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.
Goossens was one of several Belgian mercenaries in Africa in the 1960s. As a colonial power and home to one of the world's most prestigious arms manufacturers, Fabrique National, Belgium was a natural recruiting ground for mercenary operations – some say it still is. In 2005, Mark Thatcher, son of the former British prime minister, pleaded guilty to breaking anti-mercenary laws in Equatorial Guinea, following accusations that he had financed a coup attempt in the oil-rich West African state. Newspapers focused on Thatcher and other high-profile British establishment figures alleged to have been involved, and on the background of the mercenaries' leader, Simon Mann, an Old Etonian and former member of Britain's special forces.
Few reports mentioned that the coup attempt had been a shambolic affair: the 'mercs' had flown into Harare in a plane that still carried the markings of the American Air National Guard, and had compounded the error by travelling with their weapons. Within minutes of landing, Mann and his associates were arrested by Zimbabwe's security forces. Many of the plotters were imprisoned.
The exploits of 'soldiers of fortune' have been told in countless books and films, but rarely do the accounts linger on the manacled, humiliated mercenary rotting in a jail cell, or the half-naked corpse being dragged through the bush.
Many of the myths of the modern mercenary started in the Congo. In the days after its independence from Belgium in June 30, 1960, the country rapidly spiralled out of control. Following a mutiny in the army, the local leader of the province of Katanga, Moise Tshombe, declared independence from the rest of the country. In February 1961, the country's first democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated with the complicity of the American and Belgian governments.
In 1964, Tshombe became prime minister, only to be deposed by General Joseph Mobutu the next year. Friends of Tshombe planned a second secession of Katanga, and on July 5, 1967, a 36-year-old Belgian plantation owner-turned-mercenary, Jean 'Black Jack' Schramme, who had been involved in the first secession, took 11 white mercenaries and around 100 Katangans to Stanleyville, where they fired on a Congolese army camp, killing troops and their families.
The Congolese army retaliated by killing 30 Katangan mercenaries (who had not been involved), after which Schramme's private army, nicknamed the Leopard Battalion, grew to around 1,000, 160 of which were foreign fighters. The Congolose army was around 30,000 strong. After weeks of fighting, the Leopard Battalion retreated to Bukavu, a coastal resort that had once been favoured by the Belgian colonisers.
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'.
'Black Jack' Schramme never reappeared after the Congo, although rumours about him continued to be spread through books and films: one was that he fled to South America. Forsyth wrote a non-fiction work about the Nigerian civil war, The Biafra Story, before turning his hand to fiction. In 1978, after the worldwide success of his thriller The Day Of The Jackal, an article in The Sunday Times claimed that in 1973 Forsyth had helped fund an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea by mercenaries who had previously worked in Biafra.
Forsyth denied the allegation, but he had already written The Dogs of War, which featured fictionalised versions of Steiner and the other mercenaries he had met in Biafra attempting to take over a mineral-rich West African country; Goossens was the inspiration for the character 'Tiny' Marc Vlaminck. Forsyth had written and researched much of the novel in Equatorial Guinea, and in 2006 he admitted that he had played a small part in the aborted coup attempt, posing as a South African arms-dealer to attend a meeting of gun-runners in Germany – his cover was apprarently blown when one of the arms dealers saw his photograph in the window of a Hamburg bookshop promoting the German edition of The Day of The Jackal.
No books or films will be made about Marc Goossens – all that remains of 'Big Marc' from Ostend are a few photos in an old issue of Paris Match.
A version of this article was first publised in The Bulletin magazine in February 2005.