By Tony Savides on
2015/06/24 08:58 AM
FROM THE OTHER SIDE: PART 2/6
Please remember that, as stated in Part 1 and throughout this series, the views and comments herein are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person or organisation.
Lest anyone think that the foregoing (or anything that follows) is a plea for sympathy for the “plight” of the PFs; perish the thought - we all knew what we were letting ourselves into! We were merely getting what we had proverbially wished for.
Of course, with the advent of increased national service, greater numbers of officers and instructors were required and the Junior Leader training regime kicked in. I am of the firm opinion that the finest junior leaders produced anywhere in the world at the time were those produced by the SA Army’s JL programmes in the 1970s and 1980s. These young lads, most of whom had just left school, progressed from boys to leaders of men in the short space of less than a year – from schoolboy to leading a platoon, troop, section or squad into battle under the most trying conditions. Truth be told though, let us also not forget that, as in sport, leaders are only as good as their teams; and here one must give credit to the riflemen, gunners, troopers, privates and others who were forged into teams by their leaders and who supported their leaders in forging the teams.
Furthermore (begrudgingly in some cases erstwhile NSM might say) credit must also go to those who trained them, coerced them, even bullied them into becoming fine soldiers. While honing their skills on the SOPs of operational units such as 61 Mech, 32 Bn and others, many will recall that when the proverbial chips were down it was often the most basic drills forced upon them at De Brug, Lohatla, Potch, Infantry School or other training areas that pulled them through. All (well, most anyway) of the rondfoks, opfoks and square-bashing suddenly seemed to make sense - because drills are things to which one must react almost instinctively (such as stoppage drills, shot-action drills, fire-belt drills and the like). Even “dash, down, crawl, observe, sights fire!” (Although this drill is actually preceded by the command “take cover!” but few seem to realise this).
Admittedly though, while drills were a good method of “opfok” they were often used as an excuse for a needless “rondfok”. No measure of explaining the rationale behind some of the things that were well- organised and even well-aimed can wish away the fact that the SADF had its share of sadists and bullies who accepted their rank and position as an excuse and a weapon to physically or mentally torture and bully their underlings. This was and still is inexcusable – Q.E.D! These are the unprofessional career and part-time soldiers who sullied the honour of Soldiering. Most (hopefully all) were eventually weeded out or, having seen the folly of their ways, relented and became true professionals. Sometimes it took operational conditions to achieve this and sometimes a court-marshal and a discharge from the SADF. Those of such leaning who were NSM instructors or officers were, hopefully, also quickly rooted out of the system.
There was an unfortunate period in the mid-1960s when conscription was still in its early days and the pressing needs of operational deployment were not yet pressing, when NSM were really harshly treated by some individuals; leading to severe problems, including a few deaths during training. The only “upside” of this was a greater realisation of the onus that rested on the PF to be more professional in their approach to NSM – not to punish them for having been called up; but to prepare them for whatever task it was that the SADF had envisaged in the first place. I was stationed at 5 SAI in the early to mid1960s under the legendary Cmdt “Pik” Van Noorden, who had been a Royal Marine Commando in WW2; and I would like to believe that under his leadership and with his guidance, we treated our NSM strictly but fairly. Throughout my time at training units and as OC 1 SAI, I carried on with Oom Pik’s legacy.
Believe it or not, most of the PFs were also boys and young men at a stage in their lives; so we knew what it meant to leave home at an early age to be thrown to the wolves, as it were. Admittedly, most of us were volunteers – but not all; as some had indeed started off as conscripts before joining the PF. Our farwells as we left home might have been less traumatic and emotional but we do have experience of what it was like. Spare a thought too for those of us who, at the start of every NSM intake, had to escort the troop trains that collected the often motley collection of civvies-soon-to-become-soldiers. These too were trying times for us as well, as one never knew what to expect; from the tearful farewells at the stations, through the journey itself and to handing them over at their designated training units. Arriving at one particular city (no name no pack drill) one would be handed a name list and (proverbially) the point of a chain to which any number of the most dubious characters was secured; dagga smokers, gang members and the Lord alone know what else. We actually never tried to keep anyone on the trains; they were free to jump off at any time - from which moment they would become the prey of the military police; while we carried on with those who remained. In all my experience though, not a single conscript went AWOL from a troop train; but there must have been some on other trains.
In the early days of national service I was involved in probably a dozen or so such trains; and every one was a new, unique experience. I must say though that the greater majority of the chaps we escorted were well behaved and even cheerful – well as cheerful as could be expected under the circumstances! In most cases the escorting PF members were treated with respect (fear?) and we had very few hassles. Most of the incidents that I experienced were as a result of those who had decided to enter into the (liquid) spirit of national service by partaking of their favourite tipple in vast amounts – some to the extent that we almost poured them onto the trains. There was sometimes much bravado; but the closer we got to the destination and the more the effects of the liquor either wore off or manifested themselves as a hangover, the more subdued these individuals became.
What was interesting was the number of chaps who had “done their homework” and who plied us with all manner of questions and even anecdotes passed on to them by “veterans” of previous call-ups. In some cases we were able to reassure the chaps concerned that it was not Dante’s Inferno that awaited them; whilst others would have none of our (perceived) “attempts at PR” on behalf of the SADF. When I did encounter the odd rowdy passenger I was always fortunate to have as part of my escort team a suitably ferocious-looking NCO with a suitable “turn of phrase” who could convert ferocious lions into meek lambs in an instant with the lash of his tongue and/or an aggressive posture; and where this did not work all that well, a brief word to the RSM at the receiving station would inevitably have the lion so meek as if to being led to the slaughter – with a first lesson in “army language: indelibly imprinted on his being. Feedback on one or two occasions was that such roaring lions to meek lambs often resurrected themselves to show a mental spirit that actually had no need of the liquid type in the first place.
While the proverbial Johhny or Klaas was preparing himself for national service; back at the units we were not rehearsing the staff on deeds of mismanagement and torture but, amongst others, putting the fear of God into them should they even as much as verbally, let alone physically, abuse the charges that soon would be theirs. One of the major challenges was to ensure the young NSM JLs that it was not expected of them to be worse than their JLs had been nor to make the lives of the new conscripts more miserable than theirs had been. In most cases it worked; but we did have the odd idiots in our midst. With the PF staff it was perhaps a mite easier to explain; as any indiscretion could, at best, give rise to punishment of one sort or another and, at worst, bring a crushing end to the career of a budding Napoleon.
When I was OC 1 SAI Bn in January 1980, we had an enormous intake – some 3,000 NSM in a unit designed to accommodate less than 1,000. But we, and they, were made of stern stuff; and we managed to actually make things work. This was, in no small measure, due to the diligence and even sacrifices of the PF staff and their JL counterparts; while the unit wives and families were an unbelievably supportive element.
Yes, PFs actually did have wives and families; despite most NSM being of the opinion that were hiding their horns and forked tails under their berets and uniforms respectively. That grumpy old sod who at the drop of a hat (or staaldak) would send you on a sound opfok with a Ratel tyre or tow bar, would that evening be teaching his young son the subtleties of doing his homework or manoeuvring around his mother’s moods. That hard-arsed SOB of a corporal would later that week be entertaining his girlfriend at his parents’ home, speaking in a low and soft tone that would have his NSM charges demanding a psychiatric evaluation and asking “what have you done with our real corporal?” As training progressed and the NSM became more and more aware of the families, attitudes would change. I mean, did they really expect that the RSM would be dishing out pancakes and ice creams at the sports day when the ladies of the Leërdamesvereeniging did a much better job? On leaving for operational service or returning afterwards, it was the ladies who organised and served the tea and cookies together with the long-suffering unit chefs and kitchen staff. The hardness of the PF staff seemed to soften in the presence of their wives and families – but only for as long as this “truce” lasted!
NSM might have found it difficult to experience the “mood swings” of the PFs; after all how could they be all bitchy and horrid in training and then pack down in the same scrum in a rugby game a few hours later with all rank and other differences seemingly absent? Of course, as the training phases came and went, most NSM would have perceived that the “us and them” was becoming more and more of a “we” – in both directions. While this may well have been the result of a softening in attitude by the PFs, it was more likely because the troepies were now forming a more cohesive unit – at every applicable level. Gustav Venter (in his hilarious “Rowers”) sums this up very well: “In fact, the rowers were now experiencing their first uncomfortable inklings that they were living in two worlds, one where they had a long personal history and were being cherished and feted, and another where they were increasingly being imbedded into an entity much bigger than the sum of its parts. Their loyalty to their families would never waver, but their loyalty to their comrades would grow firmer and more fervent every day.”
Gustav’s story stops at the end of basics (the rest will be covered in future volumes) but that developing unity would eventually permeate the platoon and then company as a whole – including the PF members; so that by the time they were ready for deployment to the border, they would be a single entity, forged into a combat element. There would be further honing of the drills, skills and methods at the combat units until the new elements were truly combat-ready and absorbed as part of that unit. It was at that stage that there would be a realisation that not all of the opfoks and even the rondfoks had been aimless and that, somewhat despite themselves, they were now a combat-ready combat system. The PFs and the NSM JLs who had initially been the enemy had gradually transformed from instructors to teachers to coaches and then acceptance as leaders and “one of us”.
When it came to operational service, it was these same PFs and JLs who rode with the NSM on the Flossie and who trained with them at Omuthiya, and who went with them into battle. Suddenly the ogres of the parade ground, the firing range and the combat range, were their comrades sharing the same trials and tribulations. Many of these men held degrees or other qualifications and would far rather have been pursuing related careers back in “The States” had it not been for the fact that they had chosen to be career soldiers – and extremely professional ones at that. While the NSM eagerly awaited news, letters and parcels from how, so did the PFs; and while the loved ones back home feared for the safety of sons, husbands, brothers and boyfriends “on the Border”, so did the families of the PF members back at their bases.
End of Part 2