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RHODESIAN COMMANDERS CONSIDER A MILITARY COUP.

I am grateful for the support for my latest blog, notably from those who have read the book.


On 3 August 1978, disenchanted with the internal settlement and in a show of unity, the Rhodesian military commanders addressed the Executive Council, African nationalist leaders and Ian Smith. They explained the desperate security situation facing the country that needed desperate remedies. They advised there were over 6000 terrorists within Rhodesia with roughly 30,000 awaiting deployment externally (mainly Mozambique and Zambia), and their numbers probably growing to about 40,000 before the end of that year - with more support and sympathy internally and externally than they had ever had. Time was of the essence and unless something positive and effective was done by Government within the following two to three weeks, it was the view of the Security Chiefs that some political solution other than that now being pursued would have to be found. The entire country was virtually an operational area.


On the same night, Ian Smith wrote of the situation in his diary: "I was more depressed than I could previously recall. But clearly it was something I must keep to myself, because the last thing we wanted was any damage to the wonderful morale and fighting spirit of our Rhodesians.” (Smith, Ian. Bitter Harvest. John Blake Publishing. Kindle Edition location 6709). According to Smith, the Rhodesian Military were losing one territorial company of men per month and the small white population did not have the manpower to sustain this loss. The Security Forces were diminishing in number and effectiveness. (Smith, Ian. Bitter Harvest. John Blake Publishing. Kindle Edition location 6709).

Minutes of the Executive Council meeting on 22 August 1978 stated that hundreds, if not thousands, of blacks were leaving the country as recruits for the Patriotic Front. The Transitional Government was not being supported due to a lack of political motivation and infighting. At the same time, at a National Joint Operations Centre (Nat.JOC) meeting, Lt. Gen. Walls rather bluntly broached the possibility of some sort of political action by the military commanders (in other words a military coup). He was, in effect, rebuffed. Nevertheless, a subcommittee under the direction of Brig. Maclean was convened to consider Lt. Gen. Walls’s proposal. However, the committee maintained that no action was possible within the present constitution.


At a Nat.JOC meeting on 29 August 1978, the coup was again broached by Don Yardley, Secretary for the Interior, generally regarded as extreme right-wing. No minutes were taken - the secretariat having been dismissed. Yardley questioned what should be done if the present ceasefire policy failed and if the attempt to reach an accommodation with Joshua Nkomo was unsuccessful. Clearly, the Nat.JOC was aware of the efforts being made by Rhodesia's Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and Special Branch, and Lord Owen to broker an agreement between Joshua Nkomo and Ian Smith. Yardley said that in those circumstances it seemed that the only viable course was to return to legality by calling in the British Government and thus ending Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). In the course of the discussion that ensued, there was general agreement that this was probably the only course open to them although a number of reservations were expressed.


It was decided to approach the British Government. On 29 August this information reached the British Deputy Under Secretary, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, John Graham, in Salisbury. Graham immediately contacted Lord David Owen, British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary,1977-1979. In a letter to the British Prime Minister, James Callaghan, on 1 September 1978, and his memorandum to the British Cabinet on 5 September 1978, David Owen outlined Nat.JOC’s discussions regarding the possible renunciation of UDI and the serious national, regional and international consequences of such action. He concluded his memorandum to the Cabinet by asking his colleagues for approval of action he proposed in the event of a military coup. However, he advised against this route and his reasoning is outlined in Battle For Hurungwe.


As Lord Owen stated when I interviewed him on 19 March 2018: "One thing in particular, I think that Ian Smith was very tough on letting anybody really know about the true military situation, and I think that’s what was leading to this incipient revolt...". And the Rhodesian Security Forces fought on, generally unaware of the dire political and military state of the country, generally believing they could still win the war.


The full referenced details of these discussions, additional reasons why a coup was being discussed, and the proposed action the British Government would take in the event of a military coup are discussed in Battle For Hurungwe, pp.169-171. The effects this situation had on aspects of future military decisions and operations is also discussed.


As is my practice, I suggest reading Battle For Hurungwe in order to reach an informed conclusion.


Buy Battle for Hurungwe at: https://www.battleforhurungwe.com/


Pictures (L-R): Combined Operations Staff - February - 1979; Members of Combined Operations with their signatures 1978, inscribed on Peter Badcock's book, Shadows of War. Both photos provided by Capt. David Padbury; Rhodesia 1975-1980; Author writing up his diaries; Lynx, Cessna 337. Photo Chris Tucker.