Selous Scouts Operation Eland

In early July 1976 Reid Daly began preliminary planning for Operation Eland. Air reconnaissance over the camp continued and Winston Hart searched ‘every capture and scrap of paper found in the rubbish tip, or on dead terrorists’ to build an accurate intelligence picture of the Nyadzonia Camp.[1] Reid Daly’s account of the operation, and several other sources too, make mention of a ZANLA section commander by the name of Morrison Nyathi who was captured in Inyanga and debriefed personally by Mac McGuinness. The impression gained is that information received by Nyathi clarified the picture considerably, lending detailed information on numbers, camp protocols, layout and other key intelligence. Discussion with surviving Special Branch Liaison Officers involved in developing the intelligence dossier on Nydzonia Camp, however, suggest that Nyathi played a much lesser role in detailing the camp than this. Morrison Nyathi, or Maurice Nyathi and Livison Mutasa, by which names he was also known, is deeply vilified in ZANLA mythology as he is celebrated in Selous Scouts mythology, but in fact is not listed on either the Selous Scouts Roll of Honour or the Nominal Roll. Nyathi certainly existed, however, was party to the raid, and was apparently killed soon after independence in a reprisal attack.

Reid Daly placed Captain Rob Warracker in command of the pending operation and set him to work dealing with the practicalities. Warracker also commanded the Selous Scouts Recce Troop. He was a South African blue collar mine worker who emigrated to Rhodesia in the late 1960s, joining the regular army soon afterwards. Previous to his 1975 induction into the Selous Scouts he had served as a staff officer at 1 Brigade in Bulawayo. Like Reid Daly, Warracker was extremely diligent and organised, which tended to account for his rank more that his operational experience. This was a big command, and an interesting choice on the part of Reid Daly, and an exceptional challenge for Warracker.

Preliminary planning went ahead with the selection and preparation of both vehicles and men earmarked for the operation. Absolute secrecy was enforced for the obvious reason that the potential for the column to drive into a trap was enormous. A scale model of what was known of the camp was built, endless discussions held and rehearsals exhaustively fine tuned using ordinary vehicles in the environs of Inkomo. In the meanwhile the work of Special Branch went on with intensive and ongoing debriefings of men captured in the Thrasher Operational Area, and those earmarked to be part of the operation. The matter had not yet been presented to the Operations Coordinating Committee, and nor, according the Reid Daly, to General Walls, but this changed on the weekend of 24/25 July 1976 when Winston Hart experienced what he termed a eureka moment. From a fairly routine debrief of a captured guerrilla, a man by the name of Mugati, Hart learned that numbers in the camp had swelled to over 5000, but more importantly, that a large scale deployment of armed force into Rhodesia was planned for some point in the near future. Hart promptly contacted Reid Daly, stressing the need to act quickly. This, according to Hart was Saturday 24 July 1976, according to Reid Daly it was Friday 23 July. Walls, however, was due to be unavailable for the week following, which left just the weekend to bring onsides the two principal players – Walls himself and CIO Director General Ken Flower.

According to Hart, Flower was contacted and persuaded without difficulty to support the operation, despite the fact that Flower himself claims in his memoir a deep reluctance to compromise the delicate political balance of the moment by pursuing something as aggressive as this. There are other sources that claim Flower was kept out of the picture altogether, claiming his unreliability, and the fact that Reid Daly had been informed by both Special Branch and Portuguese intelligence that Flower was a British agent.[2] This is unlikely since if the matter was debated by the OCC Flower would have to have been involved. It is worth quoting Flower on this point from his memoir, since his comments in relation to the Nyadzonia operation shed some light on the disquiet that he had clearly begun to feel at a widening of the war, and the expansion of the Selous Scouts role into handling the commando-type operations that traditionally had been undertaken by the SAS:

 Now, however, we began to give way to their clamour for cross-border action and it was at this point that the Selous Scouts began to assume the role for which they would later become notorious. General Walls favoured the use of the Scouts in external operations, although this was contrary to the role envisioned for them when the unit was formed. The responsibility for operations outside Rhodesia lay originally with CIO and the SAS, a unit trained specifically for an external commando role. However, the Selous Scouts had already encroached upon CIO and SAS territory and, as they came under Walls’ command, none of the rest of us in OCC (Operations Coordinating Committee) could query his decision.[i] I was aware, however, through intelligence reports from my staff, Special Branch and Military Intelligence that most Army officers would have preferred to use the SAS in an external role.[3]

Ken Flower was never anything if not enigmatic in the whole drama of the Rhodesian war, behaving quite in keeping with an intelligence mastermind by being impossible to pin down on any issue, and yet somehow always appearing on the right side of the moral debate no matter what his official role might have been. His was a shadowy yet constant influence in the years since the establishment of an external intelligence agency in the early 1960s. He was highly critical of Smith’s decision to declare UDI, and although he worked consistently for a resolution to the crisis that followed, his loyalty to Rhodesia was quite often questioned. In fact Flower’s loyalty to Rhodesia, and the work he did to achieve a workable settlement, was unswerving. His loyalty to Ian Smith, however, was not quite so absolute.

It must be borne in mind that the decision in 1965 to declare UDI was so controversial, and impacted so profoundly the fate of the colony, that Ian Smith and those closest to him, and those closest to the decision, were unable to tolerate any suggestion that it might have been a mistake, this even more so bearing in mind that it quite evidently was.[ii] Ken Flower made every attempt to dissuade Smith from taking that ultimate step in the days and weeks leading up to UDI, and in the aftermath he quietly worked to advance the search for a political solution to what was clearly recognisable as an unwinnable war.[iii]

*     *     *     *     *

In order to understand the balance between the political and military considerations that would confront General Walls and those in the OCC responsible for rubber-stamping an operation, it is worth briefly picking up the political story of Rhodesia beyond the phase of detente which a year earlier had so compromised the ability of the country to strike hard and deep at the moment of greatest enemy weakness.

During the detente period – more or less covering 1974 and 1975 – John Vorster had pursued the idea that a broad policy of rapprochement with the emerging powers of black Africa would serve the long term future of white South Africa more effectively than buffering the Zambezi line with massive South African military support, as most white Rhodesians had assumed would be the case. Instead Vorster sought to broker a settlement in Rhodesia as an act of good faith towards key African plutocrats with whom he was dealing, requiring as part of the process the release of the most important and influential nationalist leaders from detention, among them the highly militant and aggressive Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe’s release from Prison in December 1974 marked a turning point in the Rhodesian War. There had been other turning points – in white Rhodesian war mythology, 1972, in particular the attacks on Altena and Whistlefield farms, mark the point at which the war transitioned into a general state of insecurity – but in liberation mythology it was not until the settlement of lingering internal discords within the nationalist movement had been resolved that it could be said that the armed struggle began in earnest.

The history of the nationalist movement in Rhodesia dates back to the emergence of the first generation of educated blacks to grope free of the orthodoxy of indigenous society as it lay in ruins in the aftermath of the white occupation. Native resistance to white rule was manifest early in the First Chimurenga of 1896. This episode began with a general rebellion on the part of the amaNdebele, who had been nominally defeated three years earlier, followed soon afterwards by a general rebellion by the various tribes of Mashonaland. The Matabele Rebellion was brought to a close primarily by the intervention of Cecil John Rhodes, who held his famous Indabas in and around the Matopo Hills in an effort to avoid a strangulating campaign that may have forced the British South Africa Company to relinquish control of the colony to the Crown. Partly thanks to a lack of recognised leadership with whom to treat, it was not possible to similarly conclude the Mashona Rebellion, which was systematically crushed and destroyed, destroying at the same time the broad political cohesion of the chiShona speaking people.

The amaNdebele, therefore, entered the modern age accepting of defeat and subjugation, as a military people might, but also with the advantage of its traditional leadership structures and social institutions remaining more or less intact. The Mashona, on the other hand, remained injured, silent and compliant, but with a deep seated anger and internalised resistance that would prove in due course to be a far more powerful incubator of resistance than the more orthodox military memory of a people such as the amaNdebele. Nonetheless, the emergence of native organisations and associations began to be noticed in Matabeleland first, along with early political mobilisation in the form of unions and workers organisations, culminating in a general strike in Bulawayo in 1948.

Joshua Nkomo was the first authentic nationalist leader to surface from the confusion of early black politics. This was the moment that black nationalism shifted from the compliant posture of attempting by reform and civic pressure to moderate the excesses of white rule, to vocal demands for the removal of white government altogether, and the installation of majority rule immediately whether deemed desirable by the white minority or not.

The 1960s was a period of violent political awakening in Rhodesia. The achievement of independence by India in the aftermath of WWII began a process of imperial disengagement that swept across Africa, but was halted at the Zambezi River, with the last relatively peaceful transitions taking place in Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi. White Rhodesia entrenched itself, meeting internal unrest with a firm law and order response, a general proscription of black political parties and the detention or restriction of the nationalist leadership.

A series of rapid transmutations took place as the cat-and-mouse process of banning one party only to have another emerge played out. The first of these was the Southern Rhodesian African National Congress (SRANC), banned in 1959, followed by the National Democratic Party (NDP), banned in 1961, and finally the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), the first to make explicit use of the revolutionary name Zimbabwe, and banned in 1962. ZAPU, however, remained in existence after its banning, re-locating to Tanzania where an effort was made to establish a government in exile.

In the midst of all this, however, rifts of ideology and personality led to a split in the nationalist movement. The Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) was formed under the pedigreed but somewhat ineffectual leadership of nationalist Ndabaningi Sithole, but tending to be driven by the more radical element of the party, principal among them being Herbert Chitepo and an emerging Robert Mugabe. Upon a split of the movement these internal contradictions manifest themselves in a massive wave of factional violence that played out on the streets and countryside of Rhodesia. This bred a degree of antipathy between the two parties that has never truly healed.

Once it had become clear to the leadership of both parties that white rule in Rhodesia was unlikely to succumb to mere civil unrest, war councils were established. Under emergency powers, however, the entire black nationalist leadership was arrested and detained, where most would remain for the decade to follow. Others, however, established councils in exile in Zambia and set about establishing the blueprint of an armed struggle.

Disunity in the struggle nonetheless continued, with matters settled only after Robert Mugabe succeeded to the chairmanship of ZANU soon after his release in 1974. This corresponded with the formation by the Organisation of African Unity of the Patriot Front, a manufactured alliance of both main liberation movements that tended to favour ZANU thanks to the dominant personality of Robert Mugabe. Mugabe also benefitted from the fall of Mozambique and the arrival in power of Samora Machel, a similarly committed Marxist ideologue who made it an immediate priority to establish Mozambique as a second hostile front against Rhodesia. Mugabe was quick to utilise both this willingness and the long land border between Mozambique and Rhodesia to begin the organisation of his version of the armed struggle, and his personal quest for power. The general politicisation of the masses occurring at this time, in particular among the youth, also favoured Mugabe’s emergence. He spoke powerfully for the large chiShona speaking majority in Rhodesia, and the ease with which many of these were now able to leave Rhodesia to seek training in Mozambique massively swelled the numbers, but also led to question of whether these people were refugees or guerrillas.

Nyadzonia camp came into being directly as a result of this mass movement east in support of the revolution. At the time established training facilities existed in Tanzania, with more specialised training available elsewhere in Africa and abroad, but there were no local facilities available in Mozambique at that time to cope with the numbers of people who were daily arriving. The ad hoc and rather naive placement of such a large number of people in a compact and easily accessible location such as Nydzonia was indicative of the early phases of organisation, which would improve in due course, but the vulnerability of large training and transit facilities in Mozambique would continue to invite Rhodesian military attention, and would continue to cost ZANLA the lives of many thousands of its trained and semi-trained personnel.

Such was the situation in Mozambique, where the main thrust of the war would from that moment on be felt. The complexities of the Rhodesian political situation were no less vexing. By 1976 detente was dead. John Vorster had been chastened by the very political realities about which more pragmatic political players of the time, Ian Smith among them, had warned him. Freight movement continued between the newly named Mozambique capital of Maputo and the main South African cities, migrant labour continued to move freely between Mozambique and the mines of the Witwatersrand, but beyond that the political waters that divided the two countries were frozen. Moreover, Angola was at the same time emerging as another hard line Marxist revolutionary state with an unnerving physical presence of both Soviet and Cuban military personnel. This threatened not only South Africa’s continued control of South West Africa (Namibia), but also invited attention from the United States, unavoidable should the Soviet Union begin to display too great a strategic interest in southern Africa.

The personalities at play here were, of course, Ian Smith himself, John Vorster, the Rhodesian Minister of Defence PK van de Byl, who, incidentally Vorster loathed, and United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who represented the global superpower interest that had crept into the relatively minor equation of the Rhodesian War.

Kissinger’s interest in the region was complex. Primarily the objective of the United States was to check Soviet and Cuban interference in the Angolan crisis without reverting to direct military involvement, recent experience of which in Vietnam had been conspicuously less than successful. Kissinger, therefore, sought to embellish the US reputation in the region by touring independent Africa bearing promises of increased US aid and a solution to the Rhodesian crisis. For the latter he sought South African help, recognising that South African economic influence over Rhodesia was the tool most likely to succeed in bringing Smith to the negotiating table. In returned Vorster was given some reason to hope that pressure mounting against South Africa for the return of South West Africa to the United Nations would be eased, and that CIA funds and US moral support would be leveraged in the instance of South Africa adopting a military solution to the growing nationalist and Soviet threat emanating from Angola.

So it was. The negotiations that followed – the ill fated Geneva Conference – were tabled for September 1976, and the Nyadzonia Raid went in on 9 August 1976, a month earlier.[iv] It is not difficult, therefore, to imagine the delicate political tightrope being walked by Smith, as the head of government, Flower, his eyes and ears in the small pool of friendly nations, and the military commanders attempting to interpret both the military necessity and the political limitations.

*     *     *     *     *

General Peter Walls was in the later camp, and he received Ron Reid Daly’s overtures with both interest and caution. According to Winston Hart:

It was a Saturday,  and as soon as I could contacted Ron, and advised him of the situation. We knew that we would have to react as quickly as we could and we agreed to meet early Sunday. He would arrange an audience with General Walls, at which I would present my written report and he would bring along the maps to show confirmation of another large base in Mozambique.

The following morning we visited Peter Walls at his residence and spent the morning discussing the situation.[4]

The meeting was held on Sunday 25 July 1976 at Wall’s Salisbury residence, where Winston Hart delivered a comprehensive brief, supported by maps, aerial photographs and a patchwork of disparate information and intelligence. All of this presented a picture of a large potential threat concentrated in a limited geographic area, and briefly poised for precisely the type of operation that Reid Daly had been building in his mind since the first pseudo column successes.

The risks of this operation, however, were extraordinary, in particular in view of the fact that that great force leveller of all Rhodesian operations thus far, air support, could not be promised. Reid Daly recognised the direct military risk, but Walls was able to embrace the larger strategic risk of an intelligence leak and a trap being sprung for the small force that would likely tackle the operation, and in the bigger picture, the political difficulties that would inevitably arise. As Flower had put it, the 20 percent political dividend earned from an 80 percent military effort.

Reid Daly, however, had every reason to be optimistic. Certainly the immediate risk to the men undertaking the operation was significant. The intelligence picture emerging suggested a reasonably soft target, but the situation was dynamic, and certainly if an intelligence leak occurred there would be no hope for the men involved. It would either be a massacre or an extremely difficult political conundrum should a corps of white Selous Scouts emerge in Maputo as prisoners of war. The black Selous Scout, of course, in particular those with revolutionary history, would be executed on the spot without the option of capture. However, the nature of the enemy in question also needed to be considered.

ZANLA much more than ZIPRA was an army in the Maoist sense of the word, and in this regard it was not configured for conventional warfare, but for the Phase Two strategy of Maoist guerrilla doctrine: limited hit and run attacks against economic targets, organs of government and vital infrastructure.  This was premised on a large pool of semi-trained cadres used in a cannon fodder role on the assumption that the Rhodesian Army would reach a point of critical load in attempting to be in all places at all times, which would be followed by economic and military collapse.[v]

What did not fit neatly into the Maoist blueprint, however, was the fact that the Rhodesian Army had developed counter-insurgency strategies that somewhat confounded the established Maoist doctrine. The combination of excellent intelligence gathering capacity – the Selous Scouts perhaps the most important branch of this – in combination with the finely tuned use of Fireforce, kept the two guerrilla armies in the Phase Two role without there ever really being any opportunity for a transition to conventional war.[vi] Notwithstanding the fact that Rhodesian security planners had by 1976 come to recognise the risks posed by limited and diminishing manpower reserves, the quality of the average ZANLA fighting platform was so critically low that astronomical odds could be considered in planning operations that would have staggered strategic planners in such counter insurgency wars as Vietnam, where US forces certainly could have been regarded as a large and unwieldy force, and certainly would never have dreamt of an operation so audacious as this without the application of overwhelming air power. In the case of Nydzonia the choice was clear. Take them out in large numbers when they were concentrated and accessible, and at a point when they would least expect it, or chase them down piecemeal within Rhodesia using the established tactics of pseudo and Fireforce. For a military man like Reid Daly the rationale was obvious, for an intermediary like Walls, sympathy for the military viewpoint went without saying, but an appreciation of the politically difficulties also intruded, and it was for him then, having been convinced of the practical possibilities of achieving this objective, to approach the Operations Coordinating Committee to secure the go-ahead.

The Operations Coordinating Committee (OCC), a war council of sorts, was established in 1964 with the responsibility of coordinating combined operations. It consisted of the heads of services – Army, Air Force and Police – and Director General of the CIO, which, throughout it’s existence as an arm of Rhodesian intelligence, was Ken Flower. By 1976 the OCC had become quite politicised with the civilian influence extending beyond the one civilian member sitting on the committee. Military and political advisors proliferated, and the Prime Minister and Minister of deference, obviously, were deeply involved in the decision making process.

The Minister of Defence at that time, incidentally, was an interesting individual by the name of P.K., or Pieter Kenyon Fleming-Voltelyn van der Byl (A Biography of PK van de Byl is available from 30 Degrees South Publishing and is written by Hannes Wessels. It is entitled – PK van der Byl: An African Diplomat), a flamboyant, pseudo aristocrat who sat extremely close to the centre of power in Rhodesia, and was a noted hawk in a generally extremely hawkish cabinet. Van de Byl had been a signatory of the UDI proclamation, and was a key supporter of Ian Smith, some would say an heir apparent. He was among those within the brains trust who advocated taking the war to the enemy with maximum aggression, and he was very much the spearhead of the political endorsement of the raid. The fact that he did not survive it is clear evidence of the lack of political elbow room in the situation, and the extent to which the Rhodesians often slipped over the dynamic line of what South Africa deemed acceptable at any given time. Van de Byl was either sacrificed or fired, it has never been established which. Ian Smith is thought to have been nervous of van de Byl’s popularity, and engineered his removal. However, the greater likelihood is that South African Prime Minister John Vorster identified an opportunity to remove from his hair a personality who he absolutely detested.

When Reid Daly was told by Walls that the Nyadzonia Raid needed to be deniable as a Rhodesian operation it is difficult to quite interpret how this would have been possible, and in fact there probably is very little likelihood that either he or Walls really intended to adhere strictly to the moratorium on a air power. This is evidenced by the fact that the moment it was required it was authorised. One can almost trace the hand of PK van de Byl to the proviso – just tell them what they want to hear so that they will bugger off! It need only be remembered that the new year of 1975/6 had seen the South Africans deep in Angola in an invasion of that country’s territory that far exceeded in terms of scope and political risk anything so far attempted by the Rhodesians. In fact, at the point at which the operation – Operation Savannah – became politically untenable, the SADF was effectively poised to take over the capital. It is hard to imagine, then, that a man such as van de Byl, with his keen sense of the ironic, would not have immediately and bayed at the obvious hypocrisy of the South African position.

Nonetheless, the OCC appeared to have suffered great anxiety as the operation was debated, and although Reid Daly portrays it as a diplomatic victory for himself in particular, and a final vindication of the Selous Scouts, in fact it was the weight of General Walls that swung the balance, and if anything Reid Daly could thank the old Malaya SAS handshake for his ongoing access to the highest military power in the land.

The operation was in the end approved, and Reid Daly was contacted at Inkomo and informed of the fact, after which he set about doing what he did best: getting things done. There was already an electric atmosphere at the fort as general preparations were underway, but once the news had been shared with the need-to-know circle that the operation was on, the electricity became palpable. Preparations continued with renewed energy as Reid Daly applied himself to the practicalities of getting his men into Mozambique and out again. Foremost among his considerations was the route the column would use to penetrate Mozambique.

Once inside the country the column would be able to use the trunk road system posing as a FRELIMO column, and bearing in mind the fact that it would be moving during the early hours of the morning, the likelihood of it reaching its destination from any point along the border was reasonably good. If an intelligence leak did take place place, and a trap set for the men, then they most certainly would reach the camp unmolested. Upon the completion of the operation, however, once the fact of their presence in Mozambique had become general, the run back to Rhodesia would likely not be quite so easy. However, first things first. The question was how to get in.

The route chosen by Reid Daly to gain access Mozambique presented some initial difficulties, but on the whole was a well considered choice. A covert entry into the country was necessary in order to disguise the fact that the column had originated from Rhodesia, but beyond that it was not strictly necessary to avoid public highways bearing in mind the effort that had gone into preparing the vehicles to closely resemble FRELIMO trucks. The fact that the convoy would transit at night meant that reaching the camp would not be where the greatest risk lay, but rather in leaving the camp, and then attempting to return to Rhodesia by a longer and less certain route.

The route in would be through the timber and mixed plantation area of Penalonga, twenty kilometres or so north of Umtali, where the landscape on either side of the frontier comprised hill country and timber plantations laced with meandering timber roads that serviced the sprawling estates. The main service roads on either side of the border were only separated by a few miles, with a handful of bush tracks and timber road strenuously linking the two. The challenge was to find a short transit route to link the more accessible Rhodesian timber roads with those in Mozambique that would not excite the attention of the loosely configured FRELIMO border patrols that ostensibly monitored movement to and fro across the hostile frontier. From there it would be a relatively simple matter of accessing a gravel road that probed west from the settlement of Andrada, linking with the main Umtali/Beira road through the small settlement of Vila Manica.[vii] Assuming that no suspicious was raised here, and there was no reason to suppose that it would, bearing in mind a paucity of street lighting and the fact that movement through the town would be timed for the early hours of the morning, the last hurdle of any consequence would have been cleared. Should the column run into problems in Vila Manica, or thereabouts, the assumption would be fair that a fighting rearguard could fairly easily be achieved, and the column could crash the main border at Forbes just outside Umtali and reach safety without too many problem. Beyond Vila Manica the road lay wide open.[viii]

The main FRELIMO concentration at that time was focused in Chimoyo, the provincial capital of Manica Province. In order to frustrate any attempt by FRELIMO to advance in force from Chimoyo once news of the operation had reached HQ there, it was a simple matter of dropping the Pungwe Bridge which would stop any armed column in its tracks.

The return journey could obviously then not be routed back via Vila Manica and the border with Rhodesia. Besides the fact that the bridge would by then have been blown, FRELIMO would have been fully alerted, and what was known as the Vanduzi Circle would have been alive with military movement. The only alternative was north, and then sharply west into Rhodesia at some accessible point. The difficulty here lay in a combination of dense peasant population and restrictive terrain. The Vanduzi/Tete highway, the 102, crossed the Pungwe River at a point just south of Nydzonia Camp and continued north to Tete running more or less parallel to the Rhodesian border at a distance of about 20 to 30 kilometres. The terrain immediately west of the road rose steeply up to the Rhodesian Eastern Highlands, complicated further by a steep ridge and river gorge some 50kms long running south from the small town of Catandica to the Pungwe River, effectively barring any probe west overland to attempt to reach the frontier. Catandica was at the head of the gorge, and from here a scarcely reconnoitred route west existed that circled the head of the gorge in order to ply gingerly back into Rhodesia. Progress would be made at high altitude and through the typical hill country of the region, comprising interlocking gullies and river valleys, topped with moorland and plantation forest, but chocked in the gullies with riverine forest through which rough travel would be extremely rough, and an overland dash almost impossible.

With this established, the practical arrangement were quickly finalised. The work of disguising, protecting and arming the eight vehicles earmarked for the column was achieved in the Selous Scouts workshops, using the multi-skilled territorial compliment of the Regiment, largely, and achieved with typical Rhodesianesque improvisation.

The vehicle compliment was fairly typical of the pseudo column configuration. Nine Mercedes Benz Unimogs, with additional armoured protection, along with the rather eccentric choice of five Ferret armoured cars seconded extremely unwillingly from the Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment. These vehicles had been removed from frontline service elsewhere in the Commonwealth region, and were in the Rhodesian stable largely as a ceremonial vehicle, having been part of the dispensation of the Federal Forces during the brief federation phase of Rhodesian history. Interestingly they had also been part of the original Selous Scouts, a federal armoured car regiment that had disbanded along with the collapse of the Federation itself. A large ex-Portuguese Army Berliet troop carrier had been intended as the command vehicle but was damaged in an accident shortly before the commencement of the operation.

Divided among the vehicles was a multi-racial force of 84 regular and territorial Selous Scouts, commanded by Captain Rob Warracker, with Lieutenant Tim Callow as 2IC. On 7 August, two days before the launch of the operation, a forward HQ was established close to the exit point where a fuelling point was established. The date chosen for the launch the operation was 9 August, which was the day after a ZANLA holiday, at which point it might be expected that some high ranking members of the organisation would be present as either targets or potential captures. The day was serendipitous too for the fact that it was also the date of the full moon which would make the initial task of navigating quietly out of Rhodesia somewhat easier.

Good fortune, in fact, very much blessed the operation. It had been discovered as the various routes into Mozambique were being explored that a small detachment of FRELIMO troops were positioned at this and other likely entry points into the country, but in keeping with the generally low standards of performance and discipline within the armed forces of the organisation, the troops left their post at dusk, seeking billets in a nearby village, returning only at dawn. In the matter of ordnance, the column had at a certain point lacked anything with the punch to take on any kind of armoured vehicle, a problem that was solved by the chance contact from a member of the RhAF informing Reid Daly of the decommissioning of the aging de Havilland Vampire fleet, and the fact that a brace of Hispano 20mm cannon were available for scrap should he have any interest. Needless to say he did, and within a short time the pieces had been retrieved, adapted for vehicle deployment and mounted. These were then added to the basic compliment of weapons attached to the column.[ix]

The column entered Mozambique at 00h05 on Monday 9 August 1976 unmolested and without incident. An advance party of troops were collected after they had successfully cut the telephone lines to Vila Manica, moving under moonlight and parking lights to avoid drawing too much attention. The only real misfortune occurred early with the loss of a Ferret AC that missed a bridge as the column stirred up dust on the winding roads, and missing a bridge, was pitched into a narrow gully and wrecked. This was unfortunate more for the evidence that it would leave than the loss of the vehicle itself, but the column moved on without it, leaving the difficult problem of removing it or destroying it to Reid Daly back at Inkomo. Once off the narrow mountain tracks the convoy began to make its way steadily along a gravelled trunk road, soon coming into view of the modest urban lights of Vila Manica, bypassing the local market in the silence, arriving at the main road and executing and orderly turn eastwards towards Chimoyo without alerting the few FRELIMO details identifiable within the urban limits.

From there the column continued east along the EN6 for 20kms until it reach a small roadside market settlement of Bandula where it turned north, executing an arc to Vanduzi, and then north again towards the Pungwe bridge on a reasonable blacktop road. It was 03h00 more or less as the convoy rumbled over the bridge, an elegant, multi-span construction about 300m in length, continuing on until 03h30 when it paused briefly to wait for first light for the operation to commence.

Operation Eland has been well documented, in particular by Ron Reid Daly himself who drew directly from the accounts of those involved and the operation report that was part of a tranche of documents removed from Rhodesia in the immediate aftermath of the war. Needless to say the column continued to sail ahead of a fair wind, reaching the gate of the camp just as its occupants were beginning to revive the festivities of a holiday that over spilled form the day before, obstructed by nothing more than a pair of sentries who were unarmed and somewhat overawed, the FRELIMO contingent having left shortly before. The boom was lifted and the convoy entered the camp without mishap.

The camp itself, as had been established, was reasonably compact, and in theory highly defendable. It was situated on the west bank of the Nyadzonia River, surrounded on three sides by a deep bend which, although in places was reasonably placid and shallow, was on the whole quite deep and brisk flowing, particularly at this point in the lee of a bend where it was much deeper, some two meters in places, and nine meters wide, and with a cutaway embankment on the east bank where the current was strongest. A system of trenches had been established which could have made the internal defences a great deal more robust, but by virtue of the fact that the vast majority of individuals in the camp were waiting training, and were not strictly combats, and certainly were not armed, no defence drills had been established, so these and other perimeter protections were worthless.

The internal arrangements of the camp where also highly indicative of a general operational inexperience, coupled with the fact that there was no expectation at all that something as audacious as this would be attempted by the Rhodesians. According to an internal ZANLA report recovered later during a similar SAS/RLI camp attack, Operation Dingo, several requests for weapons had been made by the camp administration, presumably to the ZANLA high command, each of which had been denied. [x]

The principal armed element in the camp were in fact some fifty FRELIMO details who were not regarded by the ZANLA command element within the camp as being particularly reliable or competent. Most, it was reported, were still drinking at the time of the attack, consequent to the ongoing festivities, while others were too drunk to mount any kind of effective resistance. A few shots were fired in defence, but absolutely no coordination response was mounted at all, meaning that the Selous Scouts received absolutely no meaningful incoming hostile fire during the entire assault on the camp. One FRELIMO detail was recorded killed during the raid, and all their weapons captured.

There was also supposed to be a standing FRELIMO presence at the main gate to clear any vehicles or individuals entering and leaving, but quite as the border security in Penalonga were extremely lax, so where those at Nydzonia. Two FRELIMO details had been at the gate a few minutes prior to the arrival at the column, but these were not present as the lead vehicles approached. The six ZANLA members who were present at the gate were unarmed and easily overawed by the authoritative  commands issued by the column interpreter. In addition to this some 700 individual termed Red Guards were also present, but these too were unarmed.

Within the camp the impression gained would have been of a military style collective with large numbers of people engaged in the construction and advancement of the camp, which was built primarily of pole and dagga and thatch, giving it a slightly bucolic, non-military air.[xi] This impression would have been enhanced by the large numbers of women and the general sense of industry not necessarily associated with drill or training. Dennis Croukamp reproduced in his book, Only My Friend Call me Crouks, a handwritten booklet he found during a Fireforce attack on a guerrilla base north of the Save River in Mozambique. The document is a handwritten and illustrated novella of sorts entitled Nyadzonia Massacre: Armed Struggle. Part of Zimbabwe. A number of intriguing insights can be drawn from this, but first a brief and tantalizing physical description.

Amongst the many bases of the ZANLA forces, the army directly partaking in the Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle – Nyadzonia is one that had developed with a camp enrolment of over eight thousand comrades – men, women, boys and girls inclusive. A big garden was flourishing which could keep well abreast with the vegetable needs of the camp. A clinic was also available with sufficient medical supplies to cure the sub-coastal and tropical diseases that constantly threatened the health of the Nyadzonia Camp.

A day at the camp would see one amongst comrades just arriving from Rhodesia who had to pass through examinations of the camp’s security and intelligence department; comrades receiving political orientation lessons where imperialist ideologies were ironed out; those concentrating on production running up and down with poles and grass for house construction, tins and hoses for watering the garden; some having military lessons – individual tactics to mention a few.[5]

This would have been more or less the sight that would have greeted the Selous Scouts column as it entered the camp. Estimates of the number of individuals present and in full view at the time vary, but the number certainly amounted to several thousand, with many more scattered about the complex. As Reid Daly describes it, there were two loosely configured plans for Warracker to work with, plan ‘A’ and plan ‘B’, plan ‘A’ being a rather hopeful scheme to capture the key VIPs thought to be present in the camp by the simple ruse of a Selous Scout posing as a high ranking FRELIMO official and ordering them through a loud hailer to approach the command vehicle. Plan ‘B’, more practical under the circumstances, was for the vehicles to simply assume their pre-determined tactical positions and simply to open fire.

The major risk, of course, was the possibility that a trap lay waiting for the Rhodesian troops as they entered the gates of the camp, a trap from there could be no reach chance of escape. The apprehension felt as the vehicles assumed their position slowly evaporated as all eyes gradually turned towards the new comers and a buzz of excitement began to generate. Notwithstanding the general air of festivity within the camp, the expectation among many within the camp that long promised transports to carry them to their training depots had arrived caused an excited rush towards the vehicles. This was amplified by some improvisation by a quick thinking Selous Scout who shouted through the loud hailer that Rhodesia had been defeated and for all to gather round and hear the news. It is evident that members of the regular command element attempted to bring order to the situation, and at some point an emergency signal was sounded, but it is unclear whether this was done as part of the general excitement, as an effort to sound a warning. There was certainly no evidence anywhere or armed men, with those converging on the vehicles carrying practice weapons made of wood. Some injuries were sustained by the Selous Scouts – sniper Sergeant Clive Mason was among these – so some incoming fire was registered, but beyond that there appears to have been no meaningful resistance registered at all.

Any hope of plan ‘A’ working quickly evaporated at this point, and at a given point someone within the milling crowd realised that there were whites on the vehicles, at which point shouted warnings were sounded prompting the first burst of automatic gunfire. Warracker, reacting to an extremely dynamic situation, decided to give the order to fire, which he did, and what can hardly be described as anything less that a massacre commenced.

The dispensation of vehicles had been carefully decided and meticulously rehearsed, as had every aspect of the operation. The lead vehicle presented itself at the head of the parade ground nearest to the entrance to the camp while on either side of it the two Unimogs armed with the converted 20mm cannons took up their positions. The two mortar teams were deposited just inside the perimeter of the camp while the four Ferrets, an obviously incongruous sight in this context, and that which first alerted the command element of the camp to the fact that something was not quite adding up, peeled off to take up stop positions to cover pre-defined escape routes. Then, the two vehicles carrying the 50mm and the 12.7mm guns moved further to the left and right while the two infantry laden Unimogs positioned themselves somewhat to the north of the main perimeters, on the left flank of the main firing line.

The effect of all of this was to create an extended firing line from four o’clock to ten o’clock with the Nydzonia River itself fencing in the entire eastern flank. The mortar teams were initially not able to join the fray as they came under the threat of cross fire, but the steady, disciplined and controlled enfilade of fire directed into the mass of humanity was manifestly sufficient to execute and extraordinary slaughter. There was no immediate cover for those caught out in the open on the parade ground and surround, while the frenzied efforts of panicked people to flee from there and elsewhere in the camp had been correctly anticipated, offering the opportunity for the well positioned Ferrets to add to the steadily mounting slaughter. The rate of fire continued several minutes – later observers of the scene commenting on behalf of various international forums observed that a carpet of spent shell casings seemed to cover the entire scene after tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition had been expended – and continued until all visible movement in the killing zone had ceased.

Thereafter Rob Warracker handed the operation over to 2IC Lieutenant Time Callow to coordinate the subsequent sweep intended to deal with survivors and obtain was captures and general intelligence was available. The mortar teams came into action here, providing supporting fire, and again covering avenues of possible escape. The main hospital compound, a large but characteristically crude thatched construction, caught fire, possibly from a tracer round, quickly engulfing the entire complex in flame, killing those inside unable to evacuate, most of whom would have been active combatants with detailed knowledge of Rhodesian operations and who otherwise would have been selected out and shipped back to Rhodesia for the usual reasons. Some 200 souls – mostly younger individuals as reported by ZANLA – were drowned as they attempted to swim the Nydzonia at that particular point where the current swept in a wide arc, and with a steep bank on the far side.[xii]  Another unpalatable procedure was the flushing out and killing of individuals attempting to hide in the dense reed banks in the lee of the river which accounted for quite a number of individuals.[xiii]

While all this was underway Warracker returned back to the main road, collecting and repositioning an ambush group that had covered the approaches, and began the business of rigging the Pungwe Bridge for demolition. A brief action was fought to disperse a FRELIMO advance guard busy setting up roadblocks on either side, and a short while later an explosion audible as far away as the listening point on top of Inyangani reverberated, dropping four spans of the bridge which comprehensively destroyed it.[xiv]

So far Reid Daly could hardly have been more satisfied with the execution of the operation. All the hoped for and anticipated elements had fallen perfectly into place. Casualty estimates were still vague, but the Commanding Officer was able with some satisfaction to report back to the anxious military command that the numbers killed ran into the hundreds, with many more naturally incapacitated, and the camp entirely destroyed. The Pungwe Bridge had been successfully demolished, and all that now remained was for the column to successfully exfiltrate back into Rhodesia for the operation to be regarded as an absolutely flawless, text-book execution.

The journey north towards Catandica was uneventful. There was some risk that a FRELIMO relief column might have been en route southwards from Tete, but the risk was not great, for as Reid Daly himself observed, once the news had become general that a Selous Scouts column was abroad on the national roads, FRELIMO would be ‘…shit-scared, and will spend all day tomorrow digging trenches. Bloody big trenches they’ll be able to hide in.’[6] This was probably overstating the jitters that would have been felt within the FRELIMO command structure, but it certainly would have been a fair assumption that any local garrison appraise of the situation would not have been out and about looking for trouble. The possibility of running into a FRELIMO force, however, remained a risk, and this is precisely what happened.

Warracker had opted to avoid a planned side operation to neutralise a ZANLA staging point located slightly east of Catandica thanks to concerns about ammunition levels after the raid. By late afternoon the column had passed through Catandica, raising no particular suspicion, and was en route along a hill top track leading circuitously back towards the Rhodesian border. However, as can almost be predicted in situations of navigating by maps and guesswork through the notoriously fluid systems of bush tracks and foot trails almost always associated with African villages and business centres, things became a little confused. By then the column had been mobile for over 16-hours, with the associate strain of what can only have been a highly stressful and emotionally disturbing operation. When the lead vehicle encountered a village straddling the track that was unexpectedly occupied by a small FRELIMO garrison, stress levels peaked.

The pseudo strategy worked one more time, briefly, although the local FRELIMO commander was uncertain, and unhappy. However, as the column took a wrong turn, and then manoeuvred through the village clearly lost, it was reported to Warracker that mortars were being set up with obviously hostile intent. He ordered the column to open fire and a battle commenced. Of concern was a 12.7mm gun emplacement sighted for anti-aircraft. This was the moment of extremis for which Reid Daly had extracted from Walls the promise of air support. Reid Daly passed the request on to Hickman who undertook to ensure that what was needed would be provided.

Soon afterwards 1 Squadron was scrambled, and minutes later a pair of Hunters arrived overhead searching for a target. They were directed to towards the mortar emplacement which were quickly taken out with 30mm cannon fire. By then the 12.7mm was operational, and it too was quickly neutralised along with a nearby store which erupted in a massive explosion indicating that it had been an ammunition depot. Once the firing the had ceased a helicopter arrived to drop of picks and shovels for the vehicle crews to use to cut a route out of Mozambique. This, bearing in mind the terrain, was a tall order. However they were assisted by a Lynx spotter aircraft offering top cover as well as an accurate map reference and route planning guidance. The distance was not great, five kilometres or so, but the effort of cutting a route through took the remainder of the night and most of the following day, crossing the last gully sometime after 13h00 on 10 August, arriving safely back in Rhodesia.

It was established soon afterwards to the consternation of both Warracker and Reid Daly that two European members of the column were missing. It was fair to assume that both had been captured, although in fact they had simply missed the call to re-embark while engaged in a sweep on the perimeter of the camp, and were left behind. There had been no pre-prepared drill for establishing who was assigned to which vehicle so the oversight was not confirmed until roll was called once the column had reached safety. In fact both had left the scene upon realising what had happened and made their way on foot the 40kms or so back to the Rhodesian border.

Once the operation was complete the politicians and military high command braced themselves for the inevitable political shockwaves that would follow. International condemnation of the raid was of course immediate and passionate, but of greater concern was the profound annoyance felt, and expressed, by South African Prime Minister John Vorster. The Rhodesian Ambassador in Pretoria, Harold Hawkins, was summoned to the Union Buildings and delivered a dressing down that such a deadly operation had gone ahead without South African approval. On 26 August South African helicopters and crews were temporality removed form Rhodesia while bottlenecks on strategic supplies shipped up from South Africa by rail were felt. The following month a surprise cabinet reshuffle was announced and an unrepentant PK van de Byl was removed from the Defence Ministry, although he retained the Foreign Affairs portfolio despite the personal enmity felt against him by an extremely irritated John Vorster.

To the gales of international condemnation van de Byl simply challenged the United Nations to send out a fact finding mission, pointing out the fact that Mozambique ought to have issued a request for such immediately, which it did not do.

Most interesting, though, was the reaction of Ken Flower who made no effort to disguise a deep seated disgust at the evolution of the Selous Scouts from an intelligence gathering tool to a fully fledged, infantry style attack force in his mind muddying the political waters with irresponsible actions such as this that damaged the case of Rhodesia by offering the enemy a propaganda bonanza with no tangible political dividend earned:

As far as OCC was concerned, things were never quite the same again. Most of us saw the Nyadzonia mission as one which had failed in its main objective – to confirm or refute that Nyadzonia/Pungwe was an operational base from which attacks were being launched into Rhodesia. No prisoners were brought back and no real evidence was produced by the Selous Scouts to suggest that the base was anything more than a staging camp in which some low level training took place.

From that moment on a rift opened up between the CIO and the Selous Scouts that never healed, and a gulf of personal enmity between Flower and Reid Daly that arguably damaged the capacity of the two agencies to function in tandem in any meaningful way, leading to two distinct branches of the local intelligence services locked in a mutually antagonistic stance as they faced a common enemy.[7]

The question of the status of Nydzonia Camp remained a fact debated by both sides, confused somewhat by rogue elements within ZANU – Edgar Tekere most notably – publishing accounts and submitting to interviews claiming the full military status of the camp. The facts are more opaque.

Ken Flower probably landed closest to the truth in stating that Nydzonia Camp was a staging camp in which some low level training took place, because it cannot be strictly said that all of those at Nyadzonia were either seeking or being given military training, but prior to the Nyadzonia Raid the term applied to this classification of individual was military recruit. At the time Robert Mugabe, heir apparent to the ZANU leadership, was actively seeking military support, and it behoved him then to refer to this presence of black Rhodesian youth in Mozambique in military terms, in order, of course, to increase the sense that his armed struggle was viable. Later, when the political emphasis shifted to a quest for support from agencies unwilling to fund military activities, the general term in play began to be refugees.[xv]

In fact the majority were politicised youth, highly militant in outlook, somewhat trained, armed perfunctorily, and in every other respect there to make up the numbers. It is fair to say, then, that while they partially resembled refugees, they more strongly resembled an armed, or arming force, and were as such a legitimate target. The event was both a raid and a massacre, a textbook military operation of its kind that was executed both with absolute professionalism and precision, but a massacre also, for it is hard to recognise such an unbalanced casualty yield as anything else.[xvi]


[i] In March 1977 that the Operations Coordinating Committee and the national JOC was superseded by a Combined Operations (ComOps). This was headed by Lt. Gen. Peter Walls. Responsibility for special forces was removed from the remit of the army and placed under the direct command of ComOps – Gen. Walls in effect – with the army responsible only for logistics and administration.

[ii] Winston Field, the original leader of the Rhodesian Front, and very briefly Prime Minister, resisted attempts to force the British hand in the matter of Rhodesian independence, reasoning that, thanks to the 1961 constitution brokered by Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations Duncan Sandys, Southern Rhodesia enjoyed as much independence under white rule as she could reasonably hope for, and that, in recognition of the fact that majority rule was inevitable, white Rhodesia would be in a position to dictate the pace of independence, with the additional benefit of full British responsibility in the instance of war. Smith, however, and those closest to him, neither acknowledged the inevitability of, nor the advisability of majority rule under any circumstances. Defining Rhodesia as a rebel republic released Britain from any obligation to involve itself in a war on behalf of the colony and forced Rhodesia to face that inevitability upon its own resources with the additional burden of international sanctions. Herein lay the principal weakness of Ian Smith’s position.

 [iii] It will be noted that Allan Savory made a similar and frequent assertion of the same fact. Both men were capable of seeing the military situation within a political context, and bearing in mind that the world was hardly likely to stand still for the sake of white Rhodesia, the military situation could only reasonably be seen in terms of holding the fort while a negotiated settlement was reached.

[iv] The Geneva Conference was held between the Rhodesian Government and the Patriotic Front, an alliance of ZANU and ZAPU brokered by the OAU. The conference chaired by British Ambassador to the United Nations, Ivor Richard. The conference extended over three months, but broke for the Christmas holidays and never reconvened. Neither side really sought a political solution, both believing that the ultimate resolution of the crisis lay on the battlefield.

[v] Economic collapse would occur because limited white manpower could not be sufficiently spread to support both the security and economy of the country.

[vi] ZIPRA was configured more towards conventional warfare than ZANLA, and although occasional scares were felt, it is doubtful whether the threat would have materialized. ZIPRA was reported to be poised to launch such an attack in late 1979 when a series of SAS sabotage operations virtually obliterated the Zambian transport infrastructure. This would have left any mechanized columns stranded. Also Victoria Falls Bridge and Chirundu Bridge near Kariba were highly defendable, implying that an airborne assault would have been required to secure landing facilities, all of which beggars the imagination when considering the general capacity of the military force involved.

[vii] Vila Manica was then a small town, but it was quite heavily populated with township/shanty style habitations clustered for some distance beyond the perimeter on all of the main roads.

[viii] A full moon occurred on 9 August 1976

 [ix] The weapons used in the attack were as follows: 2 x 20mm Hispano Cannon; 10 x FN MAG 7.62mm  Medium Machine Guns, in 5 x twin mounted configuration; 4 x .30-calibre Browning Machine Guns; 1 x .50-calibre Browning; 1 x 12,7 captured Russian Machine Gun; 2 x 81mm Mortar; individual infantry assault rifles FN FAL 7.62.

[x] In fact, in common with most large guerrilla training and staging facilities, weapons were not widely issued other than to those whose specific duty it was to provide camp security. In this case these were mainly FRELIMO details. The reason for this was to keep weapons from filtering into the black market, and also to prevent any possibility of internal violence erupting.

[xi] Pole and dagga in essence wattle and daub, with walls constructed out of raw timber and mud and roofed with local thatch.

[xii] This number might seem excessive, and certainly it would not have been the case had most in the camp been able to swim, but this is not a skill widely associated at the time with Rhodesian blacks, and it can be assumed that most were unable to cope with water depths beyond what could be waded through.

[xiii] The final casualty figures for the raid remained speculative until November 1977 when documents captured during Operation Dingo against an insurgent base in Chimoyo netted captured documents that revealed 1028 killed, 309 wounded and in hospital and upwards of 1000 missing. The Selous Scouts suffered no fatalities, although five individuals were reported wounded, one seriously enough to be casevaced out by helicopter at a later point.

 [xiv] This was a distance of about 40kms

[xv] This strategy was successful, evidenced by the fact that most non military support in the form of hospitals, food and medicines, originated from regions of Europe and the United Nations, in contrast to military support which all originated in the Eastern Bloc

[xvi] There has also over succeeding years been both direct and casual admission on the part of senior ex-members of ZANLA that Nyadzonia was a military installation, and there is no longer any real doubt that is was.

 


[1] Interview with Winston Hart

[2] Wessels, Hannes. PK van de Byl, African Statesman. (30 Degrees South, Johannesburg, 2010) p155

[3] Flower, Ken. Serving Secretly. (John Murray, London. 1987) p150/151

[4] Interview with Winston Hart

[5] Quoted: Croukamp, Dennis. The Bush War in Rhodesia. (Paladin Press, Boulder Co. 2007) p332

[6] Daly, Ron. Pamwe Chete. (Covos Day, Johannesburg, 2001) p224

[7] Flower, Ken. Serving Secretly. (John Murray, London. 1987) p152

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