As my dad had served part of WWII in the RNVR, and my bro’ had done his compulsory military stint choosing the Navy Gymnasium option, I applied for both the Navy Gym as well as SA Navy Permanent Force (PF) and was accepted for both, so had to choose. I chose PF and did not regret it. Being supposedly a career, we were paid a salary and, I was to discover, we were treated with more respect by fellow PF members, those in charge of training, than were the weekend sailors, those in the Gym or the Active Citizen Force (ACF) who, at that time, served a compulsory nine months.
Before we were issued with our uniforms, we wore blue overalls. We were not permitted to walk on the shore base, SAS Simonsberg; we ran at the double. On the second day at the base, I doubled across to the maintenance slipway where a wooden- hulled minesweeper was lying dry. Under cover of this convenient bulk, I climbed over the stone wall. I dropped to the yard of the local fishing boat quay, nearly into the lap of a little brown man fixing a net. He waved my apology away with a toothless grin, shaking his head in amusement. I doubled my way up to the Sailors’ Home and paid for the hire of a locker there to store my civvies jeans and tees that were stashed away under my overalls. I changed and set off to explore the village of Simonstown.
The vague idea was to apply to go on an officers’ course and see where that got me. (See the world, of course.) After basic training, I selected Torpedo Anti-Submarine, Weapons-III specialisation course, where I met Lloyd Wingate. Where I was six-foot-four and thin, he was a foot shorter and stocky. We became good mates and covered for each other when we took it in turns to go AWOL. For shorter shore-leave we frequented bars from Simonstown to Cape Town, sometimes with official absence on the Liberty Boat and often over the wall.
Long weekends were tricky, but we trusted nobody else to stand duty-watch for us, so could never both be away at the same time. We were both from the Transvaal, a thousand miles away, so one hitch-hiked while the other did his own duty-watch as well as that of the other. Mine was more problematic as it was more difficult for me to hide behind someone else and yell ‘Present!’ when his name was called, than it was for him to do so for me, but we were never caught. Sometimes we got back with only minutes to spare, but considering the distance travelled and the risk of not getting a lift, it was remarkable.
Once, ashore in Walvis Bay for a few hours, after a stint of chasing Russian fishing trawlers out of our waters, I literally bumped into Lieutenant Shelver with a kitbag of beer that clanked loudly, destined for Lloyd, on duty-watch aboard our ship, SAS President Steyn.
“That’s not beer bottles, is it, Earle?” He demanded.
“Absolutely not, Sir!” I denied. But he knew, and I knew that he knew.
When I got back aboard, early, with the kitbag, Lloyd and a pal had sneaked ashore, anyway. Trouble was, they were late getting back and the gangway way up. They just managed to crawl their way aboard using the hawsers. They had the devil’s own job getting the grease off their uniforms. Luckily, they were wearing navy blue; not their whites.
Of sixty applicants for the officers’ course, they only asked for our matric results. There were no initiative or common sense tests. They selected six men to join the course. Three of the six were sons of serving officers.
From then on, I started saving to buy myself out of the seven year contract that I had signed. Two hundred Rand might not sound like a lot, but it takes some time when you are only earning R35-00 a month. Besides, I had to serve a minimum of one year to avoid doing three-week camps once a year.
Both Lloyd and I started a TAS, Weapons-II course when we were due to leave. Our instructor was sympathetic, but sad. He said we were far brighter that the others on the course and the two best would be selected to go on the next Weapons-I course which was always held in Portsmouth, UK. I was tempted, but it would then cost me R2000-00 to buy myself out, or an extra two years contract on top of the seven.
No way, José.
Lloyd went to University. I went to Rhodesia in search of adventure, which, under Ian Smith, had recently declared independence from Britain.