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Nairobi, Kenya
I an ex member of both 7 and 8 Squadron's of the Rhodesian war spending most of my operational time on Seven Squadron as a K Car gunner. I was credited for shooting down a fixed wing aircraft from a K Car on the 9 August 1979. This blog is from articles for research on a book which I HAVE HANDED THIS MANUSCRIPT OVER TO MIMI CAWOOD WHO WILL BE HANDLING THE PUBLICATION OF THE BOOK OF WHICH THERE WILL BE VERY LIMITED COPIES AVAILABLE Contact her on yebomimi@gmail.com The latest news is that the Editing is now done and we can expect to start sales and deliveries by the end of April 2011

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

CHOPPER CRASH FIREFORCE


Early November of 1980, Maj. Hean (OC of 2 Commando) asked Sgt. Jansen van Vuuren and myself if we were interested to go on a compressed 3-months officers course starting on the 4th of January 1980. We agreed despite the uncertain political future and worried about Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF winning the up-coming election. What gave us some absurd hope regarding Rhodesia’s future were persistent rumours that a combined Rhodesian and South African military intervention, which centred on wiping out ZANLA troops in Assembly Points, would, if necessary, prevent Mugabe from becoming Zimbabwe’s next Prime Minister. With the wisdom of hindsight, I think we quite idiotically believed the option of military intervention at the time, I guess because hope dies last. Anyway, before we could attend the course we had to pass OSB (Officers Selection Board) which took place at Llewelyn Barracks in Bulawayo from the 10th to the 15th of December 1980. OSB presented no major hurdle to us and we both passed.

However, soon after we got back to our troops at the Fireforce Base at Mount Darwin we were told that the officer’s course had been postponed by a month to the 4th of February. My diary, dated 28th of December 1980, makes it quite clear that morale was really low at that point – "ZIPRA and ZANLA commanders had arrived in Salisbury and many 2 Commando NCOs are bomb-shelling: Piet Oppermann leaves for Selous Scouts, Tony Braunswick is on possible transfer to Recce Troup (Support Commando), Brian Watson, Bruce Grimbeck and Rudi Krusberski finish their 3-year contract early and are not renewing, Earnest Patterson is on transfer to Training Troop, Paul Sellors, a Brit who only joined the RLI a few short months ago, has gone AWOL and Jansen van Vuuren (8 Troop Sgt.) and myself are soon off with no clear idea as to our future after the course".

New Year of 1979/80 was spent at Mount Darwin with Lt. Colonel Charlie Aust, last CO of the RLI, as a surprise visitor. During the night, with empty Lion and Castle bottles littering our braais, L/Cpl. Mike Shipton and I, both in advanced stages of inebriation, chucked a smoke grenade into somebody’s tent. As luck would have it, 2Lt. Dent caught us and despite our desperate pleas, made his report. So the following morning we were both marched off to some place where we copped a severe verbal hiding and, presumably because of the foreseeable end to the war, missed out on a demotion by the breadth of a hair.

On the 7th of January 1980, still based at Mount Darwin, 2 Commando received a call for assistance from 3 Commando at Grand Reef. About 300 CTs near Chipinda in the Lowveld apparently refused to move into their assembly point and required some gentle RLI-style convincing. If memory serves me correctly, four or five 2 Commando chopper sticks, including my own, flew down to help out and after an uneventful but successful op we had to base up at Grand Reef because of low cloud cover, rain and thick fog before the chopper pilots would consider taking off for Mt. Darwin.

We eventually took off on the 9th of January via New Sarum for refuelling, looking forward to decent food and some grog. But fate really had it in it for me this time. Not only should I have been on an officer’s course at this time, but after refuelling, I and my stick climbed into the wrong helicopter for the return flight, this time in the lead chopper, with almost fatal consequences. On the way out of Salisbury, our chopper’s engine, obviously tired after years of the daily grind, suddenly cut out at about 300 feet and we went down almost vertically at great speed, heavily crashing in flat grassland just past Cleveland dam where I already had mixed memories from my training period in 1977. It all happened very quickly so we had neither time for fear or to prepare for impact. It must have been a disheartening view for the ouns in the other choppers behind us. We were told afterwards that none of the other sticks, who had a bird’s eye view of our demise, had any hope of finding survivors.

What probably saved us was that the pilot managed to maintain horizontal control over the aircraft. Others in my stick were Cpl. Mike Ingram (MA3 medic), and Trps. Andre Wilsenach (gunner) and Bronkhorst. While I got trapped inside the bent metal of the chopper housing, running the risk of being roasted should the AF-gas ignite, all others were thrown out on impact. The strapped-in pilot, on duty from the South African Defence Forces, was ripped out complete with his seat and had a foot torn off in the process (stuck between the pedals). The chopper tech and troopers Wilsenach and Bronkhorst amazingly received only minor injuries. After my mates extracted me from the wreckage, Barry Hahn gave me my morphin which all stick-leaders carried around their neck and 30 minutes after impact two Bell 205s with medical personnel arrived on the scene. After a further 20 minutes the choppers landed us at Andrew Fleming hospital in Salisbury. That we had all survived was truly a miracle.

The South African chopper pilot was soon transferred to a hospital in his home country. Because of the quite severe leg injuries that Mike and I received (amongst several minor injuries to various parts of our bodies, Mike had a shattered open fracture of his tibia and fibula, and I had a shattered knee), the crash put an end to any thoughts that we might have had about a future in the military in the foreseeable future. But that didn’t stop us from insisting to be taken by ambulance to the RLI birthday parade at Cranborne Barracks on the 1st of February 1980, both sprouting beards, in wheelchairs, legs plastered up to our hips and each accompanied by a nurse from the hospital. Our mates from the Commando liberally supplied us with booze at the post-parade get-together at Cranborne before we were taken back to hospital where we both stayed on for another 3 weeks. Wheelchair racing along the hospital corridors was one of our favourite past times. High speed was accomplished by booze smuggled into the hospital by various 2 Commando guys, especially Tony Braunswick and Piet Oppermann (a late thanks should you ever read this).

I served out my contract in March 1980, on crutches, counting my lucky stars to have come out of it all comparatively unscathed physically, and spent the next weeks convalescing, frequenting the RLI haunts in town and the pub at the international airport, seeing off close mates from 2 Commando who left the country to exotic new destinations. Saying cheers wasn’t always easy under the circumstances.

From that time, I retain two clear memories above many others: one day, while hobbling through town on crutches on the way to Kingston’s Bookstore where Jeremy Hall (ex 2 Commando NCO) had briefly taken on a job, I saw young Mark Pilbeam who had lost both eyes to an AK-bullet. On his own and clutching a white stick, he tried to make his way through uniformed ZANLA and ZIPRA troops on a crowded footpath alongside Union Avenue, a lonely figure in a chaotic new world. We had all been dehumanized by years of close-up bush warfare, but I won’t ever forget that image. The second memory concerned my beautiful, young nurse Beverley Spain who had made my 8 weeks stay in Andrew Fleming hospital bearable. Not long after my release I heard that she and her family was tragically killed by armed ZANLA while travelling along the road to the border at Beitbridge. It was during that period that I made my decision to emigrate to Australia where I then lived from 1981 to 1998.

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I welcome comments from everyone on my book Choppertech.
I am interested especially on hearing from former ZANLA and ZIPRA combatants who also have thier story to tell.