Rhodesian Light Infantry

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The 1st Battalion, Rhodesian Light Infantry (1RLI), commonly The Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), was a regiment formed in 1961 at Brady Barracks (Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia) as a light infantry unit within the army of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Barely a year after its creation, it was relocated to Cranborne Barracks (Salisbury) where its headquarters remained for the rest of its existence. The Regiment became part of the Southern Rhodesian Army when the Federation dissolved at the start of 1964 and later that year reformed into a commando battalion — Rhodesia's equivalent of the 75th Ranger Regiment (United States).

After Rhodesia's<ref group="n" name="name">The name of the country equivalent to modern Zimbabwe changed numerous times during the history of the Rhodesian Light Infantry. When Northern Rhodesia achieved independence as Zambia in 1964, the colonial government of Southern Rhodesia passed legislation to drop "Southern" and become Rhodesia, but the UK did not ratify this.<ref name="palleycountryname">Palley 1966, pp. 742–743</ref> The government issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence as Rhodesia and used that name until becoming Zimbabwe Rhodesia on 1 June 1979.<ref name="smith305">Smith 1997, p. 305</ref> When the country came under interim British control on 12 December 1979 it was Southern Rhodesia.<ref name=britdep/> The name Zimbabwe was adopted in April 1980.<ref name="wessels273">Wessels 2010, p. 273</ref></ref> Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965, the RLI became one of the country's main counter-insurgency units during the Rhodesian Bush War, which pitted the government security forces against the rival guerrilla campaigns of Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA).

An all-white regiment, the RLI was made up wholly of professional soldiers until 1973, when capable conscripted national servicemen were first introduced. Foreign volunteers from across the world, many veterans of foreign conflicts, also joined and became a key part of the Regiment. The RLI was nicknamed "The Saints" or "The Incredibles", and regarded, through astounding success with both internal Fireforce operations in Rhodesia and external preemptive strikes against guerrillas based in Mozambique and Zambia, as one of the world's foremost exponents of counter-insurgency warfare.

So prominent were the airborne aspects of typical RLI operations that the battalion became a parachute regiment in 1976. The RLI served under the short-lived government of Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979, and the interim British government that followed. After serving under the new government of Zimbabwe for a brief period, the unit was disbanded in October 1980.

The RLI's tactics and training contributed to repeated successes in its counter-insurgency operations. "The advantage this gave them..." says United States Army Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Grossman, "...added up to nothing less than total tactical superiority."<ref name=grossman/> Alexandre Binda writes that the RLI "...earned for itself an enviable reputation as one of the world's foremost anti-terrorist forces,"<ref name="founding">Binda 2008, p. 20</ref> while Major Charles D. Melson, chief historian of the United States Marine Corps, calls it "The Killing Machine".<ref name=rlira/>




The regiment was assembled into a Headquarters and four company-sized units called Commandos: One, Two, Three and Support (each commando with ± 100 men). As a premise, a commando could have five troops, of which only four troops were normally activated. However, with the arrival of Intake 150 (in May 1976) the commandos were up to full strength for the first and only time. Some of the commandos mustered five troops until the end of 1976; with the university students demobbing at the end of 1976, the commandos reverted to four troops (in 2 Commando's case 9 Troop was deactivated). The troops in each commando relayed R&R (military) consistently one at a time; therefore the average fighting strength of a commando in bush mode was just over 70 men. Depending on the deployment and/or purpose, troops were divided into a small headquarters and either two 'patrols' or three 'sections'. Support Commando had a history dissimilar to all the other units and, for an era prior to 1976, was called Support Group.

Base Group

Battalion Headquarters — Front and Rear (military) — was called Base Group, after Support Group branched out from the original Headquarters Company.<ref name="binda46">Binda 2008, p. 46</ref><ref name="binda7880">Binda 2008, pp. 78–80</ref> Base Group imparted logistical, operational and tactical support at the Front, through specialised sub-units, and organised administrative support (regimental policing, training, store keeping, record keeping and accounting, trucking, catering, nursing, etc.) at the Rear. A sizable portion of the administrative support was performed by other military services stationed at Cranborne Barracks for that purpose (mainly from 2 Brigade).

Signals Troop and Tracking Troop

Signals Troop and Tracking Troop were specialised sub-units that interpolated into Support Group or Base Group and worked with all the Commandos. Signals Troop focused on front line communications in support of special operations and airborne forces, but also provided other essential services (exchange of classified information, etc.) for the Battalion. A high percentage of Signals Troop had served in one or more Commandos before being selected and trained (in-house) as communicators. During the early planning stages for proposed changes to Support Group, it was accepted that Base Group was more suitable as the cynosure for all signals (military). The troop headquarters section was relocated to the RLI Joint Operations Command (JOC), and a team of specialist operators — properly cross-trained as proficient riflemen for combat duties — was attached to and deployed with each of the Commandos. So Signals Troop was scattered but still functioned as the vital organ that connected all the detachments in the network.

Tracking Troop was also sedulous and operated out of Base Group in the same manner as Signals Troop; a number of specialist trackers would be attached to a Commando as/when required to be dropped onto spoor for follow-up work. The new Selous Scouts Regiment had requested some specialist trackers for a combative tracking unit, so Tracking Troop was disbanded and a distinct home found for everyone concerned — primarily within the Selous Scouts unit and RLI, but also the SAS (Rhodesian Special Air Service). The majority were transmigrated to Support Group where they eventually became known as Reconnaissance Troop after the change to a Commando was actualised.

Support Group/Commando

As mentioned, Support Commando had been called Support Group and came from the original Headquarters Company; consequently, they had some additional skills and resources.

Support Commando had a Headquarters and four cross-trained Troops: Mortar, Assault Pioneer, Anti-Tank and Reconnaissance ... so every commando was a similar size (4 troops). The troops were not renamed because they maintained their capacity to provide the battalion with supporting fire and specialised resources in both conventional warfare and counter insurgency operations. During most counter-insurgency operations Support Commando fulfilled the same role as all the other commandos (viz. Fireforce), which was enough to justify the change from being called Support Group.

Mortar Troop was equipped with 81mm mortars and consisted of a headquarters section and three purposeful sections (two mortars per section). Assault Pioneer Troop provided the Battalion with combat engineering capabilities through a headquarters section and three purposeful sections. Anti-Tank Troop was equipped with six 106mm recoilless rifles, and also consisted of a headquarters section and three purposeful sections (two anti-tank weapons per section, each mounted on a modified Rodef 2.5). The remnants of Tracking Troop, with additional resources for reconnoitering, were the basis for the fourth troop: Reconnaissance Troop.


The rank order adhered to the British Commonwealth system as follows (in descending order) :—

Officer Ranks
Enlisted Ranks

The RLI was a fledgling unit when operations started, and it needed to grow and mature; albeit being very prominent in the permanent forces, its size did not warrant a full Colonel. Sometimes the Officer Commanding a Commando/Group was a Captain. The ranks above Colour Sergeant were addressed as "Sir" by the subordinate ranks. The Officers would refer to a CSM as "Sergeant Major" and the RSM as "R-S-M". All ranks tended to be called "troopies" by the Rhodesian media.<ref name=cheetah2/>


A map. See description
A map showing operational areas of the Rhodesian Security Forces during the Bush War.<ref name=abbottbotham7>Abbott & Botham 1986, p. 7</ref><ref name="cilliers29">Cilliers 1984, p. 29</ref>

The RLI was at the forefront of the Rhodesian Bush War, an arduous conflict between the internationally unrecognised government, made up mostly of the country's minority whites, and communist guerrillas attempting to overthrow it and introduce majority rule. The Bush War had started in earnest on 21 December 1972, when Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) insurgents attacked Altena and Whistlefield Farms near the north-eastern town of Centenary, and lasted until the Lancaster House Agreement of 1979. The country became known as Zimbabwe the following year.

Fireforce Actions

Main article: Fireforce

The RLI's characteristic deployment was the Fireforce rapid response operation, first created at Mount Darwin and then tested at Centenary in June 1974.<ref name="Cilliers22">Cilliers 1984, p. 22</ref> This was an operational assault or reaction composed of a first wave of 32 soldiers (as a rule) carried to the scene by three helicopters and one DC-3 Dakota, called "Dak", with a command/gun helicopter and a light attack aircraft in support. The latter was a Cessna Skymaster, armed with two roof mounted .303 Browning machine-guns and normally two 37 mm SNEB rocket pods and/or two small napalm bombs called Frantans, and/or two mini-Golf bombs which were manufactured in Rhodesia. The RLI became extremely adept at the execution of this very technical type of military operation.<ref name=Cilliers22/>

A Commando would be based at an airfield with usually four helicopters, one DC-3 Dakota and the Cessna (known as the "Lynx"). One of these helicopters was equipped with a MG 151/20 20mm cannon and seating arrangement for the mastermind of the engagement, usually the officer commanding of the Commando. This helicopter was called the K-car<ref group="n">The term "K-car" originated as an abbreviation of "killer car".<ref name=Cilliers22/><ref name="lingo">Binda 2008, pp. 483–486</ref></ref> with a crew of three consisting of the pilot, a technician (gunner), and the fireforce commander.<ref name=Cilliers22/> The other helicopters used in each call-out, known as G-cars, were typically Alouette Mk IIIs, though in 1979 a few Bell UH-1s were used.

The G-cars<ref group="n">The word "G-car" comes from "gunship".<ref name=lingo/></ref> were armed with fully automatic weapons (the original FN MAG was replaced by twin Browning .303 machine-guns) and each carried one Stop — the stick leader, a machine-gunner and two riflemen — along with the pilot and his technician, who also operated the helicopter's machine-gun(s). The carrying capacity of the G-car dictated the combat organisation of the Commando: Stop-1 was assigned to the first G-car, Stop-2 to the second, and Stop-3 to the third. Stop-4 to Stop-8 were paratroopers in the Dakota.

One of the Alouette III helicopters acquired by the Royal Rhodesian Air Force in 1962. The RLI used these helicopters for its Fireforce operations.

In more detail, each Stop of four soldiers (called a "Stick") had:<ref group="n">From a "stick" of paratroopers<ref name=lingo/></ref> one leader with a FN FAL and 100 rounds (also a VHF radio to communicate); one machine-gunner with a FN MAG and 400 rounds; and two riflemen, each with a FN FAL and 100 rounds (plus hand-grenades, rifle-grenades and medical supplies). All the rounds were 7.62 × 51 mm NATO. From early 1979 onward, a radio was also issued to one of the riflemen. The Dakota carried five stops of paratroopers, two on the port side and three on the starboard side. Apart from the parachutes, paratroopers equipment was tantamount to heliborne-troopers equipment; but the paratroopers had other problems akin to jumping. Every machine-gunner had to jump with his weapon strapped to his side.

Together the eight stops, 32 men in total, were described as the "First Wave". Each Fireforce took charge of huge swathes of the country (many thousands of square miles). Inherently there were only three permanent Fireforce bases. Any sighting of the enemy was reported and a siren sounded at the most convenient base. The First Wave of heliborne-troopers, already in a state of alacrity, would grab their weapon and webbing (and everything else that they needed) while rushing to the helicopters. At the same time, the paratroopers would run to a designated place where their equipment was kept ready, and dispatchers (usually assisted by off-duty comrades) would help them kit out.

Normally the Second Wave, called the Landtail, rushed to trucks, although if "jousting" or the "scene" was nearby they would wait at the airfield to be picked up by the helicopters after the First Wave had been deployed. Soldiers alternated as Heliborne troopers, Paratroopers, Landtail, and Off-duty throughout the Bush Trip. The Landtail was often an important factor as they helped with refueling the helicopters and recovering the deceased enemy (and their weapons), the parachutes and other equipment.

Sometimes a smaller Third Wave had to prepare if numbers permitted; but quite often, only the First Wave was engaged in shooting. In general, most soldiers preferred to be in the Heliborne First Wave and, although the number of operational parachute jumps was truly remarkable, the majority of soldiers were carried into action by helicopter.

The most important factors, apart from the reaction of the enemy and the terrain, in a Fireforce operation were the reliability of intelligence and the skill of the operations commander. The majority of successful engagements were enabled by the skills of the Selous Scouts (many of whom were former enemy); they had the capacity to insert observation posts into the bush without being noticed by the inhabitants. The difficulty of commanding the scene was extreme and good Fireforce commanders were highly prized by the men.

Any advance warning for the enemy of the approaching helicopters, and the anticipated reactions caused by surprise and confusion, were decisive factors in the coming engagement. Wind direction/speed, the presence of a tree covered ridge-line, or a multitude of other factors could make the difference between life or death. If the enemy was trapped in adverse terrain, such as a simple village surrounded by open ground, normally no-one escaped unless it was near nightfall.


The following paragraphs are for the standard Fireforce air assault of one K-car, three G-cars, a Dakota and the Lynx. Often there was no Dakota involved, or more G-cars. When in 1979 Bell UH-1s were introduced, a Commando might go into action with two or three of these, each carrying two (sometimes three) stops. There were many times when no Lynx was used.

The K-car was always the first to arrive at the scene. The K-car Commander, using the radio callsign One-Nine, Two-Nine, Three-Nine, or Four-Nine, depending on the Commando, had to first attempt to confirm the precise area where the enemy had been spotted by the Observation Post. Usually the terrain was extremely broken and covered in vegetation, which made this task particularly difficult. The K-car Commander then had to devise a plan of attack including initial placement of the first stops and where and in what direction to make the main sweep. The first stops to arrive were ferried in by the G-cars, which followed the K-car in a column (sometimes a long way behind, for they were a little slower than the K-car).

Sometimes the stops were dropped immediately, but on many occasions the G-cars would circle the scene several times before the operational commander made his final decisions. Very often the K-car occupants would spot the enemy, and then the Helicopter Gunner/Technician would attack them with his 20 mm cannon, using short bursts of fire. The accuracy of this sort of fire was extraordinary, due to the helicopter flying in tight counter-clockwise circles just a few hundred feet above the ground. The 20 mm cannon poked out of the port side, thus there was no "lead in", and the exploding high velocity shells would impact right next to and often on their intended targets. Very few persons were ever found alive after being hit by fire from the 20 mm cannon.

Typically the first stops were positioned in areas where the enemy was thought likely to pass through, often a riverbed or dry donga, where there was more vegetation impeding enemy movement. If there was a hill or ridge that gave outstanding observation, then stops might be placed there. Depending on the circumstances, the helibourne stops could form the main sweep line immediately upon insertion instead of waiting for the paratrooper elements of the force.

Whilst the K-car was looking for or engaging the enemy, the operations commander also had to designate a drop zone to drop the Para-stops and direct any strikes by the Lynx. The Drop Zone position was dictated by the enemy's position and the terrain. In the event that there was no suitable drop zone nearby, Para-stops were dropped as close as possible to the combat zone and redeployed by the G-cars. Paradrop altitudes normally varied between 400 feet (120 m) to 600 feet. Usually the Para-stops dropped as close as possible, which resulted on occasions in the Paratroopers taking fire while in the air, usually to little effect. There was also a great variation on the dropping patterns of these stops, as sometimes they were all dropped at once, sometimes individually, or any combination thereof.

While all this was taking place, one of the operations commander's main concerns was where the main sweep of the operation would occur. In a perfect scenario, the Para-stops would form the main sweep, and the G-car stops would carry out blocking actions. In reality there was such situational variation in combat operations that there was little functional difference between paratroopers or heliborne-troopers. However, heliborne-stops generally had more contacts and therefore saw the most action.

The Sweep

Each stop made a sweep every time it moved to a new location with all four soldiers moving in a sweepline formation, spaced apart according to the terrain. The distance between the soldiers would vary on flat open land from as great as twenty five metres to just a few meters apart in heavy vegetation. In heavy vegetation it was common for soldiers to lose sight of their comrades, leaving them alone to push through the dense bush. It was more effective to be spaced as far apart as possible.

Whether in the main sweep or in an individual stop's sweep, the same tactics would be applied. The sweepline would proceed forward with each soldier scanning line of sight ahead through the bush and undergrowth. The speed of this movement varied depending on the terrain and density of the bush, but when the troops sensed enemy ahead the sweep slowed markedly, edging forward inch by inch, rifles at ready and pointed ahead with the safety catches off. MAG gunners would bear the gun at the hip, held by a sling from their shoulders.

Usually encounters with the enemy ended quickly: while a typical Fireforce operation could last hours, each fire fight could last only seconds. In the great majority of cases, the enemy were killed outright by swift shooting. Prisoners were taken on occasion and although the Commandos were requested to take prisoners wherever possible, in a close-quarter fire fight and in thick bush, it was often difficult to determine an enemy's intentions. Prisoners were usually extremely valuable as they might reveal important intelligence to Special Branch or Selous Scouts, and captured guerrillas frequently turned to work for the Rhodesian Security Forces,<ref name="preston63">Preston 2004, p. 63</ref> sometimes, from 1978, as Security Force Auxiliaries.<ref group="n">The Shona name for the Security Force Auxiliaries was Pfumo Re Vanhu, while in Sindebele they were called Umkonto wa Bantu. Both mean "Spear of the People". The Auxiliaries were designed and formed by the Rhodesian Special Branch in early 1978 as non-political local black militias to assist the regular security forces, and though they were initially successful, by late 1979 they had been corrupted from their intended purpose. Historian Jakkie Cilliers describes them as having become "private political forces loyal to Bishop Muzorewa and the Reverend Sithole respectively," while Matthew Preston's terms are similar. By this time the majority of the auxiliary fighters were recruited by the parties controlling them and were focussing more attention on furthering their respective political causes than on local security.<ref name=preston63/><ref name="Cilliers48">Cilliers 1984, pp. 48–49</ref><ref name="petterbowyer339">Petter-Bowyer 2005, p. 339</ref><ref name="timegrimproblems">"Rhodesia: Grim Problems for the Smiler". Time (New York). 4 February 1980. Retrieved 25 September 2011. </ref><ref name="Binda293">Binda 2008, p. 293</ref><ref name="moorcraftmclaughlin59">Moorcraft & McLaughlin 2008, p. 59</ref></ref>

The Stop Position

The other main experience was for the stops to sweep to positions thought most likely to intercept a fleeing enemy, and to wait there (possibly for several hours) for contact. On many occasions nothing happened but each stop always anticipated and prepared for contact. Usually the enemy came down a stream bed or passed nearby; if there was a clear view then it was easy, once again just a few seconds shooting.

Sometimes the process was repeated in the same locality with fire being opened a bit sooner and, if the enemy were noticed behind, the stop immediately pursued them. Pursuit of the enemy often became difficult due to terrain, vegetation, climate or various other spoilers.

Air Power

A Fireforce operation without air power would be impossible to accomplish. The enemy lacked air power and effective anti-aircraft weaponry, so contacts were generally effective as long as the infantry performed correctly. The sound of the circling helicopters during the operation was intense enough to drown the sound of the infantry sweeps, so that on occasion they surprised the hiding defenders, effectively ambushing them. The terrain varied wildly from villages surrounded by open fields to dense vegetation covering rock outcrops on mountain slopes. There was generally plenty of cover.

Where the enemy fled at the sound of the "First Wave", and stops were correctly placed by the operational commander, the operations were efficiently carried out. The difficult thing was to walk up to the enemy hiding in a house or cave or behind a boulder and kill or capture him. Many a troopie clawing through obstacles found himself very suddenly right by another armed man he was supposed to kill or capture. Though the event was shocking (and often results in one or more persons being killed), it is far more efficient than firing or dropping ordnance from air and overall reduces civilian casualties. The cooperation of the Rhodesian Air Force with Army operations was exceptional. Even when patrolling, any unit of the Rhodesian Army could expect prompt G-car response in a crisis.

Other Actions

In addition to Fireforce, the four Commandos were often used as special forces in patrolling actions, mostly inside Rhodesia, but sometimes inside Zambia and Mozambique. During these operations troops were required to carry well over 100 lb (45 kg) of equipment for five to ten days on patrol. Upon their return to base for re-supply, they were often required to turnaround and patrol again in short order.

Attacks were also carried out on enemy camps within Zambia (in the case of ZIPRA) and Mozambique (against ZANLA); these attacks usually involved two or more Commandos. The Rhodesian Special Air Service, used almost exclusively for external operations, often accompanied the Rhodesian Light Infantry on these operations, as did the Selous Scouts.


Most of the Rhodesian Light Infantry's patrol operations took place in Rhodesia, though some patrols occurred in Zambia and Mozambique. Patrolling bush trips were unpopular with the troops due to the arduous nature of the duty and the comparative lack of action to Fireforce operations. A Commando could be more exhausted from a patrolling bush trip than the most intense Fireforce period, even if the unit saw more combat in the latter.

However the nature of patrolling work greatly expanded the minds of the troops. Patrols varied from travelling by day and setting up ambushes at night, to observation post work, where a position was occupied to observe the locality. Extreme precautions were made to be clandestine on these observation posts, though it was suspected that the locals were often aware of the Observation Post's presence.

Regardless the type of patrol, a night march would normally be made to the area. Conditions could make this task most difficult, especially when it was so dark that the troopies were completely blind. Scarcity of water could present an issue to the patrol. The civilians were not regarded as hostiles by the troops. There were numerous occasions when they helped each other and process of great empathy took place. If a patrol learned of enemy presence the patrol force immediately moved to engage the enemy. On occasions the patrols were ambushed. Patrols in Mozambique were considered the most hazardous, due to the violent reaction of FRELIMO (also known as FPML).<ref name=lingo/>


For more details on this topic, see Operation Dingo.

The RLI carried out external assaults on guerrilla bases in Zambia (against ZIPRA) and Mozambique (against ZANLA); there were many of these, and also one in Botswana. The larger raids combined Fireforce teams and were similarly executed, save for the greater scale of planning and logistics. There were also several raids by individual Commandos where the presence of FRELIMO units led to greater resistance. Just like in a regular Fireforce operation, the element of surprise was most important.<ref name="petterbowyer446">Petter-Bowyer 2005, pp. 440–446</ref>

Canberra and Hunter jets would bomb the target just before the Commandos arrived; and outcomes could be out of all reason, from total "lemons" to the most successful days in the Battalion's history. For example, when three Commandos of the Battalion participated in an attack on ZIPRA camps in Zambia in October 1978, there were no enemy casualties.<ref name="petterbowyer446"/>

November 1977's Operation Dingo, a joint attack by the RLI and Rhodesian SAS on ZANLA camps in Mozambique at Chimoio and Tembue, is retrospectively described by Squadron Leader P. J. H. Petter-Bowyer as an "astounding success". "Operation Dingo cost ZANLA in excess of 3,000 trained men and something in the order of 5,000 wounded, many too seriously to be of further use," he writes. "Others lost all interest in the fighting and deserted." From the Rhodesian side, six men were wounded and two were killed.<ref name="petterbowyer446"/>

The stop of four was used in these raids (though they were organised into larger entities). The plans for these raids varied from sudden and fairly simple operations (subject to change on the fly) to highly intricate. The political situation interfered on occasions and this was much resented: the troops always thought that these operations were most important.


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Equipment and Armaments

Riflemen were equipped with a 7.62×51mm NATO battle rifle, preferring the Belgian FN FAL or its variants: the British-made L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle (L1A1 SLR) and the South African R1.<ref name=founding/> The Heckler & Koch G3A3, with its origins in West Germany, was also an option. All RLI members were armed with FN FALs by 1968.<ref name=binda7880/>

The primary infantry support weapon was the 7.62×51mm belt-fed FN MAG. Soldiers also carried a variety of hand grenades including high-explosive (HE), white-phosphorus (WP), and colored smoke. To prevent accidental ignition of a grenade, the safety levers which upon release activated the fuse of the grenade, were taped down. Soldiers were issued HE and WP rifle grenades<ref name="18Jun1968_RLI">Wood, J R T (2012). "Chapter 29 June–July 1968". A Matter of Weeks Rather Than Months: Sanctions, Aborted Settlements and War 1965-1969. Bloomington, Indiana: Trafford Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4669-3409-2. Strong and Lahee [of 12 Troop, 3 Commando, 1RLI]...tossed [hand] grenades and discharged two 32Z rifle grenades </ref> as well as anti-tank grenades or rockets. Sometimes "bunker bombs" were carried. Machine-gunners and some riflemen carried sidearms.

The 7.62×51mm round fired by the FAL and the MAG had a significant range advantage compared to the 7.62×39mm round fired by the AK-47, SKS, RPD, and RPK firearms normally carried by the ZANLA and ZIPRA forces. The 7.62×51mm NATO round has been proven effective out to 800 meters, whereas the 7.62×39mm is considered less effective (out to ± 400 meters). This disparity in effectiveness, combined with the higher training standards and experiences of the RLI, would probably be a decisive factor in engagements when the RLI forces could fire upon the enemy from a distance (less dangerous return fire). Still, the RLI favoured being close to the enemy.

Issued webbing was not used much which led to a bewildering array of webbing/packs. Often the stops stayed the night at a Fireforce scene and sometimes patrolled the area the next day, other times these operations led into the night and through the following day. On direct action missions, additional ammunition was issued to all soldiers for their personal weapons as well as for squad weapons such as mortars and machine-guns. Bergens with rations (water, batteries for the squad radio, etc.) were carried on patrols.

Riflemen were required to carry a panga, which could be used to chop down bush to create a landing zone so that helicopters could extract them. Strangely, some riflemen tried not to carry this piece of equipment, while some gunners and stop commanders (also known as stick leaders and whose rank varied from Trooper to Captain) did carry them. Only the Stop Commanders carried mini-flares. These devices were about the size and shape of a large pencil, which were used to signal positions, though never at night, and were popular with the troops. The parachute harnesses were Saviac Mk1s, of U.S. manufacture. They were extremely reliable with a reserve parachute on the chest. The parachutes were overhead static line.

From 1977 onwards the RLI was forbidden to wear shorts on operations, due to the dangerous visibility of the soldiers' white legs. This rule was strictly adhered to, but a rule which required troops to wear ankle-boots when in para-stops was often broken. The number of parachute injuries on ops was insignificant, despite (or perhaps, because of) around half of landings falling into trees. Sometimes they fell onto boulders or buildings or fences or boggy ground. Fields varied from as hard as concrete to soil so dry and diffuse that it swallowed them up. Extremely fast "ground rush" was frequently experienced, due to taking place on the sides or top of great hills.

Confusingly the stops in the Dak were dropped in "sticks", supposedly noted in entries in the parachute log books held by troops — which were filled in by themselves — as other data pertinent to the jump. This resulted in the log books often being filled with false data. The port side of the Dak was much more preferable than the starboard. There were many times when exiting from G-cars was extremely dangerous due to not being able to descend close enough (because of trees, etc.). The stick then had to carefully clamber out and hold on to the side-step before jumping from a greater height, all while a mass of leaves and twigs whirled about inside the helicopter causing much more stress for the pilot and his technician. Alouettes were extremely reliable and much more capable of dropping off stops in rough terrain, although they had a tendency to sway a little as the troops jumped out, but the Bells had more carrying capacity, range and speed.

A Browning .303 Mk II machine-gun, as equipped to K-cars and G-cars on Fireforce.<ref name=Cilliers22/>

Both these vehicles were armed with twin-Browning M1919 machine-guns chambered in .303 British, which were never indiscriminately fired by the tech.<ref name=Cilliers22/> The K-car Gunners had to be careful, for there was always a shortage of 20mm rounds and there were many times when troops were only yards away from the target. K-cars with four Browning .303 machine-guns (instead of the 20mm cannon) were not popular with the troops, as they were less effective. The numbers of the enemy killed by the K-car in a scene varied from zero to all (and are included in the estimate for those killed). On some Fireforce operations Hunter jets were used, and more rarely, Vampires.

Up to the second quarter of 1979, troops were required to collect and remove all deceased persons from the scene. This rule was very strictly adhered to, even if it reduced in the short term the effectiveness of the Fireforce (due to the immense effort of it). The plight of the civilians was most profoundly realised by the troops.



Before every troop deployment, the communications network, which sometimes needed augmentation to enhance command and control if several units were in the operational area, had to be established using agile resources.

The short-range radios were reasonably light and very reliable; most importantly they were easy to use. In most cases headsets were not the first choice; a telehand was just tied to a shoulder strap. An extremely efficient form of radio speech known as "voice procedure" was used. Troopers were expected to have a high degree of self-initiative and reliance; case in point, if a stop-commander desired, the two riflemen would be detached to perform a mini-sweep or stop position of their own (and perhaps even an individual go off on his own). The introduction of the second radio in 1979 merely confirmed this practice.

When isolated from the base-camp, on distant sorties or remote observations, it was prudent for only the skilled radio operators to establish and maintain medium and/or long range communications (a life-line for evacuation, re-supply, etc.) often assisted by a fugacious relay station tactically placed in an expedient vicinity (higher ground). The use of Morse code decreased after the introduction of more reliable radios. For obvious reasons, at least one skilled radio operator had to be present (even if alone for a while) on observation posts and relay stations, as maintaining a constant connection to the base-camp and/or JOC was critical for successful outcomes.

The most important hand-signals were :—

Thumb up: friend,
Thumb down: enemy,
Palm down on head: come to me.


Commandos based at Cranborne Barracks were sent on bush trips (usually for ± six weeks duration), where they would motor off to one of the Fireforce bases — the most important being Grand Reef, Mtoko and Mount Darwin, as they covered the hectic Northern/Eastern zone of the country — or any other place from which they would carry out patrolling actions or externals. Most bush trips focused on Fireforce, though there could be a mixture; some elements could be detached for special operations, controlled by Base Group (viz. the JOC) or attached to another Unit/Commando (Slang for those on Special Operations temporarily attached to another Commando or Group was "Slop"). After such junctures they would motor back for twelve to fourteen days when, apart from taking their time to check everything that needed attention, they were set totally free for ten days R&R (military). This routine meant that all the troops could function for years on end at any desired tempo of service, notwithstanding that a degree of "burnout" in individuals was unavoidable, especially in 1979.


Each Commando had attached one trained medic, from the Rhodesian Army Medical Corps, who held the rank of full Corporal and had a much higher standard of medical training than the norm — they were able to prescribe painkillers (like Propon) and also stitch. Commando Medics were also para-trained and could be in stops just like any rifleman/gunner, depending on the casualty evacuation (cas-evac), though not officially required to be so. A great deal of training was devoted to first-aid so that all soldiers in each Commando were required to know the basics (including drips). Troop Medics had additional training but to a lesser standard than the Commando Medics, as it interfered with their main duty of being infantry men.

Enemy Armaments

No more than half of ZANLA combatants were armed with AK-47s, mostly supplied from Soviet satellite states. Around half of them had SKS carbines, all from the People's Republic of China (which also sent some Type 56s). These SKS's were semi-automatic and fired the same round as the AK-47 with a magazine of ten (the normal detachable AK-magazines held 30). Thus the AK-47s were inevitably held by the more determined members of a section. Few RLI casualties were caused by SKS fire.

Hand grenades were mostly of Communist Chinese manufacture. These were stick grenades, with a wood handle at the bottom of which was a screw cap whereupon unscrewing out fell (if holding right) a porcelain-bead with a thread attached. Pull this and in an unknown time (for these were badly stored and old weapons) it might explode. Despite this there were numerous troops wounded by this weapon. RPG-2's and RPG-7's were prevalent, sometimes one or two to a section of ten men, though hardly ever used against Fireforce (there was usually only one present and the difficulties of targeting the helicopters was extreme).

The RLI's greatest single loss in one day was due to a South African Air Force Puma being shot down by an RPG-7, wielded by a member of FRELIMO in Mozambique, during a raid. Heavier infantry weapons, like medium mortars and heavy machine-guns, were rare though encountered more frequently on external operations late in the war. So much so that these heavier weapons had a definite effect on Rhodesian policy and strategic planning.

There was only one serious attack on a Fireforce base, which occurred in December 1977, at Grand Reef (near the Mozambique border). A force of ZANLA (± 60 strong) bombarded and shot for ten minutes, then retreated (leaving one killed by a Commando mortar), with the only effect (beside the very few casualties) that they energised the Commando that was deployed there.

Training, Culture, Foreign Volunteers and Women

Personnel for the Commandos were trained (in-house) at an institution known as Training Troop (Cranborne Barracks); and besides, there were periods when more men were being trained than were serving in any single Commando. Some non-Rhodesians who met certain military criteria (war experience) were exempted from all training except for an orientation requirement. A sixteen-week course was the standard curriculum which was appended with an intensive-2-week parachute course, either at New Sarum in Salisbury or with the South African Parabats (The Pathfinders) in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Most of the Training Troop instructors were trained at the Rhodesian School of Infantry in Gwelo and were a mix of Commando veterans and national servicemen (top recruits from previous in-takes gaining leadership experience). Rhodesians were conscripted by selection to complete their national service with the RLI from 1973.<ref name="binda186188">Binda 2008, pp. 186–188</ref>

From 1977 onwards around half of the Battalion was composed of these conscripts, who in theory served less time than a regular; however, in practice, there was such a perpetually high turnover that a national serviceman could serve longer than many a regular. Under a programme introduced in late 1978 they would return for six-week call-up periods after their national service was over. The overall quality of these national servicemen was initially subjacent when compared to the more experienced regular soldiers, but over time they were able to reach the same high standard. Hence, the RLI actively encouraged conscripts to enlist as regulars (with some success); especially those with leadership or human resources management potential who had completed tertiary education, or had started a course of advanced study and intended to finish it after completing their service.<ref name="binda186188"/>

An extremely high standard of training was achieved, without bullying by the staff yet of great pressure; independent thought was encouraged. At any time, a recruit could withdraw from this training and most likely leave the Battalion for a less demanding role. Training covered standard Infantry counter-insurgency (COIN) and conventional warfare as well as the usual Commando training such as watermanship, rock-climbing, abseiling, unarmed combat, bushcraft, survival, tracking, demolitions and helicopter drills.<ref name=binda186188/>

Officers were trained at the School of Infantry. Freshly graduated Second Lieutenants had to first prove themselves in action before being given the responsibility of becoming a stick leader. When these nascent officers joined a Commando, they were normally assigned an experienced NCO as mentor and performed the role of a rifleman in a stop; in this way new officers learned lessons concerning war not taught in training.<ref name=binda186188/>

The RLI, especially 3 Commando, included numerous foreign volunteers who received the same pay and conditions of service as Rhodesian regulars.<ref name="moorcraft52">Moorcraft & McLaughlin 2008, p. 52</ref> South Africans had made up much of the ranks ever since the RLI was formed,<ref name=founding/> and a major influx of recruits from outside Africa started in the mid-1970s.<ref name=binda186188/> Many of these were career soldiers, veterans of wars in armies overseas, attracted by the Regiment's reputation.<ref name="abbott17">Abbott & Botham 1986, p. 17</ref>

Former British soldiers and Vietnam veterans from the American, Australian and New Zealand forces were prominent, but most First World countries were also represented. "The 'foreigners' soon became an integral part of the Battalion", says RLI veteran Chris Cocks, "and contributed greatly to the fighting reputation of the unit."<ref name=binda186188/> Volunteers with no military experience were motivated to enlist by various reasons, including anti-communist political views, desire for adventure or even to escape one's past.<ref name="binda126">Binda 2008, p. 126</ref>

"In many respects the RLI was a mirror of the French Foreign Legion," Cocks continues, "in that recruiters paid little heed to a man's background and asked no questions. And like the Foreign Legion, once in the ranks a man's past was irrelevant." He gives the example of Lance-Corporal Mathew Charles Lamb, a Canadian volunteer with a history of violence and insanity who became an "exemplary and popular stick leader" in the RLI, serving three years in the Rhodesian forces before being killed in action on 7 November 1976.<ref name="binda126"/>

Women first became members of the RLI in 1975, when the Rhodesia Women's Service (RWS) opened the regular Army to females. A rank structure for women was introduced in 1977. Almost all women in the Army were given clerical, intelligence or communicational (switchboard, etc.) roles, and the RLI was no exception.<ref name="abbott44">Abbott & Botham 1986, p. 44</ref> All but a few of its RWS members were assigned to Base Group; exceptions included Corporal Dawn Doughty, who served in the 1 Commando Headquarters from 1976 to 1979,<ref name="binda186">Binda 2008, p. 186</ref> and the Australian Corporal Judith Ellison, who joined the 2 Commando Headquarters in the late 1970s.<ref>"Cpl Judith Ellison". Canberra: Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 4 December 2013. </ref>

Nicknames, Mascots and Commando Insignia

The Rhodesian Light Infantry was nicknamed "The Saints" soon after it was formed, as a result of its adoption of When the Saints Go Marching In as its military step Regimental Quick March<ref name=saints22/> (at 140bpm). A second or consequential nickname, expressly "The Incredibles", came from a toast "...to the incredible Rhodesian Light Infantry" by Prime Minister Ian Smith on the regiment's seventh birthday, 1 February 1968.<ref name=rlira/><ref name=cheetah2/><ref name=cheetah21/> "The Incredibles" is also the name of the Regimental Slow March composed especially for the RLI by Major Frank Sutton.

The Regimental Mascot was the Cheetah: originally there were two particular cheetah cubs who served as mascots. Unfortunately, following their ill-fated deaths on 6 October 1963, the role became applied to the animal in general.<ref name=saints22/> However, in February 1975 a nine-month-old cheetah cub was kindly donated to the regiment by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management; this cheetah became "Trooper Saint", the RLI's permanent mascot who was trained to participate in drill-parades.<ref name="binda170">Binda 2008, p. 170</ref>

Most units in the Battalion were allocated a colour for general recognition: Red for 1 Commando ... Blue for 2 Commando ... Green for 3 Commando ... and Yellow for Support Group/ Commando. The specialised sub-units operating conspicuously out of Base Group (such as Signals Troop) used Black and the Regimental Police used White.

1 Commando

1 Commando's nickname, the "Big Red", came from a memorable incident in July 1971 subsequent to Major Dave Parker (the OC) being late for a tough early morning session of physical training (06:00 every day if possible). Parker himself despised these early parades, and would usually delay rising for as long as he possibly could. One day the men were already formed up when Parker, a physically large man, emerged from his quarters wearing a set of bright red pyjamas. "It's the Big Red One", remarked Sergeant Bruce Antonowitz, with reference to the infamous "Big Red One" — First Infantry Division of the US Army — from World War Ι and ΙΙ. The nickname was initially applied to the Major alone, but gradually evolved to refer to the entirety of the Commando. 4 Troop (a sub-unit of 1 Commando) was nicknamed "F Troop".<ref name="streak2328">Streak 1980, pp. 23–28</ref>

The emblem of 1 Commando was a numeral "1" and a cheetah contained within a large letter "C". The letters "DO" appeared in smaller type to the right, completing the abbreviation for Commando (CDO).

2 Commando

2 Commando's insignia was a double-edged dagger with cross-guard, centralised on a blue diamond and traversed by a numeral "2". "Commando" was inscribed on a ribbon banner below the diamond. Both, the dagger and the diamond, perceivably depicted the Commando's nicknames: "The Cutting Edge" and simply "The Cut" (diamond from the rough). In the same vein, "The Cut Above" was gleaned as a more popular nickname in 1976 once all the troops were para-trained airborne forces.

Taking inspiration for banter from 1 Commando's nickname (Big Red), by using IBM's customary caption (Big Blue) to purport "In Bush Mode" (I-B-M), 2 Commando regularly alluded to the mobilised troops as "Big Blue"<ref name="streak3537">Streak 1980, pp. 35–37</ref> and the troop away on R&R as "Baby Blue" — from Bringing It All Back Home ("The Saints are comin' through... It's All Over Now, Baby Blue") by Bob Dylan.

They enjoyed having animals around the base-camp, roaming free as pets, and at one time had a fan-tailed Raven called "Swarthy" or "Swar" (soldier-warrior) who just would not fly away (probably because its natural habitat was North/East Africa), and a Warthog called "Hertzog" who loved bacon and egg every morning. Swarthy was blue-black in bright sunlight and would even follow the trucks, in the sky above, if the base-camp was moved to another location.

3 Commando

3 Commando was nicknamed the "Lovers", or sometimes "The Green Machine" — the latter coming from the green jerseys its men wore in intra-regimental sporting competitions. The "Lovers" nickname emerged during the mid-1960s and had its origin in the off-duty reputation of its soldiers, who were reportedly very popular amongst the young women of Salisbury. This reputation also contributed to the design chosen for the Commando emblem and flag in 1968, during Operation Cauldron.<ref name="streak3941">Streak 1980, pp. 39–41</ref>

The Commando's "Lovers" wanted to use a phallus (erection) as their symbol, to demonstrate cockiness as they had not yet seen action on Operation Cauldron. Captain Spike Powell and Lieutenant Chris Pearce suggested that a more suitable emblem (other than anything military) might be a banana. Whether serious or not, the banana was duly adopted and the Commando's insignia became a banana, partially obscured by a numeral "3", with the word "Lovers" (in quotation marks) above and "Commando" inscribed on a ribbon banner below — all on a green shield. The emblem endured for the rest of the RLI's history.<ref name="streak3941"/>

Flags were adopted by each 3 Commando troop during the same operation: 11 Troop followed a similar vein to the Commando itself in its adoption of the nickname "Legs Eleven", and a flag depicting a pair of female legs on a green background. When, around the same time, 12 Troop became the first unit in the Rhodesian Army to recover one of the hammer and sickle flags used by ZIPRA, its men began to use the "Russian flag" (as they called it) as their own.<ref name="streak3941"/>

An unsuccessful bombing run by the Rhodesian Air Force during Operation Cauldron, which nearly wiped out the men of 13 Troop rather than the insurgents they were fighting, motivated 13 Troop's depiction of a large bomb as its emblem. The most orthodox flag of the Commando was perhaps that of 14 Troop, which around the late 1960s became known for returning to Salisbury from operations with kudu horns prominently mounted on its vehicles. Its emblem therefore became a kudu head, and its nickname "the Poachers". All of these flags and nicknames remained in use until the RLI was disbanded.<ref name="streak3941"/>

Support Commando

Support Commando's emblem was a black eagle on a yellow background with wings spread wide — similar to the coat of arms of Germany — as it held a bomb in each of its talons. "Support Commando" was inscribed on a ribbon banner above the eagle, and the full name of the regiment appeared beneath it. In January 1976, Colonel T. M. Davidson presented the Commando with a Wahlberg's eagle to use as its mascot. This eagle was never named, and was lost by Captain Pete Farndell in April 1976, at Grand Reef near Umtali. Having lost the eagle, Farndell was ordered to replace it and in August 1976 he acquired an African hawk-eagle chick from near Gwelo, which became the Commando's new mascot named "Henry Hawk-Eagle". Henry remained Support Commando's mascot until October 1979, when he was released unawares and escaped from the company of his accustomed keeper, Lance-Corporal André Macdonald, and flew away.<ref name="streak4347">Streak 1980, pp. 43–47</ref>

Support Commando was nicknamed the "Heavies", due to the extra ordnance (also Henry's Heavies from 1976), but sometimes called "The Elite".

Signals Troop

Simply called the "Communicators".


The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association maintains a Roll of Honour which lists 85 men killed in action from March 1968 to December 1979. A further 15 are listed as having died on operations from September 1961 to December 1979. Another 34 are listed as deceased from other causes, from 1961 to December 1979.<ref>"Roll of Honour". The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association. Retrieved 25 September 2011. </ref>

Of the 85 killed in action, 66 occurred in the last four years of the war, thirty-one in 1979 alone. These figures mirror fairly accurately the ratio of combat the Battalion was in. The number of wounded is not known. It is known that in one of the Commandos there were more than 50 wounded in action in a two-year period where it had 21 killed in action. There were of course many other casualties, from accidents and illness/disease, or bad landings on jumps.

These figures are very low for a battalion that was involved in so much combat, though it must be remembered that the Commandos were both smaller than the companies of the average strength infantry battalion of modern warfare and fighting with modern weapons and tactics against a relatively untrained, though well equipped, foe.

United States Army Lt-Col Dave Grossman wrote:

Rhodesia's army during the 1970s was one of the best trained in the world, going up against a very poorly trained but well-equipped insurgent force. The security forces in Rhodesia maintained an overall kill ratio of about eight-to-one in their favour throughout the guerrilla war. And the highly trained Rhodesian Light Infantry achieved kill ratios ranging from 35-to-one to 50-to-one. The Rhodesians achieved this in an environment where they did not have close air and artillery support ... nor did they have any significant advantage over their Soviet-supported opponents. The only thing they had going for them was their superior training, and the advantage this gave them added up to nothing less than total tactical superiority.


The Trooper, the RLI's regimental statue, on the grounds of Hatfield House in England in 2014

The 1st Battalion, Rhodesian Light Infantry, was a special forces light infantry unit highly capable of performing any task ordered, no matter the means of transport (whether crossing the Zambezi river in little boats, walking long miles with huge weights, or riding high in G-cars and Daks), no matter what type of operation. Supposing the enemy was always at a disadvantage, with no air support and very limited means of communication, the soldiers always continued to seek them — even when left without conveyance. The men liked to walk close to the enemy, believing it to be the most efficient way of finding them, and dealing with them. In the words of Alexandre Binda, the RLI "...earned for itself an enviable reputation as one of the world's foremost anti-terrorist forces."<ref name=founding/>

Following the creation and independence of the Republic of Zimbabwe (April 1980), the ultimate military parade of the RLI, for the ceremonial laying-up of its regimental colours, took place at Cranborne Barracks on 17 October 1980. The unit's last commanding officer, J. C. W. Aust, recalled being "amazed" by the large crowd of allegiant spectators surrounding the parade square, including the former government minister P. K. van der Byl who attended unannounced. A Rhodesian Air Force Alouette III helicopter unexpectedly arrived overhead, during the final ceremony, in Aust's words "circling in a moving salute and farewell". Two weeks later, the Rhodesian Light Infantry was disbanded forever on 31 October 1980.<ref name=lastparade/>

A nucleus of RLI officers and other personnel (instructors) became involved in training and helping to form the First Zimbabwe Commando Battalion of the Zimbabwe National Army.<ref name=lastparade/> The regimental statue, "The Trooper" (or "The Troopie"),<ref name="troopie286">Binda 2008, p. 286</ref><ref name="cheetah38">Streak 1980, p. 38</ref> left Zimbabwe on 28 July 1980 on a South African Air Force C-130 Hercules, together with documents/records, trophies and other paraphernalia.<ref name=cheetah21/> By arrangement, everything was put into storage at the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg ... and thereafter moved to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, England.<ref name=lastparade/> The Trooper statue now stands on the grounds of Hatfield House, country seat of the Marquess of Salisbury, where it was re-dedicated on 28 September 2008.<ref name="troopie">Dempster, George. "Troopie Rededication". The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association. Retrieved 25 September 2011. </ref>

Notes and References

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External links

Template:Rhodesian Security Forces of the Bush War