Sunday, 9 February 2014

Impala Electronics

After leaving the Rhodesian Air force I found work as a Radio technician with Impala Electronics.

‘Impala’ had been set up to provide a desperately needed communication system (agric Alert) to help protect farmers and their families during the Rhodesian War.

 The admin manager Tony Mann and the technical manager Bill Hosie were ideally suited to their work. Both had excellent people skills and high ability in their roles.

 As an added bonus Tony had a Pilot’s license which was used to great advantage to maintain radio systems around the country, particularly in the War torn Tribal Trust lands where locals who didn't give support to Insurgents were at risk.

Tony and I managed to repair no less than five radio systems scattered across the North and North Eastern part off the country in one day. To do this by road would have taken a week or so, with the very real risk of ambush or a land mine incident.

 Flying did have it its own risks however, when we flew towards  Sipolilo the area was covered in rain clouds , this presented  no problem to Tony, he flew around for some time until he spotted a  small hole in the cloud cover and dropped us rapidly into it. Things worked out fine; he was able to spot the Airfield quite quickly-we had a job to do and Tony was the right guy to do it.

I think some pilots might have deferred that trip.

Bill Hosie was an expert Radio Technician. As a youngster he was a keen ‘Radio Ham’ and was one of the first people to achieve a radio ‘Moon bounce’ to California from Southern Africa. Much of his weekend time consisted of trips out into the bush testing radio antennae, and long distance Vhf communication, experience that was perfect for his work.

Bill’s technical knowledge was equal to any electronic or communication problem that we had. Many times we technicians phoned him long distance from places like Mtoko, Mangula, and Melsettter for technical advice – with this help, and the spares we carried, I never needed to leave an area without having repaired the Radio system.

The senior technician was Bruce Quail, like Bill and Tony he too was very competent at his job and cool to an amazing degree. The general manager who originally chose them for this work was obviously a very good judge of character and ability.

Bruce’s approach to life became obvious to me on my first Bush trip. I first met him at the Chipinga Hotel near the Eastern border where we had planned to meet.

 After a handshake and a hello, we drove off to where the work was being done.  The Village of Chipinga is in a mountainous area, and in a short while we were driving in very scenic country on a wide gravel road. I couldn’t help glancing at the speedometer and pushing my feet into the carpet. I estimated our speed in the region of 130 km /hour (not far short of a Peugeot 404’s top speed).

The road at this point was entering a long left curve and soon we were in a ‘controlled’ sideways drift- With a 45 degree downward slope to our right, and a good view of the stream about a hundred metres below this was scary stuff.    With one hand on the steering wheel, and his right elbow on the window ledge, he looked across at me, and casually remarked “Geronimo!”

I managed to say nothing, but was thinking-“what the hell have I got myself into”. Little did I know, Bruce’s hobby was Rally driving.  These Impala bush trips gave him plenty of practice as I regularly found out.

 Some of the younger blokes tried to copy his style- we had a few prangs (accidents) that way.

Our Bush trips varied between 2 to 5 weeks depending on terrain, weather, and the number of farm radios we had to install. As Impala field staff, we received a 20 percent salary allowance on top of our normal pay. This was to cover extra hours in the field when required. We worked a lot longer than this, but nobody ever complained. After one bush trip of 5 weeks the general manager of the group wanted a breakdown of how we spent our time. We gave him an accurate report and he found out that we willingly worked well in excess of 20 percent overtime. Bruce and I would often work till late at night, repairing or preparing equipment for the next day’s work.

 A radio and ‘Centre panel’ were installed at the local Police Station with antennae on a high mast.

 In mountainous country (most of the Eastern Border), we also installed a repeater on the highest mountain within radio signal reach of the Police station.

This gave us very wide area radio coverage

On every farm that radio signals could reach, we installed a radio; this was usually installed in the centre of the house to reduce the possibility of it being hit by a bullet, rocket or shrapnel.

A remote control box with a handset was attached to the radio by a long extension cable. The reason for this was so that in the event of attack the family could have the remote box right next to them and press the alarm button which sent off an immediate alarm signal to the Police Station, at the same time a light lit up in the Police Station showing the farm name, and the alert signal was automatically re-transmitted to all other farms in the area. This was especially useful, as the neighbouring Farmers could then come to the family’s aid.  

The radio signal on many farms was sufficiently strong that only a small aerial placed in the attic or on the roof was needed. At some farms however the signal was weak and so a tall radio mast with a large antenna was installed.  

On one occasion, Bruce and I, plus the farmer, and some of his workers, were erecting a very tall radio mast on sloping, uneven ground behind the farmhouse. It was quite a complex operation using a ‘Gin pole’ and steel cables. On flat ground, the mast usually goes up without a hitch. This time however just before we got the mast vertical it took on a life of its own, twisting and bending in all sorts of directions at once.

 Naturally we all had to let go of the supporting cables and dash for cover. The farmer was shocked and wide eyed, not Bruce of course-, he looked at me and calmly said “Oh dear” as if he had just spilt a cup of tea or something equally trivial. Radio comms were not possible from the farmhouse right then, but later we managed to get communication for the family by being able to access the Melsetter radio panel.

One particularly arrogant and stubborn Farmer in the Chipinga area said he didn't want a radio installed- I felt sorry for his family. 

 A month or two later when terrorism was in full swing in the area and he desperately wanted a radio installed.

For the sake of his family (not for him), our firm went out on a special trip to install the equipment. 

We had an interesting mix of radio installers, among them Three  ex SAS soldiers, a Rhodesian amateur boxing champion, and an ex Israeli soldier named Marko, A terrific fellow,, very competent and not easily frightened.

 On his first trip out with me, we were driving to Centenary.

 Our Land Rover was ‘Mine –proofed’ by having conveyor belt rubber fitted to the floor, and serious   aircraft Pilot type seat belts, for both passengers.

I stopped at the end of the tar sealed road just before the dirt road  and gave Marco two cigarette filters – (one for each ear) to reduce ear damage in case of a Mine incident- “Ah just like Israel now”, he said with a smile on his face. Naturally I didn’t need to show him how to use the Uzi sub machine gun that we carried for these trips.

A short way down the road while I was  nervously  thinking about landmines, attack etc, we drove round a curve  to see what was obviously a farmer’s wife and child casually walking down the road, she was carrying an Slinged  Uzi over her shoulder.

My admiration for the Rhodesian Farmers and their families was, and still is absolute.

I decided there and then to not feel nervous on these trips in future.

 There was me, a young single male worrying, while she and her family lived in the area and were extremely vulnerable to attack.

On another occasion during the rainy season, I was driving the Peugeot van on a dirt road in the Mazoe area. At the time the area was very active-war wise, and on coming round a bend I had to drive through a deep rut full of muddy water. The vehicle soon came to a stop due to wet spark plugs. The Peugeot 404 has the engine tilted to one side, and has recessed Spark Plug holes- they were now full to the brim with water, consequently the spark plug insulators were underwater. What to do? After much rapid thought I got the idea of breaking off a stem off some nearby elephant grass, and sucked the hot greasy water out of each spark plug recess.

It worked! I was on my relieved way in no time (with a foul taste in my mouth) - The human mind can come up with some good stuff when under pressure – even mine J

While at one of the Rural Police Stations I had to deliver and install a very large ‘Ironclad’ battery bank on the repeater site positioned on a hill close by. The Battery bank was a single unit installed in a large wrap around wooden box. It would have been tedious, and almost impossible to carry the unit uphill over the steep rocky ground.

The local constable said “No problem- the Convicts will deliver it for you”
(Poor convicts I thought).

 To my surprise he went off into the bush with his little group – some armed with Machetes.

They returned shortly afterwards with lots of fresh bark strips and two freshly cut poles.

In an amazingly short time they made up a sling between, the poles, they then placed the battery box in position, and with much chanting and singing,  carried it up the hill.

 It felt like something out of a Rider Haggard novel. I was totally impressed by the speed and efficiency of the operation, and got my wallet out and asked the Constable to buy a crate of cokes for them. Very happy they were too, they had an opportunity to show off their bush skills, have a day out on the hill, and drink a nice cold Coke in the bargain.

The bush tribesman has many skills and a great knowledge of the bush, much of which no doubt would have been of great use to the early settlers.

Many rural people calmly took on the dangers they were subject to in their stride.

Naturally it got to some. In one area on the Mozambique border, there was an American character, humorously known by the locals as- ‘Six Gun Pete’. Pete lived alone in the Bush. At all times he had two ‘Six Guns’ on his belt.

He told us that he had booby traps and remote devices in various parts of the garden in case of attack. Also he had a narrow tower within the house to climb up and fire from when under attack. Pete was very pleased to get his radio. I don’t know what happened to him.

If the whole situation drove him crazy I wouldn't be surprised. To live alone out there, without someone to rationalize with, and calm one down would be hard to deal with.

On any of our bush trips we always carried weapons; happily at no point did I have to pull the trigger. One of our vehicles did get some bullet holes through it on one trip however.

We regularly got our vehicles stuck in the mud, often alone, and were quite vulnerable in such situations, but nobody worried too much. Not bravado, just the human ability to adjust I think.

We had some fun times though, on one trip in the South East of the country near Chiredzi, I had just finished a big job on a hot day and was approaching the Motel where I was booked into for the night.  A bus was stopped on the nearby bridge and hadn’t moved for some time. I assumed the bus to be broken down, so I pulled out to pass it, only to discover that the bus was stopped so that the passengers could look at a wild Ostrich casually strolling on the bridge. I impatiently decided to pass through the gap available .Unfortunately the vehicles large rear view mirror assembly  pressed hard up against the Ostriches backside- the bird was most upset and jumped about quite a bit- feathers flew in fact, causing much hilarity and laughter from the passengers.

Later that night while chatting with the Motel Manager, he said to me. “It’s a funny thing- we have an Ostrich in this area that wanders about in the grounds, he usually causes no problems, but tonight he has started kicking some of the customer’s cars!”- I didn't say a word. On checking my vehicle the next day, it showed no signs of Ostrich damage -evidently these particular birds don’t have memories like Elephants.

 ‘Mac’ and Keith on a Bush trip, with the usual Uzi and S.L.R rifle for company.

Most radio system faults occurred during the ‘Lightening Season’ Usually round about November

I had installed a 24 metre mast at the Honde Valley Police Station, some months previously.

Perhaps my ‘earthing’ of the mast was insufficient. The radio in the office resembled molten lava- presumably due to a lightning strike on the mast.

The constable on duty at the time thought a ‘Rocket’ or mortar had come through the concrete roof.  Fortunately I had a new radio to replace it.

My saddest repair trip however occurred at Mtoko. The Radio panel was badly damaged by a lightning surge and I had spent some hours repairing it. Within a few minutes of it being repaired, a worried Farmers wife called in to say that an explosion had occurred in the vicinity of the Farm entrance gate. The Tractor driver was known to be out at the time and her Husband had gone to investigate.

A short while after that, she called again, this time in an absolutely distressed state. As I recall another explosion had occurred involving her Husband too.

I have never felt so sad for anybody in my life. I don’t know the full details of the incident and so can’t comment any further.

  Later on my way back while travelling between Mtoko and Mrewa I had just crested a hill when I saw a huge transport truck that was sideways on, about 200 metres ahead and straddling the road completely.

 In case it was an ambush I stopped to put the Uzi on my lap, and saw that the best way past was via the cleared bush on the left hand side. The bush was a bit rough and I was moving slowly through it, when an unarmed African called out to me. It felt safe enough and I stopped.

Thankfully I did, it was the driver of the truck.

He had ‘jackknifed’ the truck for some reason and couldn't move it.

He asked me to inform the office in Mrewa, to let them know of his predicament. I asked him if he would like a lift with me instead. He declined indicated that he must stay with his truck- another ‘Unsung Hero’ of the war. I felt sorry and concerned for him.

 At one point we were installing radios faster than the firm could put them together, so Bill got us out one day to carry out radios signal testing on the antennae’s he had designed (due to sanctions we couldn't get the ones made in Ireland).

While doing our tests on vacant ground in the local industrial area, An Air force Wing Commander recognized me and came across for a chat. I thought it was going to be friendly, but it wasn't.

He said that it was about time that I got called up by the Air force to resume my duties as a radio technician at forward Airfields in the bush, where he had seen me so often before.

He stated that he would contact some people in high places and have it arranged.

I am quite sure that he didn't know the true nature of our duties. As much as my Radio duties in the Air force had been important, there is no doubt in my mind which duties were of more value. Especially considering that the Air force had quite a few radio technicians at the time.

Nothing happened, and I presume he was told how valuable Impala Electronics were.

After installing and testing the radio system in a remote farmhouse and start to leave, it’s a wonderful and humbling experience, when the farmer’s wife and her small children wave goodbye, and sincerely thank you, for making their lives a little safer.

Working with Impala Electronics was to me, the most valuable and satisfying thing I have ever done.

End

Thanks to Phil for sharing his memories and photograph with ORAFs.

Comments are welcome  please mail me on orafs11@gmail.com.
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3 Comments:

At 9 February 2014 at 17:22 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Rob Picton (INTAF) Writes:-

Thanks to you and Phil Tither for the Impala Electronics article - a great read, and interesting to have some of the blanks filled in on how the graft was done on the ground.

 
At 9 February 2014 at 17:24 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Nick Baalbergen (INTAF) Writes:-

Most Rhodesians who served in rural areas will remember the superb 'Agic Alert' system. This personal account records a little know part of the Agric Alert story - good material!

 
At 10 February 2014 at 09:09 , Blogger Rhodesia Remembered said...

Phil Tither Writes:-

I got in contact with one of the ex Impala guys and it turns out that he was Shot at while up a radio mast !

 

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