Every military unit and every nation has its own heroes who stand steadfast even when the chips were down.
These are men who, faced with possible death, refuse to acknowledge its presence. In times of exhaustion, extreme danger, hunger, and great anxiety, they are able to control their fear and harness it to rally or save their colleagues, and in some instances, even save their countries. Yet, despite their exploits of immense personal courage, dedication and fortitude, these heroes inevitably find themselves abandoned and betrayed by their politicians and generals.
A Handful of Hard Men by Hannes Wessels must rank as one of the most riveting books on contemporary African military history that I have read. It is also a book that lays bare the many misconceptions about Rhodesia’s war for survival and exposes some of the great betrayals these soldiers have been forced to live with. Yet, even when they realised they were being sold out by the very politicians who sent them to war, these men continued to fight on and carry out their orders, not for the politicians or even their generals, but for one another and the unit they held dearly.
The Rhodesian Special Air Service (SAS) produced men of such exceptional calibre.
Hannes Wessels has captured the essence of true combat by this handful of very hard men—the Rhodesian SAS—who, despite adversity and hardship, still found time to treasure small things most civilians take for granted.
Soldiers who, on a daily basis, live a stone’s throw from death, develop their own sense of humour—a sense of humour those who have never been under fire find difficult to grasp. Oftentimes, they speak a language others do not understand but it is a language they have learned through circumstance, hardship, and the ever present spectre of death. These hard men of the Rhodesian SAS were no different.
A Handful of Hard Men looks into the soul of soldiers who, many years ago, were fighting a forgotten war in southern Africa—not as some would like to claim between the black and white people of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)—but between two very different ideologies. Ultimately, these soldiers were to face the betrayal of the West, the very civilisation they believed they were defending from an encroaching ideology based on communism and state collapse. In their defence of ‘western civilisation’, they deployed and fought wherever they could find their enemy. Meanwhile, ensconced in their ivory towers, the politicians of the West were plotting the demise of Rhodesia.
Through his pen, the author weaves a narrative that focusses on one man in particular—Darrell Watt—and the brave men who, under his leadership, stood beside him, regardless. The support they received from an ill-equipped air force (due to international sanctions) is worthy of a book on its own.
A Handful of Hard Men spans several years of Darrell Watt’s life—from recruitment, to training, to reconnaissance, to operational and tactical deception, to deep penetration raids and operations, and the ultimate standing down of the Rhodesian SAS. The operations these few men conducted were intense, breath-taking in magnitude, and vividly described, and yet even under the ever-present threat of death, humour presented itself.
Interwoven in the narrative is the developing political situation and the behind-the-doors negotiations and political duplicity to collapse one ideology and replace it with another.
After reading of the operations the Rhodesian SAS conducted, I was left breathless and it was as though I could smell the cordite and taste the blood in my mouth.
I would highly recommend this magnificent book at any serious student of contemporary African warfare and history.
For ordering information, as well as other news and stories on Africa, visit Hannes’s blog www.africaunauthorised.com