Commonwealth Monitoring Force - Rhodesia (Peacekeeping, 1 December 1979 to 2 March 1980)

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Following in the wake of a Conservative election in 1951, which swept aside Labour and its objection to the federation on the grounds of it being “detrimental to African interests”, the Central African Federation, formed in 1953 combined Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) with the copper-rich Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi).1 Unsurprisingly, the move was opposed by “many of the native leaders,”2 and by the late 1950s growing nationalism, by elements in Nyasaland in particular, resulted in a state of emergency being declared. The federation effectively ended eleven years after it had begun with the independence of Malawi on 6 July 1964 and of Zambia on 24 October that year. However, Zimbabwe would have to wait for another fifteen years.3

The Lancaster House conference was convened on 10 September 1979 to address the issue of Zimbabwean independence.4 By the end of 1970 open hostility had led to increasing violence between Ian Smith’s white Rhodesian government and the Patriotic Front comprised of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo, comprised primarily of Matabele, and the mostly Shona Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) under the control of Robert Mugabe. The initial ceasefire conditions contained in the British Constitutional Proposals tabled at Lancaster House did not entirely meet with the approval of the Patriotic Front. Among other things, such as the grounding of the Rhodesian Air Force, the Patriotic Front, on 26 November 1979, suggested the establishment of a Commonwealth peacekeeping force.5

Due in no small part to Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s role in pushing for a resolution of the situation in Rhodesia, involvement in a monitoring force was being discussed in Australia over a week before the Patriotic Front’s proposals had been presented, and over a month before the ceasefire agreement would finally be signed on 21 December 1979. On 19 November 1979, a question was put to parliament without notice on the topic of Australian peacekeeping involvement in southern Africa. Australian had already committed a military force to Namibia, a subject which the House had yet to debate, did the Minister accept, queried Senator Puplick, “that Australian forces should not be sent overseas where lives may be in jeopardy without the issues being fully debated by both houses of the national Parliament”?6 In response, Senator Carrick outlined the role of the forces in Namibia as “simply to have been supervising peacekeeping forces at the time of the election.” The role of any Australian peacekeeping force sent to Zimbabwe was to be “much the same.”7

The initial proposal was for the force was to be made up of the Fijian contingent, a fourteen-strong reconnaissance party, and a main body of seventy peacekeepers from Australia.8 A request was made to add a border crossing monitor team consisting of one officer and ten NCOs. A suggestion of a further forty personnel for a national headquarters was met with “polite surprise” from the Ministry of Defence.9 However, the final Australian contingent, which served alongside those sent by New Zealand, Fiji, Kenya and Britain, numbered 152, including 27 officers and 109 NCOs in the monitoring force, with the remainder comprising headquarters and one medical officer.

The peacekeeping forces were attached to both Rhodesian Security Forces, and charged with controlling four of the Patriotic Front’s assembly places. Although relatively small and short in duration, the Australian deployment, code-named Operation Damon, has been described as “one of Australia’s most dangerous peacekeeping commitments” due to the nature of operation, with small groups of Australians deployed in isolated conditions throughout the countryside.10 Nevertheless, the withdrawal of the force three months later, in March 1980, saw all Australian personnel safely home.

[1] National Archives UK, “Rhodesia and the Central African Federation,” The Cabinet Papers 1915-1988, accessed 01/04/2016,
[2] Welensky, Roy. "Toward Federation in Central Africa." Foreign Affairs 31, no. 1 (1952): 142.
[3] Rotberg, Robert. The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa: The Making of Malawi and Zambia, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965, 316.
[4] Zvobgo, Chengetai J. M. A History of Zimbabwe, 1890 – 2000 and Postscript: Zimbabwe, 2001 – 2008, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2009, 218.
[5] Zvobgo, A History of Zimbabwe,  226.
[6] Department of Foreign Affairs, “Parliamentary Question – Southern Africa: Peacekeeping Forces.” In Commonwealth Ceasefire Monitoring Force – Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, National Archives of Australia, NAA: A1838, 681/34 Part 1, 348.
[7] Foreign Affairs, “Parliamentary Question – Southern Africa: Peacekeeping Forces”.
[8] Department of Foreign Affairs, “Commonwealth Ceasefire Monitoring Force Rhodesia.” In Commonwealth Ceasefire Monitoring Force – Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, National Archives of Australia, NAA: A1838, 681/34 Part 1, 346.
[9] Department of Foreign Affairs, “Commonwealth Ceasefire Monitoring Force Rhodesia,” 342.
[10] “Commonwealth Monitoring Force.” Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, second edition, Sydney: Oxford University Press, 151.