A Camp Attack in Mozambique
Four years after Rhodesia was handed over to that homicidal maniac Mugabe through notoriously farcical elections, I found myself whiling away the time in Durban Natal, South Africa.
It ought to be remembered that a large portion of the hapless – and, contemptibly irrelevant to the UK govt. interests- Zimbabwe population was to be sacrificed. Jimmy Carter, in keeping with his ideals and Maggie -Dame-Thatcher pandering to her lobbyists sold them down the drain.
‘C’ Squadron SAS had ceased to exist when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and the troops disbanded. The ‘Plinth’ -a monolith of black granite bearing the names of the fallen- was moved for its safety from the parade square in the Kabrit barracks by the airport in Salisbury to a Durban cemetery in South Africa. (Recently and for the same reasons, it was again moved this time to Hereford, Wales, home of the Mother regiment).
Former members hoping to prolong the adventure threw their lot in with the South African Recces – a fatal move for some. More were content to give civilian life a go. Others still -like myself- egged on by restlessness- went on making use of a good CV by tracking various military related job prospects as these came and went contingent on the whims of sponsors weighing their return on investments. Soldiers looking for their fortunes.
One sunny Spring morning, looking to have some breakfast, I walked in the Press Cafe, a popular spot with the locals. Looking around for a table, I had a pleasant surprise when I caught sight of the familiar silhouette of Bob MacKenzie in the company of his girlfriend. When we last met, Bob -Major, Sir- was my Sqn CO. To this day, Bob McKenzie was one the few men I have ever truly felt honoured and fortunate to meet. He was at all times ready to show genuine concerns as to the personal well being of the troops under his command. In combat he displayed the brutal, ruthless and scrupulous efficiency of an elite soldier, the hallmarks of the All American Hero of a Hollywood war movie from the sixties.
I was greeted with a big welcoming smile. After the preliminaries and catching up since the old days, he mentioned having teamed up with two other former squadron officers to publish a book about the history of the Rhodesian SAS. The wife of one of them, a journalist, was doing the writing. Later when we met, she asked if I could contribute stories. When she heard that I still had a collection of photographs taken during the war, she pleaded to use them. Hard up for the Beira Op for which there was no document, I offered to do an illustration. Later she kindly presented me with an autographed copy of the book.
This is how the photo of myself – taken by Steve K. – came to be featured on the cover of the pictorial edition of B. Cole’s ‘The Elite’.
Another photograph taken moments later was used on the cover of the book, ‘A Handful of Hard Men’ (the guy on the top right).
The following account tells how these photos came about.
Both were shot during the pull back from a raid on a Frelimo – a. k. a ‘Freds’- lair and main admin center in southern Mozambique fifty miles from the border. The town of Mapai was a launch pad for thousands of terrorists who contrived their infiltrations to rampage, loot and rape their way throughout Rhodesia, courtesy of the logistical support provided by the USSR, their sponsors.
Towards the end of August ’79, the guys and I were on r&r ‘in town’ having braais , meeting girls in discos, and in all making the most of those carefree moments when word was received to return without delay to Kabrit.
The Squadron fell in for a pre-briefing in an electrically charged atmosphere, everyone anticipating the announcements of a ‘big one’. This was confirmed as the details were being revealed.
In a joyful general approval Combined Operations had finally decided to deal with this part of ‘Porkos’. Also nicknamed the ‘Russian Front’ for the ubiquitous Warsaw Pact advisers, odd Cubans and North Koreans seen crawling all over the place. A raid was to be launched to take out Mapai, once and for all. The assault forces would consist of a little over three hundred security forces backed by what all the Air Force could muster. An important military campaign by Rhodesian standards stretching resources by concentrating on a single objective.
The operation was code named ‘Uric’ (always wondered how that name came about. . . ).
When proclaimed as being ‘on’ large Ops never fail to produce a boost of high spirits to the moral. The guys are given a chance to even scores and vent pent up resentment at being time and again mauled by an invariably superior enemy. A buzz for action made even more acute upon learning the ‘Freds’ would be at the receiving end.
To make sense of the eagerness some explanations on the Squadron SOP may be in order.
The typical Rhodesian SAS operating member assigned to a job packs his H frame bergen with the usual necessaries; landmines, claymores, mortar bombs, RPG’s with rockets and boosters, the odd 75 recoilless rifle -with tripod-its rounds, M962’s to spare, TR48 or -if lucky- A76 radio sets, drip, ammos, night visions, water to stretch, a bit of food -to stretch even more- a piece of parachute canopy for sleeping bag, camo cream plus the odd gimmicks when Ops happen to be ‘funnies’. His personal weapon an AK, RPD, a hand gun and -for the occasional sniping mission-a heavy barreled 303 Enfield bolt action rifle mounted with a telescope. And hundreds and hundreds of matching ammos.
Fully loaded, he is then secretly deployed. Routinely heli-para-halo-scuba-boat-truck dropped as part of a four man callsign -can be six or even eight depending – deep, often very deep inside enemy countries. He sets off for weeks at a time on a prismatic compass march to cover dozens and dozens of miles of hilly, dry, bushy, parched country to set up OP’s, pick up intelligence, lay ambushes, mines, hit selected objectives, capture or eliminate prominent targets while simultaneously having to contend with a teeming African wild life red in tooth and claw.
Inherently the consequences of a successful task or an inadvertent compromise has the callsign, by virtue of its nature, exposed to the reaction of an enemy numerically vastly superior, out gunning and irrationally bent on revenge. Large-scale manhunts are set in motion a scenario made even more irritating when Migs and T’s enter the fray. Extraction was a rarely practical option.
Still, it is worth mentioning no matter how tight a corner, a callsign finds itself in the enemy breathing down its neck on the run. It never passes a chance to create more mayhem along the way, If only to lighten the bergen.
But with the Freds it is always personal, the blurry distinction between them and the terrorists having long been cleared up.
Within hours of Op ‘Uric’ general briefing, tons of ammos and combat gear had been loaded onto the trucks. Urged on by the weather and security concerns, we were well on our way south by the time the cloud of dust kicked up by our convoy passing full speed through the barracks gates had settled.
For the long drive, Dave Berry and I took turn at the wheel of a 4, 5 heading down to Mabalauta, in better days a popular lodge for big games in the Gonarezhou National Park close to the Mozambique border. Directly across was Malvernia, a town with a bad name for its sporadic pin prick mortar and rockets attacks. While I was in the RLI on externals, we invested much time elaborating appropriate responses with the use of adapted tactical harassment.
In the end as always, the artillery was called to unleash an apocalyptic barrage on the little town.
To little avail, all went quiet for a few days and the mortaring resumed as if nothing had ever happened. This went on for years.
While driving Dave -a Sergeant- and I discussed with eager anticipation the upcoming operation, picturing ourselves enjoying a beer in the town after it had been taken.
We made a couple of stops at WVS -roadsides run by local associations of lady volunteers who kindly offer tea and scones to the troops traveling through their town. Late that evening we reached the base camp and crashed for the rest of the night under a bright canopy of stars.
At dawn, we kitted up and we choppered the first leg out to the forward operating base over the endless progression of pinkish pale dry cracked barren landscape dabbed at interval with circular islands of greyish scrubs which In the rainy season was thousands of square miles of wet swamp.
The entire assault force had been assembled in the middle of one of those islands, from above an impressive sight. It reflected the importance of the operation and to us added to the exhilarating sense of unusual material superiority. The Pumas -SA330, bearing South African Air Force markings- were neatly parked in rows. Piles of 44-gallon avgas drums were stored at different places.
The troops were bevvying up in the jesse bush where shade could be found.
On the ground at eye level the camouflage was as good as could be managed with the presence of such a large force nearly undetectable. Nearly.
At dawn, a patrol of Freds had been observed in the distance. For some reason they suddenly changed course and began heading directly to the assembly area.
For years these groups had been responsible for giving us a hard time.
Warning orders were passed and a defensive line of about thirty rifles and machine guns was formed.
Hardly anyone could believe the luck at being presented with such an opportunity. Talking score settling, suppressed giggles may have been heard.
When the Fred patrol was about two hundred feet away, it fanned out in a line facing the bush. The leader began a tirade -in Portuguese- convinced he had trapped one of our small callsign. Satisfied with a long monologue of verbal abuse, he then called for an immediate surrender. Considering he had given enough time for reaction, he instructed his men to open up.
From the bushes exploded a single shot from thirty barrels. When the dust eventually cleared, twenty two bodies lay scattered on the ground.
Our presence had been compromised more rapidly than it would have been with the Soviet satellites alone. Organized counter reaction now a short time in coming.
The magnitude of Op ‘Uric’ called for the assistance from the SAAF. Here I ought to spare a thought of profound gratitude for the unwavering support it never failed to provide. Their pilots were some of the best ever to fly helicopters in combat.
RLI troops and Engineers had also been brought in to beef up the Squadron assault strength.
To ensure success prior to the assault, troops and jets had for three days been blowing up bridges further north, cutting off the access roads to Mapai. Stop groups were positioned to destroy exfiltrations.
Mid-morning after final group photos, each callsign boards its allocated Puma, trying at best to arrange itself with a bulky gear and baked by an early hard sun.
The operation is under way.
The choppers take off all at once in a massive cloud of desert red dust and the smell of exhaust fumes.
Up until the last minute a stand down can abort the attack. Airborne with the last fail safes behind there is now a general a sense of relief.
The mind eases into combat mode now irreversibly committed to the mission.
The swampish bone dry featureless panorama stretches in all directions to the end of a simmering horizon.We sit on the floor the doors latched wide open. In the deafening hot gale gushing about the cabin each one absorbed with his own thoughts. We are cruising at a high speed through the air the impression of being in an elevator with its cables severed with the occasional bump of air turbulence. Only the back of the pilots is visible. I hold my RPD by the top cover.The leather sling wrapped around my arm. Anything happens we will not part. The entire assault group up to the brim with ‘battle lust’ spoiling for the use of its firepower.
A line comes to my mind ‘…Let us to it pell-mell if not to heaven then hand in hand to hell…’
We are approaching the landing. No one wants to screw that up.
All of a sudden a cheer.I feel a tap on the shoulder I turn around someone points to the right in the far distance. A column of thick black smoke rises high into the air. Cheers and thumbs jerked up.
No reaction from the pilots.
We approach the LZ .Hunter jets are all over.Blue smoke trails as they strafe down below.White flames spewing from their rocket pods. Everywhere blinding orange flashes and sparks flying in gigantic black balls of explosions in the middle of dust rising in thick clouds. A moonscape in the making.
We hover a couple of feet above the ground flattening a carpet of dry yellow grass.The tech signals us to get off.
Pulling my bergen with one hand and the loaded machine-gun with the other before I notice it I land right on top of a dead body.
A short pause on the ground the RPD trained to the immediate bushes. I crouch to heave the bergen on my back watching the Puma rapidly disappear over the trees. The receding noise of the rotors reveals a thundering roll of uninterrupted distant explosions.
Everyone rejoins his callsign. A sweepline is formed. A last rapid look at the body laying on the ground.I am still wondering how it got there.We are well over a thousand yards away from the target.
We spread out.A soft searing breeze brings whiffs of smoke and the smell of burning bush .A glance to the rear and to the sides lining up. The sun shines harder.
The forward advance is initiated. The mind wedged in a track of objectives destruction. Overhead the screeching of jets swooping on bomb runs. Higher still guessed but unheard the command helicopters are circling.
We walk through a landscape of scorched ground acrid smoke and burnt powder. Losing now and again visual contact with the sweepline. Ahead a field of view constrained to several yards.
Moving forwards the machine gun barrel is in keeping with the sweeping movement of the eyes penetrating deeply into the bushes. The safety catch is off the finger rests lightly on the trigger.
Closing in slowly on the first trench line. Distant ducking shapes still no clear targets. Our line progresses on in silence. Every step scrutinizing for booby traps.
To the right someone opens up followed by multiple automatic fire. Incoming crackling streaks of colored tracers and chest thumping explosions from several 106 mil recoilless rifles.
All hit the ground.I with a groan the weight of the rucksack crushing onto the chest from the back. I spit out a mouthful of dirt. The steel helmet – a first on an op- cramps the movements of the head. A short struggle, I snug fit tight the RPD butt-plate deep against the shoulder a length of belt laid out of the pouch.Sweat pours over the eyes.We are just lying in a dusty oven. An inch,two at the most above the head a solid and continuous stream of raking fire rip cracks the air.
In the middle distance numerous figures are spotted clambering out of holes covered by machine gunners. Several short bursts from our side. All the figures drop limp to the ground. Single spaced deliberate shots finish them off.
A few seconds marked,in a surge of adrenaline the line breaks into a rapid skirmish in two’s letting short bursts at likely covers right until we leap into the trenches. All the while to the left from a location beyond our arc of fire a storm of tracers and RPG’s blast the scrawny trees and part of our landscape .
To my right further down I watch one of our guy cartwheeling head first to the bottom of the trench carried by the weight of his bergen his legs frantically kicking the air.A kind soul pulls him upright.
The relative sense of safety at being below ground level is short lived.To the left heavy gunning kicks rocks and dust in our position. Like laying underneath a giant trip hammer gone berserk.
Three yards away from where I kneel a blind bend turns to the right following the zigzag pattern of the trench.Somehow I ended up at the extreme end of our line of advance.The bottom is littered thick with hundreds of spent cases of all caliber, a lot of 12,7, a few bodies and an odd backpack which is left alone.
The freds cannot be more than ten yards away.These freds hold their grounds.In all likelihood hardcore freds.
A short lull is broken by a furious concentration of fire from what sounds to be coming out of a cocktail of RPGs, Gorenovs, RPKs, PKMs, SKSs, AKMs and possibly some Makarovs in a frantic attempt to force us out.
We hunker down while our mortar teams delivers some pounding.No intention to concede an inch.Anyway we’d end up back in the open.
Dave Berry materializes at my side to announce an imminent Canberra bombing run and informs me of my instructions.In the ceremonial tone used to ask a soldier to steel himself for the ultimate sacrifice as if the outcome of the war rested on his shoulders I am to cover the rear of the pullback from the strike zone. I acknowledge the orders with a weak smile and a gulp.
The last guy crawls out of the trench I watch him with a sinking sense of isolation.
For some minutes things appear to have gone quieter in my immediate area while further ahead with unabated intensity batteries of ZUP 14,5 anti-aircraft fire at the jets on bombing dives .
I find myself alone in an empty trench sensing an impending doom looming.
The bend to the left has my full attention.Something will spring into view any second.
Close by hushed animated voices.Carefully I peer over the parapet; top of heads, helmets and muzzles of weapons bobbing .
As I contemplate my limited options with no clear targets to shoot at I remember the bunker bomb in my rucksack.I could now use it and block the way by collapsing the trench walls and with luck force the freds out. Or just make my presence felt with a lot of noise.
The bunker bomb is one of many contraptions the resourceful Rhodesian Military R&D came up with. Simple of concept and making the troops happy.
Using the empty brown plastic two halves of the container of a mortar bomb a compound of various PE’s – 4,9,RDX…- is pressed inside up to the rim. The mid-section is taped and on the top a fuse delay is pushed. About four times the size an M970 -white phos- makes the handling by a hand of average size a bit awkward.
Resting my RPD to face the bend I grab the bomb out of my pack.A light tingle runs along the spine. I had thrown one of these during training in Kariba. The ‘shock and awe’ as it went off is still vivid.
The scurrying sounds coming from the Freds quarters add to urgency.I try to ease the splayed pin but find it too rigid to bend.With the tip of my AK bayonet I gently force them flat.But not too flat. The Freds now getting more restless by the second emboldened by the stillness coming from our side.
Camped on my feet as instructed in the grenade throw drill I bring up both hands back to back elbows up check behind for unobstructed space and pull the pin.Now Mr Bunker Bomb and I are no more friends.Extending the arm fully to the back I mark a pause to slide the fingers off the fly-off lever watch it part with a sharp pop as it primes the fuse while I begin a mental count down. Aiming for a twenty yards lob in a followed through circular motion I swing the throw overhead . On release I realize an error in the angle. I watch it arcing through the air to disappear ten yards short. But still right into the Freds trench. A fuse delay of seven seconds is always to be used as a general guide line. It could not have been more than four.
I yell ‘Grenade!’ and discover behind me Dave diving for cover.
The shock wave from the blast slams me on the ground the air sucked out of our perimeter in an explosion of solid black dust. Concussed for some seconds we try to look up as rocks,tree branches,pieces of weapons and body parts fall from the sky.
‘What’s the fuck was that,Henri !!!??’ I may have heard him say having gone momentarily deaf and groggy from the blast.
Wasting no time we stagger our way out of the trench screened by the thick dust.
After a hasty quarter of a mile we reach the rear of the column. My ears are still ringing. Thumbs up and we move on.
The orders have been received. We are pulling out.
Exhausted,dehydrated,aching all over the prevalent feeling among us one of letdown and incomprehension. Until today every single mission undertaken by the squadron had been carried through to its successful end. This time for reasons we were anxious to learn we are compelled to pullout. No beer in the town.
Ahead of what had been announced the Canberras have begun raining their Golf bombs – the brainchild of Rhodesian engineering consisting of a thousand pound mixture of diesel and ammonium fertilizer.
An earth shattering thundering roll of explosions now approaching by the second.
Closing the end of the column we are still well inside the danger zone protocol.
I trudge on bob-tailing the long single file out of Mapai. Wishing I could move faster carrying away the bitter taste of failure. The trees and the ground tremble with increased intensity under the growing tremor.
For the first time I notice a raw sore on the side of my thigh from a day long rubbing by the webbing pouch which contains belts of ammos. I ease it up with a hand.
At that moment Steve K. who was walking ahead turns around with his camera and takes a photograph. The one on the cover of Barbara Cole’s ‘The Elite’.
The sun light lowers through the trees. Mapai receding still further behind,the bombing now a distant rumble. Our column cuts its way through healthier looking vegetation.
A short halt.Someone uses it for a posed photo opp. The one on the book ‘A Handful of Hard Men’. We are and look pissed off.
Plodding on we eventually reach a wide clearing preceding the pickup zone. A smoke break. The conversations are limited to unhappy comments.
And as if fate wanted to see how much more traffic we could bear we now learn the black smoke we saw in the morning during the approach was one of our assault Puma that had been shot down by an RPG fired from an ammo dump the chopper overflew by error.
A callsign had been dropped to search for survivors then jets were dispatched to obliterate the wreckage along with the evidence of SAAF involvement.
Weary and dogged by frustration we clamber dispirited in the chopper for the return flight to Chipinga.
A fixed and absent minded stare through the opening of the doors. The Pumas skim above the ground at 160 miles an hour in a loose flying formation. I watch the nearest one now and then dip out of sight below the tree line and resurface seconds later.
The changing light creates deeper shades of tones. Patches of green around water holes. Shadows are cast the air somewhat cooler.
A small herd of goats.
Without warning we are abruptly crushed by G’s our lungs pushed deep inside the stomach. In a jolt the sky flips behind us we hang over the blur of speeding trees. The space to the ground fills with orange flashes and bursts of black smoke a split second later we are engulfed in shafts of luminous tracer rounds. Sharp metallic cracks in the fuselage.
We are on top of an armoured convoy of freds parked on a dirt road less than hundred feet down.In a spontaneous reaction Carl and I sitting in the doorway hold the triggers of our RPDs squeezed in a continuous fire. No proper aim just venting fury at our helplessness. Our tracers draw curves hitting around the trucks.
I brace for the crash.
As rapidly we are level again. A frozen wide stare on the faces. The navigator turns to us with a questioning thumb up. No one’s been hit. Having felt whizzes someone points to a couple of holes through the floor. A water bottle spills its content from a backpack.
Jerked out of our torpor the rest of the flight is spent in a dazed shock.
We cross over the straight line of wire marking the border. Minutes later a short hover and a soft landing.
Everyone disembarks shoulder their rucksacks and unhurriedly make their way across the air strip to the camp. The Puma’s rotors whining pitch gradually dying down to a stop. All is quiet now.
With a couple of other guys we linger on with the crew. The pilot rejoins us while unfastening his headgear. As he pulls it off it splits in the back. A closer look reveals a round had grazed his flak jacket traveled past the back of his head before hitting the ceiling. We all look at each other taking in how close that call had been. One of those moments beyond words.
Grappling with the succession of events we head wearily back to the camp leaving the pilots counting the holes in their chopper.
Ironically intelligence reports later intercepted indicated that had we held just a day longer the town would have been ripe for our picking. As we,on the ground had suspected.Casualty potential and materiel were cited as reasons for the pullout. Could have been some politics as well. We’ll never know for sure.
My sole wish at the moment is that quiet mug of tea I have been craving all day. A tea with real milk.
Having sorted out the sleeping space I head to the open air camp kitchen. Several guys are sitting at some tables chewing the fat. Gas lamps shining a dim light.
I am not feeling hungry. Placing the steaming mug on a table apart I lower myself on a chair.
The chatting is kept to a low voice punctuated now and then by a mirthless laugh.
It is a night with a bright moon. I gaze pensively at the blue flames under the large pots of stew in the kitchen on the far side.
An RLI guy walks in and sits himself across my table with a book – a Wilbur Smith- and a mug.
Save on very rare occasions the SAS never wears any distinctive badges. Somehow the other units can invariably tell.
Mindful not to appear intruding the RLI guy waits in silence for a while focused on his mug.
Picking on a cue as I take a sip of tea he ventures in a deferential tone to enquire whether I had been on the op in Mapai. I acknowledge with an slow affirmative nod. A pause. He informs me that his commando had been on standby for reinforcement. Looking up at him with a benevolent smile as to convey my gratitude I nod again.
Feeling emboldened he leans across the table and asks if I knew how many ‘floppies’ I had shot during the day.
Another meditative pause. I reply that I do not keep a tally.
But the thing I was certain was not enough.
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