Rhodesian Light Infantry

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1st Battalion, The Rhodesian Light Infantry
Emblem of the Rhodesian Light Infantry. The absence of the Queen's crown indicates that this is post-1970 pattern.
Active 1 February 1961[1] – 31 October 1980[2]
Country Rhodesia[n 1]
Allegiance  United Kingdom (1961–65)[n 2]
 Rhodesia (1965–70)
 Republic of Rhodesia (1970–79)
 Zimbabwe Rhodesia (1979)
 United Kingdom (1979–80)[n 2]
 Zimbabwe (1980)
Branch Rhodesian Army flag late 1970s.png Regular Army
Type Infantry
Role Commando
Size Battalion
Part of 2 Brigade
Headquarters Cranborne Barracks, Salisbury[10]
Nickname(s) The Saints[11][12]
The Incredibles[12][13]
Motto Various; none official[n 3]
Colours Green and white         
March Quick: When the Saints Go Marching In[11][16]
Slow: The Incredibles[n 4]
Mascot Cheetah[11]
Anniversaries 1 February 1961[n 5]
11 November 1965[n 6]
Engagements Rhodesian Bush War
Decorations Freedom of the City of Salisbury
25 July 1975[17]
Disbanded 31 October 1980[2]
First CO Lt-Col J. S. Salt[n 7]
Final CO Lt-Col J. C. W. Aust[n 8]
Lt-Col G. P. Walls[n 9]

The 1st Battalion, The Rhodesian Light Infantry, commonly the Rhodesian Light Infantry (1RLI or 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. A year after its creation it 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.

After Rhodesia's[n 1] 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 the 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 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 an airborne parachute battalion in 1977. The RLI served under the short-lived government of Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979, the interim British government that followed and briefly in Zimbabwe before it 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."[22] Alexandre Binda writes that the RLI "earned for itself an enviable reputation as one of the world's foremost anti-terrorist forces,"[1] while Major Charles D. Melson, chief historian of the United States Marine Corps, calls it "The Killing Machine".[12]



The Battalion was organised into four company-sized units called Commandos, each made up of about 100 men; the average fighting strength of a Commando was about 70 men. These were named One, Two, Three, and Support Commando; prior to 1977 Support Commando had been called Support Group. In theory each Commando had five troops, however in practice only four troops were activated. Each Troop was divided into two twelve man patrols. Battalion Headquarters was called Base Group (the former Headquarter Company).[23][24]

Support Commando[edit]

Support Commando had a Headquarters and four troops: Mortar, Assault Pioneer, Reconnaissance, and Anti-Tank ... to provide the Battalion with supporting fire and specialized resources in both conventional warfare and counter insurgency operations. During most counter-insurgency operations Support Commando filled the same role as the other RLI commandos.

The Mortar Troop was equipped with 81mm mortars and consisted of its headquarters section and three purposeful sections (two mortars per section). The Assault Pioneer Troop provided the Battalion with combat engineering capabilities through its headquarters section and three purposeful sections. The Anti-Tank Troop was equipped with 106mm recoilless rifles and consisted of a headquarters section and three purposeful sections (two anti-tank weapons per section, each mounted on a modified Rodef 2.5).

Signals Troop was originally part of the Support Group, but their services were recognized as essential to every commando; so the troop headquarters section was moved to Base Group/JOC (Joint Operations Command), and specialist operators were attached to and deployed with each commando (1, 2, 3 and Support) as required.


The rank order was as follows (in descending order):

Officer ranks
  • Major (Officer Commanding)
  • Captain
  • First Lieutenant
  • Second Lieutenant
Enlisted ranks
  • Commando Sergeant Major (Warrant Officer Class Two)
  • Colour Sergeant
  • Sergeant
  • Corporal
  • Lance Corporal
  • Trooper (around two-thirds)

Sometimes the Commando's Officer Commanding was a Captain. The ranks above of Colour Sergeant were addressed as "Sir" by the subordinate ranks. Officers would refer to the CSM as "Sergeant Major". All ranks tended to be called "troopies" by the Rhodesian media.[13]


A map. See description
A map showing operational areas of the Rhodesian Security Forces during the Bush War.[25][26]

The RLI was at the forefront of the Rhodesian Bush War, a 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 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.


Main article: Fireforce

The RLI's characteristic deployment was the Fireforce reaction operation, first created at Mount Darwin and Centenary in June 1974.[27] This was an operational assault or response composed of, usually, a first wave of 32 soldiers 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 type of military operation.[27]

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 commander of the operation, usually the officer commanding of the Commando. This helicopter was called the K-car[n 10] with a crew of three consisting of pilot, gunner, and the commander.[27] The helicopters used in the operations were typically Alouette Mk IIIs, though in 1979 a few Bell UH-1s were used.

The other three helicopters, known as G-cars,[n 11] were armed with machine-guns (originally one FN MAG replaced with twin Browning .303 machine-guns each) and carried four soldiers – a section leader, two riflemen, and a machine-gunner – along with the pilot and his technician (called a "tech") who also operated its machine-guns. This carrying capacity of the G-car dictated the combat organisation of the Commando, which was called a "Stop". Stop-1 was assigned to the first G-car, Stop-2 to the second, 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.

Each stop had four soldiers called a "stick".[n 12] One was the commander, with a radio, a FN FAL, and 100 rounds (7.62 × 51 mm NATO). One was the machine-gunner, with a FN MAG machine-gun and carrying 400 rounds. The other two were riflemen with a FN and 100 rounds, grenades, rifle grenades and medical equipment. During 1979 one of these riflemen was issued a radio. The Dakota carried five stops with two on the port side, three on the starboard. Apart from the parachutes the equipment was identical to the heli-stops. The gunner had to jump with his machine-gun strapped to his side.

These eight stops, or 32 men total, were designated the "First Wave". Each Fireforce had responsibility for huge swathes of the country of many thousands of square miles. Typically there were only three main Fireforces. Any sightings of the enemy within the Fire Force zone was reported and a siren sounded in the base. The First Wave troops rushed to their helicopters after donning their webbing and packs. The Paratroopers went to the tent where their equipment and parachutes were stored and the dispatchers and 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, Paratroopers, Landtail, and Off-duty throughout the Bush Trip. The Landtail was often an important factor in refueling of helicopters and recovering of deceased enemy and civilian persons, parachutes, and enemy weapons and equipment. Sometimes there was a small third wave if numbers permitted. Quite often only the First Wave was engaged in the action. In general, most soldiers preferred to be in the Heliborne First Wave.

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

The enemy's advance warning of the approaching helicopters and his reaction were decisive factors in the coming engagement. Wind direction and speed, the presence of a tree covered ridge line or a multitude of other factors could make the difference between life or death. Where the enemy was caught in unfavourable terrain such as a village surrounded by open ground, normally no one escaped unless it was near nightfall. Although the number of operational parachute jumps was remarkable, the majority of troops were carried into action by helicopter.

Tactics of Fireforce operations[edit]

The following paragraphs are for the standard Fireforce 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 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 operational 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 operational commanders'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 soldiers. However heliborne stops generally saw the most action.

The sweep[edit]

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 soldier 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 were utilised. 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, a 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,[29] sometimes, from 1978, as Security Force Auxiliaries.[n 13]

The stop position[edit]

The other main experience was for an individual stop to sweep to a position thought most likely to intercept a fleeing enemy, and stay there for up to several hours. More often than not nothing happened but on many occasions one or more of the enemy came down the (usual) stream bed, or 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 spot, with fire being opened a bit earlier. Sometimes the enemy were seen behind in which case the stop immediately pursued. Often pursuit of the enemy became difficult due to terrain, vegetation, and climate.

Air power[edit]

A Fireforce operation without air power would be impossible to accomplish: as the enemy lacked air power and effective anti-aircraft weaponry, Fireforce operations 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 operations[edit]

In addition to the Fireforce, the four Commandos were very often used 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 to resupply, they were often required to return to 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.

Patrol operations[edit]

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 of 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 occasion patrols were ambushed. Patrols in Mozambique were considered the most hazardous, due to the violent reaction of FRELIMO (also known as FPML).[28]


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 and 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.[35]

Canberra and Hunter jets would bomb the target just before the Commandos arrived. The outcome varied wildly 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.[35]

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.[35]

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.

Technical notes[edit]

Battle rifles of the Rhodesian Light Infantry
A black FN FAL battle rifle with a wooden stock
An FN FAL battle rifle with bayonet fixed
A black FN FAL battle rifle lain on a grey background, pointing to the viewer's left
A British-made L1A1 SLR

Equipment and armaments[edit]

Riflemen were equipped with a 7.62x51 NATO battle rifle, preferring the Belgian FN FAL or its variants, the British-made L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle (L1A1 SLR) or the South African R1.[1] The Heckler & Koch G3A3, with its origins in West Germany, was also used on occasion. All RLI members were armed with FN FALs by 1968.[24]

The primary infantry support weapon was the 7.62x51 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 as well as anti-tank grenades or rockets. Sometimes "bunker bombs" were carried. Machine-gunners and some rifleman carried sidearms.

The 7.62x51 fired by the FAL and the MAG had a significant range advantage compared to the 7.62x39 round fired by the AK-47, SKS, RPD, and RPK firearms normally carried by the ZANLA and ZIPRA forces. The 7.62x51 NATO round is generally considered effective out to 800 meters whereas the 7.62x39 is normally considered effective out to only 400 meters. This disparity in effective range combined with the high training standards and experience in the RLI often proved to be a decisive factor in engagements, allowing RLI forces to effectively fire upon the enemy with little danger of return fire.

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. On patrols a bergen was carried, with rations, water, batteries for the squad radio, et cetera.

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. 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 concrete but hard 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 an entry in the parachute log book held by troops which was filled in by themselves, as other data pertinent to the jump. This resulted in the log books filled often with false data. The port side of the Dak was much more preferable than the starboard. There were many times when the exiting from G-cars was dangerous, due (for example) to the helicopters unable to descend close enough because of trees and troops had to clamber out and hold on to the steps and drop from too great a height, with mass leaves and twigs whirling about the inside of the machine and great stress of pilot and tech. The Alouettes were much more capable of dropping off stops in rough terrain than the Bells, though they had less carrying capacity and range and speed. The Alouettes were extremely reliable (they had a tendency to sway a little as the troops jumped).

A Browning .303 Mk II machine-gun, as equipped to K-cars and G-cars on Fireforce.[27]

Both these vehicles were armed with twin-Browning M1919 machine-guns chambered in .303 British, which were never indiscriminately fired by the tech.[27] 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 realized by the troops.


Radios were reasonably light and reliable. Most importantly they were easy to use. Headsets weren't used normally just a telehand 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. For example, 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.

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 from four to six weeks duration, where they would motor off to either the Fireforce bases (Grand Reef, Mtoko and Mount Darwin the most important, covering the North-Eastern zone of the country), or any other place from which to carry out patrolling actions or externals. Most bush trips were Fireforce, though there could be mixture (also, elements could be detached to operate alone or attached to another Commando). After such period they would motor back for around twelve days "R & R", when apart from a time of sorting out they were set totally free. This routine meant that the troops could operate for years on end at any desired tempo of operations, though a degree of "burn-out" in individuals could not be avoided, especially in 1979.


Each Commando had attached one trained medic, from the Rhodesian Army Medical Corps. These 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. These persons were parachute-trained and usually were in stops just like any Trooper, though not officially required to be so. A great deal of training was devoted to first-aid so that all were required to know the basics (including drips). Troop medics were trained to a lesser standard than Commando medics, which interfered with their main duty of being an infantryman.

Enemy armaments[edit]

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 (normal AK-magazines, which are detachable, 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 shot down by a RPG-7 wielded by a FRELIMO member, in a raid into Mozambique. Heavy infantry weapons like medium mortars and heavy machine-guns were rare, though encountered more frequently in external ops late in the war, so much that these had a definite effect on Rhodesian policy.

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 (about 60 strong) bombarded and shot for ten minutes, then retired (one killed by the 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[edit]

The Commandos trained at Cranborne Barracks at an institution known as Training Troop. At times there were periods when more men were in training than were serving in any single Commando. Some non-Rhodesians that met a certain military criteria were exempted from this training entirely. A sixteen week course was the standard curriculum which was appended with a two-week parachute course, either at New Sarum in Salisbury or with the South African Parabats 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, conscripted Rhodesians first introduced to the RLI in 1973.[36]

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 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 low compared to the more experienced regular soldiers, but over time many were able to reach the same standard. The RLI actively encouraged conscripts who had completed tertiary education, or had plans to do so, to enlist as regulars, with some success.[36]

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. Training covered standard Infantry counter-insurgency (COIN) and conventional warfare as well as Commando training such as watermanship, rock-climbing, abseiling, unarmed combat, bushcraft, survival, tracking, demolitions and helicopter drills.[36]

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.[36]

The RLI, especially 3 Commando, included numerous foreign volunteers who received the same pay and conditions of service as Rhodesian regulars.[37] South Africans had made up much of the ranks ever since the RLI was formed,[1] and a major influx of recruits from outside Africa started in the mid-1970s.[36] Many of these were career soldiers, veterans of armies overseas, attracted by the Regiment's reputation.[38]

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."[36] 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.[39]

"In many respects the RLI was a mirror of the French Foreign Legion," Cocks continues, "in that recruiters paid little heed as to a man's past 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.[39]

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 roles, and the RLI was no exception;[40] all but a few of its RWS members were assigned to Base Group. Exceptions included Corporal Dawn Doughty, who served in 1 Commando from 1976 to 1979,[41] and the Australian Corporal Judith Ellison, who joined 2 Commando in the late 1970s.[42]

Nicknames, mascots and Commando insignia[edit]

The Rhodesian Light Infantry acquired the nickname "the Saints" soon after it was formed, as a result of its adoption of When the Saints Go Marching In as its regimental quick march.[11] A second nickname, "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.[12][13][15]

The Battalion's mascot was the cheetah: originally there were two particular cheetah cubs who served as mascots, but following their death on 6 October 1963 the role became applied to the animal in general.[11] In February 1975, a nine-month-old cheetah cub was donated to the regiment by the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management. This cheetah became "Trooper Saint", the RLI's permanent mascot.[43]

1 Commando

1 Commando's nickname, the "Big Red", originally came from an incident in July 1971, when its officer commanding, Major Dave Parker, ordered a daily session of physical training at 06:00 every morning. Parker himself despised these parades, and would delay rising each day 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 "The Big Red One" from World War II. The nickname was initially applied to Parker himself, but gradually evolved to refer to the entirety of 1 Commando. The emblem of 1 Commando was a numeral "1" and a cheetah contained within a large letter "C". The letters "DO" appeared in far smaller type to the right, completing the abbreviation for Commando, "CDO". 4 Troop, 1 Commando was nicknamed "F Troop".[44]

2 Commando

2 Commando's insignia was a service dagger drawn on a blue diamond, defaced with the number "2". Both the dagger, and the diamond, depicted the commando's nicknames: "The Cutting Edge" and "The Cut Above" (once airborne). Also, taking inspiration from 1 Commando's "Big Red" nickname, 2 Commando was sometimes known as "Big Blue".[45]

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.[46]

The Commando's "Lovers" wanted to use an erection as their symbol, 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. The banana was adopted, and the Commando's insignia became a numeral "3", emblazoned on a banana, with the word "Lovers" above and the designation "Commando" beneath, all on a green shield. This emblem endured for the rest of the RLI's history.[46]

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.[46]

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.[46]

Support Commando

Support Commando's emblem was a black eagle, similar to that used on the coat of arms of Germany, on a yellow background, with a bomb held in each of its talons. "Support Commando" appeared on a scroll above the eagle, and the name of the regiment appeared underneath 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: in August 1976 he acquired an African hawk-eagle chick from near Gwelo, which became the Commando's new mascot, named "Henry". Henry remained Support Commando's mascot until October 1979, when he escaped the company of his keeper, Lance-Corporal Andre Macdonald, and flew away.[47]


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 died on operations from September 1961 to December 1979. Another 34 are listed as deceased from other causes, from 1961 to December 1979.[48]

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. Major Charles D. Melson, chief historian of the United States Marine Corps, calls the Rhodesian Light Infantry "The Killing Machine",[12] while United States Army Lt-Col Dave Grossman writes:

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 air and artillery support, nor did they have a 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, The Rhodesian Light Infantry, was a highly capable infantry unit 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. Though the enemy was always at a disadvantage in having no radios or air support, the stops always continued in seeking them out even when left without transport. The troops walked close to the enemy; they believed that this was the most efficient way of dealing with him. In the words of Alexandre Binda, the RLI "earned for itself an enviable reputation as one of the world's foremost anti-terrorist forces."[1]

Following the creation and independence of the Republic of Zimbabwe in April 1980, the final parade of the RLI and the ceremonial laying-up of its colours took place at Cranborne Barracks on 17 October 1980. The commanding officer, J. C. W. Aust, recalled being "amazed" by the large crowd of 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 also unexpectedly arrived overhead during the ceremony, in Aust's words, "circling in a moving salute and farewell". Two weeks later, the Rhodesian Light Infantry was disbanded on 31 October 1980.[2]

A nucleus of former RLI personnel remained to train and form the First Zimbabwe Commando Battalion of the Zimbabwe National Army.[2] The regimental statue, "The Trooper" (or "The Troopie"),[49][50] left Zimbabwe on 28 July 1980 on a South African Air Force C-130 Hercules, along with various Regiment records, trophies and other paraphernalia.[15] The collection was placed in the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg, and later moved to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, England.[2] 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.[51]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b 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.[3] The government issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence as Rhodesia and used that name until becoming Zimbabwe Rhodesia on 1 June 1979.[4] When the country came under interim British control on 12 December 1979 it was Southern Rhodesia.[5] The name Zimbabwe was adopted in April 1980.[6]
  2. ^ a b  United Kingdom (1961–65; 1979–80)
  3. ^ The RLI had no official motto. Commonly used, but unofficial, mottoes were coined during its existence; perhaps the most well-known, "They have the faces of boys but they fight like lions", was created by Platoon Warrant Officer Herod of the Rhodesian African Rifles on 18 March 1968, and put forward as a possible motto by Captain Ronald Reid-Daly on 4 November 1969. "The Incredible Rhodesian Light Infantry", originally a toast to the regiment by Prime Minister Ian Smith on its seventh birthday, 1 February 1968, is an alternative, having given the RLI one of its nicknames, "The Incredibles". Finally, the words of Lieutenant-General Peter Walls on the 14th Regimental Day, 1 February 1975, are sometimes used; "Thank God for the Rhodesian Light Infantry". The Latin motto since adopted by The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association, Pugnamus Amo Leo, translates into English as "To Fight Like Lions".[14][15]
  4. ^ The Regiment's slow march was an original tune composed by Captain F. Sutton of the Rhodesian Corps of Signals Band for the presentation of the RLI colours on 19 June 1965. It was titled The Rhodesian Light Infantry, but following Ian Smith's toast to "The Incredible Rhodesian Light Infantry" on 1 February 1968, it was renamed The Incredibles at Sutton's request.[15][16]
  5. ^ Regimental Day, celebrating the anniversary of the RLI's formation on 1 February 1961[15]
  6. ^ Triangular Night, commemorating the anniversary of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965[15]
  7. ^ Lt-Col John Stevenson Salt commanded the RLI from its formation on 1 February 1961 to 28 April 1963.[18]
  8. ^ Lt-Col John Charles Wyatt Aust commanded the RLI from 4 December 1979 to its disbanding on 31 October 1980.[18]
  9. ^ Lt-Col George Peter Walls commanded the RLI from 1 December 1964 to 19 June 1967,[18] when he became Commander of 2 Brigade, of which the Regiment was a part. He was appointed Commander of the Rhodesian Army in 1972 and in 1977 became Commander of Combined Operations, which made him the highest-ranking military figure in the country.[19][20][21]
  10. ^ The term "K-car" originated as an abbreviation of "killer car".[27][28]
  11. ^ The word "G-car" comes from "gunship".[28]
  12. ^ From a "stick" of paratroopers[28]
  13. ^ 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.[29][30][31][32][33][34]
  1. ^ a b c d e f Binda 2008, p. 20
  2. ^ a b c d e Binda 2008, pp. 473–474
  3. ^ Palley 1966, pp. 742–743
  4. ^ Smith 1997, p. 305
  5. ^ a b "Rhodesia reverts to British rule". London: BBC. 11 December 1979. Retrieved 26 September 2011. 
  6. ^ Wessels 2010, p. 273
  7. ^ a b Wood 2005, p. 189
  8. ^ Smith 1997, pp. 103–104
  9. ^ Smith 1997, p. 326
  10. ^ Binda 2008, p. 36
  11. ^ a b c d e Binda 2008, p. 22
  12. ^ a b c d e "The home of the RLIRA". The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  13. ^ a b c Streak 1980, p. 2
  14. ^ "Motto". The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f Streak 1980, p. 21
  16. ^ a b "Marches". The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  17. ^ Binda 2008, p. 149
  18. ^ a b c Binda 2008, p. 488
  19. ^ Binda 2008, p. 493
  20. ^ Abbott & Botham 1986, p. 11
  21. ^ Wood 2005, p. 244
  22. ^ a b Grossman 1996, pp. 178–179, 258
  23. ^ Binda 2008, p. 46
  24. ^ a b Binda 2008, pp. 78–80
  25. ^ Abbott & Botham 1986, p. 7
  26. ^ Cilliers 1984, p. 29
  27. ^ a b c d e f Cilliers 1984, p. 22
  28. ^ a b c d Binda 2008, pp. 483–486
  29. ^ a b Preston 2004, p. 63
  30. ^ Cilliers 1984, pp. 48–49
  31. ^ Petter-Bowyer 2005, p. 339
  32. ^ "Rhodesia: Grim Problems for the Smiler". Time (New York). 4 February 1980. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  33. ^ Binda 2008, p. 293
  34. ^ Moorcraft & McLaughlin 2008, p. 59
  35. ^ a b c Petter-Bowyer 2005, pp. 440–446
  36. ^ a b c d e f Binda 2008, pp. 186–188
  37. ^ Moorcraft & McLaughlin 2008, p. 52
  38. ^ Abbott & Botham 1986, p. 17
  39. ^ a b Binda 2008, p. 126
  40. ^ Abbott & Botham 1986, p. 44
  41. ^ Binda 2008, p. 186
  42. ^ "Cpl Judith Ellison". Canberra: Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 4 December 2013. 
  43. ^ Binda 2008, p. 170
  44. ^ Streak 1980, pp. 23–28
  45. ^ Streak 1980, pp. 35–37
  46. ^ a b c d Streak 1980, pp. 39–41
  47. ^ Streak 1980, pp. 43–47
  48. ^ "Roll of Honour". The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 
  49. ^ Binda 2008, p. 286
  50. ^ Streak 1980, p. 38
  51. ^ Dempster, George. "Troopie Rededication". The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association. Retrieved 25 September 2011. 

External links[edit]