Pilgrim Days : From Vietnam to the SAS

Pilgrim Days : From Vietnam to the SAS

Author
Lt Col Alastair Mackenzie
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Alastair Mackenzie was born into a British army family and followed his father round postings as a pad brat. When his father left the army, the family emigrated to New Zealand. In time Mackenzie applied for a commission in the New Zealand army. Not being greatly gifted in the scholastic world he just scraped through his exams. Joining the New Zealand army in 1966 he went through the commissioning course in New Zealand and Australia returning to become a platoon commander in 1st Bn Royal NZ Inf Regiment (1RZNIR) who were based in Singapore. Jungle training was the way of life but soon his company were sent to Vietnam to with the ANZAC Battalion. A year of action and boredom followed with several contacts with Viet Cong and NVA, plenty of jungle action, but totally different to that he had been trained on in Malaya, who he feels were still fighting the Malayan Conflagration tactics. This gave Mackenzie his first taste of action, a taste that never left him throughout his career.

Indeed, Mackenzie had itchy feet and was not one to take to peace-time soldiering. When life got boring and no action imminent, he moved on. After returning from Vietnam Mackenzie settled down to a life in the NZ Army but felt he did not fit in. He was not born in NZ and felt that was held against him. He does seem to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder and in his opinion never rated any of his COs as good enough. He stayed in the NZ army until 1973 and had been given a slot in their Staff College but he decided that he would rather go somewhere else.

Having trained as a paratrooper during officer training, Mackenzie wrote and asked for a transfer to the Parachute Regiment in the UK. He was told he could not transfer nor join while still in the NZ Army, so he resigned his commission and joined the Parachute Regiment. As he had done para training in NZ/Australia he claimed that he did not need do P Company which was accepted provided he did four balloon jumps! Jumps done he was posted to 3 Para as Pl Comd in Patrol Coy, However, his OC immediately sent him on a Unit Accounts course, which mightily pissed him off but off he went with very little enthusiasm. The instructors were all senior Warrant Officers who had been there and done that so one had a wee word in Capt Mackenzie’s ear “Do you know, Sir, nobody has failed this course yet and you are not going to be the ******* first!”. Shortly after that he was sent on a survival course run by the SAS which gave him his first taste of that Regiment. The Bn then went on an Op Banner tour in Belfast where he was somewhat shocked by the conditions local people were living in at the time. One phrase from this part of the book sums up Mackenzie perfectly “Watchkeeping duties were certainly not my idea of soldiering and I resented the time I spent in the operations room.” This derring-do is the reason he moved so often. Once again, he was not over impressed with his CO, a bit of a pattern forming here. Next tour in N Ireland was in border country, a totally different type of soldiering which Mackenzie thoroughly enjoyed, and which brought him in to contact with the SAS.

Applying for and passing selection he was accepted and posted to 22 SAS D Squadron. Several tours of N Ireland, one in Belize and training in various parts of the world filled the next four or so years. Returning from his first SAS NI tour he was given command of the Counter-terrorism team where he devised training and advised other countries on CT roles. One course he undertook, which he says is strange for a commissioned officer was the patrol medics course which included time working in A&E in a major hospital. Obviously finding things for young officers to do without losing them back to their parent Regiments. This course served him in good stead in later years. More tours of NI and his time with the SAS over Mackenzie was posted back to the Parachute Regt, this time the 1st Bn as A Company Commander. Once again Mackenzie is not inspired by his CO! He takes his Company to Hong Kong to relieve the unit there allowing them to get out of HK and do some more intensive training. Settling down to a routine of training was not Mackenzie’s way and another passage illustrates this very well: “It was on this exercise in Canada that I finally became disillusioned by the way the army training was going and especially the lack of imagination on the part of the battalion’s commanding officer. There was absolutely no drive of vision grooming of our soldiers for war. Peacetime soldiering, discounting the futility of operations in Northern Ireland, had taken its toll on the Parachute Regiment.”

Once again Mackenzie was offered a place on the Command and Staff College at Camberley and again, he refused this and decided to move on. Strangely he seems to think that people senior to him had a grudge against him for refusing these sorts of courses that many officers would give their eye teeth for – I wonder why that would be.

So, once again peacetime soldiering has caught up with Mackenzie so he resigns and joins the South African Defence Force, joining their SF teams in the fight against the South West Africa Peoples’ Organisation (SWAPO). By this time Mackenzie is a highly experienced and skilled combat officer and he was given command of the Pathfinder Company. A year of action follows, with some serious engagements and exactly the sort of life that Mackenzie sought. After the end of his first year his contract came up for renewal but due to political decisions was not renewed. Adrift now he sought contacts he had made and was recruited into a private military company – KMS Ltd – providing close security to several VIPs round the globe. This brought him into contact with Sultan Qaboos of Oman, more later. While doing this job Mackenzie joined 21 SAS where he was told that he would have to pass Selection again! Not amused!! However he settled into the role which for 21 SAS was as stay-behind groups in the N German plain should the Soviets decide to try to paddle in the English Channel. The job with KMS lasted about a year when Mackenzie decided to rejoin the NZ Army.

He returned to NZ, but down a rank to Captain and posted as Adjutant to the army training school, which took him by surprise, but he was committed so had to do it. Some of the senior officers there had been his junior years before. He was finding out the deficit of flitting about postings/armies. Mackenzie did his three year tour with them then resigned, even though he had completed (this time) the Staff College Course and could finally put p.s.c. after his name! Once again he seemed surprised that his senior officers were not best pleased that he was leaving early, the chip on Mackenzie’s shoulder seems to have grown to one on each!

Mackenzie takes up a post with the Sultan of Oman’s army and he found working with the local tribesmen, who recently had been the enemy, was very interesting and good work. Staying with the Sultan’s army for four years he finally came to the end of his operational life and left them in 1989, 27 years after joining the New Zealand army. Returning to the UK, after working for the Royal Ordnance Factory selling ammunition and explosives, he formed his own company Reliance Security Ltd giving security advice to major organisations. At the same time he applied to join the TA and his local unit was the Duke of Lancaster’s Yeomanry ending his days as a Lt Col in charge of the Training Centre.

This has been a huge, invigorating journey and while this review may seem negative I am certain that Mackenzie is the sort of soldier that anyone would want beside them in a two way range. Dedicated to his profession he was not able to embrace the peacetime side of life as a soldier, a factor that obviously held him back. He saw action in Vietnam, N Ireland, Belize, S Africa, Oman and a couple of places in between! He has led one hell of a life and sounds just the sort of guy to crack a beer with. He did have a thing about his COs which is probably due to a high estimation of himself and the wish to get into action as quickly and often as possible.

I have deliberately left his family out of the review as he has done with the story. This is a tale about his soldiering not his family life. He does tell us about his wife having to follow the drum, bring up two kids and put up with postings to different parts of the world with different standards of MQs. Unfortunately, his wife Cecilia, contracted cancer and the family returned to NZ where she died. This was a great blow to Mackenzie which he dealt with in the only way he knew – he got on his motor bike and joined veterans’ rides in NZ and USA, enjoying the bonding that these trips brought. He recounts the looks of Americans listening to these guys insulting each other and no offence being taken! Just the sort of life that Mackenzie loves.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even if I was irked by his never-ending dislike of his superiors. This is a story of a soldiers’ soldier and I recommend it to all on ARRSE.

5/5

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Auld-Yin
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