Rhodesia’s Lethal Weapon: Flight Lt. Kevin (Cocky) Benecke SCR DCD

Sir, I am not cut out for recce. This is a job for an old man with patience, like you.”

As a young teenager I knew Cocky Benecke (far right) briefly as a family friend in Livingstone. Having lost touch thereafter I was more than impressed many years later, when I began reading our military men’s published personal accounts of their Rhodesian Bush War experiences. How often Cocky was mentioned and always in a most admirable and respectful way. Then I learnt why when I read PJH Petter-Bowyer’s masterpiece, Winds of Destruction.

by Sally-Ann Lowe (info from Group Captain PJH Petter-Bowyer’s Winds of Destruction)

Cocky Benecke had a rare ability to spot from his aircraft the enemy below, hiding and concealed under foliage, when all others could not. Combine this with a cocky ‘can-do’ attitude where, in Rhodesia’s War of Independence from the British Establishment/City of London Corporation/’The Crown’ squid, ‘cocky’ is simply code for ‘courage and precision’.

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The New Strategy to Perform Skilled Recces from Fixed Wing Slow Aircraft

Under orders and using his own ingenuity, it was Petter-Bowyer who perfected the technique of flight reconnaissance and performing the art of tracking the enemy’s whereabouts from the air and identifying their camps. A while back, he had attended a lecture by Group Captain Dickie Bradshaw OLM on this skill and expressed interest in the idea. Bradshaw had previously visited the Portuguese Air Force in Angola. They had developed visual recce methods for fixed-wing slow aircraft operating at the safer 1,500 feet above ground and they had taken him on an impressive recce flight as a demonstration.

Petter-Bower receiving his wings from Prime Minister Sir Roy Welensky

The ‘Ugly Duckling’ Squadron Transforms into the Golden Goose

Petter-Bowyer (P.B.) completed his Staff Course then was posted to command No 4 Squadron at Thornhill, which initially he viewed as a disappointing post. It was seen as the ‘ugly duckling’ squadron with the least inviting slow aircraft – so-called ‘Trojans’ and aging Provosts. However, P.B. and Cocky Benecke were soon to lead the way in extinguishing that ‘penal squadron’ perception.

Trojan Snitches, Saboteurs and ‘Piddling Little Aircraft

Needing to replace the aging Provosts ‘required for pilot training’, an American aircraft, the T28 Trojans with 1475hp engines (with a better ground strike capacity!) had been ordered, to be rebuilt under license in France. To the Rhodesian Air Force’s astonishment, what in fact arrived via South Africa in crates for secret assembly were ‘piddling little aircraft’ with 260hp machines, Aeromacchi/Lockheed 260 aircraft. Where the switch had taken place was unknown.

Don’t be fooled. The little ‘Trojan’ was a most challenging aircraft for any pilot to fly. Because of the Trojan’s variable noise as well as its power limitations and idiosyncrasies, it was derisively said that the noise generated was that of ‘five pistons clapping for the one doing all the work’.

Petter-Bowyer states, “It was not until the year 2000 that I learned from historian Richard Wood of documents he located in the UK from our Director of Legal Services Wing Commander Harold Marsh to the British Foreign office telling of the impending arrival of the Trojans. By then however, it was too late for the shipment to be intercepted and impounded by Britain. What other secrets Harold Marsh passed on to the Brits, or how many others like him were acting against Rhodesian interests, I cannot say – but it helps explain why we lost the T28 Trojans and why there were so many more problems of ‘leaked’ secrets yet to come.” 

As the Bush War progressed it was the ever increasing security threat and need to provide additional intelligence that was responsible for assigning Petter-Bowyer to 4 Squadron. He was allocated the new task of training and ensuring that 4 Squadron’s pilots mastered the skill and became highly proficient in visual reconnaissance work from the air.

Since P.B. had been the only man to show an interest in the idea it was his fate to be given the new responsibility despite his own lack of background. This intelligence would provide pre-emptive rather than re-active planning against terrorist groups.

Thinking Outside the Box Petter-Bowyer Develops Unique Air Recce Techniques

For instance, knowing people were creatures of habit, PB studied patterns and variations of all the paths visible from the air and learnt to distinguish from the rest the lighter, more angular footpaths of terrorists that intercepted regular human and animal paths.

Through aerial studies of complex systems of paths, PB learnt to distinguish those making each path (both animal and human) and their purpose. He then investigated the accuracy of his assumptions by personally visiting the village, and with permission, checking his assumptions, examining even several toilet paths separating the men’s from the women’s ablutions.

Also, Black Africans automatically waved at low flying aircraft, even if caught out naked. So PB used several aircraft to fly in a grid system along parallel lines plotting the areas of friendly waves and those where they were ignored by the locals, an obvious sign of hostility, intimidation or indoctrination and therefore CT presence. Thus 4 Squadron were able to ‘map out’ regions in which terrorists were likely to be present or absent.

This is just a tiny sampling of the intelligent development of air recce techniques by the indefatigable Petter-Bowyer. “During the first four weeks of recce in the Mtoko area I located in excess of 200 terr bases and feeding places.” Assessing if their usage was current was yet another challenge.

The Reluctant Trainee

Young Cocky Benecke, part of a newer intake of 4 Squadron Provost pilots, was pulled out of the action and instead found himself yawning his way through air recce training with PB as he studied the secrets revealed by the numerous paths below and taking advantage of the angle of the sun to highlight them to maximum benefit … blah blah blah.

Sir, I am not cut out for recce. This is a job for an old man with patience, like you.”

Well, a stunned silence ensued from P.B., who was not yet forty, as he digested this cocky insult!

After a bit of a blasting, P.B. lectured on,

Cocky, I know you enjoy action and that you have done well whenever you have been called. So tell me, are you happy to keep on sitting around just waiting for someone else to call you to action? Are you too special to act on your Squadron’s motto ‘Seek and Find’ or are you going to get off your arse, find gooks and lead others to action?

How Cocky’s Attitude to Air Recce Instantly Reversed

Two hours after his ‘lecture’ and still on his training exercise, Cocky was clearly wide awake and still alert when PB pointed out an old disused CT base on the western side of the Nyadiri River valley.

The base is in use, Sir,” Cocky said, “There are gooks down there. I can see their kit under the trees!”

PB had seen nothing and reacted with disbelief. Cocky insisted he had seen plenty of kit.

Cocky, are you absolutely certain there are terrs in that base?

No question about it, sir. I am absolutely certain.”

PB then called FAF 5 for Fire Force to be readied and for two Provosts to be armed with eight fragmentation bombs each. A now keen and eager Cocky urged they get straight back to base but the ‘patient old man’ explained the importance of fooling the terrs into believing they had not been seen by first continuing on the orbit along their recce line.

On then returning to base and having briefed the Fire Force, P.B. and Cocky each took off in their own armed Provosts, flying 4,000 feet above the helicopters and veering left and right to stay behind them. P.B. states that five minutes before arriving at target he and Cocky, who was flying 200 metres behind him:

“put our propellers to maximum rpm to maximise noise effect and overtook the helicopters that were flying very low on their northward course in the Nyadiri River valley. When abeam the target, I rolled the aircraft over and entered into a steep-dive attack to release my bombs into base. Cocky did likewise and followed me in a wide orbit to watch the Fire Force helicopters deploy their troops. They came into contact very quickly and the entire group of 15 CTs died in this combined ground and air action. Cocky’s attitude to recce had been instantly reversed. He wanted to be released right away to work on his own!

The next day while finalising Cocky’s recce training they spotted another CT base. Again P.B. failed to observe any presence but his newly acquired recce skills assessed it was a small base occupied by 6 to 8 CTs. Cocky insisted he observed kit and at least three men in dark blue clothing inside. CTs favoured blue denim trousers and shirts at this stage of the Bush War. While they continued steadily along their orbit line they called Fire Force which would be arriving in the direction toward them. Below them were five helicopters just above treetop level with K-Car leading.

P.B. and Cocky remained with them to talk them onto target; the base was on the south slope of the ridge ahead and P.B. instructed K-Car “Standby – Pull up now – base ninety degrees left 200 yards – NOW!” And K-Car took control. Then Cocky again informed P.B. “Gooks visual in the base. They are lying still in the shadows!” The K-Car gunner observed the base clearly but saw no sign of either kit or men in it under the trees.

Even though K-Car was at 1,000 feet above the base and we were at 2,000 feet, neither the pilot nor his gunner could spot the individuals Cocky insisted were lying prone in shadows against the bases of trees. It was only when firing started and the CTs moved that the K-Car crew and I saw what Cocky had been reporting all along. Five of the terrorists were killed and one wounded CT was captured.”

Cocky’s recce training was now complete and P.B. organized for him an unarmed Cessna from Thornhill so that he could begin doing recce on his own out of FAF 4 at Mt Darwin.

RLI Fire Force Operations required the cooperation of the Rhodesian Air Force and Army. They were far more efficient than firing or dropping ordnance from air (or ‘carpet-bombing’) and overall reduced civilian casualties.

Cocky’s Solo Recce Success Keeps the Fire Force Busy

The next morning P.B. was airborne alone inspecting villages and in curiosity at 11 am he tuned into the Mt Darwin Fire Force channel. The Force, which had been inactive for ages, was busily engaged in Fire Force action thanks to a call by none other than Cocky Benecke!

I listened in for two hours during which time Cocky repeatedly directed the K-Car onto small groups and individuals. His voice never once showed the frustration he was experiencing flying an unarmed Cessna.”

He had always flown armed Provosts or Trojans which had allowed him to immediately strike at the targets that the K-Cars could not spot despite his attempts to guide them to the whereabouts of the enemy. Now in the same situation but in the unarmed Cessna Cocky maintained his cool in the face of a frustrated K-Car pilot.

I am looking at the corner of the bloody field but cannot see anyone there!”

Cocky calmly replied,

Try a short burst 30 metres right of the western edge and 10 metres up from the south.”

This worked and the exposed CT running out of hiding was quickly accounted for. Later in the day P.B. tuned in and again, thanks to the indefatigable Cocky Benecke, heard the Fire Force back in action yet again!

Rhodesian Air Force Cessna 337 Lynx with full load out. These are the arms that Cocky’s Cessna lacked that day.

Cocky Flushes out the Cockroaches

South Africa’s Prime Minister Balthazar Johannes (John) Vorster, an embedded Deep State asset proclaiming Detente, had held back re-supplies of fuel and ammunition so as to force upon Rhodesia a ceasefire in December 1975 and ‘talks’ with the terrorist leaders, just when (read because) Rhodesia had got all its ‘ducks in a row’ was successfully routing the enemy.

It lasted a long 8 months in which Rhodesia’s Forces had to sit on their hands and do nothing if the moving enemy were facing the direction of the Zambia or Mozambique borders. This provided time for the Soviet/Red China secret ComIntern partnership to invigorate, re-arm and train up more of their proxy armies of ZANLA and ZIPRA. It was also long enough for the FRELIMO terrorists to take power in Mozambique, approved by the world without any democratic election whatsoever, to become a third army against Rhodesia after Portugal’s pro-communist military coup and desertion of its 3 African provinces (they had all the same rights as the provinces within Portugal proper; they were not colonies).

Yet numerous CTs remained armed and in hiding within Rhodesia instead of retreating back to their external bases as stipulated by the agreed ceasefire rules. It was these cockroaches that Cocky and Fire force began in earnest flushing out of hiding.

On his first day on recce Cocky was responsible for actions that depleted ZANLA’s few remaining CTs within the country by 17 killed or captured. These actions [in 1975] seem to have been the final straw that forced most surviving CTs in the country to exit to Mozambique. ZANLA, however, had arranged for at least one group to remain in their Nehanda sector in a caretaker role and had sent an execution group to the Chaminuka sector with a list of ‘sell-outs’ to be eliminated.

Many so-called ‘sell-outs’ were simply innocent victims tortured then murdered to create fear and subservience in the villagers just as fear of a ‘new germ’ to achieve compliance and submission is used successfully worldwide today.

What Made Cocky Benecke’s Eyes One in a Million?

All 4 Squadron pilots were great operators but one junior pilot was already emerging as a star performer. Almost every action involving Air Sub Lieutenant ‘Cocky’ Benecke with the callsign Juliet 4 turned to success. This had much to do with his amazing eyesight.” PJH Petter-Bowyer.

Impressed but perplexed as to Cocky’s vastly superior ability to spot the enemy hiding under foliage, P.B.’s inquiring mind set about solving the mystery. He was not colour-blind or would not have passed his flying medical tests. P.B., who became highly respected for his innovative qualities, had an eye test then had it compared with Cocky’s. Both were perfect. He then questioned every eye specialist he could contact to try and find out why Cocky’s eyesight ‘made him one in a million’.

So innovative was the mind of P.B. that he arranged with an optician and occulist for a variety of experimental tinted and polarised lenses. Perhaps other pilots could then benefit too; but to no avail. Later at the end of 1979 a Dr Knight finally provided the answer. Cocky’s colour perception was slightly defective in the green-brown range, so deep and mottled shadows failed to ‘blend out’ anything that lay within them.

Throughout the war Cocky continued to display his uncanny talent. However, it was not only his eyesight that made Cocky a truly exceptional operational pilot. He was aggressive and brave in all that he did, yet never did he become big headed or arrogant. His happy nature and huge smile endeared him to all.”

P.B. himself had gained a good reputation for bringing Fire Force to targets yet the difficulty in the recce job is revealed by his average of three ‘lemons’ for every one success. Hamie Dax had two successes to one failure. Generally, it was accepted by helicopter crews and others that for every one success there would occur two ‘lemons’. Not so with Cocky Benecke whose results reversed this expectation. He had 100% success or at worst, two successes for every ‘lemon’.

Astonishingly, “Cocky was ribbed for his ‘failures’ by a small ‘Prima Donna element that did no more than was absolutely necessary at base and in the field”. But no helicopter pilot who had flown recce himself ever criticised anyone’s ‘lemons’. “It was only those who had come from the jet squadrons and considered their leisure time too precious to waste.”

Green-Eyed Monsters Crawl Out the Woodworks

Flight Lieutenant D. S. disgracefully even committed his unjust criticism of Cocky’s ‘lemons’ to paper, with sarcasm in his ASR in 1977, despite the successful contact resulting from Cocky’s recce information, as follows:

On a bright Wednesday afternoon with nothing to do the Fire Force decided to check out two possible terr camps found by Air Lieutenant Benecke in his Lemon-Car. The first camp at … proved fruitless. The Fire Force then proceeded to the second camp at …. On arrival at this camp the target was marked by 24 Sneb rockets from Benecke. Terrs broke out of the camp heading north….”

Group Captain Norman Walsh, Director of Operations at Air HQ, strongly reprimanded D. S. for his report, especially comparing Fire Force pilots’ lack of criticism generally for Selous Scouts and other call signs despite their higher proportion of ‘lemons’.

B.P. states, “Cocky was ribbed for his failures but his record was such that he simply brushed off any criticism with a cutting retort.”

On 10 October, 1976, in an SAS Fire Force action, Brian Robinson was flying with Lieutenant Ken Law in a K-Car and a Dakota in support with SAS troops. Fortunately they had Cocky Benecke in support in a Lynx for he spotted a group of CTs hiding under bushes just 1,500 metres away from where troops had just been deployed.

This initiated actions with other CT groups scattered about in the same vicinity…. Happily Cocky Benecke was the FIRST pilot to be armed with boosted 37mm rockets that gave spectacular returns. Between himself in his Lynx and Sergeant Merber firing the K-Car’s cannon, they accounted for 17 terrorists.”

Cocky Popped Up Anywhere Anytime Flying Anything it seemed to Selous Scout Dennis Croukamp

Selous Scout Dennis Croukamp’s ‘I mean business!’ look. That ‘business’ included derailing a slow moving train full of the enemy over the border in Mozambique. An aside – It’s not well known that seventy per cent of the elite Selous Scouts were Black Africans, all volunteers.

Late in 1977 two daring Selous Scouts, the renowned Croukamp and his French teammate Jean Desble, deployed on a secret mission in Mozambique. They had just successfully derailed a train carrying the enemy who angrily leapt out of their carriages after them. The two Scouts had been hot-footing it away for an exhausting two and a half hours whilst dog-legging then back-tracking as best they could. Most unfortunately, they had accidentally left behind their main radio communication system in the scramble to escape capture by a swarm of Frelimo hunting them.

Rhodesian Allies in purple 1975

Well overdue, eventually a search and rescue was launched by the Rhodesian Air Force for them. Croukamp then heard the unmistakable sound of a Hawker Hunter of 1 Squadron which he managed to contact and alert to their whereabouts by using his smaller ground to air communication system.

Is that you bearded wonder?” came the reply from the Hawker Hunter.

‘My immediate thought was, “Shit, does he fly any aircraft he wants to,” for it was Cocky Benecke! Sadly, he would shortly after this disappear for a year or so on attachment to the SAAF to learn to fly Mirages.’

After ensuring they were in good immediate health Cocky informed them that Cyclone Four, a Cessna Push Pull aircraft would be arriving in half an hour to provide top cover if needed and the choppers would arrive for their extraction another half hour after that.

‘Then bidding us farewell, wishing us health and happiness, he said he would be heading back. I begged him not to desert us, at least not until the Cessna arrived. Consenting, he said that fuel-wise he could give us top cover for 15 minutes. That would leave us 15 minutes to sweat it out on our own.’

Much relieved by dependable Cocky’s continued protective presence in the sky above, Dennis and Jean at last sat and made tea and had a bite to eat, all the while with their eyes and ears alert to any sounds of enemy presence. Fifteen minutes later Cocky said, “Cheers, see you next time.” To their relief, their successful rescue took place as promised. (source: The Bush War in Rhodesia: The Extraordinary Combat Memoir of a Rhodesian Reconnaissance Specialist by Dennis Croukamp). Sadly Dennis Croukamp passed away in January 2021. RIP to an incredibly brave hero.

Left: Dennis Croukamp with Jèan Desblè.
Rhodesian Hawker Hunter

Massive Three-Target Retaliation Raid against ZIPRA Terr Camps in Zambia in 1979

With fresh memory of ZIPRA’s vile terrorist acts, downing of the first Air Rhodesia tourist passenger Viscount in 1978 in which 18 wounded survivors – men, women and little ones – were then brutally murdered on the ground, and a second tourist Viscount downed in Feb 8, 1979, a massive 3 target operation took place by Fire Force over the border in Zambia, striking at Soviet backed terrorist training bases. Daring and successful raids occurred against Westland’s Farm (or as the terrorists called it, Freedom Camp), Mkushi, and CGT 2.

CGT 2 resulted in the deaths of about 60 CTs but,

this target turned out to be the toughest nut of the ZIPRA targets because it contained many very effective large calibre antiaircraft guns and missiles. Cocky Benecke took hits immediately, which forced him to withdraw with a holed fuel tank”.

Cocky Benecke was Directly Responsible for more Successful Contacts than any other Single Member of the Air Force

This article touches on just a few of Cocky Benecke’s many incredible experiences, though he is famous for having been directly responsible for more successful contacts with the CTs than any other single member of the Air Force. The Rhodesian spirit manifests itself to perfection in this hero; let his official citations provide the evidence.

Official Citations:

The Defence Cross For Distinguished Service

Air Lieutenant K. Benecke
Air Lieutenant Benecke joined Number Four Squadron as a newly trained pilot in April 1973. Since that date he has served continuously on operations.

He has, over the past three years, built an enviable reputation as an outstanding air reconnaissance pilot where his perseverance and determination have provided accurate intelligence which has led to numerous successful contacts with terrorists.

As a close support, ground attack pilot, Air Lieutenant Benecke has become well-known for his aggression and skill which has drawn high praise from all branches of the Security Forces. He has personally been involved in airstrikes resulting in the deaths of many terrorists. During separate contacts he has shown a disregard for his personal safety in pressing home his attacks.

He has on numerous occasions been responsible for directing jet aircraft strikes on to enemy positions whilst acting as Forward Air Controller and performed his duties in a calm and professional manner. His successes in action are a credit to the Rhodesian Air Force.

Flight Lieutenant Kevin (Cocky) Benecke DCD
Since the award of the Defence Cross for Distinguished Service in August 1976, Flight Lieutenant Benecke has continued to employ his remarkable ability to find terrorists from the air and then attack them with courage and precision.

The demands for his special skills have resulted in his spending long periods in the operational area and he has taken a leading role in 20 contacts since his last award.

He is acknowledged to have been directly responsible for more successful contacts with the terrorists than any other single member of the air force.

The Silver Cross was awarded to Cocky Benecke for his outstanding bravery in preventing ZIPRA professional forces from overrunning Grey Scouts sticks in the Battle for Victoria Falls in 1979 against a professionally trained and courageous ZIPRA Matabele force of 100 soldiers. Thanks to Cocky and the other Silver Cross recipient that day, John Coast, ZIPRA were prevented from successfully surrounding, enfolding and extinguishing the 16 Grey Scouts in a typical Zulu/Matabele 2-fold pincer movement:

Bar to the Silver Cross of Rhodesia

Awarded 14.3.1980
Presented 03.04.1980
Flight Lieutenant Kevin (Cocky) Benecke SCR DCD

On 21St October 1979, Flight Lieutenant Benecke was the pilot of a command helicopter, which was involved in a combined ground and air action against a group of about 80 heavily armed terrorists.

By his effective control of the operation and his aggressive use of his aircraft, Flight Lieutenant Benecke was able to prevent the small security force sub-unit from being overrun.

The difficult terrain made it necessary for the aircraft to be flown unusually low and close to the enemy, where it was exposed to continuous and heavy ground fire and hit several times.

Apart from a brief period when the helicopter was refuelled and rearmed, Flight Lieutenant Benecke remained in close contact with the terrorists over a three-hour period.

By his courageous and aggressive action and his effective command of the battle, he was primarily responsible for bringing this engagement to a highly successful conclusion.

Respect also to the Rhodesian Air Force aircraft Technicians our unsung heroes. An outstanding interview by John van Zyl in which Rhodesian Air Force Technician Theuns Englebrecht shares his extraordinary Bush War stories, including his opinions on the ‘Trojan’ aircraft. Settle back and enjoy:

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