An extract from Angolsh - Scenes from an army camp in 1976

By Greg Latter Time of article published Aug 7, 2019

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After a while the flatbed truck got stuck in the mud at the side of the road and wouldn’t budge, all of us climbed off and pushed. That made no difference because that mud was like clay and we all kept slipping and sliding about.

Hoepfel then ordered us to get out our spades and dig. About five hours later we were still digging, stuffing tree branches under the wheels of the flatbed, but none of it helped. We even tried towing it out with the Landy, a pathetic attempt. Any idiot would know a Landy is not going to pull out a huge truck ankle-deep in Angolan mud.

The sun began setting so Hoepfel gave up and told us to pitch camp. It started raining and we didn’t have tents. No fires were allowed. No lights. Two hours sleep, two hours on guard. That’s how it was throughout that miserable night. My guard position was downwind so I could at least partake of one of Kevin’s dagga cigarettes although that gave me the munchies and the dog biscuits in that rat-pack were terrible. You could break your teeth on those things if you weren’t careful.

The next morning we were rescued by some tiffies driving a huge tow truck sent by the Technical Service Corps which pulled that flatbed out the mud like it had never been stuck there in the first place, all of us clapping and cheering our saviours on like mad. But we were now behind schedule by half a day so the flatbed driver had to step on it and the journey became a lot rougher and bumpier than it had been the day before. You had to hold on and there wasn’t much to hold on to.

Later, we drove through a completely deserted town that had been shot to hell. All buildings were pockmarked with bullet holes, most of them gutted by fire. For what? By whom? The only thing missing were bodies in the street. You could tell from how quiet we were on that flatbed that the future was starting to look decidedly bleak.

Before sunset, we came across an encampment commanded by the Transvaal Scottish Regiment and they very graciously let us sleep there that night without any of us having to do guard duty. I found Podolski and asked how far we were from our destination and he said we’d get there around midday the next day - unless we got stuck in the mud again - then we played chess and I introduced him to aguardente. Just two little sips, as I had to make that bottle last, got Podolski chatting about all the things he’d overheard between Major Hoepfel and Lieutenant Evans in the Landy and on the radio that day.

“The national servicemen we’re relieving are the same ones that bombed the Luanda waterworks. They’ve been here since the beginning. They were flown into the Congo, guns and all, by Hercules transport planes. It took them only three weeks to get to Luanda. Their staff sergeant was killed by a Stalin Organ rocket. Took a direct hit in a foxhole. They’re very cut up about that, apparently.”

I was surprised they liked their staff sergeant, as he must have been a Permanent Force member.

“They say he was like a father to them. They’re youngsters, you know? Apparently they should’ve finished their national service three weeks ago but there was no one to relieve them so they’re also angry about that.”

“I can imagine.”

“You can’t.”

“What? Of course I can. I’d be very pissed off.”

“Why I say you can’t imagine is you haven’t been in a war zone for six months.”

“I’m in one now, aren’t I?”

“But we’ve only just got here. Six months is a long time. It can make you crazy. I hope they’re not crazy. What if when we finally get to them they take their anger out on us by beating us up, or worse?”

“They’ll have Permanent Force members with them. They know how to control a troopie if he’s gone bossies.”

“But what if the Permanent Force members have also gone bossies?”

“For God’s sake, Podolski, play the game.”

That night I had a proper sleep in a big tent and I particularly liked the fact that the rain was falling on the canvas roof above me, rather than on my face. The only drawback was that my sleeping bag was still wet from the night before.

Podolski was right. Those okes were very, very angry. And they didn’t look like youngsters, I might add, although I knew they were. They all lookedwell, old. Not as in age-old, more like in their hearts and souls they were old. Plus they didn’t talk much.

I was a TA - a technical assistant - and my job was to work out the range and bearing for the guns, and to do that you need certain equipment. Finding the command vehicle was easy. There is only one in an artillery battery. Ours was a Landy with a kind of oversized metal office box built on the chassis which takes two TAs, a signaller and the troop leader, in our case Lieutenant Evans. As TA Number One it was my duty to ensure all the TA equipment was accounted for and in good working order. And I had a list for that: 2 x artillery boards, 2 x slide rules, 2 x artillery board pivots, 2 x range arms, etc. I cornered the TA Number One national serviceman and asked him if we could go through the equipment and tick it off against the list. He gave me a hard look, barked a hyena laugh, turned, slung his balsak over his shoulder and jogged off to the flatbed, which by now had done a U-turn and was rapidly filling up with angry okes clamouring to get the fuck out of there and home.

Well, I went straight to Lieutenant Evans and told him I couldn’t be held responsible for the equipment in the command vehicle due to this mad TA and I started pointing him out on the flatbed - the TA now giggling like a crazy girl and flashing me the finger. Evans told me not to worry and to please not make a scene about it. It seemed to me he was worried those mad okes were maybe trigger happy and might just take their anger out on us. Just let them go was his attitude. Okay. And they did.

Later when I checked the equipment against the list it was like this: 1xchipped artillery board, 1 x broken slide rule, 1 x artillery board pivot, 1 x bent range arm, etc. Why were half the things missing? What possible reason could there be for it? Evans reckoned it would have to do and assured me I was not going to get into any trouble about it when we got back, if we ever got back.

TA Number Two’s name was Dawie Venter and he was the only Afrikaner in our battery.

He had recently completed his national service so he was younger than most of us and his job was to do exactly what I did to make sure we were both on the same page, so to speak, as no one wanted to go through the humiliation former bombardier Stone had gone through by lobbing an 80-pound projectile into the wrong place - like into the midst of a company of SADF parabats, for instance. But without equipment Dawie was redundant. I mean, how could he check any calculations I made without the necessary equipment? Impossible. So it was decided that his function would be to look over my shoulder. Our signaller, who was doubling as our driver, was Wolfgang Zoeller, a product of the German School in Joburg.

We were quite a mixed bunch.

Major Hoepfel called us together for a briefing. “We are on high alert.” That we all knew. Christ, we were so jumpy I was surprised no one had shot himself at least in the foot by now.

“We are going to hold this position until ordered not to.” That was obvious, too.

“From 18h00 to 06h00 we will man listening posts at six points around our perimeter. Sergeant Hopkins will draw up a roster for that. See that road?” He pointed to the one and only road in Southern Angola.

“No vehicle is allowed to be on that road during those hours. Those are standing orders and everyone in the SADF operating in this area knows that. Our orders are to engage any vehicles moving on that road at night as they will be hostile. Keep your weapons handy, men. I don’t want any cock-ups.” Whoever does, I thought.

Angolsh is published by Penguin Random House South Africa and retails at R220

The book:

Angolsh - Scenes from an army camp in 1976

Greg Latter

In early 1976 while working underground as a blaster on ERPM gold mine in Boksburg, Greg Latter was called up for a three-month army camp in Angola, and there was no getting out of it. The truth is, he was actually keen to go. South Africa was at war with the Cubans and he was overcome by a peculiar sense of patriotism. This story is about those three months, told from the day he received his call-up telegram to the day after he got back.

There is nothing gung-ho in the pages of this book. It’s mainly about the cock-ups, of which there were countless, the major one involving Greg himself. Greg has the distinction of being the only soldier in the Transvaal Horse Artillery who saw action in Angola. He shot up one of the SADF’s own vehicles after being ordered to do so by Signalman Podolski, who was in charge of the radio that rainy night. Greg was court-martialled and found not guilty, although thereafter he was taken off guard duty in case of a repeat cock-up. Which suited him no end, of course.

This book is also about the little things, like the kak food; the warm ice cream and hot beers that were so kindly delivered to the middle of nowhere by helicopter; and the butcher who came up with the great idea of finding a waterhole so they could shoot a cow to have some fresh meat. It’s also about the Portuguese refugees Greg encountered, families fleeing from God knows what, lounge suites strapped to the roofs of their cars. It’s about a man coming of age and realising he never needed to go down into the darkness again. The day after he got back from that camp, Greg went down the mine shaft but came straight back out again, signed ‘last shift’, and started to live.

The author:

Greg Latter is an award-winning South African writer and film director who has worked all over the world. He is the recipient of the Thomas Pringle Award for Creative Writing (1982), the Sithengi Best Screenplay Award (2005), the SA Film and Television Awards Best Screenplay (2007) and the Naledi Best Play Award (2011). In a career spanning 35 years, he has produced 22 feature films, 11 TV series and five plays.  

The Saturday Star

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