The army and I did not get on. I understood the need for a defence force and an active citizen force; I just didn’t appreciate all the “force” that seemed to be part of the whole thing. I was quite willing to run around in the sun carrying a rifle, with a pack on my back, if they asked me to do these things in a polite and civilized manner. But in 1961 in Bloemfontein while I was doing my basic training after being drafted into the Kimberley Regiment, the army was not prepared to see things my way.
I responded with dumb insolence. I soon discovered that “dumb insolence”, while difficult to prove, was a punishable offence . . .
On one occasion I was threatened with a private flogging in the staff sergeant’s office, and told to await his arrival. I waited outside until I got bored (having spent 12 years in Catholic school the thought of one more flogging didn’t bother me too much). I soon decided that the flogger had chickened out, so I snuck into his office and took his “pull-through” (the thing used to clean a rifle) as a memento of the occasion. If he ever suspected me of the theft he kept quiet about it.
In those days the defence force budget only ran to funding two months’ basic training, followed by weekly Thursday night parades (if one lived close enough to one’s regimental base), and annual three-week camps for a total of four years.
I soon discovered that the annual camp at De Brug was an excuse for people such as the local electrician or plumber to have fun in the sun by making others run around doing ridiculous things while they shouted orders. Afterwards they got drunk. Every night.
Well, almost every night. One evening everyone was ushered into army trucks and transported deep into De Brug, the 250 000 hectare tract of land near Bloemfontein that was utilised by the SADF as a training ground. There, permanent force staff told us that we were to take part in a special night exercise which involved us being split up into groups. Our group’s task was to sneak up on a paratroopers camp three miles away, get through the guarded perimeter and put a giant cross of toilet paper in the centre of the parade ground. A helicopter would fly over the camp at first light to check if we had achieved our objective.
To make it more interesting, they had warned the paratroopers (known as Parabats) that we were coming. (I should add that we had been told on previous exercises that Parabats were highly trained individuals, and that only the brightest, fittest and strongest volunteers were chosen to become paratroopers). They probably had a warm reception planned, because there was a semi-official war on the go between us and them, and we had recently hi-jacked their food wagon, and made them wait for many hours before they got their evening meal.
To make it even more challenging we were not told in which direction the target lay. But, in a few hours’ time, at 10 pm, a flare would be fired into the sky to signal the end of the exercise, and we were all to return to the assembly point to be transported back to our tent camp.
At this stage the most senior member of our group decided to seize control. Captain Toefie B (let’s call him TB) then made a little speech in which he asked us to agree that, in operations like this, there could only be one boss. He felt he was eminently suited to be that boss as he had had a lot of experience in the veld, and had been in the citizen force a lot longer than we had. We didn’t argue. He called for volunteers who regarded themselves as good street fighters, who were prepared to get into a fist fight if necessary, should they meet any resistance while sneaking through enemy lines. With TB and four street fighters in the lead, armed with a toilet roll, we set off hopefully along a rough track with the stars lighting our way.
When we had walked for about an hour without seeing anything significant except for some shooting stars, TB decided to change direction. Because we were all so confident in TB’s abilities none of us took much notice of landmarks or the direction in which we were travelling. After following the new route for some time TB began to have doubts. He started asking us which way our meeting point was, and didn’t we think it was a good idea to sort of head back, as we clearly weren’t going to find the Parabats that night.
We all thought that was an excellent idea. The only problem was that several people had distinctly differing views on which way we should go. I think I might have cleverly suggested that we wait for the flare to be fired and head off that way. I don’t know for sure if we ever did see that flare, but I do remember seeing the most amazing UFO streaking horizontally across the sky a few degrees above the horizon. It was the same blue-green colour as the meteors we saw streaking downwards. But it was incredibly bright and lit up the scene like a bank of floodlights. We knew it couldn’t be a meteor because the ones we saw were all clearly speeding towards the centre of the earth, whereas our UFO was speeding across the sky in an absolutely flat, horizontal trajectory. And its light went out suddenly as though something had thrown a switch.
It certainly wasn’t a flare, because we had seen lots of those in the past, and they went up and down in a parabolic curve.
After we had walked in different directions for hours my recent promotion to the rank of lance corporal began to bother me. Being a lance corporal meant that I had to carry a light machine gun (LMG) which was anything but light, and had all sorts of knobs and protrusions that stuck into me. It was heavier and much more awkward to carry than the rifles that the others bore. I couldn’t get comfortable with it no matter how I slung it over my back, side or front. Another thing that irritated me was that earlier in our camp we had been loudly ordered to assemble immediately. As I was sitting in my tent with my boots off I only had time to pull them on to my bare feet without putting socks on first. My feet became progressively more painful as the leather rubbed against the bare flesh.
Around midnight it became clear that we had missed the flare and were hopelessly lost. We wandered onwards not knowing if we were heading in the right direction or not. Eventually, in the early hours of the morning we spotted tiny lights bobbing on the horizon. As we got closer we realised that farmers were ploughing their mealie fields right through the night. Somebody suggested that we should ask one of the tractor drivers the way back to camp. It was a major embarrassment that a soldier should have to admit to a peasant that he didn’t know the way home, but TB couldn’t think of a better plan.
So, as a tractor with a bobbing lantern neared us, a troepie climbed over the fence and walked towards the approaching tractor. When the driver saw a man with a rifle coming at him out of the gloom he leapt off the moving tractor and ran away. Somehow we stopped the tractor and managed to round up the terrified driver. He told us the way to go home.
As dawn was breaking our motley crew spotted tents in the distance and I hobbled as fast as I could to keep up with the others.
I must have looked a miserable sight, carrying my boots in one hand and my LMG in the other while dodging the rough bushes, stones and thorns in the path of my bare feet.
TB took pity on me, and relieved me of my LMG for the last two hundred yards of our journey (until then he had only an officer’s pistol to contend with).
The last I saw of him was him in a tent with a group of other officers listening to the loudly told tale of how we had walked the whole night, covering something like 25 miles in the process.
There was no rest for us. After a quick breakfast we had to go off to the shooting range for the day.
The permanent force staff in charge of the range were disgusted at the way we kept falling asleep every time we stopped firing. Later we heard that they had torn a strip off the incompetents who had caused us to be so exhausted. And at a parade a few days later a PF staff sergeant told us if he was ever called up to go war with our regiment’s officers he would shoot himself first.
When we got back from the range I was informed that I was to be court-martialled for losing an LMG. Those in charge got suspicious when I seemed almost eager to attend the hearing.
The charges were quickly dropped when I let slip that I would not be pleading guilty, and that TB’s name was likely to be mentioned in an unflattering way.