With the 1960’s closing and the success rate of incursions into Rhodesia from Zambia dropping to practically zero, both African Nationalist groups ZANU and ZAPU looked for alternatives. To the East of Rhodesia lay the nation of Mozambique. Both countries had established a good relationship and many Rhodies went to the beaches along the African coast on Holiday. Yet, Mozambique became gripped by Russian inspired anti-colonialism and FRELIMO sprouted to fight its Portuguese masters. The SAS was instrumental in helping their government learn to fight against the insurgency.
With its recent experience in the Zambezi Valley, it dispatched troops to help hunt down FRELIMO and to keep the war inside Mozambique’s borders. The SAS men were paired with mainly conscript troops whose only desire in life was to get out of the Army and not get killed. Though the SAS men were there as Advisors, it usually ended up in the Operators chasing down the Communist Terrorists themselves.
This was good experience for the men as the terrain was vastly different and required enhancing their skills in rainy, mountainous and jungle environments. ZANU and ZAPU were looking to operate in the North of Mozambique and flow down into Rhodesia. Initially FRELIMO wanted to work with the Soviet aligned ZAPU but the offer was not acted upon. As the action intensified, FRELIMO wanted someone to work with them and in turn, they would allow access to Rhodesia. ZANU acted upon the offer and the war began to take on a higher and more violent tempo.
As ZANU gained more recruits and an easier infiltration route, the SAS spent the majority of its time in Mozambique, hitting the Terr’s bases, supply, and infrastructure hard. ZANU began to gain steam in Mozambique mainly due to their Maoist ideology. Rather than the ironfisted ZAPU way, they mixed with the locals, gained their trust and turned them into guerrilla fighters. ZAPU was still persistent to the North and the vigilance and daring of the SAS was necessary.
Time and experience was mounting for the senior men of C Squadron. Rather than shock troops, the officers instilled into the men that they were the eyes and ears of the Army. Missions involved Deep Range Recce’s, infiltrating through HALO or chopper, building a picture of what they were dealing with. A game of cat and mouse began to emerge with recce missions that helped build a support plan for larger groups to assault Terrorist camps, supply lines and other patrols. They developed the skill of the Ambush very well. With a tradition of tracking in the heart of the Army, they used their knowledge to run the enemy in circles until they made a mistake. Harassment of the enemy heightened as intelligence grew. Rarely did they go External without leaving presents for pursuers or the random patrol to step on and blow their limbs apart.
External missions followed a proven pattern. An area was decided on and pathfinder units would locate an acceptable Drop Zone. The numbers of men dropped varied dependent on the area covered. At night, the Operators would HALO into the DZ and then store their parachutes in plastic bags to be picked up on extraction. The Sabre would split up into small patrols, usually 4 to 6 men and fan out to their assigned areas. The teams would not see each other again for up to 6 weeks. If all went well, they would be resupplied every 14 days by helicopter with food, water and ammunition. This was the rotation that lasted throughout the war. Six weeks in the bush with 10 days back in Salisbury.
This took a heavy toll on the men. Often times a fit soldier might lose up to 20 pounds over the course of a trip. Working in the northern bush of Mozambique was slow and rough. From malaria to scrapes turning septic, great care was taken with their personal health. Few married men sustained the tempo as it was brutal on relationships.
Once in the bush, the patrol would cover their AO with precision and patience. They were constantly discovering new camps, supply lines and civilians who were unable to be trusted. Along with wearing the kit of the enemy, it was mandatory that they wore a black colored cream called ‘Black is Beautiful’ on all of their exposed skin. From a distance, they could be passed off for ZANU or FRELIMO patrols but would never hold up to close interaction.
Anti-Personnel mines were a double edged sword. The area was littered with them. Detailed logs were kept but planting at night or in an area hard to map, each step was taken deliberately. When it came to the men planting them, they would usually only do so when being pursued or were sure that it would discharge very soon after.
The enemy greatly outnumbered the small call-signs. Once the enemy was sure that the SAS had penetrated the area, at minimum, 30 men were sent out to pursue them. Knowing their area and evasion and ambush tactics was an all important skill. Several Americans had come from their recent service in Vietnam. Even Elite members of American Special Forces were forced to think and operate without the option of Air Cover. In Vietnam, a pinned down team could call fast movers on station for a quick napalm strike to cut down pursuers or a hot extract. Only in dire emergencies would a helicopter or strike aircraft be launched.
While Mozambique increased the intensity and magnitude of the war in the East, ZAPU was still actively trying to breach the northern border. The early days of infiltrating entire companies of men across the Zambezi all but halted so they turned to their Russian advisors for help. ZAPU began to build an infrastructure inside Rhodesia with arms caches and networks across the Matabele Tribal Trust Lands. It was easier to slip in in small numbers and regroup for Terroristic activities.
In 1974, the Special Branch of the Rhodesian Army noticed oddities that were further investigated. With a tremendously lucky break in intelligence, they were able to capture the ring leader and all of his henchmen. Caches were tracked down and the infrastructure was crushed. Being in the Northern part of the country, the SAS was called into recce out the bases from which these supply lines originated. That meant more External Ops. Seasoned Lt. ‘Shulie’ was tasked with this mission. He and three other men crossed over into Zambia near Victoria Falls. Blackened up and dressed out in full Terr uniforms and arms, they began to move into the bush prepared for a six week trip. They moved, lay up and listened. After two nights they heard the sounds of gunshots. At first, they did not know if they had been compromised and went to ground. Noting the sound of the rifles being high powered, they knew that the shots were not civilian. It was likely a hunting party trying to bag something to eat.
Not long after, their suspicion was confirmed as they heard a heavy truck motor away. ZAPU was supplied with Military Hardware by the Russians and operated in a more conventional manner than ZANU and more readily identified. The men set off to track its destination. The men were spread out in the bush and had malfunctioning radios, when another shot went off. The two men in the rear thought for sure someone had been shot and followed protocol to avoid capture and headed back to their RV point. Shulie had no way to communicate that he was fine and he and another were left to follow up.
The spoor that they picked up kept leading them east. They edged into a site where the men who fired the shots had been. It was abandoned. This was not the camp, probably just a resting site. After a couple of more indications of Terr activity, they set up an OP on a hill in the area. For two days they observed the area. With great disappointment, their next radio communication ordered them back into Rhodesia. They grudgingly complied.
The intrepid LT was back in the area 3 weeks later determined to find the camp. More traffic could be seen moving east. After a couple of days and nights they found a group of men in civilian clothing working diligently with picks and shovels. Being about a kilometer away and short on rations, Shulie decided to get up close by himself. He left his two team members in a well hidden ravine and crawled to within 150 meters of the men working. His initial instinct was that they were civilians doing road work along the track but when a 4 ton military truck came for the group, he realized they were ZAPU. It was out of the normal for one of their men to be out of uniform.
He reckoned that this was an underground cache, much harder to find from aerial reconnaissance and difficult to destroy. Shulie made it back to his men and they crossed back over to Rhodesia. Initially the Higher Ups were upset that an attack had not been made on the site, especially by SAS troopers. Shulie’s superior backed him up saying that they would have a more fruitful mission if they allowed ZAPU to build more infrastructure and fill the cache with weapons. A plan was made. Aerial reconnaissance followed the buildup of the camp over several weeks’ time. When it was felt that the new camp was ripe for slaughter the SAS went to work. They had employed their skills in infiltration, patient and relentless reconnaissance and now were going to use their Direct Action ability.
43 men were chosen for the assault. This was the largest External into Zambia since the war started. The LT had just spent time in the hospital due to jaundice. But he was back onto the mission as he was needed to pinpoint the location. The SAS had a Command Post in the area that had been used several times prior. It was here that the mission would be overseen.
Shulie and the three Stop Group commanders went in. He showed them where they should place their troops and did another day of surveillance. The next night the remaining 39 Assaulters used Zodiac boats to cross the river and make their way to the target. All seemed well.
Back at the CP, the OIC and his HQ group lay down for the night. Around 0200 hours, a new guard shift took place. From the stillness of the night AK-47 rounds ripped through the CP tents injuring several men. As swiftly as the men had attacked, they disappeared. The SAS men did not give chase and decided not to tell the Assault team fearing they would abort and come back to help with the wounded.
It was surmised that ZAPU men had seen them from across the river or that livestock herding boys had reported it to Terrs who took advantage of the mistake of basing up in one spot one too many times.
All Assaulters RV’d on a rise overlooking the camp. The Mopani trees had lost all their leaves and there was no shade. They would have to sweat that day out in the heat. As night came again, they set up for the assault. Two elements would come from the north and sweep the escapees right into a well emplaced stop group. Hammer and Anvil.
The dawn began to break and the gray sky provided just enough vision to see ( Night Vision Goggles were a thing of the future. They only had Spotting Scopes similar to what the US had in Vietnam ). All groups in place, Shulie was to give the opening shot. A guard started walking towards them for an unknown reason and the LT put him down, then all hell broke loose. Working in pairs, the Assaulters went from hut to hut clearing ZAPU scum from the earth. As one soldier saw the last two tracers of his mag, he yelled, ‘Reload!’, while the other kept firing. Methodically clearing the camp, the majority began to flee south directly into the stop groups. One man was shot in the chest as he charged at the SAS trooper with fixed bayonet. The man tumbled to within a step of the soldier. One man who was wounded cried out, I’m dead, I’m dead. Needless to say someone hastened this realization.
Minutes and 2500 rounds later, All Clear was prounounced. Now, for the cache, after some searching, they found the trap door under three feet of soil and opened up the largest jackpot of the war. Millions or rounds, mines, rifles, expolsives, everything to outfit hundreds of soldiers was in a cement reinforced fortress that was large enough to turn a military truck around in. After everyone got a look and took back rifles and mines that they could find useful, inventory began. The task was so large that it was disbanded and the demolitions men began stringing together charges that would destroy all of it.
Every dead body was searched and recorded. Amongst the intelligence found was a detailed plan of attack on the Infantry School in Gwelo, near Salisbury. Men began to lay landmines and some booby traps for the inevitable investigation of the incident by ZAPU. Time was ticking and the groups moved out and back towards Rhodesia. The head Engineer finally declared it ready to blow and after they were beyond the prescribed 500 meters, they blew it. It was the largest explosion the men would hear or see through the entire course of the war. The mushroom cloud was seen 56 miles into Rhodesia. At the CP, the ground rumbled and the river rippled. Closer to the explosion, men were literally thrown off their feet headfirst. The secondary explosions and exploding rounds continued for hours. Operation Big Bang had thwarted the supply for hundreds of soldiers to slip into Rhodesia and easily be resupplied.