Railway Security during the Bush War
Upon leaving the BSAP in 1972, Boet du Plessis joined the Rhodesian Railways Security Branch in Bulawayo. From then until 1975 when he was exempted, in addition to his Railways job, Boet was called-up with the RHU, Intaf and finally 2RR, when it was felt that his responsibilities on line security was vital to the war effort. Boet, who now lives in South Africa, has very kindly allowed me to use parts of his very interesting memoirs to tell the story of just how profoundly important the smooth operating of the railways was to the country’s prosecution of the Bush War. This is Boet’s very matter-of-fact no frills story of the how he and his team struggled with on-going determined efforts by the terrorists to blow up the rail tracks so essential for the transport of fuel and war materiel:
“At a derailment incident which is on flat ground, Old Mr "G" with 80 workers would normally lay a rough diversion track within 24 hours of non-stop working. Taking this incident as an example the old man would have this track repaired within 24 hours that includes bringing in all the new stone, cut rails out and relaying the track. He was unbelievable. He would jump on the bull dozer and pull all those trucks away from the scene. He would then get his welders to cut out the damaged rail. In the meantime his maintenance train crew would stop at the site where they would off load the concrete sleepers, replace them, replace the rail and then open the track. Once the trains have moved through, he then throws the ballast in between the concrete blocks and resets everything. Under normal circumstances, the Engineers would have first thrown down a large mat (Cortex) which covered the track and ballast either side - a couple of meters wide and about 25 metres in length. Setting it off would trigger any funnies off in the area where mines may have been placed. We were having so many of these derailments and acts of sabotage to the line, that we started taking short cuts because any delays meant trains were not moving the vital goods.
Above: Diesel and steam locomotives of the Rhodesia Railways
"After re-opening the line to normal traffic, the clearing up would commence. The cargo contained in the derailed wagons would be dumped from the bogies so that the bogies can be ready for work again. At this stage any wheels and springs would be replaced on site very quickly. On many occasions, especially from Triangle, tons of sugar would be set a light or the old man would dig a hole with the ‘dozer and push the sugar into the ground. I can assure you; within hours of the Sugar Train being stomped the ‘weevils’ came out of the woodwork and carried tons away to the villages. On many occasions we took the necessary action. In the beginning the Terrs tried to blow the rail bridges, but their actions were very amateurish - we then built bunkers at the rail and road bridges. But you can now imagine the Terrs were also sharp as they knew that if they could cut the CTC (Centralised Traffic Control) cables or interfere with the cables in a section, it would mean the red lights appeared on the central control console, and the train is then halted until the track is cleared. More delays. This is when you are called in.
"During the day, to save time you would travel by vehicle on the dirt road or fire path and check for the problem. If it is a very hilly area and information received that the roads are now mined and not cleared, you would shoot off on the rail line in your Security Trolley. There are times when they blast the tracks in two separate spots a hundred metres apart, in which case you may end up falling into one of the craters with your trolley or you could get a squirt or two. The trolley had a spot light protruding out the top, so when I patrolled I turned my head lights off and only left the spot light on. In their ambushes the bullets normally went over the top as they aimed at that light. When information was received that big groups were in the area and we were moving fuel tankers, we placed a number of trucks in front of the engines and we would sit in the open sandbagged bogie at the back of the train with either a 12,7mm or 20mm canon. When we go through areas which appear to be ideal ambush places, you could give it a squirt with this weaponry, and those tracers and explosive heads was unbelievable. What a noise! You can also imagine every time you let off a few rounds what that did to the poor old engine driver not knowing what is going on. Being out in the open bogie there were no comms, so on many occasions we would have to use a flash light to indicate everything was OK.
"For me personally, the most nerve racking times were when I sat in front at night with the driver in the cab of his diesel engine, more as a morale booster for both of us. You observed that track come flying towards you, then you go across cuttings, culverts and bridges as you shoot around the corners. You know if you hit something you have no chance as all those loaded trucks are right behind you and will keep following you. You know they cannot be stopped. That part I did not like, and there was very little protection come to think about it. A number of the engines were hit in the centre by rockets and the driver who sat in the nose part was generally not affected. It was very different however when he hit the land mine, and in every case that I attended, the driver had burst ear drums with blood running down from his ears. As a result of the explosion most of them were in total shock, shaking and talking incoherently - not nice.
The collapse of the Portuguese Government in Mozambique and Frelimo taking over, assisted the terrorist incursions into the South East corner of Rhodesia. These intensified and large groups of terrorists anything from 20 to 80 kept entering the country, and with this most of our security roads along the rail tracks were now being mined. I recall a section of road just north of Rutenga which had five mines within two kilometres.
"One particular morning we received a call from Rutenga ComOps informing us that an Army stick, which had been patrolling between Garare and Ngungubane, had located an explosive device near a small bridge in a deep cutting between two large mountains. The Army informed me that they had arranged for a Sapper to be recalled from the border mine field, and that this chap would have to be escorted to the scene and could we supply motorised transport. I then informed JOC Headquarters that I would arrange for a security trolley to take the soldier to the scene. At 09h00 I called for my security trolley driver to do the pre-shift checks on the armoured trolley before departure. On the arrival of the black Engineer Sapper we set off from Rutenga to Ngungubane where the explosive device had been found. While we were travelling, I looked at the Engineer Sapper and noted that he was perspiring profusely; the sweat just ran from his body. I asked him if he was nervous and he said he was indeed. I then asked him why and he stated that he was not familiar with electrically detonated mines. Working in the mine fields was apparently much easier. Well, I then decided to keep an eye on him for the whole trip to see what he would do.
A Kudu protected vehicle adapted to go on rails (Photo Boet du Plessis)
"We travelled at 50 kph on the rail tracks, arriving about an hour and half later at the scene which had been clearly marked by the Army patrol. The trolley driver parked the armoured security trolley about 30 metres away from the scene. I then took up a covering position from within the trolley while we watched the young army engineer walk along the top of the rail line to where the device had been located. After 15 minutes, with this man just lying on top of the railway line staring at the electrical wires protruding from the ballast, I called out and asked him what the problem was. He got up and walked back to the armoured trolley where he informed me that he did not know how to defuse the electrical device. At this stage all the trains which were north and south bound were standing idle in sidings waiting for us to clear the line. I informed the Engineer that I had never been trained to lift land mines or to remove electrically detonated mines; however I would go back to the scene just to have a look. We then tiptoed like cats along the top of the railway line until we got to the scene. On our arrival, I noticed that the ballast between four railway sleepers had been disturbed and I also noticed two wires protruding from the ballast with one wire attached to the railway line with beeswax and the other wire on the inside of the track. This meant, when the train’s wheel flange touched the second wire, the electric circuit would be complete and the mine would explode. It was now midday and extremely hot, with the temperature in the mid-forties and the railway line was burning through our clothing where we lay on it. While we were lying there I informed the Engineer firstly to remove any wire touching metal and then to bind it up so that it could not make a circuit. The bare wire, which was protruding from the ballast and folded towards the inside of the track, was the first one that we moved away from the track and taped up. Then we removed the second wire which was attached by beeswax and taped this one. We started to remove the ballasts, one by one, following the electrical wires.
"As we had taken such a long time to clear the tracks, a military aircraft circled the area above us to see what was causing the delay. We were immediately instructed by radio from the aircraft to lie low and not to make any hasty movements, as the hill on our West had about 60 CT (communist terrorists) and locals watching to see how the blast would go off and how we would be killed. The pilot said that he would turn and attack this group, which he promptly did, strafing the hill. Terrorists and locals scattered with some firing back at the plane taking place. The pilot then circled and strafed the area a second time, reporting that he had hit a number of this group. Boy, did we feel exposed. Here we were lying on top of the rail tracks in the open, with sixty pairs of eyes staring down on us hoping we would make a mistake and kill ourselves. We removed all the ballast until we came to the mine, successfully removing the detonator. We traced the cable through to the next section, where we found explosives with detonators which we removed, and then followed the cable further to a 9v Kariba Battery. We continued with this process to the next area where, between two sleepers, we found half a bag of ammonia fertilizer with diesel and explosives. As we removed the detonators we cut the electrical cords and taped them. We were concerned that an AP mine may have been placed under the fertilizer bag, so we used a grappling hook with a long line and gently pulled it up and away from where it had been lying. Having removed all the explosive devices from the scene we quickly scraped the ballast back with our bare hands. With our trophies in the back of our trolley, we set off back to Rutenga. It was a job well done and my first induction and education to lifting land mines. I would also like to say we wore no protective equipment as there just was none available.
Rhino Security Trolley with portable turntable (Photo Boet du Plessis)
"As for the security trolley drivers, many were elderly men who, with the train drivers/ guards and their Security Branch crews faced enormous dangers. Can you imagine, travelling every night, up and down the same route, with nowhere to hide, on the rail tracks with lights on at night (cannon fodder) just waiting to be taken out; challenging the insurgents to shoot at you in the open areas. You felt naked, and every minute of the hour you waited for the RPG-7 rocket to hit the side of the trolley. You sacrificed yourself and crew just to ensure safe passage for the trains carrying valuable fuel and goods inland. On many occasions when we travelled as escort for the fuel trains, we travelled on the same CTC section, normally only a kilometre or two ahead of the train. Bearing in mind, if you detonated a landmine, the weight of the train following you, which had metal wheels on metal tracks, could not stop immediately. It could take a kilometre or two depending on the gradient, weight and speed of the train – by that time the train would be upon you and you would be crushed. Until today these brave men have not even been thanked or mentioned in dispatches. There were no individual Heroes. They were all HEROES. It was through their bravery that the Rhodesia Armed Forces and Government could continue to operate successfully and ensure their success.”
I can only fully endorse what Boet has written in this minute expose of the work of the forgotten warriors, the men of the Rhodesian Railways. They placed their lives at great risk to ensure that vital supplies, and fuel and ammunition for the war kept coming in.