The RLI's characteristic deployment was the Fireforce reaction operation, first created at Mount Darwin and Centenary in June 1974. 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 (Rheims 337), armed with two machine-guns and normally two 30 mm rocket pods and two small napalm bombs called Frantan, which were manufactured in Rhodesia. The RLI became extremely adept at the execution of 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"). One of these helicopters was equipped with a MG 151/20 20mm cannon and seating arrangement for the commander of the operation, usually the officer commanding of the Commando. This helicopter was called the K-car with a crew of three consisting of pilot, gunner, and the commander. The helicopters used in the operations were typically Alouette Mk IIIs, though in 1979 a few Bell UH-1s were used.
The other three helicopters, known as G-cars, were armed with machine-guns (originally one FN MAG replaced with twin Browning .303 machine-guns each) and carried four soldiers – a section leader, two riflemen, and a machine-gunner – along with the pilot and his technician (called a "tech") who also operated its machine-guns. 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, and Stop-3 to the third. Stop-4 to Stop-8 was paratroopers in the Dakota.
Each stop had four soldiers called a "stick” One was the commander, with a radio, a FN FAL, and 100 rounds (7.62 × 51 mm NATO). 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 riflemen was issued a radio. The Dakota carried five stops with 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.
These eight stops, or 32 men total, were designated the "First Wave". Each Fireforce had responsibility for huge swathes of the country of many thousands of square miles. Typically there were only three main Fireforces. Any sightings of the enemy within the Fire Force zone were reported and a siren sounded in the base. The First Wave troops rushed to their helicopters after donning their webbing and packs. The Paratroopers went to the tent where their equipment and parachutes were stored and the dispatchers and off-duty comrades would help them kit out.
Normally the Second Wave, called the Land tail, rushed to trucks, although if "jousting" or the "scene" was nearby they would wait at the airfield to be picked up by the helicopters after the First Wave had been deployed. Soldiers alternated as Heliborne, Paratroopers, Land tail, and Off-duty throughout the Bush Trip. The Land tail was often an important factor in refuelling of helicopters and recovering of deceased enemy and civilian persons, parachutes, and enemy weapons and equipment. Sometimes there was a small third wave if numbers permitted. Quite often only the First Wave was engaged in the action. In general, most soldiers preferred to be in the Heliborne First Wave.
The most important factors, apart from the reaction of the enemy and the terrain, in a Fireforce operation were the reliability of the intelligence and the skill of operation commander. The majority of successful engagements were enabled by the skills of the Selous Scouts (many of which were former enemy). They had the capacity to insert observation posts into the bush without being noticed by the inhabitants. In the latter the difficulty of commanding the scene was extreme and good Fireforce commanders were highly prized by the troops.
The enemy's advanced warning of the approaching helicopters and his reaction were decisive factors in the coming engagement. Wind direction and speed, the presence of a tree covered ridge line or a multitude of other factors could make the difference between life and death. Where the enemy was caught in unfavourable terrain such as a village surrounded by open ground, normally no one escaped unless it was near nightfall. Although the number of operational parachute jumps was remarkable, the majority of troops were carried into action by helicopter.
Tactics of Fireforce 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 Bell UH-1s 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 no Lynx was used.
The K-car was always the first to arrive at the scene. The K-car Commander, using the radio Callsign 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 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 devise a plan of attack including initial placement of the first stops and where and in what direction to make the main sweep. The first stops to arrive were ferried in by the G-cars, which followed the K-car in a 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 before Operational commander made his final decisions. Very often the K-car occupants would spot the enemy, and then the Helicopter Gunner/Technician would attack them with his 20 mm cannon, using short bursts of fire. The accuracy of this sort of fire was extraordinary, due to the helicopter flying in tight counter-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 were ever found alive after being hit by fire from the 20 mm cannon.
Typically the first stops were positioned in areas where the enemy was thought likely to pass through, often a riverbed or dry donga, where there was more vegetation impeding enemy movement. If there was a hill or ridge that gave outstanding observation, then stops might be placed there. Depending on the circumstances, the heliborne stops could form the main sweep line immediately upon insertion instead of waiting for the paratrooper elements of the force.
Whilst the K-car was looking for or engaging the enemy, the operational commander also had to designate a drop zone to drop the Para-stops and direct any strikes by the Lynx. The Drop Zone position was dictated by the enemy's position and the terrain. In the event that there was no suitable drop zone nearby, Para-stops were dropped as close as possible to the combat zone and redeployed by the G-cars. Para drop altitudes normally varied between 400 feet (120 m) to 600 feet. Usually the Para-stops dropped as close as possible, which resulted on occasions in the Paratroopers taking fire while in the air, usually to little effect. 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.
While all this was taking place, one of the operational commanders’ main concerns was where the main sweep of the operation 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 such situational variation in combat operations that there was little functional difference between paratroopers or heliborne soldiers. However heliborne stops generally saw the most action.
Each stop made a sweep every time it moved to a new location with all four soldiers moving in a sweep line formation, spaced apart according to the terrain. The distance between soldiers would vary on flat open land from as great as twenty five metres to just a few meters apart in heavy vegetation. In heavy vegetation it was common for soldiers to lose sight of their comrades, leaving them alone to push through the dense bush. It was more effective to be spaced as far apart as possible.
Whether in the main sweep line or in an individual stop group’s sweep, the same tactics were utilised. The sweep line would proceed forward with each soldier scanning line of sight ahead through the bush and undergrowth. The speed of this movement varied depending on the terrain and density of the bush, but when the troops sensed enemy ahead the sweep slowed markedly, edging forward inch by inch, rifles at ready and pointed ahead with the safety catches off. MAG gunners would bear the gun at the hip, held by a sling from their shoulders.
Usually encounters with the enemy ended quickly: while a typical Fireforce operation could last hours, a fire fight could last only seconds. In the great majority of cases, the enemy were killed outright by swift shooting. Prisoners were taken on occasion and although the Commandos were requested to take prisoners wherever possible, in a close-quarter fire fight and in thick bush, it was often difficult to determine an enemy's intentions. Prisoners were usually extremely valuable as they might reveal important intelligence to Special Branch or Selous Scouts, and captured guerrillas frequently turned to work for the Rhodesian Security Forces, sometimes, from 1978, as Security Force Auxiliaries
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. 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 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. Often pursuit of the enemy became difficult due to terrain, vegetation, and climate.
A Fireforce operation without air power would be impossible to accomplish: as the enemy lacked air power and effective anti-aircraft weaponry, Fireforce operations were generally effective as long as the infantry performed correctly. The sound of the circling helicopters during the operation was intense enough to drown the sound of the infantry sweeps, so that on occasion they surprised the hiding defenders, effectively ambushing them. The terrain varied wildly from villages surrounded by open fields to dense vegetation covering rock outcrops on mountain slopes. There was generally plenty of cover.
Where the enemy fled at the sound of the "First Wave", and stops were correctly placed by the operational commander, the operations were efficiently carried out. 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 cooperation of the Rhodesian Air Force with Army operations was exceptional. Even when patrolling, any unit of the Rhodesian Army could expect prompt G-car response in a crisis.