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Open Features: Marianne Joins The Commandos

"We were taught camouflage, using mud, cork or burnt grass. My most embarrassing moment was my inability to cross a high mine dump with a full pack. 'Walk sideways!' shouted the Sergeant Major. Finally, two men hauled me to the top and I rolled down the other side,'' writes Marianne Hall, telling of her time in the Commandos.

During 1977 I decided to do something for “volk” and country. So, I joined the Commandos.

It was a time of drought, angry stirrings in Soweto, and conflict across the borders.

My husband, a teacher, held the rank of Captain. Teachers were automatically conscripted into the army. He was not amused when I arrived home with full kit, the R1, billycan, the lot

“Only once a week,” I said. He grunted. The “once-a week” became three times a week. When I half-heartedly objected, I was told: “You are in the army now.”

There were fourteen lady volunteers in our group. We were all keen and eager and we felt very important in our new uniforms. We riflemen were going to make a difference – or so we thought!

The Commandos were based in all the provinces. We were in Group 41, of Wits Command. A company consisted of 96 men, divided into three platoons of 32 men. At the head was a Major, followed by a Captain, Sergeant Major, then Sergeant, Corporal, Lance Corporal and finally the Riflemen. Each one had specific duties, from quartermaster to medical, intelligence, transport, storeman, clerk, radio and chef. A support platoon consisted of engineers, mortar, dogs, equestrian, motor bikes, tracking and sharp shooters.

Rank was important. A crossed sword and baton indicated a General, one pip meant one could relax somewhat. Those on the bottom rung saluted. “Come to a halt, right hand up to forehead, face out, sharply bring down hand at the shortest possible distance,” barked the Sergeant Major.

His name was Lewis. He was in his element when it came to squad drill, and he showed no mercy. “Fall in! Left turn! Right turn! Once he lost his temper. One woman giggled, so he made us run up and down the field three times. The most welcome command was “Dismiss!”

There were specific rules regarding the uniform. Socks were folded over, pants had to be tied above the ankle and over them came the boots laced up with a bow at the back. The shirt, inside the pants, had sleeves folded four fingers above the elbows. The belt had a hole at the left and a clip on the
right. The right hand pocket at the front could hold a pencil and notebook. The hat was folded flat over the right shoulder, with the rim inwards.

The R1 rifle was, and still is, an absolute mystery. We were expected to clean it up after a shooting session. My son-in-law had just returned from the Border, and he took great pains to explain it’s intricacies to me: remove the gas plug, plunger and spring, clean everything with oil. Clean the bore with an oily cloth and steel brush. Out came the magazine. Pull out the mouse, clean and assemble. One had to make sure the gun was on “safe”.

The first time we went to Heidelberg on a shooting session we were packed like sardines in the back of a Bedford truck, R1’s between our knees. With a screech the truck stopped and we were flung into a heap. The driver appeared, grinning.”All, OK?” With newcomers, this was a regular prank. On arrival at the range, bullets were dished out and instructions given. We proceeded. My card showed no bullet holes – my neighbour’s was shot to pieces!

Just before a route march I seriously sprained my ankle, but found that once the ankle was strapped firmly into the heavy boot I felt no pain. We marched with full pack for nearly three hours and, to this day, I have never had problems with the ankle.

Once on patrol in single file – rifle to the left, rifle to the right- our Corporal was very much under the weather. One of the girls collapsed, clutching her stomach. In the confusion three of us slipped away and made a detour. We then surprised our “enemy” who were lying in the grass, smoking, relaxed. Quite a strategy!

We were taught camouflage, using mud, cork or burnt grass. My most embarrassing moment was my inability to cross a high mine dump with a full pack. “Walk sideways!” shouted the Sergeant Major. Finally, two men hauled me to the top and I rolled down the other side.

“I see you have been doing the Leopard’s crawl,” said my husband with a note of envy. My arms were one bloody mess of cuts and bruises from crawling along the ground.

We had to maintain the Bedford truck, with, of course, the emphasis on changing tyres. Today, if I have problems with my Volksie I use the cellphone and call out the AA.

We learned to recognise landmines, explosives, booby traps and hand grenades. Convoys, we were told travel on green, yellow or red roads, that is, where there was no danger of a possible attack, or where actual fighting was expected. We knew the radio alphabet from “alpha” to “zulu”, and were finally allowed in the Ops Room – the brain of military intelligence.

I will never forget Remembrance Day. There were three columns of soldiers all lined up for a parade. We three riflemen joined the end of the column. Sargeant Major Lewis watched us with a glint in his eye. “LEFT TURN!” he barked. He had deftly turned the parade around so that we were now leading it! My legs felt like jelly. I grabbed the left fold of my pants, the only way I knew left from right, then automatically swung to the left.

I drove a Volksie and had parked it outside the headquarters in Primrose. I was trying to unlock the car but the key would not turn.

“Having a problem?” I swung around to find Sergeant Major Lewis behind me.

“Can’t get the car unlocked, Sir,” I said.

“Allow me,” he offered, taking a set of keys out of his pocket.

I apologised profusely.

I was at the wrong car!


(The Afrikaans word “volk” means “citizens”)


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