In June, 1896, three months after the Matabele Rebellion erupted in Rhodesia, the Mashona tribes in the North-East of the young country responded to the call of fanatical "kandungas" (wizards) and slaughtered one hundred and three European settlers. One of the volunteer units seconded from the Bulawayo Field Force to go to the aid of the beleaguered settlers in Mashonaland was a troop of mounted infantry raised by Captain George Grey, and known as Grey's Scouts.
Almost exactly eighty years later, Grey's Scouts were once again in action in North-East Mashonaland, hunting kandungas (at that time, the Shona name for terrorists) and shooting from the saddle, yet the men were now dressed in jungle green and FN automatic rifles had replaced the Martini-Henry carbines. The first contact between the modern Grey's Scouts and terrorists occurred in June, 1976, and was probably the first light cavalry action seen anywhere in the world in the quarter of a century since Red Army and Waffen SS cavalry clashed in Russia.
Yet men of the modern Grey's Scouts baulked at the label "cavalry", insisting on the more correct designation of "mounted infantry", largely because critics ridiculed the idea of reforming mounted infantry as a romantic anachronism that would only detract from the Rhodesian war-effort.
In reply, the driving force behind the proposal, Captain 'Beaver' Fraser-Kirk, and the man who succeeded him as Commanding Officer of the unit, Captain Tony Stephens, stressed the relevance of mounted infantry to counter-insurgency operations in rugged terrain. The Vietnam war had demonstrated that increasingly sophisticated equipment and larger warheads deployed against guerrilla forces only succeeded in raising the arms' bill to a point where the cost of war became prohibitively expensive.
And, in Rhodesia, such logistical realities were all the more vital, since every vehicle, and every litre of petrol we had to import meant that ground had been lost in the economic war.
One of the greatest problems that beset the Rhodesian Security Forces was the alarming attrition rate among soft-skinned vehicles. Not only had large numbers been destroyed by land-mines, but many more were simply incapable of surviving the gruelling conditions. Tough, cross-country mine-proof vehicles, such as the 'Hyena' and 'Rhino', existed, but were not large enough to be used as personnel or supply carriers. So, was there any means of lessening the dependence of the soldier at the 'sharp-end' on mechanised transport?
Another pressing problem lay in the difficulty of applying adequate ground coverage when man-power resources were limited and already over-stretched. Of course, a few troops could patrol and establish a presence over an extensive area if they were mobile - but, vehicles have tactical disadvantages in the bush. They invariably become bogged down in the rains, while, in the dry season they advertise their approach with long columns of dust; at night, their lights can be seen at great distances - and nothing can be done about the noise. So, was there a noiseless and swift means of imparting mobility to the soldier?
The rather unconventional idea of raising mounted infantry in the age of push-button warfare provoked a response in the Rhodesian Security Forces ranging from the barely repressed pique of the BSAP Ceremonial Mounted Unit, to the derisory taunt of 'donkey-wallopers' from the Rhodesian Light Infantry and Special Air Service. When the Rhodesian Army gave the go-ahead for an experimental troop of mounted infantry, much faith, hard work and sheer bloody-mindedness was needed to prevail against such scepticism.
But the pioneer Mounted Infantry Unit - the MIU - also attracted enthusiastic support; volunteers poured into the MIU depot at Inkomo (part of Lord Graham's estate), a generous donation of tack came from supporters in South Africa, and four-legged recruits for the MIU came to Inkomo from all over Rhodesia and South Africa as gifts from their owners.
By September, 1975, the MIU had succeeded in raising its first troop for trials in the Eastern Highlands; the men ranging from crack polo-players to former Foreign Legionnaires who had never ridden, while the mounts varied from sleek thoroughbreds to unprepossessing (but tough) farm-ponies - or 'bossiekops'. Further bush-trips' of trial troops in the East and South-East of Rhodesia (soon to be declared Operation Thrasher) ironed out most of the teething troubles, and convincingly demonstrated the value of mounted infantry in counter-insurgency operations.
The experience gained by these trial troops (each consisting of a cadre of regulars with territorial volunteers) revealed hitherto unexpected advantages to patrolling on horseback. It was found that, when mounted, a man could track not only faster, but more accurately, than on foot. Line of spoor could be followed more easily, and unexpectedly large areas could be covered. Also, the horse - particularly a cross between the Basuto pony and the Bossiekop - proved capable of traversing the most rugged terrain.
Surprisingly, it was found that the mounted infantryman was not, after all, more conspicuous because of his greater height. The natural, animal movement of the horse enabled the rider to approach a suspect in the bush within hearing range without detection, while the added height greatly in-creased the soldier's vision in 'shateen' (thick bush) and tall grass.
It was noticed that the horse's own sensitivity to sound and scent could provide an 'early-warning system' to the rider, while its speed meant that the soldier could pursue at the gallop for a short distance, or sweep and follow-up for much longer periods at an alternating canter and walk. Trotting was soon rejected by most troopers largely because of the discomfort cause by radios, ammunition-pouches and water-bottles in disarray, and because of the ease with which valuable equipment could find its way out of the saddlebags.
The intimidating psychological effect on terrorist and tribesman alike of the man on the horse quickly gained the MIU a hard reputation and led to a widespread respect for the 'Mahout'. The sight of a horseman, with rifle levelled, crashing through the mealies towards a terrorist was more than enough to terrify the most hard-core commissar (leaders of terrorist gangs styled themselves 'political commissars').
The task of training the first volunteers for the MIU - which only became known as Grey's Scouts in early 1976 - fell on the experienced shoulders of the equitation instructor, Sergeant Roy Elderkin, formerly of King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery.
This task was bedevilled by the need to break in many of the wilder remounts at the same time as persuading the volunteers to forget the niceties of high-school technique, and learn the business of rough-riding. Sergeant Elderkin's colourful (if tact-less) persuasiveness would linger long in the mind - and on the hardened backside of those who were thrown ("Did I "'""" well give you permission to dismount?"). Elderkin's aching volunteers had to learn tricks that would have raised eye-brows in the Spanish Riding School, such as 'dismounting' (to put it euphemistically) at the gallop with 'gat' (FN) in hand and in full webbing - an exercise which probably cost the unit more bruises and broken bones than enemy action ever did.
Before the volunteers were sent out into the bush, there were the long hours of mounted drill on dusty parade grounds, the interminable cleaning and polishing of tack, grooming and horse-management. Then, the preliminary patrol formations and skirmishing practice among the hills and valleys of Chipinga. Finally, the freedom of the full operational three to five day patrol in the lush Eastern Highlands or the arid Lowveld.
By early 1976, Grey's Scouts were operating regular and territorial troops in rotation in the North-East of Rhodesia (Operation Hurricane) and were making their presence felt wherever they were deployed. The mounts generally proved capable of enduring the rigours of protracted patrols through broken country, though, once again, the smaller farm-pony often displayed greater endurance. By this time, each troop had its own veterinary officers, farriers and saddlers, and a common grouse was that the army seemed to lavish more attention on its horses than its men. On one occasion, a troop boasted several vets, but lacked a medic, and a man reporting sick was liable to be told he had a mild case of colic.
In the first week of June, 1976, Grey's Scouts experienced their baptism of fire when a stick (patrol) was ambushed in the Kandeya Tribal Trust Land, between Mount Darwin and the Mavuradonha Range. The Grey's had already fired their guns in anger, shooting from the saddle while galloping after the occasional terrorist caught in the open - but, this time, they were the moving target.
The stick, consisting of six men (and one Retriever pup by the name of Gus) were riding through a vlei of thick bush when they were fired on at a range of between twenty and thirty yards. The stillness of the early morning was shattered by the high-pitched chatter of an RPD (Russian medium machine-gun) against a chorus of Kalashnikov AK47's (Russian automatic rifle). Immediately the stick split into two groups to enfilade the unseen enemy, the troopers leaping from the saddles of their bolting horses. A mare, Shaleena, was shot, and one bemused trooper watched as his reins were severed by a round. Yet, even at such a short range, the floppies (terrorists) fired habitually high and wild, and the troopers were unscathed as they dived into the high elephant grass.
Fire was returned immediately while commands and directions were shouted above the deafening chaos of sound. Each kneeling trooper concentrated on controlling the direction and rate of his fire with a 'double-tap' (two-round burst), sweeping his own arc of fire and shooting low. The stick 'Two-I-C' (second-in-command) tried to 'establish comms' with his radio, hoarsely bawling: "Con-tact! Contact! Contact!" into the mouthpiece, and giving the 'loc' (position) in clear. Spent cases spat out from each breech, magazines were hastily ripped off and replaced, nostrils stung from the stench of cordite and watchful eyes darted from side to side.
At last the command was given to cease fire, and heads were cautiously raised. No fire was re-turned, so one half of the stick began to assault, moving at the crouch through the damp grass, while the rest waited to give covering fire. Abruptly, a short burst came from ahead and the troopers dropped to the ground, while the Sergeant and the other two fired back from the flank. A shrill scream chopped short by another burst, then a silence that seemed unnatural after the strident cacophony of the firefight. The troopers rose and moved forward slowly, swinging from side to side, finally reaching the position the floppies had hastily vacated.
The rest of the stick made a careful 360 degree sweep before the 're-org' with the assault group; radio contact was established with nearby sticks and a search was begun for the horses in the hope of a follow-up. The probing troopers found a number of sleeping 'pozzies' littered with half-digested food, cartridge cases, spent rifle-magazines, abandoned boots (made in Zagreb, Yugoslavia), packs (drugs from the UK and W Germany) - and thick pools of congealing blood.
It later transpired that twenty floppies were resting in the improvised camp, and had fled, leaving a rearguard to delay the Grey's. Contact was lost with the gang, largely because the JOC (Joint Operations Centre) had already dispatched the 'fireforce' (a chopper-borne strike-force) to an-other contact in the vicinity. However, one terror ist body was recovered later, but whether more were killed was impossible to determine since the terrorists normally removed their dead and wounded if possible.
The troopers also discovered that Gus had man-aged to find his way back to the Troop's base camp, some miles away, tail between legs at the head of several sweating horses, trailing be-draggled saddlebags. Gus, was promptly dishonourably deprived of a bone - but, Grey's Scouts had had their first kill.
Later, in August, Grey's were in action again, this time in Operation Repulse, along the barren, parched flat border with Mozambique in the South-East, and, in a continuous follow-up, lasting a number of days, killed some two dozen terrorists, echoing the words of the unit's song: "The Grey's Scouts Ride Again, Out of History they Came"
If peace ever returns to the beautiful land of Rhodesia, and, if an account is ever written of the men who made it possible, a chapter will have to be devoted to the men "who came out of history".