5 SAI (July 1976) - Mapalela Island. SADF Mortarist 72 Mechanised Brigade

Steven was called up to 5 SAI in July 1976 when national service was still one year, and spent time on Mapalela Island. After this he was allocated to 72 Brigade in Alrode, with Johannesburg Regiment. He was promoted to Sergeant and did 4 border camps and 5 one month camps.

EDITOR's NOTE: Steven contacted me after having read Graham's account of 5 SAI from the same intake. I interviewed him on 29 November 2005 and he was happy for me to tape record our interview with a view for publication. He's not replied to me several times this year, but I am going ahead and publishing his material anyway, even though I would have preferred to have polished it some more in collaboration with Steven.


Email Extracts: in particular 5 SAI in which I served 12 months national service - July 1976, the last intake before national service increased to 24 months.

I was on Mapalela Island when we were advised we had just missed the extension, a good call for a HANSA export celebration.

I subsequently was conscripted to 72 Brigade in Alrode, with Johannesburg Regiment. I was caught up in Dads Army for 10 years, during which time I was promoted to Sergeant and attended 4 border camps and 5 one-month camps.

(One of the three-week camps was extended to three months, you can imagine the level of motivation.)

I still remember my first camp: Operation "Quicksilver" a show of SA's

military might.

I was originally 5 SAI, just infantry. 72 Brigade was mechanised; first motorised and then mechanised.


When we first got to the army - The station in Johannesburg, and we had to go to Ladysmith. They funniest was when you first get there and you see these big guys in their browns, with one or two stripes. You realised when you do your first three months that one stripe is quite important. You only ever see one stripe normally, and two stripes if you are very lucky. Everybody's there, still in civvies, quite relaxed because you are only 18. Then you get in a train with a bunch of guys and you make mates. When you eventually get there, and after they cut your hair, you don't know who anybody is anymore.


I did my basics at 5 SAI in 76/77. We were the last intake who got away with doing twelve months.

Lt firing the rubber mortar rounds at Boshoek - they went into the clay soil and the guys struggled to get them out (expand?)

The ineffectual punishment given to them by a dopey LT at 5 SAI, running up and down a hill, but they had to cross over the Klip River in order to get there, which involved carefully and slowly crossing the river on stepping stones, so that they would actually find that part quite relaxing (expand?)

It was funny when I was doing basics and they were handing out rifles and kit. They had one rifle, an R1 that they had hidden in the back. They waited for some unsuspecting guy. It was bent. They would give it to a guy, and he wouldn't know what to say. He would carry on walking.

We had this guy in basics who was from Natal - he had red curly hair. He used to take a lighter and light his hair. He used to do all kinds of crazy things. One day he was walking patrol, and he thought he would pull a round off, with the barrel under the water. The whole thing just split. The whole barrel!

There were a lot of Durban guys there at 5 SAI, and there were lots of Durban guys in the mortars, so they were quite relaxed. I remember when we were going up to the border, one of the guys (verb?) Edger Brighton: How far are we from dying?


I spent 6 months on the border. I did Kwando on the Caprivi Strip for two months, Katima Mulilo for two months and Mapalela Island for two months

It was quite an experience; the whole group of guys. We went up there. We landed at M'pacha airport, and the light is so intense. The Major comes up to us and says; `You guys, the enemy is not out there. The enemy is here amongst you. We lose more guys killing each other, than the enemy kills us.' Then you start looking around. What is he saying? Then suddenly you get all the live ammo. It gets quite interesting.

We would just volunteer for everything, because it was easier to volunteer than to get the shit jobs. If there was a shit job going - volunteer. That way you would miss the next one. That was the theory.

There were about six of us in the group and we used to do all the shit jobs. `Okay, I'm looking for six volunteers.'

`Here we are.'

There was a weird Ops in 1976 around the Kwando area. One of our platoons had gone out on patrol. They made a TB and the next morning they had a herd of elephants chase through their TB. Straight after the elephants came a fire(attack?), and suddenly it disappeared. They picked up their weapons and followed these terrs. The Recces had been fed information that these guys were being lead into a 150 man ambush, and we had to try and stop these guys. They sent a helicopter out, and it was shot down. The pilot was hit through his back - it was an alloette. The flight sergeant managed to make it back to the base, but the pilot was killed.

We were guarding a very small temporary bridge, and suddenly this whole ops appeared. A superfrelon came in and picked us up, and we were told; `Right. We need you guys.' We climbed in the Superfrelon, and they flew us to Kwandu. As we landed, the whole chopper pad was just surrounded by dead terrs that they had brought in from the contacts. They had been there a couple of days already. They loaded us into the back of vehicles, on top of bombs - 81mm bombs were just thrown into the back. When the ops was happening, everybody was just saying; `Go Go Go!' So we were sitting on this pile of bombs, driving through the veld to wherever we were going. We had this very young Loot. There was chaos. You could hear the mortars being fired and exploding; you could hear the contact. You could hear one of those small kudu planes flying as a spotter. It was all happening.

We were with this very young Loot, and he was lost. He took us in the wrong direction. We were going into Zambia, because the hook is right there, between Zambia and Angola. He took us into this wrong route. As we were going through, I got hit by a swarm of bees, and I was carrying this mortar barrel with this other guy. We both dropped it. I thought he had it, and he thought I had it. So when we got back to the kaplyn, I said; `Where's the barrel?'

`No, I haven't got it. I thought you had it.'

Okay. We take three guys and we go back. We followed our tracks. We could hear the contact going on. Eventually we found the barrel. We were just about ready to turn around, when we found it and we carried it back. When we got back, they had all gone. So we thought that we had been left, because we saw the chopper going down and picking up guys, and off they went. We had no water with us at all. Every time a plane flew over, we were thinking that he was looking for us. This was over a long duration.

Eventually we heard some mortars, so we went up. We got to where they were, and Breytenbach was there. He had a whole lot of guys with him. One guy had a red scarf and he was busy slapping our Loot around. One of the guys picked up his rifle - Breytenbach was really annoyed - he was very pissed off with this Loot because he had got us lost. He was going wild. I just couldn't believe seeing this guy, and seeing just how casual he was about war. This was his business, and here we were; we were just normal guys thrown into a situation, but this was his business.

They eventually hit this base where the ambush was, and I think that they found so many bags of mielie meal. That gave an indication of how many terrs there were. They took two volunteers. They said; `Right. We can't bring the bodies back. Go and chop their hands off.' Two guys were given the job; they had to go out and do that job.

Because we had made such a mess of our Ops, they sent us back by foot. We hadn't had water for something like three days. Everyone was dying of thirst. One of our guys got lost over the duration because it was another night trying to get back to the base. One guy was delirious and he went wandering off. We found him a week later. They had to send him back; he was totally bossies. Eventually we got back to the base. It was just one of those ops (indistinct on tape)

When I got there, elephants would walk around the base. That was normal stuff. All they would tell you was; `Don't walk there', or `Don't walk by yourself.' Or `When the elephants come, run like mad.' We were told `Just tap your magazine' because this was Mapalela Island. The elephants used to come over on to the island. They said that if you walk into a herd of elephants, just tap your magazine. Don't run, don't do anything. But I think that if you walk into a herd of elephants, I think you are going to run. On the Caprivi you could see where they had been because of the big tracks.

I was petrified of snakes when I was on the border. I always used to come across the snakes. I saw some really mean snakes. When I was standing beat one day. It was a Sunday and everybody was out. On Sunday we always used to have the wet rats. They would try and make something special - custard and whatever. This snake came into the bunker. [Instantly! …] There was no-body there! I went up out of the bunker because the snake had come in. You can't always tell whether it's a lizard or a snake, because they both have forked tongues, and their heads look exactly the same. This was a snake.

The guys got to know that I was afraid of snakes. One day I got into my sleeping bag, and I felt this ridge under the sleeping bag. I got up to have a look, and they had coiled up this snake, and put it under my sleeping bag to catch me. The lights were on - thank goodness! Otherwise I would have been feeling around there. They had killed it first.

I was a Johannesburg boy and I was suddenly in the bush. The Natal guys were very close to nature. A lot closer to nature than we were.

When I was at Kwando - the police had been very active on the Caprivi before we had got there. Apparently one night they had someone who was cleaning the kitchens, and he actually paced out how far the base was to the waterside, and they revved it that night. And the first bomb landed in the canteen. The police had been very relaxed.

We used to hear about them having `draws' with their 9 mms. They used to get so pissed in their pubs. It was just one long drinking session, wasn't it? You know what their border camps were like. They would get slammed out of their heads.

At Kwando we had a guy by the name of Van Rensburg. His brother was the South African springbok discuss thrower. He was a very big guy. As a mortarist, I didn't see that much activity with patrols. We would always be there to protect the bases. These guys were out walking patrols and hitting contacts regularly. Van Rensburg hit a contact, and they stole a whole lot of AK47 magazines, and they took the things home. Apparently this guy was a hero in this context - he stood up and he ran at them with his bren. We had a sergeant major from Ladysmith who didn't like this guy, and he punished him. You should have seen how he punished him. He had to flip tires all day long, and then he had to dig a hole, that must have been about six foot square, and about eight foot deep, and they put a corrugated iron roof over it, and he locked him in there for about a week. They just took him water and basic food.

They also used to punish the guys with grootjass-es. They used to put the guys out in the sun, cover them with a grootjas ,and then leave you in the sun, sweating. When we saw this punishment taking place - this sergeant major - when you're shooting mortars, and you shoot a round, and it's a dud - if you drop a bomb and it doesn't go off, you take it out, and you put it in a special place, and they'll take it and detonate it somewhere safe. One day this sergeant major came out and I think he had had too much to drink. He said; `Hey, you. Mortar guys. I want you to shoot so many round there, and so many rounds in that direction, and then …' So we started shooting these rounds for this guy. We ran out of bombs.

So he says; `What about those ones over there?'

`No. Those are duds. We can't shoot those.'

`Shoot them!'

`No we can't shoot them. They're duds.'

`Shoot them!'

So we shot them. The one just fell on the other side of the wall, and exploded. All the tents had holes in them. This 81mm mortar round just landed on the other side. I really don't know what happened to this guy. He was a real alcoholic.

I know of a situation where a vehicle flipped and a guy was trapped underneath his vehicle. We had to rush out to go and rescue this guy. He had had this big stick and he would hit the driver on his head; `Go faster. Go faster!'

I don't know whether he was meant to be in the army. He was a proper `PF!'


I almost did a full compliment of camps. I think I got out of one. I still feel guilty! :-0 We were at Lohatla; we had the 52s there, we had the Ratels running up and down. They called the Loot and they said; `Here's your RP. (Reference Point) And here's your target for the morning.' So we drive, and the sun sets and it gets dark. We're going through with the Unimogs and the Ratels. We got to the place, and it was just rocks all over the place. Eventually we all climbed out. It was freezing cold. The guys were saying; `We're not sleeping here. Look at this place. How are we going to sleep here? Its just rocks.' Everybody was moaning.

In the distance we could see these lights coming towards us. We heard this Landrover coming up. I think it was a major who came running out. He was pale. He said; `You've just moved on to our target. This is the target for the night.' They were ready to start firing. If this guy hadn't turned his vehicle around, and they had seen the lights, we would have been gone. We would have been wiped out. That's how easily it happens. Just one error! The guy had mixed up the reference points. It was quite scary. And people say that the army has a certain factor - so many guys can die in training. I don't want to be a statistic.

The night I slept with a wrestler: We were doing training and there was this valley that we had to take our weapons through at night time. This whole valley was full of haak-en-steek. When we eventually got to the other side and set our weapons up, the guys were ripped. They said; `Okay. You have to sleep here tonight'. The vehicles were just on the other side of the valley. `No, I'm just not going back.' It was like going back through hell. There were five of us, and one of the guys was a wrestler. All we had was a groundsheet. We decided that everybody would just gather together for body warmth, and we made it through the night like that. And in the morning, we said; `Don't tell anyone.'

One camp that I did; we didn't go in to bases; we made bases. We captured every single black guy who was in the area from the age of fifty down to the age of fifteen; we put [empty] sandbags over their heads, we brought them into the camp, into an enclosure, and we showed them to what they called `canaries' [informers], and these guys would point them [terrorist suspects] out. We grabbed all of these guys - I don't know what they called this Ops. At that stage they sent one of our regiments in - I think it was the Irish, and when they hit that contact, they actually heard the Russians. They heard the guys shouting at them from the other side. These guys made a temporary base and they moved with dogs barking, and the vehicles, and they got hit with a major - it must have been a full company that hit these guys. There were tracers shooting, and they were shooting low down. I think we lost 3 guys in that contact. When they came back, and the Major said; `We're going back.' He would go back with us [TURN OVER TAPE]

Ops Bedrog - that was Simon Peresh - he came around, and P.W. Botha said "We don't have any troops in Angola. Come with me and I'll show you." "Hey boys, break your camps down, the inspectors are coming." We had to break all of our camps down, and we had to go in the bush, and hide under trees.

There were stories about certain terrorists, and when I was there, there were stories of a terrorist called `Bigfoot'. This guy used to walk along the fences, so they couldn't follow his tracks. He would get to a fence, walk along the fence, and then climb off, and go walking off in a different direction. I remember when we used to have our Sit-Reps, they always used to talk about this Bigfoot, and eventually they nailed this guy. It was interesting that they knew exactly who each guy was, and more-or-less where he was, and how they were going to catch him.

I know when I was in Sector 10 - we were having breakfast and they called us out; `We've got some terrs here.' Everybody went out, had a look at them, checked their cammo out, checked out the two dead terrs, and then went back - had our breakfast, and carried on. It was just part of military life. You don't think; `This was a living person.'

I remember the last camp we did, it must have been in 1986, and when we came back, our Major said to us; `The fight is not there anymore. The fight is here. There's no more fighting on the borders, defending South West Africa.'

I spent three months there - ?Ruacana. Its so amazingly different to the rest of Owamboland. It was quite nice.

We had a really good bunch with us up there. They seemed to be a bit different up there. I lost touch with these guys. There were some very Afrikaans guys, and there were some English guys - quite a combination of guys - all in different aspects of life. We were doing camps now; one worked for the railways, one worked as a panel beater. You would hear all these stories when you got together around a campfire; everybody would get together and share their experiences, and their stories. It was great! That's one part of the army that I used to enjoy. I don't think that I ever went on a camp that I didn't enjoy. In fact I used to look forward to going on camps; I used to look forward to meeting the guys that I knew from previous camps, and I was disappointed if one of the guys didn't pitch. Everybody would get together and we would just carry on, and get on with it.

The one thing from the army that always came to me was that you could be having the greatest time, or you could be having the worst time of your life. That was the scary thing about being in the army. One minute you could be in a contact situation where it was a life or death situation, and the next minute you could be relaxing and having a beer. It was a very important part of our lives, I think. I think that any 18 year old who doesn't go to the army really misses out.

I was up at Sector 10 to do the Infal system, the mortar acoustic training system. There were two of us who came in - two sergeants. We went and we laid out the acoustic tracking systems. I think that it was every morning that we used to attend the meetings, the Sit-Reps. It was very interesting. I was with 72 Brigade. We were doing a camp. We were mechanised. We had Ratels. I never saw a mortar Ratel. I was with the 81mm mortars. We used to do all the Ops. in a Unimog, behind everyone else.

STORIES I HEARD: It must have been 1975 when the guys went into Angola with 81mm mortars. The observer kept calling 5 rounds of HE, 5 rounds of phosphorous, 5 rounds of HE, 5 rounds of phosphorous. Eventually, when he came back to base, they asked him; `Why were you calling such a strange combination of ammo?' He said; `Every time he would call HE, the guys would dive in their trenches. Then he would call phosphorous, the guys would jump out.'

With the mortars, especially with the 81s, you would hear all the stories, about the anti-tank bomb that you can shoot with a mortar that will come down and go through the hatch. You hear all these silly stories.

Often when you get together with other army guys, and you're telling stories, the quietest guy will suddenly open up about a situation he was in, and it would be like something out of this world. I was at the Waterfront in Cape Town, and I met a guy who had been at 1SAI. He got hit by phosphorous, and their whole Ratel went white. They hit this Ratel with some anti-tank weapon. They guys were stranded there. He just started telling this whole story about all that had happened. It was really scary. They were left there, and apparently everybody else moved out, and they were under fire constantly for hours. They had to stay until they were rescued. I can't recall which Ops. this was on. You could be having a chat with a guy, and he'll just open up with some of his stories. I didn't see any really horrible things.

Published: 26th December 2006.

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