This is an interesting story, told by one of the New Zealand soldier medics, posted to a Rhodesian CEASEFIRE assembly point for terrorists in southern Matabeleland near Plumtree. 1979-80.
Rhodesia The Ceasefire By Mike Subritzky NZATMC AP Lima
” Like most of my friends I simply forgot about my service in Rhodesia and never, ever discussed it with anyone, I simply wanted the whole bloody business to go away”
Peacekeeping at Assembly Place Lima, at the end of the Rhodesian war, was pretty much infantry duty for us members of 161 Battery, and involved about 90% boredom, interspersed with moments of sheer terror.
A general ceasefire had been declared on midnight of the 28 December 1979, and Stewart Ashworth and myself celebrated this by going on ‘stagg’ from 0200 – 0400 the following morning. With our concern of lions, elephants, black mamba snakes, scorpions and deadly spiders that were all around us, we had little time to worry about whether all three sides of the conflict were going to honour the ceasefire. In any event, no one did and the contacts, ambushes, murders and intimidations continued unabated right up until we flew out just before the announcement of the elections some three months later – But during those long, lonely and scary nights on stagg, we thanked God for ‘Mister Starlight’ (starlight scopes).
At ‘Lima’ our world had been reduced to that of a ‘PBI’ (poor bloody infantryman) on any given operation. Our world was rapidly reduced to our hoochie area and the perimeter of the kraal with the entire universe measuring little more than 100 metres in circumference. There were 17 Kiwi’s in our group originally; a mixture of gunners, infantrymen, engineers, and SAS. We were purposely placed ‘light’ on the ground so that we could not be perceived as a threat to any of the warring sides. About a week later we received two more Kiwi’s and later still, our group was expanded further with the arrival of about a half a dozen Brits from the Kings Regiment, and three Para engineers; all of the Kings Troopies spoke with broad Manchester accents and they were excellent soldiers.
At Assembly Place ‘Lima’ on the 29 December at 1742, two heavily armed guerrillas walked cautiously into our position, and with weapons pointed directly at us, carried out a conversation with Colonel Zikhali. One carried an AK47 with three taped mags and his comrade a PBS M43. Both weapons had their safety catches off and were set on ‘rock and roll’. It was very intense, as not only did they not trust us, but they did not know Zikhali either, as for all intents and purposes Zikhali might well have been just another ‘turned terr’, and the rest of us, just another Selous Scout trap. Luckily, Colonel Zikhali knew their District Commander, Lieutenant John Nunyangudza, and could describe him perfectly, plus Zikhali knew the various ‘current’ passwords, songs, and handshakes that the guerrillas were using at the time. Both guerrillas were dressed in Russian Army brown fatigues, and wore broad brimmed Safari hats with Communist badges on them. After he had established his credentials, Colonel Zikhali then introduced them to us and invited them to share a meal of ‘ratpack’ stew.
It was the craziest meal that I had ever had in my life. They were each given a tin plate of food and sat away from the rest of us on a couple of rocks, with their plates down, eating with their left hands and trigger fingers on their weapons and those weapons were pointed directly at us. I remember that I could clearly see every blade of grass and ant directly at my feet as I quietly, and deliberately, ate my meal, with weapon in ‘state two’ and rifle resting across my knees and all of the other Kiwis were eating in a similar fashion. After the meal they walked cautiously away and bade
farewell to Zikhali with the words, “Zimbabwe!” to which Zikhali replied, “Zee!” Well, that was the end of the first day and we were all still alive. That night Ash and I were on Stagg from 2200 – 2400; more bloody baboon spiders.
About 1000 next morning, 30 December, a young Mujiba (boy soldier, under 16 and renowned for their bloodlust) marched into the camp. He was clad in an assortment of bits and pieces of Communist uniforms and had an old Russian SKS slung over his shoulder on a piece of bailing twine. Make no mistake; this kid marched into Lima like he owned the joint, and as far as we were concerned he probably did. He reported to Colonel Zikhali and we were informed that there were two wounded comrades a couple of klicks away. Ben Ngapo, who was a Vietnam veteran, took Zikhali, the Mujiba, and a couple of guys to ride shotgun, and drove out to where the wounded guerrillas were. They returned about an hour later and Pete Shaw and myself were then called to check them out.
Pete Shaw was a trained Medic and very good at his job, whereas I had been sent on a three week course to the Penrose Industrial Clinic prior to our deployment and there myself, John Nagle, and an infantry Sergeant by the name of Kerry Woods, ‘Woody’, were taught the rudiments of combat surgery, including drips, jabs, minor surgery, and sutures by Doctor Armitage. Later in Rhodesia I used all of these skills that Doctor Armitage and his colleagues had taught me as well as some ‘bush’ dental surgery which Pete Shaw invented as we went along. One guerrilla was slightly wounded and after we treated him, he later left. The other guerrilla was in really bad shape with one of the worst cases of venereal disease I have ever seen, including a large chancre (venereal ulcer) on the side of his ‘John Thomas’. We cleaned him up and took a chance and jabbed him with enough penicillin to drop a horse – he recovered within about a week to rape, intimidate, and plunder for yet another day; such was Rhodesia.
At about the same time Ash, Peter McArthur, and Paul Gregg drove the Croc back up to the police fort and on a flat stretch of land near that location popped smoke and a Brit Hercules flew in and dropped a series of supplies, which drifted down attached to pink parachutes. By now the road back to Plumtree was suspected of having been remined and so our supplies were to be airdropped to us until the situation could be checked by the Rhodesians using a ‘Pookie’ (a Pookie was a homemade Rhodesian mine detecting vehicle; they looked odd but did the job). Late that same afternoon, a group of about 50 black women arrived to acknowledge Zikhali, and from then on, until we left at the end of the operation several months later, they sang the ‘Songs of Revolution’ just outside of our perimeter. Naturally enough Colonel Zikhali selected one of the women to be his comforter each night. It wasn’t rape because the Communists had decreed that all women were to give comfort to the comrades. Any Communist could have sex with any woman, at any time, and there wasn’t a damned thing that she, or anyone else, (including us) could do about it, unless they (the victims) were connected within the ZIPRA hierarchy.
Just on dark, an old man, who was obviously ‘some-body’ as he owned a bicycle, rode into the area and asked to speak to ‘Mister Brian’. I took him to Major Hewitt’s tent, and he said, “Don’t worry Mister Brian, the boys will come and there are more than one thousand”. We were unable to wash properly as all water in Rhodesia was suspected of containing Bilhazia (snail fever), and as well crocodiles were native to the area. We got our water from the Mhudlambudzi Police fort and brought it down by a small towed tanker every day. The Police camp was about two klicks Northwest of our location. We showered using those same canvas shower buckets that our grandfathers had used on the Somme.
Next morning, 31 December, we rigged one of the pink parachutes up and through the trees so as to give us some protection from the sun. Lima was located on the edge of the Kalahari Desert and until it blew up after a couple of days, our one and only thermometer reached temperatures of 40%C in the shade. . It was bloody hot. I worked with Pete Shaw tending to the sick guerrilla and then we put up a Brit version of an 11 x 11 tent that virtually needed an instruction manual to erect. This was required under the terms of the ceasefire to be the ‘reception tent’ where each and every armed Communist was to enter, give his name, allow us to identify the type of weapon he carried, and that weapon’s serial number. About mid-morning, Mac was doing a foot patrol around our perimeter and he reported 7 single shots coming from Northeast across the river. In the afternoon at Assembly Place ‘Kilo’ a black woman was seized by 60 drunk guerrillas and gang raped. They also threatened to shoot the local priest who tried to intervene. There were several contacts and two Rhodesians were also KIA; they were 2nd Lt. Andy Du Toit and BSAP Officer, Ken Francis. Rhodesia is quite similar in size to New Zealand and had a population of about double ours, with a very close-knit population, and every death was felt very personally. It was a little like having an ‘Aramoana’ or several Aramoanas every other day except that David Grey only carried one AK47.
That night was New Year’s Eve and the BSAP provided us with some Shumba (beer) and several bottles of ‘Cane’, which is made from a cane spirit and was quite potent. While sitting around one of the bonfires we had going, Colonel Zikhali delighted us with several stories of his contacts with the Rhodesians. He also had us enthralled with a tale of how he and several other Communists had captured an Australian member of the RLI and had taken great delight in torturing him for some hours before cutting his throat. I don’t think he realised the bond between our two nations and that yarn sort of destroyed the only ‘slightly’ tense atmosphere of the evening. I went to bed and was woken at 2350 to the words, “Happy Friggin’ New Year, you’re on Stagg!” I did sentry duty from midnight to 0200 with a Kiwi engineer Sergeant.
In the morning, New Year’s Day, 1980, 9 Refugees arrived from Botswana and Pete Shaw and myself treated several. Between him and I, we were the first ‘doctors’ that the black civilian population had seen in nearly 15 years, as the first ploy of any Communist war was always to destroy the infrastructure of public services. While we were at Lima, we treated many, many, hundreds of people for all sorts of ailments and bullet wounds. Later still, because of the need for a Doctor, a ‘bullet specialist’ by the name of Doc Sharman arrived at Lima and worked with us for several weeks and then Northern Ireland intensified and his skills were needed elsewhere. He was a brilliant surgeon and I helped him on several occasions remove bent and spent 7.62 rounds out of wounded guerrillas. We even conducted the amputation of a small child’s finger using nothing more than a scalpel, a candle and Xylocaine. He removed the infected finger with the scalpel and cauterized the stump with a red-hot blade, which we heated over a candle. Our surgery was reduced to the days of Nelson.
About mid-day in another area, a Monitoring Force Land Rover drove over a mine. The driver was a Brit Corporal and he was very seriously injured, while a Communist liaison officer, who was travelling in the vehicle, received shrapnel in the face. The Corporal’s name was Andy Drewery and the liaison officer was Comrade Morgan. Their survival was considered a miracle, as a similar mine incident on Christmas Day had killed two civilians and wounded seven others in the Chikwaka TTL. There was also a contact between members of a PATU stick and guerrillas north of Salisbury, and seven guerrillas were KIA. In the evening 2 guerrillas arrived at Lima and talked to Zikhali, who decided that they should be billeted in the guerrilla camp that night. One guerrilla carried a Rumanian AK with the forward handgrip; it was the first one I’d ever seen.
We had been working on raising large tents in a campsite located about one klick south of Lima. Major Hewitt drove us down to the Communist camp and about a dozen of us set to work raising one of the tents. The guerrilla, who had been suffering with VD, was taken with us so that he might then guide the other guerrillas to their new home. This was not a good idea, as he thought it was some kind of a trap, and just as soon as the Land Rovers were gone he backed into a tree and sat pointing his SMG at us as we constructed the tent. Worse still, about half an hour later he detected movement on the South side of the clearing from us, and suspected the Selous Scouts were about to about to hit us. So did so and we we jagged in the tent idea and started walking back to Lima. By now it was just starting to turn to sunset and the guerrilla was really uneasy. He was on his own with a strange group of white folks (and a few Maori too). He walked directly behind us with his weapon pointing into our backs; it was a long walk home.
Just after dark 20 heavily armed guerrillas arrived and they were eventually taken down to the guerrilla camp. Amongst this group was the local commander, John Nunyangudza, who like Colonel Zikhali was very fluent in English, highly trained, and very professional. I did stagg from 0200 – 0400.
In the morning, 2 January, we received several more guerrilla units, which took our total to 70 by 1100, and as other sticks drifted in they took our total for the day to 90 guerrillas processed by the end of play. The ceasefire had been in effect nearly two days and already there had been 80 reported violations, including several in our area. Just outside of Plumtree a white farmer was ambushed and murdered, while a store not far from us was held up by 10 guerrillas who instructed the terrified occupants to inform the Monitoring Force that they were going to stay in the bush and not honour the ceasefire. This made us feel really ‘comfortable’. These were not the only violations in our own area. There was a classic that occurred on Boxing Day that truly demonstrated the spirit of the Rhodesians. A 13-year-old schoolboy from Plumtree, Colin Wooler, and his 19-year-old brother, Ian, were driving not far from our location when guerrillas ambushed their Land Rover. The older brother was driving and the 13 year old put his head up through the roof and opened up with an FN on fully auto as they drove through the ambush. Their two black security guards who were sitting on the roof had been wounded in the initial exchange of fire but the brothers cleared the ambush, although their vehicle was badly shot up and also got first aid for their wounded protectors.
At 1400, Ash, Mac, and myself were down at the airstrip and received another airdrop from a C130. Some of the stores were parachuted, while others simply dumped on crush board. We were standing on top of our croc and the C130 was so low we could wave to the aircrew as they flew past and they responded with the thumbs up. Just to make life a little more interesting, the area that we were camped in was infested with puff adders. Unlike most other snakes that will move away from human noise, puff adders simply cover themselves with leaves and rely on their camouflage. Their bite, although not always fatal, is very destructive to the skin and muscle tissue of the limb that sustains the bite. It rained that afternoon and by early evening a second puff adder was found and killed. Kiwis hate snakes.
My next day began real early with stagg from 0400 – 0600. It was the third of January and my son David’s birthday. We hadn’t received any mail from New Zealand yet and so I thought of Dave for all of about a minute, said a prayer for him, and then wiped him from my memory. I always did this when I was away from home, as did most other married soldiers. The team had been clearing some thorn trees to the rear of our position and as well, us gunners had cleared a pathway from our perimeter to our newly constructed chopper pad. Our campsite at Lima was fast taking on the look of something not unlike the set of the TV series ‘MASH’ or ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’.
About mid-morning we went out to the chopper pad, taking with us our GPMG (just in case), popped smoke and a Brit chopper flew in and landed on our newly constructed chopper pad. From memory, it was a Puma. It contained a crew of about four Brits and Colonel Drysdale who was a Brit Marine Colonel but no bloody mail! Colonel Drysdale got the team together for a confidential briefing and informed us of a major violation that had been committed by the Rhodesians near Lupane. The Monitoring Force had sent an arranged bus to Lupane to uplift 28 Communists who were supposed to have surrendered, however as a BSAP unit was observing them, the Communists would not lay down their weapons and a stand-off then ensued with the armed guerrillas on the bus, the BSAP calling for them to surrender, and the guerrillas refusing to, as they did not trust the BSAP.
After further talking, 12 of the guerrillas exited the bus and were taken prisoner whilst the remainder where then driven by one terrified bus driver (who might well have been a Selous Scout) out of the village and away from prying eyes. Some miles away and in the operational area, the bus suddenly stopped and the black driver bolted leaving the remaining 16 Communists up shit creek and surrounded. What exactly followed was not clear but it was believed that the BSAP called in an air strike using a Fletcher topdresser.
In Rhodesia during the war, the Rhodesians had utilized just about everything and this included civilian topdressers, which they fitted with ‘Frantan’ rockets. It was believed that one such aircraft had flown in and lit the bus up. In any event the 16 Communists were killed. The other 12 who originally surrendered were later found machine-gunned. The Rhodesian Security Forces were also on operations again up near Kariba Dam.
In the late afternoon a second chopper flew into Lima and onboard were Kiwis, Captain Mark Brown-Thomas, and Corporal Mike Karoria. Both men were Armoured Corps and had been part of a border crossing team that was not deployed. Captain Brown-Thomas was an excellent officer who did more than his share of work and got stuck into any task, rolling his sleeves up and working as hard as any Troopie. That afternoon Colonel Zikhali informed us that the road that we had been using to uplift his wounded several days ago was actually mined and so several of the engineers were despatched to locate the mine and destroy it. They were unable to find it but the guerrilla who had put it down later dug it up. At the end of the day we had 112 guerrillas registered at Lima. For the most part they were in your face and threatening, and had absolutely no respect for anyone or anything, that is apart from ‘Comrade John’ (John Nunyangudza). He was well connected and knew every rock and blade of grass in the local area and he was not averse to culling any of his men who stepped out of line. They mooched around all over the place apart from inside of our perimeter, which was a no-go area for Communists, with the exception of their senior officers. They all carried shitloads of weapons and hardware, including RPGS, which were loaded and ready to go at all times. This also caused us a great deal of concern as every single weapon had a round up the spout and some of these guerrillas were so badly trained they didn’t even bother with using the safety catch. They also wore a wide variety of clothing from semi-uniform through to part traditional African headdress and beads. They also did not give us their names but simply their ‘nom-de-guerre’ such as Jetfire Stalin, Hendrix Sabanda, Nelson Marx, etc.
That night I did stagg from 2000 – 2200 and slept through until my next sentry, which was 0400 – 0600 with Ash. Next day was the 4th of January, and the last day of the ceasefire, which meant that all Communists must be in an assembly place by midnight or they were to be considered bandits and were legitimate targets for the Rhodesian Security Forces. I spent the morning working with Pete Shaw treating sick civilians and some of the guerrillas. Many of the women had venereal disease and we treated them with penicillin and also tetracycolene. We had been issued with an interpreter as none of the civilians could or would speak in English, as they were terrified of being considered as ‘sell-outs’. A sell-out was any black that gave, or assisted, the Rhodesian government or Security Forces in any way. The only punishment for a sell-out was death, or rape, and then death. Our interpreter’s name was Comrade Bernhard, and he was actually a soldier in the ZIPRA Army. He was also initially a hypochondriac, but Pete Shaw very quickly cured him of that after his 5th visit that morning. He issued Bernhard 6 Prolax tablets and had him take them immediately. Bernhard spent the rest of the day lying under a Mopami tree gripping his stomach, and then rushing to use our latrine. He caught on real fast that ‘Doc’ Shaw did not suffer fools. At the time we were treating about 100 – 150 patients a day and some of them were very sick or wounded people. One in particular was a guerrilla who had held up a village store somewhere out in the Tribal Trust Land. Just as he turned to walk away, the storeowner seized a cut down shotgun and at point blank range had hit the guerrilla in the back. When he stumbled into Lima he had a rotting messy hole under his right shoulder blade that I could fit my fist in. We jabbed him with penicillin and gave him a cigarette as by now we had run out of Xylocain (local anaesthetic). We simply cut away all of the dead tissue, scrubbed out the wound with a scrubbing bush and cleaned out all of the remaining pellets (No 4 shot). We then dusted the entire wound with Neosporin powder and amazingly he lived. His shoulder was never the same, and he had a large circular pink hole in his back but he survived.
After lunch I was off duty and so I laid in my hoochie and fell asleep. I woke about 1500 to the sound of thumping about 30 metres away. I looked out and proudly marching into Lima was the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Brigade of the Zimbabwe Peoples Liberation Army. They were marching, formed into sections, platoons, and companies. Each man was dressed in a very dappled green and brown camouflage uniform that was reversible and perfect for the local operational area on the edge of a desert – the reverse side of the uniform being slashed brown and khaki. Each ZIPRA comrade carried an SKS, AK47 or an RPG7 slung over his shoulder. The Battalion halted outside of our reception tent and then individual Platoon Commanders took over and addressed their men. They were well trained and did Russian military foot drill. The average age of each soldier looked to be about 16 to 18 and many were stolen school children. The Battalion Commander was an ex-school teacher and was aged about fifty.
I don’t remember exactly how many men from the Battalion arrived that afternoon but it looked to have been about 500 or more. The Battalion Commander, whose name I forget, had been one of the most wanted men in all the Rhodesian war. On one occasion the Selous Scouts sent in a stick to Zambia to assassinate him and almost succeeded when they rocketed a white truck he was driving in. They thought he was dead and announced it on the national news. This was brilliant for the ZIPRA as it took the heat off one of their best commanders, but was disastrous for his own family. I was with him when he received the first letter from his wife in about seven years. She had mourned him for a period of 12 months and then married another man, with whom she now had several children too. I was also present when his wife and Colonel Zikhali’s came out to Lima about a month later for a visit. The commander’s wife’s new husband sat very quietly under a tree and it was immediately obvious that the commander and his now ex-wife were still very much in love. The whole thing became inconsequential because about a month after the elections he was blown to pieces when remnants of the Rhodesian African Rifles ambushed the Battalion on the outskirts of Bulawayo. He was in the lead AFV of a ZIPRA convoy, which the RAR ambushed using a 90mm recoilless rifle. The rest of the Battalion were culled using ex-Rhodesian Army gunships. I was later told that it took about 30 minutes to annihilate the entire Battalion, all of whom we knew. At 2030 that night, the ZIPRA heavy weapons arrived in an old African bus and Peter McArthur and myself escorted the vehicle in the dark down to the guerrilla camp. It was pitch dark and the whole journey, there and back, was very intense.
That night, 4 January 1980, at 2359 plus 1, the ceasefire ended. We were in-country for about another 3 months and every day was pretty much similar to what I have described; some days were boring and some days were spookier than others.
When we got home in about mid-March I was given a period of leave and went home to visit with my folks. One night my father and I went to the RS (Returned Services Association) for a beer. The RSA is the New Zealand equivalent of the British Legion. When I was in Rhodesia my photograph had appeared in the local paper, and while I was in the RSA that night I was informed in no uncertain terms by various members “I had been no-where, done nothing, and seen stuff all”. Like most of my friends I simply forgot about my service in Rhodesia and never, ever discussed it with anyone, I simply wanted the whole bloody business to go away. In 1990 I retired from the Army and turned my hand to writing, publishing about a dozen books, and was also associated with about 5 books on the Vietnam War.