Colonel ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare is the best known mercenary in the English-speaking world. He was all over the news in the 1960s as commander of the 5 Commando mercenary force in the Congo; in the 1970s he inspired and advised the blockbuster film The Wild Geese; in the 1980s he did prison time for trying to take over the Seychelles.
Now in his 90s, he’s still going strong in the South African sun.
Hoare got his start as a mercenary in Katanga, a short-lived secessionist state originally part of the Belgian Congo. The Colonel has never been publicity-shy, with several autobiographical books to his name, but he’s never discussed important details about his time in Katanga.
Birth Of A Merc
Hoare’s reluctance stems from his understandable pride at being seen as a mercenary commander. He formed and led 5 Commando; he organised and ran the Seychelles coup. But he got his start in Katanga serving under another British mercenary.
It all began in a Johannesburg hotel room where Scottish émigré Roderick Ian Russell-Cargill was getting paid by the government of Katanga to put together an anglophone mercenary force called the Compagnie Internationale. Hoare, a 42-year-old son of empire, born in Calcutta to Irish parents, saw an advert in a local newspaper and signed up for the mercenary life.
The Katanga affair had begun back on 30 June 1960 when Belgium reluctantly gave the Congo its independence. The mineral rich nation sprawled across central Africa had been governed from Brussels since the nineteenth century. Hopes were high its natural resources would buy a peaceful and prosperous future.
Within two weeks the province of Katanga, main source of the world’s copper and uranium, the vital ingredient of atomic weapons, declared its own independence. The secession, masterminded by Katangese leader Moise Tshombe and a Belgian mining company, began a bloody civil war that pulled in foreign adventurers, CIA agents, and the United Nations.
To prop up its armed forces, Katanga hired in Belgian mercenaries (known as Les Affreux), Black Rhodesians, and grizzled German veterans of the French Foreign Legion. But they needed more men and started looking across the border at white-run Rhodesia.
The Rhodesians preferred not to get involved and forced Russell-Cargill to move operations to South Africa. He set up a temporary recruiting station in a hotel. The first man through the door was a burly, moustached Briton who would become the commander of the Compagnie Internationale. Richard Browne: the man who gave Mike Hoare orders. Briefly.
Browne was a tall slab of upper-class muscle whose brother was Tory MP for Totnes. Richard preferred soldiering to politics and joined the British army to fight guerrillas through the Malaysian jungle, before moving to South Africa. In early 1961 Browne was looking for money and adventure. He read the newspaper advert placed by Russell-Cargill and signed on for Katanga, helping vet the next fifty or so men through the door.
Captain Browne led the first batch of mercenaries to Katanga in March. A second group under by ex-pilot Jerry Puren arrived soon after. Lieutenants Mike Hoare and old Harrovian Alistair Wicks arrived later each leading a platoon.
By the time Hoare touched down, Browne had formed most of the Compagnie Internationale into a battlegroup and headed up north to take on the Baluba tribesmen rebelling against the Katanga secession. Browne spoke briefly with his subordinate Hoare via the telephone. The Compagnie Internationale commander discovered Hoare was unhappy with his lieutenant rank and got the distinct impression the new arrival would have preferred to be running the show.
Browne didn’t have time to worry. On 7 April 1961 the Compagnie Internationale entered Kabalo in northern Katanga and was arrested by Ethiopian United Nations troops. The UN had decided that removing mercenaries was the best way of keeping the peace.
The Compagnie Internationale men were deported. The Katangese officially disbanded the unit to placate the peacekeepers. With his commander gone and unit dissolved, Hoare thought he might be out of a job.
The Boys in 4 Commando
Belgian advisors in the Katangese government decided to keep on their English-speaking mercenaries. They formed the remainder of the Compagnie Internationale into the fourth commando of a transport unit. Hoare and Wicks would command half each, although Hoare managed to persuade the polite old Harrovian to give him overall command.
He immediately morphed the unit’s title to the more glamorous-sounding 4 Commando and stamped his own discipline on the men: no beards, pointed shoes, rolled down socks, or anything beatnik. Hoare did not want his men confused for the Belgian Les Affreux.
The unit was given a mission to transport supplies up north. On the way they lost two men: a mentally-ill Scotsman ran into the bush and vanished, and a young merc was killed by a Baluba poison arrow.
The boys in 4 Commando arrived at their destination to find it occupied by Malaysian UN troops with orders to arrest them. Hoare did some diplomatic fencing with the UN commander to buy time then led his men into the jungle for a long march all the way down south to the safety of Katangese government territory.
Hoare expected applause and congratulations for the escape. Instead he was told that 4 Commando was being disbanded as part of a reorganisation of the Katangese army. It seemed many Belgians in the secession still didn’t trust English-speakers.
There was worse news. Two more of Hoare’s men had gone missing during the jungle trek.
Missing In Action
While 4 Commando was being dispersed across various barracks and guard posts, Hoare managed to persuade his commanders to allow a search for the missing men. He formed a small party and set off to retrace their steps.
The two men were never found. Baluba tribesmen had tortured, killed, and buried them. Hoare found the village he held responsible and burned it to the ground.
By June 1961 the men of the former 4 Commando were on their way home. They had been unhappy with their new duties and made sure everyone knew about it. The Belgians agreed to void their contracts and release them from service. Brussels seemed glad to get rid of the English-speakers.
Hoare went back to South Africa with his men. The adventure was over. Later he would write The Road to Kalamata about his time in Katanga. It is a vivid and interesting read, but one that leaves out any mention of the Compagnie Internationale or Captain Browne.
Hoare would be back in the Congo inside three years, this time in charge of one of the most famous mercenary units of the 20th century. And he would be taking orders from no-one.
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