Update: An article I wrote about this event was published on the Reserve Force Division website. Here is the PDF document.
In a previous post about some of the challenges of taking photographs at military events, I mentioned an exciting Women’s Day Event that was organised by the Defence Reserves Provincial Office Western Cape (DRPOWC) in early September last year. I’d been meaning to write this post since then, but – as sometimes happens in life – I just did not get around to it. I currently have a small gap, so I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you all about it before life speeds up again! I hope that you will find it interesting and informative too, and I look forward to your feedback.
Breakfast at the Castle
On Saturday, 11 September 2010, a group of about 40 women from various spheres of the community and areas of business were treated to a thrilling and informative programme of interactive demonstrations and presentations by five Reserve units based at Fort iKapa in Goodwood. The aim of the event was to create awareness of the Defence Reserves, as many people do not know much about them or their role.
The day began with a generous buffet breakfast of muesli and yoghurt, eggs, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes and toast, as well as juice, tea and coffee, which was served by Moeniba Roberts and her staff in the spacious Dolphin Room at the lovely Het Bakhuys venue in the Castle of Good Hope. The tables in the Dolphin Room had been beautifully decorated. There was an almost tangible buzz of anticipation in the air!
Richard’s sister Tanya happened to be visiting us from Windhoek, and the two of us were joined by my friend Katja (a journalist and writer). The three of us were excitedly looking forward to the event, mingled with a bit of nervousness, as we did not know what to expect. We quickly found our tables, and started to make friends and mingle with the other participants. I was pleased to see that fellow ‘photies’ Brent, Lorraine and Lourens were there too, with their cameras at the ready.
Suddenly, the cheerful chattering of the whole roomful of ladies was brought to an abrupt halt by a shrill whistle!
Dead silence, as all eyes turned towards the front of the room. Lt Col Johan Conradie of the DRPOWC was standing at the podium, looking quite forbidding in his camouflage uniform. (It is thanks to him that I have been able to attend all the events that I wrote about in my previous post.)
Col Conradie warned us that we would all be marching and drilling before the end of the day, carrying a backpack, a rifle and a goody-bag. Gulp. He also remarked that he hoped we were wearing sturdy boots! Ooof. I noticed a couple of alarmed looks, with some of the ladies glancing down at their open-toed flipflops and sandals. There was a palpable increase of the tension in the room, as we all looked at each other, both apprehensive and a little intrigued. Noticing our reaction, he reassured us with a smile that he was just kidding – sighs of relief all ’round.
He emphasised that the programme was designed to be hands-on and practical, and encouraged us to use the opportunity to the full: “Sit in the gun seat of a G1 gun. Climb inside a Rooikat. Feel what a rifle feels like. I’ve brought along some camo cream…”
He introduced Captain (SAN) Trunell Morom, Senior Staff Officer of the DRPOWC, who spoke eloquently about the Defence Reserve System and the role of women in the Reserves, as well as what it means to have a colleague or an employee who is in the Reserves. She further elaborated on the benefits of a Reserve system for the country.
She spoke about the positive qualities of Reservists, and their benefits to employers: Reservists go through very tough and demanding military training, which makes them stronger and more disciplined; they have also been trained to think before they act, and to respond quickly in emergencies. They have a strong sense of duty, are willing to go the extra mile if the need arises, and they are loyal, committed, and able to organise groups because their leadership and teamwork abilities are developed so strongly in their training.
As Capt Morom put it, “In time of peace, we prepare for a war, that we hope will never happen.”
If it does, though, or if the need arises, the Reserves can be called on to supplement the Regulars. Capt Morom stressed the importance of both civilians and the military finding incentives that would benefit both parties. In South Africa, there is currently no incentive for an employer to accommodate a Reserve Force member on his staff, when he or she is called up to do military service or to undergo training. The purpose of the various Defence Reserve Provincial Offices around the country is to promote and market the Reserve System to industry and business, as well as to the Regular Force. The 2010 Women’s Day Event was part of this strategy.
Although military units are trained to protect the sovereignty of the country by defending it against attack in wartime, they also play a pivotal role in stabilising the country in peacetime. They facilitate the creation of a stable government, economy and environment, so that other sectors of governance and society can contribute to a growing democracy.
Capt Morom explained that we, the participants in the day’s event, were in an ideal position to contribute to the creation of a business environment that is conducive to developing a strong Reserve Force in the province, by promoting a greater understanding of the Reserves and encouraging employers to allow Reserves and potential Reserves to join and serve in the military.
The situation of women in the military has changed markedly over the last two decades or so. Nowadays, there is gender equality and women are treated as equals; if they so choose, they can do the same things that men do in the military, i.e. go to sea, fly a plane, or do army service. They are not limited to being support staff.
Capt Morom emphasised that it is not always easy to be in the Reserves, especially if one is employed full-time outside the military. Many Reservists spend long hours with their units in the evenings and over weekends. It is important to learn how to keep a balance and how to juggle commitments, but the rewards of being part of the Reserves make it worthwhile, as one is exposed to experiences one never thought one would have.
The objective of the day’s programme was thus to give the participants a little taste of what women in the Army and the Army Reserves did, and to have a great deal of fun in the process!
Off to Fort iKapa
We finished our breakfast, gratefully took receipt of a bottle of water – it promised to be a very hot day – and boarded the bus that was waiting outside the Castle walls to take us to Fort iKapa, the military base in Acacia Park, Goodwood, that houses (almost) all the Reserve Units in the Western Cape. According to our programme, we would be visiting the following units: Cape Field Artillery, 71 Signal Unit, 3 Parachute Battalion C Company, Regiment Oranjerivier and Regiment Westelike Provincie.
Our first stop was at the headquarters of Cape Field Artillery (CFA), where Colonel Bernie Ashlin, Officer Commanding (OC) Fort iKapa, gave a detailed presentation about this military base and the Defence Reserve Units currently stationed there. He spoke about the history of the base, which was originally used as an airstrip during World War II, in conjunction with the nearby Wingfield Air Force Base. Strategically, this is an important site, given its easy access to the main roads (specifically the N1 and the N7) and the railway lines.
Originally, the Reserve units were dotted about all over Cape Town, but over the years, more and more have relocated to Fort iKapa. These include Cape Field Artillery, Cape Town Highlanders, Cape Garrison Artillery, Cape Town Rifles (Dukes), Regiment Oranje Rivier, Regiment Westelike Provincie, 4 Maintenance Unit, 3 Field Engineers Regiment, 30 Field Workshop, 3 Parachute Battalion (C Company), 71 Signal Unit, and 3 Medical Battalion HQ. The mission of this centralised base is to provide the necessary protective and supportive services for all the units.
Col Ashlin told us a little about the facilities currently available at the base, which include an indoor shooting range offering musketry training, an obstacle course, driver training, combat ready training, computer literacy training, and vehicle repair facilities. Many new facilities are planned for the future.
Cape Field Artillery
Major Dalene Coetzee, Second in Command of Cape Field Artillery (CFA), spoke of her experiences of military service, mentioning some of the challenges faced by women in the military, while also emphasising the sense of excitement, adventure and camaraderie of being part of a unit.
A G1 25-pounder gun was on display inside the hangar. This is the ceremonial gun used by CFA to fire the salvos during, for instance, the annual Opening of Parliament, the Cape Town Military Tattoo (most spectacularly during the performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous 1812 Overture), and most recently during the Gunners’ Memorial Service. Also known as G1 field guns, these guns were used extensively by the South African Defence Force during the Border War on the border between Namibia and Angola in the 1970s and 1980s. These 25 pounder guns fire artillery shells and weigh about 1600 kg, so a whole crew is necessary to set them up before an event, as well as to hook them up to the large powerful gun tractor that tows them back to the base afterwards.
Incidentally, in September last year, an event known as the “Gun Push Challenge 2010” was staged in Cape Town (see News 24.com for report including photographs) – previously, it had always been held in Kimberley. Nine teams of full-time soldiers and reservists from different regiments throughout the country, each pulled a 23mm anti-aircraft cannon, weighing 950kg, for 7.5 km around the inner city. The event was hosted by Cape Garrison Artillery, who earned themselves both the first place (their A Team) with a time of 57 minutes and 15 seconds, and third place (their B Team), while 10 Anti-aircraft Regiment from Kimberly came in second place. Almost an hour is a long time to be ‘running’ while pulling such a heavy piece of artillery – definitely a test of physical strength and mental endurance!
At our Women’s Day Event, a female CFA gunner, Lieutenant Mali, together with her colleagues gave a quick demonstration of how the gun is fired. They went through the entire drill sequence for us, calling out instructions and responses. As the gun was inside the hangar, though, they didn’t actually fire!
Afterwards, we all had a chance to sit in the gun seat and to look through the sights, which was fun! All the women were clustering around the gun, asking questions of the knowledgeable soldiers, and eagerly posing for photographs.
Lastly, and to conclude our visit to CFA’s HQ, Gunner Tracy Leibbrandt introduced herself to us as a piper in the Pipes and Drums of Cape Field Artillery (if you’re curious, you can learn more about them via their Facebook page) – which is why she was wearing a traditional kilt. She is the only female piper in the group.
As we slowly filed out of the hangar, Gnr Leibbrandt stood outside and played a couple of tunes on her bagpipes. We listened with rapt attention, as she played the familiar ‘Amazing Grace’ – extraordinary how just one lone bagpipe can have such a profound effect on the emotions.
71 Signal Unit
Our next destination was the headquarters of 71 Signal Unit, who were housed in a double-storey facebrick building. Lt Col Johan Johnson, OC of 71 Signal Unit, gave us a slideshow presentation about his unit. Among other things, he explained that their role is to provide conventional tactical support to the Western Cape Reserve Units as well as to the SANDF, and to supply telecommunications in support of Wilderness Search and Rescue organisations in the case of emergencies or disasters.
Radio carrier systems, complete with antennas and handsets, were displayed on the table in the conference room; each of them had been assigned a particular call sign. We were invited to pick up the handsets and to speak to the soldiers sitting in a communications truck parked outside the building.
Our attempts to communicate correctly by using the right terminology caused much mirth and excitement! There was a lot of “Roger“, “Over“, “Over and Out” and “Copy that” involved, as we wracked our brains to remember the lingo used by television series about cops – apparently, those may not be the correct terms to use after all!
3 Parachute Battalion C Company
Thereafter, we visited the home of 3 Parachute Battalion “C Company” HQ (3 Para Bn C Coy).
As our bus cruised along the approach road to their hangar, someone pointed out a sign, which announced, rather ominously, “BEWARE: You are now entering Paratrooper Country – Zero Tolerance!” This caused some apprehensive looks and nervous giggles onboard the bus.
Much to our relief, though, we were warmly greeted by WO2 Boshoff, and his two cheerful and friendly assistants for the day, Major Marais and Gunner Mark Bouillon, under the supervision of Captain Tawse, OC of 3 Para Bn.
WO2 Boshoff revealed that paratroopers underwent extremely rigorous and demanding training, as they had to be very fit and strong both physically and mentally. In order to illustrate this, he invited us to see whether we could pick up and carry some so-called ‘marbles’: these are very heavy cement blocks.
“Now try running with those,” he added with a smile, as we staggered under their weight.
Troops are also expected to carry a long metal cylinder during training, and a rectangular ‘stretcher’, weighing about 90kg, which is used to simulate carrying wounded soldiers to safety.
Gnr Mark Bouillon, strapped firmly into a parachute harness, demonstrated the correct drill for jumping out of an aeroplane, with a static line connected to the plane ensuring that the parachute would open, and then landing safely. He explained that the military parachutes used for these jumps had limited manoeuvrability, unlike conventional steerable parachutes. One of the ladies bravely volunteered to be strapped into the harness too, before showing that she had paid attention, by accurately performing the same drill.
The three paratroopers then showed us how they would jump out of a plane with all their gear, with WO2 Boshoff going through the sequence of instructions. There was a wonderful spirit of camaraderie among them, as they performed their drill in front of an admiring audience.
This was followed by a skilful fastroping demonstration, which was greeted with appreciative applause and loud cheering. This is used when troops need to be rapidly deployed from a helicopter; they basically hold onto the very thick, braided rope with their gloved hands (thick gloves need to be used!), and slide down to the ground. As soon as one person lands, he has to move out of the way, as the next person will already be on his way down.
They made it look so easy, but it requires considerable strength and coordination – and courage, bearing in mind that they aren’t strapped in with a harness or a descender, like for abseiling or rappelling, for instance.
Gnr Bouillon also gave a demonstration of how they practice landing safely with a parachute, by running up a ramp, jumping off the end and landing-and-rolling on the mat. He also showed us how to land and roll by transferring our weight from the side of the leg to the opposite shoulder. Two of the women in our group nervously volunteered to give this a try, and were applauded enthusiastically for their courage in coming forward.
During our tour around the base, we were accompanied by Corporal Natasha le Roux, a medical orderly. She carried her entire medical kit in a bulky and heavy backpack. Even just lifting it up onto one’s back required considerable muscle strength, never mind carrying it everywhere!
Regiment Oranje Rivier
At Regiment Oranjerivier (ROR), an armour regiment of the SANDF and, according to their welcome sign, “The Home of the Armour Reserves”, we were greeted by Lt Col Jaco Olivier, OC ROR and Master Warrant Officer Karel Minnie, the Regimental Sergeant Major of the regiment.
Their hangar houses two armoured vehicles: an Eland Mk7 (that is affectionately called the Noddy Car – although it doesn’t really look much like Noddy’s distinctive red car!) and a Rooikat.
The Eland is a highly mobile 4×4 light armoured car that was used extensively during the Angolan/South West African border war in the 1970s and 1980s (Army Guide and Wikipedia: Eland). We took turns climbing inside this vehicle and posing for photographs, and marvelled at how little space there was inside it!
The Eland has since been replaced by the imposing Rooikat armoured reconnaissance vehicle, which was designed and built in South Africa.
Lt Col Olivier explained that, unlike a tank, which runs on tracks, an armoured vehicle has wheels. The Rooikat is designed for combat reconnaissance and for search-and-destroy missions, as well as to give combat support. It accommodates a driver in the hull, and a commander, gunner and loader in the turret. Capable of travelling at up to 120 kph on the open road and 30 to 60 kph across rough terrain, it can climb gradients of 70 degrees, traverse gradients of 30 degrees, cross 2 metre wide trenches at a crawl and ford water up to 1.5 m deep (info from Defenceweb). Even if some of its eight massive tyres become flat, it can continue driving: these are known as flat-run tyres. Handy!
Naturally, everyone was very keen to go for a ride on the Rooikat! And so, with Master Warrant Officer Karel Minnie, Regimental Sergeant Major, in the driving seat, one small group after another clambered aboard. As we held on tightly, MWO Minnie drove us around the roads of the base.
The contrast of so many dainty women against this mighty military machine was quite startling. It was awe-inspiring to hear the roar of the powerful engine and to feel its vibrations, as the vehicle accelerated down the straights, and its whine, as we slowed down in the corners.
Holding on tightly to the various grips and handles, we cheered with exhilaration, as we were given a Rooikat-eye’s view of Fort iKapa. It was perfect weather, with the sun blazingly hot in the clear blue sky, and the cool wind in our face wonderfully refreshing. As we came to a stop at the headquarters of ROR, our ride over all too soon, we were reluctant to climb back down to the ground.
It was clear from the animated chatter and the sparkle in everyone’s eyes when we – reluctantly – disembarked that we had tasted the adventure and the thrill of driving in such a powerful military vehicle, and now we definitely wanted more!
Before we said goodbye to the friendly folk at ROR, we posed for a group photo next to the Rooikat, with some of us quickly seizing the opportunity to climb aboard the vehicle once more!
Regiment Westelike Provincie
Our final port of call at Fort iKapa was the headquarters of the Regiment Westelike Provincie (RWP), a specialised infantry regiment of the South African Army, whose OC is Lt Col Stephan Pierce. Here, various weapons and equipment carried by infantry soldiers were displayed on a long table draped in camouflage netting. Lt Col Johan Conradie explained the role of the infantry and the different types of infantry, such as airborne, mechanised and motorised, using the Reserve units stationed at Fort iKapa as examples.
He emphasised that infantry soldiers had to carry with them all the equipment illustrated in the display: sleeping bag, cooking utensils, food, weapons, ammunition, spare ammunition, medical supplies, and all the water they could carry. As a result, they have to be very fit and strong, even more so because the terrain is usually inhospitable and rough.
To illustrate this, one of the soldiers wearing camouflage uniform and camouflage cream was fully kitted out with helmet, a heavy backpack and assault rifle.
A bivvy (bivouac), which is a small emergency shelter used by the infantry, was so cleverly concealed among the bushes and covered by branches that it was quite invisible, until Lt Col Conradie pointed it out to the surprised group.
He identified some of the weaponry on display, such as R4 and R5 assault rifles, a grenade launcher, and a light machine gun, and invited one of us to participate in the realistic training of the infantry.
Suddenly, two heavily camouflaged female soldiers, weighed down with weapons and full kit, emerged from the dense fynbos, dragging their ‘wounded’ comrade out into the open. They knelt down a metre or two away, their guns at the ready, keeping a lookout for ‘enemy fire’.
Immediately, two medical orderlies, Sergeant Piet Human and Corporal Natasja le Roux (who had accompanied us on our tour of Fort iKapa), raced towards the ‘wounded’ soldier, and expertly examined her, before cleaning and bandaging the wound, applying a drip, and carrying her to safety.
The End of our Tour
This exciting demonstration by the skilful and highly trained medics ended our educational and exciting tour of Fort iKapa, and we returned to the Castle for some refreshing tea and coffee. As everyone said their goodbyes and thanked all the military personnel who had put in so much time and effort to create such a wide-ranging, informative and interactive program for this group of women from various areas of business, it was clear that the day’s events had had a big impact.
Not only did all of us now know much more about the Defence Reserve system and the military in general than we had when we arrived that morning, but we had also experienced first-hand a little of the spirit of camaraderie, the thrill of adventure and the discipline and dedication that characterises the armed forces. And no doubt many of us will have felt inspired to share our new-found knowledge with families, friends and co-workers in the weeks that followed.
Much praise must be directed specifically at all the individuals and units (the personnel of the Defence Reserves Provincial Office Western Cape, Col Bernie Ashlin – OC Fort iKapa, Cape Field Artillery, 71 Signal Unit, 3 Parachute Battalion “C” Company, Regiment Oranjerivier, Regiment Westelike Provincie, 3 Medical Battalion Group, Lt Col Uys van der Westhuijzen), who made this day possible.
Everyone willingly and enthusiastically shared their time, their expertise and their experiences with us, and this is deeply appreciated.
Their passion for their work in the military service made a positive and lasting impression on everyone who was privileged to attend this marvellous event.
P.S. Many of the photographs I have included here are not my own. A biiig appreciative thank you must go to my fellow photographers Brent, Lorraine, Lourens and Tanya for taking such excellent piccies. I have included more photos in the slideshow below – enjoy!
P.P.S. A slightly shorter version of this article, with fewer photos, has also been published on the Reserve Force Division’s website (Women’s Day Event PDF). You can also download it here: Women’s Day Event PDF