Stories and Traveltips

ID #5234

Dad’s Army, Phalaborwa, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Because of the perceived threat by black nationalists, military conscription was introduced into South Africa in the early 70’s. As the threat grew, so conscription became more pervasive until every white male in the country served in the military from time to time. Unconvinced by the government’s arguments, I managed to dodge conscription for years. However, when working at Fedmis, Phalaborwa in the mid-80’s the system caught up with me. Several of my subordinates who played a prominent role in the local Commando thought it would be a good idea if I were conscripted. Call-up papers subsequently arrived which required that I report to the local Commando unit for a weeks training.

Most white men in Phalaborwa were similarly conscripted. Knowing who was involved, we were skeptical about the merit of stumbling around in the bush for a week. On arrival we were kitted out with uniforms, boots, tents, rifles etc after which we were lined up on the parade ground by a young lance-corporal. He proceeded to vent his fury on us and it soon became apparent that he had an axe to grind with the English-speaking troops. At one stage he was so cross he was literally foaming at the mouth. Who was this man? The message was that he licked stamps in the Post Office. How to deal with him?

Initially the reaction was passive – i.e. maintain a low profile. Knowing that he hated anything English a friend, Frank White, decided to bait him. He made himself look as sloppy as possible which attracted the corporal’s attention. Whenever he was addressed in Afrikaans, which Frank understood and spoke perfectly, he would pretend to not understand and say innocently “Excuse me?” This sent our corporal into paroxysms of anger and fury so we spent the remainder of the first day doing nothing while he ranted and raved. Fortunately there was little he could do since the military were anxious to gain the support of the English-speaking community.

That evening before dinner we went to the pub for a few drinks. It was clear that someone had spoken to the lance-corporal because he had clamed down and was talking quietly to those present, one of whom challenged him to a drinking contest. He was unable to resist the challenge -- one way or other he was going to teach us a lesson. 

However, he failed to appreciate that he was up against hardened drinkers who spent much of their spare time in the local pub. After downing a bottle of whisky he collapsed, after which he was carried to the parade ground and propped up against the flag pole. The following morning as we hurried to get ready for inspection and subsequent parade, the Commandant discovered that our platoon was without a corporal. After a brief search he was found propped up against the flagpole, helped to his feet and disappeared, never to be seen again.

We spent several days “hurrying up and waiting” performing meaningless tasks, one of which involved learning to jump off the back of a truck traveling at about 30-kph. Why anyone would want to do so escaped me. Most were enthusiastic to try but I told my subordinates that, if they did so, they would be in trouble when we returned to work. Reluctantly they watched as volunteers jumped off the truck as it sped past. However, after jumping, they collapsed, writhing on the ground with injuries such as sprained or broken ankles, dislocated knees, etc. All were less keen to jump off trucks thereafter.

As a field exercise we were required to develop a plan to protect an electrical substation. To accomplish the task, the group was divided into three platoons, two Afrikaans and one English-speaking. After the Afrikaans-speaking groups had made their presentations, the Regimental Sergeant-Major, a large pleasant man, expecting the worst, hesitated before he called on our group to make its presentation.

For my sins, I was elected spokesman and started by explaining that we would burn the veld in a circle with a radius of 900-m around the substation – the reason being that 900-m is the maximum range of an RPG7 rocket-propelled grenade. So far so good and the RSM smiled happily. Then I noted that we would place a heavy machine gun on top of the building, giving it a clear field of fire. Once again the RSM smiled happily. I explained how we would place sentries to warn troops inside the building of an impending attack. Again the RSM smiled happily. And how we would stack sandbags behind which troops pouring out of the building would take cover while warding off the attack. He was thrilled since ours was the most practical and innovative plan thus far. However, when I noted that, unfortunately, the plan would not work, his smile disappeared. “Why not” he enquired.  “Any terrorist intent on attacking the substation would see the circle of burnt veld, realize that it was defended and blow up something else instead” I replied.  “Why -- do you think that they are stupid?”

The latter example illustrates the futility of trying to win a guerilla war by military means alone – something that has been obvious since the Second Anglo-Boer War. Results in that war speak for themselves:

Boer Combatants (Maximum available)             80000
British Combatants required                          500000
Boer  Soldiers Killed                                          4000
British Soldiers Killed                    20000

Only by adopting “scorched earth” policies (which led to the internment and death of 26000 women and children -- mainly children – see Emily Hobhouse) were the British able to prevail.

I am mystified by the inability of military planners to come to terms with this fact – i.e. unless you wipe out the entire population, it is not possible to win a guerilla war by military means alone. However, this lesson is well understood by others. Ask the ANC – they understand it well. I suggest that those in positions of power throughout the world take heed of such advice.

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Last update: 2014-02-28 22:30
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.2

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