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Book Review: Africa’s Commandos

Brant Guillory, 28 August 2013

A new collection of memoirs and first-hand accounts of the actions throughout the distinguished history of the Rhodesian Light Infantry makes for a compelling read and memorable look into the first-hand accounts of Africa’s bush wars of the 60s and 70s.

We took off en masse, ten G-Cars carrying the 2Cdo troops; ten K-Cars; two
command helicopters and ten G-Cars carrying the Support Commando troops detailed
to man the forward admin base and ferry in fuel and supplies to the target
area.

The flight provided us with some impressive and memorable visuals.
All 32 helicopters were flying in single file through the majestic Penhalonga
Mountains, some of the most magnificent terrain in the world. The troops gazed
in awe at the spectacle as they leaned out of the Alouettes and looked around.

Two or three Canberras thundered low over us en route to their targets.
For a few minutes there was the amazing sight of the command helicopters and the
ten K-Cars peeling off in front of us to position over their allocated targets;
the six paradaks dropping the 3Cdo and the SAS paratroopers; and the Hunters
diving in on their targets. The air was thick with dust and smoke and the
streaks of SNEB rocket trails.

And the tales of Op Dingo – the Rhodesian raid on an ZANLA camp inside Mozambique – put the reader front and center in the battle.  These are not analyses of secondary sources with discussions of geo-political implications.  These are the memories of the men on the ground, at the sharp end of the spear, pulling triggers and “culling floppies.”  This isn’t the news conference soundbite; this is the scene in Blackhawk Down when the choppers are taking off and the trucks are rolling out and Stevie Ray Vaughn’s cover of Voodoo Chile is providing the soundtrack.

As you read the book and pore over the memoirs, however, you realize that although the raid on Chimoio was an abberation in its size and distance from the RLI’s bases inside Rhodesia, the action wasn’t.  These men were a battle-hardened brotherhood who had chased “terrs” (slang for “terrorists”, the ZANLA and ZIPRA guerilla forces) across their entire country, protecting the population from invaders whose semi-safe bases outside of Rhodesia’s borders gave them a geographic and demographic edge.  The RLI didn’t care.  They found a way to succeed in every battle they faced, and along the way became perhaps the most successful counter-guerilla force in history.

The book is divided in small, bite-sized memoirs of the former members of the regiment.  Each author is introduced with a small photo and a short bio, including their lives after Rhodesia morphed into Zimbabwe.  While most of the men were natives of the area (which underwent several political upheavals before Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence) there are also memoirs of Canadians, Brits, and an American who later served in the US Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.  The memoirs focus on the training, operations, firefights, and off-duty escapades of ouens of the RLI.  They are all told as first-person narratives, with conversations and quotes recalled with astonishing detail; authors recalling the same incidents relate almost identical statements from the time.

Africa’s Commandos follows the history of the RLI from its early formation as a border patrol force, posted along the Congo border, through the split between Rhodesia and Zambia, to the UDI and subsequent guerilla war, and up to the agreement the effectively ended the existence of Rhodesia and brought about today’s Zimbabwe.  The early stories along the Congo can be a bit more challenging to follow, if only because the political separations and boundaries are rather obscure historical oddities (The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland existed for only a few short years).  Once the book shifts to the section on “The War Years” however, the accounts of actions on the ground are stunning in their detail and description.

Included are memoirs from soldiers who made over 50 operational parachute jumps.  Say that again – over 50 jumps into combat.  The US and Soviet airborne doctrine uses parachute delivery of forces for strategic and operational envelopment.  The Rhodies jumped into combat as a tactical envelopment.  Moreover, the US rarely jump below 1200 feet; the RLI habitually jumped at 500 feet, so they could get into combat quicker.  The RLI pioneered the idea of the ‘vertical envelopment’ using helicopters at the low-tactical level.  They were delivering ‘sticks’ of 4 men using Alouette helicopters, and then supporting them from overhead with K-Cars (Allouettes with side-mounted automatic cannons) loitering with intent in circular orbits over the battlefield.  These Fire Force tactics resulted in tremendous tactical advantages as the Rhodesians were able to rapidly respond to reports of enemy activity, swarm to the area with distributed fire teams, control the action though the use of close air support and overhead C2, and close with and destroy enemy contacts with superior firepower and tactics.

And this book is the first-hand narrative of all of those developments.  You get the stories of how the RLI first developed their parachute tactics, and the officer who hated flying becoming the officer with the most operational jumps in history (not Rhodesian history, mind you; any history).  You get to trace the doctrinal development of the K-Car’s loitering orbit as told by the guys in the K-Cars developing their tactics based on what’s working on the ground as they fight through their contacts.  And you get the remarkable stories of raids like Op Dingo, told through 4-5 different narratives and supported with some nice color plates that illustrate the operational situation and give a true appreciation of how daunting these challenges were.

“Simon”, he said to Major Haarhoff, “could you handle an elderly Bols brandy drinker as your radio man?”
“Affirmative, Sir”, replied Haarhoff, “my pleasure!”
“Right then”, he said, and then using the troopie vernacular, “let’s go and cull some floppies ek sê!” (translation: “let’s go and kill  some gooks, I say!”)
And so it was that Lt-Col Peter Rich, at the age of 50, slipped off his epaulettes and joined his men from 2Cdo as a frontline troopie for the day.

And those are the stories of the RLI that you won’t – that you can’t – get anywhere else. And you’ll want to read every one of them.
The book is available through Amazon, and although it’s a bit pricey (around $50) much of the proceeds go to the RLI association that is looking after the former members of the regiment

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