The Defender that kept CNN correspondents alive during the conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan, has been restored and can be found at the Imperial War Museum
On August 13, 1992 ABC News television producer David Kaplan had just flown in to Sarajevo Airport. He and his team were there to interview the new Yogoslav prime minister. There was no place for him in the armoured United Nations convoy, so he jumped into another press van. He didn't have a bulletproof jacket so he positioned himself between two journalists who were wearing them. As they made their way along the notoriously deadly Sniper Alley, a shot rang out; it entered the van via the tailgate and entered David's back and severed an artery. Hours later he died in a Sarajevo Hospital. This was no place for journalists to be travelling around in soft-skinned vehicles. David was the first American civilian to be killed in the conflict and over the next two weeks 12 journalists were either killed or wounded.
CNN did not escape the carnage either, with one of their camera operators, Margaret Moth, shot in the face by a sniper. Something had to be done and CNN's new Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson was tasked with purchasing a vehicle that would keep their crew safe. “We needed something that offered protection for our crew in the hostile environment that the Balkan conflict had become,” explains Nic. They first opted for a discreetly-armoured Opel Senato that belonged to an ambassador. It weighed three tonnes and had a 70-litre fuel tank – a useful featurey when you had to drive across two front lines just to refuel. The Senato was not suited to the terrain, though, and soon broke down. Next they purchased a 13-year-old One Ten that was previously used by the RUC in Northern Ireland.
It was delivered to Belgrade and conflict cameraman Dave Rust, who had been with CNN since they started broadcasting in 1980, and a local driver, were tasked with driving the packed Land Rover back to Sarajevo in a convoy. Unfortunately the icy mountains roads caused the driver to lose control, and the Land Rover rolled three times before coming to a halt upside-down in a stream. Dave had broken his scapula but the driver was okay. It was a real struggle to get the armoured doors open, but with the help of the local military they retrieved it. Eventually the Land Rover hobbled into Sarajevo despite also taking heavy fire from a 50 calibre gun, although one of the rounds damaged the engine.
Dave still has one of the damaged engine parts as a memento of this adventure. As the conflict escalated they were allowed to purchase a second armoured vehicle, this time they opted for a Shorland, which was custom-built in Belfast to suit their very specific needs. Although it looked like a military vehicle they painted it white so that soldiers and snipers would know they were press. Some of its security features included run-flat tyres, hidden storage compartments, fuel isolation switches and a strengthened chassis. Dave requested that they put in larger bullet-resistant windows so he could have better visibility for his work. The two-car CNN fleet worked well until the One Ten started to show signs of wear and tear due to years of driving over rough terrain. CNN decided to scrap it, but as Dave did not want to lose such an important piece of history he asked if he could have it. They obliged. As he did not have the money to ship it home he left it at a local garage. After years of waiting for Dave to come and fetch it, the garage owner decided to use it in a landfill. Dave would not make the same mistake twice.
In the meantime, Nic was sent to the UK for a week to find a new armoured Land Rover, and after considering several options he settled on a Defender 130 from Foley Specialist Vehicles. Obviously they instructed Foley on some of the specific details. This included twin fuel tanks, fully-armoured double cab and a big storage box on the back, which cameramen could use as a shooting platform. “The design was very functional but it reminded us of a pizza delivery truck and that's why it became known as the Pizza Truck,” explains Dave. As you can imagine, most of the vehicle's weight is in the front half due to the armoured double cab, so driving it was anything but easy. Todd Baxter, who now heads CNN London's Image and Sound unit, drove it several times while in conflict zones. He, too, found the experience challenging. “It was a nightmare to drive. I remember one time Nic and I were following a convoy and struggling to keep up. We crested a hill and they'd actually stopped in front of us. We went straight into the back of one of their trucks. They thought they'd hit a land mine!" After Bosnia, CNN correspondent Brent Sadler took the Pizza Truck to Macedonia where an angry mob came after it, opened the box and tried to set it on fire.
Fortunately the crew managed to escape while the damage to the box was minor. It was then sent to Grozny to cover the War in Chechnya. When moving between the Russian and Chechen fronts, Dave recalls how Brent had to drive the heavyweight Defender across a dilapidated bridge. “The producer and I got out of the car and walked across the bridge. From the end of the bridge I setup my camera and shot the crossing just in case something dramatic happened. Fortunately, Brent slowly, but surely, piloted it across the 100-metre span.” After 9/11 when war broke out in Afghanistan, the Pizza Truck was sent to Tora Bora. Remember this is where American B-52s were bombing the mountain caves where Osama Bin Laden was allegedly hiding.
One of its first assignments was to try and get closer to the front line for more dramatic shots. The heavy Defender did not like the soft hillside mud and they burnt out the clutch trying to get it to a higher position. The crew abandoned it and snuck back down the hill. Brent was not a happy man and called CNN on his satellite phone complaining that the Pizza Truck was unsuitable for the terrain and endangering their lives. CNN told him to leave it on the hillside. At this point Dave once again intervened and asked if he could have it. He refused to leave the Land Rover behind. They happily agreed and now all he had to do was find a way to get it off the hill, repair the clutch and get it from Tora Bora to Atlanta. Miraculously when they woke the next day they found the Pizza Truck parked beside the road where the press would regularly congregate. Some locals must have moved it; the clutch was still beyond repair though and Dave had a war to cover so he left it there. A day later and the Pizza Truck was gone, but from time to time the CNN crew would see it being driven around the valley.
Research revealed that a local warlord had retrieved it – after repairing the clutch he apparently decided to use it as his personal vehicle. Ironically this was the same warlord CNN were paying to secure their compound and so the CNN security adviser confronted the warlord in question. “He reluctantly sold it back to us for the price of retrieval and repair, which he claimed was $800,” explains Dave, who now had the problem of getting this important piece of history back to Atlanta without any papers. Before Dave had time to come up with a plan he was sent away to the South Pole to shoot a CNN documentary about Antarctica. “I had to leave one of the most dangerous places on earth to go to one of the most peaceful places on earth.” Not long after this the entire CNN team had to evacuate Tora Bora because of the rapidly-deteriorating security situation. The Pizza Truck was left behind with their local fixer. A few weeks later Dave returned to Afghanistan, but there was no sign of the Pizza Truck. During this stint Dave covered a US military unit who were using drones as part of their deployment. As a final throw of the dice he gave the drone operators a picture of the missing Pizza Truck and asked them to keep a lookout for it. They promised to mail Dave if they found anything, but he never heard from them again. After this CNN shifted their operations (and Dave) to Kabul. At dinner one night Dave mentioned the missing Defender; their local Kabul fixer was a friend of the Tora Bora fixer where they had left it.
The Kabul fixer contacted him and discovered that he still had it and it was in Kabul. It looked nothing like the Defender Dave and the CNN team had left behind, the box had gone and bench seats placed in the back. Bizarrely, they had repainted it in an oak-leaf camouflage design, too. The Tora Bora fixer agreed to return the Defender to Dave for a fee that would cover the alterations. This was the second time that he had bought back the Pizza Truck. Dave was a happy man though; he was reunited with the Pizza Truck despite the fact it did not look anything like the truck he once knew. He now had to make a plan to get it out of Afghanistan. Their security adviser was formerly with the SAS and he managed to get his contact at the nearby RAF base to fly it back to Hereford, which is where the CNN’s security team have their HQ. I was told that a few cases of beer exchanged hands to seal the deal with the RAF. Every year Dave would check with them to make sure the Pizza Truck was still there. Then for several years he did not contact them at all. In 2015 Jonathan Hawkins of the CNN London Bureau visited the Imperial War Museum with his family. Since CNN has covered many wars since it was founded in 1980, Jonathan thought it might be good to have an exhibit on war reporting at the museum. Obviously the Pizza Truck would be the ultimate star of the exhibition. All they had to do was take it to the IWM. Sadly after using the Pizza Truck on training exercises the CNN's security company had left it in a flooded ravine for an extended period of time. All that remained of it was the rusting body. The engine, chassis and wheels were gone. The museum still wanted it however, and so it was sent back to Foley Specialist Vehicles to work their magic once again. The Pizza Truck now stands permanently in the American Air Museum at the IWM in Duxford, near Cambridge. For years it faithfully kept CNN staff safe in some of the most dangerous places in the word, today it is the main attraction in CNN’s war reporting exhibit. This would not have been possible without Dave Rust, the man who not only tracked down the Pizza Truck, but also bought the old girl back home so she could retire from active duty.
WANT TO SEE THE PIZZA TRUCKThen head down to the American Air Museum at the IWM in Duxford, near Cambridge. For more details see www.iwm.org.uk. Give yourself the best part of the day, as there is much to see and experience. To enter adults pay £18 and kids £9. The Pizza Truck proudly stands alongside some really impressive aircraft such as a B-17 bomber and a SR-71 Blackbird.