Book Review: 19 with a bullet

19 with a bullet has the potential to be for the (South African) Border War what publisher Chris Cocks’ Fireforce was for the (Rhodesian) Bush War. The book also strongly reminds of that World War Two classic by Guy Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier.  
Ex-East Rand boy and former boxer Granger Korff writes a tight tale around his experiences in 1 Parachute Battalion in Ovambo and southern Angola in 1981 – the halcyon days of South African airborne operations.
The subsequent introduction of the Casspir mine protected personnel carrier and the creation of the police counterinsurgency unit “Koevoet” as well as the Southwest African Territory Force equivalent, 101Bn obviated the need for large air assault operations, allowing the Air Force to reassign their Aerospatiale Puma medium utility helicopters to logistics and Casevac missions.
Korff was conscripted into the Engineer Corps in 1980 but, as a result of an encounter with a paratroop corporal the year before, was dead-set on transferring to the parachute infantry, a feat he accomplished with the assistance of an otherwise disagreeable officer.
At Bloemfontein the notoriously tough selection phase awaited… “The whole camp radiated a feeling of energy and professionalism and a sense that one was lucky just to be allowed through the gates,” Korff writes. “Any illusions of glamour soon disappeared, however, and we realised that we were in hell. We were sorted into platoons and chased mercilessly from 04:30 till 17:00. Everywhere we went, we had to run. Pulling equipment from stores on the run… And, of course, around the infamous Pakhuis—the parachute hangar where all parachutes were stored, packed and worked on… It had to be done in 70 seconds by the whole platoon or company, or we had to do it again. We ran it hundreds of times, as did every paratrooper who passed through 1 Parachute Battalion. And we hadn`t even started basic training yet.”
“Basic training—no sleep; inspections; running 35 kilometres to the shooting range, and sleeping overnight with ice-cold winter winds blowing down the huge, flat, stony shooting range. We learned rifles, LMGs , radio procedure, patrol formation and—of course— drilling. We drilled for a couple of hours daily, until we moved like well-oiled machine; fast, close and moving as one…
“The notorious paratrooper PT course started under bright floodlights early one dark, cold Monday morning on the frozen-hard parade ground. It consisted of two weeks of non-stop PT, all day long, from 05:30 till 17:00. The day was broken up into hour-long PT classes with a few minutes in between for a break, and was designed to ‘fuck you up` and to send 70 per cent of us back to where we came from. Each instructor took pride in the number of troops who would quit his class and drop off the course to be RTU`d (Return to Unit).”
After being awarded their wings, Korff and some mates next volunteered for the Special Forces. “It sounded pretty exciting, so John Delaney, Hans and I casually put our names down… It was fun at the beginning to get away from 1 Parachute Battalion and all the bullshit. At least we were in the bush; sleeping in the dirt and walking all day covered with ‘Black is Beautiful`, a thick black grease that is used as camouflage—but after two weeks of marching 15-25 kilometres a day with little or no food, the adventure began to pall.
“The two weeks in Zululand weren`t that bad; only when all 200 of us volunteers left Zululand in a C-130 and flew thousands of miles north up to the Caprivi Strip for the third phase did the shit really start…
“It was one of the toughest selection courses in the world. (Recces` equivalent would perhaps be the United States Navy SEALs, who as far as I understood did not spend seven weeks of their selection course walking 700 kilometres with next to no food.)
“We walked, and walked, and walked. Then we walked some more. Day in and day out. Through nights, days, and nights again. We walked … twenty to thirty ‘clicks` every day, through the African bush.”
In the end, Korff and Delaney through in the towel and were told they had been in the final thirty. “Out of the 200 hopefuls, only 17 troops had made the course to become Reconnaissance Operators… Hans was one of them. John and I were told we should not have quit, because we had been really close to the end of the course and had come in 27th out of the two hundred. So about 170 had quit before we did. Some consolation!”
After a brush with the law – one of a few described in the book – and a spell absent without leave, Korff rejoins Delta Company`s Valk (literally “hawk”, here platoon) Four. Following some more training the company deploys to Ondangwa for its first bush tour. “Later that afternoon we were brought out and told how ‘Fireforce` worked. There would always be at least one platoon on standby with light kit packed for three days in the bush in case of any follow-up after contacts or hot pursuits across the border.
“If any Infantry or any other unit made contact we would immediately be flown and dropped in the contact or on the spoor. The platoons on Fireforce were not allowed to leave the tent area, and had to keep long pants and boots on. All we would do was just lounge around the small plastic-lined swimming pool and suntan, sleep or play pool in the recreation room at the canteen until the siren started to wail, signalling us to ‘kit up` and move to the choppers in double- quick time.
“Each platoon would spend a week at a time doing Fireforce. The platoons not doing Fireforce would be doing foot patrols or vehicle patrols in Ovamboland or along the Angolan border. It went without saying that Fireforce quickly became the preferred activity.”
Rifleman Korff next does his bit in numerous patrols and plays a part in operations Protea and Daisy and has another brush or two with justice – but read the book to get the detail. As can be seen from the quotes above, 19 with a bullet is well crafted and a most enjoyable read. It is also well illustrated with photographs taken by Korff or featuring the author, thereby enhancing authenticity.          
There are some obvious and avoidable errors however. Korff places the Boer War in 1903. In fact it raged from 1899 to May 1902. He also identifies the standard SA Army fragmentation grenade as the M27. It is actually the M26. Oversights of this nature, while regrettable, does not matter much, especially not to the layman reader.
One concern I do have is the reliance on dialogue throughout. Speaking entirely for myself, I cannot reliably reconstruct a conversation I had yesterday. I would be greatly impressed if Korff can. While dialogue is a good literary technique and adds to the tension, pathos and reader`s identification with Korff, it does create doubt about accuracy and arguably moves some events from the realm of fact to fiction.
19 with a bullet – A South African paratrooper in Angola
Granger Korff
300 South Publishers