The Turning Point Strategy

This entry is part 20 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

1976 also witnessed important political developments that once again put a stranglehold on the various advocates of a total solution in order that a negotiation process neither invited nor wanted by any of the warring factions. This again was a peace process forced upon the protagonists by their sponsors, and this time involved to a large degree the United States in a world post-Vietnam, and vary cautious about international power play in a sphere increasingly dominated by Marxist or communist liberation groups. Most notably was the gathering interest and involvement of the Soviets and Cubans in Angola, threatening a valuable communist foothold in southern Africa, something that the South Africans feared and rejected as vigorously as the United States.

Onto the stage therefore stepped the Republican super-statesman Henry Kissinger, charged with the delicate task of bringing Rhodesia to heel to win friends in the region while at the same time lending a military and financial hand to South Africa, tasked with directly bringing about a rearrangement of fortune among the various Angolan liberation movements. While the effect of this on the broader African stage was neither positive nor successful, on Rhodesia the effect was an ultimatum delivered by the South Africans to Ian Smith to either deal or die, backed up by Henry Kissinger whose threat was more subtle but no less compelling. Deal with the blacks through me or deal with them through Jimmy Carter next year. Smith no doubt got the point, and a process was begun. It was a process, however, that included no black man other than Nyerere and Kaunda at the approval level, bit of whom agreed to a settlement with reservations without themselves bothering or daring to consult the Zimbabwean nationalist leadership. Needless to say the conference that followed, mooted for any African destination found to be agreeable to all, but held in Geneva when none could be found, was again agreed to and attended by the various nationalist groups with little if any enthusisaim. This lack of enthusiasm was shared by Britain, the host of the conference, and which was shown clearly by the humble appointment of Ivor Richard, Ambassador to the UN, as chairman, clear evidence that the Crown had given up and would waste little if any resource on a lost cause. Increasingly Britain had begun to adopt the attitude that so long as Ian Smith remained in power in Rhodesia no solution to the rebellion was possible. There matters tended to rest, and indeed the conference did eventually collapse, with all parties returning home for the festive season and not bothering to return.

In ZAPU meanwhile a different process was under, and one designed primarily to explore ways of limiting the impact of a ceasefire on the war effort. By then the landmine and ambush campaign had largely driven the Rhodesian Security Forces from their smaller bases along the Zambezi River and back to more defensive positions on higher ground along the Zambezi Escarpment. As a consequence it became much easier and safer for incoming ZIPRA forces to cross the Zambezi River and establish themselves in the populated areas without having to fight the entire way. Increasingly attacks were being aimed at economic targets, most particularly the swathe of commercial farms that utilise the excellent drainage and soils of the adjacent uplands. Isolated rural homesteads became under direct attack as white farmers were deemed legitimate targets and much of the economy and industry of the region began to grind to a halt.

White local government officials, military commanders and administrators would take issue with the suggestion that these were liberated areas, since they still fell ostensibly under central administration, but administrative personnel, white and black, entered these regions only under heavy armed protection and the army itself entered the region only for operations, retreating afterwards to defended garrisons and tarred roads. The guerrillas largely held sway, and from the relative safety of populated zones ZIPRA was able to penetrate deep into the Rhodesian rural hinterland, with the deployment during 1977/8 of some 2000 guerrillas over a rapidly extending operational area. By 1978 this extended from Sipolilo and Urungwe in the north, through Gokwe and Silobela in the centre of the country, to Lupane, Nkai and Tsholotsho in the west. ZIPRA had also by then crossed the psychologically important railway line connecting Bulawayo with Salisbury, opening a large front towards Shabani, Gwanda and Beitbridge By mid-1978 many of these areas were cautiously classified by ZAPU as semi-liberated zones, or more succinctly ‘areas where the Rhodesians had lost control’.[i] This obviously begged a revaluation and a sharp revision of strategy.

It was mainly this that the 1976 Consultative Conference of 1976 met to consider. The Conference had much established material on post-guerrilla, or positional warfare to consider. The concept of mobile warfare, as it was pioneered by Mao Zedong as a response to the ambivalence of having an army too large to hide but not large enough to engage in the defence of territory. This was rendered against the concept that: ‘The struggle was defined as revolutionary because it sought major social, political, and economic reordering of society.’[ii] Military defeat of the type that overtook the incursions of the 1960s was typically avoided through avoiding battle on unfavourable terms alongside the generation of a mass support base. As Mao put it himself it was a case of first the mountains, then the countryside and then the cities. The Revolutionary Council of ZAPU examined more closely the model of Vietnamese People’s Army Commander in Chief Võ Nguyên Giáp who postulated a similar three stage strategy. The first was a period of gestation during which the outnumbered and outgunned  guerrilla forces developed their rural bases from where the process of mass political mobilisation was begun. The second stage was reached when the logistical and intelligence networks established by the guerrillas began to challenge those of the enemy, after which a brief period of power symmetry would be reached. From this the guerrilla forces would be poised to move on to stage three which would see the deployment of large scale Mobile Warfare campaigns leading eventually, it could be assumed, to a final offensive.[iii]

According to Dumiso Dabengwa the situation towards the end of 1978 was such that a sufficiently large number of combat personnel were within the operation areas that the danger of confusion and overexposure existed, and without a definitive follow on strategy to launch ZIPRA into the third, and at that stage ill defined phase of the struggle the armed forces simply ran the risk of easy identification and annihilation by the enemy. This was particularly so since the introduction by the Rhodesian Security Forces of the deadly Fireforce tactic which was in essence the permanent standby of mobile attack forces at various points in the country, assisted by paratroopers and helicopters to rapidly response to the isolation of large numbers of guerrillas by either regular military patrols or the activities of the Selous Scouts. This allowed the Rhodesian Government to shift its own tactics from complete control of the countryside to ‘area defence’ without loosing de facto military control of the countryside.

It had now become essential for ZIPRA to completely liberate those areas that the government had lost control of in a manner that would allow ZIPRA to occupy and control territory in a conventional sense. The only way that this could be achieved was by the deployment of conventional forces with the capacity to hold territory in order to occupy and defend liberated areas. This was intended to be the precursor of Mobile Warfare, itself the precursor to the final offensive. Consequently a series of orders were prepared by the war council as part of an April 1979 public declaration of the Turning Point Strategy and issued to ZIPRA requiring all forces within Rhodesia to: openly engage and clear all enemy personnel for controlled areas, protect all citizens within liberated areas whatever their affiliation and to organise and defend the masses. Having achieved this it was then ordered that administrative units be organised, including alternative agricultural, educational and health services, with a view to establishing and consolidating the liberated areas.

In the meanwhile many of the forces within Rhodesia were reorganised into brigade and company strength detachments under a more centralised command with a few to being better equipped to attack and overrun defended garrisons into which the bulk of Rhodesian forces had by then retreated. Advance preparations were also actively in place to receive anticipated regular and conventionally armed battalions mooted to be deployed from Zambia. All of this was in preparation for a goal of final military victory, the plan for which had been on the table for some times, since the 1976 Consultative Conference in fact, and was codename Zero Hour.

The facts of the Zero Hour plan were very simple and in some ways quite obvious, and involved the launch of a comprehensive, co-ordinated conventional offensive on several fronts simultaneously. Five conventional battalions with artillery support were to effect a crossing of the Zambezi and secure if possible the main bridgeheads at Chirundu, Kariba and Victoria Falls, securing also the main airfield at Victoria Falls, Wankie and Kariba into which would be airlifted more men and equipment while heavy armour and equipment would follow the initial invasion force. Air cover would be provided by ZIPRA’s air force of MIGs, then based in Angola, which would then presumably then have access to secure air bases within Rhodesia. The objective was obviously to seize and hold strategic rear bases in order to mount a campaign for territory deeper into Rhodesia culminating in the capture of the capital and seizure of political power.

A further aspect of the plan was the anticipated local risings that would occur as a consequence of exhaustive preparations made in the months and years preceding to activate, arm and as much as possible to train the general population to support guerrilla units within the country would obviously be activated along semi-conventional lines to support the invasion.

Much of the train, equipment and general wherewithal to achieve this had been supplied by ZIPRA’s soviet backers. This, somewhat like the controversial alliance between ZAPU and MK in the late 1960s, is an area of controversy that is, in keeping with much of the history of the period, rich with political interpretation. That the Soviet Union was involved in the training and supply of ZIPRA’s conventional capacity is not broadly in dispute, but conventional wisdom has tended to portray the entire strategy as being a Soviet brainchild the supplanted any internal strategic planning on the part of the War Council itself. To whatever degree this might have been true, it was seized upon by the Rhodesian CIO in and effort to underscore its ongoing efforts, dating back to the maiden speech as Rhodesian Prime Minister by Ian Smith, to portray the Liberation Struggle as more a fact of Soviet expansionism and less one of a discontented and un-enfranchised majority rising up against an oppressive and elitist governing minority. It has also been widely assumed that the principal objective of raising a conventional force in support of an existing and active guerrilla army was to meet the expected challenge of an inter-black civil war between ZANU and ZAPU once the question of white minority rule had been dealt with.

Of the few written sources relevant to ZIPRA’s war record has been ex-NSO Commander and post-independence Zimbabwean politician Dumiso Dabengwa, quoted by Jeremy Brickhill is his treatise on ZAPU military tactics post 1976:

The Turning Point was purely a ZAPU plan. It originated from ZAPU and was approved by the ZAPU Revolutionary Council. When it came to its application, it was at that stage that we requested assistance. Soviet advisors came in and we unveiled the plan for them, and showed them how we intended to go about it. All they could do was give their advice where they thought we might have difficulties.[iv]

The lady doth protest too much, methinks? Perhaps. Either way it was once again politics that interfered with the process of war, and the Zero Hour was never struck.. August 1979 saw the convening in London of the Lancaster House Conference, an all party conference held between Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe as the two principal constituent partners of the Patriotic Front, Bishop Abel Muzorewa as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia and the British Government represented by Foreign Secretary Lord Peter Carrington in the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher.

Lancaster House was once again a case of all parties been pushed towards the negotiating table with no will to achieve a settlement. The Rhodesian Government, by then exhausted by 15 years of escalating war under conditions of economic sanctions, was cognisant of its inability to win the war, but was determined that it would be fought to the last to wring from any negotiating the maximum that it was able. Its strategy since it had largely abandoned the countryside to the guerrillas had been to protect its vital organs of transport and supply and in the meanwhile pummel its neighbours to the north and east in an effort to stifle guerrilla activity at its source, but perhaps more importantly to illustrate to hostile government determined to sponsor guerrilla activity on their soil that the cost of doing this would be very high indeed.

It was the ZANLA emplacements in Mozambique that were consistently targeted, with a number of large scale and infamously bloody attacks launched, most recently the highly successful attack, codenamed Operation Uric, against the Mozambique transport infrastructure along the Limpopo Valley that, although inconclusive in terms of an outright military victory, caused immense damage to the economic infrastructure of the country. Similarly unrelenting attacks were launched against Zambia right up to and during the Lancaster House Conference. A series of dramatic SAS penetrations into that country echoed Operation Uric in another codenamed Operation Dice. Dice completely crippled Zambia’s transport network by destroying a series of  bridges on the roads from Lusaka to Livingstone, Chirundu and Tanzania. Operations Cheese and Tepid destroyed bridges to the north of Lusaka that effectively severed Zambia’s rail and road links with Tanzania.

Rhodesian intelligence had been given prior warning of the conventional build-up through the capture in Botswana of high profile ZIPRA intelligence officer Elliot Sibanda, codenamed Black Swine, who revealed to incredulous Special Branch officials the degree to which ZAPU had prepared itself for a conventional assault. Much of the damage done to the Zambian transport infrastructure may have been to treat the Zambian Government to a salutary lesson, but it also served to sever vital transport links that would have facilitated the movement of large numbers of conventionally trained men and their equipment to the border and beyond. Operation Tepid, one of few large battles fought during the war, pitted a somewhat over confident Rhodesian force comprising the much celebrated partnership of the Special Air Services and commandoes of the Rhodesia Light Infantry, with solid air support from jets of the Rhodesia Air Force, against an unexpectedly resolute ZIPRA force. The definitive account of the battle is that of SAS biographer Barbara Cole who interrupted a long litany of Rhodesian special forces successes to admit soberly that this particular battle had been a sharp exception. ‘The enemy had undoubtedly won that round.’ She wrote. ‘’It was the first time in Zambia that (ZIPRA) terrorists were determined to hold their position against an equally determined attack. They were well disciplined, knew how to use their weapons and were fairly happy about their defences.’[v] That night the Rhodesians positions where subject to an extremely heavy artillery bombardment before the ZIPRA force effected a reasonably orderly retreat. ‘The mission had been bad news for the Rhodesians.’ Barbara Cole conceded. ‘’They had grossly underestimated the enemy and had the living daylights shot out of them. They had been outgunned and outranged and had been unable to take the position.’[vi]

While Operation Tepid may have given ZIPRA the kind of physiological boot it would need as preparation for a conventional assault against these very troop went ahead, and while the operation itself could not have been deemed a victory, if not strictly defeat, it reinforced the point that it had intended to make to the Zambian Government, as ongoing attacks against ZANLA positions in Mozambique made to that Government, that an unacceptable cost was being accrued by the Frontline States in their support of the Rhodesia War. The intransigence of the Patriotic Front in London was marked by an equal determination on the part of Kenneth Kaunda and Samora Machel that the unrelenting destruction wrought on the national infrastructure of both countries needed to be brought to an end. A churlish Robert Mugabe, arguably the senior partner of the Patriotic Front, and the man most feared by white Rhodesia, was forced into an agreement he did not support, and on 21 December the historic Lancaster House Agreement was signed that brought an end to the Liberation Struggle and opened a new chapter in the difficult and violent history of the amaNdebele nation.


[i] Jeremy Brickhill: Daring to Storm the Heavens: The Military Strategy of ZAPU 1976-1979. Contributor: Bhebe, Ngwabi. Ranger, Terence. Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War. (UZ, Harare. Heinemann, Portsmouth N.H., James Curry, London) p52

[ii] Hennessy, Michael A. Strategy in Vietnam: The Marines and Revolutionary Warfare in I Corps, 1965-1972. ( Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT.,1997), p50.

[iii] Hennessy, Michael A. Strategy in Vietnam: The Marines and Revolutionary Warfare in I Corps, 1965-1972. ( Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT.,1997), p51

[iv] Jeremy Brickhill: Daring to Storm the Heavens: The Military Strategy of ZAPU 1976-1979. Contributor: Bhebe, Ngwabi. Ranger, Terence. Soldiers in Zimbabwe’s Liberation War. (UZ, Harare. Heinemann, Portsmouth N.H., James Curry, London) p60

[v] Cole, Barbara, The Elite: The Story of the Rhodesian Special Air Services. (The Knights, Amanzimtoti, 1985) p391

[vi] Cole, Barbara, The Elite: The Story of the Rhodesian Special Air Services. (The Knights, Amanzimtoti, 1985 p393

Series Navigation