Army Days

In the Sixties, Rhodesia was still a federation and I enjoyed the luxury of being a mazungu, or white man. But I was restless and drifted, working my days in a warehouse and riding the roads at night with a motorcycle gang. I thought I was a tough guy until one evening I met three men in a bar wearing fawn berets that bore the crest of the Winged Dagger. ‘Don’t even look at them,’ a friend advised. They came with a legend and folk gave them a wide berth.

This was what I wanted.

A month later, I handed in my notice at the warehouse and rode the old Norton down to the recruitment office where I signed on with the Rhodesian Light Infantry. Unbeknown to me, army life was even more difficult than school life. I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. This was no place for rebels.

Taking the place of my old school teacher was a sergeant-major who seemed to despise recruits even more than we disliked him. And I was not his favourite soldier. I can still see his sadistic smile as he watched me run lap after lap around the parade ground in the midday heat, my rifle held above my head. And each circuit was accompanied by his booming voice: ‘You horrible little man, you are lower than shark shit! We will break you.’

I was seventeen years old and this was three months of sheer hell. Many were the times I thought of going AWOL, but in the back of my mind were the three guys wearing the fawn berets, and so I took everything they threw at me, spending most of my weekends running ‘jankers’ to the guard house.

Eventually recruit training came to an end, and after ‘passing out’ I applied to join C Squadron of the Rhodesian SAS, a clandestine unit trained to operate behind enemy lines. Less than a month later, 60 naive volunteers (me among them) were shipped out to the barren hills of the Matopas in old Bedford trucks and abandoned in the bush. For ten days we each hauled a rucksack of bricks from one compass point to another, while regular SAS soldiers sought to break us with every trick in the book.

Come the end of selection, only three of us had made it through the course.

 

I can still remember sitting in a bar on the wide main street of Bulawayo, drinking Lion Lager and reflecting on where my life was going. It would be another two weeks before I would earn the right to wear the fawn beret with the Winged Dagger.

New Serum in Harare was the venue for our parachute training. This was followed by eight jumps out of an old Dakota. But before our first jump, we were given an introduction to heights. While we were flying at 1,000 feet, a mad Irishman – our sergeant, Bob Bouch – held us in the Dakota slipstream by the scruff of our necks. Standing there in the open door without a parachute was not an experience any of us wanted to repeat.

Bob Bouch would later be killed in the Bush War. He was the first man I ever admired and respected.

 

In those long ago days, Africa was in turmoil, moving relentlessly from one conflict to another, and I too was undecided which way to turn.

mike-02

Some three years later the Federation of Rhodesia collapsed and during a recruitment drive, legendary mercenary leader Mike Hoare offered me a lucrative cash-contract to fight with his private army in the Congo. Contract killing did not light my fire. I can still remember walking out of that barrack room after rejecting the offer. The sun was setting and I thought that somewhere on the other side of the world it would be rising. And I wanted to see that world.

So I turned my back on the Africa I loved, hitching my way across Europe with a few pounds in my pocket and working on a Norwegian merchant ship to cross the oceans.

Nine months later I’d had enough of the sea and jumped ship, walking into Australia with just the clothes I was wearing. It would be another year before I would return to Africa. But it was not the Africa I had once known. The apartheid system that had me brainwashed now felt tarnished and corrupt.

No longer could I live with it.

Once again I was on the move.

 

Africa Days >