South African Army Corps of Engineers
Bethlehem - Sector 10 - Operation Askari
Here is a set of short cut to the photo collection. There are also hot links to these at appropriate places in the text: Photos taken during Basic Training, Junior Leaders training at Kroonstad, Operation Askari, Border Duty and Retraining at Harrismith.
My name is Simon Hare and I spent 2 years in the South African Army, doing my National Service. 83'-84' Age 18-20. I was called up to 2 Field Engineer Regiment, Bethlehem in the Orange Free State.
I had stated in my preference that I wanted to go in to the army. All my friends told me I was crazy but they were all surfer types who went off to UCT to do psychology, marketing etc. I remember at the time not having a clue as to my future and thinking that if I have to go, then lets go all the way.
My family was fairly military minded with my father a Kommando (camper) and my grandfather was the Hon. Col. Of The Dukes, an old Cape Town Regiment based in The Castle. I guess he led The Dukes through WWII and was quite a character. My mom's families were Rhodesian farmers and all had served with various Rhodesian units during their war.
I was actually pretty eager to go as I was over high school and all it meant and ready to start my life in any way. In those days no one questioned National Service or what it was. A few kids who had foreign parents would but it was rare.
I was up in Plettenberg Bay with friends going nuts when my parents contacted me to say our call up date had changed, so I hitched back to Cape Town with a friend and reported to Youngsfield where we boarded a train. There was lots of shouting and confusion. I was in a compartment with 6 other guys, one which was smoking pot constantly and was freaking us out as we had heard all about the crazy Afrikaner 'Korparals' and we thought any second we would all be in major trouble. Of course we found out later these guys were nothing to what was waiting for us.
Photos taken during Basic Training.
We arrived early a.m. in Bethlehem (I had to find it on a map) and were given haircuts, jabbed, prodded and graded. Then lots of equipment in a trommel and 'balsak' and then trucked to a buitebases outside of Bethlehem. The area is actually very pretty and close to the scenic Golden Gate area. My base was called Piet se Gat?
The bungalows were rough zinc arrangements, with wind and dust blowing in everywhere. We were sorted out into companies and then it started. Running, yelling, screaming, crawling etc.
Initially I found it difficult as I had barley passed matric and could not speak a word of Afrikaans and would be left standing by myself on the parade ground as my 'maatjies' tore off around a distant tree. Leaving me to the mercy of 3 or 4 enraged korporals, calling me a soutpiel komunis and bringing my mother into it. It is amazing how quickly you can pick up a language when you have to. At the end of the 2 years, I was fluent in the language even dreaming in Afrikaans.
In basics we basically learned how to be soldiers, drill, shoot, move and all the other skills. I was in with a couple of top English guys and we pretty much laughed our way through it. I was a little shocked by the animosity of the Afrikaner boys to us souties. I know we joked about the 'boere' and rock spiders, but this went way back to the Boer War. They really didn't like us but we did all get along eventually as you have to, to get through it.
The engineers send a bunch of troops each year to Bloem, to do the Bats course and become Genie Bats, who are The Shit, and we all wanted our wings like crazy. When our Loot told us they were sending us to The School of Engineers, Kroonstad to do a leader course we said: `No thanks! We want to be bats.' He flipped and told us they were just 'meat bombs' and rank was much better to have than wings, but we were adamant. He ordered us to Kroonstad anyway. Thank God
Photos taken during Junior Leaders training at Kroonstad.
If basics were high speed, then JL's was low level flying. Junior Leaders course is all about learning to be a leader and at the end, if you are not dropped, you either become a NCO or a candidate officer. Once again I ended up in a base out side of town, this time called Bossiesspruit. Man, what a hole! About 5 kms out side of Crown Town (Kroonstad). A cluster of bungalows and admin buildings on top of a rolling OFS hill and lots of dust. Our Sergeant Major was tall lean man and quite a character and I wish I could recall his name. He was known to sneak up on unsuspecting troepe on parade and put his cock into their hand when it was supposed to be clenched as a fist while at attention.
We learned further how to be soldiers, with a touch of lunacy thrown in as our CO was a Major who was awaiting court marshal for throwing people out of a helicopter on the border (so went the rumor).
There were a lot of guys with some hefty Engineering degrees in with us and some were quite a bit older. Most went on to become Loots. We found out how lucky we were to be engineers compared with infantry as we had 13 different courses to master whereas the bokkoppe had 2, running with a rifle and running with a rifle.
After JL's the Officer Candidates went to Vegkop, a base closer to Kroonstad. The next phase was very interesting as we learned (I hope I can remember), 2 kinds of bridge building, fortifications, water purifying, river boats and floating bridges, demolitions (a personnel favorite), hydraulic tools and a few more that I cannot recall.
One amazing thing we learned was how to blow a crater into which a large house could disappear. It was an interesting and fun time as by now we had all become close and we were allowed to party and we did. Our training was excellent and never once on the border did I ever feel out of my depth.
During this time we were sent to Maryvale Springs to be instructors for the July intake. It was good experience and we got to yell and scream at the new troops and be real cunts. I did not enjoy the experience too much and soon after started requesting a border posting.
The Sappers at Maryvale were the ditch diggers and cement mixers. A Standard 8 certificate was considered gifted and some guys even got sent home as untrainable. We got an opvok while there, as a sapper rubbed his chin raw with a stone when he was unshaven on parade and was told to shave with an 'electric razor stone' as a joke and then left alone too long.
Around the end of November we were building a water point on the Kroonstad river when a dispatch rider appeared with orders for myself and another to report to the Major. About 10 of us lined up outside the Maj's office and were shitting ourselves, as it was like waiting for God to see us. We all filed in and he handed out our 2nd stripe and then said " Here, julle gaan grens toe" ["Gents, you are going to the Border."] and then spent the next 40 min on his hands and knees crawling around under his desk sharing with us his bunker clearing wisdom? We got a week's pass and then we were picked up by a C130 transport from a local airbase along with our sappers.
5 hours later we landed at Ondangwa in the heat that hit you with a physical blow. I actually thought we were standing in the airplane exhaust. We were all then loaded on to Kwevoels and trucked to Oshakati and 25 Field Engineer Squadron.
Photos taken during Operation Askari.
Following 2 weeks of re-training (told to forget everything we had learned in "The States") myself and another corporal along with 25 sappers and the tools of our trade joined a heavy armored column from 10 Panzer and headed North up to Xangongo for Operation Askaris. We then waited a period at Xangongo while the other combat groups assembled. One of our Buffels engines died in the bush and the Tiffies changed it out for a new one overnight. Amazing! We had to constantly camouflage our vehicles as there were Migs stooging around.
Again we headed north, this time through the bush with the Engineers in front. I remember being on foot in front of this very large column with a compass threading a route through the thick bush all the while thinking "Don't screw it up and get lost'. Bundu Bashing was fun for all of 5 minutes when you realize that everything that is in the tree that you are knocking over is flicked back and down into the back of the Buffel. Everything from dead sticks, scorpions, wasp/ant nests snakes …you name it. We even had the engine catch on fire from all the dry sticks and leaves building up on the manifold. We then spent some time around the small town of Quiteve which the FAPLA's had left as soon we started shelling them. It must have been really nice once on the banks of a beautiful river.
Our next task was to keep the FAPLA troops in the town of Mulondo busy while the drama continued elsewhere. We would circle the town a few miles out. The artillery would set up and then rev the town. It was very exciting as they would fire back with 120mm mortars and artillery. Most of the time they didn't know exactly where we were. Later a Special Forces soldier of theirs was shadowing us on a bicycle with a radio. The fire became much more accurate. One day while we where being shelled and I was laying up against a large Baobab tree next to a Recce, he told me how you can tell when the shells are coming close or not by the difference in the sound. Right!
One day we watched as the Airforce Impalas were revving the town with rockets and you could see the flack around them even though they were shooting from a high altitude. A SAM followed the one Imp and exploded near the tail. We were listening on the radio and told the pilot that we would throw smoke if he wanted to bale, but he wasn't interested and made it back to Ondangs.
This went on for weeks and we finally returned to Oshakati after 2 months living in the bush. We were filthy.
Photos taken during Border Duty.
I then spent the rest of the year with various other units along with a detachment of sappers. It was very interesting and all of it spent in Angola. I will never need to go on a safari as a tourist as I sure got my fill of it. We served with the Bushmen, Reaksie Mag 101 Bn, 32 Bn, 61 Mech, the Bats and had a wild time with a black regt. from Zululand. Most of these units had ex Rhodesian members from the RLI, RAR and even the Selous Scouts. I think that war was all that they knew.
In the middle of the year (traditionally, a quiet time on the border as it is the dry season) we were sent on a months leave which was too long really and I got into all sorts of trouble.
Photos taken during Retraining at Harrismith.
Reporting back they sent us to a Lake near Harrismith for retraining. I suspect that the PF's just wanted to keep us busy for a time as we drank, braaied and relaxed. We built a few bridges and played with Zodiac inflatables. It was pretty cool as they did leave us alone. We got real comfy, even making a water heater out of old farm equipment and diesel drums.
On return to the border it was more of the same except when in Oshaks, I trained the campers or blew mines in the area. Sometimes that was pretty gruesome. Often we'd hear the bang and wait for the call. After locating the scene we'd render the area safe (clear of further mines), help survivors and then dig in the crater to find pieces of the base plate to identify the mine. One Sunday afternoon while we were lying by the pool there was a distant boom, and we realized it was another myne getrap [mine detonation]. After a delay and the radio hadn't called us, we went in search on the incident. We didn't have far to go, about a km away we found a bunch of PB's milling around on a short dirt road off the tar track. A herd of cows and goats had tripped a double tank mine with a personnel mine on top to set it off. It was a mess with shredded meat everywhere, fortunately no humans. I was in the crater digging out pieces of the base plate to identify the mine when this white farmer rocks up in a VW kombi with his whole family including granny, grandpa and the kids. It turns out the dirt road was his and led to a pigsty that he owned and they were on the way to feed the pigs while returning home, what a close call.
Being in base wasn't such bad time as I was always busy and I would carry a clipboard and walk fast to look busy and fool the PF's.
One adventure I had was to go out to Kaokoland and train some SWA Storm Pioneers as they were screwing up and losing people and body parts. I flew out there with all my myne and box of tricks. It is truly a beautiful, desolate place where I spent the next 3 weeks retraining these fellas. The native people were quite striking and spend their lives covered in a mixture of animal fat and red earth with elaborate beaded hair. The journey home was in a Dakota with no door for air conditioning. We flew over Etosha pan to Grootfontein where I was to catch a `flossie' [Hercules C130] back to Oshaks. Having boarded the `flossie' and loaded all the mines in several boxes I was trying to find a comfy spot for the flight. The engines suddenly were shut down and a pissed-off loadie threw myself and the mines off the aircraft literally at the end of the runway. Some ruling that I was unaware of about mixing explosives and personel on a transport. The MP's were looking for me for weeks after that but I made sure I was back in Angola on a small Op with 61 Mech.
I once was sent on odd mission with a bunch of Bats. Our mission was to move some UNITA troops out of one area to another, basically dodging the JMC political monitors; bullshit actually.
The bats and their Loot were new on the border and were super Paraat. As we were loading up, I said to the Loot that we better take a lot more rats as these things always take longer than we 're told. I was sent packing. We set off from I think it was Eenhana and we mine swept pretty for north for several days. Of course on the way my sappers asked if they could grab a goat and some chickens which was usual. All hell was breaking loose in a kraal alongside the road while the boys were taking care of business. The Bat Loot comes speeding up to see what all the drama was and has a fit "Jy moet beheer oor jou mense." [You must control your people.] etc and was going to kla me aan [charge me] when we got back. Whatever. Of course the whole thing drags on for weeks and by then we are all eating chickens and goats.
We had moved the UNITA's on the back of several kwevoels and it was time to head home. The UNITA base was at the end of a beautiful shallow valley and I wished we could have stayed there longer. We were about to leave when there was a commotion around one of the buffels, one of the wheel bearings had seized and it was immobile. The poor loot was shitting himself as we were told specifically to leave no trace of us being there. I had a brainwave and suggested that I blow a crater, we could then back a Kwevoel
into the hole and we could then push the Buffel onto the back of the Kwe (I was always looking to blow up stuff). It worked out grand and we were on our way. We drove on into the evening, with the Engineers in the first 3 Buffels. I would keep checking behind to ensure we were being followed. It was already dark and I could not get the Loot on the radio so we stop and there's no one behind us. Most of the sappers were campers and are not impressed, as we were way deep in Angola and all alone. I kind of knew the area and had a hunch that they had taken the wrong turn at a Y in the road a few kms back. I went with a Sapper, cutting trough the bush to try and intercept them. Eventually we heard them and we got quite close and then laydown behind some trees as the Bats tend to shoot first and ask questions later. I shot a pencil flare up and they opened up on us. Eventually things got sorted and we all got home safely to a large temporary base where I hooked up with some fellow engineers and had a beer while taking a bath in a S-tank as the infantry trudged past on there way to pull perimeter guard. It was pretty cool being an engineer.
I went on about 6 different External Ops that year and couldn't wait to Klaar out. Subconsciously (I was to young for real thought) I was desperate to leave Southern Africa. I was quite familiar with Rhodesia and the drama they had. Then seeing Angola up close was also a trip, the PF's were too much and there was NO way that I was ever going to do a camp. I was also certain that I had used up all my luck. I took all my army pay and flew to Europe and began another adventure.
I enjoyed editing and scanning all the old pictures and a self-indulged trip down memory lane. Apologies to any scholars who may read this and have to deal with the grammar and slang but that's how I remembered it. It was an interesting and action packed 2 years, most of it fond memories although there were some incidents that I have had to deal with as I've matured but I have buried them and moved on.
My comrades were superb, our training first class and it was an Honor to serve with the men of the South African Army Corps of Engineers. Most of the pictures are mine however I lost a couple of rolls to the heat and a flash flood, and one camera just plain broke.
Miami, Florida May 2002
Found this in a digital file from when I was in photo school. Its bordering on cheesy but those in the know might get a kick out of some of the articles. The black optical sight is from a RPG 7 that I took out of a bunker and `shmokkled' [smuggled] it home. It now sits in my library. It was brand new.
Published: 30 May 2002.
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