Book review: The Saints

The Saints – The Rhodesian Light Infantry is the definitive account of the life and times of the 1st Battalion The Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), considered by many to be one of the finest counterinsurgency units of all time.
Author Alexandre Binda served in the unit and thus has the credentials to write this monumental work. This impressive 540 page book – containing over 1500 photos – can only described as a labour of love, an often-over used phrase, but spot-on in this case.
The RLI was founded at a time heightening political tension. “Britain was ‘closing shop` in Africa,” Binda writes. “Reacting to their electorate`s representations and noting the increasing disturbances being caused by the subversive activities of the nationalists in Nyasaland (Hastings Banda) and Northern Rhodesia (Kenneth Kaunda), the Federal government decided that additional security was required. The Federal GOC, General Long, had four regular African battalions under command… To counter-balance these, he was ordered to raise a new, regular, all-white battalion to be based in Southern Rhodesia. In addition, an armoured car regiment (Ferrets) and a paratroop (SAS) squadron were to be formed.”
The new unit came into being as the 1st Bn The RLI on 1 February 1961 with Lt Col John Salt as founding officer commanding and WO1 Ron Reid-Daly as regimental sergeant major. “For the next 19 years, (until the laying up of the colours on 17 October 1980) the battalion was to earn for itself an enviable reputation as one of the world`s most famous anti-terrorist forces.”
The publisher`s note says the book, described as a glossy coffee-table edition is “not intended as a definitive history but, with more of a classic ‘scrapbook` feel, the presentation attempts to capture the essence of this fine unit – what it was like to be troopie, one of the ‘ouens`.” In this regard it certainly succeeds. But since it is unlikely that a definitive history of the unit will ever be produced The Saints will have to make do. And it does.        
Supporting the well researched text and the first-hand accounts are up-to-date potted biographies of senior figures, maps, rolls, honours and awards.
From the start, recruiting was international, with the unit taking aboard South Africans, Britons as well as local Rhodesians. By the end of the war the unit included soldiers from over 20 countries. Deployment came quickly – on 9 September 1961 the unit was emplaned for Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and deployed along the Congolese frontier to conduct border control operations. The Katangese secession was about to fail and refugees, most with harrowing tales, were flooding south. Among those intercepted was Moise Tsombe, the secessionist leader.        
Back home the unit relocated from Bulawayo to Salisbury and re-rolled. Lt Col Peter Walls, who had raised and commanded C Squadron (Rhodesian) SAS in Malaya, was appointed OC in December 1964 and tasked with reforming the RLI as a commando battalion. “It had been decided in the higher echelons that the commando image and training is more in keeping with the character of young Rhodesians…”       
The Zimbabwean Chimurenga (liberation war) started with a terrorism campaign in July 1964. Initially a police responsibility, the RLI first became properly involved in September 1966 when they were deployed to the Zambezi River valley near Chirundu as part of Operation Yodel. In the early hours of 18 September a patrol of 1 Commando, 1 RLI, bumped into a Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) guerrilla gang. “A fairly mean firer fight took place” with one RLI trooper wounded and two out of seven guerrillas killed. Two SKS rifles, an AK47 assault rifle and a RPG2 rocket launcher was recovered.
Fifteen years of continuous war followed by the end of which the RLI by one estimation had “accounted” for between 12 000 and 15 000 guerrillas, for a loss of just 135 men. The unit had also helped pioneer the “Fireforce” air-land counterinsurgency technique, acquiring helicopter air assault and paratrooping skills in the process. As the war intensified, fireforces often faced multiple call-outs on any given day, meaning that RLI commandoes accumulated an astonishing number of operational parachute jumps. Binda records that one trooper chalked up a world-record 73.            
While the RLI is now gone, much of its accoutrements is in preservation at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, in the UK. The Saints publisher Chris Cocks – also an RLI “old boy” records that he was briefly entertained at the RLI`s old lines, now home to the Zimbabwe National Army`s 1 Commando Battalion, in 1995. His hosts “were immensely proud of their parent regiment … and prouder still of the fact that the RLI was their regiment`s predecessor.    
Alexandre Binda
The Saints – The Rhodesian Light Infantry
300 South Publishers