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Police counter-insurgency Dog Tracking Units.

It is my opinion that the Police Dog Tracking Units were among the best trackers in the country. This article is written by Lance Chief Inspector Lee Le Crerar, a veteran former tracker dog specialist and member of the elite BSAP Support Unit.


The British South Africa Police (BSAP) Tracking Dog Section officially started under the umbrella of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 1948. Its purpose was to track criminals, search for items of evidence dropped in or around the crime scene. For example, bodies, knives, firearms, shell casings and stolen property.



A trained dog can detect, recognise, and follow a specific scent. The average dog possesses about fifty scent receptors compared to the one of a human being's one receptor. A dog’s brain can analyse and smell about forty times greater than humans.


In 1958 Police Patrol Dogs (PDs) were introduced to accompany their handlers while on duty and in patrol cars, thus enabling them to react quickly to a crime.


The BSAP used several different dog breeds, but Bloodhounds and then Crossbred Bloodhound Doberman Pinschers - the latter having more stamina and staying power - were used for tracking. Alsatians, Bouvier des Flanders and Dobermans were used as patrol dogs. Bloodhounds and Crossbreeds were used for tracking older tracks - some up to three days old. Patrol dogs were used to follow fresh tracks and for their ability to tackle fleeing criminals and hold them until his handler arrived to make the arrest. They were also used to search areas for hidden criminals, and to control large, often riotous, crowds. Drug dogs, mainly Labradors, were trained to detect cannabis.


Potential dog handlers had to complete two years as a normal policeman before applying to join the Dog Section. Once accepted, they were given a new untrained PD. The four month training course was held at the Dog Training School, Salisbury (Harare). It was my experience that our Dog Handlers were dog lovers, tending toward rebelliousness. They were self-confident and had a lot of stamina. There were Dog Section Units in all the major towns of Rhodesia. Patrol Dog handlers outnumbered Tracking Dog (TD) handlers by about fifteen to one. A small number of handlers - having worked as PD handlers for some time and who were interested in the tracking aspect of the job – specialised, and became TD handlers. Dogs and their handlers formed a strong bond during training which carried on throughout their service with the force.


With the advent of the Rhodesian Bush War in 1964, dog handlers and their dogs had to adapt to the war becoming part of their normal duties. At the first major contact between the Security Forces - aptly named the Battle of Sinoia - a Patrol Dog and a Tracking Dog both saw action. Both handlers were dressed in police 'Riot Blues' uniforms and were armed with a Webley Scott revolver and six rounds of .38 ammunition. One handler experienced minor injuries from an insurgent’s hand grenade explosion. All seven insurgents were killed with no casualties on the police side. The BSAP were fortunate to have no blue-on-blue (accidental engagements of friendly forces), casualties. During the firefight, Rhodesian Airforce helicopters - in support of the police - had to land twice in the bush, in order to stop the police sweep lines walking into each other.


On the 23 August 1967, the Dog Section was to lose its first handler, Patrol Officer (P/O) Spencer Morgan Thomas, killed in action and P/O Horn was badly injured. They were working with the Rhodesian African Rifles in the Tjolotjo area of Matabeleland. Spencer’s dog, P/D Leon survived, P/O Horn’s dog. Flip, was also killed in the contact.


As a result of an enquiry into the Battle of Sinoia, the Army took over command of all future operations. Dog handlers were sent to each operational area in teams of two - tracker dog and patrol dog. The TD would track, and the PD would follow and be used to clear suspect ambush areas along the trail. This worked well, and several security force lives were saved using this method.


Tracking training began with allowing the dog to watch someone they were familiar with, run into the bush and hide. As soon as that person was out of sight the dog was released. Once that was accomplished, the dog was taught to pick up the trail layer’s scent from a marked place and follow it to the trail layer. The dog was always praised by both handler and trail layer. Trails were left for longer periods of time and over greater distances. The dog’s tracking improved until its tracking limit was established. A good tracking dog could follow a trail up to three days old, depending on weather conditions, and whether the scent had been destroyed by human or animal interference. If the dog lost the scent, it was taught to cast itself around its handler in a complete circle on the end of the sixty-foot tracking line, until it re-established the scent and continued with the trail. Heat, wind, rain, and water were major factors in the duration of a scent.


A tracking dog was trained to follow a collective scent as well as a single scent. Dogs were taught this skill as insurgents mostly moved in a group. The tracking dog was also taught scent discrimination, enabling them to distinguish between different scents. This tactic was useful if the insurgents ‘bombshelled’ (broke up into smaller - or individual - groups to avoid detection), during the chase. Some tracks were followed for over 30km before contact with the enemy or the loss of the trail.


It was hard work, involving walking long distances at a pace close to a jog. However, the result, when successful, was a great deal of pleasure for both dog and handler. All police dogs were trained to board and disembark choppers and to withstand the noise of the chopper with its doors removed. There were a few PDs that took exception to the door gunner firing at the enemy. Several technicians and pilots were fortunate not to be bitten! Some PDs became confused the first time the chopper door gun fired in action, as they were trained to attack whoever was firing at their handler. The tracking dogs on the other hand, mostly went to sleep once they boarded the chopper or looked out the open door at the ground. On occasions a dog would pick up movement on the ground before the air crew and dog handlers could.


Several tracking dog handlers and a few PD handlers underwent the Army Tracking Courses at the School of Infantry Tracking School at Kariba. Those attending the course included Pete Gibson, Winston (Sakkie) McKay and myself. This improved the handler’s ability to locate the start point of the trail and to track visually if the dog lost the trail for some reason. This could be a double-edged sword and one had to be careful not to try and out-guess the tracking dog. On the odd occasion, this happened to me and I generally lost out only to discover the dog was right!


During the early days of the war, the local dog section would get a call to have a dog team ready for collection. A chopper would arrive and collect the team and be deployed to the incident. A specially equipped dog section Land Rover (land trail) was then sent with food and kit to the base from which the operations were run. During those days handlers saw vast areas of the Rhodesian bush and its game. It was like an aerial game safari! Most of the early operations took place in and around the Zambezi Valley and lasted for few weeks, rather than years as in the latter part of the war. In most of those deployments the handlers did not know where they were going and only found out from the pilot once airborne.


In the 1970s, dog teams were deployed to the Joint Operational Control (JOC) bases around the country and would do a two-week stint attached to the JOC on twenty-four-hour call. Thereafter, the teams returned to their home base before being redeployed for a further two weeks.


On 23 December 1972 a tracker dog team started the follow-up with a Special Air Service (SAS) tracker team and Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) after the Whistlefield farm attack, the start of what became Operation Hurricane. This attack was one of the early attacks on isolated white farm homesteads. P/Os Lee Le Crerar with TD Tish and P/O Quilliam with P/D Reima attended the incident.


During the war years, dog handlers and their dogs were deployed to hundreds of terrorist incidents, resulting in a number of successful follow-ups and engagements with the enemy. Inevitably, a number of follow-ups were unsuccessful. As the war escalated, the lack of the choppers drastically reduced the dog team’s effectiveness, as they had to drive to the incidents. At times they could not get there at all.


A typical tracker dog follow-up went as follows. The spoor was located, a TD was given the scent to follow and started tracking at the end of its sixty-foot tracking line. The tracking dog led, followed by the tracking handler, who in turn was followed by the PD and its handler in single file. Following the PD and its handler, came the follow-up support troops. The two handlers focussed on following and reading the signs of the tracking dog. However, the support troops had the difficult task as they had to stay in line and walk through, over and under all types of bushes, ant hills, gullies etc.


The tracking dog handler could tell, by closely observing his dog’s progress and reactions, how close the enemy was. This was a straightforward matter to interpret as the dog’s nose was close to the ground while tracking and raised when following the scent in the air. The closer the tracker dogs head was to the ground during tracking, the older the scent - the higher the head the fresher the scent. Depending on the wind direction, the dog would be able to smell the scent coming directly from the hidden insurgent and not bother with the trail. Some TDs would start to show excitement the closer they got to their quarry. Tracker dogs were generally docile and would not attack, that was the job of the patrol dog.


If one were heading into a likely ambush site, the TD was stopped and the PD was released to clear the suspect area. If the area was clear the TD would continue following the scent. If during the clearing exercise the PD located a insurgent, it would attack, with the follow-up troops engaging the enemy. On occasions, the insurgent would open fire before the PD was released. We found on many occasions that insurgents, on seeing the dogs, would abandon their ambush position and bombshell. This made tracking difficult, as the spoor was often lost, resulting in the pursuit of only one insurgent .


Cattle and goats were often driven across the enemy’s trail to confuse the tracker dog or visual trackers. It was frustrating to have followed the trail for at times, many kilometres, only to lose it as a result of these strategies. Most of the tracking follow-ups were conducted with the Army and the dog handlers, and their dogs formed a strong bond with several military units.


Dogs and handlers had to be extremely fit and able to deal with frustrations, (such as waiting to be called to action and losing the trail), of which there were many during the war. They had to carry four to five water bottles in dry areas of the country, most of which was for the dog, and scaled down kit as a result. It was a lonely business and one had to trust the support troops to bring fire to bare quickly in a contact and not shoot you in the 'backside’, which happened to me while tracking for the Portuguese Army in Mozambique in 1965. Fortunately, their aim was high, and FRELIMO insurgents escaped.


If memory serves me correctly, we lost seven patrol dogs KIA. One dog and his handler were killed when they stepped on an anti-personal mine while on the trail of the enemy. Two handlers were killed and several injured during the war.


There was a memorial in the grounds of the Dog Training School, Harare, Zimbabwe, with a plaque for each dog which read: “In the memory of the Dogs of the British South Africa Police and their unfailing loyalty and devotion to duty”.



Images (L-R): On the trail. Lee Le Crerar (L) with TD Tish and George McLennan with PD Jabs; George and Lee; Lee and George ; Lee Le Crerar and TD Tish after the Whistlefield farm attack.








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