It was about ten pm. I was dozing in my girlfriend’s bed while on R&R (rest and recuperation), listening to my favourite South African radio station, 702. It was time for ‘spin out’, a programme that played all the best hits of the day. The light was off in the room with only a slither of light coming in from the bathroom down the passage. My girlfriend was a croupier at the local Casino Hotel, Victoria Falls and if it was a quiet night she would be home at about midnight. I cuddled into the pillow a bit more, relishing being in soft white cotton sheets instead of my army sleeping bag.
[Picture 1 – This map shows the various military zones in the war. You can see how isolated Victoria Falls is].
I wasn’t sure if the flicker of light through the window was lightning from an approaching storm but as soon as I heard the thump and echo I knew it was not thunder! That was an explosion! I sat bolt upright in bed, with my heart racing against my rib cage. Another thud and crash echoed down the Zambezi valley, the pop-flash of light preceding it by a few seconds.
In one swift move I was out of bed, looking west through the bedroom window where more flashes silhouetted the neighbour’s roof. I turned right out of the bedroom and raced out the back door where my neighbour, Frikkie was standing bollock naked like me looking up at the flashes across the sky.
‘That’s something big,’ he said with the usual understatement he was known for, ‘I best get down to the police station’.
‘I’ll join you’ I said, rushing back inside to put on my camouflage uniform and boots. By the time I got outside he was climbing into his car to get us to the Police station about half a mile away.
It was standard procedure in the small village of Victoria falls, that all reservists of all units would report to the station if the village came under attack and although my army company was based in the village I was on leave and I felt the police could do with some extra manpower.
When we arrived at the floodlit police camp, there were about twenty men in various levels of military dress; some with shorts on, others in full Rhodesian camouflage (it was a brilliant design, it blended in with anything) while others had big bushy beards, shorts and tee shirts from one of the many hunting concessions nearby. Most carried the standard NATO FN rifle, 20 round full/semi-automatic weapons with good penetrating power, as many gooks found out when they thought a tree stump would protect them from death, only to receive a third eye for their stupidity. The weapons came from South Africa, later in the war (1972-1980) to replace the earlier wooden stock with carrying handle version. I’m not sure if the Portuguese sent ammo from Mozambique before abandoning their homeland to Frelimo or whether the ammo came from South Africa, but a friend told me once that massive train loads of ammo arrived near the town of Gwelo that took a company of men several days to offload. Some of the men packed 9mm Star handguns while the hunters carried .308 rifles and bandoliers of ammo.
It was decided that a patrol officer and myself, along with my neighbour Frikkie and another police reservist would go down to the river and do a boat patrol on the Zambezi river, to try and intercept any gooks rowing back to Zambia. I handed my rifle and ammo to Frikkie and was given a .303 Browning machine gun with two boxes of ammo. I appeared to be the only guy to have ever fired one.
I was horrified to see that our transport to the boat Jetty was a police Renault R4 motorcar. We climbed in, poked the barrels of our weapons out the windows and headed for the jetty about three miles away, past the Elephant Hills Hotel. We soon left the bright lights of the village and headed towards the terrifying blackness of the African bush in a bloody thin-skinned car!! I shook my head in disbelief, eyes wide open scanning the bush. The enemy we were fighting were ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army; the military wing of ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union). They were descendants of the Zulu people that broke away from Chaka and entered Rhodesia under Mzilikazi a century before. They were now known as the Matabele and they were extremely warlike and brave like their ancestors, the Zulu. You can understand why I was quivering in my boots driving into bush at night with their calibre of men lurking around!
The towering Elephant Hills Casino hotel appeared on the left, built high on a hill with a magnificent view of the Zambezi river and Zambia; a five star hotel with a golf course designed by Gary Player. A splash of heaven in a war zone! We soon left that behind and turned right towards the police jetty where a powerful speedboat with a ‘jet’ engine, as well called it, bobbed on its moorings. The power of the boat came from a big engine sucking in water and propelling it out the back. To the port side was a pole and bracket for the Browning and box of ammo (it was off-centre due to the large central engine which protruded through the floorboards, under a fibreglass cowling).
[Picture 2 – a .303 Browning similar to the one I used.
We jumped aboard, the regular police guy, Phil, starting the powerful motor up while Frikkie undid the ropes to bollards onshore. I positioned the Browning, fed a belt in and cocked the weapon, leaving it off safe. I had to stand behind this weapon while the other three sat and I almost went overboard when Phil accelerated forward. The Zambezi river was about six hundred yards wide at this point, dark and fast-flowing under a starlit sky. I dreaded the thought of falling into it with the large number of crocs in the area. We zoomed off left, west and upstream. At this point we were about 2 miles upstream from the mighty Victoria Falls itself, the spray from it clearly seen arching two thousand feet up into the heavens, like a massive staircase.
As we went along, the huge A’Zambezi Hotel sped by, its lush lawns draped into the river. The roof was the largest thatched roof in the world at the time and it never ceased to amaze me that the terrorists never burned it down, but I later learned that one of Mugabe’s men wanted it after the war ended so it was spared destruction.
‘Turn back downstream along the back of that island,’ I shouted to Phil, pointing at a long island sliding by on our right. Phil turned her rather sharply and I nearly went overboard yet again. We zoomed down the length of the island to see if we could find any boats that may have brought the terrs (terrorists) over from Zambia, which was their favourite tactic. Hit Rhodesia and scuttle back to Zambia for protection. We found nothing so continued downstream to a nest of small islets with weeds surrounding the tree-strangled shorelines. The spray from the falls was really ominous looking now and the water was moving at a hell of a rate into a boiling, steaming cauldron about a mile, or less, away from us.
We ventured near one of the islets to have a look for boats, roughly where Dr Livingstone saw the falls from when he was rowed there by the indigenous peoples nearly a century ago.
Suddenly our engine coughed and stalled altogether. We were now drifting at an alarming rate towards one of the biggest falls in the world.
‘She’s got weed in the water intake!’ Phil spat with wide, terrified eyes. Well if he was terrified I was shitting myself too! ‘row for that small island,’ he continued, pointing over to the left. We dug the butts of our rifles into the water like oars and finally propelled ourselves diagonally until we were able to catch onto the head of some reeds standing about four feet above water. We almost tore through it and our hands were sliced badly by the sharp leaves, but we managed to get a rope around an overhanging branch, causing our boat to swivel around and face upstream.
‘What now?’ I shouted. Phil answered by stripping down to his underpants and grabbing a knife, slid underneath the boat. It was the bravest thing I had ever seen, I was in awe. He came up perhaps ten times before asking us to haul him aboard, which we did in a split second. He then unlatched the cowling to the engine, undid another cover and dug out weed that had coiled into something that resembled rope.
‘That’s all I can do,’ he said before putting his trousers and shirt back on, shivering in the now chilly air. ‘Pray she’ll fire!’
We rowed back out into the main current while Phil cranked the engine over and over again. It started with a roar, causing Phil to smile quickly, a look which turned to despair when he gunned the accelerator forward and we went nowhere! We were now moving at a hellish speed towards certain death when slowly but surely the power of the water coming out of the jet arrested our backward rush and then with a sudden jolt, we zoomed forward at an incredible speed. We all cat-called and cheered and slapped Phil on his back. The water rushed by at an incredible speed and in short order the main island came up on our port side and soon disappeared behind us.
[Picture 3 – the Island that we sped downstream past is circled in red. By the time we had arrested our rapid race to death at the mighty Falls we had reached X! You can see how big Africa is, we only had 120 men to patrol the river to beyond the horizon]
We had just learned, by radio, that the target of tonight’s attack had been the Elephant Hills Hotel, which had probably been shot at by a light, recoilless anti-tank weapon which we called a B10.
[Picture 4 – A Russian B10 similar to the one used to fire on the luxury Elephant Hills Hotel. It is recoilless and fires an 82mm projectile. It’s essentially an anti-armour weapon but is great blowing huge holes in walls!]
The glass smooth water gave the effect that we were flying among the stars, they were so beautifully reflected in the water (you cannot believe what the stars look like in Africa with the lack of city lights). I swung my attention to the Rhodesian bank and then back to the water, where I noticed a sprout coming up out of it and then more and more, like miniature geysers. My befuddled brain was trying to figure this out when a green tracer went straight past the bow of the boat.
‘We’re being shot at!’ I screamed to no-one in particular but noticed out of the corner of my eye that the other two, apart from Phil, were lying below water level at the bottom of the boat! I quickly established the fire was coming from Zambia, now only about three hundred and fifty yards away. I suddenly realised that as the machine gun was on the port side I could not bring it to bear to starboard.
‘Turn her back so I can have a go at them!’ I shouted to Phil. He did so at full speed, but the boat dug in beautifully and completed the turn without any loss of momentum.
Before long I had brought the gun to bear and aimed the front sight slightly above the smudge that formed the Zambian shoreline and squeezed off several long bursts, which was very gratifying. The red tracer from my gun raced off in the opposite direction of the bright green tracer that was now forming a thick curtain in front of us; tracer passing at head height and splashing up columns of spray all around the boat.
‘Turn back upstream!’ I shouted into the wind, which Phil instantly obeyed and within a few short seconds we were way upstream from the wall of green tracer. I now started to shake uncontrollably, in a moment or two we were all laughing uncontrollably.
We decided to go mid-stream to a large Island called Kandahar where in recent times boats of tourists ventured to feed the birds and monkeys on their cheese and cucumber sandwiches whereas, now we moored under the boughs of huge branches that hung over the river. Phil turned off the boat’s engine and we sat in silence listening to the sounds of men’s voices and vehicles moving to and fro in Zambia, now less than two hundred yards away. Phil and I picked up our rifles and wound our way through thickets to the northern side of the island where we squatted and listened to our enemy shouting orders and moving around trucks, the red brake lights of which blinked through the trees and other shrubbery. I estimated that a company of Zambian soldiers and some gooks were there, ready to meet the boats that will shortly return from our side of the river. It suddenly dawned on me we were in the perfect spot to intercept the men that attacked the hotel.
We waited an hour then slid as silently as possible back to the Rhodesian bank. We headed for a dark splodge in the row of trees that turned out to be Hippo Creek, a big tributary that entered the main river. We tied up next to a massive tree, its branches sagging in the water. We called base and asked for extraction by land and then unclipped the radio, removed the rotor arm from the engine and shoved the browning over my shoulder, with a bandolier of ammo wrapped around my neck. Frikkie only had a handgun so I gave him my rifle.
[Picture 5 – This map will make things clearer to the reader. The land to the right of the river is Zambia and Rhodesia to the left; orientated north.
No 1. Kandahar Island. – No.2 Narrow crossing point we were shot at.– No.3 Hippo Creek — No. 4 Rough position of Elephant Hills Hotel — No. 5 Police jetty
The bush looked eerie in the moonlight with ragged shrubs mimicking a man holding a rifle; it scared the hell out of me as I advanced at the head of the four men towards a dirt road where a small column of vehicles was now heading for us.
We were about fifty yards from the river when an almighty bang went off to our left, an orange ball of light preceding it, the punch to the gut following shortly after. I was not surprised to see the other three on their bellies, like I was. I raised my head in time to see green tracer racing towards the point of the explosion, which was obviously a landmine. I followed the line of tracer down to a point and adding a few metres for the tracer to ignite, I emptied a whole lot of ammo into the gook position. It was gratifying to see the shrubs getting mowed down by the red tracer leaving my weapon as well as hearing the enemy shouting, swearing and running through the thick grass to get away. Their position was on the other side of the tributary.
As soon as we had virtually run out of ammo we stood up and moved forward at a rapid pace, reaching the dirt road in a few minutes. We tried calling the lead vehicle but as the radio’s aerial was in the boat we could not make contact initially and when we did it sounded like they were a hundred miles away.
‘There are four of us on the road, approaching from the east, copied?’
‘Copied, move towards us, I will notify my guys’. We walked slowly forward until the vehicles materialized out of the gloom. The lead vehicle was a British Ferret Scout Car with the left front wheel missing and the hull slumped into a big crater.
I soon located the commander of the column, a friend of mine from High school who was now a Lieutenant in the SAS. I will not mention his name as he still lives in Zimbabwe. He slapped me on my shoulder and said ‘let’s get out of here’. We loaded the driver from the Ferret onto the right front seat of a German Unimog, a heavily mine-proofed truck.
After strapping him in I sat immediately behind him to help prop up his bandaged head and the vehicle turned around in the road. As it was turning a brilliant flash, from my left, blinded me while a massive hand slapped me as hard as you can imagine across my head. I vaguely remember seeing a bandaged figure flying off into the bush, even though he was belted in, as I was.
We cleared the bush with fire and de-bussed into the tracks of the vehicle just in case there were anti-personnel mines sprinkled around the landmine, going immediately into all-round defence. A mist of spray from the water put in the tyres of all our vehicles, which absorbed much of the force from a landmine, drifted down on us, making us even colder than before.
We were just standing up when we heard the distinctive sound of mortar shells leaving their tubes over in Zambia. We counted their flight time until, cowering in the dust, the rounds exploded around us. They were too close for comfort.
‘Run!’ shouted my SAS mate and in one group the dozen of us fled south into the bush. We dodged the ‘wag-n-bietjie’ (Afrikaans for ‘wait a minute’) thorn bushes; if you got caught in one the thorn barbs would go deep into your skin and make you ‘wait a minute’ until you were free of them! We counted the seconds down as we ran and then dived to the ground as more and mortar shells erupted behind us. This happened about six times until the mortaring ceased and we lay sheathed under a cordite-smelling cloud that struck the back of our throats like acid.
It was decided that my SAS mate and myself would run back to the A’Zambezi Hotel about three miles away to call for more help and it was while we were discussing this I suddenly realized I was pretty deaf from the landmine explosion. I asked my mate for a spare magazine for my rifle and taking it back from Frikkie we headed east along the dirt road that the convoy had travelled along. The road was made up of powdery white sand with head-high shrubs either side of the road and being an SAS operative, my mate, let’s call him Len, set off at a fast but sensible pace back to the hotel, where we could phone the army base for more mine-proofed vehicles to go in and rescue the other ten men, two of whom were now injured.
I have never been a good long distance runner but my training at Osbies (The School of Infantry) and the adrenalin pumping in my veins allowed me to keep up quite easily with ‘Len’ and in next to no time we entered the reception area of the hotel. It was surreal walking into a hotel with all its lights on, guests milling around discussing the contact and explosions to the west and the sight of us covered in mud and dust and grease from the landmines made their eyes pop out of their sockets. Our camouflage was so good it must have looked as if a couple of aliens just fell out the sky at their feet.
We very quickly made contact with the base and by the time the next convoy rolled by the gate I was shattered and deaf and could taste blood at the back of my throat. I waited for the column to return, which it did successfully and caught a lift with them to the army base. It was there that the medic told me to go with the wounded back to Wankie (yes guys, that IS the name of the town!) which was sixty miles south east of Vic Falls and that an Islander plane had been despatched to collect us from Sprayview airstrip about a mile away.
I had some coffee and a sandwich and was then bundled into a truck and taken to the airfield where the Islander was taxiing up to us. The other two men were loaded on stretchers while I slumped in the back of the aircraft in a mothballed cocoon of silence.
So ended my eligibility to go on military operations, as I had lost my eardrum and so for the next three months I stayed in the rear at Wankie as an admin officer doing pay and ordering various supplies from Bulawayo.
Fast forward to late 1977. By this time I had been out of the army by a couple of months, leaving behind some amazing mates who I am still in contact with today. Our parting of ways left me with a hangover that destroyed many brain cells.
In the interim I had been offered a post as a croupier in the same casino my girlfriend worked in. Shame, the poor girl had no idea why she came home to an empty house that night I went out on the river. I was still exempt from call-ups to the territorial army until such time as my eardrum healed or was operated on so I was now a croupier at the hotel.
I like/hated/enjoyed/despised my role as a croupier and was so embarrassed going to work my first night with all my army buddies taking the piss out of me as I nervously served them on roulette. We worked long hours and slept until mid day every day and swam and played tennis and did tours to the crocodile farm where we had lunch or played slots at the Elephant Hills Hotel where, when it was attacked that night, the chef had closed himself in the huge kitchen freezer for safety and when found was half dead and white as snow, which was a major achievement for a black man!
[The old original Casino Hotel, now a brand new sparkling entity but this is how it looked in 1977/8. The rather bland exterior belies what lies therein and hides the lovely swimming pool area]
It was on one of our glorious off days that we decided to go and have lunch with the assistant Casino Manager at his beautiful home overlooking the Zambezi river. We had just reached one of the sprawling lawns around the house when we heard a very loud woosh and then a loud bang, that echoed down the valley.
‘Come look!’ my girlfriend cried from up ahead of me. I ran forward to meet her as indeed Ivor and his wife did and we stood there, mouths aghast as the magnificent Elephant Hills Hotel exploded into flames! We could see ant-like people running around trying to get the fire equipment working and the owners of cars rushing this way and that to stop them being engulfed in flames. The thatch roof literally exploded, even though it had been treated with fire retardant chemicals. We watched in total silence as this magnificent hotel, with a casino, restaurants, two swimming pools and lush bedroom suites went up in about twenty five minutes. All gone, just ashes and a few broken walls left. The army reacted quite quickly and were there in about seven minutes from the camp down the road as were the police but sadly the nearest fire engine was at the main airport twenty miles away and when it arrived all that was left was a smouldering ruin.
[The immediate aftermath of the hotel burning down. Ironically the fire system had been checked the day before but the manager had put the key to the storage lock in his pocket and as a result no-one could access the life-saving equipment. Several more pictures follow]
[Steps down to one of two pools]
[The Rhodesian flag flying defiantly on a patio that was not destroyed].
[Nothing will separate a Rhodesian from a beer. One bar, the squash courts and golf course remained open. Only in Africa!!]
[The sad ruins of a gorgeous hotel. In the distance is the spray from Victoria Falls. The movie Industry used this ruin to make King Solomon’s mines with Richard Chamberlain starring. Later, when I had transferred to Support Company of 2nd Battalion Rhodesia Regiment. I used the ruins as a forward observation point to direct my 81mm mortars onto target. That is a story to look forward to, when we thwarted the crossing of a conventional battalion from Zambia, just to the left and west of this photo]
[A one of its kind photo showing the hotel burning down. Very sad. I viewed
it dissolving from a higher hill off to the left].
[Russian Strela 2 Missile with launcher – two civilian Viscount aircraft with holiday makers perished from this missile type, with 10 of the survivors bayoneted as they lay wounded near the downed aircraft, with not a word of horror or condemnation from the world at large – story to follow in future blogs].
The loss of that hotel had a profound effect on me because as I watched it burn from the impact of a gook -fired Strela 2 missile (Zipra terrorists over in Zambia had fired the missile at a tourist plane, but the heat-seeking device in it picked up the signature of the very hot hotel roof, plunging into it and starting the fire, luckily with no loss of life) I knew in my heart that it reflected the state of Rhodesia (in 1977) and that it would not be long until whites would be forced to leave the country and that’s just what started to happen three years later, culminating in four million blacks and 80% of the 300 000 white population leaving the country for good, turning it into a basket case. It also transpired that on the other side of that big tree that we tied up alongside in Hippo Creek, was an enemy dinghy with the B10 recoilless rifle, landmines and ammo from the hotel attack. It appears we had been successful intercepting them after all.
[All personal stories I share are covered in my book, shown above and available on Amazon worldwide, in Kindle and paperback, as well as most large book stores]
Next week I will go back to my training 18 months earlier to give you an overview of it and the tactics taught.