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«THE RHODESIAN CRISIS IN BRITISH AND INTERNATIONAL POLITICS, 1964-1965 by CARL PETER WATTS A thesis submitted to the University of Birmingham For the ...»

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Recent evidence of attitudes in the Rhodesian security forces during 1965 suggests that although there were pockets of belligerence, there was not uniform hostility to Britain.

The evidence certainly does not substantiate Denis Healey’s unqualified assertion that the British Government ‘had no reason to believe they would not fight us if we attempted to intervene.’ 88 The Government could have found indicators that British military intervention would not have met with widespread resistance, but the Government did not carry out any detailed analysis of the situation, probably because it was generally disposed against the use of force from the beginning. Further, it may be argued that those elements of the Rhodesian security forces that may have resisted British military intervention – the Rhodesian Light Infantry, the Territorial Force, and some sections of the BSAP – lacked sufficient capabilities to do so effectively.

(b) Rhodesian capabilities During negotiations for the dissolution of the Central African Federation the Conservative Government proposed to transfer the bulk of Federal military assets to Southern

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concerned that the Rhodesian Government would use its armed forces to suppress African nationalists and therefore brought forward resolutions in the Security Council and General Assembly that called upon Britain not to permit the transfer, but British representatives vetoed the resolutions. 89 As it was a Conservative Government that had Healey, Time of My Life, p. 332. There is some evidence that suggested the Rhodesian armed forces were at least trying to create uncertainty about their intentions. A few weeks before UDI, the MOD received a request for ammunition supplies that was well above normal requirements. TNA: PRO, CAB 130/244, OPD (O) (SR) Minutes of Meeting, Item 7, 4 October 1965.

Windrich, Britain and the Politics of Rhodesian Independence, pp. 15-16.

negotiated the handover of Federal forces to Southern Rhodesia, Michael Stewart no doubt felt justified in his later claim that the strength of Southern Rhodesia’s armed forces was a deterrent to British military intervention under the Labour Government. 90 This was, however, disingenuous, for although Rhodesian capabilities were formidable by comparison with those of other African states, they were much less impressive when compared to those of Britain.

Rhodesian capabilities were well known to the Ministry of Defence and to George Wigg. 91 The Royal Rhodesian Air Force (RRAF) in particular gave British politicians pause for thought and was never far from the minds of the DPS. The RRAF was equipped with around 70 aircraft, including Hunter and Vampire fighters, Canberra light bombers, and a squadron of Alouette helicopters. This was a potent force, but it would not have been a match for the more modern aircraft flown by the Royal Air Force, and there were in fact specific contingencies to deal with the threat from the RRAF. A few days after UDI, the Secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, Air Vice Marshal J. H.

Lapsley, submitted a report that concluded 12 RAF or Royal Navy fighters stationed in Zambia would be an effective deterrent or strike force against the RRAF. 92 Shortly thereafter the RAF deployed a squadron of Javelins to Zambia together with radar defence and a detachment of the RAF Regiment. This deployment helped to ease tension with Rhodesia and provided protection for the Anglo-American airlift, but it did not satisfy Kenneth Kaunda’s demands for offensive British action and by August 1966 the Stewart, Life and Labour, p. 169.

TNA: PRO, DEFE 32/17, DP 83/64 (Final), ‘Operations in Central Africa’, paras. 8-13, 19 June 1964;

and BLPES: Wigg Papers, WIGG 4/68, ‘Southern Rhodesia – Military Situation’, passim.

TNA: PRO, DEFE 32/17, ‘An Examination of the Possible Provision of Some Air Defence for Zambia’, 15 November 1965.

RAF presence was withdrawn. 93 These defensive arrangements demonstrate that the RAF had the means to protect Zambia, but if British forces had invaded Rhodesia it would have been necessary to neutralise the RRAF threat by bombing its bases. In late November 1965 the Chiefs of Staff submitted a report that outlined the possible uses of Vulcan, Canberra, Buccaneer, Sea Vixen and Scimitar aircraft in such an offensive role. 94 However, Harold Wilson was apparently tormented by the fact that RRAF bases at New Sarum and Thornhill were near to civilian housing, which meant that there was a good

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Representative in Washington, saying during consultations in October that … the Royal Air Force could neutralise the Rhodesian Air Force without a

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Royal Air Force to have their Vulcan bombers (then based in Nairobi, but which could be moved to Lusaka) keeping a permanent watch in the skies over New Sarum and Thornhill … with the threat issued in advance that if any Rhodesian aeroplane tried to get airborne the runways and the planes on the ground would be bombed. 96 Anglin, ‘Britain and the Use of Force in Rhodesia’, pp. 63-64; Wilson, The Labour Government, p. 182.

TNA: PRO, DEFE 32/17, JP (61) 23 (Final), ‘Outline Plan for Deployment in Northern Rhodesia’ (Operation Fume), 2 March 1961; PRO, DEFE 32/17, DP 17/65 (Final), ‘The Kariba Dam. Note by the Directors of Defence Plans’, 22 February 1965; PRO, DEFE 32/17, COS 2634, ‘Strike Plan for Use Against the RRAF’, 27 November 1965.

David Owen, The Politics of Defence (London: Jonathan Cape, 1972), p. 115.

Flower, Serving Secretly, p. 52.

The evidence suggests that the RRAF did not constitute an effective deterrent to British military action. It could have been destroyed (although the political problems that would have resulted from this were considered to be unacceptable) or simply suppressed by combat air patrols.

The Rhodesian Regular Army consisted of less than 2,500 men, and over 1,000 of its regular troops were Africans officered by Europeans. In his assessment of Rhodesian capabilities Wigg noted that ‘The two European teeth-arm units, 1st Battalion Rhodesian Light Infantry and Special Air Service Squadron, have deficiencies in manpower and this is also reflected in the supporting arms and services.’ 97 A Territorial Force of about 6,000 men, the vast majority of whom were Europeans, supported the Regular Army, and Wigg suggested that this was ‘the main source of strength’, as there was ‘provision for rapid mobilisation and expansion in times of emergency’. 98 However, it has been suggested that the Territorial Force was not terribly effective and its main function was to provide internal security, thereby releasing the Regular Army for combat duties. 99 The main weakness of the Rhodesian Army and Territorial Force was lack of firepower. In terms of small arms Regular infantry units were well equipped with the 7.62 mm Self Loading Rifle, the General Purpose Machine Gun, and 81 mm mortars. Active TF battalions also used the SLR, the Bren Light Machine Gun, Vickers Medium Machine Gun, and 3 inch mortars. However, these infantry units were supported by only a handful of Ferret Scout Cars and two eight gun batteries equipped with 25 pounder field guns. 100 This shortage BLPES: Wigg Papers, WIGG 4/68, ‘Southern Rhodesia – Military Situation’, para. 7.

Ibid., para. 8.

Croukamp, RLI, to author, 28 September 1999.

BLPES: Wigg Papers, WIGG 4/68, ‘Southern Rhodesia – Military Situation’, para. 3.

of armour and artillery would have been a serious handicap to Rhodesian attempts to resist a British invasion. One former Rhodesian Light Infantryman has commented: ‘I have no doubt that a British intervention force would not have taken long in stopping any resistance from the then very small and inexperienced army.’ 101 On the other hand, some former Rhodesian servicemen have suggested that the Rhodesian Army would have fought a bush war similar to the operations they later conducted against African nationalist forces. In these circumstances a British military intervention might have been much more protracted. 102 As noted above, the Rhodesian Army was supported by the BSAP, whose regular strength was around 6,000 men, two-thirds of whom were Africans. For George Wigg, the BSAP was the joker in the pack because it could ostensibly mobilise as many as 33,000 men in the event of an emergency. 103 This seems very impressive on paper, but most of the BSAP Reserve had a minimal level of training and the capabilities of the BSAP were

extremely limited, as one former officer has commented:

I must point out that despite training in the use of various weapons the BSAP members [were only issued with] antiquated.303s (for parade purposes mainly) and boasted being the only Police Force in Africa not to be armed in the normal course of duty … Our weapons and training would have been of little avail against even a modest British air/land assault … 104 Croukamp, RLI, to author, 28 September 1999.

Eldridge, RLI, to author, 23 November 2004; Walker, RLI, to author, 26 November 2004.

BLPES: Wigg Papers, WIGG 4/68, ‘Southern Rhodesia – Military Situation’, para. 15.

Gordon Johnston, BSAP 7354, to author, 28 December 1999.

It may therefore be argued that even though some elements of the Rhodesian security forces may have been inclined to resist British military intervention, on the whole they lacked sufficient capability to fight effectively against better-equipped opposition.

(iv) The danger of South African intervention A further constraint on British military intervention was the fear that Rhodesian resistance might have been augmented by South African support. A British parliamentarian visiting South Africa was told that in the event of an invasion of Rhodesia, ‘there would only be generals left in South Africa because everyone else would have gone over the border in plain clothes.’ 105 There was perhaps some danger that South African volunteers might take up arms against British military intervention in Rhodesia, but whether the South African Government would have given any official sanction to this is highly debatable.

The British Ambassador in South Africa suggested that in the event of a UDI, ‘Dr Verwoerd would probably consider it in his interest to permit some measure of help, short of military involvement, to be given for the sake of preserving a White Government on his northern border.’ 106 The qualification ‘short of military involvement’ is obviously crucial. The South African Government recognised that it was in a delicate position. On the one hand it was in the interests of the South African Government that white rule should be maintained in Southern Rhodesia, but on the other hand the South African Quoted in Good, UDI, p. 58.

TNA: PRO, PREM 13/86, ‘South African/Southern Rhodesian relations’, Despatch No. 61, Sir H.

Stephenson, British Embassy, Pretoria, to Patrick Gordon Walker, Foreign Secretary, 21 October 1964, para. 8, in Philip Murphy (ed.), British Documents on the End of Empire, Series B, Volume 9, Central Africa, Part II: Crisis and Dissolution 1959-1965 (London: The Stationery Office, 2005), p. 490.

Government had always remained committed to legality in international affairs and the principle of non-interference in domestic politics. 107 The problem of the mandated territory of Southwest Africa was also entering a crucial phase at the United Nations and a negative reaction against South Africa could have resulted on this issue if its Government intervened in support of Rhodesia. 108 A further point of concern was that if the United Nations applied sanctions against Rhodesia in the event of a UDI, they might next be applied against South Africa. 109 Ian Smith suggested in his memoirs that this actually worked in Rhodesia’s favour, because the South Africans made it clear to the British Government: ‘South Africa would not abandon Rhodesia, not only for moral reasons and because of our strong mutual ties, but because there was much evidence to indicate that if sanctions succeeded against Rhodesia, South Africa would be next on the list.’ 110 Sue Onslow has established that South Africa gave several forms of ‘covert and tacit’ support to Rhodesia during the period 1964-65. 111 This included loans to the Rhodesian Government (which it used for military purposes), building of strategically important railway lines, training of helicopter pilots, and discussion of intelligence and security matters. 112 In August 1967, almost two years after UDI, the South African Sue Onslow, ‘A Question of Timing: South Africa and Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, 1964-65’, Cold War History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (May 2005), pp. 129-59.

NAC: RG 25 Vol. 20-RSA-1-3-RHOD, R. G. Hatheway, Canadian Embassy, Pretoria, to Department of External Affairs, Ottawa, Cable No. 166, 8 October 1965.

Anthony Lake, The ‘Tar Baby’ Option. American Policy Toward Southern Rhodesia (New York:

Columbia University Press. 1976), p. 55; and Onslow, ‘A Question of Timing’, p. 129.

I. D. Smith, Bitter Harvest: The Great Betrayal and the Dreadful Aftermath (London: Blake, 2001), p.


Onslow, ‘A Question of Timing’, p. 130.

Ibid., passim.

Government went even further, sending police units to assist Rhodesia against African nationalist incursions, but it is notable that South Africa lacked sufficient regular army units to offer greater support. 113 No doubt the South African Government was alarmed by the increasing instability on its northern border. Douglas Anglin has argued that a settlement of the Rhodesian issue was therefore in South Africa’s interests, which would have conditioned its attitude to British military intervention: ‘British military objectives were clearly limited in scope, and moreover, direct British rule might have been positively welcomed in so far as it strengthened Rhodesia as a buffer against “terrorist” infiltration.’ 114 It therefore seems unlikely that there would have been much danger of an official South African retaliation against British military intervention.

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