Rhodesia: Lessons Learned

Peter Macdonald

Rhodesia: Lessons Learned
To cite this article: Macdonald, Peter, “Rhodesia: Lessons Learned”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 4, Spring 2013, pages 11-14.

It is better to learn from the mistakes of others than to make them oneself. Such advice applies equally to nations and armies as it does to individuals. Largely ignored by the latest British Army Counter-Insurgency manual. Rhodesia’s Bush War offers an interesting example of how to conduct a successful counter-insurgency campaign, at least on tactical and operational levels, albeit ultimately failing spectacularly at a strategic level.

The campaign was particularly British in many respects, a paradox given that the Rhodesian government had broken away from Britain with its unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). It also incorporated a number of tactical and operational issues already addressed in this journal. These include the use of unencumbered ‘dismounted’ infantry, capable of finding, fixing and nailing an elusive enemy[i]; the training of indigenous forces[ii]; the employment of specialist units raised from local volunteers outside the ‘formal chains of command’[iii]; and the continuing relevance of parachute insertion in both counter-insurgency and conventional operations.[iv]

The first and second issues of Military Operations also included the use of Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles[v], and the design and manufacture of effective, mine proofed transport was something in which the embargo beleaguered Rhodesians excelled. A fundamental problem facing analysts, planners and procurement experts remains that of forecasting future operational requirements with any accuracy. An ability to predict across a wide range of scenarios, including the various tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) required and allowing for different equipment needs, whilst concurrently taking into account possible advances in technologies, is still no guarantee of success. Ignorance, however, is a sure way to court failure. In terms of Counter-Insurgency operations, one could do worse than take a close look at Rhodesia’s experience during the 1970s.

Also known as the Second Chimurenga (or liberation struggle), the ‘bush war’ lasted from 1964 to 1979. Seen by some historians such as Paul Moorcraft[vi] as ‘the struggle to maintain white supremacy in what is now Zimbabwe, a hundred years after Cecil Rhodes’ pioneers carved out a British colony there’, it represented more than a mere attempt to maintain the status quo in a rapidly changing post-colonial world through force of arms.

Southern Rhodesia had effectively been independent since 1923. However, faced with a power share with the country’s black African nationalists in the 1960s Ian Smith’s Rhodesia Front government stated its aim to break with Britain through a UDI in 1965. It gambled (correctly) that whatever moral or political objections Britain held would not result in military intervention.

Rhodesia had cut its teeth on conflict from the early days of its formation. Heroic Imperial figures such as Baden-Powell, Frederick Selous, and Cecil Rhodes forged the country and begun an impressive war record on behalf of Britain. Rhodesia contributed more servicemen per head of the (white) population in both World Wars than any other part of the empire, including the United Kingdom. This strong pioneering spirit prevailed until the formation of Zimbabwe.

Just as importantly, a significant proportion of Rhodesia’s white population had served with Britain’s armed forces in the Second World War, and close ties were maintained at higher echelons. Additionally, many British ex-servicemen, especially from the Royal Air Force and to a lesser extent special forces, had settled in the country. Together with born-and-bred Rhodesians, they were prepared to fight for it.

Whilst Britain and her allies imposed restrictive economic sanctions on the ‘rebel state’ settling for a long-term diplomatic negotiating game, Rhodesians began an escalating conflict against the externally-based nationalist guerrilla movements of ZIPRA and ZANLA (the military wings of Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU and Robert Mugabe’s ZANU respectively).

Many commentators agree that the war can be divided into three fairly distinct phases. The first phase ran from 1965 to 1972, during which the security forces waged a militarily winnable campaign against the nationalists, more often than not aided by the latter’s internal conflicts. The second phase was from 1972 to 1976, during which they were engaged in a war they could not win through force of arms. Finally, the third phase ran from 1976 until 1979: a conflict that they could only lose, in both military and in political terms.

During the first phase white Rhodesia had a number of significant advantages. It continued to build on those strengths through all three phases, as it refined the requisite TTPs to deal as effectively (and as economically) as possible with the increasing threat both from within and without its borders.

However the fertile, mineral-rich rogue state’s most vital asset was its pool of manpower; drawn from the white minority population: a supply of fit, educated, largely middle-class males with which to populate and enlarge its armed forces. The soldiers, policemen and airmen (be they regulars, reservists or conscripts) provided the government with capable personnel whose experience and resourcefulness grew as the demand for their services escalated.

Until the beginning of the bush war the main force within Rhodesia was the British South Africa Police (BSAP), established as a paramilitary mounted-infantry unit by Rhodes in 1889. It provided troops for Britain in wartime, and continued training its officers in both police and regular military roles. In addition to the white ‘Patrol’ and ‘Section’ Officers and Inspectors, the BSAP comprised of black constables, sergeants and sub-inspectors. Ultimately, it became a force of some 11,000 regulars with a white:black ratio of about two to three. It was supported by some 30-35,000 reservists, most of which were white.[vii]

Throughout the 1970s the BSAP maintained its presence in rural areas, manning district police stations with anything from a dozen to forty personnel, responsible for policing, patrolling and protecting areas comprising several hundred square kilometers of what was largely designated Tribal Trust Land. By 1979 the BSAP had evolved to incorporate a range of counter-guerrilla functions. It fielded Police Anti-Terrorist (PATU) patrols, a larger police field force called simply the Support Unit (but referred to as ‘Black Boots’ after their preferred footwear), an Urban Emergency Unit (SWAT) and a Police Reserve Air Wing (PRAW). The specialist four-man PATU patrols were generally considered the elite, established on SAS lines by veteran former SAS Regimental Sergeant Major Reg Seeking, one of David Sterling’s Senior NCOs. Like many of the expatriate community with wartime experience, he was now a police reservist.

As suggested by both Miller[viii] and Anglim[ix], the training of indigenous forces is an important consideration in paramilitary operations. In Rhodesia black African policemen, whether part of PATU or SU patrols or based in district stations, liaised with locals, acted as interpreters and provided a vital operational presence. In addition specially selected black ‘ground coverage’ police officers were employed as undercover intelligence gatherers. They often acting independently and unsupported in urban and rural areas where transient tribespeople would not stand out. As in previous ‘British-style’ post-colonial conflicts such as Malaya and Kenya, Special Branch (SB) officers provided a vital intelligence function for both police and army headquarters.

Following the Second World War Rhodesia had been left with two regular army units, the Rhodesian African Rifles, a black unit officered by whites, and the Permanent Staff Corps. The latter supplied the instructors for the compulsory territorial service that young white males underwent within the Rhodesia Regiment, attending short camps and weekend parades.

Post-war operational experience for Rhodesians was necessarily limited. There was the Rhodesian contingent of the Far East Volunteer Unit, initially destined for service in Korea but diverted to Malaya to fight the Chinese communist insurgents there. Led by a young Peter Walls, who later went on to command Rhodesia’s security forces, this became C Squadron of the British 22 SAS Regiment. Its soldiers became highly skilled in counter-insurgency warfare after three years in the Malayan jungle.

In May 1960 the Rhodesian government responded to Lord Louis Mountbatten’s suggestion that its contribution be reduced to a far smaller special forces formation. The following month the extremely bloody mutinies of black soldiers in the Belgian Congo encouraged the government to establish white professional army units: C Squadron SAS; the First Battalion of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (1 RLI), formed in 1961); and an armoured car squadron. This was seen as insurance against the Congo experience being repeated in Rhodesia. In addition the Territorial Army was expanded, with reserve Rhodesia Regiment battalions increasing to an established strength of ten.

These were the more or less conventional military formations available when UDI was announced. They were those which it deployed, together with the BSAP, as the country entered the first phase of the insurgency. Initially the government responded to increased black nationalist incursions with a serious of successful COIN operations, such as Ops Nickel, Cauldron and Griffin in the late 1960s. These saw a significant shift away from BSAP control to that of the Army. This transition produced resentment within the higher echelons of both forces up to 1980, although at lower levels cooperation was good and became increasingly effective.

A number of traditional measures to exclude the insurgents were undertaken during the first and early second phases of the counter-insurgency. Concepts were drawn from successful British COIN operations such as those in Kenya and Malaya, but also from French experience in Algeria and elsewhere. These included establishing a cordon sanitaire along the border with Mozambique, and the construction of protected villages (PVs) into which village communities within the cordon would be relocated (such as in Op Hurricane in the north east of the country). These measures met only limited success. The enforced movement of villagers from their traditional tribal roots caused a great deal of resentment, ultimately aiding black nationalist recruitment.

Areas where the Rhodesians were more successful are illustrated in two distinct, yet related areas: the use of ‘pseudo teams’, such as the Selous Scouts, and the creation of the Fire Force concept. The latter employed ground, heliborne and airborne elements in conjunction with air-ground attack units.

Pseudo-operations were not an original concept. Security force personnel, together with captured and subsequently ‘turned’ guerrillas, played the role of and impersonated the enemy. The British model for pseudo-gangs was promoted by Kitson[x] and was highly successful against the Mau Mau in Kenya. It had been trialled by BSAP Special Branch officers in the mid-1960s but it was not until the creation of the Army’s Selous Scouts under Major (later Lt Col) Reid Daly that the idea bore fruit. The Scouts, as they were generally known, began life as a covert reconnaissance and tracking unit. They went on to undertake countless clandestine missions, and ultimately operated as a commando unit taking part in large-scale vehicle-mounted cross-border operations. With a strength of some 1,500 to 1,800 (including approximately 800 ‘turned’ insurgents by the end of the war), the Scouts equated in size to a three battalion regiment.[xi] They were no longer secret and had largely, but not entirely, abandoned their ‘pseudo’ role.

Having a certain notoriety is not always a disadvantage and can act as a force multiplier. Otto Skorzeny’s operations during the Ardennes offensive when his teams, armed, equipped and dressed as US soldiers, and driving captured vehicles, spearheaded the German advance caused untold confusion and resulted in countless blue-on-blue engagements. Similarly the Scouts’ small-scale pseudo missions in rural areas within Rhodesia, where their teams were indistinguishable from ZANLA and ZIPRA insurgents, resulted in a number of guerrilla versus guerrilla contacts. Larger scale offensive operations, such as Op Eland mounted on the ZANLA training camp at Nyadzonya Pungwe, Mozambique in August 1976 increased the number of enemy casualties dramatically. Ostensibly a Mozambique army column comprising trucks and armoured cars transported the force of 84 Scouts to what the UN considered a camp registered for refugee status which it attacked. In the resulting action the Scouts killed 1,284 people (600 guerrillas according to Reid Daly[xii]) most of whom from Reid Daly’s own account were unarmed guerrillas forming up on the parade square and included almost all the patients of the camp hospital.

Such overt offensive actions cut both ways. Within Rhodesia the raid was seen as a major success. On a global scale it resulted in significant international condemnation, not least from the UN. Outside criticism notwithstanding, significant body counts were a Scout speciality. In a report commissioned by Rhodesia’s Directorate of Military Intelligence, 68 percent of all insurgent deaths within Rhodesia could be directly attributed to them.

Whilst the exploitation of captured enemy combatants in the form of pseudo gangs was the natural evolution of a previously tried and tested unconventional warfare tactic, many of the techniques and technologies adopted and adapted by the Rhodesian military were more original. The creation of Fire Force as an operational method was largely dependent on the unique nature of the Rhodesian Air Force (RhAF). During the Second World War 977 Rhodesian officers and 1,432 airmen had served in the Royal Air Force. Post-war downsizing left the country bereft of aircraft but with a surfeit of trained and experienced aircrew. Over the next twenty years it acquired an impressive mishmash of often obsolete but entirely serviceable aircraft.

Beginning with South Africa’s gift of a C-47 Dakota in 1948, twenty-two Spitfire XXIIs, thirty-two Vampires and sixteen Provost trainers were soon acquired. By the time of UDI the airforce had two bases: New Sarum near Salisbury and Thornhill near Gwelo. It had 1,200 regular personnel and was equipped with Hawker Hunters, Canberras and Vampires. The start of the bush war had less impact on the airforce than UDI did. Facing little external threat, the main challenge was how to procure vital spares and aircraft in defiance of international sanctions. This was met with increasing ingenuity and subterfuge. For example jet engines had been sent to Rolls Royce in Britain for servicing but UDI prompted Britain to seize fourteen aero-engines being serviced for both Hunters and Canberras.[xiii]

Rhodesian technicians were forced to service the remaining engines and equipment assisted by local industry. Starter cartridges were a difficult issue until the discovery that Canberra engines could start on compressed air, and a vehicle starter motor could replace that used in Provosts. Starter motors for Hunters had been sent back to Britain after 70 starts, Rolls Royce charging £14,000 per motor. Airforce technicians learned to strip down and service the starter motors at a cost of 76 pence per unit, a significant saving. Nine of the 12 Hunters were still flying 16 years later, a credit to their ingenuity. For the remainder of the war spares and weapons were secured through clandestine purchasing and local manufacture – including the production of a singularly lethal range of indigenous aircraft munitions.

These weapon systems, airframes, operators and technicians played a vital role in the counter insurgency, but the decision to purchase Alouette III helicopters stands out. Selected as they suited local conditions and were relatively inexpensive, Alouette IIIs were flown by both South Africa and Portugal, fighting its own insurgency in neighbouring Mozambique. Authority to engage insurgents with them as gunships was denied until 1973 when increased guerrilla activity led to the trail and adoption of a dedicated gunship, known as the K-Car (the prefix denoting Command) armed with 20mm cannon.

The troop-carrying G-Car was capable of lifting a four-man infantry ‘stick’ and was crewed by a pilot and a technician/air-gunner, who manned twin.303in Browning machineguns with 500 rounds each. These Alouettes formed the backbone of the Fire Force formation, working with fast- (and slow-) ground attack aircraft. In the later stages of the bush war they worked with C-47s containing 16 paratroops from the Fire Force infantry (either RLI or RAR, the latter of which had been increased to two battalions and parachute trained).

In essence the Fire Force operation would be initiated by a ground unit, an Army or PATU patrol or a Scout observation post. Aircraft support would depend on what was available. Towards the latter phase of the bush war when external operations were stepped up, aircraft were stripped from Fire Force bases across the country to support SAS or RLI missions outside it. In a 1979 study Wood[xiv] suggested that the best practical combination was a K-Car containing the Fire Force commander directing the ground assets once deployed, piloted by an experienced senior pilot who co-ordinated the air transport and air/ground attack assets; coupled with four G-Cars and a Dakota (giving 32 troops on the ground), and supported by a propeller-driven Lynx light strike aircraft equipped with a range of ordnance including rockets, bombs, napalm and machine-guns. Given that a typical contact involved between six and twelve insurgents, the security forces operated with a three to one numerical superiority. Such operations soon delivered an impressive 80:1 kill ratio.

As such successes suggest, when it came to counter-insurgency operations the Rhodesian military were effective, highly adaptive and in some cases inspirational in their efforts to stem, for a time at least, the tide of black African nationalism in their country. Given that Rhodesians were not only working with an extremely limited budget but also in the face of international pressure, the rogue state’s achievements were remarkable.

Mills and Wilson[xv] perhaps put it best when they suggested: ‘Pound for pound, the Rhodesian security forces may have been the most effective fighting force of the last century. Numbering at their peak 15,000 troops, pitted against an opposition likely at least three times as strong within and without the country by the war’s end, and employing increasingly aggressive tactics taking them into the neighbouring countries, they were able to keep in check their numerically superior guerrilla opponents, despite having to operate across a country larger than Germany, and over terrain practically impassable in many locations.’ The downside was, of course, that ultimately they lost.


[i] Storr, Jim, ‘Fight on Foot, Defeat on Foot’, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 2, Fall 2012, pages 19-22.
[ii] Miller, Sergio, ‘Building a hollow ANSF – Vietnam revisited?’, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 1, Summer 2012, pages 4-7
[iii] Anglim, Simon, ‘Orde Wingate And Paramilitary Support Operations: Messages For The 21St Century’, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 1, Summer 2012, pages 8-12.
[iv] Benest, David, ‘A British Parachuting Capability?’, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 1, Summer 2012, pages 25-26.
[v] Richards, Mark, ‘Vehicle Movement in High Threat Environments’, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 2, Autumn 2012, pages 16-18.
[vi] Moorcraft P.L. and McLaughlin P.,(1982) Chimurenga! The War in Rhodesia 1965-80. A Military History. Sygma/Collins, Glasgow, & Moorcraft, Paul, Rhodesia’s War of Independence, History Today Volume: 40 Issue: 9.
[vii] In practice a very high proportion of all fit adult males who were not in the Army or regular Police were police reservists – Ed.
[viii] Miller, Sergio, ‘Building a hollow ANSF – Vietnam revisited?’, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 1, Summer 2012, pages 4-7.
[ix] Anglim, Simon, ‘Orde Wingate And Paramilitary Support Operations: Messages For The 21st Century’, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 1, Summer 2012, pages 8-12.
[x] Kitson, Frank. Gangs and Counter-gangs (1960), Barrie and Rockliff & Kitson, Frank. (1971) Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping Faber and Faber - reprint 1991
[xi] Mills, Greg & Wilson, Grahame (2007) Who Dares Loses? Assessing Rhodesia’s Counter-Insurgency Experience, RUSI Vol. 152, No. 6 December 2007 VOL (pp. 22–31).
[xii] Reid Daly, Ron and Stiff, Peter. (1982) Selous Scouts Top Secret War. Alberton, South Africa: Galago Publishing.
[xiii] Wood, Dr J.R.T., (1996) ‘Fire Force: Helicopter Warfare in Rhodesia: 1962-1980’ & Wood, (then) Professor J.R.T. (1995) ‘Rhodesian Insurgency – Part II,’ Durban, SA accessed through http://www.rhodesianforces.org/ 1 April 2013
[xiv] Wood, J.R.T. (2009) Counter-Strike from the Sky: The Rhodesian All-Arms Fireforce in the war in the Bush 1974-1980.
[xv] Mills & Wilson, (2007)