Chemical and Biological Warfare in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) 1975-1980


After Mozambique became an independent state in 1975, it provided more support for Zimbabwe’s black liberation soldiers fighting for black majority rule. As a result, the war between black liberation war soldiers and white government soldiers also intensified. To counter the efforts of black nationalist soldiers, the Rhodesian government under Prime Minister Ian Smith implement a chemical and biological warfare (CBW) program by poisoning food, beverages, and medicines.

The project was the brainchild of Professor Robert Symington, who was in charge of the clinical program at the University of Rhodesia’s medical school (Godfrey Huggins School of Medicine). Professor Symington and Minister of Defence P. K. van der Byl, initially gave Ian Smith the idea of using chemical and biological warfare. The project was implemented through the government’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), and carried out by a Special Branch of the Selous Scouts. Many of the details of the program have never been fully revealed.

The few known details show that the chemical and biological warfare program experiments were carried out at the Selous Scout “fort” in Bindura in 1976. They poisoned clothing in April 1977 and contaminate food, beverages, and medicines sometime in May and June 1977. They also stated that the project did not end until late 1979. The chemicals most used in the Rhodesian program were parathion (an organophosphate insecticide) and thallium (a heavy metal commonly found in rodenticide) probably because these compounds were readily available in Rhodesia at the time and were relatively inexpensive. Among the biological agents, the Rhodesians selected for use included Vibrio cholerae (causative agent of cholera) and possibly Bacillus anthracis (causative agent of anthrax). They also looked at using Rickettsia prowazekii (causative agent of epidemic typhus), and Salmonella typhi (causative agent of typhoid fever), and toxins—such as ricin and  botulinum toxin.

It is estimated that over 1000 people died as a result of the chemical and biological warfare program.

Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare 1975-1980- Glenn Cross, Ph.D.

Dirty War is the first comprehensive look at the Rhodesia’s top secret use of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) during their long counterinsurgency against native African nationalists. Having declared its independence from Great Britain in 1965, the government―made up of European settlers and their descendants―almost immediately faced a growing threat from native African nationalists. In the midst of this long and terrible conflict, Rhodesia resorted to chemical and biological weapons against an elusive guerrilla adversary. A small team made up of a few scientists and their students at a remote Rhodesian fort to produce lethal agents for use. Cloaked in the strictest secrecy, these efforts were overseen by a battle-hardened and ruthless officer of Rhodesia’s Special Branch and his select team of policemen. Answerable only to the head of Rhodesian intelligence and the Prime Minister, these men working alongside Rhodesia’s elite counter guerrilla military unit, the Selous Scouts, developed the ingenious means to deploy their poisons against the insurgents. The effect of the poisons and disease agents devastated the insurgent groups both inside Rhodesia and at their base camps in neighboring countries. At times in the conflict, the Rhodesians thought that their poisons effort would bring the decisive blow against the guerrillas. For months at a time, the Rhodesian use of CBW accounted for higher casualty rates than conventional weapons. In the end, however, neither CBW use nor conventional battlefield successes could turn the tide. Lacking international political or economic support, Rhodesia’s fate from the outset was doomed. Eventually the conflict was settled by the ballot box and Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe in April 1980. Dirty War is the culmination of nearly two decades of painstaking research and interviews of dozens of former Rhodesian officers who either participated or were knowledgeable about the top secret development and use of CBW. The book also draws on the handful of remaining classified Rhodesian documents that tell the story of the CBW program. Dirty War combines all of the available evidence to provide a compelling account of how a small group of men prepared and used CBW to devastating effect against a largely unprepared and unwitting enemy. Looking at the use of CBW in the context of the Rhodesian conflict, Dirty War provides unique insights into the motivation behind CBW development and use by states, especially by states combating internal insurgencies. As the norms against CBW use have seemingly eroded with CW use evident in Iraq and most recently in Syria, the lessons of the Rhodesian experience are all the more valid and timely.


  1. Human rights groups in Zimbabwe ignore this truth. In fact it is radioactive because the idea of holding colonialists is taboo. Zimbabweans do not have the guts to hold the perpetrators of genocide accountable. Glenn Cross is a brave man.

  2. Zimbabwean people are silent about ethnic cleansing Rhodie style but vocal about Afro on Afro cleansing. If you believe in human rights shouldn’t you be enraged about both . Shouldn’t you fight for justice in both scenarios?

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