Lieutenant Alastair MacKenzie, 3 Platoon V5 Company, prior to redeploying with his platoon to a new area after a three-week foot patrolling operation in Vietnam, 1970-71.
Alistair MacKenzie was born into an Army family in England shortly after World War 2. After being transferred around various British military bases his father retired to New Zealand when Alastair was twelve years old. While at school in Wellington he was a member of the Army cadets “We would drill with and train on .303-calibre, bolt-action World War II rifles, map-reading, minor tactics, independence and self-discipline.”
A young Alastair, at a forward airfield, watches as a Wessex helicopter gets loaded with supplies during the Malayan Emergency in 1957.
Alastiar joined the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (RNZIR) as an officer and was soon posted to Vietnam, for a year, as a platoon commander with V5.
"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."
"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."
“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.”
When asked about jungle warfare MacKenzie said; “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!”
After completing seven years in the New Zealand Army MacKenzie resigned his commission and travelled to the UK to join the British Parachute Regiment. He would serve as an officer with 3 PARA, completing several tours in Northern Ireland.
"Being accepted into the Parachute Regiment was a tremendously proud moment for me. 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.
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!"
Four members of Patrol Company, 3 Para, 1975, South Armagh.
"NI was a toxic environment in which to soldier – carrying out the Government’s bidding. I recall on arrival 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."
After three years with the Paras he passed SAS selection and served as a Troop Commander in B Squadron. He was soon back in Northern Ireland on the first of two operational tours with the SAS. After four years with the Regiment he was posted back to the Parachute Regiment as a Company Commander having been promoted to major. "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?’"
(Officers are not posted to the SAS permanently as enlisted Soldiers are).
"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…
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."
Living the BushLife, Lieutenant MacKenzie writing orders, circa 1970-1971.
In 1981, with little chance of deploying, Major MacKenzie was head-hunted by 44 South African Parachute Brigade to become the Training Officer for their elite Pathfinder Company so he resigned his commission to take up the offer. He was highly regarded by the Pathfinders and one of his first tasks was to write a report on the Company's capabilities, strengths and weaknesses.
As part of his introduction to the SADF the major was taken by Colonel Breytenbach to the workshops of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria where he was shown the production line of the Ratel armoured fighting vehicle. Pointing out the square metal grill bolted to the rear, the colonel asked MacKenzie what he thought it was. “An aerial? RPG deflector?” the major replied. “No,” the colonel said, “it’s a braaivleis … the barbeque. Welcome to bush soldiering!” Although only in the SADF for a year he still managed to serve on operations in Angola.
Major MacKenzie on operations in Angola.
After the Pathfinders he was recruited by David Stirling's Private Military Company Keenie Meenie Services but this didn't last long and he was soon back in New Zealand, serving with the Army for another three years before being offered a commission in the Sultan of Oman’s Special Forces. Where he went on to serve for four years. Based in the South of Oman as Regimental 2ic and also as commander of the Counter-terrorist Squadron, The Cobras.
After returning to the UK he re-joined the Territorial Army for serving for another ten years while working for companies like Royal Ordnance and British Aerospace before moving to consultancy roles. He eventually retired as commanding officer of the Duke of Lancaster’s Own Yeomanry. in 2001, having attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
"Whilst in UK I toured Europe on my motorcycle and followed my Father's footsteps (or tank tracks!) from Normandy to Northern Germany with 11 Armoured Division. He commanded a Sherman Firefly tank destroyer and was 'Mentioned in Despatches' three times.
In 2005, Cecilia and I returned to NZ and bought a house at the water's edge in the beautiful Marlborough Sounds of NZ. My dearest wife died in 2007.
I am involved in NZ veterans' affairs and in 2006, in the NZ Year of the Veteran, three Vietnam Veteran friends rode throughout NZ to collect funds for a NZ Vietnam Veterans' Trust. Unfortunately, I was not able to interest any major corporations in our venture but we gratefully collected some $50,000 from 'ordinary people'. I am also proud to have been a trustee for the Vietnam Veterans' and their Families Trust for the last five years."
You can read about his adventures in his book “Pilgrim Days: From the Vietnam War to the SAS.” - Alastair Mackenzie.
Alistair has written several other books as well,
Special Force: The Untold Story of 22nd Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) and The Sounds Soldiers' Memorial - Stories of the Fallen.