Before we start Tony’s blog I would like to ask that supporters share the link in other groups, firearms, military history or anything where people would enjoy reading these stories. Tony is putting a lot of time into sharing his personal experiences and I personally think it is wonderful to be able to get such a close and human feeling of these events which are forgotten or unknown to many people today, thank you.-Dave
People not intimate with the Rhodesian war can be forgiven for not knowing that the ‘bush war’ for Rhodesia included a lot of conventional battles. My intention in this blog is to show how serious things became but in spite of that we never felt we would fail in the defence of our country.
The first part of this blog
takes place on the ‘Russian Front’ (ie Mozambique) and if you look for Vila
Salazar or Malvernia in the bottom right hand corner, you will see a railway
track that leads south east all the way to the capital city of Mozambique
called Maputo. This is where Rhodesia faced its biggest threat as the
population was sparse and the ground flat and hard to form defensive lines.
The operation described
herein is called operation Uric.
The second part of the blog
is north west at Victoria Falls, where nearly all the other blogs have revolved
around, to date.
In my previous blog you will
have read that I eventually left Victoria Falls and went to live in Gwelo, in
the central part of the country.
From there I did one more tour of duty at the
‘Russian front’ and came to believe that we were losing the war. The only way
we could have won in that sector was to go totally conventional and destroy
Frelimo and Zanla all the way back to and including Maputo but I know the
political will was not there and our regular forces were stretched to breaking
point. Any invasion on the scale I am thinking of would have involved several
if not all territorial battalions, the Selous Scouts and all six national
service companies. This would have left the country wide open to attack from
the north. Anyway, the political side was something even more forbidding than
the military and Margaret Thatcher, having said she was going to recognize one
of our internal leaders (after a well-supported election – 67% turnout) called
Bishop Abel Muzorewa, turned tail when the Queen (VERY disappointing to us as
we all loved her) and Carrington and others, including Nigeria who threatened
nationalization of BP put immense pressure on her to plug for Mugabe. The ‘iron
lady’ suddenly turned to rust. It was a heart-breaking time for Rhodesians,
many, many of whom were British from 1st to 5th
generation and as patriotic to the Queen as any other country on Earth. To this
day I feel the anger of the betrayal we faced but I do not hold a grudge
against the British people who had little say in this treachery apart from
Harold Wilson’s Marxist left who I detest.
Many British people on the left say we had it
coming to us, a small band of racists holding down a black majority. Well, if
you believe that you will believe anything. If that were true why was our army
80% black and all volunteers? And Smith as well as all of us knew power sharing
had to take place but only when our fellow black countrymen had been trained to
run the government. This may sound shocking, even patronising today but back
then the white man had only been in Rhodesia a mere eighty years and had faced
two world wars and a new and growing economy that demanded western methods of
government to guide it. There simply was not that depth of schooling or
sophistication among the tribesmen of the day to just hand our country over to.
We were basically fighting for time to evolve naturally. However, the country
is full of mineral riches and I think the west felt it was cheaper to get their
hands on it through a dictator rather than a well-oiled administration as the
former will accept bribes.
But I digress. After my second tour of the
‘Russian front’ I asked for a transfer to 2RR Support Coy, which was granted
and much to my pleasure and joy I was posted to Victoria Falls of all places,
in charge of a mortar and anti-tank platoon, the latter being superb US 106mm
I had no idea how to fire a mortar much less
the recoilless rifle but was pleased to find out my 2i/c was one of the best
qualified mortar/recoilless rifle operators in the country. That was a
By this stage my girlfriend Mally and I had
broken up (please read the previous blog to get the context of this story) and
it broke my heart to drive to our cottage and look at the place; the very
flowers we had planted and the bunker to shelter in during mortar attacks as
well as an imagined snapshot of our black and white cat ‘tookie’ named after my
nickname. My eyes watered and I swallowed down the sadness before driving into
camp where I sat under a big tree, drinking tea and waiting for my platoon to
arrive from Bulawayo by road (I had flown in from Salisbury).
So many thoughts floated in and out of my
mind that I was far away mentally when four vehicles drove into camp. They
looked like something from the ‘Desert rats’ with goggled men peering over
their unscreened steering wheels, hair matted from the wind. I thought what a
tough looking bunch they were and wondered what weapon was under the tarp of
the 2nd and 3rd vehicles when my eyes dropped onto a
mortar shell with wings sprouting out the booster ring with ‘2RR Support Coy’
‘Shit! It’s my platoon!’ I
spat to myself, spilling tea as I jerked upright out of my seat. The vehicles
ground to a halt in a cloud of dust out of which appeared this big ‘Dutchman’
by the name of Johan.
‘Hello Sir, he said, saluting lazily, ‘I’m
looking for Lieutenant Ballinger’.
‘That’s me,’ I returned the salute, ‘I take it
you’re from 2RR Support Coy?’ It was a stupid question as this information was
stencilled over the doors of all four vehicles.
‘Yessir’, Johan said, raising one eyebrow. The
men had all alighted by now with sergeant Accorsi lining them up in two rows.
‘I’ll look the guys over,’ I said and stood in
front of them as they were called to attention. I felt flushed as twenty five
pairs of eyes bored into me…they looked quite unkempt with matted hair and
tanned faces; a few years older than the national servicemen I had served with
so recently, some with beards and others in the process of growing one; hair
just at unacceptable lengths. In other words pretty much like any civilian
soldier anywhere on Earth.
Lieut Ballinger and I’ll be your CO for this call-up. I’ve already
chatted to the JOC Commander here and he has told us we will be stationed
behind the ruins of the Elephant Hills ruins up there,’ I pointed behind them.
They all swivelled and had a quick look before facing me again. ‘It’ll be dark
in an hour or two and it’s a bit rough up there, so we’ll camp here for the
night. I will allow ten guys to go out tonight on a liberty run and they will
be chosen by lots. Officers and NCOs only may go inside the casino (lots of
grumbles like my NS guys!) but all other places are open to you. Find a place
to sleep after being dismissed and that’ll be it for today.’ I was then
introduced to Sergeant Accorsi (who I did not get on well with, there is always
a fly in the ointment but he was an excellent recoilless man) and each of the
men in turn. About fifteen were white and ten black, the latter used as a guard
force to our perimeter, once camp was set up. I spent the next hour or two
chatting to Johan, explaining I had no knowledge of mortars or recoilless
rifles but I was with them essentially as a decision-maker and not a specialist
‘No sweat, Sir’ Johan said, ‘I’ll have you up
to speed in no time. And he was as good as his word. Over the next few days he
drilled me on the use of the plotting board and the commands given to fire a
mortar. We had two 81 mm mortars and two 60mm mortars for local defence. Firing
pits had been dug, ammo buried beneath ground level in two compartments and
radiating shell-scrapes scratched out the earth for each man to shelter in if
the enemy returned fire, which they could do with accuracy after the UK had
supplied Zambia with the Green Archer system that plots incoming mortar and
artillery shells with great accuracy, mapping out co-ordinates for return fire.
A comfortable-sized tent had been erected for me with a nice stretcher and
chair set up. The two sergeants shared a tent of similar size while the men
slept under their nylon bivvies.
In addition to training me how to understand
mortar procedures we practised ‘standing to’ and simulated firing mortars at
diverse targets. After a week of this I was becoming quite proficient.
I loved the evenings when we would sit around
a small, sheltered fire and drink a beer or two and chat about previous
experiences and ‘war stories’. It was times like that where friendships were
moulded, some of which remain as strong and steadfast today as they did forty
odd years ago.
I also visited the casino and good old Fred
and Linda and a few others were there but it was depressing and out of place
without Mally there so I tended to visit the main Victoria Falls hotel where I
had the delights of dancing with and bedding the odd foreign tourist that had
‘sex with a soldier’ on their bucket list, no doubt. Lucky me!
I will never forget being the duty officer up
there on the summit bar roof, which commanded a good view of Zambia and the
very place where I went during the one mortar attack on the village, having
been brushed aside by a man looking intently at a plotting board while shells
fell all around (see previous blog). I was now that very man! How ironic. And I
would lay on my stretcher at night and watch the spray form the falls climb up
into starlit heavens like a massive ladder. I thought a lot about Mally and
wondered where she was now.
A week or so later, I was
summoned to a ‘JOC’ (Joint Operations Command) meeting at the A’Zambezi hotel,
situated right on the banks of the Zambezi river, the very place I and a
companion had run to months earlier after our convoy had been demolished in the
bush nearby. A rondavel attached to the hotel served as the command hub with
the radio tent erected just outside some double doors where men sat hunched
over radios, listening out for reports to and from patrols in the area, as far
as forty miles away. A big, round table sat in the middle of the room with
about twelve chairs tucked under its circumference, jugs of cold water and
biscuits set In the middle. Coffee was served. Each unit had a chair for its boss
to sit at and the beauty of this system is that no arm of the defence forces
was left ‘out in the cold’ in decision-making processes that would affect them.
I believe this was the strength of the Rhodesian army. Across the river,
Russian ‘advisers’ knew little about their missions which were being decided
and planned in Moscow, where the ‘map men’ had no idea about local conditions.
All our men from colonel downwards were on the front line so to speak. A
Brigadier sat directly opposite me, a bit too far away to read his name tag
balanced on the table top. A brief throat-clearing exercise from him brought
the meeting to order. A secondary circle of seats is where supporting officers
and NCOs sat. I was relieved Johan was behind me to answer any technical
questions if they arose. An instruction to the guard to close the door was
given and then the Brigadier spoke.
‘Gents, morning,’ he said without expecting a
reply. ‘I have some very alarming and serious news I have to share with you.’
He paused for effect; all eyes were glued on him. ‘What you hear here today is
not to be repeated outside these walls. Any man convicted of spreading the news
you are about to hear will be court-martialled with a guaranteed sentence of
one year. A series of ongoing reports from special forces across the river
indicate that Nkomo’s forces based in Zambia are now ready, on a conventional
footing, to invade Rhodesia.’
I felt my skin prickle and my heart beat
quickly; I looked at the others chatting to each other, tongues licking dry
lips. We were one of two main entry routes into the country, we would be seeing
action for sure. It was 1979 and the Patriotic Front were throwing all they
could into defeating us militarily in case their political support was lost.
Going conventional was the last phase of all communist plans to overthrow a
country. This was phase four.
‘We have reports of over twenty thousand
conventionally trained and equipped men across the river waiting for the word
to go ahead. They have armoured support and no doubt air support will be given
to them. For this reason, a number of reinforcements will be sent to Victoria
Falls. We have reason to believe that a large river crossing will be attempted
by gook ‘regulars’ to unlock the defences at Vic Falls bridge from the rear.
And the main attack will happen across the bridge with two battalions of men
stuffed into a train that will literally scream across the bridge and deposit
its load in the village. I felt sick thinking of the rape and murder if that
‘To this end a force of twenty armoured cars
and supporting troops will be arriving in the next day or so. Two companies of
9RR will join us as well as extra artillery pieces. We already have 4
Independent Company here as well as a couple of troops of Greys Scouts
(cavalry) and some special forces. We have mortar support from 2RR as well as
anti-tank recoilless rifles’. Heads swivelled to look at my identity placard
and then at me, followed by a brief nod and smile.
The Brigadier went on to explain where the
troops would be positioned. From the air the rail head that crossed over into
Zambia looked like a lizards neck and head. The ‘nostrils’ were where the
bridge crossed over into Zambia and the neck is where we would build defences.
For a start the rail lines were fitted with derail mechanisms, a camera fitted
to the bridge positioned so the line over into Zambia could be seen from a
control room without exposing men, an eight foot fence was erected along the
right hand side of the neck (looking north) fitted with loads of nasty bangs by
Engineers. An existing fence to the left was similarly decorated. Two large
bunkers made from fuel drums full of sand and thick timbers were erected beyond
the eastern fence, big enough to hold at least fifteen men each, glistening
with rows of machine guns and tinned boxes of ammo. A recoilless rifle was
inserted near them.
Just south, near the control room, we erected
two more barriers made out of two layers of fuel drums full of sand, just
slightly staggered so my two 106 ant-tank guns could take on armour crossing
the bridge. Armoured cars and more troops lined the neck and upper body of the
I underwent a crash course learning how to set
up, sight and even fire the 106. We took one of them far west with two empty
drums as a target and fired at it from about seven hundred yards away. It was
an amazing experience. You sit at right angles to the weapon and look into a
site, once on target you pull a lever and a 12.7mm siting round flies off to
the target. The Egyptians used to abandon their tanks when they heard the
siting round hit their armour. If on target you push the same lever and a big,
deafening woosh hits your ears and your peripheral vision is swallowed up by an
orange firestorm, the effect of which was a massive warhead striking the
target. In my case I missed, but the line of sight indicated I had missed the
top of the two drums by an inch or two and if it had been a tank it would have
been destroyed without doubt.
From that moment life seemed to go on as
normal. I met a few of my old NS guys and had a few beers with them while
enjoying the casino once more. I found more mates at the local camp site where
rows of armoured cars were parked, fires lit at night, beers out and young
faces reflected by flickering flames. I had determined that if a genuine
attempt to cross the river was made I would tell Fred and Ivor to take their
families out of town and stuff the court martial.
I had befriended a young lady at the Victoria
Falls hotel and being in luck was invited home for a ‘drink’, the universal
codeword for sex. I nearly choked as I entered her flat, which she shared with
a friend, when I saw my course officer the ‘smiling shit’ (see previous blog)
climbing the staircase ahead of me, girl in tow. He glared at me, spitting out
my surname from thin lips and for a few seconds I lost my desire to make love
and almost fled the building. But I soon recovered from the shock and was soon
ensconced in my lover’s arms.
It started at about ten pm that summery
evening. I was in throes of passion when the ‘shit’ hammered on my door
shouting ‘the crap’s hit the fan, get your butt into gear!’
Huge gobs of adrenalin shot into my system and
there were distinct sounds of contact coming from the river to the west of the
village. Machine guns ripping into the night, one was quite heavy with red and
white and green tracer ricochets all over the sky. I vaulted out of bed with a
‘what the….?’ from the girl and dressing as I ran I was soon in my German
Unimog racing for my unit up on the hill. My skin crawled looking at the dark
bush all around me and who knew if the enemy was among us already? I had
visions of being burnt to death in my truck.
I very nearly collided going up the hill to
my camp with the 106’s racing down the hill to their prepared positions at the
bridge. Heart pounding I flew into camp. Accorsi had gone to the bridge with
the 106’s while Johan was sitting casually in the command bunker smoking a
cigarette. The men were stood to, relaxing on the sandbags around each mortar
pit with an air of professional ‘done this before’ look on their faces, which
indeed they had experienced many times overlooking Malvernia on the ‘Russian
‘What’s up?’ I said to Johan rather stupidly.
I felt profoundly embarrassed having been in bed with a girl a few minutes ago
while he had set the place right.
‘was hoping you’d tell me, Sir’ he mumbled,
drawing on his fag.
‘All the guys stood to? Ammo unpacked?’
‘I’ve got it sorted, no worries.’
I picked up a small radio set and told him I
was going to have a look at the river which was just visible through the trees.
I scribbled the radio frequency down for the JOC command post and then ensuring
my radio’s frequency matched Johan’s I slipped forward. I tried to make contact
with the JOC but they must have been running around like headless chickens. By
this stage there was a roar of weapons exchange echoing down the long valley
and as I broke through the bushes I drew my breath in quite involuntarily. Laid
out below me, under the soft glare of a full moon, was a major battle going on.
The silver river was dotted with large boats laden with men rowing furiously
for the Rhodesian bank while tracer from one point only on our side of the
river dit-dotted stitches of light from one craft to another. Some appeared to
give up rowing under the volley of bullets and floated off downstream while
others appeared to dissolve into the water, spilling out their occupants. I can
only imagine the terror. Few tribal lacks could swim and the place was infested
artillery opened up from my left and puffs from air bursts appeared
above the heads of the now frantic passengers in their boats. One or two turned
back. A 12.7 opened up from the opposite bank to give fire support, taking
really good aim at the lone armoured car and its crew that were chewing the men
in the boats to pieces. The armoured car driver decided to reverse and move to
a better spot but in his haste drove into a tree and got stuck there. The 12.7 would
go through the Eland’s thin skin like the proverbial knife and butter. All he
could do was swivel the turret and keep firing. It was a very brave thing to do
I was so mesmerised by the scene unfolding
below me that I completely forgot that I commanded weapons that could offer
help to our men struggling below. I have banged my head with frustration for
forty years for not giving the order to fire; I will never know why I just
stood there. I had become a spectator. The local mortars form the JOC had
opened up now and the artillery joined them rolling along the shore and into
the bush on the other side like some alien scythe moving forward.
And then, after only
ten or fifteen minutes it was over. The last shells our side fired whistled
over like in the movies followed by a stunning silence. Smoke drifted east down
the valley and crickets slowly started to chirp again. A strong smell of
cordite reached up to us, even at our height. I swung my head to the right and
looked at the bridge; would the train crossing come now? My adrenalin was
coursing through my body making me shake in the cool breeze. Nothing was
happening at the bridge and the mist from the falls arched upwards like a
million nights before. All the lights were on in the village and over in Zambia
‘Shit that was
amazing,’ I said to Johan when I walked the fifty yards back to camp. He didn’t
reply and I was glad it was dark to hide my embarrassment. What was wrong with
me? The 12.7 and launch point of the boats was well within the 5km radius of
our mortars. I am forever thankful that Johan never followed up with questions
in the weeks that followed.
The next morning we
were tasked to be support for troops searching the bush along the river in case
some gooks had got across. We took both 81mm tubes up a hill past the A’Zambezi
and through binoculars I watched patrols moving through the sparse grass of the
area along the river front.
While I was sitting
with my team I heard rustling in the grass to my left and slowly but surely
about ten Greys Scouts on horses emerged line abreast, a fearful sight with
their camouflage-streaked faces, some bearded, ammo pouches and rifle grenades
covering big torsos. I thanked God I was not being chased down by them, quickly
realising why cavalry was a fearsome sight to ancient warriors.
Just prior to coming
up the hill we had stopped at the tourist jetty where one of the booze cruise
boats was offloading about thirty cold, wounded and distraught looking gooks,
all dressed as regular infantry in brown uniforms with black boots. Some bled.
Some groaned in pain. All had been picked off an island just above the falls.
For days dead bodies were pulled from the river with one tourist fainting when
the hippo she thought she was looking at turned out to be a bloated floater
with no head. We had a great tourist attraction in the boiling pot at the falls
with another headless body floating in circles, clearly every bone in his body
broken as his legs went over his head and arms flopped backwards at the elbow.
He became known as ‘floating Fred’ and we tried everything to get rid of his
endless ride in that vortex of water, even shooting at him, but Fred would not
budge! That was his conquered bit of the new Zimbabwe!!
I learned that quite a
few enemy died when they ran into the open-faced minefield where it came down
to the river and those nasty little ploughshares had taken its toll on many
enemy, now lined up in rows at the back of the police station on the hot
tarmac. I could have sworn one was the infamous Albert Ncube (from a previous
blog); the body had his big feet, fever-stained yellow eye (only one left) and
his tousled head of hair. But an Albert Ncube killed Gloria Oakley many years
later in what was then Zimbabwe and it was in the same area he operated in
during the bush war. The bastard was obviously still alive.
A de-brief some time
later said the town of Livingstone across the river was awash with bodies from
our artillery strike and I’m annoyed I never got involved as I could have.
There appeared to be at least a battalion attempting to cross and unlock the
back door to our defences at the bridge but it came to nought and the attempt
to race a trainload of troops across the bridge was cancelled.
This is what we
faced, on all sides of our country and like Israel, who we admired so much,
were able to fight off all attacks from all fronts for the entire fifteen years
the war lasted.
If you have been enjoying Tony’s stories then please do check out his book available on amazon at the following link