Africa’s Commandos: The Rhodesian Light Infantry

Africa’s Commandos: The Rhodesian Light Infantry

Mark Adams & Chris Cocks


Raised on 1 February 1961 the RLI first evolved into a commando unit then became involved in mundane border-control duties in the Zambezi Valley. Later as the bush war intensified the RLI was to evolve into a ruthlessly efficient ‘killing machine’. This book chronicles the military evolution of the RLI from the peacetime soldiering days through to the constant high-intensity combat of the final years. Initially comprising volunteers from South Africa and Britain the RLI was always under strength until 1976 when the percentage of national servicemen serving in the RLI was dramatically increased to meet ever-increasing operational demands. The historical record will show how these young men, led and commanded by an outstanding combination of tough and battle-hardened non-commissioned officers and a skilled and aggressive officer corps, inflicted massive damage on the ZANLA and ZIPRA insurgent forces. The ruthless efficiency of the joint air force and RLI Fire Force operations where the RLI was deployed by helicopter and later also by parachute was to account for the deaths of in excess of 12,000 insurgents during the course of the war at a rate of 160 enemy killed for every one of their own lost: a truly remarkable record. Throughout the war the RLI never ceased to learn, adapt and evolve militarily and as such provides many important lessons for students of modern warfare in how a small military structure making the maximum and creative use of the limited resources available can achieve so much with so little. Disbanded after the political settlement on 31 October 1980 the RLI marched into history.


During the short-lived British Commonwealth Central African Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland several military units were formed in the 1960s that would feature in the subsequent Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Southern Rhodesia and the ensuing Bush War between 1966 and 1979. One was the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), an all-white regular regiment formed to balance the black manned Rhodesian African Rifles. Other units established at the same time were a Special Air Service (SAS) Squadron and an armored car squadron. These regular units backed up the part time reserve and militia Rhodesia Regiment. Bear in mind that the Federation had a colonial police force, the British South African Police, which was larger than its armed forces. Federation army and air force units augmented the British Empire and Commonwealth commands in the various post World War II conflicts of “national liberation.” They also saw combat service as part of the independence struggles of southern Africa from Portugal, Great Britain, and South Africa. The regiment had a single battalion with supporting establishment and soon adopted a commando or light infantry role as the best means to accomplish its mission as a force in readiness. This included intensive training in the use of helicopters and parachutes for vertical envelopment as a quick reaction element. Emphasis was placed on the integration of small units, with superior communications, supported by close air support to close with and destroy terrorist and guerrillas. Manned by volunteers, conscription from national service requirements provided most enlistees. These “troopies” also reflected the values and vices of their society as the war went on and younger and younger men were called up. A foreign element was present from the beginning to make up for a lack of qualified local manpower bringing experience from other Cold War conflicts including personnel from South Africa, Great Britain, and America. These provided an outspoken, if not always the most skilled participants, which the native Rhodesians tolerated. One result was that the post war narrative was dominated by the more controversial views or opinions from those with the least to lose from the conflict. This book makes up for this with the authentic voices of its regimental members. As someone who had followed the conflict and the RLI for some forty years, this book is something new. Previous “unit histories” were published in 1977 and 2007. This is a departure from those with a collection of interviews, or oral histories, by veterans. Oral histories, particularly those well after the events in question, need to be considered critically in conjunction with contemporary documents and narratives. For most individuals it takes years or decades to find the words to describe their experience with more eloquence than they commanded at the time the actions occurred. As a result, memoirs are long on subjective experience and can be short on facts. It also means you are dealing with those compelled to tell their story, regardless of significance. The “quiet professionals” are often left out. But these circumstances provide grist for the trained historian rather than the soldier. Even so, this is a valuable book with contributions that would otherwise have been ignored as the former government of Zimbabwe has no one to tell the story. For professional soldiers, historians, and the public this is a good read. The ouens have the last word! For example, there are the seven evocative accounts from the November 1977 Operations Dingo. This raid occurred at two locations respectively 90 (Objective Zulu 1) and 200 kilometers (Objective Zulu 2) inside of Mozambique. A force of 184 RLI and SAS troops on the ground, supported by air force fighters, gunships, and transports took on an enemy force of 7,000. This air and ground attack on the guerilla bases at Chimoio and Tembue netted the largest “bag” of enemy kills of the war through daring and aggression. At the time, there were an estimated 1,200 enemy dead with total casualty counts up to 5,000 based on camp occupancy at the time. The eyewitness narration of these events brings life to the historical narrative. The text is arranged in three chronological parts. Each entry is preceded by a “postage stamp” photo and brief biography of the narrator. It includes a glossary and appendixes. Maps and images illustrate, but do not dominate the text. While a regimental publication, professional editing and design came from 30° South’s Chris and Kerrin Cocks. Graphic and editorial support was provided by Dr. J.R.T. and Carole Wood. Both authors Mark Adams and Cocks served with “The Saints” and are active in the RLI regimental association in South Africa. Profits from sales will go to the association. The book is available from the RLIRA at

Charles D. Melson, chief historian USMC