Bandit Mentality is a memoir written by Lindsay O’Brien, a New Zealander fighting in the British South Africa Police (BSAP) Support Unit in Rhodesia. The title Bandit Mentality refers to walking the border of lawlessness that any sustained guerrilla war can induce. The ‘anything goes’ mentality grows on both sides, and the customs and law of conventional battles fades considerably.
I wrote Bandit Mentality because the BSAP Support Unit sought minimal publicity during the war, and afterwards, while books on the army units have been published, there has been little acknowledgement of the Police Support Unit role. I scribbled the notes soon after leaving Rhodesia whilst occupying a single man’s room in a remote mining operation, and it took 30 years of stop-start writing to bring the story out. I didn’t conduct a large amount of research other than dates and geography. This is my story…
The Rhodesian Bush War stretched from 1966 to 1979; essentially, it was a civil war involving African guerrilla armies verses a white government. The adversary, the black guerrilla armies, were held in contempt by politicians and senior military officers. But the man on the ground, fighting at close quarters, found their quarry to be elusive, flexible and able to thwart the military’s technical superiority and survive, despite the thrashings they suffered.
One arm of the government’s Security Forces was the British South Africa Police (the Rhodesian paramilitary civil police). Named after Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in the 1890s, the police conducted routine crime detection and maintenance of public order, but always heavily contributed in the Rhodesia Bush War by providing intelligence, part-time Police Anti-Terrorist Units and Reservists – backing up the regular forces.
It may surprise readers that within the police force operated an army style unit totally immersed in the internal Bush War: BSA Police Support Unit (nicknamed ‘Black Boots’, as the police wore black boots and leather belts). When one thinks ‘police’, handing out speeding tickets or investigating crime immediately spring to mind. However, the BSA Police raised, trained and deployed a Support Unit using the white police leadership seconded from normal police tasks at police stations, while the African component were recruited solely for the anti-terrorist duties. It would be like the British ‘Bobby’ working from a police station, suddenly posted to an army battalion; he undergoes basic training once again and is thrust into Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.
The BSA Police Support Unit evolved from border patrols, riot control and reinforcing police stations under duress, into a battalion-sized anti-terrorist unit. Support Unit deployed as classic infantry. Usually tasked to a specific tribal land, the Unit acted on intelligence and instinct to attempt to locate and engage the enemy. They carried out the non-sexy grunt work with very few helicopter insertions, no cross-border raids and little all-arms support. They were constantly short of equipment and the necessary tools of war. The Support Unit dealt face-to-face with the enemy in deadly close contact skirmishes; they did not arrest or prosecute anyone. This memoir covers my involvement from 1976 – 1978 as a section and troop commander.
After my contract in Support Unit expired, I spent time with the political armies raised in 1978 to support the moderate African politicians in their quest for power in the 1979 elections for an internal political settlement. These armies were billed as ex-terrorists who had seen the light, abandoned the terrorist forces and supported one of the moderate politicians. In fact, the vast majority were unemployed youngsters rounded up from the teeming African townships, and with cursory training, were dumped into bases in the midst of terrorist armies. They learnt survival skills fast or died.
I did not set out to be involved in Rhodesia’s conflict. I’m not the quintessential soldier, rather an anti-social larrikin who arrived in Rhodesia quite by chance.
In 1973, I flew to Johannesburg on a ticket to London, and stopped in South Africa to sight-see. While hitchhiking, an off-duty policeman gave me a lift, and suggested I see Rhodesia before flying to London. He served with the South African Police on the Rhodesia-Zambia border and praised the country. I hiked there on a whim.
For two years I worked on a tobacco farm in the Centenary area – the hub of the war since 1972. With terrorist attacks on farmers and African villagers, in 1975 I decided I’d either have to fly out of the country or jump into the fighting. I chose the second option. I have written a second book titled ‘Sitting Target’ about the farming period in a combat zone and aim to release it next year.
I live retired in Queensland Australia. After 35 years of management and business ownership, I like the lazy life with bursts of bush walking.
Bandit Mentality. Hunting Insurgents in the Rhodesian Bush War, A Memoir by Lindsay O’Brien is available for purchase from Helion & Company here