1st Battalion Rhodesian Light Infantry

RLI Unit History

The 1st Battalion, The Rhodesian Light Infantry, commonly the Rhodesian Light Infantry (1RLI or RLI), was a regiment formed in 1961 at Brady Barracks, Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia as a light infantry unit within the army of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. A year after its creation it relocated to Cranborne Barracks, Salisbury, where its headquarters remained for the rest of its existence. The Regiment became part of the Southern Rhodesian Army when the Federation dissolved at the start of 1964 and later that year reformed into a commando battalion. Regimental Colours were presented to the Battalion on 19th June 1965 by Sir Humphrey Gibbs on behalf of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

After Rhodesia's Unilateral Declaration of Independence on 11 November 1965, the RLI became one of the country's main counter-insurgency units during the Rhodesian Bush War, which pitted the government security forces against the rival communist guerrilla campaigns of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA).

For many years, the Battalion played a major part in anti-terrorist operations. Towards the end of 1976 the Unit began training for an airborne role and more far as can be ascertained, carried out more operational parachute descents than any other unit in the world with one soldier, Des Archer recording 85 descents. It was the Battalion's success in operations which led the then Prime Minister, The Hon. I. D. Smith M.P., at the Annual Regimental Sundowner in 1968 to propose a toast to "The Incredible RLI".

An exclusively white regiment, the RLI was made up wholly of professional soldiers until 1973, when conscripted national servicemen were first introduced. Foreign volunteers from across the world, many veterans of foreign conflicts, also joined and became a key part of the Regiment. The RLI was nicknamed "The Saints" or "The Incredibles", and regarded, through astounding success with both internal Fireforce operations in Rhodesia and external pre-emptive strikes against guerrillas based in Mozambique and Zambia, as one of the world's foremost exponents of counter-insurgency warfare.

The Unit was granted the Freedom of the City of Salisbury on 25th July 1975. On that day the Unit exercised the right to march through the City with bayonets fixed and Colours flying.

So prominent were the airborne aspects of typical RLI operations that the Battalion became an airborne parachute battalion in 1977. The RLI served under the short-lived government of Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979, the interim British government that followed and briefly in Zimbabwe before it was disbanded in October 1980.

The RLI's tactics and training contributed to repeated successes in its counter-insurgency operations. "The advantage this gave them," says United States Army Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Grossman, "added up to nothing less than total tactical superiority." Alexander Binda writes that the RLI "earned for itself an enviable reputation as one of the world's foremost anti-terrorist forces," while Major Charles D. Melson, chief historian of the United States Marine Corps, and calls it "The Killing Machine".

History of the 1st Battalion, the Rhodesian Light Infantry The RLI was originally formed on the 1st February, 1961.

The organisation and roles of the Battalion were changed in 1965 and the Unit became a Commando Battalion, earning members the right to wear the coveted Green Beret.

Formation: Wednesday 1st February 1961, at Brady Barracks, Kumalo, Bulawayo Formed from the No 1 Training Unit


1RLI The unit’s tasks in classical war are:

    • To operate in small, self contained patrols in any terrain by road or on foot for sustained periods by day and by night.
    • The execution of rapid strikes against enemy targets in any type of country.
    • To undertake deep penetration patrols in enemy dominated areas.
    • To undertake long range reconnaissance tasks.
    • To operate from all types of land or water vehicles, helicopters and other troop carrying aircraft.
    • The collection of specialized military intelligence.
    • The execution of demolition tasks.
    • The execution of mobile defence operations.
    • To operate in the normal infantry role if circumstances so dictate.

Five officers and seventy-nine men have been killed in action. Six officers and forty men have died of other causes whilst serving in the Battalion.

The Regimental War Memorial the Trooper" pictured here, was unveiled in their memory on the 1st February 1979. Picture from the book THE SAINTS published 2006.

“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 RTB for fuel.

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

Sir Walter Walker, KCB, CBE, DSO & Two Bars (1912-2001) former NATO Commander Also commanded the 99th Gurkha Infantry Brigade
After an unofficial visit to Rhodesia wrote in a letter to The Times, January 1978

The Rhodesian army cannot be defeated in the field, either by terrorists or even a more sophisticated enemy. In my professional judgment, based on more than 20 years experience of counter-insurgency and guerilla type operations, there is no doubt that Rhodesia now has the most professional and battle-worthy army in the world for this type of warfare. Here is a breed of men the like of which has not been seen for many a long age.