Weapons of the Rhodesian Conflict I

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Generals in modern armies bristling with sophisticated weaponry have had to face the fact that the most cost-effective way to kill a man with a rifle is to use another man with a rifle. Although both sides deployed heavy weapons in the war in Rhodesia, the infantry rifle was the major instrument of death.

The standard rifle of the Rhodesian security forces was the 7.62mm Fabrique Nationale FAL automatic rifle. Large numbers of these had been supplied through the British ministry of defence when the RLI was formed in 1961, and in subsequent years. After UDI the flow of these weapons was maintained by the purchase of the South African version, designated the R1, which had a less effective muzzle flash shield than the Belgian version, and which could not take the standard NATO rifle grenades. The FN was a temperamental weapon designed for sophisticated armies in Europe. Its precision structure required careful maintenance and the weapon was prone to stoppages when it became worn. The call-up system meant that these rifles were in almost continuous use by different soldiers over many years. It was only in the elite units that weapons were issued to individuals for long periods.

With its long 7.62mm round and high muzzle velocity, the FN was far more effective and longer-ranged than Soviet-designed guerrilla weapons which took the shorter 7.62mm intermediate round. The heavier round inflicted gaping wounds and caused a high mortality rate among those hit, though the weight of the ammunition reduced the quantities which could be carried by patrols. Despite the fact that its length could be a hindrance in close bush, the weapon was universally admired for its stopping power and versatility. One Selous Scout described it as a rifle, light machine gun (in its automatic fire configuration) and mortar (using rifle grenades), all in one.

Later in the war large numbers of Heckler & Koch G3s, also firing the standard 7.62mm NATO round, were supplied by Portugal. These were issued to troops deployed on protective duties, though their light and often flimsy construction and difficult maintenance saw their rapid deterioration in the hands of soldiers with less training.

The Rhodesians’ standard light machine gun was the MAG, known in Britain as the GPMG. This was carried at section and ‘stick’(squad) level and gave devastating firepower to the small Rhodesian tactical units. Priority in distribution was given to elite and active combat units, as there were never enough to equip every unit with MAGs. When the scandal involving corruption in the procurement of arms broke in 1978, the limited information disclosed publicly was enough for law enforcement agents in Europe to seize a valuable shipment of 500 MAGs destined for Rhodesia.

Other units had to make do with Browning .303 machine guns, heavy-barrelled versions of the FN with 30-round magazines and Second World War-vintage Bren guns converted to take the standard NATO round. Besides FNs, the police force had a large number of different weapons available for its operations, including Greener and Browning automatic shotguns, German PI and Czech CZ 9mm pistols and Lee-Enfield .303 rifles. Personnel of the internal affairs ministry serving in war zones were largely equipped also with .303 rifles. Spread throughout the Rhodesian forces was a great variety of other weapons, including Browning 9mm and CZ 7.65mm pistols, Israeli-supplied Uzis, Sten and Stirling submachine guns and various Rhodesian-made machine pistols of 9mm calibre. From time to time other weapons were tested by the Rhodesian forces, including the American standard infantry rifle, the M-16. In addition, 120,000 privately registered firearms were in the hands of the white population.

Ammunition supplies were secured from and through South Africa. The South Africans produced their own 7.62mm, 9mm and .303 inch ammunition, much of the latter being of inferior quality and causing stoppages, particularly in Browning machine guns.

The FN’s adversary was the now famous symbol of revolution in the Third World, the AK-47 and its successor, the AKM. Firing the 7.62mm intermediate round, it had less hitting power than the NATO 7.62mm rifles, but it had certain overriding advantages for guerrilla armies which were largely made up of poorly educated, ill-trained peasants. The AK family was in the tradition of Russian weapons: rugged, dependable and cheap. Instances of AKs firing more than 3,000 rounds without being cleaned or lubricated were recorded during the war. Guerrillas could bury AKs for months, and even when the wooden stocks had been eaten away by termites and the components had become rusty, they would fire on the first shot. Lighter ammunition meant that the guerrillas could carry more rounds in the distinctive 30-round ‘banana’ magazines. The guerrillas did not discourage ammunition wastage and favoured extravagant automatic fire, so that these larger quantities of ammunition were vital. The AKs could also take a family of rifle grenades, but their most widely used optional fixtures were bayonets. The most common were triangular-section ‘pig-stickers’ and saw-back bayonets. These were used for the summary executions and mutilations by the guerrillas to maintain discipline and loyalty among their supporters, and to despatch their civilian opponents. The AK was supplied in a number of configurations depending on the supplier. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, China and Romania all supplied different versions of the basic rifle.

The AK was supplemented by the SKS semi-automatic rifle and a number of other small arms. In early days the guerrillas were armed with a motley assortment of weapons bought in the international arms bazaar, but even as late as 1979 the security forces captured German-made MG-34 machine guns of World War Two vintage. Most weapons and ammunition were of Soviet origin or design and included the extremely light and highly accurate RPD machine gun, the PKM machine gun with the long 7.62mm round, PPShk submachine guns and Tokarev 7.62mm pistols, which were carried as the badge of authority within guerrilla detachments. (The Tokarev was a prized personal capture for Rhodesian troops, especially on external raids, even though looting was officially forbidden.)

Both sides used hand and rifle grenades supplied by their respective supporters. The Rhodesian forces used Portuguese- and South African-produced M-962 fragmentation and white phosphorous hand grenades, vintage Mills bombs of British origin, NATO Z-42 rifle grenades, and a variety of Rhodesian-produced hand and rifle, phosphorous and fragmentation grenades. The guerrillas used Chinese stick grenades and Soviet and Eastern European ‘egg’ and standard, ‘pineapple’-shaped hand grenades.

For heavier infantry weapons, both sides deployed 60mm mortars, which the guerrillas used for attacks on farms, security forces camps, PVs and other installations, as well as against security force patrols. The guerrillas also deployed 82mm mortars for attacks against static installations, and the Rhodesian artillery used 106mm mortars. These were normally deployed opposite points of border friction such as Vila Salazar and Chirundu, and used for retaliatory barrages.

The heaviest weapons normally deployed by the guerrillas were the RPG antitank grenade launchers, and 75mm recoilless rifles. Each section would usually carry an RPG-2 or RPG-7, but recoilless rifles were considerably less common. There were supply problems, too, and guerrillas often had a recoilless rifle and no ammunition, or vice versa.

The Rhodesians were far more lavishly equipped with heavy weapons than the guerrillas. Much of this equipment was left over from pre-UDI days, but more was amassed after the Rhodesian army began to plan for conventional warfare from 1976-7. The guerrillas were expected to attempt to go over to the ‘mobile’ phase of revolutionary warfare sometime in the following two years, possibly with the assistance of Cuban or other Eastern bloc proxies such as Nigeria or Tanzania. In the event, the mobile phase did not materialize, and, though most of the heavy equipment saw some combat, much of it was under-utilized.

The mainstay of the Rhodesian artillery was the 25-pounder of British origin and Second World War fame. This weapon was used for retaliatory artillery strikes on Zambia and Mozambique, on some cross-border raids and on COIN operations. Artillery barrages were used to attack guerrilla base camps, in a counter-ambush role and in support of ground operations. The guerrillas feared the artillery because, unlike aircraft, it gave no warning and they were unable to gauge the origin of the fire and take effective evasive action.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies consistently reported the existence of a battery of NATO 10 5mm pack howitzers within the Rhodesian artillery establishment, but these were not seen in public or photographed–because they did not exist. From time to time South African 5.5 inch medium guns, again of Second World War vintage, were deployed in Rhodesia. Designated the 140mm gun, they were used for cross-border barrages against Zambian and Mozambican military installations and guerrilla base camps in the border regions of those states. Later in the war Pretoria also loaned Rhodesia 155mm artillery pieces.

Reports of shipments of Soviet T-34/85 and T-55 tanks to Mozambique caused a scare in Rhodesia in 1976. As a result, the artillery created tank-killer teams using 106mm recoilless rifles mounted on German Unimog 2.5 ton vehicles. The weapons were worked in teams because of the huge dust clouds kicked up by the backflashes, which have universally branded recoilless rifles as suicide weapons in positional warfare. To reduce the chances of enemy retaliatory fire, the first vehicle would fire and withdraw, leaving the second to be relied on to score a lethal hit if the first missed.

Eland armoured cars, the South African-produced version of the Panhard AML-90, were imported in quantity. Armed with a 90mm gun, these vehicles were also an important element of the Rhodesian anti-tank capability. They were deployed on internal and external operations. The Eland was used successfully in Angola by the South African Defence Force in 1975-6 and in September 1979 a troop of Rhodesian Elands engaged T-34s of the Mozambique army in one battle. The T-34s were poorly handled by FRELIMO troops, but since a general rout was in process at the time of the engagement, and the tanks withdrew without pressing their attack, the results were inconclusive.

The RAF deployed another South African armoured car, a version of the Panhard AML-60, armed with a 60mm breech-loading mortar, on airfield protection and fuel convoy duties. About 20 British Ferret armoured cars, first delivered in 1960 and armed with Browning machine guns, were also used in COIN operations and for protective duties.

In 1979 the existence of eight Soviet T-55s in the Rhodesian army was disclosed. Salisbury leaked to the press that they been captured in Mozambique, but they were part of a shipment destined for Uganda when Idi Amin’s regime began to topple. The French ship, the Astor, transporting heavy weapons from Libya to Uganda, was diverted to Angola. It stopped at Durban, where the cargo, including ten Polishbuilt T-55 LD (built in 1975), was seized by South Africa, which considered itself at war with Angola. Two tanks were kept by Pretoria for evaluation. The remaining eight were transported north. The tanks became part of the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment, in a newly formed ‘E’ Squadron. They were driven around on transporters for several months to give the impression that the Rhodesians possessed a large number of heavy tanks. Rhodesian crews were trained by experts from the SADF School of Armour, who kitted out the vehicles with improved communications. The squadron was put under the command of a West German captain, who was well versed in tank warfare. Despite their deployment for Operation Quartz in 1980, they remained unused.

The guerrillas excelled at land mine warfare and they employed a great variety of Soviet-designed anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. On most days at the height of the war the guerrillas could count on damaging or destroying several security force vehicles with a variety of metal, plastic and wooden-box mines. Increasingly sophisticated anti-lift and anti-detection devices were used. Small children and non-combatant supporters (mujibas) often laid mines, and land mine blasts became one of the most serious problems for the Rhodesian forces. They in turn sowed thousands of mines along guerrilla infiltration routes into Rhodesia and inside neighbouring countries. The standard tactical mine was a locally- and South African-produced Claymore mine. Towards the end of the war Rhodesian forces operating across the border were laying mines which, in addition to normal anti-lift devices, were equipped with sensitive photo-electric cells.