The Rhodesian Bush War is among the most poorly documented conflicts of the 20th century. Not because of lousy record-keeping, but due to sheer amount of media lies and obfuscation surrounding it. The truth is buried under fake photos, fake stories, distortion and denial of facts due to how acutely politicized the conflict was. But like any other war, this one had its heroes. While all members of Rhodesian Security Forces deserve recognition for their bravery in facing overwhelming odds, I would like to tell you a tale of the most efficient counter-terrorist unit in the world—an example in tenacity and professionalism for men everywhere.
Welcome to Africa. Bring a rifle.
Contrary to popular opinion, the end of the colonial age has marked the decline of Africa. Unable to cope with the responsibilities that come with independence, nascent African countries were immediately consumed by tribal warfare, becoming blood-stained wastelands almost overnight. The UN alternated between maintaining silence and applauding atrocities committed by the natives as birth pangs of statehood. USSR and China quickly got involved, providing warlords with arms in exchange for political allegiance. Unsurprisingly, African Whites became the first targets of black “freedom fighters”: Belgians in Zaire were massacred en masse before they could meaningfully react, and Portuguese settlers could muster only feeble resistance.
The tide of blood met its first breaker in Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Rhodesia. Rhodesia was a rich agrarian nation inhabited by both blacks and Whites; while originally a British territory, it attained self-governance as early as 1923. After a split with what would later become Zambia, Southern Rhodesia petitioned Britain for sovereignty, but instead received an ultimatum: no independence before majority (black) rule. This meant giving unrestricted political power to terrorist leaders and UN darlings Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, essentially letting the country plunge into chaos. On November 11, 1965, Ian Smith declared a sovereign Republic of Rhodesia—appalling the UN and infuriating the Brits—as well as merciless war on Marxist terrorism.
A Cornered Tiger
Unrecognized, surrounded by enemies and under a Western economic blockade, Rhodesia had very limited resources for war. Bush warfare is unlike any other, as most conventional tactics are useless; mobility, reconnaissance and rapid response are what counts. Thankfully, Rhodesian military was no stranger to this style of waging war.
While Rhodesian Light Infantry and Rhodesian African Rifles were quite efficient at hunting down terrorists invading from Zambia and Mozambique, they still proved an elusive enemy, blending in with the locals and recruiting them at gunpoint. Initially, Rhodesian SAS was used to deal with this problem, but Rhodesian command was displeased with how thin the unit was spreading itself, deciding instead to create a separate force that would prevent terrorist attacks rather than react to them.
This task was entrusted to General Peter Walls, who asked his old friend, a retired SAS veteran Ron Reid-Daly, for help. Together, they decided that the new unit would be a small infantry regiment recruited from lower ranks of RLI, RAR and SAS, possessing teamwork of the former two, survival skills of the latter and trained better than all of them combined. The regiment was named after Frederick Selous, a legendary hunter.
Membership in the Scouts was purely voluntary, although first recruits had no idea what they were signing up for. Volunteers were given one day’s rations, rounded up, loaded into trucks and taken to Kariba Gorge. Some twenty-five kilometers away from the destination the trucks stopped, the recruits were kicked out and told to run the remaining distance without stopping. Two instructors in a car moved behind the group, disqualifying stragglers.
The boot camp itself was named Wafa Wafa Wasara Wasara (“Who dies – dies, who survives – remains” in Shona) and boasted only a few straw hovels. No food was provided to fatigued recruits, who had by that time consumed their rations. Immediately upon arrival, they were subjected to a session of intense physical training. Instructors deliberately found faults in their performance to punish them with more exercise, waiting for the hungry, angry and confused soldiers to lash out or collapse.
For the next five days, the future Scouts would be awakened before dawn and forced to exercise till 7 in the morning; this was followed by shooting practice in the bush. Recruits were taught to pay attention to objects in their firing zones – boulders, large roots, thick vegetation – and quickly fire short bursts at them to hit potential enemy hiding spots. This seemingly chaotic and wasteful fire was actually extremely effective in combat, and Scouts quickly reached sufficient automatism to strike several probable targets in quick succession without even looking at them.
The day was topped off by obstacle courses no sane man would even think of running. At night, the recruits were trained in navigation in utter darkness, silent movement and laying ambushes. In what little free time they had, they were expected to venture outside the camp and forage, as no food was provided still. Every day, the instructors encouraged the recruits to quit and return to their old regiments. Quite a few took the advice, unable to cope with the torture.
On the sixth day, the recruits were treated to a meal of boiled baboon in early stages of decomposition. According to Reid-Daly, “the smell alone was enough to make a hyena throw up”, but soldiers devoured it without hesitation. While semi-rotten meat retains nutrients and is safe to consume if boiled properly, Reid-Daly knew that in the field, his recruits might face a choice between eating carrion or starving to death, so “if they know it’s edible only in theory, they will never eat it”. The first stage of training was thus passed, weeding out the weakest.
On the fifteenth day, recruits in full gear were split into small groups accompanied by instructors and given 30kg backpacks filled with stones. The stones were dyed an unnatural color and backpacks carefully weighed to prevent cheating. Would-be Scouts were then given three days to reach a rendezvous point located 100 kilometers away. The last 20 kilometers had to be covered in two and a half hours.
Kariba Gorge boasts abysmal terrain, afternoon heat that can cook eggs and abundance of tsetse flies—that’s not counting mosquitoes, mopane bees that are attracted to sweat and plenty of dangerous predators. For the duration of the march, the recruits were given 125g of canned meat, 250g of maize flour and a small amount of water. It is hardly surprising that the march was nicknamed “highway to hell”.
Reid-Daly always made sure to be present at the finish line. When laughing instructors emerged from tall grass to congratulate the exhausted recruits on becoming Selous Scouts, this was taken as yet another trick to make them give up. Red-faced, panting soldiers cursed and spat at the instructors, breaking into tears when realization of getting accepted finally dawned on them.
After three days of rest and a two-week lecture course on tracking and survival, the new Scouts were taken to a perfect copy of a terrorist camp, where actual terrorist turncoats instructed them in their languages, songs and mannerisms to make their infiltration absolute. Then the Scouts took a three-week course in parachuting. On average, the training took half a year.
Seeing as ZANLA, ZIPRA, FRELIMO and other terrorist groups preferred quantity over quality, Rhodesians responded with the opposite. Operating in groups of 5 to 10 men, the Scouts masterfully wielded fear and demoralization, essentially terrorizing the terrorists. If Danny Roxo pioneered this tactic, the Scouts wrote the book – bodies of their victims were almost exclusively found with expressions of extreme surprise and fear on their faces. Joining forces with “terrs” only to later turn guns on them was another day in the office. Marxist cannon fodder in Mozambique and Zambia could not catch a moment of sleep without nightmares about the Scouts.
The new unit was utilized to its fullest, both in solo operations and jointly with RLI and SAS. Selous Scouts embodied the “high risk, high reward” principle, taking up missions in “frozen” areas considered too dangerous for other regiments and emerging victorious. Imitate a FRELIMO officer to lead a gang of terrs into a pre-designated airstrike zone? Easy. Find and rescue a whole village of abductees who were taken beyond the border? No problem. Assist RLI from behind enemy lines in sieging a fortified terr camp? Piece of cake. Once, a Scout got separated from his team in a firefight. It took him 18 days to cross back into Rhodesia on foot, subsiding on whatever he could catch; upon returning, he called the ordeal “a minor bother”.
While the vast majority of Rhodesia’s population, both White and black, supported the incumbent government, terrorists still managed to find informants – mostly elders in border villages, recruited through bribes or coercion. Using mujibas (child spies), the elders kept an eye on suspicious movements nearby. The Scouts’ cross-border sorties were frequent and their disguise was not perfect – a black soldier’s unfamiliar accent or a hastily donned blackface with a tight cap to hide blonde hair could fool a tired sentry, but not the attentive eyes and ears of a mujiba.
A moment of carelessness could cost the Scouts dearly, but they had their ways of dealing with informants. The most common was to send black Scouts posing as terrs to publicly accuse an elder of working for the police, thus destroying his credibility. The more insidous tactic was to “accidentally” expose themselves as Scouts during a visit to the village; this was followed by dropping clues to whereabouts of their encampment or a large weapons cache in casual chat while loitering (with mujibas eavesdropping). Laughing at the Scouts’ idiocy, the elder delivered valuable information to terrorists, unaware that he was leading them into a deathtrap.
Another interesting feature of the Scouts was “conversion” of terrorists to their cause, largely due to the fact that bushcraft came naturally to natives. A wounded and captured terr would be flown to a hospital where he got the best medical treatment and excellent food, creating stark contrast to stories about the evil mabunu (pejorative for Whites) that he was raised on. This was followed by visits from an already “converted” terr who told him about benefits of fighting for Rhodesia: good conditions and pay as well as safety for his family. The alternative – a gibbet – was also made known. As a final test, the ex-terr would get his weapons back and asked to lure his former friends into a Scout ambush. In case he turned on his new allies, he would discover that live ammo had been replaced with blanks.
While Rhodesia suffered from economic sanctions unjustly imposed upon it by the West, South Africa held a large enough share of its foreign trade to keep the country running, while also providing it with military aid. However, at that time South Africa itself balanced on the verge of becoming a pariah state due to apartheid, so it helped Rhodesia secretly. Prime Minister Balthazar Vorster kept warning Ian Smith against escalating the conflict in order to avoid tempting Cubans in Angola into aiding Mugabe and his goons, thus creating another headache for the South African Defense Force. Vorster was also contemplating the words of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who hinted at softening of American policy towards South Africa if its support for Rhodesia ended.
An unintended benefit of being an unrecognized country was not having to care about Geneva Conventions and rules of engagement. Even though Western press screeched day and night about atrocities committed by the Rhodesian military against “freedom fighters”, Western leaders preferred not to intervene, as public opinion was overwhelmingly against them for essentially allying themselves with communists in order to throw a peaceful country to the wolves.
This allowed Selous Scouts to operate in ways that no “civilized” army would be caught dead using. Against enemies that left behind nothing but mutilated and violated bodies, there was no other choice. Still, there was one mission that ended in a complete PR nightmare, and despite the Scouts’ triumph, its political consequences have essentially cost Rhodesia the war.
Selous Scouts were tasked with destroying a large ZANLA/FRELIMO camp close to the Mozambican border that served as a staging ground for raids into Rhodesian territory. Located at the merging of two rivers, it had previously been visited by UN suits, who were fooled into thinking it was a refugee camp (terrs simply withdrew to nearby camps during the visit, leaving women and children behind), so the mission could not be tied to Rhodesia in any way. This meant no air support.
In the morning of August 10, an armored column of 72 Scouts in FRELIMO uniforms reached the camp. Recons sent forward discovered that the sizeable square in its middle was occupied by a mob of over 5000 terrorists, trying futilely to maintain formation. Astonished, the Scouts decided on a plan: the column splits, with one part encircling the camp and the other rolling right in, flashing high-ranking FRELIMO insignia and giving the mob a speech on traitors within their ranks. Those known to possess important intelligence would be called out, handcuffed and packed into vehicles. After that, the column would open fire.
The plan did not survive contact with reality, however. Terrorists reacted to arrival of their “commanders” by swarming the vehicles in a gleeful tide, yelling slogans and singing songs. All pretense of discipline was abandoned in an instant. The day was very sunny, and this allowed one terr who got too close to catch a flash of blue eyes from inside one of the vehicles – right above a twinned machine gun trained on the crowd. Screaming “Mabunu!” at the top of his voice, the terr reached for his weapon. The Scouts had no choice but to squeeze the triggers.
What followed was pure slaughter. Volleys hammered into the howling mob, mowing down dozens in an instant. After the initial shock, the terrs scattered, running towards riverbanks where they were met with more fire from the Scouts that had surrounded the camp. Driven to insanity by fear, terrs thrashed back and forth under a hail of bullets; some simply jumped into water, hoping to save themselves that way.
Operation Eland ended in total success: 1026 terrorists killed, over 2000 wounded, another 1000 drowned. The Scouts, who suffered no casualties, made a quiet exit. However, it was not long before journalists and the UN were all over the destroyed camp, shedding tears over the dead “refugees”. Eager to pin the blame on someone, the press opted for their favorite whipping boys – South African commandos. The next day, newspapers around the world were brimming with stories about blonde, blue-eyed Afrikaner soldiers gunning down black women and children. In mere 24 hours, Balthazar Vorster became Public Enemy #1. Furious at Smith, he accepted Kissinger’s proposition and cut aid to Rhodesia.
Rhodesia, now completely isolated, bravely fought on for four more years until Ian Smith was eventually forced to acquiesce to the Black majority rule. Kissinger, who eagerly meddled in Rhodesian affairs as well, made sure that Abel Muzorewa’s moderate government was immediately toppled by that of Marxist terrorist Robert Mugabe. Vorster, of course, ended up used and cheated: the U.S. did not soften its treatment of South Africa one bit.
So ends the story of Rhodesia and Selous Scouts—real men among men.
Special thanks to Sergey “Tiomkin” Karamaev for providing data and historical context for this article.
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