To War in Tennis Shoes – Rhodesia’s Fire Force

By Richard Cecil

With “Operation Thrasher” in eastern Rhodesia

Narrative reproduced by Ed Allsop from page 5 of The Daily Telegraph UK Edition dated Saturday February 26th, 1977 

Rhodesian Light Infantry men are skilled and battle-hardened in counter-insurgency operations and their airborne “fire force” troops are in the front line of the battle against Communist-trained insurgents now creeping into Rhodesia in larger numbers than ever before.

The support commandos were already in action when I arrived soon after dawn at a remote airfield in eastern Rhodesia. They had been sent to kill a group of insurgents holed up on a rocky hillside 30 miles away.

Sheeting rain had turned the airfield into yellow mud. While I waited, I looked over a Douglas Dakota aircraft, a veteran of Orde Wingate’s Burma campaign.

The commandos use the “Dak” to drop on guerrilla positions, jumping from 500 feet.

For the jump they wear their normal battle order of a tee-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes.

Rifles are strapped to their sides with string and their ammunition pouches are filled.

The commando unit returned at dusk, muddy and weary. They had killed 10 of their enemy and lost one man, a young White soldier of 22 who had just been married.

Young soldiers

They were subdued and talked quietly among themselves, their thoughts on the day’s fighting and their dead comrade.

They were young, mostly 18 or 19. The veteran corporals were in their early twenties, and many were scarred by old bullet wounds.

Late the following morning the war began again. A police patrol 40 miles to the south of us ran into another group of guerrillas. Both sides saw each other simultaneously and in the exchange of fire a Black policeman was shot through the thigh.

Within minutes “Stop 1,” the first “stick” of the fire force, was on its way in helicopters, followed swiftly by a tracker team. It soon became clear that a small guerrilla group “bumped” by the police was part of an unusually large concentration.

Helicopter pilots estimated between 30 and 40 men and coolly reported by radio that they had been missed by a couple of rockets but were taking hits from small arms fire.

My “stick” was next in. We prepared to sprint down the landing apron as the first helicopter returned from the contact area.

The machines rotor blades had been hit and there was a delay of five minutes while the pilot filed down the rough edges of the bullet holes and covered them with sticky tape. Then we were in and away.

Only Cpl Hennie Du Toit commanding the “stick” had headphones to listen to the briefing from the contact area.

The only order he gave his men was to jab his finger towards a narrow strip of bush between some maize fields as we swooped down to land. Everyone knew what he meant.

The soldiers spread out and began the sweep, moving slowly and firing into denser patches of bush.

The fighting is often a series of duels. I remembered how the soldier had died the day before. A guerrilla had jumped out of the grass two yards in front of him and cut him down with a burst of automatic fire. The soldier had managed to fire one round before the guerrilla fired, but it went wide.

Russian rifle

A dark movement in the cornfield on the right: the machine gunner whirls and fires. The rapid rattle of the guerrilla’s automatic fire and the heavy crashing of the soldier’s machine gun are simultaneous.

The soldier stoops and second later his thick brown arm holds up the Russian rifle above the waving corn. The sweep moves on. The bush is so thick that a man can remain hidden only a yard away.

A huge explosion and a black hole appears in the ground on my right. Cpl Du Toit is thrown backwards and at the same time the bush erupts as unseen automatic weapons open up on us.

The blast was a rocket and the insurgents had waited until we were 15 yards away before opening fire. The soggy ground took most of the shrapnel, but the corporal had blood streaming down his face from a splinter in the head. The rest of us were untouched.

The Rhodesians, with their fingers curled lightly round their triggers and their safety catches “off,” fired back instantly, at the same time flinging themselves sideways, forwards and back into the thicket available cover.

30 yards range

The ground was flat, with no solid cover, although we were at least hidden from view. The insurgents had the advantage of a hollow in the ground and some thick trees.

The volume of fire put down in the first minute and a half was intense and the noise deafening. With no more than 30 yards between both sides the bushes were cut to pieces.

The corporal withdrew the “stick” about 15 yards to better positions and we were reinforced by a young officer, Lt Neil Jackson, with four soldiers. He called in an air strike and within 30 seconds one of the circling aircraft came sweeping down.

We were so close to the guerrilla’s positions that the plane had to fire its rockets well behind us. They passed low over our heads before crashing into their targets.

Chinese grenades

Chinese stick grenades started exploding just in front of us., showing the crouching troops with mud and debris. The Rhodesians replied in kind, hurling the heavy hand bombs, and then flattening themselves to avoid splinters.

I was now on the extreme left of the line, on the edge of cover, and could see the lighter Soviet-made bullets ricochet of the thick undergrowth, while the heavier Rhodesian sliced through everything to their targets.

Now the light was fading, and I edged out of cover to try to get film of the enemy. I saw the muzzle flash of a machine gun some 30 yards in front of me and was looking for the man behind it when the guerrilla saw me and swung his gun on to me.

As the bullets spattering up the mud on my left came towards me, I remembered that some fool had said “Terrorist always shoot high in thick bush.” The burst stopped 12 inches short of me and, as I rolled back into cover, I heard the machine-gunner fitting a new magazine.

The firing continued for about an hour after dark, each burst momentarily silencing the chorus of frogs in the wet maize fields. Two wounded Rhodesians were evacuated to hospital via helicopter while the others moved up to spend a wet night in ambush round the enemy.

The action finished early the next morning. Teams went out to find the wounded and those who had escaped. The dead were loaded into helicopters.

The insurgents had lost six dead and probably some wounded. Three Rhodesians had minor wounds. For them, they said as they climbed into a lorry bound for the nearest pub, it had been “a very ordinary day.”  

Annual Wreath Laying

Notes and Image from Gordon Harland

On Saturday 24th September 2022 members of the Rhodesian Armed forces gathered at the Troopie Statue to remember those that died not only in the Puma 164 but also members of the RLI in & after the war.  

I will not go into details about the service I will leave that for others. Only to say it was very moving. More than a few wet eyes & more than a few handkerchiefs were on display.  

After the services we were invited into Hatfield House to have a tour including the chapel. I along with a friend, I had brought along were first there. We were met by Dermot the guide, & what a guide.  

Byne my friend & I were given a quick tour & ended u in the Chapel. Dermot had popped to the door to let the others in as he did so two ladies came in carrying flowers. I thought they were part of the staff cleaning up. In my normal happy go lucky tome I said “alright girls how are we doing “they both smiled I then said to them that the keep the place nice & clean. They said thank you. Just then Dermot arrived back with the rest of the party. Came smarty to a halt Then the dreaded words came out. “Good afternoon, Lady Salisbury” Lady Salisbury looked at me with a smile, I look up to heaven & said a prayer.  

A flash back to Christmas 1977 delivering extra food to kitchen at Independence House for a party they were having. As the catering staff were unloading the trays. A European lady seemed to be in charger. Words came out of my mouth, like all right darling Merry Christmas to you. Vince who was the duty driver just looked at me. Anyway, the lady smiled & gave us two beers each & wish us a Merry Christmas. We got back into the Land Rover with Vince £$%^&*() do you know who she was. No, I reply that was Mrs Smith. The Prime minister’s wife. You $%^& POME.  

Annual Wreath Laying Service

All members and friends are invited to attend the annual wreath laying service which will take place at the Troopie Statue, Hatfield House commencing at 1200 noon. 

Please wear blazer, tie and beret, refreshments will be on sale. Can you please advise if attending to enable wreath layers to be nominated.

Central and Northern Chapter Meeting

Meeting of the Central/Northern chapter will be held at Bedford RAFA Club commencing at 14.00 hrs on the 12tH November 2022. RAFA club will open from 12.00 noon to 20.00 hrs. Contact for more information. 

Remembrance Sunday

Sunday 13th November 2022 is Remembrance Sunday. The Lord Lieutenant and the Royal British Legion have invited the RLIRA to march with them. Meeting and forming up commences at 10.00 hours next to the suspension bridge, Radhuni restaurant, on the Bedford Embankment.

Following the march, we will be welcomed back to the RAFA club together with RAF, RBL members and other military organisations.

Suggested accommodation is available at Premier inns Priory Marina, Barkers Lane Bedford. Book early for ASAP as Bedford is always busy this weekend.  Contact for more information. 

Report Back from call sign “Delta Lima” 07/2022

Lt Col I R Bate

Greetings one and all. Trusting this letter finds all members, their families, and close ones in good health. It was with very deep regret that we were informed of the passing of Lt Col I R Bate on the 8th June 2022.

As all will know, Lt Col I “Tufty” R Bate served as Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion the Rhodesian Light Infantry from 26th June 1978 until 3rd December 1979.

Troopie Clean Up 31 July 2022

A big shout out to John Ashburner and the clean up team of Ant and Daphne Hunter, Richard Burton, Isle and Peter De Kock for cleaning up the Troopie and surrounding area on Sunday 31st July 2022. 

UK Branch by election - Outcome

A by-election was held for the position of secretary of the UK/EU branch with a call for nominations, followed by an online vote.
Two (2) nominations were received (George Dempster & Gary Huxham). Gary withdrew due to health concerns.  
Members were requested to vote for George or AN Other. Forty (40) members voted in favour of George with no opposing votes.
We wish to thank Neill for his commitment over the years while welcoming George as the new branch secretary.
Brian Lewis

UK / EU Branch - Treasury Notifications
from the Treasurer
13 & 18 July 2022

for 2023 only Notification to all RLIRA UK/EU branch Members

Treasury-Amendment 1/ 2022

The Following Rules are instituted with immediate effect:

WITHDRAWALS - RLIRA UK/EU branch – NatWest Bank

The Treasury will henceforth sort out standard bank ‘References’’ for all withdrawal / paid out transactions. Example: Prefix ‘Refund’ Suffix ‘60th Dinner. Therefore, bank reference will read Refund-60 Dinner

DEPOSITS - RLIRA UK/EU branch – NatWest Bank:

Accounts Name:     RLIRA

Account Number:  62234145

Sort Code:             60 - 02 - 13

Bic:                          NWBK GB 2L

IBAN:                      GB42 NWBK 6002 1362 2341 45

The Membership and Other Depositors will henceforth use the same logic as above for bank ‘Reference’, for all deposits / paid-in transactions. Example: Prefix ‘SUBS’ Suffix 23 (or other such year) 2 only character numeral). In this case, the bank reference for subs paid in advance for 2023 will read SUBS-23 on the bank statement. Likewise, a donation to the Museum, bank reference will read Donation-Museum etc ; a purchase of Merchandise would read QM-Polo shirt etc .

A fixed date for final receipt of RLIRA UK / EU branch annual subscriptions, in advance into the bank has been set for midnight on the 30 November of each year for the next 3 years, commencing 30 November 2022 for 2023 subscriptions, SUBS-23.

·       Reminders for subscription due by you will be sent out to all members 30days before due and again 14 days before due.

·       In ‘special ’financial’ circumstances only, will a maximum of 2 equal split payments be accepted. The first payment being by 30th November each year SUBS-23/1 and SUBS-23/2 for the second the second being with 60 days of the first.

·       Temporary or Permanent exemption from payment of annual subscriptions will be considered for exceptional financial difficulties only. An e-mail application, justifying the required exemption must be made direct to the RLIRA UK/ EU Branch ‘welfare officer’ 90 days before the 30th of November each year.

Amnesty is in effect immediately until 30th November 2022, for the entire RLIRA UK / EU branch membership for the non-payment of past subs. However, we appeal to all members to ‘volunteer’ to pay any arrear subs. There will be no need for explanation, nor any questions asked about the amounts paid or for which years they apply. This information will remain private and confidential; bank reference is SUBS- Arrears

·        We will accept multiple subs payments in advance for the next 3 years, based on the 2023 rate published in Treasury Amendment 2/ reference to be used is SUBS-23/24/25.  

Deryck Stokes



Treasury-Amendment 2/ 2022

The Following Rules are instituted with immediate effect:

All request for ‘Refund’ for any and all deposits made by members of RLIRA worldwide will not be considered for payment after 31st Aug 2022. This rule does not apply to ‘outsider’ donors.

Deryck Stokes



Treasury-Amendment 3/ 2022

The Following Rules are instituted with immediate effect:

Please direct all financial enquiries, comment and suggestions directly to me, as per details below. You may of course, copy in any committee member of the RLIRA UK/EU branch directly for comment and back-up..

Deryck Stokes



Treasury-Amendment 4/ 2022

The Following subscriptions are increased to cover the overall inflation rate of over 8% in the United Kingdom. We have kept the subs increase to below 6%.

From 1st December 2022 subscriptions for all categories, bar ‘Honorary’ Member’ will be a standard £35.00 per annum per member including the members spouse/partner, children and grandchildren, even family friends at social gatherings. The membership category ‘Family Member’ thus falls away. Included in the £35.00 amount is a welfare levy of £10.00 for 2023 only per annum to be allocated to a the new ‘welfare’ funding project.

Deryck Stokes

Treasury-Amendment 5/ 2022

The following Treasury Amendment 5/2022 is approved for publication/notification by the Chairman.

When any person joins or gets nominated the for membership of the RLIRA UK/EU branch for the first time, the following rules apply immediately. 

  • The appropriate category of membership, as depicted in the RLIRA constitution shall be established by the introducing member and verified by a committee member.
  • It is the duty of the introducing member to establish the bona fides of the applicant.
  • The verifying committee member is to inform all members of the  RLIRA UK/EU branch committee of the bona fides and membership category to be bestowed.
  • The committee members will verify and then act upon the information within their portfolios.

Deryck Stokes


0044 (0) 78389289275 

News & Events

Open Meeting of the RLIRA UK/Eu Branch held at the RAFA Club Bedford on Saturday 2 July 2022 at 1230hrs

Click below to download as a PDF document

Report Back from call sign “Delta Lima”

Greetings one and all. Trusting this letter finds all members, their families, and close ones in good health.

It is the intention of the newsletters to provide info on any upcoming events/dates etc as well as points of interest and importance, relevant to the Battalion and its members.

Please click below to download the newsletter

UK / Europe Branch 

May 2022 Newsletter 

Please take a few minutes to download and read the latest newsletter from Neill Storey the secretary.