Battle that told Ian Smith his time was up

24 Mar, 2024 - 00:03 0 Views
Battle that told Ian Smith his time was up The Battle of Mavonde took place from September 29 to October 6, 1979 — about eight days

The Sunday Mail

Kuda Bwititi

Political Editor

WITH the war-weary Ian Smith administration coming under increased pressure to reach an agreement with the Patriotic Front — an alliance between ZANU (Zimbabwe African Nation Union) and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) — it hatched a plan to negotiate from a position of strength.

It reckoned that by launching an overwhelming attack and overrunning ZANU’s new military headquarters at Mavonde in Manica province, Mozambique, about 20km from the border with Zimbabwe, the peace agreement would naturally be on his own terms.

But it was never to be.

The Rhodesian military machine met its match, as the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military arm of ZANU, which had learnt invaluable lessons during a similar attack at its previous headquarters at Chimoio on November 23, 1977, went pound-for-pound with the aggressors.

The Battle of Mavonde took place from September 29 to October 6, 1979 — about eight days.

In a recent document on the fierce encounter, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) said: “This was, without doubt, the most decisive battle of the liberation struggle. The stakes for the Mavonde Battle were very high. ZANLA forces (military unit of ZANU) wanted their leaders to negotiate from a point of victory. If they had lost that battle, Independence Day would have been long in coming.”


Also known as the Battle of Monte Cassino, the confrontation between the warring parties took place as the Lancaster House talks were underway in London.

Rhodesia’s security forces saw this as the perfect opportunity to weaken the liberation movements’ bargaining power.

A victory for Smith’s forces could have dramatically changed the course of the war and negotiations.

The forces usually relied on their superior airpower.

But Mavonde was heavily fortified.

In an interview with The Sunday Mail in 2014, the late national hero, Major-General Paradzai Zimondi, who was ZANLA’s Manicaland commander during the battle, said: “Mavonde was a hive of activity and a model military facility. You would see Dakotas, anti-aircraft guns and different kinds of ammunition of war. It was generally a well-armed base. We had learnt our lessons from Chimoio, so there were no children and women at Mavonde. It was purely for operations.

“The mountainous nature of the area was also a plus for us and our guerrilla warfare. The peak of the mountains was Monte Cassino, which was a great position from which to monitor the enemy. So, in terms of preparations, we were well-equipped and ready for war.”

The historic combat

Cde Charles Muchena, who was a ZANLA detachment commander from 1978 until the ceasefire in 1979, is one of the gallant fighters who took part in the Battle of Mavonde.

“On the first day, the battle started at about 7.30am,” he told The Sunday Mail last week.

“The Rhodesia Security Forces included mercenaries from the United States, Israel and South Africa.

“They launched their attack using phantom jets that were fired rapidly. The battle lasted for several hours as we strongly returned fire.

“Then, they returned on the second day and this time, they tried to attack us using a strategy that we called star bombing. This involved using their fighter jets from different directions. We were well-prepared for this. In fact, on that second day, the battle did not last for more than two hours because we had advanced anti-air weapons to repel their attacks.”

Cde Muchena, whose Chimurenga name was Cde Zimbabwe Matsika Pasi, said the freedom fighters won the crucial battle because they were well-trained and prepared.

“A lot of the comrades had returned from advanced training in different countries like Romania and Yugoslavia. I had trained for six months in Zadar, Yugoslavia, and was proficient in field artillery and anti-air weapons.

“We also had shrewd commanders in Cde Tonderai Nyika (Major-Gen Zimondi) and Cde Rex Nhongo (the late ZANLA commander, General Solomon Mujuru), who was the Chief of Operations.”

During the battle, six sub-bases were established, and these catered for political education; recreation; headquarters; intelligence; operations; and training, according to the NMMZ.

In addition, there was a defence unit responsible for all the sub-bases, where the artillery cadres were concentrated.

The main base had anti-air artillery, heavy machine guns, 60-82mm mortar bombs and B10 recoilless rifles.

Also, strategic trenches, where food had been stored, had been dug and they zigzagged through the sub-bases.

The NMMZ adds: “They had three or four tanks in the camp and steered the enemy to a gum tree plantation. This gave ZANLA forces an edge, and they were able to attack the enemy from different positions. On the fourth day, the battle began to even out, with fire exchanges continuing throughout the day.

“The fifth day proved a brutal stalemate, by the end of which some Rhodesian units were withdrawing. The Rhodesian Infantry came under heavy gunfire from the trenched ZANLA guerrillas using AK-47 riffles, RPG-2 bazookas, rifle grenades and mortar 60 bombs, which decimated the Rhodesians in their numbers. The mighty Rhodesian Air Force and its Infantry had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a disciplined and alert ZANLA unit at Mavonde Camp.”

In the immediate aftermath of the battle, Lieutenant-General Peter Walls, the commander-in-chief of the Rhodesian forces, accepted defeat.

This was a critical submission that effectively heralded the conclusion of the liberation struggle. Also, the Lancaster House talks concluded soon after, with the warring parties striking the agreement for a majority vote to take place and usher in a new and independent Zimbabwe.

The basic agreement on the ceasefire was reached on December 5, 1979, which was the 86th day of the Lancaster House Conference.

The Frelimo factor

The role played by Mozambique’s liberation movement, Frelimo, cannot be overemphasised.

Having attained independence in 1975, Frelimo went out of its way to assist Zimbabwe in gaining its own freedom.

However, during the Battle of Mavonde, the Frelimo forces took it a step further, as they joined the ZANLA forces in the trenches on the fifth day of the battle.

Their use of superior firepower, particularly the Russian-made Katyusha, proved decisive as it cancelled out the Rhodesian forces’ airpower, signalling to Smith that his time was up.

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