Ambush!

July 18, 2017

Ambush!

It all started with manpower, or rather the lack of it.

In the mid-seventies Rhodesia found herself not out-gunned, but rather out-manned in the bush, specifically Infantry-wise.  The quick solution to this was to deploy specialist units (like the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers (RhE)), in the Infantry role.  Those of you who have been following my Blog will remember that all Rhodesian troops were primarily Infantiers and secondly specialists.

The RhE seemed particularly well-adapted to the pseudo-Infantry role and we often deployed into the hottest areas, at times taking over from “pure” infantry units including the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), Rhodesia Regiment (RR) and Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI).

In some instances we had more success in these areas than our Infantry Brothers.

We were carrying out advance-to-contact foot patrols from of a place called Tshiturapadsi, an unused District Commissioners camp that served us well as it had buildings, water and shelter.  There was also an airstrip nearby (See Figure 1 below).  It also happened to be located in one of the most gook-infested Tribal Trust Lands, the Matibi TTL, notorious for terrorist gangs.  We had been sent there to relieve a RLI call-sign that had been in the area for weeks and who had not even seen a track let alone a gook.

Figure 1

It had been a long day and an even longer patrol.  The sun was beginning to dip over the horizon, heralding the start of one of those wonderful picture-postcard African sunsets.  A cool breeze brushed my face, refreshing, and surprisingly, despite the heat, sending small shivers down my spine.  There was invigoration with coolness also.  We paced briskly now, still a little tired but no longer exhausted, rejuvenated with the thought that we would go into a temporary base as soon as it got semi-dark.  I was on the far left flank of our ten-man extended line and felt vulnerable with no one out on the left of me…….tall grass blowing in the wind played games with my imagination….I was seeing gooks where none existed.  I glanced across to my right, comforted by the presence of one of my mates in the dim light, a safe distance from me, ready to give mutual support if I needed it.  As the day turned slowly into night the patrol commander, a young RhE officer passed the signal down the line to move into our temporary base for the night.  We changed into single file formation (with me at the back), and took a wide dog-leg route into where the patrol commander had decided we would stay for the night.  I was never a great supporter of eating and sleeping in the same place at night and in fact this practice was against our training doctrine.  The gooks had Mujibas[i] everywhere and they would report our presence…..and then the gooks could come and fuck-up a pleasant evening.  A patrol should eat, carry out personal admin, and then move to a new location, moving into their night location after dark and then there should be absolute silence…..no tins being opened, food warmed, farting or talking.  We broke rules that night and within 12 hours we would break another one that would seem to bring hell itself upon us.

First light……always a magic time in the bush.  Wet grass, dripping trees, cattle bells and screaming children.  The smell of wood fires and fresh cow dung.  And all of these things also meant there were people close by.  The last guard had roused us all and we grudgingly extracted ourselves from our fart-sacks (sleeping bags).  Dog-biscuits soaked in tea or coffee would come later in the morning, but for now we needed to move from this place quickly as this was also a dangerous time when gooks liked to attack.  As it was the resident gook gang in the area had bigger plans for us on this specific day.

Still wiping the sleep out of our eyes we prepared to vacate the temporary base, taking care to cover our presence as best we could.  We were surrounded by thick bush, the site being chosen for this exact characteristic as it was ideal for a temporary base.  It was not however suitable for an extended line formation and so we exited in single file with me more or less in the middle of the patrol.  As if by magic we were walking on a well-used path and I soon realised the patrol commander was using the path purposely, leading us to a nearby kraal.  We had just broken another rule…..never walk on a well-used path……straddle it yes, but never have your entire patrol on it.

We entered the kraal and went into a well-rehearsed all-round-defence.  The entire kraal had one of us on its perimeter looking out for signs of the enemy.  The patrol commander and one of our Black Sappers found the Head Man and questioned him on gook presence in the area.  In the Matibi TTL there was little chance of the Local Population helping the Security Forces and we decided not to waste time on this place.  After searching all the huts for signs of gooks we got the signal to prepare to move on.  To my utter amazement the patrol commander put us back on a well-used track leading out of the kraal and once again we were in single file.  What was this guy thinking and no one challenged his judgement?

We had walked for about 500 meters when I noticed a single upturned munyatella[ii] next to the path.  This in itself was not really out-of-place but it struck a chord somewhere in my survival instincts and I became uneasy.  From my position in the patrol I could see we were about to take a right turn on the path.  To the right of us the ground rose sharply and soon we were walking parallel to a fairly high, boulder strewn, steep kopje.

There was no warning…..these gooks were good and had chosen their killing ground well…and we had walked right into it.

The gooks initiated with what I now know was a PKM[iii] light machine gun (see Figure 2), capable of firing 650 rounds per minute.  This was followed by a fair mix of AK47, SKS and RPD fire……initially.  We all instinctively hit the deck not quite sure where the fire was coming from.  These kind of events are pretty confusing at first and don’t believe what you see in the movies…..that’s all bullshit.  My most vivid memory of this attack was and still is the crack of high velocity rounds going over my head and dirt spraying up all around me and into my eyes.  We had all somehow remained in that rather silly single-file formation on the ground even though it was now pretty ragged and we were all horizontal, amazingly unscathed and all facing the kopje, the direction of the attack.  We were badly exposed but because we were flat on the ground the gooks could not bring really effective fire onto us although we were all getting near misses.  I began to think I was the sole target of a hundred gooks, and perhaps I was as I am quite a big bloke.

Figure 2

And then two things happened simultaneously…….firstly a new sound came from the kopje, a sound so specific that one ever forgets it….the sound of a mortar leaving a tube………and secondly the shouted order from our line to advance on the enemy using fire and movement.  The mortar bombs rained down one after the other, precisely straddling the path we were lying on……encouraging us to advance more rapidly.  It was clear to me the gooks had sufficient time to plan this ambush and had accurately estimated the distance from their base-plate position to the path.  There was now so much noise, smoke and dust in the air that it was difficult to see.  I remember clearly advancing a few yards up the kopje and taking cover, the second section following us while we pumped rounds into the gook positions.  Sweat running down my face, the saltiness burning my eyes…adrenaline pumping through my veins…..all fear gone now…….just the job of surviving at the forefront of my mind.  My hands were cut from the jagged rocks, the pistol grip on my FN sticky with blood.  We were moving higher up the hill, almost half way and we still couldn’t see any gooks……all we could hear was the firing of their weapons.  The whiplash of rounds hurting our ears.  The mortar was no longer a danger as we were too close to them for them to use it safely as we systematically moved up the kopje………and then there was a relative silence as if nothing had disturbed that cool African morning.  All we could hear was the tell-tale clinking of gooks running at high speed with loose kit jumping about in packs and pockets, shouting to one another.  We moved up the kopje faster, ignoring the threat of an in-depth ambush……over-running now empty enemy firing positions…the only occupants expended cartridge cases, discarded AK and RPD magazines, and empty cardboard ammunition boxes.  We worked through the position, wary now for booby-traps or mines but keeping our wits together.  Things were slowing down but the adrenaline was still hot in our veins as we reached the top of the kopje.  The gooks were gone and we had them running scared by using tried and tested infantry tactics.  I silently thanked those bastard Llewellin Barracks instructors for all the blood, sweat and tears they took from me.

While some of us collected any booty we could find the patrol commander finally found space to get a message off and give the direction of flight of the gooks…….there was hopefully a Fire-Force element with gun-ships somewhere around but I had my doubts.  Perhaps they could get an armed fixed-wing up to deal with the gooks but that was also doubtful.  These assets were just too thin on the ground and because there had been no recent sightings of gooks in the area, there was nothing positioned close-by.  Fair enough.

We gathered at the bottom of the kopje where it all began, carefully avoiding the track but recording the mortar strikes, easily found by the craters they made.  They were close to where a number of us were lying and I consider myself lucky not to have been seriously injured or worse.  As it was none of us sustained injuries serious enough to call a casevac.  We were lucky…..this time.

Still alert and in a form of all-round-defence we found shady spots to sit and reflect on what just happened……..the entire contact not lasting more than 5 or so minutes perhaps but seeming to take an eternity to end.  And now that sense of euphoria that only men just out of combat will know…….a great weight seeming to leave your shoulders as you sit back, shaking hands lighting-up a Madison, and let the calmness flow through you as the adrenaline wears off…….the calmness of knowing you survived a situation of grave danger where someone wanted to kill you and failed.  There is no feeling in the world like it…….and little did I know that within a very short space of time I would go through the whole process once again…….only this time we would not be so lucky.

[i] Teenage spies, normally unarmed who observed Rhodesian Security Force patrols and informed the gooks on our whereabouts

[ii] Munyatellas were African sandals made out of car tyres and widely used out in the bush as they lasted for ever.

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PK_machine_gun

Please also vist 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, 2009-2017. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

 

rhodesian-engineers-poppy-rev2Brothers, Sisters and Friends of Fatfox9 and the RhE. I am having 100 of these poppy pins made up with the RhE Cap Badge superimposed. Anyone interested in having one before 11th November please order ONLY via fatfox9@gmail.com. Prices are as follows: UK via Royal Mail £3.20. RSA via Royal Mail ZAR70.00. When ordering please include your full shipping address. Ideally if someone in SA would take a bulk order we will all save on international shipping costs. Time is moving on so please place your orders as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.

NAME OF OPERATION: NOT ALLOCATED OR UNKNOWN

TYPE OF OPERATION: RECONNAISSANCE

DATE OF OPERATION: MID 1970’s

AREA OF OPERATION: SEE MAP 1 BELOW

PURPOSE OF OPERATION: CONFIRM OR DISPROVE PRESENCE OF COMMUNIST TERRORISTS (CHARLIE TANGO’s OR CT’s) WITHIN AREA IN QUESTION (AIQ)

Op_1_Khami

MAP 1

MAP 1 LEGEND:

  • Red Track: Insertion Route (1 RhE HQ to Khami Prison (approx 35 kilometers))
  • Green Track: Sweep Route (Khami Prison to AIQ (approx 10 kilometers))
  • Blue Polygon: AIQ

We had been ordered to report to 1 Squadron RhE the following afternoon in civilian dress and told that our final mission briefing would take place at 16:00 hours.  We were also to bring our personal weapons and ammunition, together with our combat kit.  There was still no indication as to what the mission was as we were told very little at the briefing the previous evening except that we would be doing a reconnaissance for a possible CT presence.

The smelly little red and white Rixi Taxi dropped me off at the main gate to Brady Barracks.  I hoisted my kit bag onto my shoulder after putting on my webbing and picked up my rifle.  A grim-looking, red-sashed Colour Sergeant Duty NCO glared down at me as I passed the steps of the Brigade guard-room on the right.  Bracing-up to pay him respect the best I could under my load, I made my way to our Squadron HQ. He smiled and gave an exaggerated brace-up in return.

I was surprised to see a Rhodesian Prison Service 65-seater bus parked next to the traffic circle adjacent to our modest Squadron parade ground.  Some of the other S-Troop members had already arrived and were leaning against it smoking, talking crap amid loud bursts of laughter and a bunch of howzits greeted me as I arrived and some derogatory remark was thrown in for good measure.  We were always taking the piss out of one another and the camaraderie within the Troop was infectious.

There were about a dozen of us on this mission and once we had all arrived we were told to go to one of the lecture rooms behind our HQ and wait for the ops brief.  Terry Griffin came into the room and we all stood up and he saluted us, motioning for us to sit with a cursory wave of his hand.  He wasted no time in getting to the point.  In short there had been a report from one of our local African sources who also looked after our training camp at Khami Dam, that CT’s were visiting the camp at night asking for information with regards to Rhodesian Security Forces.  Apparently they had indicated that they would return this specific evening.  We could not be certain the source was on the level of course but we needed to either disprove or prove his information.  It had been decided at Brigade level that as this was a RhE facility and other resources were unavailable that we should do the reconnaissance ourselves. And rightly so too.

We were to be infiltrated by bus to the general area posing as prisoners being transported to Khami Prison, a large penal facility outside Bulawayo.  The map above shows the entire area of the operation as well as the route taken from 1 RhE HQ for infiltration to the Area In Question (AIQ).  Prison issued clothing would be worn on the bus to avoid any suspicion that security forces were moving into the area.  CT’s had eyes everywhere and the Mujiba system was well-developed throughout Rhodesia.  Mujibas were unarmed African children/youths who idolised the CT’s and often acted as useful intelligence sources for the gooks, indicating movement and the location of Rhodesian Forces.

Our mission was purely reconnaissance and we were not to make contact with the enemy unless compromised and our lives put at risk.  We wanted the big fish and not the plebeians feeding at the at the bottom of the pond.

With the briefing over all that remained was for us to change into prison garb, load up our kit and weapons into the bus and get ourselves seated comfortably.  It would be about a two-hour drive to Khami Prison and rush hour was upon us.  The gooks apparently always arrived after midnight and we needed to be in position long before then.

The journey took a little less than planned, the driver taking us through the western suburbs of Bulawayo including Luveve, one of the African townships.  On arrival at the prison the large wooden gates were opened and the driver stopped just inside the courtyard of the complex.  This can clearly be seen in the photo above when zoomed.  We did not enter the prison itself and we were hidden from any eyes looking out from inside.  We debussed with our kit and moved to a position along the prison wall where we could square things away.  The bus moved into the main prison area belching blue diesel fumes as it did so, leaving us in a smoky silence.

The plan was to wait until last light and then change into our camo-kit, blacken-up and move out to the planned target approach start-point.  Our civilian kit was taken to a secure area by a prison official for collection on our way out.  Up to now I had a feeling things were going to plan and we had a chance to sit back against the wall once we were prepared and just relax.  Most of us lit-up and I could smell gun-oil mixed with the cigarette smoke.

The Territorial Force Sergeant who would lead the mission was a good friend of mine and still is to this day.  He knew that for some of us, including me that this would be the first time we would be carrying out a task of this nature.  He talked to us and encouraged us, went over the plan again and made sure we all knew what we had to do and the Immediate Action Drills in the event of being ambushed on the way in.  All the last-minute confirmations……radio frequencies, where the medic would be, and general march discipline. Orders were given to check the Night Vision kit and I heard the high-pitched whine they made when warming –up.

We rechecked our weapons and cocked them; ensuring change levers were on safe, and prepared to move out.  Last light had come and gone……..it was now pitch black and there was a sharp, cool wind about.  There would be no moon until after midnight and this would help us on the way in.

As the high wooden gates swung open the prison perimeter floodlights were switched off.  Our departure was being coordinated from somewhere inside the prison.  We filed through one by one, out into the darkness.  As if on cue, the incarcerated prisoners began to sing one of their mournful songs. It was if they were bidding us a final farewell and a slight shiver ran down my back.

We walked parallel and close to the prison north wall until we reached the main road to the west.  We crossed this individually and quickly, headed off into the bush for 15 minutes and then stopped to regroup.  Once we were all accounted for we moved off to the start position which was adjacent to a wide stretch of water and began the march to the AIQ.  It had been decided that we would move into our Observation Post (OP) position in single file and this should only take a few hours with breaks in between.  As it was the approach was uneventful save for the odd curse when someone tripped on a root or got a thorn in the face from a low-hanging acacia.  The cool wind made it easy to keep up a good pace and we made it to the AIQ before we had planned, went into an all-round defence, and settled into silence.

The training camp itself was flat but surrounded on two sides by steep rocky kopjes. We had chosen one of these as our OP and it gave us a good view of the target area as well as good cover in case of attack. All was quiet. The moon had come up and we could see quite clearly without night vision equipment. There was no movement at all. It was so still that anyone approaching would be heard and we relied on this to give us an early heads-up of visitors. It struck me then that we would also have been heard moving into position on the kopje.

We had arranged that we would do 2-man watches for 30 minutes at a time. No one slept but it was nice to just lie down on the uncomfortable ground and stare up at the stars in the crystal clear sky above. The night wore on and when it came to my second watch the first golden slivers of a typical Rhodesian sunrise were visible low in the sky. Dogs barked in competition with children’s shouts in the distance and the sad sound of a cow-bell rang in the air. The smell of wood fires filtered through the air…….the smell and sounds of Africa, and a new day had dawned.

We had planned a first-light sweep through the camp to see if we could pick-up any sign that the gooks had been in the area previously. They definitely had not visited while we were there. The Sergeant gave us the signal to move back down the kopje, the same way we had gone up. We would wind our way around the kopje and then form a north/south extended line and sweep through the camp from west to east. We would be exposed now as the camp was on cleared ground with 5 or six rondavel arrangements as accommodation. Although we were fairly sure no gooks were around, first light attacks were common and we needed to remain switched on. This was not the time for complacency. As we swept through, each and every one of us knew that there was no cover except for the rondavels and most of us were a fair distance from them. If the gooks had somehow managed to get into a good position on the high ground last night without us knowing we would be in harm’s way. This was improbable but a man thinks strange thoughts in such situations. It also keeps a man alert. We were in a perfect killing ground for them, literally challenging them to have a crack at us. As it happened, there were no gooks to be found here today. We ended the sweep and moved back around to the back of the kopje, set up a secure temporary base and got the hot water on. It was time for coffee and doggos (dog biscuits) and soon the air was filled with the familiar fragrance of Esbit heating tablets and at that stage it was the sweetest smell of all.

We were to be collected by Squadron troop carriers close to the start position from the previous evening. Hopefully they would have remembered to load our left-over kit at the prison. On the walk back to the pick-up point we moved in extended line and had not relaxed our vigilance. Suddenly one of my mates on the flank called a halt and we stopped and got into a kneeling position. Ever observant he had located a chevron pattern boot print on the ground and the Sergeant confirmed this was gook spoor for sure. Sadly it was old and probably not worth following but we decided we would do so anyway, at least for a little way just to see if they led anywhere interesting. They didn’t and we lost them soon after. At least we now knew there was clear evidence that gooks, or at the minimum, someone wearing a gook boot had been in the area recently. Even though we never got any kills this was useful information for Special Branch and they deployed Ground Coverage assets into the area to sniff things out. I never heard any more of the gooks that came to visit us.

I learnt a lesson on this operation. Rhodesia has an approximate area of 391,000 square kilometres. It was not saturated with gooks. The odds of bumping into gooks every day was fairly remote unless you were on Fire-Force or just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The wheel of chance was turning though…….and soon I would also learn that those 391,000 square kilometres were not so big after all.

Please also visit my website dedicated to Rhodesian and South African Military Engineers.  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, 2009-2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Basil Preston continues with his brilliant recollections…….a fantastic addition to a blog that is slowly becoming a definitive part of the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers history.

Rhodesian Navy: Boats on Kariba Binga stint (Oct 1973)

Intake 132 did their boat-training at Binga.  We made camp at the back harbour. Corporal Hydes was our instructor at the time.  We trained in the 1945 Hercules and a South African Sail Fish boat. See pics below: 1974 NS - Trackers 5 of 8 1975 10 Binga 4 of 7 1975 10 Binga 5 of 7 1975 10 Binga 6 of 7 1975 10 Binga 7 of 7 Kariba stint (Oct 1973-Feb 1974)

Doug ******* and I were attached to the Selous Scouts based at Kariba Heights. Sergeant Ant White was in charge of us.  I was a banker by profession and Doug was; I don’t really know, as he was a jack of all trades, but master of none, except womanizing.  He was engaged to two women at the same time, one was a Wankie mine disaster widow and the other was a sweet young lady he met in Salisbury.  At Kariba, he picked up another potential fiancé, I suppose this was his strategy of getting laid… Our first job was to retrieve our Hercules boat from below the Kariba Dam wall, where it was used by the previous operators, don’t know who they were. Apparently, at full throttle, both Johnsons kept the boat at a standstill.  And this was against the water current from the dam turbines’ out-let only.  Also, apparently, when the Sappers who operated this boat originally, went down to the boat, the Zambians would come down and try to intimidate them, by pointing their weapons at them and shouting abuse. The Sappers responded by giving them a full bare-butt salute. See pics below: 1974  XX Guard 1 of 5 1974  XX Guard 2 of 5 1974  XX Guard 3 of 5 1974  XX Guard 4 of 5 1974  XX Guard 5 of 5 1974 01 - 03 Boats 1 of 6 1974 01 - 03 Boats 2 of 6 Our second job on the boat was basically to service our 2 x 40hp Johnsons, which Doug did exceptionally well.  During our training, no one told us that whilst in a harbour, we were not allowed to do speed-tests, which was just messing around really.  But when we were called in front of Col Ron Reid-Daly, we realized that we had caused major upsets with the other civilian boat people, as their tools etc could have been donated to Andora harbour’s murky waters.  We both were made to feel like “you know what” and we both were taught a valuable life-lesson that day.

Early January 1974, during our service with Ant White, we (Ant, myself and Doug) were choppered out to a land-mine blast at “D” Camp, at Chirundu.  These camps were hunting lodges alongside the Zambezi.  A South African Police team were returning to their base camp when they bummed a lift from the National Parks guys; they were using two Rhino vehicles and both were over flowing with SAP and National Parks rangers, Kevin Woods, who was with the National Parks and travelling in the second vehicle, was sitting over the step-up of the Rhino vehicle. As they were leaving “D” camp, the second Rhino hit a land-mine. Kevin’s feet were badly injured, he lost one foot.  And the SAP in the vehicle were all injured, one having a broken back. As our chopper dropped us, so it took the first bunch of casualties to Wankie hospital and had to return for more.  We started our mine clearance immediately and the three of us were off.  I noticed elephant footprints and they were fresh, so I prodded them too, and was rewarded with my first land-mine discovery.  The terrs had laid one and disguised it in a footprint.  Shit, I started to shake and then we realised that the laying had been done very recently, as when the Rhino vehicles had gone into “D” camp, they would have popped one as the vehicle tracks went right over the mine.  So the terrs were close by. We disarmed the mine and then were told that we had to sleep over as the chopper could not return to collect us as it was too dark.  I don’t think the three of us got any sleep that night.  As when we were choppered in, we just had our webbing and prodders with us, no food etc.  Again I had visions of the Kariba spider doing its worst to me.  Another lesson was learnt here; be prepared for the unknown, as your lift back may be delayed.

On another mission we attempted to take one stick of (1 x 4) Selous Scouts to Fothergill Island in our Hercules boat, but right from the start into the trip we started to take on water as the waves got progressively bigger as the day grew older, and we set off late in the morning; rushed idea by someone at the top. Luckily we were assisted by the “Janet” launch, (sister ship to the Armenal; Janet, was Ian Smith’s wife’s name, and the Armanel was President Du Pont’s wife’s name, the wives were sisters too if I recall correctly).  We were thankful for this as we were following instruction only and still had a lot to learn about actual mission work. For example the thumb tip of an open hand to the tip of the “bird” finger equaled 2 x full tanks of juice.  And our boats could only take 4 x passengers and two Sappers only, and 2 x fuel tanks only, so our mission was aborted.  We could have been the first boat crew to go down (not only been sunk) in history but with the Selous Scouts not being too happy either.

Ops from here on were better planned and were not so ambitious.  Another op was very secretive, in that no one, not even Doug was allowed to know of.  I had to take two Selous Scouts to a destination beyond Chirara, and help set up a terr base camp.  This included everything one would expect to find in a base camp, even dirty woman’s clothing, cooking pots, food, fire places, uniforms etc.  We even had to build make-shift lean-to’s.  Plus dig shell-scrapes and some trenches.  This was for training purposes.  Ant White’s trainees were to find this base and then, who knows what?  Interesting out-door work to say the least.

At about the same time, Ant was training up the first Territorial tracker unit, which also had to undergo a form of Selous Scout training.  One such op related to survival training.  After an intensive 6 weeks of training, these chaps were then told that they are off to go see the snake park, and they were to come as they were dressed; PT shorts, camo shirt and takkies only.  They were taken to the harbour, and before boarding “The Janet”, they were searched.  The search was to find anything that these guys could use to help survive.  As they had to survive by using what skills they had been taught during their training.  Sometime during their training, someone lets a few tricks of the trade out of the bag, and these trainees were told to expect the unknown and to hide things like match-heads, short pieces of wire, in the seam of the shirt-pockets and PT shorts. But Ant White was wise to this.  Each guy was thoroughly searched and I doubt anything got passed him.  We dropped a group off on each Island.  One island was called “189”, it’s the biggest island you can see from Kariba Heights, and then there are two smaller islands to its right. (The very small island on the extreme right, I was told, is where Andre Rabe, the first Selous Scout killed is buried.) See pics of the two teams, one guy is holding the shell of a tortoise he found and ate: 1974 NS - Trackers 6 of 8 1974 NS - Trackers 7 of 8 1974 NS - Trackers 8 of 8 Our function as the boat crew was to be on stand-by during the week these trainee trackers spent on the islands.  We speared fished daily and generally had a good time.  We smoked the fish over a fire etc.  The only problem we had was with mother-natures hippo, as we set up our camp right on a hippo path, because it was clear of vegetation and the dreaded Kariba Spider, these spiders caught birds in their webs etc, and innocent Sappers too.  However we made sure our fire was kept burning, especially at night.  Not my idea of an ideal camp site…..see pics: 1974 NS  - Trackers 4 of 8 1974 NS - Trackers  1 of 8 1974 NS - Trackers 2 of 8 1974 NS - Trackers 3 of 8 If anything was wrong with the trainees, they were to build a fire and we would come boating.  Yes, we had a couple of night fires that we had to attend to.  One was a snake bite, and another was a scorpion bite.  Also one guy’s venereal disease played a role of him being boated off the island and off the course.  Good thing that the trainees knew how to make fire.  Our biggest problem on Kariba, especially at night is navigating the boat through the dead forest of Mopani trees.  We destroyed a few share-pins, and changing these at night was a nightmare (also see https://fatfox9.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/on-the-boatsup-the-creek-with-the-sas-part-5-also-known-as-eight-men-in-a-leaky-boat/).  When it was my turn to change one, I could always see a dam crock in my mind, so I did this job very quickly while Doug watched with his FN at the ready.  Perhaps if a crock did show, would Doug know what to do?  I am still here, so no crock fancied me. I also had the pleasure of spear-fishing with Sergeant Stretch Franklin, of the Pioneer experimental pseudo group.  We and some others took the boat out for a fun day, i.e. spear-fishing.

2nd Binga stint (1975)

(The Binga stint was during the period we were building Causeways through out the roads off the main Binga road, towards the dam area between Mlibizi and Binga.  Keith Bing was with us and what a character he was; he was the grader operator.  It was our luck that the RAR needed boat operators, and they were camped at Binga), Dave Stewart, he was from Fort Victoria, was my partner on the boat when we were attached to Major Drake of 1RAR at Binga.  We also undertook combat engineer duties too.  We operated from the front harbour of Binga, left to Mlibizi, and right to Sinamawenda, (sp) the research station past Chete gorge and all the little islands between these two points. RAR soldiers on a boat is a nightmare, as they have a fear of the water.  By this time, we had learnt that being on the lake, ones mission had to start at 04h00, this was when the lake was at its calmest.  Kariba’s progressive waves can get as big as 3 metres or more, this is the radius height, so in actual fact, the progressive wave’s diametre is 3 metres in size. I.e. imagine an “S”, from the top of the S to its middle, is what is above the water, this will be 1.5 metres and the bottom is under the water, another 1.5 metres, and is moving in whichever direction the wind was blowing.  And popping these waves head-on, sends shudders through the whole body.  It was a wonder that our little boat survived the thrashing.  The RAR guys turn white/grey and just hang onto their dog chains and pray to their ancestors, all their weapons and kit is also secured to the chain.  We also had a Machine gun mounted on the front deck, which also took a beating.  We were a Mercedes crew travelling in a Mini. I have often had a stand-up shouting match with Sergeant Majors who want to move around on the boat.  As before we start our mission, we balance out the weight, and any movement upsets the plane etc.  We explain all this shit to them, but having a fear of water is very strong.  Major Drake would tell these guys that we are in charge, no matter what, but we still had plenty of verbal punch-ups. We took sticks of RAR soldiers to the islands, dropped them off on one side, and then tiger-fished all the way round to the meet-up point.  Great fun, but nothing went to waste.  The RAR cooks got most of the tiger we caught.  And we also threw some tigers to the beloved fish-eagle, the one with the white head and brown body.  A true african beauty, especially its cry. I have a 5kg Tiger from my RAR stint on my wall to-day (1975). Plus one from Mtetsi Mouth caught whilst doing the Deka mine-field in 1978.

Dave and I had to go to Sinamawenda (sp) Research station as the terrs had crossed over and took some of the staff hostage.  This trip with a stick of RAR soldiers was worth a medal in itself as it was a fairly far trip with non swimmers.  The terrs also ransacked the place.  However, months later it came out that a certain RR company were there and had also ransacked the place as well as Sijarera Fishing camp (sp), which is on the same route.  This came about when an Engineer Lieutenant  ******* acquired a pistol and tried to license it.  During the license process it was discovered that this weapon was reported stolen from Sinamawenda (sp) Research station. This discovery was bad news for Senior Military personnel as a few officers were “cashiered” from the army.  A sad day indeed.

Van der Riet’s hunting camp 1975

During Dave’s and my camp with the RAR, the District Commissioner of Kariba was flying to Wankie, and was overhead Van der Riet’s hunting camp when he spotted a Land Cruiser which had detonated a land-mine. A chopper was dispatched to collect the injured, and Dave and I spent nearly 12 hours in a 4.5 getting there to look for more mines.  Peter Parnell had started the up-grade of this escarpment road, but was ambushed a couple of months earlier and killed at Crocroft Bridge (sp).  We arrived late at night and started to clear the area.  But being so dark etc we were not doing justice.  So we slept a crap night and resumed our search in the morning.  The road had a “Y” intersection, and the mine was placed on the hunting camps road.  We did a 2 kilometre length search on the other section of the “Y” to no avail.  It was the norm for the terrs to lay 2 mines in tandem, so after doing 2 kilometres we decided that it was clear and also no antii-personal mines were planted on the verges.  We were thorough Combat Engineers back then.  We then were treated to a breakfast at the hunting lodge, where a group of Americans were visiting.  They wanted to take pictures of all of us.  But Dave and I refused.  We had one RAR machine gunner with us, and when the yanks wanted to take pictures, the other RAR guys nearly killed themselves, all diving for the machine-gun.  This is a prestigious weapon to be photographed with. Dave and I lost respect with the Yanks, they showed us their bragging photo albums.  There were pictures of taxidermied squirrels holding ashtrays, etc , and when David saw the Yanks posing with a Sable bull which they had shot, he lost it. He was very vociferous about this.  Van der Riet took us aside and tried to calm us down.  He said that Rhodesia needed the foreign currency etc, and each guy was paying $1,000.00 USA a day, (1975) plus each animal shot had its own price tag above the daily rate, and they had already over-stayed by a week and were threatening to leave soon if they had not got their quota elephant. Van der Riet went on to explain, that his trackers would strategically place elephant dung in the opposite direction of where the elephant was, just to get more days out of the yanks.  But at the end of it, the elephant had to be sacrificed for the good of the Rhodesian economy. The people injured by the mine blast had shit for luck.  As on their way to Wankie, their chopper developed mechanical problems, and Kariba having the forest of dead Mopani trees and Kariba weed etc the pilot wanted to crash-land his chopper without damaging the rotors, as we were told that SA was selling them to us at a hugely inflated price.  Being dusk, he took the Kariba weed as being solid ground and seemed to be clear of dead wood, he was able to put his chopper down, but it sank, and the rotors were also damaged. So, instead of us heading back to Binga from the hunting camp, we were directed to go and assist with the recovery of the sunken chopper, just short of Mlibizi Also, on a follow-up call-up to Binga, Peter Parnell’s team were still busy with the road to the hunting camp, when his grader operator unearthed the tandem mine. This time we were choppered there, and were thankful that the mine was not found in the section of road we had cleared, we were about 500 metres short of finding it the first time.  So we learnt that a tandem mine has no set distance.

What a camp?

Basil Preston.

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, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Another great contribution by Basil Preston to my blog.  Many thanks Basil.

Reading through this account, those of you that have been in the bush and taken part on ops will really get the feeling of having had similar experiences.  I also worked with Don Price while at 1 Indep in Wankie and always found him to be a professional soldier although he did call me a “dude” one day while we doing stopper group ops for fire-force.  Good times and I can really relate to Basils input which follows:

Boats at Binga and Sundry Combat Engineer’s duty 1978/79 (thereabouts)

We were doing a camp with 2RR?, at Binga and Major Don Price was the officer-in-charge.  The Engineers were Stan Brazer, Graham Malone and myself and we were operating the boat in between doing mine-road clearance etc.  We were to have a Pookie with us, but unfortunately it had been damaged in a mine blast before we arrived.

Major Don Price is well-known for his bush savvy and his company had many kills to their credit. But it was not always in their favour.  Major Price was very strict; in that he would not allow any of his guys to catch a lift when their stint on patrol in the bush was complete.  However, a stick of four guys had just completed their patrol and had stopped over at the police camp at Siabuwa, to wait for their pick up.  (Siabuwa, is a small relatively unknown area and one would only know about it if one travelled to Karoi from Binga through the bush, along the southern edges of Kariba driving a 4×4.  Nnear Binga, Matabeleland North, its geographical coordinates are 17° 28′ 0″ South, 28° 3′ 0″ East ).  And the police camp was on top of a gomo.

(Inserted by Mark Craig: Below is a map showing Siyabuwa…….those following the blog will see how close it is to my area of boat operations).

Siyabuwa

Instead of the stick waiting for their pick-up at the pre-arranged position, they hitched a ride with the police in a landrover.  However, the terrs had laid a mine in the tracks.  And just before the police track entered the main dirt road, they hit the mine.  Richard (?) Kashula and one/two other/s sitting in the back of the landy, where there is no mine protection were killed. John Sholts lost a leg.  The one chap sitting in front of the landy plus the cop had minor injuries. The other guy was badly burnt from a white phosphorous grenade which had gone off in his back-pack at the time of the explosion.  Kashula was an up and coming Rhodesian cricketer.  My recollection of this is a bit hazy as far as the names go.  But it was a sad day indeed for all of us.

We were all given a lambasting as to why the Major had rules and now we could all see what happens when ignored.  We all felt shit….But then we all celebrated with the Major the good things they had done.

But life goes on.  An Air Force chap, who was based at Binga at the same time had his private boat moored at the back harbour.  Stan convinced him to take us fishing, which he gladly did. We tied the boat to a tree overhanging the water’s edge.  This was at the mouth/entrance from the lake to the back harbour, as this guy said you catch “monsters” here.  All we had to do was let the line out for a while, straight down; no casting, and then jiggle the line up and down. Stan had a strike which broke the rod where the reel is connected, but after recovering the line, all the tackle was gone.  We all became very excited now, hoping to catch a “monster”.

But this was not to be.  We had all been told to be on the look out for a Romanian chap, who supposedly ferried terrs across Kariba, and also that he had a 20mm cannon on his boat.  Also, the odd police boat had been hijacked from its moorings and taken to the Zambian side from the front harbour.  Hence why we now used the back harbour.  {This was about the time the Janet was being used as the mother ship, with two strike boats operating from her. She had radar etc and were hoping to catch up with the Romanian.  An Engineer, surname Tailor did his whole camp with one contact lens as the other had been blown out by the wind during a boat patrol.}

All of a sudden, bullets were zapping over our heads.  We all shat ourselves, as we thought that the Romanian had seen us and was giving us a go.  But the bullets stopped; then resumed again, and again.  But the bullets were cracking rather high above us.  Then we saw what was going on.  The cops had floated a 44 gallon drum, and were doing “drive-by” firing practice at the drum, and the bullets were ricocheted off the water and ending up above us.  We departed in a hurry and returned to the back harbour and safety (by road to the back harbour from Binga is about 15ks, and from the front harbour to the back harbour by boat, was about 30ks.)

We became rather friendly with the Air Force chap, based at Binga at the time, who loaned us his boat whenever we wanted a bit of R and R.  But this soon came to a stop.  We were going out on another R and R trip.  And on arriving at the back harbour, we could not see the boat. But on closer inspection, we noticed the tie-up rope, and it was taught.  We went closer and saw that it was still attached to the boat.  It had sunk by itself.  We were lost for any logical reason.  Perhaps one of the cop’s bullets had done it an injury, but we will never know.

On another short patrol, this time in our Hercules, Graham Malone and I explored a part of the back harbour, which was off the beaten track so to speak (the army has given us plenty of opportunities of seeing “virgin” Rhodesia, which under normal circumstances one would never ever travel to and fishing sprees where no one has fished in years due to the terr activities.  So this may sound like bullshit, but it is not).  We were told that the tiger fish in the back harbour were a sub-species of the lake tiger; and were a smaller version and had a more snub head which was blueish in colour.  But were just as sporty as the river tiger [the lake tiger is shorter and its girth bigger; is sluggish and basically only jumps once to rid itself of the hook.] (the record for a tiger in the lake is 42 lbs caught in a net, this is old information….1972…. and the river tiger is longer and more streamlined as it has to swim against currents etc and gives a better fight).  We were able to confirm this sub species as we caught a few.

However, on a more humorous note, we were speeding along, and as we were rounding a bend, we surprised a hippo, which normally are not on land during day time, but this area was human-free and I doubt whether the hippo had ever seen a boat before.  Not only did we surprise this huge animal, it put the shits up us, as we had not seen it.  But all of a sudden, we heard this thrashing sound of something hitting water at speed.  When we saw it, it was a mass of moving, terrified animal pushing water either side of itself, similar to when a Kariba sluice gate is open full.  And it was heading directly towards us, well that’s what we thought.  It was charging along the shortest route to get back into the water and safety.  We were out of there in no time.  It is just a pity that we did not have a camera with us.  But I doubt whether any of us could have taken a picture, as things were happening at a terrific speed.

One night Don Price sent us on a night ambush.  We were to ambush the bottle store (Tolotsho Bottle Store, I think, as intel from BSAP Special Branch had heard that the terrs were going to have a beer drink) about 30ks from Binga, back on the main road towards Kamativi.  It was full moon and we were being driven by Louis Ribero.  A whizz at de-governing the TCVs.  As usual, the old Bedfords always back-fired, but Louis could make this happen as if it was a natural noise of the truck; so just after passing where we were to have the ambush, he induced the Bedford to back-fire, and slowed down so that we could hop off without killing ourselves, and once we were all off, the vehicle suddenly recovered and he continued for a couple of k’s so that the terrs would not know that we had hopped off.  Then he turned and set off back to Binga and a cold chibulie.

About 15 minutes after being dropped off, we heard this tremendous explosion.  Things always sound much louder at night.  We all knew that Louis had hit a mine.  The terrs (obviously on their way to the beer drink) had put one down just after we had passed them.  They could have ambushed us.  Anyway, we were then told to hump it back and ambush the truck.  Also, a Provost was being sent from Wankie to drop a flare in order for us to have a look-see around the truck etc.

But, the timing was out.  Ribero had been going so fast that the Major had incorrectly estimated the time it would take us to get into position and be able to use the light from the flare.  Louis had told the Major that the old Bedford could not speed.  Anyway, the plane flew over head, dropped his flare and we were still miles away.

Our adrenaline was pumping and as one knows, induces plenty of pissing time, and I just stepped off the main road onto the verge; we did not stop, so when I rejoined the line, a Rifleman nearly took me out as he had not seen me step aside.  I learnt another lesson that night.  Make sure everyone knows where every one is at all times.

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the RL, we could see enough to confirm that Louis was speeding; fortunately for him, it was on a straight and it was a right-back wheel detonation and no injuries, other than Louis’s pride.  His truck was airborne for about 50 metres before the back axle touched down again.  Another RL from the camp had already fetched Louis and his escorts before we arrived back at the injured old RL (the terrs had learnt too that when an RL back-fires that we were setting up something and the vehicle had to return, they were not all stupid as one thought and used this opportunity to plant a surprise, this was done on many occasions to other chaps).

We could not see all that good, but good enough to choose a spot for our ambush and then crept into our fart-sacks and did guard, by touching the guy next to you when your stint was over.  However, my fear of Kariba spiders was with me again.  After I crept into my sleeping bag, and just above my head, I saw this huge spider.  The type that eats innocent Sappers.  I did not move much for fear that this spider would make me his nightly snack.

I did eventually fall asleep, and when my eyes opened, the first thing I did was to see where the spider was (it’s funny how the mind works; bushes start moving, all shapes become the enemy, etc.).  Well, I had been stressed for nothing, as the huge spider was in fact the head of a grass seed, the size of a semi-closed hand.  I was thankful that I had not shared this with anyone that night, as I would not have heard the end of it.  But perhaps they also had their own spiders to contend with.

And Louis Ribero continued to drive like Speedy Gonsalas.  And survived, I hope, as he was a pleasant character.

Sapper B.R.Preston (RhE); 72860

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, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

ZAMBEZI RIVER DOWNRIVER FROM MAPETA ISLAND: EN-ROUTE TO THE SAS DROP-OFF POINT

The boat was heavy and she laboured through the water and it felt as if invisible claws were trying to hold her back…..not wanting to let us go.  An omen perhaps?

Tony was doing the best he could but try as he might he could not get us up on the plane even though we had moved as much kit to the back of the boat as possible to lift the bows.  This in turn caused the stern to dip dangerously low towards the waterline and it was a little unsettling to say the least.  Port and starboard trim was good though and we remained straight and level, not tilted to one side.  We settled on a half-throttle pace, and taking our direction from the SAS Operator on the front bench the twin Evinrudes burbled us slowly back down the river.

We travelled within Rhodesian territory for quite some time, and for youngsters that had no previous experience of this type of operation this took away some of the tension of what may be ahead of us.  It was somehow reassuring to know Rhodesia, our safe haven, was not too far away if the shit hit the fan.  The SAS Operators were as always the ultimate professionals and I was proud to be working with them.  They instilled a sense of security.  You knew instinctively that if things turned nasty they would know exactly what to do.  They were good men.

We had passed the Maungwa River mouth to the north, and then our second home the British South Africa Police (BSAP) camp at Sibankwazi.  Msuna Mouth glided by in the darkness to our right and I craved for the ice-cold beers and battered barbel snacks I had consumed there on many a visit to the friendly owners of the fishing resort.  It was easy to let ones mind roam and that was dangerous.  We meandered on down the river, passing two large islands……both pitch-black and foreboding.

I was jerked back to the present, my mind having begun to wander off.  Tony had swung us hard a-port and I lost my balance slightly while at the same time keeping a beady eye on the bow wave.  The SAS man at the front had given a silent direction change to Tony.  In a few minutes we would be crossing the invisible line that marked the international border between Rhodesia and Zambia.  It was an eerie feeling, crossing into another country without permission, no passports, no questions.  I began to warm to the idea of doing something I had never done before, and indeed I had crossed that point where fear no longer exists.  You were committed to the mission, personal weakness or doubts could no longer be a consideration and there was no turning back.  On every high-risk mission I have taken part in there was always a short period when I was afraid, sometimes very afraid.  With me this is usually at the start and moving into the advance-to contact-phase, but once time crosses that indefinable moment that I cannot explain, a wonderful warm feeling washes over me….a feeling of being in control of my own emotions and destiny.  The dye had been cast and there was no return.

It was that time for me now……approaching enemy shores on a dark and lonely river.

40

(Reservoir by StrongSteve)

The atmosphere on the boat had changed in a very subtle way.  No one said anything but you could feel it.  The SAS men began to check small details on their kit.  Weapons were moved into more convenient positions, the smell of gun-oil permeating the air, masculine and comforting.  Webbing was tightened over shoulders, shifting the weight of equipment onto the hips.  Legs were stretched in the cramped confines of the boat.

A small red light came on as one of the Operators checked a plastic covered map with a small torch…….looking up at me he nodded his head, managing a white-toothed smile that shone through the darkness of the night and his camouflage cream.  We were now well into Zambian waters and heading towards the Mulola River, one of the biggest rivers that emptied from that country into the Zambezi.  We could see its gaping mouth ahead of us……a huge dark maw of emptiness seemingly waiting to swallow its victim.  As we exited the Zambezi and entered the Mulola it became claustrophobic…….or so it seemed to me.  After having vast expanses of water between the boat and land previously, we were now being enclosed by the high, almost invisible banks of the Mulola.  The feeling of vulnerability returned to me, this would be the perfect place for an ambush and a mans imagination can run amok.  This is good in some ways as it keeps you switched on.  We were trained to always look for cover to move to if attacked.  On land this is great idea but in the middle of a river it means absolutely bugger all.  if the gooks were waiting for us we were well and truly fucked.  Even if we made it to one of the banks, climbing to safe ground would be a challenge in the thick, rich vegetation.  I unconsciously thought of gunfire and green tracers arching through the night sky……..willing them to stay away.

I cannot be sure how far we went up the river but probably about 2 kilometers as far as I can remember.  Tony had the engines throttled right back now and we were just making enough way for the con to respond.  At this speed the engines were almost silent but in the still dark night sounded to me like a pair of screaming banshees.  it seemed to me that any gook within 100 clicks would hear us.

Ops Mulola 2

The map above shows our general route from the pick-up point to the drop-off point.  Places of note along the way are also shown.  The Mulola was, to the best of my recollection dry in some areas at that time and we navigated up river via quite narrow channels.

The boat rocked as the SAS Operator at the front stood up.  He was studying the bank on the western side of the river.  Understandably there had been no pre-recce of a drop-off point for security reasons and getting these lads off safely was now our top priority.  It was past midnight and we also needed to get back before first light.  We kept moving further into Zambia.  The SAS navigator indicated to Tony that we should get closer to the bank and stop.  He took out his map, again a little red torch was used, the only sound the two idling engines.  The navigator moved us forward again…….one, two, three minutes passed and then just before the river took a sharp turn to the left he had Tony pull us into a wide hippo-track that led up the river bank.  We had arrived at the drop-off point.

These men were well-trained.  There was no need for chatter or briefings.  That was all done before we left Rhodesia.  And they were so silent….no clanking or scraping of metal.  Preparation was perfect in all respects.   Everyone knew what he had to do and what kit he needed to carry.  They disembarked fast and before we knew it all except one had disappeared up the hippo-track to the top of the river bank.  The boat seemed to breathe a huge sigh as the weight was lifted from her trusty old frame and she rose proudly up and out of the water, rocking gently to and fro.  The Operator that remained with us spoke in low tones.  He thanked us on behalf of the others and added that the plan had changed.  We no longer needed to go back to the old farm at Mapeta, nor would we need to pick them up.  We were to go straight back to Sibankwazi.

And then he was gone…….a grey ghost vanishing into the night.  I was a little sad really and I would miss those guys.

There was a lot of water in the boat, all pooled at the stern under my booted feet.  This was not as bad as it seemed and it would drain through a manually operated ball-cock on the way back when we got up on the plane.  It was time for Tony and I to change over.  The first thing to be done was to connect the reserve fuel tanks without killing the motors.  We wanted to keep them running to avoid any type of technical failure on a restart.  This was not too much of a challenge and we managed to bring the new fuel on-line without incident.

Tony took his place at the stern and I got behind the wheel…………it was time for the lonely journey back.  Thats when my imagination started working overtime again.  What if the evil gooks had planned it this way?  Let us in and then shoot the shit out of us on the way out?  it seemed plausible to me and something I might try if I were in their position.  Just one of those things though and we needed to get moving.

Both engines were gurgling sweetly on idle and Tony gave me a thumbs-up to start moving astern.  I took a sip of Coke from a can I had opened and shifted both engines into reverse……..and heard the sickening crack of a propeller shear-pin snapping.  I had somehow manged to break the golden rule…….too many revs when changing gear normally equals shear-pin failure.  I had just screwed-up fifty percent of our motive power and possibly placed us in harm’s way.

We were now two clicks up a Zambian Creek in a leaky boat with a dead engine………and the possibility we were being watched by bad guys was very real.

This mission was far from over………….

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, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PICK-UP POINT: WEST OF MAPETA ISLAND

Tony and I had disembarked after deciding sitting on the boat was a bad idea and made us look like two shit-scared school boys.

We had found a position from where we could observe the boat and anyone approaching it.  We needed to be careful here as in the poor light, we, or someone else approaching could be mistaken for the enemy with catastrophic consequences.  We waited, and then waited some more.  I juggled with the idea of letting the BSAP know we were in position but decided against it.  We had agreed we would only make comms if we were in trouble.

Somewhere close by a tiger fish broke the surface, crashing back down into the water………a baboon barked in the early darkness, signalling danger.  That was all…….nothing else stirred except the mosquitos that had found a new source of fresh blood.  I began to think we were in the wrong position and had indeed fucked-up.

The man appeared silently from our right and immediately reassured us that he was one of us and showed no aggression.  Without introductions he instructed us to follow him further inland until we arrived at what looked like a typical Rhodesian farm-house with a huge verandah facing the river.  We had climbed a bit while following our mysterious stranger and the view from our present position would have been stunning in the daylight………at night all one could see was a black blob of nothingness.

There were about ten of them on the verandah.  These were serious looking men.  Clean shaven, neat military style hair and in full camouflage uniform.  No beards so they were probably not Selous Scouts.  I figured they were Rhodesian SAS.  AK 47’s leant against the low verandah wall, an RPD and PKM rested lopsided on their bipods on the once highly polished floor.

There were still no introductions and that is the way it stayed.  No names and in any case if there were they would have been pseudo.  Thats how these men worked.  We knew who they were and they knew who we were.  That was good enough for me and Tony.  There was quite a bit of banter going back and forth and we were drawn into it.  I savoured the moment of working with a Unit that I considered probably the best in the world.  I was more than a little in awe of these men.  And so I should have been.

One of them called us aside and for the first time we were told what our mission was.  We were to take the SAS into Zambia by inserting them up the Mulola River by boat.  Our old Hercules was about to get her moment of glory…….and perhaps we were too.  I was about to take part in my first external operation and who better to do this with than the men who wore the Winged Dagger and Wings On Chest?  The job was straightforward enough…….take an SAS callsign up a Zambian creek and drop them off…….then pick them up at the same spot 24 hours later.

We went back onto the verandah where the other Operators were busy preparing a strange brown, round object that had 2 halves to it, like a cake tin and about the same size.  Instinctively I knew it was a landmine of some sorts but nothing I had ever seen before.  As a Rhodesian Combat Engineer I prided myself on my knowledge of the various mines we may encounter in Rhodesia but this was something else.  And this is when I gained immense respect for our “hosts”.  They told us what it was and how it worked.  It was called a “Rose” mine and had been designed to kill anyone trying to lift it once armed.  This anti-vehicle mine had a number of initiation triggers.  If my memory serves me correctly it could be set off in five or six different ways , including a light-sensitive switch that would activate when the mine was uncovered.  It also had a delayed arming fuse to ensure the person laying the mine was not on a one-way ticket when he pulled the pin.  This was highly secret stuff and the last thing I expected was to be invited to help prepare them for the mission.  After a quick lesson from one of the Operators Tony and I were only too willing to put the devices together……plastic explosives (lots of it), primers, detonators, ignitors.  The last part of the preparation was putting the top and bottom of the mine together…….closing the cake tin and taping it up.  All that would be needed now was to find a nice busy road in Zambia, dig a hole, emplace the mine, remove the safety device, and cover everything up.

I really warmed to these guys.  Utter professionals from their full camo dress to the way they treated us as equals.  Quiet men with nothing to prove.  No rank showing and no rank used.  Making us tea and even sharing a light meal with us.  When they blackened-up they helped us to get it right too while joking among themselves but never taking the piss.  I decided that one day I wanted to be like them and do what they do.  I never quite made it but came close as dammit.

It was pitch black when we started back down the trail to the boat.  The moon glowed behind wispy clouds……stars twinkled in the dark heavens.  The Operators wore Bergen back-packs that looked like they weighed a ton and we helped them with some of the other kit they were taking with them.  It seemed to me the mines were in the Bergens.  Only six of the Operators were going into Zambia.  The remainder had stayed behind to act as a rear link.

Going downhill in the dark while carrying a lot of kit is not easy and it was a relief when we broke out onto the smooth open sand where the boat was tied up.  A million things start to go through your head at this time.  Engine reliability, fuel, getting shot at and the lonely trip back that awaited Tony and I.  One thing I was not worried about was navigating to the drop-off point in Zambia.  We had a bunch of the best navigators in the world with us!  Getting back to the old farmhouse on our own was something entirely different!

We started to load the kit onto the boat.  This was serious stuff now as we needed to get the trim right or the Hercules would be a bitch to handle and very unstable.  We were going to be really heavy on this outward trip and we literally played a balancing act as to where everything and everyone would be located during the journey.  The placing of the kit and personnel was the responsibility of the boat commander who was Tony on the drop-off phase.  He had complete control of who sat where and there were no arguments, irregardless of rank.  This was the rule and everyone knew it.  I would position myself next to the motors on the way into Zambia and one of the Operators would sit next to Tony and navigate us in.

I would be the last person to board.  Once everyone was where they should be one of the Operators and I shoved the boat out into the channel and jumped onboard.  Moving to the back I started the already primed motors and Tony eased us slowly into the darkness………

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, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

ON THE ZAMBEZI RIVER ENROUTE FROM SIBANKWAZI BRITISH SOUTH AFRICA POLICE CAMP TO MAPETA ISLAND

The wind had picked up as we made our way to the RV and the mystery contact man.

Although not dark it was overcast and last light would be upon us quicker than expected.  I cursed myself severely for not adding some slack to our travel time.  Too late now though as we were about half way there according to our 1:50,000 map.  Tony was navigating and sitting right beside me on the hard wooden bench, spray flying at us over the bows of the Hercules, stinging the skin, but in a perverse way also refreshing.  It had been a sweltering hot day and the coolness of the oncoming night was welcome.

I had the motors at full throttle and we were well up on the plane.  The boat was perfectly trimmed and like this she handled like a thoroughbred, riding the wavelets smoothly as I ensured we ploughed through them at just the right angle.  Tony and I were enjoying this, but ever vigilant.  It was all too easy to fall into a false state of security on this river.  Besides the possibility of gooks taking a shot at us there was the ever-present danger of logs and trees floating down the river.  If we hit one of those at speed we were stuffed.

I was scared of the unknown.  I’m not afraid to admit it.  Still a young Sapper I took comfort in knowing we had been trained by the best instructors we could have wished for, both Infantry and Engineer……….but they cannot teach a man to be courageous, how to be dauntless.  That has to come from inside when he is in deadly peril or facing an up close enemy who wants to kill him……only then will he really know the limits of his nerve and mettle.  (Note that I did not use the word fearless…….my own opinion is that it is dangerous to be in the company of fearless men).

Tony nudged me and indicated on the map that we were approaching Mapeta Island (Latitude -18.05, Longitude 26.73333).  It loomed out of the twilight, huge in its size.  There was no mistaking it and I was pleased with the timing.  We needed to be careful now as part of Mapeta Island was Zambian territory and there could be gooks present although we had never had trouble from there before.

The light was almost perfect as I throttled back and steered us to port, entering the Islands left side channel.  Checking the map Tony made the call and pointed towards land.  We were at the spot given to us as the RV.  I just hoped we had not fucked-up.

We slipped slowly towards the river bank, the engines just ticking over to give enough headway to steer.  Tony was standing on the bows now, doing his best to see and guide me around anything that may damage the boat.  The wind was coming from behind us here and the exhaust from the motors blew over us, the acrid smell of the fuel mixture seeming to corrupt the beauty of this part of the great river.

I carefully eased the boat into a cleared area of the river bank I could see.  This would make it easier for mooring and disembarking.  I killed the two engines as we gently grounded in soft sand……..and then there was nothing.

The silence was almost deafening and anyone who has never experienced this void of any noise will never truly understand what I mean here.  The only sound was the pinging of the engines cooling down…….and the gentle lapping of water against the side of the boat.

It was now simply a waiting game……….

Copyright

© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

DEKA ARMY BASE: LATE AFTERNOON

Conversation between Camp OC and ourselves:

“I want you two wasters to get your boat ready for a night operation.  You are to take your boat to this grid reference (him indicating on the map) and wait there for someone to make contact with you.  You will need spare fuel tanks, 24 hours rations and full ammo.  I cannot tell you anything else but make sure you get there just as last light falls and don’t fuck up on the position I just gave you”

That was it.  Short and to the point.

It quickly became time to go.  As Tony and I climbed into the back of the Mercedes 25 Troop Carrying Vehicle (TCV) we looked at each other and wondered what the hell this was all about.  We didn’t even know who we were supposed to meet and more importantly, what for.  The driver fired the Unimog up and with a characteristic torque-induced jerk we were off, easing through the camp entrance, and then turning sharp left onto the road to Sibankwazi.  To our boat……..and the Zambezi River.

I had looked at the Ops Room map as the Captain briefed us and taken down the grid reference we were headed for.  As far as my memory serves me it was at the position marked SAS pick-up position on the map shown below, near to Mapeta Island:

Ops Mulola

Tony and I had worked the time and distance calculation to get us to the Rendezvous Point (RV) just as last light was coming on.  We were both edgy and rather subdued on the journey down to the boat, each of us respecting one another’s silence.  Travelling the Zambezi River during the day was a challenge at the best of times, always having to ensure that we never strayed across the international boundary (Rhodesia/Zambia), which was an invisible line running up and down the river, but not necessarily in the middle.  We were now going to be travelling on the water towards dusk and more than likely in darkness if our suspicions were right.  Logic told us that no one would want us to meet them with a boat if they were not going to use it.  We were spot on!

We had trained to work on the Zambezi River at night and knew that the landmarks that we used for daytime navigation, could also be used at night.  We always chose high features that would silhouette easily against the sky or stars for navigation.  Simply put we would know what feature to point our bows at and which feature our stern should be pointing at to stay safe.  Quite an easy task in daylight but in darkness a mans eyes play games, confusing the mind as to what feature is what, what is true and what is false.  Making you doubt your own judgement, possibly leading you into a bad place.  No GPS in those days…….maps, compass, eyes and dead reckoning.  I loved that kind of navigating though.  Seat of the pants stuff and a small victory when you arrived at the right location.

We debussed at Sibankwazi, close to our boat.  First on the agenda was to check in with the British South African Police (BSAP) personnel at the camp and let them know we were going out on the water.  There was nothing to tell really, just that we were going up river and would stay in comms with them.  We took comfort in knowing they would come out and help us if the shit hit the fan.  They were good lads and always watched our backs.  And they had nice, shiny fast boats with big guns on.

Tony and I finished our preparations, cleaning the inside of the boat, filling fuel tanks (2 per engine), checking our small supply of boat spares, running up the engines (which had no covers), checking radio comms with the police and Deka Base, and checking our personal weapons and kit.  I would take us on the outward leg and Tony would bring us back.  What happened in between we would share.

The picture below shows Sappers carrying out typical boat preparation activities.  This is the exact same type of boat we were using on this mission (Basil Preston):

Typical boat preps

It was time to move out.  I moved the throttles to the start position and made sure the engines were in neutral.  Tony pumped the primer balls to get juice into the carbs, wound the starting rope around the first engine and pulled it.  The engine fired and I adjusted the throttle to a gentle idle.  He started the second engine and we were ready.  I let the two engines idle for a minute or two while Tony made sure water was being expelled from the cooling system outlets.

I gave Tony a thumbs up and he slipped the mooring line.  I moved both engines to reverse and we began gently edging astern and away from land.  Once far enough out I put the engines in forward gear, pushed up the revs and pointed our bows north-west…..into the gathering gloom……we were on our way.

The picture below gives an idea of the Zambezi River at night……..a very dodgy place to be, especially if there was no moon:

DSC01634

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, 2009-2015. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

I received this personal account from Neil Potter…….another veteran of the Rhodesian Engineer Boats!

Neil takes up the post from here:

I had the dubious honour of falling over and between a pair of those Evinrudes, running without the covers on, after just pull starting both.  The idiot at the controls, a 2 Indep. NS Sargeant fresh out of Hooters, decided that it would be funny if he gave both motors full throttle when I asked him to give the port motor more revs (via the warm up lever as I had instructed him beforehand as that motor always stalled).  I had both legs badly cut up by the flywheels, a hundred plus stitches later, and friction burns around the wounds. What really irked me was a few years later I pulled my file in the orderly room in Kariba and read his statement to the effect that I had caused the accident by pull starting the motors in gear!    He even had one of his troopies verify that by making another statement to that effect, even though that individual was not even on the boat with the others going out on patrol.

One of the drawbacks of not having a crew member with you I guess, but I’d enjoy a conversation with that idiot if I could only remember his name.

Now that’s just the sort of thing that can happen when you have idiots at the controls.  Good to know Neil got out of it in one piece though and a big thanks to him for the recollection.

For those of you that don’t know what an outboard motor flywheel look like, here is a picture for illustration:

img8311a

The flywheel is the big round black thing on top and when the engine is running it spins at very high revolutions.  Imagine two of those spinning side by side and like Neil, falling onto them because some asshole opened the throttles………..and our flywheels were a lot less smooth than this one.  We had all sorts of jagged bits sticking out to bite us.

More on outboard motors, flywheels, shear-pins and other animals in the next post.

Please also have a look at my website dedicated to Rhodesian and South African Military Engineers.  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. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.