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Author: JH Thompson
In the seventies, eighties and nineties, conscription had a profound effect on hundreds of thousands of young men, particularly those who had to serve in the Angolan war. This book is a collection of reflections and memories of that time, collected by JH Thompson, who interviewed men who did National Service. Contributors include ordinary soldiers, Special Forces members, helicopter pilots, chefs and religious objectors.
The book is a fast, fascinating read that captures the spirit and atmosphere, the daily duties, the boredom, fear and other intense experiences of an SADF soldier. For everyone who did military service, as well as their loved ones, this book is a must.
Educated in Spain and South Africa, JH Thompson is a freelance journalist who has been writing and travelling extensively most of her life. She writes movie reviews, travel articles, features for numerous magazines, and had a wildlife column when she was a game ranger. She currently resides in Johannesburg.
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History is not another name for the past, as many people imply. It is the name for stories about the past.
Until 1994, all white male South Africans were called up for National Service in the year they turned 18. This could be deferred for a few years if the person was studying, but to avoid it meant a jail term. In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of young men served in the military, most going through intense physical training and many of them being sent to fight the war in northern Namibia and Angola.
I interviewed over 40 men who were required to do National Service, in order to record their personal memories of this military era. This book is a collection of mental snapshots from their time as SADF conscripts: an inspection, the routine of camp life, the monotony and dread of patrols, the terror of a battle. Whatever the experience, it came with intensity absent in civilian life. The men I interviewed spoke honestly of fear, boredom, loss, crying, drinking, fighting, of deep friendships and a yearning for the camaraderie they had then.
Their stories also give an anecdotal record of the idiosyncrasies and slang from that period, and the way that these varied in different regions and units. The interviews covered a wide range of experiences. The men spoke of life in the army, the navy and the air force. Some were chefs and medics, others were Recces and Parabats. One was a conscientious objector serving time in a military prison. A few of them stayed on for longer than their two years’ National Service, such as the helicopter pilots.
Most are identified by their first name and their age at the time, although some preferred to remain anonymous. There are a few duplicate names but no false ones. Even though most National Servicemen called up for military service did not experience combat, their time with the military had a profound and lasting impact on them.
The war, fought primarily in South Africa’s protectorate South West Africa (Namibia) and in Angola, was an unpopular one on many fronts. Many young men, straight out of school or university, were not staunchly patriotic and did not want to give two years of their lives to the military, mothers didn’t want to lose sons, and South Africa’s apartheid government was condemned internationally for fighting an unjust war.
It was a radically different political climate – one that now, from the perspective of a non-racial and democratic South Africa, is almost impossible to comprehend. Today, it is not socially acceptable for these men to talk about their experiences. But even if the politics were abhorrent, this doesn’t make the soldiers so.
These stories are their experiences as remembered by them. I wrote them as they were told, with no embellishment or editing to make them seem better men, or worse. It is not clichéd at all to say that without certain people this book would not exist. Most obviously and most importantly are the men whom I interviewed. Thank you for trusting me with your stories and memories, without which I could not have written this book. This is not my book, it is yours.
I hope there will be many more books on the experiences of South African soldiers, for there are thousands of stories that should be told, in print, not just among close friends. For those of you who kept diaries or notes of your time as a National Serviceman … get them to a publisher!
Whether it was a concern about reprisals, privacy or a more personal reason, some men requested to remain anonymous, while the rest agreed to the use of their first names in the main body of the book. I wish to thank every one of them. Some of the men whom I can list are Andy Thomas, Anthony Hansen, Christian Bowker, Christoph Hummel, Clint van Haght, Dave Keegan, David O’Sullivan, Ferdinand Taljaard, Jeremy Mansfield, John Scholes, John Walland, Martin Blignaut, Paul Redman, Paul Rotherham, Rick Venter. Thank you for the telling.
Thank you too to Kate Rogan for valuable insider information on the publishing industry, her guidance and encouragement. Lieutenant Colonel Taljaard for his invaluable information and checking of facts concerning the South African Air Force as well as military terminology – geen toffi es vir jou!
Richard Henry, Curator Armoured Fighting Vehicles at the SA National Museum of Military History, who saved me hours and hours of trawling through reference books to check obscure Angolan towns or military hardware facts, thank you for your sharp eye and for sharing your vast knowledge on all things military.
Baie dankie Zelda en Anton le Grange vir julle humor en ondersteuning met al die vertalings vir wanneer my feeble en verkrampte hoërskool Afrikaans my in die steek gelaat het!
Dan Moyane for his cross-border phone calls to ensure that every single diacritical mark was accurate and in its correct place regarding the Portuguese translations. Dad, for being the family’s first amateur historian.
Marlene Fryer, thank you for your record-breaking response and giving me feedback only hours after I sent through the proposal. An unforgettable phone call. Robert Plummer, my managing editor, who managed my doubts and my unstructured manuscript so well. Thank you, Robert. Riveting? Marvellous? Your words meant the world. Thank you for always being patient with my ignorance of the publishing world and for your kindness and humour, and for being gentle!
Although this resembles one of those Oscar acceptance speeches, I must thank my mom. Thank you for instilling in me a love, appreciation and awe for books, as well as for creative thoughts and words. Thank you for the subbing, the left-field questions and being the first person to read the interviews and confirm my belief that the stories were worth telling.
Jem, you are so aptly named. You are my rock and my lighthouse. Thank you for pushing me to put pen to paper after a year of mulling over the idea, considering the possibility that, perhaps, this book could and should be written when I considered it only a firm definite maybe. Thank you for recognising my fears and procrastination and blitzing them. You shine, bunny.
Every person I have mentioned, and the many men I couldn’t mention personally here, as well as friends and family, inspired me, motivated me, and most importantly believed in the book and the absolute importance and necessity of talking about personal experiences in a time of shadows in our country’s history. I humbly thank you.
Running in lines from east to west were kaplyne. These were long sandy 'roads' stretching for miles, which were impossible to cross without leaving a sign. There were no overhanging trees, no rocks, no branches, no patches of grass, nothing - just sand. They lay in a band between the Border and just north of the farming areas, likeTsumeb, and often ran between farming fences.
The army used a Buffel to drag a tree so that the kaplyne were swept clear daily and we could check for fresh spoor. We could easily spot any tracks from terrs who might have crossed the kaplyn the night before. It was impossible to cross these stretches of swept sand without leaving a trace. Bushmen trackers from 101 and SWA Territorial Forces used to sit on the front of the Buffel looking for signs of a crossing or mine-laying activity. Usually the terrs would cross into South West in large groups of anything from 50 to 200 guys and then they would bombshell into smaller groups, as few as three or five.
The trick was to catch them when the group was still large. And these guys would run - not walk, but run. Sometimes Intel would be given information and we would know when to expect a crossing and from which base in Angola the guys were coming. These guys were skinny guys and carried minimum dry rats: a few tins of Russian tuna and some mielie meal. But they came in carrying as much kit as they could: Black Widows, cheese mines, RPGs, RPDs, ammo, and they all had AK-47s. Some were given a few South African rands.
My clearest memories are of the first few contacts we had inside South West. I recall these SWAPO incursions more than our ops into Angola. We were spending our time doing patrols with little purpose really, just walking from A to B and making ourselves visible to the locals. We were based not far north of Oshivelo, and that evening we were given the opportunity to travel toTsumeb for a Geraldine concert.
She was a corny country and western singer who was a big hit with the troops. I think one other songs was 'Baby Makes Her Blue Jeans Talk'. Anyway, about 150 of us are sitting in the dark, watching the show, when the lights go on and we're told there's been an insurgency and everyone must get back to their vehicles immediately. We leave Geraldine and her blue jeans behind and head off for one of the kaplyne. We are to form a stopper group on a fence line just off to the south of one of the kaplyne. We form a long line of guys, about five to ten metres apart.
There are also these large observation towers and the guys in them have night-vision equipment. It's pitch dark and completely silent. Nothing happens. We see no one. The next morning we are back in Ratels, about 12 of them in Alpha Company. We check out an area further west down the kaplyn from where we had been the night before. The trackers pick up where terrs had crossed. They all wore Russian boots with very distinctive spoor: a couple ofV-shaped notches facing the front of the boot. I'm sitting on the front of the Ratel, and E, a guy from the Eastern Cape, is walking around looking at where the guys had come through the fence and crossed the line.
He shouldn't have been there, on the ground, walking around. There was this boom and smoke and dust as he stepped on a Black Widow. I was sprayed with sand and he collapsed with one leg blown off. We couldn't find any part of his leg, only a corner from the back of his boot. The wound wasn't bleeding much. The edges were ragged and partly sealed from the heat of the blast. He was lying there, conscious but completely quiet. No screaming or shouting.
The medic treated him while we waited for a chopper to casevac him out. It felt like we waited forever. I was lucky, because that type of mine is a small concentrated charge, designed not to kill a person but to maim, and this one was buried in soft sand, which absorbed some of the charge. When one goes off, injuring someone, it has a demoralising effect on the rest of us. One minute we were in a hall in Tsumeb being entertained by the sexy singer Geraldine belting out country and western hits, and now this.
E flew out, and some time later we picked up more spoor on the swept kaplyn. One of the Ratels, two behind 13 Bravo, the one I was in, was told to follow the tracks. It hit a sharp right, went straight over farm fences and flattened bushes and trees, 'cause that's how we drove up there, driving right on top of the tracks. The rest of us kept on, moving westwards down the kaplyn.
Suddenly we hear a massive gunfight. There's just the noise of explosions and rounds going off. We immediately call for gunships and start to turn around, get into platoon attack formation and make our way back towards the Ratel that had turned off. We can't see it, but we know where it is by the terrific noise. We come into a shona and in the middle of it is this huge blaze. It was the Ratel. Bodies were lying around, some on fire and some squirming around. I've never seen such a terrible sight. The terrs had set up an ambush on the south side of the shona, and as the Ratel drove into the open clearing, they had opened fire with rockets, RPDs, which have armour-piercing rounds, rifle grenades andAK-47s.
Following our training, the objective is to actually pass right through the kill zone of an ambush to the far side to take out the terrs if they are there. So we had to cross the shona, past the burning Ratel, the burning men and the injured, and check the far side before coming back into the kill zone to see if we could do anything. We'd come in in the Ratels and now we had to jump out and start vuur en beweging' [fire and movement]. I've never been so afraid. It was the most terrifying thing to have to move around in that open clearing expecting to be shot or blown up any minute.
At that point we didn't know if there were any terrs still in the area. There was still ammo going off when we got there, but it was from the burning Ratel. A Ratel carries 11 people; a driver, a gunner, a commander, a tail gunner, two mortars and five riflemen. Some of the troops had been riding on the outside of the Ratel, and one guy who'd been sitting on the Ratel's spare tyre had been blown off. He lost the back of his legs and most of his arse, but at least he survived.
Although the gunships had got a few of the terrs, we went out the next day with Casspirs, ten Bushmen trackers in each, to pick up the spoor from the kaplyn again. The terrs who had ambushed us had bombshelled completely, so we went back to the kaplyn looking for a larger group to track. We preferred to track a bunch of at least three or more rather than individuals. We found spoor from a small group and then two of the trackers ran in front. Once they had the spoor they would keep on it, rotating trackers every hour or so, so that they were always fresh and fast. It was called hot pursuit.
If we picked up tracks that were maybe 12 hours old we could catch up fast, and by the end of the day we would only be an hour or two behind. If we couldn't catch them that day, we camped for the night. Naturally the terrs didn't stop to sleep or eat but kept going. Of course, this meant that by morning we were back to a 12-hour-old track. But the terrs knew if they crossed another kaplyn, we would not be far behind them. As they became more tired they started dropping equipment, discarding whatever wasn't essential.
When we were only minutes behind, we called in the spotter plane. It could fly very slowly and very low, and it was fairly easy for the pilot to spot a person. When he spotted the guys we were chasing, he dropped a white phosphorous grenade as a marker. This rose and expanded and was easy to see over a fair distance. We put foot. All the trackers back on board the Casspir, and it was a flat-out rush to reach that white cloud as fast as possible. We caught up with the terrs, four of them. The contact was brief.
They were exhausted; they'd been running for days, so it was over quickly. When the shooting stopped, it was a mad rush to reach the bodies to see what we could take off them. We took stuff as souvenirs: their equipment, uniforms, and of course the first person there usually got the money. It was only about R20 or so, but when you only got paid about R70, that was a lot of money. I ran up to one of the bodies, propped up against a tree. He was a young, skinny black guy with light brown army pants and a civvy shirt.
I started going through his pockets, looking for the money when he started making these wheezing, gurgling sounds. Man! He was still alive! I stepped back and - barn barn barn'. - I emptied half a magazine into his chest, then stepped forward and continued going through his pockets. I clearly remember finding a couple of crisp, brand new R20s. I split them with an oke from 101 who was next to me. - Anonymous