The Mapai ‘hot extraction’

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By Mashingaidze Gomo

IT is now 42 years since the Mapai Raid.

Code-named Operation Uric by Rhodesians and Bootlace by South Africans, the Mapai Raid, on September 6 1979, was a South African-backed Rhodesian offensive on the FRELIMO 2 Brigade HQ that hosted ZANLA’s Gaza operational province rear base. 

This was three days ahead of the Lancaster House Conference convened by ‘Her Majesty’s Government’ to ‘give’ black Zimbabweans ‘self-determination.’

The prelude was a massive infrastructure sabotage of all bridges linking Mapai to the rest of Mozambique with the intention of cutting off any back-up during the raid.

The main battle was designed to follow a modus operandi that the Rhodesians had been perfecting since the beginning of the war. 

This involved an initial lightning ground attack by fighter jets to take out surprised fighters as well as destroy anti-aircraft positions in order to soften the target for total annihilation. 

The surprise attack would be followed by an enveloping of the enemy by helicopter gunships and special forces. 

The last stage would be a mop-up to capture critical equipment, documents and prisoners to beef-up intelligence for use in future operations.

So it was that at exactly 0635 hours on September 6 1979, ten fighter jets — four Hunters and six Canberra bombers — made the surprise attack with cannons and rockets as well as napalm and cluster bombs (Jackson and Malsen, 2011: p.148).

It is pertinent to note that both napalm and cluster bombs had already been outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

The advantages of surprise were, however, soon lost and the rest of the operation did not go according to plan. 

Intense anti-aircraft fire from dedicated ZANLA and FRELIMO forces inhibited the immediate deployment of helicopter gunships and special forces to envelope the enemy. 

The hazards were proving too great to ignore even for high altitude Canberra bombers.

And in those initial stages, a South African Defence Force (SADF) Puma 164 (Hotel 4) flown by South African Captain Paul Denzel Velleman at tree-top level was hit and destroyed by an RPG-7 fired from a ZANLA position (Jackson and Malsen, 2011).

In a subsequent interview, Comrade Dominic Chinenge (now Vice President Chiwenga) who was ZANLA commander at the battle would speak of 17 badly burnt and mangled bodies strewn all over a 200-metre radius crash site.

So real was the anti-aircraft threat that the aerial bombardment effort intended to soften the target was ineffectually extended all morning to the extent that the deployment of the ‘boots on the ground’ was pushed to a safe two kilometres from the action.

And even when they eventually did get to the action, ‘boots on the ground’ comprising SADF Commandos, the SAS and the Rhodesia Light Infantry (RLI) who called themselves the ‘Saints’ discovered they had been deployed into ‘hell’. 

They found ZANLA and FRELIMO effectively dug-in and intractable.

As the sweep lines closed with the main (ZANLA and FRELIMO) position(s), it was very obvious that Operation Uric was not going to be a cakewalk. Many of the old hands who had seen a lot of action agreed that they had never been subjected to such intense enemy small arms, recoilless rifle and mortar fire — (Cole,1984).

And that is how the assault degenerated into a futile effort and in the face of rapidly mounting casualties, the SADF refused further deployment of their special forces as reinforcements.

Thereafter, Rhodesian SAS commander Graham Wilson and RLI commander Garth Barret’s recommendation to General Peter Walls and the SADF Brigadier Van Loggerenberg observing the action from the Command Dakota circling far wide and high up in the sky was a ‘hot extraction’ withdrawal under a cover bombing by the Canberras.

‘Hot extraction’ is a desperate or ‘last-ditch’ measure taken to evacuate forces facing total annihilation. 

In Shona it is the situation one would call ‘wasarawasara’ or ‘manyama amire nerongo’.

The signal released by General Walls at 1418 hours, September 6 1979, confirms the development:

The Commander has ordered an extraction (Canberra) strike that was due to go onto Target 19 (Mabelane) and is presently being held for use on Target 8 (Mapai) — (Jackson and Malsen, 2011).

Consequently, the Airborne Force Commander, Major Pat Armstrong, called for a halt to the assault on Mapai, and for the troops to withdraw to secure landing zones more than ten kilometres away; ten kilometres of sustained harassment by ZANLA in the intense heat of the tropical forest (Jackson and Malsen, 2011).

The Rhodesians had been stopped dead in their tracks (Cole, 1984) and forced to make an uncharacteristic and hasty retreat — (Moorcraft and McLaughlin, 1982).

Again, and for the first time, the Rhodesians and the South Africans were unable to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades from the battlefield (Moorcraft and McLaughlin, 1982).

The book,The Search For Puma 164 by Jackson and Malsen (2011) is an account of how it took over a decade to return to Mapai for the proper burial of the raiders.

As the shamed raiders leaked their wounds, representatives of the warring parties started gathering at Lancaster House, London, UK, to settle their differences by political means.

The resolution had been made following the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government held in Lusaka (Zambia) from August 1 to 7 1979. 

Her Majesty’s Government had issued invitations to Bishop Muzorewa and the leaders of the Patriotic Front to participate in a Constitutional Conference at Lancaster House. 

The purpose of the conference was to discuss and reach agreement on the terms of an independence constitution, and that elections should be supervised under British authority to enable Rhodesia to proceed to legal independence and the parties to settle their differences by political means. 

In the foregoing context, the Mapai offensive was obviously made ‘to strengthen Rhodesia’s hand’ (Cole, 1984) at the Lancaster House Conference with the covert blessing of ‘Her Majesty’s Government’ that had convened the conference. 

It is the only thing that could explain why the mediators apparently saw nothing wrong with the naked aggression.

And now, it is 42 years since the battle that ended with a ‘hot extraction’ of the raiders who had bitten more than they could chew.

Forty-two years is a long, long perspective allowing a more detached or, if you like, a more clinical view of issues. 

The fighters are forty-two years older and the intervening experience obviously permits a wider and more cosmic view of the raid, networking incidental insights that transform simple battles into intriguing complex. 

And it turns out the Lancaster House Conference was itself actually a transmutation of the ‘hot extraction’ on the battlefield at Mapai into a ‘hot extraction’ of British interests threatened by an outright military defeat no longer in doubt.

The longer view irrefutably shows how the ‘hot extraction’ of the ‘South African- backed Rhodesian raiders’ from the forces of African liberation has been transfigured in different replications to save British colonial interests throughout the past forty-two years.

The clauses that inhibited change of the Lancaster Constitution in the first ten years of Zimbabwe’s independence as well as the ‘willing-buyer willing-seller’ land clause that inhibited compulsory acquisition of stolen land immediately after independence were ‘hot-extraction’ instruments obdurately included to ‘evacuate’ British colonial interests from indigenous reach.

The British government intervention to save Rhodesian saboteurs from well-deserved punishment following the bombing of four Hawk and six Hunter fighter jets at Thornhill Airbase on July 25 1982 was also a ‘hot extraction’ of probably the very same criminals involved in the ‘hot extraction’ at Mapai who had now proceeded to destroy some of the very same Hunter fighter jets that had been used in the Mapai Raid. 

The British government secured the criminals’ release by replacing the sabotaged aircraft.

The British sponsored launch of the MDC on September 11 1999 specifically to oppose compulsory land acquisition and redistribution to landless indigenous masses was also clearly a transfiguration of the same Mapai ‘hot extraction’ to save British imperial interests. 

So was December 21 2001 ZDERA by which the US government imposed illegal economic sanctions on Zimbabwe to try to force a restoration of racially exclusive white settler land ownership in Zimbabwe.

Forty-two years down the line, it is really frightening to imagine what ‘Her Majesty’s Government’s’ position would have been had the Mapai offensive succeeded in annihilating ZANLA and their Mozambique FRELIMO hosts.

Would the Lancaster Conference have been held?

What would have been the black man’s lot?

Where would we be now?

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