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Operation Uric

By John Fairey

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The article which appears below is written by former Dakota captain, 3 Squadron, the Rhodesian Air Force, John Fairey who lives in Hampshire. This article on OP URIC forms part of a chapter of a book he is writing on his experiences in the Rhodesian War.

I am grateful to John for giving his permission to its re-production as it gives a point of view of a member of another Service with experience at the "Sharp End". During his service he flew both the Warthog (Radio Intercept Dakota) and the Command Dakota.

Some of his observations however are made without the full intelligence available to the Commanders and planners, and both he and I would welcome any comments from participants at any level. This is what history is made of!

On 31st August I attended a briefing about a forthcoming major external operation. At that time large numbers of ZANLA terrorists were pouring into south-eastern Rhodesia from the Gaza province of Mozambique and this influx was proving to be even more difficult to stem than those in other parts of the country. One reason for this was that, in that part of Rhodesia, there are few hills to provide vantage points for OPs and therefore Fire Forces were not effective. Soldiers of the FPLM - the Mozambican Army - were also infiltrating the south-east and one was captured as far west as Kezi in Matabeleland. By 1979 a high degree of cooperation existed between ZANLA and FPLM; they shared a number of bases and FPLM provided ZANLA with much logistic support.

In order to counteract this threat a major operation was devised which was code-named Uric. Its objectives were to disrupt communications in Gaza, to attack certain military installations there and, also, to persuade the rulers of Mozambique to discontinue their support for ZANLA. The operation had four phases which were:
1. Air attacks on ZANLA and FPLM installations.
2. Mining of roads. For this purpose an Admin Area was established in a sparsely inhabited area of Mozambique.
3. The destruction of a number of bridges and the large dam which carried a road and the railway line between Maputo and Malvernia across the Limpopo at Aldeia da Barragem.
4. The destruction of Mapai which, since its temporary occupation by the Selous Scouts in 1977, had become a large joint FPLM/ZANLA base. This was to be achieved by isolating the town and starving out the enemy. Once the enemy had withdrawn the Rhodesian Army would have occupied and destroyed the place.

The RhAF was not capable of supporting Uric on its own. The operation could not have been mounted without the assistance of the SAAF which provided Canberras, Dakotas and Puma and Frelon helicopters. The attacks on Barragem and Mapai would have been impossible without large helicopters. To have delivered the attacking force by parachute or in small helicopters, and then to have recovered them in small helicopters, would not have been feasible, owing to the distance of Barragem from the Rhodesian border and the strength of the anti-aircraft defences around Mapai.

The operation was due to start on Sunday 2nd September. However a "guti" set in on that day which meant that the planned air strikes could not be carried out and so the operation had to be postponed. Between 1 st September and 4th September I was kept busy flying passengers and freight to the two airfields from which the attack was to be launched. These were Buffalo Range and Chipinda Pools, a dirt airstrip twenty-five miles south-east of Buffalo Range. The Frelons and Pumas were based at Chipinda Pools; South African involvement in Op Uric would soon have become common knowledge had they been based at Buffalo Range which was used by civil aircraft. It was considered acceptable to base the SAAF Dakotas at Buffalo Range, since they carried no markings and looked identical to RhAF Dakotas.

The main task of the Dakotas was to resupply the Admin Area which was established in an area of dried up swamp deep inside Mozambique. RLI soldiers and Alouette helicopters were based there for the duration of the operation in order to mine roads. Near the Admin Area was a dirt airstrip; consideration was given to landing Dakotas on it but this idea was discarded and instead the airstrip was used as a DZ for the resupply drops. The Command Dak and the Warthog were used in their usual roles.

On 5th September I and Flight Lieutenant John Reid-Rowland flew the Warthog from New Sarum to Buffalo Range. We landed at 11.30am to be told that the operation had started and that we were to get back in the air as soon as possible. The main objective of that day was the destruction of the dam at Barragem and of four bridges in the same area. The attackers, most of whom were SAS men, encountered some opposition at Barragem but overcame it quickly. Unfortunately one of the RhAF's precious Bell 205s was shot down near the dam. The air-craft, with only the crew on board, was about to land in order to pick up a casualty. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Dick Paxton, was badly injured and the tech/ gunner, Corporal Wesson, was killed. The four bridges were dropped but the dam was not breached although it was severely damaged. It proved to be stronger than anticipated and not enough explosive was used. The railway line across it was cut but the road was still useable by light vehicles. During the day a European was captured and flown back to Rhodesia. He turned out to be a Bulgarian water engineer and he was eventually repatriated. There were many Communist bloc advisers - mainly military ones - in both Zambia and Mozambique and some of them were killed by the Rhodesian Security Forces. As far as I know this was the only occasion on which one was taken alive.

While all this excitement was going on John and I cruised sedately back and forth over the Kruger National Park between the Limpopo and Phalabora while the operators in the cabin monitored communications and hostile radars. They were particularly interested in a radar in Mozambique which tracked us throughout the sortie. Once we saw a SAAF DC4 which was obviously engaged on the same sort of mission as ourselves.

The next day, 6th September, I again flew the Warthog with John and we were on station over the Kruger Park for the first event of the day which was scheduled for 7.00am; it was an attack by two Hunters on a radar station at, or near, Mapai. The equipment in the Warthog was picking up the emissions from this radar which had a height-finding capability and was probably used for directing ground-to-air missiles. Just before 7.00 I asked one of our equipment operators whether the radar was still on the air and he replied that it was. Then, precisely at 7.00, he said: "It's gone now, sir."

Regrettably not all the attacks on that day were so successful. For some reason it had been decided to discard the original plan to starve the enemy out of Mapai. Instead an attack on it was mounted by 200 lightly armed troops most of whom were from the SAS and the RLI.

The destruction of the radar station was followed by more air strikes on Mapai by Canberras and Hunters after which troop carrying helicopters arrived on the scene. As they arrived at their objective there was a spectacular explosion which, at first, was assumed to have been caused by an air strike. It caused some elated comments on the radio but these soon subsided as the realisation sank in that one of the helicopters had crashed. A SAAF Puma had been shot down by some sort of rocket; all on board, three South African aircrew and eleven Rhodesian soldiers, were killed. Most of them were in the RLI but one of them was Captain Charlie Small of the Engineers who was the Army's leading demolition expert. This was the largest number of casualties, by far, that the Rhodesian Security Forces had suffered in a battle.

Throughout the day heavy fighting took place around Mapai and it soon became apparent that the attacking force had bitten off more than it could chew. The lightly-armed Rhodesians could make no headway against an entrenched enemy who was both more numerous and better armed than they were. Numerous air strikes were directed at Mapai but the RhAF - even with the support of SAAF Canberras - had nothing like enough aircraft to dislodge the defenders.

General Walls was in the Command Dakota which was circling to the north of Mapai and late in the afternoon he ordered the attacking force to withdraw. The bodies of the men in the downed Puma had to be left behind; an attempt was made to destroy the wreckage with a Golf bomb but it was not successful. The soldiers, who had sustained no further casualties, had to march about five miles from Mapai to a point where helicopters could land in reasonable safety. Much enemy fire was directed at the helicopters as they flew out of Mozambique and one Puma pilot was struck on the helmet by a small-arms round. Fortunately he was not hurt.

On 7th September John and I took over the Command Dak. Since the main activity of the day was to be air strikes and there were no major operations involving ground forces, General Walls did not fly. His place in the Command Dak was taken by Air Commodore Norman Walsh. We flew twice and were airborne for a total of more than nine hours most of which were spent orbiting the Admin Area. The aircraft would have been a "sitting duck" for enemy fighters but, fortunately, the Mozambican Air Force did not intervene in Op Uric nor in any other of the many operations mounted by the Rhodesian Security Forces on their territory.

There were to have been more air strikes on the following day but the "guti" re-turned and the air strikes were cancelled.

Op Uric petered out apart from mining operations which continued for several days.

After an operation on foreign territory it is easier to assess one's failures than one's successes. Operation Uric was marred by two obvious failures - the failure to destroy the dam at Barragem and the failure to take Mapai. The failure to destroy the dam resulted from inadequate knowledge of its strength and the consequent use of insufficient explosive. This was unfortunate but understandable.

What is not understandable is the decision to discard the plan to starve out the defenders of Mapai and, instead, to attempt to storm the defenses. As a result 200 lightly armed troops attacked a numerically superior enemy who was entrenched and better armed. The attackers had no support from artillery, tanks or any other heavy weapons. The only support that they received came from the air and it was inadequate. Even with the support of a few SAAF Canberras the RhAF did not have enough air-craft for the task and could only keep down the heads of the enemy for short periods. Such an attack could have succeeded only if the enemy had run away; there were, of course, many precedents which might have led General Walls and his staff to believe that this would happen. Obviously their information concerning the strength of the enemy in Mapai was seriously deficient and one wonders why. If there was a traitor in Comops, as many believed, the enemy may have been forewarned and given the opportunity to reinforce Mapai prior to the attack.

After the operation came the recriminations. Some Army officers alleged that the operation had been badly planned. It was said that generals, who should have been concerned solely with the strategic aspects of the operation, involved themselves with tactical considerations which should have been left to the commanders in the field.

However the operation was far from being a complete failure. The Gaza province's primitive communications system was severely disrupted, considerable dam-age was done to FPLM installations and Mozambique's fragile economy was dealt a heavy blow. There is reason to believe that President Machel was so shaken by Op Uric that he warned Mugabe that his support for ZANLA would be withdrawn if a settlement was not reached at Lancaster House.

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