Book Review: Tale Gunner


Attention! Eyes Right! Stand at Ease! Sergeant Major AJ Brooks has some memories for you! That is is you are male,aged between 40 and 60 and received that cunningly worded invitation from Magnus Malan to join South Africa’s Border War somewhere between 1966-1989. Or if you know someone who was and want to see what they’re on about when sharing memories.

Brooks was conscripted into the South African Army Artillery, thus this book of anecdotes and tales has a distinctly “Gunner feel” about it, down to the St Barbara’s lightning motif along the top of the dust cover (Barbara being the patron saint of the Artillery) . But non-gunners, do not despair, we are also catered for.

Brooks has an eye for detail and a good turn of phrase. Recalling his basic training at 14 Field Regiment in 1979 he recalls: “Anyone who went there will tell you that 14th Field Regiment Potchefstroom was a hell-hole. Basic training in the Defence Force was ostensibly the same wherever you went but because ours was a tented camp a little way out of town, our instructors had been seduced by a sense of isolation. As a result, they believed they could run the place as they saw fit. This didn’t bode well for us…”

The author later volunteered for for junior leader training, rightly thinking “he’d rather shout at people than be shouted at.” Later during his national service, he and a fellow bombrdier was assisting Sergeant Major “Samil” Venter firing a 120mm mortar for a radar locating exercise. Due care was apparently not taken and after a bomb failed to fire, the trio decided to slide tip the tube to slide the bomb back up. In the end the bomb slid up the barrel, then back down again, striking the firing pin and firing. Recalls Brooks: “The noise of the explosion was horrendous and I lay on my back and gazed at my shredded shirt. When will the pain start? I thought, or will I die before that? I think I’d prefer to die than have the agony. I wiped my stomach and expected see copious quantities of blood. There was none, so I sat up. Van was already sitting. He too studied his body for mortal wounds and found none. We looked at each other and grinned. It was so silly. But where was Samil Venter? We stood and began dusting ourselves off as a groan caught my attention. Then we saw him: Sergeant-Major Venter was stalking around clutching his one hand. His thumb had been blown clean off, but so too had his trousers and underpants. His shirt was shredded and bits of material that used to be his combat pants hung from his webbing belt. Then there were his bare, long sinewy legs and finally his boots. The tops of his socks were also gone.
“He looked up at me, his face full of anguish, his teeth AWOL. His mouth was once again a maw: ‘Brookth, jou poeth! Kom hier!’ I went to him immediately. ‘Yes, sergeant-major,’ I stammered.’Ith my jewels nog daar? Ith my fokken jewels nog daar?’ I lifted my hand and felt, probably the way a doctor does when he asks you to cough. His genitalia were burnt black as were his inner thighs, also his leg hairs, but his precious jewels were there, intact. I smiled up at him. ‘Hulle is a bietjie gebrand, sa’majoor, maar hulle is nog daar,'”

Brooks later served with 7 Medium Regiment as a “camper” and transferred to the Transvaal Horse Artillery where he was promoted to the rank of warrant officer and battery sergeant major of 9 Battery, allowing him many more (mis)adventures and interactions. And its not just Brooks that gets up to mischief. Quite prominent too is one Roy Andersen, now Major General and Chief of Defence Reserves.   

Tale Gunner – The lighter side of South African military life

AJ Brooks
30 Degrees South Publishers