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Africa showing Rhodesian location Rhodesia - Operation Agila
The British Empire's Last Sunset
Mike 'Subs' Subritzky
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In 1923, the white settlers of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) held a referendum and opted for Home Rule rather than a union with South Africa. The Rhodesian settlers at the time were highly patriotic and loyal to both the King and Empire, many Rhodesian men having recently returned from the carnage of the First World War. Over 6000 white Rhodesian's saw active service on behalf of the Empire during that great conflict, and this figure represented over two thirds of the white male population aged between 15 and 45. Of this figure 732 were killed in action.

Just 20 years later, during the Second World War, some 11,000 European Rhodesians saw active service, including 1,500 women and of these figures, 1 in 10 were either killed in action or died on active service. Rhodesia supplied more troops per head of population than any other country in the British Empire and understandably felt that they had paid for their own country (Rhodesia) in blood and sorrow, on behalf of the Mother Country. However in 1947, India gained her independence and from then on it was simply a question of time as to when each and every British Colony sought self determination. 1953 saw the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and this was to last some ten years and upon its demise it looked very much to the white Rhodesians as if Britain was intent on handing the country directly over to black majority rule, without any safeguards for the white minority.

UDI - Unilateral Declaration of Independence:

In October 1965, Rhodesia's white Prime Minister, Ian Smith held talks with Harold Wilson and when these broke down, the white Rhodesian government proclaimed Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence on the 11 November 1965. Almost immediately the Rhodesia war began in between black communist terrorists seeking a black ruled homeland, and the Security Forces of the Rhodesian govenment.

Rhodesia was a 'heart shaped' country located just above South Africa, and it is basically divided into three distinct cultures. The bottom third of the heart was Matabeleland and inhabited by the descendants of the Zulu warriors of Matabele King, Loengula; while the top third of the heart was occupied by the descendants of their traditional enemies; the Mashona. Their third of Rhodesia was know as Mashonaland. In the centre of the heart, between Salisbury and Bulawayo lived the descendants of the original white settlers. All three cultures were actually immigrants to the region, and all three arrived in Rhodesia at about the same period in history, roughly the mid 1800's. The actual inhabitants of Rhodesia being small bands of hunter-gatherer "Bushmen". The Matabele and Mashona had been enemies since the dawn of time, the Matabele nickname for the Mashona being "dirt eaters" from the Matabele practice of standing on the heads of defeated enemies.

The Rhodesian War:

From the moment UDI was declared Britain enforced sanctions on the Rhodesian government, and this slowly but surely tightened the noose around the everyday inferstructure of Rhodesian society. The only real friend Rhodesia possessed during the war was South Africa, who continued to trade and assist with exports and also war materials. The terrorists on the other hand, were split into two main factions and these were based on the tribal loyalties of old. The Matabele were under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo, and they sought weapons, training and assistance from Cuba, East Germany and Russia; while the Mashona who were led by Robert Mugabe and were trained in North Korea and China. Throughout the war, Rhodesian farmers grew enough corn, tobacco and cattle to not only feed their own population, but to also export it to their near and starving neighbours in Botswana, Zambia and Mosambique; and who, in return gave succor and comfort to the guerillas.

The war dragged on for some 14 years from 1965 until 1979, being largely overshadowed by the television driven Vietnam conflict. The Rhodesian war was virtually ignored, until the guerillas committed atrocities on various Missionary stations. The war was both bloody and brutal and brought out the very worst in the opposing combatants on all three sides:

  • RSF (Rhodesian Security Forces - Smith's Army)
  • ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army - Nkomo's Army)
  • ZANLA (Zimbabwe National Liberation Army - Mugabe's Army)

Lancaster House Talks:

During the war there had been many attempts by Smith, Nkomo, Mugabe and Britain to broker an honourable peace deal guaranteeing the rights of the white Rhodesian minority. These meetings were often held aboard war ships and sometimes even trains parked in the middle of high bridges, but all were to no avail until the Lancaster House talks in mid-1979. In April 1979 an election was held in Rhodesia in which 63 percent of the black population voted, and on the 1 June 1979, Bishop Able Muzorewa was sworn in as the first black Prime Minister of Rhodesia. Meanwhile at Lancaster House the Peace talks continued in a rather 'on again - off again' fashion. This state of affairs continued until October and then as the light began to appear at the end of the tunnel, Britain sent out feelers to various Commonwealth nations that troops might be needed for a special operation.

In New Zealand, selection and training began immediately and a force of 75 officers and men were selected and moved to Papakura Camp for specialist training. Other countries did similar training. None of the soldiers were formally told where they might be headed but initially the 75 strong contingent was called 'R Force', similar to 'K Force' (Korea), and 'V Force' (Vietnam). They were also instructed to listen to BBC world news at 0700 each morning so the possibility of a Tour of Duty to Rhodesia was an open secret. Originally, both Mugabe and Nkomo did not want any New Zealanders in the Peacekeeping Force as they were thought to be American puppets. However, when it was pointed out that one man in every four in the New Zealand contingent was 'coloured' (Maori), the New Zealander's became very acceptable.

Operation Agila:

On the 5 November 1979, the British Ministry of Defence named Major General John Acland (later Sir John), as the Commander Monitoring Force (CMF). The Headquarters of the Monitoring Force (MF) was based on HQ 8 Field Force from tidworth with the GOG South West District (General Acland), holding the following three appointments:

  1. Commander of the Monitoring Force (CMF)
  2. Military Advisor to the Governor of Rhodesia
  3. Chairman of the Ceasefire Commission.

Brigadier John Learmont was appointed as Deputy Commander (DCMF), and Brigadier Adam Gurdon was appointed Chief of Staff. The Operation was named "Operation Agila", and the Monitoring Force operational patch was a red, white and blue diamond with a golden sunburst in the centre and a Pangolan (small anteater), with claws extended centred in the sun. This was to be worn on a white brassard. It was also decided that the uniform that was to be worn by all members of the MF was to be 'Jungle Green' fatigues, and that berets would only be worn in camp and 'Jungle Hats' would be worn by all members of the MF serving in the operational areas. This would serve to distinguish them from the Rhodesian Army who wore a very distinctive pattern of camouflage.

Rhodesian Reconnaissance:

Due to the war, there was virtually no 'good', up to date information or maps available on Rhodesia, and much of the intitial planning was a series of lectures by ex school teachers and missionaries who had served "out there", and usually before the war. On the 22 November 1979, the British Chief of Staff, Chief Signals Officer, Air Advisor and several other key personel flew to Rhodesia and carried out a detailed recce of Rhodesia, including the thoughts and feelings of both the white's and the black's in regards to how a Commonwealth Force would be received should one arrive in-country. This recce group travelled the length and breadth of Rhodesia and gathered much vital information on how the war was being conducted by all three sides and where the various bases and camps were located. One concern that was taken note of the the liberal use by the guerillas of land mines, it was recommended at this early stage that all Landrovers used by the Monitoring Force would need to be mine proofed and most of this work was done by REME personel at Colchester.

On 8 December 1979, a nine man British advance party was deployed to Rhodesia and began establishing a logistics base in preparation for the Commonwealth Monitoring Force main body, which would include some 1,500 Peacekeepers, including 150 Australians, 22 Fijians, 50 Kenyans, and 75 New Zealanders. As well, Britain provided 800 soldiers, some 300 Royal Air Force personel and a small number of Royal Navy and Royal Marines. The Royal Navy contribution being mainly Doctors.

Main Body Arrival:

On the 12 December 1979, Major General Acland and Brigadier Learmont arrived in Salisbury with a small staff and began meeting Rhodesians at all levels at the Operational Headquarters of the RSF. This provided the much needed information on the size and strength of the various teams of Peacekeepers that would be inserted into the various operational areas throughout Rhodesia. The Rhodesians were very much of the opinion that it would become a bloodbath and the cost in Peacekeepers lives would be high. An air of grave concern and tension hung over all aspects of the initial phases of in-country planning and preparation. As well the man destined to be the last British Governor of Rhodesia, Lord Christopher Soames travelled to Salisbury, later describing his dangerous venture as "a leap in the dark".

Meanwhile at Lancaster House the talks continued to drag on through December, and this delay was actually advantageous to General Acland and his staff providing them with valuable time to select the various "Assembly Areas" and "R/V's" that would soon dot the country. See location map of assembly places. It also allowed HQ UKLF time for the packing of stores and equiptment and the marking of vehicles and aircraft to be used during Operation Agila.

On the 20th December 1979, the New Zealand contingent which was the most distant from Rhodesia flew out from RNZAF Base Whenuapai and over the next several days the various nations began to arrive at Salisbury Airport (between the 22nd and 24th of December). Upon arrival each plane load of troops was processed through a reception tent, given an initial briefing and issued with anti-malaria tablets (Maloprim) which were known locally as the "Tuesday Pill". The entire nation was reminded on both radio and television to take their pill each Tuesday. Troops were also given the opportunity to exchange money and were given the location of their billets. The Rhodesian Army built a tented transit camp which accommodated the majority of the troops with the exception of the Fijians, Kenyans and New Zealanders who were accommodated at Morgan High School. Morgan High School was to become the main Headquarters of the Monitoring Force. During this phase of the operation which covered a five day period, more than 60 aircraft sorties landed at Salisbury Airport off-loading more than 1,500 men and a veritable mountain of stores and equipment.

Preparation and Planning:

The next several days were packed with detailed briefings, O Groups, and the issuing of stores, ammunition and equipment. As well, due to the height of Rhodesia above sea level, every soldier was required to attend a range shoot and re-zero his personal weapon. The altitude most definitely did make a difference to sight settings. Amongst all ranks of the Monitoring Force from the Commander down there was a very real air of trepidation in regards to the daunting task that lay ahead. At this time the CMF, General Acland went out of his way to personally meet and make himself known to every single member of the Monitoring Force during his initial briefing which was usually held at the RLI Barracks at Cranborne. The briefings included:

  1. The CMF's lecture on the responsibility of of the Monitoring Force.
  2. An overview on the background of the war and the politics involved.
  3. The background to the operational situation.
  4. The CMF's concept of how the operation was to be conducted.
  5. The allocation of troops to task.
  6. The in-theatre deployment plan.
  7. The Rules of Engagement.
  8. Communications, this included a crash course on CLANSMAN.
  9. The Logistic Plan.
  10. A medical briefing, including health and hygiene.
  11. An in-country wild-life briefing.

The Ceasefire Monitoring Force "ORBAT":

The Ceasefire Monitoring Force was made up of about 1,500 soldiers from Australia, Britain, Fiji, Kenya and New Zealand, and command and control was maintained at three in-country Headquarters:

  1. The Main HQ was located at Morgan High School.
  2. A small HQ and staff located at Government House.
  3. An Airhead HQ located at New Sarum Airfield.

Main HQ: was responsible for all detailed planning, preparation, forward deployment, redeployment, day to day running of the operation. Located at the Main HQ was DCMF, all National Contingent Commanders, the operations room, air tasking cell, communications centre, and the A and Q staff.

Government House HQ: The CMF, Chief of Staff and four Staff Officers operated out of Government House and were responsible for liaison with HQ Combined Operations (Rhodesian Security Forces), the HQ Patriotic Front (communists), the conduct of the Ceasefire Commission, and briefing the Governor on military matters.

The Airhead HQ: was responsible for all air tasking matters to and from all Monitoring Force teams in the operational areas.

The Operational Areas during the Rhodesian War were:

A. Operation Ranger - North West Border.
B. Operation Thrasher - Eastern Border.
C. Operation Hurricane - North East Border.
D. Operation Repulse - South East Border.
E. Operation Grapple - Midlands.
F. Operation Splinter - Kariba.
G. Operation Tangent - Matabeleland.
H. "SALOPS" - Salisbury & District.

The Peacekeeping Forces on the ground, were broken down as follows:

Patriotic Front (communist) Teams -

Operational Area MF HQ = 1 x Lieutenant Colonel and 10 men.
Assembly Places* = 1 x Major/Captain and 16 men. (+ 1 x GPMG).
Rendevous Teams** = 1 x Captain/Lieutenant and 9 men. (+ 1 x GPMG).
* There were 16 Assembly Places (AP November and AP Quebec later closed).
** There were 39 RV's during the Ceasefire period.

Rhodesian Security Force Monitoring Teams -

Joint Operation Command (JOC) HQ = 1 x Lieutenant Colonel and 10 men.
Sub JOC Teams (Battalion HQ's) = 1 x Captain/Lieutenant and 4 men.
Company Based Teams = 1 x Lieutenant/Warrant Officer and 1 man.
Border Liaison Teams = 1 Major and 4 men.

The five phases of Operation Agila:

  1. Forward deployment into the operational areas.
  2. A seven day ceasefire/assembly phase.
  3. Redeployment of RV Teams.
  4. Election period.
  5. Withdrawl phase.

1. Forward Deployment:

The decision to deploy the Monitoring Force was made on the 24 December 1979, and the forward deployment took place over the next three days with the Ceasefire coming into effect at 2359 + 1, on the 28th of December. This was an extrememly tense time as no one knew how the communist guerillas in the operational areas might act. Perhaps fortunately for the Monitoring Force, the world at large was starved for News coverage and a great many reporters were in Rhodesia. They were spread widely throughout the country, and their efforts tended to keep everyone honest. During the forward deploment phase the weather was atrocious and RAF aircrew flew missions that would never have been authorised under normal circumstances. There were a number of contacts during this phase of the operation, including: A Rhodesian Escort AFV (Crocodile) was destroyed by a mine near Bulawayo, an RAF Puma helicopter crashed killing the 3 man aircrew, a Hercules aircraft was shot up by small arms fire near Umtali, and an RV Team was ambushed in the Zambezi Valley but escaped without casualities.

2. The Assembly Phase:

The Assembly Phase was a seven day period when all of the communist units and cells spread throughout Rhodesia, and in several of the neighbouring countries were guaranteed unhindered movement into RV's and Assembly Places. Once in the Assembly Place, all communists, both Regular Force and Guerillas were required to register their name, weapon and that weapon's serial number. Both the ZIPRA and ZANLA had played down the size of their forces and over that seven day period more than 22,000 communist soldiers marched into the 16 Assembly Places. The sheer size of the various ZIPRA and ZANLA units created something of a logistics nightmare and to avoid 'under issues', if any communist unit required some special item (eg sanitary pads, female underwear), then a drop was immediately arranged to all of the Assembly Places, sometimes causing much hilarity to the troops on the ground. (ZANLA had quite a sizeable force of female guerillas). The communits were to arrive at the Assembly Places carrying all of their own equipment, however for the most part, most of them carried little more than an AK47, a couple of magazines and the clothes they stood in. Many wore no boots. Food and meat shortages caused major problems on a number of occassions and almost resulted in the deaths of a number of Peacekeepers who were taken hostage. It had been understood that the communists lived on "Sudza" (corn mealie meal), and initially no meat was provided for them. This was quickly rectified, by the CMF importing several planeloads of South African beef.

Once in the Assembly Places, the communists troops became very lax and always carried their personal weapon "locked, cocked and ready to rock"; that is several magazines taped together on the weapon, the weapon cocked with a round in the tube, safety catch 'off', and sights set to maximum range. This resulted in a plague of UD's (unauthorised discharges) and numerous casualties. It also caused tremendous stress and tension amongst the MF Teams. There were even UD's with hand grenades and RPG's resulting in injury and loss of life. As well, there was the ever present danger of mines which continued to take a toll during the entire operation.

3. Redeployment of RV Teams:

The Ceasefire ended on the 4th January 1980 at 2359 + 1, and as most of the communists were now gathered at the various Assembly Places, the RV Teams were disbanded and those men were then added to various Assembly Places so as to boost the numbers there. Assembly Place 'November' and Assembly Place 'Quebec' were both closed as no communists had been recently operating in that area (Northern border), and the Commonwealth troops at those locs were redistributed to some of the larger Assembly Places that were holding several thousand communists. Assembly Place Foxtrot held over 6,000 communists.

4. The Election Period:

This part of the operation lasted from the 5th January 1980, when the Ceasefire ended until the 3 March 1980, which was in fact after the elections had been held, but before the results were announced. The election results were announced on the 4 March 1980. During this period, a contingent of British 'Bobbies' were flown into Rhodesia and they served as observers at the many polling places scattered throughout the country. There were many breaches in the Ceasefire as all three sides attempted to gain a position of strength, as well many guerillas drifted in and out of the Assembly Places, virtually at will and continued their usual programmes of intimidation, rape, robbery and murder.

The elections were said to be about giving the black population a free and fair vote, however, many, many black Rhodesians wanted to vote for Ian Smith but were barred from such a vote under the terms of the Lancaster agreement. This left a two horse race, and as Mugabe and Nkomo jostled for power, it became commonplace for hand grenades to be thrown into the interior of each other's beer halls by supporters.

5. The Withdrawl:

On the 2nd March 1980, all Monitoring Force personel were pulled back to a tented camp in and around New Sarum airport, and immediately the RAF began flying sorties of men and equipment back to the UK and various other Commonwealth countries. Many Rhodesians, and most especially the white population, had been hoping that Joshua Nkomo would win the election, as he was considered the more stable of the two candidates. It came as a shock for most whites when Robert Mugabe was announced as the winner, swiftly changing the name of the country to "Zimbabwe". The whites began leaving in droves. Those who remained were mainly farmers, as they stood to loose everything, as the first law Mugabe passed was that anyone leaving Zimbabwe, could take no more than a couple of hundred dollars with them. Those Rhodesian's who left the country were virtually penniless.

By the 16 March 1980, all of the Monitoring Force had departed from Zimbabwe, apart from a small volunteer group (about 40 men) of British Infantry Instructors who were to train the new Zimbabwe Army. Three weeks later on the 18 April 1980, at a ceremony that was attended by HRH Prince Charles, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time from Government House in Salisbury, and the new African nation of Zimbabwe declared itself a Free and Independent country.

The sun had finally set on the British Empire.

Post Script

Almost as soon as the Monitoring Force left the country, Mugabe and his henchmen set about settling a few of the old scores; not with the whites at that stage, but with his old 'comrade' Joshua Nkomo. Incidents and murders rapidly escalated over the next month and then a short civil war broke out between ZANLA and ZIPRA. As Mugabe was the lawful elected leader of Zimbabwe, he ordered all Units of the old Rhodesian Security Forces into the field and over a period of three days the old RSF units, supported by Gunships fought open battles with Nkomo's ZIPRA Army. As soon as Nkomo's men melted back into the veld, Mugabe requested military assistance from North Korea (he had been supported by Korea and China during the war). Shortly afterward the North Korean 5th Brigade arrived in Zimbabwe and over the period of the next three years committed genocide throughout the Tribal Trustlands of Matabeleland.


  • Kaye, C.M.S. Mission Extraordinary Zimbabwe - Rhodesia, British Army Review, 1980.
  • Lock, Peter. & Cooke Peter, Fighting Vehicles and Weapons of Rhodesia, P&P Publishing, Wellington, 1995.
  • Lovett, John. Contact, Galaxie Press, Salisbury, 1979.
  • Moorcroft, Paul. Contact II, Sygma Press, Johannesburg, 1981.
  • Subritzky, Mike. Rhodesia - Operational Diary, unpublished, 1979 - 1980.
  • Subritzky, Mike. Letters from Comrade Lt. Thomas Sabanda ZIPRA 1980.

Mike Subritzky, January 2001

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