PICK-UP POINT: WEST OF MAPETA ISLAND

Tony and I had disembarked after deciding sitting on the boat was a bad idea and made us look like two shit-scared school boys.

We had found a position from where we could observe the boat and anyone approaching it.  We needed to be careful here as in the poor light, we, or someone else approaching could be mistaken for the enemy with catastrophic consequences.  We waited, and then waited some more.  I juggled with the idea of letting the BSAP know we were in position but decided against it.  We had agreed we would only make comms if we were in trouble.

Somewhere close by a tiger fish broke the surface, crashing back down into the water………a baboon barked in the early darkness, signalling danger.  That was all…….nothing else stirred except the mosquitos that had found a new source of fresh blood.  I began to think we were in the wrong position and had indeed fucked-up.

The man appeared silently from our right and immediately reassured us that he was one of us and showed no aggression.  Without introductions he instructed us to follow him further inland until we arrived at what looked like a typical Rhodesian farm-house with a huge verandah facing the river.  We had climbed a bit while following our mysterious stranger and the view from our present position would have been stunning in the daylight………at night all one could see was a black blob of nothingness.

There were about ten of them on the verandah.  These were serious looking men.  Clean shaven, neat military style hair and in full camouflage uniform.  No beards so they were probably not Selous Scouts.  I figured they were Rhodesian SAS.  AK 47’s leant against the low verandah wall, an RPD and PKM rested lopsided on their bipods on the once highly polished floor.

There were still no introductions and that is the way it stayed.  No names and in any case if there were they would have been pseudo.  Thats how these men worked.  We knew who they were and they knew who we were.  That was good enough for me and Tony.  There was quite a bit of banter going back and forth and we were drawn into it.  I savoured the moment of working with a Unit that I considered probably the best in the world.  I was more than a little in awe of these men.  And so I should have been.

One of them called us aside and for the first time we were told what our mission was.  We were to take the SAS into Zambia by inserting them up the Mulola River by boat.  Our old Hercules was about to get her moment of glory…….and perhaps we were too.  I was about to take part in my first external operation and who better to do this with than the men who wore the Winged Dagger and Wings On Chest?  The job was straightforward enough…….take an SAS callsign up a Zambian creek and drop them off…….then pick them up at the same spot 24 hours later.

We went back onto the verandah where the other Operators were busy preparing a strange brown, round object that had 2 halves to it, like a cake tin and about the same size.  Instinctively I knew it was a landmine of some sorts but nothing I had ever seen before.  As a Rhodesian Combat Engineer I prided myself on my knowledge of the various mines we may encounter in Rhodesia but this was something else.  And this is when I gained immense respect for our “hosts”.  They told us what it was and how it worked.  It was called a “Rose” mine and had been designed to kill anyone trying to lift it once armed.  This anti-vehicle mine had a number of initiation triggers.  If my memory serves me correctly it could be set off in five or six different ways , including a light-sensitive switch that would activate when the mine was uncovered.  It also had a delayed arming fuse to ensure the person laying the mine was not on a one-way ticket when he pulled the pin.  This was highly secret stuff and the last thing I expected was to be invited to help prepare them for the mission.  After a quick lesson from one of the Operators Tony and I were only too willing to put the devices together……plastic explosives (lots of it), primers, detonators, ignitors.  The last part of the preparation was putting the top and bottom of the mine together…….closing the cake tin and taping it up.  All that would be needed now was to find a nice busy road in Zambia, dig a hole, emplace the mine, remove the safety device, and cover everything up.

I really warmed to these guys.  Utter professionals from their full camo dress to the way they treated us as equals.  Quiet men with nothing to prove.  No rank showing and no rank used.  Making us tea and even sharing a light meal with us.  When they blackened-up they helped us to get it right too while joking among themselves but never taking the piss.  I decided that one day I wanted to be like them and do what they do.  I never quite made it but came close as dammit.

It was pitch black when we started back down the trail to the boat.  The moon glowed behind wispy clouds……stars twinkled in the dark heavens.  The Operators wore Bergen back-packs that looked like they weighed a ton and we helped them with some of the other kit they were taking with them.  It seemed to me the mines were in the Bergens.  Only six of the Operators were going into Zambia.  The remainder had stayed behind to act as a rear link.

Going downhill in the dark while carrying a lot of kit is not easy and it was a relief when we broke out onto the smooth open sand where the boat was tied up.  A million things start to go through your head at this time.  Engine reliability, fuel, getting shot at and the lonely trip back that awaited Tony and I.  One thing I was not worried about was navigating to the drop-off point in Zambia.  We had a bunch of the best navigators in the world with us!  Getting back to the old farmhouse on our own was something entirely different!

We started to load the kit onto the boat.  This was serious stuff now as we needed to get the trim right or the Hercules would be a bitch to handle and very unstable.  We were going to be really heavy on this outward trip and we literally played a balancing act as to where everything and everyone would be located during the journey.  The placing of the kit and personnel was the responsibility of the boat commander who was Tony on the drop-off phase.  He had complete control of who sat where and there were no arguments, irregardless of rank.  This was the rule and everyone knew it.  I would position myself next to the motors on the way into Zambia and one of the Operators would sit next to Tony and navigate us in.

I would be the last person to board.  Once everyone was where they should be one of the Operators and I shoved the boat out into the channel and jumped onboard.  Moving to the back I started the already primed motors and Tony eased us slowly into the darkness………

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, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

ON THE ZAMBEZI RIVER ENROUTE FROM SIBANKWAZI BRITISH SOUTH AFRICA POLICE CAMP TO MAPETA ISLAND

The wind had picked up as we made our way to the RV and the mystery contact man.

Although not dark it was overcast and last light would be upon us quicker than expected.  I cursed myself severely for not adding some slack to our travel time.  Too late now though as we were about half way there according to our 1:50,000 map.  Tony was navigating and sitting right beside me on the hard wooden bench, spray flying at us over the bows of the Hercules, stinging the skin, but in a perverse way also refreshing.  It had been a sweltering hot day and the coolness of the oncoming night was welcome.

I had the motors at full throttle and we were well up on the plane.  The boat was perfectly trimmed and like this she handled like a thoroughbred, riding the wavelets smoothly as I ensured we ploughed through them at just the right angle.  Tony and I were enjoying this, but ever vigilant.  It was all too easy to fall into a false state of security on this river.  Besides the possibility of gooks taking a shot at us there was the ever-present danger of logs and trees floating down the river.  If we hit one of those at speed we were stuffed.

I was scared of the unknown.  I’m not afraid to admit it.  Still a young Sapper I took comfort in knowing we had been trained by the best instructors we could have wished for, both Infantry and Engineer……….but they cannot teach a man to be courageous, how to be dauntless.  That has to come from inside when he is in deadly peril or facing an up close enemy who wants to kill him……only then will he really know the limits of his nerve and mettle.  (Note that I did not use the word fearless…….my own opinion is that it is dangerous to be in the company of fearless men).

Tony nudged me and indicated on the map that we were approaching Mapeta Island (Latitude -18.05, Longitude 26.73333).  It loomed out of the twilight, huge in its size.  There was no mistaking it and I was pleased with the timing.  We needed to be careful now as part of Mapeta Island was Zambian territory and there could be gooks present although we had never had trouble from there before.

The light was almost perfect as I throttled back and steered us to port, entering the Islands left side channel.  Checking the map Tony made the call and pointed towards land.  We were at the spot given to us as the RV.  I just hoped we had not fucked-up.

We slipped slowly towards the river bank, the engines just ticking over to give enough headway to steer.  Tony was standing on the bows now, doing his best to see and guide me around anything that may damage the boat.  The wind was coming from behind us here and the exhaust from the motors blew over us, the acrid smell of the fuel mixture seeming to corrupt the beauty of this part of the great river.

I carefully eased the boat into a cleared area of the river bank I could see.  This would make it easier for mooring and disembarking.  I killed the two engines as we gently grounded in soft sand……..and then there was nothing.

The silence was almost deafening and anyone who has never experienced this void of any noise will never truly understand what I mean here.  The only sound was the pinging of the engines cooling down…….and the gentle lapping of water against the side of the boat.

It was now simply a waiting game……….

Copyright

© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Forgive the intrusion on my recollections but some things tear at the strings of my heart……this is one of them.

I have not done this before but feel the urge to be with this Brother.  Please read the words well and if you could see this Brother on his way to the Squadron In The Sky please go and stand by his Son and Daughter as they bid him farewell.  After all we will all meet him there one day.

This is an appeal for an old soldier. An Army Commando.

This is Albert “Jim” Howard. Jim was landed on Sword Beach by a Torpedo boat that picked him out the water after his troop ship hit a mine. 250 of the 1000 troops on board were killed and Jim was blown over board by the explosion.

After his unit regrouped they spent most of their time behind German lines doing reconnaissance work and disrupting the enemy. At one point Jim was separated from his unit so rested up the night in a shed. When he woke he found he was in the middle of a German unit, so he sneaked out and jumped into a German truck and drove it back to his own lines.

Jim was sited for an award after he singled handed took out a German machine gun during an ambush but the report was never sent as the officer was killed in action.

Sadly Jim passed away on Feb 1st 2015 at the age of 92. The only family he has is a son and daughter. I’m making this appeal for anyone to come and send this hero off. His funeral is on Feb 20th at 1400 and taking place in the Parish Church in Combe Martin in North Devon.

Can I also ask people to share this post and share the word about this lovely man

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DEKA ARMY BASE: LATE AFTERNOON

Conversation between Camp OC and ourselves:

“I want you two wasters to get your boat ready for a night operation.  You are to take your boat to this grid reference (him indicating on the map) and wait there for someone to make contact with you.  You will need spare fuel tanks, 24 hours rations and full ammo.  I cannot tell you anything else but make sure you get there just as last light falls and don’t fuck up on the position I just gave you”

That was it.  Short and to the point.

It quickly became time to go.  As Tony and I climbed into the back of the Mercedes 25 Troop Carrying Vehicle (TCV) we looked at each other and wondered what the hell this was all about.  We didn’t even know who we were supposed to meet and more importantly, what for.  The driver fired the Unimog up and with a characteristic torque-induced jerk we were off, easing through the camp entrance, and then turning sharp left onto the road to Sibankwazi.  To our boat……..and the Zambezi River.

I had looked at the Ops Room map as the Captain briefed us and taken down the grid reference we were headed for.  As far as my memory serves me it was at the position marked SAS pick-up position on the map shown below, near to Mapeta Island:

Ops Mulola

Tony and I had worked the time and distance calculation to get us to the Rendezvous Point (RV) just as last light was coming on.  We were both edgy and rather subdued on the journey down to the boat, each of us respecting one another’s silence.  Travelling the Zambezi River during the day was a challenge at the best of times, always having to ensure that we never strayed across the international boundary (Rhodesia/Zambia), which was an invisible line running up and down the river, but not necessarily in the middle.  We were now going to be travelling on the water towards dusk and more than likely in darkness if our suspicions were right.  Logic told us that no one would want us to meet them with a boat if they were not going to use it.  We were spot on!

We had trained to work on the Zambezi River at night and knew that the landmarks that we used for daytime navigation, could also be used at night.  We always chose high features that would silhouette easily against the sky or stars for navigation.  Simply put we would know what feature to point our bows at and which feature our stern should be pointing at to stay safe.  Quite an easy task in daylight but in darkness a mans eyes play games, confusing the mind as to what feature is what, what is true and what is false.  Making you doubt your own judgement, possibly leading you into a bad place.  No GPS in those days…….maps, compass, eyes and dead reckoning.  I loved that kind of navigating though.  Seat of the pants stuff and a small victory when you arrived at the right location.

We debussed at Sibankwazi, close to our boat.  First on the agenda was to check in with the British South African Police (BSAP) personnel at the camp and let them know we were going out on the water.  There was nothing to tell really, just that we were going up river and would stay in comms with them.  We took comfort in knowing they would come out and help us if the shit hit the fan.  They were good lads and always watched our backs.  And they had nice, shiny fast boats with big guns on.

Tony and I finished our preparations, cleaning the inside of the boat, filling fuel tanks (2 per engine), checking our small supply of boat spares, running up the engines (which had no covers), checking radio comms with the police and Deka Base, and checking our personal weapons and kit.  I would take us on the outward leg and Tony would bring us back.  What happened in between we would share.

The picture below shows Sappers carrying out typical boat preparation activities.  This is the exact same type of boat we were using on this mission (Basil Preston):

Typical boat preps

It was time to move out.  I moved the throttles to the start position and made sure the engines were in neutral.  Tony pumped the primer balls to get juice into the carbs, wound the starting rope around the first engine and pulled it.  The engine fired and I adjusted the throttle to a gentle idle.  He started the second engine and we were ready.  I let the two engines idle for a minute or two while Tony made sure water was being expelled from the cooling system outlets.

I gave Tony a thumbs up and he slipped the mooring line.  I moved both engines to reverse and we began gently edging astern and away from land.  Once far enough out I put the engines in forward gear, pushed up the revs and pointed our bows north-west…..into the gathering gloom……we were on our way.

The picture below gives an idea of the Zambezi River at night……..a very dodgy place to be, especially if there was no moon:

DSC01634

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, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.