Selous Scouts

Posted by David Burnell on

The Selous Scouts was a special forces regiment of the Rhodesian Army that operated from 1973 until the reconstitution of the country as Zimbabwe in 1980. Named after the British explorer Frederick Courteney Selous (1851–1917), its motto was pamwe chete—a Shona phrase meaning "all together", "together only" or "forward together".

The charter of the Selous Scouts directed them to "the clandestine elimination of terrorists/terrorism both within and without the country."

Historical context

The period during which the Selous Scouts were most active was during the Rhodesian Bush War (or Second Chimurenga). This was a war of decolonization through terrorism and insurgency waged by black guerrillas (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA)/Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA)/Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU)) with the goal of ending white minority rule in Rhodesia, a nation led by Prime Minister Ian Smith. Rhodesia at the time had the highest levels of wealth and one of the highest gross domestic product of any nation in Africa, and both its white and black citizens enjoyed a relatively high standard of living.

However, it was a small nation of a few hundred thousand whites, principally farmers, and lacked access to the sea. As a land-locked nation, that had recently unilaterally declared its independence from Britain, Rhodesia was quickly isolated by the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Rhodesian military, comprising the Rhodesian Army and the Air Force, was considered formidable by many foreign observers, but the country's size—relative to the larger black-governed nations surrounding it, a lack of support from crucial Western suppliers, and aid provided by the Soviet Union and China to guerrilla insurgents—put Rhodesia in a precarious situation. To deal with the rising insurgency, the Rhodesian government strengthened diplomatic and economic ties with South Africa, as well as with Portugal, which controlled the neighboring territory of Mozambique until 1975.

It concurrently began strengthening its paramilitary and counter-insurgency forces such as the British South Africa Police, the Rhodesian Light Infantry, the Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS), and the Rhodesian African Rifles. Ultimately, these efforts led to the creation of its counter-insurgency unit, the Selous Scouts.

Created under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ron Reid-Daly, it was organized as a mixed-race unit, consisting of recruits of both African and European descent, and whose primary mission was operating deep in insurgent-controlled territory and waging war on the hostiles' rear through irregular warfare including the use of pseudo-terrorism as a means of infiltrating the enemy. This concept of unit was very similar to the Portuguese Flechas, operating in the nearby territories of Angola and Mozambique since the late 1960s. The Selous Scouts had many black Rhodesians in their ranks who were from 50–80% of its ranks, including the first African commissioned officers in the Rhodesian Army.


The Selous Scouts employed asymmetric warfare against their enemy, actions that ranged from the bombing of private houses, abductions, M18 Claymore mine attacks against military targets, sabotage of bridges and railways (including steam engines), assassinations, intimidation, blackmail and extortion, to the use of car bombs in the attempted assassination of Joshua Nkomo

Intelligence gathering

Many times, due to their intelligence collecting, the HUMINT side of the Selous Scouts was more up to date than the guerrillas. The job of intelligence—and the task of the Selous Scouts as well as the special branches in general—was to find out the identity of the insurgents, their plans, their training locations, the parties involved in training them, the source and location of their supply routes, their sympathizers, and any other relevant information. The pseudo-operators gained entrance into the areas controlled by ZANLA/ZIPRA through memorization of dead drops, presenting the appropriate letter at the necessary time, and by use of the information given by their intelligence. Compartmentalization was key, and the need-to-know basis was strictly enforced.

In order to gain entrance into the surrounding African countries they were required to use their callsigns and tribal spies for ZANLA/ZIPRA, in order to process and compile names so as to enable them to enter a country covertly or as "illegals". While on a mission to assassinate Nkomo they had to observe operational security. This consisted of using code words to tell a handler when one was out of money or to warn the agent if the authorities were aware of his activities in Zambia. This message would tell the scout whether he had to leave Zambia by the traditional route of using buses or cars or if he had to leave Zambia through the bush.

Turning of guerrillas

Part of the problem in the early days of the Selous Scouts and Rhodesia, was that the security forces and the guerrillas had clearly defined roles. In the first days of the Selous Scouts in 1973–1974, the objective of the government and the military was to kill or incarcerate as many guerrillas as they could, which was deemed good for public morale.

There was no previously accepted convention that one could absorb "real" or "tamed" guerrillas within the ranks of an elite pseudo-guerrilla group, so as to be able to extract intelligence, be aware of how they dressed, behaved and thought, used callsigns or observed operational security. The thinking of the leadership of the Selous Scouts was that if a guerrilla—for example a regional or detachment officer of ZIPRA/ZANLA—were to be captured and turned, then the existing network already in place could be used in order to boost their numbers of kills as well as gather further intelligence.

When the Scouts captured a guerrilla in the field they had to make a decision between three options: execute him immediately; hand him over to others in a special division for trial and certain hanging under the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act; or try to absorb him into the Selous Scouts. If the guerrilla were injured in a skirmish, the first thing would be to make sure that no one knew of his existence: neither the locals in the area nor anyone at the security base. While still wounded the guerrilla would be brought into the Selous Scouts' fort and given the best medical attention. With the realization that his life was being saved, a feeling of gratitude would normally follow.

The next step was to send a former guerrilla or "tame terr" to visit him in the hospital. A conversation would be initiated and eventually steered round to a reminder of hardships in the bush, and of the probability of a trial and hanging under the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act without his compliance. He would next be examined by the Selous Scouts only, in order to ensure loyalty; if passed, he would be given a lump sum of money as well as a regular paying job for joining. Additionally, and where possible, the guerrilla's family would be moved into protection where they would receive free rations, housing, education, and medical care.

In most cases the guerrilla chose to side with the security forces. The Selous Scouts had to make a final, difficult decision on whether to allow the turned guerrilla into their group or not. This decision had largely to do with their gut feeling of how the guerrilla presented himself: was he trustworthy or was he just biding his time? A fail-safe to test his loyalty was to hand him his weapon back, without prior knowledge that his ammunition had been rendered harmless. This was only temporary though, as the "tame terr" would soon become an integral member of the unit.

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