BOOK REVIEW FOR
THE AUSTRALIAN DEFENCE FORCE JOURNAL
Reviewed by Major D.A. Wilson, RAInf (Nov/Dec1988)
Fireforce is the story of Chris Cocks' service in 3-Commando, Rhodesian Light Infantry from 1976 to 1979 during the final phases of the Rhodesian bush war. Initially a reluctant draftee for 12 months National Service, Cocks later signed on for three years as a regular. Fireforce is an account of Cocks' progress from naive youth to professional soldier, written in a very personal, if irreverent style.
Cocks describes his absorption into the RLI with his other National Service companions as a bewildering process due to the seemingly mindless regimentation instilled by the unit's NCOs. Among his companions in the RLI were volunteers from Britain, South Africa, Brazil, Portugal, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, making it the closest parallel to the French Foreign Legion in modern times. Anyone who has undergone basic training of any sort will sympathise with his reactions to this indoctrination. Many readers may be offended by both the language and the grim barrack-room humour throughout the book, but it accurately portrays the realities of life from a soldier's point of view.
Despite problems caused by flat feet, Cocks completes his basic training and a six-week course in conventional warfare, but the recruits cannot understand what this training has to do with fighting guerrillas in the bush. Its purpose was to instil a sense of aggression in the new troops; at the same time, comradeship begins to emerge - a factor which will become so important later in combat. Finally, they are trained in counter-insurgency operations, which is the reality of the bush war they are about to face. Cocks acknowledges here that snap-shooting was practised so often that it became second nature - and later saved many RLI lives.
Cocks' adventures and misadventures in 3-Commando are followed in operational sequence. From his first fear-filled combat mission, his parachute training, promotion to stick leader and even his 28 days DB for an accidental discharge with a pistol, Cocks shows he is a keen observer of himself and his fellow man. The wry troopers' sense of humour is always to the fore, even in the worst situations. However, there is no attempt to glorify the brutality of war and Cocks records the sights and reactions to guerrilla warfare in a most convincing manner.
On an even more personal level, the author has included extracts from letters to his fiancee at the end of some chapters. They describe the boredom of daily military duties and the frustrations of unsuccessful operational call-outs. This too is an accurate record of feelings and observations of men involved in the fight for a nation's survival. It is a much softer approach than the general barrack-room theme, but is no less an important insight into a young man's emotional and professional development.
Another dimension to Fireforce concerns the techniques of low-level operations practised by the Rhodesian Security Forces and the RLI in particular. Faced with increasing worldwide sanctions, limited manpower and military resources, the Rhodesians were forced to adopt unusual methods to deal with communist-backed guerrilla insurgents. Fireforce was a combat technique designed to rapidly deploy lightly-armed troops to sites of guerrilla activity by helicopter or parachute. In the RLI, normal battalion organisation was changed to meet this role: companies became commandos, platoons became troops and sections consisted of two four-man sticks, each with a MAG 58 machinegun. Commandos were dispersed into operational areas, usually based around an airfield for quick deployment on call-out tasks such as blocks, sweeps, cordon and search or surveillance. The scarcity of combat troops and aircraft meant that some Fireforce units were called out up to three times a day for parachute or heli-borne insertions, causing incredible strain on both man and machine. Fireforce is the compelling story of one man's experiences in the setting of a small nation, fighting with few resources against growing odds and world apathy. The lessons of low- level operations should not be lost on the ADF. Fireforce is hard to put down - read it soon.
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Reviewed by Robert Pritchard in The S.A. Financial Mail (6 May 1988)
In 1977 Jan Morris, perhaps the most percipient and sensitive of all travel writers, visited the besieged state of Rhodesia, a country moving into the final, bloody years of its bush war. One of her more acute observations on this "bizarre historical footnote", was the changing mental attitudes of the young soldiers at the forefront of the conflict.
"Nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hanged in the morning, and my guess is that few white Rhodesian soldiers out there in the bush are whole-hog white supremacists any more. A new awareness has come out of the struggle, and a new dignity too: for most of these young soldiers, grinning at one so cheerfully from the backs of their bouncing trucks, or huddled watchfully over the weapons in their border pits, really do believe they are fighting in an honourable cause - to create a country fit for heroes, perhaps, even if most of them will have to be black."
Ten years later, as the conflict is fading increasingly rapidly from memory, one of those boys on the back of the truck has written his memoirs of the war years. Chris Cocks began his national service in 1976 with The Rhodesian Light Infantry. This was the natural fate of all white Rhodesian schoolboys, most of whom had little recollection of the fateful day when Ian Smith declared his independence in 1965, maybe only a dim memory of the radio broadcast that informed them of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence that was to form the country of their young adulthood.
The narrative is raw, no editor has restrained or refined this dialogue as it pours out of Cocks' memory. It gives the book a veracity so complete that it will transport anybody involved in the ordeal back across the years with the force of a body blow. No detail has been forgotten from the very first day of military service until its end four years later.
The first shots were fired in 1972 and the bush war smouldered on with increasing savagery for eight years until a return to British control and formal independence in 1980. The business of war becomes increasingly degrading as it progresses and this one was no exception. Cocks describes the waves of guerrilla incursions into the country and the small, underequipped army - dedicated and professional though it may have been - that had to face them. It is impossible not to feel sympathetic towards this army of young soldiers fighting a war against an almost infinite army. As the saying went at the time, they were winning all the battles but losing the war.
Historically the book is valuable as a document of a single experience. So little record has been kept, and it is with a sense of relief that Rhodesia does at last have its own version of Michael Herr's Vietnam experience, Dispatches.
Thankfully Cocks grinds no axes, and the motives and behaviour of both sides are briefly commented upon. He was a soldier before all else, and so it is a soldier's tale, of comradeship in the face of gunfire, the hideous loss of brothers in arms, and the hardship of this very uncomfortable war. It is all written without sparing a thought for civilian sensitivities. Some of the incidents remembered provide gruesome reading, even for a book on warfare.
The civilian population of white Salisbury - a city described as "on the whole the pleasantest city in southern Africa" - rested secure and strangely unconnected to the events raging a short distance from them. But they did know their sons were attempting to defend the country they had created, "one of the most comfortable societies on earth, and only a saint or a madman would want to abandon it," as Morris aptly observed.
A sense of regret is what really lingers, that the whole nightmare had to happen at all. The list of names of the boys killed, or scarred physically and mentally is moving beyond mere words. And yes, I am sure, Chris Cocks, that many people "out there" still care a great deal.
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THE REAL FEEL
Reviewed by Dr. Paul Moorcraft for S.A. Review of Books (February/March 1989)
Bullets versus ballots, reform versus revolution. Ah, the standard clichés of the massed army of rearguard writers on southern Africa. Few writers ever get close to real ballots, let alone real live bullets. Military events have often shaped southern African history, but most analysis is cerebral and hands-off.
One of the modern classics of war, The Face of Battle, by historian John Keegan, despite its brilliance, lacks the immediacy of being in a battle. An experienced warrior, from the British SAS, mentioned after reading the book that it did not portray, for example, the smell of conflict: the cordite, the stench of decaying bodies and, above all, the sense of fear. Very few books, written from any sides of the many wars in the region, capture the real feeling of what war is like. No amount of piety or righteous indignation fired off from the UN or Bloomsbury or even Lusaka can compensate for a well-written, first-hand account of the "struggles" and the white racist counter-insurgencies to contain them.
Few men of action can write well. The
exceptions, though, such as T.E. Lawrence, have contributed greatly to
the study of war. An African example is Deneys Reitz's Commando:
A Boer Journal of the Boer War, first published in 1935. A book
in that classic mould, but this time about the Rhodesian war, and entitled
Fireforce, has recently been published. Like Reitz's work,
Fireforce, by first-time author Chris Cocks, is a personal
account of frequent, close-quarter warfare. As one starts the book, the
reader may be tempted to think, "Oh, no, not another gung-ho story of how
the tough, good guys lost because the world betrayed them." It's not. It
is a unique, compelling, sometimes brutal account of a young conscript's
three years of service in the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry during the
height of the bush war (1976-9). Cocks was an 18-year-old white Rhodesian
when he was called up for 18 months. He had wanted to go to university
in England, but that had to wait, he was told by the authorities. His family
had been opposed to Ian Smith and he planned to avoid his national service
by making his way out of Africa via Mozambique. He had attended a multi-racial
school, where he had made many black friends, he says. Cocks notes:
".. in my youthful mind I appreciated vaguely that something had to be radically wrong with the policies of the Rhodesian Front. Yet, I still went and fought for the green and white flag of Rhodesia ... and I certainly was no patriot. I still cannot understand it .... even to this day."
He was persuaded by his family to give up the idea of going into exile. Instead, he joined the tough 3-Commando of the RLI, as an ordinary trooper since the army decided he was not officer material. Originally the RLI had been an all- volunteer unit comprised largely of white Rhodesians and South Africans. By 1976 the tempo of the war had forced the RLI to take conscripts as well as a veritable legion of foreign adventurers, rogues and anti-Communist idealists.
Much of Cocks' time was taken up by "fireforce" duties. The RLI was one of the main reaction forces to hunt and kill nationalist guerrillas. The object was to land as many troops as quickly as possible on the ground, using initially French Alouette helicopters (later larger ex-Israeli Bell choppers) and also aged Dakotas for dropping paratroopers. (One of the Daks had actually flown at Arnhem in 1944.) Each fireforce had a K-Car (Killer-Car) gunship, an Alouette with a 20mm cannon, which usually carried the operational commander. G-Cars, ferrying ground troops to and from the contact area, supported the K-Car. Often a Cessna "Lynx" would initiate the attack, using rockets and napalm, and then the K-Car would direct the ground troops to ambush the escaping survivors. Heavy resistance would bring out Hawker Hunter fighter-bombers and Canberra bombers. Fireforce, which relied upon good intelligence, mainly from trackers and observation points, accounted for 12,000 guerrillas killed. In hard military terms, the fireforce concept was an operational development which has attracted much detailed attention in army staff colleges throughout the world. But the Rhodesian obsession with body-counts made them blind, like the Americans in Vietnam, to the political requirements of combating and even comprehending the nature of the protracted people's war fought by the insurgents. Hearts and minds do, after all, live in bodies.
Cocks saw a lot of fireforce action. In blunt terms he describes the first kill he witnessed. He writes that a corporal "spotted what looked to me like a bundle of rags beneath a bush. In an instant his rifle was at his shoulder and he fired three shots. The bundle grunted and rolled over, a Communist AK rifle clattering to the side. I was astonished ... so that was a guerrilla. The bundle had seemed so inoffensive. I studied the body curiously. Still-smouldering napalm had bored ugly holes into the flesh, which gave off a sickly sweet smell. The skull had been shattered by a bullet and brains were oozing through the scalp in a riot of blood and plasma. The mouth was fixed in a grimace of death while the eyes stared upwards as if in a trance. So this was death. It was gruesome. It was messy. I suddenly wondered if RLI soldiers looked the same when they were killed ... I soon learned the practice of immediately shooting at anything suspicious regardless of whether it was obviously dead or not. If in doubt, shoot ... that was the way you stayed alive."
Clearly, the book is not for the oversensitive, but it does describe what war is really like. It is messy and dirty.
The details are there for the military specialist, but it is also an anti-war tract for the layman. And it is more: the sociologist's eye, the novelist's ear for down-to-earth dialogue and the unpretentious, sometimes amusing, narrative add up to a surprising tour de force. The style is very simple; initially it appears almost simplistic. At the end of the book, however, like Bunyan's Pilgrim, you have travelled a long way. This might seem like excessive praise, but, in this writer's opinion, after many years of researching on and working in African war zones, Cocks' work is one of the very few books which adequately describe the horrors of war in Africa. Vietnam seemed to have grabbed the stylists.
Like Bunyan's Christian, Cocks' load gets heavier. Towards the end of 1978, he confides:
One of the American Vietnam vets brought a "Doors" tape to the barrack-room and the melancholy, almost death-laden voice of Jim Morrison saddened my already numb and exhausted mind. We lost track of the kill rate as the days wore on. None of us really cared any more. Did scores matter anyway? The enemy had an inexhaustible supply of replacements, no matter how many we killed. As the war escalated in 1979, the Rhodesian security forces advanced towards the heart of darkness. Cocks' friends are killed or badly wounded. They continue the grotesque tradition of looting the corpses of dead insurgents, despite their officers' disapproval. Cocks hears about an RLI machine-gunner who shot an African child he had enticed with a sweet. Cocks explains that atrocities were never encouraged, and that he worried about repeating a My Lai when civilians were caught in crossfire. He describes the psychopaths and the weirdos, such as a soldier who went to war in a tall black top hat adorned with a yellow AA badge. (As the war intensified the army tightened up on combat dress.) There are the booby-trapped radios and guerrilla uniforms treated with contact poisons. Cocks and his men didn't disapprove of the dirty tricks. "After all, if it was effective it saved us the job of going out to kill them and maybe getting killed ourselves in the process." There are landmines and raids into Zambia and Mozambique. By this time few prisoners were taken. After a fire fight, the now promoted Corporal Cocks gives the order to finish off a wounded guerrilla.
"A year ago we might have saved him, but not in 1979. We didn't want guerrilla prisoners who might only get a gaol sentence, or even be reprieved and integrated into the army as a reformed ally. Execution in the field, we rationalised, saved the troops extra work ... to say nothing of taxpayers' money ... The officers still insisted that Special Branch badly needed captures for information purposes, but the intelligence we got in the field was always out of date and second-grade anyway ... so what did it matter. Besides that a whole chopper would have been taken up to casevac (casualty evacuate) him, which meant a stick (patrol) would have had to stay out overnight." Besides life or death issues, more mundane matters intrude: letters home to his fiancee, and the obsession that all front-line soldiers have with food and with the soldiers who never leave the safety of their barracks, "jam-stealers" in Rhodesian parlance.
When Cocks leaves the RLI in January 1979, the guerrilla onslaught is swamping the security forces. Cocks describes how on occasions cooks, clerks and bottlewashers were pulled into the front line. As he walks out of the barracks, the burden falls from his shoulders: "I felt the weight of fifty years lifting. Perhaps it was because I was still only twenty-one."
Cocks asks himself what was it all for. "I do not believe I had any bloodlust. It was a just a big adventure which slowly began to turn sour only when I discovered that upwards of forty thousand people had been killed in the conflict."
Cocks was initially a reluctant conscript. Yet he volunteered to stay on as a regular soldier to complete three years of very active duty. Most soldiers fight well because of peer group pressure - solidarity with a small unit or larger regiment, not God, Queen or country. Cocks was no exception: it was the camaraderie of the highly professional RLI 3-Commando which motivated him to volunteer, and to fight, sometimes three times a day, in fireforce actions.
Cocks' minor masterpiece explains why people fight. Cocks risked his life for his mates. Not for Ian Smith. A small minority of whites refused to fight. Some slipped off quietly to colleges or exile in Britain and a few publicly registered as pacifists. In most wars the bravest of men are usually found in the ranks of either front-line combat troops or conscientious objectors.
Paul Moorcraft is a renowned writer and film maker specializing in military affairs.
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