‘It’s a dangerous thing we’re going to do now, Jock.’
Sergeant-Major Deval De Beer, Caprivi Strip, 1977
‘It’s a dangerous thing we’re going to do now, Jock.’
Sergeant-Major Deval De Beer, Caprivi Strip, 1977
I landed in Pretoria on 6 May 1977 and was taken to a hotel and told that an interview with the South African Defence Force had been scheduled for the next day. I made my way to Army Headquarters bright and early, only to find that nobody knew anything about me. I spent several frustrating hours trying to convince a sceptical desk sergeant that I had only just arrived from England. Finally, and I never found out exactly why, I was taken to a separate building and introduced to a major in military intelligence. I retold my story, then he asked me extensive questions about my military background and my reasons for coming to South Africa. Finally he said: ‘Have you ever heard of a unit called the Reconnaissance Commando?’ I admitted that I had not. He informed me that they were his country’s equivalent of the SAS. Would I consider undergoing Selection?
I tried not to appear too keen when I said yes.
There were three phases, the major explained. First, a series of, mental and physical tests (the same as SADF pilots undertook). Second, Selection itself. Finally, continuation training, where we would learn the necessary skills to carry out operations.
It was now late afternoon. The major told me a car would pick me up at 9 o’clock the next morning, shook my hand and wished me luck.
The car arrived promptly and took me to an army medical facility where, for the next two hours, every piece of my anatomy was inspected, prodded and explored. At the final examination  the doctor told me I was in excellent physical shape. As I was pedalling an exercise bike as fast as I could, my body festooned with wires and suction caps, and breathing into an oxygen mask, this came as quite a relief. I was even more pleased when I learnt later that one in every three applicants were rejected at this stage. I celebrated with a lunch in the canteen.
In the afternoon I was taken to a separate facility where I sat a series of mental and psychological tests which ended with a series of face-to-face interviews with three psychiatrists. The last two give me pleasure to this day. The first was conducted by an extremely attractive blonde, about whom I had several erotic fantasies during our interview. As her questions drew to a close she asked me: ‘Have you ever shot anyone?’
‘Yes,’ I answered.
‘Afterwards, what was the first thought that went through your mind?’
‘What a good shot I am,’ I said.
She noted my reply and then looked at me over her large spectacles. ‘Did you see the person you had shot close up?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
She fixed me with what she no doubt thought was an intimidating stare. She looked enchanting. ‘What went through your mind then?’
I gazed into her lovely blue eyes. ‘I thought to myself,’ I replied softly, ‘what a bloody good shot I am.’ For just the briefest of seconds I got a smile and then she rose and walked out of my life forever.
The final interview was with the senior doctor, a very distinguished man in his late forties. He hammered on at me about my reasons for being there, then dropped what he must have thought was his most testing question: ‘Would you die for South Africa?’
‘I don’t intend to die for anybody,’ I replied immediately, ‘but I’m quite willing to risk my life for South Africa.’
Again I got a brief smile.
The interviews completed, I rejoined my driver. As he drove me back to my hotel he informed me I had another interview the following day with the head of Special Forces. The medical and psychological test results would be sent through in the morning,  and I would be told if I was a suitable candidate for Selection, would be picked up at 1.30.
That night I hardly slept. I had risked everything coming to South Africa and my fate was in the hands of people who had only a few brief hours to get my measure.
As the driver picked me up outside the hotel I was acutely aware that my future was in the balance. I knew my own physical capabilities but was totally unsure what these guys would make f me psychologically.
I was met again by the intelligence major who had conducted my initial interview. He greeted me with a smile and an extended hand. I took this as a good sign. I was, he said, going to meet the general.
I was taken along a corridor past a uniformed and armed guard, to a nondescript and unmarked door and ushered in without ceremony. Seated behind a desk was a man in his middle-to-late sixties with snow-white hair. When he looked up I was struck by the strength and character in his face. His grey-blue eyes seemed to stare right through me. This was General Loots, officially a retired officer in the SADF; unofficially head of all Special Forces operations.
Without prompting I came smartly to attention. He smiled and stood. He was roughly the same height as me, but slightly stooped so that he gave the appearance of being shorter. I extended my right hand as he extended his left. I realized his right arm was hanging useless by his side. I grasped his left hand awkwardly with my right. He nodded as if I had passed some kind of test. I was invited to sit facing the two officers. The major began the interview.
‘You will be pleased to know that you have been assessed as being excellent Special Forces material,’ he said. I tried not to let the relief show on my face. ‘We now have to decide on what kind of offer we will make to you.’
The major looked at the general and continued: ‘You are slightly older than most of the recruits for Special Forces and more experienced. Your psychological profile and test results are excellent, but I don’t wish to give you a rank that would make it difficult for you to be accepted in the unit. We would like to make you full corporal. You could expect to make sergeant within two years.’ 
‘That’s fine with me,’ I replied, trying to appear nonchalant. I had expected to start again as a private.
`Good. Now about Selection. You have two options: one starts on the 17th of this month and the next is four months after that.
Which is it to be?’
‘The 17th,’ I replied.
The general beamed at the major.
‘As I anticipated. Good. Now, it normally takes a man two weeks to go through the process of enlisting. You will do it in two days.’ The major handed me a sheet of paper, typed in Afrikaans, with his personal signature and stamp on it. The young lance-corporal who had been my companion was called into the room and given an extended briefing, also in Afrikaans.
The next two days were heady stuff. My driver, in General Loots’ staff car complete with two stars, raced from one location to another in the Pretoria military establishment. Faced with line after line of national servicemen waiting to be issued with equipment, we would walk to the front, produce the general’s note and be issued with whatever was required. Only once did we run into difficulty, getting my identity documents. An overweight staff sergeant angrily announced that there was no way I could get them immediately. The lance-corporal argued with him while I looked on with some concern, then he asked to use the phone. After speaking into it for a couple of seconds he handed the receiver to the staff sergeant. The lance-corporal tried, with little success, to suppress a smile as the general gave the sergeant the appropriate instructions.
I had a full set of ID in two hours. As we walked to the car the lance-corporal answered my unspoken question by saying: ‘The general asked the chief clerk what rank he presently held, then told him that if he did not want to be a private by the end of the day he had better make sure that you had your documents.’
Finally, on 12 May 1977, I was sworn in as a fully-fledged member of the SADE The next day I was on a train bound for Durban, where the Special Forces were based. There, Pat, my twin boys, Harry and Christopher, and I were met by an army jeep and taken to an hotel. I was told that on the 17th a jeep would pick me up at 7 a.m. sharp and take me to the base. I barely had time to settle them in and get my equipment into some  kind of order. As arranged, I was picked up and driven to the HQ of the Reconnaissance Commando, at the Bluff, Durban. As I was driven past the armed guards at the gate, it struck me that in a little over two weeks I had gone from being a patrol commander on the streets of Belfast in one army to being a non-commissioned officer starting Selection for the Special Forces in another.
The camp was swarming with people. In all 410, mostly national servicemen, were trying for Selection. My lack of Afrikaans proved to be a major stumbling block in making the instructors understand who I was and where I had come from, but eventually everything was sorted. I was informed that that day was the only administration day on the course and that at about midnight we would set off for the selection area in Zululand.
Everyone on the course had a pretty awful breakfast in the national servicemen’s dining hall, then we spent the morning having our names and service numbers taken before being divided in squads. In the afternoon we were issued with our equipment: backpack, webbing, rifle and two 60mm mortar-bomb cases painted red and filled with concrete. These were to be carried with us at all times; failure to produce them meant being instantly thrown off the course. Together they weighed about 20lb. With full equipment I estimated each of us was carrying roughly 50lb, less food and water. All of us had R4 rifles, the South African adaptation of the Belgian FN rifle. Failure to keep this clean or within arm’s length also meant being expelled from the course.
By 5 o’clock I had the unusual webbing and backpack in reasonable order and adjourned to the canteen for supper. I did not realize this would be my last substantial meal for a month. I met two other members of my squad, Dave Price and Andre Klopper, both of whom had served with the Rhodesian SAS. They were very likeable rogues and instantly I struck up a friendship with them. They kept all of us amused with their wild tales. Like the time the Rhodesian SAS had launched a raid deep into Mozambique. Sixty battle-hardened airborne warriors trudging down a dried river-bed towards a camp were suddenly confronted by a little mongrel, barking incessantly. Various methods were tried to silence the howling animal, including bribery, but to no avail. The barking roused the enemy camp and the SAS strike force had to withdraw. One of the toughest military  units in the world, forced into inglorious retreat, by the smallest of enemies.
Another time they were given two prisoners to interrogate. They took both men up in a helicopter, bound hand and foot, and at an appropriate height they threw one out. The second terrorist nearly fainted with fear, looking from one to the other as if his head was on a swivel.
‘Are you going to talk?’ Andre demanded.
‘Yes,’ replied the terrorist, nodding vigorously.
‘OK,’ Days put in. ‘Who is your commanding officer?’
The terrorist looked from one man to the other, then at the helicopter’s open doorway. ‘You’ve just thrown him out of the helicopter.’
Shortly before midnight we were loaded into trucks for the long overnight drive to Zululand.
Like all Special Forces units, Recce Commando based Selection on their own operational experience. The unit had been formed in 1970 by Komandant Bradanbaght, a legendary figure in the South African Army, whose brother was a known ANC supporter.
Bradanbaght had selected one officer and five sergeants from the South African Parachute Battalion and set about training them, first putting them through Rhodesian SAS Selection, then taking them down to Mozambique to work operationally. Gradually the unit expanded. They were deployed mainly in Angola and Zambia against SWAPO terrorists, which required long periods in the bush, with little or no air support, pitted against an aggressive, wellarmed and well-disciplined enemy. Such operations demanded men who were physically fit, able to carry heavy weights over long distances, who could survive in the bush on very little food and water and could operate in a small group without causing friction.
In addition, the unit’s experience in the Angolan war had shown that if a small group of men, operating behind enemy lines, made contact with a larger force and acted aggressively with maximum firepower, it could often achieve results far out of proportion to its numbers. Aggression, therefore, was a trait much prized in the ranks of Recce Commando.
Phase one of Selection was basically a week of hell, designed to break those who weren’t physically and mentally up to the job. 
Phase two, lasting two weeks, tested endurance and team ability, to track, carry out specific tasks and navigate over long distances, while working in a six-man unit. Phase three was individual week. Survivors were transported to the Caprivi Strip in South West Africa, the operational base of Recce Commando, for a true test of one’s ability to work, navigate and motivate oneself in solitude.
At daylight on 18 May 1977 we tumbled out of the back of our trucks and were told to leave anything we could not carry and form up in three ranks. Phase one was about to begin.
The instructors, about twenty in all, walked up and down, checking each man had his rifle, his pack and, of course, his two concrete-filled mortar-bomb cases for ballast. Satisfied each of us had everything in order, they dispatched the trucks. We were on a wide, hard, dirt road. Major Blauw, a senior operational officer, addressed us from the top of a Landrover with a loudspeaker. He pointed west. ‘Walk,’ he said, ‘until we tell you to stop.’He climbed back into his vehicle and, accompanied by his staff, left us alone on the road.
I turned and began to walk west. I noted the reaction of my fellow Selection hopefuls with interest. They were all very young: some twenty, many just eighteen. The vast majority were national servicemen, used to being closely supervised. Many, robbed of this supervision, sat down to make a brew; some decided to rearrange their equipment. Perhaps three dozen actually began to walk.
At first the walk was extremely pleasant. The air was cool and I dropped into a familiar Para shuffle that covered the maximum amount of ground with the minimum effort. I was soon in front. As the morning wore on the heat increased. It sapped the energy from my legs and forced a slackening of pace. I kept plodding along. Occasionally a jeep full of ‘Recces’ would pass and some remark would be thrown at me in Afrikaans. I’d smile, nod and keep walking.
At midday I stopped at the top of a high hill for a break, made a brew and some ‘Airborne’ stew. I looked behind me along the road. Men were strung out for miles, most walking in groups of two or three, stretching back as far as the eye could see. After twenty minutes I repacked my kit and started to walk again. I was now starting to feel the effects of the heat very badly. I’d already drunk  the contents of two of my three water bottles, and dehydration, followed by heat exhaustion, was a serious danger, I realized. So I rationed my remaining water to two sips every hour.
By later afternoon there was still no sign of the end. There were no checkpoints, no guides, just a seemingly endless road ahead of me. But at least the heat had abated. I was down to a quarter of a bottle of water and I still didn’t know how far I had to go. At 6 o’clock I took another break. My feet were swelling uncomfortably in my new boots; the pack I was carrying had dug deep grooves into my shoulders; and I had friction burns on the inside of both my thighs. But most worrying was the fact that my water was all but gone. I made myself another meal: stew again, and took a final sip of water. I did not have enough for a brew. Shouldering my pack, I started to walk again. It was starting to get dark.
Before long I was stumbling along the road in total darkness, sometimes humming songs to myself. One in particular kept coming into my head: ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’. By 9 p.m. I had been walking for fourteen hours, almost three hours without water. The terrain was mostly flat, with occasional high hills. I was, as the Paras say, ‘on my chin straps’. I ached in every bone of my body and my thighs burned so badly from the friction rubs I had to walk with my legs apart. My mouth felt like a Comanche’s left moccasin. I decided I’d walk one more hour. Then, if I didn’t find a checkpoint, I’d get some sleep.
just after 10 o’clock, I began to hear the sound of the sea. For some reason this gave me hope. I rounded a corner and walked smack into a giant of a man in a Recce Commando T-shirt and shorts, standing in the middle of the road. He spoke to me in Afrikaans; I replied in English, telling him my name and rank. He looked at me closely then pointed along a small track leading off the main road. I followed it and found myself in a large, open space, bordered by two long tents. A magnificent figure of a man, about six foot tall, with a huge red beard and the shoulders and arms of a giant, came out to greet me. Once we had established that I could not speak or understand Afrikaans, I was told to fill one water bottle from the bowser at the edge of the clearing, and then to sit and wait for the rest of them. I did as ordered, stealing two huge gulps of water as I filled my bottle. 
I sat for about five minutes before another instructor came over and asked: ‘Have you any serious medical problems?’
I stood up and showed him the friction burns. He winced and called over several other instructors, who began an excited debate in Afrikaans. (I learnt later they were taking bets on how long I would last with my injuries.) The first instructor strapped up my thighs with medical adhesive tape and I found, much to my relief, that I could walk fairly normally again.
The long walk had taken its toll on me. I’d covered sixty miles in just over fifteen hours. Left alone, I fell into an exhausted sleep. I was awakened three hours later by a boot in the ribs. The clearing was full of trainees, some of whom had only just arrived. About a hundred of us were formed up into three ranks and berated as the worst, the absolute worst, bunch of candidates that had ever applied for Special Forces. After ten minutes’ abuse, we were given forty minutes of rifle PT. We were then divided into teams of eight.
Major Blauw informed us that we really weren’t up to the job we had applied for. Did anybody want to quit? Immediately twenty or so men said they did, and they were ordered aside. We were reformed again into eight-man te ams and marched to the edge of the clearing. Stacked neatly there were about fifty logs, each the size of a telegraph pole. Each team was given one, then we followed the instructors back along the road at a fast trot. After about four hundred yards we stopped. In the darkness we could see a very large hill.
‘Take the logs over the hill, turn left at the beach and you will get back into camp.’ With these comforting words our guardians departed.
We turned and started to climb. The going was tough. It wasn’t that the hill was steep, though it was, or that we were tired, though we were, or even that we were hampered by our packs and rifles, that made things so hard. It was the bush. The hill was covered with dense undergrowth. After an hour we were not even halfway up the bloody monster. Tempers were fraying; some teams just gave up. Then we had a stroke of luck. In the darkness we stumbled on to a small, but serviceable, path. Followed by the rest of the men, we were on the other side in just over an hour. We hit the beach and were back in camp by 4 a.m. We were given another forty minutes  of rifle PT and told to get some sleep. I was so tired I barely had the energy to unwrap my sleeping bag, and the hard edges of my webbing felt like the softest pillow.
The shouts of the instructors woke us at eight. I had to check my watch twice. I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that I had only just got my head down. We were formed up in three ranks and asked who wanted to continue; another twenty or so departed. I estimated that there were about two hundred of us left, and we had only been going forty-eight hours. Over a hundred who had just not walked fast enough had been returned to their units. We were then told to get some breakfast and be ready at nine for PT, dressed in T-shirts, trousers, boots and webbing.
We were taken down to the beach and introduced to sandbag PT. Each of us filled a bag and for the next two hours ran them up and down the beach, in and out of the sea. At last we were told to stack the wretched things above the water-line, which led me to believe that I had not seen the last of them. We ran back to camp and the luxury of a forty-minute break.
We formed up again in T-shirts, boots and denims and were divided into groups of twenty or so. We set out on a run, which, after the horrors of sandbag PT, was a walk in the park. We soon relaxed into a loping stride and ran for about thirty minutes or so. The track wound way into the interior, the bush around us gradually getting thicker. Eventually we found ourselves by a large lake. Across one corner of it, spanning a distance of about a hundred yards or so, was a rope. I looked closely at the water. There were creatures in there, creatures with teeth. Crocodiles. On the list of things I most fear in the world, crocodiles are right up there at the top.
The instructors lined up on the bank and let fly with a variety of weapons. They didn’t aim to hit anything, just scare away the local wildlife. Satisfied the water was clear, they set up armed sentries at both ends of the rope. We were told to strip to our shorts. The exercise was simple: you entered the water at point A and either swam or pulled yourself along the rope to point B, where You would find a track that brought you back to the start point. We were to continue this until told to stop.
Entering the water the first time was bad, although I was reassured by the presence of the armed guards. We continued  the exercise for about an hour, then ran back to camp. When I got back to my equipment I found that it had been searched and all the food it contained removed. We were told that from now on the instructors would provide all we needed to eat. Looking at the smiles on their faces didn’t convince me I’d be getting three square meals a day.
Lunch was a local version of sausages and mash. The afternoon was split between rifle PT and sandbag PT. After the evening meal we were given a lecture on snake bites by Sergeant Marius Fullun, the giant with the red beard, in English for my benefit. We were told that there were three kinds of snakes in the area: adders and vipers, whose venom attacked the blood and tissue; cobras and mambas, whose venom attacked the central nervous system; and tree snakes (boomslang in Afrikaans), whose venom prevented blood from clotting. So toxic was a tree snake’s bite that a hospital in Johannesburg would fly the antidote to any part of Africa within hours of a confirmed strike. The tree snake’s venom, although highly toxic, could only be delivered in small doses, giving a good chance of recovery if treated. A mamba bite, however, was almost always fatal. ‘And the black mamba,’ the sergeant told us drily, ‘is a very aggressive snake.’ Later I was to see for myself just how aggressive.
We had the luxury of a couple of hours off. I spent them trying to repair some of the damage to my body. My feet were pretty raw from running in wet boots, and my shoulders and chest were covered in sandbag- or rifle-inflicted bruises. Overall, after two days of almost constant physical torment, I was in reasonable shape. The friction rubs between my legs were giving me little trouble, thanks to the strapping.
As darkness fell we were told to be ready with full kit for a night march. I wondered what horrors awaited me in the hours ahead. If I’d known I might not have left the camp.
We formed into groups of ten. Each group was given a log to carry, as we’ .I as our packs, mortar-bomb cases and rifles. We then set out, accompanied by the instructors, on a cross-country march. After ten minutes there was not a muscle in my body that was not screaming in agony. Each minute stretched to eternity as we stumbled through the night. Every twenty minutes or so we would stop, put down our rifles and do log exercises: throwing the 109  above our heads from one shoulder to the other. Then it was pick up your rifle, log on shoulder, and off we would stumble, going God knows where.
I was unaware of exactly where we were when we stopped, except that I was in the centre of a world of pain. As I heaved huge gulps of air into my lungs I came slowly to the conclusion that we were back at the lake, the lake with creatures in it. The night was black. We were told to strip to our undershorts. The instructors opened up with their weapons again and posted sentries. I was terrified of what was to come. ‘What the hell’s the point of this?’ I found myself saying aloud.
In we went. I was one of the first. I tried not to think of what might be in the water. I didn’t even try to swim, but just grabbed the rope and pulled for dear life. I don’t think I’ve ever covered a hundred yards of water faster. I was shaking when I got out and jogged back to the rest of the party. Thankfully we only had to do the exercise once. We put on our packs, shouldered our logs and jogged to the main camp.
On arrival I discovered that more than twenty candidates had refused to go into the water. I was about to go to my sleeping bag when I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning, I found myself confronted by an instructor, a huge, good-looking man with raven-black hair.
‘You wanted to know why we make you swim the lake in darkness?’
I started to protest that I had not intended any criticism.
He raised his hand. ‘It’s a natural question from a professional soldier, Corporal. During the Angolan war we were being chased by a large group of Cubans and MPLA regulars. We were trying to get back to our own lines. Our way was blocked by a river. There were ten of us. Two flatly refused to get into the darkened river and swim to the other side. We were lucky: a scout found a narrow stretch we could ford and we managed to get the two of them across there. But it was all very near to being a disaster. That’s why we let you see the crocs in daylight and make you swim at night.’
I nodded. ‘Thanks for taking the time to explain things to me, Staff.’
He gave me a smile of genuine warmth. ‘Anytime. Now go get some sleep.’ 
We were woken at roughly three-hourly intervals throughout the night for spells of rifle and sandbag PT. Once, when we were standing in three lines after a particularly strenuous session, I found myself resting my head on the shoulder of the man on my right. In seconds I was asleep.
I was shaken awake by one of the instructors. ‘Do you want to carry on?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
His eyes twinkled in the dark and his face broke into a wide grin. ‘You’ll probably make this course. You know when to sleep.’
The rest of ‘hell week’ was more of the same: rifle PT, sandbag PT, log PT, night runs. At the end of the week our numbers were down to about a hundred. It was time to begin phase two.
We were split into six-man teams, the normal operational unit of Recce Commando. We had to operate fully blacked, face and hands covered in camouflage cream. We were given co-ordinates of the first of a series of checkpoints, sixty kilometres away, and told to get there as fast as possible. Those who arrived before it closed would receive rations; those who didn’t wouldn’t. Over the next week we’d be given just enough food to allow us to keep going and no more.
Although I can’t say I enjoyed any part of Selection, phase two was the closest I came. My group was a mixed bag of pirates and ruffians, Dave Price and Andre Klopper (the two ex-Rhodesian SAS men); Major Peter Schofield, a forty-year-old ex-British Army Parachute Regiment major, who was doing this part of Selection before running the Recce Commando free-fall training; and Janni Smit and Danny Villiers, two members of the South African Paras. Each of us had talents and strengths that would prove useful to the group. Major Schofield was a natural leader and excellent navigator. Dave and Andre knew the bush and were terrific scroungers, often conjuring up food from nowhere. Janni was a great cook, making meals out of practically anything. Danny was a natural athlete; he’d run ahead to checkpoints, in the hope of arriving there before they closed. I could judge distance, a skill I had developed years ago in the wilds of the Welsh mountains and on Salisbury Plain. By a combination of pacing and judgement I could tell how far we’d travelled on a single day, an essential skill in featureless country. I could also wake at any time I chose, so it  was left to me to get everyone up in the morning – sometimes no easy task given how tired we were.
We’d be up just after dawn. If we had any food we’d cat, but more often than not we’d make do with a communal brew. Then we’d walk. Our walks had no set pattern. We’d walk until one of us needed a rest, take a break, then continue. At midday we’d have another brew, and at night whenever possible, a meal. We never tried to walk in the dark; navigation was impossible. We’d collect huge amounts of wood and make a big fire, sit round it and swap stories. The major told us of his exploits in the Radfan Campaign in Aden, I talked about Ulster, and Dave and Andre, natural raconteurs, provided the most enjoyment with their swashbuckling tales of Rhodesia and elsewhere.
We once almost lost Andre in mid-anecdote. As he leant across to shift a log on the fire, Janni shouted ‘stop’ and switched on his torch. Sitting on the log, inches from Andre’s hand, was the biggest scorpion I had ever seen. How Janni saw it in the dark I will never know.
When phase two finished, we were down to about sixty men. We had lost Dave and Andre, who had apparently left the Rhodesian SAS without permission. It seems they had been on leave in South Africa when a major operation had been launched in Angola, and, fearing their country was about to become embroiled in another major war, they had approached South Africa’s Special Forces and offered their services.
They had made no secret of the fact that they were on leave and the Army, desperate for experienced soldiers, had accepted them. Unfortunately this had resulted in a major rift with the Rhodesian SAS, who immediately classed them as deserters and threatened to arrest them if they ever re-entered Rhodesia. They were told that they would have to return to Rhodesia and obtain a formal discharge before they could undertake Selection again. As far as I know, neither man did. The major too went his own way. Ahead of me was perhaps the most difficult part of Selection.
For phase three, the individual stage, we were transported by aircraft to the Caprivi Strip in South West Africa, the operational base of Recce Commando. There was one major river in the area; the rest of the country was semi-desert bush, and the heat was oppressive. For the first time we were given deadlines. If you were  not at the checkpoint on time you were off the course, no excuses. Water was a critical factor. Once away from the river, if you ran out of water you couldn’t hope to make your checkpoint.
There was also a terrorist threat from SWAPO terrorists based in Zambia. We all carried four magazines for our R4 rifles. (Shortly after our Selection ended, four members of the South African Airforce were ambushed and killed just south of where we were training.)
We were forced to move in the heat of the day. I was often close to collapse, and my dehydration was made worse by chronic gippo guts from drinking unpurified water. I staggered from one checkpoint to the next, just making the timings but getting ever more tired. Sometimes I risked moving after dark on a compass bearing. One night, as I approached the river, I heard the sound of a large animal. Out of the dark loomed a huge hippo; we stared at each other for several seconds, then, rather contemptuously I thought, he turned and shuffled off. I had never faced such hazards fighting the Phantasians on Salisbury Plain.
On my sixth day alone, I found myself at a checkpoint by the river. I was near total exhaustion. Even the weight of my water bottles, on which I depended so much, seemed to me to be too great. I decided I could make it to the next checkpoint and back on one. As I stood to leave I found my instructor beside me. ‘If I was you,’ he said conversationally, ‘I would fill both my water bottles.’
I didn’t need to be warned twice. I reached the next checkpoint by mid-afternoon. Instead of being sent back towards the river I was sent deeper into the desert. I went nowhere near the river for the rest of the day.
I had to be at base by dawn the following morning. I staggered through the night, more asleep than awake. I made the checkpoint just before first light.
I was met with a ferocious assault from the three instructors. I was without doubt the very worst example of a soldier they’d ever seen. I was subjected to a ten-minute bout of rifle PT before being given my next checkpoint, a kilometre away. I was told I might very well be thrown off the course when I got there. I wasn’t even allowed to go to the river to refill my water bottles. Didn’t I want to give up now? 
I turned and started to plod up the hill. That kilometre was the hardest and longest I’ve ever walked. The hill seemed like a mountain; my pack bore down on me like the weight of the world. If I could have cried, I would have.
Gradually the trees got bigger and I found myself in shade. As I shuffled along I saw the outlines of buildings on my left and right. A shout went up: ‘Here’s one!’ Men poured out of the buildings, mostly wearing the Recce Commando beret and black T-shirt. They formed two lines. As I walked through them they began to clap and cheer. At the end of the line stood Major Blauw, magnificent in full uniform. He offered me his hand. As I shook it he said: ‘Congratulations, Corporal McCallion, you have passed Recce Commando Selection.’ He handed me my maroon beret. I still have it to this day.
The assembled Recces gave a cheer. Never before had I felt so proud. A beer was pushed into my hand; as I was led away the major shouted after me: ‘Your next RV is the bar.’
Of the 410 hopefuls who had started Selection, thirty-nine completed phase three. I’d lost 20lb and made friends that would last me a lifetime. After I’d showered and shaved off my four-week growth of beard, I had a huge steak dinner, which I constantly interrupted to go and greet another member of Selection as he staggered in. That night we assembled in the unit’s bar, a beautiful oasis in the desert, where we all got drunk. For those of us who’d been through Selection that took about two beers.
We had a few days off before we began our Special Forces training. This started with two weeks’ weapons training; we had to familiarize ourselves with a huge variety of small arms. The Recces worked almost exclusively outside South Africa. In the main, we dressed and carried the weapons of the opposition in the country in which we operated. In the basic Recce Commando team of six men, five would carry AK47 assault rifles (the finest close-combat rifle I’ve ever used), one RPD light machine-gun, one RPM 7 rocket launcher and 60mm Portuguese commando mortar. If the job was a ‘straight’ raid many of the commandos preferred to carry the Para version of the R4, which had a folding butt, because of its harder hitting power.
Next we did a two-week demolition course concentrating on  the use of claymore mines (the Rhodesian mini-claymore was the favoured weapon) and sabotage techniques.
Each Recce carried Soviet-type chest webbing for the AK47 magazines. This consisted of five long pouches. Instead of a magazine in the middle pouch each man carried a mini-claymore, with twelve inches of safety fuse and a detonator and friction striker. In an emergency, if your team wanted to break a contact, you’d plant your mine, hit the striker and then run. Roughly thirty seconds later the claymore would explode. The enemy had been known to run through the first, and then the second line of claymores. Nobody had ever run through a third.
Bushcraft, tracking and survival were next, back in the Caprivi Strip. The course leader was a legend in the South African Defence Force, Sergeant-Major Deval De Beer. He had once spent six months living with the Bushmen of the South West African Veldt, with only a rifle and a bag of salt, surviving on only what he caught and found to cat. He was one of the very few whites ever to have mastered the complex language of the Bushmen and they looked on him as something of a god. Reputed to be the best tracker in Africa, he was the only person who ever got a Grade A on the Selous Scouts tracking course.
He had once tracked a SWAPO incursion party that had murdered a family in South West Africa, from the front of a fast-moving Landrover. The Recces had caught up with the terrorists and eliminated them. For a man who was in every sense a living legend, he was unexpectedly small, one of the very few men in the unit smaller than me. Yet his awesome knowledge of the bush, coupled with a physical stamina that enabled him to outrun or outmarch any man in the unit, demanded the respect of everybody who met him. Before we went to the bush camp he introduced himself to each man personally. He observed me coolly. I returned his gaze unflinchingly. His weather-hardened features were creased white at the corners of his eyes and mouth. This was a man who liked to smile and laugh a lot.
‘What’s your name, Corporal?’
‘Ah, the paratrooper from England. What’s an Englishman doing coming to fight for the Boer?’
‘I’m Scots,’ I replied, a little indignantly. 
‘Scots are good fighters, I hear. Play good rugby. Do you play?’
‘Good, good. What do your friends call you?’
‘Then I’ll call you Jock too.’ He slapped me hard on the shoulder, nearly bowling me over.
On our first night in the bush, as the sun began to set, a mournful cry drifted across the still river to our camp. Every man stopped what he was doing to listen. The cry went on, hauntingly beautiful and infinitely sad. I looked questioningly at De Beer.
‘It’s a fish eagle, Jock.’
‘It sounds so sad.’
He nodded. ‘It is. They mate for life and if their mate dies they never take another. That’s the -sound they make when they’ve lost their mate.’
It was something I will never forget. Even now, years later, when I watch the sun go down, I still hear it, an echo from my past.
For the first three weeks we were given no food, apart from a cup of coffee in the morning and at night. We survived on what we caught ourselves. There were lions in the area. Whatever we did, De Beer said, we were not, repeat not, to go near one after
a kill. The R4 rifles we carried were probably not enough to stop a charging lion.
After about five days, two stalwarts stumbled out of the bush and almost tripped over a lion which was busy consuming a large kudu. They screamed and jumped back, expecting the big cat to charge them. Instead, it took off as fast as it could in the opposite direction. Thinking themselves lucky to be alive, and not wanting to look a gift kudu in the mouth, they hoisted their prize and made their way back to camp. As they told their story our mouths watered at the prospect of an unexpected meal. Deval De Beer was sceptical. They had been lucky, he warned them, but allowed them to prepare the kudu for the pot.
Four days later they chased a second lion from its kill. On this occasion the sergeant-major was not so charitable. We were refused permission to cook it and warned any such future adventures would result in dismissal.
An ex-Green Beret Special Force soldier and Vietnam veteran  had joined the course as a fully-fledged Recce. He’d already been on an operation. He’d missed the survival stage of his training, due to some administrative problem concerning his Selection, so knew where the survival camp would be based. He, and another candidate, took advantage of the fact to dig in a cache of food. How either of them expected to get away with it was hard to imagine, for in addition to the redoubtable Deval De Beer, the entire area was patrolled by a half platoon of Bushmen – probably the finest trackers in the world. Once they had seen your footprints they could recognize your track, even if you swapped shoes. In a dramatic fireside confrontation De Beer banished the two men from the course.
The rest of us continued training and it was exhilarating stuff, culminating in a night hare hunt. Powerful searchlights were mounted on the Mercedes Unimog all-terrain vehicles and we travelled at breakneck speed through the darkened bush until a hare was picked up in the beam. The hare, mesmerized by the light, would either freeze or run in circles pursued by those on toot. Over thirty hares were brought back and skinned, our first real meal for three weeks.
The next phase was the tracking course itself. Having spent most of my life in a city, I hadn’t the faintest grasp of these skills. It was at this stage that I first came to be impressed by and then to marvel at the wisdom of Deval De Beer and his Bushmen assistants. The ground for them was a story-book – each little indentation or crushed blade of grass providing an endless source of information.
I would often sit down at a track junction and listen engrossed as Deval, or one of the Bushmen, would reveal in great detail the men and animals that had passed over that patch of ground over the past few days. Driving out of the camp one day Deval suddenly yelled, ‘Stop’, and leapt from his vehicle. He landed in the bush and grabbed a handful of twigs and a long, thin stick. Telling everyone not to move, he walked slowly around his vehicle and stopped barely ten feet from us. Watching from the back of the truck, I saw him shake the loose bundle of twigs. Suddenly a snake struck the bundle with lightning speed. Deval let it continue striking until it grew tired, then trapped its tail with the stick, which he slowly slid up its body to its head. He then 
grabbed the eight-foot monster by the back of the head and held it up for us to see.
‘This,’ he informed us, ‘is a black mamba. If this snake was to bite you, you would be taken back to camp but be dead long before you got there.’
As the camp was only five minutes’ drive away this concentrated the mind wonderfully.
‘Look at it,’ he continued, ‘and remember it. If you’re walking in the bush and you get in its way it will kill you.’
I studied the snake with the fascination that most humans feel for reptiles. Its body was more grey than black, quite thick in the middle but tapering to a long, sleek head. Deval threw it from him. As he did so the five Bushmen who were with us screamed and ran behind our truck. Deval immediately brought his rifle up to his shoulder. The snake landed and reared up at least five feet from the ground, so fast it was hard to follow. It dropped down again to the bush floor and actually advanced on Deval, who was staring at it fixedly over his gunsight. Man and snake watched one another from a distance of less than ten feet before the snake retired to the safety of the bush, rearing up every so often to make sure we were not following.
Later Deval stopped at a water-hole. It was the dry season and the muddy edges were covered with animal tracks. Deval called me forward and pointed to one particular set. ‘What made those, Jock?’
‘Kudu,’ I offered, with more hope than conviction.
‘Good. Male or female?’
I hadn’t a clue. Seeing my distress, he continued: ‘It’s female. See here, it urinated, you can tell by the way it spread its feet.’
‘Now follow them, see how the stride pattern suddenly lengthens, something scared it, it started to run.’ He followed the antelope’s footprints, then stopped.
‘It almost made it, but was too slow. See?’
Running from the opposite end of the water-hole were a set of deep pug marks. I looked up at Deval.
‘Yes, Jock. Male or female?’
‘Female. A male’s would be much heavier.’ 
‘You’re right, even a small male would leave a bigger imprint. They have wider paws than the female.’
There were signs of a disturbance at the edge of the dried-up mud bank that surrounded the hole. Even my untrained eye could tell that the two animals had collided and rolled over.
‘Is this where the lioness made its kill? There’s no blood.’
‘Yes, they don’t usually tear their prey – mostly they suffocate it by putting their jaws over its mouth and nose. See?’ He pointed to the ground. ‘You can make out where she lifted it up after it was dead and dragged it away.’
It was all there, if you could read it, all the drama of the African bush, just waiting to be unlocked. Deval nudged me in the ribs.
‘We’ll make a tracker out of you yet.’
Despite Deval’s confidence I just picked up the rudiments and only managed to pass the tracking stage with a little assistance from a Bushman sergeant who seemed to have taken a shine to me. When following my allotted trail I completely lost the track and was searching vainly for any sign. I had forgotten the first lesson in tracking: don’t look at the ground, but for possible routes the quarry might have taken, and only glance. occasionally down for confirmation of the trail. I happened to notice that my Bushman commander’s eyes kept flicking behind me. I did a 180-degree turn and was able to pick up the track again and complete my assignment. Whether Deval and his instructors noticed my extra help I have no way of knowing. Nothing was ever said, though when Deval congratulated me on passing the course he said he would never trust me to track anything at any time.
This was the most enjoyable three weeks of my stay in Africa. The nights were spent round a large fire after a hearty meal, drinking coffee and listening to Deval as he told story after story about the African bush and the Bushmen he so dearly loved. He told of the blood feud between the Bushmen and our present opponents in Angola and South West Africa, SWAPO. Bushmen had always been hunted and oppressed by their black neighbours, who coveted their women with their exquisite, slightly oriental features and diminutive size. To the lasting shame of the white man the oppression of the Bushman had continued right up until the twentieth century. As late as the early thirties there were still organized Bushman hunts. Nevertheless, with the advent of the war  in South West Africa the Army was not slow to capitalize on their tracking and fighting skills. They were used first as trackers, then later organized into a fighting force, 31 Battalion, which performed heroically in the Angolan war.
As Deval told it, in the early stages of the confrontation with SWAPO a Bushman patrol had found an ambush position. They reported it to a white officer, who checked the position and decided it was an old one. Two days later a Bushman patrol was sent out to have a look at this ‘old’ position. Seven men were ambushed and annihilated. For a race of only two to three thousand this loss of seven young males was a catastrophe. The various bands of Bushmen formed together, sent their women into hiding and headed en masse for the border to exact revenge. They were prevented from crossing the border by the South African Army and police. After negotiations during which some of the old chiefs were taken into custody and their rifles confiscated, they eventually gave an oath not to cross the border unless ordered to do so, but they swore eternal vengeance on any member of SWAPO who fell into their clutches.
Towards the end of the course, as we sat round our camp-fire, we were told that two buffalo had to be killed to feed the Bushmen. Traditionally a member of the Selection course shot one. I was chosen. Deval said: ‘Here you see a great white hunter, all the way from Scotland. Tomorrow he is going to hunt the most dangerous animal in Africa armed with the weapon least suitable for the job! I want you all to wish him well.’
My companions gave a round of applause. I grinned from ear to ear and felt elation and anticipation well up inside me.
At daybreak Deval gave us a lecture on the African bull buffalo and how to hunt it with an FN 7.62 rifle. ‘A bull weighs well over a ton. It can, and will, charge at speeds of up to forty-five miles an hour. If you don’t stop this beast it will kill you. Its skull is solid bone, nearly an inch thick; its horns are over four inches in diameter. When it charges it cannot be killed with a head shot with an Express .50-calibre elephant gun, let alone an FN 7.62. Your only hope is to shoot it in the spine. When it’s coming straight at you, your target area is two inches wide by about a foot long.’
My comrades, who had been rather envious on the previous night, were showing distinct signs of relief that it was me and  not them who had been chosen for the hunt. Deval could see my unease. His face broke into a broad smile. ‘Don’t worry, Jock, you’re going to shoot your buffalo from the back of one of our Unimogs, not on foot. Hunting on foot is a job for professional hunters, who are fresh and have the correct weapons and a back-up, not for a tired recruit with only an FN.’ He paused. ‘This is, of course, if you get a clean kill. It it’s only wounded you’ll have to track it and kill it on foot.’ Deval’s grey-blue eyes bored into mine. His voice, normally cheerful, had become ice-cold and emotionless. ‘The most dangerous animal in the world is a wounded bull buffalo. It will dog-leg into thick bush, where we can’t take the vehicles, and wait. Its eyesight is poor, so it normally charges at about fifty metres. You only have four to five seconds at the most before it kills you. If it comes to that, remember, aim for the spine. Nothing else will stop it.’
There was total silence. All eyes were on me. My mouth was dry, and anyway I couldn’t trust myself to speak, so I simply nodded. Then Deval gave a great laugh and slapped me hard on the shoulder. ‘But I’m sure you’ll get him first shot, Jock.’ Everyone laughed.
We mounted two Unimogs and set off. I was on the back of the first vehicle, just behind Deval. Our driver was Fabes, a sandy-haired, swashbuckling Afrikaner with a physique most body-builders would give a year’s supply of steroids to possess. The morning was beautiful, the air so dry and clean it made you feel you’d live for ever. Barely fifteen minutes from the camp we sighted the herd, two to three hundred strong. A hundred yards or so from them, Deval called us to a halt.
‘Remember, Jock, only a bull, and aim for the spine. Are you ready?’
I checked my FN; it was cocked and had a full mag. Deval looked at Fabes. ‘Let’s go.’
In seconds we were among the stampeding herd. Out of the melee, a magnificent bull came straight at us. Fabes swerved as its lowered horns grazed the front offside of the Unimog. Then it was beside us.
Above the thunder of hoofs Deval shouted: ‘Shoot, Jock, shoot!’
I raised the FN. The barrel was shaking terribly. I couldn’t get  a sight on the animal’s back. For a split second I had one, and my finger caressed the trigger. As I fired the Unimog hit a bump. I knew instinctively I’d missed my target and almost in desperation I fired twice more. The huge beast veered off. We came to an abrupt stop. I raised my rifle again but Deval’s hand came up.
‘Don’t! You can’t get a killing shot from this angle.’
He dropped lightly to the ground. Fabes stood up, nervously scanning the bush. Deval walked several yards behind us then dropped to his knee. He touched the bush floor with his hand, then his nose. Looking at me, he said: ‘You’ve hit him, Jock. Bad, but not bad enough. You’d better get down.’
I walked slowly over to Deval, whose face was chalk white.
‘It’s a dangerous thing we’re going to do now, Jock.’
Years later I was to read how the son of the great wartime commando leader, Lord Lovat, was killed doing exactly what I was about to do and remembered Deval’s words.
He pointed to a patch of bush some seventy yards away. ‘I think it’s in there. We’re going to walk slowly towards it. Never take your eyes off it. When it charges . .
‘I know, the spine.’
The bush was thick – small trees and clumps of dense scrub and thorn-bushes. I kept my eyes fixed on where Deval had indicated but for the life of me I couldn’t see anything. How could something as large as a buffalo just disappear? We were thirty yards into the bush when I heard a noise like a low, gruff cough. We froze. It was hard to tell where the sound came from, but it sounded awfully close. I was about to step forward again when Deval’s left hand grasped my shoulder. He pointed slightly to the left of the bush we were heading towards. I saw a greyish-brown shape. I was raising my rifle when there was a thunderous bellow: a mixture of pain, anger and defiance. The bull emerged, head down, charging us at full speed.
It seemed to fill my entire world, like an express train coming out of a tunnel. I sighted along the barrel and fired. A puff of dust erupted from the creature’s horns. Too low. I fired again. This time the shot was high on its left shoulder. For just a second panic threatened to overwhelm me. Was it stoppable? I gritted my teeth, my eyes fixed on the target. (`The spine, Jock, the spine.’) In a microsecond the first lesson on marksmanship I ever learnt in the  Paras came back to me: don’t jerk the trigger, squeeze it. Slowly, I did. The bull suddenly did a forward somersault and lay, with its left leg, twitching. I later measured the distance from where it fell to our position. It was exactly fourteen metres.
Deval had his rifle resting nonchalantly on his shoulder.
‘You didn’t fire?’
He shook his head. ‘No, it’s your kill. Besides’ – he turned and smiled – ‘I always knew you could stop it.’
Those words meant a lot to me. I walked over to the buffalo. Its back was broken but it still tried to get to its feet. Suddenly I felt like crying. It had a heart as big as Africa. Even though it was mortally wounded, it wanted to fight me with its dying breath. I turned away, unable to watch as Deval gave it the coup de grace. I was aware of him standing beside me, a sad, ironic look on his face.
‘I know what you’re feeling, Jock. It was the same with my first buffalo. But always remember, we shot it not for sport but to feed others. That’s the way of Africa.’
One of the instructors shot a second buffalo from the back of the Unimog, showing us how it should have been done. We loaded both carcasses and drove to the Bushmen’s camp some five miles away. There were very few men there; most were employed by or actually serving with the SADF. We unloaded the two buffalo and the women set about butchering them immediately, showing a skill many a high-street butcher would have envied. I noticed our own Bushmen mixing with old friends and talking excitedly in their high-pitched, clicking tongue. ‘They’re telling of your hunt,’ Deval said. ‘They say you’re a great hunter from across a great river, who risked his life to bring them food. You’re part of their history now, Jock. The Bushmen don’t have a written language, they keep their history alive by storytelling. As long as this band lives the story of your hunt will live.’
That night the instructors gave us a superb meal and afterwards I moved to sit beside the slowly winding river. It was pleasantly warm, the sky still lit by the sinking sun. The wind was filled with the calls of late hunting birds, grunting hippos and the occasional snorting of a cat. It was a timeless moment of awe-inspiring beauty. I wished I could sit there for ever. My reverie was interrupted by a loud shout. Deval emerged out of the darkness, a radio in one  hand, a bottle of brandy in the other, followed by Fabes and two instructors.
‘Jock, do you know which is the best rugby team in South Africa?’
I shook my head, smiling.
‘Northern Transvaal. Do you know where I’m from?’
‘Northern Transvaal?’ I ventured.
‘That’s right.’ He poked a finger playfully in my chest. ‘Now do you know which team has won the Inter-Provincial Championship?’
‘Right again. Now, Jock, you’re going to have a drink with us to celebrate.’
A mug filled with a generous measure of brandy was pressed into my hand. We raised our improvised glasses in a toast and knocked back a slug. I nearly gagged. I hadn’t eaten properly in six weeks and my stomach threatened to rebel against this sudden assault by alcohol. Fabes slapped me on the back and refilled my mug. For two hours we sat toasting Northern Transvaal and swapping stories, mine about Ulster, theirs about the Angolan war, and we all became gloriously drunk.
Suddenly Deval ordered us to be quiet. At first I heard nothing, then in the distance the sound of a small outboard motor.
‘Do you know what that is?’ He didn’t wait for an answer. ,Poachers coming across from Botswana to shoot hippo. Bastards. I hate poachers.’ Without warning he jumped up, lifted his rifle and fired in the direction of the river. In seconds the instructors were on their feet firing bursts with AK47s and FNs. Every now and again they would pause and we could hear quite clearly the sound of the boat circling. Then they would open fire again. Eventually the boat took off at high speed towards Botswana. Highly satisfied, we adjourned to bed.
I woke at first light with a monumental hangover and staggered to the main camp-site. No sooner had I arrived than a patrol from the South African Border Police turned up. Deval, looking much the worse for wear, went to greet them.
‘Two fishermen from Botswana were fired on during the night.’
‘You mean poachers,’ Deval said. 
The burly police officer shrugged and smiled. Both men had been hit, one in the leg, the other in the arm.
‘Were you firing last night?’
‘Yes, indeed we were,’ Deval said. ‘We had a live firing exercise.’
The police officer looked at Deval, then at us, shrugged again, said he would have to report to his superiors, and left. We heard no more about it.
After packing up we drove back to Fort Doppies to clean up and have an end-of-course party. The bar in the operational camp was colourfully decorated with captured weapons and trophies. Everything had a story behind it, even the solid oak bar. Marius Fallun, the giant with the red beard, had wandered into the South African Border Police local for a drink, during the course of which the police had boasted that their bar was the heaviest in South West Africa. Even four Recces couldn’t carry it outside. If they could, they could have it. Marius surveyed the bar. He couldn’t carry it outside on his own, but if he could pick it up could he have it? Certainly, his hosts had replied. To their astonishment he did so. It weighed over three hundred pounds. The next day Marius arrived with a truck and four other Recces. The bar was in Fort Doppies that night.
Fabes told me the story. As we drank more I felt I should repay him and decided to teach him the Irish drinking song ‘I’ve Been a Wild Rover’. Fabes loved the song, making me repeat it over and over again until he could remember every word. Its story, of an unreformed drinker, fighter and wanderer, exactly mirrored his own life. From then on he would break into song at the earliest opportunity, banging out the chorus on the bar with his big fists. As Fabes was to singing what Adolf Hitler was to race relations, not everybody was happy I taught him.
By midnight I was merrily drunk, leaning against the bar and soaking up the stories of all the other trophies. People began to drift away from me. I turned to find out why. Behind me was the former Green Beret who had been caught stashing food on the course. He ordered a drink and after a little preamble began a tirade about how badly he had been treated. I let him ramble on. Then he started to insult Deval De Beer. I told him, in quite colourful language, that he was not fit to mention the man’s name. 
He threw a drink over me. I suggested we step outside. He was over six foot tall and muscular and stood in a classic karate pose: feet well spread, left fist forward, right turned upwards to strike. I thought, Harry, you might have bitten off more than you can chew. The American launched a beautiful roundhouse kick to my head. It missed by a mile.
I began to walk round him, smiling, my eyes never leaving his hands. I never look at a man’s eyes, always his hands. Nobody ever hit me with their eyes. I spoke to my adversary, keeping my voice low and calm.
‘I don’t know any karate, but let me show you how we fight in Glasgow.’ Leaping up, I head-butted him, breaking his nose, and as his head came forward on the rebound I bit off the top of his ear. All thoughts of karate deserted him as he scratched my face like a demented woman. We fell to the floor and by the time we were pulled apart he was in a terrible mess.
Very little was said about the fight. Deval gave us a talking-to then sent the American off to get stitched up. I went back to the party. On his return to Durban, the American was put on admin duties and then invited to leave the unit. The only real flak I got was from one of his friends. As the party started to disperse he came up to me and pointed his rifle at my head.
‘I don’t like the way you fight,’ he muttered drunkenly.
He was ushered away by his friends. Funnily enough, and quite by accident, I shot him twice in the leg during some live contact drills six weeks later. After that I never saw him again.
We returned to Durban for a well-earned break and on my first day back I was involved in my second and last fist-fight in South Africa. The most popular programme on children’s TV there was a puppet show featuring a gigantic dragon called the Cry Monster who was continually trying to cat the other puppets. In the unit we had a man nicknamed the Cry Monster. He was a Boer to his bootstraps; brought up to believe that everything English was the work of the Devil and that the English had tried to exterminate the Boer women in concentration camps by feeding them broken glass.
All this was unknown to me, I walked into the unit’s bar for a quick beer before going home and became aware of a large head turning to observe me. 
‘Hey, Englishman, where have you come from?’ said a guttural, drunken voice.
Even sitting the Cry Monster looked huge. I gave him the benefit of a cold stare. ‘I’m not English, I’m a Scot.’
He stood up. it was like watching a volcano getting ready to erupt. He lumbered slowly towards me and bent down so that his face was close to mine. A finger like a large sausage poked me in the chest. ‘If I say you’re an Englishman, you’re an Englishman.’
I poked him back. ‘No I’m not.’
He hit me; a short, vicious jab just below the heart. I felt as if my chest had caved in. Desperately, I stabbed out with my right thumb, driving it into the big man’s eye. He roared with anger, throwing his head back. I punched him in the throat with my left fist. Another hammer blow hit me in my right side. I distinctly heard a rib break. My back was against the wall. A titanic blow, that would surely have removed my head, thundered into the wooden panelling, leaving a vast hole. More blows hit me as I began to slide towards the floor, punching furiously at my adversary. His body was like iron; I might as well have thrown snowballs at him. From beyond my vision I heard a shout. Everything stopped. The unit RSM stepped into sight; he was a man nobody argued with. He spoke in a low voice, first in Afrikaans. The Cry Monster stood to attention.
Then, in English, the RSM said: ‘You’re a disgrace to the unit, fighting in the NCOs’ bar. Be in my office in five minutes.’
With great difficulty, I stood to attention. We had the most intense tongue-lashing, I’ve ever had, in two languages. The fight cost me a week’s pay, and two broken ribs. Eight months later, after returning from operations, I walked into the same bar. There sat the Cry Monster. I stood beside him. From across the room a Recce asked: ‘Hey, Englishman, are you just back?’
The Cry Monster threw a huge arm round my shoulder. ‘He’s not an Englishman, he’s a Scot.’ He looked across at me. Sitting down made us almost the same height. ‘What will you drink, Jock?’
After a five-day break, we went back to the Caprivi Strip to finish our training with an eight-week tactics course. Rising at first light and finishing at 2200 we learnt and practised every skill we would need to operate in the unit. We fired thousands of rounds of live ammunition. Three members of the course were  shot during live firing exercises – about par for the course. The officer in charge was Lieutenant Kocky de Toit, a tall man with a lean, teak-hard body. His swarthy features were dominated by a hooked nose that gave him the appearance of a bird of prey. His opening talk showed his devotion to his chosen profession.
‘This next course will decide which of you will go forward on to operations. Soldiering is not a part-time profession. I am never off duty. When I drive my car I observe the countryside around me and think how I would cross it if there was an enemy patrolling it. When I’m walking and see a hill, I wonder how I would attack it if it was an enemy position. Within a few short weeks, those who pass this course will be in combat. After that you will come to realize that you can never let your mind become dulled. Not if you want to live and not if you want to be a Recce.’
One afternoon I was given the task of clearing out the unit’s armoury. It was a gun freak’s heaven. Explosives, ammunition and weapons of every shape and design were scattered about. I found a small pack of Australian detonators, half the size of normal ones. I kept these; I had a use for them.
The course finished with stiff written and practical examinations. We were also ‘buddy-rated’. Each man gave his fellow students a rating of between ten and zero, for as we’d lived, worked and sweated together for nearly six months it was an excellent way for the instructors to find out just what we thought of each other. I came third. One of my final tests was a TEWT, Tactical Exercise Without Troops, with Kocky de Toit. He sat in the shade of a low tree, clipboard in hand, and fired questions at me. What patrol formation would I use to cross that stream? Where would I lay an ambush on the river? What are the unit’s ambush drills? What method of initiation would I use to set off the ambush? The questions came thick and fast. Suddenly Kocky stopped and observed me over the top of his clipboard.
‘Why are you here, Jock?’
The question took me completely by surprise. I said the first thing that came into my mind. ‘I’m trying to pass this tactics course.’
Kocky smiled. ‘That’s not what I meant. Why are you in South Africa? Why are you trying to get into the Recces?’
I started to give him what had become my standard reply to such questions: South Africa was the last bastion of democracy  against communist aggression in Africa and I thought it was my duty to help defend it etc. Kocky listened patiently then sighed.
‘Don’t try to bullshit me, Jock. I’m going to be leading you in action very soon. What’s your real reason for being here?’
I looked him squarely in the eyes. ‘I want to fight. The British Army has spent a fortune training me, only to send me to Ulster against an enemy they won’t allow me to fight. I want to find out if I can do it for real.’
‘I thought so. It’s as good a reason as any. For me, of course, it’s different, I’m a Boer. Do you know what that means?’
‘It means more than that. To us it means the land itself and the freedom to rule ourselves, to be our own people. Even the blacks call us the white tribe of Africa. To me that’s something worth fighting for.’
‘What about the blacks? Don’t they have the same rights?’
He grimaced. ‘Of course, Jock, only a madman could resist change for ever. But now is not the time, not with the communists pulling the ANC’s strings. If the rest of the world will just give us time we will find our own solution, an African solution.’ He paused for a second to collect his thoughts before continuing: ‘Now, Jock, you have twenty men, two 60mm mortars and three light machine-guns. Tell me how you would deploy them to attack a three-man enemy observation post on that hill . . .’
Our training was nearly finished. Of the 410 men who started only twelve remained. We were allowed the luxury of a drinking party, secure in the knowledge that there would be no training the next day. It was a marathon session where we started on beer but ended up drinking vast quantities of rum. At some time in the early hours of the morning I was called upon to partner Kocky in a game of darts. I was very drunk.
‘Here’s the darts, Jock.’
‘Right, boss. Where’s the throwing line?’
Kocky guided me to a chalked mark on the wooden floor. ‘Cot it, boss. Now where’s the board?’
‘Underneath that light, Jock.’ He pointed an outstretched arm. Seeing a dim light in the distance, I took careful aim and threw. My dart punctured the light.
The next morning we all took time to surface. When I woke  my head was pounding and my mouth felt like the inside of Gandhi’s left flip-flop. When we’d recovered sufficiently Kocky called us into the briefing room. He looked around our twelve bleary-eyed faces.
‘It is normal at the end of training for the Selection Course to undertake an operation.’
All thoughts of my hangover disappeared.
Kocky surveyed us and smiled.
‘We have one for you.’ 
‘Gentlemen, we are going to change history.’
Commandant K, from the briefing for Operation Milk Float
Our first operation, code-named First Blood, was to destroy a temporary base in Zambia belonging to SWAPO, the guerrilla group fighting for the independence of South West Africa (now Namibia). The base was a small transit camp, situated less than ten kilometres over the border. It had been recced by Lieutenant de Toit and the support group, who knew the ground well and estimated there were no more than thirty terrorists there. Like all good military operations the plan was simple. We would be lifted by helicopter to within five kilometres of our target and walk the rest of the way. South African helicopters had been deliberately flying over the area for several weeks, so their distant sound would not unduly worry the camp’s inhabitants.
Once in the area, we would split into an assault group, led by Kocky de Toit, and a fire-support group, under the command of a senior sergeant who had flown up from Durban. The assault group would be divided into two teams of six. I had command of one. Kocky would be in the centre with his radio operator. The fire-support team would lay a string of claymore mines along the side of the enemy camp, then proceed to a flanking position. They would be armed with three RPD light machine-guns, two commando mortars and an RPG rocket launcher. At H hour Kocky would fire a green flare, the mines would be detonated and the camp raked with fire for exactly thirty seconds, then switched to a secondary arc of fire on the camp’s perimeter. Anybody breaking  over this line would be shot. Kocky would then fire a red flare and we would advance into the killing zone, killing any enemy we encountered and driving others into the path of the waiting support machine-guns.
After months of Selection and training we were going to see action. Despite the fact that this time we were doing it for real, nothing seemed different. We rehearsed everything in minute detail: boarding the helicopter, the patrol formation to the target area, the setting up of the assault and finally the assault itself. Two hours Were given to prepare kit and test weapons for an inspection at 5 p.m. Then supper followed by an enforced rest until 10 o’clock, when a final inspection would be made. I always found sleep difficult before an operation but the idea of an enforced rest is a good one, giving each man the opportunity to relax his body, if not his mind. The three companions who shared my room spent most of the time reading the Bible. The Afrikaner soldier is a deeply religious man. They are fond of saying they fight all wars with a rifle in one hand and the Bible in the other. I didn’t believe in organized religion, but on the assumption that I could be wrong, I always tried to make peace with God before a battle. I would simply ask Him to look on the good things I had done and if I had forgotten Him, to please not forget me.
At 10 a.m. the next morning we paraded. I was armed with an AK47 with a double magazine, two thirty-round mags welded together, with five thirty-round mags in my chest webbing. In addition, I carried a Beretta 9mm pistol with a fifteen-round mag, two fragmentation grenades, a white-phosphorus grenade and two red smoke grenades, food and water to last me twenty-four hours, a map, compass and kit, the fighting battle order of a combat Recce soldier. We had a final inspection; weapons were checked, each soldier jumped up and down to check for any excess noise, then we moved off on foot in single file to RV with the helicopters in open ground to the west of the camp.
Thirty minutes later the helicopters landed at our own LZ and we embarked. We flew in a circular route to the drop-off point, in case any SWAPO patrols or agents had detected our departure. Then we were out of the helicopters and in enemy territory. We fanned out into our patrol formation, in single file with two lead scouts and a flanking scout on each side. Not for the first time did  I marvel at the silence with which my fellow Recces moved. Most had been born and raised on farms and had been hunting since they were big enough to hold a rifle. They glided through the bush like ghosts.
We took our time reaching the target area, stopping frequently to listen. Every forty minutes we would have a five-minute stop and change our scouts. Hardly a whisper was exchanged. Two and a half hours later we reached the outskirts of the enemy camp. Even the poor tracker could begin to see the tell-tale signs of footprints in the soft sand of the surrounding bush. The countryside was mostly sparse with occasional large clumps of low trees. The enemy’s camp was in one such clump which surrounded a small water-hole.
Lieutenant de Toit deployed the assault force, making sure each man knew where the enemy was. Kocky was so cool and professional you’d have thought he was out for a stroll in the park. The fire-support group moved off. It would take them most of the night to lay their long line of claymores and if they were discovered we would have to do an immediate assault in darkness. I checked my watch: 0100, about four and a half hours until dawn. We were lying within arm’s length of each other and one man would rest for thirty minutes while his buddy kept watch. The night passed slowly. I felt a gentle shake on my shoulder. I must have dozed off. I checked my watch: 0530. The sun was just beginning to rise; a bird began to sing. I looked to my left to see Kocky getting to his feet. It was H hour.
Kocky lifted his pencil flare gun and fired a green flare. Almost immediately there was the deafening concussion of the claymores being fired. I don’t know what it did to the enemy but it shook me. For a second, I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of my lungs. Then the machine-guns opened up, and the air was filled with hundreds of speeding red bees – boy, did they sting! Smaller explosions erupted in the camp as the RPGs and mortars found their mark. it seemed to be going on for ever. Above the din I heard Kocky shouting in Afrikaaris for us to get to our feet. We stood in our assault line, all of us straining like sprinters waiting for the starter’s gun for the word to advance.
Then there was silence. It was so sudden it caught me by surprise. I heard a drawn-out, coughing whine. Although I didn’t realize what it was then, the noise was to become all too familiar to  me. It was the sound a dying man gives as the air escapes from his body.
I was so keen I tan forward two or three paces.
‘Steady there, Jock,’ Kocky shouted. I fell back into the assault line and we advanced into the killing zone.
What amazed me most was that no fire was directed at us. We simply walked in. I was aware of several running uniformed figures. I pointed my weapon at one and hesitated. After all those tours in Ulster I thought I should be giving a warning. Then the man on my right opened fire and the figure collapsed. I saw a second figure, naked to the waist, an AKS assault rifle in his hand. I fired, and cursed. I’d meant to fire two well-aimed shots but my AK was on auto. I’d hit him with about five rounds. As I went to step over him he groaned and moved. I fired again, this time a single, well-aimed shot. His face dissolved. I moved on now, firing at the fleeting targets around me. I saw a movement in a bush slightly to my right and a splash of red where no red should be. I fired two shots and a terrorist reared up, an AK47 in his hands. He was close enough for me to see the terror in his eyes. I fired twice more and he flipped over backwards and disappeared.
The sound of machine-gun fire halted me. We were at our limit of exploitation. Kocky held up his hand and we did an about-turn, moving back through the killing zone. There was the occasional shot as a wounded terrorist was dispatched. Recces seldom took prisoners unless specifically ordered to do so. Our second sweep completed, we thoroughly searched the bodies and collected all weapons and documents. Twenty-nine were accounted for in the camp and another five outside. Thirty-four, so our intelligence had been almost perfect. We booby-trapped several of the bodies with white-phosphorus grenades in the hope of catching some of the rescue party.
We did a quick head count. Everybody was there, none of us had a scratch. Kocky surveyed the carnage around us with grim satisfaction. I was so excited I could hardly breathe. He smiled down at me from his great height.
‘Reminds me of my first op, Jock.’
‘Yes, there we were, four against four hundred.’ 
My jaw dropped open; I was hanging on his every word. Then suddenly his darkened face broke into a broad grin.
‘Toughest four we ever fought.’
He gave me a playful punch in the chest.
I burst out laughing: it was just what was needed to bring us all back to reality. After gathering all the enemy weapons that were serviceable and laying a few anti-personnel mines under the ones that were not, we moved off quickly in our patrol formation, travelling faster now it was daylight. We covered the return distance in less than half the time and treated ourselves to a quick brew before the helicopters arrived. In less than three hours after the attack began we were back in Fort Doppies.
‘Well done. You are all now members of the best special forces unit in the world and don’t ever forget that,’ Kocky roared. We gave a mighty cheer. ‘Now go get a shower. The next RV is the bar.’
This custom was to characterize all future operations I undertook. After the action, good or bad, we would adjourn to the bar and everybody would have his say over a drink. The patrol commander would write up his report and circulate a copy among the men. Anyone was then free to voice his views to the commander or go direct to the CO. To some this might seem like anarchy but it had its roots in the first Boer Commandos and generally ensured that there were no hidden grievances that could destroy the cohesion of a small fighting unit. Our first operation had been an almost textbook success. We were on a high, and it was a very merry bunch of Recces that got drunk that night. I suppose I should have realized that it couldn’t last.
For some time rumours had been circulating in the unit that a major strike was planned against SWAPO in Angola. Instead of going back to Durban after ‘First Blood’, we joined the preparations for what was to be the largest operation ever carried out by Recce Commando. The target was the main SWAPO supply base in Angola, code-named ‘Camp Moscow’. It was just ten kilometres across the South West African border. They called it Operation Yeti.
The plan was simple. Two Hercules C130 transport planes would take just about every operational member of the unit, 120  in all, just to the north of the target. We would drop at night, walk the short distance to the camp and deploy and assault at first light. The camp was built in the shape of a huge vee, facing south. By attacking from the north we hoped to avoid the heavy 14.5mm and 12.5mrn anti-aircraft guns dug in for ground defence. These were formidable weapons, capable of piercing armour. Behind them it was estimated there would be about 500 terrorists. But with surprise on our side, we didn’t anticipate too many problems.
We practised for two weeks. The assault force, over a hundred strong, was to be divided into two wings. Fire support came from ten commando mortars. It was decided that they would fire the heavier South African Army sixty-millimetre mortar round instead of the Portuguese round it was designed for. This was to have disastrous consequences. After the attack 32 Battalion, a mercenary Battalion comprised mainly of ex-Portuguese commandos and paratroopers, would be flown in to cover our retreat.
As H hour drew near we made our final preparations. Each man was carrying very heavy personal ammunition and extra mortar and machine-gun rounds. As we expected to be in and out in less than six hours most of us carried only two water bottles.
After embarking at the main air base in South West Africa, the Assault Group flew north. Almost immediately things started to go wrong. Flying time should have been about an hour but two hours later we were still airborne. The pilot was hopelessly lost, in the flat, almost featureless terrain of southern Angola. Eventually, ninety minutes behind schedule, we parachuted into the night and made our RV. There had been no casualties during the drop. We set off, south.
Daylight found us still walking. We stopped to try and find our bearings but this proved impossible. It was decided to ask for a spotter plane to fly us out. Two hours later it found us and relayed our position to us. It was not good news: we were not only seventeen kilometres from the target, but on the south side, the most heavily defended quarter. Nevertheless our commander, Major B, decided to continue.
We began to walk northwards. Our meagre supply of water was no match for the oppressive heat, and stops were frequent in the face of increasing dehydration. By mid-afternoon we were beginning to detect signs of enemy activity; vehicle noises quite  man told his wife, and every single man his girlfriends, and forty-eight hours later half of Durban knew. We were to leave on the 17th and spend two weeks in build-up training. This was very gentle compared with what had gone before: mostly shooting, mine laying and ambush drills.
On the final day of training we had a gigantic party. We would spend the following day with our families and leave at noon the day after. At 0200 most of our group had sought the sanctuary of their sleeping bags. I found myself alone in the bar with Kocky. He suddenly looked round and asked: ‘Where have they all gone, Jock?’
‘They shouldn’t have done that, Jock. Do you know why> Because, Jock, we’re not all coming back from this job.’
I laughed. ‘Well, just as long as both of us do.’ We toasted each other.
On 17 January we paraded at 0800. There was an excited buzz around the camp. We were told to draw our special kit at 0900. At the unit’s stores we were each given a three-foot oblong box. Opening it, I found four sets of uniforms: two dark green and two in Rhodesian camouflage. I turned to the man next to me and said: ‘Somehow, I don’t think we’re going to Angola.’
With heightened expectation we headed for the briefing room.
The CO surveyed our assembled ranks. ‘Men, you are going to do the job you want to do. You are going to Rhodesia to help our brothers-in-arms, the Rhodesian SAS. Never forget who you are and where you came from. You go with our hopes and blessings and take the honour of the unit with you.’ It was a stirring speech, and looking at my fellow Recces I knew it had the desired effect. On their faces I read determination, commitment and anticipation.
Our intelligence officer (we would get a detailed brief once in the country) gave us the overall picture. It was not exactly rosy. In simple terms, the Rhodesians were losing their war. No matter how fast they destroyed guerrilla groups, new ones sprang up to take their place. The Rhodesian Special Forces were strained almost to the limit and had been for some time. Our job would be to relieve them in a key area – the Gaza province of Mozambique – and disrupt the main infiltration route for Robert Mugabe’s ZANU guerrillas. The area was heavily patrolled by regular  FRELIMO troops (the Mozambique Liberation Front, founded in 1962 and victorious in their war against the Portuguese) who were well armed and trained by the North Koreans. The Rhodesian Army had a nickname for the area we were to work in: the ‘Russian Front’.
Flown out by Dakota (the South African Airforce would not risk a Hercules), we landed in Rhodesia some three hours later and were driven in convoy to our new home at Buffalo Range, in the Triangle Region. Our neighbours were the famed Selous Scouts, commanded by the legendary Lieutenant -Colonel Ron Read Daly. We took over our tented encampment from the departing members of the unit and had time to swap a few stories before they departed. The first news was not encouraging. Three members of the Rhodesian SAS had been killed in an accidental explosion the previous night while laying a mine. We were using the same type.
At first we laid simple pressure-detonated mines, with an anti-lift switch. The enemy countered by sweeping for these with Russian-designed, Korean-supplied mine-detectors. These gave off a high-pitched signal, similar to a sonar beep, when a mine was located. Our scientists countered this by designing a device which worked like a tuning fork. When the detector ‘beeped’ this device vibrated, setting off the mine and killing the operator. One up for US. it took a long time to train a mine-clearance operator. The FRELIMO reverted to the tried-and-tested method of prodding for the mines with long, thin metal rods. We lost several mines to the opposition in this manner. An equalizer for FRELIMO. We countered by encasing our mines with three thin sheets of polystyrene, between which were two sheets of metal wire. When the rods pierced the two sets of wire, forming a circuit, the mine exploded. The opposition lost several men before they realized what was happening. Two-one to us. No matter how well a mine was dug in, after a time there was always some sand subsidence, and FRELIMO would walk along tracks looking for these slight depressions. They became quite adept at spotting them, clearing away the sand, and if there was a mine, detonating, it. Another one for FRELIMO. To prevent them doing this we incorporated a light-sensitive electronic switch on the top of the mine which detonated it when exposed to sunlight. If things carried on like  this the mines would eventually jump up and chase the clearance parties.
For the present we settled in and were briefed on the area by our Rhodesian SAS colleagues. We would be working about 150-200 kilometres over the border in Gaza. This was an exceptionally arid area, and water was the main problem for extended patrolling. As ours would last for over three weeks, we were advised that each man should carry at least seven litres of water. Along with food, ammunition, spare mortar ammunition, mines, grenades, radios, cooking utensils and so on, this meant that each man was carrying in excess of eighty pounds.
Our main target, the ZANU terrorists, were held in little regard by our Rhodesian allies, but the FRELIMO regulars, especially the Z Force troops, trained in counter-insurgency by the North Koreans, were a very different matter. They would counter-attack in large numbers. These troops had killed two Recces just before Christmas 1977.
The FRELIMO X Companies operated in strengths of up to a hundred, using heavy mortar support and usually the Soviet 82mm mortar, which they man-packed. Once they were on your trail, they were difficult to shake, their main aim being to stay in loose contact and thus prevent completion of the mission: laying mines and ambushing ZANU guerrillas. If pursued, we had two alternatives: either be picked up by helicopter and redeploy or move east into a range of low hills which was excellent ambush country and FRELIMO had never followed a patrol there. If things became really bad we could count on immediate fire support from two Rhodesian Airforce Hawker Hunter jet fighters.
Casualty evacuation was a problem. The only helicopter then available to the Rhodesians was the South African-supplied, French-built Alouette. It didn’t have the range to reach our operating area without refuelling in the bush from a fuel drop made by a Dakota midway between us and the border. The Alouette would land in the bush, refuel, fly on to us, pick up the casualty, fly back ; refuel again and then return to Rhodesia. It was difficult, time-consuming and dangerous but the only way we could get our casualties out. We knew that if we took a casualty we would have to hold the position for at least two hours. Our briefings completed, we prepared for our  first deployment on 26 January 1978. It was my twenty-fifth birthday.
We would he in two twenty-three-man groups comprising three six-man teams and a five-man HQ element operating roughly ten kilometres apart. I was under the command of Lieutenant D. Lieutenant Kocky de Toit commanded the second group. Much to my surprise I was given command of a six-man team. This was my first combat command and I felt honoured.
The day before our insertion, I prepared my own surprise for our enemy. I’d always been fascinated by booby-traps and on my junior Infantry Course in Brecon several years before, a major who had served in the war in Oman had told me of an interesting device. I wanted to see if it worked. I took one of the Australian booby-trap detonators I had found while arranging the ammunition store back at Fort Doppies in the Caprivi Strip. I emptied a 7.62mm AK47 round and inserted the detonator into it, then tamped round it with a small amount of plastic explosive and resealed the round. The theory was simple: when the round was inserted into a rifle and fired, its .22 percussion cap would explode the detonator, which in turn would ignite the plastic explosives. I had been assured that this would have disastrous results for whoever fired the rifle.
In the early morning of the 26th, we gathered at the airfield, a short drive from our tented camp. Quite unexpectedly, a crate of beer was produced and my comrades all toasted my birthday. Then we enplaned on to a darkened Dakota and within seconds were airborne. The plane flew a zigzag pattern towards our drop zone and carried out dummy drops both before and after we jumped. At 0350 we stood up and hooked up. At 0400 precisely, we dropped into a darkened Mozambique night from a height of four hundred feet.
I was the last to jump and a sudden gust of wind separated me from my comrades. On the ground I rolled up my chute, threw my pack on my back and, carrying my chute, set off to find them. Being alone in hostile territory at night is a very unpleasant experience. Every few minutes, I would stop and listen, then give a short, low whistle, hoping my comrades would hear it and terrified that someone else might. Eventually, much to my relief, I found them. We greeted each other like we hadn’t seen each other for years instead of twenty minutes. The drop had been a complete success  with no casualties. We centralized and camouflaged the chutes, moved off a short distance and laid up for the remainder of the night. At first light we stood-to for ten minutes, had breakfast and began to patrol towards the Beira railway line.
Our days rapidly fell into a well-organized routine. One hour before last light we would dog-leg so that we would lie facing our tracks, able to ambush any terrorist group that followed them. Then we would set up camp, have our evening meal and settle in for the night. Movement at night was impossible as a large body of men made too much noise and the risk of ambush was too great. In the morning, after standing-to, we would move off for about half an hour and then have breakfast. We’d then patrol until 1300, when the heat made any movement almost unendurable. We would dog-leg again and lie up until it was cool enough to continue to patrol, usually about 1700, then move off again until just before last light.
Three days after our drop we hit the railway line. It was a single track with a hard sand road on either side. A steep embankment, about three feet high, bordered the bush on either side of the track. We crossed, stepping on sleeping bags so that footprints wouldn’t betray our presence. We reorganized into our fighting formation on the other side. Lieutenant D decided to go on a short recce. Dropping his pack, he took his binoculars and made his way up the embankment for a quick sweep up and down the track. He was back in seconds.
‘There’s a civvy coming down the track. We’ll grab him and ask whether there are any terrs in the area.’
Immediately Fabes volunteered for the job. He stripped off his equipment and produced a wicked-looking fighting knife. Corporal Taffy P (Taffy was a nickname given to blasters in South African gold mines) went with him, armed with an AK47 to provide close cover. The rest of us waited in the bush. In the few seconds before our victim appeared, we crouched like schoolchildren playing a prank. All around me I could see eager, grinning faces and I felt an almost overwhelming desire to burst out laughing.
Down the track came a man in dark-green uniform, a longbarrelled AK47 resting on his shoulder. Behind him was a second uniformed figure with an RPG rocket launcher. The smiles vanished from our faces. In one movement twenty-one weapons came  to bear on the two men. In front of us Fabes, unaware of his danger, gathered himself to spring. He raised himself, saw his quarry was armed, and threw himself flat. The men swung towards the movement. Taffy engaged both of them at close quarters. In a rush the rest of the group swarmed on to the embankment to support our friends. We’d been lucky there were only two. Taffy had shot both to doll rags, but if they had been scouts for a larger group we might very well have taken casualties. We had learnt a valuable lesson.
The RPG, a much-prized weapon, had been holed and was therefore useless. We booby-trapped it by digging a small hole in the ground and inserting a phosphorus grenade. We then laid the damaged RPG on top of the grenade and pulled the pin. The weight of the rocket launcher held the ignition lever down and we camouflaged the area with twigs and leaves. This booby-trap killed a FRELIMO engineer who foolishly picked up the damaged launcher. The AK47 was still serviceable, so we seized it. Its magazine had been holed by two of Taffy’s rounds. Before we withdrew I inserted my booby-trapped 7.62 round into the damaged magazine and discarded it. I hoped the FRELIMO clearance team would find it. They were always short of ammunition and I hoped they would empty the damaged magazine of its ammunition and insert it into another weapon. Late that evening we made comms with our base and told of our first contact.
Kocky’s group had also had a contact. They had been doglegging into their morning LUP when a FRELIMO patrol had bumped into them. In the battle eight FRELIMO soldiers had been killed and they lost a member of their patrol, Corporal Manny Ganou, an ex-Portuguese Commando and my next-door neighbour in Durban. He had been one of my instructors during Selection and had shown me many kindnesses since. His loss had a quieting effect on us all.
For the next three weeks we rampaged over our little patch of Mozambique, laying mines and ambushes, and on one occasion we drew our enemy into our killing zone by detonating a small explosive device. Some ten minutes later several locals drove a herd of cattle along the railway line across our front. Suspicious about the explosion, the enemy wanted to use them as bait for an ambush. We held our fire and waited. To my right I heard voices. 
Several armed men appeared and checked the building into which we had thrown the device. Still we waited, wanting to draw as many as possible into the killing area.
Then I heard a sound I had never heard before: a high-pitched squeaking. Slowly along the track came a hand-propelled trolley, just like the ones in Westerns, with two men pumping its double handle. Seated on top of a pile of mealy bags was a FRELIMO officer and walking along behind him was a line of armed men. I raised my AK47. just as the ambush was to be initiated the officer turned and looked directly into my eyes. He knew he was about to die. Fear, surprise and horror registered on his face as I opened fire. The group opened up with everything we had. There were no survivors. The man I shot was a local FRELIMO paymaster carrying a satchel stuffed with 30,000 Mozambique escudos. We were rich. We talked about how we would spend our windfall. The discussions proved purely academic. We were met at the airfield on our return by an officer from Rhodesian Intelligence who’d heard through radio intercepts that we had killed the paymaster.
‘I believe you were lucky enough to have intercepted a paymaster.’ His voice was upper-class English. ‘Would you be so good as to hand it over? I have the necessary written orders from your OC.’ He handed us a typed sheet of paper and we surrendered the money.
‘This will help to pay some of our informers inside Mozambique. Thank you very much.’
C’est la guerre, I thought, and found out later that 30,000 Mozambique escudos were worth a little under £500. Tax exile would have to wait. We were debriefed by Major B, who listened intently as we described our first operation and then stood to address us.
‘Well done. On your first mission, both the enemy and I have been impressed.’
‘The enemy?’ Lieutenant D enquired.
‘From our radio intercepts we have discovered that FRELIMO are aware that some new formation is working in Gaza province. They intend to counter with the best they have.’
‘Exactly. This is going to get a lot tougher in the coming months. Don’t get complacent.’ 
We had two days to rest up, then were reinserted, this time by helicopter, to lay another ambush on the Beira line. Waiting in an ambush is a nerve-racking time for any soldier. Unable to move, you are afraid your very breathing will be heard by the enemy. When they do arrive your heart beats so loud and fast, you wonder why they can’t hear it. You never stare at the enemy, fearing that to do so may draw his eyes to yours. Then, mayhem. The terror on the enemy faces before they die. In seconds it’s over. You search their bodies, destroy their weapons and booby-trap the area. It becomes almost routine. After the initial elation, a wave of bone-deep weariness floods over you as the adrenalin eats up your reserves of energy. The overwhelming emotion that lingers in my memory of that time is tiredness – tiredness and fear. Fear is a good emotion to cultivate; it keeps you alert. Without it few survive.
We did not have long to wait in our ambush position, less than an hour, then a party of ZANU terrorists walked into it. We could hear them coming a mile off, laughing and joking with each other as if they were on a Sunday afternoon stroll. We killed seven of them in the opening burst and two others who ran into one of our cut-offs. As we were clearing the ambush site we came under long-range mortar fire and withdrew for a pick-up.
Insertions became almost routine and our successes mounted. There was only one worrying development. We had been followed twice by FRELIMO Regulars. In one case, we had been lying in the blistering heat of the afternoon. I had just made a brew and was reaching for it when I quite clearly heard the sound of a mortar bomb being slid down a tube and fired. I froze, staring directly into the eyes of the man opposite me. The enemy was very, very close. The bomb was in the air and we didn’t know if it would come down on top of us. Those few brief seconds, as we waited for it to land and explode, seemed to stretch into hours. I became aware of the minutest detail: a drop of sweat on the lip of the man opposite me; his dark-brown eyes wide with fear and anticipation; the slow, lazy curl of the steam from my tea; my own heart banging against my chest. The bomb exploded harmlessly in the bush at least fifty metres from us. In seconds, we had packed up and slipped quietly away.
It seemed only a matter of time before we hit a major contact  with these well-trained soldiers, especially as we were planning for an extended period in the field. The group was to be split into three groups, two of ten men and a larger one of twenty-four. The smaller groups were to lay mines over a large system of tracks that ZANU and FRELIMO were using instead of the road which ran alongside the Beira line. The twenty-four-man group, under Kocky, was to carry out aggressive ambushes and patrol to our south, hopefully drawing all the FRELIMO attention and giving us a relatively free hand to lay our mines.
The mine-laying parties were commanded by two senior sergeants, Danny V and Louis K. Danny, who was in charge of my group, was a thickset, dour man who’d been a professional soldier since he was eighteen. If you got more than three words out of him in a day, you thought he was making a speech. Louis was exactly the opposite. He was as thin as a rake, with an amazingly long, drooping moustache. He could have played Dickens’s Fagin to a tee, but his looks were deceptive. He was exceptionally aggressive and a natural killer.
We were again inserted by two helicopters, the pilots undertaking various dummy landings in the hope of confusing both the locals and FRELIMO. We moved to a safe distance from our landing site and began laying mines that night. The next afternoon we heard the sound of heavy firing about a kilometre to our south in Louis’ patrol area. We set up our radio and made comms with base, telling them that we thought our other mine-laying group had hit a contact. They tried to contact them; all they got was silence. We feared the worst, then I heard a faint crackle on the radio net and tuned in.
‘Hello, Alpha 2, this is Alpha 1, can you receive me? Over.
There was a distorted, garbled reply that I could hardly understand and almost immediately the signaller at base tried to cut in.
‘Alpha 2, this is Base, come in. Over. . .’
‘Base, this is Alpha 1. Don’t interrupt, Alpha 2 has a damaged set. I’m going to try and relay . . .’
‘Alpha 2, don’t try and speak, just depress your switch – one for yes, twice for no. Understand?’ I waited breathlessly for the reply.
Relief flooded through me. ‘Good, I roger your yes. Have you hit a contact?’ 
‘Roger your yes. Have you casualties?’
‘Roger your yes. Is your set damaged?’
‘Roger that. Are you still in contact with the enemy?’
‘Roger your no.’ I thought quickly back to our briefing. After the drop-off Louis was to move north, laying mines as he went. We’d moved nearly ten kilometres during the time we had been inserted.
‘Alpha 2, have you moved north from your drop-off point?’
‘Roger that, Alpha 2. Have you moved more than ten Ks?’
‘Roger your no, Alpha 2. I’m going to arrange a pick-up, wait out to you. Hello, Base, this is Alpha 1. Alpha 2 has had a contact, has casualties and requires immediate extraction. He’s less than ten Ks north of his original pick-up.’
‘Roger, Alpha 1, we’re already on our way. Tell Alpha 2 to throw red smoke when he hears the ‘copter. Over.’
‘Roger, Base, out to you. Alpha 2 from Base, throw red smoke when you hear the ‘copter. Over.’
‘Roger your yes, Alpha 2. We’ll stay on listening watch until you’re picked up. Out.’
I put down the handset with a sigh. I looked across at Danny V, who’d been listening intently. His mouth pursed and then he nodded.
‘That was very well done, Jock.’ A speech indeed.
Louis’ group was picked up four hours later. We later found that a FRELIMO group had followed them up. Louis had detonated the defence claymores and opened fire, killing at least five of the attackers. His group had then come under sustained machine-gun fire, the first burst hitting the radio operator and damaging his radio. Louis had extracted his force under heavy fire and inflicted more casualties, finally laying down several banks of claymores to discourage any follow-up. His radio handset had been badly damaged, forcing him to make comms by holding two pieces of  wire together. Louis was later awarded the Honour Cross in silver for his bravery during this action.
Our mission was now of even more importance and for the next three weeks we laid mines with renewed intensity, getting resupplied by airdrop when necessary. To our south, Kocky’s group was hitting contact after contact, drawing FRELIMO to them like iron filings to a magnet. On our twenty-second night in the bush we heard the worst possible news. I was making comms at last light when I received a flash message to stand by for a signal in code. I got the code book out and recorded the letters and figures but as I deciphered it tears started to well up in my eyes. It read simply: ‘Sunray call sign one is dead.’ Our sister group had been lying up at midday when an X Company of some 100 FRELIMO Regulars had followed them. The sentry had spotted their lead scouts and detonated the defence claymores. Kocky marshalled his forces for a sweep through the contact area. An undetected, wounded man shot and killed him as he led his men forward. The group had then come under sustained close-range fire but had fought their way out using mini-claymores to give themselves some breathing space.
The loss of Kocky was a hammer blow. He was liked and respected; his humour; and love of life had touched each of us. He was the best officer I’d served with in any army.
We were told to await a second message. A few minutes later it came: at first light move deep into the bush and await pick-up helicopter. We assumed that because of the loss of Kocky they were taking us out for a rest, to rebuild our morale. We were wrong.
After landing back at Buffalo Range we were given an hour to wash and change before being called into the main briefing tent. We received a rundown on the other patrol’s activities. Whereas we’d been in and out of the field regularly, they’d spent two long periods in the field with a large break between them. They’d lost Manny Ganou on the first insertion and on their second they’d been harried continually by a strong and persistent X Company before Kocky was nailed too. This much we knew or had guessed. When the helicopter had come in to retrieve Kocky’s body, three members of my Selection had got on to it and, despite pleas from the group’s second in command, resigned in the field. The redoubtable Major B told us that we were all volunteers and could resign when we liked,  but there was a time and place for everything. If any of us had the slightest doubt that we could continue to serve as Special Forces soldiers, now was the chance to say something. Nobody moved or spoke. Major B nodded, and carried on with our debrief.
We were back in action within days. For the next four months we harried the ZANU guerrillas mercilessly. We all collected trophies of one kind or another. I still have a plain silver arm band from the first man I killed in Mozambique. Others took more personal trophies. One, Jan, cut the ear off his first kill and kept it in a leather pouch round his neck. On a break from operations he joined me at the breakfast table. He was sandy-haired, and with clear, baby-blue eyes and the sort of boyish good looks that drew many an admiring glance from passing females in Durban.
‘Morning, Jock.’ He began to write furiously on a typed sheet of paper.
‘What’s that, Jan?’
He looked up. ‘My resignation.’
I was taken aback. Jan was a well-respected member of the unit.
‘Why are you leaving?’
‘I’m thinking of getting married. This is no life for a married man.’
I had to agree. I’d hardly seen my wife since my arrival and my kids were calling me Uncle Daddy.
‘What are you going to do in civilian life?’
‘Become a preacher.’
That really shocked me. I looked at the leather bag. ‘What are you going to do with the ear?’
He looked down. ‘Oh, I’m going to keep that.’
True to his word, he left the unit after the tour to become a preacher. I wondered what his congregation would say if they knew what he kept in the leather pouch around his neck.
My booby-trapped round proved a success: radio intercepts confirmed a ZANU terrorist dead in the area from an exploding rifle. I used the same trick three times in all. The ZANU terrorists were as bad as the Rhodesians had told us. Often when in a contact they would throw their weapons over their shoulder and fire backwards as they were running away. One Recce wit  remarked that it wasn’t the bullet with his name on he was scared of, but the one addressed ‘to whom it may concern’.
Losing Kocky de Toit made us a little mad. We’d always booby-trapped the bodies of our kills. The opposition had become very adept at finding the grenades and anti-personnel mines we left for them. After one ambush in which we killed six ZANU guerrillas, we decided on a new ploy. We cut off the head of one of the dead and planted it in the soft sand. It looked like the man had been buried alive. Next we wrote messages in the sand: ‘Death Commandos, Strike!’ and so on. We booby-trapped the remaining bodies as usual, with one added refinement: we buried a vehicle mine under the corpse of the beheaded terrorist. The trick worked to perfection. The FRELIMO engineers, clearing the ambush site, found all the anti-personnel booby-traps, but completely missed the vehicle mine until they loaded the dead terrorists on to a truck and drove straight over it.
Towards the end of the tour we hit a contact on the railway line, just south of Mapai. Having stumbled across six armed terrorists we downed four very quickly; the other two ran for their lives. I suppose we were getting a little overconfident; we chased them and ran straight into a larger group. I exchanged shots with a shadowy figure some thirty metres in front of me and failed to see a nearer man. He fired from less than three metres. As he did so I spotted him and hit him twice in the chest. He rolled on to his back screaming. I tried to move and found I couldn’t. Looking down, I saw blood seeping from my thigh. My first reaction was blind anger. Putting my AK47 on auto, I emptied half a mag into the man responsible and then hopped to a nearby thorn tree. Using it for support, I began to move my leg backwards and forwards. I had been lucky, the bullet just went through the muscle. It was painful and messy but it would still hold my weight.
I ran to the officer in charge of us, a newly arrived captain from Durban. ‘I’ve been hit, boss, I’ve been hit.’
He looked more scared than me. ‘Fuck off, Jock, don’t be stupid.’
I pointed down at my thigh, now oozing thick, dark-red blood. ‘I’m not kidding.’
‘Get across the railway line. We’ll cover you.’ He raised his voice. ‘Jock’s been hit. Give him cover.’ 
The firing around me intensified as I hobbled to the relative safety of the opposite side of the track. I was given some very quick first aid, but we were still in contact so had to move out fast. I spent the next two days running with a hole in my thigh, unable to get a casevac because of the constant attention of an X Company. Finally two Hunters were brought in with an air strike to cover my escape. As the helicopter took off with me aboard I saw mortar bombs raining on my friends below. I felt like a deserter.
I was out of action for three weeks and returned in time for what was supposed to have been our grand finale. Operation Hammer was an assault on a concentration of guerrillas just south of the main Mozambique town of Mapai. We would provide a stopping group for an assault force from the crack Rhodesian 2nd Commando Light Infantry.
We went in using Alouette helicopters, behind two Hawker Hunter jets carrying 1000lb bombs. In front of these was a Canberra bomber carrying 500lb bombs. The Canberra dropped its load, the six explosions throwing a wave of destruction in front of us, then the two Hawker Hunters loosed theirs. Our small helicopters bucked and reared. As the dust began to settle, we landed and a Dakota flew overhead dropping 2 Commando.
War sometimes has a compelling, if awful, beauty. At such moments the sheer joy of being part of all of this was almost overwhelming.
Our main priority was to act as stopper groups for 2 Commando, who would flush the enemy in the camp into our killing embrace. My group was commanded by a particularly aggressive Afrikaner sergeant, Davie K. We were no sooner on the ground than he spotted movement to our front.
‘Terrs, Jock. Follow me.’
I raced after him, along the small path we had to prevent the enemy from using. We left our machine-gunner and his number two behind to cover us. The bush was almost clear up to the edge of the enemy camp. Suddenly, in the tree line, I saw movement. Davie saw it too. His R4 rifle came up in a fluid, sweeping movement and he opened fire. I dropped to one knee and fired twice at the black figure outlined against the trees’ lighter green. It fell, and almost immediately I saw a shock of blond hair.  jumping up I pulled Davie’s arm down as he was about to deliver a killing burst.
‘Don’t. I think he’s one of ours.’
A burst of heavy automatic fire split the earth next to me. We both dived for cover. In front of us we could hear English voices calling to each other. I rolled over and made contact with a helicopter flying overhead and with his aid I managed to make comms with the group in front of us. Warily we approached each other. They were Rhodesian engineers who’d been set down right smack in the middle of the camp by mistake. The man I’d shot was an American, tall and lean, his blackened face contorted with pain. Both my shots had hit him, one through the side, the other through his elbow. He held his ruined arm as the helicopter landed to casevac him. I felt awful.
‘I’m sorry.’ Even to me it didn’t sound adequate.
The American’s pained features broke into a grin. ‘It wasn’t your fault, buddy. We were in the wrong place.’
His arm might never be the same again. ‘That’s a heavy price to pay for being dropped in the wrong place.’
He patted my shoulder with his good hand. ‘Fortunes of war, buddy. Fortunes of war.’ He stepped on to the helicopter and threw us all a final thumbs up before being taken away. We resumed our cut-off position. Although 2 Commando were in the centre of the camp, we could hear only sporadic single shots, not the full-scale battle we’d expected.
In fact, although technically superb, Operation Hammer had been a fiasco. The hundreds of guerrillas who were in the location just two days before had moved on. In all, only ten were killed, leading some to describe it as the ‘Six Million Dollar Cock-Up’.
Our tour had come to an end. In five months we had totally disrupted the enemy supply routes into southern Rhodesia and in doing so saved many settlers’ lives. Although we had lost two valuable members of the unit, we had killed 154 enemy by body count, with another twenty-five confirmed by radio intercept. This in what was regarded by all as the most difficult theatre of operations in Africa. We had faced the Russian Front and come out of it intact. We were replaced by 5 Recce Commando. Our Rhodesian SAS comrades, among the finest soldiers I ever saw, showed us their gratitude; they couldn’t give us medals but each  of us was presented with an official Rhodesian SAS plaque. Mine still hangs above my head as I write.
Back in Durban we received a hero’s welcome from the unit’s senior officers and three weeks’ leave, during which I had an unexpected visit from a major in the unit. A new commando was being formed, specializing in seaborne operations. They needed junior NCOs. Was I interested? My initial reaction was guarded, for I was not a strong swimmer. The major played his trump card. There were some spectacular operations being planned, larger and more important than anything yet attempted by Recce Commando. He would not be drawn further, but I was intrigued enough to agree to join the new commando.
4 Recce Commando were to be based at Saldanha Bay, just outside Fredenburg, in Cape Province. In order to join the unit, I was chosen to crew the unit yacht, the Compass Rose, from Durban to our new base in the Cape. We sailed out of Durban on a calm, warm night. It did not last long: barely eight hours out of Durban we were hit from our stern by a force eight gale. The waves around us became a heaving mass, gigantic foaming monsters that seemed intent on smashing us to pieces.
There is something infinitely terrifying about being in a small boat at night in a storm. Looking astern you saw each angry wave as it thundered towards you, and wondered how your tiny craft would survive its impact. One second you would be in a deep trough, looking up at a wall of water, the next high up on its crest, being tossed like some hidden giant’s plaything. To make things infinitely worse, I was suffering badly from seasickness. Of this there are two stages: when you are scared you are going to die, and when you are scared you are not going to. Sleep was impossible off watch and even rest had its perils. Stumbling into a narrow bunk, wet through to the skin, I tried to turn on to my side, my turning coincided with a particularly violent lurch of the boat that threw me halfway across the small rest room. On watch I always tied myself to the boat, terrified that I would be thrown into the sea, as I knew that to fall overboard in such circumstances would almost certainly prove fatal.
As we neared East London the weather suddenly changed; the sea became as flat and tranquil as an English village pond. Approaching the harbour, we enjoyed the company of a school  of dolphins. With a full moon reflecting off the water and phosphorescence cascading from their bodies, they seemed encased in sheets of silver. For a time these beautiful creatures played chicken with the bow of the yacht, whistling to us all the while. It was one of those moments that are forever etched in the mind.
Saldanha Bay, an old abandoned whaling station situated on an island, was an excellent base for a seaborne commando. We had security and privacy to train and prepare for our forthcoming operations. All new members took a diving course, then small-boat training. Finally the entire commando set about finalizing the unit’s drills, from landing raiding parties to contacts both on shore and at sea. Within four months we were a tightly knit fighting unit which owed much to the charismatic leadership of Commandant K, the unit’s CO. He was well over six foot, thin and slightly stooping, with ginger hair and a magnificent full beard. He’d served on attachment with the Israeli Seaborne Commandos, and the development of 4 Recce owed much to that experience. He combined good leadership with a dry, caustic humour. His driving ambition was to create a seaborne commando to rival any in the world, and in pursuit of that ambition he was entirely ruthless.
As in all small units rumours about impending jobs were almost constant. We had all noted the attachment to the unit of a certain English-born lieutenant from the South African Navy, who spoke English with no trace of an accent. He was frequently absent for periods of two to three weeks, and it was obvious he was engaged in reconnaissance but where and against whom we didn’t know.
As 1978 drew to a close, I was one of fifteen members of 4 Recce called into the unit’s briefing room. On the large blackboard was written the legend ‘Operation Milk Float’. Commandant K glanced around at our expectant faces and announced: ‘Gentlemen, we are going to change history.’
The government in Pretoria were extremely worried that Robert Mugabe’s ZANU guerrillas would seize power, installing a black, hostile, Marxist state on its western border. This would give the ANC, at that time perceived as a tool of Moscow, a safe base from which to train and launch attacks against South Africa itself.
Pretoria’s options were limited. Direct military intervention was out of the question: it would alienate the few friends the government still had in the world, most notable of whom was  Britain, who had steadfastly resisted the international call for sanctions. Covert support by our own Recce Commando had helped, but increasing casualties had resulted in our unit being withdrawn towards the end of 1978.
On the ground in Rhodesia the military situation was bleak. Magnificent though it was, the army was tired and overstretched. There seemed no way to stem the flood of ZANU guerrillas infiltrating the country. Whites were leaving in a steadily increasing flow, further draining both resources and morale. It was against this backdrop that Operation Milk Float was conceived: a strike at the very heart of the black opposition. There were to be three stages. First, the assassination of Robert Mugabe, who was living in exile in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Second, the assassination of Joshua Nkomo, the leader of ZIPRA, the smaller Matabele tribe of Rhodesia. Nkomo was a hated figure following the downing of a Rhodesian civilian aircraft and the machine-gunning of the survivors by his terrorists. Third, the destruction of the Mozambique oil terminal at Beira, thereby crippling the economy of the poverty-stricken front-line state. If everything went to plan, there could eventually be all-race elections, in which a moderate black government could be installed.
The operation was breathtaking in its scope and audacity. To undertake phase one, 4 Recce Commando would insert an eight-man raiding force of Rhodesian SAS inside the harbour at Maputo. This was the deepest infiltration ever attempted in the Rhodesian war. Recce Commando would have the responsibility for transport in and out of the harbour, and the assassination would be carried out by the Rhodesians. Even so, we risked the real chance of capture as the South African Navy had orders to abandon us rather than risk a confrontation with Mozambican forces. Our cover story, in case of capture, would be that we were attempting to kill Mugabe for a $250,000 bounty deposited in a South African bank as the operation was officially ‘deniable’. The cover story was a half-hearted affair to which none of us paid that much attention. if we were caught the very least we could hope for was a life sentence in a Mozambican jail but more likely execution. We all decided that come what may, we were not going to be captured.
Despite the deniable status of the operation, we were told that  it had been sanctioned at the very highest level. Any resources we thought necessary would be put at our disposal. We were to begin preparations for a deployment in six weeks, early January 1979.
Getting to the mouth of Maputo harbour was not a problem as we had the South African Navy at our disposal. To deploy the large raiding force from a mother ship in neutral waters on to a hostile shore, our first thoughts were to use a submarine, but getting from sub to shore was something else. The largest inflatable boat we had at that time was the French-built Mark 11 Zodiac, which could carry a maximum of five. In addition, we wanted some kind of protection in case we ran into a patrol boat. Within four days we had been supplied with the much larger Mark IV Zodiac, capable of transporting twelve, to which we fitted twin fifty-horsepower Sea Horse outboard motors linked to a simple console by which the coxswain could control the speed with two throttles and steer with a small wheel. Next to him sat the navigator and commander armed with an RPG rocket launcher. In the front an RPD light machine-gun was mounted on a bolted swivel mount, to give immediate fire support. The raiding party sat, back to back, facing outwards, on a low double seat running fore and aft. It took less than six weeks from conception to get the boats in the water.
The raiding party of Rhodesian SAS came down to practise with us in late January. We believed that only one Zodiac would be needed, but our first attempt, made from a submarine, was a fiasco: in heavy seas the Zodiac’s floor buckled under the weight of troops and their equipment, after moving only a few hundred metres from the mother boat. With red faces, we paddled our way back, unable to use the engines in case we were swamped.
We rethought our initial plan. A submarine’s deck was too cramped for us to assemble more than one Zodiac and we realized we would need at least one other boat. We decided to use one of the navy’s fast patrol boats. These provided an excellent platform to work from and were extremely fast and well armed. The major drawback was that we would have to deploy farther out to sea, to ensure we were not spotted from the shore. Our first trial was highly successful.
In the meantime the Rhodesian SAS raiding party had had second thoughts about their strength. They wanted to increase  it to twelve men, which meant using three boats. We tried to assemble three Zodiacs on the patrol boat but in the limited space available and with the time restrictions imposed we would have only an hour in which to assemble and launch. We soon found it could not be done from a single boat and decided to use two: one third of the entire South African Navy’s combat strength.
Our group would be under the command of Commandant K. Lieutenant Taffy P commanded our boat. He was not the Taffy P I’d served with earlier, but a roguish Recce officer who had risen rapidly through the ranks. He was about five foot ten inches tall, with a stocky, muscular frame, and his craggy features were hidden behind an unkempt full beard. Taffy’s sense of humour was renowned. He loved a joke even if it was at his own expense. At the very first briefing he spoke earnestly to me.
‘Timing is going to be all-important, Jock. I’ve even bought a new watch.’
He thrust a chunky, shiny watch in my face.
‘It’s a Rolex, best timekeeping watch in the world.’
I nodded seriously. ‘Friend of mine had one of those – dustproof, shockproof and waterproof.’
‘Yes, they’re great watches.’
I nodded and smiled. ‘Not really. His caught fire.’
Taffy paused, got the joke, burst into a bout of uncontrollable laughter and ran off to tell it to someone else before I had a chance to.
The raiding party was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Graham W of the Rhodesian SAS. The most highly decorated soldier in the Rhodesian Army, he was one of only two awarded the Rhodesian Grand Cross of Valour. He looked more like a schoolteacher – tall, slim and slightly bent over, and never without his dark-rimmed spectacles – than one of the finest fighting men Africa ever produced.
By mid-February we were ready to go. We were told the Rhodesian CIA had infiltrated several agents into the Maputo area. They would contact us directly by radio to inform us if the target was in. There was an added twist: we would be taking a TT, a turned terrorist. He believed his job was to act as a front man in case the raiding party encountered any patrols or civilians. In reality the Rhodesians intended to kill him and dump his body  at the scene. On it would be incriminating documents, implicating in his assassination Mugabe’s military chief of staff, the legendary guerrilla fighter Tongerrera. Commandant K briefed us on this new twist.
‘It’s important that the TT at no time realizes that he is expendable, for obvious reasons. The Rhodesian who is to kill him has instructions never to let him out of his sight. Are there any questions?’
‘I don’t like the idea of this man being armed. If he realizes what’s in store for him, he may try to take some of us out,’ I said.
‘The Rhodesians have thought of that. The AK he’s carrying has been specially doctored so it can’t be fired. It will be swapped when the body’s left for another untraceable weapon.’
‘Canned goods,’ I murmured, more to myself than to anybody in particular.
‘What’s that, Jock?’
‘Canned goods, sir. That’s what the Nazis called dead Poles they dumped over the German border to give them an excuse to invade Poland. It started the Second World War.’
Commandant K scratched his head. ‘Yes. I remember the story. This is a little different as he’s a convicted terrorist. Don’t think of him as canned goods, more as a disposable item.’
Because of the sensitivity of the operation the Rhodesians were under strict instructions that, no matter what the outcome of the job, the TT was not to return. When he stepped on to the fast patrol boat he was a dead man. He had been captured after a raid in which a white family had been massacred. He should, and would have been, sentenced to death. He thought that by agreeing to accompany the Rhodesians he would win a reprieve. All he had was a stay of execution.
On a bright, sunny afternoon two days later we embarked on the fast patrol boats from Saldanha Bay. It would take us a day to get to our destination. A large, fair-haired Rhodesian called Jake, designated to kill the TT, never left his side and often laughed and joked with him throughout our journey. Most of the time he would sit, an arm cradled around the unfortunate man’s shoulder, the other hand always within easy reach of a specially adapted AK47 with an extended silencer: the chosen instrument of the man’s death. Once, while his charge went to the toilet and he  was briefly alone with the rest of us, he glanced around and gave a broad smile. I want him to trust me, he explained. There is something perverse about watching a man cat, rest and laugh when you know he is going to die. Yet I could feel no real pity. He had chosen to play a big boys’ game, first taking up arms and then turning on his own kind. Big boys’ games are played by big boys’ rules.
In the late evening of the following day we rode at anchor just over the horizon from Maputo, waiting for the radio message from the Rhodesian agents on shore. Taffy P gave us our final briefing. ‘When the raiding party come back they’ll probably have half the Mozambique Army chasing them, firing everything that can kill. There is a good chance we will have to go ashore under fire to evacuate the raiding party. We run the risk of losing men, and maybe even a boat, but I know each of you, and I know that I can depend on you.’ At 1800 precisely we heard our target was at home.
As night fell the patrol boats took us as close inshore as they dared, about five kilometres from the Maputo harbour beach. Working with the precision that spoke of long hours of practice we began to assemble our raiding boats. Thankfully the sea was quite calm and within forty-five minutes, a new record for us, we had the inflatables ready. Then we launched. The sea was as flat as a pool table, the sky as black as a widow’s shawl. Our muffled engines hardly disturbed the silence as we sped towards the coastline. My boat was in the lead, and behind me and slightly to my right and left were the two other boats in a loose arrowhead formation, their camouflaged sides almost impossible to see in the darkness. Only the occasional splash of white, as water cascaded over their bows, betrayed their presence.
The mysterious, English-speaking lieutenant who had been attached to the unit had recced the harbour by joining a legitimate cargo ship as its first officer. From him we learnt that both machine-guns and cannon emplacements were at the harbour mouth and that the harbour itself was patrolled by thirty-foot armoured launches with .50-calibre machine-guns. Their standard of alertness was assessed as ‘poor’, but we were going to have an interesting time if we ran into one of them. Alert or not, a .50-calibre machine-gun would chew one of our boats to bits  just before 2100 we slid to a halt about a hundred metres from the beach.
Maputo was well lit but strangely quiet for a capital city. We checked the beach with our starlight night ‘scopes. It looked like Brighton on a warm summer’s night. Satisfied there was no immediate danger, we paddled to the shore. As we neared the beach the sound of the waves softly breaking on the sand was mixed with the sound of faint music; someone was playing a radio not far away. There was a soft bump as the Zodiac’s hull g rated on to the sand. I swung the RDP light machine-gun round in an arc, searching the night for any danger. Behind me I heard a soft rustling, then, like phantoms, the raiding party slipped ashore. We waited until they were out of sight, ready to give fire support should they hit a contact, then, satisfied they were safely on their way, we paddled back out a hundred metres to wait for them.
This was the most dangerous time for us, for we had to stay reasonably close to the shore in case our comrades needed to make a fighting retreat after the assassination. Our three light machine-guns and RPG rocket launchers could provide vital close-range support. But we were vulnerable. A single, well-placed round would put a boat out of action. Sitting in the quiet darkness, I steeled myself for the action that must surely come.
As well as the evacuation, there was also the danger from the Mozambican Navy. If a patrol boat caught us with our backs to the well-lit beach and blocked our escape to the open sea, it would be good night Irene for all of us. Our only hope lay in remaining undetected.
The minutes slipped slowly by. The night was warm and pleasant, and you had to keep reminding yourself that you were on a dangerous mission. Voices. Along the beach, in extended line, clearly etched against the harbour lights, an army patrol appeared. I counted them as I covered them with the RPD: five, six, seven, eight. I could see their faces clearly and noted their weapons: six AK47s, one RPG and a light machine-gun. They stopped just in front of our position, and the sound of their laughter floated across the sea to us. Sweat rolled down the back of my neck. One man, probably the commander, was talking into a radio in Portuguese. Was this just a routine patrol or had somebody seen something and reported it to the local militia? For what seemed like eternity,  they stood in a loose group in front of us. Surely one of them must spot us? Then, with agonizing slowness, they moved off. I realized I had been holding my breath and let out a sigh of relief.
Staff Sergeant B, my boat commander, moved down the length of the Zodiac to join me.
‘Do you think they saw anything, Jock?’ he breathed into my ear.
I shook my head.
‘Keep alert. I think somebody may have seen the raiding party get ashore. We may get a patrol boat next. Remember, don’t fire unless you’re absolutely sure you’ve been spotted.’
I nodded again, and checked my watch. It was 2200. The raiding party should be on their target by now. At any moment, I expected to hear the sound of firing as they attacked. If there was a patrol boat out there, it might very well come closer inshore to investigate the noise. Suddenly my heart lurched inside my chest. From behind and to my left I heard the low cough of a boat’s engine.
I swung my machine-gun round. About two hundred metres out to sea we could see the silhouette of the patrol boat, its searchlight sweeping the sea as it chugged past. If the light caught one of our boats, or the raiding party attacked now, we were in a deadly killing zone. Around me I was aware of my fellow Recces making ready. Every weapon on the Zodiac was pointed towards the launch. My lips peeled back across my teeth in a silent snarl of defiance. If that bundle of rusted nuts and bolts came this way it was in for a shock. It didn’t alter course. The sound of its engines gradually became fainter and then died away completely. The danger had passed. I swung the gun round to cover the beach again.
Time dragged on; 2300 came and went, then midnight. By midnight time was becoming critical. We had only three hours of complete darkness left. If the raiding party didn’t come soon, we faced the prospect of being caught in daylight at the harbour entrance. Suddenly, on the shore, three green lights blinked, followed by three red, then three green. It was the pick-up signal. As we beached I saw several men coming towards me. In the lead was the TT, and behind him was Jake. I saw Jake lift the silenced AK47 he was carrying. I leant to one side as two dull cracks rang out and the TT slumped across the bow of my boat. Jake picked  up the fallen man’s legs and dumped him unceremoniously in the bottom of the vessel.
We paddled out a hundred metres, started our engines and raced towards the open sea at top speed. 1 glanced at the night sky. Already the faint horizon was tinged with grey as the first fingers of morning reached into the night sky. It was going to be tight. At the harbour mouth Staff Sergeant B brought us to a halt.
‘Get rid of the body,’ he ordered.
Jake and another man began to weight the body swiftly with AK47 magazines. I scanned the nearby coastline. 1 could clearly see the outlines of buildings. If I could see them, they could see me. There was a soft splash as the TT was dropped into the water. The body went down several feet then reappeared. Jake cursed, leant over the boat and grabbed it. From the top of his boot he produced a double-edged fighting knife and plunged it into the corpse, slashing the stomach wide open. The body sank without a trace.
Jake glanced at me. ‘Too much air in the body,’ he said simply.
It was obvious he’d done this sort of thing before.
It was now broad daylight. We were clear of the harbour, but still visible from the shore. Commandant K, risking all, brought one of the fast patrol boats closer inshore, and we disembarked the raiding party. He handed me a paper on which was written a compass bearing.
‘Tell your skipper to keep on that bearing until he finds us.’
The fast patrol boat disappeared. Freed from the weight of the raiding party we could make better time but had only gone a short distance before Lieutenant Taffy P’s boat came to a grinding halt. Its planks had buckled. We were still clearly visible from the shore, a bare three kilometres away. Taffy stood up in the boat and called me over. As we closed 1 could see that beneath a thick coat of black camouflage cream, his face was strained. ‘I’ll have to sink the blasted thing. Remove the guns,’ he shouted to his crew and watched as they jumped on to our boat. He pulled a double-edged diving knife from the top of his boot and holding it in two hands, plunged it into the side of the Zodiac. There was an immediate explosion as the compressed air erupted through the puncture. Its violence surprised us all, especially Taffy. Bowled over by the force of the blast, he sat in the bottom of the sinking boat, his hair and beard standing rigid. Despite the danger we were in, we all collapsed in laughter. Taffy looked like a character from a Bugs Bunny cartoon who’d had a bomb go off in his hands. With difficulty we controlled ourselves and helped the still stunned commander on to our boat. He watched as his vessel slowly sank.
‘I hope the commandant understands. Each one of those engines cost 5000 rand,’ he said in a dull voice. I burst out laughing again. At any moment the entire Mozambican Navy could appear and the lieutenant was worried about a couple of engines.
‘Don’t worry, boss. If worst comes to worst we’ll have a whip-round for you,’ I offered. He looked dully at me, then broke into a grin. Shaking off the effects of the exploding inflatable, he ordered us to proceed on our bearing. Two hours later, over the horizon, we RVd again with our mother ships and disembarked. Twenty-four hours later we were back in Saldanha Bay.
At the debrief Lieutenant Colonel W explained that his force had got right up to Mugabe’s house, where they had quickly established no one was home. They had staked out the place for several hours, pushing their luck to the limit, but their target had not appeared.
Some four weeks later the Rhodesian SAS had a crack at phase two of Operation Milk Float. In broad- daylight twenty men attacked the home of Joshua Nkomo in Zambia. He was warned (the rumour was by British M16) only minutes before the attack began and escaped by the skin of his teeth.
Three weeks after the attempt on Nkomo, our commando landed a force of twenty Rhodesian SAS next to the oil refinery in Beira. They destroyed it with rocket-propelled grenades, causing a fire so severe that it burned for several days. Eventually it was put out by fire engines sent, ironically, from South Africa. And thus ended Operation Milk Float. History would not be changed.
My contract with the SADF expired shortly after the Beira raid, but I had time for one last operation: reconnaissance of an oil refinery in Angola. On a moonless night, three Mark 11 Zodiacs, under the command of Staff Sergeant B, were launched from a submarine off the Angolan coast. Our intention was to recce the refinery for a sabotage mission. As we approached the shore, in a loose  arrowhead formation, Staff Sergeant B in the front boat suddenly raised his hand and all three boats glided to a halt. He picked up an IWS night viewing aid and surveyed the shore. As I was sitting slightly behind him I saw him stiffen. He handed me the viewing aid, and as I looked through it my stomach turned over. The beach was swarming with troops, and more were arriving every minute from trucks drawn up on the hill above. Cubans. And armed with heavy weapons. They’d installed a new radar detection station in the area and had picked us up leaving the submarine. We made the best possible speed back to the sub and dived. We didn’t even take the time to dismantle the boats. We sank them and only just in time: our own radar was picking up boats speeding towards us. It was a nerve-racking two hours before we were back in international waters. The operation had a tragic conclusion, for just under two years later it was attempted again and this time the raiding party was surprised on shore. Two Recces were killed and their officer taken prisoner.
I desperately wanted to stay for another year because of the talk of similar seaborne operations against targets in Angola, but as a foreign national that would have meant committing myself to a three-year contract. Of course I could have resigned from the Recces but would still have been with the SADF. With great sadness, I decided to return to the United Kingdom. Africa had changed me physically. I was a lot stronger, my endurance and stamina having been tested under the most extreme conditions. Mentally too I had undergone a metamorphosis. Although still in my early twenties I felt much older and more confident, able to face whatever the world could throw at me. My comrades arranged a big farewell party for me, and Recces came from as far away as Durban to bid me goodbye. Recce Commando was an outstanding fighting unit. In the two years I had been operational they had lost seventeen men in action but had destroyed over 2000 enemy. Their bravery in action was awesome, and their friendship and loyalty to me, a stranger in their land, matched it.