The ole man got a visit from his alma mater. Now he’s on the internets at maritzburgcollege.co.za! Their article follows, modified, with spelling and grammar corrected by me (non-College):
A few weeks ago, we popped in for a quick chat with Mr. Pieter Swanepoel. Class of 1939 – so he finished College before World War II started! (I have him as class of ’38, College?)
Mr. Swanepoel gives a lot of credit to his older sister for him getting to College. He says his family were not wealthy, as his Dad had been seriously affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Fortunately, he kept his job throughout – but he always felt pressure to get money for his family of six. To help her Dad, Pieter’s older sister stopped school at Russell High School early to get a job. Pieter was still at junior school in Havelock Road, just below the railway station where his father worked. Sister Lizzie 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 motivated – successfully – for him to secure a scholarship.
He remembers one of his first classes was a Latin lesson with the headmaster, Mr Pape; he 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. His sister 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 best athlete prizes in 4th and 5th form and recalls College doing very well in inter-school meets. See the results from 5th form in 1937 here.
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 then Springbok rugby captain, or the global tensions developing in Europe with Nazism on the rise. As it was, Pieter didn’t finish 6th Form; he left College in early 1939 (1938 we think) to take his trade exams at the post office and started working there to earn money for the family. And soon bought his first car.
He left the post office to join the army once South Africa joined the Union Defense Force. He was part of the 14th South African Armored 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 marked. In Abyssinia in North East Africa – present day Somalia – seven of his friends and Old Collegians were killed in action in a terrible 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 twelve men. Two of his friends were among those College boys, Hornby and Berlyn (read more about the White Flag Incident here).
Mr. Swanepoel has his class photo still and in the notes below he lists seven of his class of twenty-five that were killed in World War II. Almost a third of his 5th form class! The loss of some of these friends took a long time to come to terms with. He spent time in Egypt and in Italy and Cairo. 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. He found the locals to be very friendly and accommodating. After the fighting stopped he was offered a position in Japan before returning home, but he opted to return to SA.
He survived the war and returned to Harrismith where he married, started a family and farmed (well, bought, schooled and sold horses). 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 (phew!). He has been very disappointed about the current lack of events due to COVID and looks forward to being back on campus. He met our last centenarian Cyril Crompton at the 150th reunion. Cyril passed away a few years back at the age of one hundred. Mr. Swanepoel wishes the current boys well, and encourages them to be diligent and work hard as the opportunity at College is not something afforded to everyone. Saint Pieter.