Is the Rhodesian Light Infantry the new Galula?

Alouette III of the Rhodesian Air Force No. 7 Squadron. From

Military historians and theorists certainly have unusual role models.

Witness the popularity of David Galula, a relatively obscure French officer from the Algerian War, whose writings are prominently featured in the US Army’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual.  Or T.E. Lawrence–the legendary “Lawrence of Arabia”–canonized by counterinsurgents, despite the fact that Lawrence himself waged an insurgency.  And let’s not forget the original “Dead Prussian”, Carl von Clausewitz, who, despite never winning a battle and never finishing his legendary book, lives on as a demigod of modern strategic thought.

(To be fair, Clausewitz is certainly one of the greatest experts in martial thinking, but his language is often quite difficult to pierce.  Then again, both of these traits seem to be common to many Prussians.  Ahem.)

Add to this list the Rhodesian Light Infantry, best known for their “Fire Force” tactics.  In fact, according to two former RLI soldiers, in an article at the new and improved Small Wars Journal, the Fire Force holds the key to victory in Afghanistan.

If the US Military is to become serious about winning the war on terror, it must abandon the shackles of past conventional tactics and become more adaptable at finding, engaging and killing an enemy that is ruthless, cunning, and fleet-footed. It takes a thief to catch a thief, a hyena to catch a hyena. Only by divesting itself of the limited or unsuccessful doctrines and tactics of the past, can the U.S. military begin to train soldiers to outwit the terrorists at their own game. To do that it is essential to learn to think, smell, and taste like the terrorists, watching them in the shadows and waiting, and when found, smashing them with overwhelming force in full view of the surrounding villages.

An excellent–and completely flawless–strategy for trouncing the Taliban and restoring stability in the face of the Karzai kleptocracy. 

I just have one question, though.

Where is Rhodesia?

Don’t waste your time trying to find Rhodesia on a map; it doesn’t exist any more.  Rhodesia was a former British colony predominantly governed by White settlers who fiercely resisted transitioning control of the country to the Black majority.  

Though the RLI waged a highly efficient counter-guerrilla campaign–in terms of the number of enemy killed–the White government eventually conceded to internationally-monitored elections, though the newly-elected leader, former ZANU insurgent Robert Mugabe, would form a long-standing dictatorship.  Nevertheless, the nation of Rhodesia ceased to exist, and Zimbabwe was born.

Of course, you wouldn’t suspect that by reading the article:

The Fire-Force doctrine and “Pseudo Team” concepts described in this paper were used by the Rhodesian Army during its successful counter-insurgency campaign from April 1974 to April 1980. During that period, Fire-Force units achieved an overall kill ratio of 80% per engagement, and it was not unusual for a Fire-Force to be engaged in a number of separate combat deployments during the course of a single day.

To be fair, the RLI developed a surprisingly effective airmobile force, especially given the size of Rhodesia’s air force (augmented with additional helicopters from South Africa).  Nevertheless, the RLI’s counter-guerrilla campaign was a product of necessity, not of strategic design:  Rhodesia lacked the requisite number of troops for saturation patrols, and never linked their military success with civic action. 

The authors also imply that Fire Force tactics drastically differ from standard airmobile tactics already in use in Afghanistan.  But though the equipment and the doctrinal terms might differ, the Fire Force’s raiding techniques are not too far removed from those seen in raids conducted over a dozen times a day by ISAF.

Fire Force doctrine called for spotting insurgent bases with the aid of observation planes, or the elite Selous Scouts.  Upon detecting guerrila camps, a quick reaction force, consisting of armed Alouette III helicopters (nicknamed “Kill-Cars” or “K-Cars”) in the attack role, plus transport Alouettes (nicknamed “G-Cars”) could be dispatched from nine forward operating bases dispersed throughout the country. 

The G-Cars could land four troops each at blocking positions around the insurgent camp, supported by 20mm cannon fire from the a door gun mounted on the K-Cars.  All the while, fixed-wing aircraft could drop a number of munitions to aid the blocking force. 

Once this cordon had been established, Rhodesian Light Infantry–RLI troops were cross-trained as paratroops–could then be dropped in by a C-47 at very low altitude, sometimes 300 feet above ground level.  After assembling, the sweeping force could  overrun the guerrilla camp and exploit the site.  Over the course of such raids, the RLI killed over 1600 guerrillas.

Of course, airmobile Quick-Reaction Forces (QRFs) and cordon raids are par for the course in Afghanistan.  The difference is that instead of jerry-rigged K-Cars, G-Cars, and spotter planes, we have specially-built AH-64 Apache gunships, UH-60 Black Hawk assault helicopters, and surveillance drones.

There’s also the curious inclusion of airborne troops aboard DC-3s, a result born more of  desperation than innovation.  As the Alouette III carried a mere four troops, and in short supply at that, it was understandably difficult to carry a sizeable heliborne force into combat zones.  Thus, the DC-3, carrying sixteen to twenty paratroopers, served as a heavy assault-carrying platform, much as UH-60 Black Hawks and CH-47 Chinooks serve today. 

The RLI was certainly a well-trained and effective force, even more so when one considers the immense resource constraints they faced.  Nevertheless, political forces were not on their side, and, as always, heliborne raids came with a heavy price.  Despite killing over four hundred guerrillas in a cross-border raid on a ZANLA base in Mozambique, the loss of two helicopters (one to an RPG) and fifteen troops marred the success of Operation Uric.  And though another cross-border raid Mozambique, Operation Mardon, would smash a large ZANLA base and destroy tons of supplies, it took great effort to evacuate over 140 Rhodesian troops, who had been stranded behind enemy lines.

In any event, always a fan for books on insurgency and airpower, I’m looking for a good book on the Rhodesian Civil War and the Rhodesian Light Infantry.  Suggestions?  (Besides the few pages dedicated to the RLI in the excellent “Airpower in Small Wars“, of course.)  

About Crispin Burke

Major Crispin Burke is a US Army aviator qualified in the UH-60 and LUH-72 helicopters. Major Burke has served in the 82nd Airborne Division, 10th Mountain Division, and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras. In what is likely a sad statement on the state of humanity, Major Burke's writings, musings, and irreverent cartoons have been featured at Small Wars Journal, National Defense University, Foreign Policy Online, Wired Magazine, Egremont, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Great Satan's Girlfriend.
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11 Responses to Is the Rhodesian Light Infantry the new Galula?

  1. Rex Brynen says:

    Good points, all. I think the argument can be taken a step further, in fact: Rhodesia’s success in racking up ZIPRA and ZANLA body-counts at the tactical and operational level tended to blind Rhodesian decision-makers to the fact that, strategically, they were were fighting an inevitably losing war to preserve white minority privilege. Consequently, by delaying the point at which they were willing to contemplate a real and rapid transition to majority rule, the white elite lost an opportunity to negotiate a better transition under better circumstances earlier.

    • JMA says:

      And you know this to be the truth how? I would have thought that you would have out grown the left wing political rhetoric of the 60s and 70s by now. Last time on another forum I challenged what you stated with such certainty you went quiet. Will it be the same this time? Tell me Rex Brynen what you know about the proposed Rhodesian Constitution of 1961 and its provisions?

  2. MikeF says:

    Tim Bax wrote a memoir, “3 Sips of Gin.” My copy is on its way. May be worth checking out.

    To whit, don’t forget to include David Kilcullen into your “exotic” foreign experts category.

  3. A Serving Officer says:


    Leroy Thompson has written some decent, very basic introductory stuff on the RLI and Selous Scouts. For more detailed stories, just put “Rhodesia war” in the search engine at and stand back. Marston and Malkasian’s book has a decent chapter on Rhodesia also. Chris Cocks’ two books seem decent for a trooper level perspective of the RLI.

  4. Seadragon says:

    Your “knock-down” comment ‘Where is Rhodesia?’ betrays precisely the sort of smug and short-sighted attitude that has prevented the real and valuable lessons of the Rhodesian experience from being learned. Yes, the Rhodesians lost in the end, and rightly so, because their position was politically unsustainable. Unfortunately that has led many to overlook the tactical lessons learned by the Rhodesians. According to J.R.T. Wood, the pre-eminent historian of Rhodesia, the Rhodesians could never muster more than 1,500 combat troops on any one day of the war (remind me again how many we have in Afghanistan?), yet they managed to hold onto a territory roughly the size of Iraq for 15 years, in the face of international sanctions, and against two determined and well supported insurgent groups (backed by the Soviet Union and China respectively) that, at their peak numbered around 40,000 (last estimate I saw for the Taliban was around 30,000, but that was admittedly a while ago), killing some 40,000 insurgents along the way. It strikes me that, at the tactical level at least, they must have got some things right, and maybe, just maybe, we should be humble enough to be open to the idea that those rag-tag old-fashioned Rhodesians with their jerry-rigged equipment might have a thing or two to teach us. Perhaps some of their tactical and equipment innovations might even help us to better use the “specially-built AH-64 Apache gunships [correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t those specially built to take on the Soviet tank horde?], UH-60 Black Hawk assault helicopters, and surveillance drones” we have. The Small Wars article is not great, and there is sadly a lack of serious analysis of the Rhodesian War out there (a product of the ‘Where is Rhodesia?’ syndrome), but J.R.T. Wood’s book on Fireforce ‘Counter-Strike from the Sky’, while limited, is worth reading.

    • JMA says:

      Isn’t this Starbuck character a hoot? Having stated clearly that he has made his mind up asks if there is anything on the Bush War and the RLI to read. Just an example of why the Rhodesian War needs a definitive history to be written (perhaps by Professor JRT Wood). Without such a history people like Starbuck will be able to present an uneducated viewpoint unchallenged.

  5. Bill Wiggill says:

    Some interesting reading on third party views about the Regiment. The RLI Association is now producing a book due for publication in the New Year titled “Africa’s Commandos” The book will be a 50/50 divide between text and photographs. The text is the contribution of no single author but by the officers and men who served in the RLI and will be more focused on the tactics and application of what war materiel we had into victory on the battlefields from 1961 to the laying up of our colours 1n October 1980. This will probably be the last definitive RLI history to be published, perhaps forever.

  6. Andrew Reynolds says:

    I have a agree with seadragon. I have done extensive research on the Rhodesian war and on several books on the subject. I am also ex-mil. One point seadragon cold have mentioned is that the Rhodesian forces fought their war for 15 years at a fraction of the cost of the afgan war. The Rhodesians being completely outnumbered and fighting against 2 communist blocs in the continuation of the proxy wars, became so efficient that they practically reinvented the CRW of that period. I find them so tactically advanced that I would only assume that other nations would study them. I was puzzled how the Rhodesians (and South Africans) had mine proof vehicles and tactics for dealing with mines long before the coalition forces caught up with the problem in Iraq and Afghanistan? Anyhow, I think we can learn alot from the Rhodies to this day…

    • Bernard says:

      I stumbled on this string long after it started. In the seventies I put many miles behind my Leopard mine protected vehicle. It was underpowered, uncomfortable, far from weather proof with its steel meshed canvas cover roof designed to pop off in the event of a mine detonation. But I owe my life to it.
      It was an ingenious vehicle in regards to features designed to not only increase the survival of its inhabitants, but also to ability to reassemble it and have it back on the road in hours. Russian or Chinese anti tank mines most often did little damage to the V shipped hull. Wheels well forward of the driver and we’ll rear of the back of the vehicle absorbed a good deal of the detonation. Both the front end, and rear end were each attached to the vehicle by four shear bolts. The engine at the rear along with fuel tank blew away from the vehicle. Obviously no fuel in the vicinity of the disabled vehicle is a good thing.
      While doing rural telephone work I had a front wheel detention, and barring a few injuries I came out unscathed.

  7. Bill Wiggill says:

    I would like to correct a statement made by Starbuck on Operation Mardon “it took great effort to evacuate over 140 Rhodesian troops, who had been stranded behind enemy lines.” I was on that operation and no troops were stranded and had to be evacuated. Op Mardon was a series of camp strikes in collusion with the SAS and both the infiltration into and the extraction from Mozambique were carefully planned and executed. There is an excellent report in the new RLI Book, The African Commandos, soon to be published.

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