Stories Of Rhodesia: Part 5- Rhodesian Experiences and Modern Warfare

Dear Firearms UK community, due to my wife going into hospital in the next day or so, I am changing my plan for the blog this week as the past two blogs have taken me eleven hours each. I was going to talk about repelling a battalion-sized incursion into Rhodesia, whose aim was to clear all Rhodesian defences at Victoria Falls bridge, prior to allowing 10 000 of a 20 000 strong invasion force to enter Rhodesia, after which they would swing SE and then NE to capture Salisbury, the capital city, in conjunction with another ten thousand men crossing into Rhodesia over the Kariba dam wall and heading SE to Salisbury, thus enveloping Salisbury in a pincer movement. The loss of Salisbury may well have ended the war but to my mind we would have regrouped and driven this substantial force out of the country, admittedly with some difficulty. It would have been a ‘bridge too far’ for Nkomo’s conventional forces.

Instead I am going to offer a rare treat of original documents supplied to me by Group Captian Peter Petter-Bowyer and Dr Richard Wood on the uniquely Rhodesian Fireforce technique used to envelope terrorists from the air.

The document you are about to read is the original document containing the Fireforce concept that Group Captain Peter Petter-Bowyer and Brigadier Pat Lawless tried to sell to very senior British Military personnel for use in Afghanistan. It is sad to say that not even an acknowledgement was generated after receiving intricate details on how to kill many enemy whilst saving your own troops. This leads me to believe (my own opinion) that the Ministry of defence in the UK does not have the safety of its troops foremost in its mind”

Herewith Original Documents and drawings:




The current Afghanistan conflict interests all those of the Rhodesian Security Forces who experienced combat in the 13-year African bush-war against communist oriented insurgents. Particularly significant are the NATO, ISAF, and UK losses that might have been prevented by employing any of the highly successful low-cost systems, technologies and tactical techniques that were so effective and successful in Rhodesia’s COIN operations.

This paper identifies those Rhodesian Security Force innovations and practices that the authors feel are the most relevant to COIN operations in Afghanistan today. The paper also recognises the complexity of modern-day COIN operations, the difference in cultures and tactical techniques of the Taliban enemy in Afghanistan, and the current strategic, political and tactical Rules of Engagement constraints placed on ISAF; there are, however, a number of important parallels with Rhodesia in the period 1960 to 1980.

Background to Rhodesia’s COIN War

Until 1965 the Rhodesian Army and Royal Rhodesian Air Force were extensions of Britain’s armed services with obligations to Britain to provide supporting services in the Baghdad Pact (CENTO) territories and Africa.

Naturally therefore, equipment and training was geared to British models based on WW2, post WW2 emergencies such as those in Malaya and Kenya and other lesser Cold War needs.

Rhodesians serving with British forces in Malaya received their earliest experience in counter insurgency operations with African Battalions from what became the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland who sought and fought the communist terrorists in Malaya from 1950 to 1958 and, during that time, also Rhodesia’s ‘C’ Squadron of the British 22nd SAS Regiment.

During Federation years, Rhodesian Military Forces were initially part of the British East Africa Command until July 1954 when they came under the control of Central Africa Command with its Headquarters in the then, Salisbury, capital of Southern Rhodesia.

Following the dissolution by Britain of the Federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Malawi) in 1963, the United Kingdom Government granted independence to Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland whose names changed to Zambia and Malawi. Southern Rhodesia became ‘Rhodesia’. With former member states of the Federation having been granted independence under black governments there emerged serious discontent within nationalist elements of Rhodesia’s black community who sought the power of immediate black rule.

Considering the poor performance and corruption in every African country granted independence, the predominantly white ruling body in Rhodesia insisted on the retention of responsible government for an effective economy with social balance to allow adequate planning for controlled progress to majority rule. The USSR saw the opposing views as a good opportunity to engineer a new surrogate force to add to those nationalist forces already acting proxy to attaining Russian objectives in Africa. In this they persuaded Rhodesian nationalists to take up arms against the Rhodesian government.

Having however been drawn into this situation, Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) suffered a tribal rift which brought about the formation of a second nationalist party. This was the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) which adopted Communist Chinese support and doctrines.

Early Counter Insurgency Operations

From 1967 until late 1972, ZAPU and ZANU incursions were easily contained by relatively small forces tracking down armed, though ill prepared, insurgents moving from Zambia into Rhodesia over large tracts of unoccupied ground. Those groups or individuals who reached populated areas were immediately reported to the authorities by local tribesmen who had not yet been terrorised

and subverted to the will of Marxist and Maoist oriented insurgents.

When, however, the forces of FRELIMO’s (Mozambican Liberation Front) communist insurgents operating against Mozambique shifted focus from the Tanzanian border to that of Zambia for a new thrust through the Tete Province of Mozambique on Rhodesia’s North Eastern border the entire situation changed. The ruthless Chinese insurgent doctrines were the guidelines used by FRELIMO and these too had been adopted by Zimbabwe African Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of Mugabe’s ZANU. In late 1971 ZANLA gained the acquiescence of FRELIMO to use the Tete Province, to facilitate easy and early contact with a tribally related population that stretched from well inside Mozambique across the international border deep into central and NE Rhodesia.

Command and Control

Command and control of Rhodesian military operations was undertaken by the Operations Coordinating Committee (OCC). This comprised the Heads of Army, Air force, Police and CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation). There was no chairman as it was considered that ‘reasonable men could act sensibly together’ in planning jointly for the best interests of the country. Below OCC were JOCs (Joint Operations Centres) at provincial level which, from time to time, established sub-JOCs to handle specific needs at district level.

The JOC system mirrored OCC but always included the Provincial Commissioner. Heads of specialist government and NGO services were added as and when necessary to integrate and coordinate all military and civil planning and action. Whereas the OCC visited the JOCs and men in the field regularly, the Rhodesian system worked by delegating authority to the lowest level possible to gain best speed in decisions and actions, with minimal hierarchical impediments. So it is in the context of these operations that two Rhodesian developments appear still to have specific relevance to current ISAF COIN operations in Afghanistan and are worthy of close examination: the design of military vehicles operating in an IED or conventional mine environment; and the Rhodesian Security Forces use of agile, quick-reaction helicopter borne troops (Fire Force).

Mine Protected Vehicles

Initially the main threat from ZANLA came from its extensive use of land mines which caused great concern, all Rhodesian military and civilian vehicles being vulnerable. Initially this was countered by sand-bagging floors and part filling tyres with water which saved many lives; but more needed to be done. Soon enough military engineers achieved successful protection against Russian TM 46 mines by vectoring blast energy laterally, using ‘V’-shaped underbelly hulls. ZANLA attempted to counter this by double and triple stacking mines for greater blast effect, sometimes adding offsetting mines to simultaneously induce a severe side blast effect. The Vee-shape deflection technique was now added to the sides of vehicles without penalty to the troop carrying capacity of modified vehicles.

South African Titan troop transporter

South African Buffalo MP troop transport. (South Africa had, by far, the best mine-proofed vehicles in the world in the 1970s and even today the US Marine Corp buys them).

By this time the South African engineers of the South African Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) had assisted the Rhodesian Army to substantially improve Mine Protected Vehicles (MPVs) whilst also making it possible to expeditiously repair and return damaged vehicles to service. Great care was taken to avoid high costs and high weight penalties given by flat sided

armour plating, because this did little to prevent violent acceleration of humans within a stricken vehicle. Retention of vehicle carrying capacity and deflection of blast energy and shrapnel were key. Injuries sustained by troops travelling in MPVs struck by landmines and IEDs occurred when

A home-made Pookie mine clearing vehicle. It’s loading on the soil was so slight that it would not detonate a landmine.

individuals failed to secure themselves into harnesses fitted at every seating position. It is noted with satisfaction that a number of American and Australian military vehicles have adopted similar preventative designs to the south African types shown above.

  To prevent damage to MPVs by detecting mines along convoy routes, a small and highly successful light MPV known as ‘Pookie’ (a tiny night-ape) was developed in Rhodesia. This one-man vehicle travelled just ahead of convoys to detect mines by means of sensor arms that traversed the roadway. Wide ultra low pressure tyres of made it possible for Pookies to tread directly on landmines without detonating them.

Fire Force (FF)

FF applied aerial encirclement of insurgents by small infantry units, conveyed to target in light highly manoeuvrable helicopters (Alouette lll) with reserve forces close at hand. Such envelopment induced decisive action and denied insurgents an opportunity to change into NORMAL civilian guise to hide among the local population. Simultaneously, in the case of Afghanistan, the Taliban would be denied critical advantages, namely real-time Intelligence reaching Taliban group leaders via mobile-phone networks, which allow them time to choose a preferred site for offensive action, IEDs and rolling ambushes, upon which they rely for their successes against British and allied troops, the aim being a progressive erosion of Western morale and international anti radical-Islamic support.

For almost two years the scattered nature of ZANLA’s highly mobile insurgent groups moving within and indoctrinating tribal folk presented a serious problem. 95% of their activities were given to terrorising the locals to gain their support with only 5% of effort directed to hit-and-run attacks on soft targets such as white and black farmers, their families and homes. Rhodesian reaction forces

seldom came into successful contact with insurgents and many large area sweeps proved ineffective because the insurgents simply hid their weapons and blended with local tribesmen, who dared not expose them. At night the insurgent groups split up and slept in ever-changing villages to spread the load of providing them food.

Experience gained by fixed-wing pilots on visual reconnaissance flights over Mozambique, made it possible to find insurgent groups inside the populated areas of Rhodesia; if only they could be forced to abandon the villages and set up temporary bases in bush cover between villages! This was achieved almost immediately when Army and Police elements conducted widespread surprise visits on villages at all times of the night. Whereas insurgent bases were then being located from the air, few successful actions resulted because helicopters and troops were too widely dispersed to react quickly. When, however, the commander of the air reconnaissance squadron brought about a grouping of just four helicopters and 16 soldiers for the vertical envelopment of an insurgent bush camp, it resulted in a decisive armed contact.

The first action of this kind in late 1973 countered the insurgents’ habit of escaping at high speed, by blocking escape routes that normally allowed them to melt into the population. It forced a decisive contact in which all the insurgents were eliminated or captured. Going forward there was rapid progress to employing encirclement tactics in what became known as a Fire-Force (FF) action.

In essence FF actions were vertical envelopments of enemy positions by heli-borne troops who encircled insurgent positions to force decisive confrontation. FF actions were extremely cost effective and yielded better than an 80:1 ratio of insurgents killed against own force losses.

After the loss of aircraft to SA 7 shoulder-launched missiles inside Mozambique, all military aircraft were protected by specialised paint textures on airframes and the screening of exhausts and other hot spots rendered them invisible to sensors on SA7’s.

Composition of a Fire Force

Once fully proven and developed, every JOC had its own Fireforce unit. The number of helicopters was much less than needed, due to International Sanctions severely limiting the availability of Alouette lll helicopters. On many occasions, when faced with large insurgent groups (40 plus), one JOC might attach a neighbouring JOC’s FF for a doubled-up Fireforce action.

The precious military asset of trained and team-experienced troops was also a perpetual problem and a strategic limitation during the Rhodesian Bush War. A standard sized FF arriving over target comprised:

1 x Alouette K-Car bearing the ground force commander (armed with a manned 20 mm side-firing cannon, zeroed to 800 feet).

4 x Alouette G-Cars each carrying 4 armed infantry (each armed with a manned side-firing .762mm machine gun or twin .303 Brownings.

And finally, an armed Cessna 337, known as Lynx, for immediate strike support (armed with twin  .303 Browning machine guns, Frantan (napalm) or Mini-golf para-retarded high pressure AP bombs and 37mm rockets).

A DC3 Dakota (some of which saw action at Arnhem), carrying 16 fully armed paratroopers and, moving by road to the closest road point to the scene of action, a land-tail convoy with reserve troops, helicopter fuel and medical back-up.

Calls for FF

60% of insurgent losses, either killed or captured inside Rhodesia, resulted from calls for FF by the specialist pseudo-insurgent group of the Rhodesian Army’s Selous Scouts. However, to say how this

tactic might benefit operational intelligence in Afghanistan is beyond the competence of the writers of this report.

Air reconnaissance pilots were very limited in number – and provided about 5% of successful call-outs on FF.

Observation posts manned by all manner of security forces, usually sited on high ground, resulted in a mere 3% of successful FF actions. Insurgent-initiated daylight ambushes and attacks on bases that pinned down soldiers, policemen, farmers or civilians were infrequent; these were successfully defeated by the enveloping nature of a FF action.

External attacks by the security forces on large insurgent bases in Mozambique and Zambia, conducted in the manner of oversized FF actions with close air support (using Canberra bombers and jet FGA aircraft), gave the greatest returns amounting to more than 30% of total insurgent losses.

Cooperation and Control of Fire Force

Close and amicable relations between all air and ground force commanders at every level was essential and made possible by the close bonds that existed in Rhodesian society. This proved highly beneficial to FF efficiency.

After a crisp briefing given to FF participants before launching a FF action, the JOC (or sub-JOC) passed full authority for every FF action jointly to the K-Car pilot and airborne Army commander. Only when a heavy aircraft strike was needed, did the  main JOC in Salisbury become involved.

Tactical deployment of troops from G-Cars and Dakotas, based on terrain and observed enemy locations or action was decided upon jointly by the K-Car pilot and army airborne commander. Flying above the area of each action (at 800-1000 ft) allowed these men with ‘eyes in the sky’ to make a quick tactical appreciation of target and terrain, decide on best positioning of troops (or reposition them) and also to decide if, when and where air strikes should be conducted. Paratroopers were only committed when absolutely necessary (due in part to the laborious issue of post-action parachute collection). Insertion of land-tail reserve troops by G-Cars was preferred where and when time permitted.

FF Aims

a. To contain and eliminate insurgents, by forcing them to hold weapons and fight, thus denying them the opportunity to hide said weapons and assume civilian disguise, which might endanger innocent people.

b. Deny insurgents the protective advantages they sought from thick walls, rock formations, river banks and multiple points of dispersion through ground encirclement by aggressive troops and steep angled fire from the air.

c. Display to the tribal folk the strength of government forces and so counter insurgent claims to the contrary.

d. Through visible successes, deter tribal youth from opting voluntarily to join the ranks of the insurgents.

Principle FF Tactical Techniques

The noise of approaching helicopters always presented a problem in gaining maximum surprise, To minimise sound warning, a low level approach from downwind of target using valleys and high ground screening (hills), was employed whenever possible.

Noise cover by propeller driven aircraft usually afforded excellent noise screening for the approaching helicopters. With much daily fixed wing activity, insurgents seldom knew when to run

and when to ignore their presence. A K-Car’s climb to operating height was delayed as late as possible with an immediate entry into orbit of the reported insurgents’ location. This usually prevented insurgent ‘bomb-shelling’ (radial escape at high speed).

With their eyes surveying the expected area of contact, the K-Car pilot and Army commander could promptly decide where and when the G-Cars in wide orbit below were to place their individual troop loads. A visual sighting of the insurgents from K-Car caused prompt deployment of first-wave troops (4 troops per G-Car) into the best escape cut-off positions before the G-Cars flew off to uplift further troops from the land-tail convoy.

Withholding deployment pending a clearer appreciation of insurgent position occurred regularly. The accurate siting of the terr group came from the pseudo-insurgent unit, air recce pilot or the OP that had initiated the FF call out in the first place. G-Cars in wide low level orbit often spotted insurgent movements or ground fire that brought the K-Car’s focus to where troops were needed.

Dummy deployment by G-Cars was often successfully employed to confuse the  insurgents’ appreciation of the true disposition of troops. If the time taken to bring in land-tail troops was considered too long, the paratroopers would be dropped from 500 feet (above ground level) into position/s of best advantage. Troops were then directed to move to ever-changing positions of best tactical advantage by their commander flying overhead in the K-Car, whilst the K-Car pilot managed the air effort.

On many occasions K-Car pilots controlled the troops when an Army commander was either incapacitated or not available. Having been involved in many FF actions most K-Car pilots were highly competent in this role.

Day-glo patches (bright orange plastic patches) affixed to the rear of soldiers’ headwear were sometimes used in difficult terrain to assist K-Car occupants overcome the difficulties of spotting

their men wearing camouflage uniform.

Possible Relevance of FF Operations to Afghanistan COIN Combat


a. Immediate availability of reaction force/s to support contacts in progress (possibly using Apache and Blackhawk helicopters).

b. Avoidance of IEDs and road mines.

c. Limiting enemy warning via mobile phone networks, particularly if the FF route takes advantage of mountainous or unoccupied ground.

d. Encirclement and overhead K-Car and Lynx equivalents will eliminate most of

the advantages given by mud walls, irrigation canals, mountain high points, rock screens, multiple Taliban locations etc. And this is far cheaper than using sophisticated jets with very expensive munitions onboard.

e. Chinook or other large helicopters placing reserve troops, fuel and medical

support in unoccupied ground within 10 miles of FF action will be quicker, safer

and more efficient than Rhodesian reliance on DC 3 paratroopers and Land-tail back-up.


The authors’ acknowledge that many advances in vehicle and crew protection and armament have been made since the innovations described in this paper and are still being vigorously researched by many nations; It is also accepted that research into the early detection of IEDs or road/roadside mines may well have improved on the Rhodesian ‘Pookie’.It is also acknowledged that the troop lift and attack/armed/reconnaissance helicopters’ survivability and combat capacity is continually being improved and that anti surface to air missile methods must have improved exponentially.

 Nonetheless it is suggested that the tactical techniques and effectiveness of Rhodesian Fire Force ‘airmobile’ operations could be woven sensitively and with discretion into current COIN operations, irrespective of the ROE restrictions and moral sensitivities of operations within a civilian and often urban or semi-urban environment. It is also suggested that Fire Force operations will save lives by

avoiding ground movement and create life-saving tactical surprise.

Compiled by:-

Brigadier (Retired) P Lawless (late AAC, late Rhodesian Army)

Group Captain (Retired) PJH Petter-Bowyer (late Rhodesian Air Force)

Footnote by A. Ballinger, author of this blog:

The small Rhodesian armed forces succeeded in killing over 14 000 terrorists for the loss of 1,120 men and women. It was a great achievement but how little did we realise in our valiant struggle that we were just pawns in a huge geopolitical contest and if you dig deeply, you will see it was not only a struggle between east and west but more so a struggle between ideologies of the west. We actually lost the war to the west!!

Please scroll down to three artistic renditions of a Fire-Force operation in action, done by Dr R Wood, one of Rhodesia’s foremost historians.

Fireforce Phase 1
Fireforce Phase 2
Fireforce Phase 3

©2021 Firearms UK.


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