THE RHODESIAN SECURITY FORCES I

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The armed forces of Rhodesia won virtually every battle and skirmish they ever fought against the guerrilla armies, yet they lost the war. In July 1977, Foreign Minister P K van der Byl said of white Rhodesians’ resolve never to live under a guerrilla regime: ‘We will contest every hill and every river, every village and every town, every crossroad and every bridge.’ Van der Byl’s penchant for Churchillian rhetoric was renowned, but his declaration epitomized the objectives of the Rhodesians’ war against the nationalists: never to surrender their political, social and economic power to black majority rule. Yet the war was lost, and in April 1980 the guerrillas grasped the reins of power for which they had fought so long.

The story of the Rhodesian armed forces during the civil war is one of tactical brilliance and strategic ineptitude. Rarely in military history have such thinly stretched troops, hampered by chronic manpower, training, equipment and financial constraints achieved such consistent successes against enemy forces which enjoyed the tactical and strategic initiative for most of the war, and often reached numerical parity in the field. But the Rhodesian obsession with successful tactics created a fatal blindness to the strategic imperatives of a protracted revolutionary war such as the guerrillas were waging.

The early stages of the war were fought with the armed forces much the same as they had been at the break-up of Federation. The rashness of the guerrillas’ early strategy and tactics required no expansion of the armed forces or mobilization of reserves much beyond peace-time levels. Until 1972 the brunt of the counterinsurgency operations was borne by the British South Africa Police, the RAR, the Rhodesian Light Infantry and the Royal Rhodesian Air Force (the ‘Royal’ was dropped in 1970 when Rhodesia became a republic). Reserve forces assisted from time to time, but did not assume the importance of later years.

The counter-insurgency operations were originally conceived of as a ‘police action’, with the army aiding the civil power against what were characterized as politically motivated criminals. Guerrillas were tried and convicted through the civil courts and were imprisoned or executed through the same machinery as common criminals. This preserved the fiction that the government was waging a campaign against violent criminal elements rather than an incipient civil war, but despite its political usefulness this attitude ignored the realities of the conflict. The police were responsible for the painstaking collection of evidence and the preparation of criminal dockets. It was only in 1978-9 that disaffected areas were placed under martial law and tribunals empowered to deal with captured guerrillas.

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REGULAR FORCES

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In a sense it was natural that the BSAP should be involved in counter-insurgency operations from the start. The unit (formed partly from the earlier British South Africa Company police) was raised in 1896 to combat the Shona and Ndebele insurgents, and in 1897 was almost solely responsible for mopping up the final stubborn pockets of resistance. The Rhodesian authorities liked to boast that, after 1897, the police did not shoot and kill a single African until 26 July 1960, during serious rioting in Bulawayo. The force was structured as a cavalry regiment and its military ethos remained with it until the 1980s. Although its functions became increasingly civil in succeeding decades after its foundation, it never entirely lost its paramilitary role nor its military spirit, signified by the force’s nickname, ‘The Regiment’, and its status as the ‘senior service’.

The regular police, numbering about 2,000 whites and 6,000 blacks at the height of the war, received long periods of counter-insurgency training during their recruit courses. Although most active policemen served in a civil capacity, most white junior ranks were required to serve periodic tours in the Police Anti-Terrorist Unit (PATU), otherwise essentially a reserve element.

As the war intensified, so the combat role of the regular police expanded. The Support Unit, nicknamed the ‘Black Boots’, was formed as a regular counterinsurgency unit and eventually expanded into a light infantry battalion of black constables officered by whites. The unit was highly successful and at times scored a higher kill rate than regular army formations. A widening war encouraged the proliferation of other specialist police units. The Special Branch, initially responsible for the investigation of political crime and undercover surveillance, diversified into the collection of field intelligence when it absorbed the police ‘Ground Coverage’ network of operatives and informers. A Special Branch section, the SB-Scouts, was a small unit of Special Branch agents, Selous Scouts and captured guerrillas which carried out more dangerous and esoteric intelligence-gathering, as well as conducting clandestine operations against the enemy’s political and military infrastructure. A Police Mounted Unit, formed in 1976, was an attempt to increase the mobility of police COIN forces, but it was a gimmicky formation which remained limited in size. The explosion of stock theft, which was part of the guerrilla strategy of undermining the white economy and its logistics system, brought the creation of specialized anti-stock theft teams. Their high mobility and ruthlessness in dealing with stock thieves, as well as a mandatory nine-year gaol sentence for cattle theft, were only partly successful in controlling this chronic problem for the white farming community. The spread of the war to the urban areas in the latter stages of the conflict was countered by the Urban Emergency unit, a ‘special weapons and tactics’ (SWAT) group, which was highly successful in rooting out and deterring urban terrorism.

Like all the armed forces, the police suffered from a shortage of quality manpower. This was partly alleviated by the allocation of part of the national service intakes for each year from 1973, and the greater responsibility of reserve units to assist in preventing and detecting crime in urban areas and the safer rural districts. Increasing reliance was also placed on black recruits, who made up the rank and file, and the stretching of white officers’ responsibilities.

THE RHODESIAN SECURITY FORCES II

Rhodesian Army badges around chopper

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The cutting edge of the Rhodesian security forces was provided by the regular units of the army, and they assumed the status of a strategic reserve-cum-shock force in the late 1970s. All the regular units expanded considerably during the war and came to absorb portions of the periodic national service intakes of white youths. In time these national servicemen formed the reserve elements of the regular units and were called up for tours of duty with them.

The Rhodesian African Rifles (which received white national service officers, but no other ranks) expanded from a pre-UDI strength of one battalion to four. The second was formed in 1974, the third in 1977 and the fourth began recruiting in 1978. Only the second enjoyed anything like the training and respect that white officers accorded the first, veteran battalion. The fourth battalion never really functioned properly, and by the end of the war the RAR training establishment was simply churning out vast numbers of black soldiers to meet the insatiable demands of the armed forces for some sort of trained manpower to plug the gaps in the security forces’ disintegrating control of the countryside. Raw black troops were integrated with white reserve units, which were dwindling through emigration, to bolster their strength and assimilate combat experience as quickly as possible. At that time some officers envisaged a future Rhodesian army in which virtually every white soldier was an officer or an NCO commanding vast numbers of black rank-and-file, but this did not come about before the war’s end.

The Rhodesian Light Infantry finally reached full battalion strength in the early Seventies after years of inadequate recruitment. It was boosted by foreign enlistment and national service conscripts in its commando (company-sized units) structure. The RLI achieved notoriety as a sort of southern African Foreign Legion to which mercenaries flocked from all over the world. Estimates of the total numbers of foreigners who had served in the Rhodesian forces ranged up to 2,000, but a figure of 1,400 is more likely. A large proportion of them was concentrated in No. 3 Commando of the RLI. Although the guerrillas were able to make a great deal of propaganda out of foreign recruitment as a measure of the moral, political and military depravity of the Rhodesian government, these men were more ideological soldiers of fortune than true mercenaries. Most enlisted out of political and racial conviction or purely for high adventure, since their pay and conditions of service were the same as those of white recruits of Rhodesian origin.

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The Special Air Service also attracted foreigners, though its tough selection course kept the unit relatively small, with a high proportion of white Rhodesians in its ranks. Although Peter McAleese records that at one stage in the late 1970s, in ‘A’ Squadron, most of the 33 regulars were foreigners, this tally excluded the Rhodesians in the Territorial SAS. On external operations, the SAS often wore enemy uniforms, so that if an operator was killed, especially if he were a foreigner, he could officially be disowned by the authorities. The formation had languished after the dissolution of the Federation, its strength dropping to as low as 20, but by 1978 volunteers (including national servicemen) took it up to three-squadron strength. Rhodesia’s ‘C’ Squadron SAS had been formed to serve in Malaya alongside the British ‘A’and ‘B’Squadrons. (To this day, in the British SAS orbat, the ‘C’ Squadron remains vacant in honour of the lost Rhodesian element.) The Rhodesian SAS squadron later became 1 (Rhodesia) Special Air Service Regiment. A secret component was ‘D’ Squadron, made up of South African Special Forces Reconnaissance Commandos. Generally, the 40 South African operators preferred to work as a distinct unit, sometimes commanded by an SADF colonel, though they also fought alongside the Selous Scouts and Rhodesian SAS in external raids. They would sometimes fly to Salisbury on scheduled flights in civilian clothes, be met at the airport and then change into Rhodesian uniform. They were there to learn, as much as to help.

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Two new units to emerge during the war were the Selous Scouts, which adopted the name relinquished by the Armoured Car Regiment, and the Grey’s Scouts. The Selous Scouts took its name from the well-known nineteenth-century hunter, Frederick Courteney Selous; Henry Rider Haggard is said to have based the character of Allan Quatermain on the same adventurer. The Selous Scouts were originally formed as a small specialist tracking unit (called the Tracker Combat Unit) to provide support for other units on COIN operations. Initially there were two groups, under 2 Brigade, based at Kariba and Bindura. But the unit’s functions multiplied, as did its size, to three troops, then a full battalion of 1,000 officers and men, most of whom were black. Selous Scouts conducted clandestine operations both inside and outside Rhodesia’s borders. Individuals were attached to the Rhodesian intelligence service to gather information from as far afield as Tanzania and Angola. One Selous Scout became the most distinguished, and decorated, Rhodesian soldier. Captain Chris Schulenburg, a South African known as Schulie, usually with just one black Scout, performed feats of long-range ground reconnaissance unparalleled in modern counter-insurgency. (The full story of this modest officer was told in The Selous Scouts: Top Secret War.) The Scouts’ Support Troop acted as assault infantry in raids into neighbouring countries, though it was never as effective as the SAS. (Most of the blunders of the Rhodesians on raids into Zambia were attributable to this formation acting on its own initiative or with too much licence granted by General Walls himself.) The unit’s notoriety for treachery and brutality was only partly deserved, for the bulk of its members were engaged on routine military tasks. But the Selous Scouts did field ‘pseudo-gangs’ to deceive the guerrillas and their supporters, and to carry out punitive atrocities against villages which collaborated with the guerrillas. Selous Scout pseudo operators were paid a Rh$100 bounty for every guerrilla killed or captured along with their weapons. This rose to Rh$150 a head if there were more than ten guerrillas. The formation’s penchant for secrecy (despite the wide publicity given to its existence and to its stringent selection tests), and the bogus cloak-and-dagger attitude of some of its ranks, helped the guerrillas to paint a picture of the battalion as a latter-day Waffen-SS. The undoubted efficiency and bravery of the soldiers in the unit, many of whom were national servicemen or reservists, and the extreme conditions under which they often operated, contributed to the images of ruthless shock troops promoted by the mass media around the world.

The Grey’s Scouts were a mounted infantry unit formed to exploit the mobility of horses for COIN operations. The formation had mixed success, but they attracted high quality volunteers, again including many foreigners, and established a reputation for aggressiveness. At times they operated purely as foot-soldiers, depending on operational conditions.

Apart from the Grey’s Scouts and the third and fourth battalions of the RAR, the regular units were increasingly deployed as military fire brigades within the country, and on external operations after 1976. The trend was to hand over routine, ground-covering patrols to reserve forces. Fire Force duties were allocated to the RLI, the RAR, the Support Company of the Selous Scouts and, less frequently, the SAS. Formations served two- to three-week tours as Fire Forces before being allocated to other operations. In consequence, most of their ranks received parachute training.

External operations were carried out almost exclusively by these regular formations. The SAS spent most of its time across the border. The Squadrons were deployed for months at a time in Mozambique, Zambia or Botswana on regular operations to harass guerrilla camps and lines of communication and to gather intelligence. Full-scale assaults on guerrilla bases, some involving combat paradrops from as low as 300 feet, were also a part of the unit’s responsibilities. The RAR, RLI and Selous Scouts deployed detachments of up to company strength into neighbouring states, though most operations were on a smaller scale.

Other combat formations were the Independent Companies made up of national servicemen, the Artillery and the Armoured Car Regiment. The Independent Companies had specific areas of responsibility (for example, 2 Indep. Coy was based at Kariba, 3 Indep. Coy at Inyanga) in which they constantly operated. Occasionally they were deployed on Fire Force duties and on external raids. Their quality was never very high as they were the residue of national service intakes after officer training, the regular units, the specialized arms and police had taken their pick of conscripts. One such unit, 7 Indep. Coy, was a cover for a unit of French recruits into the Rhodesian forces. Some were veterans of the Foreign Legion, but they were not successful in Rhodesian conditions and were disbanded.

The service corps were largely staffed by regular troops, though their deficiencies were also made up by drafts of national servicemen and reservists. The corps divisions of responsibility were roughly similar to those of the British army: the Corps of Engineers, the Corps of Signals, Army Services Corps, Army Medical Corps, Military Police, Army Pay Corps, Army Educational Corps and the Corps of Chaplains. There were also miscellaneous departments such as the Psychological Action Group (Psyac) and Military Intelligence to co-ordinate field and external intelligence data. The Military Intelligence department performed poorly partly because of the small size of its staff, of whom nearly all were reservists. A big exception, however, was the signallers in Military Intelligence who operated the Radio Intercept Services. A great deal of vital information was gleaned from radio interception of guerrillas and regular troops based in Mozambique and Zambia. A Special Investigations Branch was created to ensure the internal security of the army and to root out subversion and dissidence among troops.

The army’s ‘tail’ was remarkably lean, and the usual imbalance between combat and support units in modern armies was not a severe problem for the Rhodesian forces. Many functions of the ‘tail’ were carried out by cheap black auxiliary labour, so that little white manpower was allocated to trivial, but necessary, support functions. The emigration of skilled artisans from the country had serious repercussions for the armed forces. Motor vehicle mechanics were in chronically short supply, especially when the number of landmine and traffic incidents escalated alarmingly from 1976. The gaps in the security forces’ maintenance capabilities were filled to a great extent by private contractors and by calling up skilled personnel to serve in security forces’ workshops.

American Colonial Militia Systems

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This illustration depicts the first muster of Massachusetts Bay Colony militia in the spring of 1637.

In the colonial era, the militia system was linked to fundamental concepts of American citizenship; militias were considered to be one of three pillars of society, along with the church and local government. Militarily, the colonial militia was the primary instrument of defense for the American colonies. By the latter part of the 17th century, the militia had become more complex, as local militias continued to function as local defense forces, while militia volunteers and draftees made up the provincial expeditionary forces for major campaigns. The structures and functions of local militias and expeditionary forces continued to evolve through the series of imperial wars of the 18th century.

Early Colonial Militias

The first English colonists found themselves in precarious circumstances. Potential attack from Native Americans and England’s European rivals compelled the colonists at Jamestown and Plymouth to immediately organize their defenses. For guidance, colonists turned to the English militia tradition, dating to the 12th-century Assize of Arms (1181), which obligated every able-bodied adult man in the community to provide military service for the common defense.

In Jamestown (settled in 1607), Capt. John Smith was one of several among the first colonists with professional military experience. Smith proved more forceful than most, however, and once he assumed responsibility for the defense of the colony he held every man responsible for militia duty. Facing the prospect of the colony’s starvation and total collapse, Smith declared martial law and organized reluctant settlers to raid corn supplies of local Native Americans. Smith’s authoritarian actions kept the colony alive without a formal militia structure. The founders of the first New England colony in Plymouth (1620) hired a military adviser, Miles Standish, to oversee the colony’s defenses. In the early years of both colonies, community defense fell to the entire male community.

After a decade of settlement, the militia structures of Virginia and New England diverged, reflecting differences in their societies and circumstances. In Virginia, the emergence of tobacco as a cash crop stimulated the entrepreneurial individualism that produced a rapid expansion of dispersed plantations. The isolated plantations, however, hindered militia organization and were vulnerable to attack; a 1622 attack by local Powhatans devastated the English colony. The royal government determined to establish an effective militia by mandating universal military service for every man between the ages of 17 and 60. Orders instructed planters to take their weapons with them to church and into the fields when they worked.

In contrast to Virginia’s dispersed settlement pattern, New Englanders settled closely around their meetinghouses, which enabled each town to maintain a militia company. In a total community effort, towns constructed fortifications that made each town an outpost and every freeman a soldier. The display of military prowess combined with competent diplomacy permitted New England to avoid major conflict during the early years of settlement.

17th-Century Militia Systems

Gradually over two decades, New England and Virginia transformed their ad hoc militias into formally structured militia systems. In New England, specialized “trained bands” received military training while the rest of the male population constituted a reserve. Between 1637 and 1676, New England’s military planners learned from repeated conflicts with Native Americans that their best chance for success depended on their ability to counterattack quickly and effectively. The Massachusetts militia adapted by creating special units of troops drawn from the trained bands based on particular skills, for example, tracking and marksmanship.

Their first major expedition during the Pequot War (1637) proved a tactical success but revealed shortcomings in command. As a remedy, New England colonies joined in a cooperative military establishment, the United Colonies of New England (1643). The confederation was formed expressly to provide mutual aid with both men and logistical support and to provide a central command. While imperfect, the New England regional coordinating council lasted for some 40 years.

By the time of King Philip’s War (1675-76), the colonial militia system had begun to take on two distinct forms: local militia and provincial expeditionary forces. After damaging surprise attacks by Native American warriors in 1675, New England towns contributed more than 1,000 militia troops for a retaliatory provincial expedition. The evolution of the militia- from a universal community obligation for local defense to a formalized military force-required provincial officials to negotiate soldiers’ pay rates and specify the destination and duration of service. Soldiers enlisted with the expectation that they were entering into a contract between equals. They insisted on electing the officers who would lead them, set the geographic limits of their service (often refusing to leave their own provinces), stipulated the rations and supplies to which they were entitled, and demanded discharge at the agreed expiration of their enlistment. As the scale and risks of expeditions grew, recruiters increasingly relied on enlistment bonuses to fill the ranks, and the social profiles of expedition soldiers shifted more toward young bachelors and the “lower sort” who were more likely to be enticed by economic incentives.

New England militias were subordinated to the selectmen of their towns; expedition forces reported to the provincial government. Operationally, local committees raised, equipped, and paid the militia, with the social composition of New England militia closely mirroring the community. In the local militia, the “better sort” of well-to-do and respectable men tended to be officers, while freeholders (property owners) filled the ranks; expeditionary forces relied more on the lower end of the social order for their rank and file.

During this same period, the evolution of the Virginia militia followed a different trajectory but arrived at a similar end. After quelling another Powhatan uprising in 1644, Virginia’s militia organization suffered from complacency and neglect. Militia duty was burdensome to busy tobacco planters. The lack of support from established planters pushed frontier settlers to organize their own vigilante militia. In 1676, they attacked bordering tribes, but then quickly turned their wrath on the colonial governor in a violent outburst known as Bacon’s Rebellion. After British regulars restored order, the royal government promptly restructured the Virginia militia, hiring professional soldiers for frontier duty and reserving future local militia service to the “better sort.”

18th-Century Militia Systems

From 1689 to 1763, the demands on the militia system shifted predominantly to providing expeditionary forces to support British wars with Spain and France. By the time of King William’s War (1689-97), provincial expeditionary forces were the primary unit for active duty, even though the militia remained the first line of defense for outlying towns. In the south at the turn of the century, the militia was only occasionally a viable force. When South Carolina experienced a Spanish attack in 1706, the militia rushed to defend the coastal capital Charleston, but during the Yamasee War (1715), militia turnout was dismal. Following the end of Queen Anne’s War in 1714, southern colonial militias declined in military readiness and became exclusively the preserve of white planters who were more worried about slave rebellion than Indian attacks.

By the time of the culminating phase of imperial wars in North America (King George’s War, 1744-48, to the French and Indian War, 1756-63), southern militias’ main function was community policing. When Britain called upon Virginia for troops to support a Caribbean expedition, the Virginia assembly hired or drafted transients, laborers, and other landless persons because propertied men refused to enlist for distant expeditions. Men of property remained active in the militia while it functioned as a policing force at home, but most landholders avoided active duty on the frontier or expeditions by paying a fine for nonservice. In contrast, New Englanders from across the entire social spectrum turned out for an offensive expedition against French Canada in 1745. The French and their Indian allies were a long-standing menace to the northern colonies, and past experiences of predations motivated some recruits. Others responded for army pay and the prospect of plunder, and still others for God and glory.

When the French and Indian War reignited hostilities, the British deployed a regular army to America and called on 30,000 colonial troops to support them. The war linked global imperial struggles to local frontier warfare, and New Englanders again joined the fray in considerable numbers. Because colonial militiamen in Massachusetts saw their military service as a contract, freely entered into and with stipulated limits, most joined voluntarily and were not disproportionately of the lower classes as was the case in Virginia.

As expeditionary forces increasingly fought the wars of empire, local militias became more important as social institutions than as military organizations. By the 18th century, militia training days were important community events in colonial society. Not only did the men come together to drill, the entire community joined in a civic holiday and a picnic, opened with a prayer by the minister of the congregation. Afterward, while the men drilled on the green, women cooked feasts and children socialized with other youngsters. Young women looked on as the young men fired their muskets and marched smartly on the training greens. Training day functioned as an initiation ritual for younger men entering into the world of adult manhood. It also was the stage upon which a community reconfirmed the ranks of citizenship and the social order. Those on the margins of the social proceedings at training days were the same people on the margins of full citizenship or prosperity-a diverse group that included servants, slaves, Native Americans, and transient laborers.

The Revolutionary Militia

The onset of the American Revolution inspired the last resurgence of colonial militia systems as effective military organizations. In 1775, the Minute Men were the American vanguard, as the larger part of the adult male population mustered for community defense. Once serious fighting began, however, the New England colonies reverted to the established model of the expeditionary forces in which recruits tended to be single young men able to handle the rigors of military life. When the war continued into another year, at Commander in Chief George Washington’s urging, the American Congress authorized establishment of a truly national army, much more similar to the European model of a professional army. The demands of a continental war required a national army that superseded the capacities of the colonial militia systems, and henceforth the militias functioned as auxiliaries and recruiting pools.

Bibliography Boucher, Ronald L. “The Colonial Militia as a Social Organization: Salem, Massachusetts, 1764-1775.” Military Affairs 37 (1973): 125-30. Cress, Lawrence Delbert. Citizens in Arms: The Army and the Militia in American Society to the War of 1812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982. Leach, Douglas Edward. “The Military System of Plymouth Colony.” New England Quarterly (1951): 342-364. Shy, John. “A New Look at the Colonial Militia.” William and Mary Quarterly 20 (1963): 175-85. Whisker, James Biser. The Rise and Decline of the American Militia System. London: Associated University Press, 1999.

Further Reading Anderson, Fred. A People’s Army: Massachusetts Soldiers and Society in the Seven Years’ War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Gross, Robert. The Minutemen and Their World. New York: Hill & Wang, 1976. Leach, Douglas Edward. Roots of Conflict: British Armed Forces and Colonial Americans, 1677-1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Main, Jackson Turner. The Social Structure of Revolutionary America. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. Millis, Walter. Arms and Men: A Study in American Military History. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956.

WARRIOR WOMEN OF DAHOMEY, 1600–1900

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The warrior women of Dahomey, an ancient kingdom in West Africa and present-day Benin, first came to the attention of European travelers in the latter half of the sixteenth century. A German book published in 1598, Vera Descriptio Regni Africani, describes an African royal court whose palace guard consisted of women, and similar royal formations occurred elsewhere in the world from ancient times, particularly in the East. The kings of ancient Persia had female bodyguards, as did a prince of Java.

As late as the nineteenth century, the king of Siam, now Thailand, was guarded by a battalion of four hundred women armed with spears. They were said to perform drills better than male soldiers and were crack spear-throwers. Women in general were regarded as more loyal and trustworthy bodyguards than men, because they were less likely to be bribed or suborned; many rulers chose female bodyguards for this reason.

But the women of Dahomey outclassed them all. More than 250 years after the first reference, we catch sight of them again in the high summer of the British Empire when the British general Sir Garnet Wolseley, in a report on his successful campaign against the Ashanti (1873–74), compared his energetic and disciplined Fanti female porters to the king of Dahomey’s “corps of Amazons.”

Eighteenth-century accounts of Dahomey by European merchants and slave traders—slavery was the basis of the kingdom’s wealth—paint a picture of a colorful feudal world whose kings were surrounded by hundreds of serving girls and guarded by armed women. One of Dahomey’s kings, Bossa Ahadee, would march in ceremonial procession accompanied by several hundred wives, surrounded by female messengers and slaves, and escorted by a guard of 120 men armed with blunderbusses and 90 armed women.

The presence of the armed women was, at this stage in Dahomey’s history, more a symbol than a real threat to Dahomey’s neighbors. The tables were turned, however, when one of them, the king of Oyo, took to the field against the Dahomeans with a raiding party of eight hundred women to enforce a claim of female tribute he had leveled against King Adahoonzou. It was left to the all-male Dahomean army to defeat the Oyan Amazons.

By the time of King Ghezo (1818–58), Dahomey’s royal court consisted of some eight thousand people, the majority of them women, many of whom existed in a minutely graded pyramid of concubinage, at the top of which were the so-called Wives of the Leopard, the women who bore the ruler’s children. One of the functions of the armed female element of the court, all of whom were recruited in their early teenage years, seems to have been the capture and execution of women from rival tribes. All the “Amazons” carried giant folding razors, with blades over two feet long, which were apparently used to decapitate female enemies and castrate male foes.

From the late 1830s Ghezo seems to have used members of his predominantly female court in battle against neighboring tribes. It is possible that he deployed four thousand female warriors in an army totaling sixteen thousand. When in 1851 he laid siege to the city of Abeokuta, the siege was repulsed with losses of some three thousand, of whom two thirds were women. A French account of the engagement describes their officers standing in the front line, “recognisable by the riches of their dress” and carrying themselves with “a proud and resolute air.” Nevertheless, these women warriors occupied an inferior and ambivalent position in the hierarchy of the Dahomean court and, significantly, referred to themselves as men in their war cries and battle chants.

Far from discouraging Ghezo, this setback spurred him on to include more women in his army. They seem to have been divided into a regular corps of well-trained and highly disciplined “Amazons” armed with muskets and machete-like swords, who also formed an elite personal bodyguard, and a rather less satisfactory reserve, armed with cutlasses, clubs, and bows and arrows, who were more interested in rum than rigorous military discipline. In peacetime the “Amazon” corps was wholly segregated from men, and outside the confines of the royal palace its approach was signaled by the ringing of bells, upon which civilians had to turn their backs and males had to move away.

There were several practical reasons for Ghezo’s use of women in battle. Dahomey was exceptionally warlike, and lost many men on campaign, while simultaneously depending for its wealth on a slave trade that favored the disposal to slavers of a large proportion of its able-bodied male population. At its peak strength in the early 1860s, the Dahomean army was approximately fifty thousand strong—one-fifth the total population—of which the female element numbered ten thousand, a quarter of their number consisting of the “Amazons.”

It has been suggested that many of the women, as well as some of the men in the Dahomean army, went to war as camp followers, much in the manner of the soldaderas who marched with Mexican armies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, who saw them in 1863, likewise poured derision on “the fighting Amazons.” “Mostly elderly and all of them hideous,” he ruminated with all the authority of the European white male, “the officers decidedly chosen for the size of their bottoms…they manoeuvre with the precision of a flock of sheep.” But he also noted that this army, then some 2,500 strong, was well armed and effective in battle. Nor could all of them have been old and hideous, since all 2,500 were official wives of the king.

In spite of the dread in which they were held, the “Amazons” were no match for small but well-armed colonial armies. In a series of engagements in 1892, the male and female Dahomean warriors were defeated by a French army, and the kingdom became a colony of France. The victorious French commander commended the women warriors on their speed and boldness and installed a puppet ruler who was permitted a few token women in his bodyguard. A troupe of so-called Amazons from Dahomey formed part of a display at the recently erected Eiffel Tower, under which they danced and drilled.

Reference: Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, 1998.

Coldstream Guards 1940

When war was declared on 3 September 1939 the 1st Coldstream was training at Pirbright, while the 2nd Battalion was at Albuhera Barracks, Aldershot. The 3rd Battalion was in Egypt, serving in the Canal Brigade, and based in Mustapha Barracks, Alexandria.

The outbreak of war was greeted (in 1st and 2nd Coldstream) by some with relief, even celebration; war, long anticipated, was now a reality and provided a degree of certainty. Some felt that it would be like the manoeuvres that the Battalions had done during the summer. A feeling of inevitability prevailed, however, among the many sons of those who had fought the Germans only twenty years before. Orders to mobilize had arrived on 1 September and, within hours, Reservists joined both Battalions.

Mechanization of the Army at home was completed in 1938 and battalions (twenty-three officers and 753 men in four Rifle Companies) had the .303” Bren light machine-gun, ten lightly armoured Bren Carriers, and a 3” Mortar Platoon. Anti-tank defence was provided by the Boys .55” anti-tank rifle, regarded as infamous for its savage kick. Battalions were expected to march (they lacked troop transport) and were equipped only to company level with radio. Tactics were based on the mobile warfare of 1918 with some emphasis on positional defence. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was partly organized for a war of manoeuvre, but it lacked armour and all arms training.

THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE, 1939–40

The 2nd Battalion was in 1st Guards Brigade (with 3rd Grenadiers and 2nd Hampshire Regiment, under Brigadier Merton Beckwith-Smith) in Major General the Hon Harold Alexander’s 1st ‘Strategic Reserve’ Division (I Corps). Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Lionel Bootle-Wilbraham, the Battalion moved to Southampton on 19 September and sailed for Cherbourg, continuing by rail (as in 1914) in ‘Hommes 40, Chevaux 8’ trucks to Sillé-le-Guillaume (near Le Mans) then marching on pavé (cobbles) to Conlie and later Arras.

The 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Arnold Cazenove in 7th Guards Brigade (with 1st and 2nd Grenadiers, under Brigadier Sir John Whitaker, a Coldstreamer) was in Major General Bernard Montgomery’s 3rd Division (II Corps) and arrived in Cherbourg on 30 September. They followed the same route, arriving near Roubaix on 12 October.

In 1938 plans had been made to deploy the BEF to Northern France which was unprotected by the much-vaunted Maginot Line. A few pillboxes and an incomplete anti-tank ditch existed along the border with neutral Belgium, and so the BEF had to construct a twenty-mile defensive line from Halluin (near Menin) to Maulde, south of Tournai.

The battalions spent the winter of 1939–40 constructing trenches, pillboxes and wire entanglements. The single battledress issued was inadequate for the cold and Guardsmen were mostly quartered in unheated barns. Little training was done in the Regular divisions, except 3rd Division where General Montgomery anticipated that battles would be fought on each river line. Bachy station platform was used for Adjutant’s Drill Parades by 2nd Coldstream, and in December His Majesty the King visited the Battalion on one of the coldest days of the winter. Efforts were made to maintain morale and concerts by George Formby, Gracie Fields and others were popular. Morale was high and the Guardsmen, despite the most arduous conditions, complained little during this ‘Phoney War’.

Lord Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, attended the Paris conference in November at which it was decided that if Belgian neutrality was violated the Allies would move forward sixty miles from the River Escaut to the River Dyle, east of Brussels. This – Plan ‘D’ – would shorten the Allied line, preserve Brussels, deny the Channel ports to Germany and might bring the Belgian Army on to the Allied side. No reconnaissance of Belgium was allowed, however, and the wisdom of moving forward was much debated.

In February 1940 the 2nd Battalion served in the Maginot Line near Lorry-lès-Metz and the companies were, for the first time, in sight of the enemy. Useful battle lessons were learned, particularly about dominating no-man’s-land. Some Guardsmen acquired ‘On ne passe pas’ Maginot badges; after Dunkirk many Coldstreamers felt that, unlike the Maginot defences, no one had passed them!

1st Battalion

The German invasion of the Low Countries on 10 May was followed by the advance into Belgium. 1st Coldstream moved to Vilvorde outside Brussels, then to Louvain and Herent, on the Mechelen-Louvain canal, where Coldstreamers first engaged German troops (14 May). An assault crossing in the Battalion area was repulsed next day, but during the action Lord Frederick Cambridge, commanding No 2 Company, was killed. The loss of this popular figure, the first Coldstream officer killed in the campaign, was a shock. The Battalion counter-attacked to the canal, but on 16 May the Germans crossed in the Belgian sector. Worse news followed; German tanks had broken through over the River Meuse eighty miles further south, outflanking the Maginot Line and threatening the BEF’s flank.

The 1st Battalion withdrew that night to the Escaut (temporarily beside the 2nd Battalion) and later into reserve. Refugees hindered movement and everyone witnessed terrible sights where civilians had been dive-bombed. On 22 May the 1st Battalion moved again to Wattrelos, east of Roubaix. The discipline and bearing of the Guardsmen on the march made a strong impression on many observers.

2nd Battalion

The 2nd Coldstream received news of the attack on 10 May at Pont-à-Marcq, south of Lille. The Battalion marched twenty-one miles to Tournai next day before being lifted to Brussels, but had to march a further twelve miles to Duisburg village, and later Leefdaal, on the Brussels-Louvain road. Similar scenes of refugees choking the roads and rumours of ‘Fifth Columnists’ were encountered. No.3 Company’s cookhouse in Leefdaal was bombed and the CQMS and a cook were killed, the first casualties suffered by the Battalion.

On 15 May, following the German crossing of the Dyle, the Battalion prepared to move amid order and counter-order. That night it withdrew, marching seventeen miles back to Zuun on the Brussels-Charleroi canal; two days later it completed another twenty miles to the Dendre at Ninove. The Commanding Officer commented that the Guardsmen marched well and were cheerful despite little sleep in the past forty-eight hours. The boots stood the test, but many felt that they had ‘slept on the march’. On 19 May 2nd Coldstream had to withdraw in daylight in contact, under shellfire, from its positions forward of the Dendre.

The twenty-seven miles to Pecq on the Escaut were completed mostly on foot, fortunately without air attack, and the Battalion arrived late on 20 May. The Escaut was “as wide as the Basingstoke canal”, but shallow; it gave Lord Gort the chance to deploy the BEF in the defence of a major obstacle, although he had troops committed around Arras, thirty-five miles to the south-west. The BEF defences ran for thirty-two miles with 1st Guards Brigade in the centre.

The Guardsmen were tired – “over everybody there was a heavy air of fatigue and depression” one Company Commander wrote – but two platoons per company immediately began to dig in along an 1800 yard frontage, overlooked by the Mont St Aubert feature, 430 feet high, less than two miles away. No 3 Company guarded the bridge, demolished that night (20/21 May), while No 1 Company was behind the canal bank. During the dark night it was realized that there was a gap between the Coldstream and 3rd Grenadiers on the right, and a limited re-deployment took place. The Royal Artillery shelled movement on the far bank, but before dawn German mortaring started and heavy shellfire later hit both Battalions.

A determined river crossing by 31st Infantry Division against the Coldstream-Grenadier boundary followed. Despite heavy fire, several German companies crossed and advanced towards the Pecq-Tournai road, digging in on rising ground (‘Poplar Ridge’). Attempts by Coldstream Bren carriers to support No 1 Company, forced out of position, were only partially successful, several carriers being lost to assault guns. The attack towards Pecq was halted.

The situation was unclear; communications were difficult. Brigadier Beckwith-Smith, the Brigade Commander, ordered the Commanding Officers to restore the situation as best they could. No 3 Company of the Grenadiers counter-attacked, but, when this faltered, Lance Corporal Harry Nicholls of the Grenadiers (Imperial Forces Heavyweight Boxing Champion) charged the positions on Poplar Ridge firing his Bren, destroying the machine guns and causing numerous casualties, despite several wounds. This superb act of gallantry wrested the initiative from the Germans and Lance Corporal Nicholls was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Coldstream re-established their forward positions and by nightfall reported their front clear of enemy. The Battalion had suffered thirty casualties (fifteen killed) including several officers and seniors. In 1st Guards Brigade sector a Corps river crossing had been defeated and only one small penetration had been made down the whole Escaut Line.

In the south, tanks from Panzer Gruppe von Kleist, the German main effort, reached the Channel late on 20/21 May. The BEF’s resolute defence of the Escaut caused General von Bock to switch the effort of Army Group B (a subsidiary to the attack in the south) to the Courtrai-Ypres axis, the BEF boundary with the Belgians, in order to outflank the Escaut position. A salient began to develop around Lille.

Lord Gort saw the trap and decided, despite Allied pressure, to save the BEF. After several confused meetings in Ypres on 22 May Lord Gort ordered the BEF to withdraw to the ‘Gort Line’ constructed during the winter. This released divisions to attack south into Panzer Gruppe von Kleist (the offensive never materialized), to secure Dunkirk and to strengthen the northern flank with the Belgians.

The Dunkirk Perimeter. 1st and 2nd Battalions

The 2nd Battalion withdrew from Pecq on 22 May to ill-prepared positions near Leers (east of Roubaix) but it was well supplied from the Lille NAAFI. On the 27th the Commanding Officer announced that 1st Division was to move to the Dunkirk perimeter. The intention “to march 55 miles back to the coast” produced misgivings!

On 26 May 1st Coldstream received orders regarding evacuation from Dunkirk, but with Army Group B attacking the BEF flank near Menin, the Battalion moved to Roncq (south of Menin). The German VI Armee broke through 5th Division at Houthem (near Ypres) and the position was only restored by a determined attack by 3rd Grenadiers, whose defence prevented Army Group B encircling the BEF. The 1st Coldstream withdrew (28 May) over Messines Ridge to Reninge, on the Yser, twelve miles from Dunkirk, down roads clogged with French, British and Belgian troops. (Belgium surrendered on 28 May). The Yser was the last significant obstacle south of the Dunkirk perimeter. The Battalion moved to Furnes, destroying its transport and keeping only the fighting vehicles. Dunkirk lay under a pall of smoke.

During 30 May German pressure increased north of Furnes; their 56th Division attempted to cross the Bergues-Furnes canal. 1st Coldstream was ordered to relieve a battalion on the canal, but No.1 Company, reaching the position in the dark, found Germans on the near bank. An immediate counter-attack was mounted, but the situation remained confused. The Adjutant, Captain George Burns, took over No 1 Company and the Transport Officer No 3. At first light mortars and artillery opened fire and the crossing was defeated.

Pressure on 1st Coldstream increased on 31 May; the 3rd Division was ordered to embark that night and No 4 Company formed the Battalion rearguard. By 0300 hours the Guardsmen – and thousands of other troops – were on the beach at La Panne waiting for the tide. On 1 June 1st Coldstream, each man with his rifle and equipment, returned to England.

The 2nd Coldstream had also been moving on 27 May from Roubaix, past Ploegsteert and Kemmelberg, to Locre, between Ypres and Bailleul, where it rested after marching thirty-two miles, and a thunderstorm soaked everyone. The Battalion marched a further fifteen miles, passing chaos in Poperinghe, to the Bergues-Furnes canal (with only a few miles in transport) before setting about the defence of a wide frontage astride a main route into the Dunkirk Perimeter. By late on 29 May 2nd Coldstream was dug in, but its strength was only 200 men. A detachment, 120 strong, later rejoined the Battalion from Houthem (near Hondschoote).

Troops, including wounded, straggled across the bridges all day, only ambulances being allowed to drive across. Two platoons of the Welsh Guards “marched across in formation, looking like Guardsmen and remarkably … well turned out compared with the rabble which was shuffling along the roads. It did us good to see them,” wrote the Commanding Officer. On the 30th the Coldstream was ordered to form the rearguard for the BEF, fighting until receiving orders to evacuate. Rations were scanty and ammunition short.

Shelling increased, but it was not until 1 June that the position became precarious. German tanks crossed the canal, forcing No 1 Company back onto No 3, both Company Commanders being killed; but the Battalion held on, before withdrawing to the beaches that night. The Guardsmen spent 2 June hiding from Stukas in dunes near Dunkirk until evening before leaving in various craft. Colonel Bootle-Wilbraham (now commanding the Brigade) and Major W.S. (‘Bunty’) Stewart Brown, Acting Commanding Officer, were picked up by HMS Sabre. No Coldstreamer was allowed to board without his weapon; but once aboard, cocoa was served in galvanized buckets, and most Guardsmen slept until reaching Dover.

The achievements of the Royal Navy and the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk are well known. Dispersion to Reception Areas was another feat of improvisation; 545 trains were used to move the 338,226 men evacuated. Hundreds of volunteers produced tea and sandwiches. The 1st Battalion re-assembled at Aldershot, while the 2nd collected at Walton, near Wakefield. Reorganization and training against an invasion was the priority.

The recovery of the BEF was a major success, but it was not a victory. Almost all heavy equipment was lost: over 84,400 vehicles were abandoned, including 98% of the tanks. Winston Churchill, Prime Minister since 10 May, inspired the nation, but stated that “wars are not won by evacuations”. Britain had, however, recovered a third of a million trained Servicemen, and Dunkirk veterans went on to fight in every theatre of war. “Being evacuated,” wrote one, “was the start of the road back.”

The War Office Report later concluded that “without question the British soldier is at least as good as the German,” but it was clear how ill-equipped the BEF had been for the campaign. The BEF and RAF had gained valuable experience, but there was much to learn.

Months later the 1st Battalion Commanding Officer’s Bunting, battle-scarred and bloodied, arrived at Regimental Headquarters from HMS Winchelsea which had carried Colonel Cazenove back from the beaches. It now hangs in the 1st Battalion Sergeants’ Mess, a symbol of the Coldstreamers who maintained traditional standards and discipline under very difficult circumstances during the Dunkirk campaign.

Royal Air Force Regiment

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RAF Regiment servicemen near Khandahar Airfield, Afghanistan January 2010.

The Royal Air Force Regiment (RAF Regt) is part of the Royal Air Force and functions as a specialist airfield defence corps founded by Royal Warrant in 1942.

The RAF Regiment is trained in CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear) defence and equipped with advanced vehicles and detection measures. RAF Regiment instructors are responsible for training all Royal Air Force personnel in basic Force Protection, such as first aid, weapon handling, and CBRN skills.

The regiment and its members are known within the RAF as ‘The Regiment’, ‘Rock Apes’ or ‘Rocks’. After a 32 week trainee gunner course, its members are trained and equipped to prevent a successful enemy attack in the first instance; minimise the damage caused by a successful attack; and ensure that air operations can continue without delay in the aftermath of an attack. RAF Regiment squadrons use aggressive defence tactics whereby they actively seek out infiltrators in a large area surrounding airfields.

The genesis of the RAF Regiment was with the creation of No. 1 Armoured Car Company RAF in 1921 for operations in Iraq, followed shortly afterwards by No. 2 Armoured Car Company RAF and No. 3 Armoured Car Company RAF. These were equipped with Rolls-Royce Armoured Cars and were highly successful in ground combat operations throughout the Middle East in the 1920s and 1930s. The RAF Regiment came into existence, in name, on 5 February 1942. From the start it had both field squadrons and light anti-aircraft squadrons, the latter originally armed with Hispano 20mm cannon and then the Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft gun. Its role was to seize, secure and defend airfields to enable air operations to take place. Several parachute squadrons were formed to assist in the seizing of airfields and No. II Squadron retains this capability. 284 Field Squadron was the first RAF unit to arrive in West Berlin in 1945, to secure RAF Gatow.

The Regiment has a museum at RAF Honington near Bury St Edmunds. The RAF Regiment mounts annually the King’s Guard/Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, Windsor Castle and the Tower of London, with the first occasion being on 1 April 1943.

During World War II, with its first headquarters established at RAF Alma Park, Grantham, Lincolnshire and its first depot at nearby RAF Belton Park the RAF Regiment grew to a force of over 80,000 men in 280 squadrons of 185 men each (each squadron including five officers). Squadrons usually consisted of a Headquarters Flight, three Rifle Flights, an Air-Defence Flight, and an Armoured-Car Flight. The flights were grouped together into wings as needed. It also operated six Armoured Car Squadrons to provide an area response capability to several RAF stations. Light Armoured Squadrons, equipped with FV101 Scorpion and FV107 Scimitar light Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) – (CVR(T) – continued to be operated into the 1980s. Formerly the RAF’s firefighters were also members of the RAF Regiment, although they are now independent of it.

The RAF Regiment comes under command of 2 Group, Air Command. Its members are organised into ten regular squadrons, – Nos 1, 2, 3, 15, 26, 27, 34, 51, 58 and 63/Queen’s colour Squadron – of which eitght are field squadrons and two are specialist CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear units under the umbrella of the defence CBRN Wing (No 20 Wing RAF Regiment -see note below), plus fourRoyal Auxiliary Air Force (RAuxAF) Regiment (RAuxAF Regt) squadrons. These are intended to counter ground-based threats to overseas/deployed RAF assets and, to this end, are trained as mobile infantry to move on foot, or in helicopters and protected mobility vehicles, to defend airfields and landing sites. The large area surrounding airfields (regularly up to 140 km square) means RAF Regiment rifle flights (platoons) often spend long periods of time deployed on the ground deterring and detecting potential attackers. Since 2007, some 10 RAF Regiment gunners have been killed in action, and many seriously injured, in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, over the same period, three Military Crosses have been won by RAF Regiment members for conspicuous bravery.

Members of the RAF Regiment are equipped with a range of direct and indirect fire systems and surveillance and night vision equipment. The way a field squadron operates depends upon the threat they are facing, mounting defensive positions or aggressive patrolling outside the airfield boundary. As air bases are fixed and supporting elements are unable to redeploy quickly, field squadrons must engage an attacking adversary at the earliest opportunity to prevent air operations from being disrupted.

Field Squadrons are divided into flights, which are equivalent in size to an army platoon. Each squadron contains several rifle flights, whose task is to engage the enemy at close range, and a support weapons flight, which provides fire support to the rifle flights using machine guns, mortars, and snipers.

The field squadrons are 171 strong making them larger than an infantry company in the British Army although not all personnel on an RAF Regiment squadron are trained gunners, rather specialist support services such as administrators and drivers etc. A typical RAF Regiment squadron has support elements from the RAF but these personnel are not able to deploy on patrols etc. All regular RAF Regiment personnel are male although the Auxiliary Squadrons do recruit women, it is British Government policy that women cannot serve in close combat units. There are approximately 2,000 regular airmen (i.e. Other Ranks), 300 regular officers, and 500 reservists.

Since 1990, the RAF Regiment has conducted operations in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Cyprus, Falkland Islands, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, Northern Ireland, Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone. Some RAF Regiment officers and Senior Non Commissioned Officers have been seconded to the Army in roles such as Forward Air Controlers with some Tactical Air Control Parties (TACPs) that co-ordinate Close Air Support for the ground forces. The Regiment provide staff for the Defence CBRN Centre at Winterborne Gunner which trains personnel from all three Services and the civilian police in CBRN defence skills; a flight of some 40 RAF Regiment personnel forms part of the tri-service Special Forces Support Group.

In 2011, as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review, it was announced that from December 2011, the CBRN role undertaken by the Joint CBRN Regiment, a combined Army/RAF unit, would be transferred to the RAF Regiment (as lead service) under the new Defence CBRN Wing, formed from 26 Squadron, 27 Squadron and 2623 (Auxiliary) Squadron. The army retains involvement through the continued use of the Royal Yeomanry to provide trained battlefield casualty replacements.

The RAF Regiment’s basic training increased to 32 weeks to incorporate the specialist training centred on air-aware soldiering.

The RAF Regiment have recently begun a large reservist recruitment drive for their reserve field squadrons calling for civilians with and without military experience.

LINK

Soviet Paratroopers (VDV)

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The origins of the VDV stem from an organization called OSOAVIAHIM, a voluntary society which developed military and semi-military sporting games. Although not specifically a military unit, it was supportive of the army, airforce and navy. The membership subs for joining were very small since its goal was preparing a pool of reserves for the existing armed forces.

Very soon it became a powerful militarised organization, with its own aerodromes, radio clubs, parachute towers and firing ranges. It became extremely prestigious to earn badges such as Voroshilov marksman, Voroshilov horseman, and parachute jump badges.

Gradually, OSOAVIAHIM became a kind of training for the army reserves, with its courses including such advanced disciplines as tactics, map-reading and weapons handling. A person could join OSOAVIAHIM as early as at the age of 14, and by 1941, OSOAVIAHIM was estimated as having around 13 million members.

Needless to say, the parachute training offered by OSOAVIAHIM was extremely popular, and there were clubs across the Union where one could participate in jumps, and earn their sports wings.

This, served a dual purpose, and enabled the armed forces to have at their disposal men and women who had at the very minimum the basics in parachute training.

Parachute units were originally formed in the Soviet Union during the mid-1930s, and were massively expanded during World War II, where they formed up to ten Airborne Corps with numerous Independent Airborne Brigades, with most or all achieving the elite “Guards” status after 1942.

During the Soviet counter-offensive for the Defence of Moscow at Vyazma, 27th January 1942, the Soviet 4th Airborne Corps began a series of night drops of paratroopers in the German rear. Forty civilian and twenty-two military aircraft, escorted by limited numbers of fighters and ground attack aviation, supported the landings. From the beginning, the operation did not go well.

After, six nights, only 2,100 men from the 10,000-man airborne corps had been dropped in. Because of bad weather and the pilots’ inexperience with night navigation, most of these troops landed twenty kilometers south of the intended drop zone. Plans for five to six sorties each night did not take into account adverse weather conditions, aircraft failures, or combat losses. Also, the failure to conceal the buildup of troops at the airborne fields led to the closing of one of them by German bombers. The remaining two fields provided only two to three sorties per night.

The paratroops that landed, however, did succeed in interdicting lines of communication in the German rear area for almost three weeks, in part because of their linkup with the 1st Guards Cavalry Corps on 6 February.

A second series of night landings occurred near Yukhnov between 17 and 23 February. The paratroops were again spread out over a large area because of inaccurate drops, and many supplies were lost. Some of the paratroops eventually joined partisan groups in the area, while the main body restricted itself to night operations because of its lack of artillery and air support. A planned two- to three-day operation extended to almost five months, but despite incredible problems, the remnant of the 4th Airborne Corps managed to break through two encirclements (with the help of a battalion of reinforcements dropped into the area on 15-16 April) and to reach friendly lines by late May. Although it had created considerable havoc in the German rear, the corps was decimated. It had not accomplished its mission of preventing a German withdrawal to the west, because German counterblows had halted the main Russian advance.

Later on in the war the Soviet Union again used Desaniki in the summer of 1943 during a massive offensive in the Ukraine.

Despite the problems encountered in the paratroop operation at Vyazma in 1942, the Soviets attempted a second night drop of an entire airborne corps on 24-25 September 1943 to seize a bridgehead at the Bukrin Bend on the Dnieper. Although the concept was excellent, the planning, timing, and execution of the operation produced results similar to those in 1942. The landing of the first two brigades, scheduled for the night of the twenty-third, had to be delayed a full day because of bad weather and the failure of all military transports to arrive at the three designated airfields. Although 4,575 paratroops were airborne the next night, a full 30 percent of the two brigades remained behind because of aircraft that never arrived, refueling problems, and the insistence of the pilots on carrying smaller lifts than the corps staff had planned. The pilots were inadequately trained, despite exercises held late that summer along the Moskva River, on terrain similar to the Dnieper. Nor were the pilots prepared for the strong antiaircraft resistance they encountered once the operation began. As a result, the two brigades (minus) were spread over – a much wider zone than intended, landing between Rzishchev and Cherkassy. Some landed over friendly positions on the Russian-held side of the river; some landed in the river itself; worse, the main body landed on the positions of three German divisions moving through the area. The Germans shot at the parachutists while they were still in the air, thus forcing them to begin fighting before they hit the ground.

Once on the ground, the paratroops (and what equipment they had not left behind) were so scattered that they were forced to operate in approximately thirty-five small groups. Their mission of seizing a bridgehead and holding a line 110 kilometers long and about twenty-six kilometers deep was no longer feasible, if indeed it ever had been. Instead, Soviet airborne troops once again assumed the role of guerrillas, hiding in forests by day and moving and fighting with partisan groups in the area by night. Because their radio gear was scattered over a wide area, they could not communicate with other Soviet forces. Plans to drop a third brigade were cancelled long before communications were reestablished on 6 October. Gradually, small groups of paratroops began to merge into a corps unit, and an estimated 1,000 or more finally linked up with the advancing forces of the Second Ukrainian Front in mid-November. The Soviets had gambled in conducting this operation at a time when bad weather precluded aerial reconnaissance of the target area. The result was a fiasco, which led Stalin to prohibit similar night operations.

Without question the Soviet Arnhem, they sustained 60% casualties in the battle, and saw some of the most ferocious fighting of any Airborne Troops of all theatres during WWII.

Those are the two main occasions where the Soviets conducted airborne operations; however the Desantniki also fought as regular infantry in all the major battles of the Great Patriotic War.

Minutemen

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The last of the French and Indian Wars, 1754 – 63, opened with attempts first by Virginia volunteers (raised outside the militia system) commanded by George Washington, then by British regulars commanded by Edward Braddock to seize control of the forks of the Ohio River from France. Though not used to raise men until 1757, the militia system proved efficient enough to muster men from New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts for John Bradstreet ‘ s 1758 expedition that captured Fort Frontenac on the St. Lawrence River in 1758. William Byrd II commanded the Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and North Carolina militiamen who accompanied the British regulars who drove the French from Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio (Selesky 1990, Titus 1991, Ward 2003). Though they worked together colonial militiamen and British regulars did not get along and this experience reinforced American distrust of standing armies of professional soldiers (Leach 1986, Johnson 1992).

The French and Indian War resuscitated the militia system and gave colonial leaders experience in working together on military matters, but, in general, militia did not perform well on extended campaigns away from their immediate homelands, indeed many deserted. On the eve of the American Revolution the 13 colonies had a total of 500,000 men enrolled in the militias, one – third of the entire population of those colonies. As tensions between Americans and the mother country escalated, leaders of what would become the Patriot cause gained control of most militia units purging officers loyal to Britain (Shy 1975). Militia officers often assumed leadership roles in committees of correspondence, Sons of Liberty, and committees of public safety that organized opposition to British policies and enforced non – importation, non – consumption agreements. In 1774 and 1775 the Continental Congress instructed colonial governments to reorganize their militias and gather arms and ammunition. The revolutionary government in Massachusetts ordered all commanders to designate a portion of those under their command to be ready for instant service. Thus were born the Minutemen who opposed British regulars at Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill and laid siege to the British in Boston (Fischer 2004).

Those units were subsequently formed into the Continental Army during 1776. From 1777 to the end of the war the “American army ” would consist of Continental Army ” regulars ” who were organized as state ” lines, ” whose ranks state governments were responsible for filling with volunteers or conscripts; by state troops which were raised in a variety of ways, and local militia units that were usually called to serve for short periods of time when their state was threatened (Alexander 1945, 1947 , Murphy 1959 – 60 , Royster 1979 , Buel 1980 , Kestnbaum 2000 ). Mark Kwasny (1998) traces the evolution of the militia and George Washington’s employment of militia units as the war progressed concluding that they came to form an important component of his campaigns. In 1776 Charleston was defended by a force of 900 Continentals, 2,000 state troops, and 2,700 local militia. The August 16, 1777 defeat of a force of 1,250 British troops by 2,000 New Hampshire and Massachusetts militia at Bennington, Vermont, laid the basis for Major General John Burgoyne ‘ s surrender at Saratoga two months later. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan made effective use of militia units at Cowpens, South Carolina, in January 1781, and George Washington had three brigades of Virginia militia at Yorktown. In addition to providing a system through which governors could raise state armies for operations such as the Virginian campaign that captured British posts in the Old Northwest or the Massachusetts – organized debacle at Penobscot, militia conducted most operations against Britain’s Indian allies and kept in check Loyalists away from the main theaters of operations (Higginbotham 1971, Ferguson 1978, Galvin 1989, Clements and Wright 1989, Resch and Sargent 2007). Patriot militiamen inflicted significant defeats on Loyalist American militiamen at Moore’s Creek Bridge, North Carolina, in February 1776 and at Kings Mountain, South Carolina, in October 1780. Militia successes were balanced by failures, for example, at Groton Heights in Connecticut in 1781 and at Blue Licks in Kentucky in 1782, and many commanders, with reason, considered militiamen unreliable. Dissatisfied with the performance of Virginia ‘ s militia during the war, governor Patrick Henry sought to reorganize it during the 1780s and met resistance from local governmental officials (Ethridge 1977 , Waghelstein 1995 ).

During the late 1780s insurrections occurred in South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Massachusetts where militia units from the eastern portion of the state subdued Shay ‘ s Rebellion in the west (Szatmary 1980 ). When these were followed by the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries Rebellion during the 1790s it appeared for a while that domestic civil unrest might pose a greater threat to American society than any foreign enemy.

Nonetheless, always warned to fear a standing army, Americans relied, at least in theory, on militia as their first line of defense against enemies domestic and foreign for the half century of their independence (Cunliffe 1968, Crackel 1987). Richard Kohn (1975) shows that during the 1790s the Federalists created and stationed a standing force of army regulars on the frontier, and Lawrence Cress (1981) argues convincingly that within a decade, despite Republican rhetoric, most American leaders accepted, at least tacitly, a force structure in which regulars formed the core around which militia would build in time of danger.