I can remember walking past palm trees and what looked like sea sand as we followed Don back down to wherever he had come from…..the Zambezi flowing smoothly on my right hand side….gurgling on its merry journey to the mighty Kariba Dam…..many miles away.  Where it crashed over the countless rocks it foamed and sprayed a fine mist……the wind blowing it into our hot and sweaty faces…..cooling and refreshing.

A radio crackled near to me and the 1 Indep stick leader answered with his call-sign.  He had a short and sharp conversation with someone on the other end consisting of “copied”, “affirmative”, “say again”…..and finally “roger out”.  He moved up closer to me and let me know that a recovery vehicle had arrived but was standing off some distance from the mine victim until I gave the all clear on the road.

Don had diverted us onto a path that left the dirt road and led along the river bank……and it was then we saw a couple of soldiers up ahead….on guard and highly alert.  They let Don through and we entered a place of carnage……and what was until a few hours ago an SAS temporary base.

All around us were bits and pieces of kit..neatly piled up as if waiting for collection…webbing, weapons, eating utensils..some damaged by gunfire…the stuff that soldiers carry….and shockingly, a heap of bloody sleeping bags and Rhodesian uniforms….now tattered and ripped apart…blood stains mingling with the camouflage pattern…riddled with bullet holes.  There was indeed a certain smell about the place…..a smell I would get to know well……the smell of blood.  Nothing else like it.  Clearly something bad had happened here….you could feel and see the despair in the faces of the few grim men that were there.  Cartridge cases that were not familiar lay scattered all around, the wrappings of first field dressings and used inter-venal drips, some with their tubes still attached littered the ground……the bits and pieces of medical kit that were the signature that some serious shit had gone down not too long ago.

Don took us into a shady part of the camp and sat us down.  It was the measure of the man that although he wore the coveted wings of perhaps the finest special forces unit in the world, he treated us as equals at this time.  He proceeded to brief us on the events of the past hours…..not in too much detail to endanger security, but enough for us to understand the background as to why we were there, and the seriousness of the situation.

Apparently the SAS were on an external operation in Zambia doing what they do and had been over there for some time.  On their return to Rhodesian soil they were well and truly knackered and formed a temporary base at Sidindi Island so that they could rest before being picked up and returned to their main base.  They ate and they slept.  They had arranged their sleeping positions in two  lines close to each other with a narrow path between the two.  A  guard was posted and the rest slept.  Sometime in the early hours of the next morning when one sleeps the deepest a group of terrorists entered the camp and walked down the path between the two rows of sleeping men and machine-gunned them mercilessly as they lay in their sleeping bags.  I do not recall if anyone was killed but there were some severe injuries received.  Those that could managed to fight the gooks off but the damage was done.  They were understandably devastated….but also professionals…..and immediately began the task of helping the injured and getting them out.  The blown up Bedford was also part of the reaction force coming to assist them.  These gooks who attacked were definitely not the normal run of the mill banditos……they were very clever…they knew there was only one road where help would come from and they had mined it with a successful hit…..a tactic that I would encounter on more than one occasion.  They had also clearly observed the SAS go into a temporary base and had waited patiently for their chance to strike……showing great restraint before attacking.

We drank tea and offered what help we could and made our way back up to the road…..all of us deep in thought……and a lot more switched on than when we first arrived.  If those who had so audaciously attacked the SAS camp with so much success were still around we had a problem.  However we completed our mission without incident or more mines on the raod and the recovery vehicle was able to come in and take the sad old girl away to fight another day.

It was time to return to Wankie……and the gunship was summoned by TR48 radio carried in the recovery vehicle.  It was late when we boarded and the pilot informed us he would not be taking us back that evening but rather to the South African Police base at Sidindi (or it could have been Mapeta?) where we were destined to be treated to some real South African hospitality….good food…steaks and boerewors and cold Castle beers…we even had coffee bought to us in bed by the Padre after he had read us all an evening prayer.

I hoped that he was also praying for all the SAS boys we had just left behind.

Sometime later stories about the Sidindi incident began to circulate..some of it obvious bullshit…but the most plausible one was that the sentry, being exhausted just like the rest of them, had fallen asleep at his post and the gooks had simply walked past him and into the camp.  I have no proof that this is the case but the importance of an effective guard system remained with me for the rest of my military career.  A few years on and in a different country I was to see first hand the result of a sentry falling asleep……except this time I was one of those on the receiving end.  The result might not be what you expected.

On-board Cyclone 7 Gunship………outbound to Sidindi area

The pilot tested and released the brakes on the Alo gunship and we slowly taxied down the runway at FAF1……I was on the back seat….a simple hard bench that could fold up when the chopper was in the casevac role.  On either side of me was an infantryman from 1 Indep.  The infantry section or “stick” leader sat in a rearwards facing seat next to the pilot.  This seat had an olive green cushion for your arse and the seat was armour-plated all round so that whoever sat in it never had his balls shot off by gooks firing from below.

Another troopie sat in the door opening, a position I was later to claim as my own on many chopper rides.  There is something pretty fascinating about sitting in a chopper door when the pilot hits a hard port or starboard roll and you literally hang out the machine but cannot fall…centrifugal force apparently….those of you who have experienced this will know what I am talking about.  The door gunner was a serious looking fellow who had a flying helmet on that had wires coming out of it that plugged into sockets on the bulkhead..these were his umbilical cord to the pilot….they spoke constantly without a sound coming our way.  The weapon on these gunships was the Belgium made 7,62 MAG (Metrallieur a Gas) mounted as twins on a swivel arrangement giving traverse and elevation movement.  There was also an optical sight on these weapons.  Ammunition was fed into from two ammo boxes attached to the gun mounting. 

This was my first chopper ride and as you all know I am shit scared of heights.  My arse was nipping at the thought of the lift off and me just inches from the open door….I didn’t know about the centrifugal force theory at this stage.

I watched the pilot closely…..how he gently pumped his feet on the pedals as we taxied…..and how he flicked mysterious buttons on the rather impressive dashboard that had red and green lights on it.  His left hand had been continuously holding what looked like a car handbrake between the seats and as I watched he slowly lifted this device and the chopper left the ground and began to gently gain height….I learned later this handbrake thing was called the “collective” and had something quite important to do with the up and down activity of all choppers.  Actually if this device broke the chopper was fucked and all aboard in severe shit.

As we climbed I watched as the runway fell away and the buildings below became smaller and smaller…..the cars on the roads looking like the Dinkies I had played with in the sand as a child…..as the pilot swung the machine to port we headed east…..into the rising sun…..and into my first taste of what this war was all about.


1974……Brady Barracks

Time to find out where we were getting posted to.

Rock and Roll was over and we had all returned to the Squadron HQ at Brady Barracks (alias Headquarters 1 Brigade).  The Squadron HQ was a rather dilapidated collection of buildings not too far from the Brigades Warrant Officers and Sergeants Mess, which meant nothing to me but is worth mentioning.  Inside the HQ it always smelt of paper and stationery and chemicals used for the Gestetner roneo machine.  The ones that had some kind of red waxy paper to type on. This specific machine was hand operated and there was always someone there cranking the big black handle on the side that was the trigger to pick up paper, print, and spew out paper the other side.  It only printed on newsprint or at least that’s the quality we got with our precis.  In those days this was a very serious piece of kit.

Anyway I am getting side-tracked.

I had been informed that my first posting was going to be to a place called Wankie (yes there were some Wankers there)…..up the Victoria Falls road to an outfit named 1 Independent Company, Rhodesia Regiment (1 Indep Coy RR).  I was a little disappointed at first as all my mates or most of them anyway were going to Mukumbura in the North-Eastern border area to lay mines on Cordon Sanitaire.  I shouldn’t have worried for two reasons.  Firstly I would get more than enough tours to various parts of the Cordon, and secondly it was not too bad at 1 Indep once I got used to arrogant Infantry Officers who had more domestic scandals surrounding them than I care to remember.  It was really bad there at one stage and the extramarital shagging that went on in the background was the stuff that legends were made of.  Extramarital shagging is fine but not in front of the troops…….and no effort was made to be discrete.  One of these people doing the shagging actually had the temerity to call me a dude one day because he had sent me and my crew out as a stop group without the opportunity to get fully prepared…….knobber.

My specific job-title was “Mine-Standby”,a  really strange coincidence seeing that 1 Indep was based inside an old mine compound in those days.  Wankie was one of the biggest collieries in the world at the time and the army had taken over one of the disused compounds.  Dozens of little cottages……better than tents that’s for sure.  As the job title implied my mission was to stand-by and wait for a landmine to go off somewhere.  I would then be flown out by chopper to sweep the road 2 kilometers either side of whatever or whoever the victim was in case the evil gooks had laid additional mines…..a common tactic.

It was about this time (and before my first deployment) that I realised that our Squadron Quarter Master was a rather nasty piece of work and a tosser to boot.  He was a bully who seemed to think that everything in the store belonged to him and that all of the kit belonged on the shelf so he could show it off to the Squadron Commander when he was brown-nosing the boss.  There is no place in the field for these possessions of his either.  If one of us asked for a replacement first field dressing we were asked for the old one.  I could name this individual but I wont.  He knows who he is…..an infantry officer, not even a Sapper.  And I really hope he reads this because by now he realises that we only saluted his rank and not him.  There was actually talk of fragging him amoungst us……hope that woke him up.   The other ranks in the stores were OK but he needed shooting.  The only time I saw him in the bush was to come and count knives and forks……I jest not with you.  Woe betide the Troop Sergeant who was a fork down on his camp inventory when the Major came calling.  This was tantamount to treason and equaled the loss of the entire vehicle fleet of the Rhodesian Engineer Corps……including all the Pookies!!  I saw his name on an e-mail distribution list the other day so he survived the war staying out the combat zone……brave bugger you have to be to survive in the stores.  I think he was impotent too.

Anyway enough slagging off the officers for now……but to be honest some of them really deserve it as you will find out later.

And now it was time to draw my weapon and first-line ammo, pack my kit, and depart on some of the greatest adventures of my life.

 

A much thinner FatFox9 testing the MMD1...1974 Wankie

A much thinner FatFox9 testing the MMD1...1974 Wankie