This article examines British planning for military intervention against the European-dominated governments of Central Africa from 1952 to 1965. By the time of Southern Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) in November 1965, it had become an article of faith within Whitehall that a military response was out of the question. This owed much to long-standing anxieties about deploying British troops against white Rhodesian forces. The article argues, however, that the crisis over the Northern Rhodesian constitution in the early months of 1961 transformed the nature of the debate. Detailed planning was conducted for a ‘contested reinforcement’ (in effect, for an invasion) of Northern Rhodesia in the event of the white-dominated government of the Central African Federation staging a coup. This planning exercise enabled the Chiefs of Staff to shift the nature of the debate from the loyalty of British troops to the logistical obstacles to an invasion. They were particularly keen to impress on Ministers that there was no question of a ‘limited’ military intervention, since the insertion of British troops would have to be preceded by the elimination of the Royal Rhodesian Air Force, an action likely to entail considerable civilian loss of life. The Chiefs of Staff appear to have calculated – correctly – that their elected leaders would be reluctant to contemplate full-scale war against the Rhodesian settlers. The planning process of 1961 coloured subsequent thinking on military intervention, and helps to explain why an invasion was never seriously contemplated in the months immediately preceding UDI.
TOWARDS the end of October 1965, the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, led a mission to Southern Rhodesia in a desperate final bid to avert a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) by the government of Ian Smith. The visit ended on 30 October with a press conference at which Wilson warned:
This statement surprised and perplexed many contemporary observers, just as it continues to puzzle historians. As Robin Renwick has recently noted, ‘No British government was prepared to use force in Rhodesia, but the wisdom of announcing this in advance has been questioned ever since.’2 As early as 1923, the Devonshire Memorandum on Kenya had ruled out any question of sending British troops to fight British settlers in Africa.3 Yet the threat of military action appeared to many to be the most powerful bargaining counter available to the British government in its dealings with the Smith regime. To throw it away so casually seemed illogical, even reckless. On 31 October, during a brief stop in Accra on his way back to London, Wilson was treated by the Ghanaian President, Kwame Nkrumah, to an instant taste of the fury his statement had aroused across black Africa.4 When, in the 1980s, some of the key participants on both sides in the Rhodesian negotiations came to write their memoirs, they singled out Wilson's remarks as a contributory factor behind UDI. His Minister of Defence, Denis Healey, described the statement as a ‘classic strategic blunder’, and suggested that it gave ‘the green light’ to UDI.5 The former head of Southern Rhodesia's Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), Ken Flower, agreed, arguing that ‘Wilson had removed any immediate prospect of a negotiated settlement and had cleared the way for the R[hodesian] F[ront] government to take matters into its own hands.’6
If there are those in this country who are thinking in terms of a thunderbolt, hurtling through the sky and destroying the enemy, a thunderbolt in the shape of the Royal Air Force, let me say that this thunderbolt will not be coming, and to continue in this delusion wastes valuable time and misdirects valuable energies.1
The precise thinking behind Wilson's statement remains enigmatic, even with the benefit of access to official papers in the National Archives. It seems likely, however, as we shall see, that Wilson believed he was merely reiterating what was already the publicly stated position of the British government. In doing so, his main purpose appears to have been to attempt to persuade African nationalist leaders in Southern Rhodesia to adopt a more ‘realistic’ attitude in their negotiations with the whites.7
Wilson's statement certainly indicated the extent to which it had become an article of faith within the British government that armed conflict with the European settlers of Central Africa was inconceivable. Yet evidence has long been available to suggest that the British government may not have been entirely unwavering in its attitude towards this matter between 1923 and 1965. As early as 1964, the memoirs of Sir Roy Welensky, the former Prime Minister of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (commonly referred to as the Central African Federation), offered revelations that caused some alarm within Whitehall.8 Welensky implied that – despite Harold Macmillan's emotional denial that he would have tolerated a situation ‘in which Britishers would have been shooting down Britishers, their brothers alongside whom they had fought on many a battlefield’ – concrete steps had been taken in February 1961 to prepare for an invasion of the Federation. In an account of his time as UK High Commissioner in Salisbury (the capital both of Southern Rhodesia and the Federation), published a year after Welensky's book, Lord Alport suggested that the military preparations Welensky had detected had – as Macmillan had assured the Federal Prime Minister – been intended solely to deal with a possible outbreak of African unrest.9 Yet in the final volume of his memoirs, published in 1973, Macmillan himself appeared to confirm that his government had indeed been ‘drawing up the necessary … plans’ to deal with acts of defiance by Africans or by European settlers.10
The existing literature also suggests, however, that in the event of any UDI-style revolt by the Federal government, Macmillan and his colleagues might well have hesitated before putting any contingency plans they did have into operation. Macmillan's official biographer reminds us that the French military imbroglio in Algeria was never far from the mind of the British Prime Minister when dealing with the Central African settlers.11 Like the Algerian pieds noirs, the Rhodesian whites were keen to argue that their contribution in blood to the defence of the mother country in two world wars had earned them special treatment.12 Close contacts between British and Rhodesian troops had continued during the twenty years following 1945. Under the circumstances, there were serious concerns that the British armed forces would refuse to obey any order to fight against their Rhodesian ‘kith and kin’, just as they had proved reluctant to act against the Ulster Protestants earlier in the century.13 Asked by Michael Charlton whether such a directive might have sparked a ‘Curragh’-style mutiny, the former Conservative minister, Julian Amery, agreed. He claimed that during his time as Secretary of State for Air from 1960 to 1962, he had been warned by one of the Chiefs of Staff that even the production of a contingency plan for military intervention in Central Africa would be ‘very dangerous indeed’ because of the presence of Rhodesian officers on the military planning staff.14
Much has been written about the events immediately surrounding UDI.15 This literature has recently been supplemented by important contributions which cast new light on the specific debate surrounding the possible use of force against Rhodesia. Carl Watts has argued that the Wilson government exaggerated the obstacles to military intervention. On the basis of an examination of a number of factors including the attitudes and capabilities of the British and Rhodesian military and the possibility of South African intervention, Watts concludes that an invasion was feasible, and could have provided a solution to Britain's Rhodesian dilemma had there been sufficient political will in London to see it through.16 His case receives some support from a valuable new study by J. R. T. Wood, which combines material from both the National Archives in Kew and the papers of Ian Smith to chart in unprecedented detail the events leading up to UDI.17 Wood's work suggests that a number of senior figures within the Rhodesian military might well have refused to sanction armed resistance against a British invasion.
The purpose of this piece is not to engage in a counter-factual argument over whether military intervention would have worked, but rather to explain why pessimism about its chances of success had become such an immovable feature of the British official mind by 1965. It will suggest that this fatalism owed much to the discussions surrounding the earlier ‘invasion plan’ of 1961. In that year the British military planning staff conducted detailed investigations into the feasibility of a military operation to overcome settler resistance in Central Africa, and some preparatory measures were put in place. The article will suggest that this represented a turning point in the debate within the British government over the question of the use of force. Although the Colonial Office had been discussing its options in the event of a settler revolt for nearly a decade before UDI, it regarded the viability of an invasion as too sensitive an issue to be the subject of broader consultations, even within Whitehall. Hence, the notion that this option was out of the question had hitherto operated at the level of a ‘gut instinct’ among officials, and largely revolved around expectations that British forces would be reluctant to fight their Rhodesian counterparts. The planning process in 1961, however, generated, for the first time, a set of concrete objections to an invasion, most of which did not relate to the attitudes of British military personnel.18 These objections – which applied with even greater force after 1963 when the subject of any invasion would have been Southern Rhodesia alone – overshadowed all subsequent British thinking on the use of force, and formed an essential part of the background to Wilson's statement of 30 October.
A decisive moment in British planning came, then, in the period when Southern Rhodesia was associated with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland as part of the Central African Federation. The Federation was created in the face of overwhelming opposition from the politically conscious Africans of its two northern territories. During its ten-year existence from 1953 to 1963, it presented the British government with a unique combination of problems. The white minority population of Southern Rhodesia continued to enjoy almost complete internal self-government, as they had done since 1923. Since the composition of the Federal Assembly was largely determined by the European electorates of Southern and Northern Rhodesia, the Federal government's control over certain aspects of administration in Southern Rhodesia represented no threat to white hegemony there. Furthermore, as a creature of the white minority, the Federal government consistently opposed the extension of political rights to the Africans of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. A mark of Southern Rhodesia's quasi-dominion status was the fact that its affairs were the responsibility of the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO) in London, which also handled Britain's relations with South Africa and with the Federal government itself. Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were formally protectorates, administered as colonies by members of the British colonial service, and overseen by the Colonial Office in London. While the Colonial Office tended to support the demands of its governors for concessions to African political aspirations, the CRO displayed a markedly greater sympathy towards the concerns of the European settlers. Hence, conflicts between the Federation's various governments over constitutional reform were mirrored within Whitehall by clashes between the Colonial Office and the CRO. The gathering pace of decolonisation across Africa from 1959 served only to exacerbate these tensions. It was not until 1962 that this administrative confusion and confrontation within Whitehall was eased, when the affairs of the Federation as a whole were transferred to a new Central Africa Office.
Like the Southern Rhodesian government, the Federal government enjoyed a large degree of autonomy from London. An important de facto guarantee of that autonomy was the Federal government's responsibility for defence policy, and its control over the armed forces of the three Federal territories. On the formation of the Federation, the Southern Rhodesian government surrendered control of its exclusively European territorial forces, including two battalions of the Royal Rhodesia Regiment.19 The Federal government also inherited the Southern Rhodesian Air Force, which formed the basis for the Federation's Royal Rhodesian Air Force (RRAF). As political tensions between Salisbury and London increased, the possibility that the Federal government might stage some kind of coup became a growing source of worry within Whitehall. By the time of the Federal government's clash with the Colonial Office over the terms of the Northern Rhodesian constitution in the early months of 1961, the former had at its disposal four regular African infantry battalions, four active territorial battalions and three reserve battalions. It was also in the process of creating a European regular infantry battalion, a European regular armoured car squadron and a European SAS squadron.20 The constitutional crisis of early 1961 is well documented.21 Yet Britain's military preparations for a possible conflict with the Central African settlers have received far less attention.
The threat of a settler revolt ran throughout the lifetime of the Federation and, indeed, predated it. In advance of the London constitutional conference of January 1953 which agreed the final form federation would take, the Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister, Godfrey Huggins, and Roy Welensky, leader of the Northern Rhodesian settlers, threatened a ‘Boston Tea Party’ if further political concessions were not made to the white minority.22 This threat reappeared in the autumn of 1956, following a particularly inflammatory speech by Huggins (by then Lord Malvern), which again raised the prospect of a ‘Boston Tea Party’ if full independence was not granted to the Federation. It was with some trepidation that officials decided, in the words of Colonial Office official, William Gorell Barnes, ‘to turn up this stone to see what was underneath it’.23 There was general support within the Colonial Office for the dictum of Arthur Benson, governor of Northern Rhodesia, that ‘it is inconceivable that any British Government would ever send British troops to fight against British people (white) in Africa; the corollary being that H.M.G. must gain their political aims in Central Africa by political means’. This remained, in effect, the British government's position throughout the period under consideration. There were, however, a number of serious attempts to explore the feasibility of using force.
The subject – described by one official as ‘intricate and distasteful’ – was raised again by officials in the Colonial Office early in September 1958 in response to fears that a limited increase in African political representation in Northern Rhodesia might lead to a breakdown in relations with Welensky.24 As in 1956, the debate was confined to the Colonial Office (indeed, the file concerned is marked ‘Colonial Office Eyes Only’); and as on the previous occasion, no further action was taken. The overriding question was whether British troops would remain loyal when called upon to quell a European insurrection. Although the case of Algeria was not explicitly mentioned, it is difficult to imagine that the French military's recent support of the revolt by the pieds noir did not play a part in persuading officials that, ‘There would be a real risk that British troops would not obey when pitted against e.g. the European mineworkers on the Copperbelt.’25 Indeed, civil servants themselves viewed the prospect with dismay. One official minuted:
While professing to share this distaste, another official, N. D. Watson, argued that the British government ‘would have seriously to consider meeting with force, if necessary, a forcible renunciation of its political policies in Africa, if it is thereafter to maintain any authority on the continent at all’.27 The dominant view within the department was, however, expressed by Watson's colleague, Charles Carstairs, who noted the close links between the British and Federal armed forces and concluded with a variation of the ‘Benson dictum’, namely that in the event of a Federal revolt, ‘our counter-measures will have to be political and legal or none at all’.28
The possibility of our having to take arms against our countrymen in Central Africa because (and I think this is what it comes to) we felt that we had a duty to the Africans to see that they were being given a fair deal by them is one that fills me with distaste. Such an operation could not, I suggest, be pursued if it came to actual fighting in Central Africa, since I doubt whether the United Kingdom would be united on this issue.26
Discussions in 1958 also touched on the issue of intelligence gathering. The British Security Liaison Officer (SLO) in Central Africa (the local representative of the British Security Service, MI5) was expressly prohibited from ‘spying’ on the Federal government. As in all other colonial and Commonwealth countries, his formal role was simply to act as a security adviser and a conduit for the transmission of information between the host government and London. It was therefore feared in the Colonial Office that the British government might have difficulties obtaining advance warning of any coup.29 On the other hand, as another recently declassified file makes clear, MI5 was in a good position to provide intelligence on the planning of any operation. By a nice irony, MI5 had recently supplied the Federation with the services of an expert in counter-sabotage, one Lt. Col. Sutherland. He had compiled a report for the Federal government on areas where it might be vulnerable to internal or external attack.30 The report led to the establishment of a Federal Key Points Committee to keep these points of weakness under review. Among its members was the MI5 SLO.
The use of force against Europeans was, then, a highly sensitive issue. It aroused fierce emotions even within the Colonial Office, and officials were reluctant to initiate wider consultations on the subject. Indeed, such was the atmosphere of mistrust that developed between the British and Federal governments that even more routine questions regarding the reinforcement of Central Africa could prove extremely contentious. With the approach of the constitutional conference on Nyasaland in the summer of 1960, the British government turned its attention to the question of how the territory might be reinforced were the collapse of talks to spark unrest. London was concerned that the use in Nyasaland of either the British South Africa Police (BSAP) of Southern Rhodesia or the European troops of the Royal Rhodesia Regiment would further exacerbate racial tensions there.31 They were therefore keen to be able to use troops from the UK. In June, Welensky agreed to co-operate in joint planning for an operation code-named ‘STUNSAIL’ for the reinforcement of the Federation. As the scale of Britain's planned deployment of troops became clear, however, Welensky rapidly withdrew his consent. According to the Federal Army's Chief of Staff, General Long, Welensky's objections were based on the fear that ‘such large numbers of U.K. troops could enable H.M.G. to follow a different policy in Nyasaland from that envisaged by the Federal Government’.32 There were signs that Federal commanders would be prepared to countenance the introduction of British troops into Nyasaland so long as they were deployed in advance of any unrest. Yet the British Colonial Secretary, Iain Macleod, regarded this as a provocative move that might undermine the chances of success of the Nyasaland conference.
The problem of Federal opposition to the reinforcement of Central Africa was also raised by events in Southern Rhodesia. In October 1960, serious unrest broke out in African townships around Salisbury and Gwelo. By the following month, the security situation had deteriorated to such an extent that Macmillan suggested that although ‘he did not think it likely, he thought we should consider the possibility of facing a complete breakdown in law and order in the territory’.33 Casting aside the much-vaunted doctrine of Southern Rhodesian autonomy – which was to be one of Britain's principal excuses for its failure to respond militarily to UDI – Macmillan suggested that the UK ‘might have to take control’ and that it might be ‘that we should need to send in a strong man to take charge, rather as in Malaya’.34 Yet when asked to explore the practicalities of military intervention in Southern Rhodesia, the Chiefs of Staff maintained that this would not be feasible in the face of the active opposition of Federal forces. Were they even to deny Britain use of Salisbury airfield or access to aviation fuel, this would mean that Southern Rhodesia could only be reached by means of ‘full scale military operations through Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia’. This, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Mountbatten, suggested ‘would appear to be politically and militarily out of the question’.35
In the event, the conference on Nyasaland's future did not provoke major unrest and the troops were not needed. When in December 1960, Hastings Banda, leader of the Malawi Congress Party, walked out of the Federal review talks, the Federal authorities told Britain that they could deal with any disorder with their own forces. In practice, by the end of the year, as Britain's senior military liaison officer was told in confidence by Long, ‘STUNSAIL was dead’.36 Likewise, the disturbances that shook Southern Rhodesia late in 1960 proved to be short-lived, and discussions in London about possible military intervention were shelved. Yet the planning both for this and for STUNSAIL had demonstrated the possible need for what might be described as the ‘contested reinforcement’ of the Federation. The Chiefs of Staff had made plain their lack of enthusiasm for any confrontation with Federal forces. The very concept of ‘contested reinforcement’, however, effectively blurred the boundary between ‘reinforcement’ and ‘invasion’, and enabled British planners to draw up what were in effect invasion plans without having to acknowledge them as such.
Such convenient ambiguity coloured British military planning during the crisis of the early months of 1961 over the constitution of Northern Rhodesia. This most bitter of political rows ultimately revolved, not only around the balance of power within Northern Rhodesia, but around the future of the Federation itself. Macleod's initial plan was to grant Africans a bare majority of elected members in the new legislative assembly.37 Yet given their vehement hostility to the Federation, any such decisive step towards African self-government in Northern Rhodesia placed the very survival of Federal association in jeopardy. Predictably, Welensky decisively rejected the plan, telling Macmillan on 13 January that the ‘surest way’ of breaking up the federation was to devolve power prematurely to Northern Rhodesia's African nationalists.38 A fortnight later, he told Macmillan that he was advising the leader of the Federation's ruling United Federal Party (UFP) in Northern Rhodesia to boycott the forthcoming constitutional talks in London, and warned that he was determined to prevent the Federation's destruction.39
It is clear that, on this occasion, the Federal government's veiled threats were underpinned by genuine preparations for the possibility of conflict. On 31 January, M. B. Benoy, the Federal Secretary for Defence (in effect, the permanent head of the Federation's Defence Ministry), issued a memorandum on the military problems that would be raised by any outright breach between the British and Federal governments.40 Such was its sensitivity that only three copies were made: one for Welensky, one for J. M. Caldicott, the Minister of Defence, and one for Benoy himself. Benoy's paper envisaged a unilateral declaration of independence by the Federal government, backed by ‘the whole European population’. It assumed that the Southern Rhodesian government would be party to such a move and that, although the governments of the northern territories would not, they would probably accept aid from Federal defence forces for the maintenance of internal security. It also envisaged that the British government would quickly seek a compromise solution, meaning that any direct military confrontation was likely to be short-lived. African unrest would, however, probably be more prolonged, necessitating ‘the firmest handling, including shooting, at the early stages’ and involving strict radio and press censorship. Benoy's paper made it clear that confrontation was, in itself, likely to result in the dismembering of the Federation. Southern Rhodesia would provide a firm base for operations, with the priority in Northern Rhodesia being to garrison the copperbelt and the line of rail. Nyasaland would, in effect, ‘be written off and could probably not be recovered as part of the Federation’. Efforts here would concentrate on evacuating its small European population to Southern Rhodesia.
Two days later, Benoy issued a paper on the forces that would be available to the Federal government.41 Again, only Welensky and Caldicott received copies. Benoy expressed confidence in their ability to obtain large quantities of rifles, ammunition and clothing from South Africa at short notice. This was based upon conversations Benoy had already held with South Africa's Secretary for Defence and its Chiefs of Staff.42 He also estimated that an additional 5,200 men could be put in uniform immediately; enough to form another seven battalions. Welensky wasted little time before seeking concrete evidence of South African co-operation. Benoy was despatched to Pretoria on 3 February with an extensive shopping list of military hardware. He brought with him a personal and top secret letter from Welensky to the South African Prime Minister, H. F. Verwoerd. This explained that there was ‘a possibility of a situation developing here which may require a considerable show of military force. It remains a possibility and may well not eventuate, but I must be in a position to take any necessary action.’43 The South Africans proved responsive to this plea. They agreed to the sale of 5,000 Mark IV .303 rifles and the loan of 100,000 .762 mm rounds of ammunition.44 Benoy and the South African Minister of Defence also negotiated terms for the supply of further ammunition, and arranged a series of codes to enable orders to be made by open telephone or telegram. All of this appears to have been intended to meet the immediate crisis. Yet Benoy also took the opportunity to arrange terms for a supply of arms to Moise Tshombe's administration in the mineral-rich province of Katanga. Tshombe had announced Katanga's secession shortly after the Belgian Congo achieved its independence the previous year. Faced with military pressure from the UN to end secession, Tshombe received discreet but substantial support from Western business interests, and from the Belgian, Federal and South African governments.45 Benoy explained,
Benoy stressed the need for the maximum degree of secrecy to be maintained over these transactions, noting that the South African government ‘could be embarrassed if it was known that they had aided us over and above the normal course and volume of our business’.
The Union Government can supply Tshombe with up to 245 Bren carriers in good condition at £150 each ex Port Elizabeth. All identification marks will be removed. Due to action UNO [sic] (e.g. by India) they cannot do this direct. They suggest it might be a sale ostensibly by Federal Government and we could pay over proceeds from Tshombe in due course.46
Yet despite Welensky's taste for bellicose rhetoric and the contingency plans made by his subordinates, his attitude towards armed confrontation with the British was far more cautious than that of the Southern Rhodesian premier, Sir Edgar Whitehead. In his dealings with Macmillan, Whitehead found it convenient to portray himself as a relatively detached observer of the Northern Rhodesian controversy, giving the impression that he regarded Welensky ‘as a bull in a china shop’.47 In his private conversations with Welensky, however, he was the more belligerent of the two. At a joint meeting of Federal and Southern Rhodesian ministers on 16 February, Welensky explained that he was keen ‘not to make any empty gestures or to throw down a gauntlet which the British government would have no alternative but to pick up’.48 He indicated that he still believed that a negotiated settlement could be found and warned that a ‘real show-down with the British government would be no easy matter. Its repercussions would be far reaching and would cause great hardship to a large number of people.’ Whitehead, by contrast, predicted that he himself would be forced to lead a secessionist movement if the Northern Rhodesian proposals remained unchanged. He urged the maximum possible mobilisation of the territorial battalions, arguing that only ‘firm action’ would make an impression on the British government. Ominously, although he expressed the hope that it would be possible to ‘save’ Northern Rhodesia, he claimed that ‘if the worst came to the worst, it would be his plain duty to put the interests of Southern Rhodesia first’. Here, in effect, was the real difference in the positions of the two leaders, and the explanation for Welensky's greater caution. Whereas Southern Rhodesia could reasonably expect to be able to weather a breach with the British government – and even a limited military confrontation – with its independence intact, any such scenario carried with it the strong possibility of causing the irretrievable collapse of the Federation.
Meanwhile, the British were making preparations of their own. Operation KINGFISHER, the British plan which emerged in response to the crisis, was described as an operation for the ‘reinforcement’ of Northern Rhodesia. Yet in two respects, particularly in its latter stages, it more closely resembled a plan for the invasion of the territory. First, depending on the final outcome of constitutional talks, the British government was as likely to be directing its forces against European settlers – who would enjoy the active or tacit support of the Federal Government – as against Africans. Secondly, the guiding assumption throughout was that the ‘reinforcement’ of Northern Rhodesia would have to be undertaken against the wishes of the Federal government.
The planning process for KINGFISHER appears to have been set in motion by a memorandum from Macleod to Macmillan on 6 February, a week after the Northern Rhodesian constitutional conference had opened in London. Macleod's initial view was that Northern Rhodesia could be reinforced using no more than three battalions of British troops. In a series of memoranda to the Prime Minister three days later, the Minister of Defence, Harold Watkinson, set out his department's preliminary thoughts on the matter.49 Many of the problems he identified were to haunt British planners for years to come. His guiding assumption, was that he did not see ‘how we can face a situation where British Troops would have to be sent to fight Federation Troops in the Rhodesias’. Even passive resistance to troop deployments by Federal forces – for example the blocking of airfields – might necessitate Britain firing the first shots. Secondly, he suggested that the scale of any operation might be far greater than had previously been envisaged. He believed that the figure of three battalions floated by Macleod was probably inadequate. Indeed, he thought three brigades might be necessary. In addition to this, Britain had to face the possibility of European non-cooperation leading to a complete breakdown in the administration of Northern Rhodesia and necessitating a prolonged military occupation. Thirdly, he noted that the problems of mobilising a force of sufficient size would mean there was no possibility of launching a surprise attack. This would leave the initiative firmly with Welensky. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he stressed the need for the political will to see any operation to its conclusion. Although he expressed confidence that it would be possible to impose a military solution, he stressed (no doubt with the Suez Crisis of 1956 in mind) that Britain could not afford ‘to let an operation of this size go off at half-cock or to result in a humiliating withdrawal’.
Macmillan discussed the matter the following day with Watkinson, the Cabinet Secretary, Norman Brook, and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Francis Festing.50 Both Macmillan and Brook endorsed the notion that it would not be feasible to undertake military operations against Europeans. Nevertheless, they envisaged that there might well be the need for the reinforcement of the forces in Northern Rhodesia for internal security purposes. Macmillan made the somewhat naïve suggestion that, in the event of African unrest, a message might be sent to Welensky suggesting that UK forces take principal responsibility for maintaining order in Northern Rhodesia. Welensky, however, was in no mood to surrender control of the territory to British forces. Two days later, the Federal Cabinet ordered the mobilisation of the Northern Rhodesian territorial battalions.51
A meeting of the Cabinet's Africa Committee on 14 February authorised the Minister of Defence to press ahead with preparations for KINGFISHER.52 The Foreign Office expressed concerns about the likely response of the international community to British intervention. It feared that an adverse reaction might affect overflying arrangements. It was particularly concerned that a movement of troops towards Central Africa could be represented by the Eastern bloc and non-aligned nations as cover for intervention in the Congo.53 British representatives at the UN predicted that international reactions would be far more sympathetic if the operation was directed at Federal forces, or could at least be represented as being contrary to the Federal government's wishes.54
Despite these reservations, preparatory work for KINGFISHER was put in hand. RAF Transport Command was placed on a high state of readiness, and seven Blackburn Beverley transport aircraft – used to deploy paratroopers – were gathered at Nairobi.55 The movements of aircraft carriers HMS Bulwark, Victorious and Hermes were kept under review in case they should be needed for the operation. These preparations tied up valuable resources, and placed other military exercises in question. The Chiefs of Staff were therefore keen to seize upon any apparent progress in the constitutional negotiations over Northern Rhodesia as a pretext for scaling them down.56 Yet on 23 February, there was a sudden escalation in tension. Early that morning, Evelyn Hone, the governor of Northern Rhodesia, warned London that the Federal government might be considering ‘a physical coup d'etat backed by military forces’.57 Macmillan immediately informed the secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee that no further relaxations should be made in Britain's readiness for intervention.58 At its meeting that day, the Committee also had to deal with the embarrassment caused by the fact that the Federal government had detected some of the preparations for KINGFISHER, specifically, the build-up of RAF transport aircraft around Nairobi.59 They decided to respond by sending a message to the Federal military authorities via their service liaison staff ‘that there was not and never had been any plan to intervene in Northern Rhodesia against the wishes of Sir Roy Welensky’. Ironically, that very evening, a committee of ministers invited the Minister of Defence ‘to report on the military problems which would arise if, as a result of some unconstitutional and extreme action on the part of the Federal authorities it became necessary to reinforce Northern Rhodesia in support of the Governor in the face of active Federal opposition’ [author's italics].60
The following day, Watkinson ordered Festing to produce a plan covering that scenario. This was drawn up by the Joint Planning Staff (JPS) over the weekend of 25–26 and was discussed by the Chiefs of Staff Committee on 28 February.61 The plan assumed that troops could only be introduced into Northern Rhodesia by air. Land routes from Tanganyika could easily be blocked by Federal forces, and many were currently impassable due to the rainy season. An invasion from Nyasaland was even more dangerous. It would depend on securing Blantyre airport in advance, and the roads themselves would be particularly vulnerable to Federal attack and interference. The assumption that the operation would have to be an airborne assault carried with it some important implications. First, it could be achieved only under two circumstances: if there was an undertaking that the RRAF would not intervene, or, in the absence of any such undertaking, if the RRAF was destroyed and Lusaka airport taken by paratroopers at the outset of the operation. The Chiefs of Staff Committee subsequently decided that the JPS's plan had been insufficiently explicit on this point: since even a single plane represented a significant threat, ‘the entire operational strength of the RRAF should be destroyed or damaged beyond immediate repair’. This would require the use of up to three squadrons of Canberra bombers.62 Secondly, ‘political preparations’ aimed at winning over world opinion would be necessary in order to guarantee access to the air route over Libya, the Sudan and the Suez Canal. This would, however, remove any element of surprise and allow the Federal authorities to disperse their aircraft, making a single ‘knock-out blow’ more difficult.63 Thirdly, even if that ‘knock-out blow’ was achieved, it would take forty-eight hours of post-strike reconnaissance before troops could safely be introduced into Northern Rhodesia. Again, Federal forces would have time to prepare for their arrival. Another problem that had been raised frequently in the past was the lack of intelligence on the state of defences in Northern Rhodesia. In order to rectify this, Festing impressed on Watkinson the need to ‘send an experienced officer to Northern Rhodesia on reconnaissance’.64 He also outlined the risks: given the size of the transport force, it would not be possible to use more than a single battalion of paratroopers in the initial attack. Lusaka airport – the likely target – was already protected by a Federal battalion. If this was significantly reinforced, the whole operation might cease to be feasible. It might be possible to transfer the attack to Ndola airport; but this was 200 miles from Lusaka and a landing there would delay the process of capturing the capital. Furthermore, the plan only covered the initial engagement with Federal forces. It did not take into account any possible international developments, such as assistance to the Federation from South Africa. The Chiefs of Staff had learned something of Welensky's recent success in obtaining ammunition from South Africa, and they thought it possible that more substantial supplies of military hardware would be provided in the event of an invasion.65 In total, two brigades of British troops could be made available within three weeks of the initial assault. It was possible that a third could also be provided. But if a major internal security problem arose, or if fighting spread outside Northern Rhodesia, further reinforcements would be required, and these could not be made available within less than six weeks.
A revised outline plan for intervention incorporating the points raised by Festing was approved by the Chiefs of Staff at their meeting on 2 March.66 By that stage, however, the Colonial Office representative on the Committee was able to report a significant reduction in tension between London and Salisbury.67 There appeared to be no immediate prospect of a major constitutional crisis. Subsequent meetings were informed of a steady improvement in relations with Welensky. On 7 March it was decided that tension could be further reduced by scaling down preparations for KINGFISHER: in particular, by removing tactical transport aircraft from Nairobi and allowing the aircraft carriers earmarked for involvement in the plan to carry out other commitments.68 In what was a mark of the extreme sensitivity of these deliberations, the decision was also made to recall all papers relating to armed intervention in the Federation.
The process of working through these grim practicalities had a sobering effect on members of the British government. Briefing Macleod on 16 March on the latest military appreciation of the situation, Watkinson told him,
Here, as in subsequent planning exercises, it was assumed that since both military and civilian aircraft used the same airfields in Central Africa, a heavy bombing campaign was likely to cause significant civilian casualties. Watkinson suggested that if the internal security situation in Northern Rhodesia deteriorated to a point when the Federal armed forces were in danger of losing control, the government would have a better political justification for intervention. This would, however, ‘mean a very difficult period of waiting, during which we should, I imagine, be under great political pressure here at home’.
You will see from this that whilst the operation is clearly militarily feasible, in my view it is politically practically impossible. An essential first step to any opposed entry to Northern Rhodesia would be the complete destruction of the Royal Rhodesian Air Force, which would have to be bombed on the ground or shot down in the air. We should then have to secure our airfields by a paratroop drop, which again would be bound to lead to considerable bloodshed.69
By the time the Chiefs of Staff Committee met on 21 March, a settlement with Welensky seemed near at hand. The meeting was attended by Mountbatten, who had recently returned from a tour of the Commonwealth. Perhaps at his instigation, an additional passage was added to the minutes, one that was clearly intended to provide ministers with a pointed summary of previous discussions on this matter:
When on 13 June, renewed tensions over the Northern Rhodesian constitution led to the Chiefs of Staff Committee considering this issue again, Mountbatten set out in even more stark terms what he considered to be the reality of any military action in Central Africa. He noted that when in February and March the Committee had assessed the feasibility of intervention in Northern Rhodesia against Federal opposition, it had concluded that,
Any foreseeable operations in the Federation could only take the form either of a normal internal security operation on the lines of STUNSAIL, or alternatively of a full-scale operation of war; moreover, the latter would be a most difficult operation from every point of view. There could be no middle course, and Ministers had been made fully aware of this.70
In the view of the Committee, two subsequent developments had made military action even more hazardous than it had been in March. First, members had learned from a number of sources that, during the earlier crisis, any military incursion would probably have faced greater resistance from the Federal armed forces than had originally been thought likely. Secondly, the departure of South Africa from the Commonwealth had, they believed, increased the likelihood of her intervening on the side of the Federation in any conflict. Reiterating Mountbatten's warning, the JPS concluded, ‘We see no military solution to the dispute between Sir Roy Welensky and HM Government short of war with the Federation.’72
such operations would be extremely hazardous and that they would only have a chance of success if we carried out a savage and ruthless attack, amounting to a full-scale operation of war, without regard to the loss of civilian lives.71
These discussions in February–March and again in June 1961 formed the basis for the British government's approach to the use of force for the rest of the lifetime of the Federation and, indeed, in its subsequent dealings with Southern Rhodesia. A report in the Observer by Colin Legum on 3 March 1963, in the dying days of the Federation, again raised the prospect of Welensky leading some form of ‘Boston Tea Party’.73 This prompted R. A. Butler, as minister responsible for Central Africa, to enquire into the state of preparations to deal with this threat.74 On 13 March, Butler and his advisers decided to request that the 1961 plans be looked at again in the light of current circumstances.75 The response from the Ministry of Defence was to reiterate the earlier assessment that no military action short of all-out war would be feasible, and to ask whether the Central Africa Office wanted the Chiefs of Staff to proceed with planning on this basis. Butler decided not to take the matter any further.76
Two elements of the 1961 discussions are particularly striking. First, military planners were at pains to impress upon their political masters that there could be no such thing as limited military intervention in the face of Federal opposition. The choice lay between a peaceful accommodation with the Federal government and all-out war. Implicit in these warnings was a belief that politicians did not have the will to see through a major conflict of this kind. Secondly, and conversely, there was little mention of the possible reluctance of British soldiers and pilots to open fire on fellow Europeans, although this had long been a concern of ministers and officials. This latter element only came to the fore when, from 1964, investigations were made into the feasibility of responding militarily to an illegal declaration of independence by Southern Rhodesia.
In the meantime, the Federation was dissolved at the end of 1963. A death blow had been delivered by elections late in 1962 which returned to power anti-federal parties in both Northern and Southern Rhodesia. The victory in Southern Rhodesia of the Rhodesian Front led by Winston Field promised to focus attention on the issue of the territory's future constitutional status. The Federal dissolution conference took place from 28 June to 2 July 1963 at the Victoria Falls. In advance of these talks, Field attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain a firm undertaking from the British government that the dismantling of the Federation would be followed by independence for Southern Rhodesia under white minority rule. The Victoria Falls conference was followed in September by a special meeting which determined the future of the Federal armed forces. An aspect of these talks which might appear odd in the light of the previous discussion was the fate of the RRAF. As we have seen, British military planners had identified the RRAF as the major impediment to any British invasion of Central Africa. Yet at a point when the threat of a unilateral declaration of independence by Southern Rhodesia was becoming ever more real, Britain appears to have handed the RRAF to the Southern Rhodesians almost in its entirety. In doing so, according to Anthony Verrier, Butler both ensured that ‘no responsible military adviser to a British Government would recommend deterrent or punitive action over UDI except by covert means’ and provided the Southern Rhodesian security forces ‘with their most valuable asset (mobility) for fighting the liberation war’.77 Indeed, these concerns were expressed both in the Commons and in the UN at the time the preliminary defence arrangements were announced in July 1963.78 African delegates at the UN raised the additional point that such a powerful air force made Southern Rhodesia a direct threat to her neighbours.79
While all these objections may have had some justification, the options open to Butler were rather more limited than his critics were willing to acknowledge. As officials at the Central Africa Office noted in May 1963, the RRAF had grown out of the Southern Rhodesian Air Force and was stationed entirely in Southern Rhodesia. It was an almost exclusively European force, and it seemed unlikely that its personnel would wish to serve in the northern territories if the RRAF was broken up.80 The Southern Rhodesian government was keen to maintain control of as much of the RRAF as it possibly could. The dissolution conference essentially acceded to its wishes by allowing members of the Federal forces to decide the territory in which they would serve.81 Hence, with the exception of a few transport aircraft which were assigned to Northern Rhodesia, virtually the whole of the RRAF passed to Southern Rhodesia.
Yet it would be a mistake to see the transfer of the RRAF as representing a decisive watershed in British military calculations. The dissolution of the Federation and the granting of independence to Zambia and Malawi in the course of 1964 narrowed the geographical extent of settler power in Central Africa, and the transformation of the RRAF into a purely Southern Rhodesian force reflected this contraction. The essential nature of the British military approach to the threat of settler resistance remained, however, largely unaltered. When in February 1964, the Defence and Oversea Policy Committee asked the Chiefs of Staff to report on the military implications of a break with Southern Rhodesia, it was told, quite bluntly,
If the position of the military was remarkably consistent, there was, however, an almost obsessive desire on the part of British politicians to ‘lift the stone’ covering the issue of military intervention and investigate whether it had become any more feasible. This was due in part to the deteriorating political situation, but also to there appearing to be few other means of bringing the Rhodesian settlers to heel. At a personal level, relations between Field and the British government had been fairly good. In April 1964, however, Rhodesian Front party managers ousted him from power in favour of his hard-line finance minister, Ian Smith. Thereafter, the prospect of an illegal declaration of independence by Southern Rhodesia became ever more immediate. Even before Field's removal, the British government had already begun to explore the effectiveness of responding to UDI with economic sanctions. A preliminary study of this issue was ready for ministers by the end of February 1964. Its findings did not make encouraging reading. The efficacy of a number of economic sanctions was judged to be doubtful, and some of them were thought likely to do more damage to Britain than to Southern Rhodesia. It was feared that retaliatory action by Southern Rhodesia could have serious consequences not just for Britain but for neighbouring states in Central Africa. There was a particular concern that Northern Rhodesian copper production might be hit.83 This gloomy assessment of the likely impact of economic sanctions continued to characterise British planning documents up until the time of UDI in November 1965.
It cannot be contemplated that a situation should be allowed to develop in which HMG found itself in a position of being required to use military force to coerce a recalcitrant regime in Southern Rhodesia. There should be no question of using British forces against the white population of that country.82
It is difficult, given the small amount of evidence available, to assess whether other, more convert means of placing pressure on the Rhodesian Front government were contemplated. According to the diaries of Richard Crossman, Wilson's Minister of Housing, the British government only gave serious thought to launching ‘psychological warfare’ operations against Rhodesia over a fortnight after UDI.84 The government subsequently appears to have selected Harold Robins, a member of Britain's secret propaganda unit, the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), to co-ordinate psychological warfare operations against Rhodesia.85 If this was the case, then the fact that IRD did not turn its attentions to the problem of settler resistance in Rhodesia at an earlier stage probably owes much to its overwhelming preoccupation with Communist subversion.86 Indeed of all the governments in Africa at that time, the Southern Rhodesian administration was perhaps the most co-operative and eager consumer of IRD literature.87 IRD's output tended to highlight the links between African nationalism and international Communism and, hence, provided useful ammunition in the Rhodesian settlers’ efforts to portray themselves as a bulwark against the spread of Marxism in Southern Africa. In this respect, the loyalties of the IRD were, like those of the British armed forces, likely to have been somewhat compromised by their close contacts with the Rhodesians.
The reluctance of British politicians to be guided away from the option of armed intervention may have persuaded the military to be more strident in their warnings about the consequences of using force. In June 1964, the Defence Planning Staff (DPS) were again instructed by the Chief of the Defence Staff to explore the possibility of introducing British forces into Southern Rhodesia in the event of UDI. With the approach of Nyasaland's independence on 6 July 1964, it was feared in Whitehall that Southern Rhodesia might use the date unilaterally to announce her own independence. Again, however, the DPS came little short of concluding that military action was not an option. Indeed, unlike earlier planning documents, this one made it clear that even if politicians were prepared to engage in a major conflict, British soldiers and airmen might not be. The DPS were only prepared to contemplate action in Southern Rhodesia on the assumption that British forces would be introduced at the request of the governor and with the support ‘of the senior Rhodesian service commanders and of the bulk of the Southern Rhodesian regular armed forces’. Yet even in these circumstances, the DPS warned,
The DPS report also pointed out that any attempt to mount a military operation would contravene Britain's oft-stated position in the UN that she was in no position to intervene in the internal affairs of Southern Rhodesia. Furthermore, there was no guarantee that a military solution could be imposed quickly:
with possible hostility from Territorial [forces] and Police, it would place a severe strain on the loyalties and morale of British troops. Intervention in other circumstances, particularly if we met opposition from the Southern Rhodesian Regular Army and the Royal Rhodesian Air Force would not only place an unacceptable strain on the loyalty of British troops but would also prove militarily impracticable. The situation is not discussed further in this paper.88
Hence, while outlining the process by which any such intervention might be mounted, the DPS left their political superiors in no doubt that they regarded the whole idea as excessively hazardous.
we could find ourselves involved in a protracted and increasing commitment comparable with that of the French in Algeria. If this were to happen the burden upon our military resources would be unacceptable quite apart from the political implications.
The proposition that a full-scale invasion opposed by Rhodesian forces was not feasible was endorsed on 28 October 1964 by one of the first Cabinet meetings of the newly elected Labour government.89 Nevertheless, Wilson's administration was not prepared entirely to rule out some form of military intervention. Military planners were, however, no more enthusiastic about the prospects of even a more limited form of engagement than had previously been contemplated. In February 1965, the Directors of Defence Plans reported on the feasibility of an operation to seize the Kariba Dam in the event of Southern Rhodesia threatening to cut off the electrical supply to the Zambian copperbelt. A familiar list of objections was advanced: that the operation would require the destruction of the RRAF with the probability of civilian loss of life, and that it would be virtually impossible to maintain an element of surprise. Failure would have serious repercussions. Furthermore, the operation ‘would impose an almost intolerable strain on the loyalties and morale of the British forces involved’.90 By 1 October 1965, when the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) produced an assessment of the likely consequences of UDI, it was taken for granted that government policy in such an event was ‘to take no military action against Rhodesia other than the imposition of a ban on the supply of arms or military equipment’.91 Six days later, the Cabinet agreed ‘that in the event of a udi there should be no military intervention by United Kingdom armed forces and that we should seek to avoid United Kingdom participation, especially by combat troops, in any United Nations force’.92
As in 1958 and 1961, problems of intelligence gathering in settler-controlled Central Africa clearly posed an additional difficulty for military planners. Although documentary evidence on this issue is scarce, we might, however, speculate that some of the more recent accounts of the Rhodesian crisis have tended to exaggerate the significance of this factor. MI5 retained an officer in Salisbury at the time of UDI, as did Britain's ‘foreign’ intelligence service, MI6. Yet as we have noted, the remit of MI5's representative prevented him from spying on the Rhodesian government. His counterpart in MI6 was similarly constrained. The ‘Attlee Doctrine’ of 1946 prohibited MI6 from operating in the Commonwealth and colonies. Hence, when agreement was reached in 1960 for an MI6 officer to be stationed in Salisbury, it was on the understanding that his activities would be directed at neighbouring, non-Commonwealth states.93 Tom Bower suggests that by 1965, after three years in Salisbury, MI6's representative, John Bowman, ‘had not penetrated Smith's Rhodesian Front party’ and, as a consequence, poor intelligence was passed to London.94 In particular, Bower asserts, MI6 and the British High Commission ‘did not report that white Rhodesians supported the rebellion’ and, indeed, failed to predict UDI. Such a claim runs counter to the evidence that is currently available. The JIC assessment of 1 October 1965, for example, concluded that ‘a declaration of independence would have the tacit or enthusiastic support of the overwhelming majority of the white population, and the security forces, including their African members, can be expected to remain loyal to the local Government’.95 Furthermore, although the JIC paper did not offer any predictions about the precise timing of such a declaration, it gave the strong impression that such a move was highly likely in the near future. It is clear from papers in the National Archives that the British High Commission had at least one remarkably highly placed source on Rhodesian intentions. This was Rhodesian Air Vice-Marshal Harold Hawkins who told the British Air Liaison Officer on the morning of 9 November that ‘only a miracle’ could prevent Smith from making a declaration of UDI, and predicted that this might come within twenty-four hours.96 Yet it is difficult to see that even such precise intelligence could have enabled the British government to avert what was essentially a symbolic act by the Smith regime.
The intelligence writers Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay take a rather different approach. They suggest that MI6 actually exaggerated the likelihood of resistance from the Rhodesian armed forces to British military intervention, and they cite evidence that the commander of the Rhodesian army, and the head of the RRAF had both informed their government that they would not issue ‘illegal or unconstitutional’ orders.97 Wood provides a considerable amount of evidence pointing to unease about UDI within the Rhodesian military establishment. He relates a story told by the Manchester Guardian journalist, Patrick Keatley, that Sir Humphrey Gibbs, the governor of Southern Rhodesia, was visited by four Rhodesian army officers on the morning of 11 November 1965, offering to arrest Smith as a rebel.98 Yet it seems unlikely that even the most optimistic intelligence assessment of the mood within the Rhodesian armed forces would have persuaded British military planners and politicians of the feasibility of armed intervention. Since at least 1961, their anxieties had focused on the RRAF. Short of an outright undertaking from its commanders that Rhodesian aircraft would not oppose the entry of British forces, it was assumed that any intervention would have to be preceded by an intensive bombing campaign to eliminate the RRAF in its entirety, an operation that would probably result in considerable loss of life. This was something the British government was simply not prepared to contemplate.99 That British intelligence sources could have extracted a sufficiently explicit undertaking from RRAF commanders in advance of any operation seems highly unlikely. In practice, as Watts himself admits, the signals Britain obtained from Hawkins on the eve of UDI were ‘slightly ambiguous’.100 Furthermore, as we have already seen, members of the DPS were concerned that even more limited resistance, on the part of the Rhodesian police and territorial forces ‘would place a severe strain on the loyalties and morale of British troops’. As Wood notes, Gibbs was warned explicitly by both Hawkins and by Ken Flower, the head of the Southern Rhodesian government's Central Intelligence Organisation, that the British South Africa Police would support the Smith government over UDI.101 Flower also predicted that the Rhodesian army rank and file would do likewise. Finally, Dorril suggests that MI6 allowed Wilson to form an unduly optimistic assessment of the effectiveness of oil sanctions, something that might, in itself, have diverted attentions away from the military option.102 Again, however, although we cannot be sure what specific information MI6 was passing to London, the JIC assessment of October 1965 provides us with some clues. As Percy Cradock, a former chairman of the JIC notes, the document was somewhat equivocal in its attitude towards the likely effects of sanctions. It suggested that they could contribute to an atmosphere of political unrest which might, in turn, persuade the Southern Rhodesian electorate ‘to overthrow the rebel government’.103 Yet it considered that this outcome was ‘by no means certain’. It was also pessimistic about the economic impact of sanctions:
In short, it is far from clear that the overall picture the British intelligence community was presenting to its political masters was seriously distorted, or that more precise and detailed intelligence would have appreciably altered the British government's attitude to the use of force.
British economic action against Rhodesia short of a ban on tobacco imports is unlikely to have a significant effect on Rhodesia. A full trade embargo would have a serious but not in itself crippling effect on the Rhodesian economy.104
If it is possible to appreciate the logic behind British calculations surrounding the use of force against Southern Rhodesia, it is less easy to explain why, in his statement on 30 October 1965, Wilson effectively reassured the Southern Rhodesian government that the use of force was unthinkable. Yet a number of factors make Wilson's statement more intelligible. First, this was by no means the first time Britain had indicated publicly its unwillingness to intervene militarily in Rhodesia. At a news conference on 23 August 1965, the Commonwealth Secretary had stated publicly that the British government had no intention of using force.105 On 11 October, Wilson reminded his Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, that this was the government's position, fearing that Lord Caradon, Britain's ambassador to the UN, might say something that would raise the prospect of military intervention.106 Eight days later, on 19 October, British representatives around the world were circulated with a brief, reminding them of the Commonwealth Secretary's statement in August.107 They were told not only that this continued to be the government's position, but that there was also no question of Britain participating in any UN force. The brief suggested that Britain had ‘never in recent history contemplated invasion by British forces of a colony which would be opposed by the armed forces of that country’. As we have seen, in the case of Central Africa the accuracy of that statement rather depends on one's definition of the word ‘contemplated’.
By coincidence, it was also on 19 October that the Rhodesian Security Council appears to have decided in favour of a declaration of independence in the near future.108 Flower warned the meeting that it would be unwise entirely to discount the possibility of Britain using force in certain circumstances. Smith, however, was confident that this was not a realistic prospect.109 He appears to have been confirmed in this view both by his talks with Wilson earlier in the month and by reports from Rhodesia's High Commissioner in London, Andrew Skeen. Skeen offered a far more accurate assessment than Flower of the mood of the British military, based on an underlying assumption that ties of ‘kith and kin’ would preclude any attack.110
A second, and probably more significant factor behind this disavowal of the use of force was the hope that it would persuade Southern Rhodesia's African nationalist leaders to enter into meaningful talks with Smith's government. As Wilson made clear to the Canadian and Australian premiers, this was one of the main aims of his visit to Rhodesia towards the end of October.111 This tactic has to be seen against the background of the longer-term formation of British policy towards Southern Rhodesia. In a letter to Lord Home in March 1960, the Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister had complained that unrest elsewhere in tropical Africa had ‘all had a depressing effect on a people who have not had to fire a shot to maintain law and order since 1896’.112 While the precise terms of Whitehead's remark were highly misleading, it remained the case that the relative success of the Rhodesian government in stifling African dissent had made it easier for the British government to tolerate white minority rule.113 With the settlers showing no signs of wishing to concede power, it was comforting for the British to believe that the lack of a strong and united African nationalist challenge to settler rule owed as much to the poor calibre of African leaders as to the success of state repression. The instability and authoritarianism which rapidly began to characterise many post-independence African states served further to harden the attitude of British ministers towards Rhodesia's African politicians. This tendency was exacerbated in January 1964 when a coup in the newly independent state of Zanzibar overthrew the Sultan, and British troops were called in to suppress a rising in Tanganyika and an army revolt in Uganda. A month later, in discussions with two of his senior colleagues, the Commonwealth Secretary, Duncan Sandys, suggested that, in the light of events in East Africa, it would be ‘morally wrong’ and ‘indefensible’ ‘to press the Southern Rhodesian Government to move faster towards majority rule than the pace already set by the existing  constitution’.114 Labour ministers displayed a similarly dismissive attitude towards the demands of Rhodesian nationalists. Following a visit to Rhodesia in February–March 1965, Wilson's Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner, told his colleagues that ‘the Nationalist leaders were at present quite unqualified to govern’.115 The notion that Rhodesia lacked a mature and united African opposition into whose hands power could rapidly be transferred thus provided both a moral and a practical objection to seeking to overthrow the current regime by force.
Aware that any threat of military action would have a remarkably hollow ring, members of the Wilson government sought to extract what advantage they could from the situation. In the short term, Britain's best chance of a settlement lay in persuading the leaders of Southern Rhodesia's two main African parties – ZANU and ZAPU – to participate in the 1961 constitution.116 This had established a sixty-five-member legislature composed of fifty members elected by a largely European upper roll, and fifteen members elected by a mainly African lower roll. British policy makers hoped that, were they to participate in elections and take up seats in the legislature, ZANU and ZAPU might, in the long term, be able to neutralise the Rhodesian Front by allying themselves with ‘moderate’ European leaders. There might then be some prospect for a measured and peaceful transition to majority rule. In order to persuade African leaders to accept the subordinate role allotted to them by the 1961 constitution, British ministers needed to persuade them that they could not expect Britain to overthrow the existing political system by force. Any amelioration in their condition could only come through a constructive engagement with the current dispensation.
Hence, one of the central aims of Gardiner's visit in February–March 1965 (which he undertook in the company of the Commonwealth Secretary, Arthur Bottomley), was to administer ‘shock treatment’ to African leaders. This involved spelling out the severe limitations on Britain's ability to intervene in Rhodesia, including the government's unwillingness to use military force.117 The ministers also expressed their disappointment at the African nationalists’ failure to participate in the 1961 constitutional machinery, and they noted that the British government ‘had nowhere … put into power persons who had served no political apprenticeship’. The approach adopted by Wilson during his visit to Rhodesia in October was merely a continuation of that strategy. At a meeting with a ZAPU delegation led by Joshua Nkomo on 27 October, Wilson stated frankly ‘that it was not the United Kingdom Government's policy to agree to independence on the basis of immediate majority rule’.118 He was also equally frank in stating that ‘British public opinion would not tolerate the use of force in this situation’.
Percy Cradock, while describing Wilson's public disavowal of force as a ‘serious tactical error’, advances three further explanations for this action.119 First, he points to Wilson's remarkably narrow parliamentary majority of only four. While the number of Labour MPs who sympathised with the Rhodesian settlers was extremely small, they might have exercised a disproportionately strong influence had military action been a serious prospect.120 Secondly, he suggests that Wilson may have wished to stifle any potentially damaging speculation about the use of force before seeking a firmer mandate for his party in another general election.121 Thirdly, Cradock speculates that Wilson might have been concerned about the impact of any prospect of war upon confidence in sterling. Wilson's biographer, Ben Pimlott, also makes this point. He notes that the Suez invasion of 1956 – which had to be halted after the collapse of sterling – was fresh in the minds of British politicians, and suggests that even ‘a rumour of war could have caused panic in the currency markets’.122
Any remaining doubts about the sincerity of Wilson's statement on 30 October or the military calculations behind it were dispelled by an article by William Gutteridge in The World Today, the journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. It was perhaps less than coincidental that the piece appeared in December 1965, only a month before the Commonwealth Conference in Lagos, at which Wilson predictably came under fierce pressure to use force against the Rhodesians. It set out in some detail the practical objections to any such military action either on the part of Britain herself or by a force drawn from independent African states. Kenneth Young concludes, quite reasonably, that ‘Gutteridge was expressing the views of the British Ministry of Defence’.123 Indeed, some of the points raised in his article – such as the strength of the RRAF and the size of the force necessary for such an attack – had, over the previous five years, become staple elements of the assessments of British military planners. Again, in allowing this to be published, or perhaps by actually colluding in its production, the Wilson government could be accused of providing solace to the Smith regime. Yet this was unlikely to have been the intended audience of the piece. Instead, it was probably a further attempt to puncture domestic and international pressure for the use of force.
This did not, of course, signal an end to military planning over Rhodesia. Planners were kept busy over subsequent months and years exploring a variety of scenarios for contested and uncontested intervention. Yet military chiefs remained hostile to any schemes that might have brought their troops into open conflict with Rhodesian forces. Despite Wilson's warnings that no ‘thunderbolt’ should be expected in the form of the RAF, plans were developed in the latter part of November 1965 for a bombing campaign to destroy the RRAF. They were accompanied, however, by a memorandum from the Chief of the Air Staff, expressing his ‘grave professional misgivings’ about the idea.124 In January 1966, Wilson told Healey, his Secretary of State for Defence, that he wished to see the production of a series of plans to cover the variety of circumstances in which the use of military force might be necessary.125 In response, the Chief of the Defence Staff once more rehearsed some of the difficulties that would be involved in inserting British troops into Rhodesia without the co-operation of Rhodesian military chiefs and stressed ‘We cannot reiterate too strongly our view that such an operation should not be undertaken.’126
It is conventional to consider the question of the use of force against the settler regimes of Central Africa in the context of the events immediately surrounding Rhodesian UDI. As we have seen, however, the debate about this issue within the British government began at a far earlier stage. Indeed, it had effectively been resolved by the time Rhodesian UDI emerged as a serious threat. Its control over a considerable military force had provided the Southern Rhodesian government with a powerful guarantee of its virtual autonomy from London between 1923 and 1953. Following the inception of the Federation, however, these forces became the responsibility of a government whose constitutional status was far more equivocal. The principal political aim of Huggins and Welensky as Federal premiers was to see the Federation achieve full Dominion status. In seeking to encourage the British government to concede this demand, they were not above raising the spectre of a ‘Boston Tea Party’-style settler revolt. Hence, well before relations between the British and Federal governments reached the nadir they were to achieve during Iain Macleod's time at its head, the Colonial Office had already had to contemplate the feasibility of a military response.
In early 1961, the prospect of a settler revolt took on a new immediacy as negotiations about the constitution of Northern Rhodesia raised doubts about Britain's commitment to the very survival of federal association in Central Africa. It was at this point that the Chiefs of Staff were invited to draw up concrete plans for a contested military intervention in Central Africa. This planning process effectively formed the basis for all subsequent discussions about confrontation with the Rhodesian armed forces. Without confronting government with an explicit refusal to use force, the Chiefs of Staff sought to use the crisis in 1961 to persuade policy makers that this was neither militarily nor politically feasible. They judged, correctly, that their masters lacked the political will to embark on a major operation against the Rhodesian settlers and therefore concentrated on impressing upon them that any contested intervention was likely to entail full-scale war. They were thereby able to avoid opening the more sensitive issue of the likely attitude of the forces under their command to an order to fight their ‘kith and kin’.
Yet although the attitude of the military planners was remarkably consistent, British ministers could not resist occasionally reopening the issue. This was due in part to a steady deterioration in relations with Salisbury following the collapse of the Federation and in part to a growing realisation that non-military forms of coercion were likely to prove problematic. Yet the prospect of an invasion of Southern Rhodesia was even less attractive to the Chiefs of Staff than intervention in Northern Rhodesia had been in 1961. Prominent among the reasons for this was the fact that the greatest obstacle military planners had identified to intervention in Northern Rhodesia – namely the RRAF – had been transferred almost intact into Southern Rhodesian hands. As politicians looked to the military for a solution to the problem of Southern Rhodesia, the military became less inhibited about raising the issue of the probable reluctance of British troops to open fire on their Rhodesian counterparts.
Carl Watts has made an important contribution to the debate about the Wilson government's response to UDI. Yet he perhaps underestimates the difficulty ministers face in challenging long-held official assumptions about the feasibility of a particular course of action. In the case of Southern Rhodesia, the turbulent history of relations between the British government and settler leaders since 1945 had allowed the notion of both the military and political impracticability of the use of force to become particularly deeply entrenched among military planners. Wilson lacked the institutional machinery to undertake an effective, independent examination of the assumptions behind this. Indeed, as Watts himself notes, the Labour MP George Wigg, to whom Wilson had given a general watching-brief on security and intelligence matters, simply reiterated the views of the Chiefs of Staff that military intervention was ‘out of the question’.127
Against this background, Harold Wilson's public disavowal of the use of force becomes slightly easier to understand. Unable to second-guess the pessimistic assessments of his military planners, he sought to turn their reluctance to use force into a political asset. Rather than making empty threats to the Smith government, he dealt a concrete blow to the hopes of its African opponents that Britain would intervene on their behalf. If this tactic offered only the most slender hope of inducing a realignment of Rhodesian politics, it was reasonable – on the basis of the information available to him – for Wilson to have concluded that threatening the use of force had even less chance of averting a crisis.