The Rhodesian Counterinsurgency Campaign 1962–80 I

Rhodesian Army badges around chopper

Ultimately, all governments stand or fall on the consent of the governed, and all counterinsurgency campaigns depend for their success on the government securing that consent. The Rhodesian government was no exception. Governments also have to act, or abdicate. Thus, when Rhodesia’s African nationalists, imbued with Marxist revolutionary theories so beloved of the national liberation movements of the day, adopted the “armed struggle” as their route to power in 1962, the Rhodesian government had no choice but to react, and was slowly drawn into countering what would become a fullblown insurgency.

Tasked to defeat the insurgency, the Rhodesian Commander of Combined Operations, Lieutenant General Peter Walls, was of the opinion that “You cannot win a war like this purely through military means. The military is merely there to maintain law and order and provide a conducive atmosphere for political development.” To do even this, he lacked adequate manpower, finances, and resources, and his forces had to make do with what they had. In doing so, they gained an enviable reputation as inventive and fierce exponents of counterinsurgency warfare. They would not win because as long as the Rhodesian whites, never more than 5 percent of the population, clung to power, the African population remained, at best, passive participants and did not supply the support necessary to defeat the African nationalist insurgents. Such support was forthcoming only after Ian Smith, the Rhodesian Prime Minister, accepted universal suffrage in 1978 and the subsequent election returned the moderate Bishop Abel Muzorewa as the country’s first African premier in 1979. Everything then depended on Britain. Smith had rebelled against Britain and declared Rhodesia unilaterally independent in 1965, but only Britain could transfer sovereignty. Margaret Thatcher, however, refused to recognize Muzorewa and created conditions which would ensure the accession to power of Robert Mugabe.

The Armed Struggle

Rhodesia’s African nationalists chose to undertake “armed struggle” in 1962 after Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) had spurned the “evolution to democracy” solution offered by Sir Edgar Whitehead’s Liberal government. At that moment, Rhodesia was Southern Rhodesia and part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. A year later, the Federation had been dismembered by Britain in her haste to divest herself of her empire. She had granted independence to the new African nationalist governments of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi), both of which rejected association with whiteruled Rhodesia.

ZAPU’s resort to arms and dispatch of young men for guerrilla training in Algeria, Egypt, and the Soviet Bloc reflected Nkomo’s desire to be handed the reins of power in common with his fellow African nationalist leaders, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and Hastings Banda in Malawi. Britain, however, could not oblige Nkomo because she had never ruled Rhodesia directly and had no means to enforce her will. Southern Rhodesia had been a self-governing colony since 1923, with the right to defend herself. All Britain retained was a veto to protect African rights and, of course, sovereignty.

The African nationalists’ drive for power was founded on a general desire to recover land, identity, and independence lost when Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia, had finessed a mining concession gained from the Ndebele king, Lobengula, into an occupation. When Lobengula attempted to thwart him, Rhodes expanded his influence through the acquisition of the very land concession that Lobengula had granted to Edouard Lippert in 1889 to undermine Rhodes’ territorial ambitions. Within three years, Rhodes’s British South Africa Company was at war with Lobengula, who died during a retreat to the north. In 1896, the Ndebele people in the west and the Shona-speaking people in the north and east rose in separate attempts to expel the whites. The Shona rising came to be known as the “First Chimurenga.” The confinement of the Africans to reserves in 1898, albeit inalienable ones, and restrictions on the purchase of outside land, did nothing to ameliorate resentment. The unequal distribution of land in 1931 between the one million Africans and the 50,000 whites did not improve the situation, particularly as the soil in the African reserves was already exhausted by traditional farming methods, and the Africans lacked the means to purchase the land set aside for them. Government attempts to conserve the soil, including de-stocking, only fostered resentment. The indefensible racial discrimination and segregation of the day exacerbated the situation. An exception was the franchise, but even that was qualified, requiring an income level above that of most Africans.

Despite these grievances, Rhodesia’s African nationalists had, by the 1960s, secured only a few followers among the liberated, educated Africans living in Rhodesia’s small segregated towns. The majority of the population still lived by subsistence farming, on the land, in the thrall of their traditional leaders. Indeed, to feel secure in any area, the militants resorted to deadly intimidation (and have continued to do so to this day). A rejection of such attempts at intimidation can be seen in the defiance of the African electorate in voting in the 1979 election, despite being ordered by the African nationalists to abstain, and in the willing recruits who constituted 80 percent of the Rhodesian security forces.

There had been attempts to organize African resistance in the first half of the 20th century, but militant feeling only began to grow when a postWorld War Two generation came of age and grew impatient for power. The formation of a militant Youth League led to the resuscitation of the moribund African National Congress (ANC), originally founded in the 1930s. Its activities led to its banning in 1959 and its re-emergence under a succession of different names as the Whitehead government sought to curb its violent activities by increasingly harsh legislation. It emerged from another banning as ZAPU in 1962, but split in April 1963 when a group of mainly Shona-speaking intellectuals, led by the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole and including Robert Mugabe, rejected Nkomo’s leadership and formed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Continued unrest, including internecine fighting, led to the banning of both movements in September 1964 and the preventive detention of their leaders. Both movements had, however, established external bases and sought support in Zambia and Tanzania. ZAPU strengthened ties established in the 1950s with the Soviet Bloc, while ZANU sought aid from the Chinese Communists, North Korea, Libya, and Yugoslavia, as well as from Western sympathizers, and particularly from the Scandinavians.

ZAPU’s proclamation of the “armed struggle” in 1962 predated Ian Smith’s rebellion against Britain on November 11, 1965. Since Rhodesia’s founding, independently-minded whites had sought dominion status for Rhodesia. This quest had led them to federate with two British-controlled territories in the hope that this would increase the chances of achieving dominion status. There were, however, never enough whites for Britain even to consider entrusting the fate of the African population to them. After 1945, Britain would not and could not grant independence on terms of less than universal suffrage. Attempts by Lord Malvern, the longstanding Rhodesian prime minister, Whitehead, and Winston Field to secure dominion status were fruitless. It was galling to Rhodesians that the less-developed Zambia and Malawi should be made independent in 1964, particularly as they were virtually one-party states. In 1964 the new British Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, stonewalled Ian Smith, refusing to contemplate anything less than a transfer of power to the African majority. After 18 months of frustration and insecurity, denied British money owed from the breakup of the Federation, excluded from Commonwealth conferences and committees, enduring an unofficial arms embargo, humiliated and blocked at every turn while Rhodesia’s economy stalled and people began to emigrate, Ian Smith acted, declaring Rhodesia unilaterally independent.

Possessed of a margin of five seats and faced with British sentimental support for the Rhodesians, Wilson balked at asking British forces to fight their Rhodesian peers and rejected the use of force. There were also practical reasons for this decision: having been denied a port by Rhodesia’s neighbors, South Africa and Portuguese-ruled Mozambique, the only one available to the British was Dar es Salaam, a thousand miles to the north along a dirt road. Instead, Wilson applied economic sanctions against Rhodesia and made them mandatory shortly thereafter by invoking Chapter Seven of the UN Charter, only the second time it had been invoked (the first was against North Korea).

The Rhodesian Response

Blessed with a modern economy, Rhodesia was self-sufficient enough in everything but petroleum products and ammunition to withstand sanctions, given the willing assistance of her South African and Portuguese neighbors. The South Africans were being pilloried for their policy of apartheid and the Portuguese were still smarting over the British failure to support their protests at India’s seizure of Goa.

Rhodesia also had enough experienced forces to contain the small threat posed by ZAPU and ZANU. Good police work, based on intelligence from an informer network, had already stamped out any urban threat. The insurgency was therefore confined to the rural areas, where both ZANU and ZAPU sought to secure peasant support and recruits.

Responsible for the maintenance of law and order under the Police Act, the British South Africa Police (BSAP) had 7,000 regular white and African policemen, including the paramilitary Support Unit. It was backed by a volunteer Police Reserve of 30,000 men and women of all races and the Police Reserve Air Wing. Regulars and volunteers were to be found in the Police Anti-Terrorist Unit. The intelligence effort was coordinated by the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), which incorporated the Special Branch.

The Rhodesian Army had 5,000 regulars, the bulk of them in a white-officered African infantry battalion, the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR) and the whites-only commando battalion of the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI). The remainder were distributed among a squadron of the Special Air Service (SAS) and the engineers, signals, and service corps. Backing the regulars were eight battalions of territorials and reservists of the Royal Rhodesia Regiment and the national servicemen training at its depot. All non-African males were liable for four and a half months of national service and three years of compulsory territorial service before being transferred to the reserve. There was a territorial field artillery regiment and territorials were also to be found in the engineers, signals, and service corps.

The seven-squadron Royal Rhodesian Air Force (RRAF) had 2,000 regulars flying and servicing Hunter and Vampire fighter bombers, Canberra medium bombers, DC3 Dakota transports, Alouette III helicopters and light reconnaissance and training aircraft.

The ranks of the army included veterans of the Malayan and Aden campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s, representing Rhodesian contributions to Commonwealth forces. The Rhodesian SAS squadron (commanded by Major Peter Walls) and the RAR had served in Malaya in the 1950s. In the 1960s, the re-formed SAS squadron and the RRAF served in Aden. In Malaya, the Rhodesian SAS troopers had pioneered “tree-jumping” (parachuting into unprepared anding zones). They and the RAR had been blooded in the fleeting contacts in the undergrowth and had learned the techniques of jungle warfare including small-unit tactics, crossgraining, tracking, ambushing, and inter-service cooperation. The Officer Corps had participated in the Malayan civil/military counterinsurgency structure, with its pooling of resources under a single command of the governor.

In 1964, in preparation for combating the insurgency, Ian Smith took the chair of the new Security Council on which sat the service commanders and heads of relevant ministries. The Council was advised by the Counter-Insurgency Committee, also chaired by Smith, and served by the commanders, the Director, CIO, and appropriate officials. It had two subcommittees: the Operations Coordinating Committee (OCC) and the Counter-Insurgency Civil Committee. The latter, manned by the heads of appropriate ministries, planned and coordinated the civil aspects of the campaign such as the construction of roads, airfields, and protected villages. It also advised on the psychological aspects. The service commanders and the Director, CIO, who constituted the OCC, directed operations and, with the assistance of the Joint Planning Staff, evolved a common doctrine and modus operandi. They set up Joint Operations Centers (JOCs), served by army, air force, BSAP, and Special Branch senior officers, to command the all-arms effort in the field. The JOC met daily to review and plan operations and to issue a situation report (or sitrep). When operational needs dictated, the JOC could establish sub-JOCs.

Even though the services remained answerable to their individual headquarters, this command-by-consensus worked. The implementation of a JOC’s plans by its disparate subordinates was not, however, always satisfactory, and the different approaches to problems produced some indecision. A major disadvantage was the dominance of immediate tactical requirements over the need to devise a national strategy. The discontent led to the creation of a Combined Operations Headquarters in March 1977, but it could never be quite like the Malayan model because Malaya had an executive governor, while Rhodesia had an elected prime minister and cabinet government. It meant that the Commander, Combined Operations, Lieutenant General Peter Walls, remained answerable to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, and never had the free hand which Field Marshal Templer had enjoyed in Malaya.

The counterinsurgency campaign went through five phases dictated by the political situation, until the ceasefire in 1980 and the election of Mugabe.

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