The Sunday News
IN our Lest We Forget column in next week’s issue we will carry an interview with the man who was the commander of the Freedom Camp (FC), Cde Silver Ndlovu when the facility, which was a former Zipra Headquarters was attacked by the Rhodesians in an air raid. The Rhodesians caused much damage on the camp as they killed hundreds of comrades, a majority of them new recruits who were unarmed as they were on transit to Angola for military training. Cde Ndlovu, a colourful character who lives in Bulawayo as the former camp commander is likely to give a balanced account on what happened on that particular day, 19 October 1978. However, in this week’s issue we carry an account from the Rhodesians side.
We picked that perspective from a paper that was delivered by Ian Pringle in May 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa titled: Green Leader-Operation Gatling- The Rhodesian Military Response to the Viscount Tragedy. The subject was Pringle’s latest book of the same name.
Pringle noted that he had served as a pilot in the Rhodesian Police Reserve Air Wing during Zimbabwe’s armed struggle. Below is his account. Read on……
In 1976, when guerrillas began to infiltrate from neighbouring countries, Rhodesia had the advantage of air superiority. Alouette helicopters were used very effectively to surround and engage guerrillas, whose AK47 rifles and RPD machine guns provided them with inadequate firepower. The Americans and Russians developed heat-seeking missiles to destroy aircraft but it was not until 1977 that the Russians supplied (Dr) Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA with an improved missile known as the Strela2M.
The first of these to be used in the Rhodesian War was fired at a Piper Aztec carrying tourists over the Victoria Falls. The Piper was flying along the gorge towards the falls and was being tracked by a member of ZIPRA from a position inside Zambia near the Eastern Cataract. He fired but the missile fortunately did not home on the Piper, but locked onto a larger heat source – the heat exchange exhaust from the air conditioning system at the newly-built Elephant Hills Hotel. It caused a fire which destroyed the kitchens, dining room, foyer and twenty rooms at the hotel. The pilot and passengers were not even aware that they had been the target.
ZIPRA then decided to move the Strela team into Rhodesia so that they could shoot down a larger aircraft. Air Rhodesia and SA Airways flew regular services to and from Victoria Falls and the Vickers Viscount and Boeing 720 and 727 aircraft painted a large heat signature across the sky.
In early 1978, the ZIPRA missile team slipped across the Zambezi at night, upstream from Victoria Falls, into a hilly and scantily populated area. Two missiles were fired at SAA Boeing aircraft. Both missed. In April 1978 a missile was fired at an Air Rhodesia Viscount but this self-destructed as it had hit the branch of a tree.
Security around the airports had been greatly improved and now included armoured cars and infantry patrols. The latter found a number of Strela firing points and depleted batteries in the bush near the extended centreline of the runway. In June 1978, a mounted patrol found a complete Strela missile system with operator’s notes in a hurriedly vacated ZIPRA base camp.
Air Rhodesia pilots were told that air force experts had informed the airline that a Strela was not capable of shooting down an aircraft as large as a Viscount or Boeing and that they had nothing to fear. This information was tragically proved wrong on 3 September 1978, when Flight RH825 – the Hunyani – was returning from Kariba to Salisbury with 52 passengers at the end of the school holidays.
When the missile hit the aircraft, the whole aircraft shook, the two starboard engines caught fire and the aircraft went into steep dive. The pilot, Captain John Hood took the only course open to him – to try a forced landing on the only piece of flat and open ground in the area. He nearly succeeded but hit a tree with one wing and the aircraft cart-wheeled. The pilots and many of the passengers in the front of the aircraft died instantly.
The fuel caught fire and some of the survivors of the crash were burnt. Miraculously, 18 people including the two air hostesses, survived.
One of the survivors, Dianne Hansen, said that the crash “was like being in a cement mixer in the rolling aircraft”. She stayed on the aircraft to help other survivors to climb out before she followed them, a very brave act on her part. Soon after this the burning aircraft exploded in a huge fireball. The survivors obtained water at a nearby village and attempted to find clothing and bandages in suitcases which had been flung from the aircraft and which lay nearby.
The ZIPRA missile team now appeared and shot most of the survivors. Dianne and Hans Hansen hid when the firing started and they, with five others who had been looking for water, were the only survivors. They spent a terrifying night in the bush. When the Hunyani was reported missing, a search was started but it became too dark to continue. A proper search was planned for the next morning including DC3 with Rhodesian Special Air Services (SAS) paratroopers on board. The aircraft was found the next morning, the SAS were dropped and a rescue effort was mounted to help the survivors and evacuate them to nearby hospitals.
The Rhodesians were deeply shocked and enraged at the news of the shooting down of the airliner and even more so at the news of the murder of the survivors, including children. This rage increased when (Dr) Nkomo acknowledged that ZIPRA had shot down the aircraft but denied shooting the survivors. Initially there had been some doubts as to what caused the crash but, three days later, some shrapnel found in the wreckage was identified as coming from a Strela missile.
This was announced in Parliament by the Co-Minister of Transport and he added that the Security Forces would hunt down those responsible. The Rhodesian Forces planned an attack on ZIPRA which was based in Zambia. Code-named Operation Gatling, its aim was to [attack] all three of ZIPRA’s main bases in Zambia on the same day. Hitting all three targets on the same day reduced the chances of the guerrillas moving to new bases after the first attack.
Planning for this large-scale operation was, as usual for cross-border operations, very meticulous and involved an air attack on ZIPRA’s main camp near Lusaka and two helicopter attacks on training camps some distance from the capital. Some 11,000 ZIPRA members were based in these locations and the planners, Air Commodore Norman Walsh and Lt Col Brian Robertson, hoped to eliminate as many as of these as possible, preferably with simultaneous attacks. This proved to be impossible as it would have involved a night operation for the helicopters, which would have been hazardous.
The operation was planned for 16 October 1978 as it would then have been full moon in Zambia. Spies in Zambia tipped the Rhodesians off that (Dr) Nkomo and his high command would be attending a passing-out parade for recruits at Freedom Camp on 19 October 1978, so D-Day was moved to the later date. The sequential attack times or H-Hours were 0830 for Freedom Camp, 1145 for Mkushi and 1500 for the CGT complex.
Freedom camp was the prime target but was also the most dangerous, because of its proximity to Lusaka and the presence of Zambian Army and Air Force units which could react quickly and pin down the Rhodesian attackers. The main Zambian Air Force base at Mumbwa, 123 KM west of Lusaka, housed Zambia’s Mig 17 and19 fighters, a danger to the helicopters. There were also modern Rapier anti-aircraft missiles near Lusaka.
So the plan was altered – Freedom Camp would be hit at 0830 when people would be on parade. The other attacks would be at the arranged times, by RLI and SAS troops either by parachute or helicopter landings. Extraction would be by helicopter. The objectives were the killing or capture of as many terrorists as possible, destruction of the bases (especially the communication centres), the gathering of intelligence and the recovery of as much equipment and material as possible. It was fully appreciated that the operation would be difficult because the maps that were to be used were old and not very accurate and the Freedom Camp was protected by anti-aircraft guns.
Secrecy was extreme and the troops and airmen were briefed the day before the attack at various venues round the country. Doing this at New Sarum (shared with Salisbury International Airport) and/or Thornhill (next to a main road) would have compromised the whole affair, especially as it was known that there was a traitor in the Rhodesian government and Armed Forces. The Dakotas flew from New Sarum but this was a normal thing.
The jet aircraft were moved to Fylde, near Hartley and 140 km nearer to Zambia than Thornhill, thus saving precious time and fuel. Here the Canberra, Hunter and Vampire aircraft were prepared and the pilots briefed. The Hunters would attack first with conventional 1,000-pounders and golf bombs, a Rhodesian bomb invented by Group Captain Petter-Bowyer which produced a massive thermobaric explosion deadly to persons on the surface or in foxholes or dugouts. They would be followed by the Canberras carrying small, round Alpha bouncing bombs, deadly against persons on the ground with 300 per bomber. These were also from the fertile brain of Petter-Bowyer. K-cars (Alouettes with 20mm cannon) would bring up the rear and shoot up what was not destroyed, but from 1,500 feet and not the usual 800 feet. The anti-aircraft guns were fortunately, dummies.
The Canberras took off first with the faster Hunters following. Over Lusaka, they joined forces. The Hunters dived first in single file, followed by the Canberras. Two Hunters flew as a combat air patrol in case any Zambian Air Force planes appeared. The ZIPRA members were still on the parade ground when the attack started.
The Command Dakota was circling near the Rhodesian border, monitoring radio traffic. An announcement was made requesting the Lusaka International Airport to move aircraft on the ground to the south side of the field for safety sake and the famous Green Leader message was broadcast by Sqn Ldr Dixon from a Canberra, advising the tower there to keep aircraft on the ground and delay incoming aircraft, while noting that the Rhodesians had no quarrel with Zambia but only with ZIPRA. The Zambian Air Force stayed on the ground.
The Rhodesians then returned home, helicopters to Mana Pools and the rest to Fylde. Our speaker played us recordings of aircrew talking to each other during the attack, as well as the original Green Leader message. (Dr) Nkoma and his staff were not on the parade ground, having been warned by the mole in the Rhodesian Forces Head Quarters. Many terrorist were killed and more wounded. The Rhodesians lost no aircraft or men. The second attack by 120 SAS members on Mkushi followed at 1145. Air attacks by Hunters, Canberras and Vampires commenced at 1145, with a para drop at 1148. Air cover was provided by K-cars and Lynx with a further reinforcement of troops landed by G-cars at 1150. The timing of air attacks and troop landings had to be perfect all the time. It was. At the same time, an admin base was set up inside Zambia to refuel the helicopters which not only landed the attack force but later had to recover these and return them to Rhodesia.
The fixed wing aircraft flew from Fylde, New Sarum and Kariba, the helicopters from Mana Pools, and they would return to these locations. Complete surprise had been achieved and the attack was a success, with the loss of one helicopter.
The third attack, on the CGT camp 56km from the Rhodesian border, followed. It consisted of four separate camps spread over a large area. Number 2 would be attacked from the air, followed by paratroops and heli-borne landings by RLI troops. The other camps would be attacked from the air. The air attacks would hit all four camps at 1500. An admin base would be set up 10km south west of CGT2. Hunters, Canberras and Vampires were based at Fylde, the helicopters flew from Mana Pools and the Dakotas and Lynxes from Kariba.
The air attacks went in but the helicopters found no targets. When the troops landed, they found the camp deserted. ZIPRA had been warned by either British or Soviet intelligence or by the mole in Rhodesia, and the terrorists had moved out very quickly. Only the anti-aircraft weapons remained. Some casualties were inflicted and the Rhodesians spent a further day destroying infrastructure, removing intelligence materials and useful equipment before returning to Rhodesia. They also captured Mountain Gutu, ZIPRA’s main logistics officer who was taken back to Rhodesia. Rhodesian losses were one killed, one injured. The morale of the ZIPRA forces was seriously dented by these attacks. This raid was unfortunately followed, on 12 February 1979, by the shooting down of a second Viscount with the loss of all 59 people on board.