The Rhodesian Air Force was a vital component of the war machine. Air force officers continued the traditions of the ‘Brylcreem Boys’ by claiming that they were responsible for the largest number of kills among the security forces, and that their operations made the bulk of other formations’ successes possible. There was more than a grain of truth in this, for the air force allowed the most efficient deployment of the strategic reserve, and carried out photo-reconnaissance and air strikes on guerrilla concentrations in and outside Rhodesia.
The RAF’s strike capability was based on a squadron of Hawker Hunter FGA9 fighter-bombers, one of Canberra B2 and T4 light bombers, one of Vampire RB9s, and Cessna 0-2 (Lynx) and Siai-Marchetti SF 260 (Genet) propeller-driven strike aircraft. Provost T52s and Vampire T55s were used in a strike capacity in the early years of the war, but were later relegated to training roles. The jet aircraft were used mainly for external operations, though the Hunter was a maid-of-all-work, since it carried out cross-border strikes, supported Fire Force operations and protected Rhodesian airspace. The Cessnas, which were brought through the sanctions barrier in red and white civilian livery, were converted to a military role and armed with machine guns, antipersonnel rocket pods and bomb racks in Rhodesia. They formed the backbone of Fire Force support throughout the country, since their slower speed and excellent maneuverability made them more suitable for the pinpoint accuracy often required in counter-guerrilla operations in close or broken terrain.
But it was in the transport of troops that the RAF played its most important role. Helicopters gave the Rhodesian forces the tactical flexibility they needed to control vast swathes of rugged countryside. The basic Rhodesian tactical element, the ‘stick’ of four or five men, was designed around the seating capacity of the mainstay of the helicopter capability of the Air Force, the Aerospatiale Alouette III. This machine was used not only for the rapid development of tracker and fighting teams, but was later the basis of Fire Force operations in the transport, command chopper and gunship roles, as well as being important for the evacuation (casevac) of the wounded. The force of 50-plus Alouettes, many on loan with their pilots and technicians from South Africa, was supplemented by a handful of Alouette II utility craft. Earlier in the war, the RAF had tried to acquire Pumas. Unlike the Alouettes which had been designed for civilian use, the Puma was specifically a military aircraft. As one senior Rhodesian air force officer lamented, ‘The UN mandatory sanctions made the sale of such equipment to Rhodesia impossible–even for the French.’ French technicians from Sud Aviation were nevertheless regular visitors to Rhodesia to advise on helicopter technology. A considerable boost to the airlift capability of the Rhodesian forces was the acquisition in 1978 of seven Bell 205s, the ‘Huey’ of Vietnam War fame, from Israel via the Comoro Islands. With a capacity of 12 to 16 men, each Bell could carry the equivalent of a former Fire Force of three to four Alouette IIIs. Cheetah was the name given to the Bells, which arrived in an appalling state. Without any manuals, they were completely overhauled, after ‘removing tons of sand’, according to a technician who worked on them.
As the scale of encounters between guerrilla detachments and units of the security forces increased, and before the acquisition of the Bells, paradrops from Dakotas were made an integral part of Fire Forces after September 1976. This necessitated large-scale parachute training of regular units which were routinely deployed as Fire Forces.
The transport squadrons of the RAF, which included Aermacchi AL60s, dubbed ‘Trojans’ by the Rhodesians, and Britten-Norman Islanders, also supplied remote base camps of the security forces and the network of airfields from which combat aircraft operated.
The squadron bases were at New Sarum, near Salisbury (home of the Canberra bomber, DC-3 and helicopter squadrons), and Thornhill, at Gwelo (home base of the Hunters, Trojans, Genets and Vampires). The operational areas were served by a network of Forward Airfields (FAFs), which ranged from large facilities like those at Grand Reef (Umtali) and Wankie, to airstrips attached to JOCs like that at Mtoko. A FAF was any airfield out of which aircraft operated in support of security forces’ operations, and from time to time would accommodate Fire Forces as well.
Late in the war a new base was built near Hartley. The project was kept out of the public eye, but the facility was capable of supporting the most sophisticated jet fighter aircraft, and may have been planned as a base for operations by the South African Air Force. As it was remote from large population centres, operations could be mounted from it with considerably more secrecy than from Thornhill and New Sarum, which used the civil runways serving Salisbury international airport. The SAAF did provide much support and training, especially for external raids. Dakotas, Canberras and Alouettes on loan, or in support, were relatively easy to disguise but the Puma and Super Frelon choppers were not. Pretoria also provided ammunition, bombs, avionics and electronic surveillance for the Rhodesian air war. In a secret exchange (Operation Sand), Rhodesian instructors, technicians and student pilots were sent to South African bases. Flying training on Impala jets was conducted at Langebaan air base and also in Durban. The Rhodesians also manned one entire SAAF Mirage III squadron for a short period.
The RAF was supported by a large fleet of civilian aircraft operated by the Police Reserve Air Wing. These aircraft, most of them propeller-driven, carried out routine supply and administrative functions, although some were armed with Browning machine guns for a ground support role. Some PRAW pilots developed considerable expertise in tracking guerrillas from the air.
Airfield and installation defence was provided by an armoured car unit comprising national servicemen and members of the air force reserve, around a regular core, and by an all-black General Service Unit.
If the regular army, police and the RAF were the mainstays of the Rhodesian security forces, the bulk of military manpower was engaged in less spectacular roles. It is a rule of thumb that the larger the formation the blunter the instrument. The major source of manpower for the Rhodesian armed forces was mobilization of reserves. The call-up net eventually encompassed all able-bodied white men between 18 and 60. All white youths between 18 and 25 were liable to conscription. The commitment eventually rose to 18 months, though those who would go on to universities had to serve 24 months since they would enjoy exemption from reserve duties while they were students. Men in the 25 to 38 age bracket were liable to reserve duty in the army, but were increasingly posted to other formations and services. Those who had missed national service conscription were first called up for training. Men over 38 were liable to serve in the Rhodesia Defence Regiment or the Police Reserve structure. The commitments of various groups differed. The most heavily pressed group were men in the 25 to 38 age bracket, who at the height of the war were liable to serve six months a year with their units. The pattern of tours became ‘six weeks in, six weeks out’, but even that was changed to ‘four weeks in, four weeks out’ in periods of acute manpower shortage, such as the traditional guerrilla rainy season offensives.
In the pre-UDI period there were two reserve formations, the Territorial Force based on white battalions of the Royal Rhodesia Regiment (the Royal was dropped when Rhodesia declared itself a republic), and the Police Reserve. The Rhodesia Regiment trained national servicemen who were conscripted for six weeks’ basic training under the 1957 Defence Act. In the early 1960s the number of battalions was increased and the length of basic training rose to 41½ months. Conscripts had a reserve commitment in the battalions of the Rhodesia Regiment on release from basic training. Police Reservists were volunteers who supported the normal operations of the BSAP, and played an important role in suppressing urban disorders in the early 1960s.
Both forces changed considerably in the war years. The Territorial Battalions lost their training role and became exclusively reserve units once national servicemen were allocated to Independent Companies, the regular units, the specialist arms, the police and other supporting parts of the armed forces’ structure. Servicemen who had completed their initial period of active service were transferred to the TF battalions until they were 38. The TF battalions, which were city- and district-based, eventually numbered eight (designated 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 RR) and with a total nominal strength of 15,000.
As national servicemen began to pass through a diversity of units from 1973, so each formation built up a TF, reserve element which was called up for periodic tours of duty. Even the SAS, Grey’s Scouts and Selous Scouts had reserve components of part-time soldiers. The Rhodesian Intelligence Corps was commanded by a territorial officer and was staffed almost completely by reservists. It collected and collated field intelligence and provided up-to-date maps for all arms of the security forces.
The Police Reserve became a repository for less able and older conscripts. Men in the 38 to 60 age bracket were automatically conscripted into its ranks, although PATU contained considerable numbers of active, younger men, exempted from army service for occupational reasons, police regulars and national servicemen who had passed on to a reserve commitment, and large numbers of farmers. Sections of PATU conducted highly successful operations, but their main function was to cover ground aggressively and act in a reconnaissance role. Other elements of the Police Reserve were the ‘A’Reserve, which assisted the duty branches of the BSAP in crime prevention, and the Field Reserve. The latter was used mainly for protection duties on farms, bridges, convoys, radio relay stations and other installations. The International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated a peak strength for the Police Reserve of 35,000 in 1978, but this is probably too high a figure. In 1979, Police Reserve strength in Salisbury, the country’s biggest reservoir of white manpower, stood at only 4,500, and it is unlikely that there were more than 30,000 reservists in the rest of the country. The standard of training, equipment, leadership and organization of the Field Reserve was not impressive and it was only the low calibre of the guerrillas which saved periodic slaughtering of these poorly trained reservists.
Africans were not liable to conscription until 1978, when a very limited and cautious programme was introduced to conscript black youths aged 18 to 25. The potential problems of conscripting the vast numbers available, many of whom were reluctant or disaffected, were so great that the programme never really got off the ground before the ceasefire in December 1979.
Asian and Coloured youths were liable to conscription, and in due course these communities were also brought into the reserve structure. Low morale and inefficiency were caused by discrimination in terms of service, pay and conditions, but these were equalized with white conditions of service towards the end of the war. Most Asians and Coloureds were drafted into the Protection Companies for defensive duties and as drivers in the early days of the war, but later formed the bulk of the Rhodesia Defence Regiment (nicknamed the Rhodesian Dagga [marijuana] Regiment because of its poor discipline). Many also served in the Police Reserve.
Training was a headache for the military authorities throughout the war. The elite units received elite training. The Selous Scouts and SAS were trained for periods of up to eight months before taking the field, and their pre- and post-deployment retraining programmes were excellent. The training of Territorial Force battalions was gradually improved, but a chronic shortage of instructors persisted, whose skills were also badly needed in the field. This deficiency was exacerbated by the armed forces’ poor use of the skills and qualifications of reserve manpower. General Walls spoke of fitting round pegs into round holes, but a great deal of valuable manpower was wasted on the performance of military tasks which could have been carried out by far less-qualified soldiers. The Police Reserve in particular suffered from low-calibre instructors.
Once the armed forces began to mushroom, low-quality troops became a chronic weakness of the Rhodesian forces. The Guard Force was created in 1975 as a ‘Fourth Arm’with the responsibility for manning protected villages, the Rhodesian version of the strategic hamlets of Malaya and Vietnam. The Rhodesia Defence Regiment was created in 1978. One battalion was attached to each brigade headquarters to protect military installations and lines of communication. Because large numbers were required for these units at short notice, training was superficial. The tedious nature of their static tasks made the units poorly disciplined and Guard Force details often committed crimes against the populations they were charged with protecting. Had they stood against a determined, well-trained enemy they would have had little chance. Both these units received drafts of white national servicemen and (often elderly) reservists, but these were usually of low calibre and suffered from poor morale because of their attachment to notoriously inefficient units. Towards the end of the war, when the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Security Force Auxiliaries took greater responsibility for defending PVs, Guard Force received better training and sometimes fought in an infantry role. But their primary task remained defensive, including the protection of white farms, ranches and communications links.
One unsuccessful expedient adopted was that of integrating inexperienced troops with battle-hardened units. The RAR’s battalions were used to try to give a quick patina of combat experience to large numbers of recruits who were given shorter than usual periods of basic training from 1978. This experiment had limited success, but the attempt to integrate the previously all-white Rhodesia Regiment battalions was a disastrous failure. The racial prejudices of the territorial soldiers and the inexperience and unreliability of the African recruits caused morale among the whites to plummet. The white territorials alleged that the Africans displayed cowardice under fire, and resentment against this invasion of a former white preserve was reflected in lower combat effectiveness.
Two other formations should be mentioned. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, responsible for the administration of the country’s African population and the TTLs, where most guerrilla activity occurred, increased its military role as Rhodesia became a garrison state. By 1978-9 administration of large areas of the country was possible only in the presence of armed force. Internal Affairs personnel in the districts were invariably armed. The rank and file, made up mainly of District Security Assistants (DSAs), was generally low-calibre manpower, poorly trained, led and equipped (initially with .303 bolt-operated rifles, though they later received LMGs). The DSAs were in close contact with the African population of the TTLs, which meant that they were in close contact with guerrilla operations, with consequently high, morale-sapping casualty rates. The quality of the District Assistants (DAs) and paramilitary DSAs depended largely upon the quality of the District Commissioners who led them. As one police officer who worked closely with Internal Affairs, noted of the DAs and DSAs, ‘They died well and died en masse.’To try to counter insurgency in districts where leadership was poor, Internal Affairs set up the Administrative Reinforcement Unit (ARU). Despite its apparently innocuous name, this white-led force was ‘full of hard men’, according to one Rhodesian military historian. ‘Despite sounding like they checked paperclips, the ARU was very gung-ho and well-equipped.’
A late appearance was the auxiliary army, grandly titled Pfumo reVanhu (‘the Spear of the People’; Umkonto wa Bantu in Matabeleland) which emerged from the internal political settlement of 3 March 1978. Under code name Operation Favour, the auxiliaries were boosted in number to try to match the size of ZANLA. About US$10 million was raised with money coming from Saudi Arabia, and especially from the Sultan of Oman, a good friend of Rhodesia and a fervent anti-communist. Ostensibly comprising guerrillas who surrendered under an amnesty similar to the Chieu Hoi programme in Vietnam, a large number (about 90 per cent, according to one Rhodesian officer who worked with them) were in fact raw recruits, some merely boys, lured or press-ganged into its ranks from urban townships. Some units fought well, especially in the Urungwe TTL, but others were merely an armed rabble. Originally liaison between the Rhodesian military authorities and the SFAs was carried out by Special Branch agents, but towards the end of the war many auxiliaries protecting PVs came under Internal Affairs control and the rest under a new unit, the Special Forces. Their political alignment to Sithole’s ZANU and Muzorewa’s UANC was more a hindrance than a help, for this made ideal propaganda for the guerrillas. Any military value they may have had was offset by the political costs of periodic rampages and reigns of terror inflicted on African populations in their areas of responsibility, called ‘frozen zones’(distinct from zones reserved for Selous Scout operations) because other Rhodesian units were not permitted to operate there. The Rhodesian government’s verdict on this generally unsuccessful experiment was revealed when, in 1979, it felt forced to wipe out two ill-disciplined and disaffected groups of auxiliaries loyal to Sithole.