Operating with the RLI and the SAS

My RPD Photo HL

In a previous November issue of the ‘Winged Chatter’ the official journal of the C Sqn SAS association of South Africa the President Grahame W. – former 2IC of the unit and recipient of one of only two Grand Cross of Valour ever awarded – presented his good wishes for the New Year.

He also contributed an unexpected message in which he felt compelled to remind ex-members whom when publishing their experiences with the Regiment ought to remain true to facts and refrain from yarns of ‘self-aggrandizement’. Hereby bearing in mind due considerations for those still showing the scars and the too many whose names ended up carved on headstones in the Warren Hills cemetery. CSqn CO Lt/Col. Garth B. concurred with these concerns and so did Brian R. the previous CO. (When we last met in Hereford I asked if my articles were also in his line of sight. He smiled and replied no, feeling certain of their propriety.)

Hon.Dudley Coventry presents Grahame W. with the GCV photo HL

In the conduct of their command these officers demonstrated an unflagging commitment of moral and military professional integrity. On several operations I was part of immediate callsigns and witnessed how combined with a ruthless determination they carried out their lead through perilous phases with a sprightly grit as men would when seemingly permitting themselves to be surprised at nothing. Perplexing to characterize but there was something about these men which marked them off the general higher-ups. That they should now decide to take the time to make their views known is not without significance.

In the heat of the bush war these officers oversaw a tightly selected force of men practiced to operate as clandestine autonomous callsigns dispatched deep into hostile territories weighed down with gear and weaponry tasked to carry out intelligence reconnaissance in addition to track and destroy primary and opportunistic targets all the while in a recurrent contest for survival forced in a beating heat to cope with a rampant predatory wildlife. Outnumbered and outgunned in the retaliatory enemy reactions these callsigns carried the firefight until their options exhausted they were but for the weather and an LZ cleared to specs chopper hot-extracted by the tried and true Rhodesian Air Force.

Action packed subject matter for legendary epics vouching first hand accounts a lively read.
Military experts specialized in the history of the Special Forces today aptly sum it up by stating that for its training, improvised equipment, discipline, and deeds the Rhodesian SAS stands alone.

And so, as pointed out by these top officers preferably a narrative with the tacit approval from their peers in keeping with the reality of established facts free from attempts at tall tales with the view to downplay the role of others while overbuilding one’s own to settle personal scores and past grievances.

Unlocking the doors of memory can prove a tricky endeavour when one taps mostly on personal recollections. Lt/Col. Garth B. is of the opinion that, ‘No one can pretend to remember if at a given instant which took place such a long time ago he turned right or left’. Though, when quizzed today many former members can prove an impressive mind for details. To fill a long felt want, work on a definitive history of the Regiment is in the offing. A timely enterprise while on hand witnesses can still be consulted.

If meant to be a fair and meaningful contribution to the history of the bushwar the ex-soldier turned writer should aim at presenting an unexpurgated narrative by including the inglorious bits and prevent letting the dead past bury its dead. With this in mind I took a bite at the humble pie to revisit some of my own shortcomings.

As it was, I had served with the Rhodesian Light Infantry (a.k.a. European Infantry Commando Battalion) for almost a year when I heard the SAS initials mentioned for the first time.

1 Cdo RLI

The RLI Passing Out Parade marked the end of the recruit course a ritual held on the drill square when the trooper admitted into the Commandos was presented with the regimental green beret decked with the silvery infantry badge and the green and white striped stable belt. It closed grueling months of instructions on all the aspects of conventional warfare concluding with an emphasis on the specialized skills essential to integrate the Fireforce. The rest was to come with experience. The high kill rate constantly achieved by the Commandos confirmed the methods to be remarkably adapted to the conditions. With time the corollary was the inescapable mounting number of casualties. Given the choice I volunteered to join One Commando, ‘1’ sounded right. I was posted with 3 Troop – the Troop once commanded by the future Squadron CO.

Training Troop on manoeuvre. In the background Henderson from Texas.

In the late seventies the extent of communist terrorist – CT – infiltration became an existential threat to the security of the country. Headlining the news talks of general elections incited various groups vying for a front position to compete for exposure by increasing their mindless violence on the civilian population. Those from the international diplomatic community in charge of the negotiations guided by their progressive ideologies went on unconcerned. They oversaw and sanctioned an illusory one-man-one-vote election which predictably forced the European minority to hand over a model of agro-industrial economy, this despite years of crippling sanctions, to a clueless gang of self-named freedom fighters. A decision emanating either from criminal incompetence or, as it was impossible not to anticipate the consequences, merely following the European racist pattern of deliberately sacrificing a hapless population to be starved and murdered by yet another African psychopathic and corrupt dictatorship. A scenario easily preventable had they heeded their Intelligence agencies. The Shona have a saying, ‘Demo rinokangangwa asi muti watemwa haukanganwe’ : ‘The axe that cut the tree will soon forget, the tree never will.’

Late one morning the Commandos were ordered to fall in for a special briefing. Packing a large neon lit lecture room we picked a seat among the rows of rickety chairs facing a distant wall covered by a large coloured map showing Rhodesia butted up on all sides by ‘front line’ countries harbouring a motley mob of freedom fighters -cum- CTs right down to the length of the border with South Africa on the Limpopo.

The CSM barked a ‘Commandos…Shun!’ as the COs and 2ICs walked in. In a pin drop silence we listened as they made brief opening remarks before introducing two officers from CID. Their expose in keeping with the developing situation announced adaptations in the formations of the Security Forces and their roles in countering the insurgency when my attention was diverted to my neighbour a veteran troopie who whispered hoarsely,
‘Hey Henri, I scheme serious shit, take a shifty at those okes at the back.’
Slowly I turned around and found myself looking into a sea of faces. Craning the neck I spotted standing by the far wall several individuals in standard issue camo. Noticeable in their bearing was a top physical shape not from gym workout more like one gets from hard stay in the bush. Also discernible was a marked aloofness. None wore rank or colour.
‘SAS.’ hushed my neighbour from the corner of his mouth. Seeing that I was not getting it he added in a cryptic undertone,
‘Trust me, you can tell.’
Puzzled I turned to take another look only to find the space empty, in vain I searched about the room.
‘See,I told you.’ he confirmed smugly.
‘Right…, but ‘who’ are these ‘SAS’ guys?’
‘Special Air Service!’ as if instructing a clueless oaf and quipped,
‘If anyone, these guys can walk on water.’
Brains abuzz with this revelation I sunk back on my chair.

RLI Troop Photo HL

The strength of the Security Forces was steadily stretched to cover an ever larger front. In an additional role the RLI was to take on limited external operations until then carried out by the Selous Scouts and the SAS C Sqn. If the Commandos performed to expectation on externals when under Squadron supervision its training and profile failed to be up to this type of assignment as an independent operating entity, with the unanticipated consequences.

Dave B. photo HL

One Commando had a base camp set up in the south-east game reserve of Gonarezhou at Malapati not far from the border with Mozambique. I happened to take part in a series of unhappy contacts with the Frelimo – Freds – during which several attempts at combining ambushes and mine laying ended up in unmannerly scrambles out the areas -remarkably with minimal casualties. These haphazard deployments lost entirely their sense of purpose when troops sent to take on the Freds would safely mark time in some bush shelter while sending back phony sitreps.

RLI base camp in Malapati Photo HL

On a miraculous episode twenty of us were sent to harass a group of ZANLAs believed to camp by a reservoir over the border. A two hours steady walk from the drop off took us to the border fence. Under a full moon we sat about taking a breather while an opening was being cut through the wire. To cool off I settled at the foot of a scrawny mopane tree. A few feet away I could make out the silhouette of a guy with his MAG and his pack on leaning wearily against the fence. With a barely audible light metallic scraping sound the shape slid gently down to the ground when Hell broke loose.

A heart stopping cavernous blood curdling roar rent the night. In a frantic scuffle and wild shrieks of panic a thick cloud of white dust was kicked up. For an instant everyone stood frozen in shock until some quick mind pointed out the guy had laid his pack on top of a lion. Apparently hard of hearing the animal had been peacefully sleeping on the other side of the loose fence. In a show of singular restraint no shots were fired. We just had the time to watch the massive shape of a peeved male lion traipse into the night. The medic patched up the -lucky- guy for scratches and a bruised shoulder.

Two hours later we took our positions on the distant edge of the oddly quiet terr camp waiting for first lights. After a brief consultation the officer in charge was inspired to initiate his attack with a few artillery rounds. A support company sat perched on a kopje over the border less than ten k’s away in a direct line.

The previous week with another guy we went to visit these artillery guys. Under camouflage nets stretched between walls of stacked wooden crates of shells we were served tea and buttered toasts sitting comfortably on deck chairs facing a sweeping vista to the horizon. Afterwards their courtesy was extended to a guided tour of their field pieces. These guns precisely lined up were a breath taking sight with their gradation etched brass plates polished to a blinding shine every part painted with meticulous care without a speck of dust. I did not really know what I was looking at but something in their aspects struck me as being somewhat archaic. Lightheartedly I asked if these guns had by any chance seen action in the Crimean War. With a tolerant smile the officer issued his assurances, ‘I can promise you, as you will probably soon find out, they work wonders’. Two weeks later I returned to offer my apologies.

The first intimation from them acknowledging our readiness was a faraway low rumble. Almost simultaneously with a spinning hiss streaked in the first zeroing round of their 25 pounder. In an ear splitting chest thumping clap the shuddering force from the HE blast engulfed our area with a black cloud of acrid smoke and flying debris. Reeling numb from the impact correcting coordinates were shakily radioed.

The next round whammed even closer this time almost getting our lot wiped out after the guy had a-gain muddled the coordinates. Over the chaos the eardrums nearly busted we could faintly make Sgt. Bramall muffled yelling : ‘…LOOK UP! …FOR FUCK’S SAKE’S LOOK UP..,!’ Through the black pall of dust chunks of solid mud, branches and rocks were raining back to earth.
Three shells later spaced by intervals of cringing seconds the irrational randomness shot the nerves and a bad case of the shakes spread through our group. By another stroke of luck no one was injured. The camp turned to be empty.

Scott M. HL

To recover from this lemon we spent the day lying up in wait for darkness to go and find a place to plant the TMH 57 mines we had been carrying around. The moon came out just as full to illuminate our way to a selected portion of a road.
Taking turns for a go at the rock hard surface a mine was finally eased into the hole, fused and lift trapped. We were getting ready to move out when the early warning reported movements up the road. We hastened back into cover and watched several silhouettes approaching until they were less than fifteen meters away. Pissed off one of the the guys hushed between grinding teeth, ‘Fucking picanninies!’. The Freds routinely sent little kids to look for land mines in their areas.
For the superstitious locals squeamish to venture out of their kraals after dark even with a shining moon took some doing. Taking no chance they pinched some dirt out of their footprints while on their way and kept it firmly in their hand until they had returned to the safety of their kraal. A custom often observed as they crossed the grounds of our ambushes. A witch doctor once confirmed it to be a tried and tested way to thwart the stalking evil night goblins.

Some of the kids did just that before the little group stood on the exact spot where our mine had been planted. Its discovery was no real feat, a dark little mount of softened soil in the middle of a white flat dirt road. Even we could see it from where we were. After an exchange of excited whispers two of them got on their knees and began digging. The thought of a short burst from the MAGs crossed everybody’s mind. But nobody really wanted to slot these kids and it would have compromised our presence.

With deft speed they got to the mine. They were now retracing their steps one of them studiously unrolling a piece of string. This is when looking at each other we realized the urgency to put some distance, fast. We had barely covered 30 meters when a flash lit up the landscape. The shock wave caught us with a knocking rush of solid air and debris. The eardrums taking a battering for the second time in the day.

RLI 1 Cdo 3 Trp Fireforce P.de M. and HL

One of the last joint deployment with the RLI Cdos happened about two years after I had joined C Sqn. Our little group was on r&r enjoying a carefree Saturday in Salisbury. We had left the air conditioned Wimpy milkshake bar to walk out into a blazing morning sunshine when a Land Rover from Kabrit caught sight of us and pulled up to inform us of a call for volunteers for an upcoming job. It drove off to let us debate the age old wisdom of volunteering in the Army. In the end the consensus was to pass on that one and we carried on our way to the Manhattan Steak House. Halfway John McLaurin declared to our surprise his intention to go on the Op arguing a sound way to save money. After we had failed to talk him out of it he waved at us a cheery goodbye and was off in that characteristic spring in the footstep way of his to hail an R4 Rixie taxi to take him back to camp.

John McLaurin photo HL

Two days later we received words to report back without delay. In the briefing room we learned John had been killed and several other guys wounded. Patrols had been dropped into southern Zambia to recce an area for a suspected Zipra hideout. Moving at night his callsign walked in an ambush when he was shot through the stomach. Circumstances ruled out a casevac and he could not be saved. Squadron led Op Tepid was launched beefed up with Commandos from the RLI and the support from the Air Force.

Lake Kariba from the Zambian side Photo HL

The assault teams were choppered across the lake Kariba to an LZ on top of one of two parallel running thousand foot ridges. The ride always a treat for the landscape and the copious sightings of jumbos, crocs and hippos placidly wading above the submerged forests.
The Bell 205 hovered just long enough to for us to get off. The pilot eager to get away was urging the tech and they were already up in the air when the last heavy pack was dumped out. In the receding turbulent whirlwind from the rotor blades the crashing thuds of exploding 82s became clearer.
On the way to the assembly point we passed deep dug out pits where RSM Pete A. had set up his mortar teams to cover our advance. RLI troops were deployed on the ridge with some placed as stop groups on likely escape routes.
In the preceding days the pan had been the target of several random airstrikes without confirmed results. Later we found out the base was to be a launch pad for a battalion strength of conventionally trained hardened lot. Hunkered down under the summer dry brownish vegetation cover in an elaborate trench system they rode out the bombings with enough discipline to resist any give-away returned fire. Despite repeated prodding our recces could not come up with a number.

Any move down the ridge was put on hold for the intensity of the fire. Our extended line went to the ground while the situation was being appraised. We were busy keeping our heads down when four meters away I saw E.P. break into a sudden fit of uncoordinated arms and legs agitation. My first thought on watching him was that he had lost it and for the sake of everybody around I should go for his FN. Then I understood he was pointing at something by his side. A huge drain pipe with an eye confusing pattern slithered fast across the space between us. I just managed to spot the head of a twenty foot python gapping it away from the ground tremors.
We received words the Air Force was on the way to do some preliminary softening up.

Hawker Hunter jet Photo HL
Payloads photo HL

To mark time we settled among the boulders of an outcrop. I had turned off the cooker and was mixing some powdered milk for a long awaited swig from a piping hot mug of tea when two Rhodesian Air Force Hawker Hunter jets screeched a few feet overhead pushing my head into my neck. They banked around the valley in an eruption of crackling tracers from multiple A/A ZUP guns.
We had ringside seats the A76s tuned in to follow the gripping drama as the pilots exchanged views on how best locate the hidden heavy weaponry. The leader swooshed over the ridges in a wide circle while outlining to his wingman with the calmness of a training session his plan to draw the A/A fire on himself to give him time to spot the target. Hopping over the ridge the plane dipped a wing and went into a long nose dive firing his guns into the depths below the tree canopy. The A/A was triggered. Tailing him a short distance the second jet confirmed the targets and took his turn. Like a hail storm on a tin roof the crepitation echoed throughout the valley. The jet plunged into the geyser of pink tracers pouring a continuous fire from his 30 mil cannons. Like sparks flying off a metal grinder the Zipra guns and the Hunter were locked in a head-on showdown.

We waited for one of the jets to go down. Someone observed, ‘Gutsy these guys… sure they have the picture, just as well they don’t get the sound…’ In a thunderous roar the jet pulled in a sharp vertical curve and his Frantans tumbled through the trees. A massive ball of orange fire enveloped in thick black smoke erupted with a delayed deep booming thud. A ‘DH’ was confirmed over the comms – a direct hit as a pilot had once translated for us. The valley became quiet.

At midnight we were brutally jerked out of sleep when a 122mm rocket blasted a boulder only meters behind us. The ears buzzing and one leg still inside the sleeping bag I kept flat while the night landscape lit up with a deafening firework of recoilless rifles and A/A fire. They were breaking out. A renewed lull. Broken again by a wild shootout with luminous streaks bouncing off the ridges. The radio traffic was briefly saturated with a cascade of contact reports and casualties. Then again all went quiet. A large Zipra group had indeed just bolted.

Sqn op jump for an ambush in Mozambique photo HL

The day was breaking when loaded down with assault gear our sweep-line began advancing. Soon the pace of progression was slowed by the natural obstacles. Nearing the approaches of the stream by the salt pan we pushed through thicker undergrowth. Braced alert with a tighter hold on the RPD the finger weighed on the trigger. Boring into every scrub the eyes skinned for trip-wires and the first signs of defense earthworks. Unable to shake off the creepy feeling of being a walking target forced to tread a carpet of dead leaves no one was going to let a twig snap under his foot. In the throbbing silence the barely visible shapes of our sweep-line glided onward.
Lt. A. S. abruptly caught up from the rear and to everyone’s surprise brushed past with mumbles of impatient irritation on his way to tell the point man to get a move on. At that instant a muted ‘pop’ broke the stillness. A dud or a wet firecracker. Nothing threatening. The sweep-line froze in its track and dropped on a knee with a ‘…what the fuck…’ look around. Lt. A. S. and Steve K. were still standing. Silent seconds ticked by.
A sharp double blast, a rush of shredded leaves in a puff of black smoke. The two guys were lying on the ground. A.S. had tripped a couple of PomZ.
Luckless collateral Steve K. was hit by several pieces of schrapnels the largest one punched into the buckle of his webbing belt. Lt. A.S. got peppered.

The progression was halted while the medics gave first aid. This sequence did not go down well with the guys who pointed out unwarranted impulsiveness endangering lives in the patrol and those of the casevac crew.

The choppers gone the advance resumed until unopposed we stood in the camp to find the heavy weaponry disabled and everything of use had been carted off. The Zipra gang was a crafty lot. To avoid aerial detection they had been using rocky surfaces for communication tracks and a very effective camouflage for their trench system. The debriefing revealed they never bothered to keep the rattling and clanking noises down as they marched into the RLI stop group. The troops heard the racket a long way out but when the moment came to spring their ambush they lost their nerves and missed a golden opportunity to wipe that lot out. That some Squadron guys later spoke their mind did not help.
If costly in casualties the exercise turned out not entirely pointless. Intelligence began to work on a new assessment of the Zambian situation. The base was one of many set up for a concerted assault on Rhodesia at the approach of the elections. Each harbouring one or two Zipra battalions.

Right Dennis ‘Chunky’ Chesterman and Henri Lepetit back from a patrol

In Salisbury the colours of the Flaming -Winged- Dagger and the Rhodesian flag were flying half-mast on the parade square, again. On the afternoon of our return we were told to gear up for an imminent redeployment. Without specifics it was read as a job to play a part in turning the heat on Josh Nkomo’s gangs in Zambia. Instructions were issued for intensive training including special lectures on demolition.

Open Day at Kabrit C Sqn photo HL

The mood unceasingly upbeat, as long as the stays in camp were kept short. Chores and camp discipline echoed the days of basic training and no one was happier the furthest away from Kabrit safe in the bush. On the upside the meals were excellent and the steaks exceptional as army food went. Tea urns were kept filled and hot throughout the day, trays of sandwiches were served during breaks and overfilled haversacks organized for the trips to the range. Of simple taste my treat was a warm Cornish pasty, Rhodesia had the best, washed down with an iced Coke – the half-liter glass bottle. The evenings were ours if not on the duty roster and the work of the day done, even the week-end if we could be reached on notice.

For its atmosphere and monastic silence Kabrit may have easily been mistaken for a health retreat. In 1978 the regiment, then C Sqn A and B Troops moved from their shared quarters in the Cranborne barracks to a converted former tobacco research center on the far side of the airport. Set on spacious grounds planted with blue gum trees, and cassias the buildings consisted of a series of elegant white washed Cape Dutch style gabled single story buildings trimmed with varnished dark hardwood. Three blocks housed the squadrons, Mayne, Lewis and Stirling. The serene peace was for a time broken by the screams of several free roaming peacocks which in addition to manicured flower-beds were a personal contribution from the RSM and his staff in an effort to instill in the place a natural bucolic harmony. Following the sudden disappearance of the birds an inquiry led by a fuming RSM failed to determine their fate. Decades later a former orderly room employee -not badged- cleared the mystery on his death bed. Fed up of being bossed about he had struck by disposing of the birds.

Kabrit photo HL

With the operators away on deployments the camp routines and the admins were run by a small number of permanent residents, ‘bottle washers’ to a couple of wisecracks, they were mostly badged NCOs and officers who had in their time performed above and beyond their share in the calls of action and kept on the active list were occasionally added to the strength for major ops.

A view of Salisbury from the Monomatapa Hotel photo HL

Unlike with other formations the RSM and the SSMs had their job relatively cut out. It would not have crossed the mind of the meanest troop to get up to the antics of some RLI Cdos on leave turned loose on the town and the nightmare of hotels and bars managers. More than pride it was the uncompromising standard of professional dedication to ‘belong’ in the Squadron that called for a mindset of mature restraint and unyielding self-discipline. This also had the benefit of containing the homicidal impulses of the rare psychotic elements who had slipped through the selective screening, but had nonetheless demonstrated their worth as operators.

It was customary for callsign leaders when in Kabrit to hold their briefings in the shade of a remote part of the grounds out of earshot. In a calm setting disturbed only by a soft breeze rustling through the tree tops the men learned with a brief touch of the jitters their next target. The inherent suicidal factor integral to every mission never given as much as even a passing thought. Chief among the concerns was to be up to the entrusted part.

Mabalauta. Alan W. a friend and a good operator. He came from the Brit. Royal Marines photo HL

A rumour went around which though never fully confirmed nor entirely denied claimed the existence of an inner circle of operators getting the pick of special jobs a.k.a. ‘funnies’. Centered around an influential ranking officer this group was to have been made up of Rhodesian NCOs and troopies with an alma mater kinship from their Plumtree and Guinea Fowl High schools days. A source of casual jokes and scorned annoyance this coterie was dubbed with the sobriquet ‘Club Tomorrow’ a disco in Salisbury their supposed hangout. The conspiratorial importance attached to this hearsay was no doubt overstated. That teams repeatedly sent to the scorching flats of the south-east, ‘Porkos’ -for its Portuguese speakers- to take on the Freds would at times question the balance of assignment distribution was not an unfair concern. Only the volume of jobs meant that every operator was regularly given a shot at a ‘special’ one. Some, in truth perhaps more often than others. When callsigns were formed the choice as to which guy was deemed best to watch your back was largely determined by subjective trust and a dose of personal compatibilities. Stretches in the bush could weigh heavily on the morale.

Operator in Fred garb on the Mozambique front

If one or two officers conscious of their shaky record had to rely on the pips on their shoulder straps to assert a degree of respect they showed no qualm acting their status as a separate cast with condescending authority. They were the rare few. Officers and senior NCOs in C Sqn attested the expected gumption, level headedness, timely reasoned initiatives, even temper and, the acid test, an unshakable sense of humor. Having served at various times under their command I would name without hesitation exemplary personalities like the 2IC Mjr.Grahame W., Mjr.Bob Mckenzie, Capt.Darrell W., Capt.Rob Johnstone, Capt.Frank Hales, Sgt.Dave Berry…
Our C.O. Lt/Col.Garth B. evolved on another plane, to the troop a distant enigmatic figure moving in its mysterious ways. At times materializing to take the lead in a skirmish carrying a light pack and a folding butt FN moments later spotted in the thick of a firefight to ascertain the schedule was kept and vanish again to reappear at some other point galvanizing the momentum of an assault. In the aftermath among the smoldering ruins of a camp attack he could be seen with a mug of tea mingling briefly with the troop. Shouldering his pack he would then de-materialize. The stuff of legend.

C Sqn C.O. L/Col. Garth B.

Regardless of its reality the ‘Club Tomorrow’ had the unfortunate consequence to create within this solid unit the first, to quote A. Tennyson ‘ little rift within the lute…’. With a time delayed effect the crack widened on January 1979 the Regiment first Open Day.

Medal awards and their citations, rarely received by NCOs and even more rarely by Troopies, were generally consensual and the exceptions dismissed with a brief eye-roll and a resigned shrug and as yet another high-ranking inner circle quirk. A new twist came with the introduction of the ‘Wing on Chest’ -WoC- meant to revive an old unit personal reward tradition.
According to one historical record, consistent with some logic, the original WoC were to identify those who had completed three operational parachute jumps -excluding those who through no faults of theirs had not had yet the opportunity.
Standing at attention on the parade square, many of us were wondering about the idea of a ‘Wing-on-Chest’ since most operators had done their three jumps. A committee from the 1 Rhodesian SAS Regiment decided to adapt it with a new purpose. It now became a visible label meant to distinguish an ‘outstanding’ operator from one who was not.

Silhouetted Patrol leader Steve Donelly (right) – E.P.(helmet) and HL aboard a G Car

All commendable officers had already been bemedalled, some multiple times without raising any objections making the addition of yet another award a moot point even if as it was claimed for internal use. Attempts were made by several operators who also happened to be eyewitnesses at the scenes to learn about the substance behind the citations. Ensued the logical retort that had anyone placed in identical circumstances failed to act as the newly awarded WoC did he should not have been in the Regiment in the first place. This promulgation was running counter to the tenets of the assumed equal excellence of every operator. Successfully passing each stage of the selection to be sanctioned by the much coveted colours was suddenly no longer enough. Two classes of operators had de facto been created; those who now could exhibit how ‘outstanding’ they were and, well, the rest of them. It would seem, despite the claims, the short listing process of the awardees had hardly been open and above board.

Still, it was hard to stomach for old timers and the majority of the recent ones who had already proven their worth on many deployments. The moral cohesion of the unit hitherto of one block was dealt a bitter and resentful blow. Why this should have been promulgated was more than anybody could say.

A Sqn photo HL

As his name was called out each man marched to a group of officers in the center of the square. The Hon. Dudley Coventry was presiding the ceremony. A salute, the presentation of a set of wings plucked out of a small heap from a salver held by C/Sgt B., a handshake, another salute, an about-turn and a smart march back to the ranks. We watched with some amusement the beaming grin of those who could hardly contain their joy. In a stark contrast many others showed an air of puzzled dejection as if the butt of a bad joke. In the ranks heads waggled slowly of incredulity. To cloak the thing with impartiality a couple more token troopies were added for good measure later in the year.

A Sqn Bob McKenzie and the RAR band photo HL

Wasting no time were those seen strutting about with their new wings on an expanded chest as so often happens when a word of praise proves too heady for its recipient. Others had a hard time coping with the embarrassment of having been put on the spot and now had to face their pals whom from experience they knew to be just as deserving. It reached a point where the SSM -himself a WoC- threatened to charge those reluctant to comply by wearing their wings.

A minute of silence to honour the Fallen. The wings on a salver. Photo HL

The three Squadrons Photo HL

Many were thanking their luck for having been left out of the scheme. If I was to believe what I was later told that in my case the WoC was a near miss the conjecture was irrelevant. The intrusive pressures from the international communities on the politics of Rhodesia meant the future of the country was written on the wall. The fighting likely soon to be over so were my reasons to stay on with the prospect of a career in a peace time army, badges of recognition the least of my concerns. I never bothered to claim my GSM.

A guy who had been present when the list of WoC candidates was drawn up took me to the side, ‘Henri, what’s Lt…’s buzz with you?’ ‘Heard he vetoed your name’. Realizing the close call I felt grateful to this officer. But I was curious as to the reason for his hostility. I raked the brains for a while and came to recall an incident as a possible explanation.


It happened on a patrol in Zambia after our six men callsign left the top of a rocky outcrop ending a ten days stake out. The heat kept well above a constant forty plus degrees was made worse by a surrounding of massive black granite boulders. Late one afternoon we withdrew and began making our way to a boat pick-up on the Zambezi shore.
We had been plodding a while in a state of semi-daze when two guys dropped heat struck. The first one I watched stagger before he broke into a delirious holler and began throwing off his gear. After days of silent whispers the loud racket sent an unnerving jolt. He was pinned down his mouth forcibly covered. Seconds later it was the turn of the other guy then both collapsed on the ground. We dragged them into cover in a hurried dogleg. It was now getting late, two guys so far looking okay were sent to the RV eight k’s away. In the far distance we could hear the rattle from Zambian BRDMs pushing through the bush punctuated with bursts from a sweep-line. With growing paranoia we convinced ourselves these guys were after us.

Comms wise the TR48 ni-cads were nearly flat and only one of the A76s was still working. The last few days we had all been stretching the tepid mixture of water and saliva slushing at the bottom of our bottles. Not seeing it coming a bad case of dehydration hit us when we departed our position.
The two guys gone the other two were laying flat on their back. The drips I had pumped into them – all the ones we carried- made little difference. To locate a vein was a job then the fluid was sucked in so rapidly the pouches instantly flattened. Still visibly able-bodied the officer and I faced the situation. Ought to be said at no times not even for the split part of a second was the question ever considered of leaving these guys behind. No lofty morals, it was just not on the cards. If illusory at the time hopes rested on an extraction at first light.
It was now for this officer to crack up. Crouching at the foot of a gigantic baobab tree the matted hair the greenish tinged skin showing through the sweat washed camo cream and the fixed button eyes deep in their hollow sockets gave him the look of an emaciated lunatic. I looked at his AK.
With an end of the road sensation creeping in I thought I would mention some defence position at the base of the tree. The officer his bergen resting against the trunk his head hanging whined ‘…what’s the use, we are fucked…anyway… ‘. The demented moaning from the two guys and now this Lt. gone off his rocker proved a tipping point. Ruling out the chances of another day to regret it I kicked him back to his feet and perhaps unnecessarily, may have called him a ‘spineless waster’ unworthy of his rank.

This concluded the talking we remained silent for the night each coping with our feelings of resignation. Nagged by an increasingly maddening thirst I dozed in snatches.

The thrumming of choppers reached us just before day break. I pounced on the radio. With a crackled reading of barely two’s I could barely make from the pilot a five minutes eta. Holding high at arm length the A76 set I was standing for some reason barefoot in my underwear the whole body covered with streaks of camo cream. Next to my fully laid out sleeping bag my RPD the ammo belts and the grenades were orderly arranged. In the momentary elation of relief I almost forgot the agony of thirst. On a survival course we had been given a tip which sounded far fetched at the time, that should it come to it one could drink his own urine once and somebody else’s twice, something about concentrated toxins. During the night I had exerted to fill half a mug. Now in the early light I looked at it. The dark orange liquid surface was covered with a thick layer of dead ants. The choppers were almost overhead.

The guys had recovered enough to shoulder their packs and with their RPDs help clear the trees for an LZ. Smoke grenades were popped. The chopper tech hurried the boarding and the gunner pulled me in as were lifting off. Through the whirling purple cloud of dust I saw less than a couple of k’s away the head of the sweep-line.
Two hours later in the shower tent I passed a mirror. In the reflection I saw the face of an emaciated lunatic.
The episode was never brought up again, it was after all a common experience to most operators. For this officer this one lingered on. He received his WoC.

As a general rule an inference to increased combat involvement is an equally proportional amount of occasions to screw up at some stage. The issue rests with the consequences. When he stepped out of the sweep-line Richard ‘Dick’ Biedermann was double tapped by one of the unit best shot. In the aftermath of an op jump on a camp attack our patrol was advancing by the side of a road in a single file. I was several paces behind Sgt. Rogan B. when I saw him suddenly spin on his axis and shoot two Selous Scouts when they broke their cover to come and meet us. On a night Halo the callsign medic pack was lost when the guy opened his chute… to mention a few. Everybody had a story, things happened.

Right to the last job trying unfalteringly to pull my weight to the grade I had managed, except for the occasional mishaps, somehow a record mostly free of cock-ups; on one of those retraining sessions when the clock was turned back and bush veterans had to undergo the recruit course treatment I got an earful from WO1 H. Greenhough for being too slow getting out of bed. A fair enough bollocking, I concede. Or once returning from an op when I thought helpful to mention to a Cpl. a faulty M962 frag grenade. Snarky, he asked why he did not hear the call ‘Grenade!’ as set by s.o.p. I reminded him the circumstances with the ongoing deafening commotion and closing the march of the attack group lagging behind by almost a hundred meters I had failed to see the point of informing myself of that grenade being thrown. Afterwards he grass-reported me to Capt. Bob McKenzie who heard my say. I was dismissed with a word of caution to watch my steps with that Cpl. a notorious slippery stickler. And finally our SSM K. L. may have snapped at me for some trivialities I have long forgotten, which was nothing out of the ordinary everybody got snapped at as a way to be kept on one’s toes.

In November 1979 a series of operations were launched targeting Zipra as a signal to their host K.Kaunda. Orders were issued for a deployment at a moment’s notice. If away from Kabrit a phone number was to be left with the officer on duty. The evening was young and with an unexpected free week-end many of us wasted no time to make a beeline to town.

With two other friends I shared a house in a leafy neighbourhood of Salisbury. Dick Gledhill who had served with the Royal Australian Regiment came over to join the RLI – he is the author of the enjoyable novel ‘One Commando’ who also gave me my first free-fall link-up – was now a PJI at New Sarum and Günther M. was a civilian engineer who worked on the development of the ‘RhoGun’ a locally produced submachine gun. The house was a comfortable bolthole for r&r and convenient for rides to the Delport Farm Parachute club where the three of us were regulars.

Delport Farm. ‘Charlie Pop’ the Cessna Left Dave Collins – Günther M. – P.de M. – Henri Lepetit

I pushed the gate and was met with the smell of a full blown braai. The sounds of disco music and girls laughter drifted from the garden at the back of the house. Under the huge jacaranda tree a big party was in full swing in a magic atmosphere unique to Rhodesia. Later Dick asked if I was interested in a Halo jump he was dispatching on the following night. In the morning I heard from the orderly room a move had been postponed by another day.

Work and R&R

That night a girlfriend drove me to the barracks to collect my jump gear. I was about to leave when I opened the locker and stood looking at an AK with an oversized silencer, an RPK, an FN and my steadfast RPD. For a brief moment I hesitated which, if any, I should take along. To live to regret it I grabbed my RPD. At the time the idea to share with it the fun of a jump seemed a good one…She then dropped me off at the gates of the New Sarum Air Base on the far side of the airport runways.

Walking in the brightly lit hangar I found eight other Squadron guys busy kitting up. No one was surprised by my presence as one who saw fun in jumping known not to pass an opportunity. The PJIs Dick and Carlos G. were supervising.

23:30hr Night jump photo HL

Few words were spoken and in line with to the need to know rule I refrained from comments. The guys kept to themselves concentrated on adapting their equipment for their next job. I helped wheel a large wooden crate tied on top with a bunch of parachutes to be fork-lifted inside the Dak.

Some months before we had practiced with a similar one. It was strapped all over like a salami fitted with four KAP 3’d T10s. I held on to it as it was pushed out of the door. Unable to keep up on a head down I watched it sink away a wobbling dot careering to earth. At set height the pilot chutes were released. The mains after some fierce flapping ripped free one after the other from their harnesses. I did some dodging as they shot up past. The 1,000 lb box embedded itself five inches into the hard ground less than ten feet away from a cow which went on grazing unfazed. Approaching it from a distance the box looked okay if its shape slightly warped until we touched it and it crumbled into a heap of powdery match sticks.

After take-off Dick, Carlos and I sat in the dimly red lit interior at the front by the cockpit partition. They asked what I was doing jumping with an RPD. I gave the ‘sharing the fun’ explanation, they looked at each other shaking their heads. There was still time. I ignored the flag. With minutes to go I went to have a chat with the pilot I knew from Samantha’s Club. On the return flight from an op he had given me the wheel while he went for a smoke. The co-pilot let me handle the rudder until we heard shouts from the back complaining about the erratic course. (years later with little improvement on my flying skills I got my PPL).

Steve B. Standish W. Andy S. Bill T. Mike West (back) Halo Night Jump Photo HL

The oxygen canisters lined on a floor rail were opened the masks put on. The climb was a long smooth drone. At 21,000ft the plane leveled and the box was moved into the doorway. In a final inspection the CSPEP were secured and the pen lights duct taped on top of the helmets switched on. The throttles were pulled back the red light with a buzz turned to green and the spotter moved to the side. With a powerful heave the box was shoved out followed in one step by the eight guys. In a brief air rush the back of the plane was empty.

HL on a Halo 21,000ft

After a wide 360 banking maneuver the dispatcher motioned me to the door sill. I felt relieved ‘Far-out-Gledhill’ Dick was jumping and not doing the spotting. In the icy draft I let myself gaze dreamily at the crystal starry night sky above the lighter thin band of the circular horizon. Miles down below rare specks of light dotted the blackness. To the right shone patches of the soft illuminations of Salisbury.
The RPD tucked behind the shoulder the muzzle taped and the barrel down I went through the ritual cut-away sequence; the yank down of the capewells the thumbs inserted into the rings for a pull, the left arm cover on the protruding capewells and a reach for the ripcord of the reserve.
Above the door the thimble bulb switched to green. I dropped the respirator on the seat and head-dived into the slip stream. The black X shape of the plane and its doorway a reddish pin dot speeding into the starry background. I adjusted my gloves flipped into a stable position looking for Dick’s light. A max-track, a flare the fun of a brief link-up, a leisurely scan at the scenery a stabilization the pull and a grab at the elevators to cushion the opening. A quick glance up at the inflated black mass of the canopy -a Para Commander- I got a bearing. Dick’s light was some distance away. Sitting on my sit-straps I hung in the warm night air my feet dangling over a stationary world. I closed one eye before flicking on and off the light switch of the altimeter; 1,600 feet.
Long minutes went by with the sensation of being stuck in mid-air. Another flick, 1,200ft. A slow descent. I had lost sight of Dick and Carlos. Way down below the thin headlights of a vehicle cut through the silent ink blackness. Far away voices floated up. I began wondering why no one had thought of lighting up markers. 900ft. No breeze, lulled by this serene peace the mind started to wander. An eternity later I was reading 700ft.
Coming out of the sound proof dark room impression I braced into a nervous ‘feet-and-knees-together’. The ground… any second, tensed I held the position for a hard landing when no air was moving … nothing happened, then a reflection, I must be much higher than I think…I relaxed again. A look around the horizon for a tentative clue on height. I flicked the light switch, the needle pointed to 0ft.
With a breath knock out force I hit the ground like a sack and was thrown against a boulder. I heard the gut churning clang of my RPD slammed into it. The dark green canopy wrapped the rock. For a few seconds I laid on the ground getting my breath back. Through the elephant grass I heard approaching footsteps .
Dick’s voice, ‘Henri,where are you? You okay..?’
‘Heard you land..,’
The throat in an icy grip I jumped on my feet to get out of the harness to look at my RPD.
‘Oh, for fuck sake’s!…’
‘What happened?’
‘I fucking bent the butt of my RPD..!’
In a chaotic train of thoughts I realized I had to have it fixed it by the afternoon and it was definitely not a job I could do myself.
He asked if I was not overdoing a bit pointing out that a replacement should be easy enough. It was hard to explain there was not much into it due to the urgency of the situation.
In the headlights of the Land Rover the damages looked even worse.
It was two o’clock when I got back to the barracks. Orders were to be ready for mid-morning move.

At first light I went looking for the armoury guy and tracked him in the mess hall. Always a helpful guy we met a few minutes later at his workshop. I laid the RPD on the counter. I clenched the teeth at the whistling sound he made when he saw the damage. It required a lot more attention than he could spare on such a short notice.
The armoury was a short walk from the main buildings a bunker chock-full floor to ceiling with an array of weaponry taken on camp attacks. Crates of ammo lined and racks upon racks of DP’S, RPK’s, Dragunov’s, PKM’s, SKSs, Goryunovs, RGP’s 2 and 7, 3.5 rocket launchers, recoilless rifles, boxes of Strelas, 14.5 ZUP… but few serviceable RPDs.
Pressed for time I pointed to the one propped against the wall behind him. A recent arrival he did not know much about except it had already been taken to the range. We stripped it inspected the parts it looked okay. I signed the book and with a sigh walked out. The zeroing will have to wait.

In Kariba I had just enough time to go through a couple of belts and some sight adjustments. Much later I reflected back on an occurrence. I had reassembled it after cleaning and the bolt slammed shut. I may have been left with a subconscious awareness of its reliability. Engaged at the time in a conversation I assumed I had not closed the top cover properly or something.

Excerpts from my notes; Call/sign 14 with Sgt. Frank T., Roger McD. and Charlie D. The check list ; RPD + 500 rounds,1 claymore, 1 drip set, 2 batteries A76, 1 bunker bomb, 7 water bottles, 3 days rations to last 5 (+ 1 to cache), 1 illum. grenade, 2kg explosive. Password:5, VHF Gnd to Air K40 Gnd to Gnd N70 MGhz 134,70. Initial 13ks approach march – 7ks in a straight line – hilly bush. A Light load for this one.

A Rhodesian Air Force Lynx with Frantan canisters photo HL

Shadowed by a couple of ground attack Lynx push/pull three Bell 205 ferried our sixteen men group on a first leg from Kariba to Chirundu-Mana Pools and over the lake Kariba we entered Zambian air space. On a low height two and a half hours flight in deep valleys hugging the contour lines we got to an LZ in a torrential rain, all the better. A compromise was detected, an abort not an option, if threatening it was to be dealt with. We unloaded nine hundred pounds of PE divided into eight containers -using the dark brown PVC type used to pack 81 mil mortar bombs, recycling already a concern- each carried by two men with his 45 kg pack and a machine gun. The sharp molded grips made the three k’s lugging hard on the fingers.
The first target was a man-high culvert close to a military compound. It was getting dark when soaked in rain and sweat we pushed through the last bush onto a double lane sealed road. Less than two hundred meters away on the opposite side shadows hopped about a bonfire with chanted screams to loud tribal drum beats.

The boxes were glued in place and the lot primed with cordtex links connected to a time delay. We re-entered the bush anti-tracking and began a long march to the next target.
We had been stumbling our way for a couple of k’s when for half a second I had the crisp image of the bergen ahead -and a log I was about to trip on. A white flash lit up the landscape and softened to an orange glow. The ground quivered and bits of debris hit the trees then came the thundering wave from the detonation. Our column stopped to watch a thick ring of luminous blue smoke rise up in the sky.

The rain did not let up the whole night. In the morning spells of blue sky released the pungent fragrances of the bush. We took positions for an ambush overlooking a short two lane stretch of road curving around bushy hills. I settled with an arc of fire between some rocks with a view to the next guy.
The silent wait on an ambush was a moment prone for reflections. I would not guess what went through the heads of the others guys, no one ever discussed a job but it is doubtful they saw anything vainglorious in this way of destroying an unsuspecting enemy even if we knew had any of us fallen into their hands these terrs given half a chance would have joyfully chopped us into bits for the pot.

I was musing on these thoughts when word was rushed on us of an approaching vehicle. It still had to be positively identified and not had turned off the main road. On a whim I decided to improve my firing position for a better vantage point. As I got up the butt of the RPD hit a rock. A round went off, a single round. It shot over the road high above the tree line beyond the killing ground.

For several seconds I froze in a stunned silence. A few feet away Roger Mc D. gave me a questioning look. Darrell W. came bursting through the bush,
‘ Who fired that shot? ‘.
Groaning in spirit, I croaked, ‘ I did, Sir,’
He looked briefly at the road. ‘ We’ll see about that later.’ And he was gone.
I caught the eyes of the other guys, they wore the mask. Chunky, ex-Australian SAS and a good friend – he once invited a girlfriend and I to a cooked dinner and for dessert caught us with hash cookies – was a guy who could not resist a sarcastic jab.
‘ Yoo-hoo, looks like you’re in for a stretch in DB! ‘

The knuckles standing out white I was running the whole sequence leading to this AD started by the jump when we were told to pull out. In the meantime the vehicle had changed direction and new orders had been received. If, as it was later confirmed it had no bearing on the events I had screwed up with that AD. From then on I carried the gun uncocked.

Far Right standing Bob McKenzie to his right Darrell W. Far left kneeling Dennis ‘Chunky’ Chesterman. In front of Darrell W. HL with faulty RPD

In a succession of endless plods we took delivery of more charges. And fresh milk. By the next evening two more bridges had gone up. In the early misty light sipping from a mug of tea on the top of a hill we witnessed some of the effects. Against our hopes for a first vehicle packed with Zipra we watched a hapless articulated truck skid with locked breaks in a cloud of burned rubber stop short where the road ended. The tractor lurched over the chasm and was prevented from going completely over when the rear axle caught the edge and remained attached to the trailer. The driver and two passengers like nimble monkeys scrambled out of the cabin through the windows onto the roof and landed on the road. Seconds later as it plunged a speeding mini-bus screeched to a halt only a few meters behind the disappearing trailer. A crashing sound of mangled metal echoed in the valley in a thick cloud of dust. On the other side a donkey cart came close to the edge. The occupants got off and milled about gawking at the scene. By then a lot of arms flapping and shouts were warning both oncoming traffics. A military Toyota Land Cruiser eased its way through the growing crowd and cordoned off the bridge. If apparently nobody was hurt we could not help but feel sorry for these civilians.

Notes from the diary; ‘We stop for a few hours rest on top of the highest hill of the area…the place is very pleasant. No rain, nice sleep…Guard 07:00 -08:00 evening. 05:00 reveille. Heard on civvy station Ceasefire in 7 days_ We move a few hundred meters down hill waiting further orders- (D Barracks!?!?) 10 of us 15:00 move .light order (2kg explosives + webbing 400rds) get to ambush position 3 1/2 h later- Hard walk up.down approx. 8km.’

From previous OP Zipra groups had been spotted using a road. 19:15 our callsign took its position on an embankment. The wait was short. Headlights reflected on the trees then came the sound of a truck in low gear going uphill.
Darrell W. was standing at the start of the killing ground. A 4.5 ton GAZ eventually emerged from the bend. At the same time the silhouette of Darrell W. jumped on the shoulder of the road. We watched him jog alongside the truck. In the low light the only way he found to confirm a legitimate kill – and not a civilian or a Zambian military vehicle. A platoon of Zipra was sitting back to back on a central bench. The surprise to see a White man – camo’d up – leap out of the night bushes and run by their truck stalled any reactions. Satisfied Darrell climbed back up on the embankment and yelled, ‘Take it out, take it out!’.
Dave v.B. fired his RPG 7. An accurate shot but the rocket bounced off the bonnet and skimmed over the cabin. The driver caught on and floored to break out. Dave was reloading. We opened up. My contribution a halfhearted effort at the tyres. The deafening rattle of streaming tracers was packed and brief. Its engine cut off the truck slowed to a crawl and veered to a bump stop against an earth mount on the opposite side of the road. It laid there immobilized its headlights dimmed a small flame flickering out of the engine. The night was silent and dark again. Thin acrid whiffs of burnt powder floated about.
A head count was whispered and without another word being spoken we began up a steep series of hills until 21:00.

Notes from the afternoon of the tenth day; ’04:30 reveille. 01:45 Afternoon latest news as we sit on the top of the highest hill from our last job 1/ (underlined) The whole Zambian army has been mobilized after our jobs were done. 2/ Our uplift (if ever made) (sic) should take place tomorrow -morning crossed out- 15:00 jets low overhead pass’.

The next morning we moved across the top of another set of hills waiting for orders when we heard Mil Mi-8 deploying troops in the valley. A way out of the area was already plotted. The bergens had barely been shouldered when two Zambian Air Force marked MiG 21s with their payloads swooped 200ft away at exactly our level. In a single move we all threw ourselves face down. The throat tightened and the face pressed on the ground I strained the eyes to their corner to see Warsaw Pact pilots. The sparse thin scrubs and our camouflaged gear hardly a cover from the air at such a low altitude everybody scrambled for the undergrowth. Their second pass closer and louder left a smelly trail of burnt jet fuel. The urge to look up was hard to resist. Seeing Charlie D. about to give in I shouted for him to keep his face down. The white of his skin showing through streaks of sweat washed off camouflage cream. The jets finally went on to the next hills. Late in the afternoon we were uplifted.

On our return we found the results of our two weeks deployment headlining the national papers. I had other things on my mind.
The ‘back from the bush’ chores, gear clean-up and kit returned to store completed I took the RPD to the armoury. I told the guy about the AD. As a demonstration I tried to reproduce the bolt incident. In vain. We took it apart and still, could not find anything wrong with it. Reassembled I tapped the butt on the ground several times then I shook the whole gun. Again, nothing. I was at a loss. Meekly he suggested that perhaps, unaware, I may have inadvertently pulled the trigger. At this stage even I was beginning to have doubts. I gave up. Dejected I watched the guy lean it against the wall behind the counter and he went to get my old RPD.

Holding it again was like seeing an old friend after a long separation. It was a good repair job.
With hangdog guilt I made my way to the door when a sharp metallic sound rang from behind the counter. We both sprung for a look, the bolt which had been left open was shut. Astounded the guy conceded, ‘Well,well… I’d be damned!’. The bolt catches were faulty.

Front page of the Herald

Any feeling of relief was short lived. Apart from Chunky who played it up, nobody had ever mentioned the incident again. But there was no way I could go on as if nothing happened, I had to face it up. On the way to my room I saw those from the callsign going about in civvies. I closed the door sat on the trunk and began polishing my boots. Then I had a shave, donned a pressed set of shirt and longs adjusted the buckle of my blue stable belt straightened the sand coloured beret and, as if climbing the steps of the tumbril, walked in the direction of the A Squadron Op room.

Darrell W., Bob McKenzie and the SSM Koos L. – all wearing civvies – were standing around a desk looking at some aerial photographs. I drew a deep breath and gave the door frame a couple of firm knocks. The SSM came to ask what I wanted. There was no point in dithering I said I came to be charged. Under the impression of a practical joke deadpan he paused for the punchline. Seeing that I was resolute he raised a wondering eyebrow and told me to wait outside.

While I was there I watched the guys in twos and threes cheerfully starting on their leave. The C.O. briskly walked by – also in civvies -. I had just the time to snap at attention. He stopped and retraced his steps to where I stood. The spirits sank to a new level.
‘What are you doing here, L/Corporal?’. I was thinking it may have been the only time during these years I saw him so up close.
‘Sir, waiting to be charged, Sir.’
He walked in the orderly room and came out a minute later. I stiffened to another sharp salute and without giving me another look he proceeded on his way. I had already sailed out of his life. I followed the Squadron mystical figure until it faded from view.

‘Come in, L/Corporal.’ I heard the SSM.
A short march, a salute, a rigid at attention. Darrell W. in shorts a light coloured striped polo shirt and veldskoens. He knew what my call was about.
‘Right Lepetit, tell us what happened?,’
To test the patience of these officers with smarting fibs in addition to causing acute irritations by wasting their time was just digging a deeper hole. I kept my explanation short and without excuses. Bob McKenzie looked up a couple of times. The SSM, if he did not show it was enjoying himself no doubt running through his mind the ways to secure the heaviest charge short of the firing squad.
When I had finished Darrell W. simply said, ‘Right, Corporal, don’t let it ever happen again. You may go now.’ I did not need to look at the SSM to know it galled him like a tiger seeing his coolie get away. A salute, an about-turn I marched out into the sunshine.

Darrell W. photo HL

If I was off the hook and if whatever Chunky or the rest of the guys thought was to me wholly immaterial, this slip, to the risk of exaggerating my own importance, remained a grating embarrassment to those superiors I respected. On my selection course I had been vetted by Darrel W. and Rob Johnstone.

Chunky and I lost touch after Rhodesia. Forty-one years later out of the blues almost to the day I received an email. In the first line he asked if I was married and confused the names of the girls I had then been dating. The next, after all these years, was about the AD. He had mentioned it in an email to Darrell W. and was happy to quote him saying: ” … there is no way I would have charged -Henri- for what happened…”. Chunky signed off, “just so you know Mate”. He died a month later.

The Zambian deployment was to be our last major external operation. The next few weeks saw the arrival of the British Monitoring Forces, an accommodating lot cast in the awkward role of checking the election process. With the cease-fire in effect the Squadron turned for a time to potentially game changing cloak-and-dagger operations, if it had not been for infiltrated interference. In the wake of the 1980 elections and the ruling party change the Regiment had by then been all but stood down.
During the government handover our former C.O. Lt/Col.Garth B. was asked to take part in various conferences on the armed forces. He recalls a table meeting chaired by R.Mugabe and attended by the British negotiators and their people from the Intelligence services, the heads of the former Security Forces and the Zapu and Zanla leaders. The talks detailed the Rhodesian Regular Forces and their role during the war. The leaders of the terrorist groups were all familiar with the names and reputations of the different formations like the RR, RAR, the Grey Scouts, the RLI, and the Selous Scouts.
R.Mugabe had been listening with an occasional nod when L/Col. Garth B. saw him lean over to his neighbour. He overheard him ask in a hushed sort of voice;
‘All these years I have known and been kept informed about my enemies. But, ‘who’ are these SAS everybody keeps on talking about?’.

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