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Jun 23

Written by: Tony Savides
2015/06/23 03:45 PM  RssIcon

Looking at National Service from a PF point of view...

I’m rather new to this blogging business; just as I was very new to the SADF when, as a very young volunteer recruit (just before my 17th birthday), I reported at the Army Gymnasium in Voortrekkerhoogte in early January 1962. If I recall correctly, this was immediately prior to the advent of National Service (9 months back then) and I actually received my call-up papers while at the Gym. Just to make sure that I gave the powers-that-be a real toffee for calling me up when I was already serving, I joined the Permanent Force in December of that year – actually reporting for duty as a brand new Assistant Fieldcornet (2 Lt) in January 1963.
Some may ask “so what?” and even “what has this to do with Warinangola?”
Well, right from the start let me say that this is NOT about a view of the war in Angola from the enemy’s perspective; not even from that of those who opposed the SADF action or even national service conscription itself. It is about a view of national service from “the other side”.
It has often struck me that, on web sites such as this and on Facebook, we are regularly entertained with stories of national service (and how good, bad, indifferent, funny, terrifying or even exciting this experience was) with many a reference to the “Pee-effs” who ruled the roost. Yet, while, we are always looking for the “other side” of just about every other story we come across in whatever fields, there is scant referral to what the PFs might have thought of national service, or how they experienced it. Maybe I can help to give some insight into this.
Everyone (I know that’s a very broad statement) seems to think that the PFs were having a whale of a time and that national service was to them a gift from the Gods of Persecution and Despotism – without bothering to hear what they (the PFs) have to say about this. Now, I’m of Greek extraction but know not whether such gods actually exist, but for those who think that it was all fun and games for us and that we enjoyed looking after Mev Poggenpoel se oogappeltjie, Mr Smith’s pride and joy, Mnr Van Tonder se blue-eyed boytjie or Mrs Simpson’s surfer dude (of whom she was gladly rid for 9, 12 or 24 months depending on timing); let me tell you that it was hard work for us too – especially the NCOs at the proverbial coal face!
Of course, I have no mandate to speak on behalf of the then SADF, the SA Army, or even other members of the PF; so it must be clearly understood that the opinions, views, recollections and statements in this series are mine and mine alone and do not necessarily coincide with those of anyone else or any organisation – let alone carry anyone else’s approval. If anyone has views that differ from mine that’s OK – because if everyone had the same likes and dislikes and opinions, just think how boring life would be! Also, as national service back then was an all-male affair, I refer generally to the male of the species in this series; obviously though, where it would be appropriate to refer to or include the fairer sex, please accept that this is so intended.
Now, for the sake of certain very recent authors (and, it would seem self-appointed commentators on matters military in general) – who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this discussion – I wish to state that Soldiering to many, if not most, of us in the PF was a calling and not merely a job that we sought because we were “not good enough for anything else”. We were good enough to instil in them the knowledge and expertise to bring them through hardships and travails of the battlefield with flying colours - and even for them to make money by writing of those experiences - but do they really think that we were only in the PF because we were not good enough to hold down some obscure job on Civvy Street? Quite some indictment; yet each to his own opinion I suppose – however misguided and, in this case, incorrect.
Of course, as with any profession the PF too had its duds, miscreants and bullies; but to simply cover everyone under the same cloak is disingenuous at best and downright insulting at worst; and my usual response to such drivel is “ag shame!” But perhaps one should expand a bit on this.
I’m reminded of a quotation, said to be from ”The Marauders” by Charlton Ogburn (although I have read this book and cannot find this passage); and one that so impressed my good friend and colleague the late David (Archie) Moore that when he was OC 1 Para Bn, he had the passage suitably displayed on a large board in the unit. The passage, titled “The Thanksgiving of the Professional” reads as follows:

I have never ceased to give thanks that life, whatever else it might have in store for me, has brought me not as a mere traveller but as a soldier into this world.
Wherever we go we often encounter hostility. The eyes that meet ours are often sullen with a consciousness of grievance and hurt.
Even the salesmen, the porters and the others who cheat us and harry us, resent us.
But none of it bothers us.
It is not we, but they who are the newcomers, the interlopers, the transients. We know it and they know it.
We belong to that which is older than any nation.
We are the Greeks, the Romans, the Moguls, the Tartars, the Aryans and the Dravidians.
We go back to the beginning of history. We are the beginning of history.
We are the soldiery.


 Stirling words and sentiments indeed; and perhaps not always fully appreciated by or conformed to by all who call themselves professional soldiers – more of this later. Professional soldiering is, of course not the domain of only those who make a career of it. There are countless others who, by circumstances beyond their control (such as national service conscription) were thrust into the Soldiery and who today would claim, proudly and in my opinion, justifiably, that they too are part of the elite band of whom the author of that passage wrote. I see professional soldiers as those who execute the art of Soldiering in the most militarily-professional manner (permanently as a career, for only a portion of their lives or even intermittently). Career Soldiers are those who do so for a living and who should always strive to be professional - but on the battlefield and in combat there can be no distinction between career and “part-time” soldiers.
Archie Moore and I first came across the above passage when, as PF captains, we were students on the SA Army’s Command and Staff course way back in 1972.
Now that fact alone may astound some – the fact, that is, that PFs actually had the mental and physical abilities to attend formal courses!
No, there was no “Swearing 101” or “Torture – Physical 101” or “Sadism – higher grade” or “101 ways to torture a recruit with a sandbag/ammo box/spare wheel/tow bar or other readily available items of military equipment”. It was a hard slog from Basics through specialisation, weapons training, tactics and a host of others over a period of several years; and, if anything, it laid the foundation and perhaps even the standards for what would later commonly be referred to as rondfoks and opfoks. (I pray forgiveness for using these terms: firstly because of their crudeness and, secondly, because they just do not translate very effectively!)
As an infantryman, I know that every major, sergeant-major or senior NCO by the time they reached these ranks (and when NSM had the pleasure of meeting them) had qualified on some six to eight different courses, including at least two battalion support weapons courses (mortars and anti-tank) where they did all the hard stuff with nary a NSM or “troep” to carry, clean, stow or fire the weapons concerned. Those of us of older vintage would also have sweated through the Vickers medium machine gun course and both 3-inch and 81mm mortars – and we did our anti-tank training on the 6-pounder anti-tank gun (no, it was not a muzzle-loader!) Now, for those ex-NSM who think that a Ratel wheel or tow bar as a ready-made instrument of torture, try a six-pounder gun or a Vickers MMG (especially one still very hot from long periods of firing)!
And should one, as an officer, have had the pleasure of being on such courses together with NCOs, one was expected to do everything the others did - as if all were of one, similar rank. All were subjected to the same
instructions, every ensuing activity and every “extra activity” (read opfok) that might have occurred. The most an officer might have expected was a begrudging “sir!” after a curt “are you fucking deaf?”
And, “sien jy daardie boom?” – where the heck did you think that idea originated? During your own personal basics? Forget it! It’s as old as soldiering itself. In Shakespeare’s time it was probably “See-eth thou yonder tree on yon horizon? Proceed thereto in haste forthwith and pluck for me a tender leaf!” - while your instructor would probably have just screamed “sien jy daai fokken boom op die fokken horison? Gaan pluk vir my ‘n fokken blaar daarvan!” On PF courses it soon became much more subtle: just “- Boom - gaan!”- and we’d fill in the blanks ourselves! And all the subtle little tricks and short cuts that are shared, taught, learnt and passed on during initial training (especially the more devious ones); were they the product of national service? One would only think so but only if one had never seen a bunch of seasoned PF officers, WOs and NCOs on a course together where a fellow Officer, WO or NCO would have to try and control them!
OK, so we didn’t give names to everything; we didn’t have opfoks and rondfoks – well, actually we did – but we just didn’t give them names or titles; as that would have given the instructors more status and yet another stick with which to hassle us. And “punishment” was far more subtle. We all remember “Staff Mackintosh” whose 6-pounder was named “Jenny”; Mack was extremely well-spoken and could politely (as is often the case with English speakers) send one to Hell with such a turn of phrase that (to borrow someone else’s saying) we would actually look forward to the journey. There was no “om die boom – gaan!” – rather a very polite “Gentlemen, Jenny would like to see what’s behind that tree” or “Gentlemen, let’s take Jenny to tea” (or lunch, or back to her hanger). For those with a penchant for grammar, you would know that “let’s” actually means “let us” – but “us” in this particular case meant “you miserable lot (Sir)!”
Courses, training exercises and border duty and generally long periods away from home, were a way of life with the PF; many of whom spent several weeks every year anywhere from the various training institutions and training areas in the RSA to the Operational Area. Courses usually ranged from three to six weeks with six months and a year on some. Most PFs will readily admit that their wives not only ran their households, but also the family finances, gardens, D.I.Y and everything else that needed a hands-on, non-absentee capability. And then there were the inter-unit transfers! For some inexplicable reason, the powers-that-be at the time thought that two years at any one place was sufficient for any PF member (and thus for his family too). One comment doing the rounds was that one could recognise a PF family by its broken furniture (from so many moves) and its dumb kids (from them having to attend up to six or more different schools during their school careers). Thankfully though, furniture in those days was solid and held up quite well while the wives and kids were more resilient than that so that, not at all surprisingly, most kids adapted and fared exceptionally well. Fortunately, most transfers were effected at the end of the calendar year, giving time for the family to settle in before the new school year and the next incoming NSM intake. Nevertheless, when a bunch of new conscripts arrived they were unaware that some of their staff members were almost as new to the unit as they were. Oh, and not every PF family so transferred had the fortune to be allocated a state-owned house of flat at reasonable rental; many had to find and pay for their own accommodation – but for a career soldier that was a small price to pay.
A very good “case in point” of how a young PF members fared back then would be that of Ep Van Lill, known to many NSM at 1 SAI and to most Bush War veterans as OC 61 Mech Bn Gp during Operation Askari in 1983/84; but how did he get there? I’m sure that Ep won’t mind me sharing this with others: He completed his instructor’s course at the Infantry School at the end of 1964 and reported directly to 1 SAI as a Riflemen; soon promoted to L/Cpl “for messing purposes only.” He then served at 1 Para Bn, TS Trg Cen, 1 SAI (again), the Directorate of Military Intelligence, 1 SAI (again but until the end of 1983 when he took command of 61 Mech. In-between all of this was a myriad of qualification, promotion and officer courses – and marrying and raising a family. Interestingly, Ep served at 1 SAI in every rank from Rfn to L/Cpl, Kpl, Lt, Capt, Maj and Cmdt. His introduction to mechanised infantry was at 1 SAI when it was still at Oudtshoorn and when it moved to Bloemfontein. His mech experience was initially on Saracens; but this was a bit of a washout), and then, after attending the first mech inf course at the Infantry School in 1975, on Ratels; following which he was linked to Ratel and mech as if by an umbilical cord.
Yes, believe it or not, we all went through a similar cycle. “Basics” was not reserved for NSM; and believe you me, if you thought that being a NSM conscript during basics under some arrogant young NCO was bad, ask any of the old guard (including Ep) to tell you about “Instructors Part 1” under the crusty old buggers who, seemingly, saw it as their task to deter as many of the young PF volunteers as possible from actually becoming PF instructors; or candidate officer training where, as one corporal (rather un-subtly) put it, “Jy is laer as slangkak se skaduwee op die seebodem!”
“Choice” language? Some of the crude stuff brought in by the “younger generation” pales into banal insignificance when compared with the legendary utterings of a sergeant-major or staff sergeant who had cut his teeth on the pearls of wisdom uttered by the legendary Piet Bliksem (Smit), Frederick George Fucking Crumpton, Tyrebek Calmeyer, Jan Vakansie (Holliday) GA Erasmus and many others; followed by the newer generation of Jack Pearce, Monty Mountjoy, JPB Venter, the Röhrbeck brothers, WC Barnard, Johan Stone, HG Smit, Eugene Wiese and others of whom the NSM of the 1970s and 1980s (and even their NCOs and young officers of the time) lived in fear.
Speaking of which, I have always had great respect for junior NCOs in the PF. If NSM thought they “had it bad” junior NCOs were everyone’s prey. The RSM ate them for breakfast and then spat them out for other WOs and senior NCOs to regurgitate; they stood inspection at their quarters as much as the NSM did but to a far stricter standard and often at ungodly hours to accommodate their scores of other tasks. They were expected to always be neat and tidy on their persons and in their quarters and to be first in the unit lines in the morning and last out at night. How they coped, only they will know; but the end product was in most cases truly professional soldiers; many of whom rose through the ranks to become WOs whilst others later took on the additional challenge of becoming officers. Their one saving grace as junior NCOs was, perhaps, that officers, including the OC, treated them somewhat as “Royal Game” to be preyed on only by the RSM and his fellow WOs and the senior NCOs. Unfortunately for them though, there were usually also officers in the unit who had once been junior NCOs and who also appreciated that opfok and rondfok should be part of the lives of this new breed too! Being volunteers rather than conscripts, junior NCOs also had less armour protection than NSM rendering them easier prey; but fortunately with (a few) other perks that NSM might not have had. If NSM and junior PF NCOs ever got on well, it was because they often had a common enemy!

5 comment(s) so far...



Thank you for posing this entry, Tony! I hope it will be the first of many! Reading this reminded me so much of my own predicament of being PF while on Gunnery Course at the much feared Gunnery Wing ("Skietkuns Vleuel") at the School of Artillery in Potchefstroom in 1980.
I was one of two PFs (of about 25) selected to do the Gun Post Officer's course and promoted to the most honourable rank of "Candidate Officer"! I am SURE you know what this means to a young 18 year old that had decided to make a career out the army... While I knew we were going to face some REALLY hard times and "opfoks", little did I realise how much animosity the two of us would face during especially this phase of our training. The reason was simple, we were the only two PFs and bundled in with about 30-odd National Servicemen (also COs), who really did not seem to like either one of us as they thought us CRAZY to have joined up PF! So while this was bad enough, knowing your "buddies" all hate you, there was a lot more we had to cope with... the junior leaders at Gunnery Wing were practically all NSM... and ALSO HATED us for that very same reason! Even the senior NCO's, the two sergeant-majors especially, absolutley despised us! After all, after we finished that course sucessfully we would be promoted to 2Lt, and after spending less than a year in the army, be "senior" to them despite their 10 or 15 years of service! I remember SM "Sampie" Claassen, who was a LOT shorter than I was (I was 6'1"), would stand very close to me and look up into my face and snarl "Over my DEAD BODY will I ever allow you to become a damn officer!" I was sure I would be found dead somewhere on the shooting range - we were VERY intimidated by this little man, I must confess. Any gunner will tell you about him.... a true MASTER GUNNER, and a FIRE EATER!
Anyway, to make this very long story a bit shorter, somehow I survived the ordeal at that terrible place and became the only PF gunnery officer for that year {I KNOW NOT HOW OR WHY!], but I think the more senior officers of the wing had something to do with it.
The amazing thing was that SM Claassen came up to me immediately after I got promoted to 2Lt, smartly came to attention, saluted, and was the VERY first person to congratulate me on my commission! You could knock me down with a feather! I have SO MUCH RESPECT for that man!
Surviving that course really prepared me for dealing with practically any situation where interaction between PFs and NSM were called for, as it gave me the THICK SKIN that to this day help me cope with bad situations!

By SuperUser Account on   2015/06/24 02:11 AM


"Hate" is a very strong word; and yet, how many kids have said "my Mom/Dad hates me"? Towards the end of any training period NSM and PFs would have become aware that the "hate" was what made them endure; and that in the end it was not hate at all but a type of (I shudder to say this) "Fatherly Love"! I think that I address this in some of my entries, the next of which follows soon. Every course or intake had its particular "baddie", some of whom were really bad whilst others just had this façade. The question was always to what degree does this façade hide true professionalism?

By Tony Savides on   2015/06/24 08:58 AM


Let me write from the perspective of the child of a german immigrant, who perhaps as an outsider can cast a neutral perspective, and later met senior officers when I myself turned senior in years and by civilian occupation.

I did not hold any rank as a national serviceman or camper, and I never experienced any mistreatment from any officer. Nor from any NCO exept one, but that was not an instructor, it was just a person in charge of the infantry support which accompanied our armoured cars. He did not undergo any NCO nor instructors course (JL's), he just received rank because he was in charge of the support troops. The same with some of our armoured car commanders. The corporals who got rank through JL's (junior leaders course) were of a different caliber.

There were some corporals that got demoted, and where hated, but my experience was that it also was a two-way relationship. I did not challenge their authority, I tried to act sensible and educated, and tried not to act childish, and perhaps that caused that I was treated in that manner by people of rank. I went through pretty gruelling punishment PT, but if I, back then a 63kg shorty in my puberty years, could make it, most other person could have made it.

In contrast I have seen on youtube and read some narratives what army life was for troops in the soviet and eastern germany armees - boy was I glad that I wasn't there! That was pure psychological terror, there was extreme racism between the different nationalities that made up the soviet army. I saw on youtube how some of them were beaten to pulp. I read how some east german troops were treated like dirt in a manner that even the new South African army perhaps has not yet descended to.

When things bothered my about the army, it wasn't usually the rank. It was the attitude of some of my fellow troops (during basics some told me I was an idiot to join voluntarily), and the fact that most of the time we were not deployed in action, but just sat around awaiting the end of national service idling around ambitiousless.

When I had to do military camps later on, I thought of all the politicians and decision makers of that era, the military were still the most sober about the situation. But by then I lost my enthusiasm for the whole system, not because I suddenly saw that light that we were defending "Apartheid" and similar bull being sold today by highly qualified academics like Gary Baines from Rhodes university (who himself was a conscript, so he should know better), but because I could see not sense anymore to put ones life on the altar, while behind our backs the very politicians in charge of the country were acting contrary to that we were fighting for.

To put it bluntly - they were selling us out, thus double-crossing our war effort.

Genl. Savides, we never have met, but please enjoy your well deserved pension!

By German volunteer on   2015/10/16 11:20 AM


H iHerr German Volunteer

Firstly, thanks for your response and, especially, for your service!

National Service was pretty much what each individual made it to be John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach once said: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

Of course, campers had a different perspective having seen combat, marriage, the birth of their kids, studies, jobs, etc (or all of the above) - plus, as the years passed, the added advantage of hindsight and the maturity of years.

When I look back on the 80s, I ask myself "what would have happened" or "what would things have been like today had we not done those things?" and then I feel quite contented - but then again, I did not suffer as some did.

By Tony Savides on   2015/10/16 03:10 PM


H iHerr German Volunteer

Firstly, thanks for your response and, especially, for your service!

National Service was pretty much what each individual made it to be John Wooden, the famous UCLA basketball coach once said: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

Of course, campers had a different perspective having seen combat, marriage, the birth of their kids, studies, jobs, etc (or all of the above) - plus, as the years passed, the added advantage of hindsight and the maturity of years.

When I look back on the 80s, I ask myself "what would have happened" or "what would things have been like today had we not done those things?" and then I feel quite contented - but then again, I did not suffer as some did.

By Tony Savides on   2015/10/16 03:11 PM

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