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Book review: The search for Puma 164

There seems to be no end of excellent titles from the 30 degrees South publishing stable, and The search for Puma 164 – Operation Uric and the assault on Mapai is among the latest.

Operation Uric, in September 1979, was one of the final acts of the Rhodesian bush war and involved – as the title implies – an assault on targets around the Mozambican town of Mapai. The raid that largely involved a series of demolitions in the Limpopo river valley drew in elements of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), the Special Air Service, the Rhodesian Corps of Engineers – and South Africa's 1 Reconnaissance Commando. Airlift was provided by the country's two air forces, the South Africans providing 13 Aérospatiale Puma medium helicopters.

A great deal of secrecy surrounded the South African participation and a good deal of misinformation would circulate for years after the event. “Uric wasn't our best performance, nor one of our really successful operations … although it did achieve its laid-down aim,” former-Rhodesian combined operations commander Lieutenant General Peter Walls says in a foreword written shortly before his death last year. It also involved the single largest Rhodesian loss of life in a single day: on the afternoon of September 6, while withdrawing troops from the vicinity of Mapai, one of the Pumas was struck by a rocket propelled grenade and crashed – killing all 14 Rhodesians and three South Africans aboard.

Because of tactical conditions the bodies were not recovered and were abandoned in the wreck of the Puma – adding to the trauma. Van Malsen, then 2IC of 1 Commando, was on the ground that day and took a patrol to the crash site where he could confirm all had died on impact. Some of the troops aboard had been from his company – indeed he should have been aboard himself – and he would have to inform their next of kin.

Ever since he – and others, including those next of kin – had wondered what had happened to the remains. At last, in 2008, things fell into place and the next Easter a search party left South Africa for Mapai to locate the wreck site. This was expeditiously achieved with the assistance of the local people. Also located was the unmarked mass graves of the victims – one for the passengers and one for the crew; the locals having interred them shortly after the Rhodesian-SA withdrawal.

This fine work, in short, sets the scene by re-telling the story of Operation Uric. It then records the Easter 2009 expedition to the wreck site and the subsequent effort to inform the next-of-kin as well as a subsequent pilgrimage back to the wargraves as well as other Operation Uric sites in July 2010, including the wreck of an AgustaBell 205 downed in the town of Aldeida de Barragem the day before the Puma shoot-down. The tailboom of the helicopter remains there in a traffic circle as a war memorial. The exact location of the grave of a crewman killed in the incident and buried nearby could not be determined, although townsfolk could give an approximation. Also included are detailed personal reminiscences by soldiers and airmen involved in the events as well as responses by family members to the finding of the wreck sites. Several have since visited Mapai and its environs themselves and their accounts are recorded as well.


The search for Puma 164 – Operation Uric and the assault on Mapai
Neill Jackson & Rick van Malsen
30 degrees South Publishers
Johannesburg
2011

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