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 iInsurgents 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 en route 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 helping 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 Daks 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. 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 a 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 was 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 Cock’s “FireForce – One Man’s War in the Rhodesian Light Infantry”, and Charlie Warren’s “RLI – Stick Leader.” I also recommend visiting Professor JRT Woods website for more information.