Operation Quartz: Zimbabwe/Rhodesia on the brink

Ceasefire and Elections

The closing chapter of Rhodesian history was decided in Lancaster House, London, between 10 September-15 December 1979. There, in what has been described by some as the Funeral Parlour of the British Empire, the principal protagonists in the unfolding drama of the Zimbabwe/Rhodesia Bush War brought the curtain down on this, the last substantive act in the drama of British imperial disengagement. It was a moment of profound delicacy. The Rhodesian conflict had been deliberately regionalised in an effort (a) to attack and destroy external guerrilla forces in their bases of operation in both Mozambique and Zambia (also in Angola during Operation Vanity in February 1979), and (b) to so reduce the national transport and communication infrastructure of both countries that ending the war would be a matter of urgency, not only for Rhodesia, but also for her two principal neighbours. The result of this was that the Patriotic Front, an unhappy alliance of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) and Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union), and headed in practical terms by Mugabe, was forced to concede ground in key areas. This was particularly the case in the matter of land rights for a ten-year period after a political handover, and the holding of free and fair elections to determine the leadership of the new nation, irksome in the extreme for Mugabe who felt confident that a total military victory was tangibly close at hand.

A ceasefire was agreed upon and implemented at midnight on 28 December 1979, at which point the war effectively ended. A British Governor in the form of Lord Christopher Soames arrived in the country to complete the circle of British rule in the colony – restoring symbolic ‘legality’ to the rebel republic – and ostensibly to oversee elections, which, in practical terms, Soames enjoyed neither the physical power nor the political support to moderate or control.

It must be remembered that the Rhodesia issue had lingered as an open sore on the British post imperial agenda since the 1950s, and having achieved some sort of an honourable solution, the British, in this case the partnership of Margaret Thatcher and Lord Peter Carrington, had no interest in compromising a clean end to the matter by conceding to the concerns of a minority white population that by then numbered less than the population of a minor London borough. The Patriotic Front broke up prior to the election and Mugabe and Nkomo contested the ballot on individual terms. ZANU in particular flaunted the requirement that guerrilla forces be contained in pre-positioned Assembly Points, allowing, sometimes quite openly,  hard-core ZANLA fighting units to roam the countryside, reminding those who might have forgotten that the consequence of disloyalty to the party had not diminished in the slightest under the civilizing influence of a British Governor. (Ref: Soames’ memorable comment on the matter: They think nothing of sticking tent poles up each other’s whatnots and doing filthy, beastly things to each other. It does happen, I’m afraid. It’s a very wild thing, an African election.)

Local security concerns were articulated in two intelligence papers prepared by senior Security Force officers. The first listed a series of possible actions to oppose and prevent a ZANU or ZAPU  victory. It was understood, or perhaps more accurately, hoped, that the result of the election would be a narrow victory for Mugabe which could be countered by a coalition of Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU, Abel Muzorewa’s UANC (United African National Council) and Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front (Later renamed the Conservative Alliance of Zimbabwe). The second paper warned of a likely outright victory by Robert Mugabe in which case the potential for a euphoric rush to the capital by victorious guerrilla groups, supported by allied civilians, was very high. Various actions were suggested to prevent or protect against this.

Operation Quartz

These intelligence reports, along with a general sense of anxiety felt within the security circles and wider white society, were more than likely what lay behind the formulation of a military plan, Codenamed Operation Quartz, that would quickly move to neutralize ZANU’s main force concentrations conveniently contained, for the most part, in Assembly Points  located in various parts of the country. The understanding that underwrote the plan was in essence that Mugabe would react upon losing the election, or being outmaneuvered upon a narrow victory, by attempting some sort of armed takeover, or at the very least a quick return to war. ZANLA positions, including a temporary senior command HQ located in the grounds of the University of Rhodesia, would be attacked and wiped out by a combination of Rhodesian ground and air forces. South African assistance in the form of helicopters and a small detachment of the Reconnaissance Regiment would also be provided. South African troops were likewise deployed in the strategic area around Beit Bridge to protect the rear guard of a potential white exodus to South Africa should matters turn ugly in Rhodesia

Operation Hectic

Operation Hectic was an allied plan that involved the direct assassination of Mugabe and key aids, with Nkomo also targeted, but not quite so comprehensively. The operation was to be carried out by the elite troops of the Rhodesian C Squadron SAS. A series of attempts on Mugabe’s life were made during the tense weeks running up to the ballot, but each time he slipped through the net, either as a consequence of good luck or prior warning. The latter prompted renewed speculation regarding the existence of a mole at the highest security level in the country. A name quite often mentioned in this regard has been that of Ken Flower, local intelligence supremo and Director General of the powerful Central Intelligence Organization. Flower wrote a highly detailed account of his years at the helm of Rhodesian intelligence, Serving Secretly, but failed to mention Operation Quartz. Nothing has ever been proven against Flower, however, who died in 1987,  and who continues to enjoy the support of many ex-Rhodesian intelligence and security force members who do not accept that there is any truth in accusations against him. The fact remains, however, that a number of assassination attempts were made against both Mugabe and Nkomo by different units and agencies, each of which was frustrated, suggesting very strongly a very highly placed intelligence leak.

One of a number of highly unpalatable aspects of Operation Hectic involved a smear campaign against Mugabe and ZANU, with attempts to blow up churches in and around Salisbury for the purpose of blaming guerrilla elements and their atavistic, anti-Christian/Marxist ideological leanings. A wedding party of ostensibly UANC supporters traveling in a bus between Umtali and Salisbury was ambushed with many killed, the operation apparently undertaken by rogue elements of the Selous Scouts, but with no definitive proof of this ever being presented. The apparent objective was to suggest that the attack had been staged by vengeful ZANLA elements. A bomb attack was also staged against the printing facilities of MOTO Press, the publisher of a popular black readership magazine, after a spurious edition of the publication hit the streets of Salisbury painting a formidably distorted picture of Robert Mugabe. The bomb attack was intended to be interpreted as a ZANLA retaliation, which was confused somewhat by the discovery at the scene of a white male corpse  with South African money in his pocket.

The Order of Battle

The main attack force earmarked to assault the various ZANLA Assembly Points combined the RhAF, units of the Rhodesia Light Infantry, the SAS and Selous Scouts, supported by SA Special Forces and Paratroopers. Ten targets were identified. Assembly Points Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, Juliet and Kilo. ZIPRA was not specifically targeted – Nkomo was to be a pivotal alliance member in a new government – although Assembly Points Kilo and Juliet were shared by both. The urban assault on the ZANLA HQ would be carried out by units of the SAS supported by tanks and armoured cars of the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment with the addition of  106mm recoilless rifles.

The Rhodesian Army fielded primarily the Eland armoured cars, a close variant of the French Panhard AML that were produced in South Africa. This was a versatile weapon, armed either with a 90 mm quick-firing low pressure gun or a 60 mm breech-loading mortar, the former most commonly. These had superseded a fleet of British Ferret armoured cars that had never seen a great deal of active service and were largely obsolete. In addition the Rhodesians had acquired eight Russian T-55 tanks in October 1979, part of a consignment of weapons seized by the South Africans from a French cargo vessel believed to be transporting weapons to Angola, then more or less at war with South Africa.

Other military, police and auxiliary units, although not earmarked for use against the target Assembly Points, were nonetheless placed on standby for rapid deployment to areas of strategic importance, and for the general defense and protection of key sites and population centers. Various  signals were sent to local JOCs and sub-JOCs, briefing them on what roles they were to play in the upcoming Operation. Copies of these have been preserved, against orders, by some of the officers thus detailed, and a number of these are now in the possession of the Rhodesian Army Association. The following examples were provided by Captain Peter Bray of the RhACR, and are reproduced verbatim:

  • Signal One – Op Thrasher Inyanga/Honde/Inyazura/Umtali
  • Signal Two – Op Thrasher Melsetter/Chipinga/Mount Selinda/Cashel
  • Signal Three – Vital Asset Ground

It can be seen from the above that the territorials and independent companies, alongside various Support Unit and SFA units, were to be concentrated in strategic and vulnerable areas throughout the Operation Thrasher area (primarily), which was the principal ZANLA theater and the area most likely to be affected by an emptying of the ZANLA Assembly points. An indication is given by this of the extent to which the matter was taken seriously by the military high command and the various JOCs (Joint Operational Centres).

The Operation That Never Was

The signal Quartz was never issued. Robert Mugabe and his ZANU won an unexpected, but in retrospect inevitable, majority at the polls. The Rhodesian military machine, primed and waiting for the signal, waited in breathless anticipation. Three hours before the anticipated launch of the operation, however, it was cancelled. Many reasons have been cited for this:

The first was the belief of the Commanding Officer of the SAS, Lt.Col. Garth Barrett, commanding the pivotal unit in the entire plan, that the operation had been compromised at the highest planning level. This again implies a sense of unease about the existence of a well placed mole in the system. The SAS had been thwarted several times in efforts to kill Mugabe so there was certainly some basis for this fear.

Another theory put forward was that the close proximity of some ZIPRA and ZANLA elements had precipitated an inevitable leak of information.

A third and more plausible explanation was that General Walls himself, head of ComOps (Combined Operations) and the last substantive Rhodesian white man on the inside of the ceasefire negotiation process, recognized that the extent of Robert Mugabe’s win nullified any real chance of any kind of coup succeeding. Quartz had been formulated on the understanding that Mugabe would not win, or at least would not win resoundingly, and when he did it seemed that an inevitable course of action had begun that could not now reasonably be halted. It has also been suggested that Walls never intended there to be any kind of violent Rhodesian effort to reclaim power. The planning and dissemination of the details of the plan were simply to forestall any maverick individual action on the part of units or commanders acting in the belief that victory was being handed to the enemy. If it was generally believed in the armed forces that a centralized scheme was in place then individual units and battalions would be likely to remain under orders.

Even after the Mugabe victory had been announced some expectation lingered that a coup of some sort would be ordered. This did not entirely evaporate until Walls appeared on national television and addressed the nation with the stern warning that ‘…anybody who gets out of line or for whatever reason starts disobeying the law will be dealt with effectively and swiftly...’

Walls’ Denial

Interestingly Lt. Gen. Peter Walls was careful to distance himself from the planning of Operation Quartz, and moreover denied any knowledge of its existence. This is quite understandable bearing in mind that Walls was walking a tightrope between ushering in majority rule and ushering out a highly motivated, aggressive and effective military machine that certainly did not deserve defeat in terms of its battlefield performance. It might be remembered that Rhodesian ex-Prime Minister Ian Smith had not represented the Zimbabwe/Rhodesia Government during the Lancaster House negotiations, Bishop Abel Muzorewa by then being Prime Minister. It had been Walls who had appeared at the Conference as the white man in Rhodesia to deal with, notwithstanding the fact that a number of white members of government served on the Zimbabwe/Rhodesian negotiating team.

Walls could hardly then openly acknowledge Operation Quartz, bearing in mind that he was actively trying to win the trust of the incoming government, being, at the very least, the titular head of the armed forces integration. This did not last very long, and Walls quickly fell from grace, as did Ian Smith, and the process of sweeping white influence out of government and the armed forces soon claimed both.

Walls was in fact accused of treason in parliament by the then Minister of Information Nathan Shamuyarira, claiming that:

  • Operation Quartz involved a military takeover of the country scheduled for 4 March, the day of Mugabe’s electionvictory.
  • ZANLA troops had been purposely massed in assembly points in order that the Rhodesian Air Force coulddeal with them in concentration.
  • ZIPRA was not to be attacked in the hope of promoting an alliance between Nkomo and Muzorewa onceZANLA had been neutralised.
  • Operation Quartz was cancelled a bare 3 hours before it was due to be launched, because Walls felt that it could not succeed in view of Mugabe’s overwhelming victory at the polls.

All of this Walls denied, but was not believed, and was advised soon afterward by members of the government to leave the country without delay. In conclusion it can hardly be credible that the commander of the armed forces of Rhodesia could have been unaware of an operation that required such a widespread mobilization of the armed forces, and action likely to generate tremendous hostility overseas and an enormous political embarrassment to the government of the United Kingdom. This in particular bearing in mind that the government then lay under the ostensible control of a British Governor, meaning that war thereafter would not be with white Rhodesia but with Britain. However it has been stated by a Brigade Major of 3 Brigade based in Umtali that Walls might not have been aware of the precise codeword Quartz because this was a codeword specific to the mobilization of 3 Brigade in terms of the actions planned for the operation (1 Brigade Bulawayo being supplied with the codeword Melrose). This is not to imply that Wall’s was unaware of the operation as such.