Although Rhodesian forces fought alongside British and Imperial units against the white Afrikaners during the Boer War, the settlers remained mesmerized by the spectre of an African rebellion. The defence system of the first decade of the twentieth century was geared solely towards securing the settlers against the vastly more numerous black population. Imperial supervision forced the Company to develop more subtle ways of controlling the African masses. Forced labour was no longer possible, but increasing taxation compelled African men to seek work in the labour-hungry settler economy to meet their obligations to the tax-man. Registration certificates and pass laws controlled the movements of Africans, and the boundaries of their reserves were strictly defined. African peasant farmers were moved off their land to make way for Europeans, and armed police patrols crisscrossed the territory to display the power of the Company and to nip in the bud any thoughts of insurrection.
The white man’s war of 1914-18 resurrected fears of an opportunistic African rising. Internal defence remained a top priority throughout the war against the Germans. Ironically, while the traditions of African tribal life were breaking down and lessening the likelihood of a rising, the Afrikaner rebellion of 1914 in South Africa had its echoes in Rhodesia. Embittered Boers took advantage of Britain’s withdrawal of its garrisons to France to stage a rising aimed at regaining their independence. The settler armed forces were alerted to the possibility of a sympathetic rising by Boer settlers in Rhodesia, and Afrikaner passive resistance to the British war effort and recruiting drives kept suspicions smouldering until the armistice.
Ironically, while large numbers of white Afrikaner settlers refused to serve in the forces at war with Germany, several thousand Africans enlisted in an all-volunteer force, the Rhodesia Native Regiment. The unit saw action in German East Africa. The settlers swallowed their repugnance at the thought of arming and training the possible core of some future African insurrection, and of undermining the myth of white supremacy by putting Africans into the field against white Germans. The manpower shortage in the colony bred a pragmatism which evaporated with the unit’s demobilization in 1919: the several thousand whites who had fought shoulder to shoulder with African troops in East Africa and with working-class Tommies in France returned to the colony with their class and racial prejudices intact.
The Twenties and the Depression years saw a widening of racial divisions in Rhodesia. The Land Apportionment Act of 1930 formally divided the country’s land between the races; the whites reserved to themselves the more fertile areas with higher rainfall and ‘gave’ Africans the poorer, more arid areas. These soon teetered on the brink of ecological disaster as a rapidly growing African population and its expanding herds of livestock crowded on to the overtaxed land. Labour, agricultural, industrial, educational and health legislation of the late Twenties and Thirties was aimed at creating a secure and prosperous society for the whites at the expense of blacks, and largely succeeded, despite the hard times of the Depression.
Discriminatory policies were more easily introduced after the handover of power to the settlers in 1923. Settler opposition to the policies of the Company had begun almost as soon as the Union Jack was raised at Fort Salisbury in September 1890, but this had grown more vociferous in the first decade of the twentieth century. As the constitution was periodically changed to give the settlers greater power in the Legislative Council, the Company’s stranglehold on the country’s resources and its monopoly of power came under intensifying attack. The Responsible Government Association, formed in 1917 and later led by a prominent lawyer, Sir Charles Coghlan, welded together a polyglot collection of local interests to defeat those which favoured incorporation with the Union of South Africa. The referendum of 1922 delivered self-government into the hands of the settlers, and the African population’s welfare with it.
Although the British government retained supervisory powers, these were never effective, and the settlers were able to create the sort of economy and society they wanted. The Africans’ response was slow in gathering momentum, for they were denied the vote and their tribal political systems were losing cohesion under the impact of a changing economy. While a few small political groups tried unsuccessfully to voice African needs and aspirations, the broad masses remained inarticulate and passive.
Although the settlers’ defence system was still concentrated on internal security, there were some concessions to the colony’s history of warfare against other whites. In 1926 compulsory service for young white males was introduced, in the face of fierce opposition from the white Southern Rhodesia Labour Party, which accused the ruling Rhodesia Party of fascism. The new defence force was organized on a regimental basis and was headed by a Staff Corps. This was the skeleton of the future Rhodesian army, although in the lean Thirties it remained poorly fleshed. The phenomenally high proportion of white settlers who were commissioned during the Great War disposed the Imperial military authorities to view Rhodesia as a training ground for future NCOs and officers should the Empire ever go to war again.
The rearmament of Britain’s forces in the face of deteriorating international relations in the 1930s brought closer liaison between the British and Rhodesian armed forces. From 1938 onwards new units, such as a reconnaissance company and a light artillery battery, were formed with the specific aim of taking part in British expeditionary forces. A fledgling air force, attached to the army, had been created in the early Thirties. For the first time, defence policy became consciously outward-looking, planning for eventualities beyond the protection of laagered white women and children against waves of assegai-wielding black insurgents.
The outbreak of war in 1939 saw the Rhodesian forces geared for a world-wide conflict. Rhodesian squadrons of the Royal Air Force (44, 237 and 266) served in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Rhodesian soldiers fought with British and South African formations in North Africa and Italy. The high rate of casualties suffered by Rhodesian units during the Great War prompted a policy of dispersal of the colony’s treasured white manpower to avoid the possibility of some latter-day Passchendaele causing a national tragedy.
Paradoxically, the largest homogeneous unit representing the colony was the Rhodesian African Rifles. Raised in 1940-1 to counter the perennial shortage of white manpower, the unit adopted the East African battle honours of its predecessor, the Rhodesia Native Regiment, and fought with Field Marshal William Slim’s ‘Forgotten Army’ in Burma. But there was more widespread resistance to recruiting among Africans than during the Great War. African perceptions of the racial lopsidedness of the Rhodesian economy and the exclusivity of white society had crystallized in the 1930s. The RAR and a labour battalion, the Rhodesian Air Askari Corps, had difficulties drumming up recruits. Grandiose plans for an ‘Africanization’ of the armed forces around a core of white officers and NCOs had to be drastically revised. Yet some 2,500 Africans did enlist in the RAR, and 13,000 in the Air Askari Corps.
While African society remained largely undisturbed by the world upheaval, white society was more profoundly affected. Not only did 6,500 men (out of an estimated 30,000) serve abroad in all the major theatres of war, but 10,000 airmen were trained in the colony under the Empire Air Training Scheme, arguably Rhodesia’s most effective contribution to the Allied war effort. The scope of the fighting and the influx of trainees developed Rhodesian contacts with the wider world. The Air Training Scheme provided valuable immigration publicity for the small white community. Officers and men built contacts with the British armed forces which were to be of great practical and emotional value in the future. In the 1950s and 1960s the settlers constantly played on their contributions to the British war effort to retain British sympathy in the struggle against African nationalism. The colony emerged from the war more confident and less introverted than it had been in the inter-war years.
Under the stewardship of Godfrey Huggins and in the favourable conditions of the post-war world economy, the colony grew more prosperous and, according to the politicians’ rosy speeches, promised to become the jewel of Africa. The armed forces were demobilized, though the RAR was almost immediately resuscitated in 1947, and the Defence Acts of the 1950s reaffirmed the principle of compulsory national service in the Cold War era. The armed forces immediately after the war comprised a Permanent Staff of European officers and NCOs to command and administer the Rhodesian African Rifles as the regular core, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Royal Rhodesian Regiment as the European reserve component, and the Royal Rhodesian Air Force, which became a unit of the Permanent Force from 1947.
Huggins steered Southern Rhodesia into federation with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1953. The southern colony’s more powerful economy and larger white population were telling factors in the negotiations over the conditions of federation, and Southern Rhodesia soon dominated this regional political structure. The colony’s white population had been almost doubled in the years 1945-53 by Huggins’s strenuous efforts to promote white immigration, even at the cost of virtually bankrupting the national exchequer.
The units of the Rhodesian armed forces were absorbed by the federal defence structure, which fitted into Britain’s Imperial defence policy under the umbrella of the Central African Military Command. The Southern Rhodesia forces tended to dominate the federal defence system in the same way as federal politics and the economy were dominated by the Southern Rhodesian political structure. This was encouraged by an undeclared reliance by the British government on Southern Rhodesia as a cornerstone of regional defence policy. Detachments of the police force, which had never lost its paramilitary functions, were sent to help to quell disturbances in Bechuanaland in 1950-2, and to Kenya and Nyasaland in 1953. A Rhodesian Far East Volunteer Unit served in Malaya in the early 1950s, and the RAR was deployed there during the Emergency in 1956-8. The Royal Rhodesian Air Force, which was based mainly in Southern Rhodesia, was expanded in the Federation years and acquired jet fighter and strike aircraft in the late Fifties. From 1958-61 detachments served in Kuwait and at Aden in support of British operations in the Middle East.
Yet this period of Rhodesian history was full of paradoxes. As the defence system broadened the scope of its operations and its horizons, the threat to internal security again grew prominent. As early as the 1920s there was a great deal of talk about ‘Bolshevik’ influence among Rhodesian blacks. Units of the settler defence forces had exercised against mock attacks by columns of African insurgents led by white Bolshevik agitators. In 1927 the Shamva miners’ strike pointed to a new era of protracted political struggle in the territory. African nationalism had been given a boost by the service of thousands of Africans alongside whites all over the world during the Second World War and by the democratic idealism of the Atlantic Declaration. The Bulawayo general strike by Africans in 1948 firmly launched the rise of post-war African nationalism in Rhodesia. Legislation such as the Native Land Husbandry Act of 1951, which introduced specific restrictions on African land use and compulsory de-stocking of overgrazed pastures, merely provided a focus for African discontent in the colony. The Federation was supposed to bring the emergence of racial ‘partnership’, with blacks rising to an ill-defined position of quasi-equality at some undetermined date in the future. But Africans had little faith in the Federation and its professed prescriptions for racial harmony. Huggins unintentionally parodied the whole idea with his description of partnership as that of ‘horse and rider’, with Africans being supervised and guided by paternalistic whites.
In common with those in other British colonies, Rhodesian blacks followed their own path, and the first modern African nationalist party, the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, was formed in 1957 and passed into the leadership of Joshua Nkomo. Rather like the irresistible meeting the immovable, the powerful welling of African discontent clashed head-on with the intransigence of the whites, and the result was an explosion of violence. The white response was to eliminate those elements in their own political structure which favoured reform (symbolized by the deposition of the liberal prime minister, Garfield Todd, in 1957), and to curb African political activity. At first the whites held the whip hand, but the mushrooming of nationalism throughout Africa and the rest of the colonized world, and in particular nationalist eruptions in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, forced the whites into beleaguered isolation. British will to contain the spread of nationalist movements and the demands for decolonization had evaporated, and the nationalist parties north of the Zambezi called for the dismemberment of the Federation as part of their own demands for independence.
Faced with a looming internal and external crisis, the white response was to resort to greater coercion and to expand the armed forces. Counter-insurgency (COIN) training had already begun in the early 1950s when members of the Far East Volunteer Unit returned home after their combat tour in Malaya. More emphasis was placed on internal security training for all units, though as late as 1956 an official report commented that the experience of jungle warfare in Malaya was an excellent preparation for nuclear warfare as it developed the potential of junior leaders! But it became increasingly clear that Rhodesians would not be facing Soviet A-bombs–stones and petrol bombs hurled by frustrated African nationalists were the weapons of the growing conflict in the country. The emphasis on COIN training continued to grow in the late Fifties. Sir Roy Welensky, the federal prime minister, commissioned a federal government study in late 1958 to survey the strategic situation south of the Sahara. Welensky drew apocalyptic conclusions from the report. He pointed to ‘the stark fact that the battle for Africa was already on’, and that ‘a vast power vacuum was created, which the communists were only too willing to fill.’ His alarm at ‘the communist menace’ was to be the keynote of Rhodesian perceptions of African nationalism for the next two decades.
The Royal Rhodesian Air Force acquired more sophisticated aircraft: Canberra light bombers were delivered in 1959 and Hawker Hunters and Alouette III helicopters in 1962-4. Three additional European Territorial battalions were formed. In 1961 all European males aged 18 to 50 were registered for emergency call-up into the Territorial Force if necessary. The political and financial neglect of the armed forces of the 1950s was swept away by the winds of change in Africa, and rearmament was stepped up to a feverish pace.
A symbol of the nature of the conflict was the creation in 1961 of an all-white component of the regular forces ‘to strike the balance between the European and African units’. In an era of African nationalism the white settlers were no longer prepared to entrust their security to black (and conceivably disloyal) regular troops and a weak European Territorial force. Recruits into ‘No. 1 Training Unit’ were formed into the Rhodesian Light Infantry, a squadron of the Special Air Service and an armoured car unit, the Selous Scouts.
Rhodesian units continued their links with the British armed forces–Rhodesian officers were trained at Sandhurst, RRAF units flew with the RAF in the Middle East, Canberras trained with the carrier HMS Victorious in the Indian Ocean, and the SAS went to Aden in July 1962. But the final parting of the ways with Britain was coming. Sir Roy Welensky believed that Britain was preparing to invade Northern Rhodesia in 1961 to force a majority rule solution in that country. In a portent of Rhodesia’s future political alignments, elements of the RRAF exercised with the South African Air Force in the Republic of South Africa in 1962. The Sharpeville incident of 1960 and the growing apparatus of apartheid had made South Africa an international pariah. Rhodesia was on its way to joining it.