You can read the previous part here.
We explored the historical background of the Rhodesian SAS C Squadron. Now it is time to focus on a few of the missions that they undertook during the Rhodesian Bush War, a war that threatened 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 a decade of constant contact with the enemy. Given the long period, it would be impossible in this article to do justice to all of the actions taken by the SAS. Yet, little by little, more of the men who served are putting pen to their experiences and letting us delve into a piece of military history that is not widely studied.
Rhodesia Against the World
Just as Britain had carved up the Federation, it also made demands on the people of Rhodesia: The British wanted to govern from London a people that had carved out its 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 and the Rhodesians themselves were working towards further integrating the blacks into politics and the economy. Furthermore, the Tribal Trust Lands were administered and provided for by the government. Yet, Smith believed it would be disastrous to completely turn over the government to a people not yet integrated into the work or education necessary to govern a nation.
Ironically, the Bush War would take a higher toll on the Black Rhodesians than on the Whites as the Communist terrorists slaughtered thousands of Shona and Matebele men, women, and children.
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 Rhodesia into submission. Fortunately, there were a few allies that defied the United Nations and helped 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 altogether allowing Communist African Nationalists to run the government.
Rhodesia would have to go to war alone against communism. 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 they were 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.”
Immediately after the break from Britain, Rhodesia took matters into its own hands at stopping the Communist Insurgency on its borders. It was no longer worried about the British Overlords condemning its military actions nor would it suffer outright the murders of its citizens. Thus, it was decided that rather than catch the crook in his home, they would hunt him down on his own territory and prevent him from ever getting into Rhodesia.
The Zimbabwe African National Union (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 unleashed the furor of the country and caused it to use its 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 were put into action. (Prior to 1966, SAS were involved in Border Interdiction and tracking down small bands of terrorists which were causing mayhem; this was an underutilization of the SAS’ capabilities.) A plan was formed to travel to Lusaka in Zambia and blow up the ZANU headquarters. Up until this mission, only senior NCOs were involved in any type of cross border activity.
The plan proceeded in October and ended in disaster. The explosives the SAS took with them malfunctioned, before they were able to infiltrate Zambia killing several of the NCOs. The Alouette sent to recover the bodies also suffered a malfunction and crash-landed.
After reviewing the failure, a better plan was formulated and became the first of many external operations to come. It was called Operation Sculpture and its mission was the same: Infiltrate ZANU’s headquarters and destroy documents and anything else vital to the organization. SAS would infiltrate by light aircraft, meet an agent who would take them into Lusaka, drop them off, and pick them up afterward.
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. Not having eyes on the target before the mission was an intelligence failure. Nevertheless, the men decided to give try exited the vehicle.
They hoped that the chaos outside the HQ would allow them to secretly enter the building while the 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. At that point, they decided to 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 penlights at him. Once aboard and returned to Rhodesia, a series of changes were made to external operations.
As most fledgling and isolated organizations do, Rhodesian SAS 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. Secondly, they were without high-frequency communications. They were blind and deaf, relying on trust for each person to be on time where they were supposed to be. 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 on the Zambian border area. ZANU, and later the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), would use Zambia as a platform to stage incursions into Rhodesia. Being remote and sparsely populated, Zambia was an ideal place, in theory, to cross over from. The problem with this was the terrain itself. The Zambezi Valley is hot, dusty, sparse in water and vegetation. Often times, the Valley did the work of the soldiers: nature simply killed terrorists off before they could inflict harm.
The SAS with the help of the Rhodesian Light Infantry and the Air Force’s Alouette Helicopters began to own the battlespace. 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 foundational skill of the SAS trooper. Those that excelled at it formed Tracking Teams that would continue to be useful throughout the war.
When on patrol or following a call out, the troopers could be resupplied with water and food, whereas, the terrorists could not. The Valley was mapped in detail and every water hole and known footpath that could be used by the terrorists was located. Many ZANU men would be lain to rest by ambushes that lay waiting for them at water holes. In essence, the SAS neutralized the terrorists by harnessing the Zambezi Valley’s harshness and leading their quarry to slaughter.