‘PANGOLIN TIMES’ – Op AGILA / Op DAMON Rhodesia Dec 1979 – Mar 1980.

 

From December 1979 until March 1980, the Australian Army carried out Operation DAMON, the Australian contribution to the Commonwealth Monitoring Force (CMF) in Rhodesia. The Australian component, consisting of officers and NCO’s drawn from various corps, formed part of a deployment made up of roughly 1500 troops, mainly from the Britain (1200 personnel), but with contingents also coming from New Zealand (76), Kenya (51) and Fiji (24).

The Commonwealth Monitoring Force, operating as part of Operation AGILA, (British codename) was formed to oversee the ceasefire  between the Rhodesian Government’s Security Forces and 22,000 Patriotic Front guerrillas from Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) during the run-up to the 1980 general elections, which would establish the governance of a new independent state.

The CMF’s role was to monitor and report on compliance with the ceasefire from both sides and try to dissuade them from actions which might lead to a breach of the agreement. It was not required to enforce any aspect of the cease fire, and there was no requirement to disarm the warring factions. 

Op Agila Australian soldiers assemble at Richmond RAAF Base prior to deployment to Rhodesia Credit-Antonin Cermak
Australian soldiers assemble at Richmond RAAF Base prior to deployment to Rhodesia as part of the Commonwealth Monitoring Force, December 1979. Photo: Antonin Cermak (The Age)

 

RSF welcome RAF Hercules carrying members of the CMF
Rhodesian Security Forces welcome a RAF Hercules carrying members of the Commonwealth Monitoring Force.

The Australian contingent consisted of 152 members of the Australian Army who served in Rhodesia from 25 December 1979 to 5 March 1980. Preceding the main Australian contingent was an advance party consisting of five Australian Army officers, who arrived in Rhodesia on 23 December and departed on 30 December 1979. The bulk of the Australian commitment arrived on Christmas day.

Op Agila Lance Corporal Martin Turnbull-Edit
Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia. Lance Corporal Martin (Marty) Turnbull, formerly of Raymond Terrace NSW, serving with the 130th Signals Squadron admiring a witch doctor carving in a shop in the capital. Note the white armband as worn prior to the introduction of the CMF Pangolin patch. Photo: Craig Murphy. Australian War Memorial Accession Number: P01940.006
Zim-Rhod Op AGILA CMF patch
Commonwealth Monitoring Force Pangolin patch. These were worn by monitors on white armbands. The Monitoring Force had arrived in Rhodesia equipped with standard “umpire” white armbands. However, once troops had deployed into the bush, a staff officer at HQ in Morgan Girls’ School, Salisbury (Harare) devised this emblem to be worn on the white brassard. The symbol caused some bemusement among the CMF and Rhodesians. The officer thought himself pretty clever, as he had discovered that the Temminck Ground Pangolin was considered a good luck symbol by local tribesmen. Had he found out more, he would have learned that when one is found, it is killed and presented to the chief. Collection: Julian Tennant
Op Agila 2RAR Cpl Bones Brady
Corporal ‘Bones’ Brady of the 2/4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment poses by a ‘Puma’ mine protected vehicle used by members of the Rhodesian Security Forces at the Transit Camp Salisbury (Harare) Airport.

Map of Rhodesia showing the Assembly Point locations during Operation AGILA

Initially, five Popular Front assembly points were to be overseen by the Australians, most were inland from the Mozambique border and used by the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of ZANU. The sites included Elim (which had attracted worldwide attention in 1978 after  the rape, murder and mutilation of 12 missionaries and children by Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA terrorists), Magadze, Marymount and Dendera, in the north-east, and Kari-Yangwe, in the north-west of the country. Other Australians were deployed with the Rhodesians at Mount Darwin, Bindura, Mtoko and Sinoia.

Of the Australians (27 officers and 109 NCO’s) were deployed to the Patriotic Front assembly points, or to monitor the activities of the Rhodesian Security Forces, whilst the remainder comprised the headquarters element (4 officers including one medical officer and 11 SNCO’s).

The force was spread thin and would be vulnerable should the peaceful transition to independence fail. In an interview given to The Age at the start of the deployment, Australian contingent commander, Colonel Kevin Cole described the risk as fourfold, “disease, wild animals, land mines, and the chance of a deliberate or accidental breakdown in the ceasefire.” If a breakdown in the ceasefire did occur, the CMF teams at the Assembly Points, which consisted of an officer with sixteen other ranks armed with rifles plus one GPMG could be in real trouble. 

Op Agila 2RAR Cpl Brady viewing a PF shot in an incident prior to the elections
Corporal ‘Bones’ Brady (left) of the 2/4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and members of the Rhodesian Security Forces viewing the body of a dead PF guerilla shot in an incident prior to the February election.

 

Alouette Gunship, Assembly Point Juliet, Zezani, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia 1980
A British CMF monitor checking out the armaments on an Alouette Gunship at Assembly Point Juliet, Zezani, Zimbabwe-Rhodesia 1980. Photo: Torfaen Corvine

In the lead up to the election there were several breaches of the ceasefire and attempts to intimidate the monitors, but all situations were resolved without the use of force. There were also environmental hazards, including a wide range of diseases and the existence of landmines within the areas in which they had to work. There were many breaches of the ceasefire and acts of intimidation by both sides in the lead-up, but the election went ahead over three days, 27–29 February, without major incident. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU faction broke the terms of the Lancaster House Conference by keeping half his fighters in the field, outside of the Assembly Points as was required the agreement.  This resulted in widespread voter intimidation but did not stop the election from proceeding as planned and his party won a decisive victory. Rhodesia was officially renamed Zimbabwe on 18 April 1980 with Mugabe its new prime minister. On 2 March 1980, CMF personnel were pulled back to a camp in and around New Sarum Airport and were flown out over the following days with the Australians returning home on 5 March.

British Daily Express cartoon of 18 April 1980. A sign of things to come.
British Daily Express cartoon of 18 April 1980. A sign of things to come.

Postscript:

Almost as soon as the CMF left Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe started to settle old scores and consolidate his power by having his henchmen target his ‘comrade’ Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU faction. The deep-seated rivalry of the two liberation parties was predicated on ideological and ethnic factors, ZANU being drawn largely from the Shona people and Nkomo’s ZAPU being Ndbele. Over the following month the murders escalated with open warfare occurring between the groups in Entumbane, a suburb of Bulawayo in November 1980. This was only quelled when the white led British South African Police intervened on the part of the government. Then, in February 1981 open fighting once again erupted in Bulawayo between Mugabe’s ZANLA and ZIPRA, the military wing of ZAPU. This also spread to Essexvale and Gwelo where ZANLA cadres at Connemara Barracks surprised their ZIPRA counterparts, killed over 60 of them and forced the rest to flee into the bush. ZIPRA mobilised armour for their operations against the ZANU fighters.  Once again, Mugabe had to call upon the professional white-officered black regulars of the 1st Battalion Rhodesian African Rifles, Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment and (although unauthorised) Air Force to crush ZIPRA. Alexandre Binda, in his book Masodja: The History of the Rhodesian African Rifles and Its Forerunner, the Rhodesia Native Regiment,  states that over 400 guerillas were killed with no fatal casualties to the government troops. Ironically, Mugabe and ZANU–PF were once again saved from a major rebellion by white-led ex-Rhodesian troops.

1RAR_at_Metheun
Mine proofed vehicles manned by soldiers of “C” Company, 1 Rhodesian African Rifles at at Methuen Barracks shortly before the Entumbane uprising in November 1980. Photo: Former 1RAR 2nd Lieutenant John Wynne Hopkins

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But the rebellion’s defeat caused mass desertions from former ZIPRA fighters and Joshua Nkomo, who had been given a ministerial post (without a portfolio) in Mugabe’s cabinet, was removed from office in February 1982 after being accused of planning to overthrow Mugabe. Shortly after independence, in October 1980, North Korea offered to train a unit of Zimbabwe’s army that would be responsible for crushing political dissent and reporting directly to Mugabe. In August 1981 106 North Korean advisors arrived and began work creating the infamous Fifth ‘Gukurahundi’ Brigade, which graduated in December 1982. These troops were then deployed in Matabeleland, beginning a campaign known as Gukurahundi, which in Shona means “early rain that washes away chaff.”  The four year-long campaign resulted in around 20,000 (although some estimates put the figure at 30,000) civilians being killed. It officially ended in December 1987 when Nkomo signed a unity accord merging ZAPU into ZANU-PF and consolidating Mugabe’s absolute grip on power until the 2017 coup.

Zimbabwe 5th Brigade Flag after being presented to Commander Col. Perence Shiri by PM Robert Mugabe
Colours of the Zimbabwe Army’s 5th Brigade ‘Gukurahundi’ after being presented to its commander, Col. Perence Shiri by Prime Minister Mugabe in 1982. Photo: National Archives of Zimbabwe.

 

Zimbabwe army patches
Zimbabwe Army and Zimbabwe 5th ‘Gukurahundi’ Brigade patch. Collection” Julian Tennant

Zimbabwe guku genocide

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The Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ Qualification badge – 1941 – 45

In 1941, fearing that the Japanese may launch an invasion of southern Africa from Vichy French controlled Madagascar, the OC of B Coy Rhodesian African Rifles, Captain Alan Gardiner Redfern was tasked with training a commando force of Rhodesians that could undertake guerrilla operations should an invasion occur.

Redfern was a good choice, a competent bushman who as a young school-boy had spent his weekends and school holidays camping out in the veldt with a native companion and carrying very little apart from a rifle, blanket some mealie meal (maize flour) and condensed milk. He was proficient in both the main African languages, Chishona and Sindebele and prior to the war worked in the Native Department (later renamed Internal Affairs) of the Southern Rhodesia Civil Service.

lrdg-southern-rhodesia-commando-redfern.jpg
Captain (T/Maj) Alan Gardiner Redfern MBE, founder of the Southern Rhodesia Commando. Redfern was KIA in November 1943 whilst commanding B Squadron of the Long Range Desert Group on operations in the Aegean.

Recruits for the Southern Rhodesia Commando were a mix of volunteers and conscripts, many of whom were drawn from the farming community and as such already well versed with living in the bush. The unit was conceived as a part-time cadre, not as a regular unit, able to work behind enemy lines should the need arise. Training occurred over an initial period of six weeks with an emphasis on bushcraft, small unit guerrilla operations and a demolitions course which was conducted near Gwelo. After the initial training, the soldiers returned to their usual occupations although regular on-going training took place.

Southern Rhodesia Commando
Sheet brass Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ badge awarded to successful participants of Redfern’s commando course. This badge was intended to be worn on the right shoulder sleeve, although photographs of Rhodesian LRDG members who completed the course show it being worn on the left shoulder sleeve. This badge is stamped with the serial number 229, but I do not know the identity of the original owner. Collection: Julian Tennant

The men who finally completed the course were awarded the ‘Cobra’ badge as recognition of their qualification. The badge depicts a cobra poised to strike within a circlet containing the words “Southern Rhodesia Commando”.  Each badge was individually numbered and were made from sheet brass by Keays Gold and Silversmiths in Salisbury.  The award was made in two sizes, the larger version, shown above, and worn on the uniform, plus a miniature silver lapel badge (also numbered) for wear on civilian attire. In an unpublished manuscript shown to me by fellow collector, Eric Crépin-Leblond, the uniform of the Southern Rhodesia Commando is described as follows,
The No. 1 Dress uniform for part-timers who successfully completed the course was: Bush hat, turned up on the left side, pinned with the Lion and tusk badge. Khaki bush shirt, with curved brass ‘Rhodesia’ shoulder titles; ‘cobra’ badge in brass worn on the right sleeve below the shoulder. ’04 web belt. Trousers. Veldschoen.

Rhodesia SRC mini
Miniature version of the Southern Rhodesia Commando qualification for wear on civilian shirt lapels. These badges were made from silver sheet and also individually numbered. This particular badge, number 120, was sold via auction in 2010 to an unidentified collector in Canada.

Little more is known about the Commando cadre and it is thought to have numbered less than 500 qualified members before it was disbanded in 1945. Many of the men from the Southern Rhodesia Commando subsequently volunteered to serve with the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), forming S1 Patrol. On the nominal roll/database page of the the Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society  there is a small photo of Sergeant Hubert ‘Hughie’ Hein where he can be seen wearing the ‘Cobra’ badge on his left shoulder. I believe that this photo is also shown on page 110 in Craig Fourie and Jonathan Pittaway’s book LRDG Rhodesia but unfortunately I don’t have a copy to confirm if it is the same picture. Training with the Southern Rhodesia Commando is mentioned by some of the Rhodesian members of the LRDG in Pittaway’s subsequent book Long Range Desert Group Rhodesia: The Men Speak which also includes a picture of Signalman John “Fossie” Kevan who, once again is wearing his ‘Cobra’ on the left sleeve.  I can only surmise that the reason for the LRDG members wearing the badge on the left shoulder rather than the right as outlined in the original dress instruction, is because the same position on the right sleeve would have been reserved for their parachutist qualification wing. In both photographs it also appears that there was some kind of dark cloth used as a backing for badge but I have not yet identified the colour used.

LRDG Rhodesia Signalman John Kevan-Recovered
Rhodesian member of the Long Range Desert Group, Signalman John “Fossie” Kevan shown wearing the Southern Rhodesia Commando ‘Cobra’ badge on his left sleeve. Note the dark backing material used behind the badge. Source: Long Range Desert Group Rhodesia: The Men Speak. by Jonathan Pittaway.

For his role in forming the Southern Rhodesia Commando, Redfern was awarded the M.B.E., which he accepted with the understanding that he could join the men that he had trained who had subsequently joined the LRDG. On 22 April 1943, Captain Redfern transferred from the KRRC, reverting to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant before taking over command of S1 Patrol (LRDG) once again as a Captain in May 1943.  On October 15 he was made OC of B Squadron, but was killed in action on the 12th of November 1943 during LRDG operations in the Aegean.

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