Chris Hoare, ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare: The Legend (Partners in Publishing, 2018)

AN officer and a gentleman; a brave, swashbuckling adventurer; a legend in his lifetime; the ‘best bloody officer in the British army’; the man who saved Africa from communism; and a persuasive charmer: these are some of many images and opinions deployed by his son to portray Mike Hoare.

Perhaps it is not surprising that an element of myth should surround Hoare. Of Irish ancestry, World War 2 gave him a chance of army service – most of which seems to have been involved with training apart from the battle of Kohima – after which he moved to Durban where he ran a number of motor-related businesses. But his real interest was adventure – motorcycling through Africa, pioneering in Lesotho, and trekking in Botswana where he ended up running safaris.

His international fame derives from command of mercenaries in the former Belgian Congo (DRC), first following Katanga’s secession (1960–1) and then in the Simba revolt of 1964–5. In 1981, in his early sixties he led the comic opera mercenary invasion of the Seychelles, which ended in the apparent hijacking of an Air India plane and a prison sentence for Hoare in Pietermaritzburg. Now, aged 99 the old soldier, as they inevitably do, is reportedly ‘fading away.’

We shall probably never know his whole story. His wide-ranging interests included writing, but he was a fantasist who freely admits that some of the content of his eight books was embellished to entertain readers. His son notes that parenting was not Hoare’s strong point and, typical of a man’s man of his time, he was not always completely open about his past – even to his family.

Mercenary work is now undertaken by corporations rather than ramshackle, freelance outfits. Hoare was plainly working for the CIA; and other interesting angles emerge from this biography. At the battle at Baraka north of Albertville in 1965, his opposite number was another adventurer, Che Guevara. And on 17 September 1961, the day UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed (in all likelihood shot down) near Ndola, Hoare was in town with his wife. He could not remember why, but claimed presciently that the cause of the disaster had been covered up and he had absolutely nothing to do with it. Maybe this was sheer coincidence, a chance crossing of the paths of the cast of a complex and chaotic drama. But nearly forty years later it emerged that there was substance to rumours of a South African connection to Hammarskjöld’s death. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearings, in the improbable context of investigation into the assassination of Chris Hani, there emerged a number of documents related to an attempt to kill Hammarskjöld. Their letterhead was that of the South African Institute of Maritime Research, which had Johannesburg contact details. Hoare was a keen sailor and proud of his maritime heritage stretching back three generations. It’s the sort of name he might have chosen for an obviously bogus outfit.

His Congo Mercenary, published by Robert Hale in 1967, is a well-written account of his second Congo campaign with 5 Commando. His descriptions of the landscape and of the colonial cities and towns created by the Belgians are fascinating. It seems beyond dispute that Hoare is a man of strong nerve gifted with military leadership qualities; and as a soldier he clearly achieved a great deal against considerable odds. But there is much that is questionable. He was notoriously right wing and his political analysis is antediluvian: all the ills of the Congo are reduced to communist malevolence. The belief that his mercenaries saved the continent from Marxism is nonsensical. At one point he seriously proposes that white settlement would be the solution to unrest on the eastern border, although his suggestion that the Congo is three countries is not so wide of the mark. He appears to venerate Mobutu and held faith in him as a future leader, which turned out to be wildly displaced. His optimism might be based on a racist sub-text to his arguments: he seems to have regarded most Congolese as savages in need of strong arm rule. Predictably he bought into the ‘heart of darkness’ view of Africa during the Katanga campaign, presumably unaware that Joseph Conrad’s notorious phrase was descriptive of colonial exploitation.

A crucial question is whether he and some of his officers and mercenaries were war criminals. There is no doubt that there was a great deal of savagery employed by the Popular Army of Liberation (Simbas), which purported to have inherited the legacy of the murdered Patrice Lumumba and his MNC (Mouvement National Congolais). Hoare spares no gory detail in describing the deaths of white hostages and local opponents of the Simbas. They were undoubtedly led by evil leaders, but many individuals had little option about participating: forced recruitment has been a feature of subsequent African wars, most notably in Uganda among the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Press coverage made great play with the rescue by Hoare’s mercenaries of civilian hostages – nuns in particular – from fates worse than death. Hoare blows hot and cold about his troops. Many unsuitable recruits, mainly South African and Rhodesian, he sent home immediately. At some points he records his pride in leading such fine soldiers, all of whom were true mercenaries and there simply for the money. At other times he admits they were guilty of looting and other uncivilised behaviour. Some of the worst is justified in terms of the aftermath of Simba atrocities; in other words, revenge. And many of the military engagements were akin to massacres.

Given the circumstances some might argue that this was almost inevitable. But there is a crucial giveaway in both books, with examples from both the Katanga secession and the Simba uprising: Hoare ordered on several occasions the burning of entire villages, hundreds of huts, in acts of collective punishment that can only be described as war crimes or crimes against humanity. He went to jail for a cock-up in the Seychelles that raised the ire of the South African authorities; but might well have been imprisoned much earlier on far more serious charges.

Hoare was most certainly not mad, a fiction that looked good in newspaper headlines. He is still revered as a legend in colonial enclaves of KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of South Africa. But a dispassionate account of his life, yet to be written and notwithstanding the difficulties of isolating the real truth would doubtless reveal a man with a somewhat mixed and questionable record.