Did ‘dirty war’ tactics kill more guerrillas in Rhodesia than conventional military units?

Glenn Cross investigates Chemical Biological Warfare in Southern Africa

Although some nations have developed or acquired chemical or biological agents, few have ever used these weapons against their adversaries. One of the few countries ever thought to have used chemical or biological agents was Rhodesia. This small, landlocked breakaway British colony in Southern Africa used chemical and biological agents during its protracted struggle against an increasingly numerous African nationalist insurgency in the years following Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain in November 1965.

The genesis of the Rhodesian Chemical Biological Warfare (CBW) effort was to be found in the deteriorating security situation that developed following Mozambique’s Independence from Portuguese colonial rule after the 25 April military coup d’état in Lisbon and the subsequent ‘Carnation’ revolution. The rise of the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) in Mozambique effectively forced the overstretched and under-resourced Rhodesians to defend their long land border with Mozambique – effectively a second front.

During the Rhodesian war, Rhodesian Security Forces were far better trained and equipped than their guerrilla adversaries. In a pitched battle between the Rhodesian Security Forces and guerrillas, the guerrillas usually lost. For that reason, guerrillas typically avoided contact with Rhodesia military or police units – seeking instead to ambush soft, largely civilian targets (i.e. isolated farmhouses, rural schools, district commissioners, veterinary workers and civilians travelling on the roads).

Later in the struggle, the Rhodesians (facing severe manpower and materiel shortages) adopted unconventional tactics or techniques against a foe that fled rather than fight – including the use of recruited agents to insert CBW-contaminated food, beverages, medicines and clothing into guerrilla supplies. Some of these supplies were provided to guerrilla groups inside Rhodesia; some were transported to guerrilla camps in Mozambique. In all, deaths attributed to CBW agents often exceeded the monthly guerrilla body count claimed by conventional Rhodesian military units – demonstrating the utility of CBW agents in a counterinsurgency campaign against an elusive enemy.

Although few details are known about Rhodesia’s clandestine CBW efforts, a broad-brush picture is clear. The project was born out of desperation as the conflict intensified in the mid-1970s, and was the brainchild of a professor, Robert Symington, at the University of Rhodesia’s medical school. He reportedly put forward the idea to the then-Minister of Defense, who advocated it to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister – almost certainly in consultation with his War Cabinet – delegated responsibility to the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), and implementation was assigned to the Special Branch liaison component in the Selous Scouts. Although they were aware of the CBW program’s existence, the full extent to which the Rhodesian political and military leadership was involved in the effort is obscure, due to the lack of documentary material or living witnesses.

Prime Minister Ian Smith publicly denied any knowledge of the program, but almost certainly approved the program’s creation – even if he was not aware of the details of its daily operations. In December 1998, a Zimbabwe newspaper quoted Ian Smith as saying: ‘It’s a lot of rubbish. I know nothing about [such germ warfare]. They [the Rhodesian Security Forces] could have done so without my knowledge… Those saying that are giving us credit for being more creative and brilliant than what we were’.

Chief of Rhodesia’s CIO, Ken Flower, was very aware of the CBW activities, having received bi-weekly status reports on the effort from McGuinness. The police (BSAP) commissioners – first Sherren, and later, Allum – were briefed on the CBW efforts, and at least Sherren took steps to ensure that the program remained concealed. In 1977, McGuinness briefed the Combined Operations (COMOPS) – headed by Lieutenant General Peter Walls – about the CBW effort.

Rhodesian Special Forces (Selous Scout) commander Lieutenant Colonel Ron Reid-Daly also knew of the CBW effort, and many of his men were likely involved in disseminating the tainted materials. Most readily available information about the program is based on the half-truths, rumors, conjectures, anecdotes and myths that circulated around the officers’ messes and pubs frequented by members of the Rhodesian Security Forces, however.

Although little specific information remains available about the Rhodesian CBW effort, what is indisputable is that its primary purpose was to kill guerrillas – whether they were recruits transiting to camps in Mozambique, or guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia. The CBW effort took on the guerrilla threat from three fronts: first, the effort aimed to eliminate guerrillas operating inside Rhodesia through contaminated supplies, either provided by contact men, recovered from hidden caches or stolen from rural stores; a second-order effect was to disrupt the relations between village supporters and the guerrillas. Secondly, the effort worked to contaminate water supplies along guerrilla infiltration routes into Rhodesia – forcing the guerrillas either to travel through arid regions and to carry more water and less ammunition, or travel with more ammunition but move through areas patrolled by Rhodesian Security Forces.

The CBW effort was made up of a rag-tag band of amateurs, working with makeshift equipment and readily available commercial materials. They developed the means to inflict casualties on insurgent forces beyond the capabilities of Rhodesia’s professional conventional military.

The chemical and biological agents developed by this small, rudimentary program were based almost exclusively on readily available toxic agricultural and industrial chemicals including warfarin (rodenticide), thallium (rodenticide), methyl parathion (an active ingredient in several organophosphate pesticides used in Rhodesia), Vibrio cholera (the causative agent of cholera), Bacillus anthracis (the causative agent of anthrax) and botulinum toxin. The Rhodesians may also have experimented with several other agents – including ricin,13 abrin, amanita toxin, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), sodium fluoroacetate (compound 1080), cyanide, arsenic and tetra colchicine [sic] – but information on those experimental agents has proven hard to substantiate.

Of those knowledgeable insiders willing to talk, all share a consistent story about Rhodesia’s development and use of chemical and biological agents during the Bush War; they even chillingly admit that chemical and biological agents were used in experiments on captured insurgents. In short, the story centres on an element of the BSAP Special Branch (attached to the Rhodesian Army’s Selous Scouts), which implemented and oversaw the Rhodesian CBW effort from mid-to-late 1976 until late 1979.

The daily operation of this limited effort fell to a small Special Branch counterterrorist unit (sometimes referred to as ‘Z Desk’ or ‘Counterterrorist Operations’) under the command of Chief Superintendent Michael ‘Mac’ McGuinness. The Rhodesian CBW program was staffed with a small number of scientists and technicians working as ‘consultants’ to the Special Branch and co-located at the Special Branch/Selous Scout ‘fort’ outside Bindura (80 km north of Salisbury). The description of these insiders is instructive; it is one of a small band of scientists and students who served their ‘call-ups’ (often as long as three months) at the Bindura ‘fort’.

The effectiveness of the Rhodesian poisons effort was constrained by its limited scope and application; the nature of the raw materials employed; and the crude dissemination methods. Nevertheless, participants in the poisons program saw it as hugely successful – at least early on. As mentioned earlier, CIO Director-General Ken Flower claimed in his autobiography that many hundreds of guerrillas were killed as a result of the poisons program; also mentioned earlier, the leadership saw the CBW effort – at least in its early days – as more effective than the conventional military. Symington echoed that sentiment. South African policeman Eugene de Kock stated: ‘This [fact] confirmed that they [killed] a lot more of the enemy by means of the food and the clothing, than what they did in [daily] operations’. Most importantly, the 1977 Special Branch briefing to COMOPS opened by stating: ‘… The true extent of our success may never be known…’ The report went on to claim 809 guerrilla deaths due to poisoning.

The most serious detriment to the project’s continuing success was the guerrillas’ eventual discovery of the program’s activities, which made dissemination of poisoned items more difficult, as guerrillas became less trusting. Although the Special Branch continually devised new dissemination techniques, the growing guerrilla awareness of the poisoning effort did reduce the program’s effectiveness. On this subject, the 28 June report stated: ‘Our methods of operations are changing continually in order to keep the enemy guessing and [illegible] improved methods have recently come to light that bode well for the future’.

According to the scientific head of the CBW effort, Robert Symington, the Rhodesian poisoning program was very successful; some months it resulted in a greater number of guerrilla fatalities than the conventional military operations of the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI). This claim is plausible, given the reluctance of most guerrilla groups to engage conventional Rhodesian Security Forces in head-on battle; guerrilla bands preferred hit-and-run tactics against soft targets.

The only official Rhodesian assessment of the program’s effectiveness is the estimate prepared for COMOPS. That paper estimates that, as of 28 June 1977, the poisoning program had resulted in the deaths of 809 individuals. Within SB circles at the time, it was widely believed that more guerrillas were dying from poison than from conventional Fireforce ‘contacts’. Uncertainty remains whether the numbers briefed to COMOPS included estimates of deaths due to cholera. If not, the total for the CBW effort (including use of cholera) could be doubled.

Dirty War. Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare 1975-1980 by Glenn Cross can be purchased here.

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