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.

Getting to Mukumbura was a pain in the arse……literally. If you have had the opportunity to sit on the steel benches in the back of a Bedford RL for 400 clicks you will understand exactly what I mean. Your arse goes numb and so does your scrotum for some reason. I have even had pins and needles in my dick during these trips, loosing all sensation and not knowing if it was still an appendage to my body. Here is a picture of a Bedford RL:

Bedford RL

Bedford RL

Secondly, and more irritating than numb-nuts was the fact we had to deploy through Salisbury. This involved having to accept the hospitality of either 2 or 3 Engineer Squadron (Rhodesian Corps of Engineers). These units were based at either King George the Sixth Barracks (KGVI), or Cranborne Barracks (also home of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI)). It seemed to many of us from 1 Engineer Squadron (Brady Barracks, Bulawayo), that the Salisbury Squadrons had an air of superiority about them. This was probably a result of Engineer Directorate also being in Salisbury. I cannot say that I enjoyed any of my visits to these units and the sooner we had done what we had to do there and got on our way the better. Having said all of that there were some good men in the Salisbury Squadrons and I made a number of close friends from these units during my 7 years in the Rhodesian Army. Here is a picture of the entrance to Cranborne Barracks:

cranborne Barracksfront gate

Our normal stop over was about 2 or three days and during this time we would do retraining, load up any logistics that needed to get to Mukumbura (including anti-personnel mines), and get pissed in the many watering holes in Salisbury. One of these pubs was La Coq D’or which the RLI considered to be their personal domain and woe betide any other Unit that encroached on their territory. There have been a number of memorable punch ups there. Here is a picture of the place (courtesy of New Rhodesian Website):

5385561975_99d656b981

And a menu cover from way back when:

Le Coq D'Or Ad 1953

All good things come to an end however and we had to move on. We had a mission after all…..to lay mines and stop the gooks getting into Rhodesia. We climbed up into the Bedford’s, and with the stench of exhaust fumes polluting the air and stinging our eyes we were off. Wrapped up against the cold in my prickly grey army issue blanket I could still taste the bacon, eggs and coffee we had for breakfast as I settled in for another ball-numbing journey.

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was not a sound as we remained in all-round defence..the smell of AVTUR and dry dust hanging in the air..although early morning the sweat trickled between my hand and the pistol grip on my FN…..running through the worry lines on my palm….partly from heat and partly because I was shit scared at this point.  If a landmine had been laid on the road (and the sad looking Bedford RL just 50 meters away was objective evidence there had been) there could be gooks about and the last thing I wanted was to get taken out on my first real mission by a lucky shot from an AK……I can imagine the inscription on my gravestone….here lies FatFox9, Brave Sapper Killed In Action on his first mission without firing a shot.  RIP.

Mopani flies….the little fuckers were in my eyes…..when you killed them they let off an atrocious smell that attracted more of their buddies who attacked any orifice they could get into.  Anyone who hasn’t snorted Mopani Fly in the morning hasn’t lived.

I was not too sure what I was meant to do at this stage so I just acted clever and copied the 1 Indep infantry boys and continued to look grimly into the bush remembering my training…..look through cover….not at it..shape, shine, silhouette and all the other esses I have forgotten…problem was the bush was so frigging thick and your eyes were so full of Mopanis you couldn’t see through it so what now?  I was thirsty…throat dry and the fried eggs and bacon I had for breakfast were repeating in my throat….should have stuck to corn flakes with toast and mixed fruit jam.  I wanted to get my water bottle out of the webbing holder on my belt but was too shit scared to move so worked up some saliva in my dry mouth as an interim measure.

The 1 Indep stick leader decided we had stayed under cover long enough and came over to me….saying I could carry on and do what I had to do.  Just as I was about to stand up the stick leader hit the ground and told me to stay where I was.  Someone was walking up the road that ran down towards the Zambezi River!…..and he was white…..and in full Rhodesian camouflage..long trousers that we called denims and a shirt with the sleeves rolled down fully…in this heat..not shorts and T shirt!

Remember that up to now all we knew was that a vehicle had hit a mine and that I was there to clear 2 kilometres either side of the victim with the infantry providing protection while I was exposed on the road.  The vehicle was in front of me and the road which ran north-south, obviously also in front of me.  This was now a dangerous time for us…..we had no idea there were any additional troops working in this area let alone friendly forces….a recipe for a blue on blue disaster……change lever to fire.

The person approaching us advanced alone and without fear..his weapon carried easily and in a position that we could see he came in peace and was no threat to us.  We relaxed and safety catches went back to “S” with a metalic click….he stopped next to the Bedford and urged us to approach him.  He wore the rank of a Staff Sergeant….he also wore the coveted dark blue SAS Wings on his shoulder.  And thus next to a sick, sad looking and evil smelling old Bedford troop carrier I met Don Kenny….one of the legends of the Rhodesian War….at least in my eyes he was and I don’t give a shit what anyone else says.

He led us back down the road from the direction he had approached from……..I was soon to learn the real reason why I was there….and to a young Sapper on his first mission it was both a shocking and sad revelation that would have a significant impact on my future career as a professional soldier.

FatFox9 with MMD1 Mine Detector

FatFox9 with MMD1 Mine Detector (probably the same one I used at Sidindi)

i

Still in the gunship.

I was fascinated by a tiny length of wool that had been tied to one of the antennae outside the front of the cockpit perspex bubble…I cannot remember the colour…it fluttered helplessly in the wind stream….I wondered what it was there for?…..some kind of good luck charm for the crew or what?  I was later to see these strange pieces of wool on every Alo I flew in and found out that it was an improvised cockpit instrument…..it apparently helped the pilot to confirm that he was flying in a straight line and not crabbing to one side…….what a simple but clever idea.  Strange Aerospatiale never thought of this.

We had been flying for about 40 minutes I guess when the chopper lurched to the left and began its descent.  I held onto my seat a little tighter. Looking past the gunner I could see a dirt road beneath us and just a quick glimpse of a rather sad looking Bedford RL canted down on one side at the front like a wounded beast with a foreleg missing…..she was however still a proud looking old girl.

The chopper circled the area a few times like a dog looking for a place to sleep before the pilot and gunner were satisfied they had found the spot to put us down and that there were no evil gooks about…….and we began our descent…..all the while the gunner kept a sharp lookout for the enemy as well as any vegetation that might cause the Alo damage on landing.  As we neared the ground the down-wash from the blades flattened the grass and sent up a cloud of dust and grass seeds……we picked up our kit (including the MMD 1 dinosaur metal detector) and jumped into the unknown.  We all knew what to do…..straight out into all round defence…..FN cocking handles pulled back and released…working parts smoothly picking up a 7,62 x 51mm peacemaker… while the chopper lifted gracefully into the sky and turned back towards home..a gloved thumbs up from the pilot…the sound of the engine slowly fading……leaving silence and a feeling of utter loneliness.

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

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

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

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

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

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