Uganda - Kenneth's Mortars, by John Anderson (1972)

I was posted to Entebbe on a temporary in early 1972 and lived in the bachelor “quarters" near Entebbe Airport.  John Ferris, an Overseas Engineer, was the other bachelor on station at the time and so we shared the bungalow.  Off duty time was mostly spent at the local expat watering hole, the Lake Victoria Hotel.
At the time, relations between Idi Amin Dada and most other African governments were uneasy, to say the least.  We operated a Super VC10 service to Lusaka via Entebbe.  An early morning arrival from London on 14th June 1972, and Anderson, half asleep, drove up the hill just before dawn to the ATC complex in the hired VW Beetle to pick up the weather folder.  On the way back to the terminal, I barely noticed a couple of army trucks parked by the side of the dirt road in the dark.
Back in the office, I finished off the fuel and ATS flight plans (which rarely varied), there was no joining load (transit passengers and cargo only) and spoke to the inbound aircraft on VHF radio,  having noted from the load signal that several thousand day old chicks were in transit to Lusaka.  After checking that the Handling Agent (East African Airways) was up and running, I made my way to the ramp.  “Scotty" the BA Station Maintenance Manager  was out there with ground equipment, refuellers, steps, caterers etc., all lined up.   The aircraft nosed in towards the terminal, chocks in, GPU attached and then up the front stairs to help open the forward cabin door.
I was not long into my chat with the inbound flight crew, when there was a shout of “what the hell is going on?” from the first officer (I think that his exact words may have been somewhat stronger!).  Looking out of the flight deck windows we were faced by a grim faced Ugandan soldier hanging onto the firing handles of a heavy machine gun mounted on the back of a Soviet type jeep pointing at the flight deck.  Adding to the soldier’s sinister appearance was his Russian fur hat, complete with hammer and sickle badge.
A Ugandan Army Major then appeared on the flight deck to inform us that the aircraft including transit passengers (all suspected of being mercenaries!) were being seized for carrying illegal weapons.  This situation lasted for a couple of hours before the, by then grinning, army major allowed the passengers and crew to leave the aircraft.
It transpired that part of the transit cargo load was a consignment of mortar barrels for Kenneth Kaunda’s Zambian Army.  As per IATA Regulations, BA had naturally informed the Ugandan authorities in advance that the barrels were in transit, however no one had realised that Idi was intent on embarrassing both the Zambian and the British governments by claiming to have uncovered a potential British plot to commit a military coup in Zambia.  

As diplomatic negotiations and wrangling involving the “grown ups “ continued over the next few weeks, I had to deal with such mundane tasks as what to do with the consignment of day old chicks, which had been in transit and by then were were getting on for 5-6 days old. Permission was given for the surviving chicks to be offloaded and distributed around the villages near the airport.  So I went out with one of the British vets (part of the British aid programme) dropping off boxes of chicks to grateful local villagers.  I would like to think that the descendants of those day old chicks are still wandering around those villages 40 odd years on. 

Eventually after Idi Amin was satisfied that there was no “plot”, the aircraft and the mortar consignment were released.

While the aircraft was being detained,  permission was received to power up the aircraft engines/systems on a regular basis to prevent longer term technical issues, and so John Ferris taught me how to start a a SVC10’s engines.  Not surprisingly, I have never needed to use that particular skill since!

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