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Rhodesia's Coin Killing Machine
By Dan Tharp
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 SOFREP, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The Rhodesian SAS: Part 1
The UK's Special Air Service needs no introduction to anyone remotely interested in military History. However, there is much more to learn about this elite unit when you trace its existence and influence across the once worldwide British Empire. Much of the power of the British influence derived from their colonies and stock of available military recruits. Even today, Australia and New Zealand have kept the title of the SAS for their elite units.
After the end of WWII, the British government saw no further use for the unit and disbanded it in October of 1945. Within a year of that decision, a reversal was made and they resurrected the SAS for their territorial soldiers and continued training for future conflicts on the horizon. In 1950, Britain committed to help the UN stop the aggression of communism on the Korean Peninsula. After three months of preparation, 21 SAS was given orders to Korea. During this same time period, another problem arose in a British-administered country, Malaya, that suited the Unit's capabilities.
In 1948, communist guerillas began attacking British infrastructure and challenging their rule. These insurgents were a reconstituted arm of the British-trained units to fight Japanese occupiers in WWII. The terrain and tactics of the opposition were difficult to counter with the conventional forces in country. Sabotage and hit-and-run operations began against the transportation system as well as the lucrative rubber plantations vital to Britain. They came from the impenetrable jungle and disappeared back into it.
The British had learned many valuable lessons in jungle warfare fighting the Japanese in Southeast Asia. This training and experience still lived on in the commanders of the Malayan detachment. With forces being committed to the Korean conflict and the need of manpower worldwide, it was decided to make a recruiting drive for men across the colonial empire to try out for the SAS. Troops were raised to fill A and B Squadron, mainly from British territorials who were experienced and geared up for wartime deployment to Korea.
The men immediately set up headquarters for the Malayan Scouts, whose primary mission would be reconnaissance and interdiction of the communist terrorists (called CTs) along their known supply routes. It was a steep learning curve for the two squadrons, with jungle illnesses taking a brutal toll.
In 1951, Major "Mad Mike" Calvert, who was the commanding officer of the expedition, decided to take a trip to the far-away African colony of Rhodesia. Rhodesia had contributed greatly in proportion to their population in WWII, and a few of those men had served in the SAS. The lads who had felt that they had missed their chance to fight for the Crown due to their youth during the war applied in droves. It caused quite a stir and they cut the applications off at a thousand. Those thousand applicants were carefully screened and a hundred men were chosen to be a part of the Malayan Scouts and the rebirthed SAS.
Once they were chosen, they were trained by two Rhodesian veterans of WWII, Lt. George Peter Walls and Lt. Don Campbell-Morrison. Both were combat experienced and were expected to be replaced by a British commander once in country. With great fanfare and a crowd of three thousand people in Salisbury, the hundred men were sent off to war. Upon arrival in the harsh jungle environment, they were faced with the reality of a hard-bitten counterinsurgency campaign. Their reception was none too friendly, and the men of A Squadron made an impression on the young men. Being highly motivated and unspoiled, they remained hearty and willing to get on with the mission at hand.
As a small, self-contained, and isolated unit is sometimes prone to, there were disciplinary problems among the A Squadron. While the Rhodesians did a six-week work-up, discipline was restored among the others and several men were sent packing. The Rhodesians would be C Squadron, the unit designation that would stick with them far into the future. Also, a change of events would gear a certain individual for a larger epoch in history. After the training course in country, it was decided that the Rhodesians would not be split up nor have a British commander. Peter Walls would command C Squadron for the duration. Lieutenant Walls would later become the combined operations commander for the Rhodesian army during the Bush War.
The young lads had been chosen for their background and attributes to work with a team in a harsh environment. Rhodesia was a perfect place for soldiers to be born and bred. Many of the men had grown up hunting and tracking. Tracking in Africa was an essential skill that could not be learned overnight. But they found themselves having to learn to operate in the jungle instead of an open, sunlit battle space. In the Rhodesian bush, the sun would light the tracks and give them information by the shadows created, which made it easier to spot spoor, allowing for a quick assessment and pursuit. Among the men was a youngster by the name of Ron Reid-Daly. His upcoming learning experience would eventually help revolutionize counterinsurgency warfare with the formation of the Selous Scouts in the Bush War.
The canopy of the jungle blocked the sunlight, causing the men to look for different spoor than they were accustomed to. The floor of the jungle was full of rotting vegetation and oftentimes the growth was so thick that machetes had to be used to move forward. The vegetation was as much their adversary as the CTs.
It was here that the lessons of guerilla warfare were presented to the Rhodesians. This war would not allow for the entire squadron to hack through the jungle in open pursuit of the enemy. To do so would invite ambush and death. Small unit tactics were refined to a razor's edge. Operating in small groups from a four- to fourteen-man patrol was the norm. Conventional doctrine taught that soldiers could operate for a maximum of seven days in the jungle. The SAS had other plans.
The enemies were not large in number, but their control of the jungle allowed them to overcome a pursuing army. C Squadron's job was to find the CTs and take their safe havens away, and then drive them out toward more conventional army units. This took patience and resolve. They would often spend weeks at a time tracking and piecing together the intelligence that they developed. The use of the helicopter was new and allowed men to be inserted deep into enemy-held territory to hunt their prey.
Typically, a team would insert into an area believed to be home to a band of CTs and plot out the areas to recon, methodically searching behind every bush for information that would lead them to their objective. A base camp would be set up and from there, men would be sent in four distinct directions to create a 360 degree search area. This might go on for days or weeks, until they would find a trail or a camp. Once the enemy was located, they would devise a plan for ambush. It was a rare occasion to make an outright assault due to the small numbers of operators. Their training in navigation, patrolling, snap shooting, and ambush were being implemented with an ever growing proficiency.
The fresh-faced lads that arrived in 1951 turned into men of war, jungle fighters, soldiers of the elite C Squadron of the SAS. Their reputation as solid SAS men grew among the British. For nearly two years the valiant "100" navigated, patrolled, and battled the communist aggression in Malaya.
Due to their skill, patience, and fortitude they returned home in 1953 after nearly two years with only three KIA. For his leadership in a merciless environment, Lieutenant Walls received the MBE, Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. More important than any medals of achievement or accolades that the British gave them was the fact that a foundation was built upon which Rhodesia could build an elite unit on par with the rest of the world to do battle with the storm that was on the horizon in an increasingly hostile postcolonial Africa.CHAPTER 2
The Rhodesian SAS: Part 2
The men of the Malayan Scouts returned as heroes to their native Rhodesia. Filled with experience and showing the haggard look of men hardened by battle, they were promptly deactivated. For their standing army, Rhodesia relied mainly on the Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), the native regiment led by white officers and territorials or reservists. As in many armies around the world, special operations was still not considered useful to maintain during peacetime due to costs and time restraints.
The decolonization 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 COIN unit trying to put down rebellion in Portugal's cash cows. The winds of change cycloned around Rhodesia and the debris began to fall within its borders.
Counterterrorist 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 (ANC) 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. Hard-line Rhodesian nationalists were not willing to do so and decided in favor of building a better and more ready army.
The raising of the 1st 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, which would 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 NCOs were to undergo SAS training in Hereford, England.
They had little idea what to expect from the exchange course and decided to commence training on their own to prepare themselves 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. There were to be 6 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 OICs began recruiting and formulating a selection plan. Based off the principles learned in Hereford, they decided that their SAS selection course would consist of man vs. the toughest terrain 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 when 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 reevaluated what they were doing. The British would only consider men twenty-three years of age or older and with three years' service with a regular army unit. The Rhodesians had such a small army that they were forced to allow seventeen- and eighteen-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' BUD/S course, the selection determined the physical and mental suitability before any combat training was given. Once off selection, men were 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, as with 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 UK 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, but 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. Rhodesia was literally surrounded by violent African nationalism that was inspired and supported by China, the Soviet Union, and Cuba, and Britain wanted to keep the peace there. It was decided that the federation would split apart. The British gave independence to Northern Rhodesia, which became Zambia, and Nyasaland became Malawi. However, Southern Rhodesia was still under British rule.
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 of 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 an SAS for them. 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 thirty-one 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 life.CHAPTER 3
The Rhodesian SAS: Part 3
With the root background of the Rhodesian SAS C Squadron having been explored, it is time to focus on a few of the missions that they undertook against the backdrop of a war on terrorism: a war whose aim was 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 the course of a decade of constant contact with the enemy. Note, however, that with that amount of time elapsed, it would be impossible in this format to do justice to all of the men who served and their combat records, not to mention the hundreds of actions taken.
Rhodesia Against the World
Just as Britain had carved up the federation, they also made demands on the people of Rhodesia. They wanted to govern a people from London that had carved out their 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 in South Africa at the time, native Africans were part of the Ian Smith government. The Rhodesians themselves were working toward integration of blacks into a larger segment of politics and the economy. The Tribal Trust Lands were administered and provided for by the government. Ironically, the war would take a higher toll on the black Rhodesians than the whites as the communist terrorists slaughtered thousands of Shona and Matabele men, women, and children. Smith believed it would be disastrous to turn over the government to a people not yet integrated into the work or education necessary to govern a nation.
Excerpted from Africa Lost by Dan Tharp. Copyright © 2013 SOFREP, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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