Register  Login
..::  » Articles » > » The Tale of the Ancient Armourer ::..

The Tale of the Ancient Armourer

Contributed by Phillip Vietri

I was a dienspligtige in the SADF, for 2 years, 1973-75. I started in 5 SAI, Ladysmith, and ended as a tiffie armourer [small arms]. Here are a few tales of life and work as an armourer in the LWT of a stores depot.

There were many different tasks involved with the weapons programme of the mid-1970s, some of them, on the surface, rather funny. During this period I was at Lyttelton, just down the road from VTH. We lived at Tekbasis, around the yellow brick mess building near the MMI. Both were visible from the Ben Schoeman Highway. We worked up top, where there were 3 institutions inside the perimeter: 61 BWS [tiffies], 81 TSD, an ADK Technical Stores Depot with its own LWT, and Lyttelton Engineering Works, where the R1s were manufactured. A very well thought-out combination, given that 81 was the main Depot country-wide for the issue of R1s.

The busiest, and bulkiest, of the jobs was the conversion programme. I worked mainly on Brens and Brownings. The Bren programme was on the whole not too eventful. The converted 7,62 Bren used R1 magazines. Generally we thought this rather pointless, since what is 20 rounds [gyppoed to 21] to a machine gun of that power? But R1 magazines it was. Dekwaria had decided. The converted 7,62 Bren, quality weapon though it was, had one alarming tendency; it refused to fire with some magazines. This, of course, could not happen in the field. Lots of test firing and observation showed that the Bren disliked brand new magazines, but that used magazines were fine. So, it fell to us armourers to go out inspecting magazines for A Group (small arms) at 81 TSD to stockpile, moving from unit to unit, starting in Pretoria, swapping brand-new magazines for used, serviceable ones. The confusion and misunderstanding this caused was hilarious. You would arrive at a unit with a bakload of brand-new magazines, to meet a QM with a stack of repairable and U/S ones, a broad smile on his face. You can imagine the change, mostly to purple, when we told him what we had come for. Not surprisingly, it was incomprehensible and pointless to him, and we weren't explaining anything, of course. So the poor guy would stand helplessly by while we rummaged through his serviceable magazines, seeking out the ones that were just right for the Brens. "Fokken klomp kák!" was a not infrequently muttered phrase.

The Browning presented another issue. The original weapon stopped firing with the breechblock in closed position. Thus it sometinmes happened, when the weapon had been firing for a long time and the block was too hot, that one was faced with a runaway. South Africa developed a rear sear that would lock it in open position when it stopped, thus ending the runaway problem. Fitting the Mk 2 rear sear was quite a finicky job, since the frame at the back of the barrel had to be drilled with precision in order to fit the sear.  A Group’s Hangar 18 in 81 TSD was stacked with unmodified Browning 7,62 conversions. On a job requisition, they were sent up in batches to us, and the rear sears were fitted. Then we metal-strapped the cases and painted a yellow dot on each to identify the converted ones. It's amazing how a job like that can go from being finicky to routine. It wasn't particularly exciting, but it was a job well done. Knowing that we had prepared those Brownings for the field, and that little South Africa had in a matter of months solved a problem that the mighty USA hadn't solved in thirty years, really made us walk...well, eight feet tall.

One of the big issues thrown back at us in the early days was the blackening of weapons for Border use, where a shiny metal barrel, according to instructions, could flash in the sunlight and expose an SADF soldier as a target in the bush for the enemy. I don't know how much of this was theory and how much experience at this stage, but it had to be done. Normally it was not a hassle. Weapons were stripped down, the removed parts thrown into their storage boxes [R1s were five to a box]. The frames, etc. which needed to be blackened were sent away, treated, and the weapons re-assembled when they were returned.

But on another occasion, we had to strip a batch of FN LMGs which were urgently needed, we presumed, at the Border. The FN's frame was aluminium, and required a special blackening process. So we stripped them down and sent them off. I was happily working on one of my Brownings when sammajoor Herbie Kerswill, a wonderful old WO2 in charge of the armoury, shouted over to me, "Get the punch-kit and come! We're going out!" The entire LWT armoury, five of us in all, was off on a Bedford, together with a small squad from 61 BWS. Our destination: Atlas Engineering. Weird. There, in one of their massive, spotless workshops, a Swede [or at any rate a Scandinavian] showed us that we hadn't removed all the steel pins. We couldn't tell, but he had a kind of white stick that stuck to aluminium and not to steel. So we set to work. I dropped one of the essential steel punches into the sloot below the work-bench. It was the only time I every heard Herbie skel - in Afrikaans, nogal! But after a number of hours, the job was done, the pins carefully collected, and we were off. We asked the Scandinavian what Atlas's main job was. He took us past the entrance of another hangar, where a horde of people were working on metal forms. It took a moment to register; these were aircraft parts. Atlas was manufacturing Mirages! We just gawked. The Scaninavian said nothing, only smiled superiorly. In the slang of my youth, that was really kiff!

The LMG had metal, 150-round ammo belts. Each clip tapered off at the back to a point that looked rather like a big old-fashioned J-nib. The point clicked into the rim at the rear of the shell casing, thus positioning it correctly for firing. If this wasn’t precisely done, you had a stoppage. And if one of the points broke off, you definitely had a stoppage. You can imagine what a tedious task it was for us to examine and repair these belts. And for the troepe to have to keep reloading them. Our excellent arms industry came up with the idea of linkages; you know, the little links held together by the rounds, that you collected and sent back to the factory, who reloaded them. No more stoppages, no more reloading. This development happened during my time. What a relief for us all!

"Kom manne, dis tyd om te ry!" That was how many of our little adventures began. I don't know if it was the general style of the SADF, the tiffies, or just in the nature of the times, but that's how it began. That's how one of my most embarrassing memories began. Our first involvement in the business, was across in the Transito hangar of 81 TSD, which backed on to the railway siding. It was a vrag of weapons of mind-blowing variety, obviously captured and brought back. The Uiltjies were there, bowing over the huge cases, clucking and shaking their heads. Mostly owls hoot, I know, but these were definitely clucking. Only the armourers were present, including a couple of experts from Dekwaria. We were required to sort and identify; that was all. And to keep our mouths shut, of course. The range of different weapons really was mind-blowing. Wherever they came from, their users must have been desperate. I looked into one of the cases, and picked up and held what I knew to be my first AK 47. It was a solemn moment for me; no doubt a commonplace for the fellows who did Border duty in the ‘80s. There were Czech M58s, French AA 52s, and many others. Some were pretty obscure, and had to be identified using small arms manuals. When it was over, the identified weapons were labelled, packed into the big crates, which were sealed, fork-lifted on to Bedfords and driven away by the Uiltjies, never to be seen by us again. Oh yes, there were also some great big 120mm mortars of Soviet origin, with an intimidating array of red, green, yellow lights etc., and a base plate that would have crushed an elephant. The Uiltjies weren't keen on our spending too much time with these, though we couldn't exactly be kept away from them.

I think the Uiltjies weren't too happy with the security arrangements at 81 TSD. Though no-one apart from us actually saw what was inside, you know what a rumour-mill the SADF always was. And that may or may not be the reason for my most embarrassing memories of the SADF. I don't even know how to describe this, so I am switching here to second person to allow you to see it through your own eyes, so to speak. Perhaps as someone with vastly more experience, you will be able to make more sense of it.

Imagine you're an ordinary little tiffy lance-jack, standing at your LWT workbench doing a dull routine inspection of Uzzi barrels, searching for all the boring things like pitting and bulges. It's just after tea-time. Your WO1, the LWT Bevelvoerder, comes to the door and shouts: "Los alles en gaan pak. Julle ouens gaan 'n rukkie weg." Then, with a sour expression, he adds "En los jul stepouts agter. Waar julle heen gaan, word hulle nie benodig nie!" Ok, knowing him, that last remark means he doesn't actually know where you're going, and is the hell-in for not being in on it. But neither do you know. You troepe have an hour to pack, go to the mess, where you're actually going to get lunch early. Then you all meet outside the waghuis at the main gate. There a Bedford waits, with an unfamiliar unit flash and...Uiltjies. You and the PFs all climb on board together, the flap falls and you're away.

The route soon becomes clear: Waterkloof Air Base. The Bedford reverses, stops. The Uiltjies drop the tailgate and lift the flap. You're parked next to a plane entrance, and as you climb on board, you look back. Four props. C-130. The engines are already being started. You’re far away from any buildings. You depart almost immediately. No idea where you're going, and the sun is level overhead, so direction is impossible to judge. You fly for a long time. Most guys fall asleep as soon as the plane is in the air. That's the SADF; grab it where you can, you're never going to get enough. On this flight there's no going to the pilots' cabin to trek a skyf; you just stay put.

You land. Everywhere heat, dust. You climb out and straight into another Bedford. You ride. As in Pretoria, two Uiltjies sit by the tailgate, watching. No peeping out. "Where are we going?" some okes ask. More silent, stony stares. Your'e sweating like a pig, but it's hot under the canvas, and there's precious little ventilation. You're moving generally to the west. Eventually you pull off somewhere. You're bursting for a piss. A small, grotty camp. It's so dry and dusty. Flies. You're taken to a permanent tent. Concrete base. All around, okes staring. Bokkops. But no-one approaches you or speaks to you. It's bad news to get too close when there are Uiltjies around. And maybe they've just been warned off. A big open area. Masses of weapons stacked in long rows across it, what looks like anti-aircraft as well. At last, you can go for a piss, and drink a decent quantity of water. It's late in the day, and the sun is starting to go down. Spectacularly. You're taken to the mess. Kak food [this is 1975]; chicken in watery white sauce, pap, soggy shrapnel. Jelly and custard [that's ok]. Coffee, or rather the tasteless muck that passes for it in the SADF. "Julle ouens moet lekker [!] eet. Julle kry nie vanaand baie slaap nie!" Guard duty! Fokken hel! This is starting to look like rondfok! And so, you're naaiing beat all night. Next morning, you’re bug-eyed at breakfast, the PFs [everyone's in one mess] are restfully chatting! Bastards! At least here they have to use varkpanne, though. And eat the same kak food as you do.

And then the same job begins. Five long days of it. And everywhere you go, you carry your R1: magazine full of live ammo, round in the chamber, safety catch off, kolf resting on the toe of your boot. Not something you're used to, and quite intimidating. At first, you handle that rifle like it's cut crystal. Daytime is for work, night-time for wagdiens. And they take you out on a patrol, too; just one, for the day, back before nightfall, another rondfok for border rofies, no doubt [or else the bokkops are capitalising on your brief presence!]. But you're not used to this type of activity so much any more, and your feet are screaming with blisters long before you get back, rip your boots off, carefully peel away your socks and survey the damage. The PFs have had a day to themselves amongst the weapons. Maybe the patrol was to keep you from seeing stuff you're not cleared to see? In those days, who could tell? They laugh at they way you guys are limping around, but luckily the medics have plenty of mercurochrome. By this time, you've worked out by various means that the airport must be Rundu. The job gets done, and you're shunted back for the return flight to Pretoria. You've got your bush tan at least, and the others think they know where you've been, but no-one actually asks. Later, as a two-striper, you do another trip, but this time it's not so hard to tell where; Oshakati, returning by Bedford via Tsumeb to Grootfontein for a flight back. This time they also take weapons with. You, of course, are the donkie who loads them on to the plane.

So; what do you tell people, especially other ex-servicemen, when they ask you if you did Border duty? Yes? No? Sort of? Almost? The circumstances are kind of embarrassing.
    "Ja", you might say, "I was there twice."
    When? "1975."
    How long? "Each time for about five days."
    Where? "Well, I don't actually know, somewhere out of Rundu and then somewhere out of Oshakati.”
    For what? "Inspecting captured weapons."
    Contact? "No. We did a couple of day patrols, lots of guard duty, but otherwise we never left the perimeter of the camp. We just stayed inside and did our jop."

What would you think if some guy told you a story like this? Sounds like total kák, doesn't it? This guy's never been near the Border, you'd say. So, what would you say if this were you, and they ask you if you've done Border duty? See why it's so embarrassing? So when they ask you, you either say “No”, or you just keep quiet. It's hard to describe the SADF of '75, already engaged in a war, but still inexperienced and responding ad hoc to the situation, in the process doing some very weird and ham-handed things. Not exactly the powerful, slick war machine of the late ‘70s and '80s, is it? Except for one thing; wraggies, the training was tough, and I reckon we were every bit as strong and fit [in my case, only towards the end] as the ouens who were called up after us!

Being a tiffie in 81 TSD meant seeing not just your little bit, but the wider picture of weapons in the SADF. A Group was, as I have said, the main weapons store for the entire army. Weapons issued had to be inspected by the LWT tiffies for serviceability. The SADF worked on NATO numbers [digit pattern 0000-00-000-0000]. The 1005 with which ours always began represented weapons, and that the next, 2-digit number was the country code. Most weapons were 1005-13 or 1005-18. So for example, 1005 18 980 0545 might be an assembled R1 mouse. Destination units were identified by a separate four-digit code beginning with zero. Issues were by computer; Section Records had punch-card machines, which were state of the art at that time. The ladies punched the NATO numbers, quantities, etc., in, then stacked the cards in the printer, which pushed out the invoices we eventually signed.

Then there was Code [0]989. This was actually a write-off code. There was a series of two digit sub-codes which appeared on separate, hand-written forms. The Uiltjies dealt with the transport of these. They loaded them up, and took them away. They were flown out, we reckoned, and their destinations were probably airports rather than units - double protection. This was confirmed when we stumbled inadvertently upon the location of Code 14, one of the biggest receivers. One of us once saw the destination on a carelessly-placed clipboard; Salisbury. So the SADF, it seemed, was supplying the SAP, who were serving in Rhodesia at that time. In those days, the SWA Border zones were identified with numbered codes: Sub-area 1 [Oshakati], Sub-area 2 [Katima Mulilo], Sub-area 3 [Rundu], which was the new one [!]. Katima was, in terms of issues, the biggest.

We had some other oddities as well. One was an Uzzi with prototype silencer. A certain captain from Dekwaria and his sidekick 2-pip were constantly visiting us and looking at it. One day, the lieut turned up with a handwritten Code 989 requisition for the silencer, but none of the other documentation. The major in charge of the group asked for me to get it ready. I pointed out that there was no supporting documentation or sub-code of issue. The form didn’t even have a NATO number or proper description. The major, unfortunately, was a classic toady, and nearly kakked in his broek that I said this before the lieut. "Corporal Vietri, we must issue it," he said pompously. "This is Code 989 and the lieutenant is from Dekwaria." It smelled of dead rats, lots of them, but I was the tiffie, not a storeman, and he was the Commander of A Group, so I prepared it for issue. I had done my best to convince him not to. The lieutenant made a quick getaway, no doubt breathing a deep sigh of relief. I believe that neither he nor the silencer were ever heard of again. When the 81 TSD kommandant, a serious man with a very high security clearance, called us in for uitkak, the major had at least the grace to admit that I had tried to prevent him making the issue, and that he had not followed my advice. The mechanics of the affair are beyond me, but it was very fishy as well as ratty. But it did one thing for me; for the rest of my time I had the commandant's confidence, a very useful thing to have in that place. It also resulted in my being involved in another interesting event in 1975.

This was the siege of the Israeli Embassy in Fox Street, JHB by the Japanese Red Army. It was all over the radio news [no TV in 1975], and everyone was talking about it. At about 01:30 the Commandant himself arrived at our camp in Tekbasis and had me called. I was in my uniform in seconds, and he drove me up to 81 TSD. In the secure store of A Group there was another prototype, this time an R1 sniper rifle with state-of-the-art infra-red visor. He made me assemble it and prepare it for use. We loaded it into a big carrier, and walked down to the main gate. The hekwag nearly kakked himself to see the commandant there at that time. But the commandant merely put his fingers to his lips and we walked past. Outside, a car was waiting with two young guys in civvies who were elite forces if ever I saw them. The passenger wound down the window, took the rifle and they drove off without a word. The commandant said not another word about the affair. He knew that I knew what was going on. The siege was over within 24 hours, and I will never know whether our rifle played a role or not. But the poor old major was never briefed about the nocturnal events in his main hangar.

Finally, there were some funny moments as well. On one occasion I was summoned to the Colonel’s office. A couple of weapons experts from Dekwaria were there. They were looking for a one-inch Very pistol that cocked itself when the trigger was pulled. There was no such thing. The one-inch, a brass weapon, had to be cocked by hand. I told them so. No, they insisted, there had to be a self-cocking one-incher. I had just been sorting out and inspecting the Very pistols in the wire store, so the answer was not a problem. I ran back to A Group and returned with a 1,5-inch Very pistol. “I believe this is what you are looking for, major,” I said to the senior Dekwaria man, pulling the trigger and cocking the weapon. How crestfallen he looked. And how the colonel smirked at his discomfiture. Some time later, the Colonel, an ADK, told me he had recommended me for a Sergeant’s stripe, but had been refused. Thank heavens! I would never have lived that one down amongst the other tiffies!

These are just a few of the events in which I was involved in 1974-5. I have not told my army story, which is pretty run-of-the-mill. These events are the specifically interesting ones I experienced in my line of work as an armourer. I do not think that many others have this particular story to tell, so I hope it fills a gap. My memory is hazy after 35 years, but I think the main details are correct.

dienspligtige – National Serviceman, conscript.

tiffy – a member of the Technical Services Corps, including motor mechanics and armourers.

5 SAI – 5 South African Infantry Battalion, Ladysmith.

LWT – Light Workshop Troop, an independent tiffy work group within a unit.

Lyttelton – suburb close to Pretoria, where several military institutions were located.

VTH – Voortrekkerhoogte, the most important military settlement in the country, South of Pretoria. Many training units were located there, including the SA Army College and military churches and chaplains.

Tekbasis – A group of camps located around a common Mess, including 81 TSD, 61 BWS, 4 Signals and a small Provost (military police) unit.

Ben Schoeman – a major highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria, named after a former Minister of Transport.

MMI – Military Medical Institute, which included a small building with the army's mainframe computer, where our guys stood guard.

61 BWS – 61 Base Workshops, a full tiffie unit.

81 TSD – 81 Technical Stores Depot.

ADK – Administrative Service Corps - insultingly referred to as "Altyd Deur die Kak" (always through the shit) because many of the storemen were G4s, i.e. soldiers on permanent light duty).

gyppoed – skiving off, fixing to make something work, usually with a shortcut.  "Gyppo guts" was diarrhoea. From "Egyptian". A Second World War usage.

Dekwaria – DHQ, Defence Headquarters in Pretoria Central.

bakload – a truck load, “bak” meaning the loading platform.

QM – Quartermaster, the person in charge of the stores.

U/S – unserviceable, standard way to refer to unrepairable equipment.

"Fokken klomp kak!" – “Fucking load of shit!”

rear sear - a small lever that holds the breech-block of a weapon in the open position when it stops firing.

FN LMG – an aluminium-framed, Light Machine Gun manufactured by the Fabrique National in Belgium, source of the FN, later R1, rifle. It was belt fed.

WO2  Warrant Officer Second Class: Sergeant-Major.

sammajoor – Sergeant-Major.

sloot – ditch, drainage channel.

skel - swearing.

nogal – surprisingly.

kiff! – great, good, from the Afrikaans word gif, literally "poison!" Seventies slang.

troepe- troops, soldiers.

"Kom manne, dis tyd om te ry!" – “Come guys, it's time to go!”

vrag – load.

Uiltjies – little owls - slightly derogatory reference to the members of the SADF Military Intelligence (DMI), their insignia being an owl. The owl's legendary nocturnal sight and watchfulness is an obvious symbol for the security services.

Uzzi - Israeli 9mm, short-barrelled sub-machine gun - highly effective close-range assault weapon.

WO1 – Warrant Officer First Class: the top grade of Sergeant-Major.

Bevelvoerder – Commanding Officer.

"Los alles en gaan pak. Julle ouens gaan 'n rukkie weg." – “Leave everything, go and pack. You guys are going away for a while.”

"En los jul stepouts agter. Waar julle heen gaan, word hulle nie benodig nie!" – “And leave your step-outs (dress uniform) behind. Where you’re going you won’t be needing them!”

waghuis – guard house, building just inside the main gates that housed the soldiers on guard duty and their commander.

PFs – members of the Permanent Force.

trek a skyf  - have a smoke.

okes – guys, men, blokes.

grotty – run down, grimy.

Bokkops – “buck heads”, referring to all members of the SA Infantry Corps, their insignia being a gazelle head. A play on the word "fokop" lit. "fuckup".

Kak – Shit, lousy, as in "lousy food".

pap – stiff maize-meal porridge, popular with a tomato sauce at barbecues.

shrapnel – diced mixed vegetables - carrots, peas and maize is the most common mix.

"Julle ouens moet lekker [!] eet. Julle kry nie vanaand baie slaap nie!" – “You guys had better eat well. You're not going to get much sleep tonight!”

Fokken hel! – exactly like it sounds in English!

rondfok – being fucked or messed around, as opposed to opfok, "fuck up", meaning punishment exercise in the SADF.

naaiing beat – doing guard duty, standing guard. Naai is a vulgar word for "screw", especially amongst brown-skinned Afrikaans-speakers.

varkpanne – literally “pig pans”, a compartmentalised metal food-tray for ordinary soldiers. Those with rank ate off china plates in their messes.

kolf – rifle butt

wagdiens – guard duty.

rofies – literally “little scabs” – recent recruits.

donkie – donkey, someone who does all the menial labour, meaning most conscripts!

jop - slang Afrikaans adaptation of the English "job".

"Ja" – “Yes”.

wraggies – really, seriously.

ouens – guys, men.

Salisbury – former capital of (Southern) Rhodesia, now Harare, capital of independent Zimbabwe.

2-pip – First Lieutenant, with 2 pips on each shoulder.

lieut – lieutenant (pronounced “loot”).

kakked – shat, like in shitting in trousers.

broek – trousers.

kommandant – Commandant, Lieutenant-Colonel.

uitkak – literally “shitting out”, a dressing down, the blistering language used when someone addresses a junior who has caused trouble.

hekwag – gate-guard.

Very Pistol – flare-launcher.

Sergeant's stripe – A third stripe to add to my full corporal's two stripes. But his attempt was doomed from the start; conscripts never received more than two stripes!

Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET
Images from 'Grensoorlog' series, produced by Linda de Jager, reproduced with kind permission from MNET


@ 2007 War In Angola - Veridical Solutions