The Rhodesian SAS


    The Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) was a special forces unit active during the time of white minority-ruled Rhodesia. Basing themselves on the British Special Air Service, which they were originally part of, the service specialised in small unit tactics, raids and parachute operations. (Source) In addition, the unit would conduct various missions throughout the Rhodesian Bush War, resulting in many decorations and accolades.

    The SAS also pioneered the widespread use of helicopter assaults to travel across difficult terrain, resulting in a highly mobile force with the capability for expedited insertions and extractions. The Rhodesian SAS also carried out one of the most successful operations of the period in Operation Dingo, taking on 10,000 insurgents with around 200 men.

    1. History of the Rhodesian SAS

    Rhodesia during the Cold War was under white minority rule, with only around 250,000 citizens to draw from. In contrast, the multiple insurgency groups they faced could recruit from the four million-strong black Shona/Ndebele population. (Source) As a result, this forced the Rhodesians to adopt and utilise small unit tactics as a force multiplier. 

    The origins of the Rhodesian SAS lie in the Malayan Emergency (1951-1953) where Rhodesian volunteers would supplement British forces. Originally named the “Far East Volunteer Group” they eventually became C squadron of the British SAS and served with distinction. (Source

    Despite their population size compared to the British Empire, Rhodesia had always contributed large amounts of troops to British forces. With Malaya, it was no different. Many young Rhodesians who missed the Second World War flocked to serve, and the government had to limit applications to 1000 for the 100 spaces available. (Source) After returning home in 1953, the unit faced disbandment. However, their experiences would shape the future reiterations of it  

    The unit went through a transformation in 1959 when Rhodesia set up a parachute training school supplemented with help from British Royal Air Force (RAF) instructors. These troops formed C squadron SAS and the Rhodesian Light infantry (RLI) from where the SAS would draw most of its recruits. (Source) Furthermore, during this period, a few Rhodesian SAS members would train in the UK and pass British SAS selection, providing invaluable experience for the unit. (Source

    1.1 How Politics Shaped the Unit

    The breakup of the union and the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) heavily impacted the unit. This declaration represented the intensification of the Rhodesian Bush War.(Source) Moreover, the resulting transfer of power resulted in many members leaving the unit. (Source

    The UDI left Rhodesia ostracised on an international level, including heavy sanctions and arms embargoes, making waging a counterinsurgency campaign difficult. In contrast, the various African nationalist factions within the country enjoyed widespread support from the Soviet Union and China. (Source) These various groups were often harboured in neighbouring countries in training camps by the respective governments (especially Mozambique) making it difficult for the Rhodesians to strike back. (Source)

    One advantage the Rhodesian Forces possessed that the rebels did not was the air-mobile nature of their professional units. Units such as the Rhodesian SAS and RLI pioneered the use of helicopter assaults, which the US would later utilise in Vietnam. (Source)

    However, the Rhodesian SAS and the Selous Scouts (another Rhodesian special forces unit) served with distinction throughout the Rhodesian Bush War. They both carried out external operations throughout the course of the war. There were also various South African special forces members who served in the Rhodesian SAS as a cover during the conflict. (Source) The unit disbanded in December 1980, when the black majority rule was enacted and Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.

    Rhodesian SAS members

    2. Organisation of the Rhodesian SAS

    The Rhodesian SAS went through various name changes throughout its existence and totalled around 250 men. They include: (Source)

    • C Squadron, 22 Special Air Service Regiment (Malaya)
    • C Squadron (Rhodesian) Special Air Service (1962-1978)
    • 1 (Rhodesian) Special Air Service Regiment (1978-1980)

    The unit moved to a brand new barracks in 1979 in Kabrit and continued to serve from this location until their disbandment in 1980. (Source)

    Rhodesian SAS base in Kabrit
    Rhodesian SAS base in Kabrit

    2.1 Selection

    Training and selection for the Rhodesian SAS was notoriously tough and, for its first few years, it struggled to attract recruits. This was partly because of the incredibly high standards the Rhodesian SAS held and some animosity between them and the RLI (where they sourced most of their recruits). Furthermore, Rhodesia’s small white population made recruitment very difficult. (Source)

    Rhodesian SAS in Malaya
    Rhodesian SAS in Malaya

    2.2 Equipment

    Because of the Rhodesian SAS as a clandestine special forces unit, the specific armaments are not stated, but we can assume it was very similar to that used by the Rhodesian security forces. Furthermore, the equipment used by Rhodesia was an extremely eclectic mix because of embargoes and sanctions, forcing them to rely on what could be smuggled from South Africa or captured by the enemy. Utilised equipment includes: (Source)

    2.2.1 Pistols:

    • Browning High Power
    • Enfield Revolver
    • Star Pistol (spanish semi-automatic model)
    • Mamba (indigenously produced pistol)
    • Walther PP

    2.2.2 Sub Machine Guns:

    • American 180 (Issued to the SAS only, American submachine gun chambered in 22lr)
    • Austen (Australian derivative of the Sten)
    • Sanna 77 (Rhodesian made)
    • Owen Gun
    • Sten
    • Sterling (more modernised Sten)
    • Uzi (various models captured)

    2.2.3 Assault Rifles:

    • AK47 (Many models captured from rebels and used by Rhodesian special forces for clandestine operations)
    • AKM 
    • FN FAL (Primary service rifle of the Rhodesian Security Forces)
    • Heckler and Koch G3 (many received from Portugal)
    • M16A1 (small number received very late into the war)
    • Mini-14
    • SKS

    2.2.4 Sniper Rifles:

    • Lee Enfield (converted into a sniper system)
    • Dragunov (captured from rebels)

    2.2.5 Machine Guns:

    • FN MAG
    • RPD
    • RPK
    • PKM

    2.2.6 Shotguns:

    • Browning Auto 5
    • Ithaca 37

    2.2.7 Anti-Tank Weapons:

    • M 20 Super Bazooka
    • M72 LAW
    • RPG 2
    • RPG 7

    2.3 Vehicles:

    As the Rhodesian SAS was a special forces unit who equipped themselves for specific missions, they did not operate many of the vehicles employed by the Rhodesian Security forces. Rather, because of the Airborne nature of the unit, they preferred various helicopters and planes, such as: (Source)

    • French Alouette Helicopters (Frequently used by many branches for aerial insertions and as gun platforms)
    • Douglas C-47 Dakota 
    Rhodesian SAS Mortar team
    Rhodesian SAS Mortar team

    3. Notable Operations of the Rhodesian SAS

    While the Rhodesian SAS’ missions are not as well known as their counterparts, such as the Selous Scouts, they still played a large role in the counterinsurgency campaign. Most famous of all, with Operation Dingo. (Source)

    Rhodesian troops deploying from Alouette helicopter

    3.1 Operation Dingo

    Operation Dingo took place from 23 to 25  November 1977 and it arguably was the most successful operation carried out by the Rhodesian Security Forces. (Source

    During this operation, Rhodesian forces struck out at a Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) base in neighbouring Mozambique. Furthermore, SAS elements primarily planned and led the operation . 96 members of the Rhodesian SAS and, in addition, 88 RLI troops took part. 

    The Rhodesian Air Force carried out an airstrike on the centre of the camp during 

    ZANLA’s morning parade dropping 1200 bombs over 1km. Immediately after this, 10 Alouette gunships began strafing the camp with 20mm auto-cannon fire while they deployed the RLI troops on three sides of the camp and began to close in. (Source)  

    Although this effectively cut off escape for most ZANLA troops, many could still escape through the terrain, including most senior leadership

    Various Soviet advisors and equipment were present at the training camp. (Source) Furthermore, Robert Mugabe and other senior ZANLA leadership were expected to be there along with women (who the Rhodesians classified as combatants due to their participation in fighting). Indeed, many of the Rhodesian troops ran out of ammunition because of the target rich environment and had to keep resupplying off the enemy dead. (Source) The Rhodesian SAS troops stayed at the camp overnight in ambush positions attacking any ZANLA stragglers. Helicopters then extracted them in the morning.

    Operation Dingo was an unparalleled success for the Rhodesian Security Forces and, indeed, a historical one. Around 200 Rhodesians had taken on over 10,000 rebels and won. In addition, Rhodesian casualties were low, with one SAS trooper dying and one pilot, as his older Vampire model had no ejector seat, forcing him to crash land. 

    Moreover, the Rhodesians suffered around eight injuries. Furthermore, intercepted radio chatter confirmed the Rhodesians had inflicted over 3500 KIA upon ZANLA and approximately the same amount wounded in one day. (Source) The world was shocked and indeed this victory allegedly caused Mugabe to reassess the whole Zimbabwean struggle. (Source)

    4. Summary

    The Rhodesian SAS were extraordinarily effective at fighting insurgents during the Rhodesian Bush War. Despite being small in numbers, Rhodesian troops could inflict horrific casualties on the various insurgent groups, such as with Operation Dingo. By the end of the conflict, ‌the Rhodesian SAS was one of the most battle hardened and experienced insurgency fighters in the world.

    Aidan Hickey
    Aidan Hickey
    Aidan is a Third Year War Studies Student at King's College London with a keen interest in the Middle-East and Insurgency.

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