Sapper at 26 Field Regiment (1986) and Elundu, Owamboland (1987)
Dene trained as a Sapper at 26 Field Regiment (1986) and spent most of 1987 sweeping the roads around Elundu. He served with Keith throughout.
At school, Keith and I were never mates. I knew him, but we were never mates. At 1 Construction Regiment we recognised each other and no one else, so we became mates instantly when we put our uniforms on.
Registering for national service: At 16 I was quite an introverted kid. I wouldn’t say I was a mommy’s boy, but I didn’t grow up being a tough guy. I suppose I was nervous about going to the army, but everybody knew it was coming. I wasn’t scared to go, but everybody is nervous before they go.
At school I wasn’t a sportsman. I was captain of the shooting team, and that was my sport. I had done it every day of the week since standard six. I never actually played physical sports, so I didn’t go on sports camps. I went on a cadet camp once, and that was it. I hadn’t spent much time away from home really. One of the reasons I joined the shooting team was that you didn’t have to do cadets and thoroughly enjoyed it. I almost immediately became the captain of the junior team, and because I was the youngest in my class, I was still captain of the junior team right up until Matric.
I had just turned 17 when I went off to the army. I didn’t have matric exemption. I was one of those guys who decided to do just enough at school to get by. I sat at the back of the class and nobody knew I was there. Looking back, I should have gone for matriculation exemption, but I hated maths. Nobody could explain to me how the alphabet got involved with numbers. Now I love maths and although I never did very well at it, I seem to have taken to it, because of my daughter who is brilliant at maths, we basically went through to matric doing maths together. She is brilliant at it. She is now a pharmacist.
Waiting to go into the army: We didn’t have to wait long. We finished school in November/December. We finished school, celebrated Christmas, and then just after New Year we got on the train, I think it was 6 January, and that was it. We didn’t have much of a break. There was no such thing as a gap year.
KLAARING IN: 1 Construction Regiment
We started out at 1 Construction Regiment Marivale in Springs. That was an absolute nightmare. I thought; “If this is going to be my army days, I’m not going to do well with this.” When we got to Marivale, it had been pouring with rain for I don’t know how long. There was a break in the weather when we got there, and it wasn’t actually raining at the time. The camp was a flood zone. Every tent that they had put up for the new intake was ankle-deep in water, literally. You slept with everything on your bed. The showers and the ablution blocks were flooded all the time. It was an absolute mess. Keith and I stuck together once we had found each other. We knew that if we stayed there, it was going to be a terrible experience. All the toilets were overflowing. You would expect that a disease would break out. Lucky none of us got the dreaded lurgy. We got through it, but I was glad to get out of there.
I think they had too many people at 1 Construction Regiment. I didn’t care why they were taking us out. I knew that I was still going to be a `Sapper’, so it didn’t matter where they sent me. Just get me out of that place! I don’t mind. I think they trucked us down there. Luckily we only spent about two weeks at Marivale before they shipped us off to Bethlehem. Then it was just what I thought the army would be.
At Bethlehem, we were sent to the camp in town – 21 Field. I was quite impressed, although when you get there, everybody was screaming and shouting at you all the time. The camp itself was nice; neat and tidy and the sand was raked. I was totally impressed to get into a bungalow with shiny floors. No water on the floor. We had to keep it like that. I can’t remember how long we stayed at 21 Field in the camp, but then one day they said to us; “You guys are going to 2 Field, you guys are going to 26 Field.” Keith and I went to 26 Field and we were in the same bungalow at the dam. I can’t remember what the dam’s name was. It was cool. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Stories from basic training: Our basics was tough, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I remember being chased down the hill to go and pick a leaf. From the tree and making your way back up, and doing the 2,4 km to the dam and the little forest that was there. Keith is a tall thin guy, and he should have been able to run pretty well, but he just couldn’t do the hills and I used to out-run him up the hills every time. I used to beat every time. I used to tell him; “Just take smaller, faster steps!” That’s what I used to do. A good memory was Captain Kotze who was in charge of the camp. A very nice guy! An absolute gentleman! Tough, but fair. I enjoyed him, and Sergeant Major Button. I remember on the parade ground, when he saluted, his hands were (open splayed fingers). His fingers always stuck out as though he had something stuck between his fingers.
Bethlehem is one of the coldest places in the country. The bungalows that we lived in were one sheet of corrugated iron for the walls, and one for the roof. There were no interior walls, no insulation, nothing! I am one of those guys who can’t handle the cold. At one stage they issued us with extra blankets – I think they gave us three extra blankets each. There were some guys, like Keith, who would put two or three blankets on his bed, and he would be as warm as toast. I ended up borrowing from everybody. I had 11 blankets on my bed and I still couldn’t get warm. I used to suffer with the cold. I have a lower back problem, and although I passed my medical, for most of basics, when I got up in the morning I couldn’t stand up. The guys used to laugh at me. I used to waddle around like a duck for half an hour until my muscles warmed up and I could actually straighten up. I could literally not straighten up, partly because I used to sleep with my knees up under my chin trying to keep warm. I used to get up, and I couldn’t walk. It was a big joke. It was tough, but I managed to get through it. I was never unhappy about being there. I have never been one to panic or become stressed about things. And when I go to bed at night, it doesn’t matter what my problems are, I close my eyes and go to sleep. There is nothing I can do about my problems now. It’s time to sleep.
I wouldn’t say that basics was a breeze, but I didn’t have any complaints. As long as they fed me, and allowed me two or three hours sleep a night. I’ve always had the same attitude at work; “If I’m in a bad situation, I am only there for so many hours; they’ve only got me for so many hours, and after that the time is mine.” They only had me for two years; after that my time was my own. Every day was just one day shorter. I had no complaints. I wouldn’t want to go back to the training though.
Sapper training: I will never forget how, during our demolitions training, they hung a box of TNT flakes up in the centre of a container, and we went a kilometre back, as far as the role of wire was long, and we set that thing off. I couldn’t believe what it did to that container! I had never seen anything bigger than a firecracker in my life. It was devastating!
The second thing was that we did a crater charge where they knock a pipe into the ground and then they send a candle of plastque down there and they blow a chamber, and then they fill that with TNT flakes and set that off! That was something to behold. We sat back at a kilometre and had chunks of Earth the size of chairs falling around us. It was unbelievable. The hole it blew in the ground was mind-boggling.
Those were the things that stick in my mind. And the shooting range. We were from 26, and we had to drive to the shooting range. I remember guys from my bungalow – a couple of the guys were real `brown-noses’ and cheats – I know for a fact that one of the guys cheated to get his badge for shooting. I was there and I saw him cheat. He had mates at the targets giving him the right scores. That sticks in my mind. They ended up with these things on their chest, and I thought; “Ah, really now!” Undeserved, but they didn’t care.
After training we went to Robertson and Montague for riot training; this was after our training but before we went to the border. It was quite late in the year.
In Montague we were always told; “Where you go, your rifle goes!” We were staying in a hall at the show grounds and our stretchers were put on the floor. We were lazy, and running around there at the times when we were off, when we had nothing to do, and we would walk around in the park or the streets there. We would leave our rifles on the stretcher under our sleeping bags. One day we came back and the rifles were all gone. We had some serious PT after that, because the lieutenant had gone around and collected them all. He put us all on parade, and called out the rifle numbers. We all ended up standing to one side, and Keith and myself with them. I can remember the PT with Keith and I having to carry each other up and down. That was some serious PT. We carried our rifles with us after that!
I think it was in Robertson, going through locations, the riots there – this Coloured woman came out of her house. She must have been very liquored up. She had nothing on. She came out screaming and shouting at us and smacking herself between the legs; “Come and get some of this!” It was unbelievable to me. The guys cracked up. It was hilarious; something I will never forget!
Someone had thrown stones or a petrol bomb at one of the police Casspirs. We were watching this all from a distance. The Casspir was chasing this guy and he went into the back door of a double story shack. It was a big shack – double story – and the Casspir literally followed him right through the shack. It was unbelievable. We didn’t know whether there was anybody in the shack or not. The guy literally ran right through, and came out the other side, so did the Casspir. There was nothing left of the shack. I just couldn’t believe it. I was 17 years old at the time, or rather I had just turned 18 then. Craziness!
We were given a full magazine of 30 rounds, and we were told; “If you see a guy with a petrol bomb or a rock in his hand, you don’t ask questions. You shoot him.” This made things pretty real! Something I had never experienced before. I suppose secretly I was wishing that I never saw anyone with a petrol bomb or a rock in his hand. I had never been in that position before. It was quite a shock really. Now I was ordered to shoot someone if I just saw something like that in his hand. Suddenly things became real.
At the time, I might have had doubts about whether I was able to do it, but later on, I found that my training just took over in a situation like that. I found out later on that you don’t think in a situation like that. If you have paid attention during your training, you just do what you’ve been trained to do. You don’t think. That’s just the way it is.
I remember that we were given a budget of so much money for the kitchen for the number of guys, and there were several guys who enjoyed cooking, and they said they would take care of it. They did a pretty good job. We ate well while we were there. I was quite impressed! We did it ourselves. One of the guys just took charge. We were given one of those mobile kitchen trailers, and a couple of guys took it over. They did a fantastic job. They fed as well. They even went out and bought the groceries and everything else. We were never fed badly anywhere. During basics at 26, we were actually fed very well. I can remember eating lots of bacon and egg and that sort of thing. I don’t know how I managed to lose so much weight during my army career. I think it was all the kilometres we swept on the border. When I went into the army I weighed 65kg, and when I came out I was 59kg. I was really thin, but I’ve never been so fit in my life.
GOING TO THE BORDER
We got back from riots in late November or early December, and we were told we had so many hours to have our bags packed and we had to be ready to go. They wouldn’t tell us where we were going. They just told us to have our bags packed, and we were going. We were all lined up on the parade ground in rows, with our bags and kit, and when the time came, they just said; “That truck. That truck. That truck.” And they just shipped us off to Grootfontein where we flew out with the Flossy to Ondangwa.
One of the first impressions of Ondangwa that will always stick with me is when the back ramp of the Flossy opens, the absolutely bright white light – everything is snow-white. The sand is white. We landed there in the middle of the day, and because the planes weren’t allowed to orbit high above the runway because they could be shot down, they came down in a steep spiral. That was quite exciting, and then the landing, and the door coming down. The heat and the glare just hit you. It took a little while to get used to the climate there, but I loved it. It was fantastic!
First we went to Oshakati. We went on at least one mine-chase (mynjag) before we were actually sent off to Elundu. It was in late December when we went off on our first mine-chase, and that’s when we detonated the landmine at Nahoni. We were all called in and briefed beforehand. We had an English (speaking) lieutenant who told us that we were assigned to him for our first mine-chase. There was a 101 Battalion bundu bashed spoor up to Nahoni. Somebody else wanted to use the same track but because 101 Battalion had been up there a couple of months back, they wanted us to clean it first. They packed us off, and we got onto the Buffels a day or two later and we were off. We started sweeping as soon as we found the spoor. We swept all day every day. I think it took us about four days to sweep the hundred kilometres or so up there, and then we arrived at Nahoni, our destination. They call it a village, but all that was really left were a couple of ruins. It was blown to crap. It was drizzling litely. We were quite a big team with a lot of Buffels. Our buffel was probably about fourth to sixth in the row.
The guy that was driving the Buffel that detonated the mine, who was a couple of Buffels in front of us, was the only medic we had with us. He must have driven slightly off the spoor of the vehicle in front of him, and he detonated this bloody mine. That was when I found out that your training and instinct just takes over. Our training was that when something like this happens, you don’t stay on the vehicle. You get off, and you get away from those vehicles immediately.
As soon as it happened, there were pieces flying everywhere. One of the guys was screaming. He had been injured pretty badly. Cpl Theunesin was sitting in the front, behind the driver, and he immediately shouted; “Stay on the vehicle.” That wasn’t our training. I said to myself; “f- you” I grabbed my rifle, and I was off! Everybody just sat in their vehicles, and this could have been the biggest ambush ever. I jumped off the vehicle, and I found cover and I was ready. I was the only one.
Okay, what seemed like a minute or two later but probably only seconds later everybody else did the same thing. But as soon as the explosion happened, he shouted “Stay on the vehicle”. I didn’t even take any notice of him saying it. I knew what I had to do. I was gone. I was off the Buffel with my rifle, and waiting for the crap to hit the fan.
Luckily nothing happened. Then they started looking after the injured. I take my hat off to that medic who had been driving the vehicle. I know he had concussion, and he had a few broken ribs, but he looked after the guys. I know the corporal who was on the vehicle that detonated the mine, he had been standing up, looking over the driver. He wore glasses, and in those days it wasn’t the plastic lens glasses that we have now, it was proper glass. One of the lenses shattered into his eye, and he lost his eye. The other guy, on the other side, was a short little guy. T Buffels all had a MAG stand on the right hand side, a tubular thing that you slipped the MAG stand into, and then the MAG went into that. There was a huge shortage of MAG stands, so the tiffies in the workshop had made a few of these MAG stands with a steel tube and a sheet of metal, but their welding wasn’t that great. Luckily there wasn’t a MAG in the stand at the time but this little guy was also standing looking at the wheels over the edge and the welding broke loose. The whole plate hit him in the face. He ended up standing on his head between the seats. In the buffel you’ve got the roll bar that goes over the top, and then the backrests of the seats are bolted on to square tubes, and the gap between them is maybe 300 mm. The guy ended up standing on his head between those tubes, with his legs up in the air, screaming and kicking . His whole forehead was crushed above his one eye. I couldn’t believe it, but a month or so later the guy was back at camp. He had been stitched up. He never suffered any really serious injuries, but his whole forehead, the bone above his eye, was crushed, and you could see his eye and everything else from above. He was all scarred and everything, but he was back with us not too long after that. I was quite amazed.
We ended up spending four days including Christmas Day guarding that Buffel while we waited for the recovery team to come and fetch the damaged buffel. In the meantime our lieutenant lost his rag, he lost his marbles. We had run out of water a few days earlier and hadn’t planned on staying there that long waiting for them to come and fetch that Buffel. It was hot, and we had no water. After two or three days, everybody’s eyes had sunk on in their heads from thirst. The lieutenant decided; “Stuff this!” He told us to get in the Buffels, put our staaldak (helmets) on, and strap in, and he just went flat out down this bundu-bashed path in the direction that we had just come from. When you bundu-bash trees, you flatten them all in one direction, and he was now going against the grain. We didn’t go far, maybe a kilometre or so, before he ended up with a tree stump going right through the radiator, and that was that! He thought he was going to get court-martialled for that. He was crapping himself.
The recovery took away the Buffel that had detonated the mine. Quite a few vehicles had broken down, and a few ended up getting towed back, including us. We all made it back eventually. We had cleared the path all the distance we had needed to, but that last hundred metres – that’s all it was! The only reason that we had to wait there was to guard the damaged Buffel while we waited for the recovery team to come and fetch it. I’ve still got photos of it. You couldn’t tow that Buffel – one of the wheels was blown completely off. We had tow bars to tow a vehicle whose engine had packed up, but this one needed to be lifted up and carried away, which the recovery did eventually. We had to wait there, guarding it until the recovery got there. That was nerve racking, because after a mine goes off, everybody knows where you are. That sound carries kilometres. We spent a few nights there. Luckily, nothing happened.
Keith says we were sent on a second mine hunt, but I can’t remember that, maybe I get the two mixed up.
Then we were sent off with a convoy to Elundu. We had absolutely no choice in the matterbut at the same time nobody knew anything about it. It was just a name. We didn’t know where it was, or anything. Maybe some people had studied the maps, but I didn’t know. We were just going to this camp by the name of Elundu. It was only when we got there, and going into the Ops Room, and looking at the map to get the lay of the land, that we knew where we actually were. Up until then it was just a name.
When we arrived, we were taking over from the sapper team that was there. They were quite a friendly bunch – nice guys. I can’t remember any of their names. We spent a couple of days with them before they left. The convoy stayed there for a couple of days. They just ran us through their daily routine, and we shared their routine for a day or two, they made sure that we could do the water purification, and then they got on the convoy and disappeared, Gone! So we commandeered ourselves a bed each, and that was it. Our home for the next – well, it was close to a year.
ROUTINE LIFE AT ELUNDU BASE
The daily schedule changed a little from time to time, but basically almost every day we would sweep some road somewhere, even if it was just to the rubbish dump (asgat). The furthest we swept on any one day was 28 km, but I could be wrong. We logged all of our kilometres and our hours because we had to go for hearing tests after a certain number of hours. I think we all swept in excess of 1500 km in the eight months or so that we were there, so we were on the road almost every single day. Not the whole team would go, we would leave one or two guys behind to do the water. The whole team would go to sweep the road and fetch water, but the next day when they were doing the water purification. We would take turns to stay behind and do the water. We would go out and sweep most of the time. That was our daily routine; sweeping, sweeping and sweeping.
We went out once with the group of sappers that we replaced. When we were trained, if you got a signal, everybody stops, that never changes –you would get down, and everybody would get back, the infantry at the sides would get clear. You would get a knife or a stick or whatever and you would prod the ground and find whatever made the signal you had picked up. When these guys took us out, they would walk, and if they got a signal, they would kick with their foot. They would just scuff the ground with their foot and if they didn’t find anything, they would just carry on. If they found a bottle top or whatever, they would just carry on. That sort of just stuck; everybody does it. Get a signal; just use your foot, although you did it carefully. You learn to do it pretty well.
We got a little blasé about it I suppose, because one day, sweeping the road – I think we were going for water. I was leading the team on the road. I got a small signal, scratched around and couldn’t find anything. We were staggered across the road. The guy behind me also got a small signal and never found anything, Marius Holtzhausen, behind him, got a signal, and kicked at the ground, and ended up kicking the top of the detonator right off. It was a cheese mine which has three detonators on it. It has a little Bakelite top to it, like a little pedestal, and he kicked this little pedestal completely off. Everybody got a massive fright.
We ended up lifting the mine, and nobody got hurt, but it was a wake-up call. Once we had taken the detonators off, and lifted it out of the ground, it was harmless. It’s a piece of moulded TNT That looks like a big cheese. We had taken it out of the ground and we had it in our hands. It was now safe. We looked back, and all the SAKK guys were at the vehicles 100 m back. They are standing there, or on their knees, or on their haunches, watching what was going to happen. So we take this thing back with us and start to walk towards them. As we get between 20 or 30 m, we took it and rolled it down the road towards them. Man, those guys scattered! They thought their lives were at risk. They just disappeared into the bush. I thought that was hilarious!
We always walked staggered across the road, definitely not side-by-side. I would walk on the left, and, and the next guy would be 5 or 6 m behind me, we kept a decent gap. We used to sweep fast. We had a lot of ground to cover and we were expected to do it in less time than we had. We used to sweep at an average pace of 7 km/h. We used to do 7 km each, and then change. We used to have about eight guys, so four on the road at a time, and we would do 7 km each and then we would swap. I think the best time we ever did it in was 57 minutes. We were fit! The heat and the dust – that was normal. We were still carrying our rifle, a full magazine and the metal detector with its batteries. The infantry used to complain like stuck pigs because they were walking along in the soft stand next to theroad in the bush on the sides of the road. They had to keep up. We walked! We were pretty good at it.
We would be told the previous evening that we would be sweeping in such and such a direction, and then we would meet the team sweeping from the opposite side. There was never any getting into it or adaptation; you just would go and sweep. There were never any teething problems; it was just getting out and doing what we needed to do.
We know that we swept through one massive ambush one day and we didn’t even know it until the convoy was ambushed afterwards. The guys must have been waiting there, watching us sweep the road.
While we were at Elundu, Keith , myself and the rest of us built bunkers there. We built a special defence bunker in the wall. We dug a hole in the wall, and we built it with logs. It had a little slit in the front that we could shoot out of. [Referring to a video published on YouTube] when you see them driving over the walls, which are probably only about a metre tall in total now, you see those logs sticking out of the ground. I’m pretty sure that those are the logs that we built the bunker out of. I’m a hundred percent sure! In that video you see him pick up some R4 rounds, the empty cases. I don’t know whereabouts in the camp it was that he picked them up, but I know that I was part of the last group that stayed there. One of those rounds in his hand could have been fired by me. I want to go back there and pick up some of my own, and bring them back. I’ve already started planning it.
Elundu was just a nice place to be. I enjoyed everything thoroughly. Although the SAKK guys there tried to kill us every second day. You were taking your life in your hands just riding with them. Apart from that it was a nice place to live. I thoroughly enjoyed the lifestyle. There was a nice vibe in the camp. We were used and abused though, we did guard duty there like it was going out of fashion. There were eight of us who didn’t have rank – Keith and the two-liner had rank – Keith did his share but we ended up doing guard duty just about every night. Even taking that into account, it was still a good experience for me.
We were the only whites, and there were 10 of us, including Corporal Theunesin. The Coloured guys were SAKK – man, these okes (guys) could drink! Any opportunity to drink, they took it! I can remember going out sweeping, and coming back past the cucca shops. I can remember them buying mostly bottles of Old Brown Sherry. The driver of the vehicle would get his bottle, unscrew the top, drain it, and throw it on the ground. He would down the bottle in one gulp, throw the bottle down, and then drive us home. By the time we got halfway, we were starting to doubt whether we would get back. That happened almost every trip. Those guys were drunkards of note!
At one time, something happened to our Buffel and it packed up, we had to be towed. The driver, who was towing us, all of them actually, had stopped at the cucca shop and bought their booze, downed it, and then towed us home. I can’t remember where it was, but there was a culvert next to the road – it wasn’t a straight line, it was all jagged, washed away where it had rained. We were travelling flat-out – as fast as those Buffels would carry us. They got this thing into a jack-knife, like you couldwith a caravan when it starts to sway and gets out of control. I think we had maybe half a wheel over the edge of the culvert at some point. We thought we were going to die that day. It was really close.
Keith wasn’t one to keep his mouth quiet, and would complain about things like that. He would go to the lieutenants or the captain in charge of the camp, and he would have his say. We would never know what he said there, but he went and complained about it. Nothing was ever done about it. It happened so many times. They were a scary bunch.
The first time we were attacked there, all the motorists jumped into the mortar pits and let loose with all the mortars. Not one of them went off. The next day it was our job to sweep for any ammunition that hadn’t exploded, and we found all our own mortars - some of them inside our camp - pegged into the ground. Some just outside of the walls. They were all still on “safe”. The drunk mortarists had just fired these things into the air. Some of them landed within our own camp, amongst us! We had to cart these things away and destroy them. That was how inefficient these guys were. Elundu was a hot hot base, it was in an area that saw plenty of action. For guys to be carrying on like that in an area like that… I think we can thank our lucky stars that nothing really bad ever happened to us there. They came close to killing us many times. Our own guys!
I remember being in bed. You hear the mortars and the rifle grenades being fired long before they start exploding in the camp. You hear these noises in the distance. I don’t think the lights in the camp had gone out yet – at 10 o’clock they used to turn the generator off, and all the lights would go out. I think all the lights were still on at the time if I remember correctly. We were all lying in our beds talking nonsense.
Suddenly you hear these noises, and everybody just looked at each other, as if to say; “What the hell was that?” Then when the first one hits the ground, you know what’s happening.
Everybody is out of bed – we were wearing PT shorts – with our rifle next to us with a full magazine and whatever spare magazines you have next to it. I remember getting to the wall, and one of the guys thought he had his rifle in his hand, but he was carrying his boots. I think it was Nagel. He ended up having his boots in his hands. It was chaos. But it comes down to training; you get on the wall, you look for muzzle flashes and you return fire.
I can remember one of the Coloured guys coming around from the ammo bunker, handing out fresh ammo. I don’t know how many rounds we shot off that night. Anyone who has ever been to a decent fireworks display – the traces coming in over the camp – yellow and green and red traces coming over the camp. I can remember looking up and seeing all of these lights; it was quite a fantastic display! I kind of appreciated it at the time.
I think this was the first time; the time they shot the guy out of the aap kas (guard tower). I never saw it, but apparently when they were doing the cleanup afterwards, they found the guy. He had obviously fallen out, and about a third of the way down, he got his head caught in the V of one of the lattice works They found him hanging there. I never saw it, but that is what I was told afterwards. They had to get him down from there.
I think it was on the second rev when we had a camper with us. One lonesome camper! I cannot remember his name but he was quite a rough character. He was doing his last camp and a mortar fell right outside his tent as he jumped up to run outside. He got a massive piece of shrapnel right through his thigh. I think it was Keith , myself, and I don’t remember who else that ended up carrying him to the chopper outside when the Cassevac chopper came through. He left his rifle and all his kit and never heard of him again. Nobody knows what happened to him. I’m sure he survived. I think he came from one of the rougher areas of the Cape. The medics pumped him full of morphine, and he was telling us; “Aah man! It’s all cool.” “I feel good now”. He had a huge hole through his leg. He wasn’t wearing long pantsso we could see what had happened. I don’t know if he is able to walk today. We never saw or heard from him again.
Theunesin was the full corporal, Keith was the lance corporal, and the rest of us, eight of us didn’t have rank. We didn’t have our own lieutenant in the camp. That was the only rank we had amongst the sappers. In the camp there were lieutenants and captains, the guys in charge of the camp, but they were SAKK. They weren’t part of us. I don’t remember Theunesin being on the roads much, or sweeping much. Keith was one of us; he did his share of all the work. He didn’t say; “I’ve got rank. You do the work.” He was never one of those guys.
There was Marius Holtzhausen, blonde hair; a nice quiet guy who I think was a bit religious. A very nice guy, who I expect would go on to be homely, a 9 to 5er, fairly well off. Just a decent guy.
Then there was Cuan Schrier, who was an absolute character from East London. He was a small guy like me, but he had the weirdest character. He was just crazy about earthmoving and massive machinery. Trucks – that’s all he ever thought of. He used to make the most amazing drawings with a ballpoint pen of the Samils and Kwevoels and bulldozers, that sort of thing. I’ve still got a drawing somewhere that he did for me. It was absolutely amazing. That was all he lived for. I’ve had no contact with him since we cleared out, but I heard from Keith that he got his wish, he has a business with earthmoving machines. He’s lived his whole life with his machines, I suppose, and he’s happy.
Another guy from East London was Stephen Nicolbein who was also quite a character. You would classify him as a `surfer dude’ – he was just carefree; no problem! I had contact with him up to 3 years ago. I know he is into adventure biking. I’ve never actually met up with anybody from those times, except for Keith, since we cleared out.
Then there was Dolfie Roets, from Orkney or Vereeniging I think. one of those places – one of the mining areas. I know he used to be a crane truck operator before he joined the army. He was a youngster, and keen. I think he had left school early and ended up as a crane truck driver. He was quiet. He was a smoker. He was the cigarette smoker amongst us. There was nothing special about him. I wouldn’t describe him as one of the sharpest tools in the toolbox, but he did his job as we all did. He was trained just as I was, and he was just as good as I was at the job.
Neil Carr – what a character. The laziest slob you had ever met in your life. Skelm - Sly; he would wheel and deal all the time. He would go to the cucca shops and spend all his money on Old Brown Sherry and bury it in the sand on the wall. When the drivers had run out, he would bring this stuff out and sell it to them at a massive profit, and this would fund his smoking habits. I know he smoked cigarettes, but I don’t know if he ever smoked dagga. The Coloureds used to – a lot!
FC Truter – he was my favourite. He was from the Western Cape, and he had the Malmesbury bray when he spoke. He was one of those guys, you could never get him down. He was always laughing and joking, he was just a nice guy. I never heard from him again.
Then there was Nagel; a very very quiet withdrawn kind of guy. I can’t remember what his first name was. We just called him Nagel. He was also from somewhere in the Transvaal. And that was the team!
At one stage I got a little nag-apie – a bush baby. I had it for a while, but when we cleared out, I was too scared to take it with me. We would get arrested and all that kind of stuff. Marius said; “No” he’ll take it. I think he cut a water bottle in half, and he put the little okie in his water bottle in the `fire bucket’. About two years later he sent me photos of this little bush baby in this nice big cage. I don’t know what happened to it, but it survived the trip. I wish I had kept it. It was a beautiful little thing. It was actually wrong of us to catch the little thing and keep it in the first place.
I can’t remember any shenanigans. We made friends with one of the chefs in the kitchen. The army used to get the best meat on earth, and then bugger it up. I remember one night we Sappers felt that we would like to have a poitjiekos so we would approach the guy in the kitchen, give him a bottle of Old Brown, and he would give us a whole fillet steak. We would just chop it up and make poitjiekos out of it.
We were so tired at night most of the time that we just slept. I can’t remember us getting up to any mischief. There was no chance of AWOLing out of the camp at night because there wasn’t anything around us to go to. Your life was in danger if you ever tried it.
The average temperature was probably about 36°C. You want to go and sweep 21 km in a day. When you come back, you are tired. We just wanted to eat and lie down. We didn’t want to do anything stupid. I remember there was a gym tent. I used to go to the gym tent every now and again to try and put some `meat on my bones’. I used to go there once or twice a week. There was no PT or anything like that. We got enough exercise on the roads.
We, the white Sappers and the SAKK, we got along okay. Come shower time, it was all open ablutions, and everybody just got on with it. We got on fine. Eventually cultural differences appeared, I remember that the local population all had lots of goats. We used to have the S tanks full of water, and I think the goats can smell the water in the camp, and the cattle as well. Every now and then a herd of goats or cattle would make their way over the wall and we would find them all standing in the S tanks and drinking the water. We would have to chase them out of the camp. One of the SAKK guys took a flat spade, and as he chased them, he threw the spade flat and it skimmed along the ground taking out the legs of a goat. It broke one of the goat’s legs. I know that we Sappers freaked out about this, I can’t stand that sort of thing. I know that Keith eventually went and made a complaint to the lieutenant but nothing was ever done about it. We took the goat to the doctor, and he put a cast on the goat’s leg. I don’t know if it survived. I remember that the herdsman who owned the goats came and tried to claim for the goat. That kind of behaviour was common with them, unfortunately. I can’t stand harming animals like that. It was totally unnecessary.
Keith was a lot more intolerant of such thing, and I know he made some enemies. They used to threaten that they would come and get him one night. He used to sleep with a loaded rifle next to him. It was cocked and locked all the time next to his bed. I think he over reacted to the threat really. I know that there were threats made against him. I don’t know whether they were really serious about it. Although our rifles were next to our beds all the time, with a fully loaded magazine on them, you never had a round chambered. When we left the camp, we chambered a round and put the gun on safety, and when you come back into the camp, you take off the magazine, and you take the round out of the chamber, put it back in the magazine, and put the magazine back on with the rifle on safety, but you don’t walk around with a round in the chamber. Keith used to sleep with a round in the chamber next to his bed. That was life there. That was how it was!
I can’t remember the SAKK doing anything other than driving us where we needed to go, or serving as protection while we swept. Other than that they protected the camp. I can’t remember them having any other duties. They had mortorists, obviously, who also tried to kill us. That was it. They did nothing else as far as I can remember. I can’t remember a stabbing ever having happened there. There might have been one or two fights, but I can’t remember anything serious having happened. That’s normal for them; they like to drink and then fight, and then the knives come out, but I can’t remember anything like that having happened there.
Leisure time activity: I spent a lot of time carving `zonkey nuts’ – Makalani nuts, which come from the Makalani tree. I spent a lot of time carving those things. I think I carved one for everybody that I knew at home. I ended up taking a whole bunch of these things home. Each had somebody’s name or something like that carved into them. I thought they were pretty cool. My leisure time was spent doing as little as possible really. I can’t remember us ever sitting down and playing cards, or anything like that.
At the gym, there was one of the SAKK guys who had probably been doing weight training before he joined the army. He was quite a well-built guy. A big tall guy – much taller than I am. We ended up training there at the same time. He gave me some tips. I would go and have a workout in the tent when I felt like it every now and again. I tried to go whenever possible, but most of the time we were too bloody tired to do it. When I finished the army I weighed 59 kg. There was nothing left of me. As soon as I came out of the army, I went straight to work. I had a job. When I started my apprenticeship I went straight to the gym, and I worked out two or three times a week for about three years. When I finished with gym I weighed 75 kg again. There wasn’t an ounce of fat on me, and I have pretty much maintained that weight throughout my life. I’m a little bit heavier now, but not much. I haven’t hit 80 kg yet.
The ground there was more like sea sand than anything else. The sand grains were much bigger than dust. On those roads, the gravel had been ridden in, but it wasn’t that fine. In Bethlehem, going to the shooting range; that was far worse. The ground was like a powder there. Everybody looked like a ghost by the time you got to the shooting range. Everybody would sit in the back of the Samils with their bush hat over their face and you would breathe through it. The dust there was terrible. On the border, the sand was much coarser, and it didn’t hang around in the air. Not much at all.
For me, just being there was great. There was just something about that place. I don’t know. To me, that was what a border camp should be.
ADVENTURES WITH KOEVOET
I always thought that Koevoet were the GVs – the Grensvegters (border fighters) – the real soldiers. We swept the roads, but we didn’t go into battle. These guys were serious about what they did. I always tried to find out as much as I could about them. When Keith and I got the chance to go with them – I think it was on two occasions – it was one trip that ended up in two. They had a captured terrorist with them and they came to the camp and asked if they could borrow two guys – Keith and I were selected – I can’t remember how but we went with them. This captured terrorist would take us to where the arms caches were. Keith and I would locate them and lift them. This turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me.
It was an absolute eye-opener. The first night that we spent in the bush, as Sappers on the mine-hunt, you would go into the temporary base for the night before sunset. We would go into the TB and you would dig the hole where you were going to sleep. By the time the sun sets there is not a sound in that camp; not a cigarette burning. Nothing! You are dead quiet. Nobody makes a sound until the sun comes up the next morning.
With Koevoet, they park the Casspirs in a big circle and everybody comes to the centre. They gather wood, and they make one hell of a fire. They take out their portable radios, put the music on, and the brandy and coke comes out. The first night that Keith and I spent with them, our eyes were like saucers, we couldn’t believe it. We thought: “We are going to die tonight, This is the end of us.” When they do finally go to sleep, they all sleep behind their vehicles. If the shit hits the fan – you enter the Casspir from the back – they would just go straight in, and do their thing.
Their methods were pretty tough and ruthless but were super-effective. I can remember sweeping roads, they would come out of the bush with bodies tied over the mudguards. They were literally hunters – they used to hunt people. They were super-effective. Once we got to work with them, I could see how they worked. You only realise how effective they were when you were with them. They were a ruthless bunch! They did some things that weren’t kosher, but they got the job done. It was how they operated that blew me away. They didn’t take shit.
For me, the most awesome experience was when our first trip had turned into our second trip, We had lifted the cache’s that this captured SWAPO terrorist had taken us to, and we had made it all the way back to Oshakati. We were actually in the koevoet base at Oshakati. In that book `Koevoet’ by Jim Hooper you will read of a team that was led by a guy by the name of Jacky. It was those guys that Keith and I were with – with Jacky. The caspir I was on was under the command of a youngster – he was the same age as us; I think he was 18 or 19 at the time – a young white guy. I think he was an ex-SADF medic, who had been sent to them, he was in charge of a Casspir of Owambo soldiers and Keith and I were on his Casspir. In the book there is a picture of the same guy – the name `Reyno’ rings a bell – I don’t know if that was his name. There’s a picture in the book of him using his shirt collar to wipe the blood of one of his mates off his lip after a contact. It was on his Casspir that Keith and I were on. It was thoroughly awesome. I was amazed to find that the guys that I had worked with were in the book.
I wish I had been a bigger, stronger guy, because I’m actually quite a small guy. I would have loved to have been in the Special Forces. On the border, going out with a Koevoet, I know Keith was terrified. He thought he was going to die. But I loved every minute of it. I thought it was fantastic, although I didn’t say anything about it at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Absolutely!
When we were with Koevoet, and our little expedition to raise the caches came to an end and we went back to Oshakati, it was going to be a little time before Koevoet would take us back to Elundu. Jacky, the guy in the Koevoet book, took Keith and myself to his own house – the two of us and maybe one other guy, and I will never forget – he had his wife feed us chopped Vienna sausages; little pieces on a plate. I will never forget that; it was one of those things that stand out.
Then we were on our way back to their Oshakati base. We were in our Casspirs ready to head back to Elundu and they got a radio call. Jacky came to us and said; “Listen guys. “We’ve got orders to go” (and attack the Angolan Air Force base at Ongiva). They didn’t actually tell us that then. We only found that out later. “They had another mission”. We were told that they could drop us off at a certain point, and somebody else would take us back to Elundu when they got the chance, or we could go with them. Keith and I said “We are in!” (I think I might have spoken for both of us). It turned out to be quite an eye-opener with those guys.
We were in Angola, and there was a tarred road that apparently goes all the way up to Luanda. It was just like the N1 – a beautiful tarred road. I think we were about 11 Casspirs in the convoy that time. They just got in the convoy on the tarred road and headed up – Keith and I didn’t know where we were going and at one stage they told us that we were getting near to the Air Force Base. They didn’t tell us at the time, but in the Caspirs they had electronic equipment that could detect if the MiGs got into the air. If that happens, all the Casspirs peel off the road and park under the cover of anyavailable trees. We must get away from the Casspirs and just spread out. We were heading up the road when all of a sudden all the Casspirs just swerved off into the bush. Everybody just scattered all over the place; “Get out! Get out! Get out!” “Get away”. “Get down so they can’t see you from the air” – we must have sat there for easily a half an hour – we sat and waited – and then eventually they said; “No. False alarm!” Everybody back in the Casspirs, and on up the road we went.
Eventually we all pulled off the road, and they said Ongiva was only a few kilometres and would be within mortar range soon. They had an entire flatbed trailer of captured Russian mortars, pipes and bombs – all the different sizes; 90s and 60s. They said that they were going to attack Ongiva base, and they were going to attack it before the MiGs could get into the air. We spent a bit of time there. The guys set up all the mortar pipes. I think they offloaded some into one of the Casspirs which went off to another spot so that they could rev them from two different directions. They set up all of these things and then we all left. We left just a skeleton team behind there. After a while we heard the start of the mortar bombs being fired, and then the bombs exploding in the distance. It was a massive amount – they let rip with that entire load of mortars. They blew up the runways before the MiGs could get off the ground. We then got back onto the tar road and headed flat out back to the border. By the afternoon we were back in south-west. That was quite an eye-opener.
trip before that lasted two or three days where they took us to
various kraals with the captured terrorist and we would have to look
for an RPG here, some mortars there. That was what we were there for,
as far as I was concerned.
We weren’t there to play around; we were there to wage war. We were soldiers.
If I could only have stayed on, I certainly wanted to. I would have liked to have joined up with koevoet but it wasn’t allowed. I think I would have enjoyed it. I might not even have survived it. I don’t know.I read later that Koevoet had the highest casualty rate out of everybody in the border war. They would have been a high chance of getting hurt. I would have liked to have ended up with them. It would have been great for me.
Although I never worked with them, I believe that 32 Battalion were even worse – they were `badass’.
With Koevoet, in the morning before we went up to Ongiva, when we came out of the temporary base they lined up all the Casspirs and Wolves, and there were a lot of them, on one edge of a shona, one of the pans, and they all tested their guns against the bank on the opposite side. The Casspir that we were on was equipped with a 50 caliber Browning and a 30 caliber browning next to it. To sit behind that kind of firepower, when they are testing their guns, and they are all doing it at the same time makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up!. It was absolutely unbelievable for me. For me that was an absolute thrill. If I could have, I would have gone back to that. It was awesome, amazing! To test the guns in the morning, when they were so many – they must have been 14 Casspirs. They tested the guns all at once. At least half of them had 50 caliber Brownings, and the rest 30 caliber Brownings. Some of them twins, some of them singles. As they say in Afrikaans; it’s kak en hare! You cannot believe it unless you’ve actually experienced it, sitting behind it. You’re not watching it from somewhere else; you’re actually part of it. That was an absolute rush! I thought; “I want to be part of this. I want to fire those guns!”
DECOMISSIONING ELUNDU BASE & THE SECOND REV
A night or two before I crushed my finger, when we had already dismantled the kitchen and the mess hall and everything else; I remember they had massive amounts of bricks of `Blossom’ margarine and onions that they didn’t know what to do with . We organised a whole lot of these bricks of margarine and an oven roasting pan. We melted all the margarine in the roasting pan on the fire and we cut up onions. I can remember us eating Dixies full of fried onions.
Stephen Nichelbein, the surfer dude from East London:- when we were taking the corrugated iron sheets off the roof of the kitchen and the mess hall, underneath the sheets was silver foil or whatever, a silver coated plastic sheeting. The sun was so bright there and the reflection was so bad that at times you couldn’t tell the difference between the corrugated iron sheets and the plastic. We had already taken off half the roof sheets. Stephen stepped off of the corrugated iron onto what he thought was still the corrugated iron, and he went through that foil. He ended up getting caught on one of the girders under his chin and another got him under his arm. He ended up hanging there from the girder under his jawbone. Luckily he didn’t get hurt. It was another highlight of my experience at the camp.
We had packed up the helipad. It was a loose collection of slabs of concrete. They must have weighed 300 kg each. They were bloody heavy! We had loaded them up with a crane onto a trailer. Only afterwards, later that evening, we realised we were leaving the next day, going on pass and not coming back to Elundu again. We were going to get a 14 day pass, and then come back to Bethlehem to clear out. We decided that we would need that trailer for all of our kit. In the evening, it was dark, we decided to unload the slabs by hand. We were just going to shift them and let them fall off the edge of the trailer but we were lifting the edge of the slab. It must have been 300 mm high – it was quite a big slab. There were three or four of us holding onto it, and the one guy slipped. Suddenly all of the weight was just too much for everybody else. The other guys managed to just let their fingers slip but there I was, and it went down on the tip of my finger. It never trapped my finger at all. I don’t know how, maybe it bounced or something. All I remember was standing with my finger in my hand. Just the bone was sticking out, and all the flesh was hanging down beneath it. I had a red stripe across my chest from my finger tip bursting. Keith told me a while ago that he also had some blood on his face. There must have been quite a spatter! I was very unhappy after that!
I know that I got at least four ring blocks on my finger while the doctor worked on it a number of times during the night. I remember sitting in the medics tent, at one of the army issue steel tables and I think he had a normal green sterile cloth laid across the table. I was sitting across the table from him with my hand on this cloth and I was watching him work on my finger. He had given me a ring block, and I watched him stitch it together. All he had for light was the one light bulb hanging above the table. He must have done a decent job because when I got to Ondangwa, they took me into theatre, and the doctor said; “I think we’re going to have to take this off.” Then he hummed and hah-ed, and said; “You know what? I’m going to try and save it.” He took a skin graft from my forearm, and stitched it on. When he stitched up where he had taken the skin from, he told me; “This is a time for tea-stitch.” He just put a quick blanket stitch in there. The skin graft never took, it just fell off after a couple of days. I stayed there for four days, and then straight from there we were flown out. I met up with the guys at Ondangwa in the deurgangs kamp (transition camp). I went on pass with this massive bandage on my finger, and, as I lived in Port Elizabeth then, I had to go to the army base at Eastern Province Command every day for the medics to soak my finger in a peroxide solution and let them dress it. That was my pass.
I want to get hold of that doctor and thank him, and apologise for the language I used that night, I know I swore. I was pissed off with the army! I can remember saying; “This is it now! The army gets nothing more from me!” My language was a little bit more colourful than that though. I think he did a fantastic job. I know what my finger looked like, and I thought that if they didn’t take it off, it was going to be useless. The bone is very close to the fingertip now and if I bang it on anything it is really painful – I can’t clip my nail too short, because there is no protection – if I smack it on something, it’s really sore. I am an electrician/instrumentation technician and when I was doing my apprenticeship I had a cheap pair of side cutters; quite a small one. Once I tried to cut a piece of cable that was too big for the side cutters. I really squeezed it, and one of the arms of the side cutter snapped off. My finger tips snapped together and it hit the opposite arm of the side cutter. Man, was it sore! Small things like that stick in my mind. But I’ve still got the finger, and it still has a tip. It has served me well I suppose.
The doctor at Ondangwa did nothing. All he tried to do was a skin graft. He didn’t do any reconstruction or anything. I literally watched him do it. He didn’t put me under general anaesthetic. He just gave me another ring block – yet another one. Why I remember all the ring blocks is because it causes your skin to die, and for the next two weeks, my hand turned a chocolate brown. Every time I took a shower or wet my hand I could literally take a nail from another finger, and scrape a trench in the skin. The skin just died on the surface. That took at least two weeks to come right. It took a while for the finger to come right because for quite a while it was super sensitive. But it has weathered the storm well, I’ve spent my life earning a living with my hands. I spent 17 ½ years as an electrician and instrumentation technician, and then for 13 years I had my own business building aircraft.
There is something that had a huge impact on me up there and really made the reality of the situation sink in hard. After we packed up Elundu and left the day after I crushed my finger, we never went back there. In fact we were going on pass from Elundu. After I had spent four days in the Ondangwa hospital I joined the rest of the guys at the " deurgangs kamp" and went on pass with them from there. We flew from Ondangwa airport to Grootfontein. It was this flight that made life up there very VERY real to me and I am sure everyone on that flight as well. After we had boarded we were asked to stand and were brought to attention. While standing there, four coffins of fallen comrades were loaded onto the plane by a procession. For the entire flight we sat there staring at those four coffins. At Grootfontein we were once again brought to attention and had to stand to attention and watch another procession remove the coffins before we were allowed to disembark the plane. A very sobering experience for me!
After we had broken down the camp, we had pass for two weeks, and then they took us straight to Eenhana. Eenhana was nothing like Elundu. I’ve always liked aircraft and Eenhana had the air force guys and the helicopters but that did nothing for me. At least I got to fly in an Alouette when they flew me to the hospital with my finger. That was the only time I’ve ever been in a helicopter.
At Eenhana, there was too much civilisation. There was just too much modern living. You had electricity all the time. There was a coffee room, with an urn, and you could have coffee at any time. Koffee kroeg - they called it. You could go and play games there. You could play chess there.
Once we were there, our sweeping duties were cut in half. We had so much leisure time there. I probably spend an hour a day lying outside in the sun in my underpants, sunbathing – half an hour on my stomach, half-an-hour on my back, and then I would go into the tent and sleep for a couple of hours because there was nothing else to do.
We didn’t do much there at all. We did do the odd guard duty. You felt like a spare part. You just didn’t have a duty there. I don’t remember there being any other Sappers there besides us at that time. There might have been, I just can’t remember. If I remember correctly, they didn’t even have accommodation for us. We had to put up our own tents. We were shoved into one of the back corners of the camp, and that’s where we spent most of our time. I can’t even remember attending a parade in the mornings. We just got up when we felt like it went to eat when it was suppertime. We just lived there. I don’t remember ever having an official duty there. We might have gone and swept a road here and there, but I don’t remember any duty roster; “Today we do this, tomorrow we do that” kind of thing. No. I can’t remember there ever being a routine there for us. We just lay there until it was time for us to klaar out. For me, that was a waste. I would much rather have been with Koevoet out in the bush.
I would be happy to go back to the border. I absolutely loved it up there, the climate was fantastic, and the things we did up there were great. I loved it up there. In fact, when we cleared out, I asked if I could join up for an extra year so I wouldn’t have to do any camps, but they said no. Luckily, I ended up only doing one camp for a month, and that was it.
I did one camp at Malalane, at the entrance to the Kruger Park. We patrolled the border fences around the point where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet. I was still an apprentice then, but I was nearing the end of my apprenticeship. I knew what I was doing. I was roped into the camp there and did a few electrical jobs; I fixed the electricity supply to the air conditioner in the Commandant’s office. There were three of us from Port Elizabeth, and we spent most of the time patrolling the border fence. This was when we still had fences that were a deterrent!
I spent three weeks there. It was quiet; nothing going on! It was supposed to be a one-month camp, but by the time you get there, and by the time you leave it was only three weeks and a couple of days. That was the only camp that I ever did. I wasn’t even issued a rifle; we were just there.
I don’t think National Service has affected me negatively in any way. Even with the little bit of blood and guts that I saw, which wasn’t much if you think about it. There were guys that saw a lot more and did a lot more than we did. If anything, it had a positive effect on me. As a young kid, going into the army, as I said I wasn’t a mommy’s boybut I had never been exposed to the rougher side of life. When you go to the army you see every type of person, you are all in the one bungalow. You get from rich mummy’s boys to the roughest of the rough. You were all equal at that stage. I was 17 when I went into the army, and I was 19 when I came out. I suppose you could say that is where `men are made’. If I look at the young people today, even those who are about 40 years old today, they are not the same. They don’t have what it takes. They are just so sensitive, and I don’t have time for it. With everything that’s happening in the country at the moment – April 2020 – I’m going back to the army way of thinking.
I’m glad I never ended up in the infantry. An ordinary footsoldier. Do you know why the army has sappers? It so that even the Recces can have heroes!
Published: 30 April 2020.