1 Commando 1RLI
Battle of Chibara Hills: 28th February 1976
In any battle and in any war, there will be differing reports on the action. This has always been so, whether studying the battle at Dien Bien Phu in Indochina or the attack by Erwin Rommel’s forces at Tobruk. This is simply because soldiers are not at the same place in time and position in the action and so will report different views on the battle.
The 1 Commando, RLI battle at Chibara Hills on 28th February 1976 was no exception. In the report that follows every attempt has been made to meld together the reports of all those who can still remember and willingly contributed to this record of that action and so give an accurate as possible description of events on that fateful day in the history of the unit.
Command and Control
OC Maj. Roy Matkovitch
2i/c Lt. Dave Scott Donelan
C/s 1 Troop elements under Lt Ian Scott
C/s 2 Troop elements under Sgt Peter O’Brien White
C/s 3 Troop under Lt. Ian Macfarlane (Main follow-up force)
C/s 4 Troop elements under Lt Paul Morpus
In February 1976, 1 Commando was deployed in Mount Darwin as the Fire Force for that region. Generally this Fire Force would comprise two K-Cars (Command helicopter with 20mm Cannon) and four G Cars (Trooping gunship) with the fixed wing support of a Lynx (Rheims Cessna 337) when available. The Lynx could carry stores of 27 mm SNEB rockets and Frantan bombs and support itself with fire from twin 7.62mm machine guns mounted in pods above the cabin.
On the 28th February at approximately 6am, the first wave of the fire force was scrambled to the site of the spoor of a large group of insurgents, which had been located by a territorial platoon. The follow-up group comprised eight men of 3Troop, under command of Ian Macfarlane and three National Park trackers, led by Richard Smith. Given the potential size of the group being pursued, the follow-up was supported, from inception, with a K Car where Roy Matkovitch (OC, 1 Commando) had overall command.
Over the next 6 hours the follow-up group was supplemented with the more members of 3 Troop and over that time spoor was lost and found with the CTs splitting up and regrouping on numerous occasions, In addition, cattle had been driven over the tracks (a common practice) making it more and more difficult to maintain momentum.
In a separate incident, during the morning of the 28th, a landmine exploded some 15 – 20 kilometers away from where the follow-up was occurring. Elements of 4 Troop, the second fire force wave, were deployed to that scene; their task being to locate spoor and follow-up. L/Cpl Doug Cookson was the tracker of this group. When the initial first wave the fire force was scrambled to the CT spoor; K-Car1 (Maj. Roy Matkovitch) positioned himself at Bveke Keep.
By 12 pm, the Commando dispositions hence had two groups of troops in active pursuit of two different groups of CTs, a reserve at Mt. Darwin and a further support group on vehicles in transit (to a point closer to the follow-up groups). As a consequence of these isolated pockets; with the need for the troops to be ferried, and alongside the requirement for air cover and refueling etc., the entire area of some 20-30 sq kilometers was a hive of aircraft activity. This undoubtedly forced the CT groups to disperse into smaller units. At the same time, the K Car was supplemented with a fixed wing aircraft.
At approximately, 2pm the initial follow-up group (3 Troop) lost the remnants of the spoor they were tracking and shortly thereafter the group following up the landmine incident also lost spoor. Just as it appeared that the initiative was lost, the fixed wing aircraft returning to base to refuel, noticed, strong sign of human traffic in the grass, which appeared to be a fairly large set of tracks some 7-8 kilometers from where 3 Troop had lost the spoor. The location was closer to the 4 Troop soldiers who were transported by helicopter to the scene of the observed tracks. Doug Cookson almost immediately confirmed that the reflection was definitely human spoor.
To verify that it was the same spoor that had been followed by 3 Troop; the National Parks trackers were ferried from the place where spoor had been lost to the join 4 Troop. Richard Smith confirmed that it was the same group that had been followed since 6am. (The principle of ‘leapfrogging’ trackers and follow up teams was commonly employed to accelerate the follow up by the team on the ground casting for the spoor, taking a compass bearing on direction of flight when found, and then the in-flight team dropped off on that bearing about two to three kilometres ahead. This process would then be repeated as needed)
Given the size of the CT group being pursued, additional men from 1 Commando were ferried to the grid where the trackers had last confirmed the spoor, given the freshness and clarity of the spoor, follow-up speedily progressed. The initial 3 Troop follow up group under Ian MacFarlane were then ferried to the location where on touch-down they joined the 1 Troop contingent on the right flank of the follow-up. The tracks of the insurgents led off close to a small village in the Chibara Hills not far from the Chibara Elementary School. Shortly before the first contact took place K-Car2 went back to Mt Darwin to refuel and therefore K-Car1 was overhead the follow-up. As Lieutenants’ Scott and Macfarlane’s groups linked, an ambush was sprung on the members of 2 and 4Troops’ at the centre and left flank of the follow-up group. Almost immediately, the right flank (soldiers of 1 and 3 Troop) on a slight ridgeline came under fire as CTs dispersed from the initiation point of the action.
Whilst unseen by the right flank soldiers; it was clear to OC Roy Matkovitch from the air that the centre and left flanks had suffered serious casualties. Lieutenants Scott and Macfarlane were ordered to the site of initial contact. The situation was dire, alongside acts of personal bravery by Troopers Daly and de Beer who, pulled the injured Corporal Hosking to safety, the small group had lost its entire leadership group with Lt. Morpus injured, Corporal Dave Hosking, severely wounded and L/Cpl Doug Cookson killed. Contact broke off momentarily as the CTs withdrew (although, with the bush being an isolated rock and vegetation outcrop, surrounded by maize fields, there was little chance of their escape). The first priority was to evacuate the wounded. The helicopters piloted by (JR) Blythewood and Gawie Venter were guided to within 40 meters of the initial ambush site. This required immense piloting skills, as the landing zone was tight and there were intermittent firefights occurring within meters of their position. Their courageous actions probably saved the life of Dave Hosking. At the end of that first skirmish, the body of Doug Cookson was also located and recovered to a LZ (Landing Zone). The surrounding bush was very dense and maintaining visual contact with your buddy in a sweep line was going to be always difficult.
Dave Hosking recalls” around 1pm we walked into a very well set up ambush. In the first burst, Doug and I went down, also Paul Morpus. When the ters’ first burst ended, I tried to help Doug, but my legs were completely useless, I could see that he was dead, I managed to roll him over as I needed his weapon, Debs de Beer, ran in and managed to pull me out of the firing line. Thereafter I was airlifted with Lt. Morpus to Karanda mission and then on to Darwin, I don’t remember much after that and two days later I went into a coma for three weeks.” (Corporal Hoskins was again moved the following day to Bindura Hospital as the field hospital in Mt. Darwin was not equipped to provide the necessary life support for the extensive injuries Dave had suffered.)
Simultaneously with the evacuation by helicopters, additional troops including Sgt. Peter White and the balance of the initial follow up team with Cpl Billy Wiggill landed to join the group. When Lt Dave Scott Donelan in K-Car2 had returned from refuelling, OC Roy Matkovitch ordered the 2i/c to join the troops on the ground to organise the sweep of the area as the other stick commanders were engaged in the evacuation of the remaining casualties. Lt. Scott Donelan’s radio was out of commission so he spent most of the subsequent action alongside Lt. Ian Macfarlane to ensure he had radio communications. One of the helicopter pilots said over the radio that he had a CT visual while the sweep line was regrouping and men were deployed forward, saw the terrorist and killed him. At this time troops with Cpl Wentink saw another CT snivelling under some bushes nearby and dispatched him. There was no doubt that insurgents were also firing from an isolated rocky outcrop to the front of the sweep line and Billy Wiggill scurried forward in attempt to clamber around the rocks and engage the CT’s. OC Roy Matkovitch ordered him to mark the target with a coloured smoke grenade and “get the hell out” as the K-Car’s 20mm was going to neutralise the position. The definite consensus was that 1 Commando had taken more that its fair share of casualties already.
Richard Smith the National Parks tracker had joined with up with Ian Scott and 1 Troop, but as they were clearing through the area, they walked into another ambush and in the fire fight Tpr Chris Diedericks was killed. Ian Scott had just advised Diedericks, a rookie trooper, to stay close and visual in the sweep line, but unfortunately in his enthusiasm, he strayed too far forward and when Scott saw him go down, it was exceeding difficult to give covering fire as he now was directly between Callsign 11( one one) and the CT’s. In the next volley of fire, ranger Smith who was alongside Ian Scott was also struck down mortally wounded. Scott patched up his lung wound, but unfortunately Richard Smith died in the helicopter on the way back to Karanda Mission
From his left flank Ian Scott got a call for assistance, from Tpr Williams (2 Troop). On Scott’s arrival, this fire fight had ceased but tragically in that action Sgt. Pete White had also been struck down.
Unable to escape into the open surrounding maize fields where they would have been exposed to the K-Cars and circling troop gunship helicopters, the CT’s continually fought a rearguard action and went to ground in the thick cover and waited for the advancing troops, often opening fire at close range before scurrying off to the next ambush site. During the course of these sporadic fire fights Cpl. Basil Dippenar and Trooper Woods were also wounded. Skirmishes across the line, continued over the next few hours, until last light. The entire action was completed at about 18h00, when the advancing sweep line reached the open maize fields and fast approaching nightfall would impede the progress any further.
When the last call sign was recovered and landed at Fire Force Mt Darwin it was already virtually dark (19h00) OC Matkovitch ordered Cpl Wiggill to go to the JOC hospital to identify the bodies of the 1 Commando personnel that had been killed and to retrieve their personal belongings. At the field aid station Dave Hosking was in a comatose state with Basil Dippenar nearby having been shot in the foot and Tpr Woody Wood was on the table in the ER with the doctor giving him a pull through a minor flesh wound to the chest. Lt. Morpus had sustained wounds in both arms and hands
After Wiggill removed Pete White, Chris Diedericks and Doug Cookson’s personal effects and was leaving the surgery back across the road to Fire Force, a Land Rover pulled up with the body of Ranger Richard Smith. The last the RLI men had seen of him on the battlefield he was still alive and being taken out in a helicopter. Richards’s body was then placed with those of the other fallen of the 28th.
Of the 24 soldiers involved in the action that day, 4 were killed and 4 were injured. With the deceased and injured evacuated; the remaining 16 were relieved by a company from 6th Battalion, The Rhodesia Regiment moving into the area before they themselves being airlifted back to the base. The following day Lieutenants Scott and Macfarlane returned to the area of the contact to organize the sweep of the area by the territorial soldiers. The bodies of 19 dead CT’s were located.
When Tpr. Chris Diedericks (who hailed from the Cape in South Africa) left home he apparently informed his parents that he was going to work on the mines in Johannesburg. When informed of their son’s tragic death, they refused to believe the report, until the body was returned to South Africa.
The mother of Doug (Mukamba) Cookson (Thea Schoeman) on BSAP reserve duties (Most of the farmers in the area were Police Reservists) was manning the police radio in Mt Darwin. She could not hear what was transpiring on the ground, but she could hear the K-Car radio traffic. When OC Roy Matkovitch, talking to Ian Macfarlane said “confirm Cookson’s dead” – Thea overheard that transmission
These acts of personal bravery under enemy fire earned Dirk de Beer, the Bronze Cross and Ken Daly an MFC (Citations were written by Lt. D. Scott Donelan and Lt I. Scott)
At the time when each Commando had their own bar in Cranborne Barracks, the newly built 1 Commando bar was named simply the 28th to honour those men of the unit that gave their lives. A lament was also penned by the late Garry O’ Driscoll (KIA) and Billy Wiggill to commemorate the same contact and titled this also the 28th.