Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare: Wild Geese mercenary leader 1919-2020
World fame in the Congo followed by farce and ignominy in the Seychelles
● Michael “Mad Mike” Hoare, who has died in Durban at the age of 100, was one of the most famous mercenaries in the world after his exploits in the Congo in the early 1960s inspired the 1978 movie The Wild Geese, in which he was played by Richard Burton.
But three years later, in 1981, he became something of a joke when, aged 62, he led 44 mercenaries from SA, Zimbabwe and several European countries, pretending to be members of a beer-drinking club called the Ancient Order of Froth Blowers, in a farcical, South African-backed coup attempt in the Seychelles.
It ended ignominiously with him and his rag-tag army fleeing back to SA in a hijacked Air India Boeing 707 after a gun battle at Mahé airport.
Their plan came unstuck when a customs official searching one of their bags found an AK-47 hidden in a false bottom and sounded the alarm.
Arriving back in SA they were promptly arrested, convicted of air piracy and sentenced in the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court in 1982 to 20 years’ imprisonment. The judge called the operation “a farce”.
To add insult to injury, Hoare was accused of cowardice for leaving six of his men behind in the Seychelles, where they were sentenced to death. Later the president they’d come to overthrow pardoned them and sent them home.
Hoare told the court the South African National Intelligence Agency had collaborated in the operation and the South African Defence Force had supplied him with AK-47s on condition he didn’t recruit too many South Africans, to avoid letting on that it was a South African plot.
The government of PW Botha strongly denied this.
According to a biography by his son Chris, Hoare’s decision to lead a coup against the socialist government of president France-Albert René was motivated by a hatred of communism.
Another theory is that he was motivated by rivalry with the world’s other most famous mercenary, Frenchman Bob Denard, who had led a successful coup against the marxist dictator of the Comoros earlier the same year.
Apart from both having made their names in the Congo, and both putting a pro-Western, anti-communist spin on their mercenary activities, they couldn’t have been more different.
Denard was known as an impetuous improviser, Hoare a meticulous planner. Denard recruited murderers, thugs and sadists while Hoare prided himself on being more selective. They loathed each other, and Hoare’s desire to replicate Denard’s feat may have led to his uncharacteristically hurried, ill-planned folly in the Seychelles.
While his hated rival lived like a king in the Comoros, Hoare recited poetry in a prison cell. He was released after 33 months under a presidential amnesty. He said he’d maintained his sanity by reciting Shakespeare and Marlowe.
After his release he went to France, where he spent 14 years writing a historical novel about the Crusades.
Hoare, who lived by the philosophy that you can get more out of life by living dangerously, was born on March 17 1919 in Calcutta, India, where his father was an assistant dockmaster.
After being schooled in England he joined the British army in 1939. He fought the Japanese in Burma with the special forces unit of the British and Indian armies known as the Chindits, which struck behind enemy lines and taught him the effectiveness of guerrilla warfare.
He ended the war as a lieutenant-colonel and worked as a chartered accountant in London.
He found it unbearably boring and emigrated to SA in 1948. He took tourists on hunting safaris, rode a motorbike from Cape Town to
Cairo, followed the Nile to its two sources and searched for the lost city of the Kalahari.
In 1961, during the course of these adventures, he met the Congolese politician Moise Tshombe, at the time president of the shortlived secessionist state of Katanga, who hired him to form a group of mercenaries. They saw little action though Hoare claimed two of his men were eaten by the enemy.
By 1964 Tshombe was prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and asked Hoare to crush the Simba rebellion against his government backed by Cuban and Chinese “advisers” led by Che Guevara.
Hoare called his new force the “Wild Geese” after the famous Irish mercenaries of the 18th century. He defeated the rebels in 18 months. Behind their lines he found priests and nuns who had been held hostage and brutalised, and rescued 2,000 of them.
He had nothing but contempt for the Belgian mercenaries who hit the Congo in 1961, describing them as “swaggering, crapulous, foul-mouthed” and “running around in beards, shooting up bars, wearing short shorts with their balls hanging out”.
His men, he said, were subject to proper British army discipline. They “shaved every day, wore uniforms. No raping.”
He himself was always meticulously turned out in a black beret, military khakis and cravat. Journalists described him as short, dapper, charming, enigmatic, polite, sane and goodnatured, with the capacity to be ruthless when it came to discipline.
He claimed to have shot off the big toes of a European mercenary who had raped and killed a Congolese woman.
“When he was there, his troops behaved,” wrote a journalist from the Washington Post in 1978. “Most of the time he was there. But he had 600 men under him and when he wasn’t there they killed a lot of people.”
His nickname “Mad Mike”’ came from East German radio broadcasts which regularly called him “that mad bloodhound Hoare” because of his fervent anti-communism.
“I like to think it’s a term of affection,” he said.
He was generally amiable but had his limits. While he was promoting the movie The Wild Geese in the US a talk-show host kept noting the pun in his name until Hoare told him, “I carry a small pistol and if you don’t stop it I’ll kill you.”
The host stopped. Hoare had that effect on people when he wanted to.
Hoare, who wrote several books about his exploits, is survived by five children he had with two wives.