Fires of Revolution – 1978 Salisbury Petrol Raid

In the more than 35 years since the end of the Rhodesian Bush War, there has been a great deal of commendable ink put to paper about the tactical excellence of the Rhodesian Security Forces. Cross border raids and Fireforce alike have been covered in extensive detail, enthralling those interested in military history and the nature of COIN warfare. In this author’s experience, however, there is a dearth of writing on the war from the insurgent perspective. Several small unit insurgent raids were extremely successful, and can equally offer lessons to the tactician and the student of history.  Barring the Viscount shootdowns, perhaps the most famous such raid was the raid against the Salisbury petrol depot on the 11th of December, 1978.

Two major political organizations comprised the Patriotic Front, the insurgent force during the Rhodesian Bush War; the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its attendant military wing ZANLA, representing the Shona population under its leader Robert Mugabe, and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) who represented the Ndebele population under Joshua Nkomo, with their military wing ZIRPA. ZANU and ZAPU operated primarily from Mozambique and Zambia, respectively. Their primary goal under the PF was the replacement of White minority rule in Rhodesia with universal suffrage, and fighting took place from 1972 until a Dec 1979 ceasefire, the terms of which established popular elections to be held Feb 1980. After winning these elections, Mugabe and ZANU solidified their power over the state now known as Zimbabwe.

Several factors made an attack on the Salisbury petrol depot particularly appealing. Firstly, the date of the 11th of December coincided with the anniversary of the Rhodesian UDI, or Unilateral Declaration of Independence. In addition to this symbolism, the UDI and insistence on minority rule meant that Rhodesia was an international pariah, and thus subject to oil embargoes. Destruction caused to oil reserves would be sorely felt by the Rhodesians, and difficult to replace. Lastly, the depot was located near the capital city itself, and a strike against it would bring the war dramatically close to the white population, and vividly demonstrate the inability of the security forces to prevent insurgent action.

The raid itself was conducted by a small group of insurgents previously inserted into the Salisbury area using civilian vehicles. Around 9pm on Dec 11, the insurgents opened fire upon the petrol depot using RPGs, tracer bullets, and a Soviet made 82mm mortar, and a fire quickly arose. The fire would continue to burn as the insurgents dispersed until specialized firefighting equipment could arrive from South Africa two days later. The fire destroyed 25 of 32 storage tanks in the depot, totaling around 10% of the entire Rhodesian oil reserve. Unfortunately, both ZIRPA and ZANLA claimed responsibility for the attack, and the insurgents themselves were not captured. Especially considering the turbulent political history of Zimbabwe following the end of the war, there has been no conclusive proof of who it was that carried out the attack.

It would be impossible to characterize the raid as anything other than a complete success. Not only did it directly affect the white minority population through petrol shortages, a dramatic attack in the heart of Rhodesia’s capital inflicted a significant blow to their morale, and underscored the inability of the Rhodesian security forces to counter insurgent activities. Even outside of its practical effects, it signified a turning point in the Rhodesian Bush war, and heralded the eventual victory of the Patriotic Front.

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