The "Dear John"

Mike Subritzky

In 161 Battery it was traditional that if any member of the Battery got a 'Dear John' while the Battery was away anywhere, then the letter was pinned on the Battery Notice Board and each and every member of the Unit wrote back a 'Dirty Bitch' letter 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 Herpes.

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

On the 6 January 1980, we received our first mail from New Zealand and amongst it was a letter for Stewart Ashworth - a 'Dear John'.  Ash was pretty pissed off about it for several days and was down in the dumps.  We 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 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 DJ Kevin Black who usually ran the morning breakfast show.  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 on 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 chopper and quietly forgot about it, with no one bothering to tell Ash.

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 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 we painted Lima kiwis not only on the nose of his bird but on the doors as well and he left them on after that.  Pat Hawai, a member of the team, had served in Antarctica and on the ice; the vehicle used by the New Zealanders was called 'The Kiwi Express' and had 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 'Kiwi Express No 2'. There are several now famous pics that turn up in various war history books that show Pat and a guerrilla officer in one of these vehicles. We always ate under the pink parachute 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; 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 and ZIPRA had a go 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 progress from both opposing sides as the various reports came in.  The duel finally petered out and next morning when the guys at Kilo sent medics to check the causalities, 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 were forced to pull back, and ZANLA captured a Rhodesian GPMG.  Casualties for the firefight were one Rhodesian hit in the knee.

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, 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 myself, the conversation went out over the airwaves and my wife, who was working at Raventhorpe Hospital, actually heard it in the ward.  The gunners at 161 Battery were also cleaning their L5's in the 'Home Bay' building, and caught it as well.

On the 20 February, just after morning smoke, 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.

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 KIA's, 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 (Monzambique 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.