Stories Of Rhodesia: The war years in Rhodesia – Part 1 – order of battle by Tony Ballinger

I would like to start this week’s blog by saying that all of my contributions on this subject come from my memory and as many of the events I am to describe happened over 40 years ago, some items may be a bit vague to say the least.

I don’t plan to give any historical background to the land of Rhodesia other than to say it became a self-governing British colony in the 1920’s. In less than eighty years bush had been transformed into farms, with the dreaded Tsetse fly at last defeated, which allowed white settlers to move onto lush lands with deep topsoil that the fly had denied indigenous people from farming on as the Tsetse fly caused sleeping sickness. It was a long process getting rid of the fly and an old Major I remember was employed for ten years killing off unbelievable quantities of game so that the fly would not have sustenance. Thousands of pieces of hessian sack, painted a dark colour to look like an animal, but saturated with poison, were spread throughout the land of the fly, killing them off and opening up tens of thousands of square kilometres to farmers. To this end Rhodesia became the biggest exporter of the finest tobacco in the world and brought levels of cropping to world records. The new cities flourished and bristled with life and I have yet to see cleaner, safer cities other than Singapore. In fact, we never even locked our houses when we went out at night or to sport on the weekends. Contrast this to life under Mugabe where our houses were barred shut, with roving armed patrols to keep us safe at night and hand guns under our pillows.

My dad was born in Hereford and raised in Symonds Yat where he rowed tourists up and down the river as a kid and sang in the choir of a church which nestled under the second oldest Yew tree in the UK; a church I visited in the 1970’s where I cried under the big boughs of that tree knowing it had been a popular haunt of my dad in the 1920’s.

My mom was Isabel Van Os, from an Afrikaner family in the Free State and at a tender age she journeyed up to Rhodesia to join the air force as she was too young to do so in South Africa. She met my dad in the hangar of the Royal Air Force base at Cranborne, Salisbury(The capital city of Rhodesia, now Harare-Dave) and that was that; my brother and I came along shortly afterwards. My dad had been a fitter/mechanic on Lancaster bombers in World War 2 and had transferred to Rhodesia in 1948, as did many other ex-English servicemen from the forces, who took hold of the very land that had been wrested from the Fly. So it was not uncommon to see very hoity-toity names on the gates leading to farm homesteads in the rural areas – Major ‘this’ and Captain ‘that’ on the gatepost.

Naturally our white population was very pro-British and very fond of the Queen and this was in evidence when more numbers of Rhodesian soldiers per head of national population, died in World War 2 than any other country bar Russia; they rallied to the call of the mother country. This led to a sense of great betrayal when we went to war in Rhodesia and our British countrymen did not come to our rescue at we had done in 1939. Instead we got sanctioned and ultimately forced to take Mugabe as our head of state. This is why former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith named his memoir ‘The Great Betrayal’.

While all this tension in the land was expanding, I remained a happy young man growing up in an idyllic world of sports and cars and girls and drag racing and barbecues and pool parties galore. I eventually left Churchill High School in 1972, worked for a year in a bank and headed off overseas in 1973.

When I got back from my world tour in 1976 the war in Rhodesia was in full swing. I noticed the tension in the land, the military vehicles everywhere and the lack of young males at parties and so on, which was great for me until I got called up in April 1976 to do 18 months national service. Out of our intake of 600 men, only half, three hundred, had the school qualifications to go on an officer selection course. The 300 were put through very mentally stressful tests lasting five days to see if we could think clearly and give commands under pressure. This whittled us down to 13 men and by the end of my officer’s course only three of us graduated as officers. I was one of them. Yes it was a national service course but our level of training was high enough to transfer to any regular unit without further training, unless it was with a Special Forces unit.

So, my war began as a Subby (Subaltern/2nd Lieutenant) with No 4 Independent company, Rhodesia Regiment. Under me were 28 Infantry soldiers and two drivers for our German 4.5 ton Infantry vehicles. These vehicles were well mine proofed, as I discovered a year later when I went up in my first land mine.

Our Armed forces, at the time of my call-up, consisted of the following units.

  1. The Rhodesia Light Infantry – battalion strength and all trained as paratroopers.
  2. The Selous Scouts – battalion and a half in strength. These men were trained to actually move with terrorists and report back to base by secreted radios. The RLI/RAR would then be para-dropped on to target with stop groups positioned by light Allouette 111 helicopters, to cut off fleeing enemy. There are stories of outstanding bravery from these men who actually operated and slept in the bush with terrorists. One wrong word, one wrong handshake, one wrong password and death swiftly followed.
  3. C Squadron SAS, numbering about 250 highly trained men. These men experienced some amazing soldiering and contacts.
  4. 1,2,4,5,6,8,9,10 Territorial Battalions of white infantry. The 3rd and 7th Battalion disbanded when Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) split from Southern Rhodesia. These 8 battalions rotated six weeks in, six weeks out, among about 25 000 reservists.
  5. 2 and later a third Battalion of Rhodesia African Rifles. Black troops with white officers. These men were superb fighters and all para trained.
  6. 1,2,3,4,5,6 Independent Companies, all company strength and made up of white National Servicemen.
  7. 14 Companies of ‘Black boots’, a paramilitary unit with black troops and white commanders, similar to the RAR but falling under the Police Orbat (order of battle).
  8. The Greys Scouts, numbering a couple hundred horse-mounted infantry; superbly trained in handling a horse while firing at full gallop. I encountered them coming out the bush once in an extended line and I nearly did a dump in my pants! Mounted infantry looks really awesome! They proved very successful running the enemy to ground as a horse can run faster and for longer than most humans.
  9. The Rhodesia Armoured Car Regiment. This unit was all white and had a mixture of regular and territorial men, as all units did and they did a good job manning 60 Eland armoured cars from South Africa, a number of old British ferret scout cars, a dozen or so T54 tanks stolen by the South Africans when the ship carrying them to Idi Amin called into Durban harbour and perhaps a dozen or so old T34 tanks from WW2.
  10. The Rhodesian Artillery was made up of British 25 pounders and a few South African 105 howitzers. I had the pleasure of watching the 25 pounders doing serious damage during an enemy crossing from Zambia into Rhodesia some time in 1978, but that story will come later.
  11. Our Air Force consisted of about 9 Hawker Hunters (we made our own spares as the UK had plonked sanctions on us); about 6 airworthy Canberra Bombers, a dozen or so English Vampire planes, some Dakotas (some of which had dropped men into Arnhem in WW2), a fluctuating number of Allouette Mark 111 Helicopters (up to 60 in use if the need arose, where South Africa would ship more in), trainer aircraft and so on. The exact number can be looked up on Google if you need detailed info. This is a blog, not a detailed historical account.
  12. We also had a motorbike unit that chased gooks (terrorists) on silenced 125 cc Hondas. Great fun had by all.
  13. Several thousand Police Anti-Terrorist fighters, all white, who fought under the Police Orbat (order of battle). A lot of these men were farmers or men who had left their national service commitment.
  14. About 8000 Uniformed police personnel, with a reserve of 30 000 older white males.
  15. About 5000 Guard Force personnel that guarded the keeps African civilians were put into to protect them from terrorists. This was a very challenging role!
  16. Total manpower available for all units; 69-75 000 men and women.
  17. Finally, we must not forget the ladies that operated the many forces canteens that were dotted all over the country, who gave succour and support to many a military convoy that passed by. These amazing ladies often exposed themselves to high levels of personal danger to get to a canteen where they served hot food and looked like our mom’s and girlfriends at home. They played a HUGE role in uplifting our moral.
  18. We were also blessed with some of the world’s best trackers, like the Bushmen and other men, both black and white, who knew the bush intimately from living in it and hunting or working in the wilds. In fact, several of these men train the US Marines how to follow spoor, to this day.

    It is my intention, in further episodes of this blog, to go into more detail of all the units I have mentioned, their equipment, tactics and how they slotted into our defensive plan, as well as the operational areas the country was divided into. Intermingled with this will be my own experiences and photographs that some people may have not seen before. Both the stories and the photos are copyrighted and if you wish to upload any of them please request this via this website.

    Part 2 to follow soon; The destruction of the 5 Star Elephant Hills Hotel by a Strela 2 missile that went wrong, Victoria Falls, November 1977.

    (I’ve previewed Tony’s next article and it is a tremendous story so be sure to look out for it going out on the 9th of August!)

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