Friday, January 13, 2012

Bridge 14 and other Military Intelligence

"Cheppies, Aht spekts yaw pirrints wud lahks to knaw where bridge 14 are." 

This epic of communication delivered by a slope-headed permanent force member of the SADF with a terrible Afrikaans accent to the waiting servicemen in 1976 in Voortrekkerhoogte, Pretoria. Major Something-or-other. Or maybe it was Commandant something-or-other. Or "Common-dolt" Something or Other as I preferred to call them.  I don't think he was a Colonel. That was serious brass on the shoulders and  hat. Lots of gold and silver and red whatsits. "Shit on the shoulders" we called it. We saw those once in a while when they visited the base, but we had no resident brassworks.

I kinda think these people were the type who sat on their backsides their whole life - in at 7.45am for coffee before morning parade, then tea at 10am, then lunch at 12.30 till 13.30 then tea again at 15.45, and then leave at 16.00. Go home, drink brandy and cokes, eat supper, occasionally fuck their wives, go to sleep, wake up and repeat the whole process ad infinitum until one day some bozo with a higher rank walked in and congratulated them on great service to their country and told them to piss off on government pension. Way to go. 

This was 1976 and South Africa was beating the shit out of the MPLA in Angola and Frelimo in Mozambique, ably assisted by the Rhodesians (as they were then). In the interim, the South Africans were having to deal with popular uprisings in the townships - like the 1976 youth uprising on June 16 which is still commemorated today as a public holiday. But back then, the army knew what it was doing. It was highly trained and got on with the business of annihilating the enemy who by and large, were an ill-trained mob - ripe for the picking. I heard at the time that they were burying the MPLA and the Cubans who came to help them, with bulldozers in trenches. 

But back to old slopehead and the "cheppies". Essentially the address was to tell us to advise our doting parents that in case they sent us letter or parcels, we might be incommunicado while we were out "somewhere on the border" and therefore might not respond. Of course, the military at that time had no intention of actually telling anyone where Bridge 14 was. In fact it was several hundred kilometers inside Angola where the South Africans had merrily set up shop. But make no mistake - stupid or not, the Afrikaans Permanent Force member knew his business when it came to killing and the training was refined and proven. We were ready. I wouldn't say we were all that willing though, and therefore it came as a relief one day, when right in the middle of a Morse code lesson, someone burst in the door and asked who wanted to do border service in Northern Natal. Of course, since a couple of us were from Natal, we stuck up our hands. "Come". And we were off to northern Natal. At 11am we were in Pretoria - just another day. By 4pm we were in Northern Natal on the Mozambique border. Unbelievable. And before we could gather our wits, we were the new ears of the SADF on the Mozambique border, while spending our off time gardening.

What? Gardening you say? Yes. We took over part of a deserted town and rebuilt the houses in a couple of roads in what became a military village. And there were 6 of us to a house. So we spent our border service growing lettuces and pawpaws. And that was the type of soil where you dropped the seed into the ground and watered it, and pow! - up it came. And every so often we went off to Sodwana bay to skindive and swim. And every so often the South African taxpayer coughed up for some steak and wors (sausage) which we cooked over the fires -  which we did quite often.  

It was hot. Seriously hot. 120 degrees Fahrenheid in the shade. 50 degrees Celcius. And when you touched the metal bedstead, it was hot enough to poach an egg. And the mosquito nets didn't seem to help. We were in a malaria area so we were taking maloprim daily and just as well. Because all you got for your mosquito net was an airless night and when you woke in the morning, there were all the mosquitoes inside the net with you. And try as you might, you couldn't find the hole.

But every 6 weeks we got seven days leave and off we went hitching down the road to Durban and then Pietermaritzburg. That was fun - 4 hours if you were lucky and you were home - with an army rucksack full of huge lettuces and squashed pawpaws. And you went back (reluctantly) the following Wednesday.

Life was hard... Could have been harder - a lot harder. But I never had to fire a round in anger at another human being, and for that I am thankful.  I cannot think what it must be like going to bed with the death of another person on your conscience. For King and Country. Right. But who lives with the consequences?

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