A gripping, semi-autobiographical account of the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry during the last years of white rule, by a man who served in the ranks of its One Commando.
Vastly outnumbered, Rhodesia's security forces held at bay tens of thousands of communist-trained, armed insurgents who poured into the country from neighbouring black African states. Rhodesia's war took a long time to arrive.But, arrive it did and after only eight short years, its swift savagery accounted for an estimated 40,000 lives. History revisionists have ensured that Rhodesia's fight against communist terrorism has been labelled an "anti-colonialist struggle" with strident apartheid overtones. The publication of "One Commando" is the culmination of unsuccessful efforts over five years to have the book accepted by publishing houses. In their opinion, there is no longer any interest in Rhodesia, or the events of that era. Dick Gledhill's semi-autobiographical novel is one of the few accounts of a momentous period in contemporary African history that dares to differ.
He speaks from experience... for he was there.
Background to conflict
After 1945, following the debilitation of two closely fought world wars, successive British governments followed a Foreign Office agenda to "divest the realm of its colonies" garnered during the Victorian era, despite any contrary wishes the peoples of her lands might have. From the early 50s, the British set in train a program of colonial divestment which, nearly half a century later, still affects the African continent, ironically, in many places to the detriment of the British themselves who are forced, against their will, to act as facilitator in various conflicts - military or otherwise.
Kenya, Tanzania, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Malawi and Southern Rhodesia(Zimbabwe) were those colonies earmarked for majority rule. Majority rule meant government by the black majority, irrespective of the almost total lack of experience, at any level, of its indigenous people in commerce,industry or government.
Undaunted, Britain, by 1964, had all but carried out its promise of decolonisation in Africa. One thorn remained in her side - Rhodesia. Under steadfast opposition from its quarter of a million strong white population, many of whom were born in the country, Rhodesia, led by its new Prime Minister,Ian Smith, refused to concede to black majority rule, and, on November 11th,1965, declared itself independent of Britain.
That Rhodesia had been a self-governing colony since 1923 was ignored by the British who insisted on a transition to black rule, irrespective of the rule of law they themselves continued to administer under Governorship from the United Kingdom.
In the face of this "rebellion", the British called for, and succeeded in winning, the imposition of UN-endorsed sanctions against the"white minority regime".
In the face of sanctions, Rhodesia became a model of self-sufficiency;its farming, industrial and manufacturing output the envy of almost all first-world economies. However, faced with a total ban on military aid and purchases, its army and air force were left vulnerable, though at this stage there was little to concern the authorities.
However, by the late 60s, dissident blacks, encouraged by the British and recruited by Russia and China, were being coerced into the ANC, later renamed the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), and were sent to Peking and Moscow for training by marxists keen to foment rebellion in strategically-important southern Africa.
After a four-year lull in low-level and mostly ineffective guerilla activity,1972 marked the commencement of terrorism which quickly escalated into full-scale bloodshed.
Armed and trained in modern guerilla warfare, the black insurgents ofthe
communist-backed ZANLA and ZIPRA factions began to infiltrate Rhodesia
in increasing numbers, initially hitting soft, civilian targets before
moving to a classically-Maoist "hearts and minds" campaign that saw their
position consolidated in rural, peasant areas.
The war begins in earnest
By 1974, Rhodesian security forces were called upon to perform seemingly impossible tasks on a daily basis.
Ageing helicopter gunships and vintage bombers were used long after supposedly serviceable use; 17-year-old boys, fresh from school were used as frontline paratroops - sometimes jumping into contact with the enemy three times in one day; and the country's elite special forces, the Selous Scouts, "C"Squadron of the Special Air Service (Rhodesia) Regiment, and the four Commandos of the Rhodesian Light Infantry, were deployed on cross-border raids where they often took on terrorist groups containing up to 20 times their number.
It is probably for its "Fire Force" operations that the Rhodesian Light Infantry is best remembered. Fire Force, or "the use of helicopters as gunships and troop transports to envelop insurgent groups vertically and eliminate them", was a highly successful strategy which accounted for perhaps 50% of the 20,000 terrorists estimated to have been killed during the war.
Usually, three, four or five Alouette transport helicopters, known as G-cars, each carrying a four-man RLI "stick", were deployed to the confirmed sighting of a terrorist group - often established from a nearby OP (Observation Point) manned by a Selous Scouts callsign.
Controlled by the Commando's OC in an orbiting K-car - a helicopter mounted with a 20mm Hispano cannon - the enemy were brought to contact on the ground by the RLI "Stop" groups, and from the air by the G-cars and K-cars.
Confirmed sightings of large terrorist groups meant that up to six RLI sticks would be deployed by a Dakota aircraft by static line parachute - from as low as 300 feet - allowing scant seconds for 'chutes to open. Amazingly, the injury rate for these extremely low-level drops remained at under one per cent for the duration of the war. There is no doubt that casualties from ground fire would have been far greater had theRLI deployed at the normal operating height of around 800 feet.
In 1976, with the war costing more than one million dollars a day, and every able-bodied white and coloured male between 17 and 60 on semi, or continuous military service, the government authorised Combined Operations to strike at ZANLA and ZIPRA terrorist camps in Mozambique and Zambia - an action they had hitherto been reticent to sanction.
It was on these "externals" that the Selous Scouts, SAS, and the RLI secured their acclaim as probably the best special force units in history. Tens of thousands of communist terrorists, plus Mozambican and Zambian regular soldiers, and an unknown number of Cuban and Russian "advisers",were eliminated.
The Rhodesians lost a few dozen men and, crucially importantly at the
time, several irreplaceable aircraft.
The end of Rhodesia
However effective these raids were, at the end of the decade, the Rhodesian government believed that the military effort was doing little more than stemming the tide, and so a political solution was sought.
A ceasefire in December, 1979, brokered by Britain and the US, led to all-party elections in March, 1980. Subsequent evidence proved that ZANLA'shead, Robert Mugabe, who still leads Zimbabwe, owed his emphatic victory at the election to his experienced fighters, who, despite the presence of UN "peacekeepers", remained in the bush prior to the vote to intimidate rural peasants into voting "the right way".
After Independence, however, the new Zimbabwe Army Commander, Rex Nhongo,put a spin on the final war years.
Nhongo was a part of the ceasefire commission and told a fellow member that ZANLA would have been hard-pressed to get through the next dry season because the Rhodesian forces had cut his lines of communication and, by taking the war into Mozambique, had so upset his FRELIMO hosts that they would abandon him.
The Rhodesian Fire Force, he said, comprising mostly Commando units
ofthe Rhodesian Light Infantry, was killing his leaders and trained men
at a faster rate than he could replace them.
About the author
Dick Gledhill was born in Kenya in 1951 and lived in Nairobi, where his father was a lawyer during the Mau Mau uprising. He finished his schooling in the UK before working as a commercial diver off the English coast and travelling to Australia, where he joined the army and was posted to the Second Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment.
After serving for three years he joined the Queensland Fire Service as a regular firefighter, and took up recreational skydiving.
In the mid-1970s he returned to Africa, enlisting as a trooper in One Commando, The Rhodesian Light Infantry. He saw action on Fire Force operations inside Rhodesia and on external raids during the bush war.
Gledhill later transferred to the Rhodesian Air Force where, as a sergeant at the Parachute Training School in Salisbury, he instructed Rhodesia's paratroops.
He left Zimbabwe after Independence in 1980 and returned to Australia,where he resumed his firefighting career - a job he still enjoys.
He has more than 2000 parachute jumps to his credit.
by Lieutenant-Colonel R.F. Reid-Daly, CLM DMM MBE. First Regimental
Sergeant Major; Officer Commanding Support Commando, The Rhodesian Light
Infantry,and the Commanding Officer of the Selous Scouts Regiment
As a founder member of the Rhodesian Light Infantry, it gives me great pleasure in writing a foreword to this book. The RLI, as it was generally known, was an all-white professional soldier unit and was formed in February,1961. I was chosen to be its first Regimental Sergeant Major.
Forming a new regiment is no easy task, and, to add to the very considerable teething pains we experienced, we had to endure the taunts and jibes of the older regiments of the Rhodesia and Nyasaland Federal Army - all of whom were black - but white officered.
I can remember entering the Warrant Officer's and Sergeant's Mess at the end of a particularly bad day where everything that could possibly go wrong had done just that. Rhodesia had never had white professional soldiers before and the citizens of Bulawayo were shocked to encounter these well-trained, but highly aggressive soldiers, in the various places of entertainment around the city.
This was a time of peace in Central Africa, and the absence of an enemy to fight meant that the civilian population, and the police in particular received the brunt of the RLI's aggression. Indeed, the situation became so bad that a prominent Bulawayo newspaper publicly called for the RLI to be disbanded.
Seated in a corner of the Mess as I entered was Sergeant Major Paddy McEever, a retired Irish Guardsman, and an honorary member of the RLI Warrant Officer's Mess. Paddy took one look at my face and asked what the problem was. When I told him he said "Sir, these are early days. I am telling you that this Battalion is going to earn a great reputation as a fighting regiment. I know - I can feel it in my bones."
Prophetic words indeed, for when winds of war swept over the Rhodesian landscape, the RLI became the cutting edge of the Rhodesian Army. As a FireForce their professionalism and martial skills were unsurpassed, as hundreds of insurgents were to testify with their lives.
One Commando - The Big Red - established, I believe, a world-record by parachuting into battle three times in one day.
But perhaps the most apt description of the RLI came from a grizzled African Warrant Officer from the Rhodesian African Rifles who was involved in a major contact alongside the RLI. He was wounded in the contact and,while recuperating, had this to say about them. "We in the RAR used to laugh at your soldiers, for to us, they looked like boys. But today you have shown us how to fight. They have the faces of boys, but they fight like lions."
This book, although fictionalised, portrays a very real picture of these men and the tasks they carried out - always with great success.
I am proud, honoured and privileged to have been a member of The Rhodesian Light Infantry.
R.F. Reid-Daly. Johannesburg, South Africa, January 1997.
Foreword by Lt. Col. Ron Reid-Daly, CLM DMM MBE Commanding Officer Selous
220 pages including previously unpublished photographs.
Price: US$20 excl. postage
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