Operation Nickel : August 1967

As Rhodesia’s parliament sat for the first time in 1967, a concerned Minister of Justice, Desmond Lardner-Burke, put a damper on the just-ended festive season by requesting a continuance of the State of Emergency. He informed the House that one hundred terrorists had been accounted for during the previous nine months, adding a solemn warning that the armed activities of the two main banned black nationalist movements, ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) and ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), were destined to escalate. Arms caches had been found both internally and in neighbouring Botswana. In April Minister Lardner-Burke tabled a further extension of these emergency powers, as seemingly random acts of sabotage and outright vandalism cropped up in the countryside; arson, fence-cutting, tobacco-slashing, rail network interference. The Minister called for increased vigilance by the Security Forces and the Police, especially along the country’s border with her northern neighbour, Zambia.


The following month, a routine BSAP roadblock just north of Karoi precipitated an unforeseen encounter with four ZANU terrorists hiding in a pantechnicon on its way from Zambia to Salisbury. The four heavily-armed men had, according to the driver, forced their way onto the vehicle at Makuti, just above the Zambezi Valley escarpment. Trapped on the vehicle and with no avenue of escape, the four terrorists succumbed to a barrage of fire from the uniformed police at the scene.


By mid-1967, Security Force and Police intelligence, primarily gleaned from captured insurgents, confirmed that several hundred terrorists were now poised in Tanzania and Zambia, awaiting deployment to the Zambian border. War materiel seized along the Chirundu/Salisbury corridor added weight to concerns about an imminent incursion of large numbers of trained guerrillas into the north-west. But what was not initially known, was that at 0400 hours on 31 July, a large gang comprising ZAPU and South Africa African National Congress (SAANC) insurgents had already in fact entered the country between Kazangula and Victoria Falls, and had gone to ground in the Deka River area of the Wankie Game Reserve. John Dube commanded the ZAPU element, while a Coloured man (mixed-race), George Driver, headed up the SAANC contingent. The insurgents split into two mixed groups, the Lithuli group to be based in Tjolotjo, and the Lobengula group further east in Nkai.























Over the next few days, arrests of individual terrorists from the Lithuli group, the first on 1 August in the National Park itself, followed by one at a mission near Wankie, and a third at Dett, resulted in the deployment into Matabeleland North of elements of the Rhodesian Security Forces, drawn from the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR); 2 Commando, The Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI); No’s 1, 4, 5 and 7 Squadrons of the Rhodesian Air Force; 1(Independent) Company, The Rhodesia Regiment; and the Police (BSAP), including the force’s Police Reserve Air Wing (PRAW). A Joint Operations Centre/Command (JOC) was set up in Wankie, and the Forward Airfield FAF 1, moved from Wankie to Wankie Main Camp. Operation Nickel had commenced. Initially, the Air Force involvement was confined to reconnaissance flights and leaflet drops further east in the Makuti/Chirundu area.


A second Coloured member of the SAANC, by the name of Petersen, was arrested by a security guard and taken to the Dett Police Station. Unfortunately, the man was not searched, and upon entering the charge office, produced a pistol and opened fire on those around him, wounding one, before making good his escape in a vehicle parked outside and taking off in the direction of Bulawayo. He would die four days later in Figtree in a shoot-out on a farm where he had stopped to demand food and water.


Following the first Dett arrest, on Sunday 13 August, Captain Peter Hosking (31) of A Company, RAR, led a patrol, including tracking expert Section Officer Barry Tiffin of the BSAP, towards Inyantue Siding south-east of Wankie town. Another platoon under RSM Aubrey Korb and CSMHavahli Timitiya was also sent out in the same direction.


As Hosking followed fresh spoor, he approached the dry riverbed of the Inyantue River, where his patrol was fired on by terrorists from a nearby spur of land. Despite concerted attacks on the terrorist stronghold by a helicopter crewed by Squadron Leader Mick Grier and Sergeant Technician Bob Whyte, in which three terrorists were killed, the entrenched insurgents maintained a withering rate of fire against the Rhodesians. No 4 Squadron Flying Officers Prop Geldenhuys and Chris Weinmann provided valuable air support in their Wankie-based Provosts, flying sorties at 1,000 feet in order to optimise attack dive angles. Encountering heavy fire from the strongly defended terrorist position, Hosking split his patrol, taking some half his men and a policeman on a flanking movement around the enemy position. Joined by two more sticks that had been dropped by helicopter, Hosking formed his men into a line, skirting the north of the spur where the terrorists were concealed. Even with the aid of the circling helicopter, however, nothing was sighted and Hosking started to withdraw to where he had left the rest of his men. On their way, Hosking came across the body of Acting Corporal Davison Mukombo, 1RAR. He had been shot during the on-going engagement.









































                                                                                The northern section of Wankie National Park, with the JOC based at Shapi Pan


Shortly afterwards, as they were crossing open ground they were spotted, and in the ensuing fire fight, Hosking was also shot. A bullet passed through his right thigh, striking the ground and peppering his chest with shattered rock. Hosking crawled about sixty metres into a patch of bush that afforded better cover. As he lay there, Private Koroni Kambante, 1RAR, also sustained fatal gunshot wounds as the terrorists continued their remorseless attack on the scattered groups of Rhodesian troops. Inspector Frederick Phillips, BSAP, had also been wounded. Overhead, the circling Provost pilot saw no movement from the Rhodesian positions.


By 1400 hours and having heard nothing from Hosking’s group, Platoon Warrant Officer Kephas, 1RAR, set out to find his officer, accompanied by Section Officer Barry Tiffin, BSAP. As they approached the likely position, they were also met by a hail of bullets, PWO Kephas falling down, wounded. Tiffin immediately returned fire, seeing a terrorist fall, then get up and shoot back. A second terrorist appeared less than ten metres away, and with instinctive reaction, Tiffin fired three shots over open sights. Tiffin himself reported later that he clearly had two of the terrorists visible, one tending to the wounds of the other. He fired at the unwounded man who fell, but managed to crawl into what little cover was available, leaving his rifle behind. Inching forward again, Tiffin’s luck ran out as he was shot through the left thigh and buttocks, later saying, “It felt like a sledgehammer”. Two RAR privates bravely attempted to drag the wounded Tiffin into cover, but were driven back by heavy fire from the terrorist position. Tiffin lay exposed for one and a half hours, his comrades forced to stay back.


At this time the troops drew back to consolidate, take stock and attend to the wounded. Private Simon Chikafu, 1RAR, however, refused to withdraw, electing instead to try and reach the wounded and stranded Tiffin. With no care for his own safety, Chikafu fired off a full magazine of twenty rounds into the enemy position, before crawling over to the policeman. Turning him on to his back and coming under fire from the terrorists, Chikafu managed to drag the powerless Tiffin out of the kill zone. Once clear, he placed Tiffin on his back and carried him a quarter of a mile to a waiting casevac helicopter.


Late that afternoon, a section of National Servicemen from 1(Independent) Company, The Rhodesia Regiment (RR), were brought in to the contact area by helicopter from Wankie. RSM Korb and CSM Timitiya were then dropped off below the small hill where, according to Hosking’s radio operator, Private Kenias Tovakare, his wounded officer was hiding out. As darkness fell, Korb was given permission by his company commander to start their search, utilising the RR troops for support. Upon reaching the spot where the radio operator presumed Hosking would be, they failed to find him, but instead found the Inspector Phillips, a serious bullet wound to the head, and the body of Corporal Mukombo, the latter still with his rifle. Finding the crest of the hill now clear of terrorists, Korb organised the RR troops in all-round defence positions. From this position Korb, knowing full well that he was about to compromise his position and therefore place his own life in danger, fired off an Icarus rocket, confident that Hosking will be able to identify the bright parachute-supported flare as being a sign that he had not been forgotten and that help was at hand. Hosking responded from the river bank just below the hill. Using BSAP details who could not be helicoptered out at last light as stretcher bearers, Korb moved the wounded Phillips and Hosking to the hilltop from where he contacted the overhead relay pilot to seek immediate casevac by air. This request was denied as it was still dark and the Rhodesian Alouette helicopters were equipped with night-flight instrumentation. Instead, Korb was instructed to carry his casualties down to the railway line, and from there to a nearby siding where a BSAP-guarded engine and carriage would recover all of them back to Wankie.


At first light on 14 August, Lieutenant Ian Wardle, 1RAR, led a patrol through the area where, the previous day, the terrorists had created such havoc. The terrorists had slipped away under cover of darkness, but what he discovered was sobering. There had been no fewer than twenty-one terrorists concealed in the thick bush, members of the Lobengula group who had trained in Algeria. During the lengthy engagement, the Security Forces had killed five terrorists and captured a further two, but lost two of their own with four wounded. That afternoon, Lieutenant Graham Noble encountered a wounded terrorist about a mile east of the previous day’s contact with the main group. Noble shot and killed him. Later that day, Railway Security arrested another group member at Intundhla Siding, while further west at Panda-ma-Tenga, the Botswana authorities arrested a further two.


On Thursday 17 August, the JOC was moved to Shapi Pan, south-west of Main Camp in the Wankie National Park, believing the group had moved into the area south of Wankie. Following a reported sighting by a National Parks pump attendant and reports of terrorist spoor near Gubalala Pan, two RAR platoons were deployed, 10 Platoon under Lieutenant Noble and 3 Platoon under Lieutenant Wardle. By the following morning, 18 August, the two platoons had established that they were looking for seven terrorists in the immediate vicinity. Noble’s platoon, together with Lieutenant Piers’ RAR Mortar Platoon, set up stop groups near Makona Pan, the likely route of the seven terrorists.


At lunch time, Wardle’s persistence paid off as, after a scout saw a terrorist crouching behind a fallen tree. As the man was challenged, the rest of the group appeared, quickly seeking defensive cover behind the same tree. Wardle and his men immediately engaged the terrorists, quickly killing two and capturing another three. Upon interrogation, one of the captures indicated that the remaining members of the gang had taken up a position in thick bush very close by. His repeated challenges to this revealed place of concealment going unheeded, Wardle opened fire into the thicket, which resulted in an explosion coming from the position. As a fire ignited the dry winter grass and shrubs, Wardle continued firing, forcing a terrorist to come running out screaming, upon which he was promptly shot dead. Another surrendered. As the fire engulfed the bush, there were further explosions as terrorist munitions and grenades detonated. It would be a further five hours before the fire subsided and Wardle’s men felt it safe to sweep the terrorist position. As it turned out they had underestimated the number of terrorists, stumbling across five smouldering bodies. A final terrorist was seen hiding in a slit trench and captured. Wardle’s 3 Platoon had accounted for fourteen terrorists, eight killed and six captured.


Sunday 13 August 1967, still five years before the war significantly intensified in the north-east, Security Forces sampled the bitter taste of the all-out terrorist war that was to come. In the arid remote wildernesses of North Matabeleland, scattered combined groups of ZAPU and SAANC terrorists encountered and engaged the Rhodesian forces in a difficult series of contacts that would leave two men of the RAR dead, R41628 Acting Corporal Davison Mukombo and R43593 Pte Koroni Kambante, both of A Company, 1st Batallion, The Rhodesian African Rifles. Since then, A Company RAR have commemorated Inyantue Day, the beginning of Op Nickel. The Rhodesians were not found wanting, however, as repeated acts of bravery were played out, mainly by men who were, without hesitation, prepared to lay their own lives on the line to assist fallen brothers-in-arms. Published in the Government Gazette of 23 October 1970, these were recognised for their actions on the day.

















                  











L-R: Police Decoration for Gallantry; Bronze Cross of Rhodesia (Army); Military Forces Commendation pick device on Rhodesian General Services Medal ribbon


Inspector Frederick Jan Smuts Phillips, British South Africa Police, was awarded the Police Decoration for Gallantry (PDG), who during a fresh manoeuvre to establish the terrorist position, received a serious head wound. He displayed “…brave and gallant conduct above the normal call of duty during this action and has borne the subsequent medical treatment with great fortitude.” He was retired on medical grounds from the BSAP on 9 February 1969, permanently disabled. On page 158 of the book Contact, there is a photograph of Fred Phillips in his wheelchair being congratulated by Prime Minister Ian Smith.


Section Officer Barry Tiffin, British South Africa Police, was awarded the Police Decoration for Gallantry (PDG) who, despite sustaining a severe wound to his thigh, “…displayed brave and gallant conduct above the normal call of duty during this action.”


Lieutenant Ian Patrick Wardle, 1st Battalion, The Rhodesian African Rifles, was awarded the Bronze Cross of Rhodesia (BCR) for “…quick, fearless action and remarkable qualities of leadership.” Radio Operator Private Kenias Tovakare, 1st Batallion, The Rhodesian African Rifles, was awarded the Bronze Cross of Rhodesia (BCR), for staying with his commander, Captain Hosking, during a fierce engagement with terrorists and under extremely hazardous conditions. He “…displayed gallantry and devotion to duty under extremely dangerous conditions”.


Squadron Leader Michael Grier, No. 7 Squadron, The Rhodesian Air Force, was awarded the Military Forces Commendation (Operational) (MFC) for “…helicopter action, carried out whilst under enemy fire, performed with determination and undoubtedly helped to hold Rhodesian casualties at a low level”.


Warrant Officer I Aubrey Korb, 1st Batallion, The Rhodesian African Rifles, was awarded the Military Forces Commendation (Operational) (MFC) for his selfless acts that night in recovering the wounded, displaying “…courage and determination”.


Sergeant Technician Robert Whyte, No. 7 Squadron, The Rhodesian Air Force, was awarded the Military Forces Commendation (Operational) (MFC); whilst directing attacks onto a terrorist position, “…his determination, under conditions of great personal danger, undoubtedly helped to keep Rhodesian casualties to a low level”.


Private Simon Chikafu, 1st Battalion, The Rhodesian African Rifles, was awarded the Military Forces Commendation (Operational) (MFC), for protecting a wounded police officer and eventually carrying him away to be casevaced to hospital, in which he displayed, “…courageous and exemplary action worthy of recognition”.


By mid-August, several engagements had accounted for many of the terrorists, encounters characterised by numerous acts of bravery but also by several casualties, including the deaths in action of two 1RAR soldiers. Operation Nickel continued right into September of that year. By the middle of August the Lithuli gang, under one John Dube, had set up a camp near Leasha Pan, ironically, not far from where Lt Piers, commander of the 1RAR Mortar Platoon had stopped for the night. The following morning, stop groups from E Company 1RAR were dropped off by helicopter to cover the game fence from Ngulube Pan towards the Botswana border. At the same time, elements of the Mortar Platoon were approaching Leasha Pan, and as they were crossing a dam wall, a fleeting contact occurred, but it was only as the platoon moved back to their vehicles that a terrorist was shot and killed. In spite of all the activity, the whole terrorist group, now numbering more than 40, simply moved to a new site two miles away. Over the next few days the terrorists managed to avoid the Security Forces as they moved into the extreme north-west area of Tjolotjo TTL, where they established a well laid out camp on the Tegwani River, complete with camouflage and slit trenches.


On 22 August, 1 Platoon, A Company 1RAR, under 23-year old Lieutenant Nick Smith, started following fresh spoor of seven terrorists along the game fence near the Nata River. The spoor headed south-east as Smith and his men inched forward, carefully scanning the surrounding bush. Next to Smith, and slightly out in front, was the 42-year old Warrant Officer II Havahli Timitiya, a Malayan campaign veteran. What they could not have known was that the spoor was leading straight into a well-concealed terrorist camp. Early that afternoon a camp sentry, observing the approaching soldiers, opened fire on Smith’s platoon. Flying Officer Prop Geldenhuys of No. 4 Squadron, the Royal Rhodesian Air Force, piloting an armed Provost over the area, was immediately alerted to the fire fight taking place below, but every time he flew close, he was met by heavy groundfire. Geldenhuys’ aircraft took a hit, as an AK47 round went through the port wing before striking his side of the canopy near his head. He was forced to return to base at Main Camp where his aircraft was quickly patched up, before returning to the contact area. On the ground, though, events would have more tragic results. Lieutenant Smith and WOII Timitiya briefly huddled together to decide how to take on the terrorist positions. The platoon moved forward in an extended line, the exchange of fire fierce and prolonged. As Smith moved to rally his men, he was shot and killed. Timitiya had by this time swapped his rifle for an MAG and, bracing the machine gun on a branch of a tree, in a standing position he fired controlled bursts at the enemy. As he was bravely taking the fight to the terrorists, a bullet ripped through a branch of the tree before fatally entering Timitiya’s head. In a statement afterwards, platoon Lance Corporal Mavaradze stated that they had then run out of ammunition, and with the enemy about to overrun their position, they were forced to withdraw, leaving behind the bodies of Smith and Timitiya, their packs, rifles and radios. After initially taking up a defensive position some distance away, Mavaradze sent for help before moving to the Wankie National Park boundary road where they stayed the night.



















                                 


 



Above left: WOII Havahli Timitiya, seated on the right, as a member of the Army team Inter-Services Shooting Competition team (Photo Dave Heppenstall)

                                                              Above right: SO Barry Tiffin, left, still on crutches, thanks Pte Simon Chikafu (Photo thanks Dave Heppenstall)



With the contact scene all to themselves, the terrorists moved in to claim the kit the Rhodesian troops had left behind. As they moved across the Nata River, they opened fire on elements of E Company 1RAR they has observed in a thicket of trees. Leaving their ambush position, Lieutenant Ken Peirson went out to investigate, but on his return he was mistaken for a terrorist by one of his own men and shot and killed. On 23 August, following the discovery of two terrorist weapons by an E Company 1RAR patrol, together with intelligence obtained from a SAANC terrorist captured at Siwuwu Pools, the Security Forces were able to confirm the existence of a large terrorist camp near the Tegwani River, situated in thick bush and holding more than 30 ZAPU and SAANC insurgents. Late that morning, fresh spoor was found by 13 Platoon and 15 Platoon, who immediately commenced a follow-up operation. They were accompanied by two British South Africa Police dog handlers, Patrol Officers Spencer Thomas and Robert Horn. At 1600 hours that afternoon, however, Lieutenant Bill Winnall, commanding 13 Platoon was radioed and instructed to halt the two platoons to allow Hunters of the RRAF’s No. 1 Squadron to carry out cannon and rocket attacks on what was believed to be the terrorist position. After a fleeting 12 minutes of strafing by the Hunters, and before a scheduled bombing run by Canberras from No. 5 Squadron at 1800 hours, Winnall moved the two platoons into thick cover to prepare a safe night position. All their movements were being watched, however, and as the Rhodesians relaxed with no apparent sentries, terrorist leader Dube and one of his men put on captured Rhodesian combat jackets and nonchalantly sauntered over to the unsuspecting RAR platoons. Shortly afterwards, heavy fire was brought down on to the platoons by the hidden terrorists, wounding eight including PO Horn Winnall himself. PO Spencer Thomas died of gunshot wounds to the chest. Two terrorists were killed.


Taken totally by surprise and under immediate threat of his position being overrun, Winnall organised a withdrawal as best he could, leaving behind weapons and kit. Light was fading so they would only be able to fully assess the situation at first light. Communications with the JOC had been lost, and it was not until 0130 hours the following morning that the platoons were able to raise the JOC and arrange for a casevac from the temporary forward airfield at Tjolotjo. Flight Lieutenant Chris Dixon of No. 7 Squadron, flying in hazardous conditions over dangerous territory, performed the mercy flight, recovering Lt Winnall and a Pte Jonas to Wankie Hospital.


The JOC, now re-positioned at Tjolotjo, immediately deployed 48 men of A Company 1RAR, under Second Lieutenant ‘Butch’ Duncan, into the contact area, supported by Second Lieutenant John Pritchard with 13 Platoon and 15 Platoon. Platoons from D Company were placed south of the position and across likely escape routes in the Nata and Tegwani rivers area. By late afternoon, elements of 2 Commando RLI were also deployed a short distance north of the Nata River. Finally, stop groups from E Company RAR were placed along the Botswana border, effectively sealing off the last known terrorist position, now estimated to hold less than 30 terrorists.


As the month drew to a close, the terrorist group commander, John Dube, accompanied by three of his men, were arrested by the Botswana police at Tutumi. A further 17 members of the SAANC, disillusioned with ZAPU and the turn of events, set out on their own in an attempt to reach South Africa, but the arid conditions in this part of the country slowed their progress as hunger and thirst took hold. Two members of the group were tasked to go and find food, but instead deserted, only to be arrested by the BSAP near Plumtree.






















                                                                   











BSAP dog handlers leading an army stick away from a RRAF helicopter (Photo Ministry of Information)


By 31 August, it had become blatantly obvious that the security forces’ cordon was being breached, necessitating a redeployment of E Company 1RAR to the north-west and south of the Tegwani River, close to the Botswana border. Early that morning, acting on a report received from a local of an insurgent presence, Lieutenant Charl Viljoen, commanding 7 Troop, 2 Commando, RLI, captured a terrorist by the name of Ncube. The man took the RLI troops and Lieutenant Schlachter’s 11 Platoon, D Company, 1RAR, to where his comrades were based. A brief fire fight resulted, with four terrorists killed. A fifth terrorist escaped, eventually returning to Zambia. 2 Commando continued to patrol the area, knowing that there were about 17 terrorists of the original insurgency still to be accounted for. Lieutenant Peter Mincher had received vital information from a local tractor driver, who had informed the RLI officer that he had been given money by a large group of terrorists to buy them food. JOC Tjolotjo immediately deployed all the 1RAR companies and 2 Commando along a cutline, creating a barrier opposite the Botswana border. The tractor driver was asked to go through with the terrorists’ request and deliver the food. As the Security Forces closed in, however, they discovered the terrorists had already eaten and slipped through into Botswana. On 3 September, all 17 of them, members of the SAANC were arrested by Botswana authorities.


































                                                                              







North-west Bulalima-Mangwe and Tjolotjo, scene of the later stages of Op Nickel


On the same day, a headman in the Lupane District reported to the police that Madziba, the leader of one of the terrorist gangs, the Lobengula group, had visited a local mission near St Paul’s Mission. He was found and arrested by the BSAP. Late that afternoon, Captain John Templer’s 1RAR patrol found a rhino carcass about 20 miles south west of Intundhla Siding, west of the village of Lupane; the spoor of five men led away into the bush. Early the following morning (4 September), 1RAR Lieutenant Graham Noble with 10 Platoon, D Company, set off along the spoor. At 1300 hours, Warrant Officer II Wurayayi Mutero (awarded the Bronze Cross of Rhodesia in 1970) challenged a terrorist he saw sitting in a thicket.


The terrorist reacted by alerting his dozing comrade and opening fire on the soldiers. Mutero shot and killed one of them, before lobbing grenades into the terrorist position. As the fighting continued, Noble took some of his platoon and skirted the terrorist hideout, encountering a shallow trench as they crept forward. At this stage, a third terrorist, already wounded in the abdomen, opened fire with his AK and threw a grenade at the advancing 1RAR group. The explosion seriously injured Private Pedzisayi and killed Private Nyika Muchazorega. In a follow-up sweep, the bodies of all three terrorists were found.


Operation Nickel officially closed on 8 September, but the final outstanding member of the original group that entered Rhodesia, was only captured the following year by the SAP in Durban on 12 May 1968.


This ‘joint operation’ between the South African ANC and ZAPU drew considerable criticism from nationalist movements in both countries. On 15 August James Chikerema, Vice-President of Nkomo’s ZAPU, and Oliver Tambo, Acting President of the ANC, issued a statement in Lusaka declaring that the two organisations had established a military alliance. This fuelled inter-party discontent, the South African Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) referring to events in Matabeleland as ‘The Wankie Fiasco’, declaring in a leaflet that, “You cannot hope to gobble up a regular army, all at once in a conventional style war, as our brothers tried to do, and still claim to be waging guerrilla warfare”. Sithole’s ZANU was equally outspoken, commenting in its party publication, Zimbabwe News, that the ANC should fight at home, thereby splitting the ‘colonialist, racist’ forces in the sub-continent, and essentially leave the Rhodesian nationalists to free their own country. Closer to the truth, possibly, is the fact that ZAPU and ANC subversive activities were wholly Soviet-supported, whereas ZANU and the PAC were firmly entrenched in the Chinese orbit, following the Maoist approach to guerrilla warfare. In the 1970s, ZIPRA and ZANLA, the respective ‘armies’ of Nkomo and Mugabe, would have bitter clashes when their paths met along the poorly defined boundaries of the terrorist operational sectors within Rhodesia.


During my search for more information about Ken Peirson's tragic death, I came across the official government Death Notice for this SAANC terrorist, shown below:


The Rhodesian Soldier