Bob Denard: Mercenary or Megalomaniac?


    1.0 Introduction

    Robert ‘Bob’ Denard, born on 7 April 1929, was a French soldier and mercenary. He is one of the most well-known cases of mercenary activity in the 20th century. Gaining renown for actively participating in the Katangan military, he undertook numerous mercenary assignments to support Françafrique, France’s sphere of influence in its former African colonies. He seized control of the Comoros and served as its de-facto leader twice, from 1978 to 1989 and again for a week in 1995. After orchestrating multiple coups, he faced multiple trials and ultimately received a conviction for “belonging to a gang that conspired to commit a crime” in 2006. The ardent anti-communist died in October 2007 after suffering from Alzheimer’s, leaving a deeply controversial legacy on the African continent. 

    Bob Denard in 1995 before his arrest after his failed Operation Kaskari in the Comoros
    Bob Denard in 1995 before his arrest after his failed Operation Kaskari in the Comoros [Image source]

    2.0 Early career – French Navy and post-navy career

    Born on 7 April 1929, he served in the French Navy in Algeria and the First Indochina War as a quartermaster in the Fusiliers marins. The Fusiliers Marins are the specialised naval infantry of the Marine Nationale (French Navy). They primarily serve as the Navy’s security forces, protecting naval vessels and naval installations on the land side of conflicts. 

    Insignia of Fusiliers marins
    Insignia of Fusiliers marins

    He subsequently served as a colonial police officer in the Sherifian police in Morocco from 1952 to 1957. After leaving, he worked briefly as a demonstrator for a washing machine company in Paris before deciding to become a mercenary. [Source, source]

    2.1 Early career – Assassination plot & conviction in 1954

    In 1954, Denard faced conviction for an assassination plot against French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France. An ardent anti-communist, Denard found himself implicated in the conspiracy to assassinate Pierre Mendès-France, who was negotiating the end of the Indochina War and the French withdrawal from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. Denard served 14 months in prison and, upon release, worked for the French secret services during the war in Algeria. [Source, source]

    French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France (first on the left) at the Geneva Peace Conference 1954.
    French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France (first on the left) at the Geneva Peace Conference 1954 [Image source]

    3.0 Mercenary Career – overview

    Bob Denard embarked on a mercenary career spanning three decades, which began in Katanga in December 1961. Roger Faulques, a mercenary leader in Katanga, recruited him along with other foreign mercenaries. He was also active in North Yemen, the Congo, Biafra, Angola, Rhodesia, and the Comoros. In the Comoros, he orchestrated four separate attempts to overthrow the government and served as its de facto leader twice.

    3.1 Early Mercenary career – Katanga, Angola & Yemen

    Bob Denard’s mercenary career started in Katanga in December 1961 when Roger Falques brought him in, alongside other foreign mercenaries, to support Moise Tshombe. Tshombe was a Congolese politician who served as the president of the secessionist state of Katanga from 1960 to 1963. 

    When the Tshombe-led secessionist government collapsed in January 1963, Denard and his men moved to Portuguese Angola. Shortly after, in mid-1963, he moved to North Yemen during the height of the North Yemen Civil War between the Egyptian and Soviet-backed government and the Saudi and Western-backed Royalists. While in North Yemen, the French and British governments sponsored him to train royalist volunteers in military techniques. [Source, source]

    3.2 The 1964 Return to the Congo – Moise Tshombe

    Bob Denard returned to the Congo in 1964 to serve under Moise Tshombe, who was now the prime minister of the central government in Leopoldville. He actively served for over a year, from July 1964 until October 1965, when President Joseph Kasa-Vubu dismissed him.

    Moise Tshombe touring Stanleyville in 1964.
    Moise Tshombe touring Stanleyville in 1964 [Image source]

    For two years, Denard actively fought in battles against the Simba rebel supporters of the late Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, who was murdered in the Katanga province in 1961. Leading his own unit of mercenaries, dubbed “les affreux” (the awful ones), Denard played a significant role in the conflict. He was part of a commando team of mercenaries which rescued white civilians held by rebels in Stanleyville (now Kisangani). The raid formed the basis of the 1978 film The Wild Geese. This raid helped to establish Denard’s reputation as a famous and fearless mercenary fighter. In July 1966 he helped to support another attempted secessionist revolt by Tshombe and Katangan separatists. [Source, source]

    Bob Denard alongside Mobutu Sese Seko during the Simba Rebellion.
    Bob Denard alongside Mobutu Sese Seko during the Simba Rebellion [Image source]

    3.3 1966 Stanleyville Mutinies

    Amid rumours that the ousted Prime Minister Moise Tshombe was plotting a comeback from exile, 2000 of Tshombes’ former Katangan gendarmes led by mercenaries revolted in Kisangani (formerly Stanleyville). The local commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph-Damien Tshatshi, loyal to the Mobutu Sese Seko-led government, faced execution. Tshatshi was infamous for the post-secession repression of Katanga rebel groups. His repression of local groups and the rumours of Moise Tshombes’ return sparked the initial uprising. 

    Congolese forces swiftly crushed this mutiny, marking the conclusion of the first rebellion. Denard and the mercenaries under his control helped to retake control of Kisangani. They also helped to disarm the ex-gendarmes with the help of the mercenaries under the control of Jean Schramme. [Source]

    3.4 1967 Mercenaries Revolt in the Congo

    In 1967, Denard and Schramme sided with Katangan separatists and Belgian Mercenaries led by Jean Schramme and Jerry Puren in a revolt known as the Mercenaries Revolt.

    Footage captured by one of Jean Schrammes’s men during the siege of Bukavu in the Mercenaries Revolt 1967

    In this revolt, Jean Schramme, alongside Bob Denard and Jerry Puren (all 3 had fought for Tshombe in Katanga) led a force of 100 former Katangan gendarmes and 1000 Katangan separatists against the Armé Nationale Congolaise (ANC). On August 7-8, the group of 300 mercenaries and several thousand gendarmes led by Jean Schramme reached Bukavu and held it until November 3. [Source]

    However, during this revolt, Bob Denard and the men under his control attempted to create a diversion to relieve the pressure faced by Jean Schramme in Bukavu. Named Operation Lucifer, Denard and his men crossed the Congo-Angola border by bicycle and seized sixteen trucks, which belonged to the Kisange Manganese mining company. Attempting to bolster their ranks, they sought to recruit additional ex-gendarmes into their mercenary-rebel group. However, they were ambushed by the ANC and forced to retreat into Angola on November 5, 1967. [Source]

    The authorities swiftly crushed the revolt, compelling Schramme and Denard to retreat across the border into Rwanda and Angola, respectively. Rwandan authorities interned and arrested Schramme. Then, on April 24, 1968, the mercenaries evacuated from Rwanda. This came following months of negotiations involving the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), Red Cross, and various European governments. [Source

    4.0 Coups

    From 1975 until 1995, Bob Denard was actively involved in orchestrating several coups in the Comoros. He not only installed several politicians as the leader of the Comoros, but he himself took control briefly in 1995. The Comoros has been subject to over 20 coups since independence. [Source]

    4.1 The First (1975) and Second (1978) Comoros coups 

    Bob Denard’s first coup in the Comoros occurred in 1975. On orders from Jacques Foccart, a French politician, Denard ousted Comoros’ first president Ahmed Abdallah. Ahmed Abdallah had declared Comoros’ independence on 6 July 1975. He replaced President Abdallah with Ali Soilih. 

    After the first Comoros coup, Denard attempted a coup in Benin in 1977, which failed, and subsequently carried out operations in Rhodesia from 1977 to 1978 as a part of the French-speaking unit of the 7 Independent Company. With the support of the Rhodesian government in 1978, Denard returned to the Comoros and carried out a coup against Ali Soilih, on the basis that he had become a socialist. Denard then reinstated Ahmed Abdallah and took up commanding Abdallah’s 500-strong presidential guard. [Source]

    Bob Denard's residence in the Comoros
    Denard’s residence in the Comoros

    4.2 Comoros 1989 coup and trial

    In 1989, President Ahmed Abdallah signed a decree ordering Denard’s Presidential Guard to disarm the armed forces, fearing a coup. Shortly after the signing of the decree, an armed officer allegedly entered Abdallah’s office, shooting him dead and injuring Denard. Denard consented to depart from the Comoros and French Paratroopers actively evacuated him to South Africa.

    Following that, authorities transferred Denard to France, where he awaited trial for the murder of Ahmed Abdallah. Prosecutors contended that Denard, fearing dismissal, orchestrated the president’s murder to retain control of the Presidential Guard. The French prosecution asserted that Denard had ordered the shooting of Ahmed Abdallah, but several days before the trial, Abdallah’s family withdrew the lawsuit. Denard was acquitted because of insufficient evidence. [Source, source]

    4.3 1995 Comoros coup and trial

    Denard’s fourth coup attempt in the Comoros, called Operation Kaskari, occurred on 28 September 1995. Denard and 33 mercenaries docked their ship, the Vulcain at Moroni Harbour and overthrew the official government. Upon arriving in Moroni, former relatives of Ahmed Abdallah, the former president, greeted Denard and his mercenaries. However, the French government sent a force to capture Denard and his men because of an agreement between the French and Comoros governments. During this operation, known as Operation Azalee, Denard and his men surrendered, leading to his return to France. He subsequently spent ten months in a Parisian jail. [Source]

    4.3.1 Operation Azalee

    Despite being aware of Denards’ coup in advance, France waited to take preventative action until after the coup had already happened. The French government condemned Bob Denard and his mercenaries as soon as information about the coup had reached France. The French chose to not use the regular army and instead gave command of the operation to the Special Operations Command. Eventually, the French Special Operations forces began patrolling the Indian Ocean with four hundred marines and two hundred other specialists in patrol boats and the ship Floréal. [Source]

    The French special forces made landfall on October 3 at 23:00 and promptly attempted to subdue the mercenaries led by Denard. Operators seized control of the French embassy and airports, successfully apprehending a significant number of Denard’s followers. In the early hours of October 5, special forces surrounded the French mercenaries holed up in the barracks on the Island. [Source]

    Around 15:00, authorities took Denard into custody and airlifted him to Paris. Meanwhile, President Said Mohamed Djohar, who had been held captive in the barracks, was airlifted to Réunion for medical treatment. It wasn’t until January 1966 that Mohamed Djohar could return to the Comoros, where he re-assumed the presidency. There were no confirmed casualties during the operation. [Source, source]

    Bob Denard after being arrested by French forces in the Comoros 1995 [Image source]

    5.0 Later trials and death

    Following his arrest in 1995, authorities extradited Bob Denard to France, subjecting him to multiple subsequent trials for his role in the 1995 coup attempt. Despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they deemed him fit for trial. [Source]

    In June 2006, authorities convicted him of “belonging to a gang that conspired to commit a crime,” sentencing him to a five-year suspended jail term. Throughout the trial, Denard maintained his innocence, while his lawyer vigorously argued that authorities unjustly targeted him as a scapegoat. They contended that the French intelligence and security services, cognisant of and complicit in his 1995 coup attempt, had orchestrated the situation against him. During the trial, a former head of the French foreign intelligence services, the DGSE, stated that:

    “When special services are unable to undertake certain kinds of undercover operation, they use parallel structures. This was the case of Bob Denard”.

    On 14 October 2007, his sister announced his death. [Source, source, source, source]

    6.0 Conclusion

    Bob Denard’s life was full of mercenary exploits which spanned three decades. From invading Katanga by bicycle to leading four separate coups in the Comoros, he served as a tool of French policy on the African continent as a part of Françafrique. He leaves a significant but controversial legacy on the continent and holds a significant reputation amongst European mercenaries in Africa.

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