On Thursday, 16 July 2010, I was treated to a visit to Fort iKapa, the army base near Acacia Park, which is home to several Reserve units. I had seen the base from the nearby N1 on countless occasions, and always wondered what it was, and which military units were based there. So I was very excited to be given a tour of the premises.
Lance Corporal (L/Cpl) Leon Wessels, designated driver of the bus for the trip, drove Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Johan Conradie and me out to Fort iKapa in the morning. The purpose of our visit was to show me the headquarters of Cape Field Artillery (CFA), a Reserve unit that is based here.
From 5 July to 21 July (Mondays through to Saturdays), a large group of twenty-six men and women from CFA received GV5 training. Instructors from the School of Artillery had travelled down from Potchefstroom with two Samil 100 6×6 gun tractors, each of which was pulling a GV5 howitzer gun. On Saturday, 17 July 2010, they had an opportunity to demonstrate what they had learned on this course at a formal demonstration in front of invited guests and dignitaries.
When we arrived at CFA’s headquarters, the trainees were having brunch, and so we went for a drive around the base for a little while. It is a vast space, with old aircraft hangars dotted about, surrounded by dense fynbos, and lots and lots of invasive Port Jackson bushes growing everywhere. I was surprised, and a little saddened, that some of the unit lines are better maintained than others, as I had expected neatly laid-out roads and pathways throughout the base. Lt Col Conradie explained that the units all have different resources at their disposal, in the form of manpower, funds and troops on the base. However, there is a healthy sense of competition among the units.
He also pointed to an area of 9.6 ha where the fynbos growth was particularly dense, and told me that this was in fact a natural heritage site, proclaimed on 01 October 1987. It is even marked by a sign. The endangered and vulnerable species are Serruria aemula, S. trilopha, Leucadendron levisanus and Diastella proteoides, which are endemic only to the Western Cape. This particular patch of ground is thus left undisturbed.
We stopped at an abandoned, empty hangar, so that I could have a look inside. It is a huge stone building, with thick walls, and a slightly curved roof, which is (apparently) typical of aircraft hangars. It was surprisingly cold inside. There are windows up in the roof, which can be opened and closed from inside.
Our next stop was at the hangar belonging to Regiment Oranjerivier where Lt Col Conradie introduced me to Mr Pine Pienaar and Sgt Major Vercueil.
Regiment Oranjerivier is an Armour Regiment of the South African Army, which was immediately clear from the two armoured vehicles on display inside the hangar. The one is the Eland M7 (affectionately called the Noddy?!), while the other is the Rooikat.
The highly mobile Eland was used extensively during the Angolan/South West African border war in the 1980s. Despite its size and weight, the more modern Rooikat is a very fast armoured vehicle, capable of travelling at 120 kph on the open road, and about 50-80 kph off-road. Interestingly, even when the vehicle is travelling at speed across rough terrain, the gun remains trained on a target. Modern fire control technology enables it to engage targets accurately while on the move.
I was very impressed by this particular hangar. It was spotless inside, the interior walls neatly painted, with steps leading up to a mezzanine level. There were offices at the back of the hangar, as well as on the upper level. Sgt Major Vercueil very kindly opened the doors to the various rooms to show us what they looked like inside. The lounge and kitchen area, the boardroom, and the offices of the Officer Commanding and the Second in Command were all in pristine order, as one would expect from a military unit. You could tell that they were very proud of their headquarters. This was also evident from the landscaping and beautification of the immediate surroundings of the hangar.
Downstairs, Sgt Major Vercueil showed us a strange-looking shell-casing, with metal flames coming out of its top, standing on a counter in the pub area. When I looked puzzled, she explained that this was part of a special tradition of the regiment, as a type of drink called – alarmingly – ‘diesel and dust’ is drunk from it (you can read a little more about it here). She even went to find the recipe for us. I have forgotten the exactly composition (which is probably just as well!), but I remember that the main component was 80% alcohol (not sure which), to which were added small percentages of old coffee (from the day before), diesel, dust, battery acid (!), grease, … and something else. You have to be really tough to drink that concoction and survive!
Sgt Major Vercueil also read out aloud the very moving Tankers’ Prayer (you can read the words here). Essentially, it was a prayer to ask for protection when going into combat, and it was very beautiful and poetic. We thanked her for her hospitality and returned to L/Cpl Wessels, who was waiting outside with the bus.
From here, we drove past a couple of other hangars, including those of Regiment Westerlike Provincie [and that is not a spelling mistake] (RWP) and C Company 3 Parachute Battalion. We paused briefly at Cape Town Rifles Regiment (also referred to as the Dukes), which is an infantry regiment. One of their buildings houses an indoor shooting range. This facility is used to enhance musketry training (which means you learn how to shoot handguns and rifles – not just old-fashioned muskets, as I had thought) and to simulate live firing exercises.
We also passed the hangar of 3 Field Engineers Regiment (the strong chaps who build bridges and other infrastructure to enable the troops and their vehicles to reach the site of the battle), and that of Cape Garrison Artillery (CGA), which is not yet fully in use. CGA is an artillery regiment, also a volunteer unit, and for a long time their base has been at Fort Wynyard, which is situated right next to the brand-new Cape Town Stadium.
Thereafter, we returned to the training area of Cape Field Artillery. All the trainees were clustered around the two large GV5 guns, taking notes and reading documentation, and learning how to operate them. One GV5 was in its deployment position in front of the hangar, with its two trail legs open – this alignment means that it is extremely stable, when the gun fires and recoils. The two spades at the end of each trail leg can dig into the ground for added stability. When the gun is being transported, the two trail legs are locked together, and the long barrel of the gun is turned 180° around and clipped into a large, um, clip, which holds it in place for safe long-distance transport.
Lt Col Conradie went to speak to one of the instructors, Sgt Moroko, and asked him whether he could tell me a little about the gun and how it works. A very patient and informative Sgt Moroko thus explained to me that this was a GV5 howitzer with an impressive ammunition range of 39km, which can be increased to over 40km when rocket assisted rounds are used. It is manned by a crew of 8 soldiers, who clearly have to be extremely strong! Although the gun is towed into its approximate position by a large and powerful truck, the crew need to be able to make fine adjustments on the ground, which involves some seriously heavy lifting. In addition, the gun is self-propelled, so it can easily be moved into another position without having to be hooked up to the truck first.
When Lt Col Conradie invited me to pick up the dark-green shell casing that stood in front of the gun, which he had lifted up effortlessly with two fingers of one hand, I am embarrassed to say that I could not raise it off the ground even by a centimetre. Not even with both arms and all fingers! When, shortly afterwards, one of the trainees was ordered to pick up the shell and run quite a distance back and forth with it, I felt much respect for him. How the female soldiers, of which there were several, manage with the physical demands of such heavy lifting, is truly admirable.
The heavy shell is placed into a long metal tube, which is rotated until it aligns with the barrel, then pushed into the barrel with considerable force. Once it is securely inside, the charge is inserted behind it. This charge must be electronically programmed beforehand. The sergeant explained that there is a string attached to the firing mechanism, which is pulled from a safe distance – you wouldn’t want to be standing right behind this gun!
Sgt Moroko took me inside the hangar, to show me the various types of shells and the capsules that contain the propellant or fuses or charges, for want of a better word. (I’m really not sure of all this terminology.) In addition to the high explosive shells, there were also shells containing shrapnel (which he called ‘bomblets’ – it sounds rather cute, but it’s actually not, if you bear in mind that it’s really there to cause maximum damage to equipment and human beings), shells containing smoke (to act as a screen, behind which a force can manoeuvre), shells that he referred to as training rounds (presumably because they don’t – usually? – kill anyone), and shells that did not explode, but released propaganda leaflets, which I thought was quite an unusual and creative type of psychological warfare.
He showed me a rectangular, heavy piece of armour-plating belonging to a tank. One of the shells was so powerful that it could penetrate all the way through this thick piece of metal, with the metal tip ricocheting around the inside of the tank and causing further damage. Scary stuff!
Incidentally, the guns cannot be fired here, in the Western Cape – with a range of about 40 km, you need a lot of empty space around! Apart from that, these guns are deafeningly loud. As a result, the trainees cannot practice firing them here, but they do learn all the theory and get plenty of practice in loading them. At the demonstration, they did however fire a percussion round, which basically just makes a big bang!
I thanked Sgt Moroko for his time, and he returned to his training. Lt Col Conradie and I then walked over to the two large trucks that were parked at the side of the road; these had been used to tow the two guns all the way from upcountry. Known as Samil 100 6×6 gun tractors, these are big, powerful vehicles. Curious, I climbed up into the driver’s cab.
Wow. What an awesome feeling! And what a view! These trucks are even better than 4x4s, they are 6x6s!! Lt Col Conradie explained that all six tyres have diff-locks, rotating together, so you won’t get stuck in the mud with this vehicle. They are designed for driving off-road, with a massive grid at the front that presumably just shoves obstacles to the side, and a fold-down grid above the roof to protect the windscreen against branches and trees.
Obviously, I wanted to climb onto the back of the vehicle for a closer look there too – I mean, how often does one have an opportunity to climb onto and into military equipment?! But, embarrassingly, my legs were not quite long enough, and my arms not quite strong enough to pull me up. Fortunately, we could clamber up onto the narrow platform at the rear of the vehicle, to inspect the loading area at the back. This is where all the equipment and personal belongings are stored, in addition to the spare tyres, spare fuel containers, and winches to lift the tyres off and onto the truck (these are seriously large and heavy tyres).
The view from there was fabulous, so I took some pictures of the surroundings. That is the hangar, in front of which the two GV5 guns were displayed.
The red brick building houses the Warrant Officers and Sergeants’ Mess, whereas the large grey hangar in the background behind it is the actual Headquarters of CFA.
Once we had climbed back down from the truck, we walked across to the headquarters (HQ). I was introduced to Master Warrant Officer Bennie Havenga, who is the Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) of the unit. We went inside the HQ, which – like that of Regiment Oranjerivier – had been transformed from a barren cold hangar into a well looked after, neat and tidy, inviting and functional space. There were comfortable chairs to sit on, near a wall on which a map of Africa was mounted, together with descriptions of the various campaigns in which CFA had played a part and in which it had received honours. I thought this was a wonderful idea, and clearly evidence of the pride taken in the unit and its history.
Lt Col Conradie took me upstairs to a room with lots of tables and chairs, which seemed to be used as a lecture room. Here we met Lt Col JK Moraka, from the SA Artillery Formation, S01 ETD (Education, Training and Development), who had come from Pretoria to evaluate progress. He advised that he was very happy with the work done by the participants in the training, and mentioned that they can usually only accommodate 24 people for training at Potchefstroom, but that they were able to teach 26 people from this unit alone at Fort iKapa. That’s an impressive number of soldiers learning how to use highly specialised and technologically advanced equipment. And considering that they are all volunteers, who hold down jobs in their ‘normal’ lives outside the military, their commitment and dedication to acquiring new skills is even more admirable.
Group photographs of the unit and its members over the years were displayed along the wall of the lecture room. And against the other wall were shelves with an imposing range of shell casings and bits of ammunition. Lt Col Conradie picked up some of these to explain to me what they were and how they worked. It was very interesting indeed, and drove home the point that there is considerable technical expertise that goes into refining their design and construction over hundreds of years and in many battles.
And then it was time to stop for the day, and to head home. As we made our way back to the front gate, I was feeling so fortunate that I had been allowed a small glimpse into a truly vast world that has so far been quite foreign to me, but that has intrigued and fascinated me for a very long time. It had indeed been a very educational and informative visit.
P.S. I am very much indebted to the following individuals who gave so generously of their time to ensure that I got all the facts correct, and whose advice and recommendations were invaluable:
- Lt Col Johan Conradie, Defence Reserves Provincial Office Western Cape
- Lt Col Kees de Haan, OC of Cape Field Artillery
- Maj Dalene Coetzee, 2IC of Cape Field Artillery
- Maj JP Wessels, 2IC Regiment Oranjerivier
- Sgt Major Vercueil from Regiment Oranjerivier
- L/Cpl Leon Wessels, the Log NCO Defence Reserves Provincial Office Western Cape.