I finished my eighteen months of national service towards the end of October 1977. I now found myself in a quandary. Apart from a few months working in a bank before disappearing on my work-around-the world tour, I had not worked at all in my homeland and the thought of looking for work made me feel physically sick. Gone was the security the army offers and now I had to fund my own way in life. I toyed with the idea of signing up as a regular soldier and even went to the HQ of the Rhodesia Light Infantry in Cranborne, Salisbury to look it over. After a few hours recoiling from all the spit and polish and other bullshit I decided against it. But that decision has come back to haunt me over the years; did I do the right thing? But in reality it was my inability to keep up on road runs that worried me a lot; would I be accepted by my men and officers’ alike if I came last in every run? Maybe I should have tried as my heart was in it, but not my practical mind. So that was that.
My churning guts was stilled one day when my girlfriend walked in the door of our cottage at Victoria Falls village, with some packets under her arm. Her eyes were all lit up.
‘Try these on,’ she said flipping me a pair of long black trousers, an evening shirt and a matching jacket. Although unsure what this meant I did her bidding and tried the suit on, It fitted perfectly.
‘God you look so sexy,’ she said kissing me on the lips.
‘What’s this all about Mal?’ I smiled back at her.
‘I chatted to Fred and he said you can join the casino as trainee croupier!’ She bounced up and down on her tip-toes and clapped her hands like a five year old about to get a toy from mum and dad.
‘What?’ My heart did a sudden trip accelerating. Me a croupier? A bead of sweat appeared on my brow. ‘I dunno Mal…’
‘It’s dead easy love and the money is good and what’s more you can live with me legally here in the casino staff quarters!’ She smiled a wide smile, eyes full of expectation, ‘what say you?’
I thought about it for a few seconds, my fear of looking for a civilian job was gone, I would remain at Victoria Falls and life would carry on as before, less me being in uniform. I nodded my head.
‘Okay,’ was all I could get out before she dragged me through to the bedroom, her eyes glazed.
That began a period of great happiness for me. I learned how to be a blackjack dealer and a very good, if I may say so myself, roulette croupier. Very few people could take me on the Roulette table. And the evenings were slow and easy as not too many tourists holidayed in Rhodesia any more. In fact we closed most nights at midnight, after opening at only eight pm in the evening. We would stay and have a free sandwich and a subsidised drink before racing home to our huge double bed and the delights it brought both of us. I will never forget the sound of the old rickety air conditioner that rattled the heat away from both the atmosphere and each other.
During the day we would go for a swim or play tennis or go to the other casino to play on their slot machines. Victoria Falls is a hot, sunny paradise with beautiful flowers everywhere and the magnificent Victoria Falls, which we visited often, with tons of ‘rain’ falling on us from the spray as we wove on foot through the forest to the edge of the mighty falls. It was just a breathtaking sight and I would often sit with Mal in front of me with my arms wrapped around her while we stared silently at the water boiling in front of us. The boiling water I nearly went into that night long ago when the police boat I was in had an engine failure.
We would also take drives to other hotels for a drink or a dance on our nights off or visit the Crocodile farm to have a light meal before watching the hundreds of baby Crocs being bred there for leather, get fed huge chunks of meat, which they fought viciously over. In fact so viciously that one Croc had most of its upper jaw gone as a big boy had taken this little fella’s piece of meat and upper jaw all in one bite.
I worked with a great bunch of people and our manager was Fred McGraw, who sadly died last year in 2018. The other croupiers were mainly female and easy on the eye which caused a bit of angst with Mally now and again but all was good fun really.
Towards Christmas 1977 there was an upturn in terrorist activity and a few of the army guys I still knew kept me in the loop. News travels fast and before long the village folk were tense and started to carry side arms or Uzzis or Sten Guns around with them all the time.
On the positive side there was a sudden influx of South African and other foreign tourists into Vic Falls and the soon familiar agony of feet feeling like balls of meat from very long hours were heralded in. We rarely got to bed before eight a.m.; our back muscles in spasms from bending over tables. It was lovely to see different types of clothes on the men and women rather than the drab and predictable stuff Rhodesians wore and the smell of the foreign women, splashed in exotic perfumes was heavenly. I felt almost embarrassed in our shabby little casino with one lonely waiter whose Fezz was worn and full of holes. But money was flooding in to the beleaguered casino owner’s bank account and before we knew it a second waiter, properly attired, had joined his exhausted mate and the bar area was upgraded almost overnight.
It was Christmas evening and all week Fred, Danny and myself had been betting whether the village would be attacked by gooks or mortared or invaded from neighbouring Zambia. The pit boss’s desk was stuffed with guns of all calibres and belts full of ammo tried to escape the desk’s lid. It was like the wild west!
Danny felt it the same time I did, that an attack was coming. Towards midnight, a tiny rumble in the floor and the rattle of a window alerted me. Fred had not picked the sign up as he was, as usual, charming up a hotel guest but the half dozen army personnel had felt it too. They exchanged quick glances at each other and were soon out the door like a shot. After a closer rumble and thud I pulled Fred’s sleeve and told him we were about to be mortared. Fred usually over-reacted to everything and his eyes went wide and his mouth dropped open under a huge moustache. He look jut like a fat Mexican, that’s the only way I can describe him.
‘What do you mean?’ he spat.
The words had barely left his lips when there was a massive crash and thud that sent people diving under roulette tables, eyes open wide in terror and jaws hanging slack, puzzlement in their eyes. One or two tried to stuff their betting chips into pockets but as for the staff we were arming ourselves and taking up defensive positions near doors, lest some gooks stormed in with automatic weapons. Fred, a police reservist, soon gathered his wits and amid the crashing noises, explosions, thuds and rattling windows shouted at all to follow him. Everyone got up slowly, nervously and followed Fred and Danny to a set of internal stairs. I grabbed Mally and shouted at her to go with them all, ignoring her quizzical look.
I passed the tail end of the column of people, about a hundred and fifty strong and ducked into Fred’s formal office. There was a very big safe there to hold cash and other goods overnight as well as the Casino owner’s hunting rifle. Fred trusted me to know where the key was and hands shaking like I had a neurological disease I fumbled along to open the thick safe door, which I eventually managed. The fanlight window off to my right was full of bright flashes like a photographer was snapping pics of models at a catwalk event. It was terrifying!
I grabbed a heavy looking rifle and a bandolier of ammo which I draped over my shoulder and ran after the fast receding crowd of punters. I felt and no doubt looked like James Bond as I sprinted along a corridor in my Tuxedo and bow tie, heavy rifle in one hand and ammo bouncing on my chest and back. I very quickly reached the destination Fred had headed for, a big basement in one of the hotel’s bedroom wings. I was pleased to see one of the South African punters and a soldier stood at the head of the steps, the former with an amazing looking rotary shotgun that riot police would use and the latter an Uzi. The young soldier looked nervous as he had missed the truck back to his fellow troops and would be in the cactus up to his proverbial the next day. I flicked the overhead light off and after simply saying ‘open fire if you see anything,’ I double-paced down the two flights of stairs.
The interior of the basement was heavy with smoke, laughter and nervous chatter with people either standing or sitting on rolls of old carpeting or beer crates or a few deck chairs from the nearby pool. People seemed quite relieved when they looked at me knowing at least one person among them was armed and able to defend the group. I soon found Mal sitting on a roll of carpets, her beautiful green eyes wide with a mixture of fear and excitement. Danny and Fred were there too as was Linda, another croup and the sexy Scot Elizabeth plus one or two others.
‘You okay?’ I asked Mal as I squatted down next to her. The fanlight high up the wall was still flashing away like a storm was just out there and thuds and bangs rolled down the valley.
‘Am good,’ she said ‘and you?’
‘I’m fine just my nerves making me rattle a bit!’ She smiled a beautiful smile, ‘listen I’m just popping up to the Summit Bar to see if I can help them up there…’
‘Ok but be careful please Tony, see you just now..’
I climbed the two flights up to the foyer and then pushed an elevator button that would take me four floors up to the Summit Bar, where I met Mally nearly a year ago. It was currently being used as a forward observation post for our artillery as it had a commanding view of Zambia and the Falls about a mile away. I was terrified going up in that lift with all the explosions still going on and I couldn’t wait to get out of its stuffy environs. A guard challenged me as the door swished open, a look blended of disbelief, curiosity and humour etched across his young, handsome face.
‘This place is out of bounds to civvies, Sir,’ he said firmly with his palm outstretched towards me.
‘It’s okay I’m an officer and have been based up here for the last eighteen months or so, let me chat to your boss, I may know a thing or two that may help him..’ I was waved forward with a shrug of the guard’s shoulders. But my toes curled up as I walked towards three men bent over a plotting board, there were explosions all around us, there was no overhead cover and now that I was outside the building they were much louder and darn threatening.
‘I’m Lieut Ballinger,’ I said rather self-consciously to the man that looked the most senior, ‘I was based up here with 4 Indep for this whole year, maybe I can help help?’
He looked me up and down once before flicking me away like an annoying fly, ‘we got it thanks’ and with that I was dismissed.
I strolled nervously over to a railing and squatting behind a parapet wall I looked at what was going on around me. The village to my left was like a ghost town and every now and then a pop of light was followed by a thundering thud and the odd zing of shrapnel. I felt really stupid being so exposed and was just about to turn away when I saw a lot of flickering light on the horizon to my left, like a big storm was approaching. Except this storm did not rumble, it shrieked, screamed and whistled….it was our artillery returning fire at long last! I started to giggle nervously and in no time it had turned into excited laughter, joined by cheering troops around me and even the guy that had fobbed me off was smiling and giving me a thumbs up. ‘Yes!’ I shouted. The shells from the old Brit 25 pounders up on the hill a few miles back were sailing overhead, making a whistling sound just like in the movies, followed by a brilliant orange-red flash over there in Zambia. I knew from my days here that all enemy positions had been marked and noted on the plotting board. Each area in enemy territory was getting a hell of a pasting and before long the incoming mortar shells slowed down to a dribble and then stopped altogether. I was so fascinated by the goings on that I had forgotten about Mally and was just about to head for the lift when I saw Fred’s car bounce out the Casino Hotel’s grounds and scream up the road to his home, where he would find and comfort his wife and two children in a bunker that he had built for them; quite a hotel it was and very safe from light artillery and mortars.
The lift clunked open and I had just reached the bottom steps in the basement when I heard Ivor Ring, the assistant casino manager, announce to a silenced crowd that they could all go back to the casino and have one free drink on the house. The expense was worth the returns as we worked darn hard that night and only got to bed at 9 a.m.; our back and feet muscles screaming in agony, the rattle of the air conditioner fading into a woollen cocoon of sleep.
When we woke up we did, as all locals in the town, go around looking at the damage from the night before. The Wimpy bar had had its big plate glass windows blown out but the savvy manager had swept the glass away and now had a roaring trade going on while people ate burgers and studied shrapnel marked sprayed across the walls. There was no thought of health and safety in those heady days, we did what we thought was right. We joined others on a crater and shrapnel inspection walk along the shops, licking ice creams from Dairy Maid. It was a very festive feeling and I just smiled at the guts of my countrymen. The post office had taken a direct hit but the doors were open and people were being served. A few cars packed to the hilt headed out of town but very few tourists left. We bumped into the South African with the rotary shotgun and he said it was the best experience of his life and wanted more!! My index finger circled my right ear and I rolled my eyes when he wasn’t looking.
After a great lunch at the hotel pool bar we relaxed, as a big group, on easy chairs in the shade, drinking cocktails like ‘Landmine’ and ‘Ginger square’ and talked excitedly about the events of the previous night. Nobody was downbeat about it, in fact the opposite was true.
The week between Christmas and New Year saw one prominent development take place and that was the completion of a double fence around the entire village of Victoria Falls, far enough away to deny our enemy the ability to use their mortars against us, which was about five odd kilometres. The two fences, each eight foot high, were set about seventy metres apart and loads and loads of anti-personnel mines were spread liberally all over the place as well as small ploughshares of explosives at chest eight, attached to a taut trip wire that an upright human would trigger by walking into it. Sadly, many birds saw the trip wire as a place to rest and got blown to smithereens. This would attract carrion-eaters like vultures that also sat on wires, only to be blown to bits as well. In the initial weeks the army engineers had to go in time after time to replace the devices and the explosions made the people in the village really tense. I remember trying to sleep in the day with all these bangs going on and our only salvation was the rattling air conditioner or a rain storm that sounded like millions of tiny feet on the corrugated iron roof.
It was when the big animals got hurt that I felt really sad, animals like Elephant that lost a leg or a trunk and buck lost both front or rear legs, their bleating going on into the night as they slowly died.
By the time New Year’s eve had arrived we were worn out from stress, lack of sleep and loads of work. Fred had set up a couple of fridges in the basement, well stocked with ice and drinks of various kinds as well as having the fanlight windows covered with sandbags lest some gook lob a grenade through the window. This was a very real threat to all of us as a similar thing had happened in the Congo around 1960 when a group of white Belgians were massacred in the basement of a building. Fred had also persuaded the local army commander that the hotels must have at least four men guarding the guests, which had been agreed to.
So, we nervously approached New Year’s Eve, wondering what would happen. I was worried even more because Mally had been given the night off, a decision I cannot fathom to this day as we were so busy, but that’s what happened.
The Hotel and our casino in particular were flooded from eight pm when the doors opened. We had no opportunity to focus on threats, confident that we were under military protection. The evening went well; my back was hurting like hell, not for the first time I wondered whether the two landmines I had gone up in during my national service had hurt my back in some way. Betting chips flowed back and forth and since I was crushing the guests on Roulette Fred kept me there, with a very alluring croupier by the name of Linda chipping up for me.
It wasn’t the clock that told me we were about to get mortared, it was, once again, the vibration in the carpet on concrete floor, a shiver from a distant bang. However I must admit I wasn’t sure at first as the place was in full party mood with hats on, people singing arm in arm, alcohol flowing, smiles and laughter in the crowded room.
Auld Lang Syne was just about in full swing when the first massive detonation shook the building. Only the staff, locals and guests from last week dived under the tables with a few noticeable screams from nearby. The rest just stood there totally confused; was it a bolt of thunder or what? A second, even louder explosion confirmed what was happening and like a herd of buck people made for the door. The Hotel Manager, Malcolm, had had the foresight to put a prominent notice up in every room in the hotel, that in the event of an attack all guests must retire to the basement in the west wing, with a sketch to that effect having been photocopied off many times over. Either that or Fred shouting ‘follow me’ heralded a rapid exit and run along an exposed corridor to the basement in question.
I was among the last to come up from under a table when I noticed a shadowy figure come out of the gloom with a handgun pointed at my forehead. A shock of fear ran down my spine and sweat shot out of me. It was one of the male croupiers called Warren, apparently an ex regular that had been discharged for what we know today as PTSD. I know this sounds corny and more like a work of fiction but this event really did happen and scared me to death. Warren’s eyes were not focused and sweat poured off his upper lip and forehead. His hand was shaking wildly.
‘Warren, it’s me Tony, I blurted out, arms outstretched, ‘it’s me buddy, all is okay…’
I had to repeat the call twice before his eyes slowly started to focus and then he was back with us in the casino and not some horror in the bush.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said licking his lips, ‘I just freaked out there.’
‘Same here buddy, almost filled my pants…let’s get out of here…go to the basement as arranged.
‘Okay,’ he swallowed and ran off.
It was a repeat of last week. In no time the safe was open, the ammo belt draped over me, the fanlight flicking bright pops of light (which were very much closer this time) and within a few seconds I was in the basement.
I could not believe what I saw and heard when I went down the two flights of stairs. People were jostling at the temporary bar for drinks (not free this time) while older folk sang out ‘it’s a long way to Tipperary’ and the walls rumbled and vibrated. I found my circle of friends all drinking and smoking away with Linda looking half pissed and Danny doing his best to move on an opportunity. Warren thrust a Brandy and coke in my hand while silently mouthing ‘sorry’ but I just smiled and took a big swig of the very welcome stiffener. My nerves were still jangling.
After about five minutes I got worried about Mally’s safety. I asked Fred where Malcolm was and after a shrug of his shoulders and a quick search of the basement I headed back to his office on the ground floor near the main reception. The lights were mostly out but two crazy people were standing next to a big plate glass window looking at all the tracer and rocket trails in the sky with pop-flash-bangs going on again, this time by the national Parks building.
‘Have you any idea what that glass will do to you if a shell lands just outside the window?’ I shouted at them. They half tuned in alarm and then gathering their wits headed for the basement, following the direction of my outstretched arm and pointed index finger.
Malcolm was in his office, quite pissed by this stage and sitting under his mahogany desk with a bottle in one hand and a revolver in the other.
‘Tony, come on in, room for one more,’ he chuckled.
‘Malc I need the keys to the hotel Land Rover, Mally is over at the Falls hotel and I’m worried sick about her.’
‘Och aye,’ he said in a fake Scot accent, fumbling for the keys in his trouser pockets, ‘the reverse gear is a bit tricky..’
‘Thanks bud,’ I said and made for the kitchen which in turn led to the staff parking bay out the back. The contrast of the abandoned, sparkling kitchen, an odd pot still steaming away, under bright lights, was a contradiction to the storm out there.
My heart was in my throat when I got outside. The hotel I was heading for, the luxurious Victoria Falls hotel, was only six hundred metres away but there were explosions all over the place and I didn’t fancy dancing with shrapnel. I felt very exposed sitting in the old series 3 SWB Land Rover and after almost freaking out over the reverse gear was eventually on my way, revving the engine to maximum.
I screeched to a halt and ran into the lush reception area that was abandoned and in semi-darkness. I wasn’t sure what to do but someone coughing to my right soon attracted me to a large number of people sitting silently in the long, dark, curving corridor that led to the eastern bedroom wing.
‘Mally!’ I shouted and when no answer came I threaded my way along, stepping between feet and legs. ‘Mally!’ I shouted again and this time there was a response. It was her coming towards me. We briefly clutched each other. She was trembling. I had not seen any soldiers protecting this hotel but that didn’t mean they were not here, but the place was too exposed compared with the basement, so, tugging her hand I pulled her along with me.
‘Where we going Tookie?’ (it was my nickname).
‘Back to our basement.’
‘Out there?’ she said nervously looking at the on-going flashes. Her image was indelibly imprinted in my mind in one bright flash; her eyes wide open, mouth slightly ajar. I can still see it 40 years later.
‘It’s okay’ I lied to her and we were off in a flash in the Land Rover, back to the rear kitchen entrance and a quick sprint along an open pathway to the head of the basement stairs. A couple of troopies were crouching behind small parapet walls, all kitted out and ready to kill anyone who tried to assault our position. The ever-smiling South African with his rotary shotgun was there giving me a thumbs-up. I rolled my eyes at Mally which made her burst out laughing.
I abandoned myself to Brandy that night and went home with a very thick head at about ten in the morning. No sooner had the enemy positions been silenced than the punters headed upstairs, finished off Old Land Syne and carried on as if nothing had happened. I could not believe it. It was a rowdy, rule free evening where we just let it all hang out.
The result of this attack was that many homesteads built bunkers at home, as I did, which took me hours and hours and the collection of building materials in our little black Morris Minor called ‘Miss Piggy’ was tiresome but rewarding. Mally would sit on a chair, her legs crossed under her, her hair escaping a clip, tumbling down the side of her head. It was a brilliant time of my life and I have never stopped thinking of it. It still hurts my guts that it all ended. Parties exploded across the village and people lived as they must have done in London in World War 2. Air Rhodesia built a massive bunker for their staff and it got turned into a real party zone, almost like something from a Vietnam war movie.
The morning after the attack we did the usual ‘walk around’ and this time the damage was more severe. A big plate glass window at the Falls Hotel where Mally had been on her night off had been demolished and an elderly lady had her left elbow seriously injured from shrapnel. The laundry had received a direct hit with one staff member running off to never be seen again. The head office of National Parks had a big hole in front of it with shrapnel marks radiating up the wall. There was also a lot of other superficial damage around the
Sometime later an envelope slid under our front door. I knew what it meant and my blood ran cold. I had been called up for six weeks territorial service with A Coy, 2nd Battalion Rhodesia Regiment. I closed my eyes and hoped it was a good posting. When I finally read all of it I closed my eyes again and looking heavenwards crumpled the paper into a tight ball before sighing heavily. I had been posted to the ‘Russian Front.’
I will not go into that posting in this blog but the border to the east of Rhodesia that fronted Mozambique, was called the Russian front as Russian advisors were occasionally killed in that theatre of war, even though it was essentially a front sponsored by the Chinese. It was a place that made me quickly realise we were slowly but surely losing the war and that front could easily be considered a ‘hot war’, more conventional in nature, where infantry engagements took place, bombers and jet fighters were used , para drops conducted as well as extensive use of special forces to disrupt and sow mayhem among the enemy. At the end of the six weeks I was promoted to full Lieutenant and I met Mally in Bulawayo, the second biggest city of Rhodesia, at the Holiday Inn. It was an exquisite experience to lie next to her and feel the softness of her, loosely covered by crisp, white cotton sheets on a very comfortable bed. My body was covered in mosquito bites and I had lost quite a bit of weight. It was perhaps the first and only time that I told Mally I loved her and I’ve regretted that for over forty years.
We left Vic Falls and the casino itself when we received no bonuses for our very hard Casino work at the Bulawayo Trade Fair where we made hundreds of thousands of dollars for the casino. I did not realise it then but the hotel was mortgaged up to its hilt from the previous barren period. The owner of the Casino, Don Golden was sadly killed in one of the civilian Viscount aircraft disasters and no doubt the place would never be the same again.
We finally left with a few possessions packed to the hilt in ‘Miss Piggy’, our eyes swimming with tears as we drove out the village, turning our backs on the most intense and incredible two years of my life. We moved to Gwelo, a town in the centre of Rhodesia, where Mally’s mom and dad were. I got a job as a shift operator at the local Sable chemical fertilizer factory, which I hated.
Another envelope arrived one day and the destination was once again the Russian Front. I nearly died from shock getting that letter and I remember standing on a cold, wet railway platform at midnight with not a sole about, mist everywhere, waiting for the troop train to arrive and I wondered about my future. That call-up was horrendous and I came back trigger happy and stressed out like never before. Mally and I started to argue and one night when I got back from early night shift I saw her sitting in a car parked outside the pub she worked in, kissing a guy. My blood ran cold and I physically vomited. The anger built up in me and I know I should have confronted her but never did. After one afternoon shift I came home and found her out, so I went to her mother’s house to find her, as that’s where she usually hung out. To my horror the guy from the other night was sitting there next to her. Her parents were there too and they were all laughing at a comedy on TV. I felt as if they were laughing at me.
I have heard of stories where people see red but this literally happened to me and without really knowing what I was doing I pulled out my handgun and blasted the TV to pieces. I then turned it towards ‘couch man’ (I never found out his name) and aimed at his forehead. I was not sure what I should do. Mally had gone white while her dad ran off to my left. I was still aiming the gun at ‘couch man’ when I sensed Mally’s dad behind me. He was trying to make it out the front door of the house to go call for help. I swivelled and kicked a hole straight through the glass door, which left me with a terrible cut and scar to this day but he made it out so I turned back to the three of them sat frozen there like white statues. I was rapidly coming to my senses, with horror and bile rising up in me and at that moment I heard the voice of a young man behind me. It was the next door neighbour and he had a rifle pointed at my face.
‘Take it easy, Tony’ he said calmly. I looked at the floor for a long time with my arms down by my sides and then simply threw the gun out the window onto the grass.
By this time the carpet was full of my blood and I hobbled the mile back to our home. It was the last time I saw Mally for over fifteen years and I learned that she had a total nervous breakdown a short while after I left and I believe her when she said the collapse was over me and not the gun ‘incident.’ It was the most horrible event of my life. I have no idea what Mally was doing with ‘couch man’ but she insisted she was comforting him over the death of his sister and as they had always liked each other, they got a bit hot and started kissing. She said it was nothing at all, a silly accident, but it destroyed us. I remain devastated to this day.
The reason I have included this very private affair is to demonstrate to the reader the stress men and women feel in war, certainly our type of war where men went to war for six weeks and then returned home to take up their plumbing or accountancy jobs. It was sheer hell for many. It led to a total abandonment of morals in thousands of cases and many wild parties took place all over the cities. ‘Key’ parties were common where men would put their keys in an ashtray for the women folk to try and fish one out with a small pole, fishing line and hook. Divorce and abandonment of person and property was rife. Some took their own lives and for readers familiar with PTSD this was our Vietnam syndrome. I hated what it did to my country; it cost us our innocence and we were an innocent and conservative people.
Yours truly, guess where? Many years later.