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With the 1960s coming to a close 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 country of Mozambique. Rhodesia and Mozambique 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 Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) sprouted to fight its Portuguese masters. The SAS was instrumental in helping the Mozambiquan government learn to fight against the insurgency.
With SAS’ recent experience in the Zambezi Valley, Rhodesia 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, they usually ended up chasing down the communist terrorists themselves.
This was a good experience for the men as the terrain was vastly different from Zambia’s 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 took up FRELIMO’s offer and the war began to take on a more intense and violent tempo.
As ZANU gained more recruits and an easier infiltration route, the SAS spent the majority of their time in Mozambique, hitting hard the terrorists’ bases, supply, and infrastructure. ZANU began to gain steam in Mozambique mainly due to their Maoist ideology. Rather than the ironfisted ZAPU, they mixed with the locals, gained their trust, and turned them into guerilla fighters. Yet, ZAPU was still persistent in the north and the vigilance and daring of the SAS were necessary.
The senior men of SAS C Squadron were accumulating experience. The officers instilled into the men that they were the eyes and ears of the Army and not shock troops. Missions involved Deep Range Recce’s, and infiltrating through HALO or chopper, thus building a picture of what they were dealing with. A game of cat and mouse began with between the SAS and the terrorists, with recce missions that helped build a support plan for larger groups to assault terrorist camps, supply lines, and other patrols. The SAS developed great ambushing skills: With a tradition of tracking, they used their knowledge to run the enemy in circles until they made a mistake. Harassment of the enemy heightened as available intelligence grew. Rarely did the SAS 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 depending 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, of usually four to six men and fan out to their assigned areas. The teams would not see each other again for up to six weeks. If all went well, they would be resupplied every 14 days by helicopter with food, water, and ammunition. This was the rotation pattern that lasted throughout the war: Six weeks in the bush with 10 days back in Salisbury.
This rotation pattern 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 their 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 whom they could not trust. 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. Thus, from a distance, they could be passed off for ZANU or FRELIMO patrols, although the disguise would never hold up to close interaction.
Anti-Personnel mines were a double-edged sword. The ground was littered with them. Detailed logs were kept but since they would be planted at night or in an area hard to map, the operators still had to be extremely careful in traversing the area. When it came to the men planting them, they would usually only do so when being pursued or were sure that the mine would discharge very soon after.
The enemy greatly outnumbered the small SAS teams. Once the enemy was sure that the SAS had penetrated the area, groups of at least 30 men would be sent out to pursue them, thus knowledge of their area and evasion and ambush tactics was an all-important skill for the SAS. Several of the SAS were Americans who had come from their recent service in Vietnam. Yet, in this situation they 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 perform a hot extract. Whereas in Mozambique, only in dire emergencies would a helicopter or strike aircraft be launched.
While in Mozambique the intensity and magnitude of the war increased, ZAPU was still actively trying to breach Rhodesia’s northern border. The early days of infiltrating entire companies of men across the Zambezi had all but halted so ZAPU turned to their Russian advisors for help. They began to build an infrastructure inside Rhodesia with arms caches and networks across the Matabele Tribal Trust Lands: It was easier to sneak through in small numbers.
In 1974, the Special Branch of the Rhodesian Army noticed some oddities that were further investigated. A tremendously lucky break in intelligence led to the capture of the ZAPU ringleader and all of his henchmen. Caches were tracked down and the infrastructure was crushed. The SAS was called in to recce out the bases in northern Rhodesia 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 terrorist uniforms and carrying terrorist arms, they began to move into the bush prepared for a six-week trip. They moved, laid up, and listened. After two nights they heard the sounds of gunshots. At first, they did not know if they had been compromised, so they went to ground. Noting from the sound of the gunshots that they were coming from high powered rifles, they knew that the shooters 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; thus it was more readily identified. The men set off to track the truck’s destination. The men were spread out in the bush when another shot went off. The two men in the rear thought that someone had been shot; they followed protocol to avoid capture and headed back to their RV point. Since their radios were malfunctioning, Shulie had no way to communicate to them that this was not the case. So he and another operator were left to follow up themselves.
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 terrorist 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 Shulie was back in the area three 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 workers. His initial instinct was that they were civilians doing road work along the track, but when a four-ton military truck arrived on the spot, he realized they were ZAPU. It was irregular for one of ZAPU to be out of uniform.
He reckoned that the terrorists were working on an underground cache — much harder to find from aerial reconnaissance and difficult to destroy. Shulie made it back to his men and they returned to Rhodesia. Initially, the higher-ups were upset that an attack had not been made on the site by the SAS men. Shulie’s superior backed him up saying that striking the target would be more worthwhile 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; now they were going to use their Direct Action capabilities.
Forty-three men were chosen for the assault. This was the largest External into Zambia since the war’s start. LT Shulie 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 from there 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 surveyed the site for one more day. 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 laid 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. Several men were injured. As swiftly as the attackers had struck, they disappeared. The SAS did not give chase and decided not to tell the assault team fearing they would abort the mission 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 the terrorists. It had been a mistake to base up in one spot one too many times.
All assaulters RV’d on a rise overlooking the terrorist 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 fell, 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. The men only had Spotting Scopes similar to what the U.S. 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 others kept firing. Methodically clearing the camp, the majority of the terrorists began to flee south directly into the stop groups. One man was shot in the chest as he charged with a fixed bayonet at an SAS trooper. The man tumbled to within a step of the operator. One man who was wounded cried out, “I’m dead, I’m dead.” Needless to say, someone hastened this realization.
Minutes and 2,500 rounds later, All Clear was pronounced. 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 of rounds, mines, rifles, explosives, 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 daunting, given the cache’s size, that inventory was aborted: 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 the cache away. 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 continued for hours. The operation had thwarted the supply of hundreds of terrorists.