Military History

ZANLA and ZIPRA: Terrorists and Poor Fighters

In the bush war, the Rhodesians were faced with an enemy primarily composed of poorly disciplined, yet armed and violent gangs. Instead of going up against proper soldiers, they had to counter the efforts of ideological terrorists and opportunist criminals. These men were trained in Mozambique and Zambia, where apparently the commissars were more worried about Marxist theory and Mao’s little red book then proper infantry tactics, as demonstrated by the poor fighting ability of both ZANLA and ZIPRA. They crossed over into Rhodesia hoping to destabilize the country, which would hopefully lead to the collapse of the white government, so it could be replaced by a black regime. Their ideology was racialized, but despite this they terrorized white farmers and black villagers alike. Certainly many were also in it merely for personal gain, as it’s much easier to steal, rape and kill when you have the backing of a “liberation” movement and a fully automatic rifle, free of charge.

Hannes Wessel, in A Handful of Hard Men, explains clearly why he describes them as terrorists:

“I have used the word ‘terrorist’… with some reservation when referring to the armed members of ZANLA and ZIPRA. Some would argue a terrorist is simply someone who uses violence in order to achieve a political end. That is to oversimplify. Few wars are fought without a political objective and we invariably accept that the combatants are soldiers, not terrorists. I use the word because their methodology for waging wars was, in the main, not synonymous with what one expects from soldiers. I say ‘in the main’ because all who fought in this war will readily acknowledge that there were men and women within the ranks of the enemy who fought bravely and honorably for a cause they believed in and are deserving of respect, but alas they were the minority.

The facts show very clearly that the overwhelmingly majority of targets attacked by the armed forces deployed by the anti-Rhodesian movements were of a civilian nature and only in rare cases were military facilities or personnel the focus of their attention. This conduct has no symmetry with soldiering and so I feel at liberty to generalise at times and refer to the men who served Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo as ‘terrorists.’”

The Rhodesians were dealing with terrorists in every sense of the definition. Attacking civilian infrastructure, murdering, and stealing has only a few grand-scale purposes – demoralization and destabilization. The hope is that by bringing about instability and by terrorizing and frightening the masses, your opponent will fold and give into your demands. This an act of desperation, and one that isn’t required in a guerrilla campaign. ZANLA and ZIPRA could have easily focused on military targets instead. They could have focused on ambushing security force patrols, attacking their convoys, and raiding their outposts, bases, and checkpoints. If you want an example of guerilla operations done right, check out Wessel’s A Handful of Hard Men, which details his experience in the Rhodesian SAS. Often, they were deployed behind enemy lines, where they harassed the enemy through ambushes and mining routes known to be used by terrorist transports. Their work was crippling, and this type of work is what ZANLA and ZIPRA should have been doing when they deployed in Rhodesia.

The poor discipline and training of the terrorists meant they sometimes failed to even secure a civilian farm. There is one story of a single woman with a rifle scaring off an entire squad of guerrillas, who were besieging her with a machine-gun and even a mortar. That’s a dozen armed men fleeing at the response of one armed woman. Soldiers do not run at the sight of minor opposition, but criminals do.

ZANLA and ZIPRA were barely armies. They were a collection of violent criminals and political terrorists who employed detestable tactics in the name of “liberation.”


(Atrocities committed throughout the war will be covered individually in future articles – the goal of this article was to provide a basic overview on the guerrillas in the Bush War, and to generally describe their tactics and behavior in the field, which had “no symmetry with soldiering.”)


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