Harman Patil (Editor)

Rhodesian Bush War

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Period  July 1964 – 1979
Capt Joseph C Smith with the Rhodesian African Rifles

1,361 Rhodesian security forces members killed  10,000+ guerrillas killed
Results  Stalemate, Lancaster House Agreement, internationally recognised independence for the Republic of Zimbabwe
Combatants  Zimbabwe African People's, African National Congress, FRELIMO
Similar  South African Border War, Angolan Civil War, Congo Crisis, Mozambican Civil War, Portuguese Colonial War

Nick downie rhodesian bush war 1978

The Rhodesian Bush War—also known as the Second Chimurenga or the Zimbabwe War of Liberation—was a civil war that took place from July 1964 to December 1979 in the unrecognised country of Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe-Rhodesia). The conflict pitted three forces against one another: the Rhodesian government, under Ian Smith (later the Zimbabwe Rhodesian government of Bishop Abel Muzorewa); the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, the military wing of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union; and the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army of Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union.


Greys scouts with smile on their faces

The war and its subsequent Internal Settlement, signed in 1978 by Smith and Muzorewa, led to the implementation in June 1979 of universal suffrage and end of white minority rule in Rhodesia, which was renamed Zimbabwe Rhodesia under a black majority government. However, this new order failed to win international recognition and the war continued.

Rhodesian Bush War Portrait

Negotiations between the government of Zimbabwe Rhodesia, the British government and Mugabe and Nkomo's united "Patriotic Front" took place at Lancaster House, London in December 1979, and the Lancaster House Agreement was signed. The country returned temporarily to British control and new elections were held under British and Commonwealth supervision in March 1980. ZANU won the election and Mugabe became the first Prime Minister of Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980, when the country achieved internationally recognised independence.

The Selous Scouts of the Rhodesian  Army

Rhodesian bush war 3 minute history


ZANU guerillas, armed and resisting the anti-gun legislation of the ethno-state that oppressed them

The origins of the war in Rhodesia can be traced to the colonisation of the region by white settlers in the late 19th century, and the dissent of black African nationalist leaders who opposed white minority rule. Rhodesia was settled by Britons and South Africans beginning in the 1890s and while it was never accorded full dominion status, white Rhodesians effectively governed the country after 1923. In his famous "Wind of Change" speech addressed to the parliament of South Africa in 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan stated Britain's intention to grant independence to British colonies in Africa under black majority rule.

Parts of a Selous Scout

Many white Rhodesians were concerned that decolonisation and majority rule would bring chaos as had resulted in the former Belgian Congo after its independence in 1960. Britain's unwillingness to compromise on its policy of "No independence before majority rule" led to Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence on 11 November 1965. Though Rhodesia had the unofficial support of neighbouring South Africa and Portugal, which governed Mozambique, it never gained formal diplomatic recognition from any country.

Many white Rhodesians viewed the war as one of survival in the context of atrocities committed against the white population during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya and in the Congo. Many whites (and a sizeable minority of black Rhodesians) viewed their lifestyle as being under attack, which both had considered safer and with a higher standard of living than many other African countries. Although the vote in Rhodesia was technically open to all, regardless of race, property ownership requirements effectively denied the franchise to most of Rhodesia's blacks. The 1969 constitution provided for "Non-Europeans" (principally blacks) to elect representatives for eight of the seats in the 66 seat parliament. A further eight seats were reserved for tribal chiefs.

Amidst this backdrop, African nationalists advocated armed struggle to bring about independence in Rhodesia under black majority rule. Resistance also stemmed from the wide economic inequality between blacks and whites. In Rhodesia, whites owned most of the fertile land whilst many blacks were crowded on barren land, following forced evictions or clearances by the colonial authorities.

Two rival nationalist organisations soon emerged: the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), following a split in the former in August 1963, following disagreements over tactics as well as tribalism and personality clashes. ZANU and its military wing ZANLA were headed initially by the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole, and later Robert Mugabe, consisted mainly of the Shona-speaking tribes. ZAPU and its military wing ZIPRA consisted mainly of Ndebele ethnic groups under Joshua Nkomo.

Cold War politics

Cold War politics played into the conflict also, with the Soviet Union supporting ZIPRA and China providing support to ZANLA. Each group subsequently fought a separate war against the Rhodesian Security Forces, and the two groups sometimes fought against each other as well. In June 1979, the governments of Cuba and Mozambique offered direct military assistance to the Patriotic Front, but Mugabe and Nkomo declined. Other foreign nations also contributed to the conflict, for instance North Korean military officials taught Zimbabwean militants how to use explosives and arms in a camp near Pyongyang. By April 1979 12,000 ZANLA guerrillas were training in Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Libya while 9,500 of its 13,500 extant cadres were operating in Rhodesia. On the other side of the conflict South Africa clandestinely provided both material and military support to the Rhodesian government.

Inevitably the Bush War occurred within the context of regional Cold War in Africa, and became embroiled with a number of conflicts in several neighbouring countries as well. Such conflicts included the Angolan War of Independence (1961–1975) and Angolan Civil War (1975–2002), the Mozambican War of Independence (1964–1974) and Mozambican Civil War (1977–1992), the South African Border War (1966–1989), and the Shaba I (1977) and Shaba II (1978) conflicts.


The conflict was seen by the nationalist groups and the British government of the Time as a war of national and racial liberation. The Rhodesian government saw the conflict as a fight between one part of the country's population (the whites) on behalf of the whole population (including the black majority) against several externally financed parties made up of predominantly black radicals and communists. The Nationalists saw their country as having been occupied and dominated by a foreign power, namely Britain, since 1890.

The British government, in the person of the Governor, had indirectly ruled the country from 1923, when it took over from the British South Africa Company and granted self-governing status to a locally elected government, made up predominantly of whites. Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front party was elected to power in 1962 and unilaterally declared independence on 11 November 1965 to preserve what it saw as the self-government it had possessed since 1923.

The Rhodesian government contended that they were defending Western values, Christianity, the rule of law and democracy by fighting Communists; however, they were unwilling to compromise on most political, economic and social inequalities. The Smith administration held that the traditional chiefs were the legitimate voice of the black Shona and Ndebele population, not the ZANU and ZAPU nationalists, who it regarded as dangerous, violent usurpers.

In 1978–1979 the Smith administration attempted to blunt the power of the nationalist cause by acceding to an "Internal Settlement" which ended minority rule, changed the name of the country to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and arranged multiracial elections, which were held in 1979 and won by Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who became the country's first black head of government. However, unsatisfied with this and spurred on by Britain's refusal to recognise the new order, the nationalist forces persisted.

Ultimately the war ended when, at the behest of both South Africa (its major backer) and the United States, the Zimbabwe Rhodesian government ceded power to Britain with the Lancaster House Agreement in December 1979. The British government then held another election in 1980 to form a new government. Britain recognised this new government, headed by Robert Mugabe, and the newly independent and internationally recognised country was renamed Zimbabwe.

Rhodesian Security Forces

Despite the effect of economic and diplomatic Sanctions, Rhodesia was able to develop and maintain a potent and professional military capability. In June 1977, Time magazine reported that "man for man, the Rhodesian army ranks among the world's finest fighting units."

The army was always a relatively small force, consisting of just 3,400 regular troops in 1970. However, by 1978–79 it had grown to some 10,800 regulars nominally supported by about 40,000 reservists – though by the last year of the war, perhaps as few as 15,000 were available for active service. While the regular army consisted of a professional core drawn from the white population (and some units, such as the Rhodesian SAS and the Rhodesian Light Infantry, were all-white), by 1978–79 the majority of its complement was actually composed of black soldiers.

The army reserves, in contrast, were largely white and, toward the end of the war, were increasingly being called up to deal with the growing insurgency. The regular army was supported by the para-military British South Africa Police with a strength of about 8,000 to 11,000 men (the majority of whom were black) and supported by between 19,000 and 35,000 police reservists (which, like their army counterparts, were largely white). The police reserves acted as type of home guard.

The war saw the extensive operation of Rhodesian regulars as well as elite units such as the Selous Scouts and the Rhodesian SAS. The Rhodesian Army fought bitterly against the black nationalist guerrillas. The Rhodesian Army also comprised mostly black regiments such as the Rhodesian African Rifles. As the war went on, the frequent callup of reservists was increasingly used to supplement the professional soldiers and the many volunteers from overseas.

By 1978 all white males up to the age of 60 were subject to periodic call-up into the army; younger men up to 35 might expect to spend alternating blocks of six weeks in the army and at home. Many of the overseas volunteers came from Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Portugal, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America with the latter three being held in high regard for their recent Vietnam War experience.

The Rhodesian Army was, considering the arms embargo, well-equipped. The standard infantry weapon was the Belgian FN FAL Rifle as produced in South Africa under license as the R1 Rifle and supplemented by the H&K G3 rifle that came from Portuguese forces. However other weapons such as the British L1A1 ('SLR') variant of the FAL and the older British Lee–Enfield bolt-action rifle were used by reservists and the British South Africa Police. Other weapons included the Bren LMG in both .303" and 7.62mm NATO, Sten SMG, Uzi, Browning Hi-Power pistol, Colt M16 rifle (very late in the war), FN MAG (FN MAG58) general-purpose machine-gun, 81 mm mortar, and Claymore mines. After UDI Rhodesia was heavily reliant on South African and domestically produced weapons and equipment, as well as international smuggling operations, commonly referred to as "sanction-busting". South Africa provided extensive support to Rhodesia in the form of a Lend / Lease program and both the official and unofficial support of many branches of the South African armed forces.

The Rhodesian Air Force (RhAF) operated a variety of equipment and carried out numerous roles, with air power providing the Rhodesians with a significant advantage over their guerrilla enemy. When the arms embargo was introduced, the RhAF was suddenly lacking spare parts from external suppliers for its fleet of mainly British aircraft, and was forced to find alternative means of keeping their aircraft flying. The RhAF operated a fleet of largely obsolete aircraft, such as the World War II vintage Douglas Dakota transport aircraft and the British de Havilland Vampire. The larger South African Air Force provided extensive training, aircraft and aircrews in support of RhAF operations from 1966. The Rhodesians also used more modern types of aircraft like the Hawker Hunter and Canberra bombers, the Cessna Skymaster as well as Aérospatiale Alouette III (SA316) helicopters until they were supplemented by the Agusta Bell 205. Very late in the war, the Rhodesian forces were able to obtain and use a very few smuggled in Agusta Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters.

At the beginning of the war much of Rhodesia's military hardware was of British and Commonwealth origin, but during the course of the conflict new equipment such as Eland armoured cars were procured from the South Africans. Several Polish-made T-55 tanks destined for Idi Amin's regime in Uganda were diverted to Rhodesia by the South Africans, though only in the last year of the war. The Rhodesians also produced a wide range of wheeled mine-proofed armoured vehicles, often using Mercedes Unimog, Land Rover and Bedford truck components, including unlicensed copies of the Mercedes-Benz UR-416.

During the course of the war most white citizens carried personal weapons, and it was not unusual to see white housewives carrying submachine guns. A siege mentality set in and all civilian transport had to be escorted in convoys for safety against ambushes. Farms and villages in rural areas were frequently attacked by guerrillas.

The Rhodesian government divided the country into eight geographical operational areas: North West Border (Operation Ranger), Eastern Border (Operation Thrasher), North East Border (Operation Hurricane), South East Border (Operation Repulse), Midlands (Operation Grapple), Kariba (Operation Splinter), Matabeleland (Operation Tangent), Salisbury and District ("SALOPS").

Nationalist guerrilla forces

The two major armed groups campaigning against Ian Smith's government were the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), and the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU). The fighting was largely rural, with the two rival movements attempting to secure peasant support and to recruit fighters while harassing the administration and the white civilians. To ensure local domination, ZANLA and ZIPRA sometimes fought against each other as well as against the security forces. Unlike the town-dwellers, rural whites faced danger and many were killed but in 1979 there were still 6,000 white farmers. They were vulnerable every time they left the homestead.


ZANLA was the armed wing of ZANU. The organisation also had strong links with Mozambique's independence movement, FRELIMO. ZANLA, in the end, was present on a more or less permanent basis in over half the country, as evidenced by the location of the demobilisation bases at the end of the war, which were in every province except Matabeleland North. In addition, they were fighting a civil war against ZIPRA, despite the formation of a joint front by their political parties after 1978. It was ZANLA's intention to occupy the ground, supplant the administration in rural areas, and then mount the final conventional campaign. ZANLA concentrated on the politicisation of the rural areas using force, persuasion, ties of kinship and collaboration with spirit mediums.

ZANLA tried to paralyse the Rhodesian effort and economy by planting Soviet anti-tank land mines on the roads. From 1972 to 1980 there were 2,504 vehicle detonations of land mines (mainly Soviet TM46s), killing 632 people and injuring 4,410. The mining of roads increased as the war intensified; indeed the increase from 1978 (894 mines or 2.44 mines were detonated or recovered a day) to 1979 (2,089 mines or 5.72 mines a day) was 233.7%.

In response, the Rhodesians co-operated with the South Africans to develop a range of mine protected vehicles. They began by replacing air in tyres with water which absorbed some of the blast and reduced the heat of the explosion. Initially, they protected the bodies with steel deflector plates, sandbags and mine conveyor belting. Later, purpose built vehicles with V shaped blast hulls dispersed the blast and deaths in such vehicles became unusual events.


ZIPRA was the anti-government force based around the Ndebele ethnicity, led by Joshua Nkomo, and the ZAPU political organisation. In contrast to ZANLA's Mozambique links, Nkomo's ZIPRA was more oriented towards Zambia for local bases. However, this was not always with full Zambian government support: by 1979, the combined forces based in Zambia of ZIPRA, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the African National Congress of South Africa) and South-West African SWAPO fighters were a major threat to Zambia's internal security. Because ZAPU's political strategy relied more heavily on negotiations than armed force, ZIPRA did not grow as quickly or elaborately as ZANLA, but by 1979 it had an estimated 20,000 combatants, almost all based in camps around Lusaka, Zambia.

ZIPRA was responsible for two attacks on civilian Air Rhodesia Viscount aeroplanes, on 3 September 1978 and 12 February 1979. Using SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, the guerrillas shot down each plane during its ascent as it took off from Kariba Airport. ZIPRA took advice from its Soviet instructors in formulating its version of popular revolution and its strategy for taking over the country. There were about 1,400 Soviets, 700 East German and 500 Cuban instructors deployed to the area.

On the advice of the Soviets, ZIPRA built up its conventional forces, and motorised with Soviet armoured vehicles and a number of small aeroplanes, in Zambia. ZIPRA's (i.e. ZAPU's) intention was to allow ZANLA to bring the Rhodesian forces to the point of defeat, and then to take the victory from the much lighter forces of ZANLA and the essentially defeated Rhodesians. ZIPRA kept a light presence within Rhodesia, reconnoitring, keeping contact with the peasants and sometimes skirmishing with ZANLA.

ZIPRA's conventional threat actually distracted the Rhodesians from fighting ZANLA to an extent. By the late 1970s, ZIPRA had developed a strategy known as Storming the Heavens to launch a conventional invasion from Zambia, supported by a limited number of armoured vehicles and light aircraft. An operation by the Rhodesian armed forces to destroy a ZIPRA base near Livingstone in Zambia was never launched.

The ZAPU/ZIPRA strategy for taking over Zimbabwe proved unsuccessful. In any event, the transfer of power to black nationalists took place not by the military take-over expected by ZAPU/ZIPRA, but by a peaceful and internationally supervised election. Rhodesia reverted briefly to real British rule, and a general election took place in early 1980. This election was supervised both by the UK and international forces.

Robert Mugabe (of ZANLA/ZANU) won this election, being the only major competitor for the vote of the majority ethnicity, the Shona. Once in power, Mugabe was internationally recognised as Zimbabwe's leader and was installed as head of government, as well as having the backing of the overwhelming majority ethnic group. He was therefore able to quickly and irreversibly consolidate his power in Zimbabwe, forcing ZAPU, and therefore ZIPRA which was ZAPU's army, to give up hope of taking over the country in the place of ZANU/ZANLA.

Civil disobedience (1957–1964)

In September 1956, bus fares in Salisbury were raised to the point at which workers were spending between 18% and 30% of their earnings on transportation. The City Youth League responded by boycotting the United Transport Company's buses and succeeded in preventing the price change. On 12 September 1957 members of the Youth League and the defunct ANC formed the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, led by Joshua Nkomo. The Whitehead administration banned the SRANC in 1959 and arrested 307 leaders, excluding Nkomo who was out of the country, on 29 February in Operation Sunrise.

Nkomo, Mugabe, Herbert Chitepo, and Ndabaningi Sithole established the National Democratic Party in January 1960. Nkomo became its leader in October. An NDP delegation headed by Nkomo attended the constitutional conference in January 1961. While Nkomo initially supported the constitution, he reversed his position after other NDP leaders disagreed. The government banned the NDP in December 1961 and arrested NDP leaders, excluding Nkomo who, again, was out of the country. Nkomo formed the Zimbabwe African People's Union which the Whitehead administration banned in September 1962.

The United Federal Party (UFP) had been in power since 1934, earning it the nickname of "the establishment", and roughly represented Southern Rhodesian commercial and major agricultural interests. The UFP contested the 1962 general election on a ticket of racial "partnership", whereby blacks and whites would work together. All ethnically discriminatory legislation would be immediately repealed, including the Land Apportionment Act, which defined certain areas of the land as eligible for purchase only by blacks, others as exclusively for whites, and others as open for all races.

About 45% of the country was split in this way; another 45% comprised reserved Tribal Trust Lands, which housed tribesmen, and gave local chiefs and headmen a degree of self-government in a similar manner to American Indian reservations. The remainder was national land. The country had originally been split up in this way during the early days of white immigration to prevent the new arrivals from using their superior finances to buy all of the land in the country.

The UFP proposed to do away with the black and white purchase areas, but to keep the Tribal Trust and national lands. It also committed itself to general black advancement. These proposals proved largely repugnant to the mostly white electorate, which feared that premature black ascendancy would threaten Rhodesia's economic prosperity and security, as well as their own personal affairs.

Most turned away from the ruling party, causing a surprise result in the 1962 election: the UFP was routed by the more Conservative Rhodesian Front (RF), a new party opposed to any immediate shift to black rule. The RF duly formed a new government, with Winston Field and Ian Smith as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively. Nkomo, legally barred from forming a new political party, moved ZAPU's headquarters soon after, to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

In July 1963, Nkomo suspended Ndabaningi Sithole, Robert Mugabe, Leopold Takawira, and Washington Malianga for their opposition to his continued leadership of ZAPU. On 8 August they announced the establishment of the Zimbabwe African National Union. ZANU members formed a militant wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army, and sent ZANLA members to the People's Republic of China for training.

First phase (1964–1972)

On 4 July 1964 ZANU insurgents ambushed and murdered a white foreman from Silverstreams Wattle Company, Pieter Johan Andries (Andrew) Oberholzer. The killing had a lasting effect on the small, close-knit white community, even though it was an isolated incident. The Smith administration subsequently moved to detain the ZANU and ZAPU political leadership in August 1964. The major political leaders imprisoned were Ndabaningi Sithole, Leopold Takawira, Edgar Tekere, Enos Nkala and Maurice Nyagumbo. The remaining military leaders of the ZANLA Dare ReChimurenga were Josiah Tongogara and the barrister Herbert Chitepo. Operating from bases in Zambia and later from Mozambique, militants subsequently began launching attacks against Rhodesia.

The conflict intensified after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain on 11 November 1965. Sanctions were implemented by the British government after UDI, and member states of the United Nations endorsed the British embargo. The embargo meant the Rhodesians were hampered by a lack of modern equipment but used other means to receive vital war supplies such as receiving oil, munitions, and arms via the government of apartheid-era South Africa. War material was also obtained through elaborate international smuggling schemes, domestic production, and equipment captured from infiltrating enemy combatants.

Five months later on 28 April 1966, the Rhodesian Security Forces engaged militants in Sinoia, during the first major engagement of the war. Seven ZANLA men were killed during the fighting and in retaliation the survivors killed two civilians at their farm near Hartley three weeks later.

Prior to the collapse of Portuguese rule in Mozambique in 1974–75, the Rhodesians were able to defend their frontier with Zambia with relative ease and prevent many guerrilla incursions. The Rhodesians were able to set up a strong defensive line along the Zambezi River running from Lake Kariba to the Mozambique border. Here 30-man camps were established at 8 kilometre intervals supported by mobile rapid reaction units. Between 1966 and 1970 these defences accounted for 175 insurgents killed for the loss of 14 defenders. The conflict continued at a low level until 21 December 1972 when ZANLA attacked Altena Farm in north-east Rhodesia. In response the Rhodesians moved to hit their enemy in their foreign camps and staging areas before they could infiltrate into Rhodesia.

Secret cross-border operations by the Special Air Service began in the mid-1960s, with Rhodesian Security Forces already engaging in hot-pursuits into Mozambique. However three weeks after the attack on Altena Farm, ZANLA killed two civilians and abducted another who was subsequently taken into Mozambique and then Tanzania. In response SAS troops were inserted into Mozambique with the approval of the Portuguese administration, in the first officially sanctioned external operation. The Rhodesian government began authorising an increasing number of external operations.

In the first phase of the conflict (up until the end of 1972), Rhodesia's political and military position appeared to be a strong one. Nationalist guerrillas had been unable to make serious military inroads against Rhodesia. In the early 1970s the two main nationalist groups faced serious internal divisions, aid from the Organisation of African Unity was temporarily suspended in 1971 and 129 nationalists were expelled from Zambia after they were alleged to have plotted against President Kenneth Kaunda.

Britain's efforts to isolate Rhodesia economically had not forced major compromises from the Smith Government. Indeed, late in 1971 the British and Rhodesian Governments had negotiated a compromise political settlement which would have bowed to the Smith Government's agenda of postponing majority rule into the indefinite future. Nevertheless, when it was found that such a delayed approach to majority rule was unacceptable to most of Rhodesia's African population, the deal fell apart.

In 1971, Rhodesia joined Alcora Exercise, a secret defensive alliance for Southern Africa, formalised in 1970 by Portugal and South Africa. Alcora formalised and deepened the political and military co-operation between the three countries in the fight against the revolutionary insurgency in the territories of Rhodesia, Angola, Mozambique and South West Africa and in the prevention against possible external aggressions to those territories from the hostile neighbouring countries

It would take the collapse of Portuguese rule in Mozambique to create new military and political pressures on the Rhodesian Government to accept the principle of immediate majority rule.

Second phase (1972–1979)

The black nationalists continued to operate from secluded bases in neighbouring Zambia and from FRELIMO-controlled areas in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique, making periodic raids into Rhodesia. By 1973 guerrilla activity was increasing in the aftermath of the Altena Farm raid, particularly in the northeast part of the country where portions of the African population were evacuated from border areas, and compulsory military service for whites was extended to one year. As the war intensified, conscription was raised to men between the ages of 38 and 50, though this was modified in 1977. No white male 17-year-olds were allowed to leave the country. In 1976, the length of active military service was extended to 18 months; this took effect immediately, with soldiers about to end their one-year service finding their active service extended. Even after discharge from regular service, white men entered the reserve forces, and were frequently called up for reserve duty, White men were often subjected to lengthy periods of military service. In addition, Rhodesia recruited black men to volunteer for military service; by 1976, half of the Rhodesian Army was composed of black soldiers. Although questions were raised about their loyalty, the Rhodesian government stated that it had no doubts as to their loyalty, and planned to train black officers. In 1976, legislation to conscript blacks was introduced, and came into effect in 1979, although the response to military call-ups was poor. Rhodesia also recruited foreign volunteers for service, with groups of foreigners who served in Rhodesia including the Crippled Eagles and 7 Independent Company.

In April 1974, the left-wing Carnation Revolution in Portugal heralded the coming end of colonial rule in Mozambique. A transitional government was formed within months and Mozambique became independent under FRELIMO rule on 25 June 1975. Such events proved beneficial to ZANLA but disastrous for the Rhodesians, adding 800 miles of hostile border. Indeed, with the demise of the Portuguese Empire, Ian Smith realised Rhodesia was surrounded on three sides by hostile nations and declared a formal state of emergency. Soon Mozambique closed its border, however Rhodesian forces continued to cross the border in "hot pursuit" raids, attacking the nationalists and their training camps, and engaged in skirmishes with Mozambican security forces.

By 1975–76 it was clear that an indefinite postponement of majority rule, which had been the cornerstone of the Smith Government's strategy since UDI, was no longer viable. Even overt South African support for Rhodesia was waning. South Africa began scaling back economic assistance to Rhodesia, placed limits on the amount of fuel and munitions being supplied to the Rhodesian military, and withdrew the personnel and equipment they had previously provided to aid the war effort, including a border police unit that had been helping guard the Rhodesia-Zambia border.

Late in 1976, Ian Smith accepted the basic elements of the compromise proposals made by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to introduce majority rule within two years. The Smith Government then sought to negotiate an acceptable settlement with moderate black leaders, while retaining strong white influence in key areas. The Rhodesian military, in turn, had the job of eroding the rising military strength of the ZANLA and ZIPRA to the greatest extent possible in order "buy time" for an acceptable political settlement to be reached.

Nyadzonya raid

The Rhodesian Security Forces called up part-time soldiers in preparation for a major counter-offensive on 2 May 1976. On 9 August 1976, Rhodesian Selous Scouts attacked a ZANLA camp at Nyadzonya in Mozambique containing over 5,000 guerrillas and several hundred refugees. The Selous Scouts, who numbered 72, dressed in FRELIMO uniforms and disguised their vehicles, attaching FRELIMO licence plates and painting them in FRELIMO colours. White soldiers wore black ski masks. They crossed the unmanned border into Mozambique at 0005 hours on 9 August and drove through the early morning to the camp, passing several FRELIMO sentries who saluted them as they went by.

When they reached the ZANLA camp at 0825 hours the six ZANLA soldiers on duty allowed them to enter, and the Rhodesian vehicles moved in and took up prearranged positions around the edge of the parade ground, on which stood about 4,000 guerrillas. When all was ready a Rhodesian soldier took his vehicle loudspeaker and announced, in Shona, "Zimbabwe tatora" – translated into English, "We have taken Zimbabwe". The cadres began cheering and ran towards the vehicles, packing around them as more ran onto the parade ground from other areas of the camp.

The Rhodesians then opened fire and continued shooting until there was no movement on the parade ground, at which time they returned to Rhodesia. More than 1,000 ZANLA insurgents were reported killed by the Rhodesians, with four Selous Scouts lightly wounded. This figure is corroborated by ZANLA's official report on the matter, though publicly both ZANLA and ZIPRA claimed that Nyadzonya had been a refugee camp.

Later, on 7 October 1976, militants bombed a railroad bridge over Matetsi River when a train carrying ore passed over.

Escalation of the war (1977)

By 1977 the war had spread throughout Rhodesia. The ZANLA continued to operate from Mozambique and remained dominant among the Mashona peoples in eastern and central Rhodesia. Meanwhile, ZIPRA remained active in the north and west, using bases in Zambia and Botswana, and were mainly supported by the Ndebele tribes. With this escalation came increasing sophistication and organisation. No longer were the guerrillas the disorganised force they had been in the 1960s. Indeed, now they were well equipped with modern weapons, and although many were still untrained, an increasing number had received training in Communist bloc and other sympathetic countries.

On 3 April 1977, General Peter Walls announced the government would launch a campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of Rhodesia's black citizens. In May Walls received reports of ZANLA forces massing in the city of Mapai in Gaza Province, Mozambique. Prime Minister Smith gave Walls permission to destroy the base. Walls told the media the Rhodesian forces were changing tactics from contain and hold to search and destroy, "adopting hot pursuit when necessary."

On 30 May 1977, during Operation Aztec, 500 troops crossed the Mozambican border and travelled 60 miles (97 km) to Mapai, engaging the ZANLA forces with air cover from the Rhodesian Air Force and paratroopers in C-47 Dakotas. The Rhodesian government said the military killed 32 ZANLA fighters and lost one Rhodesian pilot. The Mozambican government disputed the number of casualties, saying it shot down three Rhodesian planes and a helicopter and took several troops prisoner, all of which Minister of Combined Operations Roger Hawkins denied.

The United Nations Security Council subsequently denounced the incursion of the "illegal racist minority regime in Southern Rhodesia" into Mozambique in Resolution 411, on 30 June 1977. Walls announced a day later that the Rhodesian military would occupy Mapai until they had eliminated ZANLA's presence. Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, condemned the incident on 1 June, and Rhodesian forces withdrew. The American, British, and Soviet governments also condemned the raid.

Militants bombed a Woolworths department store in Salisbury on 6 August 1977, killing 11 and injuring 70. They killed sixteen black civilians in eastern Rhodesia on 21 August, burning their homes on a white-owned farm. In November 1977, in response to the buildup of ZANLA guerrillas in Mozambique, Rhodesian forces launched Operation Dingo, a pre-emptive combined arms surprise attack on guerrilla camps at Chimoio and Tembue in Mozambique. The attack was carried out over three days, from 23 to 25 November 1977. While these operations reportedly inflicted thousands of casualties on Robert Mugabe's ZANLA cadres, probably blunting guerrilla incursions in the months that followed, a steady intensification of the insurgency nevertheless continued through 1978.

To disrupt FRELIMO's hold on Mozambique, the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organisation helped to create and support its own insurgency movement within Mozambique. This guerrilla group, known as RENAMO battled with FRELIMO even as Rhodesian forces fought the ZANLA within Mozambique.

In May 1978, 50 civilians were killed in crossfire exchanged between Marxist militants and the Rhodesian military, the highest number of civilians to be killed in an engagement up to that point. In July Patriotic Front members killed 39 black civilians and the Rhodesian government killed 106 militants. On 4 November 1978 Walls said 2,000 Patriotic Front militants had been persuaded to defect and fight for the Rhodesian Security Forces. In reality only 50 militants defected. In December 1978, a ZANLA unit penetrated the outskirts of Salisbury and fired a volley of rockets and incendiary device rounds into the main oil storage depot. The storage tanks burned for five days, giving off a column of smoke that could be seen 80 miles (130 km) away. Half a million barrels of petroleum product—a quarter of Rhodesia's fuel—was destroyed.

In 1978 450 ZANLA militants crossed the Mozambique border and attacked the town of Umtali. At the time ZANU said the militants were women, an unusual characteristic, but in 1996 Joyce Mujuru said the vast majority involved were men and ZANU concocted the story to make Western organisations believe women were involved in the fighting. In retaliation for these acts the Rhodesian Air Force bombed guerrilla camps 125 miles inside Mozambique, using 'fatigued' Canberra B2 aircraft and Hawker Hunters – actively, but clandestinely, supported by several of the more capable Canberra B(I)12 aircraft of the South African Air Force. A number of joint-force bomber raids on guerrilla encampments and assembly areas in Mozambique and Zambia were mounted in 1978, and extensive air reconnaissance and surveillance of guerrilla encampments and logistical build-up was carried out by the South African Air Force on behalf of the RhAF.

Airliners shot down

Rhodesian external operation extended into Zambia after Nkomo's ZIPRA nationalists shot down two unarmed Vickers Viscount civilian airliners with Soviet-supplied SA-7 heat-seeking missiles. Encamped beneath the path of ascent towards Salisbury from Kariba Airport, the ZIPRA cadres downed Air Rhodesia Flight 825 on 3 September 1978 and Air Rhodesia Flight 827 on 12 February 1979. In the first incident, eighteen civilians on board survived, and five of these went away to find water. Half an hour later nine ZIPRA fighters arrived, promising help; three of the thirteen survivors hid when they saw them. In the words of Time magazine, the ZIPRA cadres "herded together the ten people at the wreckage, robbed them of their valuables, and finally cut them down with automatic weapons fire". Nkomo claimed responsibility for the attack and spoke of it to the BBC in a way Rhodesians considered gloating. In the second attack all 59 people on board were killed in the crash.

In retaliation for the shooting down of Flight 825 in September 1978, Rhodesian Air Force Canberra bombers, Hunter fighter-bombers and helicopter gunships attacked the ZIPRA guerrilla base at Westlands farm near Lusaka in October 1978, warning Zambian forces by radio not to interfere.

The increased effectiveness of the bombing and follow-up 'air mobile' strikes using Dakota-dropped parachutists and helicopter 'air cav' techniques had a significant effect on the development of the conflict. As late as September 1979, despite the increased sophistication of guerrilla forces in Mozambique, a raid by Selous Scouts, with artillery and air support, on "New Chimoio" still reportedly resulted in heavy ZANLA casualties. However, a successful raid on the Rhodesian strategic fuel reserves in Salisbury also underscored the importance of concluding a negotiated settlement and achieving international recognition before the war expanded further.

Military pressure

The larger problem was that by 1979, combined ZIRPA and ZANLA strength inside Rhodesia totalled at least 12,500 guerrillas and it was evident that insurgents were entering the country at a faster rate than the Rhodesian forces could kill or capture. In addition, 22,000 ZIPRA and 16,000 ZANLA fighters remained uncommitted outside the country. Joshua Nkomo's ZIPRA forces were preparing their forces in Zambia with the intent of confronting the Rhodesians through a conventional invasion. Whether such an invasion could have been successful in the short term against the well trained Rhodesian army and air force is questionable. However, what was clear was that the insurgency was growing in strength daily and the ability of the security forces to continue to control the entire country was coming under serious challenge.

By putting the civilian population at risk, ZIPRA and the ZANLA had been particularly effective in creating conditions that accelerated white emigration. This not only seriously undermined the morale of the white population, it was also gradually reducing the availability of trained reserves for the army and the police. For a discussion see:

The economy was also suffering badly as a result of the war with the Rhodesian GDP in consistent decline in the late 1970s. Part of the economic decline was due to white men being called up for extended periods of military service, which also affected many Rhodesian families.

Politically, the Rhodesians were therefore pinning all their hopes on the "internal" political settlement that had been negotiated with moderate black nationalist leaders in 1978 and its ability to achieve external recognition and support. This internal settlement led to the creation of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia under a new constitution in 1979.


Under the agreement of March 1978, the country was renamed Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, and in the general election of 24 April 1979, Bishop Abel Muzorewa became the country's first black prime minister. On 1 June 1979, Josiah Zion Gumede became President. The internal settlement left control of the military, police, civil service, and judiciary in white hands, and assured whites about one-third of the seats in parliament. It was essentially a power-sharing arrangement between whites and blacks. The factions led by Nkomo and Mugabe denounced the new government as a puppet of white Rhodesians and fighting continued. The hoped for recognition of the internal settlement, and of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, by the newly elected Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher did not materialise after the latter's election in May 1979. Likewise, despite the fact that the US Senate voted to lift sanctions against Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, the Carter administration also refused to recognise the internal settlement.

While Prime Minister Thatcher clearly sympathised with the internal settlement and thought of the ZANLA and ZIPRA leaders as "terrorists", she was prepared to support a push for further compromise if it could end the fighting. Britain was also reluctant to recognise the internal settlement for fear of fracturing the unity of the Commonwealth. Thus later in 1979, the Thatcher government called a peace conference in London to which all nationalist leaders were invited.

The outcome of this conference would become known as the Lancaster House Agreement. During the conference, the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian Government accepted a watering down of the 1978 internal settlement while Mugabe and Nkomo agreed to end the war in exchange for new elections in which they could participate. The economic sanctions imposed on Rhodesia were lifted in late 1979, and the country reverted to temporary British rule until elections could be held. Under the Constitution of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia (Amendment) (No. 4) Act 1979 of 11 December 1979, the country formally reverted to its colonial status as Southern Rhodesia. The Zimbabwe-Rhodesian parliament voted itself out of power, and Lord Soames was appointed by the British government to rule the country as Governor-Designate, arriving in Salisbury on 12 December to take over from President Gumede. On 21 December 1979, a cease-fire was subsequently announced. An election was scheduled for early 1980. The British Commonwealth deployed an observer force, the Commonwealth Monitoring Force, to the country for the transitional period. Britain contributed 800 soldiers and 300 Royal Air Force personnel, along with small naval and marine contingents. Australia, Fiji, Kenya, and New Zealand also contributed smaller numbers of troops. A nine-man British advance party arrived on 8 December to begin establishing a logistics base, and this was followed by the arrival of the main force shortly after.

During the election of 1980, there were accusations of voter intimidation by Mugabe's guerrilla cadres, sections of which were accused of not having assembled in the designated guerrilla assembly points as required under the Lancaster House Agreement, and the international observers as well as Lord Soames were accused of looking the other way. The Rhodesian military may have given serious consideration to a coup d'état in March 1980. This alleged coup was to consist of two stages: Operation Quartz, coordinated attacks on guerrilla assembly points within the country, and Operation Hectic, the assassination of Mugabe and his key aides.

However, even in the context of alleged voter intimidation by ZANLA elements, widespread support for Mugabe from large sections of the black population (in particular from his own Shona tribal group which made up the overwhelming majority of the country's population) could not be seriously disputed. Moreover, the clear absence of any external support for such a coup, and the inevitable conflagration that would have engulfed the country thereafter, scuttled the plan.

The election of early 1980 resulted in a victory for Robert Mugabe, who assumed the post of prime minister after ZANU-PF received 63% of the vote. By 16 March 1980, all Commonwealth forces except for some 40 infantry instructors who temporarily stayed behind to train the new nation's army had departed. On 18 April 1980, interim British rule came to an end and the country was internationally recognised as independent. The colony of Southern Rhodesia was formally renamed Zimbabwe, and on 18 April 1982, the government changed the name of the country's capital from Salisbury to Harare.


According to Rhodesian government statistics, more than 20,000 were killed during the war. From December 1972 to December 1979, 1,361 members of the Rhodesian security forces were killed, along with 10,450 guerrillas who were killed in Rhodesia, and an unknown number in Mozambique and Zambia, 7,790 black civilians, and 468 white civilians.

After he assumed power, Robert Mugabe acted incrementally to consolidate his power, forming a coalition government with his ZAPU rivals and the white minority. The Rhodesian Army was merged with guerrilla forces to form the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, and the Rhodesian security forces were merged with ZANLA and ZIPRA forces. Joshua Nkomo was given a series of cabinet positions.

However, Mugabe was torn between keeping his coalition stable and pressures to meet the expectations of his followers for social change. Clashes between ZANLA and ZIPRA forces took place in 1980 and 1981. In 1983, Mugabe fired Nkomo from his cabinet, triggering bitter fighting between ZAPU supporters in Ndebele-speaking region of the country and the ruling ZANU. Between 1982 and 1985, the military crushed armed resistance from Ndebele groups in Matabeleland and the Midlands in a military crackdown known as Gukurahundi, a Shona term which translates roughly to mean "the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains". The Gukurahundi campaigns were also known as the Matabeleland Massacres.

The Zimbabwean military's North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade was deployed to Matabeleland to crush resistance. German journalist Shari Eppel estimates approximately 20,000 Matabele were murdered in these first years after the war; most of those killed were victims of public executions.

Violence between ZANLA and ZIPRA continued until 1987. In December 1987, the two groups reached an accord which saw them merge into one party known as ZANU PF, headed by Mugabe. Mugabe then became President and gained additional powers, as the office of Prime Minister was abolished.

Beyond Zimbabwe's borders, as a result of Rhodesian aid and support for RENAMO, the Rhodesian Bush War also helped influence the outbreak of the Mozambique Civil War, which lasted from 1977 until 1992. That conflict claimed over a million lives, and made some 5 million people homeless.

A number of books and films are set during the bush war.

Films include:

  • Albino (1976 film) – a German thriller based on the novel The Whispering Death by Daniel Carney
  • A Game For Vultures (1979 film) – British made thriller set during the war.
  • Blind Justice (1988 film) – British film set during the early part of the war. Based on the book by John Gordon Davis.
  • Flame (1996 film) – the first Zimbabwean film since independence set during the war and seen from the perspective of a female ZANU soldier.
  • Concerning Violence (2014 documentary) – narrates the events of African nationalist and independence movements in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • References

    Rhodesian Bush War Wikipedia