Battle of Mavonde – The Liberation version of Operation Miracle

First published in the Patriot in September 18, 2014, composed by Booker Tichazvipedza (this version was pirated). A version of the Operation Miracle, known in liberation circles as the Battle of Mavonde.

 Part I

THE Mavonde/Monte Cassino battle pitting a supposedly superior white Rhodesian Airforce against a crack ZANLA artillery unit was a duel fought during the Lancaster House talks in London in September, 1979 where the Rhodesians intended to weaken the Patriotic Front’s ZANU and ZAPU bargaining power at the talks.

The Rhodesians suffered a heavy defeat at Mavonde/Monte Cassino and the British government summoned the Rhodesian Army General, Peter Walls, to London where he was reminded that he was not going to win the war (Pan-African News Wire, 2012).

Location and set-up of Mavonde/Monte Cassino Camp

The Mavonde/Monte Cassino Camp was located in a mountainous and densely treed area on the Mozambican side about 15 to 20 kilometres from the mountain range bordering Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It was situated diagonally opposite the mining town of Penhalonga along the Eastern Highlands belt. The camp was a strategic military position designed for the FRELIMO freedom fighters by the Soviets during their war against the Portuguese settlers. It was dominated by a large flat topped mountain nicknamed ‘Monte Cassino’, a similar place in Italy which was an impregnable natural defence position and monastery held by Germany during the Second World War, where 20 Allied Forces almost failed to capture the position in a hard fought battle. On the western side of the camp which was the general direction of Zimbabwe, was the huge flat topped Monte Cassino Mountain which had a single barrel anti-aircraft gun, a Heavy Machine Gun (HMG) and a mortar 82 mounted on it. Directly to the east and below Monte Cassino Mountain was the administration block, built from wooden poles and thatch. On the northern side of the administration block was a hillock which had a single barrel anti-aircraft gun mounted on the top. Below the hillock on its northern side, was a base hidden underground and comprising of trenches and tunnels, with dense foliage and trees on top of it. On the southern side of the administration block was Chimbuyamwana Hill which was armed with a double barrel anti-aircraft gun on the top and below the hill on the eastern side was another base designed in similar fashion with the other one on the northern side. On the southern side of Monte Cassino mountain, was another hillock armed with a single barrel anti-aircraft gun on its summit. All the artillery equipment was concealed from enemy reconnaissance planes by protective trenches built from rocks around them. The administration block was the central feature of the camp positioned between Monte Cassino mountain to the west, Chimbuyamwana Hill to the south and two hillocks, one to the north and the other to the south west beyond Chimbuyamwana Hill. The camp could only be accessed by a dust road from Chimoio which approached the camp from the south-west before snaking round Monte Cassino Mountain and ending in front of the administration block. Comrade Twarai Tipone, a High Command member, was the Camp Commander of the about 800 strong ZANLA force unit resident at Mavonde/Monte Cassino Camp.

Settling at the new camp

A crack artillery unit of 30 ZANLA cadres left Vanduzi Camp after its attack by the Rhodesian Airforce planes in February/March 1979. The unit was joined by a group of 770 ZANLA cadres returning from training in Romania and Yugoslavia.
Some members of the Romania/Yugoslavia group had trained in artillery and had brought with it a single and double-barrel anti-aircraft guns which were mounted on one of the hillocks and Chimbuyamwana Hill, respectively. The Romania/Yugoslavia artillery cadres were fused with the more experienced Vanduzi unit, whose other members had gone for re-training. The fused unit was to become the nemesis for the Rhodesian Airforce and infantry in the historic battle. The new denizens of Mavonde/Monte Cassino camp spruced up the trenches and underground tunnels of the two bases leaving the accumulated heavy foliage intact in order to effectively conceal these features. They went on to mount their artillery on Monte Cassino Mountain, Chimbuyamwana Hill and the other two hillocks, ensuring that the guns are hidden from enemy reconnaissance planes. All the artillery was aimed westward, the Zimbabwe direction where the enemy was expected to fly in from. On the second day at the new camp, the new inhabitants nearly fired at a low flying reconnaissance helicopter which passed by. The Rhodesians were searching for the new ZANLA Camp after destroying Vanduzi Camp.

Part II

ON a certain day in September 1979 during lunchtime, a Rhodesian Airforce Lynx plane appeared over the camp from the western direction flying at high altitude. It appeared to be directing a fleet of Canberra helicopters, Hawk Hunters and Mirage jet bombers to the position of the camp. The approaching planes appeared on the screens of the anti-aircraft guns almost immediately. The anti-aircraft gunners at their different positions would listen to orders from their gun commanders who will state the speed, type and altitude of the approaching planes before giving the order to fire. The artillery was to be fired at the same time in order to avoid one gun position being exposed to the Lynx command plane circling at high altitude. As the artillery guns exploded into action, the enemy planes were hit and fell in flames, while others were hit but managed to turn in flames and crashed away from the camp. The enemy planes continued to come and the ZANLA gunners continued to hit them in trebles or quads and they fell. Some managed to drop bombs off target because the enemy did not know the exact position of the camp. When the Lynx command plane noticed that there was too much anti-aircraft gunfire, it gave an order to the planes below to stop approaching the camp and gain high altitude as a dozen plus planes had been gunned down by the ZANLA artillery. The Rhodesians’ strategy was designed to provoke the ZANLA gunners to fire at the planes flying at high altitude and expose their gun positions for bombing. Instead, the ZANLA artillery went silent as soon as the enemy planes took high altitude, but remained alert and ready. Since the Rhodesian Airforce planes had no night vision capacity to bomb at night, they continued to take turns to circle around the general area of the camp at high altitude as a strategy to frighten the ZANLA gunners below to abandon the camp and run away, but that never happened. The ZANLA gunners remained silent and alert in their positions. The Rhodesian planes continued to harass the ZANLA gunners for two days flying at high altitude but the disciplined artillery unit remained silent and alert waiting for the enemy to make a move and face the deadly anti-aircraft fire. On the third day, the enemy mistook the quietness of the ZANLA anti-aircraft gunfire below to imply that they had fled their camp. The Lynx command plane instructed the infantry groups deployed around the general area of the camp to move into the camp. The enemy’s intention was to capture any documents or weapons left behind by the supposedly fleeing ZANLA guerrillas. On approaching the base to the north and to the east, the Rhodesian infantry came under heavy gunfire from the trenched ZANLA guerillas using AK rifles, RPG-2 bazookas, rifle grenades and Mortar 60 bombs which decimated them in their hundreds.

The disadvantage of the approaching Rhodesian infantry was that the ZANLA fighters in the trenches saw them first from the thick foliage concealing the bases and let them draw near before firing a volley from a variety of guns, killing hundreds. The Lynx learned that the ZANLA fighters were lying low and had accounted for almost all the infantry below. Some Rhodesian planes were called in (probably by the communication radio soldier) for hot extraction of the few survivors, but they became easy prey to the alert anti-aircraft gunners who gunned them down. The mighty Rhodesian Airforce and its infantry had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a disciplined and alert ZANLA unit at Mavonde/Monte Cassino camp.The casualties on the ZANLA side were negligible and among them was Patrick Mupunzarima, a High Command member who was based in Beira. He had driven to the camp in the heat of the battle and was killed together with his bodyguard by the Rhodesian infantry who had laid an ambush on the narrow dust road accessing the camp. Comments on the battleThe Rhodesian account of the battle can be found in a book by Babra Cole, titled, The Elite: The Story of the Rhodesian Air Service, which was written and printed in South Africa.

The account is a figment of lies. In the book, the Rhodesians lie that they killed all the ZANLA forces at Mavonde/Monte Cassino and captured an array of weaponry and important documents. The Rhodesians did not even acknowledge the existence of anti-aircraft guns that downed a dozen plus aircrafts to win the battle. The Pan-African News Wire (2012) reveals that the Mavonde/Monte Cassino battle was the only one that the Rhodesians did not issue a War Communiqué on where they usually announced how many ZANLA guerrillas had been killed or weapons recovered because they lost it. The Herald (2009) under an article, ‘Rise of African Nationalism’ reported that the ZANLA victory at Mavonde/Monte Cassino, sealed the fate of the Lancaster House peace talks and led directly to the independence of Zimbabwe. It noted that it was after the ZANLA victory that Britain was forced to assume control of its wayward Rhodesian kith and kin. It further noted that the ferocity and tenacity of the ZANLA defences at Mavonde/Monte Cassino had sounded a death knell to the inane military superiority of the white man in the region. And in this instance, the ZANLA victory was totally homegrown, as there was absolutely no involvement of Cuban or any outside international friendly force in the fateful encounter.This is another version of the victory at Mavonde. Mavonde is a turning point, a waterloo or a Dunkirk for the Rhodesians. They don’t write much about it and with good reason. They were routed at Mavonde and no man will talk about his defeats. Sadly Zimbabweans have never written much about this epic moment in our Chimurenga. The Mavonde Battle shook the very foundations of Whitehall and forced varungu to negotiate in earnest. This narrative is the culmination of eight months of research that is far from over.