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.

Copyright

© 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.

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.

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

Life at Mukumbura could be a repetitive affair.  Our daily routine went something like this:

First Light: Reveille and Stand-to (see previous post for details).

A picture of typical first light in the bush……do not be taken in by the serenity.  This was a dangerous time of day. (Wild Eye)

zambezi_sunrise_1_2012_Wild Eye Photography

Shower/Shave: Hot water supplied by a heating “donkey”.  This was an oil-drum affair that got its heat from a wood fire underneath.  Water fed by gravity and worked very well.  Luxury really considering where we were.

Here is a typical “donkey” (ourterritory.com):

donkey

Breakfast: This would be a hearty ensemble of the good old pucker English type breakfast.  Porridge, cereals, eggs, bacon, fried tomato, baked beans, toast, butter/jam, sauces, tea and coffee.  There was always enough to eat except when we were getting near to rat-run day (ration run day).  This was indeed the most important meal for us and we enjoyed it immensely.  Most of us packed an egg and bacon sandwich for tea.

Depart for the minefield: The drive to the minefield (Cordon Sanitaire) was in a convoy consisting of personnel and mine/equipment carrying cargo vehicles (often the same vehicle which was much against the explosive regulations).  The journey could take anything from 30 minutes to some hours depending on how far we were working from the camp.  Obviously every day we traveled further as the minefield progressed, and thus our deployment time from the camp to work area was ever-increasing.

Lay mines: I will discuss in detail shortly.

Return to camp: Self explanatory.

Unload vehicles: Self explanatory.

Late lunch: This was great.  T-Bone steaks, eggs, chips, and pudding were a common feed for lunch or supper.  One thing the army could do was provide good meat to the men in the field and I am sure many of you who served will agree with me.  Some of these T-Bones were huge and we all looked forward to them with great delight.

Prepare mines for next day.  Load vehicles.

To save time we partly prepared our mines for the next days laying after lunch.  This would take the form of inserting booster charges but not removing any safety devices or inserting detonators.  The problem we had with some mines was that the boosters and detonators were combined and thus only the safety devices were keeping the mines in a neutral state (meaning that all elements are in place for the device to fire but the safety pin/plate is still to be removed).  In other mines the detonators were integral to the mine and this was also a dodgy situation.  Tragically, we were to lose 7 of our Sappers at Victoria Falls in a multi-mine uncontrolled detonation with this type of device.  Thinking back this pre-preparation was not always ideal or safe but time was the enemy and it was not possible to prepare 3,000 mines each morning before deploying and it needed to be done the day before.  Yes, the figure is correct, 3,000 mines per day was our normal laying target for Mukumbura, at least when I was there.

It is not the intent of this blog to teach the reader the mechanics of how mines work but I will be describing some of the items we used in some detail as part of follow-on posts as without this the dangers to us as the mine-layers cannot be fully understood.

Last Light: Stand-to (see previous post).

Again, don’t be fooled by the serenity.  These were dangerous times and the shadows played games with a mans eyes (petergostelow.com):

DSC_0968

Supper: Evening meals could be a nice curry or thick beef stew with rice or mashed potatoes.  Whatever it was it kept ones tummy full.  Again the quality would diminish as we got closer to rat-run day.  It was easy to know when rations were due by the amount of bluish-green mould on the bread…….didn’t taste too bad if it was toasted and smothered in similarly decaying cheese though.

Leisure Time Utilisation:  This was just a fancy army term for socialising with your mates and enjoying the 2-beer limit we had at Mukumbura.  If you have never drunk out of a beer bottle that has been stored with meat that is going off in the fridge you have never lived.  Just thinking about it makes me all nostalgic.  There were dart boards, chess boards, checker boards, cards and dominoes available for us to while away the hours.  A lot of us used this time to simply write letters home and relax in preparation for the next days work.  A man also needed his solitude and quiet time.

Shower and sleep: As for Shower/Shave above.

In the upcoming posts we will look at the types of mines we used throughout Cordon Sanitaire operations country-wide as well as the main mine-laying methodology.

Mukumbura: The Arrival

December 31, 2013

We always arrived at Mukumbura towards late afternoon.  This was dodgy for a number of reasons.

Firstly, travelling towards evening on roads in any of the operational areas was not recommended.  The gooks liked to ambush at these times so they could slink away into the shadows quickly with very little threat of a follow-up in the darkness.  Our choppers did not usually fly at night in those days so Fire-Force and Casevac support were problematic and if someone was injured they were in a serious situation.  Additionally it was never good to get into base too late in the day or early evening due to the possibility of a last-light attack on the camp.

Secondly, passengers on these long trips may also have become tired and having lost concentration and alertness (the nodding-dog syndrome) became easy prey for gooks lying in wait with evil intent.

Most importantly of all was that dinner would probably have been gobbled up in it’s entirety by the personnel already in the base (thus two squashed hamburgers and a sticky Chelsea bun in my pocket from the Mount Darwin WVS canteen mentioned in previous post).

On arrival at the Mukumbura Engineer camp we would be shown where we would be sleeping for the next 8 or so weeks and given a security brief by one of the senior members of the base HQ element.  On my initial trip to Mukumbura there was a Regular Army Lieutenant running the operations with a Territorial Force Sergeant as his right hand man.  Little did I know at the time but the Lieutenant was to become one of the legends of the Rhodesian Engineers.

His name was Charlie Small.

After we had stowed our kit in our accommodation and had our brief we moved to the base perimeter stand-to positions.  These positions were located all around the camp and were lightly fortified with sandbags and berms.  They all had defined arcs-of-fire to cover the most likely enemy approaches.  Each evening at last-light and each morning at first-light we all went to our allocated stand-to positions to repel any attack or assault by the gooks.  These were the times they favoured for such attacks which could take the form of a stand-off mortar bombardment or a small-arms shoot-out from an appropriate distance.  I was to have first hand experience of these attacks in the future so remain a firm believer in the value of stand-to activities.  Stand-to normally lasted for about 30 minutes.

Our camp consisted of tents, bunkers to duck into in case of a mortar attack, a medical post, HQ area, kitchen/mess area, and an explosives/ammunition storage area.  We also had the pleasure of having Tsetse Fly Control personnel on the camp.  I will discuss these gentlemen in a later post but they were a good bunch of blokes and great characters who worked very closely with us on Cordon Sanitaire.

Our next mission was to learn the science of mine-laying and I will cover this in the next post.

Here is a video taken during Operation Hurricane.  Mukumbura Engineer camp was in this ops area:

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.