MY LIFE AND TIMES – Alistair Martin
Part 4 (War Stories 1)
By Kathy Martin…
I found these very difficult to read. I have split into two episodes as it is a very long read and felt this needs to be fully appreciated by people of our generation, and younger, who have never experienced the true horror of killing or being killed/shot at.
MY LIFE AND TIMES – Alistair Martin
Clive Sanders said “Hi Kathy, I would be delighted if you included my poem in your blog.
I spent 8 glorious years with my family in Cyprus and we still try to get back as often as possible. Please pass on my best wishes to your readers.
To visit Clive Sanders’ Facebook page see the link at the end of this article.
Every male, white, Rhodesian citizen was liable for military call-up between 18 and 39 years old. National Service was a requirement for anyone who had completed full-time education. The terrorist (or independence) war started in 1967, with the assassination of a few white farmers, but then died down until 1972 when it re-started in earnest. Rhodesia is about half the size of Turkey, with a white population (then) of less than a million. Assume that half the population were female and 60% of the remainder were either under or over “call-up” age. This meant there were very few troops available, to police (oops, army) such a large area.
These “call-ups” started at the rate of one month in, three out, then one month in, two out etc. When I left Rhodesia, in 1978, it was one month in, one month out. Some relationships didn’t survive under these conditions. Men (and their women) drank heavily because a call-up had just ended or was about to begin.
I had a number of close shaves, (Kathy says “Alistair NEVER told me about these”) some of which are related below.
Read on if you are prepared!
The war was a war of attrition, one dead or crippled “white” was worth (at least) 10 terrorists. I don’t know if you have read Wilbur Smiths book “The Sunbird”? If not, I strongly recommend it.- (I read it after I returned to live in UK). If you haven’t read it, it is about various black and white characters living at towards the end of the 20th century who have doubles living towards the end of the 19th century when a Monomatapa (supreme king/leader of a large area in Africa) type character brings white pioneers to a hilltop overlooking a river in which there is a hippopotamus sleeping. He gives a signal and 100 unarmed Africans attack the hippo, 100 die, another signal and another 100 attack, this time 99 die…etc, etc until finally the hippo dies of exhaustion and the 100 Africans live. The Monomatapa turns to the whites and says “you have superior weapons now, but when I want my country back that is how I will do it.” (or words to that effect).
Life in general during the war years
Firstly, living in Victoria Falls
This was designated as a “hot” area. Two Mazda mini-trucks, each with a .50 calibre machine gun mounted on the back escorted all arrivals and departures at the airport. In case of ambush, Air Rhodesia issued me with a Sterling sub-machine gun with 2 magazines, each containing 30 rounds for protection on my journeys to and from the airport. Kathy (who then worked for Avis) was issued with a .25 calibre pistol by her company. On the evenings when we took Sasha for a “walk” in her pram from our flat to the Big Tree and back, both weapons were carried for insurance purposes.
On one occasion a passenger’s baggage did not arrive from Johannesburg, but was to come on a later flight. This happened (i.e. the case arrived), so after closing up the airport I took it to the Casino Hotel, where he was staying. He asked me if I would like a beer, so we went to the upstairs bar. We had only just taken our first sip when there was a loud “BANG” outside, followed by many more. Vic Falls was being mortared by 188 mm “Stalin Organs”! (I was to come across them later at Villa Salazar, bottom south-east Rhodesia). Everyone was directed to the cellars, but I had a wife and child about a mile away, so I left and drove home. It was somewhat un-nerving to have to weave around exploding mortar bombs. However I made it. Kathy had my Sterling and all she could see through the veranda window was a figure racing to the door. I opened it and she pulled the trigger! Fortunately, she had not “cocked” it, so I then took her and Sasha into the smallest bedroom, stacked mattresses against the window and door and we spent a few hours there. (Kathy says “terrifying experience, I have been so thankful that I was so panicked that I forgot to take the Sterling off safety”)
The next week Air Rhodesia built a bombproof bunker in the garden. This was not used until about a month later when the village was again mortared. This time, however, the army had an artillery unit placed just behind the ridge on the airport side of Peters Motel. The incoming and outgoing noise was deafening.
This was the situation that I was obliged to leave when on army call-up……….which was somewhat worrying. (Kathy says “many times we could hear land mines exploding, either caused, unfortunately by animals, or by terrorists coming over the border from Zambia, just across the Zambezi river, which flows over the Victoria Falls”)
My anti-terrorist involvement began when I was in the police. I was one of the original members to PATU (Police Anti Terrorist Unit). When formed in the Mazoe Valley this was a “rapid response” team made up with people who could shoot (I was a marksman) and (possibly more important) could “read” the bush.
To digress, when we were at The Hide in 1999 one of the guests asked a guide how he could see animals so quickly. He replied that he did not look for animals, but oddities, such as grass or a bush moving when there was no wind, or not moving in a wind. My being alive today is thanks to the same knowledge. (Kathy says “Alistair was very good at spotting game”)
Military service in general
On active serviced there is no such thing as an unbroken nights sleep, for (in the latter years) 4 weeks. In base camp there is guard duty. On patrol every night is spent as an ambush, and one has to be on listening watch. During the early years we were allowed camp beds at base camp, but as the metal legs could cause injuries, when a truck went over a landmine, these were forbidden. This meant that every night was spent on the ground; rocks and lumps grow under you during the night.
If there are 20 people in base camp, the cooks open 20 tins of corned beef, 20 tins of baked beans, put them in a cauldron over a fire and then called it a meal. In the bush the same from the rat (ration) packs (although usually cold). (Kathy says “Alistair detested corned beef and baked beans – now I know why!!”)
Depending on the time of the year, little running water was available in many areas immediately before the “rainy season”, either purifying tablets (foul tasting water) or what could be carried………but always warm.
It was not unusual to go the entire call-up without a bath or shower; especially in the “hot” areas as not even a semi-permanent base camp could be established. There were always (depending on the season), rivers and streams. I have had treatment for Bilharzia (Kathy says “this is a chronic disease caused by infestation with blood flukes (parasitic flatworms which typically have suckers and hooks for attachment to the host)”) (provided by the army) on a few occasions
Bodily functions, (sorry about this, but it was true)
No such thing as privacy in the bush. To prevent “being caught with ones pants down”, the rest of the “stick” (patrol) would form a defensive laager. In ambush situations in “hot areas” these were done without moving from one’s position.
Stress (I don’t think it was recognised then)
Although there were designated “safe” and “hot” areas, in a terrorist war there is no such thing as a “safe” area. Walking (or being trucked) through the bush meant that (to stay alive) one had to be constantly alert. Stress was not only experienced by the forces in the bush. Those at home (wives, girlfriends, families) dreaded the radio/TV announcements “The Ministry of Law and Order regrets……names have not been released as the next of kin have yet to be informed….” (Kathy says “I dreaded those announcements and lived in fear for a day or two that I would get the telegram or knock at the door and find a military man standing at the door”)
One thing I have not mentioned above is NOISE.
On my return to the UK I used to “jump” if a car backfired or someone “popped” an empty crisp packet near me.
(November 5th and all that) our “local” pub – the Robin Hood in Icklesham, near Hastings, had a Bonfire Society when a display was put on (and very spectacular and noisy they were), the proceeds going to village charities/good causes. Being “the best barman in East Sussex” – the opinion of 3 landlords – I used to do the outside bar. I did not cry because I was so busy. But on our final (before emigrating to Kibris) November 5th we (Kathy, Sasha, Jon, Alex & I) went to watch the display. I remember very little, except feeling absolutely terrified and being led away from it before the end with tears streaming down my cheeks. (Kathy says “watching Alistair literally shaking from fear when he was shocked by a loud noise or as tears fell down his cheeks was a scary thing to see”)
Why did the “whites” lose the war?
There was of course “world opinion”, sanctions etc, but (in my opinion) for similar reasons to America losing in Vietnam. Apart from occasional ground to air missiles, the air force had complete control of the skies. However, the majority of the ground forces were made up of “part timers”, with wives and families. All (like myself) were prepared to “do their bit” only wanted to get back home (myself included). Too few had bush craft and walked or stumbled into situations that could have been avoided, or controlled. The army was too mechanised, using trucks to move into an area, the locals (friendly or otherwise) saw and heard us arriving and reacted accordingly. The terrorists (black men) on the other hand could walk for weeks or months living off the land and not be noticed by the armed forces. The terrorists used AK47’s, undeniably the best general-purpose rifle ever designed. It was born (like me) in 1947. It is rough and ready with no frills, works even when dirty, but there the similarity ends! The white soldier, if seen in the bush could not pass as being a “local”. Also many (like me) did not believe that we could win the war, and took the first opportunity to leave.
My first event was when our patrol returned to a road to be picked up by truck to go back to base camp. We were strung out along the dirt road – (never bunch up in the bush as it makes an easy target for a grenade or machine gun). One of the trucks front wheels stopped just next to my friend. In a one million or more chance to one this was just where a landmine had been placed. The tyre and wheel exploded. It is amazing how many basic component parts a human body can disintegrate into, except the head, and how few can be found after the event. . (Kathy says “Alistair NEVER told me this”)
Villa Salazar – on the Mozambique border
Three of my friends and I were the mainstay of 10 platoon D Company 9RR, Colin, Naas & Uys. We (and a few others) were detailed to go to Villa Salazar, bottom south-east of Rhodesia, to provide fire cover for a 188mm mortar team stationed there. While the mortars and their crews were in bombproof holes in the ground, we were to be on the surface in shallow foxholes to fire at any enemy approaching under cover of fire from their 155mm “Stalin Organs”. Mortar fire was not continuous (I think both sides were fairly short of mortar bombs), but neither was it rare. During one of the exchanges a 155mm bomb landed next to Trevor’s head, which was just above the foxhole. Trevor wore glasses, and the bomb had enough power to break them, unfortunately it still had sufficient power to break Trevor as well. Later when it was “safe” we found a body shaped like a capital “T”. (Kathy says “Alistair NEVER told me this”)
Charles weighed almost as much as his rifle. He had a concave chest, only one lung and was medically “F minus”. However, he also had the same full name and date of birth of another Charles who was “A plus” medically. He did not have to be in the army, but when he got his call-up papers, he was so proud and wanted to do something for his country. He did, he died. A sniper bullet got him. Colin, Naas, Uys and I later made snipers become very disinterested in their job – although it did take us few days. (Kathy says “Alistair NEVER told me this”)
Next time will continue with more tales of bush war and how Alistair was awarded his medal etc