Today Sunday 1st April 2012 is exactly, to the day, 50 years since a group of between 200 to 300 Durban boys left Durban Station en route to Bloemfontein to start our 9 months Active Citizen Force Training. We were headed for 1 Special Services Battalion (1 SSB) Training Regiment. We were not the first intake as three months previously the very first contingent of ballotees had set off. We were eventually to meet up with some of that group at 5 SAI Bn Ladysmith (KZN) when we had completed our basic training and they were into their last 3 months of service.
I started writing up a screed describing the highs and lows of “going to the Army” but it was ending up like a personal blog. As this site is about Durban, I therefore have tried to limit it to the run up and to that night that I and all the others left Durban on what was to be a nine month sojourn and interesting life experience. I hope my reminiscences bring back memories for those who were there.
The whole “going to the Army” saga started in the mid 1950s when the Defence Act of 1957, proposed that the then system of random ballotees being called up to do military service for a short 3 month period would be replaced by all able bodied young men being called up for a continuous 9 month service period initially followed by a period on reserve of 3 years 3 months making up 4 years. Whilst on reserve it was necessary to undergo military camps which lasted a month. All boys on reaching the age of 16 would have to register for military service at any police station.
In August 1959, I reached 16 and duly went to the Smith Street Police Station where I filled in the appropriate form. The Smith Street Police Station was virtually diagonally opposite Greenacres Passage and originally was a Boys School. It still stands today, rather forlorn and neglected but obviously a protected building because of its age. Still at school at the time the thought of going to the Army was still far away and as it was, the Government had yet to indicate in which year the new rules would kick in. In January 1960 I received acknowledgement from Natal Command that my registration had been received.
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I cannot recall exactly when the undated cardbelow arrived but it must have been early in 1961. It made one realise that things were moving on and that some time in 1962, the “going to the Army” would be a reality.
The next thing to happen would be the medical examination as the card indicated. I did not retain the actual paperwork that advised me of the order to attend a medical examination but do remember the event took place in the evening round about mid 1961. The venue was the Drill Hall in Old Fort Road close to the City Engineers’ building. The Drill Hall still stands today but is now allocated to a specific regiment whereas in those days it was a general SADF property.
That mid week evening medical turned out to be a real eye opener. Arriving in what I thought was in good time for the “event”, I found that a large crowd of young men were already there so it was just a matter of getting into the queue. Outside there was much banter and joviality as the guys, I suppose with some trepidation, slowly moved forward. In the Drill Hall itself you registered and then you were given a roneo-ed piece of paper on which was listed the various examinations one would undergo. The idea was you moved from one examination to another with the doctor completing the form as to what he found. You saw plenty of your mates in the queue and this was the first time one realised that going to the army was becoming a reality. I am trying to remember the various tests that were carried and can only recall the following. Blood pressure, eye test, listening to the chest whilst coughing, a urine test and a general reporting if you had any maladies such as diabetes, kidney problems, major operations, asthma, eye problems or anything which would disqualify you from doing your army stint. What had been organised was that in the grounds of the drill hall, army tents had been set up and one filed through each tent in order in a sausage machine like fashion. Generally the whole process went off relatively well although on reflection it was a very cursory examination. There was only one bottleneck and that was the urine test. Now one must imagine all these relatively healthy young men having to move slowly through the process which took time and patience. So when Nature calls, Nature calls. Some of the guys had already relieved themselves in the drill hall grounds as they “just had to go” and now they were coming up to the urine test. This was where the chaos came about. Outside the tent were some young medics from Natal Command who were stationed at a long table that had empty bottles by the hundred. From Eye Gene size bottles, to pill bottles, to jam jars. You were given a random bottle, told to go behind the tent, supply a specimen and return with it. Well behind the tent it was classic. Those desperate to go and given pill bottles had no chance in hell of stopping the flow so one can well imagine the result. Others just could not deliver so nonchantilly they asked others to “fill their bottle” as well! Some given jam jars were walking back with the bottle filled to the brim. It actually was hilarious thinking back. When my turn came I was also desperate to “go”. I soon had my specimen and then joined the rest of the guys either watering the grass or the guy’s shoes next to me or helping someone else out. One must remember it was dark by now and there was only limited light as no outside lighting had been erected bar what was in the tents. Then it was back into the tent with your specimen where it was tested with a test strip which if it changed colour that was noted. An experience I will never forget. The other, to an extent, farcical test, was the eye test. The queue stood the required distance away from the alphabetic test card we all know. Coming to the head of the queue one had to take the left hand and place it over the left eye and read so many rows of letters with the right eye. Then you did the same with the right hand, testing the left eye. Well with all the neck craning going on to see what was happening, the recitation of the letters became a mantra. Those who got stuck were merely prompted by the guy behind him. I recall that when I was leaving at the end of all of this, I met up with a school friend who I knew well and who I knew was partially blind in his one eye. I asked him how he did in the eye test and he said he had no problem. I was amazed as I asked about his “bad” eye. “No problem” he said “when they asked me to blank off the one eye I merely blanked the bad eye with the left hand. When asked to swap over I merely changed hands over the bad eye and read using the good eye twice. They did not pick it up!”.
The dreaded DD 2067 which confirmed that I was called up. The Durban Regiment meant nothing to me at the time. Did not even know it existed.
In November 1961 just as the Matric exams were upon us, I received the dreaded DD 2067 Card. Yep, I was called up, posted to the Durban Regiment, a unit I had not heard of and I was due to start training on 2nd April 1962. Mercifully, the April call up for those of us matriculating in 1961 gave us a 3 months breather but for those called up in the January intake, it became a matter of making decisions fast especially about study or seeking work. If one wanted to study at University one had to enrol and then start the process of asking the military for exemption failing which you could leave your Varsity studies till you completed your military. A snag arose though in that if you were called up in July you could end up wasting 2 years because the nine months could overlap two university years. Seeking work immediately had its attractions but it left you little time to look at various fields unless you were set in following a particular field as I was. Signing up with an employer usually meant a long term contract so it had its drawbacks as well.
In those days, finding work was not that difficult. One must remember that on attaining Standard 8 (Grade 10) one could leave school with what was called a school leaving certificate. Most apprenticeships did not require a Matric pass so those who felt so inclined left school to take up an apprenticeship in one of the trades which normally took 5 years. Those carrying on to Matric had a choice of going to Varsity, one required a Matric Exemption pass, or doing extra mural studies towards a diploma, the only source of which, was the Natal Technical College. This was “Night School” run by the old Technical College, bottom of West Street, where young people would spend their day at work and then after 5 pm report to the Tech for night classes. Engineering and Accountancy subjects were the most popular.
I am mentioning this because with the call up for military service looming, it was obvious that many would have their “careers” interrupted for 9 months. Some would seek work immediately after leaving school before being drafted. The reason was that once employed you were entitled to receive your full pay for the duration you were doing your bit for the country. It certainly was an attraction to benefit by the accumulation of 9 month’s salary whilst the Defence Force looked after you. I was one of those and was recruited by the then Dept. of Posts and Telegraphs as a Pupil Telecommunication Technician in December 1961, although my Matric results were still pending.
The “going to the Army” had introduced a different dynamic and all of a sudden we were all faced with this dilemma. For some the dilemma was of a different nature. There arose the Conscientious Objectors group who vowed not to undergo military training, there were those who knew they would not be able to stand the rigours of army training and of course those whose lives would be turned upside down what with young wives and families to worry about. One does not realise that for many “going to the Army” was going to raise many problems.
Then the dreaded day loomed on the horizon. I remember being phoned by school friends as to what I had heard, what I was taking along with me, any tips etc. We were all heading into the unknown. I recall my Mother fearing for my welfare but there was nothing any of us could really do about it but grin and bear it and look at it as a kind of adventure. On a personal level I had been taking out a girl for some months now and we were, as the saying went, “going steady”. She was still at school then and the idea of being parted distressed us both. Young Love, First Love all that sort of thing. We vowed we would see it through. I am sure all the reassurances we gave each other were being repeated by many young men and their girl friends at the time.
Sunday, 1st of April dawned and according to the instruction sheet which I have lost, it was a matter of reporting to Durban Station at about 6 pm in the evening in your civvies. I recall the instruction said that a minimum of civilian clothing was to be brought along as a full complement of army clothing would be supplied. It was advised that no suitcases be brought along. No liquor was allowed on the train. One had to bring a basic toilet kit along with shaving gear. I recall having a small kit bag and along with the basic underwear, a jersey, a pair of shorts, a towel, had included an electric iron, a torch, some rags, a tin of Brasso and Silvo, brown boot polish and shoe brush, some biscuits, a writing pad, ball point pens, envelopes and postage stamps. My Mother insisted that I take handkerchiefs! Oh yes, we were advised to bring any sport equipment, so I included my soccer boots.
That evening, my brother in law and sister arrived early and along with my Mother we spoke of what lay ahead. My Mother’s continual advice was to be careful, to look after myself, to write often and to phone if possible when I arrived at the camp. Then it was time to go. The four of us were soon on or way to the station. My girlfriend and her family were to meet us there.
On getting to the Station, there was a large crowd as to be expected. We walked up the ramp leading into the station in Soldier’s Way to find that the troop train was already there. The train was lined up at the furthest platform in the main concourse. Normally these platforms were used for suburban trains but being wide and with the adjacent concourse as extra space, the authorities felt it suited the need. There was a fair amount of military personnel around and conspicuous with their red arm bands marked MP were the Military Police who seemed to be the main organisers.
There was a general hubbub and milling around. I remember my main concern was looking for my girlfriend and her family to arrive. Eventually she did, teary eyed and both of us rather emotional. The two mothers spoke about what lay ahead for me and my girlfriend’s mother was also dreading the fact that her son had also been called up but later in the year. Just then my Mother called out to someone she knew and it happened to be Jimmy Hutton who was a newspaper photographer. He was there to take photos. She approached him and asked him to take a photo of me when I had boarded the train. Soon there was some barking from the Military Police for all the ballotees to board the train. This erupted into a mass hugging, kissing, crying, shaking hands, back patting frenzy. One last fervent kiss from the girl friend, the unclasping of our clammy hands and it was all aboard.
There was no order of occupation of compartments, generally a free for all. At this point it was more a matter of getting to the compartment window. I got to the window, surrounded by others whom I did not know from a bar of soap. Then Jimmy put his camera up, we all smiled and he snapped the shot. Sadly my family as well as that of my girlfriend were not in the picture as it was meant to be. Soon thereafter, the engine driver gave the train the customary short jerk to indicate that the train was about to leave. There was a sudden rush towards the train for the last touch, last kiss ritual. The train conductor raised his green flag and the train jerked again and ever so slowly moved slightly forward. We were on our way.
But not so. The train must have moved barely a few feet forward when pandemonium broke out with the train conductor hastily raising and waving his red flag on high furiously. The train came to an abrupt halt. The Military Police hastily descended back onto the platform and there was much blowing of whistles. Somebody had uncoupled the last three coaches. One can well imagine the reaction of the crowd. Hilarity from the families, indignation from the Military and the Railway personnel. Obviously on board the train there were some railway staff who knew the procedure of how to uncouple a train and disconnect the brake hoses as well. It could only have been someone who knew what to do. The train went into reverse, the train was recoupled and the green flag procedure was repeated. This time we were on our way.
With much neck craning and last waving, we emerged out of the station into the dark of night, Durban’s down town city lights lighting the scene. We were heading for our rendezvous at Pietermaritzburg Station with the boys from the Midlands who were waiting to be picked up and then another at Ladysmith where the final pick up was made. The next day we would be in Bloemfontein facing the unknown.
To write the whole saga as I said would be a personal blog. There are so many tales to tell enough to fill a book. Maybe one day.
Jimmy Hutton’s picture that appeared in the press the next day. From right to left are Clive Renault, myself, Mike Mommsen, Barry Gordge, Rob Pilkington obscured, and my army buddy to be, CJ “Boetie” van Staden. He lived at 88 Stableford Road on the Bluff. A real character, dare devil supremo. When that picture was taken all of us pictured were complete strangers to one another. Boetie and I met on the train and we teamed up. We stayed together the whole nine months. I wonder where he is today.
Unfortunately Jimmy Hutton got the plot wrong, my family and my girl friend and her family were supposed to be in the picture but it worked out it was Clive’s family that made it. Jimmy also got the caption wrong and I have checked on the internet, it was Sunday not Saturday. Also shown is the small tag that was posted on the train exterior near the window.
The card pinned to the shelf above your bed. It was a quick method to ID who “lived” there bearing in mind that going AWOL was a serious offence and with passes being given out one had to be back in camp within the time limits. Part of the idea of the religion being stated was that the various ministers would have church services in the camp. So when the Catholic priest came and said the occasional Mass on Sundays it was expected that all the Catholics attended. The Bungalow Corporals would see to it that you did attend. Unfortunately the Dutch Reformed dominee was there every Sunday so all the DRC chaps had to attend. If there was no church service for you you could have lie in. My army buddy Boetie van Staden, a DRC would swop his and my card on Sundays I went to Mass, so that he could opt of going to the DRC service!
My original list of the army kit issued. It is dated 2/4/62 but was actually issued about a week later than that as some of the kit had not arrived from the suppliers.
My bed alongside the late Eddie Akal’s ready for inspection April 1962. The toilet goods in the front were non used spares only brought out for inspections, Pillows were “squared” and everyone in the bungalow had to scrounge the planks off apple boxes when apples were given out at lunch. Note the World War 2 webbing as the SADF had yet to change the uniform.To get everything lined up we used a long string from one end of the bungalow to the other.
Worked like a charm. Absolutely no civilian stuff was to be visible so what we did was spread thick newspaper sheets over the bed springs and then any civvy stuff we had like books, magazines, cleaning material, odd clothing was laid on this topped by the mattress which was made of coir. The stuff under the mattress helped iron out the hollows.
6th August 2012
In response to Eddie Oborne I have added my thoughts here. To talk of Tempe in Bloemfontein which was 1 SSB Training Regiment first, the 3 months spent there were probably the worst. A lot of guys took strain, for the Natalians getting home and back in a weekend was virtually impossible. One must remember that a weekend pass only started on Saturday noon because the civil service including the military worked a half day on Saturdays. One had to back by midnight Sunday. I often wonder how many relationships were ended during this period because, as many of us found out, absence does not always make the heart grow fonder. Getting used to the daily rigmarole was quite a thing and the instructors were hell bent on us conforming. ” Sien jy daai boom, is jy terug troepie ?” In addition the daily chant on the parade ground which sounded like Lik Wok Lik Wok (Left Right) until we all got it right. Some memories will remain for ever. Standing in a queue along the mess hall wall, stainless steel tray, mug and small dixies in hand, waiting to be given grub in the evening. With the wind howling around, your oily SS tray picking up all the dust from the surrounding area, and then wiping it clean as much as possible on your fatigues as you got to the dish up point. The thud of the dishing up spoon on your tray as the food was summarily slapped down on it. Then the squirreling of extra slices of buttered bread into your fatigues front until you were spotted and ordered to “Sit daai brood terug!” Devouring whatever was served up no matter how “integrated” it was by the time you found a seat to sit down. And then once having eaten, going out to the wash up area where a big stainless steel sink filled with scalding water awaited you. Here gripping the ss tray by the corner you gingerly immersed it a couple of times hoping all the scum would float off. Woe betide the one who lost his grip and had to retrieve his tray from the murky steamy depths. Inevitably as you withdrew your tray it was finely coated with the oily residue ready for the next day’s meal. But we all survived. All I remember of our bungalow (we never called them huts) at Tempe was that its number was T33 and we managed to get the Company Flag for the best turned out bungalow for a particular Saturday’s inspection.
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The main parade ground at Tempe with the the SAI emblem in white washed stones. My bungalow T33 with its galvanised dustbin which we “brassoed” . It probably won us the Company Flag. The little annex in the front was a urinal.
Boetie van Staden and I in our fatigues after a strenuous day of marching. The boys of T33 Tempe. The late Eddie Akal on the left in front and me with my hands on the shoulders of a skeleton like Trevor Smith also of Pinetown on the extreme right second row. No digital cameras those days!!
Getting to Ladysmith after the first 3 months basic training was not first prize for us. 5 SAI to which I was allocated had three companies. A and B Company based at Ladysmith and C Company based on the Bluff. They were the lucky so and sos. But Ladysmith to Durban was only a 4 hour hitch hike so with a weekend pass the trip was quite feasible. I cannot recall how many times I did that trip. On my arrival on 1st July at Ladysmith the camp was in a bad way so it must have been for the first intake who arrived there in April 1962. My late father in law told me that he had spent time there prior to his being posted to Egypt during WW2, so I would assume the derelict bungalows that greeted our group must have been from his day. When we got there there were several rows of bungalows being stripped and refurbished. The ablution blocks were primitive with the toilets being 3 seater buckets, whilst the showers were very basic with corrugated iron surrounds. The toilets were positioned well down at the one end of the camp so it was quite a way to go if nature called. To help us out during the cold winter nights of the months July to September, drums were placed in the roads between bungalows if you needed to relieve yourself. However if you had to go at night then you had no alternative but to put your boots on, wrap yourself up in a blanket, put your balaclava on and venture out down to the toilets. I say you had to put your boots on because inevitably the wooden boards were frost layered so the usual posture you would find your mates in down there was squatting on the boards, rear end well clear. The cardinal sin I remember was forgetting to take the toilet roll.
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Three of my bungalow mates at Ladysmith “Drive In” as it was called snapped in the act. Probably taken on a Saturday as the guys appear to be ready for inspection looking at the boots. There was no “skaam” here as they say. My description of going down there in mid winter, no lights, biting cold, says it all.
At Ladysmith I recall there was a sudden spate of laundry theft. It ended up that having done your washing, you had to stand guard over it whilst it dried. I remember that washing lines were replaced by long lengths of small chain which was “threaded” through your clothing and which could be padlocked to your bungalow window. Our bungalow actually organised a guard system whereby one of us would take turns keeping an eye on the laundry. My bungalow was near the end rows of the buildings and cannot recall the number. I do not think it had one. There was no perimeter fence erected yet so any one really speaking could access the camp . At the main entrance though the main gates along with the guard house were already in place. The Admin Block, mess and kitchen were all at the top and a brick ablution block was being built. Also at the top was the Stores as well as the Transport Section which w as run by Tiffies. The Camp was positioned alongside the Harrismith Road and if I recall up the road was a turn off which lead to the Windsor Dam.
I cannot remember names of the first intake however do recall Howie Munro and a Roper who were Durban boys. One of our bungalow corporals from the first intake was a Plantinga from Johannesburg. I was mustered as an Infantry Signaller and allocated to a Machine Gun detail. Quite right the Radio Room was part of the Admin Building and we did our training there under the direction of Assistant Field Cornet Rosenthal who was the son of Eric Rosenthal, the noted historian. The camp commander was Capt. Redelinghuys and the Adjutant was Field Cornet McAdam. Field Cornet Victor was in charge of Stores.
Looking back, the nine months apart from the “disruption” of one’s life was a growing experience. Those of us who were called up in the early stages have to be grateful that we were not subject to the extended call ups of later years stretching out to two years. Our army life was a ball compared to what the guys endured later when the Border Wars really hotted up. In most cases though I think we all came out of it a little tougher, a little more tolerant and definitely more grown up.