Ian Smith

 Rhodesian African Rifles, Lake Kariba, December 1976  St. James Near Muizenberg  Alec Douglas-Home

Note: Rhodesian African Rifles, Lake Kariba, December 1976 // St. James Near Muizenberg // Alec Douglas-Home



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Ian Smith

This article is about the Rhodesian prime minister. For other uses, see Ian Smith (disambiguation).

The Right Honourable
Ian Smith

Smith c. 1954
8th Prime Minister of Rhodesia
In office
13 April 1964  1 June 1979
Preceded by Winston Field
Succeeded by Abel Muzorewa
Leader of the Opposition of Zimbabwe
In office
18 April 1980  May 1987
President Canaan Banana
Prime Minister Robert Mugabe
Personal details
Born Ian Douglas Smith
(1919-04-08)8 April 1919
Selukwe, Southern Rhodesia
Died 20 November 2007(2007-11-20) (aged 88)
Cape Town, South Africa
Resting place
  • Near Shurugwi, Zimbabwe
  • (ashes scattered)
Political party
  • Janet (née Watt)
  • (1948–94; her death)
  • Jean (stepdaughter)
  • Robert (stepson)
  • Alec
Alma mater Rhodes University
Military service
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1941–45
Rank Flight Lieutenant
Battles/wars Second World War

Ian Douglas Smith, GCLM, ID (8 April 1919 – 20 November 2007) was a politician, farmer, and fighter pilot who served as Prime Minister of Rhodesia (or Southern Rhodesia) from 1964 to 1979. The country's first premier not born abroad, he led the predominantly white government that unilaterally declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1965, following prolonged dispute over the terms. He remained Prime Minister for almost all of the 14 years of international isolation that followed, and oversaw Rhodesia's security forces during most of the Bush War, which pitted the unrecognised administration against communist-backed black nationalist guerrilla groups. Smith, who has been described as personifying white Rhodesia, remains a highly controversial figure—supporters venerate him as a man of integrity and vision "who understood the uncomfortable truths of Africa", while critics describe an unrepentant racist whose policies and actions caused the deaths of thousands and contributed to Zimbabwe's later crises.

Smith was born to British immigrants in Selukwe, a small town in the Southern Rhodesian Midlands, four years before the colony became self-governing in 1923. Serving as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot in the Middle East and Europe during the Second World War, he spent months behind German lines in Italy and suffered debilitating facial and bodily wounds that remained conspicuous for the rest of his life. He set up a farm in his home town in 1948 and, the same year, became Member of Parliament for Selukwe—at 29 years old, the country's youngest ever MP. Originally a Liberal, he moved to the United Federal Party in 1953, and served as Chief Whip from 1958. He left in 1961 in protest at the territory's new constitution, and the following year helped Winston Field to form the all-white, firmly conservative Rhodesian Front (RF), which called for independence without an immediate shift to black majority rule.

Smith became Deputy Prime Minister following the RF's December 1962 election victory, and stepped up to the premiership after Field resigned in April 1964. With the UK government refusing to grant independence while Rhodesia did not devise a set timetable for the introduction of majority rule, talks with the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson repeatedly broke down, leading Smith and his Cabinet to declare independence on 11 November 1965. His government endured in the face of United Nations economic sanctions with the assistance of South Africa and, until 1974, Portugal. Talks with Britain in 1966, 1968 and 1971 came to nothing. Smith declared Rhodesia a republic in 1970 and led the RF to three more decisive election victories over the next seven years. After the Bush War began in earnest in 1972, he negotiated with the non-militant nationalist leader Bishop Abel Muzorewa and the rival guerrilla movements headed by Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe.

In 1978, Smith and non-militant nationalists including Muzorewa signed the Internal Settlement, under which the country became Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979. Mugabe and Nkomo continued fighting; no country recognised the settlement. Smith was part of Muzorewa's delegation that settled with Britain and the revolutionary guerrillas at Lancaster House, and following Zimbabwe's recognised independence in 1980, he was Leader of the Opposition during Mugabe's first seven years in power. Smith was a stridently vocal critic of the Mugabe government both before and after his retirement from front-line politics in 1987; he dedicated much of his 1997 memoirs, The Great Betrayal, to condemning Mugabe and UK politicians. As Mugabe's reputation thereafter plummeted amid Zimbabwe's economic ruin, reckoning of Smith and his legacy improved. Zimbabwean opposition supporters lauded the elderly Smith as an immovable symbol of resistance. He remained in Zimbabwe until 2005, when he moved to Cape Town, South Africa, for medical reasons. After his death two years later at the age of 88, his ashes were repatriated and scattered at his farm.

Early life

Family, childhood and adolescence

Ian Douglas Smith was born on 8 April 1919 in Selukwe, a small mining and farming town about 310 km (190 mi) southwest of the Southern Rhodesian capital Salisbury. He had two elder sisters, Phyllis and Joan. His father, John Douglas "Jock" Smith, originally came from Hamilton, Scotland; the son of a cattle breeder and butcher, he had emigrated to Rhodesia as an 18-year-old in 1898, and become a prominent rancher, butcher, miner and garage-owner in Selukwe. Jock and his English wife, Agnes (née Hodgson), had met in 1907, when she was 16, a year after her family's emigration to Selukwe from Frizington, Cumberland. After Mr Hodgson sent his wife and children back to England in 1908, Jock Smith astonished them in 1911 by arriving unannounced in Cumberland to ask for Agnes's hand; they had not seen each other for three years. They married in Frizington, then returned together to Rhodesia, where Jock, an accomplished horseman, won the 1911 Coronation Derby at Salisbury.

The Smiths involved themselves heavily in local affairs. Jock chaired the village management board and commanded the Selukwe Company of the Southern Rhodesia Volunteers; he also became a founder member of the Selukwe Freemasons' Lodge and president of the town's football and rugby clubs. Agnes, who became informally known as "Mrs Jock", established and ran the Selukwe Women's Institute. Both won the MBE (at different times) for their services to the community. "My parents strove to instil principles and moral virtues, the sense of right and wrong, of integrity, in their children," Ian Smith wrote in his memoirs. "They set wonderful examples to live up to." He considered his father "a man of extremely strong principles"—"one of the fairest men I have ever met and that is the way he brought me up. He always told me that we're entitled to our half of the country and the blacks are entitled to theirs." Raised on the frontier of the British Empire in the UK's youngest settler colony, Smith and his generation of white Rhodesians grew up with a reputation for being "more British than the British", something in which they took great pride.

Ian Smith showed sporting promise from an early age. After attending the Selukwe primary school, he boarded at Chaplin School in Gwelo, about 30 km (19 mi) away. In his final year at Chaplin, he was head prefect, captain of the school teams in cricket, rugby and tennis, recipient of the Victor Ludorum in athletics, and the school's outstanding rifle marksman. "I was an absolute lunatic about sport," he later said; "I concede, looking back, that I should have devoted much more time to my school work and less to sport." All the same, his grades were good enough to win a place at Rhodes University College, in Grahamstown in South Africa, then often attended by Rhodesian students—partly because Rhodesia then had no university of its own, and partly because of the common eponymous association with Cecil Rhodes. Smith enrolled at the start of 1938, reading for a Bachelor of Commerce degree. After injuring his knee playing rugby, he took up rowing and became stroke for the university crew.

Second World War; Royal Air Force pilot

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Southern Rhodesia had been self-governing for 16 years, having gained responsible government from Britain in 1923. It was unique in the British Empire and Commonwealth in that it held extensive autonomous powers (including defence, but not foreign affairs) while lacking dominion status. As a British colony, Southern Rhodesia entered the conflict automatically when Britain declared war on September 3, but its government issued a symbolic declaration of war anyway. Smith, who was about halfway through his university course, later described feeling patriotically compelled to put his studies aside to "fight for Britain and all that it represented". Excited by the idea of flying a Spitfire, he wanted to join the air force, but was prevented from immediately doing so by a policy adopted in Rhodesia not to recruit university students until after they graduated. Smith engineered his recruitment into the Royal Air Force (RAF) in spite of this rule during 1940, suppressing mention of his studies, and formally joined in September 1941.

After a year's training at Gwelo under the Empire Air Training Scheme, Smith passed out with the rank of pilot officer in September 1942. He hoped to be stationed in Britain, but was posted to the Middle East instead; there he joined No. 237 (Rhodesia) Squadron RAF, flying Hurricanes. In October 1943, in Egypt, Smith crashed his Hurricane after his throttle malfunctioned during a dawn takeoff. Suffering serious facial disfigurements, he also broke his jaw, leg and shoulder. Doctors and surgeons in Cairo rebuilt Smith's face through skin grafts and plastic surgery, and he was passed fit to fly again in March 1944. Turning down an offer to return to Rhodesia as an instructor, he rejoined No. 237 Squadron, which had switched to flying Spitfire Mk IXs, in Corsica in May 1944.

During a strafing raid over northern Italy on 22 June 1944, Smith was hit by enemy flak and forced to bail out behind German lines. He was briefly hidden by a peasant family named Zunino, then recruited into a group of pro-Allied Italian partisans with whom he took part in sabotage operations against the German garrison for about three months. When the Germans pulled out of the area in October 1944, Smith left to try to link up with the Allied forces who had just invaded southern France. Accompanied by three other servicemen, each from a different European country, and a local guide, Smith hiked across the Maritime Alps, finishing the journey walking barefoot on the ice and snow. He was recovered by American troops in November 1944. Smith again turned down the offer of a billet in Rhodesia, and returned to active service in April 1945 with No. 130 (Punjab) Squadron, by then based in western Germany. He flew combat missions there, "[having] a little bit of fun shooting up odd things", he recalled, until the war in Europe ended on 7 May 1945 with Germany's surrender. Smith remained with No. 130 Squadron for the rest of his service, flying with the unit to Denmark and Norway, and was discharged at the end of 1945 with the rank of flight lieutenant. He retained reasonable proficiency in Italian for the rest of his life, albeit reportedly with an "atrocious" accent.

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