Military Service 1984-1985 in the SADF

This page documents some of my memories doing my National Service in the South African Defence Force (SADF) during 1984 and 1985.

I was compelled to do 2 years of Military Service which I deferred until after I had completed my studies. This meant that I would be a bit older than someone fresh out of High School and thus slightly less likely to be messed about by some corporal who was not able to finish High School and so went into the army instead. So it was that in January 1984 I reported for duty at Natal Command in the pouring rain that one can only get in Natal (it turned out to be cyclone Demoina). After many hours, we boarded a train to be escorted off to Voortrekkerhoogte near Pretoria. (The place is now called Thaba Tshwane.) For some weird reason every time we came through a station we had to close all the shutters on all the windows. For crying out loud, we were all still in "civvies" and without army haircuts so nobody would suspect this was a troop train!

Basic Training

On arrival we got our "Roofie ride" - a rough ride on the back of a Samil truck (Samil = SA Military, Roofie was the name of new recruits.) in which the driver does his best to shake you up and scare the hell out of you just to start you getting used to your place in the pecking order. Then we had all our bags searched - to ensure that we did not bring drugs and other contraband into camp. The little brat searching my bag tried to steal my battery shaver, but I caught him and he put it back.

As we marched into our base camp that was to be our home for the next 3 months there was a Cape Turtle Dove calling its 'loop stadig, loop stadig' (walk slowly, walk slowly) song and I mused on the irony of the bird as we were being marched into camp.

PDK Voortrekkerhoogte
A modern image of the camp. (Click on the image to launch Google Earth)

I was assigned to a platoon under the auspices of Cpl. Van der Merwe and Lt. Van der Merwe. We then spent a couple of days 'registering' - filling in bunches of forms, getting issued with some kit and then we were taught how to make an army bed (the edges had to be perfectly square). We were not allowed to walk anywhere, we had to march. March to eat, march to the bathroom, march to the laundry, march, march, march. Our daily clothes were heavy brown overalls (the official colour was 'Nutria'), web belt and boots. The store did not have boots my size and so for the first couple of weeks I did my marching and drilling in some flip-flop beach thongs I had brought with me. About the only thing we ever said was "Ja Korporal!" (Yes Corporal) and indeed we spent days learning how to respond to almost every command with that canned response.

The store also did not have the standard running shoes in my size. They could not even order any so one day Lt. Van der Merwe drove me in his car to a shoe shop so that I could buy some running shoes out of my own money. Later I went to the store and drew some running shoes that would fit Debbie and I gave them to her.

Our bungalow was a long hall with two rows of double bunk beds down either side. We were each given a foam rubber 'mattress' about 10cm thick and a mattress cover and a pee stained sort of canvas cloth called a pisvel that had to be sewn onto the foam rubber mattress. This was then placed on the steel frame of the bunk bed and had to be made perfectly flat with perfect square edges. This was trickier than it sounds because the bunk bed sagged and the mattress was not flat either. We achieved the goal by inserting clothes pegs between the metal 'netting' of the bunk and the mattress so that it was propped up where it was too low. All the bunk beds had to be arranged in a perfect line (we used some string to check they were nicely in line)

I was too tall for my bunk but I managed to get hold of a spare mattress and a spare sheet and I lay that on the floor next to my bed to sleep on. Because it took so long to prepare the bed for inspection every morning, lots of the guys prepared their bed the night before and slept on the floor so that it would be ready in the morning and of course this was strictly illegal and there would be periodic raids by corporals in the dead of night. Because of my height I obtained permission to sleep on the floor from our corporal but of course the raiding parties did not know of this and on a number of occasions I would awake to being viciously kicked by three or four jerks who thought they had found someone who was supposed to be in bed. The commotion would wake up all the guys around me and they would try and tell the raiders that I indeed had permission to sleep on the floor, much to their disbelief.

In front of each double bunk, we would each have our 'Trommel', a large metal trunk in which one kept most of one's kit. This had to be open at inspection time and on the right hand side you had to have your 'balsak' (large tan coloured duffle bag) and it of course had to be perfectly square. The secret weapon was to use shaving cream on the bag and when it dried it would make the bag somewhat stiff so that the edges would stand up neatly. To the left of the balsak was our brown towel, perfectly flat and covering all the rest of your stuff that in no way could be made to match everyone else's stuff.

To the side of the bed was your 'kas', a metal cabinet with two sliding doors and a shelf on one side. This had to contain your spare socks, PT vests, underpants etc. On top of the bed was to be your 'dixie', (mess kit), cup, 'pikstel' (knife and fork set), shaver, toothbrush and toothpaste. All the toothpaste tubes had to match all the others so the only way to achieve that was for everyone to scrape off the paint and have only the metal tube visible.

Ready for inspection
A poor picture of me ready for inspection

Pretty soon I went to the stores and bought spare socks, vests, shirt and balsak. This allowed me to set up and arrange all my stuff for inspection and not have to destroy the careful preparation of each item after every use. I was fortunate in that I was earning a salary and could afford the R7.50 for a spare balsak and socks. The SADF socks were the best socks I have ever seen. I have been wearing them for all my hiking and even on a daily basis during the New England winters and only now 19 years later are some developing holes. What an investment! Both my balsaks are also still in use, they carry our sleeping bags when we go camping. One of them still has the lighter shaving cream mark around it exactly 12 inches from the bottom.

I brought combination locks for my trommel and kas which meant that I could not lose the key or have it stolen. The daily routine consisted of numerous instances of falling-in outside the bungalow, running to the perimeter fence and back, drilling up and down, running around the bungalow, getting lectured on map reading, radio use, how to write documents, etc. and one often had to change or get some other bit of equipment in between each of these events. This means that we often had to sprint into the bungalow, open your trommel, get or put back something, close it and rush outside again to fall in. Opening the combination lock was done so often that it started to become automatic. One day I noticed that I could feel when the combination lock was being turned to the correct position. I then started concentrating on the feel of the lock as it turned. Many of the guys had the same type of lock and so I tested my theory by telling someone I thought I could open any of the locks. He confidently said I could try his and I opened it on the first try, much to both our surprise!

My bunk buddy was Leonhard Praeg an Afrikaans guy right out of school with a good sense of humour so we got along well. I was the tallest one in the unit and the shortest guy was also in our bungalow - Van der Sandt was his name and he was only just taller than his rifle.

Myself with Van der Sandt
Myself with Van der Sandt

One chap slept with his eyes wide open and it always looked as though he was dead when he slept. Some guys could not stand it and always tried to push his eyelids closed. Other names I remember are Bonthuis, Smit, Grobelaar.

One day one of the bigger guys in the bungalow did something wrong and the Corporal declared that he was to go into orbit. This meant that he was not to touch the ground for a week. We had to carry him at all times. To the mess hall, to the bathroom... if any part of his body touched the ground his orbit would be extended. Man we really hated that.

We were issued with R1 rifles - a 7,62mm caliber automatic weapon. I was pleased to find that I could rest the small knob on the left of the rifle on the top edge of my web belt so that my arm did not have to support the full weight of the rifle. When I was about to be observed from close quarters, a very slight movement would enable me to unhook the knob.

Mail from home was always an exciting event and one would often have to do pushups in order to receive a letter that had arrived for you if there was anything wrong with the address. Our rank was that of Private. If a letter arrived addressed using the rank Rifleman (Skutter or Weerman) that was call for many push ups. Perfumed or a fancy envelope would be even worse. Mail was thus a two edged sword.

One of the idiots kept screwing up and getting us all into trouble. So we arranged to have a letter sent to him addressed to "Skerp Skutter" (Marksman), doused with perfume and lipstick and he had to do many press-ups to get the letter and all it said inside was Vasbyt! Revenge was sweet!

Early on we spent the day learning how to salute. If you are walking past an officer that needs to be saluted you have to start the action at a very precise moment in your stride to ensure that the salute is in place as you pass and this also allows more than one of you who may be walking together to salute in sync. That evening as we were all cleaning the bungalow in preparation for the inspection the next morning I saw one chap walking past the TV that was at one end of the bungalow. (Nobody ever had any time to watch the TV but it got switched on anyway.) As he approached the TV, the French period program that was showing depicted an officer and he was honored by a snappy salute. I don't know if he was making a joke, or if his brain was simply 100% programmed to salute in response to any commissioned officer.

Normally anyone who has qualified as a teacher was automatically sent to Outshoorn to do basics and then do an Officer's Training Course. I was trying to get myself seconded to the University of Durban-Westville to continue a research project on recreational facilities that was being done for the Office of the president. I was doing all the computer work for the effort and was hoping that I could avoid being cannon fodder if I could work on that for my military service. This plan at least got me allocated to the Personnel Services School in Pretoria for basics instead of Outshoorn. I had to submit a statement requesting the secondment but they kept mucking me about, requesting triplicate copies, or the statement to be in Afrikaans, losing it, etc. I kept submitting the statement but it never went anywhere. We were all trained as army clerks but even clerks had to know how to operate a radio using the military methods, how to shoot, take orders etc.


We had to chain all our laundry to the washing line or else it would get stolen. Everything except socks could have a chain threaded through it.

We did so much running about that we were all instructed to drink 9 liters of water every day or we would suffer from heat exhaustion. Out of all the guys in our intake for that camp, about 4 guys died from heat exhaustion and we learnt of two suicides. You never heard anything on the TV about such deaths. One guy in our bungalow had his knees totally give out on him. He could no longer walk.

Whilst most of the running about was at the direction of our platoon corporal, PT instruction was given by more dedicated sadists called PTIs. These guys are supposed to know when to stop but I suppose their training was not so good either. One day two of us just could not go on during PT and they decided to make an example of us, so they sent us to the duty room to get shipped off to the M1 Military Hospital to have us checked out - and we waited in the guard room for hours but the gharrie (Land Rover) never came and so we were eventually sent back to our bungalow... The risk was that by the time you got looked at at M1, you had recovered somewhat and would thus be declared 'fit'. This would have been like a death warrant because then the PTI would be entitled to do many hours of 'corrective training'.

After about 7 weeks we were allowed to get out of the camp for our first weekend pass. Elwierda Tours ran a bus service from Pretoria to Durban leaving on the Friday evening and returning again on Sunday afternoon. After about 10 weeks weekend passes were a little more common and I used the bus service but it was expensive. (R50.00) One weekend three of us decided to share petrol costs and travel to Durban in one guy's car. He had taken it to have some repairs and was ready to be collected so we got the car and started off. We had not gone far when there was a loud clonk noise. I looked out the back window and saw a large gear rolling along the road that had fallen out of the car. We pulled over and I went back and fetched the gear - I was in disbelief, how could a gear simply fall out - it did not seem possible that it came out the gearbox. Once we opened the bonnet we saw where it was from, it was part of the toothed timing belt arrangement and without it we were going nowhere. We walked some distance to where we could telephone and called the AA to come and help. The owner of the car did not live in Durban so he did not really have to go there so the other guy (Smit) and I decided that we would have to hitch hike on home ourselves. It was now dark and we started to hitch hike. Some guys in a very nice BMW stopped. The car had a heater and we sped on as far as Heidelberg where we got dropped off. For some hours we stood in the dark and cold because nobody would pick us up. In desperation we took turns trying to do various antics such as jumping up and down, dancing, etc. to try and get a vehicle to stop. We got a lift from some black guys in an open bakkie. Smit and I climbed on the back of the bakkie and it was the coldest I have ever been. We tried to put on every bit of clothing we had. I had an army towel and we wrapped that over our faces and we lay down together like man and wife to ensure that we lost as little heat as possible. Mercifully they stopped at Harrismith for a coffee break and we bought a cup of hot coffee each, then it was back into the bakkie all the way to Durban.

Guard duty was boring. You were already dog tired from the exercise and inspections and then you occasionally had to do guard duty too. This also meant an additional rifle inspection which was always risky because no matter how much you cleaned your rifle, there was always the chance that some minute speck of dirt would get into the barrel just before inspection. A dirty rifle would lead to extra P.T. (opvok PT) and extra duty - more guard duty. Once through rifle inspection guard duty meant two cycles of 2 hours on guard and 4 hours sleep. First shift was best 18H00 to 20H00 (everybody was awake anyway) and then again from midnight to 02H00 and you could sleep in until 06H00. I remember guarding a vehicle park - rows and row of trucks all with inviting seats on which one could sleep... I remember watching the Southern Cross rotate in the sky ever so slowly. An R1 rifle gets very cold to hold when the temperature is low so I soon learnt to take some gloves for guard duty.

One week I had been given a weekend pass and was just getting ready to leave. I heard that they were short of guards and were looking for someone to do guard duty. That would cancel a pass without any second thought. I had just locked my trommel when I heard "Andag!" the signal that an officer had stepped into the bungalow and we were all to come to attention. I was extremely fortunate in that my bunk bed was right next to the side door of the bungalow so as I stood up I stepped outside and went behind the next bungalow very quickly. I made my way to the main gate peeping around all corners before stepping out from behind any building as if I was a wanted criminal. I got to the gate and escaped for the weekend. Here you can just see the door that made my escape possible.

Our bungalow
Our bungalow

We had to buy all the paint and cleaning materials for the bungalow out of our own pockets. (Note the paraat yellow and black too.) One guy managed to bring in an old push mower and some shears so we could keep the grass perfect.

Towards the end of basics we all had to go on a field trip. I knew this was coming so I brought some large nails, two small aluminium poles, some guy lines, some extra plastic sheeting, an empty 5 liter wine bag and some old socks with the toes cut off, and Jiffy bags.. We all packed into the back of some trucks and drive out to somewhere in the middle of the bushveld, I have no idea where. There we had to set up camp and we had to make our own bivvies (Bivouacs). Two guys get together with their two ground sheets and one ground sheet makes the floor and the other makes the roof. This is what my poles, nails and guys were for...

Leonhard and I soon had a nice neat bivvy because we used the poles as tent poles which we fastened down with the guys which in turn we anchored on the ground with the large nails. The rest of the guys had to scurry about and find sticks and string (there was no string) and few blokes had anything to cut sticks to the right size. The 5 liter bag was for carrying extra water (the water bottles only took a liter and that was often inadequate). You may be able to see in the picture below what we did with the Jiffy bags. When getting food we placed our entire dixie in the bag so that it formed a liner. When we were finished we could throw away the Jiffy bag and we did not have to wash our dixies...

Eating off our dixes with Jiffy bag in place

Eating off our dixes with Jiffy bag in place

The toeless socks were for threading over our arms to protect our elbows in case of long sessions of leopard crawling which sometimes occurred.

The bivvies

We were all issued with blank rounds and had to have the red blank muzzle attachment screwed into our rifles at all times. Despite the blank attachment one guy got his ear blasted to shreds by his buddy's rifle when a blank was discharged too close.

Platoon 77
Platoon 77 in the bush.

We also dug pit latrines and parked 'go-carts' over them - large fiberglass toilet seats on a larger base. When the base is not covered by sand they look like go-carts without their wheels. Here is a candid shot of me having a race...

At night we had to guard the lines of bivvies and of course we all suspected that at some stage the officers were going to come and attack us in the dead of night. Months of training had taught us what we were supposed to do in such a case. The guard patrolling the lines had a radio and had to report to HQ right away using all the obscure radio call signals of "10-10 come in 20-20" etc. When the attack came it was Van der Sandt who was on duty. He called up the HQ and declared "HK - HK daar is kak in die land!" (HQ - HQ there is shit in the country).

Leonhard Praeg and myself ready for a night in the bush
Leonhard Praeg and myself ready for a night in the bush.

One night they said we had to do a night march. It did not take much imagination to know that we were going to get ambushed because we had been training how to react to an ambush. So once we had been set off on our night march we stopped a short way along the road and devised our plan. We were pretty sure that trip wires across the road would be used (we had been trained to set them too) so we decided to send two of the guys about 50m ahead of the rest of the platoon. Sure enough about a kilometer down the road they triggered the trip wires which in turn set off a wonderful display of magnesium light flares and lots of firing from the bush on the side of the road. Everyone took cover. If this had been a real ambush, at most we would have lost two guys instead of all being mown down so we considered the tactic a success. The officers were pretty pissed off because we had not played into their trap according to their plan.

Hiding behind a smoke screen
Hiding behind a smoke screen.

After Basics

After basics (about 4 months) we were all posted out to various units around the country. This was critical because it determined where you would serve most of the rest of your two years. I wanted to get posted to Natal Command in Durban but of course guys in the SADF sports teams had preference so all the Surfing team guys went to Natal Command and there were no more slots available there. I made a fuss about being married and that there was a policy to post married servicemen as close as possible to home. Finally the day came when we were all given our route order to go to our various units. I got a piece of paper that said "S.F. Maj Dippenaar 1RR Durban." Great I was going to Durban! The address was somewhere on the Bluff. A truck arrived to pick up all they guys who were going to S.F. which we learnt stood for Special Forces. We were taken to Special Forces Headquarters in Pretoria where people were assigned to different Special Forces units and about 4 of us were assigned to the Durban unit. Another guy, Francois Van der Merwe also had the strange Maj. Dippenaar notation.

1RR stood for 1 Reconnaissance Regiment (The Recce Commando unit) and it was located on the Bluff that overlooked Durban harbour. I always thought it was just some old WWII Navy cannons up there because I can remember that one could drive along the Bluff to the lighthouse at the end and stop and admire the view of Durban from a few lookout spots as we had done when I was a boy. Now the whole end of the Bluff was closed off and the gate was guarded and sandbagged. We were allowed in and we reported at the duty room and then showed to our sleeping quarters in what was called F-Block. The corporal seemed to be nervously taking his time showing us around F-Block and getting us settled in. We learnt later that this was so that he could avoid going to PT parade at 3PM. We also learnt who Major Dippenaar was. He was a special forces officer who had been blinded some years earlier when some explosive detonators went off in his hands. Maj Dippenaar needed a new personal assistant and Francois and I had been earmarked as possible candidates to do the job. My Afrikaans was not very good and Francois was an Afrikaans speaker and that suited Maj Dippenaar better so Francois became his personal assistant. Francois had to read all the correspondence to the Major and at times even drove him about.

Note: all ranks cited here are as they were at the time of my service.

Maj. Dippenaar Maj. Dippenaar

W.O. White explained that we would have to change the way we laced our boots. The way we learnt to do them in basic training was not how it was done by the Recces.
WO White WO White

We were also sent to the store to draw green berets instead of the orange ones that were from Personnel Services School. All the national Servicemen had to wear green berets and the core Recces wore the burgundy special forces berets. One could then tell at a glance who was a regular National Serviceman and who was either PF (Permanent Force) or a qualified special forces operator. National Servicemen did all the night time guard duty, driving, clerical work, repair, maintenance, signaling, cooking, etc. During the day the main gate was guarded by some old guys called pioneers. Commissioned National Servicemen stayed in the officer's block and the NCOs could stay in another block.

1 Recce from the air
(Click on the image to launch Google Earth)
1 Recce (date unknown). The officers had a pool ????
Since the unit is no longer there I can indicate the layout.

The grim realization that the hell of basic training was not over, set in. We still had to maintain our accommodation in inspection quality and there was even more guard duty than before. We were issued with old G3 rifles that were not as nice to take apart and clean as the R1 and they were heavier. One evening I was out at the main gate waiting for my shift when the other guys started going berserk.. "Shit it's Amadevu ! Chips out Amadevu is coming!" From my Zulu education I knew that Amadevu meant moustaches. I asked who Amadevu was and they stared at me aghast before realising that I was so new there and he had been away for about a week so I had not yet become acquainted. They quickly explained that he was the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) and demanded nothing but perfection and full cooperation and discipline at all times and was never to be crossed or your life would be in mortal danger. Amadevu pulled up at the gate and demanded to know who was on duty and who else was in the guard hut. I could hear the boom of his voice from the bottom of my sleeping bag. This was RSM 'Pep' Van Zyl - in charge of all non commissioned members of the unit.

RSM P.P. Van Zyl RSM P.P. Van Zyl

A few days later I met him in circumstances a little more typical. At about 04H00 he burst into the sleeping F-Block and started ordering everyone to 'tree aan' (fall in) in 3 minutes outside in PT outfit. He then ran us around the unit for about an hour, and we were to pick up any stompies (cigarette butts) and bottle caps or any other litter we could find whilst doing so. Then we all had to fall in again and he harranged and swore at us for about 20 minutes, his giant moustache waving on both sides of his head as he boomed. One thing he said was that we were all very small gears in a big machine. He also added that he was here to lubricate us and make sure that the big machine worked. He also never missed anything and he demanded to know who I was and why I did not have standard SADF running shoes.

"Amadevu" had a punishment that was to be avoided at all costs. If you got awarded a "sleeper" it meant that you were going to have huge blisters on your hands soon. He had a large stock of old railway sleepers (Railroad ties) and if given one your task was to chop it up into small pieces not more than a foot long. The railway sleepers were made of teak and the wood was very hard. There were two axes, a small hand chopper and a big one with a metal handle that had been welded to the axe head. When sentenced to a sleeper (or two) guys would wrap their hands in their towel in order to try and delay the formation of the huge blisters that would form all around the palm of the hands. I made sure that I never got given any sleepers. The RSM used to say how he loved to hear "dardi beil sing" (the singing of the axe).

There were other methods of punishment also. A beach "Opvok" was probably the worst. You had to report in your uniform complete with boots and raincoat. You were then taken down to the beach and made to run up and down in the soft sand in your raincoat. The raincoat would not let you breath and after a very short time your body temperature would shoot up and you would start sweating as fast as you could, to no effect. Dehydration and collapse from heat exhaustion would follow very soon. There was a very real risk of dying from this so called corrective training. I managed to avoid this too.

Sometimes the RSM would wonder through the mess to check that everything was in order. He would talk to various men as he strolled through and once I made the mistake of replying with "Ja Korporal!" to the Regimental Sergeant Major! You could get into serious trouble even if you used a rank higher than the person you were addressing and calling the RSM a Corporal was probably the worst variation of the crime. The mess fell silent and I thought I had just earned a sleeper for sure. The RSM obviously knew that this was a mere slip of the tongue induced by months of replying "Ja Korporal!" and all he said was that when he was Corporal, I was still in my father's balls! "Ja RSM!" I agreed.

I was the person with the highest academic qualification in the entire unit so I was given the task of running the photocopy room. They had a single machine and a 30 copy collator. I was able to do double sided and collated copies at the same time! One day some Maj. was going berserk because I told him that the number of copies that he wanted could not be done in the time that he wanted (It simply exceeded the throughput of the machine) so I told him that I had made more copies that day already than were made during the entire Boer war! His response "How do you know?" I had to explain that they did not have photocopy machines back then and that entire wars were carried out without having photocopies.

Married members such as myself who lived within 100km of their unit were supposed to be allowed to get a sleep-out pass and I was still battling to get 1RR to grant me this 'privilege'. All the PF and even National Serviceman operators could come and go as they pleased, only the non operator National Servicemen were forced to stay on base. A certain Maj. Burgess was supposed to be in charge of National Serviceman matters but it was difficult to find him and when you did he was often drunk.
Maj. Burgess Maj. Burgess
All manner of requests and statements requesting a sleep-out pass were ignored. The only time anyone called the unit for me was when my parents called to inform me that my grandmother had passed away and they got put through to him. When I next saw them they asked who on earth it was as he had been outright rude and belligerent to them. Of course only the Dominee (Chaplin) could inform me directly so I was pulled out of whatever I was doing and was told to report to the Dominee. This usually meant that someone had died. Dominee van Niekirk was also a National Serviceman and a very reasonable chap and he relayed the news to me and I was allowed a pass to go to Johannesburg for her funeral.

Much of what I had to photocopy was training manuals. I found that I could read through a page as fast as the machine could crank out the 30 copies so I made use of an otherwise very boring job by reading the training manuals as I copied them. There was some very interesting stuff such as Urban Warfare, Bush Survival, HALO parachute jumping and Demolitions. I was amazed to learn how very small amounts of explosive could be used to big effect simply by placing it in a 'stand off' - a small holder that shaped the blast so that it became focused on the wall or whatever you wanted to knock a hole into. I also liked the idea that in order to blow up a dam, instead of trying to blow the wall in towards the water, the trick was to create a mesh of the explosive 'fuse' (Cordtex) and hang that down on the water side of the dam. Then a small charge is hung down on the opposite side and connected up with cordtex such that the small charge detonates slightly after the mesh on the water side. What happens is that the mesh blows the water away from the wall for a very short while and then the main charge just needs to knock the wall in while the water is not pushing back on it from the other side. Sounded like a good theory. It also explained how to blow up a railway line. It said that you had to remove several meters of track or else the train would not derail. One demolitions handbook comprised a set of progressive exercises to give the students practice in setting various charges. One exercise called for 1000g of plastics explosives which struck me as rather a lot. I flicked back to earlier pages and found examples using amounts of 100g, 200g etc. I was sure that this was an error. I also realized that because the possible error was in the wrong direction, people would likely be killed. I then had a dilemma, should I try and bring it to their attention or just let them find out the hard way? To bring it to their attention it may become clear to them that I have been reading everything. After some deliberation I decided to do the right thing. When the Captain came to collect the manuals I said that I thought there may be an error in the amount of explosive recommended for that exercise. He crapped all over me and told me I had no clue about such matters. I did not get into trouble and I had at least told them.

The next day, just that page came down to have 30 copies made and the amount of explosive had been changed to 100g. I enjoyed making those 30 copies more than any of the thousands of others I made.

The unit had a number of members from 32 Battalion (Buffalo) who did not speak English. Since I was qualified as a teacher it was decided that I would teach them English. Thus ended my photocopying career and I started teaching English in 1.1 Commando. They also got hold of another teacher to help out and it turned out to be Quaid Corder who had been in my same year of my Teaching Diploma and had also done some prac teaching at Glenwood High with me. Because he was not part of the unit itself, he would arrive at the unit each day and depart each afternoon and never had to deal with inspections, guard duty, etc. I can only remember the name of one of the operators in the class, he called himself "Ladi". The company to which the English students belonged had a National Serviceman called Graham de St. Pern who did the clerical work for them. Graham was a big David Bowie fan and claimed to have every LP that Bowie had released. After he klaared out (was discharged) I lost all contact with him. I think the Major in charge there was Maj. Fourie. One day I submitted a statement to Maj. requesting a sleep-out pass and the grounds that my wife needed my emotional support etc. He went ballistic. He yelled at me and told me that I did not owe my wife any emotional support whatsoever and that I was owned by the SADF. I was furious, the SADF guidelines recommended a sleep-out pass, I never volunteered to be a Recce, the Recces could sleep out and the National Serviceman I worked with every day teaching English could go home every night and he was not even married. It was the closest I ever came, in my entire 2 years of service, to hitting an officer. Minutes later I realised what a good thing it was that I had maintained my self control because had I hit him, he would surely have killed me and he would not have had any trouble at all to cover up my death. I was dealing with a man that had for years become used to killing others, why did I imagine that he would have any compassion or logic in his head?

When some R4 rifles were returned to the store I managed to return my G3 for an R4 (5,56mm) which was much nicer. It was much lighter and easier to maintain. When one visited the armoury one could see many types of weapons including racks of M16s - so much for the American arms embargo. Near the workshops were large hangars that were filled with captured hardware from Angola. There was a complete Stalin Organ (BM-21) truck in there and numerous other Russian Anti Aircraft guns and thousands of crates of sealed Russian ammunition. In fact we had so much Russian ammunition that AA gun training was sometimes done down on the beach using some of these old Russian AA guns. There was sufficient ammunition to spend all day firing at targets being towed behind an airforce 'plane over the sea and on one occasion they also experimented with using radio controlled model aircraft as targets. After a day of training there would be a huge mound of shell casings piled a few meters high on the beach.

Unless you were 'gung ho' and fully into becoming a 'Grensvegter' (border fighter), one tried to get out of as much as you could. After all, the 2 years in the SADF meant that you were effectively being mucked about by a bunch of idiots for a pointless war.
The official death rate of white troops killed on the Border, expressed as a proportion of all white South Africans, is three times that of the US forces in Vietnam."

(Professor R. Green, Cape Times, 4 Jan 1985 - quoted in CIIR, 1989, p. 31.)

The acceptable death rate of troops including training is said to have been 1%

Any trick you could pull was called a 'gypo'. The environment at 1RR for an NSM was one that was very conducive to find a gypo. Unit PT was one of the things to be avoided but also one of the things that was well controlled. Even the PFs tried to get out of PT. PT was held every day of the week at 15H00 except Wednesdays which was when sport parade was held. Roll call was taken and you had to be very close to death (with light duty slip) or have an extremely good reason why you could not possibly be there. When it came to PT parade, suddenly National Servicemen and the hard core Recces were treated the same. Whereas they had to go through incredibly hard physical tests and selection to get into the Recces, we just got dropped in, but we had to do the same PT. The bluff of land that the unit sat on was an ancient sand dune about 100m (300') high and about 2 km long. On one side was the old abandoned whaling station (they used the old buildings for urban warfare training) and a sewage treatment plant and on the other side was the Durban harbour and railway lines. At the end was a lighthouse and some big Navy cannons. The areas that had not been developed were thickly vegetated with coastal forest. This was our PT training ground. Most days the big question was "Which way are we going to go around it?" Once roll call had been taken, the instructions would be given and it was usually something like "run to the lighthouse, then down to the whaling station where you will get further instructions" Durban can be very hot and running in that heat can make you start thinking of ways to get out of it. When we got to the first waypoint invariably the RSM would be waiting. The next step would be to do a certain number of sit ups, pull ups and push ups and then run on around the Bluff and climb back up to the top and report back to the parade ground by a certain time. It was the fittest I have ever been in my life. Once when we got to the whaling station I somehow managed to lie in some nettles when doing my sit-ups. Sometimes the RSM would have a train wagon load of crushed stone or sand delivered at the railway station on the harbour side. Hessian 'sandbags' would be filled with the stone or sand and then the task for that day would be to take two of them up the hill and take them to wherever his current construction site was. Sand was not so bad but the crushed stone was sharp and would make our shoulders bleed through the hessian sacking. I used to take my PT vest off and put that on my shoulders to provide some padding for the stone bags.

The Indian ocean seen from inside the old whaling station
The Indian ocean seen from inside the old whaling station.

Almost every morning we had a full parade. I can't remember the names of the various parade formations but there were two main types that we did at various times. Roll call for the National Servicemen would be held in the parking area below F-Block and then we would be marched up to the parade ground. There we would wait until the parade started with "Kom op parade!" The officers for each platoon would march into the parade ground and each would halt after a certain number of paces so that they were evenly spread about. Then everyone would march themselves in platoons onto the parade ground and halt next to their officer. Then there was a period where each platoon did tiny movements to ensure that everybody was in perfect line with everyone else. Then we were counted and the officer would go and report how many were present to the next in command. Then those numbers were added up and that was reported to the next in the chain. Eventually the Adjutant would hand the parade ground over to the Colonel. He might then make some sort of short announcement and there would be a prayer from the Dominee. Then the Colonel would hand everything back to the Adjutant who called up the RSM and handed over to him and he would bark the command for all the formations to about-turn and leave the parade ground. Officers that were not able to participate stood next to the HQ building and watched. The problem for Maj. Dippenaar was that when he came out the door in the middle of the HQ building he would not know if he should turn left or right because he could not see which type of parade was going to be performed. Invariably someone would have to run after him as he tapped along with his cane and get him to come back the other way.

Sometimes the Navy band from Sailsbury Island would come up to play the marching music for the few minutes whilst we marched onto the parade. Sometimes they played "The Green Berets" and this always delighted us "second class members" who wore the Green Berets in the Unit. One day Special Forces headquarters in Pretoria decided that all members of the SF units would wear the Burgundy berets. There was a bit of muttering from the PFs about this but it was an order and there was nothing much that they could say about it.

When you stood guard duty you could either end up at the main gate or at the duty room. The duty room was preferable as the officer in charge would usually be more interested in sleeping and leave you to answer the phone and add items to the log book as things happened. When off duty one could also get more sleep than out at the gate where one would be disturbed all night long by vehicles coming and going. The first time I was at the duty room I was not aware that the duty also included standing guard at the parade ground the next morning. People just assumed you knew that. I was blissfully having a shower thinking that the second perk to guard duty was that one would miss the parade. The first perk was that you did not have to stand inspection the next morning (but of course you had an extra rifle inspection at the start of your duty the night before).

When I had gate guard duty I would usually take the 3rd beat. 1st beat was regarded as the best and everyone fought over it and it was difficult to get unless you had some good connection. The result was that nobody bothered to compete for the next best which was 3rd beat. In the middle of the night you could hear the sounds of the container terminal down in the harbour and see the yellow flashing lights as the machines moved the containers about. I also liked 3rd beat because you could witness the dawn and I used to record how many times each species of bird would call in the 24 5-minute periods from 04H00 to 06H00. It was interesting to see how the same species were the first to start calling and how the bush would come alive as the sky brightened.

At one stage a new National Serviceman arrived at the unit and the guy was nothing more than a hardened criminal. An absolute oxygen thief. One night when I was standing guard at the main gate he left the unit in one of the other guys' cars which he had stolen. It turned out that he had asked to borrow a car and had been turned down so he simply stole one. When he came back the next day there was also dagga (Cannabis) in the car. He was charged with car theft, drug possession, AWOL, etc. When his case came up in court those that had seem him that night were all called as witnesses so we all spent the day down in Durban waiting about at the courthouse and it was a very refreshing change to spend the entire day without being mucked about. When his case came up it took about 5 minutes to read the list of his prior convictions. We never saw him again.

I discovered that some of the operators I was teaching English to could not swim. There was a nice big swimming pool on the grounds. I volunteered to teach them how to swim during PT parade. It worked for a while and there were many people who kicked themselves for not thinking of that themselves. There I was in a cool swimming pool while the rest of the guys pounded around the Bluff. It did not last long however because from time to time the operators would suddenly disappear for a couple of weeks and their next disappearing act was not long after my brilliant plan. So it was back to running about. There was a Sergeant who had originally been in the US marines and he was a very reasonable guy. Occasionally he would run the PT parade and it was quite tolerable when he was in charge. I noticed something about his technique for maintaining discipline that I have used myself in later years. When everyone was falling in for PT he would single out someone, anybody, who did some tiny thing wrong, and he would freak out at them as if they had just discharged their rifle in the HQ building, on auto. The transgression could be as small as a finger that twitched, a toe out of line or a stained vest, it did not matter. Once that was over and everybody knew that they dare not get out of line he would have no discipline problems and the PT would begin. He would run us about in formation and take us over to where there were some exercise poles, climbing ropes, etc. He liked the idea of training under oxygen deprivation, he believed that if you held your breath for as long as you could while running, your body would adapt to the exertion with less oxygen in the blood. He would push you to your limit and then he would let you stop. He was the only PT instructor I came across that knew when your body had simply had enough and he had the intelligence to let you stop. He may have been Sgt. Ritter but I am not sure.

Every now and then the Unit would have an official Church Parade at the local N.G. Church. The problem was that the local NG Kerk would not allow blacks into the church and our unit had a fair number of black guys in it. The RSM decided to build his own church within the unit.

Every year the RSM had a plan to take the entire unit up to Dukuduku for some extra training, especially shooting. Everyone in the unit (including the Permanent Force members) tried everything one could to get out of this week of running about in Zululand, shooting and rifle cleaning. (Why does the mere sight of a shooting range induce urges to have an "Opvok" ?) The event usually lasted 4 or 5 days but of course there were weeks of preparation. Once the dates of the event were made known, no leave could be applied for during that period. If you had your vacation time in ahead of that you were lucky. The first year I decided to take along my own one-man tent. It was perfect olive military green and would not look like a holiday thing. After hours of convoy driving (1RR had Mercedes trucks not Bedfords or Samils) we got there and we set up camp. I decided to pitch my little tent underneath a carport to get additional shelter and the big army tents were of course erected in a neat row. The sky went dark and one of those Zululand thunderstorms broke loose. A very strong wind blew in and it began to hail so we all ran for cover in the kitchen area which had a corrugated iron roof. From there everyone watched the spectacle of the storm. The hammering of the hail on the metal roof and the claps of lightning made it impossible to talk at all. The wind brought down a huge flatcrown tree (Albizzia adianthifolia) and it crashed down on top of one of the tents. When the hail stopped and we could talk the RSM wanted to know whose little tent that was in the dry. He wanted to know why I had brought it. I simply said that based on my knowledge of Zululand weather I had taken the initiative and brought my own tent. He could not argue with that so he asked why I had a ring on each hand. I explained that they were both wedding rings, the left hand as was usual and the right for the German tradition. All he could say was "Oh you continental types!" So that he could have the last word he made me build the bonfire for that evening. There was a large amount of nicely chopped teak that made excellent firewood.

At one stage the RSM decided that he wanted a shooting range at the unit so he had his construction crew build one on the southern side of the Bluff down at the beach. He worked his construction crew very hard. The RSM had a civvy foreman called "Pondozenyathi" because his forehead looked like the forehead of a Cape Buffalo. I would never have believed it had I not seen it but I saw the RSM take hold of the side of a wheelbarrow full of wet concrete and then he lifted it clear of the ground and tipped the wheelbarrow out away from himself...

The shooting range at the beach
The shooting range.

Sometimes the unit would entertain a local High School by demonstrating various explosives down on the beach too. An envelope containing a sheet of plastic explosive would be used to destroy a desk and a length of Cordtex in the sand would be detonated. Sometimes an RPG-7 would be fired out over the sea. If it does not hit a target after 920m it explodes and you would see a brilliant white flash and then hear the boom from the explosion.

After the English teaching I was transferred to the Training Wing under Major Kobus Human and WO Laing. The training wing handled all the scheduling, planning and execution of the very rigorous operator selection process and all their training courses for various Recce units. We had a shooting range at Dukuduku near 121 Battalion in Zululand and much of the activities were done there. As National Servicemen ended their 2 years duty, groups would leave but we were not getting replenished at the same rate. The clerical work in the Training Wing was handled by a Corporal and three Privates and then the job was left to Pte. Manie Reinecke and myself. Manie had an 'R' license and after a while they needed him to drive trucks so I was left to run the place by myself which suited me fine. I answered the phone, took bookings at the Dukuduku firing range from other units that also used it, fetched files that were needed, signed them into a register, delivered them to the officers, got them back afterwards, signed them out and took them back to filing downstairs. I also organised the training schedule wall chart, wrote letters that had to be written, etc. etc. Once I had everything organised it was not difficult to maintain and life was pretty good. Maj Human and WO Laing were good guys and we got on well together. I decided to try yet again for my sleep-out pass and Maj. Human just said "Vok ja, waarom nie?" (Why not?) He supported my application and I got it at last! I was allowed to go home after work and had to be back in the unit ready for inspection at 06H00. For some ridiculous reason I still had to maintain a bed and perfectly polished floor at the base but I did not want to complain about that because the obvious result would have been the loss of the sleep-out pass.

Maj. Human Maj. Human
WO Laing WO Laing

In the first year of one's service, National Servicemen got a week's leave and we got 2 weeks in the second year. When you took your leave, a sheet of paper stating the fact was inserted into your personnel folder. If that paper was not there it meant that you had not taken your leave. I remember buying a case of cold Ohlsons Lager and transferring it to the car of a guy that worked in the personnel section. My folder became just a little bit lighter.

One of the other Majors in the training wing (I can't remember his name) had a really buggered up old desk that have been carved and whittled away by people with nothing to do for a long time. One day he found a much nicer desk and he had me and another private carry his old one away and move the nice one into his office. It was a big heavy one and it was quite a battle to get it into the office so it took us quite a long time. It would probably have been a bit quicker if he had helped a bit but we eventually got it in place. As we walked out of his office I said "There you are Major, now don't mess up this one like you did the other one". He had a sense of humour thank goodness.

One very interesting day was had when 44 Parachute Battalion came down to Durban to do a jump. They needed someone to carry the static lines off the aircraft afterwards so I volunteered. We went down to the airport and everyone climbed onto the aircraft - I think it was a Hercules C-130. The jumpers were all jammed in tightly together. The plane took off and gathered some height. Then as we came over the Drop Zone (DZ) the side doors were opened and jumpers prepared to jump. Each man checked the 'chute of the man in front and ensured that his static line was hooked onto the overhead cable, and then it began. They set up a rhythmic stomping with their boots and they shuffled forward and I watched how the RSM stood at one of the doors and started shoving them out as fast as possible. It is important for them all to exit quickly so that they do not get too spread out and spend too much time regrouping on the ground. Once they were all out they closed the side doors and then the 'plane climbed much higher so that the Recces could do a HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump. When it was their turn they opened the huge rear door of the 'plane. As it opened you could feel the attitude of the plane change and slow down. Then they all just tumbled out of the back, some even walking backwards and somersaulting out into the air. I walked back and look out and I had to hold onto a pole to ensure that I did not fall out as I was not tethered in any way. After we landed I just had to gather up and carry all the static lines off the aircraft.

Since I was also a competent photographer I sometimes also did some photography for the unit. I duplicated slides of Russian aircraft and helicopters. I went down to the airport to photograph someone jumping out of a helicopter (which was on the ground) for a training manual. I also took pictures of Cap. Van Dyk in the unit wearing extreme altitude gear (oxygen mask, special jump suit, etc.) He could only stand being suited up in the Durban heat for about 30 minutes!
Capt. Van Dyk Capt. Van Dyk

Someone else who was a very decent fellow was Maj. Power (later Cmdt). He was an older British Army type of bloke, ramrod straight and the epitome of a British Colonial. I had discovered that one of the sports one could do for Sport parade was pistol shooting and the SADF would supply the ammo. I recall Maj. Power, Capt. Van Dyk and I would go down to the shooting range and spend an hour or so firing various pistols. I had my grandfather's old Baby Browning (.225) so I also brought that along to check that it still worked and fired OK. One of the pistols we shot was a Russian Tokorav 9mm and I was amazed to see that it did not have any sort of safety catch whatsoever. The ejection clip spring on my Browning broke and the gunsmith at the armoury put in a replacement for me. I shoot left handed, not because I am left handed, but because my left eye is my dominant one. I also use my left eye for photography and it is easy to determine which eye is dominant yet it was never suggested during all the army training to check which eye was dominant. I was discussing this with Maj. Power and he asked if I was ambidextrous. I said that I would give my right arm to be ambidextrous (not my joke but it was a good place moment to say it). All he said was "Fuck off Schultz" in the best British way.
Maj. Van Dyk Maj. Power

One of my 'gypos' was to compile a bird species list of all the birds found in the unit grounds. (I was trying to get out of the weekly Wednesday sport parade) so I did some birdwatching in the unit from 06H00 to 09H00 and then on Wednesday afternoons I went to the University computer to enter the data (ha ha) - anyway I produced the document and wrote an article for the Paratus magazine - showing how the Unit was so "environmentally aware" and I declared the Unit grounds a nature reserve! The Paratus reporter came around and took some pictures of me with my binoculars, I gave her the article and off she went. A few months later I saw in Paratus that I was the National Serviceman of the month - doing double duty for my country! What a laugh, it was just a well presented gypo !

Click to see paratus article
The Paratus article

Then I got a call from the RSM. I had to report to the Colonel's office right away! Now I was shitting myself, what had they found out about? When I got to the Colonel's office there was WO Laing - the WO from my section and he marched in to the office on orders. One did not simply 'sluip' into the Colonel's office, you got drilled in through the door, right turn, right turn, halt! in front of his desk. Colonel Andre Bestbier explained that Defense Headquarters had seen the Paratus article and congratulated Special forces headquarters in Pretoria. They in turn had sent a message to 1 Reconnaissance Regiment congratulating them and now the Colonel was congratulating me. Phew what a relief! These guys were all seasoned ruthless killers. If I was in trouble they could so easily have 'lost' me somewhere else on the continent so it was good to know I was not in trouble. Once finished, I was marched back out of the office and then WO Laing shook my hand and handed me a slip of paper that gave me permission to go to the store and draw some stripes - I was promoted to L.Cpl! (and special forces had a rule - no course - no rank!) he he...
Col. Andre Bestbier Col. Andre Bestbier

Many years later my parents were setting up an exhibit at some Expo for their philately club and the person in the next booth was setting up an exhibit on the 'Bluff SADF Nature Reserve'. They spoke to him and said that their son had done service up on the Bluff and it turned out it was WO White from 1RR. It seems that the declaration of the area as a nature reserve had stuck!

Every month there would be a 'ComOps' lecture or presentation in the lecture theater. These were for the PF members only and I suspect they were generally used to provide updates on various ops, new equipment, etc. At some stage they ran out of topics and the word was passed around for suggested topics on any subject. I volunteered to give a talk on the Cape Vulture and the research that was being done on that specias. The topic was accepted and I presented a one hour talk and slide show on Vultures to probably the most elite fighting force on the planet. Some were bored but some had some genuine interest and even asked questions.

One of my duties in the training wing was to coordinate the bookings for the shooting range at Dukuduku for other units. In 1985 the RSM booked a whole week of the shooting range for 1RR so it did not take much imagination to guess when the annual Unit trip to Dukuduku was going to be. A lot of people put in for leave for that very week and when we came back the following week we found that that the RSM was so furious that so many people happened to be on leave that week he was organising the trip again. This time he did not book the range in advance. I made sure that whenever other units called up for shooting range bookings their booking were sprinkled all over the place except for the week that I had applied for my second week's leave. Funny how some thing just work out.

WO White headed the computer admin and word-processing section. There were two civvy ladies there that did all the typing on WANG word-processing machines that were linked to a WANG laser printer. Sometimes when things went wrong I managed to help them out with the computer. At one stage a whole shipment of A4 paper simply would not feed through their laser printer. I found that the whole shipment was all just a bit bigger than A4 by a few millimeters. I said I knew where to go and get the paper trimmed down to size... so every couple of weeks I would load up my car with half a dozen cases of paper and have my buddy at the University book binder shop chop them down to A4 size.

The NSM Chaplain tried to organise some outings to build some spirit for the National Servicemen. At one stage he even organised a 'camping trip' up at Sordwana Bay. This was really weird by SADF standards, we persuaded him to also allow married members to bring their wives! Those who brought their wife brought their own tents too. We took a field kitchen, sports equipment etc. and spent the weekend camping at Sordwana.

There was a wonderful example of PF mentality when they decided that it was time for a new internal telephone directory. They made it up in booklet form and had hundreds of copies printed. I pointed out that they had produced the whole thing sorted by telephone number instead of alphabetically by name! So if you know the extension number you could find out who it belonged to!

Other names that I recall from 1RR are:

  • Maj Gericke
  • WO Bruton WO Bruton
  • WO Loots
  • WO Van Dyk
  • Sgt. Jaco Richter - ran the darkroom and photography course. Did officers course and he later ran tours of Angolan battlefields
  • Sgt. Benade
  • Lt. Deventer (NSM)
  • Lt. Chriswell (NSM)
  • Cpl. Gous (NSM)
  • Cpl. Robert Coombe (NSM)
  • Cpl. Boucher (NSM) worked the construction crew with the RSM - favorite expression: "You must be lovely" (from "Jy moet lekker wees" but he said it in English which sounded even more stupid.)
  • Cpl. Alan Boyer (NSM) did all the art work and drawing whenever needed. Alan where are you???
  • Cpl. Maingard (NSM) had a BMW 333. Favorite insult: "Penis breath". Worked as a parachute packer.
  • Guy Triggs contacted me, he worked in the mess under Sgt Major Joe Hunter and a Staff Sgt Powell from about September 1984 through September 1985.

    At the end of our service we were each presented with a certificate by Col. A. Bestbier.

    Certificate of Appreciation presented to Cpl. D M Schultz for invaluable service rendered to 1 Reconnaissance Regiment over the period 28 May 1884 to 20 December 1985 (Signed) Officer Commanding 1 Reconnaissance Regiment: Col. A. Bestbier

    In 1991 it was decided to award a medal to all those who served. My General Service Medal number 241571 was issued in June 2013

    So by now you probably think that I was the laziest, low down, sleezeball that ever crept upon the earth. I say this: I was not interested in being in the army, it was a complete and utter waste of my time in the prime of my life, it was clear that the stupid war was not going to get the country anywhere. I would sit and watch the seconds tick by on my watch, aware that this was my life ticking away. I see my 'gypos' as triumphs against the big machine. It was also a simple matter of survival. If you did not get out of things you could very easily end up on the border where life could be much worse, and a lot of guys did not come back in one piece from there.

    Contact! If you can correct anything, add names, share memories etc... Please email me.

    There is now also a Special Forces web site maintained by the South African Special Forces League

    Updated 2 October 2019 (removed Google search engine)

    Thanks to:
    Barry Fowler for remembering the name of the bus company and finding a couple of typos.
    Tinus de Klerk for images of 1RR officers