By Ian Buttenshaw and John Moore. - The early days...
What draws men to join armies around the world? Probably more than anything a sense of adventure; what it leaves them with, however, is a lifelong spirit of camaraderie towards others who had served with them, sharing memories of what they had experienced together, the men they had known, the trials and tribulations they had gone through, the happy times, the hard times, – and those who had fallen along the way and had paid the ultimate sacrifice. These are not just friends, they have a shared, unbreakable bond – they are like brothers.
They can talk to family or friends about their experiences, but they can see that no one will really, truly, understand what they have been through – nor do they really care, apart from it being an interesting conversation piece, and ultimately a bit of a bore!
That’s why so many men turn to organisations such as the British Legion, and the MOTHs in South Africa. But even they cannot offer that closeness of a Regimental Association, honouring the very special memory of the Regiment itself and those who served with it.
The RLI started out in life as a light infantry battalion – as the name suggests – but within its first two years of existence, almost came abruptly to an end, as the Federal Army ceased to exist with the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The soldiers of the RLI who were tempted to accept the lump sum terminal benefits – or “golden handshake” – left the Army in large numbers returning in the main to their homes in South Africa or the United Kingdom. One of the stipulations of the “handshake” was that they would never, ever, be allowed to rejoin our Army again. For a moment of “sudden riches”, all these men would be left with were a collection of memories.
The Rhodesia Government had to decide what to do with its new Army, and there was serious talk about dissolving the RLI, now a skeleton of its former self; instead they opted for a proposal from the RLI itself, that it be re-formed as a smaller, faster and hard-hitting commando unit, whilst retaining the name of the Rhodesian Light Infantry. This decision was to prove to have far-reaching consequences as the country moved towards Independence in 1965, and the start of anti-terrorist operations within a year of that.
But an even more potentially explosive situation had been averted just months after the formation of the RLI in 1961: the Congo had been hurriedly given Independence from Belgium in 1960, and within two weeks the country had collapsed into chaos everywhere – apart from one haven of peace and stability – the south eastern Province of Katanga, where the ruling Party of Moise Tshombe promptly declared itself to be an independent state, with Tshombe as President. The Federation rushed troops to the border between Northern Rhodesia and Katanga, and the RLI saw its first real operation! What the troops didn’t realise though was that the frequent border crossings by Katanga’s Head of State into the Federation at Solwezi in the dead of night had more serious undertones. Flown by the Royal Rhodesian Air Force from Ndola to Salisbury and thence to the Officers Mess at the RLI Barracks for meetings with the Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky, these meetings were not about security of the borders between the two countries, but about the annexation of Katanga into the Federation, a plan backed by the British Government at the time, and welcomed by Katanga. Plans were in place for full mobilisation of Federal armed forces.
.Within a year the British Government was to perform a volte face and to opt for a United Nations “solution”, at the same time accepting its Colonial Office recommendations for the Dissolution of the Federation, causing Sir Roy to threaten UDI saying “over my dead body will they break up this Federation”.
Of course they did break up the Federation, leaving Nyasaland – the poor relation of the Federation – to become impoverished in the hands of a dictator, and Northern Rhodesia to the fate of inexperienced politicians.
This left Katanga to the fate of the UN, and although Tshombe was later elected Prime Minister of the Congo, this job proved simply too big for him – as indeed it has for successive governments there – and he went into
exile in Europe, ending his days after his private jet was hijacked over the Mediterranean and flown to Algeria, where he was murdered by that country’s regime.
And so the RLI had survived its first difficult years, with men from many parts of the world having served, and left, all with memories to tell, and share with those whom they met up with.
The coming years of the new commando RLI were to be very different!
In 1968 it was decided to retain that feeling of “belonging”, and to broaden the “family” by providing a forum for ERE members, ex-RLI men now civilians – throughout the world – and the RLI itself by forming a very special club: the exclusive RLI Regimental Association.
The original aims of the Association were to provide assistance wherever possible to the RLI itself – there was considerable talent and expertise amongst ERE officers and men, and amongst ex-RLI, now civilians.
The aims of the Association were outlined in its Constitution as:
The first Commanding Officer of the Battalion, Lt Col John Salt, retired, was invited to be the first honorary President of the Association, with all serving or past Commanding Officers to be Vice Presidents. Ian King was to be the first Chairman with John Moore as Secretary. Later Chairmen included Tony Stephens, John Moore, Wally Watson and ultimately, George Walsh.
At an early stage Paddy Leen joined the committee, serving as Treasurer right through until 2006, when the activities of the “original” Association went into “mothballs”.
During the early formative years, the Association organised a number of successful functions, probably the best known being the annual “Christmas Draw”. The Association each year approached local businesses with requests for donations of “prizes” to be drawn in front of troopies at a function held in the Regimental Institute. “Prizes” ranged from Air Rhodesia Flame Lily weekend breaks, Meikles Southern Sun Hotel weekend holidays in various parts of Rhodesia, to combined smaller prizes. The total numbers of giveaways reached several hundred each year as Rhodesian businesses generously gave products for what they considered to be a most worthwhile gesture of thanks to the men of the RLI.
Compere for the event over the years was the ever-popular radio presenter Lesley Sullivan, with the last Draw being compared by his radio successor, Lesley McKenzie.
Another important social – and fund-raising – event was the annual October Beer-Fest, held at the Rugby Pavilion.
Other social events helped to swell the Association coffers, carefully protected by Paddy Leen and regularly tabled at monthly committee meetings, always attended by John Salt and the Commanding Officer of the Battalion.
In the early 1970’s a quarterly newsletter was introduced which initially provided news about the Association but then included notes from the various Commandos. This was precursor to one of the Association’s later major achievements, the production of the glossy magazine The Cheetah, the first edition appearing in October 1978, and the final edition being produced in October 1980 to coincide with the disbandment of the Regiment.
Probably the greatest achievement of the Association was the raising of funds to construct our own Memorial to our Fallen, The Trooper statue.
Funds were raised from the general public, not only to construct the statue, but also to refurbish the Regimental Chapel. A Trust Fund to look after those in need was also established.
Following the fateful elections which brought Mugabe to power, the Association held a Special General Meeting at the Sports Pavilion at RLI Barracks. It was well attended and the major topic for discussion was the future of The Trooper and RLI Memorabilia, not including the Colours or the Officers Mess Silver, which the Army Commander had ordered should be handed over to the RLI’s successor.
John Moore, long-serving Chairman, had negotiated with the then Marquis of Salisbury that The Trooper could be sent to his Estate at Hatfield, England, to be displayed there together with Regimental Memorabilia. This suggestion was discussed at the Special General Meeting, but a number of those present suggested that the new home should be in South Africa, as that was where most of the departing men were headed. After much discussion, it was agreed that the statue should be sent to South Africa, and plans were then hurriedly made to move the memorial by courtesy of the South African Air Force to Pretoria.
For a long time after arrival in South Africa the statue remained locked away in its packing crate at Waterkloof Air Base, and eventually was put on display at the South African Military History Museum in Johannesburg for a while.
In 1999, following the change of government in South Africa a few years earlier, it was felt that the statue should be moved to a permanent home in the United Kingdom, and Pat Armstrong arranged for it, together with the Regimental Colours – found by Paddy Leen hidden away in Harare’s Anglican Cathedral – and other regimental memorabilia to leave the country.
The Regimental Association continued to function in Zimbabwe after the disbandment of the RLI in November 1980, and purchased the Officers Mess Silver from the RLI’s newly-established successor, 1 (Zimbabwe) Commando Battalion. This was done by producing a 60-place setting of Willsgrove Pottery with the new unit badge, plus EPNS cutlery engraved “1 Cdo Bn”. In exchange, the new Commanding Officer of 1 Commando Battalion, Ian Buttenshaw, who proposed the deal, handed over all but two sets of the remaining RLI-badged crockery and cutlery: the new unit had requested that a set be retained for use by their commanding officer.
The Association then sold the RLI silver and crockery in sets to those members whose names were drawn, to recover the cost of the deal. Several sets have now found their way to the RLI Museum in Bedford, England.
It became increasingly difficult for the Association to function in the new Zimbabwe as such organisations were viewed with suspicion by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) as “reactionary movements” hostile to the new regime, so all formal meetings ceased in 1982. The Association continued as a welfare organisation, and was able to assist several ex-members find employment, in addition to helping a few widows in need. It was fortunate that the Association had formally been registered as a Welfare Organisation in 1975, as this saved any tax liability, and funds were suitably invested in first class securities with Stanbic Bank.
In 2006 it was decided to wind up the affairs of the Association, and remaining funds (Zim$40,000.00 in 1981 value) were given to The Legion, who were then managing the MOTHs Retirement Village in Eastlea, with the proviso that special consideration be given to any ex-RLI applicants. At least two applicants have been assisted to date.
It was now over to the re-birth of the Association from its bases in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia!