Military chiefs reviewed plan to invade Rhodesia

Public record: State papers released from 1965 highlight dilemma facing fledgling Wilson government over thorny issue of UDI
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The Independent Online

Harold Wilson's aversion to making war on our "kith and kin" in rebel Rhodesia did not prevent the defence planners of the Chiefs of Staffs Committee from drawing up a contingency plan for invading the country.

Evidence that the most extreme option was seriously considered after the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of 11 November 1965 emerged by accident from today's release of 30-year state papers at the Public Record Office. The file, marked "UK Eyes Only, Top Secret'', is dated 5 February 1966 and should have been released with next year's papers.

The Ministry of Defence's planners strongly advised the Government against military intervention. They said "the consequences of failure would be appalling", and insisted the plan must avoid risks which in other circumstances would be acceptable. There was no direct access by sea and the only land access available entailed a journey of more than 1,000 miles on inadequate roads. "The invasion of a country with Rhodesia's military capability under these conditions would, we believe, be without precedent."

A conventional assault might succeed with a ground force of five brigades, aided by pre-emptive air strikes against Royal Rhodesian Air Force airfields.

However, "the introduction of the force into Rhodesia at Limited War Scales and its maintenance there, with the exception of fuel, would have to be carried out entirely by air," the planners said. "The capability of our airlift is such that the maximum force that we could introduce and maintain would be two brigades, three short of the required force. The assembly of this force with all its equipment in Africa would take two and a half months and its introduction from there into Rhodesia would take another month."

Any reinforcements would have meant stripping existing Far Eastern and BAOR forces.

The paper, which was circulated among the chiefs of staff, said "striking the first blow at Rhodesian forces would have the most serious implications, not least of which would be the strain on the loyalty of our own units". It goes on: "Our current intelligence assessments do not give us any grounds for supposing that there would at present be anything but wholehearted European opposition to any UK force introduced into Rhodesia.''

The planners offer some cold comfort in a tentative American offer of C130 transport aircraft and suggest Umtali as the best landing ground, as it was lightly defended and could be seized in a paratroop attack

They warn against underestimating the Rhodesian air force, commanded by Ian Smith, a former fighter pilot. "Even after our pre-emptive strike we could not guarantee that the RRAF would not have some Hunter or Vampire aircraft still serviceable. A threat to transport aircraft would remain against which we should have to provide air cover."

Salisbury, the capital, would be the main target of invasion. "We could only deliver two parachute battalions over a 24-hour period and the distance from commando ships off Beira to Salisbury precludes the delivery of a full commando. The Rhodesians would be able to field 11 and one-third major army units in a few days, only one containing black Africans.

"To intervene with a reasonable chance of success against such opposition, fighting stubbornly on its own ground, assisted by small ad hoc bands of guerrillas and perhaps white police, would require five brigades with artillery support." The planners reluctantly advised: "In the existing circumstances British forces could not intervene successfully in Rhodesia. There are no alternative options between a full-scale military intervention and introducing troops by invitation."

Other papers released reveal that Wilson had no basis for making his famous prediction that the rebellion could be ended "within a matter of weeks rather than months". Intelligence assessments were that the Rhodesian regime could probably survive economic sanctions indefinitely.

The releases include a Foreign Office briefing paper on various options considered by the Government in the face of UDI. It points out that "if the going got really rough" many Rhodesians "should begin to wonder whether the sort of life they want might not be more readily available in South Africa or Australia".

Unlike the Boers, they lacked a substantial number of long-term settlers. The paper goes on: "If disillusion of this kind is to be created among the white Rhodesians we shall need the carrot as well as the stick. Financial and other inducements will have to be offered ... "