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Lecture – Col. Donald Howard Grainger “THE MAN”

This lecture was prepared and presented by Dr Ines Grainger to the Historical Society in Harare, Zimbabwe on 7th July 2013.

Ladies and Gentleman,

I would also like to mention that many of the photos I am presenting here were taken by Don Grainger during his lifetime and also many, many films made by him during the War while in Kenya, the desert, Sicily, etc. Unfortunately most films were stolen when the farm house was vandalised during the late 70ties

Colonel Don Grainger – THE MAN

Donald Howard Grainger was born in Aston, England on 22 September 1918 as the son of a Scots father and an English mother.

His father was a brilliant engineer and inventor – he invented, among other things, the buffer which is fitted to railway steam engines, tenders, coaches and trucks on railways throughout the world. I found in the family records the sketches and the patent certificate of this invention piece. His father was also a talented artist. He painted for each one of his three sons one picture.

Don received from his father an oil painting, which we had in our dining room in Zimbabwe. It is now is in Australia.

In accordance with records, the family emigrated to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia after World War I. Don came to Africa with his parents when he was 9 months old.

As the time for Donald to attend school approached, his father accepted an engineering appointment in South Africa, where the family settled for some years in Simonstown.  Don was educated at “Simonstown Secondary School” and at “Rondebosh High School”.

He missed Southern Rhodesia greatly and, after matriculating and studying Telecommunications Planning and Development, he returned to Bulawayo. But his parents still remained in South Africa.

When the Second World War broke out, Donald Grainger was one of the first to volunteer for active service and, with his telecommunications background, was first posted to the Southern Rhodesia Signals Unit.

I found among the records and photographs, a letter he wrote from Bulawayo – to his worried parents in Simonstown –  dated 27th June 1940- preparing them to face the fact that he WAS going to join the army.

It reads: “I think we shall all be called up very shortly. They are getting things moving now, so no doubt we shall all be in the army soon.”

He further writes “ The Reconnaissance unit in Bulawayo have asked the P.O. to release me as they want me as a wireless instructor, but I don’t think they will let me go anywhere but in the Signallers. Still the Signallers will be called up in the next month or so. NOW, DON’T START WORRYING. There will be three or four months training, then I will have some embarkation leave. So everything will be alright.”

He was a young man when he attested in the then “Southern Rhodesian Forces” in 1940. He was soon commissioned (1941) into the “Southern Rhodesia Reconnaissance Regiment” as Lieutenant and served briefly in Kenya and Abyssinia and thence he saw active service in the Middle East, North Africa  Malta, Sicily and Italy in command of Rhodesian Signals with the 8th Army and 13 Corps.

At the end of the North Africa campaign, General Montgomery, planning the invasion of Sicily and Italy, asked his staff to find a Signals officer for his Tactical Headquarters and specified that, if possible, this should be an officer from the reconnaissance regiment. Donald Grainger was fortunate to be chosen.

After the invasion of Italy, Captain Grainger took command of a signals unit comprising British and Rhodesian soldiers, which served in the 8th Army in Italy until the end of the War, when he found himself in Trieste.

He was offered a regular British Army commission but chose to return to Rhodesia.

His post-war army service was first with Territorial Force units, but he was then transferred into the Southern Rhodesia Staff Corps and, with the establishment of the Central African Federation in 1953, he was given the task of forming the Rhodesia and Nyasaland Corps of Signals.

He was appointed Director of Signals and served in that capacity until the dissolution of the Federation in 1963, when he was given command of 3 Brigade in the Rhodesian Army.

I wish to quote here the writings of a past  Member of the Historical Society, whom I knew personally when he was alive, Bert (Albert Harris), He wrote:

“His main appointments were Director of Signals, as a Lieutenant Colonel, after which he became Commander of 3 Brigade with headquarters in Umtali (now Mutare), for which he held the rank of full Colonel. IT WAS MY PRIVILEGE TO SERVE UNDER HIM AS A JUNIOR TERRITORIAL OFFICER IN THE FIRST OF THESE APPOINTMENTS, AND THAT WAS HOW I CAME TO KNOW HIM WELL”.

It must have been during this time that Don received the certificate as free citizen or freeman of the city of Mutare.

During Federation time, women too, played a notable part in building the Federation’s military traditions, with duties that included the provision of personnel for headquarters’ staffs, pay office administration, and other similar duties. His sister Peggy joined the army.

A quick summary:

Don was demobilised on 31 October 1945 with the rank of Captain. He joined the 2nd Battalion, “Royal Rhodesian Regiment” in 1947 and commanded 2 Sig Sqn SRSC  from 1949 to 1954 .

In 1954 he was promoted Major: his Army I.D. card shows the rank and designation at time of issue : Chief Signal Officer  and he received his Efficiency Decoration.

Men of the Rhodesia Regiment fought in every campaign area of the war, and it was because of this wide and often distinguished service and, because of, the fine records of the Rhodesia Regiment, His Majesty King George VI  conferred the title “ROYAL” on the Regiment and further honoured it in becoming its first Colonel-in-Chief.

Many Rhodesians served with the British regiment in the desert campaign of North Africa in World War Two. I just mentioned that he was transferred in 1953 and attested in the Southern Rhodesia Staff Corps with rank of Captain in May 1954 and was promoted Major in 1955.

In 1957 he was appointed Director of Signals and promoted Lieutenant Colonel in June 1958. We must remember that in the first post-war years, big cities in the US and in Great Britain commenced to equip their airports with radar systems; telephones began to be installed in automobiles and home television sets, and frequency-modulated radios appeared. The coaxial cable, radio relay, page teletype, facsimile processes, and a hundred other contrivances (mechanical devices) stood ready to forward the revival of general communications.

And so, Col. Grainger had to travel extensively looking at new equipment in telecommunications. He understood that not only the message had to be spoken, heard, written or read, but also received without interference from others.  It had to be sent and received over long distances; it had to arrive on time, it had to be so precisely transmitted so that it would leave no room for doubt, or so deliberately garbled and obscured that only those intended to understand it could do so…

Army communications were often less than the ideal in those days in Rhodesia-even the most fabulous aid to aerial navigation, artillery spotting, tank command, or long range detection, aroused the abuse of harried operators from time to time, but ideally they were supposed to be swift, rugged, adaptable, simple and secure beyond average standard.

 AND these were the qualities Don was looking for in his command and in equipment he went to buy for his Corps in Southern Rhodesia. He did several trips to Italy and other countries, (where he, in some of his anecdotes, used to recal some lovely incidents (e.g. the bath with gold taps in Italy and a lovely maid offering to scratch his back !)

Also in those trips, he met top soldiers and industrialists producing equipment, with whom he maintained correspondence and friendship through the years. One of them, Peter Blochlinger, a Swiss man who died recently, I visited in 2011.  He recalls the Man, it was Don Grainger.

In 1964 Don Grainger was promoted to full Colonel and was appointed Commander Salisbury Area. BUT before this appointment, he was awarded his O B E in the New Year’s Honours List in 1961. Many, many congratulatory messages from the U.K., USA and locally, are today kept still in a box together with the Army records of those days. (His wife Ines has them for future research and publications)

From 1961 to 1963 Col. Grainger was Chairman of the Federal Telecommunications Board.

I mentioned that in 1964 he was appointed Commander, Salisbury Area. Here I would like to add that a great deal has been written and said about “command” and “control” in terms of military terminology. Having heard from some of his ,then, soldiers, one of them Frank Valdemarca, whom you probably know and who I wish he were here to give this lecture, because he knew Don Grainger very well, being under his Command and later on in his charity Organisations as secretary and treasurer. Frank wrote to me saying: “for me Don was an inspirational leader and truly an Officer and a Gentleman”.

Men were commanded by Don. There was an interaction of all the techniques of leadership in him, of integrity, showmanship, discipline, knowledge and for all, there was, “gut feel” and drive under Col Grainger.

Col. Grainger wanted that all soldiers under his command had clear, positive, simple instructions, which they could go on with. Nothing is more demoralising, he said, as stop-start committee decisions that are constantly amended. He often said that members of a unit need to feel secure. A well disciplined unit, which has confidence in its COMMANDER, will have high morale and a feeling of collective security under the most trying conditions.

All like to be told crisply and firmly what is to be done. (And that included me as his wife). And good Commanders COMMAND good units. Commanders make things happen.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The greatest problem of a lecture of this kind is that of where to stop. There are other aspects of Col. Grainger’s life that have to be dealt with. So please, I will have to cut short here about his military achievements, (there is still a lot to be said) but their absence does not imply a complete lack of importance, but merely of time !

To conclude with the Army aspect, I would like to mention that, at the time of his retirement on 4 November 1968, he was Colonel of the Corps of Signals, and appointed, in accordance to written records of the Army, an Honorary Colonel of the Rhodesia Corps of Signals. He was also President of the Mashonaland Forces Sport  Club. (We shall consider his sports achievements in few minutes).

On September 22, 1968, the following appeared in the Sunday Mail newspaper:

“SURVIVAL MAN IS RETIRING”. YES, he retired from the Rhodesian Army after 32 year’s military services. And YES, Colonel Don Grainger was the author of the survival book “DON’T DIE IN THE BUNDU”.

His survival book has been adopted as a bushcraft manual by the country’s armed forces. The Rt. Hon Sir Hugh Beadle, CMG,OBE, Chief Justice of Rhodesia, wrote the foreword.

He wrote “This is a handbook of survival techniques based on many years’ experience of men who have lived- and some who have died- in the  bush. Above all, it is based on common sense.” And so, ladies and gentlemen, this narrative manual proved to be. 17 editions and best seller for long time.!!

From lost airman to soldiers on patrol- the whole spectrum of being in the bundu is comprehensively covered in his book, in lucid fashion.

For soldiers and other youngsters who love the bush, this booklet is a MUST because it gives an outline of the information needed not only to survive in the bush, but to reduce fears and create self confidence when lost in the bush

Who would have guessed, for instance, that a dab of toothpaste on bee stings will relieve the pain? OR that one should never camp near an anthill…and not for obvious reasons either, but because anthills often harbour snakes?

While on this topic, Col. Grainger recommended never to use a ligature after an adder bite, although ligatures are prescribed for mamba or cobra bites.

He said in his book that rather starting your fire by rubbing two sticks together until the skin comes  off your hands, it is much easier to use a convex glass to ignite the timber: a magnifing glass, binocular or spectacle will do admirably.

If you are really thirsty , he writes, and do not have a sheet of plastic handy for condensing water over a hole in the ground, then kill a buck, squeeze the liquid from the finely chewed contents of the last stomach and strain through cloth into a container made from the animal’s hide. To clarify the liquid, add small pieces of the liver. (interesting isn’t it?)

When very hungry, Don said, everything that creeps, crawls, walks, swims or flies is a possible meal – and this includes insects, which are rich in fat. Almost all reptiles, he said, make good eating, including much of the meat of the crocodile.

However, he writes, never eat a toad, because of the poisonous glands in the skin. To catch a frog, attract his attention with one hand and grab it from behind with the other.

Col. Grainger described in his book a dazzling array of traps and snares; various methods of finding direction and establishing time; how to camp in “comfort” and what to include in your survival kit. In this instance, he suggested, priorities should be a filled water bottle, sheet of transparent plastic, first aid kit, knife, matches, heliograph mirror, weapon, food, headgear and spare socks.

If this list seems a bit ambitious, you may narrow the list down to knife, plastic sheet and matches. Corned beef mixed with cooked mealie meal and compressed into a plastic bag provides a nourishing, filling and lightweight meal…although unappetising !


When he retired, he bought land and developed a fruit farm in Nyanga. He planned to write two more books and study botany, zoology and geology.

While developing his farm, he was call to help the Standards Association of Central Africa as Administrative Director.

As we noticed, after his retirement, in 1974, he “went back to school” but this time to read for his doctorate in development economics.


Bert Harris wrote: “However, by 1974, and still an active man, it came to no surprise to me to learn that he had accepted the post of Executive Director of the Whitsun Foundation.” And further he said, “I visited him two or three times at his offices in Shell House, Salisbury (now Harare). I was impressed by the way that he had set up the organisation, which was at that time, the only private sector development economics organisation in the country.

The Foundation was a private-funded development economic research body that thought logical answers to questions as to how investment and activity ought best be carried out in the interest of members and of the country itself.  Bert Harris writes: “Getting the answers to these matters well-suited Grainger’s personality and approach. He was a happy man”

After being “dedicated to destruction” in the Army, Donald Grainger found himself equally “dedicated to construction” in heading a team which played a leading role in planning the development of Zimbabwe.

Whitsun’s project reports and documents were very important and were in use to a certain extent. If those Developmental Policies had been further implemented, Zimbabwe would not be where it is at the moment. The Foundation completed its strategic planning programme in 1984 and, in the following year, Dr Grainger was appointed to a Cabinet Committee to investigate the administration of the many Parastatals in Zimbabwe.


Having changed to a black government, by 1984 there was a need to investigate the continuing need for certain of our Parastatals. Thus Grainger was appointed to Mr Justice Smith’s committee, which was given the task to investigate them.

A Parastatal, it should be explained, is a commercial enterprise, which generates its own income and capital, yet remains answerable to the government for its public image. In theory, it is a necessary part of the national economy, but in practice, it has been found that the internal control of finance, etc, tends to become suspect.

This was a three-year task and, when it was completed, Don and I set up our own private consultancy, me handling training and educational aspects and he the economics ones.


Don Grainger was a swimmer, diver and international water polo player. He claimed that he could swim before he could walk. Still at 80 he was swimming a kilometre every day.

He has had two 7-year Presidential terms, first of the Rhodesia Amateur Swimming Association, then of the Zimbabwe Aquatic Union. In 1980, he was elected to the 7-man Bureau of the Confederation Africaine de Natacion Amateur, responsible for the control and development of all aquatic sports throughout Africa. He was the only European member and the only one who’s home language was not French or Arabic.

He has enjoyed working both with his colleagues on the Bureau and with the swimmers. His international work was recognised by the FINA silver award in  1995. Going back into history : In 1968, Donald was approached to help  to teach paraplegics and amputees to swim and joined the Rhodesian Paraplegic Association, being elected its president in 1970 and serving in this capacity until 1984.


At about this time he had become interested in the leprosy situation of the country, and had become a member of the Zimbabwe Leprosy Association. The  disease was endemic here and  in other warm countries. But since the discovery that it can be controlled by the drug DAPSONE , the situation has changed and the struggle was now to improve the social habits of ex-sufferers from the disease.

In his travel in Western Europe and in the USA, Don Grainger had met some  wealthy sources.( Not to forget that at this time in moneyed circles in Western Europe there had arisen the urge to direct substantial sums that would assist in the beneficial development of countries that were still to be considered as being backward.)  I said that he met some of these sources.

One of these, deserves a special place in this account and since such donors often prefer the protection of anonymity, I shall refer to it merely as “The Swiss Foundation”. Don managed to get a large sum as a donation to build the new Leprosy Village for destitute and disabled leprosy victims, at Mutemwa in Mashonaland. This was done while he was a Prior of the Order Of St  Lazarus and Chairman of the Zimbabwe Leprosy Association. He became Knight Grand Cross of the Order soon after.


The Most Venerable Order of St John:

Donald used to say that he was not a deeply religious man but he believed that the Lord wished him to use the talents with which HE has blessed him in the service of others. He always stressed that the Lord has blessed him greatly and that the little he did for others, it was little indeed as compared with what he has received. Foremost among his blessings- and I quote: “ It was his Argentinian wife Ines, whom he met in Munich in 1972, where she was doing her doctoral Thesis”.

Article published in the Constantinian News in 1996 in Helsinki, Finland.

Don and Ines complemented each other in their various activities, not least on the farm in the Nyanga mountains, which they have owned and worked for 25 years..


One would think that a man serving society in so many ways as Don did, would not have time for anything else. But for certain people the day has far more than 24 hours.

Well known throughout the countries of the old British Empire, the St John’s Ambulance Brigade (and Association), the large and active working arm of the much smaller and select Military and Hospitaller ORDER of St John of Jerusalem, came to be of interest to Don. Subsequently, it led him to have an interest in the BLIND who were at that time, and still now I believe, numerous in Zimbabwe.

When Don started to serve, his first choice was the St John Ambulance Association, which is a foundation of the Order of St John, with a 1000-year old military and hospitallier history. It seemed a most appropriate vehicle for his service.

St John has a traditional link with work for the blind – the St John Ophthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem is the largest in the Middle East

He was nominated to represent St John on the ZIMBABWE NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR THE BLIND.

A keen rugby player and water polo player Colonel Grainger represented Rhodesia at both swimming and water polo.

Col. Grainger left us on the 23 March 2000.


A Trust was established in Zimbabwe for the promotion and implementation of charitable projects to perpetuate the memory of Colonel Donald Howard Grainger and the interests and ideals he pursued.

The name of the Trust is:”The Don Grainger Memorial Trust”. It is a fitting tribute to an outstanding man, who devoted his life to the needs of others.

Thank you, Ladies and gentlemen.


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