Operation Bastille, the Rhodesian Entebbe

(To Tiziano Ciocchetti)

The situation in Rhodesia - in 1980 it will take the name of Zimbabwe - at Easter 1979, was extremely critical. Military operations had intensified considerably following the signing of a political agreement between Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith and three local black leaders; by now the transition to a black majority government was about to become a reality: however both Joshua Nkomo, leader of the ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army), and Robert Mugabe, leader of the ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) had refused to participate in the elections, and indeed they had threatened to prevent them with armed intervention.

Precisely on these threats, the Rhodesian information service had signaled the presence of a large military force under the command of Nkomo, deployed in Zambia and ready for a large-scale invasion.

To cope with this action, the Rhodesian forces were deployed immediately along the border to check the crossing points and repel any raids.

In spite of these precautions, Ian Smith's government found it necessary to eliminate the threat of invasion with decisive preventive action: it was necessary to hit the top of the ZIPRA.

However, the chances of launching an effective attack in the center of the capital of Zambia, Lusaka, were very poor. Nkomo lived in a suburb just two kilometers from a series of army barracks and his home was just a few meters from the official residence of the president of Zambia, heavily guarded by armed guards to which were added the personal ones of the leader of the ZIPRA.

The task of carrying out the raid was entrusted to the 1 ° regiment SAS (Special Air Service). The birth of the Rhodesian special forces goes back to the 1950, when the English major Mike Calvert arrived in the African state in order to recruit personnel to fight the communist guerrilla in Malaysia; the volunteers were to become part of the SAS team C while retaining the Rhodesian struts, the stop in Malaysia lasted two years. At the beginning of 1960 the Rhodesia Armed Forces were expanding and a small group of the original department received the task of selecting and training recruits for the creation of a special body, after a refresher course at the 22 ° SAS Regiment in Great Britain.

When the group returned home, it was decided to form six combat teams Sabre, with a staff of 184 men. After the unilateral declaration of independence by Rhodesia, at the end of the 1965, the SAS began the operations against the guerrilla formations, carrying out raids of the type hit and run in neighboring countries: Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana.

The complexity of the operation made it necessary to use an elastic attack force, equipped with a lot of fire power and high mobility. To solve this last problem, it was decided to arrive in Lusaka with its own means of transport at night. The vehicles used were the Land Rover Saber, special vehicles of the SAS, residuals of the period prior to the beginning of the bush war. Painted in dark green with yellow patches they could, with a little luck, be confused with the Zambian police jeeps.

A commercial ferry, the Sea Lion, would transport the Land Rovers through Lake Kariba to Zambia, and from the shore the SAS men would continue along a bumpy path and dirt road to the main artery to Lusaka, which would take them into the city. Before reaching the capital, however, the raiders had to cross the bridge over the Kafue River which, according to information, was guarded by a strong contingent of the Zambian army, with support of heavy artillery. If the SAS men had been forced to fight their way, the measure of losses would have been decisive in deciding whether to continue or abandon the mission.

After the instructions, the assault detachments underwent a strenuous training that took into account the smallest details.

The Land Rover, after having been set up for the 200 km trip to Lusaka, were boarded on the ferry; the column consisted of seven vehicles with 42 men on board.

At the same time as the attack on the home of Nkomo, two other actions were planned: against the Liberation Center which brought together several South African nationalist groups, and against a ZIPRA weapon depot.

The attack force was finally ready. He expected only the go-ahead from an agent, infiltrated by Lusaka, in charge of confirming Nkomo's presence in his headquarters. The code order for the start of the operation was transmitted to the SAS men, waiting on the ferry, on the evening of the 12 1979 April. Although it was not yet dark, Major David Dodson, commander of the attack force, decided nevertheless to venture to disembark in Zambia without waiting for the next morning. The ferry approached a deserted beach and a small avant-garde first landed to make a bridgehead.

The target attack was prefixed for the 2 hours of the 13 April; the column, once the landing procedures were completed, set off for Lusaka. The vehicles proceeded with the headlights on and the full moon helped the drivers to drive on the dirt track. Often it was necessary to cross paths flooded with mud, when this happened the men on board had to continuously shift their weight from one side of the vehicle to the other to prevent the jeeps from getting bogged down altogether.

Despite these measures, a vehicle broke down and the commander ordered that the six men who were on board remain behind. This meant canceling the attack on the weapons depot, which was to be carried out by them. The rest of the force resumed their march in the dark. He was well behind schedule, however Major Dodson decided to continue despite the risk of being caught in Lusaka in the first light of dawn.

When they were in sight of the Kafue bridge, the GPMG MAG caliber 7,62x51 were fixed to the supports and the men took the safety to the FN FAL rifles. At this point the surprise came. Nothing seemed to hinder their advance: neither Zambian troops, nor artillery, nor checkpoints. The attack force hastened to cross the bridge and headed for Lusaka. There was a lot more traffic than expected and the raiders had completely painted their faces with black gloss to prevent their European features from being noticed in the first light of dawn.

When the 36 SAS men entered the Zambian capital they were the 2.40. Lieutenant Rich Stannard, who was to lead the attack to the Liberation Center, was at the back of the column and with two jeeps he took the road to the goal, while the others continued towards Nkomo's home.

The traffic lights were in operation, and the column stopped at each red to hold the train together to avoid attracting the attention of passersby. Nkomo's house was now near; the bungalow was protected from prying eyes thanks to a protective wire mesh covered by rough canvas. The column stopped to take stock of the situation and the commander gave the last instructions, then the vehicles left at great speed, two in one direction and the third in another. They were the 2.55s. Captain Martin Pearse was tasked with opening a breach in the safety net and leading a detachment inside the house to eliminate Nkomo. Major Dodson and a sergeant major had to break through the two main gates, and hit the side cabin with hand grenades and RPG-7 counter rockets leaving Pearse fighting inside.

Six men would remain in reserve on a vehicle to prevent any external interference. Pearse's vehicle approached roaring but, even before it stopped, a sentinel began firing from behind the safety net. Pearse's machine-gunner responded to the fire with his MAG firing madly at the guard post and exhausting the tape magazine from 50 in seconds.

Pearse got out of the jeep and headed for the net to place an explosive charge so as to open a gap. Applying the charge proved to be a very complicated undertaking: so he took out a wire-cutter pliers to make an opening sufficient for the passage of a man with his equipment. Pearse waited for the guards' fire to be suppressed, after which he entered with two men in the garden.

On the other side of the house the two front gates had been knocked down and the SAS men were firing at the house, the vehicles and anything moving. The reaction did not wait, but the raiders were soon to be in favor of the resistance. The guards were about thirty: 15 were demolished while the others preferred to take shelter.

Following the launch of a white phosphorus hand grenade in the main building, the atrium went up in flames. The wooden walls and bulkheads gave way and all the lights went out. The fire spread to the rest of the house which was surrounded by smoke and flames.

From the presidential palace, located a few meters away, the guards began firing and their tracer bullets marked the night sky in red and green. However, the intervention proved to be almost nil: nobody dared to approach the raiders.

At other points in the capital, the inhabitants had come to the street, alarmed by the roar of gunfire and explosions. Captain Pearse, meanwhile, had managed to get underneath Nkomo's bedroom window, but the idea of ​​launching a phosphorus bomb inside was unattainable due to the presence of a massive grating. He went then to the back door, blew the lock and rushed inside with his team. They came out in the middle of a four-door corridor, they only had 15 minutes available to complete their mission. With the aid of a torch, fixed under his AKM, Pearse shattered all the possible hiding places in Nkomo's bedroom. However, the leader of the ZIPRA not even the shadow. Even the bathroom and the closet were thoroughly searched, but to no avail.

When the SAS men broke into the last room a guard opened fire from under the bed and another fired from inside a closet. Captain Pearse and a corporal threw hand grenades into the room, while the third man from the squad let out a long burst from his RPD light machine gun. Pearse and the corporal then entered the room and killed the two enemy soldiers. Bastille she had been conquered, but Nkomo was not at home. The informant who was watching him had seen him enter the house, and from there he had not left.

Nkomo (photo) later reported that he had escaped through the bathroom window. The most likely version is that he had sneaked out because he was alerted by a spy. The Rhodesians had approached the leader of the ZIPRA more than ever before, but this was the last attack on his life.

The whole operation lasted for 25 minutes. The plan was so detailed that everyone knew what to do at all times, and it was not necessary to make provisions during the attack. The first reactions of the Zambian forces were intercepted by the SAS radio operators, while the teams were leaving the ruins of the bungalow to reach the meeting point at the corner between the two streets. They quickly regrouped and were soon on their way back. As they left, they crossed several military vehicles heading for Nkomo's home.

The jeeps traveled on the other side of the roadway respecting the speed limits and did not arouse any interest from passersby. Their destination was the meeting point out of town with Lieutenant Stannard. But Stannard at that very moment was attacking the Liberation Center with his men. The street lights had been turned off and the anti-aircraft sirens resounded everywhere, as the Zambian authorities feared that the Rhodesians were about to make an air attack.

Meanwhile, Stannard and his team of raiders had occupied the core of the Center; they positioned the explosive charges and made them shine. A large orange fungus swelled in the sky followed by a roaring roar: the Liberation Center had blown up.

It was time for the SAS men to leave the Zambian territory. They were 4 in the morning and there was enough light: no one hindered them on the long journey south. The vehicles crossed the Kafue Bridge again without problems, recovered the six men who had left behind with the jeep broken down, arrived at the ferry and embarked.

(photo: web)