Cordon Sanitaire: Personal Experiences (3: Basil Preston)

November 2, 2014

The response to my request for personal experiences on Cordon Sanitaire has resulted in a number of submissions from people who clearly want to see our history recorded and celebrated.  Long forgotten names are being mentioned, sparking the grey matter into life once again and there is so much to be gained by reading about other people’s experiences on the Cordon.  I for one feel enriched by all of this.

The following is from Basil Preston, a Rhodesian Sapper who I am sure has many more stories to share with us and I really hope that he does.  I have slightly redacted Basils submission, however it is mostly exactly the way he sent it to me.

Hi Mark,

My name is Basil Preston army number was 72860 and I became an Engineer after I did my basics at Llewellyn starting 07/06/1972, Intake 132.

I have just read your blog about the Cordon Sanitare (sp) mine-field starting at Mukumbura.

We were the first Engineers to start this field, in either February/March or April 1973, can’t remember the exact date, (but ABBA, the Swedish group had just announced that they were in support of the freedom fighters at that time, we all dropped them from our favourites after this announcement).

We were tasked with the clearing of the bush etc with bulldozers and graders. Our main chap who loved the grader work was Gordon Paterson, who was black by the end of his shift from all the dust and sweat.

We were broken up into 3 groups; clearing party, guarding the workers and the clearance party comprising 3 sappers, who did a 360 around the whole group. Tetse workers were busy with the fencing.

Corporal Gleson was in charge of us, and Corporal Charlie Mcquillan and Sergeant Hitchins/Hutchuns (sp) were there too, but did nothing special as they were imports from the UK who joined the army as regulars and were being bushed trained. These chaps were electricians by trade, but knew nothing much about our conditions or bush. We were about 20 sappers all told, and were looking forward to our demobbing in June.  We were due to pass out on the 13/05/1973.  Melvin Hein, Tommy Dickinson, Basil Kirby, Mike Travaglini, Gordon Paterson, Gumbie Dixon are just a few names I remember.

We were told that if we saw anyone foreign to our people, we were to first contact base camp to confirm, as they could be Tetse workers.

On our first outing, I was part of the 360 group, comprising Tommy (Dicky) Dickinson, Gumbie Dixon and myself, and we had just collected Marula fruit and were busy eating them when I noticed movement about 400 metres away from us. As I passed a huge palm leaf, the 2 images I saw went to ground. I shouted “ters” and we took cover, made contact with base camp, who told us to wait one, and they would come and assist. (contact via our radio was a laugh, as Dicky’s hand was shaking so much, the coms was interrupted going out, as the hand press-switch was also being pushed on and off as the shakes continued)

We were high on adrenalin and got impatient waiting for back-up, and started to leopard crawl through a dried out mealie field, which was cutting our knees to pieces. We then ran to where we saw the 2 images go down, all the grass was laid flat.

Back-up arrived nearly an hour late, and off we went. By this time, the Cts were back in Mocambique. But we still did a follow up. Crossing our own freshly graded mine field was hectic. Crossing by running across the open one at a time The Sergeant got stuck on the fence as the strain of wire wedged between his back-pack and his back, I ran forward to help the guy,who did not appreciate it as we were now both sitting targets.

Nevertheless, we were the first group of sappers to have a “contact” be it visual only. We were not impressed with the time it took the back-up to arrive and we voiced our views on this.

But to cut a long story short. After weeks doing the same thing, day in and day out, and nightly ambushes along the field, we started to get gut-vol.

On our return from the field one day, Charlie Mcquillan, wanted to put my group on extras as he had found a tin of jam in our bivy area, full of stinkbugs and ants eating the left-overs. One of our group had acquired the tin of jam from the kitchen. We were short on every thing by this time.  We lost it and asked him why he was snooping around; and threatened him with his life. Dicky was going to see that he never left the country, as he was “customs” back in civy life, I was a banker and told him that he would never get foreign exchange when he left Rhodesia and Melvin just wanted to hit him with a pick-handle. The rest of the guys just wanted to bury him in our trench. Corporal Gleson saved Charlie that day.

I also went onto doing the Dekka mine-field, and the one at Villers. Did boats in Kariba with Ant White, at the time they were forming the Selous Scouts and served with RAR, 2RR for almost the whole of the continuous period at Malapati and various other RR Companies. Looking back, I had a tough 8 years of army life as a sapper. My son was 3 weeks old when I was called up for the “Continuous” period and was 13 months old when I saw him proper again. All told, the guys I served with were a great bunch indeed. Mick (Chum) Jones was in my intake too. He was killed with Leroy Duberly, Charles Small, Peter Fox and one other during the second Chimoi external. They were with a bunch of RLI all in a Puma which was shot down, all 17 in the chopper were killed.

Thats all for now.

Regards, Basil Preston

Photos of Basil are shown below:

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Please also have a look at my website dedicated to Rhodesian and South African Military Engineers.  Please join us on the forums by using the following link:

http://www.sasappers.net/forum/index.php

Copyright

© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

8 Responses to “Cordon Sanitaire: Personal Experiences (3: Basil Preston)”

  1. My dad is Tom (Dickie) Dickinson, and I just found this entry while looking for a pic of my dad in the army (which I think Basil has) where you are all standing nude with only belts and hats. Will give him this story, think he will enjoy it.

    • fatfox9 said

      Thanks Natasha……please do pass it on to him!

      • Basil Preston said

        Hi Natasha, yes you are correct, Melvin Hein, your dad and I are in that picture, which was taken by Terry Bowers. Besides being almost nude, we did have our SLRs with us (the for-runner to the FN, (self loading rifle) We were at Umzingwane, near Essexvale. Your dad has an enlargement of this picture on canvas which I helped him get. Melvin was too mingy to buy one. It is also in the book by Chase Lotter; “Echoes of an African War”.

        The last time I saw you was in Kempton Park, you were very young and beautiful, my son Douglas is about your age now, +-38.

      • fatfox9 said

        Nice to see people are finding one another via this blog as well. Great inspiration for me.

      • Basil that must of indeed been a long time ago! But yes, we are the same age. My dad says your wife and my mom fell pregnant a few months of each other, and he was the best man at your wedding…? Or maybe I misheard. He says he would love to hear from you.

        My dad still has the picture, but I wanted to do a personalised phone cover with it on and needed the jpg and thought I might find it online, but no luck. Then came across this great website. My dad said he’d love to hear from you, especially to ask how you can spread such lies about him in your story! haha. Don’t want to put a number here, Fatfox what is the best way for us to exchange contacts?

      • fatfox9 said

        Do you have my gmail address Natasha?

      • Hi Mark, yes I found it on your profile and have sent you an e-mail. Thanks!

  2. Hi Natasha,
    Dickie was my Best Man and at the time he had broken his ankle. Did you know about this. So he was on crutches. My son was born on the 26/03/1976, when were you born? And, I tell no “lies”…I trust your dad is not suffering from senior moments like I am.

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