Most of the writing about the Rhodesian Army concentrates on three specific units: the Rhodesian Light Infantry, the SAS, and the Selous Scouts. One of the most effective regiments in the Rhodesian army was the Rhodesian African Rifles, a unit in which other ranks were all black natives, and which led, or tried to, anyway, in developing black African officers. The RLI was a white unit, as was the SAS; the Scouts were a mixed-race unit, like the RAR.
All of these units, and the overall strategy and tactics of the Rhodesian UDI government, were significantly more effective than a simple comparison of available forces would suggest. Why was that?
While the other three units participated in the high-profile cross-border operations, the RAR most we operated inside the country. There were reasons for this, and they come out in the volume we’re currently reading, thanks to DTIC. It also answers some of the questions about why the Rhodesians were so effective, and most interesting of all, it suggests why the RAR was effective, even though its officers and men were came from three different, and sometimes politically opposed, ethnic groups: white Englishmen, black Ndebele (relatives of the Zulus) and black Shona (the ethnic majority in Rhodesia and today’s Zimbabwe).
The Rhodesian African Rifles: The Growth and Adaptation of a Multicultural Regiment through the Rhodesian Bush War, 1965-1980 is actually a thesis, written by MAJ Michael P. Stewart as a Command and General Staff College graduation requirement, and it’s over 160 pages of deep dive into RAR history and sociology. Stewart notes the cultural differences between the RAR’s battalions, as well as the cultural “secret sauce” that made the unit not only one of Rhodesia’s most effective, but the only one the Zimbabwe government could count on when faced with a coup threat by the Matabele minority ZAPU party and its well-armed ZIPRA wing in the first year of majority rule. The abstract tells you what Stewart thought that “secret sauce” is: regimental tradition and spirit:
The Rhodesian African Rifles overcame profoundly divisive racial and tribal differences among its members because a transcendent “regimental culture” superseded the disparate cultures of its individual soldiers and officers. The RAR’s culture grew around the traditions of the British regimental system, after which the RAR was patterned. The soldiers of the RAR, regardless of racial or tribal background, identified themselves first as soldiers and members of the regiment, before their individual race and tribe. Regimental history and traditions, as well as shared hardships on deployments and training were mechanisms that forced officers and soldiers to see past differences. The RAR is remarkable because these bonds stayed true through to the end of the war, through incredible pressure on black Rhodesians to succumb to the black nationalist groups and cast off a government that was portrayed to them as oppressive, racist and hateful. Through the end of the Bush War, 1965-1980, RAR soldiers remained loyal and steadfast to their regiment, and that must be their legacy. In the end, the values of the government were irrelevant. It was the regiment that drew these men in, and their loyalty was more to their comrades and their heritage than to any particular government or cause.
While Stewart depends heavily on previously published works, and on Rhodesian historian Dr JRT (Richard) Wood, he also conducted 30-odd interviews with former RAR officers and warrant officers. He came away with a great admiration for them and their “worthy and noble regiment.”
As early as World War II, the RAR distinguished itself, against the Japanese in Burma. Stewart quotes an excerpt from Japanese officer’s diary, initially published in Christopher Owen’s 1970 The Rhodesian African Rifles.
[t]he enemy soldiers are not from Britain, but are from Africa. Because of their beliefs they are not afraid to die, so, even if their comrades have fallen, they keep on advancing as if nothing had happened. They have excellent physique and are very brave, so fighting against these soldiers is somewhat troublesome.
When officers of the Imperial Japanese Army take note of your fearlessness, you’ve arrived.
The unit heritage, history, culture and traditions provided something to unify everyone; the badge combined Ndebele and Shona symbology, but the basic trust was man-to-man and mutual leader-subordinate respect.
There were also informal traditions, one of the most amusing being the African soldiers’ secret nicknames for their white officers:
African soldiers had a name for every officer in the regiment. It was a sign of acceptance for a white officer to be given a name by his soldiers, from Lt Col F.J. Wane (named Msoro-we-gomo, or “the top of the mountain”), who served with the Rhodesia Native Regiment in World War I and then rebuilt the RAR in 1940, to a young subaltern (named “Mr. Vice” after his father’s position in the Rhodesian Air Force), or Captain (later Brigadier in the Australian Army) John Essex-Clark (named Mopane, after the tall, slender hardwood found in the Rhodesian bush). The names were not always particularly flattering or exalting, but the existence of a nickname demonstrated acceptance of an officer among the ranks of his soldiers, and were shared with the officers only occasionally by the NCOs of his platoon.
The best traditions, in our experience, are organic and spontaneous. The naming of officers is a perfect example.
There was also a uniquely RAR adaptation on the TO&E, the Platoon Warrant Officer, in effect a platoon-level sergeant major — something a bit grander than the American platoon sergeant, and a bit more dedicated to the propagation of unit culture.
He knew, taught, and exemplified the history and values of the regiment. Without exception, every former officer interviewed spoke with special respect and reverence for this class of leaders in the regiment.
Coming in to this multitribal, multiracial environment, the successful officer was the one who best learnt his men’s language and culture, and who led by example.
Finally, Stewart notes that the lessons of the RAR, the African soldiers who fought like lions against African nationalism, are exactly on point to those, native and foreign, trying to build multicultural armies today, in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.
The Rhodesian African Rifles: The Growth and Adaptation of a Multicultural Regiment through the Rhodesian Bush War, 1965-1980 is not the last word on the RAR — Stewart admits it’s too dependent on the views of former officers, and the enlisted men’s viewpoint is largely missing and left to a future researcher. But it’s an excellent work that you ought to enjoy reading, if the Rhodesian bush war interests you, or if you might be charged with unifying disparate groups under a single command.