Biological Warfare in Rhodesia

This is an excerpt from Rhodesia: Last Outpost of the British Empire. Article by Jeremy Brickhill highlighting the matter in more detail.

On the battlefield, meanwhile, the intensity of reprisal and counter-reprisal grew, and as manpower shortages in the armed services became critical, any and every type of force multiplier was considered. The Selous Scouts and Special Branch were behind most of these ideas and were highly creative and successful in employing them. One such scheme turned the tables on the terrorist‟s tendency to rob rural stores. Operatives fitted transistor radios, much coveted by guerrillas in the field, with secret homing transmitters effective within a radius of 50 kilometres. The transmitters were usually only active when the radios were turned off which meant that any follow up by Fireforce could be conducted in the fairly certain knowledge that the guerrillas were asleep. This theme was developed a little further, when a charge of plastic explosive was fitted into each radio so that when the on/off switch was activated a prescribed number of times, the charge would detonate. These were called „road runners‟ after the propensity of Wily Coyote to explode several times during the course of a cartoon episode.

Exploding bicycles was a tactic the Selous Scout used during a number of cross-border raids. Bicycles packed with explosives were left lying around in Gaza to be picked up by FRELIMO patrols. Usually the devices were detonated by weight on the saddle or ringing the bell, and before FRELIMO and ZANLA fighters got wise to it, a good number were despatched. The fact that quite a number of civilians fell victim to these ruses spoiled only slightly the pleasure of hearing that many important guerrillas had been killed. As a first entry into chemical warfare, the Rhodesians poisoned natural waterholes in the dry southeast of the country. The hope was that more than the handful of terrorists who had so far died of thirst on the long, dry march in from Gaza would succumb to poison. The rains broke not long afterwards, however, and the scheme was abandoned.

To spread the use of chemical warfare into the wider conflict, the security services had their own homegrown Doctor Death to call on. Bob Symington, professor of surgery at the University of Rhodesia, was an amateur toxicologist with a small but well-appointed laboratory in his Borrowdale home. He was also a high-ranking territorial officer and as such had a direct connection to the Ministry of Defence. As early as the last quarter of 1974, Symington was working with the Ministry to devise a system of exterminating guerrillas, using various poisons. At the same time authorisation was handed down to the CIO, to commence a top-secret programme to deploy chemical weapons. Ken Flower was Director General of the CIO and answerable only to the Prime Minister, so if Flower was au fait with the operation, so must Smith have been. The chemical warfare programme was placed under the aegis of the Selous Scouts and was installed at the Bindura Fort to keep it from prying eyes.

The first major application was to impregnate clothing with parathion, an organophosphate absorbed into the bloodstream through hair follicles. A person wearing a treated article of clothing such as jeans, a t-shirt or underpants could be expected to die within four or five days.2 Poisoned clothing, tinned meats and soft drinks were supplied to ZANLA contact men via pseudo groups. Consumables were laced with the thallium, a poison that attacks the peripheral nervous system. Thallium was also a favourite of chemist-turned-crime-writer Agatha Christie. Cigarettes were poisoned by treating the filters with anthrax spores.

By the middle of 1977, it had become apparent that Rhodesia was losing the war, and as a consequence the chemical programme was expanded. Special Branch distributed poisoned food and clothing in a highly secret programme that utilised rural stores that were commonly raided by insurgents. Storekeepers were usually ignorant of the deployment and as a consequence quite a few accidental deaths were recorded in the general population. In June 1977, The Operations Coordinating Committee requested the officer commanding Special Branch to provide detailed figures for deaths of guerrillas that could be attributed to poisoning. The figures supplied indicated that 809 individuals had succumbed to this method in a period of six months.3 Many members of Special Branch believed that more terrorists were being accounted for by chemical means than by conventional fireforce attacks.

Biological attacks were also part of the strategy, and claimed an unknown but significant number of lives. The Selous Scouts introduced cholera bacteria into the water supply for the FRELIMO and ZANLA camps at Madulo Pan not far from Malvernia. By sabotaging pumps and pipelines, the Scouts forced the guerrillas to use tainted ground water. Unaccountable cholera outbreaks were reported in various parts of Rhodesia as a consequence of ongoing deployments of spore and the natural spread of the disease.

Anthrax was also used by the Selous Scouts to infect cattle in the Malvernia area. The spore would then be passed on to humans consuming the meat. The distribution of anthrax was carefully controlled in Gaza lest infections move to the Kruger National Park to the detriment of wildlife and South African goodwill. Selous Scouts intelligence officer Jim Parker, in his book Assignment Selous Scouts, confirms that anthrax was deployed in Matabeleland north to infect or kill cattle, in order to deprive infiltrating ZIPRA forces of food. Veterinary Department personnel, unaware that the Scouts were responsible, had a very difficult time containing outbreaks in the Tribal Trust Lands. The disease was more easily controlled on white ranches where there was better access and security.

By October 1979 the isolation unit at Gwelo Hospital was overflowing with cases of anthrax poisoning. Patients from Lower Gwelo, Que Que, Zhombe, Gokwe, Selukwe, Shangani – even some from as far away as Fort Victoria – were treated. There were 10, 753 recorded cases of anthrax poisoning in 1979 and 1980, and 182 confirmed deaths. These figures were compiled from treated cases and in reality must have been much higher.5 Whichever way, they far exceeded cases recorded in the rest of the world combined.