(Due to a slight argument with the CO of Wits in the Offices pub I was no longer allowed to visit the Regiment HQ.)
Much to my surprise, the secretary of Wits Rifles phoned to ask me to take part in a Grading Ops at Lohatla. The army was now the new SANDF, run mainly by the old enemy. They did not like the Commando Units at all: a majority white Afrikaner organisation within their structure. In an attempt to disband them with a minimum of fuss, the powers-that-be decided that each unit would be evaluated. If they did not come up to scratch they would cease to exist. Now, I may have been a drunken lout, but my assessment of the Commanding Officer and his lackeys was accurate.
Carlton-Barber was the exception, and he had a deal for me. I would go with them for their evaluation but stay in the shadows; no parades, roll call and all the other stuff I thought was a load of crap anyway. Only when they needed the weapons fired would I come into play, and since the high ranks stay as far away from any hard work or physical danger as they can, the chance that we would bump into one another was zero. One thing: the bus would have to pick me up outside the camp. No problem.
We got to Lohatla without incident. This time we were doing Mechanised Infantry, which just meant everyone got Ratels. The same lieutenant that did the map work was there. He and I got on okay; only thing was, there was no one else to fire the weapons. We recruited some of the new army (SANDF) guys to help. As we did not have time to train them before the evaluation, we would have to do it with only one 81 mm Mortar, where there were supposed to be four. Fortunately, we found a coloured lieutenant who could operate the sights.
A mortar crew consists of three people: one to set and aim the sights, a second to help adjust the weapon, check the ammo is correct and drop the bomb into the tube, and a third who passes the bomb to the second and helps carry and clean the pipe bore between salvos.
We took our four Ratels to the magazine and loaded them all with ammo, not mentioning to the storeman that we were using only one pipe. I love things that go bang … as soon as we were out in the bush and out of sight, I loaded most of the bombs into “my” Ratel. We were literally sitting on piles of bombs.
We had a few days to practice and to get to know each other, and stayed away from the rest of the unit, as mortarists usually do. A small degree of error at the pipe will cause the bomb to be dropped very far out, a few kilometres away, so our practice area is huge and people tend to stay away. The coloured lieutenant spoke like a posh Brit, very well educated and all that, what. Not a bad chap, all of 22 years old.
Part of the evaluation was to give supporting fire in a night attack. The mortars first “soften” the target and then the infantry “cleans up”. One pipe will put illumination flares up so the infantry guys can see the target. We have to be very accurate, firstly with the HE (High Explosive) bombs, as we don’t want friendly troops to walk into our fire, and then with the illumination so we light up the enemy positions without showing up our own troops.
The day before the attack we cheated a little bit and sneaked into the target area to get exact distances. Lohatla’s rocks have a high iron content, making compasses almost useless, but all is fair in love and war, right? The only problem was that we only had one pipe, and to keep our rate of fire correct, and the illumination in the air was impossible. Kak! With enough vodka anything is possible. What we did was to put ten HE into the target, turn the elevation screw six times up, put four illumination flares in the air, turn the screw 6 times down and ten HE into the target again, and so on. This would not have worked if the pipe was on the ground, as each bomb would have caused it to sink deeper. Well, we had a vehicle of 18 tons and it was not moving. To prevent fouling, we had one troop standing on top of the vehicle to push an outsized ramrod with steel wool down the tube in between flying bombs. If he got the timing wrong he would have lost his head. I once saw a troop lose his fingers by being too slow to move his hand from the opening of a small 60 mm Mortar; the tailfins of the bomb caught him and sliced his fingers clean off.
This was going very well but then we had a hiccup. An HE bomb got stuck in the tube. No problem, there is a specialised tool which we call an uittrekker to pull stuck bombs out of the tube. You drop it down the tube, it attaches itself to the bomb, and is then pulled up by means of a couple of ropes. The bomb is of course considered extremely dangerous and has to be carried, very carefully, to a safe location far away from the troops.
Well, we dropped the uittrekker down the pipe, but just before the bomb was out, the ropes snapped. The new South African army does not look after its equipment. The top of the uittrekker was just visible, so with an asbestos glove, I grabbed the thing, hauled it out and threw it over the side of the Ratel. Pretty drunk and hyped up, I wanted to throw more bombs at the target. This is where the colouredlieutenant lapsed into his past. He yelled: ‘Bisset jou ma se poes, wat doen jy?’ Gone was the posh accent; the Cape Flats took its place instead. Too rude to translate.
Blowing things up is like a drug; once you start you don’t want to stop, you just want MORE. Countless bombs left that pipe that night and I don’t think it should ever have been used again. When we finally finished the mock attack I had thrown about 375 kg worth of bombs and was exhausted, but high as a kite. The CO of battle school found out that we had only one tube and came to shake my hand, and his head, at the same time. He thinks all English speaking people are not well in the head, and me in particular. Never mind.
Attie was around and acting even more berserk than I was. We did a daytime attack together, and he used my Ratel as a command post and to store ammunition he had obtained illegally. I now had a bit more space. The new troops were so bad that the ou manne refused to do fire and movement with them, so the attack was planned around this problem. In a real war, they would all have died, but this was an indication of our new South Africa and its army.
Attie would set up in his designated position and fire all his ammo before some of the troops had even worked out they were supposed to be firing, then he would run to the nearest LMG gunner, moer him out of the way and fire all his ammo. Not done yet, he would charge the next, or the nearest weapon he liked, a 60 mm mortar or RPG, and repeat the process. Once he had exhausted all the ammo, he would charge to the Ratel for his stash and frantically try and fire as much of that as possible before the cease-fire order came through. A proper soldier, the moment it did, he stopped; a man after my own heart. He too was congratulated by the school’s CO.
Taken from The Chronicles of the Mexican Horse Thief II
You can get The Chronicles of the Mexican Horse Thief I – Angola HERE