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Jacket Notes: Leopold Scholtz on why he had to tell the stories of the Charlie Squadron in Ratels on the Lomba

Published in the Sunday Times

Ratels on the LombaRatels on the Lomba
Leopold Scholtz Jonathan Ball Publishers

In certain respects, the Border War has been to many South Africans an embarrassing conflict that is best ignored. But, of course, the war is part of our history and will not simply fade away. At the end of 1987, a group of national servicemen who fought in Operation Moduler – the SADF’s campaign in southeastern Angola to aid UNITA against an Angolan offensive – were demobilised. This happened after three months in which boredom alternated with tension, fear of death and blood.

These men were let go with almost no psychological treatment. In addition, it happened after they were involved in the biggest conventional pitched battles on the African continent after the demise of the German Afrika Korps in May 1943, in which they all but obliterated an entire Angolan brigade.

They were told not to talk about what they had experienced. Besides, how do you explain the extreme violence which has scarred your psyche for life?

Having been cut off for decades after demobilisation, the men of one such unit, Charlie Squadron of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group, started making contact with each other again. Many of them had known alcohol and drugs intimately. Psychologically, many were shattered.

In 2014 they held a reunion in Bloemfontein. And out came tumbling all the stories, the hardship, the fear they shared. It was a weekend of catharsis.

There the idea started: What they went through should be documented for posterity. Some of the men had never even spoken to their wives and children about their war experiences.

One Monday in 2014, I received an e-mail from Captain (ret.) PJ Cloete, who had been the officer commanding Charlie Squadron. Would I be interested in writing a book about his unit?

I prevaricated at first. But the more I dug into the matter, the more the grassroots experiences of the 84 men in the unit fascinated me. Here you had a collection of young white men, mostly 19 years old, who had to grow up extremely fast to survive a situation where it is literally a question of kill or be killed.

But their experiences were, in effect, denied by society and criminalised. They had lost their voice. That was the purpose of my book – to give these men, now nearing their 50s, their voices back.

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