Background and References:
This article was produced following a request for information about three years ago. It is updated following a recent review with cold war warrior (CWW) whose photography surpasses my own efforts and who has kindly allowed me to illustrate this article with material he produced. Operation Agila was world news. Christopher Wayne, the BBC war correspondent at the time was on the same plane out as our contingent and reported as we arrived at Salisbury Airport and were kitting up.
Mike Subritsky has given an excellent account of the job at Britains Small Wars. For my part, I was the signals corporal at RHQ 22 Engineer Regiment and prior to joining the regimental contingent I trained them to operate the Clansman HF radio net which was being deployed. We also used kit and training provided by the School of Infantry at Warminster.
Commonwealth Monitoring Force (CMF)
The monitoring force were about 1200 personnel deployed from many regiments and from commonwealth countries, and the role was actually two fold; to ensure that the Rhodesian Army remained in confined areas during a short ceasefire, and to enable the politicians to bring thousands of guerilla fighters from three separate armies into assembly places, reducing the potential for further conflict. This was in order to prevent a massacre as the country was completely infiltrated by the guerilla forces – the war had been going on for fifteen years and the ruling power was exhausted. Mike Subritsky reports very clearly as to what it was like monitoring the assembly places and cold warrior has a pictorial archive which adds much detail.
22 Engineer Regiment Group
22 Engineer Regiment Group comprised a number of two man teams of a senior NCO and a Signaller with the task of liaising with the Rhodesian Army. The regimental group worked across an area known as Sub JOC Chiredzi – in tactical speak. Sub JOC Chiredzi was a Joint Operation Centre, covering a sizeable portion of the South and East of the country under the command of a Rhodesian brigadier. One of a number of operational areas under the command of the Rhodesian Armed Forces under General Walls.
From arriving at Salisbury, Rhodesia and being kitted out and briefed, we subsequently deployed, Bob (my Sunray) and me from Salisbury Airport to Fort Victoria by RAF Hercules.
After a short stay, we moved from there by RAF Puma Helicopter to a place called Ngundu Halt on 27th December 1979. On the trip out the helicopter dropped off several teams, one at Chiredzi. We joined Alpha company of 9th Battalion the Rhodesia Regiment late in the afternoon on the day before the ceasefire. The following morning I set up our communications equipment in the Company command post, alongside their signals set up. This Company HQ consisted of an ops truck and a derelict store house. Their radio set up comprised the less modern, but still state of the art, Racal Syncal TRA 931 portable HF set. This maintained the rear link back to their Regimental HQ, and they also used VHF radio for the forward company net.
CMF Command and Control
While we had been deployed at company level, one of the other teams deployed at Chiredzi to monitor the Rhodesian regimental headquarters. Further up the chain of command, our commanding officer and his entourage were deployed at Rhodesian Army Brigade level.
Our radio net was completely made up of brand new UK/RT 320s and we carried the full kit together with an 8 Meter Mast. (We picked this kit up at Salisbury Airport on the way out so this makes me think the regiment had not yet fully Clansmanised by the time it was deployed on this operation).
The way we were deployed meant we could both hear what was happening on the company and regimental nets of our hosts, and respond with our own traffic when required to act or report.
My Only Need Is To Organise Return (MONITOR)
We gave new meaning to the word Monitor. Ngundu Halt is a way station on the fort Victoria to Beitbridge Road and a vital supply route at the time, to and from South Africa. Life for the A company, who were still at war when we arrived, changed overnight on the day of the ceasefire 28th December. The evening we arrived they were dealing with some gunshot injuries that had happened just before and which subsequently led to a casualty evacuation. The following day the action simply died down and a different routine was adopted. The company was dug in on a hillside and had been operating patrols in the area. The routine remained tactical all through the week long ceasefire but relaxed during the day time. Life comprised dry training which we took part in, card games, letter writing and sports, eventually we became better at all these things; Self Loading Rifle, General Purpose Machine Gun, EOD and volleyball which made for a fun routine, plus we made some really good friends over a Castle or Lion Lager at sundown. Snakes were not a problem in this location, but insects and spiders were, including some pretty vicious ticks, some rather novel ants, lizards and some bird hunting, and floor cleaning, scavenging spiders. Oh and a troop of Baboon who lived nearby.
The radio work comprised daily reports about military activity in the area, encounters with the terrorists or guerillas for example.
Reports were transmitted on schedule, on two fixed frequencies – one for day time and one for night time operation. This work was mostly carried out on SSB and sometimes on CW.
I had with me enough copper wire to construct a dual frequency dipole built using natural supports and the 8 Meter Mast. In the main these skeds seemed to work well on both frequencies and these seemed to have been calculated for NVIS and up to 900KM.
Radio communications didn’t always work or go smoothly. Some of the time there were problems and it took a while to get through to the operators at regimental level. This was frustrating. You could call for five or ten minutes and not get an answer. We put that down to unreliable frequencies, time of day etc and worked with it.
During one encounter, which occurred immediately post ceasefire it became imperative to resolve this problem by switching onto the higher formation net in order to pass traffic directly. The incident involved a stick (small band) of four or five “Terrs” (or terrorists), who were still trying to get to an assembly place but found themselves out on a limb when the ceasefire ended before they made it. They had got lost and subsequently found themselves facing up to police and soldiers from our Rhodesian company. A stand off developed and my Sunray – Bob found himself negotiating between the two parties.
A kilometre away, in the ops truck, I could hear the reports and orders passing up and down their network. This traffic had become quite excited, and the messages contained orders to end the stand-off by all necessary means, and if necessary this meant by “slotting” them. As the incident went on, this was becoming more and more insistent, and Bob being in the middle, this was not a good position for him. I think nobody close to the situation wanted this to turn into a shooting match. Fortunately a particular message ordering the company to clear the way and open fire was not being acted upon immediately. As I was monitoring the situation and trying to keep our HQ informed – communications on our net had dropped out which was causing me a bit of frustration and aggravation. After I flicked onto the higher formation net, my calls to the CO got the desired response, and subsequent messages were sufficient to gain more time. Tension remained very high for a further ten minutes, and eventually the time came when I had to get a (fictitious) message to Bob which would order him to withdraw to a place of safety without alerting the Terrs to what was going on.
We thought that was it, once Bob was out of the way, the shooting would begin, but just as he withdrew, the Terrs put their guns down and surrendered. They were then lifted out to the nearest assembly place. After their arms and ammunition were given up it was discovered in their luggage they were carrying enough cannabis to stupefy a heard of elephant. Maybe that’s why they missed the ceasefire. This “Dagga” was subsequently disposed of – resulting in at least one NCO losing his stripes. Not this one, although I did have to justify to my commander going over his head, and to the Rhodesian CO whose orders he thought were being ignored for some strange reason. He was looking for someone to court martial. I owned up to intercepting a message which disarmed the situation slightly.
Keeping my hand in
Occasionally when time permitted, I took the opportunity to practice amateur radio using the PRC 320. I had received my licence just the month before deployment and I legally obtained the callsign G4IYK\M\ZE which was a bit of a mouthful when it came to calling CQ. I recall this reciprocal licence was quite difficult to obtain so I didn’t mind not being able to operate with a more succinct call. Calling CQ was a wee bit tiresome and didn’t attract the pile ups quite like the local ZS and ZE callsigns did. I focussed on making opportunity contacts with “local” stations in South Africa, Rhodesia and Zambia on 20 meters. I had one very fleeting DX contact into the states. I very recently confirmed one of these contacts with Brian Austin ZS6BKW – Now G0GSW.
About half way through the tour we moved back for R&R and A company disbanded, we stopped firstly at Fort Victoria for some regimental duties. To remind you, this was where we had deployed RHQ together with a Royal Signals Detachment co-located with the Rhodesian Army Brigade Headquarters.
Here I learnt why we lost communications occasionally with our headquarters. The Signals detachment were running a rear link comprising a VRC 321 located in the same room as our PRC 320 and this had an Adapter Telegraph Radio and a Siemens T100 teleprinter attached to it. When they opened up, the radio noise drowned out the weak signals coming in from our locations out in the bush. A quick training session with the operator around how to tune the SURF 25 Watt and why he should do it, curtailed this interference.
We decided to go for a maximal tour of the country in our 72 hour down time. Nobody wanted to spend time in barracks and the country was reasonably free to travel but there remained a threat from mines and ambush – you just had to take steps – travelling alone was out. So we went to Victoria Falls for a long weekend, hitch hiking on armed convoys – and in return providing part of the armed escort. We put the radio in stores and headed for the road. In the three days available we fulfilled a date with friends in Bulawayo, went on Safari in Wankie National Park, and watched the sun go down over Victoria Falls. As there was a lot to see and do we gave sleep a miss, (instead watching the sunrise on the other side of the hotel, the following morning and visited the falls properly.)
After this long weekend we went back into the bush and monitored Bravo Company of the same Battalion, this time near Chipinga, location vague, but much more comfortable – except for the snakes – much more variety here.
The role changed to supporting the elections. Now located nearby to Assembly Places Hotel or Golf – See Mike Subritsky’s map To get there, we had an armoured Landrover to deliver so this time instead of the helicopters being used to deploy us, we had a very interesting 250 mile, mostly cross country, drive.
This Landrover sported a 320 clip in kit.
As we settled into a different routine, this time round we managed to spend time with colleagues in assembly place Golf. Our friends there were much worse off than we were, tactically – being virtually surrounded at all times by armed comrades. Everyone was just waiting for the election to take place. The guys were on permanent alert – they had Claymore mines and barbed wire entanglements surrounding their positions and were pretty well dug in.
There was some threat to their survival because the Rhodesian Army had a contingency plan to attack these assembly places if the circumstances presented themselves.
Some of the reports coming back from the Police and Army were about intimidation of the population in the build up to the elections – the perpetrators were located in assembly areas. Many weapons were pointed at the Commonwealth forces deployed in the assembly places and the potential was they could easily have been slaughtered or taken hostage had that particular balloon gone up. (And yet I noted the guys in the assembly places made the same sort of relationships as we had with our comrades, and it wasn’t all “war, war” while the peace lasted.)
We did a few trips from our base in order to get some rations from the APs. They were quite rich compared to the Rhodesian Army where there were many supply shortages. B Company had virtually run out of rations by that time so we did a bit of bartering as a means of supporting them and us. The assembly place had regular supply runs from South Africa. We encountered a new use for tampons – as sweat bands. (Well, you know the supplies boys think of everything).
Eventually just as the election results were being announced, we were extracted from a bush airstrip by Hercules to Salisbury and after de-kitting straight back to UK by VC10. The rest, they say is history and home in time for tea and medals. The 320, ammunition and bush gear was handed in at Salisbury Airport and that was the last I saw of the 320 for a while.
I always regret not sticking the 320 in the suitcase and lugging it back when I had the opportunity. It had been a lifeline throughout this job, and I had grown to cherish and respect its power and usefulness. Having bought one recently it certainly brings back the memories and is a pleasure to operate. Nowadays I am very much interested in operating these radios in the spirit of a living museum – and sixty meters is a great place to hear nets with one or more operators taking advantage of the Clansman synthesiser to lock on to an absolutely stable frequency, while using NVIS on less than 30 Watts PEP, working both nationally and on DX it is a very effective set indeed.