Angola Conflict 1975/76

This article appeared in ' Time Magazine' on the 23rd February 1976

The World: Mercenaries: 'A Bloody Shambles'

African mercenaries: the very term is redolent of Bondish machismo memories. "Mad Mike" Hoare and his swaggering Fifth Commando punishing the ragtag Congolese army during the 1965 Katanga rebellion. Or perhaps Frederick Forsyth's dirty dozen in The Dogs of War, liberating the fictional kingdom of Zangaro from a maniacal, Soviet-backed African dictator—for a price.

The image apparently lives on. Since the start of Angola's civil war, hundreds of men from Britain, France, Portugal, South Africa and the U.S. have signed on to serve with the pro-Western forces. As of last week, perhaps 300 mercenaries were fighting with the hard-pressed F.N.L.A. forces in northern Angola, and an estimated 1,000 more, plus 2,500 Portuguese-Angolan volunteers, with UNITA troops in the south. But the romantic dream of glory that many of them had before going to Angola is not reality—at least according to the bitter tales told by British "meres" who have escaped from this singularly unglamorous war. "The whole thing is a gigantic con trick," complained a burly ex-R.A.F. sergeant named Tom Chambers, who recently returned to London from Angola. "The mercenary force is a bloody shambles."

Grim Story. Chambers' specific complaints were of obsolete arms, poor food, no pay and no discipline on the part of the beleaguered F.N.L.A. forces. Last week, though, other returning British mercenaries told a far grimmer story—of comrades who had been summarily executed by their own leaders. According to Scotland Yard, who questioned the mercenaries on their return, a notorious F.N.L.A. mercenary known as "Colonel Callan" ordered 14 men to be shot after accusing them of "cowardice in the face of the enemy" when they asked to be sent home. "Callan," upon investigation, proved to be Costas Georgiou, 25, a Greek-Cypriot immigrant and former British paratrooper who had been cashiered from the service for robbing a post office. After being released from prison last year, Georgiou went to Angola, where he wound up in command of the F.N.L.A. mercenary forces.

The returning meres said that "Callan" had shot one man himself, and then ordered his sergeant major, Sammy Copeland, to execute the others. The men were loaded into a truck, driven out into the countryside, ordered to strip, and then machine-gunned by Copeland. "The men knew their time had come," said Mike McKeown, 23. "My pals leaped out of the truck and dashed across a field, looking for cover in the tall grass. The boys who went down like cattle were my mates. There was Dave, Pete, Jock and a couple of Taffies [Welshmen], all smashing lads."

Copeland, who had served in Britain's Parachute Regiment, was ordered court-martialed by F.N.L.A. Leader Holden Roberto, and shot by a firing squad. "Callan" reportedly escaped and hid out in the bush, nursing a leg wound. The British mercenaries called him "completely ruthless" and a "homicidal maniac." They said he spent much of his time shooting black tribesmen just for fun.

Britain's Prime Minister Harold Wilson last week said the recruitment of mercenaries—with "vast sums" of money and accurate lists of British military units—was a potential threat to democratic government. Wilson refused to say who he thought was responsible, but some believed he was referring to the CIA. More direct charges of CIA involvement came from one John Banks, who until last week had been recruiting for a fly-by-night mercenary hiring agency called Security Advisory Services. Banks named Lawrence Katz, an attaché in the American embassy in London, as the "link man"; Katz denied the charge, saying he was a narcotics enforcement officer. In Washington, a spokesman for the CIA said the charges of its involvement in hiring mercenaries were "essentially false."

Hefty Payroll. The standard mercenary contract offered in London was $300 a week for 26 weeks. For 500 men, that would run to almost $4 million—not including transportation, weapons, room and board. In Africa, it was taken for granted that some government was picking up this hefty payroll—and most of the money paid out has been in fresh-from-the-printer American currency, normally still in the wrappers and bound together in sequential serialization. Reported TIME Correspondent Lee Griggs last week: "There are more big-denomination U.S. bills floating around Kinshasa's black market than ever before, and mercenary sources there insist the money is coming from the U.S. via Zaïre President Mobutu Sese Seko." Nonetheless, some greenhorn mercenaries who managed to make it back to Britain reported that they had yet to receive a dime.

Despite the discouraging reports, mercenary recruitment continues in full swing in Johannesburg, which will probably become the new staging center for the war if Mobutu makes good on his threat to halt mercenaries passing through Kinshasa. In New York, Roy Innis, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, said that his organization will send 300 black American "combat medics" to help the faltering U.S.-backed forces—the vanguard of a contingent of 1,000 men who will go to Angola "to establish military parity."