Selous Scouts Operation Miracle: 26 September 1979

Gerry van Tonder is a well known author, archivist and researcher on warfare in Southern Africa, Rhodesian military history and military history in general. He, along with Adrian Haggett, is the author of the definitive Rhodesian War Roll of Honour

In spite of previous Rhodesian Security Forces successes against ZANLA bases in the Manica Province of Mozambique, it became evident from reconnaissance missions that camps had again been established in a sixty kilometre radius from the town of Chimoio, not far from the Rhodesian border town of Umtali. Within this area, in what was now called the Chimoio Circle, and to the east of the Chimoio-Tete Road, aerial photographs revealed a large sprawling complex of five ZANLA camps. The whole 64 square kilometre area, named New Chimoio, was heavily fortified, with an extensive system of trenches and bunkers protected by heavy weaponry and anti-aircraft guns. ZANLA and their advisors had chosen a prominent ‘bald’ kopje to site a large force of men and anti-aircraft weapons to defend the camps below from air-strikes by the Rhodesian Air Force. The kopje was nicknamed Monte Cassino by the Rhodesians.

Based on initial estimates of one to two thousand insurgents housed in the camps, ComOps (Combined Operations) made the decision to mount a ground and air attack on the ZANLA complex, using a flying column of one hundred troops from the Selous Scouts and the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment. Canberra bombers would initiate the attack, with Hunters and field guns of the Rhodesian Artillery providing heavy support as the assault progressed. One hundred paratroopers from 2 Commando, 3 Commando and Support Commando of the Rhodesian Light Infantry would be dropped east of the camp to put stop groups in place.

As a ploy to draw attention away from the real reason for this large gathering of troops, vehicles and aircraft near Umtali, RLI troops were deployed in mock fire force operations in the neighbouring TTLs, firing live ammunition to authenticate their presence.

It was however to prove a very costly deception, when a K-car carrying the Officer Commanding 3 Commando, Major Bruce Snelgar SCR (Post), flew into power lines. Bruce Snelgar, the pilot Air Lieutenant Paddy Bate and his tech Flight Sergeant Gary Carter all perished as Alouette R5705 crashed into the ground.

Under cover of darkness on 26 September 1979 the column, under the command of Captain Richard Passaportis of the Scouts, left Nkomo Barracks for Ruda Base Camp in the Honde Valley, just one kilometre from the Mozambique border. The convoy, which would pass through the Mutasa TTL, comprised Unimogs, Eland armoured cars with their 90mm guns, armoured troop carriers, the 25-pound artillery pieces, and the Scouts own armoured vehicle, the Pig. A bulldozer would be in place to assist with crossing the Gairezi River (see my note at the end of this feature) into Mozambique. Large numbers of troops and helicopters had also assembled at Lake Alexander just north of Umtali.

Overall command of the operation would rest with Lt Colonel Brian Robinson and Wing Commander Norman Walsh of ComOps, from a Dakota overflying the area. At night, Lt Colonel Ron Reid-Daly would take over from his command centre on a nearby kopje. ComOps Tactical Headquarters would be based at the Grand Reef airbase, FAF 8.

It was planned that the flying column, together with the artillery, would enter Mozambique early the following day and set itself up at a burnt-out store, codenamed Madison Square, ready to follow the Canberra bombing run at 0700 hours. At this point near the target, the artillery would also be unlimbered and be ready to support the Air Force strike. At the designated hour, however, the column with the important artillery support was still waiting to cross the Gairezi River.

The crossing onto Mozambique soil proved very problematic. Successive vehicles, weighed down with troops and war materiel, bogged down while attempting the river crossing. Eventually, the bulldozer had to individually drag each vehicle across, with the Puma APC-towed field guns being particularly awkward and resulting in them falling well behind in the column.

The twenty vehicles of the column had by this time become very fragmented, and as Canberras of No 5 Squadron were dropping their payloads over New Chimoio at the scheduled time of 0700 hours, most of the convoy was still stuck at the river crossing. By mid-morning, forward elements of the column had reached Madison Garden, but it was only by 1400 hours, seven hours after the Air Force bombing runs, that the main body of the convoy finally arrived at this staging post.

From Madison Square, the flying column of Scouts struck east, heading towards the road that would take them north to the camp. Arriving at the foot of Monte Cassino late that afternoon, the men were to spend an eventful night as the column was subjected to RPG-7 and 75mm recoilless rifle fire. While clearing trenches to secure their position, Trooper Gert O’Neill of the Selous Scouts was killed. The RLI stop groups, already in place, had an equally lively night, as fleeing insurgents stumbled into their ambush positions.

Come the following morning, further anti-aircraft defensive positions were identified on adjacent features, codenamed Hills 761 and 774, the latter being given the title Ack-Ack Hill. Flying through a cloud of flak, a Hunter strike from No 1 Squadron dropped sixteen 1000-pound Golf bombs on enemy positions, including Hill 774 which flanked Monte Cassino.

This allowed the Rhodesians to capture this hill which the defenders had vacated, taking their heavy weaponry with them. From this strategic point, Lieutenant Chris Gough and his men were able to direct mortar fire and Hunter strikes onto Monte Cassino.

On day three, Lieutenant Simon Willar’s call-sign, with close-support from Hunters clearing his way, skirmished north towards Monte Cassino, clearing spot heights of ZANLA and neutralising their heavy weapons.

After successful questioning of an enemy capture, Captain Peter Stanton reported to Lt Colonel Tufty Bate of the RLI that information gleaned from the insurgent had provided a clear picture of what the attackers could expect at the top of Monte Cassino. With this in mind, further discussions were held with Richard Passaportis, leading to an infantry assault at 1000 hours. Two Selous Scouts troop call-signs led by Lieutenants Chris Gough and John Barnes, together with an RLI troop from 3 Commando commanded by Captain Bobby Harrison, began the challenging ascent. Chris Gough took the steep direct route, while the other two call-signs slowly made their way up the trench-latticed western route. Heavy supporting mortar fire was brought to bear on the top of the kopje immediately prior to the arrival of the Rhodesian troops. Elements of the Rhodesian Car Regiment had at this time also secured the adjoining Ack-Ack Hill.

The exhausted troops reached the top of Monte Cassino, finding it totally deserted. The Rhodesians now had strategic control of the base. Three soldiers were seriously wounded during the assault, and Trooper Ted Mann of the Selous Scouts was killed when a captured weapon he was trying to disarm exploded in his hands.

Chris and his men walked into a scene on top of Monte Cassino devastated by air and ground bombardments, littered with weaponry, supplies and other war materiel. The smell of dead insurgents permeated the hot air, but few bodies were actually found. Evidently, most of the insurgents had withdrawn in what appeared to be a relatively orderly manner.

Twelve 44-gallon drums of sadza (maize-meal porridge, the staple of central and Southern Africa) attested to the fact that the base must have housed several thousand insurgents and camp-followers. The occupants had been drilled to evacuate eastwards and pick up the road to Chimoio.

There were numerous anti-aircraft emplacements scattered amongst a vast and elaborate system of trenches and bunkers, the weapons ranging from the Russian 12.7mm to 37mm. Large stocks of ammunition, tinned goods, food and medical supplies were also found.

That night, an RLI call-sign, Romeo One, positioned at a road block on the main road to Chimoio, saw a column of tanks and troop carriers approaching towards their postion. As the Russian made tanks, backed up by what appeared to be a company of FRELIMO infantry came closer, Ron Reid -Daly, alerted to this fresh threat by radio, suggested to Richard Passaportis that Major Winkler move his Eland armoured cars into a protective cordon around Richard’s Pig-based HQ, codenamed Hotdog.

Reid-Daly then guided the artillery onto the FRELIMO convoy. After five ranging rounds of gunfire, the next ten shells from the old British 25-pounders landed in quick succession amongst the attackers. The tanks immediately responded with some wild firing as they turned to flee the area. This was met by another salvo of shellfire from the Rhodesian guns, one round scoring a direct hit on a tank.

The FRELIMO rescue bid ended in a rapid withdrawal back towards Chimoio. Aerial reconnaissance the following morning revealed the FRELIMO column limping home, but before an air strike could be brought in, the convoy had camouflaged up in an area of thick bush, only moving out again when darkness fell.

On Sunday 30 September, the Rhodesians retired, leaving behind a few Scouts call-signs to monitor enemy activity.

A few days later, on 3 October, a large and heavily-armed FRELIMO column was sighted. The Scouts call-sign, remaining concealed, reported that the column had fired with anti-aircraft guns on the now vacant Monte Cassino with great accuracy. As the column moved north towards Cruzamento, concern grew that their objective was to carry out an attack on the Security Forces base at Ruda, in retaliation for the attack on New Chimoio.

Air Force aircraft were scrambled to deal with the threat. At about 1300 hours, low-flying Canberras flew over the convoy, dropping Golf bombs. Canberra R5203, crewed by Flight Lieutenants Kevin Peinke and “JJ” Strydom, only released half of its bombs, so the pilot decided to turn and do a reverse run, but this fateful decision would cost them their lives as the enemy, seeing the aircraft turn and come back, had sufficient time to concentrate ground fire at the vulnerable bomber. The stricken aircraft, having lost both engines, had been coaxed to glide back across the border. Sadly they did not make it, the Canberra crashing just short of the border, killing both men on board.

A while later, Hunter R1821, flown by Air Lieutenant Brian Gordon was also hit by ground fire, causing the aircraft to crash and kill the pilot. Whilst it was difficult in the thick haze for other aircraft to find the wreckage of the Hunter, it is known that FRELIMO had discovered the site, as they had recovered what they could to display in a museum in Maputo.

The months of September and October 1979 were very costly in terms of human lives lost due to aircraft coming down during two Rhodesian cross-border operations, Uric and Miracle. Eighteen men of the Rhodesian Armed Forces and three of the South African Air Force died when their aircraft were shot down by enemy fire in Mozambique. Their bodies remained where they fell. A further three died in Rhodesia just as Op Miracle was about to be launched. A Canberra bomber, a ground attack Hawker Hunter, a Cheetah helicopter, an Alouette helicopter and a South African Puma helicopter were all destroyed.

Author’s Notes:

All the photographs that appear in this feature article are original Ministry of Information photographic prints which form part of my library. I have used four sources for my research; Ron Reid-Daly’s Pamwe Chete, published by Covos Day in 2001; Beryl Salt’s A Pride of Eagles, published by Covos Day in 2001; Alex Binda’s The Saints, published by 30 Degrees South in 2007; and Peter Petter-Bowyer’s Winds of Destruction, published by 30 Degrees South in 2005. I did find slight variations from one source to the next, but none were really significant.

There seems to be a question over whether the FRELIMO tanks were T-34s or T-54s, so I did not include the model. Also, and one I would like to resolve, is the name of the river which the flying column crossed into Mozambique. All the literature gives it as the Gairezi, but all the time while researching this operation, my brain was telling me that the Gairezi is near Troutbeck. I have let it stand, as I cannot find a map to confirm that there is either another Gairezi, or that it is the same river that flows east of Troutbeck. Does it flow south? Doubtful. Reading PB’s account raised that doubt again, as he refers to the Honde River, which to me is far more likely. Prof Richard Wood also says it is the Honde. Can someone come up with definite proof, one way or the other?