By 1978 the Rhodesian Bush War had gone hot with ZIPRA and ZANLA communist terrorists flooding across the borders of Mozambique, Zambia, and Botswana. Despite the war, life had to go on for the civilians who chose to stand their ground in their homeland.
Lake Kariba was a popular resort location and vacation spot for native Rhodesians, so it was a light atmosphere that existed on flight RH 825 that flew the vacationers back to Salisbury. When the Viscount airplane was struck with a SA-7 missile the pilot somehow managed to keep the aircraft under control and attempted a belly landing. Striking a trench in an otherwise open field, the Viscount came apart, spilling three tons of jet fuel in the process.
The following morning a small team of Rhodesian Special Air Service soldiers parachuted into the remote crash site to secure the area and search for survivors. What they found shook the combat hardened soldiers to their core. The plane had been torn to pieces, body parts were everywhere. The survivors of the crash had been executed by a gang of terrorists who happened across the scene. They had been shot and bayoneted to death. A baby that had miraculously survived the crash had been killed by a terrorist thrusting a bayonet through it’s head.
“Even as a hardened 20-year old SAS soldier, my stomach turned as the nausea hit my throat. What I saw will be with me forever,” writes Sergeant Johan Bezuidenhout of the scene he saw on the ground that day. 56 civilians were killed during the RH 825 disaster.
“Viscount Down” by Keith Nell starts by documenting the details of the disaster above before telling two stories in parallel. One is Keith’s story as the SAS operator charged with tracking down and killing the group of terrorists responsible, the SA-7 gang. The second story belongs to Martin, a black Rhodesian whose village, or Kraal, is terrorized by communist inspired terrorists who press ganged him into service with them.
Keith begins by telling us about his upbringing in South Africa and how he found his way to Rhodesia. He starts off in the regular forces and signs up for SAS selection to see some action and kill some “gooks”, as the insurgents were called.
The details of Rhodesian SAS selection, some say the hardest SAS selection course by comparison to that of Britain and Australia, are amazing. We’ve had very little written about this unit and I learned a lot from Keith’s account, which is hilarious at times. Keith shoots from the hip and tells it like it is and Keith, if you’re reading, now I know what you did on the SAS selection course. You’re a lying, cheating, scoundrel! No wonder why you did so well as a SAS operator! Keith not only graduated, but did so at the age of 37, an amazing feat considering that the selection course was designed for men half his age.
Martin’s story is a painful one. The experience he goes through with communist forces infiltrating Rhodesia is not unlike what the Montagnard and other South Vietnamese faced during the 1960’s and 70’s. ZIPRA forced their way into his Krall, raped his sisters, and terrorized the villagers. From that moment on, he vows to get his revenge, but at the moment he is forced to fight with the terrorists, even participate in horrible atrocities himself. Eventually he is captured by security forces and turned over to a camp of “tame” terrorists being trained to fight their former comrades by the Selous Scouts.
Meanwhile, Keith comes off a daring cross-border raid that the SAS launched alongside the Rhodesian Light Infantry. Arriving back home he is recruited by Special Branch for a temporary assignment outside of the SAS. They want him to train a guerrilla force of former terrorists and lead them in combat with the mission of tracking down and killing the SA-7 gang that brought down flight RH 825. There is just one problem. The guerrillas have staged a mutiny against their Selous Scouts trainers and have taken over the camp.
With the RLI chomping at the bit to clean the place out, Keith approaches the camp by himself with a RPD machine gun slung over his shoulder. This is where Martin and Keith first meet and their mission begins.
Viscount Down is an amazing book written by the man who lived the events he depicts. This book should be mandatory reading for all Special Forces soldiers. The unconventional warfare campaign that Keith Nell waged against the terrorists in his Area of Operations is like nothing else I’ve heard or read of, much less seen myself in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s a textbook case study on how to get it done working by, with, and through indigenous fighters to counter an insurgency and flush out High Value Targets. Keith’s story is uncanny and heartbreaking all at the same time. You will have to read it for yourself to understand.
The end of the book is packed full of reference material that is much appreciated for the historian and others trying to understand the senseless and tragic Viscount disasters (there were two before the SA-7 gang was sorted out) as well as the Bush War in general. The book itself is beautiful, fully illustrated with photographs, drawings, and maps. The front and back cover was illustrated by the talented Craig Bone, really making this a high quality production that I know Keith must have agonized over every step of the way. I can tell you that it was worth it. Viscount Down is very well done.
Keith also mentions in the back of the book that he is interested in seeing his book made into a movie. Will Viscount Down be the next Black Hawk Down? I can only hope. In the meantime, this book will be a treasured item by Rhodesian’s, especially the families of the 107 victims who perished on the Viscount crashes. On the periphery, Viscount Down will inform and educate the rest of us about this often misunderstood conflict.
Viscount Down, and it’s companion DVD, can be ordered at viscountdown.com.