Book review: Counter-strike from the sky


The Rhodesian security forces could muster some 1500 troops on any given day during the 1966-1980 “Bush War”, confronting them with an interesting conundrum in numbers, space and time their counterinsurgency against the guerillas of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo.

“Their solution was to use their aircraft to tackle and extinguish multiple threats over a wide area,” expert Rhodesian historian Dr JRT Wood writes in “Counter-strike from the sky”. He notes they began using the helicopter – initially Aerospatiale Alouette III light utility platforms – to bolster and support the traditional counterinsurgency tactics of cross-graining patrols, cordon-and-search and tracking. The agile helicopter could leap-frog the trackers along a track, shortening the pursuit of guerillas before their tracks were lost and they melded into the local population or crossed an international frontier. The helicopter could also place men in stop positions ahead of the trackers.
“The breakthrough for the Rhodesian forces came in early 1974 when they acquired French Matra MG151 20mm cannon which gave them the firepower [drive guerillas to ground] and to suppress and discourage enemy fire which the hitherto-used [FN] MAG machine gun could not accomplish.
“The Fireforce … could only be deployed once an insurgent group had been found and finding them posed major difficulties. Here intelligence-gathering was crucial and required imaginative police and other investigative work. … The Selous Scout Regiment was raise to identify the target to which the Fireforce could react.”

Wood examines this “system of systems”, starting with the helicopter and the challenges encountered in arming the little beasts. He then examines the “support weapons”, principally the rest of the Rhodesian Air Force – consisting of a mix of fighters, bombers and light attack aircraft, often armed with a unique assortment of weapons – many developed on shoe-string budgets by Group Captain Peter Petter-Bowyer. The ground element generally involved elite infantry from the Rhodesian Light Infantry and the Rhodesian African Rifles and consisted of troops allocated to the helicopters as a “first wave” with the remainder of the rifle company concerned allocate to the “land tail” that would follow the helicopters, providing a follow-on wave or waves as well as a helicopter admin area for refueling and re-arming.

By war’s end it was a slick and practiced system that is well worth the study. Wood gives the Fireforce a sympathetic evaluation, although he might have dwelt too much on the “super Fireforce” created for Operation Dingo in November 1977. The trouble, of course, was for all their military prowess and economy the Rhodesians could not win. “What they could not do thereafter was to occupy the ground. It meant that, in the end, they could only fight their enemy into a stalemate.” But that moves us beyond the scope of this worthwhile book.

Dr JRT Wood

Counter-strike from the sky – The Rhodesian al-arms Fireforce in the war in the bush, 1974-1980
30 degrees South Publishers
2nd Edition