The Cockleshell Heroes
In the mid 1970’s, much effort was being put into strangling northern Mozambique. More and more ZANU Terrs were based there in the Tete Province. The relationship that ZANU had with FRELIMO made Mozambique a very difficult area to operate in, especially over a prolonged period. Captain Robert Mackenzie, an American who had served with the Rhodesian SAS after the Vietnam War was tasked to find new ways to harass and interdict the enemy and remain undetected. He focused on Lake Cabora Bassas, a man made lake along the Zambezi river in the Cabora Bassas Gorge. It was in the northwestern part of Tete Province and was within a day or two’s march to several infiltration routes into Rhodesia.
Canoeing was part of the SAS history and specialization in the area led to the formation of the British Special Boat Service. Cockle was slang for canoes. In 1942 the British Commandos pulled off a raid in German occupied France using canoes, hence Cockleshell Heroes. But Rhodesia was a landlocked nation and they had not done much in the way of waterborne training. Mackenzie believed that they could use the remote coasts of the Lake to provide hide sites and the Canoes would allow them to travel quickly and silently to land sites near their targets. After their work was done, they could silently slip away and leave no tracks back to their hide.
A 12 man team went to work practicing with the canoes, deciding on how to best load them, recovery drills, navigation, etc. The men set out with a long drive to remote north eastern Rhodesia along mine littered dirt roads rather than by helicopters that might be seen or heard from a greater distance. On that January sunset of 1977, they put their canoes into a tributary river that led to the Lake. After navigating the crocodiles and hippos and spending a day laying up due to a capsize and puncture of the canoes, they reached the Lake and paddled along to their proposed base of operations.
The small island was extremely muddy with little shade but isolated far from any villages or trails, inaccessible except by a water craft. With a planned six weeks, they set up the first camp with care and concealment, trying to make arrangements for the following resupply of more ammunition and food that was impossible to bring on the canoes. The resupply came with good food but nothing in the way of ammunition. Mackenzie, adaptable, set up another parachute drop soon and the men got to the business of fighting the enemy.
A four man stick was dropped off on the mainland to lay some land mines along targeted tracks. They moved cautiously and slowly to their drop off point. After laying the mines, they took off their boots to leave little in the way of spoor and counter tracked back to the pickup point. They shot off a flare and fellow troopers retrieved them from the banks. The next morning a large explosion echoed across the hills. There was definitely activity in the area. Radio intercepts from Intelligence in Salisbury caught transmissions on the explosions. They had killed the 2 OIC of a nearby FRELIMO garrison.
The men decided to change their campsite frequently to throw off any pursuers who might gain an idea that the men were on the lake. Each night, recces were done and targets analyzed. A series of successful raids and ambushes followed, including destroying 21 enemy boats in a harbor. Both FRELIMO and ZANU suffered at their hands. They appeared at random places then displaced like phantoms. The body count rose as their mining and ambushes went off successfully in an area that was considered safe by the enemy. With the Daring and Initiative of the SAS, a new set of tactics were put in motion.
The Rhodesians helped set up a counter revolutionary group inside Mozambique to help take pressure off their borders, named RENAMO. To this day, the who, what, when, where, and why’s are shrouded in either secrets or stories stored away in Operators memories. When they joined together, they were able to penetrate all the way to the Indian Ocean and raid oil refineries on the coast.
These are but two of the missions of an organization that fought for over 15 years against enemies of Rhodesia. It is impossible to chronicle the entire operational history of the SAS in article form. Up until the end, the men lived up to the motto ‘Who Dares Wins’.
South Africa was a staunch ally, though in Top Secret mode, providing fuel, helicopters and pilots. They sent a group of their own Special Forces, the Recces, in the form of a highly classified unit known as the Rhodesian SAS D squadron to gain experience and put more pressure on the Terrs inside Mozambique. This unit’s story will be left for another time.
After the close of the Bush War in Rhodesia in late 1980, the SAS was promptly disbanded. However, many of the operators already had planned for that eventuality and went to work for their allies in South Africa. This transition and the strategic planning of South Africa is an incredible story and will hopefully be told in the future.
In researching the Rhodesian SAS, it has turned out to be a difficult undertaking. There are so many men who did so much that is unknown and remains with the men themselves that full justice has not been done to record their history. One of the Primary resources used for this article was ‘The Elite’ by Barbara Cole. It is long out of print and sells for hundreds of dollars. It shares over 400 pages of information on the Unit and Missions of the SAS. Some controversy surrounds this book, however. It was written by the wife of an officer in the SAS and the stories include a lot of that officers exploits and those close to him. Many, many people’s names are not mentioned nor their missions detailed. Whatever the case, we as military history enthusiasts can only hope the veterans share their stories and put them to print like Keith Nell, author of Viscount Down.
The story of the Rhodesian SAS is a case study of special operations and the ingenuity, fortitude and pure guts of men who fight for love of country and their fellow soldier.
Lead picture courtesy of Keith Nell, author of Viscount Down. SAS formation at Kabrit Barracks – Nov. 1979