The response to my request for personal experiences on Cordon Sanitaire has resulted in a number of submissions from people who clearly want to see our history recorded and celebrated.  Long forgotten names are being mentioned, sparking the grey matter into life once again and there is so much to be gained by reading about other people’s experiences on the Cordon.  I for one feel enriched by all of this.

The following is from Basil Preston, a Rhodesian Sapper who I am sure has many more stories to share with us and I really hope that he does.  I have slightly redacted Basils submission, however it is mostly exactly the way he sent it to me.

Hi Mark,

My name is Basil Preston army number was 72860 and I became an Engineer after I did my basics at Llewellyn starting 07/06/1972, Intake 132.

I have just read your blog about the Cordon Sanitare (sp) mine-field starting at Mukumbura.

We were the first Engineers to start this field, in either February/March or April 1973, can’t remember the exact date, (but ABBA, the Swedish group had just announced that they were in support of the freedom fighters at that time, we all dropped them from our favourites after this announcement).

We were tasked with the clearing of the bush etc with bulldozers and graders. Our main chap who loved the grader work was Gordon Paterson, who was black by the end of his shift from all the dust and sweat.

We were broken up into 3 groups; clearing party, guarding the workers and the clearance party comprising 3 sappers, who did a 360 around the whole group. Tetse workers were busy with the fencing.

Corporal Gleson was in charge of us, and Corporal Charlie Mcquillan and Sergeant Hitchins/Hutchuns (sp) were there too, but did nothing special as they were imports from the UK who joined the army as regulars and were being bushed trained. These chaps were electricians by trade, but knew nothing much about our conditions or bush. We were about 20 sappers all told, and were looking forward to our demobbing in June.  We were due to pass out on the 13/05/1973.  Melvin Hein, Tommy Dickinson, Basil Kirby, Mike Travaglini, Gordon Paterson, Gumbie Dixon are just a few names I remember.

We were told that if we saw anyone foreign to our people, we were to first contact base camp to confirm, as they could be Tetse workers.

On our first outing, I was part of the 360 group, comprising Tommy (Dicky) Dickinson, Gumbie Dixon and myself, and we had just collected Marula fruit and were busy eating them when I noticed movement about 400 metres away from us. As I passed a huge palm leaf, the 2 images I saw went to ground. I shouted “ters” and we took cover, made contact with base camp, who told us to wait one, and they would come and assist. (contact via our radio was a laugh, as Dicky’s hand was shaking so much, the coms was interrupted going out, as the hand press-switch was also being pushed on and off as the shakes continued)

We were high on adrenalin and got impatient waiting for back-up, and started to leopard crawl through a dried out mealie field, which was cutting our knees to pieces. We then ran to where we saw the 2 images go down, all the grass was laid flat.

Back-up arrived nearly an hour late, and off we went. By this time, the Cts were back in Mocambique. But we still did a follow up. Crossing our own freshly graded mine field was hectic. Crossing by running across the open one at a time The Sergeant got stuck on the fence as the strain of wire wedged between his back-pack and his back, I ran forward to help the guy,who did not appreciate it as we were now both sitting targets.

Nevertheless, we were the first group of sappers to have a “contact” be it visual only. We were not impressed with the time it took the back-up to arrive and we voiced our views on this.

But to cut a long story short. After weeks doing the same thing, day in and day out, and nightly ambushes along the field, we started to get gut-vol.

On our return from the field one day, Charlie Mcquillan, wanted to put my group on extras as he had found a tin of jam in our bivy area, full of stinkbugs and ants eating the left-overs. One of our group had acquired the tin of jam from the kitchen. We were short on every thing by this time.  We lost it and asked him why he was snooping around; and threatened him with his life. Dicky was going to see that he never left the country, as he was “customs” back in civy life, I was a banker and told him that he would never get foreign exchange when he left Rhodesia and Melvin just wanted to hit him with a pick-handle. The rest of the guys just wanted to bury him in our trench. Corporal Gleson saved Charlie that day.

I also went onto doing the Dekka mine-field, and the one at Villers. Did boats in Kariba with Ant White, at the time they were forming the Selous Scouts and served with RAR, 2RR for almost the whole of the continuous period at Malapati and various other RR Companies. Looking back, I had a tough 8 years of army life as a sapper. My son was 3 weeks old when I was called up for the “Continuous” period and was 13 months old when I saw him proper again. All told, the guys I served with were a great bunch indeed. Mick (Chum) Jones was in my intake too. He was killed with Leroy Duberly, Charles Small, Peter Fox and one other during the second Chimoi external. They were with a bunch of RLI all in a Puma which was shot down, all 17 in the chopper were killed.

Thats all for now.

Regards, Basil Preston

Photos of Basil are shown below:

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Please also have a look at my website dedicated to Rhodesian and South African Military Engineers.  Please join us on the forums by using the following link:

http://www.sasappers.net/forum/index.php

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

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):

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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.