Ambush! Rhodesian Corps of Engineers
“There was no warning…..these gooks were good and had chosen their killing ground well…and we had walked right into it.“
By Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, reposted with permission.
It all started with manpower, or rather the lack of it.
In the mid-seventies Rhodesia found herself not out-gunned, but rather out-manned in the bush, specifically Infantry-wise. The quick solution to this was to deploy specialist units (like the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers (RhE)), in the Infantry role. Those of you who have been following my Blog will remember that all Rhodesian troops were primarily Infantiers and secondly specialists.
The RhE seemed particularly well-adapted to the pseudo-Infantry role and we often deployed into the hottest areas, at times taking over from “pure” infantry units including the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), Rhodesia Regiment (RR) and Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI).
In some instances we had more success in these areas than our Infantry Brothers.
We were carrying out advance-to-contact foot patrols from of a place called Tshiturapadsi, an unused District Commissioners camp that served us well as it had buildings, water and shelter. There was also an airstrip nearby (See Figure 1 below). It also happened to be located in one of the most gook-infested Tribal Trust Lands, the Matibi TTL, notorious for terrorist gangs. We had been sent there to relieve a RLI call-sign that had been in the area for weeks and who had not even seen a track let alone a gook.
It had been a long day and an even longer patrol. The sun was beginning to dip over the horizon, heralding the start of one of those wonderful picture-postcard African sunsets. A cool breeze brushed my face, refreshing, and surprisingly, despite the heat, sending small shivers down my spine. There was invigoration with coolness also. We paced briskly now, still a little tired but no longer exhausted, rejuvenated with the thought that we would go into a temporary base as soon as it got semi-dark. I was on the far left flank of our ten-man extended line and felt vulnerable with no one out on the left of me…….tall grass blowing in the wind played games with my imagination….I was seeing gooks where none existed.
I glanced across to my right, comforted by the presence of one of my mates in the dim light, a safe distance from me, ready to give mutual support if I needed it. As the day turned slowly into night the patrol commander, a young RhE officer passed the signal down the line to move into our temporary base for the night. We changed into single file formation (with me at the back), and took a wide dog-leg route into where the patrol commander had decided we would stay for the night. I was never a great supporter of eating and sleeping in the same place at night and in fact this practice was against our training doctrine. The gooks had Mujibas[i] everywhere and they would report our presence…..and then the gooks could come and fuck-up a pleasant evening. A patrol should eat, carry out personal admin, and then move to a new location, moving into their night location after dark and then there should be absolute silence…..no tins being opened, food warmed, farting or talking. We broke rules that night and within 12 hours we would break another one that would seem to bring hell itself upon us.
First light……always a magic time in the bush. Wet grass, dripping trees, cattle bells and screaming children. The smell of wood fires and fresh cow dung. And all of these things also meant there were people close by. The last guard had roused us all and we grudgingly extracted ourselves from our fart-sacks (sleeping bags). Dog-biscuits soaked in tea or coffee would come later in the morning, but for now we needed to move from this place quickly as this was also a dangerous time when gooks liked to attack. As it was the resident gook gang in the area had bigger plans for us on this specific day.
Still wiping the sleep out of our eyes we prepared to vacate the temporary base, taking care to cover our presence as best we could. We were surrounded by thick bush, the site being chosen for this exact characteristic as it was ideal for a temporary base. It was not however suitable for an extended line formation and so we exited in single file with me more or less in the middle of the patrol. As if by magic we were walking on a well-used path and I soon realised the patrol commander was using the path purposely, leading us to a nearby kraal. We had just broken another rule…..never walk on a well-used path……straddle it yes, but never have your entire patrol on it.
We entered the kraal and went into a well-rehearsed all-round-defence. The entire kraal had one of us on its perimeter looking out for signs of the enemy. The patrol commander and one of our Black Sappers found the Head Man and questioned him on gook presence in the area. In the Matibi TTL there was little chance of the Local Population helping the Security Forces and we decided not to waste time on this place. After searching all the huts for signs of gooks we got the signal to prepare to move on. To my utter amazement the patrol commander put us back on a well-used track leading out of the kraal and once again we were in single file. What was this guy thinking and no one challenged his judgement?
We had walked for about 500 meters when I noticed a single upturned munyatella[ii] next to the path. This in itself was not really out-of-place but it struck a chord somewhere in my survival instincts and I became uneasy. From my position in the patrol I could see we were about to take a right turn on the path. To the right of us the ground rose sharply and soon we were walking parallel to a fairly high, boulder strewn, steep kopje.
There was no warning…..these gooks were good and had chosen their killing ground well…and we had walked right into it.
The gooks initiated with what I now know was a PKM[iii] light machine gun (see Figure 2), capable of firing 650 rounds per minute. This was followed by a fair mix of AK47, SKS and RPD fire……initially. We all instinctively hit the deck not quite sure where the fire was coming from. These kind of events are pretty confusing at first and don’t believe what you see in the movies…..that’s all bullshit. My most vivid memory of this attack was and still is the crack of high velocity rounds going over my head and dirt spraying up all around me and into my eyes. We had all somehow remained in that rather silly single-file formation on the ground even though it was now pretty ragged and we were all horizontal, amazingly unscathed and all facing the kopje, the direction of the attack. We were badly exposed but because we were flat on the ground the gooks could not bring really effective fire onto us although we were all getting near misses. I began to think I was the sole target of a hundred gooks, and perhaps I was as I am quite a big bloke.
And then two things happened simultaneously…….firstly a new sound came from the kopje, a sound so specific that one ever forgets it….the sound of a mortar leaving a tube………and secondly the shouted order from our line to advance on the enemy using fire and movement. The mortar bombs rained down one after the other, precisely straddling the path we were lying on……encouraging us to advance more rapidly. It was clear to me the gooks had sufficient time to plan this ambush and had accurately estimated the distance from their base-plate position to the path. There was now so much noise, smoke and dust in the air that it was difficult to see. I remember clearly advancing a few yards up the kopje and taking cover, the second section following us while we pumped rounds into the gook positions. Sweat running down my face, the saltiness burning my eyes…adrenaline pumping through my veins…..all fear gone now…….just the job of surviving at the forefront of my mind.
My hands were cut from the jagged rocks, the pistol grip on my FN sticky with blood. We were moving higher up the hill, almost half way and we still couldn’t see any gooks……all we could hear was the firing of their weapons. The whiplash of rounds hurting our ears. The mortar was no longer a danger as we were too close to them for them to use it safely as we systematically moved up the kopje………and then there was a relative silence as if nothing had disturbed that cool African morning.
All we could hear was the tell-tale clinking of gooks running at high speed with loose kit jumping about in packs and pockets, shouting to one another. We moved up the kopje faster, ignoring the threat of an in-depth ambush……over-running now empty enemy firing positions…the only occupants expended cartridge cases, discarded AK and RPD magazines, and empty cardboard ammunition boxes. We worked through the position, wary now for booby-traps or mines but keeping our wits together. Things were slowing down but the adrenaline was still hot in our veins as we reached the top of the kopje. The gooks were gone and we had them running scared by using tried and tested infantry tactics. I silently thanked those bastard Llewellin Barracks instructors for all the blood, sweat and tears they took from me.
While some of us collected any booty we could find the patrol commander finally found space to get a message off and give the direction of flight of the gooks…….there was hopefully a Fire-Force element with gun-ships somewhere around but I had my doubts. Perhaps they could get an armed fixed-wing up to deal with the gooks but that was also doubtful. These assets were just too thin on the ground and because there had been no recent sightings of gooks in the area, there was nothing positioned close-by. Fair enough.
We gathered at the bottom of the kopje where it all began, carefully avoiding the track but recording the mortar strikes, easily found by the craters they made. They were close to where a number of us were lying and I consider myself lucky not to have been seriously injured or worse. As it was none of us sustained injuries serious enough to call a casevac. We were lucky…..this time.
Still alert and in a form of all-round-defence we found shady spots to sit and reflect on what just happened……..the entire contact not lasting more than 5 or so minutes perhaps but seeming to take an eternity to end. And now that sense of euphoria that only men just out of combat will know…….a great weight seeming to leave your shoulders as you sit back, shaking hands lighting-up a Madison, and let the calmness flow through you as the adrenaline wears off…….the calmness of knowing you survived a situation of grave danger where someone wanted to kill you and failed. There is no feeling in the world like it…….and little did I know that within a very short space of time I would go through the whole process once again…….only this time we would not be so lucky.
[i] Teenage spies, normally unarmed who observed Rhodesian Security Force patrols and informed the gooks on our whereabouts
[ii] Munyatellas were African sandals made out of car tyres and widely used out in the bush as they lasted for ever.
© Mark Richard Craig and Fatfox9’s Blog, 2009-2017. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.