A Watershed Moment: the Rhodesian Bush War Battle of Victoria Falls
“We were told something that made our hair stand up on end. There was going to be a conventional warfare attack by 20,000 ZIPRA.”
From verbal accounts by Rhodesians Grey Scout Clive Midlane and 2RR Lieutenant Tony Ballinger: transcribed and edited by Sally-Ann Lowe
The following story was told by Rhodesian Grey Scout Clive Midlane to Hannes Wessels in a video interview, episode 39 of “Fighting Men of Rhodesia” series on the John van Zyl youtube channel.
“Clive, tell us about the build up to that big battle. It was a prelude to the conventional plan to invade the country and was quite a decisive battle which forestalled the actual invasion of the country.”
(Unlike Mugabe’s ill-trained and largely unprofessional denim-clad ZANLA terrorists, these were ZIPRA leader Joshua Nkomo’s professional soldiers of the Matabele tribe who were primed specifically for an eventual conventional warfare invasion and takeover of Rhodesia. They were very well trained and abundantly armed by Communist Russia and East Germany who also had a presence north of the Rhodesian border and were involved in ZIPRA’s strategical and tactical planning.)
“ZIPRA had 20,000 conventionally trained troops waiting in Zambia to storm – storm Chirundu Bridge, Kariba, Kazungula. There was going to be an armoured column with air support against Rhodesia. When intelligence learnt of this, it was kept very quiet from the Rhodesian public.
We Grey Scouts (elite mounted infantry) had set up these ambushes, on the Kazungula road, along the river, at the bridge, and we were monitoring their movements the whole time. What happened was, in 1978 and into 1979, because of the liberated areas down in the south-east of Rhodesia by (Mugabe’s) ZANLA, the ZIPRA forces realized if they don’t move now they would lose the country to ZANLA if it goes to a military victory because ZIPRA had all their troops outside the country in Zambia awaiting an eventual conventional invasion. Those liberated areas in the south east of Rhodesia were a concern to ZIPRA as well as the security forces.
So what ZIPRA were doing was they were crossing the Zambezi en masse in the north west of Rhodesia, up around the Katambora rapids area (just 38 kms west of Victoria Falls). They would move at night right across the horn of the country and cut through Rhodesia to get to Botswana as fast as they could. ZIPRA would cross in huge groups (up to 100 at a time), walk like hell the whole night to get into Botswana, and then wait on the Grove Road. The Botswana Defence Force would then pick them up and drive them right down to the Gwanda area of Rhodesia.
Towards the end of the war in 1979, ZIPRA were directly engaging ZANLA. There were contacts between ZIPRA and ZANLA.
So what we did, on the Kazungula road, we got the Roads Dept to (daily) grade the side of the road. Every morning Grey Scouts would go with one of our call signs, and with 4 Independent Company who had a great tracking team. ZIPRA tried to cover their spoor but we would pick it up, and then it was Game On!
We had Basuto ponies from Harding in Natal, the toughest horses. (These amazing ponies were also used successfully by the Boers during the Anglo-Boer War). It was Game On and we would canter for literally hours to try and hit them before they got to the Botswana border and numerous times we did. We had some huge contacts. We lost a few of our guys in some of those big punch-ups. We killed 22 of these hard core ZIPRA one time.”
Then the Game Changed
“Then the game changed with that invasion; the first wind we got of it was that they were going to come across the Zambezi River in Zodiacs (large military dinghies). So Grey Scouts ambushed all up the river; we ambushed clandestinely, then openly to try and force them into different areas.
One of our troops – 2 troop – was in the right place at the right time. We go cold thinking about it! Where ZIPRA crossed it’s believed that between 300-500 were waiting also to cross behind them.
The first group came across the Zambezi river, about 75-100 of them, in Zodiacs, inside of the minefield near the town, just 1km up from the A’Zambezi Lodge at Vic Falls. Very fortunately one of our Grey Scout call signs was right at that location, with an armoured car, and killed many of them (70-100), bodies falling into the river, but our guys were receiving fire from the Zambian side. Then 2RR attacked them with mortars and the invasion was stopped.
If ZIPRA had come across, wave after wave, and if we would have had several hundred ZIPRA inside Vic Falls minefield, the town would have been theirs. Frightening!”
Hannes Wessels: “A watershed moment!”
The Big Picture Plan of that Invasion from Tony Ballinger
Lieutenant Tony Ballinger, Support Company, 2RR, was in charge of mortar teams to defend Vic Falls town against the planned invasion by ZIPRA conventional warfare troops and gives a full overview of that story. Attending a Joint Operation meeting at Vic Falls Tony Ballinger states:
“We were told something that made our hair stand up on end. We were told there was going to be a conventional warfare attack on Rhodesia by ZIPRA with 20,000 men. Time was running out for them so they were going to make a move on the country; 10,000 through Chirundu on the Zambezi river just east of Kariba, and also through Victoria Falls. Their plan was to cross at Victoria Falls and capture the airport there, then move inland to Wankie 100 kms away where Cuban pilots were then going to fly in more troops. These would then move on to capture Bulawayo, while part of them swung north-east towards the capital, Salisbury. Those ZIPRA coming in through Chirundu would also swing towards Salisbury, creating a pincer movement.
We were told this group of 20,000 were ready to come over. The whole of Victoria Falls was going to be put on alert. A company of troops from 9RR was brought up to Vic Falls. A whole lot of armoured cars arrived.
Where the Vic Falls bridge crossed into Zambia is on a spit of land like the neck of a lizard and where the lizard’s ‘nostrils’ were that is where the bridge crossed the river into Zambia. ZIPRA’s plan was to send troops over in a train, trojan horse style. They were going to put 1200 gooks into the train and shunt it across the bridge, disembark and capture Victoria Falls, then its little airport. Then move on to Wankie and capture the forward airfield base which had one airstrip that was big enough to handle bigger air transports.
So we faced this quandary. The engineers put tons of explosives down at the bridge on the part where it touched the Rhodesian side and they set up a remote TV camera facing the bridge so when this train, a massive infantry, or tanks tried to cross over, the engineers could detonate this charge and bring the whole bridge down! About 150 metres back from the crossing into Zambia was a customs post. This is where the TV camera was set up. In front of that we erected 44-gallon drums behind which our anti-tank guns were placed.
Over to the right, where the ‘ear’ of the lizard would be, a very large bunker was dug with a reinforced roof. Inside that many machine guns and riflemen were put into that bunker. A smaller bunker between there and the customs post, also a ZIPRA B10 anti-tank gun I had participated in intercepting going back to Zambia was there to be used against them!
We had artilleries covering the bridge, my mortars, we had anti-tank weapons, about 15 to 20 eland armoured cars which carried very powerful 90 mm guns.
The ideal was to blow the bridge to stop them but if they had come across they would have been stopped by blockages on the tracks and the train would have been derailed. ZIPRA troops would have had to de-bus in a massive killing zone and running along both sides of the railway line was a tall fence which was rigged by the engineers with all sorts of trip wires and other goodies and nasty things on them. If they ran for the fence they would have been blown up, and there was coiled barbed wire on the northern side. So we had them pretty well hemmed in.
Once all this defence preparation was accomplished we stayed on high alert. One night, two days later, I heard a massive series of explosions down in the Zambezi river area. I raced back to camp and almost collided with the anti-tank guns going down to the bridge. (We kept them camouflaged elsewhere at the Elephant Hills Hotel ruins).
There were flashes and bangs going on all over the place. By the time I got back to the camp the place had been stood to, everybody was ready for action. I went into our little ops room with our radios. There was a massive firing going on just west of the A’Zambezi Hotel. I grabbed a radio and walked over to the observation point. What I saw there was incredible.
It was a reasonably good moon that night and this ‘silver snake’ of the river coming from my left to my right, dark over in Zambia, dark on our side. Coming across that silver surface were 12-15 very large dinghies and boats coming across the river from Zambia. There were streaks of tracer coming from our side. Our tracer was red. Their tracer was green. Then this white tracer opened up from the land on the Zambian side. White usually indicates it’s from an anti-aircraft weapon. I thought it was a 12.7 or 14.5. It was being aimed at where our little red tracer was emanating from. It seemed to have quite an impact and our tracer lights stopped.
I tried to use the radio to say we were ready and what were our orders but couldn’t get through as there was too much activity on the radio with people talking to each other. Then the horizon to my left just flickered and all these artillery shells just started coming across, with whistling sounds. Bang, bang, bang.
The Zambian shoreline where these ZIPRA guys were departing from was just getting hit by large numbers of salvos by our artillery guns up at the airstrip. I learnt subsequently by talking to the commander of the ambush party down on the Rhodesian side, there were 2 eland armoured cars there with about 4 or 5 Grey Scouts as support infantry and they had been firing at these dinghies coming across. The lead boat was a big one and according to the commander of the armoured car, was carrying about 20-30 men. Our forces destroyed it and it just dissolved and sank into the river. The details of who destroyed it are unclear.
Then the other smaller ZIPRA dinghies tried to avoid that point and went slightly westward and many went east toward the falls and some were even swept over the falls! It was an incredible sight. The enemy’s 12.7 was so effective that the armoured cars had to move for fear of being opened up like a tin can.
I was getting really pissed off – all this artillery, all this shooting and what the hell was going on? So I unsuccessfully tried to get through again on radio, and other mortars elsewhere had opened up – I think the Grey Scouts under Captain Williams had mortars or it was other guys down by the A’Zambezia that were firing over into Zambia. There were a lot of flashes going on in Zambia, it was a hell of a mess.
Then, before I could say ‘Jack Shit’ the whole bloody contact had ended and I hadn’t fired a shot!
This just seemed to follow me through the whole war. I had just experienced the most incredible punch up, I was just about to give orders to open fire independently but I didn’t really know who was where or whether we had special forces over the river. I was just deciding to fire when the whole thing ended!
My nerves were on edge so we had a little drink at the pub at our little base camp. I went to bed at 3am. When I woke up it was a surreal experience in the Victoria Falls village. Fortunately nobody had tried to cross at the Vic Falls bridge.
What we learnt from this is that the ZIPRA that were trying to cross in the dinghies, about 200-400 of them were going to come in the back door, cross over the Zambezi river from Zambia, walk along the river front on our side and come in behind our defensive forces at the Victoria Falls bridge and hit us from behind, and then send the train over with the 1200 troops in it. We had thwarted their plans.
I know for a fact that 80-90 were killed in the river. The next day about 30 bodies were being picked up from the river bank, about another 20 went over the falls. The tourist boats had seen about 20-30 gooks waving from an island near the falls who were picked up from the island. 25 landed in the open minefields – walked into plough shears? – and were killed there. About 25 managed to get on land west of the minefield and they went up to the Kazungula road where the Grey Scouts had a contact with them. So the police station where all the bodies were taken was awash with all the dead. After the war a ZIPRA leader revealed that many dozens – up to 200 – of these ZIPRA soldiers waiting on the Zambian side to embark into these dinghies had been hit by artillery and that the town of Livingstone was awash with bodies. So it was a very effective defence action carried out by both national servicemen and territorials. I saw nothing reported in the press about it.
The interesting thing is these guys were dressed in dark brown khaki with black boots so they were regular soldiers. They weren’t terrs who wore denims as had been the case up till now. They were proper soldiers. The ‘Booze Cruises‘ for tourists just carried on daily and for several days bodies would be found.
Rather crazy to continue booze cruises for tourists which could have been hit from the Zambian side yet looking after the tourists was a major concern. Our guys responsible for security even dressed up as female tourists to entice an attack which would have been heavily dealt with. I thought the PATU (Police Anti-Terrorist Unit) guys were first rate.”
Grey Scouts Michael Watson: “the TA (territorial army) were the unsung heroes of many a contact. In my regiment, the Grey Scouts, our TA troops were the most aggressive and most successful in closing with the enemy. A silver cross, bronze cross and an MID were awarded to this troop. The TA were the next highest casualties in the war after the BSAP.” (TA -The Territorial Army were military trained civilians who were involuntarily called up constantly for defence purposes.)
Listen to Grey Scout Clive Midlane share his experiences: