Tuesday, April 20, 2010
The real dogs of war
Dozens of books and films have told the stories of mercenaries in Africa. Jeremy Duns looks at the reality behind the myths
On November 30 1968, Paris Match published a story titled 'Biafra: Final Mission'. Dramatic black-and-white photos by Gilles Caron showed a group of Nigerian soldiers carrying a large white man across a river. The man, who had been shot in the stomach and heart, was Marc Goossens, a Belgian mercenary. When the soldiers reached the other side of the river, Goossens' fellow mercenaries searched his pockets and found his last pay-check – 4,000 US dollars – and a photograph of his girlfriend back in Ostend.
Schramme set up a headquarters in the city's Royal Residence Hotel and issued an ultimatum to Mobutu in Kinshasa, giving him 10 days to negotiate peace. His terms included a return to democratic rule in the country and to appoint Tshombe – who was imprisoned in Algeria on treason charges – to his cabinet.
Mobutu refused, saying he would never negotiate with assassins (an ironic charge, considering that he is likely to have smoothed the way for the Americans and Belgians to assassinate Lumumba). Schramme warned that he might attack Kinshasa. 'We have shown that the Congolese National Army is incapable of defeating us.'
Schramme's men held Bukavu for seven weeks, after which Mobutu sent in paratroopers, followed by 15,000 regular troops. Frenchman Bob Denard had his own brigade of mercenaries – the infamous 'Affreux' – in Angola and tried to cut across to help Schramme, but was driven back by air strikes. On October 29, the Congolese army moved into Bukavu; a week later, the surviving members of Schramme's 'white giants' fled over the border to Rwanda.
While Schramme and his men were taking on the Congolese army, mercenaries were also flying into Nigeria. In May, the eastern region of the country had formed a breakaway state called Biafra. In the ensuing civil war, both sides recruited foreign mercenaries. There were about a dozen on the Biafran side, including Frenchman Denard, Briton 'Mad Mike' Hoare, 'Taffy' Williams, a South African of Welsh origin, and a German, Rolf Steiner. The Nigerians had Egyptian pilots loaned to them by the Russians, and John Peters, a Brit who had also been in the Congo.
It was an unusual situation: groups of mercenaries hadn't fought on opposite sides since the Carlist wars in Spain in the 19th century. The fear of killing old friends sometimes led to stalemates, and some commentators feel that the use of mercenaries helped prolong the civil war: more decisive action from them might have meant an end to their monthly salaries (transferred into Swiss bank accounts).
From 1968, Steiner, a former member of the Hitler Youth who had fought in Indo-China and Algeria, led the Biafrans' 4th Commando Brigade, which adopted a skull and crossbones insignia. The brigade was 3,000-strong at one point, and 'Big Marc' Goossens was one of around a dozen mercenaries serving in it. He had never planned to go to Biafra, but after a row with his girlfriend had left Belgium on an impulse.
In September '68, the 4th Commando mercenaries went on strike over outstanding salaries; according to the memoirs of Major-General Alexander Madiebo, who was commander of the Biafran Army, the transfer of fresh funds was negotiated by Steiner's interpreter at the time, former BBC and Reuters journalist Frederick Forsyth. Two months later, in an assault on Onitsha, Goossens met his end. 'One good thing about this war is that we're fighting the English on the other side!' he was reported to have said just hours before his death, seemingly forgetting that several Brits were also on his 'side'.
A version of this article was first publised in The Bulletin magazine in February 2005.