Lieutenant-General Peter Walls
Lieutenant-General Peter Walls, who has died aged 83, was the last commander of Ian Smith's Rhodesian armed forces; his otherwise distinguished military career ended in humiliation when he became involved in the political turmoil that surrounded Robert Mugabe's accession to power in Zimbabwe in 1980.
Published: 6:30PM BST 27 Jul 2010
Walls seemed to adapt readily to the prospect of black majority rule. At Mugabe's request he undertook to help supervise the moulding of his own armed force with the motley legions of guerrilla fighters who had emerged from the bush after the protracted and ugly war.
But Mugabe was soon increasingly perturbed by reports that Walls was plotting a coup against him and his new regime. When he summoned Walls to ask him why he was planning to kill him, the general denied the reports vehemently, offering the most obvious evidence that any plotters were nothing to do with him: "If they had been my men you would have been dead."
Zimbabwe's destitute Britons to be repatriated
Zimbabwe coalition in crisis as MDC threatens 'disengagement'
Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe military 'profiting from diamond massacre'
Lieutenant-Commander Max Shean
Cabinet reshuffle: Andy Burnham moves from best job in the world to the hospital ward
What Barack Obama's announcement of more US troops means for British in AfghanistanThe mood of suspicion prevailed, and Walls found his position in the new Zimbabwe untenable. He took himself into exile in South Africa, where he found groups of his disgruntled former Rhodesian security forces openly accusing him of having personally thwarted two attempts by special forces to assassinate Mugabe shortly after he had been elected.
A further bitter blow was the revelation that Ian Smith, a man he had supported throughout the lead up to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) and who had appointed him to lead the Rhodesian forces through the war, had been blaming Walls for many of the failures of the transition and had actually accused him of "traitorous activities".
Peter Walls was born in Rhodesia in 1927 into family with military tradition. His father, George, had been a pioneer pilot in the colony and had volunteered for service with the Royal Air Force shortly after its formation. When Peter left Plumtree school, one of the most distinguished in Rhodesia, he already had his sights set on an army career.
He volunteered for the British Army during the Second World War and attended the Staff College at Camberley, which welcomed students from the Commonwealth. When the war ended he joined the Black Watch and was appointed Assistant Adjutant in the Highland Brigade Training Centre.
He resigned his commission when the Army decided to transfer him, choosing, in his own words, "to return to my beloved Rhodesia rather serve in any regiment other than the Black Watch". He could not stay away from soldiering for long, joining the Southern Rhodesian Staff Corps in the rank of corporal. With his experience and application he was promoted rapidly through the ranks and was soon commissioned again.
He went to Malaya during the military operations against the communist insurgency from 1951 to 1953 as a commander of what was known as "The Far Eastern Volunteer Group" (which became "C" Squadron of the British SAS). It was composed entirely of Rhodesian officers and men, who gained much valuable experience in fighting a guerrilla war in wild and hostile terrain.
Walls continued to shine, and in 1964 assumed command of the 1st Battalion, the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), a unit of tough young professional soldiers which was to become famous in the bush war. He was the ideal commander for "troopies", as the soldiers of the RLI were known. Walls was tall, broad-shouldered and a man of action who liked to lead from the front.
He was also a convivial and personable man who surprised those who served under him with an amazing memory of names and family circumstances. The sentiment in favour of UDI was growing among whites, alarmed by what they perceived as determination by the colonial power to hand over power to black majorities throughout its African territories.
Walls shared the mood, and allowed his men to wear paper hats inscribed with the words "RLI for UDI" on them, an act which won him a rare reproach from Brigadier Rodney Putterill, his commander at the time. The move made him even more popular, particularly among the politicians of the newly-elected Rhodesian Front party led by Ian Smith. When the first tentative incursions were made by nationalist guerrillas crossing from Zambia, the RLI went into action with swift success.
In 1972 Ian Smith approved the appointment of Walls as General Officer Commanding the Rhodesian Army, a promotion that came as no surprise. Smith liked Walls and, as a former RAF pilot himself, had known his father. In any event, he was preparing for his momentous declaration of independence and needed an army commander he could trust to support him.
Walls was quick to realise that UDI would mean an intensification of the guerrilla war from neighbouring countries, specifically from Zambia and Botswana by Joshua Nkomo's largely Matabele ZIPRA, and from Tanzania and Mozambique by ZANLA, drawn from the majority Shona people. He put his troops on full counter-insurgency readiness.
He knew from his Malayan experience that a key element in any anti-guerrilla war strategy would be the gathering of intelligence from within the enemy ranks. He summoned his old friend and colleague from the Malayan emergency and the RLI, Ron Reid-Daly, and asked him to form the Selous Scouts, a unit that ostensibly would be for tracking but would operate clandestinely behind and within guerrilla ranks.
It was a crucial move as, the following year, following a bloodless coup in Lisbon, Portugal withdrew from its two vast African territories, Angola and Mozambique, leaving Rhodesia's eastern and western borders open to mass infiltration by black nationalist forces trained and fully equipped by the Soviet Union and Cuba. Efficient and experienced as they were, the Rhodesian forces knew that sooner or later they would be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the nationalists, backed by a world which perceived them to be gallant freedom fighters opposed to an oppressive white supremacist regime.
Walls was made head of Joint Operations Command (JOC) in 1977 and, as Rhodesia desperately tried to bolster its numbers, assumed command of more than 45,000 men. It was not enough, and he knew it. Many farms were attacked, villages were infiltrated throughout the rural areas, landmines were laid in the dirt roads and military convoys were attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Two civilian airliners were brought down by SAM-7 missiles. The bush war turned increasingly ugly, with atrocities being committed by both sides.
For a time, Rhodesian special forces attempted to take and hold key areas of Mozambique to halt the unceasing flow of guerrillas into Rhodesia. Walls, typically, once parachuted into an area of northern Mozambique at Christmas with a consignment of roast turkey for his men. The turkey helped to bolster the troops morale – as did the fact that the general landed in a large deep puddle and emerged covered in mud.
Ian Smith and his Rhodesian Front party also realised that their only hope of survival rested in political negotiations. With Margaret Thatcher in power in Britain, anxious to rid herself of "this tiresome Rhodesian problem", Smith sought British mediation in the hope of political salvation.
The resulting Lancaster House conference resulted in a British interregnum in Rhodesia, with Lord Soames as governor backed by a team of top Foreign Office officials and a small force of British troops. Walls, as head of the highly-trained and experienced Rhodesian forces, found himself drawn inexorably into the political process.
Contingency plans for the elections which resulted from the Lancaster House agreement were drawn up by the military in consultation with the Lord Soames. The hope was that Bishop Muzorewa, the moderate Shona politician who had surprisingly won a previous election, would be able to hold Mashonaland while Joshua Nkomo, the moderate leader of the Matabele people, would comfortably hold his homeland in the west of the country.
The officially-approved safety net beneath this hastily-arranged scheme was that Robert Mugabe would be "eliminated" should he win the election. But the contingency plan was never implemented in the confusion that arose after Mugabe's ZANU party swept the board with a convincing majority.
Walls immediately wrote to Mrs Thatcher calling for a new election, claiming that the imperfect "assembly point" plan for guerrillas to gather and hand in their weapons had not worked and that the insurgents had infiltrated most rural areas. His plea was in vain. Mrs Thatcher wanted the long-running issue solved quickly, and Lord Soames was instructed to embrace and welcome a new black leader of an independent Zimbabwe.
Salisbury was suddenly awash with recriminations among white political and military leaders and most of the white population. As Mugabe's guerrillas rode through the streets of the capital brandishing their weapons, Walls became a main target for the blame. The beleaguered general decided that the best option was to opt immediately to serve the Mugabe regime by organising the amalgamation of the rival armies, believing this would offer the best future for the many thousands of professional officers and men who had fought for him for so long and with much sacrifice.
Mugabe, in the spirit of reconciliation he affected at the time, agreed. Walls went on national television to warn that troublemakers among his former forces "will not be tolerated". It was too late. Disaffected Rhodesian security forces fled to South Africa and elsewhere, along with many thousands of whites. Mugabe, who as new president of Zimbabwe was inundated with various "intelligence" reports, became convinced that Walls was secretly organising a coup and fired him.
Peter Walls went into exile in South Africa, settling at Plettenburg Bay, a fashionable resort on the Western Cape coast. He never wrote his memoirs but remained in seclusion with his second wife until he collapsed and died on July 20 while on his way to a holiday in the Kruger National Park. He is survived by his wife and by four children from his first marriage.