Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Beira Patrol

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

The Beira Patrol

Article excerpt

Britain's Broken Blockade against Rhodesia

Between 1966 and 1975, the Royal Navy, primarily, conducted one of the more unusual blockades of modern history-a maritime-intercept operation that became known as the "Beira patrol." The Royal Navy and Air Force monitored shipping in the Mozambique Channel in an attempt to ensure that no oil reached landlocked Southern Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) via the port of Beira, in the Portuguese colony of Mozambique. Although the military executed these operations skillfully, Britain's overall oil embargo against Rhodesia, which had unilaterally declared its independence in 1965, failed. Well aware of oil "seepage" to Rhodesia, London did not (and could not) extend maritime interception operations to other ports in Mozambique or elsewhere. On the other hand, it refused to abandon a mission that was, because of substantial and growing resource constraints, increasingly unpopular within the Navy. The Beira patrol had become too visible a component of London's commitment to the maintenance of United Nations sanctions against its rebellious colony. Whitehall (that is, the British government) would relieve the Ministry of Defence of this mission only when Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975 and could credibly assure the UN that no oil would cross its territory to Rhodesia.

Today, in the light of dozens of recently declassified British documents, the Beira patrol is a cautionary tale for states that must decide upon, and commanders who must then orchestrate, maritime interception operations. It illustrates the challenges of shaping an appropriate force for maritime sanctions and shows vividly how demanding even a small blockade can be, especially if prolonged. It reveals the difficulties of fashioning credible rules of engagement and the complexities of the interplay between rules and force posture. It also exemplifies the legal, resource, and political obstacles to modifying a blockade once it has started.

Most important, Britain's experience in the Beira patrol demonstrates that the symbolic utility of naval forces can be compelling in unforeseen and unwelcome ways. Implementing a naval blockade with carriers, frigates, and land-based aviation, Britain established a dramatic and public commitment to sanction enforcement. But the use of such highly visible forces (ultimately mandated by an unusual, British-crafted UN Security Council resolution) had a downside-Whitehall found it awkward to cease or reduce maritime interception operations when it might have wished to do so. Diplomatic objectives consistently outweighed Ministry of Defence protests that the patrol had become of questionable utility and that demands upon naval resources were disproportionate. Because warships off Beira were such powerful symbols, the Royal Navy found itself in an open-ended campaign. A prisoner of its own Security Council resolution, the United Kingdom could not end its maritime sanction enforcement-however ineffectual-as long as it remained committed in principle to sanctions against Rhodesia.


The Beira patrol originated from a dispute between the United Kingdom and its increasingly rebellious colony, Rhodesia. In 1964, the two northern portions of the colonial Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland achieved independence as black majority-controlled states-Malawi (once Nyasaland) in July and Zambia (the former Northern Rhodesia) in October. London anticipated that the whites of Southern Rhodesia, who controlled the colony although they constituted a small minority of its population, would attempt to preempt the domestic and international pressure for black-majority rule by establishing Southern Rhodesia as a white-controlled state. Prime Minister Harold Wilson of Britain outlined in October 1964 his government's preconditions for granting the colony independence: a guarantee of unimpeded progress toward majority rule; guarantees against unconstitutional amendment of the 1961 constitution (a document that had implied movement toward majority rule); an immediate token of improvement of the political status of Africans; progress toward cessation of racial discrimination; and agreement on a settlement acceptable to the entire population, using a general referendum or similar device. …

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