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1st Battalion Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental Association ®


1980, The Final Parade of the Battalion

Rhodesian Light Infantry - The Final Parade

The final parade and ceremonial laying-up of the colours was planned for 17 October, two weeks before disbandment. Ken Reed commenced rehearsals two weeks prior to the day. He approached the task with his usual calm attention to detail and insistence on perfection. I was advised by the GOC that no invitations were to be issued. It was to be a quiet, low-profile parade, to be kept from the eyes of the nation. As usual we obeyed orders.

The parade was preceded by a visit from P. K. van der Byl a one-time minister of defence. He was entertained in the WOs’ and Sergeants’ mess and in the officers’ mess. He said farewell at both venues. Uninvited, he arrived at the final parade and sat as a common spectator.

The parade went off extremely well and provided an admirable farewell. The Corps of Signals Band accompanied the rigid foot drill with incomparable skill. I reviewed the parade, amazed at the large crowd of ‘uninvited guests’. During the ceremony we were surprised to see the arrival of a lone Alouette helicopter overhead, growling over the square and circling in a moving salute and farewell.

I then addressed the parade: “In a few minutes’ time this battalion, known to the country and to the world, for a short but golden period of history, as the First Battalion, the Rhodesian Light Infantry will march off the square and into history. To mark this dramatic, and to many of us, heart-rending occasion we will shortly pay a last tribute and say farewell to our colours which we have carried aloft with such pride and honour for more than 14 years of war. There is so much that one can say at a time like this, yet it is a sacred moment. A moment for personal meditation and reflection: - There is little I can say to alleviate our sorrow. If the world neither knows or mourns our passing, let us rest assured that the great captains of history and those who study military affairs will know that a fine regiment is lost to the honourable profession of arms this day.

“I should simply add that we, the final team of this wonderful regiment, must leave this square not only in grief but with intense pride, dignity and honour. We have much to be grateful for. I am eternally grateful to those fine men who served these colours before we did. To those among us who have lost loved ones, to those who, to this day bear the scars of war received while fighting under these colours. To those friends—and there are many of them—who have stood by us in adversity, to those who fought with such courage beside us. I am grateful that we can shout to the world this day: ‘There are our colours. They are unstained, undefeated, and triumphant. They are covered in glory.’

“I would like to think that those of our number who lost their lives are paraded with us this afternoon. I believe they would be proud. We have not let them down. I am reminded of Butch Fourie, an ordinary RLI soldier, who turned the words of the song Mull of Kintyre into The Lovers’ Lament to capture the spirit that prevails today:

Far I have travelled
On land and through sky
Dark are the mountains, the valleys are green
And oh our colours fly higher than high
We are the men of the RLI

RLI, you fought for your country
To see them survive was all that was needed

Now one lay wounded
He’s so far from home
And all the troopies they pray for his soul
And as his life leaves him he sees a heavenly choir
Then they carry him back to the RLI

Now as they give your country away
Fear not my brother
There will come one more day
When we’ll be called to give our last fight
For we are the men of the green and white

“Our Colours will continue to fly higher than high. We know that in years to come we will say to our children and to our loved ones with the greatest pride: ‘I served in the RLI.’ Finally, I offer a personal and humble prayer: May God bless our beloved regiment and those who, on this day and in the past, have served her with such honour. I thank God that we have done our duty. Amen.”

Bill Blakeway then conducted the parade ground service and the handing over of the regimental and Queen’s colours. These were spirited away to Salisbury Cathedral where traditional hangings were forbidden. They were simply ‘stored away’. We marched off the parade ground and into history to the tune of the regimental march and, finally, Auld Lang Synge.

The following day a large crowd assembled in our garden and in our civvies we stood to attention as the regimental flag, displayed on a moveable post, was lowered for the last time. I had tasted the unique flavour of true comradeship. That treasure born of shared hardship and danger, that sense of pride and affection that the profession of arms alone can produce.

‘Greater love hath no man than this—that he lay down his life for his friends.’

Perhaps the last word should be left to the Irish Para from 3 Commando: … I was talking to a mate of mine the other day—he’s a genuine Rhodie who served in Support Commando. His name is Andy, and his brother was in 3 Commando with us. You know, he has the most fantastic job and a great family, in fact a great life. I, while not on the same wedge as him, am also in fine shape materially and so on, but we both agreed that a day does not go by without thinking about our time in the RLI. We had a long chat and decided that although we were both well sorted out, we were just not as happy as we should be and suffered from extreme nostalgia, such as constantly surfing the web for images of the old days and looking for faces we knew. He actually found an old book that had The Log in it. There we were—two grown men in advancing middle age—looking longingly at a faded photo of an old sergeant and I found myself wishing that I could just have a few minutes to chat to him about the times we had. All my memories of the lads are ones where we are all young and super-fit and you expect to find that age has not wearied them or the years condemned (sorry for the plagiarism but it sounds so apt for this mood my mate and I find ourselves in most of the time). I have now resorted to taking extensive trips to the battlefields of World War I, which are right on our doorstep here in the UK. I seem to be searching for something over there. Maybe I am trying to connect or find what we had at the time. But you know the best line to describe what Andy and I have got came from the movie Apocalypse Now. In the opening sequence the lead character says about his time in Nam: “When I was in the bush I wanted to be back in the world, but when I was in the world I wanted to be back in the bush.” It’s bloody hard for a semi-literate Irish peasant such as me to understand all this longing to be back in the bush. I can’t smell wood smoke without thinking about the water boiler at Mount Darwin and having to keep it stocked up with wood on guard duty, so that all you Rhodies could have the first of your twenty showers of the day. Every time I hear a chopper … well you can guess the rest. Thanks for the chance to speak about it all ….

The historical record will show how these young men, led and commanded by an outstanding combination of tough and battle-hardened non-commissioned officers and a skilled and aggressive officer corps, inflicted massive damage on the ZANLA and ZIPRA insurgent forces. The ruthless efficiency of the joint Air Force and RLI Fireforce operations where the RLI was deployed by helicopter and later also by parachute was to account for the deaths of in excess of 12,000 insurgents during the course of the war at a rate of 160 enemy killed for every one of their own lost: a truly remarkable record. Throughout the war the RLI never ceased to learn, adapt and evolve militarily and as such provides many important lessons for students of modern warfare in how a small military structure making the maximum and creative use of the limited resources available can achieve so much with so little. Disbanded after the political settlement on 31 October 1980 the RLI marched into history. Gone but never to be forgotten, this is the story of “the incredible RLI”.

Following the creation and independence of the Republic of Zimbabwe in April 1980, the final parade of the RLI and the ceremonial laying-up of its colours took place at Cranborne Barracks on 17 October 1980. The commanding officer, J. C. W. Aust, recalls having been "amazed" by the large crowd of spectators surrounding the parade square, including former government minister P. K. van der Byl, who attended unannounced. A Rhodesian Air Force Alouette III helicopter also unexpectedly arrived overhead during the ceremony, in Aust's words, "circling in a moving salute and farewell". Two weeks later, the Rhodesian Light Infantry was disbanded on 31 October 1980