Selous Scouts – Counterinsurgency Special Forces in Africa
A small team of black and white Rhodesian security forces surprises an insurgent in the African bush along the Ruya River. He surrenders and under interrogation is given a macabre choice. They can turn him over to the police for trial—he probably faces hanging if convicted—or he can switch sides. The guerilla chooses to live. The team gives him back his rifle, but the insurgent does not know they have removed the firing pin.
That small unit was the forerunner of the Selous Scouts, one of the most feared and effective counterinsurgency groups in Africa.
Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) declared unilateral independence from Britain in 1965. In the southern African nation less than 300,000 whites controlled a country with seven million blacks. The world was not on Rhodesia’s side, and she faced two tribal-based black liberation movements that wanted an end to white rule of Rhodesia. The Shona tribe created the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led ultimately by Robert Mugabe. Joshua Nkomo led the Matabele (Ndebele) tribe’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) Both received support from a number of communist countries.
Innovation is the son of failure. The Rhodesian security forces faced an intelligence crisis in late 1972. The insurgents initially fought the Rhodesian Army conventionally and lost badly, so they changed strategy and targeted the hearts and minds of Rhodesia’s black populace. The un-persuaded were coerced through beatings, indiscriminate killings, and rape. Insurgents then established bases in these areas.
It succeeded. Information and tips on insurgents once provided to the police dried up. Indeed, a prime indicator that guerillas had taken over an area was the lack of intelligence from it. In response, the Special Branch of the Rhodesian Police and the Army formed pseudo teams of men who would turn insurgents by posing as real insurgents, complete with uniforms and weapons. Although against the Geneva Convention, Great Britain used the tactic previously in Malaya (now Malaysia) and Kenya.
After experiments in the 1960s, Special Branch and the Army each established their first teams in early 1973 and gathered some intelligence. In August, a deployed army pseudo team accosted a villager who mentioned that “other” insurgents had camped nearby. He agreed to arrange a meeting. The real fighters remained unsuspicious as the concept of pseudo teams was unknown. The team killed three of them and captured another the next day. The tactic of “meet and kill” was straight out of the Malaya/Kenya playbook, but meet and kill did not solve the problem of lack of actionable intelligence.
The new tactics of the guerillas were succeeding. Farms were being attacked and roads were being mined on a regular basis. Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith ordered the immediate formation of a pseudo regiment in 1973, so Special Branch and the Army combined their talents. On the Army side, then-Major Ron Reid-Daly headed the unit. Special Branch provided officers who supplied intelligence and served as the liaison between the Army side and other agencies.
A top-secret unit, the Selous Scouts numbered about 120 initially and operated under the cover of a tracking unit. The name Selous comes from the name of the famous British hunter and explorer of Africa, Frederick Courteney Selous (1851–1917). Reid-Daly ordered the white command element to lead by example. Black soldiers also proved vital to the unit’s success. Deployed white soldiers wore floppy hats, grew beards and painted themselves black, but often remained out of sight in a team’s camp. Their color made it impossible for them to engage the population or infiltrate insurgents’ camps. But black soldiers could and did, talking to local villagers and insurgents directly, pulling off the ruse. The Scouts grew to about 1,500 at their peak and included several hundred turned insurgents.
Since ZANU was the larger threat, the initial bulk of the black Selous Scouts came from the Shona tribe. Over time Reid-Daly recruited members of the Matabele tribe for operating against ZAPU in their tribal areas.
A very tough selection course faced aspiring Scouts. Reid-Daly did not want loners, but those who worked well in a small team environment. He needed men who could operate closely with those of other races. The training created the stresses that weeded out those who could not. Trainees ate rancid bush meat and drilled in marksmanship. They carried 70-pound packs for 90 miles. Only 15 percent passed.
Special Branch officers thoroughly briefed the teams before they deployed. The officers relied upon interrogations of captured insurgents and documents. The insurgents had very little in the way of radio communications initially and relied upon detailed notebooks and diaries, making capture of such items a high priority.
Scouts dressed in captured uniforms, patching any bullet holes in them. Teams moved out around dusk. A group might be as large as 20 or 30 men. Rhodesia suffered from a shortage of helicopters so a team might deploy via parachute drop, or a truck might slow down without stopping while the team jumping off. The team then went to high ground. Using binoculars or a telescope they scanned the countryside.
The Scouts changed a procedure after an incident early in the war in which a pseudo team was accidentally killed by Rhodesian soldiers who took them for real insurgents. Operational areas were divided up into a number of zones. Before the Scouts deployed a team they notified the Army that the area was “frozen.” Army units were to get out of the field in such in frozen areas and stick to the roads. The Army did not know why an area was frozen and resented the designation. Secrecy prevented notifying the police or white farmers, both of whom were on the lookout for insurgents and would shoot them on sight. Deployments to white farming areas were always met with trepidation as a result.
Tactics changed from meet and kill. From their high perch and black soldier contacts, the Scouts gathered actionable intelligence, passing along information on current insurgent locations. If the Scouts found a large, static concentration of guerillas, they then “talked in” an airborne company-sized “fireforce” onto the insurgents’ position or directed airstrikes.
A fireforce consisted of some troops in helicopters. “G-cars” (Alouette III) transported up to 4 troops. A Dakota (DC-3) carried additional troops who parachuted into the area. A “K-car” (Alouette III with 20 mm cannons) provided helicopter gunship support for the force.
The Scouts communicated by radio with the fireforce commander circling overhead in a helicopter. Smoke grenades provided a reference point for all parties. The fireforce was critical. It was useless to find guerillas if the force could not close in for the kill. The Scouts preferred the fireforce of the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry.
They Scouts received cash bounties for each insurgent killed or captured as a result of their actions. After an operation, teams typically withdrew from the area for a while. As practiced in Malaya, Reid-Daly thought such successes should be followed up by PSYOPS with the locals. This did not occur until late in the war as Rhodesia did not establish a PSYOP unit until 1977.
The Scouts treated captured insurgents differently. Instead of a lengthy debriefing, there was an offer to switch sides with the pitch often coming from another former insurgent. Inducements included priority medical attention, payment for service and the removal of the insurgent’s family from his village to a safe area if possible. New captures supplied the up-to-date intelligence vital to the Scouts’ success.
Various ruses were used by the Scouts to turn the insurgents’ early attempts to expose them by asking them to establish their bona fides in various ways. It might be a new password or wearing clothing a certain way. The guerillas became more cautious as news of the Scouts spread, but new captures always kept the Scouts one step ahead of them.
The South African Army learned of the Scouts’ success, but did not know the reason why. They were determined to find out. A deal was struck: the Scouts shared their secret of using pseudo teams in exchange for a large amount of Eastern Bloc weaponry the South Africans had captured. The Rhodesians also gained use of the South African parachute school at a time of great need.
The Scouts expanded their scope over time. Small teams started what the Rhodesians called external operations in neighboring countries such as Botswana. These teams used a variety of tricks and disguises to capture guerilla officials and bring them back to Rhodesia for interrogation.
Scouts operated inside Zambia for almost the entire war. Sometimes they posed as insurgents; at other times they posed as the Zambian Army. They conducted reconnaissance and small ambushes. A Scout spy ring based in the Zambian capital of Lusaka provided intelligence on ZAPU safe houses and offices subsequently bombed by the Rhodesian Air Force or raided by the Army.
The war became harder for Rhodesia in 1975 with the independence of Mozambique from Portuguese rule. Portugal had been friendly to Rhodesia, and the Portuguese Army made it tough on guerillas operating there. The new communist FRELIMO government of Mozambique was just the opposite, providing sanctuary for guerillas and giving the Rhodesian army another unfriendly border to guard.
The next expansion consisted of “flying columns.” It grew out of the new strategic reality that FRELIMO now controlled Mozambique. Rhodesian force would have to focus on killing the enemy in the most effective means possible and not by holding territory.
A reconnaissance troop, which never had more than 12 men, was created to support the flying columns. They deployed in just two-man teams as far as 125 miles deep into Mozambique for up to three weeks at a time. At their deepest ranges, they could not deploy via helicopter but parachuted freefall at 18,000 feet from a Dakota.
The flying columns had a number of objectives: 1) kill guerillas; 2) destroy their camps; 3) interdict their movements by the destruction of infrastructure used to transport them in and across Mozambique. So the Scouts moved from observing to fighting. The pseudo concept grew to include vehicles, too. They created a small convoy that looked like FRELIMO vehicles right down to the license plates.
Flying columns completed their mission quickly and left. Operation Eland was their greatest success. Selous Scouts in their pseudo FRELIMO vehicles drove right into a large insurgent camp named Nyadzonyal/Pungwe. Excited insurgents massed around the vehicles and the Rhodesians opened fire. The result was over 1,000 insurgents killed, 1,000 missing, and over 300 wounded. This was in a war where guerillas were typically killed just a few at a time in small contacts.
The raids were initially effective and caused disruptions to the insurgents, but over time the insurgents reduced the effectiveness of the incursions. They dispersed their guerillas over a wide area ,with some camps becoming quite large. They also fortified the camps and the positions in them with heavy weapons, bunkers, and trenches.
Scout interdiction efforts destroyed the trucks transporting insurgents across Mozambique to the front. They also mined roads and destroyed a number of bridges. When FRELIMO started transporting insurgents by railroad, Scouts destroyed rails, locomotives, and rolling stock. The insurgents then had to carry themselves and supplies over long distances to reach Rhodesia.
Reid-Daly resigned his commission in August 1979 after discovering that his telephone had been bugged by the Army. He had long suspected that there was a mole attending his briefings and had reacted by putting out a minimum of information.
The war was over just a few months later, in December when a cease-fire was declared. Rhodesia was losing on all fronts, especially the political one. South Africa offered the Scouts refuge and even set up a barracks for them, but the country of apartheid got few takers, particularly among the black Scouts.
The Scouts lost just 30 men during the entire war. Sixty-eight percent of the guerillas killed in operational areas during the fight were directly or indirectly attributed to the Scouts. It was an outstanding effort, in a losing cause.
About the Author
Hans Johnson is a freelance writer living in Southwest Florida.