A Handful of Hard Men: The SAS and the Battle for Rhodesia, Hannes Wessels

A Handful of Hard Men: The SAS and the Battle for Rhodesia, Hannes Wessels

This is quite a difficult conflict to write about. Neither side comes across as particularly sympathetic. The white Rhodesians had been left behind by the tide of events all around them, as the European empires collapsed and more and more African states gained their independence, but their response was to ‘circle the wagons’ and try and impose white rule by violence. Later in the war there was an attempt to find an ‘acceptable’ black leader, but they never seem to have come to grips with the idea that the leaders of the independence struggle were genuinely popular within the black population. The attempt to maintain white minority rule was no more acceptable in Rhodesia than it was in South Africa. On the other side the various nationalist groups had a valid cause, but often tainted it by killing innocent civilians - killing missionaries and farmers on the ground or shooting down civilian airliners.

There is a similar problem with this book. On the one hand we have an interesting account of the activities of a very successful Special Forces unit, which took part in a series of operations outside Rhodesia, striking at their opponent’s bases. On the other hand its sometimes quite hard to see what they were hoping to achieve - a constant theme is that things could have ended up differently, if only the SAS had been allowed to operate freely, but it isn’t clear what that different fate for Rhodesia would have been. One also gets the impression that many in the SAS didn’t see their opponents as entirely human, talking about following ‘spoor’ as if they were hunting animals, or describing their foes as ‘terrs’ or ‘gooks’. At best their attitude is remarkably patronising to the black population of Rhodesia. They also come across as rather paranoid - the author even includes an example of that affecting the internal unity of the SAS. Although many of these SAS operations were entirely legitimate, there are also examples of where they crossed the line - in particular the booby trapping of bodies or of food (a war crime since 1980 and unacceptable long before that).

What we get here is a clear example of how a military unit can be almost entirely successful within its own terms, hardly ever suffering any setbacks on the battlefield, while at the same time have little impact on the overall course of the war they were fighting in, at least in part because so many of their operations took place outside Rhodesia, while at the same time large parts of the country were becoming safe zones for the various nationalist groups. The book is interesting for its study of what the Rhodesian SAS did, but perhaps less effective on explaining why, or what they hoped to achieve.

18 untitled chapters

Author: Hannes Wessels
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Publisher: Casemate
Year: 2015


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