In 1977 and 1978, Rhodesia’s war against the communist terrorists was heating up to proportions not experienced before. It was all hands on decks. Contacts and casualties mounted as the CTs grew exponentially and began utilizing the border of Mozambique, at that point abandoned by the Portuguese colonials.
In particular, the Gaza province was made up of flat, featureless terrain with the only significant landmark being the railroad system. Free trade had been the order of the day across the Rhodesia/Mozambique border. Once the colonial government fell, all bets were off. Due to the sanctions imposed by the UN and virtually the rest of the world, the Rhodesians vigorously pursued their major rail line south from Salisbury to the Beit Bridge and the South African border.
South Africa had its own agenda, but saw the inherent value in helping its northern neighbor fend off the tide of communist African nationalism. Political battles raged between the pols and the generals over what should be done and to what extent. The British South African police were tied heavily to Rhodesia, historically. This relationship would spread to other units in southwest Africa and Angola.
The military of South Africa not only felt somewhat duty bound to help an ally, but sought to gain operational experience in war, as their own future was uncertain. At one point, half of Rhodesia’s air force consisted of South African pilots and crew. But South Africa maintained a ‘giveth and taketh away’ philosophy. They were concerned that their own internal strife brought on by apartheid and the external forces of communism would require the world’s support in order for the country to survive intact. Also for this reason, the following information was considered classified until 1983—three years after the fall of Rhodesia.
The South African Reconnaissance Regiments or ‘Recces’ had been evolving into a force in their own right, but like the early days of the Green Berets, the army did not know what to do with them. Their commander saw an opportunity to show the army what they were capable of during a suitable war in the north. In the early to mid ’70s, several men spent time attached to the Selous Scouts and the SAS, gaining knowledge and also teaching skills they had acquired in Com-Ops. The exchange was never more than a handful of people at a time, but a relationship developed.
The need for manpower on Rhodesia’s end and the need for experience for the Recces set the wheels in motion for the deployment of a SAS squadron that technically never existed.
In his masterpiece “The Silent War,” an encyclopedia of the Recce’s history, Peter Stiff relates that, in December of 1977, 55 men in ‘A’ Group 1st Reconnaissance Regiment were pulled into Durban for intense training in preparation for what was believed to be a direct-action mission. Once this training was complete, the men boarded the ever-reliable Dakota C-47s. They had thought they would be flying to their target in C-130s.
Once aboard, a surprise awaited them. Boxes were ripped open and the men were told to change out of their uniforms and into the fatigues bearing the familiar pattern of the Rhodesian SAS. After landing at a base in Operational Area Buffalo Range, a briefing was given telling them that they would be operating as D squadron of the SAS and that Afrikaans was a forbidden language in order to enhance their cover. For some of them, this would prove difficult.
They linked up with a Rhodesian officer who briefed them in detail, indicating that they would be responsible for controlling a vast area: the border with Mozambique, over 150 kilometers long. The men were doubtful. It was a large swathe patrolled by two distinct armies. The SAS officer assured them that they would be chaperoned on their initial mission, which he then casually mentioned was a static-line drop that same evening!
Rotations would be three months in length, spent continuously in the bush. Over the course of Rhodesia’s Bush War, some Recce operators would deploy as many as four times. The Recces were a tough, well-trained group of bush fighters, but they were still in the infancy of their own war. The commanding officers of the reconnaissance regiments saw the writing on the wall with insurgent tactics being a main component of South Africa’s enemies’ strategy in the border war.
The deployments in Rhodesia helped solidify the unit. Corrie Meerholz, a core member of the Recces said, “We would not be where we are today so far as equipment, tactics, and experience is concerned [without that deployment]. It made a great contribution in structuring our minor tactics course.”
It would not be more than a day into their first deployment before they faced the grinder of ‘The Russian Front’, beginning a steep learning curve that would influence them for several decades.
(Featured image courtesy of vreesloosafrikaans.com)