In recent days I find I have been thinking and reading rather extensively about the trial and execution of British and American mercenaries in Angola in June and July 1976. The story came to my mind and I found quite a lot about it through the Internet. I recall keeping the men involved in my prayers at the time, but the later release of those imprisoned attracted little attention in the 1980s and it had somewhat slipped from my mind. Research reactivated and increased my awareness of those events.
The background to the story lies in the conflict follwing the granting of independence to Angola by Portugal in late 1975. Three groups, divided by ideology and tribal loyalties sought power and no consolidated government emerged. In the south was UNITA, in the central area around Luanda the Marxist MPLA, and in the north the FNLA, which was seen as pro-Western. The MPLA, backed by the Soviets and with Cuban assistance took power in Luanda.
The western mercenaries were recruited in December -January 1975-6 to assist the FNLA. The whole recruitment process was dubious - money was available, and ex-servicemen fro,m Britain, the US and other western counties signed up , often with very little idea of what they were getting into, no real support from the recruiters and found on arrival in Africa a chaotic and floundering war effort. There is an online account of the story at E2K 31 - The killing of Colonel Callan, and one from 1976 at An article that appeared in 'Time Magazine' on the 23rd February 1976
The US political background is explored in Plausibly deniable: mercenaries in US covert interventions during the Cold War, 1964-1987, whilst the at times curious part played by former CIA operatives can be read in the online biography of one of them, George Washington Bacon III (CIA officer) and George Washington Bacon III, MACV-SOG Operator
When some of the British mercenaries made it clear they were not prepared to fight a losing war, and indeed had been misled into signing up for what they now faced fourteen of them were killed by or on the orders of their commander Costa Georgiou in what became known as the Maquela massacre. Within days what remained of the force either escaped to Zaire or were captured. Thirteen were put on trial in Luanda by the MPLA. There is a summary of the events at Luanda Trial
This was very much a show trial, by intention trying all mercenaries. As someone else has written of it " During the Angolan trial, the judges intervened at several points to restrain the defence counsel from putting its case too well. The court could not tolerate any evidence which might help the accused criminals, they said."
The legal process in this case and the rights of mercenaries - who are not usually afforded tenh benefits of the Geneva Conventions are discussed in M.J.Hoover The Laws of War and the Angolan Trial of Mercenaries: Death to the Dogs of War.
The thirteen British and US defendents were, of course, found guilty, four being sentenced to death and the remainder to lengthy periods of imprisonment.
Of the four men who were shot in the football stadium in Luanda the most infamous is Costas Georgiu, a Greek Cypriot by birth and discharged former Para, who assumed the pseudonym of
" Colonel Callan." In all fairness he might well be described as mad bad and dangerous to know to start with . He had ordered the Maquela masscre, and would casually shoot Angolans on his own side. He was probably unhinged in last days of trial and of his life - a contributory factor, if the story is true, being that during the trial, and in order to break him, he was returned to his cell to find the several months old exhumed corpse of his henchmen at Maquela, Sammy Copeland, had been placed there...
Andrew McKenzie was also a former Para and a reluctant participant in the Maquela events. He had lost the lower portion of his left leg and was in awheel chair at his trial With his death we have the revolting image of a one legged man standing on crutches to face a firing squad.
Derek "Brummie" Barker saw himself as always unlucky, but was seen as a capable man by his colleagues and probably singled out by the Angolans because he displayed resiliance in assisting the escape of others, inclusding journalists, before his capture - he had almost managed to swim across the river marking the border with Zaire - and by his toughness when a prisoner.
Daniel Gearhart was an American and the Angolans apparently thought he was a CIA operative. The judge in sentencing him described him as a "very dangerous man." The view seems to be that he was shot because the Angolans and their Cuban allies wanted to execute an American, and for the others it was less easy to impose a death sentence. The reality appears rather different for a man who had spent three days in the country before he was captured and never fired a shot whilst he was there.Two interviews with his widow suggest he was much more a victim in life than anything else - Agonizing Waiting Over For Gearhart's Widow and Epitaph for a Dead Mercenary: A Brave Widow with Four Young Children
His wife had clearly been spared at that point the grim details of the deaths of her husband and his companions, as set out here - the typing errors are unfortunate, and this is not a passage for the squeamish - Firing Squad and one blank round ? | Page 7 | Army Rumour Service
The imprisoned US men were released in 1982. One of them, Gary Acker, who died in 2001, wrote a valuable account of his experiences in the fighting, of the trial and of his imprisonment for the magazine Soldier of Fortune and published in 1986. It can be read, though a small part is missing, at Angolan Refections an article by Gary Acker who served in Angola ...
Two contemporary newspaper reports about his release can be seen at Soldier of fortune Gary Acker talked through the night... - UPI Archives and, including the views of the Argentine born Gustavo Grillo at 'Romantic' Ex-Mercenary Says He Would Return to Angola
The imprisoned Britons were released in 1984, and there is less available on their reactions. One came from a village near my home town and died earlier this year. Some remained in the private security sphere, others returned to ordinary life and one became for a while a Lib Dem councillor...
Nice liberal people, including many, if not most, journalists who covered these events, displayed a distinctly unsympathetic attitude towards the men or one that was condescending, presenting them at best as unemployed ex-soldiers who were conspicuous for their personal failings. That seems less than fair or humane.
The contemporary orthodox Leftist view of the story can be found in all its presuppositions and prejudices in Wilfred Burchett and Derek Roebuck The Whores of War: Mercenaries Today published predictably by Pelican soon afterwards.
Memoirs by others who served as mercenaries in Angola which give reputable accounts of events are
Chris Dempster and Dave Tomkins Fire Power and two books by Peter McAleese No Ordinary Soldier and Beyond No Ordinary Soldier. There is an online text of an interview with Tomkins at INTERVIEW WITH DAVE TOMKINS and portions of another account by him in a book of the fighting and events around it can be read on line at Dirty Combat: Secret Wars and Serious Misadventures - not very pleasant reading either.
The former BBC Diplomatic Editor John Simpson wrote about covering the trial, but in a way that is at times disturbingly facile, in Strange Places, Questionable People, though he does show a sympathetic understanding towrds the men recruited.
The whole story is depressing and shocking, starting from poorly organised strategy, through the recruitment of men without setting out what they were getting into, the presence of afew in authority who were more or less homicidal, and also after all that brutality the further brutal and clumsy farce of a trial in Luanda. A grim and grisly story with far more victims than villains amongst the mercenaries.