Joining in the Bush War

An RLI Troopie originally from South Africa in a Fireforce scene.

In the aftermath of the second world war Britain was dismantling its colonies, with progressive policies the successive governments began paving the way to enact an agenda of multicultural globalism. Accordingly when the time came the self-assured hubris the handful of Rhodesian settlers who when push came to shove chose UDI was to these politicians like fingernails on a chalkboard.

The Rhodesian outpost for years neglected by London had proven with resourceful ingenuity its capacity to create an autonomous mining, industrial and agricultural economy showcasing its entrepreneurial skills to the rest of Africa and its potential proverbial breadbasket (my family was still partly living in continental Europe and I remember when he heard of UDI my father stuck a large decal of the new Rhodesian flag on the rear window of the car though the implications were lost on a nine year old). 

In its frenzied efforts to derail attempts of normalcy by the ‘rebel’ Ian Smith Government and despite the Cold War which most observers expected to turn hot at any moment White Hall made no bones indirectly assisting the free world enemies of the day the Soviets and the Chinese in their aggressive destabilizing expansion as it coaxed the world community to follow suit and impose on the country a block of massive crippling sanctions much to the delights of its cabinet fringe of gleeful neo-marxists. Albeit remaining cautious to shy away from direct military intervention with the risks it carried of leading to an awkward dilemma. Most officers in the two countries had graduated from the Sandhurst military academy and it was doubtful had they started shooting at each other. On the day London learned the proclamation of UDI the future SAS C Sqn CO with several other officers had almost completed their last course. They were bluntly told to pack up and get on the next flight back to Rhodesia.

It can be safely assumed that as a consequence of their pressure on the UN vote for the sanctions resolution the ensuing years of destruction, miseries and deaths suffered by the Rhodesian populations black and white never got in the way of these professional British politicians from getting their eight hours. The very same who brazenly masqueraded from their moral high ground while in galling hypocrisy insisted on referring to Rhodesia as a racist regime. When it came to light the Rhodesians recognized that true to its moniker the Perfidious Albion -quoting the Rhodesia Herald- had wasted no time in planting informants -spies- in the various departments of their government including the military Central Intelligence Office. Characters who had taken part in the manoeuvre showed no compunction later writing books to make a bit of money boasting about their sordid role.

Standing Tom Z. – HL Crouching Dave B. – Norman Mayne

For several years reacting in self-preservation small international pariah Rhodesia had to contain political violence and a simmering low level intensity state of war. Early 1977 saw an abrupt escalation. It was estimated that over three thousand terrorists were in the country at any one time and that probably another twenty thousand more were getting ready to infiltrate from the neighboring countries. Despite paid for vital material assistance from South Africa -and a couple of other countries happy to do business from sanction busting- the Rhodesian Security Forces were uncomfortably overspread to contain the growing threat.

The world press coverage of this armed conflict in the remote depths of the African continent even if every day it claimed dozens of lives was not a topic hot enough to make the front page. Whenever a rare article on Rhodesia’s unrest found its way in the back columns it was usually with a slant. Few people understood what it was about with fewer showing any interest. As for television there were too few images to fill the time between the commercials.

Faced with the increasing losses incurred from a brutal expansion of the conflict and despite a national service call up the Rhodesian military had to compensate for a shortfall in manpower. It began accepting the recruitment of foreign volunteers. This development mentioned in some of the western daily press – with a dose of Schadenfreude – was picked up by a number of guys throughout the world who made the snap decision altering the course of their lives to join its security forces embracing the cause by throwing their lot to assist a bullied underdog.

Making good they landed at the small Salisbury International airport – or alternatively drove through the Beitbridge border post from South Africa – caught an R4 Rixi taxi to the recruiting office on Gordon Avenue took the oath and signed up, for three years to begin with. They were then posted to the unit of their choice for basic training.

In the early days the Rhodesian recruiters welcomed in good faith the inflated claims of military prowess from many of these volunteers but disappointed expectations soon forced them to be more discriminating until it was determined that no matter how commendable the discharge papers backing their claims the Audie Murphys were not to be exempted from any regulatory Rhodesian Army basic training.

Progressing through the grueling stages of the recruit course those unwilling to hack it any longer went ‘awol’, now the term. One morning we saw three new recruits turn up at roll call. All three former US SF they had experienced the late stages of the Vietnam war, carefree good guys. They stayed three weeks and left. They had brought with them a load of brand new ‘fancy’ US Army gear which they sold right away to eager buyers, I bought a .45 M1911.

Those who had completed training troop and made the cut got their colours and joined the regiment. Now trained soldiers their engagement took a personal significance with an entrusted position in their units. Upon becoming members of the Security Forces the foreign nationals were required to hand in their passports a rule generally loosely applied. Along with the second paycheck their airfare was reimbursed. A number still kept going awol. Some unable to cope with the anguish of going on their first bushtrip others after they had ‘miraculously’ survived it and felt that if they stayed on they would be pushing their luck. As late as the middle of their contracts were those who found that they could not deal any longer with the mental gamble of playing the odds from statistics correlating extended combat exposure with the risks to life and limb, and before it was too late left. The numbers eventually came down to a core of determined remainers.

Kariba Breezes Hotel. Following a mortar attack a group of us was withdrawn from Training Troop and to reassure by our presence the tourists were posted in the area for a couple of weeks. Mike Kelso from the US. photo HL

Probably feeling it would be uncalled for I never heard anyone passing judgement on the decision of these guys to leave. Obviously the Rhodesian military saw it differently. A Rhodesian national gone awol and getting caught meant an extended stretch in detention barrack (DB) while a foreigner did it with total impunity. The Rhodesian military authorities powerless to enforce any disciplinary actions had long taken to accept this revolving door traffic. In the extraordinary case when a guy gutsy enough returned to face it up the retribution was generally a token slap on the wrist the embarrassment of his situation considered to be enough ( years later I learned when a recruit a highly decorated officer and major player in the war, an American underwent the ordeal ). The return of a foreign passport holder from a trip overseas within his authorized leave invariably raised eyebrows.

Experience had established that in order to be efficient in this particular bushwar an operating Rhodesian soldier had to be trained by Rhodesian methods to Rhodesian standards. A bizarre sideshow took place while I was still in the RLI.

One night back from a fireforce deployment 3 Troop was getting ready to go on r&r I was told to report to the RSM. Annoyed at the timing I made my way to the orderly room. The door was open I knocked on the frame marched in, stood at attention saluted and was acknowledged with an ‘at ease’. The Cdo CO was sitting on a couch and the RSM was at his desk. Without preamble they asked if I could really speak French. An odd question, I answered in the affirmative-being probably the only one in the Regiment who could – I grew up in French west Africa. I was being told that a contingent of highly trained former French Foreign Legionnaires had just arrived. They were temporarily housed on the edge of the camp and I was to go and find out what I could and report back. On my way I could not help wondering about the faint smirk I had detected when they listed the credentials of these ‘highly trained soldiers’.

Entering a poorly lit area of the camp I was looking for the building and realized I just had to follow the noise.

For a couple of minutes I stood in the doorway and observed through the heavy cigarette smoke a chaotic scene of shouts, laughter and arms waving. Frenchmen, a fact now confirmed. All visibly in a state of excitement trying to figure out their new gear. Old hands were lying on their beds smoking while loftily imparting instructions. A guy standing close to me was turning red in the face busy wrapping a set of chest webbing around his neck. My presence still unnoticed as I lent an invisible hand to disentangle a strap. He turned to say something and froze, staring. Gradually the shouts died down and a heavy silence descended over the room.

Like an alien creature who had just materialized I was facing thirty pairs of eyeballs. I went along with the situation still not saying a word. At last somebody asked the guy across the room: ‘Hey, Maurice, you said you could speak English, you go and ask him if he can help us’. Maurice manifestly uncomfortable showed some hesitation: ‘Er,yeah well,but not Rhodesian English…’. Overlooking that detail they were pushing him in my direction. Now in front of me he was steeling himself fumbling to string up a sentence this is when I put an end to his miseries and introduced myself, in French.

The barrack room exploded in a jubilant uproar. From all directions I was being bombarded with questions ;’How come I could speak French? How long had I been in the army? What was the food like? What was the pay? Was there any wine served with the meals? Did I see many lions? What were the girls like…? My first answer if I recall was about the local wine which as a useful tip I advised to use only to top up car batteries. 

A truly joyful bunch they had found an understanding ear and were eager to tell their stories. Their military experiences ranged from the five years in the Legion to never having held  a weapon. This stop none of them from answering a classified in the paper advertising security work overseas with the promise of a movie star salary and scant details about the actual job. After a short interview their group had been bussed onto a plane some so clueless they only found out their destination when they woke up the following morning and read the sign above the terminal in Salisbury.

Rumors were of a scam in the recruitment the role of slick characters and the disappearance of a briefcase full of cash. The Rhodesians had been bystanders in the scheme their sole concern being to have more boots on the ground. In the morning I went back to the RSM. Although he did not ask I still went on to suggest as a next step for a sensible course to send these merry Frenchmen back home thereby preventing anyone from getting hurt.

Months later unwinding at one of Salisbury’s watering holes I met two of the instructors who had been in charge of their basic training. Curious I watched as they slowly shook their heads while they recounted going through the grinder. The toll taken on those hapless Rhodesians was manifest as they explained their stumped attempts at implementing the standard training program. There was the language barrier with the lengthy translations, the time that was spent breaking up fights, their constant necessary use of diplomacy for order and forever having to contend with squabbles for reasons which always eluded them. The list went on. There were also other issues; on the range one of these guys could not use an FN because it was too big and heavy he had to be given an Uzi. In the end hoping for the best basic training was cut short and the buck was passed when as an independent auxiliary company ‘7 Indep Coy’ they were integrated into the Rhodesia Regiment and the arbitrary distribution of ranks another incentive for a bloody scuffle.

The Rhodesians would not give up and mindful for everyone’s safety posted the French outfit in a quiet region of the country. Somehow the company managed to accomplish most of the tasks assigned to it however regularly punctuated by incidents, as for consistency. One morning after a group had left for a patrol only hours earlier the Rhodesians saw one of the men coming back up the dirt road, by himself. Looking dejected he was dragging his webbings behind him with his G3 over the shoulder. Ten minutes later another one appeared followed by another until one by one the entire patrol trickled in with the leader closing last. The patrol had split after an argument which led to a blow out and they all decided to call the day off and unconcerned by security wandered off back to the camp.

On another occasion two of their patrols converged on one another after a compass reading error. In a furious firefight both sides, convinced to be engaging a group of terrs used up all their ammos. Miraculously nobody was hurt. Another time they were sent on a vehicle patrol when they were ambushed. Their Croc – an APC – was immobilized in the middle of the killing zone. The driver was killed and the co-driver badly shot. While they returned fire somebody decided to throw a frag. He missed his lob, the grenade hit one of the roll-bar bounced back inside and rolled under the seats – a fuse delay of four to five seconds as stenciled on the fly-off lever. In a frantic rush while the others catapulted over the tailgate he took a dive to retrieve it and without another thought threw it after them. Several were seriously injured in the explosion one after surgery lost two inches from one leg. In the meantime two of them broke out of the ambush and were last seen charging up the hill blazing away yelling war cries thinking they were back in the Aures mountains of the Algerian war.

They also attempted to do their earnest bit of contribution to intelligence gathering. Using their initiative they cobbled together a ‘gegene’ – the French nickname for an electric generator – modeled on the type used for interrogation in Algeria but could not obtain results as they insisted on questioning captured suspects in Arabic. When they heard about it the Rhodesians intervened and put a stop. There were also unconfirmed talks of the practice of ‘corvees de bois’- the quiet disposal of suspected terrs.

By then the Rhodesians had resigned themselves at the failure of the experiment and the company was disbanded. There is no doubt that under different circumstances some of these guys would have made good disciplined soldiers. The greater part of this motley crew went back home, others joined Bob Denard and the rest lingered for a while about Salisbury living from odd jobs two briefly as club bouncers while several others after having caused enough trouble in town were forcefully deported, handcuffed and put on plane.

A couple of years later in Salisbury – Harare – I met one those Frenchmen who had tried to give it a fair go. A lanky, friendly and unassuming guy named Boutanquoi a cook by profession if I recall. Glad to have found a compassionate ear to tell his tale he kindly invited my girlfriend and I for dinner one night. We were served an excellent meal while he talked of the plans he had for the future with his new Shona girlfriend. Two years passed when I heard he had been jailed with another Frenchman also part of the original outfit. The two had botched a robbery and a shopkeeper – a German – had been killed. They were caught right away and sentenced to death. I went to see him while he was waiting on appeal. He seemed not to be expecting much from the French consulate who had made it clear they washed their hands of a case tried in a now Zimbabwe court.

The priest who accompanied them to the gallows commended Boutanquoi for his dignified bearing. The bag was placed over his head when he declared with bravado : ‘I’ll show these savages how a Frenchman dies. Vive la France!’. His partner in crime however showed far less concern for his dignity. Dragged from his cell kicking and screaming he was heard throughout the entire prison complex right to the moment the trap door dropped.

Foreign nationals in the Rhodesian security forces were at any time in small  number. They were fully integrated and received the same pay as any other regulars, not fitting the ‘Mike Hoare-Bob Denard mercs’ cliche. Of the four Commandos of the RLI Support Cdo had the largest group with a more ‘foreigner friendly’ environment, so I was told. I had joined One Cdo unaware of those differences happy with the Fireforce scene and to operate alongside good humoured switched on Rhodesians impervious to bullets. When they happened casualties were reported as ‘so-and-so got pulled…’ and the talk moved on to another topic. Self-pity the butt of jokes with anyone a potential next.

Training Troop Field Craft

Barbs were regularly traded between the Rhodesians and the foreigners; Brits were ‘Bloody Poms’, Americans ‘Wk Yanks’, South Africans ‘Slopes’ and they were ‘Rhodie-toadies’. No nationality was spared. Twisted humour but all in good spirit.

The atmosphere in the Troop began changing when a small number of Rhodesian born NCO’s – and mates of theirs from the rank – became vocally hostile about the presence in the Cdos of foreigners fighting ‘their’ war. The unwinding beer around the evening fire turned into an occasion for grievance mumbling while bragging about how they could easily manage without these ‘fucking ratfangers’ (ratcatchers, I could never figure that one out) dismissing their role while conveniently forgetting how many had already been injured and killed while fighting ‘their’ war. Unpleasant as these were they were taken as idle talks except when jokes went too far and contained veiled threats.

Dave B. a fine soldier. He came to sign up from NZ.

An English guy in the Cdo had a theory. Many of the foreigners had seen a lot of the world before they came to Rhodesia they shared exciting stories while these few resenting Rhodesians – barely several individuals-felt left out with little to contribute. The restrictions imposed on their passports meant for the most seasoned travelers family trips to Mozambique and South Africa. Rhodesians had their own stories just as good to match but this particular lot was not the sharpest for repartee and this chip on their shoulder was conducive to bad blood.

Training Troop Right Scott M. HL

An incident kept two of the most vehement quiet for a while.

Alternating between callouts eight to twelve men sweeps were conducted through wide areas in search for weapons and signs of terr presence. When loose rounds, plastic containers from RPG rockets or insurgency propaganda material were found, hangars and huts were set alight – one of the guys, not even a smoker carried a lighter just for that purpose. Everyone mindful to keep a distance from burning thatched roofs with the setting off of hidden ammunition. To goad the locals to move to PVs – Guard Force protected villages – donkey carts were destroyed, the cattle was shot, field crops burned and water holes poisoned. A grim job.

Guard Force unit

During one of those roving patrols we came across fresh spoors and a spontaneous – more like headlong – follow-up was initiated. Two of ‘those’ Rhodesian NCO’s two Cpls. both suffering from acute foreigner-gut-hatred were leading the section – how those two ever got to their ranks was a constant wonder. Advancing in a beating heat for several hours the pace had markedly slackened and after several confusing changes of bearings we ended up trundling up a dried out river bed trying to maintain at the same time an adequate level of alertness and a precarious footing. Curiously at that instant an old line from a Training Troop lecture on fieldcraft kept going around in my head ‘Once you are trained in observation and concealment you can find and kill the enemy without being seen. Learn the meaning of what you see. Once you have learnt the meaning make the correct deductions…’. Snaking around bushes our single file was bottling up.

A chest punching thunder clap from a horizontal black smoked orange flash-gash coupled with an ear ripping storm of cracking tracers brutally jolted our column out of its torpor. In a cloud of kicked up dust I saw the two guys ahead collapse to the ground. One of them so close later I scrubbed off speckles of blood from my chest webbings. In a textbook dash-down-crawl with the mind on autopilot I found myself in a shell-scrape already groping for a rifle grenade. Not one second had ticked by and the shooting abruptly stopped. At a loss, the surrounding dust thinning out a range of vision partially blocked I spotted one of the Cpls. behind an anthill not even ten yards away all curled up in a ball. Suddenly he broke out in a high pitched jibber like a raving lunatic. At that instant the only human being making himself heard in a two mile radius. This is when I deciphered that he was ordering me to go and get his rifle. I cranked my neck cautiously and located it close to the body of one of the guys right in the open. I also caught a glimpse of the other one as his boots disappeared into a bush. Grappling with the absurdity of the request I turned again to look at that Cpl. who by now had increased his shrill making an even bigger ass of himself. A spectacle I imagined perplexing to the terrs. I barely resisted the urge to fire a couple of rounds in his direction for him to pipe down. The other Cpl. I heard later had been last seen legging it out of sight also after dropping his rifle. Less than half a minute had lapsed. Struggling to steady the nerves with a firm hold on my FN I finally fed the ballistite in the chamber plugged a 42 Zulu on the muzzle flipped the sights and was about to pull the pin when frantic yells came out of the bushes ‘HOLD YOUR FIRE! HOLD YOUR FIRE! HOLD YOUR FIRE!’.

Everything froze and the mind went even blanker. An RAR – the African sister unit of the RLI – callsign identified itself. A heart pounding minute went by with more yelling. Less than twenty yards away up the bank the foliage parted with a soft rustle and figures began to emerge guardedly out of their concealment. They came down to meet us and in a haggard way went over our lot assessing the damage while the able rest of our sticks was assembling out of its daze. Grunting moans were rising all over the place.

An all around defense was ordered and in a sudden rush everyone included their medic tended the wounded and a casevac was called. The unfeigned display of distress from these RAR guys with their unending apologies almost made me feel sorry for them I could even swear I saw tears welling up. Not feeling too good myself as I was watched one of the RAR guys collect the stack of claymores they had lined up along the path we had just walked.

Now we learned that our two stick leaders had screwed up. We should have never been in this area. Had they done their job they would have known that for several days these guys had been OPeing this river bed expecting a group of terrs to pass through. When he heard our movement the guy on watch set off a claymore the others fired a short burst then realized the situation. Our two Cpls. their panic now partially under control went ballistic on these RAR guys. This is when I stepped in and almost rifle butted one of them. Thanks to these two our section almost got wiped out. A bad case of blue-on-blue seared for a long time in the memory. Additionally all that went into setting up the ambush was wasted and had the terrs been on their way they were now long gone. The only upshot of the ‘incident’ was to make those two avoid eye contact for a while. At least until I left 1Cdo.

FAF Grand Reef. A push-pull Lynx takes off with its payload to provide support in a contact photo HL

I was in the Sqn when one day I picked up a copy of ‘Assegai’ -the unofficial Army publication, always an informative read-. It almost fell off my hands when gutted I read that one of these two had received the Bronze Cross of Rhodesia -BCR, a gallantry award-. When I explained the loud wtf I had let go the guys in the Troop who did not know the character failed to grasp the buffoonery. Someone, a good observer of the inner workings of the military cynically commented ‘Typical old school tie…’.

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