Memoirs of a Rhodesian Bush War
Excerpts from a fiction novel, Off The Eagle’s Claws
by Temba Magorimbo
Jack Von Sidels always remembered a fellow pilot he had been jostling and jockeying with at New Serum Airbase in Salisbury. They had flown out in formation, two Dakotas and two Canberra aircraft. Troops and equipment had been lined up on the tarmac like a disaster preparedness exercise. One Dakota and one Canberra aircraft had peeled off at Selous.
The two aircraft carrying paratroopers had gained height flapping their wings, one going west another east while the two of them with their load of reinforcements headed towards Gokwe. They were circling in for a landing when small arms fire had started close to their landing zone. It was concentrated and accurate. Someone was aiming through a telescopic lens. The pilots stiffened as explosive pellets rippled through their fuselage too close to home for comfort.
“Roger this is Charlie Oscar, small arms fire at eleven o’clock,” the pilot of the Dakota had replied.
“Roger that!” Jack had replied pulling the flaps on the Canberra aircraft. “I am landing fire or no fire.”
“Holding out,” the Dakota had radioed circling for a landing. “Ground control please advice on the situation at the landing zone.”
“Roger the zone is hot. It was quiet all along. I think the guerrillas do not want reinforcements, we have wounded here who need to be taken out and we need armaments, we are low,” replied the radio operator.
“I hope you brought copies of the Rhodesian Herald. I want to know who won between Salisbury Sports Club and Matebeleland in cricket.”
“In this bullet riddled area?”
“Yap Roger, we find time to read the Rhodesian Herald,” the radio operator replied. “Do we provide covering fire?”
“Hold on let me hear from Delta Oscar.”
“This is Delta Oscar broadcasting from mid-air,” Jack had said. “I prefer to maintain radio silence because I am about to do what the communists don’t like. Listen, learn and probably live if I live to tell what I did.”
Jack had done what his instructors had told him never to do. He had swung the Canberra at 180 degrees in the middle of his run increasing power to one engine turning into the vent contraire. The wings dipped on both sides as the aircraft started fighting to climb while turning. At more than five hundred metres above the ground he closed all the throttles.
“Ground control this is Delta Oscar, covering fire except on the runway please.”
The aircraft started descending at crashing speed. He opened his engines to full throttle as the altimeter started screaming that he was less than 20-m from the ground. He had been coming down on the runway like a hawk going after its prey, straight down. He wondered what petrified soldiers had really felt as he careered down.
“Gunfire at three o’clock,” the Dakota pilot was heard shouting. “I am aborting.”
The forces they were replenishing under the canopy of trees were firing every volley of rifle fire at the locations identified. Jack swung up with the aircraft shaking like a reed. Then he reduced power as the aircraft rose like a bird above the runway. Then he landed on the runway from right in the middle careering to a stop less than three metres from the warning marker of the end of the runway. He spun the aircraft. Every bolt, every fracture screamed at its misuse but the aircraft was still good and going. Troops within the Canberra disembarked at speed removing supplies and throwing them on the ground. There was a major on the ground shouting instruction. There was a deafening sound of a Browning heavy machine gun blasting from its nest.
Jack looked down at the major who unlike others was not cowering in light of the gunfire coming from the African insurgents. He gave a salute. His co-pilot wasn’t the only one to disembark in a rush to pee only to discover that his battle fatigues had already absorbed the liquid.
“What’s your name pilot?” bellowed the tall, stout and sinister looking major in the Rhodesian African Rifles regimental uniform after he had saluted Jack. There were only two battalions of these black soldiers led by white officers.
“Von Siedels, Jack,” he replied. “Captain, flying is un grand événement to me. Clip my wings and you have wounded me. One reason I do not support either Mugabe or Nkomo against Ian Smith is they have no guerrilla air force!”
“Wish we had twenty such Jacks,” he bellowed back with a thumb up sign. “I am glad there is no air force for the insurgents because you would be one bad opponent.”
“Is the Dakota behind me?” asked Jack.
“It aborted under Bazooka fire. The pilot reported structural damage though he managed to pin point the grid reference of the bazooka for our artillery fire. You could have followed suit if you had not downed the crazy thing you did,” the Major said. “We will clear the air for you to take off with the wounded and sick.”
“May I get your name sir?”
“Ridmore, Mark, Major Mark Ridmore of the Rhodesian African Rifles,” had been the curt reply.
“I will de damned, sorry. You are an enigma. I have heard so much about you.”
Jack had sat while reinforcements headed left and right crawling and running firing at the hip. He heard the whoosh and wham as artillery from a position more than fifteen kilometres away. The artillery was being directed by the Dakota circling now out of range.
The aircraft was turned around and pushed to the extreme edge of the runway. Before he took off, he revved the engines to maximum power holding down on the brakes with his might. Then off he had gone at maximum power catapulting into the air in the middle of the runway. At the runway end, every soldier had opened fire into the bushes to cover Jack.
Jack had spun the aircraft left screaming away from the area he had thought insurgents were climbing up shouting as he did to prevent his eardrums collapsing. He had levelled off and headed away.
“How many wounded do we have?” he had shouted.
“Twenty-seven causalities, eleven dead,” suggested medical personnel.
“I hope my sudden climb did not kill any,” he had replied.
“You are a crazy pilot sir. You are a damn fine pilot I tell you,” his co-pilot had replied. “If you had not landed like you did the wounded and dead would still be piled up at the airstrip. Need we report to Warrant Officer Andrea Du Plessis of Thornhill Airbase in order for him and his team to look at the screaming and smoking engines?”
“Yap but you know what co-pilot?”
“They gave the Dakota a fixed shelf life after World War 2 but here we are. We Rhodesians and the South African Air Forces are using this crafty machine decades after it should have been grounded.”