Before we start Tony’s blog I would like to ask that supporters share the link in other groups, firearms, military history or anything where people would enjoy reading these stories. Tony is putting a lot of time into sharing his personal experiences and I personally think it is wonderful to be able to get such a close and human feeling of these events which are forgotten or unknown to many people today, thank you.-Dave
People not intimate with the Rhodesian war can be forgiven for not knowing that the ‘bush war’ for Rhodesia included a lot of conventional battles. My intention in this blog is to show how serious things became but in spite of that we never felt we would fail in the defence of our country.
The first part of this blog takes place on the ‘Russian Front’ (ie Mozambique) and if you look for Vila Salazar or Malvernia in the bottom right hand corner, you will see a railway track that leads south east all the way to the capital city of Mozambique called Maputo. This is where Rhodesia faced its biggest threat as the population was sparse and the ground flat and hard to form defensive lines.
The operation described herein is called operation Uric.
The second part of the blog is north west at Victoria Falls, where nearly all the other blogs have revolved around, to date.
In my previous blog you will have read that I eventually left Victoria Falls and went to live in Gwelo, in the central part of the country.
From there I did one more tour of duty at the ‘Russian front’ and came to believe that we were losing the war. The only way we could have won in that sector was to go totally conventional and destroy Frelimo and Zanla all the way back to and including Maputo but I know the political will was not there and our regular forces were stretched to breaking point. Any invasion on the scale I am thinking of would have involved several if not all territorial battalions, the Selous Scouts and all six national service companies. This would have left the country wide open to attack from the north. Anyway, the political side was something even more forbidding than the military and Margaret Thatcher, having said she was going to recognize one of our internal leaders (after a well-supported election – 67% turnout) called Bishop Abel Muzorewa, turned tail when the Queen (VERY disappointing to us as we all loved her) and Carrington and others, including Nigeria who threatened nationalization of BP put immense pressure on her to plug for Mugabe. The ‘iron lady’ suddenly turned to rust. It was a heart-breaking time for Rhodesians, many, many of whom were British from 1st to 5th generation and as patriotic to the Queen as any other country on Earth. To this day I feel the anger of the betrayal we faced but I do not hold a grudge against the British people who had little say in this treachery apart from Harold Wilson’s Marxist left who I detest.
Many British people on the left say we had it coming to us, a small band of racists holding down a black majority. Well, if you believe that you will believe anything. If that were true why was our army 80% black and all volunteers? And Smith as well as all of us knew power sharing had to take place but only when our fellow black countrymen had been trained to run the government. This may sound shocking, even patronising today but back then the white man had only been in Rhodesia a mere eighty years and had faced two world wars and a new and growing economy that demanded western methods of government to guide it. There simply was not that depth of schooling or sophistication among the tribesmen of the day to just hand our country over to. We were basically fighting for time to evolve naturally. However, the country is full of mineral riches and I think the west felt it was cheaper to get their hands on it through a dictator rather than a well-oiled administration as the former will accept bribes.
But I digress. After my second tour of the ‘Russian front’ I asked for a transfer to 2RR Support Coy, which was granted and much to my pleasure and joy I was posted to Victoria Falls of all places, in charge of a mortar and anti-tank platoon, the latter being superb US 106mm recoilless rifles.
I had no idea how to fire a mortar much less the recoilless rifle but was pleased to find out my 2i/c was one of the best qualified mortar/recoilless rifle operators in the country. That was a tremendous relief.
By this stage my girlfriend Mally and I had broken up (please read the previous blog to get the context of this story) and it broke my heart to drive to our cottage and look at the place; the very flowers we had planted and the bunker to shelter in during mortar attacks as well as an imagined snapshot of our black and white cat ‘tookie’ named after my nickname. My eyes watered and I swallowed down the sadness before driving into camp where I sat under a big tree, drinking tea and waiting for my platoon to arrive from Bulawayo by road (I had flown in from Salisbury).
So many thoughts floated in and out of my mind that I was far away mentally when four vehicles drove into camp. They looked like something from the ‘Desert rats’ with goggled men peering over their unscreened steering wheels, hair matted from the wind. I thought what a tough looking bunch they were and wondered what weapon was under the tarp of the 2nd and 3rd vehicles when my eyes dropped onto a mortar shell with wings sprouting out the booster ring with ‘2RR Support Coy’ heralded underneath.
‘Shit! It’s my platoon!’ I spat to myself, spilling tea as I jerked upright out of my seat. The vehicles ground to a halt in a cloud of dust out of which appeared this big ‘Dutchman’ by the name of Johan.
‘Hello Sir, he said, saluting lazily, ‘I’m looking for Lieutenant Ballinger’.
‘That’s me,’ I returned the salute, ‘I take it you’re from 2RR Support Coy?’ It was a stupid question as this information was stencilled over the doors of all four vehicles.
‘Yessir’, Johan said, raising one eyebrow. The men had all alighted by now with sergeant Accorsi lining them up in two rows.
‘I’ll look the guys over,’ I said and stood in front of them as they were called to attention. I felt flushed as twenty five pairs of eyes bored into me…they looked quite unkempt with matted hair and tanned faces; a few years older than the national servicemen I had served with so recently, some with beards and others in the process of growing one; hair just at unacceptable lengths. In other words pretty much like any civilian soldier anywhere on Earth.
‘I’m Lieut Ballinger and I’ll be your CO for this call-up. I’ve already chatted to the JOC Commander here and he has told us we will be stationed behind the ruins of the Elephant Hills ruins up there,’ I pointed behind them. They all swivelled and had a quick look before facing me again. ‘It’ll be dark in an hour or two and it’s a bit rough up there, so we’ll camp here for the night. I will allow ten guys to go out tonight on a liberty run and they will be chosen by lots. Officers and NCOs only may go inside the casino (lots of grumbles like my NS guys!) but all other places are open to you. Find a place to sleep after being dismissed and that’ll be it for today.’ I was then introduced to Sergeant Accorsi (who I did not get on well with, there is always a fly in the ointment but he was an excellent recoilless man) and each of the men in turn. About fifteen were white and ten black, the latter used as a guard force to our perimeter, once camp was set up. I spent the next hour or two chatting to Johan, explaining I had no knowledge of mortars or recoilless rifles but I was with them essentially as a decision-maker and not a specialist operative.
‘No sweat, Sir’ Johan said, ‘I’ll have you up to speed in no time. And he was as good as his word. Over the next few days he drilled me on the use of the plotting board and the commands given to fire a mortar. We had two 81 mm mortars and two 60mm mortars for local defence. Firing pits had been dug, ammo buried beneath ground level in two compartments and radiating shell-scrapes scratched out the earth for each man to shelter in if the enemy returned fire, which they could do with accuracy after the UK had supplied Zambia with the Green Archer system that plots incoming mortar and artillery shells with great accuracy, mapping out co-ordinates for return fire. A comfortable-sized tent had been erected for me with a nice stretcher and chair set up. The two sergeants shared a tent of similar size while the men slept under their nylon bivvies.
In addition to training me how to understand mortar procedures we practised ‘standing to’ and simulated firing mortars at diverse targets. After a week of this I was becoming quite proficient.
I loved the evenings when we would sit around a small, sheltered fire and drink a beer or two and chat about previous experiences and ‘war stories’. It was times like that where friendships were moulded, some of which remain as strong and steadfast today as they did forty odd years ago.
I also visited the casino and good old Fred and Linda and a few others were there but it was depressing and out of place without Mally there so I tended to visit the main Victoria Falls hotel where I had the delights of dancing with and bedding the odd foreign tourist that had ‘sex with a soldier’ on their bucket list, no doubt. Lucky me!
I will never forget being the duty officer up there on the summit bar roof, which commanded a good view of Zambia and the very place where I went during the one mortar attack on the village, having been brushed aside by a man looking intently at a plotting board while shells fell all around (see previous blog). I was now that very man! How ironic. And I would lay on my stretcher at night and watch the spray form the falls climb up into starlit heavens like a massive ladder. I thought a lot about Mally and wondered where she was now.
A week or so later, I was summoned to a ‘JOC’ (Joint Operations Command) meeting at the A’Zambezi hotel, situated right on the banks of the Zambezi river, the very place I and a companion had run to months earlier after our convoy had been demolished in the bush nearby. A rondavel attached to the hotel served as the command hub with the radio tent erected just outside some double doors where men sat hunched over radios, listening out for reports to and from patrols in the area, as far as forty miles away. A big, round table sat in the middle of the room with about twelve chairs tucked under its circumference, jugs of cold water and biscuits set In the middle. Coffee was served. Each unit had a chair for its boss to sit at and the beauty of this system is that no arm of the defence forces was left ‘out in the cold’ in decision-making processes that would affect them. I believe this was the strength of the Rhodesian army. Across the river, Russian ‘advisers’ knew little about their missions which were being decided and planned in Moscow, where the ‘map men’ had no idea about local conditions. All our men from colonel downwards were on the front line so to speak. A Brigadier sat directly opposite me, a bit too far away to read his name tag balanced on the table top. A brief throat-clearing exercise from him brought the meeting to order. A secondary circle of seats is where supporting officers and NCOs sat. I was relieved Johan was behind me to answer any technical questions if they arose. An instruction to the guard to close the door was given and then the Brigadier spoke.
‘Gents, morning,’ he said without expecting a reply. ‘I have some very alarming and serious news I have to share with you.’ He paused for effect; all eyes were glued on him. ‘What you hear here today is not to be repeated outside these walls. Any man convicted of spreading the news you are about to hear will be court-martialled with a guaranteed sentence of one year. A series of ongoing reports from special forces across the river indicate that Nkomo’s forces based in Zambia are now ready, on a conventional footing, to invade Rhodesia.’
I felt my skin prickle and my heart beat quickly; I looked at the others chatting to each other, tongues licking dry lips. We were one of two main entry routes into the country, we would be seeing action for sure. It was 1979 and the Patriotic Front were throwing all they could into defeating us militarily in case their political support was lost. Going conventional was the last phase of all communist plans to overthrow a country. This was phase four.
‘We have reports of over twenty thousand conventionally trained and equipped men across the river waiting for the word to go ahead. They have armoured support and no doubt air support will be given to them. For this reason, a number of reinforcements will be sent to Victoria Falls. We have reason to believe that a large river crossing will be attempted by gook ‘regulars’ to unlock the defences at Vic Falls bridge from the rear. And the main attack will happen across the bridge with two battalions of men stuffed into a train that will literally scream across the bridge and deposit its load in the village. I felt sick thinking of the rape and murder if that happened unopposed.
‘To this end a force of twenty armoured cars and supporting troops will be arriving in the next day or so. Two companies of 9RR will join us as well as extra artillery pieces. We already have 4 Independent Company here as well as a couple of troops of Greys Scouts (cavalry) and some special forces. We have mortar support from 2RR as well as anti-tank recoilless rifles’. Heads swivelled to look at my identity placard and then at me, followed by a brief nod and smile.
The Brigadier went on to explain where the troops would be positioned. From the air the rail head that crossed over into Zambia looked like a lizards neck and head. The ‘nostrils’ were where the bridge crossed over into Zambia and the neck is where we would build defences. For a start the rail lines were fitted with derail mechanisms, a camera fitted to the bridge positioned so the line over into Zambia could be seen from a control room without exposing men, an eight foot fence was erected along the right hand side of the neck (looking north) fitted with loads of nasty bangs by Engineers. An existing fence to the left was similarly decorated. Two large bunkers made from fuel drums full of sand and thick timbers were erected beyond the eastern fence, big enough to hold at least fifteen men each, glistening with rows of machine guns and tinned boxes of ammo. A recoilless rifle was inserted near them.
Just south, near the control room, we erected two more barriers made out of two layers of fuel drums full of sand, just slightly staggered so my two 106 ant-tank guns could take on armour crossing the bridge. Armoured cars and more troops lined the neck and upper body of the ‘Lizard’.
I underwent a crash course learning how to set up, sight and even fire the 106. We took one of them far west with two empty drums as a target and fired at it from about seven hundred yards away. It was an amazing experience. You sit at right angles to the weapon and look into a site, once on target you pull a lever and a 12.7mm siting round flies off to the target. The Egyptians used to abandon their tanks when they heard the siting round hit their armour. If on target you push the same lever and a big, deafening woosh hits your ears and your peripheral vision is swallowed up by an orange firestorm, the effect of which was a massive warhead striking the target. In my case I missed, but the line of sight indicated I had missed the top of the two drums by an inch or two and if it had been a tank it would have been destroyed without doubt.
From that moment life seemed to go on as normal. I met a few of my old NS guys and had a few beers with them while enjoying the casino once more. I found more mates at the local camp site where rows of armoured cars were parked, fires lit at night, beers out and young faces reflected by flickering flames. I had determined that if a genuine attempt to cross the river was made I would tell Fred and Ivor to take their families out of town and stuff the court martial.
I had befriended a young lady at the Victoria Falls hotel and being in luck was invited home for a ‘drink’, the universal codeword for sex. I nearly choked as I entered her flat, which she shared with a friend, when I saw my course officer the ‘smiling shit’ (see previous blog) climbing the staircase ahead of me, girl in tow. He glared at me, spitting out my surname from thin lips and for a few seconds I lost my desire to make love and almost fled the building. But I soon recovered from the shock and was soon ensconced in my lover’s arms.
It started at about ten pm that summery evening. I was in throes of passion when the ‘shit’ hammered on my door shouting ‘the crap’s hit the fan, get your butt into gear!’
Huge gobs of adrenalin shot into my system and there were distinct sounds of contact coming from the river to the west of the village. Machine guns ripping into the night, one was quite heavy with red and white and green tracer ricochets all over the sky. I vaulted out of bed with a ‘what the….?’ from the girl and dressing as I ran I was soon in my German Unimog racing for my unit up on the hill. My skin crawled looking at the dark bush all around me and who knew if the enemy was among us already? I had visions of being burnt to death in my truck.
I very nearly collided going up the hill to my camp with the 106’s racing down the hill to their prepared positions at the bridge. Heart pounding I flew into camp. Accorsi had gone to the bridge with the 106’s while Johan was sitting casually in the command bunker smoking a cigarette. The men were stood to, relaxing on the sandbags around each mortar pit with an air of professional ‘done this before’ look on their faces, which indeed they had experienced many times overlooking Malvernia on the ‘Russian Front’.
‘What’s up?’ I said to Johan rather stupidly. I felt profoundly embarrassed having been in bed with a girl a few minutes ago while he had set the place right.
‘was hoping you’d tell me, Sir’ he mumbled, drawing on his fag.
‘All the guys stood to? Ammo unpacked?’
‘I’ve got it sorted, no worries.’
I picked up a small radio set and told him I was going to have a look at the river which was just visible through the trees. I scribbled the radio frequency down for the JOC command post and then ensuring my radio’s frequency matched Johan’s I slipped forward. I tried to make contact with the JOC but they must have been running around like headless chickens. By this stage there was a roar of weapons exchange echoing down the long valley and as I broke through the bushes I drew my breath in quite involuntarily. Laid out below me, under the soft glare of a full moon, was a major battle going on. The silver river was dotted with large boats laden with men rowing furiously for the Rhodesian bank while tracer from one point only on our side of the river dit-dotted stitches of light from one craft to another. Some appeared to give up rowing under the volley of bullets and floated off downstream while others appeared to dissolve into the water, spilling out their occupants. I can only imagine the terror. Few tribal lacks could swim and the place was infested with Crocodiles.
Then artillery opened up from my left and puffs from air bursts appeared above the heads of the now frantic passengers in their boats. One or two turned back. A 12.7 opened up from the opposite bank to give fire support, taking really good aim at the lone armoured car and its crew that were chewing the men in the boats to pieces. The armoured car driver decided to reverse and move to a better spot but in his haste drove into a tree and got stuck there. The 12.7 would go through the Eland’s thin skin like the proverbial knife and butter. All he could do was swivel the turret and keep firing. It was a very brave thing to do indeed.
I was so mesmerised by the scene unfolding below me that I completely forgot that I commanded weapons that could offer help to our men struggling below. I have banged my head with frustration for forty years for not giving the order to fire; I will never know why I just stood there. I had become a spectator. The local mortars form the JOC had opened up now and the artillery joined them rolling along the shore and into the bush on the other side like some alien scythe moving forward.
And then, after only ten or fifteen minutes it was over. The last shells our side fired whistled over like in the movies followed by a stunning silence. Smoke drifted east down the valley and crickets slowly started to chirp again. A strong smell of cordite reached up to us, even at our height. I swung my head to the right and looked at the bridge; would the train crossing come now? My adrenalin was coursing through my body making me shake in the cool breeze. Nothing was happening at the bridge and the mist from the falls arched upwards like a million nights before. All the lights were on in the village and over in Zambia too.
‘Shit that was amazing,’ I said to Johan when I walked the fifty yards back to camp. He didn’t reply and I was glad it was dark to hide my embarrassment. What was wrong with me? The 12.7 and launch point of the boats was well within the 5km radius of our mortars. I am forever thankful that Johan never followed up with questions in the weeks that followed.
The next morning we were tasked to be support for troops searching the bush along the river in case some gooks had got across. We took both 81mm tubes up a hill past the A’Zambezi and through binoculars I watched patrols moving through the sparse grass of the area along the river front.
While I was sitting with my team I heard rustling in the grass to my left and slowly but surely about ten Greys Scouts on horses emerged line abreast, a fearful sight with their camouflage-streaked faces, some bearded, ammo pouches and rifle grenades covering big torsos. I thanked God I was not being chased down by them, quickly realising why cavalry was a fearsome sight to ancient warriors.
Just prior to coming up the hill we had stopped at the tourist jetty where one of the booze cruise boats was offloading about thirty cold, wounded and distraught looking gooks, all dressed as regular infantry in brown uniforms with black boots. Some bled. Some groaned in pain. All had been picked off an island just above the falls. For days dead bodies were pulled from the river with one tourist fainting when the hippo she thought she was looking at turned out to be a bloated floater with no head. We had a great tourist attraction in the boiling pot at the falls with another headless body floating in circles, clearly every bone in his body broken as his legs went over his head and arms flopped backwards at the elbow. He became known as ‘floating Fred’ and we tried everything to get rid of his endless ride in that vortex of water, even shooting at him, but Fred would not budge! That was his conquered bit of the new Zimbabwe!!
I learned that quite a few enemy died when they ran into the open-faced minefield where it came down to the river and those nasty little ploughshares had taken its toll on many enemy, now lined up in rows at the back of the police station on the hot tarmac. I could have sworn one was the infamous Albert Ncube (from a previous blog); the body had his big feet, fever-stained yellow eye (only one left) and his tousled head of hair. But an Albert Ncube killed Gloria Oakley many years later in what was then Zimbabwe and it was in the same area he operated in during the bush war. The bastard was obviously still alive.
A de-brief some time later said the town of Livingstone across the river was awash with bodies from our artillery strike and I’m annoyed I never got involved as I could have. There appeared to be at least a battalion attempting to cross and unlock the back door to our defences at the bridge but it came to nought and the attempt to race a trainload of troops across the bridge was cancelled.
This is what we faced, on all sides of our country and like Israel, who we admired so much, were able to fight off all attacks from all fronts for the entire fifteen years the war lasted.
If you have been enjoying Tony’s stories then please do check out his book available on amazon at the following link