South Africa

SABOTAGE SAGA OP-ED

Apartheid destruction of Zimbabwe’s air force: 1982 Thornhill mystery solved

Apartheid destruction of Zimbabwe’s air force: 1982 Thornhill mystery solved
Photo of the Hawker Hunter plane by Wikimedia Commons.

A South African government memorandum, squirrelled away by a former apartheid operative, has revealed the answer to a 42-year-old mystery: who was behind the devastating 1982 sabotage of the air force of newly independent Zimbabwe? Much more than just another military episode in an unstable era, its violent after-effects hammered yet another nail into the coffin of the fledgling nation’s multi-ethnic experiment. And the identification of the spy at the centre of it brings with it exquisite ironies for the Zimbabwean government and its critics – as well as uncomfortable questions for the UK military.

(This is the first in a series of articles on the Thornhill sabotage and its after-effects – Ed)

There was an international furore. It was global news for months. And it was a saga that marked the end of the honeymoon between Robert Mugabe’s regime and the West. But the incident that triggered it has remained one of those unsolvable historical mysteries – until now.

In July 1982, saboteurs blew up most of Zimbabwe’s fighter aircraft during a nighttime raid on Thornhill, an air force base near the Midlands city of Gweru. Within minutes, the country’s fixed-wing airpower had been reduced to smouldering piles of wreckage. The attackers had done their homework: 10 of the country’s 12 Hunter fighter jets were stationed at Thornhill, and the base had just received a consignment of British Aerospace Hawk fighter-trainers, purchased at enormous cost to the government’s strained fiscus.

The destruction was extensive. Most of the Hunters were ruined, as was one of the Hawks, and the rest were severely damaged. Diplomats reported that “the entire operational fighter force” had been removed from service – and although a few aircraft in storage were resuscitated to fill part of the gap, the air force itself noted confidentially that it had “suffered a disaster”. 

Rubbing salt into the wound, it quickly became clear that security at the base had been atrociously lax. It was evident from footprints and cut wire that a group had merely sliced holes through two fences, entered hangars and planted incendiary devices in the air intakes of the jets. They had even sabotaged two aircraft sitting on the apron in front of Thornhill’s headquarters building. The attackers then left by the same route and jumped into a getaway car.

The raid came against the background of recent and major attacks in Zimbabwe by apartheid operatives – among them, the bombing of the ruling party’s headquarters and the sabotage of a military depot during which 70% of the military’s ammunition stocks had been destroyed.

The newly independent black government, hot with rage, arrested many white air force officers, some of them British citizens, and held them incommunicado, without access to lawyers. It later emerged that a number had been tortured in order to extract false confessions. The public’s reaction in Britain was violent. So, too, was Mugabe’s response to representations by Her Majesty’s government about due process and the presumption of innocence. 

The British considered cutting aid to Zimbabwe; the Zimbabweans threatened to throw such assistance back in their faces. When the airmen were eventually brought to court in 1983 after a torrid year for the bilateral relationship, they were acquitted. Justice Enoch Dumbutshena, the first black Zimbabwean high court judge appointed by Mugabe, ruled that the confessions were inadmissible because they were obtained under torture.

That might have brought the matter to a close and allowed things to simmer down. The British had certainly hoped so – and had said so privately, to Mugabe’s displeasure. They were soon to be reminded of a trait they were only beginning to understand: the more Mugabe was pressured, the further he dug in his heels. Minutes after the airmen had celebrated with their families in the courtroom, they were handcuffed and hauled back to their cells. The government had used emergency powers legislation, crafted during the period of white rule, which allowed it to detain without legal recourse those deemed to pose a threat to national security.

‘The law is a stupid ass’

The already blistering media firestorm in Britain reached yet another level of intensity – and Mugabe dumped a bucket of fuel on it a few days later during a visit to Ireland when he told English journalists: “[T]here is better justice there [in Zimbabwe] than you think you have in Great Britain. Why is there such concern about these men when there are other men detained as well? Is it because they are Mrs Thatcher’s kith and kin? … [T]he law and procedures we have inherited are a stupid ass. It says that it doesn’t matter if a person has committed a crime if there is evidence that the police have assaulted him or used any coercion. He might be a murderer or a rapist. In an African system, that is stupid … It is one of the stupidities of our colonial past.”

However, in the background, Mugabe had arranged for two airmen to be released and immediately deported to Britain. Eventually, all followed the same route. He had shown he would not be cajoled and – with other scandals on his hands – now sought to rid himself of an inconvenient diplomatic and ethno-political feud. 

Yet the Zimbabwean government held to the view that the airmen, or at least some of them, were “guilty as hell”. Mugabe and his ministers remained convinced that officers of the predominantly white air force had connived with apartheid South Africa to destroy the country’s airpower from within. Mugabe conceded that “irregular methods” had been used to extract evidence, resulting in the acquittal of the airmen on “a technicality”, but the government held to its belief that it had culled the air force of a spy ring that had done grievous damage to the nation’s security.

Among the white ex-Rhodesian community, outrage focused on the brutalisation of innocent men – and a popular notion was that the sabotage was probably the work of disaffected black “dissidents” loyal to Mugabe’s main political rival, Joshua Nkomo. Others thought the South Africans had flown a special operations team across the border for a lightning strike on the base. Still others advanced the imaginative view that a North Korean army training team stationed in the country had deployed a group of sabotage specialists to do the job. 

What nearly all ex-Rhodesian commentators agreed on – and repeated ad nauseam – was that it was inconceivable for airmen to connive in the destruction of machines they treasured. Some, living outside the country, and with a devil-may-care attitude towards multi-ethnic harmony, put a racial spin on the pop psychology. Former Rhodesian Air Force chief of staff air vice-marshal Len Pink, accused by the Zimbabweans of being the “mastermind” behind the sabotage, fulminated from the safety of South Africa: “It really highlights the difference between a black man and a white man. A white man does not go around destroying his air force … our integrity is way above that.”

But brash confidence and proof are not the same thing. For 42 years, the truth has remained elusive; conclusive evidence about the identity of the culprits has never emerged. Unexpectedly, that has now changed. Newly discovered documents show clearly who was involved, and how the sabotage was executed.

Excruciating contradistinction

The reality brings with it exquisite ironies for both the Zimbabwean government and its critics. It turns out that there was an insider – operating in cahoots with the South Africans – but only one. For ex-Rhodesian theorists, the most excruciating contradistinction is that he was not only a white air force officer, but a pilot, and one of those acquitted in court. For the regime, the scoresheet is also an embarrassment: its brutal hamfistedness brought only a 17% success rate – generously calculated as the ratio of guilty to prosecuted (one in six); in fact, at least 18 were arrested. In court, that dismal percentage was predictably reduced to zero when the prosecution presented no evidence beyond the confessions and the court was compelled to rule on the question of admissibility. 

Moreover, the government’s investigators lost interest in the real culprit when, under duress, he provided them with the pre-scripted fiction they had constructed to implicate an elaborate network of traitorous senior officers. Had they conducted a more competent investigation, they might have not only secured a conviction but also uncovered the real espionage ring outside the air force, one that continued its work unmolested for many years afterwards. 

Meanwhile, the Mugabe regime had briefly provided the world with a small window on its vast and casual disregard for collateral damage and the rule of law. Mugabe was right that there were “other men detained as well” – hundreds of them – innocent black supporters of Nkomo. And thousands of black civilians were being killed by government forces in rural areas a short distance from Thornhill. 

Mugabe’s indignation was a Freudian moment of perverse self-righteousness. He was incensed by the whiff of racial bias – at the intense scrutiny on his white countrymen by a white audience that had some knowledge of the much greater violence he was wreaking on his black compatriots. 

Those are but a few of the many contradictions suggested by the Thornhill saga. But who was the mole? Air lieutenant Neville Weir was one of a dwindling number of ex-Rhodesian servicemen who had remained in Zimbabwe, seemingly to help build the new nation. He was also a gifted pilot. Sent by the Zimbabwean government to Britain on a nine-month Hawk fighter training course in 1981, he finished at the top of the class, ahead of the Royal Air Force (RAF) trainees. When he returned, he took on further training so that he could fly Hunters as well as Hawks.

That was half of the story. Some of the other, less auspicious half was clear to the air force board of inquiry that was convened in the immediate aftermath of the sabotage. Manned by white officers, the board recalled that Weir had appeared to have become disenchanted with the air force and Zimbabwe after his return from Britain, and had recently been seen in Pretoria at the recruitment office of the South African Air Force (SAAF) while on leave. Those events had prompted the commanding officer at Thornhill, group captain David Jones, to summon Weir and request a commitment from him; he was given two days to affirm his loyalty or hand in his notice. He chose the latter. When the aircraft went up in smoke, he was only six days away from leaving the air force. 

Weir was also a former member of Rhodesia’s elite Special Air Service (SAS). As such, he was better equipped than most other airmen to participate in an act of sabotage. 

Obvious suspect

He was, then, a bleedingly obvious suspect – and that was why he was the first to be handed over to the police for interrogation. He was arrested on 26 July, the day after the attack. But two days later, the white detectives who questioned him reported that he would probably be released – apparently because he had a solid alibi. Weir’s defence was that he had been at a party on the night of the raid, had consumed at least seven drinks, and was seen by other guests. He said he had then gone home to bed and was woken up by the sound of explosions. In addition, he remarked that he would hardly have remained within the reach of authorities if he had been the saboteur.

In the event, he was not released; black officers, with their political masters breathing down their necks, took over the case and told him that all they wanted “is for you to tell us about the small part you played, as you were forced into this from orders and threats from your seniors”. After a series of physical assaults, he duly wrote his almost entirely fictional confession. That was a double irony: his bullheaded interrogators had paid no attention to what was a convincing alibi – but in their obtuseness, they had created another, better one for him.

Certainly, for ex-Rhodesian observers, the use of force and the manifest ineptitude of investigators served to undergird his original defence. It helped, too, that the other accused had also cracked under the pressure and signed bogus confessions. He was, to them, just like them – another casualty of a regime that had revealed its true colours. 

Nothing has changed in the decades since. Weir has continued to be willingly numbered among his innocent and abused colleagues. In the late 1980s, the victims collaborated in an authorised history of the event. Penned by former Rhodesian government writer Barbara Cole, Sabotage and Torture described the inculpatory evidence against Weir and set it against the counterarguments he had given to investigators. For him, it was a reiteration in the retelling, a doubling down, helped along by Cole’s self-assured repetition of old mantras. “Weir’s whole life was flying,” she wrote, “and it was preposterous to think that he would have anything to do with destroying the things he loved.”

Indeed, Weir’s account of his assault by the Central Intelligence Organisation, related by Cole, laid it on thick with regard to his patriotism and loyalty: “He was beaten … but the police … did nothing to stop the beatings. Weir was beginning to feel betrayed by his own country … [Further] physical abuse simply hardened his resolve not to cooperate, but the mental pressure was the most difficult of all to endure. He felt he had been betrayed by his country; he was being unjustly accused.”

The proof

The alibis have now evaporated. A South African government memorandum, squirrelled away by a former apartheid operative, shows unimpeachably that Weir was the insider. Gray Branfield, an ex-Rhodesian policeman and head of urban operations with Project Barnacle, a South African black ops unit, wrote to his superior on 22 June 1982: “A HUNTER pilot who is leaving the ZIMBABWE AIRFORCE on 31/7/82 has been spoken to by my man and is quite prepared to undertake the destruction of HUNTER AIRCRAFT at THORNHILL should this be required. He feels it is quite feasible and should not be too much trouble … He feels that he himself could carry out the task.”

Planning for destruction: Weir’s decision to resign from the air force accelerated Project Barnacle’s scheme to annihilate Zimbabwe’s fixed-wing airpower. This document is an internal minute from Gray Branfield to his immediate superior, Charl Naudé.

A transcript of a confidential interview with Branfield, found in the same collection of papers, provides further confirmation and adds considerable detail: “That [Thornhill] scene is quite delicate. The oke who was directly involved in it is in the RAF … [One of my agents in Zimbabwe] approached me … because he had a mate called Weir who was ex-SAS … He had been sent over on a Hawk course and had passed out top. Neville had approached [my man] – they were big mates … He wanted to get into the SAAF … Planning then started taking place. I got hold of [the agent and he] got hold of Neville. Neville said, ya well, okay … It came to a head in July … Because Neville had come back and only had a month to go before he left and came down to SA.”

Branfield also spoke explicitly about how they constructed an alibi for Weir: “He would go to a wedding and pretend to be totally arseholes [drunk] and be dropped off at home … [The agent] would pick him up from there. That was part of his cover that he’d been to this big wedding. In case any shit happened. Pick him up and me[e]t the team. They cut a hole in the [Thornhill perimeter] fence. They went in with Neville.”

Weir’s new post-Thornhill, post-Zimbabwean life began with his deportation to Britain in December 1983. A dual British-Zimbabwean citizen, he was employed by the RAF almost immediately, and was appointed to a permanent commission in 1985. He was promoted in 1986 and 1988, and retired in 1996, after 12 years of service.

Questions linger over how Weir was able to get a security clearance from the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD). Aside from the initial suspicions raised by the board of inquiry – of which the MOD should have become aware during its due diligence – the British high commissioner in Harare had been told by the airmen’s lawyer towards the end of the trial that he thought Weir might be lying. In a foreign office telex of mid-1983, QC Harry Ognall was reported to have “agreed that there was little doubt that there had to have been some collusion within Thornhill for the attack to have been successful, and who more likely than a former SAS officer …?” Ognall recalled that Weir had not “come over well in court”. He reportedly “came very near to saying that he believed” Weir and one other defendant were “guilty as charged”.

The MOD’s security vetting team, and Her Majesty’s intelligence agencies, appear to have been asleep at the wheel. Whether Weir retained or renewed contact with the South Africans is a moot point. Prima facie, it is, perhaps, unlikely, given that he had been recruited by them for a specific task, and was soon incarcerated. Further, his original intermediary died shortly after his release. Yet if his life as a South African agent began and ended with Thornhill, that was as much a product of bureaucratic ineptitude as his commissioning in the RAF – this time on the part of Pretoria’s intelligence services. Hiding a secret that would have destroyed his RAF career, Weir was a prime candidate for blackmail.

(Reached on his What’sApp number, Weir refused to reply to a set of detailed questions provided by Daily Maverick. His response: “Your accusations are ridiculous, if you slander me in any way I will take legal action against you.”)

Larger questions

The larger questions are systemic. The extent to which the British government hired southern African whites in the 1980s with intelligence connections to the apartheid regime – who they were, what secrets they may have stolen and how that was allowed to happen – is one that remains largely unexplored.

At the same time, the most important historical questions and impacts are Zimbabwean. Thornhill was both a reed in the wind and another nail in the coffin for the country’s post-independence multi-ethnic experiment. 

The hope of many of Mugabe’s wartime adversaries and political rivals was that he would do as he promised at the outset and turn “swords into ploughshares”. Eighteen years before the land invasions, Thornhill provided an indicator to the whites that he wouldn’t – and it was whites who didn’t share the same hope who had given him another reason why. For his black opponents, Thornhill’s aftermath was no revelation. It told them what they already knew, and what they were struggling to survive. DM

Dr Stuart Doran is a historian and the executive director of the Institute for Continuing History (www.continuinghistory.org), a research centre that investigates major episodes of state-sponsored violence. He is the author of a book on the early years of Zimbabwe’s independence – Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960-87 – which was shortlisted for the Alan Paton Award for Non-Fiction.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Agf Agf says:

    What a marvelous story. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch. There must have been huge celebrations back in Pretoria after the raid.

  • J vN says:

    The saboteurs did Zim a favour. The new pilots would have crashed the planes anyway. So the sabotage no doubt saved many lives.

  • Barry Taylor says:

    Interesting history
    Imagine if Mugabe had these planes when he was killing all those “enemies” in Shona land
    No sympathy for the Mugabe government
    If it was Weir he did very well and should be congratulated

    • Michael Britton says:

      “… when he was killing all those “enemies” in Shona land”. I think you mean Matabeleland, which was the area where Joshua Nkomo’s strength lay, and where the Gukurahundi genocide took place, beginning in 1982.
      Also, “Shona land” is actually Mashonaland.

      • Barry Taylor says:

        You are correct
        I for once got my facts wrong was too lazy to look it up
        Old age creeping up on me as Jackie Kennedy said

  • EK SÊ says:

    I don’t remember this at all. Thanks for telling it.

  • drew barrimore says:

    So what?

  • Jon Chetwynd-Palmer says:

    Well done Mr Wier! Very true to SAS origins, destroying planes on the ground. Leaving them in Mugabes hands for 12 months would probably have had the same disastrous effect but very entertaining nonetheless

  • Met Eish says:

    I will watch this movie

  • Ben Harper says:

    Great Job – Give those men a Bells!

  • Fernando Moreira says:

    Brilliant ,adversary sorted

  • John Patson says:

    What a coward — letting the five others be tortured while he sat pretty. Some of them never physically recovered from the torture which at one stage involved brushes being inserted into the anus, resulting in tearing and scarring with life-long consequences.

  • ST ST says:

    Typical responses from those indifferent about the means and ends of the apartheid regime and its supporters. Attitudes that font lead to healing and reconciliation.

    Mugabe was not perfect, but so many African and other so called ‘third world’ countries have been and continue to be sabotaged. Often using it’s own people.

    Questioning and standing up to the ‘master’ was and is not tolerated. A thriving independent Zimbabwe was a threat to an apartheid SA. Zimbabwe had some of the best education and agriculture in Africa. The destruction of Zimbabwe is not only on the hands of Mugabe and his regime. Let the truth come out.

    • Tim Price says:

      Didn’t they have the best education and agriculture before Mugabe, and that went to wrack and ruin under his dictatorship?

    • Skinyela Skinyela says:

      My guess is that Mugabe’s regime obtained this information looong time ago but kept it secret.
      Then use that sabotage incident, and others, as a pretense to persecute the Matebele people of kwa-Bulawayo.

      If a country has natural resources that you want and you want to get them cheaply or free, it is not in your best interest that such a country must have a stable and thriving democracy.
      What you want for your country is not necessarily what you want for all other countries.

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      “Mugabe was not perfect”

      There we can certainly agree.

    • Pieter van de Venter says:

      Let us also remember, that December 1983, the ANC tried to launch attacks os SA citizens from Zimbabwe. That was the month that MK left numerous landmines on the Vhembe road that blew up 1 x white farmer in his Mercedes, and (from memory) about 6 or 7 black owned bakkies with passengers on the back. I think something like 30 black locals were killed by MK and 1 x Wirbank Commando rifleman and 1 x sargent from 2 Recce.

  • Confucious Says says:

    Same about of operational aircraft left as the SAAF currently has!

  • Deon Schoeman says:

    The SADF did great work back then !!! It was the best on the continent….

  • John Pius says:

    Comments by bunch of hypocrites. If this act of sabotage was committed against any European nation, these same hypocrites will be the first to ask for blood.

    No one bothered to ask of the crime(s) of Robert Mugabe regime as at the time of this criminal act and economic sabotage against Zimbabwe and we wonder why peace and stability remained an illusion on planet earth.

  • District Six says:

    Good grief. If this is what you people are prepared to say in public, I cannot imagine what you say to each other around your braaivleis! Some of you are regular DM commentators. Waaay too regular. We see your true colours loud and clear.

  • Chris Mpofu says:

    Apparently racism is deeply embedded in the genes of the commentators above who applaud the destruction of the Zimbabwean airforce. What you were worried about wasn’t the use of force against the people in Matabeleland, it was your fear that Zimbabwe might help liberate South Africans from the clutches of the apartheid regime. By the way, that regime’s credentials in the area of torture were second to none. And unfortunately the sickness that created it still lives in all of you. Shame on you!

    • Middle aged Mike says:

      Yawn. It’s not racist to celebrate the destruction of the airforce of a brutal government that used it’s military assets to slaughter it’s own civilians. The fact that you perceive it as such says at least as much about you as it does those you seek to condemn.

      You’d have needed a very fertile and LSD enhanced imagination to have perceived the Zim Airforce as having presented the remotest hint of a threat to the SADF at the time. The fact that it was destroyed on the ground by guys with wire cutters is a hint at how little of a threat it posed.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    So interesting. Thank you for a great piece of writing.

  • Sekhohliwe Lamola says:

    The matter is old, yet contains important historical lessons, even though the narrative laden with biased political context. One can only imagine the narcissistic and energetic denials of sabotage with its chauvinist undertones, while then politically triumphant Zimbabwean governments outmaneuvered to honour and respect the abortive Lancaster Agreement, especially on the matter of land restitution, as agreed on with then British government.

  • Winston Bigsby says:

    If only they could’ve stolen the jets – those Hawker Hunters are beautiful and priceless today.

  • Pieter van de Venter says:

    Fantastic work SA!! Let us not forget, although South Africa and Rhodesia were friends, Zimbabwe and South Africa were not friends.

    I did a “burgermag” camp about that time (Dec 83 to Feb 84) at Messina. We ran several intelligence projects against the ZIO at Beitbridge and we also did an observation operation to see what the North Korean 5th Brigade was up to.

    At the end of our stint, we were advised not to enter Zimbabwe for a number of years as the ZIO was very active at Beitbridge and kept photos of military personel

  • Peter Ellis says:

    At the beginning of this article, the Editor wrote:
    (This is the first in a series of articles on the Thornhill sabotage and its after-effects – Ed)
    I’m wondering when Daily Maverick will be publishing each of the remaining articles in the series. Could you provide this, even if only approximately. This first article is well worth reading and is fascinating. I remember when this all happened but was not aware of the detailed narrative in this article.

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