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Fierce contact with the Rhodesian forces

by Staff write
15 May 2016 at 07:54hrs | Views
IN our last week's Lest We Forget Column we were talking to former Zipra Deputy Commander of the Northern Front which stretched from Bulilima up to Nyamapanda Border Post Nicholas Gibson Nkomo whose pseudo name was Gilbert Khumalo. Last week Nkomo spoke about operations along the Zambezi River and ended the first instalment by relating how one of the commanders Sakupwanya was killed in combat in a fierce contact with the Rhodesian forces.

Today the old warrior picks up his conversation with Sunday News Assistant Editor Mkhululi Sibanda (MS) by giving an account of an attack which was carried out by the Rhodesians on a Zipra logistics camp across the Zambezi River in Zambia. Read on….

MS: Then after the unfortunate death of your regional commander Sakupwanya in combat what happened.

Nkomo: That attack that claimed the life of our commander Sakupwanya was around April 1974. So what happened after that attack was that the Rhodesians planted a mine just outside our camp in a bid to hit our troops that would come for reinforcements especially if comrades were to be brought in trucks. However, that anti-tank mine was detected by our engineers and the danger was averted. We then continued with our operations, crossing the Zambezi into Rhodesia to hit selected targets and returning to base in Zambia. It was then in October of that year that there was a serious battle when the Rhodesians attacked our logistics camp at Siajumba. At that camp that is where we kept our ammunition and weapons, all our military hardware was kept there. Our Chief of Logistics during that time was the current Vice-President Report (Phelekezela Mphoko) but when the camp was attacked he was away in Lusaka.

MS: How was the camp attacked. Take us through what happened.

Nkomo: What happened was that we had a unit that had attacked the Rhodesian soldiers across the Zambezi River and it was under the command of the late David Thodlana (Tshaka Moyo). In that contact Thodlana and his boys had killed quite a number of enemy forces and the Rhodesians made a follow-up in a bid to revenge.

MS: Where were you when that camp was attacked?

Nkomo: We were at our base which was quite a distance from where the logistics camp was. We got intelligence that there was a Rhodesian unit that was spotted on the Zambian side by fishermen who were our contacts and we alerted those comrades at the logistics camp but they did not move out but instead took defensive positions in a bid to protect it because by the way there was a lot to protect there as we had large quantities of ammunition. However, the Rhodesians attacked it using ground forces supported by helicopters early in the morning. Our comrades gave a good fight there but only two, the commander who is still alive and lives in Gwanda District Hwadalala Nyathi and one of his boys survived. We lost about seven comrades in that battle. However, the Rhodesians also suffered heavy losses because Hwadalala had deployed a Desheka at the centre of the camp which did a good job on the enemy forces.

MS: Sorry to take you back a bit after learning of the impending attack why didn't you assist?

Nkomo: We were on standby to assist those comrades and we also thought they would evacuate from the camp but they decided to stay put. So what happened was that when everyone was vigilant waiting for the enemy to attack, we heard an explosion from the logistics camp and it was quite a distance from ours. We were surprised when we saw our sentry bringing Hwadalala to us who had managed to make a break through. He was so shocked that even when we decided to reinforce those left behind we had to leave him because at that time he was not in a position to fight. In our unit we were nine and when we were about to arrive at the logistics camp we saw the last helicopter that was evacuating the Rhodesians leaving. At that time we were also met by a big explosion as the Rhodesians had also planted some devices to destroy the military equipment such as ammunition they had found at our camp. There was fire all over.

MS: Then what did you do?

Nkomo: We found the bodies of the seven comrades there and one of them Albert Marufu died outside the zone of fire as he had managed to make a break through but was unfortunate to be hit. Among those killed in that battle were Cdes Highness who was the brother to the late Vice-President John Nkomo and one of the commanders in the struggle Billy Mzamo. Billy Mzamo and John Nkomo were brothers. Also killed there was David Thodlana's younger brother. Thodlana was the one who had led our unit that routed the Rhodesians across the Zambezi resulting in that enemy's follow-up operation. When we were still trying to figure out what to do next our engineer Zulu noticed that all the seven bodies were booby trapped and advised us not to touch them. A team of engineers from the rear led by the late National Hero Retired Colonel Elliot Masengo (Harold Chirinda) then came in and diffused the booby traps. The Rhodesian forces had also planted landmines around and villagers' cattle were killed when they stumbled on that mine field. Despite that incident we continued with our operations covering the Hwange area. Then came the time of the détente as a result of the Geneva Conference and commanders were withdrawn from the front. There was a lull in military activities.

MS: Then what happened to some of you as a result of your withdrawal?

Nkomo: I was recalled to the rear and sent to the Soviet Union for further training. That was June 1975 and our group to the Soviet Union was led by Sam Fakazi who had been the camp commander when we were under-going our first military training at Morogoro in Tanzania. Also in the group were Cdes Todd Mpisi and Situmbeko. We were 15 and our training in the Soviet Union was the company commander's course which was very intensive. We were based near the Black Sea.

MS: How long were you in the Soviet Union?

Nkomo: We started our training in June 1975 and stayed there until February 1976 when we came back. However, we did not go to Zambia but we were flown straight to Dar es Salaam where on arrival we were told about the new developments with regards to the formation of Zipa, a joint military force between Zipra and Zanla. We were then flown to Maputo and we went there to join the command element as we were commanders. From the comrades that I was with in the Soviet Union some did not go with us immediately as we left them in Tanzania. Among the comrades that I went with to Mozambique were people like the late Raphael Baleni who later on became active in the political activities of Bulawayo Province, Gaddafi and Mabhuku. When we got to Maputo we were met by the late John Dube who was the Zipra Chief of Operations and was among the top commanders in Zipa. We also met the now late Rex Nhongo (General Solomon Mujuru), Nikita Mangena who is also late, the now VP Mphoko. Also there was Enoch Tshangana (late Major-General Jevan Maseko). We then went for operations with my unit entering the country through Sipungeberra. We had successful operations with our Zanla colleagues and my unit made two captures of the Rhodesian soldiers whom we took to the rear. However, a few months down the line things did not go well resulting in the crumbling of Zipa and we had to start fighting as Zipra again.

MS: Tell us what happened when you started afresh from the western part of the country.

Nkomo: We were given the task to operate from the western part of the country and I operated in areas around Embakwe in Mangwe District. As a result of the shortage of personnel because we were still re-organising we had to train some of the people locally without taking them to Zambia. I had a successful operation with my locally trained soldiers in the Embakwe area when we had a contact with the Rhodesian forces.

MS: What happened in that operation?

Nkomo: The Rhodesians arrived in a village where we were and it was still in 1976. I then realised that we were not going to make it as the enemy forces were combing the area, the only way was to make a break through by engaging them in combat. It seemed they had located the area where we were and I told my other four colleagues that we had to make a plan. Then it happened that the homestead where we were close to, the occupants belonged to an apostolic sect church. We then asked for their church garments and they gladly gave us. We then left the homestead and on our way came across the Rhodesians and they thought we were just church people, they did not suspect us as we even spoke to them. However, when we had just passed each other we turned and opened fire. I can tell you that was a massacre. Those guys were not prepared for anything like that. The Rhodesians were angry with that attack and quickly made a follow-up and what worsened the situation for them was that in the neighbouring district of Bulilima they had also suffered heavy losses at the hands of another Zipra unit that was operating in the Ndolwane area. Stung by that loss the enemy forces made a follow-up.

MS: So in their follow-up what did they do?

Nkomo: They were so angry that they even drove armoured cars across the border into Botswana. In that follow-up operation they managed to capture two of our contacts, Bango and Ndlovu who had homesteads just across the border in Botswana. They had long suspected the two to be habouring us as one day when the Rhodesians crossed the border they found me at one of the homesteads disguised as cattle herdboy. They looked at me and the black soldiers spoke to me in Setswana and Kalanga. I speak the two languages so they left me alone thinking I was a Motswana. In fact I am multi-lingual as I speak quite a number of languages such as Shona, Kalanga, Setswana, Tonga and of course SiNdebele and English. After that incident I was recalled to Lusaka for re-deployment.

MS: Where were you re-deployed?

Nkomo: That was the beginning of 1977 and I was ordered by the High Command to go and look for nine comrades who had been deployed to areas around Hwange and Binga but the command element at the rear had lost touch with them. There was no communication. My task was to report back to the rear after a month and so I was given 17 soldiers to carry out that mission. Among the soldiers under my command was the late Stanley Donga (former war veterans chairman for Bulawayo Province and Zanu-PF provincial secretary for security), Gordon Tshuma, Gordon Shumba, Baloyi and Saziso. When we arrived in the villages we had to identify the party leadership, supporters and sympathisers so that we could be accepted. As for me I had no problem speaking to them in Tonga and for the Nambyans I had no problem either as that language is similar to Kalanga which is largely spoken here in Kezi. At first the villagers did not give anything away with regards to the nine comrades with some only saying they once saw them. I think at first they did not trust us and I can tell you if there are people who cooperated with us and kept all the secrets of our movements during the liberation struggle it was the Tonga people. They were just marvelous and passionate about the armed struggle. They never sold out. Ask anyone who was in the armed struggle.

MS: So you kept on hitting the brick wall until when?

Nkomo: It was only after some time when a village head identified me as the commander of the group and pulled me aside. He told me that there was once a contact between the group we were looking for and the Rhodesian forces at a place called Nyatuwe. We were later to be taken to the scene of the contact, a hilly area where our guys were ambushed early in the morning by ground forces with air support resulting in seven of them being killed and two surviving. That affected me and I decided to revenge. I then called my troops and told them that I was leaving 14 of them to continue with the operations while I take four with me back to Zambia to update the commanders in Lusaka.
MS: Did you really find out what happened to the nine comrades?

Nkomo: When we got into contact with youths who had been working with them they told us that one day the nine sent one of their contacts to buy them foodstuffs in Hwange town because initially our forces were given money for food so that they could sustain themselves while building trust with the masses. So it seems when their contact bought those foodstuffs the enemy spies followed him and got hold of him. The fact that he bought large quantities raised suspicion because during those days it was rare for rural people to be seen buying large quantities of mealie-meal. The nine in my opinion were naïve at that moment as they forgot to apply the most important and basic principle in a guerilla warfare which is concealment. By failing to apply that principle that led to that unfortunate incident. When the enemy forces got hold of that contact and probably tortured him he spilled the beans resulting in that ambush.

MS: What then did you do?

Nkomo: To give confidence to those that were remaining behind and also to seek my own revenge I decided to do the impossible, taking the fight into the lion's den. I ordered two of my soldiers to go and booby trap a section of the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls railway track. For us the remaining 16 we set up ambushes from Cross Mabale to Lukosi Bridge that is along the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls Road. At Cross Mabale, Donga who was my security man took alongside two comrades and in between we deployed them in pairs while I was with three at the Lukosi Bridge. The ambush was also a propaganda one because I knew that if we carried out attacks in that way the Rhodesians would think we were many and it worked.

MS: What happened take us through that operation.

Nkomo: I told my forces that no military car was to pass through that road after 4pm and as for the railway line operation a goods train derailed as expected after a heavy explosion causing panic among the crew members. We then started attacking military vehicles along the Vic Falls-Bulawayo Road. The guys at the centre of the ambush had bazookas and they did a good job. You see the Rhodesians soldiers used to patrol along that road and on that day they were in for it. There was pandemonium all over and to show that our strategy worked the Rhodesian command in Hwange had to call for reinforcement from a unit that was in Tsholotsho. Air support was also called in and we were later told that Peter Walls himself issued a statement that the whole Hwange area was "infested with terrorists". They thought there were hundreds of freedom fighters that had been deployed in that vicinity. However, we lost one guy at Cross Mabale while a number of Rhodesians were killed including an officer whose death was reported by the newspapers. Although they used helicopters to search for us it was difficult because of night fall.

Next week we conclude the interview with Nkomo talking to us about his return to Zambia, the deployment of the large groups of guerillas and formation of detachments and his current political activities in Matabeleland South.

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