Ratels on the Lomba (book review)

In the words of Lewis Carrol in 1865: ’You are old, Father William’, the young man said …

I feel old, at least as old as Father William, when I read or hear stories of the war fought on the South African borders and “Ratels on the Lomba, The Story of Charlie Squadron” written by Leopold Scholtz and published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in 2017 hasn’t proved to be the exception.  It seems so long ago, yet most of those who fought there are still alive and were directly interviewed in the preparation phase for writing Ratels on the Lomba.

I blossomed into womanhood at a time that our (mostly white male) youth was being sent into battle on our borders against (mostly) black men, often from this country, but supported, equipped and trained by Cuban and Russian military experts.  Some of them didn’t return.  The ones that did return returned changed.  Only the amount of change varied.  That change was dependent on their characters and what these young men experienced “out there” where no mere female civilian could follow them.   The “troepies” (troops) were largely traumatised, cynical and damaged by their experiences.  Only the fortunate few who managed to get essential service military jobs within the Republic during their military service escaped the horrors of war, although they far more informed about the realities than civilians were.

“Ratels” is an Afrikaans word meaning “honey badger”.  The honey badger is a small, but very aggressive, enterprising, determined and brave animal.  It is somehow fitting that our tanks were named after these nocturnal creatures.

This book details only one small segment of that Border War, the story of one battle.  However it unpacks the huge theme of a war of shame and heroism, a war fought by men often still in their teens, led by “experienced” officers in their early twenties.  As stories go, this one is gripping.  If the mantra of the Charlie Squadron is to keep moving, so too does the reader keep reading.   It’s a story of training, of discipline, of camaraderie, of fear, fighting and death.  The war might have been nasty, but the read is superb.

Whatever your political affiliation, you will find this book an eye-opener into the psyche of the ruling party of the time and the brain washing of the soldiers serving in the South African Defence Force of the Apartheid South Africa.  Not all the brain washing in the world could erase the emotional substance of this story, both the good and the bad.

Lance Corporal Dion Cragg of the Charlie Squadron wrote a poem of remembrance just three days after the Battle of the Lomba and this is quoted at the beginning of the book.  War poets are so graphic in their retelling of the tales of “glory”.  He writes “I’ll show you a land so tranquil and green, see how it burns under man and machine …”.

In 2014, at a Charlie Squadron reunion, Captain P J Cloete said in a speech: “War is a futile exercise, conducted for nefarious purposes by those who wish only to serve their own interests.”

May the stories of war be the only experiences thereof that our young men and women ever know.


  • Title: Ratels on the Lomba
  • Sub-title: The Story of Charlie Squadron
  • Author: Leopold Scholtz
  • Publisher: Jonathan Ball Publishers
  • City: Cape Town
  • Year: 2017
  • Genre: Non-fiction:  War, History
  • ISBN: 978-1-86842-748-2

About moirads

Clergy person, theatre and music lover, avid reader, foodie. Basically, I write about what I do, where I go and things I love (or hate).
This entry was posted in Books, Uncategorized, War and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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