The Fire Force (FF) - Honde Valley
3 Commando 1RLI
The Commando was based on the hills above the Honde valley; warm days, rain / fog and cold nights.
Big demand by all for the sexy army green long johns and Pudding did a bustling trade in totties (and more to fill hip-flasks) for the men doing OP’s and ambushes. As we all know the hip flask was a well discussed item in both world wars by British troops but once the ok was given by us for troops to have a tot this, a 1st for me in the Commando, was difficult to control in the issue of & quantity to whom.
While on the matter of our Blue colleagues, I personally believe that the entire Unit owes them a great debt of praise and gratitude for what they did for us. Virtually without exception they were professional operators & certainly from my time with them, very very good at what they did. There are many examples of them going the extra mile for us and what a magnificent group of people, both from a work and social point of view. Rhodesians did not give them the recognition they so rightly deserved or thank them adequately during or after the war. I am still very conscious and embarrassed of the fact that, after the Honde Op, I did not give them the praise they so rightly deserved. Specifically from a 3 Cdo point of view, a great deal of our success was due to them.
The Honde Valley Fire Force Contact
When the sun came up on 15 Nov 1976 (date by the courtesy of Rod Smith), we were radioed by 4th Battalion HQ, which was situated near the tea estates in the Honde valley, re the siting of expected ters in the area of the hill. The siren for FF deployment blasted out - All troops including air force personnel were mobilized. As usual we obtained the necessary information we could gather prior to a deployment. Briefing was given by Brown & Blue and we got airborne – usually a 10 /20 minute process from start to takeoff. Additional stops went by vehicle to a pick up point in the valley and closer to the target area. Armed Fixed wing aircraft were deployed from Grand Reef airfield south, south west of Umtali / Mutare. What I had not seen before was that the choppers flew along the edge of the large expanses of granite that formed the sides and face of the hills of the valley. Obvious why, but at the time I had to ask the question, which was answered re heat from the massive rock faces exposed to the sun vs. air to ground missiles.
At the time of the orders all G car pilots were advised re planned locations to drop troops. This decision was for me usually based on likely landing zones from map interpretations, Intelligence, likely escape routes by the enemy and estimates from experience & the terrain of the area, when the ters would possibly hear the sound of the aircraft. Drop locations could be changed en route anyway e.g. after speaking with the OP. For this operation, with the whole day ahead, it was better to drop stops further out than closer to the target area. In most cases we found that river lines with their vegetation were the usual escape routes but other tactics were used by the enemy i.e. abandoning their weapons and becoming part of the local population.
Talking to the OP / men on the ground as soon after take off as possible gave us additional vital information and it must also be remembered that all other aircraft; the stops going by road and stop leaders / officers (they used their own A63’s and we also introduced an SOP where each G car had a cloth head set for the stop commander – not sure if we had this on the day) could listen in on everything flying to the target area.
While doing this article I was asked to briefly comment on how FF targets were identified & to provide some information on target identification. As is obvious, Intelligence was the driver of the war and it is here where the Special Branch, the Selous Scouts, the SAS, Aerial Photography, Aerial Reconnaissance etc played a critical role. From this intelligence, operations & troop deployments took place. In the case of 3Cdo FF’s most deployments in my time with the Cdo were called in by OP’s & aerial reconnaissance. Although FF was a rapid airborne strike force and used effectively in operations on camp attacks etc, rarely did the occasion arise where this type of force was used when troops on the ground were for instance involved in one on one fire fights / contacts. During my time with 3Cdo I would spend quality time with the Intelligence people where we were operating. Having standard intelligence briefs was an SOP, but getting close to them, building a relationship and asking question after question was for me the only way of obtaining what intelligence we required. As mentioned, the asking of questions was the only way to get the info one needed e.g. All SOP type intelligence briefs I ever attended never gave the detail that we required on terrain, bush cover, are hill features in the area mainly caves etc. This may sound to the reader as unnecessary but for FF operations it was an operational necessity. This same tactic of getting more than the normal standard information & asking question after question I used right up to & before arrival at a target area. There was a standard list of what would be transmitted to FF call outs i.e. by an OP, but we realised that to be more effective & successful we needed more than the norm plus I wanted as many people as possible, who were going to be involved in the operation, to hear every detail. In simple terms, from the 1st report on a potential call out up to our arrival at the target, I wanted everyone to have a “detailed painted picture in their minds” of the target area and everything else related to the incident. Over & above the obvious we would get answers to questions such as: how many huts in a kraal/s, description and layout of the huts, where was the cattle pen, relevant paths in the area, colour of clothing of the locals they had seen, enemy clothing description, hats/ caps, cattle being herded & where in the picture, which of the locals by dress colour had been seen moving in and out of the base camp area, which direction / down which river line did the OP think the enemy would go, vegetation description on the river lines etc. One also had to realise that in the case of an OP one had to picture the area as seen from the eyes of the OP. I also found that, depending on the surprise factor we could achieve with the noise of the helicopters, there was real benefit for the KCar on approach to fly directly over the OP towards the target area and by a simple left, roll out, right, roll out etc then I saw exactly what the OP was seeing. The OP etc advising me when they could hear the sound of the aircraft was a must on every callout & then, once we had decided where to deploy the stops, the OP became important eyes & ears for us.
Back to the Honde Operation. Where the initial wave of stops (4 - 6) were dropped is too long ago for me to remember but I do recall that once the 1st stops were on the ground more call signs were picked up from the 3 Cdo troops in the vehicles. Other facts from memory include:
The Ters had been sited on the side of hill 31 that you can see in the Google pic attached.
The use of stops to block off escape routes on either side of the Kopje (left & right of the hill as you look at the pic).
Airstrikes, 20mm canon in the Kcar & MAG fire from G Cars was used in the caves / rocky out crops on the side of hill 31.
Trooper Fransico Da Costa lost his life early on in the contact. He was killed instantly and his stop group had the dreadful task of putting his body in a sleeping bag and carrying him down to the open ground in the centre bottom of the Google pic. He had been killed away from other call signs and at the time it was not possible to link the remaining 3 men into another stop group. When the casevac took place I made the call to pick up the entire call sign and take them to 4th Bat. What a loss to us, his family & loved ones. As mentioned earlier 4th Bat HQ was some 5 – 10 minutes flying time from the target.
It became obvious early on that to complete the task that day we would require more troops than we had available in the Commando and these we obtained from & via 4th Bat. It was the 1st occasion I had used territorial men in the fighting role in a fire force and what a magnificent job they did – FF operations, as we all know, is not something that one can adapt to and be any good at, for a first time, as a soldier. I spent some considerable time briefing Col Browne over the radio on a list of do’s and don’ts & insisting that he check every detail with each stop including what equipment was required (even to the nitty gritty of how many magazines, white map on the ground when static, spare radio battery, medical, handset of radio to sit on the shoulder etc etc etc).
As can be seen from the goggle pic attached, sweeping from the bottom of the hill upwards was a. too dangerous having to sweep / walk uphill & firing upwards & conversely the ters looking and firing down on us etc and b. we may not have completed the sweep of the whole area by nightfall. Stops were clearing the reverse side of the hill where the bush was sparse. With bailiff (Special Branch) there were troops in the kraals on the left of the pic and then the main operation was to use a long sweep line sweeping from left to right as you look at the pic. Either end of the sweep line was to be on the edge of the cover. The experienced 3 Cdo stops were dispersed between the 4th Bat sticks to assist, control and guide. There was some use of tracking sticks certainly initially but where I can not re call. We swept all day with contacts on a regular basis. When we encountered stiff or dangerous resistance, came across caves / rocky out crops or saw ters from the air we would make use of the 20mm canon, G Cars and air strikes. Kills were verified, disarmed, left where they were (in the open if possible) and weapons and other equipment taken along with the stop. Before last light, although the sweeping was complete, it was from a time perspective not possible to pick up the call signs and thus, under the control of Rod Smith, the troops were left on the ground in ambush positions (some repositioning of sticks took place).
At sparrow the next morning the clean up commenced with no further contacts. All troops, dead Ters, weapons and equipment were brought to a central point where the bailiff, intaf etc did their thing (their work was now just starting). Bringing bodies to a central area was neither an easy nor pleasant task for the troops on the ground. We also took this opportunity to walk around and talk with the men who had done all the hard work and who had been responsible for & achieved our success. On a more humorous note; I met the 4 Bat stop commander who the previous day had taken so much sarcasm from me for not answering his radio (his hand set was not in the correct place on his webbing for fire force ops). Several other call signs I found had no sleeping gear for the night and some men had not brought with them any food. Now that I think of it, there is every chance that in my so called detailed brief with Col Browne, I made no mention of warm clothing, sleeping bags or food.
Large amounts of equipment were recovered & 31 terrorists had been killed.
The following day, day two after the contact, was the press side of the show.
The rest is history.
The following may be of interest:
Changes & or Innovations we made in 3 Cdo to perating Together and for Fire Force
As I am sure applied in the rest of the battalion, senior NCO’s & Officers messed & lived together and Cpls & troops messed under one roof. Someone came up with the idea of the Corporals having their own patch of land and they then had their own tent as a mess, with cutlery, glasses etc. One has to only put ones self in their position and the advantages are obvious. Each entity had its own fridge / deep freeze that always worked and froze everything. This meant that the canteen always sold “cold whatever”and we rarely had frozen food problems. We made soldier proof metal boxes for each cooling equipment which allowed for rough handling. I do not think we appreciated at the time what a fantastic job our CSM’s, cooks, Pudding, mechanics and other camp staff did for us day in & day out, year in and year out.
I do not recall any occasion where there was a situation where there was no talking or a serious class between two people. The issue for me here is that despite the age differences, experience and just normal human behaviour, somehow each one knew that this was a no no. Obviously there were disagreements but they were just solved in a different way. Incredible when you think of it and it says a lot about what great people I had the privilege to spend part of my life with. Once again, I presume, as in all sub-units in the RLI, everyone wore the same clothing on Ops with no sign of any rank.
As all military people will know, that in the forces, you can have what you want as long as it is on their list. In 3Cdo we changed that and had a canteen full of what the men wanted. We had food rations different from the norm and our cooks cooked meals in camp that were not on the official list. We had sporting equipment and card, etc type games for everyone.
Here is an interesting and maybe even controversial issue. As in any military unit, 3Cdo had its fair share of men who did things wrong and were charged and punished in the normal manner. We came up with an idea which was to take away an offender’s first or more nights back home in the form of CB. Without any change to our level of discipline, misdemeanours and the no of people to be charged dropped significantly.
Modifying ones operating equipment to suit ones self was a given but one person by the initials of MA led the way with changing ones webbing. Innovation and change was a passion and was always on going.
Talking of change & innovation, here are some of the small but significant changes we made for our FF Operations:
We spent a great deal of time, all the time, doing live jungle lanes. We changed the amount of ammo we were allowed and we always had sufficient stock to do this live training. What we achieved was to become extremely proficient & effective at hitting targets at close range, taught all too double tap but at the same time max power on so called each shot but at the same time conserving ammunition vs. straight automatic. Teaching one’s self to count approx rounds fired to avoid pulling the trigger only to find an empty magazine was a real challenge for all. Our jungle lanes were like the real thing, not as per the COIN manual.
Running hand in hand with the above was having / carrying enough ammo for what was an unknown contact time period and how many enemy one came across. Not sure that we ever came to a final solution but everyone had to allow for and carried more magazines and MAG belts than normal ops while doing FF. You can imagine what this did for our webbing innovator!!!!! We changed the method of ammo resupply by having hundreds of spare FN magazines and then all and any resupply was always fully loaded magazines. Our transport carrying second wave troops closer to a target and any chopper resupply was only full magazines.
As mentioned earlier, radio comms with helicopters making a din above, is and was a problem. The handset in the webbing high up on the left or right shoulder made the difference (as the saying goes, just a few inches makes a huge difference). Listen to the 3Cdo tape that Mark Adams found in his garage & my comment above on the Stop Group in the Honde and there is the proof of the pudding. While on the topic of comms, it is stating the obvious, that a stop group without comms is not only very dangerous for the men on the ground but also a waste of effective manpower. Hook Le Roux, our radio man, was the difference. With checking and checking, being able to do minor repairs and once again 3Cdo having more A63’s than the normal allocation was the difference. As stupid as it may seem, having a new & spare battery in each stop group was a critical SOP. Then, as with all technical equipment, we all know that it doesn’t work when you need it. Call signs with no radio comms, stopped and put out on the ground next to them an orange panel (approx half the size of a map). This told the KCar the problem. The refuelling loc for the choppers had, as an SOP, one spare radio for us and the Kcar carried another spare A63.
Before talking about the white map on the ground, I am of the view that because of how we chose to live and operate together, it just became part of our family and team to have informal debriefs and even daily, casual conversations about ideas on doing things better. Every man jack was allowed to have his say. It was as if this was part of our character and who we just were. So out of this environment came the innovation & another FF SOP of the white map put on the ground by the stop commander when always static.
When not on deployment the Cdo had three different physical forms of activity. Early in the morning was the so called PT where many of the routines were strengthening exercises with FN’s / MAGs. Usually in the afternoon there were team sports with volleyball being a common activity. Then in the late afternoon, when it was too late for FF call outs, the Cdo would go for its group run. These were strenuous runs which included singing and of course the normal banter.
First aid was part of being a soldier in the RLI but a need that came out of the stick / stop and FF was to be more medically capable than just being able to administer basic first aid. To this end we took this to its logical conclusion and our medical training and re training included being capable of managing shock and the reality of being shot in a fire force contact. Many of the Troop Commanders made sure that each stop / stick had a well trained medical person in each 4 man group. While on the subject of medical matters, it must be always remembered that although not often talked about, each man wants and is entitled to know the answers to “if I am wounded what is the first line of care, how quickly will I be casevaced, what is the field hospital equipped to do etc”. Even things like who is the RLI Doctor, the doctor’s experience in war / war wounds etc were and are critical issues.
I talked earlier re the role that the air force played in our success but what is worth a mention is the fortunate FF trip we did in the Mount Darwin Area with Cockey Beneke. He had developed a system of air reconnaissance which produced astounding results. He would fly off at 1st light and come up with occupied camps time and time again, with very few so called “lemons”. What may sound like an easy, obvious and straight forward air force task was in fact the complete opposite. I believe that the outstanding success rate he achieved was due to his personal ability & experience (Perhaps it is worth our while asking him to put pen to paper for us on this subject). Just as an example: it must be remembered that any aircraft movement usually got the ters to move; so I presume that when Cockey initially located a prospect, that his in depth viewing was done a substantial distance from the target. He was also able to identify old, recent and occupied bases; as amazing as this may sound. It was this bush trip, while Cockey was doing his thing in Mount Darwin, that 3Cdo learnt & fine tuned its new FF skills and in turn gaining its reputation as a very capable and successful Fire Force outfit. On the FF contact tape that Mark has you can hear Cocky saying he is bored and is flying off to do his thing. Literally within the hour he is talking to the K Car asking when we will have finished as he has found another base camp for us to go to. The task we are on before he flew off did in fact result in kills. He asks me the question “if we will have enough time to respond to what he has found”? – Cheeky b....... Anyway no doubt we responded to his next target the following day with success.
So what made 3 Cdo so special - for me? Success yes, being at the right place at the right time, yes yes yes ? We had great Troop Commanders and just who they were at the time made a significant and substantial impact. Thank you. However the role played by our NCO’s; our CSM, Sergeants & Corporals, from top to bottom, just had to be the difference. We are indebted to you for what made us 3 Cdo.
A matter not often realised or considered at the time is “what impact and effect does such a job have on a person”. We had many a man who came out of recruit course and within a matter of days was being shot at, seeing death in its gory military form and having to shot to kill people. With the services of men doing their national call up, this also meant that some had just completed their schooling prior to their basic training. Such boys who were men had to operate with hardened & experienced soldiers and the FF was about doing this task everyday. For the Troop Commanders it was about putting these new soldiers into and being part of 4 man effective fighting units. When there are only 4 men in a unit there are many considerations of where to put new and unknown soldiers. Going to sleep at night knowing what you have to do and face the next day in the FF is not something that many people can do, day in and day out. In hindsight I would like to think that it was for these very reasons why we lived & behaved the way we did and created our 3 Cdo family which I have outlined above.
This document would not be complete without mention of the humorous times (there were many) and I hope that my 3 Cdo colleagues will add to the list. Here goes: On one of our contacts our troops on the ground were being fired on from a rocky outcrop with a cave/s. After some airstrikes and the dust had settled the troops continued their advance. On reaching the entrance to the cave they decided to throw in a variety of grenades. At this stage the Kcar was immediately above and suddenly I saw some of our men running away from the target area. On closer examination of the fleeing troops I noticed one or more people, in different clothing, also running in the same direction. I asked the stupid question of what the ... was going on and after several such requests was told by Mark Adams & I think Cpl Reynolds that the grenades had disturbed a large hive of bees and in their anger they had decided to sting anyone & everyone in site. What I had seen were the troops that had been stung, running in the other direction and immediately behind them were the enemy who had also been stung by the bees. There was no firing at one another; only heads down and “let’s get the hell out of here.....”. We ended up with some captures which would have allowed us to gather immediate & medium term intelligence. Mark tells me that at one stage they were shouting at the ters to run with or in front of them.
As we all know the 20mm canon in the Kcar was a very effective & impressive weapon (weeepon). On one of our operations I decided that I would show the “blue jobs” how we “brown jobs” were the ones who knew how to shoot. When the time came we talked about it in the Kcar with of course some banter. The one thing that we did agree on was that it was possibly wise that we should not do this marksman shooting anywhere near our troops. We selected an outcrop or a clump of bushes, the tech & I changed seats, I was given some quick weapon training over the internal comms including “just touch & quickly release the trigger”& then I was ready to go. I did what I thought I had been told to do only to find that on the 1st burst, I had fired many many rounds and the Kcar had been pushed many metres (a kilometre, I think would be a gross exaggeration!) to the right. I hit the target area but most rounds not – let’s just leave it at that. It is however true to say that I did improve “slightly” with my subsequent bursts. Possible over usage of ammo plus my shooting results was more than likely why we all agreed that I should return to my bucket seat. Hilarity & sarcasm was the order of the day and I do not recall having a drink with our blue colleagues that night.
When it was our turn to have everyone in the Cdo parachute trained, the decision of who / which Troops were going on the first course and who was going last was a decision that neither I nor anyone wanted to make. I can’t remember how we solved this but I do remember the 1st group of men who returned with their wings. They were the centre of attraction & envy of us all with many questions from those who had not yet been trained, many war stories and as far as the new trained para Cdo’s were concerned, they were now in a league of their own. To say you were now parachute trained and to wear the wings made such a difference to each individual. I am sure many slept with their wings! I was also fortunate to be with the Cdo when we had parachute trained troops and to have been able to make use of this new troop deployment method in our FF operations. Not being part of the initial para courses- lets just say was a steep learning curve for me. It was a great new enhancement to the way we operated.
As is well known 3Cdo were known as “The Lovers”. This name & the Banana were before my time with the sub unit, so I would be the wrong person to give you the history of this origin. However I am sure that one of my fellow sub unit colleagues can finally put to rest the myth of the name & emblem.
Words escape me to express my views and feelings of my time in the RLI but now when I look back, I do not recall any bad times and have only positive and fond memories of this part of my life. If I do have any regrets then it is certainly about the time that I was not being a husband and father and having lost this forever. To Rita & Cindy I am deeply deeply sorry.
Click here to read more on 3 Commando - Fire Force-Honde Valley 15 November 1976
Hill 31 – contact report
On Monday, 15 November 1976, at 0545, contact broken at 2000. VQ744430. Fire Force A. 3 Commando, 1RLI, commanded by Captain C.W. Donald. 30 plus terrorists. Trooper Da Costa, F.D. killed, Rifleman Grobler, P.J., Privates Chikoto, Saxon and Philip Chagwiza, wounded. Killed 31, one captured, escaped unknown. Escaped wounded. Unknown.
The main contact area was on the western side of steep broken feature with numerous gullies and covered in dense undergrowth. Weather: initially extremely low cloud base which cleared after midday. Callsign 81A (K Company 10 RR) sighted approximately 20-30 people moving in single file from east to west south of Honde Mission.
Sticks were dropped to the west of the contact area and a 4 RR Sparrow team on the tracks. The tracker team and 81A had a contact with two terrorists at Point A, killing both of them. The terrorist tracks then followed the main path and as the follow-up team came round the feature, the main terrorist group were contacted. More sticks were brought into the area including Support Company 1RAR mortar team who were used only in a minor role.
For the remainder of the day series of sweeps took place resulting in a large number of contacts. All contacts were at extremely close range, in rugged terrain and dense bush. The following aircraft were used during the contact. One Lynx Call sign Alpha 4 which dropped four frantan and made four SNEB rocket attacks. One K-Car. Three G-Cars. A total of 25 flying hours was flown by the Fire Force helicopters carrying out trooping, casevac, air support, resupply and airborne command. In the rocky terrain the 20mm cannon proved extremely effective. All in all an excellent job was done by the Air Force.
Trooper Da Costa was killed instantly by a terrorist running away from the sweep line. Da Costa was casevaced immediately by helicopter to Ruda and then by fixed wing to Umtali. Rifleman Grobler was casevaced with minor injuries by helicopter just before last light. Two RAR privates were injured by small arms fire in a helicopter while flying towards the combat area. They were casevaced direct to Ruda. The terrorists settled themselves down on the western side of the feature and as usual all the contacts between ground forces took place at very close range in dense bush or rocky outcrops.
A significant point to note was that a great deal of terrorist small arms fire was directed at the aircraft throughout the day. One RPG7 rocket was fired at a troop carrying helicopter which exploded about 20 metres behind the aircraft. Another helicopter was forced to land due to damage received from small arms fire from the vicinity of VQ748452.
Generally terrorists tend to avoid high ground when contacted but due to the position of stops, available cover and the approach direction of the Fire Force, no other course was open to them. The capture had no idea of the number of terrorists in the area. He gave out that he had come into the country as a member of a group of eleven. The exact number contacted in not known. Direction: unknown. 32 terrorists were accounted for and 33 weapons recovered. All the terrorists were dressed in a mixture of civilian and camouflage clothing.
The night of 15-16 November, stops were left in ambush on likely escape routes and as a result one terrorist was killed at 2000. All the bodies and equipment recovered were displayed to the locals, leaflets have been distributed and a great deal of publicity was given to the contact. Interrogation of the capture would be done and the necessary action taken. Weapons: eleven SKS, one RPD, 21 AKs, one RPG, 25 RPG projectiles, one landmine, 19 boxes of ammunition, 59 82mm mortar bombs and 28 stick grenades.
The Sub-Unit Commander noted the large variety of sub-units were involved. Under the circumstances, the co-operation between them all, including the Air Force and every man doing his bit, was extremely good. This resulted in a smooth running contact with excellent and a well earned final result.
To give individual praise would be most difficult but Trooper Garnet, commanding Stop 3 was outstanding and must be complimented on his work. Thee necessary action will be done in due course. Brigadier A.O.N. MacIntyre found the outstanding feature was the first class co-operation of the RLI, RAR and 10RR with first class Air Force back up. Captain Donald did an excellent job, remaining cool and positive through a long day’s battle. The 4RR trackers worked well. In all a most satisfactory effort. Major-General J.S.V. Hickman agreed, writing ‘An excellent effort’.1
_________________________ 1 RAAP Contact Reports, 15 November 1976.