VISCOUNT DOWN: Did the SAS eliminate the Strela gang?

In 2012, deeply concerned with some of the claims made in the book Viscount Down (Keith Nell, 2010), Lieutenant Colonel Brian Robinson, former Commander of the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) and latterly the Special Operations Co-Ordinator Staff Officer for Combined Operations (Com.Ops.), contacted my brother, Major David Padbury, and asked him if the Strela gang responsible for shooting down two civilian Air Rhodesia Vickers Viscounts was ever accounted for. Having said no, Colonel Robinson asked David to read the publication. David was the intelligence officer for Com.Ops and later the SAS. He reluctantly read the book and urged me to read it too. David was aware that I was in command of the Security Force Auxiliaries (SFAs) in the Hurungwe Tribal Trust Land (TTL). On 19 February 1979, following a meeting I had at Com.Ops. on 13 February 1979 with Brigadeer Barnard (the Director of Operations Staff Officer, Com.Ops.), David was thereafter deployed to assess my operations in the Hurungwe TTL from Comops by Brig Barnard. He was to evaluate our successful strategies, tactics and intelligence techniques and report back to Com.Ops..

Arguably the greatest “Rhodesian” post-war controversy developed over these claims and divided former Rhodesian servicemen, servicewomen, civilians as well as a worldwide audience. On concluding the reading of Viscount Down, I felt obligated to set the record straight, thus my idea for the book, Battle For Hurungwe, was conceived.

The most outrageous claim involved an SAS contact in the Hurungwe TTL. A brief summary of events follows. On 3 September 1978 at approximately 5.10p.m., Air Rhodesia Vickers Viscount VP-WAS, Hunyani, flight RH825 was shot down by a Soviet Strela surface-to-air missile. Miraculously, there were 18 survivors. Tragically, shortly after the crash, 10 survivors were massacred by Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) insurgents and the remaining eight survived. On 12 February 1979, Air Rhodesia Vickers Viscount VP-YND, Umniati, flight RH 827, was similarly shot down, killing all 59 persons on board. Shortly after the Umniati tragedy, it is alleged that an SAS callsign was deployed and subsequently eliminated the ZIPRA Strela “gang” responsible for the incidents. (Viscount Down, p. 369).

In Battle For Hurungwe (p. 281), I explain: “This contact is subject to considerable controversy. Therefore, I intend to meticulously filter through the facts in order to rectify the records, as well as matters pertaining to it. The reader will, in the course of the following pages, appreciate my scrupulous attention to detail, my careful collection and correlation of the facts relating to the incident, and my own and the team’s deciphering, processing and dissemination of intelligence gathered immediately, prior to, during, and after the contact, concluding with the consequences of this particular deployment.”

It is critical for the reader to understand that in writing Battle For Hurungwe, I invariably relied on more than one source to verify incidents, thereby using the method of triangulation: the validation of data through cross-verification from two or more reliable and, where possible, documented sources. What I did not depend on was assumptions, unsubstantiated rumours, thoughts and opinions expressed through the eyes of prejudice and/or preconceived agendas, and self-aggrandisement. Investigative journalism, authorship and the media tend to compress evidence into an agenda rather than allow the evidence to speak for itself. Opinion and truth unfortunately carry the same weight today which is a grave injustice. In order to achieve a full detailed understanding of this matter, read Battle For Hurungwe.

The facts pertaining to the SAS contact are authenticated by:

A. My diaries, which include:

  1. Details of the ZIPRA section involved in the battle, including their strategies, tactics and intelligence operations.

  2. The original intelligence sketch of the battleground.

  3. Diary entries relating to the intelligence build-up, deployment, results and subsequent follow-up intelligence regarding the insurgents who escaped.

  4. My diaries include the names of the ZIPRA insurgents involved in the battle who were killed in action, as well as those who escaped.

  5. The original sketches which identify ZIPRA collaborators and the locations of their kraals.

B. Revealed in my diaries are the subsequent actions taken by the ZIPRA survivors from the battle as they changed strategies, tactics, relocated their arms caches and remained in the area as a resident section.

C. There were seven men in the SAS callsign, which included Lieutenants Darrell Watt and Andre Scheepers. The other five men (of which two were subsequently killed in action), were not identified in Viscount Down. Neither were they identified by Hannes Wessels, author of A Handful Of Hard Men and We Dared Win. These two books include the SAS contact in Hurungwe from the memories of Darrell Watt and Andre Scheepers, respectively. I identified all the men in the callsign, and obtained statements from the three surviving, and excluded witnesses.

D. Statements and logbooks from pilots and technicians/gunners involved in the incident.

E. Research "on the ground” accomplished by Dr Joshua Chakawa. The methods Dr Chakawa and I used to record the oral history of this, and other incidents, is found in Battle For Hurungwe (pp. 10 and 291-2).

F. Ballistics reports.

G. Numerous statements from members of the Special Branch and Ground Coverage officers, military intelligence, military personnel, Air Rhodesia personnel, and others.

On 13 November 1978, I received and documented intelligence from the United African National Council Intelligence Officer (UANC IO), Happy Marere, relating to a resident section of ZIPRA insurgents operating in the Doro region of the Hurungwe TTL. According to the information received, this section was not the ZIPRA Strela Section (ZSS). At that particular moment, there was insufficient intelligence to justify the deployment of the Security Forces, thus matters were left in abeyance. On 21 November 1978, I received further detailed information via the UANC IOs, Happy Marere and Grey Mutemasango, regarding the same resident ZIPRA section which was sufficient to justify a military deployment. We identified the insurgents, their strategies, tactics and intelligence operations, and their collaborators. Again, there was no information suggesting that this section was in fact the ZSS. An intelligence map of the area was drawn in my diaries. A copy of this map was given to the callsign deployed.

On 23 November 1978, I briefed an SAS callsign at our Special Branch “safe house”. The callsign comprised Darrell Watt (officer in charge), Andre Scheepers and five other men whose details are included in Battle For Hurungwe. That same afternoon the callsign was deployed on my intelligence and led into the area by my informant. No Security Force Auxiliaries accompanied the callsign. On the morning of 24 November, the callsign engaged and killed two ZIPRA insurgents who had been sleeping in the kraals identified by my informant and the original intelligence sketch of the area. After the initial battle, another insurgent opened fire from a nearby hill on one of the members of the SAS callsign as he was setting up his radio in order to contact the SAS HQ. The insurgent was killed: there were no SAS casualties. Three civilians were killed in crossfire.

Contact was made with the SAS HQ and a request made for the Special Branch officer to attend the scene and for the callsign’s uplift by the Fire Force helicopters based at the Karoi Country Club. The Fire Force contacted me at my Special Branch “safe house” and requested that I attend the scene. Happy Marere and I were uplifted by helicopter and conveyed to the scene where we rendezvoused with the SAS callsign. We discussed the contact and I took custody of the three bodies and weapons. We searched the bodies for documents and some type of useful evidence, but none was found. No documents were handed to me by any of the SAS soldiers. During the debrief, no members of the SAS callsign made claim to having eliminated the ZIPRA Strela Section.

Happy Marere and I set about our tasks. We carried out a search of the kraals and general area, and talked to the remaining locals. Information flowed freely between the informant, his family and some of his relatives. A detailed explanation of the relationship between the political, the military and the people, and the three aspects becoming one, is discussed in Battle For Hurungwe.

Our investigations confirmed our initial intelligence that the ZIPRA section engaged by the SAS was a resident section. The SAS had killed three lower-ranking cadre (named in Battle For Hurungwe); the remaining insurgents, including the command element (all named in Battle For Hurungwe) escaped. We received no information and found no evidence or intelligence linking the deceased ZIPRA insurgents, or those who escaped, to the Zipra Strela Section. No Strela launcher or missiles were recovered. I reiterate that this claim of having eliminated the ZSS was not made at the time by any members of the SAS callsign. The first I heard of the matter was in 2012 when I read Viscount Down. Subsequent “on-the-ground” research by Dr Joshua Chakawa confirmed that the ZIPRA section engaged by the SAS was a resident section and was not the ZIPRA Strela Section.

Nell and his colleagues, Darrell Watt and Andre Scheepers believe that a cover-up was orchestrated by the SAS heirarchy and others in order to conceal the alleged killings of the ZIPRA Strela Section in their contact. I was the Special Branch officer in command of this operation. Based on the evidence to hand, my investigations, my diaries, my experience, and numerous statements recorded, this is simply not true. Read Battle for Hurungwe.

Subsequent to the deployment, we continued to hunt the ZIPRA insurgents who had escaped from the battle, including the command element. Details of this pursuit are documented in my diaries and are included in Battle For Hurungwe. These details include the strategic and tactical changes that the ZIPRA section made in order to avoid detection. The section remained resident in the Doro region. Original maps and sketches of their collaborators, and various deployments of military personnel which I orchestrated in order to eliminate them are included in Battle For Hurungwe.

The SAS did not deploy into the Hurungwe TTL after Viscount Umniati was shot down on 12th February 1979, as alleged in Viscount Down (Chapter 32) and A Handful Of Hard Men (p.182). This fact is confirmed by my diaries and We Dared To Win (pp.80-84).

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Photos - click on photos to enlarge. Com.Ops. evaluates our operations: (L-R) Happy Marere, David Padbury, author John Padbury , George Hutchison; Survey map of the Doro region; Doro River; Southern side of a ZIPRA OP and base near to the SAS contact.; Graves for Chimheno Thomas and his wife killed in the contact; Author.