Ian Smith and his stories of driving around with no escort
Story by John Robert Cox
It has always amused me to see the so called “much loved” leaders of the world travelling around their own countries, frightened of the slightest shadow and accompanied by a fleet of escort vehicles and dozens of armed bodyguards to help protect them from all their adoring citizens!
This is in stark contrast to a leader like Ian Smith, who came across, to me at least, as completely unconcerned for his own safety. He seemed to have adopted the attitude that, if my own citizens hate me enough to want to attack me, then I might as well throw in the towel and go back to the farm!!
I well recall, in the later 60’s and the 70’s that “Smithy” used to arrive at New Sarum to catch a flight, having travelled from his official residence in his 1962 bean out old Ford Anglia. The one with that ugly “sloping in” rear window!!
The Air Force Provost Section, several members of whom were ex BSAP I might add, was invariably notified in advance, of the times of any outgoing or incoming flights at the Air Base that would involve the Prime Minister.
At least one Provost Motor Cycle Escort would have to stand by and then, at the appropriate time, position themselves on the side of the Ring Road approaching New Sarum, roughly opposite the Officers Mess. There the escort would sit and wait for the fun to begin!!
Smithy undoubtedly appreciated the fact that the Air Force wanted to show him the respect any Prime Minister deserved, by arranging a formal escort to accompany him through the Station Entrance Boom as well as the Security Area Gates, getting him to his aircraft with minimal hassle.
However, he always tried his best to catch us unawares.
Any new Provost member always had to pass an initial “test” to see if he could manage to carry out his first “PM’s escort” successfully and with some semblance of dignity. Such a novice was never briefed on exactly what to expect by way of an official convoy. Most assumed that it would, at the very least, be a couple of VIP type black saloons, one of which would be flying an official Goverment pennant.
During their initial briefing, these “innocents” were asked, somewhat aggressively, if they knew what their own PM looked like? Invariably the answer would be “but of course, I’m not an idiot!” They were then advised, that as the PM approached, they would be expected to be ready to sedately pull out onto the road in front of him.
Thereafter, they should, in a solemn and dignified manner with back straight, heels down and chin up, escort him through the base to Air Movements. They were assured that the PM had done this dozens of times before, and probably knew more about such escorts than they did.
“So don’t worry, there’s a good lad, just do it!” would say WO Ken Salter reassuringly, as he casually stroked his impressive handlebar moustache!
Having recently joined the Air Force from the police, I well recall becoming one of those “unwitting victims” of this initiation ritual. Like a lamb to the proverbial slaughter! But I had been taught well how to ride a “real motorbike” at the BSAP driving school and not only that, but I could ride one whilst driving behind a couple of horses in a figure of eightl! So I was extremely confident.
One day in mid-1969 I was duly briefed for my first PM escort duty. From that moment, I am convinced the bets were laid within the guard room, by all and sundry to see how the “new kid on the block” would perform!!.
I patiently waited for quite some time on the road verge, a few hundred meters after the final bend on the ring road. I continued to watch for the first sign of the PM’s vehicle to appear around the corner. I was naturally looking out for some sort of important looking expensive vehicle, in all probability a black limo, with a flag flying from an aerial.
This would signal it was time for me to start up my motor bike in good time, adjust my goggles and pull out timeously and gracefully, arms stiff on the handle bars and back straight as a board.
The first indication I had that something was wrong, was when an old and somewhat insignificant “old banger” for want of a better description, approached and then slowly drove past me. It was a “greyish” Ford Anglia and the occupant waved at me. He had a grin on his face that stretched from ear to ear. I’m sure I even caught a glimpse of a middle finger!
He looked very familiar, and he did a bit of a victory air punch with his right fist as he immediately accelerated towards the Station main gate boom.
Of course that was when the penny dropped and I realised with some trepidation, that this was “Smithy”. I scrambled to kick start the bike, (in all probability that good old 20KK01 in the photo attached below of Sgt. Peter Cowan doing just such an escort), and almost fell off in the process.
It only spluttered to life after several kicks. I then had to try to catch up with the PM before he got to the boom. I failed dismally.
Luckily the guys on the both the Station Entrance and a bit further on, the Security Area Booms, were familiar with this initiation ritual, as well as the vehicle. The booms duly opened in good time for the PM’s car to pass through, with me following a considerable distance behind, somewhat concerned that the booms would close again before I reached them. But happily for me they did not.
However, as I sped by, I became vaguely aware of some celebratory high fiving and laughter emanating from the guard room windows to my right.
As the PM parked in his designated VIP spot at Air Movements, he got out, locked his car and came over to me. I had just pulled up behind him, dismounted and saluted as he approached. “Morning Corporal” he chuckled, “I wasn’t sure for a while there, if I was escorting you, or you were escorting me!!!”
To be quite frank, nor did I! Thereafter Smithy never got passed me again!
I often think back on those days and realised that here was a guy who just wanted to lead as normal a life as possible and in fact, he really believed that he had no reason to fear for his life.
One evening some 8 years later, after I had progressed up the ranks a bit, I happened to pop in the Air Force Officer’s Mess bar at Thornhill for a drink. The place was empty save for one person on a bar stool with a drink on the counter. He had his back to me whilst chatting to the barman “George Garikayi”.
As I pulled up a stool next to him, I was a bit taken aback to see it was our good old “Smithy” in the flesh! He appeared to be alone and unescorted, having driven himself, he informed me, to Thornhill from Selukwe in his private car. I later learned that he did this from time to time, dropping by totally unannounced.
After formally greeting the PM, I reminded him of his New Sarum motor bike escort shenanigans of the past and I identified myself as one of “his” victims. He had a good laugh, shook my hand again and told me that he was, to this day, still having fun with those bloody “whitecaps!!” I learned later, that he often liked to “drop into the mess” because it carried significant Air Force memories for him, having been a decorated fighter pilot during WW2.
In addition, he enjoyed the company he found inside. I was somewhat gobsmacked to discover that our PM seemed to be just like any other normal guy. Some of the other more senior officers arrived and I duly left.
As I made my way towards my vehicle in the parking area, I was intercepted by a couple of spooks in civvies who emerged from amongst the garden shrubbery. Clearly, they were men from his long suffering PMs Security Department. One remarked to me the “the boss thought he gave us the slip when he left the farm. Is he ok in there?” I replied that he was fine and enjoying himself.
They gave a shrug of the shoulders and slowly melted back into the bushes. I just shook my head in disbelief!
I have since those days, had the honour to work with, and become close friends of a senior official who served in the PMs Security Department during all those times. He even went to the Lancaster House talks with Ian Smith.
The stories that he can tell about how Smithy gave them all premature grey hairs are jaw dropping to put it mildly. He insisted on mingling freely amongst citizens of all colours, no matter what their status. One doesn’t get many leaders like that these days!!
When the Bobster first took over in Zimbabwe, the standard joke amongst all citizens on hearing the distant screaming sirens in the cities was… “ Hey guys…hear comes Bob Mugabe and his Whalers!!”