WW2: Spotlight on Rhodesian African Rifles

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The Rhodesian African Rifles was the oldest regiment of the Rhodesian Army. It was established in the year 1940 by the British colony of Southern Rhodesian, to fight in the World War II. Most of the ranks in Rhodesian African Rifles comprised of Southern African troops only, although the officers were broadly from the white population.

During the years between 1940 and 1950, the RAR saw service in Malaya, Egypt, and Burma. During the Bush war —called the Second Chimurenga and the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, which was a civil conflict from July 1964 to December 1979, the Rhodesian African Rifles grew from one to three battalions. The Rhodesian African Rifles were based near Fort Victoria, Umali, and Bulawayo.

Not many in 2018 remember the Rhodesian African Rifles and not many recall that the bulk of RAR troops were Africans who volunteered in the war. The Rhodesian African Rifles received many battle honors in the engagements of the Second World War, Malayan Emergency, Suez Canal crisis, Rhodesian Bush War, Northern Rhodesia Crisis and the Congo border crisis. This article will try to explore the contributions of Rhodesian African Rifles in the mentioned engagements and how they fought during the war.

rhodesian african rifles_troops1970

World War I

A predecessor regiment – called the Rhodesian Native Regiment – was formed in on May 1, 1916 to assault the German presence in German East Africa (Tanganyika), under the command of Von Lettow-Vorbeck. The Rhodesian Native Regiment uniquely received too little training, due to the nature of war, before being deployed against German Forces north of Lake Nyasa instead. (McLaughlin 1980, p. 78) Despite a size of less than a company the Rhodesian Native Regiment was able to defeated three separate German forces deployed to Buhora. Troops covered on average 31 miles a day. Later, in September 1917 a second battalion of the RNR was raised. Between 22 May 1918 and 25 November 1918, 14 days after the Armistice in Europe, the RNR covered 2,250 miles on foot to capture and subjugate the remaining German forces fighting in East Africa.

World War II

World War II usually called WWII turned out to be a global war which involving all the top world powers. Ironically, all the countries involved were rallied into two camps with each county support or rallying around his allies or colonial masters. The war started in 1939 and dramatically ended in 1945.

World War II was the worst seen war theatre in the world. Military alliances were formed; there were the Allies and the Axis. The WWII involved over 100 millions of people, over 30 countries got roped up in the war. All the world powers involved threw caution into the wind and pumped all they had concerning human, military, industrial, and scientific into the fight. It was the war that introduced the use of nuclear bombs. Estimated causalities of between 50 to 85 million and countless numbers of permanently disabled people across nations of the world were recorded.

World War II employed some asymmetric weapons of destruction such as genocide, massacres, and the bombing of civilian densely populated areas.

The World War II  broke out in the year 1939 in Europe, when the British declared war on Germans. During that time, the Rhodesian African Rifles was not yet formed, and most Africans did not anticipate that they would be involved in the war. Rhodesia was a self-governing country that was expected to fight for Britain and be self-sufficient although Britain provided no support.

The Africans were supposed to contribute towards the British war effort heavily. They were expected to produce goods like tobacco, coal, gold, industrial metals and food, to assist the victorious prosecution of the war by British masters and the white Rhodesians. Africans from the urban areas were forced to make organizations to gather cash for the Bulawayo Bantu National Emergency Fund or the National War Fund. The Africans in the rural areas suffered even worse through the ‘Maguramuswe’ practice because they were forced to donate their herds of cattle. Their contributions helped the colonial state get so much money, those funds contributed towards buying war aircraft like the spitfire to fight the Germans.

rhodesian african rifles_spitfires

After the war became much difficult ten months later, the British decided to form the African regiment or RAR, where they used all types of propaganda to compel Africans to volunteer to join the army. Many young African soldiers joined the military but later it became a distressing experience for them. They found that white men were paid much more, but also that they earned much less in the military than when they were just civilians.

Commonwealth WW2 Propaganda

They were used as cannon fodder to fight the deadly Japanese in Burma, under Field Marshall William Slim’s 14th Army, and their sacrifice was taken for granted in a racist era. After the war ended, Africans were treated like freed slaves while the white men returned home as heroes. They fought for Britain to gain victory.

Black ex-servicemen from Southern Rhodesian received pensions significantly lower than their white counterparts. In 1943, the Rhodesian government earmarked £1 million for the rehabilitation of returning white ex-servicemen. Loans are generous interest rates were provided and some white ex-servicemen going into farming received interest-free loans.  Loans were available for raising livestock, and undertaking irrigation and drought relief.

Black Rhodesians were unable to get political representation or equal wages for equal work before, during and after World War 2.

The Rhodesian African Rifles received the battle honours of the RNR (‘Great War’ and ‘East Africa 1916-1918’ when it was awarded its colours in 1953.

Malayan Emergency

The Rhodesian African Rifles also received battle honours in Malaya. The Malayan Emergency was a war between the Federation of Malaya (which was a British protectorate), a part of Commonwealth of Nations, Malayan Communist Party (MCP), and the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA). MNLA wanted to overthrow the Malayan government and force out the British people, whereas the Commonwealth worked hard to prevent it. This conflict had its roots from the World War II, where local ethnic Chinese groups fought together with limited Britain forces in the nation against the occupation of Imperial Japanese. Malayan Chinese called themselves Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, after subscribing to Communist political thinking. After defeating the Japanese, the Communist fighters gained aspirations to overthrow the British rule and killed three British managers. Sir Edward Gent, a British High Commissioner, declared a state of emergency two days later, marking the start of the Malayan Emergency.

Malayan battalions were few and needed more armies to help them fight against the guerrillas. Therefore, Southern Rhodesia sent hundreds and thousands of Rhodesian African Rifles troops to serve in Malaya from 1956 to 1958. Here they helped to prevent guerrillas from overrunning towns, managing territories and disrupting the economy. They killed and arrested many guerrillas who approached their camps in search of food. They participated in jungle operations where they were taught to fight and live in tropical forests. Many guerrillas surrendered, the RAR managed to attain the highest kill rate compared to any other regiment, and only a few of their soldiers were killed.


Suez Canal Crisis  

Rhodesian African Rifles were deployed twice again to serve abroad in Egypt. Towards the end of 1946, the battalion comprised of 1,300 men dispersed between one guard and a deport company in Salisbury and other companies of varying strengths protecting RAF station at Thornhill, Kumalo, and Heaney. These were the duties they were to handle for some years.

In 1951, they were sent to serve in Egypt to help the British Army in the Suez Canal Crisis. They were deployed to work hand in hand with Royal Engineers in construction projects and to protect some bases like Port Said, El Kirsch, and Long Beach. They mostly worked to trap thieves in their tenacious efforts to rob the camps. The RAR soldiers used their tracking skills effectively and earned a good reputation for finding burglars by following their footprints. They managed to kill two thieves, injure three and catch twenty-five thieves, along with eleven more gateway bicycles. After the Suez Canal crisis was solved, the RAR army went back to Salisbury Railway Station in Southern Rhodesia, in the year 1952.

Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (also known as the Central African Federation)

Map of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

Nyasaland had a history of issues arising from the limited access which the African peasant farmers had to the agricultural land and the opposition of Africans to being a part of the Federation of Rhodesian and Nyasaland. Nyasaland was a polity with c. 1.2 million autochthons, c. 1000 Europeans and c. 500 Asians. Nyasaland was run through a system in which Europeans owned the land and Africans performed agricultural work under a system called thangata. This system was built during 1892 to 1950, through transactions we will later describe.

Evolution of Rhodesian African Rifles
Rhodesian African Rifles from 1891 to 1960s

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was established in 1953 and existed until 1963, in spite of opposition of Africans (Armitage Report). Its central objective was to join the protectorate of the British in Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland protectorate. There was a global demand for copper existing in vast commercial quantities in Northern Rhodesia. The European industrialists and managers called for a unification of three colonies to harness and add a larger potential black workforce.

The Federation was an economic arrangement and a success for the British at first until the British government planned for it to become a British Dominion. Dominions were territories in which Pax Britannica allowed responsible government, but neither self-rule or representative government. A responsible government under the Imperial Westminster idea of democracy would be accountable only to the lower house of the United Kingdom Parliament. The legislatures of Dominions were allowed to make laws on everything exception foreign affairs, defence and international trade. Examples of former Dominions were Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, the Irish Free State, the Colony of Virginia and New Zealand. Protectorates however were a power-sharing arrangement, created through treaties between local rulers and the United Kingdom; acknowledging the rights of the local rulers but also indirect rule and protection by the United Kingdom.

The European settlers were few at the time, so they were disturbed by the risk of being outnumbered by an African population. Therefore, they implemented more draconian laws and rules targeted at the African population in the Federation through the British Colonial Office. They wanted to either pacify Nyasaland or force Nyasaland out of the Federation because they feared the Federation moving toward self-rule and representative democracy.

Nyasaland had lost 3.7million acres to European land-owners through grants of Certificates of Claim, and its integration into the Federation came at a time when a young, educated African generation were seeking political representation and independence, through the Nyasaland African Congress. The Nyasaland African Congress, led by TDT Banda, met with the colonial administrator Sir Robert Armitage in 1957 to demand a democratically elected legislative assembly to replace the Legislative Council, mostly elected by Africans, and parity in the Executive branch – at least equal numbers of Africans and Europeans. He also met a moderate party called the Progressive Party who wanted a system composed of Europeans and Africans in which the Progressive Party could nominate unelected African representatives to the government of the Federation.

At the same time, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland began to worry that the existing legislative arm of the Federation (comprising the mostly white men) would increase the undemocratic features of the political system being crafted for the new federation, which later proved to be true. The Africans responded with protests and disturbances.

This caused the state of emergency which was declared by Sir Robert Armitage in 1959. The central aim of the crisis was to permit the Nyasaland government to restore order and law after the British increased their rules. The British wanted Nyasaland to be neutralized, stay in the Federation, for Africans to hold “little” influence in the Federation, and for the Federation to obtain Dominion status.

At the beginning of the emergency, Armitage met with the Southern Rhodesian government to plan a response to protests by the African movements seeking democracy.

The European elements of the Rhodesia Regiment were flown into Nyasaland with permission given to either police or troops to use force: to fire live rounds at rioters. Over 60 Africans were murdered, and the colonial European security troops severely injured many others. Africans were beaten, and had their properties were seized or ruined during the punitive operations. Over 1,300 people including the President that backed up the Emergency were imprisoned and detained without trial.

They sent over 1,500 RAR troops to Nyasaland to fight in the civil matters. Although some were injured and the majority of the RAR troop made it back home.

Despite this event, the African democratic struggle persevered and Nyasaland went on to gain its independence. Nyasaland became modern day ‘Malawi’ in later 1963. Following the Victoria Falls conference of 1963, the Central African Federation dissolved in December 1963, the bulk of the federal assets, including the assets of the armed forces, went to Southern Rhodesia (later to become Zimbabwe), which had most significantly contributed towards developing the CAF government. In 1964, Northern Rhodesia became the independent Republic of Zambia, obtaining representative government (majority rule) led by Kenneth Kaunda.

Rhodesian Bush war

Rhodesian Bush war also popularly known as the Zimbabwe Liberation Struggle or the second Chimurenga, was a war that lasted from 1964 to 1979. This war led to universal suffrage, the end of the white man rule in Rhodesia, and the establishment of the Republic of Zimbabwe.  In 1981, a Zipra mechanized battalion of the recent anti-Rhodesian terrorist movements in the Matabele part relocated to Bulawayo. This relocation became a clear and massive challenge to Robert Mugabe’s democratically elected and ‘Shona-majority’ control.

Therefore, he decided to take action. The Rhodesian Air Force and the Rhodesian African Rifles were called upon to stop the movement. Many soldiers in the RAR volunteered in the army and fought courageously and bitterly against the black nationalist guerillas. During the war, they were well equipped with weapons, armored cars and tanks, submachine guns and jet aircraft fighters to win the Bush war. They were also reliant on South Africa to produce domestic war equipment, most of which South Africa smuggled into the country.

Congo border

After 800, 000 Hutus and moderate Tutsis were murdered, some refugees of the Rwandan genocide flooded into the eastern border of Congo in 1994. When the Tutsi government was formed in Rwanda after the war, more than three million Hutu searched for refuge in Congo.

Later in 1996, Uganda and Rwanda joined forces to invade Congo to look for the remaining culprits of the Rwandan genocide. The coalition comprised of the Rwandan and Ugandan battalions, along with the opposition leader Kabila who overthrew the leadership of Mobutu Sese Seko.  When Kabila became president, he ordered the Ugandan and Rwandan armies to leave Congo because he feared an annexation of the mineral-rich regions.

Kabila received military support from Rhodesia which helped protect him during the war. Southern Rhodesia sent about 7,000 to 11,000 RAR troops to Congo to support and defend Kabila.  In exchange for offering support, the government of Robert Mugabe took advantage of Congo’s access to oil, uranium, gold, and diamond.

Contributions of Rhodesian African Rifles

During the years between 1940 and 1950, the RAR saw service in Malaya, Egypt, and Burma. The troops also saw service in civil affairs such as the Malayan Emergency, Suez Canal crisis, Rhodesian Bush War, Northern Rhodesia Crisis and the Congo border crisis. These men were poorly paid, were barred from becoming officers, had no democratic rights at home and received unequal pensions for their sacrifice.

ww2 Map_of_Africa_in_1939
British (red) and Belgian (Orange) colonies fought with the Allies. Italian (green) with the Axis. French colonies (dark blue) fought with the Allies until the Fall of France after which some supported Vichy and some the Free French. Portuguese (brown) and Spanish (teal) colonies remained neutral.


1)      Binda, Alexandre (2007). Masodja: The History of the Rhodesian African Rifles and Its Forerunner the Rhodesia Native Regiment. 30° South Publishers. ISBN 978-1-920143-03-9 .

2)      Samasuwo, Nhamo (2003). “Food Production and War Supplies: Rhodesia’s Beef Industry during the Second World War, 1939–1945”. Journal of Southern African Studies. London: Routledge. 29 (2): 487–502. doi: 10.1080/03057070306206

3)      Souchou Yao. 2016. The Malayan Emergency A small, Distant War. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies Monograph series, no. 133. pp. 40–41.

4)      Major Jean-Marc Pierre (15 August 2014). 1956 Suez Crisis And The United Nations. Tannenberg Publishing. ISBN 978-1-78289-608-1 . “Still in 1950 Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran barring Israel from the waterway ( Longgood 1958, xii-xiii).”

5)      Welensky, Roy, Sir. Welensky’s 4000 days: the life and death of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Collins, London, 1964).

6)      Wood, J. R. T. (July 2009). Counter-strike From the Sky: The Rhodesian All-arms Fireforce in the War in the Bush 1974– 1980. Johannesburg: 30° South Publishers. ISBN 978-1-920143-33-6.

7)      G. D. Clough, (1924). The Constitutional Changes in Northern Rhodesia and Matters Incidental to the Transition, pp. 279–80.

8)      Kevin Shillington, Encyclopedia of African History

9)      (New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004); Guy Arnold,

10)  Historical Dictionary of Civil Wars in Africa (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1989); H. M. Epstein, ed. Revolt in the Congo, 1960-1964 (New York: Facts on File, 1965); G. Abi-Saab, The United Nations Operations in the Congo, 1960-1964 (London: Oxford University Press, 1978).

11)  “Rhodesia has World’s Most Battle-Worthy Army.” Daily News Bureau. London. 30 January 1978.

12)  B. Pachai, (1978). Land and Politics in Malawi 1875–1975, Kingston (Ontario), The Limestone Press

13)  C Baker, (1993). Seeds of Trouble: Government Policy and Land Rights in Nyasaland, 1946–1964, London, British Academic Press.

14)  C Baker, (1997). State of Emergency: Nyasaland 1959, I.B.Tauris. ISBN 1-86064-068-0.

15)  C Baker, (1997). Nyasaland, 1959: A Police State? The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 50, No. 2.

16)  C Baker, (1998). Retreat from Empire: Sir Robert Armitage in Africa and Cyprus, I. B. Tauris. ISBN 978-1-86064-223-4.

17)  C Baker, (2000). Sir Glyn Jones: a proconsul in Africa, I.B.Tauris. ISBN 1-86064-461-9.

18)  C Baker, (2007). The Mechanics of Rebuttal: The British and Nyasaland Governments’ Response to The Devlin Report, 1959, The Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 60, No. 2.

19)  Hansard, House of Commons, (1959). Nyasaland (Report of Commission of Inquiry) Debate 28 July 1959 Vol. 610 Columns 317-449.

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WW2: Spotlight on Rhodesian African Rifles

by Editorial Team time to read: 12 min