Saturday, March 16, 2024

Saturday Snippet: the lighter side of bush warfare


As regular readers will know, I served for some years in the South African military, both full-time and reserve.  As part of that, I occasionally found myself in Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), a nation that was fighting its own war against terrorism, a rather hotter war than ours most of the time.  It was an education (to put it mildly!) to see Rhodesian elite forces in action.  They were terrifyingly good.  Rhodesia lost its war in the end, overwhelmed by demographic factors and the vagaries of geopolitics, but the lessons learned there have continued to stand the Western world in good stead.  Some of its forces, particularly the Special Air Service, the Selous Scouts, and the Fireforce teams, remain world-famous, even legendary.

Jake Harper-Ronald was a Rhodesian who went to Britain to serve in the Parachute Regiment.  Returning to Rhodesia in the 1970's, he signed up for the Special Air Service and went on to serve in the Selous Scouts and with the Special Branch of the British South Africa Police.  Shortly before his death, he gave a detailed account of his life to a friend, which was later published as "Sunday Bloody Sunday: A Soldier's War in Northern Ireland, Rhodesia, Mozambique and Iraq".

The blurb reads:

Gold is forged in fire. Men in the furnace of adversity…

Step into the extraordinary life of Jake Harper-Ronald, a man whose childhood dream of becoming a soldier led him on an unparalleled journey. In 1966, he fulfilled his ambition as a conscript in the Royal Rhodesia Regiment, only to embark on a series of adventures that most soldiers can only imagine.

From early days in the elite Parachute Regiment in the UK to his pivotal role as the official photographer during the infamous 'Bloody Sunday' in Northern Ireland, Jake's path was one of courage and resilience. He left an indelible mark on history, capturing iconic moments through his lens that still resonate today.

Returning to Rhodesia in 1974, Jake's journey continued with the ultra-tough SAS and the Selous Scouts. His daring cross-border raids and contributions as a professional soldier showcased his unwavering commitment. Despite facing the trials of combat, he persevered, even transitioning to a top-secret Special Branch callsign and later joining Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organisation.

Jake's remarkable story unfolded further as he operated as an intelligence agent for global powers such as South Africa, Britain, and the US. His path was not without challenges; accusations of treason led to his time in solitary confinement at Goromonzi Detention Centre.

Undeterred, he emerged from adversity, and in 1989, MI6 enlisted his expertise to train and lead militias combating Renamo in Mozambique. His efforts were so impactful that his Special Forces unit was integrated into Mozambique's National Army.

Witnessing the harrowing realities of Mozambique, Jake's journey came full circle as he returned to Zimbabwe and ventured into the private security sector and then on to private military contracting in Iraq. Despite his health declining, his resolve remained unshaken until his passing in 2007 at the age of 59.

Immerse yourself in an incredible narrative of bravery, sacrifice, and tenacity as 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' chronicles the awe-inspiring life of Jake Harper-Ronald. This is more than a biography; it's a testament to the indomitable spirit of a true soldier and a captivating journey that will leave you inspired and in awe.

Harper-Ronald's story is so out of the ordinary that I wondered whether it could be real, or was a fictional mish-mash of real soldiers' stories.  There are Web sites where one can check to see whether an individual was, indeed, a member of the Rhodesian Special Air Service and/or the Selous Scouts, and he was verified by both of them.  I spent enough time in Rhodesia, and researching various things thereafter, that I could verify a lot of what he said about external operations:  therefore, I accept that his life story, sensational though it might be, is essentially true.

It's a long book, with an immense amount of detail.  However, there are nuggets of humor among the many tales he tells, some of which had me laughing out loud (and remembering a few war stories of my own).  I thought I'd collect some of them here this morning for your entertainment.  Here goes!

(Serving with the Parachute Regiment in Britain)

A certain corporal and I, sharing guard duty, had taken a fascination to the aerial sorties of the model aircraft club, that used a strip adjacent to the barracks to land their radio-controlled planes.

On Sundays, when they got together, we were entertained to impressive displays of air rallies that filled the sky, with expensive model aircraft whining overhead.

We always kept on hand four pellet guns back in the barracks, which we would use (to relieve the boredom) by engaging in small wars – much as I had done as a teenager in Rhodesia. The guns were relegated to the guardroom after someone inadvertently shot another Para through the cheek.

Bored to tears one Sunday, we decided to take pot shots at the aircraft as they flew above the depot, thinking that we could never do any damage to such fast-flying machines. Before long, four of us were banging away at a solitary aircraft as it gracefully dipped to turn over the entrance. We had created an effective four-barrelled anti-aircraft battery!

As the plane levelled after a turn, it gave a bit of a jig, pitched right and then left and headed away from the strip towards Basingstoke canal. We all gulped as we realised we had managed to sever one of its control cables with a pellet. We watched, panic-stricken, as the plane continued on its course and disappeared from sight.

On the strip a man ran after it, turning knobs and twiddling with joysticks. From where we stood we heard him swearing and cursing at his misfortune.

The airguns were hidden away immediately and we resumed our duties. As every minute passed we waited for the cops to arrive, wondering all the time if we’d been seen. Later that night, while sitting in the guardroom, the military police phoned to ask if we knew anything about the expensive missing aircraft. I took the call and naturally denied everything, although I thought I sensed a bit of disbelief in the policeman’s tone.

* * * * *

(During a parachute assault on a terrorist base in Mozambique)

Below me I could see ant-like figures running all over the show, some of them stopping to look up at us. Only they weren’t just looking, they were shooting. Although I was below 400 feet (122 metres) I could not make out any detail but I was acutely aware of streams of grotesque green ‘hornets’ reaching up, highlighted against the dark earth backdrop, searching for me. The fire continued until the ground came into focus and rushed up to meet me.

On landing I jettisoned my harness and brought my rifle to bear from where it was strapped down my side. I couldn’t have been too far away from the enemy and I expected a burst of fire to come my way any second.

Behind me, I glanced over my shoulder and noticed Vernon Conchie executing a perfect parachute landing about 20 metres to my right. Flaring just before he hit terra firma, he touched down on both feet – running in mid-air – anticipating the ground before him. His canopy folded as he turned and gathered up the lower rigging. Milliseconds passed and in one swift move he unbuckled both harnesses from his shoulders, his parachute billowing behind him with its new-found slack.

Before he even grabbed his rifle Vernon unhitched his trousers, dropped them to his ankles and squatted to take a dump. In seconds, having released his bowels, he ripped off his pockets, then his lapels and wiped his arse. In a follow-through motion he hitched his trousers and fastened them, then swiftly gathered his rifle and was potting off a few shots at some distant terrs before you could say presto. The way it unfolded I could see that he had rehearsed the manoeuvre during the descent. It was the most perfect defecation under fire that I have ever seen. In fact, I don’t imagine there have been too many others like it.

... That afternoon I asked Conchie about his defecation under fire. His simple answer summed up all our feelings during that parachute descent. ‘I just **** myself’ he said. ‘I thought I was going to get zapped before I landed.’

* * * * *

Bored to wits’ end one day and after a few friendly challenges in the bar, the ‘blues’ and the ‘browns’ decided to square off and have a rocket-building competition. There would be three teams and the winning team would be the recipient of a crate of beer bought by the losers. The competition rules were to design, construct and fly a rocket which would be judged by the policemen. We had a day to come up with our designs and we were to convene on the apron at 15:00 the next afternoon to show off our efforts. Points would be awarded initially for getting our contraptions off the ground and then for which rocket flew the furthest. Additional points were given for any unique design features.

... Major Kriel’s team had built a three-stage ignition rocket utilising Icarus flares taped together. It was an impressive sight, only a little unwieldy if anything ... With the major holding the rocket aloft, his head cowering in anticipation of launch, Dave Scales snuck up behind him and pushed the firing device. Instantly both men were hidden in a huge cloud of white smoke as the ungainly device lifted off. Struggling into the air, it wobbled on its axis as stage one found thrust.

At about 60 feet, when the fuel from the first compartment was spent, it had been intended that stage two would ignite, carrying the rocket to a higher altitude, where the ignition of stage three would kick in and carry it higher. Instead, like the Apollo disaster, it snaked left and right and then exploded in mid-air with a deafening crump. Fortunately, the designers had taken all the magnesium out of the flares or otherwise we might have been showered by its burning-hot contents.

Unfortunately, as planned, the other two stages did ignite; the tape that harnessed them together not having the integrity to hold true and they shot off horizontally all over the place. Stage two was a real peach and rocketed in the direction of the two Alouettes parked on the apron. As it raced toward them, trailing white smoke, we cringed at the thought of a direct hit and the resultant damage. The ‘blues’ were screaming their lungs out although I don’t know what good it might have done. Luckily it passed over the nearest chopper and burnt out in the long grass beyond. When we turned around we saw stage three rounding a nearby hangar and heading straight for us. We all dived for cover and it passed over us with feet to spare until it skidded harmlessly to a halt in the dirt. Meanwhile, the body of stage one had spun into the bush on the side of the apron which erupted into a raging bush fire. With the tenacity of bulldogs on a bone we set to beating the flames into submission with branches and whatever else we could find.

I couldn’t help thinking, while he was at the forefront of the battle against the flames, that Major Kriel would have had a hard time explaining the loss of two valuable helicopters. We eventually controlled the inferno after 15 minutes of madness, but with only metres of open ground to spare before it did any real damage.

* * * * *

Major Kriel had an inventive imagination and would have been well suited to the design department of an armaments manufacturing company. On a brief deployment to Grand Reef, he came up with an ingenious plan for a six-barrelled 60 mm mortar which could be buried in the earth after attacking a terrorist camp and then detonated remotely, or even by a delayed fuse, some time after the raiders had left. The idea was to cause alarm and mayhem when those terrorists who had escaped unharmed, came out from hiding to assess the damage of a raid.

The contraption he designed had six mortar tubes facing in slightly different directions, much like the smoke grenade dispensers on a tank. On initiation, the bombs would fire from detonators at the base of each tube, landing all over the terrorist camp. On test day, the major and I went around the base and told everyone that we were trying out a new weapon, so they wouldn’t be alarmed when they heard the bangs. The Fire Force troops were warned to remain near the billet side of the airstrip and not to venture onto the runway.

After walking to the end of the airstrip we dug a small hole and buried the tubes with earth, covering them until only the tops of the barrels were sticking out. The major then boosted each one with additional gunpowder from ammunition and secondaries from 60mm bombs, before putting in the bombs. We attached an electrical wire to the cluster of individual detonator wires and then moved off a safe distance so testing could commence. Some 50 metres off Major Kriel turned, quite satisfied with the distance between us and the mortar. I had my doubts and suggested we move a bit further and possibly take shelter in one of the bunkers on the edge of the strip. He heeded my reservation reluctantly and moved away until we settled into a bunker and peered out of a large aperture.

To add ceremony to the occasion, the major initiated a small countdown before attaching the wires to a car battery we had with us. The ruckus that followed was not the recognisable sound of simultaneous mortar fire, but an enormous explosion that sent dirt and debris flying for hundreds of metres. Even within the safe environs of the bunker I was suddenly stung by flying shrapnel, which zinged through the aperture and buried itself in my upper body. The wounds were superficial, but they were enough to remind me of how lucky we were to have retreated this far. Had the major fired the device from where he originally intended, I have no doubt we would have been mincemeat.

It took a few seconds for both of us to recover from the shock of the explosion. Staring out of the bunker I watched the dust settle and shook my head. A long whistle sounded from the major’s lips as he too just stared out vacantly. More seconds passed before we ventured toward the remnants of the multi-barrelled mortar where we found a crater in which you could have hidden a donkey. In the distance, clods of earth could be heard raining down on the corrugated iron roofs of the billets. Glancing in that direction we could see the air force personnel with their hands on their heads, panic-stricken. Before long they were running to their aircraft to inspect what damage had been caused.

Needless to say, Major Kriel was not popular for some time afterwards. The experiment had been a flop and any intimations of further attempts were shot down in flames.

There are many more incidents in Harper-Ronald's account of almost four decades in one uniform or another.  He lived a very adventurous life.



Anonymous said...

When grunts get bored, watch out. Most fatigue duty is to keep the devil out of idle hands 😁.

Old NFO said...

What Anon said...

Mike Hendrix said...

"Major Kriel had an inventive imagination and would have been well suited to the design department of an armaments manufacturing company."

An inventive imagination, sure, but I don't think the good Major would have lasted long at any arms manufacturer worth its salt. He'd more likely have blown the factory to smithereens with his first few days. :D