SCOUTING FOR DANGER
By Peter Stiff
Selous Scout Regiment had a short operational history, but under the inspired
leadership of Major (now Lieutenant-Colonel) Ron Reid Daly, its members won a
fearsome reputation as the best bush soldiers on the African continent. The
regiment acted as a combat reconnaissance force; its mission was to infiltrate
Rhodesia’s tribal population and guerrilla networks, pinpoint rebel groups and
relay vital information back to the conventional forces earmarked to carry out
the actual attacks. Scouts were trained to operate in small under-cover teams
capable of working independently in the bush for weeks on end and to pass
themselves off as rebels .
The Scouts were a strictly
volunteer force; only highly motivated men of the very highest caliber could fulfill
the tasks they had to undertake. A mere 15 per cent of the many that
signed up to join the regiment emerged from the tough training program with
the right to wear the brown beret of the Selous Scouts. Reid Daly knew the men
had to be a loner, capable of living alone in the bush, but also able to work as
part of a team. It was essential that basic training weeded out the weak and
singled out the finest, most suitable recruits.
Selection for the Scouts was
rigorous and even tougher than the SAS course. As soon as volunteers arrived at
Wafa Wafa, the Scouts’ training camp on the shores of Lake Kariba, they were
given a taste of the hardships they would have to endure. On reaching the base,
tired and soaked in sweat
- the trainers had ordered
them to run the final 25kms —they saw no cozy barracks, no welcoming mess tent, but only a few straw
huts and the blackened embers of a dying fire. There was no food issued. From
this point instructors set out to exhaust, starve and antagonize the recruits.
They usually proved so successful that 40 or 50 men out of the original 60
regularly dropped out in the first two days.
Seventeen days of pure hell was
the basic course. Every morning, from first light until 0700 hours recruits were
put through a strength-sapping fitness program and barely had time to take a
rest before having their basic combat skills sharpened. The day ended with the
men having to run a particularly nasty assault course designed to overcome their
fear of heights; and then, as soon as darkness fell, night training began.
No rations were issued for the
first five days at the camp and recruits had to live off the land. On the third
day a dead baboon would be hung up and left to rot in the blazing sun. Two days
later it was cut down, gutted and (maggots and all) cooked. Reid Daly explained
The last three days of basic training were given over
to an endurance march. Each man had to
carry, apart from his weapons and a few rations (125g of meat and 250g of mealie
meal), a pack loaded with 30kgs of rock over a distance of 100kms, The rocks
were painted green, so they could not be discarded during the march and replaced
with others nearer the finish. To make doubly sure of their stamina, the final
l2kms was a speed test. This section had to be covered in two-and-a-half hours — it meant the men had
to push themselves all the way.
The few men who finished the first stages of training were, after a week’s rest, taken to a special camp to undergo the ‘dark phase’. If the Scouts were to be effective it was recognized that they would need to look, act and talk like real guerrillas. The base was built and set out as a rebel camp and instructors were on hand to turn recruits into fully-fledged members of the enemy.
Rhodesian troops posing as rebels
the main active units of the Selous Scouts. In the ‘dark phase’, they were
taught to break with habits like shaving, rising at regular times, smoking and
drinking, and to adopt a guerrilla lifestyle. Everything from the ritual
slaughter of a goat (by partially slitting its throat before strangulation),
to walking through the bush in single file, was taught. Vital information on the
operational methods of rebel units in the field (such as their preference for
arranging meetings by letter), uniforms, weapons and equipment were gathered
from killed or captured guerrillas.
Although black soldiers of the Scouts were the spearhead of any pseudo-group, and had most
direct contact with the enemy, white officers tried to pass themselves off as
black — at least at a distance. Blacking-up, using burnt cork
or theatrical make-up, wearing a large floppy hat and growing a beard, were all
devices that helped to hide the more obvious European features. The
recruits who survived the training program had little time for
self-congratulation The Rhodesian security forces needed every man they could
muster to combat the growing menace of the nationalist guerrillas and hastily
formed units known as ‘sticks’, consisting of one or two white officers and
up to 30 black soldiers, were dispatched into the bush to seek out the enemy.
In such delicate operations it was essential that the
rebels did not know of the Scouts’ presence. Unusual movement by road, or air
would give the game away, and so Scouts were dropped by covered lorry or
helicopter, at night well outside a suspect area, and, making full use of their
bush skills, moved in on foot. Once in position, a camouflaged observation
post would be established on a convenient hill with a good all-round view. It
was at this stage that the Scouts bush skills came into their own. For the men
on the ground there would be no resupply for many weeks; they had to find food,
live undetected, track and make
contact with the enemy without revealing their real identity.
The Scouts used information
gathered by attached police Special Branch units to make contact with the
guerrillas. While the white officers stayed at the observation post, emerging
only at night to hear reports, give orders and relay any valuable information
back to base, black Scouts would move into a village disguised as rebels and try
to meet the local contact-man. Contact-men gave the guerrillas food, shelter and
information. It was often an easy matter to find the right man; the Scouts
always had good intelligence on the enemy and several of them were ‘turned
— former rebels who had
been captured, made an offer they could not refuse and sensibly decided to join
the regiment — who had first-hand
The usual drill was for the
Scout group to be
Meetings were often set up, via the contact-men, with local rebels, meetings
which were the opportunity to strike at a band that had infiltrated Rhodesia,
but the Scouts themselves never attacked guerrillas if they could help it. Their
firepower and combat skills with captured equipment were more than a match for
that of the enemy, but all their hard work in getting themselves accepted in a
particular area would have been wasted if they took a hand in any action to
destroy a guerrilla force. Reid Daly decided that the killing had to be done by
helicopter-borne units of the regular army. ‘Fireforces’, consisting of a
helicopter gunship, three troop-carrying helicopters and a paratrooper Dakota,
kept the appointments set up by the contact-men. They would arrive suddenly
and wipe out the enemy.
Many of the officers and men of the regiment came from the rural areas of Rhodesia and were past masters at tracking, but it was not always an easy matter to switch from hunting wild animals to stalking the far more dangerous terrorist groups. On cross-border reconnaissance, Scouts tracked guerrilla units for anything up to a week, searching for signs of guerrilla activity, especially in the morning or early evening when the sun’s slanting rays highlighted even the slightest sign of movement. They paid particular attention to any evidence of disturbed vegetation and kept a careful watch for the sole prints of the enemies’ shoes in the dust.
Any game that was caught or found dead, and plants or roots— Scouts had been taught to distinguish the edible from the poisonous —. provided food. Scouts were forbidden to shoot animals as too much noise in the bush might give their position away. Fires, if lit at all, were made from bone-dry kindling that did not give off smoke, At night Scouts dug a 300mm-deep pit in the ground to hide the fire — even the tiny flickering of a dying ember can be spotted at up to 800m in the dark, and this could have the most disastrous consequences By making full use of Reid Daly’s ideas the Scouts managed to maintain their cover and severely damage the African nationalists’ war effort in Rhodesia. It soon became clear, however, that bases in neighboring African countries such as Mozambique and Botswana still posed a major threat to state security. Small units of Selous Scouts, working in conjunction with elements of the regular army, were ordered to carry out a series of cross-border raids. Columns of armored cars, troop carriers and buses penetrated deep into enemy territory.
The most famous raid, carried
out with the Scouts’ usual skill and daring, was on the rebel base of Pungwe/Nyadzonyain
Mozambique. In August 1976, 72 Scouts, in 10 Unimog trucks and three Ferret armored
cars, attacked over 5000 guerrillas. They calmly drove into the camp
where they were welcomed by the enemy. Suddenly the rebels realized
Reid Daly’s unorthodox
approach to counterinsurgency operations made him extremely unpopular with
officers of the regular Rhodesian forces. Several high-ranking officers believed
that the Scouts were more trouble than they were worth and had, on occasion,
endangered the lives of members of the army. Worse was to follow, on 29
January 1979, all Selous Scout operations were cancelled after a bugging device
had been found in Reid Daly’s office. Two days later he launched a personal
and public attack on the army commander, Lieutenant General John Hickman, that
resulted in a court-martial. Although Reid Daly was given only a minor
‘reprimand, he resigned his command .
In their short history the Scouts inflicted great losses on the enemy yet, because of the inevitable secrecy that surrounded their operations. few Rhodesians knew of their existence: It was not until the end of the war, when Combined Operations, Rhodesia, issued a statement that credited the Scouts with responsibility for 68 percent of all rebels killed, that the scale of their success was publicized. In less than seven years of almost continuous combat the Selous Scouts lost only 36 men killed in action, but had accounted for several thousand guerrillas.
AUTHOR Peter Stiff was an officer in the Rhodesian Police Force for 20 years,
and has written a number of authoritative books on the Rhodesian War. Two
best-sellers, Selous Scouts Top Secret War and Selous Scouts—A Pictorial
are published by Galago Publishing (Pty) Ltd, P0 Box 404, Alberton 1450,
Republic of South Africa.