South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 13 August 2015 was Mr Keith Nell, author of the book "Viscount Down" and former member of the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS). His book describes the destruction of the Air Rhodesia Viscounts Hunyani on 3 September 1978 and Umniati on 12 February 1979 by members of Nkomo's Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), using Russian Strela-21 ground-to-air man-portable missiles. There were 8 survivors from the Hunyani with 48 dead and 59 dead in the Umniati with no survivors. The book then goes on to describe the reaction of the Rhodesian forces to these two tragedies and his own part in this reaction.

Our speaker started his talk with a video describing the Hunyani disaster and the follow-up by Rhodesian forces. The aircraft took off from Kariba airfield on its flight RH825 to Salisbury and flew out over Lake Kariba to gain altitude. At 305 m/1,000 feet the pilot turned southwards towards the mountains of the desolate Urungwe Tribal Area and Salisbury, climbing at a steady 366 m/1,200 feet per minute. There was a sudden massive explosion in the starboard wing causing a raging fire. The pilots attempted to cut off the fuel to the starboard engines and to feather the propellers on these engines, but to no avail. The port engines were still working normally and the aircraft rolled to the right. Captain Hood, the pilot, managed to keep the aircraft level and reduce altitude, while looking for a flat area where he could attempt a crash landing.

He sighted a cotton field and came down to attempt a landing but the aircraft's starboard wing hit a large dead tree. The wing was ripped off and the aircraft swung to the right. The tail was ripped off. The aircraft was out of control and hit a ditch 2 metres deep and 4 metres wide. The fuselage cart-wheeled and burst into flames. Eighteen passengers managed to get out of the aircraft, many of these were injured. Five of them set out for a nearby village to get water. The others remained near the aircraft.

One of the uninjured passengers urged the survivors to move away from the blazing wreck and they moved away. He went looking for a pathway to find help. A group of ZIPRA insurgents appeared and killed ten of the survivors, shooting and bayoneting them. One of the dead was a baby, bayoneted in the head. Three others managed to hide. A long and terrifying night followed.

Captain Hood had been able to transmit a Mayday and the next morning saw Dakotas arrive with SAS troops who were able to help the 8 survivors and evacuate them to various hospitals.

A memorial service to the dead of the Hunyani was held in Salisbury Cathedral and the very moving sermon by the Dean of Salisbury, Rev da Costa, formed part of the video. The reaction of the Armed Services was immediate and many of ZIPRA's camps and other installations in Zambia were hit hard.

At this point Mr Nell spoke about his early life and told us that he had volunteered for the SAS at the age of 37 years! Most volunteers were 20 years old and his passage from volunteer to SAS operator was long and arduous. He described the training process and then briefly discussed the cross-border operations that followed.

After a particularly arduous cross border operation, our speaker was recovering in Salisbury when a friend of his who was serving in Special Branch asked him whether he would like to join Special Branch. He went for an interview and was later accepted. He was seconded from the SAS and transferred to Special Branch. At that stage of the war, an interim government had been set up which included Bishop Muzorewa and many of the Shona insurgents in both the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Zimbabwe African Peoples' Union (ZAPU) had defected. Groups of these were being trained to move into their home areas to defend their people against the ZANU and ZAPU forces that had infiltrated into the tribal areas. Mr Nell was to take over the training of one such group of 100 ex-insurgent Shona.

This group mutinied and chased their Selous Scout training team from their camp. There was a danger that they could go back to the bush and this could cause the collapse of the interim government. Mr Nell was told to quell the mutiny and stabilize the camp. He was given complete authority to resolve the rebellion and a mere radio message would bring in Fire Force if he could not do so. So he loaded a Land Rover with his assault rifle and a large quantity of ammunition and set off to the Lion's Den camp.

Our speaker decided that he should go in on his own, with the Special Branch people remaining hidden nearby. He noted that a cooking fire was burning and that a number of ex-insurgents were milling around. He approached the camp and whistled to attract their attention. Five of them approached him and he spoke to these, asking what had happened and examined the wounded. He then ordered them to remain in the camp and sleep there. He also gave them a demonstration of his shooting ability, thanking the Almighty that he hit his target! He and the camp leader, Martin, treated the wounded and, after everyone had gone to sleep, he went to sleep in a bush nearby. The next morning he managed to get to a small country hospital to treat the wounded. The group was all from the Urungwe tribal area, where the Hunyani had been shot down.

Our speaker was called to Salisbury to be given his operational orders. The Special Branch Superintendent was his senior officer and an Army major would support him with supplies including 80 rounds per man to train them in musketry. This, of course, was totally insufficient. The Superintendent suggested to Mr Nell that, if he were to tell him which police stations were receiving large amounts of ammunition, could he "use his SAS wiles to move some of this to his camp for safe-keeping"? He was also issued with two Captain's uniforms - quick promotion from trooper to captain!

His men were all rather underfed so he asked for money to buy an ox which would be roasted on a spit. This was done. Mr Nell now had the problem of extracting ammunition from the Police. To say the least, the methods used to do this were amusing. In much the same way, a number of Soviet-manufactured AK47 assault rifles were obtained.

Our speaker now had to train his men. They were unfit and he decided to organize cross-country runs, disguised as competitions. He called the section leaders and Martin together and organized the camp into ten-man sections. The camp was to be kept clean, trenches were to be dug as were "long drops" (field toilets). Firearms were to be loaded during the daily cross country runs and kept loaded at night and empty during the day. Fitness training started and he started to teach them to shoot accurately, something not done in Mozambique. One of his problems was indiscriminate firing by his "troops" whenever they felt like doing so. This was stopped quite simply, and drastically, by taking a man's gun, asking him if it was unloaded and proving this by pointing the weapon at the man's head and pulling the trigger. Needless to say, this was done only after lengthy discussions with the section leaders and the troops!

Three hours of cross-country running from 0500 to 0800, large meals coupled with section battle drills, fire with movement exercises and constant shooting practice were turning the men into fit and well-trained troops. Mr Nell then started training them in the use of claymores, mortars and grenades. The mutinous ex-insurgents were fast becoming well-trained, fit and trustworthy troops. Our speaker could not wait to turn them loose in the Urungwe tribal area, where they could hunt down the people responsible for shooting down the Hunyani.

Eventually Bishop Muzorewa came to address the men and Mr Nell was told that he was to move to an abandoned farm near Karoi. He also met the Special Branch member with whom he would be working in Karoi. The superintendent wanted a passing-out parade but Mr Nell instead decided to organize a large braai with all the trimmings. His men were ready. They moved to an abandoned farm in an area with many such farms. The war had hit hard in that area. The camp was set up and his Special Branch man Joe gave him his first task. Six ZIPRA insurgents were in a nearby village and his men were to take these out but without killing any locals. The operation was successful. The Karoi farmers, on the other hand, were not happy with the arrival in their area of a "bunch of ex-gooks". Mr Nell was given the job of talking to them and telling them that he would like their help in planting maize on an unoccupied farm in the area. His boss had passed the buck to him very neatly! Somehow he got their grudging cooperation and planted the maize. The next operation involved his men with the RLI and Air Force. A number of ZIPRA were sleeping in a village in which a number of hostages were being held. Mr Nell's people infiltrated into the village and found the huts where the ZIPRA people were sleeping. The Air force dropped the RLI troops who started their sweep through the village. All of the insurgents were killed and the hostages released. No friendly locals had been injured and his men were unharmed.

On their next operation, the insurgents had changed their sleeping places and some civilians had been injured. A missile had been found and this meant that ZIPRA were looking to down another aircraft. Our speaker then decided that the run of bad luck they had had happened when they were operating in a reactive situation. So being pro-active might mean changing their luck for the better.

He called his section leaders and troops together and told them there would be no more RLI and helicopters as these were moving elsewhere. From then on, all operations would be covert. Half the company would be permanently deployed in their home areas. They would find the link men between the mujibas2 and the insurgent gangs, and these could be assassinated. The rest would continue attacking ZIPRA insurgents occupying villages. The trouble was that the area was heavily infiltrated and the Security Forces were also operating there so there was a danger that his men might be ambushed by friendly forces. Mr Nell had not told Joe or his chief what he was doing. His men had found a particularly nasty ZIPRA man and had kidnapped him and obtained much information from him. They now needed pistols to be used for assassinations - these were provided by the Chief. Joe in the meantime was trying a take-over bid for Mr Nell's operations, using the Air Force, but this was stopped by Mr Nell, who got the Special Forces Major who supplied him with whatever he needed to have a word with the Air Force. They became cooperative. Mr Nell explained that he was trying to capture some senior insurgents and mentioned that this would happen in the area where the Hunyani had been shot down. Full cooperation came from the air force! The informers were airlifted out. Eight insurgents were dead. The next night another three were killed.

In the meantime Martin had captured three high-ranking ZIPRA men. They were interrogated by Martin and his men and then shot. They now knew that more ZIPRA were coming in from Zambia, following the Kariba - Salisbury power lines. Five men, led by one "Toro", were chosen to ambush the incoming insurgents and to make friends with the locals so that the link men could be taken out. They were also to get information about missiles and the "Viscount Gang". Toro's group killed seven ZIPRA who were trying to blow up a pylon on the power line while Martin and his men took out a few more. This upset Joe who wanted to know how Mr Nell had found them, but he was not told. A further 100 turned insurgents were to be sent to be trained by Mr Nell and put into action as soon as possible. They did not come from the Urungwe area, but from the streets of Salisbury. A totally bad arrangement but the government wanted more people in the field. So our speaker went to see the Chief and asked him to hold these new people back until he was able to find the "Viscount Gang".

Toro had reported seeing ZIPRA carrying long boxes. Mr Nell deployed more five man groups and was left with only 30 men as a reserve. These were put to good use by recovering stolen cattle much to the delight of the local farmers. In the meantime they were aware that a missile team was coming from Zambia. They did not know by which route or when but thought that this might be through the isolated and hilly Safari area.

On 12 February 1979, the Viscount Umniati took off from Kariba but did not gain height over the Lake. It flew straight over the Safari area and was hit by a SA-7 missile. There were no survivors and 59 people died. A memorial service was held on the site of the crash and later in Salisbury cathedral.

Two days later Toro reported that a Zipra gang was heading south towards the mountains of south Urungwe. They stole food from the locals and raped their women, boasting that they had shot down the Umniati and also the Hunyani. A local reported this to an office of Muzorewa's party and they reported the news to Mr Nell. He had only a few men available so tried to contact the SAS. He rushed to Karoi to use the police radio and found a detachment of SAS there. He then telephoned the OC of the SAS to get authority for the operation. This was forthcoming when the SAS heard that the insurgents were part of the gang that had shot down the Viscounts. The SAS with guides from Mr Nell's force went to the village and shot all five of the ZIPRA group during the night. Our speaker woke up the air force and asked that they send helicopters to pick up the SAS and the bodies. Helicopters were sent and unloaded a coop of chickens, a slaughtered cow and a group of black women and children (the informants who needed protection). The senior air force officer was livid but the aircrew thought that this was hilarious. They then brought back the SAS men and the corpses. Part of the Umniati gang was dead.

Joe returned from his leave and was most annoyed about what had happened, especially the resettlement of the informers. There were also major problems with the group of Salisbury street rabble that he wanted our speaker to train. They did not come from the Urungwe area and their deployment would have destroyed all the good work that our speaker's group had done there - they were all Urungwe residents. The modus operandi used was completely different to that used by other similar groups in other parts of Rhodesia. Mr Nell's group were reaching the point where there were very few ZIPRA insurgents left operating in the Urungwe area, which was no longer under insurgent control. The insertion of the "Salisbury thugs" would wreck what had been achieved. So Mr Nell decided to return to the SAS.

The Chief agreed that he would use his influence to ensure that Mr Nell's troops would continue to operate as before and extend their influence into the Nyaodzi Tribal Trust Land. He would also rotate the five-man groups with other groups so that they could go back to their home villages. It was agreed that Mr Nell would be replaced by a suitable and like-minded person and that Mr Nell would leave without saying good bye to any of his men. He told us that this was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life and that he had wept all the way back to Salisbury. He had never seen any of the men again. He returned to the SAS permanently and was teased by his comrades about his speedy promotion to Captain and his equally speedy demotion back to trooper! The Chief, Superintendent G B Price, left Rhodesia in 1980 one step ahead of Mugabe's enforcers. Mr Nell moved to South Africa in 1980. Mr Nell pointed out that if he and his men could, with few but well-trained men from the area, drive out the insurgents from an area as hostile as the Urungwe, then this would have been possible anywhere else in Rhodesia given people as well-trained as his men. The biggest single mistake that contributed to Rhodesia's fate is that this was not recognized until far too late.

He also pointed out that his group was not the only ones responsible for the demise of the Hunyani and Umniati gangs. Other units also had that satisfaction. After a question and answer session, Mr Alan Mountain, our Vice Chairman, thanked Mr Nell for a most interesting talk and presented him with the customary gift.

1 NATO reporting name SA-7 Grail.
2 Mujibas were unarmed African children, more boys than girls, who often acted as useful intelligence gatherers and sources for the insurgents, indicating movement and location of Rhodesian security forces.



We welcome Mr Patrick Esnouf who joined the Branch recently and hope to see him at our future lectures.



THURSDAY, 10 September 2015: 1066 AND THE THE BATTLE OF HASTINGS by Mr Ian Cameron

Although the Battle of Hastings (14 October 1066) is often labelled a French Invasion of England it actually was a struggle for succession between two contestants who both claimed that they had been promised the Anglo-Saxon crown.

The impact of the battle had a profound impact on England, France, Scotland, Scandinavia and many of the men who fought in the battle founded dynasties that were still present at the time of the British Empire.

Field Marshall Montgomery, for example, who planned the invasion of Normandy in WW2, was ironically descended from a Norman knight who sailed from Normandy, and who fought in the battle.

William the Conqueror claimed that he had been promised the Anglo-Saxon Crown by Edward the Confessor, the half-Norman King of England who died childless.

Harold Godwinson, the powerful Saxon Earl of Wessex, in turn claimed that the dying king had promised the crown to him. The two claimants set about to settle the matter by force of arms - in what became known as the Battle of Hastings. (It was actually fought at a village now called Battle.)

The talk will cover the military history, weapons and traditions of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans.

It should be noted that Harold had the best-equipped permanent force in Europe in his personal guard - the Housecarls, and the Normans were recognized as among the best heavy cavalry of the time.

The tactics used in the battle and in the aftermath will also be covered.

The outcome completely changed the dynasties in what became England, and although Scotland was never conquered by the Normans, no less than three lines of Scottish Kings were descended from knights who landed with the conqueror.

The battle's effect on the English language was also significant, as it is worth noting that the original foundation of the English language was derived from the Anglo-Saxon tongue, which had its origins in Northern Germany and Southern Denmark. The Normans further adapted the language but as English evolved, many of the original Anglo-Saxon words at its core stayed in place, albeit with different spellings.

Like his previously presented lecture on the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC and the Persian invasion of Greece, Mr Cameron has researched the Battle of Hastings in detail and most certainly should do justice to this interesting topic.

The lecture will be illustrated.


Our speaker for October, Rear-Admiral Chris Bennett SM MMM SAN (Rtd), has addressed our society in the past and will be best remembered for his excellent and informative lecture on the sinking of the SAS President Kruger in 1982, after being involved in a collision with the SAS Tafelberg whilst at sea. In his forthcoming talk he will discuss the history of the Frigates that served in the South African Navy. His talk will also cover the many obstacles that were placed in the path of the SA Navy in its efforts for the procurement of suitable vessels and equipment, needed for it to fulfil its maritime and defensive role vis--vis the country and its citizens, as well as internationally.

The expression "Too many cooks spoil the broth" comes to mind when one looks into how people, policies and events - locally and internationally - bedevilled and obstructed the SA Navy in acquiring much-needed ships and equipment for its vital maritime role it is tasked with.

Adm Bennett served in the SA Navy from 1956 to 1990, and certainly no-one is better qualified than our speaker share with us the colourful history of the SA Navy's Frigates, as well as to lead us through the labyrinthine maze of political intrigue, inter-service rivalry, red tape and command obtuseness involved in the procurement of ships for the SA Navy. Our speaker will also deal with the technical aspects of the ships discussed.

The lecture will be illustrated.

Copies of the latest Naval Digest (No 23, August 2015), covering in much broader detail the evening's topic, will also be on sale.


Major Heitman's annual overview of the security situation in Africa has never failed in the past to draw a full-house as far as attendance is concerned - this year it certainly would be no less so, in view of the continuing unstable political situation and economic turmoil in many an African state. What better than a power-house presentation by one of our ever-popular speakers to end the year's programme with! Make sure you don't miss it!

The lecture will be illustrated.


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /