Ospery, the bird of the Selous Scouts.Selous Scouts "Pamwe Chete" title block.Ospery, the bird of the Selous Scouts.
































By Ian F. W. Beckett



Tactical considerations also tended to be affected by manpower restraints. Large numbers of men were required in static positions guarding installations, the vitally important railways, PVs and white farms. A reflection of this fact was the development of the ‘Fire Force’ concept which sought to offset lack of men through the concentration of firepower and mobility. lf guerrillas were located by ground patrol or other means, a Cessna Lynx carrying fragmentation and concussion bombs or napalm would attack them. Four helicopters would then be deployed, each carrying a ‘stick’ of four or five men to drive the guerrillas back on 15 or 16 paratroopers dropped at low level from a Dakota C-47 transport. Four Fire Forces were available, two manned by the RLI and two by the RAR, with the men regularly rotated. Much depended upon flying time from base and, increasingly, on the number of requests for assistance. By 1978 a delay of several hours was common when earlier reaction had been almost instantaneous, since each Fire Force was being used two or three times a day in varying parts of the country. By mid-1979 the Fire Forces were said to be accounting for three quarters of all guerrilla casualties inside Rhodesia, but the Selous Scouts equally claimed that they were responsible for 68 per cent of all guerrilla kills, their early role in pseudo operations having been supplanted steadily by their deployment in a hunter-killer role. There appears to have been some resentment on the part of those who did the tracking on the ground only to see the reward of their labour claimed by other hands in the shape of the Fire Forces, but generally bifurcation was not a significant problem in the armed forces. The size of the Fire Force sticks was determined by the capacity of the Alouette helicopters with which the Rhodesians were primarily equipped, some 66 being available by 1979. It was also the size of sticks deployed in ground operations of a more conventional kind, companies being divided in this way to cover more ground while keeping in touch through the liberal distribution of personal radios. Subsequently, 11 or 12 Bell Huey helicopters with a greater carrying capacity were obtained from Israel, but they were received in a poor state of repair and the Rhodesians generally had maintenance problems with much of their equipment. The loss of a Bell Huey to a surface-to-air missile (SAM) inside Mozambique in September 1979, in which all 12 occupants were killed, was the single greatest disaster in terms of casualties suffered by the Rhodesians during the war.

The Fire Force concept represented what might be termed ‘vertical envelopment’ of the guerrillas and this technique was also utilised in external raids into Zambia and Mozambique in which the SAS and Selous Scouts often figured prominently. On other occasions, the Rhodesians drove (often in captured vehicles) or walked to their targets, while there were also more limited penetrations across frontiers by small groups of Rhodesians to lay mines or set up ambushes. External opera­tions, however, not only tended to divert manpower from critical areas inside Rhodesia but also became more and more hazard­ous. Rhodesian command of the air was threatened by the deployment of SAMs in Mozambique, while the actual concen­tration of Rhodesian airpower in support of major incursions could itself give prior warning to the guerrillas. There was also a suspicion that the guerrillas were sometimes forewarned of Rhodesian operations by a source within the Security Forces at a high level. The main airstrike capacity, apart from the 13 or 14 Cessna Lynx converted to a counter-insurgency role, consisted of a squadron of Hawker Hunters. There was also a squadron of Canberra bombers of which four were used in the bombing raid over Angola in February 1979.

External operations by land could prove equally vulnerable as the guerrilla bases and camps, particularly in Mozambique, became ever better protected with sophisticated defences. The Rhodesian attack on New Chimoio in September 1979 is a case in point. A force of 100 Selous Scouts battled for three days successfully to overcome some 6000 ZANLA guerrillas and their East German advisers. Although the guerrillas eventually broke and fled, leaving over 3000 dead, they had had the benefit of an extensive trench and bunker system ringed by anti-aircraft, mortar and recoilless rifle positions. Many such bunker systems were largely immune to the ageing British 25-pounder field guns which comprised the bulk of Rhodesia’s artillery.

The nature of the war inside Rhodesia also led to the development of a number of other special techniques by the Security Forces, the guerrilla penchant for attacking rural buses or civilian vehicles leading to the use of ‘Q’ cars heavily armoured and armed decoy vehicles disguised as civilian traffic. The guerrillas’ use of mines also led to the development of a large number of specially designed vehicles such as the Rhino, Hyena, Pookie and Hippo, which all featured a V-shaped body to deflect blast. Other trucks were sandbagged, while there was official promotion of a campaign to encourage driving at low speed to minimise the effectiveness of mines.

Inevitably, the guerrillas adjusted to Rhodesian tactics, often proving successful at exposing the Security Forces’ observation posts 10 which were utilised to watch native villages for guerrilla presence. The kill ratio was invariably favourable to the Security Forces and never dropped below 6 to 1. At times it was as high as 12 or 14 to 1 overall, while individual operations might result in spectacular results of up to 60 to 1. The problem was that there was not the manpower to prevent increasing infiltration of Rhodesia. By the Security Forces’ own estimates, the number of guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia grew from 350 or 400 in July 1974 to 700 by March 1976, 2350 by April 1977, 5598 by November 1977, 6456 by March 1978, to 11,183 by January 1979 and as many as 12,500 by the end of the war. The escalation of the conflict was also indicated by the expansion of JOCs from one to seven.

A number of options were available to try and control the extent of infiltration other than by spoiling attacks into host countries. One such method was the cordon sanitaire of border minefields established from May 1974 onwards. At a cost of 27,000 Rhodesian dollars per kilometre, a distance of 179 km (111 miles) between the Musengedzi and Mazoe rivers on the Mozambique frontier was fitted with a line of two game fences enclosing minefields and an alarm system. The system lacked depth, the tripwires and even the mines often being exposed by rainfall, and there were not sufficient numbers of men available for regular patrols along the fences. Later versions were widened, but enormous difficulties were experienced in maintaining the minefields. The lack of fencing alone resulted in a 30 per cent rate of replacement due to wild animals setting off the mines, while it was discovered that the guerrillas often removed claymore mines and used them as a ‘topping’ on their own land mines, in all some 864 km (537 miles) were eventually covered by the cordon sanitaire along the Zambian and Mozambique frontiers at a total cost of 2298 million dollars, but it remained only an impediment to infiltration and not an impassable barrier. In the process it consumed valuable resources that might have been utilised more effectively elsewhere.” By contrast the Botswana frontier was simply declared a free-fire zone.

The aim of preventing infiltration is to ensure that the guerrillas are separated from the civil population. Another common means of ensuring such separation since 1945 has been by resettling the population in protected areas. In Rhodesia resettlement was also utilised, many members of the Security Forces having witnessed its apparent success in Malaya. The initial project arose out of the extension of the ‘no-go’ area declared along the north-eastern frontier when insurgency mushroomed in late 1972, although a pilot scheme was first tried in the Zambezi valley in May 1973 whereby some 8000 Africans were resettled by December 1973. The main scheme then commenced with Operation ‘Overload’ in July 1974, by which over 46,000 Africans were removed from the Chiweshe flL into 21 PVs and some 13,500 people from the Madziwa flL a few weeks later. Resettlement was extended to areas not directly threatened by guerrillas in June 1975 with the creation of ‘consolidated’ villages or groups of kraals lacking the more direct protection afforded or theoretically afforded by PVs, but this was less successful and was dropped in 1976. Official figures indicate that there were 116 PVs by August 1976, 178 by September 1977 and 234 planned or built by January 1978. Estimates of the total population of PVs range from 350,000 to 750,000 Africans. Too frequently, however, PVs were regarded purely as a means of population control rather than as a basis for winning ‘hearts and minds’. The fact that the scheme had begun in subverted areas rather than areas where the administration was sure of African loyalty was in itself an indication of the underlying motivation. Conditions naturally varied in PVs but too many lacked proper facilities and sanitation. and it has been alleged that families were allocated as little as 12.5 sq. metres (15 sq. yards) each.’2 The villages were also inadequately defended with poorer quality Guard Force or DSAs, who often turned a blind eye to food being smuggled out to the guerrillas by a population which was, in any case, often insufficiently screened. Urbanisation also struck at the root of tribal values, especially among the Shona, as did restrictions such as dawn-to-dusk curfews, while crops cultivated at some distance from PVs were left unprotected by night and subject to animal depredations. Too often the Security Forces had forcibly removed the Africans to PVs and it is a measure of the failure of resettlement in Rhodesia that some 70 PVs in areas such as Mtoko, Mrewa and Mudsi had all restrictions lifted in September 1978 in the wake of the internal settlement. In almost every case the security situation immed­iately deteriorated, indicating how far the authorities had failed to win over the population.

Given the punitive nature of resettlement, it is perhaps little wonder that the winning of hearts and minds left much to be desired. An idea for a comprehensive scheme to win the loyalty of the African was in fact developed by Lieutenant Ian Sheppard in late 1973, the so-called ‘Sheppard Group’ of six men with marketing or public relations experience aiming to ‘sell’ the PVs to the Africans. Sheppard and his colleagues suggested some 38 different projects, including the establishment of an African Development Bank and granting land titles to resettled natives. Some suggestions were heeded, such as successfully persuading the Security Forces to innoculate native cattle against disease in the Masoso and Chinanda TTLs rather than slaughtering them wholesale. The majority fell foul of opposition from the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Information and the group folded in November 1974.13 It was not until July 1977 that a Psychological Operations Unit was established under the direc­tion of Tony Datton, a former member of the Sheppard Group, but continued rivalry with the Special Branch and resistance from senior military officers thwarted Datton’s efforts. A Directorate of Psychological Warfare was belatedly established in 1979 but proved ineffectual. Similarly, Operation ‘Manila Interface’, initiated in August 1978 psychologically to prepare the ground for resettlement, was a failure.

Rather than attempting to provide the rural African with more facilities, there was a tendency to concentrate on broadening the representation of the African in government, but this meant little to the average African and rarely offered a viable alternative to guerrilla intimidation. Moreover, with the Security Forces intent on eliminating guerrillas rather than winning hearts and minds, the latter tended to consist of a ‘carrot and stick’ approach. Thus rewards for information ranging from 300 to 1000 dollars were introduced in April 1974 and these were backed by an extensive aerial propaganda campaign, dropping leaflets and safe conduct passes to guerrillas who might be willing to surrender. Full-scale amnesties were offered in both December 1977 and March 1979, with only limited success. The reverse of the carrot for co­operation was restriction and punishment. Collective fines were introduced in January 1973 if the presence of guerrillas was not reported within 72 hours, the fine being extracted in the form of livestock or, as in the case of Chiweshe TTL, in the form of enforced closure of African grinding mills and stores. Death sentences were introduced for harbouring guerrillas in September 1973 and the two pieces of legislation providing the legal basis for the enforcement of anti-terrorist measures the Emergency Powers Act and the Law and Order Maintenance Act were constantly updated. The former was amended 32 times and the latter 12 times between 1965 and 1977.14 From January 1977 Operation ‘Turkey’ applied rationing to Africans residing in labourers’ compounds at white-owned farms as a measure of food control. There was also the registration card or situpa for Africans, but this was of little use to the Security Forces as it contained neither photograph, description nor fingerprints of the holder.

A more successful aspect of Rhodesian psychological warfare was the contest with the guerrillas for the control of traditional spirit mediums among the Shona. A register of all such mediums was compiled at an early stage. While, for example, the guerrillas abducted a woman claiming to be the legs of the Nehanda spin in November 1972, the authorities controlled a number of others who claimed to be the head. District Commissioners also used psychological tactics such as demonstrating their ‘power’ over tame wild animals, but it can be noted that these officials had wide discretion to conscript native labour and to inflict corporal punishment. The preference for control rather than concessions was also illustrated by the extension in the use of martial law to govern, its application increasing over some 70 per cent of the country by September 1978 and to over 90 per cent by September 1979. Yet further evidence of disregard for the African could be drawn, too, from the forcible eviction of the Tangwena tribe from their traditional homes in the Inyanga area under the provisions of the Land Tenure Act in 1969.

Nevertheless, as already indicated, the Rhodesians were heavily dependent upon black servicemen and police who were forthcoming in sufficient numbers to maintain voluntary enlist­ment until 1979, at which point black conscription was introduced as a political measure by the transitional government. Equally noteworthy was the successful use of pseudo forces, by which members of the Security Forces as well as captured guerrillas ‘turned’ by the former, were utiised to infiltrate guerrilla organisations. A pilot scheme was attempted in October 1966 by Senior Assistant Commissioner Oppenheim of the BSAP CID and others including Lieutenant Alan Savoury, who had exper­ience of working in the game parks, and Lieutenant ‘Spike’ Powell who had worked with British pseudo-gangs in Kenya during the Mau Mau emergency of the 1950s. But, since the guerrillas had such little support in the Zambezi valley and were so easily contained, there was neither scope nor use for pseudo operations. The idea was only revived with the escalation of the war by ZANLA in late 1972 and indeed the pseudo-gangs were always more successful in penetrating ZANLA than ZIPRA since the former had a much looser discipline. Superintendent Tommy Peterson deployed the first pseudo team in Bushu flL in January 1973, the concept of ‘frozen’ areas in which the teams could work without being killed by the Security Forces being adopted from August 1973. From these beginnings developed Reid-Daly’s Selous Scouts as a combat tracker unit, either observing guerrillas and guiding other units to the attack or themselves increasingly adopting a hunter-killer role. Employing guerrilla defectors from the start, the Selous Scouts were sometimes required to call in airstrikes close to their own positions to avoid disclosing their true identities. Similarly, the Selcfus Scouts appear to have attacked PVs on occasions to prove their bona fides in the course of seeking to sow distrust within the insurgent groups. Pseudo operations were always dangerous and required a constant supply of new defectors in order to enable the Scouts to keep up-to-date on guerrilla internal security measures. Their reputation was somewhat mixed, many senior military and police officers doubting the merit of releasing captured insurgents who would otherwise have faced the full force of the law. The Selous Scouts attracted the nickname of ‘armpits with eyeballs’ through their generally unkempt appearance.’5

Other than relying on the Security Forces, there was always the possibility of arming loyal Africans, but this reached no further than deploying Africa DSAs in the PVs. In 1978, however, money became available from Oman16 which enabled a pilot scheme to be launched in Msana flL in March by which 90 local Africans were formed into an Interim Guard Force. With the internal settlement, the opportunity was available for recruiting more blacks loyal to Muzorewa, Sithole and Chirau, and the SFAs were quickly established to take over security duties in flLs. Known in Shona as Pfumo reVanhu and in Ndebele as Umkonto wa Banns (both meaning ‘Spear of the People’), the SFAs were in reality private armies attached to Muzorewa’s UANC and Sithole’s branch of ZANU. Allegedly guerrillas who had accepted the latest amnesty, the SFAs were primarily black conscripts or unemployed urban blacks given a hasty four-week crash course of training. Under Operation ‘Favour’ some 2000 SFAs were deployed in 80 flLs by the end of 1978 and their strength grew to some 10,000 in the run-up to the internal election in the following year. By April 1979 they had responsibility for 22 frozen areas representing some 15 per cent of the country as a whole. In theory the SFAs gave the Security Forces the ability to hold outlying areas on a permanent basis for the first time, but the SFAs were ill-trained and poorly disciplined. The situation did not materially improve after the Army’s Special Forces Headquarters took over responsibility for the SFAs in July 1979 and the Army as a whole had little faith in their abilities. Indeed, one group of SFAs loyal to Sithole had to be eliminated by the Security Forces in the Gokwe TFL in June 1979. At most their deployment enabled the Guard Force to be switched to railways and farms, but the brutality of the SFAs in the TTLs did little to enhance support for the Muzorewa government.

The conditions under which many Africans were living in the TTLs by the end of the war raises the wider question of the effects of guerrilla conflict upon Rhodesia and its people. For black civilians the war was immensely disruptive. Many Africans had become refugees crossing to Zambia or Mozambique voluntarily. Still others had been forcibly abducted by the guerrillas in July 1973, for example, 273 African school­children were abducted from the St Alberts mission although most were subsequently recovered by the Security Forces. All the main white urban areas such as Salisbury, Bulawayo and Umtali had substantial native refugee populations on their outskirts while, of course, many Africans had been forcibly relocated by the Security Forces in PVs. The Africans were caught in the real sense between intimidation by both Security Forces and guerrillas, the ratio of black civilian casualties caused by the protagonists running at 40:60 by 1978. In rural areas it is clear that local administration had often broken down by the end of the war. It was reported in May 1977 that over 22,000 Africans in the southeast were refusing to pay taxes. By the end of 1978 over 900 African primary and secondary schools had closed, leaving over 230,000 pupils without access to education. Over 90 rural hospitals and clinics had also closed and rural bus services had been cut by 50 per cent. African agriculture was severely depressed, the Ministry of Agriculture calculating that 550,000 head of native cattle would perish in the course of 1978 alone. It is believed that over a third of the native cattle herd died during the war while, with only 1500 out of 8000 cattle dips still in operation in 1979, diseases previously extinguished, such as anthrax and tsetse, were again rampant. Prior to the war African farmers had produced 70 per cent of Rhodesia’s food require­ments, but by 1977 this had already fallen to only 30 per cent.17

For the white population there were parallel strains. Not only was there the burden of conscription but also the economic cost of the war. By December 1978 the war was costing a million dollars a day, defence expenditure having risen by a staggering 610 per cent between 1971—2 and 1977—8. That on police had risen by 232 per cent during the same period, with expenditure on internal affairs and roads rising by 305 per cent and 257 per cent respectively. It has been argued that the war was relatively cheap, Rhodesia spending less in 1978 and 1979 than the sum spent on the annual administration of the University of Berkeley, California18 but, of course, it did not appear to be so to those experiencing it. South Africa may have subsidised the Rhodesian war effort by as much as 50 per cent, but there were still fairly constant tax increases such as the 12 1/2 per cent surcharge on income tax imposed in July 1978. Similarly, the property market was depressed and tourism declined by some 74 per cent between 1972 and 1978. Coupled with sanctions, the war saw a decline in Rhodesia’s GNP amounting to 1.1 per cent in 1975, 3.4 per cent in 1976 and 6.9 per cent in 1977. The physical strain of the war also resulted in rises in alcoholism, illegitimacy and divorce among white Rhodesians.19 For white farmers in particular, the war meant constant danger and a life at night of floodlights, wire and sandbags. In January 1973 insurance firms had pronounced themselves unwilling to compensate for guerrilla action, leading to a Terrorist Victims Relief Fund in February and a government Victims of Terrorism (Compensation) Bill in June 1973. Officially the war cost the deaths of 410 white civilians and 954 members of the Security Forces. A total of 691 black civilians are said to have died and 8250 guerrillas, but these figures are clearly understated and it is possible that the total deaths exceeded 30,000.20

At the end of the war the Rhodesian Security Forces had surrendered no city or major communications route and the BSAP had closed no police station, even along the exposed Mozambique frontier. The guerrillas had not succeeded in establishing any ‘liberated zones’, although clearly large parts of Rhodesia were being actively contested. The guerrillas, indeed, have been characterised as the ‘worst’ this century2’ in terms of their military effectiveness and expertise, the Rhodesians referr­ing to a so-called ‘K’ factor (for Kaffir) in this regard. The guerrillas were, however, effective in political subversion and whether the situation could have been maintained by the Security Forces indefinitely is a moot point. At the time of the ceasefire an estimated 22,000 ZIPRA and 16,000 ZANLA guerrillas remained uncommitted outside the country, although not all were trained. Within Rhodesia, even with the dubious addition of the SFAs, the ratio of the Security Forces to the guerrillas and their supporters reached only 1:1.5 22 Manpower had always been the problem, particularly as the Rhodesians had attempted for far too long to exert control everywhere rather than consolidating their grasp of key areas. Militarily, the war was not lost by the end of 1979 despite the frequent lack of co-ordination in command, control and intelligence. However, Rhodesia’s resources were stretched dangerously thin while the general approach of the Security Forces to counter-insurgency was not conducive to establishing any enduring popular African support. Overall lay the interplay of dominating political considerations that eventually determined the outcome. The legacy of the war was a newly-independent state beset by economic and social problems, not least the rivalries of the nationalists that the war had stimulated and left unresolved.




1.  L.H. Gann and T.H. Henriksen, The Struggle for Zimbabwe: Battle in the Bush (Praeger, New York, 1981), pp. 81—2.

2. P.L. Moorcraft and P. McLaughlin, Chimurenga: The War in Rhodesia, 1965—1980              (Sygma/Collins, Marshailtown, 1982), p. 36.

3. J.K. Cilliers, ‘A Critique on Selected Aspects of the Rhodesian Security Forces’ Counter-Insurgency Strategy, 1972—1980’ (Unpublished MA, University of South Africa, 1982), p. 272.

4.   For accounts of the early campaigns between 1966 and 1970 see J. Boner Bell, ‘The Frustration of Insurgency: The Rhodesian Example in the Sixties’, Military Affairs 35/1, 1971, pp. 1—5; M. Moths, Terrorism (Howard Tirnmins, Cape Town, 1971); K. Maxey, The Fight for Zimbabwe (Rex Collings, London. 1975); A.R. Wilkinson, Insurgency in Rhodesia, 1957-1973 (International Institute for Strategic Studies, Adelphi Paper no. 100, London, 1973).

5. R. Reid-Daly and P. Stiff, Selous Scouts: Top Secret War (Galago, Albertown, 1982), pp. 260—74.

6.   Moorcraft and McLaughlin, Chimurenga, p. 191.

7. Reid-Daly and Stiff, Selous Scouts, p. 68—9; Tony Geraghty, Who Dares Wins (2nd edn, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1983), p.296.

8.   Cilliers, ‘Critique’, pp. 308—9.

9.   Moorcraft and McLaughlin, Chimurenga, pp. 66—7.

10. T. Arbuckle, ‘Rhodesian Bush War Strategies and Tactics: An Assess­ment’, Journal of the Royal United Services Institute 124/4, 1979, pp. 27—32.

11. Cilliers, ‘Critique’, pp. 165—6.

12. T.J.B. Jokonya, ‘The Effects of the War on the Rural Population of Zimbabwe’, Journal of Southern African Affairs, 5/2, 1980, pp. 133—47; R. Marston, ‘Resettlement as a Counter-revolutionary Technique’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, 124/4, 1979, pp. 46—9.

13. Cilliers, ‘Critique’, p. 200.

14. Jokonya, ‘Effects’, pp. 133—47.

15. Reid-Daly and Stiff, Selous Scouts, p. 245.

16. Cilliers, ‘Critique’, p. 278.

17. Marston, ‘Resettlement’, pp. 46—9.

18.  Gann and Henriksen, Struggle for Zimbabwe, p. 72.

19. Moorcraft and McLaughlin, Chimurenga, p. 174.

20. Ibid., p. 222.

21. N. Downie, ‘Rhodesia: A Study in Military Incompetence’, Defence, 10/5, 1979, pp. 342-5.

22. Cilliers, ‘Critique’, p. 296.



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