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Nairobi, Kenya
I an ex member of both 7 and 8 Squadron's of the Rhodesian war spending most of my operational time on Seven Squadron as a K Car gunner. I was credited for shooting down a fixed wing aircraft from a K Car on the 9 August 1979. This blog is from articles for research on a book which I HAVE HANDED THIS MANUSCRIPT OVER TO MIMI CAWOOD WHO WILL BE HANDLING THE PUBLICATION OF THE BOOK OF WHICH THERE WILL BE VERY LIMITED COPIES AVAILABLE Contact her on yebomimi@gmail.com The latest news is that the Editing is now done and we can expect to start sales and deliveries by the end of April 2011

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Fire Force

The Rhodesian Light Infantry’s most characteristic deployment was the “fire force” reaction operation. This was an operational assault or response composed of, usually, a first wave of 32 soldiers carried to the scene by three helicopters and one DC-3 Dakota (called “Dak”), with a command/gun helicopter and a light attack-aircraft in support. The latter was a Cessna Skymaster, armed with two machine-guns and normally two 30 mm rocket pods and two small napalm-bombs (made in Rhodesia and called “Fran-tan”). The RLI became extremely adept at this type of military operation.

A Commando would be based at an airfield with usually four helicopters, one DC-3 Dakota and the Cessna (known as the “Lynx”). The helicopters were Alouette Mk IIIs (in 1979 a few Bell UH-1s were used) of which one was equipped with a 20mm cannon and seating arrangement for the commander of the operation who was usually the officer in charge of the Commando. This machine/entity was called the “k-car” with a crew of three (pilot, gunner, and commander). The other three helicopters were known as “g-cars” and carried four soldiers (”troopies”) along with the pilot and his helper (technician—called “tech”). This carrying capacity of the g-car dictated the combat organisation of the Commando, which was called a “stop”. Stop-1 was assigned to the first g-car, stop-2 to the second, stop-3 to the third. Stop-4 to stop-8 were for the Dakota.

Each stop had four soldiers. One was the commander, with a radio, a FN FAL, 100 rounds (7.62 × 51 mm NATO), several types of grenade. One was the machine gunner, with a FN MAG machine-gun and carrying 400 rounds. The other two were riflemen with a FN and 100 rounds, grenades, rifle grenades and medical equipment. During 1979 one of these two was issued a radio.

The Dak carried five stops. Two on the port side, three on the starboard. Apart from the parachutes the equipment was identical to the heli-stops. The gunner had to jump with his machine-gun strapped to his side and carrying 400 rounds.

These eight stops (32 men) were deemed the “first wave”. The fire force (of which there were only three main ones most of the time) had responsibility for huge swathes of the country (many thousands of square miles each). Any sightings of the enemy within the fire-force zone was reported and a siren sounded in the base. The first wave rushed to their air-vehicles (after of course donning their webbing and packs—the para-stops went first to the tent where their equipment and parachutes were held and the dispatchers (often their own) waited to help them), whilst normally the second wave rushed to the lorries, though if it was nearby they were held at the airfield to be picked up by the g-cars. “Stops” took turns in heli/para/first/second wave after each scene. The lorry-element was very often an important factor in refueling of helicopters and recovering of deceased persons (enemy and civilian) and parachutes. Sometimes there was a small third wave if numbers permitted, though often only the first-wave was involved.

The most important factors (apart from the reaction of the enemy and the terrain) in a fire force operation were firstly the reliability of the sighting of the enemy and secondly the skill of the fire force commander. In the first case the majority of successful contacts were due to the skills of the Selous Scouts (many of which were former enemy). They alone had the capacity to insert observation patrols (OP’s) into the bush without being noticed by the inhabitants. In the second case the difficulty of commanding the scene was extreme and good fire force commanders were highly prized by the troopies.

How soon the enemy heard the approaching helicopters and his reaction to it was of course decisive. Wind direction and speed, the presence of a tree-covered ridge-line or a multitude of other factors would make the difference of life or death. Where he was caught in unfavourable terrain for him (like a village surrounded by open ground) he had no chance and normally none escaped (unless it was near nightfall).

Although the number of operational parachute jumps was remarkable (by far the most occasions by any one battalion—though it is possible that one or more French Para Battalions (for example: 2/BCCP) deployed more men into action by parachute in total - in the First Indochina War), the majority of troopies were carried into action by the helicopters. In these fire force operations the battalion killed or captured (the great majority killed) around 3000 of the enemy (the vast majority being ZANLA—Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) in the last three years of the war, whilst losing less than two hundred killed and wounded in action (not counting those casualties incurred in patrolling or external ops, or other causes).

Tactics of fire-force operations

(The following paragraphs are for the standard Fireforce assault of one K-car, three G-cars, a Dakota and the Lynx. Often there was no Dakota involved, or more G-cars. When in 1979 Cheetas (the Bell Hueys) were introduced, a Commando might go into action with two or three of these, each carrying two (sometimes three) stops. There were many times when there was no Lynx.)

The K-car was always the first to arrive at the scene. The K-car Commander, using the radio call-sign One-Nine, Two-Nine, Three-Nine, or Four-Nine, depending on the Commando, had to first attempt to confirm the precise area where the enemy had been spotted by the OP (Observation Post). Usually the terrain was extremely broken and covered in vegetation, which made this task particularly difficult. The K-car Commander then had to make a plan—where to position the first stops, where to make the main sweep, and in what direction? The first stops to arrive were always transported in by the G-cars, which followed the K-car in column (sometimes a long way behind, for they were a little slower than the K-car). Sometimes the stops were dropped immediately, but on many occasions the G-cars would circle the scene several times (to the delight of the troopies) before #-nine made his final decisions. Very often the K-car occupants would see the enemy (or any perceived enemy), and then the Helicopter Gunner/Technician would attack them with his 20 mm cannon, using bursts of two to four shells (but no more than five). The accuracy of this firing was extraordinary, due to the machine flying in tight anti-clockwise circles just a few hundred feet above the ground. The 20 mm cannon poked out of the port side, thus there was no “lead in”, and the exploding high velocity-shells would impact right next to and often on their intended targets—very few persons caught by this fire were ever found alive by the troopies.

Usually the G-car stops were positioned in areas where the enemy would most likely run through (often a stream-bed or dry “donga”), where there was more vegetation—therefore attempting to surround or cut-off enemy movement. If there was a hill or ridge that gave outstanding observation, then more than one stop might be placed there. Sometimes G-car stop groups would form the main sweep line immediately they were deployed instead of the Paras, depending on the circumstances at hand.

Whilst the K-car was looking for, or engaging the enemy, #-nine also had to decide on where to drop the Para-stops (and direct any strikes by the Lynx). The Drop Zone (DZ) position was of course dictated by the enemy’s own position, and the terrain, but often there would be no clear DZ nearby, in which case the Para-stops would be dropped a mile or so away to be picked up and repositioned by the G-cars. Usually the Para-stops were dropped as close as possible, which resulted on numerous occasions with the Paras being fired at whilst floating down for a few seconds (drop heights normally varied from about 400 feet (120 m) to 600 feet). This firing was always ineffective, as no troopies were ever hit. There was also a great variation on the dropping patterns of these stops, as sometimes they were all dropped at once, sometimes individually, or any combination thereof.

Whilst all this was taking place, one of #-nine’s main concerns was where the main sweep would occur. In a perfect scenario, the Para-stops would form the main sweep, and the G-car stops would carry out blocking actions. In reality, there was vast variation, so that there was little difference in being Para, or in the first-wave Helicopter assault. First-wave strikes in the G-cars however were generally the best stops to be in for those wishing action.

The Sweep

Each stop made a sweep every time it moved to a new location. This meant (usually) all four troopies moving in line formation, spaced apart according to the terrain. In flat open land this may mean as much as twenty-five yards or so. In heavy vegetation this dropped to a couple of yards or so. Even then it was common to lose sight of fellows, pushing alone through the denseness. Whether in the main sweep (which might be composed of any number of stops available) or in the one stop, the tactics were the same and very simple—to walk over the ground looking everywhere. If something happens, like seeing an enemy or being shot at—now there is infinite variation.

The speed of this movement varied. Where it was thought (usually deemed by #-nine) the enemy lurked, the sweep would slow very much. When the troopies could smell certain things the sweep became even more slow, edging forward inch by inch, rifles held with butt on shoulder but pointing down (safety catch perhaps flipped to fire). Machine-gunners might remove the sling from their shoulders.

Usually encounters with the enemy were resolved with great speed (a typical fireforce action would take hours, firing—a few seconds). In the great majority they were killed outright by swift shooting (sometimes hand-grenades were used). When possible prisoners were taken (though the Commandos were lectured to take more, for the more prisoners they took the more effective fire-force would become through the Selous Scouts). More prisoners could have been taken if specific drills were devised and taught to troopies. By far the most important factor in these deadly encounters was the action of individuals—most especially by the enemy.

The great majority of the enemy encountered did not offer effective resistance. It was reckoned by the troopies that about one in ten were “hard core”, who were respected thus. It was not unusual that one man would fight back against four or twenty-four troopies (sometimes the K-car too) all by himself (in actually or effect). There were some of these that committed suicide in preference to the risk of capture.

The Stop position

The other main experience was for an individual stop to sweep to a position thought most likely to intercept a fleeing enemy, and stay there for up to several hours (perhaps being moved around and maybe later on joining the main sweep). More often than not nothing happened but on many occasions one or more of the enemy came down the (usual) stream bed, or nearby. If there was a clear view then it was easy—once again just a few seconds shooting (sometimes less than a second). Sometimes the process was repeated in the same spot, with fire being opened a bit earlier. Sometimes the enemy were seen behind in which case the stop immediately pursued. There were many occasions where the action was not so tidy due to terrain/vegetation—or even the sunlight blinding them.

Other Operations

In addition to the fire force, the four Commandos were very often used in patrolling actions, mostly inside Rhodesia but often in Zambia and Mozambique. In these operations troopies were required to carry well over 100 lb (45 kg) of equipment for five to ten (or so) days on one patrol and come back and repeat - on many occasions immediately. This could last for weeks and sometimes months. Also, there were many attacks on enemy camps in Zambia and Mozambique. Most of these involved two or more Commandos. The Rhodesian SAS (which was almost exclusively used for external ops and more highly-trained than the RLI) were often present (as of course the Selous Scouts).

* 1: Patrolling: In these operations the stop of four was not used (unless of course there were only four men in the patrol—even then their call-sign was not called a ’stop’). Patrols took place in Zambia and Mozambique though most patrolling took place in Rhodesia. Patrolling bush trips were not popular with the troopies due to the extreme arduous nature of it, and the lack of action compared to fireforce (though there were long occasions when most fireforces saw little or no action). A Commando could be more tired-out from a patrolling bush-trip than the most intense fire-force period even if more casualties occurred than usual in the latter. However, the nature of patrolling work greatly expanded the minds of the troopies. Patrols varied from moving about during the day and setting up ambushes at night, to OP work—where a suitable position was occupied to observe the locality. Extreme precautions were made to be clandestine on these OP’s, though it was often felt that the locals knew of the presence.

Regardless of type of patrol, a night-march (possibly more) was made to the area. Conditions could make this task most difficult—especially when it was so dark that the troopies were completely blind. Water was a concern—though it was always found. Discipline on these patrols was extreme. The civilians were not regarded as hostiles by the troopies. There were numerous occasions when they helped each other and process of great empathy took place. If a patrol learned of enemy presence it immediately attacked. Pursuit might occur, where the troopies ran as fast as they could through the bush carrying their bergens—sometimes for miles and into the night. There were times when patrols were ambushed (not formal ambushes). Patrols in Mozambique could be the most hazardous due to the violent reaction of FRELIMO (also known as FPML).

* 2: Assaults on bases in Zambia (ZIPRA camps) and Mozambique (ZANLA camps). There were many of these (including one in Botswana). The outcome varied wildly from total “lemons” to the worst days in the battalion’s history. The larger raids were a gathering of the Fireforces and were like in execution, save for the greater scale and planning and logistics. Just before the assault Canberra and Hunter jets would bomb the target. Just like Fireforce surprise was most important. For example, the entire battalion participated in an attack on ZIPRA camps in Zambia in October 1978 and killed no person, whereas there was an attack in November 1977 on a ZANLA camp in Mozambique by three of the Commandos (with the Rhodesian SAS) in which more than a thousand persons were killed. There were several raids by individual Commandos. Where there was the presence of the FPLM, resistance was greater.

The stop of four was used in these raids (though they were organised into larger entities). The plans for these raids varied from sudden and fairly simple (subject to change on the fly) to highly intricate. The political situation interfered on occasions and this was much resented. The troopies always thought that these operations were most important.

The importance of air power

Fire Force without air power is inconceivable. As the enemy did not have air power and was unable to shoot down significant numbers of aircraft (remarkably few helicopters, and no Dakotas (at least one was damaged by enemy fire in flight), were shot down in this conflict), Fire Force operations were invincible as long as the infantry performed correctly. The movement of the circling helicopters was enough to drown out the sound of the dropped attackers (there was no shouting or talking in the sweeps) so that often they surprised the hiding defenders - in effect ambushing them. When all the helicopters departed it tended to get more dangerous though the stops always carried on with their task.

The terrain varied wildly, from villages surrounded by open fields on flat plains, to dense vegetation amongst huge boulders on mountain slopes. Usually there was plenty of cover. Where the enemy ran and a stop had been placed by the Fire Force commander in the right place the hunt was usually easy. The difficult thing was to walk up to the enemy hiding in a house or cave or behind a boulder and kill or capture him. Many a troopie clawing through obstacles found himself very suddenly right by another armed man he was supposed to kill or capture. Though the event was shocking (and often results in one or more persons being killed), it is far more efficient than firing or dropping ordnance from air and overall reduces civilian casualties.

The dedication of the Rhodesian Air Force to army operations was total. Even when patrolling the RLI (or any other unit of the Rhodesian Army) could expect prompt G-car response in any crisis.


The Rhodesian Light Infantry was an outstanding example of infantry capable of performing any task ordered, no matter the means of transport (whether crossing the Zambezi river in little boats, walking long miles with huge weights, or riding high in G-cars and Daks), no matter what type of operation. Though the enemy was always at a disadvantage in having no radios or air support, the stops always continued in seeking them out even when all the helicopters had to go away for fuel.

The troopies walked close to the enemy; they believed that this was the most efficient way of dealing with him.

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I welcome comments from everyone on my book Choppertech.
I am interested especially on hearing from former ZANLA and ZIPRA combatants who also have thier story to tell.