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Apr 7

Written by: The Ancient Armourer
2013/04/07 04:25 PM  RssIcon

Few guys have much to say about guard duty, because it didn’t vary that much from place to place in the SADF. As with shooting, everybody had to do it, though unlike shooting nobody enjoyed doing it, especially in winter. It is neither a good thing nor a bad thing – just something that has to be done in any army.
Whether you were G1 or G4, if you were not exempt from shooting, you stood guard duty at the Depot, though G4s received priority as hekwag (opening and closing the gate for vehicles and pedestrians), lucky sods! Across the road from Tekbasis, inside the perimeter of the Military Medical Institute (MMI), was a small building housing the Army’s mainframe computer. G4s who were exempt from shooting did guard duty there, two at a time, behind a thick glass window. All they had to do was check the IDs of incoming personnel against a list of about fifteen authorized officers from 2nd Lt to Colonel. These were then buzzed in through the heavy security gate, their comings and goings being logged in the Diensboek. No-one else was allowed access.
Late at night, the younger Lieuties sometimes brought their girlfriends in. They had secreted a mattress for this purpose. Since the senior officers only came in during working hours, they were pretty safe. They counted on the guards to turn a blind eye to their nocturnal activities. None of the guards was about to shop them; they were on the whole a very decent crowd.
MMI beat was 4 hours on, 4 hours off, but with everything inside a warm office. Adjoining was a small guard room with bed and shower. The week-end duty was 48 hours long, but then you stood half as often, and if you were not on pass, who cared how long your beat was anyway? For these reasons, MMI was the guard duty of choice, though if you were not exempt from shooting, you had little or no chance. I think I was lucky enough to get it twice during my 9 months as a troep at 81TSD (after which I received my stripes).
Most SADF camps had full wagdiens only from 6pm to 6am. 81 TSD duties were 12 hours long during the week, but 24 hours long from Friday to Sunday night as a consequence of the depot being closed during the week-end. The perimeter incorporated eight towers, which meant a detail of 27 including the hekwagte. The towers were hollow concrete cylinders, each having a metal roof supported on four poles and an internal metal ladder leading up to the platform. There were field telephones in each tower, connected to a switchboard in the guard commander’s office.
If you were on guard duty during the week, you marched up to the depot in the morning with the wagpeloton. You took staaldak, webbing en geweer with you. These were locked away in tall staalkaste in the wagkamer, after which you continued to the depot for work. Most guys on guard duty wore their browns under their overalls. When the others returned to camp at 16:30, you were marched back to the wagkamer by the guard commander and his assistant. On Saturdays and Sundays you marched up directly from camp at 16:00. Your dinner came up in hotboxes at about 17:00. After you had eaten, the first “beat” (shift) was posted.
Military guard duty universally moves on a three-beat round – two hours on, four hours off. You were issued with three loaded magazines, each locked by a steel pin with a ring at one end and a lead seal at the other. One went straight into the breech of your rifle, safety catch off, the others into your two front ammo pouches. In an emergency, you simply slipped your finger into the ring and ripped out the pin, thus breaking the seal, cocked your rifle and were ready to fire in seconds. A broken seal had to be noted in the Diensboek, together with the reasons. It was considered serious for a seal to be broken without good reason.
When all preparations were complete, you climbed into the back of the diensbakkie. You sat facing each other, rifle between your knees, barrel pointing upwards. The incoming hekwag rode in front with the guard commander, who was in principle a PF 2-striper with a one-striper as assistant – though conscript NCOs were also assigned these duties. The guards were posted one by one in their towers. The vehicle was driven along a dirt road outside the security fence. Each tower was surrounded by its own barbed-wire enclosure with a padlocked gate, which was opened to allow the guard to enter, then locked behind him. The most hated was Tower 5, which was much taller than the rest as a result of its strategic position, and visible from the waghuis. Needless to say, it was rumoured to be haunted by a troep who had shot himself there an unspecified number of years earlier. On the bakkie’s return, the hekwag was the last to be posted. At 18:00, the gates were locked, the depot isolated. The first beat had officially begun, and security was now under the control of the guard commander.
In towers you wore staaldak and webbing. You held your rifle at your side, kolf resting on the toe of your boot, and stood for the two hours of your beat. Sitting, reading and listening to music were not allowed. Blankets, even in winter, were verbode. If you were caught, you were punished). Climbing down out of the tower, even for a slash, was reckoned as dereliction of duty. And you didn’t dare do it down the inside of the tower, because if your relief took hold of a peed-upon ladder when he climbed up, you were in for a round of peer justice. You either peed outward over the edge or held it in until you came off your shift.
Theoretically you couldn’t smoke in the towers, since the burning coal gave the enemy a clear bead on your head, but most guys ignored this, making it a quick smoke, covering the cigarette with their hands when they pulled and watching out for the guard commander’s vehicle. After 2 hours, the next guard was posted, and you returned with the bakkie to the waghuis, where your magazines were handed in and the seals checked. This having been done, you were off for the next four hours until your following beat. In practice this meant 3-3½ hours, since the bakkie got back about 20-30 minutes after the beat had ended, and the guard commander woke you 30 minutes before the next was due to begin. You can understand why the standard phrase for guard duty in the SADF was “beat naai”.
At night, the slaapsaal was dark and silent. The returning rowers sometimes stood outside drinking from their fire-buckets, dunking dog-biscuits and talking for a while before hitting the sack. The ou manne always went straight to bed, to get as much sleep as possible. They knew that the shifts from 02:00-06:00 otherwise became, as we said in those days, heavy, man! We slept mostly on our sides, rifle held fast on the bed next to us, staaldak on an adjacent chair, webbing flung over its back. Our boots stood on the floor alongside, heels towards the bed, ready to be pulled on at a moment’s notice. Standing orders said we had to sleep in a minimum of uniform and socks.[1] The hard lessons of Basics had conditioned most of us to move instantly from sleep to action when we were woken. There was time to climb into your boots and equipment, have a slash and drink a lukewarm mug of foul SADF coffee, which tasted even more foul than usual from a hotbox in the wagkamer, before mounting the bakkie to be posted for the next beat.
I will never forget the wagkamer at 81 TSD: the slaapsaal’s atmosphere of restless exhaustion joined to a characteristic odour of sweaty uniforms and unwashed socks, none of which never seemed to leave it, as though it had seeped into the very bricks; the light from the guard room spilling through the door-frame across the feet of the sleeping figures; the surreal nocturnal surroundings of barbed wire and, in winter, mist under blazing floodlights; the loneliness of the hours after midnight. Of all my army experiences, this remains most vivid in my memory. There were much tougher things to contend with in the SADF. Most of these have faded. Guard duty, on the other hand, I can recall without any effort merely by closing my eyes. Please don’t ask me why; the human mind is a complex entity. Perhaps it is because I did so many extras.
Even now, I can see myself in the depths of the night, sleeping fitfully, half-roused from slumber by the guard commander gently waking the guys who are on the following beat; the muffled sounds as they struggle, only half-awake, into their kit and exit quietly; dozing again, being half-roused some time later by guys returning from beat, moving softly, wearily to their beds, trying not to wake the remaining eight of us. I can see myself, too, rising from a torrid, uneasy sleep, staggering, eyes stuck half-closed with mucus, through the guard room on socked feet on my way to the urinal, half-greeting the Corporal, who is sitting at his desk making entries in the Diensboek; taking a slash, coming back and drinking a mug of that filthy coffee, sharing a few words with the Corporal, then padding back to bed for another uneasy sleep, before being woken far too soon for the next beat, pulling on my boots, webbing and staaldak, picking up my rifle, feet dragging me, unwillingly, out into the freezing cold and dark to be posted in a God-forsaken concrete tower surrounded by barbed wire to stand shivering from 02:00 to 04:00 – a “little guy” of 18, alone and far from home, guarding his country’s secrets, longing only for those two endless hours to pass by so that he can get back to the warmth of that stuffy, malodorous guard room and sleep again. How we stared down the perimeter road as the end of our shift approached, willing those headlights that signalled relief to appear! Sorry if this all sounds a bit intense. But that’s how it really felt.
Some fellows did volunteer for wagdiens. There was usually an ulterior motive. It was most useful for getting out of something worse, like O.C.’s inspection or parades. It was quite hard for a roof to get wagdiens on first Friday, though; this was always overbooked by the ou manne. One guy volunteered for guard duty because his wife had found out he was two-timing her, and was coming to see him that week-end! He gyppoed towers for himself on both Saturday and Sunday which was, strictly speaking, illegal, since you had to have at least 24 hours’ break between guard duties. The poor woman apparently went up and waited outside the gates of the depot to get him when he came off beat. She couldn’t have succeeded, though, because the bakkie drove straight through the opened gate, which was immediately closed behind it. She would never have been let inside the perimeter, nor would he have been prepared to come down to the wire. She would have had to go back home empty-handed. I wonder how long the idiot thought he could evade her by such absurd means as this?
The guard commander and his assistant, theoretically, were both supposed to stay awake for the whole night, after which they were given the next day off. In practice, they split the shift at midnight and still took the day off. We troepies, on the other hand, marched bug-eyed off to work after a breakfast of powdered egg with (on lucky days) viennas chopped into it, soggy toast and more filthy coffee, brought up in hot boxes. On guard duty there were no varkpanne – we had to use our dixies.
I mentioned earlier that guard duty was taken seriously up at the depot, but there were occasional lapses there, too. Once, the relieving guard commander “forgot” to bring the keys with – it later turned out they had been misplaced! As a result, at each tower the guards had to cross in and out by throwing greatcoats across the barbed wire and climbing over while other guys lifted up the top strands. This was not pleasant, due to less than 100% protection against the barbs underneath the coat. I was one of the guys standing down on this occasion. It provided a neat bit of blackmail that kept this particular PF Corporal off our backs ever after. Needless to say, this incident did not appear in the Diensboek.
On another occasion, disaster fell upon the heads of the guard commander and his assistant as a result of a split-shift arrangement. They were supposed to prevent each other from sleeping during the night – that was one of the reasons why they both were supposed to stay awake. In practice, it was the hekwag who made sure that they were awake in time to post the relief. One freezing winter’s night in 1974 – I think it was about a month after I signed up for my second year – a treurige PF 2-striper known as “Sad Sack” was guard commander. I was on the 24:00-02:00 beat. It was so cold that not even multiple pairs of socks, balaclava, scarf and the thick old SADF greatcoat helped. I remember freezing my Brazils off as never before – and Lyttelton, lower down and in a hollow, was much colder than Voortrekkerhoogte. 02:00 came – no relief. So, too, 02:30, then 03:00.
Finally, at 03:30, headlights appeared on the track. When the diensbakkie arrived, it was the Lieutenant from the Tekbasis. Apparently Sad Sack, who was on the after-midnight “shift”, had fallen asleep in the office. So had the gate guard on the bench outside. The Lieutenant had received no reply when he phoned – Sad Sack could snore his way through a volcanic eruption – and so had decided to make a late (or rather, early) inspection tour. He had found the whole lot of them fast asleep. Sad Sack was bust a stripe, as was the PF lance-jack who was his assistant. The gate guard was given no more than extras – fortunately for him. But the rest of us on that shift hit the jackpot. Since we had stood 3½ hours in the freezing cold, we were given the next day off. Sure, we had paid a price for it. But what a joy to go back to camp instead of work, to eat a special late breakfast of fried eggs and bacon in place of the usual muck, then to sleep the best part of the day away in a soft, warm bed instead of working in an icy hangar up at the Depot. Ecstasy – and another small victory!

[1] Some guys actually slept with their boots on. While this might have been necessary on Border patrols, it was not required of guard duty within our base. I was never able to sleep satisfactorily while wearing boots.

9 comment(s) so far...


Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

I remember standing guard as a troepie too... in Potchefstroom at the School of Artillery in 1980. The beat I usually got was to guard the rows of Sextons (old 25-pounder guns on Sherman tank chassis) which were parked around the old parade ground. Sarel and I used to do it together... and one of could grab a quick snooze in a Sexton while the other did the rounds. Used to be so cold... Potch could get BLOODY cold at night in winter! I remember watching the gate guard fall backwards like a rigid lamppost in his greatcoat with his rifle in hand as he fell asleep one night... The Guard Commander also saw it, unfortunately for him! Fortunately I had only a few months of potential guard duty before I qualified and thereafter I was fortunate enough to be Officer On Duty and it was my job to ensure all the guard sections were alert and at their posts... A MUCH easier job, although the Officer On Duty could not sleep at all for the entire time (4 to 6 hours I seem to remember - it could have been the full 8 hours!), but at least I did not HAVE to remain out in the cold!

By Johan Schoeman on   2013/04/11 08:20 PM

Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

It was also better as NCO guard commander/deputy gc, Johan. You had to go out into the cold to post the guards, of course, but generally you could keep warm inside. Staying awake from 04:00-06:00 was always my personal little bit of purgatory - what the news anchor men call the lobster shift. I tended to stay awake all night simply because there were very few guys you could trust to stay awake while you were sleeping if you (illegally) split the shift - Sad Sack, for example! And there was always the next day off to look forward to. I regarded military guard duty in much the same way as I do exam invigilation today; long, slow hours of intense boredom, but it's got to be done.

By Phillip Vietri on   2013/08/09 10:36 PM

Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

Very entertaining reading all of this! Standing guard at 1SAI BN '81 was also freezing! The tents went white and the fire buckets froze up. The part where ur mouth was in ur balaclava used to b white with frost - charming. On top of guarding our basis, 1 SAI 1 PARA 1 SSB and PANTSER SKOOL all had to supply guards for 7 BKD as well.
Whenever there werent enough guards, rumour would fly around the base that the Wagbev would have his clipboard and was coming to tree aan wagte - u ve never seen guys climb into a bungalow roof so quickly! NDP s instantly gained the ability to fly! Or we d run. Bungalows would empty in seconds!
I ll never forget how we laughed when at the start of our second year, we were tree d aan, and a squad of roofs were tree d aan quite close to us. We heard their NCO say "Wie will wagstaan vanaand"? Immedietly all the roofs put up their hands much to our amusement, even their 2 liner turned to us and grinned, they still had a serious lesson to learn, haha!

By Ian on   2013/09/08 04:11 PM

Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

Thanks, Ian. Good story about the rowers. Poor guys; definitely a case where ignorance is not bliss!

By The Ancient Armourer on   2013/09/09 07:01 PM

Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

Can remember guard duty at 1 SSB - hated it more than opfoks. Then the freezing cold at the general De Wet shooting ground stores in Bloemfontein - wind howling, etc. And the strongest louts always chose the best hours, and I was not the strongest one. Very uncomradely on the border, same happened there, I must say.

When we came from the border, we were posted to Tech base (TDK - Tegniese Diens Korps) in Pretoria for a while. Very boring, greasing noddy cars all day long and some of us ramping some of the chasis without turrets. There we did guard duty every second night.

Some used this opportunity at TDK to steal diesel at a unprecedented rate. As far as I know it was not armour, but other units, but it is too long ago for me to remember exactly who. But some individuals bragged about it. This theft by some of our fellow-troops is a whole separate chapter, and dishonorable one on its own. They should have made an example of one or two like in the old Wehrmacht (as my late dad told me) - nothing was allowed to be locked, and if they caught you, you were shot or send to a punishment battalion, which was as good as suicide (mine lifting, first at the front, etc.). Theft was considered at undermining the defense capability of your comrade, it could lead to his death.

By German volunteer on   2013/09/15 06:59 PM

Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

Hi, German volunteer. Where were you at Tekbasis? 81TSD LWT? 61BWS? And what years? (I was there 74-75.)

By The Ancient Armourer on   2013/09/17 04:02 PM

Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

I was a bit later, so you are my senior :-)

If I remember correctly:

August 1980 (thats the date on my pro patria medal certificate) I returned from the border. Someone told me my bed was on the exact place where the red eye dropped one year before and killed 10 pantser troops in Katima base. When I returned, our replacement, it was A or C squadron, had a corporal shot while he was tanning on his noddy car during patrol (read about it afterward in the Scope magazine). He apparently believed that the malaria pills prevented one to tan, but that must have been a rumour, for I tanned myself as brown as a native over there.

Then some time afterward on returning from the border we were posted to TDK (don't ask me why, I recon it was a light-duty job to keep us busy, and busy we were - endless guard duty and greasing noddy cars until the cows came home), and stayed there just before clearing out for national service (posted back to Bloem the last month or so).

I cannot remember the unit name anymore, but you go past it when you drive from Valhalla past the Swartkops airbase on the Snake Valley Rd., direction Lyttleton Manor. When you drive past the entrance gates, there are flats on the left, those were our bungalows. I think today it has become some kind of technical college.

One outstanding thing I rember was that the mess had lovely cold pink milk for lunch, and much better food than the mess hall back in Bloem :-)

I was quite fit in those days (still am, ran 53 km the other day but my speed is a bit slower, age starts showing), ran 10 km each day and then still went 1 hour to the gym afterward. And I remember distinctly 1L of milk was 50 cents and 1L of Liquifruit also 50 cents, since after running I bought both and gobbled it down - lovely refreshing.

Man, back in those days life still was affordable, despite the lowly NSM troop pay (R106 / month, if I remember correctly, and something like R5 towards some kind of canteen savings fund). Bit more money on the border for danger pay, but I forgot how much.

What a life - we were looked well after, no comparison for today where so many people have to survive in squattercamps. 3 Meals a day, a roof over your head, job security, less danger than today in Gangsters Paradise where I nearly was shot in 2008 during a burglary in Alberton (next stop on the visiting list was my Rhodesian neighbour, shot through his knees, and his mum with a shotgun through the glassdoor through her stomach - both survived). I tell you today the army would run out of pro patria medals for all the nonsense the average citizens has to contend with.

By German volunteer on   2013/09/17 09:23 PM

Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

If I have followed directions, GV, you are referring to the Tekbasis. Is was base camp for 81TSD and 61BWS, and there was a signals regiment there. The Mess was a yellow brick building. Just across the road was MMI, within which was the army mainframe computer where 81TSD G4s did guard duty.

By The Ancient Armourer on   2013/11/24 04:11 PM

Re: Guard Duty at 81TSD

Thank you for this post. Keep it up. Hope to read more post from you guys.Wendy

By Cindy on   2015/11/19 05:18 PM

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Re: An SADF Conscript Remembers the Early 70s – Part One
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