The Rhodesian Counterinsurgency Campaign 1962–80 II

Fire Force: Helicopter Warfare in Rhodesia: 1962-1980
Dr. J.R.T. Wood

Phase 1: 1966–72

Realizing that, with the willing help of the South Africans, Portuguese, and others, Rhodesia could survive the sanctions, Wilson sought to negotiate a settlement. Several attempts, including meeting on the warships Tiger and Fearless, however, failed, and in 1969 Ian Smith declared Rhodesia to be a republic. He immediately enacted a new constitution which aimed at racial parity of representation. This was rejected by the British and, to secure the vital international legitimacy, Smith settled with the new government of Edward Heath in 1972, only to see the settlement terms rejected by the British Pearce Commission after sampling the opinion of six percent of the African population, obtained amidst an uproar generated by the African nationalists.

In the period 1962–65, its paucity of trained manpower had restricted ZAPU’s Zimbabwe People’s Liberation Army (ZPRA) to a pinpricking sabotage program directed mostly at railway lines and soft targets. It was ZANU’s armed wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) which mounted the first incursion from Zambia into Rhodesia in April 1966, on the unsophisticated assumption that the African people would rise. ZPRA followed suit in July, sending in a small team. Another 30 small-scale and fruitless incursions followed, but at least both movements were formulating their strategies, in contrast to the Rhodesians, who were wholly reactive. ZPRA, advised by Soviet instructors, aimed to mount a conventional threat. ZANLA adopted the Maoist concept of revolution, but never progressed very far through its phases and was never capable of positional warfare.

The threat was easily contained after an initial hiccup when the Police Commissioner, Frank Barfoot, compelled by his duty to preserve law and order, called up his Police Reserve to deal with the first ZANLA incursion rather than involve the army. The somewhat inept but successful “battle of Chinoyi” (now celebrated as a national holiday) led the OCC to insist on implementing the JOC system. What aided the success thereafter was the timely notice of incursions given by informers in the ranks of ZANU and ZAPU. This was supplemented by information volunteered by rural Africans and a steady stream of press-ganged ZANLA and ZPRA deserters. Schisms within the African nationalist ranks were exploited by the CIO with disinformation and even assassination. ZPRA and its ally, the African National Congress of South Africa, also made the mistake twice, in 1967 and 1968, of establishing bases in uninhabited areas where the absence of other human tracks betrayed them. The involvement of the ANC was also a mistake as it supplied the excuse for direct South African intervention. South Africa deployed police reinforcements and supplied military hardware.

While the completeness of their defeats depressed both ZPRA and ZANLA, the Rhodesian security forces enjoyed a solid grounding in jointservice counterinsurgency actions which allowed them to hone their small-unit tactics. The four-man “stick” (half-section) emerged as the basic formation, equipped with a Belgian MAG machine gun, a radio, and three riflemen armed with the FN FAL 7.62mm rifle. Understanding the psychological importance of not harming (and therefore not antagonizing) the innocent, emphasis was laid on the accuracy of the riflemen, teaching them to attempt the single aimed round rather than the traditional “double tap.” The Rhodesians developed tracking and other skills, setting up the Tracker Combat School at Kariba in 1970 and evolving the five-man tracker combat concept now being taught to the US Marines.

One mistake was to leave the intelligence requirements to the Special Branch personnel who, untrained in military intelligence, did not assist the military planning cycle. A myth has arisen, however, that the Rhodesian security forces did not expect ZANLA to take advantage of the advance of the Mozambican insurgents of Frente de Libertaçao de Moçambique (FRELIMO) to penetrate Rhodesia’s northeastern border. In fact, the Rhodesians mounted Operation Tripper to assist the Portuguese with tracking FRELIMO and to stop ZANLA crossing the Zambezi River. The Rhodesians knew that ZANLA, albeit in small numbers, had begun to subvert the people who lived along this vulnerable border, but a lack of manpower meant the African district assistants of the Internal Affairs Department could not be protected, and intelligence on ZANLA’s whereabouts began to dry up.

Another mistake was to fail to heed warnings from the army that, despite the presence of two 100-man companies of South African police, its regular component was overstretched when merely assisting the BSAP with border control. The retired former Federal Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky, suggested raising 10 RAR battalions, but, because the immediate threat seemed so minor and funds were short, the Treasury and the Department of Defence were fatally deaf to all pleas.

These were nevertheless good years for Rhodesians. They were winning all the battles and countering the sanctions. They were assisted in their efforts by ZANU’s and ZAPU’s proclaimed adherence to Marxism; this position gave credibility to the Rhodesian government’s anti-Communist stance, which struck a chord in the United States and elsewhere, particularly among the conservative Arab states and Iran.

Phase 2: 1972–74

In 1972, the rejection of the Home–Smith Settlement and the success of FRELIMO against the Portuguese in Mozambique emboldened the African nationalists. ZANLA’s attack on the white-owned Altena Farm in the northeastern Centenary district on December 23, 1972 opened a new phase of the war.

Having acquired sufficient finance, aid, weapons, and a growing number of young men, Herbert Chitepo, the external ZANU leader, at last adopted a telling strategy. He aimed to stretch the security forces and thereby dent white morale by forcing the mobilization of large numbers of territorials and reservists. This, he anticipated, would seriously affect industry, commerce, and agriculture. Chitepo, however, was assassinated by the CIO, sowing discord in ZANU’s ranks. True to the Maoist template, ZANLA divided Rhodesia into provinces and sectors. They sought to politicize the rural people, establishing local committees, security procedures, and infiltration routes. They recruited contact men, feeders, porters, co-opted the local spirit mediums, and cached arms and ammunition. Communications were by courier and letter (a system which the Rhodesians exploited). They also planted antitank landmines in the roads, in an attempt to paralyze large areas.

The Rhodesians responded vigorously, setting up Operation Hurricane with its JOC at Centenary (Operation Hurricane endured until the ceasefire in 1980) and hunting down insurgents. The lethality of the landmines was reduced by pumping water into tires and sandbagging trucks. This prompted a rapid development of mine-protected vehicles with the aid of South Africa’s Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, the descendants of which are deployed in Iraq today. Recalling their Malayan experience, the Rhodesians moved rural Africans in the northeast into protected villages. This move was not entirely a success. The ZANLA personnel were sons of the people being moved. Furthermore, the Rhodesians deployed inadequate numbers of ill-armed Internal Affairs administrators to protect the villages instead of arming a local militia. The reason for this was the fear that unsupervised militias would be subverted. The Internal Affairs personnel were replaced in the late 1970s with the newly raised Guard Force, comprising African recruits and white national servicemen.

The Rhodesians understood the importance of psychological warfare, but were always hampered by never achieving more than the Africans’ passive acceptance of the status quo. It meant that the Rhodesians could not evolve a counterinsurgency strategy, forcing them to concentrate on containment.

The vastness of the operational area and the small number of troops available demanded high mobility. The acquisition of the French Matra 151 20mm cannon enabled the Rhodesians to convert some of their Alouette III helicopters into “K-Car” gunships and to evolve the highly successful Fire Force. This unit exploited the agility of the helicopter and its troop-carrying capacity to provide a rapid reaction force which could trap and destroy the elusive enemy. The Fire Forces (three were usually deployed) comprised a K-Car carrying the army Fire Force commander and three Alouette III “G-Cars,” carrying four infantrymen. Despite the small number of troops involved, the Fire Force units achieved kill rates of over 80:1.

Securing Fire Force targets was achieved by observation, patrolling, finding tracks, aerial-visual and photo reconnaissance, and intelligence. The SAS penetrated the neighboring countries to identify incoming groups, their routes and supplies. Intelligence was gleaned from villagers and captured insurgents, but much was lost through poor interrogation techniques and the use of force because the few effective Special Branch interrogators were not always available. The most successful move was the use of pseudogangs suggested by the ecologist Allan Savory in 1966 and advised by Ian Henderson, the Kenyan exponent of pseudo-warfare. The new Selous Scouts Regiment combined army and Special Branch personnel to deploy captured-and-turned insurgents to impersonate ZANLA sections to uncover contact men, sources of food and comfort, and to pinpoint the insurgents for Fire Force. The Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) was set up in 1973 to remedy the inadequacies of entirely relying on policemen to collect and interpret intelligence.

To inhibit rather than prevent cross-border movement, because Rhodesia lacked the manpower to keep the border under surveillance, a mined barrier was laid along the northern and eastern borders to harass infiltrators. It killed some 8,000 ZANLA by 1980.

The success of all these measures led, by 1974, to the number of insurgents within the country being reduced to 60, all of them confined to the northeast. The insurgency was being contained but, of course, everything depended on a political settlement.

Phase 3: 1974–77

The military coup in Portugal in April 1974 robbed Rhodesia of one of her two allies and exposed her long eastern and southeastern borders to infiltration by ZANLA. At the same time, ZPRA intensified its forays from Zambia through Botswana and across the Zambezi. Rhodesia’s only secure border was with South Africa. South Africa’s prime minister, B. J. Vorster, however, preferred to have a compliant African government as a northern neighbor. Accordingly, he withdrew his police and interrupted Rhodesian ammunition and supplies, in an attempt to force Smith to settle. The upshot was a failed ceasefire in 1974, fruitless negotiations with ZANU and ZAPU in 1975, and the intensification of the war in 1976.

ZANLA concentrated on politicizing the rural folk, by fair means or foul, while ZPRA preferred to wait. Both forces built up their strength with a growing supply of willing recruits. The intensification of the war, combined with other factors, induced white emigration and forced a recognition of political realities. Even so, the most vulnerable of whites, the farmers, remained on the land. Some 6,000 of them were still there in 1980.

The intensification provoked Rhodesian cross-border raids. These were limited to camp attacks because the Rhodesian government was fearful of world reaction and would not allow the destruction of the strategic infrastructure of the neighboring territories. It allowed, however, “hot pursuit” operations, because these were deemed legal by the Paris Pact of 1928. The first major raid was in October 1974 by the SAS against a ZPRA camp and munitions dump in southern Zambia. There followed an attack in early 1976 against ZANLA staging posts in Mozambique’s Gaza Province at the Sabi-Lundi junction and Pafuri on the Limpopo. Then, in August 1976, a Selous Scouts vehicle column killed 1,200 inmates of the main ZANLA camp in the Manica Province of Mozambique. This provoked the dreaded world outcry and gave Prime Minister Vorster the excuse to pull out his helicopter pilots and enlist Kissinger (eager to help after the Angolan debacle of 1975 had led to Soviet/Cuban intrusion into southern Africa) to put pressure on Smith to concede majority rule.

The constant deployment produced battle-hardened, resourceful, and daring troops. Only able to deploy 1,400 men in the field on the average day in the 1970s, the Rhodesian forces often could not muster the classic 3:1 ratio in attack. In Operation Dingo, in November 1977, 165 SAS and RLI paratroops jumped into a camp complex at Chimoio, Mozambique, holding 9,000–10,000 insurgents. They killed 5,000, and then after a day’s resupply, jumped into the Tembué camp deep in Mozambique’s Tete Province, killing hundreds more. Psychological warfare, however, that vital ingredient of successful counterinsurgency campaigns, remained impossible until the support of the people had been won by political reform.

The Rhodesians also continued to refine their techniques in other areas. Fire Forces were strengthened with Dakotas, carrying up to 18 RLI or RAR paratroopers, and fixed-wing support, usually the Lynx (the Cessna 337G) and sometimes Hunter fighters or Canberra bombers. These aircraft were given a new range of locally produced weapons, including napalm bombs capable of precise delivery; the 1,000-lb blast Golf bomb with a meter-long fused probe to explode it on contact; and the Alpha Mk II bouncing soccer ball-sized bomb, 300 of which constituted a Canberra bomb load.

The need to detect landmines produced the purely Rhodesian-invented “Pookie,” the world’s first mine detection vehicle, capable of finding a mine when traveling at 50mph. Between 1972 and 1980 there were 2,504 detonations of landmines (mainly Soviet TM series) by vehicles, killing 632 people and injuring 4,410. The mining of roads increased as the war intensified. In 1978, 894 mines were detonated or recovered, at the rate of 2.44 mines a day. In 1979, 2,089 mines were dealt with, at the rate of 5.72 mines a day. Between 1976 and 1980, built at a cost less than that of repairing a mine-damaged vehicle, 68 Pookies detected more than 550 landmines, saving hundreds of lives and (riding on under-inflated racing slicks) never detonating one. Twelve were damaged in ambushes by command-detonated landmines or rockets. A rocket through the armored windscreen killed the only driver. When ZANLA realized that the Pookie was blunting their landmine offensive, ambushes became more frequent. These were countered by arming the Pookie with the “Spider” 24-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, simultaneously covering a 270-degree arc with buckshot. The insurgents held the Spider in such awe that they began to let the Pookies through the ambushes and attacked the convoys instead.

New units were formed. The Psychological Warfare Unit attempted to fill a glaring need. The Grey Scouts Regiment exploited the capabilities of the hardy Boer pony in bush warfare. The Guard Force defended the spreading protected villages and other assets. The Rhodesian Intelligence Corps (RIC) gave the army a field intelligence unit.

The Special Branch, however, retained its briefing role and continued to inhibit the planning cycle. Because of the successful marriage of army and Special Branch personnel in the Selous Scouts, it was suggested that the Selous Scouts should take over the intelligence function to provide the vital military ingredient. The Police Commissioner, however, vetoed such an intrusion into the Special Branch’s prerogative

In the event, assisted by 8 Signal Squadron, which monitored radio traffic in neighboring countries, processing some 10,000 FRELIMO/ Zambian signals a month, the MID gradually took responsibility for supporting the increasing external operations. What the MID neglected was counterintelligence, and failed to discover why raiding forces found some camps empty. Later, at least one member of the Special Branch frustrated assassination attempts on Mugabe, and was decorated for doing so. Elements of the Special Branch also became involved in the use of biological and chemical warfare but, although the extent was minor, it has given rise to some conjecture and some wild extrapolations. Excluded from such machinations, the RIC, for its part, at least gave a military dimension to the coverage of intelligence, supplying the security forces with updated maps and research findings on a variety of military problems.

In late 1976, pressure grew to copy the Malayan precedent and have a “Director of Operations” instead of command by consensus. In March 1977, after initial hesitation, Smith formed the Ministry of Combined Operations and appointed Lieutenant General Peter Walls as Commander, Combined Operations (ComOps). This, coupled with the increasing declaration of martial law in affected districts, produced a more coordinated effort. Walls, however, did not outrank the army commander, Lieutenant General John Hickman, and in reality was simply the chairman of the National JOC (NatJOC), a looser organization which replaced the OCC. He lacked the power to enforce his will on the NatJOC, which was further weakened by the Police Commissioner and the Director, CIO, sending deputies to it. The district administration and the BSAP continued to formulate and execute their own plans. While ComOps prepared operational orders, its intelligence staff had no evaluating role and it did not become the focus of the intelligence community to improve the strategic planning cycle. Walls sought clarification of his role, but was ignored. The overabundance of anomalies led to friction among the commanders.

The Rhodesian war effort remained reactive and lacking in a coherent strategy. Walls, nevertheless, understood that the military could still only strive to contain the war.


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