The men of the Malayan Scouts returned as Heroes to their Native Rhodesia. Filled with experience and the haggard look of men hardened by battle, they were promptly deactivated. Rhodesia relied mainly on the Rhodesian African Rifles, the Native Regiment led by white officers and Territorials or Reservists for their standing Army. Like many Armies around the world, Special Operations was still not considered useful to maintain during peacetime due to costs and time restraints.

The De-Colonization of Africa was still blazing across the Continent. Portugal was losing control in Angola and Mozambique. The nature of that guerilla war gave birth to the Flecha, a counterinsurgency (COIN) unit trying to put down a rebellion in Portugal’s cash cows. The winds of change cycloned around Rhodesia and the debris began to fall into its borders.

Counter-Terrorist enforcement fell largely to the British South African Police who operated inside Rhodesia’s borders. Their fundamental training was that of Policing work, not of the Infantry or a Special Forces Soldier. Military Planners began to look ahead and revived the idea of raising a full time SAS unit that would be able to battle Terrorist actions and fight fire with fire.

Before 1964 there was a Northern Rhodesia and a Southern Rhodesia which formed the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In 1959, the African National Congress began to coalesce and engaged in a campaign of physical intimidation and protests. Still under British supervision, a commission was sent to Rhodesia to give advice. ANC leaders were jailed, cells broken up, and Britain recommended that the Federation be dismantled to appease and quell the violence. Hardline Rhodesian Nationalists were not willing to do so and decided in favor of building a better and more ready Army.

The raising of the First Battalion of the Rhodesian Light Infantry came to pass in 1961 along with an Armored car squadron named the Selous Scouts (the name would later be passed onto another legendary group ) and a Parachute Detachment to become the Rhodesian SAS.

The training of the SAS Regiment began with the Parachute Evaluation Detachment. An officer from the RAF arrived and began forming a cadre. Initial training was focused on physical fitness. After the volunteers were brought up to standard, Parachute training commenced. Several of the volunteers went to Britain to qualify as Parachute Instructors and six outstanding and Malayan experienced Rhodesian officers and NCO’s were to undergo SAS training in Hereford, England.

They had little idea what to expect out of the exchange course and decided to commence training on their own to prepare them for the rigors ahead. Daily PT and ruck marches over the most inhospitable terrain were the prescription. They arrived in Britain more than prepared physically but were greeted with some disdain by 22 SAS. Even though a formal training exchange had taken place, the 22 were interested in their own business. Nevertheless, the Rhodesians made themselves available and persistent, taking every opportunity they could find to get the knowledge they had come for. They were able to take part in another exchange the British had with the Danish. War Games were played in quarantined areas where the population was involved much to the enjoyment of the Rhodesians.

Their three months came to an end with some time at the Rhodesia House in London, trying to recruit men to join the Army in Rhodesia. Upon their return, they began developing firm plans on the TO/E of the organization. It was to be six Sabre Squadrons of 17 men each with a total of 182 men to fill the ranks. It was a tall order and much of it would be morphed to fit the African continent.

The location would prove to be a troublesome issue in the future but for now, Ndola in Northern Rhodesia was to be the home of the SAS. In some ways, the remote location allowed the men to train without distraction but the morale plummeted as there was nowhere for the men to enjoy their off-hours. High strung men training to a razor’s edge for combat combined with boredom caused trouble in the ranks.

In spite of the political decision to station the SAS in the North, the OIC’s began recruiting and formulating a selection plan. Based on the principles learned in Hereford, they decided that their SAS selection course would consist of man versus the toughest terrain that they could find. Selection was mainly held in the Matopos mountain range, a geographical oddity consisting of rocky hills and outcrops and wooded valleys.

Every recruit would be pressed to his limits. They were constantly encouraged to quit, forced into situations that quitting would easily solve their problems of the moment. Outrageous endurance marches were routine. As a consequence, the failure rate was extremely high. So much, that they re-evaluated what they were doing. The British would only consider men 23 years of age or older and 3 years’ service with a regular Army unit. The Rhodesians had such a small army that they were forced to allow 17-18-year-olds to try out in hopes of upping the numbers. Not much changed after evaluation and they continued the torturous training.

Much like the Navy SEALs’ Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL course, the Selection determined the physical and mental suitability before any combat training was given. Once off of Selection they were then sent on for basic military skills of the SAS trooper. Navigation, First Aid, Weapons, Demolition, Unarmed Combat, etc. The next part of their training was the Parachute course. After earning their jump wings, the final test was the ‘All in’ Exercise where troopers were put through a mission that required them to successfully employ all the skills that they had learned. Once passed, they were able to don the sand-colored beret, SAS jump wings, and the blue Stable belt.

Training never ended, like all other Special Forces Units. Every Squadron sent men all over the country for training in various skills to complete the Unit’s in-house capability. In 1962, the U.K. and Rhodesia entered into an agreement for a Sabre to attach themselves to the British for exercises in the Arabian Peninsula. This was a risky endeavor with some of the men having won their beret weeks before. It proved to be a positive experience and a huge confidence builder as they operated alongside the seasoned Brits. Their navigation skills were honed even beyond what the African continent could throw at them.

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and Britain were at loggerheads and knee-deep in politics. Literally surrounded by violent African Nationalism that was inspired and supported by China, the Soviet Union, and Cuba, Britain wanted to keep the peace in Rhodesia. It was decided that the Federation would split apart. The British gave independence to Northern Rhodesia which became Zambia and Nyasaland became Mali. However, Southern Rhodesia was still under British Rule.

The Rhodesian SAS: Covert external operations

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This presented a severe problem to the SAS, headquartered in Northern Rhodesia. As with the land, the Federal Army was carved up too. Southern Rhodesia inherited the Air Force and the RLI. It was clear that Northern Rhodesia had no need for a highly selective, all-white unit. The soldiers themselves were allowed to decide what they wanted to do. They could stay with the men of the Northern Rhodesia Regiment who were making attractive offers to these specially trained soldiers, take a golden handshake, or head south to the army there. The problem for the SAS soldier who went South was that there was little to no bonus offered, nor a guarantee that there would even be a SAS for them. This was difficult due to the fact that most of the SAS had come directly into an elite unit and few had the mind to make the military a career. It was SAS or nothing.

Many of the young men, not seeing the future wildfire on the horizon, chose to make some money by staying on in the north. In the end, only 31 SAS troops moved to Southern Rhodesia. In spite of this sudden land mine set off in the midst of building an elite unit, the groundwork had been laid once again for Southern Rhodesia to ‘Turn to’ the world and begin a battle for its literal life.

D.R. Tharp is the author of Highway to hell to and The Gold of Katanga.