Our guest speaker on 13 February 2014 was Mr Ian Pringle, whose subject was one of the erstwhile Rhodesian Army and Air Force’s most successful external raids, the attack on the Chimoio Complex in Mocambique’s Manica Province. It was immediately followed by a similar raid on Tembue in Tete District, close to the Zambian Border. Both operations took place from 23-27 November, 1977. He is the author of the book on the same subject, titled Dingo Firestorm: The Greatest Battle of the Rhodesian Bush War, published both overseas and locally. His talk was supplemented by an excellent Power Point presentation that graphically illustrated the phasing and deployment during the Chimoio attack.
The Rhodesian bush War started in July 1964, when a farmer was attacked and killed. For a long period before that date there had been considerable political activity among the black population of Rhodesia, which was then part of the Federation made up of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. When the Federation was dissolved, the white Southern Rhodesians decided to forego an election on the basis of “One Man, One Vote” and made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on 11 November 1965. The main black political movements were ZANU, eventually headed by Robert Mugabe, and ZAPU, headed by Joshua Nkomo. The latter was headquartered in Zambia and the former in Tanzania and later, after the Portuguese left, in Mocambique.
The Portuguese had attempted to hold onto their African Empire but, after 13 years of fighting in Angola, Mocambique and Guinea Bissau, there was a revolution in Portugal against the then government of Gen Spinola in 1975 and the three territories were granted independence. Mugabe could now move his base to Mocambique.
Nkomo was attempting to build up a conventional force which would be large enough to invade Rhodesia and destroy the Rhodesian forces which were largely trained and equipped as a counter-insurgency force with only limited conventional capacity. So the northern front was relatively quiet. The borders with South Africa were quiet and Botswana did not really want to get directly involved. The Portuguese were in Mocambique up to April 1977 and Mugabe’s people could infiltrate into Rhodesia only from the Tete province. Rhodesian forces operated in Tete with the permission of the Portuguese and the Rhodesians became somewhat complacent as they were controlling the incursions.
With the arrival of Mugabe, things changed - the Frelimo government allowed him to set up his training and logistical bases in Mocambique and to use the road, sea and rail links. The long border between Rhodesia and Mocambique became a new battle front much longer than the border with Zambia. The war intensified and the resources available to the Rhodesians became stretched to the limit. With a non-black population of only some 300 000 to draw troops from and only one and later two battalions of Rhodesian African Rifles, there were too few troops available to cover the long border, 797 km with Zambia and 1 231 km with Mocambique. Call-ups became more frequent and for longer periods. Terrorist attacks within Rhodesia became more frequent. The economy began to suffer.
The Rhodesian forces were well-trained and determined, well-led at platoon, company and battalion level. Heavy weapons were scarce – the artillery consisted of 24 25-pounders, the armour of a motley collection of some old Federation-days Ferret scout cars and a few Eland armoured cars supplied by South Africa. However, ingenuity was a way-of-life with the Rhodesians and they developed various “mine-proofed” vehicles which were the ancestors of the many excellent vehicles produced later in South Africa. The world’s arms markets were closed to them so they designed and built home-grown substitutes which did the job. Fuel was not in abundant supply.
In the field of tactics the Rhodesians also excelled. Terrorists, when captured, were “turned’ and found their way to the Selous Scouts, who were experts in counter insurgency warfare and operated both inside and outside the confines of Rhodesia. Most of the Rhodesia Light Infantry and the two Rhodesian African Rifles battalions were trained parachutists and there was a very high class Special Air Services unit. Four Fire Forces were set up using companies of these parachute trained troops. These were carried into battle by helicopters or Dakota aircraft when groups of terrorists were sighted. This proved to be very successful. A mounted infantry unit, the Grey’s Scouts, was formed and used to seek out and destroy groups of terrorists. The Rhodesians also had an Air Force, small but extremely well-trained and efficient. The liaison and inter-service cooperation between the two services was developed into a fine art that would have made many larger and professional armies green with envy. Their aircraft, with the exception of the Hawker Hunter fighters and Alouette helicopters, were extremely old or totally unsuitable for the tasks they were used for but they were adapted and kept operational right up to the end of the war. Most large air forces could have learnt much from the Rhodesians.
But the terrorist forces continued to grow and more and more crossed the border, with many more training in Mocambique. The Rhodesian Air Force had for a while been carrying out photo-reconnaissance flights over Mocambique and the photo interpreters had identified a number of camps of varying size. One of these, Chimoio, 90 km (56 miles) inside Mocambique, was extremely large – from aerial reconnaissance photographs over a 1 000 cadres were counted on the rifle ranges at one time and intelligence estimated that there were at least five to seven thousand ZANLA trainees there. Another major camp was identified at Tembue, 208 km (130 miles) from the Rhodesian border and north-east of Cahora Bassa. More photos were taken and prisoners interrogated. Special Branch, SAS and Air Force personnel then constructed a huge model in scale of each camp and used this for planning. Chimoio was thought to be Mugabe’s headquarters and cadres trained in Tanzania, China and Ethiopia assembled there, before being deployed into Rhodesia. There were anti-aircraft guns dug in and the base was near to a major Frelimo base, one the Rhodesians would not wish to attack.
Mr Pringle explained the sudden death of the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Crosland, had resulted in the appointment of Dr David Owen as his successor. He favoured Nkomo and this made it easier for the Rhodesians to attack Mugabe. The Rhodesian Operations Co-ordinating Committee was advised of events but they were not really in favour of an attack because of possible political fallout. But Group Captain Norman Walsh, Air Force Director of Operations, did not give up. He and Major Brian Robertson of the SAS, realizing that something had to be done to stop the increasing inflow of terrorists, started planning an attack. They had worked together previously and liked and respected one another. They decided on a vertical envelopment form of attack and consulted with Sqn. Leader de Kock of the Parachute Training School about this. The detailed plan was prepared by these officers, assisted by SAS and selected Air Force officers. Both bases were to be attacked, one after the other. The scale of the operation was vast, using nearly every serviceable aircraft in the Rhodesian Air Force. The risk factor of operating long distances into enemy territory further compounded the decision to go ahead.
The plan depended upon the Air Force as every soldier would reach the battlefield, courtesy of the “blue jobs”. The attack would be started by the Hunters, followed by the Canberras and the Vampires. The Dakotas would drop their paratroopers, followed by the Alouettes, landing their 188 troops to cover three sides of Chimoio. A continuous combat air patrol – an aerial cab rank, so to speak - had to be maintained from then on to provide protection against possible Mocambican interference, whether from the air or on the ground.
A temporary forward refueling area had to be set up for the helicopters, guarded by RLI troops. This would be set up by helicopter-borne troops with parachuted drums of fuel. All the helicopters would refuel there. 188 men would attack an area of 18 square kilometres occupied by an estimated 2 500 to 8 000 insurgents. The Committee again refused to approve the plan in view of what they thought to be insurmountable odds. Walsh did not give up and then the committee was replaced by Combined Operations (Com Ops) with Gen. Walls in charge. There was also a change in the political climate and the Prime Minister approved the plan. Operation Dingo became reality. The planning had been done by very few people and they were given only parts of the plan on a “need to know” basis. This secrecy was enforced right up to the point that aircraft and troops were being deployed.
Warrant Officer Penney was ordered to take a full set of helicopter spares, a helicopter recovery kit, fuel and ammunition to FAF8 at Grand Reef. Here he joined another convoy and drove to Lake Alexander where the helicopter recovery and repair facility was set up. Helicopters started arriving, a total of 32. An airman was heard to say ‘we haven’t got so many”. True. Ten of them were SAAF helicopters, courtesy of the South African Air Force.
The troops now had to be briefed. A hanger at New Sarum AFB was used. The scale models were set up. At 1300 on 22 November 1977, the hanger doors were opened and some 200 people saw the scale models of Chimoio – and the intended target - for the first time. RLI, SAS, Special Branch and Air Force personnel now all knew that something big had been planned. The SAS Intelligence Officer, Capt. McCormack, started the briefing. When he noted that 188 men were going to attack ±5 000 insurgents, a voice from the back of the hanger shouted “you must be f---ing mad”. A roar of laughter relieved the tension. The briefing was continued by Norman Walsh and Brian Robertson. Tea followed and then the briefing reviewed the plan for Tembue to be attacked after completion of the Chimoio attack. The briefing ended with a demand for absolute secrecy.
The plan was very complex and relied on absolutely keeping to the timing set in the plan to the second. It was a risk that Com Ops were willing to take, backed by the secure knowledge of the superb professionalism and proven combat record of the air force.
The helicopter-borne troops left for Lake Alexander, while the others settled down in the hanger (due to security precautions). At Lake Alexander the final preparations were completed during the night. When the Dakotas flew over Lake Alexander on the morning of 23 November 1977, the helicopters started to take off as well. At New Sarum the Canberras and Vampires prepared for take-off. The last aircraft to take off were the Hunters – from Thornhill. Gen. Walls was airborne in the Command Dakota, in Rhodesian airspace. The tactical commanders, Norman Walsh and Brian Robertson, were in the command Alouette, flying with the helicopter strike force. The die was cast – the outcome could only result in either a resounding victory or a disastrous loss of most of the Rhodesian air force.
The Hunters arrived on time and Sqdn. Ldr. Brand identified his target, the headquarters complex, and opened fire with his four 30mm cannon. His wingmen dropped their Frantan (napalm) bombs, all on target. The four Canberras followed, each dropping 300 Alpha fragmentation bombs on their targets, then pulling away to make place for the Vampires.
The Dakotas with the RLI troops arrived. Three would drop their 72 paratroopers on the west side of the camp and the other three would drop their cargo of 72 on the southern side of the camp. The Dakotas then dived to avoid the flak and headed for home. The 10 troop-carrying helicopters then disgorged their RLI men along the northern side of the camp. The troops started to move in, engaging large numbers of ZANU. The Hunters and Vampires were at the same time attacking the numerous anti-aircraft guns which were furiously firing away at the airborne targets. The K-Car Alouettes (with door-mounted 20mm cannon on swivels) were moving in to cover the east side of the camp and were soon engaging many targets.
While all of this was going on, the helicopter administration base was being set up. Its commander was Wing Cdr. Petter-Bowyer, one of the brightest officers in the air force who played a large part in the development of the Alpha bomb. He was dropped into the area chosen at the same time a DC7 started dropping the troops who would man the base and the fuel and ammunition needed to supply the helicopters, which started to arrive for refueling and rearming. Chaos resulted when the SAAF helicopters appeared somewhat prematurely before everything on the ground was sorted out. But, as Petter-Bowyer said, “everyone mucked in to sort out the mess”. The K-Car pilots and technicians helped themselves to fuel and ammunition, the RLI protection force left two men and a mortar to “protect” the base – everyone else pitched in to help out.
Order was just succeeding chaos when the command helicopter arrived, needing a replacement of its main rotor system. This was removed and replaced by one from a chopper needing a new tail cone, all this being done by six technicians and two pilots without special tools or rigging equipment. This accomplished, off they went, back into battle. Hunters and Vampires were being used to cover the eastern side of the camp while the K-Cars went to refuel.
The ground troops were in full action with their sweep lines, assaulting the numerous anti- aircraft guns and dugouts and inflicting massive casualties on the enemy. Fighting was intense and casualties were recovered by the ever-present helicopters. The Special Branch people now arrived to look at equipment and bodies and search for documents. It was late in the afternoon and Walsh obtained permission to stay overnight before starting the evacuation.
The ZANLA’s intelligence centre was also found. Huge quantities of documents were found here and in the headquarters complex and these were taken back to Rhodesia for examination and analysis. None of the ZANLA hierarchy were found, either dead or alive. They had moved their meeting back to Maputo. Had they been warned before the attack?
The helicopters were flown back to Grand Reef for refueling that evening. The next morning, the G-Cars (troop-carrying Alouettes) returned to the Admin base to start the evacuation. A combat air patrol of Hunters and Canberras was set up to cover the troops in case Frelimo intervened. The attack on the Chimoio complex was a huge success, although the Rhodesians’ lack of manpower resulted in most of the insurgents escaping to fight another day. The huge supply of weapons and ammunition was prepared for demolition and the base was destroyed. The troops were flown back to Rhodesia and the administration base cleared of all useful supplies and equipment. Everyone was back in Rhodesia by the 24th of November. Tembue was next.
The Tembue camp was in the Tete Province north of the Cahora Bassa dam, well-known to the Rhodesians as they had operated against ZANU in the area a few years earlier. The camp was made up of three complexes all well defended by anti-aircraft guns. They were, a recruit training centre, an advanced training site and a holding area for trained troops. In view of the distances involved, Walsh needed to find a site for a helicopter administration base. The area chosen was ±40 km north of the border on a rocky promontory, flat on top with steep sides and known as the “Train”, inaccessible to vehicles and safe from interference by Frelimo.
The base was set up by Wing Cdr. Taylor and 20 or so RLI men who arrived by helicopter. The area was covered, not by long grass, but by thick saplings and large bushes. They got to work to clear landing areas, using pangas and FN rifles as a substitute to chainsaws! The next morning they received a fuel drop. The drums were stacked next to each clearing in the correct position to make refueling a speedy and effortless job. A further administration and refueling base was set up at Chiswiti, 18 km from the border. 7 Sqn technicians were placed there with fuel, ammunition and spares. The Hunters would fly from New Sarum, the Lynxs and helicopters would fly from FAF4 at Mount Darwin. The Dakotas would drop their paratroopers and fly to Mount Darwin, ready to fly in reinforcements, if required. 32 choppers arrived at FAF4, loaded up their troops and flew to Chiswiti, where Taylor and his men were ready to help with the refueling. The order of air attack was Hunters first, using their cannon and the new flechette launchers, followed by the Canberras with Alpha bombs, and lastly the ancient Vampires. While the air attacks were in progress, the Dakotas would drop their paratroopers.
Petter-Bowyer was flown in by helicopter just as the air attacks were complete, to set up an administration base some 8 km from Tembue. As he landed, the DC7 with fuel and protection troops arrived. The K-Cars and the command helicopter arrived almost simultaneously. Later the technicians did an engine change at this base without the special tools usually used. The SAAF Alouettes were being used to ferry supplies from Chiswiti to the “Train”. The K-Cars carried on supporting the paratroops. The Special Branch people then landed and started looking for documents.
The ZANLA garrison of ±1 500 cadres had moved out the previous night so the camp was relatively weakly defended. Another camp was being built - this was Usata, near Tembue town. This was attacked by the air force. Troops were again left overnight, removing weapons and other useful equipment for transport back to Rhodesia. Everything remaining was destroyed. Petter-Bowyer flew to Tembue to see how his flechettes had performed and then the Rhodesians closed the administration bases below Tembe and at Chiswiti and returned to Mount Darwin and their bases further south. This was done by helicopter.
Was Operation Dingo a success? Some 20% of Mugabe’s forces had been killed and another 10% seriously injured and his supplies depleted. The war did not end but the operation had succeeded in forcing Mugabe to the negotiation table and made the world see that Rhodesia, although embattled, was not yet vanquished. Rhodesian losses were small – two dead, eight injured and a Vampire destroyed.
After a lengthy question and answer session, our vice chairman thanked the speaker for an interesting and well-illustrated talk and presented him with the customary gift.
Members are again reminded that the Annual General Meeting will be first on the list of events scheduled for the evening, followed by a video presentation in lieu of the normal lecture. Members not paid up by that date, will not be eligible to vote. All serving committee members have indicated that they are available for re-election.
Major Antony G.D. Gordon - Honorary Life Membership Award:
We are pleased to announce that Maj. Gordon had been honoured with an Honorary Life Membership by the South African Military History Society (SAMHS) for his loyal dedication and tireless effort in promoting the Society and its activities. He has been a member of the Cape Town Branch of the Society since 1985 and has served on the committee continuously either as chairperson, vice-chairperson and committee member from the late 1980s until his retirement from active participation on the committee, in April 2012.
During these twenty-seven years he has given lectures, found guest speakers, recruited suitable committee members, organised and guided Society outings to places of military (army, navy and air force) and heritage interest. His vast knowledge on a wide range of subjects, his enthusiasm and oratorial skills made outings to Wynberg Camp, Coast artillery batteries, the Blaauwberg battlefield and RADAR stations, Woltemade Cemetery, the SA Naval Museum, West Dockyard and Simon’s Town Cemetery, amongst others, most enjoyable and these were always a great success. He has also devoted much time to the Birkenhead Commemoration events at Gansbaai and Simon’s Town and tirelessly promoted the heritage of the Birkenhead tragedy, either locally or overseas. He served for a number of years as a member of the War Graves Board and was also a founding trustee of the Castle Military Museum.
The Certificate of Life Membership was presented to Maj. Gordon on Sunday, 23rd March, at a small function arranged for him and his wife, by the Cape Town Committee. It was much appreciated by Tony (as we all known him) and his wife Pat, and the occasion was much enjoyed by all those present.
Denzil Cochrane: Sadly we have to announce the recent passing of Denzil Cochrane after a long sickbed. He had been a long-standing, as well as a loyal, member, and he attended the monthly meetings almost religiously. He was quiet and unassuming by nature, but always friendly and courteous. He will be remembered for his contribution to the Rhodesian armed forces, which he actively supported through his engineering concern in the then Rhodesia in the multi-faceted research and development programmes undertaken to equip the armed forces. Some of the armaments developed by his concern were so successful that their development were taken further by the SA weapons industry and the SA Defence Force and produced locally with great success.
Members will recall that he gave a lecture some years ago in which he very modestly explained the role that he played in the above regard. Little did we realize that this quiet demeanour hid a man of stature. We are saddened by his loss - he will be sorely missed and as comrades we salute his memory. We also share his loss with his wife, children, immediate family and friends.
10 APRIL 2014: ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING & VIDEO EVENING
Due to the fact that the annual general meeting will take up some time, two episodes are planned to be shown of the award-winning video series, World War 1 In Colour: Episode One: Catastrophe, and Episode Two: Slaughter in the Trenches. (Six episodes in total.)
The length of the AGM will determine whether both, or only one episode, will be screened.
08 MAY 2014: AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF THE PARACHUTE ATTACK ON CASSINGA, 4 MAY 1978 by Col. Lew Gerber
Our speaker was the second-in-command of the paratroop force that assaulted Cassinga in 1978. As a Commandant in the SADF at the time, he was the commanding officer of 3 Parachute Battalion, a reserve force unit, which, along with 2 Parachute Battalion, formed the airborne assault force. The combat command was entrusted to the legendary Col. Jan Breytenbach, and he served as Col. Breytenbach’s 2IC. The Battle of Cassinga was a South African airborne attack on a South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) military base at the former town of Cassinga, Angola, which took place on 4 May 1978. Conducted as one of the three major actions of Operation Reindeer during the Border War, it was the South African Army’s first major air assault. However, despite well-known in combat lore – or notorious, depending on one’s political leanings – Col. Gerber contends that Cassinga does not warrant being classified as a “battle”, and modestly describes it rather as a skirmish within the context of a bigger battle – Operation Reindeer.
RAY HATTINGH: Secretary
Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)