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Police Anti-Terrorist Units

Updated: May 30

Chief Superintendent Bill Bailey became the Lomagundi District Commander in 1964. Bailey had served in the Long-Range Desert Group (LRDG) during World War II and was a far-sighted and unconventional thinker. He foresaw that a “bush war” would take place and predicted the need for local, well-trained units who could defend their own white farming communities under threat, before the army had time to mobilise and deploy in their defence. To this end, Bailey set about selecting and training small volunteer units which were initially termed VATS, or Volunteers for Advanced Training, and which were later to morph into the well-known Police Anti-Terrorist Units (PATU) used throughout the country. Senior Assistant Commissioner Ted Sheriff was involved in the renaming process.

These four- to five-man PATU sticks normally included one or two African policemen which helped their effectiveness by interpreting events on the ground and assisting in interrogations when necessary. They were very dedicated and effective units that proved extremely efficient in Observation Points covert operations (OPs) .


On 5 August 1977, a PATU callsign lead by N/S/P/O Allan Johnston deployed into the Manyika Tribal Trust Land. Their brief was to establish a covert OP in order to observe the kraals in the valley below. Our intelligence suggested that ZANLA sections were operating in the area. The night "walk-in" of approximately fifteen kilometres proved perilous and the callsign was almost compromised by a large section of insurgents walking towards them on the same path. Johnston managed to establish an uncompromised OP at locstat at VQ462455.


The following day they observed activity in the kraals that suggested insurgents were nearby. Later that afternoon at least 30 well armed insurgents emerged from the bush near the kraals and patrolled through the valley below. Johnston had no communications with his base and did not have sufficient manpower or weaponry to launch a dawn ambush of the kraals. He decided to walk back to the Rugoyi base and contact me with the intention of leading the Fire Force into battle early the following morning.


At first light on Sunday 7 August 1977, Johnston lead the Fire Force back to the kraals and the enemy was successfully engaged. The full details of this deployment and the Fire Force action are discussed in Battle For Hurungwe.


During the Fire Force action led by Major Andre Dennison, at least one insurgent was located in a "bunker- like" cave. Ground forces were unable to penetrate the cave due to enemy fire and suffered one casualty. Despite the use of hand-grenades and two strikes by the Lynx using Frantan (napalm), the cave proved impenetrable. At last light Dennison instructed his troops to surround the cave in order to ensure that the insurgent(s) did not escape. This cave siege was reminiscent of the capture and execution of Chief Chingaira Makoni by British troops almost 100 years earlier during the First Chimurenga.


On my return to our base at Rusape, Supt. Cy Hartley stated that it was the responsibility of Special Branch to remove and capture the insurgent(s) in the cave. There was no way we were going into that cave. Logically, I decided to use tear gas and drew all the necessary equipment from the Police Reserve store aided by Inspector John Wilkins who asked to join our follow-up team. I also called for the Police Dog Section unit from Umtali to attend. My thinking was to let the dogs search the cave in order to establish whether it was still occupied and, if so, the tear gas would flush them out. At first light, our Special Branch team returned to Rugoyi and met the Fire Force and Gary Tudor-Jones, the dog section detail. We were choppered into the battle zone and directed to the cave.


After another Security Force member was injured the Fire Force was ordered to leave the battle zone; the commanders did not want anymore avoidable casualties. As they departed and the whirl of the chopper’s rotor-blades faded in the distance, an eerie calm settled over the area. I studied the cave entrance thinking what a lonely, isolated and vulnerable position we were now in. When a battle is imminent, time, it seems, does indeed stand still. Creation is rendered silent, emptiness lingers, nature is stilled. Dennison had decided to remain and joined the Special Branch team which took command of the operation. To my knowledge, this was the first and only time tear gas was used in a cave siege during the war.


The full details of this operation are described in Battle For Hurungwe.

ALLAN JOHNSTON ON PATROL