Christmas during the Rhodesian War
A Kiwi Christmas Story
NZATMC AP Lima
In 1979, the New Zealand government sent about 75 odd Kiwi soldiers to Rhodesia as part of a multi-national force to try and end the fighting between the Rhodesian government and Communist terrorists.
The Rhodesian war was fought between the Rhodesian government of Ian Smith who had declared UDI from Great Britain on the 11 November 1965, and, opposing his government were two Communist armies that were based on tribal loyalties. The larger army was ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army), which had been trained by the Russians and East Germans and was loyal to Joshua Nkomo. The second army was known as ZANLA (Zimbabwe National Liberation Army) and had been trained by the Chinese and North Koreans and was loyal to Robert Mugabe. Both of these armies were further sub-divided into a regular army and a guerrilla force. The regular armies of both ZIPRA and ZANLA were trained to a reasonable standard and were commanded by loyal comrades and commissars, while their guerrillas were little more than thugs and bullyboys armed with AK47's, RPG7's and landmines.
The Rhodesian war was a silent, unglamorous, dirty little war that began almost immediately after UDI in 1965, and lasted until Independence Day on 18 April 1980, a period of some 14 years. It was supposed to have ended with a declared ceasefire on 29 December 1979, but for the most part this was largely ignored by all three opposing sides. This was quite similar, on a minor scale, as to what happened at the end of hostilities in Korea, where there was an intensity of killing as each side jockeyed to hold positions of power for the end game. Just to make matters worse, both black armies (which numbered about 30,000 each side) were bitter tribal enemies and had a hatred of each other dating back to the dawn of time. Nkomo was a Matabele, whilst Mugabe was a Mashona. This was to prove fatal for the forces of Joshua Nkomo some months later when after Independence, ZANLA turned on them and committed a long series of atrocities after the war had ended killing Matabeles by the thousands, including the annihilation of the entire Communist ZIPRA Battalion that I had served with.
As a Peacekeeper, the entire operation was 'surreal', in that none of the warring sides really wanted us there and no one actually trusted us; the blacks because we were white, and the whites because we represented the end of the dream of a free Rhodesia. We were regarded as 'the enemy of all'.
About a dozen gunners served in Rhodesia including myself. They were, from memory, Bombardier Stewart Ashworth, Bombardier Peter McArthur, Sergeant Paul Gregg, Sergeant John Nagle, Sergeant Alex Whyte, Sergeant Gary Pickering, Captain Mark Pope, Captain Graham Williams, Captain Tom O'Reilly, Major Brian Hewitt, and Captain Rob Munro MID. We didn't all serve together but were broken into different sub units. With the fortunes of war some guys actually lived in hotels with showers and hot running water, saw nothing of the hostilities and received $16 a day in allowances, while the rest of us were out in the operation area living in mud and crud receiving $3 a day...there is no bloody justice! The guys in the hotels needed the extra cash to pay for their laundry while our gear for the most part simply rotted off us. Stewart Ashworth had a really interesting tour in that he was a gunner when he was selected to go on the Operation but was promoted to Lance Bombardier, as it was a requirement that all Kiwis were to be NCOs. When we got in-country he was promoted to Bombardier, and then towards the end of the Operation we were withdrawn to Essexvale Battle Camp and as they only had a Sergeants Mess, Ash and Peter McArthur were promoted to Sergeants so that they could eat in the mess. From Gunner to Sergeant over a period of about 4 months. We did the hop from Whenuapai - Alice Springs - Cocos Islands - Mauritius - Durban leaving New Zealand on the 20 December 1979.
We then flew from Durban in South Africa in a New Zealand C130 Hercules, and arrived in Salisbury at 1518 hrs on 23 December, 1979, flying in high above the airport and then corkscrewing down so as to avoid surface to air missiles which the Communists were known to possess. The airport was packed with hundreds of people who had come to witness our arrival as well as the large USAF Galaxy cargo aircraft that was unloading stores for the operation, which the Brits called Operation 'Agila'. All of the whites at the airport gave us the fingers and thumbs down, and/or spat on the ground, whilst the black people simply stared at us. We were not popular. It was immediately obvious that there was a war on, as every white person carried a personal weapon, including women and children and there were bunkers, outposts and heavy machine guns everywhere. We then drove to our billet, which was at Morgan High School and once there unpacked our gear and waited for our orders. It was a very typical army set up, where no one knew what was going on and we had to 'Hurry up and wait'. There was malaria in-country and so we slept under mosquito nets, and most of us slept very fitfully that first night, as there was a very real air of trepidation. Amongst our small group, were quite a number of Vietnam veterans and we looked to them for guidance. I had been in the forces for nearly 13 years and had served overseas several times, but this tour was decidedly different; it was for real...no blanks or thunder flashes this time.
Next morning was Christmas Eve, and after a rough night we were issued with a breakfast of local 'corn-pops' that tasted very similar to dandelion flowers. Because of the war it was impossible to obtain anything other than bare essentials and this was noticeable throughout every facet of daily life, including such small comforts as decent breakfast cereal. (Camera film was unavailable, as were rubber tyres, vehicle parts, lollies and even chocolate; but the worst hardship was cello tape; due to the sanctions there was none to be had anywhere and so you simply tied everything together with string).
We then drove for a briefing to the Rhodesian Light Infantry camp at Cranborne Barracks just out of Salisbury, and while there we also had to re-zero our rifles. Ash, Mac and myself walked around a corner and bumped into the Force Commander, British General John Ackland who recognised us immediately as New Zealanders due to the red-over-blue diamond patch we wore behind our artillery cap badge. "Good to see the Kiwis are here", was his response. "I should have gone farming at Mount Peel when I had the chance - now we've got to sort out this friggin' mess!" We didn't immediately recognise him as the general, as he looked more like cow cockey than a soldier and his uniform was several sizes too large for him.
After a morning full of detailed briefings on everything from the locations of various Army camps and suspected Communist bases, we were then given our operational groups. After lunch we went back to Morgan High and spent the afternoon doing PT. Several of the New Zealanders had weapons pointed at them by unhappy Rhodesians. In the evening we attended another O Group and were informed that Paul, Ash, Mac and myself were going with Major Hewitt and about a dozen other Kiwis to a place on the Rhodesia/Botswana border that was to be known as Assembly Place Lima, and it was right in the heart of 'Indian country'. There was obviously no need for any of us to pack our civilian kit. Later that night we were drinking Lion (Rhodesian Lion) beer on the second floor of the school when there was a firefight in Salisbury. We decided that it was prudent for us to drink the remainder of our beer sitting on the floor with our backs to the concrete wall. After the initial burst of gunfire it went quiet and so we stayed up until after midnight and wished each other, "Merry Christmas" and "Good Luck". I was the only one of the four of us who was married and the other guys knew that I was quite homesick. When I turned in I allowed myself the luxury of a quiet prayer and a few thoughts of my wife and five sons who I knew would be really
feeling my absence.
Another fitful night's sleep, and then after breakfast myself, and the other 'Left Footers' went to Mass in Salisbury. The church was beautiful and the only thing that seemed out of place during the church service was the variety of weapons carried by members of the congregation. It was a little like a church service in a cowboy movie. After church we took the opportunity to walk around Salisbury and it was a beautiful place. Many of the streets were lined with Jacaranda trees that were in full bloom and there wasn't a scrap of rubbish to be seen anywhere. At mid-day our entire contingent was driven to the Monomatapa Hotel, which was a five star hotel,
and it was there that the New Zealand contingent celebrated Christmas Day. There were about 75 of us and a similar number of white Rhodesians also, and after a few stiff minutes between them and us Rhodesian hospitality took over and everyone made us welcome and we sat with various family groups. Ash, Mac, and myself sat at the table of a badly wounded Rhodesian Light Infantry officer and his mother. He had been blown up in an armoured vehicle and then trapped underneath for several hours while villagers held a conference near him to decide whether to kill him and hand his body to the Communists, or spare him and hand him to the Rhodesians. He spoke Matabele and had followed every word of the discussion while fearing for his life. He was trapped by the legs and couldn't reach his personal weapon. In the end, a stick of Selous Scouts (Elite Troops) arrived and called in a gunship for assistance. During the luncheon the Rhodesians sang songs to us and we responded in kind singing such songs as "Pou Karekare Ana" and "Oh Haere Mai". The Rhodesians also sang a very stirring Afrikaner song called "Marching to Victoria" and the festivities ended with an impromptu Haka by the Kiwis.
I think that everyone really felt not being home in New Zealand on that special day, especially those guys with young families, and so to take our thoughts away from that fact tried harder to enjoy themselves. The only presents we got were out of the Christmas crackers. Stu Ashworth gave me a 'Lucky Clover' while John Nagle gave me a plastic bible as a joke and I still have both gifts inside my message pad. At the time John Nagle was a confirmed atheist but he later became a 'Born Again' Christian. I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways.
Just before we stood to leave the Rhodesian officer's mother kissed each of us, and told us to, "Keep your head down", which in Rhodesia was a universal farewell. Her son shook my hand and said, "Remember this Kiwi." "In Rhodesia every road's a minefield, every corner's an ambush, and every Af's a Terr." (Terrorist). His name was Lieutenant Mark Oxlade.
Boxing Day was spent with more briefings and PT runs. Rhodesia is very high in altitude and we were trying our best to acclimatize as quickly as possible so that we would be up to any task that lay ahead. While on the run a white Rhodesian stopped his car and threatened two of our guys with a hand grenade.
I was a trained aircraft loader and so later that afternoon I went with a small group back to Salisbury Airport and unloaded a second aircraft that contained stores. That night was to be our last in Salisbury as we were moving out to the operation area in the morning. We gunners got in a huddle and wrote a letter back to our mates in 161 Battery just to let them know that we were thinking of them. During the night a drunken black soldier entered the billet with a fully loaded FN (the automatic version of the Self Loading Rifle), and after a tense standoff, where he was almost shot by the Rhodesian Military Police, he was removed.
On the 27 December, we were woken at 0430 and driven to a transit camp. There were press everywhere as this was 'the main event' so to speak. Our sub-group bordered a bus with a group of Brit Marines and at 0730 we drove from Salisbury to Bulawayo. During the day there were a number of contacts at various locations and the body count for the day was 19 Communists KIA, 3 Rhodesian Security Forces KIA and 17 black civilians murdered. We reached Brady Barracks at Bulawayo and were stopped at the entrance by a Brit officer who sadly informed us that a C130, with a white cross on it, had been shot up and as well, a Puma helicopter had gone in with four Peacekeepers killed. They were our first causalities and there were to be a number of others. Later that same afternoon Robert Mugabe flew back from exile and as his motorcade was driving from the airport some black Selous Scouts fired an RPG 7 rocket into what was thought to be Mugabe's car. Unfortunately for the Selous Scouts he had traded places with his Army Commander and it was the Commander and his driver who were blown to pieces.
That evening we attended a further briefing by a Rhodesian Army Corporal and he told us more in one hour than the entire previous multitude of briefings that we attended to date. There is nothing like experience. We were then issued with the remainder of our first line ammunition, each man carrying five magazines plus two bandoliers of 7.62-ball ammunition, for a total of 250 rounds each. After the briefing we were invited as guests of the Rhodesian Women's Army, and spent the evening in their mess on our very best behaviour as each woman carried either an Uzi, VZ25 submachine gun, or had an automatic pistol in her handbag.
28 December 1979, 'D minus 1'. Reveille was at 0500 and today was the day. We attended an O Group at 0645 and were informed to expect mines and ambushes on our way into Assembly Place Lima, which was actually a grid reference sited directly over the ruin of an old kraal (native African farm). Ash was detailed to ride as 'shotgun' in one of the mine proof Land Rovers that we had been issued with while Paul, Mac and myself rode in a Rhodesian Army 'Crocodile' (a wheeled armoured vehicle), along with the rest of the group. We drove out of Brady Barracks and just out of sight of the Rhodesian Army we stopped and received our Communist Liaison Officer.
His name was Lieutenant Colonel Albert Zikhali and he was armed with a brand new Russian made AKM65 assault rifle complete with a grenade launcher and taped magazines, East German rice pattern camouflage, a red Cuban Army issue baseball cap, and Russian chest webbing. He represented everything that we had been trained to hate for the last 30 odd years of the Cold War. His first words to us were, "Hello Comrades". He was aged about 27 and was very well connected in the ZIPRA hierarchy and he was a personal friend of 'The Old One' (Joshua Nkomo). He spoke excellent English and also Russian as he had been trained in Cuba, East Germany and Russia. If I thought that I was scared, Colonel Zikhali was terrified and was chain smoking, as were all of the smokers in our Croc, and not only that but he had his AK cocked and the safety catch off leaving us under no impression as to where he was going to empty his first magazine. On the other hand, being Peacekeepers, our weapons were in 'State Two', that is, a charged magazine on the weapon but nothing in the chamber. We drove off towards the town of Plumtree along the sealed road, which is quite good, as we didn't have to look for mines.
About mid-day we reached Plumtree and there we bid farewell to the Brit Marines who were going to set up another Assembly Place. Plumtree was a typical African town and was renowned for a local boys' boarding school. It was known as the 'Town that won the West', due to the grit and determination of the local population (much like Chicago in the US is the 'Windy City'). We stopped at the local Police fort and they allowed us to brew up for lunch in one of their PATU (Police Anti-Terrorist Unit) Barracks. PATU were basically hunter/trackers and wore full combat gear. Their shoulder patch was a lion spoor. The stick was out hunting 'Terrs' and we were told to help ourselves to their food. The walls of the barracks weren't painted and written in pencil were the scores of the various sticks. EG; Joe Bloggs and Stick - 5 Terrs KIA in contact 13 June 1978 etc, etc.
Colonel Zikhali stayed close to Major Hewitt, as he knew that one-minute on his own and he would be a very dead Communist. After lunch we drove off and as we were leaving the town surprisingly, dozens of Rhodesian's came out and yelled to us, "Keep Your Heads Down!" Being locals, they knew exactly what we were about to face. Accompanying us was a private Land Rover that contained three very heavily armed reporters, who were Ron Golden (South Africa), Allan Cowell (UK), and Matt Frajola (USA). Mat Frajola had previously covered the Vietnam War with Shaun Flynn (the son of the movie actor) and was a member of a press group in Vietnam that had been nicknamed 'The Apaches'. Once we left Plumtree, the road was red dirt and so all eyes were strained to look for any telltale black plastic which the Communists used to cover their mines in order to keep them waterproof. It was usual for them to place their mines in a hole just off the side of the road, on a bend. Under the mine they often placed a one-gallon can of petrol so as to give a fire flame effect. I think I said more Hail Mary's between Plumtree and Mhudlambudzi than I had ever said previously in my life.
We had been driving for about 30 minutes, deep in the heart of 'Indian country', when Colonel Zikhali began to get concerned and started yelling, "I think we're in the shit! I think we're in the shit!" We asked him what was the problem and he replied, "Where are your crosses?" "What crosses?" we asked. He then informed us that all vehicles of the Monitoring Force were required to display white crosses on the sides. We were driving in the operational area in a Rhodesian AFV and we had no crosses displayed and we were about to be ambushed. A quick radio call to the lead vehicle and we pulled to a halt and out came the white surgical tape from my medical pack. We then put 'shitloads' of white crosses on all sides of the Croc and Land Rovers and away we went again.
At 1400, we arrived in the Mhudlambudzi Police fort, which looked more like a French Foreign Legion outpost than a police station. It was commanded by a 22 year old Rhodesian officer, who's name was Lieutenant Bruce Cantell. He was as 'game as Ned Kelly', having been blown up in his AFV twice in the previous 12 months. He was in command of a platoon of about 25 black Police Troopers. Their uniform was a blue police shirt, camouflage trousers and boots, or full combat gear. We remained in the Police fort and brewed up again, while Major Hewitt took a small group of the team forward for a recce in the Land Rover. The whole area was very grassy, with large boulders and thorn trees, nothing at all like a Tarzan movie.
At that time there was no such things as computers or cell phones and believe it or not the reporters each wrote a story and then pulled out a small cage containing several 'Reuters' pigeons. They clipped the stories into a small silver container and this was attached to the bird's leg. The bird was then released and flew back to Salisbury with the newsflash of our safe arrival. Presently we heard several shots being fired in the direction of our recce party and so it was a very tense time while we waited for the return of the Land Rover. It was very confusing and it was later thought that the Communists fired shots over the Rover in order to see what our reaction might be. We were very relieved to hear the dull drone of the vehicle motor and presently Major Hewitt and crew returned safely. Major Hewitt had selected our campsite, which was in a clear area near a river called Kupers Creek and so we saddled up and very slowly and deliberately drove down to the campsite.
We arrived at Assembly Place Lima at 1605, and immediately raised the Union Jack flag from the highest tree in the area, since this was a British operation. As well, large painted signs with "CEASEFIRE ASSEMBLY PLACE" were also placed on several of the trees.
We then set up our hoochies, and lit lots of large fires so as to show our presence and also to give the impression that we were non-tac (Non Tactical). A group of locals then drove a herd of African cows right through our position so that they could check us out. We also made lots of noise, including singing, and over the next several hours small groups of old men and women came forward and talked to Zikhali. Colonel Zikhali now became the most important member of the team, as it was his persuasion that would sell our peaceful intentions to the local Communists.
At 2359 plus 1 that night, a General Ceasefire was declared throughout Rhodesia and that was how 75 Kiwi soldiers spent Christmas in 1979.
"So, Merry Christmas my friend, and...Keep Your Head Down!"
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