Guerrilla tactics were a strange mixture of fecklessness and competence. Their combat tactics were often so bad as to border on the farcical, yet the way in which they mobilized and maintained mass support was a model of the people’s war.
The guerrillas infiltrated into Rhodesia along a number of well-established corridors which were sometimes as much as 20 km wide. The crossing of the border could be dangerous as the Rhodesians created a cordon sanitaire (known to the Rhodesians as the ‘corsan’) consisting of fences and minefields, supported by periodic patrols, along much of the eastern frontier. In some areas the guerrillas were able to pass through with ease, but in others they suffered heavy casualties from ‘ploughshare’ mines, a large version of the Claymore.
Once across the frontier the groups, consisting of between 10 and 30 guerrillas, but up to 300 on rare occasions, followed landmarks such as hills, roads, railways, fence lines and rivers. Aggressive activity was kept to a minimum and there were few incidents along infiltration routes, to avoid attracting the Rhodesian security forces’ attention. Some of the routes were extremely long, such as the 300 km route along the Lundi river valley from the south-eastern border to the Belingwe Tribal Trust Land. The guerrillas always carried heavy loads of weapons and ammunition with them as they made their way to their operational sectors. Each infiltrating group would normally carry enough for its own needs. Guerrillas or their carriers were recognizable to the security forces by the calloused marks on their shoulders where their pack straps bit into the flesh. The guerrillas put a great deal of emphasis on physical fitness in their training, for conditions on the march or in operational sectors were often gruelling.
Re-supply was a constant headache for the guerrillas. ZIPRA was more lavishly supplied by the Soviets and less active than ZANLA, which faced periodic logistics crises. Land mines were an unpopular burden because of their weight, and guerrillas would often plant them soon after they crossed the border rather than lug them into the interior.
The guerrilla groups crossed European farming areas and game parks as rapidly as possible, never staying for more than two nights in the same place, and made for the relative safety of the densely populated Tribal Trust Lands. They moved from kraal to kraal or along a network of base camps until they reached their area of deployment. In areas with less sympathetic inhabitants or in those where much of the population was in PVs, ‘contact men’ fed and aided guerrillas in their temporary encampments. In some areas guerrillas were able to move around with considerable safety and these were used for rest and regrouping. Some areas like Mudzi and the Melsetter District had almost the status of ‘liberated zones’ in that security forces could venture into them only in strength. Kandeya TTL in the north-east was a safe haven for guerrillas for much of the war.
The guerrillas normally operated in sections of 10 men, comprising the commander, political commissar, security officer, medical officer, logistics officer and three to five cadres. Standard section equipment was an RPG launcher or 60mm mortar, a light machine gun, with the rest armed with varied weapons depending on their supply state.
Once inside Rhodesia the guerrillas began operations from base camps sited near friendly villages or povo camps. Povo is a Portuguese word used by FRELIMO to denote ‘the masses’ and borrowed by ZANLA. Their populations consisted of Africans freed or abducted from PVs or populations moved from established kraal sites. Povo camps were set up in remote areas and operations were mounted from these logistics bases. These sympathetic or captive groups grew crops to feed the guerrillas, carried out base camp chores, gathered intelligence on security forces movements and generally acted as the guerrillas’ ‘tail’. These camps were not a major feature of ZIPRA operations as their area of operations, Matabeleland, was not as heavily covered by PVs as ZANLA areas. Occasionally guerrillas were able to use PVs as rest and recreation and feeding points, particularly when many of these were handed over to auxiliaries under Internal Affairs control in 1978 and 1979. Many auxiliaries sensed a guerrilla victory in the future and came to a modus vivendi with local guerrilla groups. A number of camps would be set up within any given area so that the guerrillas could move from one to another to evade the surveillance of Rhodesian forces, and in case any were discovered by enemy patrols.
One security forces’ officer said towards the end of the war that if Africans lived in TTLs they could be automatically classified as supporters of the guerrillas. Certainly the guerrillas could rely heavily on local Africans’ willingness to act in concert with them. Particularly effective was the guerrilla mujiba system, which mobilised young males from the age of five who were romantically attracted by the admiration combat guerrillas enjoyed among Africans. They carried out routine tasks such as the sabotage of roads and telephone lines, intelligence gathering, carrying messages, and even punitive beatings and killings. Sometimes this could have tragic consequences. In 1979 a Rhodesian observation post in Nyajena TTL reported a large group of armed guerrillas moving in the open. Air strikes using napalm were called in, but the group turned out to be 120 mujibas armed with wooden imitation AK rifles.
Guerrillas mounted operations from their base camps, often joining up with other sections (there were three sections to a detachment) for large operations. By 1979 guerrillas were occasionally operating in groups of 75 to 150. Movement usually took place at night, though there were some areas where guerrillas moved around openly during the day. In the Nyajena TTL, guerrillas knew that Selous Scouts posing as guerrillas were operating there because they moved through the bush and not along the open pathways.
Moving up to 50 km a night, the guerrillas would lay ambushes or attack farmsteads in the early morning. In the first years of the war, when the Rhodesian forces were not overtaxed, they would attack in the late afternoon so that they had all night to make good their escape. But later in the war attacks were typically launched just before sunrise.
The guerrillas took the maxim that they must live to fight another day more than seriously. Although some units fought determinedly, most withdrew precipitately once fire was returned. A willingness to accept a few casualties might have shortened the war considerably. Sometimes remote farmhouses defended by a single family would hold out against 20 or 30 guerrillas equipped with mortars and rockets. Although this ultimately did not matter, in that the guerrillas achieved their war aims, their irresolute tactics prolonged the conflict by years. As one Rhodesian officer commented in 1979: ‘If we had been fighting the Viet Cong, we would have lost the war a long time ago.’ Ambushes were often poorly sited with an emphasis on escape routes rather than on the killing zone. The guerrilla propensity for using tracer simply pinpointed their firing positions for those attacked. But their operations did not necessarily have to be totally successful, if at all. Only half a dozen ambushes on a road, no matter what the outcome, compelled the Rhodesians to mount convoys which tied down men and materials and created a siege mentality and climate of fear. The range of guerrilla activities was enormous. Farmsteads were attacked, roads dug up, cattle dips destroyed, PVs and Rhodesian security forces’ bases mortared, stores were robbed, mines laid, punitive murders carried out, buses and commercial vehicles were hijacked and robbed or burnt, convoys attacked, civil airliners shot down, tobacco barns razed, bridges blown up, irrigation pumps destroyed, and railway lines sabotaged. The entire political, economic, administrative and military structure built, maintained and protected by the Rhodesian government was attacked by guerrilla groups ranging from one or two individuals to company-sized detachments.
Once the guerrillas had disengaged from their operations they moved to a number of rendezvous points. These allowed those who became detached or scattered to rejoin the group and make their way back to their base camp. Anti-tracking techniques were used if security forces’ follow-up was expected. These included walking along stream beds and busy paths in populated areas, removing or changing footwear and arranging for sympathizers to sweep the tracks with underbrush or to drive livestock across them.
But most of the guerrillas’ time–up to 80 per cent–was spent in ‘mobilizing the masses’. The guerrillas had a number of sound starting points for politicizing the population. They were black, often from the same area in which they operated, and had the avowed intention of overturning an obviously discriminatory government and securing a better life for Africans. Politicization took place on a daily basis. Living in day-to-day contact with their supporters, emotional links were built which often transcended political beliefs. While the guerrillas lived alongside their supporters, security force contact was often limited to passing patrols, punitive actions or escorting administrative officials. Even in PVs the security forces lived separately from their charges. While the guerrillas might withdraw temporarily when Rhodesian forces were active in an area, they would usually return. Casualties were covered by claiming that guerrillas who had in fact been killed had been transferred to other sections or detachments, although the wounded were always an embarrassment.
The political commissar attached to every section had a central role to play, both within the unit and in mobilizing civilian support. Political meetings, called pungwes, were held in villages at night. Speeches would be made by the political commissar, and almost invariably would follow the singing of Chimurenga songs and often beer-drinking. Summary justice might also be meted out to those who were accused of collaboration with the Rhodesian government. Great play was made of the Chimurenga tradition of resistance, the need for land, the brutality of the Rhodesian forces and the general poverty of rural life. Hammering on a few simple themes was highly effective in convincing the rural population of the need for the armed struggle.
Rhodesian propaganda often spoke of an indiscriminate reign of terror inflicted on the African population by the guerrillas. There was indeed a deliberate reign of terror, but only against those who sympathized with or aided the Rhodesian cause. ‘Collaborators’ or ‘sell-outs’ were brutally murdered, or mutilated, and often whole households and kraals were destroyed. But the targets were normally carefully selected and the local population could usually see the point of the executions or mutilations. In many cases completely innocent people were suspected of collaboration and murdered, but by and large the guerrillas were careful in their policy of selective terrorism. In 1978-9 a deliberate policy of killing labourers who refused to give up their jobs on white-owned farms was adopted. The guerrillas perpetrated several large massacres of farm-workers and the tactic was highly effective in denuding farms of their labour.
There was also a strict code of ethics among the guerrillas to avoid alienating local supporters. There were even Chimurenga songs to spread the guerrilla code, such as this one:
There are ways of Revolutionary soldiers in behaving.
Obey all orders.
Speak politely to the people.
We must not take things from our masses.
Return everything captured from the enemy.
Pay fairly for what you buy.
Don’t take liberties with women, don’t ill-treat captives of war.
Don’t hit people too severely.
These are the words said by the people of ZANU teaching us.
These are the words said by Chairman Mao when teaching us.
Transgressions could be dealt with by corporal punishment, as were disciplinary offences. There was no set scale of punishment: some commanders punished attempted desertion with death, while others inflicted 25 lashes; yet others gave 35 lashes and assigned offenders the section’s most inferior weapon for combat. Guerrillas were theoretically forbidden to procure beer (for which there was a sentence of 20 lashes) and to ‘interfere’ with local women, but these strictures were generally ignored. Guerrillas often indiscriminately robbed buses and stores on their own initiative. Discipline and adherence to the code of ethics, often slack, depended on the personalities of the individual commanders and commissars. ZANLA commanders and commissars often kept detailed diaries about their operations, disciplinary procedures and success of politicization. These records often fell into the hands of the security forces after contacts. They provided a great deal of personal information, particularly on individual insurgents.
The Roman Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, which tended to sympathize with the cause of African nationalism, remarked that:
Although it is not possible to give a comprehensive picture, it appears that there are two distinct types of guerrilla groups operating in the country at present. One type is well-trained, well-disciplined and maintains the trust of the people. Another, however, is poorly trained and ill-disciplined and can only maintain the allegiance of the rural population through the use of terror tactics.
The ZIPRA guerrillas were usually more selective in their use of brutality and terror than ZANLA forces, whose discipline was more lax and who were less discriminating. ZANLA forces were more active than ZIPRA and covered a far larger swathe of Rhodesia, with the result that there were many more instances of ZANLA atrocities.
After spells of combat in Rhodesia, guerrillas would return to their bases in neighbouring states for re-equipment or regrouping, though some guerrillas stayed in one area for periods up to five years. Medical cases which could not be handled by the poorly trained and equipped medics attached to guerrilla units, or treated in sympathetic mission clinics and hospitals, were evacuated on foot to base camps across the borders. Messengers and political agents made frequent trips to and fro across the Rhodesian frontiers. On occasion, disciplinary sections would cross into the country to stiffen demoralized or inactive sections or to mete out justice to offending guerrillas. In 1976 Rhodesian Army Brigadier Derry Mclntyre, commanding Operation Thrasher, commented:
I doubt whether the terrorists are so well organised that they can influence their cadres in the field. I would say that possibly the moon affects the terrorists more than Geneva conferences. They go mad at periods which are quite unrelated to world affairs.
But the guerrillas did in fact stay in touch with world affairs, both through their own cadres and through listening to local or foreign stations on the portable radios which they bought or stole from stores or farmhouses. The official Mozambique station, Radio Maputo, carried a great deal of information and propaganda about the guerrillas’ struggle, and was an important factor in inspiring guerrillas and civilians inside Rhodesia. The speed and thoroughness with which the guerrillas honoured the ceasefire in December 1979 gave the lie to observers who saw guerrilla control over their cadres in the field as tenuous at best. It was also a comment on the guerrilla sympathizers’ statements that atrocities such as the Elim Mission massacre were perpetrated by groups acting outside the control and orders of their high commands.