ALL-OUT WAR 1977-1979 II

South Africa also feared the worst. During the white referendum of January 1979 that preceded the April poll, Smith admitted that if things went wrong South Africa had made ‘a very generous agreement’ to help Rhodesian war widows and the war-wounded. (A year before South Africa had secretly offered Rhodesian special forces, and their families, the option to move south to join the SADF.) Pretoria was also preparing to construct refugee camps in the northern Transvaal. And, like the British, South Africa had considered contingency plans for the military evacuation of Rhodesians if a wholesale carnage among whites was to take place. Against such a scenario of fear, the whites still said ‘yes’ (85 per cent of the 71 per cent poll) to Smith’s plan to elect the first black prime minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. How could Salisbury expect the PF guerrillas to believe that white rule was really over and to hand in their arms, if the unborn republic was to have such an ugly compromise name so redolent of white chicanery?

In the same month as the referendum, blacks had massively boycotted conscription. On 10 January, only 300 out of the scheduled 1,544 blacks turned up at Llewellyn Barracks in Bulawayo. Also, 415 of the expected 1,500 whites failed to show up. Two days later whites aged 50 to 59 were told they would have to serve for 42 days a year. Even ‘dad’s army’ would have to be deployed for the coming general election.

On 12 February 1979, ZIPRA shot down another civilian Viscount aircraft. Air Rhodesia Flight 827 from Kariba to Salisbury was hit by a SAM-7. Fifty-four passengers and five crew members were killed as the plane came down only 50 km from the spot where the first SAM victim had crashed. Nkomo claimed that the intended target had been General Walls, who was aboard a plane which took off just after the ill-fated Viscount. The alleged attempt to kill Walls was probably a post-hoc rationalization: ZIPRA had intended to shoot down a plane just before the referendum. The emotional white backlash might have produced a ‘no’ to Smith’s plans; and this would have disrupted the internal settlement to the benefit of the PF.

A feeling of sullen, resigned anger pervaded the white community, which retreated further into its laager. The roads were unsafe even for convoys; now the sky was dangerous too. Air Rhodesia flights were reduced and old Dakotas with heat-dispersion units around the engine exhausts were introduced on passenger runs. South African Airways cut back its flights and stopped its Jumbo jets from landing at Salisbury airport.

On 26 February the Rhodesian Air Force launched a retaliatory raid deep into Angola, the first major raid on that country. Canberra jets struck at a ZIPRA base at Luso, situated on the Benguela railway and 1,000 km from the Rhodesian border. Thanks to excellent intelligence work, the Rhodesian pilots avoided the British-maintained air defence of Zambia and the Russian-manned radar tracking system in Angola. In this audacious raid 160 guerrillas were killed and 530 injured. The Soviet MiG-17s at the Russo-Cuban air base at Henrique de Carvalho (320 km to the north) did not have time to retaliate. The guiding hand of South Africa was evident, however. The SADF was unhappy about the SWAPO threat to South West Africa and the UN’s indifference to guerrilla incursions from adjacent Angola. Rhodesia could act as a cat’s paw for the SADF, and SAAF Mirages could provide some emergency protection for the Canberras if things went wrong in Angola, despite their limited combat radius (a factor which also inhibited the Russian MiGs). All seven Rhodesian and South African Canberras returned safely. Ironically, on the same day as the raid ZIPRA did shoot down a Macchi jet fighter north-west of Lusaka, but this plane belonged to the Zambian Air Force. ZIPRA troops were jittery, as the Rhodesian Air Force had made two big raids into Zambia in the week before the Luso sortie. Rhodesians were in a tough mood in February; as one ComOps spokesman discussed the cross-border strategy he said: ‘If necessary, we’ll blast them back into the Stone Age.’

Special forces had already attacked Zambian oil depots, with little success. On 23 March 1979, however, the SAS, with South African Recce commando support, hit the Munhava oil depot in Beira. RENAMO was given the credit, a frequently used device for Mozambican coastal raids. But the raiders arrived in Mark-4 Zodiacs, courtesy of ships from the South African Navy. (The navy also regularly supplied and transported RENAMO leaders by submarine.) The oil depot went up in flames and the desperate Mozambicans turned to the specialist unit of fire-fighters in Alberton, near Johannesburg. The South Africans helped in the arson plot and then basked in the applause for their good neighbourliness.

The Rhodesian strategy had always relied upon sound morale and leadership. But by 1979 the prospect of black rule, even by the internal leaders, had sapped white resilience. Grit had been transformed into mechanical resignation. Worse was the infighting within the RF and the UANC. The senior officers of the army were at loggerheads over military developments. An incident in January 1979 exacerbated their strategic (and personal) schisms. On 29 January a bugging device was discovered in Lieutenant Colonel Ron Reid-Daly’s office. As Reid-Daly was then head of the elite Selous Scouts, this had serious security implications (though no one was actually monitoring his calls, because the Director of Military Intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel John Redfern, said he had actually ‘forgotten’ about it, after the Selous Scout monitoring plan was devised in August 1978). All Selous Scouts and SAS operations were immediately suspended. Two days later Reid-Daly launched a personal attack on the army commander, Lieutenant General John Hickman. The occasion was a crowded RLI mess during the drunken celebrations of the regiment’s birthday at Cranborne Barracks. An angry Reid-Daly used more than soldier’s language to describe his commander. Later described as being ‘overwrought and emotional’, Reid-Daly turned to Hickman, the guest of honour and began: ‘I want to say to you Army Commander for bugging my telephone, thank you very much.’ Raucous cheers followed. Everyone assumed Reid-Daly was joking. Reid-Daly repeated his words, and the company went silent. Reid-Daly concluded: ‘If I ever see you again, it will be too soon.’ The two antagonists immediately squared up for a fight, but senior officers managed to separate them. Reid-Daly was court martialled for insubordination and given a minor punishment. He then resigned. But the Reid-Daly/Hickman row had dredged up many murky facts about the army. There followed a welter of accusations and counter-accusations of gun-running and poaching. (Most prominent was the accusation that the Selous Scouts were using the no-go areas, from which other army units were excluded, to poach big game rather than hunt guerrillas. In some ‘frozen’ no-go areas on the Mozambique border guerrilla bands would seek refuge in Selous Scouts-patrolled areas and use them as a haven from patrols by other security forces.)

After another embarrassing incident involving too much alcohol, a lady and underwear for military dress code, General Hickman was summoned to the ministry of defence at 7.45 am on the following Monday morning. The co-minister of defence, Hilary Squires, had a file on his desk which contained the full details. The minister, who had a puritanical streak at the best of times, sacked Hickman on the spot. At 7.50 the general was out of a job. (Hickman, who had won the MC in Malaya, later sued, and won, a case for wrongful dismissal. Even though he had won his case on a technicality, he was paid a year’s salary minus the pension he had received.) After Hickman’s departure, the ministry of defence needed a ‘Mr. Clean’. The two choices as Hickman’s successor were either Major General Derry McIntyre or Sandy Maclean. McIntyre, although popular with his men, also had a reputation as a playboy, a man who was described as ‘a cross between a cavalier and a hooligan’. Maclean had a stable family background and, on the technicality that he was 12 days’ senior, was appointed the new army commander.

Hickman’s decision to contest his dismissal publicized the problems in the army. Then Reid-Daly sued Hickman (and the minister of defence and combined operations, Muzorewa, the directors of army military intelligence and counterintelligence, the director of military police, and other senior officers). As the court case dragged on to an inconclusive end, the normally publicity-conscious Hickman dropped out of sight. The death from wounds of his 19-year-old son also severely affected him. A bitter Reid-Daly went to South Africa, where he dabbled in a number of security firms and then, after helping to write his own account of the war, became briefly the head of the Transkei’s army.

In spite of the scandals surrounding two of Rhodesia’s best-known soldiers, Lieutenant General Maclean tried to give the impression that it was business as usual, for the army had to organize a massive security screen for the April 1979 one-man, one-vote, election. More than 70,000 men were involved in the country’s biggest mobilization. The security forces were determined to prevent any PF disruption of the polls, but sometimes the preventive counter-measures were heavy-handed. The security forces also took the offensive across Rhodesia’s borders. On 13 April the SAS led an Entebbe-style lt on the ZIPRA military command HQ in Lusaka (the Selous Scouts had done the initial reconnaissance in the city). The raiders tried to smash through the main gates in a Land Rover, but the padlock held the first time and the vehicle had to be used a second time to batter through them. By this time the ZIPRA guards were alerted and the SAS were pinned down by an RPD light machine gun. The delay would have given time for Nkomo, who was thought to be in the building, to escape. ComOps said that it wanted to destroy the ZIPRA nerve centre, but an SAS source later admitted that the aim was to kill Nkomo. Nkomo claimed that he had been at home and that he had escaped through a lavatory window but this was untrue. So complete was the destruction of the building that the ZIPRA leader could not have escaped. He must have been elsewhere, allegedly tipped off by a British mole in CIO. Rhodesian troops also sank the Kazangula ferry which was carrying ZIPRA military supplies from Zambia into Botswana daily. At the same time commandos spirited away ZAPU men from Francistown in Botswana and took them back to Salisbury. Not a single Rhodesian soldier was killed in the dramatic attacks which were executed with total efficiency and accuracy.

But ComOps regarded the April election as its crowning success. Never had a ruling minority done so much to hand over (apparent) power to a dominated majority. As one critical history, Rhodesians Never Die, observed about the two elections which marked the end of white rule: ‘Rhodesia buried itself with considerable integrity and maximum bureaucratic effort.’ Some Rhodesians, and most of the hundreds of pressmen in the country, expected the April internal elections to be wrecked by PF attacks. Instead, the security forces inflicted a high kill rate on the ZANLA forces which had concentrated in the Chinamora, Mhondoro and other TTLs in the Salisbury area. Security forces were deployed near all the static and mobile polling booths; for the first time the auxiliaries were mobilized in a major supporting role in the rural areas. Eighteen of the 932 polling stations were attacked, but none were closed. In a 64 per cent poll (if the population estimates were correct) 1,869,077 voters took part. Even some guerrillas voted. In some areas ZANLA actively encouraged the peasants to vote, although in most cases the PF tried to discourage any involvement in the election. The diminutive bishop, Abel Muzorewa, won 51 of the 72 black seats and so became the first African premier of the country. The election was a success comparable to that in 1966 in war-torn South Vietnam. It proved that the PF was nowhere near ‘imminent victory’ and that the security forces were still powerful enough to mount a huge logistic exercise. If, as the PF claimed, the turnout was the result of intimidation, it showed who effectively controlled the population at that time.

Rhodesians believed implicitly in Margaret Thatcher’s promise, when leader of the opposition, that she would recognize the April poll if the Tory group of observers said the election was fair. The group, headed by Lord Boyd, did indeed submit a favourable report, but the new British prime minister reneged on her commitment. She was swayed by a Foreign Office confidential paper outlining the possible repercussions of recognizing Salisbury, plus personal pressure from Lord Carrington, her foreign secretary. This was a catastrophic setback for Muzorewa. Many Africans rightly interpreted it as lack of faith. If a Conservative British administration would not go along with the internal settlement, who would? And the plain answer was–nobody. The internal settlement’s goal had been to bring peace, recognition and the removal of sanctions. The only tangible result was an escalation of the war. When the bishop became prime minister on 1 June 1979 he assumed the additional portfolios of defence and combined operations. By then ZANLA forces numbered more than 20,000 in the country. Could Muzorewa survive ZANLA’s ‘Year of the People’s Storm’?

The PF felt that military victory would come within one or two years at the latest. But what if Western nations recognized Muzorewa and channelled into Salisbury a vast array of military assistance? That would set back the war by years. By mid-1979 ZANLA had amassed a large reserve of conventional weaponry, although the variety of calibres and spares was proving a major problem. (This had been a continuous difficulty; the logistic chain to the forward-based guerrillas in Rhodesia, besides being poorly organized, suffered from the heterogeneous nature of the supplies.) ComOps was aware of the arsenal at Mapai, not far from the ZANLA base which the Rhodesians had hit on a number of occasions. The weapons seemed to be set aside for a special purpose which eluded Rhodesian intelligence. The arsenal had been intended at one time, May 1979, to support Operation Cuba. This was a Cuban scheme to set up a provisional government within a liberated area of Rhodesia. Many Eastern bloc and Third World countries would have recognized it and thus have pre-empted Western recognition of the Muzorewa administration. Mapai could have supplied such a venture in the Chiredzi area, apparently ZANLA’s choice. ZIPRA did not want anything to do with the plan and the Cubans withdrew their support. The open terrain in the Chiredzi area and its proximity to South Africa would have made a joint ZIPRA/ZANLA/FPLM/Cuban army an ideal target for a Rhodesian and South African conventional counter-attack. The other area mentioned in Operation Cuba, the north-east, would have been far more viable.

As it happened, the Cuban fear was unwarranted; not even South Africa risked recognizing Muzorewa. But Pretoria did pour equipment, pilots and ground troops into the very area set aside for Operation Cuba. And with the promises of bonuses and security of pensions, many whites in the civil service, security forces and police were persuaded to stay for another two years. Yet after the brief euphoria of the April election, the whites grew disenchanted with Muzorewa’s ham-fisted management of the new coalition government. Even his own UANC split with the departure of James Chikerema’s Zimbabwe Democratic Party. Then the bishop talked of encouraging skilled whites to return, but demanded a levy of Rh$20,000. In a bizarre attempt to court American opinion, he offered to welcome 1,000 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ to his country, which had an African unemployment rate of 50 per cent. His biggest failure was his ‘campaign for peace’. Muzorewa launched his amnesty programme at the same time as he authorized the RLI to wipe out groups of mutinous auxiliaries. Sithole’s men were particularly unruly in the Gokwe area. In this area and others a total of 183 auxiliaries were killed. One group was gunned down by troops hiding in the backs of troop carriers; another was lured into a schoolhouse for a supposed meeting to thrash out discipline problems and was obliterated in a strike by Hunters. Undoubtedly the government needed to control the more lawless bands of Pfumo reVanhu, but to kill so many of what the PF considered to be the bishop’s own force–just before the amnesty launch–was catastrophic timing. Few PF guerrillas were impressed.

The Amnesty Directorate had been set up on 7 June 1979. It was headed by Malcolm Thompson, the man who had masterminded the administration of the April election. Thompson came from Northern Ireland, a territory not exactly distinguished then for a tradition of fair elections or successful ceasefires. The amnesty call included the exhortation to phone a series of numbers across the country. Most of the numbers were UANC offices. A group of journalists tried to phone these offices in the early evening; most of the numbers were unobtainable because the offices were unmanned. The security force aspects of the amnesty were much more professionally executed. Besides the radio and TV campaigns, trilingual leaflets were scattered across the country. The air force helped with ‘skyshouts’. Aircraft would suddenly swoop down on a guerrilla camp. As the guerrillas ran to escape the expected bomb run they were deafened by the blast from enormous tannoys which delivered a dramatic and simple message: ‘You are about to be killed by the security forces. Give up and live.’ Despite many possible personal doubts about the internal settlement, guerrillas were severely punished by political commissars for listening to amnesty broadcasts. They could be executed for reading an amnesty leaflet.

The internal leaders had promised peace after the March Agreement, in 1978. Then they said the war would end after the one-man, one-vote polls; then after the installation of a black premier…Eventually few whites believed anything Muzorewa or Sithole said. Many emerged from their cocoons of total reliance on ‘good old Smithy’. After the April election the disenchantment in the army, particularly among the reservists, was widespread. The bickering among the internal nationalists, which threatened to destroy all the hard work the part-time soldiers and policemen had done, undermined their loyalty. A number of white police reservists refused to guard Muzorewa’s house the week after the April poll. They pointed out that the prelate had many bodyguards while their own families went unprotected. No disciplinary action was taken against the policemen. The real bone of contention was still white conscription. Why should the bishop call up 59-year-old whites possibly hostile to the UANC when he refused to conscript his youthful black followers? Only a handful of blacks had been called up. The whites began to feel that their taxes and skills were running the country and yet they were being compelled to fight for a black administration which could soon steal their rights and property. Another issue was the loyalty of the so-called ‘new Rhodesians’, the roughly 1,400 foreign mercenaries and volunteers in the regular forces. On the night of Muzorewa’s election victory, Captain Bill Atkins, an American Vietnam veteran who had been in the Rhodesian army for two years, said:

A good proportion of the foreign professionals [in the army] will stay–we’re not mercenaries. If we find that we’re working with a guy we disagree with, we will leave. We’re not here for the money. If they [the new Muzorewa administration] back away from the war, as the Americans did in Vietnam, then we’ll leave.

But no amount of reluctant military support from South Africa, white Rhodesians or foreign levies could replace some kind of international diplomatic support for Muzorewa. The PF rejected the new leader as a stooge. As one ZANU official put it: ‘At least the leader of a so-called Bantustan in South Africa can fire his own police chief.’ But Muzorewa could not. Behind the facade, the whites were in control. Even Ian Smith was still there in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio. But the PF regarded him as the minister with all portfolios. And the new Tory prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was still reluctant to recognize Muzorewa. At the Commonwealth Conference in Lusaka in August, Mrs Thatcher secured the agreement of her fellow premiers: an all-party conference would try for one last time to cut the Gordian knot of the Rhodesian impasse. Muzorewa was bitter and Salisbury’s Herald newspaper thundered: ‘Is Mrs Thatcher really a Labour Prime Minister in drag?’

The Lancaster House conference opened on 10 September and staggered on until just before Christmas. Both sides struggled to inflict military reverses on their opponents, both to influence the course of the three-month conference and to be in a commanding military position if diplomacy should once again fail. As during the Geneva conference, the guerrillas talked and fought, but this time there were four times as many guerrillas in the country as in 1976. Within 48 hours of Muzorewa’s accession to power he had authorized raids into his neighbours’ countries. Later, on 26 June, the Rhodesians hit the Chikumbi base, north of Lusaka. Simultaneously five Cheetah choppers dropped assault troops into the Lusaka suburb of Roma where they stormed into the ZAPU intelligence HQ. It contained ZIPRA’s Department of National Security and Order, which was commanded by Dumiso Dabengwa, whom Rhodesian intelligence dubbed the ‘Black Russian’ because he was reputed to be a KGB colonel. With the SAS was a senior ZIPRA captive, Elliott Sibanda. His job was to use a loud hailer to get his former colleagues to surrender and then identify whoever responded. During the fighting 30 ZAPU cadres and one SAS captain were killed. Five hundred pounds of sensitive documents were seized (including documents which, according to Muzorewa’s minister of law and order, Francis Zindoga, proved that intelligence information had been passed to ZAPU by white liberals). What had happened to the 150 tons of British air defence equipment which had been sent to Zambia in October 1978 and the Rapier missiles which the BAC team had repaired? Was it plain incompetence, or were the Zambians afraid of protecting PF targets in case Salisbury decided to hit directly at Zambian military installations?

On 5 September, five days before the Lancaster House marathon began, Rhodesian forces hit ZANLA bases in the area around Aldeia de Barragem, 150 km north-west of Maputo. This was part of a new strategy: instead of just targeting PF military bases, Salisbury escalated its strikes to include the economic infrastructures of both Zambia and Mozambique. The attacks on economic targets, especially dropping bridges, were a small part of the ComOps ‘final solution’ plan. The highly secret proposals estimated that both Mozambique’s and Zambia’s economic structures could be destroyed within six weeks. The techniques to be used would have gravely escalated the war and almost certainly brought in the major powers. ComOps demanded a clear political green light for total war on Zimbabwe-Rhodesia’s neighbours. If Muzorewa had been recognized after a possible breakdown of the Lancaster House talks, then the plan might have been put into action. Instead, only small parts of the scheme were used. It was then poorly organized. Major setbacks resulted and Walls was privately criticized by senior commanders for undue interference, particularly regarding the choice of targets. Some of the final raids were not planned by Walls or the CIO chief, who often had the final say, because both men were in London for most of the Lancaster House talks. Several raids had to be publicly supported by them even though they had been carried out against their better judgment.

In September the Rhodesians tried to destroy much of the transport sy stem in Mozambique’s Gaza province, and beyond. More bridges were destroyed by SAS and South African Recce Commandos. Then Salisbury stopped the rail supplies of maize to Zambia through Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. In October and November vital Zambian road and rail arteries were hit. The aim was two-fold: to stop the infiltration of PF guerrillas and supplies, and to induce the frontline states to pressurize the PF into accepting a more conciliatory line towards the Salisbury delegation in London. But such a strategy was not without its costs. ZIPRA had improved with the aid of Cuban, East German and Russian instructors. And FRELIMO had added a stiffening to ZANLA forces. In Zambia the regular army was too small and ineffective to give much conventional support to ZIPRA in its defence against Rhodesian raids, but in Mozambique the position was quite different. The ZANLA bases there were well defended.

The Rhodesian raids were now no walkover. In the three-day Operation Uric (Operation Bootlace for the South Africans) in the first week of September the Rhodesians were determined to stop the flow of both ZANLA and regular FPLM soldiers infiltrating across what the Rhodesians nicknamed the ‘Russian Front’. The target was Mapai, the FRELIMO 2nd Brigade HQ and a control centre for ZANLA, a very heavily defended forward base 50 km from the border. Conventional military thinking dictated that in, addition to air support, two infantry battalions supported by artillery and tanks would have been required. As ever, the Rhodesians would make do with far less, relying on the shock of air power, surprise and courage. The aerial order of battle included: 8 Hunters, 12 Dakotas (half SAAF), 6 Canberras (of which 4 were South African), 10 Lynxes and 28 helicopters, including the newly acquired, but worn-out, Cheetahs (Hueys) along with a majority provided by the SAAF: Pumas, Super Frelons and Alouettes. A Mirage and Buccaneer strike force was on cockpit readiness in South Africa, and a battalion of paratroopers, with Puma helicopter transport, was on standby at a base near the Mozambique border. The command Dakota, the Warthog, was equipped with an advanced sensor system capable of locating and monitoring the guidance systems of ground-to-air missile installations and identifying surveillance radar systems. The crew included an intelligence officer and four signallers for communications with friendly forces. The plane was piloted by John Fairy, a scion of the famous British air pioneers. The SAAF had its own AWACS aircraft, a converted DC-4, nicknamed Spook. This was the largest single commitment of the SADF in the war.

The Canberras normally carried the cylindrical Rhodesian-designed Alpha bombs. But these had to be released in level flight, when flying at an air speed of 350 knots and at 300 metres above the ground. When they struck they bounced four metres into the air and exploded, sending out a deadly hail of ball bearings. The flak at Mapai was so heavy they would have been blown out of the sky if they tried a low-level attack. So the SAAF supplied conventional bombs which were dropped at 20,000 feet. A heliborne force of 192 troops went in after the bombers. In all the raiders numbered 360 men in the field, from the SAS, Recce Commandos, RLI and the Engineers. They met very fierce opposition. The fire from the 122mm rockets, mortars, recoilless rifles and machine guns from the entrenched ZANLA/FPLM enemy was intense, the heaviest the Rhodesians had ever encountered. All they had, besides air power, were 82mm and 60mm mortars, RPG-7s, light machine guns and their personal weapons. Soon the battle developed into a grim face-to-face encounter in trenches. The defenders stood and fought, and showed no intention of running from the air power, as they had so many times previously. General Walls, in the Warthog above the battle, wanted a victory not a defeat to accompany the politicking at Lancaster House. Nor did the South Africans want to commit their reserves and so not only risk defeat, but also reveal the extent of their cross-border war with Mozambique.

Two helicopters were shot down. The first was a Cheetah, hit by an RPG-7. The technician was killed, but the badly wounded pilot was extricated by a quick-thinking SAS sergeant. The second, an SAAF Puma, was downed by another RPG-7; the three air crew and 11 Rhodesian soldiers were killed. One of the dead was Corporal LeRoy Duberley, the full back of the Rhodesian national rugby team. The remains of the wrecked Puma were later golf-bombed in a vain effort to destroy the South African markings. Seventeen soldiers were killed in Operation Uric. Walls called a stop to the operation. This was the worst single military disaster of the war. And, for the first time, the Rhodesians were unable to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades. As a book on the Rhodesian SAS later noted: ‘For the first time in the history of the war, the Rhodesians had been stopped dead in their tracks.’ The RLI and the SAS were forced to make an uncharacteristic and hasty retreat.

The Rhodesians had underestimated their enemy. They were outgunned. Their air support had proved unable to winkle out well-entrenched troops and they were even more vulnerable when the aircraft–even when the whole air force was on call–returned to base to refuel and rearm. Combined Operations had decided to use more firepower. Surveillance from the air was stepped up by deploying the Warthog. The South African air force became heavily involved in these last months, both in the fighting and as standby reserves, as in the case of Operation Uric in September 1979. Super Frelons and Puma helicopters were difficult to pass off as Rhodesian equipment, but the Canberras and Alouettes also on loan were practically indistinguishable from their Rhodesian counterparts, except when they were shot down. The combined Rhodesian-South African efforts were approaching all-out war in the region. In late September, the Rhodesians hit the reconstituted ZANLA base known as New Chimoio. They also hoped to kill Rex Nhongo, the ZANLA commander, who narrowly escaped the first air strikes. ComOps claimed that this operation (Miracle) was a success, but the air force lost an Alouette, a Hunter and a Canberra. At the end of the climactic raid on New Chimoio, one Selous Scout admitted: ‘We knew then that we could never beat them. They had so much equipment and there were so many of them. They would just keep coming with more and more.’ The Rhodesians also attempted to stall the conventional ZIPRA threat to Kariba. RLI and SAS troops found themselves outgunned during this operation (Tepid). ZIPRA forces stood their ground, although they did eventually make an orderly withdrawal. On 22 November Walls ordered ComOps to stop all external raids.

The political warfare at the conference table was almost as bitter as on the real battlefields in southern Africa. The PF haggled over every step of the negotiations. Muzorewa had conceded easily. But Ian Smith had to be brought into line by the toughness of Lord Carrington, the conference chairman, as well as by a series of lectures from Ken Flower, General Walls and D C Smith, the RF deputy leader. David C Smith had played a pivotal role. Bishop Muzorewa had not wanted to include Ian Smith in his delegation to London, but David Smith had talked the bishop into it and said that he himself would not go if the RF leader were excluded. But Ian Smith’s presence was counterproductive for the Salisbury team. The RF chief did his best to undermine the bishop’s leadership. Gradually the PF was pushed into a diplomatic corner. The British had bugged all the hotel suites, especially the PF’s, and knew exactly how far to push the guerrilla leaders. The Rhodesians realized that their hotel was bugged and sometimes used an irritating device which made squawking noises to hide conversations. More often they talked about confidential matters out-of-doors. Lord Carrington told the PF he would go ahead and recognize Muzorewa if the conference broke down. None of the frontline states wanted the war to continue and they exerted a continuous leverage on the hardline PF coalition. Josiah Tongogara, who had more influence over ZANLA than did Mugabe, believed that a political compromise was possible. Nyerere also urged moderation and he persuaded Britain that more than ‘metaphysical’ force was needed to set up a ceasefire monitoring group. Samora Machel was also a vital ally of Carrington’s. In spite of Mugabe’s threats to go back to the bush, Machel privately told him that he wanted peace, and without Mozambique as a sanctuary ZANLA would collapse. Machel told Mugabe: ‘We FRELIMO secured independence by military victory against colonists. But your settlers have not been defeated, so you must negotiate.’ Angola, Nigeria and Zambia, for different reasons, wanted a speedy end to the conflict. There had been too much suffering for far too long.

If the guerrillas had not been put in an arm-lock by their backers, especially in Mozambique, and had walked out of the conference, Lord Carrington had warned that he would go for the ‘second-class solution’: recognition of Muzorewa. Paradoxically, the very success of the military raids, especially on the economic infrastructure (including the SAS-Recce Commando raid on Beira harbour on 18 September), was probably politically counter-productive. The raids raised the morale of the white hardliners in Salisbury, but it ensured that the frontline states kept the PF sitting around the table. A tactful lull in the externals might well have prompted Mugabe to go for the unconditional surrender option, and walk out, and thus force Carrington to hand the baton to Muzorewa.

On 12 December Carrington took a gamble and sent Lord Soames as the new British governor of Rhodesia. Britain was officially in full control, for the first time in the colony’s 90-year history. It was a highly risky venture–‘a leap in the dark’ in Soames’s own words. Final agreement on the complete process of drafting a new constitution, a return to British rule, a ceasefire and a new election had not been reached. But the rebellion was over. As soon as Lord Soames stepped down on Rhodesian soil, the revolt against the British Crown was quashed and sanctions were removed. But the civil war went on.

Walls had long predicted privately that the war would end in a military stalemate, and so it was. On 21 December 1979, after an epic of stubborn last-stands, all parties to the conference signed the final agreement. Ironically, it was exactly seven years to the day since the real war had begun with the attack on Altena farm in the Centenary district. Robert Mugabe was resentful. He said later: ‘As I signed the document, I was not a happy man at all. I felt we had been cheated to some extent, that we had agreed to a deal which would… rob us of the victory we had hoped we would achieve in the field.’

On 28 December the ceasefire creaked uncertainly into life. By 4 January 1980 more than 18,000 guerrillas had heeded the ceasefire and had entered the agreed rendezvous and assembly points inside Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Just as the ceasefire began, one of the main architects of compromise, Josiah Tongogara, was reported killed in a motor accident in Mozambique. As the most prominent soldier on the ZANLA side, his voice of moderation–especially regarding relations with ZIPRA–would be sorely missed. Because ‘motor accidents’ had been staged throughout the Rhodesian saga as a means of removing opponents, ZANU went out of its way to try to prove the incident an accident; even to the extent of sending a white employee of a Salisbury funeral service to Maputo to embalm the body. But a strong suspicion of murder lingered at the time. Nevertheless, no firm evidence of this has surfaced, though ZIPRA was convinced that an East German specialist in ‘road accidents’ had arranged Tongogara’s demise. Later, even in ZANLA, it was accepted that he had been murdered. Senior ZANU men had agreed to his removal because of several general factors, including his desire to work closely with ZIPRA and his emphasis on encouraging whites to remain in the country. But the specific reason may have been his alternative plan, discussed privately during the Lancaster House talks, if the conference had failed. He argued that the three main armies (ZIPRA, ZANLA, the Rhodesian security forces) could guarantee a peaceful, five-year transition to civilian rule. A council of four parties (the RF, UANC, ZANU and ZAPU) would provide the administration, with a council of the military leaders acting as a watchdog. During this period the armies would be integrated. Then, after five years, or sooner if the integration was completed, elections would be held. Sir Humphrey Gibbs was suggested as a compromise candidate for the transitional presidency. ZIPRA apparently went along with the plan, but the constitutional conference reached agreement before Walls could be consulted by Tongogara. With hindsight such a plan appears bizarre, but it certainly paralleled Tongogara’s public demands for conciliation.

Certainly some reconciliation would be needed to rebuild the devastated country. The long war had exacted a sad toll. More than 30,000 people had been killed (though some historians have offered a lower figure). Operation Turkey had destroyed a vast acreage of peasant crops to prevent food reaching the guerrillas. The International Red Cross estimated that 20 per cent of the seven million black population was suffering from malnutrition. More than 850,000 people were homeless. The maimed, blinded and crippled totalled at least 10,000. The Salvation Army reckoned that of the 100 mission hospitals and clinics which served the rural population, 51 were closed, three had been burnt to the ground, and most of the others were badly damaged and looted. More than 100,000 men in the towns were unemployed. At least 250,000 refugees waited to be repatriated from camps in the frontline states. About 483,000 children had been displaced from their schools; some had gone without schooling for five years. Half the country’s schools had been closed or destroyed. Finding a real peace was only half the problem; a massive reconstruction programme would have to follow.

Many outside observers and most whites in Rhodesia expected the fragile truce to erupt once more into full-scale war which a British governor with only 1,300 Commonwealth troops would have to contain. Ninety-five per cent of the country was under martial law when Soames arrived. Extra regular troops had entered the conflict. FPLM soldiers from Mozambique were fighting alongside ZANLA. On the other side, the South African army’s commitment had grown. By November 1979, South Africans were operating in strength in the south-east, particularly in the Sengwe TTL and along the border. They were supplied by air from Messina and their HQ was at Malapati. They were using artillery bombardment to create guerrilla movement, a technique the Rhodesians could not afford with 25-pounder shells costing $150 each. By December the SADF was operating north of Chiredzi. The aim was to put one battalion, each with a company-sized Fire Force, into each major operational area, making the total commitment five battalions. The news of South African involvement was deliberately leaked to boost sagging white morale.

If the ceasefire collapsed, more foreign regulars would be sent to fight in the civil war, a war that could have engulfed southern Africa. A grave responsibility rested on the man at the epicentre of the storm: Lord Soames, who had no previous experience of African affairs. As the London Observer warned: ‘A bomb disposal expert would be the best British Governor to send to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. The country lies ticking, a black and white booby trap with many detonators. ’Would the ceasefire hold?’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *