Battle for the hillside
By Raffique Shah
With the convoy assembled on the two roads leading to the Sentry Box and the exit from Teteron Barracks, I proceeded to address the 200-odd men who, battle-ready appeared eager to begin the drive to Port of Spain.
That was sometime around 10 a.m. Our destination was Camp Ogden on Long Circular Road, which was more centrally located, and from where we believed we would have a stronger bargaining position.
Every soldier had his personal weapon, an SLR (rifle). In addition, all our medium machine guns (GPMGs) were distributed- a few were left with the men who were to hold Teteron- as were the dozen or so 84mm Carl Gustavas, anti-tank weapons.
Scores of hand grenades had been primed (a process whereby the grenades are readied for use) and distributed, but we chose to leave the mortars behind.
I do not now recall details of my speech, although several rather impressive versions were tendered in evidence at the Court Martial that would follow. I did tell the men that our destination was Camp Ogden, that our brother soldiers, some of whom had fled Teteron, were not our enemies, and that no civilians were to be harmed. The Coast Guard, too, had been placed on the list of "friendly forces".
Of the police, I said we were not seeking confrontation, but if they fired upon the convoy, "you know what to do".
Rex Lasalle, as I recall it, did not make any speech. The convoy then moved out of the barracks, heading up the hill that would take us past Crow's Nest, down towards Stauble's Bay (Coast Guard HQ), then through Chaguaramas and into the city.
It was a well-organised convoy, complete with motorbike escorts, who were the first to alert us that one bus and another vehicle were parked across the roadway, blocking our exit. An order was given to remove the obstacles, which some soldiers promptly did.
In the meantime, the Trinity, the Coast Guard's Fast Patrol Boat (FPB) that had earlier fired at the ammunition bunker in Teteron, had positioned itself about 600 meters offshore, from where it first fired several rounds from its 40mm Bofors.
To understand what it means coming under fire from guns of that bore, especially in a confined area like the hillside where we were, one has to experience it.
The sounds from the weapons were intimidating enough. When the shells crashed into the hillside or below us against the cliff, the explosions were awesome. But the soldiers were trained men, and although it was the first (and last) time that men from the Regiment came under hostile fire, their reactions were exemplary.
The drill of taking cover and preparing to return fire was done even without Rex and I having to give the order. The heavy weapons were brought to points where we had directed they be deployed, from where we could put the Trinity in our sights. The Courland Bay was still moored to the jetty at Stauble's, a virtual sitting duck as it took on board all personnel from the Coast Guard.
Also in action at the time was the GG's aircraft, 9YA, which was piloted by Lt. Archibald (I mistakenly identified the pilot as Lt Gaylord Kelshall in a previous article).
We huddled on the hillside, seeking to contact the Trinity and 9YA via radio sets, asking the officers on board to cease fire, since we had no war with them. Of course, the officers and men on the vessel, under the command of then Lt Commander Mervyn Williams, had their duty to do -to stop the convoy. So it did not cease firing, and shells continued to explode above and below us.
Many of the soldiers became angry, and in spite of our orders to hold fire until we gave the order, they readied the Carl Gustavs and GPMGs. As the overloaded Courland Bay slowly drifted off its moorings, a soldier ran up to where Rex and I were to report that one soldier (Private Clyde Bailey) had been hit and badly wounded by shrapnel from a shell that had exploded against a tree under which he took cover.
We immediately ordered that he be placed in the ambulance and that two men from the Medical Inspection (MI) Room be assigned to take him to the hospital. A few others received minor injuries.
In a flash, Bailey was put into the ambulance, its siren and flashing lights turned on, and he was dispatched to POS.
Almost atop the hill, Rex and I lay on the roadway consulting several soldiers who had emerged as leaders of the revolt.
Peering through our binoculars, we saw the Trinity laden with people. The Courland Bay was even more vulnerable, slowly moving out of Stauble's, with even more personnel than the Trinity. The time for a major decision had come.
Should we fire on the two vessels?
The Courland Bay was a sitting duck, and would go under with two or three rounds from the Carl Gustav, not to add the damage the GPMGs could do. The Trinity was further out, but we still felt we could take it.
What we could not take was the blood on our hands of scores of people who would have died, had we decided to fire on those boats. Some of the rebel soldiers were angry, especially after Bailey was hit, and wanted to return fire. After discussions, a decision- not unanimous, I should add- was taken to withdraw to Teteron rather than move to sink the vessels. The Coast Guard's HQ at Stauble's Bay was also an easy target, although it had been evacuated at the time of the engagement.
The withdrawal to Teteron was done in an orderly manner, with both vehicles and men marching back into the camp. Not everyone was pleased that we had not engaged the Coast Guard in battle.
When we returned to Teteron, therefore, and a light aircraft zoomed out from the hills and swooped low over the camp, the soldiers got their chance to fire on it with everything they had.
We later learned that it was a "crop duster" plane that was contracted to Caroni. The pilot had heard via his radio that something was amiss at Teteron, so he decided to fly in and see for himself. That decision proved to be almost fatal to him. The plane was riddled with bullets, but mercifully, neither the engine nor the fuel tank was hit.
We then reorganized, firstly setting up defensive positions around Teteron, then dispatching a small force of men over the hills towards Diego Martin. That was a kind of insurance in the event that talks with the authorities did not materialize, or in the event an attempt was made to attack Teteron.
That afternoon, Lt Commander Williams called and asked if he could speak with Rex and myself. "MO", as he was fondly known, was a kind of paternal figure towards us, and we unhesitatingly invited him to come into the camp.
He walked into Teteron, holding the hands of his two young sons (one of whom is today an officer in the CG). We greeted him at the main entrance, and went off to confer, of all places, in the shade of a mango tree!
There, we issued our initial demands for talks with the Government to resolve the impasse. We made it clear that we were not about to surrender.
Indeed, a document that was signed by the three of us spelt out the terms under which we were prepared to talk, and the first venue set was Kapok Hotel.
Commander Williams continued to be the main liaison between the Government and us, when, at dawn on Day Two, we spotted through Captain Eddie Halfhide's telescope two Venezuelan frigates steaming in our direction.
Immediately, battle stations were manned, positions that were vulnerable to heavy artillery (which we presumed they had) were hastily changed, and Prime Minister Eric Williams alerted to this new development.
Our message to him was clear: this was an internal matter, and any attempt by foreign troops to intervene would be met with everything we had in our arsenal.
Williams (Eric) ordered the Coast Guard to race to the Venezuelans and ask them to leave our territorial waters.
They turned back and averted what might well have been the bloodiest battle this country had seen.
Copyright © 2000-2003 Raffique Shah