Questions and Answers.
In November 2000 I visited the SENTINEL PROJECTS website and found a general interview format for discussing our military experiences. I had originally written my story as a long rambling piece, but also completed the interview format questions as they touched on subjects I had not thought about. My original document is now history, and this is the record as it now stands. Please note, these are my views and do not reflect any official policy.
Any relevant family history, either of ancestors having served in some military capacity, or of the expectations created by older brothers, cousins etc?.
My father had served in the Army in World War 2 and had been a POW for the duration after being captured at Sidi Rezegh. An uncle of mine had died during his military service in World War 2, and my grandfather was a Delville Wood survivor. My brother had served his national service in Lenz about 6 years before I went in. I had heard much before I went in from everybody, and of course they were all out to paint this very grim picture of what it was really like. They were often correct too. I also had this book which you could buy at the CNA about National Service. it came out every year and told you the whats and wherefores. It was mostly propaganda and painted a very distorted view. By the end of 1981 I had served with 3 SAI, 11 Commando, 1 SAI and 61 Mechanised Battalion Group.
Did you have any desire to evade it, by going overseas or any other means?
Of course, most of us did; although going overseas or to university was not something we could afford. I wanted to try get into Atlas Aircraft Corporation as an apprentice, at least you were posted close to home. I even went for the interview. I think I messed up on the ink blot test though; all those blots of ink looked vaguely like blots of ink. Another possibility was failing Matric but my father had just lost his job and things were dicey at home.
What preparations did you do in the weeks and days prior to reporting for national service? Efforts to get fit enough?
A few of us took to running around a local park in the months before we left, but we also had to study for our matric exams and so that idea soon went down the drain. There was a huge list of stuff to buy though and getting it all took much effort. All manner of things were recommended; washing powder, pegs, soap, brasso, chain and locks, a radio, writing materials, toothpaste, an iron etc.
I was initially called up for 3 SAI Potchefstroom, probably the only one from my matric year that was called up to this mustering.
What took you by surprise, either (a) positively or (b) negatively.
Once I arrived the thing which got to me was for the next 2 years I would have to stand inspection, and I could not leave until it was over in 2 years time. I was also surprised by the sheer brutality of some of the people as well as the stupidity of the whole system. The old phrase of “move camp 2 inches to the left” was a reality. I hated mixing with some of the really coarse elements, and communal showers were lousy. Positive aspects? I don’t know, maybe the camaraderie? and the sheer fact that many of us hated it and had that much in common. I think that most positive aspects would appear after we were finished. Most ex soldiers did better at work and at studies, had more self discipline and were better employees. Those who had not had their lives destroyed of course. Unfortunately we also tended to be foul mouthed, moody and often very unfeeling.
How did your basic training differ from what you had expected?
The endless mindless drilling around like an automaton; we never understood half of what this was in aid of. Everything was all in Afrikaans, so we spent much time guessing what they were shouting. Fortunately my Afrikaans was excellent so I did not have too much of a language problem. We were chased everywhere and it all seemed like a heap of crap to us. Nobody ever tried to instil unity in us, they tried to shove it down our throats. Shooting was never taught to us, it was seen as an opportunity to fuck us around. Nobody bothered teaching us how to shoot properly, I would have thought that was one of the most important things to teach a soldier. We also carried a water bottle wherever we went because of a fear of heat exhaustion. It was a welcome relief to us. I never expected the “lectures” though, subjects like camouflage, map work, first aid, We endured these in agony, sitting in our webbing, weighed down by that helmet, trying desperately to stay awake. I know everybody said to us that basics was bad.. but that 2nd phase and Tein ops was worse.
How did your basic training differ from what you believe other people in other units did?
I only found this out when I met guys from other camps in 11 Commando Kimberly. For starters our inspections were laid out differently and our webbing equipment was made up differently too. They seemed to have had it much easier than we did, and anybody that came from Pretoria was considered slap. We had had to redo basics in Kimberley to make us all the same level. But the 2nd time around it was much easier because were were fitter too. Coming from infantry we were also tougher and looked down at the guys from tiffies or signals. We saw ourselves as an elite. The old maxim of “agter elke bokkop is daar ‘n fokop” did not apply as far as were were concerned. Later, in mechanised infantry we looked down upon normal infantry.
What did you enjoy – hate – find interesting?
I was brought up in a city, so the bush was totally foreign to me, and every day we would march off into the bush and get fucked around in it. I loathed the dust and trees and no toilets, I hated having to squat behind a bush. I also hated being treated like an idiot and being discriminated against because I spoke English. I hated the arrogance of the PF’s because I knew that most were hasbeens anyway, that was why they had joined the army. The food was grotesque, the endless chasing around, the abuse…. it was all so needless. I am sure had they treated us as human beings they would have achieved much more.
There was a lot of theft in the army and you could not leave anything unlocked because it would be swiped. Often you had your suspicions who was responsible but could do nothing about it. If it was somebody in your bungalow then it was even worse because you were saddled with them. The only thing you could do was catch them in the act and take them to the MP’s.
There weren’t too many distractions, I think we all enjoyed sitting around talking kak the most and comparing notes on our lives. Occasionally we would have these mock parades and everybody joined in, mocking our favourite hated NCO. Of course letters from home were welcome, we read them avidly, but all guys dreaded the “Dear Johnnie” the most. I had many pen-pals, girls who I never met who I exchanged letters with, once I left the army I lost contact with them. It was also nice to read a newspaper because the world carried on around us. Mostly we never had time to do much because we seemed to spend most of the time getting fucked around and getting ready for inspection. There were no TV’s or movies in Potch, although we did get to go to Church at another camp. There was a young CPSA minister who had fire and conviction, he was also an NDP so he was on our level. The NG Kerk dominees tended to drone on and on and tried to justify the military through religion. Once we had a concert but we all spent too long trying to keep awake.
To phone home we had to get a “phone pass”, usually only 30 minutes and most of that we spent in the queue at SAWI where the phones were. It was nice to hear a familiar voice though.
You did make good friends, guys who you would pour your heart out to, and who would be there to talk to. We would compare notes on our families, education, homes, thoughts and dreams. At the end of the day we would be depending on each other. I always found weapons fascinating and loved to look at other units and see what equipment they had. Once a Ratel stopped in Potch and we had a good look at it, it was so different to seeing it had it been at the Rand Show. I would have enjoyed shooting too, had it not been more of a torture. They used shooting as an excuse for an opfok, rather than an opportunity to develop our skills. I also enjoyed hearing many of the 2 liners stories of the border war, but very few ever took the time to talk to us as soldiers.
I am sure most of us hated PT and the 2,4 the most, in Potch we were unfit… and they hammered PT into us. Initially we had PT clothes and it was rough and we suffered. Usually your platoon leader took PT but occasionally we had the PTI who was great. He hammered us but he did not fuck us up. When he was finished you were too…. The 2,4 was agony the first time we ran it.. it just went on and on and never ended. Later into basics we did battle PT with boots and browns and then we really suffered. Skaap dra and baba dra, pushups and situps, endless running around trees and buildings. All the chasing did raise our level of fitness though and eventually it became easier so they just pushed us harder.
Any humorous moments or events?
On the funny side I remember us doing the dreaded “verberging en vermoming” one day and one guy plucked a very conspicuous bush and used that for cammo, he was the only one in the whole company and when we treed aan he stood out like a sore thumb. The CSM was livid and we spent the rest of the day paying for our sins. When we got back to base finally we had to make sure we removed every bit of “Black is beautiful” because it could spread like wildfire. The one guy did not wash the inside of his staaldak strap and the next day was instantly camouflaged.
We were forever playing practical jokes on each other: shaving cream was the most loved. A bit in a hand or cheek of a sleeping buddy was hilarious. We often used to kill ourselves with laughter at the most stupid things. Of course somethings just happened. Guys would collapse on their beds after training and fall asleep still wearing their kit, or would fall asleep while cleaning the floor. We would watch each others heads drooping from a lack of sleep knowing that he would be rudely awakened by a Cpl with a rifle butt on the helmet. One bungalow took one of the troops kas, trommel and bed (with him sleeping in it) and carried it out to the parade ground and set it up there.
Any interesting or bizarre people you met?
We did have one guy in the bungalow with us, he had had 5 distinctions in school and was very bright, however he struggled with the army. He was just not army material. He could not even tie his boots properly and the NCO’s and other guys made his life miserable. Yet, he was always the first one up and he worked very hard at inspection even though it never helped much. He transferred to Kimberley with us and later ended up as a clerk there. There were usually one or 2 guys who did not shower and often they would be taken and scrubbed by their bungalow mates with brooms.
How did you get to do this training – you applied?
A few weeks into basics a colonel from “Burgersake” popped in and explained to us the benefits of going to Intelligence School in Kimberley. It sounded really good, a quick language, drivers and burger sake course, rank and then posted off to an area to assist the local population. Needless to say I signed up. The Colonel disappeared and we heard nothing further after that.
What made you apply for this training.
It sounded like a good way to spend our time in the army, it did sound like it had merit. It also meant getting out of Potch which I hated with a passion. There were not too many options if you were in infantry, the only others who would come around were the Dog School
What did the course involve?
When we arrived at Kimberley we had the shock of our lives. Firstly we had to redo basics, then we would go to the bush for 1 month to do 2nd phase, platoon weapons and Tein Ops. After that we would return to Kimberley, complete Tein Ops and then start a language course for 3 weeks, then a drivers course of 2 weeks, then do vasbyt and finally burgersake or an intelligence course. Some would end up as 1 liners and others as loots. Those who did not make it would be RTU-ed
How well was it structured and taught?
We were the 2nd intake to the fledgling Intelligence School and things were disorganised. We initially had NDP instructors to take us through basics. 2nd Phase was to be taught by PF’s and they would get African instructors to teach us the language course. Naturally the army did not plan any of this properly. Our drivers course had 3 learners license books for a whole company
What did you like – hate – find interesting?
The camp was huge and had these big hangers for bungalows, each could sleep 3 platoons and there was no privacy at all, they were also like fridges and winter was on its way. The bathrooms were totally inadequate. The food was served in a huge mess with 16 to a table, unfortunately there was just not enough and while it was an improvement on Potch it did not satisfy hungry troops. The instructors were sadists, there is no other word for those PF’s we had.
We did 2nd phase at a piece of bush called “Duncan” which was about 20 kilo’s from Jan Kemp Dorp. It was cold, dusty and just bush. We had no hot water, the food was too little and they treated us like shit. The platoon weapons phase was interesting, we learnt how to fire and maintain the World War 2 vintage Bren guns, Star 9mm pistol, Uzi sub-machine gun, the rifle grenade, and hand grenade. Unfortunately (or was it fortunately?) I had injured my knee in Potch so was admin duty for the time we were there. I also had had my ears damaged early in Kimberley and this prevented me from taking part in shooting. The Tein Ops was geared towards border duty but was not as clear as what we would do on the border later on. They covered riots and civil unrest too, but it did not really encompass what would soon be happening in the country.
We hated the cold, it was freezing in Kimberley most of the time. We hated the endless inspections and opfoks. Fortunately we were able to go into town on a Saturday morning and the camp had a movie house. Our passes ran from Thursday afternoon till Tuesday morning once a month. And we went on one almost a week after we arrived. Kimberley would have been a nice camp had it not been for the PF’s.
Any humorous moments or events?
One Saturday night they were showing the movie “Night Wing” which is all about vampire bats. We were sitting in suspense when all of a sudden a real bat flew into the movie house and we had such a fright we nearly all ran out thinking that the bats had arrived.
When we were doing 2nd phase in Duncan I saw what I assume was a ghost. I was standing beat in the canteen tent, just inside the door. It was freezing cold and I was struggling to keep awake. I became aware of somebody standing in the other doorway of the tent. It was just a black figure without any noticeable features. I could feel myself getting colder. I cleared my throat but it did not do anything. I was out of there like a shot! I went and fetched the other guard and we both went there and had a look but there was nothing there. The next morning I bumped into another guy who was standing guard at the ammo tent. He told me that while he had been standing a strange object had appeared over the tent, causing it to shake and move even though there was no wind! He was also scared witless. We questioned all the guards, none of them had been anywhere near the canteen or ammo tent.
Our tent was the last in the electrical wire which joined our tents to the generator and they did not have a fitting for us to have light with. Consequently cleaning your rifle was difficult because there was no light. One night I left a piece of prestik in the breech. We used this stuff to clean all the nooks and crannies which we could not reach otherwise. That morning at rifle inspection our dear loot threw a cadenza when he spotted it. He also threw my rifle into the road and chased me off to the tent to clean it or else!! Luckily I was admin duty or I would still be doing push ups! All that fuss over a piece of prestik, It was not as if I could use my rifle, it had not worked since the day I had got the thing! After it had bounced down the road I think the barrel got bent as well. I never did get to shoot with that rifle, I always had to borrow somebody else’s.
When we were practicing for the big passing out parade the platoon commander warned us that anybody who fainted in the squad would be kla-ed aan. During the parade he started to sway and eventually had to go down on his haunches to avoid fainting. I bet he could feel the silent laughter burning holes in his back. Ironically he was actually one of the few decent officers at Kimberly.
Any interesting or bizarre people you met?
Cpl Bosman was one of the PF instructors there. When we left for the bush he came along as our platoon leader. He was a total sadist and made us hate him through and through. He used to play Pink Floyd on his hifi at night as he got drunk. He did however stand up for his troops and backed us when anything was wrong. While we did the language course he went to do a quick refreshers course and emerged as a 2 pip loot.
The RSM was huge and round, he had an incredibly squeaky voice too and when we were practicing for A Companies passing out parade he had to drill the whole battalion, the column being 5 companies in strength. Needless to say nobody could ever hear him.
Is there any story to how your got this posting?
I was afgekeured just before the drivers course in Kimberley started and sent onwards to Jan Kemp Dorp to complete the drivers course and stand guard at 93 Ammunition Depot.
What were your expectations?
We had been to Jan Kemp when we were doing 2nd phase to stand guard at the depot and finish the drivers course. We expected that once we had learnt how to drive to be posted away or return to Kimberley as drivers.
Describe your journey, arrival and orientation.
We left by train from Kimberley on a Johannesburg bound train on a Friday night, having to get off at Warrenton and wait for the Mafekeng train to go onwards. This train had a steam engine pulling it which was quite a thrill. We arrived on the Saturday morning, We had been here before and somehow the camp looked quite desolate. First things though was accommodation. We were allocated tents in between the lines and had to go dig amongst the mountain of kasses to find a semi non derelict one. The NCO on duty was a 1 liner RP, and a SAM seemed to run the place. We were told that we were now part of E company and we were there to stand guard and do our driving course. Then we were left in peace until the Monday.
What were your duties?
Every morning we would clamber into a vasbyt Bedford and off we would go, driving in circles, taking turns to terrify the motorists in Jan Kemp and Hartswater. The army, being very clever started to teach us in Bedfords, not something smaller. This was not really ideal as some of us did not have the faintest idea how to drive! At night we stood guard. There were 6 four hour beats per day. they ran from 6-10, 10-2, 2-6, 6-10, 10-2, 2-6. The ideal beat was the 6-10 at night as you got a full nights sleep. If you stood the 10-2 beat you only got 4 hours while the guards on 2-6 were allowed to sleep until 10 the next day. Unfortunately I was saddled on the 10-2 beat and there I sat.
Luckily things were real slack at Jan Kemp. We only had inspection on a Wednesday, there was no PT, food was great, there were three canteens, lots of free time if we were not driving and life was quiet. At night it was freezing and we stood beat wrapped in as much clothing as we could wear. We also lightened our webbing and started to gain a new attitude. The driving however was still problematic. The one day I was so tired that I nearly wiped the Bedford out as I had been standing 10-2 the whole time and not getting enough sleep… Soon it was time for the drivers test and nerves were raging. An old SAM was to take us for the test. I got into the cab and he told me to pull away in second. I had never done this before and could not do it. Eventually he said do it in first, I promptly pulled away, putting on the indicators to signal that I was turning into traffic. Unfortunately It was not the indicator but the dome light that I switched on! I was kakked upon and sent to the back of the Bedford to exchange notes with the rest of my friends. It was obvious that we needed more practice.
The guard duty at night was a pain. We were woken up about an hour before we were due to go on. We then marched to Pos 3 where we were picked up by the guard commander and taken to the guard room. He then inspected us, handed us ten rounds as well as the new password. Then we were allocated a post and taken on a drive around the depot, swapping guards as we went. For some reason I always ended up at the same place; 10 Hek, which was next to a deep irrigation ditch which ran next to the depot. 10 was a guard tower while hek was a gate which closed off the road around the depot. We now stood beat on the outside of the depot with our surroundings floodlit for miles. The light did not penetrate the ditch and it was about a month before I actually saw it in the daytime. It took about 30 minutes to walk from one end of the beat to the other and frankly I enjoyed the 4 hours.
Once a beat the guard commander came around to try catch the sleepers. The guy in the guard room would get calls from each guard as the Bedford passed and would warn the next guard. When the Bedford approached we had to stop him and whisper the password which was then answered with another password. Then the Bedford would drive off to the next guard and continue until the whole depot had been encircled. We had to report in every 30 minutes and if it was not for the tiredness and the cold it would have been quite fun.
Naturally the driving went on at the same time and soon it was time to go for the test once again. This time a woman Candidate Officer or “CO” was the tester and she decided to take us around Jan Kemp itself. Oddly enough it went quite well for me at first. but then she took me down a particularly narrow road and as we got to an intersection she told me to turn right. I was going quite slow but was too close to the bend to make it. The Bedford mounted the pavement and nearly ended up inside the only hairdresser in Jan Kemp. I was banished once again and never drove a Bedford again. Back at camp we all had a good laugh about it.
I was now relegated with some of my friends to being a permanent guard at the depot. With 3 other guys we now lived in the only tent in Jan Kemp. It was actually quite fun. The guys were good and our lives had become much quieter. Strangely enough Jan Kemp was the only camp that I knew that held roll call twice a day, and they were very strict about it too. There were quite a few misfits in the camp and methinks it was to prevent their popping off home when nobody was looking.
What did you like – hate – find interesting?
There was very little to hate there, I liked the camp, it was restful. I got to enjoy my 8 hours of solitude on the beats, I got to shoot a World War 2 vintage Vickers machine gun, saw some interesting movies, read plenty of books and had regular passes.
Any humorous moments or events?
There were plenty of bizarre events in Jan Kemp, but most pale when considering one tragic event which ultimately would affect us the most. One Sunday. After roll call we had to attend church parade and there was an argument between one of the guys and our lance cpl. I think the one had missed church parade or similar. Later that afternoon we heard a series of shots coming from some tents in the LWT. We all rushed to see what had happened. The guy had taken his R1 and a magazine and gone into a tent where he had put the rifle on automatic and blown his brains out. He was still alive as the ambulance arrived and was taken to the sick bay where he passed away. It was a sad day and I am sure the one liner had a bad conscience for quite a long time afterwards. This incident added yet another ghost to the many that were rumoured to walk the depot. Shortly afterwards a committee from Pretoria arrived to investigate the conditions at the camp and we were sent onwards to Bloemfontein
Any interesting or bizarre people you met?
When they decided to break down our tent home we were allocated to a bungalow with some of the resident hasbeens. They were a strange lot indeed. There was Munroe, who seemed to be perpetually on drugs, Syd, who was quite paraat and whose catchphrase was “Ek se”, Boats, who was the clerk who loved putting me on the 10-2 beat at night, an Italian whose name I do not remember and another ou man who was due to leave us and his crony Baney who was a paraat guy with a love of AWOL. Strangely enough they were quite good guys once you got to know them. They lived in their own world and spent all their time playing finger snooker. My portable radio ended up playing nearly constantly for 3 months, permanently stuck on Capital Radio. Once I got to know Boats better he changed things around and I started to stand the 6-10 beat at night and the 10-2 in the day. The guard commander at night was usually sgt Mostert, who was a PF who I am sure had been in the 2nd World War. He used to tree us on and then do his famous, “wag,wagaandag, skourwir”. We all thought he had quite a few screws missing. He loved to charge around the depot at night, eyes peeled for any rabbits which he would try to kill with the Bedford. I suppose he would retired as a sergeant as well.
Is there any story to how your got this posting?
A group of us were posted to 1 SAI in Tempe Bloemfontein following the suicide of one of the troops in Jan Kemp Dorp. After all, we were trained infantrymen and there was a shortage of those.
What were your expectations?
We did not look forward to it, it was a mechanised unit which had been training the whole year for the border, they were fit and well trained while we had been parking off for 4 months getting fat
Describe your journey, arrival and orientation.
We caught the Mafekeng train to Warrenton, then a passing main line train to Kimberley where we kla-ed out and then hopped the Bloemfontein train the next night. A Bedford with a strangely lowered canopy picked us up and dumped us at our new camp in Tempe. We were pointed to a tent and told to hang around until the 1Ib came. In the army one can never really hang around in peace, there is always the danger that some smart Alec will come into the tent and kak all over you. It looked like the holiday was over and we were in shit street once again. We were introduced to the 1IB of Bravo company and given a pep talk. We were to be integrated into the company as rifleman and at the beginning of December would go up to the border. I SAI was a mechanised battalion, with Ratels and a totally different way of doing things to our slap life in Jan Pomp.
The camp was massive, currently the company was at De Brug on training. We were given trommels and kit and taken to the bungalow, which was miles away. Once we had sorted out our gear we were driven out to De Brug to learn how to use our new R4 rifles.This exploit completed it was on to the company. We were divided into the platoons, myself as skutter 4 of section 3, platoon 6. The CSM and 2Ib were real nasties, while our platoon commander was a typical bored officer while the two liner didn’t seem too bad compared to rest of the platoon leaders.
What were your duties?
We were divided into the platoons, I was allocated the position of skutter 4, section 3 of platoon 6, B Company. We went straight into training from here, the company had to do evaluation before going up to the border, we were horribly unfit after our time in heaven and I found it really tough going to keep up. Being strangers to the company made it even harder because the guys looked down their noses at us. Oddly enough, in spite of this we were still trained infantrymen and a lot of what went on around us, while geared towards a mechanised environment was quite familiar. I remember very little about the first week at De Brug. I know it rained a lot and I spent lots of time stumbling around in the dark and digging lots of holes.
We did plenty shooting which was not good for my ear problem. We returned to the base for the weekend and went back to the bush afterwards. The time in camp was spent cleaning and washing our gear and being fucked around by the sadists of 1 SAI. On our return to the bush it was back to work again. The evaluation commenced and lasted a week. We really suffered with the endless rain. It was so bad that much of the many evolutions were cancelled. I do remember running the 3,6 and making an L shaped trench and not waking up through a mock mortar attack. The rain jammed my rifle and wet my boots thoroughly. It was misery city at De Brug. We went on pass and in early December handed in our gear so that we could leave for the border.
Describe your journey, arrival and orientation.
The drivers and gunners left a week before we did for the border. They were supposed to prepare the vehicles on the border for when we arrived. It was rumoured that we were going to Oshivello and would be based there. But then again the army thrived on rumours. The next week we were sans vehicles and we started preparing to go. We spent some time in the bush and then came back into camp to hand in our non essential bits and pieces, have injections, medicals, haircuts and do paperwork. Naturally there were guys who would try to scare us with stories and bad things but we all just grunted vas and made the best of it. Soon we were at the airport and then onto the flossie en route for SWA. The flight took about 2,5 hours and we were jammed in like sardines. Then we descended and landed at Grootfontein. The back of the plane opened and for the first time we saw and felt South West. We had arrived!
We all piled into what we later found out was called a “Kwe Voel”, basically a mine proof Samel 100. With this we headed out to the great unknown. We still did not know where were were off to, all we did know was that it was Northward and very hot. After a while we stopped at Lake Otjikoto which was used by the Germans as a munition dump during the war. Very nice curiosity if I may say so. Then we continued our journey, arriving at Owambo Hek later that day. Once past this gate you were officially in the operational area. This was the place where all the trouble occurred. We drove on for about 18 kilo’s before turning up a white chalk road. This road we would soon come to know intimately and it was about 1,5 kilo’s long with a slight incline and a sandbagged gate at the end of it. The place was called Omuthiya and was home to 61 Mechanised Battalion Group.
What did you like – hate – find interesting?
The heat was the worst thing initially, it was hot, very hot and we were soon lathered in sweat. Our tents were stifling hot with concrete floors and proper beds and mattresses. There was no cold water and the sun was blinding. We were told that at 5 in the morning we would do PT, then it was inspection and parade, then training until 11H00 when brunch would be served (could also have been 10H00). After brunch we would continue training until 13H00 and then we had siesta until 15H00 followed by more training until about 17H00. Supper was served at 18H00. It was a long day which would be filled with Tein ops (again).
Our webbing had changed somewhat, having sprouted 3 more water bottles, a “soek steek stok”, lots of ammunition and 5 magazines. We carried our rifles everywhere and wore bush hats all day. The tein ops was split into different things each day, there were vehicle related drills, ambushes, weapons, patrols, camouflage etc. Each had its own torture involved and each was more hated that the previous one. Our morning sleep was roused at 05H00 and as a platoon we ran that terrible road from the base to the tar road and back. It was agony.
It was still quite cool by brunch time, and this was served in the big roofed over mess and usually consisted of viennas, bread, porridge, spick and span,beans and boiled eggs or any combination of them. With only a limited time to eat and lots of pigs around, the queue moved very slowly, what with queue jumpers and inefficient servers. Usually by the time I got to the food there was very little left over and we ended up having to scrounge food from the leftovers from one of the other companies.
Any humorous moments or events?
There were many memorable things that happened to us in that December, not all of it good. I remember the one day were due to go attack an “enemy position” one early morning, so I went to bed early as well. I had just fallen asleep when I was woken up by a commotion in the tent. I was told not to move, there was a snake in the tent. I was stuck in my sleeping bag with a snake in the tent! The guys gathered around trying to figure out what to do. Some suggested shooting it, others wanted to catch it by hand and keep it. Finally someone decided to kill it and the reptile was beaten to death with a Mag butt and thrown away. I think I ran the 2,4 in about 2 seconds that night. We duly went onto our attack the next morning. My nerves totally shot to hell, I had had no more sleep that night and was jumpy as can be. While I waited next to a bush for something to happen I noticed a long thin twig and thought to myself, if that twig suddenly start to move what then? Be damned if the twig suddenly started to slither away. Needless to say I found a new spot very quickly. By the time we finished the attack I was so jumpy that when they fired the flare to signify the withdrawal
I screamed like a girl and jumped over the bush that I was hiding in.
The one night that we chose to do an ambush was the first night that it had rained in ages. We trudged to our position in the dark, arriving I know not when. It was pitch black and drizzling. The section leader told us to watch the road and open fire if anything came our way. We had taken blankets with us instead of sleeping bags and wrapped in this rain soaked coverings we waited to ambush the so called enemy. It was so dark I could not even make the road out. I fell asleep very quickly, only waking up a bit later when the flare went off and and everybody started shooting like crazy. The next morning we went back to camp and only then did I realise that the road was only 4 metres from where I lay!
The first time that we undertook a night march was also a disaster. It was overcast and there was no moon. We trudged on in the night heading on a predetermined bearing. It went on for ages until about 1 in the morning. After a huddled conference the section leader admitted that we were lost! The noise from the camp generator had kept us going, however, once that was switched off we lost what little direction we still had and were really lost! We decided to form a “TB” and plonk ourselves down to sleep. It was a restless night and a very long one too. However when morning came we were in for a big surprise. We had camped in a clearing which was frequented by elephants and were lucky not to have been sat on! The jumbo troops also provided us with a means of getting back to camp. We knew that one drank water from our pool, so we followed a set of tracks which joined up with a well used path. This path led us straight back to camp where we learnt that we were the only bunch that had not returned that night. Needless to say our section leader had lots of explaining to do.
With Christmas coming elaborate preparations were made and General Constand Viljoen was going to join our unit for Christmas lunch. As per usual they decided that our platoon would be responsible for the rondom verdediging of the chopper pad. Off we traipsed to the helipad which was just outside the main gate. Inside the camp the troops were all getting ready for lunch. We lay in the bushes waiting for the puma which would bring in the General. This duly arrived and after they had all disembarked we were allowed to depart for the mess where the Christmas lunch was already underway. Needless to say there was not much left over for us and we all went to our tents with empty stomach’s and really peeved at the SADF in general and certain SAM’s in particular.
I received my first parcel from home that next week and there was much to eat and some gifts which were much needed. Included was a canvas water bag which leaked like crazy until it had settled in. Most of the edibles were taken by a loot who was basically a greedy pig, taking from us to feed his face.
Wildlife in the camp was an eye opener, there were piss moths, which were huge moths which secreted a caustic liquid which caused serious blisters on any part of your skin that it touched. Many guys put on their pants and found one inside them, resulting in some very serious sores. Then there were centipedes about the size of a large piece of boerewors which were all over the place. There were also hyenas which roamed the camp at night, sitting in the bushes opposite the guard posts and laughing at us. There were also elephants and snakes, bats and huge beetles as well as antelopes on the road and lions not too far off in the reserve. It was a regular jungle out there!
A favourite thing for us could only happen when the camp was off on an operation. We would tree aan a few boxes of ammo and a vehicle and split to the “Blou Baan” or the local dump sight. There we would fire off 35 round magazines on automatic out of our R4s at anything. One brave soul even staked out his web belt to put one choice bullet hole in. Unfortunately we all decided to use it as a target and he ended up with a shredded web belt. These excursions were not a very bright thing to do as we really went over the top, firing dustbins with thunder flashes and shooting off flares like we were crazy or something. It helped relieve tension and gave us a real kick to let fly with automatic fire.
We had a weekly movie and I very clearly remember two of those. The first was my old favourite, The Poseidon Adventure. In one scene, Pamela Sue Martin clambers up a Christmas tree, having taken off her skirt. That portion of the film was rewound about 10000 times so that we could see the red panties and drool all over the floor. The other movie; Stripes held the premier in South West Africa and we were amongst the first people to see it. Two girls acted in it and they came along to see us. Well it was mayhem and awe all around. I think if those women had come off the stage and actually taken us into the corner we would have all run away! We also had visits from a few local artists, I do know Sonja Heroldt came the one time. When she started to sing we all left as she really gave us a cramp!
We stood guard at night, playing swerf wag in the very clear nights that we had at Omuthiya. These nights were really something to see, visibility was usually good and occasionally packs of wild dogs would run through the lines. Odd things also happened, one night one of the guys in our tent, high on dagga, decided to let off a smoke grenade. We all bailed out and stood outside waiting for the smoke to dissipate. The wind just blew it further, straight into our neighbours tent! We could hear the smoke make its way through the lines by the coughs!
The one night while we were standing swerf wag we also saw something strange. Around about 1 in the morning we heard a shout and one of the guys comes running from his tent, holding his backside. About halfway to the toilets he came to an abrupt halt and proceeded to shit himself in the middle of the road! continuing his journey to the toilets with splayed legs.
Those toilets of ours were actually quite a luxury after the “go karts” of Okatopi. There were about 15 in a row and many a night while parking off having a crap some wise ass would shout “Kakhuise nommer!” Mind you, some mornings those toilets were very badly blocked as a result of the water situation. Then B Company would grab their fire buckets and start unblocking. The fresh water problems of the camp were eventually dealt with when they installed these huge concrete barrels inbetween the lines for drinking water. After installing one they proceeded to fill it from the water Bedford, all was well till the next time they came to fill it. Shortly after the Bedford left the bottom burst, flooding plenty of tents and washing away our carefully raked pathways.
Describe your experiences during the last month or so of your two years initial service.
My last 2 months were full of sorrow. In early November of 1981 the battalion group went on Ops Daisy and I stayed behind at Omuthiya. On the afternoon of the 5th I was called to the Commcen and told to pack my kit, I had to go home urgently as my father had had a heart attack. I caught a vehicle to Tsumeb the next morning, then to Grootfontein and then a flossie to Pretoria and a train to JHB, arriving about 7 at night. From there we went to JG Strydom hospital where my father was in ICU. We spent the next day there and he passed away late that afternoon. I went to his funeral and the day before I was due to fly home had to go to Wits Command medical with what was probably delayed shock.
A few months previously I had been in South Africa and had my rifle with me as I had not been able to hand it in when I left the border. This is probably the last photograph of my late father, taken in front of our house in Mayfair.
I arrived back the day after the company came back from the ops. We had lost 1 guy in that ops as well. There was a month left to go before we kla-ed out. I applied to be sent back to Bloem but was declined, yet they sent guys with farms back. It was expected though because the dominee was an unsympathetic person. Now that I think about it, it was better because I was amongst friends till the end. We were due to kla out on the 17th of December and only left Omuthiya on the 14th. We handed in all our ammo, closed up our tents for the last time and boarded the kwe-voels for Grootfontein. Many of us were sad to see the gate as we passed through it for the last time. It had been our home for a year. We stopped at Oshivello and they asked us to turn in any ammo… before we went to the transit camp at Grootfontein where we spent the night. The next morning we were at the airfield, waiting for the flossie to take us to Bloem. Eventually it arrived and we landed at Bloem late in the afternoon. We had to collect our trommels from the store and move them to Akkedis Dorp where we stayed. Then, in spite of the time they started the uitkla process…
The next day we handed in webbing and rifles, got endless signatures and forms, ironed stepouts, and then hit the sack. It was the fastest I had ever seen the army ever do anything. The next day we had a small lecture about our “responsibilities” and then were marched to the Church where we were allocated our CF units. Mine being 2nd Regt De la Rey in Potch. Then we got a last form to have stamped and that was it. There was no uitkla parade, no thank you, not even a handshake from the 1IB. I guess they treated us like shit right till the end. I had a lift organised with another guy and by about 11 we hit the road, arriving in JHB late that afternoon. My national service was at an end.
How was it to be a civvy again?
It was strange… I had freedom to do what I wanted to, I could eat as much as I wanted, sleep late, not have to attend parades, I did not have to keep a wary eye open for rank, I could grow my hair. But I missed my friends, I missed the quiet nights with the millions of stars in the sky, the rumbling of the generator, walking around only in shorts, the familiar weight of my rifle, drinking out of a firebucket, sitting around talking crap.
What difficulties did you have making this transition.
I was lonely and confused, people did not understand who I was and what I had just gone through. There was a empty place at our table, I had just been getting close to my father and now he was gone forever. I was still under 21 and could be refused entry into a 2-21 movie, the country was in a turmoil, the economy was in decline and sanctions were starting to bite. I was fortunate in having a job to go to, but I did not want to go work for my employers, I just wanted to somebody to listen to what I had to say and understand it. I guess though I made the transition quite easily.. but for years afterwards I suffered from dreams of not having completed something… I also became very moody and irritable and could never have a relationship. I also had had a torn ear drum which had been misdiagnosed by countless army doctors and it would affect my hearing forever. There was no support structures for returning soldiers, nobody counselled us or even recognised us. I know many guys had much worse than I did, often turning to alcohol and drugs.
How soon after the completion of your initial two years service were you called up for your first camp?
I had been allocated to 2nd Regt De La Rey in Potch, but because my job was considered strategic I ended up being posted to SALNETS (SA Leer Nie Effectiewe Sterkte) and was not called up as a result. However, for some reason I was called up for OP’s Thunder Chariot as a member of 1st Bn Transvaal Scottish from August till September 1984. My brother did a camp every year.
What were you doing when you were called up?
I had just qualified as a Telecommunications Electrician with South African Transport Services.
What efforts, if any did you go to to get yourself deferred?
You could not be deferred from Ops Thunder Chariot. (aka Ops Thunder Box, or Ops Hunger Chariot). It was the biggest call up in years and everybody went. Very few managed to get out of it. In 1986 I was called up by 2nd Regt De La Rey and reported for the camp, they usually sent us to Middelburg. At the medical I told the doctor about my ear problems which had started as a result of shooting in Kimberley as an NDP and I was sent home. The same thing happened the next time. The third time I was called up I went to see the welfare officer at Wits Command as I was not going to be paid while I was away and would have been evicted from my home. She told me to go to the medical section at JG Strydom hospital and there I met a NDP Doctor who made a recommendation that I be given a medical discharge on the grounds that my ears would be damaged even further by shooting. This was granted much to my joy. It was around about 1989 0r 1990.
Describe your experience of reporting for duty
Going for Ops Thunder Chariot was a bummer, we were part of an advance party for 1st BN Transvaal Scottish, and we had to take most of the stuff with for the whole battalion. I never figured out why I was posted to them as my usual unit was 2nd Regt De La Rey, but then who actually understood the army?? We mustered at a huge empty spot in Alrode and from there drew vehicles and equipment, including a Tammy with a hackle. The Jocks only used English and we never understood any of the commands. Most of us there were English speakers and we had a good laugh because the table had been turned after all of these years. It was bitterly cold and after a sleepless night we left in convoy for Lohathla around about midday. I just remember heaps of dust and the piper making squeaking noises as the dust was so heavy. I had been allocated to Battalion HQ but did not have a posting.
Meeting up with old comrades (or not?)
My brother was also on this exercise and was heading up the kitchen of 7 Maintenance Unit but I only saw him once I got to Lohathla. I never saw any of the people I had been in the army with but soon befriended a corporal who was to become the battalion clerk. Naturally we all compared notes on who had been in what camp and which had been the worst. I won hands down because I had been on the border.
Travel to location of camp.
We found ourselves in the back of a Samil 50 bouncing along, sharing our space with the chefs, the go-karts, gas cylinders, and cammo nets. We stopped somewhere at a staging ground for the night and cracked our rat packs and took up cooking our supper the way we had always done as an NDP. By the time we went to sleep vehicles were still arriving.
Duties while on the camp.
The battalion clerk and I sat in the office truck most of the day doing nothing. I had been allocated the job as logistics clerk and worked with the Battalion 2IB. He was with the Battalion most of the time so I had a quiet life. Occasionally sending off requests for ammo, food, spares and taking messages for various officers. The admin officer was Ok, but he did get a bit pompous. Mind you, we did not have the same crap as we had had as NDP’s.
What did you like – hate – find interesting?
I remember the cold. Lohathla is like a fridge even in summer and it was the end of winter! We did not have warm clothes and spent a large portion of the day shivering. I had just moved house too and had not even had time to unpack yet. I hated the sheer waste of time and money. I remember PW Botha came around one day to give us a pep talk and they carefully searched us for ammo. Judging from the comments in the squad there was a very real possibility that somebody would have shot him if they could. On the last day of the exercise we had to expend all ammunition and they did! everything from rifles down to aircraft bombs were thrown at this imaginary enemy. It was awe inspiring.
Any humorous moments or events?
We lived on rat packs for 3 weeks and our bowels were really stuffed up, we were in a convoy one day which stopped on one of the firebreaks. While looking around we spotted one of the guys bail out of his Buffel with a toilet roll on his rifle and a shovel under his arm and he really flew into the bush. Well, we all packed up and passed lewd remarks. When he came out of the bush 5 minutes later he got cheered by the whole battalion who then proceeded to drive away, being chased by a shovel wielding soldier.
We also had a small contingent of Air Force guys with us, 2 pilots and 2 signallers. They had their own Buffel which seemed to be kitted out with its own fridge and store of booze. Everyday the Commandant would rave about these guys who slept late every day and I would have to go wake them, not an easy task considering how much they enjoyed their sleep. Oddly enough, we never seemed to have comms with the Air Force….
Describe your experience of `klaaring out’ of the camp and reintegration into society.
When we got back to Alrode we had to hand everything back and repack it. But we got back late and they sent us home late that evening. When I got home that night I was starved, having lived on ratpacks for 3 weeks. I went and bought a whole bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and lay in the bath eating it. The water was filthy, we had not seen a shower for 2 weeks. The next day we worked our butts off to repack the store, then it was pay, and we were released.. No problems at all.
TRANSITION TO SANDF, ABOLITION OF CONSCRIPTION
How did you learn of any/the change in your military obligations when conscription was abolished?
The news was usually broadcast over the news and in the newspaper. I had been discharged so it did not really affect me. As they shortened it from 2 years to 1 year and then abolished it altogether, many of us were bitter because we had served 2 years and many guys did 10 camps, suddenly the conscripts were having an easier time than we had had. We had been seeing a decline in the effectiveness of the SADF as time had passed and when they pulled out of SWA we really wondered why we were still being called up. I know many guys felt that we had been stabbed in the back by the country.
Many people come up with anecdotes relating to their experiences of the following themes:
English vs. Afrikaans
The culture gap was huge.. we hated them , they hated us. They called us “rooinek” and “soutpiel”, we called them “rockspiders” and “Dutchman” and hated them back. The theory was that the army was supposed to be bilingual but as anybody will tell you that was crap. Everything was in Afrikaans, correspondence, commands, lectures the whole toot. Even the propaganda. English NCO’s were in the minority and those we did have treated us equally bad although we could at least understand them when they spoke.
National Service vs. Permanent Force
We saw the PF’s as useless bastards who were failures in civvy street. Most we encountered were sadists and we hated most of them. The career officers who were on the border generally were good, they treated us decently, although some in other camps had quite a reputation. The short service guys were mostly the platoon commanders and NCO’s. As a rule though NDP’s treated NDP’s properly.
Scams and Corruption
I only saw drunkenness and unruliness and hunting with lights and machine guns when we were doing 2nd phase.
Discipline was tight, we knew that if it moved you saluted it. if it did not, then you painted or raked around it. There was no such thing as talking back, going on strike or questioning an order no matter how ridiculous it seemed at the time. The SADF was famous throughout the world for its discipline. When the SANDF was created there was a discipline problem evident from the beginning, and it would not be sorted out with discipline either. We had no choice but to accept what we had to do. If we refused we were in trouble. If we messed up we faced the consequences. If we were slap in combat we died.
The most implausible story that you know to be true (because it happened to you).
When I was in Jan Kemp Dorp there was talk of ghosts. I saw an apparition one night in the bush when we were doing 2nd phase. The one guard tower at the ammo depot was supposed to be haunted. I heard things there which scared me one night. A few years ago I saw a TV programme about the ghosts in the ammo depot which were regularly seen. The ammo depot had been a Royal Naval Base during World War 2 and had documented spirits walking around it. The whole area had also seen considerable action during the Boer War.
There was an urban legend too which bears repeating. A new conscript would walk around the camp looking at every piece of paper he could find. He would examine each one intently, discard it and go to the next one. Eventually they did not know what was wrong with him and took him to the military hospital where they declared him insane. They handed him his discharge papers and he examined it too, “Eureka.. that’s the one I was looking for!”
The attitude of the South African population (and different factions) towards national service and to military personnel.
In all honesty I never encountered anything negative from the non white population. We did have African instructors on the language course and the instructor we had; Cpl Masinga, was a great guy and we had lots of respect for him. There was a lot of support from the public in the days when we were in the army, all of the Forces Favourite radio programs. We felt like we were appreciated, that we had not been forgotten. Sadly we could not receive most of the programs where I was, but it was the thought behind it. When we hitched people would pick us up and take us to our homes, or buy us lunch and wave. I wrote to many young girls who would share their lives with me, I loved it because I never had a sister and it was nice to hear about their lives and dreams and hopes. It was the sort of thing that was done in those days. Then things changed and when the military went into the townships we were seen as an enemy, no longer fighting for the country but fighting the people in the country. Many NDP’s and campers who served in the townships hated it for the same reason.
Beliefs held about any of the following:
We never encountered them except by reputation, but there seemed to be a feeling that they were doing a good job and were tough. Later when the truth came out I was shocked when I saw what they really did.
The troops hated them with a passion because we had been told that they were committing atrocities against the civilian population. But I think we hated the PF’s more.
The ANC and MK
They were seen as an unseen enemy and as we were far from SA it never affected us at all. Although it was drummed into our heads that they were part of the so called “Kommuniste gevaar” and we were supposed to hate them on order of the Chief of the Army. Again we were more pissed off with being in the army than hating an enemy.
The recces were saw every now and then and we never spoke to them at all for fear that they would kill us… We held them in awe as we did the Bushmen and 32 Battalions. We hated the Parabats with a passion.
© DRW 2000-2017. Moved to blog 19/03/2014.