Book Review: Masodja

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The Rhodesian African Rifles (RAR) is another fine Rhodesian regiment who’s very name and traditions fell victim to Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the tyrant who has turned Zimbabwe into a dung pile.
Masodja – The history of the Rhodesian African Rifles and its forerunner the Rhodesia Native Regiment is an updated and completed regimental history, building on the thorough research of the late Lt Col Kim Rule (officer commanding 1st Battalion RAR 1951-1955) of the period 1916 to 1965.
The work was completed by author Alexandre Binda with the support of expert Rhodesian historian Dr Richard Wood, former 1RAR OC Brigadier David Heppenstall and many others. This is the second history of this proud regiment, the first being Christopher Owen`s on their contribution to the Allied effort in world wars One and Two.
Binda records that indirectly “and somewhat ironically, the Rhodesia Native Regiment (RNR), the forerunner of the RAR, owed its birth to a German general” – Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, military commander in German East Africa. At the outbreak of war in 1914, the German, then a lieutenant colonel, “decided that he could best serve Germany, not by defending the colony, but using his troops in such a way that the allies would be forced to send troops against him – away from the fronts in Europe where the main conflict was being waged.
Von Lettow-Vorbeck spent the next four years threatening British, Belgian and Portuguese territory, drawing ever-larger Allied forces after him. He was never brought to battle but in the meantime the need for more troops to contain his force led to the recruitment of the RNR, two battalions being raised. The regiment fought some notable actions before being disbanded in December 1918.
The Regiment was reformed in May 1940 as the RAR. Training followed… Years of it… The unit eventually departed for Nairobi, Kenya, in November 1943. Then more training before the regiment boarded ship for Chittagong (now in Bangladesh) in December 1944. Active service against the Japanese was to follow. Assigned to 22 East African Brigade, the RAR now became part of 15 Indian Corps in the Arakan, Burma`s rugged west coast. Hard fighting in some bestial terrain followed…
The regiment was repatriated in March 1946 but this time disbandment was first delayed then cancelled as the unit`s Askaris – as the troops were called – were put to work as guards at local Royal Air Force bases and used as labourers. This dual duty continued into the 1950s when a detachment was deployed to the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt. After about a year of service, the unit returned home to high praise in December 1952.        
Military duty beckoned again in 1956 when 1RAR deployed to Malaya for two years as part of a Commonwealth response to a communist insurgency among the country`s Chinese minority. By this stage the insurgency had been underway eight years and the guerrilla “concentrations had been broken up into small groups… The task of the security forces was to prevent the [guerrillas] from re-concentrating by destroying base camps and food caches in a constant and dangerous game of harassing hide-and-seek, in which the aim was to track down and destroy CT gangs, one by one, through unrelenting non-stop pressure.”
It proved an excellent apprenticeship. In 1959 the regiment was in Nyasaland (Malawi) where Hastings Banda was politicking. In 1961 they were on similar internal security duties in Northern Rhodesia, where Kenneth Kaunda was agitating for independence from Britain.          
In the mid-1960s internal disorder came to (Southern) Rhodesia followed by a vicious insurgency. Sabotage commenced in 1964 and insurgent groups followed in 1966. The RAR was soon deployed on border control duty. On 11 August a patrol surprised six guerrillas after a tip-off. The war was on; patrols, follow-ups, contacts and ambuscades become the norm.                     
It is here that contact diagrams become important. Heppenstall had collected these excellent artefacts and made them available to Binda to illustrate the text. It succeeds admirably, starting with the RAR-ZIPRA/MK scrap of 22 August 1967, when the RAR, supported by the Rhodesian Air Force clashed with Matebele guerrillas and members of uMkhonto we Sizwe`s Luthuli detachment.               
Of this firefight – part of Operation Nickel – Binda writes that for the RAR “it had proved so successful that its officers subsequently toured other units to lecture on the operation.” He notes “where leadership had been confident and decisive, the troops had performed well… where tactical carelessness occurred, disaster had resulted.”     
A lull followed after 1968, lasting to 1972 when “Rex Nhongo” attacked several farms in the Centenary area. As the war intensified new techniques, tactics and procedures became to be used. In April 1974 the RAR graduated to Fireforce, up to then the preserve of the whites-only Rhodesian Light Infantry.
1976 saw the establishment of a 2nd Battalion and no let-up in the pace of the Chimurenga. It also saw the RAR`s first cross-border operation. During Operation Mardon subunits from both 1 & 2RAR attacked Robert Mugabe`s ZANLA and their Mozambican allies.
The RAR further cemented its elite status on 21 October 1977 when B Company, 1RAR, took a leap into the unknown – under silk from an aircraft. Also in 1977, white conscripts and seasoned RAR troops were combined in so-called Independent Companies. Initially wearing (white) Rhodesia Regiment insignia, six independent companies were by 1978 wearing the RAR badge. Binda notes the plan “was to prove an excellent formula” and these independent companies were to score remarkable successes against the enemy. In time they would be combined to form 3RAR.                
In late 1979, the RAR attacked targets in Zambia (Operation Murex), but by then the die was cast. Mugabe won the February 1980 election and the war was over – and lost, but no fault of the RAR. The RLI, SAS and Selous Scouts were speedily disbanded, with soldiers of the latter assigned to 4 (Holding Unit) RAR. In October 1980 4RAR became 1 Zimbabwe Parachute Unit.     
The rest of the RAR was not long spared a similar fate. After putting down two ZIPRA rebellions in Bulawayo in November 1980 and February 1981 respectively, 1RAR became 11 Infantry Battalion, Zimbabwe Army and in April 1981 was ordered to sever ties with its past. 65 years of history was gone. All that remains is the RAR Regimental Association in which Heppenstall, now resident in the UK, is a leading light. It is in that capacity he commissioned this book and acted as compiler and commissioning editor.
Alexandre Binda
Masodja – The history of the Rhodesian African Rifles and its forerunner the Rhodesia Native Regiment
300 South Publishers
Johannesburg
2007