If I thought that getting historical background to Cordon Sanitaire defoliation efforts (see previous post) was challenging, I was wrong!

Trying to find anyone who has in-depth information on the electronic early warning systems installed on the fences was an even more daunting task. To be very honest I am not in any way convinced that what I have managed to find holds too much water and this is once again where I will be hoping that someone, somewhere reads this post, tells me I have written complete rubbish and puts things right. I can take it and no offence will be taken I assure you. We simply need to get this as factual as we can. There has to be Rhodesian Army veterans that actually installed and monitored the electronic side of things that can help here.

The following redaction comes from more than one source, the reliability of which has not been confirmed to me. From an intelligence source and reliability perspective I therefore have no option but to rate it as F/6 (Insufficient information to evaluate reliability. May or may not be reliable/The validity of the information cannot be determined) and should therefore by no means be quoted as being the way things actually were. Read on………..

For the sake of simplicity we will consider the Cordon to be 25 metres wide, fenced on both sides, and containing anti-personnel blast mines.

On the home side a system of electronic sensors divided into monitored sectors and wired to sector control boxes formed the basis of the early warning system. I have not been able to find any information as to what type of sensors (movement, vibration, broken electrical circuit, audio, etc.) were used, nor who was responsible for installing them (possibly the Rhodesian Corps of Signals (8 Signal Squadron)).  According to one source these control boxes were placed in bunkers close to the home side fence and manned full-time by troops waiting for an alarm to be set off.

Logic makes me think that a combination of activation triggers may have been used. Apparently the idea was that any penetration of the Cordon would be detected by detonations or some form of electronic sensor. My information claims that reaction to these events was primarily by vehicle and took place within 10 minutes of a signal being received. In addition to the vehicular response, artillery fire was also used to put down fire on ranged, pre-selected targets. I imagine this would be from 25 pounder howitzers or possibly 120mm mortars.

It is my understanding that the only parts of Cordon Sanitaire to be fitted with an electronic early warning system were the Musengezi/Mukumbura, and Nyamapanda to Ruenya minefield. Soon after these areas were completed a significant amount of false alarms were being recorded. This resulted in finding no enemy presence at the alarm trigger point. Due to the significant cost of ammunition being expended on these false-positive events, it was decided to curtail the rapid response on these areas in 1975. An ongoing Cordon Sanitaire review shelved the whole idea of an early warning system shortly thereafter.

And so ended the Cordon Sanitaire early warning system.

I do not know how effective these measures were as I never encountered them during my time serving in the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers. Personally I do not think the electronic system was as successful as the planners initially thought it would be and with the Rhodesian economy heavily burdened by sanctions and an ever-increasing defence budget there was little chance of any project surviving unless it showed significant success indicators (body count, infiltration mitigation, etc.).

I located the following on the issafrica.org website.  They seem to confirm in some ways parts of the foregoing:

EWS 1EWS 2EWS 3

I will continue to seek further sources to help unravel this interesting and little known subject.

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

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© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Mukumbura………to any Rhodesian Sapper worth his/her salt the name conjures up Cordon Sanitaire operations.  Indeed to most of us this was the Mother of all Rhodesian Cordon Sanitaire operations.  However there were other areas where we laid mines, usually along the conventional lines of what I have described previously, but also some in more unconventional ways (will describe these in future posts).

Here is a diagram showing the extent of Cordon Sanitaire operations throughout Rhodesia.  It also shows the various operational areas:

Corsan Map_All

I would like to point out the following:

1.  This map is not to scale

2.  The information is to the best of my knowledge/memory correct (but fairly accurate and I do not suggest walking on the red bits).

3.  Red bits (added by me) denote armed Cordon Sanitaire strips.

4.  Base map courtesy of shelf3d.

Known mined areas:

1.  220 kilometers: Victoria Falls to Mlibizi

2.  359 kilometers: Musengetsi to Nyamapanda to Ruwenya

3.  72 kilometers: Junction Gate to Jersey Tea Estate to Muzite Mission

4.  50 kilometers: Stapleford Forest to Umtali

5.  61 kilometers: Malvernia/Villa Salazar to Crooks Corner

6.  +-1 kilometer: Kariba Power Station

Not all of the areas above were laid to the same pattern.  Some were standard pattern, others double-density, and some contained additional trip-wire operated fragmentation stake-mines.  The double-density/trip-wire minefields were the most dangerous for us to work in, especially when carrying out minefield maintenance tasks.  I will show diagrams of these variants in future posts to give you a better idea what they looked like and what we were up against.

The above information (Rupiah) is probably reasonably accurate distance wise but definitely does not account for what I will call “other” mined/booby-trapped areas.  I know these “other” areas exist because I laid some of them while serving on special operations.  My conclusion regarding these “other” areas is therefore that they remain unknown and uncleared.

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, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

In this post we will discuss two of the dodgiest activities when working on Cordon Sanitaire, namely the Laying and Arming of mines. These are the phases that demand mature and flexible Command and Control, intense Sapper concentration, and a natural grip of situational awareness.

Sappers need to know exactly where they are in the minefield at all times.

A lack of any of these key requirements could and indeed did result in own forces casualties. As I have mentioned in previous posts, landmines cannot differentiate between friend and foe…….if you fucked-up you were going down, literally. Sadly, an accident may not even be the doing of the person killed or injured, and somewhere in the root-cause of these events there is without a doubt also a good dose of plain bad luck.

Group 5: The Laying Party

The Laying Party followed the Digging Party.  They were responsible for carrying the mines in some form of container, often a type of back-pack, and placing three mines more or less at the mid-point of the three holes (the Mine Cluster) dug by the Digging Party, but not in the holes.  They do not arm the mines.  Common sense and safety dictates that the Laying Party were never allowed to overtake the Digging Party.  Remember that these mines were already in an advanced state of preparedness (we started the process the previous afternoon if you recall from previous posts) and all that was required to arm them fully would be to remove the safety device which could be a pin removal or perhaps a spin-off plate action, and was dependent on the type of mines we were using at the time.

Once the Laying Party commences placing the mines, WORKING IN ECHELON becomes mandatory for all in the minefield (this is Laying Party and Arming Party specific).  No one in Bravo Line will ever overtake anyone in the Charlie Line, and no one in the Alpha Line will ever overtake anyone in the Bravo or Charlie Line.  That was the Golden Rule although it was broken on quite a few occasions.

The Rope and Digging Party were way ahead of everyone else and therefore would not be affected by the activities of the Laying and Arming Parties.  Indeed, in most cases once the Rope Party and Digging Party were finished for the day they came back and integrated into the Laying or Arming Party, whichever needed them.  So we all ended up arming mines every day.

Group 6: The Arming Party

The Arming Party arm the mines.  They have one of the most dangerous tasks during mine-laying operations.  Movement of the Arming Party is strictly controlled by an NCO or switched-on Sapper.  Lets assume the primary safety device on the mines is a removable safety clip, and that operations are moving from left to right.  This was the sequence of events when arming mines:

1.  Arming Party (+-8 Sappers) dress up to the line of clusters.  Remember the rope is gone so all you have are the holes to guide your positioning.

2.  Arming Party ensures that there are no large clumps of soil present.  If there are these are carefully broken up prior to arming commencing.

Note: At this time the Arming Party will also straighten any bent safety pins to ensure they are easy to remove when arming takes place.  Depending on the type of mine being used this may also be the time that booster charges are inserted.  Booster charges are used to increase the shock-wave that propagates the main charge detonation.

3.  Person in control instructs Arming Party to place mines in holes but not to arm them.

4.  Person in control authorises mine in 9 o’clock position hole to be armed and covered.  Arming Party move to correct mine position, crouch or kneel, remove safety device and carefully cover the mine.  Arming Party dress back to original position and await further instructions.  Crouching is to be discouraged as if one loses ones balance, Murphy’s Law says you will probably land on an armed mine.

5.  Person in control authorises mine in 12 o’clock position hole to be armed and covered.  Mine armed and covered as in paragraph 4.

6. Person in control authorises mine in 3 o’clock position hole to be armed and covered.  Mine armed and covered as in paragraph 4.

7.  Arming Party dresses back from the clusters and awaits further instructions.

8.  Person in control authorises movement to next mine clusters.  The person furthest to the left steps back and walks behind all the arming personnel on his right and dresses onto the next available mine cluster.  He waits there until the Arming Party has dressed onto new mine clusters.

9.  Person in control commences arming sequence.  This continues until all clusters are completed for the day.  Bravo and Alpha Lines, working in echelon carry out the same process.

Here is a diagram of the personnel movement.  This is very important and I know of at least one Sapper who lost his leg by moving in front of and not behind Arming Party Sappers to his right.

Laying and Arming Party_Corsan

I hope the above diagram makes sense.  Just to clarify:

Sapper 1 moves to the next number 1 position, Sapper 2 to the next number 2 position and so on for the rest of the Sappers.  Movement is always routed behind the person to your right.  No one moves until the Sapper on his left has moved to his new cluster.  All lines must work in Echelon.  This diagram makes it easy to understand why.  There must always be safe ground behind the Bravo and Charlie Line Arming Party so personnel can escape in the case of an attack.  As mentioned previously in the event of an attack from the friendly side we were in the crap as we would probably need to escape over armed clusters.

As all of these activities from pulling out the ropes to arming the mines were all taking place concurrently it then becomes clear that this was a very dangerous piece of real estate if you did not know what you were doing.  I do not need to convince anyone that this was a hazardous activity.

Sadly, the statistics have already proved this.

This post will be the final part of the Mukumbura: (Learning The Ropes) series.  It has been an interesting and nostalgic journey for me to relive those early days of my military career and I hope that it has not become too monotonous. From here on I will be posting my memories of different events as they come to mind and these will be in no particular order although I will continue to keep my Rhodesian and South African campaigns separate.  I hope you continue to enjoy my ramblings.

Again, I ask anyone who reads my posts to flag-up any incident they were also part of and if I have erred in my recollections in some way please do not hesitate to help me put the record straight. It is not easy to do something like this on your own and especially when you have no written record of events, nor access to official documents.

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© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Group 3: Rope Party

The Rope Party were the next group to start work in the morning and followed the Protection Party.  They carried spools of nylon cord which were more or less 50 meters long.  We had three of these spools, one for each of the three lines to be worked (A, B, C) or Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie Lines.  If you read previous posts you will understand this better.

Each rope had a different number of knots tied into them as follows:

Alpha Line Rope: 1 knot every 3 meters

Bravo Line Rope: 1 knot every 2 meters

Charlie Line Rope: 1 knot ever 1 meters

From this you can do the rough maths for 1,000 meters if you work on 3 mines per knot.  Works out to about 5,500 mines.  We normally laid about 3,000 mines per day.  Of course if you were a badly resourced crew you would find extra knots in the rope as a result of breaks and joins and this could make things dodgy and confusing on the ground.

Some minefields worked on double-density cluster layouts plus other nasty devices but they are completely other animals and I will discuss these at a later time.  These types of minefield hurt many of our boys and were treacherous, sinister places to work.

For the purpose of this blog I have made the line nearest the enemy Line C and work always started on this line first in the morning so if you were an idle wanker you made sure you got into the A Line.  This meant you had about 20 additional minutes to smoke and talk crap to your mates before you started work.  The fact that you would have to work that time in at the end of the day after the B and C Lines were finished did not make an iota of difference to the devious Sapper brain.  In all honesty the Echelon Method of working did not begin to really matter until the laying party started to work in the Charlie Line, and the Rope Parties could quite safely work on all three Lines at the same time without any danger to personnel.

After the dannert coil had been removed from the minefield, the Rope Party hooked up their rope to the metal picket left in the ground the day before as the start point, and began walking the line off the spool  for the next 50 metres.  They would then put a small metal pin in the ground, hook the line onto it and continue for another 50 metres.  This they continued doing until they had pulled the line out enough times to achieve the days laying objective.  All three lines carried out this action.

At this point it is extremely important to note that there will be live mines adjacent to the initial start point of the day (the last clusters from the previous days work), and there would always be an NCO or switched on Sapper controlling these start-up activities.  A foot out of place here or a moments inattention could be very tragic indeed and fuck everyones whole day up.  And yes, it did happen.

Group 4: Digging Party

From the number of knots shown above you can see the 3 Lines had 3 different densities of mines.  At each knot a mine “cluster” was dug.  A “cluster” consisted of 3 holes dug with a badza (a type of hoe), one at 12 o’clock, one at 3 o’clock, and one at 9 o’clock.  I do not want to go deeply into the science of number of “mines per meter front” at this stage but you can see that by adjusting the number of knots on each Line, the probabability of standing on a mine within any given meter of the minefield frontage can increase or decrease.  Simple Sapper Stuff.

It therefore goes without saying that the next group into the minefield was the Digging Party.

Here is a badza.  They caused bad blisters to hands not wearing gloves.  I know, I dug, I had blisters.  Many of them.  Our medics took much glee in injecting merthiolate into them.  Ours were a bit more modern but you get the idea (theswift.org):

Badza_theswift.org

Here is a bottle of Merthiolate……it burns like shit when injected into a blister caused by a badza.  This bottle looks like it just came out of a medics bag (flickr):

7311698738_6dbef85ee6_o

Here is a diagram showing mine clusters and the Rope and Digging Parties:

Rope and Digging Party_Corsan

If this looks confusing to you just remember we had to work in here and at this time there are not even any live mines on the diagram!

The Digging Party had to start immediately after the Rope Party and actually chased them.  The Rope Party could not move on to the next 50 meter run before the Digging Party had dug the last cluster of the current run or they would not know where to dig.  Again digging parties could work on all three Lines at once but very soon the importance of the Echelon Method will be seen very clearly.  The Digging Party were also responsible for breaking-up any clumps of soil excavated as well as remove any rocks.  Clumps of soils and rocks/stones were not very useful when covering armed mines.  A very good friend of mine, Charlie McQuillan, was badly injured when a large clump of soild soil contacted the ignitor of a mine he had just armed.  A sad day indeed but thankfully he lived to tell the tale.

Thats it for today.  In the next post we will talk about the Laying and Arming Parties.  Many people think they are one and the same but they are not.

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© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

In this post we will start to have a look at how the Cordon Sanitaire teams operated within (and outside) the minefield boundary.  With the amount of mines being laid each day (+-3,000), the loss of concentration due to fatigue, and poor discipline or procedures could be disastrous and indeed fatal.  Sadly we have ample evidence of this in our Roll Of Honour and also by the number of our colleagues that lost limbs and their eyesight, although there are other reasons for accidents such as dodgy mines/mchanisms and equipment.

Cordon Sanitaire Work Groups

Group 1: Protection Party

The Protection Party normally consisted of Rhodesian Defence Regiment (RDR) personnel.    This unit was, in the majority, manned by Coloured and Asian troops.  It was formed with the intention of using their personnel to protect bridges, camps and other infrastructure.  They deployed with us on many occasions as our perimeter force protection component.  These were interesting individuals, had their own slang (which many of us picked up), and often had a good supply of contraband items, especially exotic tobaccos, the aroma of which could often be smelt wafting through our camp lines.  Please see the previous post for more information on this unit.

After we had checked the area for booby-traps the Protection Party would deploy across the safe area of the Cordon, jump over the enemy side fence and melt away into the bush.  There they would lurk, looking for gooks who might try and attack us while we were laying mines.  Coming under enemy fire is bad enough under “normal” circumstances but inside a live minefield it is disastrous.  There is nowhere to take cover as the vegetation is sparse and there would be mass casualties without a doubt.  We had no defence as we never carried our weapons while laying mines in case they fell and detonated a mine.  Additionally it would not be comfortable working with a rifle slung over your shoulder and would have been a recipe for accidents.  Having said that the command and control personnel working inside the minefield with us were armed and would do their best to direct and cover us in the case of an attack.

The Protection Party were also deployed on the friendly side in case of an attack from behind.  If this happened we were in deep shit.

Group 2: Echelon Support Vehicles

Our Echelon Support Vehicles normally consisted of Bedford RL’s, Rodef 25, 45, and 75 Mercedes Benz clones.  The Rodef 25 was actually a Unimog with a dodgy sanctions-busting name.  No one was fooled though.  Here is a Rodef 25 (newrhodesianforum):

images

And a Bedford RL in rather smart condition:

RLI_RL

Later vehicles were like these MAP’s but I never saw them at Mukumbura:

azimarmympv2

azimarmympv

These vehicles would follow us down the access road as we progressed and carried our mines, water, food, tools and other bits and pieces we needed to do our job.  Our medic was also part of this echelon and excellent blokes they were too.  Some legends amongst them and they will get a mention in future posts.  Needless to say they were highly trained and knew the business.  Radio communications for casevac purposes were also checked before work commenced and maintained by the echelon during laying operations.

The Tsetse Fly Officer (see previous posts) and his crew normally formed part of our support echelon personnel too.

Here is a typical Cordon Sanitaire access road running next to the perimeter fence (Terry Griffin):

RhE_First_Mfield_acess road

I would like to talk about “working in echelon” at this point.  Working in echelon was a very important principle which we applied when working in the minefield.  This principle ensured that at no time was anyone working ahead of fully armed mines.  This is why we always started activities on the Charlie Line, second to start would be Bravo Line, and lastly the Alpha Line.  No activity ever overtook a similar activity on a line that was to your front.  The diagram below demonstrates the principle:

Cordon Layout

As you can see the Charlie Line is ahead of the Bravo Line and the Alpha Line behind the Bravo Line and Charlie Line.  Crucially an Arming Party shall NEVER overtake personnel to their front.  In the event of an attack from the Enemy side, our personnel could safely exfiltrate the minefield by moving directly and straight back toward the friendly fence.

We will discuss the remaining minefield parties in the next post.

© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Cordon Sanitaire Operations: Rhodesia-Wide

Before I go any further I want to mention some very special people, namely the Tsetse Fly Control crews who normally based up with us.

I had initially thought of including them in the previous post but I feel so strongly about the work these individuals carried out concurrent to our mine-laying operations that I have decided it would be an unforgivable injustice to water-down their sterling contribution to our work and decided to dedicate an entire post to them.

They deserve it.

The Tsetse Fly Teams (North Eastern Border Game Fence or NEBGF crews for Mukumbura operations) accompanied us to the Cordon on most days. These civilian elements were responsible for the construction/maintenance of the fences on the home and enemy sides of the minefield and normally consisted of a manager (Tsetse-Fly Officer) supported by a number of labourers working for him.  These teams needed to stay ahead of us at all times.  If there were no fences we could not lay mines.  It was as simple as that (unless we were carrying out a dodgy operation that was non-Cordon related.  Will discuss further down the line).  They were very good at their job, normally way ahead of us which was good in some ways, but a disadvantage for them at others.  The trick was to keep them within our protective boundary at all times as if they got too far ahead of us they could become too isolated and attacked by the gooks as indeed they were were on some occasions.  Although they were armed with the trusty 7,62 x 51 FN Rifle, it was only the single weapon that the Tsetse-Fly Officer carried that was available for the entire team.  Not very good odds when attacked by 5, 6 or maybe more gooks with evil intentions.  The fight would be very one-sided.

So what exactly is this Tstetse-Fly thing all about?  Have you ever heard of Sleeping-Sickness or Trypanosomiasis?  It is a tropical disease caused by parasitic protozoans (trypanosomes) which are transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly.  It causes fever, chills, pain in the limbs, and anaemia, and eventually affects the nervous system causing extreme lethargy and death.

See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_trypanosomiasis.

The Tsetse-Fly is one of the root-causes of Africa’s poverty.  No other region of the world suffers the same animal health problems as the tsetse fly imposes on Africa.  The Tsetse-Fly thrives in an environment where there are large populations of wildlife providing an unlimited and year-round supply of essential mammalian blood on which they must feed to survive and reproduce.  There was an abundance of both game and cattle in the areas we worked in and the main idea of the fences being constructed by the Tsetse-Fly crews was to stop the migration of host animals from one area to the next.  It was quite a clever idea to use these fences as minefield perimeters as well.  It is pertinent to mention here that in some areas of Cordon Sanitaire operations the fences were  not necessarily there for Tsetse-Fly Control, but primarily as minefield fences.

Photos of the fences will be shown in later posts.

This is a Tsetse-Fly.  A nasty piece of work:

Tsetse-fly

This map shows the extent of the Tstetse-Fly problem in 1999 (Joe McDaniel-Africa Travel Diary):

tsetse_map500x448

Our NEBGF comrades (affectionately known as “The Fly-Men”) were well-loved and tremendously respected.  I have many fond memories of working with them (some of them joined the Sappers and vice-versa).  They also had permission to shoot game for the pot which was very useful and I recall eating Ron Levy’s kudu biltong and massive steaks many times at Deka Engineer Base which I commanded for some time.

Another memorable incident where I was present was when Keith “Prodder” Byng opened fire with his FN in his tent.  Apparently he had been surprised by a cobra that had taken up residence next to his bed and then slithered behind a deep-freeze.  Needless to say all hell broke loose as no-one knew where the firing was coming from at first.  Interesting days indeed!  Sadly Keith passed away some time back.  Rest In Peace Brother.

Here is a photo of Keith (right) and another Fly-Man, Stingray Reynolds.  Note the improvised hut made out of anti-personnel mine boxes and tarpaulin (John Arkley):

MARK0001b

Mostly forgotten it is sad that not much has been written about these brave souls and this small acknowledgment from me is my way of granting them their place in the history of the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers.  Without them we could not have done our work on Cordon Sanitaire. They were our family and our Brothers, sharing everyday hardships and dangers with us.

I salute them all and they will never be forgotten. Not by me in any case.

Here is a typical Tsetse-Fly Camp circa 1967 at Urungwe (non-Cordon Sanitaire and added to illustrate the environment).  Note the soft-skinned Land Rover.  These would later be changed to mine-resistant versions (Joe McDaniel-Africa Travel Diary):

005 Urungwe Tsetse Camp July67

And here is another (Joe McDaniel-Africa Travel Diary):

007 Camp shower

Here is a mine-resistant Land-Rover-note the roll-bars and weapon mount.  They had armour-plate inserts in key positions as well. (Tom King at the wheel, taken c. 1977-8 near Chipinga: New Rhodesian)

Mine resistant landrover_New Rhodesian

Here are some other vehicles used by amoung others, the Fly-Men.  Left to right a Puma, Isuzu soft-skin, and another mine-resistant Land-Rover.  These shown below in fact are Intaf (Internal Affairs) vehicles. (Nick Baalbergen):

Isuzu soft-skinned_Nick Baalbergen

One of the stops on the long road to Mukumbura was at Mount Darwin.  This was always looked forward to with glee by road-weary travellers as there was a canteen situated in the town that was run by the Womens Voluntary Services (WVS).  These volunteer and always smiling ladies had an abundant variety of non-army home made food and ice-cold drinks available for dusty-faced and sweaty soldiers either going on ops or returning home. Hot-dogs full of fiery mustard, hamburgers with fresh salad and relish, meat-pies and cakes were almost always available as well as huge urns of tea, coffee and juices. All of these culinary delights were normally free but in some cases and depending where the canteen was situated a small payment was taken, often in the form of a small donation. Some of the funding for the WVS came from the Border Patrol Welfare Fund (whatever that was) too. Wherever the funds came from these establishments were huge morale-boosters.  All of us who made use of this hospitality owe a huge debt of gratitude to the sponsors and ladies for making our lives just that little more bearable.

Below is a typical WVS set-up manned by nice smiling ladies packing boxes of goodies for the troops (courtesy of The Herald and ORAFS):
WVS Ladies

I was kept warm on many a chilly night by hand-knitted gloves, balaclavas, caps and scarves that the WVS also made available during the bitterly cold Rhodesian winters.  These were all made by volunteers and came in any colour as long as it was green or black.

The only sad thing about these visits was that they were over too quickly and time was always going to be the enemy.  The more these ladies made us feel like we were at home, the more we missed it and perhaps it was easier for us to be on our way as quickly as we could…….away from the false sense of security and the occasional whiff of a ladies perfume.

It was time to leave, and we furtively filled our water bottles with cool-drink and stuffed extra burgers and buns into side pockets for the final leg of the journey.  As we stepped outside another convoy came to a noisy and dusty stop outside the canteen.  The tell-tale red and blue unit flash on the vehicles indicating they were Engineer Corps vehicles, the same as ours.  The only difference was these were taking their passengers home…….ours were taking us to a very different place.

Below is a photo of Mount Darwin in the 80’s but it would not have changed much from when I was there in the early-mid 70’s (thanks to New Rhodesian Forum)

mountdarwin1

Mt Darwin

As I strapped myself back into my seat I caught the unmistakable aroma of fried onions and tomato sauce…..I looked down and noticed I had dripped food all over my shirt-front.  A trail of yellow egg-yolk mingling with the camouflage pattern.  I would scratch it off later when the sun had dried it to a scaly crust.

The engines started, and as we slowly rolled out onto the main road I realised guiltily that I had forgotten to say thank you to anyone for the brief respite we had just enjoyed.

I cocked my rifle, rechecked the safety, and we were gone.

Let me be clear.

I was never unlucky enough to be ambushed traveling through Ambush Alley in the Mavuradonhas, but I know quite a few people who were. These encounters ranged from ineffectual pot-shots being taken at Rhodesian Security Force convoys to intense firefights, sometimes in the hours of darkness.  We had people killed and injured going through the mountains.  It was a main personnel and logistic route to the North-East Border with Mozambique.  The issue with traversing Ambush Alley was the steeply angled incline of the road and this resulted in straining engines and overheating vehicles.  Stopping in an ambush killing-ground is a dodgy business indeed and not for the faint-hearted. To help vehicles get up to the summit of the pass, concrete had been laid on the road surface to help during the heavy rains that could hit the area. Additionally one side of the road was a sheer drop and the other went straight up and so close to the vehicles in some places you could touch the trees. Perfect ambush terrein and the gooks could not be faulted for choosing it as a killing-ground. The photo below will give you a good idea what the terrein and contours were like although it does not do the challenges on the ground justice. The road is clearly visible:

Mavuradonha Mountains

Here is a map which shows the roads we traveled to get through the mountains.  As you can see any route you chose to Mukumbura had to go through the mountains called Mavuradonha:

Mavuradonha

Ambush Alley was still a long way down the road though.  Before we got there we would be in for a treat at a place called Mount Darwin.  Something to look forward to.

I settled back in my seat, tightening the straps on my harness, and counted the little white distance markers next to the road to keep my mind active.

I had already unclipped and shrugged off my safety harness before the vehicle had come to a halt.  A couple of the lads had started to release the tailgate catches and it fell outwards onto its rubber stoppers with a dull thud.  Some of us debussed via the tailgate step or simply jumped over the side of the vehicle, FN in one hand and the other used for balance.  The smell of burning oil, hot tyres and exhaust gases filled the air.  The heat seemed to make them stronger.

Most of us immediately looked for the nearest tree to pee under, others carrying entrenching tools and bog-roll for more serious business moved further away.  This would not be a long stop so no one had tea-making kit out.  The best we could expect was a sip of water from our water bottles.  There is a funny thing about plastic water-bottles……the water always tastes like plastic……especially when it is warm.  Those of you who know this taste will understand what I mean.  The best solution to this was to chuck a bag of Jungle Juice from a rat-pack in the water and enjoy the orange-like taste.

It was all silent now.  Men cowering from the sun in the shadows cast by the vehicles and trees next to the road.  Always vigilant…..looking outwards for gooks…….sweat filled eyes burning, vision blurred and playing tricks.

The only sound was the metallic pinging of the engines and exhausts cooling down.

Drivers walked around their vehicles, checking tyres and cargo, at the same time stretching their limbs.  They would change-over with the co-drivers now and perhaps find time to relax a little once back on the road.

As the cab doors slammed shut we made our way back to our seats, strapped-in and readied ourselves for the next stretch of our journey……taking us further into the gook badlands…….closer to Mavhuradonha, the “Place Of Falling Water”.

mukumbura-train-2

With every turn of the wheels we were also getting closer to another place….a place infamous in Rhodesian Bush War history……a place called Ambush Alley.

The hypnotic whine of the water-filled tyres on the tarmac and the side-to-side roll of the heavy Rodef Troop Carrying Vehicle (TCV) lulled one to sleep in a surprisingly short period of time. The sun blazed down on us, burning our arms and faces. The matt-painted metal bodywork of the vehicle was hot enough to fry an egg on. We were meant to wear our webbing while traveling in case of an emergency de-bus but the majority of us took it off to gain some comfort. It gets quite irritating having a water- bottle stuck in each of your kidneys for 400 clicks. It would still be a few years before we progressed far enough to have chest-webbing, similar to that worn by the gooks.

Here are the different types of webbing I wore in Rhodesia

Standard Rhodesian Army Webbing complete with FN bayonet frog and bayonet (and kidney bruising water-bottles plus other paraphernalia):

Webbing complete front

More practical Chest Webbing came a little later and is shown below:

17583

Thanks to Military Photos for the items shown above

Normally I would try to get the seat facing the near-side and up front next to the cab.  This had two advantages from my perspective.  Firstly if one fell asleep you could use the vehicle cab as a pillow and secondly if a person stood up to stretch their legs they had something to grab onto as the front roll-bar was right next to this position.  The cab was also a pretty good wind-deflector.  On the Rodef 45 and 75 versions, the passenger side of the cab had a turret at the top and one of the nicest places to be was standing on the softish passenger seat with your head and upper body outside the vehicle.  I had many a conversation with blokes at the back from this position and vice-versa.

One of the most irritating things that could happen to you on the back of a TCV was getting hot cigarette ash in your eye.  This could be your own ash or someone else’s.  Boredom was a big problem on these journeys and smoking seemed to help a lot so plenty of ash flying through the air.  Not good for the lungs or the eyes.  Most of us smoked Madison, one of local equivalents as we could not get the international brands.  Not a bad cigarette though.

Madison_south_african_version_toastead_premium_quality_ks_20_h_zimbabwe_south_africa Thanks to cigarettespedia.com

I must have looked like one of those nodding dogs on the back shelf of a ’65 Ford Cortina.  As the miles slipped by my head bobbed sleepily up and down.  I felt the vehicle driver change down, the revs climbed, brakes coming on and the vehicle slowed.  My head banged into the cab with the changed momentum and I was wide awake.  It was time for a break and driver change.  It couldn’t have come at a better time as I was bursting for a piss.