With the root background of the Rhodesian SAS C Squadron having been explored, it is time to focus on a few of the missions that they undertook against the backdrop of a War on Terror. A war whose aim was to destroy the Government of Rhodesia, take the land and evict those of European descent. There are resources available (though hard to find) that follow the actions of the SAS over the course of a decade of constant contact with the enemy. With that amount of time elapsed, it would be impossible in this article to do justice to All of the men who served and their combat records. Not to mention the hundreds of actions taken by the SAS.
Little by little, more of the men who served are putting the pen to their experiences and letting us delve into a piece of Military History that is not widely studied. At the end, recommended resources will be listed. What is being shared is a skeleton body of work derived from the few books available.
Rhodesia Against the World
Just as Britain had carved up the Federation, they also made demands on the people of Rhodesia and wanted to govern a people from London that had carved out their living from the wilderness of Africa. Although no formal form of Apartheid existed in Rhodesia, the British declared that Rhodesia must immediately give up white Majority rule. Unlike South Africa at the time, Native Africans were part of the Ian Smith government. The Rhodesians themselves were working towards integration of Blacks into a larger segment of politics and the economy. The Tribal Trust Lands were administered and provided for by the government. Ironically, the war would take a higher toll on the Black Rhodesians than the Whites as the Communist Terrorists slaughtered thousands of Shona and Matebele men, women and children. Smith believed it would be disastrous to turn over the government to a people not yet integrated into the work or education necessary to govern a nation.
The demands from Britain led to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. Rhodesia declared itself free from being ruled as a Colony and would go it alone. The British immediately retaliated with sanctions on oil and other commodities in an attempt to strangle them into submission. Fortunately, there were a few allies that defied the United Nations to help Rhodesia in its struggle. South Africa was a stalwart ally, along with Israel and a few other Middle Eastern countries.
Much of the desire for Independence revolved around the Communist influences making headway into Africa. A western worldview was incompatible with allowing their enemies to gain strength by altogether allowing Communist African Nationalists to run the government.
They would have to go to war alone. On a personal note, as I have discussed the war with several veterans of Rhodesia and South Africa, I have marveled at the amount of time being deployed. In many ways it is different than the current War on Terror, in that, they had no place to rotate home to. Many veterans spent over 10 or more years on active duty, enduring hundreds and hundreds of firefights. The answer is always the same, ‘We had no choice, it was our home and we had nowhere to go.’
With the UDI and the service that these soldiers from the RLI, SAS to the Selous Scouts, I am reminded of another country in its first hundred or so years declaring independence from Britain and ending up in a war because of it……
Directly after the break from Britain, Rhodesia took matters into their own hands at stopping the Communist Insurgency on its borders. They were no longer worried about their Overlords looking at their military actions and condemning them to suffer outright murders of their citizens. It was decided that rather than catch a crook in their home, they would hunt them down on their own territory and prevent them from ever getting into Rhodesia.
ZANU, supported and trained by the Communist Chinese had begun infiltrating from Zambia. Crossing the mighty Zambezi River and Valley, they were getting deeper and deeper into Rhodesia. A horrifying event finally tipped the anger of the country and caused them to use their finest tool of war. In May of 1966, Johannes and Barbara Viljoen, farmers with children, answered a knock at the door. They were shot dead and mutilated. The anger of the nation turned on these Terrorists.
Six years of preparation by the SAS was put into action. Prior to this, they were involved in Border Interdiction and tracking down small bands of Terrorists causing mayhem. Working with Police to round up and jail people was underutilizing the capabilities of the SAS. A plan was formed to travel to Lusaka in Zambia and blow up the ZANU headquarters. Up until this mission, only Senior NCO’s were involved in any type of cross border reconnaissance activity. Such a small group provided experience behind enemy lines but also limited the experience of others.
The plan proceeded in October and ended in disaster. The explosives they took with them malfunctioned before they were able to infiltrate Zambia and killed several of the NCO’s. The Alouette sent to recover the bodies also suffered malfunction and crash landed.
After review, a better plan was instituted and became the first of many External Operations. Called Operation Sculpture, the mission was the same. Infiltrate ZANU’s headquarters and destroy documents and anything else vital to their organization. They would infiltrate by light aircraft, meet an agent who would take them into Lusaka, drop them off and pick them up afterwards.
After weeks of rehearsing, it was a go. The men gathered their explosives and small arms, dressed in civilian clothing and flew into Lusaka’s airport. The pilot taxied down the runway and when it turned to take off again, the Operators jumped out and fled into the bushes. The agent showed up and drove them into town and into an unforeseen problem. Outside of the headquarters, several factions of ZANU were fighting in the streets. This was an intelligence failure, not having eyes on target. The men decided to give it a go and exited the vehicle.
They hoped that the chaos outside the HQ would allow them to secretly enter the building while guards were watching the fighting in the streets. The leader of the team made every effort possible to find a way into the building but it was airtight. With this failure, it was decided that they would abort and fly home. The agent picked them up on time and drove them to the fence of the airport. Nerves set in badly as the pilot was late. When he finally showed up, they frantically flashed pen lights at him. Once aboard and returned to Rhodesia, a series of changes were made to external operations.
As most fledgling and isolated organizations do, they had to learn from experience. The first thing that needed to be enhanced was intelligence. Had a man been in Lusaka, they would never have risked going in knowing that fighting was taking place outside their target. Second, they were without high frequency communications. They were blind and deaf, relying on trust for each person to be where they were supposed to be, on time. Thirdly, they had no SHTF plan. If they had to go into escape and evasion mode, what would they have done to safely reach Rhodesia? The SAS were bold men but they needed to be operationally sound to attempt cross border operations in the future.
The SAS continued to focus attention on the Zambian border area. ZANU and later ZIPRA would use the country as a platform to stage their incursions into Rhodesia. Being remote and sparsely populated, it was an ideal place in theory to cross over. The problem with this action was the terrain itself. The Zambezi Valley is hot, dusty, sparse in water and vegetation. Often times, the Valley did the work the soldiers were for. Nature simply killed Terrorists off before they could inflict harm.
The SAS with the help of the RLI and the Air Force’s Alouette Helicopters began to own the battle space. On constant rotations in and out of the area, Operators became adept at using the Valley to their advantage. The art of tracking again became a foundation skill of the SAS trooper. Those that excelled at it formed Tracking Teams that would continue to be useful throughout the war.
On patrol or following a call out, the Troopers could continue on with resupply of water and food, whereas, the Terrorist could not. The valley was mapped in detail, accounting for every water hole and known footpath that could be used by Terrs. Many ZANU men were laid to rest by an ambush that lay waiting for them as they kneeled to fill their canteen with water. In essence, the SAS neutralized the Terrorists by harnessing the Zambezi valley’s harshness and leading their quarry to slaughter.