The History of the Rhodesia Regiment – 1890 to 1981

The Rhodesia Regiment history, just released by the Rhodesia Services Association as an independent publication, might seem an obscure subject for many, but in fact it is an important addition to the general body of knowledge surrounding the British and Commonwealth forces that fought in both world wars, and which formed part of the global imperial military structure at a time when European, and particularly British patriotism and social coherence was at its most vibrant. I make this point largely for my American friends and readers who have, I say with great love and affection, often struck me as believing that it was US servicemen alone that drove the Hun and the Nip off the battlefield in the two great global confrontations of which they were part.

For military enthusiasts this will be an important addition to their libraries, and the fact that the book found its way into the library of Queen Elizabeth II testifies to that fact. King George VI, Elizabeth’s father, was patron and Commander-in-Chief of the Regiment, then styled the Royal Rhodesia Regiment, which was an honor awarded to the Regiment primarily because of its service during WWII, but also in general recognition of the contribution of Southern Rhodesian manpower to imperial defense. Her Majesty assumed that role upon the death of her father.

The process of writing the book began in 2009 when I was approached by friend and publisher Chris Cocks, who was interested in rejuvenating a project that had been abandoned some time earlier after disagreements with a previous author. The book in many ways would be the latest in a series of similar books covering the military history of some of the key regiments that took part in the iconic Rhodesian Bush War of the 1970s. I agreed to take on the project, notwithstanding the fact that I was of an age group that missed military service in the Rhodesian War, under the belief that in practical terms, it is often best for the history of war to not be written by the combatants. There is very often a strong sentimentality and a furious political bias associated with those who actually fought in a war, quite naturally, but this does not always reveal itself to be in the best interest of the narrative.

In any case. Hugh Bomford, Chairman of the Rhodesia Services Association, was consulted, and agreed, and so the process began. As the months and years ticked by, however, the book began to take on a life of its own, and in some ways it ceased to be a simple regimental history and began to take on the complexion of a history of Rhodesian warfare in general, juxtaposed against a political process that also, in the wrong hands, can sometimes be too emotionally portrayed – to the left and the right.

On board came Gerry van Tonder, an amateur Rhodesian historian, who provided the ballast of pure history and factual relevance that a book like this requires. There were many minor squabbles between us over the years regarding small details of fact, which were resolved largely because of the knowledge of Gerry and the persistence of Hugh. Another of Gerry’s roles was the Roll of Honour, which is now substantially complete, and other aspects of battlefield archeology, in which he was assisted by Adrian Haggett, and much of the technical detail included in the book is thanks to the efforts of these two men.

Then there were the images. Photographs flooded in from every corner of the diaspora, and it became quite a conundrum deciding which to include and which to discard. This responsibility largely fell on Hugh Bomford, and apart from the general coordination of the project, he spent an inordinate amount of time prioritizing and the researching imagery.

There were many other individuals who contributed to the general production, and in this regard I would like to name Diana Bomford, Craig Fourie, Dudley Wall, Tony Frazer, John Lomas, Tinka Mushett, Nick Baalbergen, Mike Vivier, Gill Brodie and of course Kerrin and Chris Cocks for the general production. The acknowledgements within the pages of the book list several hundred names.

Personally I was given a great deal of assistance by Harry Fecitt, something of a rogue historian at large, who helped with images, but also with the occasional perusal of passages to verify their factual content.

My role in the project was to write it. It was agreed more or less from the onset that the deep technical data would be included in the appendices and in the tables and lists at the end of the book, which anyone reading the book will determine are extensive. So therefore I concentrated on producing a readable text that was factual in the sense that it dealt with subject matter in an historical context, but also human and accessible – I hope – in a style that will render the book a good read. The bibliography was quite extensive, but more extensive were the hundreds, indeed thousands of snippets of information, newspaper cuttings and personal testimonies that had to be woven into a coherent tale.

Of these I will say that the two interviews I enjoyed the most were those granted by Russell Franklin and Jo’ van Tonder, the latter being a man who I would very much have liked to have had the opportunity to get to know better, and hope to still should circumstances permit.

The final narrative word count came in at about 250,000 words, more or less, but in practical terms I think I wrote about a million words, which, after at least twenty comprehensive revisions, were pared down.

I feel very proud to have been part of this project, and part of such a wonderful team, and I can say with feeling that I will miss the virtual companionship of Hugh and Gerry as we collectively waded through this slough of history to provide something that I think will stand for generations. Thanks to all.