Wednesday, 08 August 2007

Henry and Babeta - early years

Babeta Hofmeyr

Babeta Hofmeyr was born at Welgemeend in Cape Town 9 June 1924. At the time Welgemeend, a beautiful Dutch style house with high ceilings, and a stoep with a roof supported by massive granite pillars, had been the home of the Hofmeyr Family for over 170 years.The garden included two large vineyards, and orchards where fig, orange, lemon, mulberry, apricot, peach and pomegranate trees which flowered in profusion. It had it’s own mountain stream that flowed under a pair of lovely rose-covered bridges.
Her mother was Johanna Wilhelmina van der Vyver, known a ‘Momsie’, born on the farm ‘Clifton’ in the Cathcart district to David Daniel van der Vyver and Cornelia Human on 22 January 1898. She was the laat lammeretjie, her next youngest brother being 15 years older than she was. Babeta also got her name in unusual circumstances. She was supposed to have been a boy who would have been named Jan Hendrik. At a loss, her father suggested ‘Johanna.’
‘No!’ her mother countenanced, ‘how about June?’ A visitor from Spain overheard the argument and suggested, ‘you call her little sweetheart, why not call her Babita?’ The ‘i’ became ‘e,’ hence the name. Soon afterwards her parents moved from Welgemeend to a home of their own at 9 Hof Street. They named the house ‘Montreux’ because it was in Montreux, Switzerland while on a student tour in 1922 that they had decided to marry.

Her parents as always loving and affectionate, and as a child remembers occasionally being embarrassed as her dad was always kissing her mother in outlandish locations like lifts or busses and forever holding hands. Waiting for a red light to change her dad would say, ’just enough time to kiss my beautiful wife.’
She would groan, ‘oh daddy, stop it…’
They travelled extensively. While still only seven months old they went overseas for a year and left her to stay with Momsie’s eldest sister, Elsebe, and her husband Pieter Brown who owned a farm in the Eastern Cape near Queenstown. Later, at seven, with her parents overseas again, she lived with them for another year. At that time they were living in Queenstown. A severe drought had starved their land for several bad years. Then, when the rains came, they came with a vengeance and when the dam wall finally broke the Browns gave up the struggle.

After that a German women, ‘Fraulein,’ was employed as a permanent housekeeper to look after her and her brother Harold who had been born in Cape Town in 1926. Fraulien lived with them for four years until she’d saved enough to buy her own hairdressing. In 1931 Pal decided to demolish Montreux and build a block of flats on the property instead. The house they rented in the meantime was built like a castle and had a little turret with a bed that she and Harold took turns sleeping in. She remembers a pillow fight they had. The pillows broke and the whole neighbourhood was covered with down. Harold always knew how to get money out of people. Back then, on the 4th of November, while people were letting off their fireworks the coloureds would make a lot of music, dance about and pass a hat around, asking for ‘a penny for the Guy.’ One day her parents came home and, to their great embarrassment, found Harold singing and dancing about with a hat on the ground in front of him with sign next to it that read ‘a penny for the Guy.’

The flats were called ‘Vyverhof,’ named after the Van der Vyvers, and Hofmeyrs. The building had four floors, with a large room on the fourth floor for parties, etc. Her mother complaining that she never knew how many people Pal had invited, because he would simply invite everyone he met. The Browns came from Queenstown and moved into the flats with them until 1945. A tearoom was built on the ground floor for Elsabe Brown where she served baboetie, chicken pies, pickled fish – all the South African ‘boerekos.’
After Fraulien left nurses were lo longer part of their lives, as both she and Harold were old enough to go to boarding school. She was at St. Cyprians and stayed until standard six. Her dancing lessons were one of the greatest joys of her life and from the age of five she took ballet and tap-dancing lessons at Jean Stevens dancing studios. Even on days when she wasn’t actually attending class she used to hang around just watching. Years later Babeta herself taught dancing until she was over fourty years old.

Her grandparents had been putting pressure on them to learn to speak proper Afrikaans so after standard six she was transferred to ‘La Rochelle,’ an Afrikaans girl’s school in Paarl. At first she was miserable there but gradually settled in and even got a 1st class J.C two years later, as well as a reputation as one of the naughtiest girls in class. Reprieve came when her parents decided to take the two with them to USA where her father was planning to specialise in heart diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. At the time no one took the threatening war in Europe seriously, even though they’d seen movies of London air shelters being built and sandbags being packed around large buildings. The First World War was supposed to have been the ‘war to end all wars’ and all the preparations were made for a war to be fought on similar lines, although at that time no-one believed it would actually happen.
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At Rochester High they didn’t know which grade to put her in, so she was made to write an exam. On the strength of that she went straight to the twelfth grade and, and missed eleventh grade (standard nine) completely. During that year she and John Watson became ‘steadies’ and cycled around Rochester together as well being taught to ice skate and ski, after a fashion anyway. By then war had become a very real threat. Harold had flown back to South Africa after Christmas to be there for the new school year. But, before he could return, the War had turned nasty and all civilian flights were stopped. Just weeks later women and children were no longer allowed on ships and planes. Harold was offered the job of Director of Medical Supplies for the British Supply Commission, so they moved to Washington and Babeta registered at the University of Minnesota, where she majored in Child Psychology and Social Work and met many American who would remain friends of hers for the rest of her life. After graduating she was offer a job in a settlement house in Harlem and trekked off to New York. There was a lot of violence and gang wars, but the social workers seemed to have a special immunity. Despite that her parents were never happy about her working in Harlem, so in 1945 Harold arranged for her to go to London as a travelling companion of Mrs. Gie, who had been the wife of Dr. Gie, South African Minister Plenipotentiary in Washington before he died. and was still there on V.E. day and saw the celebrations in the city. It was moving, and even a little frightening. People went mad with joy.

In August Babeta collected Mrs. Gie again and the two returned to South Africa on one of the Union Castle ships, with many foreign wives and children fathered by South African soldiers in Europe during the war amongst the passengers. She reached home a month before her parents stayed with her Uncle Reitz, Harold’s youngest brother, and her Aunt Pam on their farm, also named ‘Vyverhof,’ near Stellenbosch. She’d only been for a day when Uncle Reitz mentioned they were expecting company that evening. He didn’t her much more, other than he’d invited the son and daughter of a well-known farming family of the region around for a drink and that he and the son had served together in North Africa and had become great friends. She didn’t think much of it. If he and the son had been in the army together she expected he would around uncle Reitz’s age; also well into his thirties. But she hadn’t spotted the glint in his eye. She was still sitting on the floor busy with one of her favourite pastimes; pasting scrapbooks together when the guests arrived. They seemed nice enough; Joan, a tall woman who appeared rather aristocratic, and her architect husband John Collins (later to become the mayor of Stellenbosch) who seemed very reserved; but she hardly noticed, because they were accompanied by the handsomest guy she’d ever seen.
Tall, fit, and dressed in civvies; he was introduced as Joan Collin’s 25 year old younger brother, Captain Henry Wicht, on his first leave since returning from Europe after the war. Babeta first thought was to jump up and put some lipstick on and brush hair, but that would have made her embarrassment obvious so she stayed put, and didn’t think he even noticed her until Uncle Reitz offered drinks all round. She surprised him when asked for a brandy and coke, which surprised him because until then sitting there with her hair in pigtails he’d obviously taken her for a teenager. Suddenly things changed. They started to talk, and as they were leaving Henry took a chance and asked Uncle Reitz if he might her me out. Uncle Reitz said, ‘ask her yourself, she’s over twenty-one.’
He cleared his throat and put on a brave face. ‘Miss Hofmeyr…’
Babeta smiled and said, ‘just call me Bobbie...’
They spent the next day grazing elbows and knees in the Stellenbosch Mountains. After that they spent every day together; swimming or playing tennis, and went out dancing every night. Sadly Henry had only one week’s leave left. After that they didn’t see each other until he came home on leave again two days before Christmas. But by then, Babeta had already learned a lot about the man who was soon to be her husband.

Henry Wicht

He was born at Schoongezicht, the Wicht family estate a few miles outside of Stellenbosch on 20 December 1920. His father was Johan Hendrik, the third Wicht to be named Johan Hendrik since the Wichts had first arrived in South Africa in 1796, which meant that, strictly speaking, he was Johan Hendrik the Fourth. Henry’s two older sisters, Joan (15/2/1917) and Louis (15/2/1919) were also born at there but by the time Henry was born the farm was in the process of being sold. In his later years Henry maintained that he never understood why his father, a natural farmer, would ever sell a place as lovely as Schoogezicht. However in the 1920’s farming was not easy. There was no market for fruit, and the Union Government had placed restrictions on wine production in South Africa. His father’s business sense had taught him that when farming proved unsuccessful there was really no point try to battle the odds. The new owners renamed Schoongezght ‘Lanzerac,’ and is today a world-renowned hotel, one which Tomas Cook described as the ‘loveliest in Africa.’

Henry’s father, then only 34, and his family trekked into Stellenbosch where they moved into a second house they owned named ‘Lindushof’ on Van Riebeek Stree. Those were the depression years, money was scarce, and Henry recalled that he and his friends all ran around without shoes, and even went to school barefoot, both in winter and summer. At six Henry was sent to the ‘Jongens Hoerskool’ to study under the heavy hand of Paul Roos, an eminent headmaster, but a stickler who frowned on frivolity. Rugby was the sport of the people and men of the region, later to become legendry players, were just everyday people. Men such as his uncle, Mark Makotter, who lived around the corner, Japi Krige, Bob Loubser, and many others who, like his father, were active in the village society. Danie Kraven, who had already earned himself a reputation as one of the finest players in the country, was still a student at University.

In addition to being a farmer and a businessman, Henry’s father was the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of the Regiment Western Province and while still in Junior School, he decided that he would one day follow in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier. In anticipation it was decided that he would have to learn to speak better English, and in 1938 he was sent off to the Rondebosch Boys High School in Cape Town. On the first day at school the boys were asked to state their names in alphabetical order. Rondebosch was one of the best schools in Cape Town, so most of the boys introducing themselves had European first names such as Allan, Michael or Simon. With a name beginning with ‘W,’ he would have to be the last to stand. At fourteen he was a bit self-conscious of his faculty to speak English as well as they did, and the thought of having to introduce himself as an out-and-out Afrikaner was too awful to contemplate. Then he had a brain wave; he would rename himself John Henry. That worked well enough for him during his school years, but when he finally matriculated there were some anxious moments when he had to explain to his father that Johan Hendrik and John Henry were one and the same. However the name stuck, and from then on all his friends and family knew him as that, or more commonly, as just Henry.


Although at fourteen Henry may have set his sights on becoming a soldier, according to his sister, Louise, at age seventeen he was not quite so sure. But in those years there was no work for young men, and only a very small percentage of white people in South Africa could claim that they had passed standard six, if that, at school. So in December 1937, despite a twinge of reluctance, he was thrown in at the deep end, and posted to ‘Robertshoogte’ (now Voortrekkershoogte), where a Special Services Battalion had been established to cater for those young men, and prepare them for South Africa’s inevitable participation in the looming war. The Commanding Officer, General Brink, had been to Germany to observe camps, and what methods they used to persuade young men to serve their country, whatever the odds. Some of what he’d learned was applied in South Africa, so amongst other things, discipline was strict. And books can be written, and probably have, about the SSB under the guidance of ‘Pappa’ Britz, the Regimental Sergeant Major and Mickey Jordaan, the drill Sergeant. Many of the pre-war SSB soldiers achieved high ranks during the war and in later life became successful in business and other fields. Henry often wondered how far they would have got on in life without the iron-fisted treatment that was metered out to them in the SSB camps.

The ticket to Pretoria was free, and once there, they had three days to decide if they really wanted to sign on. If not, they could go home at the government’s expense. However, once you’d decided to sign on, that was it. After that their lives were at stake for one shilling a day. But it was a career that many young men of the day hankered after. Henry decided to stay. Six months later he was chosen to attend the military college as a cadet officer, which was the only way to achieve a commission in the permanent force. In 1938 there were three thousand applications for fifty vacancies, and only those whose parents could exercise a little influence appeared before a selection committee. The finalists had to commit themselves to serve until they were thirty years old, and not allowed to marry before twenty-five. In addition they and also to repay all the money it had cost to train them should they do anything stupid enough to have themselves kicked out for. The course included, inter alia, horsemanship, flying, infantry and engineering, as well as all facets of artillery.
Over two years there were approximately 80 three-hour long lessons covering individual subjects, each of which had to be passed before you were allowed continue. Should you fail, you were entitled to write that exam one more time. All knew that failure meant the end of their careers, and there still remained the question of repayment.

Aviation was an important part of the training, and the youngsters had to undertake their first solo flight after 20 hours – or else! At six-three, Henry was not particularly well designed for the art of flying, especially in a very cramped cockpit. Understandably, it was not one of his favourite pastimes. The lessons were extremely primitive. The day began at 4:30 when they were woken in their tents. Half of the group was sent to the artillery school to train with guns and horses, and the rest off to Swartskops Air base to be with the avro tutors. These pre-war training aircraft were Tiger Moths with a top speed of around 70 mph. The cockpit was open and the only protection against the wind was a large pair of goggles, a leather helmet and a specially designed flying uniform with a zip. Most of his contemporaries managed to achieve their first solos after 18 hours, and Henry was only too aware of the implications. One day while being tested, Major Melville (later to be promoted to General), let him know in no uncertain terms that he was not particularly impressed by his efforts. After a few landings, the Major, plainly more concerned about the plane than it’s pilot, announced over the intercom, with more than a hint of pitying disdain, said he thought Henry landed like a monkey falling out of a tree. Despite that he felt that it was time to take one circuit on his own. With a pounding heart he said to himself, ‘in that case I’ll do it.’ With much concentration he finally got the craft in the air, but as a result of one or another incorrect manoeuvre on his part, an oil pipe burst and clouds of smoke billowed out of the single engine. His goggles, as well as the tiny windshield were instantly covered with oil and he was blinded. Suddenly Henry felt very close to his God. But his God had not deserted him; somehow he managed to land the aeroplane, and according to the instructors there had never been another instance like it.

When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, the flying courses, for which he thanked the Lord yet again, were cut short by six months. Within days of South Africa becoming involved, the newly formed soldiers found themselves in surroundings that would have been considered primitive during the Great War, or even during the 19th century, or perhaps even earlier. During the first months of 1941, Henry, at twenty-one, was ordered to Robben Island to train 400 coloured troops in preparation for service in North Africa. Units of coloured soldiers had been formed, often as mounted infantry, and disbanded as early as 1781 by both the Dutch and the British colonial governments. As the war demanded that both more men and women be called into service, the Corps was being expanded and absorbed by the SADF, some as POW guards and POW escort units, attached to motorised infantry batteries, and now again as soldiers. Ultimately the corps was expanded to 23,000 men, but after the hostilities it was finally disbanded by the newly elected Nationalist government, which both Henry and I, and many of our friends always believed was a great disservice to the men who had certainly proved themselves in the defence of their country, as well as a great waste of manpower.

Although already an officer, Henry’s training until then had been fairly basic, and he was now responsible for readying men for war. His troop was the second to be trained on the Island. The first troop, under the leadership of Major Niel Orphen, a family friend, had already been posted up North where, as a result of General Rommel's second assault on Tobruk, they had all been taken prisoner. Six months later, in June 1941, the young lieutenant and his men drafted into the Royal Atillery were on a ship destined for Egypt.

After the leave Henry returned to his motorised unit in Egypt. There followed troubled times. Soon after he arrived he was demoted from Captain to Lieutenant after an unfortunate incident in Cairo. One story is that in pub one night an Egyptian officer threatened him was a drawn sword, and Henry shot him in self-defence. Another version is more mundane; he caught a young Arab boy rifling through his kit bag in a taxi, but the result was the same. That event would come back to haunt him years later. While still in Egypt he was wounded in a bomb blast and sent to convalesce on the Isle of Wight. By August, 1943 he was back in the field, where he ran into trouble again after he and friend, Stiles, were asked by what authority they were entitled to wear wings. Apparently the short training course at the SSB base didn’t warrant that.

Early in 1944 South African units joined the Axis forces that set off for the invasion of Italy, and Henry was one of them. According to a letter from his friend, Chris Lessing, to his parents, he very excited to get to the front again, and pleased to find that the weather in Italy was warmer than he’d expected it to be. The Allies attacked Monte Casino three times, fighting mostly against German paratroopers and although it was never the intention harm Monte Casino itself, the medieval monastery was entirely destroyed during the siege. 54,000 allies and 20,000 Germans were killed or wounded in the campaign. After the Italians surrendered he was re-promoted to Captain. Again according to Chris Lessing, at the time he was thinking of joining the U.S. Marines after the war. The Kiwis however expected the war to move eastwards to Burma, and he expected to go with them so he stayed on in Italy with a Kiwi army battalion learning about field artillery. In further preparation he was sent back to England for an observers course, and was still there when peace was declared.


Henry and Babeta
The first thing Babeta’s parents did when back from the States was buy ‘Mervyn,’ a large double story home on Harfield Rd, Kenilworth for £10,000. Her Mother rescued her furniture from storage and they moved in. The house was conveniently close to the Kenilworth station, so getting around the city wasn’t a problem for the kids. They were given the front lounge to use as a place to entertain their friends. They painted the ceiling pillar-box red and covered the walls with pin-up girls. Then, with the help of Basil Kantley, built a bar in the bay window that was also painted with red and white stripes. One day her Grandfather came to watch and proclaimed that, ‘…dis die rooi hel hierdie!’ From then on the room was known as ‘The Bloody Hell.’ We also painted all the furniture with the same colours, including, to her Mother’s horror, her piano. As revenge she gave them that piano afterwards and it cost her a fortune having it French-polished again.

At Christmas the family travelled to Cathcart to visit Momsie’s family, the Van der Vyvers. Momsie hadn’t seen her parents since before they’d left for the USA so it was a very emotional and happy meeting. In the meantime her friend Wynn Cronje had arrived in South Africa and Babeta flow down to East London to see him and meet his family. Wynn proposed to her. He wanted her to return to the U.S.A. with him to live. It was a distressing moment, she’d known Wynn for over six years and though he wonderful man. They’d spoken about it before, and she knew her parents would have approved. But by then she’d met Henry and it was a difficult moment. She told Wynn that she needed a day to think about. After much soul searching, she decided I couldn’t marry him, and that even though they’d not discussed the issue, Henry was now the one for her. Telling Wynn that was very even more difficult than she’d expected, but he understood, and the two remained the best of friends for the rest of her life.

A few months later she realised that she’d made the right decision. Over Easter she and Henry met up again and two took the narrow gauge train from Port Elizabeth to Humansdorp. The journey, although only sixty miles, took nearly the whole day and when they reached Humansdorp Henry said that if they could spend so much time together in such a confined space, they should be able to spend the rest of their lives together as well. Babeta agreed wholeheartedly. Despite the fact that they spent the weekend with her and her family at the Beacon Island hotel in Plettenburg they kept quiet about their decision however she was delighted when she realised they liked him as well. After a wonderful weekend they both knew they’d made the right decision but without telling them about it Henry went to the military base in P.E. and the rest of them trooped back to Cape Town.

They had decided to announce their engagement to the world when came down to Cape Town on leave. But she had to tell her parents first, so a few days after he arrived she nervously give them the good news and was very relived to see that they were pleased. The birthday/engagement party turned out a great success and her friends and family were very impressed by her husband to be. True to form, Uncle Reitz took him aside and told him that if he didn’t treat her right, he would have him to reckon with.

Almost immediately after the engagement party Henry left for the Botha’s farm in South West Africa to work for two months with the idea of resigning from the army and possibly moving us to SWA to live. Babeta wasn’t very keen on the idea because she wanted children, but didn’t like the idea of sending them off to boarding school at too early an age. Fortunately, after a couple weeks Henry realised that life in the heat and dryness of Otjiwarongo would be too hard for his city woman wife and decided to remain in the services.

Henry and Babeta were married on September 28, 1946. They had wanted a small, private ceremony. Her parents however, being proud of their little daughter, wanted to invite all their friends. They compromised by having a small, private ceremony at the home in Harfield Road, followed by a slap-up reception with half of Cape Town at the Wynberg Officers Mess.

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