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Alastair Mackenzie – Pilgrim Days: From the Vietnam War to the SAS

Alastair Mackenzie – Pilgrim Days: From the Vietnam War to the SAS

Alastair McKenzie on operations in Vietnam.

If there was ever anyone who went a little further than most mortal men, it was Alastair MacKenzie. In a storied career spanning 30 years, MacKenzie served uniquely with the New Zealand Army in Vietnam, the British Parachute Regiment, the British Special Air Service (SAS), the South African Defence Force’s famed ParaBats, the Sultan of Oman’s Special Forces and a host of private security agencies and defence contractors.

MacKenzie’s new book, Pilgrim Days, vividly documents in incredible detail his experience of infantry combat in Vietnam, life with the Paras, the gruelling selection process to become UK Special Forces and his covert SAS operations in South Armagh along with counter-terrorism work. We spoke to Alastair MacKenzie about his life lived to the full as a career soldier.

The MALESTROM: It seems you got an early taste for travelling the world in your formative years when your father was a soldier?

Alastair Mackenzie: I was keen on training to be a veterinary surgeon but I did not have the funds to attend the appropriate university in New Zealand. There was, therefore, a certain amount of inevitability in a career in the army.

My travels with my parents to various overseas military postings, my own interest in military matters and my involvement in the army school cadets certainly pointed to a military career. School cadets were quite a major part of schooling at Wellington College (NZ).

At the beginning of each school year would be Cadet Week and we would dress in our ‘sandpaper suits’; these were brown serge uniforms with shorts, long socks and highly polished shoes with a side cap. The school academic staff would have the positions of the officers and students would hold the non-commissioned ranks.

We would drill with and train on .303-calibre, bolt-action World War II rifles, map-reading, minor tactics, independence and self-discipline.

In the long mid-year school summer holidays, the New Zealand Army would run three-week cadet camps at various military locations. I was an enthusiastic participant in this military environment. NZ no longer has school cadets as it is seen as too militaristic which is, I believe, a shame.

Alastair at a forward airfield in the Cameron Highlands, Malaya watching the deployment of troops and supplies by Wessex helicopter during the Malayan Emergency in 1957.
Alastair at a forward airfield in the Cameron Highlands, Malaya watching the deployment of troops and supplies by Wessex helicopter during the Malayan Emergency in 1957.

TM: Was there any other career for you than the army?

AM: I am very fond of the C-47 ParaDak or ‘Gooney Bird’. Our NZ para training was carried out by the New Zealand Special Air Service and the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

The NZSAS provided the physical training element, which was severe, whilst the actual parachuting was jealously guarded by the Air Force. In all the armies I have served in, the parachuting aspect was controlled by the relevant Air Force.

The military could only provide ’assistant’ parachute instructors. The one exception was the South African Army where the ‘Parabats’ were trained by paras and despatched by paras. The Air Force drove the planes.

This made a lot of sense to me as Air Force personnel might be excellent at training paratroopers to jump out of aircraft but they are not familiar with the main reason for paratrooping – to get aggressive paras as close to the enemy as suddenly and quickly as possible, whereas paratrooper trainers definitely are!

TM: That early parachute training you underwent from the ‘Dakota’ sounded like a real experience. Tell us about that…

AM: The Dakota is difficult to board when wearing a parachute, reserve parachute and carrying full equipment attached to the parachute harness. The aircraft sits nose-high on the tarmac so even when you have climbed the access ladder into the rear of the aircraft you have an uphill climb to your seating position on a bench running down each side.

The exit door is at the rear port side and in flight, paratroopers, when ordered, stand up and hook their parachute ‘strop’ onto a wire running the length of the aircraft. Paras hook on to the wire alternately from each side of the aircraft. The sequence of orders, accompanying hand signals, is: ’Stand up – hook up’; ‘Tell off for equipment check!’

On this instruction, each paratrooper checks his equipment, including his helmet and then ensures his static line is firmly hooked up. Once this is done, each paratrooper checks his colleague in front of him and taps him firmly on the shoulder to confirm this has been done.

Equipment jump from an RNZAF C-47 Dakota (ParaDak) in 1969. Alastair is third from the rear on the starboard side.

Equipment jump from an RNZAF C-47 Dakota (ParaDak) in 1969. Alastair is third from the rear on the starboard side.

The last man, towards the front of the aircraft, then shouts ‘Sixteen OK!’ (This is a normal full load of paratroopers in the C-47). This is repeated in descending order by each paratrooper until it reaches number one who looks at the despatcher directly in the eye and shouts ‘Number One, OK! Stick OK!’ and gives the thumbs-up.

Whilst this is going on the aircraft may be bucketing all over the sky. Good despatchers leave the paratroopers sitting down as long as possible as it is exhausting standing up in a bucking aircraft whilst often supporting loads of 100lbs or more. The paratroopers adopt the ‘shuffle’ stance which has the left foot forward.

As the aircraft approaches the dropping zone (DZ) the despatcher orders ‘Action stations!’. On this command, the paratroopers shuffle towards the door shouting the cadence ‘Right, Left!’ which is abbreviated to ‘Ra, leff!’ The right foot is stamped on the floor and the left foot slides forward.

In this manner, the paratroopers reach the door in an ordered fashion. The door is slid open as the DZ approaches and a rush of cold air and noise fills the aircraft! The red light indicating ‘prepare to jump’ is illuminated and the despatcher orders ‘Stand in the door!’

Paratrooper number one moves into the aircraft doorway looking straight ahead with his left hand on the outside of the aircraft fuselage and his right hand across his reserve parachute. He is held steady by the despatcher. On the green light, the despatcher shouts ‘Go!’ and whacks the number one on the back of his parachute.

As he reaches the door each paratrooper must firmly throw his strop away from himself across the aircraft otherwise the strop will get caught under his armpit and cause a severe burn; he must also drive himself out of the doorway away from the aircraft.

A weak exit will guarantee a helmet-banging journey down the outside of the aircraft – not pleasant! Paratroopers normally exit at about 80 knots and the ‘ride’ is not as startling as the 120 knots of a C-130 Hercules! The strop pulls out the parachute and a thin paracord separates and the paratrooper is then on his own under his own canopy!

At about 100 feet above the ground, the paratrooper releases his equipment, which drops on the end of a suspension rope. A few seconds later the paratrooper carries out his PLF (parachute landing fall), collapses his canopy, collects his weapon and equipment and sets off to do his real job!

TM: Tell us about that training incident in Malaysia pre-Vietnam when you fell into the hole full of snakes. Did you ever consider that an ominous omen for that war?

AM: My platoon was on a night patrol and I was concentrating on monitoring our navigation and our tactical formation. The sudden drop into the hole was totally unexpected and as I was carrying my rifle, the large, good old 7.62mm self-loading rifle (SLR), in the ‘ready’ position across my chest it jammed across the width of the hole.

My heart froze when I shone my torch into the hole. The seething, coiling mass was horrific to behold! I did offer mental thanks to my Maker. I am not ‘too’ superstitious so I did not consider the event as other than a close escape from a dreadful death.

TM: Getting on to Vietnam, many may not realise the New Zealand Army even had a presence there?

AM: At the time of the US commitment to South Vietnam, New Zealand, like a number of Pacific and South East Asian countries, was a member of SEATO, the South East Asian Treaty Organisation, and as a US ally agreed to send troops to assist. NZ does not have a large population or armed forces and is reliant upon treaties for its own strategic protection. NZ is an honourable ally.

Unfortunately, its forces when committed tend to be composed mainly of ‘fighting bayonets’ with administration support being provided by a host nation. The toll of NZ casualties in proportion to population was dreadful in both World Wars I and II.

NZ infantry (3 Platoon, Victor 5 Company), M60 Gunners deployed in South Vietnam, 1970.

NZ infantry (3 Platoon, Victor 5 Company), M60 Gunners deployed in South Vietnam, 1970.

Initially, NZ committed an engineer unit to Vietnam, followed by a small artillery unit and this was followed by two infantry companies. Small as these numbers may have been, they were most of the NZ Army’s regular forces!

We worked primarily with the Australians – this was the first time since the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 that an ANZAC force existed. I was surprised when serving in Vietnam to find forces from South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand.

TM: How alien was that jungle environment? And the wildlife that inhabited it?

AM: As a young child I grew up in the tropical environment of Singapore and Malaya. Prior to active service in South Vietnam, we trained in the jungles of Fiji and then for six months we trained in the jungles of Malaya. The jungle was therefore not an alien environment for me and, in fact, it makes soldiering a very personal matter.

Neither you nor the enemy has a great advantage over the other. Visibility is negligible, concealment is easy, navigation is difficult, smells and sounds travel great distances which means that personal discipline is critical to ensure that any advantage can be gained.

Individual self-reliance is critical for survival in a combat environment. You carry all your own equipment, water, food, shelter, clothes, weapons and ammunition – there is unlikely to be a supply column following you with all these items. The jungle can either help you or hinder you – it is your choice!

A highly decorated British colonel, Freddie Spencer- Chapman DSO, who fought against the Japanese in the jungles of Malaya during World War II wrote an excellent book about his exploits entitled The Jungle is Neutral. This is an excellent mantra to follow and results from good training and self-confidence – remembering that knowledge of your environment dispels fear.

The worst jungle I operated in was in Belize in South America. This jungle was extremely dense; dirty – any scratch became infected; parasitic insects and nasties were numerous, and the ground was steep without connecting ridges. We called it eggbox country as we struggled over it.

TM: How much did it help being a small, close unit?

AM: My command in South Vietnam was an infantry rifle platoon of some 36 Kiwi soldiers and two attached Australian artillery observers. Normally, for various reasons, I would have 30 soldiers deployed.

This is not a small group and whenever tactically appropriate I would divide the platoon into two groups – one commanded by me and the other by my platoon sergeant.

This allowed us to patrol more ground silently. If the enemy threat increased I would combine the two groups. We had trained together for at least twelve months before deploying to Vietnam and so we all worked confidently together.

It was later in my military service, with Special Forces, that I worked with very small groups of two to four or even individually.

Lieutenant Alastair MacKenzie being briefed by Lieutenant John Winton (KIA 10th March, 1971), South Vietnam, 1971.
Lieutenant Alastair MacKenzie being briefed by Lieutenant John Winton (KIA 10th March, 1971), South Vietnam, 1971.

TM: How important was humour in the situation you were in? In fact, throughout your military career?

AM: The military is a physically and mentally tough environment in which to work and the fear and horror involved in combat operations can only be successfully managed by humour, mainly black humour. This black humour, to an outsider, civilian or non-combat soldier may appear callous, uncaring and definitely ‘un-PC’!

However, it is an essential mental survival technique. In all the units I served in a sense of humour was necessary to offset fear, stress, horror and, often, incomprehensible military decisions from above. Different military nationalities are amused by different events and incidents but I could not have survived without being part of that culture of black humour.

TM: Tell us about that first major battle with the Viet Cong that led to being trapped in a minefield? It must have seriously tested your leadership skills.

AM: That day in the Nui Thi Vai mountains in Phuoc Thuy Province in 1970 was a test of my leadership skills, professional skills and my courage. We were at a tactical disadvantage on the lower ground when my lead elements engaged the VC we had been tracking. We were following a blood trail after successful contact three days earlier.

With the support of artillery and then helicopter gunships we cautiously advanced into the enemy camp in an area of large boulders and caves. I was at the rear of the lead section, told them to ‘Go firm!’ and ordered the next section to advance through them. I then followed this section closely accompanied by my radio operator.

The explosion of the first landmine stunned us all – a noise that echoed around the surrounding hills. I initially thought it was the VC firing at us with an RPG 2. It soon became apparent that we were in a minefield! I was initially deafened by the blast – the mine that had been detonated was almost just where I had been standing a few minutes earlier!

The priorities now were to retain control of the platoon, treat the injured and evacuate, and maintain our tactical security. Everyone was ordered not to stand on soil but hop from rock to rock – but to no avail! “Boom!”… another mine was detonated.

I had called for a medical ‘dust-off’ evacuation helicopter, which was on its way. I was covered in blood from one of my soldiers as I tied a tourniquet around his smashed leg. Another explosion! “No more, God, no more!” I pleaded.

The evacuation of our wounded completed, dusk was approaching so we withdrew down the mountain away from that dreadful minefield. A week later we approached this enemy camp from a different direction. Immediately prior to sweeping it again, I had the shit blasted out of it by a brace of USAF Phantoms! The VC had long gone but we were to get our revenge on these NVA Engineers not long after.

TM: How did you control your fear in these extreme situations?

AM: The year, a full 365 days, that I spent as the platoon commander of 3 Platoon, Victor Five Company, 2 RAR(NZ) ANZAC was one in which I was able to confirm that I could successfully command men in combat situations.

It was a year that contained fear, more fear, excitement, pride and enhanced my self-confidence. The politics of the conflict were of limited interest to me – my commitment was to my soldiers and my unit. We had our injuries, sadly some very severe, but I brought all my soldiers home. This is a source of the greatest pride to me.

TM: How do you look back on that war in general terms? You mention in your book respecting your enemy in this case…

AM: I did respect the individual VC or NVA soldier who fought against us. They were generally well trained, used their weapons well, and were clever at negating the advantages we had in artillery and air power by hugging our perimeters so that we were likely to incur casualties from our own fire.

The political cadres, however, were cruel communist zealots and brutally treated and frequently publicly murdered those civilians who resisted their communist educational programmes. We frequently came across the results of their violence when we patrolled areas that had been visited by them.

In my experience frontline soldiers generally, respect opposition fighters. The exception is the low esteem held for the murderers of unarmed, uninvolved men, women and children. However, I may have respected our enemies in Vietnam but I have no desire to ‘kiss and make up’ – I am disappointed that my platoon and I did not kill more of them – that was our job!

TM: We speak to a lot of brave military men such as yourself who have suffered mentally from the effects of war, you mention in the book counselling wasn’t offered after your involvement in Vietnam. Do you think you would have benefited from some sort of help?

AM: This is an interesting question. Combat soldiers are proud of their ‘hardness’ and find great difficulty in accepting psychological assistance from others who generally have no idea of warfare other than films and what they have read in their textbooks.

It is considered a sign of weakness to seek help – particularly in soldiers from elite or special force organisations. If you show weakness or ‘lack of bottle’ you may suffer the fate of being Returned to Unit or even worse, medically discharged. In my case, after combat service in Vietnam, the NZ Army had no system of psychologically debriefing soldiers to enable them to readjust to ‘normality’.

After previous conflicts soldiers often returned from warfare in slow-moving troop ships, providing them with several weeks, amongst their comrades-in-arms to unwind. Today, with air transport a soldier can be reunited with his family only some hours after being petrified and covered in blood and snot during a firefight with the enemy.

We were young and bullet-proof and it is only in later years that you recognise the effects of combat stress on yourself, your friends, and most importantly your loved ones, who do not understand the changes you have undergone. I was not able to ‘unsee the things I had seen’ and the only ones who understood were my fellow veterans. Yes, I probably would have benefited from some ‘help’ but no, I probably would not have accepted it.

TM: Was it a proud moment to join the Parachute Regiment?

AM: Being accepted into the Parachute Regiment was a tremendously proud moment for me, especially when I was issued with my maroon beret and ubiquitous camouflaged Denison smock. I was posted to Patrol Company, the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment and the battalion was based in Aldershot as part of 16 Parachute Brigade.

Here was a 5,000 man group of paratroopers, parachute gunners and parachute sappers, all of whom could be inserted by parachute. Nearby was a major airfield, Farnborough, from which I imagined the brigade could deploy. This was a ‘real’ strategic organisation.

I was somewhat of a novelty to my fellow Paras with my colonial accent and different military experiences but was soon accepted. My soldiers or ‘Toms’ were brilliant aggressive airborne infantry, but they had a wicked sense of humour and as well as working hard would play hard too!

TM: How did you find the training course, including the interrogation exercise?

AM: The SAS continuation training followed the mentally and physically arduous initial selection process. Those that had successfully completed this phase were trained in all the basic SAS skills to ensure that, if they completed all the various other phases such as Resistance to Interrogation and static line parachuting, they could join a Sabre squadron and be functional.

It was then that specialist individual training, troop training and squadron training would be implemented as part of each squadron’s training cycle. It was only after some six months of comprehensive and assessed training that the coveted sand-coloured beret could be awarded!

During my military career, I would often hear about someone or other ‘passing’ SAS selection – this is meaningless in itself. If you were not ‘badged’ you were not a ’Pilgrim’! Well done for trying but…

The selection phase was physically draining but the main requirement was to remain mentally resilient. Mental stress and pressure were self-imposed – the SAS instructors were always non-committal and aspirants would fail themselves by allowing their self-confidence to drain away as distances increased, weights increased, and timings shortened.

The interrogation phase involved a great deal of self-evaluation as you crouched or stood in painful positions with arms extended or hands on your head for long periods of time – blindfolded, in a silent, silent environment. This silence would be interrupted by periods of ‘white sound’ – tuneless, rhythmless noise. This was difficult to manage.

Being marched in front of an interrogator and then balancing on a small one-legged stool while being shouted at and verbally abused was a welcome relief!

I found SAS selection physically and mentally very challenging. The support of my dear wife during brief phone calls home helped me through the very darkest moments when my confidence may have been wilting.

TM: How hostile an environment did you find Northern Ireland to be?

AM: NI was a toxic environment in which to soldier – carrying out the Government’s bidding. I recall on arrival in Flax Street Mill on the edge of the hostile Republican Ardoyne being advised that our task was to maintain an acceptable level of violence by the terrorists.

WTF is an acceptable level of violence? One bomb, ten civilians or soldiers murdered, two shootings – this was nonsense! Then, many years later, Blair’s government released Irish terrorists from prison and gave amnesty to others and a present British government is pursuing British soldiers for alleged crimes from service in NI during the 1970s with extraordinary vindictiveness.

I served tours in NI both in uniform and undercover and I consider the IRA and their ilk to be cowardly, gutless murderers of the lowest order.

Patrol Company, 3 Para, 1974 – Para and child in Ardoyne, Belfast.
Patrol Company, 3 Para, 1974 – Para and child in Ardoyne, Belfast.

TM: Of course, you had to be very much on your toes there. What was the hairiest situation you found yourself in on your multiple tours there?

AM: The most ‘hairy’ situation I was involved in during my tours in NI was when I was patrolling in a small group from 3 Para, Patrol Company in the Shankill Road. We had two open top Land Rovers with us and were patrolling the street alongside them. It was a Saturday and as usual, the pubs were full.

There was an incident with another patrol who were travelling in a Humber armoured vehicle, a ‘Pig’, several streets away and shots were fired. The street which we were patrolling suddenly filled with angry, aggressive people, men and women who poured out of the pubs. The atmosphere changed in an instant and our small patrol was surrounded by a snarling mob!

A long-barrelled rifle like the SLR is of little value in such a situation. It was like being in a large football crowd who suddenly want to tear you limb from limb. We had the slings of our rifles attached from the butt to our wrists so the weapon could not be easily snatched away but we were getting crowded, spat at, the crowd getting braver and braver to try to isolate each of us.

The threat of being killed was increasing by the minute. One of my senior NCOs fell and a man raised a beer barrel to smash it down on the fallen man’s head; I raised my rifle to shoot the man with the barrel, who was about 25m away. The restrictions of the ‘Yellow Card’ [rules of engagement, which restricted when a soldier could shoot] were racing through my mind…

Fortunately, my colleague rolled away, regained his feet, and raced to our vehicle. The rest of us legged it to our Land Rover, jumped in and we sped away from that baying, hysterical and blood-thirsty mob.

Patrol Company, 3 Para, 1975, South Armagh. The ‘Night Stalkers’.
Patrol Company, 3 Para, 1975, South Armagh. The ‘Night Stalkers’.

TM: Did that ongoing threat of severe injury or death on your many tours change your outlook on life?

AM: No. Maybe it was pragmatism or even denial but I never dwelt on the possibility of my death or severe injury. However, I became increasingly aware of my surroundings and circumstances – always looking for threats and dangers. This could be a little disturbing for others when I was in a benign environment – and continues even now.

One of the hardest parts of your job must have been returning home after such intense experiences… Yes, and it was even harder for my wife and children. To them, for putting up with me, I am eternally grateful. It cannot be easy loving and living with a ‘Pilgrim’!

TM: How did you find that step up to become part of the Special Forces? And to go on so quickly to commanding your own squad?

AM: To me, it was the opportunity for further challenges, further military experiences and more geographical awareness. But even SF have their quota of Luddites and rigid thinkers around whom one had to operate. Moreover, after the Iranian Embassy siege, there were more than a few who were in the Unit for career enhancement reasons.

Before the publicity of the siege, service in the SAS was a detriment to an officer’s career prospects. When I completed my first tour with the SAS and on rejoining the Parachute Regiment I was greeted with the comment ’Ah, MacKenzie, back to do some real soldiering?’

TM: Do you feel you were utilised to your best in your time in the SAS?

AM: The ‘Green Army’ always seemed very concerned about what SAS forces could do once they were deployed, especially in NI, and as a result, they were over-controlled and micromanaged. SF should only be controlled at the highest level – as a strategic asset – thus, we were not utilised to maximum effect.

TM: Was there a lot more pressure involved being ‘elite’?

AM: Being ‘elite’ is only a state of mind – it is a result of a greater level of training, enhanced individual responsibility, ability and initiative to take greater risks – but not careless risks.

Retaining high levels of personal fitness and health were a constant source of self-imposed pressure as well as the threat of non-combat injuries or health problems that may result in the dreaded ‘return to unit’ order!

TM: What do you see as your proudest moment from your time in service?

AM: My proudest moment was watching my son wearing my SAS beret at his own badging parade.

TM: Is there anything that you’d change?

AM: My late wife told me I was a superman but not THE Superman and there are some things that not even a Pilgrim can change – a terminal illness being one of them.

TM: Can you give us a piece of wisdom you’ve picked up over your long career in the military?

AM: Never take anything or anyone at face value!

Pilgrim Days: From Vietnam to the SAS published by Osprey is out to buy now.