Sadly, this account has been discredited, specifically the South African Parabat Veterans Association have no record of this man ever having been a Parabat, and there is no record of him having jumped at Cassinga. After he was challenged and discredited, he has disappeared, so there is no way of telling whether some of his other material is true or not!
Cobus reported for National Service in 1967 and started Basics at 3 SAI, then at Lens. He volunteered for the paratroopers and trained at De Brug near Bloemfontein. He attended camps in Gazankulu, and Rundu, and participated on Operation Savannah into Angola in 1976, serving in Zulu Combat Team. Cobus was one of the parabats dropped on Cassinga in 1978, where he as wounded and casevaced, and received lengthy treatment at 1 Military Hospital.
My Dad was in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War. Funny enough he got strafed by Messerschmit ME 109 and he was hit in the leg. History repeats itself. Probably the first photograph I ever saw of my Dad was of him in a uniform.
My mom died when I was eight, and he got remarried when I was thirteen. He died when I was thirteen. I went a little bit off the rails then. My step-mom was a schoolteacher. One of her colleagues, Lorrie Raath, was a Commandant or whatever rank they have in school cadets. He took me under his wing and straightened me out. He had quite a major influence on my life. He was an English teacher and through him I started to read a lot of English books. I think that 90% of the books I've read in my life have been English although I'm Afrikaans speaking.
REGISTERING FOR NATIONAL SERVICE
When I was sixteen I had to go and register. I wanted to become a professional soldier, and join PF and I went for my medical and failed that because I've got a bust eardrum. I was absolutely heart-broken. I went to see the head and he said that I should write a letter to Hiemstra; I think that he was then the Commandant General of the Defence Force. I think Jim Fouche was the Minister of Defence. He helped me draft the letter to Hiemstra and I wrote that I had always wanted to become a professional soldier. I got an appointment to go and see the district surgeon, who happened to be the local railway surgeon. The father of one of my mates was in the railways and he would phone up this doctor if he was ill and the doctor would book him off for a week and send him a medical certificate without seeing him. He was a good doctor to go and see when you're not sick, but a bad doctor to go and see when you are sick. I went and saw him and he asked me; 'Are you ill?' I said 'No.' He filled in the form.
I was quite looking forward to it. I went on the 8th of May 1967. I can remember going to the drill hall in Jo'burg. There were all these guys with their Moms and Dads seeing them off, and I told my step-mother; 'You're not seeing me off! I'm going on my own.' I was inducted into 3 SAI which was at Lens. I was a little bit scared, I suppose. It was a big adventure.
I got off at Lens Station and we walked to the camp. We were about half way there when one of the corporals grabbed one of the new guys, screaming and shouting that he was going to smash his head in or donner him or something like that. I thought; 'Shit! What have I let myself in for?'
We got there. My first meal; you know how they take bread in the army and paint it with butter and put it on top of one another, a frikkadel(Ball of minced meat or hamburger). Great! The first meal I had in the army. I got a size twelve overall. We had overalls in those days. We didn't have browns. A size eight fitted me nicely. In a size twelve, the crutch is down to my knees. All the ou manne were standing there, leaning against the bungalows, thumbs hooked into belts and screaming and shouting at us. We didn't know what was going on. I thought; 'Shit! I think if I can last this for two weeks, I'll be all right!' National Service wasn't all that bad.
It was absolute chaos. We had a Sergeant Skutte and a Corporal Schuurman. The Sergeant's name was Piet Retief Shutte. He was a big guy. A good guy. He always used to throw a thunder flash in the bungalow at three or four o'clock in the morning. He would shout and scream and you would have a bloody heart attack. 'Die son trek water,'('The sun is drawing water') he would say, and you'd go outside and it would be dark. It gets cold at Lens.
There was a Jewish lad called Gary Wolf and he used to stutter badly. His head would go back as he stuttered. Sergeant Shutte always used to come up to him and lift up his hand as though to smack him and shout at him; 'Don't you cackle at me!', and old Wolf would then talk fine. When we had roll call, Wolf would stand there going 'W -w - w -w', and Shutte would say to him; 'Don't you cackle at me.' Wolf would recover; 'Sersant!'
One day Wolf did a very stupid thing. We were at the firing range firing an LMG, and sometimes you get a stoppage with an LMG or a run-away gun. You take your finger off the trigger and the gun just keeps on firing. We were firing from the hip and you've got this leather strap over your shoulder, called a 'band' in Afrikaans. Corporal Schuurman told us about this stoppage; if you get a stoppage, just keep the gun on the target and just twist the ammunition belt. As luck would have it, Gary Wolf got a run-away gun, and he remembered to 'twist thebelt' (This would prevent the ammunition belt being drawn further into the weapon.). The belt he was thinking of was the strap that the gun was hanging from, so he twisted it but this doesn't do anything. Instead of just keeping the gun on the target, he started to stutter with his head going back, and he started to turn around. He probably only had about fifty rounds in the belt, but Schuurman came and smacked him. He hit him so hard that the LMG went one way and Gary Wolf went the other way. I was frightened; I really was! He could easily have killed someone. Wolf was very upset because he got smacked, but I think most people felt that Schuurman was quite entitled to have done it.
We had just been given our R1's(Standard Light Assault Rifle used by the SADF at this time, 7.62 mm, South African manufactured version of the Belgian FN rifle.) in basics and we had gone out to the shooting range and we wanted to get a Jerry can off the back of a land rover. They had put the Jerry can in a frame and it was a little bit stiff. We used the barrel of an R1 to lever this thing out. Nobody thought anything about it. Then we were shooting at targets about a hundred metres away and Wolf just couldn't hit this target for love nor money. Corporal Schuurman went to him and was watching how he was firing. He saw that Wolf was closing both eyes as he fired. Schuurman gave him a right shouting and screaming at. He picked up Wolf's R1 and said; 'This is how you do it!' He put it to his shoulder, aimed and fired, and he missed the target as well. They took the weapon to the weapon 'tiffie' who took it down to the firing point, fired it and adjusted the sight, fired and adjusted the sight again and then the penny dropped. He looked at the barrel; he broke its back and took the working parts out. When you looked through it you could see half of the circle of light at the end of the barrel, it was that bent. Wolf got into the shit for that as well. Nobody said anything! Poor Gary. He just couldn't do anything right.
During inspections, the rifles would be stood up against their beds with the handles extended, with a rag covering the muzzle, to be removed at the last minute, to prevent dust from collecting. There was someone unpopular in Cobus's bungalow, and as people walked past his inspection, they would drop cigarette ash down the barrel of his rifle. After the bed inspection, they would have rifle inspection, during which they would present arms, placing their index finger against the nearside of the breach, so that the inspecting officer could look down the barrel and inspect its cleanliness in silhouette against the light reflected from the visible pink finger nail.
During basics, Cobus went out to the shooting range with the Lieutenant `Waldo' Fourie. They had a great deal of ammunition with them, and the Lieutenant wanted it all to be used up so that they wouldn't have to take it back. Cobus put two melons up on some rocks somewhere, and aimed his LMG at it. He put one or two shots above it, and one or two shots below it, but he put the rest of the belt straight through it. which impressed those watching. Cobus reckons that this was a pure fluke!
There were some people from Heidelberg Gym - at that time all the Officer Candidates and Instructors went there for training. A bunch of Heidelberg rejects came to us; they couldn't cut it there, and they just thought that they were the bees knees! We were just ordinary guys, and most of them were kids out of pretty well-off areas. They thought that they could drill far smarter than we could and they were far better than we were, and to be quite honest with you, when they came there, they were. They were there for about three weeks when we caught up with them, because until then it had been playing one off against the other. They were in the same company, but in different platoons. We didn't have an officer for our platoon. We had Shutte, who was probably acting as the officer element. We had a Lt. Fourie who had a dog. On Wednesday afternoons we had to go to P.T. sports parade. We looked at this and we thought of what would be easiest to do. We decided that we were going to play 'Jukskei'; you just sit there and while one guy throws things. The other guys twigged on to, and we thought 'This is a good thing' and then all of a sudden everybody was playing 'Jukskei' and no other sports. That lasted for about two or three weeks.
One guy in the platoon was called Neville Smith. At that time there was a film showing 'Nevada Smith', so he called himself 'Nevada Smith'. He and one other guy decided that they were going to bunk the sports parade. At first we were all in a big bungalow, and then we moved into a bungalow that was sub-divided so that it had six beds in each of three rooms. If you put the bed in one corner and pulled the blanket down a little bit, if someone was standing outside they couldn't see underneath it. If you were lying right up against the wall, you could lie under your bed all afternoon and not do anything and nobody could see you there. So Neville 'Nevada' Smith and the other guy decided that they were going to bunk this. Lt. Fourie was walking up the lines, and they saw him coming. Neville jumped underneath the bed and the other guy jumped inside the wardrobe. Neville didn't get in fast enough, and when Fourie looked in, he must have seen the blanket flapping. He came in with his Alsatian puppy, and the puppy went under the bed and started barking. Fourie shouts to Neville under the bed; 'Get out of there'. Of course, Neville got out from underneath the bed, and the other guy got out of the cupboard behind Fourie. Fourie never knew he was there. 'Who me? Who the hell's he talking to?'
91 ammo dump was situated right next to Lens. It was normal for us to see trucks going in. Our bungalows were right next to the wire, through which we could see a big open field and the revetments, the earthen walls and the hut inside the earth walls. It was a regular thing to see the trucks going in there and loading up some stuff and then buggering off. One day these people were taking these boxes out of this hut and loading it on the truck. They were making a bonfire, and they were burning some boxes. We didn't see the explosion; we were in the bungalows when we heard 'Ka-Doomp Ka-Doomp Ka-Doomp'. We ran outside and there they were, looking like seven miles of dirt road. It was probably about 150 yards away from us. There must have been some mortar rounds in one of the boxes they were burning. [Did you think you were being attacked?] No, we thought someone was zigging when he should have been zagging. In 1967 there was nothing like that. When you stood beat during your basics you had an R I with a magazine with a safety pin to stop the rounds from going into the rifle. These magazines had been compressed for so long that if you pulled the safety pin out, the rounds would stay down. You had about an inch gap between the rounds and the top of the magazine. If the guys had attacked us, I don't know what we would have done. We would have probably have had to put on the bayonet and stand fast; 'Halt! Who goes there?'
Lens as a joke of an army camp. One night when we were pushing beat - I wasn't pushing beat, I was in the guard room. There was a hue and cry in the coloured or Asian township across the road. The police came along and they arrested one guy and they hand-cuffed him.
You had the township, the road, the railway line, and then the camp perimeter started. Between the camp perimeter and the railway line, you had an ordinary chicken wire fence probably about eight feet high with barbed wire over the top, not a security fence with the anti-climbing piece. Between that and the inside perimeter of the camp you had another road which was the camp road, which was part and parcel of the camp. Then there was the camp proper, and again you had chicken wire, but again with an anti-climb V piece, and that had barbed wire on top of that.
With his hands hand-cuffed in front of him, the guy managed to climb both sets of fences, and he went inside the camp and they caught him inside the fridge in the kitchen. It shows you the lack of vigilance portrayed by the guards. I was glad that I wasn't guard commander that night because I think that someone had some explaining to do.
Now that I look back at it, I think that basic training was pretty poor. You fired a couple of rounds through your RI, went out into the veld a couple of times, and nothing more. A fair amount of square-bashing and lots of PT. You were just being chased around and buggered about. It wasn't learning to become a soldier; not learning how to fight. As a kid out of school you have these ideas about what a soldier does; a soldier fights, a soldier had a glamorous life. When I looked at what it was, I saw that it was not for me. I couldn't stand the bullshit of 'Yes sir! Yes sir! Three bags full sir!'
I didn't mind the discipline, but to me it was stupid that you had to stand quivering to attention when an NCO spoke to you. I had a lot of respect for Sergeant Schutte. I always think that a good leader comes through, he doesn't have to prove he's a good leader. Corporal Schuurman always had to prove he was somebody, whereas Schutte didn't have to. I definitely didn't want to join PF after that.
I developed a loathing for mashed potatoes and baked beans since I have been in the army. I've never been able to eat that. Some of the food was had. Metal plates were called 'varkpanne'(This literally means `Pig Pans', the nickname given to the what English speaking armies call `dixies'.) and we always had curry whenever the meat was off. We never had the privilege of eating off plates funnily enough. It was either varkpanne or dixies.
After basics and before paras, a friend and I decided to hike down to Durban for Easter. We came back after the Easter weekend. We were just outside of Ladysmith when it started hailing bloody big hailstones. We made a duck to a white guy's house. It was a real rural house with a stoep. We went underneath his verandah. He came out and virtually told us to bugger off, and not to stand on his stoep. As we walked away from Ladysmith, it started raining again. There was a little house, a little grander than a tin shack, so we made a duck for this. We knocked on the door and this Indian guy opened the door. We asked him if we could shelter there from the rain. He said; 'Yes, fine.' Our uniforms were absolutely soaked. They had a little wood fire in the fireplace. His wife came out of the bedroom, and she gave us two blankets. We took our uniforms off and she dried them in front of the fire for us. We had some tea. I can remember that the mugs we drank this tea out of were made out of empty jam tins. They had proper handles made out of tin, and rivetted to the side of the tin. These guys were that poor that they couldn't afford a mug or cups, or maybe it was a bit more practical to have these things than it is to have a cup that might break. They had food and they asked us if we would join them for a meal. I remember it was curry. It was mostly potatoes. We had thick pieces of white bread after the meal. This mate of mine decided that we were going to have a smoke. By this time we were rolling our own cigarettes out of Boxer tobacco and brown paper into a zol; we would 'swaai 'n zol'. The guy asked us whether we had any cigarettes, and we said; 'No, we're in the bloody army. We haven't got the money to buy cigarettes. We smoked pipe tobacco in a zol.' I can remember him offering us each a Lexington. Just before we left, he took a new pack of thirty Lexington, broke the seal, took two or three cigarettes out for himself, and he gave us the packet. We said; 'We're sorry. We can't pay you for this.' We just had enough money on us to catch the train back when we got to Joeys. He wouldn't take any money off us. I always thought this was so ironic. There we were dressed in the uniform of the ` oppressor'. You would have thought that we would have had the natural affinity to the white guy who had pushed us away, yet here the guy who was an Indian, whom we were 'oppressing' was the one that showed the charity towards us. 'The Good Samaritan' came to the forefront there.
I also found that when I was hiking, I had more lifts from coloureds or blacks than I got from white people. Again, this was weird. At that point in time, if you were in the army, you were crap. You were nothing.
(An account of South African Parabat training some twenty year on is presented in Combat & Survival, Vol. 4., Issue 9, Dec. 1992, p. 57 - 61.)
Then in July we had just finished our basics when the guys from Parabats came and did a demonstration. A friend called 'China' Notnagel and I decided we were going to go for this because you could get a four-day pass to go and get your folks to sign you off. Ordinary national service was nine months, but if you went to Parabats, you had to stay a year.
When the guys from Parabats came we had to do this fitness test; I think it was nine miles under five hours in full kit; forty pushups in a certain time, and a hundred and fifty metres of 'skaapdra' carrying a guy at your chest - I did that, no problem! Then we got the pass to go and have our folks sign, but before then we had to go for another medical. I've got pretty bad eyesight in my right eye, and I thought they were going to fail me. I didn't wear spectacles in those days. At the hospital in Lens - there were about twenty of us who volunteered - we were told what would happen to you if you were an RTU (Returned to Unit). We saw some guys that had gone, who were 'blougatte'(When National Service was nine months, a recruit or Roofie was a 'Rowe' [a robber] for the first three months. Next three months we were 'Blou Gatte' ['Blue arses'], and for the last three months you were an 'ou man' ['Old Man'].) when we were 'rowe' - they had gone and they were RTU'd. Shit! They suffered! Everybody had the attitude; 'You thought you were better than we are, but you didn't hack it. Now your life is going to he hell!' When we got to the hospital I had a look at the other guy's chart and I saw at 'eyesight' he had written `20/20'. I just filled mine in as` 20/20' and I never went for an eye test.
I went had got my Mom to sign, and I got my four-day pass, then went to Tempe. We had heard stories of the 'Tempe Tigers' who were supposed to be this reform school for girls next to the parabat camp. We were told that we were going to have such a nice time with these girls, but boy-o-boy! If they catch you, they'll screw you to death. We were seventeen and eighteen year old kids, and we thought; 'Oh, Wow! That's for me!' I never saw Tempe Tigers all the time that I was there.
We had a pretty hard time at 1 Para. The commanding officer was Commandant Willie Louw. We never stopped work from the minute I got there. They really put us through it. You ran and you ran and you ran. I personally think that the parabats were overrated, and I still think that they were overrated. If you give any soldier the training you give those guys you could have a pretty good army. If I compare the training I got at Parabats with the training that I got at 3 SAI, it's like night and day.
We had an officer by the name of Neil Morrison, a really good guy. He was short and stocky with blond hair. If Neil Morrison said to you 'Walk up that wall, and walk along the ceiling' you would try and do it for him. He was that sort of guy. He didn't get along very well with any of the other officers.
Neil Morrison said, of the attitude that officers should take towards their soldiers; 'They don't depend on you. You depend on them.' Neil Morrison was so respected as an officer, that if he was about to fall down a cliff, his men would leap in to soften his fall.
When we got to the Parabats we started our basic all over again. I remember being woken up at about three o'clock in the morning to hear that we were going for an 'air lift' and we got that tiekie wa-wiel(From the Afrikaans idiom regarding fear; when the size of your arsehole shrinks from the size of a wagon wheel to the size of a 'tiekie', which is an old 2c piece.) feeling. We got into the trucks and went out to De Brug and when we got there they had constructed the outline of an aeroplane out of toilet paper on the ground. It was just buggeration.
The only thing that I was really concerned about, before I did my first jump, was just that I would hurt myself. You hear the stories that a lot of guys break their ankles; it doesn't matter - if you make your one jump and you break your ankle, that's it, and you've got to go back.
They had a thing called the 'aapkas'(Monkey cage) - a harness in which people practise how to jump and how to land - like a sentry tower. It's supposed to be like a mock up of the inside of a plane, and then you put the whole harness on, and you jump. It has a counter weight that slows your fall, but while you're dropping the weight comes up; so you fall at presumably the same rate as you would with a parachute.
You've got a weight here and a set of pullies here; so as you jump, this weight lifts up and that breaks your fall.
I did my first jump in September or the beginning of October. I was quite apprehensive. You've got peer pressure because you've got all these guys with you. You don't want to be chicken and they don't want to be chicken. If you opened up to one another, all of you would tell one another 'Look! I'm shit-scared! Oh, I'm scared as well!' You can't do that. You've got to be the Macho guy!
We jumped at De Brug at Bloemfontein. I didn't think I would see that place as many times as I did. The first jump was all right, actually. I was scared, but I was fairly sure that I wasn't going to die. I was more scared that I would hurt myself.
The second jump I was scared. When I landed, I landed hard. I've seen the guys teach you how to land, you bring your elbows in and keep your ankles together. I never got that right. I always fell like a sack of potatoes. Bump. Crash, bag, wallop!
I watched 'China' coming down. They tell you that when you are coming down you should keep your eyes on the horizon; you check your 'chute and then you keep your eyes on the horizon. 'China' was watching the ground come up. It's amazing when you are up in the air, you feel that you could stay there forever. All of a sudden the ground comes up to meet you. China was watching the ground and he saw the ground coming up, so he decided that he was going to try to climb away from it. He tried to climb up his risers - you know how far you can climb up the risers. I remember him getting a big bollocking for that.
I think that the South African Army was involved in Angola or Mozambique in 1967 because Morrison disappeared for about a month and a half and he came back. I was NCO on duty the night he came back and he was tanned; he was as dark as can be, and he had Portuguese camouflage uniform on. We were quite glad to see him back, because we had a hard time when he was away. We were just pulling beat night after night because he wasn't there to look after us. I remember him arriving. I gave him a salute and saying 'Shit, Lieutenant, we're glad to see you.' He asked 'Why?' I said; 'We've just been pushing beat the whole time.' Apparently there was a bit of a stink about that. He went into the Officers Mess and created a bit of a stink. We just heard this second hand so I don't know how true this is, but we heard that he wanted to dip another Lootie in the Officers Mess because of this. Neil Morrison was a P.F. Lootie. He was a 'white man'!
He was a very nice guy in the sense that we didn't get a lot of passes with him, but he'd come to us on a Friday night and he's say 'You're going into the veld tomorrow'. We'd go out and it was almost like a private outing. He would just take his platoon into the veld and he would teach us the most incredible things like camouflage and fieldcraft. We were being paid 50c a day in those days. On the Saturday night the guys would have a whip-around. We would raise about ten or fifteen rand and he would then match it with the same amount of his own money. He would go and buy us some cheap wine, Paarl Perle, and some boerewors(Traditional Afrikaner sausage) and chops and we'd have a bit of a braai. That was good. I really enjoyed that.
He taught us the most incredible things. He was very into boobie traps and things like that. We were a little bit sceptical in the beginning. Everybody bitched like mad when you had to go out into the veld, but when it came to manoeuvres, Shit! It paid off.
We were on one manoeuvre in the Northern Transvaal where we were against some guys in the Citizen Force, and they were supposed to be the terrorists and we were supposed to be the good guys. Neil Morrison managed to get hold of the RSM of this regiment. He had this guy without any clothes or water out in the Summer sun for about three days. This guy was Eliciting and moaning at him; 'Well that's not how it's supposed to be in the rules and regulations.' Morrison basically told him; 'That's not cutting any ice with me.' He got this guy to tell him were all the RV's(Rendezvous) were, and we just waited for them. Of all the guys that got captured, I think our platoon captured about 70%. These guys were supposed to be terrorists, so they have to RV to pick up food and stuff like that, and because this RSM gave the game away, we knew where the guys were going to go. What made it better was that, after the manoeuvre was finished, Neil Morrison went and told these other guys 'Do you know how we managed to catch you guys?' They said 'no', so he said 'Your RSM told us'. I don't know what happened to him. He was full of shit! When you caught these guys, it wasn't just a question of them putting up their hands and you escorting them. Neil Morrison insisted that you slam the guy down, that you search him, and you build a kraal there with thorns. He kept the guys inside the kraal. He didn't have enough guys to guard them, so he put them inside this cage. That was absolutely brilliant.
During grenade training at De Brug, they were instructed by a Staff Sergeant Wepener. They were priming their grenades f rom within a stone semi circle, and in three different commands would (1) pick up the grenade, (2) pull out the pin, and (3) throw it. After they had done this, and there was the impression that everyone had thrown their grenades. `I've still got mine!' said Lt. Neil Morrison, suddenly producing his grenade - for effect. Cobus dived for cover into a field of thorns. The joke was realised, and Staff Sergeant Wepenaar rounded on Morrison; 'Luitenant,' he remonstrated, 'As jy In troep was sou ek jou gebliksem het."( Lieutenant, if you had been a troop, I would have clobbered you!)'
They gave us two field dressings each; the ones that I got were stamped 'The Union of South Africa 1941', this was in 1967. I thought you would probably get gangrene if you just put it on your leg; you wouldn't even have to be wounded.
When we were with parabats we had these jump smocks which were ex-World War Two ones, with a zip about half way down your chest, and a crotch-piece that came from the back as a flap and connected at the front with two press studs. They were all very old. At that time we were still wearing overalls. Neil Morrison had some overalls -they must have been condemned ones - he had them cut down to just above the crutch like a jacket and he camouflaged them; with just green dye and red dye and black and brown blotches. Went we went out on his weekends, we would wear them, but we couldn't wear them inside the camp. It was a bit like his private army.
I saw an interesting demonstration of a group of guys called 'The Hunters'. They had camouflage uniforms, like the security police. They had a little badge with a scorpion on it.(Later on I found out that they were Jan Breytenbach's people. They started as a citizen force unit and then progressed to become 1 Recce. I only found that out later.) ` We looked at those guys, and they were only - Wow! It was so different seeing someone in a camouflage uniform - a proper camouflage uniform instead of these home made jobs which we had. They were showing us unarmed combat and they did a small demonstration of booby traps, and the one guy showed us how you could make a hollow charge out of an empty aerosol can; use the bottom part of the aerosol can for the stand off. If you make a hollow charge shell, you've got a concave surface, and then the charge is on top of that. If you ignite that it will explode down, but it will explode in a cone, and it will actually burn a hole through the steel. That's basically how an RPG 7 or a 3.5 rocket launcher shell works. This guys showed us, because of the aerosol can having the little curve down there at the bottom, you could use that as a stand off for the area.
These guys had a quick way of drawing an R1. They had the R1 over their shoulder, and then if they grabbed it by the pistol grip and jerked it fast, it would actually come off the shoulder; gun-slinging. We thought; 'Wow! Isn't this great?' Then they showed us how they threw their bayonets. We had the R1s which had the funny bayonet which go flash hider and they were showing us how to use this as a throwing dagger. Everyone went back to the bungalows and tried it out for themselves. It was really good. We were really impressed. It was all showmanship and we didn't know any better.
One guy had an Uzi submachine gun which the South African army called a 'HMK' Hand Masjien karbein. He came up to these guys with his hands up imitating surrender with somebody else behind. These guys had their weapons trained on him. All of a sudden, he bent forwards and the guy behind grabbed the Uzi and fired at these guys asking him to surrender. Nobody bothered to think that in real life guys doing that would probably end up with a fair amount of flash bums. We thought this was great! Everybody wanted to become a 'Hunter'.
We were ever so proud when we got our jumper boots. At that time we had French boots, which had a sole which you could screw on and screw off. When you got your jumper boots you thought you were something! At first we could only wear them when we jumped, but after that we could wear them all the time.
We had to do five jumps to qualify, and then we had our parade and got our wings. The Commandant was there; Willie Louw gave us a speech, and then the RSM came and told us `Julle is 'n klomp kak! Julle dink julle is valskermsoldate maar julle is net 'Jumpers'. Nou gaan ek van julle valskermsoldate maak!" (You are shit! You think that you are paratroopers, but you are just jumpers. Now I am going to make paratroopers out of you!)'
Then it really started. We thought that we had had a hard time before. We did quite a lot of intensive patrolling and stuff like that; they were teaching you something without teaching you the reason why you are doing something, rather than just telling you to do it and to do it this way.
I did 3.5 rocket launcher and 81 mm mortars, and then I went on a 'Mine Awareness Course' which I enjoyed. They had guys called Assault Pioneers who did basic 'sapper' work. I wasn't too impressed. We did mine detection but also learned how to lay mines and how to disarm them. To put it bluntly, they taught us how to fight dirty with something like that. I enjoyed that very much. I wasn't very impressed with the idea of trying to lift a mine and disarm it. To me it seemed far better to blow the thing. Like in the movies, this guy prodding it with a bayonet. I thought that was stupid.
I saw a very interesting demonstration; one day Morrison had this TM46 mine and we were on this dirt road and he had a ground sheet or poncho. He put the poncho down and he put this TM46 there and he took a knife and he made a circle on the ground and he started digging out the ground. He probably dug an inch or an inch and a half deep and put that soil to one side and then dug the other soil out and put that on another heap. He put in this TM46, put some of the soil back and then put the top soil back on there, and then took all the other soil away and dispersed it. He told us 'That's the way to do it!' We were really impressed with this guy. He really knew his onions, or so we thought.
About a week later he did exactly the same thing, but at this point in time we were at a road where there was mud from where a truck had gone through, and it made a ridge of mud. What he did here was he cut out a piece of this mud, lifted it up almost on one piece - a little piece of it broke off. He then laid the mine and then put this piece back and he camouflaged it so well. Even we who were standing there watching couldn't exactly say after a while where this piece of mud was, or where the join was between the two pieces. It was absolutely brilliant.
We were also taught how you can boost a mine with two 81 mm mortar shells that make a bigger explosion, and making a switch out of a clothes peg; you put thumb tacks between the jaws and then attach wires to them. All you need to do is put another piece of wood between the thumb tacks. When the piece of wood is pulled out, the circuit is completed. You can also take a piece of wood, and split it, and wrap wire around one side and on the other side you take the insulation off and then do exactly the same thing. Things like that absolutely fascinated me. I didn't think there was any future in lifting mines!
He showed is something interesting to do with a 'Skottleploeg'(Plough share). He had one to which he had welded a piece of rail that had been sharpened. He knocked that into the ground and then packed all of it with full of plastic explosive and nuts and bolts and you can make one hell of a big claymore mine. I thought that it was pretty good, but rather impractical to carry this thing. Just imagine carrying it twenty or thirty miles on your back and then a guy comes back and says there's an enemy about twenty yards ahead; 'Okay, right! Lets quickly set up this claymore mine for them. Knock this in and they won't hear you.'
I believe they did this later in Rhodesia; I never saw it, I just heard about it. Take a coke bottle and put explosives in that and nuts and bolts as well and then they would hang that on the security fences, and then if the Terrs rev them or attack them they would explode this. I suppose that the fence probably went with the explosion.
Neil Morrison was a really good guy. He taught us so much. We did a fair amount of manoeuvres. We went to Lake Sibiya in Northern Zululand, which is almost at Kosi Bay. We heard that some of the Parabat officers were involved in Rhodesia, but I'm not sure about that. They used to disappear off sometimes.
There was one camp in the Northern Transvaal called Aletta. I heard subsequently that 5 Recce was stationed there, and I also heard that they also had a fair amount to do with Renamo, which was operating from there. Those dissidents that they had in Rhodesia, that fifth brigade of theirs - I heard that some of them were being supplied from there, but I can't vouch for that.
Probably about 60% of the guys in my platoon smoked dagga(Cannabis ). They came from relatively poor areas, but they were good guys. You couldn't wish for better guys to have around you. This guy Palm, he AW0Led and got caught, AW0Led and got caught, and when they took him to the DB the last time; I don't know what they did to him but when he came out he was as meek as a lamb. He suffered; I really think they went to town on him. He only had himself to blame. I don't know whether you can call any guy that young a 'soldier', but I think he was a pretty good national serviceman. He was a pretty good guy. He just couldn't take the bullshit. If he wanted to go home then he wanted to go home; invariable a lot of the guys have got problems at home. He wanted to go and sort out the problems at home; the army didn't want to let him go, or the army wasn't very sympathetic. Often the problems at home are bullshit and the guy just wants to get pass - he would just go!
I think in all I had about eight passes while I was in the army. It was a good feeling; walking down the road in my bunny jacket. We didn't have the tunics and step-outs, we had battle-dresses. It was a good feeling stepping out in your battle dress. You're supposed to wear putties but as soon as you got into Bloem on the train, you'd take the putties off and you would blouse your trousers into your boots high like they do now with the browns. They don't wear putties with the browns anymore. You felt just the guy!
We never did many 'Tuin Operasies'(Counter Insurgency Operations) Most of the stuff was Counter Insurgency. When we did the real thing in South West Africa it was like night and day. We never went out of South Africa during my national service. That's a bit of a lie. We went into Rhodesia; we crossed the Limpopo River - we walked across; it was as dry as can be. We stood in Rhodesia and came back - without a passport.
We had a pleasant surprise in the Northern Transvaal; I think it's where the Pafuri River and the Limpopo meet. We were on manoeuvres there. It was a dry season, but there were big pools and there were some hippos in them. It was beautiful. We sat there for three or four hours one day watching and they were doing a show for us. I've never seen anything like that in my life. It was absolutely brilliant.
On one manoeuvre in Gazankulu they decided to keep us there for three weeks longer. One day we went out and we didn't have any rations and everyone was saying 'Where are the rations?' We were told 'The rations aren't coming!' They dropped us off the trucks at about five o'clock in the afternoon, and we went with Neil Morrison. We asked 'Where are the rations, Lieutenant?' He smiled with a big grin and said 'There aren't any rations. The terrorists have blown up the trucks. You're on a survival course. That was a bastard. I suppose you can understand him doing that. Otherwise everybody would have squirreled food away. I had a couple of dog biscuits in my kidney pouches. We had mosquito repellent called Milol, and a bottle of this Milol had broken in my kidney pouches and had really soaked into these dog biscuits. I was going to throw them away tomorrow. I had them for breakfast the following morning, mosquito repellent and all. They were quite all right.
We were really suffering. When guys are together everybody talks about women. After about five days all the people were talking about was food. I went to this one little shop - they had some tomatoes which were yuk! This was after about four days. We bought these tomatoes and some mielie meal. I was so hungry that I mixed the mielie meal with water and ate it like that. We wanted salt for the tomatoes, and the guy only had about a five-pound pack. So I bought a five-pound pack of salt for the four tomatoes. I can remember sitting outside this shop and eating these tomatoes, and they were the best tomatoes I have ever eaten in my life.
Neil showed us how, if you go down to a river, reed shoots are very much like asparagus. You can eat that. The guys tried to shoot birds. We had black plastic blanks that we had in the R1. The guys thought that if they put a piece of wood in the barrel of the R1 and the plastic blank, they could shoot a bird with it, but that didn't work.
We had a Bedford truck with us. We went out one night with the Bedford driving along the road and there are rabbits in the road. You would slow down and the guys would bail out of the Bedford while it was still moving and then go outside the lights and then run in and kick the rabbit to death. We managed to get about eight of them one night and Neil Morrison had this big black three-legged pot. We threw them in there and everybody had a whip-around and we got about eight tins of bully beef and that went in there, and some of the reed asparagus. About four hours later we came back. In those days you had a metal water bottle with a plastic outer cover and a plastic cup. The one I have now is a plastic water bottle with a metal cup, a 'fire bucket'; in those days it was the other way around. We each took our fire buckets and scooped it into this soup and the flesh of these rabbits. There were long strings hanging down and it was absolutely vile. Hungry as I was, I only managed to eat half of mine. I just couldn't eat it.
Two days after that he took out this little plastic packet that he had. In it were tiny little fish hooks. I hadn't seen such tiny hooks before. He had some very fine fishing line. We got some crickets on the riverbank and put them on. These fish could never have seen hooks in their lives before. In a question of about four or five hours we must have had about fifty or sixty fish. They were only about two or three inches long; they just went into a dixie, head, scales, fins, everything. We tried to grill them but that wasn't too successful. We boiled them in the water to make a fish soup, and my salt came in very handy.
Neil told us all sorts of horror stories about how to eat snakes and things like that. But that time we were probably hungry enough to eat that as well. It never came around to eating snakes. We had this English speaking guy by the name of Tom Parkins, who must have been about seven foot eighteen. He was a really thin rake of a guy. Because we were there where there were wild animals, we all had twenty rounds of live ammunition with us; the magazines had a split pin through it so you couldn't put it in your rifle without taking the split pin out. You had a seal on the other side of the split pin, which I thought was stupid because if you were attacked by a wild animal you would have to take the seal off and then pull out the split pin. Tom was far cleverer than we were, and he took the base of the magazine out, so he didn't break the seal. He must have got about six bullets from various guys.
At that time they had just started bringing out the bren with 7.62 calibre with a straight magazine. Normally a bren has a curved mag for a 303. We had one of these.
While all this was going on, the other guys were looking for us because we were supposed to be a unit that had turned renegade. We heard shots. 'What the hell is going on?' There's Tom and he had shot a Kudu with the bren. Neil Morrison was doing his nut! 'Why did you ... ?'. Tom turned around and said 'It attacked me!' Neil Morrison couldn't do much. He was giving Tom full credit for initiative.
He had a habit, if you really screwed up, he would say `Fuck face!' and beckon you with his finger, and then you knew you had to go to him, give him your cheek, and he would just tap you. That really hurt because you felt a real pratt. If he had given you a bollocking, it wouldn't have hurt half as much. He called Tom over; 'Here Fuck Face', and smacked him on the cheek. He took the liver and kidneys.
Bloody hell! We had a feast. It was good. We made a fire. I managed to get a shoulder of this Kudu and put it next to the fire, and as the meat was cooked we would just slice little slivers off. That was good. I believe there was hell to pay afterwards. We buried the head and hooves and horns and things like that but apparently there was loads of shit caused by that. What the hell!
I had two weeks left when a new bunch of Rowes came in. They didn't have anyone to look after them, or any instructors to instruct them, so a lot of their time they spent helping out in the kitchen. One day I was marching a squad of them down to the kitchen to go and help, and there was one guy who just couldn't march. When he put his left foot forward, they put their left arm forward at the same time. He kept on doing it. I halted the squad, made them do an 'Omkeer'(About Face) and went up to him and screamed at him at the top of my voice to intimidate the hell out of him. I screamed at him; 'Do you understand me?' He was an English speaking lad. He was really braced. You could virtually see his pants shivering he was that scared and he said; 'Yessir!' I smacked my 'camel bites' (Corporal's Stripes) and I asked; 'Do you see this?' He said; 'Ja.' I asked; 'What is that?' He said; 'It's a one stripe.' I asked; 'What does that one stripe mean?' He said; 'That's a Lance Corporal.' I said; 'That means I'm a non-commissioned Officer.' I was really going spare at this guy. I wasn't talking, I was screaming at him. I said to him; 'A non-commissioned officer you do not call "Sir". I work for my money.' As I said that I made him do a left turn and I marched him away. There was a bloody Captain standing there watching me.
It was quite all right taking the guys to work in the kitchen, because we could whip(take) canned fruit. We found quite quickly that if you tried to steal a tin of canned fruit they would catch you. If you put a box on your shoulder and walked away with it, people would think that you were probably taking it for some official purpose.
I finished my nine months, and then they came with the bullshit story that you had gone for the year and that you wouldn't be called up again. At that time they were terribly short of instructors, and they said that if we stayed they would give you a substantive rank one rank up; you would get PF pay and PF privileges. I just wanted to get out of it. I got discharged, and I was quite sad to go. The army is like all things; you only remember the good times, and you don't remember the bad times. I will never forget the day that I said goodbye to Neil Morrison; I was crying like a baby. I was really sorry to go. I was sorry to say goodbye to him. You grow attached. That was basically it.(I met him a couple of years after I finished my national service in a pub one night. It was in a Ladies Bar. We'd actually been to a movie and had gone for a couple of drinks. This guy came in and sat down. I wasn't sure if it was him or not. I went and asked 'Lt. Morrison?' He looked at me and he recognised me, and he spoke to me. I asked if he was still in the army as I noted that his hair was a little bit longer than it normally was. He said 'No!' I asked 'Why not?' and he said; 'Its not an army. Its a circus!' He mentioned that he was thinking of going to Rhodesia. He was a really good guy!)
Then I came back to civvy life. I found civvy life a little bit silly. I thought that people kept themselves occupied with bullshit. If you screw up in civvy life, then nobody's going to get killed. If you screw up at work, these guys are carrying on like it's a major catastrophe. So what? It's only money. It was worse when I came out of Angola. If you had a problem in civvy life, it didn't matter what solution you used as long as it worked, like you would do in the army. That's all that counted. The end justified the means. Then you had to come back to these guys who worried about silly things. I just couldn't relate to that. It took me a while to get used to it.
My mother only discovered I was smoking when I was in the army. I have been smoking since I was thirteen. She never knew that. She only discovered it when I was in the army. She asked me when I started smoking and said that she hoped that I had not started drinking. I thought; 'Oh, hell! If you only knew!'
Then I got this letter saying that I was allocated to Springs Regiment. I thought that there was something wrong here. This was in May 1968 when I got out. I got this letter in the middle of 1969. I wrote back and said 'Sorry. When we signed up there we did a year, and we were told there would be no more three-week camps.' At that time I think you had to do three three -week camps in five years. That was it. Then you would be on reserve until you were sixty-five. I can see you doing something very worthwhile at sixty-five. I wrote back to them, and they wrote back to me as 'rifleman'. I was most annoyed with that as well because I was a lance jack, and very proud of my one stripe. They said that they didn't know anything about that stuff. I thought to myself that it was not too bad being in Springs because I was outside. If you were within a certain radius of parents originally - that's right! Before you had to klaar out, you had to fill in a card with your home address, so I gave my mom's address which was in Maraisburg. On this little card that had 'What area is it? East Rand? West Rand?' So I said it was the East Rand. Use your loaf, because if you say it is the East Rand, they're probably going to allocate you into somewhere over on that side. If you're out of the designated radius then you don't have to go to Saturday parades. That worked out quite clever. I though it wouldn't be too bad, it would be all right in Springs regiment. At least I wouldn't have to go to Saturday parades.
FIRST THREE WEEK CAMP 1970
In 1970 I did my first three-week camp. We did an Operation up in Gazankulu. At that point in time it was the biggest manoeuvre that South Africa had ever held. We were in a thousand-truck convoy going up there. That was a show of force for one of the Independent Homelands of Gazankulu; winning their hearts and minds and arsecreeping. It was just buggering around in the bush for three weeks.
Me and one other guy, Randall Greybe, were the only guys allocated to Springs from the Parabat Regiment. We pitched up with our maroon berets, and our 'bokkies'. At that time we just had our maroon berets and the infantry springbok.
They gave us this Springs regimental badge which is a swan. I think the motto is `Nic te mere, nic te mede', meaning 'Not timid, not bold.' We looked at this, and this looked more like a bloody vulture. A swan is not very marshal, so we put it on our maroon berets, and the NCOs came to us and said 'And what's that? Where did you get those berets from?' We said 'We got it where we were.' 'Where was that?' They knew very well what the maroon berets were. They told us to get green berets, and we said 'Yes Sir' and thought 'Screw you!' I was disappointed. They came and wanted to know who were NCOs and Randall and I had both been, but we thought 'Bugger this!' There were some guys there who had been with me at 3 SAI whom I had met afterwards. I knew they were riflemen at the end. These bloody guys stepped forward, didn't they! All of a sudden - crash, bang, wallop! - they get two stripes. They hadn't been on any courses. They just had the brass to step forward and say 'We were corporals!' So Randall and I thought 'We'd better step out,' but by that time it was too late, so we only ended up as Lance Jacks. No problem with that. We went and got our old stripes out of our kit; the two stripes, but them on and promoted ourselves. They never twigged. We really suffered in the sense of 'You're the rough tough Parabats. You think you're better than we are. I'd be lying if I said that we didn't think we were better than they were, but we never said it to their faces. If there was any shitty job to do, Randall Greybe and I got it. It really got up our noses. Their attitude was 'Well we'll show the bastards!' I couldn't wait for Gazankulu to finish.
In the thousand truck convoy, we were in the back of a little jeep gladiator, all the way from Springs up to the Northern Transvaal. It was all right until we hit Pietersburg because there were tar roads. We were in the front up until there. As soon as we hit the dirt road, the guys took the wrong turning and we ended up at the rear. It wouldn't have been all that bad if we had been driving along a tarred road, but once we started hitting the dirt roads it was pretty God-awful. It was horrendous. We were eating dust all the way.
I can remember sitting in the back of this truck and opening a can of bully beef with my bayonet at night. There was a piece of cardboard that I was cutting this piece of bully beef on. The RI bayonet is half round so you don't really cut the bully beef with it. It is best to break it into chucks. After I had done this, we shared out the bully beef, and I took my bayonet and I stuck it through the cardboard. When we finished eating, and I took this piece of cardboard, and threw it out. Only when it was in the air, did I realise that my bayonet was still stuck through this piece of cardboard. I saw it hit the road, heard it make a beautiful 'pling!', and I saw the spark. We were in a convoy, and you can't just stop for a bayonet. I had a bit of a problem because I had to get a bayonet back, because after the manoeuvre you have to explain what happened to your bayonet. There was a guy that I didn't like, so I went and pinched his bayonet. I though; 'All right! He's probably going to have his number written down, or they are going to have his number written down so I had better switch bayonets so I end up with a bayonet. If I switch enough bayonets, no body is going to know that I pinched this guy's bayonet. I could just claim that I didn't know why about four or five different guys had the wrong bayonets. They would think; 'Okay, there's been a cock-up here'.
I thought I had done this well because the stolen bayonet wasn't in my section any more. Funny enough, this guy never mentioned that his bayonet had disappeared, and I just assumed that he must have pinched someone else's bayonet. The day came when we were klaaring out and lo and behold, one guy in my section has got this guy's bayonet. I've got this other guy's bayonet so my clever plan of switching bayonets never came to fruition. I got away with it, but a guy in my section got into trouble. I'm sorry to say that I didn't go and say 'It was me who did this.' I just let him carry the can.
Each and every section got a 15-lb hammer to knock up tents. We happened to loose our 15-lb hammer, and when we were klaaring out, we had to hand back a 15-Ib hammer. They were klaaring the stuff into a big tent and this one RSM was sitting there ticking the stuff off as they came in. I think we were about half an hour away from klaaring in our stuff. I went into the tent and I said 'RSM, can I just borrow a 15-lb hammer. We've got to knock down some of the officers' tents' which we were busy doing, and he said 'Okay, fine'. I took the hammer and I never signed for it, and I gave him back his hammer as 'our' hammer when we klaared out. How the hell did he explain the 15-lb hammer disappearing? He must have had a list there saying 'I have received five hammers back from the troops'. When he came to klaar in his gear, he must have found 'Oh, shit! I've only got four.' I don't know whether he went and pinched a hammer off someone else again to make up his shortfall. That was quite good. I was quite proud of myself.
RUNDU - SECOND THREE-WEEK CAMP
We went up to Rundu from just outside Messina at the Messina airport(The movie 'The Wild Geese' (1978) was filmed at the camp Aletta, just outside Chipeese. The scene where they attack the camp to rescue the black president was filmed there. When I saw it, I thought; 'I know that place.'). There was a C130 Hercules and a C160 Transall came and picked us up there. I was quite amazed how the weight of it pushed the tyres a couple of inches into the tarmac runway. It probably was all right if it was moving along, but just standing there for a long time. Randall and I looked at this, and wondered how everyone was going to get into those two aircraft - jam-packed! We had flown in them before when we were in the bats. We hung back, and all the other idiots were fighting for places. They probably thought they were going to get nice window seats. We hung back as everybody boarded. About ten of us didn't have seats, so we climbed in on the cargo door at the back. We just stood there and they closed the cargo door. After everybody got in they stated loading cargo on this door and then they closed it. We were just lying on the balsakke and everything. We had a brilliant flight, sleeping, while the other guys were sitting there all scrunched up.
When Cobus first landed at Rundu, riding on the luggage on the ramp of a C160 Transall, he looked out of the window and was very surprised to see a panhard [Eland] armoured car racing along beside the aeroplane as it landed, presumably to give covering fire if the Transall was fired upon. Later Cobus realised how ridiculous this was, because panhards don't have stabilisers for their guns, so all they would be able to fire back with would be the machine guns.
We landed at Rundu. I really liked Rundu camp. We went over to Calai a couple of times. They had a ferry across the river there. I thought, 'I wish I could be one of these guys who's stationed here permanently!' because all they ever seemed to do was tiger-fishing. It was as safe as houses. Calai is upstream on the East. We took a lot of supplies and drums of diesel for the Portuguese guys over there. They had this ferry that you actually had to physically pull across the river. There was one very big guy there who could lift a 44-gallon drum full of diesel. He would move it until it was overlapping the back of the Bedford by about eighteen inches. Then he would jump down and grab the top and bottom and move it and put it down on the ground. I thought they must be empty, but I kicked it and it was full. I've never seen anything like it in my life.
We would take these things across. We would stand there off-loading it on the Portuguese side. Randall said to me that he wanted to go and have a slash, so we walked into the bush, and I almost died. We weren't allowed to take any arms with us into Angola, so all our arms were on the South African side. We walked around the bushes and we were just about to have a pee and there this black bugger's arms there and their uniforms lying all around there. Luckily they were not looking at us; they were looking away. 'Are we about to die for the Fatherland?' we wondered. We forgot all about having a pee and went back and said 'Hey, there's some armed kaffirs here!' The guy said 'They must be the Portuguese'. This just shows you how naive we were. We were not aware that there were black soldiers in the Portuguese army. We thought 'Portuguese are white!'
About five minutes later this Berlitz truck full of black soldiers - Portuguese guys. They were Portuguese 'Flecha's -bushmen. They had little buttons that had an arrow upwards, with 'Flecha' written around the bottom.(It was so funny the way things happen. You don't realise that later on you are going to meet up with these people, and then on Savannah we operated with these Flecha guys. They became part and parcel of 32 Battalion and some of them went to Omega.)
This was the first time we wore Nutria, and we were absolutely impressed. We couldn't believe what a difference it was between Jim Fouche being Minister of Defence and P.W. Botha. All of a sudden, boots started getting better, and everything started getting better.
All we did at Rundu was build bunkers. We built a couple of bunkers there. We went on a manoeuvre - the guys just keeping you busy. We had this national service lieutenant. You must remember that by this time we were old men of twenty-one. Now we had this kid of eighteen or nineteen who had a pip on his shoulder, telling us what we should do. You know how arrogant you are at that age; 'What I know about soldiering this guy still has to learn'. Meanwhile we know absolutely bugger-all about soldiering.
It was a map reading exercise we were on. They flew us out with helicopters, dropped us, and then we had to come back to the camp. It was great flying really low in a helicopter. We were flying in Aloettes, so only four of you can sit, with the flight engineer and the pilot in the front. I managed to get a seat at the door. They've got a sliding door. We practised how to de-plane from these Aloe's for several days, which we thought was a waste of time because we did that in Parabats already, but the army says you've got to do it. That was just Randall and I; 'What do these guys from Springs Regiment know? We've done it all and seen it all.' The doors have a hook that hooks into the catch, but you don't hook that in. You slide the door almost shut and you hold your hand between the door and the wall. When you've got to jump out, you just push the door back and you jump. We flew in helicopters in Parabats but then you're probably four or five hundred feet up in the air, and then when you do down you go down slowly. I knew we were flying low, but I didn't realise how low until I looked out of the door and found myself looking halfway up a tree instead of looking down on top of a tree. You get a tremendous impression of speed. When I started there was only an inch or two's gap between the door and the doorway, but soon the gap was about twelve inches. I was really having a good look. When they get near to the drop area, the flight engineer points his thumb down, and when it's time to jump, he moved his thumb up and down. I got it a little bit wrong, so the flight engineer looked back and showed his thumb down, and I looked out and thought; 'Shit! You must be bloody joking! It must be at least forty or fifty feet up in the air.' I was all ready to jump, but then I thought 'Hang on for a sec here!'
Two guys jump, but you've got to jump almost at the same time, otherwise you throw the chopper off balance. It's not too bad if you're one of the first to jump, because then you jump and the chopper goes up a little bit in the air. One guy must have been about fifteen feet up in the air when he jumped. The last guys must have jumped from about twenty-five feet up. We had learned at parabats how to do this. They had given the guys from Springs a demonstration as well. One of the guys who jumped after us looked at this and thought 'Sod that! I'm not jumping like that!' He threw his R1 out first and then jumped out. Sods Law operated, and the rifle landed barrel first into the ground - absolutely chock-a-block full of sand.
So we were on this map reading exercise, and we've got this Loot. They must have been wild, but we saw camels there in the bush. I can remember saying to this Lootie - the language in the army is Afrikaans - 'Lieutenant, are you sure we're not in North Africa already? I mean; Camels?'
We walked and walked and walked. This camp is getting no closer! Eventually we asked him; 'Lieutenant, what are you doing here? Do you know where we are going? He was an arrogant bastard; 'I've got this on my shoulders and I know what is going on.' 'All right, fair enough'.
At about seven o'clock that night he decides that it's time to get on the radio to the camp to tell them that we are lost. His expression was `Ek naai die kat'('I screw the cat!') At about nine o'clock he realised that he was lost, so he gets his signaller. We had SA36 radios, and there were no coms. because the batteries were flat. Right, where are the spare batteries? The Lootie didn't get any spare batteries. We didn't know where the hell we were. He should have been crapping himself, I mean, you don't know where the hell you are. You're in the Operational Area and you hear all the horror stories about there being SWAPO terrs behind every bush. He wanted to put in a temporary base [TB] there; We said 'No Ways! We'd been sitting around there for five or ten minutes, and if somebody had followed us they would know where we are; we had made so much bloody noise. We could all get killed here; we have to move on. He didn't want to know, but the guys were talking to him and saying 'Come on. You're going to get us all killed.' We were stupid; there was no danger, but we didn't know that.
It turned out he was a transport officer. We would go out there strictly according to the book; 'Right! This is a nice pozzie(position). Take a compass reading, walk for another twelve thousand yards, take another compass reading, and come back to the pozzie. We all had about forty rounds of live ammo, but that was it. What are we going to do? We go to the Lootie and say; 'We've got to put out guards. We've got a platoon of guys. Where are you going to put out guards because it's not like a house where you could put one guy at each corner. All that we could do was to get the guys two-two together; one guy sleeps for two hours while the other keeps guard, and then swap over. We were sitting there, and purely by chance I see a match being light. I went over 'What's going on here?' It was the Lieutenant. 'I asked 'What are you doing?' He said; 'I'm smoking.' I asked; 'Do you want to kill us? You don't do things like that.' He said 'I didn't know!' I said; 'I didn't either. Use what God has given you.'
He didn't put anybody in charge of the guards; not a guard commander, 2IC, nothing. I'm sure that about half an hour later everybody was asleep. SWAPO could have come and smothered us to death.
Next day; Onward Christian Soldiers. At five o'clock 'Where are we putting the TB?' Now it's light. We might just as well have stopped where the Lootie wanted us to stop in the first place. That night he didn't smoke. We were getting a little but short of water, short of food. Nothing happened that night and at three o'clock the next day we could hear choppers. In Kavango you've got this scrub and white sand. We had to try and make a fire. We could hear choppers. We could see them flying. We might as well have shouted at them for all the good that would do.
So we tried to make a fire of green leaves and stuff like that to send up this column of black smoke. They would see this and come and find us. Did they? Like buggery!
On about the forth day we were really worried. We really thought that we were going to die there. We could hear choppers landing and choppers taking off. Climb up this tree and five yards further you looking straight into a tree that you can't see past, so you have to climb up that tree and five yards further there's another one. We knew that we had to be near the airstrip, because there were choppers coming everywhere and planes flying in. To cut a long story short, we got in at about six o'clock that night. The guys at base must have thought that we had just disappeared or got killed or God knows what had happened to us.
Springs Regiment had a new RSM, a guy by the name of Hannes Botha, and I got on quite all right with him. I went into the pub with him. Senior NCOs were allowed hard liquor, but ordinary NCOs were just allowed beer like ordinary guys. RSM Botha would buy a drink - rum and coke - and he would come over to us and sit and chat and then go, and leave his drink behind. He would look at you and wink at you, so you knew who it was for. That night I told Hannes; 'You can lock me up, you can shoot me, but I'm not going out with that bastard [the Lieutenant] again. He will get us killed.'
A week after this we were out on another map reading exercise, and we had the same guy with us, and RSM Hannes Botha. We were supposed to go on the map reading exercise, and the other guys from Springs Regiment were going to ambush us. It was a real set-up like the army sets up a manoeuvre; they give you a route which will make you go there and they will give the other guys a route which will make them go there as well, and then see which one of the two come out the best. We came to this clearing; there was dead wood on one side. Hannes asks the Lootie; 'What are you going to do?' He says; 'We're going to go across there.' Hannes says to him; 'No, you don't do that. You skirt around the clearing.' This guy pulls rank on him. We were walking across there, and as we hit this area right next to the dead wood, the other guys opened fire on us with blanks. Everybody makes a bale for this dead wood, and as we did this, I thought; 'If Neil Morrison had been here, we would all be dead, because that's the first thing he would have done. He would have booby-trapped it, and we would not have had a chance.
Wood goes all rotten with termites. I managed to dislodge a piece from this tree. By that time I was wearing spectacles. When I was out with Neil Morrison, I would always take them off and put them in a case in my pocket. This piece of wood that I had knocked off came down and hit me. I didn't realise I'd knocked off this piece of wood. All I felt was a crack against my head and my eyes were full of dust and rubbish. I looked and I just saw blood, and I got a fright! I thought we had walked into a real ambush. I was bleeding like mad. I thought I had been shot! I'd been shot in the head. I was feeling for the hole; where had the bullet gone in and come out? It had just cut open my eyebrow here. Hannes came over; 'What's going on here?'
'I've been shot!'
'Bullshit! You couldn't have been shot. There was nobody shooting at us.'
I asked; 'Well where has this come from then?'
He said; 'No, you idiot. You knocked off that piece of wood.'
I asked; 'Are you sure? You're not bullshitting me?'
When I got back to camp I had to go to the Doc who's got to sew the eye up. By this time I looked really bad. It must have been about eleven o'clock. We only got back to camp at about half past four, and by now the blood had gone all black and it looked like ten miles of dirt road. I got to the doctor and there were two guys there. One guy was wearing a pair of shorts and the other had a SAAF flight suit on. The guy in the flight suit says that he's a chopper pilot but he's learned first aid. He's never had a chance to practise. Can he stitch up my eye? I thought I was a rough tough paratrooper; why not? He gave me an injection in the cut which hurt more that the cut itself. He washed it out and then he started sewing it up and he kept on saying 'Does this hurt? Does this hurt?' 'No it doesn't!' Like buggery it doesn't! It does!
He sewed it up, and then afterwards he and this other guy burst out laughing. They said 'We played a bit of a trick on you. We heard that you were coming to be stitched. I am really a doctor, but I though I'd wear this guy's flight suit.' The guy in the shorts said 'Because you were such a good sport you can come on a couple of flights with me.' I got about six flights in an Alloe. It was brilliant. When I had gone on that first flight, I thought we were going low, but it wasn't. We were going along the Cunene, really low. I thought; 'Imagine doing this job and getting paid for it?'
When we went up to the border, Rundu for the first time in 1970, we were talking to some of the police guys. They used to call their vehicles 'Spooks'. I didn't understand why until I remembered the cartoon character 'Casspir, the friendly ghost. (The name is an acronym derived from the Casspir's designers - the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) - and SAP.' (Hooper, 1990, p. 257-258.) Also see Peter Stiff's (1986) Taming the Landmine, pp. ill117.) It was weird how this thing evolved. Apparently it was based on a Swedish design from 1942 - the 'V'-shaped hull, and nobody else has ever applied this; just the South African army. (See, Peter Stiff's (1986) Taming the Landmine, p. 33, 43.)
At Rundu, we were supposedly going out on an Op. I forget the times, but the plan was that we would get up at about three, and we would tree aan(Fall in on parade) at 4. We would be in the trucks at 5 and we would be leaving at seven o'clock. We tree'd aan at the time, got in the trucks and sat there until about 11 o'clock and then somebody came and told us that it had been cancelled, which we probably had known at about 5 past 7 when we hadn't moved away.
The day before we came back there was a land mine explosion just outside Rundu; a floppy's('Floppy' a slang term for a black person based on the black colour of the widow birds that fly with a 'flopping' motion. I believe that this originated from Rhodesia.) bakkie hit it. There was a bulge in the roof where this guy had hit the roof with force of the explosion.
At that time I was working for ESCOM. ESCOM's rules said that they would pay you the difference between your army pay and civvy pay, and all your danger pay was free and gratis. If you were married, they didn't even knock off your army pay, so those three weeks were really worth while. I think we got about ten rand a day danger pay. I think my rank pay was another R6.89 and then you had a mosquito allowance of R1.50 a day.
I got back and almost dipped a floppy at work. There were a fair amount of immigrant women working there, and he was telling them that he was a member `Umkhonto We Sizwe'('Spear of the Nation', the armed wing of the African National Congress) and the ANC. The liberal immigrants were impressionable. I got to hear about this and he brought me a cup of tea the one day. I drank black tea and he brought me some white tea. I asked him for some black tea, please, Philimon. He took it away and brought me some black tea, and he put it on my desk so that it spilled. I just blew a fuse. I grabbed him by the chest and said; 'Look, you black bastard, I've seen what you and your mates do. If you do that to me again and I'll kill you.' He was absolutely horrified. There was silence in the office. 'This guy's gone bossies!' (Bush madness, a savannah equivalent of `Cabin Fever') I'd never called a black guy a 'black bastard' in my life except for that day!
I was called in to see the boss, and he asked me what happened. I said; 'This is what happened. I asked him for a cup of tea civilly enough and he slopped it all over my desk. In the mean time he has been telling everybody that he is a member of the ANC and Umkhonto We Sizwe.' He says to me; 'Our colleague, Philimon ...' I said to him; 'He might be your f-ing colleague, but he's not mine. He said; 'You will apologise ...' I said 'It will be a cold day in hell before I apologise,' and I just walked out of his office, and nothing ever happened. I came back very anti-black from that trip. I don't know why. I never saw anything. I believe it was all from that land mine explosion.
THIRD THREE-WEEK CAMP 1974
Then, in 1974, I did my third three-week camp. I was really glad because this was my last camp, and then I am finished with Piet Windbuks (Reference to P.W. Botha, then the Minister of Defence). We just did that in Springs, and that was absolutely crap, because all we did was rural 'Binnelandse beveiliging'(Internal Security) in towns. They showed you these films; training films out of the 1950s for the British Colonial Police. You've got this crowd, and these guys with placards. You have to unfurl your banner, and then you've got to say that the banner says that they have to disperse in fifteen minutes or blah blah blah. Then you will march in a disciplined way to impress the crowd, and crap like that, and we just couldn't believe it. What is this guy doing? If I was having a riot and the cops did that to me, I'd laugh at them. It was that stupid and antiquated, and the guys just didn't have a clue. 'You pick out the ringleader and you shoot the one guy, and the ring leader falls down and the crowd will disperse.' And we had to take this seriously?
It was the coldest week I've ever had. I remember washing some socks and hanging them over the guy rope of the tent, and the following morning they were frozen.
We had blue movies in the NCOs mess every night. It was all 16 min. We had two projectors, one with a western already threaded through and the other one with the blue movie. If somebody should come in, we would switch off the blue movie and start the western, so we would all be watching this John Wayne western. One guy was a real thick Dutchman and he had never seen a blue movie in his life, so we invited him along to see one. He sat there saying; 'This is disgusting. This is terrible.' He was there every night to be shocked. This was also the first time in my life when I could sign for a drink, so I boozed up about half of my rank pay that time.
I had three days of the camp to go and they changed the law, and then I had to do five three-week camps. If I had finished that one, I would have been home and dry.
A couple of weeks after I had gone home, I got a letter telling me that I had been transferred out of Springs to 44 Parachute Battalion. I assume that they had decided that it was stupid frittering every paratrooper around everywhere.
GOING TO ANGOLA?
In August 1975 we went to De Brug, and that was the first time that I heard that we were involved in Angola. We couldn't get any ammo. It was in short supply, and De Brug is a shooting range. At a shooting range you would expect to go through about five or six hundred rounds of ammunition. I think we had five or six rounds each. There was just no ammunition anywhere. I thought this was great [ironic] because if a little war like that could get rid of all the ammo stocks. We did a brush up on mine awareness and we started hearing rumours South African soldiers were getting involved in Rhodesia. Like all rumours in the army; 'Is it the truth or isn't it?'(These were was just rumours. Some of the officers mentioned that things were going bad in Rhodesia because South Africa was exerting political influence on Smith to capitulate. He also heard that the Recces were involved there and the guys mentioned that they were in the Rhodesian S. A. S. `D'-Squadron. This was just what we heard. We heard that some of them were doing courses with the Selous Scouts.)
At De Brug it was like Christmas as far as the Quartermasters were concerned. In the army you have to be issued with five pairs of browns, or whatever the case may be. If you klaar out and you've only got four, then you've got to pay for one pair, and 'What happened to the fifth pair?' At De Brug they gave us a kit list and said 'What do you need?' On the train on the way to the Free State I took my steel helmet, and I thought; 'I'm not wearing this piece of crap.' I would get by with my beret or my bush hat. I threw it out of the window as we were travelling, and when we got there, what did I need? What you wanted, you could have. If you wanted two pairs of boots, and you wanted another two pairs of boots, you could get them. There was nobody checking; 'You've got this. Why are you asking for it?' It was the first time in my life that I knew the South African army would supply you with a pen knife. I got an absolutely beautiful West German pen knife with absolutely no problem. Everything was brand new. It was like Christmas. We came back with all brand new kit.
We didn't do much there. All we did was bugger about in the field, got issued with kit, did the refresher of the mines course. There was some talk that we were going to do a jump, but nothing came of it. We were told that we would be getting up at three o'clock in the morning. We had to be in the trucks at four, and we would be leaving at five. We were in the trucks at four, and we sat there until nine o'clock, and they cancelled the manoeuvre. We sat in the trucks all the time waiting for the guys.
(For published accounts of this operation, see Du Preez (1989) Avontuur in Angola. Steenkamp (1983) Borderstrike! p. 260, reports that the four battle groups were ZULU [In which Cobus served], FOXBAT, ORANGE and X-RAY. In South Africa's Border War, Steenkamp (1989) covers this operation in pages 36 - 65. Other accounts are to be f ound in Breytenbach (1986, 1990), Du Preez (1990), Du Preez & Spies (1989), Heitman & Hannon (1991) and Spies (1989).)
Then in December 1975 I got my call-up. We didn't know where we were going, but we had a pretty good idea. I was married to Hester at that time. I think I had about a week's notice that I was getting called up, and all of a sudden it was going to be a three-month camp. Until then it had all been three weeks. I said to Hester; I didn't know which way my civvy work was going to treat my pay; whether they were going to pay me in full. We didn't have any children, and I suggested that she should get through on her pay and save my pay because you never know whether these buggers are going to want it all back. We worked out a code for when I wrote to her. I thought our letters would be censored. I wasn't sure whether they were going to censor her letters as well.
I think everybody knew when we came back from De Brug that we were going to get involved in Angola. It was on the cards.
Before we went, we were inducted into 101 Maintenance Brigade, and we all were tiffies, so if we got captured, we were to say that we were tiffies. If you spoke to any foreign newsmen, you were a mercenary(Also see Bridgland (1990), p. 6.) You couldn't speak about South Africa, you had to speak about 'The States'! I found this funny, because everybody when they spoke about South Africa, spoke about 'The States', '... going back to the States. " (Also see Steenkamp (1983), Borderstrike! p. 155, 262.)
We went from Waterkloof to Bloemfontein to Grootfontein and then to Ondangwa. First down and then up. At Bloemfontein it was the same thing again at the Quartermaster's Stores, and we got issued with brand spanking new weapons.
At Grootfontein they were building some aeroplane hangars and they were extending the airport. There was an absolutely beautiful base there. When we got there, it was raining; absolutely pouring down. They had these half built hangars and crates. The first night there I slept on some gravel which wasn't too comfortable. The second night, I though 'I'm going to do something about this.' I looked inside some crates and found greyish black plastic bags. I thought 'nice thick rubberised plastic? I'll pull out a couple of those and put that on the ground and sleep on those.' At least you were out of the cold. I pulled one of them out, and they were body bags. I slept on the gravel again. It was amazing how big that camp was.
We got to Ondangwa and were on our way to Oshikango, along what is known at 'Oom Willie se Pad'(Uncle Willy's road) and we had absolutely no ammunition. We were all sitting there with rifles and we got brand new mint uniforms. Everything was all right at Oshikango, on the South West side and just as we went into the Angolan side. 'What do we do if something happens? Point our guns at them, or have a bayonet charge?' Really good planning [ironic]!
I think the first town in Angola was Santa Clara. I couldn't believe this place. It was absolutely shot to bits; like genuine war. The houses were made out of Portuguese air bricks that you can shoot through with a .22 rifle. Everywhere was painted with 'Viva UNITA', 'Viva FLNA'. I never saw anything about the MPLA!
The next town, Namacundo looked even worse. Tom Parkins made an interesting observation when we went in to Namacundo; 'That's independence for you!' What a profound observation!
The next town that we got to was Pereira de Eca [now called Ongiva] which has an airstrip outside it. That didn't look too bad. As we came in, the first house that we saw was a pretty substantial place. Right underneath the window somebody had shot it with either an RPG 7, or a 60 mm mortar mounted on a Panhard or Eland armoured car. There was just a neat little hole about an inch or two wide crater, with cracks around it. We went to have a look inside, and we couldn't believe the damage that had been done to the inside of this house. It was like a film set in Wild West movies; the front of the house looked absolutely brilliant, but you look inside and there's absolutely nothing left of it.
There was a big square building that used to be old Mayor's Office; that didn't look too had. There was nothing in the town; no shops, just loads of graffiti. It amazed me where the guys got all the paint from to paint all the slogans; 'Viva UNITA Povo!', 'Viva FNLA Povo!' etc.
That night we slept in the old Portuguese barracks. There was an ammo dump about four hundred yards from where we were. I had never seen so much ammo in my life, and there was everything. If you wanted to go and pick yourself a 250 lb. bomb to put it on your back and carry it, you could. Help yourself! It was like a supermarket, cash and carry. There was NATO ammunition. I saw loads and loads of American and Nato boxes, there was ammunition from China, from France; you name it. Any country on God's earth - that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but - it was weird; Red Chinese are communists; How come are we friends with these guys. UNITA and the FNLA, until 1974 they were baddies, and now all of a sudden they have become respectable. All of a sudden, they became UNITA troops instead of UNITA Terrorists.(We only found out later that UNITA and SWAPO had been buddy buddy, until SWAPO saw which way the ball was going to bounce and then they decided to throw their lot in with the FNLA, but UNITA was very much SWAPO orientated.)
At the ammo dump, I met up with Tom Parkin, and we decided that we were going to get some grenade rings for our bush hats. We went into this dump looking for grenades and found this box. At this time the South African Army had the new ones; when I did my National Service they had the old Mills bombs, now they had the new ones that looked like a shaving can and you had a fragmentation sleeve that you could put around it. The Mills had a base plug at the bottom that you had to undo, a detonator that you had to put in, put the base plug back in, and you had a special tool that you had to screw this right back in with. With this new grenade, all you did was turn the detonator out of the top and the whole assembly came out. So we wondered how we were going to get these rings for out hats. So we realised that we could pull the detonators out and then pull the pin out; okay, the handles would go up but nothing will happen. I did a couple and started to put the rings in my bush hat. I don't know what Tom did, but he pulled the pin and saw the handle flip and all of a sudden I heard the crack. If you throw a grenade, a .22 shell detonates which sets the fuse off. When you throw the grenade, you can hear the hammer go 'Pling! Crack!' I heard this 'Pling! Crack!' when I should just have heard 'pling!' I just dropped everything, and started running. Tom dropped everything and started running. We must have got about ten or fifteen yards - it was like something out of the movies, that you both stop and realise that we'd had it. If those grenades go, the dump is going to go and there was no way we were going to survive. We were sitting there in the dump, and we had ammunition all over us. Some of the boxes were probably stacked as high as a house. It was probably the size of half a football field. We just realised; 'It's over!'
Nothing happened! Absolutely nothing happened. I looked at Tom, and he looked at me. 'Shit! Lets get out of here. Maybe something's going to happen. Lets make sure that we're away from here when it happens.' What had happened was when he had pulled out the detonator, the shell that sets it off had stayed behind. That went off, but the detonator was well away. By that time I had managed to put three or four rings into my bush hat, and I had a handful that were ready to be put in, but they just stayed there. We decided to just get out of there.
We stayed there for a couple of days. Then we moved to what had been a Trade School and this place had been ransacked. They had taken all the documents that had been inside the files and emptied them. The place had been looted. I thought 'If, in four or five years time a guy comes and want to go for a job and he needs a reference for his trade papers, he's never going to find them.'
The rooms had been used as toilets, and there were heaps of crap everywhere. We had bricks going in and branching out, and you could see that they had started in one corner and used it as a corner and worked their way outwards. We managed to clean about two rooms there. A weird situation; we had to dig a hole for our rubbish, and put all the papers in there, and we burned them. They first wanted us to but them back in box-files but we thought 'Sod this!' We had to bury all our rubbish. We had to be nice and clean, when the town looked like something out of this world. The South African army will be nice and correct at all times.
The second day that we were there, walking down the road. Full military courtesies have to be observed to allied forces, and there was this UNITA Lootie coming down the road. We thought; 'He's black. Better salute him.' He came past him, and we gave him quite a nice chop (salute). He chopped back, and he said; 'Middag, Baas!'('Afternoon, Master!') I almost wet my trousers. There we were, two corporals, and the Lieutenant called us 'Baas'. We started chatting to him, and apparently he had been a migrant labourer at the mines, where he had learned to speak Afrikaans. One guy with me could speak Fanagalo, and this guy could speak Fanagalo, and a little bit of Afrikaans, so we were sat there and got quite friendly, and he wanted to know where we were quartered.
Later that afternoon we were sitting on the steps outside the school, and this Suzuki jeep came around with UNITA soldiers; but they looked like something out of a bad war movie; bandoleers everywhere. The weapons they were carrying, you name it and they had it. They had MP40s, which are the sub-machine guns that the Germans used in the Second World War, they had Garands, M1 carbines, Portuguese G3s, Kalashnikovs, FNs. And the guy would have a bandoleer, and he would have ammunition in it which was totally unsuitable for the weapon that he carried. They had a 12.7 mm Dashka Russian machine gun on their jeep.
We had a Lieutenant with us, Waldo Fourie, but we used to call him 'The Great Waldo Pepper'. His dad was a big noise in the Nat party. He took one look at these guys and decided that he was making a duck.
These guys came up to us; the Lootie and his mates. The upshot was that we got invited to a booze-up. Waldo Fourie returned, and told us that we were not going anywhere. They decided to bugger off. The school was on a corner, and they started this jeep, and it wouldn't start, so they started pushing it, and they went around the corner, and all of a sudden there was a big explosion. Everybody ran to find his weapon, and everybody is trying to go through the same door at the same time. I found myself saying; 'Please, God, let me get out of this alive. I'll be a good guy for the rest of my life Blah Blah Blah.' If I get out of this alive I will never do something so stupid as leaving my personal weapon somewhere I don't know where it is. I got my weapon and ran out of the door.
When we got to the jeep it was absolutely destroyed. There were two or three of them lying on the ground there. One had been hit with white phosphorus and he was burning. What must have happened; as they pushed it, they had grenades all over themselves, and as they pushed the jeep, one of the grenades must have got unhooked. If it had been a white phosphorus grenade, that would have set the ammunition off. In some of them you could see where the cartridges had exploded from the heat, the bullet goes one way and the shell goes the other. Shells were embedded in some of the guys; they had travelled with such force. There was nothing we could do for them. We got on to the radio and got a Unimog to come and pick them up and take them to hospital but I don't know what happened to them. Nothing happened to the Lootie. It really came home to me that these were not games anymore. It was going to be really serious. We had seen films during training, and there was an excellent one about Rhodesia, where you actually see this black machine gunner getting hit in the head, but that was a movie. You don't relate it to real life.
They broke up the unit and we got parcelled out, and I ended up in Zulu Combat Team.(According to Steenkamp (1983) p. 260, mentions that `one country's ambassador to the United Nations made an indignant speech in the General Assembly, assuring South Africa of deploying a battalion of Zulu soldiers in Angola'.) Jan Breytenbach was the commander of Task Force Zulu. The ELNA guys with us eventually became 32 Battalion. (Breytenbach, J. (1990) They Live by the Sword: 23 'Buffalo' Battalion - South Africa's Foreign Legion) There was a load of FNLA guys in that, and I think about thirty or forty whites altogether. We used to call them 'ELNA' guys. There were two guys who quite impressed me; Robbie Ribeiro and Daniel Roxo Paulo. Robbie was a Portuguese Mulatto. I'm not sure if he was from Mozambique or Angola. Danny came from Mozambique, he lived up in the North of Mozambique, and he had been an Elephant hunter. He was married to a black woman, and I think he must have been involved with the Portuguese PIDE, which was their secret police. He was also part and parcel of the Portuguese Army. In 1974, after Spinola, they handed Mozambique to Ferlimo on a plate. How the hell he got over to Angola and how he had landed up with Jan Breytenhach, I don't know. They were Sergeants.
Then there was a yank with the name George Washington Bacon III.(See Stockwell (1978), p. 236, 262.) I've never seen a guy like this in my life. American youth, they must have a mould or something, because they are always big, with beautiful white teeth and regular features. This guy was like that. I spoke to him about four or five times, and overheard him talking a couple of times, and he mentioned Laos, so I wondered whether he was CIA. We didn't have very much to do with him. I don't know what rank he had.
The CIA were involved. We saw a couple of their aeroplanes. They use an airline called 'Pearl Air', I hadn't heard of that before, and I wonder if the CIA just painted over other aircraft with 'Pearl Air'. I saw plenty of 'Pearl Air' planes landed at Pereira de Eca, and ammunition was being unloaded from them, and it was American ammunition.(Spies (1989), p. 54 indicates that Pearl Air was a front for the CIA, and this is repeated in du Preez (1989) opposite p. 116.)
There was a Lootie there called Come Van Wyk, Captain 'Dups' Dippenaar, 'Vingers'('Fingers') Kruger, another guy Cierro, and another Portuguese guy called Da Costa. I don't know where they all came from.
All those guys are dead. Corne Van Wyk died in May 1979. 'Dups' Dippenaar got blinded in May 1978. 'Vingers' Kruger died in October 1977. Sierra and Ribeiro died in August 1976(Apparently Robbie Ribeiro also got the Honoris Crux. It seems that the value of the medal was also being a little bit devalued, in the sense that they were dishing it out. Uys, lan (1992) Cross of Honour does not confirm this award, but mentions him in the caption of a photograph on p. 21.). George Washington Bacon III apparently died in an ambush, up in North Angola. There were some British mercenaries up there, and he was with some American mercenaries and they were involved in an ambush, and he got shot. Da Costa died in February 1980, and Danny Roxo Paulo was alive when we left, and I believe he died towards the end of 1976 in a land mine explosion. When we were involved in the Op. at Cassinga some of the guys were telling me this. I can't vouch for it. Apparently he was in a Wolf Turbo that hit a land mine, and the Wolf Turbo crushed him. He didn't die immediately, he lit a fag, had the fag, and then he died.
(Danny Roxo won the Honoris Crux. I found this out after he was killed. The story was that just before the battle of bridge fourteen he went down to the river. He was told to go and reconnoitre the river and he got told to take an Eland armoured car and a full section of FNLA troops to go down with him. He decided that he was going to take the armoured car and half the section. The came up to the river and there were some trees at a bend in the river and he stopped at the bend, and then he went off on his own and he told the section and the armoured car to go around the bend so they would be sighted from the river. They got sighted, and the MPLA and the Cubans started firing at these guys and started following them up. They pulled back, and while they were pulling back he was slipping round the corner to go and reconnoitre the river. Apparently he had been spotted and he bumped into a patrol of Cubans and MPLA guys and there was a bit of a fire fight and he went back and reported to Jan Breytenbach, and when he came back he discovered that two of his ELNA guys had been captured and later on that evening those two guys pitched up. This is how the story goes but I find it a little hard to believe. Apparently these two guys who were captured managed to escape in the evening and then they reported that in the fire fight, Danny Roxo had shot three Cubans and two MPLA guys, but he never said a word to anybody when he came back. Apparently they corroborated one another's story quite independently, and he got the Honoris Crux for that. I thought that was rather strange, that he wasn't even a South African citizen and he got that. See Uys, Ian (1992) Cross of Honour, p. 21. This book gives his name as S/Sgt Daniel Paulo, 1 Recce Cdo, SAI, HC. Spies (1989) mentions him on p. 196.) I saw his grave, and those of the others, at Buffalo Camp. (I'd really like to go back there, and see what's happened to that military cemetery there. 1 would like to think that when they pulled out that they had brought those guys back. What's going to happen now? There was a monument on which the names of the fallen could be engraved. There was space for many names.)
There were some Recce's, but they were 'otherwise' people. They were weird. It's probably true of them what was said of the Selous Scouts. They were described as 'walking armpits'. Beards were their trademark. 'I wear a beard, therefore I must be a Recce.'
At Sa da Bandeira[now called Lubango] there was a beachcraft aeroplane, and couple of Recces decided that they were going to fly this plane. None of them could fly an aeroplane, but they had a couple of drinks and they cranked it up and started down the runway, and halfway down the runway they thought; 'It might be easy enough to get it into the air, but it might be something else to get it down again.' They just overshot the runway. They crashed into the bushes, wiped the plane out, and got out without a scratch. They thought it was a joke. All of them were walking around with shoulder holsters, with 9 mm brownings in them. Some carried AK47s, M79 grenade launchers and 40 mm grenade launchers around with them. They were eccentrics. I think they were just larger than life.
We had a bit of a problem trying to keep the peace between UNITA and the FNLA. They were at each other's throats all along, and you really had a problem with that because UNITA would bugger up the FNLA when the FNLA was in a minority. We were on a combined operation. The FNLA had their own Ops.s and were doing their own thing. UNITA and the FNLA just didn't get along. It was just a power struggle in a marriage of convenience.
I think Angola is a beautiful country. I don't think that God has made another country as beautiful as Angola. It's so unspoiled. You don't get rivers in South Africa like you do in Angola; rivers that are clear. The water is so clear that it looks like it's only a metre deep. We swam in all the rivers. I think it was at the Nhia river. We were camped there for about a week. We would go down for a swim every day. One day the medics came along and started smacking up a sign saying that there's bilharzia in the water. We swam in it, we drank the water and I still have to get bilharzia.
At Mupa there was a water tower reservoir. We must have been there for ten days or two weeks, and everybody was getting their water from it, and then they discovered that there were some corpses in the water. I didn't see the corpses, I just heard the guys talking about it. How the hell do you get them up there? Mupa must have had a tannery or something and this tannery had a room the size of a school hall in South Africa that was chock-a-block with Zebra skins. We all cut off little pieces to make watch straps, but the stuff wasn't tanned so it just rotted away.
There was a military hospital at Sa da Bandeira. We took the UNITA guys that got injured there, and there was this South African RSM there who was in charge of the hospital. This guy was going spare because the UNITA guys were lying in clean white sheets, and then at night when the guy wanted to go and have crap, he would get out of bed and crap in front of the bed, and then get back into bed. Not very good for hospital hygiene. This RSM was going bananas. He couldn't stop them doing things like that.
Something a bit frightening about being in Angola was that you were 'Baas van die plaas'.(Master of all he surveys?) There was no law, really. If you wanted something, you took it. We managed to get ourselves a paraffin deep-freeze, and we ran it on diesel. We had cold beer; it was as easy as that. We whipped a generator from Cape Town Highlanders, and at some abandoned towns we took some fluorescent fittings out and we had electricity in the middle of the veld; beautiful electric light.
One night we had a whip-round and Tom Parkin was going to buy us some Aquadent, which is like Ouzo, a spirit. He went down to the Cucca shop, and he came back with two or three bottles, and he gave us our money back. We thought that he had paid for it out of his own pocket. This happened two or three times, and we said 'Hey, Tom, Come on! You can't pay all the time.' He said he wasn't paying.' We said; 'What the hell are you buying it with?'(By this time we had all managed to get ourselves different weapons. I had got myself a Rumanian AK47 with a pistol grip. Its all snob value, isn't it? The other guy has always got something better than you've got. The AK is a good gun. I always thought that the R1 was a bit of overkill. The R1 is probably all right if you're going to shoot someone through a thick tree trunk. I wouldn't trust an AK47 to do that, but there aren't many thick tree trunks like that around to shoot people through.)
He tapped his rifle. We thought; 'Shit! Don't tell me you are flogging guns to the guys to buy booze with!' This had all the guys panicked. Some went back to the Unimog that we had, on which we had painted 'Oom Piet se Wyn Trein'(Uncle Piet's (P.W. Botha) Wine Train). We went and checked that our weapons were still there. 'Oh, thank God for that!' So we asked him how he did it. He said; 'I tell you what. Next time I go I'll show you how I do it.' Next time he went in, he walked in, pointed his gun at the shopkeeper, and went behind the counter, took the booze, and buggered off.
I suppose that doesn't do a lot for human relations, but on the other hand, if you're running the show there. You are the Law there. If you don't, who is to say that somebody else is not going to do it. That's what I thought was very frightening about the whole thing; your values just go. If you see something, you have it. I found it very difficult to adjust when I came back. All of a sudden you just can't go and do what you want. Don't get me wrong, I think Jan Breytenbach ran a tight ship. He didn't have any of the bullshit of, 'Yes Sir! Yes, Sir! Three bags full, Sir!' and I really liked that part of the army; that the parameters within which you could operate were fairly wide, as long as you didn't do something stupid. I never saw any cases of the guys raping women and stuff like that. I never saw guys physically illtreating civilians. I can honestly say that this was the only case of theft that I saw, in a person being deprived of what was his by force of arms.
I get very annoyed when people talk about wars being glorious. War is not glorious. I think that war is probably the most degrading thing. This is probably a contradiction in terms; Angola was probably the most meaningful experience of my life. It was also the most degrading experience, but there were also highs which I didn't know existed. Apart from the time we swam in rivers, I never had a bath once in all the time that we were in Angola. After a while you didn't get any dirtier. The army fell flat on that side of things. There were loads of Lion Lagers and Owambo Lager. The cigarettes that they had there were Portuguese and called 'Popularis'. You couldn't buy packets of cigarettes; you would buy two hundred cigarettes loose, rolled in a big cardboard tube. You could tear off the top, and offer someone; 'Would you like a cigarette?' and you hold out two hundred to him.
We had some old Vickers machine guns that they had mounted on the backs of Bedford trucks. We also had Portuguese trucks which we called 'groente gees trokke'(Literally translated, this would mean 'Vegetable spirit trucks'. Portuguese people were often greengrocers in South Africa. There's a pun here which does not translate well from Afrikaans into English, partly dealing with the stereotype of the Portuguese as the owners of vegetable shops. Also see Breytenbach (1986), p. 23.) which had a wooden back behind a metal driver's cab. We had all sorts of vehicles; you name it and it was there. We had brand new Unimogs. We got West German rations; that was all right. We had Cuban and MPLA rations. They really had good food; they got food from Europe and Holland that was really good. I didn't think very much of the Cuban pork. We got a couple of tins of that and it was basically pork in salt water, and pieces of skin still had hairs on it. That was absolutely terrible. We had loads of tinned sardines that we used to call 'Portuguese Steak'.
The guys were using SHELL road maps of Angola. To me the whole adventure was so ill conceived. Nobody ever thought about it; it was a spur of the moment action; 'Let us go in there,' and nobody seems to have thought about the consequences, or 'Lets plan this thing properly!' It was all ad hoc.
We were just moving up all the time. We spent two or three days at a place and then move on, and then go back. We had a bit of a problem with rivers. Basically you moved along the roads, but you had a problem whenever you hit a river because either the MPLA would have destroyed the bridge or when we pulled back, we destroyed the bridge. Most of the bridges were made out of wood, and it's fairly easy to destroy them. All you do is burn them, and that's it. Over and done with! A bridge in Angola disappeared in a cloud of smoke and dust when it was demolished. One minute there was a bridge there, and the next it had gone.
At Christmas 1975 we were at sent to Lobito.
In the middle of January we got some problems with the Multiple Rocket Launchers, the 'Red Eyes'. We got revved by them twice. As we say in Afrikaans; 'Dit was 'n ander storie'.(That was a different story!) You hear the thing coming and it goes over you, and it sounds very much like a cross between a train and a jet when this thing comes over you. I think you were all right. We got revved pretty badly by them once. I got the impression once that the guy was aiming for me! For example, if there were twenty million people around you and you were standing in a square a hundred miles by a hundred miles, I really got the impression that this bastard was aiming at me in particular. It was as if the guy who had fired them had a personal grudge against you, and that he was out to do you. What makes it so bad is that there is nothing you can do back at him. If there had been some way of getting back at him, I don't know if I would have been interested. All I wanted was for the explosions to stop. All you could do was to close your eyes and pray. I was reading my Bible all the time we were being revved. Don't ask me what I was reading because I couldn't tell you, but I was reading and I was praying. It's more psychological than anything else. It's absolutely terrifying; they say you have a 'pucker factor'; the size of your arsehole shrinks from the size of a wagon wheel to the size of a 'tiekie'. You just don't know what to do. After that, I took about six drags of a cigarette and finished it. You were really shaking.
After that, the feeling was that you were safe unless it fell right on top of you. Afterwards, we looked at the craters that it made. It didn't make a very big crater. The pieces of shrapnel that we picked up were very thin pieces of steel. Unless you were very unlucky or it got you in a confined area, you would probably he all right. I saw a bunch of UNITA guys who had been hit by one of these and some of them were ten or fifteen yards away from the explosion. It bowled them over, arse over tea-kettle, but they picked themselves up. They were a little bit bomb-happy afterwards, but apart from that they were all right.
The second time we got hit by them, we were all right, because we had a guy on OP[Observation Post], and he could see them being fired, and he would just say; `Hier kom dit. Gate toe'. (Here it comes. Into the holes.) And you'd make a duck for your hole. When you got hit when you didn't expect it, that was just confusion. I can really understand guys fouling their pants. I am sure that there was some dampness on my underpants. I think it is more of a psychological weapon. I don't know how the Valkiri of the South African Army is at the moment, but I can't imagine that it's much better than the Stalin Organ if it's based on that.
UNITA was a funny lot because as soon as the Cubans started shooting with these 122s they would hit the road. They weren't going to stay around. We had a couple of Eland armoured cars with us. An Eland has only got so much ammunition, so when it had fired out all its ammunition, it was basically a useless piece of steel. These guys turned around to go and replenish ammunition, and the UNITA guys would decide; 'Well, sod this! We're not staying around much longer.' That was crazy. To me it showed a lack of foresight about the whole adventure. We heard a story that they couldn't have more than 6 000 troops across.(Heitman (1991) p. 38 reports that the South African combat force never exceeded 2 000 men.) I'm sure that if they send in 15 000 guys, and if the South Africans took a moderate amount of casualties, they could have won the war.
What amazed me was that we got all the propaganda about South Africa being the mightiest military machine on the Southern African subcontinent, and here we were running out of ammunition; we had to get ammunition from everyone else. The 5.5"(140mm) artillery cannons that we had were absolutely useless. The Katyushas outranged them by something like ten kilometres. If South Africa was the mightiest military machine on the sub-continent, God knows what the others were like. I'm talking now in First World terms.
Jim Fouche must had a lack of foresight, because that Katyusha has been out since World War Two, yet we captured that one at Savannah and we virtually copy it. Okay, the one we captured was probably more sophisticated than the one that has been out since World War Two, but the principle had always been the same. Botha did a good job. I'm not knocking him - but he had a lot to catch up with. I suppose that it didn't help much when Hiemstia(An admiral) was more interested in getting himself fancy uniforms.
The ELNA guys weren't all that bad, but you could never get the UNITA guys to dig in. When we stopped, that was the first thing we would do. We would start digging a hole for yourself. A problem was that the sand didn't hold, so you would dig, and you would find yourself building a shallow depression. We ended up standing, and digging around our feet. Eventually you would start sinking into the ground until you were about waist deep. Then you had some bank above you, but you had a problem if you had to get out of there, because you just can't. Then the guys started using pieces of wood to shore up, but then everybody started whipping everybody else's wood.
At Cela in 1976, they were supposed to be pulling us back and they didn't have enough trucks. They left about three sections of us there and said that they were going to send some trucks back to come and pick us up later. A typical army cockup; 'Not enough trucks to come and fetch you. We'll drop you off here and come back and fetch you a little bit later.'
We were sitting there at the airfield. At the bottom of the airfield one of the guys saw some tanks appearing. At first we thought they were armoured cars, and then they turned out to he tanks, and we thought they had sent some tanks to fetch us, and the all of a sudden, someone twigged; 'We haven't got any tanks in this place.' I remember that I had an 81 mm mortar tube.
The penny dropped. 'Oh, shit!' Everybody just grabbed what they could. There wasn't an orderly withdrawal. Nobody checked to see if anybody was staying behind. Nobody did. It was rather funny. Everybody tried to get out of the room at the same time. 'Oh, my God! Where's my rifle? If I get out of this alive, I will always put it where I can find it.'
I just left all my personal kit; my balsak and stuff and I just grabbed my rifle in one hand and the 81 mm mortar tube and ran that day. I think I must have run about nine miles. There was nothing like 'We are going to make a last stand here', or anything like that. Everyone just decided; 'I want to see my mom, my wife and kids' and just gapped it. I would be lying to say that I wasn't scared. I wasn't terrified; I was more pissed off about the whole thing. You keep on running and running, and you think; 'Can we stop now?' We just kept running down the road, hoping to God that someone would pick us up - hoping that we would run into our guys. I don't know what happened back at the airfield.
JONAS SAVIMBI: He had some UNITA soldiers at Mupa. He drove a white citroen. He pitched up there and gave them a speech in Portuguese. I couldn't understand what he was saying. I didn't meet him to shake his hand, but I stoop within a couple of metres of him. I was really impressed with him. It might be a cliche to say that he has charisma. He was rabitting away there, and afterwards, when the South African Army Officers would talk to one another and there was an old mission station and they all went in there. I don't know what they did in there; probably had a couple of beers and chewed the fat about the whole thing. I was very impressed with the man at that time, and from what I have seen of him since then, it has only reinforced my opinion of him. He's got to have something going for him if after seventeen years in the bush he is still a force to be reckoned with. I believe that when things went to pieces in Angola I believe he went into the bush with only seventy guys. He went to Wambo and started all over again.
I don't believe that South Africa ever fully pulled out of Angola. I can't see, if we weren't backing him, who else was backing him? How else was he getting what he was supposed to be getting? Where did they come from? If you look at his logistics; these things don't grow on trees.
I don't understand why, when the MPLA took the country, they would have consolidated their position, but it seems to me that they did the same thing that we did; they stayed on the road. They never moved off the road.
The FNLA had a bit of a punch up with SWAPO, and they brought in some SWAPO prisoners which were then flown down to South West. Jan Breytenbach had us all together and gave us a speech about the whole thing. SWAPO would wear uniform and then two or three sets of civvy clothes underneath to blend in with the local population. I only found out that they were doing this in 1976. We heard later that this had been blown by some South African journalist. They were all wearing East German Paratrooper boots which were issued to SWAPO which had a chevron print. If the trackers saw a chevron print, they would know it was SWAPO. Also the boots were black, so you would ask the guys if they had seen anybody with black boots. Black boots would be SWAPO.
I never thought of allied black soldiers as 'inferior blacks'. There was friendly teasing while we were getting camouflaging up for an op. Someone commented; 'Now no one will be able to tell the difference between us.' One of the black guys suggested that they drop their pants.(Black guys are reputed to have bigger penises than Europeans)
We didn't think much of the MPLA as soldiers. We though pretty much of the leadership element of the Cubans. A couple of times when we were back in South West we were talking to guys who were saying that the Cubans did a bloody good job. The Cubans were not very good soldiers, but the advisors that they had did a good job. Often they would have good fields of fire, and they waited until the South Africans and our allies went into their ambush and then rev them.
About 99% of the guys who were there would tell you that one of our brigadiers was shot down by his own men. There was a story going around that he died in an aeroplane accident, but we heard that a bunch of Free Staters had shot him down. They got revved by the Cubans. Both sides had choppers up to use for observation. They were revved by the helicopters and they got on to the SAAF and started moaning to them. The SAAF turned around and said; 'No. It wasn't us!' By that time it was too late and the chopper had gone. This Van Deventer guy went to go and have a conference with them and these guys from Orange Combat Group saw him coming and decided; 'Sod that! We're not going to get revved a second time!' They took him out. We heard that the official version was that it was an aircraft accident. The guys we spoke to said; 'No, rubbish. They took him out.'
Then we moved over to Calai, near Rundu, and they started bringing the FNLA prisoners in. I found it funny the way they were treating the FNLA guys. They had their hands tied behind their backs and they had new clean sandbags over their heads, When they reached the camp, their hands were untied and the sandbags were removed. When they first arrived, we thought that they had taken a lot of prisoners. These guys were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years old, all in Portuguese camouflage uniforms. Some of them were in really bad shape; some of them had legs like skeletons.
We shot a fair number of cows in Angola. We lived off the land. One day we decided that we were going to shoot a cow and we were driving along the road, and we saw a herd of cows, and we made a U-turn. There was a little herd boy of about seven, and the grass was about as high as he was. We had the Suzuki jeep with us. We had a guy called 'Klip' Van Daalen with us, and he picked out the cow he was going to shoot. He had a heavy barrelled FN, like an ordinary RI except that it had a thicker barrel, and it can go on automatic and its got a bi-pod, and just a small wooden hand grip on the front. The ordinary R1 could only go on semi-automatic. He put it on automatic and fired at the cow and the cow went down, and I looked around and the little herd boy was gone. I thought he had shot the little herd boy, and I said to him; 'You've shot the herd boy.' He said; 'No, I haven't.' I said; 'You have!' I could see myself being in jail for the rest of my life, because if one guy kills a civilian, even accidentally, you keep quiet about it and its fine; nobody knows about it, but as soon as three or four guys know about it, it does come out.
I said; 'Well, where the hell is he then?' One moment he was there, and the next minute he was gone. I thought he would be lying dead in the long grass. He said; 'He's over there!' I never saw anybody move as fast as that little black guy. He must have been two hundred yards up the road already. I was so glad to see him that I could have gone up the road and kissed him. I thought; 'Thank God!'
We took shoe shine and wrote on the side of the Unimog 'Viva MA. Viva Angola. Winners!' and stiff like that. Afterwards I thought, who were we kidding? We weren't really winners. The MPLA, the Cubans and SWAPO believed that they had won. The local population in Owambo perceived that they had won. The ANC perceived that they had won. The facts might have been something completely different, but they had the propaganda advantage. All they had to say was 'If they won, why did they pull out?' I felt bitter about that. It was such a waste. If you want to do a job, do it properly.(I suppose the Yanks felt the same about Vietnam. I don't think that in Vietnam the Yanks every lost any battle that they fought militarily. Every time they hit the Viet Cong they really cleaned their clocks. It was the politics that made them lose.)
I spent my birthday, 17 February, at Rocades [now called Xangongol.
I felt very sorry for the refugees. As we started pulling back, they started pulling back with us. That was tragic. We were told not to get involved with refugees. I don't know where they got their information from, but whenever we were pulling back, they knew what time we were going to start and they would just tag on to the back of the convoy. I was present when a guy came to `Dups' Dippenaar.
His truck had run out of fuel, and he asked for some fuel. 'Dups' told him that his orders were that we could not give him any, that we were not to get involved with them. The guy said; 'Then you might as well give me your pistol and let me shoot my wife and shoot myself.' That was bad! That was so sad!
You saw a Portuguese family who would start with three cars. When one broke down, they would take the most important things from that car and put it on to one of the two surviving ones. Ten or fifteen miles later the next one would break down and they would end up with just one vehicle. That affected me very much.
I felt very sorry for them. Do they sit today in much humbler circumstances and look at photographs and think; 'This is what we once had!'? Maybe they were in some humble little fishing village and think back to the luxurious villa and big farm that they might once have had in Angola. That is the bad part of war; the human misery.(Just before Christmas (1991) they were showing footage of the fighting in Croatia. Okay, its sentimental television, but they showed that all this little boy had brought with him was a little dinky toy bulldozer, and I felt so sorry for him, and I thought; 'I have seen this in real life.' The guy might have done it for the TV cameras, but that's what happens in war.) People don't tell you about that. You see the nice uniforms, and the medals. They take death and they dress it up in a fancy uniform, and they say; 'This is war. This is the glory of it.' People suffer as the result of war. It's civilians who pay the price. It's not the generals and not the politicians. I get very philosophical about things like that. I find war so sordid. It's so stupid that there are rules of warfare; trying to put morals on an immoral thing in the first place.
The Portuguese refugees had these Angolan Escudos(Angolan currency) and they would give you something like five or six times the rate of exchange for South African rands. Nobody was interested in Escudos. I know some guys were selling petrol to the refugees for R 18 for a gallon. They made a lot of money.
On the way back, we had stopped at this one town with the refugees, and they were having a wedding party. One of the refugees had decided to get married and they were going to hold this wedding reception in a huge barn. At that time UNITA and the FNLA were robbing the refugees blind. We had quite a problem getting them to keep their hands off the refugees' possessions. Sometimes this could have lead to potentially explosive situations, which was probably just handled enough well by the guys in charge so that it never came to blows or to firing at one another.
They had gone to the guy in charge of the convoy and told him that they were going to have the wedding reception. They asked if he could arrange for somebody to guard the party. My section got the job of guarding the party. I looked at this and decided that we couldn't guard this just on the outside. We've got to guard it on the inside as well. I split the section in two. Half the section, with the lance jack(Lance Corporal) could stay outside, and the other, with the full corporal - me - would guard the party on the inside. Don't say that rank doesn't have its privileges!
The party started and it was great fun. After about five minutes we had our rifles up against the walls and we were dancing with the refugee women like everybody else.
I have a flashback when ever I hear that song 'Mama Tembo's Wedding'. They were playing it that night and I can remember dancing with this mulatto girl, and thinking this was quite funny; a 'wit boerseun'(Afrikaans equivalent of a white `All-American boy') dancing with this coloured girl. What would the people say back home? It was really good innocent fun. We really had a good party. We would not drink; nobody would touch any liquor. I don't know why it was that we didn't want to drink any booze. One of our guys had been dancing with this one Portuguese girl all evening and he reckoned that he was definitely going to make love to her that evening. At about twelve o'clock or whenever this party came to an end, he decided he was going to walk her back to their truck. She had this old woman who was with her all night long, but he couldn't speak Portuguese and she couldn't speak Afrikaans, or English. He was walking with them and we were walking twenty or thirty yards behind them. He had his arm around this woman's waist and she had her arm around his waist. I thought it hadn't taken him long to score there. Three or four hours previously he didn't know the woman existed. They got to the woman's truck and the old lady got in to the truck, and he was only catching a 'vry' (grope ) with this woman. He was holding on to his personal weapon (rifle) with one hand, and he had his other hand up her skirt. She wasn't resisting at all, and this old bat looked out of the truck, and I thought; 'Oh hell. You're in trouble now mate!' but she didn't do anything. She just put her head back in the truck, and the next minute he had the girl on the ground. She had her legs up in the air and he was making love to her. He was still holding on to his weapon with one hand. Then, afterwards, he kissed and said goodbye to her and off we went.
About three days later we found out from one of the Portuguese guys that the old woman was her mother-in-law and her husband had stayed behind to see what he could salvage. I thought; 'Well, dearie, if you get back to Lisbon, and your husband pitches up, after he says hello to his mother and she tells him, you're going to have to do some explaining.' I don't think that he raped her because she was a willing partner in the whole thing. It absolutely amazed me that on such short notice - I could understand it from the guy's point of view - but I couldn't understand it from her point of view.
We had a bit of a punch up with the MPLA at Cetangue. They were using Sagger missiles against the Eland armoured cars. Sagger is a wire-guided missile. It was probably a good idea to use them except for the fact that there were a lot of trees around. A sagger missile comes in a little suitcase, which has the missile in it. When you open it up, and its got the launcher and a little joystick, and you've got to keep sight of the missile on the target all the time; you've got to follow it with your eyes. It's all right on an open plain, but when there are trees around, you've got a problem, because the wire gets tangled in the trees. It didn't work very well, and we actually kicked their arses for them. These wires were in the trees everywhere. Afterwards, Tom Parkins looked at all the wires in the trees and said; 'It looks like the GPO is putting up telephone lines!' I really thought that was funny. He had a dry wit.
In 1976 we had Magirus-Deutz trucks. If I had had one, and if I could have loaded it up and brought it back, I wouldn't be working today. There were so many things lying around there. We saw loads and loads of officers carrying stuff over the border; dining room suites etc. We heard stories of officers bringing over diamonds and gold. I don't know about that, but I know that they brought over lots of consumer goods. The trucks just went over the border; loads of kiaat wood just went. I think a lot of people made a lot of money out of that.
We whipped a Unimog truck chock-a-block full of Castle beer, and when we came to Pereira de Eca [Ongiva], where they said to us; 'What you can take back you could keep.' They were evacuating the dumps. Some bright spark decided to take 'Oom Piet se Wyn Trein' to where the beer was and we started loading this truck up chock-block with beer. You can get a fair number of cans on a Unimog. He signed for it as a Sergeant Hattingh of the Cape Town Highlanders. We weren't out of the dump before the first ring was being pulled on a beer can. We also had some propane gas bottle, and some bright spark decided that we might as well have cold beer, so we would hold the can in front of the propane gas cylinder and open it up. The can would stink a little bit of gas, but you had a fairly cool beer. The first time I drank Kupfenberger Auslese was out of a tin mug in the middle of the Angolan bush. We managed to liberate a couple of bottles of that.
One day we caught three 'floppies'. If you ask me why anyone decided to stop and interrogate these guys, I couldn't tell you. As far as I was concerned, they were three normal Angolan guys but one of them had a briefcase. I think I probably know why. They were pretty smartly dressed by Angolan standards, and they opened up this briefcase of the one guy and there were three AK47 magazines and two grenades and a Makarov pistol that I took back to the States. We asked if they had any identity documents on them. They handed over identity documents that purported them to be members of UNITA. For some reason the guy who was in charge of our patrol decided to strip-search them. They were found to have had FNLA documents and MPLA documents as well, so they had covered all possibilities. They would be all right whoever stopped them. We handed them over to the ELNA soldiers and I haven't the foggiest idea what they did to them. It was quite an eye-opener. How the hell did anyone know who anybody else was?
Sometimes the only way you knew which black troops were which black troops was by their gestures. If they had their thumb up it was the FNLA and if they had their thumb and forefinger in the air that was UNITA, like the 'min dae'(`Few days ' , a phrase used by ` short timers I to indicate they were coming to the end of their national service. The sign would be a fist with the index and little finger extended, palm facing the person addressed, and usually waived from side to side) sign that we had. That would be their recognition signal, like 'Spot on, Mate!' The MPLA were a 'V for victory' sign. We were quite lucky that on no occasion did we see a bunch of black guys with uniforms and rifles throwing the 'V for victory' sign at us. You never knew which was MPLA or UNITA unless you flashed a sign at them. Sometimes, especially when we started pulling back, it was regarded as being politically incorrect to throw the wrong sign at the wrong guys. So then you started looking for a cockerel which was UNITA and the half rising sun was the FNLA. That was the only way that you knew these guys from each other.
SOUTH AFRICAN LOSSES: Jan Breytenbach spoke to us once; he did quite a sterling job in the sense that he tried to keep us informed. He mentioned that the constraints were that they had to have a maximum effect with the minimum casualties. He said to us that it wasn't that he wanted to kill people, but that the government were tying his hands behind his back. They wanted him to do the job but they didn't want any casualties because the politicians were running the war. Probably the same thing happened in Vietnam. I would hazard a guess and say that South African losses were under a hundred.
Not counting the ELNA guys, about three guys that I knew got killed. One of them got killed when a truck overturned. One guy hit a pom-z mine. It looks like a pineapple with a wooden stake attached to it. It is an anti-personnel mine and you use it with a trip wire; it just sprays shrapnel everywhere. He hit a pom-z mine and he just had a very had leg wound, and when we said goodbye to him it was 'See ya! See you back in the States.' He died of gangrene later, which I thought was absolutely weird. You wouldn't have thought in today's age with the antibiotics that a guy would die of gangrene.
One other guy died in a silly situation. We went out on a patrol and somewhere along the line nobody seemed to get the message that we were going out. When we came back, some silly bugger saw us and brought some of our own mortar fire down on us. An 81 mm mortar bomb fell next to him. There was nothing there! He was just gone. What was left of him you could probably put together in a sugar bag. You didn't know it that was a cow or something like that. There was just meat.
Ernest Porter was one of the soldiers in Cobus's group. one evening they played a prank on him when he went of f into the bush to have a crap. They followed him stealthily, and positioned the blade of a shovel to catch his turds without him noticing it. Just as he finished, they removed the shovel and its contents, and made themselves scarce. Ernest rejoined them some moments later, he recounted to them the amazing disappearance of his crap. I don't know how long they left him in his confusion before enlightening him.
The next day, Ernest was riding on the back of a vehicle towing a water tanker trailer. The vehicle went over a mine, detonating it. He flew through the air and landed some distance away, shaken but probably not seriously hurt, by then the water trailer landed on top of him, killing him. A foot or two over in either direction, and he would have been alive and well, if shaken.
The regimental fund wanted one day's rank pay from each member, and the guys were upset and wanted that money to go to Ernest Porter's wife and three children. This was insensitively handled by the regiment, who said that this was fine, but that they would then have to give up another day's pay for the regimental fund.
Cobus saw a Portuguese guy who had stood on a landmine, which had blown his right leg off at the knee, and had blown his left leg off along with most of his groin. The medics were trying to get fluid into him, but it was f lowing out of him faster than they could get it into him. They couldn't find the artery in one of his legs.
Cobus mentions that as they were withdrawing from Angola they were told of a plan that was being entertained of planting a thick wall of sisal aloe cactus along the length of the border to keep insurgents out(This is also mentioned in Toase (1985), p. 210, who suggests that the plant was Mexican Sisal, `a poisonous plant whose cuts can cause death.') This would be interspersed with landmines to prevent people from digging them out again. Cobus recalls passing many trucks loaded with young plants being taken along the kaplyn. (The actual border between South West Africa and Angola) There was a story that these would be planted during the day, and when the planters returned the next day, they would find that a substantial number of the young plants had been uprooted and thrown around.
Towards the end, nobody wanted to die. To put it stupidly; You were using both hands to hold the razor while you were shaving to make sure that you didn't cut yourself because you didn't want to be the last guy to die. You wanted to get out of there in one piece.
Just before we came back, we saw loads of tanks at Oshakati; Olifants(South African main battle tank.) and tank transporters. We found out later that they were expecting the Cubans to push across into South West. If they did, I don't think we would have been able to stop them.
BACK IN SOUTH WEST AFRICA
(BUFFALO BASE, ONDANGWA AND OSHAKATI)
I'll never forget when we came back from Savannah, at Ondangwa, I went in to the bar there and I had a drink and I had a piece of ice in this drink. I looked at this piece of ice; it really was something else. It's funny how you realise what little things you have taken for granted. You suddenly see something so ordinary and think; 'Isn't this marvellous? To have a nice ice-cold drink.'
I would think that in the first week in March we pulled back into Buffalo Base. At Buffalo Base we were told that there were a lot of clothes that we had to cut up to make pull-throughs for the 5.5 " cannons. When we got there, there was a mound of clothes the size of a room. Most of it was nutria but there were also some Portuguese uniforms. Some of them were blood-stained, and some were just old. I presume that the nutria uniforms came as the guys were being rotated back, they would throw away the old ones as they got new ones. Some of the uniforms were all right. It was a shame to cut them up, but that was what they wanted us to do, so we did it.(I managed to get myself a mint East German uniform and helmet. I thought I would make a lot of money from selling this. I brought it with me when we came to England, but then sods law applied when East Germany decided to join West Germany. Now you can pick up an East German helmet for £15.)
They had communal toilets at Buffalo Camp called 'Thunder boxes'. They must have had about thirty seats; beautiful white scrubbed wood with holes and flaps on them, and one huge pit underneath. When you sat down you could hear the bluebottles. It sounded like a bees nest buzzing. You would wait until one guy was there on his own and then you would go and close all the other flaps. You had to do this when the guy didn't see you doing this. Then you would open one of the flaps and throw a white phosphorous grenade in there. Of course this thing explodes and all the bluebottles decide to escape, and it would be like a solid wall of bluebottles coming out between the guys legs. I got caught like that once, and it is indescribable how dirty you feel. You feel as though the sea couldn't wash you clean. It was good fun doing that to a guy.
We played a bit of a trick on some of the coppers at Oshakati. They started doing some patrolling at night time in the streets there. We were driving along one night and we went to the cop shop. There was a cop wagon and they had the corpse of a black guy who had been involved in a hit and run - according to them. They found him on the side of the road. He was dead. They might have run him over, I don't know. He was in the back, so we took him out of the back there and put him upright in the driver's seat, and just left him there.
We had a curfew in the township, and we were patrolling the roads. One night we saw this truck coming along the road. We had an LMG with us, so we put the LMG about thirty yards up the road, and we decided that we were going to stop this truck. We told the guy with the LMG; 'If he tries to get away, let him have it, but just make bloody sure that you shoot him and don't shoot us. Wait until he goes past and then shoot him up the arse end. Whatever you do, don't shoot us.' The van came and we stopped it, and we turned the window down. There was this white guy in the van. He said that he was a Major Visser from the South African police. He basically told me 'piss off and he started up the van and he started going. Then he saw the LMG waiting for him and he decided that it would be a little bit safer to stop and find out what was going on here. We asked him to please get out of the van. He got out of the van. We asked him if he had any identification on him. No, he had no identification on him. I had been seeing too many cop movies, so I slapped him up against the side of his van and patted him down, and he didn't have anything on him. While we were doing this, the other guys were searching the van and they found a Heckler and Koch machine pistol underneath the seat. I looked at it and I could see engraved on it 'SAP' and I said to him; 'Sorry. We're going to have to take you down to the police station for somebody to vouch for you.'
Tom Parkins grabbed him and tied his elbows together, and this guy was just giving Tom a load of lip, and Tom told him; 'If you don't shut up, I'll kick your bloody head in.' Tom threw him down in the back of the van and then he Turkey-tied him as well; he put a loop around his neck and around the back of the stantion. We got on to the Ops. Room and said 'We've got this guy and he claims to be so and so and he has no identification and he has a firearm with him. It is an SAP firearm, but we don't know.'
They said; 'Bring him in to the Ops. Room.' So we all piled in to the bakkie(van) and drove on. As we pulled off, the poor guy slid backwards, and the rope tightened around his neck. It was thin utility cord. This was no problem for Tom. He just gave him a kick on the shins so that he would go forward a little bit.
We got him to the cop station and out to the Ops. Room. One of our majors was at the Ops. Room and he got on to the police and said 'We've got this guy here. Could somebody please come and identify him?' The cops pitched up; 'Yes, it is their guy.' The police major comes to me and he shits all over me. He wants my name and number and he's going to see to it that I get court marshalled. He's ranting and raving there and our major in the Ops. Room is doing nothing about it. I was getting worried. Then our Commandant walked in and he asked 'What the hell is going on here?' The guy started telling his side of the story and the commandant cut him off short and said; 'This corporal was doing what he was supposed to do. You're bloody lucky that you didn't get shot!' He virtually told him to piss off in so many words. I could have kissed that commandant. I could see myself going to DB for something like that.
There was an interesting rider. The night before we went back they had a braai(barbecue) for all the officers and NCOs at the police station, and we went. We were standing there having quite a few snorts to drink. I was quite friendly with this one PF sergeant who was stationed in Oshakati. He knew all the cops and he was standing chatting when Major Visser came over and he was talking to the sergeant. He looked at me and said; 'I've seen you somewhere before.' I was in a fairly clean nutria uniform and shaved and no bush hat, with my hair combed. He asked where I had been to school, so I told him Florida Afrikaans High and he asked if I had ever been in Pretoria. He said; 'Bloody Hell! Your face looks familiar.' I said; 'I can't recall ever seeing your face before.' I knew exactly where his face looked familiar from, but I wasn't going to tell him.
I noticed how sullen the Owambos were. When I went into a Cucca shop and wanted to buy some cokes from the guy. I wanted about eight, and he gave me four. I told him I wanted eight, and he told me he didn't have any more, yet his freezer was full of them. I got very frustrated with them. I thought; 'I'm trying to defend this bastard. He doesn't want to be defended. He wants to see the back of me.' If I was quite honest, I'd like to see the back of him as well. (I suppose that the guys in the townships now find themselves in exactly the same situation.)
One day we went out on a patrol. In the last week nobody was going to go out more than necessary or take any more risks than was necessary. One day we had a patrol round Oshakati, and we walked and we came to a little stream and we decided that we would take a smoke break. We got on to the Ops. Room by radio; 'Where are you now?' 'We are at position such and such ...' Half an hour later; 'And where are you now?' 'We are at position such and such' meanwhile we were still sitting exactly where we were. The upshot was that everybody fell asleep; no guards. Old Tom decided he was going to have a pee. The stream was probably about five or six yards wide. He got up and he walked up to the stream to have a pee. I'm not telling you a word of a lie; One minute Tom was standing on this side of the stream and the next minute he was standing on the other side. I doubt that his boots got wet at all. We asked what was going on. He said; 'Look in the bush.'
'That bush over there.'
We looked there. As he was standing there and took out his penis, about level with his penis was a snake. I don't know who got the biggest fright; Tom's penis or the snake. He walked across that water. He never touched that water. We killed it, but it was funny. Which snake was going to bite which snake? I told him that if that snake had bitten his dick, he would have had a bit of a problem. Imagine putting a tourniquet on that, or being injected with some anti-venom there.
On another patrol we were coming up to a culvert and we saw a light down in the culvert, and we wondered if it might be a bunch of terrorists laying a land mine. You read too many books, don't you? Everybody goes down, and right! We are going to see what's going on. We crept up on this bridge very stealthily and we saw this black guy down there and he had a lamp and he was doing something but nobody could see what he was doing. We had a sergeant with us and he decided that we were going to capture this guy. He could see his name in lights for capturing this terrorist! We went up there, and then suddenly three of our guys jumped down and had him down and they were kicking the shit out of him. They got him down and pinned him down to the ground. It turned out that it was a poor Owarnbo who was doing some fishing there that evening. Nobody knew that. The sergeant just thought that he would be a hero; the talk of the town.
We were briefed that we were going to take out this SWAPO roadblock. This wasn't really funny at the time. We were with this Lieutenant 'Waldo' Pepper. We thought it was a little bit strange because SWAPO would not have a road block anywhere. The drill, as it was explained to us, was that we were going to hide under tarpaulins in the back of one of those Groentegees trokke. We were going to drive up to this road block, with two black guys in civvies driving the truck, and the Lootie would be in the back with us. When we got to this road block, like they do in the movies, we would throw the tarpaulin off and go da-da-da-da-da almal dood(Everybody dead). That would get it over and done with. Everyone had their reservations about this to put it mildly, except for this lootie. When we got underneath this tarpaulin, it was pretty heavy, and on the way there we stopped and had a drill of how to do it, and it took ages to get out from under the tarpaulin. Luckily for us we never got there. We got lost. I'm still convinced to this day that if had hit the so-called roadblock we probably would have had a truck full of dead guys. It was absolutely stupid, like something out of a 'Carry On' movie. We couldn't believe that this guy was dead serious that we were going to do this. I can probably understand the rationale, about moving out of the camp under the tarpaulins so nobody could see us. But then again, would SWAPO have had radios that they could have said 'There's a truck full of guys going down the road now. They're heading in your direction, and they'll be there in fifteen minutes, so he ready for them.'?
It was as hot as hell under the tarpaulin. Nobody sits still, so even if that was the rationale behind it, if there was some SWAPO guy watching, he would have noticed all these humps moving underneath the tarpaulin. It was all Mickey Mouse, the whole thing.
I had a funny experience in a bunker one day. It shows you how bored you can get. We had to pull guard duties in bunkers, which was excruciatingly boring. We found that there was a tremendous number of chameleons. On a patrol, about ten yards into the bush, everybody could have a chameleon. One day we had some chameleons in the bunker and one happened to be a male and one a female, and they decided to copulate. You've never seen guys watch a blue movie with the attention that we watched these two chameleons copulating. It was the greatest thing that had happened all day long; watching two chameleons screwing. Absolutely mind-boggling that you could do that.
We got magazines from South Africa; Huisgenoot, Sarie Marais, and you would read them from cover to cover, each and every article. I found it soul destroying that intellectually you found yourself going. We never got any literature. If somebody would just give you a good old Western or something like that.
A bit of a scandal with our parcels; a lot of our parcels got looted; parcels that Hester(Cobus's ex-wife) sent me; she would take a metal biscuit tin and put everything inside that and then her dad would solder the lid to it, and then put that in sacking and then write my name and everything like that on it. A lot of the parcels didn't arrive, and those that did arrive had been looted. One parcel I got had contained a carton of Lucky Strike cigarettes and I was ever so annoyed to see that in one of the early Steenkamp books, I think one called 'The South African War Machine' there's a photo of two officers. One is a First Lieutenant and the other is a Second Lieutenant. One wears specks and is clean shaven and the other one has a moustache without specks, and they are sitting there grinning and they are holding up a carton of Lucky Strikes. That carton of Lucky Strikes is the one that Hester sent me. The two pipper was Lt. Hennie Fourie and the one pipper was Lt. Sandy McKai.
In August, when we were at 'De Brug' before we went on Savannah, he was a sergeant and he was quite an 'Okay Guy', but when he became a Lootie, it went to his head. It was quite sad. I found that when people who had started with you achieved rank, they forgot where they came from. I could never understand that because at the end of the day we are still human beings, aren't we?
Our camp was at Ondangwa. The daily routine at Ondangwa: We didn't have parades or anything like that. We'd get up, go and do patrols. We were only there about two weeks, so it was two days work and one day off. All we had to do was go and walk patrols and build bunkers. Nothing exciting happened.
We went out one day to get a compass bearing and walk along that, and turn and walk along. We didn't have trackers, we didn't have maps. At three o'clock in the afternoon some shots were fired at us. It could have from been fifty yards or a hundred yards that this guy fired at us. I don't know. There was just a burst of shots, and everybody hit the deck, and got on the radio and shouted that we had a contact. They sent a fire-force, but they didn't find anything. We spent two days in the bush looking for whoever it was, but we didn't find them and then we came back.
On our way back, it was night and it was raining like hell and we had just come back from patrol, towards the tail end of our stay at Ondangwa. We had been supposed to go out on an eight-hour patrol and we had been out in the bush for four days. We came back and we were really tired and pissed off. When we hit the road, they couldn't send a truck to come and fetch us back, so we managed to get a lift on a truck until about four miles outside Ondangwa. Then we had to walk the rest of the way back, and it was absolutely pouring down with rain.
We got back and we were really pissed off and hungry, and we decided that we were going to go for a drink. We went in for a drink. We took off all our kit and stick it on the side of the hangar in which the pub was situated, and this one major came up to us and said 'Who the hell are you?' We told him who we were. He asked 'Why are you so dirty?' We told him that we had just come back from patrol and we just wanted to have a drink and then we would go and clean up. He said; 'No bugger off! Go and get yourselves cleaned up and then you can come in here. You're not allowed any weapons here.' We weren't carrying our weapons; they were just standing against the wall. You couldn't say 'No' to him, you had to go and do what he said.
As we were getting our gear together, one of the Recce guys just sitting there at the table came to us and said; 'What the hell is going on?' We told him, and he went to one guy's kit and took out a smoke grenade, pulled the pin and followed us outside, and then threw the smoke grenade inside. The guys saw the grenade coming in and everybody thought it was a real grenade and they were running around like headless chickens, and then of course there was yellow smoke all over the show. This Recce guy said to us; 'Come around to my tent and I'll give you a drink!' That's the sort of guys they are. Mad!
In the pub at Ondangwa there were three recce doctors. The one guy had been bitten by a dog which was suspected of having rabies. I think he was on some serum, and apparently he had to get a daily injection. He remembered that he had to get his injection, so he walked back his quarters. He came back with this syringe, which he proceeded to fill up. He said to his mate; 'Will you give it to me?' The guy said 'Yes', so there in the middle of the pub he pulled his pants down. They were drinking Scotch and water and his mate dipped his fingers in his drink, wiped his arse with them and injected him. They were obviously larger than life. The recce doctors' names were Van Rooyen and De Wet.
It probably takes a special type of person to do that sort of work. We just saw them when they came back, and the military had no control over them. They did what they wanted. They were the sort of guys who would pull the chair out from underneath the Devil and turn around and say 'It happened all by itself!' with a straight face. They lived twenty-four hours a day. When they let off steam, they let off steam!
I got a hell of a fright at Ondangwa once. We had come back from a patrol. I think that my nerves were pretty much shot by then anyway. Our tents were at the boundary of the airfield. I had dumped my kit and I was on my way to the pub to have a drink. They had a firing range for the Puma gunships down at the bottom of the hill. As I was walking up this hill, this Puma came over. I looked up and I could hear him coming and all of a sudden there was a Puma and he started firing. He was over the camp, but firing down at the firing range down at the end of the camp. I didn't realise this. The angle was such that he couldn't hit any of us. Shit! I got a fright. I ran. I must have run about fifty yards. I bet that if there was a three-ton Unimog in front of me, I would have pushed it out of the way.
We had a bad storm one night while we were sitting in our tent. We had sandbags up to about four feet high, and we had beds which were almost as high. I thought that was stupid; I thought that the sandbags should have been a little bit higher than the bed, because all you were doing was lifting yourself up high so that if someone was shooting at you they would really get you.
We were sitting there and we had three bottles of rum that we had just whipped out of the mess. One of the guys had managed to wangle himself into the bar at the officers' mess. He would go and do stock take at twelve o'clock at night. Taking stock! We were sitting there and this rain storm started. It really was pelting down. Rainwater would start collecting in the corners of the tent roof, and we would punch it out. Then the wind started blowing really hard. We looked at this and we thought; 'Oh, shit! We tried to hold on to the tent, but it wasn't going to work, so we might as well get out of there. We had just got out of the tent, and the wind must have taken twenty or thirty other tents as well, ripped them out of their moorings. We all ran to the bunker. When we got to the bunker, we all looked at each other. Everybody burst out laughing because everybody had just grabbed the booze that they had been drinking and left all the rifles behind them in the tent. You've got your priorities right.
A Super Frelon helicopter had landed earlier in the day, and they hadn't tied its rotors down. The wind took the Super Frelon, lifted it up and slammed it down on its side. We could see from the way that the helicopter had fallen that it just hadn't tipped over. It had actually fallen with its rotors hitting the ground first and then the rest of the body. I couldn't believe that the wind could do that. I thought that there's some Air Force bugger who was probably going to have to do some explaining.
I saw a gruesome sight at Ondangwa. There had been a contact but I don't know with whom they had made contact. They had brought the corpses of the terrs in with a Puma. They were just stacked one on top of another, and we were told that we had to go and unload these guys and we unloaded them. I don't think that the guys treated the bodies with disrespect. They didn't just throw them down. They lifted them up and put them down onto the ground. We were standing around there and this chopper arrived, and the officer called 'Hey, julle klomp. Kom hiersou!(Hey, you lot, come here!) They wanted them taken to a refrigerated truck. I don't know where it was going to go with these bodies. I thought; 'Right. I'm getting away from this. I don't like dead people. But I had to unload these guys, but I'm not going to take them there. Nobody thought of backing the freezer truck up. The guys just grabbed the bodies by the feet and started walking and dragging them along the runway. The heads of the corpses were bouncing up and down along the runway. That was terrible. That was probably the most gruesome thing that I've ever seen. Some of them were shot up pretty badly. One of them only had his jaw attached to his neck. That wasn't all that bad, It was the guys who had the heads that bounced up and down; and I wondered whether they would have any abrasions when they arrived there. The callousness! One of the guys had slipped and fallen on the inside of the chopper. He didn't realise that his browns were absolutely covered in blood and body fluids from his shoulders down. He was walking around like this. Nobody thought of telling him, myself included. 'Hey, you're covered in someone else's blood! Go and wash.' It's amazing how your feelings can become blunted.
At Ondangwa they had a medical van like an old freezer truck, and inside this van were three coffins that were zinc lined. I never saw the engine running; it just stood there. I opened it once and saw the coffins. We found later that if someone got killed and they had to be shipped back to the states, they would put him inside a body bag, put him inside the coffin and fly him down. Then the coffin would come back. Recyclable coffins? That gave me the shits. How cheap can you be? Can't they just take the coffin down there and sent another one up. Maybe they did send another one up, but we heard categorically that they used the same coffin both backwards and forwards.
When we were all finished, we had a speech at Ondangwa by P.W. Botha. The sun was shining down, and we were all standing there at the airfield. P.W. Botha gave us a speech about 'You did your bit for the country and for the Boy Scout movement and Pick & Pay.' It really rang hollow. When we had heard that we were going to pull back, there was a fair amount of bitterness. 'What did we get involved for?'
I don't know whether this is hindsight, or whether I thought this at the time, but as far as I was concerned, that was the end of South Africa. It was the beginning of the end for South West, and I suppose eventually for South Africa as well. We couldn't understand it.
Botha said to us; 'We are pulling out because the West left us in the lurch.' My opinion was, and still is, is that if that was the case, we should have got the Americans to sign in blood that if we got involved, they would not leave us in the lurch. Don't get involved in something like that on vague promises that they are going to help you. The politicians in South Africa had been so short sighted. They should have gotten a cast iron guarantee, if such a thing is possible. I don't suppose it is. If the Yanks did leave us in the lurch, then South Africa should have used propaganda and put all the cards on the table.(See Stockwell (1978), p. 245, 288.)
I don't blame the Yanks. I don't think that any country does anything for anybody except for themselves. You have to accept that countries don't have friends; they only have self-interest. I don't believe that they've ever had an arms embargo against South Africa. It has always been in name only. In South Africa, you can get what you want as long as you are prepared to pay for it. A gold bar has no political convictions, whether it had been mined in South Africa, or America or Russia. A gold bar is a gold bar. I really felt used by the South African government. I was very bitter, especially when we came home.
If we had taken Angola, who would we have given it to? We probably would have given it to UNITA. We would have needed to have installed a puppet government, who would then have needed to be supported. All we succeeded in doing in Angola was to get everybody pissed off with us. When we pulled back at the end of Savannah, relations between us and UNITA were very sour. Rightly or wrongly these guys thought that we had left them in the lurch, and the MPLA didn't thank us for getting involved in the first place. SWAPO and the Cubans would say that we got a hiding. It would have been far better if we hadn't become involved in the first place. I think it was McArthur who said 'In war there is no substitute for victory'. You don't get a silver medal. Young men pay for old men's mistakes.
When the dog catches the bus, what does he do with it? To sum it all up, I was very bitter. I felt very much betrayed and made a fool of. To me it was a stupid thing to have become involved in. To me it was just a waste of time and money. They might as well have said to the MPLA right from the start; 'Take it!' We just felt used.
We all stood there, and he came and inspected us. We did 'present arms' and he walked up and down the line. As he came down, somebody farted, and it was an absolute beaut! The earth shook. It was all I could do to stop laughing. I thought; 'Well, mate, you've just been told what I feel about you.' Then they played the National Anthem, and he took his hat off and held it at his chest. The sun was burning down and he didn't have a lot of hair. I could see the sun burning down on him, and I thought; 'I hope it fries your bloody brains, mate!'
When we cleared out they said; 'Right. Anything that you've got to prove that you were in Angola, you've got to give in. If you don't, we will search you and if we catch you and then we'll lock you up and God knows what will happen to you later.' I had this Rumanian AK47. I was thinking 'Yes - no - yes - no!' I would take chances with a Makarov because that's fairly small. They're just going to look in your balsak. If they don't find anything, they're not going to search you. They had tables at Grootfontein where you had to go and dump all the stuff. They said 'No questions asked'. There was a cock up as far as we were concerned. There was a chance that we were going to miss the train. We were holding up the train. We had gone to the tables to dump everything, and then the Commandant came shouting and screaming at us to fall in and get on the train. There was this East German AK47 and my balsak was open, and I knew that they were not going to search us. The bloody thing's magazine was in it. I was trying to push it into my balsak and the magazine was getting in the way. I was reaching for the magazine catch so that the AK47 would go in, but I couldn't get the bloody thing to go in - all fingers and thumbs! I threw my steel helmet on top of the barrel, and I was not trying to get the hook through the balsak to go through so that the whole shebang doesn't fall out. I couldn't push it down far enough so that I could get the hook secured. I just grabbed my balsak, held it closed and ran with it over my head, worrying that something would fall out of this balsak. They never searched us, and I was through. Only afterwards I realised how stupid I had been. If someone had seen me doing that, I would have been in serious trouble. As it turned out, I wasn't the only one that took a chance that they weren't going to search us. I was disappointed with this East German AK; the Rumanian one that I had had was in far better nick. I just didn't have a choice. If you want it, you've got to grab it.(Back in Civvy life it was rather a silly situation; you had this gun, but you can't brag with it, can you? What good is it to have something if you can't tell people about it. You could sit and gloat on your own. Then I thought about getting past that and I wrote a couple of letters to Magnus Malan telling him that I was a weapons collector, and asked if I couldn't buy a deactivated AK47, and I got a reply back saying that it was SADF policy not to allow booty weapons to be in the hands of private individuals. At that time Hendrick Van Den Berg was shown on television when he had been presented with a chrome plated AK47 mounted on a plaque, so I fired a letter back quickly to Magnus Malan, asking 'If that was the case, how the hell did Hendrick Van Den Berg get to have one?' I never got a reply to that.)
It took us five days on the train. At Windhoek, we were so lucky. Funny enough, my old regiment, Springs was there as well. Regiment Skoonspruit was also going home by train, and I am so glad that I went on the train with Skoonspruit. At Windhoek, all the officers decided that they were flying home. The Skoonspruit Regiment's NCOs stayed behind and they kept discipline on the train, but even the Springs NCOs flew home, and the guys from Springs regiment absolutely destroyed the train.
When we got to Windhoek station, we decided that we needed some booze. One guy who took some tobacco and put it in his eye and his eye looked really inflamed. He said that he had to go to an optician to get something for his eye, because there were no doctors around or anything like that. He got us some booze, and I was drunk from Windhoek until we reached Jo'burg station. We went via Uppington. We had a bit of a stop-over at Uppington. There was a railway gang there, and there were some coloured guys working there with their families. We had some bottles of Windhoek Lager and also about four or five bottles of brandy. They were all asking for cigarettes, and we'd light them and throw them down to them. This young coloured lad who couldn't have been older than seven came along. They said 'Do you want a beer?' He said 'Ja!' The guys drank about half the beer and then filled it up with brandy and then gave it to him, and this little lad chug-a-lugged this beer, and it hit him straight away. After about half an hour he was standing up and falling down drunk, and his father came and he whaled the kid. He smacked him so hard that I thought he was going to knock the boy's head right off.
We arrived in Johannesburg station at about two o'clock in the morning.(Cobus's photo appeared on the cover of Rapport newspaper of the Sunday 4th April 1976) I then went around to my in-laws and showed them 'I'm fine'. Then I went to visit some friends. This was about three or four o'clock in the morning. I didn't realise this. We had been drinking steadily all the way. Then I went home and had a bit of a sleep. Then went to my mom, and my sister and brother-in-law were there. They were talking to me. They wanted to know all the stories, and I was rabitting away. I had a couple of drinks there as well, and my morn went out of the room for some reason and my brother-in-law said to me; 'You've got to watch your language.'
I said; 'What do you mean?'
He said; 'You're swearing. You're f-ing and blinding like nobody's business.'
I said; 'What do you mean?'
He said; 'You are really using some really crude swear words here.' Then I realised that, after three months, I just didn't realise what I was saying. I was using some really bad words in front of my mom.
Then I got my uniform out, and my browns really looked like leather. Nobody wanted to wash them, so I had to take them down to the dry-cleaners. They must have wondered; 'What sort of person is this?' I had a bath that Sunday. It was really brilliant to be clean, and to be able to brush your teeth. The only things that I had washed before was my crotch, my feet and under my arms when I was in Angola, but that was all.
A funny thing happened on the Sunday when I came back from Savannah. I went and saw all my mates, and I was drinking and on the Monday when I went back to work, I felt like a drink. I thought; 'Shit! Ten o'clock in the morning, drinking?' I thought that was bad. At about eleven o'clock I was really dying for a drink. Then, all of a sudden I twigged; for three and a half months I had been drinking and probably half-drunk all the time, and I realised that I had a booze problem. I didn't touch liquor for about six months afterwards. I just went off it completely.
I got letters from Hester telling me that my army pay wasn't going through. When I left I had thought that this might have happened, and we arranged a code in case her letters to me were censored. At the time I was keeping tropical fish, so I said to her that if there were problems with getting my pay, she should write that she was having problems with the fish. The army had given us all the bullshit about having this welfare organisation that will look after your loved ones. I wrote back and they said 'Go there. Those people will help you!' Did they? Like buggery! If it wasn't for the fact that my civvy pay was coming through, I don't know how we would have managed. Army pay was all right; I was getting R13.33 per day, plus danger pay, plus mosquito allowance. The problem was that it wasn't being paid to Hester. My ex-wife managed to get through on her pay. If she hadn't managed that, I don't know what we would have done. There were loads of guys in the same situation whose wives didn't work, whose companies didn't pay them for national service. I don't know how they managed. They went and knocked on the Army's door and said 'Come on. Help us!' The Army just wasn't geared up to help them. They would get platitudes; "Yes, we know you are in a difficult position, but your husband is doing this for South Africa and for the 'Orange, White and Blue'(The colours of the South African Flag), 'Die Vaderland' (`The Fatherland') and all that..." That doesn't buy a loaf of bread. But they wouldn't do anything else.
I came back on Sunday morning and I went back to work on the Monday. I found that the company had changed the rules retrospectively from 1 April that they wouldn't pay you anything while you were away. We didn't mind so much them changing the rules, but I thought it was rather unfair that they would change it retrospectively. They changed the rules so that they wouldn't pay you anything if you got called up for three months. I got on to the Trade Union and I moaned and groaned and it reached the stage that if you phoned up the guy he would ask 'Who is calling?' - `I', Cobus Venter ...' - 'I'm sorry. Mr. Van Jaarsvelt isn't in.' The Run-around. Some of the guys threatened to take ESCOM to court, and ESCOM changed the rules again; that they would pay you fifty per cent of your pay, which wasn't all that bad. Effectively, we wouldn't have been in the poor house with things being repossessed but there were some guys that this would have happened to.
We were notified afterwards that they were going to have a medal parade and that we were going to get Pro Patria medals. I didn't bother to go. I wasn't interested in getting that because it wasn't worth it. To me it would have been better if we hadn't gone in there in the first place. It was a con job. That's the way that I feel about it.
I heard a story about the guys who were captured during Operation Savannah and who were paraded at the O. A. U. Apparently, when they were told to abandon the vehicle that they were trying to recover, they weren't listening on the correct radio frequency. On the Eland armoured car you could listen to the civvy radio station. They were listening to the civvy radio station, so they never got the message. Apparently they got captured on the bridge. They were crossing over it when a T34 tank appeared. So what do you do?
I found it hard to adjust to civilian life, because you would look at guys and think; 'You don't know what it's all about!' Not that you wanted to be big and great and that but 'I've seen sights and done things that you could never imagine.'
I thought that it was weird that a guy would go into the army - lets say a tank driver - and he would be in charge of this tank which is worth hundreds and thousands of rand. Then he comes back into civilian life and he is a street sweeper.
In 1978 we heard some rumours that the Parabats were involved in Rhodesia. I spoke to some of the guys who said that they were at Beit Bridge, but I wonder if they were involved in any fighting. I wonder how they explained away any casualties.
In about 1978 they started a club called 'The Wild Geese'. Mike Hoare was involved. I thought I would go around and have a dek(look) and then the newspapers got to hear that there was this convention of 'Wild Geese'. All of a sudden there were spectres of mercenaries were raised, and it was called off. It's a good thing that I never got involved with anything further because not long after that, in 1981 there was the Seychelles thing. It seemed to me to be so stupid that the government was involved. How stupid can you be? 'Sign here for fifty cases of RPG 7 rockets.'?
CASSINGA 1978: OPERATION REINDEER
(Operation Reindeer [4 May 1978 at CASSINGA] is reported comprehensively in Steenkamp Borderstrike! (1983) in most of the first half of the book. In South Africa's Border War (1989), Steenkamp summarises his previous description on pp. 75 - 80. Cawthra gives the alternative view on p. 47 of Brutal Force (1986).)
THE BUILD UP TO OPERATION REINDEER
I was twenty-eight when I got my last call up, in 1978, again to 'De Brug' and then Ondangwa. The bullshit lasted until we reached Grootfontein and then it stopped. We were at Oshivello, and they tried to chase two or three years of civvy life out of us in two weeks. I found that pretty hard going. To me it was always good to he back in the army. It wasn't good at the time, but it was good afterwards.
Before the jump we were out on patrol and we found the body of a black guy lying in the middle of nowhere. He was curled up in a foetal position, but he was lying on his back with his legs and arms hooked up. I don't know how long he had been lying there, but his body was bloated. He didn't have a stitch of clothing on. He was as naked as the day he was born. His skin had bubbled like dry blisters. It was weird. How had he come there? What had killed him? We didn't have a clue. We got on to the radio and told them we had found this guy. 'What killed him? What is he dressed in? What condition is the body in?' I felt like saying; 'Hang on. I'm not a trained pathologist. He's stinking to high heaven, that's all I can tell you. He's dead and he has no clothes on.'
On the radio they said; 'He's got to have clothes on!'
I said; 'Sorry, mate, he hasn't got any clothes on. That's all there is to it. We certainly haven't taken his clothes off.'
They sent a chopper for him. He must have been about two hundred and twenty pounds. He was in pretty good shape; there were no obvious wounds on him. He smelled a little bit, but you could handle that. They sent this chopper, but how the hell do we get this guy in the chopper? 'Come on, pick him up by his arms.' 'Like hell! We're not going to pick him up.'
The flight engineer was rummaging around in the chopper and he came up with two universal black bin bags. We twisted the bin bags and then hooked them under his armpits and underneath his legs. When we lifted him it was like this gigantic stink bomb had been released. It just came out from him. I'd never smelled anything like this in my life. The chopper was about thirty yards away from him. 'Shit! Couldn't you park a little bit closer?' We carried him and we were about five yards away from the helicopter when his arms decided to give up the ghost, and they tore out of the shoulder sockets. He fell and as he landed he burst open. I've puked when I've been drunk, but I've never puked as much as I did that day. It wasn't the fact of the bloated body; it was the smell. They got him into the chopper eventually. I don't know how. I was too sick to have anything to do with it.
There was a guy by the name of Wilhelm Ratte. You couldn't imagine a more unsoldierly soldier. He looked like a schoolteacher. I have a sneaky suspicion that he must have been involved with the Selous Scouts or the Rhodesian SAS because he started a Recce wing in 32 Battalion itself. He was 'shit hot'. He was really good at his job.(It appears that this man was involved in the 1994 Afrikaner Weerstand Beweging occupation of Fort Klapperkop.)
He was involved in 'Butterfly Ops.' They would fly around in an Aloe, and drop down hoping to draw fire, and then they would have a fire force standing by. I think it happened at about eleven o'clock on a Monday morning that they drew fire and we were in the fire-force in other helicopters. They would drop you off and you would make an envelopment of them; a hammer and anvil tactic. There was a bit of a cockup and we got dropped in the wrong place and that turned out to be a lemon. We walked through there all day. Nothing happened. At six o'clock we were picked up again. We were in the air about five minutes when a call came through that they were to put us down and come back for us the next morning, and they would take us back to the camp then. When they fetched us next morning, we were within half an hour from being back in the camp when they re-routed us. He had done another Butterfly Op. and he got them again on the Tuesday.
I think there was a group of about sixteen SWAPO terrorists, and when we made contact they were firing RPG7s at us - which was a new experience for me. They would fire them into the trees, where they would explode and made an airburst. That was really frightening because it had about the same explosive properties as a 25 lb cannon shell. We had a pretty hard fight with them. We chased them for two and half days, and we managed to account for two of them.
When we started stripping them, I was amazed at what these guys were carrying with them. Some of their equipment was far better than the stuff we had. Their food was definitely better. In the old days we heard that SWAPO were really suffering; they didn't have food. They definitely were getting better, and their logistics were improving. What I couldn't understand was where the guys were coming from. At that time we were still in Angola, occupying certain parts of it. Maybe they were cache'ing their weapons and digging them up. Their weapons were in pretty good condition; not rusted or dirty. As things went on, SWAPO got better and better. It's probably understandable; if you send in thirty terrorists and fifteen of them get killed and fifteen survive, and you send in the surviving fifteen again, after a while you've got a hard nucleus of seasoned fighters. That's what I found with the guys of 32 Battalion; they were far better in that environment than we were. We were civilian soldiers, and these guys were on the ground all the time.
There were two camps in Southern Angola with the code names 'Vietnam' and 'Moscow'. We did a drop there, and we were told that it was the biggest airborne operation since World War Two. What they did was a little bit silly; there was a camp, a river and a mielie field. I would have thought you would drop the parabats on the side of the camp away from the river so that you had their backs against the river. If you push them against the river there's no where for them to go. For some reason they scattered the parabats so that about half of the guys fell in the mielie field across the river from the bases. One guy just disappeared, and until the time that I left South Africa, they hadn't found him. His 'chute did open; he might have fallen into the river and drowned or he might have fallen into a tree.
We had absolutely no anti-tank weapons. If the PUMAs didn't come and uplift us afterwards, they probably would have cleaned our clocks for us. Things were getting pretty bad. It was basically a turkey shoot; we hit the guys at the right time, at about 9 o'clock in the morning. I was pretty fortunate; when I hit the handing zone, I landed in a couple of feet of water. I managed to get out of the 'chute pretty quickly and get out, but the bulk of the guys landed in the mielie(corn) field and they really had a battle to come and support us. At one point I thought a major disaster was looming.
The way the camp was situated you could only really hit it from three sides; hit them from two and have a stop group on the other side. We just got scattered. Things went really badly. In my personal kit I had ten magazines for an R4 which would give me 400 rounds, two smoke grenades, two hand grenades and belt of 1000 rounds for an LMG, and that was it. We had no weapons at all for armour.
The SAAF came in and hit the camp, and then we dropped down and came in. 'No plan survives the first five minutes!' If they had done it, it could have all been over in twenty or twenty-five minutes. As it was, it took two and a half to three hours. It's easy to look at it with hindsight and say; 'We should have done this or the guys should have anticipated that.' The way they dropped us, initially we were doing all right. We were cleaning bunkers and moving up and then all of a sudden, when we hit the middle of the camp they had some ZSU 232 anti-aircraft cannon which you can also depress it so that it fires horizontally. This thing fires a 20 mm shell, and there's not a lot that stands up to that. You could knock out a Ratel with that. You need a fairly substantial tree to hide behind to keep out of its way. When we started hitting the middle of the camp they started using these ZSUs against us. Everyone tried to make themselves small, and I think I was probably down to forty or fifty rounds. A problem was that an R4 takes 5.56 mm rounds. The belt of 1000 rounds was 7.62 mm, so all you could do with that was to smack the guy through the face with it and hope you hurt him.
The other guys then managed to cross the river and started beefing us up. Once we had cleaned out the camp, we heard that there was some armour coming from the MPLA up the road, and then everybody started running around looking for RPG7s to use against these guys. If the PUMAS didn't arrive then, we would have been in a sticky situation. I was out of it by then.
It was a silly situation. At 32 Battalion they told us 'If you see a SWAPO terr that you think is dead, make sure he's dead!' Double-tap him. I just didn't make sure that the guy was dead. To be quite honest with you, I didn't see him. It was as easy as that.
By this time everything was quiet. It was over and done with. There were still occasional firing here and there. It wasn't like a war movie where you see everyone fighting like mad for half an hour or so. Initially you had an intense burst of fire, and then a lull for two or three minutes, and then some firing. A guy firing a machine gun will fire in short bursts of three or four shots. By this time things had been quiet for up to twenty minutes. Occasionally you would hear 'tap tap tap'. The guys were basically mopping up.
There was a Portuguese South African national serviceman guy called Carlos De Le Meida with us. If it wasn't for him, I would be a dead man today. I went over a bunker and it was all over and done with and, just being a stupid boy, I decided that it was time for a cigarette. I was absolutely nackered and I just felt like a cigarette. You can prop yourself up quite nicely against your kidney pouches, and I went down on my haunches. I was looking for a cigarette, took it out, put it in my mouth, and lit it. Carlos must have spotted this guy, and he grabbed me by my yoke and jerked me out of the way. As he did so, the guy just fired a burst. I just fell.
I can remember seeing the barrel of a gun. I can remember seeing a flame coming out of it. It was a red and black flame. I will remember that flame until my dying day. It was bright daylight, but I saw a flame coming out of that barrel.
The bunkers were in an `A' frame, but not as sharp. I was on the left side, and Carlos leaned over and grabbed me. As he pulled me over, I got shot in the legs. He flipped me over on the other side. Then I presume he must have fired and got this guy. I just fell back and was lying on my back. I lifted up my left leg and I realised that it was broken. I moved the foot - okay, the foot's all right. The right leg was spurting blood all over the show. I tried to move my foot and I couldn't. My foot was just hanging down. It's amazing how clearly you can think at times like this.
I shouted to Carlos to look in my left kidney pouch. There was come utility cord of nylon - like the draw string of a raincoat - 'Give it to me.' I tied it around my leg, and I got my bayonet and started making a tourniquet. My leg was just spurting blood. I stuck one finger in one hole and another finger in the hole on the other side of my leg. Then I shouted for the medic, and shouted for the radio operator. The medic came and just put a bandage around the tourniquet. I just didn't want to take my fingers out of the holes. I was absolutely terrified. I didn't know that I had that much blood in me.
I wouldn't let the radio operator make the call. I got on myself and just said casevac casevac'. It was quite all right. I was lucid as can be; 'Corporal Venter. I've been shot. In need a casevac. I'm bleeding to death. Get me out of here quick.'
'Right, a casevac is on its way.' Five or ten minutes later I got on the radio again. I said 'If you don't get me out of here quickly, I am going to die.' As I was saying that, I heard a chopper coming in. I didn't feel a lot. It was as if someone punches you very hard - like at school when your mates would come along and really give you a good bash on your bicep. That's what if felt like. No pain whatsoever.
They loaded me in the helicopter, and they really hurt me. I'm still convinced to this day that the helicopter didn't fly through the air. It was driving along the road because it was bumping all the way. My broken leg wasn't hurting, it was the other one that hurt. Then they started putting a drip on this side, but we couldn't stop the bleeding. The foot felt like pins and needles multiplied by a hundred times. That was what my leg felt like.
By the time that they got me into the operating room, I was convinced that they had my foot in a fire; it felt as though my foot was burning. They asked me the most nonsensical questions; 'Who are you?' Jacobus Cornelius Venter. 66320292BT Blood Group 0 +.' My dog tags didn't have my blood group on. I said; 'Look in my top pocket, and you'll find my "Book of Life"; my blood group is in there. By the way my ID number is 5002175013003.' Should I have told them my army number? It was absolutely stupid. It was so illogical that I had to give them all my details. I had my dog tags laced into my boots. The rationale was that they can shoot your head off and you would loose your dog tags and they wouldn't know who you are, but they might just shoot one leg off and they would still know who you are. I don't know how true that would be. They never checked my boots.
I said; 'Just give me something for my foot. I'll do whatever you want me to do; just take my foot out of the fire.' It was really sore by this time. They said that they had given me a shot, and they said it would take about five minutes to take effect. By this time they had managed to stop the bleeding. I was lying there in my underpants. I had my watch on my arm, and I looked at it and when the ten minutes was up I said; 'You had better go and ask for your money back because the stuff you've given me is shit. It's not working.' I don't know anything about that afterwards. I just remember lying there and seeing some green cloths and the big lights that they have in the operating room.
The next morning I woke up. They gave me skin traction first, so I was just lying there with a splint and skin traction. The guy next to me had been pretty badly banged up in a car accident. There was just me and him. He snored. It sounded like he was drowning in his own snot. I would bang him a little bit and he'd stop snoring. I'd just drop off and he's start snoring again. I could have got out of that bed and murdered him. They had put a catheter in me. The nurse said 'Have a wee.' You can't feel any pressure on your bladder at all. She was turning the tap which wasn't helping. I told her; 'Go and get me a beer', but she wouldn't do that.
About two weeks later they found that the skin traction hadn't worked. Dr. Botha told me later that I was quite lucky with the leg being shattered the way it was because the bone had more surfaces to grow together. They put a pin through and a stirrup. I just wanted to know when I could get out of hospital. I was still in Oshakati.
Dr. Botha was a brilliant guy. I went into this operating theatre to have the pin put in. He told me; 'We are going to drill a hole through your shin bone and we're going to put this pin through.' And he gets out the Black&Decker drill like you have in the garage. He was just winding me up, but I didn't know that. He must have seen my face fall. He said; 'No, I'm just joking.' He put me under; crash-bang-wallop.
At Oshakati Hospital I came across this one guy from 32 Battalion who had been shot with a rifle grenade. They were in a contact with some SWAPO terrs and the terrs shot at him with the rifle grenade. This gay was very close to them so it hadn't armed itself. This guy went down, and when the medics got to him, they saw this bloody big hole just under his left arm. They put a shell dressing on, did a casevac and flew him up to Oshakati. When they X-rayed him they found this rifle grenade was inside him. Apparently at Oshakati hospital they opened up the wound so they could get to the fins of the grenade. The fins were made out of plastic, and they heated up wire and melted a hole through the fin. Then they got some armour plate from a Buffel and put that around, hooked up a block and tackle and pulled it out. He was so lucky; apparently it had gone between his heart and his lungs and missed all the major blood vessels. I believe that about eight weeks later the guy was up and running again. If it was me, I would have gone to church six times a week after that, four times a day.
1 MILITARY HOSPITAL
I was taken down to 1 Mil and now I had my leg in this splint. They had cut my underpants at the side, and put tapes on it. They put a padded ring between the top of the splint and my crotch. They came to take the catheter out. The nurse said; 'This is going to hurt.' All right with me. I was so doped up to the eyeballs that I couldn't feel a thing. She said 'I've removed it.' I said; 'I haven't felt anything.'
They put me in an ambulance, and I was lying there. The bottom of the splint stick out beyond my leg. The guy slammed the door on us, and he hit the splint, which bumped the ring up into my family jewels. That was more painful than the actual shooting.
At 1 Mil I saw real courage. I saw a guy who had lost his legs in a land mine accident. He was in a wheelchair, and he would go spinning down the corridor. The guys had races, and if the guy comes short and he falls and his wheel chair turns over and he's say; 'Oh, Shit! I've hit another bloody land mine!' He laughed about it.
The Orthopaedic ward was like a chamber of horrors. There was one guy who had a broken neck. He had screws in his head, and when he went to the loo; he unhooked himself, and he would walk holding his neck up. There were blind guys there. There was one guy called Garth Long who had the most natural looking artificial eyes that you have ever seen. When he talked to you, you wouldn't know that he was blind. When he first spoke to me, everybody was making sign language to me until I twigged that he was blind. Garth Long would come in there and sing 'Blue plastic eyes, teardrops ...' You see that sort of courage from the guys. That is what medals should be given for.
Garth Long was blinded in a contact. They went to the kraal, and smacked the guys around a little and set fire to the kraal and they went. These guys must have complained to SWAPO; 'SWAPO is supposed to be running the show here. How the hell can these guys come and do this to us?' The following day, when they came past in a Buffel, they sent an RPG7 through the side of the Buffel. There were seven guys in it; six got killed and Garth got blinded. It was tragic. He was an incredibly brave guy. I just couldn't come to terms with how somebody could be so brave. (I kept in contact with him. He married a girl afterwards. Whenever they had an argument, she would move the furniture around. I thought that was a little bit cruel.)
There was one PF guy there who was all buggered and bent and he looked like seven miles of bad road. He had a broken arm and a broken leg. I asked what had happened to him. He was on a balcony, and they had been drinking, and some of his mates came round. He said to them; 'See you in a bit,' and he fell over the balcony. He said; 'I saw them a bit quicker than I thought I was going to see them.'
For traction they didn't have weights, they had sand bags. The guys who had wheel chairs would come up to you and talk, and smoke, and they would tap their ash into the sandbag. They would say; 'Putting in all this ash makes that bag heavier, so it's going to stretch your leg so that it is six inches longer than the other one.' That was great! You couldn't make it without those guys.
I was very upset with a nurse one night. There was one guy, Sarel, who was in bad shape. All he could do was lie on his back propped up half way. During the night he would start sliding down and then he couldn't breathe properly. I was the only one in the ward who had a bell. Nobody else had one. I was trying to kip, and the guy would call; 'Hey, Cobus, could you ring the bell for me please.' Sarel would slide down, and then you could hear him struggling to breathe. The nurse came and said; 'Yes?' I said; 'It's not for me. It's for Sarel here. He's really in bad shape.' She pulled him up a little bit and buggered off and he started sliding down again. About half an hour later I rang the bell again and she came back and asked 'What's going on now?' I told her he was sliding down again. She said; 'Well, I'm five months pregnant and I'm not going to risk losing my baby; having a miscarriage by pulling him up.' I just freaked. I said; 'We pay f-ing taxes, which pay your f-ing salary, and I will report you to the f-ing ward sister tomorrow.' It was only this one cow. Everybody else was great. She pulled him up there. This was about three or four days after I had the pin put in, so I had to have injections for the pain. They were only great! One jab and you'll never land again. The next day she came to give me my injection and she flipped me on my side to give me the injection, and she flipped me right out of the bed.
Cobus reports that while he was recovering in 1 Military hospital, he would become brain dead from the boredom. On the ward with him was a chap whose arms were incapacitated, and his wife brought in a television set for him, but it did not come with the plug attached. Cobus took on the task of fitting the plug, which he was having difficulty with. It took him about half an hour to do, but it felt so good to be doing something constructive at last amongst so much inactivity.
In hospital, Tannie Smit found Cobus's hoard of paracetamol and gave him a bollocking about that, but then sneaked him an Old Spice bottle full of gin and a Stopain tablet. She used to do this every evening. She would bedbath him, and help him to change his pants and pyjamas, and Cobus would tease her; `Jy wil net my boude voel!'(`You just want to fondle my buttocks!')
A few weeks after he was discharged, he went back to visit her with a bottle of Glen Fiddich to give her as a `Thank You' present, but he was told that she had died. He left the bottle anyway, but reproached himself for not having gone back to visit her sooner.
Eventually he was out of the most serious traction, and he was able to have his first proper bath for ages. He was really enjoying this luxury when he noticed to his horror that there was a red stain in the water between his legs. `Oh, no!' he thought. %After all that I've gone through, I've got piles!' But this was not the case. He investigated and found that there was a slip prevention mat fixed in the bath, and this was decorated by a floral design. What he had seen through the distortion of the soapy water was one of the red flowers. This was a great relief to him.
SANDTON CLINIC, JOHANNESBURG
One day, the doctor arrived in jogging kit and pretended that he was going to adjust the tension on my leg with a rusted pair of pliers. I was losing weight, so the doctor prescribed Guinness for me at the Sandton Clinic. The staff seemed to feel antagonistically amused at this, and they got their own back by putting Enos in my urine bottle, which all fizzed up. Many people from work came to visit me and take an interest.
I was discharged out of hospital. Two days after I was discharged, I was back at work. I went into work and my boss asked me if I had a letter from my doctor, signing me off as being fit for work. I told him no. He said; 'I don't want you until you can get it.' That was at about eight o'clock in the morning. So I jumped in the car, went to the doctor, had a word with his secretary, and she got me a doctor's note saying that I was fit to work. I was back at work at two o'clock that afternoon. 'Here you are!'
There was the guy who used to sit across the aisle from me, Les Daniels. He would ask me the most inane questions; 'What does it feel like being shot? Does it hurt?' You feel like saying; 'No, it doesn't hurt at all.' It's like you cut yourself and it's bleeding like hell, and people ask; 'Did you cut yourself?' You say; 'No, my hand just bleeds like that naturally.' He really made me cross. I suffered that.
Two days later I was walking to get a print out binder. I got to where it was hanging, and I let go of my one crutch, took it out, folded it up, and stuck it under my arm. I took the crutch and walked back to my desk with the binder under my arm. Les came and pulled it out from under my arm and said; 'Here, let me carry that for you,' and I just absolutely freaked. I told him to Fuck Off!'. I swore at him and told him to leave me alone. 'I didn't need his fucking help. I can do things. If I want your fucking help I will ask for your fucking help.' It was totally illogical. All that the guy was trying to do was trying to help me. There was this deathly silence in the office. They looked at me and thought I had finally flipped my lid.'Bosbevok' (`Bush madness', now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) 'He's going to do stupid things.'
That took a lot of coming to terms with. I was all right driving the car which was automatic. I could drive it with one leg although I couldn't move my ankle on it as it was hanging down. I could put it on the accelerator and then physically pull the whole thing off and then smack it down on the brake. I could drive the car that way.
I had hired a remote control TV set while I was in hospital. I had to take it back to the place in Hillbrow that I had hired it from. I got out of the car; it was on the back seat. I opened the back door, took it out, put it on top of the car, closed the car. Now I am using two crutches. How do I carry this TV set? It was all right when I was standing next to the car. My frustration level was building up. I put it back and hopped across to this place and told them that I had brought the TV back but I was sorry I couldn't carry it. It really hurt to do that. They came and they got it for me, and I paid them for it. As I came out, I tripped and I fell, and I measured my whole length on the floor. This old bat said to me; 'Are you all right?' Again I absolutely freaked and I said; 'No, I'm just lying here because I'm having a bit of a rest. No, I'm not fucking all right. Can't you see.' It was so stupid.
There was so much bitterness in me. Why did this happen to me? I'll never be able to walk again. The doctor wasn't sure if the nerve had been damaged or just suffered from the shock wave of the bullet as it had gone through. He said; 'Time will tell.' I couldn't see myself walking with a limp. My marriage was going sour, and my ex-wife called me a 'fucking cripple!' It was terrible. I think I seriously considered committing suicide then. I just didn't have the bottle to go through with it. I wasn't going to go through life limping. If something like that had happened, I probably would have topped myself. Luckily it wasn't going to happen.
Then to add insult to injury, I got a letter from the army saying that I was going to get a disability pension. I had to go and see the district surgeon so they could ascertain what measure of disability I had. I think that my left leg is 1,7 cm shorter than the other one. He told me that I would probably suffer from arthritis in later life in the left knee joint and I might have problems with my spine later on. Touch wood! I hope it's not going to happen. I sent that off to the army and then I had to go to the Drill Hall in Johannesburg and I had to go in front of a panel of doctors there and they hummed and hah'ed. About five months later I got a letter saying I would be paid R8.50 (Monthly) disability, which was an insult. The checks started arriving from the reserve bank. I still have to cash one of them. I looked at it and I thought; 'I'm not all that bloody interested. If you're going to pay me R8.50 for that, you might as well just shove it.'
I really felt betrayed. I felt that my trust had been violated. Everything that you believed the country stood for has turned out to be a crock of shit. I became very much a pacifist. It was a long time before I could persuade myself to take hold of a gun again. I was really scared of firearms. It was after seeing what a gun can do to yourself. It's all right seeing that on somebody else; it's not you. I had to force myself one day to take the pistol and to go out to the shooting range and go and shoot with it. I was really nervous. I shot a couple of rounds and it was over and done with. That fear had gone.
When we got back I heard rumours and allegations in the press that 32 Battalion was a mercenary battalion and that they had been involved in massacres of civilians. There were a hell of a lot of foreigners in 32 Battalion.
I never saw any of the PBs('Plaaslike Bevolking', meaning local population, i.e. blacks) being mistreated. It depends what you mean by mistreating. I don't regard giving a cuff round the ear 'mistreating'.
Pathfinders were reputed to be like mercenaries. We heard stories of them being ex-Vietnam Vets and ex-Portuguese guys, Ex-Rhodesian guys.(An article in 'Combat and Survival' of Volume 1 Issue 10 January 1990 pp 36-41 entitled "The `Philistines' South Africa's Pathfinder Company 1980-8211 support's Cobus's information. It seems that they were the %Pathfinder company' of 44 Parachute Brigade, and were disbanded in 1982.) I heard a story that 32 Battalion approached Chris Schollenberg, who was a Selous Scout. There were only two Grand Crosses of Valour ever awarded; one to him and one to an American Major who was in the S.A.S. Chris Schollenberg started out in the S.A.S. and then moved over to the Selous Scouts. He was the innovator of the Recce-type activity on the Rhodesian side. He was a South African. I believe that he is now running a bar in Durban somewhere; probably would be as all the ex-Rhodesians congregate down there. Apparently he had a contract with the Selous Scouts on a monthly renewable basis. He was a very much larger than life character. Some of the ex-Rhodesians I spoke to reckoned that when he got his Grand Cross of Valour, the Selous Scouts sang a Shona Funeral Song for him. When people wanted to know why they sang that song for him, the rationale behind it was that no man could do what he had done and still be alive, and that he must be a spirit (This story is confirmed in Cole, Barbara The Elite: The Story of the Rhodesian Special Air Service, p. 217.). He was approached by both the Recce's and the Parabats, but apparently he just wasn't interested anymore. Obviously I can't vouch for all this. The story was that he camouflaged everything; his spoons, his dixies, his trommel (metal trunk Ibid., p. 53). He was really a character larger than life.
In 1976 we didn't see a lot of Koevoet. I think the police were a little bit cheesed off because the army started running the show there. I heard about them but didn't see much of them. In 1981 I saw a little more of them. I never worked with them. What I heard - and I can't vouch for it - was that they were using Ex-SWAPO tame terrs in Koevoet. I heard lots of horror stories about them; that they were collecting ears etc. I believe that they did a good job; they got more SWAPO terrs than anybody else.
Apparently they got a lot of negative propaganda because they had a habit of putting the dead SWAPO terrs on the mudguards. You can't blame them for doing that. If you see what a modern rifle does to a living human being; who wants to have something like that in the vehicle with you? I don't know why they wanted to bring the bodies back with them. I suppose it would be good enough to just take a photograph of it or bring the weapons back, but what do you do? I suppose it might also be a bit of a psychological ploy; show the opposition or potential opposition what can happen to you. What did Mao Tse Tung say? 'Kill one; frighten a thousand.' You look what SWAPO has done; I always thought that South Africa lost the propaganda war as well as everything else; ours was just never good enough to counter what the opposition was doing.
There is a joke about Koevoet which used to annoy the police if you told it in front of them. There was this one crocodile in Kavango and he was eating a lot of the population. This one headman goes up to the commander of 21 Military Brigade and says; 'Could you sort out this crocodile for us?' The guy says; 'Okay, fine, fair enough.' They send in the Recces and the Recces go and study this crocodile him for about six or seven weeks and they come back and say 'Right. We know exactly what this crocodile does. He goes from here to there, he sleeps there and goes there and there and there.' So they say; 'Right, we'll send in the SAAF and see if they can take him out.' So they send in the SAAF and they bomb hell out of the place, and come back. Two weeks later the headman comes back and says; 'No, that didn't work.' So they send in the Recces again and they study this crocodile for eight weeks and they come back and they send in the Parabats. They have a full drop, and they come back and they bring the crocodile with them. A week later this headman comes back and says 'You got the wrong crocodile.' The commander then says; 'Okay. We'll get Koevoet to sort him out. So he gets Koevoet and he tells Koevoet; 'You've got to sort out this crocodile by the end of the week.' This is on the Monday. Dries Dreyer was the OC, he says; 'Right. We will do it. At five o'clock on Sunday we'll have this crocodile for you.'
So they all go back to the mess and they sit there drinking for the whole week. At about ten to five they say; 'Right. Lets go and sort this crocodile out!' They jump into their Wolf Turbos, barrel down the road. About a mile down the road they see this lizard. They stop their Wolf Turbos, jump out, grab this lizard, knock the crap out of him until he admits to being a crocodile. You used to get the police really cross with that one.(This joke is also reported on page p. 44 of Hooper, Jim Beneath the Visiting Moon: Images of combat -in Southern Africa. Cobus had not read this book at the time of the interview.)
Jaap Marais was the leader of the HNP. For years South Africa was monitoring transmissions from Zambia and all the black military traffic, and apparently they had broken the code - possibly in 1970. It was in the year that the HNP split from the NP, and in the Houses of Parliament, Jaap Marais stood up and mentioned that South Africa was monitoring this. When he was a member of the Nat Cabinet, he was privy to this information. Then he stood up in parliament and blew the whole story that they were reading the ciphers, and then the cat was out of the bag.
Published: 1 July 2000.