Thursday, 27 April 2017

CHAPTER 4: # 1 STATIC LINE COURSE 31 OCT. 1961 - 17 NOV. 1961

Towards the end of October 1961, we had managed to build the parachute training school and the first troops from the Rhodesian Army arrived to be trained as paratroopers. They would form ‘C’ ( Rhodesia) Squadron  of  the British 22nd SAS Regiment.

Its a long wait. Sitting in the Dakota before take off for the first demonstration jump  the staff of Parachute Training School find it a little difficult to relax.
 From left to right: Flying Officer R.T.D. Smith and Flt/Sgt R.R. Robinson, both of the R.A.F; Sergeants N.A. Suttie, D.J.G. de Kock T.P. Smith, R.M. Tomson, and Flt/Sgt W.P. Maitland, all of the R.R.A.F.

At the beginning of every parachute course in Rhodesia the PJI's would jump to demonstrate the parachuting techniques,  including the pulling of the reserve and the carrying of suspended loads. This gave the students an opportunity to actually see a parachute and what to expect when they made their parachute descents. It also allowed the PJI's to gain more experience and build up their jump totals. It must be remembered that in these times few people in Rhodesia had even seen parachutes.

On November 1, 1961, we took off at 0530 hours in Dakota #153 piloted by Flight Lieutenant George Alexander to do our first parachute descents in the Federation of  Rhodesia and Nyasaland. This was supposed to be a demonstration for the first course to go through the school. It was also our first parachute jumps in Rhodesia and our first jumps out of a Royal Rhodesian Air Force Dakota.

 Everybody, including the press, was on hand to witness the occasion. The aircraft took off with us on board but had to return to base because of low cloud. This was a little nerve wracking but we were the experts and nothing was supposed to faze us! We waited until approximately 0800 when the cloud lifted and we were able to get airborne again. I was tasked to demonstrate the PWC (Parachutist Weapons Container) which, in fact, was a lump of concrete weighing approximately 30kgs. The PWC was a suspended load attached to the main parachute harness with two special hooks. It was lowered on a suspension rope 15 feet long after the parachute had deployed. The idea was for the load to land first, thus allowing the parachutist to land unencumbered and, hopefully, slower. On this occasion all went well. I was No.2 in a slow pair with Mercer Thomson. I soon realised that there is a big difference in the rate of descent at sea-level and 5000 feet above sea-level, especially when using a 28-foot flat canopy X type parachute the British had given us. It was later determined by a stopwatch that the average rate of descent on the DZ at Salisbury Airport, using these X-type parachutes, was 22 feet per second. This is fast. By the end of 1961, I had managed to do a total of 38 parachute descents. Whilst at Abingdon we were surprised to find few people had done more than 100 military parachute descents, so we were well on the way to catching up with the British experts.
 This photograph shows the Station Commander of RRAF New Sarum  Gp/Capt A.O.G. Wilson (Archie) holding a glass of ale. Flt/Lt R.T.D. Smith O/C P.T.S. holding a Silver Parachutist  which had been presented by G.Q. Parachutes on completion of the first 1000 parachute descents carried out at the school. 

The station commander at New Sarum was Group Captain A.O.G. Wilson, who had the most bone-crushing handshake I have ever come across. Of course, Archie (as he was known to one and all), was not going to miss out on doing a parachute descent onto his turf. I was given the task of training him, after hours, during the first week of #1 Basic Course. On the 9th November, 1961, we took off with the first course and, of course, the Station Commander. He was certainly not going to miss out on this opportunity  and we were all sworn to secrecy. Being the station commander of New Sarum it was unlikely he was going to get any flak from the Commander of the Air Force, Air Vice-Marshall Bentley. Any problems arising were probably going to come from Mrs. Wilson (Lorna).

We took off and dropped a PJI drifter, who landed on the DZ. On the next run in, I called Archie up to action stations. When the red light came on, I yelled “Stand in the door,” which Archie did with great force. I had hold of his parachute harness, and it was a strain to keep him from going out. When the green light came on, I just let go and he shot out like a champagne cork. He damn near took the door with him. We had to land and have it repaired before the course could do their first jump. I subsequently found out that this was not Archie’s first parachute descent, as he had bailed out from his fighter aircraft during the second World War, and in fact, was a member of the Caterpillar Club. I, fortunately, never qualified for a Caterpillar because all my parachute descents were deliberate, and therefore did not count.

During these early days, the end of the parachute course also indicated the final phase of SAS selection, and as usual in most military circles. a party was held. The new members of this elite band were required to drink a yard of ale which was timed.

#1 Basic Static Line Course started training on 31st Oct. 1961 and completed training on 17th Nov 1961.

Back Row L. to R  L/Cpl Des Tomes Pvt. Sandy Saunders  Pvt. Ken Webster Cpl. Cecil Fraser (Sigs) L/Cpl Harry Bodley  Cpl Jan Cilliers Cpl Bill Richardson L/Cpl Karl Van Heerden  L/Cpl Mike Higgins Pvt Chris Russell

 Second Row L to R    Sgt. Billy Herman  L/Cpl Jannie Boltman  Sgt Terry Hagan (R.A.F. PJI) Sgt Norman Suttie (R.R.A.F. PJI) Sgt Mercer Thomson (R.R.A.F. PJI) Sgt Trevor Smith (R.R.A.F. PJI) Sgt Derek de Kock (R.R.A.F.PJI) Cpl Kevin Lithgow Sgt Jock Hutton

Seated  L .to  R. Flt/Sgt R.R. Robinson (R.A.F. PJI)  Lt John Rowette  Flying Officer R.T.D. Smith (R.A.F. PJI) OC PTS  Flt/Sgt W.P. Maitland (R.R.A.F. PJI)

Sergeant Jock Hutton had originally completed his first parachute course and RAF Ringway during World War 2  and did his first operational jump into Normandy on D-Day 1944. In 2014 he again jumped into Normandy with The Red Devils, aged 90." Jock you are a legend not only with the British but with the Rhodesians as well."

Thursday, 20 April 2017


Before parachute training could commence in Rhodesia, qualified parachute jumping instructors were needed. In early 1961, six volunteer members of the Royal Rhodesian Air Force were sent to RAF Abingdon in England to train as   PJ Is. We were; Chief Technician, Bill Maitland; Senior Technician, Norman Suttie; Corporal Technician, Mercer Thompson; Corporal Trevor Smith; Corporal Technician Derek de Kock; and Corporal, Algie Posselt. Together we formed the nucleus of  Number One Parachute Training School Royal Rhodesian Air Force, and our task would be to train the newly reformed ‘C’ Squadron (Rhodesia) of British 22nd SAS Regiment

On the 22nd of April, 1961, we arrived in the UK and were sent immediately to the Royal Air Force No.1 Parachute Training School at RAF Abingdon to start our training as PJIs. Our instructor was Sergeant Ken Kid. You never ever forget your PJI and over 50 years later, I can still picture him clearly.

After a week of training, and delays due to weather, we did our first two static line parachute descents from a tethered barrage balloon. On the command, “Up 800 feet, five men jumping,” the balloon lurched into motion and rapidly ascended to 800 feet.  I was the first to jump, but this may be disputed. The door on the side of the wicker basket opened, and Ken Kid motioned me to stand in the frame. “Okay", he said quietly, “When you‘re ready.”  

 Up to this time, every instruction and every movement of our training was carried out on the word “Go”. I’d expected this to be yelled out, but all he said was “Okay, when you’re ready.” I gave him a startled look but he just smiled and gestured out into space. I did an immaculate exit, feet tight together, arms across the top of my reserve parachute.  “You fucking idiot,” I said to myself, “What have you done now?”  Because there is no slipstream to blow the parachute open when jumping with a static line parachute from a balloon, you will drop approximately 250 feet before anything happens. It is like going down in a fast lift. A very fast lift.

My parachute opened, and I carried out all the correct procedures as per our intensive ground training during the week before: look up and check your canopy -you bet I did and it was beautiful; make an all-round observation -everything clear. I could even see the cable from the winch. Pull up the seat strap and adopt a parachuting position with feet together and parallel to the ground, head forward , chin on chest, arms up, hands on the front lift webs with thumbs down for the correct grip ; look down, assess the drift.

A voice came up from the ground, “Which way are you drifting?” I pointed in the direction, which happened to be forward, and was told to select the correct lift-webs. I did this and pulled down hard to cut out the oscillation and reduce drift. It was euphoric. I floated gently down, until suddenly, at about 20 feet or so, I realised just how fast I was descending. However, I managed to do all the correct things. I kept my legs together, feet parallel to the ground, and did an immaculate side right landing – well, I thought so anyway.

I rolled up my parachute, and doubled to the balloon winch.  I was told to grab another parachute and fit it quickly because we were going to do it again. This was the best news- I’d become an adrenaline junkie. The second jump was just as exciting but scarier, because now I knew what to expect.  But I was now hooked on parachuting, and would do it for the next 20 years.

On August 25, 1961, I qualified as a Parachute Jumping Instructor and was promoted to acting unpaid Sergeant and awarded an RAF PJI Brevet. That evening Trevor Smith, Mercer Thomson and I were welcomed into the Sergeants’ mess at RAF Abingdon. I was the youngest Sgt in the Royal Rhodesian Air Force and it was the proudest day of my life.

Mercer Thomson, Derek de Kock, Bill Maitland, Flying Officer Ron Smith RAF (Soon to be OC PTS RRAF),
 Sqn. Ldr. Errol Minter RAF(Parachute evaluation detachment Rhodesia) , Norman Suttie,Trevor Smith

We must have been worthy of the RAF Parachute Jumping Instructor half wing brevet, because we were immediately given recruits to train for the British Parachute Regiment. We trained the next two courses as fully qualified RAF PJI’s

The new PJIs returned to Rhodesia on October 1, 1961 and immediately started to build the school at RRAF New Sarum.  Algie Posselt had decided that parachuting was not his preferred career path in the RRAF and had returned home earlier so there were now just five of us. It was just as well that most of us had an engineering background because we had to make most of the equipment and rig it in half of an aircraft hangar.

Royal Rhodesian Air Force Parachute Training School staff October 1961
Back Row (L to R) Sgt. Mercer Thomson (RRAF), Sgt. Norman Suttie (RRAF),
Sgt. Terry Hagan (RAF), Sgt. Derek de Kock (RRAF), Sgt. Trevor Smith (RRAF),
Seated (L to R): Flt. Sgt. Robbie Robinson BEM (RAF), F/O Ron Smith BEM(RAF), Flt. Sgt. Bill Maitland (RRAF). Notice all the PJI's are wearing the RAF PJI brevets

The original RRAF staff was assisted by the addition of 3 RAF secondments. Flying Officer Ron, aka, R.T.D. Smith, later promoted to Sqn/ Ldr, was the C.O., Flt Sgt Robbie Robinson was the School Warrant Officer and Sgt Terry Hagan, PJI.  At the time we readily accepted this situation. Mainly because we were all Colonials and it was only later that we wondered if these RAF secondments had been placed there to make sure we followed the RAF parachuting rules.

Rhodesia, being more British than the British, followed the British way of doing things, and it was the Royal Rhodesian Air Force who were responsible for training paratroops, their safe delivery into action, and the development of all parachuting techniques. The Parachute Training School was an Air Force organisation and was tightly guarded by the Air Force. The staff at Air Headquarters most likely did not know what we were doing. But as long as we didn’t cause too many problems they just let us get on with the task of training paratroopers – or, as they were called by the pilots of Number 3 Squadron,  "meat bombs."

In 1962 Sgt Terry Hagan and another RAF PJI secondment  Ivor Thomas, transferred from the RAF and joined the RRAF Parachute Training School, making a total of nine PJIs. This situation did not last because the Federation broke up at the end of 1963 and Terry Hagan, Ivor Thomas , Flt/Lt Ron Smith and Flt Sgt Robbie Robinson  returned to the RAF.

 Boet Swart transferred from the Federal Army and was locally trained as a PJI, just prior to Federation break up, and became the CO as a Sqn/Ldr. Then we were six;
Sqn/ Ldr Boet Swart,  Flying Officer Derek de Kock, W/O 1. W.P. Maitland, Sgt. T.P. Smith, Sgt. Mercer Thompson and Sgt. Norman  Suttie.

In 1964 things turned pear shaped for Mercer Thompson when he smashed his arm whilst doing a free fall parachute jump with the local civilian sky diving club. Unfortunately Mercer’s parachuting days were over. This meant there was a vacancy for a PJI and it was filled by Tony Hughes. After a lengthy period of training caused by a lack of SAS courses during this period, Tony qualified and served until he also succumbed to injury. However, he continued to function as a very senior PJI during his call ups. Tony was one of the most dedicated instructors to serve in PTS and always made himself  available for call up when needed.

Norman Suttie decided he had a greater chance of promotion by returning to his trade as a supplier. This gave Frank Hales the opportunity to transfer from the Army to join this very small staff of professional instructors. Frank had joined the British Army as a boy and had seen service in Korea with the Royal Artillery. There was not much he did not know about gunnery. He had also served with the 22nd SAS in Borneo and the Middle East where he was mentioned in despatches. Frank was an incredible instructor - always ready to share his knowledge and would command the PTS from 1979 until Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017


In 1953 the Central African Federation was formed, incorporating Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Nyasaland (now Malawi). The British Government assumed they could divest themselves of these colonies and protectorates with very little cost to the British taxpayer. However, the changes sweeping  through Africa, overtook the European colonial powers, and law and order disintegrated into barbaric acts of terrorism. Not all the black African leaders of the three states agreed with the establishment of Federation and, from the mid-1950s, argued for its dissolution. When this was ignored by the Federal Government, the  African nationalists called for civil disobedience.

Trouble began when the nationalist leaders encouraged tribesmen to disobey legal authorities and seize power. They incited others to riot and throw stones and petrol bombs at the police. The police in each of the three countries were separate from each other but were able to call upon the Federal Government for assistance

 In early 1959 a plot to murder the Governor of Nyasaland, Sir Robert Armitage, was discovered and Federal assistance was called. It was soon revealed the airfield at Fort Hill (now called Chitipa), in the very north of Nyasaland, had fallen to rioters. They used drums and trees to block the runway and prevented any troop-carrying aircraft from landing. At this time there was no parachute unit in the Federal Army and it was two weeks before a force of police from neighbouring Tanganyika removed the road blocks and cleared the runway, to enable the RRAF(Royal Rhodesian Air Force) to fly in troops and enforce law and order.

This was the trigger for the introduction of a parachute capability into the Federal Army. If a force of paratroops had been available it would have taken less than a day to regain control of the Fort Hill airfield and there would have been no need for a police force from another country to intervene.  In addition it was feared the Communist Block would gain influence in this mineral rich portion of the globe and there was trouble in the Congo. It seemed prudent to have a force such as the SAS to counter this threat.

However, there were a few problems with this concept. No country had used paratroops at such hot and high altitudes, and, whilst the No.3 Squadron, Royal
Rhodesian Air Force did have a number of DC3 aircraft, it had no parachutes and no means of training such troops. Much of Rhodesia,  is situated on a high bush-veldt plateau, averaging more than 1400 metres (4000 feet) above sea level (ASL). Up to this time most military parachuting had taken place in Europe, during the Second World War, at much lower altitudes, rarely exceeding 300 metres (1000 feet) ASL.

Enter the politicians.  The Federal Government suggested to Britain it would be splendid for the security of the region if C (Rhodesia) Sqn of 22nd SAS Regiment was reinstated. If the Federation was to have paratroops, they may as well go for the best sort, and C Sqn had done sterling work in Malaya. The Federal Army was very keen on the idea of having a parachute deployment capability and the RRAF was also happy to expand the capability of No.3 Sqn into the parachuting role. Only one question remained, could paratroops be successfully used in the Federation?

Time for a feasibility study. The RAF sent Squadron Leader Errol Minter, a born Rhodesian, to carry out trials. The experiments were of a very secret nature. Just imagine what they were saying in Britain. “I see those silly colonials in Rhodesia want to have paratroops. I wonder how many they kill before they realise it cannot be done at that altitude.”

But Squadron Leader Errol Minter proved it could be done, and a new chapter in the history of parachuting was written by those silly colonials in the bush countryside of “Rebel Rhodesia.”

Rhodesia had a proud military tradition. In World War I it supplied more troops per head of white population, than any other member of the Empire and conscription was necessary to prevent all able bodied men enlisting, leaving essential services to flounder. In WWII, Rhodesian men again flocked to enlist and served with distinction.
In 1951, the Korean conflict was in progress and, as usual, Southern Rhodesia volunteered to join the conflict with a token force of 100 men. Only 100 men were wanted, but 1200 volunteered. Young, Sandhurst-graduate, Lieutenant Peter Walls,  trained what was initially known as the Far East Volunteer Group, to fight the communist guerrillas on the other side of the world.This later became C Squadron SAS.

An expert on guerrilla warfare, Major “Mad Mike” Calvert, visited Rhodesia and briefed the 100. They now discovered they were not destined for the Korean conflict after all but were headed instead for the jungles of Malaya to confront the Malayan National Liberation Army brutalising that country. These men joined members of the reactivated Territorial 21SAS of the British Army and became ‘C’ Squadron SAS, known otherwise as the Malay Scouts and identified by Rhodesia shoulder flashes.

The Rhodesians arrived in Singapore in March 1951 and headed North to Kuala Lumpur for their first look at the Malay jungle. The SAS Malay Scouts were about to make the jungle a very dangerous place for the MNLA guerrillas to establish bases. The SAS denied hiding places to the terrorists and drove them into the open where other soldiers would engage.

These Rhodesian soldiers learned the importance of accurate navigation and were also amongst the first troops to parachute into the jungle. The 22nd SAS regiment continued to operate in the jungles of Malaya for two years and later served in Borneo until 1960. When the Emergency in Malaya was declared over most of the Rhodesians returned home and back to their civilian occupations.

Two of these men, however, remained in the Rhodesian Army Staff Corps. Lieutenant-General Peter Walls, the original commander of C Sqn SAS in Malaya,
later became the commander of Combined Operations, and Lieutenant-Colonel Ron Reid-Daly became the founding commander of the famous Selous Scouts.

During this period C Sqn SAS of 22 SAS regiment still remained the Rhodesian Squadron. C Squadron was disbanded when these men finished their tour of duty, but, after the success of the parachuting trials conducted by Squadron Leader Errol Minter, it was reformed and volunteers from The Rhodesian Army Staff Corps became the first students of the Rhodesian Air Force Parachute Training School.