A while back, as the Chairman of the South African Legion in the United Kingdom, I was involved in the return of Peter McAleese’s South African Defence Force nutria ‘Slangvel’ (parabat smock) to him. For jump qualified ‘Parabats’ (Airborne Infantry) this smock is a prize item, and the South African one, the ‘slangvel’ (snake-skin) as it is fondly known, is a little unique because of reinforced sections sewn onto it – elbows and shoulders mainly to deal with all the chute and other strappings, keeping them tight and to prevent wear. The ‘brown’ nutria slangvel is a collectors favourite and very sought after.
Nutria was the preferred uniform of the SADF, basically just ‘brown’ – the developers of nutria argued that in the harsh African sun after 50 meters you are an un-definable blob to the naked eye anyway, ‘nutria’ brown as a single colour was versatile enough in the African surrounds to provide sufficient camouflage when needed – so no need for camouflage stripes or dots – and so the SADF was just about everything ‘brown’, including vehicle camouflage – one colour, and that made economic sense.
Images: Peter McAleese in his SADF nutria ‘slangvel’ and Sean Renard returning it to him.
Somehow Peter’s ‘nutria’ ‘slangvel’ smock found itself in the wild and and fellow South African Legion – Legionnaire, Sean Renard found it in Europe on auction, bought it and on the 16th July 2015 decided to give it back to Peter at his book launch at the Oriental Club in London with the aid of Cameron Kinnear – another Legionnaire. Sean proudly and selflessly handing it over to him – the epitome of the Legion in action and its members.
Now, not only is that a rare spot, but Peter McAleese is also a rare spot for collectors of militia – and that’s because he’s also seen wearing a very rare ‘Giraffe Patten’ Camouflage uniform in some of his SADF period photos whilst with the SA Army’s 44 Parachute Brigade and Pathfinder Reconnaissance Unit. The ‘Giraffe’ slangvel smock he is seen wearing (as opposed to his nutria one) is incredibly rare.
Images: Peter McAleese in the rare experimental ‘Giraffe Patten’ camo
In fact it’s a holy grail for people collecting military items like uniform pieces, badges, headgear, rank and insignia .. it’s even considered one of the rarest examples of a camouflage used by any military force in the world .. it’s that rare.
So, what’s the fuss all about?
When and why the SADF come up with this ‘holy grail’ camouflage uniform. Not everything here is confirmed, this uniform was developed in a shroud of secrecy for special forces units alone. The South Africa special forces units tended to have a little more latitude in their choice of weapons, equipment and uniform (and even bearing) and many of their operations are still clouded in secrecy – so not surprisingly folklore and unsubstantiated stories have come to surround them. I may be wrong but here’s what we know about this uniform.
About 80 or so ‘Giraffe Patten’ camouflage uniforms were issued between 1980 and 1982 to the Pathfinders of the 1 Parachute Battalion of the 44 Parachute Brigade. The camouflage is a two-tone colour – one brown, one off white and draws inspiration from the Reticulated Giraffe. In testing the patten proved unremarkable and not effective enough and therefore did not enter broad service. It was however used by special forces and some rare photos exist of it being used in the field. Rumour has it that Colonel Jan Breytenbach, then the Officer Commander of the 44 Parachute Brigade, ordered that all the uniforms be destroyed .. except one. This one uniform ultimately landed up with a Private collector in the USA (via a Private collector in France).
However, at some stage, a limited array of uniform items – about 12 uniforms consisting of bush-hats, slangvels, shirts and pants were re-printed using the Giraffe Patten, in the correct SADF style, and these made it into ‘collectors’ circulation – although not original, the person who manufactured and sold the items decided to keep them limited to keep collectors value – so they are pretty rare and sought after too.
Images: Rare use of the giraffe camo and the Reticulated Giraffe
No mean soldier
Now to someone very rare and who is very genuine – the subject of the camouflage – Peter McAleese, Peter is a legend in South African military circles.
Born 7 September 1942, he served in the British Army’s Parachute Regiment and Special Air Service (SAS), the Rhodesian Special Air Service and British South Africa Police, and then subsequently as a Sergeant Major in South Africa’s 44 Parachute Brigade during the Border War. As a mercenary or contractor, he worked in countries including South Africa, Angola, Colombia, Russia, Algeria and Iraq.
He’s written two books ‘No Mean Soldier’ and ‘Beyond No Mean Soldier’ (both available on-line) – there are precious few like him around today, a real soldier’s soldier and it was a privilege for me to meet him, and for the South African Legion to recover his nutria smock for him.
This article has been a long time in coming because it’s really a simple soldier’s story … it’s mine … and I’m a real son-of-a-bitch to consolidate myself with and as such this has been very hard to put together. However, I hope it gives some insight into what it was like to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF) from the unbanning of the ANC and release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990 to the landmark year for the transformation of South Africa’s democracy in April 1994.
It’s also a testament and a cathartic exercise, as … ta da! No surprise to anyone who knows me personally and what I went through with Covid 19, but I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). So, no surprise on the Covid front, but it’s the root of the PTSD that’s the real problem, and it boils down to my time in the SADF from 1990 to 1994, it settled on ‘Trust’ or lack thereof really.
“Ag Fok man! No more PTSD G3/K3 Fucked Up Kak” some of my fellow veteran buddies may jump to, heck at one stage I felt the same. But bear with me ‘manne’, this is not a ‘outreach’ or a ‘call for help’ .. I’m solid, in good spirits and very stable (more on this later). What my therapy disclosed is in fact a very interesting bit of history not often held up in the narrative of 1994 and it possesses a load of inconvenient truths, that’s what this story is really all about. So, here goes;
Wit en Swart Gevaar (White and Black Danger)
In 1990 Whilst the now ‘unbanned’ African National Congress (ANC) was finding its political feet and locating itself to ‘Shell House’ near Bree Street in Johannesburg, I was located at Witwatersrand Command’s new HQ Building – also in Bree Street a block away – the nearby old HQ at the bottom of Twist Street called the ‘Drill Hall’ had been all but abandoned after it was bombed by a ‘lone’ ANC cadre – who oddly was a ‘white Afrikaner’ from a top Upper Middle Class Afrikaans school, Linden High School, and who had some serious ‘Daddy issues’ with his Conservative father and upbringing. With the building now declared ‘unsafe’ the HQ had moved next door. Here begins my problem in trying to define the enemy – as we had been conditioned by the old Afrikaner Nationalists and in the SADF that the ‘enemy’ was a ‘Swart Gevaar’ (Black Danger) and a ‘Rooi Gevaar’ (Communist Red Danger) – not a ‘Wit Gevaar’ (White Danger) with a Upper Middle-Class sense of Liberalism as the bomber in question, Hein Grosskopf, was.
So, here I am, a freshy minted National Serviceman ‘one-pip’ Loot ( 2nd Lieutenant or Subaltern) seconded to Wit (Witwatersrand) Command Operations (Ops) from my initial placement at D-Ops (Directive Operations) located in a underground circular shafted ‘nuclear proof’ building in Pretoria called Blenny, the building whose Top Secret Ops room looked like a scene out of Dr Strangelove had its entry bunker located near the Pretoria Prison. This underground building is now falling derelict as a SAAF HQ, in my time the personnel stationed there were known as the ‘Blenny rats’ for obvious reasons, and funnily I can count myself as one.
My job at Wit Command (not ‘Wits’ Command mind – that designation was for the nearby University) was to provide Operation Support and send Top Secret daily SITREP (situation reports) from Wit Command to D Ops at Blenny, or just been a ‘Bicycle’ as my fellow senior officers called ‘one pip’ 2nd Lieutenants (you can ‘trap’ i.e. peddle/stamp on a bicycle), the lowest rung on the officer rank profile.
Whilst parking in my cushy post in the Ops room in September 1990 processing a whack of casualties reported on Johannesburg’s railway lines as the ANC dealt with ‘sellouts’ by throwing them off the commuter trains, the Railways Police and Army Group 18 collecting the corpses and sending reports to me for the daily SITREP and suddenly ‘bang’ another bomb blast (more like a muffled ‘thump’ actually), this one a couple of city blocks away in nearby Doornfontein and the target is the old Beeld Newspaper Offices, the bomb later turned out to be placed by the Orde Boerevolk – one of the spin-off militant White Supremacist Groups. Swart Gevaar suddenly turned Wit Gevaar again. Luckily nobody killed.
This ‘White’ Danger did not end there for me that month. Being a ‘bicycle’, 2nd Lieutenant I was given the shift nobody wanted, the weekend shift in the Ops room, the ‘Commandants’ (Lt. Colonels – and there were loads of them in Army Ops), were all at home enjoying their braai’s and brander’s. It was a 24 hour on – 48 hour off gig with no brass around so I enjoyed it. Late on a Saturday night, its all quite and I’m stretched out on a cot behind the signaller’s station watching TV and enjoying my lekker time in the ‘Mag’ when a white Ford Cortina pulled up in Bree Street, four white men in the car, out step two, one of them wearing a AWB arm band hangs back standing watch and the other walks up to the entrance of Wit Command and calmy shoots a 21 Battalion sentry on duty in the reception in the head.
21 (Two-One) Battalion was a ethnic Black Battalion – the SADF was ethnically funny that way, so this was basically a white extremist shooting a black SADF troop as a terror attack. I hear the gunshot, then get a frantic call from the guard room. There is no medic support and only one other officer on the base, so I grab a hand-held radio and the emergency medic bag and give instructions to the signaller to stay on the radio and relay messages. The troopie is fortunately alive, the bullet having passed through his jaw as he flinched away from his attacker’s gun. I patch him up with bandages from the medical kit bag and radio the signaller to call an emergency medical evacuation. I then issue an order to the 21 Battalion Guard Commander to double the guard, take note from witnesses as to what happened and then back to my post to disturb my senior officer’s weekend. ‘Wit Gevaar’ had struck Wit Command again.
Image : AWB Clandestine paramilitary
Given the general carnage in the country created by the AWB, the Inkata Freedom Party (IFP) and African National Congress (ANC) at this time it did not take long for the ANC version of ‘Swart Gevaar’ and it would hit me directly again about two weeks later in October 1990 when I received a desperate call over the Ops room phone from an ANC informant, his cover blown and an angry ANC mob had turned up outside his house in Soweto. I was unable to get an extraction to him in the time that it took for the mob to break down the door and the line go dead after I had to listen to his desperate pleading to me for help, the Police picked up his body later. The dismissive and rather racist attitude of one of the other officers present to the whole incident .. “just another kaffir.”
Shortly after that in October ANC ‘danger’ turned to IFP ‘danger,’ same scenario I’m sat on the weekend in the Ops room enjoying my cushy 24 hours on 48 hours off. This incident strangely happened on a Sunday afternoon, so again the Command is relatively silent manned only by a skeleton staff. Odd for a Sunday, but a small group of IFP supporters banishing traditional weapons (deadly spears and pangas in reality) had made its way down Twist Street from Hillbrow and was making its way past the old Drill Hall to Bree Street, which, as it was still a SADF installation had a group of 21 Battalion guards staying in it. One troop was casually standing outside having a smoke, and I don’t know if it was a ethnic retaliation of Zulu sentiment for a Black SADF troop, but in any event, he got attacked – hit by a panga as he lifted his arms to prevent a killing blow.
Same drill as previous – no medics around and only 2 officers on the base, grab radio to relay instructions, grab bomb bandages, immediately double the guard, relay instructions to my signaller. I get to the troop and start bandaging him up, however as the panga had severed veins and done other general carnage in both his arms it took some bomb bandages and applied pressure to get it the bleeding under control before an ambulance arrived.
Image: Inkata Freedom Party member taunts a black SADF soldier
He lived, but the strange bit for me, next morning – Monday early, I had been up all night and my uniform was covered in blood. The Commandant, whose lekker branders and braai weekend I had once again disturbed, came in earlier than expected at 06:30am, called me in ‘on orders’, and whilst ‘kakking me out’ from high told me I was derelict in my duty for not wearing barrier gloves when treating a casualty, who, as he was a black man (and to his racially ‘verkrampt’ mind) he would likely have AIDS, thus I was endangering myself as government property. That there were no barrier gloves around was not an excuse – and as some sort of punitive measure, he then instructed me to attend the morning parade on the open ground on the Command’s car park (as Ops Officers we had usually been excluded from it). I objected on the basis that I could not change my uniform in time, but he would have none of it.
So, there I stood, an officer on parade covered in blood from saving yet another lowly regarded ‘black’ troopie, watching the sun come up over a Johannesburg skyline on a crisp clear day (if you’ve lived in Johannesburg, you’ll know what this is like, it’s the town’s only redeeming factor – it’s stunning) all the time thinking to my myself “this is one fucked up institution.”
There were more instances of the random nature of violence at the time, I was called to and attended to the stabbing of a woman (later criticised by a Commandant for calling a emergency ambulance for a mere ‘civilian’) – she had a very deep stab wound about two inches above her mons pubis into her lower intestines which looked pretty bad to me, so I called it and I have no regrets. I was also called to help with a off duty white troop who staggered into the Command late Saturday night with a blunt trauma to the back of the skull and subsequently pissed himself and went into shock.
Oh, and if the general populace wasn’t bad enough, then there were the ‘own team’ military ‘idiots’ which posed a danger all of their own, my first ‘Padre’ call out as an Ops officer was for a troop shot dead by his buddy playing around with his 9mm side-arm, and some months later on after a morning parade walking back to the Bree Street building I had to deal with an accidental discharge gunshot in the guardroom of the old Drill Hall which saw two troops with severe gunshot wounds (a conscript Corporal in counter-intelligence decided to check R4 assault rifles standing on their bi-pods on the ground, one discharged taking off a big chunk of his calf muscle which was in front of the muzzle, the bullet then entering both legs of a 21 Battalion guard standing opposite him).
One thing was very certain to me … everyone, black and white .. from white right wing Afrikaners to left wing English and Afrikaner whites .. to militant and angry Zulus, Tswanas and Xhosas and just about everyone in between was a threat to my life whilst in uniform. These instances whilst serving as an Ops officer would later serve as the basis of stressor trigger during my Covid experience. To me in 1990 there was no such thing as a ‘friendly’, extreme racism, danger and hate coursed in all directions and the old Nationalist idea of the ‘Gevaar’ was a crock of shit.
Wit Command Citizen Force
On finishing my National Service (NS) stint, I immediately landed up in my designated Citizen Force Unit, 15 Reception Depot (15 OVD/RCD) which was part of Wit Command and basically handled the bi-annual National Service intakes and call-ups (reserve forces included). It also provided surplus personnel to assist in Wit Command’s administration, and that included Operations and Intelligence work. By 1991, I was back doing ‘camps’ and had impressed my new Commanding Officer (CO) enough to earn my second ‘pip’ and now I was a substantiated Full Lieutenant, an officer good and proper. I had previously keenly jumped at a role as a Convoy Commander escorting raw SADF recruits to their allocated training bases.
Images of Nasrec NSM intakes circa 1990-1993. Photo of Lt. Col Mannie Alho (then a Captain) and Miss South Africa, Michelle Bruce at an intake courtesy Mannie Alho.
These were ‘fully armed’ operations as NSM intakes were regarded as a ‘soft’ and very ‘public’ target, of much value for an act of terrorism. As such each convoy needed an armed escort with a lot of Intelligence and logistics support. If you need to know how dangerous – consider how many times a recruitment station has been bombed in the Iraq and/or Afghanistan conflicts. I volunteered for the furthest and most difficult escort as the Convoy Commander – the bi-annual call up to 8 South African Infantry Battalion in Upington (8 SAI). My ‘escort’ troops were made up of Wit Command reservists, some from Personal Services but most of them with Infantry Battalion backgrounds, Border War veterans in the main and highly experienced.
By 1994 I had really earned my spurs doing ‘long distance’ Convoy Command. In early 1993 my CO – Lt. Col Mannie Alho had seen enough potential in me to kick me off to do a ‘Captain’s Course’ at Personal Services School at Voortrekkerhoogte in Pretoria. At the beginning of 1994 Colonel Alho called me in, handed me a promotion to Captain and gave me his old Captain’s ‘bush pips’ epaulettes he had in his drawer – a gesture and epaulettes I treasure to this day.
Images: … erm, me – in case anyone is wondering why the ‘Bokkop’ (Infantry beret), I started off at 5 SAI, then PSC, then back in an infantry role in Ops.
At this time around Wit Command, a number of significant things happened involving all of us in 15 RCD to some degree or other – some less so, others more so. It was a BIG year. In all, these instances would really question who the enemy was in any soldier’s mind serving in the ‘old’ SADF at that time.
The Reserve Call-Up – 1994
Firstly, the call up of the SADF Reserve in the Witwatersrand area to secure the country for its democratic transformation. Generally, in 1994 the SADF was running out of National Servicemen – the ‘backbone’ of the SADF, the annual January and July intake of ‘white’ conscripts had dwindled alarmingly. Generally, the white public saw the writing on the wall as to the end of Apartheid and the end of whites-only conscription program and simply refused to abide their national service call-ups.
As to the ‘Permanent Force’ (PF), the professional career element of the SADF, many senior officers (and a great many Commandants) along with warrant officers and some senior NCO’s took an early retirement package. They had seen the writing on the wall as to their role in the Apartheid security machine and felt they had been ‘sold out’ by the very apparatus they had sworn their allegiance to. Some would head into politics in the Conservative Party, others would join the AWB structure and other ‘Boerevolk’ resistance movements and some took their Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) amnesty’s and quietly retired. Others would just bow out honourably, their time done. Nearly all of them totally fed up with FW De Klerk and his cabal and feeling utterly betrayed by them – even to this day, and I meet many in military veteran circles.
As to the other part of the SADF ‘backbone’ of which I was one – the Citizen Force, then made up almost exclusively of ‘white’ ex-National Service members now undertaking their ten odd years of ‘camp’ commitments. In 1994, it was on the cards that a future ‘whites only’ conscription would be stopped, but the problem was a great many soldiers would be needed to stop the country falling into a violent abyss and continuing its journey to a free fully democratic election. To keep up with resourcing requirements, the government contested that ‘whites only’ conscripts who had completed their National Service and were now serving in citizen force Regiments and Commandos must continue to do so and attend their call ups (or risk being fined).
Many were simply sick and tired of the situation; they had done their ‘Border Duty’ and ‘Townships’ and had seen the writing on the wall. They knew the Citizen Force structures would be toothless trying to enforce the camp call-ups and ‘fines’. Many just didn’t bother with a camp call up and just wanted to get on with their professional and family lives. A small few however split their loyalty on political grounds and made their way into the AWB and other Boerevolk Armed Resistance movements instead.
Images: AWB Training – note the use of parts of SADF ‘Browns’ uniform
However, and this is a truism, a great many of these active reservists (the vast majority) stayed on out of sheer loyalty to serve their country no matter what, and to serve their comrades (a powerful bond of brotherhood develops when you serve) and to execute their mandates as well trained and professional military personnel. It was to this element of the Citizen Force that the government would ultimately turn to for help and implore them to volunteer to steer the country to democracy. Even the old ‘End Conscription Campaign’ anti-apartheid movement moved to support the ‘camper call up’ for the 1994 general elections.
Personally, I found the SADF military personnel moving to join the AWB and other White Supremist groupings very disappointing as I honestly believe they were hoodwinked and misled. Whilst serving in the SADF, the AWB presented itself as a very distinct enemy and they had no problems targeting the SADF – of that I had first-hand experience, so very little doubt. I find myself often in military veteran circles in contact with some of these veterans and must say I still find it difficult to reconcile with them.
The country’s military also can’t just ‘sommer’ fall apart when a new political party is elected, the loyalty and oath on my officer’s commission is not party political it’s to the State. As a soldier, acting against the State is an act of sedition and all it did was show up these SADF soldiers as loyal to political causes, in this case the National Party’s Apartheid policy and not to the country per se, the military, or their fellow comrades-in-arms still in the military. Having any of them on the ‘inside’ at this time simply qualified them in my eyes as yet another form of ‘Wit Gevaar’.
To secure the transition of the country to its new democratic epoch, CODESA (the Committee overseeing the establishment of a new constitution and transition of power) proposed the National Peacekeeping Force (NPK), a hastily assembled force consisting of SADF soldiers, some ‘Bantustan’ Defence Force soldiers and ANC MK cadres, to conduct peace-keeping security operations and secure the 1994 election. The NPK was a disaster, SADF officers complained of the very poor battle form and discipline, especially of the ANC ‘cadres’ and pointed to basic cowardice. All this materialised in the accidental shooting and killing of the world renown press photographer, Ken Oosterbroek by a NPK member nervously taking cover behind journalists advancing on a IFP stronghold. The NPK was finally confined to barracks in disgrace and quietly forgotten about (even to this day).
Images: National Peacekeeping Force in Johannesburg and surrounds
So, it was the old SADF that would have to do the job of taking the country into democracy. I was at the Command when this news came in on the NPK, and I must say I was very relieved, I felt we had been held back ‘chomping at the bit’ literally, and this was our opportunity to shine. It was the opportunity for all involved in the SADF at the time to redeem its image so badly battered by its association to Apartheid and the controversial decision in the mid 80’s to deploy the SADF in the Townships against an ‘internal enemy’ (protesting South African citizens in reality) as opposed to the ‘Rooi Gevaar’ enemy on the Namibia/Angola border (MPLA, SWAPO and Cuban Troops). Added to this were the emerging confessions of political assassinations by Civil Co-Operation Bureau (CCB) members, a SADF clandestine ‘black-ops’ group off the hinge and operating outside the law.
The decreasing pools of experienced SADF soldiers, the increasing violence between ANC and IFP supporters, the substantial increase in attacks and bombings by armed ‘Boerevolk’ white supremacist movements like the AWB and others, and the disaster that was the ‘National Peacekeeping Force’ and its disbandment; all forced CODESA and the FW de Klerk government to call-up the SADF’s National Reservists. This was done to boost troop numbers and inject experience into the ranks, take over where the NPK left off, and secure the country’s democratic transition and elections.
A Reception Depots primary role is ‘mustering’ and this does not matter if it’s a citizen recruit for Military Service – conscript or volunteer or the mustering of the country’s National Citizen Force Reserve. The mustering of the SADF Reserve in Johannesburg took place at Group 18 (Doornkop) Army Base near Soweto and as 15 Reception Depot I was there with our officer group to process the call-ups, see to their uniform and kit needs and forward these Reservists to their designated units to make them ‘Operational’.
Operational Citizen Force members in Johannesburg and surrounds during 1994
Swaggering around the hanger rammed full of reservists, as a newly minted Captain and trying to look important, I was tasked with dealing with a handful of reservists who had abided the call-up but turned up wearing civilian clothes and no ‘balsak’ kitbag and uniforms in sight. The Army regulations at time allowed National Servicemen to demobilise but they had to keep their uniforms in case they are called back. I was to send them to the Quarter Master Hanger to get them kitted out again but had to ask what they did with their uniforms. Expecting a “I got fat and grew out of it” or “the gardener needed it more” I got a response I did not expect. They all destroyed or disposed of their SADF uniforms – three said they had even ceremonially burned their uniforms when they left the SADF they hated serving in it so much. All of them said; despite this, for this occasion, the securing of a new dawn democracy, for this they would gladly return and serve again, they just needed new browns. It got me thinking, and I felt we were really standing on the precipice of history and as ‘men of the hour’ we were going a great thing. We were the men who, at an hour of great need, had heeded the call to serve the country, and we were to advance human kind and deliver full political emancipation to all South Africans, regardless of race, sex or culture…. heady stuff indeed!
Images: SADF Citizen Force members guarding polling stations and securing ballots during the 1994 election.
A very ‘Noble Call’ and I felt very privileged and excited at the time that I was involved in such an undertaking, I felt like my old ‘Pops’ (Grandfather) did when the country called for volunteers to fight Nazism in World War 2. We were most certainly on a great precipice.
I don’t want to get into the “look at it now” as I type this in 2022 during Stage 5 loadshedding. That was not the issue in 1994, the ANC miss-management and plundering of the country of its finances decades later was not on the cards then, what was on the cards was the disbandment of an oppressive political regime looking after a tiny sect of Afrikaner Nationalists and in the interests of a minority of white people only, and one which was trampling on the rights of just about everyone else. The idea of a country, a ‘rainbow nation’ with one of the most liberated constitutions in the world was paramount at the time, and I’m very proud of my role in this (albeit small), my UNITAS medal for my role in all this still sits proudly on my medal rack.
Newspaper at the time capturing the mutual confidence in the future of a ‘new South Africa’ and avoiding ‘the abyss.’
These ‘white’ ex-conscript reservists guarded election booths, gave armed escort to ballot boxes, patrolled the ‘townships’ keeping APLA, ANC, IFP and AWB insurgents away from killing people – black and white in the hopes of disrupting the election. If you think this was a rather ‘safe’ walk in the park gig, the ‘war’ or ‘struggle’ was over, think again. I accompanied Group 42 soldiers later in an armoured convoy into Soweto and it was hair raising to say the least. Which brings me to the next incident in 1994.
The Shell House Massacre – 1994
As noted, earlier Shell House was located a block away from Wit Command and was the ANC’s Head Office in the early 90’s (Letuli House came later). On the 28 March 1994, IFP supporters 20,000 in number marched on the ANC Head Office in protest against the 1994 elections scheduled for the next month. A dozen ANC members opened fire on the IFP crowd killing 19 people, ostensibly on the orders of Nelson Mandela. SADF soldiers from Wit Command mainly reservists and national servicemen were called to the scene, on arrival, to save lives they put themselves between the ANC shooters and the IFP supporters and along with the South African Police brought about calm and an end to the massacre.
I was not there that day, but some of my colleagues at Wit Command were and all of them would experience ‘elevated’ stress and take a hard line, fully armed response when it came to dealing with protests, especially on how quickly they could go pear shaped. This would permeate to all of us in our dealings with this kind of protesting (more on this later). If you think this incident was yet another in many at this time, note the photo of the dead IFP Zulu man, shot by an ANC gunman, his shoes taken off for his journey to the after-life, and then note the three very nervous but determined SADF servicemen from Wit Command putting themselves in harm’s way to prevent more death.
Images: Shell House Massacre
The Bree Street bombing and 1994 Johannesburg terrorist spree
Not even a few weeks after the Shell House Massacre, the ANC HQ on the same little patch on Bree Street as Wit Command was to be hit again, and this time it was as destruction outside Shell House was on an epic level.
The bomb went off on 24th April 1994 near Shell-house on Bree Street and was (and still is) regarded as the largest act of bombing terrorism in Johannesburg’s history’. It was part of a bombing spree focussed mainly around Johannesburg which left 21 people dead and over 100 people with injuries between April 24 and April 27, 1994. The worst and most deadly campaign of terrorist bombings in the history of the city.
And … it was not the ANC, nope, my old enemy in 1990 had reappeared with vengeance, it was ‘Wit Gevaar,’ it was the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) again. Luckily, I was not at our HQ at Wit Command when the bomb went off, however I was there afterward to see the carnage – the whole city block was sheer destruction – everywhere.
The thunderous blast of a 150 pounds of explosives set off at 09:50 am left a waist-deep crater in the street about midway between the national and regional headquarters of the African National Congress, shattered glass and building structures for blocks and lacerated scores of passers-by on the quiet Sunday streets and residents in the surrounding high-rise buildings. It was the deadliest blast of its kind in South Africa since 1983.
Images: AWB Bree Street Bombing
A total of 7 people were dead in Bree Street, mostly by-standers and civilians from all racial and ethnic groups and 92 people in total were injured. The only reason behind the low death toll is that the bomb went off (and was planned) for a Sunday when the streets were relatively empty. Even though it was a Sunday, members of the Army from Wit Command, SAP and especially SADF Medics quickly moved in to secure the bomb blast area and treat the wounded.
The AWB bombing campaign did not stop there, it continued at pace, the very next day on April 25 a bomb was placed in a trailer allegedly belonging to the AWB leader, Eugene Terre’Blanche (the AWB later claimed it had lost the trailer during its disastrous Bophuthatswana campaign). The Trailer was towed to Germiston where it was left and then detonated in Odendaal Street near the taxi rank at about 8.45am. Again, civilian by-standers took the toll, 10 people were killed and over 100 injured.
Later in the day on April 25 at 11.45am, a pipe bomb detonated at a taxi rank on the Westonaria-Carletonville road, injuring 5 people. Earlier, at about 7.45am, a pipe bomb went off at a taxi rank on the corner of Third and Park streets in Randfontein, injuring 6 people. At 8.30pm on the same day, a pipe bomb attack at a restaurant on the corner of Bloed Street and 7th Avenue in Pretoria killed 3 and injured 4.
To prevent more bomb-blasts in Johannesburg’s city centre on the election day and the lead up to it, Johannesburg’s city centre was locked down by the SADF using reams of razor wire and armed guards. The election booths themselves in the high-density parts of the city became small fortresses with a heavy armed SADF presence, all done so people in the city centre could vote in the full knowledge they were safe to do so.
Then, just two short days later, on the Election Day itself, 27th April 1994 the final AWB election bombing campaign attack came in the form of a car bomb at the then Jan Smuts International Airport (now OR Tambo International). The bomb was placed at this high-profile target so as to create fear on the Election Day itself. The blast left the concourse outside the airport’s International Departures terminal damaged along with a number of parked vehicles on the concourse. Ten people were injured in this blast. If the AWB was going to make an international statement on their objection to the 1994 Election Day itself, this was it.
Images: AWB Jan Smuts Airport Bombing
To try and understand my context, this was violence in the ‘white danger’ context of the ‘Struggle’ it was on top of such a general surge of violence at the time I was serving that was the ‘black danger’, the townships of Johannesburg burned as the IFP and ANC went at one another hammer and tongs leaving thousands dead and wounded. The Human Rights Committee (HRC) estimated that between July 1990 and June 1993, some 4 756 people were killed in politically in mainly IFP and ANC related violence in Gauteng alone. In the period immediately following the announcement of an election date, the death toll in Gauteng rose to four times its previous levels.
Armed ANC, APLA and IFP driven unrest in Johannesburg Townships 1994
I often look at the SADF conscripts from this period – the post 1989 intakes, as having more violent exposure than the majority of SADF veterans called up for the Border War which ended in 1989. Our experience ‘the post 1989 intakes’ was fundamentally different to that experienced by the Border War veterans who stopped doing camps after 1989, and I stand by that. I see this difference in old SADF social media groups especially, if a Border War vet posts a picture showing the war against the MPLA and PLAN prior to 1989 that’s fine, post a picture of the elections showing the AWB mobilising or the MK amalgamation in 1994 and its too ‘political’ for them – our war doesn’t count, it’s all a little too ‘blurred’ for them – no clear cut Rooi-Gevaar and Swart-Gevaar see – no clear cut ‘enemy’, it just doesn’t make sense to them.
The elections, as we all know went ahead, history marched on, but I must smile at the inconvenient truth of it all, it was the SADF, and more specifically the white conscripts serving their camp commitments, who brought the final vehicle of full democracy to South Africa – the vote itself. There was not an ANC MK cadre in sight at the election doing any sort of security, they played no role whatsoever, in fact at the time they were part of the problem and not part of the solution, and their efforts in the NPK deemed too inexperienced, so they were sidelined. The ANC and PAC military wings fell at the last hurdle, they didn’t make it over the finish line of Apartheid bathed in glory, in fact they came over the line a bloody disgrace. To watch them in their misguided sense of heroism today just brings up a wry smile from me.
Integrated Military Intakes
Later in 1994, as a Mustering Depot, we naturally became involved in implementing the newly developed ‘Voluntary Military Service’ program. This was the first multi-racial intake of male and female SANDF recruits. The Voluntary Military System (VMS) was originally established as a substitute for the defunct ‘whites only’ involuntary national service system (NS) and the ‘Indian’ and ‘coloured’ voluntary national service. Also, out the window where the ethnic intakes into ‘Black’ battalions.
In terms of the VMS, volunteers had to undergo ten months basic military training, followed by a further obligation of eight annual commitments of 30 days in the Regiments and Commandos (the Reservist Conventional Forces). The objective was to create a feeder system for the Reservist Conventional forces and eventually balance the ethnic make-up of Reservist Regiments (up to this point they were a near ‘all-white’ affair with black troops and officers gradually joining them).
Our first VMS intake at Nasrec in early January 1995 was historic and very telling. In 15 RCD, some of our battle hardened and experienced escorts had to re-programmed a little. We introduced a policy of minimal force, we were no longer at war and we had to change mindset. We replaced our pre-intake shooting range manoeuvres with ‘hand to hand’ self-defence training instead. The photo on this article shows our escorts getting this training – it was very necessary and vital, times had changed.
Image: 15 RCD Hand to Hand Training NASREC – My photo.
Our intelligence had picked up chatter that the local ANC structures planned to disrupt the intake by spreading the word that the army was now employing – ‘Jobs’, ‘Jobs’, Jobs’ after all was an ANC election promise in 1994 and this a first opportunity for delivery on their promise, you merely had to turn up at Nasrec and a ‘job in the defence’ was yours. Anyone with a brain knows a political party cannot promise jobs, an economy creates jobs – but this did not (and still does not) deter the ANC on trying to fulfil their own propaganda.
And so it happened, two sets of people turned up, one set with ‘call-up’ papers, vetted by the military before mustering and one set, just turning up. The job seekers naturally started to get very upset, angry and uneasy with being turned away and a potentially violent situation began to brew with a large and growingly angry crowd. A couple of other officers and I were called to the situation, and it suddenly occurred to me, as comic as it is serious, that the 9mm Star pistol issued to me was a piece of shit and one of the two issued magazines had a faulty spring – so pretty useless if things go south – and angry crowds for whatever reason in South Africa, even lack of electricity or a delayed train, can get very violent. So much for Denel’s (Armscor) best, but the SADF was like that when it came to issuing weapons and ammo – uber self-confident, during my basic training at 5 SAI and Junior Leaders (JL’s) training at Voortrekkerhoogte, the standard operation procedure (SOP) was only 5 rounds (bullets) per guard – I often wonder how MK would have reacted if their Intel knew just how underprepared and over-confident the SADF was sometimes.
Images: NASREC response, 1995 VMS Intake: My photos
We got to the ‘flashpoint’, and to this day I can kiss Staff Sergeant Diesel, who jumped up onto a Mamba Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC), two of which had been brought up, grabbed a loud hailer an told them calmly to go to Wit Command and then he quickly handed out a stack of application forms. His mannerism as a larger-than-life guy and likeability as a person immediately diffusing the situation as they all set off – either home or to Wit Command armed with the correct information.
The intake went on without any further incidence and I have the privilege of having the only photographs of this historic day. I asked VMS recruits what their expectations where, for many ‘white’ VMS recruits their parents (and fathers specifically) wanted them to have the military discipline and camaraderie they had experienced in the old SADF as a life purpose, the ‘black’ VMS recruits were different, they immediately wanted to sign up as permanent force members and make the military a full-time career – they saw the VMS system as a ‘In’.
The First Multiracial Intake: My Photos – Peter Dickens copyright
The VMS system of mustering also went ahead for the first multi-racial female intake, so as to address the balance of female personnel and officers, black and white in the Reserve forces, again I was proud to be involved in that ‘call up’ and again hold the only historic pictures of it. However, again, the general sense that I picked up was these women were holding out for full time military careers, but nevertheless it was critical that militarily trained females were sorely in need to modernise the South African military.
First Integrated Female Intake circa 1998: My Photos – Peter Dickens copyright
For the latter reason, the objective of the VMS was not initially met, many VMS service personnel, after doing their basic training, were in fact able to secure these permanent force contracts as the force experienced a contraction of trained personnel after 1994 and the VMS personnel proved an easy and trained recruiting pool. By 2006 the VMS system had all but served its role and was disbanded, the Reserve Force Regiments would recruit directly under a newly constructed training programme, and with that came the bigger changes that integration required.
Also, I don’t really want to hear the ‘it was the beginning of the end’ bit so many vets now feel, the SADF had to change, ‘whites only’ conscription had to change and Apartheid as an ideology was simply unsustainable and had to go. The SADF had to change – dividing units on colour and ethnicity was not practical, segregation had fallen on evil days to quote Field Marshal Jan Smuts. The Defence Force had to become reflective of the country at large – the extreme lack of Black African commissioned officers in 1994, in an African Defence Force nogal, was alone reflective of a system of extreme racial bias.
SANDF VMS Intake circa 1997, my photos
Remember, in 1994 nobody could predict the future, many held a belief that structured and balanced politics would happen, the Mandela Magic was everywhere, from 1990 to 1994 the violence was extreme and as a nation we had narrowly skirted ‘the abyss’ with a miracle settlement. In 1994, nobody foresaw Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s pilfering of the state from 2009, nor did they see the ANC’s extreme restructuring of the SANDF in their likeness, the ‘rot’ starting as early as 1999 when General Georg Meiring, a SADF stalwart and now the Chief of the SANDF, was dismissed on trumpeted up allegations of presenting a false coupe, making way for General Siphiwe Nyanda, a ANC MK cadre whose subsequent career as Jacob Zuma’s Communications Minister is a corruption riddled disgrace.
The MK Intake – 1994 to 1996
Finally on the 1994 line-up, the amalgamation of the Defence Structures with non-statute forces, the ‘Swart Gevaar’ terrorists. From 1994, 15 Reception Depot became involved to a degree with the mustering of ANC and PAC political armies into the newly SANDF. At this stage I was a SSO3 (Senior Staff Officer 3IC) at 15 Reception Depot and had the privilege to work closely with Sergeant Major Cyril Lane Blake, the unit’s Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) who had been involved with the non-statutory force intake from an Intelligence standpoint. Mustering of MK and APLA took place at Personnel Services School, a military base in Voortrekkerhoogte and at Wallmannstal military base, many of these MK members were then destined to go to De Brug army base for training and integration.
Of interest was the intake itself, of the ANC Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) veterans, only half of them really qualified as trained soldiers, these were the MK members trained overseas – mainly in Angola, they were made up mainly of the old cadres (old guard) of Mandela’s period, trained by the ex-WW2 veterans like Joe Slovo, and they were recruited to MK after the Sharpeville Massacre (a very small contingent) and then the Seventy Sixes (the big contingent), those who were recruited after the 1976 Riots, added to this was a trickle from the 1980’s riots who made it to their Angolan training camps. Out of 32,000 odd MK veterans, there were only about 12,000 MK veterans who were accepted as proper military veterans (about half of them), the rest were ‘stone throwers’ (as some sarcastically called them) recruited rapidly into the ANC MK ranks in 1990 the very minute they were ‘unbanned’ and they just constituted political dissidents with little military experience if any and no formalised military training whatsoever.
Images: MK Intake into the SANDF issued with old SADF ‘Browns’ – Copyright Reuters, RSM Cyril Lane-Blake, my photo and finally ANC supporters appearing in ‘uniform’ as MK at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.
Of the ‘Untrained’ MK veterans, many of these were the ‘MK’ cadres from the so called ‘self-defence units’ in the townships who had regularly gone about holding ‘peoples courts’ and sentencing people to death with ‘necklaces’ (placing a car tyre around the persons neck, dousing it in petrol and setting it alight).
Also, but not unsurprisingly there were MK ‘chances’ – people joining the intake pretending to be MK so they could get a ‘job in the defence’, BMATT (British Military Advisory Training Team), the British Military task force assigned to the integration, and even the ‘proper’ MK cadres themselves, had a heck of a job trying to identify these chance takers, and a great many ‘slipped’ through with falsified CV’s.
This would later result in what BMATT politely called a ‘hardening of attitudes’ in their report to Parliament, when it come to the way statutory force members viewed these ‘non-statutory’ force members and MK generally, an attitude which in my opinion is getting ‘even harder’ as the years go on as some of these MK vets really show their colours to all of South Africa – involved in corrupt and outright criminal behaviour, degenerating and demeaning themselves, their organisation and their ‘victory’ now well tarnished.
What amazed me was just how structured the MK was when it came to the their proper military veterans, I had been conditioned by the SADF that they were a rag-tag outfit and incompetent at best, but that wasn’t completely true, they had a highly structured command and very defined specialised units ranging from a Chief of Staff, Operations, Ordnance, Intelligence, Engineering, Anti-Aircraft, Artillery to Counter Intelligence/Communications (propaganda), and attached to nearly to all of it was a very detailed Soviet styled military Political Commissar structure. They even had unit designations, and many out of the half of them that had been trained, had decent military training.
I don’t want to get to the Pan African Congress’ APLA veterans, I was told they generally treated their SADF escorts with utter disdain.
Their problem (MK and APLA) is that they were asked to identify and verify all their members for their military credentials, and they quickly pointed out who was and who was not a trained military veteran, and this caused the huge division in the MK veteran structures we see today. The split of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) and the MK Council recently is a case in point – the MK Council are the ones with the military ‘struggle’ credentials and the MKMVA have all the members who do not have any meaningful military ‘struggle’ credentials at all, they’ve all joined Jacob Zuma’s RET hence the reason the current ANC no longer wants to recognise them.
This makes me laugh uncontrollably when the MKMVA used to wheel out Carl Niehaus in his purchased PEP store MK camouflage fatigues pretending to be a military veteran, when in truth he is anything but one, and it makes me cry when the Department of Military Veterans squander all their time and money on the 12,000 odd MK ‘non-veterans’ trying to give them and their families un-earned veteran benefits and bring harmony to the ANC and they almost completely ignore their primary mandate – the 500,000 odd statutory force veterans, proper military veterans – solely because many of them (the majority mind) served in the old SADF and of that a great majority where conscripts.
In 1999, I was assigned to escort Joe Modise, the ex MK Commander in Chief, and Paratus (the SADF/SANDF) mouthpiece published it, yes, I admit it – I even shook his hand (we’ll there is a published photo to prove it – so no point hiding the fact), but again, at this stage in the SANDF we were still confident in the country, little did I know he would be dead two years later and embroiled in yet another ANC corruption and arms buying controversy. I did some more VMS work after that, but that signalled the beginning of the end of my service, reception depots had outgrown their use after 2002 and mothballed – in fact they are still mothballed, waiting for the day to muster the general populace in the event the country goes to war again.
Image: Joe Modise and myself – Peter Dickens copyright
Oh, and if this sounds a bit personal, it is, here’s a big “Fuck You” middle finger to the politically motivated pressure groups in ANC led government departments currently trying to delist the old SADF ‘conscripts’ as military veterans on the basis that they ‘served Apartheid’ and not recognising their role in bringing democracy to South Africa, whereas their ‘heroes’ in MK did. The historic record stands, there’s no changing it and as things go even this missive is now primary documentation for future generations of South Africans to read and assimilate – from someone ‘who was there’ and is a genuine ‘military veteran’ – true reconciliation comes with facing the truth comrades, just saying.
Back to PTSD
So, enough to do with the ANC and their Parliament of Clowns, the old ‘Swart Gevaar’ fast becoming a newly reinvigorated ‘Swart Gevaar’ of their own making and back to the serious stuff and all the ‘Wit Gevaar and Swart Gevaar’ from 1990 to 1994 forming my general mental mistrust of just about everything.
Whilst in hospital with Covid I had a psychological mistrust of efforts been made by Doctors, Nurses and medical assistants (Black and White), I was convinced they were out to kill me and efforts to pump lifesaving high pressure oxygen into me were met with an unnatural resistance and a self-induced gag reflex. To give you an idea of how bad this ‘mistrust’ was, if personnel so much as tried to ‘turn’ me to change bedding or wash me I would go into a panic attack, which resulted in rapid rapid thoracic breathing upsetting my body’s oxygen levels to the point of oxygen starvation and renal nerve release (I’d literally piss myself) – a simple ‘turn’ would become a life and death matter – and nobody could make sense of it, me included. So, in desperation .. enter stage right … the hospital Psychologist … and stage left my lifelong confidant, a solid Free State ‘Bittereinder Boertjie’ with the mental tenacity of a Ratel (an African Honey Badger) … my wife.
To define and understand PTSD, as it’s a much-brandished word nowadays with anyone having experienced a high stress incident claiming it, many using it as an excuse. PTSD is best explained a stressor bucket in your head, you’re born with it and its empty. In life stressful events are sometimes internalised and start to fill your bucket, your bucket usually makes it underfilled to the end of your life and you don’t have a mental meltdown and things make sense and you’re stable, the bucket is very resilient. What happens to military personnel especially is that the stressors they experience are often far beyond normal and it fills the bucket up at an early stage, right up to the ‘nearly full’ mark in some extreme cases, after some significant stressors are added to it later in life, anything really but usually the D’s – Disease, Debt, Divorce and Death. For Military veterans these ‘D’s’ can then ‘tip’ the bucket over and you start to psychologically have a meltdown. This is the reason why PTSD is gradually becoming more and more apparent in ex-SADF conscripts and PF members as they get older.
In extreme cases in the military, you can have that meltdown whilst serving, the old battle fatigue syndrome, repeated life and death experiences unrelentingly occurring end on end filling up the stressor bucket and finally your last one tips the bucket, produces meltdown and you’re withdrawn from the line. Refer to Spike Milligan’s autobiography ‘Mussolini, his part in my downfall’ of his time as a gunner in WW2 and you’ll see how this plays out in a serving combatant.
In therapy trying to get to the bottom on what initially filled my bucket up, and on this the Psychologist and my wife and I settled on ‘mistrust’ initially rooted deep in in my psyche whilst I was in the Army. Mistrust as I could not distinguish foe from friend, ‘swart gevaar from wit gevaar,’ and to me everyone was a ‘enemy’ – that enemy or ‘gevaar’ now included most hospital staff – black and white, and I was the only one who could fight my way out – no help required thanks.
To say my Covid condition was bad and a PTSD issue on its own would be an understatement, I had even died to be brought back with CPR on one occasion and knocked on the Pearly Gates a great deal more with more near death experiences than I can shake a stick at. I was intubated on a ventilator and placed in an induced coma for a full month. This was followed up with two collapsed lungs and a battery of deadly infections, two serious bouts of bronchitis and then bronchial pneumonia. To my knowledge, I walked into history as one of a mere handful of Covid patients to survive the disease with the number of infections and complications I had – 4 months in ICU, 2 months in High Care and another 2 months of Step Down therapy as I even had to learn to simply take a shit in a toilet and even walk again – a total of 8 months spent in hospital and a further 4 months as a oxygen supplement dependent outpatient, before been given an ‘all clear’ a full year later and taken off all drugs and supplemental oxygen.
This is pretty big story for another day, and a lot of people are very intrigued by it, so I am writing a book on it called ‘I’m not dead yet’ – my dark military sense of humour aside, do look out for it.
Images: Me recovering from a coma, giving my best army ‘salute’ just before both lungs collapsed and me sitting up for the first time once lungs drains were removed – copyright Peter Dickens
It took all that to ‘tip my stressor bucket’ – and no doubt I had a massive life and death fight on my hands, but I would have to say this in all honesty, I was substantially compromised by a latent mistrust I picked up as a young man in the Army, especially in 1990. Unlocking that, helped unlock the gag reflexes, which unlocked the fear and ultimately set me on a journey to a healthy recovery – physically and mentally.
Many years after my service, a fellow military veteran, Norman Sander (and ex Sergeant Major in the Natal Carbineers) and I had lunch in London with an ex-BMATT officer, Colonel Paul Davis who had been involved in the South African Forces integration and at one stage headed up the BMATT delegation. He said something interesting, according to the Colonel, the South African Defence Force training modules where draconian at best and styled on the old Nazi Waffen SS model, which demanded absolute iron cast discipline, absolute obedience and absolute goal driven determination to function across multiple voluntary and conscripted outfits often ethnically separated. Notwithstanding his view, I’ve attested to this before, had I not undergone this “draconian” training as an SADF officer I would not have survived my Covid experience, no matter how bad it got I knew I had more in the tank, I’d pushed these limits whilst ‘pissing blood for my pips’ in the SADF as a young man and understood my breaking point from a early age, without this intrinsic knowledge and iron cast focus I would be dead, of that there is absolutely no doubt.
My Commission signed by President F.W. de Klerk, one of his last acts of office
Now, I’m no ‘Grensvegter’ (Border Warrior), I’m a simple pen pusher, my service pales into insignificance compared to a great many veterans, many I’ve had the privilege to serve with, true soldiers fighting a brutal war in a brutal manner. Nope, I’m not one of those, and nor can I ever be, and nor do I pretend to be, to them the kudos of valour and I mean it.
Here’s a simple thought on my time as a Military Conscript and then a Volunteer, this quote from Czech author Milan Kundera and it resonates with me the most;
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
What this means to us SADF conscripts turned volunteers in 1994, we were on a journey, a ‘struggle’ if you will, to take our fellow citizens out of political oppression into political emancipation and liberty. If we forget our stories in this great struggle, discard them as irrelevant because we are no longer politically convenient, vanquished as ‘SADF’ baby killing monsters, and passed over as fighting for some sort of WOKE idea of ‘white privilege’ – if we don’t resist this and choose ‘forgetting’ instead, then we ultimately betray ourselves, we’ve lost.
On PTSD, it’s manageable for most, but you must get to those internalised ‘stressors’ and truly understand what they are and what caused them. Un-internalising the stressors is a first big step to ridding yourself of PTSD, and that’s why I can say in all honesty I’m happy and stable.
So, I thank all you who have made it to this last part of my ‘story,’ it really is a simple soldier’s small tale with a great deal of political ‘struggle’, and I really hope you’ve picked up some interesting historical snippets on the way, especially the ones which are not really in the broad ANC narrative today of ‘the struggle’ leading to 1994. The ‘truth’ will eventually ‘out’ and I sincerely believe that, and I believe its cathartic and from a cognitive therapy perspective a very necessary ‘out’.
A memoir: By Capt. Peter Albert Dickens (Happily Retired)
This is a very rare audio clip of a SADF crew in a Ratel ZT3 Infantry Fighting Vehicle converted into a anti-tank role taking out Cuban/FAPLA coalition soviet T55 tanks during the Battle on the Lomba River in Angola – Operation Modular in 1987.
Please excuse a little of the “blue” language but this is a ratel crew at the height of combat, listen out for the sounds of the Ratel’s missiles been fired and finding their targets and for the crew members yelps of jubilation and frustrations, also listen to the Ratel manoeuvre itself in an out of danger as it takes up firing positions – and the co-ordination and teamwork of crew members to do so. Also listen out for the intense sounds of explosions in and around the Ratel as they engage the FAPLA/Cuban tanks (click play on the link below).
This is combat at its fiercest in what was arguably one of the most decisive mechanised battles fought on African soil since the Second World War and one which turned the fortunes of the “Cold War” coalition of Cuban and Soviet interests in Southern Africa for the worse.
These men – fighting in inferiorly armoured Infantry fighting vehicles against heavily armoured tanks knew that victory would boil down to strategy, innovation, decisiveness, leadership, teamwork, discipline and training – and not superior equipment or numbers, all of this becomes very apparent in this audio clip.
Burning FAPLA armour as seen from the South African position on the Lomba
The backdrop to this battle was the Cuban/FAPLA advance on Mavinga – a UNITA stronghold, in what was to become a manoeuvre called the ‘Battle of the Lomba’ the SADF 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, supported by other formations and SAAF fighter aircraft literally destroyed the entire FAPLA/Cuban 47 Armoured Brigade and stopped the advance in its tracks.
The Operation was Modular, the battle ground was the Lomba River in Angola and Commandant Kobus Smit was the Operational Commander in charge of the SADF’s 61 Mechanised Battle Group. Three combat groups – Alpha under the Command of Cmdt Kobus Smit himself, Bravo under the command of Cmdt Robbie Hartslief, Charlie, under command of Maj Dawid Lotter. All supported by 20 Artillery Regiment (Cmdt Jan van der Westhuizen) – Papa battery from 32 Battalion, Quebec battery from 4 SAI and Sierra battery from 61 Mech Battalion Group.
Fapla crosses the Lomba River
On the 9 September 1987, Fapla’s 21 Brigade began to cross the Lomba River about twelve kilometres east of its confluence with the Cunzumbia. They were engaged by the South African mechanised armour of Combat Group Bravo with 101 Battalion of the South West African territorial force, destroying a FALPA BTR-60, but they were forced back by a FAPLA artillery counter-attack.
A detached unit of Combat Group Bravo returned on 10 September to the fording site on the Lomba River and again attacked elements of 21 Brigade, but the Angolans’ counter-attacked sending in three tanks. The SADF Ratel-90 Infantry Fighting Vehicles failed to stop the tanks’ advance, so the South Africans brought in their new Ratel ZT3s into the battle.
The ZT3 and it’s launch system was developed under the codename ‘Project Raleigh’ in the 1980s as a “long-range indigenous antitank guided missile”. Essentially a highly manoeuvrable Ratel (honey badger) IFV with anti-tank capabilities, these were untested pre-production models which mounted a triple launcher on top of the Ratel IFV – at the time they were considered state of the art in anti-tank warfare, and their first combat engagement delivered battlefield success to a staggering effect.
Concealed ZT3 during Ops Modular
The ZT3’s firing seven missiles in total at 21 Brigades armour with four successful strikes on the tanks. Soviet built MiG aircraft then arrived over the battle site and forced the South African units to withdraw but, it was game over for the Cuban/Fapla coalition – they had stopped 21 Brigade’s advances, it would be downhill for the Cubans and Angolans from that point out.
Major Hannes Nortman and 12A
Major Hannes Nortman from 32 Battalion arrived on the battle scene at the Lomba on the morning of 10 September, the ZT3 Ratel, code 1-2, one of 32 Battalion’s ZT3’s had taken up position under the initial command of Lt Ian Robertson, Lt Robertson was injured when he jumping out of the ratel to give fire guidance to the 90mm Ratel next to his ZT3 Ratel. Unfortunately, he landed at the same spot as one of the incoming mortars and took a large piece of shrapnel in his head. The crew of the ZT3 were busy with the casevac of their injured commander, when three T55 Soviet made, heavily armoured enemy tanks rolled up. Major Hannes Nortman came running up, taking charge of the ZT3 Ratel 1-2 and the attack.
The newly developed Ratel ZT3 had a ‘black box’ which recorded crew actions when the missile system was selected – and this stunning bit of history of South African servicemen in action was forever recorded.
Ratel combat during the Battle of the Lomba
The SADF’s ZT3”s were positioned in a tree-line just short of the Lomba River’s adjacent ‘shona’. The first two missiles fired by 1-2 where fired by a young and very over excited gunner, Darryn Richard Nelson – whose commentary is heard throughout the recording. The first missiles pulled up vertically at around 200 meters. The third did not fire.
The gunner now fired his fourth missile which hit the lead tank in its tracks, stopping it dead. A fifth missile finally destroyed Tank 1 and the gunner his jubilant “I got him! I got him! I got him! Now very excited the young gunner focussed on the second tank, which was retreating back towards the river, his first shot at tank 2 missed as the missile hit the ground just in front of the tank.
Here’s where Major Nortman demonstrated years of senior military experience in combat, he quickly brought the excitement into focus in a time-honoured way – by giving the young gunner a sharp crack to the back of his head. This calmed him down and the sixth missile hit the tank on the rear plate blowing the turret about 25 meters away. Maj Nortman ordered the ZT3 to withdraw and reload, he then maneuverer into a new firing position to fire at the last tank which was still advancing. the Ratel hit tank 3 with two missiles.
The destroyed Soviet FAPLA T55 Tanks – from left to right Tank 1, Tank 2 and Tank 3
With that the crew of 1-2 march into history, a South African ‘light’ armoured fighting vehicle made by Sandock Austral (now Denel), taking out heavy armour T55 Soviet made ‘heavy’ battle tanks. The only Ratel IFV to ever achieve his – before or since.
The action of this motley crew of English and Afrikaner, senior and junior, permanent force and conscripts, all in a single Ratel, had now played a decisive role in the outcome of the entire battle to come.
Major Nortman and the crew, Johan Jacobs, Neels Claasen, Darren Nelson, 32 Battalion September 1987
The Battle heats up
According to Cmdt Smit, “21 Brigade utilized all forces at its disposal and its T54 tanks and D 30 used several tons of ammunition to support its forces in crossing the river initially, and later in the day to cover the withdrawal of its forces to the northern side of the river.”
“21 Brigade was forced to abandon its efforts to cross the river and was in need of re-supply before another attempt could be made to cross the river.”
47 Brigade re-deployed it’s tactical group to attack a nearby UNITA base, this was met by the SADF’s Combat Group Bravo on the 13th September 1987, however the terrain was crisscrossed with the UNITA bases’ trenches making manoeuvrability difficult Combat Group Bravo and Cmdt Hartslief withdrew his forces for replenishment and repair, Col Ferreira ordered combat group Charlie to move forward and prevent further movement of 47 Brigade’s 1 Tactical Group to the east.
Missiles been loaded onto a ZT3 during Operation Modular
Major Dawid Lotter moved to the west and hit contact with FAPLA forces the same evening, destroying a number of FAPLA vehicles, contact was broken the next day.
Combat group Alpha was deployed to making contact with 47 Brigade on the 16 September. At the same time Charlie squadron made contact with FAPLA infantry and tanks, even as close as 50 meters. After a fierce firefight the SADF withdrew to consolidate, leaving UNITA to hold the positions.
47 Brigade was now under threat from two flanks and all The FAPLA brigades were ordered back to consolidate their positions on the northern banks of the Lomba.
47 Brigade was ordered to advance over the Lomba River again and established a bridgehead. The South African 61 Mechanised Battle Group assembled to attack them again on the 3rd October, this time Charlie Squadron took the lead commanded by Major Philip van Wyk. Making contact later the same day with 47 Brigade. A tank battle ensued; the largest tank battle ever fought on southern African soil.
The FAPLA infantry soldiers were observed fleeing the battlefield and to keep momentum 61 Mechanised ordered in the reserve squadrons and combat groups, with fresh forces FAPLA’s resistance finally crumbled and the remaining forces fled the battlefield. The South African’s had won the day with the loss of only 3 SADF personnel and a further 6 wounded, one Ratel was lost.
47 Brigade destroyed
47 Brigade was decimated with the majority of its equipment either captured or destroyed, amongst which were 18 x T55 and T54 tanks, 22 x BTR60 and 85 trucks. 47 Brigade for all practical purposes had ceased to exist. The remaining Cuban and FAPLA forces withdrew to their initial positions and The South African objective for Operation Modular – to halt the FAPLA advance and prevent the capture of Mavinga – was decisively achieved.
Ratel 1-2, now marked 12A taken after Operation Modular – note the ‘kill’ markings on the turret.
The remarkable efforts of Major Nortman and the crew of ZT3 Ratel 1-2 are now to be seen at the South African Museum of Military History in Johannesburg (later marked 23), the ratel on display is updated composite of various demobilised ratels when upgrades were made, however a part of it comes from Ratel 1-2, therefore the tank ‘kill’ markings were retained on this version and are clearly painted on the side of its missile system.
Researched by Peter Dickens and published with much thanks to Johannes “Hannes” Noortman and the crew of this Ratel – and to the 61 Mechanised Veterans Fraternity, with special thanks again to Dawid Lotter and Kobus Smit
There is something deeply disturbing when you read about the ‘last soldier to die’ in a war, it’s a complete sense of futility, a young life that is snuffed out for this or that political conflict. The South African Border War (1966 – 1989) along the now Namibian border with Angola carries with it the same sense of pointlessness when you read about the first soldier lost and the last soldier lost as it was with the 1st World War.
Pvt Parr (Left) and Pvt Ellison (Right)
During World War 1, the first British soldier to die was Private John Henry Parr on 21st August 1914, Killed in Action near Mons – Belgium. The last British serviceman to die in WW1 was Private George Edwin Ellison, killed in action near Mons – Belgium on Armistice Day itself – 11 November 1918. The irony, both died in a foreign country and they are buried in the same graveyard in Belgium facing one another – a few meters separate them. The futility, for 4 years millions of more casualties separate them, in the end – all with no tangible military ‘gain’.
One cannot avoid thinking whether this same sense of waste of young life has a parallel in the South Africa’s Border War on the Namibian/Angola border. The sad truth is that it does.
Lieutenant Freddie Zeelie from 1 Reconnaissance Regiment is regarded as the first SADF combat casualty of The Namibian Border War. Killed in Action on 23 June 1974 while engaged on anti-insurgent operations in Southern Angola. On hitting contact with insurgents he bravely stormed their machine gun position regrettably losing his life in the process. He was only 22 years old.
The last soldier to die in combat in this Border War was Corporal Hermann Carstens, also from 1 Reconnaissance Regiment, Killed in Action on 04 April 1989 during fierce close-quarter fighting with a numerically superior force of heavily armed SWAPO PLAN insurgents near Eenhana. He was only 20 years old.
The irony, Lt Zeelie and Cpl Carstens both died in a foreign country – defending the same stretch of border between the same two countries – South West Africa (Namibia) and Angola, both fighting the same insurgents. The futility, for 15 years separating their respective deaths there would be thousands of casualties. In the end – all with no tangible military ‘gain’.
Lt Zeelie (Left) and Cpl Carstens (Right)
It’s a sad thought indeed, however their actions and losses are not entirely futile, as with the First World War, the Border War resulted in changed ideologies – changes which were necessary to attain peace, and our modern freedoms as we have them now is because of their sacrifice.
So let’s have a look at the ‘last’ soldier to die during the Namibian Border War’, and I must thank both Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout whose work this is, and who have shared it with us:
The last soldier to die in the Namibian Border War- Corporal Hermann Carstens, 1 Reconnaissance Regiment.
Written by Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout
Corporal Hermann Carstens, 1RR, Operators Badge and Wings on his chest
A short background: Introduction to 23 years of war, 1966–1989
South Africa administered the former German colony of German South West Africa since 1920 after the First World War (1914–1918). Initially, South Africa wanted to incorporate the territory as a fifth province of the country. The incorporation into South Africa never materialised, however, and since the 1960s more and more states wanted to declare the then South West Africa (SWA) an independent state, Namibia.
In 1966 the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) started an armed insurgency against the South African administrators through its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN). The war would last for 23 years, and eventually it would also escalate into Angola and, for some time, into Zambia.
In essence, the Namibian Border War (also known as the South African Border War) became a cold war by proxy. By the early 1970s, the United Nations (UN) adopted Resolution 435 to lay the foundation for Namibian independence. By 1988 the Cold War drew to a close and the South Africans, Cubans and Angolans were ready to engage in negotiations to withdraw their troops from the SWA/Angolan border. These negotiations opened the way for Namibian independence.
One of the issues agreed upon in the trilateral negotiations was that the South African troops would be reduced to 1 500 men and would be confined to base. SWAPO would withdraw to 150 km north of the border. Resolution 435 made it clear, however, that with its implementation (which would be on 1 April 1989), SWAPO would also remain at their bases. If they therefore had established bases on SWA soil, they would also be confined to these bases. SWAPO saw this as a loophole, and secretly planned a massive invasion for 31 March/1 April 1989. The sole intention was to establish bases in northern SWA.
The South Africans, however, did not trust SWAPO, and even less so the influx of foreign troops of the United Nation’s Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). This force would supervise the transition period and comprised peacekeepers from several UN states, including Finland, Britain, Australia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Kenya. South Africa continued operating their intelligence sources. The South West African Police (SWAPOL) and its Security Branch were tasked to keep up their system of informers and spies.
To help monitor the situation and assist in gathering information, about 30 men from the South African Special Forces (colloquially known as the Recces) and several South African Military Intelligence operators were placed in SWAPOL. As part of the Recce contingent, several Swahili-speaking operators were also included to monitor the Kenyan soldiers of UNTAG. This military operation was known as Operation Saga. The deployed Special Forces contingent would only use the Police as cover and still send their information directly to the Senior Operational Special Forces Officer in Windhoek.
The man: Hermann Carstens
Hermann as band major, Hoërskool Voortrekkerhoogte
Hermann Carstens was born on 30 September 1968. He was the son of a South African military officer and went to Laerskool Uniefees (English: Uniefees Primary School), 25 km north of Pretoria. He later attended Voortrekkerhoogte Hoërskool (English: Voortrekkerhoogte High School), which mainly comprised children of military personnel.
It was in this environment that the young Carstens soon proved himself as a man destined for a bright military career. Among other, he was the band major of the school’s military band; as an athlete, he excelled in field and track events, and was a very good long jumper.
After completing his school career in 1986, he joined the South African Defence Force (SADF), like all young white men of that age. But he would not remain an ordinary soldier. He had a vision. He was driven. He wanted to be with the best. He volunteered for selection to the elite South African Parachute Battalion and passed the course. But even that was not good enough, and when the Recces visited, he volunteered again.
This time he was among the big fish. Special Forces all over the world usually comprise older soldiers; not 18- or 19-year-olds. But he was one of the exceptions. Hermann passed the selection, continued with the course and passed the course. He was not even 20 years old.
When the teams from the reconnaissance regiments were selected for Operation Saga, it was decided that all of them would first complete an advanced medical course, as this would be their cover: They would be medical personnel. Hermann was too late, however, and did not partake in the medical course. He was later sent to join those who had already been selected for the operation. This was fate – and he would be destined to be behind the exposed guns of a Casspir on 4 April 1989. The other Recce in the ambush that day was inside another Casspir – as the operational medical orderly (“ops medic”).
Hermann during Recce training
Operation Saga: Corporal Hermann Carstens
Operation Saga, an independent Special Forces operation, was planned as a long-term intelligence-gathering operation in northern SWA. This operation and other combined operations were aimed at painting a real-time intelligence picture of events that were unfolding as UNTAG and the SWAPO exiles started arriving. Their cover was also changed from medical personnel to members of the SWAPOL Security Police, as this would ensure more freedom of movement without raising suspicion.
At the start of February 1989, the operators from the Special Forces contingent arrived in Oshakati after spending a week preparing at the SWAPOL Security Police farm on the outskirts of Windhoek. They used the cover of the Security Police and also received police ranks. Another few days of preparation followed in Oshakati at the Security Police Headquarters before they were deployed. The 4 Reconnaissance (“Recce”) Regiment (4RR) was deployed to the Kavango and Caprivi regions, while the 1 “Recce” Regiment (1RR), supported by some operators and intelligence personnel from 5 “Recce” Regiment (5RR), was deployed in the central and eastern areas. The 1RR and 5RR area of operations stretched from Nkongo in eastern Ovamboland and west to Opuwa in the Kaokoland. The operators were posted at Security Police bases. Constables (Corporals) Pieter du Plessis and Hermann Carstens were deployed to the Security Police base at Okatope in Ovamboland.
Throughout March, in terms of the agreed-upon UN Resolution 435, UNTAG soldiers arrived in dribs and drabs to become the interim authority on 1 April 1989.
On Friday 31 March 1989, Koevoet (the SWAPOL Counter-Insurgency Unit, or SWAPOL TIN) and SWAPOL Security Police patrols were placed on high alert along the border in anticipation of a possible SWAPO invasion. Earlier, police informers had brought information regarding the execution of a SWAPO invasion plan on 31 March 1989.
On the Saturday morning of 1 April 1989 events took a turn for the worse as heavily-armed SWAPO insurgents began to invade SWA. The police were under pressure as heavy fighting broke out. Koevoet bore the brunt, as all the South African Defence Force (SADF) units had either been disbanded or were confined to base.
For the time, before the army could be mobilised, SWAPOL used everyone at its disposal. Security Police teams also deployed on 1 April 1989. Over the next four days, the bloodiest fighting of the war took place on SWA soil. The SWAPO groups were large, with up to 250 insurgents in a group. As the groups were attacked, they scattered and splintered off into smaller units.
On 4 April 1989 near Eenhana, Call Sign 21C – the Okatope Security Police team of which Pieter and Hermann were members – left their temporary base near the SADF’s Okankolo base just after 08:00 to patrol the area. Because he had not been on the advanced medic course, Hermann was appointed as one of the vehicle commanders, which entailed manning the mounted machine guns. Pieter, in the absence of the team medic who was on leave, acted as the Ops Medic in the other Casspir.
At approximately 11:45 four sets of tracks, about three hours old, were discovered. After following the tracks for a while, they noticed that more SWAPOs had joined, bringing the total number to more than 10.
Hermann in the Operational Area, Northern Namibia 1988
The Security Police team entered a belt of thick vegetation, followed by grassland and then a mahango field and a kraal. About 3 km south of Eenhana, SWAPO initiated an ambush with AK-74 and RPG7 rocket grenade launchers. At this stage, Hermann’s Casspir was ahead of the rest of the team, busy with voorsny[English: tracking ahead]. Voorsnyis a term used when some of the vehicles drive ahead to see whether they can perhaps pick up the tracks further ahead. When they can identify indeed tracks further ahead, the rest of the team is informed per radio to also come to the newer tracks. This means that a part of the tracking can be avoided, and the insurgents be caught up with quicker.
It was during this voorsny that Hermann’s Casspir entered the ambush. Standing up, he shot back with the twin Three Os Brownings from the machine gun turret at an angle behind the driver. It was possibly just after the start of the ambush that an insurgent fired a projectile at the Casspir with a RPG7 rocket grenade launcher. The projectile entered the Casspir on the left, about 800 mm above the gear box, in line with the firing holes below the front side window of the passenger compartment. The red-hot metal shrapnel caused devastation inside and hit Hermann from behind where he was firing the guns. His back was littered with shrapnel. A large piece of shrapnel hit him in the back of his head, and he died instantly.
The rest of the team fought through the ambush and started to maal[English: to mill]. This is a tactical move used and perfected by Koevoet, and was also used by the SWAPOL Security Teams and 101 Battalion. It entails all the vehicles fighting through the ambush and thereafter driving in different directions through the contact area to confuse the enemy, thus presenting a difficult target and engaging the enemy from every direction. Sometimes it even happened that the insurgents were overrun and killed with the Casspir’s wheels.
Pieter still remembers when his Casspir drove past Hermann’s Casspir; he saw Hermann slumped forward in the machine gun turret. The right rear wheel of Hermann’s Casspir had been shot out and the vehicle came to a standstill. In the ensuing contact 12 SWAPO’s were killed (one perished under a Casspir’s wheels during the maal, while two blew themselves up). More than 20 insurgents were part of the ambush.
About three minutes later when the contact had died down, Pieter made his way over to Hermann, and saw he had a wound behind his ear; all his vital signs indicated that he was dead. Hermann’s body and a wounded yet walking Special Constable Matheus Gabriel was casevaced by helicopter. Gabriel had shrapnel in his throat. A Koevoet team arrived, reported (and by doing so effectively claimed) the deaths and followed the tracks of the remaining SWAPOs who had escaped and later that afternoon killed another seven of them.
The legacy: The last man to die
It took nine days to stop the treacherous SWAPO incursion. When the last shot was fired, more than 300 of the estimated 1 500 insurgents had been killed. Between the SADF, which had since been released from their bases, and the initially under-gunned and under-strength police force, 31 people from the Security Forces died. Lt. Els of the Special Service Battalion was wounded on 3 April. He died of his wounds on 4 April. Several SWAPOL and South African Counter-Insurgency policemen would also be killed in action on 4 April 1989; however, the last soldier to be killed in action was the brave Corporal Hermann Carstens. He was, like most South Africans who had died in that war, a very young 19 or 20 years old. But this young man was destined to be there. As a young man he set high standards, and against all odds became the Recce he wanted to be. Hermann Carstens was a man who pursued his dream, and then started to live it.
After his death, Hermann’s fellow operators sent his boots, covered in gold, back to his parents.One of the boots is now in Duxford, England, with Renier Jansen, his close friend from high school. The bond between the two young men always remained. The other boot is with Hermann’s father in Pretoria
Hermann was buried with full military honours in April 1989, in the Heroes Acre at the Warmbad Cemetery. The town is now known as Bela-Bela. His bravery will be remembered forever by a special stone on his grave.
On 23 June 1974, Lt. Fred Zeelie became the first South African soldier to die in action in the Namibian Border War. He was from 1RR. On 4 April 1989, Corporal Hermann Carstens of 1RR became the last South African soldier to die in action during the Border War. Between the deaths of Fred Zeelie and Hermann Carstens, 61 more members of the South African Special Forces made the ultimate sacrifice. The contribution of the South African Special Forces in this war, and the cost in lives that they paid, is significantly higher than the average casualties of any other unit.
Freddie Zeelie (left) and Hermann Carstens (right)
Hermann Carstens will be remembered during the 13thAfriforum Springbok Vasbyt 10 & 25 km Road Race in 2019, and his name will be given a special place among the previously-unknown soldiers honoured by this event.
Published with the kind permission of Tinus de Klerk and Leon Bezuidenhout
Copyright: Tinus de Klerk & Leon Bezuidenhout
THIS ARTICLE IS NOT FOR COMMERCIAL USE, OR TO BE SOLD IN ANY FORM Renier Jansen reserves the copyright of all photos
One piece of kit all the SADF veterans will instantly recognise – and it will send instant shivers down their collective spines. The infamous ‘Rooi Doiby’ or ‘Rooi Staaldak’ was a bright red helmet and it meant the member wearing it was in deep trouble.
This headgear was usually a M1963 SADF steel helmet, known as a ‘staaldak’ painted red or the helmet’s plastic detachable ‘inner’ called a ‘doiby’ or ‘dooibie’ also painted red. It was issued to anyone whose behaviour or actions were deemed undisciplined in the old South African Defence Force (SADF) system and they were ‘Confined to Barracks’ (CB) or given ‘CB Drills’.
CB drills was a sort of mini prison sentence, the member been confined to the barracks perimeter and not allowed to leave the base. Whilst confined they were subject to intense military drills and exercises designed to break anyones spirit.
During training all SADF recruits received ‘corrective physical training’ known as a ‘Oppie’ meaning Opfok (literally to get ‘fucked up’), the British Armed forces would know it as ‘Beasting’. This form of training is common to many militaries world over and usually involves a lot of running, push-ups, stress exercises etc but it has a relatively manageable beginning and end. In effect it’s an ‘add-on’ to physical training (PT) and very intense.
Being ‘confined to barracks’ ramped the simple ‘Oppie’ onto an entirely new level and it meant these intense physical exercises became extremely punitive, in effect the person was subjected to an endless cycle of one Oppie on top of another – morning to night until the end of the specified CB punishment period. Punishment would also often involve ‘water’ PT were offenders wearing the red helmet were pushed to physical excess and vomiting.
For anyone receiving this item of kit i.e the ‘Rooi Doiby’ and subject to CB Drills, then this Afrikaans term seemed apt … “dit was nag” (darkness would descend) and you would simply ‘Afkak’ (to have your spirit relentlessly broken).
SADF Troops on a full kit march show two members who are also on ‘CB’ drills wearing ‘rooi staaldaks’
As said ‘Confined to Barracks’ drills are a sort of prison sentence, the difference been that it was designed for minor infractions like going AWOL (absence without leave), ‘indiscipline’ or ‘insubordination’ which if elevated into the strict definitions of military law and a military tribunal would carry an actual prison sentence which often did not really fit the ‘crime’ (the SADF would have had a heck of time if every case of a conscript going AWOL landed up in court and subsequently in a Detention Barracks (DB) – a military jail).
CB sentences were solved ‘internally’ at a Regiment or Unit level, sometimes by the Commanding Officer and his leader element, but often also by the Regimental Sergeant Major and his leader element – or both.
A CB sentence sometimes meant been handed over to the Regimental Police known as RP’s for the period of sentance. The RP’s are a sub-strata of Military Policing made up of specially trained members of the regiment or unit itself and not members of the Military Police (provost) corps. Sometimes it meant that the offender was incarcerated in the Regimental Police holding cells (usually located at or near the guardroom), and when taken out given repeated ‘Oppies’ (punishment exercises) overseen by RP non-commissioned officers (NCO’s).
Sometimes a CB sentence simply meant been confined to the barracks, issued a red helmet and given repeated punishment PT by the Regiment or Unit’s instructors, usually instructor NCO’s were given the task. Where ‘instructor’ qualified NCO’s did not exist, company or platoon leaders NCO’s were sometimes allocated the task of dishing out the PT punishment to the poor sod/s issued with this infamous ‘red helmet’.
There was however a flaw to the CB system, whilst many offenders subjected to it were a little relieved they had been excluded a formal legal case and sentence and just had to ‘vastbyt’ (hang in there) during the intense Oppies until it was all over. Others found themselves at the disadvantage of subjectivity and ‘interpretation’ of the law by regiment or unit leader elements. A CB sentence could be given to a troop who simply arrived late from leave (deemed as AWOL), or having mistakenly broken an expensive bit of kit.
The CB sentence was also a ‘punitive’ system used to bring ‘subversion’ under control and very often this was targeted to specific individuals who repeatedly questioned SADF policy, methods or even the politics of the day – regarded as the ‘Communists’ or ‘Liberals’ in opposition to the Nationalist cause. In the military veteran community today there are many who would say that this system was frequently abused by over zealous PTI corporals with defined political views and quite a number of these SADF conscript veterans were very traumatised by it.
SADF Troop boarding a transport, his ‘Rooi Staaldak’ in his right hand – he was likely to be subjected to extra drilling and PT – the wry mile shows he’s taking it in his stride.
Some who were often given the ‘Rooi Doiby’ were just habitually ‘naughty’ or ‘stoutgat’ (hard arse) conscript troops and wore the helmet as a ‘badge of honour’ to their insubordination of the system and giving it the middle finger. Some even kept their own personalised ‘rooi doiby’ or ‘rooi staaldak’ having been issued it so often.
In either event, this distinctive helmet brings about mixed feelings, usually dread and many veterans would enjoy a wry and knowing smile remembering a tough time when they were super fit and could handle just about anything life could throw at them.
Written by Peter Dickens
Photo source – internet search, should the owners come forward please accept my thanks and we will credit accordingly.
Many readers of The Observation Post have asked for the follow-up story by Steve De Witt of their humorous encounter with the Soviet made T34 tank in their SADF made ‘Buffel’ APC and what happened to Christo their Buffel driver?
Original story, Part 1 – Kak vraag sit (follow this link Kak vraag sit)
So here goes .. Part 2 of ‘Kak vraag sit’ … ‘Ballasbak with the Stars’
By Steve de Witt
Christo our driver – he who successfully retreated from a Russian T-34 tank – was the most reluctant soldier in the Border War. The army didn’t want him to fight as he couldn’t handle pressure, and he didn’t want to fight anyway. Why? – because Jesus said turn the other cheek.
Once we stole his Old Brown Sherry and quickly owned up. Then tried to make him open us another bottle, on religious principle. Instead he cocked his rifle and gave us some Old Testament vengeance.
The bunker after sunset was our preferred drinking hole. Here we’d open the first bottle next to the machine gun. And open the last in darkness long after the generator had killed the power.
Sherry had the effect of converting Christo to other faiths. After one bottle he suddenly believed in Buddhism, and told you so. After a second bottle he became an Atheist, and told the Dominee. Most times he couldn’t find where the Dominee was hiding.
As punishment for this wavering religiosity, fate led Christo towards that Russian tank. Later he drove our troop carrier over a landmine. Christo the pacifist survived both encounters but he’d had enough.
Back at Base, he drank himself through Atheism into a new phase, Bravery. This helped him steal ratpacks from the store, pack them in his Buffel and attempt to drive home from the Border.
He hit another landmine.
For these colourful adventures and many more, our mate Christo was much liked. When he transgressed, Christo’s older brother gave our Captain bottles of brandy to drop the disciplinary charges. So the rank looked forward to Christo’s antics.
Yes, Christo’s GrootBoet had a Milky Way of pips on his shoulders. He was so important he only moved by Helicopter. Christo said he even flew to the GoCarts on the other side of his Base. And he would swoop in regularly to haul KleinBoet out of our Kas, and then fly back to wherever again. Wherever was very far away. I know that because, where we were, I never saw GrootBoet Brigadier fighting the enemy.
I suppose that’s not unusual because Brigadiers aren’t allowed in combat. Even the enemy went to primary school. Brigadiers worry wearing so many gold stars.
Anyway, it wasn’t GrootBoet Brigadier’s job to get Kills on the Operations Board. That was our task. Problem is, we weren’t getting enough kills, as he often told us.
It wasn’t through lack of trying. These were SWAPO guerrillas we were hunting in Owamboland, real insurgency specialists. We wanted to fight them. They wanted to hide.
Mao Tse-Tung taught them that. Sleep during the day somewhere in the thick bush. It’s such a big country they’ll never find you. Then at night let the army sleep in the bush – while you drink beer and talk freedom in the kraals.
They won a country like that, those freedom fighters.
Not that we lost – don’t dare suggest that! We just had nothing more to fight for. In ’89 the Berlin Wall came down and the Communists suddenly wanted Democracy. It was such a shock that PW Botha had a stroke. And gave them one man one vote, just like that.
Or maybe he had his stroke later – after realising he’d given away the country we fought and died for. I forget which came first.
Anyhow, back to the Border War. None of us could have predicted it’s outcome. In the days of GrootBoet Brigadier, we were too busy looking for sleeping guerrillas to worry about winning or losing.
Winning was everything, for sure, but that was the Brigadiers’ problem. They saw the big picture and designed strategies for our victory. They had massive responsibility considering all the planning, logistics and execution involved.
Then they still had to criss-cross Owamboland by Chopper to wherever their brothers were in DB, or hunt ivory.
One time GrootBoet Brigadier flew in, unlocked the DB and stayed the night with us, drinking with the officers. But he had to leave early the next morning, he said. 32Bn was on Ops in Cuvelai and he needed to organise fuel columns.
I guess Zambia was far away which meant much more aviation fuel. During heavy fighting up north the elephants always fled there.
Before leaving the next morning he inspected us on Parade which was nerve-wracking for all, especially the Sergeant Major.
Not for Christo. GrootBoet Brigadier spent a long time looking through KleinBoet’s barrel for that elusive speck of dust. Eventually Christo smirked and offered him some advice.
“You’ll see the sun come up through that barrel, Brigadier”
The Sergeant Major exploded and threw him back into DB for insubordination “and you stay there until you klaar out, Troep!”
GrootBoet Brigadier sighed and climbed into his helicopter. My faith in military discipline was restored. You can’t just chirp a Brigadier like that on the parade ground.
After supper the Captain ordered a bottle of brandy delivered to the Sergeant Major’s tent. He was so happy he reached into his kas for a short glass and downed two doubles, straight.
I always respected our Sergeant Major. You could rely on him to uphold military discipline regardless of a man’s rank or family connection. In the army you can’t let the Christo’s get away with murder.
Hell he could drink, that Sergeant Major. And get angry too, especially after downing doubles. I remember how shocked the MP Sergeant was when confronted in the bar. He stood rigidly to attention as the Sergeant Major shouted obscenities into his face.“Who the (NuweVloekerei) do you think you are, locking up the Brigadier’s brother!”
Editor – Sometimes we get another gem of a story, and this one from the heart of a veteran SADF national serviceman who has “been there, done that and got the T shirt” fighting on the Angola/Namibia (SWA) Border, thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story and photos in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post. Copyright – Steve De Witt, with many thanks to Dave Bosman and Steve’s brothers in arms for the use of thier images.
Colin Eglin, the long-time anti-apartheid campaigner and long-time leader of the opposition Democrats in South Africa has recently had a road named after him … but so what! Many streets and roads are named after various politicians in South Africa, especially the anti-apartheid campaigners in recent times … however, this one is different, very different.
Why? Because Colin Eglin Road is not in South Africa, it’s in Italy.
Most modern South Africans who can even recall him, just know him as part of the last vestige of ‘white liberals’ in a ‘whites only’ Parliament trying to hold the juggernaut of the National Party and its Apartheid policy to account. A tiny voice calling for full democracy in a sea of National Party (NP) rural ‘afrikaner-bloc’ gerrymandering which overtook him and pushed the ‘official opposition’ i.e. the PFP (now the DA) and the more liberal ‘english-bloc’ urban voters calling for an end to Apartheid into complete political irrelevance.
Note – this gerrymandering (the weighting and re-drawing of constituency boundaries to create a favourable political bias) which the NP used to destroy Colin Eglin and the PFP using the ‘rural bias’ is now happily used by the ANC and this last significant footprint of Apartheid has been put to good effect keeping the DA’s ‘urban’ vote ineffectual.
So, gerrymandering has resulted in well-regarded South African politicians been side-lined – what it did to the ‘democrat’ opposition bench then, it also does to them now. You may now even have to ask ‘Who is Colin Eglin anyway?’ and how is it that Colin Eglin became so revered that the Italians have named one of their roads after him?
That bit has a lot to do with Colin Eglin’s status as a military veteran and his tireless campaigning for South African military veteran recognition and the causes they fought so hard for in the mountains of Italy.
Now, who even knew Colin Eglin was a 2nd World War veteran? Let’s examine what drove this most complex war veteran turned political campaigner.
Colin Wells Eglin was born on 14th April 1925 in Sea Point, Cape Town, at a young age he moved to live with his aunt, outside Hobhouse, Eastern Free State when his father died after a long illness. Colin attended the Hobhouse School where he was the only English–speaking pupil – “I found myself the only rooinek (red neck, or English-speaker) in the village school.” he later lamented and he very quickly came to learn of the ‘Afrikaner politics’ and tension between the National Party supporters of DF Malan and those of Barry Hertzog – politics which began to deeply affect him. It also him the rare advantage of being fully fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
Colin was a bright and highly intelligent pupil and he left the Orange Free State and attended the De Villiers Graaf High School in Villiersdorp where he matriculated in 1939 at the very young age for a matriculant – only 14 years old.
Colin Eglin during WW2
South Africa had gone to war when Colin matriculated, at 14 years old he was too young to join the army, so in 1940 (now aged just 15) Colin Eglin registered for a Bachelor of Science degree in quantity surveying at the University of Cape Town (UCT). In 1943, now finally at the recruitment age of 18 he interrupted his studies at UCT to fulfil Jan Smuts’ call to go to war, and he voluntarily joined the army.
World War 2
Colin initially became a full-time instructor in the anti-aircraft unit in Cape Town. He was then sent to a similar unit in Egypt and transferred to Italy in 1944 joining the 6th South African Armoured Division fighting in the Italian Apennines around Florence. Now a 19-year-old ‘rookie’ soldier, he was to be baptised in the last significant combat operations of the war and was front and forward in the South African assault on Monte Sole.
Colin Eglin had joined ‘D Company’ of an amalgamated Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) and First City (FC) from Grahamstown unit which had formed a combined regiment for service in the 6th South African Armoured Division.
The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH) and First City (FC), known collectively as ‘FC/CTH’ had just previously acquitted themselves very well under the command of Lt Col. Angus Duncan in the taking of Monte Stanco from strong German positions and at this stage the war had entered a static winter period before the next big push onto Monte Sole.
As Colin had completed four years university study at UCT in quantity surveying it was felt that he had sufficient qualification for ‘Battlefield Intelligence’ and he was put on a course to become ‘D’ Company’s intelligence corporal (the military – then and now – often displays this odd logic for placing individuals civilian qualifications for military needs).
Colin was taken to the ‘Pink House’ near Grizzana, a farm building that was also the operational HQ of ‘C’ Company for a crash course of two weeks training in ‘Battlefield Intelligence’ and then back to D Company.
‘D’ Company had its headquarters in a cluster of farmhouses, named the ‘Foxhole’, on the slopes of the mountain overlooking Grizzana. As it was in the line of fire of enemy positions, ‘Foxhole’ was a tough, cold and miserable posting. Colin found himself in a forward observation post (OP) located at the cemetery at Campiaro. The OP overlooked the town of Vergato which was the centre of the German defences in the area.
In the freezing weather, snow and mud guard duty and patrols by D company in the area were a miserable affair. Patrols were sent out at night, and they almost always hit fierce and lethal contacts with the German defenders. In these patrols and observations Cpl Colin Elgin became adept at map reading and at recognising, and noting, the sounds and sights of warfare.
Much needed ‘Rest and Recuperation’ (R&R) came around every two weeks when ‘D Company’ members would go to nearby Castiglione dei Pepoli, the South African 6th Division HQ was located there and they could shower, get fresh supplies and spend some time relaxing. Known to the South African soldiers as ‘Castig’ the town of Castiglione dei Pepoli was to become a central feature in Colin Eglin’s life for years to come.
The South African 6th Division in the town square of Castiglione dei Pepoli – 1945.
In the valleys around Monte Sole, between the 29th September and 5 October 1944 the Italian resistance kicked into action, this then spurred the defending German forces into an extreme action to control the area. They embarked on massacre, and proceeded to try to wipe out all Italian civilians around Monte Sole – resistance, men, women and children (all of them – it mattered not a jot). The town of Marzabotto alone commemorates the massacre of 770 individuals, mostly the elderly, women and children.
With the static winter period over, by the spring of 1945 the South African 6th Division could advance on Monte Sole. In April 1945 Colin Eglin joined a CTH/FC forward party for a briefing on the assault on Monte Sole by Colonel Angus Duncan.
Colin noted “In a few weeks’ time the Allied spring offensive would commence. The Sixth Armoured Division had been given the task of opening the road to Bologna. To do this, the Twelfth Brigade would have to capture the mountain massif formed by Monte Sole, Caprara and Abelle. The Highlanders had been assigned to capture Monte Sole. Suddenly that mountain we had gazed at all winter from a safe distance was in front of us. Forbidding, frightening, challenging. Casualties were likely to be heavy. Yet there was a sense of pride that our regiment had been chosen for this pivotal battle task, and quiet determination to show we could do it”.
The South African 6th Division attack in Spring 1945 was a two-pronged affair, the Cape Town Highlanders and First City (FC/CTH) were to take Monte Sole – regarded as the most formidable of the German Army defences, and Witwatersrand Rifles/Regiment de la Rey (another amalgamated unit) i.e. WR/DLR were to take Monte Caprara. The idea was to eventually push through and capture the crossings of the River Po and break out into the vallies and plains beyond the mountains.
Looking more like partisans than regulars, a First City/Cape Town Highlanders patrol sets out in the italian Apennines – 1945. SANDF Archive
To prepare for the attack on 15th April 1945, the German defensive positions were bombed from the air and shelled by artillery. In taking Caprara, the WR/DLR suffered heavy casualties right from the start and in desperate fighting which at time even involved hand-to-hand combat, they took the mountain. Counter-attacks by German forces were effectively fought off by the South African tenaciously holding on to their win.
Colin Eglin was assembled at the start-line for FC/CTH attack on Monte Sole at Casa Belvedere (two kilometers from the peak of Monte Sole). He had just celebrated his 20th birthday the day before.
Both ‘C’ and ‘D’ companies of FC/CTH advanced along two farm tracks leading up to the summit on Monte Sole. They re-assembled 800 meters from the crest of Monte Sole. The area was heavily mined by Germans, but despite this the South Africans of C and D company advanced under the command a 20-year-old rookie officer with only 12 days front line combat exposure. 2nd Lt. Gordon Mollett led the charge up the approach with only five men and ‘with total disregard for his life’ wiped out the machine gun posts on the crest of Monte Sole with the loss of one of his men.
So swift was the assault on the German’s position that they were completely unprepared for proper defence or the bayonet charge, and with that 2nd Lt Mollett walked into South African history with a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for his actions and the rest of C and D companies of the FC/CTH took the crest and won the day.
Preceding the final attack on Monte Sole, Colin Eglin had been tasked to install telephone lines as far up the route as possible. Highly dangerous work, on his way up to Monte Sole the soldier walking just behind him stood on a German anti-personnel Schützenmine 42 mine. Also known as a Schuh mine (shoe mine) it is a simple wooden box with a hinged lid containing a 200-gram block of cast TNT and a ZZ-42 type detonator, and it blew off part of the South African soldiers foot.
Colin applied an emergency field dressing to his wounded comrades foot, administered first aid and called for a stretcher-bearer. Even with the threat of mines now highly apparent Colin and couple of ‘D’ Company platoons continued to press forward to the summit. Colin was able to get to the top and rigged up his field radio under fire, only to have its aerial cut in two by all the shrapnel and bullets flying around, thus rendering it useless. So he scrambled down the mountain to the HQ, it was here that he took in the news of the tragic death of his Commander – Lt Col Angus Duncan. He was killed the foot of Monte Sole when his jeep was blown up.
It is thought that the jeep carrying Lt. Col Duncan hit a mine, while other witness accounts suggest an artillery round fired from a German 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun across the valley hit the vehicle.
Officer Commanding First City/Cape Town Highlanders, Lt Col Angus Duncan, addressing his men before the assault on Monte Sole. He was killed shortly after this photograph was taken, while driving to his brigade’s position. SANDF Archive
Many years later in Peter Elliott’s interview with Colin Eglin (then Colin was 88 years old and this was his last visit to Italy), whilst the two of them re-traced the steps of FC/CTH at Monte Sole, Colin recalled how the strain of war impacted two completely different soldiers and comrades, Jan and Peter. Jan was a tough outdoors man, an extrovert and he relished army life prior to the battle. Peter was a indoors man, an introvert who just endured army life out of a sense of duty. During the battle for Monte Sole it was Jan, the extrovert whose nerves snapped, and he had to be withdrawn from battlefield. Colin found Peter, the introvert some time later still in his slit trench. He had been under intense mortar fire during a number of German counter-attacks, but remained resolute. He was exhausted but even cheerful and shouted across at Colin triumphantly, ‘Corporal, we made it!’
Even though the taking of the crest had been swift, the Battle for Monte Sole was heavy and hard going, in all FC/CTH suffered heavy losses – a total of 31 men killed and 78 men wounded. The extent of contribution of the two Regiments to the battle and victory can be seen in the bravery – in all twelve gallantry medals and awards were won.
The capture of Monte Sole by FC/CTH opened up the road to Bologna and beyond the Po Valley, within two short weeks on 2 May 1945, the Germans formally surrendered in Italy. For the South Africans it was effectively war over!
‘D’ Company FC/CTH HQ Melzo, Italy, a week after war ended in May 1945. Colin Eglin is fourth from right, back row.
But a new struggle was emerging for these newly minted war veterans, certainly for Colin Eglin. After the War Colin remained in Italy for nine months, he was stationed at Castiglione dei Pepoli, the town located near Monte Sole remained the South African 6th Armoured Division’s headquarters and it now became a depot and clearing station for the entire division (in fact the main South African military burial ground in Italy is located there). During this period, whilst waiting to be demobilised he undertook extra-mural courses in Archaeology and Town Planning.
The entire event had made an indelible impression on Colin’s soul, it was the Italian Campaign that was to deepen his commitment to democracy and liberty. Monte Sole was a shrine for him as he returned there on many occasions during the next sixty-eight years to stand gazing at the mountain where, as a young man, he quickly became an adult. During these trips he was also to build a lasting relationship with the towns-people of Castiglione dei Pepoli.
A military veteran’s legacy
In his autobiography, “Crossing the Borders of Power – The Memoirs of Colin Eglin,” Colin mentions the discussions that took place among the South African soldiers in 1945, whilst in Italy waiting to be repatriated to South Africa. Colin noted:
“The dominant view was that there should be a memorial, but that this should be a ‘living’ one that served the community, not merely a monumental structure. The servicemen, in overwhelming numbers, volunteered to donate two days’ pay towards what was to become the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.”
The children’s hospital was to be built as a memorial to those who had contributed by sacrifice, suffering and service in the Second World War, the soldiers felt that children had been the innocent victims of the war and the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital was devoted to the relief of the suffering of children.
The building of the Children’s Hospital in Cape Town commenced in 1953 under the guidance of the South African Red Cross Society and remains a ‘living war memorial’ helping the most vulnerable of the community – our children – and Colin Eglin was to play a leading role in making it happen.
Colin Eglin speaking at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town on Remembrance Day
During his life-time Colin returned to the Italian Apennines and Castiglione dei Pepoli over ten times. For his work on Remembrance and maintaining the links of this part of Italy with their liberators – South Africa – he was even made an honorary citizen of the town of Grizzana Morandi.
But why was an opposition party leader elevated to such a significant position in Italy and not a government one? We all know the answer to that, as the Nationalist Party had no really sincere intentions on commemorating South Africa’s war against Nazism and Fascism in Italy, before and during the war they had supported the ideals of Nazism and Fascism. They were not going to change their stance on Britain, British Allies, Smuts, World War 2 or even Fascism. So this key task on building on the South African sacrifice in Europe, lest it all be in vain, was left to that part of the South African mainstream party political spectrum which supported Smuts and all the ‘liberals’ who went to war against Nazi Germany – and that part of the party political spectrum in 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was Colin Eglin’s turf.
The political path for Post War veterans
In 1946 Colin returned from the Italian theatre of Military Operations to South Africa, here he picked up where he left off and continued with his studies, graduating the same year with a B.Sc in Quantity Surveying from UCT.
He became involved in civic affairs and started the Pinelands Young People’s Club which helped set up a sister organization in the neighbouring Coloured village of Maitland. In 1951 he became chairman of the Pinelands Civic Association and was elected to the Pinelands town council.
The electoral loss of the Jan Smuts’ United Party in 1948 to the National Party and their Apartheid proposals sent shock waves into South Africa’s war veteran community. The war for liberty and democracy they had conducted overseas in places like Italy, against the same forces of fascism which had now come home to roost in South Africa. This spurred The Torch Commando in the early 1950’s led by Sailor Malan and Colin Eglin as a returning war veteran joined The Torch Commando and started to become very politicised.
The Torch Commando was the first anti-Apartheid mass protest movement, and it was made up of returning war veterans. It was primarily a ‘pro-democracy’ movement and was crushed by the National Party because of the military threat it posed – and it was done by using ‘anti-communist’ legislation designed to curtail any ideology in opposition to Apartheid.
The Torch Commando was linked to the United Party, who tried to leverage it for the ‘service vote’ and wrestle power back from the National Party. In 1953 Colin decided to enter in formal political party opposition to Apartheid in addition to protesting with The Torch Commando – and he joined Smuts’ United Party (Smuts had just passed away in 1950). Almost immediately he became the political campaign manager for his friend Zach de Beer who was the United Party (UP) candidate for the parliamentary seat of Maitland. Colin Eglin and Zach de Beer were to form a friendship and political bond which would transform itself into what is now the modern “Democratic Alliance’, of the two Helen Suzman would say “Zach was clever, but Colin was sounder”.
In 1954 Colin himself was elected unopposed as the UP provincial councillor for Pinelands. In addition to that, he became chairman of the UP’s Cape Peninsula Council and then in 1958 Eglin became the Peninsula MP.
By August 1959, following the United Party’s congress in Bloemfontein, Colin broke from the UP ranks, the new guard in the UP instead of following Smuts’ vision of universal suffrage and holistic reconciliation in South Africa, still humoured the more conservative elements of the party who wanted a limited franchise and some restrictive movements for South Africa’s black migrant working population – a sort of ‘Apartheid Lite’ if you will.
In 1959 this was clearly no longer the direction needed or in any way relevant for liberal and democratic opposition parties in South Africa. Colin was one of UP rebels who issued a declaration of dissent (the others included Zach de Beer and Helen Suzman).
Helen Suzman at a Progressive Party meeting
In November that year he was one of the 11 members of parliament who formed the nucleus of the new Progressive Party (PP). It was a bold move, it would ultimately spell the end of the United Party and the conservative element within it, also by fractionating the official opposition (the UP) it certainly bolstered the National Party. What it did however also do was draw the line in the sand of ‘white politics’ – on the one side, the whites who supported Apartheid and a whites only vote and on the other side whites who did not support Apartheid and wanted a democratic vote for all.
All through this Colin Eglin never wavered from his adherence to liberal, democratic values, he aimed to reform the system from the inside; and by balancing criticism of race discrimination with political pragmatism he sometimes found himself the subject of attack from both black and white communities.
The ANC would argue that by participating in the apartheid political system, no matter what his stance, Eglin helped perpetuate it. Yet by participating Eglin was also able to work against the Apartheid government machine and make important political gestures – such as his visit to the black activist Steve Biko, or sending ‘official government opposition’ delegations to promote the dismantling of Apartheid in the so-called ‘independent’ Bantustan ‘homelands’ and promoted dialogue with urbanised black leadership.
By 1966 Colin Eglin became chairman on the National Executive of the Progressive Party (PP) and in 1971 he became the party leader succeeding Jan Steytler. In an attempt to attract Afrikaners to the PP, he initiated ‘Deurbraak’, the first journal of verligte (enlightened) opinion in South Africa. Colin Eglin also initiated a dialogue between the PP and Black homeland and urban leaders. He was also instrumental in establishing Synthesis, a non-party political study and discussion group, which became an important tool for information and contact across the colour bar. He also held a symposium of 50 Afrikaner academics in 1971, from which a non-party-political movement, Verligte Aksie, was formed.
In 1974 the PP won six seats in the general election with the seventh coming from a by-election a few months later. In 1975 Eglin negotiated the merger with members of the Reform Party, which led to the formation of the Progressive Reform Party (PRP). In 1976 he called an Extraordinary Parliamentary session to discuss the Soweto Uprising and call for the resignation of the Minister of Bantu Affairs, M.C. Botha.
A combination of gerrymandering by the National Party and totalitarian crack-down by the Apartheid State of South Africa’s liberal ‘democratic’ politicians, gagging many of them by way of banning and sending many into exile after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, saw liberal politics in a racially segregated and conservative Afrikaner biased voting sphere become absolutely irrelevant – and the PP would eventually lose all its seats, except one – Helen Suzman – who remained a lone voice of official opposition to Apartheid in Parliament for many years.
Also for many years, while she was the Progressive’s sole MP, Colin Eglin acted as Helen Suzman’s link with extra-parliamentary activities. He travelled extensively in Africa, Europe, America and even China. During visits to 15 African countries, as official government ‘opposition’ to the National Party he met many heads of state to drive international opposition to Apartheid – and he did this using official and politically legal channels – without having to resort his party to violent opposition.
Criticism of the PRP by the National Party as they tried to brand then as a “Tool of Communist agitators.” was swiftly put in place by Suzman who said .. “it’s really a joke, isn’t it? Because, quite clearly, we are a party of real moderates. It just shows how little they understand.”
In 1977, following a merger with the Committee for United Opposition that had also broken away from the United Party the PRP became the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). By 1979 Colin stepped down as leader in favour of Dr F van Zyl Slabbert and became Shadow Foreign Minister, a post he would hold until 1986.
In 1986 Colin Eglin found himself at the reigns of his party again following the shock resignation of Van Zyl Slabbert from the PFP. Ironically van Zyl Slabbert had one crucial deficiency, which Eglin had in spades – staying power. Eglin, on one occasion described the pursuit of the liberal cause on the stony soil of South Africa as “the politics of the long haul”. And when Slabbert, despairing of making any change to the Apartheid machine quit the leadership in a fiery act of self-implosion it was again to Eglin that his shell-shocked colleagues turned to give the lead.
He remained party leader until 1988, however he didn’t have the best people skills to sustain this type of leadership. Affectionately known as ‘the Egg’, Colin Eglin had a sharp tongue and bit off many heads. His long-time colleague Helen Suzman admitted that his manner “put off a lot of people. Yet we all came back to “the Egg”, not only because he was a role model for progressives, or because of his intelligence and measured political judgment, but because he was a decent, very warm-hearted man, whom we held in great affection.
In 1988 his old UP friend, a veteran of democratic politics – Zach de Beer, took over from Colin as the newly elected party leader of the PFP. With seismic political changes on the horizon, in 1989 Colin Eglin focused on preparing his party enter into a meaningful role in South Africa’s democratic evolution, to do this he knew he needed other democratic bodies in coalition with the PFP – so he negotiated with the Independent Party and National Democratic Movement to bring together a new opposition to the National Party in parliament.
This resulted in the formation of the Democratic Party (DP) in 1989 and the dissolution of PFP. Colin was subsequently elected chairperson of the DP’s parliamentary caucus, and Zac de Beer took control of the reigns of the DP as leader.
Building Democratic opposition in a new epoch
In 1991, as the Democratic Party (DP) stalwart, Colin participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) and served in its working group. Described by Nelson Mandela as “one of the architects of (South Africa’s) democracy”, Colin Eglin played a leading role in the drafting of the country’s post-apartheid constitution.
It was in CODESA at Kempton Park that Colin came into his own. It has been said that it was as though his life to then had been preparation for just this moment. Much of South Africa’s much praised liberal constitution is due to Colin’s clear grasp of the principles of liberal democracy and the constraints and provisions of those institutions charged with protecting and advancing these.
Colin’s negotiating prowess was recognised by Joe Slovo in particular and, when an impasse was reached, the two would get together and generally find a way forward and eventually, a worthy constitution was to emerge. His intellect, presence and engaging manner were recognised and respected by all in those crafting the new democratic Constitution and Bill of Rights in the tumultuous years of 1990 to April 1994.
Colin Eglin continued to serve in the segregated House of Assembly until it was abolished in 1994 after the historic democratic transition and vote in South Africa, and Colin then served in the multi-racial National Assembly as a DP Parliamentarian.
In November 1994, at the end of the first session of South Africa’s first democratic Parliament, a small group of Democratic Party MPs had lunch in Pretoria with President Nelson Mandela to discuss some challenges affecting the new legislature.
On arrival, in the dining room at the official residence, Mandela arranged the seating with this instruction: “Colin, you sit at the head of the table – you are the senior man here in terms of service.”
Mandela was giving recognition to a veteran anti-Apartheid stalwart, a person who had first been elected to Parliament fighting Apartheid tooth and nail some 36 years before this luncheon and a person whose Parliamentarian career would even outlive Nelson Mandela’s own after the luncheon was over. It was some acknowledgement to ‘the Egg’ and South Africa’s democrats and Mandela knew it.
In 2000, the DP merged with other groups to become the Democratic Alliance (DA), which survives as the current official ‘democratic’ opposition to an African National Congress (ANC) government.
Whilst in the DA, Colin turned his attention on the new ‘Nationalists’ in Parliament, where the Afrikaner Nationalists (NP) were his previous foe, the African Nationalists (ANC) were his next. To Eglin – nationalism almost always meant one-upmanship of one nation over that of another, he had learned a bitter lesson in nationalism and all its inherent evils in the freezing hills of Italy in WW2.
His foresight to NP politics then were as applicable to his foresight on ANC politics now. Colin felt that the ANC government should focus almost entirely on decreasing the poverty gap in South Africa – and in so do two things – unleash the forces of enterprise to reduce unemployment and focus government spending on housing and education … and not on self-enrichment – here he felt the flawed ANC driven BEE ‘transformation’ programs only served to transform a ANC political elite to a ‘super-class’ and the ‘under-class’ and poverty-stricken would simply be left behind. He also fought the ANC’s bills and amendments to press freedoms believing them to be “a cover up of corruption, incompetence and nepotism”.
In one his final speeches, Colin Eglin is nothing short of pure prophesy – consider this when he said “Ironically the (ANC) government’s Black Economic Empowerment policy has contributed to the widening of the (poverty) gap, by creating a new rich elite, often of persons with strong political connections, and by leaving the millions of impoverished out of the empowerment process. These factors are having an impact, turning people away from the values that underpin our constitutional system, and eroding confidence in our democratic institutions. They are driving people towards populism as a cure for their problems. In short, they are undermining our new democracy.”
Colin Eglin retired from the DA and opposition democratic politics in 2004 and in the same year was made an Officer of the Order of the Disa, conferred on him by the Western Cape Provincial Government.
In April 2013, the South African Government conferred the Order of the Baobab, Category II (Silver) on Eglin for serving the country with excellence and for his dedication and courage in standing up for the principles of equality for all South Africans against the unjust laws of the past.
Colin died at 88 years old on the 30 November 2013, his long time wife Joyce had died some years before of cancer in 1997 and he left his new partner Raili, three daughters and five grandsons.
As a leading politician and WW2 veteran of The Cape Town Highlanders (CTH), he was afforded a military funeral with draped coffin and the Guard of Honour was provided by the CTH. This short video captures his life and death and the respect he gained in opposition to the National Party and the ANC alike.
The peaceful road to democracy
Today, there seems to exist an opinion in the new political class in South Africa, that if you did not take up arms to fight ‘the crime of humanity’ that was Apartheid you were somehow derelict in your duty as a South African and somehow complicit in upholding Apartheid instead. This rhetoric is aimed at blaming white people for all of South Africa’s ills and demanding financial reparations from them. It’s an ANC and ECC narrative devised to whip up Populism and cover up their own inadequacies, crime and corruption – and its a narrative which is entirely misplaced.
The truth is that many ‘struggle’ organisations other than the ANC alliance fought against Apartheid, and not all of them had to resort to armed conflict to do so, Desmond Tutu and the Council of Churches, The Black Sash, the Progressive Federal Party, The Torch Commando, The Liberal Party, The National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the United Democratic Front (UDF), the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), the Council of South African Students (COSAS), Jews for Social Justice, The South African Congress of Democrats, The Federation of South African Women. Temple Israel, The Boycott Movement, The Natal Indian Congress and many many more all worked within the confines of the Republic’s constitution and the law to bring Apartheid to an end.
This included South Africa’s white progressives and democrats – starting with the United Party in 1948 and ending with the Democratic Party in 1994 who felt that the system in the long run could be changed from within if they stuck to it and fought it tooth and nail. Here’s the inconvenient truth – they were correct, in the long haul their work was as effective in removing Apartheid as any armed struggle, if not more so. Bold statement but its the real truth.
The truth of the matter is that an armed struggle did not really end Apartheid, the ballot did. There was no MK led ‘military victory parade’ over defeated SADF/SAP forces – and that’s because there was no military victory. The victory in the end was a moral one, and it was one in which democracy loving white South African’s played a key role – the first time white people were given a proper representative vote since 1948 (without National Party gerrymandering of proportional representation playing any factor whatsoever) occurred in 1992. The ‘white’ electorate calmly, with no overt pressure whatsoever voted Apartheid OUT and voted a full and representative democracy for all South Africans IN – and the did that in the Yes/No referendum of 1992 – two years before the so-called ’94 miracle’ – and they voted for Colin Eglin’s ‘democrats’ and enlightened National Party ‘progressives’ who backed the ‘Yes’ vote by a majority of 70% – that is a truth.
Without this ‘YES’ vote the CODESA negotiations would have been scrapped and South Africa would have continued on its ‘Apartheid’ trajectory – fact. It was white people using the peaceful means of the ballot which ended Apartheid and not the ‘armed struggle’, and they used it within the Apartheid ‘whites only’ parliamentary process – fact. Colin Eglin, Zach de Beer, Helen Suzman and the DP played a key role in this referendum and their life’s work ultimately ended Apartheid – without firing a shot – fact.
Who do you think you are!
If you had to play a game of heritage along the lines of the BBC’s ‘who do you think you are’, the DA’s political pedigree starts with Smuts’ United Party and the war veterans like Colin Eglin who fought for liberty and freedom and returned to South Africa only to become politicised when the National Party came to power in 1948. This is the epicentre of the DA’s beginning, a proud cocktail of the ‘democratic’ fight against Nazism, Fascism Apartheid and Nationalism. Colin Eglin is the ‘golden thread’ that links the DA to its wartime beginning and its modern values.
In July 2018, the townspeople of four villages in the mountains Italian Apennines acknowledged Colin Eglin, for his work in keeping the sacrifice of South African in Italy alive and relevant in South Africa. For his work in creating a living war memorial to the children in South Africa, for his ties and diplomacy with the Italy authorities looking after the South African war dead and keeping their legacy alive in the years of Apartheid’s isolation and for his tireless political work to bring peace and democracy to South Africa.
The unveiling ceremony was attended by Mayors of the surrounding Italian towns in the Apennines where the South Africans fought, Italian Military and Police officials, the South African Ambassador to Italy, and the South African National Defence Force Military Attaché to Italy all attended. In addition, 73 years on, the extreme gratitude of the Italian people (including their modern-day children) to the South Africans is still palatable – and it is all in honour of South African sacrifice and the values of the men who brought liberty to this far-flung part of Italy.
In addition to the named road, the town of Castiglione dei Pepoli has a war museum dedicated to the South African 6th Armoured Division, and a special display is in the museum to Colin Eglin and his long-time association with the town’s remembrance and historical preservation of South Africa’s fight against Nazism and Fascism – in his capacity of a long time South African MP and as a veteran of the Battle of Monte Sole himself.
Display dedicated to Colin Eglin at the war museum in Castiglione dei Pepoli, Italy.
The ‘Egg’ literally epitomised the road to democracy in South Africa. A road is anything that connects two points and Colin Eglin Road in Italy connects South Africa with Castiglione dei Pepoli in Italy, and under the title ‘Colin Eglin’ is a description in Italian ‘uomo di pace’ meaning ‘a man of peace’ – and nothing could be more descriptive of Colin Eglin and his politics.
He was a man who had seen war and chose to use peaceful means to fight Afrikaner Nationalism and Apartheid and won, eventually becoming a founding father of South Africa’s democratic constitution – a true democrat in every sense. South Africa now has a strong set of multi-racial democrats in the form of the DA still holding African Nationalism (now in a state of racial reverse) in South Africa to account, and it’s all a result of the road Colin took.
It’s highly appropriate that a road is now named after him where his political journey started, in the midst of the mud, death and misery of Smuts’ war against despot nationalism and the South African sacrifice to rid the world of it – and it really is a very long road which begins in the mountains of Italy and continues to South Africa, even to this very day.
Large reference and thanks to Peter Elliott and his article and photographs in the Military History Journal, Vol 16 No 2 – December 2013 ‘FOREVER A PIECE OF SOUTH AFRICA’ A return to the area of Monte Sole in the Italian Apennines By Peter Elliott.
References also include ‘Tony Leon remembers great soldier Colin Eglin’ by Tony Leon Colin Eglin’s speech Presented to the Cape Town Press Club A TRIBUTE TO COLIN EGLIN – HELEN SUZMAN FOUNDATION – Peter Soal , December 2013
My sincere thanks to the curators of the South African Military Museum at Castiglione dei Pepoli for the personal tour, insights and assistance, especially to Mauro Fogacci.
According to a report in the Sunday Independent, a troop of 200 baboons is conducting a reign of terror on Beit Bridge. They live on the catwalk below. From there they stage ambushes on cars and travellers, eating and thieving and taking their loot back to the catwalk.
I find this gut-wrenchingly hilarious. It’s amazing how history turns full circle. The last group of baboons terrorizing the catwalk on Beit Bridge was our army platoon. It may only be a footnote in the history of old South Africa, but it was us – little ol’ us – who unintentionally declared war on Zimbabwe in the early 80’s.
Beit Bridge was a sensitive posting. ‘Daaie fokkin communis en terroris’ Robert Mugabe had come to power only a few months before. At the last outpost on the frontier, standing face to face with the enemy half-way across the bridge, our platoon was instructed to defend South Africa against the swart gevaar.
Our company commander, an Infantry captain, took this mission as a personal honour bestowed by PW Botha, Constant Viljoen (Chief of the Defence Force), Jannie Geldenhuys (Chief of the Army) and God, in that order.
On the sandy, blisteringly hot parade ground of Beit Bridge he stood us at ease, not stand easy, for two hours in the sun. We were lambasted about the massive responsibility of our task. We were not under any circumstances to communicate with the Zimbabwean soldiers.
We were to be perfectly turned out, representing the whole SA army in appearance and discipline. We were the gate-keepers between SA and Communist Africa. The smallest indiscretion could flare into an international incident. “En julle fokkin Engelsmanne,” he said, referring to the minority five of us in Platoon 1, “Ek watch julle – Pasop!”
Thus entrusted with the safe-keeping of all SA, we were dispatched to the very same catwalk under the Bridge inherited today by our successors, 200 large monkeys.
And thus the Alfred Beit Bridge (1952) over the Limpopo River was once our possession, our kingdom. Amazing how the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Actually, the bridge is a beautiful place on the Limpopo, especially at sunset. Strong legs brace into the flowing waters, and in the early 80‘s all manner of wildlife would come down to drink, including hippos. A resident crocodile patrolled the waters below, and we had endless hours of reflection from our bunker, now hidden behind overgrown foliage at the red circle (see picture below).
Now our Captain may have been a drunken, Soutie-hating messiah but he knew his men. Leave low-ranking troops idle for too long and something untoward will happen. Leave five Souties in a bunker with a machine gun on an international border and you’re asking for a career-ending incident.
So we never told him that we’d smuggled cases of Castle Lager into the bunker. Nor that we’d chatted to the cautious Zim soldiers on the catwalk. He also never found out that we’d snatched a camouflage cap off one’s head. And that both sides had cocked rifles, resulting in a tense stand-off, before we threw the cap back to them. Such small indiscretions were relatively easy to hide.
But when one drunken Soutie, feet up on the sandbagged wall, cocked the machine gun in a routine way to check the supposedly empty chamber, then pulled the trigger, we didn’t expect a clip of twenty odd rounds to fire across the water at the Zimbabwean bunker.
Consternation and chaos broke out in the bunker. We all hit the floor, beer bottles scattering. “What the hell…!” we yelled at Trevor. Crack! Crack! came AK47 bullets back across the water. “They started it!” yelled Trevor. “They didn’t start it! You started it!” “Are you fuckin mad?” he yelled, wide-eyed – “We’ll all go to DB if we started it. They fuckin started it!” Thus the story was born. Within seconds an apoplectic, drunken Captain raged into the bunker ducking AK 47 bullets. “Julle fokkin Soutpiele!” “They started it!” we yelled in unison. “Almal in die bunkers!” he yelled into the radio.
A hundred men stumbled out the bar and fell into trenches, and stayed there all night as the odd bullet continued to crack across our heads. In the morning the border post was closed, reinforcements sent and the Captain summoned to Messina HQ, some 20 km away.
Weeks later we were at that landmark Oasis of the North, the Messina Hotel, getting pissed after a rugby game. The Captain, dronk verdriet, was there too, staring into his Brannewyn. It was safe to ask what happened when he got called to Messina HQ that day.
He sukkeled to stay upright on the barstool as he revealed the biggest uitkak in the history of the SADF.
A Colonel had grilled him, asking – “who fired first”? “They started it,” he said. The Colonel then reported to Jannie Geldenhuys, Chief of the Army. He in turn told Constant Viljoen, Head of the Defence Force. Who spoke to Pik Botha, Minister of Foreign Affairs. Who called in the Zimbabwean Ambassador… Who said “the SA Army started it”. (Here our Captain paused, and downed his Brannewyn) …Pik stared at him, not knowing what to believe. But had to inform PW Botha, who crapped him out. PW also kakked out General Viljoen. Who shat out Jannie Geldenhuys. Who got bedonnered with the Colonel. Who went bevok at the Captain… … who got five lying Soutpiele on orders in front of him, and in an unparalleled fit of drunken rage, demanded the truth.
There was only one truth, and we stuck to it. “They started it”.
In matters of unresolved blame, the army falls back on an old tactic – the opvok. Sandbags were dished out, a killer sergeant instructed to break us physically and mentally, and down to the fence by the river we were sent.
It was the most brutal of PT sessions. We were drilled all day firstly into cramp, then heat stroke and finally semi-consciousness. The fences are still there today but Zimbabweans cutting holes in them care little about us Souties who nearly died there thirty years ago.
Ah well, it’s all water under the bridge now, so to speak. Beit Bridge now has a new set of problems with millions of refugees, cholera, traffic congestion and a shortage of toilet paper.
I’m glad all this nonsense is not happening on my beat. It seems appropriate that baboons are the new custodians of the bridge – their intellectual capacity suits the chaos there, and at least they won’t accidentally declare war on Zimbabwe.
Still, I get nostalgic for the bridge we once defended, and which God made our kingdom for two short months. It was beautiful and calm there when the Captain had passed out. I sometimes wish I could return to that bunker at sunset, if only for a beer and a banana with the new guard.
Editor’s Note; Sometimes we get a gem of a story, and this one from the heart of a veteran SADF national serviceman who has “been there, done that and got the T shirt” fighting on the Angola/Namibia (SWA) Border (and the Border on Zimbabwe), thank you Steve for this bit of “truth” and sharing your story in such an amusing and interesting way with The Observation Post. Copyright – Steve De Witt.
Lance Corporal William Henry Hewitt VC, (aged 33) of 2nd South African Infantry Regiment is a very special South African, seen here he maintains his traditional wry smile, he had lost some teeth in heroic actions which earned him the Victoria Cross and he figured women wouldn’t think him attractive if he smiled. All we can say is smile, you of all people really earned it!
L/Cpl William Hewitt VC – Note his two ‘wound stripes’ on his sleeve
William was an exceptionally brave man, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for action near Ypres, Belgium, on September 20, 1917. These extracts from “The Comprehensive Guide to Victoria Crosses” and “How I won the Victoria Cross” the story of Major William Hewitt from the Hermanus historical society outline a very colourful life and the depth of character that was William Hewitt VC, read on and learn about one very remarkable South African.
Consider his own recollection of the action that earned him the Victoria Cross and you’ll have the measure of the man and his off the cuff ‘dark’ military humour:
William Hewitt’s platoon was ordered to demolish a German pillbox, manned by 15 enemy soldiers. Within a minute of advancing his entire platoon was killed by an artillery shell, William was luckily the sole survivor. He advanced alone and threw a grenade into the pillbox. A “jampot” (Improvised Explosive Device) was thrown at him and hit him in the face. Of the resulting explosion he said:
‘Apart from blowing off my gasmask and half my clothes, knocking out four teeth, breaking my nose, giving me a couple of black eyes, with a lot of little cuts here and there and knocking me backwards into a convenient shell-hole, it didn’t really do any damage – only made me damn mad’.
William Hewitt went round the back of the pillbox and pushed his last grenade though a breathing hole. It exploded inside, killing all the occupants. He ran around the front to deal with any survivors, only to hear a Sergeant of a relieving platoon say: ‘There’s fifteen in there Sir, and they’ve all had it.’
The “jampot” is what would now be regarded as a IED – an improvised explosive device in a modern context, back in World War 1, it was exactly that. Literally, it was a jam pot (or tin), taken out of the rubbish dump, filled with nuts and bolts, with an explosive device and then thrown at the enemy if all else had failed.
A wounded South African soldier is given a hot drink by a padre after the attack on ‘Potsdam’, a German stronghold near Zonnebeke, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge near Potijze, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).
Now that is some account to earn a Victoria Cross, let’s have a look at this man and how he came to taking out a pillbox single-handedly.
William Henry Hewitt (1884-1966) was born on 19th June 1884 at Copdock, near Ipswich, Suffolk. His father, also William Henry Hewitt, was born in London, and was a farmer of 80 acres at Preston Farm, Harrow-on-the-Hill, Middlesex. William (junior) had six siblings, including a brother George, who was killed serving in the Boer War in South Africa in 1900.
William Hewitt (junior) emigrated to South Africa in 1905 and served in the South Africa Constabulary and later the Natal Police, including during the Zulu Rebellion in 1906. He later became a farmer in Natal.
World War 1
William volunteered to take part in World War 1 and enlisted in the Union of South Africa Defence Force on 24th November 1915. He went to France on 12th July 1916 and joined the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment on 15th July.
He fought at the very deadly Battle of Delville Wood were he was very lucky to survive and later he also fought at the Butte de Warlencourt as a Lewis Gunner in 2 Platoon, B Company. Having been wounded in the leg on 12th October, he was evacuated to England on 24th October, where he was treated at Tooting Military Hospital. He returned to France in April 1917 and was promoted to Lance Corporal the following month.
On 20th September 1917 east of Ypres, the 2nd South African Infantry Regiment (2nd SAI) had to ‘leapfrog’ the 4th South African Infantry Regiment and advanced towards Bremen Redoubt. The 2nd SAI came under enfilading fire from Hill 37 and Tulip Cottages. In the meantime, the terrain became a quagmire, with men struggling waist deep in the mud. It was during this second stage in the battle that L/Cpl William Henry Hewitt captured a pillbox single-handedly.
Destroyed strong concrete redoubt, in the Ypres sector in Belgium, during the battle on 20 September 1917. Same day and same attack that William Hewitt won his VC.
He threw a grenade into a doorway, but the Germans threw a improvised bomb back at him that blew off Hewitt’s gas-mask and knocked out four of his teeth. He was furious because he was engaged to be married and now feared that his fiancée might no longer find him attractive, Hewitt reached the rear of the pillbox. He tried to lob a bomb through a loophole, but missed and had to dive for cover. With only one bomb remaining, Hewitt crept right up to the loophole and, from beneath it, pushed the grenade through, receiving a shot in his hand as he did so. He eventually succeeded in arresting a number of Germans. Fifteen others lay dead in the pillbox. William, a simple farmer from Natal had earned the Victoria Cross.
William Hewitt was evacuated due to his wounds on 1st October, and was presented with the VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 16th January 1918 and was appointed Acting Sergeant on 1st April. His Victoria Cross Citation reads:
“For most conspicuous bravery during operations. Lance Corporal Hewitt attacked a pill-box with his section and tried to rush the doorway. The enemy garrison, however, proved very stubborn, and in the attempt this non-commissioned officer received a severe wound. Nevertheless, he proceeded to the loophole of the pill-box where, in his attempts to put a bomb into it, he was again wounded in the arm. Undeterred, however, he eventually managed to get a bomb inside, which caused the occupants to dislodge, and they were successfully and speedily dealt with by the remainder of section.”
Three German prisoners, one wounded, captured in the attack on Vampire Farm near Potijze by South African and British forces, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, 20 September 1917 (same day and attack in which William Hewitt won his VC).
A life less ordinary
William married Lily Ollett in October 1918. She was a shorthand typist. They had met when he was a patient at Tooting Military Hospital in October 1916. William returned to South Africa on RMS Durham Castle on 22nd April 1919 and was discharged the following day. He continued farming until 1925, when they moved to East Africa. He ran a coffee farm there until he sold it in 1939 to rejoin The South African Union Defence Force as a Commissioned Officer at the on-set of World War 2.
During World War II, William Hewitt VC, now promoted to a Major fought the next World War in Mombasa, East Africa were he acted as a liaison officer and later as an assistant provost-marshal.
William and Lily were living in Nairobi in 1952. When his health started to fail in 1950, he retired to Hermanus on the Cape Coast and finally became a South African citizen in 1955. He returned to Britain to attend the 1956 VC Centenary Celebrations in Hyde Park, London. In the late 1950s, he had been diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and had to have his larynx removed in Cape Town. In the operation, they found shrapnel embedded there. Shortly after the operation, he developed Parkinson’s Disease
Lily brought him back to Britain in 1961 in an attempt to find a cure with a Parkinson’s specialist in Edinburgh. He fell badly twice in his later years and had two severe bouts of pneumonia. Although crippled, unable to speak and almost helpless, he continued the best he could.
William died at Delancey Hospital, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire on 7th December 1966. He was cremated at Cheltenham Crematorium on 10th December and his ashes were returned to South Africa where they were scattered at sea off the beautiful Hermanus Cliffs in South Africa on 2nd January 1974, this scenic location is famous for whale-wacthing and annually South Africa’s migrating Southern Right Whales are seen close to the cliffs as they calve. It is also the appropriate location for Hermanus’ war memorial.
What a fitting place for one of South Africa’s bravest to laid to rest.
William Hewitt VC – medals
In addition to his Victoria Cross (VC) , William was also awarded the Natal Rebellion Medal 1906, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, 1939-45 Star, Africa Star, War Medal 1939-45, George VI Coronation Medal 1937, and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. The VC was presented to Framlingham College by his widow in May 1967. It was held in the Chapel until the College loaned it indefinitely to the Imperial War Museum on 23rd April 2004. It is displayed in the Ashcroft Gallery. The Castle Military Museum in Cape Town owns four of his campaign medals. The other medals’ location are unknown.”
Extracts from “How I won the Victoria Cross – Story of Major William Hewitt” – Hermanus Historical Society and Dr Robert Lee. Image of L/Cpl Hewitt copyright IWM Colour Image Colourised by Doug UK. Extracts and later images of William Hewitt taken from ‘The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross’ on-line. Images as shown copyright Imperial War Museum.
There is a poignant and very mystical annual occurrence in South Africa that reminds us every year of the blood sacrifice of South Africans during The Battle of Delville Wood. Every year, in July on the anniversary of the battle itself, a cross made from wood recovered from the shattered tress of the battlefield inexplicably ‘weeps blood’
In Pietermaritzburg there is Christian cross that becomes tacky with red resin just a few days before the anniversary of the massacre of thousands of South African soldiers at the Battle of Delville Wood during the Somme offensive of 1916.
The ‘weeping’ cross has wept these resin “tears” almost every single year, and this phenomenon only coincides with the anniversary of the bloody battle that started it in the first place on July 14, 1916.
At the end of World War 1, on return to South Africa, the Commanding officer of the South African Infantry Brigade in France, General Lukin brought back some timber cut from surviving Pinus Sylvester Pine tree (Scots pine) which had grown in abundance at the Delville Wood battleground before much of it was shattered and razed. This wood was to be used to make three crosses to serve as war memorials located in Pietermaritzburg, Cape Town and Durban to commemorate the Battle of Delville Wood (other Christian crosses commemorating the battle are also found in Pretoria at the Union Buildings and Johannesburg and St John’s College). The ‘Pietermaritzburg’ cross is the only one on the three crosses that “weeps” and this phenomenon has baffled experts for years.
The sticky red resin makes its usual annual appearance from a crack near the inscription and knots in the wood on both sides of the crossbar, and over 100 years after the battle, scientists still find it difficult to come up with explanations for the leaking resin.
Known as the “Weeping Cross of Delville”, this cross became a sensation in Natal over many years. The weeping of ‘blood’ came to symbolise the tremendous bloodletting of World War 1 and the Battle of Delville Wood. A legend developed, with people believing that the wood ‘weeps for all the lost soldiers.’ For many years folklore and legend also stated that it would weep until the last survivor of Delville Wood answered the ‘Sunset Call’; however when the last survivor died some years back the cross continued to weep ‘blood’.
In the opening weeks of the Somme Offensive in July 1916. On the 14th July 1916 the South African Infantry on the Somme were ordered to protect British troops who had just taken the village of Langueval and hold the adjacent wood about a square mile in size (dubbed ‘devils wood’), and hold it against German attack “at all costs”.
Of the 121 officers and 3,032 men of the South African Brigade who launched the initial attack in the wood, only 29 officers and 751 men eventually walked out only six days later on the 20th July 1916. These men held their objective at a massive cost, even reverting to hand to hand combat to hold the wood when the endless barrages of German artillery file abated – artillery fire rained down on the South African positions at 500 shells/minute razing the wood to just shattered tree stumps (in fact only one original tree survives to this day) – the depth of bravery required to do this under this fire power is simply staggering to contemplate. The losses sustained by the South Africans were one of the greatest sacrifices of the war.
Of the dead and missing, only 142 were given a proper burial and only 77 of those were able to be identified. Most the dead still lie unmarked and unidentified in the wood to this day, exactly where they fell, it is this that makes a visit to Delville wood such a solemn and heart-breaking experience.
Major-General Sir H T Lukin, commanding 5th Division, presenting decorations at the South African Brigade’s memorial service at Delville Wood, 17 February 1918.
Pietermaritzburg’s cross originally stood at the intersection of Durban and Alexandra Roads but was seen to be a traffic hazard and was moved to the Natal Carbineers Garden. In July 1956 it was moved to the MOTH Remembrance Garden in Pietermaritzburg, where it has been ever since. The Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) ‘Allan Wilson’ shell-hole oversees its good keeping in conjunction with The South African Legion’s Pietermaritzburg branch.
In terms of the two other Delville Wood crosses, one is located at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and the other is located at The Castle in Cape Town, as said – neither of them “weep”.
Some explanations have been offered for the mysterious ‘weeping’ of the Pietermaritzburg Delville Wood Cross, Chemists who analysed samples of the substance in the past found traces of lower linseed oil fragments and pine resin. This was expected as the carpenter, William Olive, soaked the cross in linseed oil before he worked on it. However, the phenomenon baffles forestry experts as it is unusual for wood to continue producing resin for such a long time – especially considering it has now been doing this for over 100 years.
What adds significantly to the mystery of the weeping cross is that Pietermaritzburg’s cross is the only one of the three that weeps at this exact time every year.
Also adding to the mystery is the fact that existing Pine trees in France ooze this resin during the heat of summer, while the cross situated in Pietermaritzburg does so only in winter and specifically over the period of the anniversary of the Delville Wood battle.
“Devil’s Trench” in Delville Wood on the Somme battlefield photographed on 3 July 1917, a year after the fighting.
One suggestion offers the opposite to the ‘expansion’ only experienced by the Pine in France in summer-time and puts forward that is the dry, cold weather experienced around Pietermaritzburg in winter-time, which would cause the wood to shrink and hence forces the resin out.
However, all these suggestions aside, experts like Dr Ashley Nicholas from the school of Biology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville campus have maintained that it still remains an absolute scientific mystery and all theories put forward to date are sheer guess-work. His position has also been backed up by the Forestry Department’s scientific research council who maintain that no one has yet been able to provide concrete insight into it.
As long as the legend of the weeping cross continues, it will continue to keep us mindful of the sacrifice at Delville Wood, and the forge it stamped on our young nation’s identity as a ‘South African’ one in 1916. When it will stop nobody knows, and here is where the cross’ current caretakers i.e. the war veterans in the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) and South African Legion of Military Veterans (SA Legion) are possibly right – perhaps it will only stop ‘weeping’ when true peace is found and all wars end.
Chairperson of the Pietermaritzburg branch of the SA Legion Peter Willson (right) and vice chairperson Dean Arnold view the refurbished Garden of Remembrance that houses the Delville Wood weeping cross.