Updated: Oct 16
In this article John Padbury and Graham Blick, veterans of the Rhodesian Bush war, share some of their different experiences which different communities endured residing in remote parts of the country and border regions during the period 1965-1980.
Irregular warfare (IW) inevitably places the civilian population at the centre of the conflict. A brutal battle develops as the opposing forces struggle to win the people’s hearts and minds. Central to this warfare is the axiom ‘it is the people who win revolutionary wars’. As Mao states: ‘The revolutionary war is a war of the masses; only mobilising the masses and relying on them can wage it’. Both parties purport to attend to the people’s GNA (grievances, needs and aspirations), denying the reality that the people are merely the gateway to them maintaining or achieving power. Civilians are either friend or foe to both sides of the conflict and suffer the often tragic consequences of their voluntary or forced alignment.
Subsequently, the people develop their own irregular warfare strategies. Political conversations, idle chatter and opinions are circumvented. Compliance does not necessarily reflect agreement. Tribal structures are altered in order to facilitate a form of marshal law by both sides. Roads that are potentially landmined or ambushed are circumvented or navigated with extreme care. Patterns of behaviour are avoided and seen as erratic and spontaneous. Fear, one of irregular warfare’s strongholds, reigns and instinct preserves.
In the Rhodesian Civil war, defensive strategies were devised in order to protect isolated
rural farms, schools and properties. These included perimeter fencing, grills over windows to prevent RPG-7 and hand-grenade attacks, and close-by accessible bunkers. Agric Alert radios installed at farms were connected to the local police station. A panic button identified the farm under attack and alerted the police and nearby farms. These vulnerable civilians (farmers, school children and so on), were trained and well drilled in immediate action drills in the event of an attack. Farms were often protected by Police Reservists on call-up; a number were killed in action .As the war escalated and the strategies and tactics of the security forces and insurgents evolved, the affected civilians adjusted accordingly, but their safety was never guaranteed. Many farmers, their wives and children, and farm labourers were killed.
In the battle for Hurungwe, we identified that by attending to the African's (the people’s) GNA, we won the battle for their ‘hearts and minds’, gained their support and turned the tide of the war!
In the ensuing story Dr Graham Blick, DBA, FAIM, FAHRI, expounds on the plight of civilians during the Rhodesian civil war. Sun Tzu stated that war is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds. He goes on to say that the political object, as the original motive of the war, should be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force and also the amount of effort to be made.
This approach is also similar to that of Mao and his surrogates as John Padbury has stated in the above opening paragraphs and in his book’ Battle for Hurungwe’. My aim today is to focus on the burden borne by the civil population of Rhodesia and in doing so remember and honour the significant contribution that they made to Rhodesia’s history during the period 1965 to 1980. The story I will narrate is just one of many which were borne by the civil population. Civil populations through their presence usually bear the brunt and brutality of war and just seem to do so. Seldom are they lauded by Politicians and Military leaders who are generally singularly focused on their tasks which revolve around winning wars in order to secure peace. Rhodesia was no different and so some of the experiences of the Civil population should be shared as part of our history. The shooting down in the seventies of the two Viscount airliners in which the majority of travellers and civilians were killed is one such example as is the massacre of missionaries at Elim mission in the Vumba on the Eastern border of Rhodesia adjacent to Mocambique. These tragedies have been well documented. The tribespeople living in the rural areas of Rhodesia were subject to great brutality and
intimidation by the insurgents of the night. The historical record for this situation is less clear and is a topic for another day. I will not be pursuing any of these topics today.
I am reminded by a reading from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible taken from Eccles. Ch. 9 V 11 which I believe encapsulates Rhodesia’s brief history and which says;
“I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
Or the battle to the strong!
Nor does food come to the wise
Or wealth to the brilliant
Or favour to the learned;
But time and chance happen to them all.”
The story I am about to share revolved around two Rhodesian communities. Firstly Victoria Falls the border tourist and holiday town on the border of Rhodesia and Zambia. Secondly, Selukwe a mining town situated in the Midlands of Rhodesia where high grade vanadium (Chrome) was mined by Union Carbide Africa. The common link with these 2 communities was schools and isolation.
Prior to the commencement of the winter term in 1977 Graham Blick and his family arrived to take up his post as Headmaster. He had driven in the armed convoy to reach his destination and a few days after his arrival he visited Baobab primary school. The school Secretary and Janitor met the Headmaster and after the perfunctory greetings and welcome the Janitor took him on a tour of the school and its facilities. It was while they were looking at a semi – completed bunker that a loud explosion occurred followed by further explosions which created ground tremors. They were being mortared as was the town site from Zambia across the Zambesi River. The pair ran to a safe area and the introduction to the new school was well noted. The wife of the Headmaster Mrs Fleur Blick was shopping in the village and entered the butchers shop as the first mortar struck close to her car. It was the start of a new era for this family.
During the next month this was the tenor of living in Victoria Falls. Bunkers and escape hatches were installed in the school thus providing a safe area for the children and staff when under fire. The bush war had isolated communities. Strategies and tactics emerged from people in these communities to overcome the problems of isolation. The school also experienced these problems. It was deemed too unsafe for children to travel away for sports matches as distances in a war zone were extensive. The children in year 7 had never had the opportunity to compete in any sports tournaments with other school teams and the new Headmaster engaged in some canvassing of parents about overcoming the impasse that had existed for so many years. A strategy was hatched and overtures were made to the Headmaster of Selukwe junior school Mr Bill Webster who was keen for the school to visit Victoria Falls, a distance of approximately 500 kms, as part of an educational and cultural visit.
It was in July at the height of winter that a convoy of vehicles and buses departed from Selukwe early one Wednesday morning. They travelled the few hundred kilometres from Selukwe to Bulawayo where they were to join the armed convoy from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls .They spent the night in Bulawayo. Seventy children, accompanying staff and parents were part of the convoy travelling in bright yellow Union Carbide buses with stripes of blue here and there. Not ideal camouflage for the trip. The buses were all heavily lined with layers of conveyor belting allegedly providing anti – shrapnel protection if attacked en route. Convoy Escorts were provided by the British South Africa Police Regiment Reservists from a diverse range of backgrounds and different parts of the country. During the school holidays Teachers served in these units as part of their contribution to the Nations Defences. Many also served in the different military units in the Rhodesian Defence Forces. The Department of Education which approved the visit to Victoria Falls had negotiated for extra air cover to be provided because of the unusual number of school children in the convoy.
The convoy duly departed Bulawayo on Thursday morning and once beyond the city limits convoy speed of 100 KPH was initiated by the Convoy Commander. Escort vehicles were grey Datsun 1600 utilities with a turret mounted on the back containing a 50mm Browning machine gun, a gunner manning the turret, a driver and another armed escort. The number of escort vehicles was determined by the size of the convoy. Travelers had to register beforehand that they intended to travel in convoy so that adequate protection was provided during the trip. Most travelers who also served as ‘part timers’ in the Defence Forces were also armed including women so that they were able to assist the convoy escorts ward off any attack by insurgents. This was the reality facing the Selukwe school children as they joined the convoy in Bulawayo. Once the City outskirts had been left behind a sombre mood prevailed as the participants settled into their vehicles and developed an awareness of their surroundings. Those travelling developed an alertness which sharpened their focus as they entered contested territory. This was to be the situation throughout the journey to the Falls Hundreds of kilometres from Bulawayo.
Images (L-R): Police escort for civilian vehicles; Graham and Fleur Blick with daughter Maggie in convoy with weapons at the ready; Fleur and Maggie take a break en route
There were a number of stops at small towns en route as the Convoy dropped of locals and collected new comers for the journey. This also enabled refreshments to be procured as well as ablutions to be undertaken. The stopovers were short and Convoy Commanders ensured that all activity was carried out briskly and intentionally. Participants who did not comply would be abandoned and then travelled independently at greater risk until they caught up with the Convoy and re – entered the convoy with the Convoy Commanders permission. Thus, this was the experience of the school children during their exciting but slightly frightening journey.
The Convoy arrived without mishap towards the end of the afternoon in Victoria Falls. There was an air of great excitement and expectation as the children and parents of Baobab school swarmed through the school grounds accompanied by town dignitaries and defence force personnel all anxious to greet the visitors who had made a gallant effort to come to share in some scholastic outdoor activities as well compete on the sports field. The excited Selukwe children were introduced to their hosts as they were billeted with different school families and then briefed on the program for the next few days. Soon the school emptied and all retired to their homes for the night. The children had a full day of school ahead of them the next day.
Friday was started with school assembly including prayers, bible reading and a hymn. Pupils were reminded of evacuation drill. Each classroom had its own escape hatch into a common tunnel which in turn dropped into a bunker fully provisioned for a few days. During an attack the children and staff would clear the classroom through the Escape Hatch and ensconce themselves in the safety of their Bunkers. The Visitors went with their respective year groups and spent the remainder of the day following an outdoor program in the Falls game reserve. Friday night the visitors were entertained by their hosts. On Saturday the festival of Sport commenced in earnest and soccer, rugby, netball, hockey, athletics were undertaken with great gusto and vigour by the hosts in particular as it was their first opportunity to compete in any school sports arena in many instances for the first time in their lives. At the end of the program satisfied mates went home to ablute and then returned to the school for Warthog on the spit, boerewors, pap and a miscellany of side dishes, mealie bread followed by koeksisters, melktert and other scrumptious local deserts and drinks. The evenings were cool but not cold and all retired having enjoyed an amazing day.
Sunday morning the hosts entertained their guests and then they all met at the pier on the Zambezi River near the Victoria Falls hotel where they embarked on the boats of the Sunset Cruise which had been provided to the school for the children to ride a boat on the Zambezi enjoying a magnificent lunch and game spotting. This was quite high risk as it was close to the Zambian border and the boats could have been mortared or fired upon. Fortunately, it was Sunday and all went well. The cruise concluded at about 3.00pm and the visitors returned home with their hosts. The final activity was to visit the Shangaan Dancers who staged a show at the Victoria Falls Hotel each Sunday evening. The children assembled at the venue where the Shangaans were to dance and then entered the arena. It was dark by then and a clear night sky was prevalent. The dancing commenced and the spectators were enthralled at the energy, skill and vibrancy of the dancing. It was most entertaining. About half way through the evening the Headmaster of Baobab Graham Blick experienced a weird, uncanny sensation. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he started to perspire as if something was wrong. His intuition told him to send all the children home straight away which he did. Then he drove home down the road towards Peters Motel, turned right and then right again into West Drive where he lived. He was entertaining the Selukwe Headmaster Mr Bill Webster and the General Manager and his wife from Union Carbide, Mr Bruce and Mrs Barabara Lutman.
They all sat down to a spectacular dinner provided by his wife Fleur of Roast Beef, Yorkshire Pudding and all the trimmings that went with this meal. A South African Nederberg Cabernet Sauvignon was opened and the host stood up to propose a toast. He commenced his toast with the words “that the weekend had been a great success and had gone off with bang.” As he uttered these words the world around him and his guests exploded with RPG rockets and heavy machine guns being fired into the village. This was followed by mortars being dropped on the village as well. Women and children were moved into the Safe area of the house which was a reinforced part of the house designed to offer protection from such attacks and from which one was be able to defend oneself. The men were deployed to the 4 corners of the House in order to return fire and ward off any impending attacks on the house. The local headmaster realised that there were two female teachers on his staff who were on their own. He notified his guests that he was leaving the property to go and bring the ladies into the safety of his area of responsibility. He ran through the shadowy pathways to the house, knocked on the door identifying himself and they let him in waiting at the entrance with 2 pick
handles. The ground had vibrated with mortars coming down and he and the ladies sprinted back to his house as the vibrations continued. Once safely ensconced the host returned to the table and consumed some choice bits of beef before returning to his post. Suddenly there was a distraction as the school gardener a Bemba was staggering on the road as he returned from his Sunday beer drink. On his journey home he was lamenting the passing of his mother letting the local spirits (Svikiro) know that he was merely passing through their territory peaceably but noisily. A few bullets sprinkled the ground around him but to no avail as he barely noticed them in his drunken stupor on the way to his quarters which he reached mercifully without injury. The attack lasted about 4 hours before the attackers were driven off by Security Forces who had been deployed to do so.
The host Headmaster was anxious to hear that all the visiting children were safe. At first light a check was done and there were no casualties among any children. The one apparent MIA was a local Public Works Department official who had been in the Bar at Peter’s motel and could not be located immediately. As the search widened for him some of the locals were quaffing their favourite beers when some muffled sounds were heard in the vicinity of the fireplace. It sounded like a body was moving in that area. Suddenly a sooty figure emerged from the fireplace and the diminutive shape of the local PWD official emerged intact with his two Colt .45 revolvers still in their holsters. 2 gun Pete as he had been named by the locals had retreated in great haste to the nearest hiding place in the bar which was the chimney. Fortunately for him it was not struck by any projectiles. He then became sooty 2 gun Pete a living legend. It was also discovered that the local Headmaster and his guests had driven through the killing area of the ambush that had been set up on the main Falls Road. Fortunately it was too early to initiate the ambush. He and his guests had a lucky escape.
Once it had been established that the immediate vicinity had been cleared of insurgents the next day the Selukwe children boarded the buses for home and joined the convoy as arranged. This had been stiffened by additional military personnel and extra air cover was also provided for the journey home on Monday. The children were excited about their experiences during their visit to the Falls and wanted to get home and share their most unusual experiences from the weekend. No media reports were permitted on the events of the attack until the children had safely returned home. It was a nerve wracking morning for the Baobab Headmaster as he awaited confirmation that all his visitors had got home safely. They did. A few days later the Headmaster of Baobab received a message that one 12 year old girl had asked her father to have her admitted to the MOTH order ( Memorable Order of Tin Hats - equivalent to RSL and RBL) as she had been under fire and now considered herself eligible to join. The local Old Bill spoke kindly to her and recommended that when she had seen a bit more service and was a bit older she should re – apply. Her father Norman Household had flown with Ian Smith in the RAF (Rhodesia Squadron) during WW 2. Many years later at Kings Park, Perth, Australia this same girl Angela Household now a mother shared her story with the Author Graham Blick who had taught her at Selukwe junior school prior to his move to the Falls. This tale is one example of how the Civil population learnt how to cope with the difficulty of isolation and war and how they overcame such problems.
Images (L-R) Graham Blick in the background renewing friendships; Map of Rhodesia showing Victoria Falls and Selukwe; Security Forces prepare to "run the gauntlet"; air cover was provided when deemed necessary and available.
John Padbury was a former Special Branch Detective Inspector in the British South Africa Police. For his anti-terrorist operations, he was awarded the Silver Baton Special Commendation by the Commissioner of Police and granted the right to wear the insignia of the Silver Baton.
Doctor Graham Blick DBA, FAIM, FAHRI (RGSM, LSGC, N/S, RICM, ZIM, RLI 60 th anniversary medal), is an Educator, Businessman & Consultant, a Member of the Military Historical Society, Australia, WA branch and Lancaster Military Heritage group, UK. He was the founder and inaugural President of The Rhodesian Services Association, WA and an Honorary Life member of RSAWA. He served in the Rhodesian Armed Forces 1968-1983 in various units and capacities. National Service 1968. Territorial Army and some Regular Army units during this period 1969 to 1983.
A trip to Remember, Rhodesians Worldwide journal, 2020, Graham Blick.
The Art of War, Sun Tzu, translated by Samuel B. Griffith.
Battle for Hurungwe, A Special Branch victory in an unwinnable war Rhodesia 1965 –
1979, John Padbury, 2022.
Mao Zedong's Little Red Book (Quotations from Chairman Mao).