Having served in the same organisation and unit as Ed Bird, and indeed having visited him on several occasions at the border station where he served, I was obviously pleased to receive a copy of his book, Special Branch War. The Special Branch (SB) station in Beit Bridge would have been a popular posting during times of peace, but the advent of a bitter counter-insurgency campaign put paid to that. What’s more, the station was unique in that its area of responsibility fell within two operational areas, JOCs Repulse and Tangent.
Bird, twice decorated while in the force, joined the BSA Police in June 1964 and served as a District policeman in the then Victoria Province. With the 1972 escalation of insurgency agitation in the north east of Rhodesia, Ed soon found himself embroiled in intelligence work as an attaché to SB in the Zambezi Valley, as many of us did.
The author was eventually transferred to the plain clothes branch of the police and invited to join SB. He was involved in the early establishment of a section experimenting with pseudo-terrorist operations; a forerunner unit and indeed the SB origin of the Selous Scouts, later formed by the Rhodesian Army. Ed Bird was at one time an SB Selous Scouts Liaison officer.
Bird manages to describe life on an SB station in an operational area very well. He tells of the, hereto generally unknown and unsung, commitment, huge risks and sacrifices made during the ‘hondo’ by many dedicated members of SB. Exposed are the frustrations of intelligence gathering with counter-insurgency work, where useful information often fell on deaf ears, or where the clue-less, who should have known better, could never use the ‘int’ efficaciously. But there were exceptions, brave men who took to unconventional, if not dirty, tactics and with whom lifelong friendships endured.
One point will be clear to anyone who reads this book. That is the magnitude of ZANLA operations into the south east of Rhodesia, then on its last political legs after being sold out by foreign influence, including that of our then erstwhile neighbour, South Africa. The south east was a vital communication link for Rhodesians to the south and ZANLA’s strategy was for full scale conventional warfare in the south, aided by regular FRELIMO infantry. The pounding taken by those who plied the two major routes to Beit Bridge is ever evident as you page through this book; nauseatingly so.
Unfortunately there is criticism. While it is acknowledged that much of the source material for this book was an SB incident log, maintained by the station in Beit Bridge, its verbatim, SITREP like, extract in the book does tend to be repetitive. Personal issues aroused after being dropped for promotion detract from the real story that Bird has put together so well, but then personalities were all a part of it.
The book is a good read, especially for those who were involved in the fray. Ed Bird joins a list of former servicemen committing their experiences to paper for posterity, clearing the fog of political falsehoods with the truth. I recommend this book.
6 November 2013
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