Cunning Contrivances: Booby Traps (Part 1)

January 2, 2023

The definition of a Booby-Trap according to the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers (RhE) training pamphlet was as follows:

A booby trap is a cunning contrivance, usually of an explosive and lethal nature, designed to catch the unwary enemy; a savage practical joke. It is aimed directly at the reduction of morale and mobility, both of which are vitally important to success in war.“.

In this post I would like to recall two occasions where I was tasked by my higher HQ to lay Booby-Traps. These operations were to take place in the Operation Tangent area and were to be sighted in such a way that terrorists would be well into the kill-zone before the traps were initiated, meaning that we were going for maximum gook casualties. Concealment of the entire set-up was therefore of critical importance, and this includes clandestine insertion of the Booby-Trap team, as we knew that there were eyes and ears everywhere in the bush. We therefore had to apply counter surveillance techniques from insertion to extraction as it is pointless to lay a Booby-Trap that can be seen, or the laying team are observed moving into the target area.

Without going into too much detail, Booby-Traps can be initiated (set-off) by a number of actions, the most popular at the time being the application of pressure, the release of pressure, pull, pull (or tension) release, or the application of some form of Delay. There are many other ways that Booby-Traps can be initiated but I am not going to cover these here. We had specially manufactured devices known as switches, available to us, however for the specific tasks that I was to lead on we would be using Pressure switches only. In other words the required action for success was for someone or something to stand on the pressure switch for the Booby-Trap to detonate. Please note that I used the term “someone or something” as these devices cannot tell friend from foe and would therefore activate the trap regardless of who or what applied the pressure. Sadly animals and friendly forces have been collateral damage to these devices on a number of occasions causing death or injury. The following illustrations show the abovementioned methods in simple to understand detail:

Looking at the previous paragraphs, my readers will appreciate that there are a number of fundamental pre-requisites for a successful Booby-Trap result. One does not simply pick a spot on a map and Booby-Trap it and there are a number of basic principles that we observed when sighting and laying Booby-Traps, and these are as follows:

  1. Concealment: The charges and mechanisms must be concealed or made to resemble some harmless object. The surroundings should be disturbed as little as possible and all signs of preparation should be concealed or removed.
  2. Constricted Localities: The more constricted the site in which a trap is laid the more chance there is of its being sprung and the greater the difficulty of detection and clearance. Any form of defile is therefore a suitable site for boobytraps.
  3. Concentration of Traps: Traps should be laid, whenever possible, in considerable concentrations to reduce the chances of finding them all without springing some. Dummies should be used freely.
  4. Double bluff: An obvious trap may be used to mask a well concealed trap near by.
  5. Inconvenience: Traps may be operated by the removal of obstacles such as road blocks and demolitions, or of furniture or litter in dug-outs or buildings, particularly if these are suitable for headquarters.
  6. Curiosity: The handling of souvenirs, pictures, food and drink containers, musical instruments, weapons, etc, may operate a trap.
  7. Everyday operations: Traps may be operated by opening or closing doors or windows, using telephones or electric light switches etc.
  8. Attraction: Delay-action or incendiary bombs may attract personnel to a booby trapped site.
  9. Alternative methods of firing: A trap may be provided with two or more methods of firing.
  10. Variety: As many different types as possible should be employed in any one locality.

Before continuing I would like to be clear on what I was expected to achieve on both missions and you will note that this ties in closely with the foregoing paragraphs:

  1. Inflict maximum casualties on the enemy.
  2. Use Pressure as the initiating action.
  3. Use of the following Principles – Concealment, Constricted Localities, Concentration of Traps, Alternative methods of firing and Variety.
  4. Covert infiltration to laying site
  5. Operational Security (Opsec)

A brief description of the two missions are as follows:

Mission 1

  1. Operational Area: Tangent
  2. Environment: Forest
  3. Type of Booby-Trap: Multi-device, pressure operated
  4. Concealment method: Existing vegetation
  5. Explosives to be used: Date expired Air Force and Army ordnance
  6. Insertion: Vehicle and night-march

Mission 2

  1. Operational Area: Tangent
  2. Environment: Existing dirt road
  3. Type of Booby-Trap: Multi-device, pressure operated
  4. Concealment method: Existing soil on dirt road
  5. Explosives to be used: Anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines
  6. Insertion: Boat and night-march

In the next post I will describe in detail Mission 1 and Mission 2.

8 Responses to “Cunning Contrivances: Booby Traps (Part 1)”

  1. donmerredinwirelessnetau said

    Hi Mark good to see you back !!! , but a long time time between posts . Another good read. A question please.? On the Nymapanda side going towards Mukumburra, there was a welder with me an old bloke by the name of Bruce Vause RIP and his Ta , me and TA plus the operator of the machinery , can’t remember what ??? dozer ,grader truck ?. We were next to the strip being done for the mine field , no escorts no weapons etc. On the other side of the strip a hoet came and looked at us, so we looked at him. He was dressed in blue jacket jeans and an AK. He must have thought we were armed. He gestured for us to come over to him but we did not move and just watched him. He was very neatly dressed.. He then disappeared . Would you say he was Frelemo.? I all ways wondered and was going to ask you. I have no idea of the date 1976 ? On the Nymapanda side going towards Inyanga etc, the roads dept etc were doing the road , and a D7 dozer was doing a scoop through a river bed when it hit a land mine , fair bit of damage.

    Another bit , not related, I was sent out to help a bloke do repairs to Tse Tse fly equipment at Nymasoto. The bloke I worked with was Bill Barkess RIP. About 72/73 When there at the camp , i was walking by the river near a Baobab tree where I saw a coc skin nailed to the tree. I did not think too much of it and carried on. After I left I heard National Parks had gone there and big kuk ha ha. Last one I met a guy there called Mike Wigg RIP ex RLI . He was one of the survivors of the first RLI blown up vehicles in 1972 ??? at Mukumburra. Where I think two were killed and others injured. All the very best and have brilliant new year , cheers DM

    • fatfox9 said

      Hi Don…..thank you for being such a loyal follower. I do promise to do better with my posting tempo. I would say that guy you saw was a gook to be honest. Frelimo were normally always dressed in uniform as far as I recall. Always good to hear from you and please keep dropping by. All the very best to you for 2023…..say safe and stay in touch.

  2. Craig said

    Hi Mark
    Thank you for your new post. Please continue.
    I really enjoy your style of writing.

    My Dad served in the war same time working at capco.
    I completed an apprenticeship so can relate to your appy days. Top class tradesmen from those days.

    Thanks again

    • fatfox9 said

      Many thanks for your kind comments……..I have no formal writing training so your words are very encouraging. Stay safe and please continue to drop in. Mark

  3. neelsdebruyn said

    Thank you so very much for all the help full information Kind regards Neels De Bruyn 0748158561 Aan God al die eer!!!

  4. Neill Carlsen said

    Hi Mark many thanks for the stories. Brings back a lot of memories, my oc was Capt Vic Thackwray, we were based in Redcliff with 5 Engineers Sqn. I am interested if you had any more information about the african sapper ( i think his name was Ndlovo) that had his hands blown off in the mine field and if it was in the Gonahrazu sp. I was there in 1978 and it was around Christmas. If it was this South African chpper piolt came in just after dusk to cassavac him. We had to cut an LZ for him to land. After that the African sappers left saying it was too dangerous to do the maintenance there which left us 5 Sqn there. We also had this aircraft bomb we had to hang in a tree with the Portuguese AP’s all around that area connected to cortex.

    • fatfox9 said

      Hi Neill…..many thanks for the kind comments. Vic Thackwray is a great guy and I am still in contact with him. A true officer and gentleman who I had the pleasure to work with both in the military and civilian life. There were a number of Sappers who lost limbs down that way, definitely 3 I know of as they were in my troop when based at Mabalauta airstrip – could definitely be the same as that is in Ghanarezou area as well. Sad days indeed and I remember these guys so well and the chopper coming in to take them out. All injured by plough shear pull release mines which were really tricky. Be interesting to hear about your experience with the aircraft bombs…..what a joke that was. Stay safe and please keep following me.

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