On Saturday, 21 October, proud OC Matthew Marwick (Class of 1988) interviewed the school’s “Oldest Old Collegian”, Mr Piet Swanepoel (Class of 1938), with a particular focus on his service in World War II.
Now 101 years old, Mr Swanepoel described how he had unexpectedly been provided with a bursary to attend Maritzburg College in the latter stages of the Great Depression, leaving the school shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War to find employment, at £90 a year.
In a 90-minute filmed interview with Mr Marwick, Piet explained that, when war broke out in late 1939, he actually ran away from work on two occasions to “join up”, only to be sent back from the recruiting office on account of his youth.
However, by May 1941 Piet found himself on a troopship bound for Egypt and adventure in the Western Desert. There, his signals outfit was absorbed into the famous 8th Army commanded by General Bernard Montgomery, the “Desert Rats”, who, with the help of Commonwealth troops like Piet, in October of the following year defeated the Afrika Korps of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at the decisive Battle of El Alamein.
He well remembered the famous order, issued by Monty’s hard-pressed predecessor, General Auchinlek, to Allied officers in North Africa not long before the battle, exhorting them that “Rommel is not a superman!”
Having earned promotion to sergeant, Piet followed the “Rats” up the spine of Italy, narrowly escaping certain death when a personnel mine killed his troop while on a patrol in the countryside.
Piet also described how, in the dying days of the war, and using a “chit” scribbled out by a friendly British brigadier, he drove his jeep through the Allied lines, up through the Alps and into Austria, to the outskirts of Vienna – only to be thwarted by disagreeable Russian invaders.
Piet described his time in the army as “unforgettable” and “the making of me”, and for decades he was a stalwart member of the Platrand Shellhole of the MOTHs, in Harrismith.
Although losing his sight and a bit hard of hearing, Piet was delightfully spry, and he expressed sadness at having only recently being forced to give up his beloved woodwork.
He was also proud to show off his cup, earned for U15 athletics at College in 1936, a framed sketch of the Victoria Hall, and a recent gift from College, “25 Famous Rugby Schools”.
We salute this redoubtable and loyal Old Collegian, and wish him “Good health!” for years to come.