Military service (1975 to 1983)

 

A record of my military service.

After being forced to naturalize in order to get employment in South Africa I knew that I would soon be called up. I never agreed with the South African's government's apartheid policy at the time but soon found myself having to be part of the regime and defending the country against communism infiltrating from the north! My thoughts and feeling were often mixed and my time in the army had several negative effects on my life but I none the less made the most of it.

South African School of Engineers (SAEC) 70598073BT ( a number it is said you never forget)

 

On my first weekend pass in my 'step-out' uniform.

My training started in January 1973 reporting at Lords grounds, Old Fort road in Durban then taken by train to Kroonstad with the intention of being assessed for an officer's course. The first six weeks was basics whereby we would usually do marching in the mornings followed my rifle or camouflage training after lunch. After the day's training sessions we would have to report for physical training. We were then free to do what needed to be like polishing our boots, cleaning our rifles, washing our own clothes or generally cleaning our sleeping quarters. I was put into a room with two other guys so we had to work as a team. One of the other guys in my room was Guy Gibbon who later became a well known South African Orthonologist.

The second six week period we went on a driving and maintenance course from which I attained my military driving licence and also learnt a great deal about vehicle engines. As I have never been a 'yes' man and was never one of the first men to fall in nor was I what was termed 'parate' in Afrikaans which means to be 'ready' in military terms I did not make the officer grade so along with 6 other slackers was transferred to the nearby Bethlehem. While in Kroonstad we were only allowed to have weekend passes after completing our 6 weeks of basics. On these passes I would hitch hike home a distance of 510km (320 miles).

17 field squadron Bethlehem.

The 7 of us so arrived in Bethlehem on a Sunday afternoon and on reporting to the guardroom we quickly realized that we were not really expected. Our first priority was to find a bungalow and after wondering around the camp for a while were directed to the 'transport' 20 bed bungalow near the camp entrance and with a view over the lower parade ground. After going to the stores to be issued with bedding we joined the mess queue and got fed. On the Monday morning we did not go to morning parade just watching the field sappers and when the parade was over we went to the pay office, presented our pay books to ensure we were on the pay roll at a grand rate of 73 cents per day. That done we went to the transport office where a staff Nel was expecting us and so joined his team. He must of thought we were from heaven as in one foul swoop got his staffing requirements met.

We did not bother to check if we were on the morning parade roll so didn't go to morning parades for several months just hanging about in our bungalow keeping out of sight.

We did also not check if we were on the guard list and so did not have to stand guard duty until a few months later when we were eventually caught up with.

We were also not on the afternoon physical exercise register so some of us joined the band while a few of us including myself joined the canoeing team which went out of the camp for rowing practice to the nearby Loch Athlone. This got us out the camp and away from the afternoon physical exercise sessions.

Towards the year we were given the option of either doing another 2 months with no further obligation or else be discharged after the 10 months as called up but having to do 3 19 day camps. I chose the 19 day camp option as I thought it would be a break from work. This decision was a big mistake I was to discover later.

Hitch hiking home and often arriving in the early hours of the Saturday morning, leaving after lunch on the Sunday the rest of the family was always happy to see me. It was worth the long 700km return journey hitching through the night along lonely deserted roads in the Orange Free State province and I would come home as often as I could except for one weekend when I went with an army friend to his parent's farm near Vereeniging. I will never forget the experience of standing on the side of the road bitterly cold in the middle of nowhere and seeing a car's headlights slowly approaching several kilometers away in the flat Orange Free State province only to wiz past without stopping
The squadron had an open day so my family drove to Bethlehem to come see me. I was pleased that they had made the long 360km journey.
My sister Ineke is standing in the turret of my bubble nose Bedford I obtained my military licence and while still in Bethlehem I borrowed a Bedford and passed my civilian heavy duty licence at the local testing centre which would come in very handy when I arrived in England in 2005.
In June 1974 I received a call up for my first 19 day camp but as I was busy at university I got a deferment
 
December 1975 I again received a call up for my 1st 19 day camp which was to be near Kozi Bay in the Jozini area. Here our unit was to build a extra wide and long hard surfaced airstrip to handle large aircraft and also a drift through a little river to take the weight of a low bed laden with a tank. This work was to be prepared from a possible threat from Mozambique. I was put in charge of the vehicle park soon earning my first stripe I was now a lance corporal. One 19 day camp down and 2 to go or so I thought.

Soon after arriving back home I received a letter to say that the 19 day camps have changed to 30 day camps and was again called up in the first half of 1976. Shortly before this camp I got another letter to say that the 30 day call-ups had been extended to 84 days. This was very different to the 3 19 day camps I had opted for.

I got engaged to Francoise on 19th May 1976 shortly after which I was again called up for another 3 month camp. Again we had to report to Lords Grounds in Old Fort Road where my unit , 19 Field Squadron was based and had to sleep in a large hall on the concrete floor only on a groundsheet. The following morning we were waked before dawn and instructed to get onto several Bedfords. The convoy of several bedfords left before dawn escorted by the military police on motorcycles blocking off the side roads as we sped down Soldiers way turning right into Smith Street which is now named Dr Pixley Kasema Street. The police had their sirens blaring so many of the people must of thought that a major war was about to start. The convey arrived at the Louis Botha airport on the military side and we soon learnt what the expression of 'hurry up and wait' meant. I had joined up with 3c others including Richard Kalsvig and start playing bridge a game which I had learnt while at university. Just after sunrise with us a sitting on the apron we finally boarded Hercules C130 aircraft and after another long wait took off. after a 4 and a half hours we landed at Grootfontein where we stayed overnight in a transit camp which consisted of 5x5m tent roves with no sides as it was hot and dry it was ok but we had to sleep on the bare earth with rocks pocking in my back. After a most uncomfortable night we set off again towards Ondangwa

Reporting at Lords grounds we formed up and marched along Soldiers Way to the old station where we boarded a troop train. we arrived in Bloemfontein the following morning in a camp called de Brug. Here our kit was checked and we were reissued with some of the kit. I somehow managed to get extra brown issue shirts and pants and also a few other bits and pieces figuring that I would then not have to wash clothes that often. I would then have to carry an extra balsack (equipment bag) but I was reasonable fit and strong. Again we boarded a troop train and for next 5 days slowly made our way north going past Kimberley and De Aar. we arrived at Oshivelo where were told to dig in on the ground making small trenches in the ground to sleep in. More to follow soon as I slowly recall the facts and get the timings right.
1977 or 1978 spent another 12 week camp at Ondangwa next to a long runway to construct a large warehouse driving dumper trucks and throwing slabs for small buildings. Doing electrical wiring with Alfie Botha we slept in tents a short distance away in a camp surrounded by thick earthen walls. More to follow soon as I slowly recall the facts and get the timings right
 

1977 or 1978 (12 week camp) I again reported at Lords grounds and the entire unit of about 300 strong spent the nigh trying to sleep on the hard wooden floor. shortly before dawn we were woken up and had to board waiting Bedfords. Once aboard we were escorted by the military police with wailing sirens we sped through Durban waking every sleeping mortal being. On arrival at the airport we waiting sitting on the tarmac for over 2 hours before boarding one of several Hercules C130s. No problem to me and three others who had already started playing bridge, a game I learnt while wasting my time at university. On landing at Grootfontein 5 hours later we were transported on a Magirus Deutzes several kilometers further north to the Caprivi strip to a camp named Buffalo on the banks of the Okovango river. Here our little group of 10 sappers were attached to the notorious 32 battalion We had to swear to secrecy and not to tell anyone a thing of what we saw while attached to the battalion. Nor were we able to take anything that would show anyone of the battalions existence. I did however manage to smuggle out a t-shirt seen on the left which I gave to my son with strict instruction not to display it in public.

30 day camp at Lohatla  
  A weeks training course in Pretoria on loss management
   

For serving on the border operational areas I was awarded a Pro Patria service medal. I cannot recall any award ceremony so the medal and certificate made out to Cpl Willem Hofland must of just simply arrived in the post.

I was glad to be finally released from my military commitments. Serves me right for naturalizing and then choosing the wrong option and not really having the Lord in my life to get proper guidance from. To continue