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.

The Road To Mukumbura

June 22, 2013

We usually left Salisbury at first light, probably nursing massive hangovers. I was always amused by the fact that one could drink gallons of beer but still be thirsty the next morning.

Prior to departure however we would have had to load our vehicles. Cargo could consist of anything from land-mines to letters and fuel to food. It was common practice that whenever word got out that there was a convoy going to Mukumbura, everyone suddenly had urgent kit or personnel to get up there. This regularly resulted in overloading of vehicles and little space left for personnel to sit. One would often find oneself sitting next to ammunition or explosives. Not really ideal but that was the way things worked. Another combination of cargo that didn’t work well was fuel and food. It always seemed that we had to have leaky jerry-cans and bread on the same vehicle. If you have never had a bacon sandwich made with bread that has been splashed with petrol/diesel you haven’t lived in a real man’s world. It gets a bit dodgy when you put a slice of this in the toaster though. There is however nothing like a good old whiff of diesel soaked bread to really whet ones appetite for breakfast.

The road to Mukumbura was a long one. Long, hot and dangerous. The sun, wind, or rain could be merciless to the unprotected, and there were a number of places where the gooks could bushwhack us along the way. Not all of our vehicles had canvas covers on and in any case we needed to know what was going on around us if ambushed so our seats were in the middle of the load-bed facing outwards. Here is a picture of a Rodef Troop Carrying Vehicle (TCV), which is actually a Mercedes Benz with a dodgy sanctions-busting name:

5556343414_26020818ac_z
(thanks to loosecannon55)

These vehicles were “soft-skinned” and offered no protection from small-arms fire. The seats at the back were fitted with four-point safety belts that were a great help if the vehicle hit a land-mine. Additionally the vehicles had filled sandbags on the floor of the load-bed to stop fragmentation from mine blasts coming through the floor and ripping ones anal region apart. There is no doubt that personnel wearing these seat belts had a much better chance of survival than those who never used them. Standard procedure was to wear them but there will are always be those that know better. As a vehicle it was smooth on the road and a pleasure to drive (once you had got used to the water-filled tyres). In comparison to the Bedford RL it was a dream machine.

As our convoy snaked it’s way through the streets of Salisbury, heading for the road that would take us north, people on the streets walking to work would wave at us, silently wishing us luck and wondering where we were going.

Photo2
(thanks to ORAFS and Mrs P Wise)

Once we reached the outskirts of Rhodesia’s capital city it would be time to cock our weapons and switch-on. We were on our way to Indian country.

* Gobshite (also referred to as Gobbie, or Gobbies): One who engages in nonsensical chatter or unwanted conversation. For example- What’s that gobshite talking about now?

“Down in Mukumbura where the Gobbies lay the mines,
A Gobbie laid a mine in another Gobbies line,
Said the Gobby to the Gobby, keep on your own line,
And never lay a mine in another Gobbies line”

Minelaying song sung by Rhodesian Sappers laying mines during Cordon Sanitaire operations, Mukumbura.

I have absolutely no idea how I have remembered this song all these years.

The most recent National Service intake of Sappers were referred to as Gobbies.

Below is a photo of the early Mukumbura minefield. Note the gook breach in one of them.

RhE_First_Mfield

Place name: Mukumbura

Latitude: 16° 13′ 57″ S

Longitude: 31° 42′ 31″ E

Below is a gook infiltration map. Mukumbura is in the North-East.

Rhodesia_infiltration_map

Operation Hurricane

The object of Cordon Sanitaire was to use minefields and patrols to channel insurgents into designated areas from which the local population had been removed. They could then be tracked and killed before they reached populated areas.

The first Operation Hurricane “no-go” area was along the Mozambique border in May 1973. Other “no-go” areas were extended along vast stretches of Rhodesian border in an attempt to establish depopulated “free-fire” zones for Security Force operations. This concept that anyone seen moving in an area is considered a terrorist and can be killed was tried in some areas of Vietnam too but was not particularly successful.

More to follow on Mukumbura in the next instalment.

Wankie (1 Independent Company): 1974/75-ish

Besides landmine incident call-outs, the days at 1 Indep also consisted of camp guard duties, patrolling the married quarters at night, and escorting ration-runs to deployed call-signs in the Company area of responsibility.

Late one afternoon this somewhat laid-back routine was, without warning, rudely interrupted.

Contact had been made with a large group of gooks and they were on the run. Normally in these types of situations the general idea would be to get as many additional feet on the ground as quickly as possible to track the gooks and kill them. At the same time as the follow-up was taking place, stopper groups would be placed ahead of them and straddling their likely axis of advance.

The best way to get a good grip on the situation was to have an aircraft up above the gooks to give the trackers an idea which way they were heading. Choppers would then drop Fire-Force sticks off to give chase. The choppers would also drop of the stopper-groups into which the gooks would hopefully run. One of the aircraft used for the top-cover and gook tracking was the Cessna Skymaster or as we called it, the “push-pull” due to its engine configuration (one back and one front). This aircraft was also known as the “fuck me-suck me” by many of us. Here she is:

Cessna Skymaster

This specific aircraft had the callsign prefix of “Hornet” due to the twin Browning’s at the top looking very much like insect probiscae. These aircraft also carried Frantan bombs that acted very much like Napalm and it was a pleasure to see these being used. Gooks normally quickly lost the urge to do anything bad after one of these was dropped near to them.

The helicopter of choice for the deployment of troops was the good old Alouette 3, also known in the Rhodesian Forces as Cyclone 7. These could be armed with either twin Light Machine Guns (G-Car), or a 20mm cannon (K-Car). The plan would be for G-Cars to drop troops off on the tails of the gooks who would then chase them into the waiting stopper groups (if they were in position) where they would hopefully be killed or captured. This picking up and dropping off of troops took time as the G-Car could only take 5 troops at a time and many opportunities were probably missed because of this lack of an appropriate trooping capability. Here is one of the choppers we used (Beaver Shaw behind the guns and photo by Dominique Hoyet) :

RLIfireforceKCARtakingoff

I had managed to get dragged into leading one of the stopper-groups this specific day and had been dropped off with whatever and whoever was available at the camp. The area that needed to be covered to catch the running gooks was so wide that we had cooks, medics, bottlewashers, and mechanics in the stop-groups. Remember that in the Rhodesian Army we were all Infantrymen first and specialists second. It was in these circumstances that the training model really paid off.

By last light we were still lying there waiting for the gooks to run into us but nothing happened. It gets a little creepy in these situations as you need to be really careful not to shoot your own people chasing the gooks. With non-combat type troops with me this was a real possibility and I knew it. I was not quite sure what the next move was going to be and was hoping that we were not going to be expected to stay out the entire night. Due to the rushed and calamitous deployment, none of us who were normally non-Fire Force troops were carrying warm clothing or rations. As fate would have it I received a radio message that we needed to stay in position for the night. I informed the gentleman on the other end of the line that my callsign was not equipped for a night stop and he had the temerity to call me a dude (yes, a dude!) over the air. This is a typical example of an out of touch commander giving orders without thinking them through and then firing off insults. I could not have worried less. The welfare of my troops came first and they lifted us out.

As far as I can remember they never did get any of those gooks either so all-in-all an unsuccessful day all-round and perhaps in some way I contributed to this poor result. I doubt it, although in retrospect I should have been more prepared for this type of call-out though and I would not be caught out again. It was pretty piss-poor preparation on my part.

I didnt know it at the time but as we flew back to Wankie there was planning taking place in Bulawayo that would soon see me redeployed to a place synonymous with the history of the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers…..Mukumbura!

1974…..Octoberish

Once we had finished our theory phase of training it was time to get out into the field and find out exactly what we had taken on board.

Our explosives training was carried out at Khodwayo Bombing Range and this had been completed earlier on.  That had been extremely interesting and we had been taught a variety of demolition skills……steel cutting charges, destruction of landmines and other unexploded ordnance, cratering charges using camouflet sets which had a strange device called a “monkey” that weighed a ton, laying out of detonating cord ringmains and electrical ringmains, and most importantly explosive safety regulations.

There was no buggering about at Khodwayo.  The training was presented in a professional way and there was no running or stress situations.  This was serious stuff and our first exposure to things that would literally blow your head off if not treated with respect.  The instructors understood this and adapted their methods of instruction accordingly.  All in all one of the best phases of my training and probably the single most important subject I still use to this day in my chosen profession.

After demolition training it was back to Brady Barracks, unload the Bedfords of all the demolition kit, reload them with all sorts of other weird and wonderful Sapper stuff, most of which was bloody heavy and/or sharp,  and we were off to Mzingwane Dam……and this was really going to be fun.

Mzingwane dam

Mzingwane dam

Falling-In

February 7, 2010

6-6-1974

The evil smelling little Renault 4 taxi dropped me off at the main bus-stop next to the car-park behind the Bulawayo City Hall….our mustering point.  There were a few sad-looking individuals there already, many of them saying their goodbyes to family and friends.

We were mostly eager to get on our way, away from the city.  Wanted to get it all over with so we could go home again.

They had come to fetch us in that old stalwart of the Rhodesian Army vehicle fleet, Bedford RL’s…..the ones with the big bubble-like noses.  There were also what seemed far too many grim-looking people in uniform shouting and ushering us onto the vehicles.  The tailgates were down and we chucked our few belongings on board as ordered and clambered up into the wet cargo areas of the trucks like robots, heads banging on overhead frameworks, feet slipping on wet metal.

Two stone-faced and extremely well turned out Corporals accompanied each vehicle.  For some reason they were in their drill kit, hobnail boots with gleaming toe-caps and putties.   The creases on their twill shirts and shorts starched and ironed to razor like sharpness.

The rain had eased a little but the old tarpaulins that covered the back of the trucks were full of holes or in some cases ripped……this ensured most of us had a second shower, or in some cases probably the first for the day.  There was no way to escape from the dripping …..it only made the mood more depressing.

As if on cue, the drivers and escort, who up to then had stood at the back of thier idling vehicles, now lifted up the heavy tailgates and slammed them shut, making sure the two locking latches were in place……not easy as most of them were bent out of shape and alignment.  They then climbed into the doorless cabs, the driver double clutched and slipped the RL into first gear……and our convoy began to move off.

On the way the Corporals said very little.  They too were obviously pissed off with the wet journey and were more than likely plotting their revenge against us civvies……seeming to look in my direction more than what I deemed necessary.

The trip out to Llewellyn was fairly uneventful except for the whipping one would get from the madly flapping canvas and loose ropes that were meant to hold the tarpaulins in place.  The seats were hard cold steel, and my arse was soon numb and my feet went to sleep……the exhaust fumes from the Bedford 6 cylinder being sucked into the back of the vehicle by the vacuum caused by our forward movement……stinging our eyes and throats.  The whirring of the wheels on the road and differential whine on an RL are somewhat hypnotic, and this having been well mixed with an overdose of carbon monoxide caused my head to start nodding like one of those dogs my mate had in the back his Cortina GT.

We  tried to make small talk with one another to stay awake, fear of the unknown making it difficult to forge any kind of friendship for now.  The best one could expect to get was someones name and a shivvery, cold, wet handshake.

Rhodesian Army Bedford RL

Rhodesian Army Bedford RL

First half of 1974…..still in the Workshops…..but only just

It was around about this time that I discovered I had an extreme fear of heights and anything to do with ladders, scaffolding, or ropes that had to be climbed.  Previously I had worked at heights and although experiencing a feeling of being drawn to the edge of whatever I was on top of at the time I seemed to cope.  Suddenly that all changed and I began avoiding any task that involved taking my feet off the ground except to sit on a bar stool or get into bed .

I was to find that this phobia would haunt me many times in the years to come, but somehow I managed to defeat it through sheer single-mindedness to complete the mission or simply a sense of pride in front of my Muckers.

My last months before my National Service was due to begin were spent in the Diesel Shop (part of the Erecting Shop) where our diesel locomotives were repaired, serviced, and armoured-up against explosive devices placed on the tracks or a small arms ambush by the Gooks.  Many of these attacks occurred, especially down the Rutenga/Beit Bridge way.  The diesels were used in those areas where steam was not practical due to a lack of water for their ever thirsty boilers.  From my recollections I do not recall any steam locos being attacked by the Gooks…..they seemed to take great delight in shooting/blowing up our diesels though…….maybe because there was a lot of nice smoke and flames generated by the fuel firing up.

Working in the Diesel Shop was a kind of prestige job actually.  You didn’t just get posted to the Diesel Shop….oh no.  You had to graduate by serving time in the noisy-sooty-greasy-oily steam loco shop and dead meat wagon shop first.  I think that one of the reasons for this was that compared to other parts of the workshop complex the Diesel Shop was eerily semi-silent and clinical.  Sure there was a lot of noise and at times the strong smell of diesel fuel could be quite overpowering but nothing quite like the steam workshops.  It was like being in a different world all together.  It is worth mentioning that diesel locos also have cow-catchers and diesel fuel is inflammable so the old fire and burning meat scenario was extant.

Rhodesia Railways General Electric DE2 having a chat with a 15th Class Garrett

Rhodesia Railways DE2's in tandem-late 1950's

Rhodesia Railways DE2's in tandem-late 1950's

It was about this time we started to get involved with a strange device known as a Cougar.  The Cougar was designed to ride shotgun for sensitive freight loads and passenger trains.  I do not think they were very successful but a good try by the Rhodesians to save lives and property.

Cougar

Ocassionally we would get a real fuck-up arrive in the Diesel workshops……something that had resulted from a Garrett and a DE2 saying howzit to each other on the same piece of track.  Now its quite fine to greet one another if you are passing on different tracks.  However it is quite a different matter if you are travelling in opposite directions on the same track.  It normally results in blood and train-tickets being spread far and wide across the Rhodesian bushvelt with much wailing and screaming.  Unfortunately people normally also die in this type of incident.  Not very nice at all and blokes like me would end up cutting the wrecked iron horses into moveable bits for transportation to the the knackers yard.  The picture below shows a Garrett 15th Class and a DE2 having a close encounter that resulted in severe damage and injury.

15th Class saying howzit to a DE2

15th Class saying howzit to a DE2

It would soon be time for me to move on and there were a number of things that needed to be done before I took a few weeks off prior to National Service.  There was equipment to be handed in, documents to sign, wills to be made out, and a place was needed to store my few belongings.  All in all I was not looking forward to leaving my little room in the Single Quarters after all.  It had become my comfort zone in more ways than one.  There were the farewells to Joe and Bella…..and expending the last of my meal coupons.  I never seemed to have much cash so there were no lavish farewells.  Just a few beers with boys, handshakes, sincere farewells, and instructions to look after myself.

On my last day at work I went over to see Mr Tyzack, said goodbye and shook his hand.  He was such a nice person, always giving encouragement at just the right time.  He told me the time would fly and I would be back before I knew it.  He was right about time flying, but as far as coming back he couldnt have been more wrong.

I walked out of the welding shop and up to the main gate, passed the steam locos being prepped for stripping, and short-cutted through the fitting shop with its spinning lathes and milling machines.  I was concious of eyes on me as I passed by and I wondered if I would ever see this place or any of these people again.

At the main gate I took my clock-card out of the holder and punched myself out.  I looked up at the sky…….it was starting to rain.

First half of 1974…..

It was after one of my trips to PomPom that Joe Le Roux called me into his office as I walked through the entrance to the single quarters.

I was knackered and didn’t feel like an ear-bending session which this was probably going to become.  Joe was the quarters Chief Warden and his job was to make sure the accommodation and environs were kept in pristine condition and seemingly ready for a higher beings inspection.  I wondered what I had fucked-up.

Highly polished (and dangerous when wet) red verandas fronted all the rooms, fallen jacaranda blooms were raked only in one direction, and window panes glinted black in the moonlight, reflecting ghostly images.  Ornamental stones were white-washed monthly and tended to blind one during the day.  There was an army of labourers working for him and they earned their pay twice over.  Trees and shrubs were trimmed as to look like topiary works of art, grass was cut with edges trimmed to perfection, and the ablution blocks always smelled of Dettol and moth-balls.  None of the taps leaked.

He was on night shift this specific occasion and as was his custom he was outside polishing his immaculate light green Vauxhall Victor.  I am sure he had more feeling for this car than he had for his wife, at least it probably got more rubbing on its body-work than she did.   Joe and I were great friends and often when I finished work at a reasonable time I would take a shower and go into Joes office.  We would play cards till midnight while he recalled tales of his rather interesting life on the rails.  It helped to pass the time for both of us and Bella would also join us now and again when Keith was working away firing the beasts up to Victoria Falls.  We were a happy trio in those days.  He often bought goodies from home to snack on and which he always shared with me.

Joe was a good man and I will always have fond memories of him.  There are not many like him.

Vauxhall Victor similar to Joes

Vauxhall Victor similar to Joes

Railway Workshop Complex, Bulawayo

The image above shows the close proximity of the single quarters to the workshops………I never seemed far from the noise and smells of where I worked and I am reminded of that Dire Straits classic, Industrial Disease.  Pretty grim really now that I think about it, and not very helpful to ones social development.

Joe took me into the office and handed me an official looking brown envelope that was addressed to me.  It had been rubber stamped with something to do with Rhodesian Army Headquarters.  I sat down next to Joes desk and wearily opened the envelope.  He made some tea in a pot for us and opened the faded Tupperware containers that held his supply of sugar and powdered milk.  Joe poured the hot liquid into immaculate white porcelain Rhodesia Railways cups, and stirred the steaming dark brown mixture with a brightly shining Rhodesia Railways teaspoon.  He sat watching me quietly as I read.  There was no need to tell him what the letter contained…..he had seen them too many times before from my predecessors.  I folded it neatly and placed it back in the envelope.

As I sipped the sweet milky tea there was a brief moment when I knew that my life as I knew it was never going to be the same again, and how much I would miss Joe……and yes, perhaps all of this that surrounded me too.  It had become my comfort zone.   All young men awaited this type of correspondence…..at least those of us who had the will to fight for what we believed in and had not run off to some cushy South African University using their parent’s money and connections.

I dipped a Marie biscuit into my tea and the soggy piece broke off as I tried to take a bite.

There was no time for reflection now, only the knowledge that I was to report to Llewellyn Barracks (Depot, The Rhodesia Regiment) for twelve months National Service as part of Intake 139 later in the year.  There was no fear….nor any great surprise.  It was the way things were in Rhodesia in those days you see, as if it was the natural progression of a young mans tertiary education.

Except the only thing they were going to teach where I was heading was how to kill the enemy…..and hopefully how to be one of those who survived.

I asked Joe for the cards and dealt us two hands…….clinging to normality but somehow sensing I had discovered my destiny.