Category Archives: Military life

Serious and often funny soldiering experiences & anecdotes
My service was perhaps, by comparison with many others, fairly mundane. I consider myself to have been a very ordinary soldier. But then without the ordinary soldiers we could not have had the outstanding ones so perhaps my story/stories will be interesting to some…
The bad language is not gratuitous and serves to illustrate the reality of the times where it IS used

Joining the army part three

National service – first phase continued 2
(Pictures used were mined from the internet. The butts are somewhere in England and there was no caption on the picture of the range. No harm is intended by the use of these pictures – they will be removed if so requested by copyright holder).

A lot has been written about basic training in the army – the Rhodesian Army as much as perhaps any other army so I will not harp on this aspect too much. Once weapons training had started things became a lot more interesting and serious with weapons safety being a point hammered into us at every turn.

A typical military range see where LOW shots have gouged at the mantlet in front of and below the numbers. The STOP BUTT is the higher mound BEHIND the targets.

Before going onto the range for the first time for live firing A Company was addressed by WO2 “Pinky” Mould, an ex Guardsman who always had a rather red face made worse by the african sun.

The butts, on an army shooting range, is the area below and immediately behind the mantlet (the raised berm from behind which the targets are hoisted). The much higher berm further back is called the STOP butt – for the obvious reason that it is meant to STOP the rounds that have been fired at the target. Every so often a stop butt would be MINED for the astonishing amount of metal from spent rounds that could be recovered from it and sold.

Toward the end of his briefing SM Mould instructed that the butts party must ensure that they patched every target properly. There was plenty of target patching glue, he said, but should one run out he off-handedly suggested semen be used, emphasising this with a well-practised flick from the region of his groin that resulted in a large gobbet of patching glue splatting onto the zeroing target in front of us. Among the ribald laughter one of the men was heard, and seen, vomiting! Poor sensitive soul was teased mercilessly every time we were on the range after that!

Sometimes a shooter would aim too low and the butts party would get a shower of sand and grit as the round ploughed across the top of the mantlet. One day such a round hit the top of a target frame and ricocheted in under the mantlet where I was sitting on butts duty and landed in the crook of my arm. The round was spent but it was still bloody hot! I still have that round which I found today, 15 October 2018. See picture added!

Typical view of the BUTTS the mantlet on the right protects the butts party. Note the target frames with zeroing targets fitted

We did a lot of live firing with many of those from rural backgrounds showing better results and those of us not used to firearms struggling a bit – but we all became proficient and passed the training.

One day we were being taught to shoot from fire trenches – in front of each firing point there was a roughly four foot deep slit trench and we had to learn to load and fire from this cramped position.

In one of the squads was a young man from Cyprus whose English was not really up to scratch but who had been disdainful of the training with claims that he had been in the fighting in Cyprus as a guerrilla a few years earlier.

DOWN RANGE was the mantra – the rifle must ALWAYS POINT DOWN RANGE.

Our Cypriot had a stoppage while in the trench at the number one firing point and turned to call an instructor. As he did so the loaded rifle was turned to point down the line of foxholes, the instructor screamed at him and nineteen heads disappeared into their foxholes! SM Pinky Mould had been standing behind this man watching him with considerable distrust and he leapt forward, snatched the rifle and stomped the man down into the trench – all the time yelling at him in the choicest language (and he had an impressive vocabulary) about how stupid and careless he was.

The Cypriot was incensed and tried to go for the SM only to get clobbered and marched off to the guardhouse for a week in the RP (Regimental Police) cells.

This was several years before the mandatory issuing of ear defenders for range work and anyone caught with four by two (weapon cleaning rags) in their ears would be teased and vilified implying deficient masculinity. I am sure that some of the problems I have today with hearing higher frequencies stem from those days – especially during zeroing when the number of men on the firing line was doubled and the rifles on either side were about a metre away. Further range exercises and listening to noisy radios while wearing earphones in my first few years of service probably also contributed!

Some very mean, bullying tricks were played occasionally. There was a very slightly built chap (a first class bloke – let’s call him Mike – with whom I was to become friendly a few years later) who had been made pony master (he was in charge of the regimental mascot) but he still had to learn drill and shooting. One day on the range some smartarse turned Mike’s SLR gas regulator to zero while he was not looking.

The gas regulator controls the gasses from the fired round directing some of them to sharply push back a piston to automatically reload the weapon. Normally set to around position five, lower settings meant the recoil became increasingly, and unneccesarily, violent – not good for the weapon nor for the shooter.

Not noticing what had happened Mike took up his prone firing position but when he fired the weapon he let out a yell of agony and laid the rifle down. I think he may have had a cracked collar bone. He was horribly bruised around the shoulder area and in considerable pain – much to the amusement of the bullies behind the trick. (I think Sgt Annandale sorted them out though).

A few weeks later we were to fire the Sterling sub-machine gun and Mike, who probably only weighed about a hundred pounds or so, turned up with a pad of cloth around his shoulder (not knowing or believing that the nine millimetre Sterling had no recoil to speak of). When the SM spotted the padding he humiliated Mike by showing it off to all those on the firing line which I felt was rather unfair and poor Mike was so embarrassed.

Young and overwhelmed by all that was going on – and feeling sorry for Mike – many of us did not say anything but when we were asked why we were not laughing we had to smile weakly in order to BELONG – and not become targets ourselves.

In spite of these unsettling incidents I feel there was nothing particularly special about my initial training.

Grenade training was fun if only for the TERROR shown by some of the men – some of the BIG DEAL bullies at that! Many of the guys wanted to throw the grenade and run and had to be held UP by the scruff of the neck by the instructor and MADE to watch the grenade land. I watched my grenade roll to a stop but did not need the instructor to pull me into cover though! Years later I had to instruct some people on hand grenades and it was odd to observe the “students” from the perspective of the instructor – and have to be ready to grab the runners.

One morning before we were marched off for another round of drill we were asked by the instructor:
“Does anyone want to join the regular army?”….

Joining the army – part two

National service – first phase continued.

The people in my barrack room ranged in age from around 18 – like me – to the early-to-mid twenties. Some of the older young men had been to university or been overseas but inevitably the call-up had netted them.

A few smug individuals had older relatives who had completed their call-up. They had, variously and through these relatives or friends, obtained boots that were highly BONED, brasses that had been squared and buffed for them and some even had mess tins and so on that had been CHROMED so that they merely had to wipe them for inspection and could use their issued kit for day to day use.

It was interesting to see how the various instructors reacted to this preparedness – some accepted it and others would throw these items off the beds and sneeringly tell these men to make sure that the ISSUED kit was presented for inspection. Of course the PREPARED boots and brass would pass muster. I remember that I battled with drill boots (we called them STICK BOOTS) until one of the batmen came round and, for about ten shillings or a pound they boned the boots for us. A few times the batmen’s quarters were raided and then those without boots for inspection were in deep trouble! I was lucky and was not discovered having my boots set up by the batman!

Many of those who had benefitted from the experience of their predecessors had DURAGLIT™ – something I had never heard of and was marvellous to use compared to Brasso™. I also learned to scrounge some beaverboard (sometimes call softboard) on which one could REALLY shine brass with the help of Brasso™.

Lots of tips and tricks were shared or observed and a team effort emerged because it was in no-one’s interest for any member of the barrack room to fail inspection.

About three weeks into training my feet and ankles started to swell from the hours of drill and the pain in my feet was excruciating. Sick parade was no fun and the doctor and medics were mostly indifferent to us recruits. I started to worry that I would be back-squadded – everyone’s biggest fear – that meant staying for a second round of recruit training. I don’t know what made me think of it but I stuffed my packs and other gear under the end of my mattress to elevate my feet at night. Within two days I was OK and had no further fear of being back-squadded. I did this for several weeks until I had no more problems.

Outside A company and ready to go on pass. The bush jackets were only for stepping out and ceremonial
Picture courtesy ORAFs

In those days all drill was done in stick boots (leather soles with hobnails) with puttees and hosetops, starched khaki shorts and shirts and a slouch hat with the brim up over the left ear. Of course the intricacies of putting on the puttees correctly gave the instructors plenty of scope for criticism at inspections – never mind the boots having to gleam. (the picture is from 1962 – two years before my time in those barrack rooms)

“You think those boots are shined, boy?”
“Yes, colour!”
“What!” screams the Colour Sergeant in the recruit’s face – so close that little specks of spittle land on the poor unfortunate’s shirt. “I’ll put my boot up your arse so fucking hard it will come out of your mouth and FUCKING BLIND YOU – that is what shined is you fucking arsehole!”
“Yes, colour” but the NCO had already moved on and was regaling the next unfortunate with his expletive ridden, sarcastic criticism.

We had THREE Smiths in our squad and one morning the instructors were observed marching up to the barrack rooms a few minutes earlier than normal. There was a scramble to get out onto the road and form up for inspection before they arrived.

This one Colour Sergeant, a small built man with an English accent that the rest of us struggled with (he was not our normal squad instructor) completed his inspection and looked at the squad, and looked at us again. Marched up and down each rank, looking each inwardly trembling man over and obviously puzzled by SOMETHING that was wrong.

He marched out again and turned to face the squad. Just as we thought he was about to march us off he SCREAMED – “SMITH!” Three Smiths took a smart pace forward. “Not you and you,” he shouted, stabbing at the other two with his stick and they, smartly and with obvious relief, stepped back into line.

“What the fuck do you think you are doing, Mr Smith” he bellowed, standing about a foot away from Smith. “What, Colour?” came the bewildered reply.
“Do you think you are fucking clever, Mr Smith? Did you think you could get away with this you little shit?” (made funnier because the NCO was about five foot six and Smith was over six foot)
“What, Colour?”

Most of us had seen what Smith had done and to this day I don’t know if he was bucking the system or if it had just been as a result of undue haste but his hat was on back-to-front. Where everyone else had the upturned brim with the badge over the left ear his was the opposite way round. (see picture above where all the hats are correct)

“Do you see that hangar over there?” said the NCO, pointing with his stick at an aircraft hangar made small by distance. Smith’s head snapped to the side, “Yes, Colour”. “You will DOUBLE AROUND that hangar and when you come back into view you had better be properly dressed, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“No, Colour, er yes Colour, er, what, Colour?” “Run, you fucking idiot or you will be on a fucking charge”.

As Smith took off for the distant hangar the NCO, who had been aware of the sniggers of the rest of the squad, suddenly screamed “What the fuck are you laughing at?” causing the squad to immediately brace up. “You keep laughing and you will join that fucking idiot”. A suppressed laugh or two later and we were off for the distant hangar, at the double and with dire warnings about being last back…

One morning, instead of being marched out onto the old airfield for drill we were marched towards the stores and issued with rifles from the nearby armoury – the SLR (Self Loading Rifle). Used by the British army the L1A1 was widely considered a more rugged improvement on the FN FAL that would become the Rhodesian Army’s standard issue rifle a few years later.

We were to do several days of drill with the rifle before starting weapons training but everyone was suddenly more interested in this new development.

Joining the army – part one

National service – first phase

I had thought about joining the army for some time when I was still in high school and after writing my high school finals in 1963 (in which I got terrible results – another story for another time) I decided to go for it.

It must have been about November 1963 when my best friend at the time, Willie van Rooyen, and I presented ourselves at the Army recruiting office.

I was quite short-sighted and wore heavy horn-rimmed specs and Willie had a bad limp.

Willie had fallen off a roof a couple of years earlier while bunking school. The neighbours in the council flats where we both lived thought it would teach Willie a lesson to be left in pain – assuming he would get up and limp away to nurse his bruised ego. What they did not know was that the head of his femur had popped out of the hip socket and, from lying there for several hours unable to move because of the extreme pain, the fluids in the joint had dried up (my understanding of what Willie was to tell me about it later) and it would now require surgery and bone work in order to be put together again.

The nett result was that Willie’s one leg was shorter than the other and he walked with an increasingly pronounced limp.

After our tests we went for a medical and were told we would be informed of the results. We were concerned about Willie’s tests because of his leg but when the letters came he was accepted with no restriction and I was rejected for being short-sighted! We had made a pact that if we could not BOTH join up then neither of us would and we kept to that pact.

I was puzzled though, because my friend Graham McCallum was in the regular army – and had been for about 18 months already – and he was as short sighted as I was if not more so. I approached the recruiting office and they said there was nothing to be done and assured me that any chance of serving was to be forgotten. “Even National Service?” I asked and was assured that I would not be called up. (with hindsight this was the end of Federation and that may have had a bearing on attitudes and so forth as far as recruiting was concerned).

I went and got a job with the OK Bazaars, supposedly in their advertising department hoping to become a commercial artist eventually but I ended up selling pots and pans, much to my chagrin.

Fast forward to September 1964 and I got a call-up notice and was promptly fired!! (they could do that in those days and I had said, in good faith, that I was not eligible for callup).

In mid October, having turned 18 in the August, I entrained from Salisbury station to join Intake 70 at DRRR (Depot the Royal Rhodesian Regiment). We arrived at Heany Junction the following morning where several army trucks, drivers and junior NCOs were waiting for us.
We had the usual hazing that all new recruits went through – on and off the trucks – never fast enough getting on or off with our luggage but eventually we were taken to the barracks quartermaster stores to be issued with our kit.

Loaded like pack mules with our civilian kit and our army issue we were formed up in a shambling column and marched (well sort of marched!) up to the A Company lines by our instructors.
Of course we kept calling the instructors SIR, this and SIR, that and got yelled at for doing so:
“I am not a fucking officer boy! I am a fucking COLOUR SERGEANT DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“YES, SIR”
“NO, YOU STUPID CUNT, YOU CALL ME COLOUR! I am a COLOUR sergeant!”
“YES, COLOUR”

This exchange was going on in every barrack room and was to continue for a few days until we got the hang of it.

We were then told to ensure that the floor of the barrack room was gleaming for the next mornings inspection and told to get the polish (in huge 25litre cans) off the back of the land rover.

On opening the polish (that waxy, stoep/veranda/cement floor type of polish) we found that it was black while the barrack room floor was green. Some brave souls approached the staff and told them there had been a mistake. “NO, THERE HASN’T BEEN A FUCKING MISTAKE” bellowed the Colour Sergeant, “we want the fucking floor BLACK by 0600 tomorrow morning. Get the paraffin and rags and brushes off the truck!”

There were a few “But, buts” and other comments that brought down more wrath on the heads of the speakers and we all retreated into the barrack room to get started – by this time it was getting late and we still had to go and have supper (we had been introduced to the mess hall at lunch time).

It took all night. We moved everything to one end of the barrack room and cleaned and scrubbed and scraped then moved the gear to the other end and did the rest. We then had to put everything back in place and be ready for inspection. We saw the sunrise that morning without benefit of sleep.

Typically shiny barrack room getting ready for inspection
Picture courtesy ORAFs

We were to be cleaning waxy green/black paraffin-infused muck from under our nails and the pores of our hands for days but at 0600 the barrack room had a black floor. One of the junior instructors had come in a couple of times during the night and hazed us but also given some valuable advice. A few recruits from B Company messed us around but soon left us alone when a couple of them were nearly flattened.

We had a grudging approval from the Sergeant in charge of our barrack room who was a pretty decent chap named Annandale although the platoon warrant officer, WOII Mould, was not so easily pleased – ever!

We had one chap who professed to HATE the food and determined he would NOT eat what was served in the dining halls. He used to buy what he could at the canteen but there was not much in the way of proper nourishment available considering the extremely physical routine we were being pushed through. One morning he came to breakfast, wolfed down EVERYTHING he had been able to get on his plate and asked the people nearby for any toast or sausages they weren’t going to eat. No one said anything but everyone was highly amused.

I actually don’t remember too much of the first few weeks – it was a haze of doing things at the double, of marching, of weapon training and field work and we gradually started to work as a unit, as a team,  responding to the army way of doing things. We also became very fit in phase one training…

Leadership, Authority and Responsibility

These are qualities that can, to quite a large extent be taught to those with the correct attitude.

Responsibility is really the first and underlying quality – together with integrity. Anyone who wants or demands authority and is not prepared to accept the attendant responsibility is not fit to lead.

Many people do not appreciate that responsibility is a two-way street. A less senior person might be responsible to their superiors but their superiors have an equal and possibly more important responsibility for and to their employees or juniors.

In the military the responsibility is to see that men are prepared through training – both physical and in the area of skills in arms and in their specialties. Officers need to ensure that their men are prepared mentally and they need to learn to trust those men to carry out their duties.

The leader earns the men’s trust by showing that he trusts them and takes seriously his responsibility for them, at the same time being firm and impartial in matters of discipline and adherence to the army’s rules.

The men under the command of the officer or NCO learn to respect not only those qualities of fairness and firmness but also the person – not just the authority of the rank or position.

The good leader, already granted the authority with his rank or position, has taken the time to earn the respect of those under his command without throwing his weight around or allowing anyone else to do so. He does not have to demand the men’s obedience or respect. The loyalty he has shown to those men has in its turn, earned their loyalty. They will behave and carry out their assigned work responsibly and be accountable for their performance. They will be a team.

A leader displays loyalty to staff in several ways. He ensures that they know and understand what is required of them. When they make a mistake he takes the time to establish what happened and why. He does not allow others to attack his people. He will stop such attacks and will sort out matters of discipline, training or other problems, internally.

If censure is required, he will ensure that it is administered firmly and fairly and he will do it himself. He will not abdicate this unpleasant task nor will he allow his superiors or peers to attack and demean his staff or censure them even if it is deserved. He will stop such moves and be responsible for sorting out the problem and, if needed, report his resolution of the problem to his own superiors. He will be RESPONSIBLE.

He does not allow his staff to be embarrassed in front of their peers, their seniors nor, and most importantly, in front of any junior staff.

The leader is firstly an individual who accepts authority knowing that with it goes great responsibility. Learning to handle all those things and thriving in a supportive environment some people become good supervisors and managers. Some among them become leaders and some become really good leaders.

All these things only happen in an environment that is conducive to such a culture. In order to function efficiently the military must have a responsible leadership culture. It is why they train and train and re-train their members. Those that have the aptitude will work their way up the ladder. Some individuals will find a level that suits their abilities while others will remain among the rank and file. Systems are not infallible and from time to time talent will be overlooked and fall through the cracks but, for the most part, it is a system that works.

The military systems are built on training and excellence but the driving force is not commercial. Rather it is a strange mix of loyalty, camaraderie, discipline and pride – a hard to define esprit-de-corps.

Many of those in charge of large civilian/commercial enterprises are heard paying lip service to training and developing leaders. With the main driver being the bottom line it becomes easy to lose sight of the people who make it all work. How often is the phrase “Our people are our most vital asset” heard by surprised staff who would swear it was not so.

Brash, commercially successful individuals are often promoted to management positions over really competent people. Such people will frequently be insensitive to others and, when in charge, become a bully. This is tacitly allowed because of the person’s success rate. No one notices the decline in morale and performance and perceived shortcomings are simply punished.

Staff reporting to such managers may become afraid and anxious and, not wanting to lose their jobs, they scramble to please, to be seen as acquiescent and helpful. The fact that productivity slips, errors occur and inefficiencies creep in is lost in the clamour.

It is often acknowledged that the best sportsman in any particular discipline will not necessarily be the best captain, coach or manager. So it is with management and leadership.

That rather loud individual who can sell lots of anything, or fix anything or excel in many other ways, should be allowed and encouraged to follow his core competency. He should be made to realise, through discussion or even blatant flattery, that he is hugely important to the company. Emphasise that a manager and support staff are in place to help him continue his successful career. He needs to see it as removing obstacles to his success, such as the need to be in the office and being responsible for the performance and success of others when he is much better at being successful HIMSELF.

Train the people with the right skills in responsibility and the exercise of authority. There is always a need for individuals with these competencies. The good ones will thrive and become supervisors, managers and leaders according to their abilities.

A person who is willing to accept responsibility and at the same time behave with integrity is a rare person indeed and all too often is not recognised by the very people who need them – business bosses. Business LEADERS however will recognise the need and ensure such people are not only hired but supported and encouraged in every way.

Responsible people take things seriously and tend not to let others down. They are thorough and hard-working and usually bright and intelligent. Frequently these people are creative and love to contribute but are seldom, if ever, encouraged and their voices are lost in the noise around big sales, big conferences, big ideas – and big egos.

People who WANT to be IN CHARGE and who, if promoted, take every opportunity to tell anyone who will listen how important they are should be kept under strict control and never be allowed much, if any, authority over staff. Selfishly they do not want to be responsible for anything but themselves and what is theirs which is what makes that kind of person a great salesman and marketer and even a tradesman but, more often than not, a poor manager of people.

About instructions…

Being reasonably logical and literal in my approach to instructions I get confused when something I understand to mean one thing actually means something rather different or when part of an instruction is omitted because everyone knows that.

Let me digress for a moment to better illustrate my point:

Many years ago when I was in the military (the Corps of Signals to be precise) I was sent on a course-cum-seminar to learn how to write user manuals for soldiers. Bear in mind that these manuals had to be quite unambiguous and therefore had to be written so that an untrained or semi-trained individual could, by following the instructions, make effective use of the equipment. Effective that is because LIVES may depend on the user getting it RIGHT.

All of us had a number of years experience in the job and had previously been on instructor courses and I clearly remember that on my course we often presented the SAME LECTURE over and over only to be told several time that we had failed before we got it right.

What, you might ask, did we fail on. It was not the actual USE of the equipment once it was working it was the SETUP.

For example, we would fail because we did not TELL THE STUDENTS to connect the power source. We then failed again for not precisely describing HOW to connect the power, such as ensuring battery polarity was correct. Again we would fail – “You did not tell them to SWITCH THE EQUIPMENT ON

As you may imagine we would respond to these criticisms with a rejoinder along the lines of “…but everyone KNOWS that”. The reply would be “YOU CANNOT RELY ON THAT – LIVES MAY DEPEND ON EACH STEP BEING LOGICAL AND LITERAL AND UNAMBIGUOUS”.

An example: – think about using remote controls to programme televisions, decoders or recording devices.

At one time I found that after following –  TO THE LETTER – the instructions in my remote programming manual – and those for front panel programming –the programmes did not STICK. My younger neighbour came over one day and programmed the recorder for me. I followed each step as he went through the instructions but I noticed him doing something that I could not relate to a step in the booklet.

When I asked him about it he said he was pressing MENU at the end of each step but, when asked, he could not show me where it gave that instruction in the booklet. I then learned that to SAVE steps there is often no key marked SAVE and it may be menu or enter or something similar – and that that step – that INSTRUCTION rather – is, more often than not, omitted because the designer/inventor (not user, note) ASSUMED that EVERYONE would know to do that.

The INSTRUCTIONS just DID NOT reference how to SAVE each step.

Many user instructions exist, not only for electronic equipment, where the writer and/or developer of the item does TWO THINGS that create confusion:

1. Assumes knowledge – everyone knows THAT – on the part of the user/buyer.
2. Uses in-house jargon so that the words used in the description do not match what the user/buyer is looking at.

…anybody looking to hire an instructions writer…?

 

Leadership – an opportunity

Quite some time ago I was asked to write a short resume about my personal experience of managing people, of leadership. I wrote the genesis of this article in about 2012 and it was forgotten among my files.

Crest and cap badge of RhACR

In 1975 I had completed a ten-year contract in the Rhodesian Army Corps of Signals and in 1976 after a short spell in the BSA Police I transferred back to the Army and the Corps of Signals. I was reinstated in my rank of Staff Sergeant and immediately posted to the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment Signals Troop (T Troop RhACR) as 2i/c and Regimental Signals Instructor.

After a while our Captain was posted out and we were left without a Troop Commander after which I was appointed to act in that post.

The troop had only about three or four regular army members – myself and a couple of corporals and signalmen (privates). Most of the troop complement were territorials, called up for from 6 – 8 weeks at a time.

I soon found that for the regular men to try to do all the training and maintenance was going to benefit no-one. Not the regiment, the troop or the army. By stretching ourselves so thinly we could not do justice to the service required of the troop.

Up to that time it had been almost traditional in the army that territorial and national service soldiers were treated as a kind of readily available “servant” corps to take the pressure of guard and radio duties and other kinds of menial tasks, off the rest of the unit to which they were posted.

Resentment at this offhand treatment was all too evident. People felt that their training, skills and abilities were ignored by the army and that they could have been contributing more to the economy in civvy street. It would have been easy to dismiss this in a superior way – this is not civvy street, you territorials have to do this and do as you are told.

That would have been counterproductive. These intelligent men who had responsible positions in their civilian occupations were actually insulted by our treatment of them. After all, why had we trained them and why did we pay them to be there if we were not going to use the assets we had created in the most productive way possible.

I was mindful of my mandate to provide training and maintenance on the radio communications elements of the regiment. In order to do this, I needed my men to buy into my vision and step forward with their own contributions.

After investigating the background of the territorial members I found many of them had shown aptitude for, and been trained as, instructors but this training was being ignored. I then interviewed these men – among others with other skills – as they came for their call-ups. I asked them if they wanted to do more, to do what they had been specially trained for.

The initial reaction was that they wanted to be more involved but that they would not be allowed to do this work. The “established routine” would not permit it.

I assured them that they would have the full support of the Regiment and the Corps of Signals and that they would now be required to take on more of the training and day to day aspects of the troop while on call-up. The instructors would be running the courses and grading the trainees and their call-ups would be timed to start shortly before a training period. This would enable them to prepare for the course, run it and have a period of wind down and analysis.

With some trepidation but with great enthusiasm they got stuck in – and dramatically improved our effectiveness.

I kept a close eye on the work at first but soon realised – and told anyone who would listen – that great things were being achieved. Everyone learned about our miniature revolution – which it was.

In a relatively short time the accolades started to come in. I was able to successfully put people forward for promotions and this further bolstered confidence.

Now, when they arrived for call-ups, although they would rather not have been there, these men were no longer long-faced and round-shouldered. They were proud and purposeful, filled with the WE ethos. We are good at what we do; we are the best. We have an important role.

By encouraging and empowering these men, in the face of established, contrary mind-sets, these non-professional soldiers became a valuable asset to the unit and the light being shone on them reflected on me, my troop and on my corps. That, truly, is what win-win is all about.

Leadership – early influences

I joined the Rhodesian regular army in March 1965 straight out of National Service during which time I had attended a course at the School of Signals. My excellent results led to my attestation into the Corps of Signals.

I continued as a signalman (private soldier) for perhaps two years because I still had to complete a REGULAR signals course to qualify for trade pay and be in line for promotion.

During this time, I performed all the duties of a fully qualified operator – minus the trade pay.  Bummer!

I was fortunate as a young soldier to have served with some really good, conscientious young officers who took their leadership role seriously. They were interested in their men and would teach them about the responsibilities that may come as one’s army career progressed.

One such Officer Commanding (OC) was Lt Kim Christiansen who was OC K Troop at HQ 2 Brigade (years before the Signal Squadrons were formed).

Before the days of camouflage

On one brigade training exercise  I – still a signalman – had been given the status of detachment commander. My radio crew consisted of four soldiers, a land rover and trailer kitted out with radios, battery charging and personal kit and the task of maintaining 24-hour communications. Immediately after pulling into the brigade area and siting my vehicle I walked off to the mess – leaving the men (they had done this before after all?), to sort out the kit.

Very shortly afterwards my OC came looking for me and called me out of the other ranks mess and asked me several questions:

  • Do your men know where to sleep?
  • Do they have a duty roster?
  • Have the antennas been calculated and sited correctly?
  • Has the camouflage been done correctly?
  • Do they know their stand-to positions?
  • Do they know where to go for food? For ablutions? For toilet facilities?

My youthful reply was that they had done this before so why the fuss?

Lieutenant Christensen then firmly pointed out to me that if I aspired to be in charge I needed to understand that leadership and management had responsibilities. If I wanted respect I had to earn it and it fell to me to look out for the men and set an example in every way. While he was not nasty about it he was very definite. I remember some of my peers scoffing at him behind his back. In retrospect of course he was right and I never forgot the lesson.

This officer saw something in me that I, as an eighteen or nineteen-year-old, was not aware of. He made me understand, in the short time he was my OC, that leadership and authority is a two-way street with much responsibility attached – particularly for the leader.

He had taken the trouble to provide leadership himself (not just be the boss) and, not only that, he provided training and an example that would forever stand me in good stead.

A few other officers and senior ranks influenced me similarly over the years, perhaps seeing in me a latent ability that would only come to the fore some years later. I regret not having had more such influences.

It does not matter whether you are in the military or a civilian – the principles of managing and leading people remain the same. Perhaps with a few other considerations driving it but in my mind the most important thing for a leader is to firstly set a good example and then be consistent, be firm and fair and recognise and reward good performance. Rewards can be as subtle as a thank you – or a favourable comment on a job well done.

A bit like bringing up a child – or training a dog perhaps? Consistency and fairness also play a big part.

Risky laughter

In the army one attended many courses and this incident happened on my Operators Radio and Line Class III signals course.

We learned many things besides radio operating in the Corps of Signals and on this course, in addition to the expected Morse code (yes, in 1966 it was still in use), voice and morse operating procedures and antenna theory and practical we learned basics of electricity and electronics, batteries and charging and, covering several slightly unexpected things, the LINE part of the course.

This included laying field telephone lines, line termination and repairs, connecting up the field exchanges, basic maintenance of the field telephones and SWITCHBOARD operating procedures. (I was to use one of the LINE lessons I learned about twenty years later when a tree I was pruning for a client snapped a Telkom telephone line and my temporary line repair, as per army training, remained in full view for several years afterwards).

Switchboards could be multiple line Field & Fortress installations where up to fifty lines at a time (or more if needed) may be terminated – mostly however we used the ten-line field telephone switchboard known by its official nomenclature as: Switchboard magneto 10-line. This was generally adequate for most field deployments at brigade level or below.

The PROCEDURE for connecting a call was twofold – there was the actual connecting of the call and the spoken procedure to be employed as a call was received and connected.

The spoken part was easy enough: (not sure how accurate I am being but near enough)

Exchange, sir, who can I connect you with?
Ops room, please (some officers/callers actually said, please)
One moment please, sir.

(you then connected yourself to the ops room and announced a call from whoever had called)

Ops room, I have a call from Provost, sir.
Put it through….
Now you connected them while remaining connected yourself and announced: You are through to ops room, sir.
Listen for a moment to ensure that they are connected and talking then disconnected yourself. Simple enough – although the subscribers were supposed to RING OFF many did not and after a time you had to plug in and ask – and sometimes get an earful for your temerity.

The physical PLUGGING THROUGH of these calls, while quite
straightforward, is where the hilarity commenced for Brian – because of the terminology.

While it is easy to say that the operator plugs himself through to the calling line and then partly connects the called party to the caller’s line while getting through to the called party etc, etc the use of the correct instructional terminology is where it fell apart for Brian.

The switchboard has ten sockets and under each one is a cable with a plug. Above each socket is a little label that can be numbered or otherwise marked and this drops (it is, surprisingly, called a drop indicator) when a call is received so that there is no doubt as to which line is calling (or called first as the case may be).

The SOCKETS are called JACKS – the correct term is jack socket while the matching PLUG is really a jack plug. Now, if you read this aloud you may understand why it tickled Brian so much. (Never mind the chat previously described that also had to take place)

This is, with reasonable accuracy, how the instruction was given:

On receipt of a call the calling line drop-indicator will fall.
The operator will take his own plug and plug it into the caller’s jack.
The operator will then take the called party’s line and, after removing his plug from the caller’s jack he will put the called party’s plug partly into the caller’s jack.
Plugging his own plug into the called party’s jack he will ring that extension.
After getting a response that the call is accepted and to complete the call…
…the operator now pushes the called party’s plug fully into the calling party’s jack and….
…announces to both parties that they are connected and then…
…after listening to ensure that two subscribers are connected (talking) he will remove his plug from the called party’s jack.

Brian started to snigger quite early in the above description and by the time it got halfway he was shaking – paroxysms of laughter that he was DESPERATELY trying to suppress. Of course once you are in that situation you just CANNOT suppress it. Every time you try, the reason for your laughter kicks in and you burst out again.

“LEGG” yelled Staff Sergeant Sager, “what is so fucking funny?”

“Nothing, Staff” he gasped, unsuccessfully stifling another bubbling, rocking gale of laughter that was entirely at odds with the look of horrified fear on his face.

“Well what are you bloody well laughing at?”

“Nothing, Staff!” all the time snorting and gasping to suppress the laughter that just WOULD NOT go away.

The rest of us were, by this time, wholly amused while trying not to show it – or WE would also get a share of the Staff’s anger. Laughter is infectious and I think I remember a slight smirk on the Staff Sergeant’s face – quickly wiped off – as he once again demanded to know what Brian was finding so damned funny.

Staff Sergeant Sager, our course NCO, had a reputation as something of a martinet in the lecture room and was renowned for his often harsh punishment of those who crossed him – which explains the look of horror on Brian’s face as he laughed uncontrollably. He must have felt he was digging his own grave.

I cannot remember if Brian was punished or if we were punished as a group (there were nine of us on the course) by being CB – Confined to Barracks – for the weekend or whether we all got away with it (I think Brian took some stick though).  

 

Plumtree – about 1977

When I was attached to the Rhodesian Armoured Car regiment as RSI / Acting Signals Troop Commander the regiment did a deployment to the Plumtree area.  I don’t actually remember the time of year but I think it was  late winter…?

In Salisbury the vehicles were loaded onto a special military mixed freight/passenger train. The trip took a day and a night and we all slept on the train while it travelled through the night. A good time was had on the train (some had a better time than others…).  On arrival in Plumtree and unloading we harboured up in a base camp just outside of the town.

I recall that during the deployment all HF communications went for a ball of chalk countrywide due to some spectacular sun spot activity and I had to institute some innovative measures to maintain communications. For me, however, that was not the most memorable part of the trip – it was something seemingly mundane yet something not many get to experience.

The Rhodesian Army ensured that its troops were well fed and when deployed with a headquarters element that had a decent caterer we ate the most marvellous meals made from the excellent fresh rations supplied. On this trip, as with many others, it was discovered that there was plentiful game around and one of the local farmers gave us permission to shoot a kudu to increase our already generous meat rations.

Several men went out on the hunt vehicle – a doorless Land Rover. I heard later that the person who had proclaimed himself the MAIN HUNTER fluffed his shot- Steve “FRANTAN” van Niekerk, who was driving, snatched his service rifle from its clip by the driver’s right leg and with one left-handed snapshot brought down the kudu.

The cook soon had the beast hung, skinned, cut up and into the freezer truck.

Next morning breakfast at the senior NCOs and officers’ tables consisted of the usual coffee, toast, eggs, bacon, sausages and little medallions of kudu fillet in a delicious sauce. No matter the heavy government crockery and cutlery – this was not just a meal but the stuff of safari legends that, as I observed to the chap next to me, people would travel far and pay big money to experience.

Us soldiers? Well, we were at work of course!

I should add that the troopers and everyone else in camp benefitted from this venison bonanza – not just the officers and NCOs.

 

Hitch Hiking December 1979

As December 1979 approached David, my brother, and I decided to go Cape Town.

We were both serving in the Rhodesian Army with plenty of leave available but to save money and have a bit of “adventure” we hitch-hiked and stayed with my aunt in Constantia.

Because of the situation in Rhodesia convoys, escorted by police and army reservists, ran between main areas. As soldiers and with our service rifles we would be very welcome on, or in, anyone’s vehicle.

Salisbury to Fort Victoria to Beit Bridge, about 600kms, was boring and uncomfortable. At Beit Bridge we signed our weapons in to the BSAP armoury.

We walked over to South Africa and got a lift to the Mountain View hotel in the mountains above Louis Trichardt. It was raining and the hotel owners let us camp in some disused, leaky, sheds. We put up our tents, (leaky roof, remember) ate, had a beer then slept.

Day TWO dawned cool and misty and after a wash in the gents we made our way down to the main road. The rain had stopped and it was misty but we held up our CA (Cape Town registration) sign. A young woman roared up and offered us a ride. She had a crow in a box on the back seat (don’t ask because I don’t think we found out why). She drove like the clappers and roared through misty Louis Trichardt – ignoring stop streets – while chatting away excitedly.

In Pietersburg (Polokwane) we found an excuse to leave our dangerously cheerful benefactor, got a bite to eat and went to the main road.

We soon got another lift, being dropped near the CSIR (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) in Pretoria. We trudged for about a kilometre when a truck pulled over. Offered a ride in the enclosed rear – no communication, view or way to open the door, we declined his “kind” offer

At around 1400 we got a lift to Meyerton south of Johannesburg, pleased we didn’t have to navigate Johannesburg’s confusing highways.

We were wondering about where we would sleep when a bulk liquids 28-wheeler pulled up and offered us a ride all the way to Cape Town.

Our job was to talk to the driver so that he would not get bored and go to sleep…at the wheel!

It was late, very late, when we stopped at a sleepy Beaufort West for cokes and a pie and again, shortly before dawn, at a watering point in the middle of nowhere.

Going over du Toit’s kloof (a picturesque, and dangerous, mountain pass) was marvellous. Outside Paarl and about an hour from Cape Town though, the driver said we must find another ride – if seen with passengers he would be in trouble.

With no-one stopping to give us a lift I called an ex-army friend who came and fetched us and took us to the Pig and Whistle pub in Rondebosch. It was early afternoon on day THREE – not bad going.

I only stayed about a fortnight and  it was now Saturday of my last weekend and once again in the city and hanging around our uncle’s brother’s market stall I knew we would be doing bugger all else. We had been relying on my uncle for transport but always ended up going where, and doing what, he wanted and I really wanted David to get a better experience of the city. Even though I had only lived in the Cape as a child 20-plus years before I said to David “Let’s go, I’ll show you how to get around”.

We went on foot to the harbour and a pub then by bus to Clifton and Sea Point.

Friends in Sea Point took us to the Pig & Whistle and later we took the train to Wynberg where we bought the best fish and chips ever across the road from the station!

We got a bus to Alphen – and walked several miles to my aunt and uncle’s house in Constantia. I was wearing brand new jeans and was chafed raw, but we’d had a good time.

David was staying for a few more weeks which was why I had wanted to show him how to get around! He had a great time on his own after I left.

We got a lift into the City the next morning and I held up my sign, the one David is holding in the picture, with the Rhodesian flag colours and SBY (Salisbury) on it. My first lift to the Worcester turn-off left me stranded for three hours in 40°C temperatures.

Finally, in Beaufort West after having got another lift, I stood for five hours on the northern edge of town. When it started to get dark I got permission to camp on the lawns of the motel over the road. I had some food and was back on the roadside at 0500.

I read a book, standing there, an ENTIRE BOOK and at 1500 a car stopped near me and I asked bemusedly, “Are you offering me a lift?”

We slept somewhere during the night. I’d worried a bit about my benefactors but they dutifully delivered me in Joburg where I was able to spend the night with my brother in law. Next day I was on the road at Buccleuch interchange and got a lift all the way to Beit Bridge.

My convoy lift developed car trouble and, with the main convoy drawing away quickly, there was potential danger for a lone car. After a few roadside repairs and with a few other stragglers we made our own convoy. I think I was the only one among them armed but we made Fort Victoria OK. From there to Salisbury was straightforward.

I was home for Christmas with a backpack stuffed with gifts and bits and pieces others had asked me to get.