Wednesday, April 8, 2009

31 -- The Rhodesian Light Infantry

So, I had been baked to a crisp with BSAP and had won my first victory against an incursion of avocados.  It was time to get down to the business that had brought me to Rhodesia in the first place.
Our four week honeymoon was over.  Early on a Monday morning in December of 1976, I kissed Pegi goodbye at our Alexandra Park cottage and climbed into a neighbor’s car for my ride downtown to Major Lamprecht’s office.  There, I joined five other foreigners for our ride to Cranborne Barracks, the home of the Rhodesian Light Infantry.
As we made the 20 minute trip our new home just five miles from the Salisbury airport where I had landed a month before, I introduced myself to my fellow foreign recruits.  I can’t remember all of their names, but five who stood out in my mind were from Ohio, New Jersey, California, Belgium and France:
·         Ohio – I think he was from Dayton.  He had sandy colored hair and seemed to be about 25.  Having never served in the military, he was a security guard—yes, he was one of those strange guys that you often see as security guards.  You know, the ones who you are likely to see on the evening news as having gone coo coo.  He had brought a couple of expensive rifles with him, one a sniper rifle!  All he could talk about was the weapons he straddled between his legs.  You get the picture—it was almost sexual.  This guy was weird.  A couple of weeks into training, he disappeared—leaving his treasured weapons behind in the RLI armory as he fled the country.
·          New Jersey – He was a wiry guy in his early 30s, also with no previous military experience.  He had been a Registered Nurse in New Jersey and would eventually end up as a medic in RLI.  [When we left Rhodesia in 1978, we were on the same plane to New York and actually ended up following him through Customs.]
·         California – He was a dark-haired “tubby” guy who claimed to have been in the National Guard.  If he had been, it wasn’t in a combat role, but as some sort of office clerk.  [He was extremely paranoid about the CIA.  About six months after training, he came to our home for dinner.  He was convinced that I was a CIA informant!  He “took the gap” (left the country) soon thereafter.]
·         France – His name was Henri and we bunked next to each other during training.  He was in his mid-twenties, having served four years in the French paratroops.  He and I became good friends.  He had a knack for being able to understand the clipped speech of the Rhodesian NCOs who led our training.  Some people had trouble understanding his French accent.  So, he translated the Rhodesian English for me and I translated his French English for the Rhodesians!
·         Belgium -  Dirk was 45 years old and 50 pounds overweight.  He had been a Belgian paratrooper in the Congo and a French Foreign Legionnaire in Djibouti.  He lost the weight in three weeks and quickly became an exemplary soldier.  [After Rhodesia, Dirk became a mercenary.  The last I heard, he was in Mexico looking for a job as a “security specialist” along with some others whom he met in the RLI.]

          Rhodesian Light Infantry 

                   Cranborne Barracks    

When we arrived at Training Troop, we were assigned to two different training companies with a total of 60 recruits.  Most of the recruits were Rhodesians ages 17 or 18.  This was the “regular” army and everyone in RLI was a volunteer.  Rhodesians who were drafted served in “territorial” units and were trained at the large base outside of Bulawayo.  Most of the RLI kids were wild and, well, not very bright.  They were the tough kids, the troubled kids, the ones who had a brush with the police—much like what the American Army was like in the days before WWII.  In other words, they were not the crème de la crème of Rhodesian society.  They were the equivalents of high school dropouts.  Some of them had a pleasant personality, but were just uneducated and unsophisticated.
Foreigners had no choice to serve in other units.  Everyone started at RLI.  From there a few exemplary foreign soldiers would go on to serve in SAS as officers or other elite units, but RLI was the place for foreigners.  We made up less than 5% of the unit and although we were welcomed by the Rhodesian people, the “Rhodies” in RLI were not very happy to see us.  I think they saw us as arrogant jerks, who at best had lost all of our wars.  The Brits, Aussies, and French had lost their empires.  Americans had been spectacularly defeated in Vietnam.  Only the South Africans were welcomed as brothers in the same struggle.
And, really the Rhodies were right.  You really could not say that the foreigners were there with altruistic motives.  Most were running from something else or looking for acceptance because their own military had rejected them.  I wouldn’t have been there if the US Army had made room for me.  Of course, I had theological reasons for being there, but no one could understand that!  To the RLI soldiers, we were just a bunch of losers who had nothing to contribute to their struggle.
Of course, the Rhodies were also wrong.  I would later meet some of the more exemplary foreign soldiers who not only made important contributions to the Rhodesian war effort, but who also sacrificed limbs and lives for the cause.
[I highly recommend Robin Moore’s, Rhodesia, New York: Condor Publishing, 1977, if you can find it.  It is out of print, but I found a used copy through Amazon.  He chronicles the best of the best foreign soldiers in the Rhodesian struggle.]
Our first day at RLI was similar to what I had experienced seven years before at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, only 80 degrees warmer!  We stored our civilian clothes and were issued camo fatigues, boots, and R1 rifles (the South African manufactured version of the Belgian FN).  Training began with drill—all military training starts with drill.  After all, you have to learn how to march and work as a unit.  The first step in that is learning how to take that first step in unison so that you don’t stumble all over each other!
Of course, there were a few differences in drill for the British-influenced Rhodesians.  Coming to attention required the lifting and stomping of your right foot and saluting was done palm forward.  You have seen all the Hollywood movies, so you know what I am talking about.
There were some other differences.  We didn’t wash our own clothes—there were “batmen” to do that (Africans in the employ of the Army to handle menial tasks.)  Your batman would do your washing, tailor your uniforms and even spit shine your shoes for a little extra cash.  But, we were still responsible for cleaning our barracks and latrines.  After all, it wouldn’t be basic training if you didn’t have to scrub a urinal!
Although US Navy food had been pretty good, the Rhodesian mess hall served really tasty meals.  There was also a canteen next door where you could by Coke, Fanta and other soda drinks as well as chocolate bars any time during the day.  Coke was especially helpful to replenish your fluids in the heat of the day.  Cold cokes were transported by helicopters to troops in the field on resupply missions during fire fights. 
RLI was organized into four companies: 1,2 and 3 Commando plus Training Troop.  Since it was a “commando” unit, we never walked.  When we weren’t marching, we double-timed (ran) everywhere.  Not only did this maintain an elite esprit, it also contributed to excellent conditioning so that longer, forced runs were not that difficult.  
One thing that totally caught me off guard was the policy regarding haircuts.  I had kept my hair in a military style buzz cut ever since shaving off my beard when first arriving at Berachah Church in Houston.  Here, they wanted you to grow your hair out, since much of Rhodesia was a high plain several thousand feet above sea level.  Just a few minutes of exposure could result in a sunburned scalp.  (I was just recovering from scalp sunburn from my adventure on the BSAP rifle rage a week before.)   Headgear included floppy hats, caps that looked like baseball caps (with a section that folded down to protect the back of your neck), or uniform berets.   Uniforms in the bush were creative.  Some just wore green running shorts with boots or black tennis shoes, a camo t-shirt with a floppy hat or bandana to kept the perspiration out of their eyes--sometimes no head covering at all.   
RLI Troopers in the Bush

Photo taken for my Rhodesian residence permit during the 3rd week of training.  My hair is beginning to grow out.

Since there was no common leveling experience as shaving everyone’s heads, some other form of group humiliation was required.  At RLI, the common humiliating experience was to make the entire training company run in circles with their rifles held above their heads.  When your arms got tired, you ended up hitting yourself on the head.  I got pretty good at locking my elbows and throwing my shoulders back to endure the group punishments.  That worked fine as long as we were on the parade ground or other hard surface.  It got a little trickier if someone screwed up in a field of high grass.  But we will see how that literally tripped me up in a later installment.

For more info on the RLI see these following links:  
[Pictures on this page from the RLI Regimental Assoc.]

Next:  Field Trip


  1. I can't believe I forgot "Support Commando"! It was the really the 4th commando unit with Training Troop as a fifth component of RLI. If I had continued in RLI after my injury, I would have been in Support Commando as a combat driver.

    June 18, 2012

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