In August 1965 less than a year after my basic training as a national serviceman and now a regular soldier I was deployed on Exercise Long Drag. I was, by this time, posted to K Troop, HQ 2 Brigade.
This exercise was the culmination of the retraining of the RLI from a light infantry role to a commando role and was to be probably the biggest exercise that the Rhodesian Army would hold before things became VERY REAL.
I was supplied with a C14 HF SSB radio and tasked with providing communications for the exercise’ umpire net. Mounted in a Land Rover this was the latest piece of kit in Rhodesian Signals and was a powerful, 100 watts PEP, 4 channel radio (8 channels effectively if you take the sidebands into account). I was attached to the SAS headquarters detachment who were to represent the ENEMY for this exercise. Major Dudley Coventry was the CO of the SAS and for this exercise he was provided with a new Toyota Land Cruiser pickup and the alias of FUNGAYI SING, leader of the infiltrating forces.
Major Coventry, an experienced veteran of Malaya and other conflicts, was one of those LARGER THAN LIFE characters with a flamboyant grey moustache and was respected and very well-liked by everyone who ever served with him. To suit the persona of his dodgy terrorist character he had fitted himself out with a headscarf similar to what one would have imagined Lawrence of Arabia wearing.
One of our earlier stops, at the beginning of the exercise was in the Lion’s Den area on a remote farm where we were visited by the Prime Minister, Ian Smith, who flew in on an Alouette helicopter. After a chat with the officers he went around to everyone in the camp and greeted us all, asking for a name here and there. A thorough gentleman completely without pretension.
Another memorable thing about that layup was that I shared a bivvy with one of the SAS men. I think his name was something like Erasmus (??) and that he was from a Rhodesian Afrikaner family. He was about my own age (19 at the time) and he made us one of the best rice puddings I have ever eaten – using only the ingredients of our 24-hour ration packs with the addition of some raisins that he said he never went to the bush without.
In those days I think our rat packs were the best ever (not that they were ever NOT good) and we got big tubes of condensed milk in them. Youngsters who had never been camping or in the bush would sometimes pack their rations badly and end up with condensed-milk flavoured clothing when the tubes ruptured in their pack! No fun if you were going to be in the bush for a while.
We moved on and proceeded along back roads, and sometimes the main road, making our way to the Karoi area where we drove off down a dirt road leading west and north in the general direction of Lake Kariba. After some time, we went completely off road and laid up in an area of bush that was pretty remote.
The exercise now being in full swing I found that the G5RV dipole antenna I had been given to use had no PL259 connector for the antenna socket. I used some matches to jam the ends of the antenna into the socket and rim of the connector and established communications strength five.
Contrary to some stories I have heard, the G5RV amateur antenna had actually been suggested by our Troop SM, Bob Jones, who was a radio amateur with the call sign ZE1-BF. I believe Bob had used the antenna himself with great success. G5RV was the British amateur call sign of Louis Varney the man who invented the antenna in 1942.
I am not sure how long we stayed based-up in that location but, by probably the morning of the third day (having been there now for at least two nights), I recall that C Sgts Jock Hutton and Geordie Wright (both already legendary figures in the Rhodesian Army) were constantly on the Major’s case to move or we would be compromised. Major Coventry was supremely confident that we had arrived where we were without being noted by anyone and that we would not be found before we could move on and continue to elude the searchers.
About mid-afternoon that day I answered the call of nature with shovel in hand (I think I was unarmed because of being with the umpires). Casting around for a few minutes I reckoned no one could see me from camp, dug a scrape and relieved myself. After covering the evidence, I walked back into the camp.
An hour or so passed and shortly before last light BANG, FLASH, RRRRAATTATATA and much yelling heralded our camp being overrun without the slightest retaliation. I think Maj Coventry and his men were suitably embarrassed and it must have been hard for his senior NCOs not to play the I told you so game. Not so the RLI sticks that had overrun us so easily. They were absolutely jubilant. A rather chagrined, but always magnanimous, Major Coventry congratulated the RLI chaps on a job well done.
As part of the exercise pseudo TERRORIST FLYERS had been distributed in the area. A farmer had seen the Major and his distinctive vehicle and reported the sighting. This had given the SECURITY FORCES (read RLI) the general direction in which to patrol and search.
That evening we were all friends and all on the same side again and there was much chat and laughter around the fires (no longer a need to remain clandestine). It turned out that I had nearly been captured to silence me – which would also have meant the RLI springing their assault somewhat earlier. I squirmed with embarrassment when told, amid gales of laughter, of being observed only a couple of metres from the RLI forward scouts, having a shit!
The exercise was continuing down in the valley and along the shores of the lake. The SAS detachment and Maj Coventry were now tasked with carrying out ENEMY PATROLS to try to infiltrate the RLI protected area. I took part in one such patrol and was well and truly KILLED about two or three times. One memorable occasion was when the borrowed SLR rifle I was using jammed solid – just to embarrass me – on the blanks we had been issued and I was unable to clear it!
The exercise carried on for about another week and was deemed an unqualified success.