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Attack on a Rhodesian Fireforce Base. by Henri Lepetit

Rhodesia’s Bush War: Attack on a Fireforce Base, Part I

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Attack on a Rhodesian Fireforce Base.

Henri Lipetit Book SAS

by Henri Lepetit, photos and text copyright 

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.

Moving to Base

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.

Pre-emptively acting in self-defence Rhodesia was forced to cross its borders to hunt and neutralize these groups.

On November 23 of that year in a coordinated move the Rhodesian Airforce, commandos of the Rhodesian Light Infantry and squadrons from the Special Air Service hammered the  Zimbabwe Af.  liberation army (ZANLA) in Mozambique.  Launching from the FAF’s -Forward Airfields- at Grand Reef and Mtoko they went on to hit two large training complexes near Chimoio and Tembue taking out more than 1, 200 CT’s -Communist Terrorists, gandangas.

7.62 Ballistite and 1Cdo Medallion

One of these ZANLA unit away at the time from the camps escaped the onslaught.  Contriving a way to vent their frustration over this jarring note in their ‘war of liberation’ they came up with a scheme for revenge and picked the Grand Reef air base as their symbolic target.

Considering the routine mauling the Rhodesians meted out on these groups one can albeit reluctantly grant them kudos for even contemplating the job.

Running around name calling eachother Comrade, psyched up by a combination of Chimurenga battle songs, mystic beliefs, a daily dose of marxist tripe and happy with their new pairs of jeans the group started off from Chimoio loaded with weaponry and taking a southern route penetrated the border into the Chipinge area.  Making use of the tree cover from the wet season they treaded their way north through the kangeen up gomos and down dongas towards the town of Umtali-today’s Mutare- exacting along a sustenance of sadza and Chibuku from the hapless locals put to contribution for the common struggle.  In return for their hospitality these were liberally repaid by having the doctrinal ideals of a future communist paradise beaten senselessly into their brains.  The whole idea a sociological concept as unintelligible as it was alien to their ancestral tribal based culture.

Most FAF’s made use of the hand labour supplied by the locals.  These were happy to perform chores and other menial tasks in return for a living.  The SF area of the camps to them at all time out of bound.

Planning their attack the group with a measure of coercion wheedled one of the  day worker, an old madala into providing them with a layout of the base.  He did so with a drawing on a piece of paper.

Three and a half weeks after the raid on Chimoio weighed down with a sand bag a rifle and a set of chest webbing I was training for an upcoming SAS selection course sweating out a daily PT up and down the 1200 meters runway at Grand Reef.

A gunship was flying a last light patrol against a corny setting sun while in the distance a moving thunderstorm was rumbling.   At that instant the group had lined up in the bushes across the airstrip and biding its time was gawping at the base .

22:50.  Serenely I surface from knocking out Zz’s.

In a dreamlike state I watch through the open door the night sky filled solid with streaks of glowing coloured zipping dashes.

No sound.  . .  some unscheduled night training.  . .  ?

Two ticks.  . .  and the full force blow.  An ear splitting blast whacks me wide awake.  The heart bounces on the back teeth.  The shock wave slams against the structure rushing in a cloud of dust.   Orange flashes abruptly light up the entire barrack room while shrapnels pit the prefab spraying chunks and splinters.

Brutally yanked out of sleep the stunned brain is fumbling to adjust. Fuck, the compound has been breached.

About to sit up I throw myself on the floor and for a second lay there. Got to get a grip,  steady the nerves and snap out of that bonelessness. Volleys of rounds rake the barrack the glimmering bits of the tracers bounce about the walls.  In the strobe flashes from a succession of explosions I discern dark shapes under the rows of beds.  Cowering in terror these yelp blood curdling wails.

Must get out.  Now.

The Croc

Pressing flat on my back muttering curses with feverish fingers I try to tie the laces on my tackies at the same time cradling tight my FN.  Got to grab my webbings.  These hang from the window handle right above the camp bed.  I reach up when the whole frame bursts out of the wall in a shower of shards I land back hard on the floor and the webbings drop right on top of my swede.

The other set lay at the bottom of the bed.  In one short breath I snatch the lot and sling it over my neck. Just wearing shorts in a monkey run I make a push for the doorway though the dust and the shattered glass.  Further down the barrack with a sudden air vacuum another fiery bolt from an RPG -or a recoilless?!!- punches through the walls. With a tight hold on the pistol grip and the stock I scramble for the way out.

Crossing the threshold I become aware what that 82 will do when it hits the concrete floor and turning around holler for everyone to get out.  In the general commotion the words are wasted. Trade men.  TA’s, MT’s and cooks their bottles lost, sorry for the sods.

Keeping the head right down I weave my way through the barrage of high explosive fireballs and gushes of incendiary sparks from the unceasing pounding of rockets and mortars.  Packets of thick speeding luminous dotted trails bounce off the hills in the distance and barely inches above the head the unabated torrent of crakling rounds.

3 Trp 1 Cdo Gd Reef Dick G-Tom Z-Scott M- Narrator HL-Dave B and Jo P

A bloody fucking revv.  They are still outside the wire, for the time being.

Breaking for the nearest bunker I pass Dick G.  on the way.  In his skivvies he is already  returning potshots over the embankment blindly with his rifle above his head.

‘Hey Dick, ‘tsup, let’s go and find a better posi for a dekko’

He turns around and with a deer in the headlights look ‘Er, Henri right ,  good idea’

With unbroken deafening thuds all around we lunge in a hurried crouch into the first bunker.  Large enough to accomodate twenty it is empty.

‘What the fuck happened to the others?’ I ask.

‘Don’t know, you are the only I have seen yet’

A thought briefly crosses the mind; if we were the only survivors. .  .  Doubled over we move through the dark interior.  I take a tumble over a stack of invisible crates.  More curses at a throbbing shin.  We station ourselves at the corners.  In a brief moment of hesitation we hunker down below the opening and exchange glances as to ask who will volunteer first to have his head taken out for a look over the parapet.

Manning the MAG

With the minimum exposed we both hazard a glimpse.  The vision is of one driving fast at night ploughing into a hail storm.  From the other side of the tarmac a curtain of fire of incomings keeps streaming directly into the camp.  The brunt visibly concentrated on the Army side of the base.  Our side.  The Airforce’s apparently showing less interest.

Life and immediate actions are now timed from one jittery second to the next.  Switch on before you get switched off.  A deep breath intake to think and weigh in the options while getting mullered.  One may be to start and show some reaction by giving it the appearance of a firefight.  Cannot shake that sensation of nerve wracking isolation.  An assault any moment.  .  .  their thumps are audible.  .  .

With all the spare magazines laid out and the adrenaline pumping I wedge the stock of my FN in the angle of the supporting and cross beams of the slit.  A thirty round mag with the change lever on full auto.   I realize I still have the Trilux on.  The eye pressed on the rubber eyeguard I twiddle the brightness control lever to adjust the nail like aiming pointer.  A waste of time.  The moonless night yields only a blurry mass of blinding sparks about 200 meters away. A snap shoot.  I’ll just let it rip.

To Dick, for fun I yell ‘Watch my tracers, where it strikes, fire. ‘

We open up.

3 Trp 1 Cdo Gd Reef Dick G-Tom Z-Scott M- Narrator HL-Dave B and Jo P

Early on that morning as part of a detachment from 3 Troop 1Cdo from the RLI of the First Battalion we left the Cranborne barracks in Salisbury for the Grand Reef Fireforce air base in Manicaland 30 k’s west of Umtali in the eastern highlands.  The rest of the troop was to join a day later.  3 Cdo had completed its stint and we were taking over.

The remote parts of the road went past TTL’s  where mujibas- herd boys -kept the CT’s posted on security forces moves making it confirmed ambush country.  The convoy had the usual make up of Crocs -armoured carriers-and 4, 5 Mercedes I was tasked  to man the MAG on the back of a 2, 5 Unimog .  Five hours on with a halfway break at one of the Women Volunteers canteen for courtesy tea and a stock up on reading material we drove up the last winding stretch of red dirt road and entered the base.

The changeover of Cdo’s completed orders were issued and everyone went to organize their living quarters easing into a camp routine for the next eight weeks.

A rewind.

Over a year had gone by when one morning walking down the streets of Salisbury and experiencing the lively and carefree atmosphere of a sunny Saturday when girls in long light dresses were enjoying their tea and milkshakes at the terraces of the cafes I was looking for Gordon Street.  I had traveled half way around the world and now I was discovering with a growing concern that no such address existed.  Reluctantly I had to ask for directions to a passing gentleman who suggested that what I may have been looking for was Gordon ‘Avenue’- the newspaper article I had picked up while beach bumming along the Mexican Pacific coast had mentioned a Gordon ‘Street’.

A short while later I found myself standing in front of the narrow street window of the Armed Forces recruiting center.  Mesmerized with excitement I was staring at a precisely detailed mock up with miniature models in a recreated bush battle scene.

A soldier came out followed by another.  I watched them climb in the camouflaged Land Rover parked in front.  The driver started the engine and eyeing me pointed to the inside of the building.  With a gesture he indicated a flight of stairs where if I wanted I would find informations.

Steep steps lead to the first floor.  In the middle of a small room was a desk where  an officer was busy writing.  Behind him on the wall above some notes and photographs and next to a Rhodesian flag hung a poster showing a drawing of a soldier carrying a rifle and the words ‘Be a Man among Men.  The Rhodesian Army’.

With a large welcoming smile Major N.  Lamprecht invited me to take a seat.

Having listened to my intentions he then proceeded with a brief presentation of the situation as to fill me in.  Kindly asking if I had any questions -and showing not the least interest about my previous military experience in a parachute regiment- he concluded by handing over some forms. These he emphasized I was to read carefully over the week-end and having reached a decision I was to return first thing Monday morning signed, depending.  It was only after I had explained that being down to my last four dollars with no intention of going anywhere and my mind already made up that a whole week-end was not necessary to think anything over.   After a final and polite attempt to moderate my haste he pulled a Bible out of a drawer.  I placed a determined  left hand on the cover and raising the right one solemnly pledged my oath of commitment.

Fieldcraft Training

Downstairs I saw the guys from the Land Rover had returned.  After a brief joking chat the Major gave them some papers with the order to drive me to the RLI barracks.  I could not suppress the grin I had on my face as I hopped in the back with my small suitcase.

Reversing out of the parking space the driver leaned out and yelled : ‘Hang on,  gotta make it on time for ‘graze, ekse’ -the ‘r’ rolled.  Then he floored it.  Later I found out he meant lunch.

Over four months later to mark the end of Training Troop our intake -158- performed the ceremonial passing out parade on the drill square at the Cranborne Barracks in Salisbury.  On this ‘Open day’ the relatives of the recruits had been invited to attend.  In a impeccable turnout of pressed shirt, gleaming white belt, a glinting badge on the green beret, polished to a mirror hobnail boots and shaved to the bone we executed a perfectly synchronized march with the earth resounding thump of a single heel. A display that left the families misty eyed with pride.

Coming to a halt the squad stood to attention.  Eyes front I could still watch the CO heading straight to where I was standing.  He stopped in front of me and in an unusual semi casual tone asked which Commando I had in mind to join.  Startled by the unexpected query and having until this moment given the matter little thought my mind was racing for an answer.  .  .  1 Cdo’s high kill rate was a byword and the ‘1’sounded neat.  I croaked ‘Er, 1 Cdo.  . .  ?’.

During training troop the programme for each week was typed on an A4 pinned to a board in the barrack room.  At the bottom of the eighteenth sheet one could read: ‘Unless the recruit failed the PE Tests, Trg Tests or Classification those who had qualified were to ‘Proceed to sub-units.  Cheers!’Capt Cooper, Trg Offr.  ‘

Training Troop Norman Mayne-Narrator HL-T Z-D B

Later on that evening everyone who had passed met for a celebratory dinner at the Beverley Rocks Motel outside Salisbury.  In a festive spirit we all sat at a long U shaped table. The meal concluded the room went quiet. At that moment a pretty, no,  a very pretty girl who happened to be sitting next to me with a nudge brought to my attention that my name had been called out. Fairly tight -after two beers- I managed to steady myself into a standing position.  I was then requested to approach the head of the table where Capt Cooper-the CO- , Cpl Robbertze, L/Cpl Graham and L/Cpl Brown our training troop instructors were sitting.  Teetering my way on I felt a series of encouraging slaps on the back.  Having made it to their table I could see placed on the white cloth an elaborately worked bronze sculpture about eighteen inches high.  In the shape of a plinth engraved with a series of names it was flanked by a brace of crossed model FN rifles.  The room was gently rotating about and I was not having the foggiest.  Then with a big smile each Corporal in turn grabbed my hand for a firm congratulatory handshake while Capt Cooper looked on benevolently.  I was being presented with the trophy for Best Recruit.  Too overwhelmed for words I stood for several seconds dumbly rooted to the floor with my mouth hanging .  Later when I tried to stagger off with the actual trophy the guys -and the girl-tried to explain that all was fine but the small wooden plaque with my name engraved above the regiment crest I had been given was for me to keep and the actual trophy was to stay with the Regiment.  Right.  . .

Pre-dawn was breaking and with no taxi in sight the girl and I caught a lift back into town in the cab of a rubbish collecting truck.  Our intake had been granted some r+r  before reporting to the Cdos.  I blew my savings and the two of us flew for the week-end at the Victoria Falls Hotel.  (In an instance of ‘where were you when.  . .  ‘ it was from the radio in the room one afternoon we heard Elvis had died).

Having gone through the gruelling period of training troop our original intake cast of pals Scott M.  -a Brit, Jo. P.  -a Romanian, Norman Mayne-an Irishman , Dick G.  – an Aussie, Dave B.  -a Kiwi, Tom Z.  -from SW Africa and Mike K.  -from North Carolina all chose to join the same Cdo.

For our first bushtrip we were sent to the FAF in Fort Victoria-Karango. ‘Fort Vic’ then, today Masvingo.

Late one afternoon fresh troopies we got off the trucks and stepped into the cryptic setting of an operational fireforce base.  A war zone with its deceptively casual atmosphere where discipline was no longer formally obeyed, failure of which in training troop got you back squadded or thrown out but was from now on implicitely self enforced failure of which became a security risk getting you killed or worse getting someone else killed.

The base was at full capacity and all sleeping quarters taken up. After a prolongued search I managed to locate a vacant bed in a large tent and putting digs on it placed the bulk of my webbings on top then we all met for chow.

Lists of names were chalked on a board outside the briefing room for the morning first callout.  Each stick to a chopper.  Parts of the assault group were a Lynx -a push-pull propelled aircraft loaded with rocket pods and 20 gal.   canisters of Frantan -frangible tanks filled with Rhodesian napalm- a K-Car gunship fitted with a 20mm canon and several G-Cars to move the stop groups.

Tom Z.   was first from our group to make the list.  His customary offhand demeanour contrasted with our excitement.

Later when I returned for the night I found a guy laying on my bed and my gear in a heap in a corner.  As a green troopie finding my marks I thought some explanations may have been opportune. However these were cut short when not bothering to look in my direction and using the tone to address an underling I was dismissed with a : ‘Fuck off and go find yourself another wankpit’.  When a combat veteran threw his weight around there was not much I could do in the way of a telling come back.  Stoically I picked up my gear and went looking for some floor space elsewhere.

At first light I was jolted out of sleep by the blaring of the sirens.  Sipping from a mug of tea we all met on the LZ to watch Tom Z.   kitting up while in the background the hissing pitch of the rotors of the choppers was picking up.  He took the front seat by the door his MAG resting on his lap .  In the whirlwind of the lift off and exhaust fumes with a casual smirk he gave us a thumb up .  Boarding another chopper I had noticed the guy who had taken my bed the night before. We watched the formation rear up and fly away until a series of silent tiny dots it disappeared over the hills on the shimmering horizon.

I am not sure about the other guys but I may have experienced a slight lump in the throat.  The training troop days were for sure now over.

At noon someone announced their return.  There was a report of casualties.

We all gathered as the choppers approached for landing.  Searching for the faces it was with relief we spotted Tom.  He wore the expression of one who had gone on a shopping trip and on the way back had been stuck in a bad traffic.

In his usual unhurried stroll he came over to join us.  A length of empty MAG links hung from his webbings.

We were all eager for the details.  Always a gifted phrase maker he summed it up.   ‘Steric contact.  Slotted six floppies’.  Then to be thorough added ‘Also wounded five and captured three.  Left the lot with the SB-Special Branch- guys’.

He then pointed to the pouch on his belt where a water bottle should have been.  ‘A round took it out’ he chuckled.  Reaching inside his webbings he pulled a soiled piece of cloth and unwrapping it produced an AK bayonet.   ‘Hey, first loot’.   The scabbard was covered with caked up blood already gone black.  Somebody pointed out the handle had taken a hit making the thing pretty much useless.

Training troops JP Henri Lepetit

We made our way towards the graze hall -troopie’s canteen- to hear more on the contact.  As we passed a rubbish drum Tom lobbed the bayonet in it ‘Plenty more where this one came from’.  Letting the rest of the guys get ahead he tapped me on the shoulder and with a complicit grin waved a thumb back towards the last chopper coming in for landing.

‘By the way Henri,  you got your bed back’

I looked at the chopper a body bag was sticking out the side.

As we walked past the stick board I saw my name chalked up for the next callout.

The security situation thoughout the country was taking a turn for the worse with Combined Operational Headquarters announcing daily terrorist ambushes and attacks on farms with an ever increasing number of victims.  The Rhodesians who could afford it joined the armoured convoys and made a beeline south across the Limpopo to a safer life in South Africa.  The country was happy to take in a resourceful people with a high standard of education, farming and technical abilities (Rhodesian GSCE Level was then more valued than the UK equivalent ).

For the armed gangs prowling the land the isolated farms were soft targets.  In reaction to the threats these had established between them a warning radio network.  An ingenious system but not without its limits.

NEXT:  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………….

Rhodesia Photobook Henri Le Petit Click on graphic for purchase of book
Rhodesia by Henri Lepetit

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