The Bush War in Rhodesia
Lasting from the mid-1960’s to 1980, the bush war in Rhodesia saw this tiny land locked nation surrounded by communist backed insurgents operating from the adjacent nations of Mozambique, Zambia, and Botswana. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU was supported by Red China while Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU was a primarily a Soviet sponsored insurgency. With guerrilla fighters pouring across the borders, Rhodesia’s military fought tooth and nail, especially as the war heated up around 1976. Fighting the war on a shoe string to a point difficult to compare to today’s War on Terror, the Rhodesian forces conducted lightening fast raids and parachute jumps behind enemy lines.
The Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR), the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), and the Rhodesian Special Air Service (RhSAS) all preformed impressively throughout the war but one unique unconventional warfare unit took the fight to the enemy in a way that may not have been seen before or since.
Founded by the indomitable Colonel Ron Reid-Daly, the Selous Scouts was born. Named after African bush hunter Frederick Courtney Selous, this unique Special Forces unit engaged in so-called pseudo-operations. Operating under official cover as a military tracking unit, the Selous Scouts were involved in far more perilous activities in which white Scouts would be paired up with black Scouts, or more often than not, communist guerrillas who had been captured and turned to fight against their former comrades.
Having received training in tactical tracking operations, survival techniques, and living in a mock terrorist training camp during the “Dark Phase” portion of their selection course, Scouts would then be paired up with captured terrorists. These “tamed” terrorists would be given an AK-47 to help build trust between them and the Scouts. Sometimes the firing pin would be secretly removed until they had established a strong working relationship, just in case they were feeling froggy.
Moving into covert Observation Posts, the white Scouts would remain hidden while their black counterparts would infiltrate into nearby villages reported to have been occupied by terrorists who had recently crossed the border. As former terrorists themselves, they would be able to gain the trust of the newly arrived comrades and the villagers alike. Once the bad guys were identified and relevant intelligence was collected the black Scouts would return to the OP and the RLI would be called in to clean the nest of terrorists out of the village.
The potential for pseudo-operations in which both black and white Scouts would disguised themselves as terrorists was adapted to many different tactics, one of which was the pseudo-column which would also incorporate captured (communist supplied) vehicles. A pseudo-column could be driven deep behind enemy lines and in some cases directly into enemy base camps. Such was the case at Nyodzonya where eighty four Selous Scouts accounted for over one thousand enemy KIA.
The Selous Scouts also had a Recce Troop which deployed two and three man teams into neighboring countries, often jumping in by conducting night time free fall jumps from Dakota aircraft.
Relevancy to the War on Terror?
Some aspects of what the Selous Scouts accomplished would be considered off limits to our soldiers fighting counter-insurgency operations overseas today. For instance, disguising yourself as a civilian in order to get close to the enemy for purposes of assassination is expressly forbidden by the Geneva Conventions. However, the concept of utilizing “tamed” Taliban to help infiltrate the enemy’s ranks may be valid in some cases. Disguises and deceptions are lawful for reconnaissance purposes. After the recon is completed soldiers can change into a uniform prior to the Direct Action mission, or conventional infantry can be called in to do the heavy lifting.
While these types of Trojan Horse attacks are certainly nothing new, no other unit professionalized the practice and realized their potential to the extent that the Selous Scouts did. Fighting an unconventional campaign in this manner requires a shift in paradigm, blurring the lines between two opposing forces, and working in a gray area that many would not be comfortable with as you would literally be walking in the enemy’s boots, or as the case may be, in his sandals.
Three Sips of Gin by Tim Bax (RLI and Selous Scouts Officer)
The Bush War in Rhodesia by Dennis Croukamp (RLI and Selous Scouts NCO)
Someone Else’s War by Anthony Rogers (see chapter two)
Kit Up! contributor Jack Murphy is a former Ranger, Special Forces Soldier and is the author of the military thriller Reflexive Fire.