The Rhodesian Bush War – Where the police served as infantry

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.

Lindsay says:

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.

Support Unit shoulder flash and an India Troop lanyard (author)

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.

Kiaran Allen and constables in an operational area. (Kiaran Allen)

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.

Author at Security Force Auxiliary base Gutsa, Zambezi Valley (author)

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

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One Response to The Rhodesian Bush War – Where the police served as infantry

  1. davidbfpo says:

    This is a refreshingly honest account by a New Zealander who volunteered to serve in Rhodesia’s British South African Police Support Unit, as the insurgency gained momentum 1976-1980. The Support Unit was the still largely civilian police’s para-military unit (1200 strong), with black African other ranks & NCOs and officered by regular, white police officers and those whites doing National Service.
    What motivated him to serve? Simply ‘a selfish love of combat and life with a complete lack of routine…I was hooked on the adrenaline rush…adventure for the sake of adventure’ (Pg.267). Plus the opportunity between six week tours in the bush to drink, party and relax. By 1978 even with his experience no-one bothered to persuade him to stay, so the author left and ended up as an adviser to newly recruited UANC fighters, known as security force auxiliaries.
    Little has been written about the ordinary black African role in Rhodesia’s insurgency; I exclude the Selous Scouts who were mainly turned ex-guerrillas. Loyalties were not fixed, the author recounts in the autumn of 1976 a captured guerrilla recruit claimed to be a serving policeman’s wife (Pg.79). Their motives were mixed, paid employment, revenge for some; they were loyal to the Support Unit and the BSAP – who ‘watched over them’ and like the French Foreign Legion ‘gave solid service in return’ (Pg.172).
    The stance of the majority, rural African population in the Tribal Trust Lands facing violence from the guerrillas and the Rhodesian security forces was to steadily change. The Africans would claim ignorance of the guerrilla’s presence to actively supporting them. A good illustration at a Rhodesian firepower demonstration from an old African man asking ‘He said that if we are so powerful, why are there so many CTs in the bush? A good question’ (Pg.80).
    Counterinsurgency warfare success is based on the security forces protecting the civilians from the insurgents; Rhodesia simply had extremely limited spending power, let alone forces able to live with the rural Africans and protect them (Pg.132).
    This is a book which rightly concentrates on hunting insurgents, although criticisms of the Rhodesian approach abound, for example the lack of any briefing and debriefing (Pg.289). It helps to explain why Rhodesia failed to survive as the numbers of disaffected Africans grew, with so many leaving to join the nationalist guerrillas the security forces could not “hold the line”.

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