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The History of the Rhodesian Air Force

The Rhodesian Air Force was originally formed in 1935 under the name Southern Rhodesia Staff Corps Air Unit and served as a territorial unit; the first regular servicemen with the unit went to Britain for ground crew training in 1936.

The Southern Rhodesia Staff Corps Air Unit first pilots were awarded their flying wings on 13 May 1938. The reservists were called up early August 1939 and were posted to Canada by 28 August. On 19 September 1939, two weeks after the United Kingdom declared war against Germany, the Air Unit officially became the Southern Rhodesia Air Force (SRAF), and Air Unit flights become Number 1 Squadron SRAF.

In 1939, the Southern Rhodesia government amalgamated the SRAF with the civilian airline Rhodesia And Nyasaland Airways (RANA). The ex-RANA aircraft formed the Communication Squadron, which operated internal services within Southern Rhodesia, plus services to South Africa and Mozambique.

By January 1940, with Britain at war with Germany, Royal Air Force Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris was desperate for trained aircrew and turned for help to Southern Rhodesia (where Harris had enlisted in 1914). Harris was frustrated by delays launching Commonwealth Air Training Plan stations in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister Godfrey Huggins recognised an opportunity not just to aid Britain and the Allies, but also to boost the domestic economy. The Rhodesian Air Training Group (RATG) installed aviation infrastructure, trained 10,000 Commonwealth and Allied airmen between 1940 and 1945 and provided the stimulus for manufacturing that had been lacking in the 1920s and 1930s. Southern Rhodesia's textile, metallurgy, chemical and food processing industries expanded rapidly.

The SRAF was absorbed into the RAF proper in April 1940 and re-designated No. 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF. This squadron, initially equipped with Hawker Harts, participated in the East African Campaign against the Italians.

On 1 June 1941, the Southern Rhodesian Women's Auxiliary Air Services came into being. British No. 44 Squadron RAF and No. 266 Squadron RAF were also assigned the name "(Rhodesia)" because of the large number of Rhodesian airmen and crew in these units. Rhodesians fought in many of the theatres of World War II, including

future prime minister Ian Smith who, after being shot down over Italy behind enemy lines, was able to avoid capture and return to Allied lines. Rhodesian airmen suffered 20 percent fatalities, becoming emblematic of a "nation in arms" ideal that peppered settler nationalism and erupted fully in the 1960s. The RAF remained until 1954, indirectly assisting Rhodesian aviation, and many airmen returned with young families as settlers.

The SRAF was re-established in 1947 and two years later, Huggins appointed a 32-year-old South African-born Rhodesian Spitfire pilot, Ted Jacklin, as air officer commanding tasked to build an air force in the expectation that British African territories would begin moving towards independence and air power would be vital for land-locked Southern Rhodesia. The threadbare SRAF bought, borrowed or salvaged a collection of vintage aircraft, including six Tiger Moths, six Harvard trainers, an Anson freighter and a handful of De Havilland Rapide transport aircraft, before purchasing a squadron of 22 Mk22 war surplus Spitfires from the RAF which were then flown to Southern Rhodesia.

Tiger Moth Harvard

Avro Anson De Havilland Rapide

Spitfire Mk22 (Photo Bob Adams)

Huggins was anxious to maintain the strong wartime links established with the RAF, not only for access to training and new technology but also because of his growing concern over the expansionist ideas of the newly established apartheid Afrikaner nationalist regime in South Africa. The booming Rhodesian economy allowed more money to be allocated for new aircraft, training and aerodrome facilities, and growing co-operation with the RAF in the 1950s saw the SRAF operating in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Kenya, Cyprus, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Oman and South Yemen.

Huggins maintained his enthusiasm for air power when he became the first prime minister of the semi-independent Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland also known as the Central African Federation (CAF) in 1953, comprising Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

The CAF was viewed as an experiment, a democratic multiracial alternative to apartheid South Africa, and it was widely expected that the new federal state would become independent within a decade.

The SRAF became a 'federal' body and received its first jets, 16 de Havilland Vampire FB9 aircraft. On 15 October 1954 the federal air arm was officially designated as the "Royal Rhodesian Air Force" (RRAF). In a well-received move aimed to distinguish the RRAF from the South African Air Force, khaki uniforms and army ranks were abandoned in favour of those utilised by other Commonwealth air forces such as the RAF, RCAF, RAAF and RNZAF.

de Havilland Vampire FB9 (Photo Barry Broom)

Despite efforts to broker a consensus, black and white Rhodesians complained that the pace of reform was too slow or too fast and by 1961, it became clear that the Federation was doomed. Following the dissolution of the CAF in 1963, the British government granted independence to Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) but refused Southern Rhodesia independence until more progress was made towards multiracial democracy. White settler opinion hardened and Ian Smith's Rhodesian Front government issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965.

Chief of the Air Staff Air Vice Marshal 'Raf' Bentley was representing Rhodesia in Washington, D.C, and resigned immediately. Bentley's reluctant successor, former Royal Australian Air Force pilot Harold Hawkins had come to Rhodesia with the RATG in 1944 and joined the SRAF in 1947. Hawkins accepted command of the RRAF in the increasingly forlorn hope that the rebellion could be resolved peacefully through negotiation.

In the late 1950s, 16 Canberra B2 and T4 bombers were purchased, as well as Provost T52 trainers, C-47 Dakota and Canadair DC-4M Argonaut transports.

English Electric Canberra Provost T52

C-47 Dakota Canadair DC-4M Argonaut

In 1962, Hawker Hunter fighter aircraft were obtained, and the Vampire FB9 and T55s were reallocated to advanced training and ground attack roles. The first Aérospatiale Alouette III helicopters also arrived around this time, equipping Number 7 Squadron.

Hawker Hunter Aérospatiale Alouette III

Although Southern Rhodesia acquired the lion's share of the Federation's aircraft, the imposition of international economic sanctions in 1965 saw the country abandoned by many aircraft equipment suppliers and maintenance contractors. RRAF aircraft maintenance crews had stockpiled essential items, but the Air Staff knew that metal fatigue, spare parts shortages and the need for new electronic equipment would begin to erode the RRAF's capabilities. In 1968, Air Vice Marshal Hawkins failed to convince Prime Minister Ian Smith that the 'HMS Fearless' settlement threatened by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was the best result that Rhodesia could expect. Hawkins resigned his command but accepted the post of Rhodesia's diplomatic representative in Pretoria.

During the Rhodesian Bush War, the air force consisted of no more than 2,300 personnel and of those only 150 were pilots. These pilots were qualified to fly all the aircraft within the air force so were often involved in combat missions. In addition, they were rotated through the various units so as to give rest to the airmen who would otherwise be constantly on active service.

In March 1970, when Rhodesia declared itself a republic, the prefix "Royal" was dropped and the Service's name became the "Rhodesian Air Force" (RhAF). A new roundel was adopted in the new Rhodesian colours of green and white containing a lion (in gold) and tusk in the centre of the white. The new air force ensign was taken into use on 5 April 1970.

The new flag contained the Rhodesian flag in the canton with the roundel in the fly on a light blue field. This marking was displayed in the usual six positions, together with a green/white/green fin flash with a narrow white stripe as in RAF type C.

During the 1970s bush war, Rhodesia managed to obtain Rheims-Cessna 337 known in Rhodesia as the Lynx, and SIAI Machetti SF260 piston engine aircraft, Bell 204 Iroquois from Israel, and additional Aérospatiale Alouette III helicopters via covert means, but proved unsuccessful in obtaining jet aircraft except for some Vampires FB9 and T11 aircraft from South Africa. An order for CT/4 trainers was refused by New Zealand.

SIAI Machetti SF260 "Gannet" Rheims-Cessna 337 "Lynx"

Bell 204 Iroquois Aérospatiale Alouette III

When the Rhodesian Bush War intensified after 1972, the age of the aircraft, the shortage of spares and a deteriorating air safety record would become a growing concern for the Air Staff. The abrupt realignment of allies saw Rhodesia increasingly dependent upon South African support. In contrast to the British South Africa Police and the Rhodesian Army, security force airmen possessed skills in demand by other governments and civilian airlines and the RhAF struggled to retain, recruit and instruct technicians.

Drawing upon counter-insurgency experience gained in the Second World War, the Malayan Emergency and the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, and adapting more recent Israeli, South African and Portuguese tactics, Rhodesian combined operations (police Special Branch, army, air force) developed 'pseudo-guerrillas', such as the Mozambican National Resistance, (RENAMO) that wreaked havoc across the border, where Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) guerrilla camps were razed by 'Fireforce' cross-border raids.

Fireforce comprised units of Selous Scouts, an undercover tracker battalion of 1,500 troops on double pay, 80 percent black, many recruited by Special Branch from captured guerrillas facing trial and execution, probing ahead of a parachute infantry battalion and up to 200 Special Air Service commandos. These forces were supported, in turn, by armoured transport columns, mobile field artillery, equestrian pursuit dragoons (Grey's Scouts), air force helicopter gunships and bomber squadrons, one newly equipped with 20 French-made Cessna Lynx low-altitude surveillance aircraft modified for precision ground attacks. Fireforce gathered intelligence, disrupted guerrilla forces, seized equipment and is identified frequently as a precursor of new forms of counterinsurgency warfare. The United Nations condemned the Fireforce raids.

In June 1979, the short-lived Zimbabwe-Rhodesia government of Bishop Muzorewa was installed and the air force flag was the only military flag to be changed to coincide with the change in the national flag. The roundel remained the same.

In the last year of the Rhodesian War and the first few years of Zimbabwe's independence, no national insignia of any sort were carried on Air Force aircraft. This was legal as long as the aircraft did not fly outside of the country's borders.

Following the independence of Zimbabwe in April 1980, the air force was renamed the Air Force of Zimbabwe, but continued to use the emblem of a bateleur eagle in flight, as used by the Rhodesians. The new air force flag retains the light blue field and has the Zimbabwe flag in the canton with the air force emblem in gold in the fly.

In 1982, a new post-independence marking was introduced, featuring a yellow Zimbabwe Bird sitting on the walls of Great Zimbabwe. This marking was displayed on the fin of the aircraft or on the fuselage of helicopters. No wing markings were displayed.

In 1994, a new roundel was introduced, featuring the national colours in concentric rings. Initially, the roundel was used in association with the 'Zimbabwe Bird' tail marking used previously, but this was soon replaced by the national flag. The main marking is normally displayed above and below each wing and on each side of the fuselage. However, this seems to be changed, and today the Zimbabwe Bird is also used as a fin flash.



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