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Rhodesia Guerrilla Warfare

A study in military incompetence
by Nick Downie

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The Guerrilla war in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia is at the same time both a classic counter insurgency situation, yet unique in the methods employed against the insurgents. The author, a freelance cameraman and former soldier (having served in five campaigns, three times in the counter in surgency role, and twice as a guerrilla commander) spent six months in Rhodesia in 1978 filming the conduct of this campaign. His partner, journalist Lord Richard Cecil, was killed during contact between government troops and ZANU guerrillas. In his opinion, any professionally trained guerrilla force operating in the Rhodesian bush could have brought the country to its knees literally years ago.

This article outlines the methods employed in COIN duties within Rhodesia, specifically describing an operation by one of the elite Fire Force units of the Rhodesian Army.

According to government sources in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, as it is now called, there are some 12,500 nationalist guerrillas operating inside the country. The fact that this force was unable to carry out its avowed intention of disrupting the recent elections - a fairly modest military task - is just one indication of the astonishingly low calibre of Mugabe and Nkomo's troops. Indeed, the liberation armies of ZANU and ZAPU are arguably the worst guerrillas to have taken to the field this century.

On the face of it, Salisbury is confronted with an insoluble military problem. Rhodesia is roughly one and a half times the size of Britain, with nearly 2000 miles of hostile border. In the North there is the Zambezi river and Lake Kariba; to the East, the frontier with Mozambique is rugged and mountainous, and to the West lie the deserts of Botswana. None of these entry routes can be sealed, nor the guerrilla supply lines cut, and Rhodesia itself is ideally suited to rural guerrilla warfare. There are many isolated areas, 80% of the African population lives in the countryside rather than the towns, and most rural traffic travels over narrow dirt roads.

Agriculture is vital to the economy. Production has nearly trebled since UDI, and Rhodesia is now completely self-sufficient. In addition, agriculture earns 50% of the country's foreign exchange, and most of this derives from 4500 white owned farms. Economically, politically and militarily, the farmers are an obvious and easy target. A determined attack against these men and their families would deal a crippling blow both to the exchequer and to white morale, while an orchestrated campaign of ambushes on the winding roads would rapidly bring rural life and commerce to a standstill.

To police the 2000 miles of border, and inhibit the activities of 12,500 guerrillas dispersed in small groups over an area of 150,000 square miles, the Rhodesians can field only some 25,000 men at any one time. Of these, a mere 5000 are full time soldiers. By all the normal military equations, this increasingly bloody little war should have been decided several years ago. That it continues is remarkable, and it is worth examining the tactics and organisation of the opposing forces.

Economic sanctions have deprived the Rhodesians of most of the paraphernalia associated with modern counter-insurgency campaigns. They are desperately short of helicopters, many of their aircraft are old and out-dated, and much of their equipment is locally made. The vast African heartland is patrolled almost entirely by men on foot, and the war has become very much a matter of individual military skill, fought at close range under the leadership of platoon and section commanders. Lack of gadgetry has forced the Rhodesians to concentrate on basic infantry expertise, and to rely heavily on improvisation and initiative. On the whole this has worked to their advantage.

One of the myths about Rhodesia is that it is a white man's war. In fact 80% of the police and the regular army is composed of black volunteers, and of the 25,000 men on the ground at any one time, about half are Africans. This does not include the so-called 'auxiliaries'. These hastily trainined volunteers owe their allegiance to one or other of the internal black leaders, and are deployed in the Tribal Trust Lands, where, contrary to expectation they have proved reasonably effective. They now number about 10,000 and although such a large body of armed and loosely-controlled politically-minded individuals may one day pose considerable problems, at the moment they are a useful adjunct to the hard pressed security forces. It is interesting to note that of the 35,000 Africans actively engaged in military operations inside Rhodesia, two thirds are fighting for, and are loyal to the present government.

An unusual feature of the Rhodesian' methods is the emphasis on long-range patrolling, and the comparatively few men employed in static guard duties. One of the virtues forced on them by lack of material has been this reliance on the basic infantry skills of bushcraft, tracking, concealment and observation. The vast majority of the security forces, be they young conscripts or middle-aged farmers doing their call-up, spend their time walking quietly through the bush, looking for signs of guerrilla activity. The normal patrol consists of six men, and in the event of a 'sighting' or a contact they can call on assistance from the regular army.

The Rhodesian Army's best troops, and most of its helicopters, are concentrated in four mobile strike-units dispersed around the country. These are called 'Fire Force'. Each one consists of a regular infantry company, which remains on permanent stand-by. Rotated every few weeks, two Fire Force units are drawn from the all-white Rhodesian Light Infantry, and two from the black Rhodesian African Rifles.

Each Fire Force company has only four or five helicopters - Alouette IIIs. One of these is reserved for the company commander, from which he controls the battle on the ground. The remainder, carrying only four men each, can therefore deploy a maximum of sixteen troops at any one time. To compensate for the deficiency in helicopters, the Rhodesians have come to rely heavily on parachutists. Indeed, half the regular army is now parachute trained, and many of the soldiers serving in Fire Force have notched up 40-50 operational jumps. Apart from its helicopters, every Fire Force has one ageing C-47 Dakota. Some of these aircraft first saw service in the Second World War, but they can still carry some 20 paras. Thus the total deployment on any call-out is only 35 men.

The author's first experience of combat in Rhodesia was with a Fire Force company drawn from the Rhodesian African Rifles ( RAR ). Composed of black troops led by white officers, the RAR have turned out to be amongst the most effective soldiers involved in the war. On this occasion acting on intelligence brought in by an informer, we jumped in at first light near a small village. At the same time, a dozen men were landed by helicopter on the opposite side of the kraal, and while the paras were sorting them-selves out the helicopter troops made contact. The sounds of a brief fire-fight drifted across on the still morning air.

The paras formed into extended line and started to walk calmly towards the target area. Apart from occasional chatter on the VHF radios, and the clatter of the command helicopter which circled overhead continuously, the whole affair was conducted in total silence. 'Advancing to contact' is always a nasty business, but if the manoeuvre is carried out over relatively open or broken terrain, and the enemy are in the habit of opening up from a minimum of 40-50 yards, then the risks are acceptable, if a trifle unpleasant. The way it is done in Rhodesia, however, appears at first sight to be military suicide.

The rainy season had just ended, and the bush was at its thickest. This advance took place through a maize field, where the stalks stood six to seven feet high, planted about a foot apart, and sprouting thick green leaves. Visability was reduced to a mere two or three yards. We had been told to expect a group of 10 to 15 guerrillas, who had clearly been alerted by the sound of the aircraft and had probably seen us jump. It seemed reasonable to suppose that four or five of them would be concealed in the undergrowth, waiting to open fire from extremely close range, while we blundered around unseeingly amongst the corn-on-the-cob. Convinced we were going to lose at least three or four men at any moment, I began to wonder if I would survive the morning.

It is a the private nightmare of all war correspondents that some day they will get attached to a bunch of half-trained amateurs. Normally one can avoid the wildly incompetent, but on this occasion I appeared to have made an error of judgement. It was only later that I realised I was witnessing a quite extraordinary military confrontation: on the one hand were a group of highly skilled professionals and, on the other, an enemy whose lack of ability almost defies description.

The standard tactic when 'assaulting' a known or suspected guerilla position is the sweep-line method described above. The advance is carried out at a slow walk, with little or no prophylactic fire, and, unless there is a particularly sinister-looking piece of scrub, the men depend on good observation and fast reactions. If anything moves, or they glimpse a patch of clothing, they will fire perhaps five or six aimed shots, or, in the case of a machine-gunner, a one-second burst. These contacts take place at a range of between two and ten yards. The killing is usually done by one man alone, although occasionally the next man in the line will join in if he too can see the target. As someone opens fire, everybody else pauses. The ones nearest the firing may flinch at the sudden noise, but most of the others do not even turn their heads.
The sweep-line waits while the body is checked and the weapons removed, and the advance then continues at the same measured pace. Once an enemy presence is confirmed, the Rhodesians continue sweeping back and forth until they are certain that all the guerrillas are either dead or have escaped. This often means tramping around for seven or eight hours, peering into every nook and cranny. On one occasion a four-man stick swept up and down a dry riverbed eight times. The whole thing was heavily overgrown, so two men walked the banks while the other two clambered along the watercourse itself. During each successive sweep they killed a guerrilla, not one of whom fired a single shot, despite the fact that the soldiers had passed backwards and forwards only a few feet away.

On another day, I was following a line of six soldiers, and was walking two or three yard: behind the white Lieutenant. We had just passed through the guerilla base-camp, where a half-eaten meal testified to the speed of the enemy withdrawal. The eating area itself was relatively free of undergrowth, but just beyond was a very dense patch of bush standing about seven feet high. The Lieutenant was slightly short-sighted and wore prescription dark glasses which in thick, gloomy vegetation must have somewhat hampered his vision. As he neared the clump he bent down to peer between the branches, then walked forward, stuck his head and shoulders into the` foliage, and fired four quick shots. Less than two yards from the muzzle of his rifle lay a dead guerrilla armed with an AK47 automatic assault rifle, four spare magazines, and two hand-grenades.

Quite clearly this man knew soldiers were it the vicinity; we had walked towards him in open. order, upright in less than knee-high undergrowth; he was well-concealed but had a good field of fire and yet he was shot from a range of two yards having made no attempt to defend himself. That this should happen at all is remarkable; but that 60 or 70% of the guerrillas killed by Fire Force unit should die in this manner is almost impossible to believe - nevertheless that is the case.

The overall 'kill ratio' of the security forces was for a long time 9:1, but with the recent influence of guerrillas in larger units that figure has risen tc 15:1. Even so, this statistic is slightly misleading, as it includes Rhodesian casualties caused by land-mines, in road ambushes, amongst troop serving in low-grade defence units, soldiers murdered while on leave, and accidental deaths on duty. It also takes no account of the enormous damage done to guerrillas during raids into Mozambique and Zambia. During Fire Force operations inside Rhodesia the kill ratio is of the order of 60:1, but in one three-month period the company whose activities are described above accounted for over 100 of the enemy. They lost only one man in the process. In cross-border attacks, where the guerrillas are concentrated in large numbers and are largely untrained, the result can be little short of wholesale slaughter.

There are grounds for believing that most of the 12,500 guerrillas in the country actively avoid the security forces if they possibly can. Even when they do mount an ambush, or attack a farm-house, their efforts are painfully inept. The author arrived on the scene of one such incident shortly after the dust had settled. A group of some 25 black Rhodesian civil guards, who were members of the Department of Internal Affairs commanded by two young white conscripts, had been driving along a winding, dirt road in two locally-made armoured lorries. They were ambushed by a platoon of guerrillas, from a range of about 40 yards. Properly conducted, this could have been a fairly devastating affair. It was not. The ambush site was poorly chosen (there was a far better one 200 yards further on); the guerrillas detonated their mine 10 yards in front of the leading vehicle; they fired three RPG-7 anti-tank rockets but somehow contrived to miss both lorries completely; and, of several hundred rounds of small-arms fire, they only managed to score eight hits on the trucks, wound one soldier in the head and another in the foot, and themselves lost one man killed.

The guerrillas' lack of success against the white farmers is equally startling. Contrary to what is generally believed, the farmers do not live in miniature fortresses. Their houses are built for purely practical or aesthetic reasons, and, from a military point of view, many of them are absolute death-traps. The author found only one exception to this. It was an estate owned by a man who had lived through the Malayan Emergency. Arriving in Rhodesia in the 1950s,he deliberately sited all his buildings in good defensive positions. Now, although his boundary is only a mile from the Mozambique border, his business is not only flourishing but expanding. For most rural whites however, protection consists of a 'security fence' that could be cut with a cheap pair of pliers, flood-lights that could be shot out in 30 seconds, and a home-made bullet-proof screen in front of the bedroom window that many people refuse to have because it spoils the view when they wake up in the mornings. Most farm-attacks are carried out by 30 or 40 guerrillas armed with mortars, rocket launchers, light machine-guns and automatic rifles. That the vast majority of these assaults are driven off by one man, and his wife and children - or the wife alone, if the husband is away on call-up - is a reflection of the guerrillas' military resolve.

It has been claimed by ZANU and ZAPU spokesmen that they do not wish to destroy the agricultural base of the country. This is nonsense. There are dozens of attacks throughout the country every night, either on white farm-houses, farm out-buildings, crops and livestock, or, most devastatingly of all, on unarmed black farm workers and successful black small-holders. That so vulnerable an industry as agriculture can survive this economic campaign is almost entirely due to guerrilla bungling.

There are a number of reasons for Mugabe and Nkomo's military failure. The first is training. It is a curious fact that guerrilla training all over the world generally bears no relation to the realities of combat. Recruits learn little more than basic weapon-handling, and a variety of minor tactics which involve a lot of shouting and gallant, if suicidal, onslaughts. Such demonstrations may impress the casual spectator, but to a military observer they are acutely embarassing. However, in most guerrilla armies the recruit is then fed into a battle-hardened units, where he rapidly picks up the necessary skils under the wing of experienced comrades. In Rhodesia there are few, if any, such guerilla bands, and most recruits are shovelled across the border and left to fend for themselves. it is hardly surprising that, when they do eventually meet the security forces, they tend to come unstuck.

The second failure is that of leadership in the field. It is vital to any guerrilla force that the experienced commanders live and work in the operational zone. In Rhodesia it is unusual to find any guerrilla officers above the rank of platoon commander. There is the occasional equivalent of a company commander, but above that, nothing. Considering the thousands of men now infiltrated into the country, this dearth of military leaders is quite disgraceful and contradicts the most basic rules of guerrilla warfare. Discipline and morale are possibly even more vital to partisan activities than they are to regular forces, and the knowledge that one's superiors are living it up a safe base is highly destructive.

There is much evidence that guerrilla discipline is of a low standard. Rural African society is based on respect for one's elders, but, when a brash young teenager swaggers into the village carrying a modern rifle, that delicate balance is imediately upset. He can demand food, beer and the pick of the young women. In all the guerrilla camps seen by the author, there were both girls and alcohol. Common though these relaxations are among the regular troops on leave, in most guerrilla armies drinking and sex are absolutely forbidden, and in some cases the penalty for indulgence is death.

Another remarkable indicator is the general state of guerrilla weapons. Many of those found by the Rhodesians are absolutely filthy, and some are badly maintained that they won't work at all. Apart from he fact that Russian infantry weapons are of very solid design, and almost indestructible, most guerrillas are taught that their rifles are as precious as life itself, and keep them spotlessly lean. The inability of Mugabe and Nkomo to enforce even this elementary precept is the nadir of their military achievement.

Despite all this, the position of the Rhodesian regime is becoming untenable. The army, on its operations both inside and outside Rhodesia, has wiped out roughly one third of the entire guerrilla forces of ZANU and ZAPU, but casualties amongst the white Rhodesians are now proportionately more than ten times those suffered by the Americans in Vietnam, and are approaching, as a percentage, half of what the British lost in the Second World War. For blacks and whites alike, the strains of the war are becoming intolerable, and unless there is some fairly immediate sign of an end to it all, then the blacks will cease to support Muzorewa and the internal settlement, and the whites will start to abandon the country in large numbers.

Ever since Harold Wilson said in 1965 that Smith and his UDI would last six weeks, it has been dangerous to make predictions about the Rhodesian situation. However, unless Muzorewa's government can achieve international recognition and an end to sanctions, then it is doubtful if the economy will withstand the demands of the conflict for much longer. Recognition is also vital to white morale, and white expertise, both civil and military, is vital to Muzorewa. Even if sanctions are lifted the guerrillas will not simply melt away, and, at best, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia will be at war for several years to come.

If there is no recognition and no end to sanctions, then, sooner rather than later, the current trickle of white emigration will turn into a flood, and Muzorewa, the army, and the entire structure of the country will collapse. That event will herald an absolutely frightful black civil war. It is not for nothing that Nkomo has kept 80% of his forces out of the present fighting, and Western politicians who favour belief in the unity of the Patriotic Front are merely blinding themselves to the certainty of tribal and ideological warfare. The situation will be further complicated by the existence of the present government's 10,000 auxiliaries, and the possible intervention of outside powers.

One other solution that offers some slight hope is an accommodation between Muzorewa and Mugabe. It would be very difficult to achieve, and would still leave the problem of Nkomo, but it might mitigate the worst excesses of all-out chaos. However, regardless of the final outcome, the immediate future is at best bleak, and at worst almost too ghastly to contemplate.

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