In late January 1976 I was sent to a temporary Fire Force base at Kotwa for a bush tour of a few weeks. Kotwa was a miserable dust bowl north-east of Mtoko, about 40 miles from the Mozambique border post at Nyamapanda. It had a very small shop, a windmill and a rough football field that wasn’t actually rectangular. When I landed there from New Sarum and took over my chopper, I noticed that it had an armour-plated pilot’s seat. This was a new innovation I had not seen before on our helicopters and having had quite a few close shaves with bullets previously, I was very appreciative of the new modification. The armour-plate came half way up the pilot’s back and sides, while the base went down to his knees, protecting his torso and thighs. Our mini Fire Force of only three helicopters was based on the Kotwa football field near the Army tented camp and our sleeping tents were set up right next to the field. The Fire Force consisted of two sets of South African Air force crews. Trevor Troup and his tech, Danie Becker (Boertjie) were in the K-car. (Helicopter equipped with a side firing 20mm canon) Karl Volker and his tech, Maplot Pretorius, were in the first G-Car. (Troop carrier equipped with side firing twin MAG machine guns) I was the only Rhodesian pilot with my tech/gunner Doug Sinclair in the second G-car. Doug looked after our side firing twin .303 Browning machine guns.
On the morning of 1st Feb, Doug and I were first up because we had been tasked to change a radio relay station on top of a very high, solid granite hill, on the north-east border, a few miles north of the Nyamapanda border post. We got airborne at about 8am with three soldiers from 10 Rhodesia Regiment (10RR), along with large water containers, food and an assortment of batteries for their radios. We often took off heavy on relay changes because a stick of three soldiers had to be equipped to live on the mountain for a week or more if no helicopter was available to rotate them.
The border was only about 20 minutes away so immediately after takeoff I had to begin climbing the aircraft towards the top of the intended mountain. During the climb and as I got close to landing, I noticed a grey BSAP jeep bumping along the dirt border road which ran along the base of the mountain. I can remember thinking at the time that the poor buggers in that jeep were in danger of setting off a landmine since they were probably the first vehicle to travel down this remote road in a few days. I mentioned it to Doug and he agreed that they would be “shitting themselves”.
We landed at the top of the bald ‘gomo’ about 1500 feet above the surrounding bush facing south-east. In the distance, I could just see the ribbon-like main road leading from Mtoko to the Nyamapanda border post. We waited on the ground with engine and blades still rotating while our soldiers took all of their provisions off the chopper. Once it was empty the three soldiers that had been on the mountain for the previous week, clambered on board with “home time!!” smiles on their faces. As always, Doug and I smelled them as soon as they sat down in the chopper. We were well used to the smell of unwashed ‘Brown Jobs’ and we always put up with it without complaint because we knew what an awful job they had compared to us. We got airborne again and headed for Kotwa where our passengers would get a welcome wash, fresh food, and a couple of days well earned rest.
I noticed the police landrover had made progress along the dirt road as we flew over them the second time.
We landed in Kotwa 15 minutes later, I pulled the fuel lever closed and just as the noise of the engine died down, there was a loud, distant, kabooom. I knew instantly where and what it was and immediately gave the Officer Commanding (OC) of 10RR the grid reference of the police landrover over my VHF radio. He was in his Ops tent and I could hear the wailing siren calling all pilots to the tent. I could also see the two South African techs running towards their choppers while their two pilots headed for the door of the Ops tent. Over my own radio head set I could also hear the radio relay I had just dropped off reporting the sound of a landmine explosion at the base of their hill. It was obvious that Doug knew what he had to do in getting our chopper refueled as soon as possible, so I unstrapped and headed for the Ops tent myself after stopping the chopper blades rotating. By the time I got there, Trevor Troup and Karl Volker were coming out in the opposite direction to me with maps in their hands, so I gave them a quick description of where to look for the jeep as they trotted towards their aircraft. I then went back to the Ops tent where the OC was talking animatedly to his Second in Command (2 IC).
He was saying: “No you can’t deploy into the bloody bush! Your doctor said you could only do this call up if you remained on light duties around the Ops room so don’t stuffing ask me again!”
It appeared we didn’t have enough troops left in Kotwa to fill my chopper for this new landmine development. 10RR was made up of some very eager Bulawayo boys. They were ‘called up’ soldiers, meaning they were civilians from Matebeleland on a six week deployment in the operational area which they were doing as part of their annual military duties. 10RR was notable as a particularly well lead operation with a bunch of very aggressive guys who wanted to go back to Bulawayo at the end of their bush tour with a large number of dead terrorists to boast about. Whenever a landmine detonated any vehicle, whether it be military or civilian, there was extra drive in all of us to find and kill the terrorists who had laid that mine. These mindless weapons maimed, injured and killed far more innocent civilians than military personnel and so the 2 I/C of 10RR really wanted to catch the perpetrators of this particular attack on us.
Trevor had taken off in the lead of his formation with the K Car and Karl was following in the G Car with a medic, a tracker and the only two available soldiers left in camp. All the other healthy soldiers from 10RR were already deployed in the bush, patrolling or sitting on observation points trying to find terrorists. The only other people left in camp were the Ops staff, a caterer and the relay stick of 3 that I had just brought in from the mountain. The 2 IC had persuaded two of the healthier relay change soldiers to go immediately back into the bush with him and he was trying to convince his boss to let the three of them go into the area around the land mined jeep as a ‘stop group’.
The OC continued his argument: “Besides there are only three of you and you must have four guys to make up a stick.” (Unfortunately, I forget the name of the 2 IC so I will call him ‘Paul’). Paul had a wonky knee injury which kept popping out of its socket when he over exercised it. He had been given very strict instructions by his doctor that he could only go to the bush to complete his call-up if he stayed in camp and carried out Ops Room duties. Under no circumstances was he to go out into the bush because if his knee joint popped out again it would do more damage than ever and he would then take twice as long to recover from the injury. I saw him leave the Ops Room in a hurry and then come roaring back a few minutes later.
“Boss, our caterer says he will come with us, that will make four of us, so we can now get Pete to drop us off as a ‘stop group’. We won’t have to move if we take up an ambush position and it will allow us one more stick to try and find these terrorists.” His boss wasn’t impressed but he seemed to be cracking.
He said “Come on, Paul, if I let you go out and your knee caves in again, it won’t only be your doctor who wants to kick me in the balls, there’s your wife and the Regimental Colonel who will each want to take their turn!”
Paul said, “Well, if Pete drops me in a place I don’t have to move from, he can pick me up again this evening from the same position and it will be much the same as sitting around in the canvas ops chair sticking pins in the map all day.”
The balance was tipped and the OC said, “Alright, alright, Paul, but don’t let me down by buggering off from the ambush to hunt for tracks or anything. You stay put, keep your eyes and ears open and if anything happens, you just radio in the Blue Jobs to do the rushing around.”
There was probably less than a 1 in 50 chance of them having a contact with the terrorists anyway, so off we went to the chopper. One of the unwashed relay station guys was carrying an MAG machine gun. It transpired that he wasn’t a regular machine gunner but had assured Paul that he knew how to handle it since he had fired it once back in training! Paul, the second relay change guy, and the caterer, all had their FN rifles. Besides water and spare ammo, they carried nothing else because they knew I was going to pick them up that afternoon. I got the chopper fired up and we set off to join the K-Car about 30 minutes ahead of us.
When we reached the landmine site, I joined the orbit with the K car at 1000 feet above the ground. I could see the crater and the very sad sight of the blown-up BSAP jeep on its side nearby. Karl’s chopper was still on the ground while his medic was attending to the three injured policemen. Trevor had organised the tracker and his two soldiers to follow the terrorist’s tracks which were heading due north along the base of the mountain on which our relay station was positioned. I had to delay putting my stick down on the ground until the trackers had given us the most likely direction of flight the terrorists could have taken from the landmine. Once I had that, my troops could be placed as a ‘stop group’ beyond the terrorists so that hopefully the terrorists would then walk into the ‘stop group’ waiting in ambush.
Whilst the tracker worked, I looked at the lie of the land from above. To the east was the mountain along the border – 1500 feet of sheer granite meant the terrorists had certainly not gone that way. Towards the south were miles of open treeless fields all the way to the Nyamapanda road. If there were any terrorists there, Trevor would have easily seen them thirty minutes earlier and would have dispatched them with the K-Car. The initial line of flight from any terrorist scene was never the true line of flight as their training tactic always had them leaving a scene and then changing direction after carrying out some anti-tracking. The tracks were heading north from the landmine and that only left west as a viable escape route for the terrorists. There was good tree cover in this direction and a very obvious well protected river line. Surprisingly the tracks were deemed to be only about 5 or 6 hours old by the tracker so the land mine had been planted in the dark hours of that morning. Our chances of catching up with the terrorists were increasing by the minute.
The Shit Hits the Fan
I decided to fly down the river at about 20 feet above the trees to see what we could find. We had been flying west for about 5 or 6 minutes following the river line, banking left and right at 90 knots as the waterless riverbed meandered back and forth below us when all hell broke lose in the cockpit. There were loud bangs as bullets came flying through the cabin. One passed my right toe, missing the right rudder pedal by a few centimeters and sending shards of perspex into the air as it exited through the windscreen. Another had hit my armoured seat giving me an enormous kick in the arse. Fortunately, I was already in a left turn as the rounds came at us from the right and behind. I pulled hard on the collective pitch and continued turning left in a climb to allow Doug’s guns to bear on the left side of the aircraft. Almost immediately he opened up with the twin .303’s. I could not see exactly what he was shooting at but he obviously had sight of the terrorists. I was trying to get Trevor and his gunship on the radio at the same time as flying the plane at exactly 90 knots to make the .303 Brownings accurate with their gun sight. As we climbed, the brand new inexperienced MAG gunner had also opened up from the front left seat sending all his spent cartridges upwards and into our rotor blades. Fully trained machine gunners in the Army knew they were not allowed to fire their MAGs from airborne choppers in case their spent cartridges damaged our blades, but this soldier lacked a training course on his machine gun. He had seen the terrorists and nothing was going to stop him from having his day. As he sprayed away with his MAG our blades were sending ‘doppies’ in all directions which added to the noise and confusion. I was far too busy to stop him firing and so was Doug. I was shouting on the radio trying to get the K-Car to come overhead us and at the same time hoping that the blades would cope with the MAG’s spent cartridges and that this extra MAG fire power was having a good effect on the terrorists. I looked behind and saw that the soldier in the centre back seat between Doug and Paul was holding his leg with a face contorted in pain. Paul, the 2 IC, was sitting directly behind me and was hitting my shoulder trying to point out the problem with his soldier’s leg. The bullet that had hit my armoured seat had ricocheted into the soldier’s knee.
Everything seemed to be happening at the same time and by the time I had alerted Trevor in the K-Car and had him flying towards us, I had completed most of one orbit. I saw a perfect landing zone (LZ) among the trees, above the riverbed. It was over a kilometer downstream from the terrorists and right where they were headed if they held their line of escape. I broke off our attack and got below the tree line again. I asked Doug to hold the wounded soldier while we landed because I didn’t want him jumping out of the chopper when we dropped off his compatriots in the landing zone (LZ). The LZ was just far enough away so that the terrorists would not know when or where we dropped off the troops. As we touched down, I realised that my stick only needed to move about 100 meters from the LZ to take up an excellent ambush position overlooking the shallow river valley. I pointed towards the terrorists as we touched down so that Paul would have direction and know where to look for them while laying out his ambush. Doug hung on to the wounded soldier as the others deplaned. Amazingly this young wounded trooper wanted to deplane with the rest of his stick so he had to be held back on board. We didn’t like taking too long on the ground while troops were deplaning but as I was about to pull the collective pitch to get going again, I looked outside the chopper on my right to see we were ‘all clear’. Paul was lying on his back writhing around with his rifle beside him. I was shocked and wasn’t sure what to do next if he had been shot. Should I get airborne where the chopper was safer and could be used as a weapon, or should I get Doug to bring Paul back on board quickly? The decision was quickly made for me. Paul had been lying on his back trying to get his knee joint back into place – it had popped out as he deplaned!!! The caterer had seen the problem and had run back to the Paul whereupon he grabbed his Captains leg, put his foot into his Captains crotch and pulled the knee back into alignment. They both picked up their weapons and hobbled off towards the intended ambush sight. There wasn’t time to worry about the inevitable consequences to the OC of 10RR’s balls as we climbed away with our wounded soldier.
I could see Trevor coming into orbit above me in his K Car and knew that he could see my troops. He could also see the terrorists and was about to open up with the 20 mm canon so I headed for Mtoko airfield with my wounded soldier. The poor bugger had been off his relay station duties for no more than an hour and without the opportunity for a wash or fresh food, he was now heading off to a doctor with a bullet in his leg. I had to watch my instruments like a hawk throughout the flight for any indication of engine or hydraulic problems in case any bullets had damaged the aircraft.
During the flight to Mtoko, Doug tried to medicate the soldier’s wound and we listened to the on-going contact on the VHF radio. We could hear the K-Car banging away successfully at the terrorists and those that were still alive had run perfectly into Paul’s ambush. I knew that Paul, his caterer and the machine gunner were having a field day.
It took a while to get my casualty to Mtoko where a doctor was waiting on the airfield with an ambulance. We wanted to get back to the action as soon as possible so I stayed at the controls and kept the blades turning. Doug refueled the chopper and gave it a quick look over to see if there was any further damage done by the terrorists.
We managed to return only an hour after leaving the contact area and by then the shooting match was mostly over. The tracker and his two soldiers had been pulled out of the bush by Karl. As we returned overhead, Karl was busy moving the dead and captured terrorists to a Police station nearby. Doug and I picked up Paul, his caterer and the wayward machine gunner who now smelled a little worse, his body having received a good dose of adrenalin. They were all flushed with the success of springing their ambush and helping to kill and capture 8 terrorists.
A Look at the Damage
We were first back on the ground at Kotwa and I got out of the chopper seat for the first time since leaving with Paul and his half-fit team a couple of hours earlier. My back had been itching for some time and my camouflage shirt had stuck to it low down. I thought the continual itch was a bit strange but couldn’t make any sense of it. Once I was free of the armoured seat I asked Doug if he could have a look and perhaps see anything. He said that my shirt was speckled with small holes and there was a bit of blood making my shirt stick to my back. It transpired that the copper casing fragments of the bullet that had hit my seat had come over the top of the armour plating and continued on into my back. The steel core of the bullet had left a mark on the armour plate less than a centimeter below its lip. This mark was lined up exactly with my spine and the shrapnel that had entered my back was all around the spinal area. I realised that if the bullet had been a fraction higher it would have struck me dead centre with horrific consequences. With a damaged spine, I would not have been able to use the rudders and helicopters don’t fly without rudder control. Undoubtedly we could have all perished. The timely arrival of the new armoured seat had saved me from a life in a wheel chair or far worse.
Soon Trevor landed the K-Car with his tech, Boertjie Becker who had a huge smile on his face – he had just shot his first terrorists. Unbeknown to us at that stage, this was to prove to be the beginning of a very good and successful partnership. He and Trevor made sure they always flew together in the K-Car and from many contacts thereafter they went on to build up an admirable score of ‘floppies’. “Floppies” was a term that originated in the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) and described the way a terrorist dropped when shot.
The Wood Hits the Fan
Karl was last to get back to Kotwa and when he came in his chopper was empty so to celebrate the success of the operation, he decided to beat-up the camp by flying along the football field with a fancy turn at low level . He came down over the far goal posts, clattering along at the Alouettes’s maximum speed of about 113 knots, then as he flew over the goal posts at the near-end of the field, he banked left and climbed – but not enough. His rotor blades hit the crossbar of the goal posts, sending wood chips flying and the cross bar fell to the ground in two pieces. The chopper didn’t like flying with the imbalance in the rotor blades so he brought it around rapidly for landing while it made an awful thowoketa thowoketa thowoketa noise. He landed heavily in front of us on the football field. I noticed his Tech’s index finger was up and he was shaking it vigorously at the back of Karl’s head while yelling into his microphone. We could all see that Karl was giving his Tech a very, very severe listening to. Two of his blade tips had been destroyed on the goal posts, but astonishingly there was no other damage. Along with my spine that was the second very close shave that day. The six terrorists killed and the two wounded/captured had all been accounted for by the K-Car, Karl’s Tech, Paul’s three-man stick and possibly by my Tech, Doug Sinclair and of course the wayward MAG gunner. Trevor had used all of his 20mm canon rounds. Karl and Maplot Pretorius had fired an impressive 750 rounds from their twin MAGs and Doug had fired 75 rounds in our brief encounter of just one orbit above the terrorists.
I kept well clear of the OC of 10RR in case he asked me anything about Paul’s knee and to this day I believe that Paul has never admitted to his boss, doctor or wife that the wonky knee had popped out again while he was deplaning in the bush. It just took longer than expected to heal!! Doug’s aircraft inspection at the end of the day showed that we had one bullet hole in a rotor blade, one through the floor ahead of the rudders that exited through the Perspex wind shield and one that hit my seat and was accounted for in our unfortunate volunteer soldier’s knee.
About that Seat
I have never managed to find out who in the Air Force decided we needed armour-plated seats, who designed them or who installed them in my Alouette just in time to save my spine. If any of you ever read this, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You may not have been at the front line but you were absolutely vital to the war effort and were thoroughly involved as you can see from this story. Without you, my three kids would never have been born and I would have led a very different life if I had survived at all. Instead, thirty years later, I still occasionally feel an itch in my lower back and after scratching around a bit I manage to pull out a minute piece of copper that has finally come to the surface of the skin. When this happens it is always a sobering reminder of how lucky I was to have a protective seat installed on the chopper in the knick of time.
Please will you add that the story is incomplete. I would really like to hear from anyone who has an email address for anyone who served in 10 RR so that I can put a name to any of the 10 RR people involved in this contact. I have already spoken to PB about the armour plated seat in the choppers that saved me from a life in a wheel chair but he was not the only one who was involved in the design, manufacture and installation of the seat. If anyone was involved I would like to hear from them and perhaps someone may even be able to let me put a name to the policemen that were land-mined that day.