The Atlantic War, 1939-45

Some background

Most people associate the World War II Era Navy and Marine Corps with the Pacific War — which is certainly accurate; the U. S. Navy was unquestionably the dominant force in the Pacific.  But the Allied powers could not have won the European war without superior naval power, as well.  Victory at sea was a keystone for allied triumph over the Axis power in all World War II theaters.

  • Pacific-Asian fronts
  • Europe (Nordic, Western, Eastern fronts)
  • Mediterranean, Africa, Middle East

Victory at sea involved the formidable task of keeping sea lanes open for the movement of troop transports,  combat equipment, raw materials, and food stores — in massive quantities earmarked for the United Kingdom, nearly isolated by hostile German forces.

Complicating the Navy’s Atlantic mission was the fact that theater area commanders had to compete for limited naval resources.  There were only so many aircraft carriers, only so many landing craft, only so many carrier-based aircraft — only so many men.  It was up to theater area commanders to find the best way of distributing these limited assets where they would do the most good.  As one can imagine, the Navy’s mission to protect ships, men, and material over vast areas of the world’s major oceans was no small undertaking — and neither was denying access to them by the Axis powers.

Within 15 years from the end of World War I, Germany began rebuilding its military and naval forces.  Between 1933 and 1939, without opposition and emboldened by European politicians who sought to avoid war at any cost, Germany seized and annexed Alsace-Loraine, Austria, and Czechoslovakia.  When Adolph Hitler discovered that the “free world’s” only response to this aggression was appeasement, and in concert with the Soviet Union, he launched a lightning invasion of Poland.  Allied powers responded to the invasion by declaring war on Germany, prompting Germany’s invasion of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France — and then began its assault on the United Kingdom through aerial bombing and naval blockades.  Once Germany believed that it had neutralized the United Kingdom, Hitler foolishly invaded the Soviet Union.

Following the First World War, the United Kingdom decided to place all of its military aircraft under the Royal Air Force, completely neglecting its naval arm vis-à-vis sea-launched aircraft.  As a result of this poor thinking, the United Kingdom lost its maritime superiority.

In the years leading up to World War II, Royal Navy Aviation competed with the RAF for scant resources.  The decision taken by Britain’s war policy board was that strategic bombing must occupy a higher priority than seaborne attack aircraft — and did so even after the United States proved that long-range bomber aircraft were only marginally effective against moving ships at sea.  The use of B-24 Liberator aircraft against Japanese ships of war during the Guadalcanal campaign in 1942-43 reinforced the American’s earlier conclusion.

In 1939, the Royal Navy had a substantial base structure at both ends of the Mediterranean, at Alexandria, Egypt, Gibraltar, and Malta.  The French Navy had naval bases at Toulon and Mers-el-Kébir and deluded themselves into believing that the Mediterranean was “their sea.”

In September 1939, when the UK declared war against Germany, there were only seven aircraft carriers in the British fleet.  These were capital ships highly vulnerable to German submarines, battleships, and land-based aircraft.  Because the British had no carriers in the First World War, there was no battle-tested procedure for protecting aircraft carriers.

Substantial loses during the UK’s initial carrier operations underscored weaknesses of command decisions and employment doctrine.  HMS Courageous was lost in the second week of the war, sunk by the German submarine U-29HMS Ark Royal might have been lost in the following week were it not for defective torpedoes fired by U-39.  From these two incidents, the British Admiralty decided that carriers were too vulnerable for use as a submarine screening force.  In early June 1940, HMS Glorious was lost to German battleships off the coast of Norway [Note 1].

At the beginning of 1942, the U. S. Atlantic Fleet operated Carrier Division Three, which included the fleet attack carriers (CVA) USS Ranger, USS Hornet, and USS Wasp, and the escort carrier (CVE) USS Long Island.  Over the course of the war, American and British carriers became increasingly effective in a number of operational assignments — from providing air cover during amphibious operations to patrolling in search of enemy ships.

Unlike the Pacific war, where naval and ground commanders planned and implemented combat strategies and operations, European heads of government were the decision-makers in the Atlantic war.  Both Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler directly involved themselves in the details of operational planning; in contrast, Franklin Roosevelt left the details of fighting to his military commanders.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic was a contest of strategies between the Allied and Axis powers.  Both sides attempted to deny use of oceanic shipping.  British and American navies sought to blockade German shipments of raw materials from Norway; the Germans attempted to block American shipments of food and vital supplies to the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

Germany relied principally on its submarines, merchant raiders, battle cruisers, and land-based aircraft to destroy American shipping — of those, submarines were by far the most effective [Note 2].  Allied use of aircraft carriers contributed significantly to the ultimate success of the Battle of the Atlantic — used not only to protect convoys, but to locate and destroy German submarines, as well.  This success was the direct result of the Allied capture and deciphering German code machines.

In September 1939, Germany had fifty-seven submarines; twenty-two were suitable for combat operations in the Atlantic and only eight or nine could operate “on station” because of the time it took to return to their base for fuel, refit, and replenishment.  By March 1940, this small submarine force accounted for the sinking of 222 Allied ships — including two aircraft carriers, a cruiser, and two destroyers.  Germany’s application of underwater naval assault was “unrestricted,” evidenced by Germany’s sinking of the civilian passenger ship Athenia.

On land, it took Germany only six weeks to conquer France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (10May-24 June 1940).  With the fall of France, Germany was able to establish a submarine base along the French coast, which brought their U-boats 1,000 miles closer to Allied convoy routes.

Within the space of two years, the production of German U-boats was sufficient to allow Germany’s Grand Admiral Erich Raeder and Admiral Karl Dönitz to begin employing submarines in groups (from eight to twenty) (the wolf pack).  In April 1941, German submarines destroyed half the convoy ships transiting from Halifax to Liverpool.  The action was significant enough to cause President Roosevelt to order the transfer of USS Yorktown, three battleships, and six destroyers from the Pacific Fleet to the Atlantic Fleet.  In September 1941, Roosevelt transferred 50 American destroyers to the Royal Navy [Note 3].  It was at this time that the United States Navy began escorting Britain-bound convoys as far as Iceland.  Despite these efforts, by the time the United States entered the war, German U-boats had destroyed 1,200 cargo ships.

American Attitudes, 1939-41

The American people well-remembered the terrible loss of life during World War I and they wanted nothing whatever to do with another European War.  Franklin Roosevelt campaigned for reelection with the promise of neutrality [Note 4].  When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Roosevelt declared American neutrality — but he also established a “neutral zone” in the Atlantic within which the United States would protect shipping.  The Navy assigned USS Ranger to patrol this “neutral” zone.

Even before 1939, Roosevelt’s opposition party in Congress watched developing world events and the president with growing concerns.  Members of Congress were well aware that Roosevelt was itching to involve himself in the European war, so in the 1930s, the congress passed a series of neutrality acts (1935, 1936, 1937, and 1939) that reflected the mood of the American people.  Americans had become isolationist and non-interventionist.  Whether these were carefully thought-out restrictions may not matter today, but the Acts made no distinction between victim or aggressor.

As Congress pushed back against Roosevelt’s apparent desire to engage in the emerging world war, Mr. Roosevelt crafted clever ways around congressional restrictions.  The so-called Lend-Lease program was enacted in early March 1941; it permitted President Roosevelt to provide Great Britain, Free France, the Republic of China, and Soviet Union with food, oil, and war materials [Note 5].   Congress earmarked more than  $50-billion for this purpose (about 17% of the USA’s total war expenditure) (in modern dollars, around $600-billion), most of which went to the United Kingdom.  Under this agreement, nations receiving war materials could use them until returned to the United States (or were destroyed).  Very little war material was returned to US control [Note 6].  The net-effect of Lend-Lease was that it removed any pretense of neutrality by the United States.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.  On 11 December, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States.  Mr. Roosevelt had his war.

Carriers and Their Functions

Large areas of the Atlantic were beyond the range of land-based aircraft in Canada, Iceland, and Great Britain.  The UK, with insufficient fleet resources, initiated programs to enhance convoy protection.  In 1940-41, Britain converted three ocean-going vessels, a seaplane tender, and an auxiliary cruiser  [Note 7] to help extend the protective range of land-based aircraft.  They called these vessels Fight Catapult Ships (FACs), Catapult Aircraft Merchant Ships (CAMs), and Merchant Aircraft Carriers (MACs).  Germany sank three of these ships in 1941 — the same year the British converted thirty-five additional merchant ships into catapult ships.

In January 1941, the United Kingdom began converting captured German merchant ships to escort carriers (CVEs).  While CVEs were slow and lightly armored, they did provide platforms for dispatching and retrieving land-based aircraft.  Britain’s first CVE was christened HMS Audacity.  The ship carried six operational aircraft with room for an additional eight, but because there was no hanger deck or elevator, aircraft were maintained on the flight desk.

In April 1941, the United States began converting merchant hulls to CVEs.  The first American CVE was christened USS Long Island.  A second American CVE was transferred to the UK, who christened her HMS ArcherArcher was capable of operating 15 aircraft.  The Americans constructed five additional CVEs, (transferring four to the Royal Navy): HMS Avenger, HMS Biter, HMS Dasher, HMS Tracker, and the USS Charger.

Lessons learned from USS Long Island led to substantial improvements to forty-four successive CVEs.  The new constructs were capable of carrying between 19-24 aircraft.  Thirty-three of these went to the United Kingdom.  Additional CVEs were constructed from tanker hulls, which were longer and faster than the merchant hull ships.

Aircraft carriers operating in both oceans had similar functions.  They supported amphibious landings, raided enemy ports, searched for enemy submarines, escorted merchant convoys, transported aircraft, troops, vital supplies, and served as training platforms for carrier-rated pilots.

The Turning Point

In the spring of 1943, German submarines assaulted 133 Allied ships, a major decline from previous periods.  The Battle for the Atlantic had taken an abrupt turn.  On 21 April, Germany sent 51 U-boats to attack a 42-ship convoy transiting from Liverpool to Halifax.  Designated Convoy ONS-5, the shipments were protected by nine naval escorts.  U-boats sunk thirteen ships; escort vessels and Catalina flying boats sunk seven U-boats and badly damaged seven more.  In total, for that month, Allied forces destroyed 43 German submarines.  For the next six months, beginning in May 1943, the Allies dispatched 64 North Atlantic convoys with 3,546 ships to Great Britain.  Not a single ship was  sunk en route.

Faced with such massive losses, Grand Admiral Dönitz ordered his submarines into the Central Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.  These were the areas used by the United States to transport men and materiel to the Mediterranean to support operations in Sicily and the India-Burma campaign.  To counter Dönitz’ strategy, the U. S. Navy authorized anti-submarine groups, which included destroyers and CVEs, to operate apart from convoys.  Between June – December 1943, Allied hunter-killer groups [Note 8]  destroyed 31 German U-boats, including ten of the so-called resupply submarines.  Admiral Dönitz’ strategy in the Central and South Atlantic fared no better than his North Atlantic scheme.

Hunter-killer battle groups were a team effort.  CVEs used the F4F Wildcat fighter to look for submarines, and when spotted (either by air or radar), dispatched TBF Avengers with bombs, depth charges, and torpedoes.  Allied destroyers and destroyer escorts served to screen the CVE hunter-killer groups [Note 9].

By the end of 1944, the Allied powers dominated the Atlantic.  Dönitz moved his submarine force around, but the US & UK were reading the admiral’s mail.  He ordered 58 U-boats to counter Allied landings at Normandy.  German U-boats sank four Allied ships at the cost of 13 U-boats.  After Normandy, Dönitz withdrew his submarines to Norwegian waters, which drew the Allies’ attention to the German battleship Tirpitz (a sister ship to Bismarck), which lay at anchor in Norway.  Tirpitz did very little during World War II, but the ship did offer a potential threat to Allied navies.  In early 1944, the Allies’ focus on Tirpitz deceived the German high command into believing that an Allied invasion of Norway was imminent.  Once Tirpitz was sunk in November 1944, the Royal Navy felt comfortable sending the carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Indefatigable to the far east to join the British Pacific Fleet.

At the beginning of 1945, HMS Implacable was the only Allied fleet carrier in the Atlantic, supported by 12 British and 10 American CVEs.  All other fleet carriers were sent to the Pacific Theater to finish the war with Japan even as the war with Germany continued.  Thirty German U-boats attacked a 26-ship convoy in February 1945, supported by German Torpedo-Bombers, but aircraft from CVEs Campania and Nairana drove the U-boats away with no loss of merchantmen.  Convoys bound for Russia continued through May 1945 [Note 10].

Marines in the Atlantic

We seldom read or hear about Marines who served in the Atlantic War.  This is very likely because fewer than six-thousand Marines participated in Atlantic, North African, and European campaigns during World War II.  Of course, before the war, US Marines served at various U. S. Embassies.

In 1941, about four-thousand Marines of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade served in Iceland through February 1942.  But given the expertise of U. S. Marines in amphibious warfare, the Navy Department assigned several senior Marine officers to serve as planners/advisors for invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy.  For example, Colonel Harold D. Campbell [Note 11], an aviator, was responsible for planning air support for the 6,000 man raid on Dieppe [Note 12].  Marines were also responsible for training four U. S. Army combat divisions in preparation for their amphibious assault of North Africa.  In North Africa, Marines from ship’s detachments executed two raids in advance of the main invasion: one operation involved seizure of the old Spanish Fort at the Port of Oran; a second raid secured the airfield at Safi, Morocco.  Both operations took place on 10 November 1942, the Marine Corps’ 167th birthday.

Fifty-one Marines served with the U. S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), participating in behind the lines operations in Albania, Austria, Corsica, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Rumania, Sardinia, and Yugoslavia from 1941 to 1945.  See also: Marines and Operation Torch, Behind the Lines, and Every Climb and Place.

At sea, Marines assigned to detachments aboard battleships and heavy cruisers served as naval gun crews during the North African, Sicily, and Normandy invasions [Note 13].  Reminiscent of the olden days of sailing ships, Navy ship commanders sent their Marine sharpshooters aloft to explode German mines during Operation Overlord (the invasion of Normandy) [Note 14].  On 29 August 1944, Marines from USS Augusta and USS Philadelphia participated in the Allied acceptance of the surrender of Marseilles and 700 German defenders.

When General Eisenhower assumed the mantle of Supreme Allied Commander, his staff consisted of 489 officers.  Of these, 215 were American officers, including Colonel Robert O. Bare, who served on the staff of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Allied Naval Commander.  Bare worked on the plan for the Normandy invasion.  While serving with the British Assault Force, Bare was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.  At the completion of his tour in Europe, Bare participated in the Palau and Okinawa campaigns.  During the Korean War, Bare served as Chief of Staff, 1st Marine Division.

Colonel Jeschke (1894-1957)

Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk served Eisenhower as Commander, Western Naval Task Force.  Assigned to Kirk’s staff was Marine Colonel Richard H. Jeschke [Note 15].  Jeschke served Kirk as an assistant planning officer in the operations staff.  Of the total 1.5 million Americans serving in Europe, 124,000 were naval personnel.  Fifteen-thousand of those served on combat ships, 87,000 assigned to landing craft, 22,000 assigned to various naval stations in the UK, and Marine Security Forces, United Kingdom.  On 6 June 1944, Rear Admiral Don P.  Moon (Commander, Force Uniform), frustrated with delays in landing operations, dispatched Colonel Kerr ashore to “get things moving.”  Kerr diverted troops scheduled to land at Green Beach to Red Beach, which expedited the operation.  Colonel Kerr credited the low casualty rates during the landing to the accuracy and rate of fire of naval artillery.

The landing at Omaha Beach was a different story.  German defenses inflicted 2,000 casualties on a landing force of 34,000 men.  Rear Admiral John L. Hall dispatched Colonel Jeschke and First Lieutenant Weldon James ashore at Omaha Beach to observe and report back to him the effectiveness of naval gunfire support from USS Texas.

Colonel John H. Magruder II, USMC served as the naval liaison officer to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s 21st Army Group.  Many Marine officers were assigned to various posts because of their fluency in foreign languages.  Magruder was fluent in Dutch.  Major Francis M. Rogers served as an interpreter for General Edouard de Larminent, Commander, II French Corps.  Rogers was fluent in both French and Portuguese.    

Sources:

  1. Allen, H. C.  Britain and the United States.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1955.
  2. Dawson, R. H.  The Decision to Aid Russia, 1941: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
  3. DeChant, J. A.  Marine Corps Aviation Operations in Africa and Europe.  Washington:  Marine Corps Gazette, 1946.
  4. Donovan, J. A.  Outpost in the North Atlantic.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1992.
  5. Edwards, H. W.  A Different War: Marines in Europe and North Africa.  Washington: Marine Corps Historical Center, 1994.
  6. Eisenhower Foundation.  D-Day: The Normandy Invasion in Retrospect.  Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1971.
  7. Morrison, S. E.  The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963.
  8. Menges, C. A.  History of U. S. Marine Corps Counter-intelligence.  Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1991.
  9. Roskill, S.  The Navy at War, 1939-1945.  Chatham, Kent, Great Britain: Mackays of Chatham, 1960.

Endnotes:

[1] Glorious was ordered to help evacuate aircraft during the UK’s withdrawal from Norway.  The ship left the main body of the fleet when discovered by the German battleships.  German 11-inch guns literally ripped Glorious apart.  Alone, without aircraft aloft, and only 4-inch protective guns, Glorious had no chance of survival in a hostile sea.  Captain Guy D’Oyly-Hughes, commanding Glorious, was a former submarine skipper.  He decided to set out alone so that he could, once at sea, court-martial Wing Commander J. B. Heath, RN, and Lieutenant Commander Evelyn Slessor, RN, who had refused to obey an order to attack shore targets.  Heath admitted his refusal, but argued that his mission was ill-defined and his aircraft unsuited to the task.

[2] German submarines accounted for 70% of world-wide allied shipping losses.

[3] The agreement was also known as the Destroyers-for-Bases Agreement.

[4] In a joint statement issued on 14 August 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill announced their joint goals for the world following World War II.  Later dubbed The Atlantic Charter, it established an outline of objectives that included dismantling the British Empire, the formation of NATO, and a general agreement on tariffs and trade.  An American-British alliance was formed in 1939 with Roosevelt and Churchill secretly meeting eleven times.  The Atlantic Charter made clear Roosevelt’s support of Great Britain, but in order to achieve the charter’s objectives, the United States would have to become a participant in the war.  This could not happen, politically, unless there was first of all a cataclysmic event that propelled the United States into the war.  From 1939 forward, Roosevelt did everything he could to cause the Japanese to attack the United States —which they did on 7 December 1941.

[5] Canada had a similar program they referred to as “Mutual Aid.” 

[6] The Lend-Lease arrangement with China (suggested in 1940) involved a plan for 500 modern aircraft and enough war materials to supply thirty divisions of ground troops.  With the Chinese civil war “on hold” until the defeat of China’s common enemy (Japan), Roosevelt dealt independently with both sides through General Joseph Stilwell.  Neither Chiang Kai-shek nor Mao Zedong ever intended to return Lend-Lease equipment to the United States; rather, both sides intended to use these armaments on each other after war with Japan was settled.  As it turned out, American Marines died from weapons and ammunition manufactured in the United States when turned against them by Mao’s communist forces in 1945.

[7] OBVs were merchant ships pressed into service by the Royal Navy and converted into auxiliary carriers.

[8] The hunter-killer groups included US CVEs Card, Bogue, Core, Block Island, Santee, and HMS Tracker and Biter.  USS Block Island was the only American CVE sunk in the Atlantic War.

[9] At a time when the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty (1922) limited the construction of large battleships, the United States began building replacement ships for obsolete World War II destroyers.  The Navy produced 175 Fletcher-Class destroyers (DD), designed as torpedo attack ships with a secondary mission of anti-submarine warfare and screening for capital ships.  Destroyer Escorts (DE) were a smaller variant ship with specialized armaments capable of a smaller turning radius.  Both ships were referred to as “tin cans” because they were lightly armored.  They relied more on their speed for self-defense.  During World War II, the U. S. Navy lost 97 destroyers and 15 destroyer-escorts.

[10] Convoys to Russia during the war involved 740 ships in 40 convoys, which provided 5,000 tanks and more than 7,000 aircraft.  German U-boats destroyed 97 of these merchantmen and 18 escorting warships.  Germany lost three destroyers and 38 U-boats.

[11] Harold Denny Campbell (1895-1955) served in both the First and Second World War.  On 6 December 1941, Colonel Campbell assumed command of Marine Aircraft Group 11 at Quantico, Virginia.  In May 1942, he was personally selected by Lord Mountbatten to serve as a Marine Aviation advisor to the British Combined Staff.  After promotion to Brigadier General in 1943, Campbell assumed command of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in Samoa and in 1944 commanded the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing in the Peleliu campaign.

[12] The raid was conducted by British and Canadian commandos.  Tagged as Operation Jubilee, the purpose of  the amphibious raid to test the feasibility of lightening raids for intelligence gathering and boosting the morale of “folks back home.”  It was a much-needed learning experience because aerial and naval support was inadequate, the tanks were too heavy for a “lightening raid” and the Allies under-estimated the strength of German defenses.  Within ten hours of the landing, the German army killed, wounded, or captured 3,623 British/Canadian commandos.  The British also lost 33 landing craft and a destroyer.  Operation Jubilee became a textbook lesson on what not to do in an amphibious operation.

[13] U. S. Navy battleships usually included a detachment of two-hundred Marines; battle cruisers usually had a detachment of around 80 Marines.

[14] I am trying to imagine a Marine sharpshooter 200 feet in the air on a pitching ship, shooting German anti-ship mines with any degree of accuracy.  Damn.

[15] Colonel (later, Brigadier General) Jeschke (1894-1957) served with distinction in both the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns: on Guadalcanal, and during the invasions of Sicily and Normandy.

Soldiers of Fortune

Soldiers of Fortune are men who have no political interest in the outcome of armed conflict but participate in it as hired infantry in exchange for lucrative payments.  Most of these men received training while serving in European and American military forces. The reasons men fight as mercenaries are probably as varied as those for joining a regular military organization. Still, no matter their circumstances, they’ve probably concluded that the pay is worth the risks. One risk, but not the only one, is that mercenaries have no legal protection. If their operations fail, hired soldiers are subject to arrest, trial, and capital punishment —which is one motivation for winning their battles.

Major “Mad Mike” Hoare

One such man was Thomas Michael Hoare (1919-2020), a British mercenary leader and adventurer in Africa and Seychelles, who passed away in February. Hoare’s parents were Irish expatriates working in Calcutta when “Mike” was born. His father sent him to Margate College[1] in England for his education when he was 8-years old.  Believing that his son was best suited for training in accountancy, Mike’s father did not allow him to attend Sandhurst; Mike instead joined the British territorial guard, an integrated reserve organization.

At the commencement of hostilities in World War II, military authorities assigned Mike to London’s Irish Rifles. He later joined the 2nd Reconnaissance Regiment of the Royal Armored Corps, received a commission to Second Lieutenant, and served in Burma and India.  By 1945, Hoare was serving as a Major. After the war, he married Elizabeth Stott, with whom he had three children. Short in stature, most people regarded Hoare as a “charming fellow,” whose dress and appearance was always “dapper.”

After the war, Mike re-enrolled in an accountancy program to complete his training, and he was qualified and certified in 1948. When Hoare realized how bored he was with his sedate lifestyle in London, he relocated his family to Natal Province, South Africa.  There, while working in accountancy, he organized safari operations as a part-time interest.  It was then that he began to quietly advertise his availability to work as a soldier for hire.  Always athletically active, Hoare kept in shape by marathon walking and long-range motorcycle races (Cairo to Cape Town).

By the early 1960s, Hoare realized that he wanted to return to a soldier’s life.  Between 1961-65, Major Mike Hoare led two mercenary expeditions into the Congo.  His first mercenary action occurred in 1961 in Katanga, a province attempting to break away from the newly created Republic of the Congo.  His mercenary unit called itself “Four Commando.” By this time, Elizabeth had had her fill with her husband’s adventurous life, and they divorced.  Hoare later married Phyllis Sims, an airline stewardess, with whom he had two additional children.

The Congo

In 1964, Congolese Prime Minister Moise Tshombe (his employer in Katanga) re-hired Major Hoare to lead a unit called Five Commando, Armée Nationale Congolaise (also, 5 Commando ANC), comprised of around 300 men of mixed nationality, to help put down a revolt known in history as the Simba Rebellion[2].  A former British officer named Alistair Wicks[3] served as Hoare’s second-in-command. Tshombe brought in mercenaries because he distrusted his military commander, General Joseph-Désiré Motobu, who had already led two coup d’états against Tshombe and refused to commit the Congolese Army against the Simba.

Once hired, Hoare recruited his commando force by running ads in South African newspapers, asking for physically fit white men experienced in the combat arms.  While in control of 5 Commando, the press began referring to Hoare as “Mad Mike,” painting him as a wild man. “Wild” was not an accurate description of Mike Hoare.  He was competent, resourceful, and thorough in planning mercenary operations.  Hoare was also a strict disciplinarian who demanded that his men shave, wear close-cropped hair, dress smartly, and attend church services weekly.  5 Commando was an all-white combat unit, its men representing South Africa, Rhodesia, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom —all of whom previously served during the Second World War.

Mad Mike repudiated claims that 5 Commando was a mercenary unit.  He instead argued that his men were volunteers who resisted a communist takeover in the Congo.  In 1963 dollars, Hoare’s men earned $1,100/monthly.  Mike fought the sobriquet Soldier of Fortune; he claimed the money was never an issue with either himself or his men.  It may have been true for Mike Hoare, but such a claim did not describe his men, who frequently looted and misappropriated United Nations property in the Congo.

Reflecting pride in his Irish heritage, Hoare adopted a flying goose as his unit’s symbol.  He called his men Wild Geese, after the Irishmen who fought for the Stuarts in exile during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Mike Hoare had an excellent reputation as a combat commander.  He was calm and courageous under fire, always leading his men from the front to inspire them.  As a disciplinarian, Hoare once pistol-whipped one of his men who attempted to organize a mutiny.

Initially, the officers of the Simba force included tribal leaders who were, in turn, guided by military advisors from Eastern Bloc nations seeking to establish a communist regime in the Congo.  Ultimately, the Simba’s leadership devolved to the military advisors because tribal leadership was inept.  At first, Simba rebels successfully captured much of eastern Congo and, in doing so, quickly proclaimed the People’s Republic of Stanleyville —perhaps thinking the war was almost over.  However, poor Simba organization, lack of cohesion, and competing tribal interests defeated these initial successes.

Hoare capitalized on these failings.  His use of available air support, his application of diversionary tactics, and his innovative use of reverse marches enabled him to deceive and confuse Simba rebel commanders; he was never where they thought he might be. Hoare was also known to hijack boats on the Congo River and use them for making lightning-fast water-borne raids to rescue hostages.  Hoare was also ruthless in combat.  Having no time for prisoners, he never took any.

Later in the rebellion, Hoare worked in concert with Belgian paratroopers, Cuban exile pilots, and CIA-hired paramilitary forces who attempted to save 1,600 European civilians and missionaries in Stanleyville. Of the Simba treatment of their captives, Hoare reported, “The mayor of Stanleyville, Sylvere Bonekwe, was a great and respected man, whom the Simba forced to stand naked in front of a frenzied crowd while one of them cut out his liver.”

In another Congolese operation, labeled Dragon Rouge, Hoare saved another 2,000 European lives when he rescued them from Simba savages.  Before the rescue, the Simba tormented their captives to the point where these wretched people no longer resembled human beings.  Hoare remarked, “Taking Stanleyville was the greatest achievement of the Wild Geese.  There is only so much 300 men can do, but there we were, part of a very big push, and clearing the rebels out was a major victory.  As a result of this one incident, Hoare became a hero in the western press.  Hoare didn’t see himself as a hero, however —but he was thoroughly disgusted by the savagery of the Simba rebels and gave them no quarter in combat.

In 1964, Tshombe promoted Hoare to Lieutenant Colonel and added another battalion to Hoare’s force.  Hoare commanded 5 Commando through November 1965.  Reflecting his anti-Communist attitude, Hoare said, “I had wanted nothing so much as to have 5 Commando known as an integral part of the ANC, a 5 Commando destined to strike a blow to rid the Congo of the greatest cancer the world has ever known —the creeping, insidious disease of communism.”

After returning to South Africa, Hoare told the press that “killing communists is like killing vermin, killing African nationalists is as if one is killing an animal.  My men and I have killed between 5,000-10,000 Congo rebels in the 20 months that I have spent in the Congo. But that’s not enough. There are 20 million Congolese, you know, and I assume that about half of them at one time or another were rebels whilst I was down here.” One of the Simba advisors was an Argentine-Cuban officer named Che Guevara, a murdering swine of such low character and regard for human life that he wantonly murdered hundreds if not thousands of people.  Hoare was proud of the fact that he was the first man to have defeated Guevara.

The exploits of Hoare and 5 Commando in the Congo have been much celebrated and have contributed to veneration of the mercenary lifestyle.  Many of Hoare’s exploits appeared in Soldier of Fortune Magazine and pulp novels. Fictional writers and filmmakers modeled their heroes after Colonel Hoare.  One fictional film account of the Wild Geese in 1978 starred Richard Burton, Roger Moore, and Richard Harris, with Burton playing the Mike Hoare character’s role.

Seychelles

The Republic of Seychelles is an archipelagic island country in the Indian Ocean that consists of 115 islands.  In 1978, Seychellois exiles living in South Africa approached South African officials to discuss the prospect of launching a coup d’état against usurper-President France-Albert René.  René promoted himself to president from prime minister while the duly elected President James Mancham was out of the country.  The United States viewed a coup d’état favorably because of the distrust certain Washington officials had of René and the proximity of Seychelles to the American base at Diego Garcia.

With a clear signal of U.S. backing, friends of Mancham contacted Colonel Hoare to see if he would be willing to lead an operation to Seychelles to reclaim Mancham’s presidency. Of course, Hoare was willing, so he raised a force of around 55 men from former South African special forces, former Rhodesian troopers, and ex-Congo mercenaries.  For Hoare’s plan to work, he disguised his men as rugby players and named them Ye Ancient Order of Froth Blowers.  He hid automatic weapons at the bottom of their luggage, which was then possible because South African rugby players often acquired toys and returned them to South Africa to distribute among several orphanages.

However, while going through the customs line at the Seychelles airport, one of Hoare’s men erroneously entered the “Something to Declare” line.  Once in that line, customs officials insisted on searching his bag, discovered concealed weapons, and sounded an alarm.

Another of Hoare’s men then pulled out a rifle, quickly assembled it, and shot the customs office before he could escape. Despite this setback and no other option available to him, Hoare continued the operation, and fighting broke out inside the airport.  In the middle of this melee, an Indian jetliner was slightly damaged upon landing when it collided with trucks on the runway.  Realizing that the Indian flight passengers were in danger of finding themselves in a crossfire, whether they remained aboard the aircraft or not, Hoare quickly negotiated a ceasefire with Seychellois officials.  Once these passengers safely deplaned, Hoare and his men boarded the Indian plane, hijacked it, and flew back to South Africa.

Upon returning to South Africa, the South African government charged Hoare and his men with kidnapping (the aircrew). Since kidnapping carries no minimum sentence in South Africa —and because it appeared as if Hoare and his men might “walk,” international powers pressured South Africa to recharge Hoar with aircraft hijacking, a more severe offense.  A South African court convicted Hoare and 42 of his 43 men. The one-man found not guilty was an American ex-soldier, a former Vietnam War veteran wounded at the airport and placed on the aircraft while in a sedated condition.

Colonel Hoare received a sentence of ten years imprisonment for his part in the Seychelles Affair.  The South African government quietly released Hoare’s mercenaries after serving only three months in jail.  Hoare, on the other hand, remained in confinement.  After serving 33 months in prison, South Africa’s president granted Hoare a Christmas Day pardon.

In total, Mike Hoare authored eight books about his life as a mercenary. He passed away from natural causes on 2 February 2020.

About Modern Mercenaries

Mercenaries continue their work in the world’s cesspools, but no longer as “Soldiers of Fortune.” Today they’re called Corporate Warriors.  These modern men are no longer the hard-drinking quick-fisted dogs of war of years past.  They wear designer clothes, use the finest after-shave, and rather than operating from their home offices, they rent spacious glass and chrome-plated offices.  Corporate executives are well-read and experienced former combat officers, astute businessmen, and politically connected players in the field of regional conflict.  They maintain good relations with the political movers-and-shakers of their own and other countries.  They refer to combat units as “security groups.” They also no longer confine themselves to coup d’états; today, they focus their attention on mining security, engineering, transportation, finance, and of course, area and personal security for highly placed politicians.  These well-connected modern corporations no longer need to smuggle arms and munitions —FedEx delivers them to corporate warehouses.

Who hires these kinds of firms?  The much-celebrated Kofi Anan discussed hiring corporate warriors while serving as UN Under-Secretary for peacekeeping operations.  For one thing, hiring a private security group is more cost-effective than maintaining a regular military defense force.  There is even talk of replacing traditional police departments with corporate law enforcers.

A Personal note

I have known one mercenary. While serving as Adjutant, Marine Aircraft Group 46 (1979-81), one reservist served as an airfield operations officer in one of the group’s subordinate drill units.  I will refer to him as Major Charles Claire (not his real name).

Claire had an average build, lean, but had a pallid face with no evidence of over-exposure to the sun.  His deep blue eyes complimented his dark blond hair.  A somewhat melancholy man, Claire spoke effectively but always in a quiet tone.  He had immense pride in his military accomplishments and his uniformed appearance.  Whether authorized by Marine Corps uniform regulations, he always displayed his French parachute wings. Occasionally he would join me for lunch at a local restaurant during scheduled training weekends, and, knowing that I found his adventure interesting, recounted several of his more exciting tales.  He often spoke of operational planning (mostly how combat operations never seemed to go as planned), logistical challenges (resupply, caring for the wounded), and glitches involving rapid extraction at the operation’s conclusion.

When Claire left active duty following a Vietnam combat tour in 1967, he knew that he enjoyed the risks associated with combat service but found Marine Corps culture too restrictive.  While maintaining his reserve commission, he went to France, where he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion for five years. It was after this when Charles began hiring himself out at a mercenary.  Whether he ever served with Hoare, I cannot say; it never came up in our conversations.  When he wasn’t fighting, he worked as a freelance writer.

“You can’t argue with the pay,” he told me, “but now I question whether the pay was worth it.”  Claire’s problem was that he was dying —something he kept concealed from the Marine Corps hierarchy.  In Angola, he said, he contracted intestinal parasites.  Returning to the United States, he consulted with medical specialists who told him that he had a significant infestation.  It was so profound, the doctors told him that an operation would probably kill him. Claire’s only recourse was to deal with it until the parasites killed him.  His announcement seemed consistent with his lunch fare, which always consisted of mashed potatoes and a glass of water: no meat, no salad, no dessert.

Claire’s stories were enough to convince me that a mercenary life is not something a normally-wired person would pursue—but then, I never considered Claire normal.  He had a heck of a life, just not a very long one.  It might have been better were he shot to death than to die slowly.  I last saw him in 1981.

Sources:

  1. Burke, K.  Revolutionaries for the Right: Anticommunist Internationalism and Paramilitary Warfare in the Cold War.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
  2. Dadrian, E.  Mercenaries in Africa: From Soldiers of Fortune to Corporate Warriors.org online, 2004.
  3. Hoare, C.  Mad Mike Hoare: The Legend. Partners in Publishing, 2018.
  4. Mockler, A.  The New Mercenaries.New York, Bantam Books, 1985.
  5. Venter, A. J.  War Dog: Fighting Other People’s Wars: The Modern Mercenary in Combat. New Delhi: Lance Publications, 2006.

Endnotes:

[1] William Leach-Lewis established Margate College in 1873 as a secondary institution and preparatory school for boys. Lewis gave his life while in service as Mayor of Margate in 1906. Margate College High School advertised that “Boys are prepared for Oxford and Cambridge local examinations, for the College of Preceptors, also for the Army and their universities.  Today, a shopping center stands at the site of the original campus.

[2] The Simba Rebellion (1963-65) (also, Orientale Revolt) took place within the larger context of the Congo Crisis (several simultaneous rebellions) and the Cold War. The rebellion leaders were the followers of the deceased Patrice Lumumba, ousted and killed in 1960.

[3] Alistair Wicks served in the RAF during World War II.  After the war, while studying law at Oxford, Wicks migrated to Rhodesia.  Hoare recruited Wicks to serve as his second-in-command of 4 Commando.  When Wicks wasn’t engaged in mercenary work, he was employed by Rhodesian Air Services.  He resigned from mercenary in 1967 following four-months imprisonment in Biafra.