By Dr. Martin Brass, AKA Vann Spencer co-author of Robert K. Brown memoirs, I Am Soldier of Fortune
From the February 2012 issue of SOF
A Machine Gun for a Brass Guitar
Last month we tracked the exploits of the British merc Jerry O’Brien in his quest to sign up for the most exotic of militaries, the French Foreign Legion. After completing his five and one-half year tour in the Legion, serving his time in Corsica and Djibouti, he felt unfulfilled because he had not seen combat. So he and a Legionnaire friend hatched a plan to go find some action in Rhodesia, the former British colony that had been wracked by a bush war for over a decade. They laid plans to head down after they finished their tours in the Legion.
Mercs and all sorts of adventure seekers flocked to Ian Smith’s Rhodesia. Adventurers, ne’er do wells and fugitives from all over the world headed for the land of hired guns, some intent on fighting the communist-backed terrorists and others just to kick some butt. That is where Jerry and his comrade Legionnaire came in. Bugger the Cold War idealism.
“I didn’t give a damn about the politics,” Jerry said. “I just wanted to go there for a fight. Rhodesia broke away from the United Kingdom in 1965 and that is when the war started. The communists had infiltrated the blacks. There was heavy fighting the whole year I was there. It was nothing but anti-terrorist warfare. We even did a raid into Mozambique to take out a terrorist base camp. Terrorists were coming in from Mozambique and Zambia. Mugabe’s terror campaign was communist-backed. A lot of Cuban fighters were fighting with him. I thought it was more of a communist war. I just wanted action and I saw it,” he said.
But getting there had been tough. After a few setbacks, more than six months after leaving the Legion, the two Brits finally made it to Salisbury in 1979. There they met up with the Vietnam veteran and commander of the Rhodesian Armored Car Regiment, Major Darrell Winkler. Winkler had joined the Ian Smith Army the year before after a Rhodesian he had met in New York convinced him to go fight the commie-backed terrorists in his embattled country. Why not? Winkler had fought the commies in Nam for two and a half years and that was just unfinished business.
Meanwhile, back in the States, another American—a frustrated crusader, Michael Peirce (Reb), was hell bent on joining some military and fighting some commies somewhere. He had not had a chance to fight the evil empire as an American soldier.
“I was playing and writing music in Hollywood. The Yankee Army had turned me down (according to them, blind in left eye). I had pulled off some pretty cool stuff in LA and developed delusions of grandeur, deciding I could take some time off and go fight for people whom I thought were worth fighting for. I traded my bass guitar for a light machine gun,” Pierce told me.
Soldier of Fortune, going blazes as a journal for professional adventurers since 1975, provided a smashing alternative. After reading an article in SOF, the “Black Devils of the Rhodesian Armored Car Regiment” in January 1979, Reb imagined that he heard the Black Devils calling him. He wrote to a Rhodesian Army recruiter who told him to get lost because he had no combat experience. Undaunted, Reb sold his belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Rhodesia. Just as Jerry had interpreted the rejection letter he had received from the recruiters in London as a “get your ass down there” invitation, Reb rewrote the negative response his own way, as “come on over.” He packed off to the Bush War.
A Seasoned Yankee Commander and a Sugarfoot
As soon as Reb landed in Salisbury, he made inquiries about the American commander he had heard about, figuring he could not turn a fellow Yankee down. The merc underground network was very active in the United States. He tracked down Major Winkler.
“I gave Peirce five minutes to convince me that I should accept him into my regiment. Whatever the dogged ‘I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer’ Rebel told me, which I cannot even remember, worked,” Winkler said.
Finally, Reb had joined an Army and had found a war. For the next year, the two Brit former Legionnaires and the two Americans, one a seasoned veteran and one a sugar foot, fought terrorists together in the ferocious Bush War in Winkler’s Armored Car Regiment.
But after months in the bush, the warriors saw the writing on the wall. The West, in all its witless glory, in a pattern of familiar missteps that conjured up memories of the murderous Pol Pot in Cambodia, had sided with Mugabe and his terrorists, never mind their brutal, vicious tactics.
“The terrorists were relaxed in comfortable assembly points tended by the commonwealth monitoring force, and were fed and supplied by the British and American governments. Thousands more roamed the countryside, intimidating the local populace and laying the groundwork for an overwhelming political victory,” Peirce said.
“The war had to end somewhere,” Jerry added. “That kind of guerrilla warfare could not go on forever, and I heard that Ian Smith could no longer afford to continue the war with the United States and United Kingdom imposing sanctions. They decided to have elections the year I was there. All the terrorists from the Mugabe and Nkomo camps were going to come in to rendezvous points and hand in their weapons. The British Army would monitor the elections. What the Rhodesians decided to do if Nkomo won was to deal with him, since he was sensible. If Mugabe, a nutter, won, they were going to storm the government buildings and take out the rendezvous points where the terrorists were hiding their weapons.
At this time in the late 1970s, Rhodesia was falling to the terrorists after a rocky, violent 15-year existence. In the early 1960s, Southern Rhodesia had been a self-governing British colony in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that included Zambia, Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Nyasaland broke off in 1964 and called itself Malawi.
In 1965, the Rhodesian government got together with the British government to try to sort out a way to end the war that was smoldering and about to explode. Ian Smith was the governor of Rhodesia and leader of the Rhodesia Front. The insurgents were on the move. The 1965 talks accomplished nothing. What the Brits wanted was for the blacks to get a vote, one man one vote. Of course, that would mean the blacks would get into power. So the white Rhodesians unilaterally implemented the Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965.
But Ian Smith’s Rhodesia had only a handful of friends, including South Africa and Israel, which recognized it as a sovereign state and helped keep its economy alive. The United States and the United Kingdom banded together, refusing to recognize Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and forcing him to recruit foreign volunteers to help his undermanned army defend his country. In spite of the fact that the country once boasted one of the most vibrant economies in Africa and loads of resources, it was landlocked and choked out by the neighboring African armies.
Anti-Smith government guerrillas launched a terror campaign against the white farmers. The rebel warfare escalated into the Bush War that lasted from the time Ian Smith declared the UDI until the national elections of 1980.
The Unsettled “Internal Settlement”
In 1978, in an effort to put an end to the hostilities, an interim agreement was signed in Salisbury. A white vote referendum approved the establishment of an interim government. It consisted of an Executive Council made up of Ian Smith, Bishop Muzorewa, Sithole and Jeremiah Chirau.
The “internal settlement,” proposed in a desperate attempt by the Ian Smith government to put an end to the civil war, resulted in a new constitution being drafted and an election scheduled. The country was renamed Zimbabwe Rhodesia.
Elections were held and the Union African National Council (UANC) won. Josiah Gumede was elected president and Muzorewa prime minister. But the odd men and losers, Mugabe and Nkomo, refused to accept the results of the election and heated up their terrorist insurgencies.
“When I went down in 1979, Ian Smith and Muzorewa were having Lancaster House talks with Margaret Thatcher,” Jerry told me when we met up in London this August. “Supposedly there was to be a cease fire and proper elections, one man one vote.
The Rhodesian Light Infantry, aka “The Incredibles”
The counterinsurgency regiments, the famed Commando Rhodesian Light Infantry and the Rhodesian Special Air Services (SAS), fighting the commies had built up formidable reputations. The unrivaled Selous Scouts, the covert elite special force regiment of 1000 that consisted of black and white, with a majority of blacks, were credited with gathering spot-on intelligence for the regular army. They would pose as terrorists and develop intelligence. They would infiltrate the guerrillas, find out where the terrorists were, and radio in their coordinates to the Rhodesian Army. They took out nearly two-thirds of the terrorists during the Bush War.
Jerry tried to join up with the RLI (the Incredibles), a regiment of professionals including many foreigners, but they rejected him. “All I could figure was that they didn’t want former Legionnaires,” Jerry said.
Acting on a lead from the local who was driving them around in search of a regiment, the two met up with Winkler and joined his Armored Car Regiment. Later they followed him to the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR).
“At the time, the country was about to implode, I was still in the Armored Car Regiment with Winkler.” When he got seconded to the RAR demonstration company, he planned to train them to take out Camp Romeo, one of the camps where all the terrorists were going to turn in their weapons. Winkler took me, Peirce (Reb) and a Belgian, Yves Debay, with him. But although we trained to take out the camp, they never did and I still don’t know why,” Jerry said.
“We weren’t told why Winkler was seconded to the RAR, but it was very obvious the government didn’t want Winkler in command of the most powerful regiment in the army at a delicate time politically.” Pierce added.
The elections were approaching when the two Brits and the two Americans met up with Soldier of Fortune publisher Robert K. Brown and his crew just before the Ian Smith government collapsed. Brown, who had been to Rhodesia off and on since 1975 but without seeing any action, had come to watch as the floundering country crashed and burned. Rumor had it that the terror chief Mugabe was going to steal the upcoming elections forced on the Rhodesians by the British colonial master. Those in the know warned that Mugabe and his savage followers were going to win no matter how much violence and mayhem would occur. The terrorist attacks against the white Rhodesians were heating up as they gained confidence, with the backing of both sides of the Cold War, East and the West.
The Only Excitement Was That of a Crazed Merc Race Car Driver, Until….
Now this was not an ordinary firefight, at least as far as Bob Brown was concerned. He had given up on getting to fight some terrs after six visits to Rhodesia from 1975–80, each time itching for a firefight but leaving without having found one.
“I’d been trying to get a shot at some terrs during five trips to Rhodesia over six years,” Brown said. “On my first trip to Rhodesia, in May 1974, I linked up with an American serving with the British South African Police Support Unit. We careened about on dirt roads in terr-infested northwest Rhodesia for a few days, but the only excitement was provided by the driving of the merc, who had been a race car driver in England and Australia.
“Finally, unexpectedly, in 1980 I found my firefight when I decided that we had to be in Rhodesia for the elections, which were bound to be bloody.
Both Jerry and Reb still clearly recall the events of the final firefight as clearly as Brown does and give their take on the contact with the terrs.
“The first priority when we got to Rhodesia was to link up with Winkler, since we felt he would be in the best position to conceal our presence from Combined Ops. This proved to be the case, even though Winkler had been transferred to the Rhodesian African Rifles,” Brown recalls.
“After joining Winkler, we contacted an old friend who just happened to be a quartermaster of a large unit. Rhodesian cammies and kit were traded for Johnny Walker Black Label and SOF T-Shirts. The next morning we were on our way.
Together, Winkler’s motley group ran into terrorists in what was the Regiment’s umpteenth firefight, and SOF’s first and last firefight in Rhodesia. Action is what each one of the members of the group had come to Rhodesia to find, and they found it at the most unexpected moment.
I Finally Meet the Infamous Bob Brown
“We came in for a weekend in Salisbury to hang out in a club. Early Monday morning Winkler was supposed to pick the guys and me up to go back out. They turned up in two cars. I came out of my apartment and, in addition to Reb the machine gunner and me, there were Debay, the famous war correspondent; and “the Mechanic,” the only white Rhodesian. SOFers were Art Director Craig Nunn, Associate Editor N.E. MacDougald, Joe Triggar and Bob Brown. The remaining members of the 14-member outfit were all black troopers of the elite RAR,” Jerry chuckled at the recollection of meeting “Bob” Brown and company.
“The whole bunch came out to the RAR and came out to patrol with us. We were out one day on patrol and we saw smoke from a campfire. Winkler split us up. Reb, Bob, Craig Nunn and I went with him. N.E. MacDougal had gone on a patrol with someone else.
“Craig Nunn and I went right flank and Bob, Winkler and Peirce went forward and the others went to the left. Craig and I were walking through an empty village and a firefight started. I could hear Bob shouting and shooting. Craig and I came in from the right. I fired two rifle grenades. One of them shot a grenade at us that went off right behind us.”
Brown Defies the Proper Army
“The Dem Company had been assigned a task for the anticipated election punch up. We were to make an assault crossing over a river, and together with Tenth Battalion, Rhodesian Rifles, take out Assembly Point Foxtrot. A last minute re-evaluation of pre-election security priorities prompted a hurried transfer of our company from the Sanyati Tribal Trust Lands (TTL) to the Que Que area. Bob Brown and company joined us. Discreetly ignoring the disapproval of publicity-shy senior army officials with cameras and weaponry, the SOFers shared our excitement at the prospect of some action. That night the major hosted a get together for the officers, senior NCOs and SOFers. The American journalists displayed their high quality equipment and webbing, provoking a great deal of interest among us kit-starved Rhodesian soldiers. The European faction lusted after the lightweight American assault rifles. The Africans viewed them as interesting novelties, preferring the aging but lethal FN FAL,” Reb said.
“We were in one of the TTLs, Silobela, where about 70 or so terrs were. After about 12 to 14 clicks from the base camp, security was posted around the seven-fives and last-minute instructions were quickly given. Drivers were given pick-up points, time frames were checked, and off we were.
“We neared one of the branches of the Gwelo River heading southwest in silence. In each village the RAR sergeant questioned the locals about the terrs. They told us where the terrs camped overnight. Winkler decided to split the group of 14. His section would delay and head straight for the terr camp. We were to cut a big arc behind and set up an ambush.
“A little over two kilometers from the branch of the Gwelo, the Damba River dip, we were to catch up with the terrs. As soon as we hit the village, we realized that the terrs were already there, judging by the look of terror in the villagers’ eyes. They had been intimidated by the terrs the past November. Another five kilometers after crossing the Totololo River, we heard the contact about one click north of us. Reb and his Mag 58, a short burst, then rifle grenades, AK-47s and the Remington 870 shotgun Craig was carrying. We ran about 700 meters up to a tree line. Debay wanted to charge into the contact, but we had no radio and the major could not know from which direction we were coming in. Friendly fire is not what we came to Rhodesia for,” Brown said.
The group got into a sharp little contact that resulted in the capture of three terrorists.
“Just before the firefight we woke up as the sun came up. We loaded the seven-fives armored vehicles and rode to the operations area. The machine gunner, Reb, informed us that Winkler had found terrs on more than 70 percent of his operations. This looked real promising,” Brown said.
“That firefight was totally unexpected,” Reb added his recollection of the events. “When we deployed there the cops told us there would be no terror activity for a number of months. But the major said he smelled gooks (terrs). I tended to believe the major, whose instincts were good.
“We had all enjoyed meeting Brown and his pals and he was a proper soldier. He even relieved me on the machine gun marching back from the op (it gets heavy!). Since they were combat guys and we were too, it wasn’t hard to bond.
“We got out in the bush looking for trouble and walked and walked (as always). At 1500 hours my own instincts kicked in and I sprayed the bush just across this minor stream with my MAG. Two rifle grenades came flying back at us. I went prone and fired again, watching a tracer ricochet back at me, seeming to come right at me. I knew the physics of it—it couldn’t hit me; but for a few seconds I was hypnotized,” Reb said.
“I looked to my left and Brown was standing up firing a Ruger Mini14 with one hand and snapping pics with the other. In the background I heard the loud bang of a shotgun, which was coming from Craig Nunn, who was with our other team blasting away—not sure what at.
“I fired another burst and then my MAG jammed. I couldn’t clear it, so I reached for my pistol and it was gone. The cheap shit Rhodie holster had torn off my belt when the scrap started. Luckily for me, the bad guys gapped it and ultimately ran into our stop group, where they were taken prisoner. The Rhodesian Army worked close to the bone,” Reb said.
“The Rhodis were broke. We ate 1939 British rations and our weapons, while adequate, had been around. The AK I used for a while still had blood stains on it, which I didn’t really mind, in an Apache sort of way.
“I was surprised and pleased to find that Brown was as annoyed with my equipment failures as I was. He made it plain that he would have helped me with better gear had he known I needed it. I was a stranger to him. Nobody who ever associated with Bob Brown would tell you that he is anything but generous. Brass balls too. That was real ordnance flying at us that day and you’d have never known it by his reaction,” Reb said.
“Brown and his boys had good kit. I fired his .45—first time for me with that one. I’d heard they were terribly hard to control. I put two shots in the same hole at 30 feet and was shocked. I asked him if all .45s were like that. No…He had a really sweet, highly tuned pistol.
“A few kilometers out from the base we prepped the weapons and started watching the bush. We were told that Rhodesian armored vehicles we were convoying in were mine-proof except from the larger Soviet tank mines, so we were not to worry about moving through mine fields.
What the Hell Am I Doing Here? I Am Not Even Getting Combat Pay
“As the first AK rounds crack overhead, I come to a micro-second conclusion: corn stubble makes lousy cover. I peer through, around and over the stalks. Looking for a target, preferably one of the terrorists that are trying to ventilate me,” Brown recalled the adrenalin rush.
“Reb, on my right, triggers short bursts on his MAG light machine gun. Where are the bastards? Will they fight? Or will they shoot and run as usual? Blam! Blam! Two terr rifle grenades explode on line 10 meters to the right of the MAG. Right range, wrong windage. A hell of a way to shuck corn. Major Winkler yells out above the fire, “Cover us. We’ll move up on their flank.”
“Winkler and I are on our feet, green and brown Rhodesian camouflage uniforms patched with sweat . . . Ruger Mini-14s bucking . . . sprinting . . . to where? Nothing but more damned corn stalks . . . might as well hit the dirt here . . . breathing hard . . . providing covering fire as Reb moves his MAG another 30 meters . . . rest of the stick the right of the MAG also on the money . . . on the double bent over . . . jerking heads left and right . . . searching . . . firing into ant hills, bushes, trees.
“The MAG jams . . . I run over to the gunner . . . can’t eliminate the malfunction . . . well, no incoming.
“On our feet now, sweeping forward line . . . searching for spoor . . . (movement . . . reflection from an AK 10 to 15 meters apart . . . no incoming fire . . . then, blam! A terr rifle grenade explodes 10 meters directly to my rear.
“This time the terr windage was right on but the range was 10 meters off. It’s probably just as well as they didn’t try a third time. I remember thinking, what the hell am I doing here? I am not even getting combat pay!
“We started to win the fire fight and they ran. We radioed to the other patrol and they captured three of them, who dropped their weapons and ran. The three were handed over to the police and the next day they won the elections. Taking out the rendezvous point never happened because the British Army was there,” Jerry said.
It Hit Hard, the Terrorist Mugabe Had Stolen the Elections
“That evening, Brown and company partied with Dem Co. and we all had a ball, swapping lies and showing off our weapons and doing all that guy stuff. The next morning we lost the war,” Reb said with disgust.
“While we were reveling in our after action celebration, the news came over the radio that the communist-backed Mugabe had been elected as prime minister. We were crushed. The major issued us all the ammunition and grenades we could carry and we eagerly awaited the order to march on Salisbury. It never came. I don’t know, but perhaps Gen. Peter Walls was already considering selling the Rhodesians out. We had been betrayed,” Reb said.
Mystery still surrounds General Walls, commander of the Rhodesian Army from 1977. Suspicions had been raised when Mugabe appointed him in 1980 to oversee the transition from white to majority rule. But Mugabe later accused Walls of planning to assassinate him while he commanded the Rhodesian Army.
“On the way to Salisbury we stopped at Que Que British South African Police station. The major, Jerry and I did anti-riot duty in Que Que. We patrolled the streets of Que Que with evil in our hearts, then planned the great escape,” Reb said. “It hit home that Mugabe and the terrs that escaped from the firefight had won. In Salisbury, we heard rumors—plans to burn the city. That is when we heard of a hit list Mugabe’s people had of military and civilians; that included all SOF members.
“A special branch guy came and warned the major that he was on a ‘war crimes’ list because he’d killed a lot of gooks(terrorists). He looked at Jerry and me and said it might be wise to be worried. So we split,” Peirce said.
“According to some, the whites and even many of the blacks were to join up in a massive column and fight their way to Beit Bridge on the South African border, where they would be welcomed by South Africa,” Jerry said.
“In Salisbury, Mugabe supporters were conducting business as usual. They swarmed the streets, stoning and beating Mugabe’s opponents.
Mugabe’s Hit List
“A couple weeks later we all left. Bob and the guys used my apartment because they were afraid to stay in a hotel since they were on Mugabe’s hit list,” Jerry said. “Winkler told me to put in for holiday to America right after elections.”
“I am the commanding officer and I can sign for an American holiday for you. If the elections go our way, we will stay, and if they don’t go our way. we will leave to America,” he said.
Winkler and Peirce are back living in the States. Peirce had finally found his action in Rhodesia for an entire year and fought the commies he despised.
Not yet 30 years old at the time, Jerry had an exotic military experience topped off with an adrenalin-packed year of fighting terrorists. At the time we met up again this year in London, he proudly informed me that he had marked off 70 countries on his list of places to see and was still counting. He is currently working security in London and spending what he saves in between gigs on the next adventure and still going strong. He regularly meets up with his former Legionnaire buddies in Corsica at the annual FFL reunion. He and Reb are still in touch and he visits his former Commander Winkler in the States as often as he can.
Nunn, who had been in the Special Forces Reserve, finally fought his first battle in Rhodesia. The fearless Nunn died tragically, way too young, just a few years later in Boulder in what was another daredevil act on his motorcycle. He was still with SOF at the time.
Brown finally found his first and last firefight in Rhodesia. He goes hunting in Africa, although he stays away as he is still on Mugabe’s Hit List. He still calls Ian Smith’s country Rhodesia although it has officially been called Zimbabwe for nearly 30 years.
Ian Smith stayed active in Rhodesian, then Zimbabwe politics and wrote two books about the betrayal of his government. He died at the age of 88 in South Africa in 2007, a broken man. His only son and business partner had died a few years previously.
The corrupt, evil and invincible dictator Mugabe hoarded billions and impoverished his country. His opponents were regularly eliminated while the West looked the other way.
Enjoy Hell, you ruthless Monster.