Game Rangers at War

At the start of the Rhodesian Bush War (1964) the country was still emerging from its pioneering status. The culture of any fledgling country is such that innovative ideas, offered by anyone, are evaluated and often accepted and absorbed into the modus operandi of the civil administration and government. This is exactly what happened when Rhodesia's game rangers contrived the idea of tracker combat units for the country's Security Forces (SF).

The eruption of war necessitated continuous, lengthy and intense brain-storming sessions to devise new ways and means of combating the insurgent guerrilla forces. The Rhodesians called them terrorists! During the first few years of the war (1964 1967), the heavily armed fighters crossed the Zambezi River (or Lake Kariba) on full moonlit nights, generally in groups of ten. They travelled on compass bearings throughout the hours of darkness and went to ground, in ambush positions, during the day. They were prepared for war but were not intent on immediate battle because their instructions were to traverse the Zambezi River Valley as quickly as possible and to rendezvous with guerrilla reception contacts in the larger cities and in the heavily populated rural areas to the south.

When it was discovered that an enemy force had penetrated the country, it had been the SF's planned strategy to follow them with trained police tracker dogs. This idea failed, however, because the dogs were unable to walk on the roasting hot soils of the Zambezi Valley at midday; and the searing heat quickly burnt off the terrorists' scent. In those early days, the army did not employ trackers; and the terrorists' spoor was almost indecipherable over the very rough terrain.

The only people capable of following the insurgents were .the country's highly experienced game rangers and their skilled native trackers. These men, as civilians, volunteered their services on a continuing ad hoc basis and they quickly provided the SF with the solution to their dilemma. In this capacity the tracker units were armed only with their hunting weapons. Initially, many of the native trackers were unarmed.

This system of operation continued until 1973 when the first of the official National Park Volunteer Tracker Combat Units was created. Its members were uniformed, trained and armed with military weapons as were all the regular soldiers in the SF.

The NP-VTCU, therefore, became a formal military unit and the game rangers, with their personal trackers, were called-up on a regular basis for tracking duties. Their involvement in the war was maintained until it ended in 1980; and their modus operandi never changed. They tracked the spoor, and hunted down the terrorists, in the same manner that they tracked and hunted down elephants and buffaloes in their civilian roles. The only difference was that their quarry carried machine guns!

A tracker combat unit soldier held one of the most dangerous positions in the Rhodesian SF. Every day the units were on hand to follow hot terrorist spoor, and they repeatedly walked into the ambushes which the terrorists laid on their back trails. Pro rata, casualties were higher than with other SF units. Nevertheless, until about 1975, the tracker-combat-units were responsible for locating more terrorist groups than any other unit. And, by the end of the war, these highly specialized soldiers had become some of the most accomplished 'hunters of men' that any modern war has ever produced.

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