02 September 2020

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 Kasa├», 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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