The Rhodesian SAS (Part 1)

The Rhodesian SAS (Part 1)

The U.K.’s Special Air Service needs no introduction to anyone remotely interested in Military History. However, there is much more to learn about this Elite unit when you trace its existence and influence across the once worldwide British Empire. Much of the power of the Brits influence derived from its colonies and their stock of available military recruits. Even today, Australia and New Zealand have kept the title of the SAS for their elite units.

After the end of WW 2, the government saw no further use for the Unit and disbanded it in October of 1945. Within a year of that decision, a reversal was made and they resurrected the SAS from their Territorial soldiers and continued training for future conflicts on the horizon. In 1950, Britain committed to help the U.N. stop the aggression of Communism on the Korean Peninsula. After 3 months of preparation, 21 SAS was given orders to Korea. During this same time period another problem arose in a British administered country, Mayala, that suited the Units capabilities.

In 1948, Communist Guerillas began attacking British infrastructure and challenging their rule. These insurgents were a reconstituted arm of the British trained units to fight Japanese occupiers in WW 2. The terrain and tactics of the opposition were difficult to counter with the conventional forces present. Sabotage and hit and run operations began against the transportation system as well as the lucrative rubber plantations vital to Britain. They came from the impenetrable jungle and disappeared back into it.

The British had learned many valuable lessons in jungle warfare fighting the Japanese in South East Asia. This training and experience still lived on in the commanders of the Malayan detachment. With forces being committed to the Korean conflict and the need of manpower worldwide, it was decided to make a recruiting drive for men in the colonies to try out for the SAS. Troops were raised to fill A squadron and B squadron, mainly from British Territorials who were experienced and geared up for war time deployment to Korea.

The men immediately set up headquarters for the ‘Malayan Scouts’ whose primary mission would be reconnaissance and interdiction of the Communist Terrorists ( called CT’s ) along their known supply routes. It was a steep learning curve for the two squadrons with jungle illnesses taking a brutal toll.

Rhodesian SAS
Rhodesian SAS

In 1951, Major ‘Mad Mike’ Calvert who was the commanding officer of the expedition decided to take a trip to the far away African colony of Rhodesia. Rhodesia had contributed greatly in proportion to their population in WW 2 and a few had served in the SAS. Those lads who had felt that they had missed their chance to fight for the Crown due to their youth during the war applied in droves. It caused quite a stir and they cut the applications off at 1000. From those 1000 applicants, they were carefully screened and 100 men were chosen to be a part of the Malayan Scouts and the rebirthed SAS.

Once they were chosen they were trained by two Rhodesian veterans of WW 2, Lt. Peter Walls and Lt. Ron Campbell-Morrison. Both were combat experienced and were expected to be replaced by a British commander once in country. With great fanfare and a crowd of 3000 people in Salisbury, the 100 were sent off to war. Upon arrival in the harsh jungle environment, they were faced with the reality of a hard bitten counter insurgency campaign. Their reception was none too friendly and the men of A Squadron made an impression on the young men. Being highly motivated and unspoiled they remained hearty and willing to get on with the mission at hand.

As a small self contained and isolated unit is sometimes prone to, there were disciplinary problems amongst the A squadron. While the Rhodesians did a six week work up, discipline was restored amongst the others and several men were sent packing. The Rhodesians would be C squadron, the unit designation that would stick with them far into the future. Also, a change of events would gear a certain individual for a larger epoch in history. After the training course in country, it was decided that the Rhodesians would not be split up nor have a British commander. Peter Walls would command C Squadron for the duration. Lt. Walls would later become the Combined Operations Commander for the Rhodesian Army during the Bush War.

The young lads had been chosen from the others for their background and attributes to work with a team in a harsh environment. Rhodesia was a perfect place for soldiers to be born and bred. Many of the men had grown up hunting and tracking. Tracking in Africa was an essential skill that could not be learned overnight. But they found themselves having to learn to operate in the Jungle instead of an open, sunlit battle space. In the Rhodesian bush, the sun would light the tracks and give them information by the shadows created and made it easier to spot spoor, making for a quick assessment and pursuit. Amongst the men was a youngster by the name of Ron Reid-Daly. His upcoming learning experience would eventually help revolutionize counter insurgency warfare with the formation of the Selous Scouts in the Bush War.

The canopy of the jungle blocked the sunlight causing the men to look for different spoor than they were accustomed to. The floor of the jungle was full of rotting vegetation and oftentimes the bush was so thick that machetes had to be used to move forward. The vegetation was as much their adversary as the CT’s.

It was here that the lessons of Guerilla Warfare were born for the Rhodesians. This war would not allow for the entire squadron to hack through the jungle in open pursuit of the enemy. To do so would invite ambush and death. Small unit tactics were refined to a razors edge. Operating in small groups from a 4 to 14 man patrol was the norm. Conventional doctrine taught that soldiers could operate for a maximum of 7 days in the jungle. The SAS had other plans.

The enemies were not large in number but their control of the jungle allowed them to overcome a pursuing army. C squadron’s job was to find the CT’s and take their safe havens away and then drive them out of the bush into more conventional army units. This took patience and resolve. They would often spend weeks at a time tracking and piecing together the intelligence that they developed. The use of the helicopter was new and allowed men to be inserted deep into enemy held territory and hunt their prey.

Typically, a team would insert into an area believed to be home to a band of CT’s and plot out the areas to recon, methodically searching behind every bush for information that would lead them to their objective. A base camp would be set up and from there, men would be sent in four distinct directions to create a 360 degree search area. This might go on for days or weeks until they would find a trail or a camp. Once the enemy was located, they would devise a plan for ambush. It was a rare occasion to make an outright assault due to the small numbers of operators. Their training in Navigation, Patrolling, Snap Shooting and Ambush were being implemented with an ever growing proficiency.

The fresh faced lads that arrived in 1951 turned into Men of War, Jungle Fighters, Soldiers of the Elite C Squadron of the SAS. Their reputation as solid SAS men grew amongst the British. For nearly two years the valiant ‘100’ navigated, patrolled and battled the Communist aggression in Malaya.

Due to their skill, patience and fortitude they returned home in 1953 after nearly two years with only three KIA. For his leadership in a merciless environment, Lt. Walls received the MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. More important than any medals of achievement or accolades that the British gave them was the fact that a foundation was built upon which Rhodesia could build an Elite unit on par with the rest of the world to do battle with the storm that was on the horizon in an increasingly Post-Colonial Africa.

Written by D.R. Tharp, the author of Highway to hell to and The Gold of Katanga.

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  • Txazz

    Great article and am working my way through the rest of your series.  Nice this site shows 'related articles' as I'm finding more and more.  Rhodesian SAS is fascinating.

  • stx

    One of the best books on the Rhodesian SAS is: The Elite: the Story of the Rhodesian Special Air Service (Sadly out of print but still available on Amazon). It goes through the whole history of the Rhodesian SAS from its battles in Malaya until Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. It includes both Colour and B&W.

  • DRTHARP

     @formwiz  @DominiqueSumner  the Rhodies version of the Cockleshell heros will make an appearance in a later part. Great stuff.

  • DRTHARP

     @Ben K Well, 4 more parts to go. It gets better. I chose these units because they get left out of alot of conversation on elite units. Unfortunately, when you write about certain things there are people who want to make issue over politics rather than focus on the soldiers who mostly give a rats ass about the  politics and want to do their job. This audience on sofrep gets it though.

  • DRTHARP

     @JackMurphyRGR  @Ben K I'm waiting for it too. Just the cover makes me excited. @Jack Murphy has challenged all of us to a higher level of action mixed with authenticity and Big thinking.