May 31, 2023


Alistair Martin – Part 5

By Kathy Martin…Kathy

This is the second episode which I felt 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.

War stories…Part II

The journey home

Alistair holding his MAG approx 1975We (the survivors) were happy we were going home – what could go wrong now? Before departure there is always a scramble for the “best” seats on the truck, I was in no hurry, my place was secure – I was the MAG gunner (see somewhere below) and as such took the seat on the back immediately behind the driver of the lead truck so that I could provide sufficient firepower to protect him. Andy (the sergeant) then said that as he had the map, he would sit there to give directions. So I took the last space, right at the back on the nearside (drivers side is the offside) of the truck. We had travelled for a while when I bent over to light a cigarette (not easy to do on the back of a lorry travelling at 30 (ish) mph) when the sky turned black. An RPG7 anti-tank missile had hit the toolbox and spare wheel housing immediately behind the drivers cab. In bending down the blast and molten metal shrapnel passed over me (except the back of my webbing was charred and blackened). This was immediately followed by rifle/machinegun fire – we had been ambushed! (Kathy says Alistair always said that smoking had saved his life, but NEVER told me the full version)

In training, where firecrackers and thunder flashes are used, one straightens ones webbing and climbs gracefully to the ground.

However, on this occasion I hit the ground on my elbows and knees (a perfect four-point lading) firing into the bush. I was the only one off the truck, and was firing on the wrong side of the road – the terrorists were on the driver’s side of the road! By this time the second truck rounded the bend Colin (driving it) stopped and leapt out firing, only to be killed. Naas leapt off the back and similarly was killed. Uys (on “my” truck) was wounded and could take no further part in the action that day. I was the only “experienced” soldier left standing – Indeed, the only survivor from “my” truck apart from Uys. I took 6 people from the other truck into the bush to seek and destroy. But although we found spoor and a couple of lung shot blood trails, with the exception of 3 bodies, found nothing. As I could not trust the “rookies” – no fault of theirs, but I did not know how they would react to a contact situation – I only went in for about a kilometre before returning to the truck. “My” truck was on fire, and a bullet had entered the petrol tank, fuel was pouring out onto the road below the flames. We used trenching tools to throw most of the dirt road onto and at the flaming truck, eventually putting it out. (Kathy says Alistair NEVER told me any of this)

There were 17 people on that truck (including the driver)

There were ONLY 2 survivors, myself (unhurt) and Uys (wounded). The Major (who had been in the second truck radioed Fort Victoria for casevac (urgent casualty evacuation by helicopter) and assistance. The air force were doing a raid on Mozambique, so no helicopters could be spared to airlift the injured to hospital, so we had to wait for assistance to come by road from Fort Victoria. This took a couple of hours.

Our medic (a Pakistani Muslim) did what he could, but he had insufficient morphine and dressings. The fit and able survivors spent the waiting hours listening to people die. (Kathy says Alistair said when watching, shortly before he died, Russell Crowe’s film “The Water Diviner” that the sound of someone dying never leaves you, but when I tried to get him to expand he choked up and so I did not pursue it)

We finally got as far as Fort Victoria army base and found the mess tent. Sometime later our medic turned up. He had spent the time sifting through the dirt on the back of the truck sorting out bones and other body parts to return the remains to various next of kin. He said (and I will always remember this) “I am a Muslim, I do not drink or smoke. Tonight I will not smoke, but I will get very drunk”. With our money and help (both freely given) he did.

The following day we returned to Bulawayo (a day late – see later about Kathy). On the way we stopped at an army camp beyond (from Ft Vic) Shabani. The Major went to the signals tent with instructions that we were to remain on the (now only) truck. Uys, by then fairly mobile and I spotted the mess tent. We went into it and asked a private in a clean neat and freshly starched uniform for a couple of beers. He replied that the bar did not open until noon and he could not serve us. Neither Uys nor myself had had a bath or shower for 8 weeks, and we were both armed, me with my MAG and Uys with his rifle. However, before we could make the very brave (or very foolish) little snotty see the error of his ways, the sergeant major of the camp came and said “this is all that is left of 10 platoon, give them 2 beers each and charge them to my account”. Then, turning to us he said “Your Major is coming out, I must ask him to clarify a couple of points to give you time to get back to your truck.”

poem 'in the eyes of a soldier'
Poem ‘in the eyes of a soldier’ with grateful thanks to Clive Sanders

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.

The link to Clive Sander’s Facebook page can be found at the end of this article

We got to Bulawayo without further incident. At Brady Barracks, both Uys and I were separately sent to an army psychiatrist. I consider my interview a complete waste of time. Asked if placed in similar situations again would I kill again?  Kill or be killed? I gave the obvious answer. I was promised a “rest” from my next camp in 4 weeks time, which would effectively give me 3 months off.

This I was happy with. True to their word the army did not call me up for my next 9RR “camp” in 4 weeks time, 2 weeks after I got back to Vic Falls I was kindly invited to join 8RR for their next outing in 2 weeks from then.

However, back to the (then) present – I was a day late and Kathy could get no information about me. When she phoned Brady Barracks asking for information as soon as she mentioned 10 platoon D company 9RR there was an intake of breath and “sorry I can’t tell you anything”……..which disturbed her somewhat. (Kathy says I had the worst nightmare of my life that night that Alistair had been killed)

Meanwhile, back in Bulawayo, I made it to the airport on the crew bus I was still in my bush clothes, (all that I had -“smart” uniform etc had been burnt up on the truck), and had had no bath or shower for 8 weeks). The Duty Officer at the airport (whom I knew) issued me with a new (free) ticket to go to Vic Falls, then (though I did not know it) phoned Kathy who was working for Avis at Vic Falls airport. He said, “Alistair is on the flight, but he is in a bit of a state”.  On boarding the flight Betty Cole (the Chief air hostess for Air Rhodesia) took one look at me and as I entered the aircraft put a bottle of Castle beer in my hand! I was given a non-stop supply during the flight, and fell into Kathy’s arms on the tarmac at Victoria Falls airport! (Kathy says That was one of the longest hours of my life waiting for his plane to land)

On my 8RR call-up the truck I was on went over a landmine

I was directly over the wheel that detonated it. Fortunately, the truck was landmine “proofed”. It had water/air mixture in the tyres (to absorb the explosive energy), conveyor belting and sandbags on the floor. Nevertheless, the truck lifted a few inches, and I (being lighter than the truck) rose a few inches more. Then gravity took over and I dropped, my full metal water bottle on my belt hitting the metal “armrest”. Water is not meant to be compressible, but it had an indentation of about an inch! The area of my kidneys ached for some time after, and I’ve suffered from a painful back for many years. (Kathy says Alistair told me a very watered down version)

On return to Brady Barracks I became a “spare part”

I was “on the books” of 9RR – who were back in the bush, but was not down for the next call-up with 8RR. As a result, I was paid, but not given my next call-up papers before pay parade.  We used to get our next call-up papers before pay parade. Whilst on call-up no one could emigrate.  I could then “take the gap, yellow route”, call it what you will. Kathy and I discussed this opportunity on our drive back to Vic Falls. Independence was definitely going to be granted on 31st December (then 8 months away) that year, and I felt that the law of averages was now working against me – I could not continue to be so lucky or skilled enough in bushcraft to guarantee my survival. We also had our baby daughter Sasha to consider, what would happen to education, medical etc? So we left.

To get things back to a slightly humorous standing, the following must be told. We went to Salisbury for the tax clearance certificate, which we needed to emigrate. The clerical work and bureaucracy could last for anything up to six weeks! During this period the army could call me up and our plans would be frustrated.

There were literally hundreds of people of all ages in the waiting area and so we resigned ourselves to a long wait. Then a man came through a door, passed me and then turned round and asked “what are you doing here Alistair?” I replied that I was waiting for my tax clearance certificate. “Oh” he said and continued on his way. About 10 minutes later he re-appeared and gave me my certificate. “Who was that?” asked Kathy. I replied “He is the father of my first “serious” girlfriend – when I was 18 and she was 16 we used to go out together before I joined the police – my first prospective father-in-law!” Not WHAT you know but WHO you know!

MAG Gunner

MAG approx 1975The MAG was/is a 7.62 calibre belt fed machine gun.  It weighs 28lb (2 stone or 13 kilos without ammunition. It is 4ft 8ins/1.3 metres in length. It has a cyclic (theoretical) fire power of 780 rounds a minute – divide by 60 for the number of sharp, brutal pointy things that travel at a speed greater than the speed of sound from its barrel every second. It came equipped with a spare barrel, as under continuous fire, the barrel would melt! It could chop trees down quicker than a chain saw! Each patrol should have had one as in the right hands this weapon alone could win a firelight. Because of the weight, very few people could (or wanted) to carry one.

However, I liked it because I could use it, and make it “sing”. I used to carry a belt of 50 rounds in the gun and a further 200 rounds in 2 belts of 100 each “Mexican bandit style”. I never carried the spare barrel and never needed more ammunition throughout my active service. I was regarded by my friends as being somewhat of a maestro with it. I was never able to conduct a survey with the enemy, they did not breath, so could not talk. (Kathy says Alistair NEVER told me this and even now manages to bring some levity into an appalling situation!)

Also, liked it because I was not required to carry grenades (one fragmentation and one phosphorous). The fragmentation grenade was OK, but the phosphorous was not.

I only remember a few things from school chemistry, one being on the first day of term in the 6th form. The chemistry master took one look at me, bowed his head and smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand, saying “My god, Martin how did you get here?” Also remember that white phosphorous burns and eats into flesh when exposed to oxygen – the human body is composed mainly of water, and has a lot of oxygen molecules. At school I was told that the quickest way to stop phosphorous burn is to get a scalpel, cut round and under the area and remove the flesh and phosphorous as a “plug”. As white phosphorous is illegal in warfare under the Geneva Convention, these grenades were designated “white smoke indicators

I once (and once was enough) saw a soldier get what should have been a flesh wound in his shoulder. Unfortunately, the bullet must have passed through his phosphorous grenade. Whatever, he was covered in the stuff eating into his flesh – understandably; he wasn’t being quiet about it either! (Kathy says Alistair NEVER told me this)

Alistair's medal - close-upMedal

Sometime, during the latter years I got a medal from Ian Smith the (then) Prime Minister of Rhodesia. Well, he was busy, so P.K Van Der Byl (Minister of Law and Order – in UK he would be Minister of Defence) – was at Brady Barracks one day when I got back from the bush and he gave it to me. He muttered something about “the Prime Minister is very pleased”…….. It was something to do with (while under attack) my digging the deepest foxhole in the shortest time, or running away the fastest and furthest. Or possibly it was my rescuing 2 soldiers who had stepped on anti-personnel mines in the “killing zone” of an ambush area during Operation Repulse in 1976. (Kathy says Alistair NEVER told me this)

Alistair's well-loved & read Rudyard KiplingRudyard Kipling is in my opinion one of the greatest English poets. He was a bit of a rebel and had contempt of British military high command – try his poems on the Boer War and the British army in India.

The last lines in

The Mary Gloster by Rudyard KiplingThe Mary Gloster

”Never seen death yet Dickie

Well now is the time to learn!”

The Mary Gloster last lines by Rudyard KiplingMy (Alistair’s) time to learn came early in my (his) life

Next time I will relate the story of Alistair’s illness and the help I received from many wonderful people

The link to Clive Sander’s Facebook page

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