I have never been a member of any SADF Veterans Organisation for numerous reasons. Many have asked me to join them but I have always declined and walked away. That is until my old Parachute Sappers (specifically by name of Chappies van Zyl) twisted my arm to the point that it almost broke. I finally relented when the founder of ‘Rooiplaas’ (Nico Beneke) graciously—and without Chappie’s violence—convinced me to find a home with them. I therefore dedicate this short piece to the men of Rooiplaas…a great group of ex-paratroopers from 1 Parachute Battalion…A true paratroopers’ community (https://www.rooiplaas.co.za)
To my new ‘home’, here is a story I wish to share with you all:
My sapper section (at that time, very few sappers were jump qualified) and I arrived in a cool Bloemfontein in early September 1978.
Our mission was to support an exercise of 1 Parachute Battalion known as Exercise Caledon Downs, an operational training exercise in the Wepener area of the Orange Free State.
Having no clue what equipment was required for the training exercise, we left Bethlehem (22 Field Squadron) with an old Bedford truck laden with mines, mine detectors, assault boats, explosives, and a mobile water point (I need to emphasise that whoever came up with the name ‘mobile water point’ must have been delusional!)
On arrival, and while my men wandered around the battalion area like lost sheep—or rather lost sappers—I attended the Orders Group (O Gp) for the exercise. Amongst the paras, the rumour mill was already hard at work—this they said, was to be a rehearsal for a large scale airborne operation into Angola. The battalion’s pathfinders were to freefall into the designated target area under cover of darkness, and mark a drop zone (DZ) for the incoming parachute assault early the following morning. In my absence, the men found what appeared to be a deserted bungalow and they would seek me out later to give me a bed they had ‘scored’ for me.
In the meantime, I left the O Gp feeling rather dejected after receiving our orders. There would be no big demolition tasks, no clearing or laying of minefields, no assault river crossing…only a damn water point for the paratroopers. Giving my orders to my sappers was akin to addressing a rugby team that had suffered its worst loss ever. They were utterly disgusted at what they were supposed to do to support the exercise. Early the next morning, my sappers, under the capable command of my troop sergeant Cpl L Steyn, left feeling rather miserable for a grid reference somewhere in the eastern Free State.
The following day, I was to jump with (then) Major Anton van Graan’s HQ element while my sappers drove to a grid reference specified in the O Gp. Being a well-trained sapper officer, I snivelled around for the rest of the day, fearful I would be given a task I was unable to do—that is, until a Major Grundling found me hiding in a deserted bungalow. After giving me a severe dressing down, he finally told me where to report to the next morning. Due to the nature of the exercise, we were not going to jump with Personal Weapons Containers (PWCs). Instead the parachutes would simply be strapped over our battle order equipment.
On the road to the airport, there was great excitement. On arrival, we kitted-up and waited…Soon we were all shuffling off to board the C-130s. I was part of the second wave and was to jump second in Major van Graan’s stick on that fateful day of 7 September 1978.
After the usual “Stand up! Hook up!…” the door opened and out we went. The green canopy billowed…Phew! But there was no time to admire the view. I recall two things very vividly: (1) We were very low and (2) I saw a barbed wire fence and a large anthill next to it…I knew I was going to meet the one or the other. And I did. No amount of pulling on the risers or trying to climb up the canopy worked. It all happened too fast. After a very hard landing and what I thought was a broken foot, I limped off to find my company commander, Major van Graan. I was certainly not going to show the paratroopers that I had been hurt. Sapper pride took hold.
It was then that I came across Captain Blaauw (I think it was David but I am not too sure anymore!) looking rather forlorn and visibly upset. On asking if he was okay, he told me that Major Grundling had landed in a farm dam and drowned. I was shocked but also realised that had any of us landed in a dam, the weight of our equipment would have dragged us down. Plus, as it was still early morning, the water was freezing and those brave troops who tried to rescue him were simply unable to do so.
In addition, several other paratroopers had been hurt when they went off the edge of some high ground. Needless to say, and despite the great loss to the battalion, objectives had to be assaulted, captured and consolidated before we could move on to the main objective which was a farm house some distance away. And so I hobbled across the Wepener fields, humping my equipment and trying to keep my pose as best I could. After a river crossing (I thought we were supposed to do that with the boats we brought from Bethlehem!), my sappers finally arrived later that afternoon to collect me and ferry me across to the water point where we spent the rest of the entire exercise—purifying water for the paratroopers. I had not broken my foot but instead, had very badly bruised the sole of my foot. To this day, I have an aversion to anthills.
After the exercise, we made the long trip back to Bethlehem. We never did deploy for the great air assault operation that was rumoured to be in the offing…but we all went to war. And now, almost 39 years later, I have become a member of the Rooiplaas Paratroopers’ Community—a long time to find a home amongst men who share common values. I am still a sapper at heart but also feel at home with the paratroopers of Rooiplaas. Thank you Nico, Chappies and all other members of ‘Rooiplaas’ for welcoming me into your community. .