A Quick Sketch of the Zimbabwe/Rhodesia Bush War

I have noticed a lot of search traffic on this site pertaining to the Zimbabwe/Rhodesian War.  Aside from the Wikipedia entry covering the period, there is very little on the world wide web dealing with the subject. What follows is a thumbnail sketch drawn from my own reading of the episode which is not intended to be an accurate historical synopsis.

The political background to the Rhodesian Civil War

The Rhodesian War of the 1970s was a civil war. It was fought for the preservation of the Anglo/Saxon values and culture that had been grafted onto the landscape as a consequence of British imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The territory of Rhodesia comprised Mashonaland, Manicaland and Matabeleland, acquired by the British South Africa Company during  the 1890s and occupied by a white, mainly British settler community over the course of the 90-years that followed.

World War I broke the back of the British Empire, as it did imperial Europe as a whole, after which World War II effectively killed it. One of the first key triggers of eventual war in Rhodesia was the contribution made by Southern Rhodesia to the British war effort of 1939/45. All the colonies and dominions in one form or another contributed, but Southern Rhodesia is recognised as having made the most comprehensive per capita manpower contribution. Others included Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa.

Why this is important is because Rhodesia was at that time classed as a Self Governing Colony, while the other participants, with the exception of India, where classed a Dominions. A Dominion, by definition, was a colonial possession earmarked for independence within the Commonwealth. There was very little difficulty with this because in none of these territories did there exist a sufficiently large native population to warrant political attention. This was very different in the case of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, both of which did.

In recognition of her contribution to the war effort, meanwhile, Southern Rhodesia was promised by the Imperial Government, although this was never officially committed to treaty, that she would also be granted independence within the Commonwealth once hostilities had ceased, this in gratitude for her service to the Crown in war. The assumption here was that independence would be granted under the terms of an existing constitutional status that limited the black franchise under property and educational qualifications to almost zero.

To grant Southern Rhodesia minority rule independence may very well have been the British intention during WWII and in the immediate aftermath, and certainly much of the British political establishment would have preferred to have been able to honor this commitment, however, the new global political reality in a post-war world simply did not permit it. The independence of India introduced a powerful new voice into the Commonwealth that wholly changed the complexion of the global order. Indian independence was quickly followed by Egypt and the Suez Crisis, Malaysia, Burma, Ghana, Nigeria and a host of smaller entities. This was accompanied by increasing independence on the part of the principal white dominions of the Empire, namely Canada, Australia and new Zealand, all three of which made strong petition to the Crown to grant Southern Rhodesia independence only under a majority rule constitution.

Rhodesia, however, then under the leadership of Sir Godfrey Huggins, held the British to their original commitment to grant independence under a minority rule constitution, which established a political stalemate between the two governments that would in one way or another endure until 1980.

The Federation of Rhodesia & Nyasaland

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, meanwhile, was established in 1953 as an effort to find a workable formula that would allow for a continuation in the medium to long term of white rule in the region. Against a backdrop of determined black resistance a federal constitution was negotiated between the three territorial governments of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the Imperial Government. The emergent black leader of this period was future Malawian president Hastings Banda.

By the 1960s the Federation was in the grip of sustained and organized black civil unrest that in due course resulted first in the independence of Nyasaland as Malawi, and then Northern Rhodesia as Zambia. This precipitated the collapse of the Federation itself and the withdrawal of white Southern Rhodesia behind powerful defenses, and an even more powerful determination that the colony, thereafter known simply as Rhodesia, would not go the same way as the rest of Africa.

It must be remembered at this point that 1960 had seen the handover to black rule of the Belgian Congo amid scenes of typical anarchy and slaughter, all of which did nothing to mollify white Rhodesia facing similar demands from blacks within its own borders. Likewise the events of the Mau Mau Uprising and the separatist war in Biafra all tended to strike fear in the hearts of whites at the prospect of black rule in Rhodesia. Britain, in the meanwhile, morally weakened and clearly no longer a global power, found herself in a difficult quandary. She could do nothing but fall in line with the mood of the global forums which all demanded that she grant independence to Rhodesia only under terms of majority rule constitution. No matter how much white Rhodesia might seek to remind her of promises made during WWII, there was nothing by then that Whitehall could effectively do.

UDI and the rise of the Rhodesian right

The second key trigger that pitched the colony in the direction of war was an abrupt swing to the right of the white Rhodesian electorate in the face of such change and uncertainty. From this emerged the Rhodesian Front, a powerful, white nationalist political front headed in the first instance by a somewhat (British) collaborationist Winston Field, and then later by the hawkish, uncompromising and highly charismatic Ian Douglas Smith.

Smith took over the premiership of Rhodesia in 1964 on a wave of approval for his hard-line, no-nonsense approach to the problem of independence. (Read brief biography of Smith here) He recognized very early in his premiership that the 20-years or so of appeal and negotiation with Whitehall that had preceded his office had achieved absolutely nothing, and moreover never would. He therefore adopted the strategy of picking a fight with the British in the hope that he could bring the matter one way or another to a head. His principal weapon was the implied threat of a unilateral declaration of independence.

Smith, as with most white Rhodesians, was unable or unwilling to embrace the current reality of global politics, preferring to view the steady advance of black political independence down the length of Africa as part of a wider communist assault against the western, Christian values that he purported to represent. It must be said here that Ian Smith, a trenchant and somewhat deluded character, was nonetheless a man of unshakable moral rectitude and a clear believer in the sanctity of his mission. He was not an ogre or a monster as he is often portrayed under a contemporary light. It may now be said that he was wrong in the broader objective he sought to achieve, but he was neither corrupt nor sociopathic as his successor had proved himself to be.

Inevitably, however, Ian Smith failed in his efforts to negotiate independence for white Rhodesia, as he possibly both knew and hoped that he would. Therefore, on 11 November 1965, a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) was issued that effectively recast Rhodesia as a rebel republic, a status it remained subject to until the advent of majority rule in 1980.

Shooting war in Rhodesia

The ramifications of UDI were immediate. One the one hand Rhodesia became subject to a broad range of international sanctions that included both an arms and fuel embargo, and on the other hand the rebel colony was removed from any hope of direct British military support, and nor, indeed, any overt political support. The black population of the territory, meanwhile, were served by UDI with effective notice that white Rhodesia was not going to collapse quite as easily as the British Empire had elsewhere on the continent. One of the first actions of the new ‘independent’ Rhodesian government was to ban the two principal nationalist organisations – Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) and Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) – and to imprison or restrict their political leadership.

Both organisations then turned to what had become known as the Frontline States – in this case primarily Tanzania and Zambia – and the new Organisation of African Unity for guidance and support. Both movements set up governments in exile in Zambia and commenced planning an armed insurgency to topple white rule in Rhodesia.

The Rhodesian military machine at that time consisted of a large territorial formation comprising the eight battalions of the Rhodesia Regiment and associated independent companies; a single Rhodesian African Rifles battalion; a newly formed, all-white regular battalion of the Rhodesia Light Infantry (RLI); the C Squadron Rhodesia SAS; the Rhodesian Air Force and the various paramilitary arms of the British South Africa Police. National Service and ongoing territorial commitments were mandatory and affected all able-bodied white males in the country. A police reserve existed as a support element of the civil force, but ultimately it became a civil defence unit that included the highly effective Police Ant-Terrorist Unit.

Initial hostile incursions deployed by both nationalist organisations began along the northern frontier of Rhodesia bordering newly independent Zambia. These were initially disorganised, amateurish and experimental, and were dealt with without difficulty by the Rhodesian army. This phase of the war culminated in what became known as the Battle of Sinoia, a combined police and air force operation that ran to ground a group of seven ZANU militants just outside the town of Sinoia, now known as Chinoyi, ending with the comprehensive annihilation of the entire group.

By the end of the 1960s it had become clear to the leadership of both liberation factions that attempting to directly challenge a motivated, well trained and highly efficient Rhodesian army in a contest of wits and fire would be suicidal. The Rhodesian security and intelligences services combined very effectively throughout the 1960s to locate and deal with one insurgent group after another. Perhaps the most effective tool in the Rhodesian arsenal was the rural black population itself, which was seldom remiss at that time in passing back information to the authorities regarding the movement of unknown groups armed men through their areas.

By then, however, there were a number of key members of both nationalist organisations arriving back in Zambia from periods of military and political training overseas, particularly in China and the Soviet Union. These men returned with a much clearer and more detailed sense of revolutionary strategy. It was now understood that before an effective insurrection could take place the people needed to know and understand precisely what was taking place. Therefore a process of education began in the countryside, carried out by political commissars who, with a combination of indigenous/cultural and Marxist type re-education strategies and extreme violence introduced the population of the northeast of Rhodesia to the reality of peoples’ war.

The end of the ‘Phoney War’

Soon afterwards, in 1972, a second and more determined phase of the war began with a series of hit-and-run attacks mounted against farms and homesteads in the Centenary area. This time the customary Rhodesian military response was met with somewhat less success that hitherto. Guerrilla groups retreated into the heavily populated Tribal Trust Lands and the pre-prepared support system that had been carefully put in place for this moment. Intelligence sources dried up while the insurgent groups simply disappeared.

The Rhodesian security establishment itself then retreated in order to ponder a response to this new situation. In the first instance an operational area, Operation Hurricane, was established in the northeast, the first of what would ultimately be six ongoing operations countrywide. Thereafter experiments began to take place using pseudo tactics developed by the British in Malaya and Kenya during the uprisings in those countries. From this was born the Selous Scouts Regiment, a unit configured to utilized turned guerrillas for the purpose of infiltrating authentic guerrilla groups either to acquire intelligence or set the enemy up for a more conventional infantry attack.

The pseudo strategy worked extremely well once it had been properly organised and resourced. A key fact in its success, however, was the parallel development of Fireforce, a vertical envelopment strategy using heliborne infantry and paratroopers in combination with fixed wing air support to act quickly and decisively on intelligence delivered by the Selous Scouts. Fireforce units were placed on permanent standby at various Forward Air Fields scattered across the country in order to react immediately to fresh intelligence regarding the movement or presence of guerrilla groups.

There is a considerable amount of technical material out there regarding Fireforce. The definitive study of the strategy was written by Professor Richard Wood in his book Fireforce.

Thus, by 1974, Rhodesia had for all intents and purposes re-established its domination of the battlefield. At this point it still appeared that a military solution to the crisis was possible. The Rhodesian Government remained in ongoing negotiations with Britain although a formula for independence remained elusive. If the reasons for this can be put in a nutshell it could perhaps be said that Ian Smith sought on behalf of white Rhodesia a means to retain all the principal instruments of power in white hands while at the same time allowing for at least the appearance of meaningful black political development. This was, however, practically impossible because by then the black nationalists had begun to demand absolute power immediately while Smith and his government insisted on substantive white control into the foreseeable future.

A new future

April 1974 saw a quantum shift in the geo-political landscape of southern Africa. A military coup in Lisbon resulted in the ouster of the right wing dictatorship of Marcello Caetano and the installation of a military government. One of the principal catalysts of this action had been the long and bleeding wars that had been ongoing in both Angola and Mozambique. The new government therefore promised to end these wars, which in effect meant that Portugal was now willing to countenance the independence of her overseas provinces. To Rhodesia this meant the potential for a radical widening of the war front down the entire eastern quadrant of Rhodesia.

Indeed, on June 25 1975 Mozambique achieved independence. By the beginning of 1976 attacks by ZANLA (Zimbabwe African Liberation Army), the military wing of ZANU, were beginning to be felt down the length of the eastern border regions adjacent to Mozambique. By the middle of 1976 the war was being fought in earnest more or less throughout the country. Rhodesia was now wholly reliant on South Africa for survival, and South Africa frequently proved herself to be less than the friend-in-need that white Rhodesia might have hoped she would be. In the meanwhile white Rhodesian society became intensely militarised with national services and territorial commitment cutting deeply into the economic viability of the country, and the army itself increasingly less able to effectively garrison the country.

External Operations

In October 1976 the Selous Scouts regiment conducted a daring cross-border raid into Mozambique that annihilated a ZANLA staging camp on the Nyadzonia River in the Manica Province of Mozambique, killing upwards of 1000 ZANLA combatants who had been poised for deployment into Rhodesia. This marked a turning point in the Rhodesian war strategy. Increasingly now the territorial and rear echelon elements of the army would deal with the situation internally while on a large scale the war would be taken into Mozambique and Zambia in order to neutralize enemy build-ups at their source. A corollary of these attacks would be the significant damage inflicted on Zambian and Mozambican infrastructure which served to illustrate to both governments the high cost of war with Rhodesia.

These external raids were more or less ongoing from 1976 onwards. They were conducted in the main by either the SAS or the Selous Scouts with active assistance from the RLI, now a commando battalion, and various other specialist branches of the army. These raids have been exhaustively covered as individual actions in many biographies and histories since, and need not be dealt with in any detail here. For further reading see Prof. Richard Wood’s Operation Dingo, Pamwe Chete by Col. Ron Ried Daly and The Elite by Barbara Cole.

None of this, however, served to alter much the general trajectory of the war, and increasingly it became clear that a political solution would be required. By then, however, Ian Smith could fairly be accused of having squandered many viable proposals and was left at this late stage with very few options. The shooting down of Air Rhodesia Flight 825 en-route from Kariba to Salisbury, resulting in the death of all but eight of the 56 passengers on board, ten of whom were murdered on the ground by a ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army) group, shocked an increasingly demoralised white Rhodesia to the core. A series of attempts on the life of ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo failed, although one of these, Operation Bastille, despite its failure, is recognised as one of the most brilliant and daring SAS raids of the war.

The role of the Rhodesian Security Forces now became one of containment while a political solution was sought. External raids continued while internal operations and the country’s general security needs continued to make unsustainable demands on the white population of the country. Plans were made for the raising of a third battalion of the Rhodesia African Rifles while a system of Security Force Auxiliaries made use of supposed supporters of the moderate internal black parties as an adjunct to the hopelessly overstretched core of the Rhodesian army. White emigration was perhaps the single most direct threat posed to the short or medium term survival of the country.

Negotiated defeat

The political solution when it was found amounted to comprehensive capitulation even though the Rhodesian army had suffered not one significant tactical defeat at any time during the period of war. A ceasefire was declared as a consequence of the Lancaster House Agreement that saw a return to Rhodesia of all of the exiled black leaders and a general election held to determine the future political face of Zimbabwe. The process had been exhausting and came as a bitter shock to a war weary and fearful white population. The closing actions of the Rhodesian Army were three operations. These were Uric, Miracle and Cheese which all witnessed intensive attacks delivered against insurgent facilities and the transport infrastructure of both Mozambique and Zambia. All the key arms of the Security Forces were involved, and arguably these last acts were among the most daring and brilliant of some 15-years of accelerating war.

The disintegration of the Rhodesian armed forces when it came was quick and quiet. The Selous Scouts, a unit configured on maverick terms, aimed a few swift and bloody punches at the undeserving victors, but for the rest the forces of Rhodesia died with dignity and due process under the protection of a negotiated treaty. Britain could at last wash her hands of her errant child while Zimbabwe settled uneasily into existence.

Very little on the whole has been written to chronicle the history of either of the liberation movements, and certainly no attempt has been made to locate and commemorate gravesites and to assemble a roll of honour. The forces of liberation in Zimbabwe have not deported themselves with a great deal of dignity, and certainly cannot claim to have upheld of their traditions with integrity. This, at the very least, cannot be said for white Rhodesia. Whatever political standpoint one might view this episode of history, the Rhodesian armed forces retain a highly respected placed in British and general military history and have been studied and chronicled perhaps more than any other.