Any book about a controversial figure that is subtitled ‘The Legend’ ought to be treated with caution, but the story of ‘Mad Mike’ as written by his son Chris does a good job of giving the reader a balanced and fairly critical view of the mercenary leader, sailor and writer.
Chris sets out to investigate why his father was often described as a legend and a gentleman adventurer, and does a good job of chronicling Mike’s story, warts and all.
Thomas Michael Hoare was born to a sailing family in March 1919. Of Irish stock, he was born in India but educated in England and served with the British Army in India and Burma during the Second World War, where he did not see much action. He then became a chartered accountant, but never particularly enjoyed this profession as adventure was in his blood – he maintained he was born with ‘an extra helping of spirit of adventure’. After moving to Durban, he led an adventurous lifestyle that included trans-continental motorcycle trips, sailing and leading safaris in the Kalahari desert.
At this time he was described as a ‘gentleman adventurer’ who “just for kicks will explore dangerous uncharted country, go on expeditions to discover fabled cities, mountains, rivers and people. The type of man who will risk his life, and has, for the thrill of doing it.”
In Durban Mike was running an automotive business when he heard about a force being recruited to serve in the breakaway province of Katanga in the Republic of Congo. In 1961 he arrived in Katanga where he was put in command of a half company (4 Commando) in support of Katangese forces, before mercenaries were ejected by the United Nations later that year.
Several years later, in 1964, Mike was back in the Congo after being hired by Congolese Prime Minister Moise Tshombe to lead 5 Commando of the Congolese National Army to fight the Simba rebellion. With about 300 mostly South African men (nicknamed ‘Wild Geese’), Mike rescued around 2 000 civilians, mostly nuns and priests, from the Simba rebels. He is described as being tough on his men, but fair, and doing a good job of halting communist advances in the Congo.
According to the author Leif Hellstrom, “it is probably fair to say that the mercenaries had a major impact on history. And since the history of mercenaries in the Congo is largely the history of Mike Hoare [in 1964-65], it can be argued that this is a classic example of a person who single-handedly changed history”.
Mike said of his time in the Congo: “It’s a nice feeling to know you have made a difference. I have often thought about that. Many people feel their lives are being lived without much point, so if you have done something, it refreshes you a bit.”
Mike retired from 5 Commando in 1965, moving back to South Africa where he subsequently wrote Congo Mercenary. This was a commercially successful book chronicling his time in the Congo. What followed was more writing, sailing and periods spent living in Corsica, Spain, France and Singapore. Mike also consulted for the mercenary film The Wild Geese starring Richard Burton.
In the late 1970s Mike became involved with Seychelles exiles in South Africa acting on behalf of James Mancham, who had been ousted from power in a coup. In November 1981 Mike gathered over 50 mercenaries to depose the leftist France-Albert Rene. With backing from the South African state, the mercenaries hid AK-47s in their luggage and flew to the Seychelles.
Unfortunately for Mike and his men, the somewhat rushed plan to quickly seize power came apart before they could leave the airport. An AK-47 was discovered in one of the men’s luggage, prompting a customs official to be shot. Fighting ensued, with the airport being shelled. During all this an Air India Boeing 707 landed for a fuel stop and Mike and his team decided that since the element of surprise had been lost and the Seychellois were putting up resistance, they would board the aircraft and leave. After landing in South Africa, the men were charged with hijacking, as some of them had brought their weapons on board.
One of the mercenaries, Jerry Puren, said of the incident that, “the fault for the failure of the coup must lie squarely with Mike Hoare. Cardinal errors were made in planning an execution. The second fault was that Mike failed to exercise determination and push through with the plot once the arms had been discovered. In the event, of course, it very nearly did work.”
Disavowed by the South African government, the men were charged with hijacking after international pressure and Mike was sentenced to ten years in prison. However, after 1 014 days behind bars, he was released in May 1985 as part of a Christmas amnesty.
After his release, Mike hung up his guns and chose to focus on writing, building model ships and exploring Spain and France, amongst others. Writes Chris: “by 2018 he could mostly be found dozing in the sunshine, dipping into one of the books he had written, doing crosswords, reading poetry or the Bible…and fading away.”
As we ascertain from the book, Mike was far from mad and by all accounts was a pretty level-headed and intelligent commander, and with his small stature, aversion to swearing and insistence on shaving, he was the opposite of the mercenary image that many people have in their minds.
Described as both tough and fair, Chris writes that his father was an officer and a gentleman with a bit of pirate thrown in. In the book, his strengths and weaknesses are laid bare, with his adventuring lifestyle and success as a commander in the Congo and sailing captain clashing somewhat with his family life. Mike, who Chris writes had ‘literally zero skill in dealing with matters of emotion’, believed life was not to be wasted. “His rational went something like this: a man only has one life, and a man has to do what a man has to do; if his absence hurts his family, that is an unfortunate and unintended consequence, but a man has to do what a man has to do.”
Mad Mike Hoare – the Legend is as complete a story of the man’s life as is possible to get. It is well researched, using not just interviews with Mike himself but dozens of different sources, from newspaper clippings to videos, letters and diaries. The author does a solid job of interrogating the facts and does not simply take Mike’s word for granted – the author’s experience as a journalist is quite evident.
Mad Mike Hoare – the Legend is a solid and complete account of Mike Hoare’s life and times, with a focus on the mercenary activity that made him as infamous as famous.
Mad Mike Hoare: The Legend
Published August 2018 by Partners in Publishing