Battle School (Part 1)

17

The first job came out of the local newspaper. The Commandos needed a few good men to get their ratings up in the changing South African Army. The pay per day was more than my combat pay per month as a conscript years before. The ad had a phone number and I duly called and set up an appointment, at Wits Rifles.

It was very strange to walk into a South African army camp again after so many years. The interview was conducted by a Major Carlton-Barber, a soutpiel, which was a bonus. He wanted to know why after all these years I thought I was capable of representing his unit. In for a penny, in for a pound. I told him about my mercenary activities. Like most conscript or commando soldiers, he had no particular liking for mercenaries, but considering the men he had, my experience with weapons was needed badly. There was an Ops coming up and they did not have even one 81 mm mortar man. They did have a lieutenant to do the map and co-ordinate work, but that was it. I was in. With an invitation to come and meet the rest of the unit the following Wednesday evening, I left my details with the civilian secretary.

Having found my old uniform and spiffed it up a bit, I arrived on time. The meeting was at the NCO’s (non-commissioned officers) mess. The SADF has strict rules, copied from the British, about rank structure and who socialises with whom. Now, I may have attained rank in other armies, but here I was just a troop. In order to enter the mess one has to stand in the doorway, slam one’s boot into the ground and shout, ‘Permission to enter the mess, S’major!’ This done, one is granted permission by the highest ranking NCO and one may approach the bar and greet the highest ranking officer. What a lot of crap.

Commissioned officers are allowed in NCO messes but not vice versa, unless the NCOs get special permission. As a troop to be allowed in a NCO mess is a privilege only allowed in certain units. So there I was, a sleg troop, minding my own business … but Carlton-Barber had not kept our interview confidential. As I was on the wagon I ordered a coke, which caused a general commentary, none of it very pleasant, about a tough mercenary drinking cold drink. I really did not give a damn, as most of these “soldiers” had never been operational in their lives, and could kiss my arse. Later in the evening one sergeant major got particularly nasty and I thought a fight would break out; he was big, but pretty drunk. One of the officers ordered him to leave it alone. We got instructions on the upcoming Ops and an invitation to come for a drink every Wednesday night.

The deployment day arrived and we set off for South Africa’s Army Battle School at Lohatla. I had heard of this place, none of what I’d head was agreeable. It rated up there with other hard-core training grounds like Letaba Ranch and Die Brug. So far, the drill was a lot more relaxed than I remembered from the old days, so what the hell. I sat with the Mortar Lieutenant and got an update of how the Commando units worked.

We were to be a Motorised Unit using Armoured Troop Carriers, but the mortar crew would get Ratels that were specially modified for the 81mm Mortar. Cool … I had never seen a Ratel up close, other than the one at the old Portuguese Fort in Luanda, and the idea of driving around instead of humping all that kit sounded good to me.

It was a long bus ride as Lohatla is in the far Northern Cape, an inhospitable semi-desert part of the country. Snakes, spiders, scorpions and ostrich abounded. As per usual, we stopped at the HQ to draw kit, weapons, vehicles and clothes. Moreover, as per usual the store-men, with thousands of socks on the shelves behind them, hassle to give out even one pair. I had to explain where my original issue items were and why what I had was so worn out. Considering my original issue was about 13 years back, no wonder my socks had holes in them. However, having been through this a few times before, I managed to get what I needed and two pairs of brand new boots as well. That done, we went to collect our vehicles.

Overall I was not too impressed with these “weekend” soldiers, but one man stood out. Without saying a word or doing anything in particular, he just had a different feel to him. Later on I went to greet him, and that is how I met the best all-round weapons expert I have ever known. When we shot our rifles in, he proved his marksmanship.  Each man gets ten bullets and fires them at a designated target in order to check the weapon and sights. Attie’s target had one ragged hole in the target’s chin area.  The sergeant told him how useless he was. Attie is extremely polite, and said that all the shots were in the same hole. This was in Afrikaans, to which the Sergeant replied: ‘Kak!’  To prove his point and restore his honour, Attie suggested that after each shot a new target be placed behind the first one. This organised, he took 10 quick shots. True as shit, every target had a hole in it, with a slightly jagged hole in the front one.

Since this was Battle School, the emphasis was on schooling. We attended a lot of lectures and weapons training. The regular army guys were in their late teens and early twenties, so Attie and I stood out as old men at the age of thirty-something. It showed when a Colonel gave a sand model lesson and asked what would we do in such and such a situation – we both gave the same basic plan but added that we would take the enemy’s armoured vehicles out with RPG-7s. The Colonel was reasonably impressed with the plan but said, ‘Kak, boet!’ to the RPG suggestion.

He informed us that they now had an FT5, and got one of his men to fetch the thing. It looked like a piece of PVC toilet piping. Off we went to the big firing range to check this thing out. Attie and I had never seen one before so the Colonel explained how the sights worked and how to load the thing. It was a two-man weapon so I loaded it up and slapped Attie on the shoulder to let him know it was ready. Whoosh! And bang, there went an old tank in the middle of the range. Everyone, including Attie, was suitably impressed.

The trip was a good one overall, and as I was still on the wagon, there were no unpleasant incidents. My skill with the Mortar pipe was duly noted and I was told I was welcome to visit the NCO mess in future.

Taken from The Chronicles of the Mexican Horse Thief II

This link will help you with the “foreign” language in the story.

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One Response to “Battle School (Part 1)”

  1. Did the Army make “Men” out of us? | One Man's Opinion Blog Says:

    […] often see statements that the army is the sole reason my generation of South African men are so tough. I do not […]

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