The Rhodesian Soldier

An aerial view of an established keep in Sipolilo District (Photo thanks Lewis Walter) 

On 25 July 1974 "Operation Overload" was announced by Army Headquarters, with the next three weeks a constant shuttle of trucks moving from kraal to kraal, loading everything that was to be moved into the now fenced village. Weeks before, all the communities in Chiweshe had been visited by the DC’s staff, advising them that the relocation to PVs was imminent and that preparations should be made to build houses within the PVs. They should also consider where in the village they wanted to live and next to whom. The items moved into the PV were therefore entirely in the hands of the individual members of the community. Daily patrols were made into the evacuated areas, to ensure that everybody had been relocated. Animals were initially housed near their original villages, as during the day, the community would be free to return to their lands. Provision was gradually made to bring livestock closer to the PV. The installation of piped water into the village lagged the relocation of the people into the village, simply because of both logistical and time constraints. Water was drawn from the river in the interim. In addition to daily patrols into the evacuated areas, Intaf now had to control the entry/exit points into the PV, and do random night patrols within the fenced area of the village. They also had to run their own "keep" guard schedule every night; resources were stretched over this three week period. 

On the 15th August, three weeks after the official start of "Operation Overload", it was officially completed, although the establishment of village infrastructure was far from complete. The PDOs and FAs would still be in Chiweshe for some time. Within a week of the official completion of the operation, the detachments of SAP, who had been there for the last six weeks, were withdrawn from Chiweshe, having completed their mandated short term support duties. 

The quoted estimates of the Chiweshe population moved into the 21 PVs, varied from 45000 to in excess of 60000 depending on the source. The Rhodesia Herald article of 31 July 1974 quoted a very precise figure of 46960. This figure was also quoted in a published thesis which included a section on "Operation Overload. A number of articles published on the Chiweshe Protected Villages, quoted population densities of between 3000 and 5000 per village. This is at variance with the total population figure. Both DC Bill Johnston and ADC Alex Deere were awarded MLMs for their work on "Operation Overload". 

Public Address Control Room at a PV in Chiweshe

Nick Baalbergen relates an incident which shows how dangerous personal interpretation of curfew regulations can be: 

“From the direction of the river, about 700 metres away from the keep, we heard the unmistakable sounds of a "contact" in progress - automatic rifle fire, mainly single shot! We all mobilised to our defensive positions along the keep walls. The SAP brought out their machine gun. It soon became apparent that the only rifle fire was that of FNs, there was no distinctive crack of AK47 fire. 

"We stayed in our defensive positions, and within a minute or two we heard the high pitched, laboured whine of a vehicle engine at very high revs. A cloud of dust was rapidly making its way towards the keep entrance. Seconds later, the five-man fencing crew pulled into the keep in Eddy de Kock’s (the fencing contractor) one-tonner, driven by a wide-eyed, ashen-faced driver. One member of the crew was beside the driver, in the cab, the other three were huddled in the open load-box behind the cab. All were clearly shaken, some were wet and one was totally wet and without a stitch of clothing, other than an improvised empty cement bag from the truck. The crew had completed their days work on the fence. They decided to go down to the river for a wash, a couple of hundred metres from where they had been working, rather than return to the keep for a wash. They piled into the truck and drove down the cattle track to the river, where they started to wash at the river’s edge. At the river, they had wandered into an RAR unit that was setting up an ambush position at the crossing point. The RAR unit opened fire as it was past curfew time. The crew ran back to the truck and got back to the keep in record time. 

"The one member of the crew was already in the river, minus his clothes, when the firing started. Thinking that discretion was the better part of valour, he abandoned his clothes at the water’s edge and sprinted for the truck, vaulting into the back as it was pulling out. Only after the adrenalin had stopped pumping, did this guy realise that he had also broken his big toe in his rapid retreat. Fortunately, this was the only injury, although a bullet hole in the driver’s side door is a testament to how close they came to a more serious outcome. The incident was regularly recounted for some time afterwards, to the embarrassment of the fencing crew and a mixture of amusement and ridicule, unique to Shona culture, from the assembled audience. One positive outcome from this incident was that I never had to mention my "standing orders" on the curfew again!!” 

A few weeks into the operation, a consignment of American Jeep one-and-a-half ton trucks was distributed to the keeps. The origin of these vehicles is unknown, clearly a "one-off" as this unprotected type of vehicle was not seen elsewhere. The Jeep at Nyachuru was a "Gunstan Orange" colour, popular at the time. Towards the end of July, staff at the keeps moved from their canvas shelters into the newly completed buildings inside the keep, comprising a number of wooden buildings under asbestos roofing, as accommodation, communications, admin., and store. The keep infrastructure was taking shape, water tanks were installed, kitchen, shower and toilet facilities had been completed. Septic tank soak pits had been built and closed up for use. Sandbagged bunkers were in place near the building entrances, and the keep wall walkways had been built, mainly by the DA contingent. Work was now starting on the village infrastructure.

Intake 1 Internal Affairs National Servicemen passing out at Chikurubi, Salisbury

Johnston returned from a briefing at Centenary and advised his staff that the re-location was to be carried out to an extremely tight time schedule, his team of fifteen becoming five hundred strong by early June, when the teams for the twenty-one Protected Villages were bought into Chiweshe. Included were National Servicemen, like Nick Baalbergen, who had commenced their basic training at Llewellin Barracks as Intake 137, before being moved to Internal Affairs, where he underwent further training and preparation at Chikurubi and Mt Darwin. The majority of this group was, after a briefing, deployed directly to the raw sites of the proposed Protected Villages. 

Initially, Primary Development Officers (PDOs) and Field Assistants (FAs) would be required to carry out the construction of the keeps and related infrastructure. DAs (District Assistants) would have to be seconded to man the keeps of each PV, remembering that the concept of the DSAs (District Security Assistants) had not yet been formalised – regular civilian DAs were brought in for the task. Fencing contractors would have to be brought in for the perimeter fencing, and equipment for the supply of water and related infrastructure would have to be procured. On the ground, sites for each of the twenty-one proposed PVs had to be located and the population advised of the "timetable" for their relocation. Sufficient transport had to be made available to carry out the relocation. All of this preparation was to be completed within a matter of six weeks. 

Graphic image of a Bulldozer forming the earthen walls of a keep (Ft Misery, Nembire, Mt Darwin)

The Protected Villages, spread over the length of Chiweshe, were numbered from "1" in the north, to "21" in the south west, with a centrally located administrative base at Chombira. The basis of deployment was one National Serviceman per PV, together with a contingent of DAs seconded from Districts throughout the country. At selected PV sites, two National Servicemen were deployed. In addition to this core component, one Army National Serviceman was posted to each PV as required. A significant contingent of the South African Police (SAP) had been secured and was deployed specifically in support of the initial stages of the Operation, with small detachments of Quebec Company, SAP, posted strategically to PVs throughout Chiweshe. 

This collection of widely divergent individuals brought together under unusual circumstances, had to quickly learn to work together as an integrated, cohesive team. Initially, accommodation was rudimentary; the Intaf personnel under a number of canvas sheets, SAP in their own tents. Water was initially brought in by tractor drawn "tanker" trailer, pumped from the river about seven hundred metres away. Food was in the form of "Rat Packs", supplemented by fresh produce purchased locally. 

Despite the clear limitations placed on the activities of the SAP in the overall operation, some members nevertheless regularly volunteered to accompany Intaf on patrols. Baalbergen’s contingent of DAs at PV21, ‘Nyachuru’, soon got into the routine in this unfamiliar environment. There was no existing rank structure in the squad, so after working with them for six weeks, he promoted a particularly promising DA, Thomas, with eleven years of Intaf service, to Corporal – he received an unexpected letter of thanks from him.

Aerial view of the sprawling PV at Hoya, Centenary District

Nyachuru PV was located a couple of kilometres due east of Howard Institute, a large Salvation Army complex, which included a well-equipped hospital. The Salvation Army presence in Chiweshe dates from 1923. The proximity of this complex proved to be a mixed blessing. The benefit of a medical facility in close proximity to the village is obvious, but Howard Institute was also home to several staff members who were consistent, vocal and scathing critics of Government policy and the detrimental effects the implementation of the policies would have on the lives of the inhabitants of the area. 

Dr Watt, in particular, had regularly confronted Government through the press, since 1970. There were regular "confrontations" between Dr Watt and Intaf spokesmen up to the late '70s, as evidenced by several articles appearing in The Sunday Mail and the Rhodesia Herald newspapers in March 1977. Nyachuru PV became the natural focus of attention for the members of staff of Howard Institute, especially during and immediately after the local community was moved into the village. The PV bore the brunt of the initial "bad press" simply because it was the most accessible from both Howard Institute and from Salisbury. An article in the Rhodesia Herald of 31 July 1974, quoting Dr Pat Hill, was particularly scathing about the initial stages of the relocation into Nyachuru, pointing out the shortcomings of the operation. In truth, conditions were no different anywhere else in Chiweshe. The urgency of the prevailing situation, dictated the haste with which the relocation was required to be carried out, resulting in the installation of basic services lagging the move into the villages. 

A dusk to dawn curfew, an essential element in regaining control, had been imposed in Chiweshe, a fact known to all who lived and worked in the area. The area excluded from the curfew, was the land that would be enclosed by the proposed Protected Village perimeter fence, so before the fence was constructed, night-time movements were restricted to the keep, so that the necessary defensive security measures could be introduced. It allowed elements of the Security Forces to operate freely in pursuit of the ZANLA group that had infiltrated the area. 

Operation Overload

“The Government has a duty to protect the lives and property of the people and at the moment we are failing to do this. For that reason, and not as a punishment, I require you to move into the protected areas I am building.” 

(District Commissioner, Chiweshe, quoted in the Rhodesia Herald, 25 July 1974) 

In the 1950s, the conflict in Malaya saw the introduction by the British of the Briggs Plan, which sought to deny the Chinese guerrillas access to the peasant population by moving the latter into Protective Villages (PVs). Local people were moved into secure villages guarded by armed personnel, who were also responsible for checking the PV inhabitants in and out at dusk and dawn. The objective, generally successfully achieved, was to deny the insurgents access to food, shelter and information. 

On 18 May 1973, the Rhodesian Government introduced further new emergency legislation which allowed for the compulsory collectivisation or consolidation of the populous of certain TTLs, especially where it was felt that subversion had reached uncontrollable levels. By the end of that year, some 8000 tribes people had been moved away from their traditional homes near the border with Mozambique, into government facilities in Gutsa in the Zambezi Valley. In April the following year, two hundred peasants from Madziwa TTL in Mashonaland were punished for assisting terrorists, by being translocated to the opposite end of the country near Beitbridge. 

Map of Chiweshe TTL showing its position in the middle of Commercial Farming areas

It fell almost exclusively upon Internal Affairs and its agencies to implement, administer and defend the PV programme. The then Minister of Internal Affairs, Jack Mussett, in a parliamentary debate, would justify the programme as an ‘operational imperative,’ designed to isolate local tribes people from terrorist influence, whilst also cutting off the latter’s access to food and supplies. However, he did concede that the exercise would result in major social upheaval and a ‘traumatic experience’ for those affected. In the winter of 1974, the PV programme commenced in the hotbed of Chiweshe TTL, under the name Operation Overload. 

The Chiweshe Tribal Trust Land lies within the Mazoe district, with its boundaries forming a long, narrow roughly rectangular outline, measuring approximately 70 kilometres south to north and about 20 kilometres east to west. Just outside the southern boundary lies the town of Concession and the offices of the District Commissioner, and to the west the town of Umvukwes. To the east is Bindura, while to the north-east and north-west lie the towns of Mount Darwin and Centenary. Chiweshe was surrounded on three sides by some of the most productive commercial agricultural land in the country. At its southern point, Chiweshe was no more than 60 kilometres from Salisbury, and therefore formed a natural corridor from the north-eastern border districts into the capital. A ZANLA group had established itself in the area and using particularly brutal coercive tactics, had gained a foothold. On-going brutalisation and killings of key community members as "examples,” ensured the co-operation of the population, while the subversion of susceptible elements of the population established a support base. Surrounding commercial farms were being subjected to attack, and the landmining of roads was a rapidly escalating danger. 

For some time, District Commissioner Bill Johnston had engaged with the community of Chiweshe, attempting to loosen the insurgents grip on the people. Standard meetings were held with tribal leaders and community meetings warning of the consequences of continued insurgent support. Selective punitive measures were employed. Eventually the population was advised that their relocation to Protective Villages was being considered. There was no improvement in the security situation, and the need to regain control over this strategically important corridor quickly and decisively had become both a political and military imperative.