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Operation Midford was New Zealand's contribution to the Commonwealth Monitoring Force in Rhodesia in late 1979 and early 1980 that eventually led to the Lancaster House Agreement and the independence of Zimbabwe.
The Rhodesian Bush War had dragged on for some 14 years from 1965 until 1979, being largely overshadowed by the television-driven Vietnam War. The war in Rhodesia was largely ignored internationally, until the guerrillas committed atrocities on various Missionary stations. There were three belligerent parties, including the predominantly white led Rhodesian Security Forces, and two rival black nationalist guerrilla factions: the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), armed wing of Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe African People's Union, and the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), armed wing of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union.
Lancaster House talks
In April 1979 an election was held in Zimbabwe Rhodesia in which 63% of the black population voted, and on 1 June 1979, Bishop Abel Muzorewa was sworn in as the first black Prime Minister of Rhodesia. Meanwhile, the Peace Talks at Lancaster House continued in a rather "on again–off again" fashion. This state of affairs continued until October and then as the light began to appear at the end of the tunnel, the United Kingdom sent out feelers to various Commonwealth nations that troops might be needed for a special operation.
In New Zealand, selection and training began immediately and a force of 75 officers and men were selected and moved to Papakura Military Camp for specialist training. None of the soldiers were formally told where they might be headed but initially the 75-strong contingent was called "R Force", similar to the Korean War's "K Force" and the Vietnam War's "V Force". They were also instructed to listen to BBC World Service at 7 a.m. every morning so the possibility of a tour of duty to Rhodesia was an open secret. Originally, both Mugabe and Nkomo did not want any New Zealanders in the Peacekeeping – Monitoring Force as they were thought to be American puppets, due to New Zealand troops serving in Vietnam. However, when it was pointed out that one man in every four in the New Zealand contingent was 'coloured' (Māori/native New Zealanders), the New Zealanders became very acceptable. The Commanding Officer for the Kiwi Contingent was the very popular, and widely respected professional soldier Colonel David W. S. Moloney RNZIR (later OBE).
The Operation patch worn as a brassard by the New Zealand members of the New Zealand Truce Monitoring Contingent (NZATMC) was a red, white, and blue diamond with a golden sunburst in the centre and a pangolin—a small anteater—whose claws extended centred in the sun. This was to be worn on a white brassard. It was also decided that the uniform that was to be worn by all members of the MF was to be "Jungle Green" fatigues, and "Jungle Hats" would be worn by all members of the MF serving in the operational areas. This would serve to distinguish them from the Rhodesian Army, whose camouflage fatigues were extremely distinctive.
On 20 December 1979, the New Zealand contingent, which was the most distant from Rhodesia, flew out from RNZAF Base Whenuapai and between 22 and 24 December 1979 the various elements of the Commonwealth Monitoring Force began to arrive at Salisbury Airport. Upon arrival each plane load of troops was processed through a reception tent, given an initial briefing and issued anti-malaria tablets (Maloprim) which were known locally as the "Tuesday Pill". The entire nation was reminded on both radio and television to take their pill each Tuesday. Troops were also given the opportunity to exchange money and were given the location of their billets.
The Rhodesian Army built a tented transit camp which accommodated the majority of the troops with the exception of the Fijians, Kenyans, and New Zealanders who were accommodated at Morgan High School, which was to become NZATMC's headquarters. During this phase of the operation which covered a five-day period, more than 60 aircraft sorties landed at Salisbury Airport, off-loading more than 1,500 men and a veritable mountain of stores and equipment.
Preparation and planning
The next several days were packed with detailed briefings, O Groups, and the issuing of stores, ammunition, and equipment. As well, due to the height of Rhodesia above sea level, every Kiwi soldier was required to attend a range shoot and re-zero his personal weapon. The altitude most definitely did make a difference to sight settings. Amongst all ranks of the Monitoring Force from the Commander down there was a very real air of trepidation in regards to the daunting task that lay ahead. At this time the CMF, General John Acland went out of his way to personally meet and make himself known to every single member of the Monitoring Force during his initial briefing which was usually held at the RLI Barracks at Cranborne.
Other briefings included:
- The CMF's lecture on the responsibility of the Monitoring Force
- An overview on the background of the war and the politics involved
- The background to the operational situation
- The CMF's concept of how the operation was to be conducted
- The allocation of troops to task
- The in-theatre deployment plan
- The rules of engagement
- Also included was a crash course for the Kiwis on the Clansman radio
The operational areas during the Rhodesian War were:
- A. Operation Ranger – Northwest border
- B. Operation Thrasher – Eastern border
- C. Operation Hurricane – Northeast border
- D. Operation Repulse – Southeast border
- E. Operation Grapple – Midlands
- F. Operation Splinter – Kariba
- G. Operation Tangent – Matabeleland
- H. "SALOPS" – Salisbury & District
The Peacekeeping Forces on the ground, were broken down as follows:
- There were 16 Assembly Places (AP November and AP Quebec later closed).
- There were 39 RVs during the ceasefire period.
The New Zealand contingent provided the following:
- 1. A Headquarters element based at Morgan High School, Salisbury.
- 2. 2 x Assembly Place Teams (AP LIMA and AP MIKE).
- 3. 3 x Sub-Joc (Joint Operations Command) Teams.
- 4. 8 x Company Based Teams (co-located with Rhodesian Units).
- 5. 2 x border Liaison Teams.
The decision to deploy the Monitoring Force was made on 24 December 1979, and the forward deployment took place over the next three days with the ceasefire coming into effect at 2359 + 1, on 28 December. This was an extremely tense time as no one knew how the communist guerrillas in the operational areas might act. Perhaps fortunately for the Monitoring Force, the world at large was starved for news coverage and a great many reporters were in Rhodesia. They were spread widely throughout the country, and their efforts tended to keep everyone honest.
During the forward deployment phase the weather was atrocious and RAF aircrew flew missions that would never have been authorised under normal circumstances. There were a number of contacts during this phase of the operation, including: A Rhodesian Escort AFV (Crocodile) was destroyed by a mine near Bulawayo, an RAF Puma helicopter crashed killing the three-man aircrew, a Hercules aircraft was shot up by small arms fire near Umtali, and an RV Team was ambushed in the Zambezi Valley but escaped without casualties.
The Assembly phase was a seven-day period when all of the communist units and cells spread throughout Rhodesia, and in several of the neighbouring countries were guaranteed unhindered movement into RV's and Assembly Places. Once in the Assembly Place, all communists, both Regular Force and guerrillas were required to register their name, weapon and that weapon's serial number. Both the ZIPRA and ZANLA had played down the size of their forces and over that seven-day period more than 22,000 communist soldiers marched into the 16 Assembly Places.
The sheer size of the various ZIPRA and ZANLA units created something of a logistics nightmare and to avoid "under issues", if any communist unit required some special item (e.g., sanitary pads, female underwear), then a drop was immediately arranged to all of the Assembly Places, sometimes causing much hilarity to the troops on the ground (ZANLA had a sizeable force of female guerillas). The communists were to arrive at the Assembly Places carrying all of their own equipment, however for the most part, most of them carried little more than an AK47, a couple of magazines and the clothes they stood in. Many wore no boots. Food and meat shortages caused major problems on a number of occasions and almost resulted in the deaths of a number of Peacekeepers who were taken hostage. It had been understood that the communists lived on sadza (i.e., corn mealie meal), and initially no meat was provided for them. This was quickly rectified, by the CMF importing several planeloads of South African beef.
Once in the Assembly Places, the communist troops became very lax and always carried their personal weapon "locked, cocked and ready to rock"; that is several magazines taped together on the weapon, the weapon cocked with a round in the tube, safety catch "off", and sights set to maximum range. This resulted in a plague of UD's (unauthorised discharges) and numerous casualties. It also caused tremendous stress and tension amongst the MF Teams. There were even UD's with hand grenades and RPG's resulting in injury and loss of life. As well, there was the ever-present danger of mines which continued to take a toll during the entire operation.
Redeployment of RV teams
The ceasefire ended on 4 January 1980 at 2359 + 1, and as most of the communists were now gathered at the various Assembly Places, the RV Teams were disbanded and those men were then added to various Assembly Places so as to boost the numbers there. Assembly Place "November" and Assembly Place "Quebec" were both closed as no communists had been recently operating in that area (Northern border), and the Commonwealth troops at those locations were redistributed to some of the larger Assembly Places that were holding several thousand communists. Assembly Place Foxtrot held over 6,000 communists.
This part of the operation lasted from 5 January 1980, when the ceasefire ended until 3 March 1980, which was in fact after the elections had been held, but before the results were announced. The election results were announced on 4 March 1980. During this period, a contingent of British police officers were flown into Rhodesia and they served as observers at the many polling places scattered throughout the country. There were many breaches in the ceasefire as all three sides attempted to gain a position of strength, and "large numbers of hard-core guerrillas remained outside the camps and continued to intimidate" the electorate.
The elections were said to be about giving the black population a free and fair vote, however, many, many black Rhodesians wanted to vote for Ian Smith but were barred from such a vote under the terms of the Lancaster House Agreement. This left a two-horse race, and as Mugabe and Nkomo jostled for power, it became commonplace for hand grenades to be thrown into the interior of each other's beer halls by supporters.
On 2 March 1980, all Monitoring Force personnel were pulled back to a tented camp in and around New Sarum airport, and immediately the Royal Air Force began flying sorties of men and equipment back to the UK and various other Commonwealth countries. Many Rhodesians, and most especially the white population, had been hoping that Joshua Nkomo would win the election, as he was considered the more stable of the two candidates. It came as a shock for most whites when Robert Mugabe was announced as the winner, swiftly changing the name of the country to Zimbabwe. The whites who remained were mainly farmers as they stood to lose everything, as the first law Mugabe passed was that anyone leaving Zimbabwe, could take no more than a couple of hundred dollars with them. Those Rhodesians who left the country were virtually penniless.
By 16 March 1980, all of the Monitoring Force had departed from Rhodesia, apart from a small volunteer group (about 40 men) of British infantry instructors who were to train the new Zimbabwe National Army. Three weeks later on 18 April 1980, at a ceremony that was attended by HRH Prince Charles, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time from Government House in Salisbury, and the new African nation of Zimbabwe declared itself independent as a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations.
- Kaye, C.M.S. Mission Extraordinary Zimbabwe – Rhodesia, British Army Review, 1980.
- Lock, Peter. & Cooke Peter, Fighting Vehicles and Weapons of Rhodesia, P&P Publishing, Wellington, 1995.
- Lovett, John. Contact, Galaxie Press, Salisbury, 1979.
- Moorcroft, Paul. Contact II, Sygma Press, Johannesburg, 1981.
- Subritzky, Mike. Rhodesia – Operational Diary, unpublished, 1979 – 1980.
- Subritzky, Mike. Letters from Comrade Lt. Thomas Sabanda ZIPRA 1980.
- Susan Rice, The Commonwealth Intervention in Zimbabwe, D.Phil Thesis, New College Oxford, 1990