More Cunning Contrivances

April 17, 2023

As a follow-on to my previous post I would like to share another booby-trap mission I took part in with you.

All armies and that includes the Rhodesian Army, have ammunition stores. Here they can keep anything from small arms ammunition, artillery shells, mortar bombs and hand-grenades. The number of ways that we can kill one another on the battlefield is endless and only restricted by the imagination of those that manufacture the means for us to do so. The interesting thing about ammunition and explosives is that it does not last forever, even if stored in ideal conditions – it is either used as intended, or much like the food in your pantry or fridge, it will reach a use-by date, after which it needs to be disposed of. Food is easy to deal with – but what do you do with hundreds of items of possibly dodgy out-of-date ordnance when they come to the end of their safe storage life?

Well, the EASY way is to take it to a demolition range, lay it all out nice and neatly, and destroy it in a safe and controlled manner, normally with plastic explosive donor charges, although I have also used TNT which was the only thing we had available at the time. We call this Sympathetic Detonation. Simply put, if we correctly place and detonate a donor charge next to a mortar bomb, the donor charge and mortar bomb will be destroyed – that’s the plan anyway. The theory of explosives is an interesting subject but I do not intend to discuss that at this time – possibly in another blog in the future.

Problem solved and everyone goes home happy and with all body parts in the right place.

The HARD way to do it is to let someone with an extremely vivid imagination and apparent lack of technical expertise have a think about it in the shower, and come up with a hairbrained and dangerous idea that actually added no value whatsoever to the Rhodesian war effort.

This post is about one of those hairbrained ideas that I reluctantly got dragged into executing on the ground. I was oblivious as to what had triggered the mission (probably “hot” int again) or what the result was.

I was running the Cordon Sanitaire Maintenance Teams out of Deka base at the time these events took place. I had been tasked to report to Wankie Ops Room (4 Indep Coy) for a special mission, leaving my second-in-command (also a sergeant) to run things at Deka base. He was highly competent and I had no qualms in leaving things in his hands. I was also ordered to bring 4 of my Sappers with me. One of them was my regular driver and I sat in the Unimog 25 right-hand passenger seat and enjoyed the scenery on the trip to Wankie, which usually took a couple of hours. I was not in a particular hurry and glad to be out of the camp with some my troops.

On arrival at the Wankie Ops Room for a briefing I was surprised to see one of our Staff Sergeants from 1 Engineer Squadron HQ (Bulawayo, Brady Barracks) there – I had no idea he was even in the area of operations so this was interesting. He was a good bloke though and I have good memories of working with him. Also present was an Infantry officer and one or two others who I cannot remember. A map of Ops Tangent was up on the wall – it had been overlaid with plastic so chinagraph pens of different colours could be used to emphasise different aspects. The briefing began and by the time it was finished I just could not believe that someone had thought this one up.

Apparently the idea was for me to return to my base at Deka and await the arrival of a convoy of vehicles carrying a number of boxes. Inside the boxes were dozens, possibly hundreds of obsolete or out-of-date rounds of ammunition including 3-inch, 60mm and 81mm mortar bombs, 25-pounder artillery shells, aircraft bombs and various hand-grenades. These items would be used as improvised booby-traps – not just any old kind of booby-trap though – these were going to be hung in trees and all connected up with detonating cord and connected to an electrical initiation ringmain – ready for command detonation. My job was to lead the convoy from my Deka base, up a back road to Victoria Falls. I will talk more about this back road to Victoria Falls in an upcoming post. As this was a supposedly secret mission we had to travel in darkness and I would meet up with more personnel from 1 Engineer Squadron at a secluded area near the Victoria Falls shooting range. All very cloak-and-dagger stuff which at times seemed to be over the top.

After doing some shopping in Wankie, we made our merry way back to Deka. Apparently the convoy carrying all of the ordnance would arrive during the following day and we would deploy to Victoria Falls in the evening after last light. Sure enough they arrived as planned and just after the sun dipped below the horizon, I led the convoy out of Deka Base and we were on our way. The trip up the back road could be a little dodgy, especially at night, however we travelled well and arrived at the junction where the back-road met the main Victoria Falls road in good time. Here we would turn right but I halted the convoy at this point to let the guys stretch their legs and make themselves something hot to drink.

The approximate location of this rest-stop is shown below as Point A, with Point B being the location of the mission forward base.

After a short break we moved the convoy the few kilometers to Point B where we met up with other elements as planned – including more personnel from Bulawayo and a protection group. The final tasking was now discussed in more detail and the plan now took quite a turn as it had been decided that laying these booby-traps at night was far too dangerous and we would proceed at first light to a position that is shown below as Point C below. This picture also shows the approximate back road route.

At first light we moved to a position close to Point C and began unloading the ordnance and other bits we would need to lay, or rather hang the traps. This included rolls of detonating cord and electrical initiation ringmain stores. The job itself was hard going as we needed to go down into the gorge to complete the work and it was hot and humid, with steep terrain. Dangerous if you lost your footing and I had to wonder who would want to infiltrate into Rhodesia using this route – but there we were hanging bombs in trees like Christmas decorations. The more we worked, the more this idea seemed to be a waste of time. Just try to imagine a bunch of guys tripping and cursing, sweating and swatting mopani flies from their eyes and ears while hanging bombs in trees. You couldn’t make it up but sadly this is what we were tasked to do. I don’t know how long it took but we never used everything we had and by late afternoon we had set the electrical ringmain and it was time for me to take my guys back to Deka. It seems that there was going to be a stay-behind team and these individuals would lie in wait for goodness knows how long and set off the bombs when the bad guys came across the border via the Zambezi River, and hopefully spoil there plans. I had no intention of asking any further questions or getting involved further, and after a quick meal we set of to Deka Base. Again, I have no idea what the result of this operation was as there were no reports of any crossings or enemy contact that came across my desk and I never heard anything about this mission ever again. My personal opinion is that the plan was abandoned quite quickly after we left as common sense should surely have eventually prevailed and the personnel in the ambush party redeployed to more useful activities. There is no glamour in this account and my intent is only to share some of the more bizarre activities that I got dragged into. An outlandish idea which came to nothing – all it really achieved was to put good men’s lives in danger once again.

5 Responses to “More Cunning Contrivances”

  1. Richard Fonda said

    Hi there just read your post on Deka. I was based there for 6 weeks with Intake 136 in May/June 1974. We also stayed for 1 night at the Msuna fishing camp looked after by a South African couple. Would you by any chance have pictures of the army base camp at Deka that you would not mind sharing? I remember the patrols up and down over those hills overlooking the Zambezi. Memories are fading so if you can help I would be most appreciative. I remember doing night guards in the deserted bunkers watching out for snakes and duty in the radio tent reading the stress posted every day. Interesting times.

    I also enjoy reading your posts and antics.


    Richard Fonda

    • fatfox9 said

      Hi Richard and thanks for dropping by. I have fond memories of Deka Base and it was really well-positioned for Msuna, Deka Drum and Sibankwazi. I remember the couple who ran Msuna well and had many visits down to them in the evening when I ran Deka Base. Did you ever get down to the BSAP at Sibankwazi? A great bunch of guys there and they had some classy boats compared to out old Hercules models with smokey Evinrudes. I started my National Service in June 1974 with Intake 139 – signed on regular army during indefinite call-up. Sadly I dont have any of my own photos of Deka Base but there are some on the various Rhodesian Army groups if you are on FaceBook. Please continue to drop by as I always have a tale or two to tell. If you follow me you will be notified when I put out a new post. Stay safe.

  2. don said

    Thanks Mark good as all ways.

  3. Michaelvan said

    Always a good read. Dankie RSM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: