Note: This is part of a series. Read part one here.
D Squadron’s tactical HQ was initially set up at Buffalo Range, a very busy base of operations for the Rhodesian Light Infantry and the SAS. Set in the southeastern part of Rhodesia, the terrain varied greatly from the borderlands to the north. There were no lush mountains and thick foliage. It was dry and sparse. The AO was called the “Russian Front” by the Rhodesians. One might assume that it was dubbed such due to the presence of the Russian advisors helping the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). But in fact, it was the dry humor of the Troopies hearkening back to World War Two’s most dreaded and deadly front for the Germans. The Eastern or Russian Front had a lonely, deadly reputation. Punishment or falling from favor with one’s higher chain of command elicited a posting to the literal Russian Front.
It was here, in Mozambique, that the Recces would be assured of contact with the enemy and would progress as a unit against communist-trained terrorists, very similar to the ones they were to face in the future along their northern borders, most notably in Angola and Mozambique during the Border War.
Within a short amount of time, the SAS intelligence liaison officer brought them indoors for the brief and revealed a map of their assigned area. It seemed rather large to them. How would it be possible to effectively control such a piece of real estate? The border alone, north to south, was 150 kilometers long. It seemed a folly to expect 55 men to cover, let alone control, this wide area. At that point, I am certain that many men wondered if a voluntary departure could be had. There were a small number of men who would later request posting back to South Africa, and it would be granted.
The men of the reconnaissance regiments were professional soldiers. They knew that to better learn their profession, they would have to take any and all situations and find a way to dominate. Besides, if their SAS brethren were doing it, surely they could do it as well.
The Rhodesian intel officer informed them that they would be chaperoned on their first mission to get a lay of the land and useful procedures that the SAS had developed during their operations. However, after that, the Recces would be running their own show. Their insertion methods would cover all of the training that they had received. Static-line drops, helo inserts, and even HALO jumps for sensitive missions that required absolute stealth when dropping near known strong points.
Although these operations were vital to the development of the Recces’ history and capabilities, it was classified top secret until 1983, years after the Bush War ended. On the surface, South Africa wanted to maintain some neutrality and distance from the much-maligned Rhodesian government.
Records for these missions come mainly from the writings of Peter Stiff in the book “The Silent War.” He details this period through interviews with the men and a tiny handful of memoirs by those who participated.
Once again, South Africa found itself battling the birth pangs of a full-fledged war, fighting against communist-trained armies from Angola to Mozambique. At this point, Rhodesia was persona non grata to the world community, and South Africa was quickly reaching that point. Secrecy, as much as possible, was desired.
Dry runs began in order to gain familiarity with the terrain and enemy. It was a short affair. After this was done, the first team inserted via static line and made their way to the objective designated for the first mission. The main terrain feature was a rail line. It was vital for the communists to keep it open for supplies. At one time, it had run from the coast all the way into Rhodesia, but the fall of the Portuguese colonial government ended that. Like most societies, villages and towns tend to grow up around trade routes, railroads, and vehicular traffic. As is the case with most small unit teams conducting direct-action missions behind enemy lines, reconnaissance and sabotage were the objective.
The first team made it to the vicinity of the rail line fairly quickly. Knowing that the area was a hot spot, they formed out an extended line in case of contact. A service road ran adjacent to the tracks. Being well trained and professional, they crossed the road, trying to leave no trace indicating their true direction. Upon reaching the actual track, they pulled security and rushed across undetected. As fate and the unpredictability of combat dictated, they didn’t have to wait long until contact was made. Lt. Corrie Meerholz recounts their first contact in Stiff’s book.
From concealed positions, they spotted a man walking toward them on the rail line. He appeared to be alone. They thought that strange for such an active AO. However, not seeing anyone else after careful observation, Meerholz made the decision to effect a prisoner snatch. As the man came closer, they saw he carried a RPD machine gun. Suddenly, a man appeared behind him with an RPG. The initial assumption that this was a civilian was gone.
More men appeared over the horizon. The LT decided to go ahead with a prisoner snatch and to engage the enemy. He ordered two men to abandon their weapons in order to be free to subdue the “would be” prisoner while his team provided covering fire.
The seconds ticked away and the men crawled forward. A tactical problem emerged. For effective fire on the trailing soldiers, his own would have to stand and reveal their positions, potentially diminishing the advantage they would have through concealment. The clock wound down and a decision was made, but not by the LT. One of the two men assigned to the snatch had carried his weapon against orders. The soldier saw the predicament and decided against showing himself to an enemy patrol unarmed. This soldier broke cover and shot the intended target and the RPG-7 gunner behind him. A brief firefight broke out but the enemy fled.
Their cover blown, they called for an extract. Not wasting any opportunities to take down their enemy, the bodies, weapons, and equipment were booby trapped.
On their ride back to Rhodesia, they were informed that a radio intercept confirmed the sabotage had worked and killed several Terrs. Although a short mission, they achieved the first kills of many that were to come. Recces were to become a fixture of ‘D’ Squadron until the latter end of 1979.
(Featured image courtesy of falfiles.com)