A look back down memory lane at the period 1966- 1989
A Carbineers Story (unfinished)
During November 0f 1982 I received the dreaded official envelope from the Natal Carbineers. I had just finished my National Service at the end of June 1982 and was sure that I did not have to “go” as less than six months had transpired. I did a little checking and discovered that my information was correct, but decided that I would do the camp in any case to get started, for the sooner I started the sooner I finished.
On the first day I arrived at the Drill Hall about half an hour before the designated time. Initially there was just confusion until about 8.30am when an overweight Sergeant-Major formed us up and did a role call. Again confusion for after the role call which involved, what seemed to my inexperienced eyes, to be thousands of men (In fact just two companies), there were a dozen or so who claimed their names had not been read out. They were still asleep and /or late for as the Sergeant-major forcefully ensured them, their names had been read out. Then a count was done there was one less than the number of names read out, so the exercise began again and again there was one less than the number of names read, yet each name was ticked. This time a variation, when your name was read out you moved to fall into a new squad. This proceeded along smoothly until the name Whitney was read and the response came from the squad whose names had already been called.
“What is your name?” yelled the irate ‘Porky” (WOII John Hall, I had heard some of the older hands refer to him as such). “Whitney, Sir” came the response from the blank looking fairhead. If your name is Whitney. “What are you doing in that squad?” screamed the Sergeant-Major.
“You called my name Sir.”
“But I haven’t called Whitney until now, so what are you doing there.” ‘Porky’ was even more puce in colour by now.
“You called my name Sir”
“What name did I call?” By now Porky was crimson and looked to be about to bust a valve or something.
“If your name is Odendaal, Why are you answering to Whitney.” The high pitched squeal became worse.
“Because I was Whitney Sir but now I am Odendaal.”
“Aaaaagh.” Was the response as the Sergeant-Major walked in circles trying to calm himself and reduce his stress level.
“Right.” Said the Sergeant-Major. “You say your name is both Withney and Odendaal. Which one are you?”
“Both, Sir” came the reply. “I was Whitney but then changed my name to Odendaal which is my stepfather’s name.”
“What does your ID Book say your name is?”
“Then why are you answering to Whitney?”
“Because that was my name, Sir”
“But it’s not your name now.? So why answer to Whitney?”
“Because I was Whitney.”
This carried on for a while longer until the mess was sorted out. Whitney was Whitney until he became Odendaal through changing his name by Deed of Poll to that of his stepfather who had reared him, or was it the other way round? During National Service he was known as Whitney but shortly thereafter the name change took place. The Natal Carbineers had him down under both names as they were not sure which was the correct name, hence the confusion.
As time unfolded during the first three days the necessary documentation was completed, kit was issued and the dreaded Medicals took place. It was rumoured that one character brought a sample of his girlfriend’s urine along in an attempt to avoid the camp as he knew she was diabetic. This failed for as the Doctor informed him. “Being diabetic I can believe but not being pregnant!” My tests went well I passed all until the final bit. “I see you were G3K2? Why?”
“Overweight and both knees are damaged, in fact they wanted to operate during National Service but I didn’t want that.”
“Can you walk?”
So by the stroke of a pen I went from a clerk who had not even finished basic training during National Service to walking patrols and going on OPS on foot into Angola.
When everything and everybody was more or less ready, we travelled by truck to Durban where we embarked onto Hercules C130 Aircraft for the flight to Grootfontein. From there we travelled by truck to Oshivelo for a weeks re-training. By this time I discovered I was in B Company, Platoon 7 Section 3. Here I was Rifleman no 7. During the re-training it was found that I had natural skills with both the RPG 7 rocket and the 40mm Grenade Launcher and a debate ensued between my Platoon Commander and Platoon Sergeant as to which I would carry until by accident Lt Gibson my Platoon Commander discovered that I could read “spoor”/tracks/sign and had a natural sense of direction in the bush. So I became the Platoon’s Recce or as the Americans refer to it “point”. It became my responsibility to walk in front of the Platoon, to secure the area before the platoon moved in, to check for enemy presence, to check if we crossed the path of any enemy movement, to check for any ambushes, booby traps etc. After the re-training we were deployed to the base at Okalongo in Owamboland.
We arrived at Okalongo and were immediately tasked with a 7 day patrol just south of the cut-line. So out we went after only one day in our base. This was a case of being thrown in the deep end. For I had never done anything like it except for a cadet leadership course some 6 or 7 years beforehand. Whilst out on this patrol Garth Woodridge and I observed a border crossing by two persons. What aroused our suspicions was that they drove goats ahead of them while a herd boy drove cattle along their tracks. We reported this to our Section Leader Cor Etwein along with the fact that they appeared to be heading for a nearby kraal. When this was radioed to higher authority, we were tasked with establishing an Observation Post (OP) and a possible ambush. First we moved away as if nothing untoward had been seen, only to return later as ordered. At approximately 11pm we moved into an ideal position with lots of cover as well as tree stumps etc to give some protection. However all of us had a sixth sense feeling that we had to move as the position was not “Right.” After whispered consultations, at about 12.30am we moved approximately 200metres away to a position in long grass with no protection or any other cover. Approximately 45 minutes later a green flare was fired over our former position followed by an illumination flare or mortar. We held our position and our fire so as not to give our position away for we could not see any enemy. About 30 minutes after that the enemy fired a red flare to call off what we deduced was to have been an attack on our position. At daylight I went out to “Cut for Spoor.” We then radioed a report through of what had transpired and that a large number of tracks had been found. We were instructed to hold our position whilst a reaction force came to do a follow up. According to information we gleaned later, the enemy force was some 30 strong and a contact had taken place with the reaction force.
After the patrol the whole company was deployed as part of OPS GEOPETTO for some 28 days in Angola. Our platoon was transported to the cutline and then had to walk to our designated position in Angola. Thereafter we walked patrols to and fro parallel to the cutline to check for enemy movement and to act a stopper groups should any enemy move in our direction. Water was scarce and we resorted to drinking untreated water from the pans or shonas. At first we all battled with the dreaded runs but eventually we got use to the water and things settled down. After the OPS we returned to Okalongo for two days before going out on our next patrol. That was the last time I saw our “Home Base”.
During OPS GEOPETTO we had an incident where we nealy became embroiled in something bigger than what we could handle. Our section was out looking for water for the rest of the platoon, when I spotted a light observation aircraft circling some distance to the south of us. As I was about to report to my section leader I also saw a helicopter gunship circling. The whole lot seemed to be approaching our area at quite a speed. I asked our section leader Cor Etwein to report to the Light aircraft that we were there to the north. After changing to the common radio frequency Cor called the air force and let then know that we were to the north. Upon hearing where we were, the commander ordered us to act as a killer/stopper group and they would drive the enemy to our position. Anticipating big “SHoneT” heading our way, I suggested to Cor he ask what the composition was of the enemy being chased, and the composition of the pursuing forces.
“30 to 40 special forces all armed with machineguns, SAMs (Surface to Air Missles) and RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) chased by a “fleul” of Noddies (Section of Armoured Cars) and 4 Zulu Groups (Four Koevoet Groups each with 4 Casspir Armoured Personnel Carriers. Each Casspir had between 12 to 20 armed personnel on them.)” At total of approximately 24 armoured vehicles all with cannons or machineguns, some 240 heavy armed troops plus a 20mm helicopter gunship chasing 30 to 40 specially trained enemy forces all heavily armed.
Some sense of foreboding made the commander of the operation ask our strength.
“7 Rifles” was our response for in travelling light, we had left our machine gun section behind and a sick buddy along with our pyrotechnics, explosives etc. A stunned silence ensued for a long moment before the commander exploded with language not permitted on the air neither in this story. Basically he told us to get out of the way and protect our own asses for they would get shot off if not ridden over. So we made a tactical withdrawal slightly away from the area, camouflaged ourselves around the base of a substantially sized baobab and waited. We chose a Baobab as we knew that the drivers of the armoured vehicles simply flattened any tree of a lesser size by driving over it. A short distance away we saw flitting images as the enemy ran through the bush in a northerly direction followed very closely by the vehicles. Approximately 500 metres away all hell broke loose as the contact/fire fight took place. When that happened we just kept our heads down and prayed like hell. A very narrow escape with lots of embellished stories to tell our mates once we re-united with the platoon.
At the end of OPS Geopetto we were withdrawn to Mahanene a base controlled by a National Service unit 5SAI. 5SAI had been my unit during National Service so I knew a few of the command structure based there. After a month of living in the bush like a wild animal with no brushing of teeth or washing of body, hair or clothing nor a change of clothing, it was good to be back in some form of civilisation. The cleaning up process took place something like the following:-
You emptied your pockets and removed whatever was not waterproof, took off your boots and stepped into the coldwater shower fully clothed. Once wet the clothing was removed and left in a pile under your feet. You then washed yourself several times beginning at the top and working your way down. Then you attacked the facial hair. First you hacked the worst of the growth off with scissors, then had a rough shave with an old blade followed by the final shave with a new blade. Now that you were squeaky clean you finished by washing your clothes and webbing equipment. Once this process was finished, you walked naked back to your tent with all your paraphernalia allowing the slight breeze to waft around your clean nether regions. Bliss, pure bliss to be clean again. Now it was time for the rest of the process. Pay, post, Parcels and the NAAFI or Mess where you purchased several cold drinks, crisps, sweets, chocolates etc, basically all the little things you did without in the bush. Having been out in the bush for so long, the letters etc had piled up so they were attended to whilst you scavenged in any parcels that you or you mates had received. Parcels were always shared with your buddies for they too shared theirs. Whilst this was going on you cleaned your weapons and equipment, made lists of what you needed to replenish, ate sweets, drank cold drinks, chatted to your buddies who you haven’t seen for a month. The whole process “designed” to get you to relax after living in a heighten state of nerves and reactions whilst in the bush. That night the fun began.
I discovered that unlike the 2 beers limit of the rest of the SADF, the Natal Carbineers had a no drinks limit. That is you could consume as much as you wanted as long as you were sober on duty and fulfilled your responsibilities. As we were off duty, we drank the base dry. We drank a month’s supply of beers and alcohol for 250 troops in about 6 hours. At approximately 1am the powers that be decided to have a fire plan. A fire plan is an exercise where mortars etc were fired into predetermined positions in an attempt to discourage the enemy from attacking the base. The idea being that the rounds would be fired into positions where the enemy were most likely to attack the base from based on the range of their weapons. It was also designed as a Show of Force to boost the confidence of the local population. That was the theory, what ensued was chaos. Our Patmor (60mm Patrol Mortar) teams stepped out of their tents sat down on the ground and fired their mortars at random. One small problem, all bases in SWA/Namibia had 5 metre high sand walls surrounding them so the mortarists could not see where they were firing. The machine gunners stood naked on the sand walls firing their weapons all over the place. Arnie had on a pair of boots and a bag of ammunition and nothing else. Thinus had on a pair of flipflops and nothing else. Whilst Thinus kept his finger on the trigger and waved the weapon around slung from his shoulder, Arnie fed in fresh ammunition and cocked the weapon. The rest of us fired at anything we could see, illumination flares and mortars, trees, ant hills just anything. It took a good few minutes before the command structure at Mahanene realised what was happening and a few more minutes before the Cease Fire siren went off to stop chaos. The next morning the severe displeasure of the commanders was conveyed to us along with our orders for deployment along the Cunene River. We were to return to Mahanene some two weeks later and mess up a fire plan again.
The sojourn along the Cunene River was uneventful other than discovering a planned mass infiltration of enemy and us being moved out of the area for SWA and SADF Special Forces operations. This area is the start of the Kaokoveld, very dry, very stony and inhabited by the primitive Owimba/Ohimba people. The Owimba still dressed in animal skins and still had primitive practices of smearing their bodies with a mixture of animal fats and red ochre. Their medical facilities were virtually non-existent so every time a patrol was in their area they would approach us for medical care. We were fighting troops carry the necessities for war, not the type of care that women with menstrual problems needed nor the creams and cleanses they needed for matters resulting from poor hygiene, living standards etc. All we could dispense was multi vitamins, analgesics, the odd plaster or bandage and in broken pidgin dialects (fanagalo), the instructions to visit the nearest clinic some 50 kilometres away. The only excitement was the several cases of gastro enteritis we had, me being one of them. One case ,a Lieutenant, was so severe they were supposed to “casevac” (Casualty evacuate) him by helicopter but do to ongoing action he recovered in the bush after having had some 12 drips pushed through his body.
Being on a drip in the bush with gastro is no party. Every time you ducked behind a bush, you had to take your rifle, toilet paper (if you had any) and your drip along. First you stuck the toilet paper onto a twig or small branch or looked for suitable vegetation to use as substitute “loo paper”, then you hung your drip on a stronger branch, put your rifle down, dug a hole and final did what you went there for in the first place. As you had “Gastro” it was all done at hyper speed before you messed in your breeches. When you were done you looked for the toilet paper and discovered that in “sorting things out” the toilet paper was no longer in reach and your drip bag was hung some distance away. So with your pants around your ankles you shuffled in the direction of the “Loo paper” whilst making sure you did not pull the drip out of your hand. What made it worse is I am right handed and the drip was put into the back of my right hand. Once your rear end was wiped you did every thing in reverse order. Another problem is trying to sleep in a sleeping bag that has a central zip down the middle of your body whilst a drip is in your hand. NOT COMFORTABLE especially during a rain storm. I survived to tell the tale.
We were pulled from the area prematurely due to intelligence we had gathered that indicated that just to the north of our position, across the Cunene in Angola a large group was gathering to either infiltrate SWA/Namibia or to attack our force. We walked some 20 kilometres out of the area to a position where vehicles met us and were then ferried futher to Hurricane base in 51 Battalion area in Owamboland. We were driven into Hurricane base and virtually straight out again, (We believe it was because our antics at Mahanene was now common knowledge.) and were dumped some 2 kilometres away in the bush Whilst our command structure remained in the base. Close enough if we needed help if attacked but far away enough not to be a problem. HA, HA, no problem. Some guys hiked back to base and arranged beers and meat and we had a braai/barbeque. The fire was so big flames leaped metres into the air and it took nearly 4 hours before we could approach it to burn our meat in about 1 minute flat. Each had their case of beer and we partied through the night. At about 2am someone fired off several flares which raised the alarm in the area. The bases tried to radio us to find out if we were ok, but because of the raucous singing and partying the radio went unanswered. The next morning straight after curfew the command structure raced out to our position to check on us and hold a hurried post-mortem regarding the firing of the flares. We were hurried from the area back to Mahanene.
At Mahanene a similar pattern followed. We were driven into the base and out the other side. This time we were to sleep just a very short distance away where the 5SAI command believed they could maintain control over us. That night another fire plan was held and to be safe, the 5SAI brass held it on the opposite side to where we were sleeping in the mistaken belief that we could not become involved and foul matters up. No problem, just to be difficult and because they did not want us involved, we joined in simply firing our weapons straight over the base. A story did the rounds there after that a 5SAI permanent force officer was standing on a building roof observing the fire plan when suddenly from behind him, red tracer bullets came cracking past just a hairs breadth away. He promptly dived for cover and unfortunately broke a leg. This was the last straw and our platoon was split up with one section being sent to Ogongo the main area base and the remaining two sections being sent to Ombalantu.