5 SAI (1969)


My grandfather was a career NCO with the RASC, My father, the eldest son in a large British Army family had been evacuated to SA from Egypt during the war. He turned 18 in 1944, and decided to go off and join up. While he was away serving as a Wireless-Operator/Air Gunner with the SAAF, his family was repatriated. He demobbed in SA and so started the SA branch of the family.

I was the oldest son, and so I was first off the mark into National Service in 1969. I applied for Air Force, then Armour, but was assigned to 5 SA Infantry Battalion, Ladysmith, February 1969. I was not overly enthusiastic over the assignment to an infantry unit, but knew philosophically that I had no pull to get a change. My father was active in the MOTHS and so I had had some exposure to the historical side of the armed forces, and knew more or less what to expect. My cousins had done their time in the navy and air force, and seemed to have survived the experience.

Although I had some "trepidation", I was looking forward in anticipation to the National Service, probably because of the "unknown" factor. I did not have too much concern over the issue, as at that time there was little involvement of the SADF in border wars, conflicts. I think that I knew I needed the time between school and university to sort out in my mind just what I was going to do after National Service.

At this time, National Service was a 9 or 12 month stretch, with 3 years of "Active Citizen Force" (ACF) camps afterwards. So we were not exactly looking at a lifetime commitment here, rather, something that had to be done, so get on and do it.

I had no thought of avoiding national service, but bear in mind in 1969, the only concerned sector of the population was the mothers, like mine, seeing their sons off for the first time. There was not a lot going on, and mostly the attitude was one of "it has to be done so let's get on with it".

When I reported to 5SAI, I think the words "fatalistic patriotism" are very appropriate. I had no thoughts of evading service, sure I was annoyed that I didn't make the SAAF (my dad was ex SAAF), but given that, I had to do what was required. (Later on I think there was a mindset change, particularly as more and more National Servicemen ended up in SWA. I think the capture of the first South African and the parading of him around foreign capitals, was such a shock at the time, the beginning of the change. I know that in '75/76/77 period. My parents began to grill me a little more, also because my younger brother was now doing his 2 year stint in the Medics, and was on the regular Casevac from Grootfontein to 1 Mil. Certainly, some of the reluctance / questioning of the strategy started about this time, I think, as more troops were committed and more casualties suffered.)

I spent most of the time prior to reporting sorting things out at home; and made some effort to get fit, although I was pretty active at the time, and in reasonable shape. However, in hindsight, nothing I could have done would have prepared me sufficiently for the first 6 weeks at 5SAI.


I remember reporting to the Johannesburg Drill Hall, and then being "marched" to the Johannesburg train station. At this time I think that it was more an adventure than anything else. Mom was pretty upset about the whole thing; Dad pretty much unfazed by it all. My brothers, a bit younger than me, thought it was cool. The train journey to Ladysmith was memorable only for the lack of real interaction among the draftees. Most of the time there was quiet conversation as we began to come to grips with the new reality.

We arrived at Ladysmith at about 9 at night, and we were herded off the train. We were met by a huge crowd of MPs, Permanent Force Instructors, and oumanne, all yelling at the top of their voices. The scene was surreal, dark night, lines of Bedfords bathed in the orange glow of the streetlights. We were piled into the back of the Bedfords in no particular order, the tarps were dropped, and off we went. The greeting party treated us to a wild dark ride around the town, at breakneck speed, with lots of missed gear changes. I suspect that this was the first test. If you made it to the camp in one piece, minus some skin and with a few bruises, you were a worthy rower.

A huge parade of men at the top of the company lines formed up after we were yelled off the Bedfords. There was some attempt to get you into order, then it was grab your stuff, divide up into groups of about 24 and march down the lines to the bungalows. Drop off your kit, and then off to the QMS to draw blankets, overalls, mess kits, and back to the lines. We took some time to try and create order and sort our stuff out, then grabbed a bit of sleep. We were awoken at about 4:30 am to the sound of Cpl "Snakes" van der Merwe out in the road in front of the bungalows, treating his platoon to their first taste of PT.

I had just finished my TUEC, majoring in the sciences, with honours in Latin. I was, according to the Education Department, tweetalig. However, there was a distinct shortage in my Afrikaans vocabulary. It was a definite mindset change... perhaps the following paragraph will help explain......

We followed shortly thereafter when Cpl Krige, our guide, mentor and genteel PF Instructor introduced us to the run to the wire (what the hell does "raakidraad" mean?? - hesitation, then scramble to catch up to the herd of men stampeding down the lines to the fence - now I know, and have learned my first lesson), the proper way to do pushups, and the distinct advantage of keeping your mouth shut, putting your mind in neutral, and one foot in front of the other.

The first 24-48 hours were not anything I could have imagined, then it settled down. I think, at that point, I knew that I was going to have to get through this one PT parade at a time, one route march at a time, etc. "Vasbyt" is such a succinct, but eloquent description of the period, the physical and mental feelings etc.

The structured, organised, hurry up and wait process was expected, and received. Most of the kit and equipment we drew was based on post W.W.II style, although there was some modernisation - staaldak met doibie being the one that sticks out in my mind. For the rest, W.W.II pattern battledress, one pair leather soled boots, one pair with newer rubber soles, overalls, and webbing that must surely have been designed by a demented dominatrix. If ever there was a combination designed to torture it must have been that webbing. No matter how you rigged it, a run to the firing range under full pack bruised the buttocks, wore the skin off your shoulders, and just never fit comfortably. I had done some backpacking and even at that time, there were some decent styles that could have improved matters.

The 5SAI camp at that time were just lines of prefab bungalows, Alpha through Delta Companies (?). The most modern thing on the base was the Sick Bay building and the PF quarters. The bungalows themselves were faded ivory colour with red polished concrete floors. All the roadways were gravelled strips, cleaning up after a rainy day was a task. I had no idea that a red firebucket, there for obvious reasons could be used in so many ways to torture your hands, arms, legs, and on occasion, the head. I think that the base was pretty old at the time, and not exactly what I expected, compared to the units I had visited (to see friends) at Potchefstroom and Voortrekkerhoogte. Ladysmith definitely needed a facelift.

The base was pretty basic. Apart from the cream corn coloured walls, which were a sort of painted masonite, we had to Brasso the window fittings on windows that were small country cottage style. Each bungalow tended the "garden" outside, carefully sweeping and raking the gravel into neat patterns.

Most of the first 6 weeks were negative surprises. The sheer brutality of the Permanent Force instructors (see later) was quite notable. I was absolutely convinced that they had stripped away the contents of several mental hospitals and somehow these examples of gentle, refined, and well-spoken manhood had all found their way into 5 SAI. The physical stresses of the basic training were tough. I think that intuitively I knew why, and what they we doing, and just hung in there, fortunately, so did most of the others. I found that the intense physical training in the morning (the 5am call of "raakidraad"; followed by interminable sessions of "op - af", and pole PT or rifle PT) followed by parade drills, and then fieldcraft instruction was tough. By the time the afternoon lectures started we were totally bagged with afternoon PT and then more instruction to come. On more than one occasion some poor soul was roused from a deep slumber in the middle of a lecture. I'm not sure how much of the theory we absorbed.

On the positive side: The fact that I could take one end of the telephone pole, and along with my partner, carry it up that sodding hill (mountain) just outside 5SAI main gate gave me an enormous sense of physical pride and achievement, after I had got my breath back and my shoulders unkinked. That sucker had not beaten me, but I was not looking forward to the next time we had to run it.

I find it amusing that 5SAI has been characterised as a haven for banana boys. In '69, it was pretty much inhabited by Transvaalers, and Vrystaters. Yes, in terms of English v. Afrikaans there was some initial friction, but it ended up being good-natured bantering. There were hard-liners on both sides of the house, and the competition between these two groups usually ended up being a match of physical strength and endurance, each side having to prove just who was the tougher. It was usually humorous to watch these guys torture themselves and each other.

The funny thing was as a soutie, I struggled initially with some of the commands/ lectures, particularly, the one I remember most was the medic Staff Sgt's tirade to a whole gymnasium full of new servicemen that (when I sorted it out) dealt with not sticking one's "vuil lat in 'n vuil gat". I believe every week the orders of the day would specify English week or Afrikaans week. Didn't make any difference, as every week was Afrikaans.

The food was generally better than I expected, and I bulked up from a 135lb weenie to about 170 by the time I finished, and I had problems squeezing my frame into my step-outs that were issued on about day 3 of basic. I was impressed with the many ways the cooks were able to make bully beef into a visibly pleasing meal. Still tasted like bully beef, no matter how you wrapped it. Never said I liked it - that was the clever part about it - it looked good but tasted awful. But something must have worked, probably the pap. There was the usual discussion about the composition of the chemical dregs in the bottom of your firebucket after having finished your coffee. In hindsight, I honestly believe that most of us were too physically knackered to have endangered any of Ladysmith's fair maidens anyway.


Basic training was much more physical than I had expected. The 5SAI CO at the time he time (Cmdt Botha??) was ex-'Bat, and insisted on the troops being brought to the same level of fitness as 1 Para. The drilling was mind numbing, but expected. There were many days where we did morning PT involving pushups, situps, etc, and then in the afternoon the dreaded pole PT, rifle PT, or platoon v platoon endurance runs.

As time progressed we fell into the routine, CO's inspection every Wednesday morning, medical parade a regular on Friday afternoons so that after your shots you ended up using one of your days off to recover from the tetanus, or whatever, booster shot. Weekends began to take on a routine of their own. Passes were almost non existent, so you did your washing, ironed you inspection gear on your trommel, spitshined your boots, continued the training of the hairs on your blanket so that they would fall into just the right pattern for inspection. Saturday afternoon sports parade, Sunday morning church parade, which for the CofE lot meant Bedfords to the downtown church, afterwards grab the Sunday papers and some alternative food from the bakery, then back to camp.

I don't think we thought our basic training was different from any other unit, but as time progressed I think we all believed it was the toughest, and we had survived it. Call it esprit de corps or whatever, it was there. We were 5SAI and proud of it. "AVANTE"

I enjoyed the structured routine - I think I needed that at that time of my life, working on the mechanical aspects, doing things by the numbers, etc. The "fieldcraft" training was different, although it was mainly focused on conventional operations, with very little counterinsurgency training. Much of the non-conventional training had to do with the "aid to civil power" duties, such as riot control, house to house searching and operations.

The shooting range at 5SAI had a couple of old windowless buildings that were used for this purpose, and there most of us found out that throwing a Mills style practice grenade was vastly different to heaving a cricket ball around. Just as well they were not live!

I hated that stretch of highway (the N1?) from 5SAI to the shooting range. The instructors had great fun loopassing us there and back under full gear, with fully loaded backpacks and weapons. The asphalt was hard on the feet, knees, and ankles. Most of the time we just focussed on the road in front of us and grit out teeth as we hammered down the highway. For years afterwards, whenever I drove anywhere and saw a squad double timing it down a highway under full pack, I always felt a twinge of sympathy for the aching shoulders, feet and knees. It seemed as though you could never find a comfortable position for the rifle, running at port arms, and the instructors were wise to all the tricks, like hitching the cocking handle into the front ring on the webbing yoke.

I hated the thorn bushes of the Natal midlands; every last one of them must have punctured my hide at one time or another.

Ladysmith is naturally steeped in history - standing guard at the shooting range one day on a company shoot, I was digging around in the dirt, and uncovered the usual spent bullets, etc, but also a rusted cavalryman's spur. This of course led me to spend the rest of the day (and others) thinking about the historical aspects to the location, the siege of Ladysmith, etc. I think that was one way I got around a lot of the hard times. Just look up from anywhere in and around the base, and you can see the hills and highlands, and you can imagine the battles of the siege swirling around you. It helped take away the aches and pains of the blisters and sore shoulders.

Generally, I enjoyed the weapons training, as they did qualify us on a host of different types, FN, Bren, FN-LMG, Star 9mm, Uzi, etc. The Uzi training had its share of surprises. The weapon had gained some fame after the 6-day war and so I guess I was surprised at the robust simplicity of it all. What really surprised us was the fact that the pieces we used for training were really unreliable. The golden rule was in the butts (we were only shooting at 25m) was to make sure that the suckers were always pointed at the ground in front of you or the wall, as the number of times they went off without warning was scary. I generally did not have a lot of faith in them. We trained on the .303 Bren, later rebarrelled to 7.62mm, although, although at that stage they were already phasing in the FN-LMG.

Standing guard at the 5SAI magazine - a little off in the boonies, with it's own guardhouse and quarters, meant that the weekend crew spent the entire time there without relief, seeing only the food brought in from the mess. Saturdays were always interesting, as the PF instructors were always threatening, and in some cases testing, the mettle of the troops on guard. One evening a couple of them got way under the weather and decided to test the guards. I was off duty and asleep, but apparently the guard did not get the correct response to the challenge, refused to let the individual in, and after some to-ing and fro-ing at the approach to the magazine, belted the PFI with the rifle butt, ending all serious challenge to our control over the approaches to the magazine. Unfortunately for us, we were in the middle of the "bayonet" and "unarmed combat" drill phases of our basic. That Monday afternoon, all the "volunteers" in the pit, taking on the PFI and losing badly, were the guards from the magazine. I think I can still hear the ringing in my ears from getting whacked with that "basketball on a stick". Overall it was worth it.

There was always this feeling that the Instructors would do anything to some crews to really screw them up. We had played this scenario through in our heads time and time again - would we really do it. The rule by fear that existed during basic, and second phase training really worked.

Riot control drill was not something we looked forward to. We knew that from the local lore, the Instructors delighted in the fact that they could gas us, and laugh hysterically as we heaved our guts out after working our way out of the smokehouse. They really were sadists, makins, looppas in platoon formation around the parade ground with port arms until we were heaving great gobs of air in through the filters and soaked in sweat, then single file into the smokehouse where they lobbed canister after canister of teargas at us. It was funny, after you recovered, I guess, and if you survived and were some kind of masochist. Those smart guys in the platoon that unscrewed an eyepiece to breathe easier during the initial run, just got an earlier and bigger gassing after the tear gas canisters were popped.

This was my first real exposure to the cross cultural aspects of South African society. We had Transvaal and Free State farm boys, rooineks, banana boys, all with different educational and social backgrounds. One of the guys got hauled off by the MPs back to the boonies for getting his girlfriend pregnant (a big thing at that time) and her dad complained to his local politico about no support payments etc. Problem was he was a short fat little guy known as "piggy" for his outstanding (pun) hygiene. We didn't want to meet his girlfriend.

Another ended up in Detention Barracks after a going AWOL for a very short period, returning high on dagga, and then deciding to take on all comers with his bayonet. Again my first real exposure to that sub-culture. He was the cause of our first experience of "group" therapy. Cpl Krige decided that this man's problem was our problem and that we weren't looking out for each other, so the punishment PT was brutal. I think that if the MP's hadn't hauled him off, some of us may have solved his problems permanently. Last we heard he was reassigned to 1SSB.

During basics, our instructors were not JL's - they came later in the support weapons training and bush training. Nope. The PFI were those permanent force NCO's who were career soldiers, who had not made the officer's course. Our Vickers instructor went off and did his officer's course and was promoted I believe. For the rest, they were not suitable officer material or had yet to do the coursework, and ended up as instructors. And they were brutal.


At the end of Basic, some rowe went off and had a go at parabat selection. Most of our PT had been geared to ensuring that anyone who wanted would be close, but not necessarily at, 'Bat fitness levels. A lot went. A lot RTU'd. One of the problems for a many of us on the February intake, was that acceptance in the paras meant another 3 months on the National Service, and a lot of us were slated for University the following January. So unless we planned to spend another year doing something else, we would have to give it a miss.

I mustered as MMG (Vickers) for second round of training. Vickers was a very desirable mustering, although tough on the hands and shoulders. The PF Instructor (name lost in fog of time) was an example of what I now know as having sterling leadership qualities. A tough little guy, but with a compassion for his men that knew no bounds. He knew what it was to lead, and we knew we would follow him anywhere.

First you get assigned to a regiment - parade, sorted into home town, assigned to 2nd Transvaal Scottish. Then they reviewed the regimental needs lists, riflemen, mortarmen, MMG, anti-tank etc. From the needs lists they would assign the appropriate individuals to the new muster. It helped having an old schoolmate as the ouman section leader doing the initial selection from the list of applicants.

Once we were assigned platoons the training started.

I liked the complexity of the Vickers, as it turned out later when I did some "aptitude" testing at the CSIR and they steered me to engineering, I probably had that small boys desire to take something complex apart, put it together and make it work. Indirect fire had an appealing feature of a hill between one and one's opponent.

Basically the course involved advanced weapons training. Taking the MMG apart, putting it together again. The breech block was a nightmare of springs, levers, catches and miscellaneous items. Learning how to pack the barrel to avoid leaks. An added feature was the section fire mission, supporting fire, cones of fire, OP work, indirect fire, the maths, trig etc. There was a lot of PT involving "raaking die draad" with the MMG, it's tripod or the ammo cases along for the ride. We had some cross training on the mortars and 3.5" rocket launcher, but not to the same level as the Vickers, and then support weapons theory in support of infantry operations.

The course was very structured, and well taught. The MMGers at the time were (I believe) proud of the weapon's history, and the fact that we were following in the line of a long military tradition with a well designed, and useful weapon. As I said, Vickers Platoon was seen as an elite crew. For the rest we were pleased to have a cushy number, and not heavily involved in the advanced rifleman training, (if you don't believe the above).

This was probably the most enjoyable period of my National Service - I felt I was accomplishing something new, the training kept us busy and the challenges of the OP / section command interaction, calculation and operation were fun. For the most part the MMG platoon was made up of a good bunch of guys who blended together and got on with the job. This may well have been a feature of small groups across the service, who were thrown together after a tough basic training and expected to perform.

We were on an indirect fire exercise at the 5 SAI range shooting over the hill at the range and had the OP come across the radio screaming for the guns to cease fire as the farmer's cattle herd was wandering right into the cones of fire. Apparently, a squad from a previous intake had actually dropped a donkey or two in the same exercise, and the accompanying problems of compensation had ensured that the OP/CPO's were very vigilant in watching for animals wandering around the range.

At the end of the Vickers phase of training, all the support weapons platoon went off to Bloemfontein for live firing exercises. We camped there and over a period of time, the various support weapons had their day in the sun. It was pretty dry and dusty, we were doing some indirect firing, I was in the OP when we spooked a buck out of some dense bush with a shift in target. We all thought we had hit it but the sucker was never found. We could have had a decent braai, but no luck.

Just after that the bush caught fire from a tracer round, and the command group called over to the AT squad who were pinging at a Centurion with the 3.5" training round. The Centurion came churning across, and tore up a fire break, effectively putting out the fire.

The AT platoon was pretty smug in that they had a live target to shoot at albeit with a puny .22 training round. By now we were done with our firing and the AT platoon had come forward to our OP to do some more work with the 3.5". The tank was impressive as it headed towards us, when all of a sudden it lurched to a stop and the hatches opened. The driver had apparently been looking through his periscope when a .22 round fired by one of the troops operating the 3.5 whacked into the periscope area scaring the hell out of him. He was a little green around the gills, and the crew took a lot of ribbing that it didn't take much to disable a Centurion these days.

There will be someone who questions my use of the word "periscope" with respect to the Centurion. I don't think it had an actual scope, rather the driver had an opening with an angled metal shield. I don't remember the real word for this device, but the bullet ricocheted off the bottom of the metal opening and struck the "visor" on the underside.

At various times the support weapons personnel, along with some help from the rifle companies got to put on demonstrations at various agricultural shows. Most of it was section attack drills, with the Vickers used in support, firing blanks. Like most kids, we soon got into the swing of things, churning around the arenas in those ghastly Gladiators (large bakkies with trailer attached used to haul one section plus weapons around), screaming to a stop with the crews baling out to the screams of "aksie links" etc.

Other features of our "blougat" phase included a hike under full pack up Mont Aux Sources in the Drakensberg, allegedly being the "mountain warfare" phase of our training. It was here that I found out that when I was dog tired and sleeping the sleep of the dead, I had a habit of talking in my sleep. After making the top of the mountain, we had a whole company crammed into the old climber's huts at the top. The following morning I awoke to find a bunch of my friends and some of the Natal Parks Board rangers giving me the evil eye for keeping them up with my somnolent chatter.


After completion of basic training and the support weapons training, most of the companies were sent out to various points for fine tuning (eg. support weapons spent some time in Bloemfontein, working on the various weapons). Eventually we all had to do tours at 5SAI's "border" camp at Sibaya, north of Josini Dam in Northern Zululand, close to the border with Mozambique.

(I now remember why I hauled the ancient Reader's Digest Atlas out from my daughter's desk over the weekend. I was trying the camp at Sibaya more accurately. I recall that is was a little west of Kosi Bay, Southwest of the horseshoe lake, known then as Lake Sibaya.) I suspect that once the 2 year service came in and the need for troops in SWA grew, that Sibaya would have been handed over to the other Units. It really served no purpose as it was too far from the Mozambique border to be really effective, and the bush there was very different to SWA. Also, I think that having the troops trample around the tribal areas was getting a little too much, although the headman that sold us the rubber chicken during our survival training knew how to get the better end of the bargain. That bird gave new meaning to the words, "the chicken that had run all the way from Biafra!"

Most of the rifle companies had already done one tour there. Each tour was between 1-2 months and focused on section / patrol / survival training. Pretty basic bush camp, typical of what came later in the Caprivi, without the berms/bunkers/mortar pits. The defining factor here was that the instructors were freed from the constraints of being within eyeball / earshot of the camp command structure and could pretty much take whatever liberties with the National Servicemen they felt like, and usually did.

All the companies rotated in, sometimes there were 2 companies there at one time. For the most part it was used to get the oumanne off base and into the bush where they could not impede the indoctrination of the new intake back in Ladysmith.

The assignment to Sibaya was somewhat akin to disappearing off the face of the earth. Although there was a whole intake ahead of us they were seldom seen, as they had spent a lot of time away from 5SAI doing their thing at Sibaya and other points. It turned out much the same for us. We never really got involved with the 1970 intakes as we spent most of our ouman period in the bush.

The journey was a long uncomfortable dusty 6-8 hours in the back of the Bedfords, cramped, jolting, normal deployment stuff. Each platoon was assigned to one of the tent areas, and warned to watch out for snakes (boomslange abounded), scorpions, etc. Orientation also included hippo awareness (don't get between them and the water), local conditions (Lake Sibaya's hippos), etc, snake bite procedures etc. For the most part we had to participate in routine chores - rotating KP including cooking, camp cleanup, and over time each platoon was expected to develop some new feature of the camp as a legacy. Thus with each rotation, the camp grew bigger.

We were involved in long days of ongoing section manoeuvre training - patrol formation, radio drills, patrol formations, PT, etc. We also did some of the real interesting stuff like survival training, how to cross Lake Sibaya without getting your rifle/ ammo/ webbing wet (if your poncho didn't leak), general bushcraft training, some tracking, but not the same focus that 2 weeks in Oshivelo would later have.

I hated the combat pack run to the crossroads and back. It was only about 2 miles, but the sand and terrain was hard on the legs. Food and supplies from 5SAI were intermittent at best, we had to cook on mobile kitchens and not too many of us were cordon bleu chefs. There weren't too many local stores to pick up bits and pieces, and you soon tire of pilchards in tomato sauce. The PF camp dentist was of dubious qualifications and sobriety, but then nobody went to him for business, unless they were passed out from the pain.

This was the time when I think the sections / platoon came together and really "teamed" up, particularly during survival training, and the "aptitude" testing. (The aptitude testing was a case of each section being dropped off at a point 60km from an RV, given 12 hours or so to get here and meet the trucks, or hike the return. As usual, not completing the course meant doing it again. Hitching rides on tractors, with civvies was OK so long as you didn't get caught. Of course the stories about squads being picked up and transported by luscious young blondes in luxury cars were the norm - most of us hiked, and got the occasional ride on the back of some wagon.)

Most of us were seriously in fear of the snakes in the area, and after the orientation lectures this hatred was compounded. At that time we were issued plastic rounds for training purposes and one evening as the platoon lined up outside the portable kitchens, one poor specimen of a boomslang slithered overhead and was spotted. The resulting fusillade of plastic rounds shredded the snake, but caused a great deal of consternation amongst the command group, who felt that the overuse of training ammunition was inappropriate for a lone specimen.

Another time during a route march, we had stopped for a smoke break, and were sitting around and shooting the breeze, when one of the guys grabbed his rifle and took a mighty swing with the butt at my foot. I hadn't seen the twig snake moving along (it was moving real slow, and was darn well camouflaged) and about to crawl over my boot when he crushed it. And I thought it was something I had said!

Patrol formation training took place in a large open grassy bowl, with the instructor and signals group sitting on a hill, watching the platoon manoeuvre in the various formations radioed through to them. One of the platoons was moving along in an arrow formation when they suddenly froze, and then drew up in a circle around one of the signallers. With no movement from the patrol we all hiked down to the spot where one poor soul was standing stock still, white as a sheet, his boot was right next to a dark grey "snake" whose diameter was about that of a weightlifter's forearm. Speculation had him standing on or next to everything from an anaconda to an adder. One knowing soul came up, had a look, grabbed the thing, and hauled it up out of the long grass. It was the biggest leguaan that I have ever seen; ugly sucker as well. There were more than a few ready to haul ass at that moment. It got hauled back to the camp where the National Service doctor was a biology nut and handed over to him for measurement, photographing, and then release.

Survival training involved a series of lectures on local wildlife/ plants, how to forage, generate drinking water etc. All good stuff. Then a week in the bush with no rats, and one water bottle among the squad (10-12 men). Sounds great in practice, execution was SNAFU. PFI's decided that we would be dropped off the requisite distance from camp, in company formation. We would then carry their water in jerricans, their food to the first overnight base, and then move from there. Rule was no foraging/ drawing water from the Natal Parks Board Ranger Stations etc. Lot of annoyed riflemen, hauling their food and water, taking their barbs about how good their braai was going to be etc.

That night most of the platoons went off and foraged, and came up with sod all, usual crap of snails etc, but what to expect when you have 120 men scrounging in so small an area. We were right on the coast and so even the snails were as salty as hell. Next day much of the same except that evening the instructors fell in company and administered a punishment parade, apparently some troops had got some water from or arrived at an out of bounds location, and therefore retribution had to be exacted. PT was not bad normally, but that coastal dune looked 5 stories high, and felt about 10. We started losing guys early on and this just incensed the instructors more. A couple of times they put the boots to men that had collapsed. It was pretty sad. The next day a couple of men had to be evacuated back to camp and then on to hospital for injuries received.

For the rest of us, the section leaders got together, and basically we decided to split up and go back to our original tasking, make it back to camp within the 5 days, but in smaller, platoon sized groups. So the company just melted away in the night, and we made it back to camp, hungry, dirty and thirsty. We had survived on fish caught in Lake Sibaya, road runner chickens traded for from the locals, and whatever we had smuggled in. Water was generally not a problem (quality was though), but we were somewhat dehydrated, and missing a few good meals.

The PF threw a huge steak braai for the returning troops on the first night back. Problem was all of us had not had a square meal for a week and it was all too much, with a lot of troops throwing up and getting sick. There was a poor turnout at am parade and the general mess around the camp resulted in section leaders and 2ic's being fell in and sent off on a 2 mile run to the crossroads and back. After a couple of these we were too bagged to move so I guess you could say when they sent us off for the nth time, and we failed to move a foot, it was a case of disobeying a direct order of an NCO. Fall in the whole company. Order a run to the crossroads again. Again entire company too bagged to move. Threaten them with arrest and courts martial for mutiny. No movement. Arrest the whole lot (about 120 men). Lock them in the vehicle park under armed guard. (Yup, they reportedly had live ammo!). We really didn't care. We had buddies in hospital after the dune PT during survival training, most of us were still sick and we needed to get ourselves sorted out after a week in the bush with no rats.

MP's were choppered in and statements taken from every one. No courts martial, some words to us from returning troopers that there had been an inquiry, and that one (?) of the PFI's had been charged. Nothing formal told to us. We returned to Ladysmith eventually, but were considered to be "soiled", (do not allow those slegte troepies to come anywhere near our new rower). Within a week or so we were sent back to Sibaya to spend the last 5 weeks or so of our National Service as outcasts, doing endless patrols and other associated tasks designed to keep us out of the camp 5 days out of seven.

Funny thing was that during this last period we followed our tasking to the letter and still ended up in die kak.

We were tasked with platoon sized escape and evasion exercise - our platoon was the fox and there were a bunch of hounds. We did stretch the envelope on the boundaries, but basically our E&E tactic was to hike as hard as possible the first night in the least likely direction and hit the edge of the exercise area as soon as possible, then cruise slowly to the final RV, while keeping an eye out for the hounds. We reported in like clockwork on our radio, but never got a response. We even worked to avoid a chopper that we heard scouting around, but when we showed up at the RV, we found a bunch of officers, the dominee, MP's there. Apparently our radio was U/S, and our reports never received. They really thought we had absconded, drowned or been kidnapped by aliens because we failed to report in or respond to their calls over the radio. They had even sent a chopper out to look for us.


I spent the last couple of months back at Sibaya (they transported me up on Christmas Eve along with the Southern Cross parcels for the "Boys on the Border").

Klaaring out must have been a relief, because I don't remember much about it - or I was probably quite inebriated.

I had about one week to wash the Sibaya dirt out of my pores before I started University. That first year in the engineering school was a tough one, particularly after having just finished my National Service, I was not really in tune with the requirements for full time study. A lot of us were in the same boat, struggling to get our minds around the discipline needed to crack the coursework.

It took me a lot longer to finish my degree than my lecturers felt was needed. However, I probably had a bit of a chip on my shoulder! (This came out during the CSIR testing done while I was on a pass {my only one in 9 months} where they felt that I had some communication skills problems, and this just before I was shipped back to Sibaya for the second time.)

Hardly a lengthy transition before the Jocks got hold of me.


Within weeks of arriving home and shortly after starting at University I received my first call up for parades. These were held every 2 weeks usually at Regimental HQ, and then at an old primary school sports ground (the regiment had moved its HQ to the old school). Each year I was called up for a 3-week camp, but for the first 4 years, the engineering course I was doing required specific projects to be completed. Eventually, the regiment waited until I had finished at University before calling me up for a camp.

After 18 months out, they extended my ACF commitment to 5 years, at 5 years or so it went to 10 etc. I think this was one of the defining moments, and I felt that the politicians and high command were not being honest with us at all, and the distrust of the Army High Command really took hold. There were obviously political situations to be addressed, but the arbitrary way in which they went about extending our training really pissed us off. We were fulfilling our commitment at a time when their so-called "end" point was a moving target that we were unlikely to reach. If I had been able to get a straight answer out of someone then I think I would have seen things differently. But we distrusted Pretoria so much that if they had told us the time of day, we would have checked our watches.

Parades were a different matter altogether. Be there in the appropriate uniform every two weeks unless you were gravely ill, incarcerated or on a regimentally approved holiday. Miss one and report back on Tuesday night for discussion with the CSM. My disillusionment with a few of the ACF NCO's has its roots in this system. The sergeants would call the roll at parades, and after turning them in, the regiment would summon absentees to a Tuesday night parade. ("They couldn't even get a roll call right, heaven help us when they have to lead us in to battle!")

Even if you attended Saturday's parade, you inevitably got called back. I remember one CSM's methodology for discouraging spurious claims of "I was there, you guys screwed up the roll call AGAIN", by parading all Tuesday nighters in the street in front of the Regimental HQ. It looked pretty crappy, seeing a bunch of guys, some in civvies, others browns, or TS kilt and bunny jackets, double timing it up and down the streets of downtown Johannesburg in the rain etc. I'm not sure what it achieved. This particular individual was a complete jerk on the parade ground in Johannesburg. In the Caprivi, he tended to be kept at HQ, away from us - hot air at home, fluff at the sharp end. But by then there had been a subtle change and a lot of the parade ground sergeants found themselves reassigned and a whack of "bush wise" NCO's took their place. Certainly on patrols the section leaders found themselves getting way more command / leadership experience than the Saturday afternoon types.

When I arrived at my first 2nd Transvaal Scottish parade and all the commands were in English, I had absolutely no idea of what I should do on some of the commands - I had never heard them in my entire national service. Worse was when as a section leader I was given a squad to drill, I couldn't think of the appropriate sequence of English commands to get them moving in "column of route", etc.

One thing for sure, it didn't matter a bit who or what you were in the Regiment. In the bush you were 2TS, and we looked out for each other, English, Afrikaans, soutie, rock, whatever. That was never an issue for us. There was more bitching about the leadership - can't we trade Sgt X for someone. The first tour in '76, we discovered the value of being assigned to a good company, CSM Hall, ex Parachute Regiment, I believe, was a man who had seen the elephant, and was there to see to his men. Tough as nails, but you knew he was going to be a good man to follow in a fight. Sgt. Petersen, well I hope he has now learned the value of not getting slammed and passing out in the NCO's mess in the presence of his corporals. I also hope that his moustache recovered, and I'm sure his skin benefited from the sleeping bag mudpack treatment he so unknowingly endured. From our second tour, RSM van Staden, A/CSM Wright stand out, he who so delicately busted me back to corporal from my acting rank, for sowing the seeds of insurrection over the quality of food at Mpacha by way of comments in a letter home to Mum. Good humoured, great man. (Each mortar support group was assigned to a company. Generally there were insufficient sergeants to go around, so some of us corporals were given field promotions to A/Sgt for the duration of or part of the camp. Interestingly enough, Porky Wright busted me back to Cpl, for mentioning the "additional vitamins, minerals and protein we were getting in our porridge in the form of 4, 6 and 8 legged creatures" at the same time he tried to convince me to take the sergeant's course when we got back to SA. I was on the cusp of making the decision to leave, so the discussion was put on hold. There was no rancour, the message to mum found the right audience, and he understood the reason behind it!. It was actually all very good humoured.)

These are the some of my fellow Jocks who have stayed in my memory for the past 20 years. There were many others, Mike F. who could take us home at night with his guitar playing, Alby M. - a buddy out there on patrol, great volleyball player, solid rugby player, who the Arty at Katima just had to disable (kicked in the nuts) so they could win the damned game, many others, all heroes in my mind, ordinary guys and just fellow troopers.


I was working as an engineer for a big company in Johannesburg when I was called up, but was called up for 1 month extended at the pleasure of the State President under the Defence Act to a period of not less than 90 days.

There was not much I could do to get myself deferred. I had deferments in previous years (while I was at University) and now the time had come to pay the piper. I was not employed in an "essential" service, and they were short of groundpounders for SWA in the years following Operation Savannah. I think that this was the period where Army High Command realized just how many men it was going to take to contain the problem, and the callups began to increase dramatically. I use the word `contain' deliberately, because at no time did I have any sense that there was a strategy to actually win the damn fight.

After getting things in order at work and saying goodbye to some very unhappy family, I reported to Doornkop, found the support weapons crowd, and got set up in company lines, started the medical process, forms filling, drew weapons, and any additional kit that was needed. We made sure the will was current, sorted out our pay, ensovoorts, begin drilling again. After a couple of days, we prepared for transit to Grootfontein.

For me 1976 was the first time I drew a full set of browns. It made a nice change from battledress, puttees, etc.

Most of us were familiar with each other from endless days on the parade ground, trooping the colour, Remembrance Day, retreat ceremonies etc. It helped to be able to buddy up with someone you knew early on, as we all had a degree of concern, anger at the call up, etc. It was good to get to know some of the 2TS troops from out of town, who were exempt from parades because of distance etc. Many of these guys, over the course of the next few years, would become those guys you relied on when the going got tough. Good men all.

I have a hazy recollection of SAA flying us in to Windhoek in a Boeing 707 and then road transport to Grootfontein. We had minimal time in transit, before going on to on to Oshivelo.

We would buddy up at Oshivelo, set up 2 man tents (ponchos) and begin "reorientation". Oshivelo in '76 (and '77) for us was simply an area along a road in SWA where they dropped us off. I am sure that in the greater scheme of things we were within the "training area" as we sure as hell spread a lot of ordinance around during training.

It took a major readjustment from civvy street to Doornkop, to Oshivelo in a few days, food, sleep, etc. Like a fast descent into hell. Two weeks of "basic" training under the aegis of a PF instructor, whose prime task was to get us back into border fitness and into shape to take on the patrols, etc. A lot of focus on ambushes, vehicle defence, mine detection, convoy procedures, ambush procedures, tracking and anti tracking. All of us were now mortarmen (no Vickers or AT work in the Caprivi at that time), so we did refresher training on the 60 and 81 mm, and patrol support with the 60mm.

We usually flew out to the Caprivi in a SAAF C130 or Safair C160 to Mpacha. The support weapons company was divided up and assigned to rifle companies. My particular platoon was assigned to Kwando, about 60 kms west of Mpacha. The road transport to Kwando was the now familiar stripped down and sandbagged Bedford. We relieved the ACF company at Kwando, going through the usual handover (check weapons, accessories, ammo loads, etc.) The departing regiment gave us the early morning welcome, sirens, bunker fire, Elands ripping around into their defensive positions, riflemen hitting the wall, etc. All very interesting and chaotic, supposedly in response to possible probing of the perimeter wire. All I remember was rolling off the steel bed frame inside my sleeping bag, hitting the packed earth, grabbing my rifle and magazines, and crawling to the nearest wall, keeping my head down as tracer rounds streaked overhead.

The normal duties for the mortar crews were base defence, perimeter checks and defensive patrols around the wire, and 60mm mortar support of patrols. Rifle platoons usually were out for 5 days, back for 5. We were assigned based on 60 and 81mm sections to each company, so the section leaders ended up reporting directly to the CSM, or the senior HQ NCO.

Support weapons personnel usually stood permanent bunker guard duty on one or two bunkers to allow for reduced rifle company presence, provided convoy escort, manned the aapkas at stand to, and generally every crappy little task that needed to be done. Kwando's aapkas was a 50-60 foot tower with a tiny "crow's nest". Being the mortar OP that tour meant I ended up there every morning and evening at stand to, and every time there was a problem. I never really felt secure up there as it was greatly exposed.

Tankers from the Umvoti Mounted Rifles took over armour support, but were undermanned. Consequently, mortarmen trained as loaders and machine gunners in the Elands. The Elands at Kwando at that time had breech loading 60 mm mortars for main armament, and 7.62mm machine guns so the training was not that unfamiliar. We were only used for base defensive duties, and never assigned to the Elands for convoy escort.

Our only real face to face contact with the "enemy" was having to stand guard over a suspected terrorist in transit. For the rest it appeared to us as though it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. Based on the way the prisoner was handled, most of us developed a strong feeling that being captured was not an option.

Also support weapons provided the bulk of the camp's volleyball and rugby team, KP volunteers, and knew every inch of the inner perimeter, having cleaned it up so many times.

In some instances, we would welcome the opportunity to go on patrol, it relieved the monotonous cycle of the camp. Convoys to Katima for supplies were good opportunities for a break, and although we were ready for trouble, it was a change for us. I had and still have this innate fear of landmines. This probably stemmed from the great prominence given to these beasts by the refresher training at Oshivelo. Every time we left Mpacha or Katima for Kwando and "locked and loaded" our FN's for the trip back, I had this vision of chunks of PE in cheese mines or the counter in a ratchet mine ticking over as we went along, and this time there would be one with my number on it.

Occasionally, the Bushmen assigned to patrols would pick up tracks, and we would gear up for an attack or a rapid response. Usually these were just probes, and the tracks would fast disappear back across the border. This was the general scheme of things in '76 in the Caprivi. It was pretty quiet, and thinking back we were not really in a high state of "mental" readiness.

A patrol came back in after their routine jaunt looking a little haggard. Apparently, according to them, they had been picked up on the first night by a lion, who spent the next 4 days following them. The poor boys thought they were all going to be his next meal.

Most of the patrols were just a rifle platoon, guided by a Bushman, with perhaps a 60mm section as additional support. They would zig zag across their assigned patrol area from drop off to pick up points trying to find spoor. One group had a K9 corps handler and dog assigned on one occasion. Their patrol through the bush had them in a temporary base around a partial track in the bush. That night the dog woke the handler (by standing on his face) and he woke the patrol up, as something was wrong, according to the dog. They had just enough time to clear out of the way as a herd of elephant wandered down "their" track through the bush.

The bushmen trackers intrigued me, they were tough little guys, who seemed to have a sixth and seventh sense. It was amusing to see how the army's discipline fitted with their lifestyle. They could appear and disappear on a whim, and nobody seemed too concerned. They were certainly a very independent bunch, and, as we later found out, quite anti-terrs.

I don't remember much about `klaaring out' of the camp other than I think that was the time we were relieved by one of the first all-black units out of the Natal midlands. They arrived in their own brand new Mogs, not mineproofed, and promptly got sent out on a followup to a border incursion, along with an armoured column out of Katima. The terrs had mined the tracks, which resulted in the loss of a Mog with some of the new arrivals on board. When they arrived back at camp a little worse for wear, we were kidding them that this was not the conventional way of earning their wings. One little guy, obviously in some pain from the compression injuries, responded "Baas, I don't know what happened, but I WAS flying!" The hot pursuit was called off after the terrorist base was attacked across the border, with some arms captured. The new troops acquitted themselves well. As we were the short timer mortarmen we got the unenviable task of cleaning up the captured mortars, which had been manned at the time of the attack.

Thereafter it was the long ride to Mpacha to rejoin the bulk of the Regiment, and after an end of tour medical on to the 130's and back to the States. Getting a solid night's sleep without a 2 hour stretch in the bunker was a real treat. It was tough getting back into the swing of things at work, having been moved off my original project. I ended up doing some small stuff before being reassigned to another project, when the inevitable happened again.


I was still working as an engineer when the call up came for a 90 day camp. I did n, it would have been a waste of time.

Once again, we reported to Doornkop, set up in company lines, started the medical process, forms filling, drew weapons, and any additional kit that was needed. After a couple of days, we prepared for transit to Grootfontein. This time around, we knew most of the guys from the '76 camp, there were a couple of newcomers, some of whom were veterans of Angolan operations. There was no comfortable SAA 707 this time, a SAFAIR C160 Transall was used to haul us into Grootfontein.

We did the same reorientation at Oshivelo, with some new features added - there were new rifle grenades and some additional ordinance that we worked with. I seem to remember more of a focus on ambushes, TBs, etc, working with Claymores, and so on. Not a lot of change from '76, certainly just as physically demanding. Again refresher training on the 60 and 81 mm, and patrol support with the 60mm.

We flew out to the Caprivi, once again, in a SAAF C130 to Mpacha. This time around we were assigned to Wenela (from the acronym WNLA - something native labour association - apparently in its former life, Wenela had been the recruiting station for a mine somewhere that need to import labour).

This time around we were not in tents, rather in a long cinderblock barracks, no windows, two sandbagged entrances at both ends. The walls ended and the tin roof took over, with a fairly big gap between the roof and walls that provided plenty of ventilation. Noisy as hell during a rainstorm, but you could step out of the barracks and fall into the mortar pits.

Having had the Kwando experience, we slotted in with the rifle company (A company 2TS) and did the usual shared bunker guard duty, and perimeter defence. The difference at Wenela was the northwest bunker faced the Zambian police post across the border, and the Wenela aapkas was in a large tree, and used for intel. monitoring of the ferry across the Zambezi, usually meaning counting heads, looking for large unidentifiable loads.

One of our mortarmen was doing Wenela bunker guard duty during the day, when all of a sudden we heard a .50 fire off a round. We all hit the mortar pits, got the comms going to the HQ, pulled the ready ammo and were ready for action, while the rifle platoons scrambled for the wall. When the dust settled the poor little sod was hauled up to us by the CSM, with our wayward squaddie claiming that he had just looked sideways at the Browning and it let loose, right through the roof of the Zambian Police Station. He was a klutzy type, but nevertheless we all had to be very careful in moving around the bunkers with those ancient Brownings ready to rip.

Early on in the tour, a convoy from Mpacha was ambushed near Wenela, on the road to Katima. A Land Rover with two Air Force officers had moved ahead of the convoy because they were so close to Katima and got RPG'd. Platoons from Wenela responded immediately and we ended up firing rounds of illum's up for them. The tracks showed that the terrs had immediately retired across the border, and no follow up ensued.

The riflemen who were assigned to recover the Land Rover were not happy campers as there was not a hell of a lot to recover, and the recovery of the bodies was not something we had trained for. They were pretty stressed on their return.

The platoons that responded that night were led by our most experienced and, in my mind, most able section leaders. When they were told to recover the bodies, they radioed back and indicated that there was very little left. We talked in the corporal's mess later, and they were just not prepared for what they found. None of us were warned about this, or even given any support.

We had some problems as some of our light shells burst open and then fell straight to the ground, causing some consternation among the follow up platoons. We opened every round in the ready pile, and found a whole lot of them minus their parachutes, obviously a souvenir for some long departed mortarman. This really pissed us off, as we needed top line ammunition and now we couldn't trust anything in the magazine.

We spent the next few days pulling everything from the magazine, and inspecting it. It got really hot during the day and some of the special rounds got over warm and started leaking phosphorous through the seals. The crew on detail at the time saw the smoke and bailed out of the pits fast. The CSM and a couple of volunteers went in and identified the problem. Thereafter we had to keep the ammo cool somehow. A lot of it was U/S, and had to be replaced.


Shortly after this, I was assigned to a convoy escort, and under the command of RSM van Staden, a bunch of drivers and escorts flew to Pretoria to pick up some Mogs, and some of the first Buffels we had ever seen. We arrived on a Friday, having been flown by SAAF to Bloemfontein, and then by SAA to Pretoria. The vehicles were still being gathered and so we got a "48" and most of us hit the trains to Johannesburg and home. We were pretty grubby, put our webbing and weapons in to secure storage and hit the road. Even grubby, I just walked out of the train station in Johannesburg, looking to hitch a ride home, and before you knew it the browns with a 2TS tammy had people stopping and offering you rides. The gentleman that drove me (way out of his way) was ex Jock, so there was a connection. It was about then that I realized just how little people knew what was really going on "up north". We had been losing personnel, vehicles to mines, ambushes, and we about to haul back some pretty advanced (for that day) armoured, mine proofed troop carriers, and for the most part people in the States thought that things were pretty quiet. I was reluctant to go into this, but I had a bad feeling that the s*** was about to hit the fan in the area - there was a marked increase in ambushes, and tension, in the Caprivi, compared to a year before.

Nobody knew I was coming, so I scared the hell out of my wife and her family when I showed up on the doorstep. I think they thought I had gone AWOL. Good food etc., no stand to and a couple of hot showers had me ready to face a long trip back on the Monday morning.

Things got off to a bad start when we checked out the Mogs. The 2nd drive shaft connecting the 4WD was lying in the back of the Mogs. The RSM had a fit because it was rainy season in the Caprivi, and we knew that we would need the 4WD or a whole lot of muscle power to get past some of the water hazards. There was no way the powers that be were going to fit the shafts, so with much amusement on the part of the troops over the final, public discussion between the RSM and the OIC of the vehicle facility we set off for the Caprivi. We got about 10 klicks down the highway when the first Mog died. Thereafter we seemed to suffer a vehicle (Mog or Buffel) loss per every 10 klicks or so.

The RSM was so annoyed that he routed us into Doornkop for repairs, and with handlebar moustache bristling, he headed off to see the base OC, where (reportedly) he filed complaints against the crowd in Pretoria. In about 9 years with the Regiment, I had never seen the RSM so pissed off. I felt genuinely sorry for whoever he was dealing with. It took a day or so to clean out the fuel lines, tanks, carbs / injectors and whatever the hell else was wrong with the units, before we set out again.

The convoy to Grootfontein was one of those great journeys that you see now on TV - where someone gets paid a hunk of change to travel down the spine of Africa, or across Australia. I had not driven the route before, so the opportunity to see that part of the country was welcomed. Not too many people travelling that road had seen Mogs and Buffels before either, so we had endless problems with families getting stuck behind the convoy, then overtaking a Buffel, slowing down so that the rugrats in the back could get an up close and personal view of the driver's cab, then off to look at the next one.

By the time we reached Grootfontein, we had sore asses, tired drivers, bleary eyed, sunburned escorts, so the opportunity to take time off to begin mineproofing the Mogs and get the Buffels fuelled and watered up was welcome. The thing I remember most about Grootfontein was being assigned to a tent, moving in and within hours having a million flies on the roof waiting for mealtime.

We drew ammo and rats, and were soon on our way again. The hard part was ahead, and as soon as we crossed the "red" line it was back to operational area procedures, and keep your eyes open. The roads were bad, as we expected and progress was really slow. We had just entered the Caprivi and were heading for Kwando, which we expected to make that night when we came across a flooded pan. I then knew why supplies in the Caprivi were sporadic. Scattered around the edge of the pan were a dozen or so huge Mercedes Benz trucks loaded with supplies, and all bogged down in the mud. The road in reality ran straight through the pan, under normal dry conditions. We recce'd the edge of the pan at the treeline, but it was so churned up that there was no way we were going to get through that way. In true Jock fashion (we're infantry, remember) the RSM fell in all the escorts and selected the tallest to wade through the water down the track to test the depth. We were going over the top and straight down the road.

By keeping to the centreline, I managed to keep my head out of the water, and after a wet trip of about 150 - 200 yards, I clambered up the slope at the end where the track reappeared out of the water. Not satisfied with my visual thumbs up, he signalled me back. Once again into the breech. This time I verbally reported to him that the water depth in the middle was no more that 5.5 feet. Great briefing! As if he didn't know that!

Threatening the driver with a court martial if he got stuck, or stalled the engine and sucked in water through the exhaust, the RSM sent the first Buffel across. We got all of them across with only the last two getting a little bogged down at the end where the track had been churned up by units gone before. By that time we had the towropes out and attached to other units already through and waiting to help. At the end of all this I was mostly dry, but we were way behind time, and with no chance to make Kwando before dark. There were some comms back and forth between us and Kwando / Katima and before long we detoured off to a base that we didn't even know existed. My ageing memory may be failing, but the fearsome crowd we met at Fort Doppies that night, being one of the Recce groups, were decidedly unfriendly. We TB'd in the vehicle park and they threw us out early the next morning, with a "See you, don't bother coming back" goodbye.

Things got better as we headed to Kwando, and with the reckless aplomb of an infantryman, one of the drivers rolled his Buffel. The escort rifleman was belted in (or jumped early enough) that he wasn't injured. The RSM wasn't going to hang about, so "volunteers" were assigned to guard the Buffel until the recovery units could get to us. It was a long day and night for the driver (as punishment) and for us two escorts, as we set up a TB and checked out our firing lanes. The animals of the night scouting for food can sure put the wind up a soldier in the middle of no man's land.

We were recovered the next day and continued on to Mpacha. Once we brought those Buffels back there was a general lifting of spirits. For so long we had been transported around on Bedfords and Mogs, with only sandbags beneath us, and nothing around us, that the thought of even just a small amount of armour around us was extremely comforting.

I rejoined my mortar crew and kit, who had been rotated to base defence at the airfield. Duty at Mpacha was pretty cushy, all the targets had been mapped out, and the OP was manned by other troops. [Hotlink: Air Force Guard Commander] We spent much of the time just waiting around, watching the activity at the airbase and reading a lot. One of the sections was on standby as a ready reaction support squad.


After a couple of weeks we were scrambled, as Kwando had been hit. There was a lot of activity with the few Alouette gunships in and out all day. Late in the afternoon the platoon sergeant hauled us out to the airbase, where we were hustled aboard a creaky Super Frelon that had taken some light damage from AK fire. Just before the ramp closed, the Doc was loaded aboard and we headed for Kwando. There was no talk, just a lot of very nervous mortarmen, who with the medic aboard knew that this was going to be a long day. As we understood the situation, Kwando had been hit by a large group of terrs, RPG, mortar and rifle fire. A platoon of Parabats was training in the area, and as soon as the attack was underway, they had gathered up their weapons, and headed to the wall. And then over the wall and were in hot pursuit of the attackers. Soon a full-scale counterattack was underway, with the trackers, armour and infantrymen all involved. The follow-up force ran into problems with mines, and we lost an Eland, crew OK but soaked in diesel. The paratroopers and bushmen were hot on the heels of the group.

They had need of stopper groups at the cutline, and had called us in. Light was failing as we debarked at Kwando, and were held in readiness on the chopper pad, waiting for a sitrep. We checked weapons and mortars and waited. And then were stood down. Apparently the terrs had run into the first of the stopper groups, split up into two or more groups and headed for the line. With each group splitting up into smaller groups and heading off into the bush, mounting an effective stopper action was proving difficult if not impossible. After TB'ing on the pad overnight we waited until the decision was made on follow-up, (there was none at that time) and then returned to Mpacha.


Obviously the CO felt we were becoming far too slack at Mpacha, so our next rotation was to the mortar pits at Katima. Again we had fixed firing lines, and targets, however the duty had a slightly greater hazard. Legend had it that the Zambian army troops were assigned for an indefinite period, and when they felt it was time to go home to mama, they just loosed off a few rounds at us with their .50's or whatever they had handy. Delicate discussions would ensue, with the offending troops being sent home. The mortar pits were a little exposed from our point of view, being on the riverside of the base, almost a forward defensive position.

We bunked in a solid large hut just inside the gates to Katima and once again got into the routine of stand to, etc. We were nearing the end of our camp, and getting pretty cranky, so I guess it was not surprising that with a week of two left, we were sent out on a last patrol as a full rifle squad. I had no real problem with that. I was sick and tired of the camp duties by then and we knew that 5 days in the bush was better than 7 days in Katima under the nose of every officer (not just our regiment's) on the base. By this time I guess they had had enough of our "Engelse" regiment's weird ways such as holding a memorial service for a former Jock of some repute by way of a company parade in the middle of the Caprivi, with a piper playing a lament to the decidedly grubby troops on parade.

The patrol was pretty uneventful, although given the events of the past 6 weeks, we opted for more ammo than normal and cut the rats we were hauling back big time. One of the riflemen attached to my squad managed to leave behind a couple of grenades at the RV pickup on the last day, and had to be creative, particularly as we told him that unless we handed back X grenades, he was going back solo to find his lost articles. We were going home. It took about 20 minutes, but we handed in the right number, 2 of which were cherry type, foreign manufacture, souvenirs from some action which had recently taken place.

Finally, the last Caprivi parade at Mpacha, the medical one, with the whole regiment finally gathered back in one spot. Tales were told, experiences exchanged, the poor sods with malaria fed aspirin and flat Coke, to get the fever down and the gyppo guts settled. Onto the Herc, and off, circling the area for what seemed like hours, gathering speed until the pilot hauled back on the stick to get enough altitude to defeat any ground to air missiles in the area. Many of us left our stomachs behind. For me this was my last tour to SWA. The next camp the following year was focused on township duties, although the Caprivi reared its "ugly" head once more.

This had been a bizarre camp. '76 was relatively easy, '77 was like the whole area had gone crazy. The number of incidents was way up, the way in which we were rotated had been a weird combination of different duties, and I had this unsettling feeling that the whole thing was going out of control. What really annoyed me was the sight of PW visiting the "boys on the border" while we were at Mpacha. Fly in your personal jet with 'Meals, ready to eat" (Mark P - for politicians), have it all set up before you arrive and sit down with the higher ranks, while the mortar crews and troops in the field guarding your transport, the base, and a whole lot of real estate have been on beans and doggies for the past few days, and then off back in time for the 9 o'clock news. Small thing I know, but I began to feel really alienated, that the politicians didn't really care, so long as we offered up our mortal coils for their benefit.

Any motivation that I had felt that I was achieving something here was lost in the events of the camp, and I felt more than ever that I needed to re-evaluate my priorities.

The most difficult time for me was heading back to work after `klaaring out' of the camp. A week or so back I had been part of a crew that depended on each other, worked as a team, looked out for each other in some pretty tense situations. Back at work I had to reintegrate into projects that were three months ahead of where I had left them, or find new projects because a replacement had been assigned. So for the second time in two years I had lost valuable work experience, and was shuffled around. The anger that I felt at the way in which my career was marking time was directed solely at the SADF, not the Regiment or the company I worked for. They were under the gun to produce, and had little choice over the matter. Me - I had some options and I needed to explore them.

CAMP 3 1978: LATE JUNE (?)

I was still working as an engineer for a Johannesburg company, and got my first call up for a genuine 21 day camp. It wasn't even automatically extended to 90 days - hallelujah!

In late 1977, my wife and I went to Europe and backpacked around for about 6 weeks. Yes, call it a recce, that's what it was. We were scoping out the opportunities for us in the UK and Europe. I was really frustrated with the way in which my engineering career had got derailed somewhat. I needed a big project to work on consistently for a 12 month or more period, not be shuffled from one little task to another. We set a target date of August 1, 1978 as the time. I applied for and got an extended leave from the Regiment to go to Europe. Everything was lined up we sold off a bunch of things, became "house sitters" for friends and relatives, and lined up air tickets, etc.

The spring call up was no great problem - 21 days and that's would be it. Yeah, right! I reported to Doornkop, and was again assigned to the support weapons company. Most of us were now veterans of 2 tours to the Caprivi, but there were a number of missing guys, many of them now moved on elsewhere, many of them Australia, USA etc... This time we stayed at Doornkop. This camp was all riot control stuff. How to act as a reserve force in the event of a police action in response to civil unrest. Most of the time it was small squad stuff from the back of Casspirs, with the added bit of some house to house. Then came the bad news.

Based on intelligence gathered there was a real shortage of mortarmen needed for some crisis in the Caprivi, specifically Katima. All mortarmen had their camps extended on the spot to 90 days, we had 48 hours to get our affairs in order, be back at Doornkop ready for a flight to Grootfontein. Ah well, there goes a bucket of money spent on the trip, one very unhappy wife, along with a career. So in the end I opted to apply some illogical logic.

The CO had emphatically said no deferments or exemptions, period, under any circumstances. The wife's pregnant? "Congratulations, son, now sign here, and get in line for your shots, then go see the QM and draw your kit for the bush."

So in the 48 hour period I applied to the Regiment for compensation for the loss of money expended as a result of them granting me a leave of absence when I had applied in January. On this basis I had in good faith booked air tickets, etc etc. A princely sum it was not, but enough to get on company commander's orders. I told them I was willing to hop the flossie to Katima, for a small fee, given that I had followed the SADF and Regimental rules precisely, applied for leave, using the right forms, etc. ("Note sir, that is was you who signed the leave approval form granting me extended leave from August 1 through the end of the year!") and the sum of RX,000 had been spent on this basis, receipts attached, most of this was not refundable. Here's my bank account number, your cheque in payment of the attached, will be welcome.

It was hard watching my mates head off, for me it was the last time I saw most of them. From that point on I have never underestimated the value of a well documented record of dealings with any civil servant.

I don't remember much of that camp, I was reassigned to a rifle company and spent a lot of time sitting around in a Casspir, behind a hill, listening to the action over the radios as the SAP and township residents did their thing. This was not what I was looking for - a choice of 3 months in the Caprivi or 3 weeks township duty.

It seemed so strange that after 2 tours to the Caprivi, we went back to doing something that we had long forgotten from Basic Training. It was more scary this time, because we were drilled and drilled on the steps, including having the sharpshooters ready to take out the ringleaders, something that made most of us take stock of the situation. It was one thing to mentally prepare yourself for action on the border, another to sit around within sight of the Carlton Centre, with one up the spout ready to go.

When I `klaared out' of the camp, I packed up my kit, including all my regimental stuff, dropped it off at the QMS, went home, and packed the H-frame, and with my wife in tow headed out. It was 3 months short of 10 years to the day when I had reported to the Drill Hall and been transported off to 5 SAI in Ladysmith.

I felt for my mates when I heard that Katima had been hammered in 1978. Was I sorry that I missed that? No, not one bit! I had the opportunity to prove to myself that I could make it on the outside, and that was a priority.


I never did hear anything official - I left SA in '79, was called up for a 3 month camp when I was living in the UK in '80. I offered to attend if they paid travel expenses - it was declined. Thereafter I heard nothing until I tied the pieces together in '97/98 following the threads on the Internet.

I was never associated with the new SANDF.

My decision to leave SA in late '78 was predicated on a number of things, most had to do with career choices, and the desire to see as many of the continents as possible. I felt I had done my bit. When I was conscripted in 1969, the service obligation was 9 -12 months with 3 years of ACF duties. After 18 months ACF, we were told 5 years of ACF duties. At 5 years we were told 10 years, and in about '77, we were told indefinite stays in the ACF ("Finish your time in the Regiment? - Don't hold your breath!")

Given that the SADF shown no intention of living up to the original commitment, after 10 years, I had had enough. Family pressures added to that, along with a stop-start career, that was being interrupted every 6-9 months with another call up, having those imported and airforce/navy type engineers all sitting back and watching their careers grow, while this groundpounder put in another tour in Caprivi, or Soweto.

The SADF in the mid to late 70's was to me like a fat bloated organization with some real problems at the top. The fact that in the bush in Caprivi, we relied on our own wits more than on the supply trains behind us, that I would prefer to be under the command of our Regimental NCOs than some of the arrogant nitwits ripping around in the Land Rovers, all led to my lack of faith in the Army high command and the political environment around us as well.

It was 1977 before we started seeing the beginnings of the changes, a few new style weapons and ammo, (out with the pineapple grenade, in with some of the multipurpose units). The sandbagged Bedfords of 1976 being replaced with the Mogs and Buffels of 77. But we still had Mk1940 .50's with dubious mechanical reliability, some of us were still hauling around FN/FALs, and the night vision equipment we tested at that time was a joke, a huge battery, an IR generator, and then the glasses to detect the intruders. The range was awful, and I still wonder about having an IR source right next to me as I worked the Kwando aapkas.

Air support was an overworked Alouette with a Browning of too high a calibre attached, that bounced around the sky as the gunner hammered away at the bush. A stable firing platform it was not! Obviously air cover was not a high priority, as we were never even given the basics of ground to air comms training, or working with close air support.

No, I have never regretted my time - I learnt more about being a team player, more about leadership skills, (good and bad) and more about basic human nature in my time in the SADF than anywhere else. As far as the SADF went I could leave it, the Regiment had, and still has a special meaning to me. But I'd had enough of the insensitive and bloody-minded bureaucracy of the time, and I bailed out.


I tried to document my thoughts at the time. My parents never tried to stop us, although even now I have twinges of guilt over having left. My daughters are 16 and 19 now (1999), and I know that we gave them a good start to life. I'm not sure that I could have done or seen the things we have over the past 20 years without having made the break. In 1978 there was no way to predict the downfall of the government. To all intents and purposes, they were so strongly entrenched that the only way I felt they could be damaged was through the effects of the economic millstone the war in SWA was having.

I felt as guilty as hell leaving, but I knew deep down that the only person that was going to look after my interests was me. The company I worked for was importing engineers from overseas, paying them to take over projects from the likes of me. These guys were getting the best projects, the neat promotions, while I was being shunted around. And they had no SADF obligations, although the word was out they might have to. Their feelings on that - hell they would go on to some other country and find work there. Now I'm not so arrogant as to say I was better than them, but I had one flaw. Every 6-9 months I was getting hauled off. My employers just about threw up their hands when I went to them in '78 and told them I was now on for my third 90 day camp in 2 and a half years.

Even at the point of departure I was sure the powers that be would screw me around. I had to have an interview with an SB (Security Branch) type, because I was travelling on a British passport, and needed a reentry visa to get back into the country, if we failed to make it on the outside. That was scary as hell. Looking at this I feel more strongly about the term "fatalistic patriotism". About that time there was the beginnings of an exodus from SA. Someone of high political rank said "SA - love it or leave it"

Both my wife and I felt that you could do both love it and leave it. Herein lies my needing a "sober second look". I still have family there, and I would not want to do anything to cause pain to anyone. I hope that I can resolve my concerns. I don't think my limited involvement in the border war can create a firestorm of reaction to the regiment, other people or myself.



The PF types at the time (1969), were, in my humble opinion, 99% lunatics, with a strong sense of sado-masochism. The National Service guys were just fodder for their efforts.


I never had need for a ride in Johannesburg when you hopped off the train / hiked down a road home in a 2TS tammy and hackle (red feather). People would drive miles out of their way to drop you off wherever you were going.

The sad thing was they really had no idea what it was like doing the border duty, or what the scope of the operations were. Not that they could have done too much about it anyway. My dad even relayed an event that occurred at his golf club. One guy on being paired up with another player said; "My son knows your son". The other golfer said this was impossible as his offspring lived in Johannesburg or thereabouts, while the other guy's son was much younger doing his National Service in the navy.

Well, it turned out the Navy National Serviceman had reportedly been part of an operation to lift troops off the coast of Angola, during one of the forays, when they had got cut off or some such event. The local lad had done his time in the 'Bats, but did the occasional camp and was probably special forces doing some intel or wet work during the '75 operations. The thing is nobody believed that there was anything like this going on, despite their own kids assurances that the cutline was merely a topographical feature on the map, and not a well respected international boundary.

I think the biggest concern they had when we were up north was to verify the rumours as true or false. Each time we were up there, the rumours had the Regiment decimated by cholera, malaria, etc, etc. Forget that fact that we were in the right place to get out asses shot off. But such was the level of restricted communication that the whole concept, in terms of magnitude and scope, of the border war was totally beyond their ability to process. As such, at that time they said very little, maybe that was best, because I was getting to be one very angry young man.


I had this impression, particularly towards the end of '77, of a SWAPO terr about my age, armed to the gills with his AK and all, who believed so strongly in what he was doing (getting us out of there), that a nose to nose with him was going to be a tough one to win, mainly because they would keep on coming, and I would eventually run out of reasons why I had to theoretically make this my fight.

Remember, when we were up in the Caprivi in June of '76, we got word of the problems in Soweto. The feeling was "great, here we are sitting guarding the Strip for whatever bloody reason, and the fertilizer has just hit the windmill 15 klicks from our front door back home". This did not instil great faith in the politicians, security forces or the SADF High Command in terms of their ability to gather intel or manage issues, assets, etc., on the part of the average trooper.

The ANC and MK

No real beliefs held, other than they were creating a whack of grief, and that this whole diensplig thing was going to go on forever as a result of their activities, and our inability to deal with the issue on the socio-political front.


I had little contact with SF. In the late '70s much of the SF operational roles was shrouded in secrecy, and legend. For example, based on our limited (overnight) contact with the Recce group we knew there were SF operating out of the Western Caprivi, doing just what, we did not know. We were thankful in a way that there were such groups keeping their eyes open a lot closer to the action than we were getting. Naturally, much unfounded speculation abounded; that the units were manned with ex Angolan troops who wanted to continue the fight against MPLA / Cubans / SWAPO, or that many a tough guy from home was given a choice by a judge, a lengthy stay in a concrete cell, or a bit of fresh air and fun in the bush a long way from home.

Published: 1 July 2000.