on this day Sir Ian Douglas Smith was born in Selukwe, a mining town two
hundred miles south west of the city of Salisbury where, as the first
Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Rhodesia, he would later direct a
successful "Bush War" against African Marxists.
He was educated at Chaplin School nearby with moderate academic
achievement, captaining the first XV and running the 100 yards in 10
seconds. He began a bachelor of commerce degree at Rhodes University in
South Africa in 1938, establishing an impressive academic record and
rowing for the university.
War broke out in 1939 and in 1941 he joined the RAF Empire Air Training
Scheme at Guinea Fowl in central Rhodesia. He was posted to 237 (Rhodesia)
Squadron in the Middle East, flying Hawker Hurricanes.
Taking off from Alexandria on a dawn patrol in 1943, his throttle
malfunctioned, he lost height and clipped the barrel of a Bofors gun. He
crashed and rammed his face against the Hurricane's gunsight. He suffered
severe facial injuries, broke his jaw, a leg and a shoulder, and buckled
his back. Surgeons at the 15th Scottish Hospital in Cairo reconstructed
his face and, after only five months, he rejoined his squadron in Corsica.
He realised his dream to fly Spitfire Mark IXs, carrying out strafing
raids and escorting American bombers.
In mid-1944 Smith was leading a raid on a train of fuel tankers in the Po
Valley when he made the mistake of going back for a second run.The
Spitfire was hit by an anti-aircraft shell, caught fire and he baled out.
He was soon picked up by the partisans. The five months he spent with them
near Sasello, learning Italian, reading Shakespeare and working as a
peasant, he regarded as one of the best times of his life. Near the end of
the war, he and three other Allied fugitives made their way through
occupied Italy to the Maritime Alps. At one point the conspicuously tall,
fair-haired Rhodesian strode unhindered through a German checkpoint. He
led his tiny group over the mountains, walking barefoot on ice, until they
reached an American patrol on the other side.
became active in politics when he successfully ran as a candidate for the
right-wing Southern Rhodesia Liberal Party in the 1948 general election
for a seat representing the Selukwe district in the Legislative Assembly.
He was initially reluctant to stand due to his youth and the fact that he
was establishing a farm. Indeed, he was the youngest MP in the history of
the Southern Rhodesian Parliament. In 1953, he supported federation of
Southern Rhodesia with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland and joined the
United Federal Party set up by Prime Minister Godfrey Huggins.
"Our policy in the past has always been that we
would have a government, in Rhodesia, based on merit and that people
wouldn't worry whether you were Black or whether you were White" - Ian
In the federal general election he was elected as
Federal Party member for Midlands, and therefore stood down from his seat
in the Southern Rhodesian legislature. From 1958, Smith served as Chief
Whip for the United Federal Party in the Federal Assembly, but grew
increasingly disillusioned with the party and the new Prime Minister Sir
At a UFP congress in 1961, Smith publicly denounced the party's platform
on Southern Rhodesia constitutional proposals. He opposed the proposals on
the basis that they would usher in racial discrimination to the
Constitution. He explained: "Our policy in the past has always been that
we would have a government, in Rhodesia, based on merit and that people
wouldn't worry whether you were Black or whether you were White".
Smith was re-elected to Parliament as an RF member for Umzingwane in the
1962 general election, in which the RF won a slim majority and formed a
government. He became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Treasury
under Prime Minister Winston Field. Smith accompanied Field to the
Victoria Falls Conference in December 1963, where an agreement was reached
to dissolve the Federation with Rab Butler, the British Foreign Secretary.
Butler grandly declared that Britain was "very happy to agree" to
independence for Southern Rhodesia, at least at the same time as Zambia
and Malawi. A distrustful Smith asked Butler for the undertaking in
writing. Butler demurred with: "There is trust between members of the
British Commonwealth". Smith wagged his finger at Butler, and said: "If
you break that, you will live to regret it". In fact there was no cause
for concern in London or Salisbury, and Smith (who was soon to succeed
Field as Prime Minister) was being characteristically belligerent.
"There is trust between members of the British
Commonwealth" - Rab Butler, 1963
When Smith came to office the
general expectation was that he would immediately assume independence, but
he first turned his attention to gaining support in Rhodesia, and toured
the country, addressing scores of gatherings. His theme was independence,
and the need to explore peaceful avenues open to Rhodesia.
Negotiations between Rhodesia and the British Government were resumed.
Smith visited London in September 1964 for talks with Home and Sandys, but
the matter of testing African opinion proved to be the stumbling block to
a concensus between the two governments. Smith returned to Rhodesia,
optimistic that agreement could be reached with Britain. In October 1964
the Conservative Party led by Alec Douglas-Home narrowly retained power
after a close fought general election, defeating the Labour Party led by
British Government's fateful decision to grant independence without black
majority rule was described as the "Great Betrayal" by the Zimbabwe
African Peoples Union (ZAPU). With the vigourous support of the Soviet
Union, the party rapidly drifted towards Marxism, launching a twelve-year
long insurgency under the leadership of the terrorists Joshua Nkome and
Robert Mugabe. The Western Cold War allies provided indirect support via
the Portugese Colonies in Mozambique and Angola, whilst South African
Prime Minister John Vorster dispatched additional police units to secure
the northern border from terrorism.
On 3 April 1977, General Peter Walls announced the government would launch
a campaign to win the "hearts and minds" of Rhodesia's black citizens. In
May Walls received reports of ZANLA forces massing in the city of Mapai in
Gaza Province, Mozambique. Prime Minister Smith gave Walls permission to
destroy the base. Walls told the media the Rhodesian forces were changing
tactics from contain and hold to search and destroy, "adopting hot pursuit
when necessary". On 30 May 1977, 500 troops passed the border and
travelled 60 miles to Mapai, engaging the ZANLA forces with air cover from
the Rhodesian Air Force and paratroopers in C-47 Dakotas. The Rhodesian
government said the military killed 32 ZANLA fighters and lost one
The so-called Bush War, was over, and in recognition of his role in
fighting Communism in Southern Africa, Ian Smith would receive a
knighthood from the British Government in addition to being named Time
Magazine's "Man of the Year" for 1977.