A true story from quite a long time ago
Eastern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
We left Grand Reef aerodrome at 9.30 in the morning in four Allouette choppers, heading south west, ascending quickly from the flat valley floor, but only high enough to comfortably clear the surrounding hills. Flying too high exposed the chopper to an unnecessarily larger number of guerilla groups with SAM missiles.
I was sitting on the right at the back, my rifle muzzle out in the clear blue sky. On my left, squeezed between me and the chopper tech-cum-gunner, was Selby James, rifleman number two in the four man stick. He was a quiet, straight-out-of-school conscript, whose body language suggested he was overawed to have ended up in a commando unit. Nothing in his background had prepared him for it and, like me, he would never have volunteered for it.
Up front, between the pilot and our machine gunner Joost van der Westhuizen, was the very young Lieutenant ‘Jug’ Thompson, not long out of school himself and most recently fresh out of a year’s officer training, anxious to make a name for himself. He was blonde, shorter than most and stocky. Van der Westhuizen was an RLI (Rhodesian Light Infantry) regular of Afrikaans stock. He was mid-twenties, a volunteer. He was dour but a competent, sensible type. But that he talked a lot about ‘kaffirs” marked him down as a diehard: in the Nazi mould of considering the native population, and hence the terrorists, as sub-human cannon fodder. And so they gave him a cannon – a belt-fed monster of a machine gun weighing 25 pounds.
We troops never knew where we were going when we were on a Fire Force operation. Speed was of the essence. News came through to headquarters of a sighting or a skirmish, and we were scrambled. Usually five choppers were dispatched, four with troops and the fifth as the command vehicle – called the K-car – with the officer commanding the operation – usually, in our case the dashing Captain Kip Beamish – on board. He would be briefed while airborne.
No time was spent on briefing for the rest of us. In any event, each contact with the enemy was similar in its essential details so that a pre-contact discussion might only trigger too much thinking on our part.
But you could pick up the general direction and pretty soon after getting airborne you would get an indication from chopper tech/gunner, who was tuned into the ground-to-air and air-to-air coms, how far we had to go to get to the drop zone.
“35 minutes”, he shouted into Selby’s ear above the din of the rotor blades. Selby passed that onto me with a smile and a thumbs up. Selby wasn’t one of my more gung-ho fellow troopers, he didn’t wear a bandanna around his head, for instance, so I guessed he was feeling as anxious as I was. I was always anxious when we scrambled. Rather than firing me up, my adrenalin seemed to put extra effort into survival of the organism.
This was a longish flight. Mostly we were in the air for less than 30 minutes. We didn’t usually head south west either. Most trouble seemed to be to the north, in the Inyanga or Inyazura districts. The ‘terrs’ had strongholds in some areas of Inyanga, though this was never openly acknowledged. We knew they controlled Inyanga’s Honde Valley. The police reservists and territorial troops there only reluctantly strayed outside their heavily guarded base camps. Yet whenever crack troops – like us in the RLI – were sent in, the ‘terrs’ melted into the hills, presumably believing discretion to be the better part of valour, at least for now.
So the south west would be new. It was confirmed when we landed. This was woodland, not the open savannahs or grasslands we were used to. It affected the light. There were more shadows than usual. You couldn’t see as clearly. And it also meant that the choppers that would remain overhead for as long as possible would not be easily able to see the enemy on the ground.
We were dropped in a clearing to the south west of the dominant hill in the area and told to sweep towards it. We spread out, and swept in a straight line, about 15 yards apart. I was on the extreme left, Selby next to me, then van der Westhuizen and on the right Thompson, my leader, 45 metres away. Why wasn’t he closer to the middle when he could control things better, I wondered.
We moved forward at a careful walking pace, acclimatising to the light, the vegetation, and presumably as Thompson got instructions from Beamish in the K-Car. Suddenly I saw a terr lying down in a firing position facing us perhaps 40 metres ahead. I dropped to one knee and double tapped two shots into his back. The other three stick members dived for cover. There was no movement, no responding fire from the terr’s support. We all stared at the body. Now I could see it was a log, a fallen tree trunk.
We got up and were ordered by Captain Beamish in the K-Car in the sky to make rapid progress towards the southern base of the hill. We were 150 metres from it when we heard a concerted burst of firing. We saw tracer bullets shooting at right angles in both directions in front of us and Selby and I instinctively dived to the ground. There was no cover to be had, just flat earth and thin tree trunks, but the bullets weren’t coming our way.
We waited until the shooting stopped, got up and moved forward and went to ground again 30 metres short of the small clearing into which we calculated our troops to our left had been firing. I had a found a comforting rock that easily shielded my body. Selby had a natural depression in the ground that he seemed to quite like.
Selby shouted “There’s a terr, down there on the left”, and he started firing, repeated single shots. Before he’d got off his first round, I’d seen the guy too. He was walking through the trees about 70 metres away to the left, his Kalashnikov semi-automatic in his left hand by his side, unaware of us and looking up to the sky, watching the choppers. I opened fire too. The terr went to ground and we lost sight of him.
It was quiet on the ground for several moments, with only the sound of the choppers circling overhead at some distance.
Suddenly a blast of firing exploded to my right. I looked round and saw van der Westhuizen and Thompson running towards the clearing, firing their guns from their hips. I didn’t move. I looked across at Selby. He showed no signs of wanting to move either.
The firing stopped and van der Westhuizen and Thompson were in the clearing where the terrs were. Selby and I got up and joined them. There were perhaps a dozen bodies lying inert and one man propped up against a tree, alive but badly wounded.
Thornton walked towards us, eyes ablaze. “Shit, that was better than sex,” he said to us. We had expected a bollocking for not charging forward with him.
“You must have had some strange girlfriends”, I said, and then after a suitable pause, “Sir.” He looked at me disdainfully. He must have known that I was covering up for my cowardice, but he didn’t have the wit to respond. Or perhaps he thought it wasn’t worth the effort.
Instead he pointed to the wounded man propped against the tree and said, “patch him up. Special branch will want to ask him a few questions.” And as an afterthought, “Don’t give him any morphine, we might need it.”
Selby and I knelt down beside the wounded man. He was conscious. He had a stomach wound. Selby set about trying to patch it with a bandage while I took his arm to look for a vein into which I could insert a needle for the drip of saline solution I was carrying. We all carried a bit of medical kit to share around when needed.
I couldn’t find a vein. I looked at him. He was about my age. He didn’t look at me. He was moaning and saying “Amai, amai” – mother, mother – over and over again. Selby had attached a bandage to the wound; I hadn’t managed to generate a vein, when the life went from him.
We stood up. Numb. Too much had happened in so short a time. Thompson was sitting on a rack having a cigarette. Van der Westhuizen was talking to the machine gunner – there was an affinity between the beasts of the machine gun burden – of second stick of our guys that had arrived from the south: the ones who had had the initial firefight and probably done most of the damage.
One of them had just thrown a phosphorous grenade nearby to pinpoint the scene of the battle to the choppers above..
Selby and I wandered among the dozen dead bodies. The battle was over. We knew our cleaning up chores would start soon.
“Shit, look at that,” Selby said, pointing to an inert body lying face down. It had a bullet head sticking out of its back. He walked up to it, and shoved, rather then kicked, the body with the soul of his boot. There was something odd about how the body resettled.
Selby bent down, grabbed the shoulder and turned the body over. The terr wasn’t dead.
It was a sign of how washed out we were, because there was no consternation. There were no histrionics. No one pointed their rifle at him.
Someone said, “You fucking wanker!” It was Beamish. He had landed in the K-Car. Twelve dead terrs was an unusually high number.
There was a familiarity in his tone that we all recognized. It was of the same tone of the white farmer who had just discovered his black foreman had neglected a key duty. It was almost comical in the circumstances but more than that it was a friendly comment, in a master-servant way. As if an old mate had walked into a pub and been greeted with “How are you, you old bastard.”
Beamish escorted him to the chopper, and the uninjured wanker was taken away to one of the interrogation centres.
“Right get on with it,” Thompson said rather pointedly to Selby and me. “Take these fuckers to the DZ.” Van der Westerhuizen was pointedly excused from the grisly job. The message was clear enough. If we couldn’t do the men’s stuff, we could clean up the shit.
We slung our rifles over our backs. They didn’t sit there too well there because we had back packs on. In the RLI, you invoked a blood curdling stream of crude invective from a non-commissioned officer if you were seen with a rifle on your back. But it was a greater sin to leave your rifle unattended, especially in a combat zone.
We both walked over to the dead man nearest the 40 metre path to the DZ. Each of us grabbed a foot and we dragged the body along the dirt path, choking back sighs as we struggled to drag the body and keep our rifles on our back. But you know in the Army there is no point in complaining. It’s the sort of little tiresome incident that ‘makes a man’ of you.
Also you are dealing with a dead man. Someone who was alive 15 minutes ago. Deep in the brutality of an African war, feelings squeeze through in the quiet moments, when the adrenalin has subsided.
Then suddenly the dead man’s plimsole – we called them takkies – slipped off his sockless left foot into my hand that had steadily slid down from the ankle under the pressure of the literal deadweight and my upward angled right shoulder trying to keep my rifle aloft.
The smell made me retch. This dead guy must’ve been on the move for weeks, and quite clearly had not taken his takkie off in this time. Who could blame him? Wherever he camped down, even in the friendliest of kraals, he’d have to be ready to run 24/7. I wouldn’t have taken my shoes off either.
It took us about half an hour to drag all the bodies to the DZ for uplifting by chopper to the Special Branch centre. One other body was notable. It had no head. There was no sign of a severed head anyway, so we assumed he had been shot and killed in the act of throwing a grenade. By this time we had become inured to dragging the dead bodies, so we were more intrigued than nauseated or disturbed. Now I only remember a neck stump of raw meat.
When we reconvened with the heroes who had been instrumental in ‘clearing out the gooks’ we saw that the two sticks – ours and the other one that had swept up from the south – were in loud argument about who had done the killing. It seemed that Thompson and van der Westhuizen might have blazed their way, Audie-Murphy-like (Rambo movies hadn’t been made back then), through a group of already dead or dying men.
Selby and I shared a smirk.
The names in this story have been changed because it may be that none of us are especially proud of any of this.