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Book Reviews

Book Review: The Battle in Bangui: The Untold Inside Story

altThis 40-page publication is a “must read” for everyone in uniform as well as those charged with decision-making in the South African military, particularly the SA National Defence Force’s political masters.

Written by top South African defence analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman, “The Battle in Bangui: The Untold Inside Story” gives an insight into just how bravely the outnumbered contingent of South African soldiers performed in the long, high intensity firefight they found themselves in between March 22 and 24, 2013, and which resulted in the overthrow of the Central African Republic’s President Francois Bozize.

The book also gives background into what the soldiers were doing in the Central African Republic (CAR) in the first place and draws out a number of lessons learned during the incident. “The Battle in Bangui” raises interesting questions, like should a larger force have been sent, what choices did Commander-in-Chief President Jacob Zuma have, and importantly, what were the lessons learned.

Heitman has no problems with the manner in which the South African soldiers acquitted themselves in the fighting earlier this year. “Do not blame the soldiers and junior leaders: they are doing their best and their best is quite often outstanding,” he says.

He also exonerates the generals for deploying small and/or under-armed forces.

“They can only do the best with what they have. And what they have in terms of the numbers of soldiers, the type of equipment and support capabilities is simply inadequate for the role South Africa’s government wishes to play (in Africa).

“If there is blame it must go to the politicians who starve the Defence Force financially and then expect it to work miracles,” he writes.

Heitman ends with a warning to those in charge of the national purse strings: “There is no such thing as military operations on the cheap: what is saved in cash will be paid for in blood”.

The Battle in Bangui: the Untold Inside Story
Helmoed Romer Heitman
40 pages, five colour photographs and maps
Published in South Africa in 2013 by Parktown Publishers (Pty) Ltd Trading as Mampoer Shorts
Only available digitally from http://mampoer.co.za/helmoed-heitman/the-battle-in-bangui
www.mampoer.co.za
ISBN 978-0-9921902-8-6
   

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
   

Book Review: Dingo Firestorm – The Greatest Battle of the Rhodesian Bush War

altThe fireforce concept of operations, used so successfully during the 1970s by the Rhodesian forces during the bush war, has been detailed by a number of books and articles over the years.
   

Book Review: Shadows of a Forgotten Past: To the Edge with the Rhodesian SAS and Selous Scouts

altAt first glance Shadows of a Forgotten Past, with its action-filled cover image, glossy paper and large collection of colour and black-and-white photographs, begs the question as to why the author didn’t opt for a coffee table format rather that the standard 203-page publication. This question, however, becomes insignificant as the pages unfold and a wealth of information, much of it previously untold, is revealed to the reader.

Paul French’s military adventures saw him serve in 21 SAS (Territorial Army) during the late 1960s; C Squadron (Rhodesian) SAS and the Selous Scouts in the 1970s; and 6 Reconnaissance Commando in the South African Defence Force (SADF) in the early 1980s. Recollections of Angola and Iraq, where the author served in the private security industry, round off this informal memoir of excitement and derring-do.

As the title suggests the main thrust of the book details operations with the SAS and the Selous Scouts. The reader is treated to recollections of the author’s participation in a number of SAS operations, including an attack on ZANLA insurgents at Mavue in 1976, the raid on Joshua Nkomo’s home in Lusaka in 1979 and Operation Tepid, an attack on an entrenched ZANLA position in Zambia. Operation Cheese, the SAS operation 750 km into Zambia to sabotage the main road and rail link over the Chambeshi River between Zambia and Tanzania is undoubtedly one of the highlights of Paul French’s Rhodesian military career, as he reveals the vital contribution made by a South African Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft to the success of the operation.

The author, ever thirsty for adventure, then finds his way to the Selous Scouts and the reader is treated to insights into, and descriptions of Selous Scouts pseudo operations inside Rhodesia. Details on Selous Scouts operations inside Mozambique, which are already in the public domain through descriptions provided in Dennis Croucamp’s Only my Friends Call me Crouks and in Jake Harper-Ronald’s’ Sunday Bloody Sunday, are validated during this narrative. A set of short yet amusing and instructive anecdotes describing Paul French’s life in the special forces of Southern Africa supplement the main theme.

A delightful, unanchored chapter on the author’s visit to Cisco and Marianne Guerreiro together with a description of their exploits in the Rhodesian SAS and the military and signal intelligence world during the 1970s and 1980s in Southern Africa is testament to the adage that the truth is often stranger than fiction. While the exploits of this colourful couple are entertaining and informative, the real gem in this chapter is the almost hidden reference to the role played by Chilean Air Force pilots in eavesdropping on the radio messages of Cuban pilots in Angola during the South African bush war.

The author’s description of the origin of Renamo, the Mozambique Resistance Movement, and his own experiences, contact with early leaders of the movement, including Andrea Matsangaise and Luka Mhlanga, operations with these forces, SADF support to Renamo, together with his personal experiences while ‘handing over’ Renamo to members of the Reconnaissance Commando, will undoubtedly serve as a valuable addition to the primary source material on this organization.

Shadows of a Forgotten Past started out as the author’s recollections penned for the sole benefit of his family. With the decision to publish the memoir on the open market an expectation is created that the anonymous reader should now benefit from the ministrations of a judicious editor who would have provided editorial balance, corrected sequencing difficulties and ensured that a golden thread of continuity runs throughout the narrative. This expectation has unfortunately not been fulfilled. What the book lacks in terms of editorial interventions though is certainly exceeded by the content, the author’s credibility and his contribution to the existing body of knowledge on the exploits of the military units of which he was a member. The book deserves an equal place alongside similar contributions and I recommend it to those who wish to add to their existing collection of publications on the exploits of these famed units during the bush wars in Southern Africa.

Paul French
Shadows of a Forgotten Past: To the Edge with the Rhodesian SAS and Selous Scouts
ISBN 978-1-908916-60-0
Co-published in 2012 by: Helion & Company Limited, Solihull and GG Books UK, Rugby
   

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