Sapper at 26 Field Regiment (1986) and Elundu, Owamboland (1987)
Keith Olivier did National Service in 1986 & 87, training as a Sapper at 26 Field Regiment in Bethlehem. Then as a Lance Corporal he was section leader on the border, sweeping the roads around Elundu for mines for most of 1987, and went on several Ops with Koevoet. He served throughout with Dene, who gives an overlapping account of the same experience.
HIGH SCHOOL “CADETS” PRECURSOR TO NATIONAL SERVICE
I recall my first exposure to the military was at a cadet camp that I attended when in Std 6, first year of high school. This would have been in 1981 when I was at Vredenburg High School in the Western Cape. It coincided with the flash flood that occurred in Laingsburg on Jan 25 of the same year. The Cadet camp was at a dry location in the Western Cape where bush tea was grown. I don’t recall how the camp was organized so early in the academic year, but I do recall that one had to see the local district surgeon for a health evaluation prior to going. I would have been 12 years old at the time and it was a bit like a basics initiation. We drove for miles in a soft topped Bedford that appeared to have no springs, the ride was so rough. The truck I was on apparently used more gas than the others, so we ran out of gas and sat on the side of the road for hours till someone noticed that we were missing and sent a car to investigate. The vehicles were not equipped with any form of communication devices.
Eventually we arrived on what appeared to be a large farm property where a HQ and mess area had been set up near the barn and then about 2km away up a steep sandy 2 track road was the location of the tents that we would be housed in. I believe there were kids there of a wide age range, I’m not certain of the oldest. The NSM NCOs were all very young, 17-18 years old. My age group had not had any experience with drill and the like since we had just started high school so we got screamed at and cussed the most because we had no clue of all the commands, nor any knowledge of the military rank structure at that point. We were assigned NCO’s and tents and might have eaten some stale bagged sandwiches. Finally we were taken to an area where there were open air showers and “go-cart” long drop toilets. Water came from a trailer type tanker and it was a dirty brown colour, pretty sure unsuitable for potable use. There was a pump operated by one of the NCOs and a line of shower nozzles and you stood naked under these till the water was turned on, then turned off, you soaped up then waited for the return of the water to rinse off. All the while, the NCOs screamed commands and made taunts about the size of the recruits penises.
The first breakfast followed morning inspection, a lot of screaming from the NCOs, and a bunch of running around fence poles, since we really had very few trees to use for orientation. We were run down the hill and stood in line with our “varkpan” to get breakfast. Like what later seemed to be the norm, the varkpans were always greasy since the staff apparently could not pay enough attention to change out the rinse water and use hot and soapy wash water in the cleaning system. I remember getting rice crispies, hot milk, Vienna sausages all dumped in to the same pile and a cop of hot coffee. My first breakfast was enough, within a few hours I had diarrhea and was taken to the sick bay where I basically fasted for the next 4 days…
Due to being sick for days, I don’t know how much longer the basics like atmosphere persisted. I do know that some helicopter operations that had been planned were cancelled due to the state of emergency at Laingsburg. We were cut off from the outside world, so we had no idea what had happened. On the last night before packing up, some of the older cadets were set up to fire machine guns with tracer ammunition across the valley. It was the first time I had heard the sound of automatic machine gun fire and the sound of the bullets flying out across space, each with its own mini sonic boom.
I survived the experience but it was not a positive omen on what 2 years of conscription was going to be like in the future. Later that year the family moved to Port Elizabeth and none of the high schools there seemed as keen to arrange cadet camps as the one I had been at in the Western Cape. Perhaps this is a regional matter and influenced by the collective of headmasters or maybe the budget couldn’t stretch for a city area with many thousands of students.
SADF Callup – BASICS – reporting to 1 Construction Regiment
When I received my call-up papers in the last year of high school, it was to 1 Construction Regiment in Marievale, Springs, in January 1986. At the time, I knew nothing about the base, but on arriving, it was the worst base I had ever been on. We lived in tents, which stood in ankle deep water and unless your possessions were piled onto your bed, they were floating off in the muck. The tents had clearly been there for a long time, a “temporary fix” that had become permanent. To imagine that a unit that goes by the name 1 Construction regiment is incapable of working out drainage and landscaping for tent sites goes a long way to illustrate how dysfunctional the unit was. The hygiene conditions at the mess were so bad, with all “varkpans” coated with rancid grease, that at least 1/3 of the recruits had acute diarrhea and the ablutions were in an indescribable state. The NCO’s, within the few days it took for ourselves to be medically examined and issued our basic supplies, (bedding, clothes, boots, socks etc) had been shouting so much they had all lost their voices and were communicating in hoarse whispers. We were made to stand in the push up position (Voor steun posisie af !!!!!!) for hours on end in the mud with the instructors walking amongst the recruits whispering taunts. I discovered very fast that if one had a minute’s downtime it was essential to take care of all manner of toilet duties, since you might otherwise wait in an agonized state for hours without relief… It was really a shit hole…
We were fortunate that the unit RSM or someone similar must have worked out that there were far too many recruits at the base and they elected to send a whole bunch of us, probably about 300, to Bethlehem to complete basic training. Bethlehem in turn had no room for us at the main base in town, so we were sent to an overflow facility at Gerhard’s Dam outside the town.
BASICS – 26 Field Gerhard’s Dam Bethlehem
26 Field had been abandoned for months when we arrived and I recall that in the first days after arrival a team of people were hastily taught some second phase water provision skills, so that we could purify water from the dam for washing drinking and cooking. We were housed in corrugated iron buildings, built like farmers build barns for livestock. I can’t remember if there were doors, or just doorways ? There were no electrical outlets so one couldn’t re-charge things like electric razors or use a portable radio receiver. If you know anything about Bethlehem, it gets down to -20°C in the winter. Given that I had grown up in Bethlehem from the age of 2 until Std 2, I knew just what lay ahead in the winter months. It was one of the coldest places in the country.
We arrived at 26 Field, and proceeded to do basics, which, in the engineering corps, is a bit more intensive. They are not just focusing on weapons and so on, they focused on all of the facets that engineers deal with, water provision, sewage treatment, bridge building. On landmines, they mainly trained us on removing landmines, not planting them. In addition, there was explosives and demolition. We were really run off our feet throughout basics. Time was never well utilized, we seemed to spend more than 50% of our time on OPFOK and very little on actual training. When we were not in the midst of another OPFOK, we were generally so exhausted it was nearly impossible to sit down and concentrate, even stay awake. We were usually living on less than 4 hours of sleep a day. Usually we were up at 4am and full pack out inspection by 6am and usually in the push up position for some transgression by 6:03 and then might be running up and down one of the many hills in the dark, all before parade and sometimes before breakfast. This applied in any weather, rain or shine, summer or fall, night or day. At some point we were assembled and run over to the mess. Walking was never allowed. There you lined up and got your cereal, milk, Vienna sausage, blue eggs, slice of toast in a heap on your varkpan and you needed to choke it down. Sanitation was 1000x better compared to Marievale. I think the G3 and up folks got kitchen duty so they had something to do with their time. When we had an OPFOK, the people who were not fit were rounded up into a squad and were marched around singing PEE PAU, PEE PAU, ONS GAAN DOOD as their form of psychological torture.
Sometimes, the OPFOKS could go on for 12-18 hours. There were times when they got started at 12:01am when the NSM NCO’s came back from a night of drinking in town and had a mind for torture. Usually they had some complaint and they would send a water truck onto the lower parade ground to dump several loads of water and then churn it up into a big muddy clay soil mess. Then it was our turn to show up holding a full water bottle in front of us for inspection. We would be made to drink the contents in 1 go. Then we were run up and down the hills and dongas, in the dark. Back on the parade ground we were made to roll from one side to the other, about 60m in distance. Then more running, more rolling. Go back to the ablutions, re-fill the water bottles. Tree aan again, roll call. Re-inspect the water bottles. Down the water again. More running, more rolling. Everyone puking by this stage. The whole parade ground covered in mud and vomit and we are rolling and crawling through this stuff for hours.
In Bethlehem, in all the time I had been there later, this sort of stuff was not tolerated. Being made to run around, yes, but being made to crawl and roll through vomit – NO. It was made possible by the isolation of being on a fairly remote base, away from all of the unit’s senior leadership, their wives and families and of course the eyes of the public. Thus one learned that pretty much any venture out the gate of 2 Field Regiment to either 22 field (where the shooting range was and where all explosives work was carried out) or at 26 Field out at the dam was considered ripe opportunity for NCO’s to demonstrate their might and their virtual control over life and death: yours that is….
We actually had very good PF leaders; Capt Jaap Kotze was our commanding officer, and sergeant major button was our RSM. Two very decent people! Capt Kotze could frequently be seen wandering around the unit late at night trying to be incognito, observing what was going on with recruits and NCO’s who lived on the base.
The thing that actually stands out to me from my basic training was where they brought this air boat out to the dam – this had a V8, and a huge propeller. They fooled around with it, but none of us got to use it. They brought it up and parked it up somewhere near the Battalion headquarters on a trailer, but they didn’t cover it, and by not covering it, the carburettor was open and there was a big rainstorm and it rained a whole bunch of water into the engine. Suddenly they were concerned about the engine. It was a Sunday evening, and somebody was asking about this boat. Suddenly they needed the boat fixed, and myself and some of the other guys volunteered, and we stripped the engine down, cleaned it up and put it back together again. That was the last I heard about it. Our reward was that we didn’t have Full pack out inspection the following morning.
Our CO at the time was Capt Kotze, and I got to know the guy pretty well. A very likeable guy! He got himself into trouble. There were some problems – the ablutions were at the very end of the unit, and it was a long walk to get there, and it was freezing at night. Well below freezing in fact. So people were urinating in close proximity to where the bungalows were, and it didn’t take long before you could notice the persistent smell. This annoyed Major Kotze. You would find him walking around there very quietly at midnight, just looking at what’s going on. This was prior to our intake. He caught one of the guys pissing in the neighbourhood of the bungalow, and so the next morning, on parade, he made this guy lie down on the dirt and then had the whole unit come up and piss on him. The result of that was that he got demoted from major to captain that’s why, when I got to know him, he was Captain Kotze. But the problem of people peeing in the vicinity of the bungalows was resolved.
At the time we were doing basics, Haley’s comet was visible – you could see it in the sky. I don’t remember what the deal was, but the company had been involved in some sports event in Bethlehem, and the NCOs were not happy with the outcome. Plus they had gone to the bar and drunk a whole lot after, and they came out to the base at about 11H30 on a Sunday night, drunk as skunks, and they started this great big opvok, and they had everybody leopard crawling, and drinking water, and rolling and puking on the lower parade ground. Jaap Kotze showed up at about 3 o’clock in the morning, and found this going on, on a Sunday night. He made all the troops clean up and then sit on the embankment, and got some trucks in to shine their lights and then proceeded to do an up opvok with these NCOs for the rest of the night and into the next morning’s. That was the kind of guy that we had as our commanding officer. Between him and Sgt Major Button, – you understood that they had a job to do, but they also considered it was their job to take care of you. There was no need for bull shit!
We had our “end of basics” clearing out parade, with the whole unit going on leave right after the parade. My parents, like many others, made the 10-12 hour drive from Port Elizabeth (900km) to be there and we left to go back to PE immediately after. I remember that while I was on leave, my parents took me to the family doctor since I had bronchitis for over 2 months which had gone untreated and I finally got it licked with some antibiotics. I think that after home leave, we had train tickets to get back to Bethlehem, something I was very familiar with since my father had worked for the railways all his life and that was how we went on all of our holiday travels, usually to the family south of Durban in Natal, every Xmas holiday.
SECOND Phase and RIOTS
We got back to 26 Field, now well into fall and got started on second phase training. We managed to complete the “fire and movement” part of the training at 22 Field which was memorable only because they sent us out into the mountains carrying a single army woollen blanket with which to sleep out in the open. It seemed to be like a competition on how close they could get to killing us for no reason whatsoever. I remember my teeth chattering all night and the next morning I could not stand initially because I could not feel my feet at all. It was rumoured that in the next Jan intake after ours, the trainers got their wish and 2 recruits froze to death during their fire and movement exercise and presumably that tradition was broken thereafter.
Shortly after this we were sent us to Wingfield, Cape Town on riot duty – this must have been May 1986 when there was a lot of unrest. Our platoon was then sent on to Paarl. We ended up in Robertson, at the show grounds, in the middle of the winter rainfall season. So that was another experience – we were assigned Buffels which were open on top, thus it rained on us pretty much all day every day. The SADF apparently also thought that ZA was a dry place, so we were never issued raincoats, just cotton greatcoats. At some point we may have been issued Poncho type rain suits to just wear over all of your regular clothing. At least it helped cut the wind. The people in the town were very nice to us. The ladies made us cakes and cook sisters, everyone was quite happy to see you, so it was a good experience. In a military town like Bethlehem, the people were really tired of seeing national serviceman who would often be up to some kind of mischief. Always harassing their daughters and other mischief. It was pretty much like where you have a military base in the operational area; the local people near the base tend to be very negative – they had been harassed by thousands of people who had come and gone. The experience in Robertson was different. The people were glad to see us.
SECOND PHASE TRAINING RESUMPTION
After our stint of riot duty, which was something like three months, we were ordered back to Bethlehem and we continued with second phase training. The period of riot duty had really impacted our second phase training schedule with far too little time available to cover our material in adequate detail. It didn’t help that time was still not constructively used. Shortly after our return from riot duty, hardly having settled back into a new routine, a group of officers from one construction regiment showed back up again and proceeded to select whomever they wanted from the recruits to repatriate back to Marievale – horror !!!! This was pretty traumatic, facing the prospect of having to go back to 1 construction regiment. Of the 300 of us at 26 field, only about 50 or so came out the other side. Dean and I were in that group, and we were in that group because we were too young to have driver’s licenses. Because we did not have them, they considered us useless for their needs, so consequently they left us with two Field. I never realized that not having a driver’s license could be a blessing but in this situation it certainly was….
We were taken back to Bethlehem, and we were split up between the existing 21 Field platoons – where they were short of full platoon strength, they added us in. For whatever reason, Dean and I ended up in the bungalow which housed the rugby team, and they assigned the meanest lieutenant on the base to our platoon, to keep this unruly rugby team in order. The consequence of that was that we stood full pack out inspections every morning for the remainder of our time. Usually, you only have that during basics, but we had that every day for the remainder of the year. Immediately after the parade we also did a 2.4 km run every single day. Usually you would only do that once a week, as a fitness test. Our training was tough enough, but man: we ended up with some truly heavy handed sociopathic training officers!
2ND PHASE "DIEPSTEEK" SCANDAL AT 21 FIELD IN TOWN
That was a terrible thing, basically kidnap (she was a runaway), gang rape, underage girl, over a period of weeks to months. She was hidden in the attic of a bungalow and discovered by an officer who came upon a stark naked girl showering in the troops ablutions at 2am.
Entire platoon had CV drill for a month, everything else swept under the rug.
I remember we had to “Tree Aan” on the parade ground IMMEDIATELY. Most of us had underwear on and maybe a T shirt and barefoot and it was a cold night. The CO had been summoned from home in the middle of the night and when he started relating what they had found, we thought he was kidding. We stood there shivering like penguins until he found out what he wanted to know.
She had been a runaway for some time and had taken initially to sneaking into the military base and getting up into the guard towers. There were particular people who would trade her food and other treats and possibly cigarettes and alcohol for sexual favours. Then someone decided to kick it up a notch and house her full time in the bungalow attic. My understanding was that she was never reported missing by the parent/ guardian, which says a lot about circumstances at home.
There are people who make jokes about it now, but the truth is that everyone involved should have faced criminal prosecution. But there was no way to do that without the general population becoming aware and it could possibly have resulted in the closure of the base, if reaction had been adverse enough. So it had to die quietly.
END OF SECOND PHASE – BORDER DEPLOYMENT
We were glad to see the end of second phase, and I think, for a lot of us the worst thing imaginable would be to end up somewhere doing something that didn’t matter. The idea of being assigned to a training base didn’t appeal to us, or somehow being involved in logistics as a driver or something similar. Consequently, Dean and I and many others volunteered to go to sector 10. Sector 10 is the home of 25 Field Engineer Regiment, that’s the group that operates up there. At the last moment they realised they didn’t have nearly enough NCOs needed for actual operational deployment and so consequently the responsibility fell on me to do section leader training. When the troops got on the plane to fly up to Oshakati, I started another two weeks of opvok to earn my section leaders stripe.
THE BORDER : OSHAKATI – ANGOLA DEC 86-JAN 87 MINEHUNTING
When the section leaders arrived in Oshakati, two weeks after the troops, the unit had started operations, and we were the green ones. We were stumbling around, barely able to see in the glare of the white sand at Oshakati. I remember that I arrived a little more than a week before Christmas, and immediately we went into a mine hunting operation. I think that our engineering leadership (officers) felt that there wasn’t enough for us to do around Oshakati. They were the ones who came up with the concept of doing these mine hunting exercises into Angola. It was extremely arrogant of them because you are taking a hundred sappers who are only superficially trained in combat and then you put them on Buffels which are very inadequate vehicles and send them 280 kilometres into Angola. You would be walking and literally sweeping tracks for mines which is a useful thing to do, but dammit! It is also a very high risk thing to do. You are not moving very far every day, and people have a lot of warning of your approach. You are not backed up by any fighting vehicles like Ratels, even Caspirs: you do not have a mortar team, you do not have reliable communication. At the end of the day there were quite a lot of our groups who ended up walking into FAPLA, (Angolan army) ambushes. Some were cluster bombed by MiGs. Our unit took a lot of casualties that year, a 10% fatality rate. I felt that the leadership at 25 Field absolutely didn’t care about the welfare of the people in their unit. We were disposable.
Many people thought what they were doing was very adventurous. I believe Dean (at the time) didn’t consider all of the things that could have gone wrong on the minehunts. Some people saw it all as a big adventure. If you were more widely read, and you knew what had happened to other units, including 32 battalion and Koevoet, these were real fighting units and had way better equipment than us, helicopter support and they ran into terrible fights in Angola’s. We weren’t just going 5, 10, 20 km into Angola; we were going 280 km walking on foot. We had our vehicles with us, but you weren’t going to be driving out. I just saw all of that as being high risk. Indicative of oversized egos with some of the officer contingent. Honestly, the permanent force contingent in Oshakati; I felt they were really not engaged. The young NSM officers were gung ho to go out there and do something. Let’s get them out of our hair! Maybe they’re doing something useful with the other people; just let them do it. That was pretty much where it ended. I think most of us who were there actually wanted to do something that was useful.
I remember going on the mine hunting experience and being out for two weeks and being involved in a landmine incident and going without water for three days. It was the peak of summer and I lost about 15 kg of body weight and nearly had kidney failure. That was all of us, going through hell, trying to get back to the kaplyn from Nehone, Angola. HQ sent a recovery to tow the wrecked Buffel, but it never arrived. I remember we arrived back at the base and the same night they put us on guard duty. We didn’t even get one night of sleep. There was no counselling or de-briefing for what you had just been through. Vehicles blown up, people’s heads almost blown off their shoulders. Nobody gave a crap. We got back and they put us on guard duty.
A couple of weeks later they sent us out on another one. These were usually 2 to 3 weeks. The Buffel could hold enough water to give each member 3L a day for three days. Up there, you need about 5L a day to maintain body weight at that time of the year. So you are dehydrating by about 2 kg a day at that rate. Then after three days, hopefully you would arrive somewhere where you had access to water, and then you would resupply, and carry on. This was how it would go. In our case we were supposed to meet our own forces in Nahone in Angola, but there had been an attack by FAPLA aircraft the previous night, and so there was nobody there when we arrived, and we were out of water.
Something that you don’t get in other branches of the service was that in the engineering corps, if you didn’t follow procedure, and they were able to prove it, they made you pay for damage to vehicles that were involved in landmine incidents. There were people who had been forced to sign up permanent force, who were made to pay for vehicles if they were damaged when they had not been following standard operational procedure. So, the command group were terrified of being in a situation where they got involved in an incident and would have to pay for damage to vehicles. I remember the officer who was in charge of our column, he was literally hysterical, because we swept up to this place, and when we departed he took the wrong track which wasn’t swept, and the fifth vehicle in the column hit the mine. He was positive that they were going to make him pay for it. At the end of the day, they didn’t do that to him, but there was definitely the fear of God put into you that if you didn’t do things by the book they were going to come after you. That was the sense of responsibility you had doing this line of work. You were not only responsible for the lives of the people involved but there could be a financial penalty to it also if something was to go wrong. I don’t know if there were a lot of historical incidences of people not following the rules.
When we did these mine hunts, I remember the second one that we did was two or three weeks long and we had pretty much no sooner started this mine hunt than I had a serious athlete’s foot infection on one of my feet. It turned out that the medics assigned to us had nothing to treat it with. They had no antibiotic cream. They did not have antifungal cream. They had nothing. I don’t know what it was that they had, but they told me there was nothing they could do for me. By the time we came back about two weeks later I honestly thought they were going to amputate my toes. That’s how bad it was. I was limping along with one gimp foot and at some stage we ended up with a big group of Koevoet in a temporary base, and of course they had a huge fire going and were shouting – they didn’t try to keep quiet like we did. We went on a mission to collect firewood, and trying to break some of it, and something smashed me on my thumb. It actually injured the tendon that operates my thumb. The tendon was swollen up all the way up my forearm and up to my armpit. So now I had one gimp leg and one gimp arm.
We got back to Oshakati, and on the first morning I tried to figure out where to go to get to the sick bay, and they pointed me out to – “walk out that way, and eventually you’ll find it!” So I went out there on the long walk, limping all the way. The doctor didn’t have anything to do so I didn’t have to wait long. He took a look at it and said; “well, that’s quite an infection you’ve got there.” So he told his medic; “make up a solution of hibertain and water, and get him to soak his feet in it, and then spray it down.” He then walked off, and the medic gets this bottle out, it was hibertain and alcohol, and he proceeded to hose my foot down with this alcohol solution. The doctor heard there was some screaming going on, so he comes back, and says; “What the hell is the matter with you? That stuff shouldn’t bother you one bit.” Then he picked up the bottle and saw that there was alcohol in there and he slapped the medic; “You damn fool. That’s not what I told you to do.” In the week that I came to see him, the doctor must have asked me 10 times while I was soaking my foot, “Did you lose your sense of humour in the military?“ I didn’t understand. We had just gone through some of the craziest stuff that you can ever imagine and I’m a bit shell-shocked, and you think I’ve lost my sense of humour. He thought it was the funniest thing that I wasn’t laughing at his jokes. He never did ask what was on my mind or give me any kind of debrief…
LATE JAN 87-AUGUST 87 ELUNDU BASE
When positions opened up at the outer lying bases, Elundu was considered the post that no-one wanted. All the national servicemen who went to Elundu were volunteers, because the 25 field commanding officer said; “You’re going to have to duck every night when SWAPO lob mortars.” My section decided “That sounds like a job where someone is actually needed!” We decided that was what we were going to do. That base actually had many stories from its past, most of which we were not actually aware of at that time. I wasn’t aware of the 1978 Sapper Van Der Mescht incident. Nobody talked about it.
When you were somewhere like Elundu, with as small a crew as what we had, you knew that people were depending on you to do your job. From that point of view I think it was more satisfying. I think the time passed more quickly, given how little free time we had. I think most people dread waiting for a year to pass, to me it was a dangerous place to be. We felt that we were doing something useful, something that was needed. To me that was as good as it could get under the circumstances. There was no way of getting out, or escaping our responsibilities.
When we arrived at Elundu in January, there were about 300 SAKK on the base. I think a large number of them had had only been at the base for a short time at that point. They were going out on “patrol”. This meant that they would walk out of the base, and hole up somewhere nearby where there was a cucca shack where they could buy booze, and they would drink. That is literally what happened! There were instances where they actually came under fire from other friendly forces because they were not in the position they had reported themselves to be in, so were thought to be SWAPO.
Once we actually got to Elundu, the primary problem was the infantry detachment themselves. They were the reason why the place was not functioning. When I first showed up there, I had a full corporal with me, Cpl Theunesin. He didn’t have enough of a backbone. We would come under constant pressure from the SAKK leadership not to actually sweep the road, but to `ghost it’. Of course, this was totally contrary to the regulations. If you looked at where you were, it was one of the most isolated stretches of road in the whole operational area. It was not the place to be playing games.
Ultimately, he decided to take up a different position. He heard that they needed people who were interested in operating new mine detection vehicles, so he went back to the states to deal with that. Myself and the other guys decided that we were going to put a stop to the SAKK nonsense very quickly. It was quite funny, because other than a private, I was the lowest ranking person on the base, being a lance corporal, but if any vehicle left the gate, I was in charge, and I had the final authority for anything that happened, and the responsibility for whatever the final outcome was. So consequently I made the SAKK buck up and get out of bed and, at the staff meetings on the base, there was a never ending stream of death threats; “We are going to slit your throat at night” and all kinds of stuff. I think my troops made a point of keeping their eye on me to make sure that nothing did happen to me. There had been incidents that had taken place previously and nobody had really known who had been responsible. It had been asserted (ascertained?) that SWAPO had got into the base and had cut people’s throats, but it could just as well have been someone who had a grudge.
I think the doctor and the chaplain had their own little comfort zone, during the day when it was all quiet, and everyone was away. They would just do whatever they wanted to occupy their time. Nobody was paying attention strategically to what was going on inside the base; who was coming in and out. These things can prove fatal. That was the story.
Summarizing our 2 week cycle
Monday week 1 Sweep to Eenhana half way mark 14km – drive to Eenhana to get supplies
Tuesday, Wed, Thursday week 1, sweep 12km south to waterhole and run water all day
Friday Week 1 – Eenhana logistics, 14km to ½ way mark, pick up supplies
Sat-Sun Week 1 Time off, wash clothes, build bunkers, shooting practice
Mon Week 2 Eenhana Logistics 14km
Tuesday, Wed Thursday water run, 12km south
Friday Week 2 Nkongo logistics 42km east to Nkongo ½ way mark convoy drives to Nkongo
Sat Week 2 Nkongo Logistics 42km east to Nkongo ½ way mark convoy drives to Eenhana
Sunday Week 2 possibly day off, possibly do water run depending on needs
Adding up the cycle: 14+12x3+14+14+12x3+42+42 =198km per cycle = 99km per week.
We were on base from January till August a period of 8 months thus we walked approximately 99x4.5 (weeks) x8 (months) = ~3564km in that timeframe. I think it is fair to say that excluding Koevoet and 101 Bn trackers who seem to run all day every day, we were some of the busiest troopies in the game…..
We would always start at 5:30 in the morning, and usually we got back in the dark, and when you got back you would be filthy from all the clay dust on that road. We were responsible for all of the water purification in the base.
The timing was crucial, because with long stretches like that, the convoys had to operate before dusk. Dusk was when the convoys would be ambushed and shot up, giving plenty of time for escape. VHF Radio communications on this long stretch were also non existent and we had no working vehicle mounted HF radio systems.
We had some instances where we actually walked through the ambush, and then the convoy was shot up behind us. We had been walking on the road. It was very tough on your nerves. You felt that you were constantly being observed and sized up, and decisions were being made about whether they would take you, or not take you.
We developed some countermeasures; one of the first things I did was to take a trip to Oshakati and from the 25 field stores I drew a light machine gun and a 60mm Patmore mortar system and we incorporated those into our 8 man squad. We had a mount made on the Buffel so that the LMG could be fired from the vehicle, and we made a sand bagged emplacement in the wall where our tents were, so that we could fire from there with the LMG. We ended up making a bunker with the Patmore sitting on the top. We engaged the local population who lived near the base, saying to them; “We are going to do some mortar practice. Would you like to choose a target for us, and we’ll see if we can hit it.”
I had two guys in the squad who developed good skills with the Patmore, so that if they didn’t hit the target with the first bomb, they hit it with the second. The local population got to know that the sappers were to be reckoned with, whereas everyone knew that the SAKK were just not a fighting force.
Dean told me that he loved the place. I told him; “if we hadn’t been at war, if people weren’t constantly trying to kill us, there is certainly a beauty to that area.” The desert environment. You have to bear in mind that – it’s really really flat and featureless and you have no ability to look out a certain distance – your horizon is really crammed. I think that if you were to go back there now when people are at peace, that would be a different thing. I’ve told him that more than likely, white South Africans who are trying to figure out what they’re going to do with the way that things are going in South African, you may find more acceptance in Namibia or in Angola than in your own country. They don’t seem hell-bent on killing you in Namibia, or Angola for that matter. They seem to have come to terms with just how it was. I know that the former commander of SWAPO, he had lots of interviews with different people and they found him to be a really likeable guy. For me it was a long intense period with a lot of loneliness.
One of the serious morale issues I had personally was that I never received any mail while at Elundu. Through some very careful letter writing, Dene was able to ascertain that my parents were not receiving any mail from me either. So I concluded that this was the revenge of the SAKK staff sergeant responsible for checking my mail. The same guy issuing the death threats all the time. Thus I drew a B25 HF transceiver and made myself a basic long wire antenna to see if I could intercept amateur radio transmissions from South Africa. I made the determination that the 20m band was usually open every afternoon around 2-3PM but also found that my 25W of transmit power was not going to make myself heard in South Africa without a more sophisticated antenna suitable for setting up in the bush. So some self-study was needed and I knew my father possessed an ARRL antenna handbook with a lot of such options. But it would have to wait for my first home leave. In the meantime I used the radio as a receiver, usually tuned to Radio 5 on the AM band. Reception was usually best at night.
Once I had later established communications with my father via HF radio, then at least I had a way of talking to somebody. Of course I had to be guarded about what I said because everyone was listening. Once I went back to Eenhana, I couldn’t employ that means any more, but then I did get mail; “people” wouldn’t be intercepting it any more. Our lives were different at Eenhana. First of all you didn’t have the same physical demands on you – you weren’t walking 99km a week, every week. You had a lot more downtime. You had a lot more time to yourself, which, of course, meant that the guys got up to a lot more mischief.
ELUNDU FIRST REV 1987
Kobus De Kok: In die nag van 8 Februarie 1987 is Elundu gerev. Metcalf was bo in die aapkas en is eerste getref. Of hy dood geskiet is, en of hy hom teen die "upright" van die aapkas doodgeval het, weet ek nie - dit moet iewers opgeteken wees. Ek was op daardie oomblik in die siekeboeg (op die foto aan die linkerkant [suid] van die ops gebou.) Pandemonium, gille en skree, die radio in die opskamer suis net en almal praat gelyk. Binne oomblikke strompel-sleep die eerste gewondes die siekeboeg binne - die reuk van bloed en adrenalien. Kpl Daniels is ingesleep, duidelik nie meer met ons nie. Die dokter se bevele van "toerniket, toerniket" skree nog in my ore. My respek en saluut vir koel en kalm optrede deur dr (van Wyk?) en sy ordonans - Kpl Dean Blacklaws. Aan die ander kant bly ek steeds onbeindruk deur die uiters paniekerige optrede van die leierskorps. Later die nag, nadat die Puma die casavac gedoen het en van die dowwerts in die basis gemerk is, is ek met behulp van slegs die lig van 'n flits terug na my slaapplek. Daar ontdek ek dat 'n mortier reg deur die middel van my kamer se dak deurgeval en alles daarbinne vol skrapnel was - flenters geskiet - ook die bed waar ek moes, maar nié gelê het nie. Want sien - danksy die aaklige oneetbare kos van die onbebevoegde sjef vroeër die middag, het die dokter, sy ordonans en ek slegs 'n paar minute voor die rev besluit om in die siekeboeg uit ons rat packs 'n mixed grill saam te flans. Daai sjef is ook in die rev gewond en is ge casavac. Die ander name het ek vergeet. Ek sal baie bly wees as manne wat daar was, kan aanlas.
After the first rev, they brought out a psychologist. I found it interesting; other than the doctor, the medic, and the chaplain, I was the only white person to have any rank on the base. Nobody debriefed us. So, consequently, I believe the executive never really figured out what had gone on. I don’t know what the doctor, and also the chaplain told them. It wasn’t as though these people didn’t know what was happening at the base. They were at the base during the day when the people were coming in and trading in alcohol and everything.
After the attack on the base, which I think was in March, but the chaplain says was in February, within about three months about half of that SAKK force was transferred off the base, potentially out of the operational area. We saw the size of that unit diminished substantially, and by the time the second attack happened, we were at a very low strength on the base. I think there was something like about 50 SAKK left on the base, and I think that Commandant Human understood that that the risk was high that the base could easily be overrun at that point. There was a tremendous amount of SWAPO activity going on.
The SADF counter insurgency operations around Elundu had been greatly diminished because most of the resources were put into supporting the UNITA activity in Angola, a huge boon to SWAPO near the border. Because of this there were large groups of SWAPO moving around and doing all sorts of stuff. There were atrocities; bombs were planted in the kraals of the local headmen, blowing up entire families. There was a very bad incident at Nkongo. About 15 people were blown up.
We had an incident where a large number of the SAKK went on leave – something like 90 men – and in typical fashion, they chose to leave all their equipment at the base, except for their rifle and one magazine. They took a convoy to Eenhana, and at Eenhana they locked up their rifles in the armoury, and they got on the Dakota and flew down to Ondangwa to go on leave in the “states”. When they returned, they flew into Eenhana, picked up their rifles and their one magazine, and then at dusk they had to drive back to Elundu. On that particular trip, they drove into an ambush. Their fire was so inadequate, that the SWAPO guys came onto the road and were shooting up at the vehicles. It was quite incredible! All these guys with one magazine, and, of course, within three seconds they were all out of ammo, and they hadn’t managed to get one bullet anywhere near where the SWAPO people were. They were very lucky. One vehicle broke down in the killing zone, and fortunately, for them there was a Kwevoel truck which came up behind them, and pushed them out, otherwise they wouldn’t have made it.
I had to develop some skills with amateur radio and learn how to construct antennas and everything and I was using 25 W to speak to people back in South Africa when we couldn’t even speak to the people at the next base.
When we had the first rev, I had my radio tuned to radio five. The bomb stopped falling and my hearing returned. I heard Chris Pryor, the rock professor, talking about some artist, and I realise that those people in South Africa had no idea of what's going on with their friends and family in Namibia and Angola!
We felt very exposed in Elundu because we were only a few kilometres over the border. It wouldn’t have taken that much for a MiG or something to make a small diversion. We certainly didn’t have air superiority – that was a fact! We were always very vulnerable to an attack from the air. Even Koevoet knew this. It was a pretty uneven battle. Most of the losses that occur during the big operations were because of the air superiority of their side, with the Ratels being bombed by MiGs’s, and then, of course, the cluster bombing. They were doing cluster bombing at the time. There was an NCO who spent time with us who was on one of these operations, and he was killed by a cluster bomb. A lot of this stuff was fairly new to the world at that time. We haven’t even heard about cluster bombing.
After having had two potentially disastrous standoff attacks, in which there were a large number of casualties at Elundu, I think battalion leadership wanted to avoid the embarrassment of having the base actually overrun. I think SWAPO had been preparing for a more significant attack. It was only through Koevoet activities which Dean and I assisted where they actually tracked down caches of white phosphorus mortars near our base. Just imagine the consequences if they had used white phosphorus mortar bombs in an attack. If you’ve seen the circle of fire that results from a white phosphorus grenade, then just try to imagine in your mind what it would look like if you had 40 white phosphorus mortars landing inside base of that size. The SWAPO men were known to have very good accuracy – there was no incident at that base where they did not hit what they were trying to hit. Literary, every mortar and every strim was dead nuts on target. This was because the SAKK were allowing people into the base who were either directly the enemy, or spies for the enemy, and they had that place totally mapped out. They knew exactly where everything was. And furthermore, because of their experience with SAKK, SWAPO was willing to approach the base to within a distance of 200 to 400 m. They would come to the very edge of the clearing, and they would be firing from there.
The first time the attack happened, the SAKK LMG at the nearest wall bunker jammed which should have fired on the attackers. I remember in the first rev, my own troops running down with our own LMG to fire back. It was a bad situation. The SAKK people were constantly drunk. During each of the revs, they were staggeringly drunk. I remember when the revs started, you hear the sound of the devices being fired from a distance, and you hit the deck immediately. From lying on the ground out in the open, you watched all these people running around, and you would see the shells going off, and you would see these people being flung through the air and sometimes they would pick themselves up and keep running, and sometimes they wouldn’t. They would run some more, and then another bomb would fall, and eventually they weren’t getting up any more. The same scene just repeated itself over and over again. Then some people got hold of their weapons finally, and they started shooting across the base. So guys on the north side of the base started shooting across the base, and bullets and tracers were hitting the inside of the wall – on our side! So we actually crawled over the wall, and sat with the wall behind us. We had no protection from incoming fire, but we felt safer there than having our backs toward somebody who was shooting at us from the inside the base.
One of my jobs was to work on the shit pump, to pump the sewage out to a space for it to evaporate and dry. One of the wonderful things about the SAKK, especially after their size was diminished, was that the leader group decided that the infantry would guard the base one night, and the sappers would guard the base the alternative night. They put us on guard duty every second night. Guard duty just means that you pretty much don’t get any sleep. Standard operational procedure did not allow us to (sweep roads without adequate sleep and rest –), so we got into a showdown with the SAKK where we flat out refused to sweep the road which created a big problem because the convoy from Eenhana was waiting, and the road had to be cleared. I was essentially abducted at gunpoint to occupy the first vehicle’ which would “spook” the road together with SAKK leader group. At Eenhana the vehicle was stopped short of the base, so that I could not communicate with battalion leadership and the rest of the vehicles drove into the base, and then collected the convoy and came back out again. It was the last time the SAKK pulled that stunt. It was obviously not something they would be able to get away with on a continuing basis. It was another reason for the never ending death threats – we made them respect the way that things had to happen up there. My troops back at the base – they got to rake sand for the entire day…. Sweeping of a different kind.
One of the guys who was wounded in the second attack was my nemesis. He was a staff sergeant, but was acting sergeant major. He was the guy who was making most of the death threats, and he was the guy who personally made sure that I never got a single item of mail for the entire time that I was there. You don’t want to feel glad about the things that befell these guys, but there was a certain feeling that karma had visited him after all of the shenanigans that he was responsible for.
I remember vividly my first home leave from the border. You weren’t allowed to drive anywhere at over 30 km an hour. They flew us to Waterkloof Air Force Base and we had to come up with our own transport to get us to Jan Smuts. We ended up getting a taxi, and the taxi driver drove at 180 km/h to try to get us to meet our flights on time. These guys didn’t have to do anything, but they tried their best to get us home. We nearly wet our pants driving at 180 km/h on the road. We hadn’t seen anything like that in many months. These were things that appeared strange to people on the outside.
(At Elundu) if we knew that we weren’t going to have any sweeping to do the following day, then you were guaranteed to stand guard that night. Usually we would have just got back in from a day’s sweeping activity, come back in at dusk, gotten ourselves cleaned up. If you were going to be off the next day, that was the night you were going to have to do duty, because there were only so many nights that were available. I think if we had done short stuff, like 12 km, to the waterhole, we would break that rule, but any of the big stuff, you needed to have slept the night before. If you were going to be off, you would have done guard duty, and then you would be groggy from lack of sleep the next day anyway. If you had time off, what you would be doing would be washing clothes, – that was number one –, drying them out, writing letters. I had to keep a record of how many hours he each troop had been active, because there were hearing tests that had to be scheduled every so many hundred hours. I had to keep track of that. There wasn’t very much to do. We didn’t really play any sports. If we had down time we might get some time in shooting our rifles, practising with the mortar system. Let different people shoot the LMG, because that was not something you did regularly.
We went through a phase when we were just flat out hungry. The quality of the food that was making its way through to us was very very bad. Somebody discovered that a huge amount of rat packs had expired, and so they came to us with a truckload of the stuff and said; “you need to take this outside and go and blow it up!” We went through it and we took out all of the stuff that we knew he would be okay; energy bars, the breakfast cereals and the drinks and the coffee and all that stuff that that we would keep. Usually it was the tinned stuff that would go bad, especially the pickled fish, and the cheese – the cheese would go off quickly. We ended up working our way through this enormous stockpile, so we collected our own food supplies, and we took the balance of what there was and went and gave it to the local people who were also starving. That’s what we chose to do, and we blew up a bit of trash just to make people believe that we had blown it up.
When we did operations we would leave early in the morning and we would come back when it was dark. The generator runs for a few hours and then it goes out. Even if you don’t consider the generator as a factor, you have to understand that if it’s not the middle of winter, there was the most diabolical amount of bugs there. You don’t want to be anywhere near a light source.
Probably seven out of the nine guys had been with me through basics, in Delta bungalows, which is where I did my basics. The majority of people who ended up in my section had been with me through basics. There was one guy was who was a complete stranger to us – his name was Neil Carr – who had an almost criminal; he was the most conniving guy that I have ever come across in my life. It took Neil one visit to the ear testing facility, to figure out that he could escape all of the sweeping duties which was so much work, by just failing the hearing test. I suppose there are people out there who wrap their mind around; oh if I fail the hearing test then I will get out of these duties. So we lost one guy from the sweeping team, and we had to take somebody else who was actually good at all that stuff, working on the pumps, and put him into the sweeping team. Another thing that Neil wanted was to be unsupervised all day. It took a long while to emerge what was actually going on –. Neil was actually one of the characters who set up the alcohol bartering with the local population. Not only did he do that, but he set up a trading scheme where he would buy the alcohol, bring it into the base and sell it to the people on the base. That is what his danger pay would pay for. Then he started selling it to them on credit. It looked as though he was doing a roaring trade with his scheme, and the amount of money that he was owed, but eventually the SAKK people just got together and decided; “we’re just not going to pay this guy!” When the penny finally drops, then he wanted to complain, and he wanted somebody in the military to help him out. I said to him; “Neil, you’ve been involved in a totally illegal enterprise. The fact that these people are now not going to pay you is your reward for doing what you did. Be glad that somebody didn’t actually discover it, and charge you with anything.” He expected me or somebody else, my officer Jeremy or somebody to help him bully the money out of the SAKK for the alcohol that he had been trading. It was crazy.
The night that we were revved for the first time – I made it out of my tent and onto the ground before the first bomb fell near where we were and then the next one fell and hit a branch above the troops tent and exploded – up in the air, it did an air burst and that’s when I and a couple of my guys such picked up some shrapnel. But the first people to engage the enemy were Neil Carr and Cuan Schrier. These were the two guys that you would least expect would be on the ball. Cuan Schrier was a skinny little waif – very nerdy, always pretending to be doing something with a piece of dirt moving equipment or something. When the shit hit the fan, they were up on the wall and shooting back. I’ve always found it humbling that when the chips are down, you will be surprised by who is actually taking action.
I remember one guy, FC Truter, from Paarl area of the Western Cape and they had an accent from the area – Malmesbury – he had his 21st birthday on the border and I arranged to get him a bottle of gin because he wanted to have something else to drink other than whatever crap beer they had their. That was one of the few occasions when some of my guys indulged a bit. Generally we just didn’t do that.
There was another incident in which we went to the waterhole, which of course we did multiple times a week. It was a dangerous place, down south, in the middle of nowhere, a very very small team of about 12 guys going down there, one person to a vehicle. There was only one tree that provided shade anywhere near where the waterhole was. It just happened this one day that there was a snake in the tree. We tried shooting the snake, but it’s difficult when you are at close range like that and the sites on your rifle don’t work they are tuned in to 200 m or whatever. You end up shooting low, and the snakes only 2 cm in diameter or something. I eventually got a stick and got the snake to come down out of the tree and when it got to the bottom of the tree where the branches were really low I ended up crawling in there and I had a piece of stick in my hand and I whacked it on its head and killed it. So we took the snake back to base. We didn’t think about it, but we needed somewhere to put it, and we had this crate of mortar bombs, so we just put the snake on top of the mortars in this crate. Of course the guys in the base had heard nothing about this snake so when we handed this crate of mortars down to them, they see the snake, and they about died. They dropped this crate full of mortars on the ground and ran off. I took the snake to the doctor, and said; “Doctor, we’ve seen lots of these snakes, but we’ve no idea what they are.” It’s a light, tan coloured thing, very fast. He looks at it. He says; “This is a black mamba!”
I said; “It can’t be a black mamba. I know what black mamba’s look like! They are a dark colour.”
“No,” he said. “Up here they are a different colour. You have to look in the mouth. In the mouth it’s black. And they’ve got these huge fangs.”
Damn! So there we are. A black mamba! The most dangerous snake anywhere, and I’ve killed it with a stick that is about a foot long. That night, of course, the SAKK were going good in their bar; they were all drinking and partying it up, and we took this black mamba. When you walked in the door there was a partition and you had to go to the left or the right. The partition didn’t go all the way to the roof, so we flung the snake over the top of the partition and into the crowd on the other side, and of course it was as though a bomb had gone off.
There were incidents which showed that people had not lost their sense of humour.
Time off: there was no staying at Eenhana. If we had time off, then we were at Elundu.
Intimidation?: It was from the SAKK leadership. At staff meetings – the only people attending the meetings where the acting NCO, the staff sergeant – he was consistent throughout the time that I was there, and then at different times there were different lieutenants who were essentially the primary leaders of that group. They were really angered by the fact that I wanted them to follow the standard operational procedure and do the job the way it was supposed to be done. They had obviously worked on the people who had previously been on the base so that it was actually very seldom that they needed to do their job. I didn’t care who these guys were, what their M.O. was. The bottom line was that this was high risk stuff. They were willing to put people’s lives at risk just for the sake of work avoidance. I thought that the most terrible thing to do would be for me to have to explain to somebody’s mother that Johnny had been blown up because I was too lazy to get off my vehicle and sweep the road. I wasn’t going to do it. We would have the staff meetings, and they would be saying; “we are going to ghost! We are going to ghost!” We are going to ghost!” I said; “no, you’re not going to ghost!” Not while I’m around. “Well we’ll just get rid of you!” The threats were quite graphic. They described in a lot of detail what they were going to do to me. How they were going to cut my throat from one ear to the other. Everybody would think that it was SWAPO who did it blah blah blah! They’ll get away with it! Don’t worry! There was a lot of pressure put on me to comply.
Were the doctor and the chaplain aware of this?
You’ve got to bear in mind that it’s a very small team. The doctor is not involved in the operational meeting and the chaplain is not involved in the operational briefing, so it was them and me I was responsible for all activities outside of the base that involved being on the road. They knew it. I knew it. Yet they tried to intimidate me into believing that they had some sort of authority which they didn’t. The fact was that they had the superior rank and everything else and apparently most other people had folded in the past. So they expected me to fold. There were all kinds of fall out because of this, which included not getting any form of communication from anybody; being prevented from contacting my officer in Eenhana, for example. Our lives were made to be difficult. After the first attack, in March, the week after, the place was just covered with brass. All sorts of people. What was amusing was that nobody actually interviewed us, and asked us for our version of events. They ended up’s assigning a new commanding officer to the base. He was a white guy known as Ben Bom. I don’t remember what his last name was at all. This guy was just a complete nut job! I remember that I had an incident with him where he decided that we were going to do some landmine drills and he expected me to plant a claymore in the road as the “simulated mine” I said; “I am not laying a claymore in the road” what is that – 2 kg of plastic explosive, and thousands of ballbearings? So I refused to go along with him. When the engineering corps does landmine drills they use a thunder flash, a military firework but no! He wanted a claymore planted in the road. I said “no! I’m not planting a claymore.” You can drop dead, call my CO, have me court-martialled – I’m not planting a claymore. So finally, he did it himself. I don’t remember what the outcome was because I was then banished from the exercise. He did a lot of stuff like that. People were pretty shell-shocked after the first rev, their nerves were on edge, and he would walk around at night throwing thunder flashes into people’s tents, randomly.
There was a great conspiracy on the part of the SAKK where they decided; “well we are going to get this guy off the base!” Even if we have to kill him! What they actually did; baking soda! He always had special steaks and things brought in for him, better than what we had in our rations, and so they were lacing his food with baking soda, and he ended up with diarrhoea, dehydration and what have you! Finally, he was walking around with a drip all the time, someone must have realised what was going on – not necessarily where this was coming from, but where this was going, and they finally took him off the base. They needed to have a real leader at the base, but for whatever reason they just didn’t feel that the base justified having someone like that. There were more useful places apparently where leadership was needed but not Elundu.
The other thing that was really demoralising was that it was impossible to get our equipment maintained. We had a gen set on the base for power, and I don’t remember how many Buffels we had, I think it was something like 15 Buffels and we reached the stage where there was only one Buffel that was capable of starting itself. So they would take this one Buffel that was capable of starting itself and they would push start every other Buffel on the base. If you think what that does for you operationally, like the situation where they had the ambush and the guy stalled the one vehicle, he couldn’t start it because there was no working battery in it. It was impossible to get any of the equipment maintained. It was difficult. We could really tell that the army was disinvesting from the war in Namibia. Even though it hadn’t been announced at that point, we could tell that something big was in the offing because they were just not working to maintain anything.
We were never issued dress out clothes. We were never issued nametags – we didn’t have nametags on any of our clothing. Even as an NCO, I had no nametags. We were never issued dog tags. These seem like little things. There used to be a time when troopies would get these Dankie Tannie packages that used to have can openers in them, pocket knives and stuff like that. We never got any of that stuff. We didn’t get a Dankie Tannie pakkie the whole time we were in the military. Whether we were on riot duty, whether we were on the border – we got nothing! You’ve got to bear in mind that it was a very remote base and things have a way of falling through the cracks. Maybe that shouldn’t have been too surprising. You did feel a little bit abandoned.
Going up into Angola was not something we did from Elundu. The only times that we went up into Angola when we were stationed at Elundu was when we were assigned to Koevoet. If they had information that there was an arms cache and other things in the vicinity of where we were in Elundu, they would send a Koevoet team up, and they asked for some engineering support to help them find the stuff, and we went out with them. We saw some pretty bad things happening just in that short period. We went to this one kraal, and pretty quickly, the first thing they found was an RPG launcher the new plastic one time use ones. You had the old-fashioned ones that were metal and wood, and then you had the new ones which were all plastic, and you just folded the sites out, and pulled the safety pin, and you fired it. Then you were away. They found one of those within a couple of minutes, and they got hold of the headman, and they took him off to one side. They were talking, and then they beat the snot out of him, and then they water boarded him. So I got to see water boarding first hand; with a cloth over the face, and pouring water on it and choking him. That was pretty bad to look at.
Their view was that, if they had let the guy off lightly, the population would have suspected that he had cooperated. They felt that it needed to look as though they had been heavy-handed on him. They were heavy-handed on him. I am pretty sure he had a concussion afterwards. By the time they were done. That was where, with the mine detectors, we found the white phosphorous mortars – it was the same place.
Ok, I usually don’t remember all the details right off the bat. But one of the kraals we came upon had some contraband (rpg7 and Aks I think) and the people at the kraal wouldn’t speak, so Koevoet decided to scare them by throwing an illumination grenade onto the roof of one of the huts that had their food in it. What they didn’t realize was that all of the Kraal material was tinder dry and first the hut and soon all the structures and the perimeter fence were ablaze
In 15 min the whole place burned to the ground and the villagers were destitute. No possessions, no shelter and pretty much no food in the dry season
At the time I thought, damn, this shit has been going on for 20 years!
I have to imagine that some sort of claim would have been made against the government and the taxpayers would have paid some sort of compensation
Sometimes I think people only want to talk about the honourable stuff, and leave out the bad stuff. Now Dene and I were not going to harm anyone or rape an underage girl, but from the birds eye perspective, the SADF as a whole and its allies, Koevoet, 32btn, UNITA etc did get up to a bunch of unethical and sometimes illegal or even criminal stuff.
It would have been better if at least the internal disciplinary processes had been more robust
While we were involved in searching for arms caches, they got some more information on a SWAPO temporary base some distance into Angola, so they ended up going back to Oshakati, regrouping with a larger force, and then we all set off in the morning. We were to go and launch a strike at this place, not far from Ondjiva, but there had been heavy rain for a few days and the place where SWAPO had been encamped was flooded, so everybody had left. There was no fire fight.
Everybody had this pent-up excitement and anger, and they took off to Ondjiva – a FAPLA air force base, and they proceeded to rev Ondjiva in the middle of the day. They dumped a truckload of mortars on the base, and of course FAPLA launched their MiGs to come and take care of us. There was some bizarre stuff that happened on that trip. We got news over the radio that MiGs had launched, so the vehicles were all pulled under trees with camo nets over them, and while we were waiting for the MiGs to come and take us out this one Koevoet guy takes his pet puff adder out of his shirt pocket. He had this little puff adder, probably about 20 cm long, and there he was playing with his pet puff adder, and it bit him on his finger; he says fok!!!. He had this big bowie knife on his belt and he put his finger on the tyre of the Casspir and he chopped the whole first knuckle of his finger off. When I was around those guys, I didn’t really talk to them. I didn’t quite know what to expect. I was not in their league. Dean spent a lot of time talking to them. He knew all about them. The guy who was the leader on the Casspir that the two of us were on was actually an ops medic and he had been assigned to this unit and what had happened was that the commander of this Casspir had been killed in a battle, and so there was a leadership vacuum. This kid got stuck in there and said you need to do it, so he became the commander of that Casspir. It was from this specific team that a lot of the detail was described in the book on Koevoet – the Jim Hooper book. They were involved in the huge battle which took place in 88 when the SWAPO contingent crossed the border with armour and everything. Quite a few of those guys were actually lost in that battle. I believe a lot of this is written about in that book.
I’m perfectly capable of talking, but if I don’t think that I can relate to you and have a sensible discussion with you then I’m just going to keep quiet. I might just listen to what you’ve got to say. That was definitely one of those situations.
SECOND REV – right at end of KOs stay there, base was being dismantled
When the second attack occurred, it was a very unusual circumstance because my engineering officer, who was based at Eenhana, made a trip out to the base along with the new doctor and a new engineering officer. I don’t remember exactly when his clearing out date was, but I remember his name was Jeremy. I only met him on a few occasions, because the only time I would meet him would be if I was in Eenhana. Usually we would arrive, and shortly the convoy would be turned around and the vehicles from our base would join the convoy, and off they would go back to Elundu to avoid being out on the road late. It is not as though you would spend half the day there. For whatever reason, he had come out to Elundu, and he was sitting in the tent. The command bunker had been dismantled by that time, so the doctor was now living in a tent, and there was a separate command tent, where the SAKK had all their radios. It was a fairly unique experience because I had my officer with me and we had the new doctor, and we were talking about how to prepare and how to react if the base came under attack, and at that very moment the attack started. It was on the quadrant where the tent was, on the north-east corner from where the attack was initiated. We were quite close, and as soon as we heard the pop pop pop sounds, I knew what was happening, and I was probably the first person to hit the deck, and the doc and I ended up leopard crawling between two opposing lines of guy ropes between two tents. As I look back on it now, I wonder how the hell I got through – we crawled between these guy ropes and we got to the ablution block where the roof had been taken off and the concrete walls were still up. We got in there, and we thought that something could fall in on top of us, but at least we had some protection on the sides. We tried to peer over the edge of the concrete wall to see what was happening, and as we did that something landed on the same side, and we saw sparks but it didn’t detonate. We realised that we weren’t likely to be as lucky a second time, and so we got out of there and he headed to the wall on the east side, and I went to where my sappers were, due south at Sappers Valley.
I was always impressed by the degree of emotional control that the people in the medical field had. There was no exception. Whether it was the medic, the doctor, the new doctor – it didn’t matter. I don’t know whether it was something from the medical profession that in all situations you need to pass through that you learn to suppress your emotional reaction to what you see. They were certainly the calmest people that I met under duress. The sappers were always the people who carried the wounded into the sick bay. During the first rev they carried about a hundred people into the sick bay. I think at the second rev we may have had something like 20 casualties. There were some mortar bombs that fell that were at least slightly defective; they did explode but instead of producing many pieces of high-speed shrapnel, they produced very large pieces of shrapnel, some of which were about 3 inches long and half an inch wide. I remember one person was hit by a large piece of shrapnel that went into his throat and was sticking up in his mouth, and under his tongue. The officers involved were in such a state of panic and shock – they were screaming at this guy to tell them what his name was. He couldn’t speak because he had this huge piece of shrapnel in his tongue. You just wanted to slap these people. It was unbelievable. There was a lot of this that went on. During the process of waiting for the Puma to arrive, the SAKK people were continuing to walk around, and were looking for someone to pick on and beat up. I remember one guy drove a vehicle and got it stuck, and someone else got hold of him and was beating the snot out of him. We got involved because we thought that he might kill the guy. This was the kind of drunken useless behaviour that they exemplified. They were incapable of looking after themselves, let alone protect anyone else. It was definitely a really difficult time.
One of the most significant problems that I had – I’m trying to remember whether it was after the first rev we had – I developed a sleep problem, where I would have these recurring nightmares, but in some sort of effort to try to restore control, my recollection of any dream’s was simply blocked. I don’t believe that I stopped dreaming, but I stopped having any recollection of any dreams. That was when I was 18, and I’m now 50-something, and it’s still the same. That was a pretty strong response. It got to the stage were when they did a fire plan, where they would fire a bunch of mortars and stuff, I wouldn’t even wake up. Any time there was something that actually mattered, it was always early at night, and then I was awake. We got to the stage where our team could fire the 81 mm mortars, and I wouldn’t wake up. An 81 mm mortar about 30 m away is pretty loud. Of course they are detonating further away, but even so. There were two of those set up in Elundu. I would say that my sleep problem was the longest lasting effect. There would be hyper vigilance until I went to sleep, and then the bomb could fall and it wouldn’t matter. That was just my response to the stress of that situation.
I remember we finally got the base closed, and moved over to Eenhana and by this time the new mine detection vehicles were doing the main job, so we started to spend more time being assigned to teams like Koevoet, or 101 Battalion, or the reaction force as they called them. We would go out with those guys, looking for caches things that were tactically more useful to the unit than us simply just trying to clear the road non-stop. We did other things. I remember that there was a new swimming pool being built and we put in a new water tower with higher capacity. I got to know Commandant Human prior to that. I remember him coming over to our base to do an inspection and he came around to where my tent was, and he saw the B 25 radio sitting on the sandbag wall, and he looked at the co-axial cable going outside and up the tree to where my inverted V antenna was. He never said a word, but at the same time he was getting calls from a Signals major in Port Elizabeth (Major Victor) about a pirate operating from the operational area with no censorship blah blah blah! I think Human got the measure of me, and he just squashed the whole thing!
Commandant Human used to bring his wife out to the base every other weekend, and people would know that there was a woman on the base. Every time I would go to take a shower during the daylight the troops would steal my clothes and make me walk back naked to where our lines were. This was in the hope that Mrs Human would spot me. Of course you had to be totally nonchalant and just walk very cool, like you were at sandy bay or some nudist beach, to show the troops that you were not worried about the situation – that you can deal with your manliness. There was a lot more of that than there had ever been at Elundu.
At Eenhana, one night I had been given the job of standing guard at the school in town – this was about 2 km outside of the base. I was assigned, myself and three of my guys, and the rest of the guys that I was assigned were conscientious objectors. Not one of them had a rifle. They had sent these guys from South Africa who had told the military that they weren’t going to carry a rifle, they sent them up to Eenhana, and made them stand guard at a school that was extremely exposed. I was sure that I was going to die that night. I was standing guard at a school with, including myself, only four people with rifles. That was a hell of a thing! Again, this was the military taking things to extreme lengths. With these people who just politically didn’t agree. There were more useful things they could have done with these guys. The problem with these guys was that they weren’t willing to carry a weapon. It wasn’t that they weren’t going to do anything that you told them to do. No, they send them to stand guard at a school at night outside of Eenhana. It must have been about the most dangerous assignment they could possibly have sent them on. Sometimes I wonder what happened to those guys after I didn’t see them anymore.
Schools were just fundamentally a target, like anything else. If you went to Angola, the first things they burn down were the schools and the churches. I don’t think there had been an attempt to attack the school. I guess there was concern that that could happen.
For example, if you cross the border into Angola near Ruacana, there was a hydroelectric scheme, and I think the South Africans funded most of it. The hydroelectric scheme produced power, and the power was split; Namibia used some of the power, and Angola used some of the power. The son of one of my dad’s friends at work was assigned to protecting this hydroelectric scheme, and in 1987 there was an attack on this facility, and their son was one of the only survivors. The son elected not to go into any of the buildings, and they attacked the place with MiGs and possibly helicopter gunships, and they fired rockets into any kind of structure that was there. I think, almost to a man, they wiped out that entire group of guys who were there.
END OF BORDER DUTY AND KLAARING OUT
I think we remained at Eenhana until quite late in the year. We had a very short stay at Oshakati on the way out. Then another short stay at Grootfontein on our way south. For whatever reason they used to like to fly us up to Grootfontein, and then transport us with trucks. They ended up driving us back with Elwierda buses all the way through Namibia. We were only about three or four hours into our journey when the bus that we were in hit a cow and they had to take everybody off the bus, and spread them through all the other buses. We were not very comfortable. The train journey would have taken about five days and they didn’t want to have people with that much time on their hands. They chose to use the method that would give them the most control over us.
When they brought us back to 2 Field I remember there were some training officers and NCOs there who wanted to give us a hard time. I remember one of them stuck his head into one of the bungalows, and started shouting at the guys, and they just grabbed him and threw him into the showers fully clothed. Then they threw him out and told him to go away and shut up. People had been trying to kill us for over a year – `You’re a nobody! Just go away!’ It didn’t take long before we were moved back to 26 Field which is out in the middle of nowhere. After that, things were much calmer, we gradually got all our paperwork done and our kit returned. At some point there seemed to be a 24 hour “braai” going on, no alcohol but plenty of comfort food and cold cokes. Everyone seemed to finally unwind a bit.
I didn’t understand why the SADF couldn’t get their crap together, and get us to do the paperwork that we needed to do at the base that you were serving at, and just send you home. At the time we left, it was the peak season for malaria, and of course we were taking malaria tablets every day. I remember that more people died after they went home from not taking their malaria tablets, than were killed in combat. I remember them making an appeal on SABC TV to these guys “if you don’t have your malaria tablets, go to so and so you can get them and take them, because too many people are dying.” People want to go to the beach, and tan, and be sociable, but that stuff bleached your skin. Nobody wanted to take their malaria tablets, but if you didn’t you could get the disease. I know people who ended up in intensive care because they didn’t take their tablets. It was very bizarre; you could go through all this danger and then, when you go home, if you don’t take some tablets that you need to control parasites, it could kill you anyway.
AFTER TWO YEARS NATIONAL SERVICE
It was really weird getting back home. I was 18 years old, I hadn’t turned 19 yet. You don’t behave the way that a regular 18 year old behaves. If one of your friends drives his car recklessly, you get hold of him and you klap the snot out of him. After all that you’ve been through, you don’t want him to kill you on a careless whim.
Adjustment to civilian society:
Having been in a combat area, we had no access to ATMs, or any shops to spend any money at. I think we received danger pay of something like R90 a month, or it might have been R200 a month. I think they paid it out to you in cash. I remember that I saved as much of that as I could. I cleared out fairly late in December, and as I had done for several years prior to going to the military’s – during the summer holiday I used to go down to an uncle on the Natal South Coast. Their family operated a factory’s and they made products like electrical insulators, and Keith Palmer fishing reels. I used to go and work at the factory, and they paid me a regular labourer’s wage. They used to give me a Zulu name, and my name was always Keith `Msumbani’. I was quite close to that aunt of mine, Lynn, it wasn’t for long because in January I was going to be registering at the Technikon in Port Elizabeth to start my studies.
Of course I had been away for two years, and I knew it was going to be tough getting back into it. So I went down to the factory and I worked there and I saved as much money as I could. My older brother had been doing his BCom; I think he was two years in at that point, and he had one more year to go – as far as I can remember my parents got a student loan to help my brother through. My parents just didn’t have the financial means to put all of us through college, so I knew that it was going to be on me to be able to at least get started with my own education. That was really what I focused on. There were many things; I can remember that unexpected sounds would trigger an auto response. I remember that unexpected flashes of light – that was another thing that was a problem for me. A lot of these things persisted for maybe three or four years. Of course we had our own problem simply living in South Africa with the security situation.
There was a very telling moment for me. I moved to Germany in September 2000 and I was living in a little town on the western side of the country right near France in a wine growing region which was where our engineering headquarters happened to be. I had gone on a visit to some facility and I was coming off the autobahn and merging onto this little secondary road and I came to a T-junction. This was which was almost right in front of where the company offices were. I found myself slowing down and looking for where the hijacker was hiding. I caught myself looking for the hijacker. I said to myself; “Hey, you know what? I don’t think you have to look for hijackers anymore.” It was a conscious point for me where I started relaxing and letting some of that stuff go. Of course, when we got back from the border you have that hyper vigilant state and you become aware of any stranger’s movements outside, like for example I was staying at my father’s house while on leave and I noticed a guy ride by on a bicycle, and then he came by again 15 minutes later. And then he came by again. Obviously this guy did not live in the neighbourhood, he was a black guy on a bicycle. I thought; “okay. This guy is casing the place!” People literally tried to burgle my dad’s house when I was home on leave. I had arrived overnight, and my dad and my mom went off to work the next day like usual. Suddenly I was in the situation where I had never been there, and people who had been casing the place didn’t know I was there, so they tried to burgle the house while I was at the house. I confronted them.
I never ended up doing any camps. They called me up to do a camp at the time I was going to college’s so I didn’t attend that one. Then they called me up again after they had released Mandela and unbanned the ANC’s and I said to them that in light of the things that the government had elected to do, I didn’t think that I needed to be contributing to the SADF anymore. It was obviously not going to be about us in the new dispensation. I felt that the need for conscription at that stage was ridiculous. They discontinued it very shortly afterwards so that when my brother did finally finish his B.Com, he only did 18 months, and the guys who were behind him only did a year, and then they stopped it altogether. I didn’t feel guilty about it. I didn’t think I was going to accomplish anything useful in Nelspruit.
That was the part of the military that really annoyed me. It was just going through motions. If we were doing something useful, or if they had called me up to do riot duty somewhere where actual damage was being done, they would get a more sympathetic response, but to just show up and go through motions, that didn’t appeal to me at all!
Did you apply to be called up to engineers?:
I don’t think you could apply to do anything in the military unless you were intending to do short-term permanent force. I think people applied to go to the air force, and other more specialised occupations, but in general they simply assigned you. My impression was that if you went to a technical college or high school, you were fundamentally assigned to engineering school, or the engineering corps, one way or the other. I don’t know how they did the split between one construction regiment and 2 Field Regiment. There were people I knew who had been in the same class as myself, who were called up to go to Bethlehem, or directly to Kroonstad’s. If they thought you were going to be an officer or were NCO material, they called you up directly to Kroonstad. Some people I knew were called up to Kroonstad, but in my case I was called up to one construction regiment. Of the group that I knew all achieved a matriculation exemption, so we had done more than simply pass standard 10. We had passed higher grade subjects and everything. I don’t believe there was any real logic behind what they were doing, they just made some arbitrary split. It could have been on the basis of what your name was – I don’t know, I have no idea!
Now, 30 years later: besides the sleep problem, I would say that the experience actually gave me a purpose in life. When you were in the military you got exposed to people from many walks of life, and socio-economic standings. There were some guys in my section whose parents were operators at Yskor, and they lived in the places where those people lived, so you got to see that you had better work to improve yourself to make yourself more useful so that you aren’t forced, essentially, to work and live in those circumstances. I think that was the biggest thing for me.
I would say that we tried to do our duty as well as we were able, under the circumstances. I generally try to do my job properly and it is probably one of the reasons why I am alive, and that other people didn’t try to pull a fast move on us. The team that was in Nkongo, for example, they never did their job properly. They had way less to do than us. The only thing they had to do was the logistics convoy every two weeks. That was all they had to do. They were not even willing to do that properly. There is more behind that of course. Somebody else who was in my class at school actually went to infantry school, and became the commanding officer at Nkongo. Knowing his personality, I understand some of the reasons for what went on in Nkongo. When you look at the outcome for them, their side of the road was mined frequently. Koevoet would hit mines on that road on a regular basis. SWAPO planted antipersonnel mines for the sweeping team, which injured both the people walking on the sides of the sweeping team and people in the sweeping teams themselves. There was the incident where one of those jumping jacks was planted, and it detonated, and these guys were in bad shape. A very strange incident, because a civilian helicopter landed, and some guys in suits got out, took some photographs, and they were CIA. We appealed to them to take one of the most wounded guys, but they declined. It was a bad situation. We didn’t know if some of the guys were going to make it. This was what that team got for themselves, because they were constantly being watched, and the enemy knew they were not doing their job properly. You got the impression that Karma existed – if you weren’t paying it forward, it was going to get you. That’s what it meant for me.
I look back over a couple of generations. My great-grandfather was captured in the Boer War in Ficksburg or Fouriesburg, and he was sent to a prisoner of war camp in what was called Ceylon -Diatalawa I think it was called – the name of the camp. When he was released back in South Africa – he was repatriated by sea, and they arrived at Durban and as a result of that, my dad’s side of the family were essentially squatters on the bluff in Durban. At the time it was actually a multiracial squatter camp. There were poor people of every description; white people, black people, Indian people – it didn’t matter. And then, of course, with the whole apartheid thing they removed the black and the Indian people and it was only the white people left.
My father lived in a shack on the bluff. They had an outhouse that they used to have to go to at night. They didn’t have running water. He told me that he never owned a pair of underwear until he was 14, when he took his first job. My dad worked from the age of 14 together with my grandmother, his mom. With my dad’s help, my grandmother was able to put the other boys through high school. So my dad’s brothers got better jobs than he had; he worked first as a messenger boy, carrying messages from post to post on the railway, and then later he became an electrician, and ultimately he became a high-voltage electrician’s and he was working on all the electrification projects in Durban.
So if you go back one generation, my dad was living in a squatter camp in an iron shack, and I managed to actually go to college, leave South Africa, go to Germany, and now go to America. These things don’t just happen; you have to make them happen. I look at so many of my former colleagues who are still in South Africa, and I wonder what’s going to become of them.
My grandmother was definitely Afrikaans, but my dad went to school in Durban. It was a strange situation because we were English speaking Boers whose family fought in the Anglo Boer War and were imprisoned in a prisoner of war camp, but if I applied for any of the defence positions – all of the defence companies around Cape Town – we were not Afrikaans enough.
I remember at one stage when the economy was really bad 92-94, I decided that if I had to go up north, I would rather try and find work near Nelspruit, because I liked that area way more than JHB. So I went out there in my 1968 Land Rover, and I was sleeping in it at campgrounds, in the middle of winter. I applied for work in every town, frequently doing cold calls on likely businesses. People took the time to interview me, but I didn’t get any offer of work for nearly a month. I remember stopping in Bloemfontein where it was -20°C. The campground owner came by to check that we were alive in the morning.
What was amazing was that when you went east of Nelspruit’s, to some of the smaller places, they were so Afrikaans; there was no way they were going to hire you if you spoke the enemy’s language is. That was something that blew my mind; the association with English being from the enemy was so strong. Our family spoke predominantly English, and all of my education was in English, especially the scientific subjects. It was a hell of an adjustment to hear that Afrikaans; multiply – vermeenigvollig - what? I ended up going back to PE and finally being hired as a junior engineer at a business in Uitenhage for a little over $1000/month. A pittance for sure, but it really was a “proper” engineering job, my first!
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