While the Rhodesian forces never really developed a successful antidote to the guerrillas’ mobilization of the masses, they displayed consummate skill in defeating the guerrillas in combat. Even low-calibre units such as the Police Field Reserve could easily repel guerrilla attacks, though the insurgents tended to be more aggressive against units such as Guard Force and Internal Affairs.
In the years 1966-72, guerrilla activity, no matter how small the group, would invite the full attention of regular units and the Rhodesian Air Force. Insurgents were rapidly followed up by helicopter-borne patrols, and if they failed to re-cross the frontier were almost invariably hunted down. But from 1972 both the size and geographical spread of guerrilla incursions rapidly expanded. From 1976 every area of the country became affected by guerrilla operations. There were simply not enough well-trained Rhodesian soldiers to cover all the ground, and as increasing reliance was put on reserves, the problem of pinning down guerrillas so that they could be eliminated by superior firepower and tactics became acute.
The answer devised by the Rhodesians from 1974 was Fire Force, an efficient way of stretching limited elite manpower and the RAF’s helicopter fleet. A typical Fire Force comprised four Alouette IIIs. At least one was configured as a ‘command car’ from which the Fire Force commander directed the action. One or more of the helicopters would be a gunship. Later in the war a DC-3 Dakota carrying a stick of 15 paratroops was a standard component of Fire Forces. Strike support was given by fighter-bombers in the early days of Fire Force operations until Lynxes were acquired. After this Hunters were available for particularly large or hard-fought actions.
The Fire Force was deployed from a forward air field (FAF) at the discretion of the JOC chairman or his representative on request from observation posts or ground troops in visual or combat contact with guerrillas. Initially Fire Forces were available almost immediately, but the vast numbers of guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia from 1978 caused delays of up to four hours in meeting requests. Fire Forces could expect two to three contacts with guerrillas each day at the height of the war. In 1978 a company-sized ‘Jumbo’ or ‘national’ Fire Force was created. This roved from one operational area to another, and routinely operated into Mozambique as well.
The Fire Force was talked on to its target by ground troops, who marked their own positions with smoke or white phosphorus grenades, and then began orbiting the guerrilla position. The gunships engaged the guerrillas and air strikes were called in by the Fire Force commander. At an early stage the ground troops were landed to cut off guerrilla escape routes by means of ‘stop’ groups. A combined air and ground action then ensued until the guerrillas had been either killed or had fled.
So effective was the Fire Force concept that it seemed to be the solution to winning the war. But the sheer numbers of guerrillas operating in the country and guerrilla counter-measures upset this extremely cost-effective tactic. Fire Forces became more and more stretched to cope with incidents. The guerrillas adopted evasion tactics based on lookout positions and scatter drills, and began to move about in small groups of less than five to avoid detection, concentrating only for meetings or operations. Air strikes were evaded by running at an oblique angle to the aircraft flightpath. Initially the arrival of a Fire Force meant certain death or capture, but effective counter-measures had been devised by 1978-9. One Territorial Force major described the difficulties of locating guerrillas as like trying to pick up a handful of microscopic, coloured beads off a thick-pile, multi-hued carpet.
The tactical successes of the Fire Force system were also blunted by guerrilla measures against observation posts. Base camps were sited away from prominent features on which security forces might keep watch on the surrounding terrain. Guerrilla operations in the flat country of south-eastern and much of western Rhodesia were already facilitated by the dearth of high hills in those areas. Mujibas and herd boys on apparently innocent domestic chores were sent through likely OP positions to compromise their presence and booby traps were even laid in the more obvious sites. Guerrillas often wore two or three sets of civilian clothes to confuse watching security forces. By the later years of the war the Rhodesian forces were forced to move OPs well away from villages and to use telescopes with optical ranges of up to 5 km to maintain their secrecy. The Selous Scouts pioneered new, painstaking techniques for setting up OPs and keeping them secure. Teams of pseudo-guerrillas, usually Selous Scouts or Special Branch agents, including amnestied guerrillas, gathered intelligence on the locations of guerrilla bases. The guerrillas devised counter-measures, such as placing taboos on eating certain foods by their cadres. A kraal head who was suspicious of groups asking the whereabouts of their ‘comrades’ could test their identity by offering them prohibited foods. Another favourite identification was using certain brands of cigarettes. The stratagem needed to be spread widely, but at the same time changed frequently, to be proof against security forces’ interrogations of captured guerrillas.
Ground coverage and reaction to incidents were carried out by units like the RAR, the Grey’s Scouts, the territorial Rhodesia Regiment battalions, the Police Support Unit and PATU. The standard tactical sub-division was the company (except for PATU which always operated in small reconnaissance sticks), which set up a headquarters in areas assigned to it for patrolling and reaction. The company was deployed in sticks, and OPs were set up, ground patrols were sent out to sweep kraals and terrain, and to establish ambushes based on information supplied by the local Special Branch operatives or the Rhodesian Intelligence Corps.
A normal stick would comprise three or four riflemen armed with FN rifles and a machine-gunner armed with an MAG. The stick would also carry hand and rifle grenades. Every stick had a radio to maintain contact with its headquarters and other sticks in the area. The lavish provision of radios gave the Rhodesian forces the tactical flexibility they needed to cover vast areas of countryside. The guerrillas rarely operated radios (which they called ‘over-overs’) until the last two years of the war. Most Rhodesian equipment was locally made and maintained. The ground network of field radios was linked by a series of relay stations perched atop hills. These provided a vital service where granite outcrops and rugged terrain often severely limited the range of small, portable radio sets. Relay stations were also important for linking army and police units, which operated on incompatible sets of channels. In many cases sticks only a couple of kilometres apart were forced to communicate via relay stations on high features 20 to 30 km away.
Encounter skirmishes would be conducted by the unit itself, but OPs would usually call in Fire Force if it was available. Many of these units resented Fire Force. Since the measure of success for the Rhodesian forces was the number of guerrilla corpses produced, Fire Force was seen as snatching away the rewards of troops who had endured long marches and often painstaking work to locate guerrilla camps or positions. The fact that Fire Force rode to and from battle in helicopters merely added to the jealousy, but many of the ground troops, who considered they could handle these battles themselves, forgot that Fire Force was introduced because of the inadequacy of routine patrolling.
In 1978 it was decided to conduct ‘high intensity’ operations in specific areas severely affected by guerrilla operations. A whole battalion would be assigned to a district, often with the addition of the ‘Jumbo’ Fire Force, and would thoroughly scour it, attempting to kill the guerrillas there and break their infrastructure. These operations, a return to the old search-and-destroy pattern of the early years of the war, had great success in terms of body counts in areas where they were deployed. But the whole country could not be covered and once the high intensity force left for other districts the guerrillas began seeping back and resuscitating their network.
In areas in which PVs had been established, security forces destroyed crops found outside areas prescribed for cultivation around the PV itself. When people were moved into a PV the guerrillas tried to spirit away as many as possible to set up povo camps. These were treated as military targets by the Rhodesian forces. In areas where there were curfews any person moving about at night was liable to be shot by ambushes. Africans refusing to stop when challenged by security forces were shot as ‘suspicious persons’.
There were also exotic variations on these ground tactics, such as the use of ‘Qcars’ (military vehicles bristling with firepower and disguised as civilian or commercial vehicles) and booby-trapped radios. Other radios–nicknamed ‘roadrunners’–contained tracking systems. The Selous Scouts also developed a major interest in biological and chemical warfare. An organophosphate, Parathion, was used to impregnate clothing. The three most common types of clothing treated were underpants, T-shirts and denim jeans, the preferred dress code of ZANLA guerrillas. Usually sick guerrillas were left by their comrades to suffer a slow and agonizing death alone in the bush. Perhaps thousands of guerrillas were killed by this method. Such ‘kills’ were not mentioned in official Rhodesian communiqués, but they were frequently described in diaries recovered after contacts with guerrillas. Food was contaminated with thallium, especially canned corned beef, mealie meal (maize), tinned jam and beers. The thallium was injected into sealed tins, through bottle tops and into packets with a micro needle. Cartons of cigarettes were impregnated with toxins. Cholera and anthrax were also spread deliberately. In February 1978 the new Commissioner of Police, Peter Allum, gave a direct order to stop all covert poisoning operations, though poison manufacture and distribution by SB and the Selous Scouts continued until mid-1979.
The tactical objective was always the same: to pin down the elusive guerrillas and kill or capture them. Combat troops did not engage in any political indoctrination. Their function was purely military, and they discharged this function efficiently. Increasingly, however, the only way to find and destroy large concentrations of guerrillas was to raid across the frontiers. A network of observation posts spread into Mozambique and Zambia, and Fire Force operated into those countries as if they were extensions of Rhodesian territory. The first major cross-border raid was mounted in August 1976. An incursion of 900 guerrillas was imminent from Nyadzonya camp on a tributary of the Pungwe River about 40 km inside Mozambique. The camp was a standard guerrilla installation, a sort of ‘super-povo’ camp containing not only guerrillas but their normal ‘tail’ of women and children. The raid was carried out by the Selous Scouts wearing FRELIMO uniforms. They simply drove into Mozambique and entered the camp at the early morning muster of guerrillas, who were mowed down from vehicles with heavy machine guns. A number of FRELIMO troops who tried to intervene were killed, and the Rhodesian troops withdrew without severe casualties. The raid caused jubilation among whites in Rhodesia and outrage abroad. The United Nations claimed that the camp was a refugee centre and that more than 600 civilians were killed and more wounded. The Rhodesians countered with claims of only 10 civilians killed. The incident was ruthlessly exploited for propaganda purposes by both sides. The Rhodesians questioned the morality of stationing combat troops alongside civilians in base camps, while the guerrillas countered that, if there were any soldiers at all, they were there to protect innocent refugees against Rhodesian savagery.
The pattern of raids remained much the same over the next three years. Camps in Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique were attacked by different methods to keep the initiative in Rhodesian hands. Ground operations were preferred because of their more successful results. In 1979 an SAS intelligence officer complained that air strikes were not effective–although many direct hits were scored on the guerrilla camps, the high explosive and napalm bombs did not kill as many guerrillas as expected. Large-scale raids were designed to do two things: to kill guerrillas where they were concentrated outside Rhodesia and to destroy or disrupt their infrastructure, weapons and supply. A number of different tactics were used: troop-carrying, heavily armed vehicles drove across the borders, paratroops made low-altitude combat jumps, ground forces were landed by helicopter or walked in and were evacuated by helicopter. The SAS infiltrated raiding parties across Lake Kariba with the assistance of the army’s boat section. Small-scale raids became more frequent once the principle of striking across the border had been adopted. During one typical small operation in August 1979 a platoon of the Selous Scouts’Support Troop attacked a base camp deep inside Zambia. The ZIPRA occupants fled without resisting, but a combined guerrilla and Zambian army mobile relief column attempted to eliminate the withdrawing unit. A section-sized stop group ambushed and drove off the numerically superior column and then withdrew, laying land mines on the way back to Rhodesia. The guerrillas then set fire to the whole area in an attempt to burn down the retreating unit’s cover.
This sort of operation went on week after week in the closing two years of the war. The guerrillas often felt safer inside Rhodesia than they did in the border regions of their host states, for the marauding troops were the highly trained and motivated elite of the Rhodesian Army. Guerrilla offensives were often disrupted by timely Rhodesian spoiling attacks, and camps had to be moved back from the borders, dispersed and more heavily defended. The series of raids culminated in an attack on the massive guerrilla base at New Chimoio in September 1979. The Rhodesian blitzkrieg put significant pressure on the leaders of the Patriotic Front to remain at the Lancaster House conference which ended the war.
In a letter to The Times in January 1978 retired British General Sir Walter Walker wrote of the Rhodesian forces:
Their army cannot be defeated in the field either by terrorists or even a much more sophisticated enemy. In my professional judgement based on more than twenty years’ experience from Lieutenant to General, of counter-insurgency and guerrilla type operations, there is no doubt that Rhodesia now has the most professional and battleworthy army in the world today for this particular type of warfare.
The general was probably right. A further, backhanded compliment to the Rhodesian forces was paid by an official of the Mozambique government when he claimed that they had destroyed a vital bridge deep inside his country. ‘It must have been the Rhodesians,’ he said, ‘because it was done so well.’ But the ‘field’ in revolutionary warfare is not the same as that in conventional warfare. In a guerrilla war the battlefield is the political loyalty of the mass of the population. The Rhodesians did not develop tactics to win enough battles in that more subtle war.