M. J. LE ROUX, ARMOUR, 1978-1979

1 SSB, Owambo (Ondangwa, Etale, Oshivello) Zeerust & early 61 Mech.


Just a couple of experiences during my National Service 1978-1979 for your [Sentinel Projects] website. I have tried to recall the memories as accurate as possible but there may be some mistakes.

Basics 1978 1SSB Bloemfontein

I am Afrikaans, grew up in a very conservative family. Really looked forward towards military training and saw it as a not-to-be-missed adventure.

At first I could not believe the amount of swearing that was going on and the fantastic frequency of insults everyone of us rowers [recruits] received from the corporals. After a short time all of us became part of this new culture and behaved similarly. My name changed from "Tinus" to "le Roux" for the next two years. Everyone was called by their surname.

Basics at SSB was tough (like all the camps) and it was the first time I saw people faint due to physical exhaustion. During daytime lectures it was a huge struggle just to keep awake, the heavy steel helmet jerked your head severely if you fell asleep while listening to the instructor. Some instructors threw stones at sleeping recruits to wake them up.

The 1 Parabat camp was next to ours. They did not like us. We did not like them. They came over the fence one night to steal our berets (for cleaning their boots they say). One bat got caught. He went to hospital.

One of my worst sights during basics was at the obstacle course. It happened when rowers were chased and rushed over the 3-4 m high ladder-like obstacle. It was made from wooden logs. All the recruits had webbing with rifle and staaldak [Helmet]. Everyone had to climb up the one side and jump down the other side. It was chaos as the guys trampled each other. One poor bugger landed with his upper leg on the flash breaker of another guy's R1 rifle. The rifle barrel pushed halfway up his leg. He was shouting non-stop. The medics came immediately and stretchered him away with the rifle still in his leg. We never saw him again.

The greatest army sin is when you loose your wife (rifle) while in the field. The corporals actually prowl at night to find arms while you are sleeping. This is why we always slept with our R1s in our sleeping bags.

Eland Gunnery training

This course was very intensive and we had to do a lot of study and tests. It was very interesting as we covered every piece of equipment in an Eland turret; radios, intercoms, browning mg, 90mm gun, 60mm mortar, sights and all kinds of ammunition.

The highlight of this phase was the shooting of all these weapons at de Brug range. It is a fantastic feeling to fire the 90 canon and the car rocks back due to the gun recoil.

One day there was a shooting accident at De Brug where a trooper was shot through the ankle with a browning. I remember how he jumped around holding his bleeding ankle. He was rushed away and we never saw him again.

Troop training

We were finally divided into Squadrons (Companies) and troops (platoons). These would be the guys that we would live together with for the next 18 months. I was in B Squadron and the first troop. I was made crew commander of Charlie car. There were four Elands in a troop.

We were also introduced to our leadership group. Our troop leader was Lt Jacobs (Jakes) and our troop sergeant was Spikkels. Both PF, they wanted us to be the crack troop of the squadron. Spikkels was a total military nut case. He told us on the first night in our bungalow that he was on top of the ladder, then came God, and then all the other people.

We had quite a spread of South Africans in our troop. Myself and other conservative Afrikaners from Pretoria and farms, a couple of English speaking Joburg jollers and some English speaking Durban guys. We also had 3 fantastic Jewish guys; Cohen, Feinsinger and Frank. The English speaking guys called us Afrikaners dutchmen, rock spiders and planks. We called them souties [limeys] or soutpiele and sometimes rooinekke [rednecks]. It is amazing how different we were in the beginning and how attached we became towards each other after 2 years.

During this phase we learned and practiced all the skills in armoured combat necessary for border duty. We spent many days at De Brug where we practiced the different manoeuvres and we did a lot of live ammo practice.

We hated Spikkels without exception. Once Frank said something wrong. Spikkels hit him in the face and kicked him viciously while he was on the ground. He was so furious that he took us with wooden logs to De Brug in a unimog. Every one of us had to carry a wooden log back to our camp at Tempe (+- 18 km). We knew this was total madness and we could do nothing about it. We were in a way worried about going to the border with such a madman.

Owambo 1978

Our Squadron was spread over the SWA border. One troop each at Ruacana, Ondangwa, Etale, Katima and some other place. Our troop was stationed first at Ondangwa and then Etale. We did patrols and other special tasks.

The ultimate goal for us on the border was to kill terrs. If an unfortunate terr got killed, the body was displayed and the camp celebrated. This sick principle of war slightly confused me sometimes because the Bible says you must not kill. I usually counter these thoughts with the knowledge that they wanted to kill me.

At Ondangwa our tent was called "Panzer Possi". It was a big double tent with a dartboard attached to one pole. One afternoon I was sleeping and woke up being darted in the leg by a trooper who missed the dartboard.

A couple of days after we arrived, we were paraded and announced that 8 of our fellow B Squadron troopers were killed at Katima during an attack. Each name was read to us. There were also a couple of wounded. Trooper Lesh was with us and his twin brother was one of the dead. Our captain specially came down to inform Lesh but he just refused to accept the news. He told us laughing that it is not true and it is just a mistake, we don't have to worry. Lesh was taken away to the States for the funeral and he never returned. I accidentally saw Lesh after 20 years in 1999 at Moorreesburg, (he is a farmer) and we recalled that sad day.

Etale (at that time) was a small camp, the highest rank was major. There were only one or two companies of infantry and one or two troops of armour. I still remember the tremendous amount of liquor that was consumed. Every Saturday night was drinking time. My estimate is that at least 60% of the whole camp was in a tipsy to totally motherless condition on a Saturday night. Even the guards were in a happy state. Feinsinger (Jew boy) came one Saturday night to my tent in a very unsober condition and said a prayer to myself and my best friend Smittie to "our Christian God" to bring us home safe. Under our reserved laughter we so much appreciated this prayer.

Spikkels cooled off a bit, but got at us when he had a chance. Leopard crawling around Etale camp with sandbags and Eland tire flipping in that amazing heat were some of his favorites.

One day on patrol, we were called to help an infantry patrol who was under attack in the yati. We rushed there and came under attack ourselves. We could not see the attackers, but just the explosions around us. Our lootie with the infantry sergeant decided to counter attack and pursue over the border into Angola. This was illegal at that time. We did this and followed the terr tracks that went through a kraal. We bombarded and machine-gunned the kraal blindly. We wasted a huge amount of ammunition. We then turned around and headed back to the border. I felt so terribly bad after this incident because there must have been civilians in that kraal, we will never know. Only one of our infantry was hit in the leg. He had a flesh wound. When he recovered and returned to the camp, he proudly presented to everyone the AK bullet that was found in his leg.

Our biggest concern was landmines. We filled the wheels with water to help absorb energy of a landmine. We tried not to drive on veld roads that were not swept by the engineers. One of our cars hit a mine but luckily only the wheel was blown off. The crew commander and gunner were thrown clear of the car and the driver was trapped in his seat. All had bleeding noses and shock. The next day they were ok.

One day we had a vehicle break down in the yati far from the camp. We could not do a field repair so we had to await the tiffies to bring parts and repair the car. We camped 3 days on the same spot. One day the lootie, Spikkels and some of the support troops did a patrol on foot around our campsite. They got hit. Four of them were wounded with one explosion including the Lootie and Spikkels. As next available rank, I was now in control. I ordered the remaining cars to secure the area of incident. I radioed for support and gave our position with the casualty report. Spikkels had about 5 shrapnel wounds in his back. He still managed to walk but I picked him up with my car and drove him to the safe area, his blood dripping onto my car. Andrews had wounds on his chest, small, but you could see the bubbles forming while he breathed, he was unconscious. The other guy was hit in his bum. I remember he pulled down his pants with the blood coming down his ass. I thought the loot was dead because he had a big gash in his neck and lots of blood came out. His face was full of blood. Luckily we had a medic with us on patrol. I told the medic he must first treat the 3 other guys because the Lootie is dead. After the medic treated the 3 other wounded he went to the lootie and shouted we must bring drips, the lootie is still alive and so saved his life. Eventually the support arrived and a puma came to pick up the wounded. The wounded were taken to the states. We never saw the Lootie again, the others later returned to us. I am so thankful that all these guys got 100% ok again and that their names were not added to the KIA lists.

Myself and my crew also showed some animal behavior now. We refused to wash away the blood of Spikkels from the steel plates of my car. The pitch black spots of blood on the car, baked by the sun, was a reminder for weeks of how much we hated him and gave us a kind of revenge feeling.

Once we went to Oshivello to do special ops training. We trained to attack Swapo trenched camps with armour, infantry and artillery, all live ammo. Our loot gave us orders to write letters to our families and said that there will definitely be casualties amongst us in the coming ops because we will spearhead the attack. In the meantime I made friends with a cook. I gave him some AK bullets in exchange for 2 tins of chopped mixed fruit pudding. Myself and Smittie ate the tins of mixed fruit and I became ill with the worst kind of gippo guts that I have ever experienced (I think fear also contributed). I was put in a unimog ambulance and transferred to a newly built hospital/sick bay at Ondangwa. The unimog shook terribly and they made my head hang over the stretcher with a fire bucket underneath. Everything that was in my stomach ended up in the bucket. The sick bay at Ondangwa was a joke! There was not one of the medical people who helped me. Your friends had to look after you and bring your food. In the one corner of the sick bay there was a coffin standing, complete with silver handles! There were no toilets in the sick bay and I had to walk about 100 meters to the camp toilets in that soaring heat. By the time I reached the toilets in this pathetic state I was at the point of passing out. After 2 days I recovered, the Ops. was called off, and my unit returned.

We returned to the states a day before Christmas at Pretoria station after 3 days travel by train from Windhoek. We nearly got thrown of the train because we made stupid jokes with the conductor using our rifles.

I was so glad to see my mother and family and to hold them. My mother always cried when I arrived or left for camp.

2SSB 1979 Zeerust, Owambo

In January 1979 we got transferred to Zeerust 2SSB Armour. Zeerust Camp was a PF paradise and we called it "die poesplaas". We just hated the place with everything that went with it and up to today it gives me bad memories. As oumanne [2nd year veterans] we had to do basics over for two weeks because we were declared as "windgat" [arrogant]. We received a new leadership group but they had not been to the border.

Some of the PF's families stayed with them in the camp. The one captain had a daughter of about 20 who also stayed in the camp. Her nickname was "skroefie", I wonder why.

We went to Owambo again. This time we were stationed at Omathia with the newly formed 61 Mech battalion. We were issued with Ratel 90's, much better than the Elands.

Our first Op. was to stop a band of terrs who got through to farms in SWA and killed some farm folks. The whole of the battalion was put to the chase and after some weeks all the terrs were killed. We moved around in farmland and the farmers were extremely friendly. They gave us everything we wanted.

My big buddy, Smittie, was in a way responsible for the death of 2 or 3 terrs when he fired a 90mm HE shell towards them while he was part of a stopper group. The terrs were wounded and could still move but a gunship chopper finished them of with their 20 mm gun.

That night there was a huge celebration party in Otavi ? with the bodies of the terrs displayed. The one terr had a 20mm HE shot to the head. Only the front part of his scull was left. Smittie was awarded a trophy for his part in the first kills of 61 mech battalion.

For the first time I realized how brave the terrs were and how a tiny few of them kept a whole mechanized battalion busy for weeks!!

Our biggest threat at the 61 Mech camp were elephants. They tend to give guards in outside listening posts a huge fright when walking by. We were so far south of the Angola border that we never really felt threatened by enemy attacks like being at Etale.

We practiced attacks on Swapo camps over and over but nothing of the real thing happened.

We returned back to the poes plaas in Zeerust. Now we really had min dae. [Short Time] We did show-of-force ops to Messina and the Marico area. Myself and Smittie became extremely fed-up and could not stand this messing around and the inhumane personal insults from superior ranks anymore. Now we had enough of guard duty, inspections, egg powder food and army life.

Eventually the big uitklaar [check out] day arrived. We walked out of the camp and this chapter was now over.

After Army Days

I went to Tukkies then to Maties and finished with my Masters degree in Rocket Engineering, working on the SA space programme for many years. For the past 6 years I have being running my own company in flour milling in Cape Town.

After 20 years myself and Smittie are still friends, we will never break the bond casted in those 2 years. Smittie is the owner of a huge computer company in Pretoria

I tried to avoid camps because I thought 2 years was enough.

What a mental shock for me when I went to Namibia in 1991 to row the Orange river with my wife and friends and saw the enemy Swapo flag flying at the border post, and me obeying everything asked by their government officials? This confused me totally.

I concluded that the priority in life is your family, friends, and you own community. Your country is also important with some degree of loyalty, but you can change countries to suit your family needs. But I definitely say no for the "to die for your country" crap so easily uttered by politicians.

On the other hand, the new South Africa is so much exciting and I really want it to prosper. I so much love this country and its peoples and have stopped to be negative by looking back. Now I try to look forward. Today I want to be identified as a builder of the new South Africa and contribute towards making it a better place for all of us and for our children's children.

With Hindsight

I went to the army at 17 and klaared out after two years service aged 19. From our original 150 Squadron members 1 out of every 10 was either wounded or dead after the two years.

Was the 2 years conscription worth the while at that age? I would say, for my own case, yes. (If I was badly wounded or dead, of course no. At 17/18 you are not really conscious of the risks involved.) For me, it was a huge kind of adventure. I have learned a lot of my fellow countrymen of different religions and culture and also learned to respect them.

You definitely learn a kind of responsibility. In the army you are on your own, it is your problem if you can't cope and there is no way out so you just have to cope.

The negative side was that in some way we were the executive instruments of politicians and were also in a position to be easily brainwashed by them. This happened so many times in history.

Twenty years ago we were hero's, now, without choice, we became the bad boys (apartheid protectors) in the modern history of South Africa…..

Now I remember the boy-men faces, my brothers in arms

We answered the call

For what reason at all?

How I miss you, my soldier friends

In my world of memory so clear

I can still see your fear

My poor brothers who never woke

Your faces didn't grew old

Why life was cheated from you so bold?

O my ghost friends in arms,

Rules of this world are grey

But we will still meet again one day

Published: 19 November 2003.

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