Royal Rhodesian Air Force

Royal Rhodesian Air Force

The Royal Rhodesian Air Force was the air arm of the British colonial state of Rhodesia. It existed between 1935 and 1980 under various names, and is now the Air Force of Zimbabwe.


Formed in 1935 under the name Southern Rhodesia Staff Corp Air Unit as a territorial unit, the first regular servicemen with the unit went to Britain for ground crew training in 1936. Its 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 Rhodesia and Nyasaland Airways. By January 1940, with Britain at war with Germany, Royal Air Force (RAF) 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 (1933-53) 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 1940-45 (seven percent of the total) 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. [On Rhodesian industrialisation, see Phimister, (1988).] The SRAF was absorbed into the RAF proper in April 1940 and redesignated No. 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF. This squadron, initially equipped with Hawker Hardys, 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, the most notable of those in the contemporary era being 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. [Moss (n.d.); Petter-Bowyer (2003) p. 16]

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 cooperation with the RAF in the 1950's 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 (1953-56) of the semi-independent Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland also known as the Central African Federation (CAF) 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.

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. [The extent to which Hawkins was involved in the abortive Army plot to arrest Ian Smith, senior members of the Rhodesian Front regime and their principal supporter in the security forces, Police Commissioner Frank Barfoot, has yet to be clarified. See Flower (1987) p. 56; Wood (2005) p. 471] 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 offered 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. 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 switch of allies saw Rhodesia increasingly dependent upon South African support and growing disillusion with the rebellion. In contrast to most of the police and the Army, Rhodesian airmen possessed skills in demand by other air forces and civilian airlines and the Air Staff struggled to retain, recruit and train technicians.

In the late 1950s, 16 Canberra bombers were purchased, as well as Provost trainers, Dakota and Canadair DC4 freighters.

In 1962, Hunter fighter aircraft were obtained, and the Vampire FB9s were reallocated to advanced training and ground attack roles.

The first Alouette helicopters also arrived around this time, equipping Number 7 Squadron.


The SRAF used standard RAF type A roundel, with green/yellow/green bars on each side of the fuselage roundel and type A fin flashes.

The RRAF used standard RAF type A roundels with three small assegais in black and white superimposed on the red center and type A fin flashes.. These assegais represented the three territories of the Federation, namely Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

The Rhodesian Air Force changed to a type D roundel with a single assegai and a type D in flash.When Rhodesia became a republic in 1970 the roundels became a green ring with a lion and tusk on the white center.


Rhodesian Air Force (1970-1979)

During the "Emergency" 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 (known in Rhodesia as the Genet or Warrior - two versions, trainer and ground-attack) piston engined 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 embargoed by the New Zealand government

Drawing upon counter-insurgency experience gained in the 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, especially the use of napalm, but evidence confirming or disproving the utilisation of Rhodesian biological weapons remains inconclusive. [See, for example, Cilliers (1984); Carver (1993); Wood (1996); Martinez (2000); Parker (2006).]

Order of battle

*No. 1 Squadron - Thornhill (9 x Hawker Hunter FGA.9; 8 x Vampire FB.9)
*No. 2 Squadron - Thornhill (8 x Vampire T.55)
*No. 3 Squadron - New Sarum (13 x Douglas C-47; 1 x Cessna 402; 4 x BN-2A Islander; 1 x DC-7C; 1 x Baron)
*No. 4 Squadron - Thornhill (6 x AL-60F5 Trojan; 17 x Reims-Cessna FTB.337G; 14 x SF.260W; 17 x SF.260C)
*No. 5 Squadron - New Sarum (8 x EE Canberra B.2; 2 x EE Canberra T.4)
*No. 6 Squadron - New Sarum (13 x Percival Provost T.52)
*No. 7 Squadron - New Sarum (6 x Alouette II; 34 x Alouette III; 11 x AB.205)

Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Air Force (1979-1980)

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 fin flash.


The following officers were commanders of the Rhodesian Air Force:
* 1949 - 30 June 1961 Air Vice-Marshal "Ted" Jacklin
* 1961 - 1965 Air Vice-Marshal Bentley
* 1965 - 1968 Air Vice-Marshal Harold Hawkins
* 1968 - 15 April 1973 Air Marshal Archie Wilson
* 13 April 1973 - 1977 Air Marshal Mick McLaren
* 12 April 1977 - 1981 Air Marshal Frank Mussell


* [ RRAF/AFZ markings]
* []
* Allport, R, "Flags and Symbols of Rhodesia, 1890-1980" (SAVA Journal 5/96)


*Allport, R. (n.d.) "Brief History of the Rhodesian Army". Rhodesia and South Africa Military History

*Australian Gold Coast Branch of the Aircrew Association, (n.d.) "Service Profile: Archie Wilson" (Point Cook: RAAF Museum).

*CAA (Central African Airways) (1961) "The Story of CAA 1946-61" (Salisbury: CAA).

*Carver, R. (1993) ‘Zimbabwe: Drawing a Line through the Past’, "Journal of African Law", (31) 1 pp. 69-81.

*Cilliers, J. K. (1984) "Pseudo Operations and the Selous Scouts", (London: Routledge).

*Clark. C (2003) "The Empire Air Training Scheme", (Canberra: Australian War Memorial History Conference).

*Clayton, A. (1999) ‘”Deceptive Might”: Imperial Defence and Security 1900-1968’ in J. M. Brown and W. R. Louis (eds) (1999) "The Oxford History of the British Empire vol. IV: The Twentieth Century", (Oxford: Oxford University Press).pp. 280-305.

*Flower, K. (1987) Serving Secretly. "An Intelligence Chief On Record: Rhodesia into Zimbabwe 1964 to 1981", (London: John Hammond).

*Gann, L. H. (n.d.) "The Development of Southern Rhodesia’s Military System, 1890-1953," Rhodesia and South Africa Military History.

*Huggins, Sir Godfrey. (1953) ‘Foreword for Air Rally Programme’, "Rhodes Centenary Air Rally", June 13-14.

*Hyam, R (1987) ‘The Geopolitical Origins of the Central African Federation: Britain, Rhodesia and South Africa, 1948-1953’, "The Historical Journal", (30) 1 pp. 145-72.

*Hyam, R. and Henshaw, P. (2003) "The Lion and the Springbok: Britain and South Africa Since the Boer War" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

*Keatley, P. (1963) "The Politics of Partnership: The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland", (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

*Killingray, D. (1984) ‘“A Swift Agent of Government”: Air Power in British Colonial Africa, 1916-1939’, "The Journal of African History" (25) 4 pp. 429-44.

*McAdam, J. (1969) ‘Birth of an Airline: Establishment of Rhodesia and Nyasaland Airways’, "Rhodesiana", (21).

*McCormack, R. L. (1976) ‘Airlines and Empires: Great Britain and the “Scramble for Africa”, 1919-39’, "Canadian Journal of African Studies", (10) 1 pp. 87-105.

*McCormack, R. L. (1979) ‘Man With A Mission: Oswald Pirow and South African Airways, 1933-1939’, "The Journal of African History", (20) 4 pp. 543-57.

*Martinez, I. (2000) ‘The History and Use of Bacteriological and Chemical Agents During Zimbabwe’s Liberation War 1965-80 by Rhodesian Forces’. "Third World Quarterly", (23) 6, pp. 1159-79.

*Melson, C. (2005) ‘Top Secret War: Rhodesian Special Operations’, "Small Wars and Insurgencies", (16) 1 pp. 57-82.

*Meredith, C. (1973) ‘The Rhodesian Air Training Group 1940-1945’, "Rhodesiana" (28) 1973.

*Minter, W. and Schmidt, E. (1988) ‘When Sanctions Worked: The Case of Rhodesia Reexamined’, "African Affairs" (87) 347 pp. 207-37.

*Mlambo, N. (2002) ‘The Zimbabwe Defence Industry, 1980-1995’, "Defence Digest Working Paper 2" (Rondebosch: South African Centre for Defence Information).

*Morris, Capt. G. C. (1991) ‘The Other Side of the Coin: Low-Technology Aircraft and Little Wars’, "Airpower Journal" Spring.

*Moss, J. P. (n.d.) "Spit Epic: March, 1951" (unpublished manuscript).

*Murray, D. J. (1970) "The Governmental System in Southern Rhodesia" (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

*Parker, J. (2006) "Assignment Selous Scouts: Inside Story of a Rhodesian Special Branch Officer", (Alberton: Galago).

*Percox, D. (2004) Britain, Kenya and the Cold War: Imperial Defence, Colonial Security and Decolonisation., (London: I. B. Tauris).

*Petter-Bowyer, P. J. H. (2003) "Winds of Destruction: The Autobiography of a Rhodesian Combat Pilot", (Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing).

*Phimister, I. R. (1988) "An Economic and Social History of Zimbabwe 1890-1948: Capital Accumulation and Class Struggle" (London: Longman).

*Royal Australian Air Force, (1945) ‘Personal Record of Service: Flt. Lt. Harold Hawkins, RAAF’, ref. no. 504128, (Canberra: Australian National Archives).

* (Royal Canadian Air Force History) (n.d.) "The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan".

*Salt, B. (2001) "A Pride of Eagles: The Definitive History of the Rhodesian Air Force 1920-1980", (Weltevreden Park: Covos Day Books).

*Samasuwo, N. (2003) ‘Food Production and War supplies: Rhodesia’s Beef Industry During the Second World War’, "Journal of Southern African Studies," (29) 2 pp. 487-502.

*Vickery, K. P. (1989) ‘The Second World War Revival of Forced Labor in the Rhodesias’, "International Journal of African Historical Studies," (22) 3 pp. 423-37.

*Wood, J. R. T. (1995) "Rhodesian Insurgency" Rhodesia and South Africa Military History.

*Wood, J. R. T. (1996) "Fireforce: Helicopter Warfare in Rhodesia 1962-1980", at Rhodesia and South Africa Military History.

*Wood, J. R. T. (2005 "So Far and No Further: Rhodesia’s Bid for Independence During the Retreat From Empire 1959-1965". (Victoria, British Columbia: Trafford Publishing).

ee also

* Rhodesian Armoured Car Regiment
* Rhodesian Light Infantry
* Rhodesian SAS
* Rhodesian African Rifles
* Selous Scouts
* Grey's Scouts
* British South Africa Police

External links

* [ Air Force of Zimbabwe]
* [ Rhodesian Air Force Pictorial ]
* [ Rhodesian Air Force and Rhodesian civil aircraft photographs and info]
* [ The Rhodesian Air Force]
* [ Rhodesian and South African Military History] : An extensive collection of histories and analysis of Rhodesian and South African military operations, to the early 1980s

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