July 1995, No. 44, pp. 12-19.) Our Commandant advised us to walk through their lines as they arrived to get some appreciation of how the troops had been living. So we walked around; seeing boys with beards (they could not shave at the front), Nutria so dirty it was black -`The thousand yard stare' - soldiers immune to us being there - tree trunks tied as bumpers to the fronts of Ratels.
I saw the Oliphant tanks arrive at the demob camp. They were very impressive, and slid around in the loose sand of the track into the camp.(`Elephant' tanks, then the South African standard battle tank, is based on the British Centurion tank.)A group of loud people sitting under a tree called out, `Wat soek die medieks nou hier?' (`What are the medics looking for here?') On the way back we waved to them, they waved back. Mike Liebowitz and I walked over. They turned out to be a major and some junior officers. They were getting stuck into beers and waving at new arrivals - Ratels etc. They wanted to know why Mike was dressed as a tourist while I was `wearing the same clothes as they were.' They were irritated by the banners that had been put up to welcome them.
`How can we welcome you back?' I asked.
`There isn't any way,' Lieutenant Andrew Van Vuuren told me.
A Captain mischievously wanted to know what the `right answers' were to the questions that we, the psychologists, would be asking them the next day.
Dare I say it? Walking around the 4 SAI lines made me feel guilty and almost jealous that I had not been through what they had been through myself. A sense of being left out?
A colonel visited the demob camp while 4 SAI was with us, and his helicopter landed, not on the helipad, but on the parade ground, which sent clouds of dust into all our tents. The cooks provided sandwiches for him and his entourage.
CHATS WITH A GENERAL
General Kat Liebenberg (Codename: Muisvanger meaning `Mouse catcher'. The enemy would never decode that!) spent an evening at the demob camp, at which he addressed the troops and told them what a good job they had done. He announced that he would be spending the evening in the camp, and that anyone was welcome to come and discuss our (South African) involvement in Angola with him. This was a surprising but welcome attitude for the authoritarian SADF.
One of the Medics Officers asked him why it was not disclosed to the South African public that we were fighting a conventional war in Angola on behalf of, but with minimal support from, UNITA. `Because Savimbi (Codename: Spyker - `nail'. Would this imply that South Africa was the hammer?) must appear to be strong,' came the reply.
The rationale behind us `being in Angola' was to keep the war and the Russians as far away from South Africa's borders as possible. This was supposedly to prevent Russia from having airports from which they could bomb South African cities. This presupposed that the Russians wanted to bomb South African cities when even with their air superiority they have not bombed Oshakati or Rundu. This justification totally ignored the possibility that if the Russians wanted to bomb our cities they could do so more effectively from submarines off our coast, to which we would be even more vulnerable. He also said that FAPLA and SWAPO actually want to wage war against South Africa, as opposed to liberating their respective countries. Wayne, as the most junior medics officer, and the only national serviceman, was told to offer to get the General some food. He was disgruntled about this, so I took his place. `Mag ek vir U kos aanbied?' (`May I offer you some food?') I asked the Chief of the South African Army, after having given him my best salute. The general declined.
Could anyone have shot the general?
(General Kat Liebenberg took over as the Chief of the SADF on November 1 1990. (Focus on South Africa October 1990, p. 11))
61 MECHANIZED BATTALION (COMBAT GROUP)
On 17/03/1988 61 Mechanized Battalion(61 Mech was based at Walvis Bay until March 1992 (Focus on South Africa). PARATUS (August 1990) features an article on 61 Mech on pp. 20 - 21. Also see the article by Yves Debay in RAIDS magazine, July 1995, No. 44.) arrived; the second of the two combat elements that we were going to debrief. They made themselves at home, and I walked through their lines as I had with 4 SAI, and one would not have been able to tell the difference between the two groups. 61 Mech started to celebrate their return by shooting flares up into the night sky as fireworks. It was very pretty!
Commandant Bench (the OC of the demob camp) drove up and shat all over the soldiers waiting innocently in front of the stage for the show to begin. He said that because of the flares had been fired without authorization there would be no entertainment that night. Typical; pick on those sitting innocently, while elsewhere, the people he wanted to check continued to fire their flares. (`Back to school' for the boys back from the war. We thought that he was asking for trouble, and that 61 might go on the rampage.)
Shortly afterwards the show began,(If I remember right, one of our number, probably Christo had a birthday while we were there, and I was one of those who asked this to be announced from the stage that evening, so we could give him a round of applause. I understand why we did it at the time, but looking back, I regret this, as the attention should have been given to 61 Mech, and in a sense I feel that we were gate-crashing.) a very professional performance by a new band of national servicemen, that I would have paid money to go and see. The drummer was apparently from the local chart-topping group `Petit Cheval'. After some hours we were urging him to play on, but eventually some of the other band members told us that he was in pain from blisters on his fingers. The audience lapped it up, and above us, flares continued to burst in different colours. And this was in Angola!
We have come across many stories of disinformation which has had a demoralizing effect on our troops. One group were actually airborne, believing that they were being flown to Port Elizabeth to do a course on riot control when they were told for the first time that they were actually on their way to Angola. Many of the soldiers did not know they would be coming to Angola, and had brought things with them that they would need in an ordinary camp. They spent four months in Angola with things that they would never use. Most had civvy clothes with them, and some had irons with them. (I had mine!) One soldier got so frustrated with his iron that he buried it in the middle of the bush in Angola!
False information was also given to people at home so that soldiers returned from four months in Angola to find letters from their significant others saying; `So glad you're in Grootfontein. We saw Grootfontein on TV at Christmas and the wonderful Christmas dinner they had laid on for you,' or worse: `All your letters were posted from Pretoria. Why didn't you phone?'
Friends of a soldier killed by a booby trap believe that his parents were told that he had been killed while `playing with ammunition'. They were concerned that such false information would also be circulated if anything happened to them.
COMPLAINTS OF `UNFAIR'
Soldiers sitting safely at Rundu were given the same danger pay as the people fighting near Cuito Cuanavale - R 4.80 per day for national servicemen. Soldiers returning from the battle up north became angry seeing staff who had not ventured further than Rundu wearing `Ops. Hooper' T-shirts. Some complained at having to pay R 3.50 for a haircut at the demob camp, and not being treated as `ou manne' although they had gone through a lot more than the average `ou man'.
Troops were annoyed at having buried thousands of rands worth of ammunition in Angola (a great waste of money), but when they got back to the demob camp they would have to pay for cables which had got lost, or which had been stolen by UNITA.
STORIES WE HEARD OF LIFE AT THE FRONT
With soldiers on the battlefront being unable to shave, they were allowed to grow beards. What would be the effect if a Lieutenant or Corporal was unable to grow a beard while all his troops managed to? A threat to his masculinity?
Boys from the battle talk of cooking up front; you have to get your fire hot, cook, and put it out fast before it attracts the attention of the Migs.
Someone was casevaced for the following disorder; after having had a crap he would blast his shit to smithereens with rifle fire.
At the front, flies were apparently a great problem, making life unpleasant for soldiers from the time they woke up until the time they went to bed (Did their harassment stop then?). One of the echelon (supply?) drivers was seen to get out of his sleeping bag at about midnight, walk over to a tree that was thick with flies and start to shake it. Someone asked him what he was doing. `They've tormented me for weeks,' he answered. `Now it's my turn to torment them.'
MATERIAL FROM DEBRIEFINGS
A FAPLA tank burst into South African forces at close range, with a FAPLA soldier standing head and shoulders out of the turret. The South Africans opened fire. The first bullet took the fingers off his left hand. The next soldier shot him three times in the right shoulder. The FAPLA then put the stump of his left hand to his right shoulder. The third South African then shot him in the forehead, knocking his head back.(This incident might be the one referred to in Brigland (1990), p. 278.)
`How did you feel about this?' Michael asked.
They looked at him as though this was a stupid question. `We enjoyed it,' they replied.
Some of the NCOs and Officers appeared to have insight into and concern for their troops, but Russell suggested that to get a more accurate impression one should listen to the troops' view. Yes!
A tank(er) was `taken out', and one person was given the job of removing the body of the driver. The driver had been decapitated. The soldier had to remove the body at night for some reason. The soldier climbed onto the top of the vehicle and looked down through the hatch, but could see nothing. So he put his hand down, and this went into the open neck of the dead driver. The body was trapped so he had to get inside the vehicle to free the legs, and doing so he was surrounded by bits of the drivers head, which also had to be removed.
Neil Tuck spent a long time debriefing an Ops. medic called Sean who had been traumatized by having to remove the charred remains of a Ratel crew which had been `taken out'. When Neil tried to trace the man to arrange follow up, he was told than no-one of that name had been involved in the incident.
Russell Beattie sympathized with Tiffies (mechanics) who were issued with a tool box which they have to carry around with them, and who have to lend out tools which do not get returned, and they have to pay for tools which are lost. They are only issued with two pairs of overalls, which is insufficient considering the nature of their work, and the difficulty of cleaning anything in the Angolan bush.(Brigland (1990), p. 266: `Clean overalls requested by tiffies in early December 1987 did not arrive until the end of the first week of February 1988, by when they were very niffy tiffies indeed.')
61 MECH'S `WELCOME HOME' PARTY
General Jannie Geldenhuys, the Chief of the SADF, came to address the soldiers of 61 Mech. He said that there had been an interview which returning troops might come across, in which Jonas Savimbi had apparently said that the western world was not giving UNITA and South Africa enough support in their battle against communism. Apparently the reports of the interview(By Jean Larteguy, Paris Match, 18/3/88. [In Conchiglia, p. 52.]) which appeared in the South African Press were grossly distorted - so he said. They, the SADF, had the original tape recordings of the interview, and they were satisfied that Savimbi had not said anything that he should not have said. He invited people to discuss South Africa's involvement in Angola with him. Then there was a round of drinks `on the house'. General Geldenhuys said that he had arranged for each person who had contributed to `Operation Hooper' would be given a commemorative T-shirt and a pen. (When it came to these being given out, the general's instruction was economised to a choice of either a T-shirt or a pen, but not both!) This was followed by a braai with T-bone steaks all round again. We were getting used to such food by this time.
After a while the general and his entourage departed in a Puma helicopter - rising up in the darkness with its lights on. Then the national service band started their show, and the men of 61 Mech let their hair down and started to dance in front of the band - watched hawk-like by the Com.Ops major who the previous night had prevented any dancing in front of the stage. Eventually the Com.Ops Major called the show off, saying that the audience was becoming too rowdy.
The Commandant of 61 Mech (OC) sent one of his Majors over and shat out the Com.Ops Major. The message was `If my boys want music, then they shall have music'. The Commandant requested his favourite song from the Band's repertoire; Roger Waters' `Radio Waves' which the band launched into with great enthusiasm. The Commandant had received abundant praise from his troops. He was Commandant Muller. (`Mike' Muller, according to Steenkamp.)
61 Mech had a character called Jumbo, who was a `Tiffie'. All the psychologists became aware of him, and dreaded being called on to debrief the group in which he was, expecting that he would be disruptive. Apparently this was not the case, and he was quite a facilitator.
Lying in our tent one evening, we heard someone shout: `Come here, Jumbo, you poes(`cunt')!'
`The mating call of `Tiffies'!' Wayne observed.
WHAT WE KNOW OF OUR ENEMIES
There appeared to have been co-ordination problems between the FAPLA army and the FAPLA Air Force. South African forces have sat back and laughed while watching the FAPLA Air Force bomb the shit out of FAPLA army positions.(See Brigland (1990), p. 262, 309.) South African forces have fired smoke mortar bombs into the enemy lines. Cruising Migs would see the smoke, conclude that there is life down there, and go in for the kill.
South African forces intercepted a radio communication from the FAPLA Air Force to warn FAPLA ground forces that they would be flying over. FAPLA ground forces replied that if the aircraft flew over, they would shoot them down. FAPLA had apparently shot down 13 of their own aircraft.(Brigland, (1990), p. 305.)
A great success was achieved when delayed action bombs(Brigland (1990), p. 116 confirms the use of delay fused bombs.) were dropped on some FAPLA emplacements. One of these was found and taken to their HQ. The FAPLAs thought it was a dud until it exploded in their HQ, `taking out' many of their senior officers. Radio conversations monitored heard some senior Angolans saying; `We never know when the Boers' (Term used by enemy forces to refer to South African Military forces.) bombs are going to go off.'
THE `WATER BOTTLE' INCIDENT
(This incident is referred to briefly in Helmoed-Romer Heitman (1990), p. 241.)
There was an incident when a black man in a UNITA uniform walked out of the bush and asked a Ratel crew to fill his water-bottle. One of the troops obliged and the man walked off into the bush. The next day the same man appeared, handed the water-bottle to a soldier and wandered away. If I remember correctly, the man's name was Price. The soldier took the lid off the water-bottle and a booby trap blew him to pieces. The black man was believed to have been a FAPLA recce. The Ratel crews took it badly and drove around in the area looking for the man, and started to shoot indiscriminately into the bushes.
There are several stories about the exploding water bottle incident - some in UNITA's favour. Someone said that the soldier had a FAPLA hand grenade on his belt. It was rumoured that, to detonate a FAPLA hand-grenade, you have to unscrew the top. The story goes that while he was filling the water bottle, he spilled water on himself, and in brushing it off, he detonated the grenade. This story does not account for why the alleged UNITA man disappeared so fast without his water-bottle.
UNITA - OUR GLORIOUS ALLIES?
UNITA are not very popular with our forces), although they are supposed to be fighting the war with our support.(Brigland (1990) p. 211. p. 122: `UNITA was meant to carry out a harassing raid on [11 September 1987] on 47 Brigade, but they refused after the SAAF failed to arrive.'
P. 151: Commandant Jan Hougaard: `Those UNITA guys are nobody's lackeys. They're deeply into black pride and can teach white South Africans a thing or two about racism. Even though 61 Mech had fought 99 per cent of the battle, Savimbi regarded them as guest warriors on `his' territory. Abandoned enemy weaponry was therefore `his' also.'
P. 159: Savimbi demanded that the `captured SAM-8 equipment must be handed to UNITA because the movement had pledged it to its `friends'. [The United States]
P. 256: Thursday 13 November 1987, General Malan was telling the world that the SADF had rescued Savimbi, while the UNITA leader was telling journalists that his movement had beaten off FAPLA, the Cubans and the Soviets single handed. "If Savimbi had been allowed to claim victory for UNITA alone, it would undoubtably have incensed the 2 000 or more South Africans to the north of him who had just fought a furious battle with FAPLA over three days and seen 11 of their comrades die in that time and a great many more maimed on UNITA's behalf. It was certainly with this in mind that Malan decided to spike the UNITA leader's propaganda guns.'One FAPLA base was `Skoongemaak' (Cleaned, sanitised, disinfected) by South African forces. The positions were handed over to UNITA. Two days later UNITA withdrew and FAPLA regained control of their fortifications, without resistance, and the South Africans had to recapture the positions. (Brigland, (1990), p. 267.)
Once, UNITA troops were supposed to catch up with South African armour. A message came through that they were only 300 m back. In an hour the UNITA troops had not arrived, and the armour went in on their own. Next day, on the way back, the UNITA troops were found still where they had last been seen, about 7 km back from the front. UNITA are apparently only good at waging a guerilla war. They need the South African forces to fight a conventional war for them. (Brigland, (1990) reports of his own respect for UNITA based on different experiences (pp. 381 - 388).)
A Logistics Lieutenant was manning a store in the front line during the Angolan Campaign in 1987, at an outpost manned by UNITA soldiers. One evening they heard the rumble of approaching enemy tanks. They found that all their UNITA troops had just quietly fled. The handful of remaining officers grabbed an RPG and hid in the bush. The tanks came into view and nosed around, searching the bush with their spotlights, and, not finding anything, cruised off again.
UNITA have been given Stinger ground to air missiles by the USA on the strict understanding that they may not be used by South African forces. South African forces have agreed not to use these weapons, which was a source of frustration as UNITA do not seem to be able to use them effectively, and South African forces with less sophisticated equipment have to sit back and watch them make fuck-ups.(Brigland, (1990), p. 262.) Apparently one UNITA was going to fire a stinger missile, but it dropped out of the back of the launcher where it exploded, killing him and some of his fellow soldiers.
ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS ...
I overheard our Major Beatty talking to Chaplain Fred Celliers about what positive religious experiences the guys who had been in Operation Hooper had had (`There are no atheists in fox holes!')(See Heller (1961), p. 402.), and what a difference Christian Leader elements had made, with a Colonel and a Dominee fasting and maintaining a prayer vigil on the eve of an attack. They also spoke of a Dominee at the front who would hold a prayer service before each attack, and who would go in to battle with the troops, and would then hold a thanks-giving service at the end of each battle. The guys relate to him well because he knows what they have been through, because he's been through it with them. He would be approached by different combat sections, each asking him to ride with them that day.
This kind of warfare consists of armoured vehicles in combat, with troops sitting in the back, unable to see what is going on around them, and listening to the bombs exploding around them. Motorized infantry describe being `blind' in the back of a Ratel under artillery fire is like being in a submarine with depth charges going off all around. One has no idea when or where the next explosion will be.
The Ratel drivers have a particularly rough time. They are the only people who can really see what is going on around them, yet they cannot shoot to defend themselves, and they have to obey orders given to them from behind. Their windows have also been identified by FAPLA as a soft spot, and RPGs tend to be aimed at their windows.
Tank drivers are not able to escape through their escape hatches if the tank gun barrel is aiming forwards. They worry about being trapped if the main hatch is destroyed and they cannot escape.(Brigland (1990), p. 206.)
During the second attack on Tumpo, our Ratels mistakenly opened fire on our tanks. Our tank crews kept their heads, and did not return fire, but rammed the Ratels instead. The error was soon discovered, and no one was hurt.
In a mixed battle, a FAPLA tank broke through behind a Ratel. The Ratel's gun turret could not turn around far enough to be able to fire, so a Captain Christo(Brigland (1990), p. 278 identifies this person as Captain Christo Terblanché who was subsequently awarded the Southern Cross medal for outstanding bravery in the course of battle.) got out of the Ratel, and in the middle of a fire-fight climbed onto the FAPLA tank, opened a hatch and dropped a hand grenade in. (Steenkamp (1989) reports that Unita `took the entire credit' for the second battle of Tumpo. (p. 158).)
ABUSE OF OWN FORCES
I heard about offenses committed by own NCOs against our own soldiers. One driver was flogged by an NCO with an aerial from a Ratel. After several days his backside was still blue with bruises. Other soldiers told of being given an `Op-vok'(Literally meaning `getting fucked up' - a punitive physical training session.) PT session in a shona just in front of FAPLA lines.
After having been back at the demob camp for a day and having no beds or cupboards or trunks, some of the corporals decided that their soldiers' tents were not `up to standard', so they messed everything up by emptying the rubbish packets out over the floor, and kicking the equipment and belongings about. This led to much dissatisfaction - not surprisingly!
Migs were the big problem in Angola. We had nothing to use against them, so effectively FAPLA (supported by Cuba and Russia) had air superiority. A G5 (Artillery) sergeant told me; `When the Migs are in the air, the war stands still.' G5s and multiple rocket launchers had to be careful firing on cloudless days because they would give their positions away, and the Migs would come hunting them.
Anti-aircraft crews were very frustrated at not being able to shoot down Migs. Migs fly higher than their weapons can reach. (A G5 cannon was put on maximum elevation once to fire as high as the Migs, which must have given the Mig pilots quite a fright!) Sometimes when they can shoot down planes, they are not allowed to because they would give their positions away. When they could shoot aircraft down there were none available. They were much criticised by the infantry for not doing their job, which was to shoot down enemy aircraft (the bane of the campaign).
There was a weapon called a `Porcupine', which was mounted on a Buffel, and fired a cloud of rifle bullets up into the sky. The hope was that a Mig would fly into such a cloud, and be damaged or destroyed. Apparently it was not very effective.
The top `Victor Victor' pilot was rumoured to be a French woman. (Sounds very implausible!) One soldier said that if he got his hands on her, he would fuck her to death.A patrol of South African infantry heard a Mig coming over and they scrambled for cover under some trees. The Mig did several sweeps of the area, and their anxiety mounted: `They shat themselves.' They had a translator with them, and their radio operator managed to intercept transmissions from the Mig, which the translator reported as: `I know there are Boers here. I can't see them, but I can smell them.' After a few more passes the pilot lost interest and flew on.
A GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT?
Although in the field both sides kill as many of each other as possible, apparently we didn't bomb Menongue because we got the message that if we did, then the Migs will start bombing Rundu and Oshakati. (This is partly confirmed in Brigland (1990), p. 252.) But there was a story of a Buccaneer which sneaked through to bomb Menongue, but as it made its bomb run, the bomb release mechanism failed and the pilot had to abort the mission and return home. (Brigland (1990), p, 271.) (Apparently the Air Force is very sensitive about the incident.)
A national service doctor, who served for 2 weeks with 32 Battalion described how he was involved in a bombardment of Menongue (where the Migs come from - stored in underground bunkers). His 32 Bn. Section bombarded Menongue from a distance of about twenty kilometres. (It is likely that this is the incident referred to in Brigland (1990), p. 289.) From that distance he could still see the sky light up as their missiles exploded, and he could feel the ground shake. He said it felt almost unfair to wreak so much damage on a distant enemy without the enemy even firing back.
Chaplain Fred Celliers told me that a strategic bridge on the supply line to Tumpo had been knocked out. The bridge was only inches under the level of the water, which had made it very difficult to locate. It was bombed with remote control missiles launched from a Buccaneer, with bombs costing a million rand each. Only one exploded, the other two were duds! ANGLOP (The official news agency of Angola) claimed that the SADF had used suicide pilots to destroy the bridge. (Brigland, (1990), p. 271.)
One casualty's legs had to be amputated, and the patient was sent down to 1 Mil. A medic had to bury the amputated legs, which was traumatic for him. He had difficulty with the thought that the patient could be recovering in the RSA while his legs lie buried (unmarked) somewhere in the Angolan bush.
Legs seem to be easy things to lose; a similar story concerns a thirteen year old UNITA Soldier who lost his feet. He was treated where he had fallen, with his feet beside him, and he laughed until he died from loss of blood. I also heard that a doctor lost his foot in Angola when he trod on an anti-personnel mine.(This could have been the same person LJ refers to in the previous chapter.)
A soldier was standing at his machine gun that was mounted on the cab of a truck, as they drove supplies through to the front line. The driver drove too close to a tree, which caught the barrel of the machine-gun, and whipped it around. The soldier was caught it its path, and it broke his neck, killing him instantly. How ironic, to be killed by a tree!(Brigland (1990), p. 267 reports a 61 Mech serviceman killed while his Ratel was seeking cover during an air raid alert and `he was crushed to death between the open hatch and a heavy overhanging tree branch.' The same incident is referred to on p. 121.)
A South African fighter aircraft was shot down, and this was witnessed by our troops, and was reported to be bad for morale. There was controversy as to whether he had managed to eject or not, as his plane had gone down in front of South African positions. There were stories of him having been heard, and some unsubstantiated sightings. Some days later, the body of a pilot, a SAAF Major was displayed by the Angolan authorities to foreign journalists. Apparently his eyes had been burned out in the crash.(Steenkamp (1989) identifies this pilot as Major Dick Every. (p. 157) Brigland (1990) refers to this incident on p. 290.)
We heard that, with the completion of Operation Hooper, the new/current Operation was called `Operation Pecker', which, the Commandant explained to us, was to characterize the repeated `pecking' attacks against Tumpo. I was amused at this, as I believe that `pecker' is American slang for `penis'. Imagine explaining to your child that you were decorated for your contribution to an exercise called `Operation Penis'. People might get the wrong idea! But, I notice in the history books, the Operation that followed `Hooper' is called `Operation Packer'.
The troops who relieved those whom we debriefed, and whose task, we believed, was to `take Tumpo' were campers; older men than those doing their two years national service. Many of them would have been married and would have had families, and jobs and careers. It is unlikely that they would have been as enthusiastic to fight, and risk getting killed than the nineteen and twenty year olds; the average age of the soldiers that we debriefed.
Apart from their possible lack of enthusiasm to risk getting killed, the campers due to participate in Operation Packer had been trained years previously, and in spite of the hasty `retraining' they might have been given, they were likely to have become `rusty' concerning the use of military hardware, and military drills. Soldiers who they relieved questioned their combat readiness.
GOING HOME FROM ANGOLA
On Saturday 19 March 1988, Commandant Jansen said that we should be packed and ready to leave the next day as there was a chance that some of us might fly out then. We were to draw up a list of priorities, so that we would have a definite order in which we would go.
We gathered in `Club Med' to `discuss' this, and discussions involved loaded rifles, bribery and extortion and drawing lots. Eventually I proposed a scheme - priority to those who had the furthest to go from Pretoria, then those with kids, then those with wives. According to my proposed scheme, I would be the second last to leave, so this was seen as being fairly unbiased. Neil raised a point that he did not feel that his girlfriend was less of a reason to go home than other people's wives.
Early on Sunday morning, we started to see groups at 7 am so we could attend the compulsory church parade at 8 (being Sunday). We were then told that we would all be driven through to Rundu to wait for places on aircraft.(Stuff those people whom we had not seen! It made what we had done during our fortnight in the camp seem irrelevant.)
We packed fast, and then cleared out of the demob camp. I was given a Pro Patria medal there and then. I was still waiting for one earned at Oshakati six months previously. I was given a certificate - blank - saying that I had selflessly given of myself to the success of `Operation Hooper', and given a certificate number. I had to fill in my name, rank and number in my own time. (I could have made it out to my mother's pet mouse called `Rambo'!) This `wait in the queue to get your medal' reduced the significance of the medal to those who had actually earned them. I certainly hadn't, though I `qualified' for the medal twice. We collected our danger pay up to the date of departure.
People were getting certificates to take war trophies home. I feel that front line soldiers should be allowed to do this. They were allowed to take shell cases, and parts of FAPLA uniforms, but not whole uniforms. Some of the psychologists took shells home. They had been in no more danger than I had. What grated me most was seeing an WO1 barman, who was a passive aggressive bastard, and who had only been around for about four days, walking around with an arm load of FAPLA uniforms. What war stories will he tell when he got home?
Then we all climbed aboard a Samel 100 truck and waited for two Ops. Medics, who had been given ten minutes to pack all their belongings. People were getting tense. Would we miss the aircraft? We had to search for the driver, and eventually found him.
Three Ratels zoomed past, but we met them at the stop street (In Angola?) manned by the MPs. The Ratels zoomed ahead of us again. Our driver, in a carnival mood, urged on by Lieutenant Johan Groenewald(One of the MPI shower I met in Sector 10, and whom I disliked.) was urging him on in a very immature way, and I would have reprimanded him if I had thought about it in time. (I was a Captain, and could do that sort of thing!)
The driver was going too fast over the rough roads, and the people at the back of the truck were getting bounced around uncomfortably. After a while Major Russell Beattie shouted to the officers up front that unless the driver drove more safely, he would lay charges against him when we reached Rundu. The officers told the driver to slow down, but mocked Russell amongst themselves, saying that anyone stupid enough to ride towards the back of a truck deserved to get a rough ride - even though the truck was full with mountains of baggage all over the floor.
We arrived at the airport, and some of our number were booked on to a flight which departed. Lots of flares were confiscated from the Ops. Medics who were hoping to smuggle them home. This was strictly illegal, of course.
We were unsure if there would be another flight, but by 13H30 we were on a Hercules taking off to fly straight to Waterkloof Air Force Base.
We were driven back to the SAMS Club, Voortrekkerhoogte, in the back of an army bakkie. There was an act which one slotted into when returning from a very military role to the role of being a soldier (?) in a more civilian environment; which seems similar in a way to coming into a residential area after driving faster on a motorway. I would like to call this act the `exaggerated swagger of the returning war hero'. It felt normal, or compulsory, and involved making crude lustful comments about all the women we passed, talking loudly and coarsely, and stomping boots - generally making a great deal of noise.
BACK IN `THE STATES'
We arrived back at the SAMS Club on Sunday, and there wasn't much point in trying to arrange the final part of our homeward journey until the next day. I wasn't in a particular hurry to get home, seeing as how we were back about two weeks before the earliest date on which I expected to return. Also I had friends that I wanted to see again.
I could have returned about 10 hours earlier, but by wanting to take friends to supper I lied to the transport clerk and told her that I had to attend a meeting the next morning between 8 and 10 am. That backfired, as I prevented myself from climbing on the coach which left at 7 am, and I had to spend half a day lounging around the mess before catching a train at 4 o'clock on Tuesday afternoon.
On Monday, I visited my friends and former colleagues at 1 Military Hospital, who seemed keen to have me back working with them. I had applied to be transferred back to 1 Mil, as I was bored with the kind of work we faced in Natal. The work would soon be over at 5 SAI, when basic training finished, and I would probably be recalled to Natal Command, Durban. From my experience, the patients we saw at Durban had few real psychological problems; most were AWOL offenders and `sleep out pass' applications.
That night, I took Fred, his ladyfriend and a mutual female friend out to dinner. I had invited them before I remembered that all I had to wear, apart from my combat working dress, were shorts, T-shirts and jeans. Fred found an old suit of his - his best - which I could fit into (Surprising as Fred is smaller than me), and the only problem was shoes. In the end, I went to a fancy restaurant wearing Fred's `Peter Brown' suit, which hid most of my combat boots. Luxury the mother of improvisation?
On Tuesday afternoon, I reported to the transport office to collect my railway ticket, and be transported to the Pretoria railway station. At the office, I bumped into a scruffy sergeant major - a rank supposedly preoccupied with military discipline - who was wearing mixed uniform; a nutria shirt with step out trousers. This is a great military sin. I couldn't be bothered to chastise him, though I should have pointed out that this had been noticed, on behalf of all those national servicemen who would have been severely punished if they had done what he did.
Waiting at Germiston station to change trains, sitting near my balsak and cradling my rifle - still playing the returning war hero - `I don't want to talk about it!' - someone a little younger than me, wearing a rucksack walked over and commented that it was strange to see an armed soldier on his own. We got talking; he was American Bill Driscoll, who had served for 3 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and who was now touring around Africa. We chatted until the train arrived, and he found me in my first class compartment (Me being `An Officer and Gentleman'!) where we continued to chat. He was on his way to Ladysmith to see the historical sights. I had seen some of them, and tried to warn him that he was wasting his time.
On the train, I bumped into some national service administrative personnel I knew from 5 SAI, who were delighted to meet me out of the confines of the military, though we were all in uniform. They sat down to chat in the first class, which was a major source of frustration to the ticket inspector. The inspector got his own back, and asked me to go and, using my rank, remove some soldier who was socializing with a woman in a first class compartment, though he only had a second class ticket. That was very subtle for a South African Railways employee.
My father collected me from Pietermaritzburg station at about six o'clock the next morning. Late that day, I phoned Natal Medical Command to report that I was back in South Africa. When I reported back to them in person, I continued played the returning war hero to the hilt. I did my best impression of a `thousand yard stare', and even popping some valium to ensure that my `affect' was flat.
THE POLICE LOOK AFTER MY RIFLE
There was a time delay between returning home and reporting my return to 5 SAI, where I was to return my rifle, and possibly some of the ammunition that I had returned with. I took my rifle along to the local police station for safe keeping, although I liked the idea of having it at home. (My mother didn't!) Dear Lord, if we are ever to be burgled, please let it happen tonight!!
The police were not very interested. They were far too complacent for my liking. I wanted a receipt from them so that I could get my rifle back again when the time came to return to my unit. They misunderstood me, and said that I would easily know which was mine as mine was an R4 as opposed to the R1 (7.62 mm FN LAR) rifle used by the Commandos which they were more used to storing.
`Oh, you'll be able to recognise it. It's the only one like that we've got' they told me. I demanded and got a receipt for my rifle, but I left with the impression that anyone who said they had left a rifle with the police would be invited into their gun safe and asked to select their weapon. I had pushed my ID under their noses, but I don't think they had even looked at it.
Published: 1 July 2000.