Mike Subritzky

THE “DEAR JOHN”

Subs marshalling in a Scout Helicopter at LP at AP Lima (Note 1) Assembly Place Lima (Note 2) Subs with the 1st ZIPRA Battalion (Note 3) Casualty Evacuation - Wounded Guerrilla (Note 4) Typical Communist Guerrillas (Note 5) Child Soldiers Young Communist Soldiers New Zealand Camp at AP Lima Medical Parade at AP Lima AP Lima Guerilla Ambush Victim (Note 6) AP Lima Land Rover Subs and the AP Lima Land Rover In 161 Battery it was a tradition that if any member of the Battery got a “Dear John” while the Battery was away anywhere, then that letter was pinned on the Battery Notice Board and each and every member of the Unit wrote back a “Dirty Bitch” reply to his ‘ex’ just to let her know that what she had done was a shitty thing, and that we all hoped that her new found love gave her terminal Herpes.

I think the tradition was begun by the Battery in Korea or possibly Vietnam, in any event it was continued throughout my time with the Gunners.

On the 6 January 1980, we were deep in the communist held area of Operation Tangent when we received our first mail from New Zealand in more than a month. Amongst the mail was a letter for Stewart Ashworth – a “Dear John”. Ash was pretty pissed off about it for some few days and was down in the dumps. We Gunners, were digging a path out to the chopper pad a couple of days later while Ash was on stagg and Paul Gregg, Peter McArthur and myself sat down under a Mopami tree and discussed Ash’s love life. We then came up with a plan to get him a new woman, and the quickest way to do that was perhaps to drop a line to Radio Hauraki in Auckland (New Zealand), and ask them to put a request out over the radio… Who knows, Ash might well get a couple of replies.

I pulled out my message pad and between the three of us we wrote a letter to the Auckland DJ, Kevin Black who usually ran the morning breakfast show on Hauraki. Later that afternoon, Paul assisted Corporal Garven, who was a Signaller, to rig a D10 wire from Lima up to the Police fort and then they connected an old army issue telephone at each end and it actually worked, provided you yelled down the mouthpiece. It was even connected onto the Police switchboard. They gave us the phone number of two short rings (party line style). Just as a postscript, I wrote on the bottom of the letter to Kevin Black, “Blackie, if you want to give us a buzz, our phone number is two short rings on the Mhudlambudzi line”. We wrote ‘Forces Concession’ on the envelope, put it on the next outgoing Scout (chopper) and quietly forgot about it, with no one bothering to tell Ash. The choppers were really our only contact with the outside world in the early part of the Operation as most of the roads in our area had been re-sowed with mines once we were deployed as Peacekeepers in our Area of Operations. The choppers; Scout’s, Puma’s and Gazelle’s as well as C130 airdrops were our lifeblood.

Life continued pretty much each day with stagg, patrolling, medical duty, checking in guerrillas as they entered Lima (and wandered off again to rape, rob, and murder), plus a host of other tasks that cropped up. I was also detailed by Major Hewitt to paint a small Kiwi bird, and the letter ‘L’ on every chopper that landed at our loc-stat. One particular Puma crew’s pilot complained, and when he got back to Bulawayo he had his ground crew paint it out. Next time he flew in to our loc-stat we painted Lima Kiwis, not only on the nose of his bird but on the doors as well, both inside and out, about a dozen Kiwis in all. He got the message and left them on after that.

Pat Hawai, a member of our team, had served in Antarctica, and on the Ice the vehicle used by the New Zealander’s was called ‘The Kiwi Express’ and featured a Kiwi with a pair of combat boots painted on both sides. We had two Land Rovers at Lima and so I painted one up as the ‘Kiwi Express No 1’ and the other as ‘Kiwi Express No 2’. There are several now famous pictures that turn up in various war history books that show Pat and a guerrilla officer in one of these vehicles.

We always ate under a large pink C130 cargo chute as it was cooler there, and one of the grunts constructed a rifle rack for us to stow our weapons whilst eating meals. That rifle rack became a most important gauge as to the state of stress and danger felt by the team at any given time. If you had been away and something scary had happened, you could always tell at a glance upon your return by simply looking at the rifle rack. If there were weapons stowed on the rack then you could relax, but if it was empty you kept your weapon close to you. It seems humorous now, but we sat playing cards with all participants alert and their personal weapons draped across their knees, but back then it was sometimes very, very intense.

We had a “Claytons” Stand-To every morning at 30 minutes before dawn, and everyone got up and just sat facing outwards with weapons close and in state two. We were not allowed to dig shell scrapes as they were considered a provocation… we dug bloody big storm water drains instead! >From memory dawn was about 0630.

On the 22 January at about 2100, all hell broke loose at Assembly Place “Kilo” when elements of ZANLA (communist guerrillas loyal to their tribal leader Robert Mugabe), and ZIPRA (communist guerrillas loyal to their tribal leader Joshua Ngkomo), had a crack at each other. We were listening to the various contact reports as they came down on our radio net. Things then intensified to a mortar duel between both groups that lasted for quite some time. We were in the fortunate position of being able to monitor the radio traffic from both opposing sides as the various sit-reps came in. The duel finally petered out and next morning when the guys at Kilo sent medics out to check the causalities and bury the dead, nobody had even been scratched. It is amazing really just how much metal it takes to actually kill someone by percentage. On another occasion a platoon of Rhodesian Light Infantry were ambushed by a company of ZANLA and for a period of more than 30 minutes both sides threw everything but the kitchen sink at each other. The Rhodesians (white soldiers loyal to the legitimate government of Ian Smith), were forced to pull back, and ZANLA captured a Rhodesian GPMG. Casualties for the entire fire fight were one Rhodesian troopie hit in the knee by an AK round.

Next morning I was woken at 0530 and told to report to the radio tent, as there was a phone call for me from New Zealand. I stumbled out of my hoochie, not really believing what I had been told, as the phone line only went up to the Police fort about two klicks away, and yet very concerned for the health of my mother who had emphysema and had been expected to die for some time. When I picked up the phone I quietly said, “hello”, and a very distant but familiar voice replied, “Is that Sergeant Subritzky?” to which I said, “Yes, I am Sergeant Subritzky”. Then a second question: “Are you Sergeant Mike Subritzky who wrote to Radio Hauraki about your mate with the broken heart?”
“Yes” I assured him. “Excellent Mike, this is Kevin Black from Radio Hauraki and you’re on the Breakfast Show!”

I couldn’t believe it! Somehow or other Blackie had tracked us down to our very tiny corner of Africa, and to this day I am amazed as to just how he did it. We talked for a while and he asked after Ash, and I described Ash to him over the phone. Then he wished us all “Good Luck” and hung up the phone. It was really good to hear from him, as he was a link from home. Unknown to me, the conversation went out over the airwaves and my wife, who was working at Raventhorpe Hospital in South Auckland, actually heard it in the ward. The Gunners at 161 Battery were also cleaning their 105mm L5 (Pack) Howitzers in the ‘Home Bay’ building, and caught the transmission as well.

A couple of weeks later, on the 20 February and just after morning smoko, a Gazelle chopper arrived with Major Hewitt returning from a briefing at either Bulawayo or Salisbury. On board the chopper were also 3 sandbags, jam-packed with scented love letters, all of them addressed to:

Bombardier Stewart Ashworth RNZA
Assembly Place ‘Lima’,
Operation Tangent,
NZATMC Rhodesia,
SOUTHERN RHODESIA

To say that Ash was astounded would be something of an understatement. He quietly excused himself for the rest of the day and retired to his hoochie to read his fan mail. From that day onward he used one of the sandbags (with the more explicit letters) as a pillow.

That night I was on radio stagg and took down the NSR (National Sitrep):

War intensifies as it gets closer to the elections;
Op Hurricane: 3 contacts with 2 casualties in the Rhodesian Security Forces, Greys Scouts deployed; Op Thrasher: 2 contacts with 2 guerrilla KIAs, land mine initiated with 1 AMA (African male adult) wounded – mine laid in last three days; Op Repulse: 2 contacts with 2 wounded, 6 FRELIMO (Mozambique guerrillas) surrendered, 1 Swiss Priest bayoneted to death, land mine confirmed exploded; Op Grapple: NTR; Op Tangent: NTR.

For us at Lima it was a quiet night on the veldt.

Kiwi Peacekeeper
NZATMC AP Lima
Rhodesian War 1979/1980

Photo credits: Subritzky Collection

Note 1: By the time this picture was taken each member of the team had acquired a cargo strap and stripped down his webbing. Note, the bandoleers are still being worn as part of the first line. Rhodesian War 1979.

Note 2: An aerial view of Assembly Place “Lima” located in Operation Area Tangent at the end of the Rhodesian War. Note the pink C130 cargo chute, and the white Kiwi in the fork of the tracks in the centre of the picture. Rhodesian War 1979

Note 3: Refer to Mike’s poem, “Battalion of the Damned

Note 4: The most number of wounded guerrillas treated in one day at Assembly Place Lima was 17. Note on the top left of the white cross the Kiwi and “L” symbol on the front of the chopper. Rhodesian War 1979

Note 5: The guy on the left is armed with the older AK47 version of the Kalashnikov, while the guy on the right has the AKM65 version with grenade projector removed and wire cutter bayonet fitted. Both guerrillas also carry bum bags slung on their left side. These always contained a transistor radio and several grenades. Rhodesian War 1979.

Note 6: Refer to Mike’s poems, “The Dead Guerrilla” and “Missing You