Category Archives: Belgium

Mercenary Roles in Yemen, 1963

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 176-179:

When I returned to the Yemen in November, 1963, I went in through Aden and Beihan; by then I had met Johnson and Boyle, who had informed the mercenaries in the field of my impending visit. The first of the British to arrive there was Major Johnny Cooper, who had commanded one of the SAS squadrons that served under me in the attack on the Jebel Akhdar in Oman. Shortly after that operation he had left the SAS, having reached the age limit, but returned to Muscat as one of the Sultan’s Contract Officers and did extremely well. He later became the first of Johnson’s recruits. At the time of my arrival in Aden he had already established his headquarters with a wireless set and operator in the Khowlan area, not far from Sana, with one of the princes.

It is worth recording that at the height of the mercenary effort, when I was commanding them, they never numbered more than 48, of whom 30 were French or Belgian and 18 British. They were broken down into small missions — usually one officer, one NCO wireless operator, and one NCO medical orderly — and deployed according to the wishes and needs of the Royalist commanders. It is important to realize that none of the mercenaries actually fought in the war; their job was to advise the commanders, train their troops and provide communications and medical services. The medical situation in Royalist areas was particularly desperate; there were virtually no trained doctors. Until quite late in the war the International Red Cross operated only in Republican territory; but even when it sent a mission to the Royalists its hospital was situated a long way from the fighting and the doctors spent most of their time treating the local civilians for endemic diseases. This was no fault of the Swiss doctors, who would gladly have served at the front, but of the Red Cross directorate, which gave them categorical instructions not to go near it.

I flew to Aden on 14 November, and on to Beihan two days later. There I spent the night in the village of Naqub, twenty miles north of the State capital, in the ‘safe house’ allocated to the mercenaries by the Ruler. I shared it with three Frenchmen, who were in wireless contact with Johnny Cooper and the other missions, and seven British, who arrived in the middle of the night after a drive of three days in a lorry from Aden; in the morning another Frenchman joined us — Colonel Bob Denard, a veteran of the Congo who now commanded all the mercenaries in the Yemen except the British. His Frenchmen and Belgians, though very polite to me, were seldom chatty or communicative outside their own circles; some of them, I knew, had belonged to the OAS and so had little love for General de Gaulle, but I never discussed politics with them. Their attitude to the work was strictly professional; they were there for the money, but they meant to give good value in return. Most of them, as I have said, had seen service in the Congo, and many of them alternated between the Congo and the Yemen, serving now in one theatre, now in another. The reason, I discovered, was that in the Congo they had all the drink and women they wanted, but seldom received their pay; whereas in the Yemen they had regular pay but no women or drink. And so when they had earned enough in the Yemen they went off to the Congo to enjoy it.

The British, on the other hand, were more often inspired by enthusiasm for the Royalist cause or a simple thirst for adventure, although there were some deplorable exceptions — one fairly senior officer, in particular, was strictly on the make; unfortunately mere enthusiasm was an unreliable guide to efficiency, and I discovered later on that, while the NCO specialists did excellent work, the British officers who proved their worth were those who understood some Arabic.

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Katanga Surrenders, 1963

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~4646:

On 21 January, Tshombe signed an official declaration that the secession had ended. Along with Munongo, Yav, Muke, Kimba and Kibwe, he dined with UN officials in Kolwezi.

‘Atmosphere friendly’, a UN man telegraphed to Léopoldville, ‘but throughout our conversation we felt Tshombe and Cabinet are extremely REPEAT extremely bitter about Europeans in general, Belgians in particular.’

Munongo publically renounced any further resistance or guerrilla warfare. Tshombe announced that he was prepared to work with Léopoldville to solve the Congo crisis. On Tuesday, Joseph Ileo arrived in Elisabethville to take over the province for the central government and Tshombe returned to the presidential palace to await his fate. UN and Congolese flags flew over Katangese towns.

Since 1960, the UN had lost 135 men in the Congo, including fourteen Irish soldiers (nine of those killed by Baluba at Niemba), thirty-nine Indian, nineteen Swedish and forty-seven Ghanaian soldiers. Only around half the total died at the hands of the Katangese. Baluba, the Léopoldville ANC and Gizenga’s men killed the rest. On the other side, perhaps only thirty-two mercenaries were killed in action during the secession. No one counted dead gendarmes, but they must have been in the low thousands. Civilian deaths on all sides amounted to at least 10,000 and were probably much higher.

In Léopoldville’s boulevard Albert, 600 students chanted ‘Tshombe to the gallows!’ Others stormed the British embassy as Congolese police sat in their jeeps and laughed. Léopoldville agreed an amnesty for Tshombe and his men. The UN soon discovered that the gendarmes were only prepared to surrender if no ANC men were in the area. Kasa-Vubu gave a speech:

Officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the former Katangese Gendarmerie, in addressing myself particularly to you this evening, I do so on behalf of the entire country, the entire nation, to congratulate you and pay you a tribute for your patriotism because it was thanks to your understanding and to your refusal to use the murderous weapons placed in your hands by foreigners that the secession was ended, without too great a loss of human life or shedding of blood.

On 25 January, the last of the Katangese armed forces crossed the border into Portuguese Angola. They would return, but to fight for a different cause and against a different enemy. Katanga had failed as a country.

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Congo Stanleyville in 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1797:

Stanleyville was a town of pastel inter-war buildings more suited to the French Riviera than Africa. It was there, after Lumumba’s arrest, that Antoine Gizenga declared himself Prime Minister of the Congo, dismissing Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu as traitors. The Congo now had two rival governments to go with its two secessionist states. Gizenga, a depressed-looking 35-year-old with a mouth like a trout, appealed to the Soviet Union for help.

‘If the imperialists think that we will surrender’, he said, ‘or if they think they will kill off the Congolese people’s liberation movement, they are wrong’.

Soviet premier Nikita Khruschev authorised a $500,000 payment to Pierre Mulele, the Stanleyville representative in Cairo. Spies suggested that Mulele skimmed some cash for himself. The Soviets looked the other way. Gizenga needed money to keep his 6,000-strong version of the ANC loyal.

‘It is clear that if the army does not receive wages it will refuse to fight,’ reported Czech newsman Dushan Provarnik from Stanleyville:

The Gizenga government has to pay its soldiers at least the same money that Mobutu gives his own soldiers, i.e. 2,000–6,000 Congolese francs depending on grade. Under the existing circumstances, when the government has no revenues, as taxes have not been raised, these expenses are a heavy financial burden.

Attempts to supply Gizenga with arms and advisors were less successful. A Czech air bridge from Prague through Egypt failed when Nasser refused access to his airspace. Lumumba’s former confidant Kwame Nkrumah seemed happy to help but somehow Soviet weapons sent via Ghana never reached the Congo. The Ghanaian leader did not reveal he was talking trade treaties with the Americans.

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First Wave of Congo Mercenaries, 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1640:

By the end of September, reporters had forgotten about Bas’s recruits. The airport controller put fifty of them on a flight to Elisabethville. Commandant Armand Verdickt, head of intelligence for the Katangese gendarmes, ran background checks on the new arrivals. He discovered that the men from Le Cosmos and L’Edelweiss [bars] had done more time than a clock. Army deserters, burglars, car thieves and a rapist. The few without criminal records were alcoholics or drug users, behind on alimony payments, in trouble for driving unroadworthy taxis. Marcel Poelman wrestled, unsuccessfully, under the name ‘the Black Angel’.

‘These are not soldiers,’ said Verdickt. ‘Ils sont les affreux!’ (They are horrors!).

The mercenaries joined Groupes Mobiles: fifteen white soldiers and fifteen Katangese gendarmes packed into a few jeeps, supported by another thirty Katangese gendarmes in a lorry, led by a regular Belgian officer who had stayed on as a volunteer. The regulars always seemed to be bulky men with cropped hair, beer bellies and dainty moustaches, wearing crisp combat fatigues and bush hats with the brim turned up at the left. Les Affreux looked different. They had neck scarves, stubble, cigarettes tucked into the corner of their mouths, rolled up sleeves, revolvers on hips, shorts and socks.

‘Reputed to be bad boys’, wrote a journalist for the Libre Belgique newspaper, ‘with the air of pirates (long hair, droopy moustaches) and frightening in combat’. Their reputation outstripped their performance.

In November, some Affreux in Groupe Mobile D set up residency in Kabongo, near the border with Kasaï, to protect the town’s airstrip. The group quickly fell apart when Poelman the wrestler convinced the other mercenaries to desert with him. Only Charles Masy, blonde-haired and goggle-eyed with a wife back home and ambitions to own a bar, refused to quit. Masy had been 14 when German tanks rolled into Belgium. After three years of occupation, he joined the resistance, playing the innocent well enough to fool the Gestapo when they arrested him. At the liberation, he joined the Belgian SAS but things went wrong and he ended up in Katanga to escape a charge for beating up a Brussels policeman. He was not the kind to run away from a fight.

Other Affreux haunted Elisabethville’s bars and brothels, telling tall stories to journalists and showing little enthusiasm for the bush. Locals avoided them.

‘They were swaggering around all over the place, pissed out of their heads, with large whores on their arms,’ said Irish journalist Alan Bestic. ‘If you angered them they would shoot you in a minute. It was an ugly scene.’

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The UN Enters the Congo, 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1026:

Ralph Bunce had passed on Lumumba’s request for help to the United Nations Secretary General, a Swedish civil servant with blonde hair and grey-blue eyes calm as a frozen lake. Dag Hammarskjöld turned it down. The UN’s job was peace.

The United Nations had been around since the end of the Second World War. Its optimistic goal of world harmony was often compromised by the competing desires of America and the Soviet Union, its strongest members. American pressure sent UN troops to the Korean War in 1950 and Soviet demands made them sit and watch as the Red Army crushed anti-communist rebels in Hungary six years later. Most of Hammarskjöld’s energy went into persuading the superpowers occasionally to vote the same way.

The Swede did not want the UN to be used as a private army to take back Katanga. The Congo’s biggest problem, in his view, was the threat of a clash between Belgian soldiers and the ANC. He twisted some superpower arms and secured a mandate from the Security Council in New York to replace the 7,400 Belgians in the Congo with UN soldiers. The first peacekeepers, a Tunisian contingent, arrived in Léopoldville on 14 July, followed by units from Ghana, Mali and Morocco. Belgian soldiers reluctantly gave up their positions to blue-helmeted UN men and flew home. The process was surprisingly smooth, even surviving a kick in the teeth from Lumumba, when he declared it too slow and asked the Soviet Union to intervene independently. Moscow officially declined but saw a chance to sink its claws into Africa. Soviet aeroplanes and lorries and Czechoslovak technicians began to arrive secretly in Stanleyville. Cold warriors in Brussels were horrified.

‘The Congo will become communist within two months,’ said Harold d’Aspremont-Lynden, a close colleague of the Belgian prime minister.

Soon after, Harold d’Aspremont-Lynden was on his way to Katanga as head of the Mission Technique Belge (Belgian Technical Mission – Mistebel), a high-powered group of experts full of ideas on how to run the new country. Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Wigny was not happy. He had been arguing against taking sides in Katanga ever since Tshombe declared independence, but lost any support in the Cabinet after Léopoldville accused Brussels of organising the secession and broke diplomatic relations.

 

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Arbeit Macht Frei in Postwar Europe

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2719-32:

Economic logic generally set the limits of humanitarian solidarity in postwar Europe. The employment contracts offered to refugees were often highly restrictive, designed to keep them in low-paid or undesirable jobs for as long as possible. Belgium’s “Operation Black Diamond” imported 32,000 DPs as miners, but required them to work a full two years in the mines before they were allowed to seek employment elsewhere. As of 1949, 8,000 had returned to refugee camps in Germany, unable to tolerate the harsh conditions. Other employment programs were similarly restrictive. Britain’s “Westward Ho!” program enabled 82,000 migrants from Eastern Europe to emigrate to the UK, but confined refugees to employment in mining, textiles, agriculture, or domestic service, rather than allowing them to move freely between jobs or professions.

The French government, with its ongoing anxieties regarding population growth, was initially among the most eager to recruit DP labor. The French military commander Pierre Koenig immediately recognized that East European DPs “represent a human and labor resource that we will have a high interest in using to the advantage of our country,” and he urged French authorities to recruit the best workers. In 1948, the French government even set up its own vocational training courses for refugees in the French zone of occupied Germany. Conditions for foreign workers in postwar France were notoriously poor, however, and that hampered recruitment efforts. Ultimately, the IRO resettled only 38,107 East European refugees in France between July 1, 1947, and December 1950. The bulk of refugees were headed to the New World. In the same period, the United States received 238,006 refugees, Israel 120,766, Australia 170,543, and Canada 94,115.

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1918-11-11: End of the Shooting War

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 5198-5212:

Behind the lines, the news rarely provoked outright celebration. When the battery commander, Major F. J. Rice, got up that morning and was on his way to the regimental mess for breakfast, one of his men told him that ‘it was all over sir’. Orders had come in that hostilities would cease at 11 a.m. ‘All the officers took it very calmly,’ he recalled. After breakfast they managed to get their hands on a bottle of port and shared it with their NCOs. When they saw one of the sergeants walking across the gun park, they shouted out the news. The man merely halted, saluted, and said ‘very good, sir’, before continuing on, seemingly as unconcerned as ever.

The American First-Lieutenant Clair Groover of 313th Infantry Regiment – the junior officer who had survived the assault on Montfaucon – remembered how the quietness that followed the Armistice ‘got to you’. ‘It was so unreal, that it disturbed you emotionally,’ he admitted. ‘Some of the hardest officers wept. It was so unusual that you would walk around without being shot at.’ Within moments he noticed German soldiers getting up out of their positions and moving out into the open. One of them came over and told him, with tears in his eyes, that his brother had been killed the day before and that he would like permission to locate and bury the body. Groover agreed. That night ‘all the troops along the line were treated to the greatest display of fireworks ever set off. Both sides were setting off their entire pyrotechnic supply of rockets, Very candles, red, blue, green, were sparkling in the air. The first few scared you and you would flatten out on the ground, forgetting that it was all over. That night there were camp fires all along the lines.’ That was it; it was over. ‘It was the end of the shooting war.’

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1918: Quick Collapse on All Fronts

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4440-4447, 4754-4770:

For so long the various theatres of war in Europe, Italy and the Middle East had seemed frozen and immobile; stalemated and deadlocked. And then in late autumn, with surprising suddenness, the thaw finally set in. By 30 September, Bulgaria had signed an armistice, which opened up the southern flank of the Central Powers. Austro-Hungary was already on the verge of capitulation, and it took only a limited offensive by the Italian Army in the final week of October – the Battle of Vittorio Veneto – to push it over the edge. In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was now entering its final death throes. What remained of the Turkish Army in Palestine had been routed at the Battle of Megiddo in late September, and over the following month General Sir Edmund Allenby’s troops pushed north, mercilessly harassing the retreating Turkish columns. Aleppo fell on 26 October and within days an armistice was signed on the island of Mudros – thus bringing the war in the Middle East to a victorious conclusion.

By the first week of November the German Army was in full retreat across the Western Front. From the air ‘we saw all the roads crowded with columns of men marching back,’ wrote one German pilot. Endless lines of weary troops splashed and shuffled their way eastwards, bowed down with their equipment, looking over their shoulders in fear, half expecting to see Allied aircraft or cavalry squadrons ready to scatter them again. It was an awful sight: the faces of young boys overshadowed by the steel helmets that were too big for them, or hobbling along in boots that had been worn away long ago; old veterans who had seen too many battles marching along with glassy eyes and a grim acceptance of death or wounding. It was by now a motley army; the exact opposite of the legions of proud feldgrau that had marched across Europe in the summer of 1914 on their way to enact Count von Schlieffen’s great war plan. The German Army had reached its end; worn down by four years of merciless slaughter and pounded into dust by the brutal Allied artillery bombardments. Some still believed in victory, in some divine intervention – a catastrophic outbreak of flu in Paris or London; a devastating fallout between the English and Americans perhaps – but most realized there was little they could do. How could they defeat the endless power of the Allied guns or their swarms of tanks? How many Americans would they have to kill before they too gave in? And in any case, was it really worth fighting and dying for any more? Did anyone really care whether Alsace-Lorraine was French or German?

Casualties were nothing short of catastrophic. Fritz von Lossberg estimated that by the time the German Army reached the Antwerp–Meuse Line it had lost over 400,000 men and 6,000 guns. Other authorities put it higher, and it is possible that between 18 July and 11 November the Army suffered 420,000 dead and wounded with another 385,000 men being taken prisoner. Such a magnitude of loss was simply unsustainable, and when this was combined with the thousands of casualties from Germany’s spring offensives earlier in the year – perhaps as high as a million – it meant that her army was bleeding to death.

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1918: Respect for German Gunners

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2481-2488, 4523-4538:

Whatever the Americans thought about the British or the French, they soon acquired a healthy respect for the Germans: for their ability as soldiers; for their ruthlessness; for their professionalism wherever they fought. Within days of reaching the front with his division, Captain Grady saw a German plane fly low over the lines and drop a note addressed to their Commanding Officer. ‘Goodbye 42nd Division,’ it read, ‘hello 77th’. ‘Jerry sure is there with the humour,’ wrote Grady. For Frank Holden, his respect and admiration for the German soldier was summed up in his experience at Boucanville with 82nd Division. It was commonly said that the location of their battalion headquarters was well-known to the Germans, and that they could probably shell it any time they wanted. The divisional staff would joke about the time when three large shells – huge 210mm rounds – landed in a direct line near to the battalion headquarters; two shells behind, one in front. But no matter what the Germans did, they never moved their headquarters, simply because ‘we thought if we did then the Germans would drop a 210 on us just to show us that they knew that we had moved’.

For every group of cowed, shivering soldiers, there were others in the German Army who would not give in; those who were disputing their progress every day, inch by inch: the spine of the German defence, her machine-gunners. These men were both feared and respected. ‘The gunners were brave men,’ wrote T. H. Holmes, a Private with 56th (London) Division, ‘because firing the gun meant revealing the position of it, and up would come a tank and invariably shoot the post to pieces, and then trample it flat. I saw a ghastly mass of crushed heads and limbs tangled up with twisted iron. They said some of these machine-gunners were chained to their weapons.’ Another British soldier, a member of the Machine-Gun Corps, recorded in his memoirs how these men repeatedly occupied the best positions with the most deadly fields of fire, and consequently always proved extremely dangerous. Like many soldiers, he soon became used to the sight of machine-gunners crushed beneath tanks. Although it was not true that these men were chained to their weapons – the strap that the gunners wore was often mistaken for some kind of restraint – their courage was legendary. On one occasion, a Canadian, R. H. Camp, came across a gunner who had fired off all his ammunition. There was nothing particularly unusual about this, but Camp was amazed by what happened next. ‘He stood up in his hole and started taking his gun to pieces and he was throwing the pieces at us, anything he could get a hold of. We knew then of course that he was out of ammunition and we up and rushed him.’ Just as the Canadians were about to get to grips with him, their officer ran up shouting. ‘Don’t stick him boys! Don’t stick him.’ He got out a piece of paper, scribbled something on it, and then put it in the German’s pocket. ‘Don’t touch this man, he’s brave.’ He then told the German to make his way back to the rear. The note was a signed declaration of the machine-gunner’s courage and a guarantee that he would not be harmed.

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1918: The Americans

From Hundred Days: The Campaign That Ended World War I, by Nick Lloyd (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2489-2509:

At first glance the doughboys looked little different from their British and French associates. They wore a version of the British tin helmet and used the small pattern box respirator. They ate bully beef. They fired French or British weapons, often Lee Enfields, Lewis guns or Chauchats, and threw Mills bombs. They went into action alongside French tanks – Renaults or Schneiders – flew French or British aircraft – Spads or Sopwith Camels – and grew to love the French 75mm field gun, the legendary soixante-quinze. But in other respects the Americans were remarkably different. While both British and French Armies recruited mainly from remarkably cohesive home societies (excepting, of course, their colonial contingents), Pershing’s men were drawn from the full spectrum of US society, and included many recent immigrants from Europe, Russia and Latin America, as well as Native Americans. A considerable number of black Americans also went to France, and although they were not permitted to serve alongside white soldiers and continued to suffer horrific racial prejudice, they did yeoman service on the lines of transport in France, helping to unload equipment and supplies, and doing the menial jobs without which Pershing’s army could not have survived.

The Americans were different in other ways too. They were much richer than their cousins in other armies. They could draw $30 a month, about ten times the pay of a French private, thus gaining the eternal jealousy of the poilus, who looked upon the arrival of the Americans with concern and insecurity. And in another odd, but still tangible way, the Americans differed from their British and French counterparts. They were big; physically big. Numerous commentators at the time noticed the physical presence of the first US soldiers, tall, well-built troops with high morale and an instinctive, almost cocky pride; the kind of soldiers that had not been seen on the Western Front since 1916, when Britain’s New Armies had entered the fray. For their commander, this was the key point. Pershing was confident that American valour – her aggressive frontier spirit – would be the answer to the stalemate in the west. When he had first travelled to France and met British and French commanders, Pershing had quickly come to the conclusion that their methods would never win the war. They were stuck in their ways, he would tell his subordinates, and obsessed with limited, artillery-heavy trench attacks. He wanted his troops to be trained, first and foremost, as individual soldiers and riflemen, able to think for themselves on the battlefield and engage the enemy on their own terms.

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