Air Force of Zimbabwe History
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Narrative History

In 1934 the Rhodesian Parliament approved the offer of 10,000 to assist in the defence of the British Empire. The Imperial Defence Committee suggested that the best use of the money would be the provision of an air training unit in Rhodesia. Accordingly, de Havilland Aircraft was commissioned to establish an elementary training school, complete with aircraft. The school took form as an Air Unit of the Rhodesia Regiment in November 1935. The military personnel served on a Territorial (volunteer reserve) basis. The unit was soon renamed the Southern Rhodesia Air Unit (SRAU), and the first trainee pilots were awarded their wings in May 1938.

In August 1939, with war in Europe increasingly seen as inevitable, the Air Unit was called up to full-time duty and deployed to Kenya, to guard against a potential threat from Italian Somaliland. In April 1940 the unit was absorbed in to the Royal Air Force as No.237 (Rhodesia) Squadron. Two other Rhodesian-manned squadrons in World War Two were No.44 (Rhodesia) Sqn and No.266 (Rhodesia) Sqn, RAF.

In May 1940 the Rhodesian Air Training Group (RATG) started training aircrew for the Empire Training Scheme. The RATG eventually comprised a total of four Service Flying Training Schools (SFTS), an Initial Training Wing, a combined Air Observers and Air Gunners School and a Central Flying School for instructors. All the construction costs and a substantial part of the annual running costs were paid for by the Southern Rhodesian Government. Over 7,600 pilots and 2,300 navigators were trained by the RATG during the War.

Immediately after the war, the RATG was reduced to a 'care and maintenance' basis, but by 1946 the Cold War had begun and the RAF needed new aircrew again. Training was restarted at the end of 1946 and was to continue until 1954.

On 28 November 1947, the Rhodesian Government announced the establishment of a Southern Rhodesia Air Force (SRAF) as a permanent unit. The initial equipment of the SRAF was a collection of well-worn trainers and transports previously operated by the RATG. Additional aircraft came from South Africa, and in 1951 two squadrons of Spitfires were received. The SRAF became a jet operator in December 1953 with the arrival of the first de Havilland Vampire FB.9s.

In September 1953 the SRAF became the Rhodesian Air Force, as the colonies of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland joined together to form the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. On 15 October 1954 the prefix 'Royal' was conferred by the Queen - so becoming the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (RRAF).

Some of the tasks undertaken by the RRAF at this time include aerial surveys of the Federation, communications and providing flying doctor services.

As part of its Commonwealth defence commitments, the RRAF began in late 1957 a series of squadron-strength deployments to RAF Middle East Command, to operate alongside RAF units. The RRAF personnel involved gained a great deal of tactical and operational experience during these deployments, and demonstrated impressive aircraft availability rates.

In 1962 the first helicopters were acquired - Alouette IIIs from France. When the Federation broke up on 31 December 1963, the RRAF was allowed to retain almost all of its aircraft, while overall control reverted to Southern Rhodesia. The declaration of UDI on 1 November 1965 resulted in the severing all official links with the Royal Air Force.

1966 saw the start of the insurgent guerilla war which would eventually peak in the late 1970s. The Battle of Sinoia, on 28 April 1966, in which four RRAF Alouette III helicopters assisted ground forces in attacking a guerilla unit near the small town of Sinoia was the first notable action in this grim war of attrition. By the end of 1968, the security forces had succeeded in countering all guerrilla incursions, with minimal losses to themselves. The years 1969 to 1972 were relatively quiet, and on 1 March 1970 Rhodesia declared itself a republic. The 'Royal' prefix was dropped from the title of the RRAF, which became the Rhodesian Air Force (RhAF). A new aircraft roundel was adopted, which incorporated the Rhodesian lion.

In 1973 the attacks on Rhodesia were renewed with better trained and equipped guerillas using improved tactics taught by Russian and Chinese instructors. To counter this new threat the 'Fireforce' concept was evolved. This involved hidden observers calling in sudden attacks from helicopters based at a number of forward airfields around the country. The helicopters worked as a team and comprised unarmed troop carriers and a cannon-armed example to provide mobile firepower.

By 1977 the number of cross-border guerrilla attacks were such that plans were formulated for attacking the main guerilla bases in the 'frontine' states of Zambia and Mozambique. The first such attack was Operation Dingo, on 23 November 1977, which targeted the Chimoio camp in Mozambique. This raid involved bombing raids by Hunters and Canberras, followed by a ground assault supported by Alouettes, and proved a complete success. A similar attack, Operation Gatling, targeted a guerrilla base in Zambia.

On 3 March 1979, the country was renamed Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, as part of the attempt at reaching an internal settlement. The war continued unabated however, and so further cross-border attacks on guerrilla bases were staged. With formal independence on 18 April 1980, the Rhodesian Air Force became the Air Force of Zimbabwe (AFZ).

With independence marking the end of the guerrilla war, the AFZ began adapting for peacetime duties, including the systematic training of black personnel for aircrew and ground crew duties. Many white personal became reservists. The serviceability of AFZ aircraft plunged and many aircraft were put into storage due to the lack of qualified pilots, while other types were sold off. In the early morning of 25 July 1982, a series of explosions at Thornhill air base destroyed ten aircraft and damaged another four. AFZ personnel were initially accused of sabotage, but evidence later emerged that the apartheid South African Government was involved.

In 1983 the AFZ was tasked with providing air support to Zimbabwean Army units deployed to Mozambique to protect the 'Beira Corridor' railway link between Zimbabwe and the port of Beira, and other strategic locations in the country. The civil war between FRELIMO and RENAMO forces raged fiercely until a peace agreement was finally signed in 1992.

In June 1998 Zimbabwe secretly deployed troops to the Democratic Republic of Congo to prevent the fall of Kinshasa. The deployment was not announced publicly until 1999, by which time many Zimbabwean troops had died in battle. Congo is not a neighbour of Zimbabwe, but it was considered essential to assist President Kabila in the on-going civil war against Rwandan and Ugandan backed rebels. Over the next few years, the AFZ conducted numerous combat and support operations over Congo. A number of aircraft were reported to have been lost during these missions.

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First Created: 17 January 2003 - Last Revised: 23 February 2003
Copyright © 2003 John Hayles.     e-mail: