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  • Writer's pictureKev Thomas Writes

Omay Tragedy

Above: Rhodesian President Clifford Dupont congratulates Lt Al Tourle on his being awarded the Bronze Cross of Rhodesia – Courtesy Keith Holshausen.

A deadly lion attack took place on 09 April 1972, a mere five days after National Parks warden Len Harvey’s death, and as the crow flies, probably about 450kms west. This attack – one that also ended in tragedy - was never written up other than by way of a fairly brief report in the Rhodesian press of that era. Lt. Al Tourle BCR was a Rhodesian Light Infantry officer and one of the Regiment’s ex-Company Sergeant Majors. After his commissioning, he’d been posted as OC to the Rhodesian Army’s Tracker Combat Training Wing in Kariba. At that stage of the Wing’s history, it still fell under the command of the School of Infantry in Gwelo.

Al Tourle was a ‘soldier’s soldier’ and was highly respected by all of those who had served with him. Many RLI soldier’s junior to him, who would go on to serve with distinction, remember the example he set having had a profound effect on their soldiering careers. Lt Tourle was also an accurate shot, and won a number of competitive shooting competitions, including the coveted President’s Medal. In one operational engagement with insurgents, he personally accounted for six insurgents. This action was amongst a number, for which he got his BCR (Bronze Cross of Rhodesia). The citation reading,

Warrant Officer Class 2 Albert Knight Tourle

1st Battalion, The Rhodesian Light Infantry

For gallantry and leadership in action.

On two occasions in engagements against terrorists, Sergeant Major Tourle’s outstanding qualities of leadership and readiness to seize the initiative have resulted in successes for the Security Forces. During one engagement when his troop commander, who was less advantageously placed, could not issue orders because of a faulty radio set, Sergeant Major Tourle redeployed his troop into stop positions on his own initiative. As this involved shouting words of command to troopers around him, he became the subject of concentrated enemy fire but in spite of the danger he continued to direct operations until the terrorist position was surrounded. This action led to the elimination of all nine terrorists contacted with at least six of these being accounted for by Sergeant Major Tourle himself. His complete disregard for his own safety and his very fine personal example under conditions of extreme danger was an inspiration to all.

Tracker Combat Wing not only trained those with the aptitude and fortitude to become combat trackers. It also trained all Rhodesian Army Special Forces’ and Air Force personnel in the art of bush survival. All of the instructors were highly skilled outdoorsmen, as well as being experienced combat soldiers. The training area was a large chunk of Lake Kariba’s southern shoreline, spreading westwards from Gache-Gache to Bumi Hills, a vast, rugged, and wild area, well populated with dangerous game and tsetse fly.

Lt Al Tourle, together with Sergeants Pete Clements (RLI) and Andre Rabie (SAS) of the Kariba Tracking Wing were running an intermediate tracking course about 37kms south of Bumi Hills in the vicinity of Siakobvu, within the Omay Tribal Trust Land. The course vehicles had been left at the District Commissioner's camp at Siakobvu, and the six course candidates comprised two SAS soldiers, Cpl Colin Young and Cpl ‘Mac’ MacLachlan, two RLI soldiers, Lt Fred Watt and Cpl Bill Chalmers, and two South African Special Force soldiers, Lt Andre Bestbier (who aside from being a South African Rugby Union player, would go on to have a distinguished military career in the SANDF and South African Special Forces). The other South African SF attendee was Hennie Jansen (rank unknown).

Although the Rhodesian winter was yet to make its presence felt, the afternoon into early evening of 09 April 1972 had been abnormally cold with guti, a peculiar Rhodesian weather phenomenon made up of mist and drizzle. The tracker candidates had been split into two syndicates, and although separated by groups were still visual to each other when they based up for the night. One of the groups, (against normal standard operational procedures for such a course), made a small fire to dry out and keep warm. However, it must be remembered that although the Nagandi area where the exercise was taking place was considered operational, in April 1972, it was deemed passive with the high intensity Rhodesian bush war yet to erupt in full fury.

The entire Bumi area is one of haunting beauty. Rugged, broken escarpment country, bisected by hill ranges like the Mapongola and Ndepa. Although mopane woodland dominates, it periodically gives way to tracts of jesse thickets, mainly made up of four different bush willow species, botanically referred to as Combretums. Amongst them too, are found a variety of other tree types including the baobab. Another dominant woodland type in the higher reaches of the escarpment is the msasa or miombo. The tribal people who inhabit this isolated area are the Batonka, a primitive river dwelling people, who subsist by fishing. When the waters of Lake Kariba were rising during the late 1950s, after the damming of the mighty Zambezi River, these humble people were moved away from the threatening level of the waters into the hinterland area lying west of the Ume River. In this area, known as the Omay TTL, the Batonka, affectionately known as ‘Tonks’, continued practicing subsistence fishing along the lake.

East of the Ume River lies the Matusadona National Park, a pristine, albeit remote Park, its Kariba shoreline known for herds of buffalo, elephant, and a variety of other species attracted to the lush evergreen torpedo grass, the growth boosted by the nutrient rich waters of the lake. A senior game ranger and his staff who are based at Tashinga on the lakeshore, manage Matusadona. Within the Omay TTL too, dangerous game such as buffalo and elephant roam freely - as do lion.

With the day having ended and the persistent guti hanging at ground level, filtering out what little light was left, the tracking course candidates quietly moved about, and like fleeting shadows in the African twilight, they readied themselves for a cold and damp night. Around the flickering flames of the small fire, talk was subdued and Lt Tourle had moved slightly to one side, although still positioned close to the candidates. In communications during my research into this story circa 2005 Major Fred Watt (living in Dubai at the time), told me he and Lt Tourle were standing alongside each other. His recall is that both officers had their issue NATO 7,62mm FN rifles and were drinking coffee while quietly chatting (there have been conflicting stories, with others present stating the two officers were sitting alongside each other on a rock, and not standing - either way, it’s purely academic). Unfortunately, at the time of my research communications with Major Watt he declined to furnish me with any additional information. His reason being that was writing his own book and would tell his version of events in the book. I respected him for his honesty, and thanked him. However, to my knowledge no book has yet been written by him.

Above: Sgt Pete Clements while with the Selous Scouts. At the time of the Al Tourle tragedy Pete was still with the RLI as the Selous Scouts were yet to be raised (Photo credit Bruce Antonowicz).

Sgt Pete Clements recalls the two officers hadn’t been talking for long, and from where he was situated, he also distinctly remembers getting a brief glimpse of a lioness hugging the ground and digging her rear paws into the damp soil during the split second before she launched herself at Lt Tourle. As she attacked, she let out a remarkably throaty, nerve chilling, and guttural growl. SAS Cpl Colin Young in his 2005 communications with me stated; 'There's no doubt in my memory that we were sitting around the dying embers between five and ten metres from where Alan Tourle and the RLI Lt were chatting, and although I seem to recall Pete Clements was in charge of the other group some distance away.... it's now a little vague. The RLI Lt who because he was sitting so close to Tourle when the lioness attacked, received a laceration, although I can’t remember his name.' (At the time of this incident Major Watt was a Lt.).

A lioness averages about 280lbs, and hurtling towards Tourle like a tawny missile, she hit him from behind, simultaneously breaking his neck and spine before grabbing him around his chest with her paws. She then threw him to the ground, at the same time, puncturing his left lung with her claws. All of this was done in one fluid motion, before she began moving forwards with him still firmly clamped in her jaws, and as she dragged him across the ground, he was heard to yell out twice for his wife, Molly. Given the circumstances, calling out his wife’s name was undoubtedly a perfectly natural reaction, brought on by the sheer unexpected shock, and pain, of what had happened with such lightening swiftness.

Cpl Young again recalls how, 'Realising immediately what was going on Sgt Andre Rabie fired two deliberate shots with his FN into the ground near the lioness, which caused her to release Tourle and run off.' By the time this happened Sgt Pete Clements had also quickly moved in on the scene, and when they got to Tourle, they found him lying doubled up and unable to move, and judging from the gaping and bleeding wound in his spine, it was clear he was paralysed. Clements remembers that while he was kneeling alongside Tourle, the officer, and despite his extreme pain and shock, requested Pete remove an inchworm caterpillar that was crawling across his face. In Cpl Colin Young's recall of events at this point in time, he goes on to say, 'Rabie very quickly organised us, and while I went to get my sleeping bag to put over Lt Tourle, others stoked the fire. While I was getting my sleeping bag, the lioness gave a sudden snarl and from the darkness behind me, she charged in again in a blatant attempt to drag Tourle away from us.'

It quickly became a kaleidoscope nightmare of darkness, noise, dust, hot flying-embers, gunshots, a roaring lion, and howling wind, punctuated by shouts and screams both of anger and panic. Other soldiers in the group also fired rounds into the air, and possibly into the ground. Cpl Young goes on to mention how the RLI Lt opened up on automatic, and one of the rounds grazed Young’s inner wrist, causing him to shout to his SAS colleague, Cpl Mac MacLachlan, 'Christ, he's shot my hand off!' Only to later say this was a slight exaggeration, but at the time he was worried because he had aspirations of becoming a writer! Following the fusillade of shots and noise, the lioness slipped away further into the brush, and eventually moved off after the soldiers had built a massive bonfire. Sgt Pete Clements would later mention how it hadn’t been very pleasant knowing there was a determined and angry killer lion in close proximity to them, and equally frustrating was not being able to see her. It was also clearly apparent to the huddled and nervous group of soldiers that none of their rounds had hit the lioness.

Sgt Clements felt it was imperative they get to their vehicles at Siakobvu in order to get help for Tourle, and called for a volunteer to go with him. But the incredibly brave Lt. Tourle, and despite his horrific injuries, told them it would be far too dangerous with the persistent lioness still in such close proximity, and not to head off into the dark night. Sgt Clements further recalls a South African Special Force soldier, Lt Andre Bestbier, willingly volunteering to go with him for help. From where the course was being held, it was about a 5km run through rugged big game infested bush to Siakobvu, but Clements and Bestbier didn’t hesitate, and although fully aware they could become targets of the killer lioness, took off into the dark night. Throughout their run, they could hear lion vocalising around them, but no attempts were made to attack them. Matters weren’t made any easier by the guti and drizzle that’d been falling on and off throughout the night. Having safely reached Siakobvu the two soldiers then drove approximately 37km to Bumi Hills, and radioed the police in Kariba to summons Dr Peter Chatterton.

Due to the inclement weather and bad visibility, a helicopter couldn’t be dispatched that night, so the doctor was brought across the lake from Kariba in a police launch, while Clements and Bestbier drove to Katete harbour in their Land Rover and awaited the doctor’s arrival. From there, they drove the doctor as close to the scene as possible, and then walked in with him, calling on Sgt Rabie to fire shots for them to home in on in the dark. When close to the camp, they called for an Icarus flare to be fired to illuminate their way through the broken rocky terrain surrounding the immediate approach to the position.

Despite incredible courage and fortitude from all of those involved in this night of horror, a night that’d commenced at about 19:30hrs the previous evening, the brave Lt Al Tourle eventually succumbed to his injuries at about 04:45hrs on the morning after. The Rhodesian Air Force helicopter was only able to make it into the position to uplift the deceased officer at about 06:30hrs although visibility was still limited and hindered flying. Throughout his ordeal, Al Tourle had remained conscious and never once complained of his predicament. At one stage the courageous officer instructed Sgt Rabie to write a letter for him on a message pad, and so with the dying Al Tourle dictating, Rabie sat alongside him and wrote down what he said. In a poignant letter from Tourle’s mother to a family member, which I was kindly given access too, she tells of how during the remaining hours of his life, he courageously spent his time speaking about his wife, kids, parents and brothers.

Above: (Standing at left in sweater) The ever-smiling Lt Al Tourle BCR, who was killed by a lioness while he was conducting an intermediate tracking course south of Bumi Hills on Lake Kariba – Photo courtesy Dennis Croukamp.

Lt Al Tourle’s composure, and acceptance of his predicament, was a fine example to those young soldiers’ present. As befitting this exceptional RLI officer, he was accorded a full military funeral well attended by military personnel and civilians alike. It’s hard to find men like Al nowadays, a soldier often referred to by those who knew him well, as ‘the ever-smiling Al Tourle’. Many considered him one of the most professional soldiers in the Rhodesia Army during that era.

At the time of this tragic incident, Rob Francis was the senior ranger with the Department of National Parks & Wild Life Management at Tashinga field station situated on the Kariba shoreline in Matusadona National Park. In e-mail communication with me while I was researching the story, Rob recalled that such was the seriousness of the incident, game ranger Peter Moore, the lake ranger at the time was immediately dispatched by warden Kariba, Harry Cantle, in the department vessel HMV Lasana. His instructions were quite simply to tell senior ranger Francis to sort the problem lioness out.

Rob immediately went to Starvation Island where he shot an impala before departing for the District Commissioner’s camp at Siyakobvu on the Bumi River in the Omay Tribal Trust Land, the closest government rural administrative post to the incident. Once there, an Internal Affairs official who was 2 i/c to the District Commissioner, met Francis, before taking him to the lion spoor. Rob wasn’t amused to find the spoor the Internal Affairs official was so carefully preserving was in fact that of a baboon!

However, when they went to the actual area where the incident had taken place, Rob found there was a clear story in the sand and with it still being damp from rain showers of the previous evening, was able to confirm the lioness had in fact returned three times after being chased off by the soldiers. It was patently obvious she was a pretty determined cat. Francis dosed the bait impala with strychnine and hung it close to the scene, but on the first night after the incident the cat never found the bait or returned to the scene. And then, on the second night she took the bait and the following morning, Rob and his men found her dead some way from the bait. Rob recalls the lioness was in perfect condition, aside from one canine that’d been broken off and had a hole in it. He further stated that this was how they were able to positively identify her as the culprit that’d killed Al as the bite marks on his body matched exactly her bite (a test obviously conducted by the coroner). Rob’s National Parks trackers too, would’ve been able to confirm the identity of the animal from her tracks.

Despite the broken tooth which appeared to be an old injury, her behaviour was clearly aberrant, and Francis emphasised this by stating there was also a WHO (World Health Organization) Doctor in the area, a Dr. Cirquanis who was an experienced big game hunter. He too, examined the tooth and confirmed it was most unlikely to have caused this strange and ultra-aggressive behaviour towards humans, although the onset of darkness and inclement weather too, may well have played a part. Coupled to this is the fact lion are true Jekyll & Hyde characters because during daylight hours, they’ll invariably move off fairly quickly if disturbed by humans, or even from a medium sized dog. However, once the sun has set, there is not much on the planet earth that a lion fears, because in the dark they undergo a complete personality change.

Note: A more detailed and longer version of the Lt Tourle story appears in my book Shadows in an African Twilight. Unfortunately, earlier this year the veracity of the story has been called into question. In my own defence, I must emphasise how throughout my lengthy research for the story, I was only able to locate four out of the six tracker course candidates present at the time of the tragedy. At the time, this too, was thirty-three years after the event. None of them had seen each other since the night of that tragic incident. Three of them willingly told me their version of what happened as they recalled it. SAS Tracking Instructor Sgt Andre Rabie was later killed on operations so I wasn't able to obtain his recall. The only one unwilling to tell me his version of events, aside from the fact he was alongside Al Tourle when the lioness attacked, was the RLI officer Fred Watts, and I accepted his reasons. In addition to my original research, I also happened to have served alongside Sgt Pete Clements for three years while in the Selous Scouts. When he wasn’t instructing, we were both operational NCOs in 2 Troop and as soldiers do, spent many hours yarning. Pete Clements first related the story to me during my ‘Dark Phase’ (Pseudo Operation) training in January/February 1974, and later, in 2005, he again, and at my request, related it to a journalist colleague of mine living in Kariba. Ex SAS Cpl Colin Young, and RLI Cpl Bill Chalmers willingly shared with me their recall of events. More recently, and during mid-2021 both Colin Young and Bill Chalmers reemphasised how they stand by all they have shared with me about the incident. However, and I must emphasise this, everything I have narrated, was written first and foremost, with the utmost respect for the late Lt Al Tourle, and his family, and in homage to him as the exemplary soldier he was. In closure, I have absolutely no reason to doubt the integrity of the three NCOs who gave me their version of events, and I’m most certainly not going to be party to a cosmetic differing of opinions between an officer and the NCOs present on that tragic night. Each of those soldiers present during the night in question, played a heroic part, and for that reason, I’ve chosen to leave the above version of events unchanged. It's now 50-years since the tragedy so memories will, understandably, be even more foggy.

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