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War Stories
A FLAG, A FEW NUNS, MERCENARIES and some SPORTING TROPHIES
A recollection by Brigadier 'Digger' Essex-Clark, DSM, Australian Army; ex OC 'A' Company 1RLI


A Company 1RLI was deployed on the Congo / Northern Rhodesia border in September 1961. 1 Platoon and our company headquarters held a bridge crossing the Kafue River just south of Kipushi and Elizabethville; 3 Platoon was on the border at Kipushi and controlled the airfield that overlapped the border, and 2 Platoon were happily enjoying their R&R camp outside Mwinilunga and well away from the action. Our company was spread over nearly 300 miles, 500 kilometres in today's lingo. I and 3 platoon for a few weeks had many a tense moment in confused contacts with the mutinied Congolese National Army, twitch French mercenaries employed by the Katangese Government (alias the massive Belgian Mining conglomerate Union Miniére), and controlling panicking whites exiting the Congo shambles in droves. Our task was to prevent the United Nations, or any foreign force crossing the border or deploying their military assets via the far northern Northern Rhodesia road system. Their was no adequate road system within the Congo to do so. So our bridge and the airfield were tactically important.

We were a great bunch of ouens, trained in infantry basics, but only semi-trained tactically, but we often needed immediate medical support and we needed a flag to represent what and who we were and we did not have the material to make one.

Our only medical help came from a small dispensary in Kipushi run by some very nervous and wary but altruistic Catholic Nuns and, in more severe cases, such as when one of our men had been accidentally shot during weapons cleaning and died on the operating bench, were tidied up or operated on by the French mercenary doctor from the Première Battalion Étrangêre Parachutiste (Foreign Legion: 1re B.E,P.) that had deserted en bloc from the politically discontented French Army in Algeria. I am convinced that the doctor was Paul Grauwin who had been one of the doctors at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in seven years earlier, but I didn't ask his name because we were all overawed and somewhat shocked by his gruesome surgical techniques that were understandable under those primitive conditions.

On one of the visits to the dispensary in Kipushi with David Parker, my 2IC (and later to command 1 Commando, of which we were the forebears, and later still the RLI), we saw some discarded lightweight crimson nurses capes, and as red was the company colour, I suggested that we use them to make the field, plus a much washed whitish hospital sheet to make the 'A' in our company flag. Well, at least it was a 'guidon' because it could only be 85 mms x 54 cms (in Continental measurement) or approx 3' x 2'( in ours at that time) which was a bit small for a flag, but far better than nothing. The nuns and nurses were most helpful, they and their carpenters had already provided a splendid brass-handled coffin for us, and so I did a simple sketch of what we'd like done and in our execrable French we asked them to knock up a flag for us ('un rouge drapeau, s'il vous plait'). Within the next half hour while we waited for one of our oeuns to have his arm splinted and we stocked up our first-aid kit with mercurochrome, cotton wool, the odd bandage and elastoplast that we swapped for some hartebeest steaks we had from one shot by Sergeant Lourens; they cut out a white 'A' and stitched it onto a hemmed crimson rectangle to make our flag that we took back to our base at the small Kafue bridge. David hacked down a suitable, but hard to find, straightish pole that was replaced later by the one borrowed from the Customs post at Kipushi and hoisted it above our company headquarters lean-to tarpaulin.. We later flew it proudly from our company headquarters on our return to Brady Barracks at Kumalo after we returned from our Congo deployment, and later still on flagpole at the A Company barrack block at our new Cranborne barracks. It was the first flag to fly there. A photo of the tattered flag as it is today, more pink than crimson, is shown here; and a sketch shows how it once proudly was.

Incidentally, the Union Miniére, through their superb but deserted Cercle Sportif Club in Kipushi. unknowingly presented the RLI with a collection of silver sporting trophies when David Parker and I reorganised the ownership of these trophies through the willing assistance of the lonely and anxious club caretaker, a nervous and twitchy munthu of the huge and widely spread but persecuted Lunda Tribe, who 'presented' them to us in exchange for a trip back across the border into Northern Rhodesia.

One morning an obsequious, mousy and shabby Union Miniére emissary also tried to recruit some of A Company into their mercenary force, in fact he wanted to buy the services of A Company en masse for a massive sum deposited into a special Swiss bank account. I thought he must have been joking, but I still smartly told him to 'voetzak', hamba', and 'partir allez!'or. more positively, 'to piss off, and leave us and our men alone!' Nevertheless, three of our lads much later succumbed to the lure of filthy lucre and I defended them successfully against charges of desertion when they returned to Rhodesia. I realised later that the emissary hadn't been joking about the cash he was offering when Corporal 'Jumbo' Greipel later called me over to inspect the boot of a new Mercedes of the Katangese Foreign minister, a Monsieur Simba that was crammed with packages of 1000 Swiss franc bank notes. Simba and his family were travelling to Northern Rhodesia in an attempt to make contact with our Federal Government. We confiscated two brand-new unused Belgian 7·62 mm FNs and similarly three 9mm Browning automatic pistols from the car, but lamentably couldn't touch the cash.
Apart from the Flag and sports silver it was a most interesting deployment and the constant tension hardened many of the inexperienced and semi-trained young men in 1 and 3 Platoon of A Company, the forerunners of 1 and 3 troops of 1 Commando ~ The Big Red, some of whom I hope now are able to join our Association. I don't suppose anyone knows where those sports trophies are now? I hope those kind nuns, black and white, lived safely through that dreadful situation of massacres and bloodshed that disabled the Congo but again, who knows? We recorded no names. I now only have the flag, a diary, and some photos to recall the bold actions of our splendid young men of those confused and confusing times
The Rhodesian Light Infantry Regimental
Assocation of Australasia