The Weird World of the Bush War for the Part Time Rhodesian Soldier
“Realizing that I had not seen another vehicle for some time and twilight was a very dangerous time to be driving, I cocked my rifle and laid it across the passenger seat. I also removed the 9mm Browning pistol from its holster, cocked and laid at the ready to fire if necessary.”
Written by Sally-Ann Lowe (information from Rod Wells’ book “The Part-Time War”, 2011).
Such was the reality of the Rhodesian part-time bush war soldier Rod Wells in the Transport Division. Despite the inherent dangers they faced, in general, the involuntarily called-up territorial soldier was initially considered by the regular soldiers to be ‘not up to scratch’ and there to be tolerated. Eventually as the war activity escalated, they earned the respect they deserved through their efforts, ability to hold their own, and courage.
Beneath their brand new camouflage military uniforms stood a motley crew such as Rhodesian doctors, salesmen, accountants, corporate managers, lawyers, bank clerks, farmers, motor mechanics, and self-employed business owners. Aged early twenties to late fifties, these were the latest group to become ensnared in the ever expanding Rhodesian territorial call-up web to defend the nation in the Bush War against the terrorist proxy armies of communist Russia, East Germany and Red China – who were also aided by funding from British, Swedish and other taxpayers, World Council of Churches, and OAU to name just a few.
As the Bush War stepped up more manpower was desperately needed to defend the nation yet it was crucial to keep the wheels of commerce and production turning for the benefit of Rhodesia’s economy. A national compromise resulted in the most unusual existence of the war-time part-time soldier.
The territorial soldier had the dubious privilege of living part time within two worlds – the civilian corporate world of the pen and the family – a 9 to 5 normal lifestyle, and the security force counter-insurgency world of the rifle, such as daring Selous Scouts and Grey Scouts with their clandestine activities, or laying low unseen in observation posts up mountains, tracking and following up gooks, digging up landmines, being ambushed or laying in ambush, transporting troops back and forth repeatedly along landmined dirt bush roads, and guarding and defending large agricultural estates.
Perhaps 6 weeks at a time, backwards and forwards he would move between these two disassociated worlds of the normality of home life and career, then straight into a deadly dangerous ‘blood and guts’ bush war existence, and then back again to his civilian life. Farmers had it especially tough, called up to defend the nation whilst leaving their farms and families so vulnerable to attack. One farmer away nearby on gook-tracking duties tragically lost both his pregnant young wife and his father through a landmine explosion.
Being a soldier determined to be of value to safeguard his family and his people whilst trying to stay alive, keeping a business functioning – let alone profitably, financial survival, a marriage intact and the role of fatherhood, as well as maintaining his mental wellbeing throughout, required a degree of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and was a challenge at which most rose with dignity and honour, succeeding remarkably despite such testing circumstances. They knew that their nation’s survival was at stake.
Because they came from every walk of life and a variety of circumstances, every territorial soldier would have a relatively unique, interesting story to tell. Rod Wells, who was born in England but grew up in Rhodesia, was a qualified motor mechanic running his own business which enabled him to pursue his great love, motor racing. He was motor racing Rhodesian National Champion in both 1974 and 1975. Beginning his bush war effort as a Police Reservist in 1975, Rod’s major battle was the survival of his business while both he and his employees were involuntarily continually subject to part-time call-ups. Despite his difficult circumstances, he recollects many amusing situations relating to his military ‘career’ even during training.
Political Correctness not Required in Rhodesia Thank You and Here’s Why
There was none of the Cultural Marxist political correctness nonsense in Rhodesia that was brewing throughout the rest of the west and males admiringly wolf whistling appreciatively at pretty females was not considered a crime against humanity but rather an underhand compliment, or just a mild irritation for some, and anyway women could hold their own in tit-for-tat tactics when appropriate.
A great example is an incidence related by Bush War Helicopter pilot Mike Borelace from Britain, a single man who, having got friendly with some Rhodesian air hostesses, casually requested the air hostesses to repair with needle and cotton a tear in his clothing. He was promptly informed ‘we don’t do repairs’. But wait, there’s more! When he was next out in the bush at a military base camp on his first fire-force duty and the alarm to man the helicopters rang out, still half asleep he hurriedly pushed his foot hard down into his trouser leg and fell flat on his face – the air hostesses had sewn the trouser leg closed inside just for good measure!
Having attended some voluntary training, Rod Wells related some amusing incidents on his first official training day for the Bush War in the Police Reserve. After lectures on map reading and counter vehicle ambush procedure (keep going!) and introduction of such delightful terms as ‘the killing zone’ and ‘the angle of fire’, they were then highly relieved to see walking into their lecture room ‘an extremely attractive young nursing sister, who was greeted with wolf whistles and a few ribald comments’.
“Unperturbed, she started off by describing the types of situations and wounds that we might be confronted with. She demonstrated how to deal with burns, wounds, bleeding, broken limbs and shock. When asked for volunteers to demonstrate on, chairs were knocked aside in the mad scramble to get close to this perfumed beauty. She got her own back on us though, and had us blushing with embarrassment, when she recommended that we carry a packet of tampons with us as they are particularly well adapted to plugging gunshot wounds and stemming the flow of blood. To illustrate the point a gruesome film of actual casualties followed, ‘Just to show you what you may be faced with’. As the last frames flickered to the end we rose, feeling slightly nauseous, and filed out into the fresh air.”
Next followed a crash course in helicopter procedures:
“Our ‘helicopter’ consisted of a group of wooden chairs laid out in the centre of the parade square. We took it in turns to be pilot, gunner and passengers and soon we were attracting a great deal of attention from the office block! Some participants threw themselves enthusiastically into the roles using appropriate noises, not unlike children playing at cowboys and Indians.”
After lunch it was time to draw a rifle and two magazines from the armoury and await the transport to take them to the rifle range.
“We were slightly surprised when this transport turned out to be two grey Prison trucks, fitted with wooden seats, mesh grill windows and ‘PRISON SERVICE’ painted prominently on the sides! When the driver then proceeded to take us right through the city centre there was a mad scramble to pull down the canvas window screens and we finished the journey incognito in the dimness within.”
What would it do for an accountant or lawyer’s reputation to be spotted behind bars in the back of a Prison truck by his colleagues or clients!
Thirty Year Old Small Business Owner Rod Wells Heads Off for the Bush War
Rod, who was thirty years old and 6’6” tall, then received his first call-up papers requiring a 16 day tour of duty. He and 2 others, Gordon and Sam, were allotted guard duty at New Years Gift tea estate in a small fertile valley ringed by high tree covered hills near Chipinga, a village in the notorious terrorist infested but fertile Eastern Borders area.
Rod introduced himself to Gordon who was the ‘veteran’ having had one previous call-up, and Sam who was a rookie like Rod. They had a long uncomfortable journey travelling by truck. They had heard horrific tales of the dangers of landmines in the area yet Pat, the resident estate engineer who had come to pick them up from Chipinga, had no qualms as he swung onto the dirt road and sped towards the office buildings.
“We soon learnt that the locals showed no fear of their situation, risking land mines, ambushes and attacks daily. We townies were the jittery ones.”
For the next two weeks their allotted task was to protect the managers, engineers, their families and their homes on the tea estate. Not designed with terrorist attacks in mind many years ago, the houses, factory buildings and offices were scattered over a wide area when first carved out of the bush. Rod, Gordon and Sam’s accommodation was a cottage in the largest fenced enclosure, together with the general manager’s house and also an engineer’s house.
Pat’s house was separate with its own security fence with two other houses, temporarily unoccupied. All the fenced enclosures had lockable steel gates shut at sunset until sunrise. Given custody of the keys they locked up and dog tired after the long journey they decided to forgo any idea of guard duty and slept right till dawn.
Gordon insisted on doing all the cooking and while each day Rod and Sam got more and more bored, playing cards or going for short walks, Gordon happily fussed in the kitchen playing housewife. He was soon nicknamed ‘Mary’ but good naturedly took no offence. The only break to the monotony was a phone call to their wives once each day. Luckily there was a telephone in the house.
They had not received any formal training as to how exactly best to guard a spread out compound like the tea estate. They were just dumped there and told to guard. They finally decided on a Plan of action should they come under attack. Daylight time was quite safe but the night time held the most dangerous possibility of attack. They decided, rightly or wrongly, not to keep guard watch all night. The area to patrol was too large and the undergrowth around the circumference of the estate too thick to see through anyway. They would simply take it in turns to be the last one to turn in during the early hours of the morning. Their cottage faced the main gate at a corner of the compound.
“In the event of any action, Sam would fire from the bedroom, which faced a thick wood from where an attack was possible. Gordon would fire from the veranda, which faced directly onto the gateway, while I would fire from the lounge, which faced onto the tea plantation itself. Although there were sand bag trenches outside we were so naïve that we felt that we would be safer inside the building. We decided that an outside light would be left on as it partly illuminated the main gate and would hopefully act to deter any aggressors from coming too close. The estate manager, a member of the local police reserve, could cover the rear of the compound from his house and for the next few days the other houses would be unoccupied, including Pat’s house, due to leave.”
The next evening they sat playing cards till eleven when Sam and Gordon retired. Sam always slept in full kit including even boots, whereas Gordon ‘always changed into silk pyjamas which would have been more in keeping with a long cigarette holder than the FN rifle he carried at all times’. Rod was to retire last this night so he had a bath (an unusual luxury for a soldier) then did some reading. At midnight he turned off the inside lights, lay down and started dozing off.
All Hell Breaks Lose!
A sudden loud sound jerked him into full alert, ‘like a metallic echo as though a fence post had been struck’. Shocked, with adrenaline activated, he rolled over and shook Sam violently to arouse him as the ground shook from explosions and up above it sounded as ‘a rattle like pebbles rolling down a corrugated iron roof’. Thinking to open the curtains and a window Rod then came to his senses and instead:
“With no more ado, I let rip a full magazine of twenty rounds through the window. The sound of shattering glass was drowned by the deafening explosions of the rifle firing in the small room. By now Sam was by my side and I could hear Gordon firing from the veranda. I suddenly went cold with fear because the outside light not only allowed us to see the main gate, but ironically it also lit up the house and made it an easier target for the enemy. I cursed our stupidity.”
Although the light switch was outside Rod determinedly burst out the door, flicked off the switch, then all in record time leapt back inside into the kitchen. He crawled into the lounge and continued firing, then his rifle jammed. Hands sweating, he repeated the training procedure remove magazine, clear rifle and reload, cock and fire! But after firing a further round the rifle jammed yet again. ‘Fool! Step up the gas pressure’.
Then as suddenly as it had all started, it stopped. Silence! Rod sat in the dark trying to catch his breath, the adrenaline rush unabating. The silence felt ominous as he tried to calm his shattered nerves. The phone rang. He said, ‘Hello’, which seemed rather inappropriate under the circumstances. It was the estate manager asking if they were all alright. He had contacted the Chipinga Police on the agric alert so assured them help would be coming soon. What a relief! All remained silent. Now they just had to sit back and wait.
“Bloody hell. Look at my groundsheet!” exclaimed Gordon. Like Rod, Gordon had thrown caution to the wind and sprayed bullets through the window, totally forgetting his police issue ground sheet was hanging from the windows as a makeshift curtain. They all gazed up at the window. The moon and stars could be seen shining through big bullet holes in his now shredded groundsheet. Then they all suddenly collapsed with laughter:
“The thought of Gordon in his silk pyjamas firing a rifle in anger through his groundsheet was just too much and the three of us just rolled around the floor in uncontrollable mirth.”
The low drone of a helicopter was eventually heard approaching and a flare was dropped, lighting up the tea estate in surreal, creepy tones. They took the opportunity to peer out through the windows. There was no sign of their attackers and the perimeter fence appeared still intact. Then they heard two vehicles slowly approach. They went out to meet them and found themselves quickly surrounded by soldiers demanding details of the raid.
A lieutenant ordered the soldiers to spread out in defensive positions all along the perimeter in case the enemy reformed and counterattacked. He pointed at Rod, ordering him to come with them and show them to the other side of the compound. They came across some dug out foundations of a dismantled outbuilding and were ordered to bed down in the crevice for the night. Too bad Rod alone had no sleeping bag and as the temperature plummeted he spent the winter night in a tiny ball trying to maintain a bit of warmth. No sleep for him!
Only a few kilometres from the Mozambique border, the gooks were probably well on their way back to safety by now, Rod thought, as he welcomed the early morning sunrays. They all headed back to the cottage, curious to see what damage had occurred. Rod found Gordon and Sam drinking coffee with some young soldiers and asked ‘What was the damage done?’ Not a thing!
“The house looked as though a bomb had hit it, shattered windows, shredded curtains, plaster chipped, but all the damage had been done from the inside, caused by our own shooting! Externally, there wasn’t a mark anywhere! There were quite a few derisory remarks from the regular soldiers lolling about nearby regarding the Police Reservists shooting at shadows.”
Soon the local Police and Special Branch Detectives arrived and Rod observed what a civilized war this was, with Police recording and investigating every incident that occurred to civilians and then a proper follow up to find the perpetrators.
“Expecting to be questioned about the attack, we were surprised and annoyed when not only were we ignored but once again the insults were bandied about regarding Police Reservists in general and townies in particular. It was beginning to look as though we had never come under attack at all and the powers that be felt that we had panicked and shot at nothing!”
In disgust and with their morale low, Rod, Gordon and Sam decided to go for a walk around the rear of the compound. Perplexed by the lack of any evidence of damage, they could not understand it. They had definitely heard explosions and also rattling sounds on the iron roof above. All that noise could not be just their imagination!
Passing one of the unoccupied houses, they then saw strange marks on the ground, like a blast blowing the dust away, exposing the hard ground underneath. Coming toward the house they noticed something odd about the windows and the roof. Coming nearer they then saw that a heavy explosion had made a hole right through the rear wall, blowing out the windows and even lifting the eves. Looking inside, the room was a shambles with pockmarked walls from shrapnel and furniture and ornaments all over the place. Then Sam discovered a hole in the fence! Clearly a rocket of some sort had been fired from outside the fence at the house. As they ran back to report their find a group of soldiers also hurried back from the opposite direction to report they had found the other unoccupied house had been mortared.
“Now the tables had turned. We were vindicated, and the derision turned to friendly banter,
‘You buggers must have shat yourselves!’ and ‘It must have been a hell of a racket!’
It eventually turned out that one house had been badly damaged by mortar shells and the other house had mortar craters in the garden but somehow had sustained no damage. The house we had spotted had two direct hits from RPG rockets and on closer inspection, our cottage had a line of bullet holes raked across the chimney and a branch had been ripped from a large overhanging tree, possibly by a rocket.”
Furthermore, they found many spent cartridge cases fired from AK47 automatic rifles and RPD machine guns. In fact it turned out to be the heaviest attack up to that time! They felt completely vindicated when they read a report in the national newspaper, the Rhodesia Herald, a few days later which credited them with having repelled the attackers.
Before leaving the tea estate one of the soldiers cleared up the mystery sound Rod had heard on the tin roof:
“That wasn’t anything rattling on your roof,” he said. “That was the sound of automatic fire from an AK47 heard from the wrong end of the barrel!”
Such was the attitude toward these mere part time dad’s army soldiers, that a further slight – but then their vindication – occurred. At the time Rod, Sam and Gordon knew and advised the army exactly which direction the gooks would take for their getaway, having previously observed the lay of the land when escorting an engineer to the top of the aerial hill. Unfortunately their views on the subject were deemed unworthy by the professionals and no immediate follow up ensued.
So imagine their annoyance when, several days later, a full scale search was then initiated with troops now residing on the estate and being transported direct by an Alouette helicopter to the exact area they had recommended, a useless exercise now as the terrorists would have long returned over the border into Mozambique to the relative safety of their base camp.
Baptism of Fire – Part Time Soldiers’ On-the-Job Training was Actual Warfare
From this experience it became apparent to Rod that their training for the task allotted them was totally inadequate. No instruction on how to even handle an actual attack had been given. Staying in the house under mortar attack instead of running into the sandbagged trenches was wrong. Despite the dangerous times, they hadn’t even been given any instruction on using the agric-alert system that the farms and estates had installed. Rod Wells has the final say on this:
“On reflection it was also obvious that we were only there as a token, armed presence, which was not going to deter the action of a determined terrorist. I decided that the prospect of innumerable call-ups with such boredom and tension was not for me and that, as soon as I got back, I would investigate the possibilities of transferring into the transport section.”
Rod was to jump out of the pan and into the fire transporting troops and military goods and driving continually back and forth on lonely bush dirt roads from then on and, with the war hotting up, his life experiences centred on landmines and ambushes! His most valuable piece of advice provided during initial training was that, if driving and then being ambushed, never stop, keep going! A moving target is more difficult to hit. It likely saved his life on several occasions.
Enough is Enough – It Was Time to Take the Wise Owl Route
After three years of military commitments and with the conflict escalating, Rod had decided to close the business. The government had conceded to African majority rule some years before and yet they were still fighting this insidious war risking their lives, for what? It seemed to have turned into a vain attempt to maintain law and order while the two tribal terrorist warring factions of Mugabe and Nkomo escalated the violence against each other as well as against both Whites and Blacks to enhance their strength, like a game of chess. At 33 years of age, with their two young children’s futures in mind, and the need to start from scratch while it was still possible at his age, the heartbreaking decision was taken in 1978 to leave Rhodesia. Rod and his wife Vi now live in the UK.