Mercenaries in the crypt!

In 1976 a Camberley-based outfit known as Security Advisory Services was recruiting mercenaries for the Second British Angola Brigade, to join those already serving with Holden Roberto's National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) forces.  The recruits waited in hiding places in London and near Gatwick airport for flights to Brussels (where, they were told, they would be issued with new documents) and onwards to Kinshasa in Zaire. A large group of them spent a night in the crypt of St George-in-the-East, as explained in Martin Walker's report in The Guardian of Thursday 5 February (reprinted as an archive item on 5 February 2011):

Gullibles' Travels - 1976 edition
The new British media game 'hunt the mercenary' trailed into farce yesterday as 140 mercenaries emerged bleary-eyed from their overnight sanctuary in a church crypt. After being detained and questioned by police the previous evening when they gathered at Fenchurch Street Station, they mercenaries regrouped at the 'Diry Dick' public house in the City. Then, blending with the shadows they embarked on their first 'night op' - getting to the church of St George's in the East in Stepney, Camouflage was very good. They claimed to be a film-crew. They said they were filming in the Wapping area and needed the crypt for last night, the Rev Alex Solomon said. I had no idea they were mercenaries, They left this morning as I was conducting a service.

Sleuths at Heathrow and Gatwick airport caught no sight of the men catching any flights which could get them to Angola, and there was no indication of any block bookings. The fact they moved into the crypt and their reluctance to linger in the inviting bars between the City and Stepney suggest cash is short. The funds of the organisers are thought to be limited to the £12,000 brought to Britain three weeks ago by the former Parachute Regiment soldier Nicholas Hall. He had been chauffeur to Holden Roberto, leader of the Angola FNLA, and was discharged from the British Army in 1972 for selling weapons to the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Air tickets for the mercenaries who have left cost about £6,000, and most of those were given money on account. One said he had received £150 just before boarding the aircraft. Since more than 100 are thought to have left, most of whom spent at least one night in London hotels, there cannot be much left of that original £12,000.

The official word from Africa is that President Mobuto of Zaire has banned mercenaries from passing through his country, and Holden Roberto is also reported to have denied that the British mercenaries are being recruited in his name. Even if these protestations are simply a matter of diplomatic form, they will be alarming for them men with the dwindling purses in London.

There is no legal way in which the Government of police can prevent the men from going to Angola, and Tuesday night's police detention lasted little longer than it took to check there were no guns on the coaches that had been hired.

Those in the parish who remember the incident say that the Rector had indeed been conned. He didn't refer the last-minute 12-hour overnight booking of the hall to anyone else. Alan Shadwick, a journalist living on site at the time, felt he had been naïve: apart from anything else, he would surely have known than film crews are not this large! 

The following day (6 February) Martin Walker reported further details in The Guardian. The men were told they would be paid £150 a week directly into their bank accounts (the first week in advance) and £10,000 insurance, plus a £500 bonus for each tank knocked out, £2,500 for each Russian captured, and a free air ticket to anywhere in the world after six months. In the crypt they had been equipped with second-hand and moth-eaten US and UK army surplus gear, and signed six month contracts with 'Holden Roberto FNLA'.

The situation descended into chaos. Some men had got lost trying to reach East London on the Underground. Of those who reached the church, a number decided to quit - 30 were reported to have left after receiving £10 expenses. This may have been because they had heard of reports from Angola that two men from earlier parties had been killed when their jeep ran over a land mine near Huambo, and 15 others had already been wounded and were in hospital at the mercenary force's base in Zaire.

Others who had spent the night at the Post House Hotel near Gatwick, where a briefing had been held, left because the organisers did not have the funds to pay for their accommodation, and the manager refused to let them sleep more than four to a room. One of these 'deserters' (who had served in South Africa) said it was clear that there was in fact little equipment waiting in Angola. We were told that each man would be equipped with a NATO-issue rifle, except for guys with SAS experience, who would be given Russian Kalashnikov sub-machine guns. There were supposed to be some heavy michine guns, Browning 0.50, but at different times we were told there would be 4, 12 and 24 of them. They also said there were would be mortars, but nobody knew what pattern, nor whether there were any grenades. He also said that only ten men in the group had any fighting experience, and he reckoned thirty had none at all. Certainly the organisers did not believe those who claimed to have SAS experience. One of them said at the briefing that those who had deserted should be shot as traitors: word got round that they would be 'done over'.

The government sought to stop the mercenaries by resorting to
the Foreign Enlistment Act 1870 (unused since 1896), but it became clear that this probably only applied to military units organised on British territory. Sir David Ennals, Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said it should be understood abroad that these foolhardy men are acting in defiance of British Government policy ... The presence of those who sell their killing power for money is more likely to prolong the conflict. It is time this dangerous nonsense stopped. Some of those who went to Angola last week have already returned with hair-raising stories of mismanagement, lack of training and discipline and financial confusion (The Times, 6 February). The Guardian leader the following day commented that, foolhardy though they may have been, defiance of British government policy (either out of conviction or to earn a living) was not a punishable offence provided that they were not fighting the Crown or the Crown's allies: they were free to enlist - unlike the Russian and Cuban conscripts, supporting Dr Neto and the MPLA, for whose intervention the presence of these mercenaries might be further justified.

In the event, those who remained spent three days in coaches at Gatwick trying to get to Angola (apologies for the speckly photograph above). Although Air Zaire had allegedly discussed with the Department of Trade laying on a special flight, the Foreign Office made it clear that the Zairean government had refused passage to the mercenaries.

Some time later, a group of British mercenaries were put on trail by the People's Revolutionary Tribunal in Luanda (Stewart Tendler in The Times of June 13). Civil war raged in Angola for many years, but it is not for this site to comment on its tragic complexities.

We are grateful to Richard Nelsson and colleagues of The Guardian's research and Information team for searching the archives to help us piece together an account of this incident.

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