Ambush (3)

August 14, 2019

Being a sergeant and a member of the Regular Rhodesian Army came with certain privileges, even while out in the bush.  The District Commissioners camp where we had established our field HQ had a number of well-maintained buildings within the compound some of which had single rooms for visitors.  Others had larger rooms which were used as dining areas, social areas and communal accommodation.

I was allocated one of the single rooms and was blessed to have a little table with a chair and a decent bed and mattress including a pillow.  A candle and box of Lion matches were neatly placed on the table.  A curtained window allowed views of the high ground we had approached the base from on our return and I could see the road high up above the base where the buses churned up huge dust clouds as they sped on their way.   At the end of the building was a huge veranda where we would sit at night, smoke, drink Castle Lager and generally shoot the shit.  One of the most interesting characteristics of this base was that the floors were highly polished in red by the camp labourers, so shiny and smooth that it was pretty much a challenge to avoid slipping on them when walking.  Many of you will recall the homely smell of Cobra floor polish.  This was then as good as it would get out in the sticks, unless of course you were a member of the Rhodesian Air Force who always seemed to be highly jacked-up when it came to the comforts of life in the bush and had cold beer and running fridges within a few minutes of wheels touching down.  Those guys could organise and there was no doubt about that.

It was late afternoon and I had finished showering and dressed in clean shorts and T-shirt.  Feeling well-relaxed after the long patrol I decided to treat my weapon to a full strip-down and clean.  She was a good weapon and deserved all the care and attention I could give her and on this last patrol she had served me well and never let me down, consistently firing round after round at the gooks that had ambushed us.  I also decided that I would empty all of my six magazines, stripping them right down so that the springs were completely eased and lying on the table for a good dusting-off.  This entire exercise took me about an hour, most of this time taken up cleaning the carbon off of the gas piston…..vinegar nicked from the kitchen done the trick very nicely.  Happy with my efforts I then took a stroll down the slippery passage to the veranda, met up with my mates and settled in for a relaxing evening with many ice-cold beers.  The sun was setting over the African bush and it felt as if I was a tourist in a luxury safari camp on one of those fancy trips, but of course this was not so.  There were some very bad people around, intent on spoiling our fun, and they were closer that night than I thought…..much closer.

At about midnight, with bellies full of good food and beer it was time to retire for the evening.  We had a Territorial Force Class 2 Warrant Officer with us, and he was the main spanner in the camp.  Although a tough disciplinarian he was always a fair man and I would be fortunate enough to work with him on a number of missions in the future, including the planned partial demolition of the Victoria Falls Bridge (I will be covering this in the fullness of time).  When he said enough was enough there were no arguments and to be fair, we were all knackered and running on fumes.  A good sleep without having to get up for a guard duty would be very welcome.

I returned to my room after making a detour to the kitchen to steal a left-over T-Bone steak and sat on my bed in the soft candlelight, in silence, slowly picking at the wonderfully soft meat and thoroughly enjoying every morsel of it.  Having stripped the bone bare, including an elusive little bit of marrow I disposed of it, wiped my hands, blew out the candle and climbed into my sleeping bag, the smell of cooked meat clinging to my fingers.  Contented and with a soft bed and pillow beneath me for the first time in weeks it was not long before I drifted off into a deep sleep.

The gooks initiated the attack on our base at about 3 in the morning using the high ground with an 84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle……. Some of you may also know it as a bazooka.  The first round detonated on our water tower, a brick construction with a corrugated iron tank at the top, causing the structure to collapse.  At the same time, they opened up with AK’s, PKM’s and RPD’s.  Green tracer was streaking through the camp and sky at a terrific rate and my room seemed to me to be a particular target for them as rounds were hitting the walls all around me, sparks flying.  Once I understood what was happening, I rolled out of the bed onto the floor and leopard crawled to my rifle and grabbed my chest webbing.  All of this time there was all hell breaking loose from along the veranda as my mates returned fire from where we had been partying just hours ago.  I heard the thump of a mortar detonating inside the camp and knew things were now getting more uncomfortable……more and more mortars were dropping however it appears these were not being launched by anyone with any experience as most of them overshot the camp.  It was then that I realised I had no magazine and my FN, nor had I replaced any in my chest webbing pouches after cleaning them.  The room was semi dark, and I could see that I had neatly stacked the 5 magazines on the table, and I inched my way towards them keeping as low as possible.  I reached up and managed to get a hand on the magazine at the bottom of the pile and pulled it out, instantly feeling a hard whack and sharp pain on the top of my head and thought shit I’ve been hit by a lucky shot or ricochet……why in the head and not somewhere else FFS?…….. until I understood that it was all the other magazines tumbling off the table with my head being their first point of impact as they surrendered to gravity.  I had taken the sharp end of one of them on the skull and blood trickled freely down the side my face, blinding me in one eye.  I rammed a magazine on my rifle (thanks to my bleeding head I had all five of them nearby now), chambered a round and moved towards the window, kneeling and keeping low I began to return fire in the direction from where I assumed the gooks were.  I could hear our MAG gunner giving controlled bursts from the veranda and this always warmed a man’s heart in these situations……the great peacemaker was speaking the language of the dead.  I continued to pump rounds up toward the road, my red tracer flashing through the sky as expended cartridge cases tinkled onto the polished floor burning my bare knees………I was pretty sure that my efforts at gook-killing were ineffectual though.  Shooting at night is never easy and upwards even more challenging…..ask anyone who knows their stuff.

Changing magazines and now chock-full of adrenaline I decided to join my mates down the slippery veranda as my room continued to be a hot zone and managed to make my way there without incident as the building covered my movements.  They shit themselves when they saw my face and also thought that I had a serious head-wound when in fact it was merely a deep cut that continued to bleed, as gashes in the head do.  One of the lads grabbed a first-field dressing from a webbing pouch and ripping it out of its plastic wrapper pressed it to my head while I tied it in place.  By now the floor of the veranda was a sea of hot cartridge cases making it even more deadly to walk on barefoot, the MAG endlessly devouring the 7,62 x 51mm rounds being belt-fed into its hungry maw at the side and spewing them out from below at a terrific rate.  We had all positioned ourselves at the low wall facing the road and continued to pump rounds in the direction of the enemy hoping for a lucky strike, doing our best to aim in the direction of where the green tracers were coming from.  In all honesty I think the hillside was the only casualty of our firepower that evening.

And then it was over just as suddenly as it had started.  No tracers, no mortars, no gunfire.  Except for one or two opportunistic singletons from would be Sapper Snipers.  Just the acrid smell of propellant and the beating of one’s heart in the ears.  Shouts of cease fire and calls for the medic rang in the air as signs of camp-life emerged……shadowy figures moving furtively from cover to cover in the gloomy darkness.  Not very clever considering there were some pretty desperate men with fingers on triggers……just looking for a gook that may have infiltrated our lines.

The bad guys were obviously satisfied that they had won the day and had disappeared back into the bush to do what gooks do……hope to fight another day.  Clearly, they decided that to hang around until first light was not an option as the chance of a Fire-Force deployment and follow-up was highly likely.  They sensibly chose to use the cover of darkness to slink off into the night.  I fitted a fresh magazine and made my way out of the building, along the red veranda and into an open area right next to where the downed water-tower lay.  A sea of mud and pools of water lay everywhere among the shattered red bricks.  I wondered if the labourers who shined the red floors would be pissed off with me for traipsing around their pristine surfaces with my muddy feet.

The first person I met was the Sergeant Major, doing his checks on personnel and damage control.  He also called a general stand-to and we all took up our allocated positions around the camp perimeter walls.  We would stay there for the next hour.  All in all, we had done pretty well though, repulsing a fairly well-planned attack from high ground and only suffering one fairly serious injury and the rest minor cuts and scratches.  No CASEVAC required until the morning though and getting away with no fatalities was always a winner.

The entire attack probably lasted 15 minutes although it felt like we had been under fire for hours and as I manned my stand-to position I reflected on lessons I would learn from the previous few hours.  Most importantly never become complacent, and I had.  As a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer this was unforgivable.  Cleaning my weapon and not refilling my chest webbing pouches with magazines was a cardinal sin, the same goes for not having a charged magazine on my weapon at all times.  Secondly, I had allowed myself to be drawn into a false sense of security after the patrol, believing we were inside some kind of fortified medieval castle, impenetrable to attack.  And thirdly……never underestimate the enemy……the guys that attacked us had balls for sure and we would find out later that this was the same group that had ambushed us previously and looking to finish the job.

First light came and normal camp activity slowly got underway.  A CASEVAC was organised for the wounded Sapper who had been hit by shrapnel.  He had been well cared for overnight by our medic and a Cyclone 7 arrived mid-morning to take him to a better-equipped medical facility.  He would be fine and back on his feet within days asking to get back to his mates.

We were aware that our tour in this part of the country was coming to an end and we would soon be replaced by an infantry unit, probably elements of the Rhodesia Regiment.  We got stuck into getting the battle scarred camp sorted, with a replacement for the downed water tower a priority that the District Commissioner got onto straight away using local labour and expertise.  Its amazing the skills that some of the local population living out in the bush have.  Carpenters, bricklayers and general handymen all over the place.

Tactically there was post-attack work to be done too.  I arranged for two mine clearance teams plus protection elements to sweep the road 2 kilometers either side of the gook firing positions to confirm there had been no landmines planted as part of this attack.   Gooks had a nasty habit of planting mines on likely reinforcements/recovery approach routes and we were not going to take a chance on this as the last thing we wanted was for our relief convoy to hit a biscuit-tin.  At the same time, we swept through the gook firing positions looking for evidence of the gang’s strength or any equipment they may have left behind…. being ever alert for booby-traps.  There was nothing of any value to be had though.  No blood spoor either so we can assume not casualties their side which is not surprising.

The drawing below is produced to the best of my recollection………not a masterpiece I know but hope you get the idea.

Drawing1

Stay safe, thanks for dropping by and see you all again soon.

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

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

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