Snapshot Overview of the Rhodesian Security Forces

Editor: Note the stunning contrast in army numbers during the war vs “peace-time” Zimbabwe in the 1990’s!

Via the Selous Scouts website by T.A.L. Dozer. Note: TAL “Dozer” is a self-declared American armchair historian. However, he’s created a simple overview helpful to those unfamiliar with the structure of Rhodesia’s security forces. I’ve added links to a few other military websites.


The Rhodesian Army’s command structure and organization were modeled directly on the British Army. A Lieutenant-General commanded the Army and was responsible to the Minister of Defense. Later in the conflict, when COMOPS (a combined operations organization) was created, its commander exercised operational control over the Army as well as independently commanding the Army’s special forces. As Rhodesia had very limited white manpower upon which to draw for professional military service, a large part of the Army consisted of national service and reserve personnel. Initially, all regular combat units were staffed with full-time career soldiers, but after 1972, when national service was increased from 18 to 24 months, inductees were drafted into some of the Army’s special forces. In addition, many foreign volunteers, mostly from South Africa but also from Britain, the United States, France, Australia, and New Zealand, served in the Rhodesian military. 


Rhodesian African Rifles

The Rhodesian African Rifles’ (RAR) two battalions were composed of black soldiers led by white officers. The black soldiers’ knowledge of tribal cultures, ability to speak various tribal languages, and bush skills enabled them to obtain local intelligence that the average white soldier could not hope to acquire and function better in Rhodesia’s harsh climate and terrain than the average urban-born and raised white trooper. Although the RAR first proved themselves capable soldiers fighting with the British in Malaya more than a decade before, their initial performance in Rhodesia was poor, giving them a bad reputation among other Army units. Improved training, however, raised the RAR’s performance, and by the end of the war many RAR personnel were participating in elite force operations, such as the various “Fireforces.” 

Rhodesian Light Infantry (Commando)

The Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI) was originally conceived as a light infantry unit but later changed its tactical mission and structure to a commando organization as it became more actively involved in the counterinsurgency campaign. The battalion was made up of four commando units of about 90 men each. They were trained as paratroopers and provided the backbone of the “Fireforces.” The RLI also participated in most of the major external operations and cross-border raids. Because of their proficiency, they were classified as “Special Forces” and, after 1977, came under the control of COMOPS.

Special Air Services (SAS)

The SAS was modeled on the elite British unit of the same name and fought beside the British in Malaya during the 1950s. During the early stages of the Rhodesian counterinsurgency campaign, the SAS was employed mainly in tracking insurgents. Later, the unit was expanded into a regiment comprising A, B, C, and D squadrons and for the remainder of the conflict was employed in clandestine external operations. Volunteers from various units were rigorously tested for mental and physical stamina before being accepted by the SAS and then were extensively trained in parachuting, canoeing, bushcraft, explosives techniques, and other special tasks. The unit maintained a high standard of efficiency and achieved a very high rate of operational success.

Selous Scouts

The Selous Scouts were formed at the beginning of Operation Hurricane in 1973 and tasked with obtaining intelligence on the size and movement of insurgent groups. Like the SAS, most Selous Scout personnel were volunteers who had undergone a stringent selection course before being trained in parachuting, insurgent tactics, bush survival, and weaponry. Surrendered or captured insurgents whom the Rhodesians had “turned” were also included in the unit. Their inclusion was critical because the information these recent defectors provided kept the unit current on insurgent tactics and operating procedures. Because of their success, the Selous Scouts doubled in size over the course of the conflict, and eventually some 420 members were deployed on active service.Their role was similarly expanded to include external operations, and they became responsible for training and administering the combat tracking units in addition to their “pseudo” operations role.

Greys Scouts

The Greys Scouts were a mounted unit trained specifically for tracking on horseback. They could thus cover more ground than trackers on foot and could more easily escape insurgent ambushes. Personnel were recruited from the regular Army and trained in equitation. The unit was also used for patrolling and occasionally on cross-border raids. Because it was classified as special forces, it was also under the control of COMOPS after 1977.  


The BSAP was Rhodesia’s national police force and was responsible for maintaining law and order throughout the country. Although it was modeled on the British police system, the BSAP was more like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in its development, structure, and organization. It was commanded by a Commissioner of Police who, in turn, was responsible to (and appointed by) the Minister of Justice (later, Minister of Justice and Law and Order). The BSAP was organized into branches, the most important of which were the Duty Uniform Branch, Criminal Investigation Department, Special Branch, Support Unit, and Police Reserve. 


The Rhodesian Air Force command and rank structure was based on the British Royal Air Force. It was commanded by an Air Marshal who, like his counterpart in the Army, was accountable to the Minister of Defense. The RhAF was never a large air force. In 1965, it consisted of only 1,200 regular personnel. At the peak of its strength during the insurgency, it had a maximum of 2,300 personnel of all races; but of these, only 150 were pilots actively involved in combat operations. These pilots, however, were able to fly all of the aircraft in the Air Force inventory, which gave the RhAF a considerable amount of flexibility. Pilots were rotated through the various squadrons partly to maintain their skills on all aircraft and partly to relieve fellow pilots flying more dangerous sorties. 


The Department of Internal Affairs (IAD) personnel were the acknowledged experts on tribal culture and mores and therefore played a prominent role in the conflict. IAD officers served at the Joint Operational Centers and were heavily involved in implementing such civic measures as the protected villages program. The paramilitary “Guard Force,” which was responsible for the security of the protected villages, also came under IAD control. [See also Rhodesian Guard Force.]


This is a basic table of organization or order of battle, of the Rhodesian Army as it appeared in 1977. It lists the major player/units in the Army and gives you an idea of manpower and ethnic breakup. Note that the Selous Scouts are well seated and highly recognized within the Army. 


Rhodesia Regiment: 8 battalions (600— 700 men, all white) with recent addition of colored and Asian reserve.

Rhodesian Light Infantry: 3 commando units and 1 weapons support group (about 1000 men, all white); between one-quarter and one-third mercenaries.

Rhodesian African Rifles: 3 battalions (600—700 men, all black) with white officers.

Rhodesian Artillery (1st Field Regiment): 1 regular battery of 105mm howitzers and 1 reserve battery of 25-pounders; white officered.

Support and administrative troops: (signals, engineers, pay corps etc) all white officered.

Rhodesian Armored Car Regiment: About 400 men, black and white; duties include reconnaissance, patrolling, convoy escort, crowd control and manning road blocks.


Special Air Service: 3 squadrons (60 men each, all white); specialize in laying counter-insurgency ambushes and raids.

Selous Scouts: About 1000 men, large majority of blacks; some mercenaries; specialize in pseudo operations, mantracking and abduction (snatch) missions.

Grey’s Scouts: 150—200 men, black and white; horse-mounted infantry for tracking, pursuit and patrolling. 


The Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) has 47,000 personnel. It is built around seven brigades, including a Presidential Guard Brigade and an armored regiment.

Other units include 26 maneuver battalions (three Presidential Guard, one mechanized, one commando, two paratroop, one mounted, and 18 infantry).

Support units include an artillery regiment that includes two air-defense batteries, and an engineer support regiment. The force is maintained partly through conscription.   

The ZNA is characterized by a number of quality units as well as an overall high quality of personnel. This is due to an emphasis on training that reflects British military assistance in the 1980s, as well as the ZNA’s once heavy involvement in Mozambique’s insurgent war, maintaining the Beira rail and road corridor that is landlocked Zimbabwe’s main trade lifeline. 

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1 Response

  1. To advise that at the end of the Bush War (1980) Rhodesian Guard Force had over 7 500 men in its complement. Around 350 were regular Europeans, with a further +/- 700 Territorial Europeans. It was only in the very early years, circa 1977 that GF came under IA, thereafter they were Independent. Their role in PV’s effectively ceased in late ’78 when they adopted an Infantry responsibility, raising 2 Battalions. Other duties were Farm Protection within the European Farming areas. Thank you for your informative Website, and the links to GF.

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