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Monday, 31 December 2012

Old year/New year 34 years ago.



In our family we never made an issue of New Year, there were no special celebrations or parties. Mostly we would sit talking  until midnight, wish each other happy New Year and go to bed. My mother liked to go to a midnight church service if there was one going in the neighbourhood, and she did not much care what the denomination was.

But I do remember one very well that I partook of,(slightly against my will,) 34 years ago. First I must set the scene.

Way back in the good old/bad old days of Apartheid South Africa all White males were liable for National Service call up at 18. Blacks and other races could volunteer, (strangely enough, thousands did). As we were brain washed back then we were told that we were doing this to defend Western Christian Civilisation in South Africa,(and the rest of the West),  and most of us believed it. Those that did not were called commies, or worse still liberals.

 I did my National Service in 1966, trained as an infantry soldier and in the use all sorts of death dealing weapons. You name it I was trained to use it, how to take it apart, how to keep it clean and how to maintain it in perfect condition. Our personal weapon was the FN semi automatic , 7.62 calibre rifle, made in Belgium, seen below.


The FN rifle above was similar to the one we used. This particular model was used by the West Germany army. The magazine held 30 rounds.

 Part of my specialised training was in the use of the FN LMG, (Light Machine Gun), this training was to haunt me for the rest of my military career.  The LMG fired the same calibre round as the FN rifle but at the rate of about a 1,000 rounds a minute.


A cut away illustration of the FN LMG. The bi-pod could be folded back and locked in place, the machine gun could then be used on a tripod. 



FN LMG with bi-pod, this is a US army version shown above.

After completing National Service you were assigned to a reserve regiment and had to attend a further five years of “camps”.  Which meant once a year you were called up with your regiment for 3 weeks of refresher training. Your regiment could also call you up at any time and send you off to some military base for specialised training, this was over and above the mandatory 3 weeks every year.  Due to my LMG training my regiment assigned me to be the LMG gunner for my section. Each section, with a sergeant in command, had an LMG, and a section had 10 men, with  4 sections to a platoon, four platoons to a company. (Three combat sections, one HQ section to a platoon, and three combat platoons and one HQ platoon to a company).  

Most guys did not mind this annual disruption of their lives, it was a chance to do "man stuff,' play with dangerous weapons, fire thousand live rounds,(at the Governments expense) and drink too much cheap beer (subsidised by the Army) at the end of each day.  

I enjoyed the military life so much that I ended up doing 15 years in the reserves. One of my call-ups was December 1977/January 1978 and our regiment was sent to the Ndumu Game Reserve on the Northern border of Natal  with Mozambique. Once again I was a section LMG gunner. 

December/January is the middle of our summer and the temperature soars to the mid 40’s in the shade in this area, it’s also mosquito and malaria country. Mozambique was commy country and the ANC terrorist, (freedom fighters today) were active in the area.
Ndumu is a small game reserve right on the border, famous for its elephants and bird life. 

The reserve game rangers and other staff wanted to have a New Years eve party and the company I was in was given the task of setting up a defence perimeter around the party venue. We arrived at about 5pm and our company commander set about placing each platoon, each section right down to each individual infantryman, (placed two by two). He had worked it all out on a large scale map of the area, exactly where everyone had to be positioned. The whole venue was surrounded by tall, (almost 2 meters) elephant grass, so we were given strict arcs of fire, marked by pegs in the ground.  Once you were in your place you could not see the guys 15 meters to the left or the right of you, (come to think of it we were all sitting ducks). The perimeter was  about a 100 meters from the party venue. 

 The company commanders HQ platoon was placed right up close to the party venue so that if any "ters" (terrorists) broke through the outer defence line they could still defend the New Years revellers. (More likely to be close to the booze).

Well I set up the LMG on a tripod, and not the normal fold away bi pod, these two items I had to carry. When you've carried and LMG and its bi pod you find that it’s not so light any more. I turned to my no 2, whose job it was to carry the ammunition belts and asked him to pass them so I could arm the machine gun  (he was Northern Irish by the way).

 “Ammo, he said, “don’t be bloody stupid I didn’t bring any ammo.”  In an Irish accent I won’t try and duplicate here.

My no 2 was not only from Northern Ireland but also ex IRA, and had left Ireland because he got tired of all the killing and fighting. He volunteered to join the regiment as he still liked the idea of playing soldier.

"Why not?"  I asked aghast.

“Even us Irish don’t fight on New Year’s eve”.  he said.

I looked at him and saw that all his ammo pouches, his back pack and the various pockets, (and there were a lot of big pockets) on his combat uniform were bulging obviously full of something.

“What’s that then,” I asked pointing at these bulging containers.

He then proceeded to pull out several, (several is an understatement) bottles of beer, whiskey, vodka and brandy. “We are going to have our own party, like all civilised people do on New Year’s  Eve.” What he had done with the ammo  he was issued I don’t know.

“What will we do if we are attacked?” I asked.

“If they are even just slightly civilised, they won’t. If they do we ask them join us. “ Anyway”, he said pulling  out a crucifix and kissing it, ”this will protect  us.” He was a devout Catholic.

And that’s what we did, Party with a capital P. The last bottle in his collection was something called “Boechoe” brandy - a vile concoction of herbs and brandy. Boechoe is a medicinal herb found in South Africa and used for all sort of ailments in traditional medicine. As it was so hot we removed most of our combat dress, leaving just enough clothing on for us to still look respectable if we were killed in an attack. The mosquito’s made mince meat of us but we were too drunk to notice. We passed out long before midnight in the long grass with the mosquito’s continuing their own New Year’s party.

The next morning when the officers and NCO’s rounded up the rest of the company they could not find us. We lay in the blazing sun for more than three hours before we were found. Apart from alcohol poisoning, we were badly sunburned, dehydrated and so mosquito bitten that we were hardly recognisable.  The medics put us on intravenous drips and rushed to the nearest army sick bay which fortunately wasn’t far.  

I surfaced about 24 hours later wishing I was dead, but I survived and rejoined the company 3 days later, still feeling like “death warmed up”. The two of us should have been Court Marshaled and sent to the army Detention Barracks, (army jail) for dereliction of duty, but our company commander managed to save our mangy buts. To this day I have an aversion for New Year’s parties.

Another aversion I have developed is an aversion for guns and weapons of any sort. As much as I enjoyed using them in my Army days (I grew up with guns and hunting, and for years I swaggered about with a Smith and Wesson 357 Magnum), I refuse to touch them today. There is nothing, but nothing, good one can say about guns, they only bring misery and destruction. They are designed for one purpose only and that is to kill. (We only need to look at recent events in the US).(The NRA says the solution to this is more guns).

Alcohol can bring just as much misery and destruction, put the two together and you have a really evil mix. 

Good thing we had no ammo, or we would have felt obliged to do some celebratory shooting, that would have livened things up.

A very blessed and prosperous 2013 to you all.

  

3 comments:

Jo said...

OMW Phil, I never realized you experienced beautiful Ndumu Game Reserve in this manner! Have you ever been back? One of the most rewarding birding spots in Zululand and of course, you get to see rhino and other game, large and small too. A blessed, healthy and happy New Year to you. Love Jo

Jo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gorges Smythe said...

I understand your feelings, Phillip, though I don't share them all. I DO share your good wishes for a blessed and prosperous new year; may it be the best ever!