Pseudo warfare in the African bush

Book review: Rhodesian Special Branch Pseudo Warfare by Digby Pocock


Local author Digby Pocock revisits his life as a veteran of the Rhodesian Bush War that ravaged the country, now Zimbabwe, for 15 years from July 1964 to December 1979 and led to the deaths of thousands of soldiers and civilians, and gives an honest account of his feelings and challenges during the conflict.

Born in the UK, Pocock’s father was a mining engineer who travelled broadly in the execution of his duties which accounts for his sister being born in India and his brother in South Africa. Pocock grew up on a farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Chimanimani, Zimbabwe). Assuming he was to be a farmer, he attended the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester in the UK before returning to his family homestead where he found that, through an error of dosing in the cattle dip, the animals were dying and the farm was lost.

It was at this stage that then Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith announced UDI (unilateral declaration of independence), and Pocock joined the British South Africa Police.

It is clear from Pocock’s writing that he, like many former Rhodesians, was frustrated at Britain’s reluctance to grant Rhodesia independence as it had already broken the federation it had proposed between Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) and granted the other two countries independence from the British crown. But frustration soon led to war, with thousands of Cuban/Russian trained operatives entering Rhodesia and causing havoc even before the civil war began.

The infiltrators, referred to as terrs (terrorists) acted as agent provocateurs and relied heavily on the support of local citizenry to ensure their safe passage from bordering Mozambique and elsewhere, and for their supply of food and places to stay while they were in the country.

Pocock’s rapid promotion in the police, from new recruit, a lot older than was usual, to his appointment to Special Branch and the Criminal Investigation Department was meteoric, but this is not a standard story of police investigative work. It is the story of a police officer in the throes of war, and is more likened to the story of a soldier, a leader and a man fiercely attempting to make sense of an ultimately destructive and senseless war that claimed many lives and poisoned the minds of the indigenous people into committing some horrific crimes.

Having been told that the army would conduct “pseudo” raids on terrs and their encampments, Pocock shrugged off any criticism of his actions and recruited his own spies among the population in an attempt to infiltrate terr places of safety and their routes into the country, to kill them before they had a chance to enact their plans of destruction.

Pocock writes from a first-hand perspective, giving his views on the situations he found himself in. He does not hide his frustration at some of the decisions made by those higher up in the hierarchy and his own feelings toward the terrs who had invaded his land. He takes matters into his own hands and, by and large (aside from a particularly nasty incident where he was shot in the leg and spent time in hospital) won the day.

He must have kept meticulous records as he is able to detail the exact number of weapons, ammunition and other items taken on these pseudo raids. His description of the fighting, usually under the cover of darkness, shows the hostility and very often the incompetence of those he was fighting.

If you are a former Rhodesian this book will no doubt bring back memories of the bush war and the very real suffering of those involved. To a new generation, it will highlight the thought processes of the protagonists in a war that ultimately led to the current Zimbabwe.

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