From Soup to Nuts – A Rhodesian Autobiography
I recently had opportunity to read an excellent book by Rhodesian born ex Rhodesian Light Infantry Fire Force commander, Major Nigel Henson. The title, From Soup to Nuts. is a derivation of an American idiom which conveys the meaning, ‘From Beginning to End’ by way of describing a five-course meal. The book has been published in South Africa by Foot Print Press, and at present, is unfortunately only available to South African buyers, although hopefully this is set to change. The stumbling block has been the virtual collapse of the South African international postal services, and the prohibitive costs of international courier delivery.
Knowing Nigel Henson, the title is a fitting one for an autobiography of this nature, and his book is an excellent and interesting read. Dr JRT Wood, the world’s leading historian on Rhodesia and Zimbabwe’s military and political history had this to say in his Foreword; What is left out of this poignant poetic memoir – like many such accounts a cry for a lost world – is that Nigel David Henson would have known, as a feisty hooker, the mystical world of the rugby scrum which binds men together thereafter as does experience in a small fighting unit. Young men, often still teenagers, are changed overnight by conflict. I know because I was one.
Henson, who was a product Plumtree School in western Matabeleland, joined the army straight from school, and after attending an officer’s course at the Rhodesian School of Infantry, where he was awarded the Sword of Honour, was badged into the Rhodesian Light Infantry as a subaltern. His initial service in the RLI was only for a few years before wanderlust took over and after resigning his commission he travelled to the UK. While there, and after doing various jobs, he was invited to serve as an officer in the army of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, an offer which once more attracted him to a soldiering career. However, and with the Rhodesian Bush War bubbling, and following 2-years in Oman he returned to the country of his birth, and re-joined the Rhodesian Army.
Although the book is about Nigel Henson’s life, and isn’t only about his role as a Fire Force commander in the Rhodesian Light Infantry (RLI), I’d certainly recommend those with an interest in Rhodesia’s history buy a copy because it’s the first book written by an ex RLI Fire Force commander, and I believe it’ll be an important addition to Rhodesia’s military history. Granted, the war which lasted from July 1964 until December 1979, may have ended 43 years ago, however, the brilliance of the Fire Force concept in counterinsurgency is still being spoken about, and studied within military circles. From the early 1970s the Rhodesian Bush War’s tempo suddenly increased exponentially, and because of Rhodesia’s vast landmass coupled to serious manpower shortages, a rethink by the Rhodesian Security Forces on counterinsurgency tactics became a priority.
Above: Part of an RLI Fire Force Flying over Hippo Valley Estates in the Operation Repulse Theatre (Photo Source Unknown).
Out of this would evolve the RLI’s Fire Force concept of vertical envelopment by parachute trained light infantry, deployed in waves using a combination of four Alouette helicopters, one C-47 Dakota, and a light attack aircraft by way of a Reims-Cessna FTB 337G, designated a ‘Lynx’. The first Fire Force deployment was in January 1974, and their first action was in February 1974.
I first met Major Henson in early 1974 when he was still serving as a Liaison Officer in the rank of Captain with the newly formed Selous Scouts. One night in Mt Darwin’s Operation Hurricane theatre, Henson, myself, and the late Sergeant Russell Jenkins (ex RLI) drove into a remote tribal area to locate a call sign who needed radio batteries replaced. During our return we were ambushed in what is termed a ‘blue on blue’ (friendly fire incident). We were lucky, because we drove through a platoon strength ambush under heavy fire, with red tracer floating towards us as if in slow motion, only to then go over the vehicle cab. Had the bullets been a few inches lower I doubt any of us would have survived. Throughout, Major Henson merely drove on, in a totally unflappable manner, including through a Stop Group who were also shooting at us. And then, after we’d arrived back at Mt Darwin, he casually wandered off to the JOC to report the matter.
I also served under Major Henson in the Bumi Hills, Siabuwa area south of Lake Kariba. He was my Liaison Officer when I was running a counter-insurgent pseudo-gang trying to locate a ZIPRA insurgent group who had entered Rhodesia from Zambia. Nigel Henson was without doubt the finest Rhodesian officer I ever had the honour of serving under. When he voluntarily decided to depart Selous Scouts and return to his beloved RLI, their gain was Selous Scouts loss.
While he was OC Support Commando RLI, Henson and his ever-faithful Springer Spaniel, Sam, would become a familiar sight wherever in the constantly expanding operational theatre Support Commando Fire Force were based. A good friend of mine, Graham ‘Log’ Enslin, who was the RLI Support Commando's respected CSM during those latter hi-octane years, remembered in conversation with me how when the Fire Force lifted off, Sam would loyally remain at the end of the apron until his master’s return from battle. If the deployed element of the Fire Force had to overnight elsewhere, CSM Enslin would take one of Henson’s jackets to the apron for Sam to scent, and then lead him to the OC’s tent where he would feed and water Sam, and then get him settled for the night. A touching anecdote remembered from the mists of a protracted and often brutal war.
Above: An Alouette III, the mainstay of Rhodesian Fire Force operations. (Photo credit Dennis Croukamp).
A Fire Force call-out was normally the result of a Selous Scouts, or other security force Observation Post sighting of ZANLA or ZIPRA insurgents, or they could be called out by combat trackers, or Security Force patrols which had contacted the enemy. A first wave of 32 soldiers were then carried to the scene using three Alouette III helicopters designated G-Cars, and one C-47 Dakota designated Paradak. The fourth Alouette in the Fire Force grouping was the all-important gunship, designated K-Car. It was from this command platform; the Fire Force commander controlled the battle space on the ground. An extremely demanding and stressful role which called for high levels of tactical nous, inspirational leadership, and coolness under fire. Only a handful of Rhodesian operational officers excelled in this exacting role, and Major Henson would remain a Fire Force commander longer than any of them.
By way of further explanation, the command K-Car (Kill/Command) was fitted with a formidable 20mm canon, carrying 200 to 400 HE rounds, and was usually flown by the senior pilot. Aside from the pilot there was the tech/gunner, and the Fire Force commander. The K-Car orbited the contact zone at 800 feet, allowing the commander a clear picture of the contact area. The three G-Cars (G meaning Gunship) were armed with twin Browning .303 machine guns with 500 rounds for each gun. G-Cars were also responsible for casualty evacuation, and ammunition resupply etc. Aside from carrying a 4-man stick, their crew comprised the pilot and a gunner/tech.
Because of the limitation on lift-capacity of an Alouette III helicopter, Fire Force troops were broken down into 4-man sticks rather than the conventional 8- or 9-man sections. In the 4-man section would be a ‘stick leader’ who carried an A63 or A76 VHF radio the standard FN FAL 7.62x51mm NATO rifle, there’d also be a machine gunner carrying a MAG 7.62x51mm with 400 rounds of link. The remaining 2 rifleman also carried the FN FAL with 100 rounds each. The entire 4-man section carried a mix of fragmentation, white-phosphorous, smoke and rifle grenades. In addition, each man carried an Icarus flare, and one man in the stick was a trained medic. One of the main advantages of the Fire Force concept was its flexibility. All that was needed was a relatively serviceable airstrip.
Above: A Rhodesian Air Force C-47 Dakota Designated 'Paradak' Conducts An RLI Paradrop During a Fire Force Action (Photo credit Dennis Croukamp).
With its extremely flexible combination of sweeps, stops and ambushes, the RLI Fire Force was considered an unstoppable shock and awe means of conducting a counterinsurgency operation. By the addition of Dakota deployed paratroopers, the sweep lines could also be extended further. One historian is on record as saying once the Fire Force was on the ground in its counterinsurgency role, it became a steam roller, and was impossible to stop. Often, and from a hidden Observation Post, after calling in a Fire Force we would watch the shock and awe unfold on the ground. It was impressive.
As an example of Henson’s writing, I’ve included the Prologue below;
A blush of dawn in the east-rose-pink-cerise: granite hills and valleys in transition from the dark of death to the light of life: granite hills and valleys, without form and gripped in deep shadow began to stir: a dust cloud on a ribbon of road, the silver of a stream chuckling down a mountainside.
The Alouette hung as if suspended by a thread of gossamer in the soft light: the ground below without form and gripped in deep shadow: drops of condensation on Perspex whipped into the machine’s wake, highland chill buffered the aircraft: for an instant, the helicopter seemed to drop, it rose again: a shudder and a slap of blade, a yaw of tail, a dropping, a rising, a yaw, and then a drop again.
The man in the front stirred; he, dressed in a faded camouflage overall, a green flak jacket covered his chest; on his head a black helmet with a yellow and black eagle motif on the forehead. To his left was the pilot, his face aglow in the light of his instruments with the machine’s engineer behind him, hunched over a glistening cannon. Together, the three were a team, a team that had plotted, and then sown great and bloody violence on the enemy. Young, yet old, veterans of many engagements, temporarily refreshed, yet tired, desperately tired.
Today would be like yesterday; yesterday like the day before, tomorrow as today, and as the day after; an orgy of killing, of fear, of sweat, of sadness energy-sapping, dangerous.
The man bent down and retrieved his map; it was still too dark: he spoke quietly to the pilot and drew a circle in the air; a brief nod in reply, and then a drop, a slowing as the machine responded; their bubble sinking into shadow.
Now in orbit, the ground was so much closer, the man could make out detail: his eyes searched and then he found it: a cluster of buildings with a stream that ran through an overgrown garden: once a lawn, once a rose garden, sunk in decay.
The man knew that place: there he had lived, loved, and lost: there he had played, had laughed, had sung: in times past, he had fished and swum in bubbling mountain streams: a shared closeness then with others, each person now a thread, all now woven into the fabric of his life.
Life then was pure and simple. Now it was not: there was a pureness and a simplicity to death: a scarce heart-beat that separated mortality from immortality, from life’s debit and credit to a balance sheet now closed.
Death had the purity of closure that life did not.
Life was not so simple, not so pure.
The man looked across to his friend and nodded, his companion nodded in return, pulled the collective and pushed forward the cyclic.
The Alouette rose, and its cabin filled with light; the man picked up his map: course set in the climb-out-drops of moisture flicked past the man, tears for the pure long departed.
Life would go on, as it had yesterday, as it would tomorrow.
Life ... never pure ... never simple.
Nigel Henson’s book is bound to make a great read for collectors of Rhodesian history. It is almost poetic in some of the prose, and for those true born and bred Rhodesian’s like myself, there is most certainly, nostalgia in the read. Never again will there be a life such as we once knew, and even though it’s now clear we were born on the wrong side of history, this book too, will take pride of place amongst any other books about a country once called Rhodesia. From Soup to Nuts is currently only available in South Africa at a pre-publication price of R280.00 plus postage from www.footprintpress.co.za