Saturday Snippet: A dog of war (sort of)

As most readers know, I served in the armed forces of South Africa for several years during the period known as the Border War.  I also spent time in Rhodesia during that period, when it was allied with South Africa against terrorism, before demographics produced the inevitable result and it became Zimbabwe.

Rhodesian helicopter pilots were renowned throughout the region for their skill and courage.  Flying small French Alouette III‘s (and, in the final years, obtained in defiance of international sanctions, a few old, worn-out Bell UH-1‘s that threatened to fall apart in mid-air if you looked at them funny), they established a combat record second to none.

Rhodesian Air Force Alouette III helicopter

Fireforce operations were ferociously effective against internal terrorist groups.  For an excellent account of them, see the book of the same name by Chris Cocks.  It’s an outstanding description by a participant of what was almost certainly the most effective counter-insurgency unit in the world at the time.

A pro-Rhodesian photo-journalist essay about the counter-insurgency war there, published in 1976, may be found here.  It’s one-sided, but reasonably accurate if you allow for that.  (I was there from time to time during and after the same period, so I should know!)

As well as internal counter-insurgency warfare, external operations against terrorist bases in neighboring countries wrought havoc, and reduced local and regional economies to smoldering ruin.  In terms of military skill and effectiveness, there was no doubt that the Rhodesian forces were the best in the region (including South Africa).  What doomed the country was the inexorable tide of demographics.  A tiny white minority simply could not compete against being outnumbered better than 20-to-1 by indigenous tribes, who hated the minority for keeping them in suppression and denying them many basic human rights.  Also, in the context of the Cold War, the support of the Soviet Union and communist China for the so-called “liberation movements” meant that while they could be (and were) tactically defeated almost at will, they could never be strategically eliminated, in the absence of any support from the West.  Thus, in the end, white-ruled Rhodesia became majority-ruled Zimbabwe.

Numerous international volunteers served in the Rhodesian armed forces.  I’ve mentioned some in these pages before.  One of them was British pilot Mike Borlace, who flew Alouette III helicopters in 7 Squadron of the Rhodesian Air Force.  He’s written a no-holds-barred, and at times extremely funny, account of his combat flying experiences in that country called “Spider Zero Seven” (his radio callsign during the war).

Borlace saw a great deal of action during the war, being shot down five times and wounded twice.  In July 1976, he wrote off this helicopter while trying to land troops in thick bush – fortunately causing only minor injuries.  The image is courtesy of a collection of 7 Squadron photographs on the Web.  The figure in the photograph is his technician/gunner at the time, “Butch” Graydon.

Borlace went on to join the world-renowned Selous Scouts, and served undercover outside Rhodesia’s borders, enduring torture in captivity before the end of the war.  He’s one of only five pilots to be awarded the Silver Cross of Rhodesia.

He owned an Old English Sheepdog named Doris (male, despite its moniker).  It seems to have had a mind of its own, and many of his stories about Doris are very funny.  I thought you might enjoy some of them this morning.  I’ve linked to explanations of some of the terms and locations that may not be familiar to American readers.

Doris is my Old English sheepdog. He picked me out for special treatment, gambolling and sprawling over the length of a room to deliberately crap on my foot when I went to see the litter, the first of that breed born in Rhodesia. He’s been flying since he was eight weeks old, and has more hours in helicopters than most of the air force. However, as I keep telling him, no one in the old dogs’ home will ever believe him. He thinks I’m his mother, and there is obviously some Oedipus problem judging by the uncommon interest he shows in my leg on the odd occasions I get to shark in on one of the farmers’ daughters or other odd bits of stray that turn up in the bush sometimes.

He travels everywhere with me. Initially I used to zip him up in a holdall with just his head sticking out, but now his chopper drills are immaculate. He loves flying, but has learned that when the siren goes for a fireforce callout he’s not invited and doesn’t even bother to come to the helipad, although he’s invariably there to meet me when I land, and dutifully sits outside the rotor disc until the blades stop, to the delight of the troops.

There are other dogs around in the bush. Benji – or, more correctly, Sergeant Benji – has been a camp follower since Centenary days. He is mustered on strength, and earns his rations and the odd bonus for ‘service above and beyond’ by despatching rats and snakes around the gun pits and bunkers wherever he is posted. I think it is 2 Commando who have a dog that has been fitted with a harness and completed a parachute jump, and Ken Blain acquires a Red Setter, which also comes to the bush. Due to having been all over the country, however, Doris is a freer spirit, and more widely known these days, not least because he is a unique and quite astonishing sight on first meeting. He is a huge dog, and having no tail at one end and covered eyes at the other earns him the memorable description of being ‘a two-way dog’ by one of the goffals in a protection company.

There has been the odd problem. Some mining company executives were delayed for several hours until the fireforce returned, as nobody had the balls to drag the hairy apparition out of their aircraft, where he had settled in to the air conditioning for an afternoon siesta. If they had waved a stick of biltong, he’d have followed them to Bulawayo.

At Buffalo Range, Chiredzi, there is a daily Air Rhodesia flight and the aircraft stays for an hour or two before returning to Salisbury. Most of the airline’s pilots do voluntary call-ups with the air force, and the girls are pretty good about bringing down mail and the odd goodies, so if we are not flying we generally wander over for tea and biccies whilst they are on the ground. If we are flying, Doris wanders over for his elevenses on his own.

We are just returning from a lemon one day as the Viscount is taking off. Ops call me and ask me to contact the Viscount captain direct. I call for a formation fuel check and switch frequencies, thinking that he has probably just been shot at and we can be overhead the scene in about three minutes. The captain is Robin Hood and he tells me not to worry about my dog, which up to that moment I hadn’t. It transpires that he’d stretched out under some seats at the back of the aircraft and was only discovered after they were airborne. They are going to take him to Salisbury, he’ll spend the night with one of the girls and they’ll bring him down on the service tomorrow. He’s started organising his own night stops! I’m jealous; I wouldn’t mind a night with Mary-Ann either.

In general he gets on pretty well with the troops. On arriving at an FAF he does a quick recce and locates the kitchen first and the radio room next – the radio room generally being air conditioned. Third on his list is the bar – he knows if he hangs around there long enough I’ll eventually turn up. He amazes everybody at Darwin one evening. The fireforce is out late and the bar is already open. He always hears the helicopters long before we’ve even made our joining call, and trots off to the pad to meet me. This time, however, the choppers are on finals and he is still stretched out on the deck. The troops try to throw him out and down to the pad, but he’s having none of it and settles back down with his crisps. He’s right, the K-Car isn’t with the rest of them – apparently he can actually distinguish between the respective aircraft noises.

For some reason a lot of the techs and guards enjoy washing him when they’re not working. I’ve never really understood engineers’ preoccupations; maybe they are just compulsive about keeping things clean. They have a full-time job on their hands; he normally very quickly finds some mud to roll in. They are not so keen on his enthusiastic joining of their volleyball games but, as it is ‘bush rules’ and his indiscriminate chasing after the ball hampers both sides equally, he is accepted as a local hazard.

His chopper enplaning and deplaning drills take a while to hone. Not long after he outgrows his bag and is trusted to stay lying on the cabin floor, I have to fly from Vic Falls to Fort Victoria, which is right on the extreme range of the helicopter and takes about three and a half hours. As I taxi in, Doris is out of the aircraft before it stops. He makes directly for an angle-iron post next to the refuelling point and gets a leg in the air fast. It takes several minutes to cool the engine down and the blades stopped, but when they are he is still at it. There is a lake of ginormous proportions around the post, and he is desperately hopping around trying to keep his other three paws dry. If he’d let that loose in the aircraft we’d have been drowned. He doesn’t make that mistake again and learns to go before we take off.

Some years later, when I am sailing on Lake Kariba, I notice him eyeing the mast thoughtfully, and remembering the capacity of his bladder quickly rig up a sling and use the boom as a derrick to hoist him into the water – there’s no fear of flat dogs [crocodiles], he’ll poison them.

We arrive at Mtoko and are treated to a live Tom and Jerry cartoon. Doris debusses and starts on his tour of inspection. One of the camp cats has recently had a litter and they are all out sunning themselves. Unfortunately, she is several yards away from them when an image from her worst nightmare comes prancing around the corner of the ops room and straight through the litter, which he doesn’t even actually notice. Instinct takes over; there’s spitting and snarling and she launches herself forwards to give him a good solid wallop on the nose, claws fully extended. The kittens wake up fast and disappear; there is a mighty roar from Doris, half pain and half rage. Apart from the odd paw being trodden on, he has never been hurt in his life. The cat realises that maybe she has acted a bit hastily and streaks away towards the mess hall at warp factor five with Doris about ten yards in line astern and accelerating fast. It is lunch time and perhaps she knows that, for him, the mess hall is off limits. As she gets inside, the concrete floor has a damp sheen on it and she can’t get a grip. The legs are going like aircraft propellers, but she is hardly making any forward progress as the horizontal abominable snowman crashes through the door in hot pursuit. He has the red rage and has forgotten about the mess hall being out of bounds; the cat is going to die. He hits the greasy floor and is leaned over too far, loses his footing and momentum slides him into a collision with the cat. There is a scrabbling of paws never seen outside of a cartoon; the cat has hit the siren button and there is a high-pitched two-tone wailing which is accompanied by a continuous guttural growling from Doris. She’s up first and off down the room with legs rotating at about 2000rpm and forward speed about six inches an hour, but Doris is, surprisingly, quickly back in the saddle and only a – bleeding – nose behind. He seems to have trained for the wet going better and is definitely gaining ground. People eating their lunch are in suspended animation, forkfuls of spaghetti poised halfway towards mouths.

Momma cat makes a lifesaving decision and leaps sideways, crashes over a table scattering ketchup, glasses, plates of bolognese and the rest, and hits the wall. The laws of gravity are suspended and somehow she sticks there. She has instinctively exploited one of the primary rules of combat – know your enemy’s weaknesses. Doris is not equipped for a high-speed turning chase; he has no tail to balance out sudden changes of direction, and his fringe isn’t conducive to pinpoint targeting. Not quite as bad as a super tanker, but it takes him a while to stop, reorganise himself, get turned around and relocate the cat.

Newton, however, has got fed up with the cat wasting her chance. The laws of gravity resume and the cat falls off the wall, knocks whatever was left on the table onto the floor and starts the high-speed moonwalk back towards the entrance. She gets there marginally ahead, which gives her a good start on the grass. She’s at the top of the only tree in the vicinity in milliseconds. Doris gets up to about ten feet before he remembers he is a dog and crashes back to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

Subsequently, the cat becomes a nervous wreck. The kittens have reached that difficult age where they do the exact opposite of whatever they’re told. They actually enjoy Doris, and he is quite happy for them to clamber all over him. Momma cat is frantic and keeps trying to call them away, but she is fully aware that Doris wants to discuss the nose business in more detail and keeps a respectful distance. It is several days before an uneasy truce develops and they come to some animal agreement that face will be saved all round if they ignore each other and go about their own business.

He has the dubious distinction of being one of the few dogs, if not the only one, to have been in aerial combat. As I said, they’ll never believe his stories at the rest kennels. He doesn’t come out of it well. We’ve spent a lot of time on fireforce duty with 3 Commando – nicknamed ‘The Lovers’, and he has obviously decided he is a lover not a fighter.

We are at Rutenga as a singleton helicopter on liaison duties with the army unit there. There is no war going on in this area at the moment – oh yeah – and the flying is ‘routine’. What this really means is that our meagre resources are being penny-packeted around the country. The fireforces would be far more effective with more aircraft, and these detachments invariably turn into major dramas where you are involved in trying to control inexperienced troops engaged in a major punch-up with a new group of bad boys who are fresh, keen, rearmed and resupplied and have infiltrated the area whilst the SF have had their eye off the ball.

I have to take some signallers to the top of a big brick to repair a rebro [rebroadcast, i.e. repeater] station. Their task will take a couple of hours and I plan our day out so that I can wait at a girlfriend’s nearby ranch, maintaining a listening watch on the radio. Alan Shields is my gunner, and Doris comes along for the ride. We drop the guys, have a very civilised lunch and siesta – or I do, Alan amuses himself polishing the gearbox or whatever – and eventually we go and uplift the team off the mountain.

It is late afternoon and we are cruising home pretty soporifically. About fifteen minutes out the day starts to go wrong.

The major problem from the air on arrival at a scene is determining if the gooks are there or not. We do not have the resources for keeping aircraft on station for long periods, and the fireforces quite often have other dramas to go to if things do not develop quickly at a callout. Once the aircraft are overhead, if the gooks are in cover they can make two big mistakes. Unless they move, it is extremely difficult to see them. But the biggest mistake of all is for them to open fire first, for then we know they are there. Our problem is not eliminating them, that is relatively straightforward once we are in contact. The problem is always locating them, and bringing them to contact.

There is a massive crash of rounds going through the cockpit and hitting the aircraft. We have flown over a base camp at about a thousand feet and presumably they thought an attack was imminent. It wasn’t, but it certainly is now.

There is pandemonium in the aircraft. These are signallers, not combat troops, and they are just discovering that there is very little natural cover in a helicopter. Alan is cocking the twin brownings. I am turning hard left to get the guns to bear, and calling for the fireforce, which by good fortune is close by returning from a lemon, fat on fuel, fully armed and chomping at the bit. We are also in a fast descent as Doris has tried to jump on my lap. We have coincidentally solved the ‘pulling excess power syndrome’: with a hundred pounds of petrified dog sprawled across your left arm it is impossible to keep straight and level power, never mind any extra.

Alan opens up with the brownings, producing a tremendous banging and clattering which is really getting Doris’ attention. He starts making for my lap in a big way. I wasn’t expecting to bat so I am not wearing a box and the left paw in the testicles produces enough incentive for my collective arm to throw him off. The collector bag on the gun has fallen off and hot ejected cartridge cases are flying around the cabin. One catches Doris in the ear and he changes tack, sees a small gap between the two signallers cowering on the front bench seat and goes for a fast climb across their shoulders and through to the very nose of the cockpit. A hundred pounds of dog arriving in a rush at the very front of the aircraft causes a fairly significant centre of gravity change but, for anybody compiling manuals on the subject, it is easier to deal with than the same weight cavorting around on your lap.

We manage to contain this three-ring circus until the fireforce arrives and takes over. There is a continual high-pitched whimpering; I can’t make out if it’s from Doris or the signallers.

When we land at Rutenga, Doris makes a reappearance, scrabbles frantically back over the two poor sods in the front and hits the ground running before we have come to a stop. I make a mental note to have a word with him about his deplaning drills but we have to refuel and rearm and get back to the fight, so leave him to it. The signallers are marginally slower, but only by a smidgen.

Amazingly we get a good result: eighteen out of twenty! The fireforce decide to stay for the night. Much beer is drunk and war stories tidied up. The only injuries on our side are bruising and claw marks on the cheeks of the two kids mauled by the demented dog. Doris eventually reappears in the bar. I tell him he’s a disgrace, and in any case, nobody will believe him at Kozy Kennels, but he has that superior ‘who is ever going to know the real truth’ look and has obviously adjusted the details of his version of the battle and his part in it. The siggies are definitely going to have to modify their stories; who on earth is ever going to believe how they got their war wounds?

. . .

I’ve been to Wankie once before, but this is Doris’ first visit, so he has never met Harvey, the resident hornbill. Harvey struts around the camp as befits his self-imposed rank of sergeant-major, and is understandably miffed when Doris doesn’t recognise his position and perceives him as a resident plaything for him to chase. Ground hornbills are a bit like pilots a year or so out of training – they don’t like getting airborne more often than is absolutely necessary to draw their flying pay. To escape this great hairy beast galumphing around, however, Harvey puts in more flying time than he has in the last year and takes to strutting around on the ops room roof, with the odd sortie onto one of the rotor blades and an occasional trip to the ground to spear a snack, after a good look around to make sure the coast is clear. He re-establishes authority on the fourth day. Doris is surprised to see him perched by the pond and breaks into a half-hearted trot, knowing Harvey is not going to play, and will quickly flap off.

But Harvey shows no sign of moving and the dog speeds up. Eventually, as Doris is getting really close, Harvey languidly gets airborne, but instead of climbing fast for the roof he stays low and slow, positioning himself tantalisingly out of reach a little above Doris’ nose and a yard or so in front and leads him across the camp. Doris has to raise his nose to keep his quarry visual from under his shaggy brows, so the low wall across the grassy area is out of his vision. The bird skims over the wall, but of course it takes Doris’ legs out from under him and he ends up in a great tumbling mass of hair and dust. Harvey lands and struts triumphantly past, not too close, and from then on they keep their distance from each other, but the sergeant-major resumes his strutting on the ground, rather than the sulking presence on the roof of the last few days.

. . .

On the inaugural night of the pub’s opening, I am there with both Henry Jarvie and Phil Tubbs, and of course Doris. Henry and Phil are performing a number of their routines, and have reached the one where Henry has got most of his kit off and is adopting a classic Greek superhero pose … He has acquired a string of sausages and the pose is arranged so that his sports kit is out of sight of the audience, but the sausages have been positioned so that the end is just visible an inch or so above the knee. In the dim light it looks as though there has been an inadvertent slip in the arranging of his anatomy, and there is a lot of covert interest from the wives and daughters, as it seems he is hung like a donkey. Everybody is pretending not to notice, of course, but this is given the lie when Doris comes trotting by, gets a sniff of the meat and turns back and wolfs them in one gulp, causing a collective gasp from the crowd.

A dog of war indeed!



  1. Thanks for the laughs, Peter. Love a good dog story. Had to say goodbye to my little miniature Sheltie yesterday, this brightened the morning..

  2. I have enjoyed your post, also a number of your books before I discovered your blog. I followed the link and the photo of the men waiting in ambush reminded me of the time a deer big enough to put a saddle on darn near stepped on me while I was doing the same in a SAREX once.

  3. War stories are fun…later, when the shooting has stopped. Having been a missileer, I don't have any "war stories". I have, however, awakened below the gravel around 270 times.

  4. Good story. I got Mike Calvert's biography based on your Saturday Snippet the other week. Nicked mys3elf opening the amazon envelop so you could say he's still drawing blood to this day.

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