Ray Watts's SAAF story Part 1

By Ray Watts


It feels as though I have been involved in aviation all my life and I suppose that's about right.

My involvement in aviation began when I was in Std 9 in 1967 (gad that was a million years ago) when we were asked to fill in some forms for the military as to where we would like to be posted to do our national service. I chose the SAAF as I had grandiose ideas of becoming a pilot. This idea didn't work out because my maths was not up to scratch. Anyway, I got my call up papers (WRN 67299115N) and was supposed to report for training on 2 Jan 1968. This didn't quite work because I contrived somehow to fail STD 9 the 1st time round and therefore only matriculated at the end of 1969. The SAAF agreed to postpone and I was then ordered to report for duty on the 1st of June 1970.

At the time, I had decided that if I couldn't fly, I'd rather become an ATC and joined the DCA as a trainee ATC. During the last few months of my Matric year, I went through all the IQ tests, medicals etc to join the then DCA as a trainee ATC. I was accepted and started there in early January 1970.

The day before I went into the SAAF (June 30th 1970), my dear old Dad dragged me along to the local barber and forced me to get a military type haircut, which I wasn't impressed with at the time, I mean, I was going out with my mates that night and to be seen with a short back & sides was just not on. I blessed him the next day as you will see later.

The fateful day arrived and dear ol' Dad dropped me off at the gate to of the Air Force Gymnasium at Valhalla. The 1st military type error I made was at that very gate when I called a Corporal 'Sir', I knew nothing about ranks at that stage, but quickly learned that if it has two stripes on its sleeve, it is called Corporal.

That day we were introduced, in typical military
fashion, to the Officer Commanding, his 2 I/C, the Chaplain and worst of all, our instructors.

We were divided into squadrons. I ended up in 4 Sqd and we were then allocated bungalows. I was lucky and was put in a bungalow that only housed 12 people. We were told to put our luggage down and follow the corporal to the Q stores. Here I was lucky in that having had my hair cut the previous day (thanks Dad) I was taken straight away to be issued with my uniform. This consisted of, if memory serves me correctly two pairs of boots, one pair of shoes, three pairs of socks, three blue shirts, 3 khaki shirts, 2 pairs of khaki shorts (that came down to the knee), a jersey, a Great Coat (or Grey coat), two pairs of sports shorts, a pair of takkies, one blue battle dress, tie, belt, 2 pairs of underpants (called Santa Maria's, which we were advised never to wear as they were extremely uncomfortable - they were really only suitable for washing cars with), a pack that contained buttons, needles and cotton (I still have that pack). We also received a peak cap, a beret and all the badges that went with the uniform, as well as a mess set that consisted of a knife, fork & spoon, kept together in a sort of sheath, a sturdy plastic mug and last but not least, 2 overalls and a huge black rucksack (called a 'balsak'). This was all to be packed into a trommel (a large metal box). We were also issued with sheets, a pillow and two blankets. It was pretty heavy to carry and we then returned to our bungalow with this lot and were told to leave all this stuff there.

We were then issued with an R1 rifle with its cleaning kit. This was locked into a rack at the end of the bungalow and only ever taken out of the rack for cleaning, rifle drill or a trip to the shooting range. I often wonder in these days of cash-in-transit heists etc., how these robbers get hold of military type weapons. I guess the control over these things has gone to pot like most other things in our military have.

At this stage we were introduced to military food. All I can say about military food is that it was perfectly good when it went into the kitchen but, what on earth they did to it in there was beyond belief. It went in good food and came out as something resembling mud sieved through a dirty sock. It tasted awful and looked worse. Everything was boiled until it was really dead and there was no chance of reviving anything. The best part was the bread, they couldn't mess that up as it was delivered from the bakery ready-made. That was the only thing that was really fresh. We were to collect a 'Varkpan' on the way into the Mess (I think I now know why that particular building is called a Mess - the food was a mess) and the food was then slopped onto this. You got everything together at the same time; vegetables, meat, bread, butter (and it was real butter), jam and if it was Wednesday, pudding all at the same time. One would then proceed to shovel this lot down; you couldn't eat it properly, you'd gag. The other thing that came with the meal was a cup of either tea or coffee (your choice) however they both tasted the same and the only way to make this brew palatable was to load it with sugar. There was never any salt or pepper available, but the food was that lousy that salt or pepper would probably not have improved it anyway. The only thing that one could say about the food was that there was always plenty of it and as far as I can remember, nobody ever got sick from it. There was another thing that you always had to finish what you were given and you were not allowed to leave anything on your plate. Once finished, you then proceeded, with your 'Varkpan' outside where there was a concrete washing trough filled with soapy but cold water - the water was hot when it was first put into the trough but that didn't last long. You were then supposed to wash the Varkpan and put it in the rack next to the trough. I don't know if these 'panne' were ever rewashed, but I doubt it.

As is typical of any military institution, discipline was very strict, but one got used to this very quickly (you had to). You never walked anywhere; you ran. The day went something like this. Up at 4:30 am, wash, shave, teeth etc. (morning ablutions), clean bungalow and make bed ready for inspection. Make sure everything was absolutely spotless because if it wasn't, the whole bungalow would be punished. Dress and wait for the corporal to arrive for inspection. Once this was complete (about 6am) proceed to breakfast, morning parade and roll call. Then onto the squadron parade ground, which was called "The Sahara" (it was huge) for PT, drill etc. Tea break, more drill, lunch, lectures, PT, afternoon tea, more drill and then finally "SQUADRON DISMISS' at about 4pm. After this it, was a rush to get your clothes washed and onto the line to dry. By the way, if you didn't chain your clothes to the line, you could be guaranteed that some swine would steal them. I know I lost an overall this way. It was extremely embarrassing to wear a new overall on parade when all your mates were wearing well-worn ones. You stood out like a sore thumb.

Wednesday afternoon was for sports and if one didn't participate in a particular type of sport, this was the ideal time to replace any missing buttons or repair anything that needed repairing.

There was also a canteen on the premises, which sold things like toothpaste, cigarettes etc., etc. They also sold Perks Pies (whatever happened to them?) and homemade Koeksisters. We would buy these regularly. I can still taste the combinations of meat pie & Koeksisters. It was wonderful.

There was a cinema at the gym as well. It was basically a hall and if I remember correctly, they showed a film once a month.

I had taken my guitar with me and we used to sing & play music in the bungalow after official lights out which was very homesick making. Once somebody stole my guitar and I searched through every bungalow, with our instructor, until I found it. He actually arrested the person who'd stolen it and this guy was sent to DB. I can't remember his name, but that doesn't really matter. The only thing that mattered was that I got my guitar back.

The Gym was, as I said a very strict place, but I never came across any of the pettiness I had experienced at boarding school. The 2IC was a Major and although I never knew his name, he was famous for the way in which he used to lead the prayers at Morning Parade. In the military, one week was an Afrikaans week and the next week would be in English. This was, as were most other things, very rigidly applied. The 2IC had no problem in saying the Lord's Prayer in Afrikaans at all, but when it came to English, he would get lost somewhere or forget the words, stop dead and then shout out "as you were" and then started all over again. This was great fun. Of course, the more he did this, the longer we stayed on parade and the less time we had to spend on PT (what a pleasure).

There was a large hangar (it's still there) which was used as a gymnasium called the "Melville Hall" and it was here that we were forced to climb ropes etc. Now, not being the most athletic chap, I battled with this but finally managed to get it right.

While I was in the gym, I fell ill with some sort of flu or whatever and also developed at the same time, appendicitis. I was rushed off to the old 1 Mil hospital on a Sunday night. This is, so far, the only time I've ever been in an ambulance with its siren going. It was however an old VW Kombi Ambulance and I swear I could have ridden my bicycle faster than that thing went. My parents were called and they came to see me before I went into surgery. The surgeon on duty that night was Lt. Gen Cockcroft (the Surgeon General of the Defence Force). He did a wonderful job and I only have a very light scar from the operation. It is hidden away under a layer of fat these days, but I can assure you it is a neat one. I am told that when I woke up after the op, the only thing I was worried about was why I could see two priests when there was only one in the room. For some reason, I had a very high temperature which wouldn't go down, even though the nurses (and they were very good) tried their best with wet cloths etc. One night, the ward sister came round to my bedside and gave me a tablet. I don't know what it was, but that night my fever broke and I sweated like a waterfall. They changed my bed and pyjamas twice that night. Early the next morning, I asked the night sister, just before she went off duty, what that pill was and she told me in no uncertain terms that I wasn't to tell anybody about it. It's now 2022 and this is the first time I've ever mentioned it. After the op, I was sent home for a three-week recuperation period.

All my goods, which included my music, were put into storage and typical of military efficiency, it all went missing. I never found it again. Thank goodness I took the guitar home with me otherwise that would have disappeared as well.

The other things that we did while in the gym were normal military duties, like learning to standing guard. This was actually fun because we had to team up with one of the more experienced guards and learn from them. I ended up with an old school buddy, Leonard Stucky and he taught me what I had to know - like "HALT! WHO GOES THERE?" and "STOP OR I'LL SHOOT" There was a fair amount of more colourful language used, but it's not for use in polite company.

Aviation Personalities

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