Before We get into Tony’s latest fantastic instalment I’d just like to make people aware there is some adult language so you may want to read it first before letting the kids at it. It is however a tremendous read, with plenty of rare photographs, I recommend you make a cup of tea or pour yourself a drink before starting as you wont want to put this down! if you are coming to us via facebook please leave a comment on the facebook post. I’d also be interested in seeing the feedback from people who have served in other armed forces to see if their training experiences were similar- Dave
The novice will soon see that the way we were trained, dressed (both formally and in combat gear), our traditions, tactics and weapons were very much British, having been a self-governing British colony since the 1920s.
In the early 1900s onwards, the old handlebar moustaches and erect spines of the officer class and the cocky abandon of the troops could easily have been taken out of a collection of British photos from the first and second world wars. And not unlike the British Tommy our foot-sloggers had their own language, cockiness and a built-in willingness to fight.
The Rhodesia Light Infantry in particular, virtually developed their own language which was a mixture of slang, Afrikaans and home-brewed words. I will use some of the words in this and other blogs to give you a flavour of how we spoke, translating as I go along.
The Queen inspecting African men known as the Rhodesian African Rifles.
What later became C Squadron Rhodesian SAS (taken in 1953)
Mounted British South Africa Police (BSAP) of The Presidential Guard.
Many of us knew the bush well, even city dwellers, as there were few among us that did not know a farmer friend or go on numerous camping trips into the bush or the pine sprinkled mountains to the east.
All adult white males 18+ had to do National Service in Rhodesia. Obviously the regular battalions were made up of volunteers but for the rest of us we were expected to do nine months of basic service and then continue doing camps until aged 38 or thereabouts. As the war progressed the service period went from nine months to a year and by the time I returned to Rhodesia from working my way around the world in 1976, the National Service commitment had increased to eighteen months. This could be either done in the British South Africa Police, national service companies or regular units that were short of manpower. It is a testament to the excellent training of national servicemen that we could become a regular soldier in any battalion without extra infantry training and that included officers; but of course specialist training would still take place. A period of three months assessing the national service applicant would follow and if deemed fit and up to standard, could take on the colours of a regular battalion and sign up for three years.
As far as my memory is concerned, conscientious objectors went to jail for six years if they refused to have anything at all to do with their National Service (NS) or learn to be a medic or similar occupation that could serve the troops.
I was called up in April 1976, just a couple of weeks after my return to Rhodesia. I had initially been allocated to the Police but my brother pushed my mother to apply for me to go to the army ‘where the better training’ would help keep me alive longer!
I was a very nervous 20 year old that caught a troop train from Salisbury to Bulawayo (see #1 on map) to start my training in Bulawayo (# 2 on map) and a very sad recruit that tenderly kissed my American girlfriend, Jess, goodbye on the platform.
Me enjoying a lollipop in the UK just prior to being called up for my NS.
The train journey down to Bulawayo, which took all night, left me fraught with anxiety, leaving a hollow pit in my stomach at the thought of what would happen to Jess. Would she wait for me for eighteen months or was our relationship just a fling? Only time would tell.
I got up a couple of times that night to piss, only to encounter a military policeman in his red, peaked cap who berated me to stay in my ‘fockin wank pit!’. How I was supposed to sleep with a bursting bladder was beyond me. But in the trap there was a fly-blasted mirror that reflected my young, too young-to-die face. Urine squidged up between my toes and my morale plummeted to new lows.
At about 7 a.m the next morning the 400-strong troop train pulled into Heaney junction, just outside Bulawayo where many terrified recruits like myself departed for destinations unknown.
The military cop from the previous night jumped down in his immaculate boots and barked at us, craning our heads out of windows to ‘get down and form up over there!’, pointing to a small building with his pace stick. We disembarked like maggots being squeezed out of a wound, reluctantly shuffling over to the scant protection of the building, pulling our collars up against the chill and Guti (very ‘wet’ mist) of the early morning.
‘Stupid bloody army’ someone spat after standing for two hours doing bugger all until in the distance we heard the straining engines of trucks as they bounced over the rough dirt road to collect us. We sighed at the sight of the open-backed Bedford trucks, which we called RLs. We would be thoroughly soaked from the mist by the time we reached Llewellin base camp about five miles away.
We bounced into camp after receiving a lot of mocking by more seasoned recruits shouting ‘fresh poes’ (fresh pussies) at us and giving the old two-finger salute. In return we bombarded them with empty cans and coke bottles, almost braining one or two of them; ‘Fresh POES!’ they screamed after us.
Shortly thereafter we entered the camp proper and like all Rhodesian camps the buildings were brick under blood red iron roofs. An avalanche of non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) descended upon us like a flood and before we could gather our wits we had been sectioned off into three companies, our numbers having been boosted by two hundred men from the Bulawayo area. The camp used to be an old air force base and before long we had dumped our personal belongings in a large hangar. After flailing around like beached Porpoises we formed up in three companies, six hundred strong facing a bank of NCOs and a sprinkling of officers. We were shrieked at to put all jewellery, beads and other private possessions into our pockets after which we were led off to another hangar with what looked like spectator seats all the way around it, upon which A, B and C companies sat.
We soon got the drift of things as the men in A company peeled off to one of several tables to get medically checked and have our ‘three-in-one’ jabs that hurt like hell. Some liquid that tested the longevity of our eyes blinded us and so we bumped and hobbled our way around blind and in excruciating pain in our arms. ‘Bloody army!’ I swore!
After completing our medicals, we were shepherded into a very large warehouse that had shelves up to the ceilings. We walked sideways along a never-ending counter where every military item you could imagine was thrown at us.
‘Boot size?’ a freckly corporal demanded.
‘What are these?’ he asked rhetorically, stabbing at his sleeve, ‘they is corporal stripes!’
‘Corporaaal!’ to you, maggot-face now f**k off!! Imagine getting tea served like that at the Savoy? Take your cake and f**k off sir!!
Boots, combat shirt long, combat denims long, battle jacket large, socks military four pairs of……blah blah blah it went on and on. We could barely hold the load because our arms screamed at us from the 3-in-1 jab and our duffel bags were full to overflowing.
I don’t know how but we eventually made it to our allocated barrack block, where we dumped our belongings hither and thither, before being shouted at to form up outside again. My platoon of twenty odd men were commanded to run, in step mind you, and so we started off like a centipede having an epileptic fit, flopping down the immaculate tar pathway.
The destination was a sharp reminder to all of us that we were in the army now as there before us was a double door, wide open, laying bare the rank of barber chairs that A company were just exiting. I walked inside, pushing my way through six inch deep hair of every colour, fuzz and hue lying on the floor. The look on the young men’s faces as their girlfriend-loving hairstyles cascaded to the floor was hilarious to say the least. I felt sick.
We all ran bald and cold-headed and laughing back to our barrack block where we were told to get our eating ‘irons’ (slang for cutlery) and follow the Corporal at a run to the mess hall. The sight of six hundred bald men shovelling food into their mouths was quite a sight to see but it was the smell of the food that made my tongue shoot huge gobs of saliva into my mouth, followed by a deep rumble in my stomach. I had no idea how hungry I was and tummies all over rumbled and squealed juices as we waited in line for our food, which although plentiful was splashed all over our trays, gravy sliding into jelly and so on but who cared? We grabbed fistfuls of bread and wolfed it all down as if it was our last meal before an execution.
It was the sight of men’s faces looking suspiciously at the rather bluish, metallic tasting tea that amused me.
‘Is it true they put Copper Sulphate in our tea to keep our hard-ons down?’ a pimply youngster said looking up at me
‘Well, it won’t make any difference to you, will it?’ I replied, slapping him on his shoulder. Everyone laughed.
Over the next couple of days we were shown how to dress correctly as well as the very basics of learning how to march, at least to start off on the correct foot. But every morning at 5 a.m. we were up for a three mile run in the frigid air, the rising sun casting a pink and orange glow as it rose, while our feet thumped in unison as we ran. We felt strong enough to call new arrivals ‘fockin fresh poes!’ already, even though we had only been here a few days and hadn’t even seen a rifle.
Interspersed with all this were lectures in a big hall that looked like a cinema; lectures on venereal disease with copious mocking of all and sundry when lumpy, oozing dicks were screened ‘Got that from your mom, Joe’ and dozens of other comments with frequent ‘shut-ups!’ from the duty Corporal. Then we had lectures on the structure of the army and who controlled what in our order of battle.
It was the gruesome pictures of dead civilians, butchered cattle and dead fellow soldiers that brought an absolute hush over the audience and by the time that lecture ended we shuffled out of the hall silent and lost in our own thoughts. I felt butterflies in my guts and some men had thousand-yard stares as they mentally relived what they had just seen inside. It was gruesome.
Before long, all six hundred of us were shuffled into the lecture hall where we were told that officer selection trials would begin the next day but to streamline the process all men who did not have an ‘O’ level standard of education should leave the hall immediately. About half got up and left with a disappointed buzz in the air. To this day I feel and felt then, that it was a big mistake to exclude men with poor education from officer selection as many of them would have made fine officers.
There followed a very intensive 4 day selection course that was based entirely on the Royal Marine Commando selection process if I remember correctly. We all had black numbers printed on white material to identify us and slowly but surely the numbers whittled down and down over the days. The selection process was all mental, none of it physical and involved such diverse things as talking on a piece of toilet paper for five minutes without pausing for more than a few seconds. This happened without any prior warning or time to rehearse. We had to escape from a camp, we had to get very heavy explosives over an electric fence with three poles and a rope or get men across a river with barely any items to work with and all the time the instructors circled around us making notes.
By the last day there were only thirteen of us left and I was one of them. We had no longer than a few minutes to pack our bags and were off to Heany Junction again to go by train to Gwelo (see #3 on the earlier map) where our officer training would take place at the School of Infantry, the Rhodesian equivalent of Sandhurst.
Seven of the lucky thirteen men off to Gwelo. Author third from left
The remaining five hundred and eighty seven men were split up into companies of infantry or portioned off, after nearly five months training, to the RLI, The Armoured Car Regiment, Mortars, Medics and so on where specialist training would take place, like learning to be para-trained for example. The long national service period made it cost-effective to do this because once our NS ended we would have to do six weeks in the bush, six weeks out, every year until age 38. That’s how big the demand was on our tiny manpower reserves!
B Company Depot Rhodesia Regiment. These are the guys that remained in Infantry units at the end of their training at Llewellin Barracks.
The white population of Rhodesia never exceeded three hundred thousand people and it’s assumed that no more than 15% can be used for the military in a low-conflict war. This gave us an army of forty five thousand men but in reality we struggled to have more than fifteen thousand men, black and white, in the bush at any given time. This to cover a country 150 000 square kilometres in size, with hostile borders on three sides.
We arrived at Gwelo station the next morning to a rousing reception very much like when we arrived at Heany Junction outside Bulawayo. We had a very ‘boned’ (extremely smart) Rhodesia Light Infantry Colour Sergeant with green beret and all shouting so loud at us we could clearly see his epiglottis vibrating up and down. I almost laughed from nerves but knew all hell would follow if I did so.
We were ferried in a light truck to the ‘college of knowledge’, passing through its smart gate
This photo was taken a few weeks after my arrival at the School of Infantry. Here I am seen lounging over the gate boom chatting to two people I had befriended on the ship back from the UK.
with erect guard and continued on to our barrack room. The place looked immaculate. On the right were tennis courts and a rugby field (which I came to hate) and on the left a sports club. Beyond that on the left was a large dining hall for the Regular recruits, their double-storey barrack block and lecture halls. To the centre and centre right were four single-storey barrack blocks each about fifty yards long. Beyond that were shower blocks. To the extreme right of our progress stood the NCOs mess, administration blocks and a parade square (which I also came to hate). The recruit mess was wedged between the four barrack blocks and the building that housed the regular recruits.
The thirteen of us were plonked in our barrack room that had about thirty spaces in it with a central row of concrete cupboard units with wooden doors. I chose the second bed on the left hand side before chucking my civilian suitcase and duffel bag into my allocated cupboard. We also had a side cupboard unit and mosquito nets were tied up above every bed.
Thereafter began nearly five months of very compact training, broken into Phase 1 of six weeks, Phase 2 COIN (counterinsurgency training) and phase 3 Conventional phase with a two week period of practical out-workings of what we had learned.
The first six weeks consisted of endless road runs, assault courses, map reading exercises and sessions on how to handle our weapons (7.62 mm FN rifle plus standard LMG which we called an MAG)
We had endless lectures on types of patrols (fan,cross-grain and so on), camouflage (the six S’s; shape, shine, silhouette, shadow, silence, still) with practical examples in a stretch of bush outside the lecture hall. Our days were long and very tiring and often we would fall asleep in a lecture which would result in some nasty running. We had to drag a car tyre on top of full combat gear and a wet sand bag in our ruck sack when we did anything wrong. There was a nearby hill about four hundred feet high that we had to carry a 44 gallon fuel drum full of water to the top of, empty it and then fill it up by running down the hill and filling up our two water bottles before racing them up to the drum. This took about thirteen journeys to fill up the drum once more. The course officer named this piece of metal shit ‘Felicity’ and had painted rose-red lips and cooing eyes on it. We were very sternly warned if it got scratched we would run until we died. The only way we could carry it was in a net harness draped between two short gum poles. The poles were cut short enough to ensure only four of us could carry it at a time up an incline of about forty degrees. On one occasion it almost slipped out of the harness!
In our room we had inspections every morning at 7 a.m. but we had been up since 4 a.m. making sure our pillows were square (with box wood inside), bayonets lined up as well as brushes and a dozen other pieces of kit on the bed, which we lined up with string. The floor had to be waxed to a mirror-like sheen and we HAD to sleep in our beds before a inspection. One night at about midnight our course sergeant came in and found some men sleeping on the concrete cupboards to avoid having to do their bed packs and oh boy did they run and run until daylight while I slept in my bed.
Other inspections were faked, like the bloody dead moth that was found in a mosquito net that then had to be buried in a standard human-sized grave. We all had to dig the graves in hard, stony soil and after throwing the pest in we filled the graves only for the instructor to scratch his head and say ‘which grave is it in again? I need to erect a headstone’ so we dug them out again until the moth, now in a matchbox coffin was found and then buried a final time. We knew of course that the moth had been placed there while the course officer distracted us.
Our course officer, Captain Theo Williams, RAR, Selous Scouts, Greys Scouts. His nickname was the ‘smiling shit’.
We did get our own back some time later when Theo came into our room and after we shouted ‘Barrack room, shun’ he promptly skidded on the wax floor and almost impaled himself on his pace stick. It was unbearable containing the need to laugh out loud!
At the end of the six weeks our numbers had dropped to eight men. The others were returned to unit (rtu’d) for one reason or another, not least of all the exams we had to write every Friday. Two exam results below seventy percent or thereabouts triggered an RTU.
We were astonished to learn that we had a full weekend off and with hearts alive and loins full of lust we headed off to our homes for 48 blissful hours, having passed a very stiff inspection. The thing that normally cancelled a pass was a thread hanging loose on our uniforms or a scuff on our dazzling stick boots. These boots were issued raw with little plastic points all over them and they had to be ‘boned’ until they shone like glass. This took hours and hours of making a spoon hot over a candle and then rubbing the hot metal over the plastic lumps, whereafter copious quantities of polish was applied and rubbed endlessly. However, we had our wise Pete Wells with us who went to the African batmen in their quarters and for a small fist full of dollars they did all our boots with hot irons. They looked just amazing!!
It was great getting back to Salisbury, to civvy street and seeing Jess was so awesome. We made love for most of Saturday before driving out to Mazoe dam outside Salisbury for a beer. This was a favourite destination in my youth. The club there had a lovely pool where a live band played while kids frolicked and dad’s braaied (BBQ’d) and moms adjusted bikinis for other dads to gawp at. When we got to the dam wall we drank a lot of freshly squeezed cold orange juice from the nearby citrus kiosk, before zooming down the hill to the club. It was here that I got my first taste of Rhodesia’s Uhuru. The club was shut, its corrugated roof slowly coming off, the pool full of slime and half-dead frogs and snakes, the bandstand covered in thorns and long grass. I stood with my mouth open and something died in me. I knew this would happen to all of Rhodesia one day. It left me in a solemn mood which soon soured my time with Jess and by the time we parted at three a.m. on Monday morning I knew our relationship was as dead as Mazoe club.
Phase 2 was a bit more relaxed. We only had inspections on Fridays (to make sure our weekend passes were cancelled – we had to weed the whole camp on Saturdays and Sunday you see!). We now started serious training to learn the art of fighting out there in the African bush.
This included lots of practical exercises, like learning how to move behind a tracker in such a way that we protected him but did not interfere with him. This could be done in file formation (a column of men) with one man to the tracker’s right and left, just behind him. The job of these two men would be to scan the bush ahead for an ambush and not look at the ground. Immediately behind the tracker would be the stick (four men) commander and behind him if it was two sticks together, other men in line aft. The machine gun would be at the rear to quickly deploy to a flank if needed.
We also practised fan patrols which looks like a fan from the air, leaving a central point, moving outwards, then left, then left again back to the starting point in a 360 degree circle. This essentially was a multiple of cross-grain patrols (a patrol at right angles to the assumed line of flight of an enemy).
I was astounded by the Bushmen trackers who were pure artists at tracking. They could see stuff on the ground very few white men could see. A tiny leaf bent, a tiny stone out of place, a bit of bent grass and so on. They were so good they could walk at a normal pace on enemy spoor. Naturally their eyes were on the ground so it was important his two flankers looked ahead of him for trouble.
While the African men could see stuff in the bush we could never see, we had better hearing, so we made a great team.
Other items in this phase was how to camp without being seen, helicopter drills and so on.
The way our stick boarded a chopper went like this: the stick commander and one other man would kneel in the prone position at two o’clock to the pilot facing us, while our gunner and another man would be at the pilot’s ten o’clock position. We would have cleared our weapons and put them on safe, holding them with barrels to the rear. The pilot would nod at the stick commander when boarding could commence and with a forward motion of the stick leader’s arm we would move forward and emplane. The stick commander would end up sitting behind the pilot, picking up a pair of headphones for internal comms. This was essential if the troops were being re-deployed so an in-flight briefing could take place. As our choppers were French Mk 3 Alouette helicopters that could only carry four fully equipped infantry, we most of the time operated in multiples of four in any operational areas. We were also trained how to remain unnoticed in an OP (observation Point), in an ambush and how to anti-track (various methods of covering your spoor or even making it go the wrong way) or the man with the biggest footprint stepping into the uniform footprints of the smaller men ahead of him, this throwing off the number of men in the patrol to an observant enemy. Of course most of us abandoned our army boots for black issue ‘tackies’ (trainers) that had a smooth sole. In this way, there was no footprint saying ‘hello, soldier here, soldier here!’
NCO training course near Bulawayo
Still goofing around stage. Shown is a Belgian FN MAG with standard 100 round belt of ammo that would be wrapped around the carriers torso with, in some cases, up to four hundred rounds in bags attached to his belt. All other members of a stick carried extra belted ammo in addition to their own kit, rifle grenades, radios, mortars and so on.
A bush bath, full of bilharzia, animal piss/ faeces and bacteria but hey we were tough!!
Officer orientation course – learning how to map read. Author far left.
Some of the exquisite bush we operated in. Piet Van Den Berg – became a Selous Scout later on.
A bivvy (nylon sheet) to keep us cool and dry. By the time this photo was taken we were experienced soldiers who sadly had forgotten or dismissed the need to camouflage our rest areas, mainly because we were on the move all the time.
One of the most innovative things we learned was the Fireforce concept which was entirely Rhodesian and that was the vertical envelopment of an enemy target by both paratroops and heliborne men. I am no expert in this as I was only ever involved in four Fireforce call-outs but essentially if an OP spotted gooks the OP would radio base, which would alert heliborne troops on standby near their choppers to get ready. Generally four or more troop helicopters were used, called G-Cars. Each carried a four man stick). A fifth would be the command helicopter with the Fireforce commander in a chopper fitted with either a 20mm cannon or twin .303 Brownings (called a K-car). The mounted guns would face port (left). These weapons were zeroed to about 800 feet, the standard operating height of a K- car helicopter. This group of helicopters would be guided on to target by the OP stick leader and as soon as the K-car commander knew where the target was the small fleet would bank left in an anti-clockwise direction. While the K-car hammered the hell out of the target the commander would drop groups of men at likely gook exit points, called stop-groups. Sometimes the helicopter would make a false touch-down to confuse the enemy about where stop- groups were landing. This often funnelled them into perfect killing fields. Where large groups of terrorists were encountered. Our lovely old world war 2 Dakotas (that dropped troops at Arnhem) would bring in several loads of paras to box in the gooks while an assault line was established. This incredible technique resulted in over 14 000 terrorists being killed for the loss of a hundred or so Fireforce operatives. One former Air Force commander, Peter Petter-Bowyer, tried to sell this concept to the British army for use in Afghanistan but was ignored without so much as a thank you. I will share this very rare document he sent me in the near future which will give you a better picture of how Fireforce operated. You can imagine my disgust, while watching one documentary on the war in Afghanistan when the embedded reporter said, ‘and there goes another Taliban to fight again another day,’ as he sped off on his motorbike. We did not let a SINGLE gook ‘get away’ if we could help it!
Our COIN course ended with a live-fire exercise where we learned how to position men from patrol format to a position that put covering fire down for a flanking assault on the enemy position. We ended the day with a demonstration with an RAR company assaulting a fixed position. In this attack a live 250lb parachute-retarded bomb was dropped on the ‘enemy’ before the assault began. The wonderful bang from that explosion had two positive side-effects a) it killed a big waterbuck which we later ate with a beer or two thrown in and b) a female staff officer, observing the proceedings, standing on the roof of a bunker with another senior officer, got such a fright from the explosion that she stumbled backwards and landed on the ground with her skirt up to her bra, revealing a very nice pair of legs, thank you very much! Seeing ANY female at that stage of our training was sheer luxury!
We decided to cuff our last log run, a ten-miler in full kit, so when a farmer came by we took his offer of loading our logs and us onto his truck. We were almost back to camp where we were going to hide in some bushes for the correct amount of time when we saw Theo going in the opposite direction down the double lane highway. His glasses glinted light as he stared wide-eyed at his, his mouth ajar in disbelief that we would try to be so cunning under his nose. We knew we were in for a horrible time that night and as sure as eggs drop from a chicken we were loaded onto a Land Rover and taken twenty five miles down the road past as small town called Selukwe, a point from which we had to walk back to camp and be back in time for an inspection at 7 a.m. We knew this was an impossibility and sighed with resignation to even more horror on our late return in the morning.
It was about 8 pm when were finally dropped off in the middle of nowhere with the ‘smiling shit’ (Theo) giving us a ‘that will serve you’ look before screeching off to camp and a hot meal. We had no food, in fact we had not eaten since breakfast and now a twenty-five miler lay ahead of us. While I am not a good runner I could in those days walk for a long time, so putting my rifle across my shoulder I pushed on into the night, soon passing through the village of Selukwe back to Gwelo. I very quickly passed the others until Piet Van Der Berg and myself were way out in front. I felt quite proud of myself that I walked the whole distance with Piet but was livid with rage when I saw Charlie Pope and the others sleeping in the bush as we entered camp via the rifle range, the shortest way into the camp.
‘How the hell did you beat us?’ I stammered, aghast. My feet were a mass of blisters and I was barely hobbling at that point.
‘Caught a taxi in Selukwe,’ Charlie Pope said smirking at me. I could have hit him but just bent over and sighed. I laughed later but right then I wanted to brain him. But of course he had done what the ‘smiling shit’ had extolled us to do all through the course, to ‘think outside the box!’ and Charlie had just done that. Kudos to him.
Our third and final phase was learning how to advance to battle, consolidate ground gained and withdraw tactically when it would benefit us to do so. I forget the name of the German General that defended the east of Berlin in World War 2 but he was a master of withdrawal who was so shrewd that he retired to prepared lines the night before massive Russian attacks. Of course the trenches he vacated had been zeroed in with masses of artillery and nasty barbed wire behind the lines creating perfect killing fields. He did this at least three times that I know of, costing the Russians close to a million men.
Our lectures showed us how to advance with supporting armour or infantry assaults under covering fire; what to do, how to do it and so on. We did not like the feel of our helmets which were horrifically heavy, nor the machine gun mounts for firing on fixed lines. The Germans perfected this technique in World War 1, where they would put machine gun nests forward of their trenches, facing diagonally inwards from both ends at a forty five degree angle. They did not move the guns on their axis but just fed belt upon belt into the guns. The advancing infantry would walk into a wall of lead, literally cutting them in half. If guns faced an advancing line of infantry and swivelled its gun from left to right, about a third less advancing enemy would die than under the fixed firing line concept.
In all advances, even in COIN, one had to remember the line of advance. What I mean by this is that you may be walking along a valley and an enemy ambush line is spread along a hill running in the direction you are walking. Naturally you would swing to face the enemy and after suppressing the enemy with heavy arms would advance to contact, bayonets fixed. Once the enemy trenches were taken however, you would have to swing back to defend against the enemy on your original line of advance and not be seduced into going through the defences in a straight line.
We did our exercises, in Essexvale, SE of Bulawayo with the troops we had left back in Llewellin four months previously. This was where commanders and troops started to mesh and get used to each other.
There began endless training and rehearsals, learning how to give orders standing around a sand model, the details of which had to be reconnoitred by us at night in the now frigidly cold air. We had to dig trenches, officer recruits as well, learning how to camouflage them from the air with nets and excavated soil under straw and shrubs. No path to or from a trench complex could be used more than once as a pattern of communicating pathways very quickly built up for a pilot to identify.
A night shortly after we dug in was a night allocated for us to be attacked by a company of black demonstration troops, who were basically employed to be enemy infantry on an on-going basis in the vast training area. I was just totally exhausted when we went to bed that night, my bunk being a hole in the side of the trench that every nasty critter on Earth had crawled into. It was particularly hard on us officer cadets because unlike the troopies who went straight to sleep after stand-to had ended, us officer-cadets had to do reports, make requisitions for food and ammo and attend briefings or prepare a sand model for a new exercise in the morning, it was just exhausting!
I had just flicked yet another nasty bug out of my wank-pit when the enemy assault came in, that being about 11 pm at night. I can honestly say that if it had been a real attack I would have done a shit in my pants! To see 130 screaming men emerge from the woods, charging at us was enough to put the willies up us. The guards had barely aroused the men when the ‘enemy’ was in among us, mocking bayonet thrusts and knife jabs into our chests. We had lost that battle for sure and knew that some nasty stuff would follow! A few hours later we were mortared with live rounds that had been zeroed to land about one hundred yards behind us but the bangs, smoke and arcing tracer flying over our heads was spectacular and very, very scary even if it was an exercise.
The next morning we had to withdraw under covering fire and prepare new trenches, producing nasty blisters as we scratched into the hard soil. I almost made my guys run ten miles for finishing off the tureens of food that had been brought up from the rear while I was doing orders with the Major. I was so livid and shouted so loud their eyes were wide with concern. Naturally I had ‘told’ the enemy where we were by shouting so a nasty run followed.
That night I had to lead a reconnaissance patrol to a bridge about ten miles away. It was dark and full of rivulets, ‘enemy’ patrols and farmers’ barbed wire fences. The object was to see if the bridge could support heavy light tanks, which would dictate what defensive forces should be positioned there. Before leaving I had to make a sand model and present my orders to the platoon I was embedded with.
At about ten pm we left, all the officer cadets and a course instructor. I could not believe how well the night went. We avoided the enemy patrols and navigating by compass with a quick reference to the Southern Cross Star for orientation we eventually reached the large river with the bridge. In those days we did not have the sophisticated night vision equipment we have today so, leaving all the guys behind, I crept forward with the instructor and got up close to the concrete bridge which had supporting arches every fifteen yards or so. It looked solid and wide enough to take heavy tanks so, sneaking past a sentry we snivelled our way back to the main group. I am forever grateful the course instructor led us back to camp as I was a bit disorientated and so tired I could barely walk. The attack that came in that night was completely ignored by me as I just lifted my head up, saw the ‘enemy’ and went straight back to sleep.
Towards the end of that period we learned how to call in Fighter jets and we were thrilled to see Hawker Hunters peel off at our command, diving onto target. They did not fire at all because we had sanctions on us and 30mm cannon shells were hard and expensive to come by but nonetheless it was spectacular. We would either talk the pilot onto the target or fire pencil flares towards the target and then give compass bearings off the flare. Commands like bank left, bank right and roll-out filled the air. Our pilots were exquisite marksmen and after a challenge was put up to them by some brown jobs (army), they fired at a dustbin during a dive, hitting it with three out of the five rounds in the quick buurpp of the cannon. I have an old tape from the day when our troops attacked Chimoio, attacking Cassino hill (named after a world war 2 place in Italy) with the long, long growl of the 30mm cannons tearing up the ZANLA gooks in their trenches. An amazing sound. When I hear a Hawker Hunter today I go all wobbly at the knees, the ‘blue note’ it emits is very sexy indeed.
Our final exercise was a dawn company assault on a fixed trench line, defended by the demonstration troops. We underwent a brilliant briefing by Phil Laing who was later, as a civilian in Zimbabwe, tied to a tree and made to drink five litres of pool acid for being a ‘British sell-out’ during that acrimonious period when Mugabe and Tony Blair were having a war of words with each other over compensation being paid to white farmers for loss of land, which Blair refused to pay despite the British government agreeing to it at the Lancaster House talks. Another reason for us to hate British politicians, but not the average Pom of course, who we had no beef with.
We seemed to walk for miles under a slowly dawning sky when we reached our start lines. We had rifles, full packs, helmets, bayonets etc. It was freezing as we lay down in our allotted assault positions looking up occasionally at the green start line lights; lights that were designed to throw no glare or reflection by a method I couldn’t figure out.
When the sky lightened to the correct level we stood up to advance in three waves. The human eyes are made up of rods and cones; the latter for daylight use that produce our colour vision and rods for the grey hue we see in low-light situations. The eye changes from rods to cones and vice versa when the incoming light is suitable and this conversion is called the ‘twinkling of the eye’ which is used in the Bible (we will be changed in the twinkling of an eye). This twinkling of the eye period was chosen for an attack on a fixed position because it gave the optical illusion of more men than actually present, advancing on you, thus terrifying the enemy.
We slowly moved forward towards the dark smudge at the top of a gentle incline. All we could hear was the rustle of grass on our denims, bayonets facing forward, combat jackets clinging tightly to us to keep out the cold, hot steamy breath exiting flushed faces and even though it was an exercise my heart was racing. If it was a real attack, aircraft mortars and even artillery would be pounding the hell out of the trench ahead, with flanking machine guns spraying the lip of the enemy line.
As we approached fifty yards from the ‘enemy’ our pace quickened to a fast walk, firing blanks as we moved forward, deliberately aiming at any sign of a helmet or face and at thirty yards we charged forward screaming at the top of our lungs, blackened faces silhouetted against the orange glare of sunrise. We swiped this way and that in a manner simulating striking the enemy looking up at us, their eyes were wide open in, I believe, a state of heightened anxiety, even though it was only an exercise. The guy that won the Sword of Honour a week later, Ant Marsh, was in the defence line as he had badly sprained his ankle and he told me afterwards that our assault on the line was really, really scary and that if it had been real he would have ‘gapped it’ (run away).
We spent half the last day at the battle camp doing a debrief and then totally drained and exhausted, covered in camo cream, but feeling highly elated, we headed back through Bulawayo to Llewellin Barracks, smiling exhausted smiles at all the lovely chicks we saw on the pavements but we were too tired to sense any stirring in our loins.
The following Monday I stood outside a small tin hut with the five of us that remained at the School of Infantry. We were called in one at at time to get our course results and rank. Although my surname commences with a B I had to wait beyond Marsh and Wells to find out how I had done. I was nervous, being an officer carried certain perks and I liked the challenge. Marsh came out beaming with a single ‘pip’ on his shoulder epaulettes and the Sword of Honour for best recruit. Then Wells, also one pip and then me; to my great surprise a single pip too! I had beaten the odds where only 0.5% of the 600 men who had been at Llewellin Barracks cut the mustard. The remaining two of the five men became sergeants.
The greatest thing about this experience was being able to eat in the officers mess, on white porcelain plates, served by waiters dressed in white and the farewell party that followed that night, which Jess came to, turned out to be a wild affair where we played rugby in our tuxedos, tug of war and a local game called Bezant, which required you to put a short stick about three feet long on your forehead, before pointing it to the ground, then running in rapid circles around it before standing up and trying to hit a Bezant orange drink can with the stick. Try it sometime! You cannot stand up straight and go off at an angle slashing away at the bloody can. This was played nearby the swimming pool and the combination of alcohol and dizziness ensured all of us ended up in its frigid waters!! Ouch!
Jess got fed up with me and walked to a friends house about a mile from the camp and at four in the morning I stole Phil Laings motorbike and drove out the back of the camp where, speeding along, I misjudged a sharp turn on the gloomy road where I smashed his motorbike up good and proper before push-wobble-wheeling it miles to Jess, where we made love for the last time, both knowing full well it was over. Ironically we made contact 35 years later and remain very good friends.
I felt very nostalgic when I push-wobbled the bike back into the camp, my bow tie hanging limply over my shoulder, my hired tuxedo in tatters and mud on my shirt. Over to the right was the tennis court and rugby field; the latter where we did punishment wheelbarrow exercises where we pushed a guy like a wheelbarrow and then had to fireman lift him at a run to the touch line and repeat again and again until we vomited from exhaustion. And beyond that the parade ground where the RLI Colour Sergeant tried to get me to march and despite loads of threats to kill me could never quite master, so much so that at the passing out parade of us and a dozen or so Territorial men that had joined us for a refresher course in phase 2 & 3 had me hidden in the middle where few if any spectators could see me stuffing everything up. And over to the hill on the left where I cried over Jess, the hill we had carried Felix up so many times. Our parting gift to Felix was to get some picks and smash it to smithereens, a most enjoyable affair in our tuxedos, swinging away, cussing it as we landed blow after blow on its painted eyes and mouth.
And then it was all over. I soon picked up my sole civvy suitcase and drove back to Salisbury in ‘Pickles’, Charlie Pope’s converted beach buggy. And so began one week’s leave while I waited for my posting to come through.
The School of Infantry, about May 1976.
Bottom left, Dino Quinn who took over 6 Platoon from Pete Wells (second from right) when the latter was seriously injured in an ambush. The guy on the far right is Piet Van Den Berg, an Afrikaaner that could walk the legs off a donkey who managed to pass the last Selous Scout course ever but was not listed in their ranks for some reason. To the left is Joe Torode with bayonet out and dead centre with cap on is yours truly. You can see how good our camouflage was.
Next week – my first operational posting.