A few weeks ago, after rugby trials, we popped in for a quick chat with Mr Pieter Swanepoel (Class of 1939). To put that into context – he was at college before World War 2 started!
Mr. Swanepoel gives a lot o credit to his older sister for him getting to College. He says that his family were not wealthy, as his dad had been seriously affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s.He worked hard and was fortunate to keep his job throughout – but there was always pressure to get money into the family. As such, his sister stopped school at Russel High early to get a job, and he was at a junior school in Havelock Road (just below the railway station). His sister used to get him to read every night, even though he wasn’t [particularly partial to it. She also helped him to apply for College, and through her motivation letter, he secured a scholarship to attend the school.
He remembers one of his first classes was a Latin lesson with the head master, Mr. Pape. Pape was walking around the class talking with the boys, and Pieter decided he needed to look very serious and studious to keep out of trouble. Pape walked over to him and said, “Why are you frowning at my teaching?” And promptly lashed him a few good whacks there and then. All lessons took place in Clark House which doubled as dormitories and class rooms. It was his sister again who encouraged him to knuckle down at school and take the more difficult courses like Latin and Math, to give himself a head start. He excelled at sport and athletics was his particular passion. He won the junior prizes in 4th and 5th form and recalls College doing very well in inter school meets. The school itself was a little out of town and there were very few buildings nearby.
Much of the conversation among the boys was about either about Philip Nel who was the then Springbok rugby captain or the global tensions developing in Europe with Nazism on the rise. As it was, Pieter left College in early 1939 (he never finished 6th Form as he passed his trade exams at the post office and started working there to earn money for the family). He soon left that to join the army once South Africa joined the Union Defence Force. He was part of the 14th South African Armoured Brigade as a radio operator and spent most of the war fighting across Italy. The impact of war on him and his friends was rather marker. He speaks of a rather unfortunate incident in East Africa (Abyssinia – present day Somalia) where seven (7) of his friends and Old Collegians were killed in action in a rather unfortunate incident where the Italian officer raised a white flag indicating surrender, but once the south African troops of the Natal Carbineers dropped their guard, they were attacked in an ambush killing 12 men. 2 of his friends were in those College boys, Hornby and Berlyn. Mr. Swanepoel has his class photo still and in the notes below he lists 7 of his class of 25 that were killed in World War 2. Almost a third of his 5th form class! The loss of some of these friends took a log time to come to terms with. He spent time in Italy and Cairo and was even offered a position in Japan before returning once the fighting stopped.
Interestingly, his inauspicious start to Latin lessons with Mr Pape had some good consequences. Once in Italy he found that the grammar and etymology of Italian was similar to Latin and he picked up the language very quickly, allowing him to speak to the local citizens. He found this a very useful skill and was soon able to converse for the army and on a personal level where he found the locals to be very friendly and accommodating.
He survived the war and returned to Harrismith where he married, started a family and farmed. He still has a love for horses and talks with fondness of some of his horses and the excellent ponies he bred from Basotho stock. He remains a passionate old boy and is an avid woodworker. He has made a number of wooden articles for the school to use. Family is very important to him as are his friendships. He remained friendly with all his class mates and attends the Veteran’s luncheon and Reunion whenever he can. He has been very disappointed about the current lack of events due to COVID and looks forward to being back on campus. He was a good friend to our last centenarian (Mr. Cyril Crompton) who passed away a few years back at the age of 100.
Mr. Swanepoel wished the current boys well and encouraged them to be diligent and work had as the opportunity at College is not something afforded to everyone.
We look forward to hosting you at out Veteran’s luncheon too, once gatherings are allowed again.