Revisiting Mad Mike Hoarse and the Legacy of Mercenaries in the Congo

Written by: Cooper Stewart

Few places in the 20th century have been as unstable and volatile as the Congo region, or  what is today known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its troubled history included a  period immediately following its independence from Belgium in 1960 to the formation of a dictatorship in 1965 would last until 1997. This period, commonly referred to as the Congo Crisis, saw 100,000 people die as the new nation degenerated into rival political factions battling for supremacy as the UN attempted in vain to restore order. Amidst the chaos, one group of mercenaries would become legendary (and infamous) for their actions in the Congo and changing the course of the fight and the nation during their time there. This group was known as 5 Commando, and they were led by British WWII veteran “Mad” Mike Hoarse.

To understand the legacy and significance of Mad Mike and his team of mercenaries, it is critical to know why foreign mercenaries were so prevalent in this bitter conflict. Mike Hoarse’s entry into the Congo came during the Katanga secession crisis, which saw the resource-rich Katanga province attempt to break away from the Republic of Congo. Katanga was widely viewed as a puppet state to serve foreign interests, particularly those of the Belgians who were the previous colonial overlord of the region. This was painfully apparent in the unofficial mission set up in New York City to lobby for Katangese recognition, which was headed by a white Belgian. Due to most of the support for Katanga coming from abroad, a significant portion of the soldiers fighting for the Katangese cause were foreign (white European, Rhodesian, and South African) as these mercenaries were trusted to uphold foreign interests. Furthermore, the leader of Katanga, Moise Tshombe, utilized mercenaries frequently and in large numbers to bolster his own position during the volatile time. Overall, Hoarse’s first foray into the Congo was representative of the larger trend of foreign mercenaries operating in favor of foreign interests in the region.

Mike Hoarse’s most notable period of work in the Congo came between 1964 and 1965, when he was brought in to deal with the Simba rebellion. After the conclusion of the Katangese secession crisis, ex-Katanga leader Tshombe was placed in the role of prime minister in an effort to reintegrate his breakaway province into the fledgling nation. This move angered many revolutionaries throughout the country, who viewed Tshombe as nothing more than a foreign puppet and an illegitimate leader. In 1964, the rebellion began, and the Marxist aligned rebels, known as the Simbas, took over much of the eastern Congo and declared their new state the People’s Republic of the Congo. The now prime minister Tshombe again turned to Mike Hoarse in order to put down the rebellion as he greatly distrusted his own army over fears of a potential coup.

Mike Hoarse and his new team of mercenaries, 5 Commando, achieved extraordinary military success in the Congo, contributing to the ultimate defeat of the Simba rebellion. But their actions were not without controversy. The political and racial views of the mercenaries came into question. This was prevalently seen in the use of ex-Wehrmacht soldiers as a part of 5 Commando, who still wore their Iron Crosses during their time in the Congo. Overall, the experienced mercenaries were extremely effective against the oftentimes untrained and ill-equipped Simbas. Hoarse’s greatest triumph came when he and his mercenaries played a key role in liberating Stanleyville from Simba control with the aid of Belgian paratroopers. After this victory, 5 Commando proceeded to subdue the Simba rebellion over the later period of 1965, solidifying Tshombe’s hold over the nation.

Despite Tshombe’s apparent victory over the Simbas, he was not able to channel this into a stable government, as he was removed from power in late 1965 by General Mobutu Sese Seko. In many respects, Tshombe’s use of foreign mercenaries and force to secure victory were central to his downfall. The heavy use of foreign mercenaries and Belgian military aid gave many the idea that Tshombe was another puppet being controlled by foreign interests. Furthermore, his distrust of the army and preference for mercenaries corroded any support he might have had with the Congolese military. Therefore, the long term consequences of Mike Hoarse and his mercenaries in the Congo can largely be seen in the Mobutu regime which followed. Mobutu looked to purge any trace of colonialism and foreign influence in the nation, starting with changing the name of the country to Zaire from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Beyond just Mobutu, the visible and notable presence of foreign mercenaries throughout the Congo Crisis had major ramifications for the nation’s politics for decades to come. Essentially, many Congolese arrived at the conclusion that the Congo was still under the grip of foreign powers who sought to maintain influence over the country.

This insecurity over the legitimacy of Congolese sovereignty overshadows almost all aspects of political life in the country. The current crisis in Congolese politics, in which the elected president is attempting to form a new coalition government in the parliament, is representative of the effects of an insecurity over sovereignty, which breeds a culture of mistrust. President Tshisekedi, on the one hand, wishes to legitimize his rule by maximizing his ability to govern effectively while the coalition partners believe that the president is trying to oust them from their positions of power. Ultimately, while “Mad Mike” and his band of mercenaries are not the cause of the Congo’s current political woes, their actions contributed to the issues the Congolese face today.