The helicopter has become an iconic image of war. It changed the way soldiers were able to deploy on the battlefield, dramatically reduced the mortality rate of wounded soldiers and delivers hell fire and brimstone to the enemy. To most Americans, the Bell UH-1 Huey in Vietnam was synonymous with the war itself. To the soldier in the field it was a ride in and a lifeline out.
The American military first saw its utility in the Korean War as an airborne ambulance and cargo carrier. The technology for an offensive weapon did not yet exist. However, the British were putting the new aircraft to good use for counter insurgency missions by the SAS and SBS in the Malayan Emergency that was fought between 1948 and 1960. Special troops were infiltrated and ex-filtrated deep into the jungle, bypassing traditional methods of troop movement with great effectiveness.
The platforms for offensive capabilities began to emerge and platforms such as the Huey and Cobra gunships came to prominence on the battlefield. They have continued to improve and are integral to the missions carried out today. It is a tool that our enemies fear.
With the start of the Cold War, the United States trained its military to fight against the Soviet Union in set piece fashion. The Korean War was fought against a uniformed and recognized foe. Vietnam threw a wrench into the status quo, yet the veterans and policy makers who had lived through and fought World War Two tried to apply traditional methods and tactics at a guerrilla army.
Late in 1965, when the first air-mobile teams fought in the Ia Drang valley against regular NVA formations, they did well. It was a morale booster for the Pentagon and the public that we could insert troops via chopper onto the doorstep of the enemy and defeat them. History then tells us about the failure of the powers that be to further adapt methods to fight against a guerrilla army. Colonel David Hackworth recognized this early in the Vietnam War and wrote the famous ‘Vietnam Primer’. He believed that with superior tactics and mobility we could learn to fight the VC and win by, in his words-, ‘Out G-ing the G’.
Perhaps the most innovative use of the helicopter and Special Forces in Vietnam was the Mobile Strike Force and the lesser known Eagle Flight, a heliborne tactic to find, fix and kill the Viet Cong.
The Eagle Flight typically consisted of 11 helicopters, six carrying paratroops and the others acting as gunships. Soldiers were set down in strategic positions to cordon off groups of insurgents, either closing with them on foot or being blasted from above. Due to the terrain of Vietnam, it was often difficult to find the ideal kill zone.
While the Hot Spot for the Cold War was winding down in Vietnam, the African Continent was waging its own war against Communism. The power vacuum left by the decolonization of several nations allowed Soviet-bloc and Chinese backed revolutionaries to set up power and fight their way into power.
A small, independent country stood alone and against the world and the Communist tide. Battered by sanctions and abandoned over politics with the U.S. and Great Britain, the nation of Rhodesia was enduring attacks and infiltrations of its sovereign borders. Communist Terrorists were harboring in Mozambique, Zambia and Botswana and making incursions into Rhodesia, killing farmers, destroying livestock, crops and creating a panic amongst the native tribes and the general population.
Backed by the Chinese and Russians, Robert Mugabe’s ZANLA and Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA forces, intended on ‘retaking’ Rhodesia from the Ian Smith government and ‘restoring’ proper ownership to the envisioned nation of Zimbabwe. Early CIA records show that the Johnson Administration recognized that this ‘Freedom Movement’ was clearly an attempt to expand Communism. Great Britain resented the declaration of independence of Rhodesia in 1965 and was not interested in helping the wayward nation in retaining it freedom. Ronald Reagan addressed Rhodesia in a 1976 radio broadcast, recognizing their fight against Communism.
The Rhodesians were on their own to preserve the land that they had cultivated into the literal Breadbasket of Africa. From the early sixties onward, they were faced with a ruthless insurgency. Though they offered troops in World War Two and the Malayan Emergency to their former patron, Britain, their own standing Army was very small and their main defense force was the British South African Police and Reservists.
It has been stated that even at the height of the insurgency, Rhodesia never had more than a few thousand fighting men on the ground at any given time. With thousands of miles of borders to protect, the aim of the Army was to meet problems with solutions that worked rather than adhere to Classical doctrine for the sake of doctrine. Several soldiers that had served with the British SAS during the Malayan Emergency understood the nature of this type of warfare and were able to help put together an Army suited to the task. This drive to protect the only place they called home produced concepts and soldiers that are still studied today to learn lessons that can help our current struggle against Insurgents world-wide.
With the 1964 murder of the farm family of Petrus Oberholtzer by ZANU terrorists, the Rhodesian Bush War began in earnest. Political dissidents were imprisoned and an attempt to maintain the safety of the nation went full steam ahead. Along with reactivation of the Special Air Service in the early 60’s, more and more men were recruited to join the Army. Rhodesia needed fighting men and solutions to effectively stop a numerically superior force.
Constituted in 1961, the Rhodesian Light Infantry was the backbone of the Rhodesian Security Forces. Unlike America’s overflowing man power and resources with the ability to specialize, Rhodesian soldiers had to fill the roles of everything from Leg infantry to Special Operations capable forces. The SAS and the Selous Scouts were formed to hit the enemy where it hurt and use pre-emptive force to stop insurgents from making their way to the borders. These Special Forces operated mainly on ‘Externals’ into the surrounding countries to kill and destroy the bases from which insurgents were launched. As the fighting intensified, the RLI would join in those External operations with astounding success.
With so few men and limited air power, the RLI turned itself into a powerhouse of Light Infantrymen. 1 RLI Battalion consisted of 3 Commando groups along with a Support Commando group. The TO&E of each Commando called for 100 men. The average muster at any given time was around 70. The Commando was divided into 5 Troops consisting of 12 man patrols. These patrols consisted of three, 4 man sticks. The Support Commando was trained in Mortars, Engineering and Anti-Tank Warfare. In the field, they often acted as a regular Commando.
As the tempo of the war increased, so did the need for manpower. A worldwide recruiting campaign ensued. Sympathetic media such as the new Soldier of Fortune Magazine focused stories on the nation’s plight and openly wrote about the need for volunteers and how they could join the Army. The drawdown in Vietnam left a large swathe of experienced combat veterans without a war to fight. Amongst many Americans, there was a bitter taste in their mouths, having walked away from a 20 year effort to fight Communism in Vietnam. It is estimated that around 300 Americans volunteered to serve in Rhodesia.
Unlike a Forsyth mercenary novel, anyone who came to Rhodesia was required to join the regular ranks of the Army and receive the same pay as a native born citizen. They swore an oath to fight for the nation. It was hardly profitable. Both seasoned soldiers and civilian alike came from nations including, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, France and several others to fight Communism. Unfortunately, not everyone who showed up came with a clean slate or the right motives. As much as possible, impostors and trouble makers were sent packing and their passport stamped PI. Prohibited Immigrant.
Many of the Americans and Australians that enlisted were Special Forces trained. True Cold Warriors. Many served with distinction in the RLI, SAS and the Selous Scouts. With them came the recent experiences of Vietnam. Though the Rhodesians themselves were tremendous innovators in Counter Insurgency, all experience was welcomed and molded into the Rhodesian way of war.
The tactic of the Communist Terrorists, who became known as ‘Gooks’ by the early 1970’s, was to infiltrate in packs of various sizes. The RLI set up outposts along the borders, yet it was impossible to block every entry point. Mobility was key. The Rhodesian Air Force expanded the RLI’s capabilities.
Maintaining an Air Force is extremely expensive. Each aircraft was meticulously maintained and stretched far beyond its recommended life span. It became obvious that Air Power would have to be integral to its overall defense plan. In 1962 Rhodesia took into its inventory two jet aircraft types mainly for the support of its ground forces.
The DH100 Vampire was commissioned late in World War Two and did not see action in that war. By the end of the 1950’s, it had turned primarily into a trainer for RAF pilots. The Rhodesians had the distinction of being the nation who would retire it 1979. The British Hawker Hunter was the second jet aircraft taken on as an air to surface asset. Due to their irreplaceable status, the primary aircraft used on Fire Force missions was the Cesna push pull engined Lynx. It was outfitted with twin Browning Machine Guns along with various munitions including napalm.
Much like the A-1 Sky Raider in Vietnam, these aircraft were outdated in terms of the technology available but were still useful in a counter insurgency role to deliver anti-personnel ordnance. The most needed aircraft for the RLI to effectively protect its borders was the helicopter.
For airborne operations as well as transport several Dakota DC-3’s were bought to service the SAS and later the RLI. They would greatly boost the number of boots on the ground during operations.
The MK-III Alouette helicopter became synonymous with the RLI’s Fire Force operations over the course of the Bush War. The Alouette came into the Rhodesians inventory prior to 1965 in a limited supply. More were covertly purchased and by the 1970’s the South African Air Force bolstered No. 7 Squadron with up to 27 extra helicopters.
Several early Air-Ground missions nearly ended up in Blue on Blue accidents. Small patrols would respond to farm attacks composed of BSAP officers and RLI soldiers available then initiate a follow up to track the attackers down. Like most nations during wartime, experience and repetition spawned development and refinement of operations. The Army and Air Force were in a process of learning the most efficient method of Vertical Envelopment against the ‘Gooks’, given the terrain and limitations of their tools of war.
The first formal Fire Force duties were carried out in 1974. The war intensified in North Eastern Rhodesia in 1972 with many attacks on white farms. So often and varied, they needed a quick reaction force that would allow sufficient amounts of troops to Find, Fix and Finish the Terrorists. Trials were initiated to test and evaluate Fire Force doctrines.
Parachute training would have to be expanded to the RLI as there were not enough helicopters to ferry troops into battle. The Alouette carried Four Troopers (the Stick). Unlike the Americans who had Leg Infantry, Paratroopers and Airborne Rangers, the RLI trooper would undertake all of these roles. By qualifying in Air Assault and Parachute training, the delivery methods were enhanced dramatically.
The Trooper was designed for speed and mobility. Instead of being weighed down with heavy body armor and heavy packs, they often wore shorts (up until 1977) and sneakers. The light infantry part was taken seriously. The idea of standard issue webbing was thrown by the wayside and a dizzying array of designs were found. Each trooper outfitted himself as he saw fit.
Their battle rifle was the Belgian made FN FAL. Weighing in at 10-13 pounds, it was rugged and common in Africa at the time. The preferred bullet was NATO 7.62×51 with an effective range out to 800 meters. Twice the range of the 7.62×39 used by the opposition, it gave the well trained Rhodesian marksmen a distinct advantage. Issued 100 rounds, bullets were used sparingly, like everything else the sanctioned country needed and running dry without results would end up in disciplinary action. Conscious of their rate of fire, often the bottom two rounds were tracers to remind the engaged soldier of the impending reload. For this reason, they usually operated the rifle on Semi-Automatic except for the MAG gunner.
Rhodesian soldiers were constantly exercising their immediate reaction drills while in garrison. Fire courses were set up in thickly vegetated areas. The ‘Jungle Shoot’ comprised a walk down paths that were lined with hidden targets concealed by the natural surroundings. This honed their ability to make instant and accurate shots in a realistic manner.
The Cover shoot was a concept that allowed sticks to avoid the ‘spray and pray’ and conserve their ammunition with maximal results. It taught them to identify and shoot at likely locations of the enemy. They would view the area from which the fire came and pick the locations of cover. For instance, most men shoot right handed. For cover behind a tree, the enemy would be located on the right hand side. In turn, a RLI soldier would double tap that area which he viewed on the left. Anything that looked like a concealed position was shot. With the odds and reach of the RLI soldier, he outgunned his opponent.
The 4 man stick was a self-contained fire team. The two men armed with their FN FAL’s were complemented by the Machine Gunner who carried the FN MAG with 400 rounds of 7.62×51. Fire discipline for the gunner was strict as well. The fourth man was the Stick Leader. He was an NCO that carried a VHF radio, 100 rounds for his FN FAL and a variety of grenades. Whether by parachute or helicopter, they entered the fray in this formation. Needless to say, the RLI troopers often carried any number of combinations of grenades, handguns and knives. Less attention was paid to ‘standardization’ than to effectiveness.
Reconnaissance was key for successful Fire Force Operations. For this, the Selous Scouts were the leading source of sightings and initial battle plans. The Scouts operated in a variety of roles from direct action missions, active recon or sitting on top of a mountain awaiting Insurgents to appear along known infiltration routes. However the intel was received, swift reaction was the order of the day.
When the ‘Call Out’ came across the loud speaker, the Commando would move into action. Everything the soldier or pilot needed would be queued up and ready to go. Depending on the rotation, the soldiers would assemble in tents with their webbing and weapons prepared and ready. After a brief FRAGO (if they were lucky; often battle plans were made enroute to the location) they would move to their aircraft.
The initial wave of Fire Force troops would board the Alouette helicopters and lift off. Four helicopters carried the point of the spear. The formation consisted of one K-Car and three G-Cars. The K-Car was the Command and ‘Kill’ car. This served as an aerial command post with a crew of three- Pilot, Gunner/Crew Chief/Tech and the Fire Force Commander. The G-Cars carried a crew of Pilot and Gunner plus the 4 man stick. The troop carriers were customized by turning the front row seats towards the back. This facilitated a quicker exit of the chopper and allowed a stretcher to be placed on the floor for a casevac.
The K-Car was armed with a 20mm 151/20 auto cannon which was devastating in the hands of an experienced Gunner. While the G-Cars dropped their Troopers, the K-Car and Fire Force Commander would survey the battlefield and communicate with the Stick Leaders on the ground, directing fire and help the sticks locate and engage the enemy. Orbiting the battle at around 800 feet, the Gunner was able to use the cannon to kill as well as fix the location of the enemy.
Often, the K-Car would circle the battlefield for several minutes while the FF Commander would assess the terrain, the available troops and the likely movements of the Terrorists. If the Dak’s and their sticks were available, this gave the Commander more possibilities for sealing up the area.
If the numbers of Terrorists were large and in the open, a call for the Reims-Cessna 337G Lynx to make a bombing run, dropping anti-personnel munitions or napalm was made prior to insertion. The Lynx would stay on station to employ its guns or return to base to re-arm.
Once the FF Commander was able to put together all of the variables he could then act. As the war grew in intensity in the mid to late 1970’s, more men were parachute qualified and this would prove vital to a successful operation. With the Dakota able to drop up to 20 RLI soldiers out of a single aircraft, it was the preferred option for a large direct sweep with the G-Car sticks acting as stop groups for the enemy that ran from the K-Car and the Sweep.
In the American Military amongst paratroopers, a combat jump is usually once in a lifetime or generation event. In the Bush War, it was just part of the job. The ideal static line jump occurred between 400-600 feet. Often times, the altitude was 300 feet or below. This could quickly turn into a totally wrecked sweep line if the pilot made an error such as the slant of the DZ with the end of the lane rising higher than the beginning. Astoundingly, a RLI soldier holds the official record for Combat Jumps at 73!
Once the drop had been made, the Troopers immediately discarded their parachutes and left them for a tail force, or ‘wanker’ group, to police them up. These men would come in via helicopter or on troop trucks depending on the location. Stick leaders accounted for all of their troops and their condition and then linked up with each other and the K-Car via Radio for instructions.
With the K-Car delivering cannon fire, the Terrorists would often ‘Bombshell’ or scatter away and head for vegetation or any type of cover they could find. A skilled pilot and gunner developed the ability to push the enemy towards the main Sweep line.
By now, the G-Car sticks would be heading to positions awaiting the fleeing men. Zipped up between the K-Car, the oncoming Sweep and stop groups, there were few options left. In spite of all directions being covered, it was easy to lose sight of men once they entered the bush. In many cases, the original source of intelligence, the Scouts, were still atop their position and would give the FF Commander locations and routes of the quarry.
In constant communication with the Commander, the Sweep would move ahead. A skirmish line was preferred with the ability for each Trooper to have visual contact with the man to his right and left. It was now up to the boots on the ground to close with the enemy and kill them. Some of the Terrs would simply run as far and as fast as they could without trying to engage. Many stories have been written about the dry creek bed that the Trooper had been posted to and the fleeing Terr meeting with a quick death in a hail of gunfire. Often at point blank range to ensure that there was no wasting of ammunition.
Three rules the Sweep used to enhance their safety and success were 1) to never sweep up a hill. They would often flank to the top and sweep downwards. 2) never sweep into the sunlight. This was the responsibility of the FF Commander when placing initial sticks. 3) Always sweep from cover into open ground, never from open ground to cover. These were often difficult to adhere to due to the type of terrain in Rhodesia.
Ideally, the Sweep would make contact in a relatively short time, exploiting the confusion and speed with which the attack had come. The enemy were reportedly poor marksmen (one technique taught to the terrorists was to put the AK over the shoulder pointing backwards and run away!). From a distance, bullets usually cracked over their heads due to the rising propensity of the AK-47 on automatic. Upon contact troopers would either drop to one knee or go prone and begin to employ the marksmanship skills they had drilled into them. Scanning for possible cover and drilling their positions.
When they were sure of the location of the incoming fire, they would employ Fire and Movement drills familiar to infantrymen around the world. Depending on the amount of men available and the terrain, the Skirmish line would end up in a complete overrun of the position. The first F and M would split the men in half with one firing while the other moved forward, leapfrogging their way forward. The second method called for every other man to rush forward while the man next to him covered. The third was called the Pepper Pot. From a prone position, random men would jump up and move forward under cover of the others. This was the most difficult to counter and was most common amongst individual sticks.
If they moved into the bush, the pace would slow and the skill set of snap shooting on the Jungle Walk would be used. Troopers were taught to look through, not at the vegetation. It took a lot of experience to develop an eye for spotting the enemy. Many Terrs who were ill trained and ill motivated would simply try to hide, knowing that they were surrounded. Face to Face encounters were not uncommon for the Rhodesian Soldier.
Once the pressure had been put upon those willing to fight, anyone not hiding, fled. Stop groups were not always successful at bagging the last left alive, even though the FF Commander was able to orbit the battlefield and move the stop groups to strategic exit routes. At this point another Elite unit of the Rhodesian Army was brought in. The Tracking Combat Unit. Once ferried in, they would find the spoor of those who made it out and track them down until they were either found or the mission called off. So determined and keen were these men that one story stands out to the tenacity of the unit. After an escaped Terr fled the scene of a FireForce Mission, for 3 days and 3 nights, the trackers pursued him until the tracks stopped and he was found hiding behind a tree. He was captured and put into criminal proceedings. He protested against the brutality of the Trackers, saying he ‘was hunted down like a dog’!
Once the shooting stopped, the work continued. All bodies were recovered and recorded. Troopers were responsible for dragging the bodies of the men they had just killed into a central area where members of the Special Branch could investigate and look for intelligence. Depending on the size and length of the operation, Call Outs and Contacts could occur up to 3 times in a day.
The rotation of a typical RLI soldier would consist of 6-10 weeks in the bush with two weeks of R&R. Unlike America’s wars of the present and past, Rhodesia was fighting for its home, its literal ground underneath its feet. Should they lose the war, they would no longer exist as a nation. Motivation was high. Many Rhodesians served in an ongoing shooting war on its doorsteps for close to two decades and knew nothing except War and Soldiering. After Robert Mugabe took over the nation at the opening of the 1980’s, these exceptional soldiers from the RLI and the SAS, and other elite units moved on to provide their experience to South Africa and spend another decade fighting against Communism.
Fire Force is just one example of the Rhodesian’s COIN techniques. Even within Fire Force, there is much more to be researched. Many fine books have been written by Military Historians and by those who served. Two fine books written by the soldiers themselves are Chris Cocks, FireForce-One Man’s War in the Rhodesian Light Infantry and Charlie Warren’s RLI-Stick Leader.
Previously published on SOFREP 10.14.2013 by Dan Tharp.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider supporting our Veteran Editorial by becoming a SOFREP subscriber. Click here to get 3 months of full ad-free access for only $1