By Peter McAleese
HIGH STANDARDS ARE THE ONLY ONES ACCEPTABLE
All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don't know by what you do.
ARTHUR WELLESLEY, DUKE OF WELLINGTON
Joining the South African Army was a no-nonsense affair. I decided that at thirty-seven years old I was more use to 44 Parachute Brigade than the South African Reconnaissance Commando, their special forces unit, and, in June 198o, I went straight to Hallmark Buildings in Pretoria to sign on. The board examined my British and Rhodesian service record and interviewed me carefully. There was no covert surveillance of my private life, as in Rhodesia, nor the defensive arrogance typical of the British SAS, as in, 'You don't know nothing but you'll learn it all with us, lad!' The South Africans are accused of being humourless and intense, but they are committed and straightforward too which is not a bad start for an army.
Without further ado they signed me on as Number 80021355 in the South African Defence Force (SADF) and gave me the rank of colour sergeant. I was posted to 44 Parachute Brigade at Murray Hill, forty kilometres outside Pretoria, and within a month, Colonel Breytenbach promoted me to sergeant major. He wanted me to work as chief instructor for Captain Botes and our job was to raise and train the first regular Pathfinders and form No. I Pathfinder Company. This, I felt, was a job in which I could really use all my knowledge and experience [<201][202>] and I can honestly say I started the most satisfying period of my soldiering career.
Jane and I were given an apartment in the Hotel Pretoria, a grand name for a SADF families hostel, where we had our own flat but ate in a communal dining room. Community is a powerful concept in South Africa.
A truck came by at 7.30 a.m. every morning to take me to the camp. During the last few months of chaos in Rhodesia, my fitness had slipped and I decided to run along the road to camp ahead of the truck. I made a race of it. Every morning I tried to increase the distance I ran before the truck caught up with me. The fitter I became, the quicker I pounded along and my best distance was eventually seventeen kilometres.
Murray Hill at the time was nothing more than a tented camp on sloping grassland beside some old farm buildings, with a stream running through the camp from a small reservoir. Colonel Breytenbach, a brother of the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach, was the commanding officer Of 44 Parachute Brigade and he energetically set about building up his command to prepare it for the fighting on the Namibian-Angolan front. His technique of cutting across red tape and bending the rules attracted a good deal of criticism elsewhere in the South African Army but he gave us the backing we needed.
Captain Pete Botes and I were told to start picking men for the first selection course for the Pathfinders. He wanted it based on an SAS selection and said, 'Make it hard!'
We rustled up twenty-three people to begin with, from all over the world. There were Italians, Belgians, Germans, Rhodesians who, like me, had come south after the loss of their own country, Canadians, a British public school boy called Roy Kaulback, an American banker who was bored of banking, Hungarians, and a Russian who made the South African Special Branch totally paranoid. [203>]
Colonel Breytenbach told us to find an area to train in and we ended up at a place called Mabalique, which was tucked right up in the northeast corner of the country, on the border with Zimbabwe. The camp was remote, reached on a dusty, dirt road through tall, thorny trees and tough grass which grew up to the gate through the fence bordering the Kruger National Park. This was a double wire fence separated by a thick planting of spiky, cactus-like sisal plants, impossible to walk through, and it was said the sinews would even foul up tank tracks. From there, the vegetation softened down gentle rolling grassy slopes to the winding flat banks of the River Limpopo, as Kipling described it, 'great, grey, green, greasy' and 'all set about with fever trees'. Our camp was on a pimple of high ground about three kilometres from the park gate overlooking the river. The nearest town was a small place called Pafuri, in the corner of the Zimbabwean, South African, and Mozambique borders, and its only claim to fame was that it had been used on location to film The Wild Geese. Further away was a spa town called Tshipise.
Needless to say, the living conditions in our camp were primitive. though the place had been used as a camp before. There were two concrete buildings, the kitchen was made of wood and the rest was tented, so we were constantly improving the place as time went on.
The Pathfinders are the vanguard of any parachute unit and I really worked hard to make our people the best. Colonel Breytenbach and Captain Botes made sure we had the necessary support and I organised the fullest training I could devise.
Our routine was tough but intensely satisfying. We started the day at 4.30 a.m. with a cup of tea followed by a seven-kilometre run from the camp down to the Kruger Park gate in the sisal fence and back. I was by now so fit that even at my advanced years, only three others could beat me. I have always worked on the principle that I [204>] should never ask anyone to do anything I could not, or would not, do myself. After a shower and breakfast we went to the range where we trained hard for the rest of the day on the whole spectrum of subjects: shooting practices, section battle drills, contact drills, ambushing, live camp attacks, medical skills, demolitions and so on.
We fired every weapon we were likely to encounter and threw literally hundreds of grenades in realistic bunker and trench clearing practices. We acquired a box of new Spanish Star automatic pistols and I ran a CQB (close quarters battle) course for extra interest. These pistols were terribly unreliable. Sometimes several fell apart in a day, but we were so involved in our training that when they broke up - usually the slide would shatter - the men just dropped them in the bin, picked out a new one from the box and carried on firing.
We did an awful lot of night training, such as reconnaissance patrols, movement by night and map reading, ambushes and contact drills. We also had to man a picket every night on a hill outside the camp in case of guerrilla incursion. The security situation in South Africa was worsening and now, with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, the African National Congress had another sympathetic communist border to hide behind.
We worked very hard for five months and became thorough in every aspect of our employment. In all my soldiering, I have never seen such a level of training and competence as there was among even the average member of the Pathfinders in 44 Parachute Brigade, but my enthusiasm began to wear the men down!
One morning I woke up at Reveille, at 4.30 a.m. as usual, had my cup of tea and started to feel rather groggy. I shook myself and marched out on muster parade with the men lined up in three ranks. When I came to attention to present the parade to Captain Botes, my legs buckled and I nearly fell over.
'Have you been taking drugs, Sergeant Major?' [205>] demanded Captain Botes in a shocked voice.
'No, sir!' I replied, trying to stand up straight.
'Have you been drinking?'
He watched, amazed, as I wobbled about in front of him.
'No, sir!' I said, furiously trying to get a grip of myself.
'Well, what the hell is wrong with you?'
'I don't know, sir! Permission to lie down, sir!'
'A very good idea, Sergeant Major!'
I wobbled off the parade and spent the rest of the day on the camp bed in my tent trying to understand what had happened to me. The men took a most gratifying interest in my well-being and kept me supplied with cups of coffee and Coca-Cola. For five days, I suffered, wobbling in and out of my tent as I fought to stay with the training program.
Hazily, I began to piece together various remarks I was overhearing among the men, like, 'He seems to be perking up a bit!' and, 'Time to hit him with another dose!' and I realised the whole thing was a seam. The bastards had grovelled about feeding me with all these drinks just to keep me heavily tranquillised with Valium!
I was not the only one to suffer the combined humour of men from so many countries. Captain Pete Botes was very popular and a good soldier, but he was seriously Afrikaans and had a particular obsession with the fauna and flora of his country. One day, someone backed a truck into a small tree outside his tent and knocked it over. He flew into a rage, muttering about rare plants and damage to the environment and the men were rather taken aback. Next day he came out of his office to find the tree had been fitted with a medical splint and bandaged exactly as instructed during the medical lectures. Bemused, he stared at the tree and went off scratching his head.
After five months we returned to Murray Hill and I made a recce of the Drakensberg Mountains for a suitable place to hold our selection process for non-Paras. You [<205][206>] might wonder why we did not select the men before training them so thoroughly, but we were building up the Pathfinders from nothing and we had to wait that long before we had enough men to work with. Anyway, Colonel Breytenbach had no intention of losing the failures, who he planned to post into non-combative roles in the brigade, as drivers or clerks in H Q.
Jane had given birth to a boy, Billy, on 1 November. I was delighted. Life was really looking up. Also, we had a place of our own, in a South African army quarter. Faced with an influx from Zimbabwe, the South Africans had put up mobile homes, which sounds grim, but in fact they were very nice indeed, spacious and extremely well appointed. We had nothing ourselves, but we moved straight into the quarter and lacked nothing. The South Africans treated all the ex-Rhodesian servicemen very well, and we lived comfortably for a charge of only 15 rand a month.
Jane got a job in the military hospital and we settled down to our own lives much as we had in Bindura. She was always very supportive; tolerant of my singlemindedness and the endless stream of friends who came to visit. One day, when I was running selection, the cook in Murray Hill failed to get up in time to give us an early breakfast which we wanted before driving into the Drakensberg, so I took all the eggs, bacon and sausages and we trucked off to my house where Jane cooked. breakfast instead, for two dozen.
I ran the first selection in the Cathedral Peak area and we decided to make it short and sharp. We had already seen these men over all the previous months and formed a good assessment of their capabilities, so a final five days would set the seal. All ex-SAS and Selous Scouts were in theory exempt from this selection but I took part in it because I was their sergeant major. I wanted to show them we had all been through the same mill. We started with a twenty-four-hour march in full patrol gear, with [207>] rucksacks and an 82-lb ammunition box which I added as the sickener or 'embuggerance' factor. We carried that box up and down the hills for about forty kilometres and it was a real ball-breaker. It was a terrible weight, an impossible shape to carry and rubbed your shoulders bare. We slept out at night, as I had done for the Rhodesian SAS selection. This is a fine hardening process, and I have often wondered why the British SAS truck back to camp at nights during their selection.
We left our ammunition box behind after that first day, but the marches continued relentlessly. The Drakensberg are an impressive range of grass-covered mountains rising to 15,000 feet. One day we marched up hill and down dale for thirty-two kilometres with 50-lb loads. Next morning, the guys groaned aloud when I told them we were going to march all the way back again, and very scenic it was too! The South Africans are obsessed with runs, so we finished off with a short 2.4-kilometre run uphill in full gear and rucksack. We lost a few during this, as you may imagine, but the majority were determined, fit young men and we finished with seventeen good soldiers.
One of the men came in from a march between Champagne Castle and Cathedral Peak which had taken him sixteen hours and I said, 'What took you so long?'
Understandably annoyed, he said, 'I bet you couldn't do it.'
'Give me your rucksack,' I snapped and did it in twelve hours, a time which remained unbeaten for a good while. I was very fit then.
We divided our new men into two sections, one commanded by Sergeant Major Dennis Croucamp, an exSelous Scout who was excellent on recce work, and returned north to Mabalique. Meanwhile, Colonel Breytenbach was pushing the army 'system' to employ us on the Namibian border with Angola, so I set about perfecting our live camp attack training. I wanted to get the men used to the reality of live fire and the blast of shrapnel [208>] overhead. For example, as we crawled up to the start line for a camp attack, which I had put right on the edge of the safety distance for mortar bombs landing on our target `enemy' camp, I would be counting the number of high explosive mortar bombs landing in front of us. At a prearranged number, say eighteen, the mortar team would switch without a break to firing smoke bombs, and as I counted the burst of the last HE round, I shouted, 'Stand up!' and we began to advance, using 'fire and movement' into the camp while the smoke bombs continued to drop ahead of us. It was good realistic training and it was to come in very useful indeed.
In January 1981, after some Christmas leave, Dennis Croucamp took twenty men up to the Angolan border and I followed with another eight in February. We were attached to 'C' Company of the 1st Para Battalion for an operation on a small town thirty miles over the Angolan border called Cuamato. This was at a time when South Africa was vigorously denying it had anyone inside Angola!
My new enemy was SWAPO, the South West African People's Organisation, which was the liberation and nationalist movement for Namibia. Like other African guerrilla movements, SWAPO was communist, trained by Russians and East Germans and supplied by the Soviets. SWAPO claimed to represent all Namibia, but, like the other African liberation movements I had encountered, SWAPO was recruited tribally. The majority of SWAPO recruits came from the Ovambo tribe which occupied the northern half of Namibia and made up 46 per cent of the population. Now I had come full circle in Africa. SWAPO guerrilla bases in southern Angola were supported by the Marxist MPLA which I had first come across during the chaotic days of January 1976 when I was in Holden Roberto's FNLA.
Then, in 1976, SWAPO was an emergent and weak force of about 2,000 men, but once the Portuguese left [209>] Angola, it grew rapidly in the fertile communist ground of Marxist Angola to over 10,000. More important, SWAPO was able to transfer its bases from Zambia, which were well out of the area of their interest far down the Caprivi Strip, to communist Angola and infiltrate Namibia directly over a long frontier. By the time I joined the South African Army, the security situation in Namibia was beyond the control of the South African Police and was firmly in the hands of the South African Army.
All this may sound similar to the problems which had faced Smith's Rhodesian regime, but South Africa had three great advantages; it was not completely surrounded by land frontiers, it had a much larger white population (4 million among some 20 million blacks in 1976) and it had economic strength. The South Africans were horrified by the prospect of a double threat from terrorism, from the ANC in the east, through communist Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and from SWAPO in the west, through communist Angola. The government took special measures. It doubled the length of its national service to twenty-four months, recruited Asians, coloureds and blacks into the army, and developed its own arms industry. The result was to produce a standing army of some 70,000 men with a total mobilisation Of 400,000 available by calling up the Reserves, the Citizen Force and local 'home-guard' Kommandos. Of these, about 30,000 to 40,000 were employed in Namibia at any one time.
And South Africa took the offensive. They had considerable business interests in Namibia and, rather than let SWAPO keep the initiative, with the usual round of terrorist attacks on police stations, bridges and small towns, the SADF struck out at specific SWAPO bases inside Angola and kept the problem at bay. This was a similar strategy to the Claret operations in Borneo and the Rhodesian cross-border camp attacks, like Chimoio and Tembue. Because of its size, South Africa was not so severely affected by the international pressure which had [210>] hampered Rhodesia's strategic decisions. There seems to be no doubt that cross-border attacks to punish terrorists in their resting places and training camps is an essential ingredient to winning a counter-insurgency war. When I came back to Britain, I wondered at the situation in Northern Ireland. Of course, this brand of military action is nothing without the political will to see it through.
Cross-border attack does not mean invasion. In 1975, South Africa tried conventional military invasion and found it did not work. The SADF was obliged to withdraw from southern Angola, after a spectacularly successful attack, for very similar reasons which had made the Israelis quit Lebanon. They realised they did not want the ground they had captured and that just pushing back the border did not prevent terrorism. Instead, the SADF employed an effective combination of supporting Jonas Savimbi's UNITA inside Angola; encouraging anti-communist resistance among tribes like the Ovimbundu and Chokwe which were hostile to the Ovambos and the Angolan Government; and sudden SADF strikes against SWAPO camps in Angola. Our attack on Cuamato was one such strike.
Cuamato was a town about thirty miles inside Angola, a miserable cluster of single-storey buildings dotted round a dusty main street, painted in typical Portuguese pastel pinks and greens, lying heavy with neglect in the flat sandy scrublands of southern Angola. Intelligence said that SWAPO and FAPLA (the armed wing of the MPLA) were stationed there. We flew to the forming-up point near the town in Puma helicopters and advanced into the town only to find the place was deserted. I noticed two things. There was a strong, sweet smell of human occupation, and washing was hanging out to dry, some of it still wet. That meant the enemy had been there that morning, and fled, probably hearing the beat of the heavy Puma rotor blades, or maybe SWAPO had lookouts nearer the border. As if to confirm this, our pilots [211>] informed us that they had seen plenty of uniformed enemy moving out north. 'C' Company was ordered to advance and flush them out.
We found them, all right. About seven miles north of the town, all hell suddenly let loose somewhere at the front. The ground was flattish and sandy but obscured by thorny trees and scrub bushes and out of sight ahead the forward elements of the Paras had stumbled across a heavily defended SWAPO and FAPLA camp. The firing was intense, tearing through the branches above us, and stoppped the leading platoon dead in its tracks. I happened to be near the front, crouched down with the platoon officer and heard the company commander's voice on the radio. He was further back nearer the town and said we needed to keep up the momentum of our advance to get a foothold in the camp.
The young platoon officer, called Lieutenant du Plessis, turned to me and said, 'Do you think you can break in there?'
'Dear Lord!' I said to myself, staring at the bushes for a moment where a horrendous volume of fire was ripping the leaves off the trees just over our heads. 'Why me?' I thought. The front sections had taken casualties and were pinned down on one side of a wide open clearing about 150 yards across. Both sides were busy shooting shit out of each other, trying to win the firefight. Plainly, on the other side was a full-blooded SWAPO camp with all the trimmings; trenches, underground bunkers, heavy machine gun positions, anti-aircraft guns, and beyond I could hear the hollow thwack of their 82MM mortars coming into action.
Crouching, I moved forward in cover of bushes to look at that short piece of open ground between us and them. It seemed like a mile across. I considered zigzagging across or doing it in bounds of fire and movement, and then decided that the best way was just to storm across in a straight line. I said to the young National Service officer, [212>] 'Can you give me as much cover as you can, lay down a heavy base of fire support? We'll cross as fast as we can.'
Du Plessis agreed and I called up my Pathfinders for some quick orders. 'Now we earn our pay!' I said urgently, crouching down. In my excitement, my quick attack orders tumbled out in short staccato sentences. I watched their faces and felt proud. I knew how hard they had trained. I could feel their confidence and the momentum of the attack building up. My hand stabbed this way and that. I pointed out the ground, the place where I wanted to force a way into the camp, the location of supporting fire from the other Paras, and I finished with, 'We've done this a thousand times before in training, now it's for real! I'm asking you to put yourselves in my hands. Follow me!'
And we charged straight over that open ground. God knows, I've never felt bullets cracking round me like that, but we lost no one and killed six enemy as we burst into their first line of trenches. My grandfather, Old Miles, told me about being on the receiving end of heavy fire in the First World War, and SWAPO certainly poured out a heavy volume of fire. I could feel it in the air round us, but, thank God, it was not effective.
We held on in these trenches and supplied covering fire for the follow up. A 'Valk' of twelve Paras (half a Dakota-load) charged over the open ground behind us into the SWAPO trenches on our right. Immediately hand to hand fighting ensued in which two South Africans were killed but they held on.
We took another bunker. I threw a white phosphorus grenade inside, stepped aside as it exploded and suddenly a black SWAPO soldier burst out covered in flames. He was understandably agitated and very aggressive. I aimed to shoot him with my South African Galil but the bloody thing jammed! Without hesitation, I swung the Galil and started to beat him up with the butt, to stop him shooting [213>] me, till thankfully someone behind me leaned over my shoulder and shot the man dead. These South African Galils, called SA R-4s, commonly jammed with doublefeeds (when not one but two rounds are picked up from the magazine) because they used different metals to the Israeli Galil and overheated with heavy use. We certainly gave them heavy use that day.
More Paras poured in behind us and we tried to fight our way through the camp. It was enormous and well defended and we got bogged down as darkness fell. Our helicopter K-car gunships could no longer support us with their 20mm cannons. To my fury, we were ordered to pull out. All that effort for nothing! The young platoon officer had no alternative. Orders were orders, but as we withdrew, the enemy realised what we were doing and went completely crazy. They opened up with everything they had, pasting us with mortars and we could hear the thudding racket of large calibre ZU 23mm anti-aircraft machine guns winched down for use in the ground role. We lost another man killed and two wounded on the way out and Lieutenant du Plessis was hit in the back with shrapnel near me. I picked him up and carried him out of the firefight on my back.
We retreated, or as the military prefer to call it, withdrew, several miles back from the SWAPO camp to Cuamato and dug trenches on the edge of the town. It had been a long dangerous day and all for nothing. I must admit I was angry at the waste. We had lost three dead and five wounded in 'C' Company for no gain. I was so fired up inside the camp that I had wanted to dig in right where we were and fight on the next morning, but I said nothing.
The problem was that SWAPO were a tougher enemy than ZANLA and ZIPRA had been in Rhodesia, and the South Africans could not afford the political and social criticism of losing too many men in one day. They had to pursue their aims with a very wary eye on casualties, [214>] however committed the white population may have been to fighting terrorism.
Later, another officer, Lieutenant Taylor, told me that he had written me up for a bravery citation. Nothing ever came of it, and later Taylor was himself killed. I mention this only because I have not hidden anything in this account and by now you will have made up your own mind about whether I invent things or not. I would have been very proud to have received an award, especially for Jane and my little son Billy, but the fact that I was not accepted made no difference to my feelings towards the South Africans. They treated us foreigners well and fairly, probably because they were a bigger, more established state than Rhodesia had been and possibly because the Paras were more straightforward and honest about other men's performances, being regular troops, than the SAS. Of course, they always made fun of us, calling me, 'Fucking Sotpeel', 'Sotty' or 'Rooinek' as a term of affection, meaning that us foreigners had only one foot in South Africa because the other was still in England and our balls in the ocean, but we always got on well.
Perhaps this was because I felt that I blended into the regular army system here better than I had elsewhere. I had a rank which I could handle, I felt I was functioning properly and had something to offer. Also the South African Army, with a standing strength Of 70,000 men, was much bigger than the Rhodesian Army had been, where the regular combat units were only the RLI, the SAS and the Selous Scouts, totalling some 3,000 men, excluding the two battalions of Rhodesian African Rifles, the Rhodesia Regiment and all the part-time call-up men.
At six o'clock the following morning, the SWAPO enemy camp was given a thorough softening up. We waited in our trenches watching Mirages screaming overhead to neutralise the mortars and 23mm anti-aircraft ZU-23-2s with bombs and rockets. Once the antiaircraft guns were out of action, sixteen Alouette gunship K-cars [215>] swooped in with their 20mm cannon and they really pounded the place. The racket carried on all morning, reaching us quite clearly over the trees beyond the edge of town. At midday, we flew in Pumas to attack again.
My Puma touched down in a clearing among the low scrubby trees and we had no sooner jumped out than we were under fire. We caught sight of four FAPLA men hiding in bushes trying to load an RPG7 to fire at the Puma and blasted them. One died immediately and the rest stuck their hands straight in the air. By contrast to my experiences in Rhodesia, these men were made POWs and taken back for interrogation, more use to Intelligence alive than dead.
We advanced in a sweep line through the dense trees towards the camp and spent the rest of the day clearing one line of trenches after another. The K-cars had really shot the guts out of SWAPO but we still went through our drills, attacking with covering fire, firing, doubling forward, firing again, grenading the trenches and underground bunkers, firing into them to make sure the enemy were dead, consolidating and moving on.
In the darkness of one deep bunker, I was nearly caught out by the enemy's old trick of pretending to be dead. As I moved cautiously inside, shining my torch about, out of the corner of my eye I spotted the glistening skin of a black SWAPO guerrilla behind me. 'Mere was no time to turn my body. In an instant, I swung my pistol up and over my left shoulder and shot him three times.
That evening the Pumas lifted us out altogether and flew us back to a South African army base in Ondangwa, a large town sixty-three kilometres south of the Angolan border.
Cuamato had been a good start for the Pathfinders, but Colonel Breytenbach ordered me back to 'The Republic' to train another batch of Pathfinder recruits. The turnover was too large and he needed more men. This was partly the South Africans' own fault, as they signed men on for [216>] only one year. By the time their training was up, they had precious little time for operations, and most men, given the chance to leave the army, behaved like soldiers anywhere and quit. After all, the pay, about 300 rand a month for a trooper, was no incentive to stay. Even Captain Pete Botes left, because there was no career planning for his future in the army.
Some of the men may have found the South African Army rather more formal than the Rhodesian Army, where most of us came from. The regular cadre of the SADF were the senior ranks, staff sergeants and above in the Sergeants' Mess, and captains and above in the Officers' Mess. Many of them did not like to see troopers and privates in the Pathfinders with five or ten years' service who did not jump to attention for them. They were used to dealing with young National Servicemen and Reserves. For example, a South African sergeant major never queued at the camp barber's for a haircut; he just walked in and whoever was sitting in the chair with his hair being cut had to leap out of the way at once and wait till the barber had finished with the sergeant major. In all National Service armies there is a confusion between true discipline and just fucking the men about.
The South African sense of humour was rather straightlaced, with a strong religious bent, so there was uproar when they saw a mannequin's hand stuck up outside one of the Pathfinder's tents with condensed milk dripping off it and a sign which read, 'Hand jobs available within'. The mannequins, by the way, were part of a deception plan. When patrols went out in a truck to be dropped off near the border, they hopped out in cover of some bushes and the driver's mate, riding shotgun, stayed behind to set up a row of these mannequins, wearing natty camo hats set at a jaunty angle, to make the locals think the truck was still occupied.
On another occasion, the Pathfinders encouraged a young officer to blow up the reservoir at the top of Murray [217>] Hill camp. Lieutenant Brown was a very self-obsessed young Permanent Force engineer officer who became fascinated with mosquito larvae breeding on the water in the warm weather. He decided the only solution was to blow a breach in the earth bank of the dam and release the bad surface water. He also wanted to impress the Pathfinders. They thought this was a wonderful plan and egged him on no end. They sat about in the sun on the grassy bank of the reservoir while Lieutenant Brown sweated buckets digging holes in the earth bank, rammed in pounds of plastic explosive, tamped and blew it, sending up showers of earth and newly planted trees. All afternoon, explosions shattered the peace of Murray Hill and officers all over the camp wondered what sort of training was going on. Guy Gibson, as the Pathfinders had by now christened Lieutenant Brown, after the Dam Busters' pilot, slaved on and his breach grew bigger and bigger. Finally, a little water trickled over the top. Exhausted, filthy with earth, but triumphant, he turned to his audience and said, 'How's that then?'
'That's great, sir. Great!' said the Pathfinders, thoroughly entertained. 'But why didn't you just let out the water with the valve gates over there, at the side of the dam?'
They wandered off, leaving him shell-shocked on the earth-spattered grass bank among a wreckage of tree stumps with water pouring through the cratered, muddy breach. The commandant was not amused.
The new selection course started and an ex-British SAS officer called Major Alistair McKenzie joined the SADF to reorganise and formalise the Pathfinders' training. He preferred to run selection along modern British SAS lines, reducing the weights carried on the hill marches and studying the timings carefully. He also cleared out the nooks and crannies in the brigade where the inevitable free-loaders were hiding. He wanted professional standards and did not care how unpopular he [218>] made himself. I admired his attitude and I think we got on well.
Of course the first lot of Pathfinders complained that the new course was not tough enough, echoing that typical refrain beloved of all specialised units, 'Selection isn't as hard as it was in my day. There's no 82-lb ammo box to carry for a start!'
However, the men continued as committed as before and Alistair McKenzie went up to Angola to see what the Pathfinders were doing on operations. While he was there he blew a road culvert. Shortly afterwards, he left the SADF.
Colonel Breytenbach was posted to a command on the Namibian-Angolan border and we had a new commanding officer called Colonel Frank Bestbier. Within days, he decided the Pathfinder Company should be transferred lock, stock and barrel to join the Reconnaissance Platoon Of 32 Battalion. This was the best of the South African infantry battalions, as it was permanently posted on operations and filled with experienced men. It was composed of retrained anti-communist black soldiers, who had been in UNITA and the FNLA, and was used extensively to conduct 'search and destroy' sweeps in enemy areas and to conduct attacks on the Angolan economic infrastructure.
Colonel Bestbier called me to his office and asked me to train groups of Citizen Force Territorials on their National Service, at Murray Hill, and then take them on operations in Angola. I readily agreed. This gave me the best of both worlds, training at home when I could see Jane and my son, and taking the men I had trained on operations. He let me select my training team and I chose four men from the Pathfinders: Derek Andrews, Terry Tagney, Chris Rogers, and Jock Philips.
The South Africans called their Territorials up in companies of about 200 strong, and my first group went on operations for two terribly uneventful months during [219>] which 2 Para skirmished with SWAPO and FAPLA inside Angola, through Namacunde to Ondjiva. The only thing I can remember about this trip was the convoy out, back to Namibia. I was in the cab of a big 'Kwevoel' sixwheel truck and we were towing a trailer stacked with Commandant Montagu Brett's company office equipment, plus items Brett had liberated to make life comfortable during our stay in Angola. Only fortune dictates that a whole line of vehicles passes down a road before one finally sets off a mine. We drove over a mine on the very culvert which Alistair McKenzie had blown before. Fortunately, the cab passed over the mine which exploded under the wheels of the back axle, blasting the trailer up and forward in a huge arc till it crashed down on top of the truck above us in a shower of paper files, chair legs and typewriter keys which fluttered down like sycamore seeds.
The Territorials were so keen to get back after their stint that the column carried on.
'You stay here, Sergeant Major,' said the officer in charge of the convoy. 'You've got twenty-three men to guard the broken truck and I'll get them to send out a recovery vehicle as soon as I reach the border.'
I was not impressed. Recovery might take hours, and I had heard on the radio net that HQ reckoned SWAPO were converging on the area.
I inspected the damage. The two back wheels of our 'Kwevoel' were smashed, but the other two axles, the engine and the winch at the back seemed all right. So I took the wire from the winch, pulled it up and over the whole truck, across the underneath of the trailer, attached it to the front of the trailer and started the winch. The wire strained alarmingly but it gradually winched the trailer upwards in a big circle off the top of the truck till it toppled over and bounced back onto the road. We straightened it out and limped south to Santa Clara. on the border that same night. [220>]
Operation Daisy was busier. Special forces Recce Commando units had reported heavy concentrations of between 1,000 and 1,500 SWAPO in the Techematet area inside Angola, near Cassinga, and a big combined airborne-armoured operation was mounted. The East Germans trained SWAPO as conventional troops rather than terrorists living among the civil population and they were heavily armed. The South African politicians allowed the SADF to strike at SWAPO camps with all the force they could muster, and concealed the SADF's real impact by constantly denying cross-border operations. Operation Daisy was the deepest penetration of Angola since 1975.
The SADF armoured cars, called Ratels, looked rather top-heavy with their 'Eland' gun turrets, but were born out of necessity and suited the environment. They were wheeled, for the sandy flat country, fired 76mm or 90mm shells, and had a distinct advantage over others because they carried not 46 rounds, which is normal in a European armoured car, but 200 rounds. They were to drive to the target while the Paras did a parachute drop to pin down the enemy till they arrived.
We were training a Para battalion at the time, in 44 Para Brigade and the battalion filled six Hercules C130 aircraft. We were dropped at night, about 2 a.m., over the sandy, scrubby dropping zone (DZ) at an operational jump height Of 500 feet and as usual I was wildly fired up with excitement as I jumped. When I stripped off my parachute on the ground it made a stirring sight to see and hear the other big aircraft trundle overhead and watch hundreds of parachutes floating down. Our D Z was just off target so we could reorganise without having to fight the enemy at the same time, and, as sergeant major in charge of DZ rallying, I spent a very busy two hours running round in the darkness gathering the men together in their fighting formations, including one plane-load which was dropped off line. I was pleased with the time, [221>] and the whole battalion was ready for action, with the leading companies moving off the DZ as dawn lightened the sky.
Each company had a different area, and was to find the enemy by advancing to contact. Each one had a group of my Pathfinders, to lead the advance and navigate. I was with 'C' Company. Mid-morning, we stood among scrub bushes and trees and looked across a wide, dried-up swamp, called a vlei. These vleis become very soggy in the wet season and tall grasses grow thickly, but then it was dry, open and caked hard. The company moved across in bounds, one platoon covering another onto the slight hill on the other side of the vlei. In the lead, I breasted the top of this hill and spotted movement in more scrub and trees seventy metres beyond. I ordered Corporal Sean Wyatt to keep his eye on the place while a platoon moved into a sweep line behind us. Suddenly someone fired their rifle by mistake. In answer, the enemy opened up on us from their cover in the trees. Everyone fired back and Sean loosed off his 40mm grenade launcher at the leaves we had seen twitching. We assaulted across the open ground. Moments later, as we fought into the trees, we discovered the grenade had hit a man right in the chest. Of course everyone else had fired too so they all claimed a hit. And what a hit it was! The dead man turned out to be SWAPO's second-in-command of logistics. Of course, he was rather beyond interrogation but there was a goldmine of information in papers we found in a leather pouch on his belt. Strange how the communist system lets itself down in these wars with its obsession for keeping details on its members and their activities.
The second day, the sweeps continued with sporadic contacts all over the area of operations under a baking hot sun. It would be no exaggeration to say we walked and skirmished over sixty-five miles or so in these two days. As sergeant major, I had a lot of chasing about to do and I must admit I began to feel my age! We were [222>] promised five litres of water per man per day, but it did not always reach us. I made every man parachute with extra water canisters, but that supply was long gone. I also ordered them to carry a trauma pack each. The drips carried were usually 0.9 per cent normal saline. Giving sets were also carried which could be connected via a plastic to administer the fluid. The drip bag and giving set were packed ready for immediate use, with the needle fitted to the tubing and three strips of sticky tape ready to attach the set to the arm. Casualties could be given the contents of their drip without delay and it was also handy because you could drink the fluid if you went down with heat exhaustion.
That day, I suddenly passed out on the march during the afternoon and woke up to find the doctor sticking a needle in my arm to fit me up with my drip. It was strange to feel burning hot one minute, with the sweat pouring off me, and suddenly cooling down as the drip slipped into my veins the next.
The SADF realised they had a serious heat exhaustion problem. Their answer was typical of the universal sense of emergency in South Africa at that time. They stripped a Coca-Cola factory of its two-litre plastic bottles to fill with extra water and choppered in crates to the troops.
Heat, rationing and water supply were always important features of any operation in this dry, sandy and barren area, as was the disposal of rubbish and soil. On Operation Daisy, I recall being able to smell the pungent sweet stench of the latrine pits hundreds of yards away as we walked through trees into the base camp. Not enough quicklime (even cement can be used) was being sprinkled on the excrement every day. On another operation, we dug a tin pit where we threw our rubbish and scraps, and there was so little food anywhere in Angola that I reckon every bloody dog in the country was in this tin pit at night, howling and fighting in rival packs. We could not get a wink of sleep. Finally, Derek Andrews lost his [223>] patience. He set up a Claymore anti-personnel mine over the pit and soaked the place in petrol. That night, the howling began as usual until suddenly there was an enormous explosion, an eyeball-searing ball of flame which lit the dark trees around, and we lay on the ground listening to the sound of shrieking dogs fading at speed into the night. For days afterwards, we saw nothing but bald, hairless dogs with charred eye-lashes wandering about in a daze. For a while at least, we slept fine.
Fresh rations are always vital to troops in the field living off tins. When we were resupplied with bags of vegetables, mainly potatoes and cabbages, the South African National Servicemen simply did not know what to do with them. I took charge and instructed the cooks how to make bubble and squeak. The troopies thought it was delicious and we lived on it for days.
Another operation, Carnation this time, pushed FAPLA and SWAPO back from Ondjiva altogether. Now we could fly straight from the Republic and air-land inside Angola at Ondjiva which became a staging base for our attacks further inside Angola. The South Africans gave Ondjiva to UNITA to control, treating the area as liberated and turning Mao Tse Tung's own communist principle of a People's War on its head. This allowed the SADF to penetrate deeper into Angola and attack SWAPO bases further away without worrying about the areas near the border. Also, regular SADF troops were not tied down protecting captured areas, as had happened in 1975.
Ondjiva at that time even used South African currency. This was a pity because my Pathfinders and I were digging trenches on the edge of Ondjiva airfield and we discovered a large box which contained no less than 60 million Angolan Kwanzas! Presumably this treasure was being used to finance SWAPO. In theory, the official rate was, as far as I can remember, 32 Kwanzas to a pound Sterling, but in practice no one wanted Kwanzas and we treated it [224>] like Monopoly money. I divided up the loot among the men who went round like children with great wads of paper money, like Kelly's Heroes, played cards with it and argued about who was richer than who.
As always, when operations were uneventful, boredom set in and standards began to slip. Only a couple of months of operations is not enough to turn National Servicemen and Territorials or even regulars into experienced combat troops, and maybe the intrinsic anarchy of operations loosened discipline too. Whatever the cause, men started to sunbathe by their trenches in Ondjiva, lounging about bollock naked on the sand. I did not agree with this at all. I went round picking men up for being improperly dressed. One of their officers called Lieutenant Peter de Klerk objected. He was a student at Cape Town University doing his National Service in 44 Para Brigade. He said to me, 'I think you're being too harsh on the men, Sergeant Major.'
I looked at him standing there in just boots and yellow underpants and replied, 'I don't think so, sir. We're on operations.'
'But this is South Africa, land of sun.'
It was the land of shorts as well, like Rhodesia had been. At this point, our conversation was interrupted by shouts of alarm. A Soviet BRDM armoured car was tearing across the airfield behind. It was actually a UNITA vehicle, but Lieutenant de Klerk thought it was attacking the position. He grabbed a RPG7 anti-tank rocket and the last thing I saw was this absurd-looking young officer sprinting after it dressed only in boots and yellow underwear!
There was nothing wrong with the spirit of these young officers, even if their military professionalism was at times a little relaxed. In fact, Lieutenant de Klerk joined us later on the training team.
Ondjiva was a wreck by now, with few civilians left who could stand the constant battering and looting by FAPLA [225>] and SWAPO. Our battalion commander, Commandant Monty Brett, said, 'I can't have my men sitting on the ground!' All the shops were empty, so he ordered us to liberate vital items from the town, for the proper comfort of the men in the field. Among other things, the Town Hall yielded some rather fine old colonial Portuguese furniture: a set of high-backed chairs and the long table from the council chamber.
Major Jet van Zyl, the company commander, gathered us under the tent shelter he used as a briefing room and gave us orders for our next operation. We were to attack Evale, a town about forty miles north of Ondjiva and sixty-five miles inside Angola. After two days preparing our rations and ammunition, we drove north in armoured Buffel troop carriers and four-wheel Samil-29 trucks to form a HAG. This was Afrikaans for a helicopter administration location, like the Rhodesian Forward Air Field (FAF), and contained everything, including bulging bladders of AVGAS, fire-fighting bowsers, boxes of ammunition and a medical first-aid post.
The plan was for the Alouettes and Pumas to lift us from this HAG directly into the attack. Van ZyI's briefing gave us to expect about eighty SWAPO, commonly called Garden Boys by the South Africans, so we all expected a good day's jousting, as firefights with the enemy were termed. It did not work out quite like that.
I was left in charge of the HAG, much to my annoyance. Even back there I knew things had gone wrong. When the first lift went in, they found not 80 Garden Boys but 300 Garden Boys, with some rather large tools. Like 14.5mm and 23mm HMGs, 82MM mortars and a call on Soviet T54 tanks at Mupa. In addition, they were well trained and stiffened by large numbers of East Germans. Our choppers ferried the troops in and when they returned to my HAG, we picked up the pilots' shocked radio messages, relayed back via a rebroadcasting station in a Bosbok light fixed-wing aircraft orbiting high above [226>] us. The pilots reported very heavy resistance and seeing white faces and East German uniforms in the defensive trenches and among the houses of the town. This was confirmed when our ground troops joined battle on the edge of Evale. The ground comms radio buzzed with reports of heavy machine-gun fire and being accurately pasted by the enemy 82MM mortars, which were almost certainly being organised by the East Germans. Within half an hour, we had suffered ten wounded. The Alouette helicopters flew in under fire to lift them out and landed back in the HAG peppered with holes. I could tell thing were grim. I detected a feeling of panic and felt very frustrated being left out of it.
Major Jet van Zyl came down in his command helicopter to refuel in the HAG. Over the noise of other choppers landing, I shouted at him, 'Sir! The guys are having trouble. They're National Servicemen up there and not many with experience. Can I join them, to see if I can help?' I was fired up and at my most persuasive. I hated seeing them coming back all shot up and not being able to contribute.
'Yes,' said van Zyl without hesitation. From his position in the air he had seen the battle was getting out of hand.
A big Puma took me forward hugging the tops of the trees covering the flat savannah landscape. Ahead, I could see the low rooftops of Evale where the sky was filled in all directions with streams of green and red tracer and white vapour trails of SAM missiles being fired at the Alouettes and the noise of battle was fearsome. Nearer the edge of the town, we saw an Alouette K-car lurching and dropping through the air towards us. We learned later it had been badly shot up when the pilot landed to pick up the crew of another K-car which had been destroyed on the ground by enemy machine guns as it tried to rescue some wounded Paras. The pilot was later awarded the Honorus Crux Gold, the highest South African bravery award. His Alouette was heavily over-loaded with Paras and the crew from the other K-car and I gestured at him to land wherever he could. Our Puma set down beside him and we took the men, with the wounded and one dead Para, off the Alouette so it could limp back to the
Back in the HAG, I shoved all the casualties, by then one dead and seventeen wounded from the company of eighty, on our one Puma. The pilot only just made take
After only an hour, the Paras claimed to have killed forty-eight but their own casualties were politically unacceptable. We had failed to enter the town and our commanders decided to withdraw until the armour closed up. I must admit I found it strange they never had the armour there in the first place, because Paras on their own never have enough firepower to overcome the sort of well-organised and well-defended positions
A withdrawal is always difficult, especially after hard fighting which introduces its own strain of chaos. A sharp explosion went off in the HAG, which I believe was someone accidentally firing a 40mm grenade launcher, and a young National Serviceman in a truck started
Men began to panic. The young National Serviceman in the truck went on screaming hysterically and I did what anyone does to someone with hysteria, regardless of rank Without delay, I hopped up to the cab and slapped him a couple of times round the face. He quietened, his face white, but things were still on the brink, with men driving about and pushing and shoving. I found Major Jet van Zyl in the melee and said, 'Sir! With respect, the attack belongs to the officers, but the withdrawal is ours! Per mission for the NCOs to organise this withdrawal, sir?'
He looked at me a moment, at the open space in the trees around us, at the choppers coming in and out, a the piles of stores scattered round and his men running [228>] about in all directions and said, 'It's all yours, Sergeant Major.'
He and the other officers left me to it and I restored order. As the Para sections were choppered back from the fighting round Evale I calmly lined them up on a track. When the whole company was accounted for, we embussed in trucks which HQ had sent forward for us and trundled back to our camp.
At the same time, the Russian T54 tanks from Mupa were driving into Evale on the other side of town. We had nothing to stop them. South African radio intelligence confirmed a heavy East German presence so we left them to it. South Africa's fight was with SWAPO, not with the East Germans. Also, the East Germans could fight.
As the end of my contract with the South African Army grew closer, I decided I must do one more operation and one more parachute jump. I have never agreed with those soldiers who think there is a time when they can hang up their boots and coast along in an easy job to their retirement. The sentiment, I'm running down to demob,' is bad enough among cooks, drivers and medics, but in specialist parachute units it is nothing short of disgusting.
My last operation with the South African Army took place on Mupa, some too kilometres north of Evale and 200 kilometres inside Angola. The SADF attacks into Angola penetrated deeper and deeper, continuously forcing SWAPO to increase the safe distance between them and the border they had to cross into Namibia. We were allocated to a composite group Of 32 Battalion and Paras from 44 Brigade. We were flown in by Puma helicopters to 32 Battalion's area of operations to attack the Mupa FAPLA/SWAP0 administration base. To preserve secrecy, we were dropped off some distance from the enemy camp and began the approach march.
I found this excruciatingly painful. I had twisted a knee ligament on a parachute jump not long before and it started to play me up. The South African Army were very [229>] good with their medical support, knowing full well how vital it was to let soldiers know they would receive instant care if they were wounded, and they employed doctors down to platoon level on operations. Our company had four platoons, so we had four doctors with us. One of them looked at my knee and said straightaway, 'You should be casevaced for this.'
I shook my head. 'Just give me some painkillers, Doc. I can't call in a chopper just for me. I'll wait till we attack the camp.' There were bound to be other casualties then.
We marched twenty kilometres that day along narrow winding tracks through the flat countryside. The grey dusty earth was trodden hard by countless people, local tribesmen and enemy soldiers. On each side, soft kneelength grass grew among the savannah scrub and low trees which stretched for miles in all directions. We stopped and lay on the ground in a defensive position for the night and by morning my knee was worse, stiff and painful. The doctor gave me a painkiller called Deloxene and I carried on, determined to see the operation through. It was not to be.
At dawn' we continued to follow these narrow tracks through the flat bush and trees. I was at the back of the company and almost 100 men had passed along the track when I heard a soft roaring explosion a couple of men in front of me. One of the soldiers had stepped on an antipersonnel mine. Some of the men near him started to run and help but I roared at them, 'Stop! Stand still!'
I had seen this situation many times. The enemy laid these AP mines in the line of march on the track itself, which was only about eighteen inches wide. There might have been others not set off yet. One hundred men had walked past this mine and quite possibly there were others they had not trodden on as well. I also knew the enemy very rarely doubled the booby trap with other mines laid out to the flank of the track, to catch people bypassing the scene of the first explosion. I moved several paces  directly away from the track through the grass, turned at right angles and walked carefully along parallel to the track, very carefully looking through the grass ahead of me to look for more mines. Then, when I was opposite the wounded man, I turned at right angles again and came in towards him.
His foot had gone. There was just a torn stump of bone and sinew. No blood. The flesh was cauterised by the fire of the explosion. I felt terrible physical sympathy looking at him. He was so young, no more than nineteen. His life had been utterly, irrevocably changed. He stared at me, his eyes wide in shock and cried out, 'I'm an athlete, Sergeant Major. I'm a Springbok!'
I knelt down beside him and held him in my arms. There was nothing else I could do.
I shouted for everyone to search the track immediately round them in case there were more mines.
The young man in my arms began to cry. He was thinking of his career as an athlete. Gone like his foot. In an instant. Happily, he could feel no pain, yet. While the others cleared the track, I could do no more than hold him tight in my arms, like a son, while the tears rolled down his sweat-stained cheeks, and he gazed at the ground, bemused, shattered by what the mine had done to his life.
The doctor came up as soon as he could, moving on the cleared ground, and then someone at the back of the column shouted the alarm. An enemy vehicle was coming.
Our track had just led us across a road and the rear party could see a large Soviet ZIL truck trundling up the road towards us about a mile away.
I lost my temper. The pain of sympathy for that young Springbok turned to fury. I ran back down the track to the road and rapidly deployed the guys at the back of our column in immediate ambush positions. They ran and hid in the scrub at the side of the dirt road. Someone had dug a trench at the junction of the track and the road. [231>]
There was a large tree beside it. I hid behind the tree and waited, seething with rage.
It's no good ambushing vehicles from the side of the road because the target is too fleeting. When the ZIL truck came up close, I stepped out in full view in the road and blasted the cab head on with my Galil, smashing the windscreen and raking the three enemy MPLA inside. As it passed, swerving and slowing up, I shot another enemy soldier sitting in the back.
The guys in their immediate ambush positions finished the truck off, pumping a fearsome weight of fire into it as it rolled past them to a stop. One enemy soldier jumped off with an RPG rocket which he fired off into the bushes. The rocket hit a water bottle on the belt of one of the South African soldiers. He was lucky. I suppose the water absorbed most of the energy of the explosion but a chunk was blown off his arse.
Now we had two badly wounded men and we needed a chopper casevac as soon as possible. When the Alouette arrived, I went back too. I hated to have to admit it, but my knee was excruciating. They flew us back to a HAG at Nehone, still 100 kilometres inside Angola, where I experienced the South African painkiller called Sosogen for the first time. This stuff is one step off morphine and has to be taken with Stematol to stop being violently sick. I was lying in the medical tent waiting for the Stematol when I felt the analgesic flooding inside my body and I was violently sick. The only container available was a mess tin and I can tell you it was inadequate to the task!
My last parachute jump in my remaining few weeks of service was equally full of foreboding. I joined a basic free-fall course being run for another group of trainee Pathfinders and had a malfunction. I dived from the Dakota at nine thousand feet and after thirty-five seconds' free-fall, I set up in the frog position to deploy my parachute, slightly head up to ease the shock of opening and pulled the handle. Nothing happened. [232>]
I beat the parachute pack with my elbows, hit it and kicked it with my feet. Vital seconds ticked past. I hurtled towards the ground. 'Nothing for it,' I thought automatically. 'Go for the reserve!'
Suddenly, before I had time to move, the main parachute popped open, deployed perfectly and I floated to the ground like a feather.
You must always get back on a horse after a fall. Parachute malfunctions do occur from time to time, and I went straight back to the jump centre for another parachute, strapped it on my back and went up in the next lift for another jump. I did not want to leave the army with a bad feeling like that. This time, it went fine and I felt back on form, but maybe in retrospect I should have taken the warning there and then.
Maybe, but then I'm not very good at giving up like that.
A STATE OF EMERGENCY
Saint Michael, patron of parachutists, protect us always.
My life seems to have been a series of violent swings from one extreme to another. Since things had been going well, perhaps I should have guessed I was due for a fall. However, I left the South African Army on a high, a warrant officer with a good report, which is given in Appendix C just to show the sceptics back home! I had managed to save some money for once, a remarkable feat for me, and Jane and I were really at peace with each other, happy with little Billy and our prospects. I hoped to get a new job with reasonable pay. A tall rather serious South African friend called Mark Adams, who had known me from Rhodesia days when he was an officer in the RLI (and on the Chimoio raid) and later served a shorter time than me in the SADF, recommended I join the company he was working for.
This was COIN Security Group (Pty) Ltd, a big South African security company based in Jan Niemand Park in Pretoria. The name was deliberately chosen to be the acronym for COunter INsurgency and at first glance it was all there; uniforms, ranks, armoured vehicles, weapons, badges, even medals. COIN supplied manpower, static and mobile guards and guard dogs to protect installations like factories, shops, stores and banks. In the increasingly uncertain atmosphere of South Africa, this was profitable work.
The managing director, John Bishop, interviewed me. He was a dark-haired man, always meticulously groomed [<233][234>] with a penchant for good clothes and his greatest skill was in choosing the right men for the job. He had started C 0 IN only a few years before with a dozen guards; when I joined there were about fifty and two years later there were nearly thirteen hundred. With such rapid expansion he needed men to handle his 'troops', the guards, and realised from his own National Service that the army could provide them. He had been a National Service corporal in the South African Army and been promoted year by year in the Territorials after each annual camp. By the time I met him, he liked to be called 'Major'. I could see that he deliberately cultivated a military image, but that seemed rather appropriate for a security company and he was enthusiastic about having me join the team. So was Yvonne Lottering, an attractive blonde woman in her thirties who was his marketing director and partner.
They offered me a job, and I accepted. A security company seemed to be the closest thing to the army, and at the relatively young age of forty-one, I didn't want all my past experience and the whole motivation of my life just to be wiped out when I walked through the camp gates for the last time into civvy street.
I set out to serve this new entity with the same enthusiasm I had displayed in my soldiering. I found the company very gung-ho, which I liked. John Bishop wanted to hear all the opinions of new men like me. We had some really constructive meetings about the constant expansion problems, and I felt we all had a common interest in getting on with the job. COIN was expanding rapidly and there was no time for unnecessary paperwork, office minutes, memos and reports.
Jane and I went to live in a rented company house in Jan Niemand Park. The house was a spacious bungalow with big rooms in a quiet residential road called, tellingly, Lamerwangerstraat. A lammerwanger in Afrikaans is a griffin, the symbol Of 44 Parachute Brigade. In fact, several old army friends lived close by, from 44 Para [235>] Brigade and Rhodesia days, and life was looking up. Jane found a nursing job in the Huis Luzetta old people's home, also in Jan Niemand Park, close to home, and we settled into the local community well. I even began going to church with Jane every week. There is still a lurking vestige in me of the Catholicism of my early childhood, deeply implanted by the iron discipline of Sister Loyola and Father Brett, but I enjoyed the church for its sense of belonging to the community. The South Africans are very strong on religious background and social conformity. Belong to the club and you can go to heaven!
Every day I went to work in my Dihatsu Charade company car which I was paying for by instalments, and I worked long hours. We were on the go all the time, running round meeting clients, managing the guards and checking installations. South African businesses needed no persuading of the importance of security. Nelson Mandela was still in prison and the still-illegal African
National Congress was increasingly active, with tremendous international support. Car-bombs, shootings and riots were common. In this atmosphere and having just left the army, I saw nothing strange about the way we always addressed each other by rank and the other deliberate parallels with army life.
My expertise has always been motivating the people working for me and the 'Major' gave me a job which entailed behaving as a sort of sergeant major over the black guards in an area. I discovered that the lower the rank in civvy street, the grander the title, so I started as a 'Senior Operations Commander' which we called SO C, copying the army's obsession with acronyms. In practice, as SOC, I was a general dogsbody for an operations manager. Between us, we kept the company's static guard operations in Pretoria running smoothly; including personnel, pay, discipline and guard rosters, timings, routes, locations on factory sites, and so on.
Most of our guards were from the black homelands, [336>] like Venda and Bophuthatswana, and they worked bloody long hours. In theory, they were supposed to work twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, and take one week off in seven. Most people who have worked shifts of twelve on, twelve off, would agree this was hard enough, but in practice they worked harder. All nattily turned out in their smart uniforms, these blacks did nearer fourteen hours on duty, adding the extra time for driving them to work and back, and signing on and off. Also, the company was so busy that the guards were commonly kept on the job seven days a week and their week off was cancelled. They were in no position to argue, apartheid or not. They needed the work to send money back to their families.
Under the DomPas (Domicile Pass) system, homeland blacks were not allowed by law to bring their families with them to the city, so the company provided living accommodation which was very basic. In Pretoria, they lived in a rectangular building made of concrete blocks and they slept on bunk beds, built into the walls like racking, three high to the ceiling. In Johannesburg they were racked four high to the ceiling. Sounds rough, but there was no point providing beds or movable furniture because the blacks always stole it and ran away. Also, the company had to pay a tax on each bed-space so our 400 blacks used the 'hot bed' system, to conserve space like sailors in a submarine. Two men shared one bunk bed: 200 were on duty while the other 200 slept. It's not surprising they were exhausted and I was constantly sweeping up the problems caused by men literally falling asleep on guard or going absent in desperation.
'Your guard was not on duty!' one client shouted at me. 'I came to the premises in the middle of the night and he wasn't there!'
I quickly worked out a system for dealing with this sort of complaint. I called it the toilet trick. With a deference I had not employed since talking to Sister Loyola as a boy,
I inquired politely, 'When did you visit the premises, sir?'
'At 02.34 hours,' shouted the man. 'I noted the time exactly!' They always did that.
'And how long did you stay, sir?' I knew civilians like to check up on people, but they do not care to hang about in the middle of the night when a warm bed is calling. There doesn't seem to be any point. It was a crucial part of my ploy.
'Oh, I don't know. About ten minutes, I suppose.'
'Did you look in the toilet while you were there?' Crux question.
'Well, I'm sure the guard was on duty, sir, and don't you think it's possible that he was in the toilet?'
Then the ace. 'I mean, sir, even black men have to use the toilet on a twelve-hour shift.'
This excuse worked particularly well if the client was British. Whereas the South Africans had no interest whatsoever in a 'kaffir's' urinary habits, British clients retained some vestige of fair play in this vital biological regard!
Mind you, the black guards had little interest or pride in their work even though it provided them with a wage they could not earn anywhere else. Guards certainly got very tired, but they took every excuse to skive off. If we needed more than one on an installation, they decided among themselves who would stay awake while the others slept, got drunk, smoked dagga, or simply went absent.
The 'Major' was tireless in trying to control these lapses of discipline. He introduced fines. Every time a guard was found asleep, he had to pay a fine Of 5 rand. I can still recall one black who was caught so many times that after six weeks' pay had been taken into account against his accumulated fines, he owed money to the company!
Guards going absent were a real problem. Clients were [238>] always furious, so the 'Major' also introduced a system of reserve guards who could be held back and used to fill the gaps of those who went absent on duty. The 'Major's' enthusiastic plan was that we could merely replace the missing man with another when we were called out, as our great selling line was that we were the only security company which drove the black guards to work ourselves, to make sure they got there. That was fine in theory, but in practice, when the reserves were stood down waiting for a call out, they got drunk or went absent too.
I became very good at crisis management. I pacified endless angry clients after some drama caused by the guards not doing their jobs, and the number of clients continually increased in parallel with the worsening internal security situation in South Africa. In September, President Botha announced a new constitution giving limited political power to Asians but nothing to blacks. At once, the ANC stirred up violent rioting in five townships outside Johannesburg in which twenty-nine died, including the Mayor of Sharpeville who was hacked to death, doused in petrol and burned. This sort of thing is bad news for everyone except security companies and COIN expanded. We were always under pressure and I enjoyed that. I found the work absorbing in that first year. It was new to me, I liked the man-management aspects and the hours were long. At least, I worked long hours. To start with anyway, we ex-army men were appreciated and I was quickly promoted to operations manager, responsible for all static guard work in the Pretoria area.
I was so busy with the job that I had little time for my family. Jane and I hardly saw each other. Somehow, this kind of commitment works in the army, where operations and even training exercises demand twenty-four hours a day. Service families seem to accept the whole-hearted commitment required of their men, but I had not yet realised that the civilian work ethic operates with a subtle [239>] difference. I did not get the chance to appreciate this before fate intervened to stop my life getting too comfortable.
In October 1984, the 'Major' suggested I do a demonstration parachute drop on the COIN annual open day. I agreed at once and found some 44 Para Brigade freefallers to make up a team. I was delighted to get back to something I really enjoyed. I was to jump in with a C 0 IN pennant flying from my ankle and enthusiastically organised some practice jumps.
On Sunday 7 October, six of us assembled at Wonderboom airfield near Pretoria and everything went wrong from the start. We were jumping with civilian equipment and, as I had no parachute of my own, so I borrowed a square from an ex-Pathfinder. As I walked out to the aircraft, the pin popped out and one of the others stuffed it back in with the 'chute on my back while the Pilatusporter, a short-take-off-and-landing plane, took us up to 9,000 feet.
Nothing matters as you leap out of a plane into the emptiness of the slipstream high over the earth. The moment of commitment is totally absorbing. No matter how many jumps you have done, every jump is a thrill. I was first man out to act as base-man in free-fall, so the other three could close in on me to form a four-man link up, or star. On exit, my goggles flew off. On the way down, my altimeter, which was supposed to stay strapped down at my chest, worked loose in the slipstream and flapped its way up where I could not see it.
Two others came in and grabbed me to form our star. I tried to see their altimeters. Normally, this is easy, just a question of looking across at them as you hang on to each other, but my eyes were watering so much without goggles, I could see nothing. Conscious that every five seconds we hurtled a thousand foot closer to the ground, I decided to pull at the same time as them. But civilian free-fallers pull lower than army free-fallers, because [240>] civvies pay for their jumps and want their money's worth. Every second counts, quite literally.
The others started breaking off to find some free air space to pop their parachutes. Once they were away, I took a last, routine, safety-check look-around as my hand went to pull the handle, and saw a man above me! I could not pull. I tracked away a little. Suddenly my altimeter popped up in front of my face. 1,200 feet! Too low! I yanked the handle out at once.
The parachute deployed instantly and I can remember to this day what happened next. Instead of the usual jerking halt and gentle safe swing under the canopy, I heard a series of terrifying snapping noises as several rigging lines broke under the opening pressure, like huge rubber bands being cut. One side of the canopy collapsed immediately and the whole parachute started a sickening rotation with me swinging on the end, as if I were on some mad circus roundabout. There is no time to think of consequences in parachuting. You just act. Working instinctively, I fought with the risers and brake lines to get beneath what remained of the canopy and fly it. After two giant rotations, I managed to control the swing and get under the parachute but I was dropping too fast.
I looked up. Only four of the seven long cells were inflated. Less than half the parachute holding me.
I looked at my altimeter. Six hundred feet. Too low. No time to cut away this shambles and go for my reserve. I was dropping too fast. No time for anything! I had to ride it in. God, it made a noise! The loose material, rigging lines flying, rattled in the wind like a motorbike with no exhaust as I plummeted towards the ground.
Helpless, I looked down briefly. There was no way out of this. I was totally on my own, and maybe it was the Catholic in me, but I said quietly, 'Oh God, get me out of this one!'
I smacked into a deep, soft, ploughed field. [241>]
I broke up and bounced like a rag doll. It happened so fast but I was conscious of it all, as if in timeless slow motion. I could feel my right leg snap backwards under my body, crushing the bones and ripping the flesh. My left leg shattered at the thigh, and I felt the vertebrae in my back crushed between the impact and the force of my head ramming down onto my chest. There was blood and snot everywhere. Shards of my broken bones had ripped through my muscles and opened an artery which sprayed the white parachute as it fluttered round me. At once, it seemed to me, I started shaking with shock and broke out in a terrible sweat.
Jane arrived with the ambulance. She and little Billy had watched my parachute come down without any idea I was in trouble. Then, she saw the others running about shouting for the medics and jumped in the ambulance with them. I was conscious throughout as they lifted me very gently off the ploughed earth and I could hear, and feel, my broken bones grinding as they straightened my right leg. Jane sat in the ambulance and stroked my head over and over, to calm me and I kept saying, 'This time I've had it. I've really had it!'
She calmed me and they cut my parachute harness off my body with knives. God knows what my little son Billy thought seeing his father lying in such a mess, or when one child said, 'They're cutting off your dad's leg!' Billy was not quite four years old. He was silent for weeks afterwards. Maybe, he has never forgotten.
After a speed drive to hospital, I was put in an emergency ward in a bed surrounded by curtains, still conscious, and festooned with drips. By now, the pain was really building up. No morphine is allowed before an operation and I was feeling extremely sorry for myself. In the next door cubicle, I could hear groaning and someone muttering in Afrikaans and I wished he would shut up! I stared at a large yellow object sticking out over the top of the curtain rails. Suddenly, the nurses busy round him [242>] opened the curtains trying to make space for him and I saw he had a huge chunk of a glider's wing stuck inside his chest. I thought I was in a bad way, but I will never forget the sight of this guy being wheeled off to the operating theatre surrounded by nurses trying to stop that great section of yellow wing knocking on the doorway and tearing him apart.
My turn came. The surgeon, van Dyck, was a gentle man with a round face and the kindest expression in his blue eyes of any man I've seen. You notice that sort of thing when you are all broken up and meet your surgeon for the first time. He bent over me, put his hand gently on my head and said, 'If you come out of this theatre with both your legs, then look upon it as a bonus.' What a bedside manner, but I was past caring!
When I came to in a crisp bed in the intensive care ward, I remembered what Jane had said about plaster casts when we were in Rhodesia. As a nurse there, she had seen a lot of gunshot wounds. She said that if the surgeons left a leg in an open cast it meant they were trying to save the leg, but that most of the cases she had seen with open casts ended up with the leg being amputated.
I lay surrounded by five drips, glistening plastic tubes, stretched out and unable to sit up. My legs hurt. I wriggled my toes. I could feel them, so I guessed I still had legs. Then I remembered that amputees sometimes imagined these reactions. I had to look. Struggling, I could just twist my head and, to my horror, I saw my right leg lying in an open cast.
Dr van Dyck came to me the next day. He looked as kindly as ever. He examined me and stared at the open cast on my right leg, the one which had been so crushed under me on landing.
Bluntly, I said, 'You're thinking of cutting off my leg, aren't you?'
'Yes,' he said. That subtle Afrikaans bedside manner [243>] again. 'The bone in your lower leg is more or less pulped by the impact.'
'Well, cut it off!' I retorted harshly. You see, I have to admit it, the pain was terrible and I hated the feeling of helplessness.
He just looked at me and said, 'I don't think you should talk like that. We'll wait to see how you get on.' Then he moved on, followed by a starched procession of Matron and a cluster of nurses.
We are never as badly off as we think. An American friend of mine, an ex-Pathfinder called Dave Barr, came to see me. He had lost both his legs, on a mine in Xangongo in Angola. He tottered into the ward on his tin ones clutching a signed copy of Douglas Bader's biography, Reach for the Sky. This, of course, had become his role-model.
'Sergeant Major McAleese!' he boomed in his wild American drawl. 'I've come to see you as I believe you're in deep trouble!'
I nodded. There was no denying that.
He gazed at me with an intense expression in his eyes. 'I know you read the Bible,' he said, and I remembered how we used to sit about on the sandy ground in the bush during quiet periods on operations, with a brew of coffee and talk about Catholicism, life and death. He said, 'It's written there in the good book, "If it offends you, cut it off!" I did just that with my legs, and look at me. I'm fine!'
With that, he swung round awkwardly on his tin legs and staggered out, teetering from side to side, a legless wreck! Was I going to look like that? But he was a good man and hard as nails. He had refused to give up free-fall parachuting. He jumped with his tin ones and learned how to land on his arse. In fact, one day, one of his legs blew off in free-fall. Someone found it in their back garden and returned it by post.
So, next day, I told Dr van Dyck to 'cut it off'. [244>]
He was a kind man and serious, for he knew I was vulnerable, lying in bed helpless and broken, and he replied carefully, 'I need to go away and think about this. I'll let you know.'
We resumed our conversation during his next visit. I noticed the excitement in his voice as he said, 'Peter, if you can stand the long-term pain, I think I can do something to keep your leg.'
I said, 'How long?'
'Two years, maybe two and a half.' Doctors are kind, but they are hard too. What a casual little sentence to describe so much misery!
I agreed. What else could I do? But there were times later when both Jane and I seriously wondered if we had done the right thing.
For twelve days I lay in intensive care being tended every fifteen minutes by a continuous series of wonderful nurses, drifting in and out of consciousness on a heavy dose of painkillers. My legs stayed on. At the end of this period, during a daily visit Dr van Dyck stated, 'He's stabilised.' And forthwith, I was taken out of this clean white haven and thrown into the general orthopaedic ward.
Here, I have to explain the South African hospital system because it, as much as my accident, was responsible for changing my life. All those complaining about the British National Health system pin their ears back and listen closely, and all those cheapskates who refuse to pay full medical insurance cover think again!
In South Africa, the State paid for all the expense of the initial emergency treatment, the operation and the intensive care, but as soon as you were moved into a general ward, you got the same level of nursing care, but you paid 20 per cent of the cost of everything. They noted down every single paracetamol and tissue. As I said, I was broken physically and, soon enough, financially. [245>]
This first time in hospital, in the orthopaedic ward, we were all in a bad way. We tried to control ourselves like good manly Afrikaners and not complain about the pain, but, come night time, everyone lay in bed in their own private hell and listened for the Midnight Express. I cannot describe the joy of hearing the squeak-squeak of that night-nurse's trolley which brought our painkillers. When the needle jabbed, I passed out at once and never stirred till morning when a nurse wiped my face with a wet face towel. I slept so deeply, it seemed like one second they were drugging me to go to sleep, the next beating me about the face with wet towels to make me up. It was like doing interrogation training on a combat survival course.
Jane was a great support to me, as a wife, and as a nurse. I imagine she will be less than impressed if I mention that she helped me with a rather vital suppository matter after leaving intensive care. I felt terribly embarrassed lying helpless on my bed, unable to relieve myself and hating to ask the nurses. With typical gentle determination, she organised the whole thing for me, told the matron she was a nurse, drew the curtains and, after thirteen days, what a relief! I apologise here and now, as those poor nurses carried on working on the ward when we were all desperate for respirators!
I left hospital only twenty days after the accident, because it was costing 100 rand a day for the bed alone. The ambulance men stretchered me into my house, dumped me on my sofa and walked out. I do not know how Jane coped, because I was completely immobile. It was not till much later that I could use a wheelchair which Mark Adams bought for me. I have no idea what happens to people in South Africa who cannot afford a wheelchair or do not have friends as I did. In the meantime. I got around on a garage trolley, of the sort used to slide underneath cars. I rolled and heaved my plastered legs off our bed, flat onto the trolley, shoved myself around at [246>] floor level with my hands, and could just drag myself back onto our low bed.
This was one of the most miserable times of my life. I had to accustom myself to being an invalid and I was not very good at it. I am a man who loves action. I like to take the lead and all of a sudden I had to learn how to ask people to do things for me. I was bored and intensely frustrated. I took ages to come to terms with my injuries. I never have, really. I still hanker to be the man I was before my accident.
Our marriage was under pressure at once. With typical calm common sense, Jane put Emelda and Billy in a creche and carried on working, because we needed all our income to pay medical bills, while I was stuck at home. I had never taken the advice of Captain Harrington-Spear, Royal Anglian, all those years before, and found a hobby. I was bored, helpless and almost incapable of movement. Even as I mended, I resented being stuck in my wheelchair and hated my crutches. I frequently lost my temper and threw my wheelchair across the room. Not only did we have to come to terms with my injuries and pay huge medical bills, but Jane and I were simply not used to having me moping about at home.
I went back to work as soon as I could, ten weeks after the accident, on a stretcher in the back of a TUV truck. Of course, the 'Major' was delighted at this show of gutsy determination. This was just the sort of attitude he liked to see among his employees. He was right to say I would be better off with something to occupy myself, as I was terribly depressed stuck at home. His remarks were encouraging. I felt the business needed me. Yvonne agreed, with a wide smile of 'Welcome back', though I have a feeling she was thinking more that if I stayed home, I was being paid sickleave for doing nothing.
Later, I learned to lever myself in and out of my car. I wheeled my chair near the passenger door, opened it and lifted myself and my plastered legs inside with my arms. [247>]
Then I wriggled over to the driver's seat and finally leaned back to collapse the wheelchair and pull it in.
So, I went round Pretoria in a wheelchair, troubleshooting for the company. I suppose I was driven by frustration and pain but I learned how to manage and delegate to such a degree that I was promoted, wheelchair and all, to branch manager. Now I was responsible for running armed bank guards as well as the static guard business sector. With promotion came increased perception of the facade civilian security companies present when exposed to hard commercial realities. 'Me company was expanding so fast that the armed black guards on cash-in-transit duty, responsible for moving huge sums in armoured vehicles from bank to business clients, wore imitation flak jackets. The jackets looked good but were actually made of nothing more protective than thick canvas. I guess it has changed now, but it was a good thing the ANC never found out. Maybe that kind of thing would not have mattered in the army, where doubtless we would have thought it was a huge joke, but it mattered in civvy street where it seemed to be a con, not so much of the black guards, but of the client.
I was determined to get fit again, but I was impatient. I started heaving weights in a gym, working on my upper body, but the screws holding the steel pins in my legs loosened and suddenly I had raging septicaemia. My leg swelled enormously and I had to go back to the hospital. I lay on my bed back in the orthopaedic ward gritting my teeth, my eyes watering with pain. I refused to admit how much it hurt, partly because I was stupidly trying to be manly and partly because of the cost. A nurse noticed and insisted I take pethidine. I sank into a trouble-free sleep which turned into drifting consciousness. I became aware of a really beautiful nun in a blue habit sitting beside me.
'I'm in heaven,' I said aloud. [248>]
'No you're not,' said the nun, smiling. 'I'm a health visitor.' She had noticed from my record card that I was a Catholic and she chatted quietly to me about charismatic faith and faith healing. My God, it was an appropriate subject. The pethidine wore off, my swollen leg felt as if it was about to burst apart, and suddenly it did just that, sending a geyser of pus from the broken skin above the pins.
I cannot remember the sequence of going in and out of hospital. I had ten operations on my legs over nearly two years. I was in and out of my bloody wheelchair, on crutches, back in hospital, had foot-long steel pins fitted, then taken out. Dr van Dyck was tirelessly patient with me, gradually pulling my right foot round straight, grafting bone he took off my hip to repair my pulped lower leg, and fixing it with bone props. Once he showed me an X-ray of how the bones were healing and I got enthusiastically over-confident. I went to answer the front door at home on crutches, and, as I stood talking to an ex-British Para called Bob Phillips, my leg suddenly collapsed in an 'S' bend, like soft spaghetti, and one of the pins pressed out through the skin. Back to surgery. My treatment went on and on for two years, just as Dr van Dyck predicted, so for fear of being boring, I will leave it at that. Suffice it to say, I had, and still have, my share of pain and I have nothing but sympathy for people in hospital.
Jane and I were constantly paying medical bills and my promotion with a little extra pay was very welcome. Our savings were eaten up very quickly, and still the State-run debt-collecting agency called Med Collect kept sending big, burly men to the house demanding we pay our bills.
'You owe the State money for medical aid,' said one, towering over me in my wheelchair. He was very official, and handed me a large invoice.
I sat and read every minute detail of my treatment and my mood changed to raging despair. Helpless, I tore the [249>] bill to shreds and flung it at him. The pieces fluttered about at our feet in the doorway.
He was appalled and shouted aggressively, 'You could get into a lot of trouble for that!'
I gestured at my legs and bellowed back, 'What more can happen? D'you want my bloody legs too?'
The visit ruined the day.
Actually, Jane and I did once seriously wonder if it would be easier to cut the bloody leg off! Just to hire the operating theatre cost 1,800 rand but I am forever grateful to Dr van Dyck who showed us unending kindness. He never charged for his surgery on my legs, but we had to pay for everything else. Faced with 20 per cent of the total, we were always broke.
Another problem was that I could not afford any postoperative care or physiotherapy. Actually, to be honest, I had one session. A very nice lady asked me to raise my legs off the bed to her hand, which she held out above me, and when I did that six times with each leg she gave me some good advice and departed. For which the State charged 20 rand. I could not afford it and I think I am still suffering the consequences. Other people who have had similar injuries say their time spent in physio learning how to walk again was as important as the operations.
My therapy was going to the office where I had to learn a new approach to my life. I had always been the sort who goes to the other person if there's work to be done, and at first I continued to do this in my wheelchair or on crutches, up and down corridors and so on. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. My arm muscles looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger's. I took a lesson from Mark Adams who had been made a COIN director by then and, like a typical officer, always seemed to have people come to him. I began to learn new communication skills along with the art of delegation. The 'Major' cannot have thought too badly of me, even crippled. He promoted me again, to area manager, and put me in charge of all the [250>] company's operations in Pretoria, Johannesburg and the Transvaal. This new post gave me responsibility for all the company's security operations: static guards, all bank cash-in-transit work, and now the armed national keypoint guards. These last were run on infantry lines, armed with .223 version of the M14 and shotguns, and they were used by the State to protect important installations, such as electricity stations, railway facilities and warehouses. They supplemented the over-stretched South African police and army.
On 20 July 1985, President Botha declared a State of Emergency as the security situation in the country worsened. In February that year eight had died in terrible riots in the Cape Flats area, in March another seventeen blacks were shot by the SAP at Langa township on the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre, and hundreds of black suspects were arrested under the new Emergency Measures. Five hundred were estimated to have been killed in the previous twelve months.
My problem was that our national keypoint guards were treated much the same as the other guards. Most South Africans saw nothing in this, but I thought they really did work horrendous hours. Therefore they were ripe targets for subversion by black activists. During a period of rioting in the townships, they decided to go on strike. I was in the company offices, as usual, and heard about it on the company's radio network.
'There's a mutiny in the blacks' hostel!' crackled the radio in panic. This illustrated the white South African attitude, especially that of the ex-army types we had in the company. The black guards were not seen as 'strikers' but 'mutineers'.
I struggled into my car and drove off for another test of my crisis management skills. I was on crutches at this time and stumped into the hostel to find blacks and whites facing up to each other in the concrete sleeping rooms and everyone looking very nasty indeed. The company [251>] had formed an all-white internal 'police unit' to check on black guards. A group of these, in their dark glasses and American-style police uniforms, were confronting a crowd of angry blacks. Outside, the night sky was lurid with burning buildings, we could hear shooting and everyone knew that there was chaos out there in the city. Blacks were fighting blacks, killing them with burning tyre necklaces and everywhere the SAP were trying to enforce control with riot sticks, guns and arrests. Tempers in our hostel ran high.
The senior white COIN 'police officer' waved his submachine gun at the blacks as if he was dying to use it and shouted that all the blacks should be arrested for stealing Revlon makeup. 'Red-handed,' he bellowed down at me on my crutches. 'I found it in their lockers.'
A quick glance at the packets showed the Revlon makeup was all rejected stock. I told him, 'You can't arrest them for taking this stuff out of dustbins.' The blacks were always rooting about in the dustbins to see what they could find.
Disappointed, he paused. Then he perked up and shouted in an outraged and triumphant voice, 'But they are smoking dagga!'
'They always smoke dagga, don't they?'
Puzzled, he retired, trying to reconcile the truth of this logic with his President's new Emergency laws. Once I had defused the situation and made sure there was no immediate chance of slaughter occurring, I was able to talk to the Volkani Black Guards Union rep, a woman called Grace. I asked her, 'Why are you on strike?'
She shrugged carelessly. 'I don't know.'
Another black was only slightly more forthcoming. He said, "cause we've been told.' This was equally compelling logic.
It was black nationalist logic. The ANC were busy creating unrest in the townships and the last thing they wanted was our national keypoint guards to take the [252>] pressure off the over-stretched army and police units. SO ANC activists inside the unions tried to take us out of the picture with a strike.
My loyalty was towards the company, and, whatever the problems in the black townships, my job was to keep COIN in business. I found various posters in the hostel, a bizarre but typically African mix of religion and communism, of Christ on the cross and Karl Marx. I showed them to the security police who studied this sinister mix as if their worse fears had been confirmed.
'That,' they said in a tone of high moral indignation, 'is proof of nothing less than Christian Liberation Theology!'
They agreed at once to help. Having defused the strike, I posted all the guards to their installations on the divide and rule principle, and then sent the police out to several posts where five particular guards were on duty who were always causing trouble among the rest. The police simply arrived, slapped on the cuffs and marched them off, no questions asked under the Emergency measures, and we were back in business.
These sort of strikes occurred a good deal and I thought the blacks had good cause to complain. The company had one black in the management, a nice man called Michael Kgabo whom Jane and I got to know well. He often joined us at home with other friends who came round to see how I was getting on. He had been educated at a missionary school but since the political system did not allow his wife Agnes to join him and live with him, because he was black, he ended up finding another woman, which broke up his marriage. I do not pretend to know about the origins of apartheid, but it caused a lot of problems.
Having been educated at missionary school, Kbago was dedicated to being a good, upright member of the community, but South African society abused his dedication, using his commitment to work but spoiling his life and that of his wife through stupid regulations. Of course, [253>] a good many of the guard force were idle by anyone's yardstick, let alone Kbago's, but the apartheid regulations did not encourage them to give their best. In Rhodesia, my black ex-guerrillas worked hard on operations with me, on equal terms and through equal dangers, and I don't think much of any system which condemns a man before he's started, because of his colour or creed.
I was normally the man the management used to handle strikes on the ground, as I am not afraid of having things out face to face with the men. I learned a lot about man-management, and dealing with black grievances in the particularly trying conditions of South Africa during the State of Emergency at that time was no easy task. It began to wear me down. One aspect I found hard to bear was pretending that we were an army unit, and not accepting that we were quite simply a company in the civilian market place with a manpower product to sell.
In between operations on my legs, I spent a lot of frustrating time at home. I do not suppose I made very good company and the strains on our marriage worsened, keeping pace, you might say, with the increasing trouble in South Africa. However, life was not all bad news. We kept open house for army and ex-army friends and had numerous reunions which we both enjoyed as old friends passed through. Jane never complained at people being in the house so much. She was always busy cooking and looking after them, she was extremely supportive of me during this period and I was delighted when she told me she was expecting our second child.
Having friends round was a mix of emotions, plain good fun, a desperate Celtic-inspired wake for my old army life, and a release from my current troubles. I had been through every grade of painkiller, morphine, Omnopon, pethidine, Sosogen, Deloxene and paracetamol, and finally drink. There were always friends who came to see how I was and I drank with them through sheer frustration. [254>]
One Sunday during the State of Emergency, a crowd of mates from 44 Para Brigade came to take me to a reunion in my wheelchair. I was not feeling too crisp, but they brushed aside my reluctance, promised Jane they would look after me, and drove me to a house in Hillbrow, in Johannesburg. The guys parked me in my wheelchair in the sitting room and the party began. Several beers later, the front door bell rang and Ossie Overall went to answer it.
A South African policeman stood on the doorstep and raising his voice over the racket of the tape player, he said, 'The neighbours have complained you're making too much noise.'
'Fuck off,' said Ossie pleasantly.
The policeman took a long hard look at the beer we were drinking. There is a terrible streak of old-fashioned self-righteousness in South Africa and the Afrikaner does not approve of drinking on a Sunday. He said, 'Do you realise there's a State of Emergency on, and the people who come after me may not be so reasonable?'
'We do. Now fuck off.'
Actually, there was no law against drinking in your own place, it was simply that the South African police did not approve. The policeman went away, Ossie shut the door and the party continued.
An hour later, we were sitting there still singing army songs and drinking, when suddenly to my amazement a gas grenade shattered the street window and burst on the carpet near my feet. I spun my wheelchair to escape to the back of the room when another grenade came through the back window. Within seconds, toxic white C S gas filled the room, police smashed through the front door and charged all over the house shouting, 'It's a drugs raid!'
'You've come to the wrong place,' burbled Ossie as he was manhandled away. 'There's no drugs here. We're all alcoholics.'
Amazingly, the police were not wearing respirators [255>] against the gas and brought a sniffer dog with them. I can only surmise its mere presence justified their drugs allegation.
While this battle took place, I sat in my wheelchair, choking on the CS gas which hung thick in the air, and totally ignored. Dismissively, one policeman explained why as he dragged off one of the guys. 'We don't arrest spastics.'
What misery. I could not stand, let alone walk,. and there were stairs front and back which I could not manage in my wheelchair. I was a prisoner. For an hour, I sat coughing in the wreckage in the sitting room.
Then, to my immense relief, all the guys came back, shouting with laughter. Down at the police station, the SAP had routinely offered them Admission of Guilt forms which they all signed at once, and, still drunk, they had all been released to sin again. Such is the South African system.
The party carried on. Inevitably, because this was South Africa during the State of Emergency, the police raided us again. In strength. More CS gas grenades sailed through the windows, hordes of camouflaged officers poured into the house, beat everyone up and dragged them off to the police station. Once again, I was totally ignored.
I spent the whole night slumped in my wheelchair in the smoking wreckage of the sitting room feeling terribly sorry for myself. When some of them were finally released and came back to rescue me on Monday morning, I was totally exhausted.
The South Africans must have wasted a lot of energy trying to stop people drinking on Sundays but they seem to have been driven by the Afrikaner mentality. Illegal shebeens sprang up all over the place. On another Sunday, on my crutches this time, I was in one of these with Pete Donnelly, an ex-Pathfinder, when Pete said, 'What's that funny noise?' [256>]
We could hear a harsh burring noise on the other side of the front door, and, as we looked, a chainsaw burst through the wood, carved the door in half, and as it fell apart into the hall, several fanatical-looking policemen in black overalls burst in, all carrying buzzing chainsaws. They paid no attention to us at all, so we carried on drinking out of their way at the bar, while they charged all round the house carving up all the furniture. Minutes later, they ran out, leaving the place looking as if someone had blown it apart with a satchel bomb, and all they said to us was, 'Drink up and leave!'
The pseudo-army facade of the company began to get me down about the same time the 'Major' and his partner Yvonne veered away from their enthusiasm for recruiting ex-soldiers. This was probably due to the expansion of COIN and their realisation that army men do not necessarily make good businessmen. Anyway, there were various little signs which told me my future in the company was not as rosy as I had been led to believe.
As the company expanded, there arose an obsession with paperwork, reports and request forms. Of course, all these had to be managed, so people were employed solely for this non-productive work while the likes of me went on seeking new clients and keeping the old ones happy. not an easy job as you have seen. One new paper-merchant of this type stood over my wheelchair one day and lectured me in a superior tone on how experienced he was. He ended by saying, as if I were a wet-behind-the-ears youngster, 'Don't you realise? I was a policeman!' He neither knew nor cared about me or, it seemed, anyone else.
Here lies the rub. Security companies are full of ex-soldiers because they think it is the next best thing after service life. They think all the things they enjoyed about the army, like the camaraderie, the safety of the structure, knowing your place, the emphasis on sports and fitness, the training and the action, can be found in civilian [257>] security companies. Well, it can't. The civilian world is, well, just different.
In fact, I find it sad that some of the finest things that motivate a soldier in army life, like loyalty to the unit and self-sacrifice, can be (but are not always) a distinct disadvantage to him as a civilian. There will no doubt be an outcry among civilian managers and employers reading this, but let them honestly answer a couple of questions.
Who in civvy street really has a true interest in your promotion and career development? Does the company, or your boss (whose job you may want and he knows it) or is it really a case of looking after Number One?
And second, who is employed body and soul for twenty four hours a day but only paid for eight? The soldier is, but not the civilian.
The ex-soldier goes on thinking like a soldier when he becomes a civilian. I found the transition painful, and concluded someone was cashing in on my soldier's attitudes and taking advantage of me. Sadly, I don't think my case is unusual.
I was not pleased when Mark Adams told me that several people who worked under me in my area were being paid more than me. Did all those hours I was working overtime count for nothing?
I think the last straw was when Jane went into hospital to have Catherine. It was Saturday 20 July 1985 and I was out, as usual, driving round Johannesburg after working hours checking keypoints and guards at their installations. Quite by chance I pulled up on top of a hill and listened to the company radio network.
'Call for Papa Mike,' crackled the radio. 'Your wife has been taken into hospital in Pretoria.'
At that moment, I suddenly realised I was in the wrong place.
I had been so obsessed with my own work that I had ignored Jane at a very important time for her. I dropped what I was doing and raced in my car to the hospital. I [258>] was too late. I missed the birth. I arrived just afterwards and saw Jane with her tiny baby in her arms looking really quite beautiful. I was over the moon but at the same time miserable. Here was this woman who had done everything for me, looked after me when I was ill, helped me through all the highs and lows, cooked and washed for all the lines of friends who called on us, understanding me so well and finally having my baby. And what had I been doing? Mucking about on some routine job for a company which was a pale facade of the armies I had served and fought in and which couldn't care less.
There were other things. There always are when a person decides to leave a country. One was hearing my little son calling a black man 'kaffir'. He had picked it up somewhere as it was not a term I used. Of course there are lots of slang words like that, which have never meant anything to me because my feelings for someone have nothing to do with their colour. However, I suddenly realised Billy was going to grow up attributing something fundamental to such slang and I asked myself what sort of society did I want him to grow up in, with what sort of ideas?
Jane went back to England with the three children.
Almost at once, the company showed its true colours. The 'Major's' partner Yvonne served notice she wanted me out of the job and our house. I was prepared. I had learned a few things about civilian life during the previous two years. When I told them I was going, I left my car, which by that time was three-quarters mine, at the company's garage and quit the house which was immaculate. I had completely repainted all the rooms as new and given all the furniture to a neighbouring Afrikaans woman who had cleaned every nook and cranny. The final pathetic indignity was the company man who was sent round by the 'Major' to collect the keys of the house. He found me sitting on a packing case in a house empty of everything except memories, and later boasted that he
[259>] had been obliged to strangle me to take the keys off me. I suppose he thought the lies would do him some good at work.
I joined Mark Adams at the Palms Hotel and was enjoying a drink to celebrate freedom again when the 'Major's' brother tracked me down. He said, 'Yvonne wants me to say you've got four days to apologise and we'll forget you ever wanted to leave.'
Actually, I liked him, but he had wasted his journey.
Briefly, in drink, I reflected on the previous two years, the start of my civilian life. God, what a thing is retrospection! I've never feared the future, as I've no fear of death, but God spare me the pain of regret.
I drank up and left Africa.
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