Fireforce: One Man’s War in the Rhodesian Light Infantry

Fireforce: One Man’s War in the Rhodesian Light Infantry

Chris Cocks




Fireforce is the compelling, brutal but true account of Chris Cocks’s service in 3 Commando, The Rhodesian Light Infantry, during Zimbabwe’s bitter civil war of the 1970s—a war that came to be known almost innocuously as ‘the bush war’. Fire Force, a tactic of total airborne envelopment, was developed and perfected by the RLI, together with the Selous Scouts and the Rhodesian Air Force. Fire Force became the principal strike weapon of the beleaguered Rhodesian forces in their struggle against the overwhelming tide of the Communist-trained and -equipped ZANLA and ZIPRA guerrillas.


The combat strain on a fighting soldier was almost unbelievable, for the Rhodesians, who were always desperately short of ground troops, were sometimes obliged to parachute the same men into action into as many as two or more enemy contacts a day. While estimates of enemy casualties vary, there seems little doubt that the RLI accounted for at least 12,000 enemy guerrillas—but not without cost.


Fireforce is not for the squeamish. Although it has been written with unforgettable pathos and humour, it tells of face-to-face combat in the bush and death at point-blank range. It is a book which does nothing to glorify or glamorize war, for as Chris Cocks found at such a young age, war is merely a catalogue of suffering, destruction and death. Fireforce has been described by critics as being to the Rhodesian War what All Quiet on The Western Front was to World War I and Dispatches was to Vietnam.


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Like Reitz’s work, Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War, Fireforce, by first-time author Chris Cocks, is a personal account of close-quarter warfare. It is a unique, compelling, sometimes brutal account of a young conscript’s three years of service in the elite Rhodesian Light Infantry … Cocks’s work is one of the very few books which adequately describes the horrors of war in Africa …Fireforce is the best book on the Rhodesian War that I have read … it is a remarkable account that bears comparison with other classics on war … a tour de force.

Dr. Paul L. Moorcraft, Southern African Review of Books


The Rhodesian bush war, like most conflicts, has spawned a large number of books but none has been written with the passion of Fireforce. Cocks’s book, more than any other of this particular conflict, smashes home the gross corruption of youth by war … it is an intensely moving story.

Patrick Taylor, The Citizen


Chris Cocks’s Fireforce … is informative, entertaining and at times moving stuff.

The Frog, Pretoria News


The strength of the book lies in that, in the same way as Platoon, it refuses to disguise the psychological trauma consequent on youth being conscripted into the army. Fireforce highlights some of the debasement and brutality that face the average recruit.

Oudtshoorn Courier


Chris Cocks has resisted the temptation to glorify the fighting to any extent at all. He sees it for the catalogue of destruction, suffering and death that war is all about; and in the bush it was, very often, a matter of face-to-face combat at point-blank range.

Homefront, The MOTH magazine


Fireforce is the compelling story of one man’s experiences … it is hard to put down—read it soon.

Major D. A. Wilson, The Australian Defence Force Journal



Fireforce will be to the Rhodesian War what Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front was to World War I. A high claim indeed, but perhaps valid, for this moving book is a classic in any sense.

James Mitchell, The Star


The narrative is raw … it gives the book a veracity so complete that it will transport anyone involved in the ordeal back across the years with the force of a body blow … Rhodesia does at last have its own version of Michael Herr’s Vietnam experiences, Dispatches. A sense of regret is what really lingers, that the whole nightmare had to happen at all. The list of names of boys killed, or scarred physically and mentally, is moving beyond mere words.

Robert Pritchard, The Financial Mail


Fireforce is one of the few books to emerge from that era which is brutally honest, and intensely moving.

Joy Cameron-Dow, Radio South Africa’s Talking of Books


This is one of the best books to come out of the Rhodesian War … these pages put you right back into the bush.

Armed Forces of Africa


Just finished Fireforce. An utterly compelling read. Brutal, but somehow elegant too in its depiction of the comradeship of soldiering. I think my generation, who are at least one lifetime removed from having to serve in a war, need to read accounts like yours: it might give them a bit of perspective on the world. Fair play on the parachuting. Leaping out of a Dakota only 500ft up takes some cajones.

David C. (Windsor)


I just had the pleasure of reading your book Fireforce. Your tale is very inspirational to myself, as an NCO in the U.S. Army infantry. I can draw some parallels to the current war we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to the conflict you endured over 30 years ago.  I am recommending your book to my soldiers, so when they are complaining about a long hump up a mountain that it could always be worse. Thank you for writing such a great book.

Ron Bailey, U.S. Army, 2011


I have just finished reading Fireforce. What a brilliant scary read. I grew up in Rhodesia but never really knew exactly what the fighting was like, but your book really brought it home to me, and made me appreciate you guys even more. Brilliant man. Keep up the good work, and all the best to you.

Ian Wilson, Hong Kong


There is always a book somewhere out there that should have been read, but has not. As an author and writer on themes of African warfare and general history it is incumbent on me to read as much on the subject as is available, and there is a lot available. The Rhodesian War has generated an enormous amount of biographical material and general military analysis over the years, to the extent, I sometimes feel, that the whole episode has been mythologized far beyond the scope and significance of the war itself. To put it in a brief historical context, the Rhodesian War was fought in real terms between 1965 and 1980 as the culminating chapter of an almost century long effort by the white settlers of Rhodesia and the British Government to find some sort of formula whereby a transplanted white minority could retain substantive power into perpetuity in an African territory. When this was ultimately proved impossible, and as African decolonization was accelerating throughout the 1960s, Rhodesia, under Prime Minister Ian Smith, took the provocative and highly suspect decision to declare independence from Britain unilaterally. By doing so Rhodesia effectively isolated itself from direct British moral or military support, facing the inevitability of civil war entirely alone. The military history of Rhodesia at various phases has been well covered, and no doubt will continue to be examined in the future, and military biographies of the bush war abound. Having read quite a few of these, however, I was conscious of never having read Chris Cocks’s memoir Fireforce, which is not new to market, and which has over the period since its release been widely recognized as a landmark narrative. I recently mentioned this fact to Chris, who kindly sent me a copy, and feeling somewhat that I might be sitting down to read yet another iteration of an old and tired story, I settled down to read. Within a few pages it had become clear that this is not so. This book is a vital and important chronicle, very different in style and context to most others, and certainly deserving of the accolades it has amassed. Having said this, it is not easy to put my finger on why this is so. In this, Chris’s first book, the style of writing is neither as literary nor as polished as his later work would be, and yet there are many more tutored writers out there who have covered the same subject with a great deal less of the visceral impact that oozes from the pages this book. There is a keenly observed human intensity in the narrative that is amplified and improved by loose grammar and the liberal use of slang and profanity. This immediately detaches the reader from the expectation that yet another ballad of the glory boys of the Rhodesian war is to be sung with all the crude, violent and nasty aspects of the experience bleached out. This is precisely not what Chris Cocks achieved in this book. Those who lived through the times will remember the Rhodesian Light Infantry for all the incredible work that the unit did during the hardest days of the war, but also, at times, reflective of all that was base and repugnant about white Rhodesia during the 1970s. The men of the RLI, in a nutshell, were the doughboys of the Rhodesian army. They were regulars, informed by a highly militaristic society, itself informed by a laudable if somewhat anachronistic determination to maintain the best attributes of the British Imperial period. The battalion did much of the hard fighting during the war, and in doing so carved a reputation in military circles that has endured ever since. As Chris Cocks reveals, however, and as most white Rhodesians of the time were quite aware, the RLI was a rough and ready conglomeration of men, mostly young men, some hardly men at all, who knew how to fight, and fought hard and consistently. It is also a fact that they brawled, drank, stole, vandalized and philandered freely in a society that tolerated such misbehaviour largely because The Saints suffered such hell on the front line, and could hardly be expected to maintain order when stood down – and also, perhaps, because, en masse, the RLI could be extremely intimidating and difficult to handle, and anyone trying could run into a pack of teenage terriers ready and able to tear a person to ribbons. There was also a culture of impunity surrounding much of the RLI misbehaviour during this period, and although I do not wish to dwell on this aspect more than is merited, it is a fact that commanders were often indulgent because they had no choice. Chris Cocks makes the observation towards the end of the book that by 1979, 24 men on Fire Force duties at Grand Reef were covering the entire Operation Thrasher area, and call outs were a daily occurrence, sometimes twice daily. If a section of these men tore their way through bars and clubs in Umtali over any given weekend they could do so knowing that the army could hardly afford to reduce strength further by taking them off the line for any sort of disciplinary action. I quote a comment from an old RLI national service member, Jo’ van Tonder , who later served, and was seriously injured, as a territorial member of the Rhodesia Regiment. “Out of action,” van Tonder remarked, “the RLI were slapgat [sloppy] but as soon as the bullets started flying the guys were quick into shape.” And without a doubt this was true. The RLI were a light infantry commando battalion, often operating below strength, but highly trained, well led and extremely efficient at what they did. This is more than anything else the story that Chris Cocks tells, and the dichotomy that he perfectly illustrates. He does not waste a lot of time dwelling on the politics or the morality of white Rhodesia, but paints a picture of life in the rank and file of the RLI that is arguably the most authentic on the market. From arriving at the gates of Cranborne Barracks to his first active deployment, training is described in terms both accurate and colorful. It used to be said of the regular Rhodesian Army that a career therein was a choice made by those who had no practical alternative, and so it was. The RLI tended to be populated, initially at least, by much human flotsam, which thereafter defined somewhat the nature and character of the battalion. This was the case even after the RLI ceased to be a last chance career choice and began to attract men of a much more intellectual cut, such as Chris Cocks himself, and others from many different social niches in Rhodesia, and indeed internationally, hoping for a slice of the action, or perhaps the glory, or even, as Chris himself observes, for the pure love of killing. There is also a great deal of technical information for those with an interest in terms of operational procedure, tactics, equipment and weaponry. However, it is the action sequences that deliver the most honest portrayals of the book. The grim reality of being under fire, the human responses in desensitizing circumstances and the gradual layering of stress and horror as ever greater emotional demands are made on an ever decreasing pool of men. Looting bodies for cash, drugs and souvenirs, grotesquely distorted casualty figures such as regularly characterized external raids, and the chipping away of the battalion itself as infrequent but consistent fatalities in action gnawed at the morale of a small and tight knit unit. Fatalities might have been infrequent, but they were coupled with a great many more emotional and physical injuries that tended to pitch broken men back into a society that was itself in a crisis of collapse, and had neither the wherewithal nor the expectation of any long term future under which to care for veterans. There is great humour and pathos in this book, but more than anything an overarching sadness that will be felt most acutely by those whose lives at some point overlapped the period of white rule in Rhodesia. Within it there is a sense of loss and futility that seems to exceed that of any ‘normal’ war, for the soldiers in this army arguably lost no single battle, and moreover, in ultimately losing the war lost everything else besides. Although many do not necessarily grieve the fact, it remains true that there is almost no semblance remaining in Zimbabwe of what once was, and what was once so bitterly fought over. There are no heroics or official recognition of achievement. There are no pensions, no after care, no counselling and no respect other than what is exchanged within the fraternity itself. The Rhodesian war is now a discredited period of history, and the Rhodesian Army a discredited institution. Whatever might have been the true facts of the situation, this is what we are all left with, and if writing this book was an act of catharsis for Chris Cocks, then congratulations to him. He speaks on behalf of a generation of men who simply did what soldiers do.

Anon, 2012


Thanks for a marvellous book about your experiences in the RLI. Believe it or not, I’ve read Fireforce five times and have ordered the sequel for the second time from our local library in Brackenfell. It’s riveting stuff. As a teacher, avid reader and a person with a great interest in everything surrounding the Rhodesian war, I’ve devoured everything I could find on the subject. That includes your stuff on the internet. Please be so kind as to let me know when you are in the area for a book release, report or as speaker at a book club. It would be an honour indeed to attend.

Matie Joubert


I just had the pleasure of reading your book Fireforce. Your tale is very inspirational to myself, as an NCO in the US Army infantry. I can draw some parallels to the current war we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to the conflict you endured over 30 years ago. I was recommended your book by Talking Travel Africa [who said] “Superbly compiled with all the relevant information, this book has justly been called ‘the best book on the Rhodesian War’ by many military personnel and historians.|

Anon, USA


Now in its fourth edition, this has become a classic of both Rhodesian and war history, drawing complimentary comparisons with Commando (Boer War), All Quiet on The Western Front (First World War) and Dispatches (Vietnam War). Much of this book’s success is due not to lurking when-we-ism but to the clear-eyed, honest, though not self-pitying portrayal of what it feels like physically and emotionally to be thrust into civil war as a young conscript, being forced to grow up fast in a male- and violence-dominated world. These factors will make it, like Commando, not just a memoir for its times but a historical source for the future.

Farmers Weekly, RSA 2006


Just finished reading Fireforce. Thank you for writing such a fantastic book about your time in the RLI. I was amazed at the amount of time you guys spent in the field. I can only imagine the stress it must have placed on even the youngest soldier. I was equally surprised at the number of nationalities you had on the books. I am presently serving as a Warrant Officer in the Royal New Zealand Navy. I often encourage younger sailors to read about the service of hard fighting units such as the RLI to stress that what some of the younger generation regard as arduous conditions are not really that arduous. Thanks again Chris and if you ever find yourself in New Zealand then this is one sailor who would consider it a privilege to buy you a beer.

Kramer Pierce, New Zealand


I have read your book; it is spectacularly painful … but very well written and factually abundant. It is a real classic war book. The feelings it stirs up are disruptive but when I feel too bad I have to shake myself and think I am only reading about your experiences; you lived them! And so young. When I see the pics (in many ways so similar to those of my own son’s) my heart breaks at youth being so abused and used. I have to be careful not to dwell on the more difficult aspects but at the same time I have to say what a terrific book Fireforce is, Chris. I can tell from your earlier pics and the later ones how your face changed from youth to man. So sad. Brilliant book.

Margaret Granger, RSA 2009


I re-read Commando again and suddenly I understood why your Fireforce is such an excellent book. In Gen Smut’s Preface he writes: “There is no strategy and little tactics in this plain unvarnished tale. Wars pass, but the human soul endures; the interest is not so much in the war as in the human experience behind it. This book tells the simple straightforward story of what the Boer War meant to one participant in it.” When you have a minute take a few moments to re-read Smut’s Preface in toto as well as the Introduction by Thomas Pakenham. I believe this is what you achieved in Fireforce.


Dick Lord (Brig-Gen ret.), Somerset West 2008


Hello and congrats on a job well done. The recent history of southern Africa has fascinated me ever since I met my first Rhodie whilst on a university exchange in England back in the early nineties. I’ve read Godwin, Fuller, etc, and now I’ve had the pleasure to read Fireforce and begin my military indoctrination. I continually found myself flipping back through the pages to the photos to “see” the faces of the young men involved: thanks for including so many. The fact that a 41-year-old California firefighter finds this so fascinating stems from the realization that the conflict received so little attention in the west. I have met few that are/were even aware of the war. It seems at times like it was from another world, and in many ways maybe that’s true. The USA and NATO seemed to have little stomach left for actually confronting communist issues, let alone that of Rhodesia/SA’s neighbors. The tragic proof is in the pudding I suppose, due to the numerous miserable and failed states as a result. I reckon off-the-cuff, that if Reagan had been in vs. Carter, the support would’ve been more forthcoming. I wondered continuously during the read what happened to all those men whom you served with? Where are they now? Condon, Lt Smith, Hein, Cronin, Taylor, etc.

Ken Barstow, California, 2009


First of all I want to congratulate you on writing such a moving book. The way you wrote your story is just unbelievable and the life you lived is even harder to believe. My story is like a walk in the park compared to yours. Our training [SADF] was very similar to yours, and that is about it. Great job, I so enjoyed reading it. I can only imagine the trauma that must still be with you. The book is a great record for your children and for all those RLI soldiers.

Tim Ramsden, 2009


I have read Fireforce at least ten times, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. I have admired the men of the RLI since I was a kid; of course I realize now that it wasn’t just some grand adventure but a truly devastating experience for many. The period between late ’79 and early ’81 is very hard to find information on as well as the exodus of many to South Africa and other destinations around the world. Thanks for sharing your story

Dylan Kaiser, USA 2012


Please forgive my familiarity, it’s an American character flaw. I just wanted to tell you that I thought your books were great man. I actually read Fireforce while I was in Iraq on my first tour as a platoon leader trying to figure out a different way to get at the bad guys without driving over IEDs. (My platoon wouldn’t believe me when I told them that the Husky, the

RGs, and the Buffalos were all Rhodesian inventions from 25 years ago!)

I can’t believe I never heard or read anything about Rhodesia while growing up. Your book had a huge impact on me. I mean, geez, we’ve always had four-man fire teams but I started pushing down an M240 (MAG) to each of my “sticks” when we were on the ground (we originally had only the puny 5.56mm SAW but I bitched till I got extra 240s). I would take out my own stick for LP/OPs at night and leave the rest of my guys back. Four gumbas in the dark are a lot stealthier in town than four diesel-powered Humvees or a pair of Bradleys (i.e. the doctrinal way). And I used to tell everyone that would listen to me, “Look dude, read this book. It’s all right here. We can fight Hadji the same way these guys were doing it back in ’78 and ’79. If we fly in, and we box ’em in, we won’t get our asses blown off in these Humvees!” Needless to say, at the time neither my company commander nor my battalion commander was impressed.

I had no idea that so many Americans had served in Rhodesia. Bob Smith’s face shows up constantly in so many different books and photos, he’s instantly recognizable now. I think John Murphy was the American that led part of a motorized column into Mozambique, shot the hell out of Mapai and Mabalane, and picked up Dennis Croukamp’s patrol in the process. If today the media found former American soldiers doing something like that, holy shit, can you imagine the shit-storm that would create?

Ted S. Roberts, Captain, S-3A/HHC 2nd Battalion,

5th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division