Graham Leslie McCallum

The tree of happiness flowers and fruits most abundantly for the creative man

SADF – Military Service – through the eyes and pencil of an 18 year old – 5. Mortar Training


My Eye, Graham Leslie McCallum


After finishing my exhausting Basic Training, the whole of 3SAI’s 1984 intake of recruits were assembled on the main parade ground. These grounds were large, perfectly flattened rectangular spaces of barren red earth. In all my two years I cannot remember ever seeing a single plant poke its leaves through those cursed grounds. If they had dared they would have been stomped down by our marching boots. For it was on this very ground where we as conscripts were marched up and down for months like mindless automatons. This is where we slammed our feet down coming to attention, this was the expanse of hell where we were made to stand for mindless hours during parades and inspections, our booted-feet baking in the hot African sun, where chaps flopped face-first in faints into the hard sand. This was my plane-of-pain where we done our PT during Basics. I had been issued with takkies (plimsolls) too small for my feet, and so I developed an agonizing in-grown toenail.

The ‘big-shot’ PF’s brought us to attention and instructed us that this was the time when we could ‘choose’ what we wanted to do during 2nd Phase Training. In positive language he laid out the options – Signalmen, Medics, Chefs, Drivers………………. Mortarists, Riflemen. Tables had been set-up on the ground behind which soldiers sat with ledgers and pens to take down our names and numbers. Then we were set-free on the parade ground.

Like a chicken without a head I ran blindly from one option such as Signals to Drivers only to find that those quotas were supposedly already filled. In total agitation I then stood back and observed how hordes of chaps in those ridiculous plastic doibies on their heads and wearing shapeless brown overalls were milling-around like so many shepherd-less-sheep, some running this way to that section of the parade ground and others to another. This so-called choice was a complete sham. Those bastard PF’s were laughing heartlessly at the scene unfolding before their eyes. They were there to fill the Riflemen companies with bodies. Hundreds of boys massed in groups hoping to become Drivers and Signalmen; for let’s face it, what sensible human wants to be a foot-slogging Rifleman.

Word had got out that a certain Sergeant Smith was to head-up the Mortarists. He had been the training NCO for one of the company’s platoon’s during Basic Training (not mine) and his sadistic ways had become common knowledge to many conscripts. The result was that very few chaps had gathered around the Mortarist table. Me, none the wiser, and of course not knowing the difference between a mortar and a cannon, not to mention the difference between a rifle and a gun had ambled over in that direction, not committing. At one point one of the PF’s deceitfully announced that Mortarists would get an extra stipend to other troops. Several chaps motivated by money moved over to swell the rank.

While standing totally confused and agitated on the side of the the parade ground an ‘Ouman’ (a 2nd year conscript) came over to me and in a matter-of-fact fashion told me he was a Mortarist. Several chaps came over and we plied him with questions. He told us that although Mortar training was exceedingly tough (what with having to lug-around the heavy mortar pipe and base plate). That if one could get through the training and one got to the Border, that  a Mortarist had it much easier as they were not required to walk patrols like Riflemen and were left in base. This appealed to my unmilitarised-mind and so it was that I ‘volunteered’ to become a Mortarist by having my name written-down. And like that, we fetched our kit from our old barracks and reassembled. While waiting to be marched-off, we were approached by other chaps who pointed out to us that did we not know that ‘Killer Smith’ was going to be our NCO. My heart beat fast and I felt faint – I knew that name. My older brother Douglas had been at 3SAI six years before and had always spoken about a brutal man called ‘Killer Smith’ while he was been trained. He had been purported to be a sadist and to have marched a conscript to his death from heat exhaustion and as a result had been knocked down the ranks.

Before long we were brought to attention and introduced to Sergeant Smith, aka Killer Smith. With alacrity – we were marched off terrified by this large brooding-looking man to our new lines, namely O Company (O for Ondersteuning in Afrikaans/ S for Support in English). The day was Friday, and training was to commence on Monday. We were given the weekend off to move into our new barracks at the far end of the base. That weekend was one of the worst of my life, for although I was able to rest, my mind was beset with bitter regret.

Many months later we could reflect that this was not the same Killer Smith of earlier notoriety. Holding the same surname, he had assumed the black mantle and having clad himself thus, was determined to live-up to and exceed the former’s reputation for sadism. Standing somewhat taller than the average troop, he was composed of a loose somewhat shape-less build. Having an incongruous boyish face that belied his dark nature. Closer examination revealed emotionless black eyes, deepset and darkly shadowed. They would only sparkle with amusement while he beset us with punishments for minor or imagined infractions. This Afrikaner, with an English surname was mostly able to motivate us with reputation alone, and for emphasis and effect by extreme brutality. To us boys he was titled ‘Killer’. The mere mention of that name was enough to make us cringe and cower like whipped dogs.

I write at length about Killer Smith for this man was to play such a pivotal role during these two years, both in our waking hours and in our nightmares. His redeeming qualities were efficiency and the ability to train boys to achieve beyond expectation. Our platoon took the top drilling position at an inter-battalion competition; and I was sent to compete against other infantry battalions with Map Reading and Orienting. An event that I won for 3SAI.

Killer Smith took a disturbing liking for me, calling me Picasso or Michelangelo at whim. He had seen some of my drawings. I was roped in to do all kinds of office work by him and the lazy platoon Lieutenant who we nicknamed Varkvel (Pigskin). He would bellow down the lines – “Picasso – Kantoor toe” (Picasso – get to the office). I missed some serious ‘opfoks’ (punishments) while filling-in endless charts and office reports in the company books. In this way I got to know what my buddies home addresses were, who their next-of-kin were, their blood groups, rifle numbers, and other information of interest.

Once while sitting alone in my bungalow, Smith walked by and on seeing me came in to chat. He wanted to know what I as an English-speaking South African thought of the political situation then present and brooding darkly over South Africa. Taken-aback but truthful, I told him of my liberal views. Amused – he left with an unusual but clearly remembered retort – “julle Engelse is snaaks!” (you English people are funny!).

3SAI, O Company, Mortar Platoon, Potchefstroom, 1984 intake, Mortar Training, SADF, Military 119

(above) A hastily written and sketched page from my army training book detailing certain aspects of Mortar Training. These books were carried to all training events and soon took on the hue of the red soil of Potchefstroom, the stains of sweat, and the smears of ‘black is beautiful’ camouflage cream. The shed portrayed on this page was located at the bottom end of our barracks and adjacent to the University of Potchefstroom’s student accommodation. Any mistake made by us troops, or mostly any whim by ‘Killer Smith’ our training Sergeant, would send us with all our gear (as well as heavy mortar weapons) running around this shed several times. We would be sent on these excursions by Smith uttering a chilling rrrrrrrrrr!!! sound. We quickly learnt (with considerable trepidation) to run as fast as we could when we heard this horrid sound. In this image we can be seen bustling around the shed, the directional arrows and the rrrrr!!! command.

Killer Smith can be noted as the dark and ominous figure on the lower right corner. He would prowl around with a solid metal aiming rod in his hand, and any mistake, or lack of alacrity, would be punished by a stunning blow to our ‘staaldak’ (helmets). These blows left deep dents in our steel helmets and were a source of amusement in later times. I had relatively few dents in my helmet at the end of mortar training, so my buddies, using a pole, hit the crap out of my staaldak to approximate the condition of theirs.

Of interest – the Mortar commands (though in Afrikaans) were standard British Army commands and methods. The sights to our mortars were made by the Hausler Scientific Instruments company of Johannesburg, SA. The ‘Number 1′ Mortarist was responsible for sighting these tricky and sensitive instruments; they also as a consequence had the most dents in their helmets.

One day during our training, Killer Smith, instructed me to sit on the side of the training ground. Puzzled and perplexed I watched the training from the side-lines. The following day he gave me a large flat and squared board made of resined glass-fibre with a circular and rotating perspex disc attached to its middle. Called a Plotter Board – it was used to calculate the elevations and deflections necessary to launch a mortar bomb. From the side of the ground, I observed and recorded the brutal training of my fellow recruits, hence the sketching above. One young Afrikaans boy with blond hair and the English surname Wilson was particularly disliked by Smith. During training he made several mistakes with the fire drill sequence and Smith beat him mercilessly on his helmet, concussive blows that must have been disorientating and painful. Roughed-up and humiliated, he was made to run repeatedly around the shed until exhausted he begged Smith to put him out of his misery. “Ek kan nie meer nie Sersant, my senuwees is gedaan” he pleaded (I cannot do any more Sergeant, my nerves are finished). This sent Killer Smith into an apoplectic rage. He was taken by the neck and dragged away by Smith. We never saw Rifleman Wilson again. What became of him I have wondered to this day?

Two other recruits suffered similar treatment at the hands of Smith. One was a good-looking boy called Krause. He had the unusual features of having pitch-black hair and bright blue eyes. One awful day during training at Modderfontein, just adjacent to our camp at Bloekombos, we were been instructed on direction by Killer Smith. Randomly posing questions, he would bark out… “if you were facing north, and north was 6400 mils, what would south be in mils? Krause, targeted with these questions, and probably frightened senseless, could not immediately answer. He was verbally humiliated and abused by Smith. Observing, I felt such pity for the chap and my heart melted for him. I have never forgotten his wounded confusion. He was packed-off by Smith. We never saw him again. Was he sent to the Riflemen company Charlie?

The last recruit was an awkward boy called Hattingh, who suffered at the hand of Smith. Perhaps not the brightest star in the firmament, and of unusual and ungainly movements, he attracted the wrath and cruelty of Smith. If the boy’s mother had seen the abuse inflicted on her son, she would have have been horrified. He (like us) had been recruited, and it was his and our misfortune to be in the Mortar Platoon. Smith would focus his sadistic attention on this poor boy. One terrible day Smith spent the whole day from morning ’til evening, tormenting Hattingh, making him carry around a ‘marble’, the moniker for a large block of concrete painted a bright post-office-red which was used to punish recruits. He was made to squat, run, crawl, eat and go to the toilet with this 30 kg weight. The following day the punishment continued. Smith arrived with a tennis ball, that he would bowl cricket-style down the bricked-road of the barracks, making Hattingh run to fetch like an obedient dog, thus exhausting him. This carried on all day in the blazing sun while killer sat on a bungalow step. We were to be taken out to Modderfontein for training the following day. I heard Smith say to Hattingh ” More, ek belowe, gaan jy bloed kots” (Tomorrow, I promise, you are going to vomit blood). That night Hattingh attempted suicide. We heard the following day that he had taken an overdose of some medication or the other. We never saw him again. I have thought of this abuse many times subsequently.

It is strange what one remembers with acuity while other details are vague or completely forgotten. Such is the nature of recollection – that one can remember an insignificant comment, yet forget what must have been momentous event. I write this for I recall clearly an occasion when Killer Smith was mercilessly-toying with Hattingh. The boy had mentioned that he owned a Katana motorbike. Smith, in a belittling-fashion said in his distinctive tone – “water soort motorfiets is a Katana? Nou praat jy kak!” (what kind of motorbike is a Katana. Now you are talking shit!). The rest of the platoon was gathered together to witness this degradation, Smith hoping that we would laugh along. Smith proceeded to tease the boy’s church denomination – “en watter soort kerk is die Tabernaakle. Dit is geen kerk nie” . (And what kind of church is the Tabernacle? That is not a church!).

Whatever happened to you Hattingh – I trust when you eventually escaped the clutches of the National Party and their Military and got back to civilian streets, that you sped around on your Katana, and that the anguish inflicted on you was assuaged by the loving-attention of your Saviour at the Tabernacle.

Mortar Training, 3SAI, o Coy, Mortar Platton, Potchefstroom, Transvaal, SADF, Military

(above) A page from my Mortar Training book listing the names of the various mortar bombs, in English and in Afrikaans, and their colour-coded descriptions. We were a mixed language platoon and we adapted our language accordingly. I do not however, recall ever using the Afrikaans word ‘Brisant’ for HE (High Explosives), although in reflection, the word does have some resonance. The word ‘Brisance’ in English and the ‘Brisant’ in Dutch/ Afrikaans refers to high explosives, and its etymology is the French word ‘Briser’, which refers to breaking or shattering. This is an accurate description for these bombs which shattered into many thousands of lethal metal shards or ‘shrapnel’. The charges that were attached to the mortar bomb (just above its tail fins) had a very distinctive, perhaps pleasant smell. We ignited these charges for all kinds of purposes, mostly for fun, but especially for the quick  lighting of a braai (barbecue).

Mark Williams, Spotting, Probably at Oshivelo Training Grounds, SWA, 1985, military

(above) Mark Williams radioing-in elevation and deflection estimates to the Plotter Operator so that co-ordinates could be calculated and called out to the chaps on the 81mm mortar. Mortar training, Modderfontein.

Mortar Platton, Sarel Brits, Willem Durandt, Glen Watson, Flavio Scarpa, Angolan Border, prob near Opuwo, 1985, military

(above) Mortar Training, Modderfontein. L-R Trollip, Flavio Scarpa, Willem Durandt and Glen Watson.

Relaxing inbetween bombardment, Mortarist, 3SAI, O Coy, 1984 Intake, SADF, Military

(above) A pencil drawing of one of my fellow Mortarists relaxing in-between a ‘bestoking’ (bombardment), 3SAI, O Coy, 1984 Intake, SADF. Any opportunity we found to relax and rest, we would take:  such was our exhaustion while training that one could fall asleep very easily.

Firing a Mortar round, mortar pits, FJ Bezuidenhout, JJ Bezuidenhout, Goldstone, 3 SAI, O Coy, 1984 Intake, SADF, Military, Location - probably Okanguati, 1985

(above) Firing a Mortar round at night, mortar pits, FJ Bezuidenhout, JJ Bezuidenhout, Kevin Goldstone.

De Villiers, Pelser, Van Der Merwe, Wessels, Schwab and Russouw, Mortar Pit, Okanguati, Kaokoland, 3 SAI, O Coy, 1984 Intake, 1085, SADF, Military, bb

(above) One of our mortar sections at Okongwati. 1985. De Villiers, Graeme Pelser, Van Der Merwe, Wessels, Christo Schwab, Russouw.

81 mm Mortar, SADF, Military, 1984

(above) A sketch located in my Mortar Training notes of an 81 mm Mortar, detailing the base plate, barrel, sights and bipod. 1984.

81 mm Mortar Ordinance, HE (High Explosive) Smoke Burst, Illumination

(above) 81 mm Mortar Ordinance, HE (High Explosive) Smoke Burst, Illumination.

The Amuniton Recess, Mortar Pit

(above) The ammunition recess to a mortar pit.

An 81 mm Mortar and Mortar Pit

(above) An 81 mm Mortar and Mortar Pit. Okangwati, Kaokoland.

An 81mm Mortar Pit, Rundu, SWA, 1984, Military

(above) Our mortar pit at Rundu Base, Kavangoland.

A Mortar Pit at Okanguati, Kaokoland, South West Africa border, 3 SAI, O Coy, 1984 Intake, SADF, Military, 1985

(above) Our mortar pit at Okongwati, Kaokoland.

The Mortar Pit, Epuap Falls, Angoland Border, SWA, 1985, Military

(above) Our mortar pit at Epupa Falls, Kaokoland.

Graham Leslie McCallum


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