Attack on a Rhodesian Fireforce Base.
by Henri Lepetit all text photos copyright Henri Lepetit
PART I Well into the Cold War after the US had fired its final angry shot in Vietnam Rhodesia became the last western democracy engaged in a hot one fighting for its survival against a communist dictatorship takeover.
In 1977 the counter-insurgency warfare waged by its Security Forces against groups armed and trained by the Soviets and the Chinese was picking up an unbridled momentum. At an ever increasing number these infiltrated the country to wreak havoc and spread terror among the civilian population.
PART II Early one morning our FAF received an emergency call from the BSAP-the Police- in the Mount Darwin -Kore Kore-region to the north east of the country. Closer to respond to a late night attack on a farmstead their unit had been ambushed on their way suffering casualties and their vehicles disabled.
With the fireforce state of permanent readiness within less than ten minutes we were airborne and thirty minutes later the choppers had positioned our stop groups 800 meters from the farm. A sweep was immediately started.
Black smoke could be seen rising from the buildings. But for the sound of the K Cars circling in the distance all was peacefully quiet.
Reaching the compound we found a length of the perimeter fence torn down. The farm was of modest family size with plots of maize and tobacco one of many dotting the country. Access to the yard was littered with 7. 62 intermediate grey doppies. The Dutch style white facade was thickly pock marked and there were several black rimmed holes from RPG impacts. Smoke drifted out of some windows on the upper floor one of the gables had been knocked to the ground.
The sweepline on the look out for trip wires progressed alongside the building past tall trimmed bushes. Presently a light gust brought a whiff of the stench of corpses.
An old white Jaguar was parked in the court yard in the shade of a large Jacaranda tree. There was dark patch of oil underneath. Moving closer we saw the winscreen and the doors riddled with holes and the bonnet smeared with blood. By the front fender on the dusty ground laid the body of a young woman with long hair of a light shade her feet bare and bruised. A small surface of unsoiled material revealed a flowery pattern on her summer dress. She had been disembowled. Failing to find any signs of life one of the guys pulled a blanket from the car to cover her against the flies.
Two more bodies were sprawled by the main door. Terrs wearing several layers of clothing. A third one was sticking out of the bushes.
By now the outside areas had been searched and cleared. Spoors had been picked up and a tracking hunt was launched.
We took positions by the entrance to the hallway. In the intense crystal sun light the interior was a black hole.
I called out to identify our presence. We waited in the following silence. . Then, faintly, a distant voice floated out of the depths of the building. The other guys and I exchanged a look. I called again. It was the voice of a young girl. Straining the ears it was saying;
‘. . . my daddy is hurt. . . ‘
One by one the finger on the trigger we entered the doorway. The polished wooden floor was cluttered with an upset table, a large broken mirror some wood frames a painting and a vase with the flowers strewn in the debris. The walls and the ceiling were ripped and gashed from hundreds of impacts.
The disarticulated bodies of two other terrorists heaped half on top of eachother protruded halfway out of a room with thick blood puddling across to the floor boards. We stepped over them. Behind us the guys were clearing the adjacent rooms.
We found the end of the passage way blocked by a jumble of furnitures and beyond mattresses had been piled in a protective wall. At the base was the dark shape of the body of another terr the stock of his RPD broken and entangled with belts of rounds.
From the time we landed not a shot had been fired. Watching each footstep silently we moved on further down the corridor mindful to keep a reduced target. Then about five meters behind the mattresses outlined from the background by a shaft of light we saw a young blonde girl. Almost child looking. Visibly in a daze she was sitting motionless pointing a G3. With soft reassuring words we approached her. From the shoulder down her dress was covered with blood. The side of her head was a dark mass of bloodied matted hair.
Her name was Moira. Just turned twelve. She had suffered an ear loss from the gunfire. A round had grazed her scalp.
Slowly I reached for her rifle. With a distant and unseeing look in her eyes she let go of her grip. There was a 12 gauge pump action shot gun beside her the chamber jammed open by a half extracted spent case. Around on the floor were a dozen of empty magazines and hundreds of cartridge cases.
‘My daddy is hurt . . . and my Mum has taken Jimmy to safety. . . ‘
Behind her slumped against the wall covered with impacts was her father unconscious. In one hand he was clutching an Uzi and in the other two full magazines. Next to him staring were two little boys, huddled and shaking. The father had been shot in the chest, the boys were unhurt.
We carried on clearing the premises while the medic trained guys were applying first aid. A casevac chopper was already landing in the yard .
More bodies were discovered in the kaya – the Shona house employees living quarters- . Three women and a man. They showed signs of torture. Much later still wearing a look of terror six little Shona children crept out of the bushes .
Moira’s baby brother Jimmy was found under the body of his mother by the white Jaguar when after having been checked for booby trap she was lifted on to a stretcher. His skull had been crushed.
The weapon handling her father had taught Moira saved her life. As well as that of her two brothers and her father’s.
From their bases in the operational areas of the country the overstretched RLI was trying to keep up with a routine of two, sometime three sorties on a single day.
Fireforce sticks could be para-dropped from Daks but for reaction time and surprise choppers were mostly used. The french Alouette III’s reliable versatility making it the chosen work horse.
The troopie typically found himself sitting hours on end as a passenger to be transported to the contact areas with not much else to do but witness passively the pilot and the tech going through their motions. Sometimes with unintended consequences.
One night at a time when the Commandos had managed to keep one step ahead of the insurgency we were able with some pilots to unwind with a beer at the ‘Green Beret’ the FAF’s all rank camp watering hole. The evening wore on and the topic turned to the fact that it was generally agreed the Rhodesian Airforce helicopter pilots their flying skills unmatched undeniably stood alone in their part of the bush war. Most of us had at least at one time benefited from being hot extracted and in dramatic urgencies these pilots even assisted clearing improvised LZ’s from tree tops using their main rotor blades. Still, one of our guy well tanked up veered off with a rant claiming that any moron could fly a chopper himself having ‘learned’ enough simply by watching from his back seat. For the sake of keeping it good humored all agreed with a dismissive nod. The evening went on until in a moment of quiet someone asked if he was alone in hearing the faint sound of whirring rotors. Next he asked if anyone had seen Colin T. We looked at eachother and at once all bounded out of the bar in a frantic scramble for the LZ two hundred meters away. There in the full moon was a chopper bouncing down the runway. We watched until finally it banked and crashed into the bushes. The economic sanctions strangling Rhodesia made every piece of hardware valuable chopper parts not the least. For his stunt Colin T. did his 28 days stretch in DB-Detention Barracks-. Only his needed combat skills got him back into the unit. Several months later he was shot in a contact.
Fireforce tactics were usually conducted with long sweeps over rugged terrain interspersed by moves on the double. Spotted by OP’s the terrs usually got caught in the ‘box’. For those who could manage to keep a cool head it was to make it undetected by hiding in the trees, ditches, river beds, or anthills until the line had passed them by. The troops in their sweep invariably marched straight onto them. A case for most casualties. Hence the never enough emphasized importance of fieldcraft training. I recall a sweep when I had walked past one so well camouflaged it was only after a few yards that feeling a tingling sensation I spun around and saw through the carpet of dead leaves the white of his soles a split second before he swung to fire his AK. I barely had time for a double tap.
To enhance combat flexibility the troopie tried to keep the bulk of his kit to a minimum. The dress code was left as a personal choice for ease and comfort. A camo T-shirt -the blood group with a black marker visible on the chest -a pair of khaki crotch length shorts, a set of chest webbings- custom designed at personal expenses from the Salisbury outdoor supply store Faradays and Sons-, magazines for 150-200 rounds for an FN -belts of 400 for an MAG gunner- then variously and depending M962 grenades, 32 Zulu or 28 R rifle grenades, smoke grenades, M970 white phos, a 9mm -or. 45-pistol, a jab of Sosegon or morphin, a field dressing, a length of paracord, a couple of water bottles to be refilled on the move, ankle high canvas treadless rubber sole black tackies, the occasional headband though more often bareheaded, a wrist compass, a watch covered with a strip of camo cloth -also from Faradays and Sons- dog tags and, at times a good smear of camo cream. Plus depending an A 76 radio set and a bevvy. The lot tied down for silence. And the camo painted FN -carried without a sling- or the MAG.
At an elevation of 3, 500 ft Grand Reef was an airstrip -Forward Airfield 8- drawn on an open flat half an hour west from the town of Umtali on the border with Mozambique. It abutted on a low ridge less than two kilometers to the north. To the south east hillocks and protruding granite boulders dotted a savanna landscape down to the border.
The perimeter of the base was surrounded by a ten foot protective berm earthwork with spaced bunkers, overhead wire nets, trenches, pits, barbed wire, mined approaches and stretches of piled sand bags. . . .
A camp rule was that no one ever went anywhere without a rifle albeit the relative safety of the FAF was more or less taken for granted. Over the years incidents hardly more significant than a couple of terrs straying closeby had been reported and promptly dealt with. To some unfortunate extent this precarious quiet was allowed to lull the level of vigilance into an accepted complacency. Sharp alert but not trigger alert.
On the eve of the attack SB radioed the CO they had picked up a suspect carrying a detailed drawing of the camp. The general consensus was that any attempt made against the base was implicitely considered a presumptuously pointless and suicidal scenario. Without another thought the warning was given a pass.
To boot, the last light clearing foot patrol was skipped when instead the guys decided to watch a TV show in the graze hall. ‘Bless’Em All’, if I recall. Giving it a miss I went for a shower, some grub, then joined the guys at the ‘Green Beret’. The stickboard was rostered the Dak and the helos expected to return to the base early in the morning.
I turned in and before I could finish the chapter of the Wilbur Smith I was reading drifted off.
A tracer to every four rounds. As if putting up a counter attack Dick and I were laying down a solidly sustained defensive fire. In reality a pint sized trickle up against the torrent of oncomings.
Not really the time but I had a thought for the game roaming the area Africa’s bush wars unwitting crossfire sufferers.
As a reminder that tracers work both ways our bunker became the focus of their attention.
Five mags on and a smouldering barrel. The inside of our bunker was now filled with a veil of blueish smoke and the acrid smell of burnt powder. The ears ringing numb.
Taking a metal cooling break with my back resting against the wall I dropped to grab the 28R sticking out of the kidney pouch. Anti-tank not A/P, it’ll have to do. The coil of steel making it dual purpose.
I was still trying to figure out how they managed all the shit they were throwing at us and how many were out there. Going by the racket, fifty, . . . a hundred?
Magazine off, weapon cocked, chamber cleared. The rifle held upright between the knees I unclipped the ballistite from the MAG link I carried around my neck on a piece of paracord with the dog tags and a 1Cdo medallion. Flipped the sight fed the cartridge released the working parts fitted the grenade onto the muzzle and pulled the pin. Dismissing the odds of a direct hit I eased it through the opening. The first time I fired one of those was during training troop. The recoil almost wrenched the rifle out of my hands with the barrel leaping against the front teeth. My teeth were ok but the palm suffered a nasty gash. The experience still rankled.
The rifle firmly held between the elbow and the hip I tried to align the rounded tip of the grenade with the sights. All too dark, it would have to be guess work. Steady on the legs, a brace I pulled the trigger. The rifle jumped with a massive muzzle flash and hit the cross beam. My intention to follow the 150 meters curved trajectory was cut short when wood splinters sent me ducking.
Dick called out and pointed at a box of Icarus flares he had spotted on the floor. Agreeing that some light was a good idea we got hold of one each . A grope for the embossed ‘P’ marking the top and the piece of adhesive holding the trigger mechanism. Pointing at a high angle over the runway we fired simutanuously. The sparkling trails swooshed up 1, 200ft where they began to float down swaying gently under their toy size parachutes lighting up the country side with their 100, 000 candle power burning strength.
The shooting had ceased. The only sound now came from the faint crackling of the flares. Shielding the eyes from the dazzling white light we tried to penetrate the bush below the twinkling of the tree leaves while black shadows shifted and stretched erratically. Complete stillness.
Thirty seconds and all went dark again. Further down someone from our side now emerged to return some fire with gradually more joining in.
In the light of the flares we had spotted a DshK on a box its tripod leaning against a wall. To indulge a whim it was only the work of a moment to have it assembled the top cover slammed over the first round of a long belt and the cocking handle pulled right back. I got to fire the first burst.
Under the momentary illusion of some regained initiative the feel good effect from the punch was short lived due to the dead giveaway from the four foot cross-shaped muzzle flash spewed with each ear splitting burst.
As if in a timed parting shot for a grand finale by putting everything in it they unleashed for a solid minute yet the most intensely packed barrage of fire on the base. Some tracers tips even found their way into the interior of the bunker. Keeping right down we resigned ourselves to sit it out.
Then as the flipping of a switch it stopped altogether leaving behind a quivering stillness.
Lt Courtney’s silhouette popped in the entrance of the bunker. In a hushed voice ‘You ok, guys. . . ?
Lt Paul Courtney was one of those officers thought by all to be a ‘good guy’. Fair in dealing with the troops while capable of thinking on his feet. Though at times quirky as tended to be the norm. In Fort Vic when a tent covering a pile of ammo boxes accidently caught fire and while the rest of us sensibly went about to look for extinguishers he plunged without hesitation head first into the blaze and the firework of exploding rounds and began to drag the heavy crates out.
-A week after the Gd Reef attack we were on a sweep line in Op Thrasher. He was leading the call sign and I was carrying an MAG. Our advance up a steep kopje was halted when we came faced with a series of caves. All of a sudden contacts were engaged with furious firefights at every point along the line.
In a simultaneous sequence our section came under point blank fire range. I saw him stumble as a hail of rounds whizz-cracked at head level. Forgoing the ‘dash-down-crawl’ with a hold on the bipod the leather strap across the shoulder in a textbook Drake shoot I let a long burst into the bushes to the front kicking up massive dust . For some seconds after I had released the trigger bits of leaves and branches were still dropping to the ground. In the bushes were two bodies a PKM, and an SKS.
Intense firing was still going on with some heavy echoing down the valley. I turned around calling for attention. He was laying flat on his back. ‘Looks like he knocked himself out cold’ I said to the other guy as we walked back to help him up on his feet. On getting closer he looked contentedly asleep. There was a small red mark on his cheek. Then we saw he was laying in a seeping puddle of blood. The back of his head was a gaping hole.
The day was Christmas Eve.
Fresh out of the Gwelo’s Officers Course the ambitious sought a commission with one of the prestigious Commandos of the RLI. Not all of them quite making the cut with some rapidly labelled ‘waste of rations’ who often ended up bailed out of tight corners by contacts hardened NCO’s. Notably was one who by pulling ranks regularly bossed a troopie to clean his rifle and fill his magazines until one day he found himself pinned down in the middle of a bad punchup returning fire with blanks. Or another who was leading a sweep up a gomo and , for some freaky reasons only known to himself had coiled a good length of Cordtex primed to the dets – from the force of the blast it was suspected a claymore was part of it-he then had packed the lot on top of his bergen. The first round coming his way detonated the charge much to the annoyance of the two guys covering his flanks these with luck had to contour some obstacles putting some distance in between and in addition to being rendered momentarily deaf ended up showered with body parts . Or the time our troop was sent on an ‘external’ to check on ZANLA on the outskirts of the south eastern town of Malvernia in Mozambique. A young officer priding himself on his faultless compass reading -and for the record ignoring the corrections I had suggested against my own- led our callsign way off course to end up entangled into a massive jessebush. When eventually we emerged on the other side we had barged straight on a big bunch of freds doing their camp chores. For what could not have been more than three seconds time remained suspended as both sides stood oggling taking in the situation. With bulging eyes some were holding their washing frozen in mid-air the laundry pegs in their mouths. Then everyone reached for his weapon. We covered a hasty pull back by letting them have a long squirt . A kilometer away -with Sgt Brammel giggling at the encounter- their RPG’s and AA 14, 5 were still chewing our landscape. Ints later reported that despite the spectacular exchange of fire neither side had suffered any casualty. Short of a miracle and just as well since we were not supposed to engage the freds.
For several minutes while the camp warily emerged from its trance like state the only sounds were the moans from the wounded and the organized rush to put out the fires. It appeared there was not going to be any assault after all.
This is the time our mortar team chose to enter into action. The prolongued silence was suddenly ripped by the deafening blast from the bedding in of the 81’s . Mistaken for another attack it triggered a fresh bout of panic and sent once more most of the camp scurrying back for cover.
From the bunker we could hear the instructions called out for elevation and deflection, six-four degrees, one-eight -five degrees. . . Then a heavy weight of fire on the target area’s beaten zone was unleashed with a continuous fall of rounds intensely pumped down for effect at the rate of 10 per minute in a proper mortar procedure.
The night horizon lit up with distant intermittent orange flashes followed by muffled rumbles. But we knew that by now it was a case of barn door and bolted horse.
At first light a sweep was carried out. Upon reaching the area Dick and I had concentrated our fire as we looked for booby traps we discovered a ground covered with thousands of empty cases, ammo steel containers, mortar rounds wooden boxes, RPG booster wraps, spent 106’s and 75’s shells, empty tins of food, water bottles some footwear, a mirror and shaving razors.
Some distance away a body laid in the bushes face down. Dick cast a quizzical glance in my direction. With a string tied to the shoulder it was flipped over. Pretty mangled it was hard telling what got it. The bark at the base of the trees was ripped from impacts.
Further away vehicle tracks revealed the extent of organization and brazen confidence gone in the planning of the attack.
Leaving blood spoors the group had melted back into the bush and likely dispersed its gear amongst the kraals in the area. Undermanned to be carried out efficiently a follow up was called off until later.
On the way back as I was about to cross the runway I paused on the edge of the bush in the area where the attack had been initiated. Taking in the perspective I turned around to look back at the base then slowly up and down the length of the airstrip. I realized with a brief gut churn that on the previous evening my run had taken me less than three meters away past in front of these guys. Several times. . .
The attack had lasted less than fifteen minutes. We could have been overrun a fact that was heavy on everyone’s mind. Based on their ints their timing was to coincide with the Commando’s changeover. Our unknown low present strength level may possibly have been a deterrent for a push.
We had casualties. An airburst had killed a Signal Operator and among the several seriously wounded was a guy who at the break of the attack had stepped out of his tent into an exploding mortar round. In the morning he had returned just released from hospital for a gun shot through the neck.
The ‘Green Beret’ had been gutted, the shower blocks destroyed, several 4. 5 had been hit – their windscreens curiously like cooled molten lava covered their hoods- every building wall was heavily pock marked and their roofs damaged. When Dick G. returned to his shredded tent he discovered the surface of his mattress split in half lengthwise.
The upshot beside a few guys temporarily shaken up was dissipated overnight by a return to normality with the brutal intensity of the fireforce deployments.
Nonetheless. However loath to admit it we had allowed it to happen. The ZANLA had a score to gloat about. And it stung. Furthermore none of its attackers were ever traced.
In the following days issues were addressed and token measures carried out. More sand bags were filled, additional ammos piled in the bunkers, guard duties were increased and patrols went deeper.
That evening after I had put the broom away and was done shaking debris of glass and plaster off my mattress I pulled a tarp to plug a gaping hole in the roof above my bed space. Then I settled again with the Wilbur Smith, and before I could finish the same chapter once more drifted off.
Two weeks later I left the Cdo to report for the SAS selection course.
Copyright text, photos Henri Lepetit