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Book review: The Rhodesian Light Infantry: Africa’s Commandos

altThe Rhodesian Light Infantry: Africa’s Commandos, edited by Mark Adams and Chris Cocks, is an interesting work. Commissioned by the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association (RLIRA), it has two goals: to tell the story of the RLI in the words of those that served in it and to support the RLIRA and raise funds for the Combined Forces Welfare Trust, which is used for the direct benefit of ex-servicemen and women, including ex-RLI members.

This hefty tome (320 pages) is divided into three parts: part one covers the early days of the RLI and its formation on February 1, 1961. Part two covers the war years from 1966 to 1980 and forms the meat of the book. Finally, part three contains miscellaneous reflections on the RLI. As a result, the book is a widely varied account of the RLI from many different angles, from its history to operations. There are also recollections of the lighter moments and mischief that soldiers invariably get up to.

After Rhodesia's 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).

The Rhodesian Light Infantry is considered by many to be one of the finest counterinsurgency units of all time. It made heavy and successful use of the fireforce concept of airborne or air mobile assault groups, which could be quickly inserted right into the battlezone using Alouette III and Huey helicopters and Dakotas, supported by strike aircraft. As the war intensified from 1964 onwards, fireforces often faced multiple call-outs on any given day, meaning that RLI commandos accumulated thousands of parachute jumps – the battalion recorded 10 000 operational jumps in one year in the late 1970s.

The RLI was an international regiment as it counted foreign volunteers from South Africa, North America, the UK, Europe and Australia. By the end of the war, the unit counted soldiers from more than 20 countries. As operational demands increased dramatically in the 1970s, the percentage of national servicemen was increased from 1976 to bolster the battalion. Recollections from all these different players add colour to Africa’s Commandos.

The RLI was not a special forces unit. However, it was trained to become an elite commando unit using regular soldiers whose impressive performance in battle is indicated by the fact that it lost 132 soldiers in action and whilst with the unit, while accumulating thousands of enemy casualties – some estimates put these at 12 to 15 000 guerrillas. The RLI proudly maintains that it did not lose a single battle or skirmish in its history - but it did lose the war when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, something that is still a cause of bitterness amongst many Rhodesians.

A number of books have been published on the RLI, with one of the more thorough works being Alexandre Binda’s The Saints – The Rhodesian Light Infantry. Africa’s Commandos distinguishes itself by being a varied collection of accounts that give a unique flavour of the RLI and cover many different perspectives, actions and styles of writing for an overall authentic account. In addition to soldiers on the ground, there are accounts from support units and personnel, from chaplains to medics. As a result, the reader is able to get a good picture of the RLI and what it was like to serve in the unit. In addition to its diverse and comprehensive overall picture of the RLI, Africa’s Commandoes is also worth reading as a piece of history.

Mark Adams and Chris Cocks
The Rhodesian Light Infantry: Africa’s Commandos
Copyright the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association, 2012
ISBN 978-1-920143-59-6
320 pages, 300 black and white photos, colour illustrations and maps
Published in 2012 by the Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association, Boksburg

To purchase a copy of Africa’s Commandos, e-mail Mark Adams at mark@markadams.co.za
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