Until about 1981, the medics had been just a part of the army along with artillery, engineers etc. Then the SAMS was made into an independent branch of the SADF. (It is rumoured that the present Chief of the SADF is not in favour of this, feeling that each branch of the Defence Force should be capable of launching its own operations, which the SAMS is unable to do. He could dash into Angola and bandage up companies of FAPLA soldiers, but this would probably be against the Geneva Convention!)

Structurally, the army is very uncomfortable with the medics. Doctors are needed, because military activities, almost by definition, mean that people are going to get hurt, and some of them will be ours. So the army cannot do without them.

Yet the doctors cannot be easily intimidated by the army, especially not when backed fairly effectively by the South African Medical and Dental Council - If a doctor says that a person needs treatment, then no infantry commandant can safely argue the case, and as a military person, he would not want to take the risk of ignoring a doctor's recommendation, which might possibly result in manslaughter charges being laid against him if the person was to die.

What would make most people happier would be for medical professional people not to have ranks, and also not to have the military responsibilities that go along with it. If Doctors and Dentists wore a red cross on their epaulettes, which entitled them to Officer status, then everyone would be more comfortable.

It is understandable. An infantry captain will have probably been in the army for ten years to earn that rank, and looks at the army as his career, as his home. A doctor who joins permanent force becomes a captain with immediate effect, and may go for years without doing more than a couple of days orientation course. Maybe the suggestion of honourary rank for medical professionals has been made and ignored, or maybe everyone is so accustomed to negative responses to such suggestions that no one has bothered to make the suggestion.


South African Medical Service recruits did basic training at Klipdrift, just outside Potchefstroom. There was definitely a two tier system of training, with those registered with the South African Medical and Dental Council forming several companies, and fully expecting to automatically progress on to the truncated Officers course, and to complete National Service as First Lieutenants. These were Doctors, Dentists, Vets, Psychologists, Pharmacists and Health Inspectors.

'Kabouters' - Afrikaans for Trolls or Goblins, was the term used to refer to non-medical graduates who had been conscripted into the SAMS. The Kabouters were messed around more, and might become anything from clerks to drivers, to Ops. Medics. They might also be selected for a gruelling nine month Junior Leaders course.

The training instructors who trained the medical graduates had to be medical graduates themselves, but those who had elected to do the full 9-month Junior Leaders course. As a reward for this, they became Captains, the only National Servicemen to attain this rank during their initial two years.


Fred Short described Basic Training as "Good times that you wouldn't want to have again!"


Fred's Platoon Commander was Captain Theo Young, an instructor with a vague medical background. He arrived a few days after the recruits had started, and they did not know that he had just completed a parabat course 'in his own time'. He was that Gung Ho!

Fred's platoon thought they were very lucky to get an English-speaking instructor, but it turned out that he wasn't English, and he couldn't even 'string a sentence together coherently in English' - Fred's description.

They had a rather unfortunate first meeting with Captain Young. Very early during basics, Fred's platoon had just finished cleaning their bungalow for the next morning's inspection, and the floor was polished to perfection. They had just put the lights out, and were going to sleep. They became aware that someone was walking around in boots on their newly polished floor, instead of using 'taxis' (cloths to walk on) like everyone else.

"Fuck off you cunt!" someone shouted at the figure in the darkness. Next morning, the platoon met Captain Young, the figure to whom they had been inhospitable the previous evening. And they were to discover that he had a very long memory indeed!

Captain Young was apparently a 'nasty piece of work', in spite of what the following anecdote would suggest. Fred suffered from shin splints during basics, and seemed to be the lame person in the platoon for a while. He was apparently struggling in pain with the last 2,4 km run of basics, and finally Captain Young took pity on him, and fetched Fred on the back of his motor bike.

I heard other people who had been in Fred's Platoon vow vengeance against Captain Young when they got into 'Civvy street', but Fred harboured no such feelings. It was Fred who was to meet Captain Young again when Fred was in a senior position. It so happened that Captain Young decided to become a 'Mildent' (A medical student sponsored by the SADF). This involved him becoming a candidate officer again, an having to 'brace' for Lieutenants and above. Fred bumped into him when Fred was a Captain, and must have quite enjoyed seeing Candidate Officer Theo Young snap to attention in front of him.

Dr. Gavin Hendricks describes Fred doing basic training; Rain would fall and most of the platoon would be verbalising their hopes that the PT session would be cancelled. Fred would walk around with quiet (pipe smoking) self confidence, saying; "I don't see why we can't do PT," as though he had no objection. The rain would stop, and the troops would be 'Tree'd aan!' [Fallen in] for the PT they had been hoping to avoid. Fred would then sick report, and go to the light duty squad.


A 'vaak seun' [Dozy lad] in a lecture on 'Why we fight' suddenly realized that he had missed out the bit about who the enemy was.

"Excuse me, Lieutenant," he said, sticking up his hand. "But who is the enemy?" The Lieutenant gave him a quizzical look.

"Why, the communists, of course."

"Oh, thanks," said the 'vaak seun', and wrote this down, satisfied at having filled the gap in his knowledge.


Regimental Sergeant Major Wilson arrived once basics had started. He was respected by the recruits, and managed to arrange things for them - the basics, like electricity and running water that had been ignored by his predecessor. Many recruits who were trained under his regime had a great amount of respect for him, which is seldom the case with people destined, almost by default to be officers. He was apparently so bilingual that debates raged about whether he was actually English or Afrikaans speaking, though informed sources (Fred) eventually ascertained that he was Afrikaans speaking.

The anecdotes I know of him both relate to toilets:

The army considers that three pieces of toilet paper are needed following a bowel motion: "One for up, one for down and one for shine!"

RSM Wilson: "What is the toilet paper situation?"

Company:"Kak, RSM!" [Kak = shit]


A doctor reports having gone to sandy bay nudist beech for a couple of days before reporting for national service. His all-over tan was commented on in the showers during basics.

There was not enough bungalow accommodation to house all the recruits, so some of them were housed in tents. They would clean their tent spotlessly - as spotlessly as you can clean a tent - and stand rigidly to attention while being inspected, and watch through the corner of their eyes as dust drifted in through the open windows to settle on rifles which had just been cleaned.

There would be organisational hiccoughs, so that half of the troops would spend two weeks practising for the passing out parade while half sit in the tent for the two weeks.

Those doing basics during the mid-year winter suffered from the cold - it was a particularly cold part of the country, and temperatures regularly dropped below freezing.

Guard Duty was an integral part of basic training, and people who did guard duty at night had no respite from the long days of training. Guard duty at night was cold, and very very boring. Guards amused themselves by watching the comings and goings at the houses of the Permanent Force members houses which they could see clearly, and they could keep track and compare with who was sleeping with whose wife.

There was a rumour from a previous intake, that an RSM had decided to give the guards a hard time, and he sneaked up on them. They challenged him, but he did not reply. They challenged again, and still he stayed silent. They shot him dead. The story goes that they were (reluctantly) praised for following standing orders.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: It appears that in the British Army, soldiers don't guard their own bases. After the Deal bombing, it became apparent that security was entrusted to outside companies, who were cheaper. British soldiers, it appears, have more important things to do than guard themselves against their enemies. But Britain has a professional army, and South Africa had no shortage of cheap conscripts.

The instructors did not have a particularly easy time trying to train platoons containing a high percentage of qualified medical doctors. The doctors would debate the health hazards of various activities, and often the instructors could not argue, and would have to give in, and cancel the P.T. session, or whatever was being contested.

On the shooting range, someone loosed off a couple of shots accidentally, and spent the rest of the day running around the range carrying ammunition boxes. During 'vuur en beweging' [fire and movement] some instructors were firing live rounds too close to the troops moving forwards.

Medical professionals undergoing military training were repeatedly told that they were 'Soldiers first and doctors second'. I'm sure this wouldn't be the case if a doctor on the Border wanted to join the 'hot pursuit' rather than attend to the wounded.

Fred's friend 'Bal', faced with the question 'Religion:' on some document he had to fill in, wrote 'None'. He waited a long time to get a security clearance.


Klipdrift would often not use up their petrol rations, and if they did not use it, their rations would be cut in the future. The solution - when that petrol could not be stolen - was to start up vehicles and leave them idling all night, just to burn up petrol. It was part of the life at Klipdrift to hear motor engines running throughout the night.


Klipdrift was considered to have a decent Officer Commanding, Colonel Spies:

Enrico: A second Lieutenant grilled a CO for not having saluted him promptly, and had him stand there in front of him, and salute him a thousand times. While they were busy, the Colonel happened along and enquired what was going on. He was told. He pointed out that the Lieutenant should return each salute, and had the two of them start over. They stood there going through the bizarre ritual for a very long time.


The Defence Force has all sorts of ways of trying to get money out of the already underpaid National Servicemen. One arrangement was where the Officer Commanding Klipdrift promised on his honour that for every two ten rand tickets for some competition each national serviceman sold, he would be given a day pass.

This backfired when someone from a wealthy family offered a cheque for the value of two ten rand (or was it fifty rand?) tickets for the rest of his national service; to take advantage of the Colonel's offer and buy himself out of national service completely.

Apparently he didn't get away with this, but there were some very red faces about the incident.


Dave tells a lovely story about basic training at Klipdrif. The OC of Klipdrift was apparently given some award for resourcefulness in a difficult situation - what became known as 'The Great Klipdrift Water Crisis'. The camp was faced with a water shortage, and if the crisis became too severe, the authorities would have no choice but to send some of the troops (maybe only the first two hundred) home.

The OC told his troops of the crisis, and asked for everyone's cooperation. Somehow, word got out about what the bottom line was, and everyone set about trying to use as much water as possible. Efforts to relieve the water shortage involved trucking water in from somewhere outside, and these trucks kept arriving and departing both night and day, and the troops were hard pressed to try to dispose of the water faster than it could be trucked in.

But the organization won in the end!

Leslie Gellman told a story about his basic training that I enjoyed. His instructor, an evil swine, a Captain gave all his basic training troops a difficult time, but as usual, they found ways to get their own back at him.

It was the instructor's habit to ride around the base on his motorbike, and being an instructor, he had to set a good example, and had to return all salutes given to him by the Candidate Officers. Les would always salute him when the instructor rode past on his motor bike.

In order to return the salute, the Captain would have to slow down his speed, take his hand off the accelerator, and split his attention between driving and saluting.

Colonel Spies insists that his troops are not abused. A corporal wanted his platoon to go running holding their rifles above their heads. The Colonel saw this and reprimanded the corporal.

Next time that the Colonel wasn't around, the corporal again made the platoon run with their rifles above their heads. They were on their way back when - who should arrive back - but the Colonel? He ranted and raved at the Corporal, and gave him fourteen extra duties (a form of punishment).

The platoon was not over fond of the corporal, and they conspired against him. Next time the Colonel was around, at a pre-arranged signal, the whole platoon raised their rifles above their heads, and ran off, with the Corporal running along after them, begging and pleading them to lower their rifles before the Colonel saw what was happening.

Members of the PPC that I mixed at 1 Mil with fantasised about going back to Klipdrift and doing wheel spins all over the parade ground.

BRIAN R- [see `1 Mil'] was a political science graduate, and a cadet in the South African dilpomatic corps. He was called up and started basics at Personnel Services School, Voortrekkerhoogte, but after a while he and one or two of his friends was transferred to the Medics at Klipdrift:

When Anton and I were told that we would be leaving for Klipdrift, we were in a big bungalow of about 42 guys. There was quite good spirit within the bungalow. When we were packing to go on the evening before we left I realised that there was something afoot. I like to have the opinion of myself as being fairly observant. I told Anton that they were planning something, and he said `Nonsense!' Indeed they were; they had clubbed together and had bought us each a gift, and they had signed a card and they made us stand on chairs and said goodbye to us in that way. I was quite touched. It was after being together for about three months, and obviously forming that spirit as a group together as you inevitably do under difficult circumstances. I was chuffed that they gave us something, and that I had observed it before it happened.

When we were in Klipdrift and we were in tents, we had quite a pleasant time, I remember, because at P.D. Skool (Personnel Services School) we used to get up at quarter to four in the morning and at Klipdrift we used to get up at closer to six o'clock; very civilised. We had one guy who was very paraat; Karel Van Aard. His father was chief magistrate of Johannesburg. He was a very nervious type; he used to squat on his haunches smoking, nervously looking about him. It was quite hot in Potchefstroom. To get his boots to shiny perfection he decided that he would melt the polish in the tin. He duly melted the polish, and it ran out on to the floor. I think he lit a cigarette, and the polish caught fire - or he could have been holding the lighter underneath the tin. It took fairly quickly.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and we had nothing on. We were all relaxing in the tent and most of us were reading or writing letters, and Mike Nugent, who is very quiet and stable, and nothing phases him much, jumped up to help Christo. As he jumped up, this polish suddenly took, and the tent was in danger of burning down. Mike and Karel were jumping up and down trying to smother things and as it took, Mike said `Gentlemen. Gentlemen, I think we need some assistance here!' He was totally calm. It was amusing as the tent was in danger of burning down. I was almost inclined to leave it because I thought it would be quite exciting if our tent and its contents burned down.


Professional Officers, like myself, were issued with little symbols as to what our profession was. These were called Carduciouses. Doctors had the ancient Greek medical symbol of the serpent on the staff, psychologists had the Greek letter 'pye' which is universally used as the symbol for psychology. Pharmacists had an emblem of a pill-crushing bowl - what would the jargon be? (Pestle and mortar?) Vets had a rampant horse, administrators had crossed pens. What about dentists - I honestly can't remember - a tooth, perhaps?

On our smart 'Step Out' jackets, there were little badges to be worn on each side of the collar or lapel. The badge depicted a little gold serpent on a stick against a silver 'St. Johns' cross. They were to be worn with the serpents facing inwards, and if you wore them facing outwards, they were described as 'going AWOL'. A fine example of military humour!

Published: 1 July 2000.

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