The Development of Southern Rhodesia's Military System, 1890- 1953

by L. H. GANN, M.A., B.LITT., D.PHIL.

THE philosophy of many British sociologists owes a great debt to nineteenth-century free-traders. The Royal Navy, a hundred years ago, controlled the sea lanes of the world. The island kingdom was able to make do with a small and little-honoured army, and yet remain safe from invasion; the British economy was advancing by leaps and bounds, and a wide-spread air of optimism generally pervaded the merchant's counting house and the philosopher's study. Many British thinkers have inherited from those days an unconscious belief in a necessary underlying harmony, an "invisible hand" which makes for good. In this view all conflicts rest on misconceptions of interest, or on irrational impulses, which can be eradicated either by the philosopher's guidance or on the psychoanalyst's couch. Needless to say, these beliefs are quite fanciful. They rest on that greatest of all illusions that wars are always fought for illusions.(1) Naturally the hopes which motivate an army on the march may well prove vain, but it does not follow that the stakes at issue are illusionary, or that the leaders who gave the order to advance could necessarily have achieved their aims by peaceful means. Neither have wars always been wholly destructive in their effects. Armed conflict has, of course, often proved disastrous for victors and vanquished alike, but this has by no means always been true, and least of all in Africa. Western rule in southern Africa was largely achieved by force, but its long-term consequences have not, to say the least, been wholly negative. The British South Africa Company's administration in Rhodesia, to give one example, had much to commend it in comparison with domination by a Matabele warrior aristocracy employing the technology of the Early Iron Age, or the regime of those small "stateless" societies which survived the breakup of the Karanga empire in Mashonaland. Force has often had beneficial effects, and Rhodesia stands out as a good example. The military means by which European occupation was achieved and maintained are therefore worth studying, and this paper is designed to give a short outline of the colonizers' military system, and of the way in which it adapted itself to social change within the society which it helped to create.

When Rhodes decided to occupy Mashonaland, he had three main considerations. He wished to build a new British community in the interior which would cut off the Transvaal from its hinterland and hold the balance of power against the Afrikaner republics in a future South African Federation; he also believed that a second Rand lay buried beneath the northern veld, and hoped that its wealth would finance his colonizing ventures; thirdly he purposed to spread British middle-class civilization and to do away with the independent native politics of the interior, either by peaceful penetration or by force of arms, feeling convinced, like the Christian missionaries of the time, that only the tribesmen's ultimate absorption in a Western market economy would solve the problems of Africa. Rhodes entrusted the venture to Frank Johnson, a 24-year-old prospector with extensive experience of the far north, and a sound background of service in various colonial mounted units and the Bechuanaland Border Police. The undertaking rested on a commercial contract in which Johnson would organize a pioneer corps on semi-military lines in return for £87,500, later increased to £90,400, and a land grant beyond the Limpopo. Johnson's men were highly paid, and comprised doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers as well as miners and farmers, butchers and builders, the idea being to create the nucleus of a self-contained civil community. The corps contained a considerable percentage of young volunteers of good social standing; Rhodes in fact prevented Johnson from collecting time-expired, and trained, veterans from colonial military units, and insisted that recruiting should include the sons of leading Cape families. Johnson at first could not make out what Rhodes wanted, but the great man's answer was in keeping with his strange mixture of cold realism and wild gambling. The warlike Matabele might cut off or massacre the expedition. What could then save the pioneers? Only lmperial intervention. How could this be assured? Only by agitation on the part of worried but well-connected fathers in the Cape.(2)

Johnson originally intended to advance without a secure base or properly guarded lines of communication. Instead, the force would carry supplies and ammunition for a year, and rely on careful training and discipline. The High Commissioner for South Africa would not, however, hear of such a scheme. He insisted that the force must be accompanied by a strong body of mounted police so as to prevent a repetition of the disaster at Isandhlawana in 1879 when the Zulu, kinsmen of the Matabele, surprised and massacred some 800 British regulars. The Chartered Company then rather unwillingly organized a mounted force. Its nucleus, a fifth of its strength, consisted of a few specially raised troops of the Bechuanaland Border Police, an Imperially controlled elite formation. The remainder was a mixed body, containing youngsters in search of adventure, a few scalliwags, but generally a good type of man, similar in social origins to the pioneers, though not so well paid.(3)

The whole expedition comprised some 180 pioneers (known as the Pioneer Corps) consisting of three troops and an artillery section, and 500 British South Africa Company's Police, command of the combined force being entrusted to Lieut.-Colonel Edward Graham Pennefather, an officer of the 6th Dragoons, who had served with distinction against Zulu and Boer. His column was well equipped, the expedition curiously combining the military technology of the backveld with that of the Industrial Revolution. There were ox wagons; there was also a steam-driven generator to provide current for a searchlight which swept the veld at night to prevent surprise attacks. Iohnson, a good organizer, carefully worked out an elaborate drill for his 84 wagons which were divided into "sections" grouped into three divisions, the teams being taught to manoeuvre with military precision and to advance where possible in broad formations; single file was only used where the country was too difficult. There were carefully worked out rules for making camp at night; depending on the nature of the ground the wagons drew up in one, two or three separate laagers, with water and other light carts inside, and machine guns or 7-pounders at each corner, protected by proper breastworks of sandbags.(4)

The Matabele's only chance would have been to catch the column by surprise in broken country or to attempt a night assault, but Lobengula realized the difficulty of such a task, and allowed the column to proceed without striking a blow. The pioneers safely reached their destination on 12th September, 1890, where a small fort - Fort Salisbury - was dug and then they dispersed to look for the promised Ophir.

The early settlers formed a kind of armed aristocracy amongst the indigenous people, making a scanty livelihood from prospecting, transport riding and share-pushing. They knew how to ride and shoot; they knew the veld, and the Company, always intent on economy, thought that the colonists would be well able to look after themselves in local clashes with Africans. The directors resented expenditure on the police, an efficient military body wel1 adapted to irregular mounted warfare;(5) they wanted profits rather than war, and in 1892 the police were cut to the bone. defence of the country largely being left to the colonists. These were organized into a volunteer force, known as the Mashonaland Horse, supported by a small troop of artillery stationed at Salisbury. In case of emergency these units could be supplemented by a burgher force of some 1,500 men, liable to serve under their field cornets in time of war, a system copied from that of the Boers and one well adjusted to frontier conditions.(6) The citizen soldiers proved their worth when fighting broke out against Lobengula in 1893. The Chartered administration did not originally want war, hoping slowly to erode the Matabele social system by getting the Matabele to serve for wages, but the Matabele tried to maintain their warrior state and persisted in raiding Mashonaland. The local settlers, especially those in the Fort Victoria region, determined that the raids must end, for the Matabele forays were interfering with their native labour and bringing economic enterprise to a stop. ln the end Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, the Company's senior administrative official on the spot, came round to their way of thinking, and in 1893 war broke out. The Matabele proved no match for mounted burghers with superior fire-power and mobility for they were unable to tear themselves away from the time-honoured shock tactics which had secured them so many victories in the past; instead they remained wedded to a military doctrine that attack must invariably prevail over defence.(7) The settlers moreover successfully employed Maxim guns, an automatic weapon which more conventional soldiers still tended to underestimate. The tactical use of wagons as mobile pivots gave them an additional advantage, and after a few fierce and bloody battles the Matabele "spear kingdom" rapidly collapsed, much to the surprise of more orthodox military thinkers who thought that far more white troops would be required.(8)

The settlers could conquer a country, but for the time being they lacked the means to consolidate their gains. A weak and undifferentiated backveld economy failed to yield the expected profits. Administration remained a scratch affair, oppressive and inefficient alike; intelligence remained almost non-existent; the rigid social separation between whites and blacks probably helped to prevent information from seeping through to the authorities, whilst the Company's ever-present need for economy and the colonists' over-confidence precluded the maintenance of an effective defence organization. Most of the Mashonaland Mounted Police, the country's only full-time military cadre, were withdrawn for service in the disastrous Jameson Raid of December, 1895, and in March, 1896, the Matabele seized their chance and struck. Many, though by no means all, of the Mashona communities subsequently joined the insurgents; organization hinged partly on what remained of the Matabele state organization, partly on the cult of Mlimo, the ancient Karanga god, revered by Matabele and Mashona alike, and partly on the fraternity of spirit mediums, who supposedly voiced the wishes of tribal deities and ancestors.(9) The rebels murdered many isolated settlers, avoided pitched battles, and stuck to guerilla tactics; for a time the colonists found themselves in desperate straits.

The rebels enjoyed an enormous numerical superiority over their opponents; many possessed firearms and some were modern rifles. The settlers lost about one-tenth of their number, a very large proportion when compared to the losses suffered by Europeans in the Mau Mau and Algerian campaigns. The technological discrepancy between white mounted riflemen on the one hand and irregular, black foot-soldiers on the other was smaller than that which has existed between the armies of a modern colonial power, employing helicopters and transport planes, tracked vehicles, wireless and all the remaining paraphernalia of mechanized warfare, and the forces of rebel partisans, equipped with little more than rifles and hand-grenades, light automatic weapons and mortars. For a time all European economic enterprise came to a stop and the Chartered Company's administration found itself in desperate financial straits. But the settlers probably enjoyed superior morale; they believed that history was behind them, whilst the insurgents fought with the grim desperation born of despair. British power stood behind the colonists; a force of Imperial mounted riflemen was hurried to Rhodesia, whilst the Company equipped the Matabeleland Relief Force from South Africa.

The whites enjoyed superior mobility through the employment of mounted troops. They were skilled in building laagers; at Bulawayo, for instance, experienced white builders and miners put up defences strengthened by machine guns, barbed wire and mines, and the rebels wisely never risked an assault on "hedgehog" positions which would have proved difficult even to white infantry. Soon the Europeans managed to seize the strategic initiative; the gangs were broken up and kept on the move; the whites seized crops and cattle, thereby imposing a kind of economic blockade against their opponents who, for their part, never managed to work out a concerted strategy. The Matabele who still possessed the remnants of a centralized state organization, negotiated as a body and concluded peace with Rhodes. The rebel Mashona communities, lacking any kind of common political leadership, continued to hold out for much longer, but in the end resistance collapsed, and by 1897 the country was at peace.(10)

The Chartered Company determined that never again should the country go through the same bloody experience. The old volunteer system broke down during the rebellion and the authorities had to rely on scattered local formations, raised on an ad hoc basis, which were strengthened by more permanent units; the colonists showed plenty of fighting spirit in battle but proved unsuitable for police and garrison duties of a more permanent kind. Besides, reform was in the air. The Imperial Government and the local whites were both insisting on improved administration and these demands led to military changes. The authorities entrusted internal defence to a well-drilled semi-military body, known at one time as the Rhodesia Mounted Police, but renamed towards the end of 1896 the British South Africa Police. Right from its commencement the new body formed a military elite, relatively well-paid, versatile, highly disciplined and drilled with the precision of a Guards regiment. The force attracted many young men from good British families overseas, recruits who for one reason or another could not secure commissions at "home". Many joined the police on short-term engagements to go abroad and see a new country and the force acted in some ways as an unofficial settlement scheme, as many time-expired men later made their homes in Rhodesia. Military and educational standards were high; men were promoted from the ranks. The police lacked an officer class of its own, but like the old German Reichswehr, created a tiny Fuhrerheer which produced many distinguished officers, and whose social organization reflected the spirit of equality found within the European ruling stratum. Southern Rhodesia of course was regarded as a "white man's country", and the main emphasis always lay on the European component. From Rhodesia's earliest days a sharp military cleavage thus developed between Southern Rhodesia, policed and defended by mounted European troopers, and Northern Rhodesia. which relied on African policemen, serving under European officers and N.C.O.s. The corps nevertheless remained small, numbering at the turn of the century only some 750 Europeans and 400 African auxiliaries. The white trooper formed a relatively high proportion of the country's European population which then totalled about 11,000. In relation to an African population of more than 500,000 the proportion of regular white armed forces, however, remained low, amounting to no more than about one and a half per thousand. The police therefore, had to rely on a high standard of training and on winning the confidence of the native population. The police right from the start regarded its task as one of prevention rather than punishment; constant patrolling on horse and mule enforced respect for law and order, and also provided the Administration with a great deal of general information to supplement the reports received from the native commissioners. The corps could also fight as a military body, and was organized on the basis of two small cavalry regiments, each with a full headquarters staff.(11)

The Administration - caught napping once - remained obsessed with the fear of another outbreak, even though the conditions for tribal rebellion were rapidly disappearing as Africans began to adjust themselves to changing conditions. Many of them began to make some money from selling crops and livestock; many more went to work for wages; the spirit mediums and minor chiefs involved in the rebellion lost heavily in prestige, and few black people wanted another great blood-letting. European military officers, nevertheless, devoted a good deal of thought to future laagers and rallying points for an emergency such as the last, and the authorities felt the need for a European force to supplement the police. In 1898 the Administration set up the Southern Rhodesia Volunteers, a mounted corps supported by cyclists, signallers and engineers. Thc volunteers drilled a few nights a week and occasionally they went into camp with the British South Africa Police, these outings being regarded as much as social as military occasions. The volunteers were divided into an Eastern Division and a Western Division, with a tiny permanent nucleus. Training never reached a very high level of efficiency; membership fluctuated as settlers drifted in and out of the country, but morale was high, reflecting the camaraderie of a country where almost everybody knew everybody else. The corps would have proved a welcome reinforcement in case of local skirmishes but the test, when it came, proved to be of a different nature. When Southern Rhodesia was drawn into the Boer War, an inter-white South African civil war as much as an Imperial campaign, the Africans remained quiet, and the colonists found themselves face to face with a European enemy, very similar to themselves in outlook and possessed of formidable fighting power. Under these circumstances the authorities used the volunteers in detachments only, and mainly drew on them as a general reserve. Instead the Administration raised a new unit, the Rhodesia Regiment, a mounted infantry formation recruited by voluntary enlistment which gave an excellent account of itself in battle. The country possessed a high proportion of young men. Many settlers had seen action before; many were familiar with veld-craft and veld lore, for even though the great majority of the population lived in townships rather than on farms in the bush the settlements remained small. There were no mass-produced amusements, riding and shooting were popular sports accessible to a great many colonists, the settlers on the whole lived tough lives, and the quality of the recruits was excellent. Rhodesian contingents made a name for themselves in the relief of Mafeking and numerous other engagements.(12)

Rhodesia also made a minor, though welcome, contribution through a rudimentary armament industry in the railway workshops at Bulawayo, which was beginning to develop into a communication centre of some importance. Skilled artisans and railwaymen fitted out several armoured trains which did good service in Bechuanaland. A small engineer corps installed and maintained telephonic and telegraph communications, operated heliographs, and repaired damage to bridges and railways, the small colony turning up with some unexpected skills. British patriotism and Imperial sentiment ran strong and by 1901 some 1,700 men had put on uniform out of a total European population of about 11,000, so that the tiny white community mobilized around 15 per cent. of its numbers. The South African conflagration of course remained a "gentleman's war", a conflict waged between two ruling groups; Africans were employed only shamefacedly or not at all on combat duty, and the Rhodesians never thought of sending black troops to the front; dreading the idea of training Africans in the use of arms. The Rhodesian Africans for their part regarded the war as a white man's affair; they considered themselves lucky to remain out of the fighting, and made no attempt to stake their future on another revolutionary adventure.

When the men came back from the war the country slowly picked up again. The police were reduced in strength and in 1903 the two divisions in Mashonaland and Matabeleland were amalgamated. Instead the country was divided into nine districts, each under an inspector with a troop of some 40 officers and men. In 1913 this system gave way to a more "civilian" type of organization, based on districts which coincided with magisterial areas, and there were developed a number of specialist sections, including a criminal investigation department. The volunteers continued to drill; but there was of course no regular military force. The police, charged with the dual duty of external defence and the maintenance of internal security, remained undermanned, numbering no more than 550 whites and 600 Africans in 1913, though the country still spent a considerable percentage of its small income on security. Despite constant calls for economy the authorities nevertheless managed to effect some improvements. The British South Africa Company had by now lived down the reputation of being a band of filibustering capitalists, which it had acquired as a result of the Jameson Raid, and an Order in Council thus transferred the overall control of the military police forces from the High Commissioner to a commandant general, paid and appointed by the Company with the Secretary of State's approval.(l3) The headquarters staff was strengthened, a mobilization scheme completed and a department of defence came into being to provide for the security of both Southern and Northern Rhodesia.

When the Great War broke out Southern Rhodesia was quite unprepared for a struggle against a major European power. True enough the territory enjoyed a number of important military assets; there was no threat to internal security; the acreage worked by African farmers and the number of native-owned cattle were steadily expanding, whilst the Administration now enjoyed a good deal of respect. A large proportion of Southern Rhodesia's white manpower could therefore be withdrawn without fear of occasioning risings of the type that broke out in Nyasaland and Portuguese East Africa during this period. The country contained a large proportion of young Europeans, familiar with the use of arms, though devoid of any kind of militarism or special respect for professional officers as a caste; officers were looked upon in much the same way as were medium-grade or senior civil servants, and were supplemented by leading citizens with experience in spare-time soldiering. Geographically, Southern Rhodesia was shielded by a ring of friendly territories, and the possibility of invasion was remote. But there was Afrikaner unrest in the south and the country contained a small number of Afrikaner nationalists whose loyalty to the Imperial cause remained in doubt; the Company had to defend a long, almost unguarded frontier in North-Eastern Rhodesia; the country's industrial resources were negligible; Rhodesia could not manufacture a bullet let alone a bomb, and from the military point of view the territory once again had to start almost from scratch. The volunteer organization would have proved even less effective against the Germans than against the Boers, and in 1914 the country therefore reverted to the regimental system. White men flocked to join the 1st Rhodesia Regiment which performed garrison duties in South Africa and later participated in the conquest of German South-West Africa. The police, in conjunction with their colleagues from Northern Rhodesia, quickly seized the vital post of Schuckmannsburg in the Caprivi Zipfel of German SouthWest Africa and thereby removed any threat to the Victoria Falls bridge, vital to the maintenance of rail communication with the north. Later on the 1st Rhodesia Regiment was disbanded; many volunteers left for service in Britain, and others joined the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment, raised for employment in East Africa.(14) The 2nd Rhodesia Regiment took a distinguished part in fighting General von Lettow Vorbeck, and went through a campaign as tough and grim and wearisome as any Far Eastern jungle campaign of the Second World War. In addition a number of special service companies of the British South Africa Police likewise saw action in East Africa. Southern Rhodesia, however, had produced as yet relatively few technicians. The country still mainly lived by small-scale mining and farming; she possessed no manufactures but a large agricultural processing industry and railway workshops, and the simple nature of her economy was reflected in the organization of her white fighting men, who, in the main, served as infantry, the most unspecialized, though the most harshly-tested form of military "labour" in existence. There were of course a few exceptions. The motor-car was now beginning to make its first appearance in the backveld, and a small motor transport corps rendered excellent service. Individual Rhodesians enlisted in Imperial units, signals, artillery, tanks and the Royal Flying Corps, but the majority of the Rhodesian fighting men were "footsloggers" who served in the ranks. The supply of European manpower, however, proved quite insufficient, and the Chartered Company decided on a major departure from South African practice. The British authorities, like their opposite numbers in German East Africa, put Africans into khaki, and formed two African units, the 1st and 2nd Rhodesia Native Regiments which, in 1918, were combined into the Rhodesia Native Regiment. The Europeans, however, supplied the bulk of the troops, and paid a heavy blood price. A high proportion of settlers also gained commissions, the self-reliance and ability to command which colonists acquired on lonely farms and isolated gold mines standing them in excellent stead.(l5)

During the war British patriotism and what might be called "moral compulsion" made conscription unnecessary, and Rhodesia, with its youthful population, mobilized a much higher proportion of her manpower than Great Britain herself. But when the men came back from the war, they mostly determined to forget all about soldiering; the great conflict was over, the "war to end war" was won. Labour, supported by a growing number of white railwaymen, clerks and artisans, became a political force imbued with the anti-military spirit that characterized Labour in the United Kingdom. Few wanted to put on khaki and the authorities found great difficulties in enlisting part-time soldiers. As before the war the British South Africa Police once more took over the main responsibility for the country's defence. The old volunteer system was dispensed with and for local support units the Administration relied on no more than a few part-time rifle companies, some mounted volunteers and a motor-car corps,(16) whose members supplied their own vehicles, a policy practicable at a time when more and more Europeans were buying cars. Military planners once again thought mainly in terms of the real or supposed needs of internal defence, but African political activity remained negligible; defence questions excited little interest, and a few devoted people interested in military matters carried a heavy burden in keeping a territorial organization going.

In 1923 the Chartered Company at long last surrendered its powers of government, and Southern Rhodesia acquired almost full internal autonomy. The new European administration, responsible in the main to the white colonists, took over the existing military structure in exactly the same way as it did the machinery of civil administration built up by the company. The country's reserve forces, however, seemed of little value, and in 1926 the new Government, headed by Sir Charles Coghlan, decided to introduce a short period of compulsory military training for the sole purpose of territorial defence. The Government would not agree with the report of a previous commission which suggested that the police should be entirely relieved of its defence duties; instead it insisted that the British South Africa Police must continue to be able to furnish a small, highly mobile striking force to nip local outbreaks in the bud. But the colony also required a trained reserve; Southern Rhodesia should also "reproduce the provisions that are considered to be essential in the Union [of South Africa]"; the possibility of a native rising, though remote, could not be wholly discounted. The force would of course never be used for strike-breaking, a possibility put forward by Labour opponents. A period of instruction, amounting to no more than 60 hours in the first year, in addition to some 10 days in camp, formed no undue hardship, and young men between the ages of 19 and 23 years would also benefit from a certain amount of discipline and physical training. The Labour Party generally opposed the motion; the governing Rhodesian Party was not wholly unanimous either; but a majority of 15, containing five former officers of field rank still using their titles, supported the measure against no more than six dissentients, and the Defence Act passed on to the statute book.(17)

The new law provided for a permanent Defence Force, consisting of small cadres to train recruits, and the British South Africa Police which was organized to furnish a mobile column should the occasion demand. The police stayed what it was, an elite formation drawing many of its recruits from Britain, the attractions of a career "in the colonies" proving so strong that for 92 vacancies in 1932 there were 7,000 applications. The Territorial Active Force consisted of two battalions of the Rhodesia Regiment with their headquarters in Salisbury and Bulawayo respectively. Soldiers in their first year received training in drill, in the use of infantry weapons, and platoon and section work in the field; in subsequent years men were instructed as Vickers and Lewis gunners, signallers, or stretcher-bearers. The Territorial Active Force was supported by a Territorial Force Reserve and a General Reserve of citizens between the ages of 18 and 60 who became liable for service in wartime, but who were not enrolled in any Defence Force unit. The number of mcn in uniform, of course, continued to remain small in relation to the total population. In 1930 the police numbered no more than 467 Europeans and 879 Africans and the total Territorial Active Force 544; in wartime the country might mobilize a further 2,664 Europeans in the Territorial Force Reserve, "White Rhodesia" making do without any African troops whatsoever. The country's white population stood at just under 50,000; the Africans numbered just over 1,000,000, so that the total armed forces in peacetime amounted to less than two per thousand of the population, instead of the accustomed ten or more per thousand which European continental states then usually maintained in arms, whilst the percentage of public revenue devoted to defence purposes showed a dramatic drop compared to that of Company days.(18)

The Rhodesian military system was geared in the main to the needs of internal defence, but once again the test, when it came, was of a different nature. Nazi rearmament rendered world peace precarious and Rhodesians were concerned about German demands for the restoration of Tanganyika to the Reich and feared that British appeasers might give way to them. The Duce's conquest of Ethiopia seemed to threaten the whole of Imperial strategy in Africa and the colony began to look beyond her borders. As early as 1934 the War Office approved of a scheme for mutual assistance between Southern Rhodesia and the adjacent colonies, and the military factor played some part in the colonists' campaign for amalgamation of the two Rhodesias which was developing on both sides of the Zambezi. Three years later, after visits from the Imperial Inspector General of Colonial Forces, the Southern Rhodesia Government investigated a scheme for additional units to assist in the defence of other British dependencies. ln November, 1938, when the international situation looked its grimmest, the Inspector General once more came to Rhodesia, and the local authorities agreed to raise additional formations. Training, argued the experts, was more important than equipment, for weapons could be collected at short notice, whilst practice at arms took longer. The colony by this time could rely on some 3,000 white soldiers, brought to a high pitch of efficiency. lt was building up its mobilization stores and undertook to provide an officer training unit to supply leaders both for Rhodesian troops and for certain native reserve battalions to be mobilized in other parts of British-ruled Africa. The territory was also to raise a fully mechanized reconnaissance unit, self-contained, equipped with light armoured cars and capable of rapid movement, together with a battery of 3.7 howitzers.

Early in 1939 Robert Clarkson Tredgold (later Sir Robert) took charge of military matters as Minister of Defence, and began to put the country on a war footing. Southern Rhodesia now contained more technicians than before, her economy was beginning to become a little more diversified, but she still relied on getting all her military equipment from overseas. Only a trickle of much-needed supplies, however, came from Britain, and Rhodesian soldiers accordingly encountered many training difliculties. Rearmament was far from universally popular, and many local Labour speakers still looked forward to a peaceful settlement, deploring what they called the dreadful march towards the militarization of national life. But Tredgold was a good organizer, and, like other experts, thought that the country should deploy its manpower in a manner different from the mode originally planned. He remembered the fate of Kitchener's army in the Great War; he dreaded lest a Rhodesian formation might come to the same end as the Newfoundland Regiment and the South African Brigade on the Western Front} where entire units perished in a few futile actions. During the Great War Southern Rhodesia's small white population lost a considerable portion of her armed strength when the 2nd Rhodesia Regiment wasted away amongst the fever-trees of Tavete and the malaria-ridden jungle country along the Rufiji and Pangani rivers. The colony would never be able to put into the field more than about a brigade group or so. If such a force was wiped out in one or two massive holocausts, the colony would suffer irreparable damage and its military contribution would cease. ln peacetime white Rhodesians provided most of the colony's skilled and supervisory labour; what would be more sensible than to use their abilities in a similar capacity in wartime! Rhodesian youths were comparatively well educated; they included a considerable proportion of men with some technical or mechanical background. White farmers' sons, from their earliest youth, were used to leading their African playmates, and however regrettable this might appear to Liberal or Socialist critics of Rhodesian society, Rhodesian youngsters did learn habits of command from early childhood. These aptitudes should not be frittered away, and Southern Rhodesia should concentrate on leader training and the production of specialist units. The Imperial Government agreed with this assessment and Southern Rhodesia began to follow a policy of military dispersal.

When war came in September, 1939, the colony embarked on a policy of all-out mobilization. If the Allies lost the war, argued Godfrey Martin Huggins, the Prime Minister, there was no point in keeping the colony going afterwards. Manpower needs for the forces would have to take precedence over those of any industry, even though there would be a terrific manpower shortage.(19)

There was, in fact, no lack of volunteers; white Rhodesians, perhaps the most loyalist-minded group of people in the Empire, enlisted with enthusiasm; the main problem for the authorities was not so much in getting soldiers, but in persuading men in key occupations to stay at home. In May, 1940, after some 1,600 Europeans had already gone abroad, the Southern Rhodesian Legislature passed a new Act which allowed the authorities to call up all British subjects of European descent between the ages of 18 and 25 after they had resided in the colony for more than six months. From 1940 to 1941 the minimum age of enlistment was 19 1/2. In 1949 the limit was dropped to 18 and the colony was beginning to exhaust its slender reservoir of European manpower; out of a total white population of 66.000, some 2,000 men were being trained in the colony, 457 women were at work with auxiliary military services, 462 officers, 652 non-commissioned officers and 882 ''other ranks" were in action or waiting for battle abroad. Rhodesians won distinction in British Somaliland, Ethiopia and North Africa; they fought as artillerymen, as riflemen, and in armoured cars; they raided enemy communications in the desert; they worked as technicians, surveyors, doctors and in other specialized capacities, the Rhodesian settler proving himself an excellent and adaptable fighting man. The colony also made full use of its leader potential, and Rhodesians successfully trained and led black soldiers from West, Central and East Africa, the settlers showing considerable capacity in winning the confidence of their men.

After some delay Southern Rhodesia, unlike South Africa, began to recruit black volunteers. The reason against enlisting African soldiers were economic and administrative, rather than political. Other African territories possessed a larger reservoir of trained black reservists than Southern Rhodesia. Southern Rhodesia, on the other hand, could not raise African troops in any considerable numbers without causing some economic upset. The colony therefore first of all supplied white officers and sergeants for native units in other parts of Africa before drawing on her own indigenous manpower. In 1940, however, the country reverted to Great War precedents and Huggins authorized the formation of an African unit, the Rhodesian African Rifles. Militarily, as well as constitutionally, the colony thus occupied a half-way position between the white South African dominion in the south and the "Imperial'' colonies to the north, in the employment of both all-white and black units. The enlistment of African troops formed one of the many factors that made for a slightly more "leftward" swing during the war.

I n relation to her small military potential Southern Rhodesia also made a major effort in the air. As early as 1934 Colonel John Banks Brady introduced a loyal motion into the House requesting that Southern Rhodesia should make an annual contribution to the Royal Navy in recognition of Britain's part in defending the Empire and the Legislature enthusiastically backed the idea. But after the Prime Minister had discussed the matter in London it was decided to raise a small Rhodesian air unit, with the thought that the money would thus be expended in a more economical and a more visible fashion. In 1939, just before the outbreak of the war, a fully equipped squadron (No. 1 Squadron, Southern Rhodesia Air Force) left for Kenya where these Rhodesian planes for a time formed the only aircraft available to the Imperial authorities. The unit, later known as 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron, Royal Air Force, played a distinguished part in fighting in East and North Africa, the Mediterranean, Southern France and ltaly. Rhodesians also joined 44 (Rhodesia) Squadron, a bomber formation stationed in England. 266 (Rhodesia) Squadron, a fighter unit, became the first R.A.F. formation equipped with Typhoons, and Rhodesian pilots nursed the new aircraft through its difficult teething troubles. But again the strain proved heavy; many Rhodesian airmen lost their lives; white Rhodesian manpower dwindled away, and by 1942 the colony was having difficulty in maintaining the Rhodesian character of these units.

At the same time the country played a vital part in another aspect of the air war. Southern Rhodesia with its cloudless skies, open spaces, developing technical resources, friendly population and remoteness from enemy interference, offered unique opportunities for training. She was the first Commonwealth countrv to offer air training facilities for Britain, and from 1940 onwards provided all the facilities for a major component of the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme. Working under constant pressure Rhodesians showed surprising ability in building barracks, hangars and airfields on virgin veld, and rushing in electricity, waterborne sewerage and other vital services. The scheme in fact formed Southern Rhodesia's greatest individual contribution to the war, and in an unexpected way also proved an important economic boon. Farmers and industrial firms found an expanding market; Imperial expenditure alone almost equalled the indirect benefits which the country derived from its entire gold mining industry. Thousands of men passed through the country and many later returned to it to live; indeed the enterprise in some ways acted as an unintended settlement scheme.

In the military as in the constitutional sphere, Southern Rhodesia enjoyed a considerable amount of internal autonomy. The country raised and administered its own forces, and retained full responsibility for the kind of contribution which it supplied to the war effort. In 1940 Southern Rhodesians rejected a British suggestion which entailed the co-ordination of defence plans for the two Rhodesias under a single command. The appointment of a single commander could create an impossible situation, interfere with ministerial direction of the colony's war effort, and Southern Rhodesia must decide herself what she could afford. The United Kingdom had refused amalgamation of the two territories; now the British could not "have their cake and eat it''. The British did not pursue the point; they were in fact only too glad of Southern Rhodesian assistance at a time when the military position in Africa looked desperate, and the Rhodesians gave unstinted help. At the same time military relations between the colony and South Africa hecame increasingly close. South Africa provided many war supplies; Smuts and Huggins broadly shared the same general political ideas, and in 1949 the so-called "Libertas" resolutions provided that the Zambezi should form the boundary between the East and South African commands. For various technical reasons, many of them concerned with leave and pay matters, most Southern Rhodesians in the Middle East subsequently transferred to the Union Defence Force. Some 1,400 of them served in the 6th South Africa Armoured Division which gathered many honours in the Italian campaign.(20)

The Second World War placed a tremendous strain on European manpower resources; a total of 8,448 white men and 1,479 women served in the armed forces, something like 15 per cent. of the white population, of whom no less than 2,665 earned commissions, 709 received decorations and 693 lost their lives. In all 6,520 men left the colony, the European settlers proving that they could mobilize a very large proportion of their population for military purposes, and yet expand their economy, which became increasingly diversified and made valuable contribution to the civilian war effort. In addition 14,302 Africans put on khaki, of whom 136 died. After the guns stopped firing Southern Rhodesia once more largely scrapped its armaments. The people wanted peace; the Government thought of getting new immigrants, attracting capital for additional industries, and expanding markets by amalgamating the three British Central African territories into one political unit and the defence forces were cut to the bone.

The Berlin blockade of 1948 and the Korean War, however, once more made Rhodesians defence-conscious. ln 1951 the Government decided to spend an additional £1,000,000 on defence and reintroduced a measure of conscription. In March, 1951, Southern Rhodesia, concerned with external rather than internal defence, dispatched a small volunteer unit to fight the Communist partisans in Malaya. In April, 1951, the Defence Forces of the colony were completely reorganized. The Permanent Force included the British South Africa Police and also the Southern Rhodesia Staff Corps charged with training and administering the Territorial Force. It also provided the planning and administrative staff of Defence Headquarters and ran the Department of the Deputy Assistant Director of Ordnance and Supply and the Department of Transport and Armaments. The Southern Rhodesia Air Force consisted of members of the Staff Corps specially recruited for air duties. The force operated a communication squadron and trained members of the Territorial Force as pilots, particularly as artillery observation pilots. The colony also maintained women's auxiliary services, and kept up a battalion of Rhodesian African Rifles, officered by members of the Staff Corps. The Territorial Force remained entirely white and largely reproduced the war-time pattern. It consisted of two battalions of the Royal Rhodesia Regiment, an Armoured Car Regiment, Artillery, Engineers, Signal Corps, Medical Corps, Auxiliary Air Force and Transport Corps. In wartime the country could also draw on the Territorial Force Reserve and General Reserve. Southern Rhodesia, in other words, reverted more or less to the organization of the Second World War, geared in the main to the exigencies of a foreign war, the country undertaking extensive obligations to support the Imperial power in the Middle East. Defence expenditure imposed a considerable military burden, nevertheless the colony got by with a relatively limited military budget in relation to its total expenditure, and was able to use the bulk of its resources for peace-time purposes.(21)

In 1953 the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland came into being. Defence formed one of the most important functions entrusted to the Federal Government, and on 1st July, 1954, all military forces in the three Central African territories were organized as a Central Africa Command, with its headquarters at Salisbury.

To sum up, defence organization in Southern Rhodesia in many ways mirrored the country's social and economic structure. Within a space of 70 years Rhodesia moved from the age of the ox wagon to the armoured car, and Southern Rhodesians on the whole adjusted themselves to the military challenge of their day with surprising skill. The country has never had a professional military caste of its own; it has never in any way been a militarized state. As the country developed, the proportion of public money devoted to defence expenditure rapidly diminished; Rhodesians in emergencies could nevertheless mobilize a tremendously high proportion of their white manpower, a proportion that greatly exceeded that of Britain. Military planners in Rhodesia, as almost everywhere else, usually tended to think in terms of the last war and generally prepared for the conflict they had just won. The organization elaborated after the rebellion proved unsuitable for the Boer War and the Great War; the regimental system employed against the Kaiser and revived in the "twenties" could not be used in the Second World War. After the Allied victory over the Axis, the territory again revived its defensive organization along the lines that helped to bring victory in 1945. As in the past, military planners mainly thought in terms of a foreign war, but devoted perhaps too little attention to the kind of struggle that broke out shortly afterwards in Algeria. Partisan campaigns are, however, likely to become a characteristic kind of warfare in the new Africa, if not in the world at large, where big conventional armies for the time being seem paralysed in a general nuclear stalemate.


1. See Andrzejewski, S., Military Organization and Society. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954, p. 7-19.
2. Johnson, Sir F., Great Days. G. Bell and sons, 1940.
3. See Hickman, A. S., Men who made Rhodesia: a register of those who served in the British South Africa Company’s Police. Salisbury, British South Africa Company, 1960.
4. British South Africa Company. Regulations for instruction of the Pioneer Corps and Expedition. Cape Town, the Company, 1890.
5. For the training and organization of the Police see British South Africa Company Regulations for the B.S.A. Company’s Forces. Kimberley, the Company, 1890.
6. British South Africa Company. Report on the Company’s proceedings and the conditions of the Territories within the sphere of its operations 1889-1892. London, the Company, 1892, p. 5.
7. Summers R. F. H. "The military doctrine of the Matabele" (in NADA no. 32, 1955), p.7-15.
8. The Europeans mustered just over 1,100 men, including 225 Bechuanaland Border Police: there were also some 2000 poorly armed and trained auxiliaries from Chief Khama and 400 Mashona auxiliaries. For an account of the fighting see Wills, W. A. and Collingridge, L. T., The Downfall of Lobengula: the course, history and effect of the Matabeli War, London, ''The African review", 1894.
9. For an interpretation see Ranger, T. O. "The organization of the rebellions of 1896 and 1897" (in History of Central African Peoples conference, 1963. Lusaka, Rhodes-Livingstone institute), though Dr. Ranger probably underestimated the remaining cohesion of the Matabele state organization.
10. The rebellion literature is extensive. For two good contemporary accounts see Selous, F. C., Sunshine and storm in Rhodesia, Rowland Ward and co., 1896, and Alderson, E. A. H., With the Mounted Infantry and the Mashonaland Field Force, Methuen and co. 1898.
11. British South Africa Company. Reports on the administration of Rhodesia 1900-1902. London, the Company, 1902, p. 25.
12. See Amery, L. S. ed. The Times History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902. Sampson, Low, Marston and co., 1900-1909. 7 v.
13. Southern Rhodesia Order in Council, 1913. The 1913 Estimates of Expenditure totalled £834,714. Of this £142,865 was spent on the volunteers.
14. See Capell, E. A. The 2nd Rhodesia Regiment in East Africa. Simson and co., 1923
15. 5,577 Europeans, 2,752 Africans and 22 Coloureds rendered direct military aid. More than 700 Europeans, and 173 Africans lost their lives. The total white population in 1918 numbered just over 30,000.
16. Government notices nos. 479 and 586 of 1919.
17. See Southern Rhodesia Hansard, 4 Nov 1926, p. 101-154 and 15 Nov 1926, p. 355-404.
18. In the financial year 1930-31 the country spent £234,562 on the police and £51,634 on the Territorial Force and cadets, out of a total expenditure of £2,477,042.
19. Southern Rhodesia Hansard, 7 Mar 1940, p. 1805-1826. I am also indebted to Lord Malvern for giving me access to his private papers from which material for this section has been obtained.
20. For a detailed account see MacDonald, J. F. The War history of Southern Rhodesia. Salisbury, Government printer, 1947-1950. 2 v.
21. The original and supplementary estimates for the financial year 1951-52 provided for a total defence expenditure of £1,697,494 out of a total appropriation of £23,533,636.

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