5 Commando was a mercenary unit of the Congolese National Army (Armée Nationale Congolaise, ANC; Democratic Republic of the Congo) formed in response to the Simba rebellion.
It was active from 1964 to 1967.
Need for Mercenaries
In December 1963, a Communist-inspired rebellion broke out in the Congo province of Kwilu. It was initially a tribal dispute but grew to a challenge against the Central Government. Although it remained relatively minor, it marked the start of a spreading wave of rebellions against the then current Congo central government. Rebellion spread, and in Kivu, the leftist rebels, inspired by the late Patrice Lubumba, had established a Committee for National Liberation.
Earlier in 1964, Moïse Tshombe returned from self-exile in Spain and declared himself as the only person who could bring about unity between the warring factions. His popularity and political acumen lead him to being appointed as Prime Minister on 06 July 1964. By August, the rebellion had turned to limited civil war and Simba rebels were marching on Stanleyville, taking control of the city on 05 August 1964. The routing of the ANC and capitulation of the capital city of Orientale Province came as a shock to the government, the Belgium Colonial powers, as well as to the United States.
However, unlike the secession uprising of 1961, the United Nations and the United States showed no appetite for any direct intervention to repel the growing rebellion and also, Tshombe was aware that the rebellion could not be put down by the Armée Nationale Congolaise alone. Based on Tshombe’s 1961 experiences in Katanga, as well as the American reluctance for direct involvement, the solution lied in mercenary support once again.
Recruitment and Formation
In July 1964 Jerry Puren (a former mercenary officer in the Katangese Air Force) started the process of recruiting mercenaries to serve in support of the Congolese Army on request of the Congolese Prime Minister Moïse Tshombe. Puren put out the word in South Africa and alerted 200 men of possible employment as mercenaries. The ex-British military officer, Major “Mad” Mike Hoare had known Tshombe and had served as one of his officers in 1961 was the designated commander for the mercenary force. Puren was to be in charge of air operations. Second in command was former executive officer of the Rhodesian Special Air Services, Alastair Wicks who had also served with both Hoare and Tshombe in 1961.
Recruitment centers were established in South Africa as well as in both North and Southern Rhodesia. Hoare placed newspaper ads in the South African Johannesburg Star newspaper as well as in Salisbury newspapers (modern Harare, Zimbabwe) calling upon physically fit white men “…capable of marching 20 miles per day and who were fond of combat and were “tremendous romantics” to join 5 Commando.” Contracts were for six months and basic pay was advertised at US$280 per month, plus US$420 danger pay and 37,000 Congolese francs as monthly pocket money. NCOs received basic pay of US$400 and senior officers US$1,100 per month. Compensation of US$19,000 was payable to next of kin in the event of death. The mercenaries followed a business approach to their services, with contracts which included clauses related to contract renewal terms, danger pay and insurance in the event of death. While pay did not solely motivate them, they received fair, but not overly generous compensation for their services. A few managed to make sufficient money to become financially independent upon expiry of their contracts, often supplementing their pay with looting and theft.
“Adventurers” from South Africa, many of whom had fought with Moise Tshombe in the secession of Katanga Province, signed up, as did recruits from Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Congolese and other African states deeply resented the recruitment of South Africans and Rhodesians and Tshombe frequently assured the OAU that he would replace the white mercenaries with African replacements as soon as they could be recruited and trained. 5 Commando eventually comprised volunteers from South Africa, Rhodesia, United Kingdom, Belgium and Germany (of which the Germans were mostly Second World War veterans who arrived in the Congo wearing Iron Crosses). Hoare described the men from the initial batch of recruits as being of “alarmingly low” standard with a “..high proportion of alcoholics, drunks, booze artists, bums and layabouts”. He also complained of the presence of drug addicts and homosexuals. Belgian colonels Frederic Vandewalle and Louis Marlière expressed similar doubts about the quality of the recruits, with the latter commenting that they were “pirates who are not worth anything in battle.” United States Ambassador George Godley described the unit as “an uncontrolled lot of toughs […] who consider looting or safe-cracking fully within their prerogatives”.
Organizationally, 5 Commando was divided into eight sub-units, designated as 51 to 58 Commando, with two officers and three sergeants per sub-unit. These were in effect reinforced platoon sized units. The first orders issued to Hoare by the chief of the ANC, Major General Joseph Desire Mobutu instructed Hoare to: (a.) Deploy a company of 200 immediately to Kamina with the mission to retake Manono, Albertville, Fizi and Uvira. (2.) Designate 300 volunteers formed into six platoons for the six mobile groups that had been planned and (3.) Assign 500 volunteers in company with elements of the ANC to immediately retake Stanleyville. By 02 September 1964 recruiting had stopped as 1,000 recruits had been signed up, but the facilities, training and organisation of the Commando made the attainment of the first orders highly unlikely.
The Belgian government dispatched Colonel Vandewalle to the Congo and during a meeting with Tshombe, Vandewalle made clear that he would not tolerate political interference with military operations and he was given authority to work directly with the Belgian logistics units, the CIA’s air force, and the mercenaries. This meant that the Belgian logistics units were effectively funding 5 Commando and providing weapons, ammunition, trucks and uniforms. After a few weeks of training, 5 Commando went into combat
Early on, 5 Commando was plagued by poor logistics and a lack of discipline. A few days after the arrival of the first group of mercenaries for the unit in the Congo, Hoare launched two attacks against the Simba-held city of Albertville. Both were repulsed. The lack of equipment, inadequate training, and irregularities in pay damaged the unit’s morale and the unit initially sustained a high casualty rate. Over the course of late 1964 the Congolese government improved the financial and logistical situation while Hoare screened out soldiers he deemed unfit. Nevertheless, by the end of the year 5 Commando still suffered from disciplinary problems. By early 1965 the Congolese government had succeeded in driving rebels out of much of the eastern Congo, but the situation remained unstable. 5 Commando was tasked with securing the border, re-establishing lines of communication, and clearing out pockets of resistance, especially in the Fizi-Baraka and Uvari areas.
Men from 5 Commando did not care too much for night operations or for off-road movement. Their preferred means of movement was their jeeps and armoured cars. A combat-group of 100 men, known as ‘Force John-John’, led by John Peters was frequently used to lead advances and initiate attacks. The rapidly trained but often poorly organised Commando proved surprisingly effective against the Simba’s, crushing the Simba uprising in two months.
5 Commando played a significant role in rescuing hostages, particularly European hostages, from Simba rebels. These actions frequently made headlines in Europe and made the mercenaries popular heroes for a limited period of time. However, the mercenaries were not above searching bodies for cash or blowing bank safes in Stanleyville and elsewhere to supplement their contracted wages.
The commando received ongoing support from the United States via the CIA (US central intelligence agency) in the form of air support to operations as well as by providing and crewing Swift boats for operations on Lake Tanganyika. The boats were used in support of 5 Commando (often under 5 Commando command) and were crewed by Miami-Cuban, anti-Castro crews, recruited by and paid for the CIA. Washington insisted that there be “no overt relationship with the mercenaries,” but it was evident that this relationship between the CIA and 5 Commando could not be kept secret. This was further evidenced by frequent meetings between Mike Hoare and later John Peters and the CIA Congo Station Chief, Larry Devlin. In addition to tactical support, the United States provided F-250 trucks and 7-ton cargo vehicles for operational use by the mercenaries.
Peters assumed command of 5 Commando from Hoare in December 1965. Georg Schroeder later assumed command from him.
Alleged War Crimes
5 Commando were known for unsanctioned killing, torture, looting and rapes in recaptured rebel areas. In a press interview, Hoare himself described his men as “appalling thugs”. Some South African members of the unit were later convicted of manslaughter by Congolese courts.
Military Coup and Ousting of Tshombe
5 Commando became highly efficient in working with the ANC Congolese troops and they cleared eastern Congo of Simba rebels and almost captured Che Guevara in his camp, forcing him to escape to Tanzania, but these victories came at a political cost. On 13 October 1965, Congolese President Joseph Kasa-Vubu relieved Prime Minister Tshombe of his duties and replaced him with Évariste Kimba, considering Tshombe as being too ambitious and very unpopular in the country as well as within neighbouring African states. Mobutu shortly thereafter removed both President Kasa-Vubu and Prime Minister Kimba in a coup, appointing himself as president. Tshombe had been a friend of, and protector to 5 and 6 Commando and his ousting immediately caused uncertainty and insecurity within 5 Commando. Jerry Puren left the Congo with Tshombe for exile in Belgium, Mike Hoare and Alistair Wicks did not renew their contracts and left the Congo. John Peters, then commanding officer of 5 Commando continued to pledge his – and the unit’s – loyalty to the government and continued operations in southern Congo.
Jerry Puren, once in Belgium was informed of a plan to reinstall Tshombe as Prime Minister. The Baka Regiment, together with the mercenary commandos led by Jean Schramme as well as that of Bob Denard had committed to support the plan. Puren refused to take part in the counter-coup and Mike Hoare, Alistair Wicks and John Peters as well as Hugh van Oppenƒ (Peters and van Oppen were still serving members of 5 Commando) were approached to support the revolt but all refused. On 23 July, the Baku Regiment of the ANC as well as 11, 12, 13 and 14 Commandos revolted in support of the exiled Tshombe, killing the commander of the ANC and taking control of the radio station in Stanleyville. 6 Commando, led by Bob Denard opposed the uprising and notified the government, calling for support to put down the uprising. A stalemate ensued in Stanleyville until September 1966, when Denard attacked the Katanga units in the city. 5 Commando re-deployed from southern Congo in support of 6 Commando, to cover any Katanga escape routes from the city. A truce was negotiated and the Katanga troops not killed were given amnesty, while officers were transported to prisons in Elisabethville. The rebellion had failed and Mobutu remained secure as president. The failed rebellion did however reinforced the perception of the loyalty of 5 and 6 Commando towards Mobutu.
After this failed revolt, Puren (still in Belgium) initiated his own plan to reinstall Tshombe; selecting Jean Schramme of 10 Commando to lead the second revolt. After much planning and including Denard in the planning, Schramme launched surprise attacks on Stanleyville, Bakavu and Kindu. Stanleyville and Bakavu were taken with little resistance but the mercenaries faced strong resistance in Kindu. The ANC forces recovered Stanleyville, executing a number of mercenaries with Schramme withdrawing from the city to establish a stronghold in Bakavu. Mobutu issued an ultimatum, ordering Schramme to evacuate Bakavu within ten days. The ANC attacked on expiry of the ultimatum and on 05 November 1966 Schramme, together with 150 mercenaries, 800 Katanga soldiers and 1,500 women and children fled across the Rwandan border and were disarmed and interred by the Rwandan military at Shangugu. The second mercenary revolt had also collapsed. Elsewhere in other skirmishes, many mercenaries were massacred and the surviving European mercenaries were evacuated by the Red Cross.
Mobutu ordered all recruitment for 5 Commando to cease in March 1967. The unit was disbanded in April on Mobutu’s order. He likely did so for three reasons:
- To avoid the expense of paying the mercenaries;
- To forestall any attempts by Tshombe to use the unit in a coup attempt; and
- To avoid the potential embarrassment of employing white mercenaries when the Congo was due to host the Organisation of African Unity annual conference in September.
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