Constituted in 1961, the Rhodesian Light Infantry was the backbone of the Rhodesian Security Forces. Unlike America’s overflowing man power and resources with the ability to specialize, Rhodesian soldiers had to fill the roles of everything from Leg infantry to Special Operations capable forces. The SAS and the Selous Scouts were formed to hit the enemy where it hurt and use pre-emptive force to stop insurgents from making their way to the borders. These Special Forces operated mainly on ‘Externals’ into the surrounding countries to kill and destroy the bases from which insurgents were launched. As the fighting intensified, the RLI would join in those External operations with astounding success.
With so few men and limited air power, the RLI turned itself into a powerhouse of Light Infantrymen. 1 RLI Battalion consisted of 3 Commando groups along with a Support Commando group. The TO&E of each Commando called for 100 men. The average muster at any given time was around 70. The Commando was divided into 5 Troops consisting of 12 man patrols. These patrols consisted of three, 4 man sticks. The Support Commando was trained in Mortars, Engineering and Anti-Tank Warfare. In the field, they often acted as a regular Commando.
As the tempo of the war increased, so did the need for manpower. A worldwide recruiting campaign ensued. Sympathetic media such as the new Soldier of Fortune Magazine focused stories on the nation’s plight and openly wrote about the need for volunteers and how they could join the Army. The drawdown in Vietnam left a large swathe of experienced combat veterans without a war to fight. Amongst many Americans, there was a bitter taste in their mouths, having walked away from a 20 year effort to fight Communism in Vietnam. It is estimated that around 300 Americans volunteered to serve in Rhodesia.
Unlike a Forsyth mercenary novel, anyone who came to Rhodesia was required to join the regular ranks of the Army and receive the same pay as a native born citizen. They swore an oath to fight for the nation. It was hardly profitable. Both seasoned soldiers and civilian alike came from nations including, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France and several others to fight Communism. Unfortunately, not everyone who showed up came with a clean slate or the right motives. As much as possible, impostors and trouble makers were sent packing and their passport stamped PI. Prohibited Immigrant.
Many of the Americans and Australians that enlisted were Special Forces trained. True Cold Warriors. Many served with distinction in the RLI, SAS and the Selous Scouts. With them came the recent experiences of Vietnam. Though the Rhodesians themselves were tremendous innovators in Counter Insurgency, all experience was welcomed and molded into the Rhodesian way of war.
The tactic of the Communist Terrorists, who became known as ‘Gooks’ by the early 1970’s, was to infiltrate in packs of various sizes. The RLI set up outposts along the borders, yet it was impossible to block every entry point. Mobility was key. The Rhodesian Air Force expanded the RLI’s capabilities.
Maintaining an Air Force is extremely expensive. Each aircraft was meticulously maintained and stretched far beyond its recommended life span. It became obvious that Air Power would have to be integral to its overall defense plan. In 1962 Rhodesia took into its inventory two jet aircraft types mainly for the support of its ground forces.
The DH100 Vampire was commissioned late in World War Two and did not see action in that war. By the end of the 1950’s, it had turned primarily into a trainer for RAF pilots. The Rhodesians had the distinction of being the nation who would retire it 1979. The British Hawker Hunter was the second jet aircraft taken on as an air to surface asset. Due to their irreplaceable status, the primary aircraft used on Fire Force missions was the Cesna push pull engined Lynx. It was outfitted with twin Browning Machine Guns along with various munitions including napalm.
Much like the A-1 Skyraider in Vietnam, these aircraft were outdated in terms of the technology available but were still useful in a counter insurgency role to deliver anti-personnel ordnance. The most needed aircraft for the RLI to effectively protect its borders was the helicopter.
For airborne operations as well as transport several Dakota DC-3’s were bought to service the SAS and later the RLI. They would greatly boost the number of boots on the ground during operations.
The MK-III Alouette helicopter became synonymous with the RLI’s Fire Force operations over the course of the Bush War. The Alouette came into the Rhodesians inventory prior to 1965 in a limited supply. More were covertly purchased and by the 1970’s the South African Air Force bolstered No. 7 Squadron with up to 27 extra helicopters.
Many early Air-Ground missions nearly ended up in Blue on Blue accidents. Small patrols would respond to farm attacks composed of BSAP officers and RLI soldiers available then initiate a follow up to track the attackers down. Like most nations during wartime, experience and repetition spawned development and refinement of operations. The Army and Air Force were in a process of learning the most efficient method of Vertical Envelopment against the ‘Gooks’, given the terrain and limitations of their tools of war.
The first formal Fire Force duties were carried out in 1974. The war intensified in North Eastern Rhodesia in 1972 with many attacks on white farms. So often and varied, they needed a quick reaction force that would allow sufficient amounts of troops to Find, Fix and Finish the Terrorists. Trials were initiated to test and evaluate Fire Force doctrines.
Parachute training would have to be expanded to the RLI as there were not enough helicopters to ferry troops into battle. The Alouette carried Four Troopers (the Stick). Unlike the Americans who had Leg Infantry, Paratroopers and Airborne Rangers, the RLI trooper would undertake all of these roles. By qualifying in Air Assault and Parachute training, the delivery methods were enhanced dramatically.
The Trooper was designed for speed and mobility. Instead of being weighed down with heavy body armor and heavy packs, they often wore shorts (up until 1977) and sneakers. The light infantry part was taken seriously. The idea of standard issue webbing was thrown by the wayside and a dizzying array of designs were found. Each trooper outfitted himself as he saw fit.
Their battle rifle was the Belgian made FN FAL. Weighing in at 10-13 pounds, it was rugged and common in Africa at the time. The preferred bullet was NATO 7.62×51 with an effective range out to 800 meters. Twice the range of the 7.62×39 used by the opposition, it gave the well trained Rhodesian marksmen a distinct advantage. Issued 100 rounds, bullets were used sparingly, like everything else the sanctioned country needed and running dry without results would end up in disciplinary action. Conscious of their rate of fire, often the bottom two rounds were tracers to remind the engaged soldier of the impending reload. For this reason, they usually operated the rifle on Semi-Automatic except for the MAG gunner.
Rhodesian soldiers were constantly exercising their immediate reaction drills while in garrison. Fire courses were set up in thickly vegetated areas. The ‘Jungle Shoot’ comprised a walk down paths that were lined with hidden targets concealed by the natural surroundings. This honed their ability to make instant and accurate shots in a realistic manner.
The Cover shoot was a concept that allowed sticks to avoid the ‘spray and pray’ and conserve their ammunition with maximal results. It taught them to identify and shoot at likely locations of the enemy. They would view the area from which the fire came and pick the locations of cover. For instance, most men shoot right handed. For cover behind a tree, the enemy would be located on the right hand side. In turn, a RLI soldier would double tap that area which he viewed on the left. Anything that looked like a concealed position was shot. With the odds and reach of the RLI soldier, he outgunned his opponent.
The 4 man stick was a self-contained fire team. The two men armed with their FN FAL’s were complemented by the Machine Gunner who carried the FN MAG with 400 rounds of 7.62×51. Fire discipline for the gunner was strict as well. The fourth man was the Stick Leader. He was an NCO that carried a VHF radio, 100 rounds for his FN FAL and a variety of grenades. Whether by parachute or helicopter, they entered the fray in this formation. Needless to say, the RLI troopers often carried any number of combinations of grenades, handguns and knives. Less attention was paid to ‘standardization’ than to effectiveness.
Reconnaissance was key for successful Fire Force Operations. For this, the Selous Scouts were the leading source of sightings and initial battle plans. The Scouts operated in a variety of roles from direct action missions, active recon or sitting on top of a mountain awaiting Insurgents to appear along known infiltration routes. However the intel was received, swift reaction was the order of the day.
When the ‘Call Out’ came across the loud speaker, the Commando would move into action. Everything the soldier or pilot needed would be queued up and ready to go. Depending on the rotation, the soldiers would assemble in tents with their webbing and weapons prepared and ready. After a brief FRAGO (if they were lucky; often battle plans were made enroute to the location) they would move to their aircraft.