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The Search for Puma 164

The Search for Puma 164

Operation Uric and the assault on Mapai

Author: Neill Jackson and Rick van Malsen

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Reviewed By: Peter Chapman

This moving book was born out of a long-standing sense of loss and commitment felt by a few ex-Rhodesian servicemen, most notably the two authors, Neill Jackson and Rick van Malsen, both of whom were intimately involved in Operation Uric, a joint Rhodesian and SADF operation into Mozambique in late 1979, the specific aims of which were to destroy infrastructure and ZANLA / Frelimo bases within the Gaza province, to convince the latter to stop supporting Robert Mugabe's ZANLA terrorists. In the course of this operation, planned and executed over a period of weeks, the allies succeeded in giving Frelimo a sufficiently bloody nose as to convince the Mozambican government to intervene with ZANLA and force Mugabe back to the negotiating table at the Lancaster House talks being held in London at the time. This led directly to the successful conclusion of the latter and the peaceful transition of Rhodesia into Zimbabwe.

However, the book is not about the successes or otherwise of the broader aims of Operation Uric. It is about the tragic loss of a single South African Air Force (SAAF) helicopter during the attack on Mapai, and the seventeen men who died when this helicopter was shot down. Three were the SAAF aircrew, whilst the other fourteen were Rhodesian soldiers, national servicemen and hardened regulars together. Such was the nature of the battle, and the fierce resistance put up by Frelimo when Mapai was attacked, that a decision was taken at the time to abandon the dead where they lay, a decision that has played on the minds of many who took part in Operation Uric ever since.

One of the latter was Rick van Malsen, then an officer in the Rhodesian army, who pledged to return one day to honour his comrades and their South African compatriots who died in the crash of Puma 164. In November 2008 he was asked to assist in an expedition into Mozambique, to locate the crash site of another Rhodesian Canberra bomber shot down in 1979. It was the successful completion of this expedition which germinated into the idea to
finally undertake the pilgrimage to Mapai in Mozambique, to find the men left behind and to honour them.

Although the authors' stated purpose when they set out was to find the crash site and pay their respects to their dead comrades, merely writing an account of their journey, the book has evolved into a lot more. It begins with an interesting background to the objectives and reasons for Operation Uric and goes on to give a detailed account of events leading to the loss of Puma 164, and of the entire series of battles as experienced by a significant number of participants, all of whom have contributed their own accounts of Operation Uric as they experienced it. The first part of the book therefore spans some seven chapters and is almost 200 pages long, making it the most detailed and moving account of this Operation ever written. It is almost possible to feel that you were there as you read of
the elation at overrunning Frelimo positions and destroying bridges targeted, or the despair of the men who first reached the downed Puma, only to find burning debris and charred corpses where they hoped against hope to find survivors.

The second part of the book, beginning at Chapter Eight, covers the modern search for the crash site of Puma 164 and the relatives of the men lost. Many of their stories are included too, and although all touched by this
terrible tragedy, many rose above it in time to make some meaning of their loss. To give but one example, there was the mother who lost her youngest son in Puma 164. Aged just 17 at the time, he had asked her to let him join
up following the death of his older brother and his father in action during the war. It is reading such tales that bring the all too human side of the war to the reader's attention, and I will be honest and say that I was very moved by the book as a whole, shedding many a silent tear while reading the moving tale.

I won't spoil the potential reader's further enjoyment by detailing too much more, but suffice it to say that the crash site was in time discovered, and the men found, buried with reverence and cared for by their former enemies to this day. The story of this discovery and the subsequent steps taken by some family to visit the grave site of their loved ones is perhaps most moving of all, and I think the authors have best summed up the entire mood of this story by dedicating their book to the women left behind when their men went to war, never knowing whether they would return, or lay forever in some foreign field, as the men in Puma 164 now do, peacefully and watched over by friend and foe alike.

I cannot praise this book highly enough, or the authors and their small group who first set out to honour fallen comrades, and in the process have reminded us all of the tragedy of war, and the sacrifices made, not just by
the soldiers on all sides, but by their families. Brilliant and moving beyond description, it is a ‘must read' for anyone seeking to understand that strange bond that all soldiers share, a unique camaraderie which does
not die with age, but endures always.
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