I have made a commitment to start writing articles on compelling people and events on the lesser known wars and warriors. My articles should be free to read. I hope you will enjoy this and upcoming articles and books.
Graham Gilmore has given us a very well packaged history of the short lived but highly trained and effective unit in the SADF. The Unit is Legendary among Southern African Wars due to its unique formation and composition. Some of the very top soldiers to ever live, Col.Breytenbach, CSM Peter McAleese, CSM Dennis Croukamp and others concieved, trained and deployed a unique experimental unit to fulfill the need for a specialized troop to recce and coordinate airborne drops of troops. Their selection process in the Drakensburg mountains was as tough as the SAS, SEAL’s, Delta, etc.
One of the most interesting factors of this study is the relationship it had to Rhodesia’s foreign troops from Europe, the UK, Canda, Australia/New Zealand and the US. After the Bush War in Rhodesia was lost through the UK and the US installing Mugabe, the men of Rhodesia’s special forces were disbanded and treated as fugitives. South Africa capitalized on the experienced men and leadership by forming the Pathfinders and funneling others to units in the SADF. However, many traditional Afrikanner staff officers were shocked by the operational methods and discipline of Rhodesia’s soldiers. The foreigners greatly disappointed the rigid culture of officers in the SADF. Col. Breytenbach realized the potential for the unit as he did with the Recce’s and other units.He himself was a Leader. Colonels don’t usually demand they be the vanguard of a unit in the bush seeking contact with the Terrs. Yet this is the type of unit the Pathfinders of Phillistines were.
Like American units in WW2 or Vietnam such as the Marine Corps Raiders, or the LRRP’s, they appeared, shook up traditional doctrine and eventually the bureaucracy won and cut their nose of to spite their face. Yet the stories of the men are stuff of legend and a very unknown unit now is able to be studied from a person who had been there, done that. I highly recommend this book to any person who is interested in Special Operations, whether it be in Africa or Afghanistan. 6 stars . Dan Tharp author of Africa Lost: Rhodesia’s COIN Killing Machine, Task Force Intrepid: The Gold of Katanga- Bravo!
I would like to let readers know that I have released an interview with Michael Watson a former member of the Greys Scouts, a horseback light infantry unit in the Rhodesian Bush War. It is not a very well known unit but deserves attention by military historians. Thank you to Mr. Watson and the best of luck with his future endeavors on writing his compilation and hopefully, we can get some more info up on SOFREP.com about specific dust ups and ops.
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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.
I am reposting the three part article I wrote for http://www.sofrep.com a couple of months ago. They are the finest website by far regarding Special Operations and related topics. Thanks to Jack Murphy and Brandon Webb for allowing me to contribute to their site.
BTW, I will soon be releasing a series on the history of the Rhodesian SAS, C Squadron during the Bush War.
Fire Force: Rhodesia’s COIN Killing Machine
The helicopter has become an iconic image of war. It changed the way soldiers were able to deploy on the battlefield, dramatically reduced the mortality rate of wounded soldiers and delivers hell fire and brimstone to the enemy. To most Americans, the Bell UH-1 Huey in Vietnam was synonymous with the war itself. To the soldier in the field it was a ride in and a lifeline out.
The American military first saw its utility in the Korean War as an airborne ambulance and cargo carrier. The technology for an offensive weapon did not yet exist. However, the British were putting the new aircraft to good use for counter insurgency missions by the SAS and SBS in the Malayan Emergency that was fought between 1948 and 1960. Special troops were infiltrated and ex-filtrated deep into the jungle, bypassing traditional methods of troop movement with great effectiveness.
The platforms for offensive capabilities began to emerge and platforms such as the Huey and Cobra gunships came to prominence on the battlefield. They have continued to improve and are integral to the missions carried out today. It is a tool that our enemies fear.
With the start of the Cold War, the United States trained its military to fight against the Soviet Union in set piece fashion. The Korean War was fought against a uniformed and recognized foe. Vietnam threw a wrench into the status quo, yet the veterans and policy makers who had lived through and fought World War Two tried to apply traditional methods and tactics at a guerilla army.
Late in 1965, when the first air-mobile teams fought in the Ia Drang valley against regular NVA formations, they did well. It was a morale booster for the Pentagon and the public that we could insert troops via chopper onto the doorstep of the enemy and defeat them. History then tells us about the failure of the powers that be to further adapt methods to fight against a guerilla army. Colonel David Hackworth recognized this early in the Vietnam War and wrote the famous ‘Vietnam Primer’. He believed that with superior tactics and mobility we could learn to fight the VC and win by, in his words-, ‘Out G-ing the G’.
Perhaps the most innovative use of the helicopter and Special Forces in Vietnam was the Mobile Strike Force and the lesser known Eagle Flight, a heliborne tactic to find, fix and kill the Viet Cong.
The Eagle Flight typically consisted of 11 helicopters, six carrying paratroops and the others acting as gunships. Soldiers were set down in strategic positions to cordon off groups of insurgents, either closing with them on foot or being blasted from above. Due to the terrain of Vietnam, it was often difficult to find the ideal kill zone.
While the Hot Spot for the Cold War was winding down in Vietnam, the African Continent was waging its own war against Communism. The power vacuum left by the decolonization of several nations allowed Soviet-bloc and Chinese backed revolutionaries to set up power and fight their way into power.
A small, independent country stood alone and against the world and the Communist tide. Battered by sanctions and abandoned over politics with the U.S. and Great Britain, the nation of Rhodesia was enduring attacks and infiltrations of its sovereign borders. Communist Terrorists were harboring in Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana and making incursions into Rhodesia, killing farmers, destroying livestock, crops and creating a panic amongst the native tribes and the general population.
Backed by the Chinese and Russians, Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA and Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA forces, intended on ‘retaking’ Rhodesia from the Ian Smith government and ‘restoring’ proper ownership to the envisioned nation of Zimbabwe. Early CIA records show that the Johnson Administration recognized that this ‘Freedom Movement’ was clearly an attempt to expand Communism. Great Britain resented the declaration of independence of Rhodesia in 1965 and was not interested in helping the wayward nation in retaining it freedom. Ronald Reagan addressed Rhodesia in a 1976 radio broadcast, recognizing their fight against Communism.
The Rhodesians were on their own to preserve the land that they had cultivated into the literal Breadbasket of Africa. From the early sixties onward, they were faced with a ruthless insurgency. Though they offered troops in World War Two and the Malayan Emergency to their former patron, Britain, their own standing Army was very small and their main defense force was the British South African Police and Reservists.
It has been stated that even at the height of the insurgency, the Rhodesian Light Infantry never had more than one thousand fighting men on the ground in action at any given time. With thousands of miles of borders to protect, the aim of the Army was to meet problems with solutions that worked rather than adhere to Classical doctrine for the sake of doctrine. Several soldiers that had served with the British SAS during the Malayan Emergency understood the nature of this type of warfare and were able to help put together an Army suited to the task. This drive to protect the only place they called home produced concepts and soldiers that are still studied today to learn lessons that can help our current struggle against Insurgents world-wide.
With the 1964 murder of the farm family of Petrus Oberholtzer by ZANU terrorists, the Rhodesian Bush War began in earnest. Political dissidents were imprisoned and an attempt to maintain the safety of the nation went full steam ahead. Along with reactivation of the Special Air Service in the early 60’s, more and more men were recruited to join the Army. Rhodesia needed fighting men and solutions to effectively stop a numerically superior force.