Ray's SAAF story part 3

By Ray Watts


The chef that we had at Pietersburg was a rather excitable Italian, and the food was quite good. On a Sunday he would make homemade ice cream for pudding at lunchtime. He couldn't stand inefficiency in his kitchen, and it was a fairly common sight to see him chasing somebody out of his kitchen, brandishing a meat cleaver or some other big chef type knife yelling Italian obscenities. One dared not laugh at this scene or he'd come after you as well. You can imagine a whole room full of men trying not to laugh.

While we were there we slept in tents, with concrete floors, erected just near the kitchen. This was fine except when it rained. One can only imagine the mud that was traipsed in during a rainstorm. This of course had to be cleaned up immediately so that the tent could be spick & span for the next morning's inspection. All in the game, of course, except for one wet morning when the RSM came in for inspection and forgot to wipe his boots before coming in. He of course brought a whole lot of mud into the tent and when this was tactfully pointed out to him, he had the decency to ask for a cloth to wipe up the mess. He was that kind of person, very strict in his application of discipline, but entirely fair. He was the kind of leader that one would follow into hell & back.

At the end of those two weeks, we set off home in the Zephyr at a far more reasonable pace and made it all the way from Pietersburg to Birchleigh on half a tank.

The Mini & me

To my great delight the Mini was licensed, in my name, roadworthy and waiting for its new owner. My sisters & I drove all over the area that weekend. This was my ticket to freedom, and I made the most of it. I still think of my car as a ticket to freedom and I would be lost without it.

Richard & I had a totally uneventful trip to Pietersburg at the end of that weekend except that we only used Ĺ a tank of petrol to get there. I was advised to immobilise the car and I did this by removing the rotor arm from the distributor. The modern electronic immobilisers weren't on the market in those days.

Petrol at this stage, by the way, only cost 25c per litre. The Mini had a 5-gallon tank so by using extremely high mathematics, it cost me 5 x 4.5 = 22.5 litres x 0.25 = R5.63 per tank full. Where are those days now when it costs more for a litre of fuel than it did to fill the tank at that time.

After Pietersburg I was transferred, with Schalk Reed to Dunnottar as ATC assistants and after having spent 7 days leave at home; I drove the Mini out to Dunnottar.

Schalk & I met up and on arrival, we
found that although the guys in the tower knew we were coming nobody else did, especially the quartermaster's division. Anyway, after about an hour's faffing around they allocated us a 24-bed bungalow all to ourselves - and they expected us to clean & polish the entire place. This is the only time I ever saw Schalk get annoyed, and he said that this was decidedly unfair. Eventually they allowed us just to clean & polish the area in which we were to live. After about a week of this we were put into other bungalows, and I was very lucky to get the individual room that was in each bungalow.

We were to work in the tower as ATC assistants under Maj. Steve Bosch, an ex WW2 pilot. There were two other officers in the tower, a Capt Venter, and a Lt. Dieter Nielsen.

Our job was to go out to the end of the runway in use in a specially marked red & white Land Rover Station wagon. This Landy was equipped with a portable generator, for the radios, as well as a flare pistol. We took turns at this, so one-week Schalk would go out and the next week it would be my turn. Initially we had a man with us to help with the generator (it was heavy) but eventually he was taken away and we had to move this blasted thing ourselves

When it was my turn, I would drive out there and, with or without help, unload the generator and get it coupled up. There was a NATO plug on the left-hand side of the Landy into which the generator was plugged. The plug had to be put in before the generator was started otherwise it would belt you. Once the generator was started the radio's (three of them) could be switched on, never the other way round. At Dunno's at that time there were three parallel runways in use at any one time. The left hand one was for A Flight, (on 1 frequency) the right hand one for B Flight (on another frequency) and the centre one for any arriving aircraft who had suffered radio failure, which, with the old Fuchs sets that the Harvard's had at the time, was fairly common. The 3rd radio was so that we could communicate with the tower and not disturb anybody on the active frequencies. The Landy was also equipped with a couple of fire extinguishers for just in case.

Our job was to watch for Pupes who had forgotten to put their undercarriage down, we would then call them on the Radio and advise them of this. If they didn't hear us or ignored us then we would have to fire a red flare at the aircraft to wake the pilot up and force him to overshoot. A red flare meant you couldn't land. I never had to do this, but Schalk did.

Harvard 7573 on display at Dunnottar

I must describe the layout of the airfield as it has bearing on what I'm going to say. The airfield was basically a large square and the runways ran North South & East West. On the eastern & southern side there was a farmer's mielie fields that bounded on the airfield fence. On the western side there was the main road from Springs to Nigel and on the other side of the road there was a swamp. On the northern side was the airfield buildings, camp etc. When the runway in use had its approach over either the mielie fields or the camp itself the instruction was to fire the red flare so that it landed on the airfield. On the west side it didn't matter, as the flare would land in the swamp.

On the particular day that Schalk had to fire a red, he was on the eastern side of the field and instead of firing it in towards the airfield he fired it straight at the aircraft and the flare ended up in the mielie field. This of course started a fire, which meant that the airfield fire brigade had to go out and put the fire out before the whole field was destroyed and the SAAF sat with a huge claim for the farmer's loss of income. Now, there was another rule, that all flying was suspended if the fire brigade was not in its standby position, so with the fire trucks out, putting out the fire, all the aircraft that were airborne at the time had to circle until the fire brigade were back in their standby position and the smoke from the fire had cleared. You can imagine the chaos when all the incoming flights could not land. Schalk was not very popular I can tell you.

A major problem with being stuck out on the end of the runway all by yourself was trying, especially after lunch, to stay awake. Heavens preserve you if you went to sleep and either an aircraft crashed gear up, or the tower called you and you didn't answer. This was a court martial offence; neither of us was ever caught.

During the week where we were in the Tower our duties consisted of answering the phone, keeping a look out for undercarriage problems, liaising with the fire brigade, and making endless cups of tea. We were also allowed loose on the radio on the odd occasion. This is where I made my first boo-boo. There was a Cessna (Cessna 711) inbound and when he turned final, I asked him to check that his gear was down and locked to which he answered "Down & Welded" I didn't know the Cessna had fixed gear. It took me a long time to live this one down.

The only flying I got to do at Dunnottar was in this same Cessna when we were both taken for a flight out to the GF area. We flew at low level to Greylingstad and then at a higher level back via Heidelberg. This was a wonderful flight.

The following day we were also included in a trip to Northern Air Defence station at Devon. This was a tremendously interesting trip. The Radar they used was very sophisticated and accurate.

As was usual in the military, Wednesday afternoon was dedicated to sports, and those of us who didn't play a specific sport were subject to PT. This usually consisted of us running between the two security fences that surrounded the living area. This was about a five-mile run and was hell as the area was filled with humps and bumps, long grass etc. We survived.

The red sock indicates a pupe on his 1st solo.

Again here, we got every 2nd weekend off, but the camp Dominie insisted that everybody be back by 5pm on a Sunday instead of the usual midnight as in other camps. This really was a nuisance, not so much for me, because I had the Mini, but the other guys, who either hiked or travelled by train this, really cut into their weekends. Don't know why the OC (Col. Badenhorst) put up with this but he did.

Col. Badenhorst had a great knack of remembering his staff's names & birthdays and I'll never forget, on my 20th birthday, I was walking up to the tower from the map store with bundles of maps in my hands. As I rounded the corner of a hanger the Colonel was walking towards me from the opposite direction. In a case like this, when your hands are full you cannot salute so you simply straighten up and march past the senior officer. I'd just passed him when I heard the command "Watts, kom hier" from the Colonel. I stopped, turned and walked up to him. "Watts, sit daai kaarte neer" "Ja Kolonel" and once I'd put them on the ground, he stuck out his hand, "Veels geluk met jou verjaarsdag" All he had wanted to do was wish me happy birthday and I was worried that I'd done something wrong.

Life in the camp was the usual mixture of military discipline and fun. There was one morning function that had to be done and this was to ride the Tower's bicycle down to the main gate and collect Capt. Venter's newspaper for him. If I can explain the layout of the camp a little further. When leaving the tower one rode between two rows of hangers, onto the main entrance road and down the hill to the gate. On the left-hand side of this road there was an open storm water ditch usually with mud etc in the bottom of it.

The military have very strict rules about how to ride a bike. You will keep both hands on the handlebars and both feet on the pedals at all times. This means that when you go past a senior officer you do not salute but merely straighten up. This particular morning, I was coasting down the hill when a Brigadier stepped out of the HQ building. I of course automatically, without thinking, saluted him. I promptly lost control of the bike and ended up in the ditch in a big heap. I stood up, full of mud, and feeling very sheepish when the brig strode over to me and said "Nou weet jy hoekom daar reels is ne" and then walked away chortling to himself. It took me a long time to live that one down.

There was another occasion when I was asked to collect Maj. Bosch's official car from the workshops and bring it up to the tower. I duly did this and on the way back to the tower wondered why all the troepies that I passed would salute me. Of course, they thought it was an officer in the car. This gave me a great feeling of power.

While I was there, something went wrong with the Mini, don't remember what, but I took my Mom's Goliath back to camp with me. There was another guy there called Ronnie Smuts who had an Austin A35 and he challenged me to a race up the road next to our bungalows. I won by a short head and only because the road was narrow and I pushed him onto the grass where he lost traction. Luckily the bosses never got to hear about this because racing in the camp area was banned.

Aviation Personalities

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