Blog No. 4 – Taking command of my platoon and the cross-border contact with Zambia.
Last week I described my training. This week I discuss taking command of my platoon and a punch-up with the Zambian army.
After a few days rest at home I was sent packing to Wankie (situated three quarters the way between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls). Although the army would have supplied train tickets to the Falls, Phil Laing suggested we drive there so we had a car on site for off-duty hours. It was a great idea and with Pete Wells joining us, we set off at about 5pm for the five hundred mile journey.
With our bags packed and a suitable supply of cokes and chips (crisps to Poms), we headed south west towards Bulawayo, where we arrived at 11pm. After filling up with our sparse allocation of petrol coupons (all civilians were issued with fuel coupons according to their needs, fortunately my mom always seemed to get more than the monthly allocation of about ten coupons and she would pass them on to us. I think each coupon was five litres but I am assuming this from a very poor memory) we headed off into the dark, very sparsely occupied bush between Bulawayo and Wankie. When I look back on the fact that we drove there in the darkness without any weapons, in a pretty hot terrorist zone, gives me shivers now. But back then we were stupid with youth, unable to believe death could ever accommodate us. I sat next to Phil who was driving, alert to all possibilities, stiffening involuntarily when an animal’s eyes glinted back from the darkness. This part of the country was quite barren, with stunted trees and sand rather than soil. The odd African village we passed by sat in the middle of a swept patch of sand with animal stocks close to the main hut for protection.
It was early September 1976 and as such the sun was coming over the horizon to our right by the time we arrived at the guard box at 4 Independent Coys main base, situated up the slope and on top of a small hill. After clearing us the guard allowed entry into the camp. On the right were a couple of barrack blocks, brick under corrugated iron painted dark green, quite modern and I think there was a swimming pool there if memory serves me well. Just prior to the barracks was the vehicle parking lot with a shed for mechanical works to take place.
Up ahead of us was the main administration block, typically colonial with a veranda running the length of its forty metres. As we turned right just below the admin block we saw the quartermaster buildings off to the left and then ahead of us the officers’ quarters which we now aimed for. Phil waited while Pete and I offloaded before heading down to the NCO’s quarters below us.
We scrunched our way to the entrance of the mess, to be greeted by a batman dressed in immaculate white, starched clothing. He took us to our private rooms, carrying our kit for us. One of the perks of being an officer! I will never forget the smell of that place and all other government buildings in Rhodesia. A clean smell, heavily pregnant with the odour of beeswax floor polish which made the hardwood parquet floors gleam like our stick boots. My room was very comfortable, with a single bed made to perfection, large rug on the floor, colourful curtains, cupboards and a table next to a wash hand basin. I rushed my teeth before heading out to explore. I met Pete in the passage where the smell of bacon and eggs teased our nostrils. The same batman smiled when he saw us, ushering us to our table. We both ordered copious quantities of bacon and eggs, toast and coffee to wash it down with. Pete and I both smiled at each other looking a bit like a cat that found the cream.
We had no sooner started quaffing down our food when a shortish major entered the room. We both stood rigidly to attention, me spilling my coffee everywhere.
‘We ignore parade ground rules here’ was the major’s first comment, ‘we merely acknowledge each other’s rank; please….be seated,’ he said with an open-palmed gesture.
We sat, looking at him while he ordered some food, then turning to us he said, I’m Charlie Pearce and I’m your Commanding Officer.’
‘Sir’ we parroted before turning back to our food.
‘Your men are already here, down in the barracks; been here since last night. At 11.00hrs I want you to come up to the admin block and your men will be allocated to you. Which one of you is Ballinger?’
‘I am Sir,’ I said with a pile of eggs paused at my lips.
‘You will take 4 Platoon, Sergeant Laing 5 platoon and Wells, 6 Platoon.’
‘Sir,’ we said and then relative silence fell until the major got up and walked out the mess.
At precisely five minutes before 11am we walked the short distance to the admin block where a hundred plus men stood in three ranks, heads swivelled looking at us approach them. My guts squirted a big gob of adrenalin into my blood, making me feel mildly supercharged but nervous.
The major appeared to our right, along with Phil Laing and three clipboards which he handed to us with pen and paper.
‘Ballinger we’re on parade, you need to wear your beret, ’the major said rather stiffly to me.
‘Sorry Sir,’ I said quickly before rushing down to my room to retrieve it. I will never, ever forget the embarrassment of that moment and still have not to this day.
Suitably attired, I returned to my men, taking hold of the clip board that Major Pearce offered me.
‘Take down their name and ranks,’ he said pointing at about thirty men now separated from the rest and then check it against this list.’
I took the list and strolled over to the men. They all stood to attention, which was a proud moment, the bubble of which was very quickly burst when my eye caught Dave Kruger’s eye who went to school with me, silently mouthing the word ‘wanker’ at me. I didn’t know if I should do something but just ignored the impulse to do so.
It only took a few minutes to verify all were present and correct before being told to go to the quartermaster’s block to get our kit. That took a number of hours for all rifles, chest webbing, radios, sleeping bags and endless other kit to be issued and then down to the transport section for me to sign for the two Mercedes Benz 4.5 tonners each platoon was allocated with. These were brilliant trucks, each capable of seating about sixteen men. Down the centre of the bed of the truck was the wooden, slatted seating, so that the men sat back to back, facing outwards. I was always amused by world war 2 and other movies where the men sat facing each other with a canvas sheet over a metal frame blocking out the view of the countryside. To our minds we wanted to face the enemy if ambushed. We would then leap over the side and get into cover before bringing down massive firepower on the ambush position whilst the truck behind would do a flanking attack. This is why we never went out in single vehicles, ever! The trucks had both armour and thick rubber conveyor belting bolted over the wheel arches, with more conveyor belting and sandbags under the feet of the men. This belting, bought from mine equipment manufacturers, was superb, stopping almost everything a landmine could throw at us, including boosted mines. Each of the four tyres had water in them to absorb the shock of a landmine detonation and behind the cab was a very large water tank that would supply troops with water in the field.
By the time all this was done and wrapped up to the major’s satisfaction, it was later afternoon. Pete and I were wild with excitement when we heard our platoon was to be based at Victoria falls, one of the premier tourist resorts in all of Africa, five luxury hotels, two with casinos, a golf course designed by Gary Player, shops and African dance displays and so on plus there would be loads of women there. A quick flash of Jess popped into my mind and then was gone. The other two platoons, 5 & 6 had to operate from Wankie, a hellishly hot town located in a basin surrounded by thorn-scrub hills, its claim to fame being the coal mines where Rhodesia’s 2000 years supply of coal covered hundreds of square miles in every direction. Just down the road in Wankie, was the base for 1 Independent Company and their task was to guard the shores of lake Kariba to the north, covering up to where operation splinter and hurricane joined (see map). This and the land internally is huge and wild and only a company of police black boots and 1 Indep covered it. No wonder we were like a sieve trying to protect our homeland but as history now attests, a very, very efficient sieve!
Pete and I spent the night before deployment up at the Baobab hotel, high up on top of a wooded hill, nestled among baobab trees and houses of the local miners. The hotel was all lit up at night and looked like a spaceship hanging in the vast blackness about it.
Pete and I ordered a beer, walking outside to sit just outside of the glare of the pool party lights, looking into the inky blackness of Africa spread unseen beneath us, only broken in its empty vastness by the odd cooking fire in the middle distance. I will never forget turning to look at Pete, a big, strong man and seeing the deep, pensive expression on his face. He looked like I felt, would I be okay, able to lead men? Would I chicken out or what, when the shit hit the fan? But looking then at Pete, as I did, I did not realise that in a few months his life and limbs hung in the balance after an ambush went horrible wrong. That was for the future, so I looked back at the bush and sipped my beer.
After an uneventful journey to Vic Falls, we arrived at our destination, the police station. One thing was noted on the journey however, was how beautiful the countryside became, with the trees getting bigger and bigger, the bush more dense and lush. We also noted that the tinned boiled eggs we had been supplied with bounced off road signs without exploding, they were so old, with stickers on the tins dating back to the 1960s!
Our first clue that we were close to the village of some two thousand people was the huge column of spray that towered up into the heavens from Victoria falls, some twelve miles away, known locally as Mosi-oa tunya
Our two vehicles turned into the compound of a relatively new double-storey police station, driving around to the rear where two large trees offered shade from the blazing sun. I told the guys to dismount and make some food, as it was now near lunch time.
My sergeant, Joe Torode and corporals walked back to the main entrance to locate the company 2 i/c (second in command), Shawn Von Stranz. We met him in the ops room where a radio operator sat glued to a couple of military radios. On the wall above him was a large map of Victoria Falls and its environs up to ten miles away and then another map that went as far west as Kazungula and East to the Matetsi river that flowed into the Zambezi. Little coloured pins were dotted here and there.
Shawn was a man in his late thirties with sandy coloured hair and a laconic half smile that never seemed to go away. He looked us up and down, lighting a cigarette as he did so.
‘Shawn Von Stranz’ the captain said to me, holding out his hand. I shook it, announcing my name and then introduced Joe and the three corporals.
We spent the next hour or so being briefed on recent incidents and troop boundaries before being issued with maps of the local area and our code books called ‘shackle’ books. I’m not sure if this is a generic title for a code book but that was its name with us.
‘How many bayonets and drivers do you have? Von Stranz asked me. I did not know off-hand so I looked in my pocket to get the list I had been given at Wankie only to discover it was gone.
‘I’m not sure sure, I’ve just linked up with my men yesterday,’ I said, going red in the face.
‘Not a good start,’ he said, crushing my self-confidence for the second time in two days. ‘Get them sorted into seven sticks (a stick is a four-man patrol, based on what our helicopters could carry) then report back to me with their details. I went outside and did so, returning half an hour later with the details.
‘Right,’ Von Stranz said, ‘I’m deploying all of you tonight as we have already pulled out the guys that you are replacing, so there’s actually no-one ambushing on the river tonight.’
I went cold from my feet up to my head, which suddenly became very hot. I felt sweat prickle my spine too. Being deployed at night on my first operational patrol with new men and an unknown area was not a clever idea to me. If I had been in Shawn’s shoes I would have eased my men into the area doing day patrols for familiarization. I actually got quite cross then as I felt deploying just after arriving would endanger my men and I said so.
‘We’re at war,’ he retorted, ‘suck it up and get ready.’
It was a comment that put me off him for a long time to come and although I later came to like him on a personal level, I never really respected him after that.
I spent the rest of the afternoon making sure every one of my 27 men (me being the 28th) was properly kitted out with working radios and in possession of maps clearly showing our inter-stick boundaries as well as all the minutiae that goes with preparing for a military deployment. We practised a de-bus, which would ensure that men getting off vehicles at night would be next to the correct man and not all jumbled up. It was dark when the men finally mounted up. I went in to say goodbye to Von Stranz but he was already gone for the day, which did not impress me one little bit.
Our trucks turned left, going out of town the way we had come in, then five miles later we turned right or west into the black void of African bush. I counted four miles off on the odometer at which point a pile of rocks painted white would indicate a bush track leading down the escarpment to the Zambezi river, our patrol and ambush destination.
After about four miles I told the driver to pull off the road and switch off the truck’s lights, which he did, with the following vehicle copying our moves. I found my night vision was quite limited for a while, it was the 1970s and we had no fancy night vision goggles. I had told the men to stand still until their night vision had returned before linking up with the men in the column. Within a few minutes we were ready to go and after saying goodbye to the drivers and one escort per vehicle, we stepped off into the night with me at the helm so to speak. It was a wonderfully clear starlit night with just enough light to make out the silhouette of trees and shrubs. My rifle was off safe, butt in my shoulder, ready to go. We never adopted the modern style of holding one’s rifle up to our eye, shuffling forward. To my way of thinking that narrowed your vision too much. We had been trained to raise our barrels in a split second and ‘double-tap’ the target, which after a few months practice made it possible to hit anything with both shots up to forty metres away, thereafter getting a bit more raggedy. But in this war, in this bush, most contacts happened from ten feet to thirty yards so sights were not necessary.
The white sand of the path went into the heart of the darkness like an arrow and after awhile I was used to it, although the sand made it heavy going. Slowly but surely the lights from the town of Livingstone over in Zambia disappeared as we dropped lower and lower into the Zambezi valley.
It was about ten pm when I sensed rather than saw, something standing in front of me, a large grey shape that the road seemed to disappear into.
‘What’s that?’ I said in a whisper to the corporal behind me.
We edged forward expecting an elephant to charge or some other nasty surprise, but, with hearts thumping soon discovered it was elephant grass, which is very thick and can grow to ten feet or more in height. The path had reached a junction, now splitting west to the left and right to the east. I knew where I was now, having studied the map for half an hour in the ops room before departure. I decided to make camp there, as this was our dispersal point.
We had been trained to circle back and overlook our own path in order to make camp, the reason being that you could ambush and kill anyone who had been following at a discreet distance. I found a nice big flat area and after forming a circle in all-round defence, laid out my sleeping bag and using my back pack as a pillow, set out to start the guard, which was one man passing my watch to the next man every twenty minutes, which would bring us to 5 a.m. and ‘stand-to’ time, although we remained lying down for obvious reasons. I waited until the correct time to pass my watch to the next man, making sure he was wide awake and alert before handing the watch to him. In this way, if any man fell asleep my watch would be the evidence needed to send him to detention barracks (DB) for 28 days at Brady Barracks in Bulawayo, where a particularly horrid giant of a man called Schultz would turn you into a whipping boy for the whole 28 days. Everyone dreaded going there as this man’s reputation was fearsome. In DB your feet were never allowed to operate at a normal speed, everything was done at the double and I mean everything, so in a funny twist men came back extremely fit from DB. In this manner, we were confident men would not fall asleep on guard duty. Serial snorers were made to sleep 100 yards from camp so that put paid to that problem as sharing your sleeping bag with hungry lions or snakes is not an option.
Come daylight we packed up in alternate numbers. One on guard, one packing up. We then moved to a new area to have breakfast in case our position had been marked for a dawn attack or mortaring. Here again, buddy cooked for buddy and after tea and some hard-tack biscuits we set off on patrol before the day got too hot. We were issued with good ration packs, with tinned fruit, tinned fish, jam, powdered milk, spam or bully-beef and sweets/cool-drink powder etc. The black troops got different rations that included the much coveted Sadza or corn meal, a very fine powder made from white corn. You would put this in water, with salt and butter added, until you had a lovely soft porridge that you could either eat as porridge or stiffen it up a bit to make a ball of it in the palm of your hand which you could dip into the gravy of meat, onions and tomatoes. As we became more seasoned troops we would carry tomatoes, onions and spices to make a nice traditional meal at sunset. The Sadza kept you full for hours. Now, the black troops coveted our pilchards so whenever a company or battalion of black troops parked alongside a similar convoy of white troops we would throw things across to each other, tins going one way and packets of Sadza the other way, looking like a massive fight to the outsider with hundreds of items flying through the air, after which we would separate with big smiles and thumbs up for each other.
After breakfast I split the men up into patrol zones, marking their maps with inter-stick boundaries and then waving them goodbye. I got a bit of a lump in my throat watching them go but they were good, well trained and capable young men. I was fascinated to see how quickly they merged with the bush, their camo being that good. Each stick had to patrol a water front a few miles long and
select a different place to ambush every night. I, naturally, chose my segment of the patrol area directly in front of me, that being one of the perks of being an officer, why should I walk miles to my patrol area?
We spent the next two weeks doing cross-grain patrols to pick up human spoor and then lie on the bank of the river waiting for a canoe full of gooks to land in front of us, which never happened. We got used to the heat, boredom, ticks, snakes, baboons throwing stuff at us from the trees above, elephants, hippos, buffaloes and so on that would come down to drink. We normally patrolled from 6a.m to 11a.m then slept under some shade until about four o’clock and then we patrolled some more. No-one, gooks included, moved in the noon day sun. Our motto was ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun’.
I loved the nights by the river and would lie awake for hours listening to the crickets, the sigh of the river and the laugh-grunt of hippos ( listen to a Youtube clip of their sounds, here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npH5BAEVbyo )
But bugs came out too, like foot long centipedes that would put you in hospital if they stung you, spiders, snakes and mosquitoes. The most mesmerizing were the fireflies or lantern beetles, their bums flashing the same green colour as the enemy tracer, which was quite off-putting at times.
These patrols carried on for about eight weeks; two weeks in the bush, two off days back at camp and then out for another two weeks. I spent my off nights at the one casino where I met my girlfriend. She looked so much like Gloria Estafan that I hold no quibbles of showing you a picture of Gloria so you can see what she looked like, as I no longer have a picture of her.
Needless to say, you can understand why I wanted to stay in base all the time but that was not to be and so began a tumultuous affair that has lasted many, many years although we are thousands of miles apart today.
Fast forward a couple of months. The local Peter’s motel, in the village itself, had been attacked by a group of terrs that had killed a tourist standing at the unwalled, open reception desk after which they pumped hundreds of rounds into the pub windows, injuring others. Thankfully some hunters were slaking their thirst that night an returned accurate fire, scaring the attackers off. It was later discovered that the leader of the gook attack was Albert Ncube, a very nasty bit of work that had already killed a farmer when he came to the kitchen door one night, then chasing his pregnant wife with the intention of raping and bayoneting her but thankfully she managed to hide in some Canna bushes. What trauma she must have suffered. Ncube also brutally murdered their dogs.
Now, a month later Ncube had been caught in a beer hall in Bulawayo township and brought back to Victoria falls to show the police CID and military commanders how he got so close to Peter’s motel to attack it. I was asked to join the group as Von Stranz was in Wankie for the day.
I arrived at the spot where Ncube had engaged the motel with an RPG 7 and AK 47 fire. The man was very tall and lanky, with big feet, the feet I had followed on some occasions and he had yellow eyes where the white should have been, probably from yellow fever or jaundice but he was a nasty bit of work to look at and in fact I caught my breath when he looked at me, a very muscular man with a head of woolly unkempt hair and absolute hatred in his eyes. I was the first to look away.
After getting all the evidence needed for the Police, we went our ways, with Ncube pushed not too tenderly into the back of a caged police van and that appeared to be the end of that.
The next morning, however, I was rudely awakened at sunrise by an even dopier looking Von Stanz, with bed hair at a funny angle on his head, saying ‘get up, Ncube has escaped!’ I sprung off my bed and shouted at Joe to get the men kitted up and ready to go. We only had two of my sticks in camp as we were on rest cycle so it didn’t take long to get ready, our kit was always on the trucks. I screamed at the cook for a bacon and egg sandwich with coffee before going to the ops room. (By this stage we had our own base camp and had moved from the police station).
‘I want you to patrol by vehicle to the west, as far as the road construction camp,’ Shawn said stomping his finger on a map, ‘if he turns south to the populated areas we’ve lost him but if we keep him penned up between the Kazungula road and the river we have a better chance of nailing him.’
I restrained myself from telling Von Stranz that that piece of land was 42 miles long by ten wide and we only had a couple dozen troops in that area. So we set off in 2 vehicless to look for spoor on the side of the tar road, which was soft sand and easy to see footprints in. We made contact by radio with the follow-up stick that was directly on the spoor of Ncube and decided to keep a few miles ahead of their position on the road. With luck, Ncube would hear the vehicles on the road to his south (and safety for him among the black population) and keep going west.
Von Stranz liaised with the police and some hunters who set up two-man ambush points along a road about twenty miles from the Village of Victoria Falls, that Ncube would have to cross to get to Botswana, a safe country for gooks.
We drove slowly back and forth looking for spoor in the soft sand either side of the road, occasionally racing away to give Ncube the impression a vehicle was rushing somewhere but in fact some troops were left behind hiding in the bush.
This went on and on until about lunch time when out of nowhere a thunderstorm, the likes of which I have rarely seen in my life, came up out of a blue sky in next to no time and with it all hope of finding Ncube’s spoor, which was washed away. It would not be the only time in my experience that poor weather would assist the enemy but on this occasion we really wanted this son of a bitch to get captured or die. The storm was so bad that Joe Torode lost sight of his men in the downpour and got totally lost. He turned up a day later fighting mad and pissed off with everything. He deserted two months later.
Von Stranz called me by radio to continue to the police camp at Kazungula for the night as we were now closer to Kaz than Vic Falls. The rain had dropped the temperature a whole lot and by the time we passed the road construction camp where we saw a lot of men shivering under ponchos, we were sopping wet and freezing. The new and spread out police camp was only ten miles away and what a great place it turned out to be for the night. We were welcomed by the camp commandant Steve, a police section officer, probably the equivalent rank of a sergeant in the army. Our host welcomed us with a big smile because he rarely saw people out at this remote camp, just a few miles from the Botswana border. Before long, hot sweet tea and a few biscuits had been shoved into our willing hands by a smiling constable and after a few jokes and some natter about Ncube we were shown to our beds for the night. I could not believe I had my own room that was spotless and very spacious with a single bed in it. I showered before putting my freezing wet clothes back on (yugh!) and headed for the pub area, which was just amazing. It was a large pub with militaria on the walls, unit badges, stable belts and berets with a magnificent painting of a Fireforce operation underway (see last week’s blog to find out what a Fireforce action is). I spent ages looking at that painting and can still see it in my mind’s eye forty odd years later, with the little figures moving forward while other paratroopers dropped from the sky and helicopters whirled above, 20mm guns blazing, dead gooks here and there, all painted in a magnificent clearing of yellowish dry bush and dust. Brilliant! A beer was thrust into my hands by the section officer Steve (I forget his surname now) and we sat on a stool while the odd flying ant swished around our heads.
‘I reckon Ncube was let out,’ Steve said suddenly. I looked at him and nodded.
‘I agree, something really fishy there! Maybe he’s actually a Selous Scout and they’ve set him up with a bad reputation to get into the hierarchy of the gooks?’
‘The thought has crossed my mind’ Steve said sipping his beer. In fact the rumour to this effect persisted for a long, long time to come, his escape and absolute disappearance is a mystery to this day. However, many years later in Zimbabwe a man called Albert Ncube, then aged 47, massacred Martin Olds mother using the same degree of overkill with the Cummings in 1977. This was after Martin Olds was brutally attacked by Mugabe’s henchmen long after the war ended. He fought as hard as he could and the farmers he summoned to his homestead near Bulawayo to help him were stopped by the police from doing so and therefore the only conclusion is that it was a state-sponsored murder of an innocent man.
I was shattered by nine o’clock and was just about to hit the sack when a phone call came in from Von Stranz back at Vic Falls. He told me to wait for some armoured cars to arrive in the morning and our task was to be their infantry escort on a flag-showing ride down the Botswana border from Kazungula (Kaz), until we reached Pandamatenga thirty odd miles south east of Kaz and then turn around and drive back to Vic Falls from there, via Kaz once more.
I slept the sleep of the dead that night, I do not remember time passing and at 7 a.m. an orderly brought me a magnificent cup of coffee in bed and so I stretched and luxuriated for a few more minutes, thinking of my girlfriend Mally at Vic Falls who I was dead keen on. Jess had been blown out of my mind.
I dressed again in much drier clothes this time before having a breakfast fit for a King with Steve and then I strolled outside to see my guys larking around on the now dry grass doing what kids do, just talking shit and throwing stuff at each other.
‘Relax,’ I said as they attempted to stand up, have you eaten?’
‘Yessir’ they chorused and then Max the MAG gunner said ‘you missed the action last night, sir’
‘What’s that? I frowned.
‘A couple of sexy chicks from the immigration post down the road came to the pub last night, you missed out’.
‘In your wet dreams,’ I smiled at him, ignoring his protestations to the contrary, ‘now get your weapons cleaned and ready for inspection in half an hour.’
I was twenty minutes into cleaning my own rifle when the compound gate opened and an armoured car and a tired old Ferret rumbled to a standstill next to us. The engines cut and a big, beefy man wearing black overalls and beret jumped down and saluted me. I nodded only as it was a standing order not to salute in an operational area lest a sniper take out the officers.
‘Hardly the 4th Armoured Divison,’ I said sarcastically which was thankfully met by a smile from the big guy, Dave, ‘get some tea in you and we’ll push off in about an hour. Your Eland is to lead the way then our two trucks and then your Ferret, okay?’
‘Okay sir,’ he replied before his crews headed off to the nearby kitchen.
We took off about an hour later, having radioed Von Stranz. He had told me the 2” mortar tube that had arrived in the armoured car with two cases of HE ammo, was for extra safety on our trip.
We soon arrived at the customs post at the Rhodesia/Botswana border which consisted of a small office block on the right with a big water tank on a stand at the back and that was it really. The boom was manned by a bored customs official and beyond a few metres of no-man’s land was the Botswana boom with two soldiers draped over it, looking equally as bored, although they perked up a bit when our mighty four vehicle fleet paused outside the customs office. I planned to take a look at these ‘ sexy immigration chicks’ Max had boasted about but they were butt ugly and the place was hot and full of flies and crying babies with snot on their top lips, strapped to their mother’s backs as is traditional in Africa. I went outside quickly where I caught a glimpse of Max’s red face as he laughed silently at me for falling for his joke of sexy immigration chicks from the night before. The bastard, ‘I would fix him’ I thought to myself.
Dave suggested we have a look at the bunker on the river the South Africans had built when their policemen helped patrol our border with Zambia, ostensibly to intercept any ANC cadres from entering South Africa. Rhodesia welcomed them with open arms to supplement our thin line of troops but after several horrific killings of them they were withdrawn back to South Africa.
We went behind the customs post and after turning north headed along a sand track that had been raised above a swamp either side of us. The swamp soon disappeared and we ended up on an island of firm soil at the bunker which was built almost touching the Zambezi river. To our front was Zambia 350 yards away, with a concrete ramp leading down to the river and a small customs post much like ours to (our) right of the concrete road/slipway that fed the car/truck ferry between Zambia and Botswana. To our immediate left was the corresponding concrete ramp-slipway on the Botswana side, perhaps two hundred metres from us, where buses and trucks were being loaded onto the ferry. There is a modern bridge over into Zambia now but in 1977 it was a ferry that carried goods and people between the two countries and ultimately to us in Rhodesia also.
We parked the Eland armoured car behind the bunker along with our two vehicles and the Ferret moved about ten yards away to the right as we faced the river, behind a big tree and some bushes.
We got off the vehicles and moved cautiously into the bunker in case it was booby-trapped. It was a bunker made of aluminium sheeting over concrete walls about chest height, with four corner pillars supporting the roof which was made of very sturdy timbers and sandbags on top. It was big enough to accommodate all of us with ease and we soon settled in making a cup of tea while I used my binoculars to scan the river, the customs post opposite and the Botswanans’ just to the left of us. Dave joined me from his car and a guy with a big hooked nose opened the cupola of the ferret and lit up a cigarette, binos in hand too.
The Zambians opposite us had not let us go unnoticed and were now putting on helmets and climbing on top of their bunker opposite us. I could sense there was a camp behind them but was frustrated I could not see it thanks to tall bushes and grass. By now some of my guys had climbed onto the roof of our bunker and were busy trading insults with the Zambian troops who could speak excellent English being a former British colony. They seemed cheerful enough fellows but they slowly but surely started to egg us on and annoy us by shouting at us that we were kids and that Ian Smith whom we all loved as our Prime Minister was a racist pig and so on and so forth while our guys taunted them with comments about their President Kaunda and how ugly their mothers were, knowing full well this would irk African males who revered their mothers.
A guy called Hill and myself decided to climb a forty foot communications tower just to the rear of the Ferret to see if we could locate what was behind their bunker and sure enough there was an army encampment there with trucks and tents and so on.
By the time we got down from the tower the insults and taunts were becoming heated so I decided to put the shits up them. The action I took at that moment had a profound effect on the military tensions and escalation in the area but nonetheless, not knowing this I ordered for a short pole to be erected and some rounds from the 90mm Eland gun passed down to me to make it look like we were setting up a mortar. The large rounds were obviously quite evident to the one Zambian who had his binoculars aimed at us, fiddling rapidly with the focus dial as one skinny guy with pimples next to me pretended to load a shell down this mortar ‘tube’ which was just an old rusty pole lying around. Much to our humour the Zambians dived for cover, which was my only aim to have a bit of fun with them but to my horror they opened up with everything they had! Bullets spat and whistled and tick-tacked past us while we went scampering into the bunker where clack-thunk noises of bullets hitting the corrugated iron carried over the distant thuds of primary charges going off.
‘Sights set at three hundred metres, open fire!’ I screamed and Max’s beautiful MAG opened up with a deep roar while the riflemen let off a steady pace of ammo. The ferret ‘s machine gun joined in with the growl of its .303 browning ; old hook nose smiling away to himself, cigarette stump still stuck to the corner of his mouth. Dave had opened his door and gave me a cheesy grin and a thumbs up. It was what we all wanted really, a chance to stuff up these bastards that offered succour and support to our terrorists. I spent a few minutes popping off two of my six magazine of ammo but suddenly things took a turn for the worse. A 12.7mm anti-aircraft gun opened up from our right front, near a clump of small trees. I had not seen them. The white tracer sped past us at breakneck speed, shredding the leaves off the bushes around the ferret. Old hook-nose was either not aware of this or was determined to do some damage before he died and die he would if a 12.7 round (.50 cal) hit the half inch thick armour surrounding him. A massive bang from an RPG 7 hitting the trunk of the tree near the ferret, bringing down a massive chunk of branches onto ‘hookie’ made him disappear like a flash and in two seconds flat he had reversed the ferret to a safer position but still fired at the bunker non-stop.
‘Come with me!’ I yelled at Hill and the pimply lad, half dragging them out the back of the bunker. I hopped, completely exposed to dozens of rounds of enemy fire, onto the back of our one vehicle and literally threw off all of our ball ammo and the mortar tube/ammo. Diving off the back of the truck we dragged the mortar into and old mortar pit about three feet deep. The 12.7 rounds and RPG 7s were now coming thick and fast, along with AK and RPD fire from the Zambian army’s commie weapons.
I had only fired the 2” mortar once, my two guys never so I held the tube at the estimated angle and after telling them to remove all extra charges except one, pulled the little lever at the bottom of the weapon after sliding the shell down the tube. My initial target, don’t ask me why, was a second ferry anchored midstream. It was a good test run to check range. Two of my rounds pushed up high columns of water next to the ferry but not quite on it. I then swung the tube to the right, the site of the 12.7 gun and dropped four or five rapid rounds on the position which were satisfyingly close to the base of the tree where the gun was mounted. It stopped firing and never opened up again. In addition to that the bush caught fire which was to prove highly advantageous to us later on in the evening.
After the 12.7 position I changed target, this time it was the military encampment behind their bunker and after zeroing in I dropped another ten or so rounds there. It was now getting dark and tracer raced between both sides as we fought along. The forty or so rounds of HE disappeared very quickly with me switching from one target to the next and even onto a small open trench system my guys had spotted.
As I got out of the mortar pit, carrying a spare box of ball ammo, I broke off the lip of the pit, dislodging a hornet’s nest. Now, African hornets are not like the skinny little yellow wasps you get in Europe, those buggers were as big as B52 bombers and almost in slow motion I watched this huge brown mother of a thing circle in and machine-gun my top lip. I shrieked so loudly, dropping the box of ammo, holding my face, that my men thought I had been hit by shrapnel. I waved them back and staggered into the bunker, eyes weeping involuntarily while my lip swelled up to three times its normal size. Max, forever the joker, paused on his gun and laughed at me. It took the edge off and I laughed too!
‘Thlo down on thle ammo,’ I dribbled. We were going through it at a hell of a rate. This was our last1000 round ammo box and two of the guys had broken it open, one re-charging the belts for Max and the other loading empty magazines being tossed down to him.
I decided, through wet eyes and pulsating pain to have one more go at Kaunda’s finest and grabbing up my rifle I aimed at a fellow peering around the corner of the Zambian customs post. I offset the sight for a slight breeze and slowly squeezing the trigger, let off one round. His head and chest disappeared so quickly he could only have been hit, no-one moves that quickly. A boot lying in a horizontal position appeared at the corner of the building where he was peeking from and then bouyed by this I aimed at the helmeted heads of the Zambian soldiers in their bunker but I do not know if I hit any.
We were still getting mortared so I shouted at Dave to get permission to flatten their bunker once and for all with his 90mm gun. Permission was granted by COMOPS (combined operations) in Wankie in a heartbeat. We were not a rigid ‘get permission from above’ type of army but Rhodesia had publicly denied having South African Elands in country so we had to get a quick clearance to use them. As lives were in danger the agreement came swiftly.
I could almost sense the Zambian troops shitting in their pants when the barrel of the Eland poked its nose around the corner of our bunker. A few green tracer was aimed at it from their bunker, only to disappear when the barrel turned in their direction. I shouted to the guys to cover their ears and nodded to Dave to fire, which he did straight away. The escaping gases thumped us in our chests and I popped my head up just in time to see an orange flash and the bunker disappear in a cloud of dust. We all whoop-whooped as round after round went in. I was staggered by the speed of the round, the flash over there followed so quickly after the thump here.
I told Dave to really stuff up their side and he put rounds into the open trench and the camp just out of sight as well as the town’s huge water tower behind the customs post. It must have been empty as nothing came out of it.
The sun was now setting rapidly towards the left or west of these photos and by now the flames from the burning grass was leaping up into the air, casting a yellow dance of light on the river between us. The wind blew from the east, which was perfect as the firestorm that built up swept over the bunker, trench and army encampment. There were some bangs and sparks everywhere in the middle distance and then sudden silence where all we could hear was the crackling of flames. I felt we were low on ammo and had chanced our luck long enough so I decided to vacate our position but it was still a bit light so we waited another half an hour until the light from the fire and sun had dissipated before leaving. The two armoured cars had already retired on orders to the customs post and then the one vehicle left, empty of men who had walked out in the semi-darkness. Only the bigger 4.5 was left now and its backside faced the river. I knew that as soon as the driver put his foot on the brake pedal he would be a target and so not wanting any of my men to be hurt or killed under my command I told the driver to walk out with the rest of the men, ignoring his protestations.
I was just about to start the engine when I had a brain storm. I got out of the cab and picked up one of many cardboard ammo packets and found to my pleasant surprise that they fitted snugly over the brake lights at the back of the vehicle. I could now get out of the compound in the dark with no lights visible at all which I did as quietly as possible, linking up with my men about three hundred metres down the road. We were all high on adrenaline and whooped and shouted all the way back to the police camp. I was so high on adrenalin I never noticed my swollen lip until I tried to swallow a beer.
Steve came out to meet us and we all entered the shadowy pub, music of that time blaring and ugly immigration chicks smiling at us. One beer followed the other as we swapped stories of the day. This was our first real action and I allowed the guys to let their hair down good and proper.
Round ten thirty there were some massive explosions to the west so we all hurried out to have a look. The glow from the fire was still there and silhouetted against it was rising dust and smoke from the explosions, along with the flash-pop effect and deep rumble in the earth.
‘Shit that’s big stuff,’ I said to Steve. He pulled me by the forearm.
We ran to the communications tower which rose a hundred feet or more into nothingness and laughing the laugh of two drunks we climbed up the steel rung to the highest platform where the steady breeze rustled our hair and made us shiver a bit. We had a reasonably good view of the explosions far away below us and they appeared to go on for some time before stopping suddenly at about 23.30. I was quite sober by then, wondering what would have happened to us if we had still been in position. I stood there, mesmerized with the thought that like that German General that saved his troops outside Berlin by withdrawing them just before the main Russian assault, I had too in my own small way saved my men by making a wise withdrawal.
‘We need to stuff them up,’ Steve said suddenly, ‘follow me.’ He told me his plan on the way down and it required a MAG and a wild volunteer. I recharged my magazines while the gunner did so with a few belts of ammo and before I knew it we were on a boat not dissimilar to the one described in the last blog.
Steve, a real wildcat who had gone ‘bush’ I think, accelerated like mad towards the west and as soon as the boat was up on its plane it appeared to float among the stars, so clear and bright was the reflection in the smooth water up ahead.
The three of us were giggling like kids when we neared the officer’s canteen of the Zambian army which was about eighty yards back from the river, nestling among some thorn trees and plonked on mowed lawns. The gunner put the legs of the gun on the engine cowling and emptied two belts into the plate glass windows of the building while Steve laughingly fired his handgun and I emptied a couple of magazines from my rifle. There was no return fire but I didn’t want to luck out so we turned in a flash and Zoomed down river back to the police boat jetty.
Why did the action of me pretending to load a mortar tube affect the tension in the area? Well, after our company stood down at Vic Falls it was replaced by Major Don Price’s well-led No. 1 Independent company and a few months later, when I was by then a croupier in the local casino, the Zambians got their revenge, resulting in a 33 hour battle that could be heard from Vic Falls over 45 miles away, it went on and on. The Zambians used their British-supplied green archer which allowed very accurate return fire on mortar pits. One of our armoured cars was damaged and the police station was very severely damaged. Artillery including our 105 Howitzers had to move in and so did the SAS, putting landmines down all over the place, which took a toll of the Zambian battalion commander. His second in command was intercepted on the radio refusing to go to the battle area because of those ‘bloody landmines!’
And so ended a very interesting episode in my life and the next day we went back to camp for a short break, flushed with success. I heard some time later that Steve went off the rails and had to be posted to a police station back in Salisbury issuing nothing more than car tickets, the poor guy.
Next week I plan to make my blog shorter as these 20 page offerings are a killer. I will describe how we foiled a battalion strength attempted crossing by the Zambian army who were to open Vic Falls from the ‘back door’ and let in 20 000 troops waiting to invade across the bridge in a conventional assault that would ultimately reach Salisbury to end the war in favour of Joshua Nkomo and the Russians. Rhodesia being blessed with many metals and jewels and land and coal was a glittering prize. We were the pip in the middle of Russia and China wanting our riches, with little or no help from the West.