The story of Colonel “Oom Vuil” Fred Potgieter.
When the SAAF bought the farm at Ondangwa to establish an air force base there was pretty much nothing but an open expanse of savanna grasslands. When the Mobile Radar Unit moved in to establish themselves, this convoy of trucks drove into the new base and stopped. There was pretty much naught but a huge big single Camel thorn tree. A grand daddy of all Camel thorn trees. It provided the only shade for miles around and there was no way it was getting cut down so, with the shady shadow it cast, it became the center point of the base. A place where the guys could hang out when they took a break in the middle of the day. It became the social center of the base to be and would remain the social center from that point on.
In fact it stands there to this day 17.8887136S, 15.947131E, despite attempts, accidental and deliberate, to inflict injury on it … it still stands.
The tree became a favorite place and so, it became a home to a bar counter that was erected in its shadow. And behind the counter, one needs a bar man. It was my lifetime mate Victor Frewen, that was the barman at Ondangwa. We grew up together. Were in school together, were in the SAAF together, Rode for the same bike club, shared the same adventures … and not out of choice or design, but because fate always seemed to let us gravitate towards each other.
The barman needed fridges and shelves behind him so those were brought in and tents were erected, to the north.
To the opposite side was the lounge with easy bush chairs in clusters around tables made of tree stumps. The bar and the counter and the lounge were open to the sky.
To the south was the kitchen, to the east was the officers mess, and to the west was the noncom mess. A plan that is retained to this day if you look at it from above, though the cross is now made of brick and metal and offset a bit so as not to interfere with the tree, for the tree is sacred to all. And if you look real close, you can just see the wall of the social circle peeping out to the side.
But back then, the cross was made of tents, and the tree was smack bang dead center of the cross.
X marked the spot. It was not called pub tree for nothing.
In the evening we would come and hang out in the bar and drink and sing and tell stories. The ranking order began at the left with the lowest ranks and ended on the right at the highest ranks, an unwritten rule that was strictly enforced. You always stood to the left of a senior officer and to the right of a junior when facing the bar. The barman’s priority of service always began on the right and he would work his way down, privates were served last, that was if he got to them before any of the seniors finished their drinks. Then he would start up at the right, again, and a private was lucky if he got served at all.
The result was that the bar always gravitated towards a natural balance of more senior base personnel and troepe went straight to B stores to collect their dop and go back to their tents when the bar reached a certain number. If there were less senior officers, the place would fill with more junior personnel but never more people in a bar than a single barman could serve in the time it took to down a round.
There were fixtures in the bar. The ATC (Air traffic controller) was one of them. He would sit there every night with his portable 2 way radio on the counter in front of him and in amongst the singing and the shouting and the laughing, the moment that radio came to life, there was immediate silence.
And I do not ever recall a single aggressive incident in the bar at Ondangwa ever. Yes there were the verbal disagreements over this or that but never anything physical ever. A senior could never strike a junior nor could a junior ever strike a senior and no one used first names. Everyone addressed each other by rank during socials. First names were reserved for when there was work to be done.
Sometimes if there were 4 majors in the lapa, a surname would creep in, but never a first name. Familiarity bred contempt.
It was Sir or rank upwards and rank downwards. ‘Could you pass us the Ice please Captain’ … ‘Here you are corporal’ … ‘Thank you sir.’ You minded your manners and you knew your place, and you did not socialize upwards or downwards unless it was with your immediate crew. Physical contact or gestures of familiarity were not tolerated ever, nor was any form of disrespectful talk. But we sang along, and told our stories, and drank together like the best of mates as long as you knew your place. And no-one was ever banned or shouted at or anything like that ever. No one had to prove anything to anyone … we did that all day long and we knew exactly what the pecking order was.
Sometimes, very late at night, the last few diehards might shuffle closer together or sit in a circle, but the rules remained … and no matter where, whether it was a seat at the table or a seat at the bar or a seat in the circle or at one of the lounge tables, you always asked before taking up a perch. It was a social sin to just come and sit uninvited, even if it was a senior officer joining a group of lower ranks … he still asked. Not that anyone ever refused, but you always asked.
And so, this fateful evening, it is about 7 or 8, just after sunset, the bar is in full swing. Singalongs and drinking. Recorded music was forbidden in the bar. No hi-fi’s no speakers, no tapes, no players. Because, no matter what was played, someone always wanted to listen to something else, so canned music was banned from the start. You drank along, and chatted along and you sang along or else you got lost. You could listen to your own canned music in your own tent.
Then suddenly the ATC’s portable comes to life. A squadron of choppers is inbound from the operational area. No problems, no cassevacs, no body bags, just a routine patrol coming home from somewhere up north.
‘Look up to the south guys, and we’ll give you a show.’ says the squadron leader.
So, everyone in the bar is up on the tables and bar counter looking out to the south for this squadron of Puma’s to give us a fly over.
‘There they are …’ says someone, and a line of brilliant stars approaches from the south. The choppers have their searchlights on, and are shining them straight at us from 2 or 3 kilometers out as they circle the base on their circuit.
Then they turn towards us and each gunner turns his spotlight onto the chopper next to him and this squadron of brilliantly illuminated choppers, line abreast like a string of pearls approaches us growing larger and larger in the night sky.
Then, so low, we can see the grinning faces of the pilots and the gunners they are upon us and over us, and gone and the whole bar and the tents shudder with the noise and the downdraught and the chachachacha bass of the chopper blades … I even felt the ground shudder under my feet. … and a sudden violent mini dust storm is blown up in the bar and loose light things like sheets of paper and hats go flying around.
We rush out of the bar to watch them pull up to the north, and peel off to come in for a single file landing while they now keep the spotlights aimed at us around the bar.
I tell you, there is nothing more intimidating than having a squadron of Puma gunships focus their spotlights on you, when you know that there is a gunner with a 50 cal behind each spotlight.
So they land, and we drift back into the bar babbling excitedly about what a brilliant shoot up that was and how that was the lowest flyby we had ever seen and so on and on and on.
Now, I mentioned that there were certain fixtures in the bar. Permanent residents, night after night after night, like clockwork they were there, and one was an old colonel, who was regarded by the SAAF as being to old to fly combat, and maybe it was because he was mates with his other senor staffers that dated back to the second world war, and maybe they didn’t want to loose him in a combat mission, even though he wanted to keep on flying … so they gave him a Dakota and the daily milk run from Ondangwa to Katima Mulilo and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted to as he got the job done without stuffing anything up.
He was actually a great old man, and many nights we would sit around at the end of the evening, listening to his stories of how he took on Rommel and his fighters and bombers and how he got shot down and how he escaped across the desert through enemy lines, by burying himself till the tanks and trucks had gone past, till the battle line had moved over him. Of how his squadron, low on everything including ammo and planes, built the biggest home made cannon ever made and blew half the bloody Luftwaffe out of the sky with it…
Us youngsters, then 18,19,20, were his captive audience, we loved his stories and he loved his audience, and we would hang on every word of his virtually till the light of dawn. And then, after breakfast, after about a gallon of coffee, he would send a runner for his co-pilot, and then he would instruct us …
‘Carry me to my plane!’
And arm in arm, the old colonel and us would take a stroll up to his plane, no we did not carry him, but we steadied him if he wobbled a bit. And off he would go on the milk run, to return that afternoon late, to once again take up his spot in the bar, and god help anyone if they were on his perch on the right hand end of the counter when he waked in.
And you could see how he would sit an listen in envy as the new young chopper pilots told their tales of action and he would almost challenge them as to the hairiness factor of having a gunner shoot a gook for you from hundreds of meters away if he was carrying an AK 47, as opposed to taking on 4 Messerschmitt’s with a Spitfire.
‘You young wippersnappers dont know shit … You wait till I chase your arse all over the sky with 8 Browning’s and then, if you get away from me matey, then you can come and brag in the bar … but don’t talk to be about a hairy day when a gook takes on your kite with an AK47 and your gunner takes him out while all you need to do is fly straight and level so as not to upset the aim of your gunner. Balderdash.’
So, the banter flew back and forth … and it was good for a laugh … it was good natured … and he put one or two uppity chopper pilots in their places … but you could tell that it cut a bit when he got chirped right back again with remarks like ‘save your war stories for the young’uns Colonel, they’ll believe anything you say!’ … ‘ you just stick to your milk run and leave the real work to us real pilots that go out to get the job done’ and such like. And so the banter would fly back and forth, sometimes very funny, and sometimes very very bitchy.
It was therefore quite obvious that when the chopper pilots walked into the bar they were the center of attraction and the old Colonel, sitting right at the end of the bar, on his unassailable perch, looking down at his whiskey, did not say anything as all. He conceded them their 15 minutes of fame, their moment in the sun so to speak.
And it might just have remained so, had some YDFC chopper pilot, carried away in the exuberance of the moment, not slapped the Colonel on the back and said, ‘How was that for some low flying Old Man’ The bar came to an absolute standstill and the chopper pilot, realizing he had committed several cardinal sins in one stupid move stood back. He had physically struck a senior officer, he had encroached into an area of the bar that his rank did not belong, he had socialized upwards without invitation, and he had addressed a senior officer with a level of familiarity that did not become his status or relationship with that officer.
It was so quiet you could hear the tree growing, and that in itself is a fairly quiet process.
And it was early evening, it was still many hours away before the Colonel hit his stride … He was to all intents and purposes, as sober as a judge. he looked at the chopper pilot and stood up in front of him, straight and tall, and it was actually a surprise to note how tall he actually was when he stood up straight like that … and he said …
‘Young man, I will pardon you your social faux pax and put it down to the exuberance of the moment, but that, you little prick was not low flying … if you want to see some night time, low flying … I will show you some low flying you and your squadron will never forget. …’ he turned to his one pip loot co-pilot, the only officer that sat out of sequence at the bar in his permanent position next to his chief pilot … ‘KOBUS … escort me to my aeroplane!’
He stalked out of the bar with his co-pilot in tow, as the bar remained in deathly silence … The chopper pilot turned to his other squadron members,
‘Sorry mates, I stuffed up there’
‘Damn right, but don’t worry, buy him a whiskey when he gets back and you will all be best of mates by the end of the evening …’
And so, life in the bar returned to normal.
It was about 15 minutes later when we heard the Dakota motors fire up. and the bar became quiet …
‘Ondangwa Tower this is Mike One’ came his voice on the 2 way radio in the bar.
‘Go ahead Mike One.’
‘Fuck the takeoff clearance … you guys want a show … I will give you a show …’ And we all poured out of the bar onto the open ground outside as the Dakotas motors went to full power at the start of the runway .
He held it there for about a minute or so … and then released the brakes.
The empty Dak surged forward down the long runway
About a quarter of the way, the tail came up, and then up a bit more
About half way, the Dak had long passed takeoff speed and was running balls to the wall full tilt tail high down the runway
Three quarters down, and the tail came down a bit
And as it reached the end of the runway, people were expecting the biggest prang they ever saw, the tail went down, the nose came up and the Dak went vertical, straight up, through an almost vertical barrel roll, and leveled out as it approached the stall, then it joined the same holding pattern that the choppers had an hour or so earlier … and it descended through the turn and then with all lights on, came straight for the pub, lower and lower and lower …
‘He’s too fucking low …’ shouted one of the pilots
‘The tree … he is going to hit the tree ..’
‘YOU ARE GOING TO HIT THE TREE!’ shouted the ATC into the mic.
‘Now wont that be low flying …’ came the reply.
‘Brush!’ said another
‘Brush!’ shouted the ATC into the mic
‘What about it?’ said the colonel
‘Watch the masts at BRUSH!!!!’
‘Fuck yes’ came the reply … ‘Just you watch them!’
‘Oh my god, he is going to hit the masts!’ I was standing on the earthen embankment next to the road, which was maybe the height of a single story house when he went over the embankment with very damned little margin for error. I watched the guys in the bar scatter in all directions … Some of the brave chopper pilots had reckoned bullshit … This was just going to be another low showoff flyby … They did not know how low till it was too late … and then it was too late.
The Dak scraped over the top of the tree, both blades trimming the top … it was into the tree, through the tree, and out the other side … and then, dead ahead there was BRUSH, ‘Bush Recon Unit Signals Headquarters’ with its array of some 10 to 15 masts … all lit up with hazard lights … and the Dak went right wing down in a snap roll, faster than I had ever see a plane do a snap roll in my life before … it went right wing down and full left rudder and arse end down and it crabbed nose high, tail down, straight through the middle of the mast farm at BRUSH, with wingtip feet off the ground, he flew straight through BRUSH and out the other side and leveled out and once more did a climbing victory roll before joining the circuit and coming in for a perfect three pointer landing.
As the Dak taxied back to the apron, we ran out to meet it. It was an absolute mess. The antennas had been ripped away under the belly. There was camel thorn in the motors, in the cowlings, in the gear, in the tail wheel … there were thorns in the cockpit and even in the closed toilet in the back of the plane.
Most interesting of all were the several lines of antenna wire wrapped around the wing, which had till a few short minutes before, been strung between the masts at BRUSH.
We went back to the bar, and the Colonel walked in to a standing ovation from all the chopper pilots who were still picking leaves and thorns out of their flight suits and hair … and choruses of ‘And he’s a jolly good fellow’
The Colonel waked up to the chopper pilot that started it all, put his arm around his shoulder and said …
‘So, what do you think sonny, how’s that for some low flying … reckon the old dog as still got a bit of a bite left in him or what ?’
The chopper pilot handed the Colonel the whiskey and ice he had been holding pending the Colonels return.
‘To your very good health SIR!’ he said snapping to attention.
‘And yours as well lieutenant’ said the Colonel raising the glass and holding it till all the glasses in the bar were raised.
After that, when the Colonel gave a chirp to any chopper pilot that got too big for his boots, and the chirp was returned … his mates would stop him right there … with comments like …
‘No no no lieutenant … don’t go there … its been tried before and it did not end well … ‘
I guess that was what the old Colonel needed, was just a chance to prove that he still had it … and he seemed changed after that.
But we still hung out with him in the pub into the late hours of many a night and listened to his stories. He was a bit of a hero figure to us, and he was our connection … when we needed transport, anywhere, any time, we could hop on board with him and he would even make small detours for us. Weekends saw us hopping over to Rundu to park on the beach for 2 days, or over to Katima to the Zambezi lodge and so on.
One day, his ground crew, and don’t ask me how they fucked up, but they did, had loaded his Dak with a double load of cargo. They loaded it once … and then somehow, a duplicate load was loaded on board.
He always used to pull this stunt of holding the Dak down to the last minute, and the hauling it hard up into the sky … only this time it did not haul up, it barely lifted … but it did lift , and barely made it over the perimeter fence and he flew it all the way to Katima … trying to figure out why the old bird was not performing like her usual self.
When he landed in Katima, they offloaded the cargo intended for them, and found the plane still half full. The investigation found that he was something like 1.7 times overloaded and the plane should never have gotten off the ground, let alone flown … but his stunt of revving the plane down the full length of the runway till the last moment, something he loved to do is what pulled it off.
‘I always knew that trick would come in handy one day, I never figured that it would save me and my plane the way it did.’ He was a cool guy and a great pilot. I remember him and the stunts he pulled and the stories he told.
But that is a story of Colonel ‘Oom Vuil (Uncle Dirty)’ Fred Potgieter, as best remembered. ends: