Winds of Destruction, the autobiography of Rhodesian pilot Group Captain (Retd) Peter Petter-Bowyer (PB for short) is in the words of the US Marine Corps (USMC) Gazette a work “that anyone who has flown will appreciate. For ground officers, it is a view from the cockpit by a professional who has much to offer.”
USMC historian Charles D Melson described it as “the best account I have seen on the Rhodesian Air Force (RhAF)… readable from beginning to end.”
The reviewer can only concur. It is also the finest all-round account of the Bush War I have yet had the pleasure to read. It is highly recommendable, not only for the history it eloquently recounts – much of it new to this critic, who has read a fair share of Bush War books – but also for the lessons to be learned by both Air Force and Army professionals.
The dust jacket blurb calls Winds of Destruction “a unique account of one man`s service in the RhaF, spanning a period of 23 years from 1957 to 1980,” including a “relentless, uncompromising” bush war “that permitted no quarter” and saw the RhAF become “one of the Rhodesia Defence Force`s most lethal and effective counterinsurgency organs. …the RhAF was never far from the action and in no small way responsible for the astonishing military successes against a vastly numerically superior army.”
Again the reviewer can only concur.
Petter-Bowyer was fortunate to have lived – and survived – a most tempestuous time and we are equally privileged to learn from this officer. The Petters, as an aside, have a long history in aviation: his second cousin William Petter designed and was chief engineer on the English Electric (EE) Canberra bomber, the EE Lightning interceptor and the Folland Gnat trainer. William`s father had designed the Westland Lysander battlefield liaison and spy transport. (Bowyer is an occupational name, like Thatcher. Bowyers trained and did fire control for archers in battle).
The author was admitted to pilot training in the late 1950s despite lacking the necessary academic credentials (matric), which was fortunate for the RhAF… After qualifying as a pilot on the Percival P56 Provost T Mk1 he progressed to the De Havilland FB9 Vampire, followed by a posting to 4 Squadron, equipped with armed Provost Mk52s. There Petter-Bowyer began to dabble with counterinsurgency (COIN) “even though I knew absolutely nothing about COIN operations. I had to rely entirely on my imagination and plan accordingly.”
And it is well he did. But he was not impressed with the effectiveness of the weapons to hand, adjudging that most “were totally unsuited to the type of conflict we seemed headed for; COIN warfare. He put this in writing and received a stinging rebuke. “Twelve long years were to pass before I was taken seriously and, eventually, given authority to develop locally manufactured weapons that better suited our needs.”
This dark dozen years included a posting to helicopters – Petter-Bowyer becoming the first RhAF pilot to be converted to the Alouette III in Rhodesia. As a 7Sqn pilot, he was in on the hunt for the “Armageddon” group of Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) on 28 April 1966, the “official” start of the Bush War/Chimurenga. The clash also saw the first use – by Rhodesia – of machine guns fitted to the helicopters.
As the mounting was improvised and nothing was done to prevent the links and empty cartridges from entering the slipstream and destroying or damaging the tail rotor, Petter-Bowyer took it upon himself “to design, build and test a decent mounting for a … machine gun and to fit a gunsight suited to side-firing in forward flight.” With minor modifications this became a standard fit aboard the RhAF and later SA Air Force Alouette.
Soon afterwards he again encounters the limitations of the conventional mind. In the hunt for the Nevada gang, led by a former policeman, the 7Sqn OC spotted a fire in a remote and unpopulated area that was likely the camp site of the guerrillas. But the police chose to ignore his report. Two days later trackers found the location and determined it had indeed been occupied by the gang on the night in question.
The author was present during the contacts with the Zimbabwe African People`s Union (ZAPU) and the Luthuli detachment of the South Africa`s African National Congress (Operation Nickel and Cauldron) and includes a lively account of the fighting.
His next venture, based on (Op Cauldron) involved training tracker dogs and handlers to operate from helicopters – with the dog on the ground and the handler airborne. Unfortunately he was then posted away from helicopters and the technique was not pursued further than some successful experiments that showed the dogs cover ground in hours that took humans days.
The next innovation in July 1968 – just before leaving 7Sqn – was leapfrogging trackers on spoor. “We had closed from seven days to one day in less than three hours.” Another expedient used here was using the helicopter`s shadow to mark a target for a Provost ground attack.
Petter-Bowyer was next posted to the Joint Planning Staff (JPS) of the Operational Control Committee (OCC) and in this capacity flight tested the Puma helicopter. “Unfortunately we never did acquire the Puma because, unlike the Alouette that had been produced for civilian use, Puma was specifically designed and designated for military purposes. The UN mandatory sanctions imposed against Rhodesia made the sale of such equipment to Rhodesia impossible – even for the French.”
JPS duty also brought Petter-Bowyer into contact with the Portuguese in Mozambique, where the latter`s army and air force were – according to his account – largely fighting separate wars from separate facilities because of inter-service rivalry. In a word “unbelievable”, but that same malaise would later raise its head in Rhodesia.
Petter-Bowyer`s next task was as OC 4Sqn, still equipped with the Provost and recent recipient of the “Trojan”, in which he spent hours mastering airborne visual reconnaissance and learning the intricacies of rural pathways – human and animal. Once mastered, this allowed him and those trained in the art, to spot guerrilla bases on first pass – and tell the strength of the gang.
One of the first camps spotted inside Rhodesia during the winter of 1972 was that of Solomon Mujuru (aka Rex Nhongo) in the St Albert`s Mission area in the Kandeya Tribal Trust Land. The matter was raised in a meeting with Ian Smith but the Internal Affairs ministry said this was not possible. Petter-Bowyer was accordingly reprimanded. That December, Mujuru – whose wife is now one of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe`s deputies – attacked Altena farm and then Whistlefield in the Centenary area.
Here Winds of Destruction is especially valuable as it includes Petter-Bowyer`s recounting of Mujuru`s version of the attacks; Majuru and the author having served together on a British-chaired Ceasefire Committee at the end of the war (early 1980).
During April 1974 he was again in Mozambique conducting Fire Force-style operations with the Portuguese as part of Operation Marble. During one of these actions, he was attacked by a SAM7 Grail, perhaps “the first to be launched against a RhAF aircraft.” South Africa`s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research helped design appropriate passive countermeasures subsequently fitted to RhAF and SAAF aircraft.
Petter-Bowyer takes a dim view of South African Prime Minister John Vorster, who bullied Rhodesia into a “ceasefire” with ZANU and ZAPU in late 1974, allowing them to regroup and arguably win the war by 1980. “… almost every CT group had been broken up, forcing union of surviving elements under diminishing direction and reduced quality of leadership. Yet we were being ordered to let the enemy off the hook!”
In late 1975 Army chief-of-staff Maj Gen John Shaw was killed in a helicopter accident along with RLI commander Dave Parker. Petter-Bowyer says he is “one of many who believe that had John Shaw and Dave Parker lived, the Rhodesian war would have followed a better path.”
In 1977 he was at last able to address the weapons issue. A series of projects followed quickly giving the RhAF the “Alpha bomb” (Project Alpha), an improved SNEB rocket, radio-activated ground flares, a smoke generator for target marking from helicopters, a fertiliser-and-diesel filled blast bomb (Project Golf), a better napalm bomb and a flechette system that truly scared ZANU: in one early raid using the system a ZANLA command group of 26 top cadres, infiltrating Rhodesia on a fact finding mission were hit by sheer coincidence. All were killed, every one being hit by at least six finned six-inch nails. Petter-Bowyer only learned of this success after the war.
The writer also shares his disappointment with “Combined Operations” (COMOPS), established in March 1977 that replaced the OCC.
In a criticism this reviewer has not yet seen elsewhere, Petter-Bowyer notes that the OCC controlled the various Joint Operational Commands. But at “no level was there a recognized supreme.” Chairing the OCC as well as the JOCs was done by rotation. “This style of command and control expected ‘reasonable men to act responsibly in cooperation with one another`.
“So long as we were experiencing total successes against ZIPRA and ZANLA in the years prior to 1974, the system worked remarkably well. However, by late 1976 it had become clear to everyone that ZANLA was gaining ascendancy and that Rhodesia`s resources were being stretched to the limits.
“It was also clear that, whereas ZANLA was working to a specific strategy, JOCs and sub-JOCs were doing their own thing in the absence of clearly defined political and military strategies upon which to formulate plans and tactics.
“Considerable enterprise was shown at every level in all services; but these uncoordinated initiatives were not all good for the country. In the absence of a supreme commander with a staff of top-line planners to give executive direction, it was not surprising that strong initiatives by men and units, all driven by frustration and the will to win, too often achieved negative results.
“From my viewpoint, the most obvious of these was the negative mindset of many Army and Police officers towards the Selous Scouts, even though the Scouts were directly responsible for the majority of our internal counterinsurgency successes…
“A major problem in not having a national military strategy was the periodic misuse of the SAS due to differences in opinions on how the specialist unit should be employed. When made available to JOC Hurricane, the SAS were correctly used to disrupt ZANLA`s external communication routes. When detached to JOC Repulse, they were often used incorrectly on internal Fire Force tasks.
“The consequence of this, and ZANLA`s ever-increasing numbers, was that an air of depression set in and many Rhodesians were emigrating … and everyone could see that the political assurance that Rhodesia would win through was no more than a smoke screen.”
Petter-Bowyer notes that COMOPS was “an attempt to emulate the direction Britain had taken in handling a similar situation in Malaya in the early 1950s. The British Government appointed General Gerald Templar as Supreme Commander over every arm of government with instructions to reverse ever-mounting Chinese communist successes… As Malaya`s Supremo General Templar`s successes had been spectacular so now, almost too late in the day, Rhodesia aimed to follow suit.
“Throughout the military, there was a general air of expectancy and hope because most officers were familiar with the Malayan success story.
“Comops had been established for the right reasons, but General [Peter] Walls was not afforded the same powers General Templar had enjoyed. Without these I believe he was stymied. Within a couple of weeks of its formation, it became clear that COMOPS was not going to bring about what we were expecting. Our hopes of receiving clearly defined military direction were dashed because General Templar`s single most important need to ‘win the hears and minds of the (African) people found no place as the firm foundation upon which to build a total strategy. This vital issue was simply ignored.
“Furthermore there was no effort to eliminate weakness in leadership at any level.”
“The real strength of the Rhodesian Army at the time lay in its battle-experienced colonels, lieutenant-colonels and majors, but they stayed in their positions whilst officers of questionable character and performance remained in harness. The same applied to the Police and many government ministries. … In effect COMOPS had merely replaced OCC, but with more people attending lengthier meetings…”
“”The selection of COMOPS (delightfully misspelled COMPOS in one caption) was left to individual HQs and this resulted in General Walls failing to receive the powerful planning staff he needed.
“All too soon it became clear that the new command was not going to serve its intended purpose but would make Rhodesia`s already difficult position even worse…”
Winds of Destruction – The autobiography
300 South Publishers
(Published in the UK by Trafford Publishing, 2003)