Ex Masada and the Battle of Patea Dam
10 March 2009
By John Archer
School children camped at the lakeside above the Patea River Hydro Dam were woken just after dawn by the sound of explosions and prolonged gunfire. For fifteen minutes they were spectators to an intense battle between Army Engineers and saboteurs of the Free Island Party.
Ex Masada - Image 4. WN-09-0002-02.
The Engineers had ambushed the FIP cadre as they were on their way to disable the powerhouse beneath the dam. The engineers knew the insurgents were carrying poisonous chemicals, in an attempt to make the powerhouse unserviceable, so when they captured and searched the insurgents, they donned gasmasks, and later they were put through a field decontamination unit.
This was the climax of Ex Masada, the territorial engineers’ annual field exercise. The reservists had joined soldiers from Linton’s 2 Field Regiment and headed into southern Taranaki to practise skills that would be needed when they are deployed, or in case of a natural disaster.
They went into action more quickly than they expected. The fire trucks with the regiment were passing through Wanganui when Det Commander Cpl Kennedy noticed a grass fire threatening two houses. He stopped his convoy and they went to work, to the astonishment of local onlookers as they jumped out of the trucks in their DPMs. An hour later they were on their way again to their FOB at Waverley, and the next day they were front-page news: “Army firefighters to the rescue.”
“That incident showed the ability of Field Squadron personnel to combine civilian emergency aid with tactical requirements,” said Maj Rowan Wallace, OIC of Ex Masada, when I finally found him in his FOB, hidden behind a high security fence and barbed wire barriers the engineers had erected around the now disused buildings of Waverley High School.
My little car was tucked in behind the barbed wire alongside about two dozen army vehicles; Unimogs, supply trailers, LOVs, and the celebrated fire trucks. In the school foyer I found the SHQ, where half a dozen officers were typing out orders on laptops set up on trestle tables. They were commanding three troops of sappers from 3 ANR, 5 WWCT and 2 Cants battalions. These were supported by an echelon of a dozen specialists; cooks, fire-fighters, mechanics, quartermasters and medics, and they were being challenged by an enemy party of local reservists led by two RF NCOs.
On Tuesday it was raining steadily when we visited the 3 ANR sappers at Opunake where they had felled some unwanted trees and were now rebuilding a ponga retaining wall at the local lake. And the heavens had opened up by the time we reached the reservists laying concrete at the play centre of remote little Hurleyville. To prevent the deluge from washing all their work away, the resourceful sappers had protected it with a 14 x 11 tent. Just down the road, the pouring rain was not stopping them from their work chainsawing firewood as a fundraiser for the play centre.
Meanwhile 5 WWCT sappers on patrol around the FOB at Waverley were reporting suspicious activity by a group in an old blue Holden. Two midnight intruders were discovered on the roof of the High School and patrols chatting to locals on the streets of Waverley were told of a suspicious group lurking in the Waverley racecourse buildings. Then a bomb was found planted in one of the Squadron’s vehicles.
Major Wallace called for a search and clearance operation on the Waverley racecourse. Aerial photos of the buildings were obtained, a plan was drawn up and rehearsed, and the buildings were surrounded and searched. The troublemakers had fled, but during the search Spr Leighton Mosese discovered a bag of nitrate fertilizer, a textbook on explosives and a note detailing the poison attack on Patea Dam.
So before dawn the next morning, we were in a long convoy heading up through the bush-covered hills of the remote back country to spring our ambush.
By midday we were back at Waverley High School, packing up for the move back to Landguard Bluff and Linton. “Working in Taranaki has given the soldiers an opportunity to practise soldiering skills in unfamiliar territory while carrying out civil aid tasks,” explained Maj Wallace, as we stood around outside the school office drinking our last cup of tea. “And in this case we’ve been able to leave something worthwhile behind.”