Ops Overload - Chiweshe
Nick Baalbergen was a Intaf regular who was involved in these operations from the beginning. He wrote this article on request and all copyright belongs to him.
We reported to Llewellin Barracks, just outside Bulawayo, on the morning of Thursday 21 February 1974. Many of us who had made use of the travel voucher, arrived by train and were transported to Llewellin by Army trucks from the train halt near the barracks complex. We were intake 137, reporting to Depot, The Rhodesia Regiment, for the then standard one year period of National Service. We were a hybrid intake, bridging the traditional Army national service and Intaf national service. Newly appointed District Commissioner Training, Alex Bundock, was establishing the Chikurubi facility at the Prisons complex, just beyond the Greendale suburb of Salisbury. We therefore served in both the Army and Intaf. This situation resulted in on going confusion, as for several years I would regularly receive the well known official "invitation" to report for call-up with the Army, while being a permanent serving member of Intaf. These "invitations" were presented to the District Commissioner where I happened to be stationed at the time. On every occasion, I was advised to "ignore" the letter as "it would be handled". There must have been some interesting stand off situations between the two Services, as to which had jurisdiction over us. Although no action ever resulted from "ignoring" the letters, I nonetheless had visions of being arrested by the "Cherry Berets" (MPs) and taken off in handcuffs to DB!
On completion of our "Basics" at Llewellin, after our Passing Out Parade on 19 April 1974, our group of 28 regulars was released on secondment to the Intaf for specific operations. We were transported to Chikurubi, where DC Alex Bundock had recently been mandated to establish the infrastructure to carry out dedicated Intaf national service training. The infrastructure was taking shape and the first all Intaf intake would arrive within months. As for us, we were destined to be the core manpower component in "Operation Overload". It was at Chikurubi that we were first introduced to "Operation Overload", which was to be the first co-ordinated and simultaneous mass relocation of the entire population of a Tribal Trust Land into 21 Protected Villages. The operation was to start in early June 1974, in approximately six weeks time! The period of six weeks until the start of "Operation Overload" was to be our preparation for the task ahead and to enable us to carry out our part of the operation.
Our preparation time was spent at Chikurubi and in the Mount Darwin District. The time at Chikurubi was spent in an improvised lecture facility, where we were given practical administration training. The balance of the lecture material covered customs and a basic language course. Many members of our group had already been with Intaf for some time and had completed both the Bindura Course and a number of the qualifying exams. For these members of the group, the administration and customs training was by way of a refresher course, but was necessary so that the whole team had the same skills levels. In our last week at Chikurubi, we were briefed on the proposed "Operation Overload". We were given a historical perspective on the concept of the "Protected Village" and its implementation in Malaya. The infrastructure at Chikurubi was being established in preparation for full national service training, accommodation was therefore at a premium, but our group of 28 being relatively small, were housed in the facilities made available by the Prison Service.
The training we received during our time in the Mount Darwin District, was intended to be of a more practical nature. We were transported to Darwin, where we were handed over to Lionel Dyke, who was ex- RLI and had recently joined Intaf. With his military background, Lionel Dyke was tasked with our military training and imparting the necessary military skills to enable us to function in the field. He instructed us in vehicle anti ambush drills, patrol formations, counter attack strategies and briefed us on landmines and explosives. On the drive from Darwin to Mukumbura, we passed through "Ambush Alley", where we practised vehicle anti ambush drills and follow up counter attack formations, debussing at regular intervals, led by Lionel Dyke. This stretch of road was subjected to regular landmining, as evidenced by the remains of numerous civilian trucks and busses lining the road through "Ambush Alley", reinforcing our recent briefing on the subject.
At Mukumbura, buildings were under construction and existing buildings were being 'sandbagged'. Near the entrance to the buildings, sandbagged bunkers were being constructed. These defences, we were told, were not only for possible mortar and RPG attacks directed at the complex, but also as a protective measure against "overshoot" mortars directed at the nearby "Aldeamento", across the dry Mukumbura river boundary, inside Mozambique. FRELIMO pretty much had free reign over the northern area of Mozambique and gave the "Aldeamentos" in the area a regular "Rev". We were told that the mortar tubes were usually used without their base plates. The base plate was heavy and was usually seen as being superfluous. This resulted in very inaccurate mortar targeting and the probability of overshooting the intended target. On April 25 1974, a few weeks earlier, there had been a military coup in Portugal. This would ultimately change the course of our own history, but for the moment, there were already rumours of near mutinous situations amongst elements of the military in Mozambique. This was a deeply unpopular war amongst the conscripts drawn from metropolitan Portugal. They had no stake in this far flung African colony and even less interest in serving in the isolated locations they were posted to. A form of contact was maintained with the staff commanding the nearest "Aldeamento", just across the Mukumbura, inside Mozambique. This contact, limited by language, was mainly in the form of "barter" transactions - our fresh produce, cigarettes and Rhodesian beer for their Manica beer, "Vinho Verde" and cigarrillos. This required crossing the dry Mukumbura River and a drive down a regularly mined track to the "Aldeamento". This track was the site of the first two landmine incidents in 1971 and 1972. The military personnel manning the "Aldeamentos" in Mozambique, were generally very young and inexperienced. There were anecdotal accounts of some of these young guys "going bush" because of the stress and isolation in an alien environment!
During our stay in the Mukumbura area, we were shown Darwin versions of the Protected Village, both under construction and various stages of occupation. (The photo featured under the heading "The Old Guard", on the Home Page of the site, shows 24 members of our group at Mukumbura. The vehicle behind our group is clearly a Mercedes truck, but all external badging identifying it as such had been removed and it was simply known as a "Rhodef" - perhaps a stipulation by suppliers breaking sanctions?)
From a purely personal perspective and as a testament to the instruction given by Lionel Dyke, elements of the training he gave us at that time, have been implemented on a number of occasions since and have stood me in good stead! To this day, some of the principles he drove home, still readily spring from the depths of memory..............Always be aware of your surroundings..........Be aware of changes in your surroundings............Be aware of possible ambush positions and possible cover positions........Be aware of any changes from the norm - more or less animals near the road than usual - no sign of people when there are usually people around etc etc................Be aware of any changes in the attitude of the people.
After six weeks of preparation, it was time for our deployment to "Operation Overload".
The Chiweshe Tribal Trust Land lies within the Mazoe district. The boundaries of Chiweshe form a long, narrow roughly rectangular outline, running south south westerly to north north easterly. It is approximately 70 kilometres south to north and about 20 kilometres east to west. Just outside the southern boundary lies the town of Concession and the offices of the District Commissioner. Just outside the western boundary, at about mid point, lies the town of Umvukwes. To the east is Bindura, while to the north east and north west lie the towns of Mount Darwin and Centenary. Chiweshe was surrounded on three sides by the most productive commercial agricultural land in the country. At its southern point, Chiweshe was no more than 60 kilometres from Salisbury and therefore formed a natural corridor from the north eastern border districts into the capital. A ZANLA group had established itself in the area and using particularly brutal coercive tactics, had gained a foothold in the area. On going brutalisation/killings of key community members, as "examples" ensured the co-operation of the population, while the subversion of susceptible elements of the population established a support base. Surrounding commercial farms were being subjected to attack and the landmining of roads was a rapidly escalating danger.
For some time, District Commissioner Bill Johnston had engaged with the community of Chiweshe, attempting to loosen the insurgents grip on the people. Standard meetings were held with tribal leaders and community meetings warning of the consequences of continued insurgent support. Selective punitive measures were employed. Eventually the population was advised that their relocation to Protective Villages was being considered. There was no improvement in the security situation.
The need to regain control over this strategically important corridor quickly and decisively, had become both a political and military imperative. I do not know precisely when the decision was made to launch "Operation Overload", but I would hazard a guess that it was a factor in our secondment from the Army to Intaf. It is recorded that DC Bill Johnston returned from a briefing at Centenary and advised ADC Alec Deere and DO Tim Dufton that the re-location was to be carried out to an extremely tight time schedule - the date of the briefing is not mentioned. (Centenary, under District Commissioner Ian Findlay, was one of four newly created districts established at about the same time.)
DC Bill Johnston and his team started on this monumental logistical task. Being a mere "conscript", I was not privy to the preparatory stages of the operation, nor am I qualified to comment on the logistics - this is best left to members of the team who were directly involved. Suffice it to say, that in a very short period of time, arrangements had to be made to secure staff on secondment from all over the country. Initially PDOs and FAs would be required to carry out the construction of the "keeps" and related infrastructure. DAs would have to be seconded to man the "keeps" of each protected village, remembering that the concept of the DSA had not yet been formalised, regular DAs were brought in for the task. Fencing contractors would have to be brought in for the perimeter fencing. Equipment for the supply of water and related infrastructure would have to be procured. On the ground, sites for each of the 21 proposed protected villages had to be located and the population advised of the "timetable" for their relocation. Sufficient transport had to be made available to carry out the relocation. All of this perparation was to be completed within a matter of six weeks.
It is recorded that DC Bill Johnstons team of 15 became 500 strong. (No date is indicated.) This would have been in early June, when the teams for the 21 Protected Villages were bought into Chiweshe. The majority of our group were deployed directly to the sites of the proposed Protected Villages, after a briefing. Some members of our group were deployed into the Mount Darwin District and were not part of "Operation Overload". The Protected Villages, spread over the length of Chiweshe, were numbered from "1" in the north, to "21" in the south west, with a centrally located administrative base at Chombira. Our original group gained two additional members, Maurice Humphreys and Paul Graham, who joined us at this stage. The basis of deployment was one member of our group per PV, together with a contingent of DAs seconded from Districts throughout the country. At some PV sites, two of us were deployed. In addition to this core component, one Army national serviceman was posted to each PV as required. A significant contingent of the South African Police had been secured and were deployed specifically in support of the initial stages of the "Operation". Small detachments of Quebec Coy SAP were therefore posted strategically to PVs throughout Chiweshe. Initially a PDO or FA and his team would be located at each site, to construct the "keep" complex and install basic services. At about the same time, teams of fencing contractors secured from the private sector would be located at the PVs to construct perimeter fencing. Once the perimeter fencing was complete, fleets of trucks would relocate the population and their possessions into their allocated PVs.
Approximately five weeks to the start of the mass relocation and we were at our "keep" sites. My allocated PV was No 21, named Nyachuru, it was located in the extreme south west of Chiweshe. The earth walls forming the square outer defences of the "keep" had been bulldozed into place when we were deployed. On site was PDO Mike Gargan, brought in from Inyanga, who would be responsible for the construction of the "keep" infrastructure and water supply infrastructure to the village. Eddy De Kock, the fencing contractor, had wisely brought in his own caravan. Eddy and his small team would construct about 2 kilometres of PV perimeter fencing, he would be joined by Allan and Kim. Steve Heckler was the army national serviceman posted to the PV. My contingent of regular DAs had served in the "traditional" role in various districts, before being seconded to Chiweshe. A mixed detachment of six South African Police regulars joined us for a short period, led by Sgts Visser (Vissy) and Smith (Smithy), the remaining four men were constables. The SAP presence was to be in a purely short term support role, they were not to take part daily activities, other than those of a security nature. They had their own communications and reporting structures. They also had the only heavy weaponry, a machine gun, which was reasssuring, but fortunately never had to be used.
This collection of widely divergent individuals, brought together under unusual circumstances, had to quickly learn to work together as an integrated, cohesive team. Initially, accommodation was rudimentary, the Intaf personnel under a number of canvas sheets, SAP in their own tents and Eddy De Kock in his caravan - relative luxury! Water was initially brought in by tractor drawn "tanker" trailer, pumped from the river about 700 metres away. Food was initially in the form of "Rat Packs", supplemented by fresh produce purchased locally.
While Mike Gargan worked from sun up to sun down on the "keep" infrastructure - the buildings, water supply etc, we spent most of our days familiarising ourselves with our area and the people who would soon occupy the protected village. Despite the clear limitations placed on the activities of the SAP in this operation, Constables Dannie Willemse and Solani nevertheless regularly volunteered to accompany us on patrols. Solani, a native Zulu speaker, found a group of Ndebele speakers in our area, while on patrol. They were able to communicate fairly easily across the two similar languages. My contingent of DAs soon got into the routine in this unfamiliar environment. There was no existing rank structure in the squad, so after working with them for six weeks, I promoted a particularly promising DA, Thomas, with eleven years of Intaf service, to Corporal - I received an unexpected letter of thanks from him.
Nyachuru PV was located a couple of kilometres due east of Howard Institute, a large Salvation Army complex, which included a well equipped hospital. The Salvation Army presence in Chiweshe, dates from 1923. The proximity of this complex proved to be a mixed blessing. The benefit of a medical facility in close proximity to the village is obvious, but Howard Institute was also home to several staff members who were consistent, vocal and scathing critics of Government policy and the detrimental effects the implementation of the policies would have on the lives of the inhabitants of the area. Dr Watt, in particular, had regularly confronted Government through the press, since 1970. There were regular "confrontations" between Dr Watt and Intaf spokesmen up to the late '70s, as evidenced by several articles appearing in The Sunday Mail and Herald newspaper in March 1977. Nyachuru PV became the natural focus of attention for the members of staff of Howard Institute, especially during and immediately after the local community was moved into the village. Nyachuru PV bore the brunt of the initial "bad press" simply because it was the most accessible from both Howard Institute and from Salisbury. An article in the Herald of 31 July 1974, quoting Dr Pat Hill, was particularly scathing about the intial stages of the relocation into Nyachuru, pointing out the shortcomings of the operation. In truth, conditions were no different anywhere else in Chiweshe. The urgency of the prevailing situation, dictated the haste with which the relocation was required to be carried out, resulting in the installation of basic services lagging the move into the villages.
With the benefit of hindsight, the constant media scrutiny of developments in Chiweshe, spearheaded by staff of Howard Institute such as Dr Watt, should be welcomed, because it clearly illustrates three points................ As individual members of the public, they were able to openly confront and criticise Government policy without fear of retribution............ No matter how unwelcome or uncomfortable at the time, it was expected of Intaf to respond and be held accountable for shortcomings.............The individuals not only had the personal freedom to express opposition to the Government but the forum in which to do so (Freedom of expression and freedom of the press.) These freedoms are but a distant historical memory in the Zimbabwe of today!
Before the relocation started, the first "death on active service" was reported, army national serviceman Seager died in a landmine explosion. Sadly, a number of seasoned and experienced DAs were killed in action after I left Chiweshe. Fortunately, during my time at Nyachuru, we had no serious incidents. One particular incident however, could easily have had a very much more serious outcome.
A dusk to dawn curfew had been in force in Chiweshe for several weeks, a fact known to all who lived and worked in the area. For us, the area excluded from the curfew, was the land that would be enclosed by the proposed Protected Village perimeter fence. Initially before the fence was constructed, we restricted our own night time movements to the "keep", so that the necessary defensive security measures could be introduced. The curfew was an essential element in regaining control of the Chiweshe area. It allowed elements of the security forces to operate freely in pursuit of the ZANLA group that had infiltrated the area. In order to do this effectively, the civilian population had to be excluded, hence the curfew. The curfew was a part of my "standing orders" which applied to all inhabitants of the "keep".
In the early weeks of July, Eddy De Kock and his team were installing steel fence posts into their concrete bases, in preparation for the perimeter security fencing. It was sun down and we were preparing for the night time guard duties inside the "keep". From the direction of the river, about 700 metres away from the "keep", we heard the unmistakable sounds of a "contact" in progress - automatic rifle fire, mainly single shot! We all mobilised to our defensive positions along the "keep" walls. The SAP brought out their machine gun. It soon became apparent that the only rifle fire was that of FNs, there was no distinctive crack of AK47 fire. We stayed in our defensive positions and within a minute or two, we heard the high pitched, laboured whine of a vehicle engine at very high revs. A cloud of dust was rapidly making its way towards the "keep" entrance. Seconds later, the five man fencing crew pulled into the "keep" in Eddy De Kocks one tonner, driven by a wide eyed, ashen faced driver. One member of the crew was beside the driver, in the cab, the other three were huddled in the open load box behind the cab. All were clearly shaken, some were wet and one was totally wet and without a stitch of clothing, other than an improvised empty cement bag from the truck. The crew had completed their days work on the fence. They decided to go down to the river for a wash, a couple of hundred metres from where they had been working, rather than return to the "keep" for a wash. They piled into the truck and drove down the cattle track to the river, where they started to wash at the rivers edge. At the river, they had wandered into an RAR unit that was setting up an ambush position at the crossing point. The RAR unit opened fire as it was past curfew time. The crew ran back to the truck and got back to the "keep" in record time. The one member of the crew was already in the river, minus his clothes, when the firing started. Thinking that discretion was the better part of valour, he abandoned his clothes at the waters edge and sprinted for the truck, vaulting into the back as it was pulling out. Only after the adrenalin had stopped pumping, did this guy realise that he had also broken his big toe in his rapid retreat.
Fortunately, this was the only injury, although a bullet hole in the drivers side door is a testament to how close they came to a more serious outcome. The bullet hole is clearly visible in the group photo of some of the "keep" personnel, in and around the vehicle. The incident was regularly recounted for some time afterwards, to the embarrassment of the fencing crew and a mixture of amusement and ridicule (unique to Shona culture!), from the assembled audience. One positive outcome from this incident was that I never had to mention my "standing Orders" on the curfew again!!
The vehicles at the "keep" were job specific - no vehicles were made available to us. There was a 5 ton truck, tractor and "tanker" trailer brought in by PDO Mike Gargan. Mike came to Chiweshe in his issue one and a half tonner, with canopy enclosed load box (I think an Isuzu). Eddy De Kock brought in his one tonner and the SAP came in their standard truck. With Mike Gargans consent, we used his Isuzu locally. We took the doors off to make it more "user friendly" in the prevailing security environment. A few weeks into the operation, a consignment of American Jeep one and a half ton trucks was distributed to the "keeps". How or from where these vehicles were obtained, I do not know. This was clearly a "once off" event, as I don't remember ever seeing this type of vehicle else where. Purely for its novelty value, they were nice vehicles to drive, however they were not mine proofed, as were the Land Rovers. I understand that the Jeeps were declared unsuitable for mine proofing, their continued use therefore carried the obvious implied risk. The Jeep at Nyachuru was a "Gunston Orange" colour, popular at the time.
Into the third week of July and we could move from our canvas shelters into the newly completed buildings inside the "keep". Mike Gargan had constructed a number of wooden buildings under asbestos roofing, as accommodation, communications/admin/store. The "keep" infrastructure was taking shape, water tanks were installed, although water was still being tankered in from the river. Kitchen, shower and toilet facilities had been completed. Septic tank soak pits had been built and closed up for use. Sandbagged bunkers were in place, near the building entrances and the keep wall walkways had been built, mainly by the DA contingent. Mike was now starting on the village infrastructure.
On 25 July 1974 "Operation Overload" was announced by Army Headquarters. My own notes confirm that trucks moved the first people into the village on the 25th July. The next three weeks were a constant shuttle of trucks moving from kraal to kraal, loading everything that was to be moved into the now fenced village. Weeks before, all the communities in Chiweshe had been visited by DC Bill Johnstons staff, advising them that the relocation to PVs was imminent and that preparations should be made to build houses within the Protected Villages. They should also consider where in the village they wanted to live and next to whom. The items moved into the Protected Village was therefore entirely in the hands of the individual members of the community. Daily patrols were made into the evacuated areas, to ensure that everybody had been relocated. Animals were initially housed near their original villages, as during the day, the community would be free to return to their lands. Provision was gradually made to bring livestock closer to the Protected Village. The installation of piped water into the village lagged the relocation of the people into the village, simply because of both logistical and time constraints. Water was drawn from the river in the interim.
In addition to our daily patrols into the evacuated areas, we now had to control the entry/exit points into the Protected village and do random night patrols within the fenced area of the village. We also had to run our own "keep" guard schedule every night. Our resources were stretched over this three week period.
On the 15th August, three weeks after the official start of "Operation Overload", it was officially completed, although the establishment of village infrastructure was far from complete. The PDOs and FAs would still be in Chiweshe for some time. No doubt the movement of items into the PVs also continued after the 15th August, but the bulk of the relocation had been completed and the high concentration of trucks deployed to Chiweshe, could now be considerably reduced.
Within a week of the official completion of the operation, the detachments of South African Policemen, who had been with us for the last six weeks, were withdrawn from Chiweshe, having completed their mandated short term support duties. It was a pity, because Const Dannie Willemse had become our source of musical entertainment, he had brought along his guitar and regularly played for us in the evenings. Sgts Smith and Visser, being in their late 30's early 40's, were by a long way, the oldest members of our group. Solani will be remembered for his willingness to "join in", as will Dannie Willemse, despite it not being required of them.
On 23 August 1974, a week after completion, ten of our original group deployed across Chiweshe, were selected for redeployment to "Operation Stronghold" in the Shamva district. At that stage we knew very little about "Operation Stronghold", other than that it would be similar to Chiweshe. I never saw Nyachuru PV completed and functioning as envisaged, as by early September 1974, we found ourselves in the Shamva District.
Some members of DC Bill Johnstons original team were: Alec Deere ADC, Tony Turner DO and Rudy Venter DO Chiweshe. Both DC Bill Johnston and ADC Alec Deere were awarded MLMs for their work on "Operation Overload".
The quoted estimates of the Chiweshe population moved into the 21 Protected villages, varied from 45000 to in excess of 60000 depending on the source. The Herald article of 31 July 1974 quoted a very precise figure of 46960. This figure was also quoted in a published thesis which included a section on "Operation Overload". I would suggest that this figure is fairly accurate.
A number of articles published on the Chiweshe Protected Villages, quoted population densities of between 3000 and 5000 per village. This is at variance with the total population figure.
The quoted cost of "Operation Overload" also varies from the $750000 to in excess of $3 million. The figure of $750000, quoted in the Herald article of 31 July 1974, equates to the commonly accepted average construction cost of between $35000 and $45000 per PV. The figure of $3 million may well be the total cost of the Chiweshe operation, several years after it was introduced.
In the Herald article of 13 December 1974, DC Bill Johnston is quoted as stating that 63 000 truckloads of personal possessions had been moved during "Operation Overload", using 5 ton trucks.
On the lighter side, on 18 December 1974 we were advised by T D Kaschula of the DCs office Concession, that 456 "Operation Overload" beermugs would be available at $2 each. On 21 June 1975, a get together at the Chombira Base Camp Chiweshe, marked the opening of the Chombira Bar.